Work-in-Progress

Hat in Hand

Raw, first draft work from Dawn of the Summertons, a novel-in-progress (posted November 19, 2012)

Reggie sat in the small alcove waiting to meet with Stuart Worthington. The room was only about ten feet long and six feet wide. It wasn’t much bigger than a closet. The walls were dull gold hue except for the front wall which, besides the door, was almost entirely made up of an opaque, smoked glass window, letting in the December light ever so carefully. A large digital television hung on the wall above two chairs lining the wall opposite the door.

Upon entering the room he’d gone to the small window in the wall directly opposite the door. He could see the face of a woman through the glass, peering at a computer screen. The window was only about a ten-inch square. He saw at the top that there was what looked like a small speaker and a button like a doorbell.

He stood waiting for several minutes watching the woman. All he could see was the top of her face, her hair, and the back of her computer screen. Finally, he tapped on the glass. The woman’s eyes seemed to register the sound, but did not look up. He waited. She had grey eyes and fine eyebrows. He liked her high forehead and curly hair. He thought she might be in her early sixties, but it was hard to tell. Her skin was smooth. She wore glasses.

He pushed the button near the speaker. The woman seemed to jump a little. She looked up at the window, squinted, then pushed a button on the top of her desk. “Yes?” He said, “Reggie Summerton here to see Mr. Worthington.” She blinked several times but kept her gaze down, staring at her desk. Eventually she pushed her button again. “Is someone out there?” He smiled and waved. Her expression didn’t change. Her eyes remained downturned. She pushed the button again. “Excuse me,” she said, “if there is someone out there, please use the button to speak.” She sat back in her chair and waited. Reggie pushed the button.

“Hello. I’m sorry. Reggie Summerton here for Mr. Worthington.”

“Is he expecting you?”

“Um…I believe so. I set up a meeting with him for today last Thursday and confirmed it last night in an email.”

The woman seemed to do something with her hands, then she looked at the computer screen. “Ah. Yes. Mr. Summerton. Excuse me.” She turned her face fully towards the opening in the wall. All of a sudden she appeared to be very happy. It seemed to Reggie that he’d seen her around on Germantown Avenue shopping over the years. “Please have a seat. Mr. Worthington will be with you shortly.”

As he stepped back toward his chair, it occurred to him that an apology was in order first thing to Stuart Worthington. He’d made a rather memorable buy – an acrylic landscape of a bridge in North Philadelphia called “The Bridge of Time,” with industrial architecture fading into the distance and a pile of discarded rubber tires in the right corner at the base of the bridge. Worthington had proudly declared that he had a steal and that it was a small investment in a great up and coming artist. This was where the apology was necessary. Twyla had never become the next big thing. She’d focused on being a mom for the next ten years. Not that she’d given up her career, but with three kids to raise, she’d only been able to produce a few finished works a year.

Twyla had certainly enjoyed Worthington’s attention, but worked hard to remain as casual and accepting of his praise as she could without seeming arrogant or unsurprised. In her early days, she’d watched several mentors make five-figure sales, acting as if it was a normal and expected element of their weekly business dealings. Advice from one of them, Royal Sheraton, was simple enough: “No artist is prepared for people actually giving them what they ask for. Anytime someone drops a big check on you, the only thing that’s possible is to fake it. Act like this is the norm and you are used to cashing in $20,000 for a painting or sculpture that you know is not even your best work.”

Reggie recalled as well that Worthington had required the giving of his check over lunch at The Palm in Center City and that he was a bit overly enthusiastic about Twyla in general. There was nothing to worry about on her end, but Reggie had been clear with himself anyway that he would not bring up the issue with his wife. Twyla Summerton was indeed attractive, with her thick black hair, caramel skin, wide set brown eyes and full lips. Her youthful body had filled out after giving birth to three children, accentuating her hips and shoulders and somehow highlighting her high-cheeked mixed lineage femininity. More than anything, Twyla had always possessed rare grace and obliviousness to her beauty, the kind that was absent-minded and forgetful more than ignorant, a form of vulnerability that drew wealthy, over-educated men to her, men who thought themselves worldly and discriminating. Stuart Worthington appeared to be that kind of man.

Reggie did not point any of this out to his wife. He knew it would annoy her to hear his judgment. She would deny that Worthington had made such an intimation anyway. Reggie knew as well that any voiced observation would just make his wife self-conscious and sensitive to every little quirk and nuance of her lunch partner’s behavior. He wanted her to have a good meal and a nice chat with a rich guy and to accept her check when the time came with no sense of impropriety beyond the words of wisdom she had learned from her teachers. It was a check for $13,000. Stanley, the owner of the gallery, had priced the work lovingly. “I know good when I see it, sister!” he’d said. Reggie agreed. She’d worked on that piece for nearly two years trying to find the right angle and the proper tone of shadow and sky. It was an old railroad bridge, long since abandoned by SEPTA and Amtrak, seen from the R8 line on the edge of North Philadelphia running parallel to the current tracks. A section of rail extended out one side, six or eight yards worth, hovering over the overgrowth below, running into nowhere. It was as if the railroad companies had just stopped building one day and walked away, leaving the rail suspended in the direction of a world they had all of a sudden decided shouldn’t happen. Beneath the bridge, once hidden, but for years now quite blatantly dumped, were hundreds of automobile tires and several slowly growing piles for black plastic bags filled no doubt with household discards. Feral cats sometimes sunned themselves on the extended track sticking out from the bridge above the trash piles. In the winter, careful watch as the train ambled by could pick up a fox or buzzards hopping around, sometimes a raven or even red-tailed hawk. It is the animals that made the work so special. Rather than actually painting in a creature or two, Twyla carefully shaded and curled in the right lines and faint hues of almost glistening fur and feathers in the most suggestive and non-specific way she could in order to hint not so much at animals being present in the photo as their spirits having been there long ago.

As with some of her other paintings, she couldn’t help building in the fundamental question that bothered her about art and literature. To her, though she knew rationally it didn’t make any sense, what she painted was as actualized and fundamental as that same thing in the so-called real world. When the children were young, she’d enjoyed playing the game of “What is Real?” with them by pointing as they drove in the car, declaring that something she had painted just walked by or could be seen in a store window. Not only did the children believe her, before long they saw the objects created by their mother on canvas themselves. “The Bridge of Time” was perhaps her most defined version of this game. It was also a powerful statement to her self that the game of “What is Real?” would one day end and the mind and heart of their mother would be willing to let her children move on into the realm of the unfooled and the tamed.

Most certainly, Worthington would recall Twyla’s last name and make the connection to Reggie. “T. Summerton” rested at an angle in the right-hand corner of every one of her paintings. They’d heard the piece was on a wall in the atrium at the back of Worthington’s property with only two others in the room. The thirteen grand had paid down the Summerton MasterCard and the remainder went to a family trip to Florida.

The phone next to Reggie rang. It was a black Merlin IT&T from the early 1980s – the phone with the original pulse signal bleep as opposed to the jangle ring they’d all grown up with. The phone kept bleeping. He looked to the small window in the wall. Was he supposed to answer? He stood and peered through the small window. Worthington’s secretary had a phone set on her head and seemed to be waiting. She smiled at him, then extended her thumb and pinky and put the thumb to her ear, mouthing what he realized was, “Pick up….” She held her mouth open with her eyebrows raised, unmistakable happiness on her face.

He raised the Merlin to his ear standing in the small alcove with cool gray light swarming the tile at his feet. “Hello?”

“Mr. Summerton?”

“Yes?”

“Mr. Worthington will see you now. Would you be so kind as to hang up then wait until you here the door click? When you hear the click, you will have nine seconds to turn the knob and open the door.”

“All right…” he waited. He couldn’t tell if she’d hung up. “Um, hello?”

“Yes? Hello?”

“Is there anything else?”

“No. I’m waiting for you to hang up. Your light needs to go from green to red for me in here, watching the phone console.”

“Oh. Well, then. I’m hanging up.” He waited another second, then said, “Goodbye.”

“Please hang up, Mr. Summerton.”

Reggie closed his eyes and wondered if he had said something wrong, then wondered what kind of meeting he was in for. He hung up. As soon as the phone came to rest in its cradle he heard the door click. Stepping quickly, he put his palm to the knob, turned it and pushed.

He expected to finally be face-to-face with the secretary, but upon opening the door found that he was instead standing in a long hallway. The walls were some sort of  dark plywood. The floor was tiled in an off-white, maybe an ivory color, there seemed to be an element of yellow, but it was hard to tell under the fluorescent lights fitted into soffits in the corner where the left wall met the ceiling. At the end of the hallway was a glass door. Worthington Foundation was written in large, gilded letters.

Stuart Worthington wore a headphone and microphone as he rose from his desk. Reggie was slightly taken aback when Worthington came around his desk with both arms raised. “Mr. Twyla Summerton!” Worthington more sang than said. “So good to see you again!” and with that exclamation, He wrapped his arms around Reggie’s shoulders and pulled him in tight.

“It’s been so long! How are you? It’s Reggie, right? Sorry, but I just think the world of you wife!” Worthington said all of this loudly in Reggie’s ear as he extended his hug. Finally, he stepped back, hands still resting on Reggie’s shoulders. “How is Twyla! My gosh. It’s got to have been nearly ten years! I look at The Bridge every night when I’m watching TV and think about your fabulous talented wife. It’s been so long! How is she?”

“She sends her regards,” Reggie managed, holding his ground, wondering with a degree of alarm whether Stuart Worthington might after all be someone who could help them. He sniffed the air, searching for the scent of alcohol or even marijuana, but all he smelled was the tang of Worthington’s breath and body scent and the faint smell of Murphy’s Oil Soap.

“Ah, well. It’s been quite a long time. I must have you two over to see The Bridge. What a painting. So inspiring! So Philadelphia. You know what I mean?” His host stepped back and looked over Reggie’s shoulder. “Have a seat, Reggie.” he motioned to the leather couch on the wall behind Reggie.

“Did Ellie offer you any tea or coffee?” he asked. Reggie shook his head and said no.

“Well, that’s not like her,” Worthington replied seriously. “Maybe some bottled water? Would you like a water?” He looked at Reggie with excitement, then stood and went back to his desk. Pushing a button on a control panel, he adjusted the microphone on his head set, “Ellie! Yes! Ellie? Could you bring two waters please? What? Yes, now. No. Now. What?” He closed his eyes. “Ellie, I would just like you to bring us some water.” He pushed the button on his controls again and shook his head. “I love that woman!” He moved back around his desk and sat again on the couch.

“She’s bringing us water right now,” Worthington said.

“That’s great,” Reggie replied. “This is quite an office,” he added. The floor was covered in a thick orange Persian rug. On the walls hung movie posters – Reggie guessed for movies from the 1960s. Another wall seemed to be a smart board of some kind. The final wall held numerous framed photographs. These were hard to make out in detail, but they seemed to be of Worthington through the years standing with famous people. He thought he could make out Nixon in one shot, possibly John Wayne in another.

“Why, thank you. I like to keep it up to date but also aesthetically pleasing. Comfortable you know? Not so much for me as for, well, for people who come visit. Like you!” He said these last two words with great enthusiasm.

“I imagine people appreciate it,” Reggie said. “I certainly do.”

“Well, thanks, Reggie,” Worthington said. He tapped his thigh several times then looked nervously at the glass door. “Where is she? We just want water. Please!” His eyes moved from the door to Reggie, who was beginning to feel a little bit beyond uncomfortable.

“Here she comes!” Worthington leaped from the couch and took two almost dance-like steps across the office to the door. Reggie could see the woman standing on the other side of the glass.

“Ellie! Thank you so much. We needed these.” Worthington stood staring at his secretary as she handed him the bottles, waiting, possibly, for her to speak. Then he took a step forward, wrapped his arm around the woman’s waist and pulled her close to him. It looked like he was nuzzling her neck, but he could have been whispering to her. It was a distinctly sexual move, Reggie thought, or at the very least suggestive. He looked away at the round table before him covered in magazines and several thick, stapled reports.

There was quiet whispering and then Worthington was back on the couch, holding the bottled water. “Here,” he said, holding the bottles out for Reggie.

“Well, I think I’ll have one,” Reggie said. “Aren’t you going to have one?”

“No. These are for you. I don’t like water.”

Reggie took both bottles. He placed one on a magazine on the table and opened the other.

“She’s my wife,” Worthington said.

“Oh, really?”

“Well, she’s my cousin, but I call her my wife.”

Reggie concentrated on the bottle on the table.

“Ellie and I grew up together.”

Reggie nodded seriously and took a drink from his bottle.

“So…” Worthington began.

Reggie brought his gaze back to his host.

“So, what can I do you for?” Worthington asked, clapping his hands together.

As he began to tell the story, Reggie wondered if he should just gloss over things and get out as quickly as possible, but something grabbed ahold of him. It may have been the way Worthington listened. As he explained the Summerton family’s situation, obscure and somewhat eccentric behavior aside, an interesting look came to the man’s face, as if he were waiting to be told important information that would lead him to a solution. As he listened to Reggie, his eyes traveled from his guest’s face to the ceiling, the magazines on the table, the glass door, the floor and back to the speaker’s face. This eye movement by no means meant that Worthington was not paying attention, rather, by the slow and steady shifting of his gaze, Reggie could tell his listener was paying careful attention and that he wanted to know as much as possible.

So Reggie gave a full explanation, admitting as much as he could to bad decisions and wrong-headed thinking. He admitted to taking on far too much debt, that they were trying to simply cover the essential costs they couldn’t meet any other way. The children’s education had been paramount. And sometimes the mortgage, well, there was so much and it was true they hadn’t stayed within a reasonable budget. He saw that now. And maybe they did need to figure out how to do a better job for Twyla, but she was more concerned about getting her work right than s with making money. It seemed kind of weird, actually, to Twyla thinking about her art as income. He acknowledged at this point in the discussion Worthington’s faith in her years ago, but explained the parenting dilemma.

He had no idea how Worthington was taking any of this in. He also had no idea why he was being so candid and open. But Worthington was, it seemed, most certainly listening. Reggie explained the whole takeover of The Inquirer from the inside. He thought that Worthington would be interested. He also felt the dirt, if that’s what it was, would be some kind of offering, some confidence maybe that might make his request more palatable.

He finished, describing the dilemma and the problem ultimately of paying for school and the house. It couldn’t be done. Not the way things had fallen for them. Not the way their cash flow was working out.

Stuart Worthington took off his headset, unclipped the transmitting unit from his belt and placed the whole contraption on a National Geographic lying on the table. “So, Twyla is now the bread winner? At least for the moment.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way, but, yes, I guess so.”

“You all have put yourself in quite a pickle.”

“Yes.”

Worthington snorted, then shook his head. “I have to tell you, I find it hard to read the paper these days.”

“I think that’s true of many people.”

“Yes, well … my problem is that so much is ignored or, I don’t know, the coverage can be so irrelevant.”

“How do you mean?”

“This pickle of yours, for instance. We live a life so much different than much of the country. You’re not here because you lost your job. You’re here because you can’t pay your bills. At the top of your family budget you have private school for three wonderful, bright, intelligent children. You can’t send them to public school, of course…”

“It’s tough.”

“Yes. Tough. But how often do you read about this problem in the paper? Never. You all write endlessly about the dilemma of fixing the public schools and getting enough funding for them. Sometimes we read about the struggles of the Archdiocese, but never do we read about the difficulty of paying for private schools like Woodlands Friends or The Woodland School.”

“That’s true.”

“I’m sorry if I sound frustrated, but I’ve been through it. And so many people who come in my door go through it, too. No one gives a farthing for the elite, and I suppose that’s part of the problem with being in the elite, but still. I don’t care if you’re a millionaire here in Chestnut Hill. Paying $65,000 a year for your kids to go to school is a choice, but it’s still a burden.”

“We could have chosen to live in Havertown or in Cherry Hill, I suppose,” said Reggie. “They have good public schools out there.”

“I know. We all could have. Maybe we should have. But then we wouldn’t live here. I love it here. My family, you know, has lived here for nearly 140 years.”

“I’ve heard that.”

“And that’s why I’m here still. And it’s why I do what I do. I don’t have to, you know.”

“I’m well aware of that, Stuart. I’ve followed your work since we moved to the area in the late eighties.”

“And that’s why you’re here now.”

“Well, yes, I suppose…”

“I’m going to level with you, Reggie. I wouldn’t recommend staying in your house any longer than another few weeks. And I don’t know how you’re going to deal with it, but you can’t send three kids to private school anymore. If what you say is true, you’re going to be able to get a job, but it won’t be paying ninety-six thousand. Editors for the smaller papers I know of make around forty or fifty. Twyla maybe can pick up the slack, but her kind of business takes years to develop. I’m sure I would buy a few more of her works but, quite frankly, I don’t have much more wall space at my house. If you get out from under that mortgage and you do something about school, well, you may have a shot at rebuilding. But, well, I have to tell you, you really screwed the pooch, my friend. Not to be offensive you understand, but you’ve been fooling yourselves for a long time, just kind of rolling along. Lots of folks have been doing that. It’s a big reason why everything has gone to pot. You can only be part of the elite if you can pay your way. Credit and wishful thinking only go so far.”

Reggie’s only response to this at the time was to nod and stare at the floor. It felt oddly liberating to have Worthington upbraid him this way. But he felt his temple twitching as well, the soft part that had bothered him on and off for a few weeks. Something felt like it was happening, it was hard to say.

“I really do not want to offend you, hear, Reggie,” Worthington went on. “It’s just that sometimes I feel like it’s my duty to just call things the way I see them. You’re not the first to come in here with this situation. It makes me sad. You seem like a good man. And I love your wife. She’s a peach. But, well ….”

Worthington stood up and went to a file cabinet in the corner of the room. He pulled open the top drawer and leafed through files. “Here it is.”

Returning to the couch, he sat down and opened the folder he’d removed. There were only a few sheets of paper inside.

“We don’t have much property available right now, as you can imagine, Reggie, but, well, this may do the trick for you. I just bought it in a Sheriff’s sale. It’s in Mt. Airy, mind you, and quite old, probably drafty as hell now that winter is setting in. I know the heat works. We’ve had it on for the past three weeks. They’re doing some work on the roof and with the plumbing, so some of the walls are ripped up. I’m getting quotes from electrical contractors, too. It’s big. Probably bigger than you want, but…” He handed the folder to Reggie and sat back. “Quite honestly, you will be doing me a favor here as much as I may be doing you one. Look on the second page at the photo. That is the old Truthman Lodge down on Dupree in Germantown. It was built before the Civil War. Do you know the Truthmans? They were a Quaker family that started the Strathly House, the first home for widowed veterans’ wives back in the early patriot days. Truthman Lodge was the same idea only it was for certain elderly couples who had nowhere else to go. By certain, I mean elderly black people – servants of Quaker families back then.”

Reggie read through the file quickly. He recalled hearing about the Truthmans in research he’d done on city council and early leaders in Philadelphia history.

“The lodge was also part of the Underground Railroad,” Worthington went on. “Philadelphia, of course, was the end of the road for most escaped slaves, but sometimes there was still a need to hide people and at Truthman they blended in fairly easily.”

“It looks like an old time hotel,” Reggie managed.

“Yes, well, I’m not sure how we’re going to re-invent the property yet, but, like I say, you will be helping me out immensely. I need someone to live there and keep the place from being over-run, if you know what I mean.”

Reggie was about to ask how much, but Worthington continued. “In these situations I work on year-to-year. If you’re willing to take this on, you can live there through 2011 rent and utilities free.” He paused here for effect.

Reggie tilted his head and nodded affirmatively.

“And, quite frankly, if it works out, I’d be inclined to think you have at least another year there before we know what we want to do with the property. So … well …”

“Stuart, I don’t know what to say.”

“Say yes, Mr. Summerton. I really mean what I say: you are doing me a favor more than the other way around. I just hope you can figure out how to get back on your feet. A man’s got to take care of his family.

“I don’t care if this is the 21st century, women can be as professional and important as they want to be, but for us it’s part of our fluids. It’s chemical, isn’t it? Our job is to take care of those we love. Take care of my new property and you’re halfway there. A couple years and maybe a new job, you’ll be on your feet again. It’s all good, Reggie. All good. Oh, and while we’re at it, let me know when Twyla’s got her next show. I imagine I still love her work.”

From “The Litter Entries”

By Ron Tarver

Photo Credit: Ron Tarver, Philadelphia Inquirer

June 21, 2011

I have two forest-green tee shirts with the letters “CCT” on the front and back. Earlie Pointer assigned me to park sanitation duties the other day. I also wear a small gold badge pinned to my left sleeve about the size of a dime. Earlie is a Street Sweeping Crew Chief for the City-wide Clean Team (CCT), He is badge #0031. I am badge #1174. That tells me a lot about this job. (I offer that only as an indication of my awareness of the history of park sanitation).

LOVE Park is my beat, across the street from the Municipal Services Building and catty-corner to City Hall. LOVE Park is right smack dab in the middle of everything in Philadelphia. You know this maybe, but I write that to illustrate another kind of awareness which is both geographical and spatial. I intend to take my job seriously. Quite frankly, I never knew anything about keeping a park clean. No one thinks about life on that level.

June 22, 2011

English: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA Españ...

Earlie Pointer declared to us at lunch today that LOVE Park is a jewel in Philly’s crown, but he also said it’s not officially called LOVE Park. The nickname comes from the statue of the word “LOVE” that sits at the park’s east corner. The real name is JFK Plaza. When I stand staring at the word LOVE with the O swung sideways, a fountain behind the words sprays water soaring into the background and the gaping city sky. Beyond the fountain is Ben Franklin Parkway, which looks like a river fed by that fountain the way the sight line runs. The Art Museum sits on a hill at the end of the Parkway with its Rocky steps. Jean Brown who was in my training class was assigned as the sanitation specialist in the Art Museum area. Earlie told her she’s got more space than I do but less people who spend the day. He told her for some reason the Rocky tourists don’t litter much.

LOVE Park is a funny name. We are the City of Brotherly Love. That’s why the word makes sense vaulted there on a rack, floating and kind of like a talisman to everyone who looks at it. But the park is not such a loving place. Sanitation means dealing with trash and litter. I picked up 76 magazines and sections of newspaper today. I also picked up 37 plastic bags blowing around, 2 half-eaten hoagies still in their wrappers, 103 plastic beverage containers, 19 Styrofoam™ salad clamshells, and 201 cigarette butts. I didn’t happen to count the clothes, nor the shoes. These are left by all the homeless people in the park when human services arrives with bags of new clothes. I also picked up three empty pizza boxes.

June 25, 2011

Today was hotter than yesterday. It’s easy to see how people hate the homeless. The homeless really don’t care about cleaning up after themselves. That’s probably a perc of not having a home. A few old men play chess, shirtless in the heat. A group plays cards in the shade. Two junkies lie together strung out on a bench in another shade patch – a man and a woman spooning on a wood bench in my park. He is unshaven, with long hair straggling off the back of his otherwise bald head; she has a severe gap between her two top front teeth, wears pink polyester pants and is braless in a Tee shirt that says Coca-Cola The Real Thing in faded red letters.

Every once in a while the man adjusts behind her on their bench and slips his hand under her shirt. I see him playing with one of her breasts. Two spent sacks of McDonalds lie on the ground next to them. I don’t know if this is their’s or not, so I don’t move to pick it up. They’re junkies because yesterday I watched them score whatever it is they put in themselves at this same bench. They gave each other double high-fives and kind of danced around a little, then they started making out to the point where sex was inevitable. I turned away. A few other people did, too. Now they are strung out sleeping.

June 27, 2011

A short black woman with bucked teeth and a crew cut of copper colored hair wandered up to me this afternoon. She wore a seersucker frock and carried yellow rubber thongs in her hand. I expected her to ask for some kind of help or even beg for money.

“You do a nice job, boy.”

I looked at her, realizing I had a broom in one hand and was wearing my forest-green shirt with the badge on the sleeve.

“Thanks.”

“I got nothing for you…”

“That’s okay.”

She put her hand to her chin and looked from side to side.

“I can give you a nice blow job? I take me teeth out.” She put her right thumb and forefinger in her mouth and removed her teeth. “See?”

“I’m fine.”

“My name is Mary. I been watching you,” she said. “It’s pretty good when they ain’t no teeth in there.” She put her index finger in her mouth and raised her eye brows.

Mary is perhaps in her late thirties but her face is weathered and aged into her late fifties.

“Sorry. I’ve got a girl friend.” I offered this excuse as politely as my embarrassment would allow.

“I didn’t say I’d fuck you honey. That’s different.”

“All the same…”

“Well, I tried,” she said as she walked away. “Just wanted to show my gratitude.” She sat down next to a trash bin I’d just emptied looking down at her teeth and began to cry.

<snip>

Excerpt from Dawn of the Summertons

Wading through the shimmer, she quickly grasped the edges of the next drapes and spread them wide with one stroke. Then another set, and another. She seemed so far away. Reggie blinked each time as the room seemed to be lit now by a white fire.

Twyla continued down the line of windows. He counted sixteen sets of curtains. She laughed and he noticed for the first time that he could see her breath.

“Reggie?”

He shook his head and felt whatever it was roll back and forth.

“Reggie? Are you okay?” She was a long, long way away standing on the table the workers used. Paper sacks and soda cups hid her feet.

“Reggie?”

Was he supposed to respond? What was happening to him?

“Hello! Reg? Earth to Reginald Summerton!”

He swallowed again, shook his head back and forth quickly checking to see if he could still detect the loose body, then said, quite loudly, “Twenty-four!”

“What?”

“Twenty-four! Windows! Twenty-four windows.”

“And a fireplace or two,” she said, pointing at the back wall. “Four fireplaces in one room? That’s crazy. One on either end, and then the two back there. Where’s the wood pile?”

“I think there’s something in the back,” he called to her. “Can’t remember. But we can ask the workers whether they know where to get more wood. What’s it called, again? A skid? A … um, what?. A cord. That’s it.”

“I always think about pianos when I hear that term,” she said. “Cut wood kind of looks like piano keys. I’d think about a piano made with raw wood keys or even popsicle sticks. All of that came because I thought when they said cord that they really meant a musical chord. You know?” She waited for his laugh.

“Do you suppose,” he said, finally. “that we heat this area just with the fireplace?”

“There’s radiators,” she said, again pointing to the back wall and then over in between windows.

She stepped down from the table. “This is what they call a great room, right? Emphasis on great.” She extended her arms out in front of her and staggered towards her husband. “Great!” she said, dodging furniture and walking like a drunken Frankenstein.

He needed to concentrate in order to respond. “Sure seems like this would be something great,” he said. “But it’s gonna break the bank to Christmas this up.”

Twyla stopped in the center of the room and put both of her fists on her hips. He knew the excitement on her face too well. Life with an artist was really about life with a project manager. She had stopped directly under the center chandelier. Her arms floating off her hips, spread wide, she rotated slowly in a circle.

“We’re going to be okay, Reggie. We’re okay. A little trip to Salvation Army, maybe some other thrift shops down Chelten Avenue and deeper into Germantown. We can handle this. The only thing we’re really going to need to shell money out for is trees.”

“Trees? Plural?”

“Yes. I want one in the entryway, one in the kitchen and at least two out here in between the chandeliers. See? In the middle of the middle of the room. It will be so beautiful.”

“We don’t need to spend that much on trees.”

“Oh yes we do. This joint has twenty-foot ceilings. We’re heading out to Chester County. I want two giants for in here and then two, I don’t know, maybe ten or twelve footers for the entryway and kitchen?”

“We’re going to need stands, then, also.”

“Yes. We’ll need stands. Maybe they’ve got some here. We’re going to need to check. Maybe in the basement? Do you think there’s an attic? Maybe the workers know what we could do.”

From the hallway he heard the familiar sound. He knew the feet were socked and that the person had been up for awhile. And he knew they would have donut sugar all over their chin and upper lip, possibly their nose.

“Daddy?”

As he turned, he said, “Well, well. Good morning Apple. I see you found the donuts. Turns out they grow them here in the backyard.”

“Daddy.”

“That one you have was the best one I picked. In the garden. The donut garden.”

“Daddy.”

“What?”

“It was in a Dunkin’ Donuts box.”

“That’s the way the instructions say you’re supposed to pick them. See, it’s not really like you’re picking them, it’s more like you have to capture them. They’re garden donuts, but they have legs and sometimes try to run away. I had to wait for sunrise. If you hold the box just right, they jump in. You have to smack the lid down hard and knock them unconscious.”

His daughter closed her eyes and shook her head back and forth, pursing her lips, then, with her eyes still closed, she arched her eyebrows. Finally, opening her eyes, she said, “Daddy, you can be such a dummy sometimes.”

“A dummy?”

“I’m sorry to tell you.”

He frowned.

“Don’t be sad, Daddy.”

“But you called me a dummy.”

“That’s because everyone knows that donuts grow on trees.”

“On trees?”

“Yes. And if you just make an owl sound…Hoot Hoo, Hoot Hoo. They drop right off when they’re ready and climb right into the box.”

He looked to see if she was going to giggle, but she held her ground. He could feel Twyla watching. He felt her smile in the air. Where had that feeling gone, the loose thing had disappeared it seemed.

“Come here, sweetie,” he said to his daughter and lowered himself to one-knee with his arms out. Bess, still dressed in a night gown with heavy rag wool socks, scampered across the floor into his arms.

“Where are your brother and sister?” he asked.

“Kristin is in her room reading. I brought her a donut on a napkin. And Lester is still sleeping.”

“Lester is still sleeping?”

“You know Lester.”

“Yes. I know Lester. But I also know that if we put a donut right in front of his nose on the bed he’ll wake up.”

He stood as she giggled at this. Twyla was still standing a good twenty feet away, hands on her hips, watching her husband and younger daughter.

“Good morning, mommy.”

“Hi sweetie.”

“This is a weird house.”

Twyla smiled and nodded. “Yes. It used to be a hotel and then it was some kind of retreat and then it was a boarding house.”

“A retreat? Where you go to get away from your enemies?”

“Well, kind of. But more like a place where you and other people can go to discuss very important matters.”

“Like you’re retreating from the whole world,” Reggie added.

“Can the whole world be your enemy?” Bess asked.

Her parents looked at each other.

“Well, retreating from the world isn’t quite like that,” Twyla finally said. “You know how I like to go into my studio and not be bothered?”

Bess nodded and blinked, then rubbed her cheek against her father’s whiskery face.

“Well, that’s a special kind of retreat, too. Everyday I kind of retreat into my own little world.”

“Are you going to do that here? In this room?”

“I don’t know,” her mother said, now moving towards her husband and daughter.

“There’s an upstairs. Above our bedrooms. I think anyway. I saw some stairs.”

“Yes,” Reggie said, “we need to explore this whole place after breakfast, but we’re not done talking about a retreat yet are we?”

Bess sighed again, squidged her nose up and squinted, then grimaced.

“I understand, Mommy. This is a place where people used to do work and not be bothered.”

“Right. Very good. And now we live here.”

“Did we buy it?”

“No. No we didn’t…”

Reggie stirred. “The owner is letting us stay here. He likes mommy.”

“Reggie.”

“I think that’s why.”

“Daddy, you’re annoying mommy.”

Reggie chuckled and tilted his head as far back as he could to look at his daughter. “Well, just as long as I’m not annoying you.”

“Well, you are kind of…”

“I am?”

“Yes. Can you put me down now? I want to give mommy a kiss.”

As he let his daughter more or less climb down his torso to the floor, he heard two more sets of feet behind him. When Bess was safely down, he turned to find his two other children, still in flannel pajamas standing at the entrance to the room, mouths open, sleepy haired but nonetheless excited.

“What is this place?” Lester said.

“Is this ours?” Kristin chimed in.

He cocked his head and smiled proudly. “It’s ours to take care of, I suppose.”

“This room is…”

Kristin glanced at her brother. “It’s very big.”

“This is bigger than big,” he said. “It’s…”

“They call a room like this a great room,” Reggie said.

“Good morning, you two,” Twyla called with Bess in her arms.

“Morning, Mom,” said Lester.

“Good morning,” said Kristin.

The two older children seemed unwilling to move into the room, as if they were waiting for permission.

“Well, come in, you two. It’s a big room, but it’s still just a room.”

“I feel so small,” Kristin said.

Lester entered, walked three paces and then turned to look at his sister. “Nope. You’re still the same size. We’re okay.” He breathed out a teasing snicker, reached out to touch his father’s shoulder, then walked past him deeper into the room. Reggie watched Lester inspect the furniture then turned back to Kristin.

“You seem a bit tentative, Kris.”

She shook her head. “I’m trying to wrap myself around all of this. I’m still not sure I understand. We’ve moved, right? I mean, we’ve run away or something from Chestnut Hill and now we’re going to live here?”

Reggie sighed. “I guess that’s one way to look at it.”

“How else would you look at it?”

“Well, we didn’t exactly run away. I mean that implies that we were running from something.”

“We were, weren’t we? You lost your job, Daddy. We couldn’t pay our bills. We were running.”

“I know, Sweetie. It’s just that I don’t want to see it as running from something. It’s more like we’re switching things around, trying to get out in front. We could have paid our bills for a while. A long time, I suppose. But then…”

She waited. He continued: “But then at some point if I didn’t get more work or a new job or whatever, we really wouldn’t have any money.”

“So we just disappeared?”

“We moved on,” he smiled.

“Moved on?”

“Well, you’re right in the sense that we left quietly so that we wouldn’t have to pay our mortgage or anything.”

“This place is a lot more expensive, isn’t it?”

“Funny thing,” he said. “No. We don’t have to pay to live here.”

“Really?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Nope. The deal is that we live here and kind of take care of things.”

“We’re caretakers?”

He turned to see what Lester was up to. Far across the room his son was inspecting a fireplace. “Yeah, we’re caretakers. And the owner is paying all the bills, except our food. It’s saving us a lot of money.”

She leaned against the framed entryway. “But…”

“But what?”

“Well, you always said that school was more expensive than the house.”

There it was. He’d understood from the beginning that this would be the real issue for all of them. He forced himself not to look for Twyla and her help, although he knew well that she could hear them.

“That’s true. Woodlands is very expensive.” He waited.

She closed her eyes. He knew this meant she was thinking. He turned to the rest of his family. Lester was doing a form of push-up with his feet on a dark ottoman and his body angled to the floor. Twyla had seated herself on a couch in the middle of the room with Bess in her lap. As she stroked her daughter’s hair, she gave him a smile of encouragement.

“Dad?”

He turned back to Kristin. “Yes?”

“It doesn’t make sense for us to go to Woodlands anymore, does it?”

“Sense?”

“Dad.”

He shook his head slowly. “We can’t really afford it.”

“So…”

He inhaled deeply.

This story excerpt is from the collection Implosions of America: Lessons in Love, Loss, and Confusion. 

CHOICES

By David Biddle

I covered my left eye with my fingers and turned around. The eclipsing sun pierced my right pupil for just a split second as the moon slid into place and Bailey’s Beads began to spin. These beads of light are little solar flames of prismatic ruby light bouncing off the valleys of a black moon. That was in the mountains in 1979, more than thirty years ago. I’m sure this is the cause of my vision troubles today.

Doctor Davis has been after me for several years now to go visit an ophthalmologist. I used to love the way typeface made me feel. In a well-made book the lines of each word would glaze into my eyes. Character edges, kerned by a skilled chisel, seemed to rise off the page, piercing the appropriate membranes of memory, lodging in a mix of cerebral fluid and electrochemical significance. When a word appears sharp and true to the eyes, meaning is sharp and true. The mind understands and beats just like the heart. Over the last few years, though, the words I look at have started mashing up. Information is more smudged into me, pressure-glued to random spots around my optical nerve. Some mornings whole sentences swim up and down on the page. My mind rarely seems to beat like my heart anymore.

Doctor Davis noticed my eye problem back in 1995, a year after I got a 19-inch VGA monitor at work. I’m a desktop publishing specialist and copywriter with a well-known health insurance company.  Twelve years after that he suggested a visit to a specialist, he asked me why I had not yet made an appointment. I told him that I had so many things happening to me I was lucky to get in for a basic physical every two years. Using more patience than you would expect, he directed me specifically to one Dr. Louise Singleton who is located in his same office park. I saw right through that one, of course. Doctors are like all other business people. I imagined the two of them getting together twice a year over lunch at The Palm or The Striped Bass, surreptitiously exchanging #10 envelopes full of cash. His envelope for her is a goldenrod job containing maybe $400 right out of the cash box where he keeps all his co-pay money. She gives him a lightly scented, off-white envelope made of 20-percent post-consumer recycled paper. Pink granite. Her payment is higher, nearing $1,800. He’s routed almost twenty cases to her in the past six months. Why else would he have been so patient with me after two years of ignoring his advice?

They talk shop and she writes off the luncheon. She has the minty pea salad with lemon-garlic mayonnaise made with lots of turkey bacon and asparagus. She drinks two glasses of Chablis and about halfway through the second glass feels flushed and more excited than she thinks is safe, wants to go somewhere to be alone with her thoughts.

He has the swordfish-pecan pasta salad, made with fresh dill and tarragon all held together by a special iced Bearnaise sauce that explodes with flavor due to the minced shallots and Pommery champagne the chef has added. After his third mouthful of creamy swordfish, linguini, and toasted pecans, Doctor Davis thinks back to the days when he was a child baking cakes with his father who owned a catering company, how batter always tasted better than anything else in the world – even the finished cakes – and how his father once let him eat an entire cake’s worth of raw lemon-vanilla batter. Even though it made him sick, the act, every mouthful, was sublime. He wonders if the Bernaise all by itself would have the same effect. Could you order a bowl of Bernaise sauce? Maybe a few pieces of dark pumpernickel toast to dip? How much cream sauce would it take before you got sick like with cake batter?

Doctor Davis would have the same Chablis as Doctor Singleton, but he would be careful to drink slowly and to order a Black Turkish Espresso Walnut Mousse along with a demitasse of orange French Roast topped by a dollop of whipped cream. I once told him that I felt it likely there is no successful person in America who drinks alcohol before six p.m. He told me that he agreed with the sentiment but that it was possible to overcome the effects of alcohol in the middle of the day by consuming a very large portion of caffeine and sugar after imbibing at lunch. I could tell he was a lunchtime drinker and feeling defensive when he told me this. That’s how I know about the French Roast and the Espresso mousse. It’s also how I know that someday he is going to die of a heart attack before he returns to his office after lunch. I bet one quarter of all the heart attacks in America come after drinking too much coffee. Dying with coffee breath would be embarrassing as hell.

I’m just assuming my doctor has a business relationship with Louise Singleton. I have no evidence that they are exchanging cash every summer and winter. I also have no idea whether they’re having an affair, and although at that time I’d never met Doctor Singleton, I was sure by the way my doctor talked about her that she was very attractive, maybe sexy, certainly pleasing to speak with: like a flight attendant out over the Atlantic in the middle of the night. It made me, just for a few minutes there in his office, want to go for an appointment just to find out what she looked like and to look into her eyes. I imagined that they were bright moon gray and came, along with her whole beautiful face, very close to mine while diagnosing my problems.

I snapped out of it pretty quickly, though, and figured I could wait another five years at least. They sell amazing reading lamps these days. Laser beams for illumination, shimmering diamond light that will blind you like looking into the sun. I’m going to admit this here: I am middle aged and along with all the other shit that is going wrong with me, my imagination is becoming obsessed with the idea of having sex with women almost on a random basis. My eyes are failing but I spend a phenomenal amount of energy trying to ignore my libido.

I measured my arm last night. It’s nearly thirty-four inches from the top of my shoulder to the tip of my middle finger. I bet it will take another decade for my arm to extend that full distance when I’m reading.

I also learned that my right arm is an inch longer than my left one. It’s not the hands that are the difference. It’s the arms themselves. When I extend my arms, my right wrist is easily an inch further out there than my left wrist. Doctor Davis told me several years ago when I came in for him to look at a weird lump under my right rib cage that we may think we’re symmetrical but we aren’t. He never could figure out what the lump was, but suggested I eat more fiber and be careful with fatty foods. I followed his advice. The lump’s still there although my bowels are much more manageable. Sometimes it’s a sheer pleasure to evacuate them. Really. Not like an orgasm, or a relief thing from holding it too long, just the act itself, like the whole gut is being cleansed as everything moves through my old intestines and colon. It seems like there’s less build-up on the walls inside of me – the sludge, you know, from all the fats and sugars and the acids they mix with over time. If thoughts of sweaty sex with some woman like the checkout girl at our neighborhood convenience store or our daughter’s dance instructor get too built up, I find myself considering what it would be like to use the toilet after sex with them.

I’m so grateful to my doctor for pointing out the need to change my diet, but I haven’t told him that I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve become a pervert. When I go to the bathroom there’s this warm cleaned out feeling and it extends all the way to my sphincter. So I feel better, but the lump is still there and sometimes it worries me along with all these unbidden thoughts I let myself have. None of this hurts, really, it just makes me ponderish. I’m assuming if the lump is going to kill me, it will grow from being the size of a peanut to the size of a hamster, or a Chihuahua’s head. I also assumed back then that my perversions would subside when I figured something out. I just didn’t know what that thing was.

My wife, Angeline, doesn’t like the lump and doesn’t like my loss of vision. I haven’t told her about my perversions. Sometimes in the morning I can’t read for several hours until my eyes are adjusted. She says to me, “It could be macular degeneration. It could be the beginning of cataract build up. You need to see a doctor. The lump could be cancer.”

I like the fact that she worries about me. It’s a way to be sure she still loves me. But I also like the way she knows better than to get too pushy about going to see doctors. I remind her that the doctor says my lump isn’t cancer.

“Then what is it?” she replies.

“We are not supposed to be symmetrical,” I say firmly. Then I leave the room so that the conversation is finished.

Angeline is five years older than me. She turns fifty in November. She used to be our babysitter when I was a kid. She came over every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to take care of my brother, sister and me after school. I was nine. Angeline turned fourteen that year. I saw her naked twice that summer because I knew how to look through the keyhole in the changing room next to our pool. Seeing her naked made me fall in love with her. So, I knew who I was going to marry by the time I was ten. It took another fifteen years, but my love was too much for her. I never told Angeline about watching her change into her swimsuit. I’m afraid that if I told her, I would have to fall out of love with her. I’m superstitious.

Angeline is losing her hearing. She refuses to believe this, though. We’ve actually had fights about it. Angeline is very proud of her health. She teaches dance and Tai Chi at Swarthmore College. The funny thing about hearing is that sound is either there or it isn’t. With sight the world fades slowly into blurs and shadows and motion. With sound, though, it’s a tree falling or it’s nobody in the forest. Everything is either a crash or nothing, a note or silence. If Angeline doesn’t hear something, then it’s not there for her, even when I tell her it is. She’s stubborn and has yet to admit she’s wrong about anything, which is another reason for loving her. She’s wrong sometimes, but I wouldn’t trade her kind of self-confidence for any level of humility. There is nothing more exciting in bed than a good woman who thinks she’s never wrong, especially if you first saw her naked when she was fourteen and you were nine, a time in your life when you couldn’t get an erection (except in the morning, of course, when you wake up and have to pee) even if you knew the secret of petroleum jelly. She made a big impression on me then and she still does today.

I don’t know why Angeline has stayed with me all these years…

Snip

To read the rest of this story, stay tuned for the release of my story collection, Implosions of America, due out in a few weeks. 

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