April to November, Chapter I.

I am half here, I say. I am half here. My mother died. My father died. Suddenly I was half there, not working, not sleeping, a new man. Not a worse man. I thought, ‘I am not a worse man.’ It was a bright, white world – a morning kitchen world. This made and makes sense to me, still. I sit surrounded by gadgets from my former life, unbranded gadgets, like a listening device I was contracted to develop for Aerospatiale. There was a middle-man, Ben, paid well, and in a letter confirmed that the device worked and the customer was happy. The customer was happy, I was happy. Everyone, it seemed, was happy. I sit in a too-soft sofa in a typical, suburban living room. It is 6:00 a.m. or thereabout. It is an assumption I have made – about time. The room is filling with light. I don’t wear a watch. I am half here. In the kitchen, the smart kid babbles. He’s six or seven or eight, I can’t remember which. No, I never knew which, never asked. Maybe I should ask. In the mirror over the fireplace I watch his father squeeze something onto burnt toast, spread it with a shaky hand. The mother is dry-heaving into the sink and her hair is matted. She still wears the nightgown with the torn neck. Why wouldn’t she still be wearing it? For how long will she wear it, I wonder? Until I tell her to change. Should I tell her to change? The laptop sits split open on the coffee table like a book with a broken spine, the LED screen smashed to bits. The father whispers to the son, “eat, you should eat. I will eat, too.” In the mirror, he picks up a black piece of toast, puts a corner in his mouth. I watch his teeth sink into the crust. I see the kid shake his head. The mother looks thin, thinner, dehydrated maybe. They are tethered together, the mother, the father and kid, with climbing rope, nylon, which doesn’t chafe much. They are tethered together, a unit, the taught rope like spokes between them. It isn’t art, exactly, but something approximating art – a performance. They don’t appreciate the performance yet…

They are also filled with assumptions, the father mostly, not so much the kid. Dad assumes the performance will have a logical conclusion; a conclusion that he has been trained to anticipate: maybe a rape, sodomy perchance, something. That’s what I smell: the odor of dead-certainty, how it will unfold, must, the kid scarred for life, one parent dead, at least. What is more, mother thinks I am cold and calculating; that I’ve got the whole thing worked out, maybe on paper somewhere, replete with sketches, figures. For me, it’s just one more morning, deep experience, better than sleep, dreaming, literature. And it will be over soon, sooner than the household expects. I rise from the sofa, cross the room in bare feet and peel back the drapes. The yard is treeless, flat, without grass. The house is new, brand new, high-ceilinged, wall-to-wall Ethan Allen, plastic plants. “You should plant grass,” I say. “Before you do anything else, plant grass, a whole yard of it, let it grow, don’t mow.”

He would mow. Even after all this. He doesn’t know he will live to be the man on the lawnmower, but I do. He expects violence, depravation, depravity, a knife. There is a gun, a pistol, but I won’t use it. “You can sit,” I say to the mother, “on the floor, or on the stool, anywhere.” She doesn’t sit. I don’t understand the kid. I expected a tantrum, questions, raw fear and panic, but none of those things, only compliance, quiet, equanimity. I wanted a drink, something strong, in a tumbler with ice, ideally crushed ice. In the hallway to the kitchen were stacked oblong pallets of ceramic floor tiles. “For the kitchen,” dad says. “We’re taking up the laminate, putting down tile. It’s travertine.”

“Good,” I say. “You can sit, too. You don’t have to stand, not if you’re tired. I can make a drink. Want a drink? I need one, something strong.”

“In the cabinet, over the fridge,” he says. “There’s Crown Royal, Johnnie Walker. Anything you want. Take a glass out of the washer, over by, my… Honey, just move over a little, come over here, sit. Sit while he, uh…”

She doesn’t move. The little bones in her wrists wiggle as she grips the edge of the counter. There is a door that opens onto what will one day be a deck. Now it opens into empty space. “Your husband will build a deck. Friends will come. You’ll eat, drink and put on sweaters when the sun sets. You’ll listen to the bug zapper sizzle, marvel at how quickly those little bags in the garden fill with Japanese Beetles. You’ll wonder why you don’t have more empathy for the beetles, even after this.” I put my hand on the mother’s thin waist. It was damp. Here is the woman. Here is her waist: a narrow, comely waist. “A few inches to the right, ok?” She doesn’t budge. I open the dish washer into the front of her thighs and pull until she skids backward a few inches on her socked feet. I reach in, feel for a tumbler. It must be a tumbler, I think, cut glass, thick. It isn’t. It’s a jelly jar. It will do.

The road to the jelly jar is not a logical road. No, it’s a pitted road, lined with flag-waving bastards, and by the self-righteous and the self-assured. They are confident the story must be both told and lived a certain way. Which story? The being in a human body, scrambling, gnawing, clawing story; the story in which a man thinks he is owed for his troubles; in which he makes more of himself that in turn too think they are owed. It’s a terrible story and mankind seems not to bore of it. It is a miracle, really, that it hasn’t bored of it – the tail-chasing; and the silent begging life-less-taste and -color and -dimension, for clean lines, sense, order, parallelism and predictable stochastic output. The gun-toting man, the man with the gun in his glove compartment, or in his dresser drawer, stuffed beneath a pile of underwear and rolled up socks, the clip for the unused .40 in the bedside table. He always imagined, even as a boy, emulating the men on TV, protecting a woman, hearing something go bump in the dark, retrieving the gun, the clip, unlatching the safety, pointing and finally shooting, probably missing, covering the hole in the plaster with a hanged, framed family portrait. Fulfilling a small dream, like making a son, hopefully a son without defects, a son like a jelly jar, that the man could fill up with squirming, earth-covered night crawlers and with whom to drive up to a quiet pond on state land, cast for guppies, or carp or steel head or pike or whatever – bass, maybe. Did it matter? The kid sleeps at the end of the hall, his door open a crack, and you, the man, when you hear the lug-soled boots on the linoleum, see your wife stir, reach for the clip, but realize you don’t know how the safety works or where it is located or if the Sherriff by whom you were issued a license said to keep your elbow stiff, or relaxed; if he said to pull the trigger or squeeze it. You will squeeze it. No, you will pull it. The gun will kick and you’ll probably miss. You might even get a small sprain. You will learn that the movies you have seen and the books you have read were written by men with gun-lust, but never fired one, wouldn’t, or couldn’t. You won’t get your man, bury a bullet in his lungs, or in his stomach; the lug-soles will mount the stairs and you’ll wonder if it all hasn’t been a dream. You’ll wake in the old one-bedroom apartment, realize you haven’t yet met the woman with straw-colored hair or made the kid with the little nose and attached earlobes. You’ll say out loud:

“I haven’t made the kid with the attached earlobes.” Relief, then coffee, eggs, cheese, more coffee; you don’t own the gun yet. You sleep alone. There is a half-dead tree in the window. Your mother is dead. Your father is alive. You are a little more than two-thirds there. You will use that unusual word, maybe in a sentence, out loud. You will say, “There is hope.” The word is: hope.

There was hope – and a knock on the door – not the main one but the screen one. You could answer it but you won’t. That’s not who you are. You don’t answer the door early in the morning, not while sitting on the floor with a plate of eggs and a mug of coffee. You won’t even peer through the spyglass, see what it is, what it wants. ‘It will go away,’ you whisper, and turn down the television set. The blinds are closed and whatever it is it can’t see in.

“Someone’s knocking,” the father says.

“Uh, oh,” I say. “I was a million miles away, not here. I wasn’t here for a second. It works that way sometimes – memory. Someone’s knocking?” Someone was knocking, not on the main door but on a screen door, just like in the old apartment. “We let them knock. Them, him, her, it…”

“It?” It was the boy, his first words. I took off my glasses, squinted; he had attached earlobes. I was confused and I was holding a jelly jar.

“I wanted something,” I said. “I wanted a drink, something strong. We won’t answer the door.”

“Above the fridge,” father said.

“Right,” I said.

I closed the dishwasher.

Ted

“My biggest mistake?”

“Yeah, the biggest one. The one you regret, the one that keeps you up at night, makes your throat dry,” said Duff.

Ted put his foot up on the rickety wooden railing skirting the weathered deck, scratched his chin, squeezed his eyes shut and said, “My Father’s House. Writing it, taking the time, doing the research. It was a terrible thing, a monster. I shouldn’t have done it.”

“It was the big one—”

“Biggest!” Ted confirmed. “I wrote it for the wrong reasons—sat up in the hole with one light burning, the window open, listening to those awful waves crash. I thought, ‘They’ll like this, read it…’ Why would I do that, care, think like that? It was like whipping a fetus in the womb.”

Ted sipped at his club-soda, held the chipped glass up to the Sun. It was beginning to sink below the roof-line of the house next door, an uninhabited yellow vinyl-sided terror with a backyard beaten brown by the former tenant’s children’s scrambling sneakers.

“But it sold,” Duff said, “There must have been something to it—”

“It sold, but there was nothing to it. They love that, loved it, still eat it and it is embarrassing. Anyone that buys it cradles a stillborn in their arms, puts a dead baby on their shelves. They take a wrinkled, caving, bloody mess to bed with them, put on their reading glasses to get a better look at the ugly nest of necrotic cells, sea-green veins…”

“I guess you feel pretty strongly about it. Crap sells, though. It bought this piece of shit four blocks from the wharf. You even have an almost-view, and your own plumbing, a bed in which to sleep, money for club-soda.”

Duff kicked off his shoes, stepped down from the deck into the tallish grass of the backyard. He wasn’t a man’s man. He wasn’t a woman’s man. He never fit in properly. If anything, he was a thinker’s thinker and that’s the worst kind of anything. Where does a thinker’s thinker fit in? Sometimes on a bad writer’s porch or a good writer that had gone bad, but desperately wanted to go good again, like Ted, but it meant he’d have to stop writing marketable books, lose the house, welcome back his anger, spur his critics. He admired Ted when Ted least admired himself. That was Ted’s flaw, Duff knew. He wouldn’t accept the simple idea that maybe he wasn’t a good person or at least not one of the pleasant people. He’d had too much reinforcement—old friends that would say, ‘No, no Ted, you are not a monster, look at what you do, what you are capable of.’

They didn’t get it—that it didn’t matter. They deluded themselves and Ted in turn deluded himself. He thought, ‘Yeah, I can do this, write for someone—for someone else.’ And of course, that’s when Ted began to die a little bit. Just a little bit at first. He wanted better plumbing, an identity, the positive reinforcement, an occasional accolade, and it slowly killed him, gnawed at his organs—his liver, his pancreas. Then moved on to his brainstem—dined on gray-matter.

Duff knew that the idea of salvation was a death-sentence for an author. It was like taking a low-dose of radiation every morning—piss and an x-ray. It would kill you, eventually—the daily dose.

“You’re on your way to Huggins’ place in Orchard Park. You lose your wallet on the bus, your backpack, your identity. You don’t have cab-fare and end up screaming at the house: ‘Russell!’’ Trainer comes out, still wearing his Tuesday league bowling shirt. He pays your fare. That was the best month of your life, remember? You had nothing—less than nothing. I remember how happy you were, scratching a stake together, writing alongside Huggins, doing what you do best.”

Ted listened to Duff, a creeping smile on his face. “Esteban built a ramp up the back stairs so he could work on his motorcycle in the kitchen. He’d talk and I’d write. Sometimes he’d put the wrenches down, write too—poetry—or talk about his dad Adolfo. How did he pay his rent?”

“He was in the favor-business,” said Duff.

“Favors, right. You couldn’t help but love him—more so when he was sick. You wanted to wrap him up, squeeze him. He was a kid, didn’t matter how old he got, and even older when he gave up.”

“You think he gave up?” asked Duff. “I don’t think he gave up. He worked right to the end, did that series with Nowell-Smith. Patrick wasn’t afraid of him, the protuberances of bone, the yellow skin—the death-mask. Patrick was affectionate with him. He wasn’t afraid.”

“I was afraid,” Ted said. When we were alone—sometimes in the kitchen, sometimes in Trainer’s study—you could hear Russell pacing upstairs, talking aloud to himself, maybe composing a letter to Irwin, maybe talking aloud for talking’s sake. Esteban would have his nose in a book—one of Trainer’s rotting Tort Reviews. He’d giggle through the passages, shake his head. I could count on my right hand the number of real, warm bodies in that house. But there were more! I could feel them. Right there with us, looking over our shoulders. Esteban would say not to worry; they were waiting for him. But Huggins said something else. He said: ‘We’re taking dictation, Ted. I came to Button House to take dictation. Stay awhile, you’ll see.’

“And I did see.”

“Yeah, you did your best work at Button House.”

“Yep,” Ted said, “I have boxes filled with unpublished manuscripts to prove it! No, check that: un-publishable manuscripts.”

“Huggins didn’t care—” Duff started.

“Huggins had a patron!”

“Three or four hundred bucks a week, maybe less, probably less, which he gave to Esteban—”
“Who gave it to Valeria!”

“Ha, yeah, her cheap stoles, her pink hair,” Duff said, sitting in the grass. Ted joined him, handing Duff a sweaty bottle of beer.

“You need,” began Duff, “To forgive yourself, Ted—to forgive your anger. There’s nothing wrong with it. Use it. Exploit it. There is no plot. Plot was your guillotine in My Father’s House. It castrated you. You were a castrated man, but you are whole again, right?”

Ted didn’t answer.

“Plot is not for you. You’re not selling lambs, fleece, whatever. You’re selling anger—pure, venom-varnished anger. You’ve got your little Squat-Temple, you’re proud of it, have decorated it with seashells. It’s a great royal fag’s house and now what!? You want to write a best-seller? Come on, Ted, you’re a madman’s madman. Your glory is in your supreme un-readability. Roll around in that shit for a second, see how it smells. That’s where you’re different. No one’s going to put your book on a coffee table.” Duff picked up his bottle, pointed with his pinky at Ted’s house, continued, “You could write a coffee table book in there, up in your little hole. One, maybe two, but think of the shame—all that shame will be on you, eating you alive.”

“You’d know,” Ted said.

“I would, too!” Duff agreed. “I’ve slain colleagues like animals, wrapped their stinking entrails around my neck. I’ve taken beatings and given beatings. People talk about sanctity. I don’t know what that is.”

Ted said, “I’ll stay, just a little while, see if anything comes of it, this house.”

“You’re asking for it, let me tell you—”

“Yeah, I know and all that, but a few months, a year, maybe a little more—there’s something here. I can use it. I have enough money to squeak through, oh, probably December. We’ll see—”

The Iron Hand

He had never, Jerome remembered, been inexorable in his precepts. He had never declared that black is black or white is white. He was flexible in his judgments. He argued from both sides, and ruefully admitted that no one actually knew which side was wrong and which side was right. Compromise, he had declared, was the watchword of the intelligent man. Nothing in life was clearly defined and immutable.

You were wrong, thought Jerome, with sudden confused anger. That is no way to bring up children. They are not intelligent men. They must, for their own safety, be guided by hard and fast rules. They have no experience by which to judge wisdom or folly. To set children adrift with the remark that perhaps their ignorant folly is right, after all, and their old teacher wrong, is to add bewilderment to their inexperience, and take from their horizon any firm landmarks which would guide them to safety and reasonable living.

-Taylor Caldwell, This Side of Innocence

Munroe!

“You don’t have a computer.”

“I have a computer,” replied Munroe.

“But you are using a typewriter.”

“I am using a typewriter. Your last name is Romer, right?”

“That’s right, Römer with an umlaut over the ‘O.’”

Typing, “I can’t do an umlaut with the typewriter. I’ll draw them on later.”

“If you had a computer, you could insert the umlaut.”

Munroe sat in a wheeled swivel chair. The typewriter sat on a squat pedestal over which he hunched, pecking at the keys. “Damn it,” Munroe muttered. “Hand me that white-out, would you, on the edge of the desk.”

“Listen, I don’t mean to be rude, Mr. Munroe—”

“Just Munroe, no ‘Mr.’”

“Right, as I was saying, I don’t mean to be rude, but is there any way we can get down to business, maybe get your secretary to fill out these forms?”

Munroe swiveled, peered over Römer’s shoulder into a hallway filled with stacked boxes. Once upon a time, in the stead of boxes, there was a desk. And at the desk sat a prim secretary: Miranda.

“Of course, the secretary can do it. Okay, let’s get down to business. What do you like to be called?”

“My wife calls me Mike,” Römer said.

“I’ll call you Römer, then.” Munroe ran his hands through his shaggy head of hair. When did he last have a haircut? Römer was well-groomed, clean-shaven, lean, looked younger than the sixty years he claimed. “Do you dye your hair? I’m sorry, business.” He opened the center drawer of his desk, dug out an unsharpened pencil. From the wastebasket he pulled a several year-old newspaper, prepared to take notes in the margins and white-spaces. “Alright, from the top, you want me to do what?”

Römer wanted Munroe to come out of retirement. “I have a daughter,” Römer said, “not much older than you, and married to an English Lit professor at Colgate. She has money, my money, but he not so much, not anymore. What he makes he loses at the track—”

“I don’t know anything about horses,” Munroe interrupted.

“He doesn’t either, apparently. Your job is easy: get close to him, help him feel adequate or less inadequate. I’ll give you money and all you have to do is consistently lose it. He has to see you lose it. He needs a friend, see?”

“He might not want a friend.”

“He wants a friend, trust me. I’m in the trust business. I know these things.”

“What is the trust business? And shouldn’t I have some handicapping experience – some training?”

“No, far as I’m concerned, the less the better. Most bettors are self-described experts, but they still lose. Your job: losing spectacularly. You only bet on long-shots, over and over again. All of your other expenses will be paid: room and board, admission, drinks.”

Munroe studied the margins of the newspaper. They were empty. He hadn’t written anything. He rolled the pencil beneath the palm of his hand. He listened to the electric typewriter hum. “Am I missing something?” he asked Römer.

Römer smiled. His teeth were capped, dazzling, sharp. “You aren’t missing anything. I love my daughter. I don’t like her husband, never did. He has a problem: gambling. But he’s never laid a hand on her. He doesn’t drink or do drugs; he doesn’t embezzle, buy whores, nothing, just this one little thing which maybe isn’t a whole lot better than the other things. She won’t leave him and he won’t quit. There’s a lot of debt. He needs a friend. Someone with whom he can lose, then someone with whom he can win, and win big. By October or November, I need him to leave the track rich and with his pride intact.”

Munroe jotted down two words, circled them: “Lose” and “Win.” “You know, you almost have a great last name. Your daughter’s husband might not like me. He might not want to be my pal.”

“He has debt and you will have money. You will be his friend.” Römer keyed a button on his Blackberry, handed it to Munroe. “That’s Tidy Emmanuel Frisch, my daughter’s husband.” On the small screen was illuminated a picture of husband and wife, maybe at a garden party, dressed casually. She was pretty and he was pretty plain, a little doughy. The screen went black. “Press any button; the image will reappear.” Munroe did and the screen filled once more with husband and wife. “He’s forty-three and she’s forty. She wants to get pregnant, soon, this year.”

“She could leave him, start over; find a family-man, someone that doesn’t gamble.”

“She can’t.”

“Alright, she can’t. Okay, befriend Tidy, lose a little and then win a lot, sound right?”

“You nailed it.” Römer pulled a thick manila envelope out of an inside pocket of his Luigi Borelli, plopped it atop Munroe’s newspaper/notepad. “That’s eighty grand. The races start in three weeks. Your pockets must be empty by the first week in May. By then, Tidy will know you have money and aren’t afraid to spend it.”

Römer was still talking but Munroe was thinking about his thirteen year-old dog. If he took the job (he would take the job), the dog would be alone; he would need a dog-sitter, maybe the girl next door, but was she reliable, did she like dogs, and did she know how to administer insulin shots? She was too young and the old woman over the hedge and behind the slatternly fence was too old, could barely see.

“Is there a problem?” Munroe heard Römer say. Yes, there was a problem. The dog, for one, and the car’s tires were flat; he hadn’t driven it in over two years; it would need an inspection. The car would not pass inspection.

Munroe tapped the money-choked envelope with the pencil, said, “I don’t think I’m what you are looking for.”

“You’re what I’m looking for. You are local, don’t have enemies and you were recommended to me by a friend. He says you are trustworthy.”

“Which friend is that?”

“Will you take the job or not?” Crowley was an old rat terrier, had three working legs and one half-working eye. He was a round-the-clock job.

“I’ll have to put my dog down.”

“Then it’s a deal.”

Römer and Munroe shook hands.

Hotel Ivanhoe

I was out, it was cold, I needed a ride, was shivering in front of the post-office, wasn’t wearing a jacket. It was snowing. Two girls in a Volkswagen, one an old classmate, pull up to the curb, say they will give me a ride.

The car is warm. I begin to thaw. The girls smoke and giggle, say they need to make a quick stop, that I should come along. I come along.

We drove to the outskirts of town, parked behind a fleabag hotel. The classmate, who was driving, bruises all over her body, but mostly on her bare thighs – bruises the shape of beefy fingers, fat hands, night sticks – led me up three trash-strewn flights of stairs, through an unlocked door and into a large room around the perimeter of which marched folding metal chairs and against one wall, a king-sized bed.

No one’s here yet, she said.

Okay, I said. I said, what’s going on?

A party, she said, it’ll be fun. Be patient. She left, was replaced…

…with a little redheaded – a coquette – oozing low-rent sex-appeal; her job: get me to stay. It worked. I kicked off my boots. She preened, clawed the air with red fingernails, hissed. I noticed her teeth were good; she bit the air and I didn’t see any fillings, no gingivitis. And this was important to me at the time. She undressed then disappeared into a back room filled with mattresses, closed the door. She got on the phone. I peeked through a slit in the jamb, tried to listen to the conversation, couldn’t hear. In the meantime, others arrived, shouting, with instruments, handles of Jack Daniels. Many wore Peterbilt hats caked in grease. Their jeans were shiny with motor oil. They carried stereo components, tire irons, bulging plastic grocery bags.

The redhead is still missing, the classmate returns. I say, I gotta go.

No, stay, she says, my brother died. It’s his wake. He was murdered.

I feel like I have heard this story before but don’t say so. I’m sorry, I say, about your brother.

Thanks, she says, and sneers.

Does she think I killed him? I didn’t. More men, rough-looking, unshaven, some too young to shave, all world-worn. They fill the metal folding chairs, pass bottles. Most are already drunk. They are all talking about the murder, that it was payback time. Someone asked me, who’s gonna pay? I didn’t know. Hopefully not me. I’m sorry, I say, you know, about the dead guy, really sorry. Where are my boots? I find them, try to lace them up, can’t. Music erupts from a pair of speakers, mites and dirt exploding from their dust caps. It was Slipknot and it was loud. Someone shouts in my ear, sucks about Paul Gray, don’t it?

Yes, I say, still trying to lace the boots.

Having trouble with your boots, someone else says. They were thrill killers for sure. This was my party. I had to get out. I wondered if I could convince the redhead to come along, go out for coffee. I shouldn’t be thinking about coffee. I said it out loud. Someone grabs me from behind, asks, what’s that about coffee?

Will I be able to run if my boots aren’t laced?