Hamilton Stone Review #26
Carole Rosenthal, Fiction Editor
Jobina had an appointment with a neurologist before class. Lately she had been misusing words. She would tell her students, "Open your bread" instead of "Open your book." Jobina decided to correct papers to keep her from worrying. Last week in a PBS special on the brain, they showed a man from England who had no memories and only remembered things in the present. "How great to see you," he said enthusiastically to his wife every time she reappeared in his vision. Was Jobina also destined to a lifetime of peek-a-boos?
At her kitchen table Jobina was reading a short piece by a man who sat in the last row. "Dirty, fucking slime, you deserve to be dead," he had written.
"Indent with each new speaker," she wrote in her red pen and wondered if she could go back to her hospital job that she had given up eight years before when pathology was clinical, not gradable.
The phone interrupted her marking.
"Are you hone-y?" the accented male voice asked.
"Pardon, what do you want?"
"Are you hone-y? "the voice insisted.
It dawned on Jobina what he was asking. Enunciating very clearly into the receiver, she asked the caller, "Are you trying to say, "Are you horney?'"
"Yes," he said, and she hung up on him. It was just her karma to get an English-As-A-Second-Language pervert. She re-edited the conversation in her mind to play up the punchline for retelling her colleagues.
Her son, a recent vegetarian convert home from college, came out of his bedroom rubbing his eyes. She offered him the last corrected paper, "Want to read a story about a guy who wants to kill everybody? But return it to the B pile."
"Hey Ma. You only have three piles. What are they?" He rubbed his pale, iron-depleted lids.
"A, B, and C," she told him, knowing what was coming.
"You're the racist in the family. You're the one who's ruining education. Where are your F piles? When you give unqualified people good marks, it shows you are patronizing them." He opened the kitchen cabinet filled with healthy food she had purchased for his new lifestyle. He surveyed the oat-bran cereal, the peanut butter, the lentil pilaf mix. "There's nothing here to eat. I'll pick up an Egg McMuffin at the corner. Remember, learning should make a bell curve."
"Here's your bell curve." Jobina grabbed the worst written paper from the C pile, written by a sad Dominican girl who had brought Jobina a broom that her grandmother had made from a native brush plant. "She only weighs ninety pounds and she handed in everything."
He flicked through her paper dismissively. "It's obvious she can't write."
Jobina hadn't told her son about her visit to the neurologist because she felt he was too sensitive and it would upset him. Now she could see him telling a friend sometime down the road, "Why should I visit my mother in the nursing home when she can't even recognize me?"
The telephone rang again.
"Are you hone-y?"
"You're from the F pile," she shouted back, as she unplugged the phone.
The neurologist was young and bookish and cost two hundred and fifty dollars a pop.
Before she could censor herself, Jobina gave him an enthusiastic "Glad to see you." Straight out of the PBS special.
The doctor scribbled himself a note on the chart. Next he held up a pen. "What is this?" he asked.
"What is this?" He pointed to his tie.
"A tie." She was beginning to feel foolish that she had wasted her money.
"I will tell you a fable," he said with piano recital proudness. "Once upon a time there was a king who was very unhappy. His wise man said he would be happy if he had the shirt of a happy man. 'Then search the land and bring me the shirt of a happy man.' All his wise men and soldiers joined in the search. Eventually they found a very happy man, but he didn't own a shirt." The doctor folded his hands over his notepad, pleased with his tale. "Okay, repeat the story to me."
"Once upon a time there was a king who was very unhappy. His wise man said he would become happy if he found the shirt of a happy man. They found a man who had no shirt, ' but wasn't complaining. They decided he was happy and decided to bring him to the king. His son was a troublemaker and grabbed his father's ankle. 'Dad, you can't yes'um all your life.'" Jobina paused for a breath. "By the way, Doctor. Every time 1 asked you how much some procedure or visit costs. you refer me to your secretary."
The doctor scheduled her for a nuclear magnetic resonance scan, From his secretary Jobina found out it cost nine hundred dollars. Now Jobina had to worry whether something was really wrong or was his response punitive.
Jobina had to shampoo her hair to get out the electrode jelly from an EKG the doctor performed at the last moment. 'Ohh, she looks so pretty tonight,' her class greeted her. 'Don't she look pretty?'
Jobina acknowledged her softly curling hair.
First they read a Langston Hughes' poem. "Look at the last line" Jobina told her students. "What does that mean about dreams deferred, that they shrivel up like raisins in the sun or do they explode."
"I don't know," said Rolex, an accounting major who was a great dresser.
"What could defer a dream? What if a girl had a baby when she was in her teens? She couldn't finish school or go to college." Jobina was happy that she had thought of a good example. She wasn't prepared for the uprising.
"It didn't stop us," several answered.
"I wasn't even interested in school until I had my Tahese," said another. "My mother watches her for me."
"Shh. Calm down. First of all, if I had a baby when I was young, I would suddenly get interested in school too. 1 was just trying to explain a poem."
Next they were to work on an Emily Dickinson poem. Jobina blocked on her name and for the next ten minutes had to refer to her as "You know, that famous spinster poet" until she finally recalled it. An earnest student read the poem relentlessly.
"See," Jobina told them . "A bird on the ground is homely and ungainly, but when a bird flies, its form takes on beauty. Air is its element. "
A widow who worked in a bank raised her hand. "My aunt in Puerto Rico had a parrot. Here they cost a lot of money, but there you sometimes find one in the rainforest. He was a really beautiful bird."
"Some are mean," another answered.
"Not this one. My aunt's neighbor would steal things in the house and the parrot would say things like--Maria is stealing sheets. Well, Maria got so mad at this parrot telling on her that she took a needle and thread and sewed up his, excuse the expression Professor, and she sewed up his asshole."
"No kidding," the man on her left said, then he emitted a low whistle.
"Yeah, the parrot tried to say that Maria had sewed up his asshole, but no one understood him. Of course, he died."
The room echoed with loud laughter and wild comments.
"That's impossible, a parrot doesn't have cognitive speech," Jobina tried to say over the ruckus her class was making. When everyone finally quieted down, Jobina decided not to repeat her statement because she liked the story and knew she could repeat it in detail, without embellishments.
Her son Edgerly accompanied her to the laboratory for the magnetic resonator scan because she had to be slightly sedated, "Sit in those chairs, sir," the technologist advised Edgerly. "Otherwise your credit cards will be de-magnetized. And you'll be needing them later."
Edgerly sat down on the other side of an airport passenger scanning gate. "I hope this isn't going to take all day. I only have a week left of vacation."
Jobina walked through and waved back bravely to her son who was busy trying to grab as many interesting magazines as he could from a pile on a table. The loud speaker announcements, the scanning gate, the futuristic corridors looked like Kennedy Airport. The whole experience was taking on the aspects of space travel. The technologist taped Jobina flat to a white board, adhesive anchoring her head securely, a strap across her torso and big industrial sound muffs on her ears. Right before they pushed the button that would slide her into the closed tunnel, Jobina requested a sip of water like a child delaying bedtime. The Neurologist and the Radiologist nodded as if they had seen this antic before, but the technician tenderly dribbled some into her mouth and covered her with a white ribbed blanket. "Kiss, Kiss," Jobina wanted to say to the heavy, maternal woman. Jobina was sealed into the white tube. ' Womb' or 'Room,' which was the proper word, she wondered and thought of the two doctors observing her thoughts on the digital enhancers.
A second of claustrophobic panic seized her, then came a relaxation more profound than she had ever experienced. 'A siesta siege,' she thought. From then on she didn't think in words. The sound waves had bombarded the non-verbal spheres of her brain. Sober numbers paraded in their decimal and fraction forms. Binary systems and functional integers offered themselves for scrutiny, but Jobina wasn't having them. Next came hieroglyphics, which were a little better when the Rosetta stone was replaced by descending gods and fertility omens. Next the imaging machine uncovered spots in her brain where the pictographs were formed because from then on she experienced the most beautiful and illuminated photographs, heavenly images that restaurant chains such as Friendly's or Denny's would kill for and where Jobina wanted to stay forever.
There was a grilled cheese sandwich with a long slice of emerald pickle lying next to its golden crust; there was a hamburger topped with an onion and a ruby red slice of tomato. A Coke completed this still life, its frosted glass sweating condensation promising relief from eternal parchedness. There was a chocolate milkshake with a wonderful red striped straw, so complete in harmony that it would have stayed God's hand from destroying the earth. That milkshake would have been redemption of man's soul. Next Jobina saw witty condiments whirling amongst the galaxies; a salt and pepper couple their natural leader. A fluted paper cup of coleslaw played the good natured buffoon as he dripped milky mayonnaise. Suddenly the universe changed. The machine was moving and the magnetic resonator's door was screwed open.
Jobina didn't want to leave the celestial food, but the doctors shook her. "What's wrong? What's happening?" they demanded of her. "You gave us a fright. The imaging went wild and we thought we lost you."
"Mama, Mama," Edgerly mewed pathetically, half way into the imaging session, his arm holding his wallet holding his driver's license and his dining-room pass stretched behind him, away from the magnetic rays; the other hand reaching for her. 'Mama" he continued to whimper. He had returned to his baby form of addressing her. "There there," she comforted him as they unstrapped her from the cart. "Nothing happened. I mean something happened, but it was lovely."
The doctors turned their attention back to the video monitors where the tapes of her brain played as blue and red butterflies.
Several times they rewound it and played it back to the brain scan. Finally a neurologist spoke, "A small percentage of the population has more connections between the right and let hemisphere. Therefore, their circuits get more input. It's not normal, but it's not pathological."
"I could have told you that nine hundred dollars ago," Edgerly told them in a voice nasty with relief.
While Jobina was getting dressed, she tried to sort out her thoughts. She was touched but not astonished that Edgerly had called her ' Mama' again. She always knew that language was more than itself to even regular people, even to those who wanted things precise and would have been happy sailing amongst the fractures and integers.
But with her problem of word fluidity, she might leave her listeners perplexed, force her students and family to listen more carefully and watch the theatre of her body and face more attentively in order to guess at her meanings.
She came out of the dressing cubicle. Her pale but grumbling son helped her on with her coat. She was happy with her idea that she was more creative than the general population. She waved a euphoric goodbye to the doctors and the technician. "See you later, refrigerator," she called out jauntily.
It was just past eight in the morning and the town of Sangenello was beginning to stir. From his second floor balcony in the villa, Burke looked down to the beach. The fishing fleet was just putting off. The men and young boys were manhandling their heavy boats into the low surf. They climbed aboard, grabbing for oars, then propelled themselves out and away from the shore. Once past the high promontory on which the villa was built, they would raise sail and spend the rest of the day casting their nets.
Burke, dressed only in pajamas, was waiting for Caterina, the villa’s housekeeper, to arrive with his morning coffee. Yesterday he had padded down to the kitchen where she, awkward but sweet in her attempt to chat with him in English, pointedly kept her back to him. He had become accustomed to her cheerful, “Buon Giorno, Meester Ber’ke, ‘ello,” as she entered his room in the morning.
He would swing out of bed, stretch languidly, and coffee in hand, open the French doors onto the balcony and greet the new day.
He finally concluded that she wasn’t coming this morning either and putting on his robe, he headed down to the kitchen. Caterina was busy in the deep sink. He offered a quiet “Buon Giorno” but received only an inaudible grunt in reply. Crossing to the stove, he struck a match to the gas burner then sat down at the table. The coffee, souring in the pot, had been left for him to reheat.
Burke’s blonde hair was ruffled, uncombed, his robe open at the top. Caterina stiffened when she glanced his way. His exposed crop of chest hair his bare feet and tanned legs were out of place in her kitchen and insulted her sense of propriety.
From where he sat waiting for the coffee to warm he could see out to the terrazzo. Flowers and vegetables comingled in giant pots were set in rows on the patio giving the air a sweet and pungent tang. The villa and its impressive property on a bluff above the sand and sea belonged to Burke’s host, Albert-Claude, an older, wealthy German who had, for many years along with a few other expatriates, spent his summers in Sangenello, a fishing village near Sorrento in southern Italy.
All politeness and formal reserve, Albert’s manner and speech bore the remains of a distant European social order. He addressed Burke as, “My Dear Friend,” never by name. Even in the bedroom.
They had encountered one another on the fashionable Via Veneto in Rome. Posing as a casual window shopper, Burke, wearing a pair of well fitted, but faded khakis, was actually looking over the crowd sitting at the sidewalk cafes, popular with well-to-do tourists and expatriates. His rent was due and his supply of Lire running out.
When Albert-Claude, visiting Rome on business, nodded to him, Burke sauntered over. Albert invited Burke to join him for a coffee. Smiling, Burke sat, stretching his long, well formed legs in Albert’s direction. While quietly sipping their espresso, they reached an agreement. Burke would visit Albert at his hotel later that afternoon.
When, the following week, Albert telegraphed Burke from Sangenello and invited Burke to the villa, Burke was elated. The invitation re-affirmed his flagging self image--that of a bright, good looking, well spoken young man, a perfect companion to someone older, someone lonely. The growing shabbiness of his wardrobe he was able to ignore for the present.
Staying with Albert-Claude at the villa, presenting a gracious manner, Burke’s hopes were high. Shortly after Burke’s arrival Albert had remarked with an Imperial wave of the hand that he was accustomed to having his companions sent down from Naples by a man there who arranged such things causing Burke momentary concern.
“But,” Albert continued, “Although they are good looking of course, they are impossible to introduce.”
That remark gave Burke the hope that he, presentable and with some wit, could displace them. That is, he reflected a bit cynically, if they really existed. The reference to ‘companions from Naples’ could be Albert’s way of controlling the relationship by suggesting that Burke could be replaced if things did not meet Albert’s expectations.
Burke accepted that his patrons might now be older men, but then, he was older too. Slim and well built, Burke appeared to be nearing thirty. Actually he was nearing forty and his future was an immense, starless void. A future friends had cautioned would be upon him before he knew it.
In those heady days of his youth Burke hadn’t a moment or the patience to listen. He was more than handsome; he was stunning, referred to as “The Golden Boy.”
Summers at Fire Island as the guest of a high-profile Hollywood producer; a two week trip to St. Barts with the producer’s New York rival, he carelessly shared his youth and beauty. It didn’t occur to him that he might be better off cultivating a more serious relationship with one or the other. He enjoyed the adulation of both.
He went west with the Hollywood producer and was soon escorting starlets to openings at the same time sleeping with their boyfriends. When the producer found someone new, and younger, Burke worked as a model for Colt Studio, the producer of magazines and films featuring nude, good looking, well built young men. It brought him attention and dates with another group of wealthy, older men pleased to be seen accompanied by the Colt, “Man of the Month.”
Burke maintained his distance. He played by the rules. He was available for a financial consideration, nothing less, nothing more.
The years seemed to fly easily by but, after a time, Burke’s behavior, which had always been so determinedly polite, began to display a rougher edge. To his surprise, he occasionally made a rude or cutting remark to one or another of his patrons. A look, first of disappointment, then of anxious reality would cross their face. Burke would quickly laugh, saying he was just joking, but silently he swore to be more careful, to drink less. Certainly not let his boredom show.
But his alliances, financially rewarding, were becoming less frequent and it seemed that more effort on his part was required for him to be noticed. In the past, his emotional elusiveness and his gracious air of invincibility gave him an attractive aura. It carried him through effortlessly.
One evening on his way to see a client he caught his reflection in the hotel mirrored wall. The image he saw was that of a tired athlete approaching his final meet. Stunned, he stared at himself a moment, then quickly stepped sideways into the hotel bar to have a quick drink, to pull it all together; a moment of restoration.
And then it happened. Burke was dumped, left stranded. It was at the Venice Film Festival. The balding, plain-looking young director, Gary, besotted with Burke, having picked Burke out from an escort service in New York City and calling on him regularly, learned that his film had been one of those selected. He eagerly invited Burke to join him. “We’ll have a marvelous time. Venice is a magical city. You’ll love it.”
To everyone’s surprise, Gary won an award—there was delight and applause. Burke was elated but, with a rueful smile handing Burke a fistful of lire, Gary moved immediately into higher circles, his bland appearance no longer a handicap.
Burke was shocked. He had always been the one to leave, to make the graceful exit.
For days Burke walked about the city, wondering just where to go, what next to do. In the evening he would sit in the Piazza San Marco, hoping for rescue. It came in the form of a heavy-set, middle-aged Russian who, after a few days acquaintance, took Burke to Rome where he was a cultural delegate. Their secret arrangement added another few months of security for Burke but the fact of it eventually panicked the Russian and Burke was again out on his own. Burke knew no one in the city and his funds, the lira from Gary and dollars from the Russian were running low.
He tried for work as an extra at Cinecitta, the Italian film center on the outskirts of Rome, but there was little available. Fellini had made his last movie and the once-renowned center of European film making was in steep decline. On the bus back into Rome, Burke began to suspect that while he was otherwise engaged, the party had moved on. For the first time, he felt frightened and unsure of himself.
And so reduced to cruising on the Via Veneto he met Albert-Claude.
The invitation to the villa was providential. In this quiet seaside place, Burke had time to take stock of himself and of his prospects. Albert seemed pleased with his company and Albert’s sexual demands were infrequent. After Burke had been there a few weeks, Albert left on a long planned trip to Sicily, ccompanied by old friend from Germany. Smiling, Albert suggested that Burke stay on and watch over the villa while Albert was away. Burke was delighted by Albert’s trust.
Burke first thought to invite some people down from Rome, but when he considered the guest list, rootless drifters posing as writers or painters, he rejected the idea. He wouldn’t want to be a disappointment to Albert if someone misbehaved.
As he sat waiting for the coffee to warm, Burke wondered if Caterina’s brusqueness was because of a recent encounter of his.
Walking the beach below the villa a week or so back, he had come upon the handsome youth he had seen in town. The boy, who looked about eighteen, was barefoot and wearing only a pair of shorts as he sat repairing nets. He was broad shouldered and his upper arms were well muscled. A fisherboy, Burke realized as he squatted in the sand next to the young man and, in his practiced, disarming way, attempted to have a conversation. Burke’s Italian was poor and the boy, not understanding very much, could only respond with a smile. There was a grotto nearby, Burke recalled; deeply shadowed by overhanging rock, a secret place.
After a long silence, the boy’s eyes back on his work, his fingers busily making knots in the netting bunched in his lap, a flush of color rising from his neck to his face, Burke reached out and with a little nodding smile ran his hand over the boy’s bare thigh. Their eyes locked. Burke noted the sudden swelling of the boy’s crotch in the worn, blue shorts. The moment seemed to go on for ages. Then the boy, dropping his tools, stood and walked, then ran, quickly away.
Burke got up, lit a cigarette and continued along the beach. The boy was simply shy, he told himself, embarrassed perhaps, unused to a more sophisticated understanding and outlook on life, as, idly kicking stones from his path, he neared the walk that led up to the villa. He had noticed the slim dark haired boy over the last weeks. The boy would stare at him then redden and turn away causing Burke to wonder if the boy was attracted to him.
Still, a shiver of anxiety caused him to question that assumption and his actions.
Glancing toward Caterina, her back still toward him, he got up and poured himself the re-heated coffee, lacing it with sugar from a bowl on the table. Caterina, now busily folding and stacking sheets and towels paid him no mind.
On the days that followed days Burke felt that the local merchants, usually so friendly, particularly to the foreigners who lived or visited at Sangenello, seemed to be less so, to be abrupt when dealing with him. Then there was the boy. He seemed to be everywhere, turning a corner, going into a shop, or just standing in the square talking with friends, his eyes glancing toward and then quickly away from Burke.
What was he telling his companions? Burke wondered nervously. Why the hell wasn’t he out fishing? Burke whined to himself. He began taking different routes back to the villa to avoid the youth, breathing hard as he climbed the stone paths rather than walk the road that winded through town, the easier way home.
Were the shopkeepers really being rude or where they just very busy at the moment? Could he be feeling guilt, seeing things that weren’t there? And Caterina? Perhaps something was troubling her. He hadn’t thought to ask. Burke became anxious for Albert’s return. Albert-Claude. His presence would certainly make everything right again. He resolved to be more attentive to Albert, to encourage in Albert the idea that he, Burke, the charming young American might be willing to settle down.
One evening, climbing back up to the villa after a swim, still waiting for Albert’s return, the fisherboy appeared from the shadows. Burke stopped, heart pounding. The boy stood looking at him silently. A long moment passed as they stared at each other.
Burke suddenly had the urge to go and comfort the boy, tell him that it was a misunderstanding but before he could move the boy picked up a stone and threw it at Burke hissing, “Mi lasce in pace,” then turned and ran back down the steps. Burke remained standing there, confused by his own impulse, stunned by the boy’s violence and his outburst, “Leave me in peace.” Leave me alone,
Burke spent restless nights thinking about the boy. If he wanted to be left in peace, why was he always so evident? Burke wasn’t stalking or following him. Could it be that something had been awakened in the youth by Burke’s arrival in Sangenello. Desires that this young man felt but didn’t understand, and which left him angry, confused and in distress.
On a bright, sunny afternoon Burke dressed and prepared to go into town. Perhaps he could talk with the boy. Try to tell him that he meant no harm.
He went down to the kitchen and found, propped up on the table a telegram addressed to him sent express from Taromina, the last stop in Albert’s tour of Sicily.
Albert wrote that he had run into old friends who were also visiting the Greek ruins at Siracusa in Sicily. He had invited them to the villa.
Burke would understand, but there simply was not enough room. Burke would have to leave. And too, it would probably be boring for Burke to be with German speaking guests.
They would be arriving that evening. He had telephoned Caterina he wrote and she was preparing for Albert’s guests.
Albert briefly mentioned their stay in Palermo, the Sicilian capital. He described the local beach, which swarmed with young men in skimpy bathing costumes. It brought to mind the film Suddenly, Last Summer, he wrote. It concerned a young man’s tragic encounter with seaside ragazzi, young men one found on Italian beaches. Albert closed the letter with the polite hope that Burke had enjoyed the use of the villa.
Burke looked in the envelope, hoping for something more, a money order perhaps, but the letter was all.
Folding the letter and envelope he went up to his room then stepped out on the balcony. Feeling empty and lost, a bit frightened, he stared blankly at the sky and the distant coastline then glanced down to the beach. The young boy was there with others, piling nets aboard a boat, ready to push off into the sea. “Stupid boy, stupid boy,” Burke whispered angrily. After a moment he mumbled to himself, “Which stupid boy?” And he turned and walked back into the bedroom.
He packed his few things and walked the road up to the Espresso Bar for the bus to Naples, a three hour trip. He didn’t have enough cash to get as far as Rome.
As the bus snaked along the twisting road toward Sorrento, Burke glanced at the sea far below. It was incredibly blue, ridged with row upon row of small waves, their lacy crests sparkling in the bright sun. Suddenly he began to weep. Tears came streaming down his face. He was stunned and tried to control himself, but the crying was unstoppable. He bent over, putting his head to his knees. The tears continued. At last, with a deep gasp of breath, the outburst came to an end and Burke slowly sat up. For a moment he felt an enormous release. He saw the life he was leading clearly. He would make a change. He could telephone. Make a call; get someone to send money for a plane ticket. He looked slowly down and stared at his scuffed shoes. Who? He asked himself. Who could he call? Gary? Could he call Gary? Gary was probably at Sony Pictures by now. He laughed at himself as tears again welled. He slumped low leaning his head on the window frame. The bus was passing through the small industrial towns strung along the Bay of Naples. “See Naples and Die” he recalled laughing to himself as he looked out at smoking cement plants, oil storage depots, derelict boats. “See Naples”...his thoughts went no further.
The bus terminal was at the railroad station. It was evening and becoming dark. He asked directions, then, shouldering his bag, walked to the address of the man who, Albert claimed, had sent boys to Albert Claude. He had discovered it while searching through Albert’s desk looking for money.
After Burke’s repeated knocks, a man finally opened the door. “I need a place to stay. Albert-Claude has mentioned your name.” Burke said, with frightened eyes.
“What is your name?’
“Why do you come to me?”
“He said that you were a friend.”
“I not see Albert Claude in long time. What kind of friend he say I am?”
“He said that you…that you were a friend that arranged for young men to visit him.”
“He told you I sent him boys?
“Well, he suggested, ah, that…young men would visit for a few days.”
“To sleep with him?”
“Ah…well he didn’t really say. Only that you arranged it.”
“Hah! that German, always so taken with himself; such fantasies. Let me tell you, Mr. Ber’ke, I am a landscaper. Here in Naples and other places…Sorrento, Santa Capacello, wherever someone want a garden, need to have a wall. You have seen, yes? At Sangenello there are gardens for those people who can afford them. Albert-Claude, other Tedeschi, Swedes, some Americano. I send young workers to cut stone, build walls, but that is all they do. If Mr. Albert Claude, for some reason of his, wants you to think they did more, well I can tell you they did not.”
Listening to the man describe his work, Burke recalled his childhood, his youth. He remembered digging, planting with his father. Everybody in town had a vegetable garden, fruit trees. Burke remembered loving the soil, the feel of it through his fingers, the smell…the man was still speaking…“so, I can do nothing for you, Mr. Ber’ke. Go to the Statzione Termini. You will meet someone there, perhaps.”
“I’m sorry, excuse me, please, per favore, it is only what was told to me, what Albert said to me.”
“So, why are you here? Did you imagine that I would be a…what do you say? A pimp? Yes, a pimp for you.”
“No, no, I didn’t think that. You are the only name that I know in Naples. I have no money. I have nowhere else to go.” Burke whispered.
The man poured himself a cup of coffee from a small tin espresso pot, badly dented with age. After a sip he looked at Burke, his brows lifted, a question darkening his eyes.
“So, what did you expect from me then?”
“I know I want something...not from you...something from me. I am not sure what it is.” And he trailed off for a moment.
Then he said, “I can work for you. I can dig, I can plant trees. I did it when I was young. I can work. I don’t need much.”
“You have been at Albert’s villa living well, yes? And maybe living well before?”
“I can do it.” Burke replied. “I can work. I think I need to work, work hard. I promise you.”
The man looked at Burke closely his head cocked to the side, and after a long pause, pointing to a doorway off of the kitchen, said, “You can sleep in there. We will see tomorrow how well you do. I will pay you what I pay my local men and we will see how you do.”
He got up, refilled his coffee cup and began going over some papers on the kitchen counter, his back to Burke. Burke looked at him. He was a nice looking solidly built dark haired man in his forties, tanned by the sun, muscled by the work, some gray at his temples.
“Thank you,” Burke said.
The man turned his head and looked at Burke. “I wasn’t always landscaper. Once I was fisherboy...in Sangenello. Albert Claude, he gave me money for my business. I pay him back, of course.”
“Such fantasies Albert Claude has, such fantasies.”
Burke looked at the man, his breath momentarily on hold. Then he rose and took his things into the spare room.
He walked every morning, to keep himself in shape. It was a fast, brisk walk along the river, just long enough to get the blood circulation going. Hello, brain! Hello, shoulders! Hello, lungs! Hello liver, and for Christ’s sake stop going on with the business of sulking about last night’s binge!
New Jersey, best seen from afar: two jumbled yellow-brown strips of houses, one above the cliffs, one below. The windows facing east: some are little fierce points of light. The river: a glistening band of blue and grey, still awaiting the sun. Now look at the boats, the yachts, the ships, always anchored, never moving! What exactly is the point of owning them? He often wondered what he’d need to do to get himself invited to a trip on such a boat that never moved. What to do to ingratiate himself with the owner? Or the owner’s girlfriend, for that matter.
Whether or not to shave before the walk was the other question. The extra weight, and the extra air resistance of the bristles would slow him down. On the other hand, he loved the feeling of facing the new day ungroomed, as in a native state, as in a state of innocence. It brought him closer back to the dream that had sat on his shoulder all night and had just fluttered away before he could interrogate it for its meaning.
A girlfriend once had asked him if he would consider applying a lotion that would root out all facial hair, if such a lotion were invented, so shaving would no longer be necessary. He broke off with her, since her question conjured up questions of a much more serious nature: biblical questions of world domination and her complicity with it. It would be the same as complicity with genetic engineering. If everything could be changed by sheer capriciousness of the mind, then the earth would be doomed. He never found out what became of her. She might have turned inward, removing her own follicles, and along with it her soul. Perhaps the God of the scriptures was being thoroughly misunderstood.
If he were ever invited to a trip on a boat that never moved, he would circulate a motion to get it moving, once and for all. He would start conversations with the crew and the owner and the owner’s girlfriend and the other guests in their pajamas and bikinis to see if they’d all agree to make a break with the static past. He would inspect the engine, make sure the tank was full, and that there was someone on board who understood the business of navigation.
This was the dream he’d had that night: plants, some sort of orchids perhaps, hidden in a dark place, below a counter in the living room, as though living the quiet lives of fungi. It was a miracle they were still alive, and even continued to grow. There was a faint rustling noise in the air; pink scallop-shaped animals moved around on the ground by contracting and relaxing their hulls: four, perhaps five of them in all. He looked at them with approval: they were clean, they lived a quiet life; they looked like flowers that had somehow acquired the facility to move even though they were never intended to.
He considered himself an uprooted plant, accidentally removed from his native place. The native place would be the Amazon forest, or the Andes, he wasn’t sure which, but it had to be a place he’d never set foot in. These were the places of those plants, his eyeless cousins, unmoving in all the green lushness of the day; he would finally meet them! He planned to introduce himself in some way once he’d arrive in these foreign lands -- by a melodic sound, or a surging smell, a friendly flatulence, perhaps -- but he had gotten interrupted by the whole dream fluttering away.
Choosing a coffee cup, now that he was up, was another matter. Most of them had too much mass, which meant they took in too much of the heat off the coffee, and as a result the coffee turned luke-warm much too soon. He constantly used up the ones that were thin-walled, modest in their intake and dissipation of heat. He thought of throwing the thick-walled cups away, for a clean start, but every time he was getting close to it he chickened out. What if he’d change his mind in the future about the value of hot? What if other people liked these kinds of cups? What if the walls wore thin with time? What if the laws of physics changed as time went on? Have you thought of heating up the cups before pouring the coffee in? -- I have thought about it quite a bit. It’s impractical. I can’t heat it up in the oven. But what I can do is put water in and microwave the hell out of it, and then quickly replace the hot water by the hot coffee, I suppose, if it’s still hot.
He weighed himself every morning, without wearing a thing. In the tedious business of controlling weight it was important to keep the measurements strictly comparable from one day to the next. Weighing had to be done after peeing and before the shower. The shower would add an undefined quantity of moisture to the skin, pushing the weight up by an incalculable amount. Peeing could subtract as much as a whole pound, that was a fact. Serious business could subtract another one, if it came to that in the morning, though that was unlikely. Shaving, on the other hand, did not make much of a difference since the weight of one stubble was in the order of milligrams, and stubbles counted in the hundreds at most. They’d barely cover the bottom of a thimble.
It was at this point where he’d decided to take the walk along the river. His weight was on the left side of 160 pounds, and the scale had smiled at him with a contraption he considered corny, but this was what life was like in the 21st century: silly, animated, each atom an advertisement of itself, worth a fortune nobody could account for. It was no use getting started about this; it would be the wrong foot on the wrong side of the bed.
In fact, orchids in real life were real pissers. There were four in his apartment, each a princess of a sort. Grandstanding much of the time, but oh so vulnerable! No direct sun, no overwatering, no underwatering. That’s right! No nothing interfering with their delicate existence. He had never been surrounded by so many whiners, would-be victims, but the worst part was they all suffered in absolute silence. If he were a plant, he would not choose to be an orchid. There were more orchids in the Amazon than in the Andes, so it wasn’t that much of a decision, really. This is where the yacht wouldn’t go if he were ever to find an owner who’d let him move it out of the harbor.
Take, for example, staring. Deep long look. You ever really stared at something closely? Close inspection demands a certain skill but holds many charms, like for example the charm of detail, the charm of subtle change, the charm of being able to come to a kind of conclusion about something or someone.
You never stare? You should stare.
Like for example I could stare at you all day. Not because you’re good looking. You’re not good looking. You’re handsome in your way but you’re not a prince. Too taut, too tight. Not your let’s say downy face but your sour attitude. I could sit over here where I am and just stare at you all day and watch things pass like clouds through you, or like a V of gulls through empty sky, things like ideas and hopes and fears. Especially fear, when fear fills a person they turn, not turn like clockwise but you can sense the inward gust of wind. A slight but noticeable puckering, one you can only catch the jerk of with a lot of skill and years of experience and I have a lot of years on you and I know from staring. And I don’t mean the fear of the daily world I mean deep unnamable fear. Things inside you you don’t even know about. I could stare at you all day and know everything. Everything important and unimportant. I could say to you, Howard, that I really know you. Better than conversation. Better than living with you in my home in the off-hours of your life for maybe ten years if that were to happen, if things were different. Better than being lovers, even, because lovers never really stare, only gaze, never really know each other. This is different. I could sense your ideas come to you, your stubborn inner fuss about all this, swelling and passing, swelling and passing with doubt or shame or I don’t know what yet but each time like taking a breath except it’s not breathing it’s more intense than that. Deeper. The calamitous sweep of what goes on in and with people, with the whole world reduced to a flicker in your eyes. Life. History. Missed opportunities. And I could sit here talking to you all day about staring and what it does and what it means but I don’t think you’re convinced so I don’t think I’ll waste my time, I’ll think about you instead, I’ll think about how I met you and where I met you and what we did with each other’s bodies before we even knew each other in the causal way that people know people, which is akin to intimacy, and staring is not intimacy, it is something closer.
Observation gets at the true heart of things.
You’re not even looking me in the eyes.
I could tell you everything about yourself, about how you were a fat kid, how you were picked on, how you systematically improved yourself throughout high school and college, how you learned to play baseball so you could join a league so you could derive some sense of satisfaction from it, from being together with them, cheer-driven faceless women and men, or maybe with you it’s kickball and in any case you’re in search of the celebratory and the heights of things the finely-wrought pleasure of being what you would call young and carefree, unmoored by responsibility beyond the necessities, but you don’t stand still long enough to see all this, or to see how all that time you spent in the library gives you a sharp and calculating look, and I know you spent time in a library, you swell with it, a shadow across your face, and probably before you moved here you weren’t anonymous enough either, too much small town passing through you, coming here to get lost and rebuild yourself and start fresh and then what did you do but go six different ways with indecision about what you’re supposed to do and whom you’re supposed to do it with and what all that looks like though you forget looking, you forget staring, all you have is a history of glancing at this and that and relying on memory and lean skill and making a model out of yourself out of promises and air, and the air is thin, and when you breathe it you don’t even see me over here knowing more about you than you know about yourself. You know the facts but the facts don’t add up, Howard, though there is a you in there somewhere, hiding behind a sturdy oak chair, waiting for the thunder to lift.
Not like it’s really any of my business. Unless you think it is, right? You think it is.
But what do you want to know? I could tell you. You just have to ask, and you don’t even need to ask with words, I can watch the question ride across your face like confusion or even sometimes disgust because it can be so hard, excitement like an unreachable itch and covering your trails and then everyone knows everything about you anyway, they can, as they say, read you like a book, if they know how. They can, as they say, see right through you. If they want to. And that is what you want, in part. The new you. You make yourself available.
I could tell you that being a history major was a bad idea and I bet you were a history major, something like that, quiet and comprehensive, because you are comfortable with facts but not with meaning. I don’t mean to reduce you but I’m not sitting over here with a mind to puff you up either. You and I know each other as reliable strangers. Casual. Or at least I know you and you know where I live and when to come over and what to do with your body and your hands and your mouth. You live in your body and you display it like you display your confusion, your lingering doubt, like maybe you shouldn’t have moved to Los Angeles and maybe you shouldn’t be intimate with someone your father’s age and maybe you need a job that’s more rewarding than the job you have and you wanted to teach, I bet, it’s in your face, a tightness in your eyes, you wanted to teach facts to small movable human receptacles of facts, clean and easy, nice trim life, no coming over here both right now and to LA and making a mess and being one. But the office is the office. Your routine and sustenance. Fluorescent and permanent, solid like a long but easy book. You have to do what you have to do, so you go around with leagues and lovers but you get sunk deeper and deeper in, you like they say pull into yourself and are a solitary blip when you could be the whole map, open and everywhere.
That’s why I think we should set the fire.
I don’t think your parents should have named you Howard. I think they should have named you Eric or maybe James. Names mean a lot because listening comes just after staring and names provide you with grooves, and your name led you to the library, which led you to leave all that behind, an unsteady untidy name, and you come to me to look for advice and I don’t have any other than to say look inside yourself and watch the skies, keep your eyes open and your face up in the wind of life. Know ownership if you know anything. And maybe it’s not too late to change your name along with whatever else you’ve already changed.
And we could set the fire tonight if you want. You know I have the materials.
And I could sit here and tell you more about yourself and some of it you already guessed and some of it is late-breaking but all of it is a gift from me to you, the gift of keen observation. I can tell you about yourself, I can tell that the guy you’re dating is not really dating you, that you’re both getting your small thrills on the side, you come here when I call you and I don’t call you often but when I do you always come. You’re not yourself, you’re other people’s reflections and all through it you swell with your bad name and your sour doubt and your stale fear. No conviction and no real feelings other than regret that it wasn’t all roses but you’re too young to know yet that it never is, not for anyone, not even for the people who look like heroes, the people who crumble under inspection, kings and queens of daily life who seem to emanate light but it’s hollow, Howard, give them a good look and there’s nothing there but majesty and majesty doesn’t earn you a fluid starlit life and it always, always fades, and then you’re alone with your kingdom and your kingdom is dirt. And you don’t have a kingdom of a life, something to press yourself against, so you glance and bounce and drift and end up here and I end up having to tell you everything about yourself so you can get up out of the lawn chair and be a man and say I can do this and then say I will do this and I will do that and I am not a king but neither is anyone else but I am Howard and this is how things are going to be from now on and it’s not going to be facts, Howard, you don’t need to be the king of facts you need knowledge, you need movement, you need to relearn the grace you were born with before things went wrong, the bad groove of your personal history, because your name took you down with it, you got pale and fat and had to shed that like a skin and you think it’s in the past now, emphatically tossed aside, but it’s on your thin face now still like a memory you can’t shake, I know these things, I’ve had my own life too, and time to think, and I could sit here all day and tell you all of this but maybe that’s not for me to do, maybe you need to find a mirror, physical or inside you somewhere, maybe you need to stand up and be decisive and not doubt or glance back into the facts of what was or what could have been but what could be if you do this with me because I can tell you, Howard, that I can’t do it alone, because I know myself, and I know you, and I know you’re what I need now in order to do what I need to do. I’m not the king of anything sitting over here with the gas cans and the rags and matches in the shed but you, Howard, you’re my knight. You can free yourself from the vines of facts and fat doubt and now you need to fulfill your duty as a man, not as a Howard, and I could sit here staring at you all day telling you more and more about yourself until you’re bloated with information, movement not facts, and I could do that, I’m not unkind, but we have other things to attend to, don’t we? And you can stand up with me now and we can stare into each other’s eyes and know that facts mean nothing and movement means everything and that we’re going out tonight, this very night, to do what we must, to go wherever it is our lives and eyes lead us, no matter how cruel and human it might be.
Julie Steiner wasn’t sure yet how to deal with this death. All those years ago, she, the unwanted girl child, had tiptoed through rooms and made herself scarce, convinced that she had no need of a mother, at least not the one she’d been given. “Are you sure you don’t want to say a few words?” her brother Tom had asked shortly before the funeral. Julie shook her head, afraid that a single spoken word might betray the frozen emptiness in her heart.
Now, two weeks later, that emptiness began to weigh on her. At forty-five, she was no stranger to bereavement. Grandparents, other close relatives, a college roommate -- she’d mourned the passing of each and every one of them. Gone, and yet such an integral part of her being still. Oh, and the stray tomcat she and John had adopted after their youngest went off to college last fall.
But this was her mother whom she’d lost. Was it possible not to feel anything.
Physical pain of course was a different story. Hurrying to meet a friend, Julie crossed against the light, turned her ankle and stumbled into a pothole. It hurt like hell, but an additional scrape or two didn’t amount to much, and the ring, thank goodness was still taped securely to her finger. “Take it,” her father had urged, “she’d want you to have it.’ Julie knew better. But in his grief he was resolute and she loved him too much to refuse.
A sweaty runner held the door for her, and she made a quick survey of the coffee shop. Foolish to hope that Mira might have been delayed too. Ever punctual, there she sat, sleek blonde head bent over an open book, a brown herringbone jacket perfectly aligned on the chair back. Julie shrugged and glanced at her watch. Eleven-and-a-half minutes late: not so bad.
With a brave smile, she hobbled over to the table. “Hi, sorry to keep you waiting.”
Mira nodded coolly. “At least I remembered to bring a book. Door watching gets to be boring.”
Hold the reprimand. One mother’s enough in a lifetime – the thought roared through Julie’s mind.
She winced as Mira slapped her book shut . Maybe it really was Brenda glaring up at her, one of those demon spirits who invade the living. “Listen, the reason I’m late...”
“Never mind, it doesn’t matter,” said Mira.
Clearly it did matter. It mattered to both of them. On another occasion when she’d shown up late, Mira had scolded. “The truth is you don’t care about my feelings.”
Julie forged on -- “Twisted my ankle in a pothole on the way over.”
“So that’s why you’re limping.” Mira’s expression didn’t change, but her lightly accented tone softened. “Are you all right... how did it happen?”
“Some crazy driver shot around the corner as I was crossing the street. I leapt back. Next thing I knew I was sprawled on the ground with a whole bunch of good Samaritan types ready to call an ambulance.” Julie heard herself reaching for the usual dramatic effects. As if simple facts were not enough to excuse or protect her. Brenda, as her mother had liked to be called, would have listened with a tight smile and then lashed out -- “You can’t possibly expect me to believe... “ In her zealous determination to instill the truth, she would have left an imprint on Julie’s cheek that caused her friends on the school bus the next day to stare at her in embarrassed awe. Thirty odd years later, the memories still rankled. Not the actual slaps -- who can recall such searing indignities to the flesh once the pain subsides? -- but shame, denial, outrage: the bitter aftertaste of her mother’s hatred. A familiar cry of protest rose silently to Julie’s lips: But honestly, it’s all true. Who but Brenda would have called it lying?
She waited for her friend to roll her eyes, but instead Mira shook her head. “It’s outrageous the way some people drive!”
“I know.” Julie smiled, grateful to have her old ally restored to her.
“Maybe you’d better come.” Her father had phoned them in the country on the weekend. “It might be another mini-stroke. She isn’t responding in the usual way.”
By the time Julie and her husband had reached her parents’ apartment, it was over – Brenda, another one who didn’t like to be kept waiting. She lay under a blanket, hands folded, one thumb flexed as if she planned to hitch a ride somewhere. Perhaps it was this image of her stern, implacable mother thumbing her way to Paradise, that helped to keep grimmer thoughts at bay. Julie, of course, did not believe in an afterlife.
A sudden gust of wind blew through the open door behind her.
“Brrr.” Julie crossed her arms, wishing she’d worn a heavier sweater. “This is kind of a drafty spot.”
“It was the only table available when I got here. If you see something better I’m happy to move. Those kids over there are getting on my nerves.” Mira nodded at two little girls bombarding each other with straw papers, their voices shrill as mocking birds.
“Pow -- you’re dead!”
“No, you are!”
Obviously, they were too young to have experienced any significant losses, the word dead carried no more weight than an empty sleeve of paper.
Brenda’s gone. Periodically, the thought surfaced. It was as if she needed to be reminded, as if she were casting inward, waiting for her heart to take the bait.
On the phone yesterday Mira had been full of sympathy – “All those drawers to empty out, the thank you notes. Believe me, I know what you’re going through. The guilt... even when they’re dead, you can’t do enough for them.
What guilt? Julie had thought. A counselor her freshman year at college had helped with those issues. She’d gotten on with her life, so to speak. It was only in recent years that she’d found herself in the odd position of having to spend more time with her mother. Brenda, whose sight was rapidly failing, was in need of extra care and support. She clung to Julie’s arm when they went for strolls in the park and insisted that they sit on a certain bench facing the river. Once they were settled, Julie would read aloud from a favorite novel, her mother listening wide-eyed. “You read beautifully,” she kept saying. “I have a daughter named Julie, but she doesn’t sound at all like you.” The irony was that neither of them recognized each other anymore.
After the funeral, her brother had returned to New Hampshire, his minivan piled high with some of their mother’s personal belongings that he planned to sell in his shop in Portsmouth.
“Any objections?” he’d asked. “It’s not as if anyone in the family could fit into her size 0 dresses. Come on, Julie. I wish you’d take some of the jewelry, at least.”
“I don’t want anything,Tom... ” How often must she say it?
God knows she hadn’t wanted the engagement ring that her father had slipped onto her finger this morning. “Your mother would have wished... ”
Oh please. He knew nothing of what went on in that household when he wasn’t around.
Those nights when he’d come late from work, it was just in time to scoop her up in his arms before she was sent to bed. The smell of his rain damp trench coat, the prickle of stubble against her cheek -- someone to love, someone to love. She’d known that she was meant to giggle at his mystifying riddles, just as she now understood, all these years later, that she was meant to hold on to Brenda’s engagement ring.
“Wear it,” her father had said, afraid she might lose or misplace it. “At least until you get home.”
“Look at this.” Mira flicked away a straw paper that had misfired onto their table. “Kids have no manners these days.”
“School’s out. They need to unwind. Have you forgotten what it was like?” Julie felt a sharp pang at the thought of her own two at that age. “It’s not our problem,” she added, hoping to forestall one of those lectures about ill-bred Americans.”
Mira, with her severe opinions and lofty airs put some people off. Julie, too, had been bothered by those traits that so resembled her mother. But then as they became better acquainted she’d decided that Mira had good reason to be the way she was -- her family had been refugees who fled occupied Belgium and ended up in Buenos Aires for many years before coming to the States.
Mira had confided to Julie that she still felt like an outsider. However, Julie thought there was much to admire -- intelligence, wit, an extraordinary sense of style. Most of all, Mira had shown herself to be generous and loyal. Julie, in turn, had made a conscious choice to ignore any trait that brought Brenda to mind.
“There’s less of a draft over here by me. Come...” Mira patted the chair next to her. “I know this hasn’t been an easy time for you. Do you want to talk about it? Usually it helps.”
Julie hesitated. When they’d gotten together like this after Mira’s mother died a few years ago, she had listened, amazed, to Mira’s furious denunciations of the hunched but elegantly dressed woman who had ladled out punch at Mira’s Christmas parties. Over the years Julie had grown fond of her.
“Oh yes, Maman charmed everyone. Slept with the comandante to get her family out of Europe, otherwise they all might have been sent to Auschwitz and you and I would not be having this conversation now. The problem was that once the family was safe, she began fashioning a new life for herself. When I came along she handed me over to a nanny, so that she could sleep later in the morning and then run off to one of her committee meetings or luncheon parties, or possibly some romantic liason. I would run to meet her when she came home in the evening but wasn’t allowed to touch her -- ‘Your hands are filthy. Stop crying.’ Believe me, I’m not shedding any tears over her now.”
They had more in common than Julie had imagined at the time. She had listened in silence back then. But now it was her turn, and she realized that Mira, being Mira, might require her to answer some difficult questions. Julie’s throat felt dry. What she needed right now was some coffee, she decided.
“Tell you what -- as long as I’m up, I’ll go get in line. Are we having Misto’s as usual?”
“Fine. Whatever you like,” Mira said. “No, let me go. You should rest your ankle.”
“It’s okay, I’ll ice it when I get home.” Julie was already limping toward the counter.
Look at you hobbling like a little old lady.
That voice again. It was the same one that had called out to her this morning when she was helping her father pick out a tie before he left for a meeting – Polka dots don’t go with a pin-striped suit. Julie had almost laughed to think that her mother’s opinions were so deeply ingrained. As if she, Julie, or anyone else cared a fig about Brenda’s notions of what went with what. But it had unnerved her a while later when she was alone in the apartment and Brenda’s engagement ring snapped off her finger. She discovered a crack in the band and rushed to phone her brother.
“It’s spooky around here, Tom.”
“Your fingers are stubbier than Brenda’s,” he reasoned. “The band must have been too tight. I thought you didn’t want any of her jewelry.”
As she waited for the barrister to set out her drinks now, Julie pictured Brenda’s hands. They were delicate looking but strong, the long slender fingers supple even after she’d grown old -- good for wielding paintbrushes, sticks of charcoal, knitting needles, for setting a splendid table when she felt like it, for slamming doors when she didn’t. Good for inflicting punishment on her no good daughter.
The ring had looked beautiful on Brenda’s finger.
“What in the name of heaven?” Mira squinted at Julie’s finger. “Is all that adhesive tape for?”
“It’s to hold my mother’s engagement ring together. It broke. Have to take it to a jeweler for repairs. But I decided to show it to you first.”
“Are we ever in sync.” Mira laid her hand alongside Julie’s on the table. “Look, I decided to wear my mother’s ring today, too. She willed it to me, and after all the trouble she gave me, I think I deserve it.”
Julie picked up her drink, letting the steam warm her face as she sipped. “You never met Brenda, did you?”
“No, but I seem to remember some mysterious calls.... Never failed when we were having lunch together. Suddenly you’d have to leave, couldn’t take the time to explain even. One sentence, two seconds it would have taken. ‘My mother’s ill. She fell in the shower. She’s insane like Mrs. Rochester.”
Julie twitched her shoulders. “She was legally blind, Mira. Couldn’t get around by herself anymore. I helped out as much as I could. The way I felt about her is another story... “ Julie caught her breath. Don’t want to go there. The words kept coming -- “The night after she died I heard this awful howling outside my window. I got out of bed, shaking. It was pitch black outside and I imagined it was her out there in limbo, making those horrible sounds. Serves you right, I thought... I haven’t felt anything since.”
“Oh Christ, I don’t know. She was a nasty piece of work. Didn’t like me one bit. My brother Tom could do no wrong. I couldn’t do anything right. She slapped me silly. Tom said it was because I was a girl. It was true. I didn’t have a penis; in addition to which I was dishonest, lazy, sly, full of excuses, and oh, God, you name it. She’d grab hold of me with one hand and smack me with the other. The look on her face was murderous.”
“And you such a little bit of a thing.” Mira gazed at her sorrowfully. “I can’t bear to think of it.”
“She wasn’t all that big herself -- an artist; she painted and sculpted, did a beautiful bust of my brother, won first prize in a show at the Art Student’s League. We were all so proud of her. I don’t know... maybe she thought she could pound me into shape. You know something, Mira. I envy your animosity. It’s what I felt, too, for most of my life. But now that she’s dead, it’s gone. There’s nothing.”
Julie hadn’t intended to expose herself this much. Raising the coffee container, she took an embarrassed gulp.
Mira’s eyes glittered. “What’s so bad about not feeling, I’d like to know? It seems to me it might be liberating. Maybe I’m the one who should feel envious.” Her voice rose. “Julie, you don’t need my permission. Get rid of them...”
“Get rid of… what?”
“Your remorse, and all the rest… ” She seized Julie’s wrist and waved her other hand at the ring. “And while you’re at it, toss that too. What makes you think you’re stuck with any of it?” Mira was practically shouting now, and Julie’s embarrassment grew until she didn’t dare look at any of the people around her. How much had they heard?
“Shut up, Mira,” she whispered, glaring. “The subject’s closed.” It made her feel better somehow, to say that.
“Fine.” Mira stood up and put on her jacket. She started walking and Julie followed.
Look at you hobbling like an old woman, said the voice. I’m the old woman.
“Like hell you are,” Julie snapped. “You’re dead.”
O. P. Climber
Maggie woke to a flood of light. She looked over at the bunk beds. The white sheets were parted, the blankets thrown back over themselves. Bacon and coffee were on the air, but it was quiet. Danny and Carole must be outside doing chores already. She was wide awake with something. Something about today. What was it? Now she heard single footsteps and the clinking of dishes and swashing water. Those were her mother's just-after-breakfast sounds. It must be beautiful outside. The light was so bright slung through the windows. Suddenly she remembered. Today was the day of the slaughtering.
She scrambled out of bed, out of her flannel pajamas, dropping them on the others puddled on the floor. "You kids," her mother would scold. But maybe not today. She pulled on her levis, cowboy boots, a tee shirt, grabbed her jeans jacket, and hurried down the hall to the kitchen.
"Good morning, Merry Sunshine." Her mother turned, her hands still in dishwater. "Want some cereal?"
"Thanks Mama." She sat down at the kitchen table. "How come no one woke me up?"
"No one woke up Danny or Carole either." Her mother dished out a bowl of oatmeal, poured cream off the top of the gallon jar into a pitcher, and set them in front of Maggie. "I think I'll have a cup of coffee with you," she said. She poured herself a cup and sat down in her usual place at the end of the table next to Maggie.
"What's Papa doing?" They could see him through the big kitchen window. He was standing with Pablo just down the hill, on the lower part of their five acres. He was gesturing, turning to Pablo, then resting his hands on his hips the way he did when he was thinking of how to do something.
"He's getting ready to build the scaffold."
She sprinkled sugar on the steaming cereal, dribbled cream around it, then took a bite. "How come they use a scaffold, Mama?"
"Don't talk with your mouth full,” her mother said sharply. "I don't know exactly. The steer's easier to quarter when it's hoisted off the ground. You'll find out. You'll see exactly how it all works this evening, Maggie."
"All the kids are coming over to watch."
"They are, huh." Her mother lit a cigarette.
The Laudenslagers’ dad was going to help. He had the gun. "How can Papa remember how to do all this stuff?" He was a baker at Wonder Bread. They’d moved from San Diego to the outskirts only two years ago, and gotten all these animals.
"Why, you'd be surprised how much you remember when you're grown up," her mother replied testily. "Nat helped his father every year when he was a kid. After they sold the farm, your grandfather had the butcher shop in Fayetteville. He was around it enough.”
Maggie looked at her. "I just asked, Mom, that's all."
Her mother's face softened. "Well look here. Your braid is coming undone at the bottom. Turn your head around and let me fix it."
Maggie turned, bending her head while her mother slipped off the loose rubber bands. She liked the feel of her mother's hands scampering about her neck and shoulders. She wondered what she would remember when she grew up. Maybe, she thought, she would live in Wyoming where Mama was from or Arkansas where Pop was from. Then she'd get to see snow.
"Maggie," her mother said. "There's something I think I better tell you." She wound a rubber band back around the end of one braid.
"Ouch. What?" Maggie dipped the spoon into the middle of the cereal. She scooped up a bite. Her mother didn't answer. Through the window Maggie saw Papa point to a post for the scaffold and Pablo turning to look at it.
Her mother wound another rubber band around the other braid. "Ouch! You always pull. How come you always pull?"
"Sorry, sweetie, I didn't mean to," her mother said.
The oatmeal slid down her throat. It was warm now, not hot. “What, Mommy?”
Her mother stubbed out the rest of her cigarette. "Nat's going to slaughter one of the goats too along with the steer."
It wasn't Harriet, her mother added quickly. He'd never take Harriet.
"It's O. P. Climber, isn't it. It's Harriet's kid."
"He's a billy, Margaret. Nat says we'll have to sell him anyway. We can't keep a billy around."
"I don't know how he could do that, Mama," she said. It was Papa who thought the goats might suit her. It was Papa and she who'd driven together alone in the fog to buy the goats. They’d never done anything alone before. He let her choose one of the nannies.
It was Papa who'd sent Danny from the barn to get her to come quick! quick! so she'd dashed down to the stall in her pajamas to watch her nanny Harriet giving birth. Legs, black and white, head, a male, and suddenly all of him at once - and then he stood wobbly a few minutes in wet sticky bewilderment, while Harriet bleated softly, her sides shrunken and heaving. Then Harriet licked him; he discovered her teats; his tail began to wag, faster and faster. When he finished sucking, he tried to climb the nearest thing: Maggie.
She named him O. P. Climber. She told Papa that night at dinner. Two months later he'd jumped the fence with the other goats. Cookie’s new twins tried to clamber onto the pepper trees but O.P. Climber leapt right on top of the old Pontiac, down onto the flat lid of the open trunk, and perched there long enough for Mom to take a snapshot: proud, out of the pasture, the pen, king of the mountain. Maggie imagined how magnificent he would become full-grown, like the billy she'd seen in the goat barn when she and Papa had gone to buy the nannies. "You gave him the right name all right," Papa told her. “Climbingest kid I ever seen.”
They heard the crunch of gravel underfoot and then footsteps stomping mud off the back porch and Maggie only said "I don't know how he could do that, Mama," in a soft pinched voice before her father opened the door and was there, filling up the kitchen.
"Christ! S'gonna be a long day," he said. "And a damn sight longer night." He took off his battered straw hat and sat down in his place at the other end of the table from her mother, who'd gotten up. "Yeah, I'll have a cup, Ruth," he said. "Can't get that Mex to understand what I want done."
Maggie pushed back her chair.
"Aren't you going to finish your cereal?" he asked.
"Danny's already milking, isn't he?"
"Oh hell, he doesn't need you. Sit down. Finish your oatmeal." He turned to her mother. "Ruth, what time did Laudenslager say he'd come over tonight?"
You can have it, Papa! she screamed inside her head. She ached, more than she ever had, from wanting to out loud; a huge lump filled her throat, her chest was burning.
"About 6:30," her mother answered. She was facing the stove, pouring his coffee.
Maggie stood up. She moved past them to the porch. She let the screen door slam.
Danny was on the proper side of the cow, the side she usually had. The goats were clustered way off near the ravine. She dropped her glance quickly before it singled any out. So he'd let them out already; maybe he'd fed them too. As she got closer she knew he was nearly finished because the sound of the squirting was soft and deep: shush, shush, shush, shush. The milk would be high in the pail with a thick airy layer of foam at the top.
She unlatched the corral gate and squatted down opposite. "The front teat's done," he told her. "The back needs some more."
She squeezed her fingers sequentially, pulling down at the same time, and the one squirt syncopated against Danny's two. Big Mary emanated warmth and thickness, her stomach rounding near Maggie's head, and all Maggie sensed was cow, the cow-heat and odor of the milk, the rumf-rumf of her chewing, the squat split hooves, and she thought, how could he.
"Milk her clear out now," Danny said.
"I will." The back teat was the hardest. There was a bump on it.
"That's enough," Danny said after awhile. "Let's do the calves."
He poured half the milk into two smaller pails with rubber nipples extending out the sides, gave her one, set the other outside the gate, and untied Big Mary. They carried the pails to the calves' stall, next to the goats. Mary heard Harriet's throaty baa-aaa-ing across the field. She did not know what to think. She could not seem to think about it. Only how could he.
"Hiyah!" Danny yelled, to back the eager calves off. They lowered the pails over the stall gate, anchoring the buckets against it, and the two calves jabbed at the nipples, sucking noisily. They'd gotten too big already to let them finish the cow the way they'd been, milking half and letting them on her for the rest. They were too strong now for her and Danny to hold in or pull off Big Mary. They'd be on dry feed soon.
"Are you going to help tonight?"
"I don't know." He shrugged. "I guess so. If Papa lets me."
"Did you know he's going to slaughter Climber too?"
"Mama told me."
Danny didn't say anything. She watched the calves’ milky lips grasping the nipples. Then he said, "It's your turn to feed the nannies."
"I know. You don't have to always tell me everything just because you're two years older."
"I don't always tell you everything."
"Yes you do. Anyway, I want to feed them." The calf rutted up against the pail. "Stop it, Short Stuff! There's no more!" She yanked the nipple away from him. "Stupid!"
Danny looked at her. He looked back at Punky, who was still sucking. "I'll take the milk up to the house."
"Good, because I'm not going up there. Anyhow," she said, over her shoulder, "It's your turn."
"No it's not," she heard him murmur. She went to rinse the bucket out.
Most days when she came up from milking she'd pass Papa at the white fence of Gypsy's corral. "Whoa, whoa" he'd be calling, "Whoa, Gypsy, whoa boy," all attention as the thoroughbred raced from one long end to the other, his black tail and mane like wind itself, nearly plunging, it always looked like, right through the fence, his chest nearly touching the top board, head high and nostrils flaring, before whirling to gallop again the other way. And Papa would call "whoa, whoa" watching fiercely as if they were racing together. He called "Whoa, whoa boy" in his sleep, in his afternoon naps.
The horse was fine, far finer than any of the other animals. The nose and body slender, a dusky grey, untamed and unridden, trim, young and wild. He was Papa's horse, Papa's alone, and he had another reason than the chickens, cows, goats, steer. A different reason than Dolly, the sorrel horse they all rode. Papa was going to train him. He had already begun to put a blanket on his back. He was going to take him to a trainer. Race him. Have him win. And he called "whoa" to him every morning, every afternoon, he fed him, curried him, raced with him in his dreams.
But this morning he wasn't at the fence, when she came up from milking. He was in the doorway of the shed with his back to her, squatting, bending over a stump.
It was the chickens. She had never liked the chickens. They had old feet. Their heads poked and poked. But now she saw among the others pecking along in the gravel driveway, two with bloody spouts sticking out of their triangular bodies, flailing and flapping around in circles. She had seen it before. She had asked her mother if they were dead or alive then. She couldn't remember what her mother told her.
She saw him raise an axe with his right hand and he did not seem like Papa, she thought, although in another way he seemed more like him than ever, and she saw him bring it down and the side of his face had a grim determined look and he swore softly, intensely, between held-in lips. She heard a squawk and then another headless bloody chicken ran around in circles, blindly, among the others.
She clenched her jaw with the same grim determination as her father's. She set out in search of Carole. She found her standing on a bucket currying Dolly in the back pasture. "You gotta help me, will you help me? He's going to slaughter Climber."
They skirted the house, keeping out of sight by going through the tall weeds by the septic tank, and made their way down to the goats' corral. "Stay here and pet him, keep him close, okay?" she told Carole. She climbed the ladder from the stalls into the barn and got the long rope they staked out Dolly with and climbed back down into the corral where Carole knelt with her arm over Climber and they tied the rope around his neck. Harriet was off near the Eucalyptus, reaching up for leaves. "I'm gonna go tell Harriet what we're doing," she told Carole.
She crossed the corral. Harriet butted her side playfully, and bleated, looking at her with her yellow eyes. Maggie scratched the bumps on her head where she'd been dehorned. "Harriet. We're taking your son away only just to save him."
They sneaked over to the next hill, out of sight of the kitchen window but in plain view from where the scaffold was being built, circled across the neighbor's pasture, crossed the creek to the cave where the wetbacks camped out when they came across the border, and all that way Climber bleated and yanked on the rope, first in one direction, then another, so that part of the way she carried him.
They stayed there all afternoon, going out to spy from around the scrub oaks and the tumbleweeds, to see the completing of the scaffold in the high afternoon sun. Now He was there, now He and Pablo, now they were not, now Danny, now Him again. They romped with Climber, letting the rope out far, staking him out like Dolly, and once he jumped on top of the overhanging cave ledge and whirled away like Gypsy did from the fence and she thought, Oh Papa, what if someone were going to slaughter your horse. They fed him paper and weeds, dug up old beer bottles, found a note written in Spanish and a peso, ate the apples Carole'd got off the back porch, took turns leaving the other to go over to the old hand pump well to pump water and drink from the jar left there, and all afternoon the sun shone brightly as it had that morning and the February air was crisp and clear, and all afternoon she felt like salt, like wind, like thin stone, and then suddenly the lump in her throat would ache and she'd think,
Papa. Papa. Why are you going to kill my goat.
Mama. How can you let him do that.
And then Carole began to ask what would happen when it got dark, and she said we'll stay here in the cave, we'll stay all night like the wetbacks, but she didn't know what, really, would happen, she didn't think they wouldn't come and get them, she wouldn't go home until they were sure, she told Carole, but now she was tired and it was hard to keep up with Climber and Carole, and then they saw their mother by the shedbarn, saddling Dolly, mounting Dolly, she was riding Dolly, a thing she never did, she was riding towards them all right, and they watched her and Dolly get bigger and bigger until finally she drew up to them, and she said it was okay, they could come home now.
So Maggie had won. They had won.
But it did not feel like that.
Because Papa did not mention it. When they passed him at the scaffold on the way home, he did not look at her, or Carole or Climber. He did not speak about it at dinner when Mr. Laudenslager came. Nor after. Nor ever.
Nor did Mama explain. She did not tell how the decision was come to, nor who came to it, or how it was that she rode up in the clear blue late afternoon, saying "Children. You can come home now."
Paint it Pink
My daughter Ainsley was the first to spot the pink flamingos in the neighbor’s yard. A yellow sign read “Flamingo Crossing” and gathered around were 15 of the pink plastic yard ornaments plus a solitary green one. The flamingos became the major focus of our morning and afternoon walks to and from her elementary school. There were holiday variations—the ghost flamingo, the Turkingo, followed by Flamingo Claus. When Lindsey Lohan claimed that she was wearing somebody else’s clothes and that the dope in her pocket wasn’t hers all of the flamingos save one were gathered at one side of the yard and there by a sign that read “Not Mine” was the Lohaningo. When Paris Hilton went to jail a sign said “Guilty” with the crowd of flamingos gathered like a jury around the Hiltoningo.
Once my daughter began flamenco classes she clopped around the house as loudly as she could, driving all of us bats. When she wasn’t clopping she was waving a fan, clicking it open and closed, open and closed, or else clacking castanets while I was on the phone talking to an editor about one of my freelance gigs.
When I proudly told people she was taking flamenco classes, our friends and neighbors would ooh and aah. Yet to my dismay Ainsley would correct my pronunciation. “Flamin-co, Daddy. It’s flamin-co. Not flamin-go.”
After the weather warmed up the flamingo dancers appeared. Most were in their 20s or 30s and both men and women wore pink tights and leos. They mimicked real flamingos. They’d walk around animated like the birds and then stop like a child in a game of freeze tag. At first there were only five of them. But word must have spread because soon there were 10-12 pink dancers, depending on the day. It fluctuated. And they waged hit-and-run performances in the neighborhood. You’d step out in the morning to get the newspaper and they’d be gathered in the front yard in a tight circle. Heads up, heads down, arms all akimbo. You’d comeback from the library with the kids and they’d be gathered on your stoop in a little cluster. Sometimes they’d walk along behind you. Sometimes they’d gather in the street and block traffic.
Their act quickly caught on. Soon there were copycat flamingo groups showing up at sporting events. Grown men would take off a duster to reveal pink leggings. A late night trip to the Pancake House or the local diner would be interrupted by a flock of flamingo dancers bursting through the door, reeling down the aisles, around the back, and out the door again. Summer weather seemed to swell their numbers.
My daughter’s eyes turned into shiny saucers the first time she saw them. “See,” I said, “flamingo dancers.” This seemed obvious to me. As subtle as streaking. My wife, Anne, threatened to buy me pink tights but I had no interest in traveling this strange side road. I was content to watch the flamingo dancers. They were ubiquitous now. They lurked in the background of photos at the Oscar ceremony, the State of the Union, the Super Bowl.
Still, I’ll admit that my failure to embrace the flamingo craze was rough on my family. I didn’t blink when my wife and daughter began wearing flamingo outfits every day. I didn’t blink when flamingo paraphernalia took over our house. First it was artwork— flamingo photographs, a painting. Next it was platters, then plates and bowls. Then my wife redid the bathrooms in pink with flamingo detailing, flamingo soap dishes, flamingo trashcans, toothbrushes, towels, and carpets. Our own yard was soon dotted with pink plastic.
I tried to ignore it all but curiously found myself listening to early Pink Floyd while I was ostensibly working.
Ainsley gave me a flamingo cake on my birthday, chocolate with pink icing. My presents were tickets to the upcoming Cirque Du Soleil “Flamingo Experience,” plus flamingo garb of my very own. My daughter was joined by my wife as they clopped their heels and clacked their castanets around the house flamenco dancing in their pink flamingo duds. When the phone rang, and a high-powered editor asked if I’d write a piece on flamingo mania by the end of the week, my bubble finally burst.
After dark I slipped down the street to the neighbor’s house where it all began. Everybody I passed wore flamingo outfits. Some dressed their dogs in pink flamingo sweaters. The number of plastic flamingos in the yard had swollen close to 100. They rippled out from a small core group of freakish figures like some diabolical Pilobolus choreography. I jumped the fence and began tearing the pink flamingos out of the ground, flinging the plastic bodies and wire legs onto the asphalt. A car stopped. Then another. I heard car doors and a crowd murmuring. I froze. My neighbors surrounded me--each and every one dressed head to toe in pink. And there at the front of the flock, clopping closer, closer, were my wife and daughter and their clacking castanets.
Big bucks-- let's not kid ourselves, this is about big bucks. The lights dim, at the lectern our speaker clears his throat and asks if everyone can hear. I'm half-listening, less than half-looking because I need to keep an eye on the door in case Bobby shows up. He might still come; he has this tendency to breeze in late. I am the type who watches the clock and winds up cooling my heels waiting for types like Bobby. I'm just his kid brother (though we're hardly kids), but I make allowances for him, or used to-- we all did. So I have spent a good deal of my life keeping a cautious eye out for Bobby.
Not that I'm exactly waiting for him tonight. I mean, we don't have an appointment here at Sotheby's or anywhere else. In fact, due to recent events we may or may not be on speaking terms. I guess I'd find that out if and when he appeared. At least I'd find out how pissed I am-- stony-silence-pissed, icy-greetings, mildly-civil, all or none of the above... No, I'm not here to meet my brother, but to learn about the Tepperman Rhythm Pounder and why anyone in his right mind would fork out maybe a record million five at next week's auction. I've never had much interest in African Art, this is Bobby's turf, which is why he might walk through the door. Though he must already know all about rhythm pounders and big bucks.
Earlier, I'd phoned to check the time for the lecture. After several rings a woman said, "Yes? Hello?" Her voice was husky, there was noise in the background, other voices, then a kind of squealing, then applause.
I said, "This is Sotheby's?"
"Come on," she said to me, "it's got to stop." More squeals, with music this time.
"Sorry?" I said, shouting over a list of names, Ron and Luella, Schatzie and Ringo and Tiny. At each name the squealing rose or fell.
"In this heat," the woman said, "some nerve you've got in heat like this."
Someone yelled, "Hang in there, Schatzie, we feel for you."
"Look," I said, "there's some--"
"You can't keep calling. I was resting, I'm not strong, I need my rest."
"I'm sorry," I told her, "I must have the wrong number, but I haven't ... I didn't call you before." I was about to hang up when she started again. It seemed rude just to cut her off.
"Two times I've had cancer," she said. "Each time I found it myself."
A man cried, "Hey, Jerry, I can handle the sex change thing."
I said, "Look, I'm really sorry, but --"
"You try that," she went on, "try beating cancer two times instead of walking around the way you do. I've seen it, the way you walk..."
"I'm really sorry," I said. I doubt she believed me or even heard me, but it was true. This August I'm in the city alone-- my wife and daughters are off with her mother up-state. I teach, I'm a historian, and I need the library for research. When I drop by campus the long, dull corridors and empty lecture halls give me the jitters. I miss Helen and the kids, now more than ever. I actually miss classes, or at least the clustered pattern it all makes. Each summer the clusters tumble, like the girls' old kaleidoscope, they rotate outwards and settle at the rim, leaving the center blank. What if I never get them back?
And for once this question seems real, given the situation. I try to think of it that way: the situation. Like that, it sounds impersonal, surmountable, though on bad days I fear the worst. The thing is—my wife, Helen... the thing is that something has happened to Helen. Something to do with an old friend. A man who phones and takes her to lunch. My goal is to learn nothing more. Who is it who said there are times when to lose doubt is to lose hope? I'm not sure I could bear to lose hope. Of course she's away now, and maybe they don't speak. Which could be good, or maybe not so good. Last winter, and into spring, I always knew when they'd met. In the evening she'd be spirited, she'd cook us a great meal, we'd be silly, we'd laugh a lot. She would flirt with me as if newly reminded of the pleasures of flirtation.
So I have no trouble picturing this lonely woman (as I have pictured myself), slumped on a grey couch in a grey room, the only brightness from the tv -- fleshy orange, sour green, reaching almost to where she was trying to rest.
Now the speaker greets us and asks for the first slide. They've closed the door and darkened the room. Set off to one side, the Tepperman with its jutting chin and breasts casts an even darker shadow on the wall. If Bobby does come I'll spot him by his gait, that jerky lift and drag of his bad leg-- you might take it for just a hint of a swagger which droops and gets more lopsided late in the day when he's tired. Bobby had polio before I was born. We were lucky, his case was mild, he came through with only his limp, but my mother had lost her grasp of the principle of luck. Who knows if luck will hold, and who can ever make up for what almost happened, what might have been. There are five years between Bobby and me because her dreams were filled with the bright, cold pumping and sucking of iron lungs.
The black and white slides show tribal dancers covered with feathers, mud and matted straw. I squint at the door, then back to the screen. These are Senufo wilderness spirits, their dance is of chaos and death. 'Vilderrrness,' the speaker says, and 'tahnce,' he sounds quaintly Viennese. But he is young, with the sunbleached hair and deep tan of a kid with a summer job at the beach. Click-- new slides, carved wooden figures, male and female, each set on a heavy, cylindrical base, rhythm pounders like the one we've come to see. No mud, no feathers, these guys are squeaky clean. The speaker makes a tiny arrow jump left and right. He talks of patina from coats of karite butter or castor oil. Of ornaments, bands of cowrie shells, kisi seeds. But always the lines will be simple, he says, and calm. Men strike the earth with these figures, and the wild dancers give themselves over to that rhythm and fall into line. It's all pattern, I think, rhythm and line, time and space. Stick to the pattern and you're safe. Click...
A man in front of me whispers to his neighbor who nods, then whispers back. Together they nod some more. Perfect accord, but over what? Earlier, before we took our seats, I'd wandered around the room. On the lookout for Bobby, I skirted one chat-group, then another, hoping to catch a word or two, to get some sense of the lay of this alien land. As I said, I teach history, Modern European, British by choice. Ask me about Pitt the Elder or Palmerston or the Corn Laws. Ask me about younger sons sent to preach to some rain-soaked parish or ride out with their regiment while the first born decants his port at home.
Next slide, a village compound, a circle of sun-baked huts and the forest beyond. In the foreground, a table with offerings meant to appease evil spirits; palm oil, orange soda and freshly picked plaintain. A line of young boys is leaving the compound, each grips the shoulders of the one ahead. These boys have come of age, the speaker says. They must go out into the forest, and when they return they will be men. Their faces are turned from the camera, they could be eager or terrified. I'm searching for clues-- bent heads, hunched shoulders, whatever, when I get this feeling, this conviction that Bobby has slipped through the door. He may be a row or two behind me right now. Old sneaky Bob.
Click... On screen now, another carved figure, not the Tepperman, we're leading up to that. This is the Van Huber-- the arrow flicks at the crook of an elbow, the chiseled jaw and gullet-curve of the neck. Sold at auction last year in Bruges. Not a million, but over eight hundred thousand, which is close. And now, a pair from the Museum Rietberg, Zurich; again the long dark torso, the face with its heavy eyes and its mix of gravity and disdain.
Two weeks, three, how long has it been since my mother called? Our mother. There's an edge to her voice when the topic is Bob; it's breezy but artful, just mild and bright enough to put you on your guard. "I've heard from your brother," she said, after we'd chatted a bit, but she didn't have to. Right from the get-go I knew.
"What does he want?"
"He asked about you and Helen and the girls. I told him they were at the lake. He said he's been meaning to call."
Helen and me— the last thing I needed to discuss. Or consider in any way, shape or form. "But what does he want?"
"Well... it turns out he wants to get together. He thought maybe we could have dinner, there's some kind of opportunity, something about a syndicate that's being put together to buy something... I didn't really understand... "
"He needs money," I said.
For a minute she was silent. Then she said, "He's in Dallas."
Which is how we came to fly to Texas in one of the hottest Julies on record, a time of nuclear sun and the deep, steady thrumming of mighty compressors. It was everywhere, that sleek rush of sound, it swept over us from cars to lobbies to our rooms, it held off the glare outside. I had told her I wouldn't meet Bobby-- I'd take her to Dallas, but she'd have to see him on her own. The afternoon he came to the hotel I spent wandering through the exhibit at the School Book Depository, looking at photos and tv monitors and, finally, staring down at the infamous grassy knoll. I saw the blurred film of Kennedy in the open car, his arms brought up to his throat frame by frame. I saw LBJ in Airforce One, hand on a bible, Jackie next to him, her skirt smeared with blood.
Later, I found a kind of cafeteria place for dinner, heaped my tray with ribs and refried beans and a dish of bright blue jello for dessert. The meat was spongy and tasted of smoke. Sitting there, what I remembered most about Kennedy's death was the clobbering disbelief. Not this, you kept thinking, not here. One day you watched the riderless horse, the next you tuned in and saw Lee Harvey Oswald shot. And before long nothing surprised you. With each new day you grew into that wierdness, that sense of custom and order breached.
Back at the hotel I dialed Helen, but there was no answer. They might be down on the beach. I wanted to tell her about the museum and joke about my dish of blue jello. I wanted the comfort of her voice, which I knew would sound harmless, unremarkable. Which might even convince me of a harmless future for us all. In an hour or so I tried again, but still they were out. It was almost nine when my mother knocked at the door. Bobby had taken her to a revolving restaurant, she said. The room itself was round, beyond its floor to ceiling windows the lights of the city crept sluggishly by. They'd had an elegant meal, two bottles of wine (I didn't ask who picked up the check). She kept staring over Bobby's left shoulder, out to where everything blurred, and the wine and that dreamy sweep went to her head. Bobbie told her about the Tepperman, how he had this chance ("--of a lifetime," I cut in, and she gave me a look of reproach). The plan was to purchase and re-sell within a year.
I could see how tired she was, and not just from being eighty-two or jetting into another time zone. No, it was our old enemy, hopefulness, that had worn her down. My brother has a way of taxing you with his hopes. Finally, he's found the woman to make him happy, the job to make him rich. You may not believe, but there you are, stuck with this ramshackle hope. The whole time we talked she kept patting the grey coil of hair at the nape of her neck, as if in that long, slow spin she felt it had worked itself loose.
I wanted to know if Bobby had asked for me. "Well, he understands you're here," she said, "but, no, dear, your name didn't come up." With a faint grin, she shrugged as if to make amends. I didn't bother explaining there was no need-- I could add this omission to my list of timeworn resentments and petty (and not so petty) slights. More fuel for the smoldering fire. I'm not happy about my list. That is, I'm not happy about the nasty satisfaction each grievance gives me. But maybe as a historian I can justify the tally. After all, this is what happened: my name did not come up. This much is fact.
Here we go, slides of the Tepperman, in profile, onscreen at last. A general shifting and resettling of creaky chairs-- you feel interest pick up. Here is the big story. The speaker's arrow seems to caress, it nuzzles dark shoulders and traces the arc of the spine. Briefly it settles at the small of the back. Soon, soon, I will learn something Bobby already knows, I'll get to see what he sees. I'm watching. Waiting. Next slide, full-face, with pale, slitted cowrie-shell eyes. And maybe the clues are here, clues to the mysteries of value and desire, to a beauty I can't fathom, distinctions I can't make.
There are figures and masks, the speaker says, believed to take their power directly from spirits. The wambele, or helmet-mask, can make a dead man sit up and open his mouth for chewing tobacco. Rhythm pounders like the Tepperman were used at burial. (Yes, yes, I'm still waiting.) A priest would leap into the grave and strike the heaped earth seven times to send the spirit to the village of the dead. But what of the willful spirits, I wonder, living and larger than life. Those spirits you can't just cover and neatly dispatch. The speaker asks if there are any questions. No hands are raised. Every one but me has all the answers, and the screen goes blank as lights in the room come up.
I stand, edge clumsily along my row. The last thing I want is for Bobby to spot me as I trip over somebody's foot. If he's here. The air now seems dangerously bright and filled with gesture and talk. At the end of the row I hesitate. Off to my left a small group has gathered around the Tepperman. As I move closer for a last look I feel... I know there is someone looking at me. I stop.
Slowly, I turn and it's him. A little disheveled, he's wearing rumpled seersucker, no tie, he could use a shave. Bobby's eye for the arts never quite covered his own appearance. He's smiling, and I think I smile back. For a moment I respond in kind, it seems I'm not up to withholding the courtesy. But no, this is something more than courtesy, something worse. Once again, I've found him, or he has found me, and there is always that flash of promise. Of implication. I know better, but where does it get me? Anyway-- blink and the flash is gone. He holds out his hand. Without meaning to, I hold out mine, which he grips. I stare down at our knuckles and at his familiar, blunt-toed orthopedic shoes.
"Gotta say, you surprise me." He shakes his head.
A clear invitation to explain my presence. But I choose not to account for myself, and the sudden awareness that I don't need to pleases me. Besides, I don't surprise him, not really. I have hardly ruffled his composure-- you can't when you're a passing distraction. It occurs to me: all my life I've wanted to surprise him, and he doesn't notice.
"Well," he says, with a brisk little shrug, "Sorry I missed you in Dallas."
"Well...," I say. I am losing that grip I had on silence as power. "Well.... yeah."
"So, uhhh, really something, don't you think?" He gestures at the Tepperman.
"Mmmn—really something. Yeah." Together, we nod. ‘Something.’ I'd like him to elaborate, let me in on the secret, but I'm sure as hell not going to ask.
After a minute or so, he says, "Look, there's a little gathering over on Sutton Place, I need to drop by. Why don't you tag along?"
Tag along, it's the story of my life. And the story feels old and tired.
"We'll put in an appearance, make it quick. Besides there's someone I'd like you to meet. Then the three of us, or you and me, whatever, we skip out early, go somewhere quiet for a drink."
Before I can come up with an excuse he is at my elbow, steering me towards the door.
The Sutton Place doorman finds Bobby's name on a list and motions us to the elevator which is paneled in cherry, heavily waxed and buffed. On twenty-three we step out into a private vestibule. Bobby stops at the gilt-framed mirror, he straightens his open collar and, with a grimace, checks for any bits of food stuck in his teeth. A ceiling spot heightens his pallor, catching him in its halogen bolt. Bobby has dark eyes, dark wiry hair which he keeps close cropped. He is shorter than I, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested from years of upper-body work. For the first time this evening I look him over. No surprises here—nothing I couldn't recall blindfolded, nothing I haven't already learned by heart.
"C'mon," he says, "I'll make this quick, we’ll hook up with—with this friend of mine, and then we'll cut out. You have my word."
In this cubicle, with its smokey mirror and grey burlap ceiling and walls, there is no air. Why in God's name have I come? If I could draw breath I'd make my excuses, turn heel.
Inside, though, the rooms are large and dim, sparely funished, aggressively cool. Bobby turns away to greet an elderly woman with orchids at one ear. A large, sadly whiskered man takes my arm and whispers, "Been meaning to mention-- I will never again trust the Rietberg people. Not since the Yoruba business." A waiter passes with champagne, and I lift a glass from his tray. "The Yoruba business... " I say. Nothing more comes to mind. I nod. "What a night," he says, "one for the books." He raises his own glass, we drink, and he waves to someone across the room.
A voice says, "Bobby's little brother— time to admire my view." It's the orchid woman, who guides me with tiny jabs to a picture window running the length of the farthest wall. With each jab her bracelets slap and chink. We look over the black East River, out to the soft summer night. Above Queens low clouds reflect the city's ozone-spiked glare. You can't see the real sky which must be black like the water below. "So, Bobby's brother, tell me what you think."
"It's very beautiful," I say. Pretty lame. I empty my glass in time to hand it off and take another. Behind us two women compare palm pilots. "Relaxing," I say. "Very calm."
She frowns. "Calm, I don't need. Soon I will be calm. For all eternity. But not quite yet. I'm not ready. I am old, but not old enough. Meanwhile, I live with my little reminders,” she glances over at a low cabinet topped with carved figures, women with protruding navels and conical breasts, a squatting male, half-human, half baboon. One woman cradles a tiny child, although mother and child stare past each other into space. “Did you know, the Senufo permit no weeping or mourning if an infant dies?"
"I'm afraid I .... "
"Such a child is thought to be evil, a python spirit. Its loss is a stroke of good fortune. " We watch the arc of a plane taking off from La Guardia. Beyond the window its lights glimmer, then disappear. "And so," she goes on, "we permit ourselves to accept the unacceptable."
The room has grown warmer but champagne helps. My aim of late is to hop right over the unacceptable, so I swallow, clear my throat. "Is that what these things are for?" I nod at wooden figures grouped on a side table, at a large, clay-colored mask on the wall. "Acceptance, protection.... As they are used in ritual, I mean?" Again I swallow. It would be fair to say I have no idea what I mean.
"These things are for distraction." She smiles. "And pleasure. And profit, of course. You are not a collector, I think?"
"No. No, I'm not." I sound irritable, bored, as if denying some minor vice.
"I think it would be fair to say that I am the collector in the family." Bobby has come up, with a woman in tow. She is middle-aged, almost his height, with brownish hair. Not much make-up, no Hamptons tan. Good figure, of course, but not Bobby’s usual style, none of that bright, acrylic gloss he tends to favor. "And this.... " he says, pausing for effect, "as promised, this is Sheila."
As promised? Have I missed something here? A promise from my brother to me, and this is the first I’ve heard. Which hardly matters given his track record with regard to promises.
Sheila smiles. “Well, finally... ,” she says, “At long last... Victor, I am so very happy to meet you.” She speaks slowly, finishing with a brisk nod of her head as if to drive the point home.
“Sheila,” I say, and we all smile and nod.
“At first,” Bobby says, “they all thought I was nuts.”
For a moment I’m lost, until I realize he’s back to his role as collector. And it’s true— we looked on each piece with suspicion, to say the least. I mean, we looked on Bobby with suspicion, and this latest passion didn’t help. My father, a serenely practical man, was in real estate. He dealt with tangible profit and loss, though of course, as a family, we followed the arts, went to concerts and museums, like everyone else. We fancied our French Impressionists, our Beethoven, Brahms. But when Bernstein flounced and wept through Mahler we thought him outlandish, and Rothko with his lozenges of color was another one ‘laughing all the way to the bank.’ So, too, we shook our heads at Bobby’s Chokwe antelope masks and fetish figures from Burkina Fasso, his Ashanti linguist staff and Yoruba flywhisk.
“Tell Sheila,” Bobby says. He lifts her hand to his lips, and, for a minute, holds it there. “Tell her how you thought I was nuts.”
“Well, it was the early sixties,” I say, “people were just starting... there wasn’t the general interest...” I wish he would let go of her hand.
The orchid woman interrupts. “Bobby has always had a fine eye,” she announces, “which reminds me, I want him to look over my new helmet mask, you will forgive us?” Leading him off, she calls over her shoulder, “Please try Joseph’s crostini, the poached salmon, please...”
Left to ourselves, Sheila shrugs and grins at me. She has the hint of an overbite which seems friendly, disarming. Authentic, somehow. “Shall we?” she asks. “Investigate Joseph’s crostini?”
We fill plates and find seats in a corner. On the far side of the room I see Bobby and the orchid woman laughing with several young men dressed in black. From this new angle, I look at him and sense something forced— with these people his laugh is heartier, his gestures broader, yet more abrupt, like a man with a tricky case to plead. It is something I can almost pity.
“Bobby has told me so much about you,” Sheila says.
I raise my eyebrows, trying for a kind of cosy skepticism.
“Pretty trite for openers,” she goes on, “I know, I know,” she raises both hands to fend off reproof, “but it’s true. He talks a lot about you and your family... and your work. He showed me the William Pitt monograph. It’s my summer reading assignment. Which I’m looking forward to, really, ‘though I do hope there won’t be a quiz.”
I look over again for Bobby. I’m struck, thrown sweetly, absurdly off balance at hearing he didn’t just toss the copy I’d sent, and all at once it happens I need to get him in my sights. The black shirt bunch is still there, but Bobby, I think, has moved on.
“So,” Sheila says, “I take it this is not really your scene?”
“Not my scene, no.” I prod my salmon with a fork to check for bones. “Bobby is the one with the eye. From way back. I’ll never forget one time...” I falter, shake my head; the champagne, the monograph business, all of it has loosened my tongue. But she is waiting with what seems like genuine interest, and so I am launched, I go on. “I mean, we were on vacation, our folks had taken us to Miami, to the Fountainbleau. I don’t know if you have any idea... those places, I mean, the Fountainbleau, the Eden Roc, that scene.” The recollection is sudden, urgent. I want her to see as I saw, to feel what I felt. “Well, I must have been—maybe eight or nine. It was evening when we pulled up. There was this round driveway with a floodlit fountain, and inside this vast lobby everything was marble or crystal and gold. The air and the light, just the sheer scale of it blew my mind. People were dressed for dinner, men in summer suits, all the women with puffy crinoline skirts. Not that I cared about crinolines, but I cared, how can I put it, I cared about knowing the right stuff, and I thought it would really be something to know the way you handle yourself in places like this. Anyway, later, when we were upstairs in our room Bobby phoned a friend back home, and I heard him going on about how garish it all was. Garish—his word. He was lying there on the bed, rolling his eyes, and he said something like, ‘This is your correspondent on special assignment, coming to you tonight from deepest Liberace Land.’ So... I saw that I just didn’t have a clue.”
“About the Fountainbleau, or the Eden Roc.” She affects mock gravity. “Important stuff like that.”
“About style. Which seemed important enough at the time.”
“Style, you say.”
“It’s one way to lay claim, isn’t it? To stake out your territory. I mean, especially for a kid.”
“Mmmm, right,” she says. “For kids of all ages, I guess.” And she flashes me a quick grin.
What has Bobbie told her, I wonder, of our history, his and mine? What does she know of our long and intricate pairing with its everlasting fits and starts? And, more to the point, how much of what he’s told her comes even close to the truth? Somewhere nearby a cell-phone chimes Mack the Knife. It’s owner, a pale, broad-shouldered woman, teeters past on stiletto heels. “You need to understand,” she hisses, “I am mandated by law, positively MANDATED not to take this shit.” From my plate I nibble something soft and grey, a mushroom perhaps.
Sheila’s napkin slips from her lap, and we both bend to pick it up. An awkward move, badly timed, my chin almost grazing her shoulder, or worse. Her breasts, I see, are small and rounded like a young girl’s. I try to ignore them, also the white underside of her wrist. “I’m so sorry you couldn’t make it to Dallas,” she says, settling back. “You and... it’s Helen, right?” She hesitates as if the name requires a certain precision. As, indeed, for me, this summer it does. I cannot bring myself to hear or utter Helen’s name without first composing my features, callibrating my voice. But there is no way Sheila could know about this. “I did enjoy meeting your mother,” she goes on, “that kind of thing can be daunting, but she certainly put me at ease.”
So, Sheila was in Dallas, and apparently I was not. Somebody here has played fast and loose with the facts. Not just Bobby, but mother too. Why did she not even mention Sheila? By the way, your brother has a new lady friend. Or, did I tell you, Bobby brought a woman along. I think there is something here that matters, although I’m much too tired to figure it out. Besides, it’s still too present, too close. For my work I am always looking back, and the perspective suits me. I am a great fan of the past. From that vantage point, I plot the bell-curve of cause and effect, and slowly the past reveals its proportions, offers up its true clarity. Tonight there is no proportion and not much is clear.
“She’s well, I hope?” Sheila asks.
I’ve lost the thread, what with Helen, my mother, Dallas, New York, what was said and what was left out. “Oh, yes,” I answer, which seems safe enough. Threads, who needs them. Sheila nods, takes her napkin and dabs at her mouth. I nod as well, playing for time. I just want us to be out of here, Bobby and me, Sheila too. Like he said. I want us to be sitting somewhere quiet, with drinks, maybe, or cups of hot, black coffee, and in this new quiet place I see a chance for respite, for a kind of quiet of my own. We could sit and talk, and maybe, just maybe, let down our guard. And how good would that be?
“She’s a strong lady,” Sheila goes on, “you see it. Strong-willed, I mean.”
“Oh, yes. Yes indeed.” I try to scan the room for Bobby, but the cell-phone woman, still talking, blocks my view. “Look,” I say, “Bobby mentioned... he said we might head out early and get a drink or something. Maybe you could find him and give him a nudge?”
“Sure. I’m more than ready to head out. You sit, I’ll be right back.”
I set my plate down next to a small wooden figure with some sort of bronze machete through his chest. He has been sliced at, impaled. His mouth gapes, a round, black hole, and his ivory button eyes bulge. Around me the color and buzz of the party recede. I’m tired, and I wish those two would get a move on. Another waiter passes with more champagne, but I shake my head while trying to stifle a yawn which wells up anyway, up from the back of my throat until the room itself fades for a gaping moment to black.
“Well, Victor, it looks like he’s ditching us.” The voice is Sheila’s, she has returned with Bobby in tow. She speaks lightly, fondly, as if lamenting the playful antics of a child.
“Gotta new gameplan for you,” Bobby says, “listen-up.” He steps closer, one of his lopsided dip and sway manoeuvers.
“A new... gameplan, is it?” I think I know what’s coming. ‘Though what I can’t figure out is why I should give a damn.
He nods, he registers my tone, wants to cut me off at the pass. He is sweating, I notice, and there are dark circles under his eyes, but maybe it’s not just me, maybe his precious deal is going sour? “Thing is, there’s a couple of guys who need me to stop by—we need to make one more stop, so I thought you and Sheila could go, like somewhere, maybe, for a nightcap. Maybe Grace’s, if you want to eat, or the Carlyle. As soon as I can get away I’ll catch up with you. This’ll be quick.”
Catch up with us. Right. I stare past him. “Look, I can’t do this any more.” I’m mumbling. I stop and swallow hard. Over and over again, you’d think a person would learn, but I am a born sucker, he pulls the strings and I dance. “Jesus, Bobby,” I swallow again and go on, “I am not gonna do this any more. I’m sorry, really sorry.” It’s a lie. At least, the sorry part. I know as soon as it’s out of my mouth that in fact I am exulting-- something hard and bright and bitter has me in its grasp. I am vindicated. My brother is an operator, a shifty son-of-a-bitch, which is what I need him to be, and I don’t have it in me to be sorry about that.
“Just a minute,” he’s frowning, as if confused. “Now, hang on here. Hang on a minute...”
“I’ve been hanging,” I tell him. “What do you think I’ve been doing all these years?” I have raised my voice, around us heads turn.
“Look, you two, why don’t we just — “ Sheila tries to break in, but I cut her off.
“Enough. I’ve had it with hanging on.” I turn and make for the door.
In the mirrored vestibule I jab two, three times at the elevator button, willing the thing to speed my way. Any minute they may come after me, but no, it seems my brother is not about to pursue the matter, which is oh, so sweet and ticks me off even more. I am furious, I’m relieved, I give him another black mark. So down I go, down and out to the street and the summer night, and it’s simple, really, so simple, who knew? You don’t have to hang on, you let go, there’s this giddy release and then free-fall. I’m heading west, away from the river. The air is still heavy but softer now, almost cool. Release, free-fall, the words repeat as I walk. And an image, those sky-divers you see on tv, spread-eagled, cushioned by nothing more than light and wind. I figure I’ll walk a block, try to clear my head before hailing a cab.
But then I remember, on the way home I’d meant to look for an ATM, I’d paid for the cab from Sotheby’s (of course), and all I had left was a dollar or two and change. Across the street there’s a bus stop, but just to be on the safe side I keep going. They still might follow, they might try to corner me, and right now I couldn’t face those two, especially not the Prodigal Son. But it’s also more general, more obscure. I have a sense of shame and disgust which is oddly impersonal, having as much to do with the world as with Bobby or me. That’s it-- there is shame abroad in the world, and I need to get back home. At the next stop, I fish out my metro-card. It should be okay to wait here.
Several others are waiting too, an elderly couple, a woman with earphones, humming and tapping her foot. Her humming is flat, an almost tuneless drone. I step from the curb, peer off into shadows, but no sign of a bus. From behind me, someone asks for change of a dollar. I turn to see another, younger woman, a girl with dark spiked hair and pale eyes.
“Do you have change for a dollar?” Slowly, she repeats the question which is addressed to me. She holds out a bill and waits for my answer with apparent indifference.
“Sorry,” I mumble, “sorry, I’m sure I don’t.” I feel I ought to explain not checking my wallet, but this hardly registers, and before I have finished she moves away. Nearby, the woman with earphones lights a cigarette, only to toss it after two or three puffs and grind at it with her foot.
There are few cars, almost no traffic and still no bus. The girl stands quietly, for some moments she waits, or rather, withdraws, absents herself. Folding and unfolding her dollar, she seems not so much distracted as beyond even that passing, splintered attention. Then she turns to the older man and woman and asks again for change. While they rummage through his pockets and her purse, urging each other on in some Balkan tongue, I see a crosstown heading our way.
Inside, the bus is harshly lit, all chrome and plastic reflecting a bleached, greyish glare. I find a seat and press my face against the window, cupping my hands, squinting out. Of course there’s no sign of Bobby and Sheila. But you never can tell, I might find a message at home on the machine. Not an apology, just something breezy, what’s got into you, that kind of thing. Or I might leave a pre-emptive message of my own, like why don’t you go fuck yourself. We’ve pulled away, and I’m about to sit back when I notice a small group crossing the street. Two or three slender, boyish men, the black turtle-neck crew from the party? And with them, another, more stocky-- this one, I think, has a limp. Or does he? In the dark I can’t be sure. And a woman Sheila’s build and height. So there you have it. Right... Off to the next gathering, they seem in no hurry to get anywhere. They are strolling, laughing, taking pleasure in the summer night. But I’m leaving, I left, it was me this time, I was the one who walked out. I turn from them quickly, as if to prove I no longer need to keep them in sight . And now, coming towards me, swaying calmly as the bus gathers speed, is the young girl. She gives no sign of recognition but takes the seat next to me. We sit sideways, facing the center aisle, when the driver brakes I feel her thigh against mine. Across from us, the woman with headphones nods in time to a grating, percussive rattle, perfectly audible from here and annoying as hell.
“Do you have room to share your apartment?” Softly, without affect, scarcely meeting my eyes. There you have it. Disorder and early sorrow, as the saying goes. Who wrote that? I can’t remember, but just take a look around, you’ll see it’s prevalent and true. We’ve stopped for a light, the engine idles, the headphones hiss. I’m flummoxed-- and tired, very tired. What we need here is.... what? A policeman, the nearest emergency room, the nearest priest? Or a charm figure, maybe, like the one at the orchid woman’s, carved from blackened wood, its pot belly crammed with powders to cure the ailing heart.
“Excuse me,” I say. This is a statement and not a request. I am beyond apology or entanglement. I shake my head and move to a seat in the rear.
Afternoons they spent in the pool until, called by Mother, they were bundled like babies in towels and placed in the sun, their teeth chattering, lips blue. Other mothers left kids to their own devices, giving them credit for half a brain and, what is more, trusting the hotel lifeguard who lounged in his raised chair with a silver whistle around his neck. Who ever heard of anyone drowning in the pool at the Fountainbleau? Other mothers could be reasonable-- theirs had never had the knack. Still, they found ways to pass the time. Some weeks before Bobby had explained menstruation. Now, huddled in terrycloth, they eyed women who sat gossiping or playing cards, women who oiled themselves to a fare-thee-well and seemed to blaze from every pore. Bobby had said it was called ‘The Curse’, so there must be signs; you could guess who was secretly bleeding, you’d catch the hint of a wince or shudder, and you could figure it out. Years later, when they were both grown, the scents of chlorine and wet concrete and Coppertone brought it back, that complicity edged with cunning and delight.
Those two weeks in Florida brought them close on many fronts, as vacations with their parents often did. At home, in the wider world of friends and homework and sports, they were rivals, but here, pitted only against the grown-ups, they became a team. Together they phoned room service and asked for Prince Albert in a can. In their own room they stayed up late watching Dragnet or Gunsmoke, stuffing themselves with chocolate-covered cocoanut patties and salt-water taffy from the gift shop downstairs. For Bobby, a younger brother was useful, promising even, he could, after all, be trained. For Victor, time lay open before them, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and the day after that, a fresh and sweeping expanse.
Of course they dressed for dinner, the boys in pressed khakis and white shirts, suit and tie for their father and for Mother, some frilly thing. Victor was often ready first, he’d leave Bobby cursing the buttons on his shirt or the ties on his Oxfords. Once he yanked them so hard one snapped. “We could tie it back together,” Victor suggested, “here, look, it’s long enough.”
“You just go, go on ahead,” Bobby muttered, as if that was pretty dumb, but then, catching Victor’s expression, he did lift his head for a minute and grin. As Victor left, Bobby was limping around, opening and slamming closets and drawers. “Tell them,” he shouted, “I’ll be right down.”
In the lobby they waited, which at first was okay. At this hour the sun was still strong, though the light streaming in had mellowed, grown softer and deep. While his parents chatted idly about a golf course and some other family’s trip to an alligator farm, Victor considered dinner. There was crunchy fried chicken he liked, but the grilled chopped sirloin was good too, and with the chopped sirloin you got french-fries. For dessert he wanted the ice-cream that came with a tiny pleated paper umbrella. Although twice now Bobby had had ice cream and given him his umbrella. Which made Victor feel happy and grateful (to have the umbrella) and more than a little ashamed (to want childish trinkets like that). After a while his mother turned to watch the elevators, and soon she shook her head and said, “Victor, will you please go see what your brother is up to, we’ll be here all night.
Their room was at the end of the endless corridor. Victor walked slowly... ice cream or chocolate pudding, before long he would have to decide. Any minute now, that door would open, and Bobby would rush out, and he, Victor, would tell him they were in a tizzy downstairs. But it was another door, near the elevator, that opened, and a man and woman who came out. As they passed, the woman bent down until her pink lumpy face was level with his. When she smiled her cheeks seemed to puff and stretch apart until she looked grim. ‘Don’t you just love it,’ she said, ‘that face, couldn’t you just eat it up?’ She reached for his cheek, but Victor pulled back, and the two of them laughed at him. They turned away, but their laughing drifted on the ordinary air. Once they were gone, he knocked softly and waited, then knocked again. “Bobby— c’mon, lemme in. Man, you better get hopping...” Ooops, he thought, at the notion of his brother bouncing on the one good leg. No offence, he thought, but to say it might make things worse. “C’mon Bobby... just open up.” Silence. The silence of absence, of death, though he didn’t really believe that, no, Bobby was there all right, alive and well, so why not let him in?
It was only much later, when they were lying in bed, that Bobby finally came clean. He described the small hedge along one of the walks, a thick screen of hibiscus where you could hide if your shoe lace had snapped when you were rushing to get ready and it was like something inside your head had snapped and you were desperate, absolutely desperate for a smoke. How he had knotted the stupid lace and snatched his Lucky Strikes. How he figured he had just enough time to race down the stairs and sneak out and light up. How that prickly sweetness in your throat can settle the world when it threatens to tumble and spin. ‘Some day you’ll see,’ he had whispered as they lay there in the dark. ‘I promise you can try one of mine.’ But it was Scotty Jacobs who gave Victor his first cigarette and watched as he gagged and choked and nearly threw up. Scotty who shrugged and agreed, if he never wanted to try again, well, then, what was the point?
“Bobby, listen, for chrissake, listen, will you just open up?” Light from the window nearby pooled at his feet, a buttery lozenge that made the pattern of the carpet dance. There was a hairline crack between the lintel and the bottom of the door where you could see more light. He lay down, flat on his stomach, and tried to peer through the crack. The carpet bristled against his chest and dug at his knees. “I know you’re in there ....” Now he was shouting, now he stopped, put his face down, felt the scratchiness on his cheek. For a long time he waited, but there was no response. Only the roughness of the carpet, and silence and the light.
Mavis knelt down over the patch of earth that ran along the side of her garage. Using a yardstick, she measured a foot and a half from the last one planted, pressed the dirt with her thumb to mark it, and grabbed her trowel. In a quick series of jabs she dug down into the dark soil until she had a hole about eight inches deep. She stood, surveyed her work, and mumbled, "A nice even row." She strode heel first back into the garage where she picked up a saw and swiftly cut off a pre-measured two foot one inch length of wood, then another shorter piece for the cross bar. Bustling over to her worktable, she placed the shorter one on top of the other at a right angle, glued them together, secured them with nails, and finally wrapped and bound them with a heavy white twine. Her hands fluttered up to fuss with her blond hair as she peered down at her achievement. Then she picked up the black marker and inscribed the necessary information on the cross bar. This activity was uplifting, energizing and the beat of her heart raced about the room, clearly excited.
Last night she dreamt of her heart, saw it cresting the top of a hill backlit by the orangey–pink of a setting sun. Pulsing, it dripped a wet red trail as it joyously throbbed down a grassy slope. She ran after it in great leaps and bounds when her legs, caught in the twisted bed sheets, woke her. She knew right then and her nocturnal thoughts agreed: she had let him go. That's when she decided that she would plant another, just for him.
Mavis took a deep breath, lifted her creation up to the light, and turned it every which way studying its stability. It was finished. She bounced up and down on the balls of her feet, pranced back outside, jammed the newly assembled creation into the freshly dug hole and stepping back, surveyed this latest addition. There they were––seven white crosses marching along the gray stucco wall. Each cross bore the name of a man and the duration of the relationship written with a permanent black, felt tipped pen, the lettering in perfect uppercase, the dates below. She did not vary the print on each piece for her sentiments were never to be revealed to the viewer.
It was earth art, a sculpture incorporating repetition with variation. At thirty-eight Mavis was an artist who constructed tactile visual forms from a life lived on the edge of reason. She had come across a thought written by an unknown author, which had become her mantra: "Let me Harken to the call of Love, and denounce the idea that Fear could offer more."
Dreams were the fuel she burned to stay alive. If not for these, she would have snapped long ago. She would have curled up in bed, pulled the covers over her head and died buried beneath a mound of despair. She squatted down and patted the soil around the newly installed piece, Matt's cross. She'd liked Matt a lot, thought perhaps he was the one. At the same time, she knew he was not for he was a skirt chaser. Her challenge had been to make herself his one and only. "Oh Mavis," he'd said, "You've got it all you pretty thing you make me feel sexy." She fell for it.
Whatever made her think she would be any different from all the other women who had once borrowed his heart? Still she rushed in, falling under his spell, believing in his kisses and his lies, all because she yearned for a spiritual connection of their souls. Too soon the universal uncertainties, those infernal doubts rose up: Did he love her? When would he call? Was he thinking about her right now? Was he comparing her to others?
Insecurity took over like a demon rat nattering in her brain. She switched from her independent self to a grasping needy woman. She lost herself in his self; confessed her love and told him she needed him. In turn he became irritable. Had she spoken too soon? Perhaps she shouldn't have said anything at all.
Then just like that ––no good byes, no see you later, no it's been swell –– he simply disappeared into the wiggling mass of humanity. She'd known better then to reveal her feelings to such a selfish, aggressive egoist, hadn't she? Enough, it was important to remember that he was a narcissist and there never would have been any room for her in his life. She was through blaming herself. She was over and done with the heartache of his lost love and in retrospect, that love was probably never even there; it was just her fantasy, her need to believe. Anyway now she could admit it.
On all fours she crawled over to the first one she'd established 12years ago. She meditated on the dates: it had lasted three years and five months. He'd been a real cutie, Dwight, that name, difficult to swallow. A boyfriend named Dwight was hardly sophisticated. However, she'd adjusted to it by thinking about Dwight D. Eisenhower. She even cut some sweet little bangs just like Mamie's, put a wave in them with stale beer. That had been the problem, hadn't it, the beer drinking? Beer and peanuts, beer and tacos, beer and fried gizzards from the Colonel's Kentucky Fried. The two of them got fat together, the drinking took over and they blamed each other. The affair ended when they were traveling back from a raucous New Year's Eve party, he was driving. She, feeling like a bystander in her own life, seethed with an unspecified alcoholic rage that cartwheeled out of control and rose up, fueling the angry beast inside her. It took over, became too much. She had to get away so she opened the car door and flung herself out. She hit the edge of the curb and a high pitched scream ran up her spine ending in a flash of yellow light in the upper part of her brain. Her body bounced once, flinched in pain, then just like that she was up and running on her booted feet. Slipping on icy blacksnow, she ducked behind a hedge of evergreens and here she took an inventory of her body. No real injuries, nothing seemed broken. It occurred to her that this newfound talent for flying could become, with practice, one of her greater assets.
She'd come out of that relationship okay. She stopped drinking beer, lost weight, gotten her old self back and then she met David, the professor of Indian history . A whole new world opened up for her. He told her tales from the Ganges, she ate curried peas and eggplant with her fingers, hennaed her hair, wore saris and toe rings. She imported Indian fabrics, jewelry and sculptures of Hindu Gods, sold them to specialty shops and at local fairs. She even studied the Indian dance Baratanatium, moving her head from side to side as her neck held still. With silver bells on her ankles, she danced about to Indian ragas. She actually became quite proficient. One night returning to David's apartment from a dance performance, she found him in bed with another professor's wife. "You've ruined it," Mavis snapped from the doorway. Then marching through the bedroom, her ankle bracelets tinkling, she grabbed her small suitcase from under the bed. As David made feeble excuses, Mavis threw in her jeans, her Norwegian sweater, one sari, a favorite silver bracelet, then departed broken-hearted, again.
The sun glistened off the TV antennae on top of her garage. Silvery sparkles clicked a memory of the twinkle-like sensation she'd had with that tall brown-eyed Jerry who had perfect teeth and a Texas drawl that slurped round her body. Oh he could turn a girl's head. It was only a weekend tumble when he was in L.A., but then Jerry called her from Farmington, New Mexico. "Fly out here," he said, "I'll make you an offer you can't resist." She was happy to be summoned by him and arrived the next day. They sat in a bar and he began. "I'll set you up with the best high-class men, weekends only, Florida, New York, Chicago, maybe Europe, transportation and wardrobe included. We could make a lot of money together." She'd been sort of flattered by his request, the idea that men would want her and pay money. "Jerry," she'd said, "give me your keys, I'll be back later." She needed to think this one over. She slid onto the caramel colored leather seats of his navy blue 450 SL and drove straight out of town to the nearby reservation where she ingested some peyote, then squatted down to meditate on his offer.
She moved into another state of mind and found herself looking down at her own fractured soul. Like a specimen she took this broken shattered spirit, stretched the fibers, push-pinned the edges, then looking for the ends, she saw herself walk mid-stream on her own red dirt spinal column. A sloth-toed creature slithered her way. Stomach-footed, it moved toward her with rhythmic wave-like contractions. This slug, with its visceral hump pumping fluids through a sluiceway left a trail of slime. Its radula scraped and filed the herniated discs of her soul. She gasped and scrambled to catch the ends and in doing so shirred her ganglia and gave herself a Novocain high. The pain was gone, like the end of a migraine headache in a bad love affair. Several hours later she returned Jerry's keys and told him no she couldn't do it, it was simply not her style, and then she few home to California.
The reverie faded and she knelt down on the grass and thought back to the time she'd gone camping on the beach down in Corpus Christi with Michael, the printmaker. After two months of sleeping in a tent and battling the sand that seemed to get into everything––food, water, clothes–they decided to head West. Her memories flashed to that road trip. Michael was driving her orange VW Squareback and she had slid over behind the wheel and on top of him. They'd come together as they sped down the highway past the longhorn cattle watching them from Dallas to Norman, Oklahoma. She remembered the cloudless full moon night when she had just smoked a powerful joint and they stopped by the edge of the road to take a pee. She liked the idea of leaving her scent in each state on their way out West. She was stoned again. Michael had quit, she wouldn't. She liked getting high. They argued and stopped talking. He drove in stony silence. She giggled and figured he'd forgive her later on. After all they were in love weren't they?
They'd driven all night and as dawn began to creep into the dark, a pink neon sign rose above a distant crest flashing Eats-Gas-Eats-Gas-Eats-Gas. Michael turned into the parking area. Pink neon blinked across the hood of their car, "I'm getting a cup of coffee," he said and headed into the café alone.
As she made her way into the diner, the aroma of hamburgers and pancakes made her mouth squirt. She remembered seeing Michael flirting with a redheaded waitress, ordering scrambled eggs and coffee. They slept in the car and later Michael sneaked off into the night leaving her there at the truck stop. He'd run off with that redheaded waitress. He'd always liked big tits, she thought.
In Tuscon, Arizona she met Corky, a truck driver, a blonde blue-eyed surfer kind of truck driver. She began to ride along with him on his hauls. Her handle was Prom Queen. She and Corky made a royal team. She created a skin care line for the travel weary, aromatic bath essences, scented condoms, and flavorful douches and sold them in the truck stops. Sometimes she'd call ahead to the next stop, letting them know that Corky and Mavis would soon be there. "Breaker, breaker this is Prom Queen, we're stoppin' for go-go juice. My wheels are spinnin' and my beaver's grinnin'. Loud and Clear 10-4." And when they pulled into those truck stops she would dazzle the customers with her smile and her wares. She and Corky buffed up those freeways as they rode high. That was until he met a surfer girl named Pearl in Ocean Beach and he split just like that. Off he went with Pearl who was his Gidget girl. In retrospect, Mavis realized Corky just could not fight his surfing nature.
Then along came Don, the mechanic who turned her this way and that way. He'd make her, he'd take her, he'd blow in her ear and he got her. She was lost, she was drifting, she wrote notes to herself and pinned them on the wall; she needed to remember her name. He was her Donny Boy and when he blew in her ear she'd soar out of her body, leave the ground in veils of Maya that were bright red with threads of gold, taking her away to the ocean's edge where she jumped through waves foam filled with negative ions and leapt into the air leaving only her toe print in the sand. And beneath her all she could see were her black strapped high-heeled shoes flung against his bathing suit lying on the beach. She thought it was love, but it was more like everlasting gratitude … he was some lover. Then he stopped calling. He'd left his shoes in her closet and run off to Hawaii with a graphic designer. He cheated, he lied and he said that he loved her. She had laughed when she found out that his wavy hair was a perm but still she had walked with a measured step behind the coffin of her murdered heart.
Soon after, she met Roy when their bicycles collided. She fell off her bike and on top of him, her face dropping into curly chest hair. Roy: large hands, tall and hazel-eyed with a real Viking smile that had melted her bones. She'd been swimming in the ocean, she was plump and wet and he invited her to tea. They sat at a boardwalk café. She ordered Jasmine and leaned forward to inhale the floral scent and expose the curve of her breasts as he drank Earl Grey with milk and honey. They shared tales of life's struggles, strolled in the rain. She was smitten, she was wet. They got into his Ford Explorer. The rain formed a curtain round their nest as they shed their clothes and squirmed in the back seat. She left footprints on the ceiling. She was in love again. She lost weight, cut her hair; her spirits rose, bloomed and faded when she stopped hearing from him. She had wanted to ask him if he was hanging her out to dry, but he was nowhere to be found. Months later he began to leave messages on her voice mail, courting her with love songs. Only she remained impervious for she had shifted her focus and moved on.
For weeks after Roy she'd sat in her house hour upon hour staring out into the early morning fog. She had always believed that what she truly, truly wanted was to be consumed by a steady passion that burned her independence right out of her, leaving pieces of white ash behind and a bliss of perfect union forever. It was not going to happen. Inside her chest the masons were busy building a wall around her heart brick by brick, and when they finished they would pack up their tools and leave.
Being a Norwegian with her genetic predisposition to look at the dark side, she was a natural born brooder and traveling through memories was not productive right now. She needed to gather new energy to get up, get on with it and get out there. She had lived, loved, endured, risen above, survived and recovered. But a life searching for love was exhausting. It was time now to rediscover the independent being within her, that productive self in a world she would create as her own.
Mother always said, "Throw yourself into your work when the world is giving you a hard time." She stood up and suddenly she knew. These white crosses should be red. Red was a dangerous color, red was a primary force, red was the serpent fire from the earth, red was a flaming cross! Yes, red would do perfectly.
She had to shove the paint into the fibers of the thick wrapped twine. But she did not have to rewrite the inscriptions for the black felt marker had bled through the fresh red paint. Finished by five that evening, her back sunburned, her knees dirty, her hands and thighs spattered red, she rose up and admired a job well done. In that very moment she became conscious of the fact that she had not given one of them an iota of thought, not one minute of her heart. She had passed through several hours without any grief or regret. The still wet crimson crosses stood blazing their authenticity in the waning light of the day. Now her only wish was that they were out in the front yard for all to see.