THE MADNESS of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder. Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end. No children in the yards here. Shadows lengthened on yellowing zoysia. Red oaks and pin oaks and swamp white oaks rained acorns on houses with no mortgage. Storm windows shuddered in the empty bedrooms. And the drone and hiccup of a clothes dryer, the nasal contention of a leaf blower, the ripening of local apples in a paper bag, the smell of the gasoline with which Alfred Lambert had cleaned the paintbrush from his morning painting of the wicker love seat.
Three in the afternoon was a time of danger in these gerontocratic suburbs of St. Jude. Alfred had awakened in the great blue chair in which he’d been sleeping since lunch. He’d had his nap and there would be no local news until five o’clock. Two empty hours were a sinus in which infections bred. He struggled to his feet and stood by the Ping-Pong table, listening in vain for Enid.
Ringing throughout the house was an alarm bell that no one but Alfred and Enid could hear directly. It was the alarm bell of anxiety. It was like one of those big cast-iron dishes with an electric clapper that send schoolchildren into the street in fire drills. By now it had been ringing for so many hours that the Lamberts no longer heard the message of “bell ringing” but, as with any sound that continues for so long that you have the leisure to learn its component sounds (as with any word you stare at until it resolves itself into a string of dead letters), instead heard a clapper rapidly striking a metallic resonator, not a pure tone but a granular sequence of percussions with a keening overlay of overtones; ringing for so many days that it simply blended into the background except at certain early-morning hours when one or the other of them awoke in a sweat and realized that a bell had been ringing in their heads for as long as they could remember; ringing for so many months that the sound had given way to a kind of metasound whose rise and fall was not the beating of compression waves but the much, much slower waxing and waning of their consciousness of the sound. Which consciousness was particularly acute when the weather itself was in an anxious mood. Then Enid and Alfred—she on her knees in the dining room opening drawers, he in the basement surveying the disastrous Ping-Pong table—each felt near to exploding with anxiety.
The anxiety of coupons, in a drawer containing candles in designer autumn colors. The coupons were bundled in a rubber band, and Enid was realizing that their expiration dates (often jauntily circled in red by the manufacturer) lay months and even years in the past: that these hundred-odd coupons, whose total face value exceeded sixty dollars (potentially one hundred twenty dollars at the Chiltsville supermarket that doubled coupons), had all gone bad. Tilex, sixty cents off. Excedrin PM, a dollar off. The dates were not even close. The dates were historical. The alarm bell had been ringing for years.
She pushed the coupons back in among the candles and shut the drawer. She was looking for a letter that had come by Registered mail some days ago. Alfred had heard the mailman knock on the door and had shouted, “Enid! Enid!” so loudly that he couldn’t hear her shouting back, “Al, I’m getting it!” He’d continued to shout her name, coming closer and closer, and because the sender of the letter was the Axon Corporation, 24 East Industrial Serpentine, Schwenksville, PA, and because there were aspects of the Axon situation that Enid knew about and hoped that Alfred didn’t, she’d quickly stashed the letter somewhere within fifteen feet of the front door. Alfred had emerged from the basement bellowing like a piece of earth-moving equipment, “There’s somebody at the door!” and she’d fairly screamed, “The mailman! The mailman!” and he’d shaken his head at the complexity of it all.
Enid felt sure that her own head would clear if only she didn’t have to wonder, every five minutes, what Alfred was up to. But, try as she might, she couldn’t get him interested in life. When she encouraged him to take up his metallurgy again, he looked at her as if she’d lost her mind. When she asked whether there wasn’t some yard work he could do, he said his legs hurt. When she reminded him that the husbands of her friends all had hobbies (Dave Schumpert his stained glass, Kirby Root his intricate chalets for nesting purple finches, Chuck Meisner his hourly monitoring of his investment portfolio), Alfred acted as if she were trying to distract him from some great labor of his. And what was that labor? Repainting the porch furniture? He’d been repainting the love seat since Labor Day. She seemed to recall that the last time he’d painted the furniture he’d done the love seat in two hours. Now he went to his workshop morning after morning, and after a month she ventured in to see how he was doing and found that all he’d painted of the love seat was the legs.
He seemed to wish that she would go away. He said that the brush had got dried out, that that was what was taking so long. He said that scraping wicker was like trying to peel a blueberry. He said that there were crickets. She felt a shortness of breath then, but perhaps it was only the smell of gasoline and of the dampness of the workshop that smelled like urine (but could not possibly be urine). She fled upstairs to look for the letter from Axon.
Six days a week several pounds of mail came through the slot in the front door, and since nothing incidental was allowed to pile up downstairs—since the fiction of living in this house was that no one lived here—Enid faced a substantial tactical challenge. She didn’t think of herself as a guerrilla, but a guerrilla was what she was. By day she ferried matériel from depot to depot, often just a step ahead of the governing force. By night, beneath a charming but too-dim sconce at a too-small table in the breakfast nook, she staged various actions: paid bills, balanced checkbooks, attempted to decipher Medicare co-payment records and make sense of a threatening Third Notice from a medical lab that demanded immediate payment of $0.22 while simultaneously showing an account balance of $0.00 carried forward and thus indicating that she owed nothing and in any case offering no address to which remittance might be made. It would happen that the First and Second Notices were underground somewhere, and because of the constraints under which Enid waged her campaign she had only the dimmest sense of where those other Notices might be on any given evening. She might suspect, perhaps, the family-room closet, but the governing force, in the person of Alfred, would be watching a network newsmagazine at a volume thunderous enough to keep him awake, and he had every light in the family room burning, and there was a non-negligible possibility that if she opened the closet door a cascade of catalogues and House Beautifuls and miscellaneous Merrill Lynch statements would come toppling and sliding out, incurring Alfred’s wrath. There was also the possibility that the Notices would not be there, since the governing force staged random raids on her depots, threatening to “pitch” the whole lot of it if she didn’t take care of it, but she was too busy dodging these raids to ever quite take care of it, and in the succession of forced migrations and deportations any lingering semblance of order was lost, and so the random Nordstrom shopping bag that was camped behind a dust ruffle with one of its plastic handles semidetached would contain the whole shuffled pathos of a refugee existence—non-consecutive issues of Good Housekeeping, black-and-white snapshots of Enid in the 1940s, brown recipes on high-acid paper that called for wilted lettuce, the current month’s telephone and gas bills, the detailed First Notice from the medical lab instructing co-payers to ignore subsequent billings for less than fifty cents, a complimentary cruise ship photo of Enid and Alfred wearing leis and sipping beverages from hollow coconuts, and the only extant copies of two of their children’s birth certificates, for example.
Although Enid’s ostensible foe was Alfred, what made her a guerrilla was the house that occupied them both. Its furnishings were of the kind that brooked no clutter. There were chairs and tables by Ethan Allen. Spode and Waterford in the breakfront. Obligatory ficuses, obligatory Norfolk pines. Fanned copies of Architectural Digest on a glass-topped coffee table. Touristic plunder—enamelware from China, a Viennese music box that Enid out of a sense of duty and mercy every so often wound up and raised the lid of. The tune was “Strangers in the Night.”
Unfortunately, Enid lacked the temperament to manage such a house, and Alfred lacked the neurological wherewithal. Alfred’s cries of rage on discovering evidence of guerrilla actions—a Nordstrom bag surprised in broad daylight on the basement stairs, nearly precipitating a tumble—were the cries of a government that could no longer govern. He’d lately developed a knack for making his printing calculator spit columns of meaningless eight-digit figures. After he devoted the better part of an afternoon to figuring the cleaning woman’s social security payments five different times and came up with four different numbers and finally just accepted the one number ($635.78) that he’d managed to come up with twice (the correct figure was $70.00), Enid staged a nighttime raid on his filing cabinet and relieved it of all tax files, which might have improved household efficiency had the files not found their way into a Nordstrom bag with some misleadingly ancient Good Housekeepings concealing the more germane documents underneath, which casualty of war led to the cleaning woman’s filling out the forms herself, with Enid merely writing the checks and Alfred shaking his head at the complexity of it all.
It’s the fate of most Ping-Pong tables in home basements eventually to serve the ends of other, more desperate games. After Alfred retired he appropriated the eastern end of the table for his banking and correspondence. At the western end was the portable color TV on which he’d intended to watch the local news while sitting in his great blue chair but which was now fully engulfed by Good Housekeepings and the seasonal candy tins and baroque but cheaply made candle holders that Enid never quite found time to transport to the Nearly New consignment shop. The Ping-Pong table was the one field on which the civil war raged openly. At the eastern end Alfred’s calculator was ambushed by floral print pot-holders and souvenir coasters from the Epcot Center and a device for pitting cherries which Enid had owned for thirty years and never used, while he, in turn, at the western end, for absolutely no reason that Enid could ever fathom, ripped to pieces a wreath made of pinecones and spray-painted filberts and brazil nuts.
To the east of the Ping-Pong table was the workshop that housed Alfred’s metallurgical lab. The workshop was now home to a colony of mute, dust-colored crickets, which, when startled, would scatter across the room like a handful of dropped marbles, some of them misfiring at crazy angles, others toppling over with the weight of their own copious protoplasm. They popped all too easily, and cleanup took more than one Kleenex. Enid and Alfred had many afflictions which they believed to be extraordinary, outsized—shameful—and the crickets were one of them.
The gray dust of evil spells and the cobwebs of enchantment thickly cloaked the old electric arc furnace, and the jars of exotic rhodium and sinister cadmium and stalwart bismuth, and the hand-printed labels browned by the vapors from a glass-stoppered bottle of aqua regia, and the quad-ruled notebook in which the latest entry in Alfred’s hand dated from a time, fifteen years ago, before the betrayals had begun. Something as daily and friendly as a pencil still occupied the random spot on the workbench where Alfred had laid it in a different decade; the passage of so many years imbued the pencil with a kind of enmity. Asbestos mitts hung from a nail beneath two certificates of U. S. patents, the frames warped and sprung by dampness. On the hood of a binocular microscope lay big chips of peeled paint from the ceiling. The only dust-free objects in the room were the wicker love seat, a can of Rust-Oleum and some brushes, and a couple of Yuban coffee cans which despite increasingly strong olfactory evidence Enid chose not to believe were filling up with her husband’s urine, because what earthly reason could he have, with a nice little half-bathroom not twenty feet away, for peeing in a Yuban can?
To the west of the Ping-Pong table was Alfred’s great blue chair. The chair was overstuffed, vaguely gubernatorial. It was made of leather, but it smelled like the inside of a Lexus. Like something modern and medical and impermeable that you could wipe the smell of death off easily, with a damp cloth, before the next person sat down to die in it.
The chair was the only major purchase Alfred had ever made without Enid’s approval. When he’d traveled to China to confer with Chinese railroad engineers, Enid had gone along and the two of them had visited a rug factory to buy a rug for their family room. They were unaccustomed to spending money on themselves, and so they chose one of the least expensive rugs, with a simple blue design from the Book of Changes on a solid field of beige. A few years later, when Alfred retired from the Midland Pacific Railroad, he set about replacing the old cow-smelling black leather armchair in which he watched TV and took his naps. He wanted something really comfortable, of course, but after a lifetime of providing for others he needed more than just comfort: he needed a monument to this need. So he went, alone, to a non-discount furniture store and picked out a chair of permanence. An engineer’s chair. A chair so big that even a big man got lost in it; a chair designed to bear up under heavy stress. And because the blue of its leather vaguely matched the blue in the Chinese rug, Enid had no choice but to suffer its deployment in the family room.
Soon, however, Alfred’s hands were spilling decaffeinated coffee on the rug’s beige expanses, and wild grandchildren were leaving berries and crayons underfoot, and Enid began to feel that the rug was a mistake. It seemed to her that in trying to save money in life she had made many mistakes like this. She reached the point of thinking it would have been better to buy no rug than to buy this rug. Finally, as Alfred’s naps deepened toward enchantment, she grew bolder. Her own mother had left her a tiny inheritance years ago. Interest had been added to principal, certain stocks had performed rather well, and now she had an income of her own. She reconceived the family room in greens and yellows. She ordered fabrics. A paperhanger came, and Alfred, who was napping temporarily in the dining room, leaped to his feet like a man with a bad dream.
“You’re redecorating again?”
“It’s my own money,” Enid said. “This is how I’m spending it.”
“And what about the money I made? What about the work I did?”
This argument had been effective in the past—it was, so to speak, the constitutional basis of the tyranny’s legitimacy—but it didn’t work now. “That rug is nearly ten years old, and we’ll never get the coffee stains out,” Enid answered.
Alfred gestured at his blue chair, which under the paperhanger’s plastic dropcloths looked like something you might deliver to a power station on a flatbed truck. He was trembling with incredulity, unable to believe that Enid could have forgotten this crushing refutation of her arguments, this overwhelming impediment to her plans. It was as if all the unfreedom in which he’d spent his seven decades of life were embodied in this six-year-old but essentially brand-new chair. He was grinning, his face aglow with the awful perfection of his logic.
“And what about the chair, then?” he said. “What about the chair?”
Enid looked at the chair. Her expression was merely pained, no more. “I never liked that chair.”
This was probably the most terrible thing she could have said to Alfred. The chair was the only sign he’d ever given of having a personal vision of the future. Enid’s words filled him with such sorrow—he felt such pity for the chair, such solidarity with it, such astonished grief at its betrayal—that he pulled off the dropcloth and sank into its arms and fell asleep.
(It was a way of recognizing places of enchantment: people falling asleep like this.)
When it became clear that both the rug and Alfred’s chair had to go, the rug was easily shed. Enid advertised in the free local paper and netted a nervous bird of a woman who was still making mistakes and whose fifties came out of her purse in a disorderly roll that she unpeeled and flattened with shaking fingers.
But the chair? The chair was a monument and a symbol and could not be parted from Alfred. It could only be relocated, and so it went into the basement and Alfred followed. And so in the house of the Lamberts, as in St. Jude, as in the country as a whole, life came to be lived underground.
Enid could hear Alfred upstairs now, opening and closing drawers. He became agitated whenever they were going to see their children. Seeing their children was the only thing he seemed to care about anymore.
In the streaklessly clean windows of the dining room there was chaos. The berserk wind, the negating shadows. Enid had looked everywhere for the letter from the Axon Corporation, and she couldn’t find it.
Alfred was standing in the master bedroom wondering why the drawers of his dresser were open, who had opened them, whether he had opened them himself. He couldn’t help blaming Enid for his confusion. For witnessing it into existence. For existing, herself, as a person who could have opened these drawers.
“Al? What are you doing?”
He turned to the doorway where she’d appeared. He began a sentence: “I am—” but when he was taken by surprise, every sentence became an adventure in the woods; as soon as he could no longer see the light of the clearing from which he’d entered, he would realize that the crumbs he’d dropped for bearings had been eaten by birds, silent deft darting things which he couldn’t quite see in the darkness but which were so numerous and swarming in their hunger that it seemed as if they were the darkness, as if the darkness weren’t uniform, weren’t an absence of light but a teeming and corpuscular thing, and indeed when as a studious teenager he’d encountered the word “crepuscular” in McKay’s Treasury of English Verse, the corpuscles of biology had bled into his understanding of the word, so that for his entire adult life he’d seen in twilight a corpuscularity, as of the graininess of the high-speed film necessary for photography under conditions of low ambient light, as of a kind of sinister decay; and hence the panic of a man betrayed deep in the woods whose darkness was the darkness of starlings blotting out the sunset or black ants storming a dead opossum, a darkness that didn’t just exist but actively consumed the bearings that he’d sensibly established for himself, lest he be lost; but in the instant of realizing he was lost, time became marvelously slow and he discovered hitherto unguessed eternities in the space between one word and the next, or rather he became trapped in that space between words and could only stand and watch as time sped on without him, the thoughtless boyish part of him crashing on out of sight blindly through the woods while he, trapped, the grownup Al, watched in oddly impersonal suspense to see if the panic-stricken little boy might, despite no longer knowing where he was or at what point he’d entered the woods of this sentence, still manage to blunder into the clearing where Enid was waiting for him, unaware of any woods—“packing my suitcase,” he heard himself say. This sounded right. Verb, possessive, noun. Here was a suitcase in front of him, an important confirmation. He’d betrayed nothing.
But Enid had spoken again. The audiologist had said that he was mildly impaired. He frowned at her, not following.
“It’s Thursday,” she said, louder. “We’re not leaving until Saturday.”
“Saturday!” he echoed.
She berated him then, and for a while the crepuscular birds retreated, but outside the wind had blown the sun out, and it was getting very cold.
DOWN THE LONG CONCOURSE they came unsteadily, Enid favoring her damaged hip, Alfred paddling at the air with loose-hinged hands and slapping the airport carpeting with poorly controlled feet, both of them carrying Nordic Pleasurelines shoulder bags and concentrating on the floor in front of them, measuring out the hazardous distance three paces at a time. To anyone who saw them averting their eyes from the dark-haired New Yorkers careering past them, to anyone who caught a glimpse of Alfred’s straw fedora looming at the height of Iowa corn on Labor Day, or the yellow wool of the slacks stretching over Enid’s out-slung hip, it was obvious that they were midwestern and intimidated. But to Chip Lambert, who was waiting for them just beyond the security checkpoint, they were killers.
Chip had crossed his arms defensively and raised one hand to pull on the wrought-iron rivet in his ear. He worried that he might tear the rivet right out of his earlobe—that the maximum pain his ear’s nerves could generate was less pain than he needed now to steady himself. From his station by the metal detectors he watched an azure-haired girl overtake his parents, an azure-haired girl of college age, a very wantable stranger with pierced lips and eyebrows. It struck him that if he could have sex with this girl for one second he could face his parents confidently, and that if he could keep on having sex with this girl once every minute for as long as his parents were in town he could survive their entire visit. Chip was a tall, gym-built man with crow’s-feet and sparse butter-yellow hair; if the girl had noticed him, she might have thought he was a little too old for the leather he was wearing. As she hurried past him, he pulled harder on his rivet to offset the pain of her departure from his life forever and to focus his attention on his father, whose face was brightening at the discovery of a son among so many strangers. In the lunging manner of a man floundering in water, Alfred fell upon Chip and grabbed Chip’s hand and wrist as if they were a rope he’d been thrown. “Well!” he said. “Well!”
Enid came limping up behind him. “Chip,” she cried, “what have you done to your ears?”
“Dad, Mom,” Chip murmured through his teeth, hoping the azure-haired girl was out of earshot. “Good to see you.”
He had time for one subversive thought about his parents’ Nordic Pleasurelines shoulder bags—either Nordic Pleasurelines sent bags like these to every booker of its cruises as a cynical means of getting inexpensive walk-about publicity or as a practical means of tagging the cruise participants for greater ease of handling at embarkation points or as a benign means of building esprit de corps; or else Enid and Alfred had deliberately saved the bags from some previous Nordic Pleasurelines cruise and, out of a misguided sense of loyalty, had chosen to carry them on their upcoming cruise as well; and in either case Chip was appalled by his parents’ willingness to make themselves vectors of corporate advertising—before he shouldered the bags himself and assumed the burden of seeing LaGuardia Airport and New York City and his life and clothes and body through the disappointed eyes of his parents.
He noticed, as if for the first time, the dirty linoleum, the assassin-like chauffeurs holding up signs with other people’s names on them, the snarl of wires dangling from a hole in the ceiling. He distinctly heard the word “motherfucker.” Outside the big windows on the baggage level, two Bangladeshi men were pushing a disabled cab through rain and angry honking.
“We have to be at the pier by four,” Enid said to Chip. “And I think Dad was hoping to see your desk at the Wall Street Journal.” She raised her voice. “Al? Al?”
Though stooped in the neck now, Alfred was still an imposing figure. His hair was white and thick and sleek, like a polar bear’s, and the powerful long muscles of his shoulders, which Chip remembered laboring in the spanking of a child, usually Chip himself, still filled the gray tweed shoulders of his sport coat.
“Al, didn’t you say you wanted to see where Chip worked?” Enid shouted.
Alfred shook his head. “There’s no time.”
The baggage carousel circulated nothing.
“Did you take your pill?” Enid said.
“Yes,” Alfred said. He closed his eyes and repeated slowly, “I took my pill. I took my pill. I took my pill.”
“Dr. Hedgpeth has him on a new medication,” Enid explained to Chip, who was quite certain that his father had not, in fact, expressed interest in seeing his office. And since Chip had no association with the Wall Street Journal—the publication to which he made unpaid contributions was the Warren Street Journal: A Monthly of the Transgressive Arts; he’d also very recently completed a screenplay, and he’d been working part-time as a legal proofreader at Bragg Knuter & Speigh for the nearly two years since he’d lost his assistant professorship in Textual Artifacts at D—— College, in Connecticut, as a result of an offense involving a female undergraduate which had fallen just short of the legally actionable and which, though his parents never learned of it, had interrupted the parade of accomplishments that his mother could brag about, back home in St. Jude; he’d told his parents that he’d quit teaching in order to pursue a career in writing, and when, more recently, his mother had pressed him for details, he’d mentioned the Warren Street Journal, the name of which his mother had misheard and instantly begun to trumpet to her friends Esther Root and Bea Meisner and Mary Beth Schumpert, and though Chip in his monthly phone calls home had had many opportunities to disabuse her he’d instead actively fostered the misunderstanding; and here things became rather complex, not only because the Wall Street Journal was available in St. Jude and his mother had never mentioned looking for his work and failing to find it (meaning that some part of her knew perfectly well that he didn’t write for the paper) but also because the author of articles like “Creative Adultery” and “Let Us Now Praise Scuzzy Motels” was conspiring to preserve, in his mother, precisely the kind of illusion that the Warren Street Journal was dedicated to exploding, and he was thirty-nine years old, and he blamed his parents for the person he had become—he was happy when his mother let the subject drop.
“His tremor’s much better,” Enid added in a voice inaudible to Alfred. “The only side effect is that he may hallucinate.”
“That’s quite a side effect,” Chip said.
“Dr. Hedgpeth says that what he has is very mild and almost completely controllable with medication.”
Alfred was surveying the baggage-claim cavern while pale travelers angled for position at the carousel. There was a confusion of tread patterns on the linoleum, gray with the pollutants that the rain had brought down. The light was the color of car sickness. “New York City!” Alfred said.
Enid frowned at Chip’s pants. “Those aren’t leather, are they?”
“How do you wash them?”
“They’re leather. They’re like a second skin.”
“We have to be at the pier no later than four o’clock,” Enid said.
The carousel coughed up some suitcases.
“Chip, help me,” his father said.
Soon Chip was staggering out into the wind-blown rain with all four of his parents’ bags. Alfred shuffled forward with the jerking momentum of a man who knew there would be trouble if he had to stop and start again. Enid lagged behind, intent on the pain in her hip. She’d put on weight and maybe lost a little height since Chip had last seen her. She’d always been a pretty woman, but to Chip she was so much a personality and so little anything else that even staring straight at her he had no idea what she really looked like.
“What’s that—wrought iron?” Alfred asked him as the taxi line crept forward.
“Yes,” Chip said, touching his ear.
“Looks like an old quarter-inch rivet.”
“What do you do—crimp that? Hammer it?”
“It’s hammered,” Chip said.
Alfred winced and gave a low, inhaling whistle.
“We’re doing a Luxury Fall Color Cruise,” Enid said when the three of them were in a yellow cab, speeding through Queens. “We sail up to Quebec and then we enjoy the changing leaves all the way back down. Dad so enjoyed the last cruise we were on. Didn’t you, Al? Didn’t you have a good time on that cruise?”
The brick palisades of the East River waterfront were taking an angry beating from the rain. Chip could have wished for a sunny day, a clear view of landmarks and blue water, with nothing to hide. The only colors on the road this morning were the smeared reds of brake lights.
“This is one of the great cities of the world,” Alfred said with emotion.
“How are you feeling these days, Dad,” Chip managed to ask.
“Any better I’d be in heaven, any worse I’d be in hell.”
“We’re excited about your new job,” Enid said.
“One of the great papers in the country,” Alfred said. “The Wall Street Journal.”
“Does anybody smell fish, though?”
“We’re near the ocean,” Chip said.
“No, it’s you.” Enid leaned and buried her face in Chip’s leather sleeve. “Your jacket smells strongly of fish.”
He wrenched free of her. “Mother. Please.”
Chip’s problem was a loss of confidence. Gone were the days when he could afford to épater les bourgeois. Except for his Manhattan apartment and his handsome girlfriend, Julia Vrais, he now had almost nothing to persuade himself that he was a functioning male adult, no accomplishments to compare with those of his brother, Gary, who was a banker and a father of three, or of his sister, Denise, who at the age of thirty-two was the executive chef at a successful new high-end restaurant in Philadelphia. Chip had hoped he might have sold his screenplay by now, but he hadn’t finished a draft until after midnight on Tuesday, and then he’d had to work three fourteen-hour shifts at Bragg Knuter & Speigh to raise cash to pay his August rent and reassure the owner of his apartment (Chip had a sublease) about his September and October rent, and then there was a lunch to be shopped for and an apartment to be cleaned and, finally, sometime before dawn this morning, a long-hoarded Xanax to be swallowed. Meanwhile, nearly a week had gone by without his seeing Julia or speaking to her directly. In response to the many nervous messages he’d left on her voice mail in the last forty-eight hours, asking her to meet him and his parents and Denise at his apartment at noon on Saturday and also, please, if possible, not to mention to his parents that she was married to someone else, Julia had maintained a total phone and e-mail silence from which even a more stable man than Chip might have drawn disturbing conclusions.
It was raining so hard in Manhattan that water was streaming down façades and frothing at the mouths of sewers. Outside his building, on East Ninth Street, Chip took money from Enid and handed it through the cab’s partition, and even as the turbaned driver thanked him he realized the tip was too small. From his own wallet he took two singles and dangled them near the driver’s shoulder.
“That’s enough, that’s enough,” Enid squeaked, reaching for Chip’s wrist. “He already said thank you.”
But the money was gone. Alfred was trying to open the door by pulling on the window crank. “Here, Dad, it’s this one,” Chip said and leaned across him to pop the door.
“How big a tip was that?” Enid asked Chip on the sidewalk, under his building’s marquee, as the driver heaved luggage from the trunk.
“About fifteen percent,” Chip said.
“More like twenty, I’d say,” Enid said.
“Let’s have a fight about this, why don’t we.”
“Twenty percent’s too much, Chip,” Alfred pronounced in a booming voice. “It’s not reasonable.”
“You all have a good day now,” the taxi driver said with no apparent irony.
“A tip is for service and comportment,” Enid said. “If the service and comportment are especially good I might give fifteen percent. But if you automatically tip—”
“I’ve suffered from depression all my life,” Alfred said, or seemed to say.
“Excuse me?” Chip said.
“Depression years changed me. They changed the meaning of a dollar.”
“An economic depression, we’re talking about.”
“Then when the service really is especially good or especially bad,” Enid pursued, “there’s no way to express it monetarily.”
“A dollar is still a lot of money,” Alfred said.
“Fifteen percent if the service is exceptional, really exceptional.”
“I’m wondering why we’re having this particular conversation,” Chip said to his mother. “Why this conversation and not some other conversation.”
“We’re both terribly anxious,” Enid replied, “to see where you work.”
Chip’s doorman, Zoroaster, hurried out to help with the luggage and installed the Lamberts in the building’s balky elevator. Enid said, “I ran into your old friend Dean Driblett at the bank the other day. I never run into Dean but where he doesn’t ask about you. He was impressed with your new writing job.”
“Dean Driblett was a classmate, not a friend,” Chip said.
“He and his wife just had their fourth child. I told you, didn’t I, they built that enormous house out in Paradise Valley—Al, didn’t you count eight bedrooms?”
Alfred gave her a steady, unblinking look. Chip leaned on the Door Close button.
“Dad and I were at the housewarming in June,” Enid said. “It was spectacular. They’d had it catered, and they had pyramids of shrimp. It was solid shrimp, in pyramids. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Pyramids of shrimp,” Chip said. The elevator door had finally closed.
“Anyway, it’s a beautiful house,” Enid said. “There are at least six bedrooms, and you know, it looks like they’re going to fill them. Dean’s tremendously successful. He started that lawn care business when he decided the mortuary business wasn’t for him, well, you know, Dale Driblett’s his stepdad, you know, the Driblett Chapel, and now his billboards are everywhere and he’s started an HMO. I saw in the paper where it’s the fastest-growing HMO in St. Jude, it’s called DeeDeeCare, same as the lawn care business, and there are billboards for the HMO now, too. He’s quite the entrepreneur, I’d say.”
“Slo-o-o-o-w elevator,” Alfred said.
“This is a prewar building,” Chip explained in a tight voice. “An extremely desirable building.”
“But you know what he told me he’s doing for his mother’s birthday? It’s still a surprise for her, but I can tell you. He’s taking her to Paris for eight days. Two first-class tickets, eight nights at the Ritz! That’s the kind of person Dean is, very family-oriented. But can you believe that kind of birthday present? Al, didn’t you say the house alone probably cost a million dollars? Al?”
“It’s a large house but cheaply done,” Alfred said with sudden vigor. “The walls are like paper.”
“All the new houses are like that,” Enid said.
“You asked me if I was impressed with the house. I thought it was ostentatious. I thought the shrimp was ostentatious. It was poor.”
“It may have been frozen,” Enid said.
“People are easily impressed with things like that,” Alfred said. “They’ll talk for months about the pyramids of shrimp. Well, see for yourself,” he said to Chip, as to a neutral bystander. “Your mother’s still talking about it.”
For a moment it seemed to Chip that his father had become a likable old stranger; but he knew Alfred, underneath, to be a shouter and a punisher. The last time Chip had visited his parents in St. Jude, four years earlier, he’d taken along his then-girlfriend Ruthie, a peroxided young Marxist from the North of England, who, after committing numberless offenses against Enid’s sensibilities (she lit a cigarette indoors, laughed out loud at Enid’s favorite watercolors of Buckingham Palace, came to dinner without a bra, and failed to take even one bite of the “salad” of water chestnuts and green peas and cheddar-cheese cubes in a thick mayonnaise sauce which Enid made for festive occasions), had needled and baited Alfred until he pronounced that “the blacks” would be the ruination of this country, “the blacks” were incapable of coexisting with whites, they expected the government to take care of them, they didn’t know the meaning of hard work, what they lacked above all was discipline, it was going to end with slaughter in the streets, with slaughter in the streets, and he didn’t give a damn what Ruthie thought of him, she was a visitor in his house and his country, and she had no right to criticize things she didn’t understand; whereupon Chip, who’d already warned Ruthie that his parents were the squarest people in America, had smiled at her as if to say, You see? Exactly as advertised. When Ruthie had dumped him, not three weeks later, she’d remarked that he was more like his father than he seemed to realize.
“Al,” Enid said as the elevator lurched to a halt, “you have to admit that it was a very, very nice party, and that it was very nice of Dean to invite us.”
Alfred seemed not to have heard her.
Propped outside Chip’s apartment was a clear-plastic umbrella that Chip recognized, with relief, as Julia Vrais’s. He was herding the parental luggage from the elevator when his apartment door swung open and Julia herself stepped out. “Oh. Oh!” she said, as though flustered. “You’re early!”
By Chip’s watch it was 11: 35. Julia was wearing a shapeless lavender raincoat and holding a DreamWorks tote bag. Her hair, which was long and the color of dark chocolate, was big with humidity and rain. In the tone of a person being friendly to large animals she said “Hi” to Alfred and “Hi,” separately, to Enid. Alfred and Enid bayed their names at her and extended hands to shake, driving her back into the apartment, where Enid began to pepper her with questions in which Chip, as he followed with the luggage, could hear subtexts and agendas.
“Do you live in the city?” Enid said. (You’re not cohabiting with our son, are you?) “And you work in the city, too?” (You are gainfully employed? You’re not from an alien, snobbish, moneyed eastern family?) “Did you grow up here?” (Or do you come from a trans-Appalachian state where people are warmhearted and down-to-earth and unlikely to be Jewish?) “Oh, and do you still have family in Ohio?” (Have your parents perhaps taken the morally dubious modern step of getting divorced?) “Do you have brothers or sisters?” (Are you a spoiled only child or a Catholic with a zillion siblings?)
Julia having passed this initial examination, Enid turned her attention to the apartment. Chip, in a late crisis of confidence, had tried to make it presentable. He’d bought a stain-removal kit and lifted the big semen stain off the red chaise longue, dismantled the wall of wine-bottle corks with which he’d been bricking in the niche above his fireplace at a rate of half a dozen Merlots and Pinot Grigios a week, taken down from his bathroom wall the close-up photographs of male and female genitalia that were the flower of his art collection, and replaced them with the three diplomas that Enid had long ago insisted on having framed for him.
This morning, feeling as if he’d surrendered too much of himself, he’d readjusted his presentation by wearing leather to the airport.
“This room is about the size of Dean Driblett’s bathroom,” Enid said. “Wouldn’t you say, Al?”
Alfred rotated his bobbing hands and examined their dorsal sides.
“I’d never seen such an enormous bathroom.”
“Enid, you have no tact,” Alfred said.
It might have occurred to Chip that this, too, was a tactless remark, since it implied that his father concurred in his mother’s criticism of the apartment and objected only to her airing of it. But Chip was unable to focus on anything but the hair dryer protruding from Julia’s DreamWorks tote bag. It was the hair dryer that she kept in his bathroom. She seemed, actually, to be heading out the door.
“Dean and Trish have a whirlpool and a shower stall and a tub, all separate,” Enid went on. “The sinks are his-and-hers.”
“Chip, I’m sorry,” Julia said.
He raised a hand to put her on hold. “We’re going to have lunch here as soon as Denise comes,” he announced to his parents. “It’s a very simple lunch. Just make yourselves at home.”
“It was nice to meet you both,” Julia called to Enid and Alfred. To Chip in a lower voice she said, “Denise will be here. You’ll be fine.”
She opened the door.
“Mom, Dad,” Chip said, “just one second.”
He followed Julia out of the apartment and let the door fall shut behind him.
“This is really unfortunate timing,” he said. “Just really, really unfortunate.”
Julia shook her hair back off her temples. “I’m feeling good about the fact that it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever acted self-interestedly in a relationship.”
“That’s nice. That’s a big step.” Chip made an effort to smile. “But what about the script? Is Eden reading it?”
“I think maybe this weekend sometime.”
“What about you?”
“I read, um.” Julia looked away. “Most of it.”
“My idea,” Chip said, “was to have this ‘hump’ that the moviegoer has to get over. Putting something offputting at the beginning, it’s a classic modernist strategy. There’s a lot of rich suspense toward the end.”
Julia turned toward the elevator and didn’t reply.
“Did you get to the end yet?” Chip asked.
“Oh, Chip,” she burst out miserably, “your script starts off with a six-page lecture about anxieties of the phallus in Tudor drama!”
He was aware of this. Indeed, for weeks now, he’d been awakening most nights before dawn, his stomach churning and his teeth clenched, and had wrestled with the nightmarish certainty that a long academic monologue on Tudor drama had no place in Act I of a commercial script. Often it took him hours—took getting out of bed, pacing around, drinking Merlot or Pinot Grigio—to regain his conviction that a theory-driven opening monologue was not only not a mistake but the script’s most powerful selling point; and now, with a single glance at Julia, he could see that he was wrong.
Nodding in heartfelt agreement with her criticism, he opened the door of his apartment and called to his parents, “One second, Mom, Dad. Just one second.” As he shut the door again, however, the old arguments came back to him. “You see, though,” he said, “the entire story is prefigured in that monologue. Every single theme is there in capsule form—gender, power, identity, authenticity—and the thing is. . . Wait. Wait. Julia?”
Bowing her head sheepishly, as though she’d somehow hoped he wouldn’t notice she was leaving, Julia turned away from the elevator and back toward him.
“The thing is,” he said, “the girl is sitting in the front row of the classroom listening to the lecture. It’s a crucial image. The fact that he is controlling the discourse—”
“And it’s a little creepy, though,” Julia said, “the way you keep talking about her breasts.”
This, too, was true. That it was true, however, seemed unfair and cruel to Chip, who would never have had the heart to write the script at all without the lure of imagining the breasts of his young female lead. “You’re probably right,” he said. “Although some of the physicality there is intentional. Because that’s the irony, see, that she’s attracted to his mind while he’s attracted to her—”
“But for a woman reading it,” Julia said obstinately, “it’s sort of like the poultry department. Breast, breast, breast, thigh, leg.”
“I can remove some of those references,” Chip said in a low voice. “I can also shorten the opening lecture. The thing is, though, I want there to be a ‘hump’—”
“Right, for the moviegoer to get over. That’s a neat idea.”
“Please come and have lunch. Please. Julia?”
The elevator door had opened at her touch.
“I’m saying it’s a tiny bit insulting to a person somehow.”
“But that’s not you. It’s not even based on you.”
“Oh, great. It’s somebody else’s breasts.”
“Jesus. Please. One second.” Chip turned back to his apartment door and opened it, and this time he was startled to find himself face to face with his father. Alfred’s big hands were shaking violently.
“Dad, hi, just another minute here.”
“Chip,” Alfred said, “osk her to stay! Tell her we want her to stay!”
Chip nodded and closed the door in the old man’s face; but in the few seconds his back had been turned the elevator had swallowed Julia. He punched the call button, to no avail, and then opened the fire door and ran down the spiral of the service stairwell. After a series of effulgent lectures celebrating the unfettered pursuit of pleasure as a strategy of subverting the bureaucracy of rationalism, BILL QUAINTENCE, an attractive young professor of Textual Artifacts, is seduced by his beautiful and adoring student MONA. Their wildly erotic affair has hardly begun, however, when they are discovered by Bill’s estranged wife, HILLAIRE. In a tense confrontation representing the clash of Therapeutic and Transgressive worldviews, Bill and Hillaire struggle for the soul of young Mona, who lies naked between them on tangled sheets. Hillaire succeeds in seducing Mona with her crypto-repressive rhetoric, and Mona publicly denounces Bill. Bill loses his job but soon discovers e-mail records proving that Hillaire has given Mona money to ruin his career. As Bill is driving to see his lawyer with a diskette containing the incriminating evidence, his car is run off the road into the raging D—— River, and the diskette floats free of the sunken car and is borne by ceaseless, indomitable currents into the raging, erotic/chaotic open sea, and the crash is ruled vehicular suicide, and in the film’s final scenes Hillaire is hired to replace Bill on the faculty and is seen lecturing on the evils of unfettered pleasure to a classroom in which is seated her diabolical lesbian lover Mona: This was the one-page précis that Chip had assembled with the aid of store-bought screenwriting manuals and had faxed, one winter morning, to a Manhattan-based film producer named Eden Procuro. Five minutes later he’d answered his phone to the cool, blank voice of a young woman saying, “Please hold for Eden Procuro,” followed by Eden Procuro herself crying, “I love it, love it, love it, love it, love it!” But now a year and a half had passed. Now the one-page précis had become a 124-page script called “The Academy Purple,” and now Julia Vrais, the chocolate-haired owner of that cool, blank personal-assistant’s voice, was running away from him, and as he raced downstairs to intercept her, planting his feet sideways to take the steps three and four at a time, grabbing the newel at each landing and reversing his trajectory with a jerk, all he could see or think of was a damning entry in his nearly photographic mental concordance of those 124 pages:
3: bee-stung lips, high round breasts, narrow hips and
3: over the cashmere sweater that snugly hugs her breasts
4: forward raptly, her perfect adolescent breasts eagerly
8: (eyeing her breasts)
9: (eyeing her breasts)
9: (his eyes drawn helplessly to her perfect breasts)
11: (eyeing her breasts)
12: (mentally fondling her perfect breasts)
13: (eyeing her breasts)
15: (eyeing and eyeing her perfect adolescent breasts)
23: (clinch, her perfect breasts surging against his
24: the repressive bra to unfetter her subversive breasts.)
28: to pinkly tongue one sweat-sheened breast.)
29: phallically jutting nipple of her sweat-drenched breast
29: I like your breasts.
30: absolutely adore your honeyed, heavy breasts.
33: (HILLAIRE’s breasts, like twin Gestapo bullets, can be
36: barbed glare as if to puncture and deflate her breasts
44: Arcadian breasts with stern puritanical terry cloth and
45: cowering, ashamed, the towel clutched to her breasts.)
76: her guileless breasts shrouded now in militaristic
83: I miss your body, I miss your perfect breasts, I
117: drowned headlights fading like two milk-white breasts
And there were probably even more! More than he could remember! And the only two readers who mattered now were women! It seemed to Chip that Julia was leaving him because “The Academy Purple” had too many breast references and a draggy opening, and that if he could correct these few obvious problems, both on Julia’s copy of the script and, more important, on the copy he’d specially laser-printed on 24-pound ivory bond paper for Eden Procuro, there might be hope not only for his finances but also for his chances of ever again unfettering and fondling Julia’s own guileless, milk-white breasts. Which by this point in the day, as by late morning of almost every day in recent months, was one of the last activities on earth in which he could still reasonably expect to take solace for his failures.
Exiting the stairwell into the lobby, he found the elevator waiting to torment its next rider. Through the open street door he saw a taxi extinguish its roof light and pull away. Zoroaster was mopping up inblown water from the lobby’s checkerboard marble. “Goodbye, Mister Chip!” he quipped, by no means for the first time, as Chip ran outside.
Big raindrops beating on the sidewalk raised a fresh, cold mist of pure humidity. Through the bead-curtain of water coming off the marquee, Chip saw Julia’s cab brake for a yellow light. Directly across the street, another cab had stopped to discharge a passenger, and it occurred to Chip that he could take this other cab and ask the driver to follow Julia. The idea was tempting; but there were difficulties.
One difficulty was that by chasing Julia he would arguably be committing the worst of the offenses for which the general counsel of D—— College, in a shrill, moralistic lawyer’s letter, had once upon a time threatened to countersue him or have him prosecuted. The alleged offenses had included fraud, breach of contract, kidnap, Title IX sexual harassment, serving liquor to a student under the legal drinking age, and possession and sale of a controlled substance; but it was the accusation of stalking—of making “obscene” and “threatening” and “obusive” telephone calls and trespassing with intent to violate a young woman’s privacy—that had really scared Chip and scared him still.
A more immediate difficulty was that he had four dollars in his wallet, less than ten dollars in his checking account, no credit to speak of on any of his major credit cards, and no prospect of further proofreading work until Monday afternoon. Considering that the last time he’d seen Julia, six days ago, she’d specifically complained that he “olways” wanted to stay home and eat pasta and “olways” be kissing her and having sex (she’d said that sometimes she almost felt like he used sex as a kind of medication, and that maybe the reason he didn’t just go ahead and self-medicate with crack or heroin instead was that sex was free and he was turning into such a cheapskate; she’d said that now that she was taking an actual prescription medication herself she sometimes felt like she was taking it for both of them and that this seemed doubly unfair, because she was the one who paid for the medication and because the medication made her slightly less interested in sex than she used to be; she’d said that, if it were up to Chip, they probably wouldn’t even go to movies anymore but would spend the whole weekend wallowing in bed with the shades down and then reheating pasta), he suspected that the minimum price of further conversation with her would be an overpriced lunch of mesquite-grilled autumn vegetables and a bottle of Sancerre for which he had no conceivable way of paying.
And so he stood and did nothing as the corner traffic light turned green and Julia’s cab drove out of sight. Rain was lashing the pavement in white, infected-looking drops. Across the street, a long-legged woman in tight jeans and excellent black boots had climbed out of the other cab.
That this woman was Chip’s little sister, Denise—i.e. was the only attractive young woman on the planet whom he was neither permitted nor inclined to feast his eyes on and imagine having sex with—seemed to him just the latest unfairness in a long morning of unfairnesses.
Denise was carrying a black umbrella, a cone of flowers, and a pastry box tied with twine. She picked her way through the pools and rapids on the pavement and joined Chip beneath the marquee.
“Listen,” Chip said with a nervous smile, not looking at her. “I need to ask you a big favor. I need you to hold the fort for me here while I find Eden and get my script back. There’s a major, quick set of corrections I have to make.”
As if he were a caddie or a servant, Denise handed him her umbrella and brushed water and grit from the ankles of her jeans. Denise had her mother’s dark hair and pale complexion and her father’s intimidating air of moral authority. She was the one who’d instructed Chip to invite his parents to stop and have lunch in New York today. She’d sounded like the World Bank dictating terms to a Latin debtor state, because, unfortunately, Chip owed her some money. He owed her whatever ten thousand and fifty-five hundred and four thousand and a thousand dollars added up to.
“See,” he explained, “Eden wants to read the script this afternoon sometime, and financially, obviously, it’s critical that we—”
“You can’t leave now,” Denise said.
“It’ll take me an hour,” Chip said. “An hour and a half at most.”
“Is Julia here?”
“No, she left. She said hello and left.”
“You broke up?”
“I don’t know. She’s gotten herself medicated and I don’t even trust—”
“Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Are you wanting to go to Eden’s, or chasing Julia?”
Chip touched the rivet in his left ear. “Ninety percent going to Eden’s.”
“No, but listen,” he said, “she’s using the word ‘health’ like it has some kind of absolute timeless meaning.”
“This is Julia?”
“She takes pills for three months, the pills make her unbelievably obtuse, and the obtuseness then defines itself as mental health! It’s like blindness defining itself as vision. ‘Now that I’m blind, I can see there’s nothing to see.’ ”
Denise sighed and let her cone of flowers droop to the sidewalk. “What are you saying? You want to follow her and take away her medicine?”
“I’m saying the structure of the entire culture is flawed,” Chip said. “I’m saying the bureaucracy has arrogated the right to define certain states of mind as ‘diseased.’ A lack of desire to spend money becomes a symptom of disease that requires expensive medication. Which medication then destroys the libido, in other words destroys the appetite for the one pleasure in life that’s free, which means the person has to spend even more money on compensatory pleasures. The very definition of mental ‘health’ is the ability to participate in the consumer economy. When you buy into therapy, you’re buying into buying. And I’m saying that I personally am losing the battle with a commercialized, medicalized, totalitarian modernity right this instant.”
Denise closed one eye and opened the other very wide. Her open eye was like nearly black balsamic vinegar beading on white china. “If I grant that these are interesting issues,” she said, “will you stop talking about them and come upstairs with me?”
Chip shook his head. “There’s a poached salmon in the fridge. A crème fraîche with sorrel. A salad with green beans and hazelnuts. You’ll see the wine and the baguette and the butter. It’s good fresh butter from Vermont.”
“Has it occurred to you that Dad is sick?”
“An hour is all it’s going to take. Hour and a half at most.”
“I said has it occurred to you that Dad is sick?”
Chip had a vision of his father trembling and pleading in the doorway. To block it out, he tried to summon up an image of sex with Julia, with the azure-haired stranger, with Ruthie, with anyone, but all he could picture was a vengeful, Fury-like horde of disembodied breasts.
“The faster I get to Eden’s and make those corrections,” he said, “the sooner I’ll be back. If you really want to help me.”
An available cab was coming down the street. He made the mistake of looking at it, and Denise misunderstood him.
“I can’t give you any more money,” she said.
He recoiled as if she’d spat on him. “Jesus, Denise—”
“I’d like to but I can’t.”
“I wasn’t asking you for money!”
“Because where does it end?”
He turned on his heel and walked into the downpour and marched toward University Place, smiling with rage. He was ankle-deep in a boiling gray sidewalk-shaped lake. He was clutching Denise’s umbrella in his fist without opening it, and still it seemed unfair to him, it seemed not his fault, that he was getting drenched.
Until recently, and without ever giving the matter much thought, Chip had believed that it was possible to be successful in America without making lots of money. He’d always been a good student, and from an early age he’d proved unfit for any form of economic activity except buying things (this he could do), and so he’d chosen to pursue a life of the mind.
Since Alfred had once mildly but unforgettably remarked that he didn’t see the point of literary theory, and since Enid, in the florid biweekly letters by means of which she saved many dollars on long-distance dialing, had regularly begged Chip to abandon his pursuit of an “impractical” doctorate in the humanities (“I see your old science fair trophies,” she wrote, “ond I think of what an able young man like you could be giving back to society as a medical doctor, but then, you see, Dad and I always hoped we’d raised children who thought of others, not just themselves”), Chip had had plenty of incentives to work hard and prove his parents wrong. By getting out of bed much earlier than his grad-school classmates, who slept off their Gauloise hangovers until noon or one o’clock, he’d piled up the prizes and fellowships and grants that were the coin of the academic realm.
For the first fifteen years of his adult life, his only experience with failure had come secondhand. His girlfriend in college and long after, Tori Timmelman, was a feminist theorist who’d become so enraged with the patriarchal system of accreditation and its phallometric yardsticks of achievement that she refused (or was unable) to finish her dissertation. Chip had grown up listening to his father pontificate on the topics of Men’s Work and Women’s Work and the importance of maintaining the distinction; in a spirit of correction, he stuck with Tori for nearly a decade. He did all of the laundry and most of the cleaning and cooking and cat care in the little apartment that he and Tori shared. He read secondary literature for Tori and helped her outline and reoutline the chapters of her thesis that she was too throttled by rage to write. Not until D—— College had offered him a five-year tenure-track appointment (while Tori, still minus a degree, took a two-year nonrenewable job at an agriculture school in Texas) did he fully exhaust his supply of male guilt and move on.
He arrived at D——, then, as an eligible and well-published thirty-three-year-old to whom the college’s provost, Jim Leviton, had all but guaranteed lifelong employment. Within a semester he was sleeping with the young historian Ruthie Hamilton and had teamed up at tennis with Leviton and brought Leviton the faculty doubles championship that had eluded him for twenty years.
D—— College, with an elite reputation and a middling endowment, depended for its survival on students whose parents could pay full tuition. To attract these students, the college had built a $30 million recreation center, three espresso bars, and a pair of hulking “residence halls” that were less like dorms than like vivid premonitions of the hotels in which the students would book rooms for themselves in their well-remunerated futures. There were herds of leather sofas and enough computers to ensure that no prospective matriculant or visiting parent could enter a room and not see at least one available keyboard, not even in the dining hall or field house.
Junior faculty lived in semi-squalor. Chip was lucky to have a two-story unit in a damp cinderblock development on Tilton Ledge Lane, on the western edge of campus. His back patio overlooked a waterway known to college administrators as Kuyper’s Creek and to everybody else as Carparts Creek. On the far side of the creek was a marshy automotive boneyard belonging to the Connecticut State Department of Corrections. The college had been suing in state and federal courts for twenty years to preserve this wetland from the “ecodisaster” of drainage and development as a medium-security prison.
Every month or two, for as long as things were good with Ruthie, Chip invited colleagues and neighbors and the occasional precocious student to dinner at Tilton Ledge and surprised them with langoustines, or a rack of lamb, or venison with juniper berries, and retro joke desserts like chocolate fondue. Sometimes late at night, presiding over a table on which empty Californian bottles were clustered like Manhattan high-rises, Chip felt safe enough to laugh at himself, open up a little, and tell embarrassing stories about his midwestern childhood. Like how his father not only had worked long hours at the Midland Pacific Railroad and read aloud to his children and done the yard work and home maintenance and processed a nightly briefcaseful of executive paper but had also found time to operate a serious metallurgical laboratory in the family basement, staying up past midnight to subject strange alloys to electrical and chemical stresses. And how Chip at the age of thirteen had developed a crush on the buttery alkali metals that his father kept immersed in kerosene, on the blushing crystalline cobalt, the buxom heavy mercury, the ground-glass stopcocks and glacial acetic acid, and had put together his own junior lab in the shadow of his dad’s. How his new interest in science had delighted Alfred and Enid, and how, with their encouragement, he’d set his young heart on winning a trophy at the regional St. Jude science fair. How, at the St. Jude city library, he’d unearthed a plant-physiology paper both obscure enough and simple enough to be mistaken for the work of a brilliant eighth-grader. How he’d built a controlled plywood environment for growing oats and had photographed the young seedlings meticulously and then ignored them for weeks, and how, by the time he went to weigh the seedlings and determine the effects of gibberellic acid in concert with an unidentified chemical factor, the oats were dried-out blackish slime. How he’d gone ahead anyway and plotted the experiment’s “correct” results on graph paper, working backward to fabricate a list of seedling weights with some artful random scatter and then forward to make sure that the fictional data produced the “correct” results. And how, as a first-place winner at the science fair, he’d won a three-foot-tall silver-plated Winged Victory and the admiration of his father. And how, a year later, around the time his father was securing his first of two U. S. patents (despite his many grievances with Alfred, Chip was careful to impress on his dinner guests what a giant, in his own way, the old man was), Chip had pretended to study migratory bird populations in a park near some head shops and a bookstore and the house of a friend with foosball and a pool table. And how in a ravine at this park he’d uncovered a cache of downmarket porn over the weather-swollen pages of which, back home in the basement lab where, unlike his father, he never performed a real experiment or felt the faintest twinge of scientific curiosity, he’d endlessly dry-chafed the head of his erection without ever figuring out that this excruciating perpendicular stroke was actively suppressing orgasm (his dinner guests, many of them steeped in queer theory, took special delight in this detail), and how, as a reward for his mendacity and self-abuse and general laziness, he’d won a second Winged Victory.
In the haze of dinner-party smoke, as he entertained his sympathetic colleagues, Chip felt secure in the knowledge that his parents could not have been more wrong about who he was and what kind of career he was suited to pursue. For two and a half years, until the fiasco of Thanksgiving in St. Jude, he had no troubles at D—— College. But then Ruthie dumped him and a first-year female student rushed in, as it were, to fill the vacuum that Ruthie left behind.
Melissa Paquette was the most gifted student in the intro theory course, Consuming Narratives, that he taught in his third spring at D——. Melissa was a regal, theatrical person whom other students conspicuously avoided sitting close to, in part because they disliked her and in part because she always sat in the first row of desks, right in front of Chip. She was long-necked and broad-shouldered, not exactly beautiful, more like physically splendid. Her hair was very straight and had the cherry-wood color of new motor oil. She wore thrift-store clothes that tended not to flatter her—a man’s plaid polyester leisure suit, a paisley trapeze dress, gray Mr. Goodwrench coveralls with the name Randy embroidered on the left front pocket.
Melissa had no patience with people she considered fools. At the second meeting of Consuming Narratives, when an affable dreadlocked boy named Chad (every class at D—— had at least one affable dreadlocked boy in it) took a stab at summarizing the theories of Thorstein “Webern,” Melissa began to smirk at Chip complicitly. She rolled her eyes and mouthed the word “Veblen” and clutched her hair. Soon Chip was paying more attention to her distress than to Chad’s discourse.
“Chad, sorry,” she interrupted finally. “The name is Veblen?”
“Vebern. Veblern. That’s what I’m saying.”
“No, you were saying Webern. It’s Veblen.”
“Veblern. OK. Thank you very much, Melissa.”
Melissa tossed her hair and faced Chip again, her mission accomplished. She paid no attention to the dirty looks that came her way from Chad’s friends and sympathizers. But Chip drifted to a far corner of the classroom to dissociate himself from her, and he encouraged Chad to continue with his summary.
That evening, outside the student cinema in Hillard Wroth Hall, Melissa came pushing and squeezing through a crowd and told Chip that she was loving Walter Benjamin. She stood, he thought, too close to him. She stood too close to him at a reception for Marjorie Garber a few days later. She came galloping across the Lucent Technologies Lawn (formerly the South Lawn) to press into his hands one of the weekly short papers that Consuming Narratives required. She materialized beside him in a parking lot that a foot of snow had buried, and with her mittened hands and considerable wingspan she helped him dig out his car. She kicked a path clear with her fur-trimmed boots. She wouldn’t stop chipping at the underlayer of ice on his windshield until he took hold of her wrist and removed the scraper from her hand.
Chip had co-chaired the committee that drafted the college’s stringent new policy on faculty-student contacts. Nothing in the policy prevented a student from helping a professor clear snow off his car; and since he was also sure of his self-discipline, he had nothing to be afraid of. And yet, before long, he was ducking out of sight whenever he saw Melissa on campus. He didn’t want her to gallop over and stand too close to him. And when he caught himself wondering if the color of her hair was from a bottle, he made himself stop wondering. He never asked her if she was the one who’d left roses outside his office door on Valentine’s Day, or the chocolate statuette of Michael Jackson on Easter weekend.
In class he called on Melissa slightly less often than he called on other students; he lavished particular attention on her nemesis, Chad. He sensed, without looking, that Melissa was nodding in comprehension and solidarity when he unpacked a difficult passage of Marcuse or Baudrillard. She generally ignored her classmates, except to turn on them in sudden hot disagreement or cool correction; her classmates, for their part, yawned audibly when she raised her hand.
One warm Friday night near the end of the semester, Chip came home from his weekly grocery run and discovered that someone had vandalized his front door. Three of the four utility lights at Tilton Ledge had burned out, and the college was apparently waiting for the fourth to burn out before investing in replacements. In the poor light, Chip could see that somebody had poked flowers and foliage—tulips, ivy—through the holes in his rotting screen door. “What is this?” he said. “Melissa, you are jailbait.”
Possibly he said other things before he realized that his stoop was strewn with torn-up tulips and ivy, a vandalism still in progress, and that he was not alone. The holly bush by his door had produced two giggling young people. “Sorry, sorry!” Melissa said. “You were talking to yourself!”
Chip wanted to believe she hadn’t heard what he said, but the holly wasn’t three feet away. He set the groceries inside his house and turned a light on. Standing beside Melissa was the dreadlocked Chad.
“Professor Lambert, hello,” Chad said earnestly. He was wearing Melissa’s Mr. Goodwrench coveralls, and Melissa was wearing a Free Mumia T-shirt that might have belonged to Chad. She’d slung an arm around Chad’s neck and fitted a hip over his. She was flushed and sweaty and lit up on something.
“We were decorating your door,” she said.
“Actually, Melissa, it looks pretty horrible,” Chad said as he examined it in the light. Beat-up tulips were hanging down at every angle. The ivy runners had clods of dirt in their hairy feet. “Kind of a stretch to say ‘decorating.’ ”
“Well, you can’t see down here,” she said. “Where’s the light?”
“There is no light,” Chip said. “This is the Ghetto in the Woods. This is where your teachers live.”
“Dude, that ivy is pathetic.”
“Whose tulips are these?” Chip asked.
“College tulips,” Melissa said.
“Dude, I’m not even sure why we were doing this.” Chad turned to allow Melissa to put her mouth on his nose and suck it, which didn’t seem to bother him, although he drew his head back. “Wouldn’t you say this was sort of more your idea than mine?”
“Our tuition pays for these tulips,” Melissa said, pivoting to press her body more frontally into Chad. She hadn’t looked at Chip since he turned the outdoor light on.
“So then Hansel and Gretel came and found my screen door.”
“We’ll clean it up,” Chad said.
“Leave it,” Chip said. “I’ll see you on Tuesday.” And he went inside and shut the door and played some angry music from his college years.
For the last meeting of Consuming Narratives the weather turned hot. The sun was blazing in a pollen-filled sky, all the angiosperms in the newly rechristened Viacom Arboretum blooming hard. To Chip the air felt disagreeably intimate, like a warm spot in a swimming pool. He’d already cued up the video player and lowered the classroom shades when Melissa and Chad strolled in and took seats in a rear corner. Chip reminded the class to sit up straight like active critics rather than be passive consumers, and the students sat up enough to acknowledge his request without actually complying with it. Melissa, usually the one fully upright critic, today slumped especially low and draped an arm across Chad’s legs.
To test his students’ mastery of the critical perspectives to which he’d introduced them, Chip was showing a video of a six-part ad campaign called “You Go, Girl.” The campaign was the work of an agency, Beat Psychology, that had also created “Howl with Rage” for G—— Electric, “Do Me Dirty” for C—— Jeans, “Total F***ing Anarchy!” for the W—— Network, “Radical Psychedelic Underground” for E——.com, and “Love & Work” for M—— Pharmaceuticals. “You Go, Girl” had had its first airing the previous fall, one episode per week, on a prime-time hospital drama. The style was black-and-white cinema verité; the content, according to analyses in the Times and the Wall Street Journal, was “revolutionary.”
The plot was this: Four women in a small office—one sweet young African American, one middle-aged technophobic blonde, one tough and savvy beauty named Chelsea, and one radiantly benignant gray-haired Boss—dish together and banter together and, by and by, struggle together with Chelsea’s stunning announcement, at the end of Episode 2, that for nearly a year she’s had a lump in her breast that she’s too scared to see a doctor about. In Episode 3 the Boss and the sweet young African American dazzle the technophobic blonde by using the W—— Corporation’s Global Desktop Version 5.0 to get up-to-the-minute cancer information and to hook Chelsea into support networks and the very best local health care providers. The blonde, who is fast learning to love technology, marvels but objects: “There’s no way Chelsea can afford all this.” To which the angelic Boss replies: “I’m paying every cent of it.” By the middle of Episode 5, however—and this was the campaign’s revolutionary inspiration—it’s clear that Chelsea will not survive her breast cancer. Tear-jerking scenes of brave jokes and tight hugs follow. In the final episode the action returns to the office, where the Boss is scanning a snapshot of the departed Chelsea, and the now rabidly technophiliac blonde is expertly utilizing the W—— Corporation’s Global Desktop Version 5.0, and around the world, in rapid montage, women of all ages and races are smiling and dabbing away tears at the image of Chelsea on their own Global Desktops. Spectral Chelsea in a digital video clip pleads: “Help us Fight for the Cure.” The episode ends with the information, offered in a sober typeface, that the W—— Corporation has given more than $10,000,000.00 to the American Cancer Society to help it Fight for the Cure. . .
The slick production values of a campaign like “You Go, Girl” could seduce first-year students before they’d acquired the critical tools of resistance and analysis. Chip was curious, and somewhat afraid, to see how far his students had progressed. With the exception of Melissa, whose papers were written with force and clarity, none of them had persuaded him that they were doing more than parroting the weekly jargon. Each year, it seemed, the incoming freshmen were a little more resistant to hardcore theory than they’d been the year before. Each year the moment of enlightenment, of critical mass, came a little later. Now the end of a semester was at hand, and Chip still wasn’t sure that anyone besides Melissa really got how to criticize mass culture.
The weather wasn’t doing him any favors. He raised the shades and beach light poured into the classroom. Summerlust came wafting off the bared arms and legs of boys and girls alike.
A petite young woman named Hilton, a chihuahua-like person, offered that it was “brave” and “really interesting” that Chelsea had died of cancer instead of surviving like you might have expected in a commercial.
Chip waited for someone to observe that it was precisely this self-consciously “revolutionary” plot twist that had generated publicity for the ad. Normally Melissa, from her seat in the front row, could be counted on to make a point like this. But today she was sitting by Chad with her cheek on her desk. Normally, when students napped in class, Chip called on them immediately. But today he was reluctant to say Melissa’s name. He was afraid that his voice might shake.
Finally, with a tight smile, he said, “In case any of you were visiting a different planet last fall, let’s review what happened with these ads. Remember that Nielsen Media Research took the ‘revolutionary’ step of giving Episode Six its own weekly rating. The first rating ever given to an ad. And once Nielsen rated it, the campaign was all but guaranteed an enormous audience for its rebroadcast during the November sweeps. Also remember that the Nielsen rating followed a week of print and broadcast news coverage of the ‘revolutionary’ plot twist of Chelsea’s death, plus the Internet rumor about Chelsea’s being a real person who’d really died. Which, incredibly, several hundred thousand people actually believed. Beat Psychology, remember, having fabricated her medical records and her personal history and posted them on the Web. So my question for Hilton would be, how ‘brave’ is it to engineer a surefire publicity coup for your ad campaign?”
“It was still a risk,” Hilton said. “I mean, death is a downer. It could have backfired.”
Again Chip waited for someone, anyone, to take his side of the argument. No one did. “So a wholly cynical strategy,” he said, “if there’s a financial risk attached, becomes an act of artistic bravery?”
A brigade of college lawn mowers descended on the lawn outside the classroom, smothering discussion in a blanket of noise. The sunshine was bright.
Chip soldiered on. Did it seem realistic that a small-business owner would spend her own money on special health care options for an employee?
One student averred that the boss she’d had at her last summer job had been generous and totally great.
Chad was silently fighting off the tickling hand of Melissa while, with his free hand, he counterattacked the naked skin of her midriff.
“Chad?” Chip said.
Chad, impressively, was able to answer the question without having it repeated. “Like, that was just one office,” he said. “Maybe another boss wouldn’t have been so great. But that boss was great. I mean, nobody’s pretending that’s an average office, right?”
Here Chip tried to raise the question of art’s responsibilities vis-à-vis the Typical; but this discussion, too, was DOA.
“So, bottom line,” he said, “we like this campaign. We think these ads are good for the culture and good for the country. Yes?”
There were shrugs and nods in the sun-heated room.
“Melissa,” Chip said. “We haven’t heard from you.”
Melissa raised her head from her desk, shifted her attention from Chad, and looked at Chip with narrowed eyes. “Yes,” she said.
“Yes, these ads are good for the culture and good for the country.”
Chip took a deep breath, because this hurt. “Great, OK,” he said. “Thank you for your opinion.”
“As if you care about my opinion,” Melissa said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“As if you care about any of our opinions unless they’re the same as yours.”
“This is not about opinions,” Chip said. “This is about learning to apply critical methods to textual artifacts. Which is what I’m here to teach you.”
“I don’t think it is, though,” Melissa said. “I think you’re here to teach us to hate the same things you hate. I mean, you hate these ads, right? I can hear it in every word you say. You totally hate them.”
The other students were listening raptly now. Melissa’s connection with Chad might have depressed Chad’s stock more than it had raised her own, but she was attacking Chip like an angry equal, not a student, and the class ate it up.
“I do hate these ads,” Chip admitted. “But that’s not—”
“Yes it is,” Melissa said.
“Why do you hate them?” Chad called out.
“Tell us why you hate them,” the little Hilton yipped.
Chip looked at the wall clock. There were six minutes left of the semester. He pushed a hand through his hair and cast his eyes around the room as if he might find an ally somewhere, but the students had him on the run now, and they knew it.
“The W—— Corporation,” he said, “is currently defending three separate lawsuits for antitrust violations. Its revenues last year exceeded the gross domestic product of Italy. And now, to wring dollars out of the one demographic that it doesn’t yet dominate, it’s running a campaign that exploits a woman’s fear of breast cancer and her sympathy with its victims. Yes, Melissa?”
“It’s not cynical.”
“What is it, if not cynical?”
“It’s celebrating women in the workplace,” Melissa said. “It’s raising money for cancer research. It’s encouraging us to do our self-examinations and get the help we need. It’s helping women feel like we own this technology, like it’s not just a guy thing.”
“OK, good,” Chip said. “But the question is not whether we care about breast cancer, it’s what breast cancer has to do with selling office equipment.”
Chad took up the cudgels for Melissa. “That’s the whole point of the ad, though. That if you have access to information, it can save your life.”
“So if Pizza Hut puts a little sign about testicular self-exams by the hot-pepper flakes, it can advertise itself as part of the glorious and courageous fight against cancer?”
“Why not?” Chad said.
“Does anybody see anything wrong with that?”
Not one student did. Melissa was slouching with her arms crossed and unhappy amusement on her face. Unfairly or not, Chip felt as if she’d destroyed in five minutes a semester’s worth of careful teaching.
“Well, consider,” he said, “that ‘You Go, Girl’ would not have been produced if W—— had not had a product to sell. And consider that the goal of the people who work at W—— is to exercise their stock options and retire at thirty-two, and that the goal of the people who own W—— stock” (Chip’s brother and sister-in-law, Gary and Caroline, owned a great deal of W—— stock) “is to build bigger houses and buy bigger SUVs and consume even more of the world’s finite resources.”
“What’s wrong with making a living?” Melissa said. “Why is it inherently evil to make money?”
“Baudrillard might argue,” Chip said, “that the evil of a campaign like ‘You Go, Girl’ consists in the detachment of the signifier from the signified. That a woman weeping no longer just signifies sadness. It now also signifies: ‘Desire office equipment.’ It signifies: ‘Our bosses care about us deeply.’ ”
The wall clock showed two-thirty. Chip paused and waited for the bell to ring and the semester to end.
“Excuse me,” Melissa said, “but that is just such bullshit.”
“What is bullshit?” Chip said.
“This whole class,” she said. “It’s just bullshit every week. It’s one critic after another wringing their hands about the state of criticism. Nobody can ever quite say what’s wrong exactly. But they all know it’s evil. They all know ‘corporate’ is a dirty word. And if somebody’s having fun or getting rich—disgusting! Evil! And it’s always the death of this and the death of that. And people who think they’re free aren’t ‘really’ free. And people who think they’re happy aren’t ‘really’ happy. And it’s impossible to radically critique society anymore, although what’s so radically wrong with society that we need such a radical critique, nobody can say exactly. It is so typical and perfect that you hate those ads!” she said to Chip as, throughout Wroth Hall, bells finally rang. “Here things are getting better and better for women and people of color, and gay men and lesbians, more and more integrated and open, and all you can think about is some stupid, lame problem with signifiers and signifieds. Like, the only way you can make something bad out of an ad that’s great for women—which you have to do, because there has to be something wrong with everything—is to say it’s evil to be rich and evil to work for a corporation, and yes, I know the bell rang.” She closed her notebook.
“OK,” Chip said. “On that note. You’ve now satisfied your Cultural Studies core requirement. Have a great summer.”
He was powerless to keep the bitterness out of his voice. He bent over the video player and gave his attention to rewinding and re-cuing “You Go, Girl” and touching buttons for the sake of touching buttons. He sensed a few students lingering behind him, as if they wanted to thank him for teaching his heart out or to tell him they’d enjoyed the class, but he didn’t look up from the video player until the room was empty. Then he went home to Tilton Ledge and started drinking.
Melissa’s accusations had cut him to the quick. He’d never quite realized how seriously he’d taken his father’s injunction to do work that was “useful” to society. Criticizing a sick culture, even if the criticism accomplished nothing, had always felt like useful work. But if the supposed sickness wasn’t a sickness at all—if the great Materialist Order of technology and consumer appetite and medical science really was improving the lives of the formerly oppressed; if it was only straight white males like Chip who had a problem with this order—then there was no longer even the most abstract utility to his criticism. It was all, in Melissa’s word, bullshit.
Lacking the spirit to work on his new book, as he’d planned to do all summer, Chip bought an overpriced ticket to London and hitchhiked to Edinburgh and overstayed his welcome with a Scottish performance artist who had lectured and performed at D—— the previous winter. Eventually the woman’s boyfriend said, “Time to be off now, laddie,” and Chip hit the road with a backpack full of Heidegger and Wittgenstein that he was too lonely to read. He hated to think of himself as a man who couldn’t live without a woman, but he hadn’t been laid since Ruthie dumped him. He was the only male professor in D—— history to have taught Theory of Feminism, and he understood how important it was for women not to equate “success” with “having a man” and “failure” with “lacking a man,” but he was a lonely straight male, and a lonely straight male had no equivalently forgiving Theory of Masculinism to help him out of this bind, this key to all misogynies:
¶ To feel as if he couldn’t survive without a woman made a man feel weak;
¶ And yet, without a woman in his life, a man lost the sense of agency and difference that, for better or worse, was the foundation of his manhood.
On many a morning, in green Scottish places splashed with rain, Chip felt close to escaping this spurious bind and regaining a sense of self and purpose, only to find himself at four in the afternoon drinking beer at a train station, eating chips and mayonnaise, and hitting on Yankee college girls. As a seducer, he was hampered by ambivalence and by his lack of the Glaswegian accent that made American girls go weak in the knees. He scored exactly once, with a young hippie from Oregon who had ketchup stains on her chemise and a scalpy smell so overpowering that he spent much of the night breathing through his mouth.
His failures seemed more funny than squalid, though, when he came home to Connecticut and regaled his misfit friends with stories at his own expense. He wondered if somehow his Scottish depression had been the product of a greasy diet. His stomach heaved when he remembered the glistening wedges of browned whatever fish, the glaucous arcs of lipidy chips, the smell of scalp and deep-fry, or even just the words “Firth of Forth.”
At the weekly farmers’ market near D—— he loaded up on heirloom tomatoes, white eggplants, and thin-skinned golden plums. He ate arugula (“rocket,” the old farmers called it) so strong it made his eyes water, like a paragraph of Thoreau. As he remembered the Good and the Healthful, he began to recover his self-discipline. He weaned himself off alcohol, got better sleep, drank less coffee, and went to the college gym twice a week. He read the damned Heidegger and did his crunches every morning. Other pieces of the self-improvement puzzle fell into place, and for a while, as cool working weather returned to the Carparts Creek valley, he experienced an almost Thoreauvian well-being. Between sets on the tennis court, Jim Leviton assured him that his tenure review would be a mere formality—that he shouldn’t worry about competing with the department’s other young theorist, Vendla O’Fallon. Chip’s fall course load consisted of Renaissance Poetry and Shakespeare, neither of which required him to rethink his critical perspectives. As he girded himself for the last stage of his ascent of Mount Tenure, he was relieved to be traveling light; almost happy, after all, not to have a woman in his life.
He was at home on a Friday in September, making himself a dinner of broccoli rabe and acorn squash and fresh haddock and looking forward to a night of grading papers, when a pair of legs sashayed past his kitchen window. He knew this sashay. He knew the way Melissa walked. She couldn’t pass a picket fence without trailing her fingertips against it. She stopped in hallways to do dance steps or hopscotch. She went backwards or sideways, or skipped, or loped.
Her knock on his screen door was not apologetic. Through the screen he saw that she had a plate of cupcakes with pink frosting.
“Yeah, what’s up?” he said.
Melissa raised the plate on upturned palms. “Cupcakes,” she said. “Thought you might be needing some cupcakes in your life right around now.”
Not being theatrical, Chip felt disadvantaged around people who were. “Why are you bringing me cupcakes?” he said.
Melissa knelt and set the plate on his doormat among the pulverized remains of ivy and dead tulips. “I’ll just leave them here,” she said, “ond you can do whatever you want with them. Goodbye!” She spread her arms and pirouetted off the doorstep and ran up the flagstone path on tiptoe.
Chip went back to wrestling with the haddock filet, through the center of which ran a blood-brown fault of gristle that he was determined to cut out. But the fish had a starchy grain and was hard to get a grip on. “Fuck you, little girl,” he said as he threw the knife into the sink.
The cupcakes were full of butter and frosted with a butter frosting. After he’d washed his hands and opened a bottle of Chardonnay he ate four of them and put the uncooked fish in the refrigerator. The skins of the overbaked squash were like inner-tube rubber. Cent Ans de Cinéma Erotique, an edifying video that had sat on a shelf for months without making a peep, suddenly demanded his immediate and full attention. He lowered the blinds and drank the wine, and brought himself off again and again, and ate two more cupcakes, detecting peppermint in them, a faint buttery peppermint, before he slept.
The next morning he was up at seven and did four hundred crunches. He immersed Cent Ans de Cinéma Erotique in dishwater and rendered it, so to speak, non-combustible. (He’d done this with many a pack of cigarettes while kicking the habit.) He had no idea what he’d meant when he’d thrown the knife into the sink. His voice had sounded nothing like him.
He went to his office in Wroth Hall and graded papers. He wrote in a margin: Cressida’s character may inform Toyota’s choice of product name; that Toyota’s Cressida informs the Shakespearean text requires more argument than you present here. He added an exclamation point to soften his criticism. Sometimes, when ripping apart especially feeble student work, he drew smiley faces.
Spell-check! he exhorted a student who’d written “Trolius” for “Troilus” throughout her eight-page paper.
And the ever-softening question mark. Beside the sentence “Here Shakespeare proves Foucault all too right about the historicity of morals,” Chip wrote: Rephrase? Perhaps: “Here the Shakespearean text seems almost to anticipate Foucault (better: Nietzsche?. . .”?
He was still grading papers five weeks later, ten or fifteen thousand student errors later, on a windy night just after Halloween, when he heard a scrabbling outside his office door. Opening the door, he found a dime-store trick-or-treat bag hanging from the hall-side doorknob. The leaver of this gift, Melissa Paquette, was backpedaling up the hall.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“Just trying to be friends,” she said.
“Well, thanks,” he said. “I don’t get it.”
Melissa came back down the hall. She was wearing white painter’s overalls, a long-sleeve thermal undershirt, and hot-pink socks. “I went trick-or-treating,” she said. “This was like one-fifth of my haul.”
She stepped closer to Chip and he backed away. She followed him into his office and circled it on tiptoe, reading titles on his shelves. Chip leaned against his desk and folded his arms tightly.
“So I’m taking Theory of Feminism with Vendla,” Melissa said.
“That would be the logical next step. Now that you’ve rejected the nostalgic patriarchal tradition of critical theory.”
“Exactly my thinking,” Melissa said. “Unfortunately, her class is so bad. People who took it with you last year said it was great. But Vendla’s idea is that we should sit around and talk about our feelings. Because the Old Theory was about the head, see. And therefore the New True Theory has to be about the heart. I’m not convinced she’s even read all the stuff she assigns us.”
Through his open door Chip could see the door of Vendla O’Fallon’s office. It was papered with healthful images and adages—Betty Friedan in 1965, beaming Guatemalan peasant women, a triumphant female soccer star, a Bass Ale poster of Virginia Woolf, SUBVERT THE DOMINANT PARADIGM—that reminded him, in a dreary way, of his old girlfriend Tori Timmelman. His feeling about decorating doors was: What are we, high-school kids? Are these our bedrooms?
“So basically,” he said, “even though you thought my class was bullshit, it now seems like a superior brand of bullshit because you’re taking hers.”
Melissa blushed. “Basically! Except you’re a much better teacher. I mean, I learned a ton from you. That’s what I wanted to tell you.”
“Consider me told.”
“See, my mom and dad split up in April.” Melissa flung herself down on Chip’s college-issue leather sofa and assumed the full therapeutic position. “For a while it was kind of great that you were being so anti-corporate, and then suddenly it really, really irritated me. Like, my parents have a lot of money, and they’re not evil people, although my dad did just move in with this character named Vicki who’s like four years older than me. But he still loves my mom. I know he does. As soon as I was out of the house, things deteriorated a little, but I know he still loves her.”
“The college has a lot of services,” Chip said, arms folded, “for students going through these things.”
“Thanks. On the whole I’m doing brilliantly, except for having been rude to you in class that time.” Melissa hooked her heels on the arm of the sofa, pried her shoes off, and let them drop to the floor. Soft curves in thermal knitwear spilled out to either side of her overalls’ bib, Chip noticed.
“I had an excellent childhood,” she said. “My parents have always been my best friends. They homeschooled me till seventh grade. My mom was in med school in New Haven and my dad had this punk band, the Nomatics, that was touring, and at my mom’s first ever punk show she went out with my dad and ended up in his hotel room. She quit school, he quit the Nomatics, and they were never apart after that. Totally romantic. See, and my dad had some money from a trust fund, and it was really brilliant what they did then. There were all these new IPOs, and my mom was up on all the biotech and reading JAMA, and Tom—my dad—could vet the numbers part of it, and they just made really great investments. Clair—my mom—stayed home with me and we hung out all day, you know, and I learned my times tables, et cetera, and it was always just the three of us. They were so, so in love. And parties every weekend. And finally it occurred to us, we know everybody, and we’re really good investors, so why not start a mutual fund? Which we did. And it was incredible. It’s still a great fund. It’s called the Westportfolio Biofund Forty? We started some other funds, too, when the climate got more competitive. You kind of have to offer a full array of services. That’s what the institutional investors were telling Tom, at any rate. So he started these other funds, which unfortunately have pretty much tanked. I think that’s the big problem between him and Clair. Because her fund, the Biofund Forty, where she makes the picks, is still doing great. And now she’s heartbroken and depressed. She’s holed up in our house and she never goes out. Meanwhile Tom wants me to meet this Vicki person, who he says is ‘lots of fun’ and a roller blader. The thing is, we all know my mom and dad are made for each other. They complement each other perfectly. And I just think if you knew how cool it is to start a company, and how great it is when the money starts coming in, and how romantic it can be, you wouldn’t be so harsh.”
“Possibly,” Chip said.
“Anyway, I thought you’d be somebody I could talk to. On the whole I’m coping brilliantly, but I could kind of use a friend.”
“How’s Chad?” Chip said.
“A sweet boy. Good for about three weekends.” Melissa swung a leg off the sofa and planted a stockinged foot on Chip’s leg, close to his hip. “It’s hard to imagine two people less long-term compatible than him and me.”
Through his jeans Chip could feel the deliberate flexing of her toes. He was trapped against his desk, and so, to escape, he had to take hold of her ankle and swing her leg back onto the sofa. Her pink feet immediately grasped his wrist and pulled him toward her. It was all very playful, but his door was open, and his lights were on, and his blinds were raised, and somebody was in the hall. “Code,” he said, pulling free. “There’s a code.”
Melissa rolled off the sofa, stood up, and came closer. “It’s a stupid code,” she said. “If you care about somebody.”
Chip retreated to the doorway. Up the hall, by the department office, a tiny blue-uniformed woman with a Toltec face was vacuuming. “There are good reasons to have it,” he said.
“So I can’t even give you a hug now.”
“It’s stupid.” Melissa stepped into her shoes and joined Chip in the doorway. She kissed him on the cheek, near his ear. “So there.”
He watched her slide-step and pirouette down the hall and out of sight. He heard a fire door bang shut. He carefully examined every word he’d said, and he gave himself an A for correctness. But when he returned to Tilton Ledge, where the last of the utility lights had burned out, he was swamped by loneliness. To erase the tactile memory of Melissa’s kiss, and her lively warm feet, he phoned an old college friend in New York and made a date for lunch the next day. He took Cent Ans de Cinéma Erotique from the cabinet where, in expectation of a night like this, he’d stashed it after soaking it. The tape was still playable. The image was snowy, though, and during the first really hot bit, a hotel-room scene with a wanton chambermaid, the snow thickened to a blizzard and the screen went blue. The VCR made a dry, thin choking sound. Air, need air, it seemed to say. Tape had leaked out and wound itself around the machine’s endoskeleton. Chip extracted the cassette and several handfuls of Mylar, but then something broke and the machine spat up a plastic spool. Which, all right, these things happened. But the trip to Scotland had been a financial Waterloo, and he couldn’t afford a new VCR.
Nor was New York City, on a cold rainy Saturday, the treat he needed. Every sidewalk in lower Manhattan was dotted with the metallic squared spirals of antitheft badges. The badges were bonded to the wet pavement with the world’s strongest glue, and after Chip had bought some imported cheeses (he did this every time he visited New York to be sure of accomplishing at least one thing before returning to Connecticut, and yet it felt a little sad to buy the same baby Gruyère and Fourme d’Ambert at the same store; it brought him up against the more general failure of consumerism as an approach to human happiness), and after he’d lunched with his college friend (who had recently quit teaching anthropology and hired himself out to Silicon Alley as a “marketing psychologist” and who advised Chip, now, to wake up and do the same), he returned to his car and discovered that each of his plastic-wrapped cheeses was protected by its own antitheft badge and that, indeed, a fragment of antitheft badge had stuck to the bottom of his left shoe.
Tilton Ledge was glazed with ice and very dark. In the mail Chip found an envelope containing a short note from Enid lamenting Alfred’s moral failures (“he sits in that chair all day, every day”) and a lengthy profile of Denise, clipped from Philadelphia magazine, with a slavering review of her restaurant, Mare Scuro, and a full-page glamour photo of the young chef. Denise in the photo was wearing jeans and a tank top and was all muscled shoulders and satiny pecs (“Very young and very good: Lambert in her kitchen,” the caption read), and this was just the kind of girl-as-object horseshit, Chip thought bitterly, that sold magazines. A few years ago Enid’s letters had reliably contained a paragraph of despair about Denise and Denise’s failing marriage, with phrases like he is too OLD for her! double-underlined, and a paragraph festooned with thrilleds and prouds apropos of Chip’s hiring by D—— College, and although he knew that Enid was skilled at playing her children off against each other and that her praise was usually double-edged, he was dismayed that a woman as smart and principled as Denise had used her body for marketing purposes. He threw the clipping in the trash. He opened the Saturday half of the Sunday Times and—yes, he was contradicting himself, yes, he was aware of this—paged through the Magazine in search of ads for lingerie or swimwear to rest his weary eyes on. Finding none, he began to read the Book Review, where a memoir called Daddy’s Girl, by Vendla O’Fallon, was declared “ostonishing” and “courageous” and “deeply satisfying” on page 11. The name Vendla O’Fallon was rather unusual, but Chip had been so completely unaware that Vendla was publishing a book that he refused to believe she’d written Daddy’s Girl until, near the end of the review, he encountered a sentence that began: “O’Fallon, who teaches at D—— College. . .”
He closed the Book Review and opened a bottle.
In theory both he and Vendla were in line for tenure in Textual Artifacts, but in practice the department was already overtenured. That Vendla commuted to work from New York (thus flouting the college’s informal requirement that faculty live in town), and that she skipped important meetings and taught every gut she could, had been steady sources of comfort to Chip. He still had the edge in scholarly publications, student evaluations, and support from Jim Leviton; but he found that two glasses of wine had no effect on him.
He was pouring himself his fourth when his telephone rang. It was Jim Leviton’s wife, Jackie. “I just wanted you to know,” Jackie said, “that Jim’s going to be OK.”
“Was something wrong?” Chip said.
“Well, he’s resting fine. We’re over at St. Mary’s.”
“Chip, I asked him if he thought he could play tennis, and do you know what? He nodded! I said I was going to call you, and he nodded, yes, he was good for tennis. His motor skills appear to be fully normal. Fully—normal. And he’s lucid, that is the important thing. That is the really good news here, Chip. His eyes are bright. He’s the same old Jim.”
“Jackie, did he have a stroke?”
“There’ll be some rehabilitation,” Jackie said. “Obviously today will be his effective retirement date, which, Chip, as far as I’m concerned, is an absolute blessing. We can make some changes now, and in three years—well, it’s not going to take any three years for him to rehabilitate. When all is said and done, we’re going to be ahead of this game. His eyes are so bright, Chip. He’s the same old Jim!”
Chip rested his forehead against his kitchen window and turned his head so that he could open one eye directly against the cold, damp glass. He knew what he was going to do.
“The same old lovable Jim!” Jackie said.
The following Thursday, Chip made dinner for Melissa and had sex with her on his red chaise longue. He’d taken a fancy to the chaise back in the days when dropping eight hundred dollars on an antique-store impulse was somewhat less suicidal financially. The chaise’s backrest was angled in erotic invitation, its padded shoulders thrown back, its spine arching; the plush of its chest and belly looked ready to burst the fabric buttons that crisscrossed it. Breaking his initial clinch with Melissa, Chip excused himself for one second to turn off lights in the kitchen and stop in the bathroom. When he returned to the living room, he found her stretched out on the chaise wearing only the pants half of her plaid polyester leisure suit. In the dim light she could have been a hairless, heavy-titted man. Chip, who much preferred queer theory to queer practice, basically hated the suit and wished she hadn’t worn it. Even after she’d taken off the pants there was a residue of gender confusion on her body, not to mention the rank b. o. that was the bane of synthetic fabrics. But from her underpants, which to his relief were delicate and sheer—distinctly gendered—an affectionate warm rabbit came springing, a kicking wet autonomous warm animal. It was almost more than he could handle. He hadn’t slept two hours in the previous two nights, and he had a head full of wine and a gut full of gas (he couldn’t remember why he’d made a cassoulet for dinner; possibly for no good reason), and he worried that he hadn’t locked the front door—that there was a gap in the blinds somewhere, that one of his neighbors would drop by and try the door and find it unlocked or peer in through the window and see him flagrantly violating Sections I, II, and VI of a code that he himself had helped draft. Altogether for him it was a night of anxiety and effortful concentration, punctuated by little stabs of throttled pleasure, but at least Melissa seemed to find it exciting and romantic. Hour after hour, she wore a big crinkled U of a smile.
It was Chip’s proposal, after a second extremely stressful tryst at Tilton Ledge, that he and Melissa leave campus for the weeklong Thanksgiving break and find a cottage on Cape Cod where they wouldn’t feel observed and judged; and it was Melissa’s proposal, as they departed through D——’ s little-used eastern gate under cover of darkness, that they stop in Middletown and buy drugs from a high-school friend of hers at Wesleyan. Chip waited in front of Wesleyan’s impressively weatherproofed Ecology House and drummed on the steering wheel of his Nissan, drummed so hard his fingers throbbed, because it was important not to think about what he was doing. He’d left behind mountains of ungraded papers and exams, and he had not yet managed to visit Jim Leviton in the rehab unit. That Jim had lost his powers of speech and now impotently strained his jaw and lips to form words—that he’d become, according to reports from colleagues who’d visited him, an angry man—made Chip all the more reluctant to visit. He was in the mode now of avoiding anything that might make him experience an emotion. He beat on the steering wheel until his fingers were stiff and burning and Melissa came out of the Ecology House. She brought into the car a smell of woodsmoke and frozen flower beds, the smell of an affair in late autumn. She put into Chip’s palm a golden caplet marked with what appeared to be the old Midland Pacific Railroad logo—
without the text. “Take this,” she told him, closing the door.
“This is? Some kind of Ecstasy?”
“No. Mexican A.”
Chip felt culturally anxious. Not long ago, there had been no drugs he hadn’t heard of. “What does it do?”
“Nothing and everything,” she said, swallowing one herself. “You’ll see.”
“How much do I owe you for this?”
“Never mind that.”
For a while the drug did seem, as promised, to do nothing. But on the industrial outskirts of Norwich, still two or three hours from the Cape, he turned down the trip hop that Melissa was playing on his stereo and said, “We have to stop immediately and fuck.”
She laughed. “I guess so.”
“Why don’t I pull over,” he said.
She laughed again. “No, let’s find a room.”
They stopped at a Comfort Inn that had lost its franchise and now called itself the Comfort Valley Lodge. The night clerk was obese and her computer was down. She manually registered Chip with the labored breathing of someone lately stranded by a systems malfunction. Chip put his hand on Melissa’s belly and was about to reach into her pants when it occurred to him that fingering a woman in public was inappropriate and might cause trouble. For similar, purely rational reasons he suppressed the impulse to pull his dick out of his pants and show it to the wheezing, perspiring clerk. But he did think the clerk would be interested in seeing it.
He took Melissa down on the cigarette-divoted carpeting of Room 23 without even shutting the door.
“It is so much better like this!” Melissa said, kicking the door shut. She yanked her pants down and practically wailed with delight, “This is so much better!”
He didn’t dress all weekend. The towel he was wearing when he took delivery of a pizza fell open before the delivery man could turn away. “Hey, love, it’s me,” Melissa said into her cell phone while Chip lay down behind her and went at her. She kept her phone arm free and made supportive filial noises. “Uh-huh . . . Uh-huh . . .Sure, sure . . . No, that’s hard, Mom . . . No, you’re right, that is hard . . . Sure . . . Sure . . . Uh-huh . . . Sure . . . That’s really, really hard,” she said, with a twinkle in her voice, as Chip sought leverage for an extra sweet half inch of penetration while he shot. On Monday and Tuesday he dictated large chunks of a term paper on Carol Gilligan which Melissa was too annoyed with Vendla O’Fallon to write by herself. His near-photographic recall of Gilligan’s arguments, his total mastery of theory, got him so excited that he began to tease Melissa’s hair with his erection. He ran the head of it up and down the keyboard of her computer and applied a gleaming smudge to the liquid-crystal screen. “Darling,” she said, “don’t come on my computer.” He nudged her cheeks and ears and tickled her armpits and finally backed her up against the bathroom door while she bathed him in her cherry-red smile.
Each night around dinnertime, for four nights running, she went to her luggage and got two more golden caplets. Then on Wednesday Chip took her to a cineplex and they sneaked into an extra movie and a half for the price of the original matinee bargain. Back at the Comfort Valley Lodge, after a late pancake dinner, Melissa called her mother and spoke at such length that Chip fell asleep without swallowing a caplet.
He awoke on Thanksgiving in the gray light of his undrugged self. For a while, as he lay listening to the sparse holiday traffic on Route 2, he couldn’t place what was different. Something about the body beside him was making him uneasy. He considered turning and burying his face in Melissa’s back, but it seemed to him she must be sick of him. He could hardly believe she hadn’t minded his attacks on her, all his pushing and pawing and poking. That she didn’t feel like a piece of meat that he’d been using.
In a matter of seconds, like a market inundated by a wave of panic selling, he was plunged into shame and self-consciousness. He couldn’t bear to stay in bed a moment longer. He pulled on his shorts and snagged Melissa’s toiletries kit and locked himself in the bathroom.
His problem consisted of a burning wish not to have done the things he’d done. And his body, its chemistry, had a clear instinctive understanding of what he had to do to make this burning wish go away. He had to swallow another Mexican A.
He searched the toiletries kit exhaustively. He wouldn’t have thought it possible to feel dependent on a drug with no hedonic kick, a drug that on the evening of his fifth and final dose he hadn’t even craved. He uncapped Melissa’s lipsticks and removed twin tampons from their pink plastic holder and probed with a bobby pin down through her jar of skin cleanser. Nothing.
He took the kit back out to the main room, which was fully light now, and whispered Melissa’s name. Receiving no answer, he dropped to his knees and rifled her canvas travel bag. Paddled his fingers in the empty cups of bras. Squeezed her sock balls. Touched the various private pouches and compartments of the bag. This new and different violation of Melissa was sensationally painful to him. In the orange light of his shame he felt as if he were abusing her internal organs. He felt like a surgeon atrociously fondling her youthful lungs, defiling her kidneys, sticking his finger in her perfect, tender pancreas. The sweetness of her little socks, and the thought of the even littler socks of her all too proximate girlhood, and the image of a hopeful bright romantic sophomore packing clothes for a trip with her esteemed professor—each sentimental association added fuel to his shame, each image recalled him to the unfunny raw comedy of what he’d done to her. The jismic grunting butt-oink. The jiggling frantic nut-swing.
By now his shame was boiling so furiously it felt liable to burst things in his brain. Nevertheless, while keeping a close eye on Melissa’s sleeping form, he managed to paw her clothing a second time. Only after he’d resqueezed and rehandled each piece of it did he conclude that the Mexican A was in the big zippered outer pocket of her bag. This zipper he eased open tooth by tooth, clenching his own teeth to survive the noise of it. He’d worked the pocket open just far enough to push his hand through it (and the stress of this latest of his penetrations released fresh gusts of flammable memory; he felt mortified by each of the manual liberties he’d taken with Melissa here in Room 23, by the insatiable lewd avidity of his fingers; he wished he could have left her alone) when the cell phone on the nightstand tinkled and with a groan she came awake.
He snatched his hand from the forbidden place, ran to the bathroom, and took a long shower. By the time he came out, Melissa was dressed and had repacked her bag. She looked utterly uncarnal in the morning light. She was whistling a happy tune.
“Darling, a change of plans,” she said. “My father, who really is a lovely man, is coming out to Westport for the day. I want to go be with them.”
Chip wished he could fail to feel the shame that she was failing to feel; but to beg for another pill was acutely embarrassing. “What about our dinner?” he said.
“I’m sorry. It’s just really important that I be there.”
“So it’s not enough to be on the phone with them for a couple of hours every day.”
“Chip, I’m sorry. But we’re talking about my best friends.”
Chip had never liked the sound of Tom Paquette: a dilettante rocker and trust-fund baby who ditched his family for a roller blader. And in the last few days Clair’s boundless capacity to yak about herself while Melissa listened had turned Chip against her, too.
“Great,” he said. “I’ll take you to Westport.”
Melissa flipped her hair so that it fanned across her back. “Darling? Don’t be mad.”
“If you don’t want to go to the Cape, you don’t want to go to the Cape. I’ll take you to Westport.”
“Good. Are you going to get dressed?”
“It’s just that, Melissa, you know, there’s something a little sick about being so close to your parents.”
She seemed not to have heard him. She went to the mirror and applied mascara. She put on lipstick. Chip stood in the middle of the room with a towel around his waist. He felt warty and egregious. He felt that Melissa was right to be disgusted by him. And yet he wanted to be clear.
“Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Darling. Chip.” She pressed her painted lips together. “Get dressed.”
“I’m saying, Melissa, that children are not supposed to get along with their parents. Your parents are not supposed to be your best friends. There’s supposed to be some element of rebellion. That’s how you define yourself as a person.”
“Maybe it’s how you define yourself,” she said. “But then you’re not exactly an advertisement for happy adulthood.”
He grinned and bore this.
“I like myself,” she said. “But you don’t seem to like yourself so much.”
“Your parents seem very fond of themselves, too,” he said. “You seem very fond of yourselves as a family.”
He’d never seen Melissa really angry. “I love myself,” she said. “What’s wrong with that?”
He was unable to say what was wrong with it. He was unable to say what was wrong with anything about Melissa—her self-adoring parents, her theatricality and confidence, her infatuation with capitalism, her lack of good friends her own age. The feeling he’d had on the last day of Consuming Narratives, the feeling that he was mistaken about everything, that there was nothing wrong with the world and nothing wrong with being happy in it, that the problem was his and his alone, returned with such force that he had to sit down on the bed.
“What’s our drug situation?”
“We’re out,” Melissa said.
“I got six of them and you’ve had five.”
“And it was a big mistake, evidently, not to give you all six.”
“What have you been taking?”
“Advil, darling.” Her tone with this endearment had moved beyond the arch to the outright ironic. “For saddle sorengss?”
“I never asked you to get that drug,” he said.
“Not in so many words,” she said.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, a fat lot of fun we were going to have without it.”
Chip didn’t ask her to explain. He was afraid she meant he’d been a lousy, anxious lover until he took Mexican A. He had, of course, been a lousy, anxious lover; but he’d allowed himself to hope she hadn’t noticed. Under the weight of this fresh shame, and with no drug left in the room to alleviate it, he bowed his head and pressed his hands into his face. Shame was pushing down and rage was boiling up.
“Are you going to drive me to Westport?” Melissa said.
He nodded, but she must not have been looking at him, because he heard her flipping through a phone book. He heard her tell a dispatcher she needed a ride to New London. He heard her say: “The Comfort Valley Lodge. Room twenty-three.”
“I’ll drive you to Westport,” he said.
She shut the phone. “No, this is fine.”
“Melissa. Cancel the cab. I’ll drive you.”
She parted the room’s rear curtains, exposing a vista of Cyclone fencing, stick-straight maples, and the back side of a recycling plant. Eight or ten snow flakes drifted dismally. In the eastern sky was a raw patch where the cloud cover was abraded, the white sun wearing through. Chip dressed quickly while Melissa’s back was turned. If he hadn’t been so strangely full of shame, he might have gone to the window and put his hands on her, and she might have turned and forgiven him. But his hands felt predatory. He imagined her recoiling, and he wasn’t entirely convinced that some dark percentage of his being didn’t really want to rape her, to make her pay for liking herself in a way he couldn’t like himself. How he hated and how he loved the lilt in her voice, the bounce in her step, the serenity of her amour propre! She got to be her and he didn’t. And he could see that he was ruined—that he didn’t like her but would miss her disastrously.
She dialed another number. “Hey, love,” she said into her cell phone. “I’m on my way to New London. I’ll take the first train that comes. . .No, I just want to be with you guys. . .Totally. . .Yes, totally. . .OK, kiss kiss, I’ll see you when I see you. . .Yep.”
A car honked outside the door.
“There’s my cab,” she told her mother. “Right, OK. Kiss kiss. Bye.”
She shrugged into her jacket, lifted her bag, and waltzed across the room. At the door she announced in a general way that she was leaving. “I’ll see you later,” she said, almost looking at Chip.
He couldn’t figure out if she was immensely well adjusted or seriously messed up. He heard a cab door slam, an engine rumble. He went to the front window and got a glimpse of her cherrywood hair through the rear window of a red-and-white cab. He decided, after five years without, that the time had come to buy some cigarettes.
He put on a jacket and crossed expanses of cold asphalt indifferent to pedestrians. He pushed money through a slot in the bulletproof glass of a minimart.
It was the morning of Thanksgiving. The flurries had stopped and the sun was halfway out. A gull’s wings rattled and clacked. The breeze had a ruffly quality, it didn’t quite seem to touch the ground. Chip sat on a freezing guardrail and smoked and took comfort in the sturdy mediocrity of American commerce, the unpretending metal and plastic roadside hardware. The thunk of a gas-pump nozzle halting when a tank was filled, the humility and promptness of its service. And a 99¢ Big Gulp banner swelling with wind and sailing nowhere, its nylon ropes whipping and pinging on a galvanized standard. And the black sanserif numerals of gasoline prices, the company of so many 9s. And American sedans moving down the access road at nearly stationary speeds like thirty. And orange and yellow plastic pennants shivering overhead on guys.
“Dad fell down the basement stairs again,” Enid said while the rain came down in New York City. “He was carrying a big box of pecans to the basement and he didn’t hold the railing and he fell. Well, you can imagine how many pecans are in a twelve-pound box. Those nuts rolled everywhere. Denise, I spent half a day on my hands and knees. And I’m still finding them. They’re the same color as those crickets we can’t get rid of. I reach down to pick up a pecan, and it jumps in my face!”
Denise was trimming the stems of the sunflowers she’d brought. “Why was Dad carrying twelve pounds of pecans down the basement stairs?”
“He wanted a project he could work on in his chair. He was going to shell them.” Enid hovered at Denise’s shoulder. “Is there something I can do here?”
“You can find me a vase.”
The first cabinet that Enid opened contained a carton of winebottle corks and nothing else. “I don’t understand why Chip invited us here if he wasn’t even going to eat lunch with us.”
“Conceivably,” Denise said, “he didn’t plan on getting dumped this morning.”
Denise’s tone of voice was forever informing Enid that she was stupid. Denise was not, Enid felt, a very warm or giving person. However, Denise was a daughter, and a few weeks ago Enid had done a shameful thing that she was now in serious need of confessing to somebody, and she hoped Denise might be that person.
“Gary wants us to sell the house and move to Philadelphia,” she said. “Gary thinks Philadelphia makes sense because he’s there and you’re there and Chip’s in New York. I said to Gary, I love my children, but St. Jude is where I’m comfortable. Denise, I’m a midwesterner. I’d be lost in Philadelphia. Gary wants us to sign up for assisted living. He doesn’t understand that it’s already too late. Those places won’t let you in if you have a condition like Dad’s.”
“But if Dad keeps falling down the stairs.”
“Denise, he doesn’t hold the railing! He refuses to accept that he shouldn’t be carrying things on the stairs.”
Underneath the sink Enid found a vase behind a stack of framed photographs, four pictures of pinkish furry things, some sort of kooky art or medical photos. She tried to reach past them quietly, but she knocked over an asparagus steamer that she’d given Chip for Christmas once. As soon as Denise looked down, Enid could not pretend she hadn’t seen the pictures. “What on earth?” she said, scowling. “Denise, what are these?”
“What do you mean, ‘what are these?’?”
“Some sort of kooky thing of Chip’s, I guess.”
Denise had an “amused” expression that drove Enid crazy. “Obviously you know what they are, though.”
“No. I don’t.”
“You don’t know what they are?”
Enid took the vase out and closed the cabinet. “I don’t want to know,” she said.
“Well, that’s something else entirely.”
In the living room, Alfred was summoning the courage to sit down on Chip’s chaise longue. Not ten minutes ago, he’d sat down on it without incident. But now, instead of simply doing it again, he’d stopped to think. He’d realized only recently that at the center of the act of sitting down was a loss of control, a blind backwards free fall. His excellent blue chair in St. Jude was like a first baseman’s glove that gently gathered in whatever body was flung its way, at whatever glancing angle, with whatever violence; it had big helpful ursine arms to support him while he performed the crucial blind pivot. But Chip’s chaise was a low-riding, impractical antique. Alfred stood facing away from it and hesitated, his knees bent to the rather small degree that his neuropathic lower legs permitted, his hands scooping and groping in the air behind him. He was afraid to take the plunge. And yet there was something obscene about standing half-crouched and quaking, some association with the men’s room, some essential vulnerability which felt to him at once so poignant and degraded that, simply to put an end to it, he shut his eyes and let go. He landed heavily on his bottom and continued on over backwards, coming to rest with his knees in the air above him.
“Al, are you all right?” Enid called.
“I don’t understand this furniture,” he said, struggling to sit up and sound powerful. “Is this meant to be a sofa?”
Denise came out and put a vase of three sunflowers on the spindly table by the chaise. “It’s like a sofa,” she said. “You can put your legs up and be a French philosophe. You can talk about Schopenhauer.”
Alfred shook his head.
Enid enunciated from the kitchen doorway, “Dr. Hedgpeth says you should only sit in high, straight-backed chairs.”
Since Alfred showed no interest in these instructions, Enid repeated them to Denise when she returned to the kitchen. “High, straight-backed chairs only,” she said. “But Dad won’t listen. He insists on sitting in his leather chair. Then he shouts for me to come and help him get up. But if I hurt my back, then where are we? I put one of those nice old ladder-back chairs by the TV downstairs and told him sit here. But he’d rather sit in his leather chair, and then to get out of it he slides down the cushion until he’s on the floor. Then he crawls on the floor to the Ping-Pong table and uses the Ping-Pong table to hoist himself up.”
“That’s actually pretty resourceful,” Denise said as she took an armload of food from the refrigerator.
“Denise, he’s crawling across the floor. Rather than sit in a nice, comfortable straight-backed chair which the doctor says it’s important that he sit in, he crawls across the floor. He shouldn’t be sitting so much to begin with. Dr. Hedgpeth says his condition is not at all severe if he would just get out and do a little. Use it or lose it, that’s what every doctor says. Dave Schumpert has had ten times more health problems than Dad, he’s had a colostomy for fifteen years, he’s got one lung and a pacemaker, and look at all the things that he and Mary Beth are doing. They just got back from snorkeling in Fiji! And Dave never complains, never complains. You probably don’t remember Gene Grillo, Dad’s old friend from Hephaestus, but he has bad Parkinson’s—much, much worse than Dad’s. He’s still at home in Fort Wayne but in a wheelchair now. He’s really in awful shape, but, Denise, he’s interested in things. He can’t write anymore but he sent us an ‘audio letter’ on a cassette tape, really thoughtful, where he talks about each of his grandchildren in detail, because he knows his grandkids and takes an interest in them, and about how he’s started to teach himself Cambodian, which he calls Khmer, from listening to a tape and watching the Cambodian (or Khmer, I guess) TV channel in Fort Wayne, because their youngest son is married to a Cambodian woman, or Khmer, I guess, and her parents don’t speak any English and Gene wants to be able to talk to them a little. Can you believe? Here Gene is in a wheelchair, completely crippled, and he’s still thinking about what he can do for somebody else! While Dad, who can walk, and write, and dress himself, does nothing all day but sit in his chair.”
“Mother, he’s depressed,” Denise said in a low voice, slicing bread.
“That’s what Gary and Caroline say, too. They say he’s depressed and he should take a medication. They say he was a workaholic and that work was a drug which when he couldn’t have it anymore he got depressed.”
“So drug him and forget him. A convenient theory.”
“That’s not fair to Gary.”
“Don’t get me started on Gary and Caroline.”
“Golly, Denise, the way you throw that knife around I don’t see how you haven’t lost a finger.”
From the end of a French loaf Denise had made three little crust-bottomed vehicles. On one she set shavings of butter curved like sails full of wind, into another she loaded Parmesan shards packed in an excelsior of shredded arugula, and the third she paved with minced olive meat and olive oil and covered with a thick red tarp of pepper.
Enid spoke—“Mm, don’t those look nice”—as she reached, cat-quick, for the plate on which Denise had arranged the snacks. But the plate eluded Enid.
“These are for Dad.”
“Just a corner of one.”
“I’ll make some more for you.”
“No, I just want one corner of his.”
But Denise left the kitchen and took the plate to Alfred, for whom the problem of existence was this: that, in the manner of a wheat seedling thrusting itself up out of the earth, the world moved forward in time by adding cell after cell to its leading edge, piling moment on moment, and that to grasp the world even in its freshest, youngest moment provided no guarantee that you’d be able to grasp it again a moment later. By the time he’d established that his daughter, Denise, was handing him a plate of snacks in his son Chip’s living room, the next moment in time was already budding itself into a pristinely ungrasped existence in which he couldn’t absolutely rule out the possibility, for example, that his wife, Enid, was handing him a plate of feces in the parlor of a brothel; and no sooner had he reconfirmed Denise and the snacks and Chip’s living room than the leading edge of time added yet another layer of new cells, so that he again faced a new and ungrasped world; which was why, rather than exhaust himself playing catch-up, he preferred more and more to spend his days down among the unchanging historical roots of things.
“Something to tide you while I get lunch,” Denise said.
Alfred gazed with gratitude at the snacks, which were holding about ninety percent steady as food, flickering only occasionally into objects of similar size and shape.
“Maybe you’d like a glass of wine?”
“Not necessary,” he said. As the gratitude spread outward from his heart—as he was moved—his clasped hands and lower arms began to bounce more freely on his lap. He tried to find something in the room that didn’t move him, something he could rest his eyes on safely; but because the room was Chip’s and because Denise was standing in it, every fixture and every surface—even a radiator knob, even a thigh-level expanse of faintly scuffed wall—was a reminder of the separate, eastern worlds in which his children led their lives and hence of the various vast distances that separated him from them; which made his hands shake all the more.
That the daughter whose attentions most aggravated his affliction was the person he least wanted to be seen by in the grip of this affliction was the sort of Devil’s logic that confirmed a man’s pessimism.
“I’ll leave you alone for a minute,” Denise said, “while I get the lunch going.”
He closed his eyes and thanked her. As if waiting for a break in a downpour so that he could run from his car into a grocery store, he waited for a lull in his tremor so that he could reach out and safely eat what she’d brought him.
His affliction offended his sense of ownership. These shaking hands belonged to nobody but him, and yet they refused to obey him. They were like bad children. Unreasoning two-year-olds in a tantrum of selfish misery. The more sternly he gave orders, the less they listened and the more miserable and out of control they got. He’d always been vulnerable to a child’s recalcitrance and refusal to behave like an adult. Irresponsibility and undiscipline were the bane of his existence, and it was another instance of that Devil’s logic that his own untimely affliction should consist of his body’s refusal to obey him.
If thy right hand offend thee, Jesus said, cut it off.
As he waited for the tremor to abate—as he watched his hands’ jerking rowing motions impotently, as if he were in a nursery with screaming misbehaving infants and had lost his voice and couldn’t make them quiet down—Alfred took pleasure in the imagination of chopping his hand off with a hatchet: of letting the transgressing limb know how deeply he was angry with it, how little he loved it if it insisted on disobeying him. It brought a kind of ecstasy to imagine the first deep bite of the hatchet’s blade in the bone and muscle of his offending wrist; but along with the ecstasy, right beside it, was an inclination to weep for this hand that was his, that he loved and wished the best for, that he’d known all its life.
He was thinking about Chip again without noticing it.
He wondered where Chip had gone. How he’d driven Chip away again.
Denise’s voice and Enid’s voice in the kitchen were like a larger bee and a smaller bee trapped behind a window screen. And his moment came, the lull that he’d been waiting for. Leaning forward and steadying his taking hand with his supporting hand, he grasped the butter-sailed schooner and got it off the plate, bore it aloft without capsizing it, and then, as it floated and bobbed, he opened his mouth and chased it down and got it. Got it. Got it. The crust cut his gums, but he kept the whole thing in his mouth and chewed carefully, giving his sluggish tongue wide berth. The sweet butter melting, the feminine softness of baked leavened wheat. There were chapters in Hedgpeth’s booklets that even Alfred, fatalist and man of discipline that he was, couldn’t bring himself to read. Chapters devoted to the problems of swallowing; to the late torments of the tongue; to the final breakdown of the signal system. . .
The betrayal had begun in Signals.
The Midland Pacific Railroad, where for the last decade of his career he’d run the Engineering Department (and where, when he’d given an order, it was carried out, Mr. Lambert, right away, sir), had served hundreds of one-elevator towns in west Kansas and west and central Nebraska, towns of the kind that Alfred and his fellow executives had grown up in or near, towns that in their old age seemed the sicker for the excellent health of the Midpac tracks running through them. Although the railroad’s first responsibility was to its stockholders, its Kansan and Missourian officers (including Mark Jamborets, the corporation counsel) had persuaded the Board of Managers that because a railroad was a pure monopoly in many hinterland towns, it had a civic duty to maintain service on its branches and spurs. Alfred personally had no illusions about the economic future of prairie towns where the median age was fifty-plus, but he believed in rail and he hated trucks, and he knew firsthand what scheduled service meant to a town’s civic pride, how the whistle of a train could raise the spirits on a February morning at 41° N 101° W; and in his battles with the EPA and various DOTs he’d learned to appreciate rural state legislators who could intercede on your behalf when you needed more time to clean up your waste-oil tanks in the Kansas City yards, or when some goddamned bureaucrat was insisting that you pay for forty percent of a needless grade-separation project at Country Road H. Years after the Soo Line and Great Northern and Rock Island had stranded dead and dying towns all across the northern Plains, then, the Midpac had persisted in running short semiweekly or even biweekly trains through places like Alvin and Pisgah Creek, New Chartres and West Centerville.
Unfortunately, this program had attracted predators. In the early 1980s, as Alfred neared retirement, the Midpac was known as a regional carrier that despite outstanding management and lush profit margins on its long-haul lines had very ordinary earnings. The Midpac had already repulsed one unwelcome suitor when it came under the acquisitive gaze of Hillard and Chauncy Wroth, fraternal twin brothers from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who had expanded a family meat-packing business into an empire of the dollar. Their company, the Orfic Group, included a chain of hotels, a bank in Atlanta, an oil company, and the Arkansas Southern Railroad. The Wroths had lopsided faces and dirty hair and no discernible desires or interests apart from making money; Oak Ridge Raiders, the financial press called them. At an early exploratory meeting that Alfred attended, Chauncy Wroth persisted in addressing the Midpac’s CEO as “Dad”: I’m well aware it don’t seem like “fair play” to you, DAD. . .Well, DAD, why don’t you and your lawyers go ahead and have that little chat right now. . .Gosh, and here Hillard and myself was under the impression, DAD, that you’re operating a business, not a charity. . .This kind of anti-paternalism played well with the railroad’s unionized workforce, which after months of arduous negotiations voted to offer the Wroths a package of wage and work-rule concessions worth almost $200 million; with these prospective savings in hand, plus twenty-seven percent of the railroad’s stock, plus limitless junk financing, the Wroths made an irresistible tender offer and bought the railroad outright. A former Tennessee highway commissioner, Fenton Creel, was hired to merge the railroad with the Arkansas Southern. Creel shut down the Midpac’s headquarters in St. Jude, fired or retired a third of its employees, and moved the rest to Little Rock.
Alfred retired two months before his sixty-fifth birthday. He was at home watching Good Morning America in his new blue chair when Mark Jamborets, the Midpac’s retired corporation counsel, called with the news that a sheriff in New Chartres (pronounced “Charters”), Kansas, had had himself arrested for shooting an employee of Orfic Midland. “The sheriff’s name is Bryce Halstrom,” Jamborets told Alfred. “He got a call that some roughnecks were trashing Midpac signal wires. He went over to the siding and saw three fellows ripping down the wire, smashing signal boxes, coiling up anything copper. One of them took a county bullet in his hip before the others made Halstrom understand they were working for the Midpac. Hired for copper salvage at sixty cents a pound.”
“But that’s a good new system,” Alfred said. “It’s not three years since we upgraded the whole New Chartres spur.”
“The Wroths are scrapping everything but the trunk lines,” Jamborets said. “They’re junking the Glendora cutoff! You think the Atchison, Topeka wouldn’t make a bid on that?”
“Well,” Alfred said.
“It’s a Baptist morality gone sour,” said Jamborets. “The Wroths can’t abide that we admitted any principle but the ruthless pursuit of profit. I’m telling you: they hate what they can’t comprehend. And now they’re sowing salt in the fields. Close down headquarters in St. Jude? When we’re twice the size of Arkansas Southern? They’re punishing St. Jude for being the home of the Midland Pacific. And Creel’s punishing the towns like New Chartres for being Midpac towns. He’s sowing salt in the fields of the financially unrighteous.”
“Well,” Alfred said again, his eyes drawn to his new blue chair and its delicious potential as a sleep site. “Not my concern anymore.”
But he’d worked for thirty years to make the Midland Pacific a strong system, and Jamborets continued to call him and send him news reports of fresh Kansan outrages, and it all made him very sleepy. Soon hardly a branch or spur in Midpac’s western district remained in service, but apparently Fenton Creel was satisfied with pulling down the signal wires and gutting the boxes. Five years after the takeover, the rails were still in place, the right-of-way was undisposed of. Only the copper nervous system, in an act of corporate self-vandalism, had been dismantled.
“And now I’m worried about our health insurance,” Enid told Denise. “Orfic Midland is switching all the old Midpac employees to managed care no later than April. I have to find an HMO that has some of Dad’s and my doctors on their list. I’m deluged with prospectuses, where the differences are all in the fine print, and honestly, Denise, I don’t think I can handle this.”
As if to forestall being asked for help, Denise quickly said: “What plans does Hedgpeth accept?”
“Well, except for his old fee-for-service patients, like Dad, he’s exclusive now with Dean Driblett’s HMO,” Enid said. “I told you about the big party at Dean’s gorgeous, huge new house. Dean and Trish really are about the nicest young couple I know, but golly, Denise, I called his company last year after Dad fell down on the lawn mower, and you know what they wanted for cutting our little lawn? Fifty-five dollars a week! I’m not opposed to profit, I think it’s wonderful that Dean’s successful, I told you about his trip to Paris with Honey, I’m not saying anything against him. But fifty-five dollars a week!”
Denise sampled Chip’s green-bean salad and reached for the olive oil. “What would it cost to stay with fee-for-service?”
“Denise, hundreds of dollars a month extra. Not one of our good friends has managed care, everybody has fee-for-service, but I don’t see how we can afford it. Dad was so conservative with his investments, we’re lucky to have any cushion for emergencies. And this is something else I’m very, very, very, very worried about.” Enid lowered her voice. “One of Dad’s old patents is finally paying off, and I need your advice.”
She stepped out of the kitchen and made sure that Alfred couldn’t hear. “Al, how are you doing?” she shouted.
He was cradling his second hors d’oeuvre, the little green boxcar, below his chin. As if he’d captured a small animal that might escape again, he shook his head without looking up.
Enid returned to the kitchen with her purse. “He finally has a chance to make some money, and he’s not interested. Gary talked to him on the phone last month and tried to get him to be a little more aggressive, but Dad blew up.”
Denise stiffened. “What was Gary wanting you to do?”
“Just be a little more aggressive. Here, I’ll show you the letter.”
“Mother, those patents are Dad’s. You have to let him handle it however he wants.”
Enid hoped that the envelope at the bottom of her purse might be the missing Registered letter from the Axon Corporation. In her purse, as in her house, lost objects did sometimes marvelously resurface. But the envelope she found was the original Certified letter, which had never been lost.
“Read this,” she said, “and see if you agree with Gary.”
Denise set down the can of cayenne pepper with which she’d dusted Chip’s salad. Enid stood at her shoulder and reread the letter to make sure it still said what she remembered.
Dear Dr. Lambert:
On behalf of the Axon Corporation, 24 East Industrial Serpentine, Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, I’m writing to offer you a lump sum payment of five thousand dollars ($5000.00) for the full, exclusive, and irrevocable right to United States Patent # 4,934,417 (THERAPEUTIC FERROACETATE-GEL ELECTRO-POLYMERIZATION), for which you are original and sole holder of license.
The management of Axon regrets that it cannot offer you a larger fee. The company’s own product is in the earliest stages of testing, and there is no guarantee that its investment will bear fruit.
If the terms outlined in the attached Licensing Agreement are acceptable, please sign and have notarized all three copies and return them to me no later than September 30.
Joseph K. Prager
Senior Associate Partner
Bragg Knuter & Speigh
When this letter had arrived in the mail in August and Enid had awakened Alfred in the basement, he’d shrugged and said, “Five thousand dollars won’t change the way we live.” Enid had suggested that they write to the Axon Corporation and ask for a larger fee, but Alfred shook his head. “We’ll have soon spent five thousand dollars on a lawyer,” he said, “and then where are we?” It didn’t hurt to ask, though, Enid said. “I will not ask,” Alfred said. But if he just wrote back, Enid said, and asked for ten thousand. . .She fell silent as Alfred fixed her with a look. She might as well have proposed that they make love.
Denise had taken a bottle of wine from the refrigerator, as if to underline her indifference to a matter of consequence to Enid. Sometimes Enid believed that Denise had disdain for every last thing she cared about. The sexual tightness of Denise’s blue jeans, as she bumped a drawer shut with her hip, sent this message. The assurance with which she drove a corkscrew into the cork sent this message. “Do you want some wine?”
Enid shuddered. “It’s so early in the day.”
Denise drank it like water. “Knowing Gary,” she said, “I’m guessing he said try to gouge them.”
“No, well, see—” Enid reached toward the bottle with both hands. “Just a tiny drop, pour me just a swallow, honestly, I never drink this early in the day, never—you see, but Gary wonders why the company is even bothering with the patent if they’re still so early in their development. I guess the usual thing is just to infringe on the other person’s patent.—That’s too much! Denise, I don’t like so much wine! Because, see, the patent expires in six years, so Gary thinks the company must stand to make a lot of money soon.”
“Did Dad sign the agreement?”
“Oh, yeah. He went over to the Schumperts’ and had Dave notarize it.”
“Then you have to respect his decision.”
“Denise, he’s being stubborn and unreasonable. I can’t—”
“Are you saying this is an issue of competency?”
“No. No. This is fully in character. I just can’t—”
“If he already signed the agreement,” Denise said, “what is Gary imagining you’re going to do?”
“Nothing, I guess.”
“So what’s the point here?”
“Nothing. You’re right,” Enid said. “There’s nothing we can do,” although in fact there was. If Denise had been a little less partisan in her support of Alfred, Enid might have confessed that after Alfred had given her the notarized agreement to mail at the post office on her way to the bank, she’d hidden the agreement in the glove compartment of their car, and had let the envelope sit and radiate guilt for several days; and that later, while Alfred was napping, she’d hidden the envelope more securely at the back of a laundry-room cabinet containing jars of undesirable jams and spreads going gray with age (kumquat-raisin, brandy-pumpkin, Korean barfleberry) and vases and baskets and cubes of florist’s clay too good to throw away but not good enough to use; and that, as a result of this dishonest act, she and Alfred could still extract a big licensing fee from Axon, and that it was therefore crucial that she locate the second, Registered letter from Axon and hide it before Alfred found out that she’d deceived and disobeyed him. “Oh, but that reminds me,” she said, emptying her glass, “there’s something else I really need your help with.”
Denise hesitated before replying with a polite and cordial “Yes?” This hesitation confirmed Enid’s long-held belief that she and Alfred had taken a wrong turn somewhere in Denise’s upbringing. Had failed to instill in their youngest child the proper spirit of generosity and cheerful service.
“Well, as you know,” Enid said, “we’ve gone to Philadelphia for the last eight Christmases in a row, and Gary’s boys are old enough now that they might like to have a memory of Christmas at their grandparents’ house, and so I thought—”
“Damn!” came a cry from the living room.
Enid set down her glass and hurried from the kitchen. Alfred was sitting on the edge of the chaise in a somehow penal posture, his knees high and his back a little hunched, and was surveying the crash site of his third hors d’oeuvre. The gondola of bread had slipped from his fingers on its approach to his mouth and plunged to his knee, scattering wreckage and tumbling to the floor and finally coming to rest beneath the chaise. A wet pelt of roasted red pepper had adhered to the chaise’s flank. Shadows of oil-soak were forming around each clump of olive morsels on the upholstery. The emptied gondola lay on its side with its yellow-soaked, brown-stained white interior showing.
Denise squeezed past Enid with a damp sponge and went and knelt by Alfred. “Oh, Dad,” she said, “these are hard to handle, I should have realized.”
“Just get me a rag and I’ll clean it up.”
“No, here,” Denise said. Cupping one hand for a receptacle, she brushed the bits of olive from his knees and thighs. His hands shook in the air near her head as if he might have to push her away, but she did her work quickly, and soon she’d sponged the bits of olive up from the floor and was carrying the dirtied food back to the kitchen, where Enid had wanted a tiny extra splash of wine and in her hurry not to be conspicuous had poured a rather substantial tiny splash and downed it quickly.
“Anyway,” she said, “I thought that if you and Chip were interested, we could all have one last Christmas in St. Jude. What do you think of that idea?”
“I’ll be wherever you and Dad want to be,” Denise said.
“No, I’m asking you, though. I want to know if it’s something you’re especially interested in doing. If you’d especially like to have one last Christmas in the house you grew up in. Does it sound like it might be fun for you?”
“I can tell you right now,” Denise said, “there’s no way Caroline’s leaving Philly. It’s a fantasy to think otherwise. So if you want to see your grandkids, you’ll have to come east.”
“Denise, I’m asking what you want. Gary says he and Caroline haven’t ruled it out. I need to know if a Christmas in St. Jude is something that you really, really want for yourself. Because if all the rest of us are agreed that it’s important to be together as a family in St. Jude one last time—”
“Mother, it’s fine with me, if you think you can handle it.”
“I’ll need a little help in the kitchen is all.”
“I can help you in the kitchen. But I can only come for a few days.”
“You can’t take a week?”
“Damn!” Alfred cried again from the living room as something vitreous, maybe a vase containing sunflowers, hit the floor with a cracking-open sound, a gulp of breakage. “Damn! Damn!”
Enid’s own nerves were so splintery she almost dropped her wineglass, and yet a part of her was grateful for this second mishap, whatever it was, because it gave Denise a small taste of what she had to put up with every day, around the clock, at home in St. Jude.
The night of Alfred’s seventy-fifth birthday had found Chip alone at Tilton Ledge pursuing sexual congress with his red chaise longue.
It was early January and the woods around Carparts Creek were soggy with melting snow. Only the shopping-center sky above central Connecticut and the digital readouts of his home electronics cast light on his carnal labors. He was kneeling at the feet of his chaise and sniffing its plush minutely, inch by inch, in hopes that some vaginal tang might still be lingering eight weeks after Melissa Paquette had lain here. Ordinarily distinct and identifiable smells—dust, sweat, urine, the dayroom reek of cigarette smoke, the fugitive afterscent of quim—became abstract and indistinguishable from oversmelling, and so he had to pause again and again to refresh his nostrils. He worked his lips down into the chaise’s buttoned navels and kissed the lint and grit and crumbs and hairs that had collected in them. None of the three spots where he thought he smelled Melissa was unambiguously tangy, but after exhaustive comparison he was able to settle on the least questionable of the three spots, near a button just south of the backrest, and give it his full nasal attention. He fingered other buttons with both hands, the cool plush chafing his nether parts in a poor approximation of Melissa’s skin, until finally he achieved sufficient belief in the smell’s reality—sufficient faith that he still possessed some relic of Melissa—to consummate the act. Then he rolled off his compliant antique and slumped on the floor with his pants undone and his head on the cushion, an hour closer to having failed to call his father on his birthday.
He smoked two cigarettes, lighting the second off the first. He turned on his television to a cable channel that was running a marathon of old Warner Bros. cartoons. At the edge of the pool of tubal glow he could see the mail that for nearly a week he’d been dropping, unopened, on the floor. Three letters from the college’s new acting provost were in the pile, also something ominous from the teachers’ retirement fund, also a letter from the college housing office with the words NOTICE OF EVICTION on the front of the envelope.
Earlier in the day, while killing some hours by circling in blue ballpoint ink every uppercase M in the front section of a month-old New York Times, Chip had concluded that he was behaving like a depressed person. Now, as his telephone began to ring, it occurred to him that a depressed person ought to continue staring at the TV and ignore the ringing—ought to light another cigarette and, with no trace of emotional affect, watch another cartoon while his machine took whoever’s message.
That his impulse, instead, was to jump to his feet and answer the phone—that he could so casually betray the arduous wasting of a day—cast doubt on the authenticity of his suffering. He felt as if he lacked the ability to lose all volition and connection with reality the way depressed people did in books and movies. It seemed to him, as he silenced the TV and hurried into his kitchen, that he was failing even at the miserable task of falling properly apart.
He zipped up his pants, turned on a light, and lifted the receiver. “Hello?”
“What’s going on there, Chip?” Denise said without preliminaries. “I just talked to Dad and he said he hadn’t heard from you.”
“Denise. Denise. Why are you shouting?”
“I’m shouting,” she said, “because I’m upset because it’s Dad’s seventy-fifth birthday and you haven’t called him and you didn’t send him a card. I’m upset because I’ve been working for twelve hours and I just called Dad and he’s worried about you. What’s going on there?”
Chip surprised himself by laughing. “What’s going on is that I’ve lost my job.”
“You didn’t get tenure?”
“No, I was fired,” he said. “They didn’t even let me teach the last two weeks of classes. Somebody else had to give my exams. And I can’t appeal the decision without calling a witness. And if I try to talk to my witness it’s just further evidence of my crime.”
“Who’s the witness? Witness to what?”
Chip took a bottle from the recycling bin, double-checked its emptiness, and returned it to the bin. “A former student of mine says I’m obsessed with her. She says I had a relationship with her and wrote her a term paper in a motel room. And unless I get a lawyer, which I can’t afford to do because they’ve cut my pay off, I’m not allowed to speak to this student. If I try to see her, it’s considered stalking.”
“Is she lying?” Denise said.
“Not that this is anything Mom and Dad need to know about.”
“Chip, is she lying?”
Spread open on Chip’s kitchen counter was the section of the Times in which he’d circled all the uppercase M’s. Rediscovering this artifact now, hours later, would have been like remembering a dream except that a remembered dream didn’t have the power to pull a waking person back into it, whereas the sight of a heavily marked story about severe new curtailments in Medicare and Medicaid benefits induced in Chip the same feeling of unease and unrealized lust, the same longing for unconsciousness, that had sent him to the chaise to sniff and grope. He had to struggle now to remind himself that he’d already gone to the chaise, he’d already taken that route to comfort and forgetfulness.
He folded the Times and dropped it on top of his heaping trash can.
“‘I never had sexual relations with that woman,’ “he said.
“You know I’m judgmental about a lot of things,” Denise said, “but not about things like this.”
“I said I didn’t sleep with her.”
“I’m stressing, though,” Denise said, “that this is one area where absolutely anything you say to me will fall on sympathetic ears.” And she cleared her throat pointedly.
If Chip had wanted to come clean to someone in his family, his little sister would have been the obvious choice. Having dropped out of college and having married badly, Denise at least had some acquaintance with darkness and disappointment. Nobody but Enid, however, had ever mistaken Denise for a failure. The college she’d dropped out of was better than the one that Chip had graduated from, and her early marriage and more recent divorce had given her an emotional maturity that Chip was all too aware of lacking himself, and he suspected that even though Denise was working eighty hours a week she still managed to read more books than he did. In the last month, since he’d embarked on projects like digitally scanning Melissa Paquette’s face from a freshman facebook and suturing her head to obscene downloaded images and tinkering with these images pixel by pixel (and the hours did fly by when you were tinkering with pixels), he’d read no books at all.
“There was a misunderstanding,” he told Denise dully. “And then it was like they could hardly wait to fire me. And now I’m being denied due process.”
“Frankly,” Denise said, “it’s hard to see being fired as a bad thing. Colleges are nasty.”
“This was the one place in the world I thought I fit in.”
“I’m saying it’s very much to your credit that you don’t. Although what are you surviving on, financially?”
“Who said I was surviving?”
“Do you need a loan?”
“Denise, you don’t have any money.”
“Yes I do. I’m also thinking you should talk to my friend Julia. She’s the one in film development. I told her about that idea you had for an East Village Troilus and Cressida. She said you should call her if you’re interested in writing.”
Chip shook his head as if Denise were with him in the kitchen and could see him. They’d talked on the phone, months ago, about modernizing some of Shakespeare’s less famous plays, and he couldn’t bear that Denise had taken that conversation seriously; that she still believed in him.
“What about Dad, though?” she said. “Did you forget it’s his birthday?”
“I lost track of time here.”
“I wouldn’t push you,” Denise said, “except that I was the person who opened your Christmas box.”
“Christmas was a bad scene, no question.”
“Which package went to whom was pretty much guesswork.”
Outside, a wind from the south had picked up, a thawing wind that quickened the patter of snowmelt on the back patio. The sense that Chip had had when the phone rang—that his misery was optional—had left him again.
“So are you going to call him?” Denise said.
He replaced the receiver in its cradle without answering her, turned off the ringer, and pressed his face into the doorframe. He’d solved the problem of family Christmas gifts on the last possible mailing day, when, in a great rush, he’d pulled old bargains and remainders off his bookshelves and wrapped them in aluminum foil and tied them up with red ribbon and refused to imagine how his nine-year-old nephew Caleb, for example, might react to an Oxford annotated edition of Ivanhoe whose main qualification as a gift was that it was still in its original shrink-wrap. The corners of the books had immediately poked through the aluminum foil, and the foil he’d added to cover up the holes hadn’t adhered well to the underlying layers, and the result had been a soft and peely kind of effect, like onion skin or phyllo dough, which he’d tried to mitigate by plastering each package with the National Abortion Rights Action League holiday stickers that he’d received in his annual membership kit. His handiwork had looked so clumsy and childish, so mentally unbalanced really, that he tossed the packages into an old grapefruit carton just to get them out of sight. Then he FedExed the carton down to Gary’s house in Philadelphia. He felt as if he’d taken an enormous dump, as if, no matter how smeary and disagreeable it had been, he at least was emptied out now and would not be back in this position soon. But three days later, returning home late on Christmas night after a twelve-hour vigil at the Dunkin’ Donuts in Norwalk, Connecticut, he faced the problem of opening the gifts his family had sent him: two boxes from St. Jude, a padded mailer from Denise, and a box from Gary. He decided that he would open the packages in bed and that the way he would get them up to his bedroom would be to kick them up the stairs. Which proved to be a challenge, because oblong objects had a tendency not to roll up a staircase but to catch on the steps and tumble back down. Also, if the contents of a padded mailer were too light to offer inertial resistance, it was difficult to get any lift when you kicked it. But Chip had had such a frustrating and demoralizing Christmas—he’d left a message on Melissa’s college voice mail, asking her to call him at the pay phone at the Dunkin’ Donuts or, better yet, to come over in person from her parents’ house in nearby Westport, and not until midnight had exhaustion compelled him to accept that Melissa probably wasn’t going to call him and certainly wasn’t going to come and see him—that he was now psychically capable neither of breaking the rules of the game he’d invented nor of quitting the game before he’d achieved its object. And it was clear to him that the rules permitted only genuine sharp kicks (prohibited, in particular, working his foot under the padded mailer and advancing it with any sort of pushing or lofting motion), and so he was obliged to kick his Christmas package from Denise with escalating savagery until it tore open and spilled its ground-newsprint stuffing and he succeeded in catching its ripped sheathing with the toe of his boot and launching the gift in a long clean arc that landed it one step shy of the second floor. From there, however, the mailer refused to be budged up over the lip of the final step. Chip trampled and kicked and shredded the mailer with his heels. Inside was a mess of red paper and green silk. He broke his own rule and scraped the mess up over the last step, kicked it down the hall, and left it by his bed while he went down for the other boxes. These, too, he pretty well destroyed before he developed a method of bouncing them off a low step and then, while they were airborne, punting them all the way upstairs. When he punted the box from Gary it exploded in a cloud of white Styrofoam saucers. A bubble-wrapped bottle fell out and rolled down the stairs. It was a bottle of vintage Californian port. Chip carried it up to his bed and worked out a rhythm whereby he swallowed one large mouthful of port for each gift that he succeeded in unwrapping. From his mother, who was under the impression that he still hung a stocking by his fireplace, he’d received a box marked Stocking Stuffers containing small individually wrapped items: a package of cough drops, a miniature second-grade school photo of himself in a tarnished brass frame, plastic bottles of shampoo and conditioner and hand lotion from a Hong Kong hotel where Enid and Alfred had stayed en route to China eleven years earlier, and two carved wooden elves with sentimentally exaggerated smiles and loops of silver string that penetrated their little craniums so they could be hung from a tree. For placement under this presumptive tree, Enid had sent a second box of larger gifts wrapped in Santa-faced red paper: an asparagus steamer, three pairs of white Jockey underwear, a jumbo candy cane, and two calico throw pillows. From Gary and his wife, in addition to the port, Chip received a clever vacuum-pump system for preserving leftover wine from oxidation, as if leftover wine were a problem Chip had ever had. From Denise, to whom he’d given The Selected Letters of André Gide after erasing from the flyleaf the evidence that he’d paid one dollar for this particularly tone-deaf translation, he received a beautiful lime-green silk shirt, and from his father a hundred-dollar check with the handwritten instruction to buy himself something he liked.
Except for the shirt, which he’d worn, and the check, which he’d cashed, and the bottle of port, which he’d killed in bed on Christmas night, the gifts from his family were still on the floor of his bedroom. Stuffing from Denise’s mailer had drifted into the kitchen and mixed with splashed dishwater to form a mud that he’d tracked all over. Flocks of sheep-white Styrofoam pebbles had collected in sheltered places.
It was nearly ten-thirty in the Midwest.
Hello, Dad. Happy seventy-fifth. Things are going well here. How are things in St. Jude?
Chip felt he couldn’t make the call without some kind of pick-me-up or treat. Some kind of energizer. But TV caused him such critical and political anguish that he could no longer watch even cartoons without smoking cigarettes, and he now had a lung-sized region of pain in his chest, and there was no intoxicant of any sort in his house, not even cooking sherry, not even cough syrup, and after the labor of taking his pleasure with the chaise his endorphins had gone home to the four corners of his brain like war-weary troops, so spent by the demands he’d made of them in the last five weeks that nothing, except possibly Melissa in the flesh, could marshal them again. He needed a little morale-booster, a little pick-me-up, but he had nothing better than the month-old Times, and he felt that he’d circled quite enough uppercase M’s for one day, he could circle no more.
He went to his dining table and confirmed the absence of dregs in the wine bottles on it. He’d used the last $220 of credit on his Visa card to buy eight bottles of a rather tasty Fronsac, and on Saturday night he’d thrown one last dinner party to rally his supporters on the faculty. A few years ago, after D——’ s drama department had fired a popular young professor, Cali Lopez, for having claimed to have a degree she didn’t have, outraged students and junior faculty had organized boycotts and candlelight vigils that had forced the college not only to rehire Lopez but to promote her to full professor. Granted, Chip was neither a lesbian nor a Filipina, as Lopez was, but he’d taught Theory of Feminism, and he had a hundred-percent voting record with the Queer Bloc, and he routinely packed his syllabi with non-Western writers, and all he’d really done in Room 23 of the Comfort Valley Lodge was put into practice certain theories (the myth of authorship; the resistant consumerism of transgressive sexual (trans) act(ion) s) that the college had hired him to teach. Unfortunately, the theories sounded somewhat lame when he wasn’t lecturing to impressionable adolescents. Of the eight colleagues who’d accepted his invitation for dinner on Saturday, only four had shown up. And despite his efforts to steer the conversation around to his predicament, the only collective action his friends had taken on his behalf had been to serenade him, as they killed the eighth bottle of wine, with an a capella rendition of “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.”
He hadn’t had the strength to clear the table in the intervening days. He considered the blackened red leaf lettuce, the skin of congealed grease on an uneaten lamb chop, the mess of corks and ashes. The shame and disorder in his house were like the shame and disorder in his head. Cali Lopez was now the college’s acting provost, Jim Leviton’s replacement.
Tell me about your relationship with your student Melissa Paquette.
My former student?
Your former student.
I’m friendly with her. We’ve had dinner. I spent some time with her at the beginning of Thanksgiving break. She’s a brilliant student.
Did you give Melissa any help with a paper she wrote last week for Vendla O’Fallon?
We talked about the paper in a general way. She had some areas of confusion that I was able to help her clear up.
Is your relationship with her sexual?
Chip, what I think we’ll do is suspend you with pay until we can have a full hearing. That’s what we’ll do. We’ll have a hearing early next week, and in the meantime you should probably get a lawyer and talk to your union rep. I also have to insist that you not speak to Melissa Paquette.
What does she say? That I wrote that paper?
Melissa violated the honor code by handing in work that was not her own. She’s facing a one-semester suspension, but we understand that there are mitigating factors. For example, your grossly inappropriate sexual relationship with her.
That’s what she says?
My personal advice, Chip, is resign now.
That’s what she says?
You have no chance.
The snowmelt was raining down harder on his patio. He lit a cigarette on the front burner of his stove, took two painful drags, and pressed the coal into the palm of his hand. He groaned through clenched teeth and opened his freezer and put his palm to its floor and stood for a minute smelling flesh smoke. Then, holding an ice cube, he went to the phone and dialed the ancient area code, the ancient number.
While the phone rang in St. Jude, he planted a foot on the section of Times in his trash and mashed it down deeper, got it out of sight.
“Oh, Chip,” Enid cried, “he’s already gone to bed!”
“Don’t wake him,” Chip said. “Just tell him—”
But Enid set the phone down and shouted Al! Al! at volumes that diminished as she moved farther from the phone and up the stairs toward the bedrooms. Chip heard her shout, It’s Chip! He heard their upstairs extension click into action. He heard Enid instructing Alfred, “Don’t just say hello and hang up. Visit with him a little.”
There was a rustling transfer of the receiver.
“Yes,” Alfred said.
“Hey, Dad, happy birthday,” Chip said.
“Yes,” Alfred said again in exactly the same flat voice.
“I’m sorry to call so late.”
“I was not asleep,” Alfred said.
“I was afraid I woke you up.”
“Well, so happy seventy-fifth.”
Chip hoped that Enid was motoring back down to the kitchen as fast as she could, ailing hip and all, to bail him out. “I guess you’re tired and it’s late,” he said. “We don’t have to talk.”
“Thank you for the call,” Alfred said.
Enid was back on the line. “I’m going to finish these dishes,” she said. “We had a party here tonight! Al, tell Chip about the party we had! I’m getting off the phone now.”
She hung up. Chip said, “You had a party.”
“Yes. The Roots were here for dinner and bridge.”
“Did you have a cake?”
“Your mother made a cake.”
The cigarette had made a hole in Chip’s body through which, he felt, painful harms could enter and vital factors painfully escape. Melting ice was leaking through his fingers. “How was the bridge?”
“My typical terrible cards.”
“That doesn’t seem fair on your birthday.”
“I imagine,” Alfred said, “that you are gearing up for another semester.”
“Right. Right. Although actually not. Actually I’m deciding not to teach at all this semester.”
“I didn’t hear.”
Chip raised his voice. “I said I’ve decided not to teach this semester. I’m going to take the semester off and work on my writing.”
“My recollection is that you are due for tenure soon.”
“Right. In April.”
“It seems to me that a person hoping to be offered tenure would be advised to stay and teach.”
“If they see you working hard, they will have no reason not to offer you tenure.”
“Right. Right.” Chip nodded. “At the same time, I have to prepare for the possibility that I won’t get it. And I’ve got a, uh. A very attractive offer from a Hollywood producer. A college friend of Denise’s who produces movies. Potentially very lucrative.”
“A great worker is almost impossible to fire,” Alfred said.
“The process can get very political, though. I have to have alternatives.”
“As you wish,” Alfred said. “However, I’ve found that it’s usually best to choose one plan and stick with it. If you don’t succeed here, you can always do something else. But you’ve worked many years to reach this point. One more semester’s hard work won’t hurt you.”
“You can relax when you have tenure. Then you’re safe.”
“Well, thank you for the call.”
“Right. Happy birthday, Dad.”
Chip dropped the phone, left the kitchen, and took a Fronsac bottle by the neck and brought its body down hard on the edge of his dining table. He broke a second bottle. The remaining six he smashed two at a time, a neck in each fist.
Anger carried him through the difficult weeks that followed. He borrowed ten thousand dollars from Denise and hired a lawyer to threaten to sue D—— College for wrongful termination of his contract. This was a waste of money, but it felt good. He went to New York and ponied up four thousand dollars in fees and deposits for a sublet on Ninth Street. He bought leather clothes and had his ears pierced. He borrowed more money from Denise and reconnected with a college friend who edited the Warren Street Journal. He conceived revenge in the form of a screenplay that would expose the narcissism and treachery of Melissa Paquette and the hypocrisy of his colleagues; he wanted the people who’d hurt him to see the movie, recognize themselves, and suffer. He flirted with Julia Vrais and asked her on a date, and soon he was spending two or three hundred dollars a week to feed and entertain her. He borrowed more money from Denise. He hung cigarettes on his lower lip and banged out a draft of a script. Julia in the back seat of cabs pressed her face against his chest and clutched his collar. He tipped waiters and cabbies thirty and forty percent. He quoted Shakespeare and Byron in funny contexts. He borrowed more money from Denise and decided that she was right, that getting fired was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
He wasn’t so naïve, of course, as to take Eden Procuro’s professional effusions at face value. But the more he saw of Eden socially, the more confident he became that his script would get a sympathetic reading. For one thing, Eden was like a mother to Julia. She was only five years older, but she’d undertaken a wholesale recalibration and improvement of her personal assistant. Although Chip never quite shook the feeling that Eden was hoping to cast someone else in the role of Julia’s love interest (she habitually referred to Chip as Julia’s “escort,” not her “boyfriend,” and when she talked about Julia’s “untapped potential” and her “lack of confidence” he suspected that mate selection was one area in which she hoped to see improvement in Julia), Julia assured him that Eden thought he was “really dear” and “extremely smart.” Certainly Eden’s husband, Doug O’Brien, was on his side. Doug was a mergers-and-acquisitions specialist at Bragg Knuter & Speigh. He’d set Chip up with a flextime proofreading job and had seen to it that Chip was paid the top hourly wage. Whenever Chip tried to thank him for this favor, Doug made pshawing motions with his hand. “You’re the man with the Ph.D.,” he said. “That book of yours is scary smart stuff.” Chip had soon become a frequent guest at the O’Brien-Procuros’ dinner parties in Tribeca and their weekend house parties in Quogue. Drinking their liquor and eating their catered food, he had a foretaste of a success a hundred times sweeter than tenure. He felt that he was really living.
Then one night Julia sat him down and said there was an important fact that she hadn’t mentioned earlier, and would he promise not to be too mad at her? The important fact was that she sort of had a husband. The deputy prime minister of Lithuania—a small Baltic country—was a man named Gitanas Misevičius? Well, the fact was that Julia had married him a couple of years ago, and she hoped Chip wouldn’t be too mad at her.
Her problem with men, she said, was that she’d grown up without. Her father was a manic-depressive boat salesman whom she remembered meeting once and wished she’d never met at all. Her mother, a cosmetics-company executive, had fobbed Julia off on her own mother, who’d enrolled her in a Catholic girls’ school. Julia’s first significant experience with men was at college. Then she moved to New York and embarked on the long process of sleeping with every dishonest, casually sadistic, terminally uncommitted really gorgeous guy in the borough of Manhattan. By the age of twenty-eight, she had little to feel good about except her looks, her apartment, and her steady job (which mainly consisted, however, of answering the phone). So when she met Gitanas at a club and Gitanas took her seriously, and by and by produced an actual not-small diamond in a white-gold setting, and seemed to love her (and the guy was, after all, an honest-to-God ambassador to the United Nations; she’d gone and heard him do his Baltic thundering at the General Assembly), she did her level best to repay his kindness. She was As Agreeable As Humanly Possible. She refused to disappoint Gitanas even though, in hindsight, it probably would have been better to disappoint him. Gitanas was quite a bit older and fairly attentive in bed (not like Chip, Julia hastened to say, but not, you know, terrible), and he seemed to know what he was doing with the marriage thing, and so one day she went to City Hall with him. She might even have gone by “Mrs. Misevičius” if it had sounded less idiotic. Once she was married, she realized that the marble floors and black lacquer furniture and heavy modern smoked-glass fixtures of the ambassador’s apartment on the East River weren’t as entertainingly campy as she’d thought. They were more like unbearably depressing. She made Gitanas sell the place (the chief of the Paraguayan delegation was delighted to get it) and buy a smaller, nicer place on Hudson Street near some good clubs. She found a competent hairstylist for Gitanas and taught him how to pick out clothes with natural fibers. Things seemed to be going great. But somewhere she and Gitanas must have misunderstood each other, because when his party (the VIPPPAKJRIINPB17: the One True Party Unswervingly Dedicated to the Revanchist Ideals of Kazimieras Jaramaitis and the “Independent” Plebiscite of April Seventeen) lost a September election and recalled him to Vilnius to join the parliamentary opposition, he took it for granted that Julia would come along with him. And Julia understood the concept of one flesh, wife cleaving to husband, and so forth; but Gitanas in his descriptions of post-Soviet Vilnius had painted a picture of chronic coal and electricity shortages, freezing drizzles, drive-by shootings, and heavy dietary reliance on horsemeat. And so she did a really terrible thing to Gitanas, definitely the worst thing she’d ever done to anybody. She agreed to go and live in Vilnius, and she sort of got on the plane with Gitanas and sat down in first class and then sneaked off the plane and sort of changed their home phone number and had Eden tell Gitanas, when he called, that she had disappeared. Six months later Gitanas returned to New York for a weekend and made Julia feel really, really guilty. And, yes, no argument, she’d disgraced herself. But Gitanas proceeded to call her certain rough names and he slapped her pretty hard. The upshot of which was that they couldn’t be together anymore, but she continued to use their apartment on Hudson Street in exchange for staying married in case Gitanas needed quick asylum in the United States, because apparently things were going from bad to worse in Lithuania.
Anyway, that was the story of her and Gitanas, and she hoped that Chip wouldn’t be too mad at her.
And Chip was not. Indeed, at first he not only didn’t mind that Julia was married, he adored the fact. He was fascinated by her rings; he talked her into wearing them in bed. Down at the offices of the Warren Street Journal, where he sometimes felt insufficiently transgressive, as if his innermost self were still a nice midwestern boy, he took pleasure in alluding to the European statesman he was “cuckolding.” In his doctoral thesis (“Doubtful It Stood: Anxieties of the Phallus in Tudor Drama”) he’d written extensively about cuckolds, and under the cloak of his reproving modern scholarship he’d been excited by the idea of marriage as a property right, of adultery as theft.
Before long, though, the thrill of poaching on the diplomat’s preserve gave way to bourgeois fantasies in which Chip himself was Julia’s husband—her lord, her liege. He became spasmodically jealous of Gitanas Misevičius, who, though Lithuanian, and a slapper, was a successful politician whose name Julia now pronounced with guilt and wistfulness. On New Year’s Eve Chip asked her point-blank if she ever thought about divorce. She replied that she liked her apartment (“Can’t beat the rent!”) and she didn’t want to look for another one right now.
After New Year’s, Chip returned to his rough draft of “The Academy Purple,” which he’d completed in a euphoric twenty-page blaze of keyboard-pounding, and discovered that it had a lot of problems. It looked, in fact, like incoherent hackwork. During the month that he’d spent expensively celebrating its completion, he’d imagined that he could remove certain hackneyed plot elements—the conspiracy, the car crash, the evil lesbians—and still tell a good story. Without these hackneyed plot elements, however, he seemed to have no story at all.
In order to salvage his artistic and intellectual ambitions, he added a long theoretical opening monologue. But this monologue was so unreadable that every time he turned on his computer he had to go and tinker with it. Soon he was spending the bulk of each work session compulsively honing the monologue. And when he despaired of shortening it any further without sacrificing important thematic material, he started fussing with the margins and hyphenation to make the monologue end at the bottom of page 6 rather than the top of page 7. He replaced the word “continue” with “go on” to save three spaces, thus allowing the word “(trans) act(ion) s” to be hyphenated after the second t, which triggered a whole cascade of longer lines and more efficient hyphenations. Then he decided that “go on” had the wrong rhythm and that “(trans) act(ion) s” should not be hyphenated under any circumstances, and so he scoured the text for other longish words to replace with shorter synonyms, all the while struggling to believe that stars and producers in Prada jackets would enjoy reading six pages (but not seven!) of turgid academic theorizing.
Once, when he was a boy, there was a total eclipse of the sun in the Midwest, and a girl in one of the poky towns across the river from St. Jude had sat outside and, in defiance of myriad warnings, studied the dwindling crescent of the sun until her retinas combusted.
“It didn’t hurt at all,” the blinded girl had told the St. Jude Chronicle. “It felt like nothing.”
Each day that Chip spent grooming the corpse of a dramatically dead monologue was a day in which his rent and food and entertainment expenses were paid for, in large part, with his little sister’s money. And yet as long as the money lasted, his pain was not acute. One day led to another. He rarely got out of bed before noon. He enjoyed his food and his wine, he dressed well enough to persuade himself that he was not a quivering gelatinous mess, and he managed, on four out of five evenings, to hide the worst of his anxiety and foreboding and enjoy himself with Julia. Because the sum he owed Denise was large in comparison to his proofreading wage but small by Hollywood standards, he worked less and less at Bragg Knuter & Speigh. His only real complaint was with his health. On a summer day when his work session consisted of rereading Act I, being struck afresh by its irredeemable badness, and hurrying outside to get some air, he might walk down Broadway and sit on a bench at Battery Park City and let the breeze off the Hudson flow under his collar, and listen to the ceaseless fut-fut of copter traffic and the distant shouts of millionaire Tribeca toddlers, and be overcome with guilt. To be so vigorous and healthy and yet so nothing: neither taking advantage of his good night’s sleep and his successful avoidance of a cold to get some work done, nor yet fully entering into the vacation spirit and flirting with strangers and knocking back margaritas. It would have been better, he thought, to do his getting sick and dying now, while he was failing, and save his health and vitality for some later date when, unimaginable though the prospect was, he would perhaps no longer be failing. Of all the things he was wasting—Denise’s money, Julia’s goodwill, his own abilities and education, the opportunities afforded by the longest sustained economic boom in American history—his sheer physical well-being, there in the sunlight by the river, hurt the worst.
He ran out of money on a Friday in July. Facing a weekend with Julia, who could cost him fifteen dollars at a cinema refreshments counter, he purged the Marxists from his bookshelves and took them to the Strand in two extremely heavy bags. The books were in their original jackets and had an aggregate list price of $3,900. A buyer at the Strand appraised them casually and delivered his verdict: “Sixty-five.”
Chip laughed in a breathy way, willing himself not to argue; but his U. K. edition of Jürgen Habermas’s Reason and the Rationalization of Society, which he’d found too difficult to read, let alone annotate, was in mint condition and had cost him £ 95.00. He couldn’t help pointing this out by way of example.
“Try somewhere else, if you like,” the buyer said, his hand hesitating-above the cash register.
“No, no, you’re right,” Chip said. “Sixty-five is great.”
It was pathetically obvious that he’d believed his books would fetch him hundreds of dollars. He turned away from their reproachful spines, remembering how each of them had called out in a bookstore with a promise of a radical critique of late-capitalist society, and how happy he’d been to take them home. But Jürgen Habermas didn’t have Julia’s long, cool, pear-tree limbs, Theodor Adorno didn’t have Julia’s grapy smell of lecherous pliability, Fred Jameson didn’t have Julia’s artful tongue. By the beginning of October, when Chip sent his finished script to Eden Procuro, he’d sold his feminists, his formalists, his structuralists, his poststructuralists, his Freudians, and his queers. To raise money for lunch for his parents and Denise, all he had left was his beloved cultural historians and his complete hardcover Arden Shakespeare; and because a kind of magic resided in the Shakespeare—the uniform volumes in their pale blue jackets were like an archipelago of safe retreats—he piled his Foucault and Greenblatt and hooks and Poovey into shopping bags and sold them all for $115.
He spent sixty dollars on a haircut, some candy, a stain-removal kit, and two drinks at the Cedar Tavern. Back in August, when he’d invited his parents, he’d hoped that Eden Procuro might have read his script and advanced him money before they arrived, but now the only accomplishment and the only gift he had to offer was a home-cooked meal. He went to an East Village deli that sold reliably excellent tortellini and crusty bread. He was envisioning a rustic and affordable Italian lunch. But the deli appeared to have gone out of business, and he didn’t feel like walking ten blocks to a bakery that he was certain had good bread, and so he wandered the East Village randomly, trudging in and out of meretricious food stores, hefting cheeses, rejecting breads, examining inferior tortellini. Finally he abandoned the Italian idea altogether and fixed on the only other lunch he could think of—a salad of wild rice, avocado, and smoked turkey breast. The problem then was to find ripe avocados. In store after store he found either no avocados or walnut-hard avocados. He found ripe avocados that were the size of limes and cost $3.89 apiece. He stood holding five of them and considered what to do. He put them down and picked them up and put them down and couldn’t pull the trigger. He weathered a spasm of hatred of Denise for having guilted him into inviting his parents to lunch. He had the feeling that he’d never eaten anything in his life but wild-rice salad and tortellini, so blank was his culinary imagination.
Around eight o’clock he ended up outside the new Nightmare of Consumption (“Everything—for a Price!”) on Grand Street. A humidity had stolen over the sky, a sulfurous uneasy wind from Rahway and Bayonne. The supergentry of SoHo and Tribeca were streaming through the Nightmare’s brushed-steel portals. The men came in various shapes and sizes, but all the women were slim and thirty-six; many were both slim and pregnant. Chip had a collar rash from his haircut and felt unready to be seen by so many perfect women. But right inside the Nightmare’s door he glimpsed a box of greens marked SORREL from Belize $0.99.
He entered the Nightmare, snagged a basket, and put one bunch of sorrel in it. Ninety-nine cents. Installed above the Nightmare’s coffee bar was a screen that gave running ironic tallies of TODAY’S GROSS RECEIPTS and TODAY’S PROFIT and PROJECTED QUARTERLY PER-SHARE DIVIDEND (Unofficial Non-Binding Estimate Based on Past Quarterly Performances /This Information Provided for Entertainment Purposes Only), and COFFEE SALES THIS STATION. Chip wove among strollers and cell phone antennae to the fish counter, where, as in a dream, he found WILD NORWEGIAN SALMON, LINE CAUGHT on sale at a reasonable price. He pointed at a midsize filet, and to the fishman’s question, “What else?” he replied in a crisp tone, almost a smug tone, “That’ll do it.”
The price on the beautiful paper-wrapped filet that he was handed was $78.40. Luckily, this discovery knocked the wind out of him, otherwise he might have lodged a protest before realizing, as he did now, that the prices at the Nightmare were per quarter pound. Two years ago, two months ago, he would not have made a mistake like this.
“Ha, ha!” he said, palming the seventy-eight-dollar filet like a catcher’s mitt. He dropped to one knee and touched his bootlaces and took the salmon right up inside his leather jacket and underneath his sweater and tucked the sweater into his pants and stood up again.
“Daddy, I want sword fish,” a little voice behind him said.
Chip took two steps, and the salmon, which was quite heavy, escaped from his sweater and covered his groin, for one unstable moment, like a codpiece.
“Daddy! Sword fish!”
Chip put his hand to his crotch. The dangling filet felt like a cool, loaded diaper. He repositioned it against his abs and tucked in the sweater more securely, zipped his jacket to the neck, and strode purposefully toward the whatever. Toward the dairy wall. Here he found a selection of French crèmes fraîches at prices implying transport via SST. The less unaffordable domestic crème fraîche was blocked by a man in a Yankees cap who was shouting into his cell phone while a child, apparently his, peeled back the foil tops of half-liters of French yogurt. She’d peeled back five or six already. Chip leaned to reach behind the man, but his fish belly sagged. “Excuse me,” he said.
Like a sleepwalker the man on the phone shuffled aside. “I said fuck him. Fuck him! Fuck that asshole! We never closed. There’s no ink on the line. I’ll take that asshole down another thirty, you watch me. Honey, don’t tear those, if we tear those we have to pay for them. I said it is a fucking buyer’s ball as of yesterday. We close on nuffin till this thing bottoms out. Nuffin! Nuffin! Nuffin! Nuffin!”
Chip was approaching the checkout lanes with four plausible items in his basket when he caught sight of a head of hair so new-penny bright it could only belong to Eden Procuro. Who was, herself, slim and thirty-six and hectic. Eden’s little son, Anthony, was seated on the upper level of a shopping cart with his back to a four-figure avalanche of shell fish, cheeses, meats, and caviars. Eden was leaning over Anthony and letting him pull on the taupe lapels of her Italian suit and suck on her blouse while, behind his back, she turned the pages of a script that Chip could only pray was not his own. The line-caught Norwegian salmon was soaking through its wrapping, his body heat melting the fats that had given the filet a degree of rigidity. He wanted to escape the Nightmare, but he wasn’t prepared to discuss “The Academy Purple” under the current circumstances. He veered down a frosty aisle where the gelati came in plain white cartons with small black lettering. A man in a suit was crouching beside a little girl with hair like copper in sunshine. The girl was Eden’s daughter, April. The man was Eden’s husband, Doug O’Brien.
“Chip Lambert, what’s happening?” Doug said.
There seemed to be no ways but girly ways for Chip to hold his grocery basket while he shook Doug’s square hand.
“April’s picking out her treat for after dinner,” Doug said.
“Three treats,” April said.
“Her three treats, right.”
“What’s that one?” April said, pointing.
“That is a grenadine-nasturtium sorbetto, sugar bunny.”
“Do I like it?”
“That I can’t tell you.”
Doug, who was younger and shorter than Chip, so persistently claimed to be in awe of Chip’s intellect and so consistently tested free of any irony or condescension that Chip had finally accepted that Doug really did admire him. This admiration was more grueling than belittlement.
“Eden tells me you finished the script,” Doug said, restacking some gelati that April had upset. “Man, I am psyched. This project sounds phenomenal.”
April was cradling three rimed cartons against her corduroy jumper.
“What kind did you get?” Chip asked her.
April shrugged extremely, a beginner’s shrug.
“Sugar bunny, run those up to Mommy. I’m going to talk to Chip.”
As April ran back up the aisle Chip wondered what it would be like to father a child, to always be needed instead of always needing.
“Something I wanted to ask you,” Doug said. “Do you have a second? Say somebody offered you a new personality: would you take it? Say somebody said to you, I will permanently rewire your mental hardware in whatever way you want. Would you pay to have that done?”
The salmon paper was sweat-bonded to Chip’s skin and tearing open at the bottom. This was not the ideal time to be providing Doug with the intellectual companionship he seemed to crave, but Chip wanted Doug to keep thinking highly of him and encourage Eden to buy his script. He asked why Doug asked.
“A lot of crazy stuff crosses my desk,” Doug said. “Especially now with all the money coming home from overseas. All the dot-com issues, of course. We’re still trying our very hardest to persuade the average American to happily engineer his own financial ruin. But the biotech is fascinating. I’ve been reading whole prospectuses about genetically altered squash. Apparently people in this country are eating a lot more squash than I was aware of, and squashes are prone to more diseases than you’d infer from their robust exterior. Either that or. . .Southern Cucumtech is seriously overvalued at thirty-five a share. Whatever. But Chip, this brain thing, man, it caught my eye. Bizarre fact number one is that I’m allowed to talk about it. It’s all public knowledge. Is this bizarre?”
Chip was trying to keep his eyes focused on Doug in an interested manner, but his eyes were like children, they wanted to skip up and down the aisles. He was ready, basically, to jump out of his skin. “Yeah. Bizarre.”
“The idea,” Doug said, “is your basic gut cerebral rehab. Leave the shell and roof, replace the walls and plumbing. Design away that useless dining nook. Put a modern circuit breaker in.”
“You get to keep your handsome façade,” Doug said. “You still look serious and intellectual, a little Nordic, on the outside. Sober, bookish. But inside you’re more livable. A big family room with an entertainment console. A kitchen that’s roomier and handier. You’ve got your In-Sink-Erator, your convection oven. An ice-cube dispenser on the refrigerator door.”
“Do I still recognize myself?”
“Do you want to? Everybody else still will—at least, the outside of you.”
The big glowing tally for TODAY’S GROSS RECEIPTS paused for a moment at $444,447.41 and then went higher.
“My furnishings are my personality,” Chip said.
“Say it’s a gradual rehab. Say the workmen are very tidy. The brain’s cleaned up every night when you get home from work, and nobody can bother you on the weekend, per local ordinance and the usual covenantal restrictions. The whole thing happens in stages—you grow into it. Or it grows into you, so to speak. Nobody’s making you buy new furniture.”
“You’re asking hypothetically.”
Doug raised a finger. “The only thing is there might be some metal involved. It’s possible you’d set off alarms at the airport. I’m imagining you might get some unwanted talk radio, too, on certain frequencies. Gatorade and other high-electrolyte drinks might be a problem. But what do you say?”
“You’re joking, right?”
“Check out the Web site. I’ll give you the address. ‘The implications are disturbing, but there’s no stopping this powerful new technology.’ That could be the motto for our age, don’t you think?”
That a salmon filet was now spreading down into Chip’s underpants like a wide, warm slug did seem to have everything to do with his brain and with a number of poor decisions that this brain had made. Rationally Chip knew that Doug would let him go soon and that eventually he might even escape the Nightmare of Consumption and find a restaurant bathroom where he could take the filet out and regain his full critical faculties—that there would come a moment when he was no longer standing amid pricey gelati with lukewarm fish in his pants, and that this future moment would be a moment of extraordinary relief—but for now he still inhabited an earlier, much less pleasant moment from the vantage point of which a new brain looked like just the ticket.
“The desserts were a foot tall!” Enid said, her instincts having told her that Denise didn’t care about pyramids of shrimp. “It was elegant elegant. Have you ever seen anything like that?”
“I’m sure it was very nice,” Denise said.
“The Dribletts really do things super-deluxe. I’d never seen a dessert that tall. Have you?”
The subtle signs that Denise was exercising patience—the slightly deeper breaths she took, the soundless way she set her fork down on her plate and took a sip of wine and set the glass back down—were more hurtful to Enid than a violent explosion.
“I’ve seen tall desserts,” Denise said.
“Are they tremendously difficult to make?”
Denise folded her hands in her lap and exhaled slowly. “It sounds like a great party. I’m glad you had fun.”
Enid had, true enough, had fun at Dean and Trish’s party, and she’d wished that Denise had been there to see for herself how elegant it was. At the same time, she was afraid that Denise would not have found the party elegant at all, that Denise would have picked apart its specialness until there was nothing left but ordinariness. Her daughter’s taste was a dark spot in Enid’s vision, a hole in her experience through which her own pleasures were forever threatening to leak and dissipate.
“I guess there’s no accounting for tastes,” she said.
“That’s true,” Denise said. “Although some tastes are better than others.”
Alfred had bent low over his plate to ensure that any salmon or haricots verts that fell from his fork would land on china. But he was listening. He said, “Enough.”
“That’s what everybody thinks,” Enid said. “Everybody thinks their taste is the best.”
“But most people are wrong,” Denise said.
“Everybody’s entitled to their own taste,” Enid said. “Everybody gets one vote in this country.”
“Enough,” Alfred said to Denise. “You’ll never win.”
“You sound like a snob,” Enid said.
“Mother, you’re always telling me how much you like a good home-cooked meal. Well, that’s what I like, too. I think there’s a kind of Disney vulgarity in a foot-tall dessert. You are a better cook than—”
“Oh, no. No.” Enid shook her head. “I’m a nothing cook.”
“That’s not true at all! Where do you think I—”
“Not from me,” Enid interrupted. “I don’t know where my children got their talents. But not from me. I’m a nothing as a cook. A big nothing.” (How strangely good it felt to say this! It was like putting scalding water on a poison-ivy rash.)
Denise straightened her back and raised her glass. Enid, who all her life had been helpless not to observe the goings-on on other people’s plates, had watched Denise take a three-bite portion of salmon, a small helping of salad, and a crust of bread. The size of each was a reproach to the size of each of Enid’s. Now Denise’s plate was empty and she hadn’t taken seconds of anything.
“Is that all you’re going to eat?” Enid said.
“Yes. That was my lunch.”
“You’ve lost weight.”
“In fact not.”
“Well, don’t lose any more,” Enid said with the skimpy laugh with which she tried to hide large feelings.
Alfred was guiding a forkful of salmon and sorrel sauce to his mouth. The food dropped off his fork and broke into violently shaped pieces.
“I think Chip did a good job with this,” Enid said. “Don’t you think? The salmon is very tender and good.”
“Chip has always been a good cook,” Denise said. “Al, are you enjoying this? Al?”
Alfred’s grip on his fork had slackened. There was a sag in his lower lip, a sullen suspicion in his eyes.
“Are you enjoying the lunch?” Enid said.
He took his left hand in his right and squeezed it. The mated hands continued their oscillation together while he stared at the sunflowers in the middle of the table. He seemed to swallow the sour set of his mouth, to choke back the paranoia.
“Chip made all this?” he said.
He shook his head as though Chip’s having cooked, Chip’s absence now, overwhelmed him. “I am increasingly bothered by my affliction,” he said.
“What you have is very mild,” Enid said. “We just need to get the medication adjusted.”
He shook his head. “Hedgpeth said it’s unpredictable.”
“The important thing is to keep doing things,” Enid said, “to keep active, to always just go.”
“No. You were not listening. Hedgpeth was very careful not to promise anything.”
“According to what I read—”
“I don’t give a damn what your magazine article said. I am not well, and Hedgpeth admitted as much.”
Denise set her wine down with a stiff, fully extended arm.
“So what do you think about Chip’s new job?” Enid asked her brightly.
“Well, at the Wall Street Journal.”
Denise studied the tabletop. “I have no opinion about it.”
“It’s exciting, don’t you think?”
“I have no opinion about it.”
“Do you think he works there full-time?”
“I don’t understand what kind of job it is.”
“Mother, I know nothing about it.”
“Is he still doing law?”
“You mean proofreading? Yes.”
“So he’s still at the firm.”
“He’s not a lawyer, Mother.”
“I know he’s not a lawyer.”
“Well, when you say, ‘doing law,’ or ‘at the firm’—is that what you tell your friends?”
“I say he works at a law firm. That’s all I say. A New York City law firm. And it’s the truth. He does work there.”
“It’s misleading and you know it,” Alfred said.
“I guess I should just never say anything.”
“Just say things that are true,” Denise said.
“Well, I think he should be in law,” Enid said. “I think the law would be perfect for Chip. He needs the stability of a profession. He needs structure in his life. Dad always thought he’d make an excellent lawyer. I used to think doctor, because he was interested in science, but Dad always saw him as a lawyer. Didn’t you, Al? Didn’t you think Chip could be an excellent lawyer? He’s so quick with words.”
“Enid, it’s too late.”
“I thought maybe working for the firm he’d get interested and go back to school.”
“Far too late.”
“The thing is, Denise, there are so many things you can do with law. You can be a company president. You can be a judge! You can teach. You can be a journalist. There are so many directions Chip could go in.”
“Chip will do what he wants to do,” Alfred said. “I’ve never understood it, but he is not going to change now.”
He marched two blocks in the rain before he found a dial tone. At the first twin phone bank he came to, one instrument was castrated, with colored tassels at the end of its cord, and all that remained of the other was four bolt holes. The phone at the next intersection had chewing gum in its coin slot, and the line of its companion was completely dead. The standard way for a man in Chip’s position to vent his rage was to smash the handset on the box and leave the plastic shards in the gutter, but Chip was in too much of a hurry for this. At the corner of Fifth Avenue, he tried a phone that had a dial tone but did not respond when he touched the keypad and did not return his quarter when he hung up nicely or when he picked the handset up and slammed it down. The other phone had a dial tone and took his money, but a Baby Bell voice claimed not to understand what he’d dialed and did not return the money. He tried a second time and lost his last quarter.
He smiled at the SUVs crawling by in ready-to-brake bad-weather automotive postures. The doormen in this neighborhood hosed the sidewalks twice a day, and sanitation trucks with brushes like the mustaches of city cops scoured the streets three times a week, but in New York City you never had to go far to find filth and rage. A nearby street sign seemed to read Filth Avenue. Things cellular were killing public phones. But unlike Denise, who considered cell phones the vulgar accessories of vulgar people, and unlike Gary, who not only didn’t hate them but had bought one for each of his three boys, Chip hated cell phones mainly because he didn’t have one.
Under the scant protection of Denise’s umbrella, he crossed back to a deli on University Place. Brown cardboard had been laid over the scuff rug at the door for traction, but the cardboard was soaked and trampled, its shreds resembling washed-up kelp. Headlines in wire baskets by the door reported yesterday’s tanking of two more economies in South America and fresh plunges in key Far Eastern markets. Behind the cash register was a lottery poster: It’s not about winning. It’s about fun.™
With two of the four dollars in his wallet Chip bought some of the all-natural licorice that he liked. For his third dollar the deli clerk gave him four quarters in change. “I’ll take a Lucky Leprechaun, too,” Chip said.
The three-leaf clover, wooden harp, and pot of gold that he uncovered weren’t a winning, or fun, combination.
“Is there a pay phone around here that works?”
“No pay phone,” the clerk said.
“I’m saying, is there one close to here that works?”
“No pay phone!” The clerk reached under the counter and held up a cell phone. “This phone!”
“Can I make one quick call with that?”
“Too late for broker now. Should have call yesterday. Should have buy American.”
The clerk laughed in a way that was the more insulting for being good-humored. But then, Chip had reason to be sensitive. Since D—— College had fired him, the market capitalization of publicly traded U. S. companies had increased by thirty-five percent. In these same twenty-two months, Chip had liquidated a retirement fund, sold a good car, worked half-time at an eightieth-percentile wage, and still ended up on the brink of Chapter 11. These were years in America when it was nearly impossible not to make money, years when receptionists wrote MasterCard checks to their brokers at 13.9% APR and still cleared a profit, years of Buy, years of Call, and Chip had missed the boat. In his bones he knew that if he ever did sell “The Academy Purple,” the markets would all have peaked the week before and any money he invested he would lose.
Judging from Julia’s negative response to his script, the American economy was safe for a while yet.
Up the street, at the Cedar Tavern, he found a working pay phone. Years seemed to have passed since he’d had two drinks here the night before. He dialed Eden Procuro’s office and hung up when her voice mail kicked in, but the quarter had already dropped. Directory assistance had a residential listing for Doug O’Brien, and Doug actually answered, but he was changing a diaper. Several minutes passed before Chip was able to ask him if Eden had read the script yet.
“Phenomenal. Phenomenal-sounding project,” Doug said. “I think she had it with her when she went out.”
“Do you know where she went?”
“Chip, you know I can’t tell people where she is. You know that.”
“I think the situation qualifies as urgent.”
Please deposit—eighty cents—for the next—two minutes—
“My God, a pay phone,” Doug said. “Is that a pay phone?”
Chip fed the phone his last two quarters. “I need to get the script back before she reads it. There’s a correction I—”
“This isn’t about tits, is it? Eden said Julia had a problem with too many tits. I wouldn’t worry about that. Generally there’s no such thing as too many. Julia’s having a really intense week.”
Please deposit—an additional—thirty cents—now—
“you what,” Doug said.
for the next—two minutes—now—
“most obvious place you—”
or your call will be terminated—now—
“Doug?” Chip said. “Doug? I missed that.”
“Yeah, I’m here. I’m saying, why don’t you—”
Goodbye, the company voice said, and the phone went dead, the wasted quarters clanking in its gut. The text on its faceplate had Baby Bell coloration, but it read: ORFIC TELECOM, 3 MINUTES 25¢, EACH ADD’L MIN. 40¢.
The most obvious place to look for Eden was at her office in Tribeca. Chip stepped up to the bar wondering if the new bartender, a streaky blonde who looked like she might front the kind of band that played at proms, remembered him well enough from the night before to take his driver’s license as surety on a twenty-buck loan. She and two unrelated drinkers were watching murky football somewhere, Nittany Lion action, brown squiggling figures in a chalky pond. And near Chip’s arm, oh, not six inches away, was a nest of singles. Just lying there. He considered how a tacit transaction (pocketing the cash, never showing his face in here again, anonymously mailing reimbursement to the woman later) might be safer than asking for a loan: might be, indeed, the transgression that saved his sanity. He crumpled the cash into a ball and moved closer to the really rather pretty bartender, but the struggling brown round-headed men continued to hold her gaze, and so he turned and left the tavern.
In the back of a cab, watching the wet businesses drift by, he stuffed licorice into his mouth. If he couldn’t get Julia back, he wanted in the worst way to have sex with the bartender. Who looked about thirty-nine herself. He wanted to fill his hands with her smoky hair. He imagined that she lived in a rehabbed tenement on East Fifth, he imagined that she drank a beer at bedtime and slept in faded sleeveless tops and gym shorts, that her posture was weary, her navel unassumingly pierced, her pussy like a seasoned baseball glove, her toenails painted the plainest basic red. He wanted to feel her legs across his back, he wanted to hear the story of her forty-odd years. He wondered if she really might sing rock and roll at weddings and bar mitzvahs.
Through the window of the cab he read GAP ATHLETIC as GAL PATHETIC. He read Empire Realty as Vampire Reality.
He was half in love with a person he could never see again. He’d stolen nine dollars from a hardworking woman who enjoyed college football. Even if he went back later and reimbursed her and apologized, he would always be the man who ripped her off when her back was turned. She was gone from his life forever, he could never run his fingers through her hair, and it was not a good sign that this latest loss was making him hyperventilate. That he was too wrecked by pain to swallow more licorice.
He read Cross Pens as Cross Penises, he read ALTERATIONS as ALTERCATIONS.
An optometrist’s window offered: HEADS EXAMINED.
The problem was money and the indignities of life without it. Every stroller, cell phone, Yankees cap, and SUV he saw was a torment. He wasn’t covetous, he wasn’t envious. But without money he was hardly a man.
How he’d changed since D—— College fired him! He no longer wanted to live in a different world; he just wanted to be a man with dignity in this world. And maybe Doug was right, maybe the breasts in his script didn’t matter. But he finally understood—he finally got it—that he could simply cut the opening theoretical monologue in its entirety. He could do this correction in ten minutes at Eden’s office.
In front of her building he gave the cabby all nine stolen dollars. Around the corner, a six-trailer crew was filming on a cobbled street, kliegs ablaze, generators stinking in the rain. Chip knew the security codes to Eden’s building, and the elevator was unlocked. He prayed that Eden hadn’t read the script yet. The newly corrected version in his head was the one true script; but the old opening monologue still unhappily existed on the ivory bond paper of the copy Eden had.
Through the glass outer door on the fifth floor he saw lights in Eden’s office. That his socks were soaked and his jacket smelled like a wet cow at the seashore and he had no way to dry his hands or hair was certainly unpleasant, but he was still enjoying not having two pounds of Norwegian salmon in his pants. By comparison, he felt fairly well put together.
He knocked on the glass until Eden emerged from her office and peered out at him. Eden had high cheekbones and big watery blue eyes and thin translucent skin. Any extra calories she ate at lunch in L. A. or drank as martinis in Manhattan got burned on her home treadmill or at her private swim club or in the general madness of being Eden Procuro. She was ordinarily electric and flaming, a bundle of hot copper wire; but her expression now, as she approached the door, was tentative or flustered. She kept looking back at her office.
Chip gestured that he wanted in.
“She’s not here,” Eden said through the glass.
Chip gestured again. Eden opened the door and put her hand on her heart. “Chip, I’m so sorry about you and Julia—”
“I’m looking for my script. Have you read it?”
“I—? Very hastily. I need to read it again. Need to take some notes!” Eden made a scribbling motion near her temple and laughed.
“That opening monologue,” Chip said. “I’ve cut it.”
“Oh, good, I love a willingness to cut. Love it.” She looked back at her office.
“Do you think, though, that without the monologue—”
“Chip, do you need money?”
Eden smiled up at him with such odd merry frankness that he felt as if he’d caught her drunk or with her pants down.
“Well, I’m not flat broke,” he said.
“No, no, of course. But still.”
“And how are you with the Web?” she said. “Do you know any Java? HTML?”
“Well, just, come back to my office for a second. Do you mind? Come on back.”
Chip followed Eden past Julia’s desk, where the only visible Julian artifact was a stuffed toy frog on the computer monitor.
“Now that you two have broken up,” Eden said, “there’s really no reason you can’t—”
“Eden, it’s not a breakup.”
“No, no, trust me, it’s over,” Eden said. “It is absolutely over. And I’m thinking you might enjoy a little change of scenery, so you can start getting over it—”
“Eden, listen, Julia and I are having a momentary—”
“No, Chip, sorry, not momentary: permanent.” Eden laughed again. “Julia may not be blunt, but I am. And so, when I think about it, there’s really no reason for you not to meet. . .” She led Chip into her office. “Gitanas? Incredible stroke of luck here. I have, here, the perfect man for the job.”
Reclining in a chair by Eden’s desk was a man about Chip’s age in a red ribbed leather jacket and tight white jeans. His face was broad and baby-cheeked, his hair a sculpted blond shell.
Eden was practically climaxing with enthusiasm. “Here I’ve been racking my brain, Gitanas, I can’t think of anyone to help you, and probably the best-qualified man in New York City is knocking at the door! Chip Lambert, you know my assistant Julia?” She winked at Chip. “Well, this is Julia’s husband, Gitanas Misevičius.”
In almost every respect—coloration, shape of head, height and build, and especially the wary, shame-faced smile that he was wearing—Gitanas looked more like Chip than anybody Chip could remember meeting. He was like Chip with bad posture and crooked teeth. He nodded nervously without standing up or extending a hand. “How’s it going,” he said.
It was safe to say, Chip thought, that Julia had a type.
Eden patted the seat of an unoccupied chair. “Sit sit sit,” she told him.
Her daughter, April, was on the leather sofa by the windows with a mess of crayons and a sheaf of paper.
“April, hey,” Chip said. “How were those desserts?”
The question seemed not to April’s liking.
“She’ll try those tonight,” Eden said. “Somebody was testing limits last night.”
“I was not testing limits,” April said.
The paper on April’s lap was ivory-colored and had text on its reverse.
“Sit! Sit!” Eden exhorted as she retreated to her birch-laminate desk. The big window behind her was lensed with rain. There was fog on the Hudson. Blackish smudges suggestive of New Jersey. Eden’s trophies, on the walls, were movie-ad images of Kevin Kline, Chloë Sevigny, Matt Damon, Winona Ryder.
“Chip Lambert,” she told Gitanas, “is a brilliant writer, with a script in development with me right now, and he’s got a Ph.D. in English, and, for the last two years, he’s been working with my husband doing mergers and acquisitions, and he’s brilliant with all the Internet stuff, we were just now talking about Java and HTML, and, as you see, he cuts a very impressive, uh—” Here Eden for the first time actually gave her attention to Chip’s appearance. Her eyes widened. “It must be raining cats and dogs out there. Chip’s not, well, ordinarily quite so wet. (My dear, you are very wet.) In all honesty, Gitanas, you won’t find a better man. And Chip, I’m just—delighted—that you came by. (Although you are very wet.)”
A man by himself could weather Eden’s enthusiasm, but two men together had to gaze at the floor to preserve their dignity in the face of it.
“I, unfortunately,” Eden said, “am slightly pressed for time. Gitanas having dropped in somewhat unexpectedly. What I would love is if the two of you could go and use my conference room and work things out, and take as long as you like.”
Gitanas crossed his arms in the wound-up European style, his fists jammed in his armpits. He didn’t look at Chip but asked him: “Are you an actor?”
“Well, Chip,” Eden said, “that’s not strictly true.”
“Yes, it is. I’ve never acted in my life.”
“Ha-ha-ha!” Eden said. “Chip is being modest.”
Gitanas shook his head and looked at the ceiling.
April’s sheaf of paper was definitely a screenplay.
“What are we talking about?” Chip said.
“Gitanas is looking to hire someone—”
“An American actor,” Gitanas said with disgust.
“To do, uh, corporate PR for him. And for more than an hour now”—Eden glanced at her watch and let her eyes and mouth distend in exaggerated shock—“I’ve been trying to explain that the actors I work with are more interested in film and stage than in, say, international investment schemes. And tend, also, to have wildly inflated notions of their own literacy. And what I’m trying to explain to Gitanas is that you, Chip, not only have an excellent command of language and jargon, but you don’t have to pretend to be an investment expert. You are an investment expert.”
“I’m a part-time legal proofreader,” Chip said.
“An expert in the language. A gifted screenwriter.”
Chip and Gitanas traded glances. Something about Chip’s person, perhaps the shared physical traits, seemed to interest the Lithuanian. “Are you looking for work?” Gitanas said.
“Are you a drug addict?”
“I’ve got to go to the bathroom,” Eden said. “April, honey, come along. Bring your drawings.”
April obediently hopped off the sofa and went to Eden.
“Bring your drawings, though, honey. Here.” Eden gathered up the ivory pages and led April to the door. “You men talk.”
Gitanas put a hand to his face and squeezed his round cheeks, scratched his blond stubble. He looked out the window.
“You’re in government,” Chip said.
Gitanas tilted his head. “Yes and no. I was for many years. But my party is kaput, I’m an entrepreneur now. Sort of a governmental entrepreneur, let’s say.”
One of April’s drawings had fallen to the floor between the window and the sofa. Chip extended a toe and pulled the page toward him.
“We have so many elections,” Gitanas said, “nobody reports them internationally anymore. We have three or four elections a year. Elections are our biggest industry. We have the highest annual per capita output of elections of any country in the world. Higher than Italy, even.”
April had drawn a portrait of a man with a regular body of sticks and blobs and oblongs, but for a head he had a black and blue snarled vortex, a ratty scrabble, a scribbled mess. Through the ivory bond, Chip could see faint blocks of dialogue and action on the other side.
“Do you believe in America?” Gitanas said.
“Jesus, where to begin,” Chip said.
“Your country which saved us also ruined us.”
With his toe Chip lifted one corner of April’s drawing and identified the words—
(cradling the revolver)
What’s wrong with being in love with myself?
Why is that a problem?
—but the page had grown very heavy or his toe very weak. He let the page lie flat again. He pushed it underneath the sofa. His extremities had gone cool and a little bit numb. He couldn’t see well.
“Russia went bankrupt in August,” Gitanas said. “Maybe you heard? Unlike our elections, this was widely reported. This was economic news. This mattered to the investor. It also mattered to Lithuania. Our main trading partner now has crippling hard-currency debts and a worthless ruble. One guess which they use, dollars or rubles, to buy our hens’ eggs. And to buy our truck undercarriages from our truck-undercarriage plant, which is the one good plant we have: well, it would be rubles. But the rest of the truck is made in Volgograd, and that plant closed. So we can’t even get rubles.”
Chip was having trouble feeling disappointed about “The Academy Purple.” Never to look at the script again, never to show it to a soul: this might be a relief even greater than his relief in the men’s room of Fanelli’s where he’d taken the salmon from his pants.
From an enchantment of breasts and hyphens and one-inch margins he felt himself awakening to a rich and varied world to which he’d been dead for who knew how long. Years.
“I’m interested in what you’re telling me,” he told Gitanas.
“It’s interesting. It is interesting,” Gitanas agreed, still hugging himself tensely. “Brodsky said, ‘Fresh fish always smells, frozen smells only when it thaws.’ So, and after the big thaw, when all the little fish came out of the freezer, we were passionate about this and that. I was part of it. Very much part of it. But the economy was mismanaged. I had my fun in New York, but back home—there was a depression, all right. Then, too late, 1995, we pegged the litas to the dollar and started privatizing, way too fast. It wasn’t my decision, but I might have done the same. The World Bank had money that we wanted, and the World Bank said privatize. So OK, we sold the port. We sold the airline, sold the phone system. The highest bidder was usually American, sometimes Western European. This wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did. Nobody in Vilnius had cash. And the phone company said, OK, we’ll have foreign owners with deep pockets, but the port and the airline will still be a hundred percent Lithuanian. Well, the port and the airline were thinking the same. But still it was OK. Capital was flowing, better cuts of meat at the butcher, fewer brownouts. Even the weather seemed milder. Mostly criminals took the hard currency, but that’s post-Soviet reality. After the thaw, you get the rot. Brodsky didn’t live to see that. So OK, but then all the world economies started collapsing, Thailand, Brazil, Korea, and this was a problem, because all the capital ran home to the U. S. We found out, for example, that our national airline was sixty-four percent owned by the Quad Cities Fund. Which is? A no-load growth fund managed by a young guy named Dale Meyers. You never heard of Dale Meyers, but every adult citizen of Lithuania knows his name.”
This tale of failure seemed to amuse Gitanas greatly. It had been a long time since Chip had had such a powerful sensation of liking somebody. His queer friends at D—— College and the Warren Street Journal were so frank and headlong in their confidences that they foreclosed actual closeness, and his responses to straight men had long fallen into one of two categories: fear and resentment of the successes, flight from the contagion of the failures. But something in Gitanas’s tone appealed to him.
“Dale Meyers lives in eastern Iowa,” Gitanas said. “Dale Meyers has two assistants, a big computer, and a three-billion-dollar portfolio. Dale Meyers says he didn’t mean to acquire a controlling stake in our national airline. Dale says it was program trading. He says one of his assistants misentered data that caused the computer to keep increasing its position in Lithuanian Airlines without reporting the overall size of the accumulated stake. OK, Dale apologizes to all Lithuanians for the oversight. Dale says he understands the importance of an airline to a country’s economy and self-esteem. But because of the crisis in Russia and the Baltics, nobody wants tickets on Lithuanian Airlines. So, and American investors are pulling money out of Quad Cities. Dale’s only way to meet his obligations is liquidate Lithuanian Airlines’ biggest asset. Which is its fleet. He’s gonna sell three YAK40s to a Miami-based air freight company. He’s gonna sell six Aerospatiale turboprops to a start-up commuter airline in Nova Scotia. In fact, he already did that, yesterday. So, whoops, no airline.”
“Ouch,” Chip said.
Gitanas nodded fiercely. “Yeah! Yeah! Ouch! Too bad you can’t fly a truck undercarriage! OK, and then. Then an American conglomerate called Orfic Midland liquidates the Port of Kaunas. Again, overnight. Whoops! Ouch! And then sixty percent of the Bank of Lithuania gets eaten up by a suburban bank in Atlanta, Georgia. And your suburban bank then liquidates our bank’s hard-currency reserves. Your bank doubles our country’s commercial interest rates overnight—why? To cover heavy losses in its failed line of Dilbert affinity MasterCards. Ouch! Ouch! But interesting, huh? Lithuania’s not being such a successful player, is it? Lithuania really fucked things up!”
“How are you men doing?” Eden said, returning to her office with April in tow. “Maybe you want to use the conference room?”
Gitanas put a briefcase on his lap and opened it. “I’m explaining to Cheep my gripe with America.”
“April, sweetie, sit down here,” Eden said. She had a big pad of newsprint which she opened on the floor near the door. “This is better paper for you. You can make big pictures now. Like me. Like Mommy. Make a big picture.”
April crouched in the middle of the newsprint pad and drew a green circle around herself.
“We’ve petitioned the IMF and World Bank for assistance,” Gitanas said. “Since they encouraged us to privatize, maybe they’re interested in the fact that our privatized nation-state is now a zone of semi-anarchy, criminal warlords, and subsistence farming?
Unfortunately, IMF is handling complaints of bankrupt client states in order of the size of their respective GDPs. Lithuania was twenty-six on the list last Monday. Now we’re twenty-eight. Paraguay just beat us. Always Paraguay.”
“Ouch,” Chip said.
“Paraguay being for some reason the bane of my existence.”
“Gitanas, I told you, Chip is perfect,” Eden said. “But listen—”
“IMF says expect delays of up to thirty-six months before any rescue can begin!”
Eden slumped into her chair. “Do you think we can wrap this up fairly soon?”
Gitanas showed Chip a printout from his briefcase. “You see, here, this Web page? ‘A service of the U. S. Department of State, Bureau of European and Canadian Affairs.’ It says: Lithuanian economy severely depressed, unemployment nearly twenty percent, electricity and running water intermittent in Vilnius, scarce elsewhere. What kind of businessman is going to put money in a country like that?”
“A Lithuanian businessman?” Chip said.
“Yes, funny.” Gitanas gave him an appreciative look. “But what if I need something different on this Web page and others like it? What if I need to erase what’s here and put, in good American English, that our country escaped the Russian financial plague? Like, say, Lithuania now has an annual inflation rate less than six percent, per capita dollar reserves same as Germany, and a trade surplus of nearly one hundred million dollars, due to continued strong demand for Lithuania’s natural resources!”
“Chip, you’d be perfect for this,” Eden said.
Chip had quietly and firmly resolved never to look at Eden or say a word to her again for as long as he lived.
“What are Lithuania’s natural resources?” he asked Gitanas.
“Chiefly sand and gravel,” Gitanas said.
“Huge strategic reserves of sand and gravel. OK.”
“Sand and gravel in abundance.” Gitanas closed his briefcase. “However, so, here’s a quiz for you. Why the unprecedented demand for these intriguing resources?”
“A construction boom in nearby Latvia and Finland? In sand-starved Latvia? In gravel-starved Finland?”
“And how did these countries escape the contagion of global financial collapse?”
“Latvia has strong, stable democratic institutions,” Chip said. “It’s the financial nerve center of the Baltics. Finland placed strict limits on the outflow of short-term foreign capital and succeeded in saving its world-class furniture industry.”
The Lithuanian nodded, obviously pleased. Eden pounded her fists on her desk. “God, Gitanas, Chip’s fantastic! He is so entitled to a signing bonus. Also first-class accommodations in Vilnius and a per diem in dollars.”
“Vilnius?” Chip said.
“Yeah, we’re selling a country,” Gitanas said. “We need a satisfied U. S. customer on site. Also much, much safer to work on the Web over there.”
Chip laughed. “You actually expect American investors to send you money? On the basis of, what. Of sand shortages in Latvia?”
“They’re already sending me money,” Gitanas said, “on the basis of a little joke I played. Not even sand and gravel, just a mean little joke I played. Tens of thousands of dollars already. But I want them to send me millions.”
“Gitanas,” Eden said. “Dear man. This is completely a point-incentive moment. There could not be a more perfect situation for an escalator clause. Every time Chip doubles your receipts, you give him another point of the action. Hm? Hm?”
“If I see a hundred-times increase in receipts, trust me, Cheep will be a wealthy man.”
“But I’m saying let’s have this in writing.”
Gitanas caught Chip’s eye and silently conveyed to him his opinion of their host. “Eden, this document,” he said. “What is Cheep’s job designation? International Wire Fraud Consultant? First Deputy Co-Conspirator?”
“Vice President for Willful Tortious Misrepresentation,” Chip offered.
Eden gave a scream of pleasure. “I love it!”
“Mommy, look,” April said.
“Our agreement is strictly oral,” Gitanas said.
“Of course, there’s nothing actually illegal about what you’re doing,” Eden said.
Gitanas answered her question by staring out the window for a longish while. In his red ribbed jacket he looked like a motocross rider. “Of course not,” he said.
“So it isn’t wire fraud,” Eden said.
“No, no. Wire fraud? No.”
“Because, not to be a scaredy-cat here, but wire fraud is what this almost sounds like.”
“The collective fungible assets of my country disappeared in yours without a ripple,” Gitanas said. “A rich powerful country made the rules we Lithuanians are dying by. Why should we respect these rules?”
“This is an essential Foucaultian question,” Chip said.
“It’s also a Robin Hood question,” Eden said. “Which doesn’t exactly reassure me on the legal front.”
“I’m offering Cheep five hundred dollars American a week. Also bonuses as I see fit. Cheep, are you interested?”
“I can do better here in town,” Chip said.
“Try a thousand a day, minimum,” Eden said.
“A dollar goes a long way in Vilnius.”
“Oh, I’m sure,” Eden said. “It goes a long way on the moon, too. What’s to buy?”
“Cheep,” Gitanas said. “Tell Eden what dollars can buy in a poor country.”
“I imagine you eat and drink pretty well,” Chip said.
“A country where a young generation grew up in a state of moral anarchy, and are hungry.”
“Probably not hard to find a good-looking date, if that’s what you mean.”
“If it doesn’t break your heart,” Gitanas said. “To see a sweet little girl from the provinces get down on her knees—”
“Uch, Gitanas,” Eden said. “There’s a child in the room.”
“I’m on an island,” April said. “Mommy, look at my island.”
“I’m talking about children,” Gitanas said. “Fifteen-year-olds. You have dollars? Thirteen. Twelve.”
“Twelve years old is not a selling point with me,” Chip said.
“You prefer nineteen? Nineteen comes even cheaper.”
“This frankly, um,” Eden said, flapping her hands.
“I want Cheep to understand why a dollar is a lot of money. Why my offer is a valid offer.”
“My problem,” Chip said, “is I’d be servicing American debts with those very same dollars.”
“Believe me, we’re familiar with this problem in Lithuania.”
“Chip wants a base salary of a thousand a day, plus performance incentives,” Eden said.
“One thousand per week,” Gitanas said. “For lending legitimacy to my project. For creative work and reassuring callers.”
“One percent of gross,” Eden said. “One point minus his twenty-thousand-dollar monthly salary.”
Gitanas, ignoring her, took a thick envelope from his jacket and, with hands that were stubby and unmanicured, began to count out hundreds. April was crouched on a patch of white newsprint surrounded by toothed monsters and cruel scribbles in several colors. Gitanas tossed a stack of hundreds on Eden’s desk. “Three thousand,” he said, “for the first three weeks.”
“He gets business-class plane fare, too, of course,” Eden said.
“Yes, all right.”
“And first-class accommodations in Vilnius.”
“There’s a room in the villa, no problem.”
“Also, who protects him from these criminal warlords?”
“Maybe I’m a criminal warlord myself, a little bit,” Gitanas said with a wary, shame-faced smile.
Chip considered the mess of green on Eden’s desk. Something was giving him a hard-on, possibly the cash, possibly the vision of corrupt and sumptuous nineteen-year-olds, or maybe just the prospect of getting on a plane and putting five thousand miles between himself and the nightmare of his life in New York City. What made drugs perpetually so sexy was the opportunity to be other. Years after he’d figured out that pot only made him paranoid and sleepless, he still got hard-ons at the thought of smoking it. Still lusted for that jailbreak.
He touched the hundreds.
“Why don’t I get online and make plane reservations for you both,” Eden said. “You can leave right away!”
“So, you gonna do this thing?” Gitanas asked. “It’s a lot of work, lot of fun. Pretty low risk. No such thing as no risk, though. Not where there’s money.”
“I understand,” Chip said, touching the hundreds.
In the pageantry of weddings Enid reliably experienced the paroxysmal love of place—of the Midwest in general and suburban St. Jude in particular—that for her was the only true patriotism and the only viable spirituality. Living under presidents as crooked as Nixon and stupid as Reagan and disgusting as Clinton, she’d lost interest in American flag-waving, and not one of the miracles she’d ever prayed to God for had come to pass; but at a Saturday wedding in the lilac season, from a pew of the Paradise Valley Presbyterian Church, she could look around and see two hundred nice people and not a single bad one. All her friends were nice and had nice friends, and since nice people tended to raise nice children, Enid’s world was like a lawn in which the bluegrass grew so thick that evil was simply choked out: a miracle of niceness. If, for example, it was one of Esther and Kirby Root’s girls coming down the Presbyterian aisle on Kirby’s arm, Enid would remember how the little Root had trick-or-treated in a ballerina costume, vended Girl Scout cookies, and baby-sat Denise, and how, even after the Root girls had gone off to good midwestern colleges, they all still made a point, when home on holiday, of tapping on Enid’s back door and filling her in on the doings chez Root, often sitting and visiting for an hour or more (and not, Enid knew, because Esther had told them to come over but just because they were good St. Jude kids who naturally took an interest in other people), and Enid’s heart would swell at the sight of yet another sweetly charitable Root girl now receiving, as her reward, the vows of a young man with a neat haircut of the kind you saw in ads for menswear, a really super young fellow who had an upbeat attitude and was polite to older people and didn’t believe in premarital sex, and who had a job that contributed to society, such as electrical engineer or environmental biologist, and who came from a loving, stable, traditional family and wanted to start a loving, stable, traditional family of his own. Unless Enid was very much deceived by appearances, young men of this caliber continued, even as the twentieth century drew to a close, to be the norm in suburban St. Jude. All the young fellows she’d known as Cub Scouts and users of her downstairs bathroom and shovelers of her snow, the many Driblett boys, the various Persons, the young Schumpert twins, all these clean-cut and handsome young men (whom Denise, as a teenager, to Enid’s quiet rage, had dismissed with her look of “amusement”), had marched or would soon be marching down heartland Protestant aisles and exchanging vows with nice, normal girls and settling down, if not in St. Jude itself, then at least in the same time zone. Now, in her secret heart, where she was less different from her daughter than she liked to admit, Enid knew that tuxes came in better colors than powder blue and that bridesmaids’ dresses could be cut from more interesting fabrics than mauve crepe de chine; and yet, although honesty compelled her to withhold the adjective “elegant” from weddings in this style, there was a louder and happier part of her heart that loved this kind of wedding best of all, because a lack of sophistication assured the assembled guests that for the two families being joined together there were values that mattered more than style. Enid believed in matching and was happiest at a wedding where the bridesmaids suppressed their selfish individual desires and wore dresses that matched the corsages and cocktail napkins, the icing on the cake, and the ribbons on the party favors. She liked a ceremony at Chiltsville Methodist to be followed by a modest reception at the Chiltsville Sheraton. She liked a more elegant wedding at Paradise Valley Presbyterian to culminate in the clubhouse at Deepmire, where even the complimentary matches (Dean & Trish • June 13, 1987) matched the color scheme. Most important of all was that the bride and groom themselves match: have similar backgrounds and ages and educations. Sometimes, at a wedding hosted by less good friends of Enid’s, the bride would be heavier or significantly older than the groom, or the groom’s family would hail from a farm town upstate and be obviously overawed by Deepmire’s elegance. Enid felt sorry for the principals at a reception like that. She just knew the marriage was going to be a struggle from day one. More typically, though, the only discordant note at Deepmire would be an off-color toast offered by some secondary groomsman, often a college buddy of the groom, often mustached or weak-chinned, invariably flushed with liquor, who sounded as if he didn’t come from the Midwest at all but from some more eastern urban place, and who tried to show off by making a “humorous” reference to premarital sex, causing both groom and bride to blush or to laugh with their eyes closed (not, Enid felt, because they were amused but because they were naturally tactful and didn’t want the offender to realize how offensive his remark was) while Alfred inclined his head deafly and Enid cast her eye around the room until she found a friend with whom she could exchange a reassuring frown.
Alfred loved weddings, too. They seemed to him the one kind of party that had a real purpose. Under their spell he authorized purchases (a new dress for Enid, a new suit for himself, a top-quality ten-piece teakwood salad-bowl set for a gift) that he ordinarily would have vetoed as unreasonable.
Enid had looked forward, some day when Denise was older and had finished college, to hosting a really elegant wedding and reception (though not, alas, at Deepmire, since, almost alone among their better friends, the Lamberts could not afford the astronomical Deepmire fees) for Denise and a tall, broad-shouldered, possibly Scandinavian young man whose flaxen hair would offset the defect of the too-dark and too-curly hair Denise had inherited from Enid but who would otherwise be her match. And so it just about broke Enid’s heart when, one October night, not three weeks after Chuck Meisner had given his daughter Cindy the most lavish reception ever undertaken at Deepmire, with all the men in tails, and a champagne fountain, and a helicopter on the eighteenth fairway, and a brass octet playing fanfares, Denise called home with the news that she and her boss had driven to Atlantic City and gotten married in a courthouse. Enid, who had a very strong stomach (never got sick, never), had to hand the phone to Alfred and go kneel in the bathroom and take deep breaths.
The previous spring, in Philadelphia, she and Alfred had eaten a late lunch at the noisy restaurant where Denise was ruining her hands and wasting her youth. After their lunch, which was quite good but much too rich, Denise had made a point of introducing them to the “chef “under whom she’d studied and for whom she was now boiling and toiling. This “chef,” Emile Berger, was a short, unsmiling, middle-aged Jew from Montreal whose idea of dressing for work was to wear an old white T-shirt (like a cook, not a chef, Enid thought; no jacket, no toque) and whose idea of shaving was to skip it. Enid would have disliked Emile and snubbed him even if she hadn’t gathered, from Denise’s way of hanging on his words, that he had an unhealthy degree of influence with her daughter. “Those are such rich crab cakes,” she accused in the kitchen. “One bite and I was stuffed.” To which, instead of apologizing and deprecating himself, as any polite St. Judean would have done, Emile responded by agreeing that, yes, if it could be managed, and the flavor was good, a “lite” crab cake would be a wonderful thing, but the question, Mrs. Lambert, was how to manage it? Eh? How to make crabmeat “lite”? Denise was following this exchange hungrily, as if she’d scripted it or were memorizing it. Outside the restaurant, before she returned to her fourteen-hour shift, Enid made sure to say to her: “He certainly is a short little man! So Jewish-looking.” Her tone was less controlled than she might have wished, a little squeakier and thinner at the edges, and she could tell from the distant look in Denise’s eyes and from a bitterness around her mouth that she’d bruised her daughter’s feelings. Then again, all she’d done was speak the truth. And she never, not for a second, imagined that Denise—who, no matter how immature and romantic she was, and no matter how impractical her career plans, had just turned twenty-three and had a beautiful face and figure and her whole life ahead of her—would actually date a person like Emile. As to what exactly a young woman was supposed to do with her physical charms while she waited for the maturing years to pass, now that girls no longer got married quite so young, Enid was, to be sure, somewhat vague. In a general way she believed in socializing in groups of three or more; believed, in a word, in parties! The one thing she knew categorically, the principle she embraced the more passionately the more it was ridiculed in the media and popular entertainments, was that sex before marriage was immoral.
And yet, on that October night, as she knelt on the bathroom floor, Enid had the heretical thought that it might after all have been wiser, in her maternal homilies, to have laid less stress on marriage. It occurred to her that Denise’s rash act might even have been prompted, in some tiny part, by her wish to do the moral thing and please her mother. Like a toothbrush in the toilet bowl, like a dead cricket in a salad, like a diaper on the dinner table, this sickening conundrum confronted Enid: that it might actually have been preferable for Denise to go ahead and commit adultery, better to sully herself with a momentary selfish pleasure, better to waste a purity that every decent young man had the right to expect from a prospective bride, than to marry Emile. Except that Denise should never have been attracted to Emile in the first place! It was the same problem Enid had with Chip and even Gary: her children didn’t match. They didn’t want the things that she and all her friends and all her friends’ children wanted. Her children wanted radically, shamefully other things.
While observing peripherally that the bathroom carpet was more spotted than she’d realized and ought to be replaced before the holidays, Enid listened to Alfred offering to send Denise a pair of plane tickets. She was struck by the seeming calm with which Alfred took the news that his only daughter had made the biggest decision of her life without consulting him. But after he’d hung up the phone and she’d come out of the bathroom and he’d commented, simply, that life was full of surprises, she noticed how strangely his hands were shaking. The tremor was at once looser and more intense than the one he sometimes got from drinking coffee. And during the week that followed, while Enid made the best of the mortifying position in which Denise had placed her by (1) calling her best friends and sounding thrilled to announce that Denise was getting married soon! to a very nice Canadian man, yes, but she wanted immediate family only at the ceremony, so, and she was introducing her new husband at a simple, informal open house at Christmastime (none of Enid’s friends believed that she was thrilled, but they gave her full credit for trying to hide her suffering; some were even sensitive enough not to ask where Denise had registered for gifts) and (2) ordering, without Denise’s permission, two hundred engraved announcements, not only to make the wedding appear more conventional but also to shake the gift tree a little in hopes of receiving compensation for the dozens and dozens of teakwood salad sets that she and Alfred had given in the last twenty years: during this long week, Enid was so continually aware of Alfred’s strange new tremor that when, by and by, he agreed to see his doctor and was referred to Dr. Hedgpeth and diagnosed with Parkinson’s, an underground branch of her intelligence persisted in connecting his disease with Denise’s announcement and so in blaming her daughter for the subsequent plummeting of her own quality of life, even though Dr. Hedgpeth had stressed that Parkinson’s was somatic in origin and gradual in its onset. By the time the holidays rolled around, and Dr. Hedgpeth had provided her and Alfred with pamphlets and booklets whose drab doctor’s-office color schemes, dismal line drawings, and frightening medical photos presaged a drab and dismal and frightening future, Enid was pretty well convinced that Denise and Emile had ruined her life. She was under strict orders from Alfred, however, to make Emile feel welcome in the family. So at the open house for the newlyweds she painted a smile on her face and accepted, over and over, the sincere congratulations of old family friends who loved Denise and thought she was darling (because Enid in raising her had emphasized the importance of being kind to her elders) (although what was her marriage if not an instance of excessive kindness to an elder?) where she would have much preferred condolences. The effort she made to be a good sport and cheerleader, to obey Alfred and receive her middle-aged son-in-law cordially and not say one single word about his religion, only added to the shame and anger she felt five years later when Denise and Emile were divorced and Enid had to give this news, too, to all her friends. Having attached so much meaning to the marriage, having struggled so hard to accept it, she felt that the least Denise could have done was stay married.
“Do you ever hear from Emile anymore?” Enid asked.
Denise was drying dishes in Chip’s kitchen. “Occasionally.”
Enid had parked herself at the dining table to clip coupons from magazines she’d taken from her Nordic Pleasurelines shoulder bag. Rain was coming down erratically in gusts that slapped and fogged the windows. Alfred was sitting on Chip’s chaise with his eyes closed.
“I was just thinking,” Enid said, “that even if things had worked out, and you’d stayed married, you know, Denise, Emile’s going to be an old man in not too many years. And that’s so much work. You can’t imagine what a huge responsibility.”
“In twenty-five years he’ll be younger than Dad is now,” Denise said.
“I don’t know if I ever told you,” Enid said, “about my high-school friend Norma Greene.”
“You tell me about Norma Greene literally every time I see you.”
“Well, you know the story, then. Norma met this man, Floyd Voinovich, who was a perfect gentleman, quite a number of years older, with a high-paying job, and he swept her off her feet! He was always taking her to Morelli’s, and the Steamer, and the Bazelon Room, and the only problem—”
“The only problem,” Enid insisted, “was that he was married. But Norma wasn’t supposed to worry about that. Floyd said the whole arrangement was temporary. He said he’d made a bad mistake, he had a terrible marriage, he’d never loved his wife—”
“And he was going to divorce her.” Enid let her eyes fall shut in raconteurial pleasure. She was aware that Denise didn’t like this story, but there were plenty of things about Denise’s life that were disagreeable to Enid, too, so. “Well, this went on for years. Floyd was very smooth and charming, and he could afford to do things for Norma that a man closer to her own age couldn’t have. Norma developed a real taste for luxuries, and then, too, she’d met Floyd at an age when a girl falls head over heels in love, and Floyd had sworn up and down that he was going to divorce his wife and marry Norma. Well, by then Dad and I were married and had Gary. I remember Norma came over once when Gary was a baby, and she just wanted to hold him and hold him. She loved little children, oh, she just loved holding Gary, and I felt terrible for her, because by then she’d been seeing Floyd for years, and he was still not divorced. I said, Norma, you can’t wait forever. She said she’d tried to stop seeing Floyd. She’d gone on dates with other men, but they were younger and they didn’t seem matoor to her—Floyd was fifteen years older and very matoor, and I do understand how an older man has a matoority that can make him attractive to a younger woman—”
“And, of course, these younger men couldn’t always afford to be taking Norma to fancy places or buying her flowers and gifts like Floyd did (because, see, he could really turn on the charm when she got impatient with him), and then, too, a lot of those younger men were interested in starting families, and Norma—”
“Wasn’t so young anymore,” Denise said. “I brought some dessert. Are you ready for dessert?”
“Well, you know what happened.”
“It’s a heartbreaking story, because Norma—”
“Yes. I know the story.”
“Norma found herself—”
“Mother: I know the story. You seem to think it has some bearing on my own situation.”
“Denise, I don’t. You’ve never even told me what your ‘situation’ is.”
“Then why do you keep telling me the story of Norma Greene?”
“I don’t see why it upsets you if it has nothing to do with your own situation.”
“What upsets me is that you seem to think it does. Are you under the impression that I’m involved with a married man?”
Enid was not only under this impression but was suddenly so angry about it, so clotted with disapproval, that she had difficulty breathing.
“Finally, finally, going to get rid of some of these magazines,” she said, snapping the glossy pages.
“It’s better not to talk about this. Just like the Navy, don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Denise stood in the kitchen doorway with her arms crossed and a dish towel balled up in her hand. “Where did you get the idea that I’m involved with a married man?”
Enid snapped another page.
“Did Gary say something to give you that idea?”
Enid struggled to shake her head. Denise would be furious if she found out that Gary had betrayed a confidence, and though Enid spent much of her own life furious with Gary about one thing or another, she prided herself on keeping secrets, and she didn’t want to get him in trouble. It was true that she’d been brooding about Denise’s situation for many months and had accumulated large stores of anger. She’d ironed at the ironing board and raked the ivy beds and lain awake at night rehearsing the judgments—That is the kind of grossly selfish behavior that I will never understand and never forgive and I’m ashamed to be the parent of a person who would live like that and In a situation like this, Denise, my sympathies are one thousand percent with the wife, one thousand percent—that she yearned to pronounce on Denise’s immoral lifestyle. And now she had an opportunity to pronounce these judgments. And yet, if Denise denied the charges, then all of Enid’s anger, all of her refining and rehearsal of her judgments, would go wasted. And if, on the other hand, Denise admitted everything, it might still be wiser for Enid to swallow her pent-up judgments than to risk a fight. Enid needed Denise as an ally on the Christmas front, and she didn’t want to set off on a luxury cruise with one son having vanished inexplicably, another son blaming her for betraying his trust, and her daughter perhaps confirming her worst fears.
With great humbling effort she therefore shook her head. “No, no, no. Gary never said a thing.”
Denise narrowed her eyes. “Never said a thing about what.”
“Denise,” Alfred said. “Let her be.”
And Denise, who obeyed Enid in nothing, promptly turned and went back into the kitchen.
Enid found a coupon offering sixty cents off I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! with any purchase of Thomas’ English muffins. Her scissors cut the paper and with it the silence that had fallen.
“If I do one thing on this cruise,” she said, “I’m going to get through all these magazines.”
“No sign of Chip,” Alfred said.
Denise brought slices of tart on dessert plates to the dining table. “I’m afraid we may have seen the last of Chip today.”
“It’s very peculiar,” Enid said. “I don’t understand why he doesn’t at least call.”
“I’ve endured worse,” Alfred said.
“Dad, there’s dessert. My pastry chef made a pear tart. Do you want to have it at the table?”
“Oh, that’s much too big a piece for me,” Enid said.
Alfred didn’t answer. His mouth had gone slack and sour again in the way that made Enid feel that something terrible was going to happen. He turned to the darkening, rain-spotted windows and gazed at them dully, his head hanging low.
“Al? There’s dessert.”
Something seemed to melt in him. Still looking at the window, he raised his head with a tentative joy, as if he thought he recognized someone outside, someone he loved.
“Al, what is it?”
“There are children,” he said, sitting up straighter. “Do you see them?” He raised a trembling index finger. “There.” His finger moved laterally, following the motion of the children he saw. “And there. And there.”
He turned to Enid and Denise as if he expected them to be overjoyed to hear this news, but Enid was not the least bit overjoyed. She was about to embark on a very elegant fall color cruise on which it would be extremely important that Alfred not make mistakes like this.
“Al, those are sunflowers,” she said, half angry, half beseeching. “You’re seeing reflections in the window.”
“Well!” He shook his head bluffly. “I thought I saw children.”
“No, sunflowers,” Enid said. “You saw sunflowers.”
After his party was voted out of power and the Russian currency crisis had finished off the Lithuanian economy, Gitanas said, he’d passed his days alone in the old offices of the VIPPPAKJRIINPB17, devoting his idle hours to constructing a Web site whose domain name, lithuania.com, he’d purchased from an East Prussian speculator for a truckload of mimeograph machines, daisy-wheel printers, 64-kilobyte Commodore computers, and other Gorbachev-era office equipment—the party’s last physical vestiges. To publicize the plight of small debtor nations, Gitanas had created a satiric Web page offering DEMOCRACY FOR PROFIT: BUY A PIECE OF EUROPEAN HISTORY and had seeded links and references in American news groups and chat rooms for investors. Visitors to the site were invited to send cash to the erstwhile VIPPPAKJRIINPB17—“one of Lithuania’s most venerable political parties,” the “cornerstone” of the country’s governing coalition for “three of the last seven years,” the leading vote-getter in the April 1993 general election, and now a “Western-leaning pro-business party” reorganized as the “Free Market Party Company.” Gitanas’s Web site promised that, as soon as the Free Market Party Company had bought enough votes to win a national election, its foreign investors would not only become “equity shareholders” in Lithuania Incorporated (a “for-profit nation state”) but would also be rewarded, in proportion to the size of their investment, with personalized memorials to their “heroic contribution” to the “market liberation” of the country. By sending just $100, for example, an American investor could have a street in Vilnius (“no less than two hundred meters in length”) named after him; for $5,000 the Free Market Party Company would hang a portrait of the investor (“minimum size 60 cm × 80 cm; includes ornate gilt frame”) in the Gallery of National Heroes at the historic Šlapeliai House; for $25,000 the investor would be awarded perpetual title to an eponymous town “of no fewer than 5,000 souls” and be granted a “modern, hygienic form of droit du seigneur” that met “most of” the guidelines established by the Third International Conference on Human Rights.
“It was a nasty little joke,” Gitanas said from the corner of the taxicab-into which he’d wedged himself. “But who laughed? Nobody laughed. They just sent money. I gave an address and the cashier checks started coming in. E-mail queries by the hundred. What products would Lithuania Inc. make? Who were the officers in the Free Market Party Company and did they have a strong track record as managers? Did I have records of past earnings? Could the investor alternatively have a Lithuanian street or village named after his children or his children’s favorite Pokémon character? Everybody wanted more information. Everybody wanted brochures. And prospectuses! And stock certificates! And brokerage information! And are we listed on such and such exchange and so forth? People want to come and visit! And nobody is laughing.”
Chip was tapping on the window with a knuckle and checking out the women on Sixth Avenue. The rain was letting up, umbrellas coming down. “Are the proceeds going to you or to the Party?”
“OK, so my philosophy about that is in transition,” Gitanas said. From his briefcase he took a bottle of akvavit from which he’d already poured deal-sealing shots in Eden’s office. He rolled sideways and handed it to Chip, who took a healthy pull and gave it back.
“You were an English teacher,” Gitanas said.
“I taught college, yeah.”
“And where your people from? Scandinavia?”
“My dad’s Scandinavian,” Chip said. “My mom’s sort of mongrel Eastern European.”
“People in Vilnius will look at you and think you’re one of us.”
Chip was in a hurry to get to his apartment before his parents left. Now that he had cash in his pocket, a roll of thirty hundreds, he didn’t care so much what his parents thought of him. In fact, he seemed to recall that a few hours earlier he’d seen his father trembling and pleading in a doorway. As he drank the akvavit and checked out the women on the sidewalk, he could no longer fathom why the old man had seemed like such a killer.
It was true that Alfred believed the only thing wrong with the death penalty was that it wasn’t used often enough; true as well that the men whose gassing or electrocution he’d called for, over dinner in Chip’s childhood, were usually black men from the slums on St. Jude’s north side. (“Oh, Al,” Enid would say, because dinner was “the family meal,” and she couldn’t understand why they had to spend it talking about gas chambers and slaughter in the streets.) And one Sunday morning, after he’d stood at a window counting squirrels and assessing the damage to his oak trees and zoysia the way white men in marginal neighborhoods took stock of how many houses had been lost to “the blacks,” Alfred had performed an experiment in genocide. Incensed that the squirrels in his not-large front yard lacked the discipline to stop reproducing or pick up after themselves, he went to the basement and found a rat trap over which Enid, as he came upstairs with it, shook her head and made small negative noises. “Nineteen of them!” Alfred said. “Nineteen of them!” Emotional appeals were no match for the discipline of such an exact and scientific figure. He baited the trap with a piece of the same whole wheat bread that Chip had eaten, toasted, for breakfast. Then all five Lamberts went to church, and between the Gloria Patri and the Doxology a young male squirrel, engaging in the high-risk behavior of the economically desperate, helped itself to the bread and had its skull crushed. The family came home to find green flies feasting on the blood and brain matter and chewed whole-wheat bread that had erupted through the young squirrel’s shattered jaws. Alfred’s own mouth and chin were sewn up in the distaste that special exertions of discipline—the spanking of a child, the eating of rutabaga—always caused him. (He was quite unconscious of this distaste he betrayed for discipline.) He fetched a shovel from the garage and loaded both the trap and the squirrel corpse into the paper grocery bag that Enid had half filled with pulled crabgrass the day before. Chip was following all this from about twenty steps behind him, and so he saw how, when Alfred entered the basement from the garage, his legs buckled a little, sideways, and he pitched into the washing machine, and then he ran past the Ping-Pong table (it had always scared Chip to see his father run, he seemed too old for it, too disciplined) and disappeared into the basement bathroom; and henceforth the squirrels did whatever they wanted.
The cab was approaching University Place. Chip considered returning to the Cedar Tavern and reimbursing the bartender, maybe giving her an even hundred to make everything OK, maybe getting her name and address and writing to her from Lithuania. He was leaning forward to direct the driver to the Tavern when a radical new thought arrested him: I stole nine bucks, that’s what I did, that’s who I am, tough luck for her.
He sat back and extended his hand for the bottle.
Outside his building the cabby waved away his hundred—too big, too big. Gitanas dug something smaller out of his red motocross jacket.
“Why don’t I meet you at your hotel?” Chip said.
Gitanas was amused. “You’re joking, right? I mean, I trust you a lot. But maybe I’ll wait down here. Pack your bag, take your time. Bring a warm coat and hat. Suits and ties. Think financial.”
The doorman Zoroaster was nowhere to be seen. Chip had to use his key to get inside. On the elevator he took deep breaths to quell his excitement. He didn’t feel afraid, he felt generous, he felt ready to embrace his father.
But his apartment was empty. His family must have left minutes earlier. Body warmth was hanging in the air, faint smells of Enid’s White Shoulders perfume, and something bathroomy, something old-persony. The kitchen was cleaner than Chip had ever seen it. In the living room all the scrubbing and stowing he’d done was visible now as it hadn’t been the night before. And his bookshelves were denuded. And Julia had taken her shampoos and dryer from the bathroom. And he was drunker than he’d realized. And nobody had left a note for him. There was nothing on the dining table except a slice of tart and a vase of sunflowers. He had to pack his bags, but everything around him and inside him had become so strange that for a moment he could only stand and look. The leaves of the sunflowers had black spots and were rimmed with pale senescences; the heads were meaty and splendid, heavy as brownies, thick as palms. In the center of a sunflower’s Kansan face was a subtly pale button within a subtly darker areola. Nature, Chip thought, could hardly have devised a more inviting bed for a small winged insect to tumble into. He touched the brown velvet, and ecstasy washed over him.
The taxi containing three Lamberts arrived at a midtown pier where a white high-rise of a cruise ship, the Gunnar Myrdal, was blotting out the river and New Jersey and half the sky. A crowd mostly of old people had converged on the gate and reattenuated in the long, bright corridor beyond it. There was something netherworldly in their determined migration, something chilling in the cordiality and white raiment of the Nordic Pleasurelines shore personnel, the rain clouds breaking up too late to save the day—the hush of it all. A throng and twilight by the Styx.
Denise paid the cab fare and got the luggage into the hands of handlers.
“So, now, where do you go from here?” Enid asked her.
“Back to work in Philly.”
“You look darling,” Enid said spontaneously. “I love your hair that length.”
Alfred seized Denise’s hands and thanked her.
“I just wish it had been a better day for Chip,” Denise said.
“Talk to Gary about Christmas,” Enid said. “And do think about coming for a whole week.”
Denise raised a leather cuff and checked the time. “I’ll come for five days. I don’t think Gary will do it, though. And who knows what’s up with Chip.”
“Denise,” Alfred said impatiently, as if she were speaking nonsense, “please talk to Gary.”
“OK, I will. I will.”
Alfred’s hands bounced in the air. “I don’t know how much time I have! You and your mother need to get along. You and Gary need to get along.”
“Al, you have plenty of—”
“We all need to get along!”
Denise had never been a crier, but her face was crumpling up. “Dad, all right,” she said. “I’ll talk to him.”
“Your mother wants a Christmas in St. Jude.”
“I’ll talk to him. I promise.”
“Well.” He turned abruptly. “That’s enough of that.”
His black raincoat was flapping and whipping in the wind, and still Enid managed to hope that the weather would be perfect for cruising, that the water would be calm.
In dry clothes, with a coat bag and a duffel and cigarettes—smooth lethal Murattis, five bucks a box—Chip rode out to Kennedy with Gitanas Misevičius and boarded the Helsinki flight on which, in violation of his oral contract, Gitanas had bought coach-class, not business-class, tickets. “We can drink tonight, sleep tomorrow,” he said.
Their seats were aisle and window. As Chip sat down, he recalled how Julia had ditched Gitanas. He imagined her walking quickly off the plane and then sprinting down the concourse and throwing herself into the back seat of a good old yellow cab. He felt a spasm of homesickness—terror of the other; love of the familiar—but, unlike Julia, he had no desire to bolt. He’d no sooner buckled his seat belt than he fell asleep. He awoke briefly during takeoff and went under again until the entire population of the plane, as one, lit cigarettes.
Gitanas took a computer from its case and booted up. “So Julia,” he said.
For an alarmed, sleep-clouded moment Chip thought that Gitanas was addressing him as Julia.
“My wife?” Gitanas said.
“Yeah, she’s on antidepressants. This was Eden’s idea, I think. Eden kind of runs her life now, I think. You could see she didn’t want me in her office today. Didn’t want me in town! I’m inconvenient now. So, but, OK, so Julia started taking the drug, and suddenly she woke up and she didn’t want to be with men with cigargtte burns anymore. That’s what she says. Enough men with cigarette burns. Time to move on. No more men with burns.” Gitanas loaded a CD into the computer’s CD drive. “She wants the flat, though. At least the divorce lawyer wants her to want it. The divorce lawyer that Eden’s paying for. Somebody changed the locks on the flat, I had to pay the super to let me in.”
Chip closed his left hand. “Cigarette burns?”
“Yeah. Oh, yeah, I got a few.” Gitanas craned his neck to see if any neighbors were listening, but all the passengers around them, except for two children with their eyes shut tight, were busy smoking. “Soviet military prison,” he said. “I’ll show you my memento of a pleasant stay there.” He peeled his red leather jacket off one arm and rolled up the sleeve of the yellow T-shirt he was wearing underneath. A poxy interlocking constellation of scar tissue extended from his armpit down the inside of his arm to his elbow. “This was my 1990,” he said. “Eight months in a Red Army barracks in the sovereign state of Lithuania.”
“You were a dissident,” Chip said.
“Yeah! Yeah! Dissident!” He worked his arm back into its sleeve. “It was horrible, great. Very tiring, but it didn’t feel tiring. The tiredness came later.”
Chip’s memories of 1990 were of Tudor dramas, interminable futile fights with Tori Timmelman, a secret unhealthy involvement with certain texts of Tori’s that illustrated the dehumanizing objectifications of pornography, and little else.
“So, I’m kind of scared to look at this,” Gitanas said. On his computer screen was a dusky monochrome image of a bed, viewed from above, with a body beneath the blankets. “The super says she’s got a boyfriend, and I retrieved some data. I had my surveillance in there from the previous owner. Motion detector, infrared, digital stills. You can look if you want. Might be interesting. Might be hot.”
Chip remembered the smoke detector on the ceiling of Julia’s bedroom. Often enough he’d stared up at it until the corners of his mouth were dry and his eyes had rolled back in his head. It had always seemed to him a strangely complicated smoke detector.
He sat up straighter in his seat. “Maybe you don’t want to look at those.”
Gitanas pointed and clicked intricately. “I’ll angle the screen. You don’t have to look.”
Thunderheads of tobacco smoke were gathering in the aisles. Chip decided that he needed to light a Muratti; but the difference between taking a drag and taking a breath proved negligible.
“What I mean,” he said, blocking the computer screen with his hand, “is maybe you want to eject the CD and not look at it.”
Gitanas was genuinely startled. “Why don’t I want to look at it?”
“Well, let’s think about why.”
“Maybe you should tell me.”
“No, well, let’s just think about it.”
For a moment the atmosphere was furiously cheerful. Gitanas considered Chip’s shoulder, his knees, and his wrist, as though deciding where to bite him. Then he ejected the CD and thrust it in Chip’s face. “Fuck you!”
“I know, I know.”
“Take it. Fuck you. I don’t want to see it again. Take it.”
Chip put the CD in his shirt pocket. He felt pretty good. He felt all right. The plane had leveled off in altitude and the noise had the steady vague white burning of dry sinuses, the color of scuffed plastic airliner windows, the taste of cold pale coffee in reusable tray-table cups. The North Atlantic night was dark and lonely, but here, on the plane, were lights in the sky. Here was sociability. It was good to be awake and to feel awakeness all around him.
“So, what, you got cigarette burns, too?” Gitanas said.
Chip showed his palm. “It’s nothing.”
“Self-inflicted. You pathetic American.”
“Different kind of prison,” Chip said.
GARY LAMBERT’S profitable entanglement with the Axon Corporation had begun three weeks earlier, on a Sunday afternoon that he’d spent in his new color darkroom, trying to enjoy reprinting two old photographs of his parents and, by enjoying it, to reassure himself about his mental health.
Gary had been worrying a lot about his mental health, but on that particular afternoon, as he left his big schist-sheathed house on Seminole Street and crossed his big back yard and climbed the outside stairs of his big garage, the weather in his brain was as warm and bright as the weather in northwest Philadelphia. A September sun was shining through a mix of haze and smallish, gray-keeled clouds, and to the extent that Gary was able to understand and track his neurochemistry (and he was a vice president at CenTrust Bank, not a shrink, let’s remember) his leading indicators all seemed rather healthy.
Although in general Gary applauded the modern trend toward individual self-management of retirement funds and long-distance calling plans and private-schooling options, he was less than thrilled to be given responsibility for his own personal brain chemistry, especially when certain people in his life, notably his father, refused to take any such responsibility. But Gary was nothing if not conscientious. As he entered the darkroom, he estimated that his levels of Neurofactor 3 (i. e., serotonin: a very, very important factor) were posting seven-day or even thirty-day highs, that his Factor 2 and Factor 7 levels were likewise outperforming expectations, and that his Factor 1 had rebounded from an early-morning slump related to the glass of Armagnac he’d drunk at bedtime. He had a spring in his step, an agreeable awareness of his above-average height and his late-summer suntan. His resentment of his wife, Caroline, was moderate and well contained. Declines led advances in key indices of paranoia (e. g., his persistent suspicion that Caroline and his two older sons were mocking him), and his seasonally adjusted assessment of life’s futility and brevity was consistent with the overall robustness of his mental economy. He was not the least bit clinically depressed.
He drew the velvet blackout curtains and shut the lightproof shutters, took a box of 8x10 paper from the big stainless refrigerator, and fed two strips of celluloid to the motorized negative cleaner—a sexily heavy little gadget.
He was printing images from his parents’ ill-fated Decade of Connubial Golf. One showed Enid bending over in deep rough, scowling in her sunglasses in the obliterative heartland heat, her left hand squeezing the neck of her long-suffering five-wood, her right arm blurred in the act of underhandedly throwing her ball (a white smear at the image’s margin) into the fairway. (She and Alfred had only ever played on flat, straight, short, cheap public courses.) In the other photo Alfred was wearing tight shorts and a billed Midland Pacific cap, black socks and prehistoric golf shoes, and was addressing a white grapefruit-sized tee marker with his prehistoric wooden driver and grinning at the camera as if to say, A ball this big I could hit!
After Gary had given the enlargements their sour baths, he raised the lights and discovered that both prints were webbed over with peculiar yellow blotches.
He cursed a little, not so much because he cared about the photographs as because he wanted to preserve his good spirits, his serotonin-rich mood, and to do this he needed a modicum of cooperation from the world of objects.
Outside, the weather was curdling. There was a trickle in the gutters, a rooftop percussion of drops from overhanging trees. Through the walls of the garage, while he shot a second pair of enlargements, Gary could hear Caroline and the boys playing soccer in the back yard. He heard footfalls and punting sounds, less frequent shouts, the seismic whump of ball colliding with garage.
When the second set of prints emerged from the fixer with the same yellow blotches, Gary knew he ought to quit. But there came a tapping on the outside door, and his youngest son, Jonah, slipped through the blackout curtain.
“Are you printing pictures?” Jonah said. Gary hastily folded the failed prints into quarters and buried them in the trash. “Just starting,” he said.
He remixed his solutions and opened a fresh box of paper. Jonah sat down by a safe light and whispered as he turned the pages of one of the Narnia books, Prince Caspian, that Gary’s sister, Denise, had given him. Jonah was in second grade but was already reading at a fifth-grade level. Often he spoke aloud the written words in an articulate whisper that was of a piece with his general Narnian dearness as a person. He had shining dark eyes and an oboe voice and mink-soft hair and could seem, even to Gary, more sentient animal than little boy.
Caroline did not entirely approve of Narnia—C. S. Lewis was a known Catholic propagandist, and the Narnian hero, Aslan, was a furry, four-pawed Christ figure—but Gary had enjoyed reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a boy, and he had not, it was safe to say, grown up to be a religious nut. (In fact he was a strict materialist.)
“So they kill a bear,” Jonah reported, “but it’s not a talking bear, and Aslan comes back, but only Lucy sees him and the others don’t believe her.”
Gary tweezed the prints into the stop bath. “Why don’t they believe her?”
“Because she’s the youngest,” Jonah said.
Outside, in the rain, Caroline laughed and shouted. She had a habit of running herself ragged to keep up with the boys. In the early years of their marriage she’d worked full-time as a lawyer, but after Caleb was born she’d come into family money and now she worked half days only, at a philanthropically low salary, for the Children’s Defense Fund. Her real life centered on the boys. She called them her best friends.
Six months ago, on the eve of Gary’s forty-third birthday, while he and Jonah were visiting his parents in St. Jude, a pair of local contractors had come and rewired, replumbed, and re-outfitted the second floor of the garage as a surprise birthday gift from Caroline. Gary had occasionally spoken of reprinting his favorite old family photos and collecting them in a leather-bound album, an All-Time Lambert Two Hundred. But commercial printing would have sufficed for that, and meanwhile the boys were teaching him computer pixel-processing, and if he’d still needed a lab he could have rented one by the hour. His impulse on his birthday, therefore—after Caroline had led him out to the garage and presented him with a darkroom that he didn’t need or want—was to weep. From certain pop-psychology books on Caroline’s nightstand, however, he’d learned to recognize the Warning Signs of clinical depression, and one of these Warning Signs, the authorities all agreed, was a proclivity to inappropriate weeping, and so he’d swallowed the lump in his throat and bounded around the expensive new darkroom and exclaimed to Caroline (who was experiencing both buyer’s remorse and gift-giver’s anxiety) that he was utterly delighted with the gift! And then, to reassure himself that he wasn’t clinically depressed and to make sure that Caroline never suspected anything of the kind, he’d resolved to work in the darkroom twice a week until the All-Time Lambert Two Hundred album was complete.
The suspicion that Caroline, consciously or not, had tried to exile him from the house by putting the darkroom in the garage was another key index of paranoia.
When the timer pealed, he transferred the third set of prints to the fixer bath and raised the lights again.
“What are those white blobs?” Jonah said, peering into the tray.
“Jonah, I don’t know!”
“They look like clouds,” Jonah said.
The soccer ball slammed into the side of the garage.
Gary left Enid scowling and Alfred grinning in the fixative and opened shutters. His monkey puzzle tree and the bamboo thicket next to it were glossy with rain. In the middle of the back yard, in soaked soiled jerseys that stuck to their shoulder blades, Caroline and Aaron were gulping air while Caleb tied a shoe. Caroline at forty-five had the legs of a college girl. Her hair was nearly as blond as when Gary had first met her, twenty years earlier, at a Bob Seger concert at the Spectrum. Gary was still substantially attracted to his wife, still excited by her effortless good looks and by her Quaker bloodlines. By ancient reflex, he reached for a camera and trained the zoom telephoto on her.
The look on Caroline’s face dismayed him. There was a pinch in her brow, a groove of distress around her mouth. She was limping as she pursued the ball again.
Gary turned the camera on his oldest son, Aaron, who was best photographed unawares, before he could position his head at the self-conscious angle that he believed most flattered him. Aaron’s face was flushed and mud-flecked in the drizzle, and Gary worked the zoom to frame a handsome shot. But resentment of Caroline was overwhelming his neurochemical defenses.
The soccer had stopped now and she was running and limping toward the house.
Lucy buried her head in his mane to hide from his face, Jonah whispered.
There came a screaming from the house.
Caleb and Aaron reacted instantly, galloping across the yard like action-picture heroes and disappearing inside. A moment later Aaron reemerged and shouted, in his newly crack-prone voice, “Dad! Dad! Dad! Dad!”
The hysteria of others made Gary methodical and calm. He left the darkroom and descended the rain-slick stairway slowly. In the open space above the commuter-rail tracks, behind the garage, a kind of spring-shower self-improvement of the light was working through the humid air.
“Dad, Grandma’s on the phone!”
Gary ambled across the yard, pausing to examine and regret the injuries that the soccer had visited on the grass. The surrounding neighborhood, Chestnut Hill, was not un-Narnian. Century-old maples and ginkgos and sycamores, many of them mutilated to accommodate power lines, grew in giant riot over patched and repatched city streets bearing the names of decimated tribes. Seminole and Cherokee, Navajo and Shawnee. For miles in every direction, despite high population densities and large household incomes, there were no fast roads and few useful stores. The Land That Time Forgot, Gary called it. Most of the houses here, including his own, were made of a schist that resembled raw tin and was exactly the color of his hair.
“Thank you, Aaron, I heard you the first time.”
“Grandma’s on the phone!”
“I know that, Aaron. You just told me.”
In the slate-floored kitchen he found Caroline slumped in a chair with both hands pressed to her lower back.
“She called this morning,” Caroline said. “I forgot to tell you. The phone’s been ringing every five minutes, and finally I was running—”
“Thank you, Caroline.”
“I was running—”
“Thank you.” Gary snagged the cordless and held it at arm’s length, as if to keep his mother at bay, while he proceeded into the dining room. Here he was waylaid by Caleb, who had a finger buried in the slick leaves of a catalogue. “Dad, can I talk to you for a second?”
“Not now, Caleb, your grandmother is on the phone.”
“I just want—”
“Not now, I said.”
Caleb shook his head and smiled in disbelief, like a much-televised athlete who’d failed to draw a penalty.
Gary crossed the marble- floored main hall into his very large living room and said hello into the little phone.
“I told Caroline,” Enid said, “that I would call you back if you weren’t near the phone.”
“Your calls cost seven cents a minute,” Gary said.
“Or you could have called me back.”
“Mother, we’re talking about twenty-five cents.”
“I’ve been trying to reach you all day,” she said. “The travel agent needs an answer by tomorrow morning at the latest. And, you know, we’re still hoping you’ll come for one last Christmas, like I promised Jonah, so—”
“Hang on a second,” Gary said. “I’ll check with Caroline.”
“Gary, you’ve had months to discuss this. I’m not going to sit here and wait while you—”
He blocked the perforations in the phone’s mouthpiece with his thumb and returned to the kitchen, where Jonah was standing on a chair with a package of Oreos. Caroline, still slumped at the table, was breathing shallowly. “I did something terrible,” she said, “when I ran to catch the phone.”
“You were out there slipping around in the rain for two hours,” Gary said.
“No, I was fine until I ran to get the phone.”
“Caroline, I saw you limping before you—”
“I was fine,” she said, “until I ran to get the phone, which was ringing for the fiftieth time—”
“Good, all right,” Gary said, “it’s my mother’s fault. Now tell me what you want me to say about Christmas.”
“Well, whatever. They’re welcome to come here.”
“We’d talked about the possibility of going there.”
Caroline shook her head thoroughly, as if erasing something. “No. You talked about it. I never talked about it.”
“I can’t discuss this when she’s on the phone. Have her call back next week.”
Jonah was realizing that he could take as many cookies as he wanted and neither parent would notice.
“She needs to make arrangements now,” Gary said. “They’re trying to decide if they should stop here next month, after their cruise. It depends on Christmas.”
“It’s like I slipped a disk.”
“If you won’t talk about it,” he said, “I’ll tell her we’re considering coming to St. Jude.”
“No way! That was not the agreement.”
“I’m proposing a one-time exception to the agreement.”
“No! No!” Wet tangles of blond hair lashed and twisted as Caroline registered refusal. “You can’t change the rules like that.”
“A one-time exception isn’t changing the rules.”
“God, I think I need an X-ray,” Caroline said.
Gary could feel the buzzing of his mother’s voice against his thumb. “A yes or a no here?”
Standing up, Caroline leaned into him and buried her face in his sweater. She knocked lightly on his sternum with a little fist. “Please,” she said, nuzzling his collarbone. “Tell her you’ll call her later. Please? I really hurt my back.”
Gary held the phone out to one side, his arm rigid, as she pressed against him. “Caroline. They’ve come here eight years in a row. It’s not extreme of me to propose a one-time exception. Can I at least say we’re considering the possibility?”
Caroline shook her head woefully and sank onto the chair.
“OK, fine,” Gary said. “I’ll make my own decision.”
He strode into the dining room, where Aaron, who’d been listening, stared at him as if he were a monster of spousal cruelty.
“Dad,” Caleb said, “if you’re not talking to Grandma, can I ask you something?”
“No, Caleb, I’m talking to Grandma.”
“Then can I talk to you right afterward?”
“Oh, God, oh, God,” Caroline was saying.
In the living room Jonah had settled onto the larger leather sofa with his tower of cookies and Prince Caspian.
“I don’t understand this,” Enid said. “If it’s not a good time to talk, all right, call me back, but to make me wait ten minutes—”
“Yes, but here I am.”
“Well, so, and what have you decided?”
Before Gary could answer, there burst from the kitchen a piteous raw feline wailing, a cry such as Caroline had produced during intercourse fifteen years ago, before there were boys to hear her.
“Mom, sorry, one second.”
“This is not right,” Enid said. “This is not polite.”
“Caroline,” Gary called into the kitchen, “do you think we can behave like adults for a few minutes?”
“Ah, ah, uh! Uh!” Caroline cried.
“Nobody ever died of a backache, Caroline.”
“Please,” she cried, “call her later. I tripped on the last step when I was running inside, Gary, it hurts—”
He turned his back on the kitchen. “Sorry, Mom.”
“What on earth is going on there?”
“Caroline hurt her back a little bit playing soccer.”
“You know, I hate to say this,” Enid said, “but aches and pains are a part of getting older. I could talk about pain all day long if I wanted to. My hip is always hurting. As you get older, though, hopefully you get a little more matoor.”
“Oh! Ahh! Ahh!” Caroline cried out voluptuously.
“Yeah, that’s the hope,” Gary said.
“Anyhow, what did you decide?”
“The jury’s still out on Christmas,” he said, “but maybe you should plan on stopping here—”
“Ow! Ow! Ow!”
“It’s getting awfully late to be making Christmas reservations,” Enid said severely. “You know, the Schumperts made their Hawaii reservations back in April, because last year, when they waited until September, they couldn’t get the seats they—”
Aaron came running from the kitchen. “Dad!”
“I’m on the phone, Aaron.”
“I’m on the telephone, Aaron, as you can see.”
“Dave has a colostomy,” Enid said.
“You’ve got to do something right now,” Aaron said. “Mom is really hurting. She says you have to drive her to the hospital!”
“Actually, Dad,” said Caleb, sidling in with his catalogue, “there’s someplace you can drive me, too.”
“No, but there’s a store I really actually do need to get to?”
“The affordable seats fill up early,” Enid said.
“Aaron?” Caroline shouted from the kitchen. “Aaron! Where are you? Where’s your father? Where’s Caleb?”
“It certainly is noisy in here for a person trying to concentrate,” Jonah said.
“Mother, sorry,” Gary said, “I’m going someplace quieter.”
“It’s getting very late,” Enid said, in her voice the panic of a woman for whom each passing day, each hour, signified the booking of more seats on late-December flights and thus the particle-by-particle disintegration of any hope that Gary and Caroline would bring their boys to St. Jude for one last Christmas.
“Dad,” Aaron pleaded, following Gary up the stairs to the second floor, “what do I tell her?”
“Tell her to call 911. Use your cell phone, call an ambulance.” Gary raised his voice: “Caroline? Call 911!”
Nine years ago, after a midwestern trip whose particular torments had included ice storms in both Philly and St. Jude, a four-hour runway delay with a whining five-year-old and a screaming two-year-old, a night of wild vomiting by Caleb in reaction (according to Caroline) to the butter and bacon fat in Enid’s holiday cooking, and a nasty spill that Caroline took on her in-laws’ ice-covered driveway (her back trouble dated from her field-hockey days at Friends’ Central, but she now spoke of having “reactivated” the injury on that driveway), Gary had promised his wife that he would never again ask her to go to St. Jude for Christmas. But now his parents had come to Philly eight years in a row, and although he disapproved of his mother’s obsession with Christmas—it seemed to him a symptom of a larger malaise, a painful emptiness in Enid’s life—he could hardly blame his parents for wanting to stay home this year. Gary also calculated that Enid would be more willing to leave St. Jude and move east if she’d had her “one last Christmas.” Basically, he was prepared to make the trip, and he expected a modicum of cooperation from his wife: a mature willingness to consider the special circumstances.
He shut himself inside his study and locked the door against the shouts and whimpers of his family, the barrage of feet on stairs, the pseudo-emergency. He lifted the receiver of his study phone and turned off the cordless.
“This is ridiculous,” Enid said in a defeated voice. “Why don’t you call me back?”
“We haven’t quite decided about December,” he said, “but we may very well come to St. Jude. In which case, I think you should stop here after the cruise.”
Enid was breathing rather loudly. “We’re not making two trips to Philadelphia this fall,” she said. “And I want to see the boys at Christmas, and so as far as I’m concerned this means you’re coming to St. Jude.”
“No, Mother,” he said. “No, no, no. We haven’t decided anything.”
“I promised Jonah—”
“Jonah’s not buying the tickets. Jonah’s not in charge here. So you make your plans, we’ll make ours, and hopefully everything will work out.”
Gary could hear, with strange clarity, the rustle of dissatisfaction from Enid’s nostrils. He could hear the seashore of her respiration, and all at once he realized.
“Caroline?” he said. “Caroline, are you on the line?”
The breathing ceased.
“Caroline, are you eavesdropping? Are you on the line?”
He heard a faint electronic click, a spot of static.
Enid: “What on earth?”
Unbelievable! Unfuckingbelievable! Gary dropped the receiver on his desk, unlocked the door, and ran down the hallway past a bedroom in which Aaron was standing at his mirror with his brow wrinkled and his head at the Flattering Angle, past the main staircase on which Caleb was clutching his catalogue like a Jehovah’s Witness with a pamphlet, to the master bedroom where Caroline was curled up fetally on a Persian rug, in her muddy clothes, a frosty gelpack pressed into her lower back.
“Are you eavesdropping on me?”
Caroline shook her head weakly, perhaps hoping to suggest that she was too infirm to have reached the phone by the bed.
“Is that a no? You’re saying no? You weren’t listening?”
“No, Gary,” she said in a tiny voice.
“I heard the click, I heard the breathing—”
“Caroline, there are three phones on this line, I’ve got two of them in my study, and the third one’s right here. Hello?”
“I wasn’t eavesdropping. I just picked up the phone—” She inhaled through gritted teeth. “To see if the line was free. That’s all.”
“And sat and listened! You were eavesdropping! Like we’ve talked and talked and talked about not doing!”
“Gary,” she said in a piteous little voice, “I swear to you I wasn’t. My back is killing me. I couldn’t reach to put the phone back for a minute. I put it on the floor. I wasn’t eavesdropping. Please be nice to me.”
That her face was beautiful and that the agony in it was mistakable for ecstasy—that the sight of her doubled-over and mud-spattered and red-cheekgd and vanquished and wild-haired on the Persian rug turned him on; that some part of him believed her denials and was full of tenderness for her—only deepened his feeling of betrayal. He stormed back up the hall to his study and slammed the door. “Mother, hello, I’m sorry.”
But the line was dead. He had to dial St. Jude now at his own expense. Through the window overlooking the back yard he could see sunlit, clamshell-purple rain clouds, steam rising off the monkey puzzle tree.
Because she wasn’t paying for the call, Enid sounded happier. She asked Gary if he’d heard of a company called Axon. “It’s in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania,” she said. “They want to buy Dad’s patent. Here, I’ll read you the letter. I’m a little upset about this.”
At CenTrust Bank, where Gary now ran the Equities Division, he’d long specialized in large-cap securities and never much concerned himself with small fry. The name Axon was not familiar to him. But as he listened to his mother read the letter from Mr. Joseph K. Prager at Bragg Knuter & Speigh, he felt he knew these people’s game. It was clear that the lawyer, in drafting a letter and sending it to an old man with a midwestern address, had offered Alfred no more than a tiny percentage of the patent’s actual value. Gary knew the way these shysters worked. In Axon’s position he would have done the same.
“I’m thinking we should ask for ten thousand, not five thousand,” Enid said.
“When does that patent expire?” Gary said.
“In about six years.”
“They must be looking at big money. Otherwise they’d just go ahead and infringe.”
“The letter says it’s experimental and uncertain.”
“Mother, exactly. That’s exactly what they want you to think. But if it’s so experimental, why are they bothering with this at all? Why not just wait six years?”
“Oh, I see.”
“It’s very, very good that you told me about this, Mother. What you need to do now is write back to these guys and ask them for a $200,000 licensing fee up front.”
Enid gasped as she’d done long ago on family car trips, when Alfred swung into oncoming traffic to pass a truck. “ Two hundred thousand! Oh, my, Gary—”
“And a one percent royalty on gross revenues from their process. Tell them you’re fully prepared to defend your legitimate claim in court.”
“But what if they say no?”
“Trust me, these guys have no desire to litigate. There’s no downside to being aggressive here.”
“Well, but it’s Dad’s patent, and you know how he thinks.”
“Put him on the phone,” Gary said.
His parents were cowed by authority of all kinds. When Gary wanted to reassure himself that he’d escaped their fate, when he needed to measure his distance from St. Jude, he considered his own fearlessness in the face of authority—including the authority of his father.
“Yes,” Alfred said.
“Dad,” he said, “I think you should go after these guys. They’re in a very weak position and you could make some real money.”
In St. Jude the old man said nothing.
“You’re not telling me you’re going to take that offer,” Gary said. “Because that’s not even an option. Dad. That’s not even on the menu.”
“I’ve made my decision,” Alfred said. “What I do is not your business.”
“Yes, it is, though. I have a legitimate interest in this.”
“Gary, you do not.”
“I have a legitimate interest,” Gary insisted. If Enid and Alfred ever ran out of money, it would fall to him and Caroline—not to his undercapitalized sister, not to his feckless brother—to pay for their care. But he had enough self-control not to spell this out for Alfred. “Will you at least tell me what you’re going to do? Will you pay me that courtesy?”
“You could pay me the courtesy of not asking,” Alfred said. “However, since you ask, I will tell you. I’m going to take what they offer and give half of the money to Orfic Midland.”
The universe was mechanistic: the father spoke, the son reacted.
“Well, now, Dad,” Gary said in the low, slow voice he reserved for situations in which he was very angry and very certain he was right. “You can’t do that.”
“I can and I will,” Alfred said.
“No, really, Dad, you have to listen to me. There is absolutely no legal or moral reason for you to split the money with Orfic Midland.”
“I was using the railroad’s materials and equipment,” Alfred said. “It was understood that I would share any income from the patents. And Mark Jamborets put me in touch with the patent lawyer. I suspect I was given a courtesy rate.”
“That was fifteen years ago! The company no longer exists. The people you had the understanding with are dead.”
“Not all of them are. Mark Jamborets is not.”
“Dad, it’s a nice sentiment. I understand the feeling, but—”
“I doubt you do.”
“That railroad was raped and eviscerated by the Wroth brothers.”
“I will not discuss it any further.”
“This is sick! This is sick!” Gary said. “You’re being loyal to a corporation that screwed you and the city of St. Jude in every conceivable way. It’s screwing you again, right now, with your health insurance.”
“You have your opinion, I have mine.”
“And I’m saying you’re being irresponsible. You’re being selfish. If you want to eat peanut butter and pinch pennies, that’s your business, but it’s not fair to Mom and it’s not fair to—”
“I don’t give a damn what you and your mother think.”
“It’s not fair to me! Who’s going to pay your bills if you get in trouble?-Who’s your fallback?”
“I will endure what I have to endure,” Alfred said. “Yes, and I’ll eat peanut butter if I have to. I like peanut butter. It’s a good food.”
“And if that’s what Mom has to eat, she’ll eat it, too. Right? She can eat dog food if she has to! Who cares what she wants?”
“Gary, I know what the right thing to do is. I don’t expect you to understand—I don’t understand the decisions you make—but I know what’s fair. So let that be the end of it.”
“I mean, give Orfic Midland twenty-five hundred dollars if you absolutely have to,” Gary said. “But that patent is worth—”
“Let that be the end of it, I said. Your mother wants to talk to you again.”
“Gary,” Enid cried, “the St. Jude Symphony is doing The Nutcracker in December! They do a beautiful job with the regional ballet, and it sells out so fast, tell me, do you think I should get nine tickets for the day of Christmas Eve? They have a two o’clock matinee, or we can go on the night of the twenty-third, if you think that’s better. You decide.”
“Mother, listen to me. Do not let Dad accept that offer. Don’t let him do anything until I’ve seen the letter. I want you to put a copy of it in the mail to me tomorrow.”
“OK, I will, but I’m thinking the important thing right now is The Nutcracker, to get nine tickets all together, because it sells out so fast, Gary, you wouldn’t believe.”
When he finally got off the phone, Gary pressed his hands to his eyes and saw, engraved in false colors on the darkness of his mental movie screen, two images of golf: Enid improving her lie from the rough (cheating was the word for this) and Alfred making light of his badness at the game.
The old man had pulled the same kind of self-defeating stunt fourteen years ago, after the Wroth brothers bought the Midland Pacific. Alfred was a few months shy of his sixty-fifth birthday when Fenton Creel, the Midpac’s new president, took him to lunch at Morelli’s in St. Jude. The top echelon of Midpac executives had been purged by the Wroths for having resisted the takeover, but Alfred, as chief engineer, had not been a part of this palace guard. In the chaos of shutting down the St. Jude office and moving operations to Little Rock, the Wroths needed somebody to keep the railroad running while the new crew, headed by Creel, learned the ropes. Creel offered Alfred a fifty percent raise and a block of Orfic stock if he would stay on for two extra years, oversee the move to Little Rock, and provide continuity.
Alfred hated the Wroths and was inclined to say no, but that night, at home, Enid went to work on him. She pointed out that the Orfic stock alone was worth $78,000, that his pension would be based on his last three full years’ salary, and that here was a chance to increase their retirement income by fifty percent.
These irresistible arguments appeared to sway Alfred, but three nights later he came home and announced to Enid that he’d tendered his resignation that afternoon and that Creel had accepted it. Alfred was then seven weeks short of a full year at his last, largest salary; it made no sense at all to quit. But he gave no explanation, then or ever, to Enid or to anyone else, for his sudden turnabout. He simply said: I have made my decision.
At the Christmas table in St. Jude that year, moments after Enid had sneaked onto baby Aaron’s little plate a bite of hazelnut goose stuffing and Caroline had grabbed the stuffing from the plate and marched into the kitchen and flung it in the trash like a wad of goose crap, saying, “This is pure grease—yuck,” Gary lost his temper and shouted: You couldn’t wait seven weeks? You couldn’t wait till you were sixty-five?
Gary, I worked hard all my life. My retirement is my business, not yours.
And the man so keen to retire that he couldn’t wait those last seven weeks: what had he done with his retirement? He’d sat in his blue chair.
Gary knew nothing of Axon, but Orfic Midland was the sort of conglomerate whose holdings and management structure he was paid to stay abreast of. He happened to know that the Wroth brothers had sold their controlling stake to cover losses in a Canadian gold-mining venture. Orfic Midland had joined the ranks of the indistinguishable bland megafirms whose headquarters dotted the American exurbs; its executives had been replaced like the cells of a living organism or like the letters in a game of Substitution in which SHIT turned to SHOT and SOOT and FOOT and FOOD, so that, by the time Gary had okayed the latest bulk purchase of OrficM for CenTrust’s portfolio, no blamable human trace remained of the company that had shut down St. Jude’s third largest employer and eliminated train service to much of rural Kansas. Orfic Midland was out of the transportation business altogether now. What survived of the Midpac’s trunk lines had been sold off to enable the company to concentrate on prison-building, prison management, gourmet coffee, and financial services; a new 144-strand fiber-optic cable system lay buried in the railroad’s old right-of-way.
This was the company to which Alfred felt loyal?
The more Gary thought about it, the angrier he got. He sat by himself in his study, unable to stem his rising agitation or to slow the steam-locomotive pace at which his breaths were coming. He was blind to the pretty pumpkin-yellow sunset unfolding in the tulip trees beyond the commuter tracks. He saw nothing but the principles at stake.
He might have sat there obsessing indefinitely, marshaling evidence against his father, had he not heard a rustling outside the study door. He jumped to his feet and pulled the door open.
Caleb was cross-legged on the floor, studying his catalogue. “Can I talk to you now?”
“Were you sitting out here listening to me?”
“No,” Caleb said. “You said we could talk when you were done. I had a question. I was wondering what room I could put under surveillance.”
Even upside down Gary could see that the prices for the equipment in Caleb’s catalogue—items with brushed-aluminum cases, color LCD screens—were three-and four-figure.
“It’s my new hobby,” Caleb said. “I want to put a room under surveillance. Mom says I can do the kitchen if it’s OK with you.”
“You want to put the kitchen under surveillance as a hobby?”
Gary shook his head. He’d had many hobbies when he was a boy, and for a long time it had pained him that his own boys seemed to have none at all. Eventually Caleb had figured out that if he used the word “hobby,” Gary would green-light expenditures he otherwise might have forbidden Caroline to make. Thus Caleb’s hobby had been photography until Caroline had bought him an autofocus camera, an SLR with a better zoom telephoto lens than Gary’s own, and a digital point-and-shoot camera. His hobby had been computers until Caroline had bought him a palmtop and a notebook. But now Caleb was nearly twelve, and Gary had been around the block one too many times. His guard was up regarding hobbies. He’d extracted from Caroline a promise not to buy Caleb more equipment of any kind without consulting with him first.
“Surveillance is not a hobby,” he said.
“Dad, yes it is! Mom was the one who suggested it. She said I could start with the kitchen.”
It seemed to Gary another Warning Sign of depression that his thought was: The liquor cabinet is in the kitchen.
“Better let me talk about this with Mom, all right?”
“But the store’s only open till six,” Caleb said.
“You can wait a few days. Don’t tell me you can’t.”
“But I’ve been waiting all afternoon. You said you’d talk to me, and now it’s almost night.”
That it was almost night gave Gary clear title to a drink. The liquor cabinet was in the kitchen. He took a step in its direction. “What equipment exactly are we talking about?”
“Just a camera and a microphone and servo controls.” Caleb thrust the catalogue at Gary. “See, I don’t even need the expensive kind. This one’s just six fifty. Mom said it was OK.”
Time and again Gary had the feeling that there was something disagreeable that his family wanted to forget, something only he insisted on remembering; something requiring only his nod, his go-ahead, to be forgotten. This feeling, too, was a Warning Sign.
“Caleb,” he said, “this sounds like something you’re going to get bored with very soon. It sounds expensive and like you won’t stay interested.”
“No! No!” Caleb said, anguished. “I’m totally interested. Dad, it’s a hobby.”
“You’ve gotten bored, though, pretty quickly with some of the other things we’ve gotten you. Things you also said you were ‘very interested in’ at the time.”
“This is different,” Caleb pleaded. “This time I’m really, truly interested.”
Clearly the boy was prepared to spend any amount of devalued verbal currency to buy his father’s acquiescence.
“Do you see what I’m saying, though?” Gary said. “Do you see the pattern? That things look one way before you buy them and another way afterward? Your feelings change after you buy things. Do you see that?”
Caleb opened his mouth, but before he could utter another plea or complaint, a craftiness flickered in his face.
“I guess,” he said with seeming humility. “I guess I see that.”
“Well, do you think it’s going to happen with this new equipment?” Gary said.
Caleb gave every appearance of giving the question serious thought. “I think this is different,” he said finally.
“Well, OK,” Gary said. “But I want you to remember we had this conversation. I don’t want to see this become just another expensive toy you play with for a week or two and then neglect. You’re going to be a teenager pretty soon, and I want to start seeing a little longer attention span—”
“Gary, that isn’t fair!” Caroline said hotly. She was hobbling from the doorway of the master bedroom, one shoulder hunched and her hand behind her back, applying pressure to the soothing gelpack.
“Hello, Caroline. Didn’t realize you were listening.”
“Caleb is not neglecting things.”
“Right, I’m not,” Caleb said.
“What you don’t understand,” Caroline told Gary, “is that everything’s getting used in this new hobby. That’s what’s so brilliant about it. He’s figured out a way to use all that equipment together in one—”
“Good, well, I’m glad to hear it.”
“He does something creative and you make him feel guilty.”
Once, when Gary had wondered aloud if giving Caleb so many gadgets might be stunting his imagination, Caroline had all but accused him of slandering his son. Among her favorite parenting books was The Technological Imagination: What Today’s Children Have to Teach Their Parents, in which Nancy Claymore, Ph.D., contrasting the “tired paradigm” of Gifted Child as Socially Isolated Genius with the “wired paradigm” of Gifted Child as Creatively Connected Consumer, argued that electronic toys would soon be so cheap and widespread that a child’s imagination would no longer be exercised in crayon drawings and made-up stories but in the synthesis and exploitation of existing technologies—an idea that Gary found both persuasive and depressing. When he was a boy not much younger than Caleb, his hobby had been building models with Popsicle sticks.
“Does this mean we can go to the store now?” Caleb said.
“No, Caleb, not tonight, it’s almost six,” Caroline said.
Caleb stamped his foot. “This always happens! I wait and wait, and then it gets too late.”
“We’ll rent a movie,” Caroline said. “We’ll get whatever movie you want.”
“I don’t want a movie. I want to do surveillance.”
“It’s not going to happen,” Gary said. “So start dealing with it.”
Caleb went to his room and slammed the door. Gary followed and flung it open. “That’s enough now,” he said. “We don’t slam doors in this house.”
“You slam doors!”
“I don’t want to hear another word from you.”
“You slam doors!”
“Do you want to spend the whole week in your room?”
Caleb replied by crossing his eyes and sucking his lips into his mouth: not another word.
Gary let his gaze drift into corners of the boy’s room that he ordinarily took care not to look at. Neglected in piles, like the loot in a thief’s apartment, was new photographic and computer and video equipment with an aggregate retail value possibly exceeding the annual salary of Gary’s secretary at CenTrust. Such a riot of luxury in the lair of an eleven-year-old! Various chemicals that molecular floodgates had been holding back all afternoon burst loose and flooded Gary’s neural pathways. A cascade of reactions initiated by Factor 6 relaxed his tear valves and sent a wave of nausea down his vagus: a “sense” that he survived from day to day by distracting himself from underground truths that day by day grew more compelling and decisive. The truth that he was going to die. That heaping your tomb with treasure wouldn’t save you.
The light in the windows was failing rapidly.
“You’re really going to use all this equipment?” he said with a tightness in his chest.
Caleb, his lips still involuted, gave a shrug.
“Nobody should be slamming doors,” Gary said. “Me included. All right?”
“Yeah, Dad. Whatever.”
Emerging from Caleb’s room into the shadowed hallway, he nearly collided with Caroline, who was hurrying on tiptoe, in her stockinged feet, back in the direction of their bedroom.
“Again? Again? I say don’t eavesdrop, and what do you do?”
“I wasn’t eavesdropping. I’ve got to go lie down.” And she hurried, limping, into the bedroom.
“You can run but you can’t hide,” Gary said, following her. “I want to know why you’re eavesdropping on me.”
“It is your paranoia, not my eavesdropping.”
Caroline slumped on the oaken king-size bed. After she and Gary were married, she’d undergone five years of twice-weekly therapy which the therapist, at the final session, had declared “an unqualified success” and which had given her a lifelong advantage over Gary in the race for mental health.
“You seem to think everybody except you has a problem,” she said. “Which is what your mother thinks, too. Without ever—”
“Caroline. Answer me one question. Look me in the eye and answer me one question. This afternoon, when you were—”
“God, Gary, not this again. Listen to yourself.”
“When you were horsing around in the rain, running yourself ragged, trying to keep up with an eleven-year-old and a fourteen-year-old—”
“You’re obsessed! You’re obsessed with that!”
“Running and sliding and kicking in the rain—”
“You talk to your parents and then you take your anger out on us.”
“Were you limping before you came inside?” Gary shook his finger in his wife’s face. “Look me in the eye, Caroline, look me right in the eye. Come on! Do it! Look me in the eye and tell me you weren’t already limping.”
Caroline was rocking in pain. “You’re on the phone with them for the better part of an hour—”
“You can’t do it!” Gary crowed in bitter triumph. “You’re lying to me and you will not admit you’re lying!”
“Dad! Dad!” came a cry outside the door. Gary turned and saw Aaron shaking his head wildly, beside himself, his beautiful face twisted and tear-slick. “Stop shouting at her!”
The remorse neurofactor (Factor 26) flooded the sites in Gary’s brain specially tailored by evolution to respond to it.
“Aaron, all right,” he said.
Aaron turned away and turned back and marched in place, taking big steps nowhere, as though trying to force the shameful tears out of his eyes and into his body, down through his legs, and stamp them out. “God, please, Dad, do—not—shout—at her.”
“OK, Aaron,” Gary said. “Shouting’s over.”
He reached to touch his son’s shoulder, but Aaron fled back up the hall. Gary left Caroline and followed him, his sense of isolation deepened by this demonstration that his wife had strong allies in the house. Her sons would protect her from her husband. Her husband who was a shouter. Like his father before him. His father before him who was now depressed. But who, in his prime, as a shouter, had so frightened young Gary that it never occurred to him to intercede on his mother’s behalf.
Aaron was lying face down on his bed. In the tornado aftermath of laundry and magazines on the floor of his room, the two nodes of order were his Bundy trumpet (with mutes and a music stand) and his enormous alphabetized collection of compact discs, including boxed-set complete editions of Dizzy and Satchmo and Miles Davis, plus great miscellaneous quantities of Chet Baker and Wynton Marsalis and Chuck Mangione and Herb Alpert and Al Hirt, all of which Gary had given him to encourage his interest in music.
Gary perched on the edge of the bed. “I’m sorry I upset you,” he said. “As you know, I can be a mean old judgmental bastard. And sometimes your mother has trouble admitting she’s wrong. Especially when—”
“Her. Back. Is. Hurt,” came Aaron’s voice, muffled by a Ralph Lauren duvet. “She is not lying.”
“I know her back hurts, Aaron. I love your mother very much.”
“Then don’t shout at her.”
“OK. Shouting’s over. Let’s have some dinner.” Gary lightly judochopped Aaron’s shoulder. “What do you say?”
Aaron didn’t move. Further cheering words appeared to be called for, but Gary couldn’t think of any. He was experiencing a critical shortage of Factors 1 and 3. He’d had the sense, moments earlier, that Caroline was on the verge of accusing him of being “depressed,” and he was afraid that if the idea that he was depressed gained currency, he would forfeit his right to his opinions. He would forfeit his moral certainties; every word he spoke would become a symptom of disease; he would never again win an argument.
It was therefore all the more important now to resist depression—to fight it with the truth.
“Listen,” he said. “You were out there with Mom, playing soccer. Tell me if I’m right about this. Was she limping before she went inside?”
For a moment, as Aaron roused himself from the bed, Gary believed that the truth would prevail. But the face Aaron showed him was a reddish-white raisin of revulsion and disbelief.
“You’re horrible!” he said. “You’re horrible!” And he ran from the room.
Ordinarily Gary wouldn’t have let Aaron get away with this. Ordinarily he would have battled his son all evening if that was what it took to extract an apology from him. But his mental markets—glycemic, endocrine, over-the-synapse—were crashing. He was feeling ugly, and to battle Aaron now would only make him uglier, and the sensation of ugliness was perhaps the leading Warning Sign.
He saw that he’d made two critical mistakes. He should never have promised Caroline that there would be no more Christmases in St. Jude. And today, when she was limping and grimacing in the back yard, he should have snapped at least one picture of her. He mourned the moral advantages these mistakes had cost him.
“I am not clinically depressed,” he told his reflection in the nearly dark bedroom window. With a great, marrow-taxing exertion of will, he stood up from Aaron’s bed and sallied forth to prove himself capable of having an ordinary evening.
Jonah was climbing the dark stairs with Prince Caspian. “I finished the book,” he said.
“Did you like it?”
“I loved it,” Jonah said. “This is outstanding children’s literature. Aslan made a door in the air that people walked through and disappeared. They went out of Narnia and back into the real world.”
Gary dropped into a crouch. “Give me a hug.”
Jonah draped his arms on him. Gary could feel the looseness of his youthful joints, the cublike pliancy, the heat radiating through his scalp and cheeks. He would have slit his own throat if the boy had needed blood; his love was immense in that way; and yet he wondered if it was only love he wanted now or whether he was also coalition-building. Securing a tactical ally for his team.
What this stagnating economy needs, thought Federal Reserve Board Chairman Gary R. Lambert, is a massive infusion of Bombay Sapphire gin.
In the kitchen Caroline and Caleb were slouched at the table drinking Coke and eating potato chips. Caroline had her feet up on another chair and pillows beneath her knees.
“What should we do for dinner?” Gary said.
His wife and middle son traded glances as if this were the stick-in-the-mud sort of question he was famous for. From the density of potato-chip crumbs he could see they were well on their way to spoiled appetites.
“Mixed grill, I guess,” said Caroline.
“Oh, yeah, Dad, do a mixed grill!” Caleb said in a tone mistakable for either irony or enthusiasm.
Gary asked if there was meat.
Caroline stuffed chips into her mouth and shrugged.
Jonah asked permission to build a fire.
Gary, taking ice from the freezer, granted it.
Ordinary evening. Ordinary evening.
“If I put the camera over the table,” Caleb said, “I’ll get part of the dining room, too.”
“You miss the whole nook, though,” Caroline said. “If it’s over the back door, you can sweep both ways.”
Gary shielded himself with the door of the liquor cabinet while he poured four ounces of gin onto ice.
“ ‘Alt. eighty-five’?” Caleb read from his catalogue.
“That means the camera can look almost straight down.”
Still shielded by the cabinet door, Gary took a hefty warmish gulp. Then, closing the cabinet, he held up the glass in case anyone cared to see what a relatively modest drink he’d poured himself.
“Hate to break it to you,” he said, “but surveillance is out. It’s not appropriate as a hobby.”
“Dad, you said it was OK as long as I stayed interested.”
“I said I would think about it.”
Caleb shook his head vehemently. “No! You didn’t! You said I could do it as long as I didn’t get bored.”
“That is exactly what you said,” Caroline confirmed with an unpleasant smile.
“Yes, Caroline, I’m sure you heard every word. But we’re not putting this kitchen under surveillance. Caleb, you do not have my permission to make those purchases.”
“That’s my decision, it’s final.”
“Caleb, it doesn’t matter, though,” Caroline said. “Gary, it doesn’t matter, because he’s got his own money. He can spend it however he wants. Right, Caleb?”
Out of Gary’s sight, below the level of the table, she gave Caleb some kind of hand signal.
“Right, I’ve got my own savings!” Caleb’s tone again ironic or enthusiastic or, somehow, both.
“You and I will talk about this later, Caro,” Gary said. Warmth and perversion and stupidity, all deriving from the gin, were descending from behind his ears and down his arms and torso.
Jonah came back inside smelling like mesquite.
Caroline had opened a second large bag of potato chips.
“Don’t spoil your appetite, guys,” Gary said in a strained voice, taking food from plastic compartments.
Again mother and son traded glances.
“Yeah, right,” Caleb said. “Gotta save room for mixed grill!”
Gary energetically sliced meats and skewered vegetables. Jonah set the table, spacing the flatware with the precision that he liked. The rain had stopped, but the deck was still slippery when Gary went outside.
It had started as a family joke: Dad always orders the mixed grill in restaurants, Dad only wants to go to restaurants with mixed grill on the menu. To Gary there was indeed something endlessly delicious, something irresistibly luxurious, about a bit of lamb, a bit of pork, a bit of veal, and a lean and tender modern-style sausage or two—a classic mixed grill, in short. It was such a treat that he began to do his own mixed grills at home. Along with pizza and Chinese takeout and onepot pasta meals, mixed grill became a family staple. Caroline helped out by bringing home multiple heavy blood-damp bags of meat and sausage every Saturday, and before long Gary was doing mixed grill two or even three times a week, braving all but the foulest weather on the deck, and loving it. He did partridge breasts, chicken livers, filets mignons, and Mexican-flavored turkey sausage. He did zucchini and red peppers. He did eggplant, yellow peppers, baby lamb chops, Italian sausage. He came up with a wonderful bratwurst – rib eye–bok choy combo. He loved it and loved it and loved it and then all at once he didn’t.
The clinical term, ANHEDONIA, had introduced itself to him in a nightstand book of Caroline’s called Feeling GREAT! (Ashley Tralpis, M.D., Ph.D.). He’d read the dictionary entry for ANHEDONIA with a shiver of recognition, a kind of malignant yes, yes: “a psychological condition characterized by inability to experience pleasure in normally pleasurable acts.” ANHEDONIA was more than a Warning Sign, it was an out-and-out symptom. A dry rot spreading from pleasure to pleasure, a fungus spoiling the delight in luxury and joy in leisure which for so many years had fueled Gary’s resistance to the poorthink of his parents.
The previous March, in St. Jude, Enid had observed that, for a bank vice president married to a woman who worked only part-time, pro bono, for the Children’s Defense Fund, Gary seemed to do an awful lot of cooking. Gary had shut his mother up easily enough; she was married to a man who couldn’t boil an egg, and obviously she was jealous. But on Gary’s birthday, after he’d flown back from St. Jude with Jonah and received the expensive surprise of a color photo lab, after he’d mustered the will to exclaim, A darkroom, fantastic, I love it, I love it, Caroline handed him a platter of raw prawns and brutal sword fish steaks to grill, and he wondered if his mother had a point. On the deck, in the radiant heat, as he blackened the prawns and seared the swordfish, a weariness overtook him. The aspects of his life not related to grilling now seemed like mere blips of extraneity between the poundingly recurrent moments when he ignited the mesquite and paced the deck, avoiding smoke. Shutting his eyes, he saw twisted boogers of browning meats on a grille of chrome and hellish coals. The eternal broiling, broiling of the damned. The parching torments of compulsive repetition. On the inner walls of the grill a deep-pile carpet of phenolic black greases had accumulated. The ground behind the garage where he dumped the ashes resembled a moonscape or the yard of a cement plant. He was very, very, very sick of mixed grill, and the next morning he told Caroline: “I’m doing too much cooking.”
“So do less,” she said. “We’ll eat out.”
“I want to eat at home and I want to do less cooking.”
“So order in,” she said.
“It’s not the same.”
“You’re the one who’s bent on having these sit-down dinners. The boys couldn’t care less.”
“ I care about it. It’s important to me.”
“Fine, but, Gary: it’s not important to me, it’s not important to the boys, and we’re supposed to cook for you?”
He couldn’t entirely blame Caroline. In the years when she’d worked full-time, he’d never complained about frozen or takeout or pre-prepared dinners. To Caroline it probably seemed that he was changing the rules on her. But to Gary it seemed that the nature of family life itself was changing—that togetherness and filiality and fraternity weren’t valued the way they were when he was young.
And so here he was, still grilling. Through the kitchen windows he could see Caroline thumb-wrestling Jonah. He could see her taking Aaron’s headphones to listen to music, could see her nodding to the beat. It sure looked like family life. Was there really anything amiss here but the clinical depression of the man peering in?
Caroline seemed to have forgotten how much her back hurt, but she remembered as soon as he went inside with the steaming, smoking platter of vulcanized animal protein. She seated herself sideways at the table, nudged her food with a fork, and whimpered softly. Caleb and Aaron regarded her with grave concern.
“Doesn’t anyone else want to know how Prince Caspian ends?” Jonah said. “Isn’t anyone curious at all?”
Caroline’s eyelids were fluttering, her mouth hanging open miserably to let air trickle in and out. Gary struggled to think of something undepressed to say, something reasonably unhostile, but he was rather drunk.
“Jesus, Caroline,” he said, “we know your back hurts, we know you’re miserable, but if you can’t even sit up straight at the table—”
Without a word she slid off her chair, hobbled to the sink with her plate, scraped her dinner into the garbage grinder, and hobbled upstairs. Caleb and Aaron excused themselves and ground up their own dinners and followed her. Altogether maybe thirty dollars’ worth of meat went into the sewer, but Gary, trying to keep his Factor 3 levels off the floor, succeeded pretty well in forgetting about the animals that had died for this purpose. He sat in the leaden twilight of his buzz, ate without tasting, and listened to Jonah’s impervious bright chatter.
“This is an excellent skirt steak, Dad, and I would love another piece of that grilled zucchini, please.”
From the entertainment room upstairs came the woofing of prime time. Gary felt briefly sorry for Aaron and Caleb. It was a burden to have a mother need you so extremely, to be responsible for her bliss, Gary knew this. He also understood that Caroline was more alone in the world than he was. Her father had been a handsome, charismatic anthropologist who died in a plane crash in Mali when she was eleven. Her father’s parents, old Quakers who intermittently said “thee,” had left her half of their estate, including a well-regarded Andrew Wyeth, three Winslow Homer watercolors, and forty sylvan acres near Kennett Square for which a developer had paid an incredible sum. Caroline’s mother, now seventy-six and in scarily good health, lived with her second husband in Laguna Beach and was a major benefactor of the California Democratic Party; she came east every April and bragged about not being “one of those old women” who were obsessed with their grandkids. Caroline’s only sibling, a brother named Philip, was a patronizing, pocket-protected bachelor and solid-state physicist on whom her mother doted somewhat creepily. Gary hadn’t known this kind of family in St. Jude. From the start, he’d loved and pitied Caroline for the misfortune and neglect she’d suffered growing up. He’d undertaken to provide a better family for her.
But after dinner, while he and Jonah were loading the dishwasher, he began to hear female laughter upstairs, actual loud laughter, and he decided that Caroline was doing something very bad to him. He was tempted to go up and crash the party. As the buzzing of the gin faded from his head, however, the clanging of an earlier anxiety was becoming audible. An Axon-related anxiety.
He wondered why a small company with a highly experimental process was bothering to offer his father money.
That the letter to Alfred had come from Bragg Knuter & Speigh, a firm that often worked closely with investment bankers, suggested due diligence—a dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s on the eve of something big.
“Do you want to go and be with your brothers?” Gary said to Jonah. “It sounds like fun up there.”
“No, thank you,” Jonah said. “I’m going to read the next Narnia book, and I thought I might go to the basement, where it’s quiet. Will you come with me?”
The old playroom in the basement, still dehumidified and carpeted and pine-paneled, still nice, was afflicted with the necrosis of clutter that sooner or later kills a living space: stereo boxes, geometric Styrofoam packing solids, outdated ski and beach gear in random drifts. Aaron and Caleb’s old toys were in five big bins and a dozen smaller bins. Nobody but Jonah ever touched them, and in the face of such a glut even Jonah, alone or with a play-date pal, took an essentially archaeological approach. He might devote an afternoon to unpacking half of one large bin, patiently sorting action figures and related props, vehicles, and model buildings by scale and manufacturer (toys that matched nothing he flung behind the sofa), but he rarely reached the bottom of even one bin before his play date ended or dinner was served and he reburied everything he’d excavated, and so the toys whose profusion ought to have been a seven-year-old’s heaven went basically unplayed with, another lesson in ANHEDONIA for Gary to ignore as well as he could.
While Jonah settled down to read, Gary booted up Caleb’s “old” laptop and went online. He typed the words axon and schwenksville in the Search field. One of the two resulting site matches was the Axon Corporation Home Page, but this site, when Gary tried to reach it, turned out to be UNDER RENOVATION. The other match led him to a deeply nested page in the Web site of Westportfolio Biofunds, whose listing of Privately Held Corporations to Watch was a cyberbackwater of drab graphics and misspellings. The Axon page had last been updated a year earlier.
Axon Corporation, 24 East Industrial Serpentine, Schwenksville, PA, a Limited Liability Corporation registered in the state of Delaware, holds wordwide rights to the Eberle Process of Directed Neurochemotaxis. The Eberle Process is profected by United States Patents 5,101,239, 5,101,599, 5,103,628, 5,103,629, and 5,105,996, for which the Axon Corporation is the sole and exclusive grantor of license. Axon engages in refinement, marketing and sales of the Eberle Process to hospitals and clinics worldwide, and in research and development of related technologies. Its founder and chairman is Dr. Earl H. Eberle, former Distinguished Lecturer in Applied Neurobiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
The Eberle Process of Directed Neurochemotaxis, also known as Eberle Reverse-Tomographic Chemotherapy, hav4 revolutionized the treatment of inoperable neuroblastomas and a variety of other morphologic defects of the brain.
The Eberle Process utilizes computer-orchestrated RF radiation to direct powerful carcinocdies, mutagens, and certain nonspecific toxins to diseased cerebral tissues and locally activate them without harm to surrounding healthy tissue.
At present, due to limitations in computing power, the Eberle Process requires sedating and immobilizing the patient in an Eberle Cylinder for up to thirfy-six hours while minutely orchestrated fields direct therapeutically active ligands and their inert “piggyback” carriers to the sight of disase. The next generation of Eberle Cylinders is expected to reduce maximum total treatment time to less two hours.
The Eberle Process received full FDA approval as a “safe and effective” therapy in October 1996. Widespread clincial use throughout the world in the years since then, as detailed in the numerous publications listed below, hav4 only confirmed its safety and effectiveness.
Gary’s hopes of extracting quick megabucks from Axon were withering in the absence of online hype. Feeling a bit e-weary, fighting an e-headache, he ran a word search for earl eberle. The several hundred matches included articles with titles like NEW HOPE FOR NEUROBLASTOMA and A GIANT LEAP FORWARD and THIS CURE REALLY MAY BE A MIRACLE. Eberle and collaborators were also represented in professional journals with “Remote Computer-Aided Stimulation of Receptor Sites 14, 16A and 21: A Practical Demonstration,” “Four Low-Toxicity Ferroacetate Complexes That Cross the BBB,” “In-Vitro RF Stimulation of Colloidal Microtubules,” and a dozen other papers. The reference that most interested Gary, however, had appeared in Forbes ASAP six months earlier:
Some of these developments, such as the Fogarty balloon catheter and Lasik corneal surgery, are cash cows for their respective corporate patent holders. Others, with esoteric names like the Eberle Process of Directed Neurochemotaxis, enrich their inventors the old-fashioned way: one man, one fortune. The Eberle Process, which as late as 1996 lacked regulatory approval but today is recognized as the gold standard for the treatment of a large class of cerebral tumors and lesions, is estimated to net its inventor, Johns Hopkins neurobiologist Earl H. (“Curly”) Eberle, as much as $40 million annually in licensing fees and other revenues worldwide.
Forty million dollars annually was more like it. Forty million dollars annually restored Gary’s hopes and pissed him off all over again. Earl Eberle earned forty million dollars annually while Alfred Lambert, also an inventor but (let’s face it) a loser by temperament—one of the meek of the earth—was offered five thousand for his trouble. And planned to split this pea with Orfic Midland!
“I’m loving this book,” Jonah reported. “This may be my favorite book yet.”
So why, Gary wondered, why the rush-rush to get Dad’s patent, eh, Curly? Why the big push-push? Financial intuition, a warm tingling in his loins, told him that perhaps, after all, a piece of inside information had fallen into his lap. A piece of inside information from an accidental (and therefore perfectly lawful) source. A juicy piece of private meat.
“It’s like they’re on a luxury cruise,” Jonah said, “except they’re trying to sail to the end of the world. See, that’s where Aslan lives, at the end of the world.”
In the SEC’s Edgar Database Gary found an unapproved prospectus, a so-called red-herring prospectus, for an initial public offering of Axon stock. The offering was scheduled for December 15, three-plus months away. The lead underwriter was Hevy & Hodapp, one of the elite investment banks. Gary checked certain vital signs—cash flow, size of issue, size of float—and, loins tingling, hit the Download Later button.
“Jonah, nine o’clock,” he said. “Run up and take your bath.”
“I would love to go on a luxury cruise, Dad,” Jonah said, climbing the stairs, “if that could ever be arranged.”
In a different Search field, his hands a little parkinsonian, Gary entered the words beautiful, nude, and blond.
“Shut the door, please, Jonah.”
On the screen an image of a beautiful nude blonde appeared. Gary pointed and clicked, and a nude tan man, photographed mainly from the rear but also in close-up from his knees to his navel, could be seen giving his fully tumid attention to the beautiful nude blonde. There was something of the assembly line in these images. The beautiful nude blonde was like fresh raw material that the nude tan man was extremely keen to process with his tool. First the material’s colorful fabric casing was removed, then the material was placed on its knees and the semiskilled worker fitted his tool into its mouth, then the material was placed on its back while the worker orally calibrated it, then the worker clamped the material into a series of horizontal and vertical positions, crimping and bending the material as necessary, and very vigorously processed it with his tool …
The pictures were softening rather than hardening Gary. He wondered if he’d reached the age where money excited him more than a beautiful nude blonde engaging in sex acts, or whether ANHEDONIA, the solitary father’s depression in a basement, might be encroaching even here.
Upstairs the doorbell rang. Adolescent feet came pounding down from the second floor to answer it.
Gary hastily cleansed the computer screen and went upstairs in time to see Caleb returning to the second floor with a large pizza box. Gary followed him and stood for a moment outside the entertainment room, smelling pepperoni and listening to the wordless munching of his sons and wife. On TV something military, a tank or a truck, was roaring to the accompaniment of war-movie music.
“Ve increase ze pressure, Lieutenant. Now you vill talk? Now?”
In Hands-Off Parenting: Skills for the Next Millennium, Dr. Harriet L. Schachtman warned: All too often, today’s anxious parents “protect” their children from the so-called “ravages” of TV and computer games, only to expose them to the far more damaging ravages of social ostracization by their peers.
To Gary, who as a boy had been allowed half an hour of TV a day and had not felt ostracized, Schachtman’s theory seemed a recipe for letting a community’s most permissive parents set standards that other parents were forced to lower their own to meet. But Caroline subscribed to the theory wholeheartedly, and since she was the sole trustee of Gary’s ambition not to be like his father, and since she believed that kids learned more from peer interaction than from parental instruction, Gary deferred to her judgment and let the boys watch nearly unlimited TV.
What he hadn’t foreseen was that he himself would be the ostracized.
He retreated to his study and dialed St. Jude again. The kitchen cordless was still on his desk, a reminder of earlier unpleasantnessgs and of fights still to come.
He was hoping to speak to Enid, but Alfred answered the telephone and said that she was over at the Roots’ house, socializing. “We had a street-association meeting tonight,” he said.
Gary considered calling back later, but he refused to be cowed by his father. “Dad,” he said, “I’ve done some research on Axon. We’re looking at a company with a lot of money.”
“Gary, I said I didn’t want you monkeying with this,” Alfred replied. “It is moot now anyway.”
“What do you mean, ‘moot’?”
“I mean moot. It’s taken care of. The documents are notarized. I’m recouping my lawyer’s fees and that’s the end of it.”
Gary pressed two fingers into his forehead. “My God. Dad. You had it notarized? On a Sunday?”
“I will tell your mother that you called.”
“Do not put those documents in the mail. Do you hear me?”
“Gary, I’ve had about enough of this.”
“Well, too bad, because I’m just getting started!”
“I’ve asked you not to speak of it. If you will not behave like a decent, civilized person, then I have no choice—”
“Your decency is bullshit. Your civilization is bullshit. It’s weakness! It’s fear! It’s bullshit!”
“I have no wish to discuss this.”
“Then forget it.”
“I intend to. We’ll not speak of it again. Your mother and I will visit for two days next month, and we will hope to see you here in December. It’s my wish that we can all be civil.”
“Never mind what’s going on underneath. As long as we’re all ‘civil.’ ”
“That is the essence of my philosophy, yes.”
“Well, it ain’t mine,” Gary said.
“I’m aware of that. And that’s why we will spend forty-eight hours and no more.”
Gary hung up angrier than ever. He’d hoped his parents would stay for an entire week in October. He’d wanted them to eat pie in Lancaster County, see a production at the Annenberg Center, drive in the Poconos, pick apples in West Chester, hear Aaron play the trumpet, watch Caleb play soccer, take delight in Jonah’s company, and generally see how good Gary’s life was, how worthy of their admiration and respect; and forty-eight hours was not enough time.
He left his study and kissed Jonah good night. Then he took a shower and lay down on the big oaken bed and tried to interest himself in the latest Inc. But he couldn’t stop arguing with Alfred in his head.
During his visit home in March he’d been appalled by how much his father had deteriorated in the few weeks since Christmas. Alfred seemed forever on the verge of derailing as he lurched down hallways or half slid down stairs or wolfed at a sandwich from which lettuce and meat loaf rained; checking his watch incessantly, his eyes wandering whenever a conversation didn’t engage him directly, the old iron horse was careering toward a crash, and Gary could hardly stand to look. Because who else, if not Gary, was going to take responsibility? Enid was hysterical and moralizing, Denise lived in a fantasyland, and Chip hadn’t been to St. Jude in three years. Who else but Gary was going to say: This train should not be running on these tracks?
The first order of business, as Gary saw it, was to sell the house. Get top dollar for it, move his parents into someplace smaller, newer, safer, cheaper, and invest the difference aggressively. The house was Enid and Alfred’s only large asset, and Gary took a morning to inspect the whole property slowly, inside and out. He found cracks in the grouting, rust lines in the bathroom sinks, and a softness in the master bedroom ceiling. He noticed rain stains on the inner wall of the back porch, a beard of dried suds on the chin of the old dishwasher, an alarming thump in the forced-air blower, pustules and ridges in the driveway’s asphalt, termites in the woodpile, a Damoclean oak limb dangling above a dormer, finger-wide cracks in the foundation, retaining walls that listed, whitecaps of peeling paint on window jambs, big emboldened spiders in the basement, fields of dried sow bug and cricket husks, unfamiliar fungal and enteric smells, everywhere he looked the sag of entropy. Even in a rising market, the house was beginning to lose value, and Gary thought: We’ve got to sell this fucker now, we can’t lose another day.
On the last morning of his visit, while Jonah helped Enid bake a birthday cake, Gary took Alfred to the hardware store. As soon as they were on the road, Gary said it was time to put the house on the market.
Alfred, in the passenger seat of the gerontic Olds, stared straight ahead. “Why?”
“If you miss the spring season,” Gary said, “you’ll have to wait another year. And you can’t afford another year. You can’t count on good health, and the house is losing value.”
Alfred shook his head. “I’ve agitated for a long time. One bedroom and a kitchen is all we need. Somewhere your mother can cook and we have a place to sit. But it’s no use. She doesn’t want to leave.”
“Dad, if you don’t put yourself someplace manageable, you’re going to hurt yourself. You’re going to wind up in a nursing home.”
“I have no intention of going to a nursing home. So.”
“Just because you don’t intend to doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”
Alfred looked, in passing, at Gary’s old elementary school. “Where are we going?”
“You fall down the stairs, you slip on the ice and break your hip, you’re going to end up in a nursing home. Caroline’s grandmother—”
“I didn’t hear where we were going.”
“We’re going to the hardware store,” Gary said. “Mom wants a dimmer switch for the kitchen.”
Alfred shook his head."“She and her romantic lighting.”
“She gets pleasure from it,” Gary said. “What do you get pleasure from?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you’ve just about worn her out.”
Alfred’s active hands, on his lap, were gathering nothing—raking in a poker pot that did not exist. “I’ll ask you again not to meddle,” he said.
The midmorning light of a late-winter thaw, the stillness of a weekday nonhour in St. Jude, Gary wondered how his parents stood it. The oak trees were the same oily black as the crows perching in them. The sky was the same color as the salt-white pavement on which elderly St. Judean drivers obeying barbiturate speed limits were crawling to their destinations: to malls with pools of meltwater on their papered roofs, to the arterial that overlooked puddled steel yards and the state mental hospital and transmission towers feeding soaps and game shows to the ether; to the beltways and, beyond them, to a million acres of thawing hinterland where pickups were axle-deep in clay and .22s were fired in the woods and only gospel and pedal steel guitars were on the radio; to residential blocks with the same pallid glare in every window, besquirreled yellow lawns with a random plastic toy or two embedded in the dirt, a mailman whistling something Celtic and slamming mailboxes harder than he had to, because the deadness of these streets, at such a nonhour, in such a nonseason, could honestly kill you.
“Are you happy with your life?” Gary said, waiting for a left-turn arrow. “Can you say you’re ever happy?”
“Gary, I have an affliction—”
“A lot of people have afflictions. If that’s your excuse, fine, if you want to feel sorry for yourself, fine, but why drag Mom down?”
“Well. You’ll be leaving tomorrow.”
“Meaning what,” Gary said. “That you’ll sit in your chair and Mom will cook and clean for you?”
“There are things in life that simply have to be endured.”
“Why bother staying alive, if that’s your attitude? What do you have to look forward to?”
“I ask myself that question every day.”
“Well, and what’s your answer?” Gary said.
“What’s your answer? What do you think I should look forward to?”
“I’ve traveled enough. I spent thirty years traveling.”
“Time with family. Time with people you love.”
“What do you mean, ‘no comment’?”
“Just that: no comment.”
“You’re still sore about Christmas.”
“You may interpret it however you like.”
“If you’re sore about Christmas, you might have the consideration to say so—”
“Instead of insinuating.”
“We should have come two days later and left two days earlier,” Alfred said. “That’s all I have to say on the topic of Christmas. We should have stayed forty-eight hours.”
“It’s because you’re depressed, Dad. You are clinically depressed—”
“And so are you.”
“And the responsible thing would be to get some treatment.”
“Did you hear me? I said so are you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Figure it out.”
“Dad, really, no, what are you talking about? I’m not the one who sits in a chair all day and sleeps.”
“Underneath, you are,” Alfred pronounced.
“That’s simply false.”
“One day you will see.”
“I will not!” Gary said. “My life is on a fundamentally different basis than yours.”
“Mark my words. I look at your marriage, I see what I see. Someday you’ll see it, too.”
“That’s empty talk and you know it. You’re just pissed off with me, and you have no way to deal with it.”
“I’ve told you I don’t want to discuss this.”
“And I have no respect for that.”
“Well, there are things in your life that I have no respect for either.” It shouldn’t have hurt to hear that Alfred, who was wrong about almost everything, did not respect things in Gary’s life; and yet it did hurt.
At the hardware store he let Alfred pay for the dimmer switch. The old man’s careful plucking of bills from his slender wallet and his faint hesitation before he offered them were signs of his respect for adollar—of his maddening belief that each one mattered.
Back at the house, while Gary and Jonah kicked a soccer ball, Alfred gathered tools and killed the power to the kitchen and set about installing the dimmer. Even at this late date it didn’t occur to Gary not to let Alfred handle wiring. But when he came inside for lunch he found that his father had done no more than remove the old switch plate. He was holding the dimmer switch like a detonator that made him shake with fear.
“My affliction makes this difficult,” he explained.
“You’ve got to sell this house,” Gary said.
After lunch he took his mother and his son to the St. Jude Museum of Transport. While Jonah climbed into old locomotives and toured the dry-docked submarine and Enid sat and nursed her sore hip, Gary compiled a mental list of the museum’s exhibits, hoping the list would give him a feeling of accomplishment. He couldn’t deal with the exhibits themselves, their exhausting informativeness, their cheerful prose-for-the-masses. THE GOLDEN AGE OF STEAM POWER. THE DAWN OF FLIGHT. A CENTURY OF AUTOMOTIVE SAFETY. Block after block of taxing text. What Gary hated most about the Midwest was how unpampered and unprivileged he felt in it. St. Jude in its optimistic egalitarianism consistently failed to accord him the respect to which his gifts and attainments entitled him. Oh, the sadness of this place! The earnest St. Judean rubes all around him seemed curious and undepressed. Happily filling their misshapen heads with facts. As if facts were going to save them! Not one woman half as pretty or as well dressed as Caroline. Not one other man with a decent haircut or an abdomen as flat as Gary’s. But, like Alfred, like Enid, they were all extremely deferential. They didn’t jostle Gary or cut in front of him but waited until he’d drifted to the next exhibit. Then they gathered round and read and learned. God, he hated the Midwest! He could hardly breathe or hold his head up. He thought he might be getting sick. He took refuge in the museum’s gift shop and bought a silver belt buckle, two engravings of old Midland Pacific trestles, and a pewter hip flask (all for himself), a deerskin wallet (for Aaron), and a CD-ROM Civil War game (for Caleb).
“Dad,” Jonah said, “Grandma says she’ll buy me two books that cost less than ten dollars each or one book for less than twenty dollars, is that OK?”
Enid and Jonah were a lovefest. Enid had always preferred little kids to big kids, and Jonah’s adaptive niche in the family ecosystem was to be the perfect grandchild, eager to scramble up on laps, unafraid of bitter vegetables, underexcited by television and computer games, and skilled at cheerfully answering questions like “Are you loving school?” In St. Jude he was luxuriating in the undivided attention of three adults. He declared St. Jude the nicest place he’d ever been. From the back seat of the Oldfolksmobile, his elfin eyes wide, he marveled at everything Enid showed him.
“It’s so easy to park here!
“The Transport Museum is better than any museums we have, Dad, don’t you agree?
“I love the legroom in this car. I think this is the nicest car I’ve ever ridden in.
“All the stores are so close and handy!”
That night, after they’d returned from the museum and Gary had gone out and done more shopping, Enid served stuffed pork chops and a chocolate birthday cake. Jonah was dreamily eating ice cream when she asked him if he might like to come and have Christmas in St. Jude.
“I would love that,” Jonah said, his eyelids drooping with satiety.
“You could have sugar cookies, and eggnog, and help us decorate the tree,” Enid said. “It’ll probably snow, so you can go sledding. And, Jonah, there’s a wonderful light show every year at Waindell Park, it’s called Christmasland, they have the whole park lit up—”
“Mother, it’s March,” Gary said.
“Can we come at Christmas?” Jonah asked him.
“We’ll come again very soon,” Gary said. “I don’t know about Christmas.”
“I think Jonah would love it,” Enid said.
“I would completely love it,” Jonah said, hoisting another spoonload of ice cream. “I think it might turn out to be the best Christmas I ever had.”
“I think so, too,” Enid said.
“It’s March,” Gary said. “We don’t talk about Christmas in March. Remember? We don’t talk about it in June or August, either. Remember?”
“Well,” Alfred said, standing up from the table. “I am going to bed.”
“St. Jude gets my vote for Christmas,” Jonah said.
Enlisting Jonah directly in her campaign, exploiting a little boy for leverage, seemed to Gary a low trick on Enid’s part. After he’d put Jonah to bed, he told his mother that Christmas ought to be the last of her worries.
“Dad can’t even install a light switch,” he said. “And now you’ve got a leak upstairs, you’ve got water coming in around the chimney—”
“I love this house,” Enid said from the kitchen sink, where she was scrubbing the pork-chop pan. “Dad just needs to work a little on his attitude.”
“He needs shock treatments or medication,” Gary said. “And if you want to dedicate your life to being his servant, that’s your choice. If you want to live in an old house with a lot of problems, and try to keep everything just the way you like it, that’s fine, too. If you want to wear yourself out trying to do both, be my guest. Just don’t ask me to make Christmas plans in March so you can feel OK about it all.”
Enid upended the pork-chop pan on the counter beside the overloaded drainer. Gary knew he ought to pick up a towel, but the jumble of wet pans and platters and utensils from his birthday dinner made him weary; to dry them seemed a task as Sisyphean as to repair the things wrong with his parents’ house. The only way to avoid despair was not to involve himself at all.
He poured a smallish brandy nightcap while Enid, with unhappy stabbing motions, scraped waterlogged food scraps from the bottom of the sink.
“What do you think I should do?” she said.
“Sell the house,” Gary said. “Call a realtor tomorrow.”
“And move into some cramped, modern condominium?” Enid shook the repulsive wet scraps from her hand into the trash. “When I have to go out for the day, Dave and Mary Beth invite Dad over for lunch. He loves that, and I feel so comfortable knowing he’s with them. Last fall he was out planting a new yew, and he couldn’t get the old stump out, and Joe Person came over with a pickax and the two of them worked all afternoon together.”
“He shouldn’t be planting yews,” Gary said, regretting already the smallness of his initial pour. “He shouldn’t be using a pickax. The man can hardly stand up.”
“Gary, I know we can’t be here forever. But I want to have one last really nice family Christmas here. And I want—”
“Would you consider moving if we had that Christmas?”
New hope sweetened Enid’s expression. “Would you and Caroline consider coming?”
“I can’t make any promises,” Gary said. “But if you’d feel more comfortable about putting the house on the market, we would certainly consider—”
“I would adore it if you came. Adore it.”
“Mother, though, you have to be realistic.”
“Let’s get through this year,” Enid said, “let’s think about having Christmas here, like Jonah wants, and then we’ll see!”
Gary’s ANHEDONIA had worsened when he returned to Chestnut Hill. As a winter project, he’d been distilling hundreds of hours of home videos into a watchable two-hour Greatest Lambert Hits compilation that he could make quality copies of and maybe send out as a “video Christmas card.” In the final edit, as he repeatedly reviewed his favorite family scenes and re-cued his favorite songs (“Wild Horses,” “Time After Time,” etc.), he began to hate these scenes and hate these songs. And when, in the new darkroom, he turned his attention to the All-Time Lambert Two Hundred, he found that he no longer enjoyed looking at still photographs, either. For years he’d mentally tinkered with the All-Time Two Hundred, as with an ideally balanced mutual fund, listing with great satisfaction the images that he was sure belonged in it. Now he wondered whom, besides himself, he was trying to impress with these pictures. Whom was he trying to persuade, and of what? He had a weird impulse to burn his old favorites. But his entire life was set up as a correction of his father’s life, and he and Caroline had long agreed that Alfred was clinically depressed, and clinical depression was known to have genetic bases and to be substantially heritable, and so Gary had no choice but to keep resisting ANHEDONIA, keep gritting his teeth, keep doing his best to have fun …
He came awake with an itching hard-on and Caroline beside him in the sheets.
His nightstand light was still burning, but otherwise the room was dark. Caroline lay in sarcophagal posture, her back flat on the mattress and a pillow beneath her knees. Through the screens on the bedroom windows came seeping the coolish, humid air of a summer grown tired. No wind stirred the leaves of the sycamore whose lowest branches hung outside the windows.
On Caroline’s nightstand was a hardcover copy of Middle Ground: How to Spare Your Child the Adolescence YOU Had (Caren Tamkin, Ph.D., 1998).
She seemed to be asleep. Her long arm, kept flabless by thrice-weekly swims at the Cricket Club, rested at her side. Gary gazed at her little nose, her wide red mouth, the blond down and the dull sheen of sweat on her upper lip, the tapering strip of exposed blond skin between the hem of her T-shirt and the elastic of her old Swarthmore College gym shorts. Her nearer breast pushed out against the inside of the T-shirt, the carmine definition of its nipple faintly visible through the fabric’s stretched weave …
When he reached out and smoothed her hair, her entire body jerked as if the hand were a defibrillator paddle.
“What’s going on here?” he said.
“My back is killing me.”
“An hour ago you were laughing and feeling great. Now you’re sore again?”
“The Motrin’s wearing off.”
“The mysterious resurgence of the pain.”
“You haven’t said a sympathetic word since I hurt my back.”
“Because you’re lying about how you hurt it,” Gary said.
“My God. Again?”
“Two hours of soccer and horseplay in the rain, that’s not the problem. It’s the ringing phone.”
“Yes,” Caroline said. “Because your mother won’t spend ten cents to leave a message. She has to let it ring three times and then hang up, ring three times and then hang up—”
“It has nothing to do with anything you did,” Gary said. “It’s my mom! She magically flew here and kicked you in the back because she wants to hurt you!”
“After listening to it ring and stop and ring and stop all afternoon, I’m a nervous wreck.”
“Caroline, I saw you limping before you ran inside. I saw the look on your face. Don’t tell me you weren’t in pain already.”
She shook her head. “You know what this is?”
“And then the eavesdropping!”
“Do you know what this is?”
“You’re listening on the only other free phone in the house, and you have the gall to tell me—”
“Gary, you’re depressed. Do you realize that?”
He laughed. “I don’t think so.”
“You’re brooding, and suspicious, and obsessive. You walk around with a black look on your face. You don’t sleep well. You don’t seem to get pleasure out of anything.”
“You’re changing the subject,” he said. “My mother called because she had a reasonable request regarding Christmas.”
“Reasonable?” Now Caroline laughed. “Gary, she is bonkers on the topic of Christmas. She is a lunatic.”
“Oh, Caroline. Really.”
“I mean it!”
“Really. Caroline. They’re going to be selling that house soon, they want us all to visit one more time before they die, Caroline, before my parents die—”
“We’ve always agreed about this. We agreed that five people with busy lives should not have to fly at the peak holiday season so that two people with nothing in their lives wouldn’t have to come here. And I’ve been more than happy to have them—”
“The hell you have.”
“Until suddenly the rules change!”
“You have not been happy to have them here. Caroline. They’re at the point where they won’t even stay for more than forty-eight hours.”
“And this is my fault?” She was directing her gestures and facial expressions, somewhat eerily, at the ceiling. “What you don’t understand, Gary, is that this is an emotionally healthy family. I am a loving and deeply involved mother. I have three intelligent, creative, and emotionally healthy children. If you think there’s a problem in this house, you better take a look at yourself.”
“I’m making a reasonable proposal,” Gary said. “And you’re calling me ‘depressed.’ ”
“So it’s never occurred to you?”
“The minute I bring up Christmas, I’m ‘depressed.’ ”
“Seriously, are you telling me it’s never occurred to you, in the last six months, that you might have a clinical problem?”
“It is extremely hostile, Caroline, to call another person crazy.”
“Not if the person potentially has a clinical problem.”
“I’m proposing that we go to St. Jude,” he said. “If you won’t talk about it like an adult, I’ll make my own decision.”
“Oh, yeah?” Caroline made a contemptuous noise. “I guess Jonah might go with you. But see if you can get Aaron and Caleb on the plane with you. Just ask them where they’d rather be for Christmas.”
Just ask them whose team they’re on .
“I was under the impression that we’re a family,” Gary said, “and that we do things together.”
“You’re the one deciding unilaterally.”
“Tell me this is not a marriage-ending problem.”
“You’re the one who’s changed.”
“Because, no, Caroline, that is, no, that is ridiculous. There are good reasons to make a one-time exception this year.”
“You’re depressed,” she said, “and I want you back. I’m tired of living with a depressed old man.”
Gary for his part wanted back the Caroline who just a few nights ago had clutched him in bed when there was heavy thunder. The Caroline who came skipping toward him when he walked into a room. The semi-orphaned girl whose most fervent wish was to be on his team.
But he’d also always loved how tough she was, how unlike a Lambert, how fundamentally unsympathetic to his family. Over the years he’d collected certain remarks of hers into a kind of personal Decalogue, an All-Time Caroline Ten to which he privately referred for strength and sustenance:
You’re nothing at all like your father.
You don’t have to apologize for buying the BMW.
Your dad emotionally abuses your mom.
I love the taste of your come.
Work was the drug that ruined your father’s life.
Let’s buy both!
Your family has a diseased relationship with food.
You’re an incredibly good-looking man.
Denise is jealous of what you have.
There’s absolutely nothing useful about suffering.
He’d subscribed to this credo for years and years—had felt deeply indebted to Caroline for each remark—and now he wondered how much of it was true. Maybe none of it.
“I’m calling the travel agent tomorrow morning,” he said.
“And I’m telling you,” Caroline replied immediately, “call Dr. Pierce instead. You need to talk to somebody.”
“I need somebody who tells the truth.”
“You want the truth? You want me to tell you why I’m not going?” Caroline sat up and leaned forward at the funny angle that her backache dictated. “You really want to know?”
Gary’s eyes fell shut. The crickets outside sounded like water running interminably in pipes. From the distance came a rhythmic canine barking like the downthrusts of a handsaw.
“The truth,” Caroline said, “is that forty-eight hours sounds just about right to me. I don’t want my children looking back on Christmas as the time when everybody screamed at each other. Which basically seems to be unavoidable now. Your mother walks in the door with three hundred sixty days’ worth of Christmas mania, she’s been obsessing since the previous January, and then, of course, Where’s that Austrian reindeer figurine—don’t you like it? Don’t you use it? Where is it? Where is it? Where is the Austrian reindeer figurine? She’s got her food obsessions, her money obsessions, her clothes obsessions, she’s got the whole ten-piece set of baggage which my husband used to agree is kind of a problem, but now suddenly, out of the blue, he’s taking her side. We’re going to turn the house inside out looking for a piece of thirteen-dollar gift-store kitsch because it has sentimental value to your mother—”
“And when it turns out that Caleb—”
“This is not an honest version.”
“Please, Gary, let me finish, when it turns out that Caleb did the kind of thing that any normal boy might do to a piece of gift-store crap that he found in the basement—”
“I can’t listen to this.”
“No, no, the problem is not that your eagle-eyed mother is obsessed with some garbagey piece of Austrian kitsch, no, that’s not the problem—”
“It was a hundred-dollar hand-carved—”
“I don’t care if it’s a thousand dollars! Since when do you punish him, your own son, for your mother’s craziness? It’s like you’re suddenly trying to make us act like it’s 1964 and we’re all living in Peoria. ‘Clean your plate!’ ‘Wear a necktie!’ ‘No TV tonight!’ And you wonder why we’re fighting! You wonder why Aaron rolls his eyes when your mom walks in the room! It’s like you’re embarrassed to let her see us. It’s like, for as long as she’s here, you’re trying to pretend we live some way that she approves of. But I’m telling you, Gary, we have nothing to be ashamed of. Your mother’s the one who should be embarrassed. She follows me around the kitchen scrutinizing me, like, as if I roast a turkey every week, and if I turn my back for one second she’s going to pour a quart of oil into whatever I’m making, and as soon as I leave the room she’s going to root through the trash like some fucking Food Police, she’s going to take food from the trash and feed it to my children—”
“The potato was in the sink, not the trash, Caroline.”
“And you defend her! She goes outside to the trash barrels to see what other dirt she can dig up, and disapprove of, and she’s asking me, literally every ten minutes, How’s your back? How’s your back? How’s your back? Is your back any better? How’d you hurt it? Is your back any better? How’s your back? She goes looking for things to disapprove of, and then she tries to tell my children how to dress for dinner in my house, and you don’t back me up! You don’t back me up, Gary. You start apologizing, and I don’t get it, but I’m not doing it again. Basically, I think your brother’s got the right idea. Here’s a sweet, smart, funny man who’s honest enough to say what he can and can’t tolerate in the way of get-togethers. And your mother acts like he’s this huge embarrassment and failure! Well, you wanted the truth. The truth is I cannot stand another Christmas like that. If we absolutely have to see your parents, we’re doing it on our own turf. Just like you promised we always would.”
A pillow of blue blackness lay on Gary’s brain. He’d reached the point on the post-martini evening downslope where a sense of complication weighed on his cheeks, his forehead, his eyelids, his mouth. He understood how much his mother infuriated Caroline, and at the same time he found fault with almost everything that Caroline had said. The rather beautiful wooden reindeer, for example, had been stored in a well-marked box; Caleb had broken two of its legs and hammered a roofing nail through its skull; Enid had taken an uneaten baked potato from the sink and sliced it and fried it for Jonah; and Caroline hadn’t bothered to wait until her in-laws had left town before depositing in a trash barrel the pink polyester bathrobe that Enid had given her for Christmas.
“When I said I wanted the truth,” he said, not opening his eyes, “I meant I saw you limping before you ran inside.”
“Oh, my God,” Caroline said.
“My mother didn’t hurt your back. You hurt your back.”
“Please, Gary. Do me a favor and call Dr. Pierce.”
“Admit that you’re lying, and I’ll talk about anything you want. But nothing’s going to change until you admit that.”
“I don’t even recognize your voice.”
“Five days in St. Jude. You can’t do that for a woman who, like you say, has nothing else in her life?”
“Please come back to me.”
A jolt of rage forced Gary’s eyes open. He kicked the sheet aside and jumped out of bed. “This is a marriage-ender! I can’t believe it!”
“We’re going to split up over a trip to St. Jude!”
And then a visionary in a warm-up jacket was lecturing to pretty college students. Behind the visionary, in a pixilated middle distance, were sterilizers and chromatography cartridges and tissue stains in weak solution, long-necked medicoscientific faucets, pinups of spread-eagled chromosomes, and diagrams of tuna-red brains sliced up like sashimi. The visionary was Earl “Curly” Eberle, a small-mouthed fifty-year-old in dime-store glasses, whom the creators of the Axon Corporation’s promotional video had done their best to make glamorous. The camera work was nervous, the lab floor pitched and lurched. Blurry zooms zeroed in on female student faces aglow with fascination. Curiously obsessive attention was paid to the back of the visionary head (it was indeed curly).
“Of course, chemistry, too, even brain chemistry,” Eberle was saying, “is basically just manipulation of electrons in their shells. But compare this, if you will, to an electronics that consists of little two- and three-pole switches. The diode, the transistor. The brain, by contrast, has several dozen kinds of switches. The neuron either fires or it doesn’t; but this decision is regulated by receptor sites that often have shades of offness and on-ness between plain Off and plain On. Even if you could build an artificial neuron out of molecular transistors, the conventional wisdom is that you can still never translate all that chemistry into the language of yes/no without running out of space. If we conservatively estimate twenty neuroactive ligands, of which as many as eight can operate simultaneously, and each of these eight switches has five different settings—not to bore you with the combinatorics, but unless you’re living in a world of Mr. Potato Heads, you’re going to be a pretty funny-looking android.”
Close-up of a turnip-headed male student laughing.
“Now, these are facts so basic,” Eberle said, “that we ordinarily wouldn’t even bother spelling them out. It’s just the way things are. The only workable connection we have with the electrophysiology of cognition and volition is chemical. That’s the received wisdom, part of the gospel of our science. Nobody in their right mind would try to connect the world of neurons with the world of printed circuits.”
Eberle paused dramatically.
“Nobody, that is, but the Axon Corporation.”
Ripples of buzz crossed the sea of institutional investors who’d come to Ballroom B of the Four Seasons Hotel, in central Philadelphia, for the road show promoting Axon’s initial public offering. A giant video screen had been set up on the dais. On each of the twenty round tables in the semidark ballroom were platters of satay and sushi appetizers with the appropriate dipping sauces.
Gary was sitting with his sister, Denise, at a table near the door. He had hopes of transacting business at this road show and he would rather have come alone, but Denise had insisted on having lunch, today being Monday and Monday being her one day off, and had invited herself along. Gary had figured that she would find political or moral or aesthetic reasons to deplore the proceedings, and, sure enough, she was watching the video with her eyes narrowed in suspicion and her arms crossed tightly. She was wearing a yellow shift with a red floral print, black sandals, and a pair of Trotskyish round plastic glasses; but what really set her apart from the other women in Ballroom B was the bareness of her legs. Nobody who dealt in money did not wear stockings.
WHAT IS THE CORECKTALL PROCESS?
“Corecktall,” said the cutout image of Curly Eberle, whose young audience had been digitally pureed into a uniform backdrop of tuna-red brain matter, “is a revolutionary neurobiological therapy!”
Eberle was seated on an ergonomic desk chair in which, it now developed, he could float and swerve vertiginously through a graphical space representing the inner-sea world of the intracranium. Kelpy ganglia and squidlike neurons and eellike capillaries began to flash by.
“Originally conceived as a therapy for sufferers of PD and AD and other degenerative neurological diseases,” Eberle said, “Corecktall has proved so powerful and versatile that its promise extends not only to therapy but to an outright cure, and to a cure not only of these terrible degenerative afflictions but also of a host of ailments typically considered psychiatric or even psychological. Simply put, Corecktall offers for the first time the possibility of renewing and improving the hard wiring of an adult human brain.”
“Ew,” Denise said, wrinkling her nose.
Gary by now was quite familiar with the Corecktall Process. He’d scrutinized Axon’s red-herring prospectus and read every analysis of the company he could find on the Internet and through the private services that CenTrust subscribed to. Bearish analysts, mindful of recent gut-wrenching corrections in the biotech sector, were cautioning against investing in an untested medical technology that was at least six years from market. Certainly a bank like CenTrust, with its fiduciary duty to be conservative, wasn’t going to touch this IPO. But Axon’s fundamentals were a lot healthier than those of most biotech startups, and to Gary the fact that the company had bothered to buy his father’s patent at such an early stage in Corecktall’s development was a sign of great corporate confidence. He saw an opportunity here to make some money and avenge Axon’s screwing of his father and, more generally, be bold where Alfred had been timid.
It happened that in June, as the first dominoes of the overseas currency crises were toppling, Gary had pulled most of his playing-around money out of Euro and Far Eastern growth funds. This money was available now for investment in Axon; and since the IPO was still three months away, and since the big sales push for it had not begun, and since the red herring contained such dubieties as give non-insiders pause, Gary should have had no trouble getting a commitment for five thousand shares. But trouble was pretty much all he’d had.
His own (discount) broker, who had barely heard of Axon, belatedly did his homework and called Gary back with the news that his firm’s allocation was a token 2,500 shares. Normally a brokerage wouldn’t commit more than five percent of its allocation to a single customer this early in the game, but since Gary had been the first to call, his man was willing to set aside 500 shares. Gary pushed for more, but the sad fact was that he was not a big-time customer. He typically invested in multiples of a hundred, and to save on commissions he executed smaller trades himself online.
Now, Caroline was a big investor. With Gary’s guidance she often bought in multiples of a thousand. Her broker worked for the largest house in Philadelphia, and there was no doubt that 4,500 shares of Axon’s new issue could be found for a truly valued customer; this was how the game was played. Unfortunately, since the Sunday afternoon when she’d hurt her back, Gary and Caroline had been as close to not speaking as a couple could be and still function as parents. Gary was keen to get his full five thousand shares of Axon, but he refused to sacrifice his principles and crawl back to his wife and beg her to invest for him.
So instead he’d phoned his large-cap contact at Hevy & Hodapp, a man named Pudge Portleigh, and asked to be put down for five thousand shares of the offering on his own account. Over the years, in his duciary role at CenTrust, Gary had bought a lot of stock from Portleigh, including some certifiable turkeys. Gary hinted now to Portleigh that CenTrust might give him an even larger portion of its business in the future. But Portleigh, with weird hedginess, had agreed only to pass along Gary’s request to Daffy Anderson, who was Hevy & Hodapp’s deal manager for the IPO.
There had then ensued two maddening weeks during which Pudge Portleigh failed to call Gary back and confirm an allocation. Online buzz about Axon was building from a whisper to a roar. Two related major papers by Earl Eberle’s team—“Reverse-Tomographic Stimulation of Synaptogenesis in Selected Neural Pathways” and “Transitory Positive Reinforcement in Dopamine-Deprived Limbic Circuits: Recent Clinical Progress”—appeared in Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine within days of each other. The two papers received heavy coverage in the financial press, including a front-page notice in the Wall Street Journal. Analyst after analyst began to flash strong Buys for Axon, and still Portleigh did not return Gary’s messages, and Gary could feel the advantages of his insiderly head start disappearing hour by hour …
1. HAVE A COCKTAIL!
“… Of ferrocitrates and ferroacetates specially formulated to cross the blood-brain barrier and accumulate interstitially!”
Said the unseen pitchman whose voice had joined Earl Eberle’s on the video sound track.
“We also stir in a mild, non-habit-forming sedative and a generous squirt of Hazelnut Moccacino syrup, courtesy of the country’s most popular chain of coffee bars!”
A female extra from the earlier lecture scene, a girl with whose neurological functions there was clearly nothing in the slightest wrong, drank with great relish and sexily pulsing throat muscles a tall, frosty glass of Corecktall electrolytes.
“What was Dad’s patent?” Denise whispered to Gary. “Ferroacetate gel something-something?”
Gary nodded grimly. “Electropolymerization.”
From his correspondence files at home, which contained, among other things, every letter he’d ever received from either of his parents, Gary had dug out an old copy of Alfred’s patent. He wasn’t sure he’d ever really looked at it, so impressed was he now by the old man’s clear account of “electrical anisotropy” in “certain ferro-organic gels” and his proposal that these gels be used to “minutely image” living human tissues and create “direct electrical contact” with “fine morphologic structures.” Comparing the wording of the patent with the description of Corecktall at Axon’s newly renovated Web site, Gary was struck by the depth of similarity. Evidently Alfred’s five-thousand-dollar process was at the center of a process for which Axon now hoped to raise upward of $200 million: as if a man didn’t have enough in his life to lie awake at night and fume about!
“Yo, Kelsey, yuh, Kelsey, get me twelve thousand Exxon at one-oh-four max,” the young man sitting to Gary’s left said suddenly and too loudly. The kid had a palmtop stock-quoter, a wire in his ear, and the schizophrenic eyes of the cellularly occupied. “Twelve thousand Exxon, upper limit one zero four,” he said.
Exxon, Axon, better be careful, Gary thought.
2. PUT ON A HEADSET & TURN ON THE RADIO!
“You won’t hear a thing—not unless your dental fillings pick up ball games on the AM dial,” the pitchman joked as the smiling girl lowered onto her camera-friendly head a metal dome reminiscent of a hair dryer, “but radio waves are penetrating the innermost recesses of your skull. Imagine a kind of global positioning system for the brain: RF radiation pinpointing and selectively stimulating the neural pathways associated with particular skills. Like signing your name. Climbing stairs. Remembering your anniversary. Thinking positively! Clinically tested at scores of hospitals across America, Dr. Eberle’s reverse-tomographic methods have now been further refined to make this stage of the Corecktall process as simple and painless as a visit to your hairstylist.”
“Until recently,” Eberle broke in (he and his chair still drifting through a sea of simulated blood and gray matter), “my process required overnight hospitalization and the physical screwing of a calibrated steel ring into the patient’s cranium. Many patients found this inconvenient; some also experienced discomfort. Now, however, enormous increases in computing power have made possible a process that is instantaneously self-correcting as to the location of the individual neural pathways under stimulation …”
“Kelsey, you da man!” young Mr. Twelve Thousand Shares of Exxon said loudly.
In the first hours and days following Gary’s big Sunday blowout with Caroline, three weeks ago, both he and she had made overtures of peace. Very late on that Sunday night she’d reached across the demilitarized zone of the mattress and touched his hip. The next night he’d offered an almost-complete apology in which, although he refused to concede the central issue, he conveyed sorrow and regret for the collateral damage he’d caused, the bruised feelings and willful misrepresentations and hurtful imputations, and thus gave Caroline a foretaste of the rush of tenderness that awaited her if she would only admit that, regarding the central issue, he was in the right. On Tuesday morning she’d made an actual breakfast for him—cinnamon toast, sausage links, and a bowl of oatmeal topped with raisins arranged to resemble a face with a comically downturned mouth. On Wednesday morning he’d given her a compliment, a simple statement of fact (“You’re beautiful”) which, although it fell short of an outright avowal of love, did serve as a reminder of an objective basis (physical attraction) on which love could be restored if she would only admit that, regarding the central issue, he was in the right.
But each hopeful overture, each exploratory sally, came to naught. When he squeezed the hand she offered him and he whispered that he was sorry that her back hurt, she was unable to take the next step and allow that possibly (a simple “possibly” would have sufficed!) her two hours of soccer in the rain had contributed to her injury. And when she thanked him for his compliment and asked him how he’d slept, he was powerless to ignore a tendentious critical edge in her voice; he understood her to be saying, Prolonged disturbance of sleep is a common symptom of clinical depression, oh, and, by the way, how did you sleep, dear? and so he didn’t dare admit that, as a matter of fact, he’d slept atrociously; he averred that he’d slept extremely well, thank you, Caroline, extremely well, extremely well.
Each failed overture of peace made the next overture less likely to succeed. Before long, what at first glance had seemed to Gary an absurd possibility—that the till of their marriage no longer contained sufficient funds of love and goodwill to cover the emotional costs that going to St. Jude entailed for Caroline or that not going to St. Jude entailed for him—assumed the contours of something terribly actual. He began to hate Caroline simply for continuing to fight with him. He hated the newfound reserves of independence she tapped in order to resist him. Especially, devastatingly hateful was her hatred of him. He could have ended the crisis in a minute if all he’d had to do was forgive her; but to see mirrored in her eyes how repellent she found him—it made him crazy, it poisoned his hope.
Fortunately, the shadows cast by her accusation of depression, long and dark though they were, did not yet extend to his corner office at CenTrust and to the pleasure he took in managing his managers, analysts, and traders. Gary’s forty hours at the bank had become the only hours he could count on enjoying in a week. He’d even begun to toy with the idea of working a fifty-hour week; but this was easier said than done, because at the end of his eight-hour day there was often literally no work left on his desk, and he was all too aware, besides, that spending long hours at the office to escape unhappiness at home was exactly the trap his father had fallen into; was undoubtedly how Alfred had begun to self-medicate.
When he married Caroline, Gary had silently vowed never to work later than five o’clock and never to bring a briefcase home at night. By signing on with a mid-sized regional bank, he’d chosen one of the least ambitious career paths that a Wharton School M.B.A. could take. At first his intention was simply to avoid his father’s mistakes—to give himself time to enjoy life, cherish his wife, play with his kids—but before long, even as he was proving to be an outstanding portfolio manager, he became more specifically allergic to ambition. Colleagues far less capable than he were moving on to work for mutual funds, to be freelance money managers, or to start their own funds; but they were also working twelve-or fourteen-hour days, and every single one of them had the perspiring manic style of a striver. Gary, cushioned by Caroline’s inheritance, was free to cultivate nonambition and to be, as a boss, the perfect strict and loving father that he could only halfway be at home. He demanded honesty and excellence from his workers. In return he offered patient instruction, absolute loyalty, and the assurance that he would never blame them for his own mistakes. If his large-cap manager, Virginia Lin, recommended upping the percentage of energy stocks in the bank’s boilerplate trust portfolio from six percent to nine percent and Gary (as was his wont) decided to leave the mix alone, and if the energy sector then proceeded to enjoy a couple of banner quarters, he pulled his big ironic I’m-a-jerk grimace and publicly apologized to Lin. Fortunately, for each of his bad decisions he made two or three good ones, and in the history of the universe there had never been a better six years for equities investment than the six years he’d run CenTrust’s Equities Division; only a fool or a crook could have failed. With success guaranteed, Gary could then make a game of being unawed by his boss, Marvin Koster, and by Koster’s boss, Marty Breitenfeld, the chairman of CenTrust. Gary never, ever kowtowed or flattered. Indeed, both Koster and Breitenfeld had begun to defer to him in matters of taste and protocol, Koster all but asking Gary’s permission to enroll his eldest daughter in Abington Friends instead of Friends’ Select, Breitenfeld buttonholing Gary outside the senior-executive pissoir to inquire if he and Caroline were planning to attend the Free Library benefit ball or if Gary had spun off his tickets to a secretary …
3. RELAX—IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD!
Curly Eberle had reappeared in his intracranial desk chair with a plastic model of an electrolyte molecule in each hand. “A remarkable property of ferrocitrate/ferroacetate gels,” he said, “is that under low-level radio stimulation at certain resonant frequencies the molecules may spontaneously polymerize. More remarkably yet, these polymers turn out to be fine conductors of electrical impulses.”
The virtual Eberle looked on with a benign smile as, in the bloody animated moil around him, eager waveforms came squiggling through. As if these waves were the opening strains of a minuet or reel, all the ferrous molecules paired off and arranged themselves in long, twinned lines.
“These transient conductive microtubules,” Eberle said, “make thinkable the previously unthinkable: direct, quasi-real-time digital-chemical interface.”
“But this is good,” Denise whispered to Gary. “This is what Dad’s always wanted.”
“What, to screw himself out of a fortune?”
“To help other people,” Denise said. “To make a difference.”
Gary could have pointed out that, if the old man really felt like helping somebody, he might start with his wife. But Denise had bizarre and unshakable notions of Alfred. There was no point in rising to her bait.
4. THE RICH GET RICHER!
“Yes, an idle corner of the brain may be the Devil’s workshop,” the pitchman said, “but every idle neural pathway gets ignored by the Corecktall process. Wherever there’s action, though, Corecktall is there to make it stronger! To help the rich get richer!”
From all over Ballroom B came laughter and applause and whoops of appreciation. Gary sensed that his grinning, clapping left-hand neighbor, Mr. Twelve Thousand Shares of Exxon, was looking in his direction. Possibly the guy was wondering why Gary wasn’t clapping. Or possibly he was intimidated by the casual elegance of Gary’s clothes.
For Gary a key element of not being a striver, a perspirer, was to dress as if he didn’t have to work at all: as if he were a gentleman who just happened to enjoy coming to the office and helping other people. As if noblesse oblige.
Today he was wearing a caper-green half-silk sport coat, an ecru linen button-down, and pleatless black dress pants; his own cell phone was turned off, deaf to all incoming calls. He tipped his chair back and scanned the ballroom to confirm that, indeed, he was the only male guest without a necktie, but the contrast between self and crowd today left much to be desired. Just a few years ago the room would have been a jungle of blue pinstripe, ventless Mafiawear, two-tone power shirts, and tasseled loafers. But now, in the late maturing years of the long, long boom, even young suburban galoots from New Jersey were buying hand-tailored Italian suits and high-end eyewear. So much money had flooded the system that twenty-six-year-olds who thought Andrew Wyeth was a furniture company and Winslow Homer a cartoon character were able to dress like Hollywood aristocracy …
Oh, misanthropy and sourness. Gary wanted to enjoy being a man of wealth and leisure, but the country was making it none too easy. All around him, millions of newly minted American millionaires were engaged in the identical pursuit of feeling extraordinary—of buying the perfect Victorian, of skiing the virgin slope, of knowing the chef personally, of locating the beach that had no footprints. There were further tens of millions of young Americans who didn’t have money but were nonetheless chasing the Perfect Cool. And meanwhile the sad truth was that not everyone could be extraordinary, not everyone could be extremely cool; because whom would this leave to be ordinary? Who would perform the thankless work of being comparatively uncool?
Well, there was still the citizenry of America’s heartland: St. Judean minivan drivers thirty and forty pounds overweight and sporting pastel sweats, pro-life bumper stickers, Prussian hair. But Gary in recent years had observed, with plate-tectonically cumulative anxiety, that population was continuing to flow out of the Midwest and toward the cooler coasts. (He was part of this exodus himself, of course, but he’d made his escape early, and, frankly, priority had its privileges.) At the same time, all the restaurants in St. Jude were suddenly coming up to European speed (suddenly cleaning ladies knew from sun-dried tomatoes, suddenly hog farmers knew from crème brûlée), and shoppers at the mall near his parents’ house had an air of entitlement offputtingly similar to his own, and the electronic consumer goods for sale in St. Jude were every bit as powerful and cool as those in Chestnut Hill. Gary wished that all further migration to the coasts could be banned and all midwesterners encouraged to revert to eating pasty foods and wearing dowdy clothes and playing board games, in order that a strategic national reserve of cluelessness might be maintained, a wilderness of taste which would enable people of privilege, like himself, to feel extremely civilized in perpetuity—