The deli near Mediocre had a new wrap man. He rolled my order too tight. Turkey poked through the tan skin. I studied the damage through the translucent lid of the container. It was a bad way to begin my first day at my old job.
I rode the elevator up with Dean Cooley.
“A new start,” I beamed.
He nodded, appeared unable to place me.
“Milo Burke,” I said. “Back in action.”
Cooley stroked his mustache. The door slid open and he stepped off, glanced once over his shoulder as he went.
The development office looked about the same, with certain modifications. My desk, for example, had disappeared, or else been annexed in some office furniture Anschluss orchestrated by Horace. There he lounged now near the window, spread out in an L-shaped command nook of his own, eating ribs from a foil bag.
“Dude,” he said into his phone, “I just know I’m going to bag this old biddy. She’s got to be good for some serious paper heroin . . . Yes, I mean money . . . Dude, I don’t know if that’s the latest slang, it’s my slang. We all have our own nowadays . . . Anyway, I’m deep in her geriatric ass. I’ve sort of become her protégé. Her son died cliffsurfing a few years ago and I’m like her new son. No offense . . . Well, it’s sort of like base jumping. But more radical.”
I could tell Horace was talking to his mother. He spoke to her daily. I had always been a little envious. My mother and I hardly conversed. Since Bernie had been born, we had not gone often to the house in New Jersey where I grew up and where Claudia now lived with her partner, Francine, but things had decayed before that. I traced it to the year my father got sick and we argued about his treatment. Though I was the first to admit I resented the man, preoccupied as he was with his pleasures, adrift in some dream of sleaze, he was still my father, and after the diagnosis I championed all the heroic measures, the experimental chemos, the scalpels and rally caps, any long shot on tap. Maybe I demanded those things precisely because I resented him. But my mother had his ear, convinced him to go gentle into that shitty night. They had caught the cancer late and it had spread quickly, but I wondered if he agreed to slip away out of weariness or a sense of penance.
Meanwhile, the liberation Claudia had felt since the death of her mother and her husband, the nearly Bataan march terms with which she described the slog and heartbreak of her pre-Francine existence, grated. My father had been a scumbag. There was no counter-argument. He cheated on my mother, bragged about his “nooners,” seduced my babysitter, sold her quaaludes. Between work and infidelity, he hadn’t even been around that much.
Mostly it was my mother and I in that house on Eisenhower Road. We’d had hard times, but also some beautiful ones, full of oatmeal cookies and scary stories, the floor covered with butcher paper and us painting murals of pirates and dragons and rollerskating wraiths. We spent hours curled up together with books on her husbandless bed. Did she remember those occasions at all? Were they no consolation? Was I an ass to think they could be?
Yes, I’m sure I was an ass. Maybe I was jealous of her bliss. She took terms like “self-actualize” seriously, or even actually, had a toned senior body, a monumental sense of certainty. She trained for ultra-marathons. I got winded on the Mediocre stairs.
She was not much of a grandmother, refused even the name. Claudia and Francine, that is how Bernie was to address his grandmothers those rare occasions he saw them. I didn’t mind this. I liked Francine, appreciated any instant granting of progressive status. Less work for me. But I guess I just craved, in my twitching little-boy heart, for my mother to want us around, to maybe even nudge and nag the way grandmothers did in advertisements for stewy soups.
Now she came off more the charismatic aunt. Maybe she had actualized into my father. Perhaps a magic portal existed that I needed to step through, too, so I could leave the planet of the weak and whiny, which I imagined at this moment as a humid orb stuffed with pinkish meat and warmed-over chipotle dijonnaise, though that could have been my lunch talking, or imagining, for me.
I pulled a chair up to the far edge of Horace’s elongated workstation, popped my wrap lid.
“What’s the matter,” said Horace. “Your pussy hurt?”
“You look like you just got kicked in your pussy. Or like some commandos kicked down the door of your pussy and just rushed in there with machine guns and concussion grenades. Or like your pussy is being used against its will as a staging area for a large-scale invasion by a nation with which your pussy has long had strained relations, even if certain markets have opened up in recent years.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I said.
Horace had his desk phone pressed to his chest. He put it to his ear again.
“I’ve got to go, Mom. Burke’s here. You should see him. Such a sad case with his little wrap and a few gherkins in a ketchup cup. I know. Cornichons. I was going to say cornichons but I bailed. I got nervous. Yeah, I’ll tell him. I just asked him if his pussy hurts. He’s mulling it over. Okay, love you, Mom. See you later. Around seven. Okay, bye.”
Horace hung up the phone, tipped the rib bag into his mouth. A rivulet of greasy sauce ran down his chin.
“Hello, lover,” he said. “Come for your desk?”
“Horace, look, since I’m working here again—”
“I heard it was just provisional.”
“Since I’ll be around the office some, I think we should try to communicate better in the future.”
“I think flashing your fuzzy nip at me was communication enough, Wolf Man.”
“Horace, I’m sorry. I think I misread some cues or something.”
“That’s one way of putting it.”
“No, really, I never meant anything untoward. I just thought we were goofing around, being jackasses together. I never meant anything sexual, or imagined you felt harassed.”
“Who said I did?”
“Crafty. Divide and conquer. All Gaul, baby.”
“Didn’t you complain about me?”
“Yeah, I guess I did. But more like as a joke.”
“Did you make an official written complaint?”
“Yeah, but in a jokey way.”
“Those go on record, Horace. Those are in our file. As soon as a company hires you they begin plotting the paper trail with which to fire you. Didn’t you know that?”
“Okay, let’s just shake and start again. Congrats on the new position. I hear you are really doing well on a big ask.”
“Thanks, Milo. But you’ll have to find yourself another desk. I’m wedded to this configuration.”
I found a Plant Ops guy and an IT guy and by the end of the day I had a desk, a chair, a computer, an internet connection. I had a password to the server, though my only access was to an empty folder marked “MiloStuff.”
Now that I had the desk I wasn’t sure what to do. I only had the one ask. Also, I was on probation. I sent Purdy an email, thanked him for dinner, told him how thrilled I was to be working with him on this tremendously exciting project. I used all the dead language. Dead language would keep me alive. Besides, tone was tricky. I had to sound like a man who unexpectedly discovered himself in a professional relationship with an old friend.
Just because it was true didn’t mean it wasn’t tricky. That was usually when I started to crack — when I told the truth, especially to social betters.
The night before I left for college, my father gave me his Spanish dueling knife. This was huge, the kind of intimate bestowal for which I’d always yearned.
“Take this,” said my father, from where he stood at the edge of my basement room. I had moved down there, near the gas meter, to become a man. Soon I would depart the cold cinder walls lined with Scotch-taped postcards of my icons, Renaissance thugs and alcoholic crybabies from the Cedar Tavern. My own boozy, plaintive triumphs awaited, surely.
“Wow, thanks,” I said.
The blade bordered on sword. We studied its Castilian chasings.
“A beaut, right?”
“I never knew you had this.”
“Didn’t want you to know about it. Thought you and the neighbor boys would sneak it out, behead each other. Then I’d really be screwed.”
“Probably a good call. Where did you get this? It really is something.”
“If I told you I won it in a card game in a cathouse in El Paso, would you tell your mother?”
“Do you think she’d want to know?”
“She always seems to want to know. Maybe it’s better if you picture me in a gift shop near a hotel.”
“Okay, that’s how I’ll always remember you, Dad.”
“You must be nervous about driving up to school tomorrow. Sorry I can’t make it. Got a lot of work, though I’d love to switch places with you. All that moist young stuff up there. Have you gotten laid yet?”
“The few girls you’ve brought home, they seem like nice girls. But you’ve got to learn how to reach the dirty glory in them.”
“I’ll try to squeeze that into my schedule. Thanks for the advice.”
“Shit,” said my father. “You can read books and paint your splotches at home. Make the most of the scene up there. And I’m not saying this just because of the money. Your grandparents put some aside for you, and I’ll kick in some, but there will be debt on your head. It will pursue you like, I don’t know, some sicko pursuer. But that’s not what I’m talking about.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Take the knife.”
“Not exactly sure what I’ll do with it in my dorm.”
“Get drunk and wave it at some stuck-up assholes. Brandish it. Show it to a girl. Girls who can really fuck will appreciate a work of exquisite craftsmanship like this. Or just put it in a drawer and whenever you open the drawer and see it, think of me. In a cathouse in Brownsville.”
“You said El Paso.”
“What?” said my father. “El Paso. Sure.”
I did keep the knife in a drawer, in a series of them, as I moved from dorm room to dorm room to off-campus apartment.
I would put it in my desk or under the clutter of utensils in the kitchen drawer. My father died during my junior year and every time I caught sight of the knife a warm charge of grief shot through me. That knife was my talisman of bereavement. I never spoke of the thing unless somebody spotted it, digging for a garlic press or a slotted spoon. Usually it would be a girlfriend sifting through the drawer while we cooked and I would tell her it was my father’s knife, bequeathed to me before his death. Everyone knew about my father. I made a habit of getting blotto and cornering people so I could describe the exact nature of his monstrosity. Now I winced when I recalled the bathos, the drool. I was a raincoat perv with my wound. I guess I was working on some stuff. Some moist young stuff.
Senior year I moved into the House of Drinking and Smoking, took the cheap room, almost a pantry. It had a futon, some books, a desk, a chair, a Fold ’N Play record player. I screwed a blue bulb in the ceiling and slept there, mostly alone. I listened to old records and stared at the blue light. I worried I might go crazy, but I also felt on the verge of something important, the final touches on the permanent exhibition — Father, Fucker, Human: The Dreamtime of Roger Burke — I was mounting in my heart. I stayed many hours in that room.
Otherwise I studied in the library or painted in my studio or drank in the living room with all the people who either lived there or sort of lived there or might as well have lived there, though the core stayed fairly stable, a crew that included Billy Raskov, Maurice Gunderson, Charlie Goldfarb, Purdy, Constance, Sarah Molloy, and a guy named Michael Florida, who may or may not have been a student, though by dint of his meth addiction could have counted as an apprentice chemist. We drank local beer, smoked homegrown and shake. We used words like “systemic,” “interpolate,” “apparatus,” “intervention.” It wasn’t bullshit, I remember thinking at the time. It just wasn’t not bullshit.
But the blue bulb was healing me.
I moved out at the end of spring term. My plan was to stay in town for the summer, perhaps beyond, to work at a restaurant near campus and finish up some paintings. Maybe I wasn’t ready for New York City, even if Lena thought so, had made some phone calls on my behalf. But to what end? To be some pompous impostor’s assistant? To stretch canvas, fetch sushi? It sounded pretty admirable, in a strange way, as though in lieu of the atelier you might learn something ferrying hunks of rice-couched toro, but I also wanted more time in my little world. Maybe more time with Lena.
I found a cheap studio above a dry cleaner and moved everything out of the house. A new group took over the Drinking and Smoking lease. One of them was the daughter of a reactionary governor, a girl who’d become notorious for denouncing her father’s policies at campus demos. We admired her greatly for this.
Sometime early in the semester I found myself at a party at the house, stood in the kitchen with a can of beer and watched everybody shout and flirt. Already I was the older fellow, suspect.
Why had I not gone bounding into the surf of destiny? Why did I still lurk on this sorry spit? Somebody brushed past and opened a drawer near my hip, poked around, maybe for a bottle opener. That’s when I saw it, my knife, wedged in the wires of a whisk.
I had forgotten to take it when I moved out. I had no idea what this lapse could mean. Or maybe some idea. I hoisted myself up on the counter, unsheathed the knife. The party got louder, crowded. Somebody tapped my shoulder. Somebody tugged my shirt. A few of the new tenants gathered around the counter. Constance stood with them, smiled. We’d ended things, but we still mattered to each other. She had understood about the blue light.
“Hey,” I said.
“What are doing with that thing?” one of the others asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
“It’s a great knife, isn’t it?” said the governor’s daughter. “We found it when we moved in. Kind of makes us nervous right now, though, with the party and all these people. Could you put it back?”
“Sure, sorry,” I said, nodded sagely to signal my concurrence with the notion that huge knives and parties did not mix. I sheathed the blade, slid it into the back of my jeans.
“What are you doing?” said the first girl.
“What do you mean?”
I scooted off the counter, stood before them.
“We asked you to put the knife back. Not steal it.”
“It’s my knife,” I said. “My father gave it to me. I just left it here when I moved out. By accident. But now I found it. I can’t believe I left it in the first place. I’m going to need some therapy to figure it all out.”
“That’s the lamest story I ever heard,” said the governor’s daughter.
“Totally,” said one of the others.
“Why should we believe you? Do you have proof ?”
“I don’t think he has proof.”
“It’s my knife,” I said. “My father won it in a cathouse in El Paso.”
“A cathouse?” said the first girl, though we knew then to say woman, even if none of us were women or men.
“Is that the word he used?” said another. “Cathouse? Not rape factory? What a pig your father must be. Are you proud of him? Paying to rape underage women of color?”
“They have agency,” said the governor’s daughter to the first girl. “They are sex workers in a marginal economy and there is agency there. Though not much. Especially if they are underage.”
“Who said underage?” I said, tried to recruit Constance to my cause with a glance, but she glided behind the others. Somehow I couldn’t blame her.
“Okay, maybe they were eighteen,” said the governor’s daughter.
“Who cares? It’s a bullshit story. It’s not your knife. And anyway, possession is nine-tenths of the law.”
I wondered when she had first heard that sacred charm. Had the governor cooed it into her newborn ear? I could not believe I was not believed. I wanted to laugh. I could just walk out with the knife, nobody would stop me, but still I would not be believed. I would be known as a thief.
I shook as I handed over my father’s knife. Such shame. The governor’s daughter, who cared so little for this object, would get to keep it. She was from the people who kept everything. I was from the people who rented some of everything for brief amounts of time. I knew I deserved no pity, would get none from the people who kept everything. They only pitied the people with nothing at all. I also knew that because I was leaving without the knife, I did not deserve the knife. A part of me did not want to deserve it.
Brownsville or El Paso.
Wave or brandish.
So it was all very tricky, telling the truth. It wasn’t really about the truth. It was about being believed. It was about Purdy believing that he’d chosen right when he’d chosen me. It was bad form to hound him by telephone this soon after the email. I surfed art blogs for news of newer art blogs, food blogs for news of food. A new joint downtown seated eleven. The pork belly tart was divine. Reservations were impossible, and if you got one, it didn’t guarantee dinner for your party, just you.
I logged off, swung my knapsack to my shoulder. I’d had a hard time deciding whether to carry a knapsack, a messenger bag, a canvas book bag, or a briefcase. Each seemed to embody a particular kind of confusion and loss. But the knapsack did the least spinal damage. I’d also noticed more people on the street with those briefcases on wheels. Nothing depressed me more than these rigs, this luggage for people not going anywhere, having their holiday at work. Sometimes I imagined those squat cases full of bondage gear or hobby trains, some secret glee, but you could almost be certain they bulged with files.
“Tough hour?” said Horace, swiveled from his monitor.
“Just sort of setting up today. Need to pick up Bernie soon.”
“Right. Well, nice to have you back. On a probationary basis.”
Vargina popped her head up out of her command nook.
“Hey,” I said.
“So, everything working here?”
“Think so, yeah.”
“You know, given the nature of your situation here, how it’s just this one project, please don’t feel you have to come in that often. We’re more interested in the outcome than the process.”
“Right,” I said. “But since, if this works out, I’ll be back here long-term, isn’t it better if I re-integrate now?”
There was a blankness, and within that blankness an odd flicker of what I took to be pity, in Vargina’s expression. The pity part, plus the idea that the tips of her nipples might be brushing the synthetic weave of the cube wall, put a thrum in me. Or it might have been my cell phone.
Nobody told me about the noon staff meeting. Nobody told me much of anything these days. I was some kind of bad luck charm. I was somebody’s error in judgment all over again. But the energy tides eluded me. I was stranded on a shoal with my turkey wrap. A Post-It note on my computer reminded me to ask for more Post-It notes. But I was afraid to ask. I wasn’t even drawing a salary, but I did not want to be a drain.
Nobody told me about the noon staff meeting, or even waved me over to join them now, but I followed them into the conference room anyway, found a chair between Horace and Vargina. There were people from other teams I did not know that well, a tall Asian man who raised money for the business school, a white woman with cat glasses who handled undergraduate gifts. The early arrivers had left chairs between themselves and others, the way travelers on a bus might prop their suitcases on the seats beside them, make a play for solitude. But the room filled up. We’d packed the bus. Now the driver climbed aboard.
Dean Cooley walked in and slapped a folder on the desk. The folder sported the new lime green tabs a recent directive had mandated. War Crimes scanned the room until his eyes appeared to alight on Horace, who wore a tuft of his hoagie’s shredded lettuce on his chin.
“In my time,” said Cooley, “I have been a combat marine. Trained for combat. Trained to kill. But I never saw combat. I never killed. It was my blessing, and my misfortune, to be an instrument of war at a time of relative peace. So, as I say, I never saw combat and I never killed. In my time I have also been a purchaser and purveyor of bandwidth, not that there was much difference in those heady, early days of bandwidth. We were all for one thing: more bandwidth. Above all, I was an instrument of bandwidth. But I never saw bandwidth. How can you see bandwidth? You can see measurements of bandwidth. But you can’t see bandwidth. It does not matter. What am I driving at?”
Some of us slid our lunches off the table, into our laps, or bags.
“Anybody? Nobody? Anybody?”
“We don’t need to know?” said the man from the business school team.
“Know what?” said Cooley.
“Who we are?”
“No,” said Cooley, “you need to know who you are.”
“What we represent?” said the woman with the cat glasses.
“You represent the university,” said Cooley. “What about you, Llewellyn? You’re one of our franchise players. What the hell am I talking about?”
“I know!” said Horace.
“Go ahead, Lettuce Face.”
“We need to know you believe in us.”
“That I believe in you?”
“Yes,” said Horace.
“But I don’t believe in you, young man. That’s not my job. I’m not your mommy. I believe in results. Does anyone know what I’m talking about? Vargina? Sean?”
Vargina and the man from the business school development team nodded.
“Anyway,” said Cooley. “Llewellyn, you were going to enlighten us.”
Llewellyn propped himself up on his palms.
“Well, to be perfectly honest, Dean, I am not entirely clear on your line of thought, but I believe it has something to do with conviction.”
“It is. You’re very close.”
“Yes, you are,” said Cooley, raised his hand as though it held a dog treat. “It’s right over here, Quantrill. Come for it. Let’s hear that rebel yell.”
“Conviction about the product,” said Llewellyn.
“Okay . . .”
“Conviction about the product even if it is something of an abstraction. Conviction that we can weave a story, as it were—”
“Story, yes, that’s it, keep going . . .”
“A narrative in which—”
“Narrative? Don’t get fruity.”
“A story . . .”
“That’s it . . .”
“A story about all the wonderful things that the give can bring about, a story, in our particular team’s case, about the role of culture as both a bulwark of the civilization we cherish and a bridge, an interconnective bridge, to other incredibly and wonderfully global modes of thinking and being, as well as a story about young and diverse and often sexy people expressing themselves through their creativity and in doing so spreading a kind of artistic balm on the wounds of the world, a balm that not only heals but promotes understanding, especially in a world, a globe, as global as ours, where isolation is no option, where the only choices are globality or chaos.”
“Globality or chaos?” said Cooley.
“Yes,” said Llewellyn.
Llewellyn squeezed his fists, nodded his head.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Damn right, you’re sure! Because that’s what I call a fucking story! You see? You see, Lettuce Face? You hear that, feline and voluptuous secretary from the 1950s? That’s the bull’s balls, right there!”
“Thanks,” said Llewellyn.
“No, thank you, young gentleman. Not only for that cogent and rousing description of what it is we do around here, but for something far more important. See, Lew here is what we call a change agent. He brings in the loose change of the rich folks. It falls out of their pockets and Lew is Johnny-on-the-Spot about bringing it here to us, to our students, to our joint glorious project of bulwarking and bridging. What I’m saying is, the papers on the Teitelbaum ask have finally come through. Guess which students at which university will have a new game design center?”
A shout went up, followed by applause. Llewellyn did his best imitation of bashful.
“So, give that man a potato chip!” said Cooley.
Many of us laughed, applauded anew. I joined them, a shamed heat rising in me. Would Cooley mention that the Teitelbaum ask had once been mine? I’d screwed that one up good at a lunch, made the mistake, in listing the kinds of exhibits that might be mounted in a proposed gallery space, of mentioning the work of a Polish artist who built a model Treblinka with Tinker Toys. The camp guards were freeze-dried ants. Teitelbaum, a Holocaust orphan, was not amused.
“What did he make the Jews out of?” the old man snarled over his salade Niçoise.
“Vintage coins from the Weimar Republic,” I mumbled.
“Money? He made them out of money?”
“It was a point about historical perception. The artist is Jewish himself.”
But Teitelbaum, who’d made a fortune in optics, was not so intrigued by this notion of perception. He charged off to the toilet. I ate some slivers of his hard-boiled egg.
People still clapped but Cooley had a new stern look.
“No, really,” he said. “Give him a potato chip.”
Sean slid a rippled mesquite-flavored chip from his bag, passed it down the table to Llewellyn.
“That’s your bonus,” said Cooley, and the room got quiet.
We did not get bonuses. But something about hearing the word seemed to drive the fact home. I wondered what management technique this was that Cooley had decided to employ, though after some years in this business, I’d come to suspect there were no techniques, or none that really traveled well out of books and conference seminars. The kiddie-diddler was right, it was all just people doing kindnesses, or smearing each other into the earth, usually both at the same time.
“That’s your bonus,” said Cooley again, and I remembered that I had actually gotten a bonus, from Purdy, half a year’s rent in an envelope in my desk. Grounds for dismissal. I’d already been dismissed, of course. But it could also be grounds for a prison sentence, if it constituted defrauding my employer.
“I’ll treasure it,” said Llewellyn, the chip aloft.
“Frame it!” somebody called.
“Stick it up your butt!”
“That’s your bonus,” said Cooley, “but that’s not your only bonus.”
The room hushed down at these last words. This was the original management technique. It was also, if you substituted the word “candy” for bonus, a pleasant way to torment your child on a Sunday afternoon.
“What’s the rest?” said Llewellyn. He seemed jumpy, a bit slopped by an overspill of ego fuel.
“The rest of your bonus is your ability to sleep at night, knowing that you have done your part in keeping hope — hope for a great fucking human flowering — alive and well. Darkness is falling, my friends. Our job is to put the Maglites in the hands of the people whose ideas, whether in the realms of business, medicine, law, or science, pure and applied, will lead us through the black hour.”
“Let’s not forget the arts!” called Vargina, with rare or, rather, meeting-specific cheer.
“Sure, the arts, too,” said Cooley. “Hey, we’ve always made room for you self-involved little people, haven’t we? No need to be upset. We get it. Even cavemen needed their cave paintings, right?”
“Hooray,” whispered Horace.
War Crimes wheeled.
“What was that, Slick?”
“I got a question for you. A quiz. Answer this correctly and I’ll give you a twenty percent raise right now. In what year did Bertolt Brecht create the vaccine for polio?”
“In what year did Bertolt Brecht create the vaccine for polio?”
“No year?” said Horace.
“Say it like you got a pair.”
“No year, sir!” said Horace.
“Good work. The raise thing was more of a hypothetical. But keep up the nice effort. Anyway, you all get my point. Though I guess I’ve made several today. Mainly I just wanted to let Llewellyn here know how much we appreciate his top-notch performance. But he’s not the only one. There are others here who deserve singling out. Before we get to that, however, I have some sad news. It concerns a family very close to our hearts. I received word this morning that Shad Rayfield is very ill. Collapsed on his catamaran. We will wish the best for him, reflect on his mighty accomplishments, most notably his design and production of some of the world’s best attack helicopters, and in the great works of philanthropy he has undertaken, as well as pray for his speedy recovery. I know Shad considers the Rayfield Observatory the crown jewel of his gives, despite the fact that it’s never worked properly, and was unfortunately erected too near a large lime works, so that visibility is a severe problem. Still, the building stands as a symbol of all that is possible, even as we possibly depart the age of the big give. So, let us lower our heads and send good thoughts to Shad Rayfield in whatever mode of spiritual contemplation we happen to choose. Martha, am I to understand you are Wiccan?”
The woman with the cat glasses glanced up.
“Well, we don’t have a broom for you here, but we welcome your style of worship. And let us not forget the suffering of poor McKenzie Rayfield as she endures this very fraught time. Mr. Burke, you know her a bit. Maybe you have a few words you’d like to share with us?”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Got your attention now, haven’t I? Nice to have you at the meeting.”
“Thanks. I wasn’t sure if I . . .”
“Oh, I made sure you didn’t know about it. But you’re here anyway, aren’t you?”
The whole room stared, and it occurred to me that my mishap with the Rayfield girl must have been the gossip item of the year. This had all come together quite nicely, I realized, the Teitelbaum celebration, the announcement of McKenzie’s father’s collapse. Next would come my crucifixion. But I wasn’t dying for anybody else’s sins, just mine. I’d get my due, my due diligence.
“Yes,” I said. “I guess I am here.”
“You guess?” said Cooley. “No, I would say you are definitely here. Do you know why you are here, even though you were purposely excluded from this meeting? Would you like me to tell you why you happen to be here even though you weren’t invited?”
“Yes,” I said.
“The reason is quite simple, my friend.”
“Yes, it is. The reason you are here is that you, Milo Burke, are a fucking development gladiator.”
“You say nuts to defeat. You laugh at the grave.”
Cooley glanced over at Vargina, who nodded, swiveled toward me.
“Milo,” she said. “Maybe you’ve thought about what happened with McKenzie. Because she is so talented and ambitious, it was hard to remember she is really just a kid, still growing in certain emotional areas, but maybe now you’ve concluded that despite all of that there was no excuse for the way you spoke to her. And maybe it’s even been a kind of watershed for you, a blessing in disguise. Perhaps it’s forced you to confront some demons of your own, and now you feel more complete and healthy and happy. You no longer harbor the negativity that was affecting your performance and your general well-being. If you could just find a way to make it up to McKenzie, and you are eager to work with the rest of us to find such a way, maybe the whole ordeal, unpleasant as it was, could be put to rest.”
I clasped my hands on the table.
I heard the click of a salad lid, the scrape of a soda can.
“I couldn’t have said it better,” I said. “Thank you, Vargina.”
The room broke into applause again. Horace patted me on the back.
“Pathetic,” he whispered.
“Outstanding,” said Dean Cooley. “Give that man a potato chip.”
Sean slid another chip from his bag, sent it down. I held it aloft, near my chest.
“First off I’d like to thank my agent!”
Even Llewellyn laughed, or maybe only Llewellyn laughed.
“Listen up,” said Dean Cooley. “To cap off this wonderful moment for Mr. Burke, I have one more announcement. We’ve been a bit worried, to be truthful, because of the lack of updates we’ve been getting from Milo on his special project, but I guess there was a good reason for the radio silence. Seems Mr. Burke is to your average development officer what a recon marine is to your typical jarhead. He’s the cream of the crop, and best left alone to gather his own intel, set his own traps, and take down the enemy like a freaking phantom ninja born straight out of Satan’s blazing quim. Sorry, Martha.”
“Good girl. Anyway, it’s my great pleasure to inform all of you that next year we will break ground for the Walter Stuart Memorial Arts Pavilion, right here on our main campus, which will house facilities for all branches of the visual arts, but with special attention to the construction of naturally lit studios for our painters and a brand-new bronze-casting facility. Burke, looks like even Stonewall Jackson here could learn something from you. Now I hope your spirits are buoyed by all this news. Given the economic situation, most of you will be fired soon, but I want us all to be proud of what’s going on around here. Okay, have a great day.”
The applause started up again. The potato chip crumbled in my hand.
Back at my workstation I clutched the edge of my desk. It wasn’t the terrible feeling, the Maxim gun shudders. It was more what coursed through me the night of the burglary on Staley Street, actions of cost taken all around, me in a frozen state, nothing close to floating. A soft hand roamed my shoulder.
“Relieved?” said Vargina’s voice.
“I’m not sure what it all means,” I said.
“It means you’ve proved yourself.”
“But I never even . . . did you?”
“Shhh,” said Vargina.
“Who handled Purdy’s give? He was my ask and the whole deal was in a tailspin. Was it Cooley?”
“Purdy handled the Purdy give. Some things came together. There was a Chinese element involved. A few people did favors for other people. An international student, a young man of means, was instrumental.”
“The napper,” I said.
“This went up to the provost, the president, the board. It was beyond us really. It just fell together.”
“Why am I still here? Purdy?”
“It was a stipulation of Purdy’s give, yes. But I backed it up. I told Cooley we needed you.”
“You don’t need me.”
“I know that.”
“So, I get to stay?”
I didn’t really hear Vargina’s answer. I’d tried to stand, crumpled to the carpet. I came to with Vargina leaning over me, her breasts brushing up my chest.
“I’m sorry I undress you with my eyes,” I said.
“It’s okay, Milo. Just breathe.”
“I do a lot worse with my eyes. Am I the only one?”
“Of course not, Milo. You just lack subtlety. But breathe now.”
“Subtlety,” I said.
“I never wanted to hurt anyone. I just wanted to slide my dick between your breasts.”
“A Sabrett man,” said Vargina.
“Breathe. You’re okay, but we’ve called for help.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“I’m not offended, Milo.”
“Does that mean you are interested?”
“Not at all. Now keep breathing, baby.”
“Because I’m married?”
“Sure, because you’re married.”
“Because I’m white?”
“I’m not very likable, am I?”
“You’re likable enough,” said Vargina.
“No, I mean, if I were the protagonist of a book or a movie, it would be hard to like me, to identify with me, right?”
“I would never read a book like that, Milo. I can’t think of anyone who would. There’s no reason for it.”
“Hey, here come some friends. Look. Here they come. Look at them. Like angels.”
They looked more like muscular men in blue shirts. They laid a large kit next to my head, dug through it.
“Well,” I heard Horace say. “He figured out the world wasn’t all about him and he fainted.”
“Seen it before,” said the other.
“By the way,” said Horace. “You guys make pretty good money, right?”
“It’s not great.”
“What’s the training process? I mean, like, if I did CPR in swim class, do I get to skip ahead?”
* * *
They took me to the emergency room for a few hours of observation. I lay on a gurney beside an old drunk woman with gangrene. She lifted some blackened fingers.
“I used to play piano,” she said. “Up in Utica. Up in the hotel there.”
“I’ve never been to Utica,” I said.
“Do yourself a favor. Don’t go up there. Look what happened to me. Utica spat me out.”
“Utica is pitiless. Used me up and spat me out. I was Piano Patty. Go up there and ask around, they’ll know.”
“I thought you told me not to go there.”
“Do what you think is right. I’m not your mommy.”
“You’re the second person I’ve heard say that this afternoon.”
“Must have been on the radio. Some kind of giveaway.”
The doctor stopped by my gurney with his clipboard.
“We’re ready to release you,” he said.
“So, everything’s fine?”
“I didn’t say that,” said the doctor. “I said we were ready to release you.”
That gangrenous wino from Utica was correct. She was not my mommy. My mommy was here in Nearmont, in her living room, sipping peppermint tea.
“When I was young,” she said now, “single, working in the city, that was something. Something hideous. But wonderful. I did things that would make your hair curl. The hair on your palms.”
“Mom,” I said.
We had to shout a bit above the loud, lunging minor chords Francine banged out on her organ. This recital, according to Claudia, was the new post-prandial routine. Francine claimed to have studied at a conservatory in Indiana, though all she ever played was this piece of her own composition, a meandering dirgey thing with sudden surges of dark joy. Francine’s performance varied, my mother said, with the quality of her stash.
“Very nice, Francie! Fortissimo!”
“Fortissimo,” I said. “You don’t know anything about music.”
“Fake it until you make it. Now where was I?”
“You were about to inflict me with the details of your youthful peccadilloes.”
“Peccadilloes? What are you, an old society dame? You kids today are so uptight.”
“I’m almost forty, Mom.”
“You must change your life.”
“Don’t give me your hippie crap.”
“Rilke’s a hippie.”
“I’m not. The fifties were the sixties. For the people who mattered. Not that I mattered. But I wanted to.”
“And what were the sixties?”
“Boring. Of course, by the good part I was stuck out here.”
“Don’t sulk. You were an infant. It’s not your fault you weren’t stimulating.”
“Weren’t you happy just being a mother?”
“I was happy being a mother. Take out the ‘just.’ ”
“Well, you’re still in the suburbs, and I’m long gone, so I can’t take all the blame.”
“When did you ever take blame? You give blame. To me.”
“We’re not doing that tonight.”
“Right, I forgot. The suburbs are the new bohemia, anyway.”
“Judging by what we’re hearing right now, you could be right.”
“Don’t worry, I’m right. Fortissimo!”
* * *
Later I sat on the patio with a beer and a one-hitter I’d found in Francine’s sewing box. I kept calling Purdy. I kept calling Maura. I even called Don. Nobody was home, or near a phone, or answering. I sat out on the patio in a rubber-ribbed chair with the phone in one hand and the one-hitter and a lighter in the other and the beer like a throttle between my legs, and it seemed for a brief moment that I might be the pilot of something, something sleek and meaningful, but I was not the pilot of anything.
The night was warm, the night sky blue, gluey. I could smell the neighbor’s fresh-mown lawn. New Jersey was a fresh-mown tomb.
Fool, I said to myself. Depressive, raw-eyeballed pansy. Is that all you’ve got? That’s what you had when you still lived on this street, when you were just a budding tristate artist manqué. Now what are you? A botch of corpuscles. A waste of quarks. A carbonbased fuckwad. Purdy is better, Maura more right. Someday you will be a fat, grinning embarrassment to Bernie. Will you still pretend to be a painter? Will you still pretend to be a person?
My mother’s voice carried softly from the kitchen.
“Everything okay out there?”
“I just heard this, I don’t know, grumbling.”
“Oh, sorry. I stubbed my toe.”
The door slid back and I stood.
“Wait!” I wailed.
* * *
It’s an odd sensation to weep in your mother’s lap for the first time in thirty years. It’s not the same lap. It’s smaller, more fragile. Bonier and tinier. I was afraid my head might hurt her lap. I was afraid her lap wouldn’t help my head.
But it did. Claudia cradled me, stroked my hair, cooed: “It’s all right, baby. It’s all right.” It was not all right, not really, but this hardly mattered. My mother was stroking my hair. My mother’s lover, at the end of the sofa, kneaded my feet.
“My pleasure, Milo.”
Soon I was all cried out. I remembered the sensation, felt it frequently as a child, each time I was denied a toy or a chance to play with somebody else’s toy or informed that another slice of pineapple pizza was not in the offing. You cried and you cried and then you really couldn’t cry anymore. You got wrung, husked. It was that voluptuous emptiness you read about in old books, or old-seeming books that would use the word “voluptuous” that way, a strange, soaring, dead puppet exultation I could never quite explain. I had last felt it a few months after my father died.
Nobody had died just now. The stuff had just welled up in me, up to the eyes, as they used to say, not that I was sure anymore who “they” were.
Who’s on first? Self-Pitying Twit. Third base.
More than anything it was just so very good to be stroked and kneaded by my mother and Francine. It was just so very nice to be kneaded in Nearmont. Too bad I couldn’t live here with them. But I was not welcome here forever. That’s what made me welcome now. I was being readied for release. I would have to drag my botched ass back into the world. Francine was Claudia’s family. Bernie, and maybe Maura, was mine.
“I love you,” I mumbled into my mother’s jeans.
“I know that, honey.”
“What are you sorry about?”
“Me. Spidercunt. Everything.”
“I forgave you a long time ago.”
“And I forgive you, Mom.”
“But I don’t want your forgiveness, silly boy.”
Francine dug lint out from under my pinky toe.