The Montréal Review, May 2011
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Ian had nothing comparably instructive or useful to offer them or the world.
He had enough trouble finishing the stories he was always, according to his wife, making such a fuss about. In the beginning, it had been Eleanor's encouragement alone that kept him at it. Lately, her behavior had been anything but encouraging. Eleanor's side of the family were all "doers" who had little sympathy for anyone who could not produce evidence of tangible accomplishment. Her father was always telling Ian how he thrived on work. "Work actually relaxes me," he had once said. Ian felt like a slacker around him, leading an effete and unworthwhile life. Like his father, Brian was always up to something: he tinkered with his car, was always engaged in a carpentry project, or would spend hours looking through his telescope. Next to them, Ian wasted time as if by design.
"Of course, the relative positions of the constellations change as the night wears on, you realize," Brian continued, back in the car.
"That's discouraging," Ian said.
They played games the rest of the trip: a round of "Ghost," and "Who am I?"
They tried to name all the states, and attempted to stump Ian who claimed to know all their capitals. His mind went blank at Illinois. They named the seven deadly sins, the Ten Commandments, and the seven dwarves. Brian dazzled them by naming the twenty brightest stars. He went on to explain how astronomical distances are measured using "skinny triangles." A simple matter of triangulation once you know the distance between two fixed terrestrial points.
They arrived at Olivia's at ten after nine. Ian, the writer, couldn't help thinking that the scene was practically a cliché. The house actually nestled in the side of the mountain, all but the driveway and front walkway buried under an avalanche of drift. Lights from ski houses higher up the mountain actually twinkled. Two cars were in the neatly plowed driveway: the green VW he recognized as Olivia's, the yellow Saab with New York plates was no doubt Todd's. Ian parked beside the Saab, and they walked the short distance along the driveway lined on both sides with quaint, snow-capped Japanese lanterns. Ian would have been only mildly surprised if Todd and Olivia had appeared to greet them dressed in little embroidered Swiss outfits with knee-stockings, mugs of hot chocolate in their hands, feathered alpine hats on their heads.
Olivia appeared in the doorway. The lantern above the door bathed her in rose light. She wore a bulky, red brocade gown with billowing sleeves. She slapped a ping-pong paddle against her thigh. Eleanor rushed into her open arms while the rest of them hung back. Brian, fists on his non-hips, sized up the place and seemed on the verge of making a comment when Olivia beckoned to them with her paddle.
"Ian, how nice to see you," Olivia said, switching her paddle to her left hand, offering him her bejeweled right, no doubt remembering that Ian was not one to embrace when greeting casual friends. Her rings he guessed she had made herself, and on her wrist was a stack of silver bracelets.
"You're looking well, Olivia."
"And this, of course, is Brian and his friend," Olivia said over Ian's shoulder. Ian wiped away her moist handshake on his trousers.
Eleanor began to apologize for Brian's appearance, to explain again how they had been stranded by the storm, how they had not been prepared to stay the night, but Olivia waved off her apologies and invited them inside. They followed her into a small room with a large ping-pong table. Knotty-pine paneled walls bore framed photographs of Olivia's family. Ian didn't recognize Olivia in any of them. Seats covered with red puckered vinyl were built into the walls. There was no other furniture. Todd, dressed in a white embroidered caftan, sat against the far wall examining the toes of a sandaled foot. The room smelled faintly of marijuana.
"Todd, come meet the McKennas and Eleanor's brother and his friend. It's Polly, right?" Olivia turned away before Polly could reply. Ian recognized Todd. From where he couldn't recall, but he knew he had seen him before. Todd rose, a forced smile on his thin, taut face. They shook hands and Ian felt Brian's rough elbow in his side when Todd's limp hand was offered to him. Todd's hair was stylishly barbered, his sideburns raised nearly to the top of his ears; he had a dimpled jutting chin, painfully clean shaved and chapped.
After the introductions, Olivia led the way upstairs to a surprisingly large room considering how tiny the cottage appeared to Ian from the outside. It had a high, vaulted ceiling and was partitioned with folding screens to serve as living room, dining room, and kitchen. In the center of the room a fire was dying in a stone fireplace with a raised hearth. Ian had half expected to walk into a bohemian lair with hanging plants, colored lights, shapeless, tapestry covered furniture, and incense burning. The furnishings were austere, Danish modern, unattractive and uncomfortable looking. It then occurred to Ian that the place did belong to Olivia's parents. There was a bentwood rocker by the fireplace, which Ian went for as if by instinct. On the walls were more family photographs, and among them, incongruously, the only evidence that Olivia was part of the household: a painting, hers he knew immediately from the subject matter. Against a sapphire background a pair of delicate pale hands (a woman's hands) with long graceful fingers held a flaccid penis like a bird with a broken neck.
"Holy shit!" Brian said, peering at it as if it were an exotic animal, "who painted that ?"
"It's Olivia's blue period," Todd said, poking a shower of embers from the remains of a birch log. Eleanor sat gingerly on the edge of the uncomfortable sofa that probably converted to a rollaway bed, and blushed. Not at the painting, although Ian suspected that it disturbed her, but at Brian's predictable behavior. She had obviously said nothing to them before they left. The painting gave Ian the creeps. Olivia dropped to the prayer rug in front of the fireplace as gracefully as a gymnast; Polly sat beside Eleanor. Olivia, no doubt accustomed to such reactions to her painting, smiled at Brian and said, "Most people find it disarming at first." Eleanor looked at Olivia as if she were grateful for her hostess's largesse. Disarming would not be the word Ian would choose to describe it. Brian plopped down on the sofa next to Polly and put his arm around her. Todd struggled with another log for the fire, holding it out in front of him as if it were contagious.
"Need a hand with that, Toddy?" Brian asked, nudging Polly. Todd dropped the log into the fireplace sending a spray of embers out into the room, just missing Olivia. She was unperturbed.
"I'll let you handle the really heavy pieces, Alan."
"It's Brian," Polly corrected.
"Todd, be a darling and take everyone's coats." Olivia leaned back on outstretched hands. This posture failed to reveal her figure beneath the bulky gown. Her clothes, as Ian remembered, were always like that, worn to conceal her shape. She used to go around in a black cape-like coat, high leather boots, and either full, ankle length skirts or the kind of dresses worn by pregnant women. Her face and hands provided the only flesh anyone ever saw-in public. He had been told that she had many lovers, so many, in fact, that Eleanor had remarked that Olivia must have problems in that area, as she put it. It was true that she seemed always to be in the company of men, usually the peaked, spiritual or professorial type, but occasionally she would turn up at a party in the company of someone conventionally masculine. Her skin was as white as porcelain; she had a small, upturned nose, stylish short black hair, a bloom of freckles underneath eyes the color of jade. Her hands weren't pudgy the way Ian imagined her body to be, but slender and graceful, like the hands in her painting. Eleanor and Olivia had met in their senior year, in art history seminar. Olivia was a libertine, and Eleanor was like your hometown cheerleader next to her, but they became good friends. Why, Ian would have been hard put to explain.
Todd collected everyone's coats, holding Brian's at the end of a long finger as if it were as odious as the birch log he had deposited in the fireplace, and carried them off in the direction of the kitchen. Brian followed him. Eleanor, perhaps sensing trouble, rose abruptly and went after him.
"Liv, can we have a tour? I love this room." Olivia rose as effortlessly as she had descended. She smoothed the back of her gown with her hands.
"Of course. Let's start in the kitchen." They followed her into the kitchen where Brian leaned against the sink, fingering his navel. Todd was nowhere in sight.
"Where'd he go?" Ian whispered.
"Beats me." Brian shrugged. "I came in here and he'd disappeared. Can you believe that picture? It's sick." Todd appeared through a swinging door, a cigarette pinched at the end of his fingertips.
"Hey, hot Toddy. What's up?" Brian said in falsetto voice. Ian recognized him then, from Hagner's Milton class. He had worn glasses then, and had looked much younger. That was four or five years ago. It wasn't likely that Todd would remember him; the class was large, and Todd was very intense. He had seemed to Ian to have no sense of the others in the class. His comments he always directed at Hagner. Then it would be Hagner and Todd in dialogue, with the rest of the class following it back and forth like a tennis match. Nor did it seem likely that Todd would be interested in the one bit of information he possessed about the flamboyant Hagner, namely that he had defected to the West Coast with a twenty-two year old graduate student, leaving his wife and three teen-aged children in the lurch. That would not be the kind of gossip he imagined Todd would appreciate. It was, therefore, a meaningless link between them, and Ian decided not to bring up the matter.
Olivia had vanished to some distant part of the vast room trailed by Eleanor and Polly. Her voice drifted into the kitchen from time to time as she toured her guests through the upstairs. Ian realized that this was the first time Polly and Brian had been out of each other's sight since they had arrived at his apartment the night before.
"Drinks?" Todd asked, swirling past Brian as if to taunt him. "Oliveeeeea," he sang, "what to drink, darling?"
"Listen to that," Brian said. George steered him by the elbow out of earshot of Todd and told him to knock it off. "Isn't he thwell," Brian said, dangling his grimy paw from a limp wrist.
"I mean it, Brian. Let up. Don't ruin your sister's evening. Olivia's friendship is important to her, so just back off."
"He started," Brian whined. "You heard him."
"No, Brian, you started it when you called him Toddy. You're no match for him. He'll eat you alive."
"I'm sorry," said Brian in that pouty little voice that drove Ian up the wall.
` "Scotch for Eleanor and me, darling, and Polly will have whatever Brian is having."
"And what will Brian have?" Todd asked, hands clasped against his chest.
"Leg of lamb," Todd said, referring to the cellophane wrapped meat on the counter top.
"I think he's talking about Cold Duck the beverage, Todd," Ian explained. "It's sort of a malt liquor thing, I guess."
"Olivia, love," he trilled, "do we have such a thing as ."
"Cold Duck," Ian said.
"Cold Duck, darling?"
"I think there may be some in the refrigerator. Mother likes it."
"Then there is such a species. What about you, Ian?"
"You got bourbon? I think I'd like a bourbon. On the rocks."
"Two scotches, one bourbon on the rocks, and two . Cold Ducks," he said, rolling his eyes at the Cold Ducks. Brian and Ian went back to the living room as Todd prepared the drinks. Brian sulked on the couch, Ian rocked grimly in the bentwood rocker.
"Ian, weren't you in my Milton class with Professor Hagner a few years ago?" Todd said, gliding into the room, a drink in each hand.
"I wouldn't have thought you'd remember."
"Oh, don't be modest. You're not the kind one could easily forget."
Brain stifled a laugh, his chin grinding into his chest.
"I'm not sure how to take that," Ian said, intending to sound good-humored.
"My, aren't we testy."
"Jesus," Brian groaned.
"I was only ." The room was suddenly full of the women, and Polly was immediately in Brian's lap.
"Charming," said Todd, arching a well-groomed eyebrow.
"Ian, Brian, you have got to see the rest of the house. It is simply divine." Ian felt as though he had suffered a loss in his exchange with Todd, and now his wife was using words like divine. When he tried making eye contact with her she turned away.
Todd said, "Ian, you no doubt have heard the juicy item about Hagner and his nubile graduate student. Imagine an old fart like Hagner. It is simply scrumptious. Too bad it can never work mathematically."
"How's that?" Ian asked, wide open.
"Sixty doesn't go into to twenty-two," Todd squealed. Ian didn't think it was that funny. Eleanor laughed politely. Brian and Polly didn't get it. Olivia, back on her prayer rug, smiled placidly.
The tone for the rest of the evening was set with Todd's crass joke. Ian thought of Hagner's wretched family, left behind by the randy old Milton scholar. One of the children, a thin, androgynous blue-jeaned, sweat-shirted girl, he had run into in the dentist's waiting room a year ago. He had searched her face for signs of abandonment, but she had seemed truly absorbed in the Field and Stream magazine she was reading.
Sensing that it was dirty joke time, Brian launched into a meandering version of a traveling salesman story that was worn out thirty years ago. Then he goaded Ian into telling the one about the escaped leper in the brothel, which he told without enthusiasm and only after he had drunk his third bourbon. He wasn't used to drinking in this fashion. Todd followed with two or three urbane jokes of such obscure allusion that Brian, who had drunk the better part of two bottles of Cold Duck, forgot Ian's caution and went after Todd again.
"What line of work you in, Toddy? Light work, I'd guess."
"Actually, I'm a chimney sweep. What is it you do? I wouldn't dare guess your specialty what with all the marvelous things they're doing with grease these days."
And so it went. Ian watched Eleanor's face turn as gray as the fireplace ashes as he drank off one bourbon after another. Olivia remained poised and demure. Ian began to think she was not a sophisticate at all, but a moron. Or perhaps on something stronger than grass. Polly clung to Brian's arm, saying nothing. Ian caught Eleanor glowering first at Brian, then at him. He tried to think of some way to get her alone.
"How about some ping pong, Ian?" Todd said, yawning.
"I can't vouch for my hand-eye coordination. What the hell, why not?"
He felt a humming sensation somewhere in the back of his skull, and when he got up from the rocker his body felt several pounds heavier. Eleanor whispered something to Olivia, then they went into one of the rooms off the kitchen. Polly and Brian went into each other's arms as Ian and Todd started down to the ping-pong room.
"You serve," Todd said after they had volleyed for a few minutes. Sober, he would have been no match for Todd with his Chinese style slams, and crazy slice shots that sent the ball skidding off the side of the table out of Ian's reach. He won points only when Todd miscued. Todd seemed content to smash shots past his opponent, and Ian suspected he rather enjoyed watching him try, clumsily, to retrieve the elusive little ball off the floor.
"I think I've had it, Todd. I've got to sit down."
"How about another drink? Liv's old man has a downstairs bar in the other room."
"What the hell." Todd returned with only one drink. He had stopped drinking hours ago. He sat down next to Ian, and gathered his thin legs to his chest.
"Liv tells me you're working for the government or something."
"Yeah." Ian sipped his drink. It was very strong. He felt a tug of nausea at the back of his throat. "Environmental protection."
"Is it interesting?"
"Was at first. Now it's just another routine job, tedious paper work, bureaucrats coming out of the woodwork, the whole bit." He almost added that he wrote fiction, that he had received a handwritten note from one of the editors of Esquire Magazine , that expressed regret for not being able to use his story, at the same time saying that it had promise, and to keep at it. He wanted to tell this dilettante that his wife had great faith in his ability. But he was wary of Todd.
"Jobs are tedious by definition. I've been through enough to know what I'm talking about."
"What do you do? Besides sweep chimneys."
"I'm, as they say, between jobs at the moment. I've worked a lot as a magazine editor, but as you say . I'm still looking for the one that isn't routine, the one that doesn't exist." At this moment, Todd seemed almost vulnerable. In profile, he noticed that Todd wore contact lenses. Then he saw two Todds. The room had begun to pulsate. His stomach churned.
"Is there a bathroom down here? A toilet?"
"Feeling a little under the weather, darling? You do look frightfully glassy-eyed."
"Listen, is there a can down here or isn't there?" Ian swallowed back his nausea.
"Only the big white one outside."
Ian got loudly sick in the clean snow. The air was clean and very cold. He shivered and breathed deeply, face to the clear sky with its multitude of stars. Chaos. He suddenly remembered lines of a poem by Stanley Kunitz he had read that morning, lines that had troubled him deeply, and had sent him to his typewriter to find his own words.
As through a glass that magnifies my loss
I see the lines of your spectrum shifting red,
The universe expanding, thinning out,
Our worlds flying, oh flying, fast apart.
The lights in the higher cottages still burned, twinkled. It had to be close to three o'clock in the morning. Starlight, moonlight, the soft contours of the mountain. He wished they had brought cross-country skis. Tonight he would like to go out there. Alone. Somebody in the house moved a corner of the drape over the picture window for a look outside. He waved and the drape fell back in place.
He covered his sickness with clean snow and went back inside. Todd was at his toes again.
"Him feeling better?"
"Him want to play more ping pong?"
"Him's feelings hurt?"
"Hasn't your boorish brother-in-law ever met a homosexual?"
"Probably not. Where he lives, there aren't many to meet."
"How about where you live?"
"What are you driving at?"
Todd laughed. "Well, darling, I've got an eight o'clock on the slopes tomorrow. And by the way, you better not leave your wife with Olivia too long. She'll have her in bed before you do. Ta ta." And Todd was gone.
Upstairs, Ian found Polly and Brian on the sofa, pouting like chastened ten-year-olds. Eleanor sat in the bentwood rocker, facing them. Olivia was nowhere in sight.
"Sit down, Ian. I've got something to say."
"Gone to bed."
"What a bitch," Brian said.
"Who?" Ian asked.
"I am so humiliated," his wife said.
"She wouldn't let us ."
"Brian, just shut up," Eleanor said. "You had no right, Brian, no right at all." She clapped her hands loudly.
"No right to do what? What's this all about?"
Eleanor's face was flushed; her eyes shined with tears. "Those two just gave Olivia a hard time because she wouldn't let them sleep together. I am so humiliated."
"She doesn't want them to sleep together. How come?"
"Because they are not married, that's how come."
"You're kidding." Ian laughed.
"That's what I say," Brian said, sensing that he had acquired an ally. "Anybody who can paint a picture of a dick like that, gets on her high horse ."
"Brian, shut up!"
"Ellie, you'll have to admit yourself," Ian said, "it seems just a little inconsistent, given her style of life."
"Eleanor, eyes downcast, shook her head. "You have all been unutterably vulgar. I have never in my life been so humiliated."
"What do you mean, 'all'? What have I done? And where is it written that we have to tip toe around Olivia? Who do you think she is?"
"Our hostess . That's who. And you were as drunkenly vulgar as only you can get." Brian and Polly whispered to each other. "It will do you no good, Brian, to plan a rendezvous. It won't be possible."
"Ellie, for Christ's sake." Brian punched a pillow on the sofa.
"Haven't you got your villains mixed up, honey?" Ian said. "The rest of us noticed the unwholesome atmosphere the minute we walked in the door."
"Don't 'honey' me. I'm ashamed of you, Ian. I never thought I'd say that out loud."
Ian realized that further discussion would be useless, and that he was still quite drunk. Drunk and weary. And hurt to the quick by his wife's words. His limbs felt like concrete; that buzzing sensation was back in his head.
"I think I would like to go to sleep. Where are we billeted?"
"We are leaving," Eleanor said in the measured way she had of speaking when she was very angry.
"We are what?"
"You're nuts. It must be after three o'clock in the morning. What's Olivia going to think? What, did she throw us out?"
"No, but I cannot face her after what happened tonight. We are leaving and that's final."
"Jesus Christ, Ellie," Brian whined, "that's just plain crazy." Polly, wide-eyed, clung to his arm.
"Get your coats. They're in the kitchen. Since I'm the only one sober around here, I guess I'll have to drive." She gave Ian a look of disgust.
Ian tried, as best he could in his condition, to placate her. When that didn't work he appealed to her enormous reservoir of guilt, suggesting that to abandon their hostess in the night, especially after his wife's accusations of low and common behavior on their part, represented a fairly blatant form of hypocrisy. And what could be ruder than to leave your hostess with the feeling that her guests had deserted her?
"I simply cannot face Olivia in the morning. I doubt if I will ever be able to face her again."
Ian submitted that this was insane. His wife was not swayed.
Eleanor led them single file along the driveway to the car, snow crunching loudly underfoot. Ian took up the rear, looking back once to see if their departure had been noticed. The house remained in darkness, as did now the houses higher up the mountain. It felt even colder now than it had earlier when he was getting sick in the snow without his coat.
They drove along the winding mountain road for a long time without saying anything. Brian and Polly made out for a while in the back seat, then were quiet. Ian dozed, his head lolling on his shoulders as if his neck were broken. There were too many curves in the road for him to fall asleep. He spoke first:
"I'm sorry for everything back there."
"I mean it. I know how much Olivia means to you, though to be honest I'm damned if I know why."
"There's a lot you don't know, Ian."
And though he knew he was on a wrong tack, he couldn't stop himself. "I never could understand the appeal she and her crowd had for you." Eleanor gripped the steering wheel tighter, but said nothing. "All those pseudo artsy phonies spewing . Not two cents worth of talent between them."
"What would you know about talent?"
"Next thing, you'll tell me Olivia's an artist."
"No, Ian. The next thing I'll tell you is that you're not . You have no talent at all. Zero."
"That's not the story I'm used to hearing from you."
"I lied, Ian. I lied to spare your precious feelings, to let you have your illusions."
It had often occurred to him that she might have felt this way, but he had refused to believe it in his heart of hearts. Now, he had to decide whether she was telling the truth or paying him back for the hurt he had caused her. He knew very well that he should go after it now. In the little Renault's confinement his courage failed him. A great weight was lodged in his chest. He felt nauseated and fearful. Eleanor had gone silent, lost somewhere inside herself. He reached for her pocketbook on the floor and pulled out her cigarettes and lighter. After two years away from smoking, the cigarettes he lit for his wife felt strange in his hand, thin and insubstantial. In the dim light of the flame, his wife's jaw was firm, her eyes fixed on the windshield. In the back seat, Polly and Brian had fallen asleep in each other's embrace. Ian suddenly envied them. In the intimacy of the little car's space, Ian tried to calculate the immense distance he now felt his wife was from him.
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Michael Burns is a retired teacher living in rural New Hampshire. He is the author of three novels in print, "Gemini", "Where You Are", and "Gemini's Blood." His fourth novel is being edited at present.