Announcing the Winners of The Gertrude Stein Award 2016

Eckleburg is pleased to announce the Gertrude Stein Award in Fiction winners and finalists for 2016. Thank you to all who submitted and trusted us with your works. It is always a difficult task choosing amongst so many fine stories. We look forward to reading more.

First Place Winner of The Gertrude Stein Award 2016
“Peeling Does” by Faerl Marie Torres 

Second Place
“The Last Night at Gropius House” by Lindsay Hatton

Third Place
“Drill” by Cady Vishniac

Honorable mention
“Coffee in the Morning” Melissa Grunow

 

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p style=”text-align: center;”>Finalists
Michael Coene
Liz Egan
Enid Harlow
Kylie Hough
Billy Lombardo
Zachary Vickers
Ginna Wilkerson
Jennifer Yacovissi

I Am Not Damian Lewis

It was my best friend Aaron’s idea. He wanted Real Deal’s ear back. He’d lost it in a poker game.

It was a Tuesday, and we were eating breakfast at a San Francisco diner. Aaron made his offer in a normal, conversational speaking voice; he never looked up from smearing apple butter on his English muffin. I sprinkled pepper on my scrambled eggs and tried not to imagine how the bacon and hash browns churning in my stomach would make me gassy two hours later, when I had the first job interview I had been able to snag in four months.

“Holyfield’s ear?” I asked. “I didn’t realize someone owned that.”

“After Tyson spit it out,” Aaron said, waving his hand, “somebody, somehow, grabbed it off the canvas in the ensuing melee, sold it, etc. I never should have bet it.”

“When were you playing poker?”

“I never told you this? Well, look, how I got it is an entirely different story. Point is, it was mine, I might have had one too many Goose and tonics, and I got a little overconfident and bet the fucking thing, and I lost. Wanna guess to who?”

My mouth slowly grew into a smirk. “You lost it to Rube Benton.”

“Bingo. The man had four sevens. I had the boat. Didn’t see that one coming.”

Rube Benton was the founder and principal of Elysian Fields, a private equity firm based in the Bay Area. Aaron had started with Elysian, quit after eighteen months, earning a promotion and a raise in less than two years with his new company, then jumped from that to a startup that had made him disgustingly rich. Meanwhile, Elysian bought my old tech firm and, in their lexicon, downsized, restructured, commodified, and then sold it off in pieces at a seventy-eighty percent return. Laid off in the acquisition, I’d been unemployed ever since.

“So,” Aaron continued, “Rube always throws a Friday or Saturday night shindig. I know where the safe is that he keeps the ear in. And I know the code to his safe. All you gotta do is pick it up and walk out.”

“Just walk in, take an ear, and walk back out?”

“Candy plus babies equals easy.”

Rube was in his forties, a hedge fund mogul with a face insculpted with minor but meticulous plastic surgery. He was divorced twice, childless, and a regular at high profile arts events and higher stakes poker games; in a profile in San Francisco, he said he donated all three hundred and twenty two of his ties to charity, not just to raise money for pediatric care at UCSF Medical Center, but also as a symbol, both of ribbon cutting for the arts (“There should be no ties between artistic expression and corporate support”) and a disavowal of marriage in favor of his freewheeling lifestyle (“I’ve been to bed with men and women, a fact that I don’t think should be a big deal to anyone”). He was wealthy, pompous, handsome, and possessed the unshakeable belief that he was integral to the great state of California.

Aaron and I had been friends since college. All three of my roommates agreed Aaron was a douchebag. They were probably right. I wondered, not for the first time, why we were friends at all. Maybe friendships simply wore out like old tires.

I said, “I’m not stealing anything.”

“Not even for ten grand? Cash?”

“You’re insane.”

“Look, I’d do it myself but Rube fucking hates me. I can’t show my face there. But, you, you he doesn’t know. You can roll in, have a few beers, get my ear back, and no one will know you were there.”

“I’m not stealing a fucking ear.”

“All right.” Aaron checked the time on his iPhone. “Forget it.”

After he picked up the check, we stood together on the curb, two young men in black suits in the chilly shadows of skyscrapers. While he hailed a cab, Aaron worked a toothpick around his mouth, and I mentally ran down the accomplishments on my resume, trying to think of a narrative that would make me employable.

“Want a lift?” he asked.

“I’ve got an hour. I’m gonna walk. Clear my head.”

“Cool. Text me, let me know how it goes.”

He gave me a bro-hug and then slipped into the back of a cab, and disappeared around the corner at the next intersection. Aaron and I had met at an Ohio State (my college) vs. Miami (his college) hockey game in Oxford, and after screaming at each other’s group of friends through the match and then getting drunk at the same bar, we got into a minor brouhaha outside First Run. Then, while bruises formed around our eyes and our bloody knuckles swelled, we held a personal Geneva Convention and became fast friends over a greasy breakfast. He graduated from Miami in three years, moved to Columbus to do his MBA at Ohio State, and we were roommates my senior year. We threw house parties, beat all comers at Mario Kart, and I even once nailed a seventy second kegstand. We did lots of drugs and drank lots of cheap beer, but as soon as graduation hit, we dumped all the powders and pills, packed our bags, and headed west, cultivating a taste in upscale vodka and whiskey, which is what we imagined the executives and moguls drank. He chameleoned from a shaggy college student into a slick stylish man, shedding his graphic t-shirts for slim-cut suits and hundred dollar haircuts, a transformation that appeared organic and effortless for him, while for me, similar choices were agonizingly difficult.

Despite my confidence, five minutes into one of the nicest conversations I’ve ever had, about soccer and growing up in the Midwest and the Giants, I knew I wasn’t getting the job. The easy interviews, the ones I thought I aced, always ended up with a form email three weeks later. So, after thirty minutes, the HR coordinator thanked me for my time and I left feeling, once again, defeated. Outside, I stripped off my tie and wrapped it around my right hand, curling it into a fist. I threw a jab at no one.

In Iron Mike’s voice, I whispered, “I’ll just fade into Bolivian.”

I lived with three others in a rent controlled apartment that was still ridiculously expensive. My roommates were a solar engineer, a neuropsychologist, and a software engineer, the first a guy and the last two women. All of them had phased me out, particularly since I hadn’t been able to find work, and other than making sure my rent check cleared, they didn’t talk to me. I spent the first hour of each morning checking for new job listings and sending my resume to any opening there was—often an entire week would pass without anything posting—then I would walk outside, shoulders pulled tight to my body against the chilly San Francisco February, telling myself that since I couldn’t afford a gym membership, this was good exercise.

“My style is impetuous,” my Iron Mike said. “My defense is impregnable.”

Mimicry and accents came easily to me. I was a theater kid in high school, forced into acting by my parents to help me overcome my stammer, and stuck with it for the first two years of college, before deciding that redheads are unwanted in Hollywood and I had no interest in being a struggling New York actor. More than once, I considered doing some theater work again, just for fun, but I never tried out. I shed acting because I wanted to grow up; I liked being contrarian as a kid, but my parents’ ambition never really left me—she was a paralegal and he owned a landscaping company—and I came to believe the son of workers had no business being an actor. I believed I needed to be more like Aaron.

With my chin down and shoulders slumped, I passed the public library, its symmetrical design and long windows like sleepy but watchful eyes, and considered ducking inside for a book. Then I thought, fuck it, I’m having a drink. I unraveled my tie from my fist, looped it back around my neck, made a half Windsor knot without breaking stride, and ducked into the Holiday Inn on Eighth Street. With my hands out of my pockets I crossed the lobby, entered the bar, and stood upright and sober, studying the taps, the idea of a cold beer making my mouth water. The bartender came over, a smile forming on his face, like he was just beginning to get the joke he heard five minutes earlier.

“Hey, you look like that guy,” he said.

I smiled with my eyes and waited: I’ve heard this before. That guy from Band of Brothers. That guy from Homeland. The actor. Twenty bucks, I’d always reply in my flat nasally Midwestern accent, if you can name him. No one ever could.

“You know, that show?” he continued. “Homeland. You ever see that?”

With Damian’s British accent, I said, “I never watch my own work.”

The bartender’s eyes narrowed. “No way.”

Uncanny, but true: Damian Lewis and I were the same height and build. Same reddish hair, freckles and fair skin, steely gaze and small mouth. Our eyes crinkled the same way when we smiled. The only distinguishable difference was our voice.

“Don’t tell anyone,” I said.

“It’s really you! That’s awesome! Man, I love your show!”

“That’s very kind.” I imagined the British said stuff like “very kind” and other formal shit all the time.

“Are you filming here?”

“I can’t really say. You know how the first season ended?”

He nodded, a smile on his lips.

“San Francisco might play a part in season two. Please don’t quote me on that.”

The bartender bought my first drink, and a pair of businessmen bought my second. I shook hands, made up stories about how Claire Danes was a wonderful actress and super mom, explained I couldn’t pose for photos because of TMZ and the like, and made them glow with the feel all ordinary people get from being in the same room with a celebrity. Damian Lewis! That guy from that show! The one where the cop really likes fruit! After an hour, I strode out of the bar, snatching my sunglasses from my suit pocket with a snap of my wrist, feeling the best I had in months.

Halfway home, I found a park bench to sit on for a few hours and started sifting through Damian Lewis’s biography on my phone. He attended boarding schools: Damian’s British was stately, studied, but not nasally. I was sure no American would notice, but I was quite proud of my Wales-influenced London-ish. I studied abroad between my sophomore and junior year of college, forgoing a summer mowing rich people’s lawns for daddad, which both pissed him off and filled him with a pride he would never acknowledge. Maybe it wouldn’t matter to an American, but I didn’t want to sound like Hepburn in My Fair Lady.

I wiped my mouth and chin then dialed Aaron.

“How did it go?” he asked.

“The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain.”

“So you immediately got drunk.”

“They said they’ll call.” The shadow of a Marshall Fields finally stretched far enough to put me in the sun. “An ear. Rich people are fucking weird.”

“I’m happy to be rich and weird.”

All three of my roommates agreed Aaron was a douchebag. They were probably right. “Should we be talking about this on the phone?”

“You’re paranoid. Plus, if you really think it through, if someone wanted to lift my cell records, all that would show is that we talked on the phone. Which, given that we’re ol’ college buddies and worked together and all that other good stuff, doesn’t matter at all. Anyway, you’re stalling. No one is calling the cops, okay? Remember, the former heavyweight champ’s ear isn’t legal to own in the first place, am I right?”

I had enough money for one more month of rent, and then I would have to admit defeat and move back to Ohio.

 “I, Damian Lewis, will plunder Evander Holyfield’s ear.”

“Bro, who the fuck is Damian Lewis?”

***

The entire week, I practiced being Damian. Where would he go? What would he do? What would he wear? I spoke my studied London accent to the shopkeepers in Chinatown. I feigned interest in acquiring paintings from several galleries. Hotel bars were best: bartenders were up on pop culture so to yammer with their guests, and tourists loved any and everything Hollywood. Secrecy around Homeland’s forthcoming second season was a perfect cover to avoid photos. And while looking like Damian certainly helped, as did the accent, it was done, I think, entirely through confidence: I wholeheartedly believed I was Damian Lewis, actor extraordinaire, and because I believed it, my audience believed it.

***

I entered the lobby to Aaron’s condo and took the elevator up to his place. My black suit and white shirt were freshly dry-cleaned. I even wore cuff links.

“Hey, man,” he said. “What are you doing here?”

“I need the keys to your car.”

“Fuck outta here,” he laughed.

“Think about it. It’s Pacific Heights. I can’t show up on foot, and I can’t show up in a car with an Enterprise sticker on it. Give me the keys.”

“No, you’re right.” He set down his imported beer on his granite countertop. He yanked his BMW key free from his key ring, and then slid it across that pretty counter. “Man, this is going to be so good. I cannot wait to get that fucking thing back.”

Aaron and I had met at an Ohio State (my college) vs. Miami (his college) hockey game in Oxford, and after screaming at each other’s group of friends through the match and then getting drunk at the same bar, we got into a minor brouhaha outside First Run. Then, while bruises formed around our eyes and our bloody knuckles swelled, we held a personal Geneva Convention and became fast friends over a greasy breakfast. He graduated from Miami in three years, moved to Columbus to do his MBA at Ohio State, and we were roommates my senior year. We threw house parties, beat all comers at Mario Kart, and I even once nailed a seventy second kegstand. We did lots of drugs and drank lots of cheap beer, but as soon as graduation hit, we dumped all the powders and pills, packed our bags, and headed west, cultivating a taste in upscale vodka and whiskey, which is what we imagined the executives and moguls drank. San Francisco appealed to us both: vaguely European and gorgeous, yet still young and cool and irreverent. He chameleoned from a shaggy college student into a slick stylish man, shedding his graphic t-shirts for slim cut suits and hundred dollar haircuts. It appeared organic and effortless for him, while all similar choices, for me, were agonizingly difficult. Aaron shot up the ladder, rising like smoke, something you could see but not contain, and every “junior” in front of his title became “senior,” climbing up the financial food chain like a cat swatting birds.

Maybe I wasn’t any good at being Aaron. Maybe I wasn’t any good at the type of aggressive corporate capitalist style that was necessary to move up in the world. I wanted its trappings—nice clothes, nice car, nice condo—with the most indifferent desire that it was almost a reflex, and I never stopped to consider if any of this would make me happy or be meaningful. The rational part of my brain had told me that acting wasn’t meaningful: pretending to be someone else for an audience with disposable income. For what? To be famous? I didn’t know and it was easier to punt the idea rather than think on it. Now, here I was, stealing a severed body part. And, as I twirled my wrists like a magician, I had never felt better about myself.

“Where are you going to put it?” I asked, scanning his condo. Everything was gorgeous, clean, and shiny, a bachelor pad of lightly used but very expensive furniture and electronics. I couldn’t stop thinking about the price of everything, and how casually Aaron had acquired all of it.

“I don’t know,” he said. “But that’s not the point. The point is, fuck him, I’ll have it and he won’t. Hey, man—” He raised his hand to slap me five and give me a bro-hug—“good luck.”

“Luck,” my Damian said, “has nothing to do with it.”

I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed driving. Aaron’s BMW purred as it accelerated, the transmission’s smooth shift when I pressed the clutch, the ergonomic contours of the seat, and I wondered why I had ever gotten away from this lifestyle. I had long considered San Francisco a temporary move, a chance to live somewhere beautiful and strange, before coming back to the Midwest to be near my parents. I wondered if that was still the plan.

Aaron’s car did a nifty self-park that I figured would have been impossible on the incline of Rube’s street. I chided myself for contemplating such deft German engineering and focused I focused on being Damian, rolling his accent through my mind, thinking cool and British, which might be the same thing. I passed a massive stone fountain, an unsightly mixture of gargoyles, nymphs and faeries, spraying water from their mouths and conical horns, a landscape décor too gaudy for Versailles.

Inside, every room of the house blazed with light. It was a modernist beauty, a casual opulence of sleek lines, gorgeous paintings, careful and perfect lighting, hardwood floors, and intricate banisters. A grand fireplace dominated the formal dining room; on the opposite side of the foyer was a great room that ran the length of the house. I asked the bartender for a scotch, appreciated the ample pour, and took a lap around the house. There was an oversized chef’s kitchen in shades of white and gray paint that I knew had elegant names and expensive price tags. There were six bedrooms, including two master suites on the third floor. I counted five baths and two powder rooms, all featuring marble countertops and tile, and wondered how many people actually lived there. On the top floor, there was an entertainment room with surround sound and theater seating, and an executive office with a deck for al fresco coffee breaks that looked down on the courtyard below and offered a view of the Golden Gate. I finished my scotch and went back downstairs for a refill.

Aaron told me this was just a regular Rube party, which at the time I gave zero thought to since I was still processing the really important things: Evander Holyfield’s ear, ten thousand dollars, being Damian.

It was all Sinatra-esque. There were businessmen in dark suits, ties in Windsor knots. There was a Navy officer. Several women in the standard little black dresses. But there was also a man in running shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. There was an androgynous couple dressed in matching white tuxedos with platinum bleached hair slicked straight back into duck tails. Others wore masks with large boa feathers in their hair, as if they had wandered into the wrong party but decided to stay. Outside, there were men and women in golf clothes playing washers, both genders smoking cigars and smiling big canine grins of brilliant unstained teeth.

No one was going to ask me if I was That Guy From That Show.

The condensation of the glass slickened my dry fingers. All the voices in the room distanced and hollowed. I downed my scotch.

On each landing of the staircase, couples sat and talked drunkenly about real estate, or movies, or who at the party was drunker than they were. Electric sconces dimly lit the third floor hallway, an art deco vibe, and I passed a room with a television blasting a hockey game, the coffee table littered with martini glasses, and the nearly dozen men and women seemed to be playing Scrabble when they weren’t busy wandering to the deck. No one noticed me. I continued up the stairs and walked straight to Rube’s office.

The door was slightly ajar, and I shoved it open. The room was empty. The scotch sloshed in my stomach as I pressed the door closed. Then I grabbed a tissue off the desk, crouched down, pushed back the sliding drawer where Aaron said it would be, unsurprised to discover he was correct, typed the code he gave me—8675309 (yes, really)—and the tiny red light turned green, and with my fingerprint proof tissue, I tugged the drawer open.

There were two shelves. The bottom shelf held several stacks of hundred dollar bills still wrapped in bank straps. On the second shelf were two sealed manila envelopes, and on top of them, in a slim glass case, was Evander Holyfield’s ear. The case was the weight and shape of a smartphone, and I slid it into the pocket of my suit, pushed the safe door shut, closed the cabinet, and stood. This was easy. This was too easy. I picked up my Scotch? glass, wiped the whole thing down, and carried it with me, careful to hold it with my tissued hand. With each step down the staircase, Holyfield’s ear thumped against my heart like an uppercut. The front door was wide open, partygoers entering and leaving at will. At the bottom of the staircase, I paused, letting the room take in my presence before I walked out the door. No one noticed me. I counted to sixty, then ninety.

No one spoke to me.

I crossed the room, stepped onto the courtyard, and walked right to Rube Benton.

“Rube,” my Damian said, clapping his shoulder. “You know there is a good use for a necktie.”

“And what would that be?” he smiled.

“Why, binding wrists in the bedroom, of course!”

He laughed and clutched my hand. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

“Damian Lewis,” I said. “Damn fine party, Rube.”

Three hours later, I was drunk, sitting on the back patio with Rube Benton and six other people whose names I had forgotten, telling stories about my days in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, how Donnie Wahlberg was “a charming fellow” but his brother Mark was a “raging arsehole.” How I had played Nintendo with Steven Spielberg when he visited the set of Band of Brothers. That Tom Hanks, yes indeed, was the nicest man in Hollywood. That Mandy Patinkin would get hammered and jump around his trailer in his tightie-whites screaming Inigo Montoya lines. Someone poured Goldschlagger and we finished the bottle. Rube insisted I stay in his house for the night, and I said I couldn’t but would be delighted to meet him for breakfast at the Mandarin, where I was booked under the name George Eliot.

I walked out at four in the morning holding a half-filled highball glass, then climbed in Aaron’s Beamer and drove home like Cary Grant in North by Northwest. I let the car self-park outside my building, hypnotized by the steering wheel spinning itself, then I exited the car and vomited all over the sidewalk before clumping my way up to my apartment and passing out.

***

When I woke up, I was momentarily confused, staring down the length of my body at my undershirt and boxers. I raised my head, and the pressure inside my skull sloshed against my brain. On the bedside table was a glass of water that I downed in three gulps.

I made coffee and sat at the kitchen table, clutching the mug like a life preserver. The place was silent. My roommates had significant others and were usually not home on the weekends and so my Sundays were often like this: by myself in front of a large and empty table big enough for eight that often was only occupied by one. The ceramic cup had completely cooled in my hands before the doorbell rang. I buzzed Aaron in without even bothering to see if it was him.

“I was waiting on the steps,” he said. He wore a motorcycle jacket I knew he had spent over a grand on. “You had your phone off, you prick. By the way, there’s puke on the sidewalk that, from the color of your face, is yours. Driving home was pretty fucking stupid of you, bro. But I guess you weren’t getting a cab at that time, right?” He laughed and shook his head, a theatrical gesture, and then his eyes stilled with thought. Last year, he had made a small angel investment in a company called Uber, something he would remind me of for the rest of our lives. He looked down at me and tapped the breast pocket of his leather jacket. “You get it?”

I made some sort of noise that meant Aye, Captain and stood, went to my room, fished around in my crumpled suit, and found the glass case. I carried it out to the table, where Aaron sat with two fresh cups of coffee. He pushed my refilled mug toward me.

I set the ear down between us on the kitchen table and we gazed at it as if it were a rare and beautiful museum piece.

“My man,” Aaron murmured.

Last night, I hadn’t really looked at it, focused on getting in and out of the office without being caught. The case was heavy like a paper weight. Its back was some sort of steel, and the front was a sturdy, clean glass. Inside, resting against a purple velvet base, were two pieces, separated ever so slightly, like puzzle pieces about to be linked together. Taking up the lower half of the case was a composite model of the lower portion of an ear. Up at the top, the jagged edges in the cartilage like a mountain range, was the top of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

“You know,” Aaron said. “I never really looked at it.”

“It’s kind of beautiful,” I said, more to myself than him. “Strange, isn’t it?”

“Did you have any trouble getting it out?”

“I was Peter Scott,” I said.  “And Damian. All the Brits.”

“Who?”

“I didn’t even have to be Damian. No one fucking cared. I could have been anybody. I could have just been me.”

Aaron loved to talk, and his silence said that he didn’t understand my complaint at all. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick white envelope. One more time, he said, my man. I palmed the envelope but couldn’t look up from the ear. Holyfield took and gave punches for a living. I had never been in a fight in my life. In Band of Brothers, the HBO show that made Damian Lewis my permanent doppelgänger, he played a character, Lieutenant Richard Winters, an American officer who fought in World War II and who was the kind of person I once wanted to be: a leader who was intelligent, hardworking, humble, and honest. He was decent, in all the good ways we use that word. It never stopped occurring to me that there was something remarkably sad about finding guidance through a fictitious character.

“I think I need some air,” I said. From the envelope I plucked a hundred dollar bill, bank crisp, and headed out the door, ignoring Aaron’s yell to hold up a minute.

It was still early on Sunday, the smell of fresh baked donuts all throughout the city. In the chilly air, people wrapped up in jackets of all kinds—thrift shop army fatigues to boating jackets to waspy Brooks Brothers blazers—dipped in and out of breakfast joints, carrying their Sunday paper, dining with someone they loved. Or maybe they ate by themselves. What did I really know about what was happening inside anyone’s head?

***

I live elsewhere now. This year, Damian Lewis starred in a new show, Billions. He played Bobby Axelrod, a powerful New York hedge fund mogul. He and I still look alike. On the show, Damian climbs out of his Olympic size swimming pool, climbs out of his luxury car, walks through his mansion, walks through his masculine and expensive office. I watched Damian Lewis, the self I pretended to be, playing the role of the type of person I wanted to be, Bobby Axelrod. The road not taken, I thought, and I stared at my Frostian doppelgänger acting powerful and confident on screen, the bleak manipulation in the dark, far below the surface.

I glanced at my watch, then I turned off the show. It was time for me to go to work.

The Mother and the Rock Star

I.

Double fantasy

“I have a surprise for you,” says the woman. “No peeking.”

Jesse shuts his eyes to the hotel room’s stark white décor. Imagines he is in a French bordello. Thick velvet drapes framing the window. A soft canopy above the bed. Brass table lamps with beaded shades. He leans back on his elbows, kicks off his sneakers. He likes a good firm mattress.

“Maybe I can surprise you, too.”  He shifts his body back toward the headboard, pantomimes strumming on an invisible guitar. Starts humming, Abracadabra.

A clever choice, she thinks, Sugar Ray all over the radio with his cover of the Steve Miller hit.  If he really wanted to surprise her, he might have gone a little further back in time, hummed a few bars from Lay Lady Lay.

Jesse hears rustling, movement.  Pictures the woman slipping out of the gunmetal grey sweater she wore, had to be silk the way it clung to her body.  Her bracelets moving up and down her forearm are a melody all their own. And the silver necklaces, one a choker of red leather with a lotus charm, another dangling in a game of peek-a-boo with the lace pinching her cleavage—oh, it makes a grown man sigh! He can’t hide it (and why should he want to?), the rising mound beneath the zipper of his jeans, no controlling that hooking to the left once he gets into his head the not-so-secret Victoria’s mix of leather and lace.  Three years of playing to pubescent high school girls flaunting fake IDs or pretending to be a thousand miles from their moms at the back of the hall have brought him to this moment. The top of the world.

 

“Can I open my eyes yet?” It isn’t that he doesn’t relish the dark, what you get often so much more than what you see, what you hear always so much more than what you listen for.  It’s more a matter of reflex—someone tells you to close your eyes, sooner or later (most likely sooner), you’re bound to ask can I open them?  It’s human nature, anticipate what’s coming next, a musician’s secret, the key to timing.  Better ready than not.  Curiosity only kills a cat caught off-guard.

Althea straddles him, leans forward, brushes her lips against his cheek. “Uh-uh.”

Two syllables, nothing more, grace notes infused with a whiff of vodka and peppermint and he is hers for the taking, the asking. Whatever.  She ups the ante, places a mask over his eyes. From her daughter’s collection.  Julie began collecting eye masks on their first trip to Paris. She was seven, thought it was the coolest thing, covering your eyes like Catwoman so you could sleep.  By the time she turned ten she had them in all colors, even one in leopard. Maybe not quite the cozy comfort of a plush green alligator named Lizzie that she took to bed each night but you could do worse than cool silk tickling your eyelids. Julie liked that she could open her eyes and not see any light. Until she started becoming afraid of the dark.

Jesse picks up a scent from the mask, faintly familiar. “Wouldn’t take you for the bubble gum type.”

“Bubble gum?” Althea pictures wrappers in the little box Julie gave her just weeks ago, after years of keeping it hidden away. Super Bubble and Nestle’s Crunch, Starburst and Skittles and all manner of candy wrappers she had hoarded in a box shaped from a cut-up manila file folder and dated, November 7, 1995. A time capsule filled with evidence of a pleasure so much sweeter for the guilt it held, treats always available at the houses of friends, a far cry from the granola and carob bars at home.  Small decals of bats and black cats were pasted to the outside of the box, an eye mask, the leopard one, set on top like a bow.  Althea keeps it with her wherever she goes.  Nostalgia is a bitch, a leopard before she got her spots, and everything that was just so right became just so wrong. How could she have not seen it coming?  How could the timing of the gift, Julie down three sizes by then, bring anything but tears? And not because she said good-bye to candy. 

 

Jesse starts to sing, he can’t help himself.

Sugar . . .

Ah, honey honey  . . .

He lays it on thick, the reggae-twist that has her dancing in his lap, how can she help herself?  Only just when he’s getting worked up, she pulls away.  Jesse figures it’s part of the game, cat becomes mouse becomes cat.  He jokes, “Is it my singing?”

In a way it is, she would like to say. This is not what she expected, a twenty-something punk rock guitarist who could make himself sound like Bob Marley. How easily, she thinks, a plan can be thwarted. She needs to regroup. “Bathroom,” she says. “Don’t go away.”

Jesse clasps his hands behind his neck, resting on the propped pillows. This is exactly what he hoped for.  A woman who looked like she walked right out of pages of some yoga magazine had to have a few Tantric tricks up her sleeve that none of the dime-a-dozen Lolitas in their shredded jeans and crop tops or their mini-skirts and fishnet stockings could hold a candle to. Not that he didn’t appreciate his fan base.

 

In the bathroom, mirror-mirror tricks, a what-am-I-doing-here face staring back at her.

It wasn’t something precalculated, more like a moment, seized, a chance encounter that brought with it a gift, a scheme that spontaneously erupted in less time than it took her to finish the drinks she never ended up paying for.  The mask, always with her, was her McGuffin. 

The mask, the only one left from Julie’s collection, the others laid to rest one day in a shoebox and put in the garage, next to the tied up newspapers. Large letters—NOT FOR RECYCLING—in Julie’s unmistakable hand.  There had to be twenty of them—Tinker Bell and Minnie Mouse (two different trips to Disney World), pink with polka-dots/pink without, three shades of blue (royal, midnight, powder), red with a black trim, lemon yellow, mint green—all but the leopard laid to R.I.P., Julie’s orders, remnants of childhood that had outlived their usefulness to her. Or so she said.  Althea knew there was more to this divesting than a bobby-socks-to-stockings threshold crossing. She was barely eleven.

Althea’s heartbeat quickens. She hears music through the bathroom door, a guitar thrumming on the radio, classic blues, Jesse humming along.  She feels herself teetering, acute panic setting in. Maybe it’s true what they say about adrenaline, the on-the-spot rush of it turning you into Wonder Woman, no talk/no thought/all action. Or maybe it was pure guise, that swinging lasso, all talk/no action.  How else to reckon with reality, the wonder of how a woman ends up in a hotel room with a complete stranger?  Althea fiddles with her bracelets, takes a deep get-a-grip breath. Tells herself: remember why you’re here.

 

 

 

 “Where were we?” She curls next to Jesse, runs her finger along the dolphin jumping across his shoulder, the band of skulls encircling his bicep, the spider web stretching along his elbow, the flesh tones peeking through, making uncovered skin a form of punctuation. A rest stop between stories written on his body in dark ink. Her finger stops at the tattoo she is most curious about, a name in a swirl of rose petals. Marie.  Positively sweet, she thinks.  “Let’s play a game,” she says “Name That Fantasy.”

Jesse purses his lips, not a kiss, a whistle. A melody he has hummed many times, one of the first songs he learned to play on the guitar. The whistle dissolves, a scene he has envisioned so many times readies itself to be played out.

Even as he says the words—Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you? —he can’t escape the feeling: who has an original thought anymore?

“And you?” he asks.  She tells him about a beach, the Caribbean, silky sand. A mini-skirt, no underwear.  A man she keeps a mystery.

“No fair.” He runs his finger along the side of her body, into the crook of her waist.  “That’s no fantasy, that really happened.”

“Maybe,” says Althea. “Maybe not.” She will not take the bait, even if he happens to be right. More to the point: how could he know?

Jesse squeezes her arm, blind man’s bluff. Pulls her down, kisses her neck. She closes her eyes, keen to something he exudes, sweet and clammy as a summer night, as fleeting as fireflies as it gets.

 

II.

It must have been the roses

Althea slips her hand into her purse. Takes it out. Slips it in again. Just to be sure she will feel her cell phone vibrate. She still can’t get used to it, this hungering for instant access. Not to mention the inane one-sided conversations she finds herself privy to.  Isn’t that why phone booths were created? Better yet, the subtle mockery, this craving for constant communication, in the moment at any time of day or night, silence the silence within.

Or maybe it boils down to economics, minutes tallied and parsed out, use them or lose them.

The two girls standing behind her are in a frenzied exchange—

Oh my god, you were there? When Green Day set the stage on fire?—

Soul Asylum was amazing!

And the line-up this year? Rage Against the Machine. Stone Temple Pilots, Limp Bizkit—

Althea turns around, no point in pretending to be discreet, eyes the girls as they give her the once over. She figures them to be sixteen, give or take a year. Both have multiple ear piercings. The one with short, spiked black hair sports a nose ring.  She has a small tattoo, a rose, on the side of her neck. The neon redhead is decked out in safety pin bracelets and an eyebrow ring and fishnet stockings fashionably ripped.  Some of the names Althea hears are familiar, her daughter’s room a shrine of posters, the pretty boy bands she started with giving way to the edgier ones and, at the center of it all, the heartthrob, Jesse DuFresne, lead guitar and vocals, Vagrants No More.

The line snakes around the block now, everyone here for the same thing, a chance to be up close (if not personal) with living rock stars, a signed copy of their new CD plus the cherry on the Charlotte Russe, first dibs at tickets to their kick-off show, Roseland.  The sale/signing will not begin until 4 p.m., i.e., so that any fans who haven’t cut school will (theoretically) be on equal footing with those who have fooled their parents with uncharacteristic rise-and-shine esprit that had them heading straight to the city once the school bus was out of sight.  With Julie home, sick in bed, Althea is aware that her presence here is as much a hedge as it is a bargain. Had Julie not been moaning with fever, she’d be groaning:  It sucks so much that they’re doing this on a weekday. Whining: Punish me, I don’t care if it’s a school day, ground me—whatever—I’m going to the signing.

A bout of strep has a way of changing everything, except for the delirium at the heart of it. Whining becomes tears, which becomes begging, which becomes more whining:

Oh please oh please oh please—you have to go get the CD. For me.

 You have to get concert tickets. For me and you. My friends think you’re the coolest mom.

Flattery will get you everywhere.

There are worse things than being an enabler.

Althea is startled, the vibrating phone. Julie wants to know everything.

“Nothing much to tell  . . . yet.  Still in line here.”

“See if you can get a picture . . . when you get close to the table where they’re signing CDs.”

“What?”

“You don’t have to be embarrassed, Mom.”

Althea rolls her eyes, it’s enough that I’m here, don’t push me. She glances at her watch. Ten to four. The line starts to inch forward. “Gotta go.”

“Not that I’m a stranger to waiting in line,” she says. To no one. Or anyone who will listen. She directs herself to the girls, instant friends once she tells them about the first rock concert with Julie, the Beach Boys at Jones Beach, a safe bet for a ten-year-old.  After that came Jingle Ball, her daughter’s choice.

“You went to a concert with your daughter?” Althea has moved from oddity as an old(er) woman in line to a mother now up a notch on the scale of cool.  “My mother would never take me to a concert in a million years.” 

She tells them about the night decades earlier when she found herself up all night, a Hot Tuna  (she is caught off-guard, a smirk that gets the best of her, what kind of name is that?) concert at the Fillmore East in which they announced tickets would go on sale the very next day, the Grateful Dead. Who would want to go home? 

They do their best, polite listeners, charcoal eyes cast this way and that, too cool to be really interested in stories about dinosaur rock bands.

Later, home, Julie yelps with joy when Althea shows her the concert tickets. She wants to hear everything.  Not much to tell, says Althea. A couple of vagrants scribbling on CDs. One who flashes a very big smile.

 

 

 

 

 “So, you think Springsteen’s gonna join them onstage?” He sidles up next to her, this man with the shiny white hair long enough to keep him convinced that youth is never really wasted (except when it is), and what is wasted time if not time well spent?  “Though that wouldn’t be much of a stretch, would it?—Jersey boys honoring one of their own. He downs his pale golden drink, sucks on an ice cube. “Simon and Garfunkel—now that would be something. Queens boys of a certain age, and style, mashing it up with these toddlers from Bayonne.”

Before Althea can even bring herself to respond, a girl walks up to him, taps her finger on the face of her wristwatch, Swatch. A promise is a promise, and hers was to check in with her father at timed intervals. Her eyes dart back and forth between her father and Althea, the sting of curiosity narrowing them; there’s only so much light she’s willing to let in.

 “My daughter,” he says when she disappears back into the swell of the crowd. As if Althea might mistake her for anyone else. His sigh is a giveaway, they grow up so fast. “Hates her mother. Still pissed at me for losing the joint custody battle.” ‘You’re a lawyer, Dad, you should be able to get whatever you want.’ Real estate law is whole different animal from divorce law, I try to tell her. ‘Well, then, what am I if not a property not all that different from an apartment or a house?’ Pretty savvy kid, don’t you think?”

Too much information from a stranger, is all Althea can manage to think. And too close for comfort, the open space near the bar, their vantage point, now spilling over with sweaty teenagers guzzling beer and downing shots, no accounting for taste when all it takes is being in the good graces of one friend and his/her fake I.D. “You married?”

Althea nods. “My husband doesn’t like loud music . . . unless it’s you know who—The Boss.” Her smile is a wink.

“And you like this music?”

“Some of it.”

He doesn’t believe her, his eyebrows—seriously—rising sharply, twin arches.  Asks her to name songs. The ones she likes.

She could easily do that, throw him a bone.  Except those twin arches, and that sneer of a smile, cue her to the setup. He will never be satisfied until she tells him what he wants to hear.  Instead of the bone, she throws a curve. “Why are you here?”

“The illusion I’m living under.”

Or did he say delusion? It’s so noisy now, she can’t be sure.

“The illusion that I can keep my daughter from the wolves.”

 He insists on buying Althea a drink. “Just say yes?” he winks. Next to them, boys in a football huddle, a clever if not barely masked excuse for discretion in this no-smoke zone.

“Tell the truth —” he clinks his glass against hers, “it’s that oath you swore, never sound like your mother—‘what kind of crap are you listening to’?”

“Maybe I just want to keep a door open—try to appreciate something I might not otherwise even consider.”

Nothing more sobering than Julie flying past her, to the bar, she needs a Coke. The man with the white hair (he has a name now, Kevin) nods. Julie barely notices.

“Looks like you,” he says to Althea.

 “She’s light years ahead of me.”

“Your point.”

“She loves this music. And she’s not high.”

“Not yet,” he says, excusing himself. “Save my spot.”

The lights dim, Vagrants No More scramble to the stage. She pictures Julie up front, moon-eyed.

A mosh pit forms.

She keeps a watchful distance, her heart in another circle, parents between a prayer and a helicopter wing sput-sput-sputtering overhead.

The  mosh pit intensifies, bodies thumping, a dance as primal as it gets.

Althea moves a little closer, who ever was really killed by curiosity? Further in a girl is being lifted up, high above the crowd. Passed along like a surfboard.  Who would want to do that?

She gets a look at the girl’s face, the hint of her father in it.

Kevin returns, reeking of pot, the new breed of stoner parents, don’t ask and I won’t tell.

He taps Althea on the shoulder. “Did I miss anything?”

 

III.

You can’t always get what you want

 “Not so fast,” says Althea. “The night is still young.”  Jesse’s face, a joker of a smile, a mask only masks so much.

Eric Clapton never smiles.      

Bruce Springsteen’s smile can light up an arena.

In an instant the joker face goes poker, no expression except for what can be insinuated, by request. He wants her to sit in the chair near the window, leg propped up. He wants to picture her across the room.

Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?—

It’s all in the voice, no one knows that better than Jesse. Inflection is everything. Hearing is believing.

He starts whistling, And here’s to you . . .

Althea is amused. If he can’t see the smile on her face, maybe he can sense it. The whistling stops, his lips soften and twitch, a silent mating call.  Twin peaks, almost perfect in their angularity, the barest hint of dimples framing them.  A leopard after he gets his spots.

She gets up from the bed, goes to the chair. 

He starts whistling again. Pictures the leg up, the perfect angle, the exposed crotch. Maybe lace panties. Or a thong.

“Take them off,” he says. From the top of the world.

 

IV.

All the Small Things

She shouldn’t be doing this, she knows it. But it’s not as if Julie hid the diary away. She left it out, on her desk. Rushing (duh) for a change.

She traces the face on the cover, a Cheshire grin, whiskers beckoning like secret antenna to what’s inside.

She starts at the last entry, retrograde motion, days moving backward instead of forward in defiance of a journal’s logic. Reverse the curse.  Go back in time.

She should resist, she knows it, bow to the weight of morality, not be tempted by the crime, petty or not, she risks being accused of.  Or is it a crime when all you want is a clue, something worthy of Nancy Drew, the mystery of the missing girl, in this case the one disappearing inside of herself?

 

May 24, 2000

Oh, God, I was so close, like right up at the stage. Jesse looked right into my eyes, I know he did. He smiled. At me. I think he winked, too, but I can’t be sure. Anyway, if I can get this close, I know I can get closer. He’s only eight years older than me, which seems like a lot now but it’s really not. And I know he must think there’s something special about me. Why else would he have said at the last concert when he signed my tee-shirt– ‘Get rid of some of that baby fat and you’ll be a knockout.’?

 

Julie’s tight script, the roundness of her letters, brings Althea to tears.

 

March 24, 1999

I hate my body!!!

Can’t tell my mom, she’d just tell me there’s no one size fits all when it comes to bodies. What does she know anyway? She’s so skinny she’d never understand what it feels like to be me.

 

She resists imagining the next ten or twenty entries that will move the journal to its natural conclusion, no room for another word. So unlike any of Althea’s, maybe three-quarters filled before a pretty new journal would take its place.  Where is it written that a journal once started needed to be filled to the end? Maybe there was something to be said for leaving blank pages, time to move on, the white space at the end of a journal as important as whatever pocket of time it contained and compressed. Nothing like starting fresh.

Althea closes the diary, places it back on Julie’s desk.

 

V.

Just Like a Woman

A beach, silky sand, a mini-skirt, no underwear.

How could he have known?

“Seduce me,” her masked man pleads. “Do with me what you will. Only please-please-oh-please let me watch.”  

He leaps from the bed, on all fours now, inches his way toward Althea,  calculating her own next move on the fly as she watches her leopard, even more cocksure (sometimes banal is the only way to go) than he was when he flashed his may-I-join-you smile and sat himself down in the empty chair at the table she had maneuvered for herself, VIP lounge, Irving Plaza.  His pounce—wouldn’t take you for a Transplants fan—had her smiling.  Until the follow-up, with its Jesse DuFresne lilt—maybe you’ve heard of me?—the sound of which makes her jaw twitch, her blood boil.  His hand finds its way to hers. He is wearing a silver ring on his pointer finger. A skull.

Sometimes all it takes is a chance encounter to make things right. The Transplants were playing the song that had hooked her (“Sad but True”), her head was spinning, a typhoon, her heart pushed to its limits, no longer beating on its own, the music so loud—music she would never have listened to had it not been for her daughter, songs so filled with anger she can’t quite fathom what it is she likes about it. But she does. And now, Jesse DuFresne coming on to her, all charm and cheer, an invitation, his hotel room after the show.  He rubs his thumb along her wedding band, a wish of its own making. She plays along, coy, puts on her own brand of charm, tells him about the daughter who saved up money to buy her a ticket to the show before heading off to summer camp.  If she couldn’t be here, at least Althea should.  The waiter brings more drinks, Althea reaches into her purse, her wallet nestled beneath the mask.  Jesse does not let her pay. Sounds like you have a pretty cool kid.  The cat on her tongue, all tied up in a cradle of thought, Althea lets the cool silk of the mask between her fingers settle her.  Jesse is across a small table, saying something, but he might as well be across an ocean for all she hears. Sounds like you have a pretty cool kid. She sees Julie, her first year at camp, all of eleven, spooked by some mean girls, hundreds of miles from home. They told her it was the coolest thing, sneaking out for a night hike.  They blindfolded her, led her to a spot in the woods that felt much further than it actually was, left her. The mean girls were expelled from camp, the good ones got to stay. But the fear never really left. At least this year, her third summer away, she went willingly.  Maybe the good friends will help her see something her mother cannot. Maybe they’ll get her to eat.

Sounds like you have a pretty cool kid. They have left the club, heading uptown, his hotel, not the Chelsea but cool and hip and worthy of any rock star, even one who finds himself walking alongside a woman who happens to be a mother, who happens to have one thing and one thing only in mind: make him pay for the hurt he has caused.  

 

On his knees, no more pussyfooting around. If she won’t let him look, he’ll sniff his way toward her.

Althea’s eyes play tricks on her. A dolphin jumps. A leopard stalks. A swirl of rose petals bursts with Marie, so young so pretty so giddy with the positively sweet scent of him.

“Stop,” she coos. She calls him by the name she believes he wants to hear—Benjamin—reminds him the graduate has yet to receive his gift.

She will prolong his torture as long as she can.

She closes her eyes, to level the playing field (so she says), gives Jesse her best breathy voice.

 “Picture a beach, silky sand, a mini-skirt . . .”

She instructs him to listen. Closely. To the brush of lace slipping between her thighs. To the swirl of her fingers, a clamshell prying itself open.

No pouncing, no more pussyfooting, Jesse knows a now-or-never moment when it’s in his face.  He’s on his belly now, slithering, as smooth as a stealth bomber.  His lips, those perfect twin peaks, know just where they’re headed. 

Althea doesn’t move, kisses as soft and rhythmic as a percussion brush making their way up the inside of her thigh.  She sees rose petals, positively sweet. Hears a roar, the ocean. A sigh.

Another sigh becomes a cry becomes a silent scream.

 How could she not see it coming?

She opens her eyes, removes his mask.

“Show is over,” she says. “Time to tell.”

 

 

“You can’t blame me.” Jesse is pissed, sure, but wtf, easy come/easy go. He is already thinking of a song to write, Rocker Mom’s Revenge.  

Blame?  She’s played that game. The husband blaming the wife for all the motherly I-love-you-the-way-are talks. The wife blaming the husband for taking his role as soccer coach a little too seriously.  You run, you exercise, you lose weight, It’s as simple as that.  How little he really understood about girls.

All she wanted was to teach him a lesson, desire for desire’s sake, nothing more.

Her cell phone vibrates.

“Can’t ignore it,” says Jesse, buttoning his shirt.

“Yes I can.”

He reaches into her purse, pulls out the phone.

“If nothing else a photo.” He positions the camera, his arm around Althea. “For your daughter.”