Alan Lewis, having retired at two in the morning in a state of chemically induced equilibrium (two cups espresso + several glasses of modestly priced sauvignon blanc), sliding contentedly, almost happily into bed with Evelyn, cuddling up to her back spoon fashion, nesting his face in her long, shampoo-fragranced hair, now finds that during the night his specific gravity has increased ten-fold. His body, like a cannon ball, like a human meteorite, has shot down in their cotton stuffed futon mattress, through the wire mesh of their metal bed frame, through the floor boards of their bedroom, down past the Birehoff’s apartment one floor below, through the basement and foundation of this aging two-family Victorian, and has come to rest in fetal position within the paisley print percale polyp of their mattress somewhere in Precambrian strata.
From where Lewis rests all sounds coming from their apartment are, of course, muted: running water, clinking ceramic cups, movement in the kitchen, and right now in their bedroom, the moist slap of bare feet approaching what would normally be his side of the bed.
Malcolm stands chest high next to the edge of the bed, a fetching composite of mother and father: wide-set hazel eyes, sorrel-colored curls, button nose, etc. Malcolm stands next to the bed, holding his father’s eyeglasses — wire rim, broken and mended in several places, very fragile — offering them to him in his husky, three-and-a-half-year-old contralto, “Here, Dad.” Since their move from California to New Jersey a little over half a year ago Malcolm has begun to demonstrate a marked need for assembling things, for order, symmetry. The character of his play, once charmingly chaotic, has become serious, determined. He has assembled small forms from Lego blocks, or specifically, one form repeated numerous times: a pattern of red block, blue block, red block, blue block, etc., in the shape of the Cyrillic letter “Ѱ’’ three inches wide by three inches tall. He has even requested that these forms, once completed, be super-glued together to keep them from falling apart. These forms line bookshelves, tables, stair wells throughout their apartment.
From the depths of this cushioned depression, Lewis’ hand miraculously emerges and takes the eyeglasses and then sets them down feelingly on the bedside stand. Malcolm watches this then walks off, collecting other parts of his father: pants, one sock, another sock. A muffled voice follows: “Thank you, Malcolm.” Lewis’ hand returns to its resting place, sandwiched in the darkness between unclothed thighs. Since their move from California to New Jersey Lewis has developed a case of acute motivational degeneration.
Possible explanations for Lewis’ present condition:
1. He is astrologically ruled by at least two, maybe all four of the Jovian planets.
2. He has an inverted genetic predisposition to ponderousness. (It is a poorly kept family secret that his paternal grandfather spent the last years of his life hospitalized for chronic mania.)
3. He would rather remain in this posture of absolute retreat than consciously take on the responsibilities of father, caregiver, husband, co-housekeeper, errand-runner, ancient graduate student with a teaching fellowship, and a part-time job working for an art and antiques appraiser and restorer.
4. He would prefer to wake up in their previous home in California and not this town, this so-called “village” in suburban New Jersey.
5. He’s been summoned to groggy consciousness during mid sleep cycle (a little over five hours) instead of a number divisible by two. For example: had he gone to bed at 3 instead of 2, or had he been awakened at 6 instead of 7, his downward trajectory might not have been so great.
Where and how were those late-night, early-morning hours spent, those hours before sliding into bed and nestling so cozily against Evelyn’s sleeping back? All or most of them were spent upstairs in the attic/studio of this otherwise small apartment. Most of the hours cannot be accounted for as they were simply spent supporting the habitual practice of distracted pacing, many treks downstairs for beverages and visits to the bathroom, avoidance in the form of neatening certain areas of the attic, some abstracted nosing through a pile of unread student papers.
Malcolm returns. There is the gentle slap of clothing against the bed. Malcolm wants his father to get up. His father would like to get up. That is, he would like to want to get up. But, as we know, he doesn’t, or “can’t.” He wishes he were the type who rose happily with the first rays of sunlight, the type who awoke each morning having lost all heavy baggage during sleep, but it just isn’t so. Then, too, there is this steep, cushiony wall he must scale (a wall which seems to be getting less and less steep as the minutes pass). With open eyes, he sees the blurry astigmatic glow of morning light coating the inside wall of the bed sheets, crimson paisley print bed sheets. The eyes close again. A faint, muffled promise is offered that he will get up in five minutes. This seems to satisfy Malcolm, as Lewis hears the gentle sound of the bedroom door closing under its own weight, and then muted conversation coming from the kitchen, a discussion between Evelyn and Malcolm, semantic in nature and principally focusing on the word “up.”
Lewis returns to auto-observation of aches, pains, and general discomfort: this dull throbbing of lower back, perhaps caused by the acute fetal positioning of his body; this sharper pain of a pulled thigh muscle disconcertingly near the groin, a twenty-year old sports-related injury re-introduced several days ago while playing kickball with Malcolm. Suspended within these crimson sheets, Lewis is, among other things, erect — not aroused — but erect. While noting this condition, he discovers an added sensation, a kind of tingling, not necessarily unpleasant, but localized, not general. An itch. The kind of sensitivity one might feel after a vigorous session of love-making. (Considering that approximately a week has gone by since the latter, this explanation is ruled out.) Searching with his right hand, Lewis finds its exact location, mid-shaft, left of center. A small sensitive spot, the size of a shirt button. Having located it now by feel, he should, though he doesn’t want to, perform a visual inspection at some point. If nothing else, this, coupled with the need to pee, may be enough to get him out of bed.
Egress From Bed
Egress from the bed is not achieved easily. Even with the aid of the ever-contracting membrane of the mattress, the body struggles, legs wrestle against the clinging bed sheets, hands grab for any hold they can find. There is panting, grunting, beads of sweat forming on the forehead and upper lip. The urge to call out, to request a team of civil engineers to come with block and tackle and hoist him heaven-ward is only barely squelched. Though the body’s actual weight is somewhere around 150 pounds (plus or minus 5 pounds), and much of this well-toned muscle, the perceived weight is easily three times that, the muscles completely lax, rubbery. After several minutes he manages, finally, to achieve a position on the soft precipice of the bed-gorge, and here he pauses to catch his breath. From this vantage point he sees, for the first time this morning (again, astigmatically and mildly myopically) the surround of their bedroom. It is not a bedroom one would wish not to awaken to: small, pleasantly furnished with bargain antiques: one blue-painted, distressed commode, on which two framed 5x7 family photographs are arranged next to a lopsided, father-and-son made willow basket; a white wicker chair covered with handmade quilt, both of these also distressed; a gun metal gray, five-drawer bureau (not quite distressed yet); and on the opposite side of the bed from where he is situated, a bed stand on which sit his glasses and a clock which he attempts to, but cannot quite read. The light in the room is diffuse, filtering through the second-story growth of a cedar tree framed by the window directly behind him. A warm breeze, redolent of sunbaked conifer needles, blows through the window and reminds him of walks he has taken in the redwoods of central California. It is late spring, cicadas are out in record numbers, a constant, rhythmic chirping drones from the trees surrounding the house. Despite his reticence, it is not an inhospitable world that he has awakened to. All it will take now is a few adroit moves, a turning of the torso using limbs at precise leverage points, to extract himself from the now fairly shallow depression in the mattress. He does this. His feet touch the bare wooden floor. He stands, doubly erect, and begins dressing himself with the clothes Malcolm has left at the foot of the bed.
A biography in exactly 333 words
Alan Lewis was born (as he describes it), in a scum puddle on the edge of a steel mill town straddling two mid-western states of parents rather late in their years. An unexpected pregnancy, unplanned, yet an easy one for the mother until the last hour of delivery during which Alan spent too much time in canalis — a fairly common complication that may or may not have contributed to his later onset of mild, temporal lobe seizures that, according to the neurosurgeon at UC Med Center in San Francisco, were nothing to worry about.
Mother and child spent a blissful few days in the maternity ward overlooking the town’s river flowing past slag heaps, cast off tires, and car parts; a river intermittently coagulating in sluggish, iridescent pools long since exhausted of lifeforms. One very important lifeform, namely Lewis’s father, would die six years later. Lewis then spent another seven culturally deprived years in this scum puddle before his mother, older sister, and he moved to California where he discovered FM radio, hippies, Mexican Americans, hallucinogenic drugs, the draft, draft dodging, protest marches, Alan Watts via Sunday morning radio sermons, Zen via Alan Watts, the Santa Cruz Mountains, nudist beaches, and a young artist from New Jersey named Evelyn Shapinsky with whom he would spend the next ten years hitch-hiking up and down the west coast, performing one-act plays in cafés, traveling to Europe, again hitch-hiking in the British Isles and the Continent, camping in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark, the Bois du Bologne, beaches in the south of France, and with whom we would then return to the states, settling in New England for a few years before relocating to California — this time in San Francisco where they would acquire in roughly the following order: two advanced degrees, a total student loan debt equal to the price of a small subsistence farm in the mid-west, one mongrel hound named Lester whom we haven’t met yet, and one healthy boy-child named Malcolm whom we have.
As soon as he opens the bedroom door, Lewis is engulfed by the rest of their small apartment. From this vantage point all rooms, painted the same egg-shell white, can be peered into: Malcolm’s room immediately to his right; the kitchen at two o’clock; at ten o’clock, the living room and stairs leading up to the attic; and at twelve, the short hallway leading to the bathroom. Malcolm has been transplanted from the kitchen to his seat in the living room in front of the wicker coffee table. Across the room the television broadcasts parent-approved children’s programming. Child and television continue to gaze at one another as Lewis limps unnoticed for the bathroom. As with nearly every morning, he feels this inexplicable need to apologize to someone for something though he has done nothing that anyone would consider deserving of apology.
In the bathroom, Lewis inspects himself, this newly discovered lesion: it’s small, pinkish, and not too unpleasantly symptomatic. He chooses, for the time being, not to worry about it and finishes his morning micturition. He is becoming inured to the myriad abnormalities inflicted on this body of late. This body, which at thirty-five, is probably in better physical shape, vital signs-wise, than it has ever been, its owner having taken up a regimen of bicycling and lap swimming five years ago, when, in the absence of any real stress, he developed a case of full-blown thanatophobia.
Standing in the bathroom, re-dressed, no longer erect, satisfied with this self-diagnosis, he pauses and looks out the west-facing window of the bathroom. Normally, he would not linger here, but this morning finds him somewhat reflective. What he observes: their back yard, uncluttered, overgrown with untrimmed wisteria hedges, and one old, unpruned pear tree; beyond the hedges he sees the back yard of the adjacent lot, twice the size of their own, scrupulously landscaped and furnished with two Adirondack chairs, and beyond that a very large, grey shingled, single-family house. He notices their neighbor — nameless, faceless, 70ish judging from her slow, tentative movements — standing in a bed of impatience at the back of her house. He watches as she reaches up with the hem of her house dress, unselfconsciously exposing her undergarments, and begins wiping at the glass panes of her bay window. She wears a large, black, broad-brimmed sun hat. He has seen her before with the garden hose in her hands, slowly dragging the lawn sprinkler from one spot in the yard to another. There are other houses, and other back yards he could look at — all meticulously kept — but doesn’t. He turns and begins washing his hands in the sink, consciously avoiding the view in the mirror. Before leaving the bathroom, he notices that sometime between yesterday and now the wooden toothbrush holder has pulled out of the wall and is laying on the edge of the sink in a pile of plaster dust.
In The Kitchen
In the kitchen — Evelyn: early thirties, reddish brown hair cascading in curls below the shoulder, pleasant face, full, large-featured. Manner of dress: a wardrobe circumscribed by finances consisting today of blue jeans, sneakers and a black V-neck t-shirt. Body: thin, athletic. In motion: both graceful and accident prone, objects — usually glass — slipping with aggravating predictability from her long, thin, double-jointed fingers. Disposition: even tempered, generally philosophical. Evelyn stands at the kitchen counter pouring water into a coffee maker, one hand wielding the gallon water jug, the other clasping her hair behind her neck to keep it from getting in the way.
Their kitchen is small, barely large enough for a half-sized refrigerator, a table, and four matching blond wood folding chairs, each carefully tied with a piece of twine so as not to collapse under the fidgety weight of a three-year-old (something which happened several times before the chairs were rendered unfoldable).
Alan Lewis: mid-thirties, bed-messed, neck-length black hair, graying at the temples, newly roused from deep mid-cycle sleep, enters and begins preparing his son’s breakfast: one glass milk, one toasted waffle. There are no good-morning pecks, light hugs, etc. Neither can say exactly when greetings of this kind stopped (was it after Malcolm was born, or long before that?). Though, curiously they seem to find it necessary to continue with the obligatory kiss/hug goodbye/good night.
As Alan moves about the kitchen, he feels a subtle sense of strangeness, as though relearning a routine after a long sabbatical. He knows, for example that he needs certain things — a plate, a glass, a fork, a waffle — but this involves a more than average amount of searching, pausing, thinking.
Both appear to move about their small kitchen with practiced precision, despite Lewis’ intermittent hesitations. There are no collisions, no awkward bottle-necking at, say, the sink or the refrigerator. Occasionally one will hand something to the other without the other asking.
They are an unselfconsciously handsome pair by bohemian standards, the sort of couple that strangers would regard as a good fit. The absence of certain effusive, ritual pleasantries aside, they exhibit the sort of overall ease that a couple having survived thirteen years of mixed pleasure/hardship with a modicum of grace and almost compulsive openness would justifiably earn. At one point when reaching for a plate from the cupboard, Alan places his hand softly on Evelyn’s shoulder. On the kitchen counter, a book-sized am-fm radio tuned to a public station plays Vaughn Williams “Lark Ascending,” a piece with which he is familiar, and one that she, were she asked, would have no opinion of, not at this moment at least. The window next to the kitchen table looks down from their second story apartment to the driveway below, bordered by an arching unpruned hedge. On the lower right-hand corner of the window a cicada has quietly attached itself to the screen.
Alan gathers up plate, napkin and fork and leaves the kitchen. Evelyn pours herself a cup of coffee and notices that Alan has left Malcolm’s milk behind on the kitchen counter. He returns, muttering something, then exits again with the glass of milk.
In the living room
In the living room he finds Malcolm squirming on his stomach along the top of the couch, his gaze still locked on the television. He, Malcolm, is almost never still, even while sleeping, his lithe, double-jointed body will spin in time-elapsed speed like the minute hand of a clock; put to bed parallel, he is always discovered somewhere between 180 degrees parallel and perpendicular.
Malcolm’s pre-school teacher, a young woman, herself somewhat high strung, has made references to possible attention deficit disorder — a diagnosis which both Evelyn and Alan consider inspired by fad more than fact. Behind the couch there is a window, and though the window is closed, Alan imagines Malcolm accidentally flinging himself against the glass and falling to the privet hedge below. He sets. Malcolm’s milk down on the coffee table. “Malcolm, come down and eat.”
“Look, I’m a worm.”
“I see. You’re a worm.”
‘’No, I’m not.”
“I didn’t think so,” Alan says. “Please come down off the couch and eat. Please.”
Malcolm slithers down off the back of the couch and sits in front of the coffee table.
As a parent, Alan considers himself far from perfect. Usually an even-tempered person, he has recently discovered the easily reached the limits of his patience. He has on occasion lost his cool, yelled, thrown blankets, threatened. But, in his defense, he has also pleaded, begged, constructed rational arguments with astounding incontrovertible logic, offered any manner of choices, bribes, rewards, praise, encouragement — and most of the time flat-out given in.
Alan begins to leave the room.
“Where are you going?” Malcolm asks.
“To the kitchen.”
“Oh.” Malcolm stabs a piece of waffle. “I knew you’d say that.”
Back in the kitchen
Back in the kitchen, Lewis pours himself a cup of coffee then sits at the table across from Evelyn. For the first time this morning their eyes actually meet: his blood-shot grey-blue, hers dark brown. manifestly intelligent. They have so little time. It will only be moments before they are interrupted. Malcolm will want something, say something, ask for something: more milk, more attention, an origami lobster. What conversation they can or will have is clipped, telegraphic, monosyllabic. Lewis reaches for a piece of paper and begins composing a grocery list. Evelyn returns to her newspaper. Information that is not shared, discussed, or imparted one-to-the-other due to the above perceived sense of futility:
- She is tired. Malcolm was up at 2 am, having awakened from a nightmare about a bird, a bird biting him on the mouth; a nightmare so intense, so evidently vivid that it took her the better part of a half-hour just to talk him down from it.
- He is tired. Or not so much tired as benumbed.
- It is Friday. And being Friday, their schedules will include, among other things, a tryst, a planned, weekly, mid-afternoon rendezvous.
- He has developed a small, and very much hoped, benign genital lesion that he is choosing not to be concerned about.
- She is having a conference today with an student whom she believes has a crush on her.
- He has to write an essay on Matthew Arnold and hasn’t a clue who he is or why write about him.
- He has just seen, out of the corner of his eye — like a drop of blood on a lemon peel — the fleeting vision of a bright red cardinal land in the yellow flowering forsythia outside their window.
- She is counting on sharing at least some of the above (and perhaps even more), with him at a later, more appropriate time.
- He is counting on the same.
There will be no deaths here. Everyone lives. Including Mr. Bierhoff in the downstairs apartment of this aging two-family house. He sleeps alone nights on the day bed in the living room. His wife is in the hospital. She’s had half of her left foot removed. At night, after Mr. Bierhoff’s nurse has left, he can be seen through the screen door lying on his side, his black socks still on, knees pulled up to his chest in the flickering light of an unwatched television. He’s had a stroke. He can’t speak. But not even he will die. Though it certainly seems he would like to.
When the rental agent, a retired high school teacher named Hazel Grob, showed them the town, describing it as a place where “intelligentsia live,” Alan imagined a cozy, New Englandish village: the streets much more mysterious and crooked than they actually were, a mirage of bookshops and cafes, hallucinations of the familiar. He didn’t notice the nail salons, the gourmet pet food store, the banks and churches — all these churches. Within a week a half-dozen fliers had been hung on their doorknob inviting them to come and worship. “Come Join Us In The Embrace Of The Lord Jesus Christ.” The West Side Presbyterian, The First Reformed, The Organized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (among others) urged them to join their flocks. Sunday morning worship at 11am. Sermon: “He Has Come.”
There was one STOP sign at the corner of Maple and Highwood with the word GENOCIDE on it and that convinced him there were higher lifeforms living there.
In the end, it wasn’t the town: the manicured lawns, or the sycamores, the maples, the forsythia, or the neatly planted bed of tulips in front of the YMCA that finally made this home for them. It was the attic — empty, large, 936 square feet of exposed beams, light from every direction. A place where Evelyn could paint her paintings, where Malcolm could play with his Legos, cars, erector sets, etc., and Alan could set up his bookshelves and writing desk where, each night, he would engage in pretend pedagogy and the alchemy of “writing a novel.”
On the train trestle in town there’s a permanent sign that hangs over the underpass: “Pride is our Priority.” There are other signs too, but these keep changing. All of them invitations to public gatherings where community spirit is promised to be stirred up into a dull frenzy. Mrs. Wheeler, Mr. Bierhoff’s nurse, lives a block away on Ethelbert Street. Last week one of Mrs. Wheeler’s four children went outside on his way to school and found a message calligraphed in human feces on the side of their house: “N — s go home.” Malcolm is too young to know what all this is about. Though at three, he knows when he sees (on the cover of a book) an illustration of a headless man painting a portrait that the man is painting himself. The local news reports that the Ethelbert Street slur “was undoubtedly an isolated incident of teenage vandalism. No suspects have been apprehended. Tomorrow a contingency of town residents will visit Mrs. Wheeler and her children to express their disapproval of the act and their unswerving dedication to ethnic diversity.” Approximately one-hundred eyes belonging to fifty white upper-middle-class residents will glance furtively at the wall where the message once was and they will smile sadly at Mrs. Wheeler in apology.
Fred Bierhoff, a strikingly tall, cadaverous man in his early 90’s stands behind the screened front door. He stares, mouth slack, eyes expressionless — the look of someone who cannot believe that this body continues seeing after so many years. What he sees: a man, a woman, a child, two bicycles. The woman is getting on her bicycle. The man is lifting the child up and putting him on the back of his bicycle. He straps the boy into the seat then puts a helmet on his head. Man and woman lean toward each other. They kiss. She then moves to the back of the man’s bicycle and kisses her son. As they are about to leave, the man looks up and sees Mr. Bierhoff. He waves. Mr. Bierhoff only continues to stare at them. There is yelling from inside the house. Agnes Bierhoff appears at the door and loudly tells her husband to stop staring. He seems not to hear her. She yells again, then takes him by the arm and pulls him from the door.
At night Mr. Bierhoff can be heard mumbling loudly, his insomniac body moving about their apartment. He must get up from his day bed in the living room in search of something, eventually getting lost in rooms he doesn’t remember being in before. Agnes must wake up and find him standing in their room clawing at their drapes in an attempt to escape, or rummaging through bureau drawers, tossing clothes and old photographs on the floor. She will yell: What are you doing? Get out! Get out of there. And he must turn and look at her, trying to figure out who it is who is yelling at him. She will yell again: What!? What are you looking at? You’re crazy. Get out of here. Go back to bed.
The Bierhoffs used to own this house. The tools in the garage: large, grease-encrusted wrenches, ball peen hammers, sledge hammers and chisels were his; the weed pullers and hedge clippers, it is assumed, were hers. They are rarely if ever seen outside the house, now owned by a German family living on the west side of town.
Back to the bicyclists
They are at the end of the driveway waiting to merge into the intermittent traffic of Ackerman Avenue. They will take two roughly perpendicular trajectories, one due east, the other south along the avenue. The south-heading bicycle (father and son) will travel approximately a mile to the pre-school near the border of the next town where it is hoped that separation will be trouble-free; that the small weight will be transferred into the hands of Miss X and her eight other charges with little or no turbulence.
The weather is excellent. No wind. Clear skies.
The mood of anxiety that is felt, the edgy premonitory fears, the apprehensions about leaving, will begin to fade as more tangible concerns, i.e. passing motorists and the occasional threat of unheeding cross traffic take hold. The child on the back of the bicycle will chatter to his driver, asking questions that will be difficult to answer.
Dad, when we get there, I don’t have to stay, do I?
Just for a little while.
A little while?
Malcolm, I can’t talk right now.
A Volvo station wagon pulls out of a driveway and stops short, the bicycle slows down.
Are we stopping?
When? When are we stopping?
When we get there.
When we get where?
The bicycle heading south will pass through town. The rider, helmetless, her long hair billowing out around her shoulders, will get stares of disbelief from motorists. She will eventually stop approximately three miles away at an institution of higher learning, a concrete archipelago of buildings that (neglecting the occasional window) would appear to be more appropriate for ordnance testing than imparting knowledge.
The eastward-heading bicycle is now approaching the last quarter-mile of its journey, a steep incline toward Maple Avenue. Pedaling becomes more strenuous. This is met with measured breathing, a tightening of the muscles just above the knees, a more focused concentration, the gaze narrowing on the front wheel and the road immediately in its path. Wholly automatically, the bicyclist has begun counting to himself. He hears the numbers rattling off from one to thirteen, whereupon they stop and begin again at one. As he reaches the crest of the incline pedaling becomes easier and his mood of determination shifts to one of self-congratulation. This same hill, which some mornings will take on the character of a daunting adversary, leaving him feeling spent and abjectly thankful after cresting it, has today functioned as a kind of affirmation, a confirmation that, despite all empirical evidence to the contrary, he is not aging.
On the Other Side of Town
M Schlagle — a small, semi-animated piece of the New Jersey landscape — wakes up in his three-story Tudor-style home on Valley View Road overlooking the Coastal Plain and the blade-thin island of Manhattan. M gets out of bed, walks into the master bath, removes his silk boxer shorts, then selects one of the two showers available and begins his morning ablutions. He is tall, not well-built, but largely built with thick hairless arms, a round, hairless chest. Standing beneath the controlled spray of the shower, he works blindly, reaching for the wall-mounted soap dispenser, squeezing a dollop into this palm then begins washing head to toe, quickly, methodically. There is something about him, even naked, which suggests a politician, a kind of thinly masked insensitivity, someone who, when pushed, might be prone to venom, spite, barely civilized brutality. He rinses off, then reaches for the soap dispenser again, lathers his face, and takes a razor from the shelf. He begins shaving, one hand guiding the other across his light, barely discernable, day-old growth of beard. When finished, he rinses, leaves the bath, a towel draped around his waist, and walks across the room, his large, splayed feet leaving wet tracks in the thick white carpeting, and disappears into a dressing room.
On the wall across from the bed, a large oil portrait of a couple, both formally dressed: she sitting, he standing behind her, his palms resting on her bare shoulders.
After several minutes M Schlagle re-emerges dressed in a dark gray, three-piece suit and red tie, then leaves through another door and walks downstairs.
The house is immaculately kept, the rooms so large that antique armoires and china cabinets seem half-sized. Aside from these dark wood accents, the color scheme is white-on-white. Above the white marble mantle in the front room there is a slightly discolored outline where another large painting used to hang.
At the foot of the stairs M Schlagle turns left and walks through the front room to the dining room where coffee, the morning paper, a light breakfast, his wife, and two daughters (10 and 12 years old) await him. Good mornings are exchanged. M Schlagle sits, pulls a section out of the newspaper and begins reading. Though the Schlagle’s (husband and wife) have been together nearly 15years, the sense is that they have come together only recently, like pieces of brand-new modular furniture. More, it seems, has gone unsaid between them, than said. With his daughters, he is mechanically solicitous — more concerned about the propriety of their behavior and dress than, say, what they are doing in school, what subjects they may be interested in.
Finished with his breakfast, M Schlagle leaves the house and takes the Jaguar to the train station in town. He waits for the 9:04 Bergen County Line. He will ride forty minutes to Hoboken, switch to the Path train, disembark at the World Trade Center, and take the express elevator to his office on the 86th floor. If, at approximately 12:15pm, he would stand at his west-facing window, he might, with the aid of a powerful telescope, see his house in the foothills of the Ramapo Mountains and the odd view of a man (though from here he would appear more like a leaf cutter ant), carrying a large canvas up the steps to his front door.
The transfer of precious cargo
A bicycle with two passengers pulls up to a parking sign in front of All Saints Episcopal Preschool. The adult doing the pedaling performs a surprisingly adroit dismount, steadies the bike against the sign, reaches for the small, helmeted cargo, lifts him out of the seat, and lands him feet first on the sidewalk. A few other parents with similar sized beings walk past heading for the front door of the quaint, mission style chapel-slash-daycare center. None of these parents seem to have noticed this balletic performance — or simply take it for granted.
Alan and Malcolm walk up the sidewalk and enter the chapel/daycare. Alan smiles at Patty, the good-natured, no-nonsense daycare manager who greets the apprehensive children and their frightened parents. Smiles all around. Except the children, who know this isn’t natural: surrendering your beloved offspring to strangers in a strange place with weird smells and small dangerous children. They have met before. This is the second week that Malcolm has been going to All Saints Preschool, but tensions are as high as they were the first day — for Alan, at least. Each time they have gone through this ritual he is reminded of his own separation from his father at the kindergarten steps when he was a year older than Malcolm: tears, hugs, promises of reunion, that huge whoosh of absence — and then the experience of life on one’s own begins. Alan hugs Malcolm and tells him he’ll be back very soon. Malcolm has already grown a coat of armor. He walks over to two smaller children sitting unproductively near the Legos and other building materials.
On his way out, Alan says to Patty: “I guess, that’s it then. No drama today.”
Patty smiles and frowns at the same time: “Of course not. Everything will be fine.” Alan finds it nearly impossible not to trust her.
Before he leaves, he takes one last look Malcolm: hands in his pockets, now watching the older kids climbing on beanbag chairs, pantomiming some kind of wargame or other. It is a moment full of imminence, temporarily halted atoms, the starting gate at the Meadowlands race track. And he knows that at most minutes, but more like seconds, after he leaves, Malcolm will advance and become immersed in play. He will throw himself into it. He’ll push and shove and balance himself on unsteady surfaces. He’ll take risks. There’ll be no stopping him once he’s set in motion. Once he crests this hill of waiting that he is on it will take a kind of strength that Alan believes only he possesses, to slow him down, step by step, imperceptibly, until he comes to rest again, just inches from hitting the brick wall that Alan’s fearful imagination has built for him.
Somewhere in his files of notes, paper clippings, rejection slips, and drafts of stories, Alan has saved articles on severe child abuse: The celebrated case of Kaspar Hauser. The story of Genie, the wild child, tied to her crib in an attic for thirteen years, found in 1970, malnourished, incontinent, unable to speak. Jessica Cortez, dead at two with a broken neck. Lisa Steinberg, beaten to death by her step-father. Among the reasons for this are: 1. To remind himself how fragile a child’s life is. And 2. To remind himself that — though he may not be a perfect parent — he is, at least, not the sort who would torture or kill his offspring.
Home again, home again…
While Malcom is at the day care center Alan returns home. He is always happiest at home. When he is out in the world he does what he has to do and does it convincingly enough that others would think that he is in his element. But if one were in his head, they would hear the soft, husky voice of a child — say, eight years old — and the voice is saying: Can we go home now? Is now a good time to go? We can go pretty soon, right? For reasons he can’t explain, this voice steadies him, gives him something to do, someone to care for, someone, at least, to listen to.
Alan tosses his keys on the kitchen table and they slide the whole way across and land on the floor. He makes a mental note to pick them up again later. On his way up to the attic, he notices that Lester has taken the throw rug from the bottom of the stairs and dragged it up to the highest step. In the forty-five minutes of his absence Lester has done this, nested in the rug, and then left for somewhere else.
Within the ribbed geometry of their attic there are three loosely defined areas: his, hers, and the boy’s. In the boy’s area, which coincidentally shares the same directional coordinates as his smallish bedroom one floor below, there’s a window that looks out over their large unmowed front lawn and the speeding but intermittent traffic of Ackerman Avenue. Two feet from the window there stands a child’s easel, positioned to catch the light of mid-to-late afternoon sun. On the floor surrounding the easel, bits and pieces of pastels and chalk and charcoal have been dropped or flung in the act of creating and subsequently walked on. The sneakered footprints dancing around the easel and leading away toward the stairs are both a child’s and an adult’s. Likewise, the painting that has been left on the easel bears evidence of a child’s hand and that of someone else, who, if not demonstrably more mature, is at least more concerned about the straightness of a line. One half of the artist team seems to be working towards the colorful geometric abstractions of a later Kandinsky; while the second half of the team apparently became fixated somewhere in the process on making seemingly random but repeating patterns of shapes resembling islands. The painting has been titled in the lower right-hand corner — presumably by the junior artist and merely penned by the senior — Bombs 7/89. A few feet away from the easel there is a shoe box half filled with small-sized race cars and next to that a red plastic race track with a piece on the back stretch missing.
In the second area (hers), in between the first and the third: another easel and a collection of acrylic paints. These, however, belong exclusively to an adult. An adult, who, judging from the style and subject matter of the canvases leaning against the wall and the one on the easel, has little to do influence-wise with the junior artist. These canvases are carefully rendered larger-than-life still lives of common household things: faucets, sewing machines, salt and pepper shakers, bedroom furniture, women’s clothing. One canvas — apparently used as a surface for wiping excess paint off brushes and pallet knives— stands out as an exception. This one bears a strong resemblance to Arshile Gorky‘s The Liver is the Cock’s Comb. There have been some half-hearted attempts at keeping things organized. The workbench and shelves surrounding the area are stocked and cluttered, but overall, a comfortable balance has been struck between care and nonchalance.
In the third area (his), directly across the attic from the first, there is a pine desk strewn with papers and books surrounding a keyboard and computer monitor. Directly above the desk, hanging by an unstrung paper clip to the exposed overhead beam, is a very tiny Buddha pendant, smaller than the head of a thumb tack, so small that the face of the Buddha is featureless. On the wall next to the desk someone has made shelves using the exposed studs surrounding the colored glass gable window. Much attention has been paid to alphabetizing and categorizing the collection of books. Books of fiction take up the bulk of the shelves, beginning with James Agee to the far left and ending at the lower right with Virginia Woolf. The top shelf has been reserved for poetry, western philosophy, eastern religion, and art (principally art restoration). Tacked to the studs separating the bookshelves are notes and quotes, some original, some from authors:
→ Purity of heart is to will one thing.
→ Oh, you don’t know the depth of my superficiality.
→ The roses had the look of flowers that are looked at.
→ You yourself make the waves in your mind. If you leave your mind as it is, it will become calm.
→ The only way one can speak of nothing is to speak of it as though it were something.
Alan sits at his desk and instead of reading Culture and Anarchy, begins writing in his composition book:
It occurs to me while I’m up here in the attic (avoiding work by gazing out this small window) that I won’t get to see the first snowfall with the backdrop of a cityscape behind it the way I had in Cambridge a little over ten years ago. In Harvard Square, standing out on Brattle Alley, I saw the first flakes of winter falling through the small crack in the sky between the buildings and floating slowly earthwards past the leafless city tree limbs, drifting past brick walls and onto the cobbled street where others (Harvard and M.I.T. students and professors, mainly) were walking past. This time, I tell myself, I’ll most likely be up here, like I am now, glancing out the window, and I’ll see the flakes drop silently onto the green-brown grass of our back yard. Only me, the snowflakes, and my eyes.
Still avoiding Culture and Anarchy, Alan sets his notebook aside, reaches for the pile of student papers on his desk, takes one, and begins reading. He soon comes to the unnerving realization that the subject of the poem is himself. It’s a love poem — or at least a poem of unguarded appreciation. The student is a young man who always sits directly to Alan’s right at the long conference table ludicrously squeezed into the closet-sized classroom on the NYU campus. Alan stops reading, looks ceilingward, and sighs. He hadn’t expected this. He is only a grad student, albeit a mature one given his age. This is his first semester teaching and the subject of student-professor transference never come up during the practicum with the chair of the department. He feels sympathy for this young man. The poem is heartfelt and not badly written. He resolves to make comments purely based on the poetry and ignore what he takes to be allusions to himself: the way he walks into the classroom / with a warm hello every time / and the way he looks at each of us when he speaks / never leaving anyone unseen / his smile like the smile on the Buddha’s face / is that for me I wonder?….
Alan hears Evelyn’s “Hello” from one floor below. This is their hour — a carefully orchestrated moment for them to be alone, to do it like teenagers before someone’s parent comes home. They meet in their bedroom, exchange brusque conversation while undressing, and then both slide into bed. They move, by now, very automatically. Seldom surprising one another. Beginning with position one: Evelyn on her back; Alan lying to her left side (never the right, nor from above); Evelyn’s left thigh raised, crooked at the knee and resting on his. Then, (usually), a predictably timed series of adjustments moving from position one to position two: both of them lying on their right sides, he behind her — what, unimaginatively will be called, “spoon fashion.” Then back to position one.
But today — out of nowhere, unrehearsed, never before attempted — in making the transition from position two back to position one, they continue to a new position, a position three where they are still “spoon fashion” only now she is on top, her back lying flat against his chest and stomach. Both experience the giddy sensation that the room has rotated one quarter. He feels the weight of her. She feels the light. His hands move over her body as if this body were his and not hers. She places her hands on his hands and moves them as if they were hers and not his: the right towards her clitoris, the left on the left breast. Once the novelty of this wears off, she sits up, rotates, and faces him, then rides him at a slow gallop until she comes and he comes and she falls forward onto his sweat-moistened chest.
Each of them would report later, if asked, that at some point during this surprising gymnastic event they felt as if a part of them had gotten up and left the room. Privately, at random points throughout the day, each will remember this moment, smile, and congratulate themselves for behaving so recklessly.
Afterwards, they lie side by side, Alan on his back, Evelyn on her left side, arm draped over his chest. Clouds have just darkened their room. Mrs. Bierhoff yells something downstairs. They lie there, legs entangled, both drowsy, listening to the pulsating calls of cicadas, and life almost appears to have come to a full stop. All the points of aggravation in their lives right now: their wheezing bank account, dying car, the principal and accumulating interest they owe on two credit cards and three student loans, Malcolm’s off-hand comment this morning on the way to school that his tooth hurt, their lack of adequate health care coverage, plus depleting ozone layers, air quality alerts, chromium oxides leaching through the topsoil — all of that has disappeared as they drift off to sleep until both are awakened by a thunder clap and the ticking of rain against the windows.
When Alan and Evelyn First Met
Clothe him in torn jeans, threadbare t-shirt, and red, well-worn Vans sneakers. Put her in huaraches, blue jeans, and brown, sleeveless leotard. Call it mid-1970s, early September. Place: A central California coast town known for its natural beauty, oceanside boardwalk and amusement park, hippies, communes, hallucinogens, and one major liberal arts college. Setting: a small church a couple blocks from downtown where a half dozen local aspiring actors are gathered for their first workshop. It is late afternoon, the slant of sun coming through the small rose window casts a soft glow where Evelyn sits half lotus, her hair, in two long, auburn braids, cascades over her breasts. He can barely follow what’s being said because she is sitting there in that light looking the way she does. Alan’s biological age is 23, Evelyn’s 20; Alan’s emotional age is 18; Evelyn’s, a very worldly 20. She notices him: his curly brown hair, two-day-old stubble, a red United Farmworkers Union t-shirt, one knee beginning to poke through the leg of his jeans. If asked if she was attracted, she’d say yes, though she wishes he’d stop plucking at the torn rubber of his sneakers. They have both tuned in (whatever that meant), turned on (he a bit more than she), and dropped out. He has performed bit parts in Romeo and Juliet, and two major roles in comedies written by local playwrights. For a short while he lived on the stage set of one of these plays in the small black box theater between a cardroom and an old man bar at the south end of town. She has only recently arrived from the east coast with a friend of hers — both of them New York State University dropouts and refugees from dysfunctional nuclear families. None of them really knows who they are, or what they want to do with themselves, but both are determined to have fun finding out.
A week later, they would run into each other at the only café in town where anyone who was trying to become someone would hang out. He has just ordered a double cappuccino and sees her sitting across the room with her girlfriend and she has just seen him see her. His problem now is what to do with this information. Complicate matters for him by filling in the recent development that his lover had just two weeks before told him she wanted to end their relationship and then a week later whispered in his ear while standing in line at this very café that she was pregnant. Let this mixed bag of emotional detritus and his budding interest in her bleed into an expression of something like a smile/frown and a small wave of the hand. There is Celtic folk music playing in the background. In this café, there is always Celtic folk music in the background. Have her formulate these interpretations of his expression in lightening quick succession: 1. He is not feeling well. 2. He is a complex person. 3) He is not happy seeing me. 4) He is not happy being seen. Then have her involuntarily mimic his smile/frown cum wave, feeling as she does, some of the above. He takes a few steps towards their table when the barista yells: “Alan! Your cappuccino is ready.” He knows the barista; she’s worked the counter forever. Her name is Julie and she almost always seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown. One would suggest she slack off the caffeine if only her condition wasn’t so apparently systemic and if one wasn’t sure she’d fling one of the brown and white ceramic cups at the suggestion that she was anything but perfect. Alan walks to the counter, thanks Julie, and takes his cappuccino. He is about to walk outside when Evelyn’s friend intercepts him. “I’m just leaving, she’s all yours.” Alan both appreciates this news and is uncomfortable with the sound of it. As a devout second wave feminist, claiming any woman as “his own” was not part of his idiolect. He smiles. She retreats. He goes to Evelyn’s table. She invites him to sit. He does so.
What follows is the standard meeting of two developmentally appropriate shy people with bodies that are in emphatic disagreement about the absurd idea shyness. They engage in conversation touching on topics germane to their age, cultural persuasion, and political swing, each of them consciously avoiding the topic of most obvious mutual interest. He appreciates these things about her in no particular order: her enthusiasm for New German Cinema, the chunkiness of her face, the slight New York accent she drifts in and out of, the way she doesn’t look around the room they are in unless it’s to find a focal point on which to cement an idea; her mouth; hair, and the rest of her body. And have her notice and like these things about him: his soft-spokenness, his lack of an accent, which is to say, a California accent, his enthusiasm for New German Cinema, that he listens, that while he listens, he has to look at the floor in order to absorb what she is saying, his bushy, untrimmed moustache, his dimples, and that without him saying it, she thinks she knows, if not what he is thinking, at least what he is feeling. Have them, long after their beverages have been finished and the crowd in the cafe thinned out, walk outside onto the soft September air where they stop for a second — long enough for him to notice the ring around an egg-shaped moon overhead — then walk south toward the Pacific and the dilapidated carriage house she shares with three other women who, to the untrained eye, look like three manifestations of the same person. She invites him inside, down the short hallway where she introduces him to her bedroom, brightly lit by a single overhead bulb, white walls covered with a few charcoal sketches, the clutter of clothes and cardboard boxes. On her floor, have him see but not sleep in, a twin-size mattress without box springs covered with an unzipped Dacron sleeping bag. Let them stay in her bedroom no longer than it takes to notice these details, but long enough for a quickening nervousness to build between them, after which, polite heartfelt goodbyes are exchanged and he leaves. Add these personal details: he’s had four, largely monogamous, relationships since Junior High School. She’s had ten short-term experimental affairs. Right now, walking back toward his home at the north end of town, he thinks that this may be the beginning of his fifth and possibly last. She sits in her room with a notepad on her lap thinking this could be her eleventh and… who knows?
P’s bed, circa l972, built by herself out of four-by-fours and barnwood. This is in her room across the hall from his room, one of seven in a commune perched on top of the mountains of the central California coast. A large bed. Alternately chaotic and neatened with a coverlet of lace. The objects around her bed within easy reach: a large glass of water; a stack of novels, all of which she reads simultaneously; a spiral bound notebook and a pen; and other less obviously purposeful objects: a length of smooth satin tied in a knot at one end; a George McGovern campaign pin; a string of beads; a feather; assorted leather thongs. From across the hall, he would watch her writing in this bed, her spiral bound notebook lying on the sheets, her legs tucked up under her, elbows on the mattress, chin propped on her fist. He has tried this posture and couldn’t keep it. One night right in the middle of their love making she asked if he wouldn’t mind putting on one of her red satin dresses. He froze, fearing that she had somehow read his mind.
J’s bed, central California Coast, 1974, surrounded by nothing, not even bedstand on which to place a book. An antique metal frame hospital bed with peeling green paint.
And, finally, E’s bed, 1976. A twin bed, or even smaller if possible. On the floor. Covered by a sleeping bag. Next to her bed on the bookshelf: a pile of smooth river stones that he never asked her about; a stack of folk music records recently un-boxed; and several slim volumes of poetry, one of which she read to him from on the first night he slept with her, waking up the morning after on the floor having run out of room.
Objectified and Non-Objectified Labor
Evelyn works at the only synagogue in town. As the rabbi’s assistant, she is asked to do everything from ordering stationery and office supplies, typing up and printing correspondence, handling the rabbi’s busy calendar. On Fridays she works a half day. So, today — once Alan gets dressed and leaves to pick Malcolm up from daycare — she will run upstairs and continue painting her recent canvas: an impressionist portrait of a young child (Malcolm) sitting on the floor at bottom of a flight of stairs.
As the factotum of a small, one-owner, arts and antique appraisal and restoration company — Van Klank and Clusterbuck, Ltd. — Alan painstakingly transcribes recorded descriptions of antique, clawfoot commodes, mediocre early 20th century landscapes, Lalique lamps, etc., makes occasional deliveries of repaired artwork, and the rest of his time chats with the young man who is being trained in art and antique restoration — a young man who is startlingly handsome, gifted/troubled, and talks endlessly of Nietzsche and Sartre.
Mable Ainsworth Returns to Her Roost
“She’s my great grandmother’s sister.“
Alan has just hung Mable Ainsworth back where she belongs on the wall in the Schlagle’s study.
“Isn’t she beautiful?”
“And now — no bubbles.”
Mable nods to Malcolm hiding behind Alan’s leg. “Is this is your boy?”
“Isn’t he cute?”
“Can I get you something…?”
Some of Adriana’s furnishings:
A) a corner cupboard, two pieces, curly maple, some additions, little or no damage: $3,400.
B) a Chippendale secretary, two pieces, mahogany, some minor repairs: $5,000.
C) a New England hutch table, mahogany: $1,300.
D) a portrait; full length; seated woman in a green dress; 5 feet, 3 inches x 7 feet, 2 inches. Circa 1850. Recent cleaning, relining, and some minor repairs to the frame. As the painting was a gift to the family there is no sales history to speak of.
“No. No thanks. We have to go.”
She insists. “Coffee. A glass of mulled wine.”
“Coffee will be fine.”
“And for your helper?
“A glass of milk will be fine.”
A small voice corrects him: “Bubble water.”
“Do you have seltzer?”
“I think so… yes.”
Adriana touches something on her wall. A house maid appears. She asks the house maid, a Haitian woman wearing jeans and a striped blue and white sweater, to take some coffee and seltzer out to the solarium.
As we sit in solarium, Malcolm clings to Alan’s legs, his head buried in Alan’s lap.
“So how old are you?”
“He’s four. Just turned four last October. Good coffee.”
“Thank you. And do you go to school?”
Malcolm looks up at Alan. “Tell her I go to daycare, not school.”
“He wants me to tell you that he goes to daycare.”
“Oh, really. Where?”
The music piped into the solarium: Bach’s, unaccompanied cello suites.
“Tell her I go to All Saints.”
“You tell her.”
He squirms. “No. You tell her.”
“He goes to All Saints.”
Beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows of the solarium there is a carefully landscaped garden. At the far end of the garden, a stone retaining wall. This wall reminds Alan of a wall not unlike one at his aunt’s house in New Castle, Pennsylvania. He remembers being drawn to this wall when he was a boy, maybe Malcolm’s age. He would go to it, stand right next to it, investigating its stones, fingering them. Round. Egg-shaped. Cool to the touch.
Malcolm begins squirming with more vigor. “Dad, I want to go.”
“Yes. We should.”
They stand. Goodbyes are exchanged, and with them the promise from Adriana that she will recommend Van Klank and Clusterbuck, Ltd. to her friends.
The Dermatologist: Where Alan and Malcolm went after leaving the Neo-Colonial Revival Valley View residence of Mr. and Mrs. Schlagle
The sweet, soft thing. It’s unassuming character, its shyness, not false shyness, but the truest slackening of its being — is exposed in the florescent light of one of the examining rooms in Valley
Hospital. The possessor: a barely under-middle-age man in sweatshirt, sneakers, and baggy khakis — for now unzipped. The witness: the young son of the possessor. What the witness sees: an organ similar to his own only larger, but not as large as the organ the father had seen of his own father’s approximately 30 years ago in the bathroom, boy in tub staring stunned at father as he pees — an image that, despite its own innocent circumstances, has been burned into the mind of father now surrendering his modest member to the doctor, a dermatologist, who is well under middle age, attractive, and smiles with disconcerting ease given the circumstances. This limp life between them that has been coaxed out of the dark, warm sanctuary of boxer shorts, this animate piece of skin and tissue is not feeling well. The ailment: a coat button-sized outbreak of something mid-shaft. The doctor, sitting eye-level with the possessor’s crotch while he stands (a position that, should anyone enter the room, would suggest the climactic scene from Dr. Elvira’s Sex Clinic), reaches out and holds him in her gloved hand. The son — brought along on this visit because he had to be, and now thankfully filling the important role of innocent witness, watches silently. The dermatologist smiles, a barely discernable crease forming on the side of her mouth. “A beautiful specimen of lichen planus. Classic.” She looks up from her specimen. “It’s harmless. Treatable. But will go away on its own — eventually.” Did she say beautiful? And classic? And did she mean this? Certainly, she is referring here to the lesion itself and not the host organ. But did she have to put it that way? Couldn’t she have said a “textbook case,” “a healthy specimen”? The examining room is suddenly flooded with multiple interpretations. “I could even,” she says, “if you don’t mind… this is such a classic case… I’d like some students to see this too.” (This is a training hospital.) He says, no, without even a second’s hesitation. (The object of their discussion now back in its place, safe and warm.) No public exhibitions. “I should at least take a picture,” she says. And again, he says softly, no. She understands. She says that though she is convinced of her diagnosis, she must take a “scraping” just to be sure. She removes her gloves, washes her hands, and smiles at them both: “I’ll be right back.”
With the doctor gone, all the wonderings about the implications of what a “scraping” will feel like begin to fill the room. He paces back and forth, walks to the sink and drinks directly from the tap, squeezes the bulb of a blood pressure gauge, goes to the scale and begins weighing himself. The boy, sitting where the doctor had been, says: “Sit down, Dad.” He walks to the gurney next to his son and sits. He was beginning to like her. Their having been introduced in this way has led to an immediate therapeutic transference. A kind of clinical romance.
The doctor returns. The boy stands and gives the doctor her chair back. The father stands reluctantly giving a part of himself back. She takes a miniature scalpel out of its matching miniature leather sheath. He speaks: “I suppose you must know this is all beginning to feel pretty horrific.” He looks away, focusing on a small speck on the far wall. She says: “Don’t worry. This won’t hurt. I’ve done this hundreds of times.” Hundreds? Really? She begins “scraping” while the son, having moved in to watch, moves even nearer. “Hold it, Malcolm.” He gently touches the boy’s head, while an association of thoughts begins taking form in his mind: father, son, woman, doctor, penis, scalpel, one false move, a faintness in the knees — . When she is finished, she takes the scalpel and wipes it on a glass slide, then douses the scalpel in alcohol and re-sheaths it, smiling to herself. He re-sheaths himself, sighing. “This,” she says, “is just to test for fungus which I’m 110% sure it’s not. It really is a beautiful — “ (again with the beautiful) “outbreak of lichen planus.” “Nothing to worry about?” he asks. “Not at all.” Before he leaves, she asks if there is anything else he wants to show her. What else can he show her? And he remembers: “There’s this…” pointing to his chin where a patch of beard has stopped growing. “And this…” indicating the white patches on the inside of his mouth. She moves in close, touches his chin gently with her forefinger, “Alopecia areata. Very common.” And then inside his mouth, “More lichen planus. All innocuous. And all related to stress.” She rolls her eyes “And what isn’t nowadays?” She looks into his: “Are you under a lot of pressure right now?” “Well…” he says, “Yes. Some. Maybe some.” He looks down and he notices that she’s wearing a pretty, flower print dress under her lab coat. “What do you do?” “What?” “What kind of work do you do?” He looks around for the answer and can’t find it. There’s too much to say, too many variables. He settles for: “Office work, grad school, child care.” “That’s plenty.” He looks at the boy and smiles, and is reminded once again that caring for him — despite the worry, concern, and frustration — is the most rewarding thing he’s done in his life. He looks back at the doctor, still with the same smile, and says, “Yah.”
After the dermatologist
Leaving the dermatologist, Alan drives around town waiting for Malcolm to fall asleep. But he won’t go to sleep until he’s made arrangements for his awakening:
After my nap I’ll eat, right?
Then we’ll play, right?
You’ll play with me. Yes?
Yes, I’ll play with you.
He has driven somewhere where everything is unfamiliar and yet depressingly similar. He has not been on this street before, but it looks just like every other street in this part of New Jersey. He has a sense that there’s a highway nearby but only a sense. He continues to drive while occasionally checking Malcolm in the rearview mirror. Eyes begin to close, but then open again.
What day is today?
I want it to be Friday today.
It will be. Tomorrow it will be today only it will be Friday.
No. I want Friday to be today. Why can’t today be Friday?
Because, Malcolm, today is Thursday. Friday is tomorrow.
But I don’t want that. I want Friday to be now.
OK. Now it’s Friday. Forget Thursday, Malcolm. Today is Friday.
No it’s not. You just said it’s Thursday. I want —
He wants in rivers. He wants in avalanches and torrents and lava flows. His wanting is metabolic, metamorphic, it presses against the world’s tolerance for giving, and it’s all Alan can do sometimes to keep both of them from drowning in it.
Still, when Alan looks at him in the rearview mirror, it hurts. He is that much of what he is: his
well-proportioned features, his large hazel eyes like his grandmother’s, his hair the color of Indian tobacco, like silk when you touch it.
TO BE CONTINUED