Learning Curve

Vancy Jordan was on the fast track at the prestigious Paris-based couture house Millard et Jaspes until last week, when she stumbled unwittingly into a decades-old political scandal. Miles Orne, the creative director of M & J’s American studio, Haute Shack, was Jordan’s biggest fan until this week, calling her a ‘rising star’ in a People Magazine article earlier this year.  Now the junior designer is out of a job and wondering if she’ll ever work in fashion again.

Enter Monica Lewinsky, a figure in a political scandal that Vancy admits she knew only a little about until this week. “It’s weird to think my political hero is basically the reason I’m now a pariah in the world of couture.”  Jordan blushed as she mused, “I mean, fashion and culture and history are all this byzantine tapestry. I get it. I just didn’t connect the right threads.”

pariah-quote

In July, Millard et Jaspes did what all fashion forward design houses are doing this year, bidding to design the most coveted outfit of the season.  No, it isn’t the next red carpet dress for Michelle Obama.  The one frock all of the fashion world is vying to create is the outfit Hillary Clinton will wear to her inaugural ball.

“This is her-story in the making, ” Miles Orne said in July.  “Everyone is asking, what will it be? Is it a tux with tucks? Or a dress with pant legs hiding coyly in the drape of the cloth?  Speculation is high and we’re not getting any help from the Clinton camp.”

Indeed, when pressed for details on how the Secretary of State will approach fashion when she takes office, the former first lady has been conspicuously vague, saying on Ellen in February, “I don’t NOT like dresses, but – you know – I’m someone who likes to get things done and, boy, that sure is easier in flats and a pantsuit.”

And when asked by Joy Behar on the View in August what she’d wear to her Inaugural Ball, Secretary Clinton replied, “I’ll cross that bridge when and if the American people choose me to be their next president.”  Amid a roar of applause from the audience, Clinton added, “But probably white.”

This was just the kind of glimpse into the candidate’s mind that Millard et Jaspes had been wanting.  The five second clip went viral in the fashion community, with Isaac Mizrahi tweeting, “I’d love to drape this wonk goddess head-to-toe in platinum chain mail. She’s a warrior! Fierce!”

mizrahi

Last week as the team at Shack finalized drawings for their ball gown concept, Miles Orne turned over the design of Secretary Clinton’s swearing-in ceremony outerwear to Jordan.

“I was thrilled.  The image of Secretary Clinton taking her oath of office will live down in history.  I wanted a hat for her that was both cozy grandma and world traveler. It needed a dash of Paris, but I wanted something fuzzy and warm because January.  Blue just seemed right on so many levels.”  That was when she grabbed a lapis coloring pencil and in a few confident strokes perched a blue beret on the head of the former FLOTUS.

Jordan claims she didn’t really know about the hat Monica Lewinsky famously wore. When Orne first saw her submissions, he laughed, saying, “You’re naughty, Vancy.  Now show me your real drawings.”

But once Orne realized Jordan had intended to submit a sketch of Secretary Clinton wearing a blue beret to her own inauguration ceremony, his laughter quickly subsided.

“He was like a mad man,” Jordan said. “He accused me of being a plant.  He said that with our deadline on the bid so tight, my drawings might very well have been overlooked.  Then he said people had been hanged for less and I was like OMG.”

Still reeling from the events of the past week, Vancy is considering taking her case to the courts in the hopes that her story will change the way junior designers are treated in the fashion world.  Over a cappuccino at Toby’s Estate in Williamsburg on Friday, she admitted that’s a long shot.

“All I’ve done for the past three years is eat, sleep – I don’t know, breath? – the world of Millard et Jaspes.  Fashion has been my life since I was a kid.  When they were working me full-time for basically lunch money, my Dad was like, ‘Come home, baby.’  He offered me a job at his psychiatric practice.  Even when I barely had enough to go to yoga or to keep my brows on fleek, I wouldn’t give up.”

While catastrophe was avoided before the controversial sketches left the inner sanctum of Millard et Jaspe, the fallout for Vancy Jordan has been profound.  In addition to having security escort her out of the studio, Shack’s entire team of senior designers have been spreading the word around the clock that in Orne’s eyes Jordan is a saboteur.

“I’m basically blacklisted.”

A harsh history lesson indeed.

Momentos

As my high school graduation grew nearer, my father sent away for my class ring.  I wore it for about a year or two before it embarrassed me to put it on.  No one I knew advertised they finished high school through jewelry and I didn’t want to either.  The ring was exactly what it should have been: large and golden with a ruby stone and engravings to show I concentrated on The Arts.  A pair of brushes cross over a painter’s amoebic palette and some Greek letters make the case for the man my father thought I was becoming. 

The ring still surfaces now and then, floating to the top of a box of forgotten things from about the age of ten up through my twentieth year.   In that box there is also a keychain with a picture of an old friend in it; a few chess pieces from a set my mother made me in ceramics class;  blue and white shards of a Chinese umbrella holder that I cut my knee on when I was nine; shells from a beach where a girl and I sat in the blast of January winds not talking about things we might.


The keychain is a tapered square of turquoise plastic with a white tip on the narrow end.  In the tip there is a lens and when you look through it you see my old friend.  She is on the beach, her thick dark blond hair pushed behind one ear in defiance of a breeze off the water behind her.  When she and I first became friends, my world was small; my best friends were family and it was a joyful discovery to build my own friendship from scratch. We were close at one time and luckily it did not end in fire, as some of my relationships did when I was younger.  Rather we just drifted apart, first in our interests and later geographically.  Before social media, we were as good as invisible to one another for over a dozen years.  Now we reach out from time to time to say hello.

During all those years when many friendships were considered not only diminished but severed by lost addresses and by telephone numbers that no longer worked, I would occasion upon that keychain, squint into it and try to remember something about how she came to give it to me.  Had she gone to the beach alone or with one of her more loyal childhood friends?  Had we met for lunch, she proffering the memento as I worked out in my head who I’d be partying with later that night?


My mother didn’t handle my growing up very well.   Two dreamers who were much happier at home than out in the world, we needed one another mutually when I was young.  It must have been hard to see me making friends and moving outward into the world, while she was still fixed in a place defined by her phobias and her traditionalism.  When I was seventeen she and I were at our most tumultuous point.  In between our heated arguments about where I was going and who I was going out with – why did I like so and so more than my own family and what did we know about their people? – she would be moved to do very kind things.  One of them was the chess set, although by the time she finished it and presented it at Christmas, there were already changes in my worldview that made me feel only lackluster about the gift. 

Rendered in blue and grey, the Civil War iteration of the game did not suit who I was becoming – a person with growing disgust for a romantic take on rich southern slaveowners who turned on their own neighbors rather than follow the shifting moral imperative of their country. 

Having watched the film Gone With the Wind at nine and consuming the book greedily afterward, I spent the first half of my teen years in a love affair with the antebellum south. I wrote and rewrote novels with heroines who lived on plantations and wore hoop skirts.  With each rewrite my shifting principles showed evermore. As I discovered feminism, my heroine became pluckier.  I added character details to make her seem less organized around feminine norms.  Now she liked to sneak off bare footed to go fishing when she wasn’t sparring with our enigmatic and handsome hero. 

As I discovered my empathy for the economically disadvantaged, my heroine developed a friendship with a ‘po-white’ family down the road from the Big House and helped their ‘clean but respectable’ Irish children with their lessons in between trips to the trout creek.  Just as I may have been likely to start writing a slave rebellion into the plot, I grew tired of the whole Southern aristocracy schtick altogether.  By the time I received the chess set, it felt like a postcard from another year to another me, although I was careful to pretend I loved it.  My mother is very, very sensitive.


At the age of ten I was well in the midst of my romance with all things old world and opulent  when I discovered an umbrella holder in the cluttered storage cum laundry room in our basement.  Made of thick china and hand-painted in the Asian fashion with blue flowers and birds on a white field, it seemed like a relic from a much finer home than our fly-specked little ranch house in the country.  Perhaps this was the last vestige of the grand manor our family used to own on the Mississippi, I speculated – until my mother told me they were a dime a dozen in the seventies.

The top was broken and looked a little like the shape of the Coliseum, with pierced arches left incomplete where the missing pieces used to fit.  I found some of the broken bits in the bottom of the vessel and pestered my parents to buy me crazy glue so I could fix this treasure.  I was still working on the restoration months later – frustrated that not all the pieces had been saved by my parents – when a tumble with my sister landed me on a jagged point that split my knee open like a cruel smile.  They stitched it closed and it still looked like a punished mouth for weeks, weeping blood at the iodine-stained threads when I flexed my leg a bit too much.  For a couple years easily I worried that somehow I’d crack it open again, even when all that was left was a quite sturdy white scar, a lumpy albino worm where the mouth had once ruefully grinned.  I still have the umbrella holder and the shards; the mend was never complete.


I don’t remember gathering the shells with Jenny, but a visceral thread woven into the beginning of my manhood hangs free of me, teased even now by the mood of a wintry beach.  When all the umbrellas have been tucked away and the children have returned to school, beach towns become something more like wilderness again.  They become raw and savage: the breakers are cold knives nosing the sand, the blackened tangles of seaweed like so many Medusa headdresses abandoned. No matter where I am, when cold air that smells like salt water hits me, I am taken back to a Carolina beach and seventeen.

We walked with our heads down, our chins protecting our throats as the wind tore at our curls and rippled our too thin clothes.  It had been an awkward holiday, me liking Jenny’s green-haired artist friend we had come to visit so much that the three of us fell into a strange discord. In youth we wear our jealousy loosely on chapped lips, with faces still too childlike to hide our fleeting pain and rage.  Yet we are already learning to ignore what we think we will not be able to change.  And so Jenny continued to love me and I made funny faces and let the incoming storm off the water lift my hair into a wild black mop that she caught in her camera.  When my whimsical bravura was spent, we sat in the sand not talking about anything, unsure yet sure that the holiday had already pulled loose what had gathered us together.  The silence felt intimate, but we were no longer.

In the cold mist we watched the tide go out while three broken shells found a home in my pocket.  It has been over twenty years and I have yet to send them back to sea.

Black Man

It was true that he lurked outside the A & P and true too that he stared.  When one glanced away from him, Russell had moved from his typical base – a shuffling path among the shopping carts just outside the electronic doors – to walking right alongside your car.  It was startling how he seemed to have teleported the distance.  Mom always locked the doors when we saw Russell in the parking lot.

“Some say he’s harmless,” she’d say. “But I don’t know…”

a-and-p

We were terrified of Russell Green.  A tall black man of indeterminate years, he was a fixture of our childhood.  At least on days when we went grocery shopping.  Looking back, I can’t think of a single thing he ever did in our presence to evoke our response to him. Except perhaps to be born black – something that in the south is a handicap and a risk in the eyes of many.

Mom once said she’d heard he was quite a scholar in his youth, but that he’d been roughed up by some boys (I always assumed they were white) and had taken a blow on the head. Her tone implied it was pitiable, but she still locked up the station wagon when she saw him.  I didn’t know what to do with his backstory when I was a kid, but in the years since I’ve colored it until he is almost a mythic martyr.  I imagine him as a slender youth, dressed in a cardigan, wearing smart glasses like Malcolm X.  The light glints off of the frames as he sits under a tree, writing an essay for school.  His mother is Oprah Winfrey and she nails it in a calico apron, a modern day queen sitting in makeup for three hours to give her the dry elbows of a hotel maid.

The truth is it is hard to imagine it differently for me.  My understanding of the black struggle has been spoon fed to me through the lens of too many white film makers. Perhaps the legend of Russell was partly true – that he was good in school.  But maybe he would have wanted to use those smarts to get a job at IBM and not to change the world in protest.  That would not occur to me because when white storytellers tell black lives, they talk about blacks who changed America via the remove of a dais and a microphone.

When I try to put the pieces together about Russell – and maybe it is fetishizing to even try or an exercise in lancing the boil of childhood’s racism – I come up short.  He was a black man and some said a mad man and he was a lurker and a looker, but more than that he was a stranger.  The fact that he spent his time skulking or loitering the parking lot of the grocery store gave him an unglamorous fame and because of that he sticks out in my memory.  To be fairer still, the A & P was in his neighborhood and he never bothered anyone, never hurled insults or begged favors.  He was just there.  In an odd way, showing up on the regular gave him name recognition, a perverse argument in favor of the marketing stratagem of consistent exposure.

Nowadays it might not happen so, if for no other reason than that the grocery store would be on the outskirts of town in a well-lit suburban haven on the other side of too many highways for the lost or the deranged of neighborhoods to wander upon.  The A & P of my childhood was on South Street, but all the white grownups I knew called that area Nigger Town. This because this short road of small stucco houses – being evermore bought up and leveled for strip malls and burger huts – was where black people lived.  It had no jurisdiction of its own, no real autonomy and independence from the mechanisms of a white establishment.  So while there was nothing to threaten the status quo on these three blocks except perhaps one mad man walking the rows of the parking lot, daring to stare at white families in their wood-paneled station wagons – it clearly needed a name to delineate it from the rest of town, to demarcate the differences between us and to levy upon the darker skinned a moniker meant to demean.

Then black artists took that same word and made it their own.  Still white people chafe not that it exists but that now it is wielded by black hands, spoken by black lips, linked to new cultural moorings by black ingenuity and will.  We hear the debate: why is it okay when they say it?  I will not speak for black people to answer; they have their own voice.  What little I can do is to peel back every ignorant thing I ever learned to expose and dismiss it, one remembrance at a time.

In the minds of my people, Russell was to be feared and to locked out, but it has become clear to me in my life that the real social menace was on the inside of the glass all along.

 

 

The Virtue of Arrogance

When I was thirty I opened my own interior design business.  From the concept to completion – with a lot of friends chipping in on the grunt work – I went from employee of one firm to the host of an open house for my own in just about eight months.  The night was a blur.  All I can remember is misplacing the cream for the coffee and later finding it in an armoire in my office.

Black coffee notwithstanding, I was proud of myself in my own low key kind of way. Being a nose-to-the-grindstone person, I don’t take a lot of time to jump in the air and high five passersby. Looking back on it, I should have been pleased with myself.  Whenever I wasn’t working at my primary job – or the part time one I kept at my sister’s bookstore to help her with her own new enterprise – I was meeting with prospective landlords and researching market statistics at various government agencies; crafting my business plan; emailing my lawyer friend who was helping me set up the paperwork.  Some days I was meeting with vendor reps at a coffee shop near my workplace, careful to sit facing the door so that I could drop a notebook over the stacks of catalogs should a co-worker stop in for a macchiato before their shift .  I remember one tenacious rep – always eager to sign up a new account – who met me during a snow storm.  I flipped through pages of accessories giddily as the parking lot turned white.

When I eventually signed a lease, I spent hours revising layouts for the shop buildout. (I negotiated that enough to my advantage that I imagine my peddler grandfather would have been proud.)  With every free moment, I went back over my order list to cut corners as needed, determined to stay within the capital I had to invest.  I guarded that start up money jealously because I wanted to have enough to pay my expenses and my salary for at least three months after opening.  Since that same money came from the lengthy process of refinancing our house, I would care for it like a gardener with only so many seeds – and no promises from the heavens.

I was seeing new clients independently, starting projects that I developed from stacks of crisp, never-before-used fabric books that littered my guest room during the build out stage of the shop.  I was discovering that the energy accompanying big change and bold thinking is fairly magnetic.  From the moment I quietly began to let clients know I was going out on my own, they were not only excited for me, but they started to add more to their projects and clamor for business cards to share with friends.  It’s heart-warming now to look back on how supportive these individuals were to me in that fledgling stage.

I marvel now that I was so bold, so organized, so driven – and so sure that it would not only be worth it but would also be a success.  It would take self-confidence verging on arrogance to act in the way that thirty year old did then.  Arrogance.  It is a severe and dubious virtue, alienating as much to self as to others, yet highly constructive at times.  In the way that the word implies, I was driven to serve self the most.  I don’t make the observation as self criticism.  I think my dream had worth and luckily was protected by that buffer zone of ego.  It helped me.

Later that pride would take a hit when the economy down-turned and – after much agonizing – I was compelled to draft emails to a few likely clients asking if they wanted to get a jump start on their future projects.  I was painfully honest about it: if I didn’t find some work soon, I wasn’t sure how long I could keep my doors open.  The change to my sense of self-worth was huge but also hard to fathom at the time.

I had lived large when everyone else was living large.

While the bubble that caused the crash had my clients buying or building new homes and furnishing every nook and cranny in varying odes to Tuscany, I was buying hand-made shirts and letting myself be pampered by the staff at Bergdorf’s.  I was sitting in the third row at Broadway shows and spending far too much on lunches.  When I wrote those emails to my clients, making my dire straights plain, it really didn’t matter how brightly my cuff links glittered.  The stack of bills on my desk had been growing for weeks. Everything was urgent and dull and dreadfully taut.  I was white-knuckling my way through this change in fortune.

The ego took another carving when I was forced to let my employee of four years know she ought to be looking for work.  I just couldn’t see how to keep paying her.  We had spent so many seasons sharing perspectives on the growing business, that she was as much advisor as shopkeep or assistant.  How often had I sought her perspective on a tricky  email exchange I was having with a client or colleague?  How many times had we celebrated a project win with an icy cocktail at the swanky martini lounge down the block?

When her last day with my company arrived, I went on one of my few house calls and then headed home instead of coming into work.  The other thing that can come from arrogance is a kind of moral cowardice: I simply couldn’t make myself confront the failure that watching her let herself out the door for the last time would make plain.  When I found her sadly cheerful hand-made thank you card on my desk the next day, I heaved a sigh and stared at my email inbox darkly until it became merely backlit lines without meaning.

Ingenuity wasn’t dead and neither was my appetite to survive.  But I was learning that to stay afloat in a new economy was going to take more than reserves of confidence or talent; I was going to have to reinvent my firm from a place of artful humility.  It would be a humble perspective that would help me determine just how much I could cut back, revising the shape and context of my business.  That editing taught me a lot about myself as a designer and a manager; I learned how to get back to the heart of intention and how to cut the fat.

When I met my landlord and asked her to accept half rent until I got back on my feet, I was without any of the pride that made me sick with worry before I emailed those clients.  In fact, my only imperative was to make my case as simply and sincerely as possible, so that she would understand my determination to make it was at the heart of the ask.  She agreed readily because, as I was learning, business people got it.  This change was big and we would need to band together.

Later when I hosted a party at my shop to celebrate its switch from active retail space to appointment only design studio, it was not only the beginning of a long journey of rebranding, but a chance to reset with as much dignity as the situation could offer. Looking back on it, I suppose the facade was fragile, a glass mask.  My clients knew this was the other side of the coin.  On one face, the old version of the business had failed, while on the other it was reborn as a new thing.  What they could only imagine was how jarring and saddening this change was for me – still it was needed repositioning and they gamely helped me keep face.  We stood elbow to elbow munching from cheese plates and sipping white wine.  When it was all over, I wanted nothing more than to have my preferred drink at home – a wintery gin martini – and to crawl into bed with a corny and easily digested episode of Perry Mason.  There is comfort in tightly constructed mayhem that resolves itself in less than an hour.

Nowadays my business has not only survived, but grown, with more employees than it had before, tight systems for daily operation, and consistent self-checks for growth.  Offering not only interior design for homes and commercial spaces, but reimagined again as a vital retail boutique, we have earned a reputation as a stalwart shop around the corner in our bustling little city.

In the wake of the recession, priorities were shifted and I was made a better steward of my dream, but like the coin with two faces, I see that my business has been served by two polarities of confidence: arrogance and humility.

Master of Chess

If Marcy had written the time down wrong, he’d send her packing this time for sure.  As if beating his way across town in rush hour traffic weren’t enough annoyance without having to wait outside a bodega in the sweltering heat with the smell of warm cabbage and liverwurst and stale mop water drifting out each time the door opened.  The handles of the sample boards were biting into the palms of his hands and he shifted them for the umpteenth time.

George squinted at the building across the street, resenting his client for going with a row house instead of a condo.  A doorman would let a respectable designer wait in an air conditioned lobby.  He’d be perched on the ubiquitous chrome and leather mid century chair, checking emails on his phone and spending a little more time on Facebook than he could ever admit to himself.

As the potpourri of the bodega hit him anew, he cursed the makers of sample boards for not fitting the handles with a flange of soft rubber.  Could you get a blood clot in your fingers from having your circulation pinched?

Finally he ground his teeth at the obstructionists in congress who’d spent thirty years standing in the way of true environmental reforms.  Surely it was hotter today than July ought to be.  Bastard republicans.

Then a black car slowed in front of him, the door swung open, and his client stepped out into the heat.  Like an elf queen from a Peter Jackson trilogy, she was tall and elegant, all flowing white folds and corrugated blond tresses.  It was rumored among the know-almost-nothing People magazine set that she hated Blanchett for getting the role, but George knew that during a year of the epically long filming of the series she’d already committed herself to The House of Blue Leaves at the Walter Kerr – a venue and  play she was mysteriously sentimental about.

She gave him a radiant smile.

“My apologies would hardly be adequate, so I will spare us both the awkwardness of suffering through them.”  She stepped forward and took a few sample boards from him before he could protest.  Giving him a fond smile, she said, “Ah, love, you look positively wilted.”

Before he could respond, she’d turned on her heels and was drifting across the street, so ethereal with each languid, ballerina-like step that it occurred to him the only accessory she was short of was a celestial nimbus.  It also passed through his mind that she’d artfully managed to suggest apologies were in order without actually extending one. He ought to dislike her for it a bit, but in truth it just increased his respect.  She was a master of chess.

He hastened across the street, and despite the fact he was almost six feet tall, he couldn’t help but feel a little like a hobbit as his eyes darted back and forth to spy a break in traffic.


 

She paused in the foyer and he watched her, shuffling the sample boards she’d handed back to him while she unlocked the door.  Turning with a long alligator smile stretched out under her shades, she said in a rapt whisper, “Can you hear them?”

Tilting an ear to listen for rats or hissing gas pipes, he lowered the samples and his attache onto the dusty marble floor.  His eyes moved over the moldings and the faded paper.  It was dim in the house after the glare of the street.

She removed her shades slowly, the grin tightening into a secretive smile, lips drawing in like a moonflower in the sun.

“These walls have so many stories,” she whispered.  “How do we paint them?”

He paused.  There was no doubt that they had discussed colors a week ago in his studio. She’d been firm about brightening up the place.  They had discussed the merits of peach, which she loved, but which she also found terrifying.  He had a clear recollection of her rising and moving to stand at his window, holding back the sheers with one long-boned hand while she studied the street.  He’d been mesmerized by the light bouncing off her diamonds.

Turning from the window suddenly, she’d revealed the complexity of her feelings about peach. “My grandmother.  The darling.  She loved it as I do, but she died in a room covered in peach roses.  They smothered her, I always felt.  Cruel really.”

That afternoon he’d thought not for the first time that she deserved awards for being the perfect dramatist in real life.  He’d once watched her debate the merits of two salad dressings with so much pathos he’d almost cried into his two o’clock martini.

Today, in the present, sweat pooling at the small of his back, he cautioned, “Well, if we don’t paint, fixing some of the water damage will be tricky.”

Hanging her shades from the opening of her white blouse, she frowned at him.

“Oh, we’re painting this fucker,” she said.

“Oh, yes. Oh, good.”

She caressed the newell post lovingly.  “I was just feeling sentimental.”


 

He’d waited his entire career for a woman like this to walk into his office.  It was like Mary Astor stepping into Bogart’s grimy set of rooms, spinning wild tales about her missing kid sister.  He couldn’t remember the names of anyone in The Maltese Falcon except for Sam Spade, but he felt like this was his own screwy version of the story.  A man labors faithfully but humbly at his craft, just keeping the landlord at bay with a little luck and sometimes his personal savings, until one day a dame walks in and changes everything.

Nothing else about the analogy worked.  He didn’t want to peel off her stockings, he wanted to see her wallpaper stripped.  And she wasn’t weaving tales to walk away with a jewel-incrusted statue, although they had discussed on the first meeting a vitrine to house her Tonys and Oscars and the Grammy.  This was actually happening to him – his first real celebrity client – and somehow she made it all seem like a sequence from a movie.  There were times when her accounts of interiors past were so gilded yet raw he wondered if Truman Capote were beaming down on her from whatever heaven existed for hateful genius bastards.

He smiled to think how much Marcy failed to overlap the rest of the similarities.  While she was as much a girl Friday as he deserved, she’d never enter stage left after his each meeting, perching on the corner of his desk, reminding him not to get caught up in spider webs.  Rather, she moved about his office clumsily, Swiffering up fabric lint while holding back sneezes, asking not one question about what it was like to help a living legend design her home.

One day he’d not been able to stand it.  “Aren’t you curious in the least about what she’s like?”

Entering bills onto the laptop at her desk, she peered at him through the doorway that connected their offices.  She shoved her glasses up into her head, making her bangs poke up and out like a hairdo from the eighties.

“She seems nice?”

He’d rolled his eyes.  “She’s  more than nice, Marcy!  She exudes glamour.  She’s old school.  Her every move is a poem.  Her vocabulary is Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams and Tony Kushner.  She doesn’t step through space like we mere mortals, she floats through time like the heroines that exist in books, waiting only to be read again to live anew, each time as fresh as the last.”

Marcy blinked at him, pinched her nose.

He stood, “She is the fucking mother of all ether and substance!  She is a goddess!”

Marcy was having none of it.  “So long as this check don’t bounce.”

He’d been forced to close the door to his office then, unable to imagine not killing Marcy. It was like she’d perfected nonchalance simply to drive him nuts.  By the time she knocked on the glass to let him know she was heading out with the deposits, he’d forgiven her her trespasses against the actress.  He needed Marcy.  She knew his office like it was her own kitchen layout and her wife had benefits at her job, which meant he could afford to keep her on even after the meager raise he’d managed the year before.

To soften the tension still lingering in the office, he’d popped his head out before she got on the elevator.  “If you want to grab us some macarons from the bakery out of petty cash, I’ll dust off the French press while you’re at the bank.”

She paused and he thought, ‘If she says she could take macarons or leave them, I’ll throw a potted succulent at her head.’  But then she nodded and gave him the thumbs up before stepping onto the lift.


 

They walked the house again.

She paused in the kitchen, frowning at the ceiling fan.  “There are times when I think we should get an architect after all.”

He nodded, “I definitely think that has merits.”

Not for the first time, she explained her reservations.  “The last one took me for a ride, you understand.  I just can’t be hurt like that again.  It was devastating.”

George found himself wanting to lean against the countertop, to put his cheek into the palm of his hand.  It felt like a monologue was brewing.

But goddesses are fickle creatures and she merely turned away from the room with a little shrug.  “Who’m I kidding? I hate cooking.”

They took the little back stairs up to the second floor.  He reminded her that he’d have to consult with an engineer about taking the wall out between two bedrooms.  He almost suggested they revisit the architect, then thought better of it.

She stood at the center of the room, hugging herself despite the humidity of the house.  “So long as you handle it yourself.  I don’t want this thing to balloon into a big deal.”

Tilting her head, she said to him, “I know it is a big deal, you understand. I love this house. But I just can’t have the renovations devolve into some miserable ass table read in a play with too many characters.  I’d like to think of this project as something intimate.”

He nodded.

“You know, I never told you why I really came to you.”

He found that he was hugging himself, unconsciously mirroring her.

“I thought you went to a party at the Weinstein’s place and you saw my work there.”

Shelby Weinstein was the closest thing to ‘arriving’ that had happened to him before the actress.  It was a lucky break, as they would say in show biz parlance.  Shelby had dropped out of a design class they took together years before, opting for a degree in accounting instead.  Twenty years later she was handling a client list that was like a who’s who of the theater world and this close to firing her interior designer when Facebook, by whatever creepy mechanism the internet uses to connect human dots, suggested she friend George Resnick, her old, very much forgotten school chum.

The actress shook her head.  “Not entirely.  Shelby’s place is lovely, don’t get me wrong.”

He waited.

She shrugged, “Well, the short story is that I need this to go smoothly.  Drama is my calling professionally. I would live and die by that sword.  But at home I’ve learned I want things to be soft, easy.  Shelby said you took the blows.  No matter how maddening the contractors were or how much the architect fought her on things, you kept it humming.”

It came back to him then, the way Shelby’s project had teetered close to ruin every day for two months that felt like ten years.  He recalled the heartburn, like nothing he’d ever felt before.  A night at the hospital while they ran tests and eventually proved that he hadn’t suffered a heart attack. Marcy scrambling into the hospital room the next morning with a shopping bag from Duane Reade, feeding him omeprazole with a ginger ale; putting a muffin in his attache and telling him to eat it in exactly a half hour; washing a stain out of his neck tie in the sink and patting it dry with a paper towel; walking with him all the way to the subway, reading out his emails to him – only the important ones; shouting over the turnstile at the station, “Go get em, chief.”  He’d walked through that day in a daze and when he got back to his apartment, he’d wept into a pint of ice cream while watching The Good Wife.  While he kept Shelby’s project humming, his body began to fall apart from the strain.

Only later, when the photographs of her project came back for the website, did he feel some repayment for the stress.  It couldn’t be accounted for in the monies that passed into his bank account.  That had been nice – paying rent in advance for once, finally getting the rugs at his place cleaned – but the money had felt like nothing special when weighed against that night in the hospital.  Staring up into the blackness of a turned off television, he’d been held captive between two impulses: to unpack his life and figure out how to make it easier and to merely ignore it and hope that a little vacation at the end of the project would suffice.  Yet on the day he uploaded the pictures of Shelby’s house, he had at last found a modicum of comfort.  The way the sunlight struck her statue of a Hindu priest in the courtyard – the placement of which was one of the only things no one had argued about – had given him just one sweet teaspoon of joy.  Just enough for that moment.

The actress was studying him.

“I need someone who can take all the hits, George.  My life’s a wreck just now – I wouldn’t dream of telling you all the particulars.  Still, if you can make this whole thing feel like a dream on my end. A happy dream.”

He ought to run.

The light shifted in the room and without thinking he reached up and took the wrappings off the chandelier.  The crystals, opened up to the world like Venus rising from the sea, cast hundreds of rainbow shards over the walls, the ceiling and the floor.  He took a breath.

sparkling chandelier

“I am your servant,” he said.  He’d wanted it to sound courtly and perhaps a little funny, but he felt foolish the moment he heard it aloud.

She gave him that alligator smile again.

“Tell me, George: Can we make peach just a little bit ironic?”

The Clit Rocks

[A writing I found on my computer from a couple of years ago, inspired by female punk bands and a few inside jokes with my bestie that came from laughing at the wrong parts in The Vagina Monologues.]

It was Vic’s idea to wear the cone hats on stage.  When she saw the others hesitate, she said, “Only for the first set.”

Carrie laughed right out loud. “The first song, maybe.” For her part, Jen could not be moved to look up from the latest issue of Blender.

As always, she resented their doubts.  It was always been her thing to come up with fresh gimmicks and their thing to shoot them down, if only for a while.  The debates were usually short and eventually – after days of her freeze treatment – the girls would relent.  She held up her drawing to them again.

“It’s like we’re wizards of badass,” she said.

From behind a gleaming cover photo of Snoop eating a cherry out of Pink’s navel, Jen said, “They already know my pussy’s magic.”

Carrie howled with laughter, almost setting her hair on fire while lighting a smoke.  

Vic stalked to the back of the bus, threw herself over her  bed, and placed a call to Florida to vent the indignity.  Her mom, juicing something and so talking loudly over the whirring blades, said, “You always wind up in a huff, Victoria, and in the end, they always agree to some version of your idea.  And they’re usually good ideas.”

Vic  bristled, “What do you mean ‘usually’? Wasn’t the cat paws on the Cesarean Section tour my idea? Didn’t Rollingstones say, and I quote, ‘Vic Legend, styling the band as a rogue box of kittens, is as mad a cow as ever.’?”  She paused. “I mean, the mad cow reference made sense back then.”

punk image

Her mother seemed doubtful. “Hon, I think he was just calling you a cow.  Remember, that was the year you went off your meds and started comfort eating again.”

Jen walked past, opening a pack of toilet paper, “Didn’t he also say, ‘Always one to add more icing, Legend gets the outside of hard rock just right, even when her lyrics veer into maudlin pop cliches.'”

“Fuck Loder and his ugly fucking, fuck face,” Vic shrieked. 

Her mother just laughed. “Don’t let Jen get to you so much, Victoria.  Put her on for a sec.”

 

The older woman’s voice was as easy to hear in the bus as if they were standing in her sunny, pastel Miami kitchen; the slender drummer with the sleepy eyes was already reaching for the phone.  “Hello, Mrs. Hockman.”

“Jennifer, are you giving my girl heartburn again?”

Jen said, “Ha, ha, Mrs. Hockman, Vic’s giving us the stink eye. She wants us to wear these wizard costumes on stage when we get to L.A. and Carrie and I are like no way.”

Vic’s mother laughed. “Seems a little obvious, doesn’t it? I mean they already know you have a magical vagina.”  

Jen shot her bandmate a meaningful glance, “That’s what I told her, too, Mrs. Hockman.  Besides, I wasn’t sure I wanted to play a lot from the Sex Wizards album.  We had talked about throwing out some of our new stuff.”

There was a scraping sound as the older woman pushed open her patio door and stepped out onto her lanai.  She sighed as she plopped onto a chaise by the pool.  “Well, take it easy on her. She’s my girl.  You know, she does have some good ideas now and again.  You have to admit that.”

Jen was unmoved. “Like calling us the Poon Mullets? Something like that good idea?”

Vic’s mom laughed until she almost choked on her black cherry and kale juice.  “That one was stupid.  No, dear, the Clit Rocks is much better, and such a loving homage to Eve Ensler.”

Vic snatched the phone from Jen’s hand.  The drummer shrugged and closed herself in the bathroom.

“I’ve got to go, mom,” Vic said. “I don’t appreciate you and Jen using up all my minutes.”

“Was that calling plan your idea, too?” Jen said, opening the bathroom door just enough to peer out.  

The mother was still laughing when she ended the call.  “It smells like shit in here,” Vic mumbled, rolling over and burying her face in a pillow.  There was about an hour when the bus was silent.  Bob, the driver, never spoke and the rest of the crew were ahead of them in the other bus.  Finally Carrie – the peacekeeper – settled down next to Vic and offered to braid her hair.  Humming one of their songs, she combed through the gossamer gold, occasionally finding a grey hair and pulling it out, as was their custom.  Eventually, she said, “What if they were less sexy wizards, more scary – like with beards and stuff?”

Vic snorted.  But then she mulled over the idea.  “Yeah.  Maybe.”

Jen was tilting up an empty bag of Doritos and letting the crumbs fall into her mouth.  She weighed in, “What if the beards were on out tits?”

Vic rolled her eyes.  The bus hit a bump and Carrie pulled her hair.  Wincing, she said, “Hairy tits? That’s your idea?”

Jen shrugged.

“Maybe wizard hats and mustaches?” Carrie tried again.

“On our tits or our veejays?”

Carrie laughed, “I was thinking on our faces.”

Vic was nodding, “Pink mustaches.”

And soon they were in agreement. As the tour bus rolled into a vivid Kansas sunset, the Clit Rocks settled down to practice some harmonies with Real Housewives on the TV and the sound on mute.  Bob rocked his head back and forth to their grooves and it felt like this comeback tour was going to be better than all the others.

Dear Dad

 

I went with Ed to put flowers on your grave today. Two roses from the bushes we just planted. One for me and one for Ed. I thought you’d like that, something simple and beautiful earned by hard work. You showed me that in spades.
I thought about you the other day in a particular way I had not before. I thought about how you found a second passion, later in life, when you went into real estate. It was something you’d wanted to do when you were younger. You patiently met your retirement goals with NIH and then you started again, a new life in a sense. And just as you might have the first time around, you had to build from scratch, take risks, be patient, make mistakes, try again. I thought about how maybe it was hard on you waiting that long to start over again. How it must have been so tiring to your spirit.
But then, I wasn’t with you at the NIH job every day. Maybe you had a couple of work pals to cut up with; maybe you took pride in completing projects. Maybe that fed you enough, especially with dreams and future plans to mull over on the long ride home and the ride back.
I was trying to think of which of the flowers we planted to take to you. I thought of the snap dragons and then I wondered if there was metaphor lurking there. I decided not, but it did give me pause, remembering how your eyes glowed red all my childhood, abused as they were by paper work, long hours and – your constant companion – bitter allergies. You seemed tired to me so much, impatient and gruff and hard to please in the years I was little and wanting to please the most. By the time your circumstances, your mellowing age and perhaps a shift in values made you over gentler, I had become the hard one. A young man bent on his own goals, making perfunctory dinner plans, feeling I was doing my duty, thinking somewhere deep that one day it would even out. We’d meet in the middle.
In many ways, we did grow closer. I know you loved me and I know you knew I loved you. The last year of your life, when we thought you’d fooled your cancer, I found often that I had hit a button on my phone by accident. I’d look down and see your name on the screen. For a second, I’d wonder had you called me or had I called you. Caught off guard, distracted, I would give the least of myself to a quick conversation, laughing shortly that I had called by accident. I’d ask how you were and you always answered honestly, humbly, and with thought. You’d ask how I was doing. I would say fine, that work was busy, that all was normal at home.
me and dad at wedding reception
Recently I had a client who wanted some help developing a business plan. It isn’t my expertise, but I felt like I could offer something. Like you, I’m not without ideas, not without a solid sense of logistics. I worked with a friend to help me. It came out good. Then the client’s realtor started acting cagey toward them and I wanted to ask you for advice. It hurt me so much that I couldn’t make that call. Not because of business, but because it was another reminder that all that I could make of us, I had done – in youth, arrogance, unforgiving just a little bit, cautious a mite.
I made peace with the harsher memories of being the different child in the family, the one judged for it, when I was younger. In the years that followed, you showed the kindness and the love that I wish had always been between us. And I was thankful for it. But I was also unsure of it. I stood to the side of it, giving back a lukewarm version of the same. I think time, my own age and humility, would have helped with the knitting you were casting.
I wish you had lived to be old – very old – to have felt strong and manly and capable as long as possible. It would have been great to get to be old enough in my own skin to have met you fully in the middle. It is a regret, painful to be sure, but one that I want to put to bed. It isn’t fair to think I could have done more. I did what I knew to do in those days and hours in which we were both here.
Now, in the aftermath of your death, I have been changed. I have never been short of empathy and compassion, but I now want to show some of that to myself, that I can avoid the snap dragon years. I am a sourpuss at times, eyes red like your own, tired more than my age. I would have what you found later now. I have been trying to feel more patience toward other people. I’ve been trying to let things bother me less. I cursed the garden hose this morning, fowl and guttural, and perhaps battling to become so saintly as to overcome pique at tricky, dumb things about the house is asking too much. I only want to make more room for pleasures, to ask myself if my impatience in a moment would be replaced with calm. One gentle lesson at a time, to retire bad habits of spirit early or as early as possible. I miss you, old man, in more ways than any one letter can cover. Know that I love you, miss you, and wish we could have had more of time and talk.
In the spirit of you, I am happy to set a goal of more life, love, freedom and joy in myself – a little spell to cast, pulling myself out of shadows, delusions of age, finding the sun again, the light and optimism that youth cannot help but hold easily. We who are ripening know something about optimism that youth sometimes misses: it takes tending, I’m grateful to know. You set a fine example.
All my love, your son, Paul

Us Lovely Monsters

For each generation of children, there are fears of destruction hurtling at them from the outside world.  Growing up in the 80s, we had many to choose from, but nukes, kidnappers, and serial killers topped the list.

lonely house 2

The first of these was optimistically if grimly tempered with the conventional wisdom that Russia wouldn’t bomb us because they knew we’d bomb them back.  However sound this logic may or may not have been, it was a comfort and whenever it rose anew, we kids all nodded sagely and hoped that it was right.

If my Uncle Eddie, who should have been moldy from carrying so many wet blankets around, were present, he’d say something like, “It’s Korea you have to worry about. Chinks.  They’ve got nothing to lose.”  I’ll leave that there.

Kidnappers seemed the more likely threat.  Mom was always cautioning us against getting away from her in stores.  “I just think of that made for TV movie I saw… That poor woman never forgave herself.”  There’s a cold comfort in knowing only ABC ratings bait stood between us and a life of captivity in a backyard compound made of rusty car parts.  Were a haggard JoBeth Williams in a ruffled working mom blouse even a skosh less haunted about leaving her son alone in the McDonald’s fun house to take a shit, one of us kids would have been decorating milk cartons.  Thank you, JoBeth, thank you.

Serial killers still creep me out, as they darn well should.  As a kid in the post-70s, the nation had come through so many hardships with Vietnam and Watergate and Sonny and Cher, that when the anchor people turned to the latest case of a missing woman in the greater metropolitan area, you could tell this was the new lighter fare.  The gravity of their eyes lessened almost as much as if they were about to take us to footage of a family petting zoo getting a reprieve from a tax audit.

Stories about serial killers was such standard issue in the 80s, that when I started a kid detective agency with my sister and cousin, we wrote out detailed MOs about our made up killers.  It was pretty professional grade stuff.  Our sick sons of bitches tended to go after look alike nurses who drove similar cars.  Case file notes included phrases like ‘pert nose’ and ‘strawberry blond’ and ‘dark green Pontiac’.  We cajoled my mom, who worked from home as a medical transcriptionist, to type our reports up on her hospital-issue forms, but we had to draw our crime scene photos ourselves.  No matter how grim the carnage, each shot wound up with a Crayola sun and flying bird in it somewhere.  It wouldn’t have taken Judge Wapner to point out these were inadmissible in court.

The end result of all these fears was that it taught me the notion that people were possibly more apt to be monsters than heroes.  Time has revealed a more nuanced truth: people can be disappointing and disheartening, but most of them aren’t planning to drop bombs, steal your kids, or toss your body parts into the Green River.  But before I learned that, I saw the world as grimmer than statistically possible.

One night my folks drove us home from my grandmother’s house, the car wending through forests to left and right, and I passed out of childhood.  Until then, I had thought of the woods as threatening, just as they were in fairy tales.  Then we passed a small house with a sparse lawn glinting in the moonlight.  There was only a single window lit and I imagined that someone was doing something horrible to someone else inside.  The threshold was passed through in that instant and goblins and bears and wolves faded into fancy, leaving behind the big fear of adulthood: each other.

 

Marla

My aunt Marla was not easy to like, but she was maybe the funnest person to watch in Wassavale County.  There is something about people who have no filter that makes their every interaction a grenade with a loose pin.  You know this could go south quick, but you can’t look away.

Through knowing her, I learned the difference between nice and polite.  Some people always say what the social contract assigns them, but they’re filled with poison inside.  Marla didn’t really hate anyone, I discovered eventually, but she couldn’t help seeing folks exactly as they were.  And saying things from that same place of truth.

There was a lot that was unstable about my childhood, but the one thing I could count on was that when things got dicy at home, my aunt would swing by in her shiny blue Mustang and drive me away from everything hateful.   One Memorial Day weekend when I was nine, an argument between my folks sent my Mom into a tizzy and she wound up going to stay with her folks for most of the day.  She was going to leave us, she said, a threat she employed so often that my older sister, Hillary, never acted frightened of it anymore.

Aunt Marla came as soon as my father called her, though doubtless she had her own holiday plans.  Dad always said moss didn’t grow on Marla.  Despite the opening day throng, she took us to the town pool – a treat for county kids – and pissed off an old friend of hers within the first half hour.

pool2

My sister had abandoned us the moment we arrived, being at that stage in her teens when it was considered uncool to have relatives either older or younger than oneself.  Having made an immediate beeline for the long line at the food hut, I was happily eating a wafer thin cheeseburger twenty minutes later when a smiling woman in a wide-brimmed hat approached us.

“Howdy, stranger!”

Marla was rubbing on cocoanut oil.  There were signs on the fence around the pool asking people not to use too much lotion; this was her second replenishment.  I thought it made her smell like a parfait from Tastee-Freez and it made me hungry all over again.

Marla glanced at the woman over her shoulder without smiling.

“Oh. Hi, Crystal.”

“I miss seeing you at church.”

“I haven’t gone in ten years.”

Crystal squinted out across the glittering pool water, then perched on the edge of Marla’s lounger.  She bit her lip, her eyes cutting to me.

“Is this your nephew? You’ve grown, sugarbooger.”

I smiled nervously, aware that I had a smear of ketchup on my chin.  As I dug around in Marla’s bag for a napkin, she arranged herself to bask in the sun.  She turned to the woman in the big hat.  My aunt’s power to unnerve was heightened by her perpetual accessory, slightly mirrored sunglasses, which hid her warm brown eyes while reflecting back at them their own growing anxiety. Staring down Marla was like looking into the thin, hardened face of a state trooper with the addition of a frazzled blond lion’s mane.

“I gotta say, Crystal, you look great.”

The other woman’s smile was short lived.

“Yeah, Crystal.  When I heard what that son of a bitch did to you, I thought, ‘Well, she won’t show her face for a year.’ I mean, it was embarrassing to even hear about it.”

Crystal stood quickly.

“Me and Bobby are working things out now.”

Marla snorted.  “Well, good luck.”

Crystal opened her mouth to say something, thought better of it, and walked away with studied ease.  Marla nodded meditatively at the departing figure.

“Those beauty pageant types – the really good ones – never lose their poise. It’s classy. She’s real classy.”

Opening the wrapper on a Zero bar, I tilted my head to study Crystal’s posture.

“I thought you didn’t like her.”

“Why’d you think that?”

I almost said the first thing to come to my mind, but I decided on another answer.  “Well, I thought maybe you didn’t like her asking about you going to church.  Mom hates it when people ask her when she’s coming back.”

Marla laughed shortly.  “I don’t give a shit about that stuff.  Crystal’s okay.”

 


 

I found out from my mom that night that Crystal’s Bobby had cheated on her, embezzling money from the auto dealership where he worked to pay for a secret love nest with another woman.  The dealership was owned by Crystal’s dad, so the betrayal ran all the way through the family.

I dried the dishes and watched Mom burn through a menthol.

“Your aunt’s gonna get killed one day,” she said.  “But I’d have loved to see the look on that bitch’s face when Marla brought up the thing with Bobby.”

“That’s not nice, though, is it, Mom?”

This was from my older sister, who was standing on a step ladder, putting away a casserole dish with green daisies on the sides.  Hillary blinked down at us through her thick, peach-toned eyeglasses.

Mom shrugged. “She was stuck up in high school.”

It wasn’t much of a defense, but we knew that no matter how much Mom may have disliked someone, she’d never say anything to their face that would cause them a moment’s discomfort.  She wasn’t like her sister-in-law at all.  Neither was our Dad, who’d suffer almost anything rather than cause someone else the smallest qualm of self-doubt.

Aunt Marla had a theory that his personality was what kept my folks together.

“If your Dad wasn’t a weakling, your Mom would have been out on her ass years ago.”

She told us this many times throughout my childhood in one way or another.  The last time Marla said this was when she was driving Hillary to a fitting for her wedding dress.  I was along for part of the way; they were going to drop me off at a friend’s house in town.

There had been a kerfuffle at the house that morning that left Mom refusing to go with my sister to the dress shop.  The fitting appointment was a day after Mom’s birthday, but because her birthday fell on a Friday that year, she had lobbied to move the celebration to Saturday instead, which didn’t necessarily require the fitting to be cancelled, although Mom thought it should have been.  She was sure that the dressmaker would take too long and they’d be rushed to get ready for dinner. Looking back on it, there was no reasonable outcome that would have required anyone to change their plans.  Still, by the end of the Saturday morning argument, Mom stormed into her bedroom, shrieking, “Happy fucking birthday to me.” Slam.

 


 

As always, Marla was available at the drop of a hat when I called her to pick us up. Dad explained before we left the house that he offered to take my sister, but that Hillary refused.

“Of course she did,” Marla said. “You’d be a wreck at a fitting. Up and down, trying too hard not to act bored.  But you’ve never had a poker face, Sonny.  Besides, you gotta stand watch over crazy in case she tries to cut her wrists again.”

Dad glanced through the car window at us, his lips drawn thin.  Hillary was staring out through the windshield, her green eyes as cool and latently ferocious as the twin jade dragons at the Chinese restaurant in town.  He tilted away to look at our low slung rancher, dully lit by the overcast day.  “She’ll be alright, I think.”

Marla shrugged.  “When she pulls that stick out her ass, I hope it leaves a splinter she can’t reach with tweezers.”

“You’re a real peach,” Dad said.

I looked up quickly to see if he was being sarcastic – something I thought was literally impossible for him – but he was giving his sister a genuine smile.

“I mean it,” he said.  “You’re more of a mother-”

“Don’t,” Marla said.

She patted his hand quickly, then hit the window toggle to shut him out.  As she pulled away, she said for herself only, “It’s too stuffy outside to shoot the shit with him when I got the A/C running.”

We were halfway down the drive when she made her famous claim again, “If he had even squirrel balls, he’d have thrown her into the bin back in the beginning.”

My sister and I were silent.  It seemed each time it came up that one or the other of us would finally snap and say something to defend our mom.  Yet despite the hurt Marla’s words caused, I think we each felt there was enough truth that anything we said would have been hollow loyalism.

At the end of the drive, Marla said, “Chipmunk balls even.”

 


 

We didn’t know it that day, but Dad was working on an exit strategy.  He was just waiting until my sister’s wedding was over.  While she and her husband were in the Poconos, he served Mom with divorce papers and moved into an apartment in town.  It wasn’t far from the pool and I would still have been going to the same high school in the fall, but I stayed with Mom.  Marla’s jibs about my mother’s attempted suicides weren’t cut from whole cloth, and since the age of seven, I had lived with an underlying terror that I’d be the one to find her dead.

Dad understood all too well.  And while I think he would have liked the company, he was probably relieved to know someone was taking up the watch in his absence. The weird thing was that the divorce went really smoothly.  Mom even had moments when she was calm and insightful.

“He did the right thing,” she said one day in the fall.  We were bringing in firewood together. There was a lot one could say about Mom, but she never shied from work.  She was carrying in twice as much as me.

“You’re not mad?”

“Nope.”

But as the days of winter grew shorter and colder, the all too familiar flatness settled on her.  I knew the signs like the words of a song you hate, but can’t escape on the radio.  She started taking less showers, forgetting to eat, and sleeping later into the morning.  Each day when I left for school, my stomach was in knots, worrying about what I’d find when I got home.  By New Years, I wasn’t sleeping a whole night through.

I called Aunt Marla out of desperation one Sunday morning when Mom refused to get out of bed. She didn’t fail me, as she never had, and within a half hour, I heard the wheels of the Mustang crunching through the gravel.

Marla looked a little worn to me that day as she paused out on the breezeway.  Her tan was still fixed in place, thanks to a subscription she cherished deeply at a salon over in Bunkport, but her face looked leaner than ever.  For the first time, I saw that, like the rest of us, she was getting older, too.

The first thing she did when she entered mom’s bedroom was to pull the bedspread off the bed and yank the pillow out from under her head.  It was like a magician’s trick, seeing the cloth whip away in one clean arc, leaving in place one limpid woman – forty, fat, curled in a ball.

Mom grunted. “What are you doing, Marla.”

“Stripping the bed.  These sheets are fowl.”

“Leave me alone.”

“You think Corey needs your pity party?  Get the fuck up.  We’re washing your sheets and we’re washing your hair.  You smell like a whore with busted plumbing.”

That made my mom laugh out loud, rolling on her back and pushing out her laughter at the ceiling.  I couldn’t find the humor, but I smiled at Marla.

“Get up,” she said.

Over breakfast, Marla told my mom what she was going to do with the rest of her life.  Or she told her what the next few weeks of it were going to look like.  “You’re going to start seeing a therapist.  I know a woman.  She’s good. I’ll get you in quick.”

“So I’m not allowed to be depressed after my husband leaves me and my daughter runs off.”

“Your daughter didn’t run off.  She left with her husband after a wedding that was two years in the planning.  You’re an asshole if you feel abandoned by her.  Hillary was old enough to start her own life.”

Mom glanced moodily out the window.  The wintery yard was as homely a silver yellow as a boiler onion.  She was going inside of herself again.

Marla gestured to me and I covered my belly with my hands, a thing I did whenever anyone looked my way.

“This one can’t start his own life yet, so you owe it to him to pull yourself together.”

Before she left, she made Mom agree to see a therapist.  I watched my aunt drive down the driveway and wished desperately she’d turn the car around, tell me to hop in.  I would have loved to have gone to live with her, to sleep on her sofa, to keep my clothes in a bundle hidden behind the TV.  I would never leave a dish unwashed, I’d close the fridge without a sound.  I would have made myself as quiet as a mouse, as small as a beetle, if it meant I could tuck away into her life instead of that one. As I turned back to the house, I saw Mom through the kitchen window, pouring herself a glass of juice.

Maybe Marla’s advice would take hold.  She could get some help, pull out of this. Winter would be over before we knew it.  Marla was blunt and sharp, she held your feet to the fire.  But you never felt guilty when she told you how things were. You simply knew she was illuminating the truth.  Do with it what you would.

In that way, she was the sunlight when I was small.

 

 

Burning Down the House

My people take it on the chin.

We absorb the blow.

Yet I have observed a curious thing about being hurt by someone else.  Even when the hurt is unintended, merely a clumsy misuse of words, it gets at something cold and murky in my psyche.  When I’m burned, I answer with ice.

Perhaps it is a protective skiff of the cold stuff, a pristine shield that rises until I am done licking my wounds – be they imagined or real.  The good news is that I pick away at it with logic and eventually pull myself from the numbing tomb.

While I am in that place, though, I am not easy to be around.  My words are few, my smile is absent – laughter unimaginable.  A dry observer would call it pouting, but that would be ungenerous.  Or perhaps only partly true.

It wasn’t always this way.  Before there was ice, there was fire.

christmas shopping

Friends of mine know a story I tell about a plastic flashlight in my childhood.  It involved my sister, Bird; there are few stories centered on this one that aren’t complicated.   The story ends with me climbing under a thorny hedgerow to retrieve a Christmas gift.  Yet the aftershocks are permanent, leaving their impression on my adult self.  The artifact of that day is the reason I always go to ice.  It is a safer alternative to setting fires.

When I was a kid, shopping for other people was a pleasure.  I wasn’t so concerned with whether or not the recipient would like it, so long as it made sense for them in some vague way and so long as it fit my firmly defined budget.  Our parents gave my sisters and I each a small sum to get everyone’s gifts with and then shepherded us through the mall until we were finished. It must have been crushingly obnoxious to them.

Because I always saved my cleaning allowance (marveling that I got cash for doing my favorite thing) it meant that I had a little more to spend.  I started with Mommy and Daddy, then picked something for the girls, then my aunt Becky and my Grandma.  If there was enough left over, I might get something for a favorite cousin.  Somehow I always made the budget work.  When it worked out perfectly, I ended with one small self-indulgence, a candy bar to eat in secret.

My sister Bird was another person altogether.  She started shopping for her school friends first, sparing no expense, as she had all the spontaneous generosity of a bi-polar lottery winner on a spree.  This meant that she had to ask for more money at some point in the afternoon.  The one Christmas shopping trip I remember clearest is the one that led to my tussle with the thorn bushes later in the winter.

My mother wasn’t gifted at setting boundaries. When Bird found her in the  JC Penney and asked for more money, Mom started with a defense weaker than day one of a little league training camp. Answering in a tone that is the closest audible rendering of hand-wringing I have ever heard, she said, “Bird, damn it. You know your father and I said you only get fifty this year. You knew that going in.”

“I know, Mommy, but Travis’ friendship ring was eight dollars and the pack of scrunchies I got for Tammy was another three and-”

“Who’s Travis?” Mom asked.

“He’s new in school. He’s awesome.”

“But, damn it, Bird. Your father and I are really pressed this year. We barely had enough money for the Christmas tree lights.”

I heard this with a chill, horrified to imagine we were so close to ruin.

Bird didn’t miss a beat.  “But I think Cassie would love a vanity set for her Cabbage Patch Kid and she gave me something for my birthday and I forgot hers. Please, Mommy, please.”

Her desire to please her friends was admirable.  Eventually, as she kept the whining up through the department store, Mom forked over another twenty. Her parting comment was, “But if me and your father lose the house, I don’t know what we’ll do.”

Then as Bird skipped off to finish her purchases, Mom turned to me and confided resentfully, “If she cared about us as much as she does her friends…”

I had heard this before and knew her take on it.  Bird just used us as a crashing pad, a money dispensary, a food bank.  She showered her affections on everyone but the family. Her heart was really with those people who lived further along the school bus route.  Mom viewed them as coarse and simple.  She couldn’t imagine what Bird saw in them.

“Those old Butterfields,” she’d say. “More like Butterballs. I don’t get it.”

This was a conversation she had with her sister on the telephone, zig-zagging her way through the house with a spiral cord marking her path like a line on a treasure map.  My aunt said something funny and Mom laughed before leaning in on a remembered scandal.

“You know old Carol Butterfield?  Poor homely thing. Wasn’t her husband mixed up in that thing with…”

Disappearing into the depths of her bedroom and shutting the door, I would never find out what scandal had befallen Carol Butterfield’s husband.

Before we left the mall that day, Mom double checked that we each finished our shopping. My oldest sister, Moo, who had done hers in the first hour and spent the rest of the day perched at the fountain, reading a new book, looked up from the last chapter and nodded. I patted the sides of my bags with a look that said I’d shopped like a hero: Dad was saved again from the yearly horror of running out of monogrammed handkerchiefs; Grandma would have a new addition to her collection of trivets; and Mom was going to love finding room for another what-not in the china cabinet.

Bird glanced away cagily.  Knowing she’d already pushed the limits, she was smart enough to back off for the present.  In the coming weeks, she’d find the gifts for the family here and there, as we went to the Dollar General.  And she’d have less trouble wheedling a dollar or two at a time out of our parents to add to her stash of gifts.  Still, I would keep track, watching every transaction jealously from behind a TV Guide.

And I tallied her abuses to our family finances like an estate planner with only one client. “One curiously egg-shaped pack of pantyhose for Aunt Becky. Check. There goes the oil bill. If Mom’s right, we’ll be bedding down in sleeping bags by the end of January.”

Or, “A completely unnecessary multi-pack of Pez dispensers for all the boy cousins. I hope she likes eating beans and rice, because our days of chicken patties are going the way of Unions.”

One cheaply packaged Christmas gift at a time was sending us straight to the poor house. Fostered on this idea of imminent ruin and miserly concern about how others acquire their goods, it is no wonder I reached adulthood as a young republican, the admittedly androgynous Alex P. Keating of our knotty little family.

When Christmas day arrived, Bird’s gift for me was a flashlight.  It was small and yellow, not much bigger than a fat Crayola marker.  I studied it for a moment trying to understand the reason she’d picked it. Seeing me puzzling over it, she said, “Because you like to play detective.”

Then it made sense.  I liked it.  She was right: when I wasn’t cleaning the house and singing the soundtrack to Disney’s Cinderella, I was embroiled in cases of espionage and detection.  Many dollar bills had been taped behind the pictures on the living room walls, so that I could discover them as a clue in a later hunt.  And that year I had formed a detective agency with Bird and my cousin Carrie that involved gory coroner’s reports and copious notations about serial murders.

I was touched that Bird’s gift matched up to something I cared about.  The weeks of staking out her every shopping decision were forgotten as I placed the yellow flashlight with my other treasures on my immaculate dresser.

As is the way with kids, we are sometimes enemies and sometimes friends.  Weeks later, when Bird and I got into a quarrel – the cause of which is long forgotten – I spotted the flashlight on the dresser. Remembering my mother’s comments about how Bird always spent more on her friends and gave them better gifts, I no longer saw how the flashlight fitted my sleuthing life.  I saw it as something else; a Dollar Store find. One of the cheap pick ups that crowded the check out line.

I snatched it up as we bickered back and forth.

“I hate your stupid, cheap gift,” I said.  It took the words from her, it took the air out of the room, extracted the sunlight from the day, greyed the snow on the window sill.  Still I wasn’t through.  Even as her eyes filled with tears, I had to keep burning down the house. I had to make her hurt like what ever (now forgotten) thing she’d said that hurt me.

I took the flashlight out of the house and I threw it into the overgrown bushes that lined the yard.  It was trash.  She was trash. I hated everyone.  It still chills me to remember that act of wicked loathing.

I remember her face peering out at me from the screen door, streaked with tears, her small brown eyes crinkled closed, two painful lines in a reddened circle to remind me this was a human face.  I had succeeded in setting that fire but it brought me no joy.

Flooded with immediate regret, I crawled under the bushes, pushing through even as the thorns cut my arms and the snow shocked my skin, and I found the flashlight  and brought it to her in muddy hands.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I really do like it.  I really do.”

She couldn’t answer yet.

“I’ll clean it,” I promised.

But the thing about setting fires is that they leave only scorched earth, fragments of what existed before only found if you kick through the ashes.  The building of new takes time and there is no replicating the old.

We hope to find peace with our own transgressions and if we’re lucky we learn something that helps us later.  I cannot reclaim that bubble of time during which the flashlight was pristine and my friendship with Bird imperfect but unscarred, but my empathy was finely tuned by that day.  And though instinct may stir to set the fire, I have learned to draw the ice over me until it passes.