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.

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.

 

 

Hell Fire

In the early autumn of 1981, my Mom and I discovered a new radio song to harmonize over as we drove around town.  It was an Oak Ridge Boys tune called Elvira.  You should go Youtube it and then unfollow me.  I deserve nothing less.  Of all the things I share with Mom, the biggest may be that I’m a big picture dreamer who sometimes needs to focus on the details as to not screw them up.  With that song, we spent about a year singing the lyrics wrong.  Although to this day, I still think ‘My heart’s on fire….hell fire-ah” is a gutsier choice than what the Oak Ridge Boys recorded.

station wagon edit

Those last weeks of August were dreamy, though the threat of school skulked at the edges of my mind.  Still, it was hot enough for shorts and we weren’t yet ready to go shopping for Trapper Keepers and pencils. The station wagon didn’t have air conditioning, so the drives were windy and warm.  Our legs stuck to the seats unless we wiggled around from time to time. The syrupy remains of cola in the console drew flies if you stopped in traffic too long. The music took our minds off the heat and bugs.  We didn’t care who heard us singing.

If you were to catch our passionate duet as we pulled into a parking lot in those days, you would likely be in one of three places in town.  This might be outside the A & P, as grocery shopping was our never ending endeavor.  You could be a tired commuter stopping to grab some low calorie TV dinners on the way home, your double knits really chafing your thighs, your comb over slipping down over your gigantic eyeglasses as you glanced up to see who was making the commotion.

Actually that guy would be my father and if he had smarts he’d disavow any knowledge of our existence in that moment.  He’d hunch down in his gas-guzzling, Flint-built Ford, waiting for us to disembark from the station wagon and make our way inside.  This was a different time, before smart phones, so he would have likely wound his wrist watch, balanced the check book, and people watched while he waited for us to leave.

The other place you might find our mother son performance playing out would be the parking lot of the Tastee-Freez.   Musical artists need creamy indulgences – it is our fuel, our reward and our punishment.   My sister Bird would be along for the ride, scowling out the side window, puzzling over a thing she’d heard about on 20/20.  Called emancipation, it was something kids could do to divorce their parents.  Most likely she would have been working out who to hit up for shopping money if she went through with it.  Tinkerbell makeup didn’t buy itself. One thing was for sure: she wasn’t enjoying our singing and she wasn’t joining in.  When we got to the counter, we all united around the theme of helping Mom cheat Weight Watchers, that cult she and Dad had joined earlier in the year.

That had started innocently enough in the late winter.  At our first barbecue of the spring, Mom made a special sauce that had half the calories.  They took the skin off the drumsticks before they grilled them.  We were likely not told that the mayo in the potato salad was low cholesterol because in memory we gobbled it down with all the usual verve.   Our new ways were different, but they were tasty enough, so we had no reason to fear.

But then our grocery shopping began to entail skipping whole sections of the store. There would be no more strawberry Quik, so more Chips Ahoy. Breakfast cereals were edited to only beige and brown as colorful bowls of morning happiness became a thing of the past.  It was as if this Weight Watchers crowd had explicitly said,  “Children should learn nobody promises us rainbows.”

Then came melba toast and cottage cheese.  It was war.

“Mommy, we were good at K-Mart.  Can we go to Tastee Freeze?”

“Now, damn it, kids. No.”

“Please? Please? Please?”

“Goddam it.”

Ever the staunch hold out, she’d make an abrupt u-turn, cutting off a pedestrian with a stroller, and in moments we’d be heading toward sweet, icy bliss.  As we drove around town ten minutes later, licking down our cones while singing Elvira wrong, she’d say, “This will be our little secret. Daddy will be sad that he didn’t get any.”

We’d shrug in agreement and though Bird would still not sing with us, she was happy to lean her face out into the crisp sunlight, letting the wind ruffle her hair and eyelashes like a winsome golden retriever. Up along Main Street, belting ‘hell-fire-ah, hell-fire-ah’ as we passed the movie house, the five and dime, the old ladies gaping at us from the bench outside the furniture store.

The other place you might have been standing as our car pulled in, blaring that song, was the local library.  If it were a light day there, we’d find a spot quickly, happily dashing in to find new books.  On a busy day, Mom circled the parking lot with a seething resentment. She was all too happy to explain who was to blame for our parking troubles.  Lest there be confusion, our family holds the belief that someone is always to blame.

“It’s the transplants.  They come here to live, bringing their snobby Northern Virginia attitudes, telling us there’s nothing to do here. But they love to belly up to the public library.”

Then as a woman approached a car, she’d pause hopefully.  If the woman got in and drove off, we were golden.  If she were merely retrieving a forgotten volume from the car seat, Mom watched her return to the cool, air-conditioned library with a scowl.

“Now she saw me waiting there. She could have waved me on. Typical transplant.”

Perhaps Mom was cranky.  It had been a couple of hours since she perched a slice of canned peaches and a dollop of cottage cheese onto a melba toast wafer and called it lunch.  As she scoped out the next opening with a set jaw, we gazed out into the grasshoppery meadow along side the library, knowing that this too would pass, that the song would catch us up again, carrying us along to the next stop.  Most importantly, if we played our cards right, there would be ice cream.

 

 

1986

He was closer to his mother when he was a boy.  The father could not put him to sleep; only she, the soft love of her soft voice reading.  As she spoke the stories, he forgot to be afraid of shadows.  He found the enchantment of other worlds: a cabin in the prairie with a china lady on the mantle; a little island out over Canada where the roads were red and the gables green.

The boysome, bounding bravery of others did not come easily to him.  His voice was gentle, his brown eyes shadowed.  Early on in his childhood, he found a dread of school.  Other children sensed something about him was different.  The questions in their faces humiliated him and when they found the words that fit, if clumsily, their savagery cleaved him from any sense of belonging.  The world at school was terrible to him.  Had he been able to disappear into it, had he a talent for that, he might have slipped through the years less scathed.

In his fear, he was friendless, except that he had his mother.  She forgave him his fears, by and large, even if she couldn’t pry the cause of them from him.  It made sense that she understood him.  She was a nervous wreck herself: afraid of spiders, big open spaces and stairwells.  In their little ranch house with the yellow walls and the low ceilings, they were safe for a long while.  Then she began to fear crossing the bridge between the house and town.  It began to imprison them.

Escape

[From a piece about escaping to a childhood home, a theme that recurred a lot in my imagination in my 20s and found its way into my drafts last year.  The idea of a person taking shelter in a forgotten place was comforting to me once; perhaps it turns on the same part of the psyche that makes preppers enthusiastically dig out their bunkers.]


 

It is starting to mist when she asks the driver to stop at a clapboard house with a broken trellis and a faded green door.  He sets her suitcase on the walk while she counts out change from her coin purse.  From the porch, she watches him turn the taxi around and head back from where they came.  His taillights paint a second set of red eyes on the wet street when he brakes lightly at the intersection.  Then the vehicle rolls forward and soon vanishes into the distance.  Taking a breath, she steps onto the sidewalk and heads across the street, turning southward along a wall of shrubbery.  Her steps are quick.  She keeps her head lowered.  Once she hears a car approaching and she presses close to the hedge, holding her breath.  The car turns at the corner and she moves on.

Delaware Farmhouse 1From the house with the faded door, it takes her ten minutes to walk to the place just outside of town where the old main road meets the highway.  She almost misses the mouth of the drive because the honeysuckle has laced the fence posts together, a Jacob’s ladder of vine.  It will be best if she does not disturb their camouflage, so she hunts a while to find an opening she can squeeze through.  When she’s on the other side of the vines, she breaks off a twig of cedar and reaches out to swipe her footprints from the damp soil.

The drive is much as she remembered it, though the view to left and right has changed.  Even in the smoldering twilight she can see arcs of wild poke berry and sumac in the fields.  All the soft wily growth of the countryside has returned.  There was a time when even the dreamy dandelion was kept at bay.  It is better this way; let the scrub grow and grow, blotting out the farm and hiding her from all searching eyes.

 

Sweetness

[Another fragment of an incomplete idea.  After Poe or Rice, I suppose. – PM]

It is a lost island now, abandoned by people over a century ago, scrubbed clean by storms that came from the southern seas in later years.  Nestled a mile off the coast in the Carolinas, it was never meant for human feet, with its rocky meadows and thin woods, woven through with hateful sumac.  Now and then local youths take a boat out to it, though it is not easy to approach, and they build a fire on the narrow beach, leave crushed beer cans behind to glitter like silver in the sand and scrub grass.

At the heart of the overgrown mass, a pair of chimneys rise higher than the trees, wrapped to the top in woolly vines, surmounted by great nests for great birds who keep watch there.  In the autumn, when the winds sweep low and come up through the old flues, the air carries the ghostly perfume of wood smoke. These twin homes are made of many things, with bone and driftwood shards thrusting outward as if to escape or to project a warning.  The birds have collected an intriguing inventory: the leg of a doll, with lacquered pink toe nails; strands of a silk ribbon, French blue; pull tabs from cans; a lost gold cross, cheap little thing turning green where the shoulders of Christ would have pressed. The hairs of a hundred heads, a pearly run of eight track tape.

The chimneys belonged to a house that was broken by a fire in the nineteenth century and washed away by a  hurricane a hundred and twenty years later. Before it was ruined, it was a majestic house, the pride of an architect, the boast of a gentleman.  The brutal reflection of the ocean once glanced off the pale blue porch ceilings, wrinkles of light above the slaves bringing and taking, caring for their family with loathing at a smolder beneath every mandatory kindness.  The breezes carried the scent of Carolina pines into the rooms, set lacy shadows  dancing over mahogany chests,  and caused the fringes on the drapery to move like fingers coming out of sleep.

A soldier once came upon the island in the midst of the Civil War and his account of the place then would have chilled hearts in northern parlors, had he made it home to Pennsylvania.  He washed ashore from an overturned vessel into a chilly March twilight and washed out again on a warm June evening, his nude body curiously elegant as it whirled in waves and moonlight.  The tide carried his arms out from him, parted his legs, drew them together again, spun him down and lifted him up. Wet black curls shrouded his face from god and heaven and from the demon that watched him from the water’s edge. His mother had always loved his curls; he had kept them short most of his life.

His name was Joshua.  He’d been born on a farm, raised in a house on a ridge, where one tall oak shaded them in summer. He worked all his youth alongside his father and he dug the old man a grave when he fell in the rows, leaving behind whatever of grace and pain this world had given him.  During a long winter, Joshua remained beside his mother, their hearth bright but hearts heavy, limbs weary.  They shared their grief until spring, when he returned to the fields and the sunlight and new baby leaves reminded him that life, like the earth, must recover itself.

Mother could not find bloom.  Her face, when he came to the door at sunset, was a grey stone lifted to his worried glance.  He found himself studying the floor or his lap while they ate, rent by guilt that he was no longer filled with so much of the sorrow she could not escape.  When the war began, he enlisted with relief, arranging for an aunt in Philadelphia and her two young boys to come work the farm.  The last time he saw her, his mother was tucking a loaf of bread into his bag.  She pretended to think he was going on an adventure and that it would be good for him in the end.  He felt her standing on the porch, waving as he walked down the lane, but he couldn’t bare to turn and look.  There was a breeze rustling the wheat field, making the leaves near the crowns wave a final goodbye.

He had been on a schooner patrolling the Carolina coast for blockade runners, when the storm dropped, bedeviling the waves and rocking them faster and faster toward doom. There were no cries rising into the gloom when at last his shoulder washed firm into the grains of sand.  The tide bathed him again and again as he began to realize he had not perished, but had survived the sinking of the vessel.

He rose on clumsy, childish limbs, seeing the roof of the great island mansion ahead of him, rearing against the dusk, with a light in a window near the eaves. The sky just beyond the roof was a rich, dark lavender, like a bruise he’d seen once on his mother’s jaw.  He headed toward it, his ears still filled with water and the sound of water.  He thought he smelled wood smoke, but later he decided it must have been only a memory.

They used to line the walk to the house in crushed shell, the family that had taken to the island, so that he was able to follow the thin pale stream of it from the water’s edge to the verandah.  His boots, though worn through and wet, seemed unduly loud on the steps as he approached.  When no one came to answer his knocks – such polite sounds – he pushed open the door and entered the dim foyer.

In this time, though he could not have seen it in the gloom of dusk, the island still had about it the remnants of wealthy graces.  The hawthorn was vaguely the shape it had been when tended weekly by brown, calloused hands.  The stucco of the walls bore the ivory hue of a lime wash.  In the kitchen gardens, the fine plantings had not been choked yet by the native weeds, so that on a rainy morning, one smelled rosemary and sage along with the pine and sea salt.  Likewise, the great entrance into which he stumbled wetly had about it the vestiges of refinement.  The gilded frames of the mirrors held soft, warm highlights from the setting sun.  In the chilling air, the perfume of lemon oil had not closed itself yet, so that the fragrance of the furniture was carried on the air itself, despite the dust that had settled of late upon the rooms within.

She met him at the top of the stairs, the mistress of the house, a slender form in a long grey gown, her face covered over thickly in lace veils.  Her voice was leaden, as one entranced.  “You’ve come a long ways, I’ll wager, stranger friend. I saw you rise up out of the waves.”

He was startled to hear a voice.  The place had come to feel bewitched to him in his journey from water to marble hall.  Until she spoke, he’d wondered blearily if he were approaching the mystic realms beyond life as he had known it.  “I knocked…” he began.

She laughed at him. “The doors of this house are a jest.  Our ocean is the only portal that matters.  She never brings us enemies, though she often carries them away.”

He latched onto those words, despite his bewilderment.  The words became a puzzle, as tidy a handful as any parts to a small, but complex puzzle that a man might work through long, sleepless evenings.  They remained with him through the weeks that followed, when the encroaching tangle of the island began to thicken around the house, choking the vistas of the shores.

“I am not an enemy,” he said.  He wished he could see her face.

“That is a kindness,” she said. She lowered her head as she came to rest at the base of the steps.  They were now only a few feet from one another.

“I’m Joshua Pembroke,” he said. “I admit freely I am a Northern man, but tonight I am only a singular soul, a surviver of the ocean, through some curious benevolence, and not an enemy of you or your people.  I mean to say, I’ve not come as an enemy.  May I find succor on this place?”

She laughed.  “North and south are of little meaning here.  My people have always belonged to other lands, other islands.  I’ve no quarrel with you, stranger. And I am pleased to know your name, Joshua, although I am unable to return you the courtesy.”

“You will not give me yours?”

“I was never given a name,” she said. “Although they often called me Sweetness.”

“May I?”

“The name and I have never made friends, but nonetheless, I’ll answer to it, Joshua.”

He licked his lips, conscious of a sudden that his human needs were recovering from the torment of his ocean tumble.  He felt instantly a number of animal needs: he was hungry, he was curious, and he felt both sad and worried.  He decided that the worry was mostly for the woman whose face was hidden by the veil.

“I would call you Sweetness,” he said. “And I will do any service to repay your hospitality. I confess I am weary and hungered by my privations.”

A sound came from behind the lace, a liquid and light laughter. “Of course you are welcome as a guest.  It will dispel the loneliness.”

“Is it only ourselves here?”

“We are alone.”

As she spoke it, the last of the sunset faded from the sky outside, and the foyer and the great staircase dimmed.  Geese were flying over the island, their coarse calls sounding both lonely and hopeful.  They would be heading north, as Joshua had dreamed of doing the last two years.

He followed her to a room on the second floor, where she lit a lamp without saying another word.  He watched her in the lamp light as she opened a door to an armoire where gentlemanly garb hung.  She left him to undress, but within moments there was a light tap at his door.  When he swung it open, a basin of warm water was placed in the carpeted hall, along with a cake of soap on a flowered china dish and a stack of clothes, each smelling like the island of herbs and sea brine.

The only suit amongst the garments in the armoire that fitted his long, slender frame was curiously the finest of the clothes.  He felt unlike himself in ivory linen, although he would have lied if he denied the light clothing felt soft to his skin.  A silk cravat, though he knew not the mastery of it, made a warm knot over his chest against the cool dew of the evening.  He came down the stairs slowly, made new by his clothes, rendered a lord to the lost splendor of the house.  She met him at the base of the steps, herself changed int a gown of faded gold brocade, though still her head was shrouded in lace.

“You are quite handsome,” she said. “The tailor makes lords of clumsy men.”

“These garments are not tailored to me,” he said.

She lowered her head but said no more.

He followed her into the dining room of the great house, where the walls were painted with scenes of rural life, though nothing that spoke to the island upon which the house rested.  Here were the dark forests of distant Germany, with now and again a sunny glade that bespoke gentlemanly tours of Italy’s abundant gardens.  Larks were painted into drooping boughs of elm, the small eyes of auburn foxes glittered in the shadows of boxwood gardens.  In the distance, there was a soft light, neither dawn nor dusk, yet each altogether, making the room one in which both beginnings and endings were denied dominion over the other. A single candelabra was fully lit at the center of the table, casting light over a platter loaded with glistening pheasant, mounds of Carolina rice, jeweled with fig and almond, scented in cardamon. Joshua found his mouth watering as he took a seat at the head of the table, where she guided him with a lilting gesture.

“How do you come to be here alone?” he asked, loading his plate self-consciously.  He studied the folds of lace covering her from him.  There were stories he’d once been told by a young teacher, wherein monsters hid their faces from men, and souls were lost to temptation.  Memories of these tales crowded close to him as his mouth closed hungrily over his first forkful of the savory repast.

“I will not deceive you,” she said. “I am not the mistress of this this place.”

He poured himself wine from a decanter at his fingertips.  She had not moved to place any portion of the feast onto her own plate.  Rather, she pushed back into her chair, splaying white gloved fingers on the table before her.  “I was brought here to be hidden and hidden I have remained.”

The meal was rich, tasting like more than any ingredient his eyes could spy in the dishes.  The flavor was like every meal he’d ever had, but also like each gorgeous morning, rich with promises.  His mouth ran with watering over the scent and taste.  He became speechless as he ate.  She filled the silence with her story.

“I was born on another island, far away where it is always balmy, always friendly.  When they brought me here, I was only a child.  It never felt like home here and from the beginning, the lady of this place said I was bedeviled. Maybe she knew best.  Yet I do not think I was truly bedeviled until I was a young girl, when they brought the devil himself here to this rock.”

A part of him could hear her words, knew that her words were strange and that they ought to frighten him.  Still, the meal held him seduced, and the scent of the place and of her, and the light on her brocade dress.  He ought to have been thankful that he was alive, determined to find a way off the island, but he found that resolve too late.  The first night, her magic possessed him.  He ate in silence while she told her tale.

“The devil was my uncle, I came to discover later.  He was a clever beast with a wolfish beard, a white grin.  He would call me Sweetness until everyone did the same.  He could make the others come out of their cabins into the moonlight, dance in step as though he pulled their elbows and their knees by a single string.  Making them dance for him was his greatest delight.  He was careful for a while, until one night he could not resist a dare, and in the dim light of a half moon, he plied his mind to it and made the master and his women march out onto the lawn and jig along the dew-silvered grass until the sun rose. How their eyes flashed the next day, as they struggled to find a reason for their sense that something was amiss, as they wondered at the weariness of their arms and legs after a night of sleep.  The devil tucked himself into his work all the day, but under his lowered head, he grinned from ear to ear.”

Her words began to cut through the spell of the feast and, as he decided she spoke the truth, the food in his mouth began to taste of ashes.  He glanced down at the platter before him, but the plump bird of before was now a scrawny gull, not roasted, but torn open at the breast, the wings still covered in feathers. And the mounded tureen of rice and figs was a mess of crude things gathered from the island: worm, grass and hard little winter berries.  He cried out, rising from his chair, but his legs gave beneath him.  As he fell, his hand knocked the goblet, and it toppled with him, spilling blood milk and not wine.  It rinsed his eyes and the last blurry sight he remembered was tainted red.  She leaned over him, lifting the veil, but he was under before he could see her face.

 

Character Study: Marion Morrow

[Likely an excerpt from an idea for a novel, I found this in my drafts – incomplete – and liked the tone of the main character.  A good dragoon is hard to find.]

Marion Morrow was displeased that the train only ran to Bantry because she didn’t like riding in buses.  It wasn’t entirely the people, although she was happiest when she was the only person about; her stomach didn’t agree with rough engines.  It had been proven to her late in life, as she was already well past forty before even the smallest motors began to litter the streets. As she followed the porter up the platform, she fished around in her purse for coins to give him, all the while turning over options in her mind.

“It does seem a shame,” she said aloud, although not to the porter necessarily, “as I’m only another twenty odd miles to my destination.”

If he heard her, he didn’t indicate it by slowing step or a turn of the head.

The comment had not been for his benefit, she thought again, yet she repeated it once more, slightly louder.

As they were coming to the door into the modest Bantry station, he paused and turned to face her.  He had heavy eyelids that gave him a look of boredom or superiority.  She had often worn that expression in life.  Straightening her spine, she donned it now.

“Is there someone I could hire to drive me to Pendlebrook?”

He shook his head.  “No hacks in this town, ma’am.  If you took the train back down to Burlington, you could find drivers there. They got everything there in Burlington.”

Behind the charcoal glass of her round spectacles, she rolled her eyes heavenward.  “I have a hard time believing there isn’t a soul in this town clever enough to put an old woman beside himself on his wagon and drive her up to Pendlebrook.  The day is fair.  It’s early yet, so the drive back would only half be in the dark.”

He shrugged and turned to open the door into the station.

At the ticket window, she asked the same question a moment later.

It was a thin woman staring back at her there, with copper hair scoured into a bun at the back of her head.  Her own spectacles caught the light, making it impossible to read her eyes as she confirmed what the porter had said.  Marion Morrow was leaning in to argue, possibly to deliver a treatise on the national social illness of do-nothingness, when there was a discreet cough at her rear.  Assuming it was a person impatient with the queue,  she turned with a frown.

The very elder man who smiled back at her, immaculately dressed in light colors and fine fabrics, startled her out of her ire for a moment.  He took advantage of the moment to fill the silence.

“I am driving toward Pendlebrook, madam.  I’d be happy to bring you along with me, if you’d care for the kindness.”

Marion quickly agreed, although with an awkward lack of the proper words.  As the porter and the old man lead her from the station office, she glanced back to see if the copper-haired woman in the ticket window was watching them.  The woman was staring back intently, holding a sandwich up in front of her mouth.  The early afternoon light was still frosting her lenses, whiting her eyes.

In the lot outside the station, she was mildly irked to see that the good samaritan would be conveying her to Pendlebrook in a motor car, although she took some comfort in noticing it was as fine as the clothes he wore.  Who was the old man, she wondered, and she decided he was a monied eccentric.  She didn’t care much for the peculiar, especially when fancy was given opportunity for wild expression by means of wealth.  It was her opinion that outlandishness was par for the course among the poor, possibly a byproduct of degradation, but that among people with means, it was unseemly.

Switzerland

If he could reverse the order of the day, taking them back to the morning – to the moment before the argument – it would look something like this: the sun would lower among the peaks and the mist would thicken; the tourists would pick their way backward along the icy overlook; the ride back to Murren would seem nothing out of the ordinary, as the gondola belies no face nor a rear; then on lower ground they would all walk backward again, the group spreading apart in twos and threes as each returned to their lodgings.

Trent would step into the shower and the water would fly up off his skin and syphon itself back into the pin pricks in the shower head. He would peel himself into his pajamas again and step out on the terrace, where Henry would be sucking smoke clouds out of the thin mountain air, his cigarette growing longer, while Trent spat chocolate slowly into a teacup until it was full again and quite hot. Then and only then would they have reversed time enough to avoid the argument.

schilthorn coffee

They would be a blessed moment ahead of misunderstanding.  He could have imagined going back further, trains backing into tunnels, the plane recklessly hurtling itself over the Atlantic, tail first, seeming to gobble up its own jet stream. And again the sun would have drawn shadows in reverse, skin growing just a day younger, dew drops returning to the ethos.  But at that moment on the terrace overlooking Murren, there was still a chance that would have sufficed.

It was just after they talked about taking the lift to Schilthorn and a moment before Trent asked if Henry had gotten any texts from George Hargrove.  The chill settled closer about them when that was spoken.  Henry stiffened.

“I’m surprised you’d ask.”

“I’m sorry.”

Henry shrugged.  It was between them in the icy air, poised above the street, above the station so ideally close to the guest house.  Yesterday had brought the first snow of the season, causing the yellow leaves of autumn to fall, a sumptuous golden confetti under sugar drifts.  There had been jokes at check-in about them bringing winter with them.

Trent tried to move past it then.  “It really is like stepping straight into winter, isn’t it? In Milan it was still rather summery.  Chilly at night, of course. Remember you had to go back and get your sweater. That’s when I saw that man. I wish you’d seen it. So odd.”

The man with the huge hands.  They’d looked like something out of those old pictures from freak shows.  It was curious, because he was handsome – tall and manly enough – yet the size of his hands had given him a sinister edge.  One didn’t look at those hands and think of how they might caress a person; rather they seemed made for wringing a neck or for covering over a whole face, nose and mouth. They were smothering hands.

“I didn’t get a text until this morning,” Henry said calmly.  “He just asked how our trip was going.”

Trent forgot about the man in Milan instantly.  He felt his stomach turn over.  A flush set his cheeks afire like razor burn.  “That’s rich,” he said.  He didn’t recognize his voice.  It was stilted, forced.

“He’s trying,” Henry said.

“I know he’s trying. But it’s not what you think.”

Then Henry ground out his cigarette.  “Well, it’s more than you’ve done.  He’s not got it so easy, if you think of it.  He has the job of shutting down how he feels for me, of drowning it, putting it away.  You on the other hand have me – and you treat it like a house plant.”

“Not that analogy again, Henry.”

“Familiar little house plant.  You know how much to water it and where it likes to sit to take the sun.  It doesn’t require much.  Perhaps you’ll talk to it now and again. You’ve heard that helps. Read it somewhere, didn’t you?  Maybe you’ll tell it about the man with the big, funny hands.”

“Hateful bastard.”

“And if it grows too much for its container, you can always clip it.”

“How the fuck am I clipping you?”

Henry went silent.

Below them some other guests pushed out onto the street, drawing their hoods up, pulling on gloves.  And there was laughter as they chatted and made their way toward the gondola across the village.  Someone was talking about breakfast and another about lunch. Curls of vapor escaped their happy mouths.

“My god,” Trent said.  “You want to be with him, don’t you? That’s how you think I’m clipping you.  Monogamy.  It’s cutting you back.  It’s not what you want.”

Henry stared at him stonily.

“Go take your shower,” he said. “Let’s not do this today.”

“Tell me I’m wrong.”

“What I’ll tell you is that we both worked very hard to get here.  The last thing I want to do on holiday is audit my marriage.  Is that what you want?”

Henry always had a knack for cutting to the heart of the matter. Of course it wasn’t the time.  He should never have asked if Hargrove texted.  Then again Trent had always been one to peel away bandages and to pick at scabs.  He took in all the silver Swiss air he could draw and held it for a long moment.  Henry had turned to look out over the village by the time Trent stepped back into the room and removed his pajamas.

Shortly after they walked through the village, people joining the procession in twos and threes, until they came to the lift office.  And they climbed into the gondola and they rose up and lilted outward over the valley floor, little leaps as they crested the supports, butterflies bounding in their guts, gasps of surprise and shared laughter.  When they landed on Schilthorn, they followed along in a line until they came out onto the overlooks. There were still patches of ice because the day was  yet new; the sun would melt them later, after their group had returned to lower climbs.

The ice made them cling to one another; mothers to fathers; children to mothers; lovers to each other.  Until they came to the rails, where some of the group broke off and stood alone, taking pictures, or merely gazing out.  The view was rapturous: in every direction one saw charcoal peaks floating in pewter mist.  Here and there, as the sun plucked through, a ben-ben captured rock and ice, glittering like fragments of gold.

How had they come here?  Before there were lifts how had people the tenacity to keep climbing into this unknown?  Was is summer and green? Did they come to make a home when it was warm and easy, only to find themselves marooned later, unsure of how to descend when every deer path was but a series of bone shattering missteps?

The mountains were giving up no answers. Trent stood by himself for a long while, and it seemed that the other world – the world of their real lives – was small and clumsy and a little embarrassing up here in the divinity of Swiss highlands.  The testy exchanges when the internet wasn’t working right; the spot on the bathroom vanity one couldn’t help noticing when one sat on the toilet; the mind-numbing tasks at work, tackling the same problems from slightly altered angles.   Home and work.  Ice and accidents.  What we earn to keep and what we lose without knowing.

Once he’d been in New York, dashing across the West Side Highway.  His scarf had come loose but he didn’t realize it then.  Only when he got back to his hotel did he find it was gone.  Sometimes he wondered if it had looked romantic to the people waiting in traffic, the length of the scarf coming loose, whirling upward off his shoulders and floating down. Then he imagined the tires rolling nonchalantly forward, grinding it into the grey detritus of the street.  As each car crushed it, the scarf was less and less a thing of use and beauty and more and more it became merely city filth.

Henry came to stand at the rail beside him.  A moment later, they took each other’s hands and they found the restaurant and shared firstly a salad and then coffee with schnapps.  It was difficult to fathom the way forward. Trent would need to discover what Henry wanted and Henry would need the same.  Once they got back from holiday, it was hard to know what would remain of that distant life.

Still they made an effort to chatter about the trip and somehow or other when Trent got back around to the subject of the man in Milan with huge hands, it came out fresh and funny and made Henry laugh.  That felt good.  The dining room revolved slowly so that they saw the world below them from every angle as the sun came out to burn away the mist.

Late

Because she was late already, and she was deeply terrified of anything like a fuss, Mrs. Ritter took a seat on the porch and waited for the program to let out.  It was a fine afternoon in late spring, with a breeze driving in a great bank of thunderclouds from the north.  Still the sky was mostly clear yet, and the sun shimmered on leaves in the yard.

It was an undisputed fact that Dorothy Langham kept the best yard on Hawthorn Park.  The layout of the shrubbery and trees had been thoughtfully decided upon by Langham women of earlier times, but Dorothy added flashes of color to the lawn that had been lacking in the past.  An harbor of vivid orange Japanese lantern, not yet blooming, would be by June a triumphal archway to the sparkling new patio of white brick; and higher still than this pinnacle were rows of raised beds, filled with yellow lilies and purple salvia.  The latter waved at Mrs. Ritter cheerfully, perhaps even mockingly, while her eyes roamed the grounds softly.

Because the afternoon was pleasant, the French doors to Dorothy’s parlor were cast open.  Now and again a string of words listed outward, like the hem of the sheer drapery, a flirtatious glimpse of the event Mrs. Ritter was missing.  The room within was an elegant space, sparingly decorated with family oils and an antique Persian rug; a pair of white porcelain cats, rather melted-looking in the modern vein, held court upon the mantle, reminding guests that Dorothy brought panache to the Langham digs.  There would be a plate of dainty cookies next to a punch bowl of lemonade and a crystal vase overflowing with freshly-cropped peonies, dark purple and white vying for notice.  The women would each have made a commotion over the arrangement upon arriving and Dorothy, with a graceful arc of her wrist, would have reminded them that peonies arrange themselves in the right vase.  The women would nod and smile at the observation.

An affair of light and friendly gestures would be over in little time.  Mrs. Ritter couldn’t pretend she minded missing it.  She was at best a reluctant member of the club, and this particular speaker, talking as he was of the importance of art guilds in the contemporary American landscape, had only vaguely interested her when she got the program back in January.

“Another one of Candice’s picks, I should wager,” she had thought, setting the slender leaf of card stock aside.  Then she had thought nothing of it again until her husband asked her last night if her ladies’ meeting wasn’t in fact today.

“Oh, yes, it is,” she had said, trying to wrangle peas with her fork.  Her face was stern and then grimly satisfied when she speared the green herd.  Her husband, glancing up from his plate, mistook her expression for impatience at his inquiry.

“You and your ladies are very secretive at times.”

She gave a short laugh, musical and bright, like a string being plucked on a guitar. “And I can’t remember the last time you shared with me the goings on at the lodge. All very hush-hush. Do the men exchange the numbers of their mistresses?”

And because she went so absolutely far with her jape and because he thought the idea of it was so vulgar and beneath both of them, he bent closer to his supper and commenced to eat in silence.  Studying him for a moment with humor sketching a friendly map upon her moon-round face, she thought not for the first time that he was more the old woman of the house. Shrugging, she pushed aside her plate, an ostentation of peas left untouched, and glanced for a long while into the middle distance, dreaming ahead of the chocolate cake waiting for them in the cooler.

She ought to care more about art guilds, she thought now, as she eased back into Dorothy Langham’s wicker.  If the truth be told, she would have to confess that she found nothing more boring than sitting through speeches, than shaking hands with peers before and after said speeches, than walking home in a clutch of perfumed females, discussing the importance of important things.  If she could schedule her life for pleasure alone – ignoring generations of duty and discipline  –  there would be more of dessert and less of vegetable.

When the ladies at last began to pour out of the house, the sky had darkened more, the clouds growing like an inky spill, and Mrs. Ritter was for a moment struck with the impression she must make upon them, sitting out there alone like a child awaiting a punishment.  Her brows drawing momentarily closer, she launched herself from the seat swiftly, and smoothed her dress. She was smiling by the time the first of the club members approached her.

Throne Room

My favorite indoor place as a kid was the dark basement of our ranch house.  The faux wood paneling was littered with paint-by-numbers of flying ducks and macrame owls that perched on limbs of driftwood.  Above there was ceiling tile, stained rustily in places from water leaks.  The floors were institutional linoleum tiles, beige and avocado, coming up in places.  There was a huge brown sectional, decorated with a zig-zagged afghan, and a large wooden console with a convex piece of glass through which I escaped into other, far more delightful worlds.  In decorating terms, today this fairly hum-drum 80s TV room would make the most popular coffee house on any street in Brooklyn.  There may even have been a complicated Turkish coffee carafe wedged between dusty fondue pots on the top shelf of the laundry room.  Let us agree this is true because it might as well be.
tangina textThis underground level of the house, at times forgotten by my parents judging by the overflowing hampers in front of the washer and dryer, was all the inside world I needed or wanted.  As soon as I woke each morning of summer, I made myself a Tupperware bowl of cereal and headed carefully down the steps.  Ensconced on the sectional, I disappeared for hours into reruns of The Andy Griffith Show and Rhoda.  The latter informed my inner strong Jewish woman, the former mystified me, as I didn’t crack the Don Knots code until I was in my thirties.  Maybe I didn’t understand how this uptight deputy wound up as the neckerchief-wearing landlord to my favorite goofball trio on Three’s Company.

My eldest sister, Moo, was strictly a reader through the long days of summer; the middle child, Bird, never settled at home for long.  She often trotted off to visit neighbor ladies who smoked mentholated cigarettes while watching The Price is Right in darkened little living rooms.  Mom thought Bird didn’t love us sufficiently; I was thankful to have no challengers for my sacred territory.

By the age of ten, I was treating the basement as a sort of apartment all of my own.  It was true that the rest of the family piled in for evening TV viewing, but during the sleepy morning and humid afternoon hours, I was blessedly alone.  Sometimes I heard a pair of feet thumping overhead, then the door at the top of the steps would whine open about a foot.

“Paul, you down there?”

“Yes, mother.”

“Are you going to go outside and get some fresh air today or just lay around in your underwear again?”

“The latter, mother.”

“Your sisters are going to walk to the pool…”

“Mother, may I watch my stories in peace?”

A resentful pause; then an all-too-familiar bait.

“Do you want a fried bologna sandwich?”

“Very well, mother, if you insist.”

“If you don’t…”

“No, I do. I’ll be up in a minute.”

I took special care of that part of the house.  We didn’t have central air and the screens of our storm windows were always in some state of disrepair, so that all summer long there was what we called a fly problem.  At eleven o’clock, when the boring game shows began to air, I’d gather up plastic tumblers of Coke with dead flies floating in the syrupy backwash.  After I marched upstairs with them, I’d come back down with a butler’s whisk, a dust rag and a bottle of Liquid Gold.  Polishing the wagon-wheel end table until you could see your face in the spokes, I’d air my grievances over the condition of the place to my dream-mother, television’s own Barbara Eden.

“Can you believe how this swine live, Jeannie?”

Unfurling herself from the plush brown depths of the sectional with a kittenish yawn, she’d shake out her pink balloon slacks and give me a sympathetic eye roll. “I know what you mean, Sheffield. I woke up this morning with Cheetos in my ponytail. These people are pigs.”

I never asked her to use her magic to clean the place.  Not only would it have been rude to task a guest with the housework, I felt even then that the expectation of women to keep a tidy home was a sign of man’s centuries-long tyranny over the eyeshadow and wrap-dress sex. Ideologically speaking, my heart was in the right place.  Besides, something about my daily act of martyrdom was as pleasing to my senses as the smell of lemon when I mopped up Kool-Aid spills from the steps.

There was a corner in the back of the basement where a piece of the sectional that hadn’t fit had been stuffed. It created a sort of banquet against an accent wall of marbly streaked mirror.  The space struck me as sophisticated and somehow West Coast. Here I gave exclusive interviews to a then-young Barbara Walters, who my real mother had an unarticulated dislike for and whom, conversely, I had decided to worship.  Besides which, she rubbed elbows with the elite of the entertainment and political worlds. It was hard to downplay the panache of a woman who could cozy up in a taupe living room with a sticky-lipped Lonnie Anderson one week, then sit down in the Rose Garden to talk hostages with Reagan the next.  Between such engagements, she liked to catch up with me to discuss my latest, often gender-bending roles.

“Mr. Miller, tell us why you chose to star in this Of Human Bondage redux?”

Still a little high on Barbara’s effusive descriptions of my seaside estate in the opening, it took me a moment to focus on the question.  On screen, it would appear to be a satellite delay, despite the fact we were curled up together side by side in the sunny breakfast nook of my pool house.

“Oh, Barbara, so formal! Call me Paul or Sheffield or Destiny, please.”

“Alright, Destiny. But to the question…”

Here is where I knew the producers wanted me to ‘go thoughtful’ while they ‘zoomed in for a close-up’.  I also knew from past experience and from the sting in my left eye that I could squeeze out about two full sentences before the tears came.

“Well, Barbara, I had seen Of Human Bondage on WTTG out of Washington last Sunday afternoon when that hail storm cancelled our family run to Tastee Freeze, and I immediately thought, ‘Here it is. This is it. The role I was meant to play.'”

“The role you were meant to play,” Barbara repeated, nodding significantly. “But taking on a character that Bette Davis made famous…that would have to be daunting.”

“I never take on a project lightly, Barbara. And I called Bette to make sure I had her blessing.”

“Did you really?”

“Yes I did. It was important to me.”

“Destiny, what did film legend Bette Davis say to you when you called her Park Avenue condominium with brass wet bar and doorman service?”

“Well, Barbara…” And here came the tears, because of course. “I’m sorry…”

One of the boom operators slipped a Kleenex into my hand, barely detectable in the final edit, and I gifted him with the merest smile.  A rugged blond with a drooping mustache, he preferred to boom operate in faded denim cutoffs and a snug-fitting cinnabar t-shirt, emblazoned with ‘California Dreamin’ in juicy bubble letters.  I say preferred, but for all I knew, it may have been Barbara’s mandated uniform. Come to think of it, all the men on her crew wore the same outfit, even Hank, who clearly would have been more comfortable and less alarming in baggy coveralls.

“Barbara, Bette was very supportive. I’ll just say that.”

“Why so mysterious, Destiny?”

But I would never say and that was why Barbara always described me as ‘enigmatic’ and ‘unwatchable’.

When I was eleven, my parents put the house on the market and started building a new home on the other side of town. As the sprawl of our everyday lives began to sift into boxes and boxes became piles on the back of pickup trucks, I took pains to defend my basement wonderland. I lobbied that we pack it last, as it was after all the TV room and laundry, but the result was that the rest of them used it all the more.  Unable to explore my world of make believe in front of that particular audience, I found that I had few chances left to say a proper good-bye to this last stronghold of childhood fancies.  Then came a morning when my burly uncles clattered down the stairs to take out the sectional in pieces.  I had hidden my favorite accessory behind the interview banquet and rushed to grab it before they returned from the truck.

When I pushed my arm down between the cushions, my fingers brushed the chilly neck of a splatter-glazed bottle.  It was where my other Barbara lived, my Jeannie-mother, when she wasn’t reclining on the chocolate velour cushions, agreeing with me that perhaps Mash’s Charles Emerson Winchester III wouldn’t be such a jerk if Hawkeye wasn’t such a slob.  I stroked the bottle once more, wishing every wish could be true, all at once, a madly delightful escape out of the world of a misunderstood gay kid in the 80s and into the bottle, a round room with Technicolored pillows, swags of chiffon, and mad-cap adventures that returned to a familiar safe place every twenty-odd minutes.  Hearing the men open the basement door, the deep rumble of their voices as they shared a dirty-sounding laugh, I climbed up onto the back of the banquet, pushed aside a ceiling tile, and tucked the bottle away from sight.  It hurt to leave her there – my soft, blond mother, our dreams and adventures, our laughter – but the future loomed mysteriously, threateningly, and I felt somehow she wouldn’t survive out there in its bright glare.

In defiance of the changes I didn’t want and of the sweating brutes who called my mother sister, I sank Indian fashion into the center of the last piece of the sectional and folded my arms.  They thought it was funny to carry the piece out with me on it rather than to wheedle me into moving. And I thought it was funny, too, but not for the same reason.  It simply pleased me in a bittersweet way to be carried out of my kingdom on a throne.  A star deserves no less.