First Chapter of Music for New People, a novel-in-progress:
Zaxy had been perched on the ledge of a giant window looking out on the airport runway for twenty minutes. All of a sudden, he yelled, “A plane!”
He stuffed the last of his hot dog into his mouth, then came skipping across the concourse to us, mixing in strange little hops and jumps along the way. “He’s coming. He’s here!”
I clicked out of my e-book, quickly pounded through the half cup of Dr. Pepper I had left, then stood up and slid my Kindle back into the cargo pocket of my shorts. We all followed Zaxy as he bounced back to the window.
“All right,” said Daddy, “everyone remember to be inclusive and supportive and whatever else makes sense.”
“What’s ex-cusive?” Zaxy asked.
“In-clue-sive,” said our older brother, Del.
“That’s what I said. What’s it mean?”
“In-clusive means be nice to the kid,” Del said. “Make him feel part of the family. And you didn’t say that.”
“Include him,” I said.
“I did so say that,” Zaxy said. He made a fist and put it very close to his face, then slowly tilted his head up towards our big brother.
“Enough, you two,” Daddy said. Mom had her hand on his arm. Our parents seemed a bit strange the way they were standing. The word, I know now, would more accurately be apprehensive.
We watched the plane roll up close to the terminal. Zaxy got very excited about the men on the ground helping direct it into place so the gangway could connect up.
“Look at that!” He said. “They have orange paddles in their hands and big ear muffs on their heads. They are so lucky!”
Zax is ten. When he saw the luggage carts and the little truck that was pulling it, he got even more excited.
“What are they doing? What are they waiting for? Are they going to take the plane apart and put it on that little train? How do you get a job like that? I want to do that. I like that little truck thing. I would love to drive it. Absolutely love it!”
He was so excited he missed seeing the gangway being maneuvered down to the exit door near the front of the plane. You have to be careful with Zax sometimes. He gets very upset when he misses something. It’s like he’s been robbed of an opportunity to go bananas.
No one told us we were going to have a summer-long visitor until the night before that visitor arrived. We’d already been at our vacation house, Muro del Sol, a full two weeks. I’d gotten over my frustration once again about being taken away from summer softball competition. My older brother, Delmore, had found new ways to kind of be a jerk. Zaxy had his sailing lessons. Already, he seemed happy enough as part of the mob of summer vacation kids that forms up there in Maine every year — a mob I’d once been a part of, and Del before me. Of course, for Zaxy it would all be different. There is no one in the world like my little brother Saxon Dean Scattergood.
And if you’re wondering, I think it’s okay being a girl trapped between two brothers. You learn a lot about boys that way. Some of it’s good. Some of it’s bad. In fact, last summer I learned a lot about boys and girls — maybe more than your average fifteen-year-old learns, but not exactly in the way you might think.
People started coming off the plane.
“Will we recognize him?” I asked.
Del said quietly, to me, “Just look for the only male wearing pink shoes and a purple bow tie.”
We watched as travelers came off in little groups, lugging and wheeling carry-on bags. It occurred to me that it was odd we’d all come for this pick up. Usually Daddy chose just one of us to keep him company collecting visitors.
They kept popping out of the red door — a mom and two little kids; a business man; some touristy-looking couples with camera bags and cylindrical fishing rod carriers (these people were very loud, like they’d been drinking); a pretty, young woman with surprisingly beautiful, somewhat frizzy hair, wearing a bit too much makeup; another woman, in her sixties, looking lost and confused. Maybe someone she’d expected wasn’t there for her.
A few more people straggled out in batches. Then nothing.
“Where is he?” said Zax.
Daddy checked his phone to see if he’d gotten a message from Uncle Edward. He looked up again at the door and leaned on a railing. A few minutes later another family came out, and right behind them was a woman pushing a little kid in a stroller. Maybe a minute after that a man came hurrying through the red door, then another man who was more waddling than walking. Then nothing again. We just stood there.
“What’s happened to Robert?” Zaxy asked.
“I don’t know,” Daddy said. “Should I call Uncle Edward?” He stared at his phone like it might be magic.
Just then, the flight attendants came through the door. Mom stopped them and asked if there were anymore passengers still coming off. They said nope, the only people left were the pilots and cleanup crew.
We were all a bit confused. We turned to head back to the main part of the building. The pretty young woman with frizzy hair and too much makeup leaned against the wall across from the waiting area. She was rather tall and thin, and really quite beautiful in an interesting way, but I did not like that makeup. Her hair fell to her shoulders. Sunlight flashed in its brownish color, making it glint with a milky gold shine that even seemed to flick red. Something was up with her. For someone so attractive, she didn’t seem to be very comfortable with her body. Maybe her blouse and jacket didn’t quite fit. It was hard to tell.
She raised a hand and smiled. “Hey, Scattergood family.” Her voice was strained, like it didn’t know what to do with itself. “If you’re looking for Robert you’re not going to find him.”
“I’m sorry,” said Daddy, “Do you know my nephew?”
She giggled and chuckled at the same time, then shook her head knowingly. I turned to look at Delmore. His mouth had dropped wide open. He seemed frozen in place. Mom had her eyes closed, pointing her face towards the ceiling, shaking her head back and forth.
“Did you travel with Robert?” Daddy asked.
She chuckled again, then pushed off from her lean against the wall and took the several steps across the waiting area to us. Sticking out her hand, she said, “My name is now Rita Gomez. I had the name Robert when my father put me on the red-eye last night in San Diego. But I turned into Rita after we left Pittsburgh just before they served coffee and tea. I hope you don’t mind.”
She still had her hand out for Daddy to shake. I noticed how long those fingers were. My father had now assumed the exact same expression as his oldest son, Delmore. Neither of them seemed able to move. They just stared at this person with slightly open mouths and buggy, unblinking eyes.
We could have dealt with this situation in many ways. I like to think we’re pretty good as a group when things get weird. Was this person really Robert? I got the implication if it was a practical joke. But it could also be a serious problem that we were going to have to deal with for a long, long summer. Still, Robert could have been kidnapped and this was an elaborate ruse to hide the fact that he was being held against his will. He was, after all, the child of a somewhat famous scientist.
I looked at this person as carefully as I could. There seemed to be very light evidence of shaved facial hair. Her hands really were over-sized. And even though she was wearing women’s high-heeled shoes, those feet were stuffed in, much larger than the shoes allowed.
Everything added up. I tried peering into her eyes. The makeup seemed as well applied as that on any girl’s face at Cliveden Friends School where we all went. Could a boy really have done such a decent job, even if it was too much? I knew I couldn’t, and I was an actual girl – well, not in the way a lot of people think, but still.
My older brother and my father were now breathing through their noses in a funny way. They looked ridiculous — like they’d been punched or something. Mom continued gazing all over the place except at this person standing right in front of us. I was really worried the wrong thing was going to come out of someone’s mouth.
Finally, I just stepped in front of Daddy, looked up at this person who was definitely a lot taller than me, and took her hand to shake. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Ivy. You’re freaking us out.”
The hand I held had long bones and weird young muscles. I wanted to let go and jump away. But that would have been very mean, and quite stupid. I go to a Quaker Friends school, I kept thinking. I’m trained for this kind of thing.
“Hi Ivy,” she said, with a big happy smile. “I remember you. I’m Rita.”
“But you were Robert when we were little, right?”
“Well,” she said as she let go of my hand and hitched her backpack higher on her shoulder. “I was kind of Robert back that one time you visited. I didn’t want to be. I know you all thought I was weird. I thought I was weird, too. I was very sad. But…”
She gave a great shrug — kind of happy, a bit embarrassed maybe, relieved, goofy, and a whole lot more. “…I also knew I was a girl all the way back then.”
“But you’re a guy.” This was Del coming to life.
“Not right now.”
“Really? So you’ve…you’ve…”
She laughed. It was so relaxed and calm, that laugh. I wanted to hug her. There was something about this kid. I felt like I’d known her all my life. It was an odd sensation.
“No. I haven’t been altered if that’s what you mean. It’s called gender reassignment surgery. But what’s under these clothes is not who I am. It never was.”
Daddy, too, was coming to life, but not in a good way. “Excuse me…Robert.”
“It’s not Robert, Scat,” said Mom. “It’s Rita, right?”
Our cousin nodded patiently.
Mom stepped right into it all and just enveloped this completely beautiful girl in her arms. “We are so happy to see you, again…Rita.”
She pulled her head back and held our cousin by her shoulders, then just stared at her shaking her head back and forth. It was one of her hard smiles, the kind where she was saying to life: “Nope. Not gonna freak me out. It’s weird, but that doesn’t matter. Because everything’s weird.”
Mom was pretty good at that. You learn it as a weapon if you live in Cliveden. Also, of course, she was married to our father. It wasn’t a fake smile like she might give to one of the moms in town who annoyed her. It was more the hard smile she might give a nice babysitter who spilled milk on the couch, or our housekeeper Kayeesha when she showed up late. Mom probably uses that smile a lot at the hospital where she’s an eye surgeon and teaches laser techniques to medical students. Everything’s a thousand times more intense at Jefferson University Hospital than the suburban Cliveden social scene.
“So you’ve gone and done something a bit big here,” Mom said, still smiling and holding this girl by the shoulders. I don’t think Mom knew it, but she was shaking her head back and forth a little more vigorously than she intended.
“Excuse me,” Daddy said from behind Mom. He had his phone out. “Do your parents know about this?”
Mom dropped her hands and turned around. “Scat…”
“No, Rikely,” Daddy said. “Seriously. Eddie would have told me…”
Rita laughed carefully, then looked at me and said, “Well, actually Eddie knows my intentions are to change, but he didn’t know I was going to just jump in with both feet today. My mom, too. I didn’t know it would happen myself until I was somewhere over Kansas at five o’clock in the morning.”
“You just did this?” Mom asked.
“Yeah, I guess I did. I got to Pittsburgh and had a three-hour layover. Time to think, you know. I bought this dress and top, some skinny jeans and a few other blouses, these shoes. Aren’t they nice?”
I looked down and didn’t find them nice. They were dark blue high-heeled things to match her dress.
She was still talking. “And then, well, the makeup I had with me. I’ve been practicing that for the last two years. It’s all—”
“I’m calling your father,” said Daddy.
“Oh, please, Uncle Scat, no,” Rita said. “Not yet. I need—”
Zaxy interrupted, “Are you Robert?”
“It’s Robert all right,” Del said quietly.
“But Robert’s a boy.”
“Well…” Rita looked down at our little brother.
“Do you like Sponge Bob?”
“Are you sure?”
Zaxy’s confusion got Daddy silently more upset, which kind of set Mom off in her strong “defender of children” mode.
“Scat, stop! Now, Saxon, we will discuss all of this in the car. Rita…” she stared again into that face. “Rita, you are coming with us. We had planned for a Robert type person, but that’s all changed now, obviously. You’re coming with us regardless, and of course you’re staying the summer like we planned. You are part of this family now.”
She looked hard at Daddy. “And we will not call Edward Scattergood, because Rita is now our responsibility, not his or Samantha’s. We’re going down to luggage. Delmore, please take Rita’s carry-on. Scat, put your phone away…” She placed her hand on his wrist. “Please, Scat!” Then she looked me right in the eyes. “And Ivy…well, Ivy…” I thought she was going to burst into tears.
Daddy trailed behind as we headed for the escalator. He’d put his phone away and was shaking his head and mumbling to himself.
Note: This is from a Revised 3rd Draft of Music for New People (working title); posted February 25, 2016.
Another excerpt from the novel-in-progress, Beautiful Morning Blues
When I turn fifty-five, Naomi Tanner will be sixty-six; Naomi, who called me a saint or Superman.
My thought back then was that hopefully I could still step out my door every morning ready to rumble in homes like hers. I would wake up in bed before that and find myself with a woman on the other side of the bed, but I would very likely have forgotten how dreary my life in our house was until I found myself in the shower. If I was very lucky, I would find Tina’s shampoo and cream rinse on the caddy. I’d be naked, water beating down on my paunch, Dial soap in my hand, the room scenting up with steam and Dial’s peculiar spicy 20th century perfume. Before me in the shower would be evidence of my wife in the form of nutmeg cream rinse, Noxema, pink disposable razors, lavender body wash, and salon shampoo alchemized to enhance the shine of dark Italian hair – my wife, who could no longer show that she loved me, who might by then have had an affair. She never called me back when I left her a message at work; she went to sleep an hour before me. There would no longer be even one child in our home. We’d be alone in the house, separately. And I would still be wondering why I had done what I had done with myself and my rather meager-sized cock.
Another another excerpt from the novel, Beautiful Morning Blues
I had been up half the night inspecting a co-worker’s computer for pornographic content in the privacy of our den with its windows overlooking our backyard. This was an assignment that I was given by our I.T. director. Some of the executives were worried about the possibility of illegal videos and photos on this co-worker’s hard drive. The company had no policy for such a situation. With my computer skills, and having practically nothing to do with the I.T. department, I was the proverbial monkey holding the cork.
“This is important,” I was told. “We’re counting on you.”
It was August 9th. Dressed for work, yawning from lack of sleep, I stood on the front porch and looked east down the hill from our house toward the Philadelphia Cricket Club. The heavy, wing-beat flutter of a ruby-throated hummingbird briefly filled the air as it darted by on its way to a Rose of Sharon bush running along the fence between our yard and the Willoughby’s next door. Two small, adolescent rabbits foraged down the driveway near my Audi. Filtered through orange morning haze, the Cricket Club’s thirty-eight grass tennis courts pulsed in the distance with a wobbly emerald sheen so bright I could smell it.
I’d just read an article in the paper about a teenage girl who had lured a boy named Jason Gormley into a vacant industrial lot promising him sex. She’d gone to his house and pulled down her shorts while they were alone in the kitchen. Her name was Jasmine O’Neill.
It was all buried in the text of the newspaper story, vaguely insinuated with statements such as, “Ms. O’Neill described her intentions with highly provocative statements that cannot be printed in this publication.”
The writing was dangerous. I was thinking about sex in America as I stood at the threshold to my house.
They went to the vacated property, she testified. But Jasmine O’Neill had other plans for her friend Jason beyond crazy sex. He was the only kid in the neighborhood with a job. He did delivery work for a local grocery store. She told the court that she figured he made three hundred dollars a week. The plan was to isolate him behind the abandoned manufacturing facility then jump him with two of their classmates—brothers to whom she admitted being very attached. They would beat Jason and steal his money.
During her interrogation, Jasmine reported to the district attorney’s office that she’d gotten excited when she flashed Jason in his kitchen. She hadn’t known that talking dirty to a sweet boy would stay with her when, half an hour later, her shirt unbuttoned and her young breasts exposed to the April sun, she and her two friends, Darrel and Danny Floyd, ages fourteen and fifteen respectively, attacked the unsuspecting youth with a number of gardening and mechanic’s tools – including a ball-peen hammer, a trowel, and a hatchet – smashing in the side of his head.
Jasmine admitted in court to foaming at the mouth while she took the small hatchet from Danny’s hands and began hacking at Jason’s skull until the axe head went in so deep that it got stuck on his brain stem.
The three of them went through the boy’s pockets and found two hundred eighty-four dollars that they used to buy heroin and marijuana. That night, blown out of their minds, they had sex, then danced in the half-light of a new spring moon at the very site they’d committed their heinous act. Before they went home, they had a group hug and prayed to God that they wouldn’t get caught. The body was left buried under a few trash bags and a burlap sack, wedged behind a crumbling brick wall.
Jasmine turned state’s evidence in exchange for seven years in a maximum security halfway house for girls. She testified that the whole ordeal was Danny’s idea. She was fourteen, was being tried as an adult, and looked dangerously erotic in her mug shot.
I had on a pair of charcoal gray flannel slacks, a white oxford shirt and my favorite maroon tie brimming with tiny American buffalo and ears of corn that looked like campfires until you were close up. My wife, Tina, gave me the tie one Father’s Day.
Back then, from May through September, I wore a jock under my trousers instead of briefs. By noon Philadelphia’s summer air begins to deposit a sticky film on every exposed, porous surface available. This film is a moistened mixture of automobile exhaust, particles of sugar exhaled by soda drinkers, industrial emissions from the few plastics manufacturers left in our region, the myriad of atoms ejected from baking litter in alleyways and school yards, and the off-gassing of thousands of strains of mold and fungus that grow in the recesses of all the trash and debris piled up in odd out-of-the way places throughout the city. This film makes grassy parks slick underfoot. It tints office high-rise windows a curious yellowed gray, and coats your skin with its exceedingly complicated chemical grime. There is always a faint odor of sex in the air here that, presumably, is part of this film. I think the odor had a major effect on me back then. It probably had the same effect on Jason Gormley and the three teens who murdered him.
I wore a jock instead of underwear in order to give myself a minor, daylong erection, and also to keep my balls as close to my body as possible. I loved the feeling of my exposed buttocks on the soft flannel of dress trousers. By the time I got home, my face and arms would be coated with a day’s worth of normal exposure to the city’s thick air. My ass would be grimy, along with my face and arms. But my jock-covered genitals would be spared. I would shower immediately, watching the bottom of our tub fill with murky yellow water.
No one here is immune to the air we all breathe—even out in the suburbs where I used to work. Our lungs become coated with the city’s fumes, our blood spreads impurities to every muscle and organ. We are all imbued in this city with our collective emissions, curing for months together in the filmy air of the full, hot, anguished days we live en masse.
There’s no other way to explain the generic bad vibe of Philadelphia. The air of summer spreads its imperceptible weight to all of us, enveloping us with the liquid crust of our common humanity. We can’t stop thinking how we are losers, how we are forgotten and defeated, how pointless and trivial we feel. We are good at hating, and better at blaming. But we are good too at loving. If you live here, love is very important. It keeps you from going insane. We love our children most of all. We are shameless about our children. We love them because we are afraid of the world we have made here. We love them and we try to ignore the fact that things are dangerous all around us, that death can come as easily today as when we are old.
A few years before that morning—August 9th—I began practicing a eulogy for my son Grady. It was the afternoon that his Little League team won the club championship. His double on an 0-2 count with the bases loaded in the bottom of the sixth sent in two runs, and we won the game 6-5. It was Grady’s first year of serious baseball. He was ten. He began the season on the bench, played his mandatory two innings, then ended games back on the bench again. But he started hitting well mid-way through the season. By the time the play-offs came, he was the starting second baseman and batted sixth in the lineup.
“Dad,” Grady said, looking down at his sandy cleats, “I love this game. Just before I came up to bat I realized it. I love this game. I mean, I love it like it’s Edgar or something.” Edgar was his best friend from Kindergarten through eighth grade.
“I love it too,” I told him.
His mother and sister weren’t interested in sports at all. I’d only played organized ball until I was sixteen, but I’d never lost the thing that baseball creates inside some of us: that sense of wonder at time becoming so still and serene while we play and think and connect every baseball game we’ve ever seen to the one we are playing in the moment. There is the sound of bats clinking together, the comfort of the ball in the hand, the smell of leather, grass, and clay. Mostly, though, there’s just the playing. It’s a hard game to play well. Everyone who loves the game knows this: it’s just playing, but it’s dangerous and difficult and so easy to make a mistake in. It’s a pointless, absurd, Byzantine, almost primitive, heartless, and cruel wager against the gargantuan laws of physics. But it is also a guaranteed connection to the poetry of presence. Every baseball game ever played on any level is linked to every game that has been played before. Magic and hope are remade every time a team takes the field and a single batter stands at the plate to face off against nine cock-sure, nasty opponents—the batter knowing,(not hoping, knowing), that magic is always on his side.
I became a fan in 1964, at the age of eight, when it seemed inevitable that the Phillies were going to win the pennant, until they dropped ten games in a row and faded to the St. Louis Cardinals at the end of the season. The Cards beat the Yankees in seven to win the World Series.
Tina isn’t interested in anything that slows time down and cradles you in the present. Laurie, Grady’s sister, is two years older than him and had a horde of friends she spent time with back then. Getting stuck going to her little brother’s baseball games was probably one of the biggest fears in her life. In 1964 my heart broke and I learned never to look back. But it was thirty or so years later on that day.
“How long do you think I have?” Grady asked. He was looking up at me from the bench. His eyes were watery. Sweat and dirt stains lined his cheeks and forehead.
How long? What was he asking me?
I took a deep breath. My son’s mortality entered my thoughts right then and there; not as that dark figure that I already had to deal with, floating through our house beginning the day Tina and I brought him home from the maternity ward—that’s always been there. It was more like a disembodied hand stroking the air around him on the bench, waiting implying.
To be sure, it was a simple distortion of parental love, but at that moment Grady made me realize that he might already be aware of his own end, or, worse, simply the question of his own end.
“Grade. You’re going to live a long life. You’re not going to die for a while. I–“
“No, Dad” he interrupted. “I mean how long until I can’t play anymore?”
He was smiling at me in that way ten-year-olds do when they understand their parents are being neurotic.
“Oh,” I said, slapping my forehead in mock disgust. “I guess, you can play until you don’t love it anymore.”
“Yeah, but how old will I be?”
I looked him over carefully. “Well, maybe you’ll just play through high school. Or maybe college. Maybe you’ll make the pros, I don’t know.” I had to be careful. “If you keep things up the way you’re going, you’ll play at least until you’re eighteen.”
He busied himself with untying his cleats. Saturday afternoon June sun poured down on his bright green jersey and glistened in the fabric of his white baseball pants. There was still a hubbub around us. People came up to congratulate both of us. Grady was somewhat undersized back then, even for a ten-year-old. I watched his small right hand maneuver through the lazy air to shake parents’ hands. His round face and full lips moved from embarrassment to pride and back again as adults he hardly knew fed him compliments.
Soon, though, we were the only ones left on the field.
“For coming to my game.”
“Grade, it was a pleasure.”
“Thanks for listening to me talk about baseball.”
“It’s a great game.”
“I don’t see how I can ever stop loving it. It’s growing inside me. It makes me so … happy.”
“You have a long time to get used to it.”
“Even eight years is a long time.”
“Yes it is, son. Yes it is,” I whispered.
Actually, I don’t know what I feared more: the premature death of my son, or that Grady would end up becoming a version of me–or any of the people I knew. In those days, I had been condensed by all the media springing up around us. I tried to pay attention to everything. I didn’t want that for my children. I didn’t know how to stop paying attention, but I knew it was wrong. That’s one good thing about death: it’s not wrong. <snip – snip>
Let me know you read this. Tell me what you think. If you’re interested, let me know if you want to beta read this puppy when it’s ready to go. That’s what the comments section is for.
Personal Note: July 2013
There’s a lot of first draft stuff below. Much of it from the novel I’m working on right now, code name: Ex:Urbia. The first draft is done and now comes the hard part (and the fun part), tightening and editing. Today I just put together a punch list of 15 tasks that need occur before I have something ready for readers. Some of those tasks are big and hairy. Some are pretty straight-forward.
You’ll get a slight flavor for this rather odd love story if you read some of the passages down from here. I kind of think of Ex:Urbia, and most of my stuff, as antidotes to romance novels. I love romances. I love romance. I love love. I love my wife. I love her so much it makes me feel unbearably vulnerable. I also know without the shadow of a doubt that 98% of what matters in life is connected to love and romance … and that pretty much every citizen of the modern United States of America lives their life either pursuing romance, living it happily, or struggling with making romance work. There’s a reason why people read romance novels — men as well as women.
That said, romance novels don’t get at real life, do they? Nor do they get at the meaning of love — the deep and vital way that love makes everything in life run on time, clicking just right down the tracks. Love is hard, too. Love is this mirror of ourselves that we forget is a mirror. Ex:Urbia kind of deals with that. It deals with a lot more too. That 2% of life is in there always, and sometimes it seems more like 80% even though it isn’t.
There’s some passages from other stuff I’ve been working on this year. Beside Ex:Urbia, I have a companion novel called Beautiful Morning Blues that will come out soon enough. I’m working on something else called Dawn of the Summertons that I hope to finish by this time next year.
If you want to read any or all of these books as a Beta Reader, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am trying to push the boundaries that I see for literature, but I’m also trying to touch readers as deeply as I can. If you help me out, you get free fiction to read (including the final product), plus your name in the Acknowledgments section. I would be most grateful for your help.
As always, happy reading and check out the books I’ve already published (just to the right here).
An excerpt from the novel-in-progress Ex:Urbia
We all drove SUVs up until about 2001. You would think we were a rather stuffy and Republican lot if you toured around our neighborhood, but most of us were more middle of the road. When it became apparent once and for all that Middle Eastern oil had managed to seep into the heart of world crisis in the early days of the Iraq takeover, we all shed our big gas guzzlers for the old hybrid/minivan combo. We talked about the need to do this at parties and when we met on Derry Lane out for walks on the weekend. Our household was a little different. Danny bought himself a black Prius in 2004. I converted to a dark-blue Audi A6 Quattro — not exactly all the way in with a hybrid, but it was a start. We also had a gray Honda Odyssey for family outings, weekend shopping, carpooling, and road trips. Our gas consumption bills went from about $400 a month to $185. Most of that was still me. I knew Audis weren’t that fuel efficient, but I liked the way I felt in my A6 and it still got 22 mpg compared to the 12 I managed with my Suburban.
It gets to where you prepare for your daily drives without thinking — in to work, back home; in to work, back home; in, back, work, home. It’s like you’re lost with a purpose, like you’re paid for driving and being lost in the middle of traffic with everyone else who also happen to be lost and getting paid. Work didn’t matter, at least to me. It was all about money. It’s easy to feel like work is where you go spend time in between drives. That’s the problem with luxury cars. I didn’t talk to anyone about this feeling, I just lived it.
Sometimes it felt in the morning like I was showering, dressing, and making sure I had a travel mug for a stop at the Dunkin’ Donuts or the Starbucks all just for that commute, like there was no destination, no reason to drive, it was all just about motion. The hurried breakfast wasn’t because we were running late, it was because I couldn’t wait to get in the car to start the morning ride. Even in slow rolling moments in a long line of cars at certain intersections that I’d come to know so well — sitting behind school buses or delivery trucks, watching kids who were nothing but backpacks and brightly colored sneakers with eyes and hair and not much else — the time was mine, the time was, I see now, an American moment of endless grace. It was where I did my thinking. It was meditation. That’s why I liked doing it alone. We tried to go together. We did. Things might have been different had we kept it up. Sharing that solitude and those moments of freedom every day would maybe have kept me from thinking so much about the meaning of love and sex and birth and death and my lack of sleep and the taste of luke warm coffee, and how I seemed slowly to be getting tired of listening to the same old music, and how much all the gasoline I was burning might weigh if you could put it all in a giant trash bag. How big would that trash bag have to be? Who the hell knows?
It’s a futile, stupid thing to do as well, the commuting thing. The absurdity of it is never far from consciousness. You always know how easy it would be to spill coffee on yourself. You worry about that. You watch donut crumbs spin in the crystalline morning sun onto your blouse, maybe down inside where they tickle your chest and belly before lodging in for the day. It seems like the news is the same every morning. The radio over time offers one long playlist. Everyone is encased in their machine. I turn the radio off as I pass onto 69th Street and get into a long, slow line heading for Chestnut Street and the last haul through West Philly towards my office in Center City. Never once do I think that this might one day end because I am slowly going over the deep end. Never once does it occur to me that I will do things that are dangerous for me — illegal, life changing. I’m just driving in my nice car. We are trying to get pregnant. We have a beautiful house. I am a beautiful wife. I am high-powered, super smart, and strong. Still, I worry about whether I’ll make a good mother. Who really knows if they’re going to be the right parent for the kids they have? No one. It’s an American ritual to have that thought one hundred times before that first child comes along and to quickly divert your attention every time it comes along. That’s why there are so many kids out there in the suburbs.
At 52nd Street I hit a button on my steering wheel and use my office voice for the first time every day. “Play phone messages,” I say officiously. I listen as I drive that last few miles to the underground parking garage beneath 15th and Arch. I will listen again to this exact same set of recordings when I sit down at my desk making notes and prioritizing calls back. Every conversation will be about money and time.
Interlude in the Bedroom: An Ex:Urbia Excerpt
There has to be a moment near the beginning when you start to take pieces of your love back. You begin as two people, alone in a house, together, not so much against the world but certainly sitting quietly as a team in a corner just talking amongst yourselves, oblivious, happy even with that thing called love. It lasts as long as it lasts. Maybe that dislodging and taking back of love happens slowly over time. Or maybe it just happens in a day or an hour or in a flash — a single moment of disappointment with the partner, one misunderstanding too many, or just exhaustion.
Even Danny Davenport had his bad qualities. Certainly Julia Davenport did. He wasn’t political. He had a hard time with people who felt sorry for themselves. He wrote them off. He also didn’t want to admit — ever — to his own challenges and fears, just like every other adult in America today.
“I don’t want to go to the Piehlblads tonight.”
“June opens up too much. I really don’t want to hear her problems. You know that.”
“But she’s funny.”
“Funny I watch on TV.”
“Just because she broke down the last time we were over there.”
“Broke down? She was drunk and took me aside to complain about Terry.”
“And you were a good friend. To both of them. You tried to set her straight.”
“You weren’t there. She told me way too much.”
“Like she never should have married him. He has trouble in bed. He’s a lousy father. He lies sometimes about how important he is…”
“She was drunk.”
Danny sighed. “I don’t want to go see her. I don’t want to be a party to that kind of an evening again for at least another two years.”
The Piehlblads were destined for failure. I don’t know. That may well have been the real problem for Danny. June drank for reasons that didn’t become clear until after their divorce. Terry showed his stripes then as well with cynicism, joking like a tough guy, and a hard-edged gusto for everything politically conservative.
I liked them, though. June was just slightly younger than me and still quite well put together physically. She taught yoga and meditation in Bala Cynwyd. Terry was a lawyer of some sort who worked for Washington Federal Banks and Trusts. And he did tell lies. I knew that better than most people from my work. He was well-paid because he signed off on a lot of deals, but it was a pro-forma kind of thing usually. Washington Federal did a lot of small business loans and estate work. Terry liked to pretend he was a key player in the company and a fire-breathing mover and shaker in the Chester County Republican Committee.
“You don’t care about politics, so I don’t know what the big deal is with Terry,” I said. “Just humor him.”
“Terry’s just pathetic. But she’s different. She’s got something wrong with her head.”
“She drinks too much.”
“How can a yoga teacher be an alcoholic?”
“You don’t have a problem with a lot of people who drink.”
“I only have a problem with people who can’t hold their liquor. Like…”
“Like who, Danny?”
He shook his head and left the room.
“Like who?” I yelled after him. “Like me?”
He came back quickly on that one. “Would you please keep it down? I don’t want the girls to know we’re fighting.”
“Listen to you.”
“To me? Listen to me? Listen to you. You’re the one who doesn’t want to honor a reservation with good friends.”
“I like June. I like Terry too.”
“You like to drink with them.”
I stared at him. Yelling was out. He was right, of course. Like he always was. I didn’t want the girls to hear this either.
“You are such a smug asshole,” I hissed.
He shook his head and closed his eyes.
We were moving to the darkness of a whispered argument. It would not end well. The girls would know as much from the sound of nothing as they would from our yelling.
“I am not the one who agreed to go to this thing,” he whispered.
“Right. It was me.”
“God damn it, Danny. They’re our friends.”
He shook his head. “Not anymore.”
“What the hell…”
“Why don’t you go? I’ll stay home.”
“We’ve got a sitter coming.”
“I’ll call her off.”
“Oh, Jesus, not Paul Donato again.”
“What’s wrong with Paul?”
“Esther says he just plays video games and makes them cook him popcorn in the microwave.”
“What? I didn’t know that.”
“You should listen to your daughters.”
“No, you don’t. If you did, you would have known about our man Paul.”
“Well, they’re supposed to be doing their homework anyway.”
“Julia,” Danny whispered viciously, “it’s Saturday night!”
“All right, then we set up a movie.”
“Two movies. And we tell Paul they need to watch them both for school.”
Danny shook his head. “He went to their school. He knows full well that they don’t assign movies for God sake.”
I was sitting on the bed in my bra with a pair of jeans on and bare feet. It was moments like that, in the heat of our anger with one another, that I wanted him to stop being a boy scout and just let me have it. I don’t see that as evidence of low self-esteem on my part or self-immolation. I wouldn’t have cowered or remained passive if he’d really gotten mad.
It would have been a turn-on, actually, to have him take that anger and convert it into selfishness and desire. I would have been able to take command of him if he were to just lose it. “Just shut the fuck up! Just shut up and come over here. Pinch my nipples. Suck on them. Let me see your dick. Show it to me! Just shut up and fuck me with all that hostility. Use if for something other than keeping yourself protected by it.”
I never took Danny’s anger personally, even if I responded to him personally. I know I would try to egg him on, to tell the truth. He was too good, too kind, too perfect. He made me feel bad about myself and my emotions. I don’t know if that kind of thinking is the beginning of what turns some people into supplicants and dominants, but it makes sense. Emotion is too often something that people fear. Even sexual emotion. Emotional fantasy is at the bottom of a lot of what’s wrong with all of us.
In those days, it seemed like we were only touching the surface. And then there was someone like Ted Newlin. Something was going to happen there. It had to, unless Danny did something about it. That’s what I liked about June Piehlblad, too. Danny didn’t know it, but she’d made passes at me several times. So had Terry. I’d held them both off by playing stupid, but sometimes the thought of an affair with June seemed like it might be something that would wake Danny up once I told him I’d been humping a woman that made hims so uncomfortable.
And, yes, it was not lost on me that his antipathy towards June could easily have been something he really felt for me. June and I were two peas in a pod. If he hated her for spilling her guts, he hated me in one way or another, too. Which is what we were probably really whisper-shouting about there in our bedroom.
He sat down on the bed next to me. I sighed, shook my head, picked up one of my socks. Danny closed his eyes and tilted his head back.
“Next time, can we just talk about invitations to our neighbors’ before you accept?”
“I honestly didn’t think it mattered. I mean, we never get out. We never go to anyone’s house. I thought you enjoyed those two.”
He cocked his head. “It’s all relative. At least they’re amusing. And Terry doesn’t fawn all over me the way other people do.”
“People don’t fawn over you.”
“They do. Sometimes it’s just in their eyes. Sometimes it’s being just a bit too glad to see us, but it’s there.”
“Well, you’re Danny Davenport.”
“Jesus, Julia. I was a professional athlete over a decade ago. My best years are nearly twenty years behind me.”
“You still kick ass at the Cricket Club Spring Invitational.”
He laughed. “Club golf is really not the same thing as the tour.”
“All right, now you’re getting a bit snobby here.” I was done with my anger. He was too. We were tucking it away.
“It’s not snobby if I’m talking privately to my wife.”
He leaned toward me and kissed my neck. He was apologizing with that kiss. We were both just willing to let the whole episode go. It was an aberration to our normal and happy love. It was something we’d watched too closely on television. It wasn’t us.
The problem was that in letting it all go, we took a little bit more of that love we’d built outside of us back. I hardened. He hardened. Just a little bit. It’s never more than a little bit. And the worst thing is that when you take that love back, that little piece, you leave something in its place, a sort of marker to indicate your knowledge that this is where love is supposed to be. That marker lets you go through another week and makes it possible to sleep without fear of one day being vulnerable the way you were way back there in the beginning, before that love filled you up and sent you on your way.
“So, you’re willing to go?”
He took a deep breath. “Yes, I’ll go.” He closed his eyes again.
“I won’t have more than two glasses of wine,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“No. I’m going to worry about it.”
“Okay. Worry about it. But don’t feel bad if you decide to have more.”
I let that go. “How about I keep June from taking you off to the kitchen?” I asked.
“That would be nice.”
“Okay. It’s a deal. Thanks.”
“Can you set the movies up for the girls, then? Don’t tell them why, just…”
“I’ll take care of it,” he said as he stood.
“I’ll be ready to go as soon as Paul gets here. You set up the movies and I’ll let Paul know what the plan is for the TV. He seems a bit afraid of me.”
“Afraid? He’s not afraid. He’s in love with you.”
“I don’t want to lose my power over him. Don’t give it a name. Just let me do my thing.”
I looked for a laugh, a smile, anything. But Danny just faded out of the room. As I pulled a sock over my left foot, it felt like he’d never been here at all and that I’d been talking to myself.
Dialog Before a Snowball Fight
For the novel-in-progress, Dawn of the Summertons.
“You know people read less and less every year. It worries me.”
Reggie and Twyla were sitting at the kitchen table drinking tea. Through the windows looking out to the street, the three children could be seen at different strategic spots shoveling snow. Lester had the walkway and steps leading down to the street. Kristin and Bess were at separate ends of the sidewalk. The girls shoveled the snow onto the yard instead of the street the way their parents had taught them.
“Some people think that’s going to turn around with these new e-books.”
“That makes no sense.”
“Have you ever tried to read an e-book?”
“Sort of. I’ve used that Google reading app to review a biography of Leonardo.”
“Did you finish the book?”
“I was just experimenting.”
She took a sip of tea and waited.
“What I’m really getting at is that reading has gone from this thing that people do regularly to a sort of random activity. Someone says, hey, you ought to read this. Or you’re in a dentist office and there’s a short little review clip in People for a new “How – To” book.”
“It’s always been like that, hasn’t it?”
“Not like it is now. No. Now it’s gotten down to randomness. It used to be that most people read regularly. You paid attention to books. Sure, you took someone’s advice if they were someone you trusted. Or you might read about some new book in the review section of the paper. But now papers don’t review books much. And when people give you recommendations, you have to remember them. But there’s so much information flying at you remembering a book recommendation is not easy.”
“So you subscribe to the view that we’re swamped with data? Inundata-ed?” She couldn’t help herself.
He gave her his look, mouth open, eyes wide — his, I’d laugh at that if I wasn’t in the full flower of making a point I think is extremely important. She smiled at the expression, then beckoned to him with both hands waving back at herself, come on, let it out, bring it, I’m listening.
He raised his eyebrows, then closed his mouth, looked sideways at the ceiling as if to relocate his thoughts, then went on: “Seriously. Once books and reading stop being this regular pastime, discernment disappears. I mean, I have this mental list of stuff I want to read and I kind of know which ones matter most.”
“I do too.”
“I mean, right now I’m working on Ten Days in the Hills by Jane Smiley.”
“That’s supposed to be hot.”
“Yeah, well it’s not.”
“But you’re still reading it?”
“It’s good. It’s well-written. But I was reading it for the sex scenes. Wanted to know how a woman would do sex.”
“I could tell you that.”
He shook his head and made a sour face. “After the Smiley, I think I want to read that Jarred Diamond book, Guns, Germs and Steel, then I want to do the new Kennedy biography, although maybe they’ll have brought out that Ralph Ellison uncompleted novel by then.”
“That first one was somehow expurgated and editor cut and God knows what else.”
“So what’s this one?”
“Couple professors of African American Literature going whole hog, tying all his notes and a bunch of manuscript pieces together. It’s supposed to be a huge text, like fifteen hundred pages.”
“And still unfinished.”
“You’d think they’d try to give it an ending.”
“That’s probably not something anyone would want them to do.”
“Except the reader.”
“But that’s interesting anyway. I mean, there’ve been a number of books like that by the masters. David Foster Wallace has one coming out someday. That last novel that never got finished…maybe a true work of genius. Maybe flashes at least. Enough, anyway.”
“We’re getting off topic.”
“Sorry. It’s just a really cool idea. Maybe that’s the next form of art. Unfinished work. Drafts, sketches, notes. Endless notes. Oh, how about a book on shoveling snow in America that ends with people everywhere beginning to accept climate change as real and wondering what to do about it, but not being very sure. Ooo, that would be awesome. You just end there with this dangling awareness.”
He gave her time to settle down. He knew better. She had a look in her eyes when something intrigued the artist side of her, it was a shine or a shimmer. Her whole face lit up and he felt she looked her sexiest then. In the early days of their relationship that expression gave him the beginnings of an erection.
“Seriously,” she went on. “Its genius stuff. Work the thing like to seven-eighths completion then stop and put it up for sale.”
“Do you let people know what you’ve done?”
“There’s so much stuff out there that’s incomplete anyway. I mean, have you read some of those New Yorker stories? What the hell? And there’s a lot of art like that now. My God, who the hell knows what’s what anymore. No wonder people don’t read…”
He shook his head. “Okay. Can we go back to what I want to say?”
She nodded a bit sheepishly.
“So if reading is more random,” he said, “then maybe instead of reading a couple books a month the best readers are down to a couple books a year. I mean, seriously. I think that’s where we are.”
“There’s still people who read daily.”
“Right, but not so many anymore. But suppose it’s really a trend here. Just suppose. What are people reading? The top two books on their list?”
She inhaled deeply, shook her head, puffed out out her cheeks and blew air back out while she crossed her eyes.
“Right. Who knows? My guess is that it’s almost random. Maybe one novel and one non-fiction book about how to handle your money or how to be happier or what it was that parents did thirty years ago that fucked up their children or some famous commentator’s life story. Whatever.”
She nodded. “That’s kind of the way it is with me.”
He ignored this and continued. “And that’s what’s got me worried.”
“The randomness. Even if people don’t care about books that much anymore, we know the power of books anyway. I mean, 350 pages focused on any single topic will tilt your mind and create all sorts of pre-disposed points of view. That’s the idea of a book. That’s what verisimilitude is really all about. Forget the formal definition. Fuck the definition. It’s all about giving yourself up to the writer. They’re busy creating new slots for you to order the chaos of life with. Even if you hate the book in the end, you’re adjusted. It doesn’t have to be momentous or profound. It’s often quite subtle and incremental.”
He waited to see if she had anything to say. Her head was bent down a little, the way she posed when she was thinking. It encouraged him.
“I mean, that’s a main reason we read, no matter what, right? We want to be entertained or stimulated, but we’re also trying to gather knowledge. You read British mysteries as much for the description of life in London in the 1930s as you do to see how the female sleuth is going to catch a killer. Science fiction is usually all about knowledge in the end. Literary stuff is more obscure seeming, but it’s also the best social science there is to read still.”
“That’s all good, right?”
“It is when it’s not random. But if people just read a couple books…”
“It’s better than none.”
He put his hand to his chin. “I don’t know. Maybe not. What draws you in to a book?”
“It’s interesting. Well-written.”
“Maybe. But still. Why is it interesting? Maybe you’ve been struggling with feeling good about yourself. Maybe you are wondering about the meaning of life. And you find a review of something called…” he looked to the ceiling. “Let’s say there’s something called The Joy Doctrine: 10 Steps to Moving from Humdrum to True Happiness. Three hundred and fifty pages of advice on how to get organized so you can be happy about life. If it’s well-written in the beginning and if it promises to provide you with all sorts of insights into how to be happier about life, if it’s enticing and maybe uses little case studies of people who seem like your neighbors and co-workers, in the end you have invested a chunk of yourself in reading those thoughts by that writer. And because you truly truly want to be happy and feel you need help, those thoughts come in to your head and presto, new structures, new slots, new perspective.”
“Isn’t that the idea of a book like that?”
“Sure. Of course. But in the old days, maybe you’d read Dostoevsky after that or Dune or you’d read another book on how to be happy. Maybe the first one was really just all about being right minded and taking care of your health while the second one was about doing for others and being creative or random acts of kindness—“
“Or random conversations with strangers…”
“Right. That’s good. I like that. Only now, because you only read a couple of books a year, you don’t take on some other thinker and some other new perspective. You’re not building new slots on top of old slots and tearing one set of ideas apart or adjusting things. You just walk around and see the world through the eyes of that one book.”
“Huh. That’s interesting. I mean, if you’re reading all the time it’s not about the perspective of the writer you’re reading. You’re not really trying to get a purchase on things. It’s more like your just feeding yourself perspectives in order to think for yourself.”
“Right. That’s scary.”
“Well, it’s one more thing to be scared of anyway.”
“But it’s so intimate. Reading is so personal. Even reading pornography. It’s all in your mind. That’s so—“
“Excuse me, Reggie. Everything is only in your mind, isn’t it?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I do, but millions of people listening to that asshole Rush Limbaugh is a lot more scary. Or all those people watching game shows, even talk shows. I mean, I hate Oprah so much. Not because she’s a bad person but because she insinuates her own morality on the viewer. I’d rather watch Jerry Springer where it’s just a free for all where everyone is disgusting, including Jerry.”
He was nodding as she spoke and he continued to nod when she’d finished. “Yeah, television is behind a lot of this,” he said. “That’s obvious. But that’s kind of what I’m talking about. I mean if people were reading more and watching TV less, just a little less, they’d be just a bit more inclined to think for themselves.”
“TV and radio talk shows are all about not thinking on your own. That’s why they’re so successful.”
“And that’s what I’m worried about. I mean if Oprah or Rush Limbaugh recommend a specific book and that’s why you’re reading it…”
They laughed together for a moment. Outside they could hear the kids shoveling the sidewalk in front of the house.
“Here’s the last piece of this,” he said. “Unless something really dramatic happens, like a pop cultural trend, we’re not getting out of this problem. People read less and less. When they do read it’s practically random. And they just walk around thinking thoughts the way other people want them to instead of thinking for themselves.
She frowned. “Okay. First of all, everything’s random. Secondly, people walking around thinking for themselves is why everything is random. And thirdly — is that a word? — thirdly, maybe what you read only seems random from the outside.”
He smiled at this. A kind of touche type smile, then tilted his head in thought.
“Okay. You got me on all of that, although it’s kind of a paradox you’re presenting.”
“Yes, a paradox. Of course!”
“Seriously. But maybe my concern is that the randomness we’re looking at here is different than the randomness of people all just thinking for themselves.” He held up his hand. “I know. I know. People always think for themselves, at least that’s the way it seems, but not really. Not if they listen to Rush or Oprah and then run out and buy a book they’ve suggested. Not even if they discover something by pure chance at the dentist’s office and then go out and buy it and then don’t read anything else for the rest of the year.” He chuckled. “Which kind of makes what I said about random wrong. You’re right. Maybe that’s my problem here. It’s less random when people do that. Less thinking for yourself means more thinking along the lines of what others tell you is right.”
She nodded. “And that’s really not good. I agree.” They sat in the room’s silence. Faint sounds of their children came in through the windows every few seconds.
“So what do you do about it?” she asked.
He shook his head. “That’s why I’m saying this. I don’t know what you do. You can’t force people to read. I mean we’ve been trying that forever.”
“Maybe the issue here is that those of us who read are the ones in charge.”
He shook his head again. “I used to think that. But now, not so much. We read and think for ourselves, but the more we do that the more outside what everyone else is thinking we become. Readers just get better and better at observing and understanding, but worse and worse at being a part of things.”
They both jumped at the sound of a snowball hitting the window over the sink.
“Mom! Dad! Come outside! Let’s have a snowball fight!”
Another snowball hit the window. The three children stood shoulder to shoulder in the middle of the yard, nearly knee deep in snow with eager faces and bright eyes.
“We can see you!” called Bess.
“Come on,” said Kristin.
“Yeah! Us against you two,” said Lester.
The two parents looked at each other.
“We could agree to go out in exchange for two hours of reading,” Twyla said.
Reggie nodded. “True. But we’d be forcing them. That’s not the point.”
“We’re not going to solve this problem with our own kids.”
“I love our kids.
He nodded as he stood up from the table. “I do too.”
“Let’s be smart though. You go out the front and I’ll go out the back for a surprise attack. They have no idea who they’re dealing with.”
“Wait a minute,” he said. “Do you really hate Oprah? I mean…”
“No. How can you hate Oprah. At the same time, I hate the idea of her. I really do.”
“I can’t hate Oprah. Not even the idea of her.”
“Look, we’ve got a snowball fight on our hands. We can talk about this later. And of course you don’t hate Oprah. You’re a hopeless romantic. So is she.”
“Oprah’s my girl.”
“Reggie. Get a grip. Your coat is hanging up in the front hall. We’re losing daylight. Time to take those kids down.”
Hat in Hand
Raw, first draft work from Dawn of the Summertons, a novel-in-progress (posted November 19, 2012)
Reggie sat in the small alcove waiting to meet with Stuart Worthington. The room was only about ten feet long and six feet wide. Reggie felt like he was standing in a well-lit, comfortable closet. The walls were a dull gold hue except for the front wall which, besides the door, was almost entirely made up of an opaque, smoked glass window, letting in the December light ever so carefully. A large digital television hung on the wall above two chairs lining the wall opposite the door.
Upon entering the room he’d gone to the small window in the wall directly opposite the door. He could see the face of a woman through the glass, peering at a computer screen. The window was only about a ten-inch square. He saw at the top that there was what looked like a small speaker and a button like a doorbell.
He stood waiting for several minutes watching the woman. All he could see was the top of her face, her hair, and the back of her computer screen. Finally, he tapped on the glass. The woman’s eyes seemed to register the sound, but did not look up. He waited. She had grey eyes and fine eyebrows. He liked her high forehead and curly hair. He thought she might be in her early sixties, but it was hard to tell. Her skin was smooth. She wore glasses.
He pushed the button near the speaker. The woman seemed to jump a little. She looked up at the window, squinted, then pushed a button on the top of her desk. “Yes?” He said, “Reggie Summerton here to see Mr. Worthington.” She blinked several times but kept her gaze down, staring at her desk. Eventually she pushed her button again. “Is someone out there?” He smiled and waved. Her expression didn’t change. Her eyes remained downturned. She pushed the button again. “Excuse me,” she said, “if there is someone out there, please use the button to speak.” She sat back in her chair and waited. Reggie pushed the button.
“Hello. I’m sorry. Reggie Summerton here for Mr. Worthington.”
“Is he expecting you?”
“Um…I believe so. I set up a meeting with him for today last Thursday and confirmed it last night in an email.”
The woman seemed to do something with her hands, then she looked at the computer screen. “Ah. Yes. Mr. Summerton. Excuse me.” She turned her face fully towards the opening in the wall. All of a sudden she appeared to be very happy. It seemed to Reggie that he’d seen her around on Germantown Avenue shopping over the years. “Please have a seat. Mr. Worthington will be with you shortly.”
As he stepped back toward his chair, it occurred to him that an apology was in order first thing to Stuart Worthington. He’d made a rather memorable buy – an acrylic landscape of a bridge in North Philadelphia called “The Bridge of Time,” with industrial architecture fading into the distance and a pile of discarded rubber tires in the right corner at the base of the bridge. Worthington had proudly declared that he had a steal and that it was a small investment in a great up and coming artist. This was where the apology was necessary. Twyla had never become the next big thing. She’d focused on being a mom for the next ten years. Not that she’d given up her career, but with three kids to raise, she’d only been able to produce a few finished works a year.
Twyla had certainly enjoyed Worthington’s attention, but worked hard to remain as casual and accepting of his praise as she could without seeming arrogant or unsurprised. In her early days, she’d watched several mentors make five-figure sales, acting as if it was a normal and expected element of their weekly business dealings. Advice from one of them, Royal Sheraton, was simple enough: “No artist is prepared for people actually giving them what they ask for. Anytime someone drops a big check on you, the only thing that’s possible is to fake it. Act like this is the norm and you are used to cashing in $20,000 for a painting or sculpture that you know is not even your best work.”
Reggie recalled as well that Worthington had required the giving of his check over lunch at The Palm in Center City and that he was a bit overly enthusiastic about Twyla in general. There was nothing to worry about on her end, but Reggie had been clear with himself anyway that he would not bring up the issue with his wife. Twyla Summerton was indeed attractive, with her thick black hair, caramel skin, wide set brown eyes and full lips. Her youthful body had filled out after giving birth to three children, accentuating her hips and shoulders and somehow highlighting her high-cheeked mixed lineage femininity. More than anything, Twyla had always possessed rare grace and obliviousness to her beauty, the kind that was absent-minded and forgetful more than ignorant, a form of vulnerability that drew wealthy, over-educated men to her, men who thought themselves worldly and discriminating. Stuart Worthington appeared to be that kind of man.
Reggie did not point any of this out to his wife. He knew it would annoy her to hear his judgment. She would deny that Worthington had made such an intimation anyway. Reggie knew as well that any voiced observation would just make his wife self-conscious and sensitive to every little quirk and nuance of her lunch partner’s behavior. He wanted her to have a good meal and a nice chat with a rich guy and to accept her check when the time came with no sense of impropriety beyond the words of wisdom she had learned from her teachers. It was a check for $13,000. Stanley, the owner of the gallery, had priced the work lovingly. “I know good when I see it, sister!” he’d said. Reggie agreed. She’d worked on that piece for nearly two years trying to find the right angle and the proper tone of shadow and sky. It was an old railroad bridge, long since abandoned by SEPTA and Amtrak, seen from the R8 line on the edge of North Philadelphia running parallel to the current tracks. A section of rail extended out one side, six or eight yards worth, hovering over the overgrowth below, running into nowhere. It was as if the railroad companies had just stopped building one day and walked away, leaving the rail suspended in the direction of a world they had all of a sudden decided shouldn’t happen. Beneath the bridge, once hidden, but for years now quite blatantly dumped, were hundreds of automobile tires and several slowly growing piles for black plastic bags filled no doubt with household discards. Feral cats sometimes sunned themselves on the extended track sticking out from the bridge above the trash piles. In the winter, careful watch as the train ambled by could pick up a fox or buzzards hopping around, sometimes a raven or even red-tailed hawk. It is the animals that made the work so special. Rather than actually painting in a creature or two, Twyla carefully shaded and curled in the right lines and faint hues of almost glistening fur and feathers in the most suggestive and non-specific way she could in order to hint not so much at animals being present in the photo as their spirits having been there long ago.
As with some of her other paintings, she couldn’t help building in the fundamental question that bothered her about art and literature. To her, though she knew rationally it didn’t make any sense, what she painted was as actualized and fundamental as that same thing in the so-called real world. When the children were young, she’d enjoyed playing the game of “What is Real?” with them by pointing as they drove in the car, declaring that something she had painted just walked by or could be seen in a store window. Not only did the children believe her, before long they saw the objects created by their mother on canvas themselves. “The Bridge of Time” was perhaps her most defined version of this game. It was also a powerful statement to her self that the game of “What is Real?” would one day end and the mind and heart of their mother would be willing to let her children move on into the realm of the unfooled and the tamed.
Most certainly, Worthington would recall Twyla’s last name and make the connection to Reggie. “T. Summerton” rested at an angle in the right-hand corner of every one of her paintings. They’d heard the piece was on a wall in the atrium at the back of Worthington’s property with only two others in the room. The thirteen grand had paid down the Summerton MasterCard and the remainder went to a family trip to Florida.
The phone next to Reggie rang. It was a black Merlin IT&T from the early 1980s – the phone with the original pulse signal bleep as opposed to the jangle ring they’d all grown up with. The phone kept bleeping. He looked to the small window in the wall. Was he supposed to answer? He stood and peered through the small window. Worthington’s secretary had a phone set on her head and seemed to be waiting. She smiled at him, then extended her thumb and pinky and put the thumb to her ear, mouthing what he realized was, “Pick up….” She held her mouth open with her eyebrows raised, unmistakable happiness on her face.
He raised the Merlin to his ear standing in the small alcove with cool gray light swarming the tile at his feet. “Hello?”
“Mr. Worthington will see you now. Would you be so kind as to hang up then wait until you here the door click? When you hear the click, you will have nine seconds to turn the knob and open the door.”
“All right…” he waited. He couldn’t tell if she’d hung up. “Um, hello?”
“Is there anything else?”
“No. I’m waiting for you to hang up. Your light needs to go from green to red for me in here, watching the phone console.”
“Oh. Well, then. I’m hanging up.” He waited another second, then said, “Goodbye.”
“Please hang up, Mr. Summerton.”
Reggie closed his eyes and wondered if he had said something wrong, then wondered what kind of meeting he was in for. He hung up. As soon as the phone came to rest in its cradle he heard the door click. Stepping quickly, he put his palm to the knob, turned it and pushed.
He expected to finally be face-to-face with the secretary, but upon opening the door found that he was instead standing in a long hallway. The walls were some sort of dark plywood. The floor was tiled in an off-white, maybe an ivory color, there seemed to be an element of yellow, but it was hard to tell under the fluorescent lights fitted into soffits in the corner where the left wall met the ceiling. At the end of the hallway was a glass door. Worthington Foundation was written in large, gilded letters.
Stuart Worthington wore a headphone and microphone as he rose from his desk. Reggie was slightly taken aback when Worthington came around his desk with both arms raised. “Mr. Twyla Summerton!” Worthington more sang than said. “So good to see you again!” and with that exclamation, He wrapped his arms around Reggie’s shoulders and pulled him in tight.
“It’s been so long! How are you? It’s Reggie, right? Sorry, but I just think the world of you wife!” Worthington said all of this loudly in Reggie’s ear as he extended his hug. Finally, he stepped back, hands still resting on Reggie’s shoulders. “How is Twyla! My gosh. It’s got to have been nearly ten years! I look at The Bridge every night when I’m watching TV and think about your fabulous talented wife. It’s been so long! How is she?”
“She sends her regards,” Reggie managed, holding his ground, wondering with a degree of alarm whether Stuart Worthington might after all be someone who could help them. He sniffed the air, searching for the scent of alcohol or even marijuana, but all he smelled was the tang of Worthington’s breath and body scent and the faint smell of Murphy’s Oil Soap.
“Ah, well. It’s been quite a long time. I must have you two over to see The Bridge. What a painting. So inspiring! So Philadelphia. You know what I mean?” His host stepped back and looked over Reggie’s shoulder. “Have a seat, Reggie.” he motioned to the leather couch on the wall behind Reggie.
“Did Ellie offer you any tea or coffee?” he asked. Reggie shook his head and said no.
“Well, that’s not like her,” Worthington replied seriously. “Maybe some bottled water? Would you like a water?” He looked at Reggie with excitement, then stood and went back to his desk. Pushing a button on a control panel, he adjusted the microphone on his head set, “Ellie! Yes! Ellie? Could you bring two waters please? What? Yes, now. No. Now. What?” He closed his eyes. “Ellie, I would just like you to bring us some water.” He pushed the button on his controls again and shook his head. “I love that woman!” He moved back around his desk and sat again on the couch.
“She’s bringing us water right now,” Worthington said.
“That’s great,” Reggie replied. “This is quite an office,” he added. The floor was covered in a thick orange Persian rug. On the walls hung movie posters – Reggie guessed for movies from the 1960s. Another wall seemed to be a smart board of some kind. The final wall held numerous framed photographs. These were hard to make out in detail, but they seemed to be of Worthington through the years standing with famous people. He thought he could make out Nixon in one shot, possibly John Wayne in another.
“Why, thank you. I like to keep it up to date but also aesthetically pleasing. Comfortable you know? Not so much for me as for, well, for people who come visit. Like you!” He said these last two words with great enthusiasm.
“I imagine people appreciate it,” Reggie said. “I certainly do.”
“Well, thanks, Reggie,” Worthington said. He tapped his thigh several times then looked nervously at the glass door. “Where is she? We just want water. Please!” His eyes moved from the door to Reggie, who was beginning to feel a little bit beyond uncomfortable.
“Here she comes!” Worthington leaped from the couch and took two almost dance-like steps across the office to the door. Reggie could see the woman standing on the other side of the glass.
“Ellie! Thank you so much. We needed these.” Worthington stood staring at his secretary as she handed him the bottles, waiting, possibly, for her to speak. Then he took a step forward, wrapped his arm around the woman’s waist and pulled her close to him. It looked like he was nuzzling her neck, but he could have been whispering to her. It was a distinctly sexual move, Reggie thought, or at the very least suggestive. He looked away at the round table before him covered in magazines and several thick, stapled reports.
There was quiet whispering and then Worthington was back on the couch, holding the bottled water. “Here,” he said, holding the bottles out for Reggie.
“Well, I think I’ll have one,” Reggie said. “Aren’t you going to have one?”
“No. These are for you. I don’t like water.”
Reggie took both bottles. He placed one on a magazine on the table and opened the other.
“She’s my wife,” Worthington said.
“Well, she’s my cousin, but I call her my wife.”
Reggie concentrated on the bottle on the table.
“Ellie and I grew up together.”
Reggie nodded seriously and took a drink from his bottle.
“So…” Worthington began.
Reggie brought his gaze back to his host.
“So, what can I do you for?” Worthington asked, clapping his hands together.
As he began to tell the story, Reggie wondered if he should just gloss over things and get out as quickly as possible, but something grabbed ahold of him. It may have been the way Worthington listened. As he explained the Summerton family’s situation, obscure and somewhat eccentric behavior aside, an interesting look came to the man’s face, as if he were waiting to be told important information that would lead him to a solution. As he listened to Reggie, his eyes traveled from his guest’s face to the ceiling, the magazines on the table, the glass door, the floor and back to the speaker’s face. This eye movement by no means meant that Worthington was not paying attention, rather, by the slow and steady shifting of his gaze, Reggie could tell his listener was paying careful attention and that he wanted to know as much as possible.
So Reggie gave a full explanation, admitting as much as he could to bad decisions and wrong-headed thinking. He admitted to taking on far too much debt, that they were trying to simply cover the essential costs they couldn’t meet any other way. The children’s education had been paramount. And sometimes the mortgage, well, there was so much and it was true they hadn’t stayed within a reasonable budget. He saw that now. And maybe they did need to figure out how to do a better job for Twyla, but she was more concerned about getting her work right than s with making money. It seemed kind of weird, actually, to Twyla thinking about her art as income. He acknowledged at this point in the discussion Worthington’s faith in her years ago, but explained the parenting dilemma.
He had no idea how Worthington was taking any of this in. He also had no idea why he was being so candid and open. But Worthington was, it seemed, most certainly listening. Reggie explained the whole takeover of The Inquirer from the inside. He thought that Worthington would be interested. He also felt the dirt, if that’s what it was, would be some kind of offering, some confidence maybe that might make his request more palatable.
He finished, describing the dilemma and the problem ultimately of paying for school and the house. It couldn’t be done. Not the way things had fallen for them. Not the way their cash flow was working out.
Stuart Worthington took off his headset, unclipped the transmitting unit from his belt and placed the whole contraption on a National Geographic lying on the table. “So, Twyla is now the bread winner? At least for the moment.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way, but, yes, I guess so.”
“You all have put yourself in quite a pickle.”
Worthington snorted, then shook his head. “I have to tell you, I find it hard to read the paper these days.”
“I think that’s true of many people.”
“Yes, well … my problem is that so much is ignored or, I don’t know, the coverage can be so irrelevant.”
“How do you mean?”
“This pickle of yours, for instance. We live a life so much different than much of the country. You’re not here because you lost your job. You’re here because you can’t pay your bills. At the top of your family budget you have private school for three wonderful, bright, intelligent children. You can’t send them to public school, of course…”
“Yes. Tough. But how often do you read about this problem in the paper? Never. You all write endlessly about the dilemma of fixing the public schools and getting enough funding for them. Sometimes we read about the struggles of the Archdiocese, but never do we read about the difficulty of paying for private schools like Woodlands Friends or The Woodland School.”
“I’m sorry if I sound frustrated, but I’ve been through it. And so many people who come in my door go through it, too. No one gives a farthing for the elite, and I suppose that’s part of the problem with being in the elite, but still. I don’t care if you’re a millionaire here in Chestnut Hill. Paying $65,000 a year for your kids to go to school is a choice, but it’s still a burden.”
“We could have chosen to live in Havertown or in Cherry Hill, I suppose,” said Reggie. “They have good public schools out there.”
“I know. We all could have. Maybe we should have. But then we wouldn’t live here. I love it here. My family, you know, has lived here for nearly 140 years.”
“I’ve heard that.”
“And that’s why I’m here still. And it’s why I do what I do. I don’t have to, you know.”
“I’m well aware of that, Stuart. I’ve followed your work since we moved to the area in the late eighties.”
“And that’s why you’re here now.”
“Well, yes, I suppose…”
“I’m going to level with you, Reggie. I wouldn’t recommend staying in your house any longer than another few weeks. And I don’t know how you’re going to deal with it, but you can’t send three kids to private school anymore. If what you say is true, you’re going to be able to get a job, but it won’t be paying ninety-six thousand. Editors for the smaller papers I know of make around forty or fifty. Twyla maybe can pick up the slack, but her kind of business takes years to develop. I’m sure I would buy a few more of her works but, quite frankly, I don’t have much more wall space at my house. If you get out from under that mortgage and you do something about school, well, you may have a shot at rebuilding. But, well, I have to tell you, you really screwed the pooch, my friend. Not to be offensive you understand, but you’ve been fooling yourselves for a long time, just kind of rolling along. Lots of folks have been doing that. It’s a big reason why everything has gone to pot. You can only be part of the elite if you can pay your way. Credit and wishful thinking only go so far.”
Reggie’s only response to this at the time was to nod and stare at the floor. It felt oddly liberating to have Worthington upbraid him this way. But he felt his temple twitching as well, the soft part that had bothered him on and off for a few weeks. Something felt like it was happening, it was hard to say.
“I really do not want to offend you, hear, Reggie,” Worthington went on. “It’s just that sometimes I feel like it’s my duty to just call things the way I see them. You’re not the first to come in here with this situation. It makes me sad. You seem like a good man. And I love your wife. She’s a peach. But, well ….”
Worthington stood up and went to a file cabinet in the corner of the room. He pulled open the top drawer and leafed through files. “Here it is.”
Returning to the couch, he sat down and opened the folder he’d removed. There were only a few sheets of paper inside.
“We don’t have much property available right now, as you can imagine, Reggie, but, well, this may do the trick for you. I just bought it in a Sheriff’s sale. It’s in Mt. Airy, mind you, and quite old, probably drafty as hell now that winter is setting in. I know the heat works. We’ve had it on for the past three weeks. They’re doing some work on the roof and with the plumbing, so some of the walls are ripped up. I’m getting quotes from electrical contractors, too. It’s big. Probably bigger than you want, but…” He handed the folder to Reggie and sat back. “Quite honestly, you will be doing me a favor here as much as I may be doing you one. Look on the second page at the photo. That is the old Truthman Lodge down on Dupree in Germantown. It was built before the Civil War. Do you know the Truthmans? They were a Quaker family that started the Strathly House, the first home for widowed veterans’ wives back in the early patriot days. Truthman Lodge was the same idea only it was for certain elderly couples who had nowhere else to go. By certain, I mean elderly black people – servants of Quaker families back then.”
Reggie read through the file quickly. He recalled hearing about the Truthmans in research he’d done on city council and early leaders in Philadelphia history.
“The lodge was also part of the Underground Railroad,” Worthington went on. “Philadelphia, of course, was the end of the road for most escaped slaves, but sometimes there was still a need to hide people and at Truthman they blended in fairly easily.”
“It looks like an old time hotel,” Reggie managed.
“Yes, well, I’m not sure how we’re going to re-invent the property yet, but, like I say, you will be helping me out immensely. I need someone to live there and keep the place from being over-run, if you know what I mean.”
Reggie was about to ask how much, but Worthington continued. “In these situations I work on year-to-year. If you’re willing to take this on, you can live there through 2011 rent and utilities free.” He paused here for effect.
Reggie tilted his head and nodded affirmatively.
“And, quite frankly, if it works out, I’d be inclined to think you have at least another year there before we know what we want to do with the property. So … well …”
“Stuart, I don’t know what to say.”
“Say yes, Mr. Summerton. I really mean what I say: you are doing me a favor more than the other way around. I just hope you can figure out how to get back on your feet. A man’s got to take care of his family.
“I don’t care if this is the 21st century, women can be as professional and important as they want to be, but for us it’s part of our fluids. It’s chemical, isn’t it? Our job is to take care of those we love. Take care of my new property and you’re halfway there. A couple years and maybe a new job, you’ll be on your feet again. It’s all good, Reggie. All good. Oh, and while we’re at it, let me know when Twyla’s got her next show. I imagine I still love her work.”
From “The Litter Entries”
June 21, 2011
I have two forest-green tee shirts with the letters “CCT” on the front and back. Earlie Pointer assigned me to park sanitation duties the other day. I also wear a small gold badge pinned to my left sleeve about the size of a dime. Earlie is a Street Sweeping Crew Chief for the City-wide Clean Team (CCT), He is badge #0031. I am badge #1174. That tells me a lot about this job. (I offer that only as an indication of my awareness of the history of park sanitation).
LOVE Park is my beat, across the street from the Municipal Services Building and catty-corner to City Hall. LOVE Park is right smack dab in the middle of everything in Philadelphia. You know this maybe, but I write that to illustrate another kind of awareness which is both geographical and spatial. I intend to take my job seriously. Quite frankly, I never knew anything about keeping a park clean. No one thinks about life on that level.
June 22, 2011
Earlie Pointer declared to us at lunch today that LOVE Park is a jewel in Philly’s crown, but he also said it’s not officially called LOVE Park. The nickname comes from the statue of the word “LOVE” that sits at the park’s east corner. The real name is JFK Plaza. When I stand staring at the word LOVE with the O swung sideways, a fountain behind the words sprays water soaring into the background and the gaping city sky. Beyond the fountain is Ben Franklin Parkway, which looks like a river fed by that fountain the way the sight line runs. The Art Museum sits on a hill at the end of the Parkway with its Rocky steps. Jean Brown who was in my training class was assigned as the sanitation specialist in the Art Museum area. Earlie told her she’s got more space than I do but less people who spend the day. He told her for some reason the Rocky tourists don’t litter much.
LOVE Park is a funny name. We are the City of Brotherly Love. That’s why the word makes sense vaulted there on a rack, floating and kind of like a talisman to everyone who looks at it. But the park is not such a loving place. Sanitation means dealing with trash and litter. I picked up 76 magazines and sections of newspaper today. I also picked up 37 plastic bags blowing around, 2 half-eaten hoagies still in their wrappers, 103 plastic beverage containers, 19 Styrofoam™ salad clamshells, and 201 cigarette butts. I didn’t happen to count the clothes, nor the shoes. These are left by all the homeless people in the park when human services arrives with bags of new clothes. I also picked up three empty pizza boxes.
June 25, 2011
Today was hotter than yesterday. It’s easy to see how people hate the homeless. The homeless really don’t care about cleaning up after themselves. That’s probably a perc of not having a home. A few old men play chess, shirtless in the heat. A group plays cards in the shade. Two junkies lie together strung out on a bench in another shade patch – a man and a woman spooning on a wood bench in my park. He is unshaven, with long hair straggling off the back of his otherwise bald head; she has a severe gap between her two top front teeth, wears pink polyester pants and is braless in a Tee shirt that says Coca-Cola The Real Thing in faded red letters.
Every once in a while the man adjusts behind her on their bench and slips his hand under her shirt. I see him playing with one of her breasts. Two spent sacks of McDonalds lie on the ground next to them. I don’t know if this is their’s or not, so I don’t move to pick it up. They’re junkies because yesterday I watched them score whatever it is they put in themselves at this same bench. They gave each other double high-fives and kind of danced around a little, then they started making out to the point where sex was inevitable. I turned away. A few other people did, too. Now they are strung out sleeping.
June 27, 2011
A short black woman with bucked teeth and a crew cut of copper colored hair wandered up to me this afternoon. She wore a seersucker frock and carried yellow rubber thongs in her hand. I expected her to ask for some kind of help or even beg for money.
“You do a nice job, boy.”
I looked at her, realizing I had a broom in one hand and was wearing my forest-green shirt with the badge on the sleeve.
“I got nothing for you…”
She put her hand to her chin and looked from side to side.
“I can give you a nice blow job? I take me teeth out.” She put her right thumb and forefinger in her mouth and removed her teeth. “See?”
“My name is Mary. I been watching you,” she said. “It’s pretty good when they ain’t no teeth in there.” She put her index finger in her mouth and raised her eye brows.
Mary is perhaps in her late thirties but her face is weathered and aged into her late fifties.
“Sorry. I’ve got a girl friend.” I offered this excuse as politely as my embarrassment would allow.
“I didn’t say I’d fuck you honey. That’s different.”
“All the same…”
“Well, I tried,” she said as she walked away. “Just wanted to show my gratitude.” She sat down next to a trash bin I’d just emptied looking down at her teeth and began to cry.<snip>
Excerpt from Dawn of the Summertons (WIP)
Wading through the shimmer, she quickly grasped the edges of the next drapes and spread them wide with one stroke. Then another set, and another. She seemed so far away. Reggie blinked each time as the room seemed to be lit now by a white fire.
Twyla continued down the line of windows. He counted sixteen sets of curtains. She laughed and he noticed for the first time that he could see her breath.
He shook his head and felt whatever it was roll back and forth.
“Reggie? Are you okay?” She was a long, long way away standing on the table the workers used. Paper sacks and soda cups hid her feet.
Was he supposed to respond? What was happening to him?
“Hello! Reg? Earth to Reginald Summerton!”
He swallowed again, shook his head back and forth quickly checking to see if he could still detect the loose body, then said, quite loudly, “Twenty-four!”
“Twenty-four! Windows! Twenty-four windows.”
“And a fireplace or two,” she said, pointing at the back wall. “Four fireplaces in one room? That’s crazy. One on either end, and then the two back there. Where’s the wood pile?”
“I think there’s something in the back,” he called to her. “Can’t remember. But we can ask the workers whether they know where to get more wood. What’s it called, again? A skid? A … um, what?. A cord. That’s it.”
“I always think about pianos when I hear that term,” she said. “Cut wood kind of looks like piano keys. I’d think about a piano made with raw wood keys or even popsicle sticks. All of that came because I thought when they said cord that they really meant a musical chord. You know?” She waited for his laugh.
“Do you suppose,” he said, finally. “that we heat this area just with the fireplace?”
“There’s radiators,” she said, again pointing to the back wall and then over in between windows.
She stepped down from the table. “This is what they call a great room, right? Emphasis on great.” She extended her arms out in front of her and staggered towards her husband. “Great!” she said, dodging furniture and walking like a drunken Frankenstein.
He needed to concentrate in order to respond. “Sure seems like this would be something great,” he said. “But it’s gonna break the bank to Christmas this up.”
Twyla stopped in the center of the room and put both of her fists on her hips. He knew the excitement on her face too well. Life with an artist was really about life with a project manager. She had stopped directly under the center chandelier. Her arms floating off her hips, spread wide, she rotated slowly in a circle.
“We’re going to be okay, Reggie. We’re okay. A little trip to Salvation Army, maybe some other thrift shops down Chelten Avenue and deeper into Germantown. We can handle this. The only thing we’re really going to need to shell money out for is trees.”
“Yes. I want one in the entryway, one in the kitchen and at least two out here in between the chandeliers. See? In the middle of the middle of the room. It will be so beautiful.”
“We don’t need to spend that much on trees.”
“Oh yes we do. This joint has twenty-foot ceilings. We’re heading out to Chester County. I want two giants for in here and then two, I don’t know, maybe ten or twelve footers for the entryway and kitchen?”
“We’re going to need stands, then, also.”
“Yes. We’ll need stands. Maybe they’ve got some here. We’re going to need to check. Maybe in the basement? Do you think there’s an attic? Maybe the workers know what we could do.”
From the hallway he heard the familiar sound. He knew the feet were socked and that the person had been up for awhile. And he knew they would have donut sugar all over their chin and upper lip, possibly their nose.
As he turned, he said, “Well, well. Good morning Apple. I see you found the donuts. Turns out they grow them here in the backyard.”
“That one you have was the best one I picked. In the garden. The donut garden.”
“It was in a Dunkin’ Donuts box.”
“That’s the way the instructions say you’re supposed to pick them. See, it’s not really like you’re picking them, it’s more like you have to capture them. They’re garden donuts, but they have legs and sometimes try to run away. I had to wait for sunrise. If you hold the box just right, they jump in. You have to smack the lid down hard and knock them unconscious.”
His daughter closed her eyes and shook her head back and forth, pursing her lips, then, with her eyes still closed, she arched her eyebrows. Finally, opening her eyes, she said, “Daddy, you can be such a dummy sometimes.”
“I’m sorry to tell you.”
“Don’t be sad, Daddy.”
“But you called me a dummy.”
“That’s because everyone knows that donuts grow on trees.”
“Yes. And if you just make an owl sound…Hoot Hoo, Hoot Hoo. They drop right off when they’re ready and climb right into the box.”
He looked to see if she was going to giggle, but she held her ground. He could feel Twyla watching. He felt her smile in the air. Where had that feeling gone, the loose thing had disappeared it seemed.
“Come here, sweetie,” he said to his daughter and lowered himself to one-knee with his arms out. Bess, still dressed in a night gown with heavy rag wool socks, scampered across the floor into his arms.
“Where are your brother and sister?” he asked.
“Kristin is in her room reading. I brought her a donut on a napkin. And Lester is still sleeping.”
“Lester is still sleeping?”
“You know Lester.”
“Yes. I know Lester. But I also know that if we put a donut right in front of his nose on the bed he’ll wake up.”
He stood as she giggled at this. Twyla was still standing a good twenty feet away, hands on her hips, watching her husband and younger daughter.
“Good morning, mommy.”
“This is a weird house.”
Twyla smiled and nodded. “Yes. It used to be a hotel and then it was some kind of retreat and then it was a boarding house.”
“A retreat? Where you go to get away from your enemies?”
“Well, kind of. But more like a place where you and other people can go to discuss very important matters.”
“Like you’re retreating from the whole world,” Reggie added.
“Can the whole world be your enemy?” Bess asked.
Her parents looked at each other.
“Well, retreating from the world isn’t quite like that,” Twyla finally said. “You know how I like to go into my studio and not be bothered?”
Bess nodded and blinked, then rubbed her cheek against her father’s whiskery face.
“Well, that’s a special kind of retreat, too. Everyday I kind of retreat into my own little world.”
“Are you going to do that here? In this room?”
“I don’t know,” her mother said, now moving towards her husband and daughter.
“There’s an upstairs. Above our bedrooms. I think anyway. I saw some stairs.”
“Yes,” Reggie said, “we need to explore this whole place after breakfast, but we’re not done talking about a retreat yet are we?”
Bess sighed again, squidged her nose up and squinted, then grimaced.
“I understand, Mommy. This is a place where people used to do work and not be bothered.”
“Right. Very good. And now we live here.”
“Did we buy it?”
“No. No we didn’t…”
Reggie stirred. “The owner is letting us stay here. He likes mommy.”
“I think that’s why.”
“Daddy, you’re annoying mommy.”
Reggie chuckled and tilted his head as far back as he could to look at his daughter. “Well, just as long as I’m not annoying you.”
“Well, you are kind of…”
“Yes. Can you put me down now? I want to give mommy a kiss.”
As he let his daughter more or less climb down his torso to the floor, he heard two more sets of feet behind him. When Bess was safely down, he turned to find his two other children, still in flannel pajamas standing at the entrance to the room, mouths open, sleepy haired but nonetheless excited.
“What is this place?” Lester said.
“Is this ours?” Kristin chimed in.
He cocked his head and smiled proudly. “It’s ours to take care of, I suppose.”
“This room is…”
Kristin glanced at her brother. “It’s very big.”
“This is bigger than big,” he said. “It’s…”
“They call a room like this a great room,” Reggie said.
“Good morning, you two,” Twyla called with Bess in her arms.
“Morning, Mom,” said Lester.
“Good morning,” said Kristin.
The two older children seemed unwilling to move into the room, as if they were waiting for permission.
“Well, come in, you two. It’s a big room, but it’s still just a room.”
“I feel so small,” Kristin said.
Lester entered, walked three paces and then turned to look at his sister. “Nope. You’re still the same size. We’re okay.” He breathed out a teasing snicker, reached out to touch his father’s shoulder, then walked past him deeper into the room. Reggie watched Lester inspect the furniture then turned back to Kristin.
“You seem a bit tentative, Kris.”
She shook her head. “I’m trying to wrap myself around all of this. I’m still not sure I understand. We’ve moved, right? I mean, we’ve run away or something from Chestnut Hill and now we’re going to live here?”
Reggie sighed. “I guess that’s one way to look at it.”
“How else would you look at it?”
“Well, we didn’t exactly run away. I mean that implies that we were running from something.”
“We were, weren’t we? You lost your job, Daddy. We couldn’t pay our bills. We were running.”
“I know, Sweetie. It’s just that I don’t want to see it as running from something. It’s more like we’re switching things around, trying to get out in front. We could have paid our bills for a while. A long time, I suppose. But then…”
She waited. He continued: “But then at some point if I didn’t get more work or a new job or whatever, we really wouldn’t have any money.”
“So we just disappeared?”
“We moved on,” he smiled.
“Well, you’re right in the sense that we left quietly so that we wouldn’t have to pay our mortgage or anything.”
“This place is a lot more expensive, isn’t it?”
“Funny thing,” he said. “No. We don’t have to pay to live here.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Nope. The deal is that we live here and kind of take care of things.”
He turned to see what Lester was up to. Far across the room his son was inspecting a fireplace. “Yeah, we’re caretakers. And the owner is paying all the bills, except our food. It’s saving us a lot of money.”
She leaned against the framed entryway. “But…”
“Well, you always said that school was more expensive than the house.”
There it was. He’d understood from the beginning that this would be the real issue for all of them. He forced himself not to look for Twyla and her help, although he knew well that she could hear them.
“That’s true. Woodlands is very expensive.” He waited.
She closed her eyes. He knew this meant she was thinking. He turned to the rest of his family. Lester was doing a form of push-up with his feet on a dark ottoman and his body angled to the floor. Twyla had seated herself on a couch in the middle of the room with Bess in her lap. As she stroked her daughter’s hair, she gave him a smile of encouragement.
He turned back to Kristin. “Yes?”
“It doesn’t make sense for us to go to Woodlands anymore, does it?”
He shook his head slowly. “We can’t really afford it.”
He inhaled deeply.
This story excerpt is from the collection Implosions of America: Lessons in Love, Loss, and Confusion.
By David Biddle
I covered my left eye with my fingers and turned around. The eclipsing sun pierced my right pupil for just a split second as the moon slid into place and Bailey’s Beads began to spin. These beads of light are little solar flames of prismatic ruby light bouncing off the valleys of a black moon. That was in the mountains in 1979, more than thirty years ago. I’m sure this is the cause of my vision troubles today.
Doctor Davis has been after me for several years now to go visit an ophthalmologist. I used to love the way typeface made me feel. In a well-made book the lines of each word would glaze into my eyes. Character edges, kerned by a skilled chisel, seemed to rise off the page, piercing the appropriate membranes of memory, lodging in a mix of cerebral fluid and electrochemical significance. When a word appears sharp and true to the eyes, meaning is sharp and true. The mind understands and beats just like the heart. Over the last few years, though, the words I look at have started mashing up. Information is more smudged into me, pressure-glued to random spots around my optical nerve. Some mornings whole sentences swim up and down on the page. My mind rarely seems to beat like my heart anymore.
Doctor Davis noticed my eye problem back in 1995, a year after I got a 19-inch VGA monitor at work. I’m a desktop publishing specialist and copywriter with a well-known health insurance company. Twelve years after that he suggested a visit to a specialist, he asked me why I had not yet made an appointment. I told him that I had so many things happening to me I was lucky to get in for a basic physical every two years. Using more patience than you would expect, he directed me specifically to one Dr. Louise Singleton who is located in his same office park. I saw right through that one, of course. Doctors are like all other business people. I imagined the two of them getting together twice a year over lunch at The Palm or The Striped Bass, surreptitiously exchanging #10 envelopes full of cash. His envelope for her is a goldenrod job containing maybe $400 right out of the cash box where he keeps all his co-pay money. She gives him a lightly scented, off-white envelope made of 20-percent post-consumer recycled paper. Pink granite. Her payment is higher, nearing $1,800. He’s routed almost twenty cases to her in the past six months. Why else would he have been so patient with me after two years of ignoring his advice?
They talk shop and she writes off the luncheon. She has the minty pea salad with lemon-garlic mayonnaise made with lots of turkey bacon and asparagus. She drinks two glasses of Chablis and about halfway through the second glass feels flushed and more excited than she thinks is safe, wants to go somewhere to be alone with her thoughts.
He has the swordfish-pecan pasta salad, made with fresh dill and tarragon all held together by a special iced Bearnaise sauce that explodes with flavor due to the minced shallots and Pommery champagne the chef has added. After his third mouthful of creamy swordfish, linguini, and toasted pecans, Doctor Davis thinks back to the days when he was a child baking cakes with his father who owned a catering company, how batter always tasted better than anything else in the world – even the finished cakes – and how his father once let him eat an entire cake’s worth of raw lemon-vanilla batter. Even though it made him sick, the act, every mouthful, was sublime. He wonders if the Bernaise all by itself would have the same effect. Could you order a bowl of Bernaise sauce? Maybe a few pieces of dark pumpernickel toast to dip? How much cream sauce would it take before you got sick like with cake batter?
Doctor Davis would have the same Chablis as Doctor Singleton, but he would be careful to drink slowly and to order a Black Turkish Espresso Walnut Mousse along with a demitasse of orange French Roast topped by a dollop of whipped cream. I once told him that I felt it likely there is no successful person in America who drinks alcohol before six p.m. He told me that he agreed with the sentiment but that it was possible to overcome the effects of alcohol in the middle of the day by consuming a very large portion of caffeine and sugar after imbibing at lunch. I could tell he was a lunchtime drinker and feeling defensive when he told me this. That’s how I know about the French Roast and the Espresso mousse. It’s also how I know that someday he is going to die of a heart attack before he returns to his office after lunch. I bet one quarter of all the heart attacks in America come after drinking too much coffee. Dying with coffee breath would be embarrassing as hell.
I’m just assuming my doctor has a business relationship with Louise Singleton. I have no evidence that they are exchanging cash every summer and winter. I also have no idea whether they’re having an affair, and although at that time I’d never met Doctor Singleton, I was sure by the way my doctor talked about her that she was very attractive, maybe sexy, certainly pleasing to speak with: like a flight attendant out over the Atlantic in the middle of the night. It made me, just for a few minutes there in his office, want to go for an appointment just to find out what she looked like and to look into her eyes. I imagined that they were bright moon gray and came, along with her whole beautiful face, very close to mine while diagnosing my problems.
I snapped out of it pretty quickly, though, and figured I could wait another five years at least. They sell amazing reading lamps these days. Laser beams for illumination, shimmering diamond light that will blind you like looking into the sun. I’m going to admit this here: I am middle aged and along with all the other shit that is going wrong with me, my imagination is becoming obsessed with the idea of having sex with women almost on a random basis. My eyes are failing but I spend a phenomenal amount of energy trying to ignore my libido.
I measured my arm last night. It’s nearly thirty-four inches from the top of my shoulder to the tip of my middle finger. I bet it will take another decade for my arm to extend that full distance when I’m reading.
I also learned that my right arm is an inch longer than my left one. It’s not the hands that are the difference. It’s the arms themselves. When I extend my arms, my right wrist is easily an inch further out there than my left wrist. Doctor Davis told me several years ago when I came in for him to look at a weird lump under my right rib cage that we may think we’re symmetrical but we aren’t. He never could figure out what the lump was, but suggested I eat more fiber and be careful with fatty foods. I followed his advice. The lump’s still there although my bowels are much more manageable. Sometimes it’s a sheer pleasure to evacuate them. Really. Not like an orgasm, or a relief thing from holding it too long, just the act itself, like the whole gut is being cleansed as everything moves through my old intestines and colon. It seems like there’s less build-up on the walls inside of me – the sludge, you know, from all the fats and sugars and the acids they mix with over time. If thoughts of sweaty sex with some woman like the checkout girl at our neighborhood convenience store or our daughter’s dance instructor get too built up, I find myself considering what it would be like to use the toilet after sex with them.
I’m so grateful to my doctor for pointing out the need to change my diet, but I haven’t told him that I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve become a pervert. When I go to the bathroom there’s this warm cleaned out feeling and it extends all the way to my sphincter. So I feel better, but the lump is still there and sometimes it worries me along with all these unbidden thoughts I let myself have. None of this hurts, really, it just makes me ponderish. I’m assuming if the lump is going to kill me, it will grow from being the size of a peanut to the size of a hamster, or a Chihuahua’s head. I also assumed back then that my perversions would subside when I figured something out. I just didn’t know what that thing was.
My wife, Angeline, doesn’t like the lump and doesn’t like my loss of vision. I haven’t told her about my perversions. Sometimes in the morning I can’t read for several hours until my eyes are adjusted. She says to me, “It could be macular degeneration. It could be the beginning of cataract build up. You need to see a doctor. The lump could be cancer.”
I like the fact that she worries about me. It’s a way to be sure she still loves me. But I also like the way she knows better than to get too pushy about going to see doctors. I remind her that the doctor says my lump isn’t cancer.
“Then what is it?” she replies.
“We are not supposed to be symmetrical,” I say firmly. Then I leave the room so that the conversation is finished.
Angeline is five years older than me. She turns fifty in November. She used to be our babysitter when I was a kid. She came over every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to take care of my brother, sister and me after school. I was nine. Angeline turned fourteen that year. I saw her naked twice that summer because I knew how to look through the keyhole in the changing room next to our pool. Seeing her naked made me fall in love with her. So, I knew who I was going to marry by the time I was ten. It took another fifteen years, but my love was too much for her. I never told Angeline about watching her change into her swimsuit. I’m afraid that if I told her, I would have to fall out of love with her. I’m superstitious.
Angeline is losing her hearing. She refuses to believe this, though. We’ve actually had fights about it. Angeline is very proud of her health. She teaches dance and Tai Chi at Swarthmore College. The funny thing about hearing is that sound is either there or it isn’t. With sight the world fades slowly into blurs and shadows and motion. With sound, though, it’s a tree falling or it’s nobody in the forest. Everything is either a crash or nothing, a note or silence. If Angeline doesn’t hear something, then it’s not there for her, even when I tell her it is. She’s stubborn and has yet to admit she’s wrong about anything, which is another reason for loving her. She’s wrong sometimes, but I wouldn’t trade her kind of self-confidence for any level of humility. There is nothing more exciting in bed than a good woman who thinks she’s never wrong, especially if you first saw her naked when she was fourteen and you were nine, a time in your life when you couldn’t get an erection (except in the morning, of course, when you wake up and have to pee) even if you knew the secret of petroleum jelly. She made a big impression on me then and she still does today.
I don’t know why Angeline has stayed with me all these years…