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Said and Done


By the Same Author Broken Fever The Lost Girl


SAID and DONE stories

James Morrison

Black Lawrence Press New York


Black Lawrence Press www.blacklawrence.com

Executive Editor and Art Director: Colleen Ryor Managing Editor: Diane Goettel Book Design: Steven Seighman and Colleen Ryor Copyright © 2009 James Morrison All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher: Black Lawrence Press 8405 Bay Parkway C8 Brooklyn, N.Y. 11214 U.S.A. Published 2009 by Black Lawrence Press, a division of Dzanc Books First edition 2009 ISBN-13: 978-0-9815899-0-9 Printed in the United States

Some of these stories have appeared in different form in the following publications: “The Great Men,” Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly; “Stalker,” Ploughshares; “Close Calls,” Florida Review; “Two Days,” Other Voices; “Washing Up,” Crescent Review; “Help,” North Dakota Quarterly; “The Fullness of Time,” Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or events is entirely coincidental.


CONTENTS

11. The Great Men 41. Stalker 65. Close Calls 85. The Bottom of My Heart 124. Two Days 133. Washing Up 148. Help 171. The Fullness of Time 200. Rubber Soul Error


Dedicated to Charles Baxter, and in memory of Daniel Hughes (1929-2003)


Man is the being who cannot get out of himself, who knows others only in himself and, if he denies it, lies.

—Marcel Proust


THE GREAT MEN

O

n the worst day it could happen this blue Volvo pulled up to the Memorial and a guy got out who looked just like my own son, ten years from now. That morning my wife had left for Boston where my boy Andy, nineteen, was in a – what do the cognoscenti call them these days? – “rehab facility.” I’d spent the morning doing what I do. What I do – since you have to do something to feel at home in this world – is I care-take. I’m a caretaker, mostly, though I do also curate. I have charge of the birthplace of a Famous Artist, what the Foundation that administers it calls a “Memorial.” I always follow them religiously in matters of nomenclature, but what it really is when you get right down to the brass tacks is an old stone shack out in the woods, next to the newer shack – all brick, to show how we’ve come up in life – I get the privilege of living in, with my wife and son, in exchange for care-taking and curating the old shack. I’d spent the morning doing my rounds, raking and sweeping and taking some comfort in the affinities of these purgative acts, and just after eleven, when I saw the sun dappling the eaves and playing around the pond in that way that lets you know it ’s late morning – late enough, anyway – I figured I’d waited it out and could finally justify a swig of white whiskey. My brother makes it himself, this rotgut, and ships it to me on the sly in big Mason jars from his haven down 11


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South, so with a quick little toast in honor of him and all his good works, I’d just allowed myself a swig as a reward for sweeping, and another as a reward for getting through the morning, and the second swig was inching its way down my gullet, a scorched knot of steel wool leaving behind it those little bristling filaments of pleasure and pain, when this blue Volvo pulled up. I stashed my re-capped half-empty Mason jar and took my seat on the front porch, in a wicker chair between two tubs of asters, bracing my arms behind the chair and leaning back and trying my best at a posture that would not suggest great eagerness at that exact moment to guide a tour through the Memorial, as I’m supposed to be standing ready to do at the drop of a hat whenever these people show up out of nowhere and demand it. A bad sign was that the guy – the one who looked like my son ten years from now – after slamming the door and aiming a remote at the car, which bleeped its two little high-low alarm-trills, was leafing through the pamphlet that describes these tours with a breathless overstatement evocative of the writings of a lady author from days gone by. The Foundation sends copies of this cheap little flier around, hither and yon, to drum up some interest in the off-the-beaten path Memorial, and every once in a while it does prod some hapless takers out of the poor woodwork. He wasn’t alone, this guy, but his companion, a man who carried a large notebook – another bad sign – made a beeline for the road once the car stopped, and disappeared around the bend. Meanwhile, the guy who looked like my son leaned against his Volvo like he owned the place, and he kept looking back and forth from the pamphlet to the Memorial, as if he were not having much luck squaring the picture on the flier with the real thing. Head on, and standing up, he looked a little less like my son – taller and 12


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thinner, with a look on his face that suggested a guarded, clipped intelligence, where my son’s face is broad and open, as if he were ready to be fooled whenever you got ready to fool him, if that was really what you wanted to do. But this guy wasn’t having any. He could see that what was in that picture was not the same as what was in front of his own two eyes and, wanting me to know he could see this, he furrowed his brow – dark, like my son’s – and narrowed his mouth into a wry, grim little smile, to ward off busy pranksters. He’d been fooled often enough, I could tell, to know how to head the joke off at the pass. His money was as good as anyone’s. He was a taxpayer. He came up to the porch. “Howdy,” he said.
 “How do,” I answered, matching his smile wry inch for grim inch – because you can’t let them get the better of you right off. His smiled deepened a little as he folded up the pamphlet neatly, then turned toward the Memorial and nodded in that direction. “So this is it,” he said. An unlit cigarette jutted out of his mouth – from the look of it, one of those organic brands the health nuts give themselves cancer with – and it bobbed up and down when he talked. “This is it,” I replied. “ This is where he lived – the guy who painted all the presidents.” “He did one or two. The big ones. He didn’t mess around with the small fry. Other people too, of course. Statesmen, bankers – the kind with three names, you know what I mean? The Great Men of the Age – he painted them, all right.” “Hmm.” He held the flier up, placing the idealized image side by side with the ramshackle actuality. The picture – the visual equivalent, sad to say, of that same lady author’s huffy-puffy prose style – showed the Memorial with a fancifully grand aspect, embowered in bright verdancy, 13


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nestled in a creek-chiseled valley amid loping hills. The guy raised his eyebrow at me. “Looks like it ’s seen better days.” “ Who among us has not? But that, you understand, is the artist ’s rendering. We artists have our license and we do not hesitate to take it.” He poin t e d t o t h e l i t t l e m i l l w h e e l a t t h e s i d e of the house. I n o l d e n d ay s – s o t h e s t o r y we n t – t h i s wheel ’s depen d a b l e re vo l u t i on s p ro v i d e d w h a t e ve r mec hanic al powe r t h e re w a s t o b e h ad f o r t h e Fa m o u s Ar tist and his b e n i g h t e d k i n , t r a p p e d i n a h i s t o r y m ad e quaint. These d ay s , a t a s t a n d s t i l l , w i t h t h e w a t e r t h a t made it tur n da m m e d u p a w ay s u p t h e h i l l , t h e w h e e l ’s function was p re t t y s t r i c t l y p i c t u re s q u e, a n d i t d i d n’t fare too wel l e ve n i n t h a t . “ S h o u l d n’t th a t b e s p i n n i n g around or som e t h i n g ? ” h e a s k e d , w i g g l i n g t h e fi n ge r doing the point i n g. “Maybe it can be arranged. You want a light?” He removed the cigarette from his lips and held it like a dart aimed at the world. “I’m quitting,” he said. “I don’t light them.” He folded his arms and smirked at me. “So level with me: Are we talking tourist-trap here?” I turned my palms up in a modified shrug. It was either that or indignation, which took more effort. “Six dollars,” I said, “gets you and a friend a broad glimpse of the American past. It opens up before your very eyes the charms and foibles of a lost epoch – the vistas of history. You be the judge.” Done with this two-bit oration, I settled down and rested my palms upon my knees. He looked mock-impressed. “Is that in the script, or did you make it up?” “Half and half,” I said, “which is pretty much how I do everything. It ’s in the script, which I wrote. And another thing – on the tourist-trap front –” I added, “you don’t strike me specially like a tourist.” 14


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The guy seemed a little surprised by this move. “You’re right. I’m from here.” He didn’t ask what gave him away. “But my friend, he’s a tourist – in from out west, wanting to see the sights. That ’s what he’s doing now – he got a glimpse of a New England Peppermint tree, he said – and he even told me the scientific name, Eucalyptus nova anglicanus, or something. Anyway, he went to see it up close. Me, a tree’s a tree, but he’s all into this local-color stuff, so we went to the ocean, and now we’re here.” “The ocean! And how is the ocean these days?” “I think it ’s its old self. You know, pounding surf and broad horizons and all that. And nobody else was there, with the off-season, except there was this guy sunbathing – without any pants on.” He giggled a little, then caught himself, and averted his eyes. “I didn’t know they allowed that,” he added, trying to get some ground back. “They don’t,” I said. “ That ’s real illegal. You could have made a citizen’s arrest.” I waited to see how he was going to answer, to see what it would tell me about what I was starting to think, but he didn’t say anything, just kept looking at me with that half-knowing half-smile of his. What I was starting to think – because there was something in his manner, because you can’t put these things over on me too easy, because I’m as much a guy of the nineties as the next guy of the nineties – was that maybe he and his friend were both a little bit buttoned up the left, and maybe they liked seeing this guy on the beach, sans pants, and maybe he was even thinking I ’d get a charge out of it too, after the easy jokey little man-of-the-world chat we’d been having. The other man reappeared, ambling toward us from the road, waving his arms and issuing an excited, sputtery sound. At first I thought something was up, but then I realized the man was deaf. The guy who looked like my son raised one hand and spelled something out, answering his 15


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friend with a careful precision. The deaf man used not only both hands to talk, but his whole body, while the guy who looked like my son used only the one stiff hand, moving it with slow measured concentration, having learned this language through long hard trials, obviously, out of necessity, maybe, or maybe out of love. For the other man, it didn’t seem learned – it was just the way he happened to speak. As they went on talking with their hands – the guy who looked like my son telling me with a quiet pleasure whatever his friend was telling him about the Peppermint tree – I watched them like a hawk, figuring it was going to be a rough afternoon, and hoping for a glimpse of whatever was between them. The morning Andy went to the rehab he came out of his room and said, Look: I don’t want to talk about it but you have to take me somewhere. You have to get me somewhere because I can feel some bad stuff starting. Andy was a boy of a lot of character – anyone could see that – but I was always puzzled that there was never anything of his personality on view out where you could see it. His bedroom was the bare bones: a bed, a desk, a chair. A closet. The window. Even the bedspread and the curtains had been chosen by his mother – nothing odd in that, since most boys don’t go in for that whole bag, but it would have been something, and it would have explained a lot. There was little evidence, anywhere, of hobbies, studies, passions, nothing on the walls but white paint. His room met you like a blank stare. If he got a new toy he’d play with it scrupulously for a little while, like he was trying to get to the bottom of it, and then he’d stow it away neatly, out of sight. It was as if he lived somewhere else. When he got to be twelve or thirteen, I started to worry. Was he holding back? Where were all the signs and wonders – the scattered pieces of train-set with the parenthesis-shaped tracks and the little bright green 16


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cabooses, the set of Dan Lurie junior-weights from Sears or the Hardy Boys books splayed on the floor, the Tinker toys or the Lego blocks or the ant-farms? Was he secretly hoarding it all, beyond view, these sundry items of the daily norm, these clues that, whatever else, would just have made it a little easier to figure things out – what he knew and didn’t know, what he liked and didn’t like – without having to ask? Once, down in Alabama for a visit, I got a glimpse of my nephew ’s room, a little impromptu museum of adolescent male character, packed in its ever y nook and cranny with the toys and the comic books and the sports trophies and the computer games and the Boy Scout stuff. I was struck by the big corkboard over his desk, covered with paraphernalia, all the bits and pieces, the documents of incipient manliness, these earnests of American boyhood, and when Andy turned fourteen, I got him one just like it – a red hexagonal deal, shaped like a stop sign. This is great, he said. But who’s it for? Who do you think, I said, the Phantom of the Opera? It ’s for your birthday. That ’s great, he said. But what do I do with it? Well, I answered, to start with, you put it up on the wall. It ’s a bulletin board, Andy, said my wife, his mother, Elizabeth, with the endearingly perplexed and goodhumored forbearance she practiced on him so she could get better at it with me. You put it on the wall, I went on. And then you get some tacks and you get some stuff and you put the tacks through the stuff, and they stick up there. Kapeesh? It ’s so they stay up there. And you don’t lose them. And everyone can see them. And you can keep an eye on them. Great, said Andy. He held the big corkboard in his little outspread arms, nodding vaguely as he looked down at it uneasily. Like what kinds of stuff ? he asked. 17


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Pictures, for instance. You know, photographs? He looked at me, the uneasy expression thinning out into his usual guileless smile. I don’t have any photographs! he said. I couldn’t tell if he was kidding. W hen he came out of that blank mysterious room of his, the morning he went off to the rehab, Elizabeth was doing one of those puzzles of hers, a series of Parisian scenes in jigsaw, this one of the Arch de Triomphe, and I was sitting with my back to the TV, which I do because I like the voices but not the pictures – psyching myself up for a little caretaking and curating. After Andy said what he said, I felt a hot wash of guilt: We should not have been out here, locked in these hapless ever yday self-displaying habits, while he’d been in there, thinking how to say this impossible, never-before-said thing. How could we be so much ourselves, so weighed down with sameness, how could we make it so easy in that instant for him to hate us? After he said what he said, I turned off the TV and – glimpsing his room through the open door behind him, white walls, bare floor, made bed – it occurred to me that, just maybe, he’d been right to hide it all away, whatever it was that should have been there and wasn’t. But I couldn’t stop myself. I suggested we calm down and talk about it. I told you I ’m not talking, he screamed. Isn’t that what I just said? There were lots of years to talk and we didn’t talk. Now it ’s time to do something. I just need to get myself somewhere. Can you understand that? I just need to be taken somewhere. A few more gulps of the whiskey brought the morning around considerably. The effect was of things having been turned around literally, provisionally rotated, to see if they might look any better in that position. In the yard the sun seemed to be coming in from a different direction, at odd 18


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and pleasing angles, filtered through the trees and falling in lovely speckled patches on the grass. Even the two men, now standing on the rise beyond the creek, inspecting the already blooming trout lilies and bluebells, the bloodroot and the lady-slippers, seemed to have done a psychic trade-off, changeable after all, the one who looked like my son crouching in the flora as if he had thrown off some of his sportive peevishness and taken on some of his friend’s ebullience, the deaf man still beaming beside him, but without his former over-excitement, all things malleable, and subject to redemption. As for me, I felt suddenly cheerful and expansive, delighted to have a secret of my own – the hidden fact of my growing drunkenness – and even pleased at the prospect of leading these two easy marks through the Memorial, showing off its subtle wonders. The man who looked like my son was named Russell, and his friend – as for just what kind of friend, only time would tell – was named Glenn. The deaf man was short and willowy, hair a little on the kinky side, with an Oriental cast about his face. Since I knew all too well that empty so-what stare every docent knows in an age when no exhibit can impress, I was oddly touched by Glenn’s quick delight – childlike in its knowing and scholarly way – about the exotica he was discovering in what was, after all, my own backyard. As I stood watching from an appropriate distance, Glenn rested his hand gently on Russell’s back. Now we’re getting somewhere, thought I. Russell rose from his crouch and they stood there together, signing contentedly, faces close, looking at something in Glenn’s notebook. I wondered what they were saying, what they were looking at. Then Russell glanced beyond Glenn, directly at me. Our eyes met, and in a sharp reflex, with a casual swiftness, I raised an arm over my head in a single arc, as if flagging a distant airplane, and called out, “Tour time!” 19


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We moved when Andy was nine, after the little college in Ohio where I’d been artist-in-residence decided it no longer wanted any artists residing there. During our first years at the Memorial Andy spent his time alone in the woods. An only child, he had the watchfulness of an only child, the patience and alertness, a fastidious delicacy that grows from a roughness untested because there is nobody to roughhouse with, and his time in the woods, from what I could tell about it, was a time of methodical observation, scientific discovery, as if he were out there gathering mental samples, shoring up specimens to be regarded keenly, but without surprise – because nothing in nature surprised him – and to be left to their own devices. He never brought anything home from these excursions – no abandoned nests or wounded animals – and when I asked him once what was so be-all and end-all fascinating out there in that wilderness, he had to think for a long time, with knitted brow, before he said, I like the birds. When he was ten he started out on a series of best friends, a new one every year, one boy who was all Andy talked about, and he began to spend his time away at their houses, back in the direction of civilization. On the rare occasion when they came out to our place, I could never get their names straight; to me they seemed interchangeable – boys, just boys, with freckled noses or slicked down hair, who were awfully hard to take seriously because, like anyone in that particular situation, they didn’t have an inkling yet of what was in store for them. When I’d accidentally call the current one by the name of the former one, Andy would wince deeply, and when I’d try to put everyone at ease by clowning it up, he’d behave as if I’d finally done the mortifying thing he’d been waiting all along for me to do. Hey, don’t be so uptight, you don’t deserve such a cool dad, I’d chide him later, cuffing his shoulder – a shoulder stiffened to my touch, borne up against me. Dad, he’d say, cut it out. 20


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Once when I picked him up in the suburbs at a friend’s house – prefab ranches as hard to tell apart as the kids were – he was quiet and withdrawn, even more than usual, as we drove home. I asked what was wrong, and he told me he’d just found out his friend’s parents were getting a divorce. We drove on a while in silence, and then I asked, And does that make you afraid Mom and I might get divorced – Is that it? He was staring out the window, but after I spoke he turned to face me with a mystified look. It had not occurred to him that his mother and I might be divorced; that was not the point. What was I talking about, said his silent face. Couldn’t I understand being sad for someone else? He shook his head twice and turned back to the window. Imagine that you are the Famous Artist (I began, stretching my voice out into its tour-guide version). Imagine that it is the turn of the century. But not the turn of this coming century. No indeed – the turn of a century two centuries ago. Imagine that you are the Famous Artist – except you are not yet famous. You are pre-famous – for in history, everything is what it will become – and you are a boy, nothing but a boy living in this out-of-the-way snuff mill, where you were born here in this new country, a nation so new nobody ’s quite convinced it really is a country yet, and there you are, a bright ambassador to a cheerful future. But in spite of all this newness and cheer, alas, not everything is always so rosy. After all, it is two hundred years ago, and this snuff mill is remote – thirty miles from the nearest doctor, back then – and at this point in the history of humanity, even the smallest sickness can bloom into the worst malignancy, and so it is that the Famous Artist loses his two sisters – loses them to the sniffles, to the common cold, to what today with our complicated heating systems and our handy penicillins we would pay no mind to at all – and he paints them, does 21


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the Famous Artist, when he is only fifteen, he paints his dear dead sisters, from memory. We stood in the gray light of the main room, where the portraits of the two girls hung. In the first, behind a big open book, the girl sits – sits, not sat, for as long as the Foundation pays little enough attention to the Memorial to let it carry on its thankless mission, she is sitting still, sad recipient of the Famous Artist ’s gift of the present tense. She looks with a pallid gaze beyond the book, straight out at whoever happens to be looking back from unthinkable posterity. In the second picture, the other sister stands at a high table – the very one still placed there in the hall, just beneath these portraits, a colonial deal complete with pegged mortise and tenon joints – one arm folded before her, the other braced against it at the elbow, so that her hand cups her chin with bony fingers. Both have long flowing hair, both are sallow, gaunt, weak-eyed in these poses – decked out in the garb of yesteryear – that suggest a kind of enfeebled adulthood. They are little girls playing at being maiden aunts in fancy dress, who know they will die young – you can see it in their eyes – and it is clear from the pictures that the Famous Artist ’s loving memory of them was infected by whatever he was able to grasp of their poor health. Whenever I looked at these paintings I wondered if it ’s true that when those we love die of illness, we remember them as having always been sick. I was about to voice this sensitive thought – it always went over big with the rubes – when Glenn signed something and I asked Russell what he was saying. “He says,” Russell answered, “they look like monkeys in wigs.” Russell was passing on what I said to Glenn in signs, and I wondered if he had made clear the grave significance of the paintings. Obviously not, or Glenn could not have made such a remark. Never mind the truth of the matter – what sort 22


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of man says, of two delicate dead girls, helpless victims of haphazard sickness, memorialized for all time by a brother’s love, that they look like monkeys in wigs? The only sickness these people think or care about, I thought, is their own – but that thought was so unexpected, and so vicious, it sickened me to have it, yet there it was, already had. I needed another drink. I’d had exactly the wrong amount so far – exactly the quantity that situated me on the boozer’s scale in that bad limbo between the hard-edged bile of the slightly drunk and the shapeless cheer of the very drunk. One more snort would put me over. One more belt and I wouldn’t be nursing such reflections about the maladies of yore and the illnesses of our own fallen time, and those who got them. “ What ’s this?” Russell asked. He and Glenn were kneeling at the spinning wheel across the room, where the Famous Artist ’s mother had spent the better part of her long, industrious days. “This here –” I threw off my vexation in a trice, tourguide mode again – “is what they used to call the weasel. We do not know exactly where that name derived, but it ’s interesting because what would happen was this: You’d take your big handful of cotton or wool or whatever it was, see, and you’d put it in through here, and then you’d feed it into the spinner like this –” I was pointing at the wheel’s Rube Goldberg spokes and rims and tubes and pedals and conduits and spools, interconnected in some unknowable way – “and the thing about it was, it was put together the way everything was put together back then, so you didn’t have to give it your full attention, see, and you could always be doing at least two things at once. Not like us today, with all our guff about multi-tasking: what we do is make things you don’t have to pay any attention to so you don’t have to be doing even one thing at once.” Watching Russell dutifully sign all this to Glenn, I had a fleeting thought of how very far from the 23


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script I was straying. “So anyway – say you’re spinning out your thread or whatnot and nursing your baby at the same time. Back then there was always some baby or other to be tended, and the question is – if you’re turned away, and doing what you need to do, how do you know when the spool gets full?” With a quick twist of my finger I worked the brake and it made its lovable noise. “Pop!” I said, triumphantly. “It goes pop, to let you know it ’s full. Get it? Weasel? Pop?” The charm was delayed by the signing, but when it came, they both laughed together – Glenn’s laugh surprisingly deep and toneless. “Bet you never thought you’d find out this very afternoon where that old saying came from,” I said, selfsatisfied thumbs in crooked overall straps. “Never,” said Russell. “You heard it here first.” It was, they were, going to be just fine after all, – but that damn Mason jar was calling again. “Now wait here, would you, because there’s plenty more where that came from, but I got some business and I’ ll be right back.” Every year at Andy ’s school there was a father-son sports banquet. Even before I attended one year, I knew exactly what these things would be like. They ’d roll out the tables in the multi-purpose room with their fake-wood surfaces and their polyethylene braces, paper up the tabletops with big bolts of white paper from the nurse’s station, serve up leftovers from the school lunchroom, and bring in some washed-up athlete to give a speech and autograph the tools of his trade, baseballs, footballs, hockey pucks, ten bucks a pop. That year it was baseballs – a one-time catcher from the big-leagues who was not only washed up, but whose name had been connected to some kind of graft, some shady civic dealings somewhere. The principal was probably in this guy’s pocket, I declaimed, and what this will be is a lot of 24


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bourgeois fat-asses trying to fit said asses into little kiddy chairs, so we all get to sit around and listen to this crook, this windbag, blow off steam. I was talking to Elizabeth – who, used to these tirades, told me I was mixing metaphors, wind and steam – but Andy overheard me. If you don’t want to go, he said, we won’t go. No no no no, I said, I definitely want to go. Elizabeth fussed over docile Andy a long time, trimming his eyebrows, polishing up his cheeks, working his hair into a smooth crescent over his adorable forehead – until I carped, I thought I was supposed to be the sculptor in this family! Then off we went, I unexpectedly buoyant, Andy sullen and resigned. I asked him cheerfully if any of his friends would be there, and he shrugged. The multi-purpose room was awash in fathers and sons. We took our seats, and I asked Andy if he saw anyone he knew. He looked around and shrugged again. They were all the kids in his grade, jabbering amongst themselves, but he acknowledged not a one of them, and none of them seemed to know him. I noticed a boy across the table looking at Andy, an ugly kid, thin-faced – a face like that of his father, sitting right next to him, though it was hard to say whose face was the parody of the other’s – with the rubbery nose and the misshapen lips and the eyes set too deep in puckered skin, the face of a future convict, and not too long in the future at that. After a minute Andy noticed the kid’s stare and smiled at him shyly. The kid narrowed his eyes, thrust forth the unfortunate lips, and sneered extravagantly, an expression of pure hatred. Andy ’s smile disappeared at once, and he shifted his eyes to me just as I turned away, so he would not know I’d seen this exchange. I looked toward the front of the room, where the big-league excatcher, red-faced and walrus shaped – his halcyon days long behind him – was standing amid a big circle of laughing boys. For some reason, the ex-catcher had both arms stretched up above his head, and as I watched, he began repeating a clumsy 25


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stroking motion, his face turned upward, fish-mouthed, and he kept squatting low, stooping then rising again while waving his arms, over and over. This exertion made his face even ruddier. To get Andy to look at the grotesque spectacle, I brushed my finger against his cheek – still glistening from his mother’s attentions – and I pointed. Look Panda, I said a second before remembering that he’d asked me just the year before never to use this nickname in public. As he turned his face in the direction I was pointing, he flushed, but he did not – as I’d so hoped he would – smile again. In the house I put on my windbreaker, took a few more sips of the whiskey, and then, for good measure, hid the jar in the folds of my jacket, figuring that if my young customers took any note at all of the bulge, they ’d write it off as another example of the general bulginess of my middle regions. On the answering machine there was a message from Elizabeth. The imbibed whiskey made it impossible for me to concentrate on what she was saying, even though she spoke with her usual meticulous grace. As the message played, and I listened, trying to grasp it, I pictured myself as a bright little ball, bouncing along big solid words, like at some woozy singalong – bouncing slowly enough to make sense of the words, since everything in this little fantasy was in slow motion, but unable to take them in, from my vantage point atop them. This irresistible image of myself as a ball made me give forth a husky little chuckle. The only words I could grab hold of were the ones she kept repeating, the ones meant to reassure – all right, all right, hotel ’s all right, everything’s all right. About that banquet: Andy didn’t know anything about sports, and he wasn’t interested in them, and I had no problem with that. They were just an example of what 26


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simply failed to interest him – it was not a judgment on his part – but you cannot be an American boy in this time and place – in what was still, after all, the twentieth century – without having to come up against sports, and Andy, a boy of few resentments, did not seem to mind. In sixth grade, his best friend was a first baseman in the Little League, and Andy, in the time they were pals, went to all his games. Even I showed up once, unannounced, out of a kind of bumptious curiosity, and I saw Andy standing on the sidelines, with two other boys I didn’t recognize – no surprise, since I couldn’t even recognize the ones I knew. At every play, the three of them would bounce and squeal and jump up and down like cheerleaders. I watched the game for a while from behind the bleachers, surprised by how well these kids played, amazed at the precision and surety of their movements, figuring they must have seen it on the TV, that source of all knowledge. Andy ’s friend at first base – whatever his damn name was – especially seemed to be doing an impersonation of the pros, crouching low with his hands on his knees, every so often spitting a goober in the dirt and shooting Andy a quick conspiratorial look as he scratched his crotch. This delighted Andy and his friends at the sidelines, and they laughed in high-pitched tones. Then one of the boys reached out and nipped the other’s crotch between his thumb and finger. Recoiling gleefully, the accosted boy did the same thing to his attacker while, looking on, Andy laughed helplessly, falling against the backstop while his friends raised their hands in comically menacing nipping motions. Standing off against helpless Andy – who, I noticed, was wearing the new blue jeans we’d just bought him – they lunged at his crotch as he went on screaming with laughter, nipping back at them, awkwardly aiming with his own scissored hands. I tried to concentrate on the game while all this went on, reminding myself that the play of my son and his friends was also just 27


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a game, a less orderly version of what was going on on that groomed, sandy diamond behind them. As soon as Andy saw me, he stopped laughing and stiffened up. He held up his hand – the one he’d been nipping the other boys’ crotches with – and he waved at me. After I smiled and waved back, he turned his attention to the game, watching soberly. When he got home that night, his mother was out, and we sat silently in front of a comedy show on TV for a while before I said: You know, you shouldn’t let those other guys pinch you in the balls like that. He was eating crackers, saltines, and he’d just taken a bite out of one. He looked at me. What? I was looking at the TV – the laugh track bugged me so I thought maybe the pictures would help. You shouldn’t let those guys pinch you in the nuts like that, I repeated. Chewing, he looked at the uneaten saltine-half he was holding. He put it into his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. Neither of us said anything else. The laugh track went on dribbling. This was when he was thirteen. “Have we been minding our manners? Have we been keeping our hands to ourselves?” I twittered jovially, bursting through the door of the Memorial. Russell gave me a look of mild but growing concern. They stood in front of the fireplace, looking at two of the Famous Artist ’s best-known portraits of the Great Men. The portraits were unfinished, and the Great Men had looks of starched dignity about them, faces blooming with pink in semi-profile, eyes discreetly askance, thin glossy lips pursed. Still, despite all the high mightiness, they couldn’t help but look a little ridiculous, these Great Men, not only because of the trappings of their troubled era, the wigs and the powders and the high collars and all, but because the portraits were unfinished. One of the pictures 28


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stopped, just stopped, whammo, a little below the chin, rudely truncated, and the Great Man depicted therein had a pained but knowing look in his eyes, as if – right beyond the realm of the visible – he’d just been caught with his pants down. The adjacent portrait was more complete, but part of the head was yet to be – and never to be – finished. Beside a cone of silvery-gray hair, there was nothing beyond this Great Man’s right ear, which floated in blank space, suspended, stranded there on the canvas like a broken shell on an abandoned beach. Ignoring Russell’s look, I relaunched into my shtick. When he saw that I’d returned, Glenn looked up happily. He glanced at Russell for some kind of confirmation, but I was pleased to see he was not taking his cues entirely from that quarter, and went on smiling. I admired his independence, just as I was starting to admire his mysterious relationship to sound, not as something that excluded him horribly – though it did – but simply as a source of potential interest. Glenn nudged Russell to get him to sign what I was saying about the Great Men, and it was only then – when Glenn nudged Russell – that I saw he’d unzipped his jacket, and that there was, underneath, a T-shirt, showing two Asian men kissing, and a slogan – Read My Lips. W hat I was telling them was about the system of patronage of the Famous Artist ’s day, about how the Famous Artist flew the proverbial coop of the humble little snuff mill where he’d spent his formative years, about how he’d gone to Europe to study and met all the crowned heads of the old wor ld, about how he’d eventually come back to live out his days, painting the Great Men of the so-called new wor ld. “Are you okay?” asked Russell. I was leaning against the fireplace, supporting myself with one hand. It was true that a dizziness had come over 29


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me. I looked from Russell, whose concern was turning into suspicion, to Glenn, who was still smiling his broad, open grin. “ Why do you ask?” My voice was gruff. “Well, because you’re acting like maybe something’s wrong.” “Oh, there are all sorts of ways to act.” I leaned back, waiting for the floor to right itself. “It ’s a wide world, Russ,” I went on, “with lots and lots of room in it for all the different sorts and types.” I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, opened them again. “You don’t mind if I call you Russ, do you, Russ? It ’s less formal. I like its…monosyllabic sonorities.” I was starting to slur, and I always used bigger words when that happened, to keep myself on my toes. “I mean, heck, we all have our little preferences, right?” Russell’s expression seemed quizzical and somehow defiant. He did something with his head that was sort of like nodding, as Glenn watched him. “Go ahead,” I said, noting Glenn’s expectation. “ Tell him what I said.” “He knows what you said,” answered Russell. “He can read lips. When he has to.” “So I see.” I pointed to the T-shirt with its wiseacre slogan, and seeing this, Glenn smiled again and spread out the jacket with both arms to his sides, wing-like, displaying the shirt with innocent, unembarrassed pride. It was so damn sweet I should have gotten over the whole thing right then. Russell touched his friend’s shoulder lightly, and then he said quietly, “I hope it doesn’t bother you.” His voice caught. “Me? Oh, heck no. Nothing bothers me. Why, I’m open-minded as all get-out.” I righted myself, straightened, dizziness passed, a new little lease on life, and I gestured broadly at the faces of the Great Men before us. “So here’s the Riddle,” I said. “Prizes and glory for them what gets it right, twenty lashes with a wet noodle for them what gets it 30


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wrong. As you can see, these paintings are not f inished. Who can tell us why they are not?” Glenn and Russell exchanged looks. “There’s a reason,” I went on, “and it ’s a doozy. So – what is it?” “He went blind,” said Russell, passing on to me what Glenn had signed. “A good guess,” I said. “But no.” “He died,” said Russell, his own shot at it. “Everybody dies, Russ,” I answered. “Even the immortal die – along with the immoral – and the Famous Artist, who was probably a little bit of both, did indeed die. But that is not what kept him from finishing these pictures. Nope, the order was f irst he didn’t finish them, then he died. There was no causal relation to speak of between the two events.” They gave up. I told them to mull it over, and if they were still stumped by the time we got back downstairs I would give them the answer. “Now,” I said, “up we go.” At the stairs I turned back. They were still standing by the fireplace, signing to each other intently, probably trying to decide whether to follow me or get while the getting was good. “Coming?” I leered. Why, when I think of my son and myself, do I picture us so often together in front of that damn TV? Once, when I was sitting with my back to the set – Andy watching, the news on – I heard my son mumble to himself: But they look so nice. I turned to see what was on. It was a report on a group of juvenile offenders – drug addicts and pushers, youthful thieves and murderers – being transferred due to budget cuts from one place to another. Filing out of an armored truck, they trooped past in hand cuffs, looking at the camera with a surprised and vulnerable hostility. It struck me, watching these poor boys with their anonymous, identical, unlucky auras, that Andy was right. They did look nice. 31


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I remembered this some time later, not long ago, when Andy had been out with his current friend, who was leaving for some swank prep school the next day, while Andy, little Andy, was staying right here. They ’d gone out somewhere to say goodbye, and as I was putting the lights out for bed, I heard them talking on the porch, in low voices. Instinctively I froze, my feet weighted to the floor, my hand on a light switch, and I listened, half afraid of what I might hear. I heard them talk about what they thought they ’d be doing years from now. I heard Andy tell the boy how he would miss him – how he was the best friend he’d ever have, how scared he was. I was startled by the rawness of the words, pierced by their intimacy and the whispering night-time intimacy of the long silence that followed. It occurred to me that if I was a different father and this a different time and they a boy-and-girl at the end of a date, I could have halted these conventional intimacies with an insistent flick of the porch light. But these words could not be stopped because they could not be grasped. They were being spoken on the other side of a wall. What are you afraid of, the other boy asked. Andy answered right away; he didn’t have to think about it. Being alone, he said. Alone, he had said. And then with a little bit of an ironic twang that suggested he was trying to keep from getting too soppy, he added, And not being loved. Unloved. A shameful comfort swept through me. Was it not as I had thought? Did it mean that Andy didn’t love this boy, or that he – the boy, practically a stranger to me, with his gentle voice – did not love my son? Another silence followed. Had they sensed my presence, my intrusion on their unknowable privacies? In the silence I heard a sound. It was the tender sound of like elements coming into contact, of cloth upon 32


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cloth, or maybe just of leaves brushing against other leaves. But you’re such a great guy, said this boy to my son, to console him – you’re so nice. Then another silence. Were they embracing? I imagined Andy and the boy in an embrace. I saw in my mind’s eye Andy’s small hands clasped behind the other boy ’s back, his face pressed against the other boy ’s hair. Then I heard a gentle, wise laugh – Andy ’s – and I heard my son say, in a sweet whisper, Nobody was ever loved for being nice. It was hard to say, overall, just how visitors would react to the Memorial. Some responded with wistful delight to the pathos of history, most with polite indifference, others with aggressive boredom or even disgust – the kind people feel when they think the dead past should just stay dead – and in my defensively grudging affection for the place, I’d stopped trying to figure out who would fall into which of these slots. In this racket you had to be ready for anything. But it was no mystery how most would respond to the sight of the upstairs bedrooms, because the spread up there was frankly morbid. A general impression of a pinched opulence hovered over the small, airless rooms, crammed with oaken tables, horsehair sofas, ornamented clocks, overstuffed chairs with silken cords drooping from arm to arm in the order of museum pieces, prohibiting seating. What struck people most were the photos and the tintypes. The Memorial had stayed in the Famous Artist ’s family until the present century announced itself with its smoky belch, and until then the family had followed that little known American custom that came in with the advent of photography of taking pictures of the newly deceased. A condition of the Foundation’s taking over the Memorial was that these would stay, and so along with the late works of the Famous Artist – some finished, some not – was the Wall of Corpses, including the body of the 33


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Famous Artist himself, dead around the time of the Civil War, at a ripe old age, but in an unhappy state. There was also some good old-fashioned human interest to be had up there, some welcome comic relief, and my usual strategy was to deflect attention away from the ghoulish photos to the baroque bed-warmers, the antique warming-chairs, the rope-beds – down mattresses lain across thick grids of rope that loosened by night and so had to be tightened the next morning, by pulling at the twisted strands at the foot of the bed. What well-known saying derived from this practice? Glenn and Russell did not know. “Another saying,” Russell commented. “It ’s like a Shakespeare play: full of quotations.” “The saying in question,” I informed them, with the requisite smugness, “is ‘Good Night, Sleep Tight.’” They smiled, and I expected this, but I did not expect the salaciously collusive looks they gave each other then, as if there were some private joke between them, some occulted meaning, some cryptic obscenity only they could get. I gazed at them with sour contempt as they went on signing covertly. “Can I be in on it?” I asked. They quit with the hand-flailing and looked at me. “Believe me –” Russell spoke with a self-effacing giggle – “you don’t want to know.” His face was red. I was satisfied that I still had the power to throw him off, so I smiled primly in return. With others I had to worry, but I should have known these two, half in love with easeful death, would get a big kick out of Corpse Row. Glenn was standing in front of the picture of the Famous Artist laid out in his velvet lined casket, en route to the next world, his eyes still open, his lifeless hands clutching a white carnation. Glenn’s notebook was open and I saw that he was sketching the photo in lead, his strokes quick and airy, the pencil dancing above the page, 34


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not even seeming to touch the paper, but still reproducing the picture, line by delicate line. “Didn’t you say you were an artist?” Russell asked suddenly. “Nope,” I answered. “Didn’t say it.” “Yes, you did. You said you were an artist.” Russell sputtered as if this latest outrageousness was the last straw in a bad heap. He reached into his pocket and pulled out that flier, with its fanciful sketch that no artist worthy of the name would ever claim as his own. “You said you drew this picture.” “ Wrong again, Russ. You disremember.” “But you did. You said it was artist ’s license or something.” “ You know – there ’s a stor y behind that photograph your friend is sketching so skillfull y. But, sad l y, I c an’t tell it.” “I guess there’s a story behind every little thing around here, isn’t there?” Russell said crossly. “But why can’t you tell it?” “ Well, there are several reasons, in point of fact, and one of them is I don’t know it. I don’t know the story.” Russell drew himself up with a long sigh, his patience for these gnomic utterances of mine clearly coming to its end. “If you don’t know it,” he said wearily, “then how do you know there’s a story in the first place?” “Because, like you said, Russ, there is always a story. But in this particular case, I happen to know some of it but not all of it. And the parts I know just don’t add up, no matter what, and anyway, it ’s just way too sad.” Watching Glenn draw, I felt hypnotized by the graceful strokes, and I was speaking – only half on purpose – as if in a trance. “ The truth is,” I went on, “I do happen to be an artist. Of sorts. But the other truth is I didn’t tell you that. I don’t advertise 35


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these days. My shingle’s not out. So you misunderstood me. But Glenn here – he’s the real artist.” Glenn finished his work and held up the drawing for inspection. There on the page was the Famous Artist, dead as you please, but given new life in the sketch. My head spinning, I nodded appreciatively. Then I said to Russell, “How do you say ‘talent ’ in hand-talk?” “You don’t have to,” answered Russell with a restive shrug. “I told you he can read lips. Besides, he knows he has talent. He doesn’t need you to tell him.” “But I want to.” I held out my hand experimentally, ready to sign. “Come on. Just let me tell him. Don’t ruin my fun.” Glenn looked back and forth between us. Russell slowly raised a grudging hand and went through the motions as I imitated them. After he signed the word in question, he turned to Glenn and started signing something else as I went on imitating. Answering Russell, Glenn turned to a different page of the notebook. When he held it up for display, I stopped in the middle of a word, on a letter that was a fist. Then I lowered the fist to my side. The drawing on that page was a nude study of Russell. He stood slightly sideward, against an abstract background of random, leafy forms. One of his legs was cocked, suggesting an animal about to charge. In fact, standing there in that picture, he looked for all the world like some beast from a defunct mytholog y – something like a centaur, though not, on second thought, a centaur. Despite the brute connotations, his arms were delicately folded, his head bowed in a condition of inwardness, suggesting passivity. The genitals were lovingly detailed. “Interesting,” I said, nodding very slowly. “ Very interesting.” Russell’s arms were folded just as they were in the picture, his thin smile brazen yet subtly triumphant. I 36


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wanted him gone. I wanted them both gone. I turned to the stairway, a narrow spiral of rock grooved through stone. “So,” I said, leading them down, “how are we doing on our little riddle?” When we reached the bottom of the stairs, we were standing in the shop where, back in the day, the snuff was made. There was plenty to see here, plenty to show, the makeshift mortar where the tobacco was ground to a fine pulp, its pestle rotated automatically, in those days of yore, by the mill wheel, the drying-cove where they kept the pigs’ bladders they used to ship the snuff back to England, inside which it somehow retained the right texture as it made its way across the ocean. There was all of this and much, much more, but I knew they would see none of it. “How are we doing in the riddle department?” I repeated. “ Why didn’t the Famous Artist finish those pictures?” Glenn and Russell were looking around the shop with casual curiosity, but they seemed to have lost interest in the riddle. “Maybe we just need some practice,” I went on. “That it? We need to bone up on riddles? Well, here’s another one, then, just for practice – here’s another riddle.” I wanted them gone, but I knew if I waited, even if I waited only a few seconds, the feeling would pass, or become less powerful. Still, here were these words, bubbling up out of me from somewhere deep, a mixture of whiskey and bile, and I could no more stop them than I could fend off vomit. I felt these words dribbling down my chin, through my beard, like hot, ochre-colored puke, even as I smiled my sinister smile. “ What ’s the worst thing about getting AIDS?” I asked them. “ Which is the way out of here?” Russell said at once. “Come on –” I held out my arms in an impish appeal. “It ’s a joke, just a joke. Do you know what the worst thing is about getting AIDS?” Take your pick of the vile punchlines – my personal favorite: convincing your parents you’re Haitian – Russell 37


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wasn’t hearing any of them. “Yes,” he said, immediately seething with what seemed to me, right away, a pure and admirable anger. “Yes, I do.” He’d taken two steps toward me to hurl the words in my face, but now he turned back to Glenn, who looked puzzled, and he took his friend’s hand, leading him to the door. Glenn followed, obedient without question. The two men walked through the door and up the hill, one leading the other by the hand. “ Wait a minute, just wait a minute,” I called after them from the doorway. “You’re misunderstanding me again, it was just a joke.” I ran up the hill after them, staggering, muttering about second chances, picked-up pieces, clean slates. In a moment of crazed and sodden lucidity, I saw them with their backs turned toward me as they reached the rise, looming over me, severe and unyielding – peremptory as the Famous Artist ’s son, in that story I could not bear to tell them, who waited patiently in the parlor, uncompromising, refusing to speak, while upstairs his father lay in his deathbed, begging his son’s forgiveness for a sin nobody knew. I thought they were the ones who should have seemed childlike – they, withdrawing sullenly, hand in hand like boys finding their way in the dark, but as it turned out, it was me. I was the one who was failing to be what I was – a serious grownup at the tail end of his forties. They had reached their car. “ W hat are you going to do?” I asked. W hat I wanted to know was whether they were going to tip the Foundation off about the lunatic crank it had running its Memorial, but Russell looked at me blankly. “ We’re going to leave,” he said, slamming the door. Before Glenn got into the car beside him, he gave me a look from the passenger ’s side, and then, mysteriously, tapped once, firmly, on the car ’s roof with an open palm. Then they were gone.

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That morning, before Andy went to the rehab, before he said what he said, I took one look at his troubled face, clapped my hand on his shoulder to make it easier for him, and said, What is it, kid? Will I need a drink for this? Is it the end of the world? I spent the afternoon rebuilding the low stone wall running up the ridge. It was good hard labor. The Mason jar rested in a rut of the grass, empty except for a few coarse grains in a sticky puddle at the bottom, testament to the moonshine’s authenticity. Something felt unfinished. Of course, everything felt unfinished, but I had to live with that just like anyone else. As I heaved rocks and swung shovels, though, I felt there was some very specific thing that remained undone that, if done, would solve something. It was the riddle of the Famous Artist – itself a parable of finishing and not-finishing. Even those with minimal interest in the Memorial usually got some satisfaction out of the riddle, because it made sense, the kind of sense a carpenter’s joint makes when it finds its proper groove. If I’d told them the answer, there might have been that familiar moment of assent, that comforting sense of standing on common ground, as different as we were – a married man whose family was away, and two young men who for reasons of their own had refused these imperatives, marriage, family, and everything that went along with them. In the Famous Artist ’s day, the Great Men needed pictures of themselves. They needed them in order to mount them on high mantles, in places of reverence. It is safe to say that unless you were in possession of such a picture, then you could not really be, properly speaking, a Great Man. So they commissioned these pictures, these certificates of the one worth they could not provide for themselves. It was the Famous Artist alone who had the power to confer this value. 39


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And when he was done, the picture became the property of the Great Man who had called it into being. But sometimes the Famous Artist grew too fond of his own handiwork, sometimes he admired too much the deftness of his own lines, the force of his own brushstrokes, and he was loath to surrender the stirring result of his own hand. A clever fellow, the Famous Artist devised a scheme. If it was the f inished product that had to be given up – for he knew that once he fulfilled a commission, he could not stave off his commissioner – then he would, quite simply, never finish it. He would collect the handsome advance and leave the beloved piece incomplete. W ith that simple stroke he solved a myster y of ages – how to hold what you cannot bear to part with. He had learned the lesson he would take to his grave – that once he finished his heart ’s work, then it would have to find its place in the world, from which he had hoped to keep it.

40


Said and Done