Now on to Chapters 4 of the book. If this is your first time reading any of this, start here:
by Douglas Clegg
Note: Most of this is rough draft. Enjoy at your own peril.
The acreage was a bit nicer than afterbirth. I took long walks alone along woodland pathways while Chetty went off on his boat. I bicycled to the village and spent afternoons at the library or in a café. Now and then we’d drive to an estate auction so he could buy some painting for twenty grand, taking my breath away with his ability to put it all on a credit card without a second blink.
Their housekeeper – with that perfect New England name of Hester – looked to be about seventy but seemed much younger in terms of her bright eyes and quick jaw. She had known “John Robert,” as she called him, since he’d been eight years old. She’d worked for his parents in those days. The way she described it, it was as if she’d been an indentured servant to Chetty her entire adult life.
“But now, I run this place,” she told me. “I say ‘jump’, and John Robert says ‘how high?’ But that ex-wife of his, I don’t like her one bit, I’ll tell you and anybody who asks. Cold as an eel – but that’s an insult to eels.”
Chetty often made Hester a ham, cheese and butter sandwich with a bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup – her favored lunch — as if he were the servant. I rarely saw her do much cleaning up. She always hovered, eager to join conversations and elbow the ex, too.
“Hester’s family at this point,” he told me when she’d stepped out of the kitchen. “You know I hate all my relatives. She’s my one good memory from childhood. I cling to her, maybe too much.” An after-thought: “But she’s got a prickly side, too. My ex believes Hester’s a poisoner. And she just might be on to something.”
They invited six or seven friends over every other evening for dinner, and their cook – an overly-muscled young man whose gravy tended to clump – stayed late cleaning up after I went back to my little place.
At dinner, Chetty and his ex sat at opposite ends of the table from each other. He always made sure I was seated to his right so he could turn to me when the table talk bored him. Their friends were mostly financial experts or trust fund middle-agers who favored subjects like the tyranny of taxation and the latest divorces and foreclosures among the absurdly rich or else which Ivy League school someone-or-other had attended and how it had doomed them or improved their sorry lot, but Chetty and I carried on conversations half the night about music and the old days and whatever-happened-to. We could talk for four hours straight about the beautiful gloom of Beethoven, dissect the over-rated Mahler and the under-appreciated genius of the obscure professor – Mansfield the Magnificent, we’d dubbed him — who first took a shine to our tribe in college.
Chetwin would bring up that awful literature class the Conservatory foisted on us, which we’d nicknamed “The Girl Dies At the End” because it included Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Daisy Miller and others. He’d remember jokes he hadn’t told since the age of 20; and the winter trip to Vassar to visit an Interloper we’d both been smitten with; the road trip to Florida that ended on some mountain highway in Appalachia when the car Spiro borrowed died.
I had the strange feeling in these conversations that Chetty was trying to lead me to some specific memory, some subject he wanted to talk about but never could quite broach. I tried to draw it out of him. He’d get evasive, and glance over at the ex and her friends around the table and ignore me for a bit.
He never brought it up, whatever it was. We’d find ourselves alone – suddenly – the dinner party over, just the two of us gabbing on about our interests, old movies, books we’d read, whether or not there was life on Mars. Nothing serious, but I always had the feeling that he wanted to talk about some subject that bothered him.
“Is something up?” I asked one night.
“You know me so well,” he said, suddenly looking like a schoolboy who’d just been found out. “I got that feeling again. When we were young. How I miss it.”
“Ever wish you could go back and fix things?”
I shrugged. “Like what?”
“Like what we did that we didn’t even know we were doing? Like remembering people we shouldn’t have ignored back then?”
But that was as far as the conversation ventured toward whatever he held back.
I was surprised by how much I loved my old friend despite his little casual cruelties and snobberies, and how good it felt to be there, doing essentially nothing at all — and for so long.
I felt like a mascot or pet – an idler who might be valued for entertainment only, a paid companion but without the pay. Being good-natured in that environment was easy. I never felt cross when a four-course meal appeared like clockwork every evening, when outside my door there lay a swimming pool to dive into, a sailboat to launch, thousands of books to read and movies to watch, a dozen nature trails, an available car – always gassed up – and a bicycle or two to choose from.
I struck up a conversation with a woman who worked in a coffee shop in the village, we had a brief fling, didn’t go anywhere, ended within a week, never even brought her out to the house, forgot her name within a week. Chetty wanted the juicy details, but I held back mostly because there was nothing memorable about it. Now and then, during that summer, I’d take the train to Manhattan, wander museums, have lunch at Grand Central, meet a colleague for drinks and then manage to get back up for the nightly dinner ritual at Chetty’s.
I hadn’t had such a real summer since the Conservatory days. It was the freedom of being young when someone else paid the bills and just told you: “be young.” I hadn’t even had much of that in my college years, because I’d always had to work to pay what my scholarship didn’t cover.
At the Chetwins’ place, I felt rich, young, wonderful.
I grew lazy. I began to feel like Chetty’s twin and had a moment or two when I genuinely believed this life was the one I’d been meant for.
His ex-wife gave us our space; she never bothered us; never seemed to feel left out. She would leave the table but make sure the wine or gin continued to flow. She’d turn on firefly lights in the Japanese garden so we could sit out on the deck overlooking the koi pond and chatter away until nearly dawn.
I liked Chetwin’s ex very much, perhaps because she barely spoke to me; but not in any rude way. Friendly but distant, she kept to the background of things when home with Chetty. She was one of those women with whom you feel immediately familiar, but for no outward reason you can think of.
She seemed ethereal and plucky – like the harp she played. Whenever I saw her, half her pale face seemed hidden behind a shiny waterfall of long red hair, as if she were self-conscious of a scar. She seemed a spirit of the air sometimes – doing her morning exercises just seconds before sunrise, which I spied those few times I was just getting to bed when the first light rose up. She was soft and moved like a dancer. She projected a kind of lightness of being.
I watched her from varying distances on the hot afternoons. She practiced yoga on warm paving stones that rose up above the trickling pond. She swam a hundred laps every day in the long stretch of pool. She had friends over for tennis.
While reading my way through Chetty’s extensive library of pulp novels, I found a comfortable distraction in the sound of balls hitting the clay court and occasional grunts and groans from the players.
I often heard his ex playing harp in the little studio they’d built out among the weeping willows and purple butterfly bushes. She was magical with the instrument – soaring, despondent, gorgeous, somber, robust — all of it within her fingers. Her music actually drew tears out of me as I sat alone on the bench by the cottage, listening, remembering being young and loving music as she, apparently, loved music. It gave me a twinge of regret when I heard the beauty of her art; I missed the cello, I missed the days with my friends when we’d get together, all our instruments in hand, playing this absolute piece of heaven.
When the ex wasn’t away in rehearsal, she brought black tea and a small pitcher of milk in the mornings to the bench by my cottage door, along with fresh warm muffins dotted with currants and spread with raspberry jam, all wrapped up in colorful kitchen linens to keep the tray and its basket warm. She never once knocked on my door or used her morning gift as an opportunity for a private chat. She’d drop off the tray and I’d nearly be to the door to thank her. She’d flit off, and there I’d be, with my little breakfast right before me, the smell of honeysuckle and jasmine in the air. She’d leave unobtrusive but informative notes written within “Thinking of You” cards under the tea cup, like “John’s sleeping in, pool 87 degrees, no storms,” or “See you at 6, out all day, John wants to kayak,” or “Gone to Waverly, back late, use Volvo if want, keys on kitchen table, lunch in fridge.”
In essence, she seemed perfect as exes went.
I told Chetwin one afternoon while we lay out on the dock, tanning.
“Oh yeah, perfect, sure,” he said. “For somebody, just not me. And her nose.”
“Now I know why she’d divorce you.”
He laughed. “Oh, I don’t mind her nose. But she does. I’ve told her to get it fixed if it bothers her so much. It’s easy enough to do.”
“I hadn’t even noticed.”
“It’s only slightly broken. A little bump. I mean, nobody else even sees it. She can’t stand it. She had some kind of fall — a long time ago — and her nose is the one thing that never got fixed. It’s her only physical flaw, actually. But she sees it as the Continental Divide.”
I tried to imagine her nose, and wondered if that was why she’d allow her hair to fall across half her face whenever I was within a few feet of her. Even at the dinner table, her hair hung like a curtain between us.
“But I love her, broken nose and all,” he said. “And she loves me, but just not in the way you want to be loved. I guess this is a problem of music history more than anything. Harpists don’t play well with others. They work best as soloists. Not like violinists – we’re made for orgies.”
I didn’t completely understand why they’d divorced at all given their camaraderie, but Chetwin soon let me in on that one when I woke up in the middle of a rare cool July night – the digital clock by the bed read 2:15 — to find Chetty with his mouth over my prick.
I don’t need to mention the thousand and one things going through my head at that moment, or how I pulled away and he sank down to the floor and then switched on the bedside lamp and lit up a cigarette and got up to go sit in the wicker chair – wearing his aquamarine swim trunks and a blue Polo shirt — near the window and spoke in low tones about how happy he was that I’d come up, and he hoped this wouldn’t interrupt anything for my stay.
Interrupt? — I thought – the hell!
But backing up: at the Conservatory, we’d all slept with each other, at least any of us with that perfect combination of low self-esteem and enormous id coupled with egos over-bloated as if they’d been dredged from the Ganges, waterlogged and deadened and waiting for a new incarnation.
That’s where we were in our school years, studying for careers that might never happen, playing music, learning about the varieties of drugs then available, talking sex, whispering sex, getting so drunk that once I woke up with my trousers pulled down and a naked girl – some Outsider — I couldn’t remember her name and barely saw her face — slept beside me and Chetwin – yes, John Chetwin from a fine, upstanding, olde Newe Englande family that founded the entertainment empire, descended from a long line of swindlers arrived on the Mayflower — smoking a cigarette by the tiny dorm window — fondling himself as he watched us in post-coital, boozy exhaustion. His ancient Polaroid camera swung from his bare shoulders. I said something to the effect that he better not have been taking pictures of me or the girl. He said something suitably uncomfortable, and later showed me dirty pictures of one of our professors and the same girl I’d bedded.
“She’s a fucking succubus,” he said. “You’ve got to watch out for those types.”
When I was twenty, it didn’t shock or bother me that Chetty would be watching us go at it. It made me feel I was part of this intense, artistic group. We were sexual, a lot of us, and we got drunk like a tribe and once in a blue moon dropped acid like a tribe — and we were this gang of musical geniuses (we thought) — all of us, and even Alexa once gave me a hand job in the J.C. Penney’s parking lot when Don Giovanni came on the local classical station, back when we knew we didn’t much like each other.
So this new moment of sexual molestation was preceded by other ones trailing behind in our youth. I wasn’t hurt by it, nor did I mind as much as I should’ve, but the shock of it was enough – and the basic bad manners of a host surprising me like that – well, it hurt my feelings a bit.
“Look, there’s a misunderstanding here,” I said, as politely as I could be given the circumstance.
“You sound like a twat. ‘A misunderstanding?’” he grinned. “Which part did you not understand?”
“I’m not gay.”
“Of course you’re not,” he said. “If you were, I’d have had you in broad daylight, down by the boathouse yesterday.” A brief draw of smoke into his mouth and then out through his nostrils. “When I could practically see your religion through your trunks.”
Then, as if it surprised him, “Oh shit. You don’t mind, do you?”
I stared at him. As if I’d caught him cutting his toenails or picking his nose – a mildly embarrassing moment. “So you’re gay and Max Porter was – and Figaro?”
“Not Figaro. He might have been asexual I guess,” Chetwin said with a bit of a grunt for emphasis. “And I’m not genuinely gay – not like gay people are. I’m attracted to people. To beauty.”
I let his self-deception hang in the smoky air between us. I wondered if the muscular young cook could get away with lumpy gravy because of other talents.
“I just wanted to relive a bit of college. I miss those days,” he said. “Don’t you? Just the word ‘tribe’ turns me on.”
Yes, the tribe again. Always with the tribe. We had bonded and bared our youthy souls to one another, took humiliation and gave back fondness.
It was unbreakable, that chain.
After a few more words about the old days and the Conservatory, he went back to the main house.
From the safe distance of my front window, I watched the red dot of his next cigarette; he must have been sitting on one of the many front porch chairs. Thinking; smoking; wondering.
I got up and locked the door to the cottage.
In the morning, I almost thought it was a dream.
When I opened the cottage door, I found no tea tray, no muffin basket, no note from the ex.
That afternoon, Chetwin invited me out on his sailboat – a massive craft.
“I don’t love sailing alone,” he said, but I made my excuses, and he accepted them all with a slight reference to “last night’s little gaffe,” and made me feel slightly guilty for not getting over myself.
I took off — in the rental car I’d picked up the fifth week of my visit — to Essex, a town not far away. I wanted to browse some stores and consider my exit strategy now that I’d discovered Chetwin’s true motives for having me up.
On the way back, owing to a misinterpretation of a One Way sign, my rental car bumped into a Mercedes. I honestly wasn’t sure if I were at fault at all. An underweight matron — far too advanced in years for the girlish headband she wore — leapt out from the sleek black car. She began screaming at me as if I’d murdered her first-born while her schnauzer yowled and barked from the passenger seat. I spent the afternoon talking with a world-weary cop, avoiding my accuser, calling the rental company and my insurer. It all got straightened out. But her screams of my incompetence and criminal negligence echoed in my head as I sat down in a local bar for a grilled cheese sandwich and a beer.
Noticing that it was nearly six – and Chetwin’s cook had dinner waiting promptly at 6:15 every single night — I called up the house.
No one answered. I texted Chetwin, then his wife. After twenty minutes or so, she texted back,
Something happened. Terrible.
I sent this:
And got no reply.
This is where I’ll stop with The Marriage of Figaro for now. Hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far. It’s a strange story that builds to a very dark moment indeed. I’ll post news here and in my newsletter when I know the publication date.
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Check back soon. I’ll get a new chapter going of another book-in-progress up on the blog, too. (Bear in mind, I have about 12-15 books in close-to-finished stages, but I’m hoping to knock them down one after another. We’ll see!)
In the meantime, check out the various books, both upcoming and past here.
Now on to Chapters 2 & 3 of the book. If this is your first time reading any of this, start here:
by Douglas Clegg
Note: Most of this is rough draft. Enjoy at your own peril.
Despite anything we did – humiliations, stupidities, unrequited foolishness, insult and injury unaware – the tribe was the tribe.
In college – at the Conservatory – we knew we’d all become famous and make our marks in the world of music. We glued together with whim, affinity and those coincidental meetings that bond you when you’re young and credulous.
A self-styled fraternity of eccentric and sublime, some rich, some poor, all with tribal drums beating in our hearts.
There were eight of us in the tribe – Chetwin, me, Max, Diane, Figaro, Felice (or Fleas, the preferred nickname), Spiro and then Alexa.
We lived for us and us alone. We loved us, which is such a strange thing to say, but it was true.
My memory of those days became less about others and completely about the tribal We. There were others, of course. We called them by a variety of names: Invisibles, Interlopers, Satellites, Intruders. If any of them made it into our photographs, it was because they’d managed to infiltrate our ranks, briefly. Sometimes, Chetty snipped them off the photos later, the way one might cut out a divorced spouse or someone who steps into the background while you snap a picture of your family on vacation. You want to remove that outsider and only see those you want to see.
Chetwin, our unofficial photographer, never without a Nikon or Leica or Polaroid or whatever Kodak Instasomething he had in his hand at the time. Snap-snap-snap, there we were: several photo albums worth of our tribal craziness. These snapshots built a visual history for us, solidifying a sense of our group.
Figaro didn’t like getting his picture taken.
He didn’t want people to remember him. He seemed to always be vanishing, even when he was around – like that birthmark on his face – since birth, one assumed. The mark faded by the time he was twenty-one. We couldn’t figure out how it disappeared, but one day someone – maybe one of the nameless Outsiders or Interlopers – commented on it. They were always commenting on us, these spectators and observers of the tribe.
“You’re disappearing day by day,” she said to him, while we were all drinking around the little round table in Chetwin’s room.
(Yes, Interlopers were allowed in the inner sanctum now and then, if they’d slept with one of us – but not for long. Or, if we thought we could learn something from them, we’d bring them in for some inside scoop, but those instances were “rare and useless as a third tit,” in Chetwin’s words.)
All our stories of Figaro were the same: he was a bit of a freak.
Funny and bright and odd in the ways that we considered charming. He composed music and he wrote about us. He documented our joys and sorrows and recorded dreams when we remembered them.
He scratched these memoirs in diaries. Little red and blue notebooks, some black, some fake leather, some tawny brown spiral pads, nameless, bought at all-night drug stores.
Chetty called Figaro our recording secretary, The Keeper of Tribal History.
“One day, when we’re famous and too old to fuck,” Chetwin remarked, “He’ll publish them. They’ll be bestsellers. We’ll augment our fame with the in memoria of what we did in school. We’ll be reviled by puritans and beloved of libertines.”
I saw one of these notebooks in those olden days. I snatched it from Figaro, his guard down. He whined so much, I gave it back, but not until after I’d flipped through it.
He’d written the entire thing in a code of musical notation, nearly indecipherable except, perhaps, by the Tribe itself.
This, his written language — these notes, these chords, these arrangements of our history. What we did, what we dreamed, where we went, with whom we slept.
Figaro didn’t sleep with anyone in the tribe – at least, as far as I knew. He went outside of our circle. He had a penchant for Interlopers from the university exchange who tried to nudge or elbow their ways in through drink, drug or sheet.
Yes, we had groupies. We were kind of a legend at the Conservatory. Known at the other schools for our performances, our compositions, our magic with music. Our closeness made satellite tribes spread jealous rumors about orgies and excessive drug use and cultish goings-ons.
Our parties were legendary – dusk to dawn affairs, with angels and demons and every creature in between.
We were artists, after all.
By the ages of twenty-one we were the stars of our own movie, our own soap opera — our own opera, even — with our fiddles and pianos and cellos and bassoons and piccolos and theories about art and life and the death of music and how we would revolutionize it. We despised the voice students, looked down on the music education scholars and those brief transfer students from the local colleges who invaded our rehearsal rooms and lecture halls winter term.
We spoke in grand terms; we didn’t waste time with the minutiae of news or politics or crap art.
We felt successful without having actually done anything. In our classes, we were told we were the best and the brightest. Our mentor-professors praised us to the skies. One such mentor wept when we gathered to give a performance of an original work. He begged us to never lose our vision. Local papers wrote up our concerts and recitals. We were the soloists. We were the winners of regional competitions. We were the elite.
The Conservatory was our crucible – this place was world-renowned at the time and had produced great and near-great and those-never-heard-of-again. The auditions to get in were brutal – talent and magic were all that mattered. And we had it, the eight of us.
We were on fire.
It was incredibly exciting and debilitating, all at once.
Figaro didn’t live at the center of the tribe, but in its periphery. Still, he was part of us, he existed in the essential we.
Tall and lanky, Figaro had the body of a toned greyhound — this, I saw in the showers. His muscled sinews surprised and shamed me. The rest of us had no genuine athleticism.
His nose, a steep cliff thrust out over a flat line of lip. Black eyes. Uneven teeth – which, according to Chetwin — meant his family had no money. This mattered only to Chetwin, who took to moneyed people like anyone else might take to coffee or chocolates.
Figaro’s hair, in his late teens and early twenties, defined our sense of Figarosity. We all had good hair then, but Figaro had a rain forest canopy of locks. Thick and black was this Amazonian jungle, copious and undisciplined, obscuring sixty percent of his face. He seemed in perpetual hiding from the world behind it.
He was handsome in a hidden way, a shaded grotto – a secret beauty, that’s what Chetwin called him — ironically — when we were twenty, and then not so ironically later.
A secret beauty.
And of all the tribe, Figaro was the person we knew least – at least on the inside. We guessed things about him from clues in his face, his expression, the slump of his shoulders.
And his music! Theory and practice and soul! That kid was so into music that he was music. He excelled at composition, counterpoint and harmony in ways I never understood. He didn’t just play Berlioz and Copland and Stravinsky – he possessed them. He angered his teachers; he argued with conductors; he once took a trumpet from some poor guy and flung it across the orchestra hall. He had days of madness, said things that made no sense to any of us, all-nighters with coffee and cigarettes and a piano. I once found him asleep in the catacombs of practice rooms, his body curled around his violin as if it were his lover. Always rehearsing, always banging it out on whatever instrument he chose to pick up; or scribbling in his composition books, arranging music, events, life. He could murder a violin – anything, classical, rock, jazz. We all thought that given his intensity and weirdness he’d go on to be one of the great violinists – or else end up in the subway, playing for nickels.
Either extreme, he’d fit right in.
He also had a bent towards petty crime, and by that I mean: he stole your secrets and hoarded them.
Those tribal councils took place in the days when we all thought we’d have big careers as artist-musicians.
I dropped the cello by twenty-nine to become a sound engineer-for-hire on audiophile recordings and made a decent living at this. My cello lay in its case in the back of a variety of closets, depending on how often I moved apartments.
Diane ended up in the music department of a major online booksellers’ and was its vice president by the age of thirty-two. Fleas became a Junior High teacher right after the Conservatory. Chetwin worked for the Devil – as he called his father, who ran an entertainment empire – but also had gallery shows for his photographs of rich people doing trivial things in expensive places. (That was actually the name of the show that took London by storm: “Rich People Doing Trivial Things in Expensive Places.”) Spiro and Alexa became famous in ways that none of us imagined possible for two people who could clear a room with their non-entities. They wrote and sang hit songs and practically lived on television– you probably remember them; if not, all the better for you.
None of us quite knew where Figaro landed – so to speak – in the sweepstakes of success or failure. He stayed away from us after graduation. Sometimes, in the subway, I expected to hear him playing Sibelius or Stravinsky – or even Turkey in the Straw.
His college roommate Max Porter became a piano salesman – and killed himself.
That was the third occasion to which we flocked as a tribe, after a couple of half-sad little reunions in which most of us began to acknowledge that music was no longer our primary language.
We gathered around at Max’s sister’s place in Greenwich Village for a “friends only” memorial meet-and-greet – and an informal post-mortem.
We reminisced about our recently washed-away youths when we were all stupid and bright-eyed and believed in what came next. Max rarely came up in that first hour of his own funeral party. To speak of him too much was to kill him all over again.
Spiro and Alexa showed up–a pair of genderless twins with geometro haircuts and a drizzly way of speaking, like half-wits or tabloid celebrities. They no longer looked real. Their faces, smooth and shiny as bone china. They made sure to show up for any and all reunions since they’d hit it big.
Alexa gave a bravura performance by opening up her phone every few minutes and turning to us to say, “Excuse me, just a second, it’s Sony,” or “Oh god, it’s that awful woman from Disney.”
Chetwin — who referred to them as “the Royal ‘It’ — clutched a little silver camera and took pictures of pouty Alexa, Max’s sister with her tray of sandwiches and the various Interlopers from the past. He snapped photos of everyone there, sometimes in secret and sometimes as a formal proposal.
“For my rogue’s gallery,” he said to me. “You don’t mind, I assume.”
“Snap-snap,” Spiro said. “There he goes.”
“Chetty and his camera,” Alexa said, as if she were witty.
Fleas – spindly and overdressed — stood nearest the door as if she’d planned a quick exit. She still had that luxuriantly scrunchy hair, combed back by her toothpick fingers.
“She’s twitchy,” Chetwin whispered to me. “I’m guessing an amphetamine drip.”
Within twenty minutes I wanted to leave, but felt the weight of Max’s life, stones on my chest. Imagined him in his final river, face down. I puzzled out his likeness within his sister’s face. I saw his ears, nose and chin in some distant cousin who hovered near the sour cream and onion dip.
I remembered Max at twenty-one – rounded and perpetually grinning, that flop of thick genius hair always hanging down to cover one of his eyes, nearly buzzed in back at his neck, the way he kind of bounced on his heels when he walked.
This retrieved the memory of a particular night. He made us all feel ennobled and perfect as he hammered out a composition on the piano in a gray practice room, hair flying, chin jutting, fingers stretched to the limit as he reached for remarkable chords.
It was a kind of grand mad waltz mingled with experimental rhythms. The music had been dedicated to the tribe. It was about us and where we would go and how we would become.
Figaro had hated it; they’d argued all night, at the bar, at the bistro, back in our rooms, to the point that Max grabbed some original composition of Figaro’s and proceeded to lampoon it while we all sat around, drunk, wondering if this would send Figaro off the deep end.
Instead, Figaro laughed, agreed with Max, called himself a “poor excuse for a musician.”
Now, poor Max, dead. Figaro was nowhere to be found.
Diane swept in late, whispering to a scruffy teacup-sized Maltese, its fluffy white head just poking up from a wide-mouthed purse. Diane had gotten chubby, but the upside — according to Chetwin, who leaned into me to whisper– the girth gave her “massive Gibraltars,” and “she’s still got eat-me eyes — agree or no?”
A few minutes later — again leaning so close I could smell his disruptive nature – Chetty whispered, “What if I fucked Max’s sister, later? On that crappy green sofa. She’s not half-bad. Knobby knees and all. It would be almost like fucking Max.”
He noticed my expression. “You look like a hypertensive virgin.”
“You’re being inappropriate,” I whispered.
“Of course I am,” he whispered back.
I scanned the room, face to face. Everyone crammed in, strangers, Interlopers, Outsiders — and us.
I suspect someone else heard Chetty’s caustic whispers, because the room went silent for a brief flickered second.
We watched Max’s sister as she served little tuna and American Cheese sandwiches on the kind of bread that crunched when you bit down. She skimped on the mayo but made up for it with liquor in tall frosty glasses.
She apologized for the lack of chairs, and finally – after midnight when we’d all gotten shit-faced on cheap vodka – John Chetwin said, loud and clear, “I think Max made the leap because of the prophecy.”
Chetwin hadn’t really changed much in the intervening years since I’d last seen him. Snotty and endearing as ever. My mother met him once when we were in school; called him arrogant but had nearly fallen in love with him. He inspired that sort of thing – women hating him and loving him, men wanting to have what he had and never be more than a whisper away from him.
It was hard work hating Chetty for very long. Handsome, rich, magnetic and unfiltered buys you a lot of friends. I had instant empathy with him when we met freshman year, even while he dismantled my ego and the way I spoke (“Midwestern twang by way of North Carolina,” he told me, too accurately).
Some people just have it – a charm that bridges even the worst insult.
He liked taking pictures, money, and himself – as he had ever been, so he continued.
When asked – during a murmuring moment – Chetwin elaborated on Max’s demise among our tribal circle. All any of the rest of us knew was that it involved a river.
Max had jumped off a one-lane bridge in Port Van Eyck in upstate. He’d been driving the piano truck from his shop. The truck was empty. A foggy night. He just stopped midway on the bridge and jumped, Chetwin informed us.
“Bit of a double tragedy. The truck — parked on the one-lane bridge. A motorcycle smashed into it.”
A dead silence overcame the room. Chetwin took a sip of his drink. Everyone watched him.
“The motorcyclist was a college boy,” he said, as if this detail might fascinate us. “Driving too fast in the fog. He didn’t die. Just nearly lost an arm and got scraped up. A junior at Bard. A film studies major.”
While I wanted to ask what ‘nearly lost an arm,’ meant, the topic of film studies interrupted Spiro and Alexa’s silence.
“Remember film class?” Spiro asked.
“God, I hated it,” Diane said. “All the electives sucked.”
“And poor Mansfield,” Fleas said. “I mean, later.”
“Oh, god,” Diane whispered, nodding, closing her eyes for a second. “I forgot all about that.”
“But wasn’t Mansfield brilliant?” Spiro ignored Diane. “Watching The Go-Between four times. Julie Christie.”
“Alan Bates,” Alexa said.
“Julie Christie,” Spiro said, softly.
“Cries and Whispers,” Alexa said. “Garden of the Finzi-Continis.”
“The Damned,” Spiro said with a child-like adoration. “Charlotte Rampling.”
“Charlotte Rampling.” Alexa nodded, as if recalling a vision of the Virgin Mary.
The two of them noticed the glares around the room. Alexa leaned her head against Spiro’s shoulder, closing her eyes, shutting us all out.
“People never change,” Diane whispered, so quietly I barely heard her.
But Spiro and Alexa’s brief conversation dredged up an old and arbitrary memory for me: sitting in film class junior year. We had to take a certain number of classes outside the Conservatory’s usual music theory and practice. Watching movies in an auditorium was an easy A, and sometimes I managed a nap during a particularly long Norwegian or German film.
My recall was crystal clear; I felt transported. Some brief fling of a girl sat beside me. We held hands like kids while a film flickered by.
In front of us, the back of Max’s head, all clean-cut and perfect. He turned around once during the movie and looked at us. Combed his magnificent flop of genius hair away from his forehead.
“If this movie goes any slower,” he said. “It’ll run backwards.”
The girl laughed – rather sweetly – but I remember her hand dropping out of mine at that moment. I felt Max had jinxed us in some way. I remember quite sharply wishing him dead at that moment, back at the age of 20 or 21, back when a word like “death” didn’t mean the same thing it would when Max was truly dead.
Beyond us, the dusty light from the projector, the sense of a dozen students seated not far from us, the luminous screen at the front of the auditorium.
On screen, a beautiful young French actress in close up, then a distance shot, a rustic cottage behind her at the edge of the woods, a reedy pond.
She carries a little empty bird cage in her hand.
Its door, open.
Is she weeping, or are those merely droplets of rain? The top branches of trees wave slowly with an approaching summer storm. Rain disturbs the pond’s surface. Her reflection in the water shimmers and blurs. A small dead bird floats among the reeds, its wings spread wide. The actress glances up. A strapping young actor rides a horse in a distant field. Thunder breaks; her eyes widen; music crescendos.
Professor Mansfield shouted above the film score, how its composer used the story’s subtext, directly opposed to what the character was doing on-screen.
“The unwritten truth in the music!” Mansfield crowed over the swelling soundtrack. “She’s at war with her own heart! What’s she thinking about? Him? The bird? What does it tell us? Clues! Look for clues in the music itself!”
The hardness of the auditorium seats. The loss of my girl’s warm hand. My anger. Max looking at the two of us, somehow making me feel as if I didn’t count.
It was a strange remembrance that made me feel ugly and worthless in light of Max’s death.
A slight chill came over me as I broke the surface — back to the present, to the little apartment, the tribal gathering within the more anonymous crowd of Max’s friends.
I realized I had never really liked Max all that much. He had been dismissive of me, my music and cello. He’d once accused me of being a fake.
And it made me feel awful that such memories bubbled up in his sister’s crowded living room.
Chetwin – who paused to eat a half-sandwich and refill his glass — resumed the tale of Max’s last hour or so, finishing up with the details he knew: Max, despair, bridge, the jump, the finding of the body, the college boy at the hospital, and the note.
“Everything about this is a mystery,” Chetwin said. “Every detail, important.”
Max’s suicide note definitely existed, Chetty told his audience. But no one knew what it said except his sister – and she hadn’t mentioned it.
At least not when she’d been sober.
Max’s sister slipped away to the micro-kitchen to get another tray of sandwiches. We all noticed she wobbled a little, wearing that overly-smiled face of the properly-liquored. We hoped she’d open up about the note.
“What did you mean – a prophecy?” I asked Chetwin.
Diane, leaned forward, dog under arm. “You mean, someone predicted he’d kill himself?”
“Think about it,” Chetwin said. He turned to me. “You know.”
“Maybe,” I said, but I didn’t.
“Max was chronically depressed in school,” Alexa said.
“We were all chronically depressed,” Fleas said. Her voice seemed husky and mature and not the little soprano squeak of the early Fleas. She shot a glance at Alexa. “You were practically the Hunger Artist.”
“He was in love with someone,” Max’s sister said, returning with her arms laden with a sandwich-heavy tray — and another large bottle. “That’s what his note said. He wrote it on the back of a fortune cookie slip. There was an unopened box of Pork Lo Mein next to where he’d left his shoes. The bits of fortune cookie were there, too. He hadn’t eaten it. And the pen that he wrote the note with. It was from a bank.”
Pausing, she then added, “The note was tucked into his loafers.”
“That girl has a mind for useless details,” Chetwin – to the left of me – whispered to no one in particular as we again descended on the tiny sandwiches. “And why did Max take off those shoes? And why loafers? One wonders.”
“Stop it,” someone said.
The sister continued. “He was in love and he said it didn’t matter. He’d never be happy and it left him empty and who needed it? That’s what he wrote.” She didn’t seem quite so drunk at that moment.
“All of that?” Diane whispered, her breath full of booze, hand at my shoulder. “On the back of a little slip of paper from a stale cookie?”
“Makes you wonder what the actual fortune said,” Chetty whispered. “Must’ve been epic.”
“Nobody eats fortunes cookies, do they?” Spiro said, pouring drinks for himself and his conjoined wife. “I always throw them away. I feel as if they’re made of the dust of old bones or something.”
“And take-out on the night he jumps? Now, that sounds fishy,” Chetwin said, a little too loud.
It hit me just then how horrible we all were; and yet I still loved my old friends, bitter and jaded and deeply unfulfilled.
After a suitable moment of silence – when I realized that the sister and her pals had overheard the latest round of insensitive tribal comments and stared at all of us as if we were the unsolvable negative equation of Max’s short life, I said, “Poor Max. I’m sorry. I didn’t know he was in love. I guess I hadn’t kept up enough.”
“Or at all,” Diane whispered, mostly to her Maltese.
“But that’s not really why he did it,” Chetwin said.
The entire room – us and them — looked at him. A hum of disapproval arose against Chetwin, and by extension, all of the tribe.
“He was fulfilling that prophecy,” Chetty said.
“Again with the prophecy,” Spiro said, groaning.
Max Porter’s sister squinted at John Chetwin and muttered something under her breath.
Chetwin looked around at each of us – the tribal we. None of us moved. I imagined we all felt embarrassed, responsible for anything uttered by any one of our group.
“Suicide, birth, murder, an accident, failure, love, revenge, atonement,” Chetwin said, and then finished off the last of a bottle that had lingered near his hand. “It begins the whole prophecy. None of you remember?”
“I remember,” Spiro said. “But not quite like that.”
“How do you remember it going?”
“Figaro read it to us. It was in one of his Little Books of Everything We Ever Did. I thought there was ‘success’ somewhere in there, too.”
“I doubt that,” Chetty said.
“Figaro said this?” Diane asked.
I shrugged. “No idea.”
“Not Figaro,” Fleas said. “It was a Satellite.”
“Oh, right,” Alexa nodded. “We pissed someone off. They blew up. God, who was it? Figaro kept reminding us about it. It bothered him. Sometimes it’s good to forget that stuff.”
“It was a girl,” Spiro said. “That one with the tattoo on her thigh. But I don’t remember her saying it. Just Figaro repeating it.”
“You actually know someone named Figaro?” some shadow among the gathering asked.
“It was a nickname,” Diane said.
“Yeah, like Fleas,” Fleas said, with a certain sour quality to her voice.
“I wonder what he’s been up to,” Spiro said.
“Busking the subway, probably.”
“Somewhere in Maine,” Chetwin said.
“Figaro made that prophecy?” Diane asked. “About us?”
“Not Figaro,” Chetty said. “One of the Interlopers. Spiro’s right – it was a girl.” He glanced over at me as if expecting me to jump in.
“You guys had a lot of girls,” Diane said. “I couldn’t keep track.”
“I could never tell them apart,” Alexa said. “There was this type all of you were into. And they worshipped you guys.”
We’d gotten too loud. Max Porter’s sister shifted uncomfortably, scowled a bit, complained of a migraine. We decided – almost to a person – to thank her, wish her well, leave her to her friends and Max’s untribal group who circled like protecting angels. We offered one last hug and then scrambled into the street, down to a late-night café on the corner of Perry and Holmes.
There – under the soft green lanterns of a summer evening – we exchanged remembrances of things past related to Max and Figaro and the season of our corruptive innocence.
We wagged our jaws into the deep hours. The café shut down, but allowed us to remain at the tables outside.
Exhausting the mundane topics of where we’d been and what we’d done, we returned to the solemnity of Max and the strange prediction.
First, some of us argued with Chetwin that he made it up; he swore it happened and couldn’t believe none of us remembered it.
“But you were all probably drunk,” he said. “Something happened – not sure what set it off — and then someone said it and all of us laughed at it, and I wouldn’t have even remembered it except that Max fulfilled one bit of it.”
“It was this girl,” Spiro insisted. “I just can’t remember anything about her. She was some pretty, misguided thing. Had a tattoo, right here.” He stood, pointing to the outside of his leg. “It was yin-yang looking. You only saw it if she was naked. And I think we all saw her naked.”
“You have a great memory for the dozens of girls you bedded,” Alexa said.
“Most of them are blurs,” he chuckled. “But I never forget a tattoo.”
No one seemed to remember the name of this mythical tattooed Interloper with her bizarre prediction of our futures.
“Someone must’ve really pissed her off,” Fleas said.
“We pissed a lot of Interlopers off, I suspect,” I added.
We dissected the infamous prophecy, after asking Chetty to repeat it a few times.
As I looked around the table, the others repeated each word silently, trying to understand it.
Spiro and Alexa identified with the “love” part of the prophecy, which made all of us exchange glances. Fleas and I identified with the “failure” part, at least in terms of playing music.
“But we’re still involved with music,” she said. “So maybe that doesn’t count.”
No one had yet given birth. We wondered if any of us might be murdered someday. This was qualified with: “If we believe in this stuff, of course.”
“Well, Max fits the suicide bill,” Alexa said. “I mean, unless he was murdered.”
“I doubt that,” Chetty said. “Don’t forget the fortune cookie.”
“If we believe the fortune cookie theory,” Diane said, meaning to be funny.
“Revenge and atonement. Sounds Old Testament,” Fleas said. “Who really gets revenge? Who really atones? Nobody. Life is this endless cycle of wash, rinse, drain and repeat. And then you drop dead.”
“You’re a murky little creature,” Chetty said.
“Maybe there’s a reason for revenge. And maybe Max atoned,” Alexa said.
“You atone because of sin,” Chetwin said. “Did we sin? Did any of us really sin – I mean in the grand scheme of sin where people murder and steal and – I don’t know – do terrible things. I mean, there’s Hitler sin and murder sin. There’s even beat-your-wife sin. Were we terrible? Somehow I doubt it.”
“We fucked around a lot,” Fleas said.
“If sex is a sin,” Chetwin said. “Send me to Hell right this instant.”
“You were a beast,” Diane said, and she might’ve meant any of us.
“Maybe we did something awful back then and didn’t know it,” I said.
“I don’t think I developed a conscience til I was 25,” Chetwin said.
“If ever,” Fleas laughed.
“We’re just obsessing over this stupid prophecy,” Spiro said. “Revenge? Atonement? Murder? Who says that kind of thing?”
“Someone who meant it, I guess,” Diane said.
“We stepped on a lot of toes when we were young,” Spiro said.
“Doesn’t everybody?” Chetwin said. “Young people do shit all the time. Drugs, sex, drunkenness, dumbassedness – practically degree requirements. It’s all about me-me-me. You get a pass at that age.”
“Maybe for minor things,” Fleas said.
“Exactly,” Chetwin nodded. “And anything awful we did was minor league. We weren’t bullies. Forgot to call an Outsider for a second date. Lied to someone to get out of running into them. Sucked up to a despised professor to get a good grade. Slept with somebody to get back at somebody else. Ran a little wild. Told our parents what they wanted to hear. Never told them what we were really up to. That kind of stuff. Did we deserve a curse? No more than anyone else in college did – or does.”
“You make us sound like sociopaths,” I said. “We didn’t do all that.”
Chetty raised his cup of coffee as if in a silent toast.
“Makes you wonder how we found time to actually rehearse,” Diane said.
“Max didn’t deserve to die.” When Alexa said this, a hush fell over the rest of us. “He didn’t. He was always nice to me.”
After a momentary silence, idle chatter picked up again. We’d moved on from the prophecy and back to happier memories. Chetty took pictures, his flash blinding us. Fleas talked about the kids she taught and of some trip her students took to Thailand to build a school for the poor. Spiro and Alexa held court about Hollywood, Paris, the West End and some charity concert in Italy. We all played up to them a bit, hoping for crumbs of jobs. Diane with her snoring Maltese leaned back in her chair, more interested in another cup of decaf than the conversation.
As the cicada chatter continued, I remembered something about the curse.
I recalled the essence of some fabled beauty of an Interloper – not her face, but her sooty eyes and her cigarette smoke and May wine perfume and how we’d all been fighting – this must have been junior year.
We’d gotten disruptive at a party honoring us. The Interloper hurled those words, a grenade, in our midst.
In memory, I mashed it all up with memories of the dozen or more Satellites we’d all known, so I couldn’t quite put a face to the voice, but I heard the words.
Not one of you is special, the Interloper said. Garbled in my memory, those words – suicide, birth, murder, accident, failure, love, revenge, atonement – as if she were an escapee from the garden of Furies, damning us with an overly-dramatic set of possibilities.
I looked across the table to Chetty. He glanced back as if he sensed the shift in my demeanor.
I felt he could read my mind at that moment. I remembered precisely our intense closeness, all of us, practically inside each other’s heads at the Conservatory. And in that moment, I remembered Chetty sitting beside me, laughing, as that Interloper spewed her prophecy across our group.
Who was the unhappy messenger? I couldn’t quite remember the voice, let alone the face of this dreaded Cassandra.
Eight words for eight members of the tribe.
I ended up spending the night with Diane. She lived a winding drunken walk from the café. We did more sleeping than anything else, after a half hour of fumbling in the dark with each other’s bits and pieces. When the slap of morning met my forehead, I glanced over at her. She talks to her Maltese, what the fuck are you doing with your life?
We’d slept together at the Conservatory. The tribe had been incestuous. Sex and friendship got confused and convoluted in the undertow of being young.
In the kiosk bathroom of Diane’s place, I checked my phone.
A text had come in from Chetwin.
“At the ‘Royal It’ place,” he wrote. “Palatial. Their own private swimming pool. An elevator for their Mercedes. It’s all shiny. I want to fuck both Alexa and Spiro to see if fame works like an STD.”
He told me to meet him at the cafe again for coffee at noon.
Chetwin looked fully recovered from the previous evening. He wore a freshly-starched white shirt, rolled-up cuffs, and lean khakis with flip-flops on his feet, a thick silver bracelet around his wrist. A gift, he told me, from his ex. I didn’t know he’d ever been married; I wanted to pry but he wanted to keep going on about Max.
“The real reason Max killed himself,” John Chetwin told me as he fingered the rim of his cup. “He was in love with Figaro. His sister doesn’t know this fact.”
The impact of what he said was immeasurable to me. Figaro, Max Porter, love, suicide.
I didn’t want to think it, but I imagined Max and Figaro at the age of 20, spooning in white briefs in the dormitory’s procrustean bed. Genius hair met rain forest jungle hair as they lay entwined. I had no memory to match this – I created it from whole cloth.
“But his sister said…”
“Didn’t say. Implied.”
“I’m pretty sure she said it was a woman.”
“That’s not really what happened,” Chetwin said. “There was a woman – but not in a romantic way. We’ve spoken about it – she and I. Which is why I know all these details of Max’s last leap. But she’s not the one Max was in love with. She was a friend. A buddy. It was Figaro. Unrequited. And that’s why he did it.”
He gave me an odd look, a narrowing but sharp gaze as if he were examining my face for something it lacked.
“Just a friend.” Chetty quickly added, “But not his lover or anything. Max was into men only.”
“Suicide for love. At the age of thirty-four. For Figaro.”
“Yeah, I know. If anyone was least-likely to inspire homoerotic lust, it would be Figaro. Still, he had that secret beauty – under all the hair. And the phallic nose. I guess Max found him irresistible. But musicians, what can you do?”
We both chuckled. Having abandoned our dreams of being musicians, we’d learned to dismiss them as if they were children who knew nothing of the real world. This spared us feelings of failure.
“Max in love,” I said. “Figaro. All these years. How didn’t we see any of it?”
“Did we even understand love in college?” he said. “I mean, we thought we did. But we were idiots about that kind of stuff. I regret half of what I did.”
“We were in love with the Muse.”
“Oh yeah, the Muse.” He wiped his face as if trying to erase a memory.
He nodded, a weak smile as he looked down in his cup. “Bad coffee.” Then, “Ah, poor Max.”
Nearly a minute went by before he spoke again.
“Only mystery is why jump?” he asked. “I’d do pills. Something to knock you out. Then something else to stop the heart right after. ‘He died in his sleep,’ the papers will say. Doesn’t everybody want to die while sleeping? Not this drowning bullshit.”
I felt a sudden weight on my chest. I imagined Max floating in water, as if I could see his face from beneath. A memory came with this: swimming in college, diving under water, looking up, seeing a naked girl above me.
After the Conservatory, naked girls never swam above me again.
“You didn’t like Max,” he said, suddenly, intuitively.
I shrugged. “We never really hit it off.”
“You weren’t alone. The girls liked him, but I’m not even sure Figaro cared much for him. But we liked his talent and he was our little messenger of the gods. He’d do anything Figaro asked of him. But he was annoying. Still, he should’ve had a big career. And he didn’t.”
“He probably should’ve been famous.”
“In Port Van Eyck he was. I read the obit online. He was beloved, apparently, in that corner of dank infestation known as the upper Hudson Valley.”
“You’re the same snob you were at twenty.”
“Moreso,” Chetty agreed. Then he invited me to his home in Connecticut, a large acreage “shaped like afterbirth,” on a wide river.
He described his boredom with life, how his ex-wife – a savage harpist – still occupied space there, “though she’s not around much. Always on tour. Always recording. You know the drill. It’s why we divorced at all. Well that, and lack of children, I guess.” They had been married four years and divorced for two. They’d wed quietly, and he’d never mentioned it at previous tribal gatherings because (he said) “it wasn’t that kind of marriage.”
His family hated her. “Hate, like people hate terrorists. They just think she’s awful. But she’s not. They’re monstrous people, my family. Our home is a bubble of safety for the two of us.”
“Why not just stay married?”
“That’s what I said,” he chuckled. “She’s not built that way, she told me. If it’s over, it’s over. We were always just friends, I suppose. Still are. And she’s hardly around. Maybe for dinners, sometimes. But you’d like her, anyway. She’s your type.”
“But not yours.”
“She was, once. But I’m not hers. Oh, I chased her mercilessly,” he said, losing his smile. “I’m not proud of it. But I was a hunter. She was a gazelle – with sharp horns. I pretty much spent a year or more just convincing her to go out on a date. It was humiliating.”
The more he mentioned his ex, the sadder he seemed.
The house, he said, was big enough for at least three exes.
He extolled the pleasures of the guest cottage. “A modest caretaker’s place. You expect to see seven little dwarfs running around. Sparrows and chipmunks all skittering beneath the windows – that kind of thing. Come up in June. Hell, you don’t even have to see me more than once a week if you want. The guest place looks gargantuan next to Max’s sister’s little mousetrap. I’d love to spend more time with you. Summers get boring for me. All those Connecticut rich people and their Country Day School brats.”
“The idea of taking a summer off would be nice.”
“You’re a freelancer. You can do it.”
“Unless someone calls and then I run to the studio.”
“You’ll have no expenses. I’m rich.”
“Not as rich as the Royal It. But we’re good. We have a maid named Hester and a cook named Terry. When we throw parties, we even have a butler named Mortie. Plus a local girl who hangs the wash so it always smells like a summer garden full of…well, all those little fucked-up flowers you see in summer gardens.”
Between leases, I decided to stay with John Chetwin and his somewhat-absent ex-wife at the idyllic cottage he’d described.
I arrived in June.
Be sure to subscribe to my free newsletter if you haven’t yet. Click here to go to the signup page.
In the meantime, check out the various books, both upcoming and past here.
Now for another short novel I’m working on. I think I posted enough of Mr. Darkness until the book’s ready to go, so for now there’s this strange tale of a group of young musical prodigies and the terrible events that surround them.
As you can see from the cover to the left, this is called The Marriage of Figaro, clearly one of the strangest titles for a strange little novel. I hope you enjoy it. I’ll post a few chapters every few days, and I hope you enjoy them and will come back for more.
by Douglas Clegg
Note: Most of this is rough draft. Enjoy at your own peril.
“If you’re going to murder someone,” Ned Donnelly said, “it should look precisely – in every detail – like bad luck. Something that could happen to anybody. You listening?”
I nodded, putting my drink down.
“And you’re not planning a murder yourself?” he asked.
Ned’s eyes were small and pinched until he put on a pair of thick-framed glasses, and then they were surprisingly bright and large. You could trust him because he told you the worst of himself upfront. Other than liquor and dreamless sleep, he loved three things: women “with a little experience under their belts but before the world has its way with them,” classical music, and the subject of murder.
We’d first met at one of Chetty’s gatherings at the country house. Ned, in semi-retirement, taught criminal justice classes at a night school. That particular evening, he sat across from me at one of the endless summer suppers, wedged between a socialite named Bunny and the famously defrocked priest from Ridgefield.
After the table cleared, Ned remained behind, chumming up to Chetty and me because he wanted to hear about our music. His elbows dug into the tablecloth, bottomless glass of Chateau Neuf du Pape in fist. We chattered into the amethyst hours of Mozart and Mahler and misspent youth, our muses and lack thereof, with only an occasional nod to the tribe itself.
Years passed. I ran into Ned again, at this bar, not too long after. I bumped into him twice at concerts in Manhattan, and then, after I’d moved for the fourth time, we began corresponding about concerts and recordings, and of course, Chetwin and the others and everything that had gone wrong.
I always knew where to find Ned no matter the time of year and if I felt the need on one of my business trips, as I did this particularly chilly night, I’d brave the ice and snow and drive to Connecticut. He’d become a seasonal fixture in the raftered bar of Le Bistro Trois Freres, a little dungeon of a place along a lost stretch of wooded road between Greenwich and not-Greenwich.
“Someone smart can basically finesse murder,” He said, two martinis ahead of me.
“By finesse, you mean…”
“To make it look natural. Keep those arrows from pointing at you, anyway. Nobody does that overnight. I worked a case where the killer planned his crime beginning when he was ten years old. Didn’t carry it out until he was close to forty. Imagine that. The waiting must’ve been excruciating. The people he’d plotted against were in their late seventies and eighties by the time he got around to it. If he’d waited a few more years, they might’ve all been dead anyway. His victims didn’t even know their connection to each other. But once upon a time they’d all lived in a specific county. And our killer had lived there, too, as a child. And even though we knew he’d done it, we had no evidence – not DNA, not a witness, nothing — to tie him in. He had alibis each time. Plus he was what we used to call upstanding. Respected. Community work, all that, happy wife and four cute kids, and none of them had a clue. To them, he was the good man.”
Ned put his chin in his hand and shook his head slightly.
“But we knew this guy did it. We could place him as a boy in each of his victim’s homes during a devastating year of his life. His mother had died in a terrible way and his father, unskilled and backward in some way, went house-to-house looking for work. And these particular people had said something to the boy’s father that must’ve burned in his memory. Must’ve just hit the nerve that changed the course of his life. I spent years on that one.”
“You ever catch him?”
“Not me. Another guy. Not long ago.”
“The longer you wait for revenge, the sloppier you get.” He sat up, losing the slouch. “It can be a slow burn of years. There may be some way to work out the problems, the possible ways this thing can go. So one day, long time after we closed the file on this, it happened. Got himself a promotion at work, big salary. A move to a better neighborhood. He and the wife threw out a bunch of old stuff from the attic and basement – broken furnitures, appliances, lampshades. And one of the neighbors — a real piece of work — goes through the trash hoping to find something to resell but instead discovers a water-stained shoe box packed with little three-by-five cards.”
Ned grinned as if I’d just located the shoebox myself.
“Maiden names, married names, addresses, specific details, a couple of faded photos, a timetable. Brief notes of schedules, habits. I’m still jealous of the guy who nailed it. Wish I’d figured all this out early.”
“Why’d he keep evidence all that time?”
Ned shrugged. “Blind spot. Part of the whole thing he wants to forget. So, he does forget. We’re more than a decade past the murders. He got his relief. His targets are dead. This guy doesn’t see himself as a murderer. He didn’t do it for money or out of anger. It was justice to him. He sees himself as a secret righter of wrongs and he knows nobody figured it out enough to charge him with anything. You know how you keep stuff in your house for years and you don’t even realize you have it or what it means anymore? That shoebox was probably just crammed up in some cupboard or attic, mixed in with old bills and tax crap. You keep a diary and then stop one day. You forget you ever kept it until you run across it years later and think what an idiot you were to ever keep a diary. And – in your case — you find those notes, you got your guy.”
Then, a second later, he added, “But you’re probably wrong. Mostly what looks like an accident is an accident. If the means of death’s nearly impossible for another person to have engineered, you go with reality. Life murders more often than other people do.”
A jukebox in the corner, silent, suddenly came to life, a pop tune of the moment.
“Now, who the hell put that crap on?” he said too loud. “Let’s get a table, far away from this awful racket.”
Settling into a corner of the dining room, we ordered dinner.
Ned switched topics. Had I been to the winter concert series in New Haven? How often did I get to Carnegie Hall? Or the Met? What was it like, my life these days?
To appease him, I drew from a shortlist of music-world anecdotes: ribald tales of the various musicians I’d worked with, and the now-famous soprano (a former classmate) who used studio tricks to cover a voice ruined by cigarettes and late nights, and what a genius a certain violinist was although he remained an awful human being in every other way.
The gossip of my sphere, basically.
Ned asked about my old friends, Spiro and Alexa of course (because everyone asked about them) and then he wanted to know more about Figaro and we talked about John Chetwin, too, and the conservatory days, back in the olden times of twenty years earlier, when — I told Ned — we believed we were all prodigies and dreamed of becoming celebrated musicians while still in our late teens and early twenties with a little experience under our belts but before the world had its way with us — before Death entered the snapshot.
Dinner arrived. Ned ate, noisily, as if French Onion soup and steak frites were the last meal he’d ever have in his life.
“And this whole tribal business,” he said. “I never understood that. I’d think you’d all have been too competitive. Maybe even at each others’ throats.”
“How’d you decide who was in and who was out?”
“We’d been hand-picked by Mansfield.”
“Ordained,” he nodded. “What was he like?”
“Impulsive. All over the place. He laid out all the rules and then told us to break them. To explore our creativity. Find our source. Discover what we believed. That kind of thing,” I said. “He encouraged all the liaisons. The wildness. I honestly believe he idolized us. He said we were the best and brightest and we’d set the world on fire.”
“And you believed him?” Before I could answer, he added, “At twenty, who doesn’t want to believe that.”
Ned asked more; I told less.
And then, before we parted that night, he asked me again what he’d asked each time I’d sought him out that winter:
“So, who’s this murderer?”
“At this point, I think it’s what you said. It’s life. There’s no way one person could’ve done it. And so perfectly.”
“Sounds about right,” he concluded, as we shook hands. “Your reaction’s natural. The injustice of loss. You want to blame someone, but usually it’s just the way things go.”
I called a cab for him, and – mostly sober – I braved dark roads back up the coast.
On the night’s long drive, the scalpel of memory cut to the bone of my twentieth year:
My father in his pin-striped suit of disapproval.
“You need something more stable than this…this dream,” my father said. “Look who you surround yourself with. They’re not your friends. Think of what could’ve happened. Think of how this could’ve turned out. I mean, as horrible as it is, think how much worse it might’ve been.”
He told me if I didn’t straighten up, I’d be at a regular old college in no time, studying something serious like economics — or else lucky to get a job at a gas station. “Your mother should never have bought you that cello in the first place. There’s more to life than music.”
But music was my life in those days. All of our lives. It was who we were. It was our communal heartbeat.
We were the tribe.
Now, on to Chapters 2 & 3
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Check back soon. I’ll get a new chapter going of The Marriage of Figaro, and once I know the publishing schedule, I’ll post it. (Bear in mind, I have about 12-15 books in close-to-finished stages, but I’m hoping to knock them down one after another. We’ll see!)
In the meantime, check out the various books, both upcoming and past here.
Note: If you’re reading this for the first time, you’ll want to start with Chapter 1.
Mr.Darkness is the story of the strange demise of House Grigsby — an exceptionally ordinary family living in Manhattan in the previous century — as told from the perspective of Mina, the daughter Grigsby, who sees her life as a movie projected across a dark screen.
We moved in an instant.
We were suddenly living inside a movie about a cool, crazy, sick father and his two remarkable children starting over again but this time with room service and maid service. The Hotel Family, The Fenwick Kids, Room Service for Three – such were the titles Leo and I gave our little mind movies about the stay in the hotel.
The Fenwick, family-owned and operated, existed on a side street off a more-traveled avenue in a whole other side of town from our old place. Among its neighboring buildings, what wasn’t being dismantled was in the process of falling apart.
The end of our first week there, Howard told us about his Fenwick connection:
“I was putting myself through grad school. I worked really early in the morning, then classes in mid-afternoon. Your mother worked as a waitress in the lounge here. This was one of those busy streets with cafes and bars that made you feel as if you were on cloud nine. It was an innocent time, I guess. The Fenwick was the ‘it’ place for poor students like me. You came here for a party or late dinner and some music. You could dance right between the tables and spend less – with twice the fun — than at one of the big joints a few blocks over. This hotel had quartets and combos and lounge singers and a pretty good Polish cook who made pierogi and lamb shanks like nobody’s business.”
“But what was it like?” I asked.
“Just told you.”
“I mean when you met Melanie.”
“Well, I did what you do. I looked at her. She looked back. Good thing. And I knew. Right then I knew.”
“That was it. Done deal. I knew with that girl if I didn’t do something right then I would never live with myself. Somebody else would get her. She’d move on. I’d lose out. I went up to her, leaned in and…well, I kissed her before she could change her mind.”
“Just like that?” I asked. “A kiss does it?”
“Of course. It’s a promise tied up in a smooch. She wanted to be kissed. And I wanted to be the one to kiss her. When you’re older and meet the right one, you don’t waste time. You know it and if the other one knows it, you just jump. You don’t get a second chance.”
I thought for a minute about their arguments, stormy words, the way Melanie kept him at arm’s length, and even the last kiss I ever saw between them, when my mother pushed him away.
I asked about it.
He said, “You don’t solve all your problems when you fall in love. You just know that if you don’t have that person in your arms then life’s going to mean nothing to you and you will never have a minute’s peace until you’re with that person again.
“So I kiss her. She kisses me. We go dancing that night. I’d already become part of her and she’d already become part of me. And no matter what happened between us, it’s like love was a little fire we held in our hands – together – and it was more important than either one of us alone. It was something we both protected despite every problem we had or anything life could throw at us. So long as we had each other.”
His face clouded over.
“And then Leo showed up,” I said hoping to brighten the mood.
He managed a smile. “Sure. When we least expected him. We called him the Surprise Baby.”
“And then me.”
He gave me a funny look. “Of course.”
“When I was born all the lights went out on the train.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Your old man’s had enough memory lane for one day.”
I covered him with blankets and turned down the lights.
Leo said, “Let’s see if Sam’s here yet.”
We spent days that turned into weeks running around — exploring the Fenwick, getting to know the day clerk whose name no one could pronounce, the college hippie night clerk named Sam, the maid from Astoria called Leda, the maid from Bayonne named Michiko, avoiding the surly manager, stealing extra soaps from the cleaning cart — while Howard slept through half the day and the entire night. Leo told him he should see a doctor, but Howard said it was just recovery, it was grief, depression — it wasn’t even real illness.
“All in my head,” he said. “I’ll get over it. It’s what you do.”
He ordered us out, into daylight, to the library, to movies, gave us some cash, assigned books to read, things to pick up at bodegas and drugstores and diners.
We were now autodidacts, he said, and our own best teachers.
This wasn’t entirely true.
But we were sure that Howard would get better and life would return to normal and we’d end up at another apartment and be back in school in some upcoming September, no worse for the time away.
One bright, ignorant day, it ended.
Movies always end, even the hopeful ones.
I should’ve noticed the cracks earlier. They were in the hotel bathroom, over where the shower stall began, these small spider-vein cracks.
The eviction notice showed up one morning — placed beneath the door — a folded piece of paper with an end-date for our stay.
It included an apologetic note from the manager:
Howard – sorry to do this. I feel terrible about it and my dad would kill me if he knew. I know your family’s been through a lot. I’ll give you an extra week on the house and even call around to see what I can do, if you want. A convention’s coming through on the first. Need you out by then.
With best wishes and again very very sorry,
I don’t know what surprised Leo and me more: that some group of businessmen would even want to hold a convention at the rundown Fenwick or that our father hadn’t paid the hotel bill in nearly a month. We’d been ordering room service twice a day and putting it on our account.
“I’ll pay, I’ll pay, don’t worry, sweet pea, this’ll all smooth over,” Howard reassured me when he saw how upset I’d become. “Mike’s a pussycat. I mean, he practically has whiskers and a tail. Don’t you worry.”
The manager –son of the hotel’s owner — remembered our mother in the olden days when he’d been a teenager and had a soft spot for her, which is why he was being so nice even when throwing us out. That’s what our father told us.
“Everyone loved your mother,” Howard said.
“But you loved her the most.”
“More than loved her,” he said. “I didn’t know where she began and I ended.”
“What’s that mean?”
He couldn’t explain. Then, he mentioned that word, “symbiogenesis,” and how two become one and how it can reverse, and how sometimes you go back to the muck.
Symbiogenesis. I repeated the word in my mind over and over again. My mind’s voice said it back to me perfectly even if I stumbled over the word when I opened my mouth. It seemed like an incantation, some kind of summoning. It reminded me of the princess who made a bargain with an enchanted frog that lived in a well.
I wondered if — many years later, after the princess died — did the prince go back to being a frog, return to the muck and dark below?
Symbiogenesis. When two become one. Amor Vincit Omnia means Love is shit.
I thought about all this when Howard told Leo to fetch our mother’s ashes. We’d kept them in the closet among the luggage and winter coats.
“Mom-in-a-Box,” Leo whispered.
Howard called us over to the window that opened over the alley far below.
Leo and I stood by as Howard lifted the jewelry box lid.
“Time for goodbye,” he said as he dumped our mother’s ashes out the window.
“Wait,” I gasped, reaching for the drifting specks of my mother. They fell through my fingers, dispersing like morning mist.
I imagined Melanie evaporating as she turned to me and said the word, katzenjammers.
Howard touched the edge of my face, wiping a tear to the side.
“Don’t cry, sweet pea. She already left the station a long time ago. This was just what the salesmen of the dead give you afterward. As if Melanie could ever live in a box.”
Howard turned the jewelry box around so I could peer inside. “See? She’s not there. She was never there.”
Within the box, a light frosting of gray dust remained. It reminded me of the ashtray my mother kept on the coffee table.
I thought of the fire of love my parents held, cupped in their hands.
She’d become nothing but soot.
After Howard fell asleep, Leo pulled me into the narrow bathroom. We’d begun having regular private meetings to discuss the state of our situation so that Howard wouldn’t hear us.
Leo sat on the edge of the tub and I, cross-legged on the closed toilet seat.
“I don’t think Howard wants to get better,” he said.
“And one more thing,” Leo said at the end of our meeting. “I saw Mrs. Castle in the lobby yesterday.”
He nodded. “We went to get pizza. When Howard took a nap.”
In my mind, I traveled through the lobby again from the day before, the wide round table, the check-in counter, the big palm trees in enormous pots, the newspaper stacks, the vases of dried flowers on pedestals, the day clerk.
“I didn’t see anybody except Mr. Unpronounceable.”
“Leelah didn’t want to be seen,” he said. “She was in one of the big chairs by the staircase. She put her hand up to her face — like this. She thought I wouldn’t recognize her.”
“You could’ve told me.”
“I guess I wanted to be wrong. That it was somebody who looked like her.” He paused for a second. “But it was her.”
I brightened. “Maybe she’ll help us.”
“No. She won’t,” he said. “She’s bad luck.”
Later, I stumbled over our suitcases in the closet and reached into my winter coat pocket for the cigarettes and book of matches that my mother left behind.
I dug down deep for my mother’s ring.
I went out to the alley where Melanie existed in some ashy way. It was one of those humid summer days when everything smelled like trash day. I lit up a cigarette and watched it burn for a moment before slipping it between my lips.
I coughed through a smoke in her honor. It didn’t surprise me that cigarettes tasted so sickening.
I slipped her wedding ring on my thumb. I leaned against the wall at the side of the Fenwick Arms. I thought about my parents dancing inside, laughing, having a smoke and a martini, falling in love, their dreams of future children and what life would give them and how it all went to dust.
I imagined our parents’ first kiss.
One of the workmen from a nearby construction crossed the alley. He was muscular and sweaty with an overall rough look to his features that made me think he’d bite your head off if you looked at him cross-eyed. I wondered what would happen if he kissed me with those surly lips.
When he noticed the cigarette hanging out my mouth, he said, “Kid, you old enough for that?”
“I’m nearly thirty,” I said, conjuring my mother. “But people always think I’m much younger.”
Leelah Castle came by our room a few days after skulking around. By then, even Howard had noticed her — from his favorite perch by the lobby’s front window — as she walked up and down the street deciding whether or not to take the steps up to the Fenwick’s entrance again.
I answered the door. I wasn’t sure if I should let her in. Howard came to the doorway to talk with her. He looked almost like his old self for a minute. He pushed his hair – uncut for months – to the side.
I went to find his comb.
When I returned with it, Howard told us to go out to the movies. Leelah handed me thirty bucks, which made me feel rich.
“I’ll take care of your dad,” she said. “Have a nice day out. Get something to eat. A little sunshine maybe.”
It was cloudy, so sunshine was off the menu.
Leo and I went first for tuna salad sandwiches and shared a chocolate malted at a rundown diner a few blocks over.
My brother told me not to mention Leelah to him because he wasn’t in the mood. Leo grabbed a paper off an abandoned booth seat and scoured it for movie listings.
We had a choice within three blocks of either a film about some homicidal maniac or else Casablanca — one of our mother’s favorites. I convinced Leo by whining that we should see Casablanca yet again. It played at the Soho Gardens, a tiny theater that showed ancient, scratchy films, had cheap admission, and smelled like musty chocolate and popcorn.
The whole time the movie played, Leo breathed so hard it was as if he were snoring. People around us told him to shut up. Halfway through the movie, I said, “Ilsa looks like Mrs. Castle.”
“You may need glasses.”
When the movie ended, he leaned in to whisper. “You know, I never figured out before what this was about.”
“What’s it about?”
“You never get what you really want in life. So you make do.”
“Don’t blame me. I didn’t make the movie. It’s also about how love messes you up for the rest of your life and –“
He went silent mid-sentence. The lights came up.
Most of the audience had already left; we were among five or six stragglers.
Leo looked at me as if I should be telepathic all of a sudden and understand everything the boy genius understood.
“What?” I asked in that dumb way you ask when you feel like you missed a vital clue.
“We should never have left Howard alone with her,” he said.
It began drizzling as we walked back to the hotel. Leo outpaced me; I struggled to keep up. Then he began going even faster as if some new bomb would go off if he didn’t get back to the hotel in time.
I guessed the bomb: Leelah wrapping herself up in our father.
A thunderclap echoed, followed soon after by a flash of lightning. Buckets of rain dumped down on us as we ran the last block.
I thought of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman kissing in the movie and my father kissing Leelah Castle in the very hotel where he’d first kissed my mother.
It would kill something inside me, I just knew it. I had to keep him from kissing her. It felt as if the world would end if their lips met. Kissing spelled the end to everything, even in movies.
In our hotel room, Leo and I stood inside the doorway, catching our breath. Lightning flashes from outside the window lit up the entire room and then dimmed to shadows of torrential rain all across the wall.
Mrs. Castle sat alone on our father’s unmade bed; the light from the lamp beside her held half her face in shadow.
“Where’s Howard?” Leo asked.
I’d been mistaken. Leelah didn’t look anything like the actress in the movie.
I glanced over at my brother. We were soaked to the skin.
“You’re back early,” Leelah said.
She called us over and patted her lap. Leo took the chair opposite and I went to stand by the window, still shivering from the rain.
Leo’s words played in my head. I couldn’t look Mrs. Castle in the eye.
“I took your father to the hospital.”
“Right after you left.” She paused. “He’s all settled in.”
“Okay,” Leo said. “Let’s go.”
“He needs rest.”
Leo muttered an obscenity under his breath.
A few seconds passed while a hundred thoughts filled the room. The rain outside slowed to a drizzle, punctuated by distant thunder.
“I need to get things ready,” Leelah said. “Just wait here. I’ll come get you.”
She gave him a look as if the answer were obvious.
“We’ll figure things out.”
“I don’t like this one bit,” Leo said.
“Leo,” Leelah said. “Think of everything that’s gone right in life and how little has actually gone wrong.”
“I don’t get it,” I whispered.
“She means we’re fucked.” Leo said.
“It means,” Leelah said, “it’ll be all right. You’ll see.”
She slid off the bed and walked straight over to me. I tried not to look up at her face, but felt rude. I wondered if Leo wasn’t wrong about her.
“You need to dry off.” She smoothed my wet hair.
“Get your stinking paws off my sister, you damn dirty ape,” Leo said. It made me smile to hear it. I was sure we’d both heard that line from some movie but I couldn’t remember which one.
Before Leelah left, she tried to shake Leo’s hand but he wasn’t having any of it and instead did his T-Rex imitation, which I hadn’t seen him do in a long time.
After he’d locked the door behind her, my brother sat up and stewed. He called four hospitals but couldn’t find the one with Howard in it. We ordered pizza. Leo didn’t say a single word about what had happened and I was too afraid to talk about it.
We watched TV until my eyes closed without even thinking of sleep.
I awoke to a cracking sound. Sunlight streamed in through a window. I glanced over at the door just as it burst open.
Howard stood in the doorway looking like a big wild bear in a blue cotton hospital robe, slippers on his feet, all wild-eyed, red-faced, his hair askew.
He threw his room key on the bed near my feet.
“Close those damn curtains,” he barked at Leo, who was already up.
“That woman is a menace, an absolute Medusa – no wait, she’s more like Scylla and Charybdis!” Howard slammed the door, checking the lock. “She wants to take everything away from me, including the two of you. Well, that’s just not happening on my watch. No kid of mine’s going in the System and no Grigsby’s ever again going to the booby hatch.”
The phone rang.
We all looked at it.
Howard put his finger to his mouth to shush us.
He motioned for Leo – obediently shutting the curtains – to answer the phone.
Leo hesitated. The ringing continued.
Howard clapped his hands to get Leo’s attention. Only then did my brother leap for the phone.
He picked up the receiver.
“Hello?” Leo watched our father’s face.
Howard mouthed words that Leo apparently understood.
“No, he hasn’t. No. That’s right.”
Leo nodded to our father.
“Of course.” Leo said, his voice slow, cautious of missteps, a puppet to Howard’s mouthings and hand-signals. “We’re fine. Yes, yes. We’ll see you then. Yes, of course. No. Yes. I understand.”
He paused, listening.
In the pause, our father sliced his finger across his throat.
Leo shot me a curious look.
“Well, that’s terrible. Oh no. Never said a thing like that before. Awful. Of course, not a word, not a word. We’ll get ready. Okay. Sure. We’ll just wait by the phone, Mrs. Castle. Yes…Yes…Yes.”
Leo hung up.
My father put his hands on his hips.
“What’d the witch say?” Howard asked.
“You broke out,” Leo said.
“Not true, Mr. Smartypants. I checked myself out.”
“She’s coming to get us at noon.”
“Flying in on her broomstick is she?”
“Leelah’s pretty sure you’re going to head over here. She’s calling the hotel desk right now.”
“Gestapo tactics. What else?”
Leo winced a little as he related the next part. “She may be bringing Keystones.”
(Howard called the city cops Keystones and Nottinghams and made a point of removing parking tickets from cars whenever he saw them “because we all pay city taxes and why should anyone here get an extra tax – on top of all the other taxes — for parking? The street’s already owned by all of us.”)
Leo turned to me. “Leelah Castle wants to take us home with her.”
“Kidnapping is what she wants to do,” Howard said. “Next up, blackmail followed by torture for all we know and then we all end up in The System. That woman will stop at nothing. Nothing!”
He spat a string of complex, multisyllabic versions of the colorful words I’d heard my mother say only in her deepest fits of drink. He took a long breath after. “She’s a monster, kids, an awful crazy Lopsider if there ever was one, and believe you me, she’s the kind of woman who throws grenades when you’re not looking and bakes you a goddamn lasagna while sucking the lifeblood through a straw in your throat. No wonder her husband left her. I bet…I bet she killed that little girl of hers! And to think, to think I used to take her birthday cake! I wish she’d choked on every last crumb!”
The room went dead still. I looked at my hands, then over to the wall clock. It was nearly eight.
Only then did I glance back at my father.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yeah, yeah of course, honey, of course, now that we’re together, but what a night, what a night, kids. It’s all 1984 and Brave New World and electrowhatzits and creepy doctors and the worst kind of reactionary Drugoons who love to push all these opiates and crap. Oh how they enjoy making zombies for their experiments – and don’t think it doesn’t happen even here because it can and it does and I just barely got out of there alive. They can lock you up and nothing you can do about it. And that lasagna-baking witch wants to throw away the key.”
His face shone bright with tears by the end of this.
When he cried, it gave me the terrible feeling of a landslide inside. I’d lose something enormous and wonderful that I could never get back if he didn’t stop weeping.
When our father went to shower, Leo turned to me and in as gentle a voice as possible said, “Leelah thinks he’s dangerous.”
“But he’s not. He’s Howard.”
“She is a nurse.”
“But it’s Howard.”
“Well, she thinks he needs to rest a long time. She put him in the one hospital I forgot to call,” my brother added and then spelled B-E-L-L-E-V-U-E as if he were afraid to say it out loud. “She says he’s paranoid.”
He did. I said it ten times silently.
“What’s it mean?”
Leo shrugged. “Afraid of things. Of people talking about you behind your back. Being followed. Something like that.”
“But someone is following him,” I said. “Mrs. Castle.”
“That’s the problem of paranoia, I guess.” He cleared his throat. “She told me something else.”
“She said Howard believes she killed Melanie. Why would she even tell me that?” Leo asked the air, because he certainly didn’t want my opinion. “Who does that? I mean, he never said it to us before, right?”
I created a new scenario in my head as I rewound (in a split second) the events of the famous day in February. Certain stills caught in sprockets: the unlocked door, the lights going out, and in my own sherlockian way (the Basil Rathbone Sherlock, our father’s favorite), my mother slamming so hard down on the linoleum when she fell which seemed impossible to me but not if I imagined Mrs. Castle doing something awful in the dark as she came up behind Melanie.
And then, of course her lasagna, which was meant to win us all over and perhaps was drugged so we’d all become zombies for Mrs. Castle’s purpose. She was a nurse, after all, and nurses were one-call-to-the-pharmacy away from Drugoons.
Reading my mind, Leo said, “Oh come on, Meen. Leelah Castle didn’t kill her.”
But people were capable of anything and murder could happen in all kinds of inexplicable ways; I’d seen enough movies and had read headlines from the papers.
“It could really make you think all the stories are true,” Leo said, closing off the discussion. “About the Grigsby curse.”
This statement surprised me; I’d never doubted that the Grigsby curse existed.
That would be like not believing in the unassailable and immutable laws.
A short time later, Howard emerged from the steamy bathroom wrapped in the mangy Fenwick Arms, Where Luxury Reigns towel that just barely covered his hide. A glaze of humidity coupled with poor lamplight cast a hue of jaundice across his Roman general face.
The word paranoid went through my mind, a stench left by Mrs. Castle, not a trace of bergamot in it.
Howard started in on doctors, nurses and psychiawhatzits, and how nobody understood the opposite of symbiogenesis, so fuck them all and the coelocanths they rode in on with their stupid prison schools where they taught a new army of sheep to stick their necks out for the wolves in power to rip open.
And then there was the damn Grigsby legacy – which weighed heavily on all our minds by that point.
“I thought I’d saved us from it when I got away from Pumpkin Hill. But it’s back. I know it’s something I did. I broke one of the laws. Even if I can’t remember doing it.”
It hurt me to watch the pain in his face.
I imagined that cockroach pointing a feeler at me: Confess! You’re the one who did it. You brought the curse down around him. Liar! Stealer!
“We’re going down,” Howard said.
At first I thought he meant we were sinking like our Great-Uncle’s Proteus’ ship.
“Where?” I asked.
“To the muck,” he said, not in a sad way but as if it might be the portal to a whole new exciting adventure in the lives Grigsby.
“And just where we going to find this muck?” Leo asked.
“In that glorious bunker of yours, you goddamn genius you, bright boy, smartie-pants Da Vinci spawn,” Howard said.
Let’s rewind to a scene I forgot to mention, because at the time I didn’t think it was important; but you’ve got to fill in some areas once you get an idea of the whole movie instead of just the individual scenes.
And the bunker ended up on the cutting room floor.
We learned about it from hanging out in the lobby after midnight.
Leo sat in a chair off to the side while he flipped through back issues of a magazine called Film Quarterly.
The night desk clerk, Sam – a long-haired NYU student, majoring in film studies, six years older than Leo but possibly not smarter, infinitely nicer than the day clerk — kept a stash of magazines next to the potted palm. He had a magazine called – simply – Art, and when I flipped through it, I marveled at pictures of weird paintings and naked people and other arty things.
Leo knew he’d met a kindred spirit in Sam. My brother had been deeply into the idea of making movies ever since he’d started up with his little Super 8 camera (which broke the year after Howard gave it to him for Christmas) at the age of nine and made the now-famous movies Melanie Smokes A Pack and Mina Spits Up and Weirdoes in Our Building, among other classics.
Those nights in the lobby, I’d eavesdrop on their conversations. Leo and Sam would talk about various films, how they’d been made, about French and German directors we’d never heard of, words like “expressionism” and “nouveau vague” and “Alla Nazimova” and “Kurosawa.”
Leo became rapturous when he found out that Sam would – one day soon — sneak him into a college screening of a Russian movie called Potemkin, if Howard gave permission.
Somewhere on these long nights the topic of a hidden place under the hotel came up because it reminded Sam of a movie about a bunker; and then, he had to explain what a bunker was; and then Leo asked why the hotel would even have a bunker.
Most people who worked at the Fenwick hadn’t even known about it before what happened the previous winter when Sam was a freshman and had just landed the night desk job.
In fact, Sam wasn’t sure that anyone but one of the maids and he, himself, knew.
“Even the manager didn’t know about it, but I’m guessing his dad did, because the old man said we should cover it up later, sort of brick it over, but the city wouldn’t let him because it might be needed if anything happened again down there.”
One night the entire laundry room exploded after midnight.
“Like a bomb?” Leo asked.
“Not quite,” Sam said.
He continued with a tale of water pipes and a surge and something wrong with the entire system that management was too cheap to repair when they should’ve and then other problems the city had on that block particularly since all the construction was going on and some of the buildings nearby were practically falling down and there was this snowstorm. It was all getting pretty involved and I tuned most of it out until Leo gave me a strange look and during a break in Sam’s story, said two words to me, “the blackout.”
Sam returned to a legend of this hidden room beneath the deepest basement, full of catwalks and drops down to “God knows where.”
“And there was some dead guy way down. He must’ve lived there for years. He did something to some of the heating ducts and that’s really why the laundries all exploded. Well, that and the freeze – that was one rough winter. But he electrocuted himself.”
I tried not to imagine what electrocution must look like.
“So guess who was part of the clean-up crew?” Sam said, pointing to himself. “It’s like a rat maze, all these tiny rooms and steps and stuff. Goes way down. Take a wrong turn and end up in Timbuktu – or one block over. For all we know he was going in and out of every building on this street. The maids all knew somebody’d been sneaking up and stealing stuff. Sheets went missing – and towels. Toilet paper. That kind of stuff.”
“Didn’t anybody ever go check what was down there?”
Sam shrugged. “The maids thought there was a phantom of the Fenwick or something.” At this point, Sam went off into something about a silent movie with an actor named Lon Chaney whom we’d never heard of. Then, he got back to the underground. “Door’s kind of out of the way, behind all the machines, dark corner, trash cans in front. I sure as hell didn’t want to go down there. I hate the basement. It’s like something out of Metropolis.”
“A movie,” Leo said. “About robots and stuff.”
“You saw it?”
Leo tapped a copy of Film Quarterly. “Read about it.”
“Someday you’ll see it,” Sam said.
“Just like someday we’ll see this place way down in the dark that nobody noticed before,” Leo said.
“How could they miss it?” I said, completely caught up in the idea of a hidden door.
“Who knows? You work in a place and you don’t notice half of it,” Sam said. “Anybody who saw it probably thought it was just some lousy corner of the basement. And where this dead guy lived, it wasn’t right up by the door. He’d been smart enough to hide, I guess – and there’s a lot of places to hide down there — if anyone ever looked in. Wasn’t locked, but now it is.”
“Nobody knew he lived there at all?” I asked.
“Anybody know who he was?”
Sam nodded. “Marcus Drucker. Took awhile to find out. He just stepped off the edge of the world one day in 1931. Apparently, he was a fugitive. Robbed somebody of a lot of money.”
We marveled at the year, and the more than forty years that had passed since that day till the night we three sat in the lobby after midnight and thought about this old guy getting shocked to death.
At the end of all this, Sam agreed that if we hung out til three in the morning when nobody else ever came through the lobby, he’d take us to the laundry and maybe even open the legendary door so we could see in.
I napped on the lobby chair. Sam got a thin blanket and tossed it over me as I closed my eyes but it was warm enough in the lobby that I pushed it away.
“Wake me up when you go,” I said.
Leo and Sam kept chatting as I sank into oblivion. Then, someone shook me awake.
“We going?” I asked after I’d wrenched my eyes open.
“Back to our room,” Leo said.
It was nearly dawn. I’d spent the night in the lobby, and Sam was just getting off shift.
“I wanted to see it.”
“I tried to wake you up but you just kept going back to sleep.”
“But you saw it.” I felt as if he’d committed a crime.
Later, Leo told our father about it.
“Ah, the notorious Marcus Drucker,” Howard said.
“You knew him?”
“Read about him. When I was about your age. He bilked people out of a hell of a lot of money back then.”
“Bilked?” I asked.
“Well, stole, basically. He was what you’d call an old-world aeronaut combined with a new-world con man, I guess. He’d been kind of a hero of the first World War. I was into this stuff because he was all about the personal flying machine. He had a plan for some special contraption, apparently, sold all these muckety-mucks and hoi-pollois on it. Can’t remember much else about it, but I bet if you went to the library you could find stuff in old newspapers. Unless this is another Marcus Drucker, of course.” He paused, scratched behind his ear. “Imagine it. All those years down under the city. Stolen money, fugitive from justice, living unseen, unknown, afraid of ever being spotted, that kind of crazy genius thief. He was made for the sky, but he lived beneath the streets. Must’ve been ancient when he kissed the live wire.”
“He kissed it?” I whispered to Leo who gave me a dismissive look.
“He was in his eighties,” Leo said. “Sam showed me some clippings. He stole a million dollars.”
I took in this amount; I believed you owned the world if you had a million dollars.
“Why would anyone want to live down there all that time?”
“Who knows?” Howard said. “Maybe he came up for air now and then. Maybe he was one of those crazy hermit geniuses. Maybe he despised everything up here.”
“He was just crazy,” Leo said.
“Well, sounds like a superb bomb shelter, this place of yours,” Howard said. “Perfect for when some idiot in some other basement who doesn’t know ass from elbow sets off a homemade H-Bomb. It’ll happen someday, believe you me. And then we’ll just go down to Marcus Drucker’s little hidey-hole, safe as roaches.”
“Sam called it a bunker,” I said.
And then fast-forward to the moment with Howard wearing the Fenwick towel around his ample waist as he said the word “bunker.”
He added, “Well, thank god for Marcus Drucker, and no one in the world ever thought they’d say that.”
Using a hotel pen, Howard scratched up a list on the back of our eviction notice. He waved it in the air.
“Leo, while I get dressed, you run down to the place on the corner,” our father said, dropping the paper on the bed closest to the bathroom. “Get everything on that list. And pick up a little breakfast from the Greek place. Make my coffee blonde and sweet. Make sure you and your sister have something substantial like an egg sandwich, sausage — you know — and maybe get some apples or bananas, too. Oh – and get some mineral water. Fresh water may be hard to come by for a day or two.”
“I need some cash,” Leo said as he scanned the list.
“How much witch money’s leftover?”
“Maybe twelve bucks.”
“Hang on.” Howard returned to the bathroom and we heard him rooting around in the cabinet.
“I guess he’s got a stash,” Leo whispered.
As I said this, Howard tossed a clip of bills on the bed, giving us a fixed look as if he wanted to make sure we were on board. He shut the bathroom door behind him. He starting singing one of his old bathroom songs.
“Not bad,” Leo muttered when he picked up the money clip and counted.
After Leo left, I dressed and waited near the bathroom listening to my father massacre a song.
Howard came out of the bathroom all clean, dressed and whistling as if we were going out for a museum day.
“Here’s the deal, sweet pea,” he said as he went to start packing. “Everything can be reversed. Even curses.”
“They can?” I wondered – in my mind only – if we could reverse the famous February day when my mother died, a coelacanth on the deck of a ship.
I went in search of the little mementos of my mother, hidden in places in the room so that no one else could find them.
Once we’d packed everything and I cleaned up — and after Leo returned with breakfast and necessary supplies — we three loaded up and went out into the hall and took the service elevator down to the basement.
I assumed this would be just a day trip, a way to brush off Mrs. Castle and possibly the Orwellian Keystones who wanted to take our father away from us and maybe kidnap us somewhere we didn’t want to go.
When we reached the door at the farthest corner of the laundry room, careful to duck and hide behind something if we thought a maid might see us, I was surprised at the door itself once the trash cans had been rolled back.
I’d expected a door from some magical book or movie, the kind that sparkled in some way or whose knob spoke to you or in turning it, perhaps you’d be transported to another realm.
Part of me hoped it was a time machine of some kind and maybe we’d go back to February 15th of the previous winter and if we did that, I wouldn’t play hide-and-go-seek at all. I’d sit and do the Da Vinci Flying Machine jigsaw puzzle while Melanie smoked voluminous fogbanks on the couch.
But it was just a regular old door – small, narrow, the kind you’d think would be full of brooms and cleaning supplies.
Leo grabbed the key – on a little hook on the wall – and unlocked it.
We trooped in, dragging out belongings.
I had a few seconds in the dark. My father grabbed my hand.
Leo closed and then locked the door behind us.
We no longer heard the grumble and whoosh of the laundry.
A cavernous silence enveloped us.
Then, following flashlight beams, Leo guided us down a dozen rusty steps.
“This is as far as I went with Sam,” Leo said, his voice echoing slightly. “I don’t know what’s up ahead.”
“Don’t worry,” Howard said, pushing his light through the murk. “Think of Columbus, think of Marco Polo, think of your namesake Leonardo. We’re discovering a New World.”
“Or the Old World of Marcus Drucker,” Leo said.
We stepped cautiously across what seemed a cat-walk above a slow-dripping tunnel beneath the city. Every ounce of my body wanted to turn and run back up to the hotel, to those clean sheets and pillows, to throw myself on the mercy of the manager, to beg for someone to take us in, to let Mrs. Castle do what she wanted, to believe that the world above would find a place for us and maybe all this would be a brief if unhappy dream.
Leo clutched my hand. I took another step, then another, and another.
“It’s just down here,” he said.
“I’m scared,” I whispered.
“We won’t be here forever,” Howard said. “Just think of this as a place where we’ll build our personal flying machines and then we’ll glide away in Drucker-like fashion.”
But I felt as if we were on the verge of jumping off the planet toward some dark universe unlit by stars.
We followed the path cut by flashlights.
Through wide, jagged cracks in walls, we glimpsed distant campfires and heard the stormy rumble of trains.
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Check back soon. I may put up a new work-in-progress. This is my way of sharing my office with you a bit. I hope you enjoy what you read, and I’ll post here and elsewhere about publication dates as the novels and novellas are finished.
In the meantime, check out the various books, both upcoming and past here.
Mr.Darkness is the story of the strange demise of House Grigsby — an exceptionally ordinary family living in Manhattan in the previous century — as told from the perspective of Mina, the daughter Grigsby, who sees her life as a movie projected across a dark screen.
(We begin in the last bit of Chapter 3.)
A loud crash followed as if something slammed down. The floor shook. I imagined a cyclone of snow wrenching our apartment loose, dragging us into the street as giant hairy elephant monsters with curling tusks chased after us while dark wriggly things shimmied up drainpipes during the blackout.
My heart raced. I began breathing rapidly, unable to catch the air at all. I suddenly became convinced that I no longer was the real me. I had become the wrong Mina. And someone sat nearby in the dark who wanted to take my place.
A feather-soft something crawled across my hand. Flinching, I almost let out a yelp.
The lights came up.
I flung open the doors and crawled out, catching my breath, brandishing my weapon against anything that might come at me.
My mother lay on the floor, staring at me.
There was blood, too, so that all her golden hair turned muddy red.
She looked at me. Her lips moved. I remembered seeing the coelacanth in the museum. I wondered if its mouth opened and closed like this when they first pulled it out of the sea.
The film of memory kept cutting between the fish, my mother, the fish, the blood, the lights, my mother’s hand, a cigarette, the fish.
The music from our neighbor’s apartment started playing again, only it sounded warped as it came up and then we were back on the islands somewhere, leaving Kingston Town.
Kitchen lights overhead flashed on and off as if someone played with the switch.
The wall blotch, Mr. Darkness pulsated, expanded, bubbled.
I dropped the bread knife and it narrowly missed slicing off my toes.
Within seconds – or hours or days or months or years — I heard our front door open and Leo shouted something about one hell of a quickie blackout and Lazarus whozits and woolly mammoths and abdominal snowmen and our father was laughing just before he stopped laughing forever.
The film sped into fast-forward:
Howard and Leo in the kitchen, the way they looked when I saw them as they saw me near Melanie’s body, two bags burst across the linoleum, white cartons of spilled white rice and brown noodles everywhere, terrible sounds, phone calls, shouts and mutterings.
Mrs. Castle showed up to check on Melanie, her pulse, her eyes, her heart.
I slipped behind curtains in the living room to look out into the white darkness and see if some weirdo watched us; then I went to guard the front door beyond which neighbors stood along the stairs.
Paramedics ran up and down, in and out.
Melanie’s turquoise toenails stuck out from the bottom of a blanket.
I felt caught in a net.
Howard took off with the ambulance.
Leo shut himself in his room.
Mrs. Castle sat in the kitchen with a cup of tea and said she’d stay until our father returned.
She watched me.
I grew concerned she’d say something harsh or question me about exactly what happened and ask where certain items might have disappeared to.
I felt I’d broken an expensive vase or ruined a pair of shoes or lost something valuable that no one could ever find again.
I anticipated a terrible punishment.
I wondered if the real Mina would feel this way.
At first I went to my tiny room and counted my beautiful broken things and rearranged them as if doing this might rearrange the film of life and edit out the bad parts and maybe create a different outcome.
I put the Dutch boy next to the glass swan perfume stopper, and then separated the headless triplets so that two stood guard along with the dog and cat at the far edges of the shelf.
I made up a prayer to a non-existent deity that I decided to call the god of Beautiful Broken Things and promised that if we could rewind a little bit to just before the hide-and-go-seek game, I’d just sit with my mother on the blue sofa and watch her create fogbanks of smoke.
After my prayer, standing in solemn vigil by Leo’s room, I tapped a Morse code of nonsense on his door.
I pressed my face against wood, thinking Leo was just on the other side, also with his face pressed against the door. You hate me? I wanted to ask the door, but couldn’t. My mouth felt as if it were sewn shut.
A dreadful silence followed, the kind where you hear the muffled tapping of a clock, the slow tick-tock of the crocodile of time coming to gobble you up.
Then a strange thing happened and I wouldn’t normally tell anyone this because they might put me away:
A small brown cockroach ran along the wall until it arrived just about level with my face. It paused. Its antennae twisted around as it picked up my wavelength.
Was it looking at me?
I could swear it was. A voice that sounded exactly like my teacher Miss Nolan said:
You know exactly what you did, young lady.
The damn cockroach got inside my head and was fucking with me.
You can pretend you’re all innocent, but you’re not, you’re the one who made this happen and now you’ll pay, Mina Grigsby, you’ll pay. And what’s that in your pockets, thief? What are you hiding?
Was this the high priest of the god of Beautiful Broken Things?
I slapped the bug and missed. It skittered away, up the wall. I chased it into the kitchen, hoping to kill the damn thing before it ran to safety.
It zipped along until it ran right into the Mr. Darkness blotch, as if this weren’t an old greasy burn mark shaped like a sideways dark heart but an entryway into another world.
Clearly I’d begun losing my marbles. I felt little electric shocks in my chest. I couldn’t breathe fast enough. I would die if I stayed inside the apartment one more minute.
I turned around to half-smile at Leelah at the kitchen table with her endless cup of tea.
“Can I get you something?” she asked.
“Hall. Out there. Got to go. Wait for Howard. Just outside the door,” I said, barely able to get the words out. “I’m fine. I’m fine.”
I felt my throat closing up and my breath vanishing as I moved as stealthily and normally as I could toward the door out of that alien landscape that had once been home.
Once free of the apartment, I caught my breath.
Mrs. Cat-Lady stared at me from her doorway while I paced back and forth in the hall counting my steps along the flat green carpet with cigarette burns in it.
Our strange neighbor was old but my mother said she always pretended she was still a girl. You live too long in this dump, I could practically hear Melanie’s voice, you end up like that. Blue hair, crabby face, a little looney, collecting cats. None of the cats spilled into the hall although the legend was that she kept nearly ten of them in an apartment half the size of ours.
“You okay, hon?” the neighbor asked.
Despite her disarray of scruffy bathrobe and enormous feet couched in shabby slippers, she’d done her blue hair up like she was getting ready for a night on the town.
I stopped pacing.
She stepped toward me, crouched down, eye-to-eye.
“Your Mommy okay?”
I shook my head, hands in pockets.
Tears pressed against my eyelids, unwilling to come out.
“The woolly mammoths killed her,” I whispered, the big secret. “They stampeded. In the blackout.”
She winced as if it hurt to hear it.
“It really was the woolly mammoths. Or else…” I could barely say the name. “Maybe…maybe it was Mr. Darkness.”
Mrs. Cat-Lady reached over and felt my forehead. Her hand burned even though I was all ice on the inside.
Leelah Castle materialized. I hadn’t heard our door open and hadn’t even sensed her presence until there she was, right next to me. But she wasn’t like a ghost suddenly appearing from gathering mist or anything; she was more a crack of lightning. She made me jump a little when I saw her.
“I thought I’d lost you,” she said.
Mrs. Cat-Lady stood up using my shoulder as leverage and seemed about to say something but didn’t.
Leelah passed me a green mug.
“Drink it,” Leelah said.
I weighed the option between it being poison or just plain old milk. My father once gave us a lecture about household poisons and how it was easy to mix bottles up and things around so that “you end up keeling over because you drank the turpentine instead of the apple juice.”
But would Leelah poison me right now? Wouldn’t it look suspicious? Mrs. Cat-Lady was right there. She’d tell the police later that Leelah Castle – who had already lost a husband and a child – was on a rampage and wasn’t satisfied with one death in a day but had taken the poor innocent little girl nextdoor, too.
No, if Leelah was a poisoner, she wouldn’t do it now, I thought.
Warming my hands against the mug, I looked into its milky depths and then up to her face. I thought of Alice and her bottle marked Drink Me.
I took a sip and waited to shrink small enough to disappear through the cracks.
It tasted sweet and bitter at the same time and brought up a scent of something familiar. I remained my usual height.
“What’s in it?”
“A little honey and vanilla,” she said. “Some cinnamon.”
“It almost smells like bergamot,” I said as I took another sip.
“There’s zero bergamot in it, I promise.” Leelah removed her black-framed glasses and rubbed her eyes, which were small and dark. Her black hair, pulled back tight, made her face seem a perfect oval like an old-fashioned mirror.
“Everything good?” she asked, looking between Mrs. Cat-Lady and me.
Mrs. Cat-Lady’s shoulders rose and fell slightly.
“Why don’t we wait inside,” Leelah said, a gentle drop in her voice.
“I’m sorry about your Mommy,” Mrs. Cat-Lady said just as I was about to turn away.
“We never called her that,” I said. “You know I was named after her?”
That’s when I noticed the shadows of neighbors along the stairway below and heard whispers from the two weirdoes. I recognized their voices — one was the woman who had the famous sister that got killed a long time ago, and the other one being the short man we nicknamed the Russian Spy who had shockingly blue eyes and spoke in foreign mumbles.
I felt a spotlight shine down on me for the first time in my life.
“My real name’s Melanie,” I told my audience, both seen and unseen. “But Leo couldn’t say it right when he was four. He called me Mina.”
“You look just like your mother, too,” Leelah said, trying to charm me back into the apartment.
“I do?” I asked.
This seemed impossible. Melanie was a star with golden hair.
I was just a brown-haired guardian of the cracks in the sidewalk, one of my mother’s katzenjammers, Meen, a loser of mittens, a collector of beautiful broken things.
Melanie used to tell me that I couldn’t have been hers because I didn’t have any pizzazz.
She’d say this with an ice-stuffed glass of Scotch in hand, often among a gathering of old friends from “back when things were fun,” a cigarette bobbing up and down at the edge of her mouth as she groaned about all the dreams she used to have and now look where she was, selling diamonds to big shots for their child-brides, with a husband who hated teaching but taught pimply kids how to make bombs with beakers, living in a cozy, slightly-cramped, perfectly-nice six-floor walk-up.
Only she’d leave the cozy and perfectly-nice parts out.
What I’ve patched together about Melanie’s life before she married Howard:
Melanie Walthorp was born, an only child, in a river town somewhere else. Her parents died in a train crash when she was a teenager. The third worst crash in history, she said, it was just awful.
Where were you? I once asked.
I was in school that day. Or else maybe with friends. I can’t remember now. I blocked it all out I guess.
After that, she was pretty much left to her own devices. She stayed in other peoples’ horrible homes that she said were worse than anything we could imagine and we should all thank our lucky stars that we had what we had because not every kid does and many end up in The System.
At some point, she got to Manhattan and worked the lobby at the Paramount Theater as a cigarette and candy girl. After the showing of a movie called A Place in the Sun, she met an agent she called Dodo-Head who bought all her cigarettes and most of her candy and told her he’d take her out West and make her into a movie star like Elizabeth Taylor.
Eventually, she returned to New York and later on met Howard. There were plenty of gaps in her tales of early life, but she edited all of it down to what could be told between the first sip of a drink and its second refill.
“And that’s when all this happened,” she’d say, fumes pouring from her nostrils and glasses clinking while Leo and I eavesdropped from the kitchen. “Living a life you think you’ll never get stuck in.”
No one can break your heart like your mother can, my father once told me.
I wished I could be like Melanie. A movie star, someone who lit up the world with her presence and got drunk in a way that released beautiful damage onto the unsuspecting.
But I wasn’t like her at all.
Her real little girl wouldn’t hide under the sink.
Or steal things.
When I first emerged from the cabinet, after watching my mother die and before Howard and Leo showed up laughing, I saw the dropped items:
A few matchbooks, the kind that people like my mother got in bars with names like Castaways or The Hideout or The Spot. These lay beside a cigarette, and next to it, four packs of Gitanes with the blue woman on the box covers.
And the ring, but that was way over in a corner.
My mother’s ring must’ve slipped off her finger in the fall and then the spun, rolled, running away from her.
Melanie had never gotten her wedding ring to fit right.
When I picked it up, I read the inscription out loud, remembering when Melanie first showed it to me:
Amor Vincit Omnia.
“It means ‘Love is shit’,” my mother told me at least a year earlier. Then one night Melanie threw the ring across the living room and cried and I tried to cheer her up and she said, “Everybody deserves to be loved, don’t they?”
Don’t they, don’t they, don’t they, I remembered her voice as I slipped the ring from one finger to another.
Did I deserve to be loved?
Howard said later that my mother didn’t die just because the lights went out for a minute or two. It was an aneurysm that killed her – “probably before she fell” — and then explained how that could happen.
We spent a few days moving things around the kitchen trying to find the wedding ring.
“You sure you saw it?” Howard asked.
“Over there,” I pointed.
My father on hands and knees reached beneath cabinets.
“It couldn’t just disappear.”
Leo told me that the paramedics probably stole it, or someone at the hospital, or maybe it just fell off in the snow when they took her to the Emergency Room.
We stopped short of blaming Leelah Castle.
We kept Melanie’s ashes in her old wooden jewelry box, which was ridiculously large and generally empty.
“Is that all of her?” I asked when I peered under the lid.
“Can’t be,” Leo said. “Probably just the important bits. Like her heart, maybe.”
I imagined Melanie’s heart, not in a pile of ashes, but beating beneath her breast which fell in a lump out of her slip and hung on for dear life while she leaned over the bathtub shaving her legs before we went to school, a cigarette in her mouth. She tapped out the razor on the edge of the tub. Her hair fell down to the side when she looked over at me with her not-quite-awake eyes and said, “Meen, make me a cup of instant, will you? ‘Member how?”
Of course I remembered how. I’d been making her instant coffee for at least three years, boiling water, pouring it carefully in a mug, stirring in dark crystals, then a little milk and sugar and taking a first bitter taste to make sure it was how she liked it.
I wished I could make a cup of instant and have her back again.
I wanted to see her everywhere again. In a chair. In bed. Complaining about her boss. Pointing out weirdoes and circus people in the zoo of life.
Even using the soul-sprite words of swear and curse that were practically her mother tongue.
Long quiet days followed. Mrs. Cat-Lady’s music played through the wall on the slowest nights. I began to decipher hidden meanings in the songs.
Strangers arrived, then vanished. Relatives remained mythological.
I spent hours going in and out of mind movies. I projected them on the walls so that even when someone talked to me, I was too busy watching my memories of books I’d read and movies I’d seen, all accompanied by the soundtrack from our neighbor’s place.
I felt mostly hollowed out.
Leo avoided me but managed to put together all one thousand pieces of the Da Vinci Flying Machine. Using glue and toothpicks, he replicated the flying machine in three dimensions. He created a series of models that became more complex and seemed part dinosaur – some taking an entire week to complete — until he’d exhausted the toothpick supply. Using rubber bands and other doohickeys, one of these models flew around in the air for a solid ten seconds before crashing. Then, he began making an even larger one using the wooden dowels from closets and a broken old broom from the storage room at the bottom of the long stairway, hammering them all together until it resembled pterodactyl wings.
He’d built a flying machine that could never fly, but he could wrap his arms up in it, close his eyes, and pretend. Howard told us over and over again that we just had to believe and good things would happen.
“What’s the difference between pretend and believe?” I asked.
“That’s the same difference between outside and inside, or day and night, or over and under,” my father replied, confusing me further.
I could tell Leo wanted to believe he could fly.
I wanted to believe it, too.
Sometime later, Leo tore up all these creations and filled an entire trashcan with the toothpicks and put his broomstick wings outside on the sidewalk on trash day.
Mrs. Castle came upstairs and made dinner four nights a week.
She told us all about the strange goings-on in her emergency room. These tales all involved bizarre incidents which began with someone saying, “So I was just standing there minding my own business,” (when suddenly someone stabbed or shot someone or stuck something up somewhere or tripped over something) to the point that you’d think all bizarre and terrible accidents, crimes and tragedies must happen when you’re just standing there minding your own business.
She also baked us a deep-dish lasagna that lasted all four nights. It would’ve lasted a fifth if Leo hadn’t tossed it out.
She kept prodding Howard to recount stories about the famous Grigsbys of Pumpkin Hill and how his great-uncle Icarus beat the Wright Brothers to the punch except for the fact that nobody but the other Grigsbys had known about his flight on a blisteringly cold Christmas Eve which blew him across into Maine and smashed him down into a lake, killing himself and an ice skater at the same time; or of his great-great-grandfather Hephaestus who’d converted gas lamps to what he called lightning-bolt lanterns but was – in the end – electrocuted by his own invention and then “that damn scoundrel Tom Edison got his electric lights up all over the place as if he’d created the universe.”
I enjoyed these stories, the oral history of our accursed clan passed down through generations, the tale of the Grigsby who was the son of one of those girls in Salem who accused people of witchcraft and later accidentally hanged himself, then the one after that who became a whaling captain and was thrown overboard by a mutinous crew, and then the one who ran the cider mill that ended up nearly poisoning half the state, the one who drowned in his self-made outhouse invented to solve the problem of waste disposal, the ones who took voyages on various ships with names like Titanic and Lusitania, the ones who invested all their money in Grigsby’s Perfect Buggy Whips right as the first Model Ts rolled off the line or the cousins who bet everything on the stock market in the early fall of 1929, and even our unmet grandfather Prometheus, who gambled so much he lost his house, his car, his wife and then one day, Howard said, he bet his mind — and lost that, too.
“He lives chained up in a big asylum of his own creation and all your stygian uncles and aunts — turkey buzzards all – daily eat his liver, which renews itself the next morning. He forgets how horrible they are, all the awful things he’s done, and he thinks it’s all my fault because I got the hell out while I still had the chance. Ah, what a merry life that must be. Ain’t ya glad you never met ‘em?”
All the stories of the Grigsby curse hit the men of the family hardest, the geniuses, the bright boys of Pumpkin Hill, of which my father had been in-line-for until he left and never looked back. He didn’t want to be anything other than a famous novelist but knew that any aim for success or fame or fortune would bring the curse back because that’s what ambition led to, ultimately, the breaking of unassailable and immutable universal laws. The curse would’ve descended even unto Leo if our father had pursued his inner calling, so he went for a job he hated and “cut my fate off where it counts.”
“But you wrote a book once,” Leo reminded our father.
“’Once’ is the saddest little word in the English language,” Howard said.
The Dangerford Cyclopia was about a family of one-eyed siblings named Dangerford who lived on an isolated island and were, like the Grigsbys, cursed. Our father never wanted us to see it, so of course, we’d scoured the apartment and searched high, low, in buckets and beneath piles of laundry until we finally discovered its sacred burial ground.
Turned out, our father kept the manuscript under his bed in a big brown filing box marked Tax Papers 1959-1964 but pretended (for our benefit) he’d torn that book up in a fit of rage a long time ago.
Leo memorized the first few sentences and would recite them to my glee long after we were supposed to be in bed:
On Christmas day in 1938 on Butternut Island, Maine, six Dangerford children were born all at once. A miraculous litter, each of these siblings had only one eye at the center of her or his forehead.
Phoebus, the youngest Dangerford by thirty seconds, was the only among them born absolutely eyeless, except on the inside, where he saw everything with absolute clarity.
Phoebus — Leo and I were sure — was an eyeless reflection of our father, the youngest among our three untoward uncles and two unimaginable aunts.
“Sure I wrote that book,” Howard said, while we interrogated him about it over our plates of leftover lasagna. “I spent seven years of my life on it. But no one shall ever see it. It’s smithereens now.”
“But what if it was a good book?” I asked.
“It was. Brilliant. Maybe the best novel ever written with a few exceptions, of course, like that one by Dostoywhoski and maybe the one by F. Scott Fitzwhatzits,” Howard said between bites. “But that’s the problem. If I took it to a publisher and they wanted it, it might destroy us all. I mean, America loves that kind of book about dashed dreams and tragic outcomes. The French, of course, would eat it up because it’s full of wine, cigarettes and convenient existentialism. But why risk the curse? When you aim too high and your name is Grigsby, that’s when the olympian shit-storm comes down. Ordinary life saved me. And you,” here he looked solely at Leo, “you’re raised away from all that so you’ll be safe when you reach for the stars.”
“What’s so funny?” Leo asked Mrs. Castle, whose smirk faded when we looked in her direction.
“It’s nothing. Just me being silly.”
“We like silly,” I said.
Mrs. Castle looked down at her plate and – with her fork — organized asparagus spears into single file.
“You find all this Grigsby stuff laughable,” my father said in a way that didn’t sound humorous at all.
“No. I don’t. I really don’t.”
Leelah looked as if she wished she could be anywhere in the world but at our table.
“I just think there’s no such thing as a curse. You make your luck. Everything else is just what happens. That’s all. For instance…”
She hesitated. Howard nodded to her and made a characteristic wave of his fork, which meant, Continue, keep going, no going back now that you’ve stuck your foot in it.
“Well, with this novel you wrote. What if you’re wrong? What if you showed it to someone and they felt it was going to open peoples’ eyes to something important, or it was some big literary event of the year, or even it would give you a career you might want. And then what if no curse happens because there is no curse, it’s just accidents in life, which happens to everyone at some point. Like I said, we make our own luck. But it must be made.”
We stared at her as if all her teeth had just fallen out. She was the opposite of everything Grigsby and she’d just laid out her outlandish ideas as if they were some unnassailable and immutable laws.
“If we make our own luck,” Howard broke the silence, “then name one person who’s any good at it. And if they are, what’d they do to make it? The world’s full of misfortune. Think of children born in poverty. Did they make that luck? And are you really suggesting that those people with great good luck all made it themselves?”
It was obvious from Leelah’s face that this wasn’t what she meant at all, but there was no interrupting my father once he got going.
“We live in a compromised world, and all this so-called success just masks crime. And wealth! Don’t even get me started,” Howard said.
He named famous bankers born from four generations of criminal behavior who destroyed the economy at one time or another, and then the more notorious lopsiders who’d messed everything up after World War II and then a politician and a celebrity and a whomsoever…followed by every tyrannical and monstrous dictator the world has known, including Mussolini, Hitler, Ivan the Terrible, Vlad the Impaler, Caligula, Nero, and even my teacher, Miss Nolan.
At that point, I wasn’t sure if Howard hadn’t gone off some deep end. Leo glanced over at me, red sauce and drippy cheese on his chin, what the hell?
Howard ended with, “And my wife, did she make her own luck? Was that her intention when her brain popped like a helium balloon at 50,000 feet?”
I almost cried when I saw the look on Leelah’s face. It was as if she’d been slapped – and slapped hard. I hoped she had a shatterproof heart.
I guessed at what she was thinking:
Her utter lack of luck, happiness; of everything we had and didn’t even know we had; the loss of daughter; husband; or even (as Leo suggested to me later) the remembrance of all those people with torn arms and legs and bullets in their stomachs and flashlights pushed into peculiar and improper sockets and skulls bashed in who came through her Emergency Room doors after just minding their own business.
Whatever it was, Leelah’s face turned bright candy-apple red. She excused herself from the table.
I watched her go and for a second thought I’d run after her so she wouldn’t feel so very lonely to the nth degree.
“Well, one thing’s for damn sure,” Leo said.
I turned to him.
“No more lasagna,” he said.
I spent days watching the empty space on the blue couch where Melanie used to smoke and read magazines. At night, with the lights out, I’d tiptoe into the kitchen and go find the place where Mr. Darkness seeped into the wall and I’d touch it, thinking I’d open it up into another world where I could go and ride woolly mammoths and trade places with the real Mina and not be in the apartment thinking of my mother’s mouth opening and closing.
One night, so late that my father’s snores shook the rooms and there was almost-light outside the windows, I flicked up the kitchen lamp, sat down at the table with a piece of my mother’s stationery and one of the pens kept in the junk drawer.
I wrote a letter to Mr. Darkness. When I finished, I rolled it up like a scroll and tied twine around it to hold it in place. I put it in the undersink cabinet, behind various cans of cleaners and poisons, among the outermost spider webs.
I said things in that letter I would never say aloud; things that I wanted to bury and forget and never believe were true again.
Howard began stumbling around, coughing, drinking martinis before dark.
In bed, he’d open Melanie’s round bottle of perfume and dab some on his fingers. Leo and I watched as he wiped his hands all over the sheets and blankets and crawl into bed clutching pillows and inhale bergamot and iris and violet — and groan.
The entire room smelled of Melanie. I cried whenever I went into that bedroom in the late morning to shake him out of his coma.
Howard came down with a fever. He coughed so much some nights I couldn’t sleep from the noise. He sweated even when it was cold. He stayed home sick more days than not. Summer came and went for us and I didn’t even notice.
The perfume ran out.
I cupped the bottle in my hands and smelled the last of Melanie. Her word “katzenjammers” bubbled up, and film clips of the way she walked or how excited she got when she took me shopping or after a movie when we’d go to Serendipity for frozen hot chocolate or stand up at Gray’s Papaya and have hot dogs and soda and she’d tell me about Hollywood and the old days and all the dreams she used to have and the blue skies ahead.
I carried the empty bottle with me everywhere until Leo took it – by force, prying it from my fingers – and threw it down the trash chute on the fourth floor.
I leaned over the edge of the chute and heard the perfume bottle smash into a million pieces far, far below where nothing could ever be put back together again.
Time flattened. Weeks, months, hours, all of it mashed together. School became a forgotten dream; perhaps our school or even Howard’s school called once or twice, but the phone stopped working so it didn’t matter. I began writing in spiral notebook diaries, making up a fascinating life I didn’t have so that one day when I looked back on all this, I wouldn’t recall my terrible wish that I could reverse time and make death go away.
Our father inevitably lost his job; he’d just never gone back to it.
“But this is not the curse, I promise you. I’ll find something else,” he said, in between rattling coughs and wheezes. “We’ll get through this. We’ve still got a little cash. Don’t you kids worry. Money always arrives in the nick of time. You’ll see.”
Mrs. Castle returned just long enough to yell at Howard over things he hadn’t done and dozens of things he should be doing.
Gale Force Leelah, Leo joked later.
On her way out, she passed me in the hall.
“I’m just wasting my breath,” Leelah Castle muttered. “You can’t save anyone in this world who doesn’t want saving.”
We got in a cab soon after the Leelah detonation.
Howard’s fever subsided enough for him to feel a little peppy. We grabbed stuff, clutched multiple suitcases, made sure that the little things we cared about came with us, the rest could be left, our father said, “to the turkey buzzards.”
Our father told the cabbie, “The Fenwick Arms and step on it.”
We always liked to say, “and step on it,” whenever we got in cabs, just like they did in old movies.
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Check back soon. I’ll get a new chapter going of Mr. Darkness, and once I know the publishing schedule, I’ll post it.
In the meantime, check out the various books, both upcoming and past here.
Mr.Darkness is the story of the strange demise of House Grigsby — an exceptionally ordinary family living in Manhattan in the previous century — as told from the perspective of Mina, the daughter Grigsby, who sees her life as a movie projected across a dark screen.
School let out before noon as snow crowded the sidewalks. Snarling traffic clogged the wide avenue outside. Inside, behind a wall of glass, my brother and I watched other kids leave.
Monstrous buses poured black soot onto piles of slush just beyond the school steps. People became blurry, bizarre creatures rushing past.
“Everybody looks like abdominal snowmen,” I said.
“Meen, it’s uh-bom-in-a-bull.”
“Uh-bomb-in-a-whatzits,” I said.
“Where the fuck’s Melanie?” Leo asked — sick of me, sick of waiting, sick of the zoo of life beyond the window.
You’ve probably guessed by now that Leo and I were allowed to use bad language whenever we felt like it.
Howard held the conviction that language itself was a living thing, a vibrant sprite of the soul. Only lopsided thinkers added terrible meaning and bad intent to its near-perfect pitch. Their reaction – he said — was a sign of inner conflict and had fuck-all to do with the actual spoken words.
“It’s just language and it needs to mean what it means and if it’s the right word, it’s the right word. If you can’t say words out loud you might as well shut your yap and hold it all in like a fart at High Mass until you explode in your pew.”
He believed that if we used the more socially-frowned-on words freely at home – usually first discovered in movies we weren’t old enough to watch or when Melanie stubbed a toe or our parents drank too much or blew up over some infraction of house rules – that they’d lose their power over us and we’d be less inclined to say them in front of some lopsider who might misinterpret our exuberance.
None of this proved true. Our elementary school labeled Leo a bad influence for his fairly constant and exuberant wordplay. Yet he was beloved there, too.
And as we waited for our mother to show up during the birth of a snowstorm, my teacher Miss Nolan came up behind Leo in that precise second he’d used the f word.
But of course he got away with it.
My teacher despised girls, loved boys as if she might possibly want to date one of them. I was positive she’d make a move soon on a French boy named Didier of the violet eyes, who looked (Miss Nolan said) exactly like a movie star named Alain Delon. The whole world apparently looked like various movie stars but I had no idea who Alain Delon was other than, perhaps, violet eyes and very French.
Miss Nolan hated me. She never called on me in class except for purposes of humiliation, mercilessly critiquing my cursive writing – particularly the rocker curves, which I reinvented as rococo vines circling endlessly across paper. On my compositions, she’d write things like: Watch your run-off sentences and dangling whatzits, indefinite modiflyers, steam of consciousness and all this rumbling-on where the predicate comes before the subject, which is wrong, wrong, wrong.
I might be misremembering her notes but you get the gist.
On the famous blizzardy day, I felt her hand on my shoulder– more grip than squeeze.
“I wonder why she’s so late,” Miss Nolan said, not a question at all.
“Maybe she’s busy,” Leo said. “She works, you know.”
“Everyone works,” Miss Nolan said. “I work, too.”
Leo shrugged. “For all we know, she’s lying dead in the street, hit by a bus that skidded on the ice and won’t you feel terrible when we get the news.”
“Oh, you,” Miss Nolan said in that affectionate way that she never said to any little girl in her entire life.
If I’d made this crack I’d already be at the principal’s office, a note to my parents practically pinned to my collar and no recess for a week.
Ignoring such inequity, I glanced from one passerby to another through the blurry window, hoping my mother’s face would appear.
Miss Nolan checked her watch and mentioned the precise time down to the second and how long ago she’d called our mother and why was it that she was always on time for everyone else but no one was ever on time for her.
“It beggars belief,” she said.
“Whatever that means,” I whispered.
My brother nudged me, squinting, grimacing, and curling his hands into claws – shorthand for Tyrannosaurus Rex.
A second later he was just Leo again.
“Finally,” Miss Nolan said after a long moment as if we’d been waiting – indignantly — for hours and hours for a rescue party to come find us in a frozen tundra.
Melanie emerged from the crush of snow and hurry. A tangerine scarf snaked from her golden hair and wound around her throat. Her high-collared white coat fell across shoulders and drifted down just past knees toward shiny red boots.
I’d never been so happy to see my mother in my life.
My teacher opened the door ahead of us.
When I looked back, Miss Nolan glared as if every ounce of irritation right down to her brittle bone marrow stemmed from the fact that I’d ever been born.
Melanie swept Leo’s chin with blue-gloved fingers as if school had smudged him in some way. Grabbing both our hands, she drew us down the steps.
“Took you long enough,” Leo grumbled.
“If you want, I’ll take you back to your girlfriend Mrs. Nolan.”
“Miss Nolan,” Leo corrected.
“That does not surprise me.”
I tucked up against my mother’s coat while we walked. Her perfume had iris, violet and something from a strange fruit called bergamot in it. Berg-a-mo, yet another word I mentally said over and over after my mother first told me about it. How often had I snuck into my parents’ room, tiptoed to the dresser, opened the round glass bottle to steal a drop of shimmering amber perfume? It conjured her when she wasn’t around.
Leo called it Mom-in-a-Bottle. She left traces of it on everything, letters she wrote, grocery bags, the telephone, the top of my head.
At a stoplight, my mother wiped flecks of snow from my cheeks as her scent infused me.
We trudged, cautious of slips and slides. Melanie started talking about the julery shop.
Leo corrected her: “Jew-el-ry.”
She ignored him.
Our mother was late picking us up – she said — because a young man in a tailored suit walked in just as they were locking up and he took his damn time but bought a necklace that cost more than you could make in a year at the julery counter.
Again, Leo corrected her, or tried to.
“That’s who you marry, Meen. A guy who buys you that kind of julery. A real prince.”
(“It’s jew-el-ry, you pronounce the syllables, oh why do I even bother,” Leo said, thrice ignored as my mother and I kept chattering.)
“Was he a handsome prince?” I asked.
“The handsomest,” Melanie said. “And a flirt. Told me I was too young to be out of school. Really? I said back. You must be what, seventeen, eighteen? he tells me. So I go, ‘I’m nearly thirty, even though people always think I look much younger’.”
Both Leo and I knew she was older than thirty.
Near a subway stop close to our building, we saw Ukelele Man. He stopped playing his namesake instrument long enough to stick his hand out for change.
“Poor old guy.” Leo reached into his pocket.
“You are not going to waste your milk money on that guy. He’s practically king of the city,” Melanie said, pulling us along.
“That’s one hell of a gross exaggeration,” Leo said.
“Is it? He might be Howard fucking Hughes for all we know.”
I caught one more glimpse of Ukelele Man before he disappeared down subway steps.
The king, I thought.
Within a block, Melanie came to a full stop surrounded by swirling snowflakes. She turned toward us. The gray light of winter’s shadow lit her from behind. Snowflakes melted into diamond tears on her face.
My mother seemed movie screen big. She may have cussed like a demented sailor and possessed fathomless flaws and moods that swung from one end of creation to the other — she may have been cruel sometimes when I wanted her to be sweet — but when she turned on it was as if a spectacular new film had begun.
She held out gloved fingers, wriggling them for me to grab hold.
“Come on, katzenjammers,” she said. “Nothin’ but blue skies now.”
We stood just a few feet from the steps of our building.
The woman on the first floor looked out her window at us.
This woman on the first floor was nearly a mystery to me. What I knew of her was hearsay and, according to my brother, would not hold up in a court of law. Her name was Leelah Castle and she was younger than our mother but not by too much. I used to tell Leo that someday he’d have to marry her because their first names sounded like they belonged together.
Mrs. Castle wore black-framed glasses and her nose was more memorable than any other part of her.
She was a nurse in Emergency Rooms. “Everything about that woman’s an emergency,” Melanie said once or twice.
Mrs. Castle used to have a daughter, but the little girl died and then her husband moved somewhere else. He was a no-goodnik, my father said, and that poor woman has been through the wars.
Howard would occasionally fetch groceries for Leelah Castle. He told me to be kind to her because she had things inside her that probably hurt all the time. My father would leave a piece of cake for her whenever I had a birthday because he said it was a nice thing to do but not to tell my mother about.
“Mrs. Castle’s very, very –very to the nth degree — lonely,” he said.)
As Melanie unlocked the door to our building, she glanced over at Mrs. Castle’s window.
“God, I wish that woman would just move away,” Melanie said.
Upstairs (we lived in between two other apartments just under the roof) Melanie pushed open our door.
She cussed a bit because it was already unlocked.
“Maybe somebody broke in,” Leo said.
“Or,” Melanie said, “somebody forgot to lock it for the third time this week. Check all the corners and closets for weirdos, kids.”
After hunting for weirdoes, I tried the TV set just in case it happened to have repaired itself overnight. It had just stopped working two weeks before. My mother dropped a puzzle box on the carpet next to where I stood.
“Just pretend it’s a TV show,” she said.
The ancient box cover showed a huge skeletal glider with wings almost like a pterodactyl. The words Leonardo Da Vinci Flying Machine 1000 Pieces were just above the wingtips.
“You like jigsaw puzzles,” she said.
“Leo likes them the most.”
“But you like them, too.”
“Now’s a good sometimes.” Her eyes narrowed with suspicion. “So, where’d you put ‘em, ya little squirrel?”
After I told her (against my better judgment), Melanie went to get her cigarettes in one of several hiding places around the apartment.
“I know there’s half a carton somewhere in this damn place, Meen,” she said, trailing smoke upon her return. “Hope it shows up soon or somebody may not be going to the movies Saturday.”
“The surgeon general said…” I began.
“I bet that old hypocrite has a three-pack-a-day habit.”
Melanie sank down into the blue sofa, slid an ashtray beside her like it was her best friend, stubbed out the finished cigarette and sifted through a small stack of magazines before settling on one. She shot me a glance — what you staring at?
Then, she lit a new cigarette and began a performance that never failed to fascinate me.
My mother was what you’d call a Smoking Artist. She knew how to light a cigarette with barely a flick of a match and then she’d draw the smoke in. She’d hold all that cloud of smoke – you could count to four and wonder where she held it in that surprisingly petite body – and then release.
A roiling plume poured from her nostrils, assuming shapes of dancing bears and flying geese and lords a-leaping as it spun out in the air. She told me that girls in French movies smoked that way and mentioned her idol Jeanne Moreau who was “everything a woman should be – beauty, mystery, and three steps ahead of everybody else.”
Melanie even developed a way of holding smoke on the cliff of her lower lip like a mountain fogbank while time itself stopped. Just as the fog congealed — and you began to imagine frozen, crashing waves within it — she’d suck the white sea into her mouth and, eventually, the count of three or four, out from her nostrils.
“Drives the boys wild,” she told me.
Leo stood in front of the big window, his face nearly pressed to the glass.
“You see something?” I asked.
“The end of the world,” he said in that radio voice he could do when he wanted to give me goosebumps.
I padded over to stand beside him and look out the window, too.
Lightning flashed across the dimming sky, cutting through a mist of snow. The apartment shivered just enough for me to wonder if it might topple.
I scanned the blurry street. Crazy wind raced around the corners of our building making the pane rattle. Snow whooshed and whirled.
“Looks like the same old world to me,” I said.
“The lights,” he said. “They’re flickering. That means they’ll go out. All of them. Like when you were born.”
We both knew the remarkable tales of our emergence into the world. Every year on our birthdays, Melanie or Howard or both of them in chorus would recount how it had transpired.
Our mother could never just give birth. It had to involve an element of wrong place, wrong time and a whiff of the cinematic.
Leo was born in the middle of a Coney Island sideshow after Melanie got a terrible shock when Dr. Atomic the Human H Bomb touched her hand, causing her to go into labor right there.
And I’d been born in a blackout.
I could practically recite my own birth events from memory.
It was November 9th. A Tuesday. My father got off work early to meet her at the Coronet Theater on 59th Street. It was a film Melanie was dying to see but she and Howard could never agree (in telling me later) which one it was.
(“It was The Collector,” she’d say.
“No it wasn’t. It was that Jerry Lewis movie. About the stewardesses.”
“I wouldn’t be caught dead at a Jerry Lewis movie. It was The Collector.”
“I’d never get off work early to go see a movie with Terence Stamp in it.”)
But right in the middle of the goddamn movie, as my mother would say, someone comes a-knockin’.
Howard tried to get a cab but he couldn’t find an empty.
Or else (as Melanie told it) he was too cheap.
They took the subway.
The train stopped before it could get to the next platform. They got stuck and things went black as pitch. It was crazy, Howard said. All the trains stopped dead. The whole Northeast got hit. Something about Niagara Falls made it happen but I never understood that part. Melanie woke up in the hospital later. They put me in her arms.
The official story included a midwife who happened to be in the subway car, emergency lights, people helping, flashlights, and Howard nearly passing out.
But that’s not the version Leo told as we watched streetlights flicker in the storm. The lights on the train didn’t come up very soon, Leo said.
How would you know? You had a babysitter, I shot back. You were in diapers. You probably can’t even remember anything.
“I know because I know. And someone else rode that train, too,” he said. “You know who.”
“It was Mister,” was all he had to say and I knew the rest of the name.
It’s what we all called the blotchy grease-burn mark on the wall in the kitchen.
Everyone blamed things going wrong on Mr. Darkness.
Howard told us that Mr. Darkness was written into the lease and if we tried to get rid of him, a black hole would open somewhere else in the universe and thousands of stars would be sucked into it.
But the truth was that when I was four, Melanie threw a hot, greasy pan at my father and it missed him but hit the wall and Mr. Darkness was born.
If you stared at the blotch sideways long enough it would begin to look like a dark Valentine’s Day heart, almost, with scratches all over it.
“The real Mr. Darkness rides a woolly mammoth,” Leo turned toward me wearing his serious face, his voice getting louder. “He took my real baby sister when you were born. Put you in her place. Maybe he’s coming back for what’s his.”
Sometimes you just want to slap the genius out of your brother.
“You’re just trying to scare me.”
He raised an eyebrow — am I? — and shook his head. “Howard told me more. On one of those nights. His drunkathons.”
Our father’s famous drunkathons happened exactly twice a year: Christmas and the night just after the last day of the school year.
Leo leaned in. “The hour you were born, every single light went out everywhere. And all anyone heard was…”
Leo paused. Deep breath in, then out.
“The terrible yowl of a newborn child,” he finished as if this were the creepiest story ever told.
“Don’t upset your sister,” Melanie called out from the couch.
“You’re a big fat liar,” I snarled at my brother.
“You think I’d risk the Grigsby curse with a stupid lie?” he whispered so Melanie couldn’t hear. “There’s a little girl who’s supposed to be you in some cold, smelly cave way, way down where terrible Lazarus Taxons feed, while you’re here all safe and warm. Imagine how angry she must be that you stole her life. Imagine how we must feel. I mean, I don’t even know my real sister. I just get you, a shoddy imitation. Who knows what you’re capable of? And she’s there in the down down down of it all.”
A film clip played in my head:
Something dark and slimy, lit by fireflies, twisting and turning like an eel, moving toward a baby wrapped in newspapers at a cave’s entrance.
Melanie headed for the bathroom, warning me — as we passed each other — not to get in a fight with Leo while she painted her paws.
“Me?” I said. “What about him? Geniuses get away with murder.”
I returned to the living room to face the boring jigsaw puzzle.
Now and then I’d glance up at the TV set that no longer worked as if my mind could make it suddenly turn on. The lights flickered once or twice, making me worry about blackouts.
Eventually, Leo plopped beside me “to help.”
“You’re too mean to help anyone.”
“I like helping the shoddy imitation of my sister,” he said with too much glee.
He pointed out what I was doing wrong with the puzzle, how this was part of that and that didn’t add up to this and this didn’t look right and you can’t just squeeze pieces together any way you want to.
I tolerated him.
Howard arrived, throwing the door open so hard it bounced against the wall. He stamped off snow in the hall.
“Honey?” Howard called out.
Melanie leaned into the hall.
“About time,” she said.
Howard jogged over to the open bathroom door and drew our mother into his arms, heading in for a kiss. She averted her face so his lips landed on her scalp.
“You know school,” he said.
“I guess yours was last to let out.”
“Plus the train took forever. Packed like smoked oysters.” Then, fatally, Howard added, “Wait. You upset?”
Leo did his Tyrannosaurus Rex.
“Maybe a little annoyed.”
“The front door.”
“Our front door?”
“You left it unlocked this morning.”
“With all the crazies out there on this block.”
“I know I locked it.”
Melanie made a noise.
“Hey,” Howard said. “You just snorted at me.”
“Maybe the lock broke,” Howard said.
Howard returned to the front door. Rattling the knob, he turned the lock so its clicks could be heard across the room.
“Bravo. Excellent performance.”
“I’ll fix it.”
“Fix the TV while you’re at it. And the toaster.”
And so it went until Melanie headed back inside the bathroom to finish her toes. The poisonous smell of nail polish made me feel a little light-headed.
Howard offered up his famous goof face for Leo and me as he approached.
When he saw the puzzle all sprawled out, our father said, “Hey, haven’t seen that one in years. You know, when I was about your age, my Aunt Andromeda gave me that and…”
“Can we get take-out?” Leo interrupted.
After debating possibilities – chinese, pizza, burgers — Howard gave me a light squeeze on the neck. “You just put your feet up and we’ll be back in two shakes.”
“Watch out for woolly mammoths,” I said as I followed them into the hallway.
Once I’d shut the door behind them – checking the lock twice — I headed to the bathroom where my mother finished her toenail masterpiece.
“Is what Leo says true?”
“Depends. What’d he say?”
“When I was born somebody took the real me and put me in her place.”
“The real you?”
“The one Leo says lives in a cave.”
Her left eye twitched as if she’d gotten dust in it.
“I think I’m going to have a little talk with your brother when he gets back.”
Following her into the living room, I continued with my line of questioning. With all those cotton clouds stuffed between her toes, she walked like a duck.
“Meen, close the curtains,” Melanie said in lieu of telling me to shut up. “The weirdo’s probably watching us right now.”
According to my mother, the outside world teemed with weirdoes, particularly right across the street. One of them – she claimed – had a telescope aimed at our big window. Weirdoes lived down on the fifth floor, too. Perverts, weirdoes, crazies, oddballs – you had to navigate their lairs whenever you walked out the front door.
Returning to the couch, Melanie put her bare feet on the coffee table. She wiggled her cottony toes and lit another cigarette.
As I drew the curtains together, I shot one last glance at the building right across. From what I could see, the weirdoes all had shut their curtains, too.
“Can we play a game?” I turned around.
She gave me a look: We have to?
The game would be hide-and-go-seek, I decided. Melanie began counting down slowly from twenty, in between cigarette puffs.
“Trust me,” she said. “I won’t.”
By the time she hit the number fourteen, I’d already scanned the kitchen for its potential.
Muffled music played through the wall that separated our place from the neighbor’s.
I peered into the pantry for space among piles of cans and boxes. The sink with its drip-drip caught my attention. Below this lay a particular cabinet I’d always understood to be off-limits. Leo used to threaten that he’d push me in and lock it shut.
Would I even fit? I’d begun to grow a little gangly. Still small for my age, maybe I could’ve fit in there a year before, but now? Would I even dare try?
With seconds to make a decision, I drew back the cabinet doors.
Stacked with cleaners and mysterious poisons, the under-sink cave held in smells that could make you pass out or even die.
Not wanting to go in there without some protection from the kind of things I knew lived in dark little places hidden away in apartments, I went to the counter and grabbed the bread knife.
Thus armed against the whatzits, and holding my breath, I took the plunge. Inside I went, scrambling for space in the cabinet, which was its own universe of too many things. Pushing aside a clatter of cans and jars, I sidled up to a cold metal pipe and wiped away imaginary cobwebs. I felt like Alice in that drawing where she’s grown too big inside a cottage and her arms are sticking out the windows and chimney pots.
I finally exhaled and drew the doors closed. I imagined myself at 92 crouched among the cleaning potions, time having swept past me, too well-hidden from the world.
A light seeped in from the door gap, interrupting dark. Through this – my spyhole — I saw a slice of kitchen. I expected my mother’s feet to come into view at any second.
Spiders, mice and other possible vermin roamed my imagination.
And roaches, the weirdoes of the insect world.
I knew for a fact roaches scampered all over the dark damp places under the sink during winter months. Howard said they were the smartest insects and could survive a nuclear blast, had really high I.Q.s (like Leo, which didn’t surprise me), were terrible at keeping secrets, and once created a popular dance called the Jitterbug.
(I saw them sometimes when I flicked the kitchen light up at night but they never seemed like they’d been dancing.)
I clutched the knife, careful of its crocodile teeth, and waited.
I imagined myself standing out on the brown linoleum. I nearly saw the other Mina, who decided not to play hide-and-seek as she retrieved a cracker from the box by the unfixable toaster.
My imagined-self evaporated.
Where was Melanie?
I pictured her looking in closets, under beds and around curtains.
After a thousand years, my mother’s soft footsteps began their gentle series of thumps so rhythmic you could clap along with them.
The music from the neighbor’s stopped and then started up again. (Our neighbor that we barely knew – Mrs. Cat-Lady — was from the islands. I imagined these islands had yellow birds flying around and banana boats floating endlessly and someone named Marianne sifting sand, mainly because these things were in the songs we heard through the wall.)
Peering out from the gap as Marianne sifted sand somewhere, I watched Melanie set a footstool inches from my face.
Her feet came into view as she stepped up onto it, the turquoise of perfect toenails glistening, the cotton clouds beginning to disperse from between her toes.
It occurred to me that she hadn’t been playing hide-and-go-seek at all. She’d been hunting for the packs of cigarettes I’d stashed away hoping they’d never be found.
Then, the lights went out. The wall music stopped.
The dark pressed against me.
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I’m excited about my upcoming releases and hope you’ll join me in anticipation of what’s to come. This blog is now going to transform into a Works-in-Progress SuperBlog.
Introduction to Today’s Chapters
Youth is a cliff. You leap, and repair the broken bones later.
When you’re older, you draw the map, retrace your steps and find the cliff’s edge, only to wonder:
Would anyone ever jump if they knew how far down it went?
I jumped, once.
I’m broken in unseen places.
My name is Mina and I lived in your world a long time ago, back before symbiogenesis, a word my father taught me.
Once it happens, my father wrote, it never lets you go.
You may have heard of us, the Grigsbys. There’s some unfortunate fame attached to our family crest.
Howard – my father – was meant (by fate and inclination) to write fiction but ended up being a teacher. He made up words (at times) so I was never sure which were precisely real and which were not, or even if he used them the right way.
He regularly spewed mouth-stuffing words like symbiogenesis and I had to figure them out for myself or quiz him endlessly about meanings. He even manufactured new words, stitching together one called “dungeous,” which had something to do with dungeons and dung and unguents, and another called “febrilliance,” describing the quality of mad genius that arrives as a fever in the middle of winter – preferably February — and never lets you go.
He began suffering from a debilitating and dungeous febrilliance when the muck came calling.
About my father:
“The Right Honorable and Unrepentant Howard Grigsby” — as his obituary read, which he’d typed out on near-transparent onionskin paper using the smudged and sacred Underwood Champion typewriter rescued from his boyhood in Pumpkin Hill, New Hampshire, a million miles from our place in lower Manhattan – “of the once-prominent but accursed New England family, taught chemistry at an uptown prep school for the over-pampered and under-prepared children of privilege though he’d once dreamed of becoming either a famous novelist until he met Melanie Walthorp of the Susquehanna Walthorps or was it the Hokendauqua Walthorps? Regardless, this Howard person foisted the ignoble and nigh-disturbing name of Grigsby upon her. They raised two remarkable children who no doubt have already changed the world for the better and invented personal flying-machines that will send them soaring beyond the clouds.”
Howard made obituaries for each of us by the time I’d entered third grade. We were not allowed to look at any of ours, only his and our mother’s.
When Leo asked him why he typed all of these up, Howard said, “Death is assured, Leo. Once you accept that fact and look it in the face, everything else is a cakewalk. Most Lopsiders are surprised by death, but no Grigsby in his right mind in New York City is going to be. Prepare for the possibilities, you brilliant son and,” glancing at me, “wise daughter. Prepare for the possibilities.”
Our father truly believed that an unheralded disaster might happen whenever you set foot out of bed.
He kept a bundle of the obits in a suitcase in the upper reaches of the hall closet; carbon copies were stashed in his desk at the school where he taught “just to have on hand in case a bomb goes off in the basement and we’re all blown to smithereens.”
Howard was sure a bomb would explode someday. This unnerved me as a child because it actually happened when I was little, not far from our building when radicals blew up a townhouse over in Greenwich Village.
After that, Howard talked openly in public about bombs and The Bomb, the bomb-makers-of-the-world, the Hippie Conspiracy, the Orwellian Keystones, the insidious and commonplace Sherwoods and dangerous Nottinghams, the Raging Radicalites, the Reactionary Lopsiders and the White Collar Drugoons – all of whom were going to blow us to kingdom come one day, believe you me.
He spoke of explosives frequently enough – to waiters, to clerks in bookshops, in line at the movie theater — that my brother Leo became convinced our father’s name must command its own bulging file cabinet at the FBI.
When Howard mentioned the symbiowhatzits word, not a single ounce of the old bravado and bluster remained in his voice.
“To get through life you need a shatterproof heart,” he said. “Mine’s made of clay. I’m devolving, sweet pea, day by day, back to the muck – and oh, what a muckety-muck it is.”
“What about the word?”
“Symbiogenesis happens,” he said, “when two become one. But it can degenerate, too. It’s the deal you make with life. Back to the slime with you, says life. But you know what? It ain’t so bad. It’s what you’re born from.”
He said the word again. Sounds like a made-up word, I said. Look it up, he said, and then grumbled about being too worn out to keep his eyes open.
Symbiogenesis. When two become one.
But there’s more to it than that. Let’s rewind.
The past is a darkened theater; you wait for the movie to come up.
There’s this one scene from when I was small, innocent, ignorant, unimportant, unaware:
Three of the four Grigsbys went down subway stairs after a museum day.
My older brother Leo raced ahead, two steps at a time, no fear, the splendid boy who resembled our mother in face (peaches, cream, eyes of delight) and hair color (blondish on the edge of angelic), a blur of gray sweater, the bluest of jeans and bright unmuddied sneakers.
My father hung back with me. I approached each descending step as a unique challenge and held, white-knuckled, to the railing. My terror of falling derived (Howard told me) from a tumble I took at the age of three.
I felt the world itself would slip out from beneath my toes.
And it might: the lace of my left shoe hung, undone, ready to trip me up.
In the zoo of life (Howard often said) Leo was a bird – a sparrow, perhaps — and I, a mouse. Your brother leaps and soars and you skitter back to your corner.
But before my brother’s head exploded from the compliment, Howard would turn to him and say, “But sparrows can be annoying, too, so don’t go overboard on all this leaping.”
In that same zoo, my father seemed the impossible love-child of meerkat and eagle, with a Roman general’s face atop a long neck. His eyes earthy brown, his nose a disruptive promontory. Somewhat comical ears showed themselves under thick hair that had grayed prematurely from a once-deep black. On his chin, there was always some scruff, because he often forgot to shave in the morning.
You’ve never seen such a wonderful face in all your days.
Howard grabbed my free hand and squeezed while others brushed past us. I was thrilled with his touch – something about the museum and its cavernous halls and bones and mysteries had overwhelmed me. I could imagine falling down every step that lay ahead, leading down to the trains.
But my father’s hand clutching at mine.
His fingers, warm as toast.
I tried to imagine not falling and the hideous coat I’d had to wear that day because of a bullying and icy autumn wind — and why couldn’t we just take a cab home?
I didn’t know that this would be one of the last moments of my innocence.
Awareness of innocence is loss of innocence, our father wrote down in his famous unpublished novel.
You live in Eden only so long as you don’t know that Eden exists.
We didn’t live in Eden back then.
We occupied a cozy, slightly-cramped, perfectly-nice six-floor walk-up with bad heating and no air conditioning at the tail end of a dicey part of lower Manhattan at a time in history when much of lower Manhattan was pretty damn dicey.
But none of this mattered because we – the Grisgbys – were a spectacularly special family, having escaped a curse.
Our branch of the Grigsby clan sideswiped fate when my father moved to New York City. He cut all ties to his stuffy, stodgy and unwholesome New England relations, all of whom were named for mythological characters. Hypocrites! Fisher cats! Ruthless and rude guests who flip tables on you! Using sweet words and petting you until their leash becomes a noose and they throw you on your back and tear out your insides, all of them rascals and charlatans, moneygrubbers and prevaricators!
But we escaped it all — and why? We rise above, we have the personal flying machine of hope and love and those three unassailable, immutable laws that are the glue of the social contract. Why, Hammurabi, Moses and even Ben Franklin never put it so simply!
These were among the famous Sunday sermons – which had nothing to do with church or Sunday. They happened mostly when either my brother or I were about to break an unassailable and immutable law of the universe.
Our father fell into the Biblical cadences of his lecturey voice to make sure We. Un-der-stood. Ev-er-y. Sin-gle. God-damn. Word.
“Lie, cheat, steal – my family did it all for generations. You may as well piss on yourself as do that. But we’re breaking the tradition. You can cuss a blue streak, you can tell me something abominable right to my face, you can reach in my wallet and take cash right in front of me, you can bring home straight Fs and I won’t bat an eye, but if you so much as tell a fib for reasons of killing the truth, take something that’s not yours without permission, or use crib notes in class or write answers on your hand or copy someone else’s answers because you want to ace a test — you have just fucked us all for another generation and possibly double-damned any future generations, too.”
Later, I’ll tell you more about the whole issue of using foul language in our family; it was a tradition. But now, back to Howard:
“It’s a blight on the crop of existence, and you’ll feel it and it’ll spread like – like – like,” and here he searched his brain bank for a word that we’d need to look up in the dictionary later, “like pellagra and we’ll have you to thank when everything falls apart. Better to flunk out. Better to starve. Better to feel the sting of a whip on your back. Better to hide in humiliation in a hole in the ground. There’s more honor in it.”
And then he’d add – every single time — “A little luck doesn’t hurt, either.”
We were luck personified, what with our cozy, slightly cramped, perfectly-nice home and our stunningly, achingly beautiful mother and the sunlit brilliance that was Leo (named for Da Vinci of course) whose recent I.Q. test had come back with a score of 1,000 or more (I guessed), and the multifaceted misfit me and all the movies we watched, museums we hit, record shops we ransacked, bookstores we overran — and the way we had more freedom than most children our age.
Life, our father taught us, was to be spent.
“Some families hoard days and keep them under lock and key,” Howard said. “But not us. We, the New and Improved Grigsbys, get out, we don’t let anything tear us down, not rain, not snow, not stupid people.”
Saturday was meant to be filled up with adventure until it overflowed. Let’s rush here, there, grab a hot dog, a pretzel, laugh at jokes, stare at people, make up tales of wonder, travel the museums of the city for as far as our legs could carry us, talk about millions of years ago as if it were more important than that very morning.
This particular Saturday, during a post-Natural History Museum high, we chattered about extinction, dinosaurs, woolly mammoths and things that vanished but could they be, my father asked us, still here? Unseen? Somewhere no one had yet looked?
Waiting for our homebound train, Leo practiced his newly-famous Tyrannosaurus Rex imitation. I battered my father with questions about the coelacanth I’d seen.
“Meen, it’s not Koala-canth,” Leo said, stepping away from his T-Rex. “It’s See-luh-canth.”
“Your brother’s right.”
See-luh-canth, See-luh-canth, I said in my mind ten times over as I remembered the exhibit with the strange fish with its odd tail that was rounded and creepy, and that sea-monster face with nasty teeth.
“There are probably coelacanths everywhere,” Leo said, as if he genuinely knew this for a fact. “In the river. In the sewers. Coming up through the toilet to bite you.” He slapped his hands together and wriggled them like a fish in water.
Howard shushed him and told us to look around. “Your brother’s only half-right. Dinosaurs of the future might indeed walk among us.”
“Like a Bronchitis-saurus?”
(“Brachiosaurus,” Leo corrected me.)
“Maybe. Or just things that never evolved. Or possibly a Lazarus Taxon.”
“More a whatzits,” Howard said. “A weird creature we thought was just a long-extinct fossil but then it shows up later. Alive. We find out it’s been here all along, maybe hidden or just unnoticed. We’ve been arrogant to believe it was ever gone. Like your coelacanth.”
“Like Mina,” Leo said, doing his T-Rex again.
“But everything already got discovered,” I said, ignoring the boy-genius beside me.
“Not on your life,” Howard said. “We don’t know the half of it. There may be earths beneath this earth and skies beyond the farthest skies and people within people. Imagine that. Even in a place like this, Lazarus species could be lurking in disguise.”
Leo made his usual obnoxious comments about my collection (“She wants to find one of those Lazaruses and put it on her shelf with all the other fucked-up whatzits,” which was genuinely not far from the truth at that particular moment) and my father regaled us with the brief story I’d heard a million times about one of our mythological cousins and “dinosaur pawprints” in New Hampshire granite because (according to the gospel of Howard) “New Hampshire was once the beating heart of prehistory.”
I let their chatter harmonize with the hums and thrums from people around us waiting for the subway, across whose faces I panned and tilted my eye-camera in case I might spy a lobe-finned fish somewhere among them reading the New York Times and wearing a crisp white shirt and fat lemon tie.
That’s when I first noticed the boy with the stain on his face.
There were certain people you avoid looking at for too long when you wait for the train. This boy was one of them.
He stood in front of a movie poster that showed a handsome man grasping a beautiful woman in a lip-lock.
He wore a faded sweatshirt with pulled-up hood, under which brown pine-needle hair thrust out.
The unblemished part of his face was pale. The purply discoloration began just above his left eye and flowed — an amazon river — from eyelid down. I imagined it ran all the way beneath the sweatshirt.
I wondered what the fossil of him might look like.
Beside the boy, an old lady sat mumbling in a wheelchair.
My father called her Miss Havisham in honor of a “a lady who caught fire between the pages of a book.”
We’d noticed her several times before, always in the same place.
“Glad to see she’s out and about,” Howard said when I pointed her out.
Miss Havisham wore faded ribbons entwined in her limp, gray hair. If you got too close, you could hear her mumbling and if you drew even closer, she’d talk about someone coming to meet her and she had to look her best for the dance. When you looked in her eyes, it made you want to cry.
“Why doesn’t she ever go home?” I whispered.
“This may be her home.”
“People live here?” I said, slow to understand. “What about her family?”
“Some people don’t have families,” Howard said. “Or anyone who cares. And – in this elevator world of Lopsiders — if you ain’t goin’ up, you’re goin’ down.”
“Poor Miss Havisham,” I whispered. In a second, I’d created her entire life as an elevator dropped twenty stories, which left her somewhere in the vicinity of a hundred years old, with unmendable legs at the subway station.
“You’re not really sad for her,” Leo said, reading my thoughts. “You’re sad because now you got to think about her. You never in your entire life ever thought about anybody but Mina Grigsby.”
“Leo, enough,” Howard said. He reached in his pocket, pulled out a couple of dollars, told me to hold out my hand.
My fingers closed around the crisp bills.
“She can probably use it,” he said covering my hand in his, making me feel toasty again. “Don’t be afraid.”
“Yeah, she only bites if your coat’s ugly,” Leo said.
Why did I have to be the one?
I stepped over to the wheelchair without looking at Miss Havisham’s face. I pronounced coelacanth in my head. My hand trembled as I held out the money.
“Here,” I said.
Havisham chattered to herself, picking over the ragged blanket on her lap. I caught the words “dance,” “he’ll show up,” and “my escort,” but the rest was a jumble.
The stained boy stepped between us, looking at my curled-up fingers as if he were hungry.
“It’s for her,” I said, ready to swat him if he so much as touched me.
The boy drew his hand along the dark side of his face. The purple color turned greenish as his fingers pressed down against the skin. Something changed in his face then, something seemed lizardy about him, or maybe even coelacanth.
My father called out my name.
“Mee-nah,” the boy repeated, as if it were a foreign word. “Don’t be afraid.”
In that moment, his skin became translucent. Something glowed beneath; a firefly lantern came up and then died again.
In my head, the word: Lazarus taxon, even though I couldn’t say it out loud.
I felt as if the world around me was nothing but shadows and everyone else was a thousand miles away.
The boy darted toward me, a jack-in-the-box. I took a deep breath. The stain, his pine-needle hair, his hood, his gray eyes — all of it — hovered in front of me as if I were in the first row of a movie theater and everything on screen had grown gigantic.
I saw a creature beneath the skin of his face, something terrible and dark and twisting within a soft light. An odd curiosity made me want to reach out to touch him where the light came up.
Less than an inch apart, nearly eye-to-eye, his lips parting slightly, my vision blurred.
The word kiss came to mind.
“Afraid,” he whispered.
The light of the world began blinking. It was like watching one of those old silent movies, where people don’t speak even when they move their lips and they live in black-and-white and they flicker strangely whenever someone moves as if there’s a blank spot of pure and blinding light between each frame of film.
Time resumed, the film ran, color and sound exploded, and the boy drew back as swiftly as he’d moved into close-up.
Leo shouted a warning “Hey!” the way he did whenever someone got too near me. His voice brought me to the surface: the boy, the poster, the old woman in the wheelchair, the subway station.
The sound of an incoming train; the rush of wind as it approached.
I tossed the money on the old lady’s lap. Skittered to my father’s side. Grabbing his hand, I tugged him toward the platform’s edge and didn’t look back even after we sat down inside the train.
“You see it?” I asked my brother.
In my mind, I ran through a dozen words to describe what I thought I’d experienced.
“The Lazarus whozits.”
“Taxon,” the genius said. “Lazarus Taxon.”
“The one with the scar thingy? What, was he a coelocanth? You see his tail? Because they all have tails, those little monsters.”
“He tried to kiss me,” I whispered so quietly I was afraid Leo wouldn’t hear me.
“You’re funny,” Leo said as if I were not funny at all. “Well, Mr. Lazarus Taxon probably recognized you as one of his long-lost Taxon cousins. After all…” He didn’t need to mention the rest of the mean and false story he liked to tell about me.
“I am not a Taxon,” I protested. But I suddenly imagined myself with round fish-eyes, a green-gray coelacanth with a lobe-finned tail and the ability to crawl from water to land.
My brother (barely noticing my furled eyebrows and intense glare) turned away and began debating (loudly and obnoxiously) with Howard about who would win in a battle between a Tyrannosaur, a pack of Troodons and a Raptor.
It was the first time I wondered whether my head was screwed on right. I grew nauseated while I sat there, feeling every lurch of the train as it rounded curves, imagining Mr. Lazarus Taxon, the way he looked at me and said my name, the stain on one half of his face.
What had glowed under his skin? Had he meant to kiss me? Why would he do it? Who was he? What did he want?
Everything seemed less solid.
The scene would’ve ended there, if I hadn’t looked around at other people on the mostly-empty train.
I noticed a girl sitting far down at the end of our car, all by herself.
I was almost afraid I’d see another face beneath her skin, too. I was seized with a brief but intense sense of panic. I no longer felt as if I were inside my own body.
I nudged Leo and tilted my head in the girl’s direction.
When the girl noticed us staring she turned to face the window, covering the side of her face so we could see nothing but her wavy brown hair and the back of her hand.
She got off at the next stop.
“That girl looked just like me,” I whispered to Leo as the train sped us homeward.
“She did?” he said as if he hadn’t noticed anything unusual. “What if she’s you and you’re not who you think you are? I mean, you’re very convincing playing the part of Mina, but are you really my sister? What evidence do we have of this?”
I floated outside myself. I didn’t even think I walked right anymore; I loped; I paused; uncomfortable in my skin; I looked down at my untied shoe and did nothing about it; my ignition didn’t quite start fast enough.
I suppose I was at that age where you always over-imagine and then wonder for the rest of your life what was real and what was not.
You imagined it, I concluded in that particular moment.
I became certain of this the more the minutes ticked by and the ordinary world of what’s for supper and can we get Channel 4 if we twist the antennae around and who forgot to turn off the hall light all materialized once the comforting walls of home surrounded me again.
The sense that something else lurked under the boy’s face began to seem silly, yet I couldn’t shake my memory of it.
Childhood contains its own insanity. Your mind spins through film clips of the stranger who is you:
Drawings you made in school of half-bird, half-machine animals. Two scary movies last month when the TV worked. The crazy thoughts you had when the lightning storm woke you. Dinosaur exhibits and skeletons and dioramas at the museum and obscure and difficult words for them and your stupid thoughts when you heard about coelacanths. A man in Central Park who terrified you because he sold hand-puppets with loopy eyes. The grease blotch on the kitchen wall that you and Leo made more real by naming it. The strange words in bubbly letters scrawled on the subway tunnel walls when your train whizzes past. You begin to believe you travel through the house late at night when your body stays behind in bed.
The flash of memory cuts between all these strange moments while you just sit there and listen to your mother or walk over to the counter to pour yourself a cup of milk and you know you’re just a kid and you know that you’re wrong and everyone else is probably right, but you have a moment when you think: what if they’re not?
What if I saw a firefly lantern under the boy’s skin? What if he is a Lazarus Whozits?
The stained face with its strange glow fused with a brief memory of standing on the grass in a city park watching another child hold up a glass jar full of fireflies on some summer night.
The flashing of fireflies like stars inside the jar, and then the boy’s face again, the diffuse light beneath his skin.
It was as if my mind tried to make sense of it all while switching channels.
I went to check my collection of beautiful broken things, all of which stood safely in a row on the small shelf over my white-with-gold-trim dressing table upon which I mainly kept my seashells and very little involved with dressing.
I picked up each little ceramic nothing, turning the Dutch boy left and right to check to make sure the chip where half his head had come off still was in the correct place; rearranging the little dog and cat and pig, each with paws or hooves or ears missing; the glass swan bottle topper that was cracked in a way that was perfect as the entrance to another world of Great Glassland; and then the other three, which were some headless figurines I’d found together as they’d escaped their executions by leaping into the trashcans near the Polish diner where Howard liked to take us for his Sunday afternoon excursions of potato pancakes and sausage.
All of them seemed in their usual spirits and nothing from my off-kilter almost-kissed world had tampered with them.
At the kitchen table between forkfuls of mysterious casserole, I asked Howard about Lazarus Whozits again and he explained the term as best he could while my mind ran the film of the boy in the subway and the girl on the train. Each time I rewound to those moments, I believed less and less in my own original memory movie and began to see lobe-finned fish swimming in a lake of fireflies from which a boy with half a face arose.
You could add special effects to rememberings.
What I thought I’d seen became preposterous by bedtime. At that point, I figured I’d imagined everything except for the threat of kiss. The world was made up of walls and blankets and pillows and photographs on a wide dresser and traces of my mother’s perfume as she sat down at the edge of my bed with an unlit cigarette in her hand.
When I calmed down enough to think I was just batshit like my mythological grandfather and had better hide it from everyone or risk being put in some asylum, I asked Melanie — my mother — about kissing and boys. What it meant, was it scary, what did it do to you, why did people say ‘give me a kiss,’ and what were you giving and was it always about love?
“Why you want to know?” Melanie said. “Something happen?”
I mentioned the movie poster of the kissing couple. Not officially a lie; parts were just left out.
“Well sure, in movies, that kind of kiss means romance.” My mother came over and sat beside me. “But it’s just make believe. You know how you cry in movies? Whether they’re sad or happy?”
She put her arm around my shoulder and pressed her cheek against the top of my head.
“It’s because you know life is never going to be as good as it is up there on the damn screen.”
My mother combed her fingers through my hair.
“Same way with love,” she said.
These sequences of memory go dark when I think too much about them.
Few of them ever burst into a blizzard like the famous February day when House Grigsby met the beginning of its demise with the first hints of the dungeous febrilliance to come.
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Check back soon. I’ll get a new chapter going of Mr. Darkness, and once I know the publishing schedule, I’ll post it.
In the meantime, check out the various books, both upcoming and past here.
I couldn’t resist posting this. You love the original movie? I think it’s one of Hitchcock’s best for just going into the psychological nightmare (made manifest).
You know what? I’ve never done a natural-world-attack kind of story (that I can think of). The closest, possibly, is A Madness of Starlings, a short story you can find in Wild Things and Night Asylum, but it wasn’t about an attack…although it had to do with birds.
One of my favorite things in the original movie is of course the schoolyard suspense sequence. Check out the DVD if you missed this one. While it bears zero resemblance (beyond bird attacks) to the original Daphne Du Maurier story (which is brilliant for an entirely different reason), it’s really an unfolding nightmare of inner psychology, played out in a brutal and tragic universe.
Some days, I take my voice recorder and go outside on the patio and pace around and just chat the story out of myself.
I find talking a story out — particularly at a rough spot — breaks through some frozen river in my mind so there’s an outpouring on the page. From that, I can revise and clean it up later.
Today is one of those days.
“Write. Don’t think. Relax.”
This book means a lot to me. Pick it up where you’d like, but here’s the link for Amazon/Kindle:
(Or click the cover of the book if you prefer.)
Pressfield, a talented and bestselling novelist, has written a book on writing, how he sees it, and how he — and you — might overcome the resistance to writing.
I’ve read this several times, and I want to recommend it to you. It has gotten me out of the rough parts of writing more times than I’d care to admit. It may do the same for you.
Find out more about Pressfield and his books at his website.