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Gary Percesepe

Reload

1

This bed is a wreck. I've been lying here all day watching CNN. Frankie shut down the vet office where she works part time and jumped in bed just in time for a special edition of Crossfire, a stinking screaming madcap mess of a show. Our two kids are somewhere in the house, doing God knows what. It's early December, the night of the Supreme Court's Florida recount decision in the case of Bush v. Gore. A decision is at hand, we are told.

I surf over a few channels and punch the contrast button on my new universal remote until Ashleigh Banfield's cheekbones have more definition. Ashleigh is all about eyewear. Her sleek frames look dramatic. She's the perfect combination of sex, faux intelligence, and unavailability. I like the shadowy way she looks in this new light, the upward thrust of her savage chin. When MSNBC goes to commercial I mute the TV, flip over to Fox, and follow the crawlers.

On her left hip Frankie sports an Animal Planet tattoo, her latest work. In bed with us are some red fruit roll ups Frankie filched from Charles' private lunch stock, a box of cheddar Goldfish, two half eaten strawberry Pop Tarts, an empty quart of Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey, Frankie's black Wonder Bra, my white boxers, and asleep at the foot of the bed, our miniature Schnauzer, Sadistic. We've got our legs tangled up on the bed, over, under, over, in that way that couples sometimes do to keep warm. The black and white sheets are long since gone, twisted and hanging from the sides of the bed like capsized pirate ship sails.

Frankie reaches over and grabs a bottle of Rolling Rock from the nightstand. She balances on her bare stomach a bowl of buttered popcorn, just above the diamond stud and silver hoop in her navel, gifts from our drop out daughter Jade. Jade is nineteen. She dropped out of the community college down the road—Harvard on the Hudson, she calls it—last month when she made some serious money setting up a web site for a band called Nappy Hair. She didn't get me anything. She thinks I have too many opinions on her life, opinions I am not entitled to. This view is shared by her ten year old brother, Charles, though for different reasons. Charles lives in the basement, in an unpainted room I made him last year next to the furnace, where he runs a neighborhood electronic boutique bigger than the one at the mall, from which he IMs me when he needs the latest computer upgrades. Lately I've stopped buying. Jade hasn't spoken to me for weeks, unless you count some flaming emails.

A reporter waves frantically, a copy of the Court's ruling in his hands.

"Did you know that all of our affairs have taken place during Republican administrations?" Frankie says. "Yours and mine, Jake. Do the math since Reagan."

"I am not unaware of that."

"Capital T true. But no foreign affairs," she continues. "We behave ourselves overseas. Don't we, Jake? We walk the walk."

This is technically true. But I am not paying attention. I'm watching the action ping pong between the reporter at the Supreme Court, and the anchor room. I flip over to CNN to see if they have a speedier legal analyst.

"Hey, leave it there," Frankie says. She bumps me with the beer bottle, catching me on the kneecap, and pours the rest of her beer into a Styrofoam cup. I flashback to MSNBC and rub my knee. We're in the homestretch now.

It all seems so wonderfully wacky. It's crucial and momentous and absurd all at the same time. But I dread what comes after the show is over, the old assurances that don't assure anyone, and the updated lies. Everyone has seemed so confused and uncertain the past few weeks that it's made me feel better about my own life, like I'm not the only one who is lost. Before the election I had felt exhausted, like I'd been heaving around an entire evil empire of my own. But ever since Katherine Harris and her scare 'em makeup, the butterfly ballot, swinging chads, dueling lawyers, and the Bush brothers I've lightened up and been able to laugh again, letting things go at work and at home and not worrying about what comes next. If the big boys in Washington and Tallahassee were making it all up as they went along, I featured, that might work for the rest of us.

But now that the end is in sight I feel anxious, like the balance is tipping away from the unknown back to the known and I don't like the known one damn bit. I'm tired of Frankie, tired of her increasingly manic ways of getting my attention. I'm tired of me being tired with Frankie. I'm tired of our kids never missing an opportunity to point out to us our parental failures. I'm tired of the smallness of our dreams, what we've settled for, tired of our house, our cars, our things, our safe little domestic nut, tired of the lies and the viciousness at work required to keep this sick enterprise going. I feel shot. Business as usual begins again on Monday, and business as usual is stupid no matter how you dress it up. At work my job is to make people money, and people with more money just get more stupid. I wanted something to distract me from the smallness and stupidity of my life and the election comedy had provided it. I'm guessing that Frankie is feeling this too because the past few weeks she's been as restless as me.

When they finally figure out that it's Bush—and it's clear that he's really going to get the house, the cufflinks, the plane, the whole enchilada—Frankie goes jihad. She throws her beer at the TV, missing it by a foot and a half but waking Sadistic, who growls loudly at me, then jumps off the bed and laps at the beer where it has puddled on the floor. Frankie then turns to me and tells me the following three things: she's had enough with this country; she's thinking of doing the bag boy at the grocery; and maybe we should ice the marriage.

Before she beats me to it I volunteer to leave.

2

I quit my job at the brokerage and book a flight to Denver to see my friend Henry with the idea of staying out there until something, somewhere, begins to make sense. Things didn't go the way I had hoped at the brokerage, where I am regarded as an ex-college professor too smart to make any real money and a wise ass to boot—a pretty accurate assessment. Jade and Sam have been sending me hate filled emails for months, and I need some time away from them too. Seeing Henry is perhaps not the best idea in the world, since he's had problems of his own in the marital department, and pretty much every other department, enough to drive him to drink. But it's time for my annual early season Telluride ski trip with Henry and I like the idea of staying on schedule even as things are slipping their moorings. So I call Henry, pay the bills for Frankie, sell 5,000 shares of Cisco, and get a room in the city for the night. In the morning I take a taxi to LaGuaurdia.

The plane is packed. I have an aisle seat. My fellow citizens are stuffing bags, coats, hats, cameras, guitars, tennis racquets, books, briefcases, and backpacks into the overhead compartments. I get bumped on the shoulder three times by late passengers on their way to the rear seats, even though I am leaning over as far to the right as I can. The woman next to me asks if I would mind if she puts her laptop on the floor under my seat, as she has no more room under hers. Just till we get airborne, she says. I oblige. A slim flight attendant whose name plate says Julian asks me to kindly put my legs under my seat. I place my feet carefully on top of the laptop. Just before takeoff another flight attendant, a large woman with flaming red hair who appears to be able to channel the voice of Ethel Merman, slams the bin above my head, shoots me an aggressive smile, and asks me to fasten my seat belt, please. I take that opportunity to order four vodka tonics. It is nine o'clock in the morning.

An hour later, Ethel and Julian come rolling up the aisle with the beverage cart. My drink order apparently is the talk of the plane. I peel a fifty off my clip and order up rounds for everyone who wants one. I get plenty of looks and one taker, the laptop lady next to me who's on her way to rescue her sister Georgia from a bad marriage.

"Married five times, my sister."

"What's her secret?" I ask.

"Oh, you're bad," Ethel sings. "You're soooo bad."

"I'm waiting for Mr. Right, too," Julian says. He breaks into song. "I'll know when my love comes along." Ethel harmonizing at the chorus, her voice low and supportive. There is scattered applause. Julian does a supermodel pout with his exquisitely tanned, elastic face.

"He'll come along, honey," Ethel says. "Soon as you ditch Mr. Wrong."

"I'd settle for Mr. Wrong," Georgia's sister says. "Long as I get the house and the dog."

"I got the dog, honey," Ethel says, "My husband Harry. Took me years to housebreak him, but I got him right where I want him now, believe you me."

"Oh, no," Julian says, but it's too late. She breaks into an impromptu and very un-Ethel Merman like rap, bobbing and weaving and using a can of diet Coke as a mic. "Yessiree, I said I'm over here and I'm fifty three, and since nineteen hundred and seventy three, he's chained there to the Tee-Vee, I said you know it's true, I'm free to be me, but my righteous bitch can't get up but to pee."

"Oops," Ethel says, suddenly self-conscious. "Sorry, got kind of carried away there, folks."

"That's a big amen," Georgia's sister says. "But I know what you mean. Mister Sofa, I had one of those units. Horizontal Jerry used to keep me in coins. He was more reliable than the Denver mint. That man lost a small fortune in coinage. He had all denominations. He was all the time wearing these Dockers, you know the ones made specifically for the big butted man?" Julian breaks up, starts braying uncontrollably, and then covers his mouth. Ethel reaches over to high five Julian. She clips the fifty to her name plate. I watch them roll down the aisle in tandem, a tag team on wheels.

"I'm serious. I used to fill a jar after every Monday Night football game. How do you think I raised this plane fare?"

I nod sympathetically to Georgia's sister, and mix her another drink.

5

The laptop lady's name is Lucinda. She has some advanced views on TV which she feels compelled to share. I'm only too willing to listen. It is a long flight, and Ethel is keeping us in tiny bottles of vodka.

Lucinda's favorite daytime TV is Jerry Springer, the one with Mini Me and the midget sluts.

"I don't watch it much," I say, "but I do like the way they put those captions at the bottom of the screen, you know how they do that? It's the new Tolstoy. 'Happy kids who eat dirt.' 'Says his brother's sister is a slut.' 'Slept with his mother's analyst.' Who writes those things, anyway? I love those. They're like little truth pistols."

"Truth pistols?"

"Well, cap guns."

"I know what you mean," Lucinda says. "Springer does the whole trailer trash encyclopedia, A to B. His staff must be filled with geniuses. I think that's where Tarentino got his start. Or maybe it was James Carville, the cue ball headed guy who got Clinton elected and dissed Paula Jones."

"Uh huh. So, did you see that new cop show?"

"You mean the one with whatshismug? God, I love that show! Who would have thought that guy could act? I mean, I thought he was funny in that shitcom, what was it called?"

"Married But Slutty?"

Lucinda punches me. "Yeah, that's the one, the one with the baby sitter slut girl. Used to watch it all the time. But Jake, this guy is unbelievable in this new show, I swear. He's the Big Irish. He's making the old New York cop thing new all over again. The writing is perfect, and it's got this slick, tricked up editing, so fast your head is spinning, and if you blink you've missed the good lines, the throwaway asides, but they keep coming up with more, faster and faster. It's like roller coaster TV."

"It's the light. That's what makes the show. They've got this bleached out, blistered, flash bulb light with the deep shadows, it's light like we've never before seen on TV. I mean, in a previous life I used to make movies and I played around with light forever, out in L.A. where God created light. But this overexposed look they've got going in this show, it makes New York look like Miami Beach except with character, and when they do an inside shoot it makes it look like the characters crawl right off the screen into your room. It's just amazing."

"Did you see that scene he did with his brother that's dying, and he arranges to take him to the museum?"

"The planetarium. Yeah, I saw that one, when he's telling the brother about how good and decent cops can be, how this one partner he rode with for just two weeks fourteen years ago set all this up at the planetarium, a special showing just for the brother, who's in a wheelchair, and they have the motorcade procession down Central Park West, and it's snowing, and the whole scene looks like it's taking place inside one of those snow globes that kids play with at Christmas."

Lucinda freshens her lipstick with a pocket mirror she digs out of her purse. Her hands are small and plump, like the rest of her, and seem friendly to me for some reason, like they're an extension of her brain, the visible part.

"NYPD's gotta love this show," she says. "If anyone's watching. Helps their image. Redeems New York's finest."

"Yeah, no broomsticks in rectums, no one shot 41 times. Complete absolution for Rudy and the boys."

"Not quite. But the big Irish cop this guy plays is just astonishing," Lucinda says. "He looks dumber than his lunch pail, but he's smart as a whip, and cagey. He's about four steps ahead of the FBI and the street scum, the wacky Russian bad guys, everybody. But the most startling thing is his ability to feel, to be intimate. I mean, it's shocking for a guy who looks like that and who does his kind of work, and it catches you off guard. He's just a quivering mess of pure feeling. It's the way he connects with people. When this guy loves you, you know you've been loved."

"Exactly. That's why that scene with the dying brother is so powerful. It takes balls just to put a scene like that up there, it is so cliché after all the hospital shows, but this scene is truer and cleaner emotionally than all of them put together. It's just so weird to be able to use the words truth and honesty about a TV show, but it's all there. You can see that he's just raw with grief and sadness but he's willing himself to go on, to keep things in their place."

"Well, he wants to keep everything in place, maybe," Lucinda says. "He wants to keep the status quo like we all want, but he knows he's losing, it's all slipping away from him, and he's fighting for all he's worth. It's a fierce fight he's putting up, and he's ferocious and dedicated to his brother and at the same time trying to deal with the raft of shit he knows this latest loss will bring."

When she says this I just look at her. I take the compact out of her hands and hold it up to my face. My eyes look red and I can see the lines of my face hardening around my mouth and eyes and chin, going deeper than I remember them. I hadn't looked for a while. I want to get up and use the airplane bathroom mirror. The mirrors in those places are always the best. The times in my life when I looked the best were always in airplane bathrooms. It's the light, soft and recessed behind the mirror. It almost seems like your face is lit from behind, an old trick of the movies, to show you what you want to see, a less distressed version of you. It must be the FAA's way of keeping everyone calm and centered.

Lucinda stirs her drink and looks carefully at me. She looks to be about 50. Someone has streaked blonde highlights in the front of her frizzy brown hair, which has short bristles in back, like a boy's crew cut. Angry hair.

"So, tell me Jake, what do you do? Do you live in New York?"

"Hard to say. I mean, I used to. I sort of checked out today."

"That a good thing?"

"Not sure. Feels good so far. It's only been about half a day."

"Are you married?"

"Who's asking?"

Lucinda does the Jim Carrey elastic face routine, then says, "Well, alrighty then! Bartend!" She goes sleepy eyed and bobbles her head back and forth, then raises her glass in mock Dean Martin style.

"No, I mean it in a good way. I have this thing where you have to tell me stuff first, then I figure out how much to tell you, OK?"

"Look, Jake, we can drop the subject if you want. How about that Warren Christopher, isn't he a hunk of burning manhood."

"Do not make fun of your elders, Luc."

"How'd you know I'm called Luc?"

"Wild guess. The thing about Warren Christopher is he moves well for a cadaver."

"His suits are well tailored but uninhabited."

"He got his clock cleaned by Jim Baker."

"They did a show on that."

"I saw it. I've been watching a lot of TV. I have this thing for Ashleigh Banfield."

"You and the entire middle aged male population. My ex-husband included."

"Your ex-husband likes Ashleigh Banfield? Geez, now I'm getting worried."

"Of course he does. He's still breathing. You men are all alike. He says it's the way her mouth twists up when she's trying hard to pronounce something right, that high seriousness she has under all that fashion eyewear and capes and shit."

"It's the way the wind blows her hair on the live shoots. She's always got this wispy strand of hair perfectly escaping from her scalp, always brushing it back with her one hand while with the other she holds her notes and still maintains eye contact with the camera. She's the perfect blend of soft news and hard body."

"She's the Edward R. Murrow of our day."

"I'll drink to that," I say. Then I do.

"Ethel," we sing out together. Ethel is making the rounds picking up peanut wrappers, twenty feet in front of us. She walks up and wags her finger at us. Then leans over and whispers that we are officially cut off. We do a mock pout together, and then raise the peace sign. She slips us another mini bottle like it's a covert op.

"My husband had difficulty speaking. To me, I mean. He was okay on the phone with his clients and he did real well when addressing the idiot anchor people at Fox news, but there wasn't a lot left over. He cited some study that said that men have only 10,000 words a day to use, and women have 200,000, and he had already given at the office. For him it was a science thing. He was always watching the Discovery channel or Nova, remember when that was on? Poor Carl Sagan. He died of a full self. But my ex, Jerry, he liked the idea of empty space and black holes. He left me for a woman named Brenda at the office who is a deaf mute."

"Uh huh."

"Yep. That's one version of the story. I felt bad at first, but then I started to like it with him not around. I got a lawyer from the local firm of Dewey Cheatum & Howe who killed his lawyer, and for the past three years I've felt much better."

"Do you work?"

"I used to teach history at a community college. This one day I just walked out. It was not long after the settlement with Jerry, I remember, and I had just got sick of teaching, you know? I started to hate the dumb little fucks. I had some sweet kids, don't get me wrong, some that I knew were grateful to be there, and I knew that they tried. They looked so hopeful and so unbelievably young with their new skin still tight on their faces. It made me feel kind of sorry for them that they were there, that they couldn't do any better than us. We were failing them, it seemed to me. We had some major assholes in that department. Don't get me started. But the older students that we got were the worst. These adult learners, as they were called, would sit there defiantly, daring you to say something they didn't already know, like I was a jerk and a no account for being at this podunk school trying to teach them. I had this one guy who thought of himself as the king of all real estate, but he had never earned a college degree and it irked him. He thought he was the stuff. He had a buddy in the class and the two of them would get the tee hees whenever I tried to talk about anything I cared about, and it got so that I couldn't care either."

The woman across the aisle from me has a dog in her purse. It's a big straw purse with flowers on it, like the kind you see in Cancun or Aruba, one of those places, and a very small dog. This dog is stuck deep inside the purse so that all you can see is his little brown furless head. He looks like Dr. Evil's cat. She strokes the dog between his ears with her fingers and every so often feeds it from a zip lock bag she's got there in her lap. She introduces herself to us as Florence Best.

"How do you do, Florence," Lucinda says. "This here is Jake. Nice dog."

"His name is Ralph. I take him everywhere with me. He has stomach trouble occasionally, but if he lets one go, don't worry, I've got some cleaning stuff in here." She pats her bag proudly. "I got it under control. Listen, I couldn't help overhearing that you teach."

"That's right," Lucinda says. "Used to."

"Well, I used to teach too. But I gave away all my books. I boxed them all up and took them to the Goodwill."

"What'd you do that for?"

"Damned if I know. But I don't miss them. I don't have a goddamn book in the house now, it's a book free zone. At the time I remember thinking that it bothered me that I hadn't read some of them. They were just sitting there on the shelf unread, mocking me, and the ones I had read I couldn't even remember a damn thing in them. I figured, what's the point? I didn't like the look of those books on the shelves, looking down on my stupid life, making me feel guilty, so I got rid of them."

"That's the spirit."

"I think TV is the thing. I like TV. I don't know why we need books anymore. Teaching is dead. So is self improvement, it's way overrated, especially in New York. That's the worst place on earth for the self-improvement dildos. But back to books, see, this is where I think Oprah is jacked, and I love Oprah. But it's just so dumb, you ever see one of those shows? It's just so precious, the way these women sit there in this phony living room and talk about these books as if we should give a flying fuck. The whole self-improvement thing, what's the point? Improve yourself for what, the milk man? The gynecologist? These women in the audience, their lives are as fucked up as anyone else's, but they sit there pretending that because they read this book with Oprah it's all going to be OK, they'll be model citizens tomorrow, they will have felt the correct things and said the correct things, and their husbands and boyfriends will in time come to say and feel the correct things. Get real. I wanna puke."

"Oprah does her best," I say.

"She's product."

"Well, yes, but she's billion dollar product," Lucinda says. "That makes her different."

"Give me Springer any day. Like I said, I couldn't help overhearing. It's a much more original show, Springer. Plus it's funny. It's your number one rated show. Oprah is not funny."

"She can be," Lucinda says. "But she has the furrowed brow syndrome. She inherited it maybe from Donahoe, but she does it better. She cares for America and its denizens. And about the many fat people in our midst. She's the wounded healer. Whatever has been done to you, it was done to Oprah first, only more so, and she survived to help us on our journey."

"As if I care. Ralph hates her. He tosses one every time he sees her. And this Doctor Phil guy, where'd they scare him up, he's a freaking moron! That phony accent and the way he does his hands, chopping the air while women swoon. He's pathetic. He gets my panties all in a bunch. I don't let Ralph watch." She tosses the dog another Bonz, which he catches mid air, before it hits the handle of the purse.

"So, what's going to happen with you and Georgia when you get there?" Florence asks.

"I'm going to take her out to a strip show."

"That ought to help," Florence says, nodding her head thoughtfully.

Lucinda rolls her eyes at me when Florence isn't looking and makes the universal sign for crazy, circling her pointer finger in the air around her ear.

Florence gets up from her seat and makes the long walk down the aisle to the bathroom, tucking Ralph into her bag and zipping it shut.

"But you, hon, I like you," she calls back to me. "We can work on you."

"I'm with her," I say, grabbing Lucinda by the shoulders and pulling her close.

We watch her walk down the aisle to the toilet, holding the flowered Ralph bag high as she twists out of the way of Julian, who's coming down the aisle with more pretzels.

"When we get to the gate we radio the asylum for help," Lucinda says.

"That's a big amen."

"So where did you meet your wife?"

"How do you know I have a wife?"

"Please, Jake. Be serious. It's obvious that you are a man who likes women. Not all men do, you know. Men who like women get married, sooner or later. Nine times out of ten. You can look it up. Besides, you're on the run, and men on the run are running from women, nine times out of ten."

"What's the tenth time?"

"The tenth time is you don't want to know. Jimmy Hoffa country. The tenth time is the witness protection program. So, what's her name?"

"Her name is Frankie."

"Frankie and Johnny! I love that song!"

"They made a movie out of it."

"Of course, they had to! Too good a song to pass up. Pacino, Pfeiffer, and the ode to the VCR."

"I met her in L.A. I taught film there and she was a student in the theater department."

"Naughty you."

"She wasn't in any of my classes."

"Who cares. But go on."

"She had the look. The first time I saw her she was slouched against a wall outside the dressing room of the university's theater, playing with the ends of her hair. She was in between scenes in a play that one of her friends had written, some experimental thing the students were doing as a class assignment. She was still in costume but you could tell she was bored. She had on a black halter top and a long black skirt that was slit on both sides. Her legs had makeup on them to catch the light on stage, and she had the middle panel of the skirt all bunched up in her lap, so all you saw were these long white legs curled out sideways under all that black. She'd kicked off her heels, which had long straps attached to them, and they were lying next to her, one on top of the other, like snakes."

Lucinda nods her head in an encouraging way. "Yep, you see that all the time nowadays," she says. "Mostly in the Hamptons, but sometimes in Prague. So then what happened?"

"I asked her what she was up to and she said about five nine. Then she said that she was bored beyond belief. I asked could I help and she said that depends. I said, 'Depends on what?' and she shot me. Right there, from the floor, she made her fingers into a pistol and pulled the trigger, then turned the gun on herself and pulled it again. Her tongue came out of her mouth and she lurched back in convulsions against the wall, smacking her head hard against the wall when she did that, and then she rubbed her head for about a minute. She wasn't dead, just wounded. I watched her for a while, and she watched the way I was looking at her, and then she said, 'Torment and misery.' I said, 'What did you say?' And then she said it again, 'Torment and misery, that's what I'm going to cause you. You might as well know. That's what I bring all my boyfriends. You can stop now if you want.' I said I'd take my chances and she said, 'Suit yourself. But don't say you weren't warned.'"

"Wow. She's a mindfreak."

"A real pisser."

9

I've known Henry Luce for twenty-three years. We met at a bible school in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. Graduating from high school we had both lacked direction and were made to believe by our concerned parents—his in Dakota, mine in Vermont—that a year of bible school was just the ticket. He was a tall skinny kid with freckles, chiseled cheekbones, blue-gray eyes, and hair darker than mine. The combination amused me. I liked him right off. Times have been better for both of us.

The rest of the year we're guys—we don't call or write or email. But once a year we meet in Colorado to ski and to get caught up.

I find Henry seated at a table in the rear of the hotel's restaurant. Beside him is his four year old daughter, Kylie. They sit against a floor to ceiling plate glass window, looking out over the mountain. The big cats are already crawling up the front side of the mountain, three at a time, grooming the intermediate trails. In the morning they'll look like white corrugated cardboard. The light from the cats bounces nervously into the trees on the sides of the slope. It is a cold, clear night, and the stars are shining.

The three of us hug, kiss, and order dinner.

A giant spider plant, menacing in its gigantic clay pot, sways above Henry's head. A long tendril from the spider is in orbit around Henry, propelled by a ceiling fan. Sometimes it lands directly in front of him, so that he looks like he's grown a third striped eye. Every few minutes it bats him in the head, and he swats it into a new orbit.

Ten minutes into our meal, Henry says he doesn't feel anything.

"Try to understand this, Jake," Henry says. "It's like trying to tickle yourself. Or jacking off with mittens. It doesn't work. You see what I'm saying here?"

"I hear what you're saying, Henry."

"I'm not sure you do. My so-called life, what is it, Jake? It's like the white queen stuck forever on the black square. It's like a search for the right word in a language you don't quite understand. That, plus forever."

"Modern times."

"Jake, my wife left me for another woman. The one before that took off with a traffic cop."

"I remember that guy. Basic bowling pin build? Head like a cue tip? Wasn't he the one out there doing Main and Broadway," I say, trying to lighten Henry up.

"He was the one doing Janice," Henry says.

"Another public service. To serve and protect, that's our men in blue."

I remembered Janice. She taught a course at the university called "The Future of Women." She had a wide, cruel mouth, turned down at the corners. She had that way of talking women sometimes get where everything is a question you don't know the answer to, and a slight stutter. Whenever I saw her she seemed to have a glisten of cold cream in the corner of her eye.

"Look Henry, maybe women are not your calling. Maybe you should join the other team?"

Henry takes my hand across the table, knocking over the salt. He flutters his eyes and puckers up.

"I thought you'd never ask," he says.

"Glad you're feeling better," I say, jerking my hand away and straightening the salt. "Look, Henry, I'm sorry, I wish I had better news. But you have to keep this all in context. I mean, the whole world has problems, right? We're not that special. Look at the U.N. lady. Excuse me, Secretary of State. Remember her? Oh, yeah, wait a minute, we dumped those guys, I forgot. Anyway, think about her daily shit. Arafat today. Whatshisface tomorrow, the killjoy guy in Jerusalem. All that, plus the French. You think you've got problems. And now the shrub, little Bush, a heart beat away from the Presidency."

"Forget all that. Listen to me, to what I'm saying here. Do we actually know anyone with lives we admire, Jake? Whatever happened to Troy?"

Troy was another guy we knew from the bible school. Women adored him. He was from Sydney, Australia. He had the accent, the deep tan, good bones. The whole time we were there he seemed above it all. He prayed to the trees, befriended small animals and children, improvised imitation Saint Francis prayers at dinner, was a cool dresser, and generally fit in wherever he went. This was not the case with us. The last I heard he was an investment banker living in New York.

"Troy is Standard Issue," I say. "He has an account with a prominent L.A. plastic surgeon. He's cheating on his mistress. His assets are frozen, like his smile. Forget Troy."

"Easy for you to say."

"He's Industrial Strength, an Infomercial. He's not real, Henry."

"So maybe I'm tired of real," he says.

"What are your choices here, Henry?"

"What's happened to us, Jake? I mean, we were these religious kids. We grew up loving Jesus. We were the original Honk If You Love Jesus kids."

"We skipped Woodstock for God."

"Exactly. We knew where we were headed. Now we don't know shit. How could this happen to us?"

"It's not so bad," I say. "We've just turned into the people we were praying for."

"So who prays for us now?"

"Mother Teresa and Princess Diana. The wrinkled and the dead. The never lovely and the newly dead. The scourge of the world. How the hell should I know? I don't do theology anymore."

"My point, exactly. Maybe we need to get back into it, Jake. Go into religious recovery. Get those sunbeams beaming back our way. Our lives were charmed back then."

"Come on, Henry, everyone's life seems charmed at eighteen.Youth is wasted on the young. This is widely known. Besides, what do you think, we drive up to Schroon Lake, sign back up with God, and everything is going to be restored to us? You get back your wife, I get my kids to stop hating me? Be serious. It doesn't work that way. Those people up there hate us now. We're traitors to the cause. They see us as the enemy. We'd scare the hell out of them, the way we are now. We're failures to them. They'd hold us up as examples for them all. We'd make all the summer camp sermon illustrations, examples of what Jesus meant by a wasted life. We'd be fodder for the altar call. It's over, Henry. You can't go back again. We're on our own now. God's not interested in us. We killed all that, or they did, or someone did. No one's going to save us now, Henry. We have to save ourselves."

"Then we're in big trouble, pal."

"I know it."

Henry bats the spider plant again, harder this time, so that it swings out over the table, then says, "It's like we're a bad idea of God's, a dream of his that went south."

"She woke up and shuddered, that the idea?"

"Yeah, pretty much."

"Then how do you account for Kylie here?" I ask. Kylie is Henry's four year old daughter from his second marriage. Her ponytail has come loose, and her long brown hair dangles dangerously close to her uneaten soup. She sleeps in one of the restaurant's wooden high chairs, her food untouched on the plate next to her head. Kylie is with us this weekend because Fran changed her mind at the last minute and made Henry take her. Something about Nancy's parents coming in from Connecticut. Nancy is Fran's new love, a conceptual artist from the coast that specializes in Latino religious kitsch and butter.

"She's part of the dream before it went nuts. She's a reminder of what could have been. Jesus, Jake, how should I know? Every time I look at her I see Fran, and weep. One of God's cruel jests."

"I thought we agreed, no theology?"

I liked Fran the best of all Henry's women. A six footer and naturally athletic, she played first base in a fast pitch softball league. She liked to hang out with us on our ski trips. She was a brave liar, but Henry was mad for her. We broke the male-bonding rules for her, against Henry's better judgment. One year Henry couldn't get off work and Fran and I drove up to Vail for the day. There was a Billy Kidd-wear revival going on and we wore the big hats and told the big lies all day, getting high on grass in the lifts and doing lines of coke in the restaurant afterwards, with shots of Jack Daniels. We wound up on Fran's couch at her Denver apartment. This was before she and Henry were married. One of us came to our senses, I can't remember who, and a sort of boozy sanity broke out. We didn't officially do it. But it remained, the sexual tension between us, for four or five years after the two of them were married. It's a sore point with Henry, and each year we work harder at trying not to bring it up.

So I'm relieved when an argument breaks out at the table across from us. Two girls, still dressed in their ski board gear, are waving their arms a lot and slapping the table. One of them has a safety pin clipped to her right eyebrow and white pancake makeup that makes her look like she just walked off the page of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Her friend, a strawberry blonde with the chest and hoarse voice of a cheerleader, is a foot shorter but no less lovely. About seven other girls are watching these two, groaning or applauding as necessary. Every time the Dracula girl, who is seated closet to us, slaps the table, Kylie gives a soft moan and appears ready to wake up. Henry looks like he's getting pissed. The girl gets up from the table and comes over to us.

"I apologize for that. They're giving me shit over my choice in men."

"In that case, they're gonna love this," I say.

"Ignore them. They're twats. My mother has socks smarter than them. My name's Anna, by the way. That's me. Anna-the-moi. But you can call me Clarice."

"Well hello, Clarice," I purr, in my best Hannibal Lecter voice. "This is my friend Henry."

"How you do, Henry," Anna says, sticking out her long arm in front of my face and squeezing Henry's hand.

"So, what's the deal," Henry asks. "You girls going to mud wrestle next?"

"You wish," Anna says.

"What's with her," I say, nodding in the direction of the blonde, who shoots me a disgusting old geezer look.

"Well, it appears that Tiffany's in a snit today," she says. She looks at Tiffany, then at me, and starts twirling like a ballerina. Tiffany rolls her eyes.

"What's with the Clarice thing," I ask.

"I'm in love with her. I feel that I am her. That's the whole thing right there. They can't accept that I love Hannibal."

"The man or the movie," Henry asks.

Anna shoots Henry from point blank. Makes her fist into a gun and blows the barrel to cool it off.

"Both, silly," she says.

"Uh huh," Henry says.

"I knew someone who used to do that gun thing," I say. "She is no longer with us. I mean, she is, but not here."

"Whatever," Anna says.

"So what is it that does it for you in the movie," I ask.

"I dunno, I mean, I'm almost seventeen for God's sake, so I ought to know, but the movie just speaks to me on some inner, unexplainable level, and I adore it. I've seen it eight times already, once here, tonight. Before I hooked up with Frog-go." She leers at her friend, does the tongue, which I see now is studded. Around her shapely neck she's wearing a choker made from plastic yellow and black police tape. "It upsets me every time someone criticizes it!"

"They give you major shit, eh?" I ask.

"Exactly. They'll say, 'Oh, it's so gory!' Or, 'It makes no sense, Anna!' But I don't know, it makes perfect sense to me. I went to see Silence of the Lambs for the first time in the beginning of January, so I would be ready to see Hannibal, and I was just so immediately in love with him. With Lecter, I mean. Dr. Lecter. He's charming, chivalrous, and, at the same time, daring, precise, more or less evil."

"Sure, what's not to like," Henry says.

Anna frowns and gestures to her friends. "You wanna go join 'em pal, you're more than welcome."

She hooks her arm through mine.

"What's your name," she asks me.

"Jake," I say.

"Jake, when Dr. Lecter's letter to Clarice was read, you remember that part? Well, my hands were clasped right here in front of me, just like this."

She grabs my hands and holds them in hers so close to her chest that the hairs on the back of my hand brush her sweater. I do a good job pretending not to notice. Instead I let my eyes take in the jut of her mouth, the provocation in her clear blue eyes, her blooming and ghostly sexuality. Her fingers are long and tapered, with black and silver half moon nail polish . She is creamy with depraved promise.

"I am just in so in awe of him. In so many ways, you can tell he loves Starling. Even the way he speaks and writes to her, almost teasingly. In the museum, on the carousel, I was dazzled. It's startling, you know? Just him, the way he is, the way he carries himself, the way he knows her, what's in her heart. And then she tries to pin his location, you know, to be the good FBI agent, and he brushed her hair, and then when he kissed her in the kitchen, and she slapped the handcuffs on, I cried with Clarice. At the end, she lost her love because of her stupid morals that were programmed into her by herself and her parents. I was in tears."

Kylie stirs herself awake, finally. Anna smiles widely at her, as Henry reaches to lift her out of the high chair. Kylie rests her head on her father's shoulder and closes her eyes again. Henry closes his eyes and hums a lullaby softly into her tiny ear. I want to lean in to listen, but Anna reels me back in.

"Jake? Earth to Jake! I mean, I comment constantly on how I adore this movie, how romantic it is, and how much I wish I could be Clarice Starling. And now all my friends think I either have serious issues, or think I'm just weird. 'He's a cannibal! He's old!' They don't see the movie as it was meant to be seen, a romantic story. No, romance is too small a word. Whatever. The only part I found frightening was when they showed the tape of Hannibal attacking that nurse. His ferocity is terrifying."

"Yeah, that part got me too," I say. "Came out of nowhere."

"Yep," Anna says, getting up now and loosening her grip on my hand, finally. "That's love alright."

It's awkward with my hand still on her chest. I look at Henry still humming gently to Kylie, to take my mind off it. But then Anna pulls away, so suddenly that I fall forward into the table, spilling my wine.

"Sorry. Well, gotta go," she says, and sticks out her hand to shake. "See ya! Bye Henry!"

"So long," Henry says. Then he says, deadpan, "Hey, Anna? I'm giving serious thought to eating your friend."

But she's gone, off to the restroom. Henry looks at me with the look he meant for her. Then he gets up, throws some money on the table, and puts on his jacket and gloves.

"I'm going to an AA meeting," he says to me. "Will you get Kylie to bed?"

10

The streets are filled with college kids out clubbing. Here and there couples walk arm in arm, talking in whispers, the women shivering, the men protective. The town has changed since we first started coming here sixteen years ago, pre-Nicole and Tom, pre-Darryl Hannah, pre-everyone with money. It's not Aspen but it's in range. I saw Hannah on the back side of the mountain once, years ago. She carved her turns earnestly, a big girl all in white skiing alone on the left edge of one of the more difficult black diamond runs, blonde hair loose and streaming behind her in the wind. I waved, then whistled. She smiled and angled off into the trees, to a huge house hidden in the woods.

I ask Kylie what she wants to do. She shrugs her shoulders and lifts her palms to the sky. "OK, up you go," I say, stooping to lift her onto my shoulders. She squeals with delight, and hangs on to my head, knocking off my Knicks cap.

I'm thinking about Henry, wondering how he'll get us launched into the Fran discussion tonight, all the possible angles he could take into a talk I don't want to have. He's not getting his wife back, I'm thinking. And my kids are probably a lost cause, too. Jade can't forgive me for an affair I had eight years ago with an English teacher from her middle school. Ruined for life, she says.

On the edge of town we turn into one of the shops to get warm. I tell Kylie to duck so she doesn't hit her head, and she giggles as I swing her down and land her gently on the carpeted floor. It's a perfume and pottery store, called simply "Telluride." The woman at the counter smiles, and hands Kylie an oatmeal and raisin cookie. The shop is empty except for the three of us. Kylie looks at me, then at her, and takes the cookie with her tiny starfish hands, nibbling on it gracefully.

"She's lovely," the woman says.

"Wish I could take credit," I say. "I've already screwed up a pair of my own. This one belongs to my friend Henry. I'm just the babysitter."

"Henry is a lucky man."

"You'd have to tell him that. He's lost in grief for his many failures. But I'll tell him you said so."

"Are you looking for something in particular?" she asks. For some reason, her question startles me. I pick up a ceramic lamp from the counter, running my hands down its smooth cool surface.

"Did you make this?" I ask the woman.

"Yes," she says.

I lift Kylie back onto my shoulders. She giggles and grabs my head again, rocking back and forth like a cowgirl on her favorite horse.

"Would you like me to wrap this one," the woman says, reaching across the counter to take the lamp out of my hands. This is the second time a woman has touched my hands tonight, I realize. The wine at dinner is doing its work. I feel sleepy, and strangely calm. It is so quiet in the shop I can hear Kylie's breathing above me, can hear the fan creaking overhead. I don't know what I'm saying.

"Can you ever get them back," I ask.

She looks at me, this woman. She is all in black, a petite woman with streaked gray hair and very tan skin. I realize she doesn't know what I'm talking about.

"Kids, I mean. You know, when they grow up, become teenagers, they learn to hate you, and you just figure that's normal, right? But I've done some stuff. I behaved badly. I look at Kylie here and I don't remember it ever being this easy. When Frankie and I were together it was never easy. We just ran out of things to say to each other. And the kids never forgave us."

The woman doesn't say anything. Kylie is reaching her hands for the fan, stretching out as far as her little body can reach. I feel her spine straighten, sense her muscles straining.

I watch her hands. She has wrapped the lamp in tissue paper, packed it into a box, and sealed the box with masking tape. Her hands are small and lined deeply, the nails clipped and clear.

"These lamps are re-creations of lamps from antiquity. It is a simple design. They have been burning ceaselessly somewhere in the world since before the days of Moses. You'll need some liquid paraffin, like this."

She takes another lamp from the counter and pours in the paraffin until it is three quarters full, then snakes the fiberglass wick around with a small wire, until it sticks out an inch from the top. The lamp is midnight blue. With a small whoosh she strikes a wooden match and the lamp lights. She dims the lights in the shop, sealing us in darkness. Kylie's warm damp breath is on my neck, her baby powder scent in the small space between us. The only sound we hear is the human noise we make, three accidental strangers. Outside, on the street, nothing moves. Silently, the three of us we watch the dancing flame for what appears like hours. My whole life seems to pass right through me into them, into this lamp which now lights our faces as at Halloween.

The woman takes my hand in hers and squeezes lightly. "There is always time," she says. "We are made of time."

 

 

We stop back at the restaurant to retrieve my keys. A waitress hands them to me with a smile for Kylie, still on my shoulders. On the way out the door Kylie whispers to me that she has to use the bathroom. We retrace our steps. I stop in the hallway, pondering my choices. It's been a while since I had to do this. Kylie points to the sign with a picture of a woman, and I push open the door.

Inside, facing the sink is Anna. She is hunched over, sobbing. I let Kylie down. Kylie looks over at Anna, who manages a weak smile. Kylie walks up to Anna and, reaching up to her waist, gives her a child's hug. The she walks to the last stall and pulls the door closed.

Anna looks straight ahead into the mirror above the sink, acknowledging me with a nod of her head. Standing close behind her now, I see the blonde roots of her jet black hair. She talks to the mirror.

"They left me here. Can you fuckin' believe that? Like I'm bad meat."

I rest my hand on her shoulder. "Sometimes people are just cruel. It's pretty brutal, your age. I hated it. Anyway, I couldn't name you a person from high school whose name I even remember."

"Why am I like this," Anna says. She turns and faces me. She has wiped her lipstick off. Her eyes are filled with tears, streaking black lines into her makeup and tracking her lovely face. The yellow police tape lies in pieces on the floor next to her boots. She looks like a cross between a clown and Edward Scissorhands.

"Anna."

"What."

"You're worth three dozen of them. Trust me on this."

I open my arms, and she moves into them. We are the same height. Her forehead gently taps my own. She reaches down and squeezes my hands, gently at first, then harder. She lets go and pulls at the pockets of my jacket, hard. I feel her reaching through the pockets with her long fingers, trying to encircle my waist with the span of her hands. Just then Kylie appears, reaching up her arms to me. Anna bends down to kiss her. We do a group hug.

 

 

When we reach the hotel Henry is already in bed, snoring. I reach down and turn him over onto his side. Carefully, I dress Kylie in her pajamas. Blue and yellow giraffes now cover her little body. I lift her to my lips and kiss her gently on the forehead. She sleeps on a cot next to her father.

I undress. Emptying the pockets of my jacket I find a small envelope from the hotel. Inside is a key card, identical to the one I received from the reception clerk when I checked in, but with a different room number scrawled at the bottom of the envelope. Anna's key. I carefully place the card back into its envelope, and toss it into the trash. Then I think better of it, retrieve it from the trash and place it on the nightstand next to my keys.

I brush my teeth, pull on a T shirt and fall into the other double bed, exhausted.

In the morning what I will recall from my dream is this: A woman is standing in the corner of the room, watching. It is a woman I have never known but have seen frequently. She seems within reach of my outstretched hands, but does not move toward me. When she opens her mouth to speak, the words are captured by something dark in the room, and fail to reach my hands, groping for them blindly in the dim light. I watch her mouth for hours. Just before I wake, she is still rehearsing sentences.


Gary Percesepe is at work on a novel. You've just read an excerpt.

 

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