SEVEN SHORT PIECES
A man dies in bed. Presumably he is the patriarch of a family. His wife gathers the two sons (Dutiful and Prodigal) and the homely daughter, and they stand around in circles and disagree. The wife, her hair knotted into a grey swirl at her nape, may or may not have had a Romantic Interest— a hunting companion of her husband's, who comes to the funeral and sits in the back row to facilitate an easy exit, although the whole family knows him, and would have liked to see him.
There are aunts and cousins, there are hidden things in closets, there are endless cups of coffee. Jobs are quit, relationships re-forged, things Realized. Dutiful neglects his taxes and becomes prodigal in his grief. Prodigal pulls a branch from the roof after a storm and becomes more dutiful every day.
A thousand dollars goes missing, and everyone in the family blames everyone else. The hall clock becomes symbolic. The wife's pearl necklace, taken off and given to someone else, is meant to recur. Under the wife's blouse her cleavage smells like baking bread. The used tissues look like white flower petals. The carpet looks like sand. The missing money smells distastefully like the Gun on the Table that Does Not Go Off.
In the end, the family is reassembled like a deck of cards. Dutiful impatiently shuffles the real deck of cards on a bar table. In a world close to this one, the old man emerges as a witty stumbling ghost, to the dismay of some and the delight of others.
Dutiful's wife, A., knows he is leaving her. She begins to shoplift. She begins to take the children to faraway parks, where they run and she reads, and where the trees grin at her. A. speaks to the other mothers and the sundry father in stilted dialogue, the purpose of which is to bide time. A. has begun to smoke, as well. While she is smoking in a faraway park, ten feet from the parking lot and the scrambled, double-parked cars, one of the children is kidnapped. It's the little boy.
Naturally, this is the end of the faraway parks, the beginning of a series of phone calls. Crisis does not bring out the kindness in Dutiful and soon he is raging, tearing mail envelopes apart without reading anything in them. A. and the little girl cluster on the couch, A.'s long feet folded behind her. She thinks (A. does) that we live in a Moral Universe. Where she got that idea no one knows (least of all me). From this thought, she gleans the delicate but quickly growing idea that she is being punished, punished not only for the faraway parks but the smoking, the reading, the chatting and certainly the shoplifting, being taken to task by a Moral Universe. She believes in the death penalty, because she thinks some things are genetic. Dutiful has never shared this belief, has steered from the topic whenever it's come up. When A. admits to anyone that she believes in the death penalty she is meek, bowing her head and wiggling her fingers—a child confessing disobedience.
Dutiful expects the marriage to dissolve, A. expects the marriage to dissolve, the little girl intuits that the marriage might dissolve, I expect the marriage to dissolve; oddly, it does not. It solidifies like water into ice. A. buys a new washing machine, Dutiful dumps his mistress. They take turns warming fish sticks and frozen peas for the little girl, take turns waiting by the phone. Their days slide into a rhythm. In the morning A. calls the police station, knowing that Dutiful will call on his lunch break and they'll both call in the evening. They eat dinner all together, which they've never done before.
And in the evening Dutiful sometimes takes the car and drives around the city, if only to feel useful and effective. Once he takes the little girl with him, when A. is asleep. He buckles her in, though she can and would like to do so herself; but she doesn't tell him this, only rests her elbow by the window like a smoker on a long road trip. They drive under the night (and it really is under, as if the lamps and the buildings and all the other parts of the world are above them, and they are tunneling underground). Dutiful begins to hum, an agitated humming, and the little girl taps a beat on the dashboard and he does not tell her to stop.
The homely daughter, H., teaches at a university, sleeps with a series of graduate students, is fired. In a few weeks, even she forgets what she taught. She watches daytime talk shows, paternity tests, abrasive Dr. Phil. Her memory shrinks and shrinks, though she's not even forty years old. She writes everything down. Her house is littered with pink and yellow Post-It notes. She does recall, if vaguely, that there were other professors sleeping with their graduate students, professors who did not get fired.
We cut to the tiny office of one of these professors, C., as she breaks open a pistachio nut and wonders where she went wrong, exactly, in her paper on Joyce as a ladies' man. C. loves the mythology behind mad Joyce, the epic sweep of his silliness. Since childhood, C. has had a hooked imagination that will latch onto anything. Dreams of horses and goats and Martians kept her turning at night—in fact, they still do. She kicks the graduate student in her bed, kicks him and mumbles in his ear until he gets up and moves to the couch.
Homely H. goes for coffee with C., and they talk about this student, the one they've both slept with. Although the sex is never mentioned, it's one of those conversations that is about nothing but. H. begins to cough, which does not alarm C. They are both getting older. They both want the other one dead, although they will never act on this desire, never. C. will take more lovers. H. will forget her own name. It is left to the reader to decide which woman dies first, and how, and if this is even within the scope of the story, which isn't about death. Though in another sense, it's about nothing but. Even if everyone lives.
We last left Dutiful's kidnapped son in the arms of nowhere, and the son, Elbert, has prospered. He fits seamlessly into his new family, who shaved his head and gave him a black skullcap to wear, video games to play, and food to eat. It is hard for him to love this family, of course, at first and even later. But he joined them at the age of four, when his routine was easily replaced by another routine and all could easily be made well.
When Elbert turns fourteen his new family enrolls him in a New England prep school, where he is one of three Elberts (he is the tallest). In time he is at Yale Law, married, jogging five miles a day. He suffers from clinical depression as everyone does. The doctor assigned to him is young and freckled and unkempt, a sweet little girl, like his wife when he first met her. Elbert and the doctor do nothing more than banter.
He goes to networking parties with his wife, who is still blond and slender and probably always will be, even if she grows grey hair and has children. Beauty is stubborn. It does not leave you. Most people don't know this, but Elbert realizes it as he guides his gliding wife by the elbow to the coat check. His depression abates before too long. He praises the sky. He praises the grass. I've never seen you so happy, his wife says, and she wonders if he might be up for visiting her ailing parents with her. She has no sisters and no brothers to join her—she has a brother somewhere, maybe alive, but he disappeared when she was small.
Prodigal, after years trying to work up a cure for the Ebola virus, grows discouraged by all the bottled spirits and chemicals which one by one have failed him. He is sixty. He decides to open a bar, although he has not aged into a charming sixty, but a coughing and overweight one. His house smells like cigarettes and dog hair. But he knows a few people, and he's able to open The Antidote in a warehouse building in a quirky, half-abandoned district downtown.
Prodigal mixes cocktails himself. He drips formaldehyde into a martini glass. He spices rum and Coke with lactic acid. He tosses milk, Kahlua and ipecac into a blender and watches them ferment. All the drinks are crazily popular. Twenty-two-year-old bankers are not astute enough to realize that the shot called Rat Poison does in fact contain rat poison and amaretto. No one dies on the echoing wooden floor; they only fall down drunk. Some die in the hospital. Prodigal becomes rich. The deaths are never traced back to him, usually chalked up to alcohol poisoning, weak constitutions, slow hearts.
The pearls of the first wife reappear on the too-slim neck of her granddaughter. Pearls are in style again. They remind the granddaughter of rococo-pink and gold painted rooms, oyster shells and attics. These images make her queasy and somehow annoyed. She says to her husband, I think my uncle's a sociopath.
Why do you think that? he asks.
Because he never got married. And he could have. He hates people, my aunt got Alzheimer's at forty, what did I do to deserve this family.
Her husband says, You'll go crazy thinking like that.
I read this article, she says, I read this very interesting article that said seventy-five percent of who we are is determined before we're even born. Before we get to do anything about it. We're only responsible for a quarter of ourselves, she says. The husband stops and coughs and says, that logic is so self-serving.
They go home and make a ridiculous amount of love and watch a few television shows. You know what, says the young wife, the granddaughter—we have never done a good thing in our lives. Not really. Let's give this house to charity.
Then where would we live? the husband asks.
I haven't thought that far yet, says the young wife.
And Dutiful, the very old man, is trying to ask his son-in-law to mercy-kill him but is hesitating because he doesn't know how to word such a request, and because his son-in-law is a meek, effacing little man with a first name (Elbert) that suggests he's British, homosexual, a Muppet or all three. Dutiful's daughter would be more likely to help him, but she's been out buying coffee for two hours. Maybe she ran into a friend from Yale, says Elbert. Dutiful sits up on his pillow and hates Elbert so much that they both breathe the hate in the air. It tastes stiff, poor on the lungs.
His (Dutiful's) homely sister drowned at forty, forgetting she was in the tub, and her early entrance to the country of death makes him think it's not so bad. A place he's never been to—all right. Spain is a place he's never been to. China is a place he's never been to. The possibility of coming back might be just as remote if he went to, say, China. His wife is working, from a battered laptop, in her wheelchair, but working. She prefers work to retirement and he does not argue with her. The awkward air squeezes them in, and just as Dutiful is ready to choke and die, his brother Prodigal enters and smiles and says, Oh it's good to see you.
Elbert leaves. He has never met Prodigal, but instantly knows to leave, seeing the electric sadness in Dutiful's eyes and the syringe peeking out of Prodigal's bouquet of white flowers. Why put a needle in flowers? Elbert wonders as he walks up and down the hall, dialing his wife on her cell phone. Why not just put the needle in your pocket? The truth is that Prodigal is wearing pocketless sweatpants, but Elbert thinks the gesture is deranged. Elbert wonders what he has married into, and how he can get out of it. But his wife is beautiful. There is that to consider. Having a beautiful wife can make up for thousands of sins. Someone screams. It doesn't sound like death, which is so often silent—it sounds raucous, like a newborn. As if someone is saying Good morning, in a world close to this one.
I had an idea for a sort of metafiction story set off by the death of a patriarch, which seems to be the catalyst for so many stories. After that, the characters evolved and became more and more bizarre (as my characters like to do, occasionally). A few of my influences include the amazing Chris Adrian and Kevin Brockmeier.