thumbnail photo by Charlie Golonkiewicz
Editors Note: This story is the winner of our 2014 South American Short Story Writing Contest. Congratulations to Rachel.
When I was a kid, summers were longer. I’d spend the still afternoons with my dad, in the barn that he kept as a studio on the west end of our acre in Darien. Lying on my stomach in the hot hayloft I would read and doze off and watch him paint by turns, until the best light faded. I remember him breathing heavily, crouching low, stepping back. He danced a two-hearted dance with the canvas—first attacking, then caressing it—then carving at it with a palette knife. Sometimes he’d call me down from the loft and ask, “Ree, what do you think of this?”
“The composition is a little off-balance,” I’d say.
Or, “The blue’s still too warm.”
Or, “The energy fades at the end of this line.”
He’d taught me to speak like this, with authority, about painting. But the fact that as a young girl I spoke in his voice didn’t stop him from listening to what I had to say. He’d stand back and chew on a spackled knuckle. After a few minutes he might say, “You’re right. You’re right,” and put his hand on my neck, kiss the part in my hair, return to the canvas reinvigorated. Or he might silently disagree, pull up his three-legged stool and sit, slumped and staring, for half an hour or more. I’d join him on the floor, resting my head against his knee until he nodded, grunted, got up. Or I’d leave, closing the door quietly, stepping into the wet grass and the wind off the water.
Now, going on my twenty-fifth October, I’m living at home again. Since I moved in last month, time with Dad hasn’t been the same. Then I was a satellite, a student, a protégé. Now what am I? A warden, a nurse. A fly on the wall. Mostly, cross-legged with my notebook in the hayloft as Dad stands at the dusty window and my cat Crazy Tony stalks chipmunks on the lawn or dozes, snoring lightly, on the stained futon, I’m a faithful recorder, a secretary of the last of our time together.
I spent this past summer in heavy rotation. I was living in shifts. While Mom spent time with Tilda in Aix-en-Provence, I spent most of my days checking up on Dad. Meanwhile I worked nights at Mom’s Place, a diner near the two-room apartment I shared with Crazy Tony and my then-boyfriend Karl where the sink always leaked, where it smelled like burnt toast, where the concrete front yard was piled high with scrap metal collected by our landlord, a Navy Yard dockhand and self-described sculptor who owned most of that Red Hook block. Meanwhile I wrote constantly. Sent out stories, received near-weekly rejections. Because of the hours at Mom’s Place—one to eight—and my visits to Dad’s during the day, I’d sort of begun to lose track of daytime. Sunlight was slippery. Sleep was, too.
My mother called one afternoon in late June, the day she was set to leave for France. The jangling landline woke me from the couch, where I’d been asleep in a shadow.
“Rita.” She had her business voice on. “Glad I caught you. How are you? How’s the clown?” My mother grew up in New Jersey. Her accent is strong, her business voice clipped and nasal.
“Karl, you mean? He’s not a card-carrying clown yet. He still has a few months of school.”
“You sound exhausted.”
“I just woke up.”
“It’s five o’clock!”
“I work nights.”
“I don’t know why.”
“Did you get the story I sent you?”
“I hope you’re getting enough sleep.”
She sighed, took a moment. Then she said, “I want you to see him every day while I’m gone, Ree.”
“Dad, you mean.”
“He’s losing it. Today he called me Laurie.”
“His second wife.”
“He’s called you Eileen before and you didn’t mind.”
“He loved Eileen. Laurie’s a bitch.”
“Was he angry?”
“It was a little spat.”
“You can’t take it personally, Mom.”
“I’m not, Rita. I’m worried. I worry about him. Listen: You’ve got to check on him every day. As a favor to me.”
“That’s a little excessive, don’t you think?”
“He could hurt himself.”
“He’s not going to hurt himself.”
“You don’t see what I see. This may be the last summer you spend with him.”
“Don’t be morbid.”
“He’s almost ninety.”
“I won’t argue this, Rita.”
“I don’t know when I’ll sleep.”
“You’ll do it. You will. I’ll cover the cost of your train tickets.”
“What if I fall asleep on the job?”
“Worst case scenario, you get fired.”
“How will I make rent?”
“We’ll help you out.”
“Mom, I want to be independent.”
My mother has a way of sighing quickly, vehemently, when she’s impatient that comes across very loud on the phone. “Rita, there are literally thousands of jobs in the tri-state area—hundreds of thousands—that will pay you nine dollars an hour to write your novel behind a cash register.”
“I’m not writing a novel. I write short stories.”
Her tone switched to lament. “Rita. Honey. All day, every day, he just sits by the window, looking out at the yard. Watching the birds and the sky.”
“That sounds nice.”
“It sounds brain-dead.”
“You’ll see him daily. That’s final.”
“I’ll see him on my days off.”
“Every other day, minimum.”
“Every three days.”
“Don’t push me.”
“Every other day, minimum.”
“Who’s my sweet girl. I’ll call you before I get on the plane.”
“I’ll be at work.”
“I’ll leave a message.”
“You should print out my story. You can read it during the flight.”
“I will.” She wouldn’t. “Take care of yourself, honey. I love you.”
At Mom’s Place that night I wore a nametag that read Chuck that I found in the back of a drawer of paper clips, pens, pennies, and old hair elastics. I waited on a young woman and her two-year-old, whom she was feeding a giant bowl of applesauce. She didn’t notice my name. Maurice, a line cook, joined me behind the counter. “Why is that child up so late?” I whispered.
Maurice pulled at his hairnet. “Maybe they’re jet-lagged,” he said. “Maybe they just got here from somewhere else.”
In another booth, a group of four or five teenagers poured ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, watery Coke, and iced tea in a glass, dared one another to drink it. Maurice left, disgusted. At the counter, an old man drank cup after cup of black coffee, achingly slowly.
Behind the cash register, I worked in my notebook on a story about a man with a tough stomach. It was called “Who Is That Man Who’ll Eats Everything!?” The guy is called in by an oil company to put his lips to a busted tanker under the sea, to drink up all the oil that’s contaminating the water. I’m a firm believer you’ve got to write every story you’ve got, even if you end up with some that are pretty much shit. If you don’t write the shit stories, you won’t know which are the good ones, and then you won’t know which ones to send out, to publish.
Then again, I’ve never had anything published. And in the lull before sun-up, as the old man fondled his mug, I thought maybe every story I’d written was shit.
In the too-bright morning after my shift, I took the subway to Penn Station to catch a train to Darien. Some people hate it because it smells of old hot dogs and the floor’s always sticky and the conductor always sounds garbled, but I like that train. It’s peaceful, especially when you haven’t slept. The sun rumbled through the long grimy windows, cut at rapid intervals by the trunks that supported the power lines. I bundled my knapsack like a pillow against the window and tried to rest, but after a few minutes I had to take out my notebook. I began a sort of a fairytale: A girl lives in the woods with her father, a painter. She wants to know whether or not she is beautiful, but in the small house where they live there are no mirrors, and the water in the well is so low in the earth that it bears no reflection. The only way the girl knows what she looks like is by staring at her father’s portraits of her. But it is impossible to tell—empirically, from the paintings—how beautiful she really is.
It’s a forty-five minute walk from the train station to Great Island and the house I grew up in. My thin shoes made an easy rhythm through downtown Darien—across the turnpike, through the thick trees by Rings End Road. The day was heating up. By the time I put my key in the lock I was slick with sweat. In the foyer mirror I saw my face was bright red. I washed in the bathroom with the coldest water I could run, scrubbing my forehead and cheeks. I dunked my hair under the faucet and headed back out to the studio, expecting Dad to be working on one of his canvases, maybe blaring the Stones through his chunky old boom box; maybe working, brows tangled. When I pushed open the barn door, though, I found the place empty. It was neater than usual. The paint cans were stacked in a grid on the shelves. A swallow dipped from the rafters, swooped past me out the door. I returned to the house.
Dad was asleep in the Brown Cow, his big armchair, which had been dragged into the dining room from the den so he could sit by the window. His breath was light, wheezy. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of months. He looked haggard and empty and small. I laid a hand on his arm. I said, “Dad.” My hair dripped down my neck. He didn’t wake up.
In the air-conditioning I felt a chill. I pulled up a kitchen chair to sit next to him and looked out at the cherry tree on the balding lawn, at the overgrown pines and beyond them the noon sun that flickered like static on the bay. “This isn’t so bad,” I said to my sleeping father. “I can see why you like it.”
He snored a little, halting snore. A couple of seagulls frightened a sparrow that had been pecking at the bird feeder; the smaller bird lifted into the air like blown paper. The gulls never land on the lawn, I’ve noticed. It’s beach or treetop or eaves for them. Maybe land makes them uneasy. Maybe they don’t like the earth.
I’ve never supported my mother’s alarmism, but in that quiet moment, with Dad’s breath slow and shallow, his face crumpled in folds, I knew she was right. We wouldn’t have much more time with him. Five, ten years at the most; fewer with his lucid mind. I held his warm hand and spoke loudly.
His eyes, crusted with sleep, opened slowly. He chewed his lips and located me. “Hey, Ree,” he said in his throat.
“Hi,” I said. I squeezed his hand. “I didn’t want to wake you, but I wanted you to know I was here.”
He closed his eyes again. “Sweet of you to come by.”
“Is there anything you need before I take off again?”
He shook his head slowly and began to drift back into the world where he’d come from. “Tell your mother I sent her a package,” he said slowly, eyes closing. “She can pick it up at the post office in Bolinas.”
“Eileen lives in Bolinas. Not Mom.” Already he was nearly asleep again. “Eileen was your second wife,” I said more loudly. “Patricia’s my mother. Patricia’s your fourth.”
“Patricia. Fourth wife,” he mumbled. “Patricia, forthwith. Summon her forthwith.” His eyes floated up, his lids closed, and he was asleep again.
I cooked up some pasta for him to eat when he woke, then ate half of it myself in front of the television. I took a few notes for a story about a bachelorette who has to choose her TV husband from among eight contestants who all turn out to be demons. As each demon is dismissed from the show, he threatens to kill her in a new and original way. She becomes increasingly fearful for her life. She is a woman with nowhere to turn.
Dad was still asleep when I slipped out the door.
By the time I got back to Red Hook it was nearly evening. Crazy Tony came trotting when I unlocked the door, meowing a clipped, chirpy meow. He stood on his haunches and put his front paws on my shin. From the kitchen I could hear a gasping kind of animal noise. “What happened, C.T.?” I asked the cat. “Did you catch me a present?” In the summer we let him come and go as he pleases. Once he dropped a small mouse—neck broken, belly pierced—on my chest while I slept. Once he left a mauled pigeon on the doormat. But his noise wasn’t birdlike. It was mammalian.
It was Karl, slumped shirtless at the kitchen table, a half-empty half-pint of whiskey at his elbow. He didn’t look up.
I’d fallen in love with Karl nearly a year before. We met on the set of a film, the brainchild of a mutual friend. I’d written what script there was—twelve or fifteen campy lines. Karl was the stunt double for both main characters. The film was supposed to be a sort of metafictional action scene. It was eight minutes long. It was total crap. I’d entertained Karl between shoots by joking about how bad it all was. Then it was screened at a well-respected film festival. Our mutual friend became arrogant and unpleasant. Meanwhile, Karl and I became close. We took long walks through the city. He laughed at my jokes. I loved the way he moved, graceful. His charming shy smile, his social manner, quiet and languid and abrupt by turns. He was simple, sensitive, eager to please. He listened intently. He did not interrupt. He knew how to touch me. His mood swung, now and then, but I learned how to touch him, over time, how to stroke his back until he bloomed out of a slump. I’d tell winding stories to distract him out of his gloom.
I loved him for his body. Not for its beauty—though it was beautiful—but for the way he existed inside it: integrated, kinetic. He was one of those people who was his body, and whose body was him. We were different that way. Our first months together in Red Hook—before Mom’s Place for me and clown school for him—I’d spend nights wrestling with words, turns of phrase, characters real and imagined. My back would spasm from slumping over my notebook, my hand cramp from gripping the pen. Meanwhile Karl would be in the corner placidly practicing handstands, interrupting my battle with language by pratfalling elegantly on the kitchen floor. I was grateful for Karl’s levity, for his grace. If by midnight I’d forgotten to eat, we’d make a simple meal. He’d perfected the art of the soft-boiled egg.
But since his enrollment in school and my employment, nights like that had become rarer, then faded altogether. We’d catch a few hours of sleep together if we were lucky; sometimes we’d pass one another in the hallway at eight or nine in the morning, he just leaving, I just coming to bed. Days would go by when we wouldn’t see each other at all. When I walked in on him weeping, I realized we hadn’t really spoken in almost two weeks. He seemed a sad stranger.
I splashed my face with cold water at the tap. I sat down at the table. Put out a tentative hand. He flinched when I touched him. I said his name.
He didn’t look up. He sipped his whiskey. He waited for his tears to ebb. Finally, he said, “I’m a terrible clown.”
“What do you mean? You’re an excellent clown.” I tried to sound assured, but I couldn’t have known what, exactly, it took for a clown to be excellent. Crazy Tony rubbed his jaw on my leg.
“You make me laugh.”
Karl looked up at me. His eyes were red. His lips were red, too, stained with the last of the lipstick he’d worn that day. Blue mascara had left little rivers on his cheeks. “You don’t mean it,” he said. “You’ve been fake-laughing. I haven’t made you laugh really since October.”
I thought. It was probably true. Still, I was more annoyed than sorry when he pointed it out. Beside his elbow was an envelope addressed to me from the Pig Pen Review. It was distracting. “I haven’t been fake-laughing,” I said, irritated. “How could you tell?”
“I’m in the business of laughter,” he said, and stared at my shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have said that. That was awful.”
“It’s fine. It’s okay. You’re a little drunk.” I reached for the envelope, began tearing it slowly, avoiding looking at the fresh tears that welled in his eyes.
“I failed my exam today,” he was saying. “I was supposed to put together a routine. Gerard said I failed.”
“My teacher. I’ve told you about him.”
“Oh, Gerard. Right, Gerard. You love Gerard.”
“I love Gerard. But he said. He said there was no intelligence to my movement. He said my routine was tired.”
I glanced at the contents of the envelope. It was a typewritten letter. Dear Rita Sackett. “Your routine was tired?”
His nose crumpled. The tears became too heavy for their trap in his lower lashes, escaped, and rolled down his face. Thank you for your submission to the Pig Pen Review. I leaned toward him, looking up. “I think you move intelligently.”
“You don’t even know what that means.” His voice was bitter. He was right. He rubbed his eyes, took a drink. “Where have you been all day?” he mumbled at last.
“I went to see my dad,” I said.
He shook his head. “You’ve never visited me.”
I was speechless.
His frown was made particularly absurd by the traces of makeup in the crease of his brow, in the pores of his nose. “Rita,” he said seriously, “I’m starting to think you don’t love me anymore.”
I stood up, envelope in hand. “I can’t handle this right now,” I said in the most efficient voice I could summon. “I love you. You’re drunk. I need to nap before work.”
I closed the door to the bedroom behind me and read the letter. Dear Rita Sackett. Thank you for your submission to the Pig Pen Review. We appreciate the opportunity to read your work, but it does not fit our vision for Pig Pen at this time. Best of luck in your future endeavors, The Editors. I ripped up the letter and stuffed it in the wastebasket. Got in bed and pulled the covers up to my chin, spiting the heat. I heard the front door open and close. In a fitful dream, I came in the front door again to find Karl aged fifty years, skin paper-thin, staring through the glass wall in a widow’s walk at a lake that went on forever.
That night during my shift at Mom’s Place I wore a nametag that read Sam. I waited on a bickering couple that shared a bowl of spaghetti and ketchup. At the counter I served a very thin man three plates of pancakes. As he left he hit the counter, said, “Thanks, Samantha.” I began a short story about a man who ages more quickly than most people, who lives behind a glass wall at the edge of the sea. People come by in boats to watch as wrinkles develop at the edges of his eyes, as his knuckles swell, arthritic, inflamed. They have a Fourth of July party outside the glass, set off firecrackers from their canoes, watch the reflections of fire in his window.
Karl wasn’t there when I got home from Mom’s that morning. I think it was that morning. It’s hard to remember, now. The days of that month run together in my memory, a series of episodes in three different shows, each shot in poor focus, sent to broadcast too hurriedly, rough edits with no real transitions.
I think it was that morning. I lay down to nap. My mind wouldn’t slow down. I didn’t want to go out to Darien twice in two days—out of pride, because I’d told my mother I wouldn’t. But the thought of Dad sitting alone in the Brown Cow by the window all day lay down with the thought of poor Karl crying and drunk, and the two thoughts groaned together like a couple of wounded animals. I couldn’t sleep.
I’d go back to Connecticut. Spend the day with Dad again before working again that night. I was running on empty. I hadn’t slept, but I went.
When I’d run my face and hair under the bathroom faucet and come downstairs, Dad was not in his chair. I felt my gut drop, and for a queasy moment I imagined him dead in his bed, and I reeled. Then I remembered the studio.
It was clear he was there by the time I’d half-crossed the lawn. Beethoven blaring in the still air. He didn’t hear me when I walked in, so I stood still for a moment, watching him paint.
Early in his career, my father was known for his big, garish canvases, abstract flashes of light and shadow that overflowed with bodily colors. ‘Virile,’ people called them. ‘Masculine.’ ‘Seminal.’ But as he’s aged, his paintings have become smaller. He’s replaced abstract with figurative, gone back to photographs of me and my mother, of Eileen and Laurie and all his other kids, copying weirdly warped versions of us onto dense little canvases just six or eight inches wide. These latest paintings are piles of dark reds, muddy golds, greens so thick that only the brightest highlights—the tip of a nose, the crest of a cheek—are visible in the paint’s depths.
From where I stood he looked small himself, bent over a canvas on a tilted easel. Beethoven rose and fell. I approached him, put a hand on the spine that stuck out like a model mountain range under his cotton shirt. He startled, turned around, and stared at me a split second before putting an index finger in the air, as if to say ‘hold on a moment.’ He turned off the music. “I’ve been painting my daughter,” he said, his back to me. Then he turned, looked at me, and came forward smiling. “My daughter,” he repeated with warmth in his eyes. “My Rita. I’ve been painting you. Look.”
He led me to a table pushed up against a wall where seven small canvases were lined up side by side. Their surfaces scraped and scratched. Below the layers in one, a pair of tense eyes looked out. In another, a thin hand was visible, clenched. In several I couldn’t see any part of a figure at all.
“Those are all me?”
A smile hung on the corner of his mouth. “You don’t see it?”
In another painting a flash of vivid orange nearly concealed a little nose and a mouth. Below them a half-obscured heart shone, silver-green. “I recognize that one,” I said. “That’s my old locket. That’s my high school graduation photo.”
He seemed pleased. “What about this?” His finger quivered as he pointed to a thick streak of purple on a mostly blue canvas. Shaking with nervous energy. Looking closer, I could see the C of the side of a neck, the dip of a collarbone. “This is you, Ree,” he said. “If it isn’t, I don’t know you at all.”
I touched my own neck and collarbone. I was warm and damp in the heat.
There was no mirror in the studio. I couldn’t feel what he meant.
My visits with Dad were unpredictable. Sometimes I’d find him in the Brown Cow asleep, or staring with clouded eyes at the sun on the bay. Other times he’d be in the studio, painting obsessively, shivering with life. Meanwhile, a sort of revulsion had begun to attend my thoughts of Karl. I tried to ignore it. I thought of the way he used to slide his arms over my stomach as I sat at the table and wrote, the cheerful way he’d distract me, popping up from behind my chair. Try as I did, I felt no affection.
At Mom’s Place I wore nametags that said Elmor, Colleen, José. I watched a man talk on his cell phone to a woman he loved. Heard him say, “When I come over there, you better be in the tub, soaped up and ready.” I listened to a woman talk on the phone, tell some guy, “Lock your doors, fucker. I’m about to come over there, scratch out that nasty pug’s eyes.”
In my spot behind the counter I wrote stories. Here’s one: A man is followed everywhere by a cloud of black flies. It becomes impossible for people to see through the flies, to see him. One day a pack of children armed with fly swatters follows the swarm of flies to the end of a dead-end street. They descend on the swarm, and the cloud of flies becomes a cloud of violent swatting until, one by one, every fly has dropped to the ground, and it turns out there was no man at all.
Here’s another: A group of women who tan too much, whose skin becomes soft and tough as good leather, are poached by an elite group of shoemakers when they go dancing at bars and clubs around the world. The last living woman of the group options her memoir for a movie, but on the day of the gala premiere she’s found missing. The next week, a pair of thirty-thousand-dollar shoes goes on auction at a reputable auction house.
The less I slept, the more I wrote. Writing began to replace dreaming. I barely saw Karl. I’d know he’d been home by the sheets I’d untangle when I came back from work in the morning, or by the dirty dishes I’d wash in the sink or the half-empty pot of burnt rice and beans I’d dump into the garbage when I got home from Darien. I felt guilty for loathing him. I didn’t want to resent him.
Gerard Devereux’s clown school was on Second Avenue. Karl had pointed it out to me once—the previous summer, before he became a student there—in a wistful sort of way. One afternoon in late summer, on the way back from Connecticut, I stopped in. I’d surprise him with falafel, I decided. See if we couldn’t smooth things over.
I showed up with the oily paper bag, buzzed the intercom. No voice asked who I was. Somebody buzzed me in. Nailed to the wall was a plastic rack with a couple of Xeroxed flyers for the school. A handwritten directory listed The Devereux Academy Of American Clowning on the fourth floor. Above it was Instant Reset Technology. Below it was Mind The Gap Holistic Dentistry. I took a flyer, which showed a black silhouette of a figure with a big puff of hair from which came a speech bubble with the name of the school along with its address and phone number. I climbed the three dusty flights of stairs thinking that whoever went there to fix a computer was equally as insane, naïve, or thrifty as whoever went there to fix their teeth. I stuffed the flyer in my back pocket with the vague notion of writing a story about the ghost of a clown that appears in silhouette behind window blinds, shower curtains, and frosted glass doors. That plays tricks on women while they are showering, or while they’re in bed with real, flesh-and-blood men.
Through a square window in the door on the fourth floor, I could see a large room with a rubber floor. Half a dozen people followed one another clockwise on unicycles, and in the middle of the circle a wiry little man in a flesh-colored rubber cap waved in time to the rhythm of some French pop song I could only just hear. At the end of a chorus, he yelled and gestured in the other direction and all of the unicyclists spun around and went clockwise with varying degrees of success. A short, portly man nearly ran into an elderly woman with long, knotted gray hair. A languorous, long-limbed blonde averted collision with one of two potbellied, thick-bearded men. A gawky adolescent of indeterminate sex pedaled as gracefully as if he or she were floating. I watched, mesmerized. I did not see Karl.
When they paused to take a break—laying down their unicycles with care, stretching their limbs—I knocked on the door. The wiry man in the flesh-colored cap approached and peered out at me. His face was exactly the height of the window in the door. Up close, I could see he had a perfect, pencil-thin mustache. When he opened the door and stepped out, his smile spread like oil on water.
“Hi,” I said, “I’m sorry to bother you—”
With a delicate finger and thumb he pulled on the side of his mustache and looked me up and down, still smiling. “Nut a boddair,” he said finally. “Ow can I elp you?”None other than the eponymous Devereux.
“Hello,” I said, “I’m Rita.” He bowed his head slightly, waited for me to go on. “I’m looking for Karl. Is Karl here?”
As I spoke, he began to peel the mustache off of his face. It left a sticky, shiny residue on the skin of his upper lip, between his real hair follicles. “Kahl is not ear,” he replied, and neatly rolled up the mustache into a little ball.
“Has he been in today? Did he call?”
He shrugged. “I donut tink Kahl is coming beck.” He flicked the mustache at the wall with panache. Behind him the potbellied men opened a door in the wall to what looked like a bedroom. I watched them fish a couple of pogo sticks from a trunk at the foot of a massive white bed and bring them out to the rubber floor. There they began to hop, squeaking.
“When did he leave?”
Devereux shrugged again. “Couple of weeks?” and surveyed my breasts frankly. “Adorahble, Karl, but dahk. To clown, one must be light. One must play wit space.”
I ate the falafel on the F train home. Scratched down some notes for a story: A motley gang of survivors in a post-apocalyptic world venture out for the first time after The Warming. The Earth’s surface is so hot after being scorched by nuclear war that they have no choice but to get around on pogo sticks.
When I got home the phone was ringing. I rushed to the kitchen, nearly tripping on Crazy Tony, asleep in the middle of the kitchen floor on top of a pile of mail he must have moved himself.
“Rita. Finally. I’ve been calling all morning.”
“You don’t sound thrilled to hear from me.”
“It’s been a long day. A long series of days. A series of long days. It’s fine. How’ France?”
“Delicious. Poor Tilda’s a pill, but the weather’s delicious. I sat out all morning on the patio in a swimsuit and straw hat reading Baudelaire.”
“No you didn’t.”
“In English translation, of course.”
“Have you read the story I sent you?”
“I’m not having mail forwarded. It takes forever overseas.”
It was useless to tell her I’d sent it by email. Crazy Tony got up, turned around, and lay down again near the refrigerator. I reached for one of the envelopes he’d been sitting on. It was warm. It was from a magazine called Mud River.
“How’s your father, Rita?”
I was quiet a minute. “He seems alright. A little out of it, sometimes.”
“He doesn’t always know you, does he?”
“Sometimes it takes him a minute.” All at once, I could feel my voice begin to quiver. I hadn’t been thinking much of my dad. My mind had been on black flies and pogo sticks, Karl and clowns. It was too hard to think about Dad’s clouded eyes, or how he had mentioned the post office in Bolinas.
She left no gesture, however subtle, unremarked. “Oh, Ree. Don’t cry, honey. All we can do is make sure his last years are happy ones.”
“It’s not his last years. He’s just getting old. Just like you. Just like everyone.”
“Speak for yourself. I feel as young as I’ve ever been.” Her voice took on an irritating, vaguely European accent. “Listen, Rita, I have a petite favor to ask of you. Tilda is very ill, and she’s all alone. No one to care for her in her own old age. I was thinking, since you’re there in Connecticut—”
“I live in Brooklyn.”
“—there in Brooklyn, so close to Dad, I was thinking I would extend my stay here in Aix through the fall. Tilda could use the company. She’s having a hard time.”
I tore open the envelope, relishing the fierceness of the gesture.
Mom lowered her voice to a whisper without waiting for me to ask. “I think it’s cancer.”
“You can’t just think someone has cancer.”
“Her mother had cancer.”
Inside the envelope was another rejection. Dear Ms. Sackett. Thank you for your submission to Mud River. Unfortunately this piece did not meet our needs at this time. She threw it on the floor. “Mom, I’m not sleeping. I’m not even thinking. I’m going crazy, back and forth—Brooklyn to Darien, Darien to Brooklyn—Karl on one end and Dad on the other, Mom’s Place in the middle—”
“You poor thing. You sound so depressed. You know what,” she said, in her businesslike voice, all Jersey again, “quit the diner. You should take some time off. I have a great idea! Come to France. Wouldn’t that be so great? I could meet you in Paris. We could spend a few days. Just us girls, Paris! How fun would that be.”
“What about Dad?”
“We could get him a nurse.”
“Get him a nurse? Why am I there?”
“You’re there because you’re his goddamn daughter, and you’re not doing anything better with your life.”
“You know what? Going to Paris and reading Baudelaire would not be ‘something better.’ I’m staying here. I’m writing my stories, I’m living on nothing, and you are coming home to take care of Dad. Because that is your only job!”
Crazy Tony meowed heartily. I could hear my mother breathing on the other end of the line. “You know,” she said after too long, “I’ve given up an awful lot to care for you and your father. All these years I’ve done nothing but care for you two. So sue me, I’ve done something for myself, for once. Before I get inconceivably old. ”
There was another, moody pause. I picked at a hangnail. Then, with the air of a wicked person giving away the end to a murder mystery, she said: “I might as well tell you it’s already done. I extended my ticket this morning.”
I was silent, aghast.
“I’ll be home in October.”
“October!” Silence. “So asking me was just a formality. So I have no choice.”
“We could hire someone.”
“Bullshit. You don’t want to hire someone. You want it to be me.”
“Maybe you want it to be you, Rita.”
“Don’t psychoanalyze me!” I was livid.
“Oh, darling, Tilda’s up, and she’s got to have somebody drive her to acupuncture. Listen, Rita: I love you, honey. My love to Dad. Take care of you.”
I probably made some kind of angry noise. I hung up. I scrubbed my face. I sat down at the kitchen table and stared at Crazy Tony, who sniffed and looked away. “I hate her,” I said to him. “Don’t walk away from me,” I said. He stretched, purred, and went in the bedroom. I sat at the table and tried not to scream.
I guess I fell asleep that way, because my heart hit my throat when I heard a key in the door. It was night. Karl stumbled into the kitchen, flicking on the fluorescent light. Clown makeup smeared all over his face. He looked horrible, haggard. His left eye sealed shut and swollen, his lower lip split, his cheek bruised. It took me a moment to realize that the red below his nose was not paint, but blood.
“You’re home,” he drawled bitterly.
“My god,” I said, getting up quickly. “You look like you’ve been hit by a truck.”
“I failed out of clown school.” He slumped to the floor.
“I know,” I said. “I went by Gerard’s to visit you.” He laughed. I got a towel, ran it under the tap, rubbed soap into it, sat with him on the floor. “What happened to you?”
“I was busking.” He sighed dramatically. “I’ve been busking. Clowning in the subway.”
I touched his eye lightly. He didn’t flinch. I thought of my dad’s canvases, their mottled bruising, the last battered memories of an old man’s youth.
“I had my old briefcase out for change. I was collecting some pretty good money. And then these kids. You know, older kids. Teenagers. They just reached right in and gathered it up.” His voice was flat and sad. “I reached over to stop them, and one of them bent back my arm. So I socked him. You know how quiet and empty it gets down there at the 2nd Avenue stop. There was no one around. These kids gathered up, and they just wailed on me. They beat the shit out of me.”
“I think one of them bruised my rib.” He lifted his shirt and showed me a long scrape, green and purple.
“It’s okay,” he said dully. “I’ll be okay.”
I cleaned his face as gently as I could manage.
He was quiet a while. “You don’t give a shit about me anymore, do you?”
I wanted to speak, but I couldn’t. Instead of telling him, no, no, I love you, no, I believe in you, we’re still together, this is real, I watched as his head fell further and further down the front of his body. In cartoonish slow motion, he tumbled to the floor. There was something about his body’s slackness, the way it fell over itself, which I couldn’t help but find funny. Watching him curl ever so slowly into himself, I thought of a pill bug; listening to his hiccups become erratic sobs, I thought of a cartoon drunkard—a bulbous-nosed fool with Xs for eyes, the word ‘hic’ exploding all around his head—and with a sudden, lovely, hideous explosion, I began, violently, to laugh. I laughed and I laughed and I laughed and I laughed until I lost my breath, and then I laughed more, and poor Karl kept sobbing, his face contorted by his unbearable pain. Crazy Tony came up close and nosed me as I clutched my stomach and tears began to fall from my eyes. I gasped for air and a thin, reedy sound at last floated up from poor Karl—a wavering, wordless whine that, after several minutes, formed itself into words: “I want to die. I just want to die.”
I began to breathe again. Soberly, slowly, I stood. The smile faded from my aching cheeks, and I walked to the telephone on the wall. I took the pamphlet out of my back pocket and unfolded it slowly. I picked up the phone and dialed the number. It rang. It rang. Karl whispered to himself on the floor. “I just want to die,” he kept saying.
Then voices and music clicked on, and a voice said, “’Allo?” I stretched the cord into the hallway.
“Hello,” I said quietly. “Gerard?”
“Yes,” he said, stiffly, and waited.
“C’est Rita. J’ai fait votre connaissance cet après-midi.” He was quiet. I dropped the middle school French. “I was looking for Karl.”
“Ah, yes!” His voice was enthusiastic. “Lovely Rita. You aire eenterested in clowning. I geefe you a deal: Ferst clahss, fifty pehcent off.”
“I’m calling about Karl,” I said.
“Kahl ees no longaire a student here.”
“I know. But.” I wasn’t sure how to put what I wanted to ask. “He’s upset,” I said finally.
“Yes,” he agreed.
“And he’s here, and I know I don’t know you at all, but he said he loves clowns, and he said he loves you, and I imagine you care about him.”
“I care about all of my students.”
“So I was wondering: could I ask you a favor?”
“We put on a show at ten o’clock,” he said. “My time ees leemeeted.”
There was a hundred pound weight in my chest balanced unevenly on a shard of glass. I opened the front door and pulled the cord of the phone until it stretched outside, and closed the door behind me. “I am afraid Karl is going to kill himself.” I spoke quickly, urgently. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. You are the first person I thought to call. He’s lost all hope, Gerard. I’m afraid. I’m afraid.” I couldn’t tell to what extent I believed what I was saying. I just knew I had to get Karl out of my kitchen, out of my apartment, out of my care. “I’m afraid,” I repeated. “Can you come get him? I know it sounds insane, I know I don’t even know you.” I was desperate, in my defense. “But is there any way? Any way you could send someone? Take him back? Something? I can’t have him here anymore.”
There was a pause on the end of the line, and some muted conversation I couldn’t make out. “Oui, okay,” he said at last. “Where arre you? There arre people I can send.”
The shard of glass shattered. The weight fell to my feet. There was air and wind where it had been. “Thank you,” I said, “thank you, thank you so much.”
I told him our address and went back inside and hung up and sat cross-legged on the floor next to Karl.
He was still sobbing quietly.
I began a story.
“Once upon a time,” I said, as if he were my son, “there was a woman who had a baby. The baby was large for his age, and he grew very quickly, so quickly that his faculties didn’t have very much time to develop, so he grew up blind, without a sense of smell or taste, without touch, and completely deaf. Because he could not smell or see or taste or touch or hear, his mother couldn’t teach him about the world. She could not teach him language, not even sign language, couldn’t show him the names for things. Meanwhile, the baby grew and grew. By the time he was eight years old, he was eleven feet tall. By the time he was twelve, he was twenty feet tall. He was a freak, and people laughed at him, and even though he had no way of hearing or seeing them, his mother could hear them laughing. And it broke her heart.
“But fortunately, because he was so large, he had been given a lot of medical attention. So she went to see one of his doctors, and she told the doctor how much she wanted just one thing, one thing only in life: to communicate with her son. And together they began to devise a sort of a cure.”
Karl was breathing unevenly, stroking the floor with a flat palm.
“They began to draw up plans for a sort of laboratory in the brain of this child who was growing and growing at such an alarming rate. It was a transparent laboratory, a sort of glass nest at the base of his skull, all windows, with a tunnel just wide enough for her to crawl in. Once she was inside of it, she could finally see his brain, as it moved and pulsed, as its synapses snapped. And she felt such a sense of relief, of serenity, to be inside him—this boy with whom she’d never been able to communicate. And after she’d been there for a very long time, she began to understand what the movements and pulses and flashing synapses meant.”
As I talked, I took Karl’s hand. I slid an arm under him and lifted him to sitting. His eyes were glazed over. He didn’t look at me. I helped him stand up, led him to the door. Crazy Tony followed us outside, where the heat that had built up over the day was still pulsing from the concrete and from the twisted pieces of scrap metal that our landlord kept in the paved front yard. I led him to the stoop that led to our landlord’s apartment upstairs and sat him down, talking all the while. He’d stopped crying. He gazed sadly at the curb. I described the inside of the giant child’s brain, the way the mother learned to read her son’s synapses and pulses from a seat in the glass lab in his head. I told him how, finally, after so many years, she felt close to her son, because they were one. At last, I told him, this mother found herself fusing with her giant son. Her skin grew into her chair in his brain, her thoughts became his thoughts, his thoughts hers, and at last she was nothing but a little bit of consciousness, she was nothing but a conscience, the part of him that watched himself.
I was just finishing this bizarre story when an undersized ambulance with a vanity horn screeched around the corner and stopped in front of the stoop where we sat. It honked a loud melody and a set of double doors opened in the back, and out tumbled a clown in a red wig and polka-dot suit and a clown in a white wig and vivid suspenders and a clown in a pink wig and puffed-sleeve dolly dress and a clown in a blue wig and enormous shoes, and they all somersaulted toward Karl and me, and a clown in a green wig and black and white striped suit tumbled out and tossed the group a stretcher, which they caught gracefully. I felt invisible. I felt like maybe I was asleep. In a series of wordless, acrobatic motions, they laid Karl on the stretcher. He was loose as a sack of apples. They formed a sort of human bridge and passed him, one to the next, into the ambulance. Then they all tumbled back in. The one in the white wig stopped a moment outside the car and bowed to me politely before following the rest and closing the back doors behind him. Then the ambulance wheeled away, playing its crazy melody, and I was alone again on the hot stoop in the dark.
I sat there, still, for some time.
I watched a pigeon pursue another pigeon, watched the second pigeon fly off.
I felt the night get darker.
At last I got up, went inside, washed my face, set the alarm clock, and lay down on the bed. I slept deeply for hours, without even the hint of a dream.
That night at Mom’s Place a couple of guys from the Navy Yard showed up with my landlord, ordered milkshakes. I’d put on my own nametag that night, which was fortunate because my landlord had forgotten my name. “Rita!” he said, grateful for the hint. “How’s your boyfriend. He’s a clown, right?” He winked at his friends.
“He’s not my boyfriend anymore,” I said. My landlord made apologetic small talk about the beauty of being alone. To excuse him brought up the beauty of scrap metal. At last we settled on the beauty of cats, how they never do what you want them to.
As my landlord and his friends were leaving, I told him I would be moving out. That week I quit my job at Mom’s Place. I packed up my mother’s car with the few things I really wanted and dropped off the rest at Goodwill. Karl left one morning without much of a goodbye to crash with his brother in a kibbutz outside Northampton. Exhausted, serene, and totally penniless, Crazy Tony and I came home.
It’s been colder lately. The trees are all aflame.
Over the last couple of months I’ve gotten a sense of the rhythm of my father’s memory. He’s lucid in the early mornings when he paints, blaring his music over the lawn. By noon he’s tired out. He naps in the Brown Cow and I make us food, keeping his portion in the fridge or warming in the oven for when he wakes. I walk to the bay and sit by the water and listen to the sea gulls make their commotion, or wander slowly through the old neighborhood and look at what people have done with their gardens. Sometimes Crazy Tony joins me. Mostly he does his own thing.
This morning I pushed open the door to the studio to find Dad gazing at a photograph. He was holding his flannel shirt closed tight against the chill. He looked up with a puzzled look on his face. He said, “Penny.”
“Rita,” I said.
He looked at me. “Sure.” He was hazy. He showed me the picture he held in his hands. It was a photo he’d taken when I was thirteen. We’d all gone to the county fair. I’m grinning victoriously, holding up a dingy hard-won plush unicorn.
“Yeah,” I said. “Rita. That’s me.”
He looked at the photo, then me. “Not you.” He came toward me and put a hand on the side of my face. “Not this woman.” My eyes began to fill up with tears. He was moved, though he didn’t know me. “Sit for me.”
He pulled up the grubby three-legged stool. He frowned at me, frowned at the canvas, began digging at it with a worn down old paintbrush. I sat through the morning. We did not break for lunch. He worked through mid-afternoon. We spoke, here and there. Our conversation was fragments. Nodded guttural mumbles. He was deep in concentration. Around two he stood back, waved me over.
On the canvas a woman sat looking out at us with an expression of uncommon gravity. Her forehead was smudged, vaporous. Her eyes were unclear. “Who’s this?” he said. “Who’s this?”
“That’s me,” I told him. “You were just painting me.”
He looked at me. “You?”
He leaned his head into a hand, squeezing his temples. “Penny,” he said to his palm.
I could feel my eyes sting with sudden tears. “No, Rita,” I said. “Rita. Ree.”
“Oh, my little Ree.” He lifted his head, nodded. Bending unsteadily, he picked up the photograph, which had fallen to the floor below his easel. A drop of paint smudged the face of the girl with the unicorn, obscuring her smile. With a thumbnail he scratched at the drop. My little Ree,” he mumbled, “where’s my little Ree?”
My mouth and nose crumpled. “I’m right here, Dad.”
He looked up at me, waved the photo, almost in anger. “She’s right here! Blotted out. And you? Who are you?”
“I’m Rita,” I said. My knees were weak, my tears falling quickly now. “That girl is me.”
He grimaced, threw the photograph to the floor. Frail in his heavy work boots, he walked to the door, opened it, left, and slammed it behind him. I watched his thin blurry body recede on the lawn. In the quiet studio, in his absence, I sat before his portrait of me. The painted woman’s foggy eyes, her mouth straight and narrow. I was at a loss for what to do, what to think.
What can I do but go back to work?
What do I ever do?
What I’ve got now is a thickheaded revision. Less of the fairy tale I began months ago, more of a confession of truth. It begins years ago, when summers were longer. A kid spends the still afternoons with her dad. In the barn that he keeps as a studio on their acre, she lies on her stomach in the hayloft as he works—reading and dozing and watching him paint—until the best light fades.
Rachel Lyon received her BA at Princeton and her MFA in creative writing at Indiana University, where she was fiction editor at Indiana Review. Her publications include the Portland Review, The Baltimore Review, Toad, Hobart, SmokeLong, Arts & Letters, and Works & Days. In 2012, she was a fellow at Ledig House International Writers Colony, and in 2014 she will be a resident at ArtFarm. Rachel lives in Brooklyn, NY, her hometown, and is a Copywriter/ Content Strategist at Velocidi, a digital content marketing company. Follow her @manateesintrees.
(1) Reader Comment
April 24, 2017
April 21, 2017
April 06, 2017
Judging a creative writing contest is to pretend authority and, even m
Anita! I know someone who wants to work in Chile but as electrician. D
I really enjoyed this story. It made me think about my own predisposit
Thank you, Scott.
I have been living in Santiago for about one year and I can confirm th