God created the Earth. Heaven and hell are Man’s invention.
Seamus Merriweather sat slumped over his desk in a staring contest with the blank computer screen, in what for the past two weeks had become his customary pose. He was not a particularly violent man - indeed his withery build bespoke a pacifist - but he was in a vile mood, for he was losing the contest.
“May you rot in Satan’s belly!” he screamed, and he throttled the keyboard, which was already malfunctioning, refusing as it did to type his favorite letter, the letter v. Seamus could think of a lot of v words he’d have liked to type at that moment, words like vile, vicious, vitriolic, vituperate, and vendetta.
There was a time in the not too distant past that words like valiant and virtuoso and victor were on the tip of his fingers and at the fore in his life, but now he felt only . . . vanquished. It was not the computer’s fault, and Seamus knew this.
Things had not always been as such for Seamus. As a writer of children’s fairy tales he had enjoyed a bit of acclaim, his Crusader series, Books I through V, having in the late 1980's spent an appreciable amount of time on the Best Seller’s list, though never making it all the way to Number One. There had even been talk of making a movie based on the books. This had never materialized, and Seamus sometimes wondered why, but not often, as he hated to live in the past. But in that past that he cared not to dwell, he had been hailed as the V.C. Andrews for children aged nine to thirteen, a veritable Beatrix Potter of North America. And then, for a reason that to him was still somewhat of a mystery (and a misery), his creative juices had instantly dried up, and he was left with the inability to finish anything he started. This had gone on for ten years. He’d done a lot of writing in that time. The ever-growing stack attested to this. He just hadn’t gotten through anything. In over a decade, he had not been able to get to the words The End - or Finis, the Latin, which was his customary closing.
At the top of the blank word processor document, just as he had done every day for the past two weeks, he hunted and pecked the words:
Happy Ending: Part Two
By his estimation he had written one thousand beginnings to Part Two. One thousand first sentences, and he had deleted them all. He had read and reread Part One of what he was sure would be the next great American novel, had even retyped it, and it was perfect. He couldn’t change a thing, not a single phrase. But when it came to Part Two he was . . .
“No!” he cried. “I will not dare utter the term, not even think it!”
And he typed the following sentence:
Long is the road and hard that out of hell leads to light.
“Another man’s words. Possibly Shakespeare,” he thought, “or maybe Henry Chaucer.” Perhaps he’d heard the line in a movie. In any event the words weren’t his own and so he promptly erased them.
“Make that sentence one thousand and one.”
And yet that was the essence of what Part Two was supposed to be about, this he knew.
Long is the road and hard that out of hell leads to light.
Thirteen words that he needed to turn into at least thirty thousand. To take a wicked man and make him good. That was all there was to it. He’d written the ultimate villain, a manifestation of his deepest, darkest secrets. His most depraved dreams brought vividly to life. A delightfully devious bad man, was Salamander Rex, but to make that man good . . .
“I have no frame of reference,” he said to himself, and with a rueful shake of his balding head, he went back to typing.
There comes a time in the life of even the most depraved man that he is spurred by the urge to do good.
The road to heaven winds its way through the halls of the troubled man’s weary mind until it finds his wounded heart.
And he quickly typed a half dozen other sentences.
“How I can churn out drivel, with such remarkable ease!” he lamented, and just as quickly as he created, he destroyed, hitting delete.
Despite himself he glanced at the large pile of unfinished manuscripts that faced his desk like a shrine of mediocrity in the corner of his rubble heap of an apartment. Having dubbed the pile the stack, he had drawn in black marker a pair of beady eyes along its side, and those inky eyes followed him with steady determination as he sulked around his apartment, just like the eyes of the Mona Lisa are said to watch their viewer. He thought of the Mona Lisa, and then he thought of women. Many women. Any woman.
“My mind is wandering. I have to stay on track!”
And driving his knuckles into his temples, he tried to will the perfect beginning into existence. And then, as if by divine providence, the light went on in his mind.
“I have it!” he exclaimed, and after taking a lap around his rubble heap, which was an obstacle course of books, dirty dishes and worthless junk, he sat himself back at the computer, but before he could put the words down, the phone rang. Reluctantly but somehow peremptorily, as though it could not be otherwise, Seamus answered the phone to hear the voice of his brother Maurice, his junior by nearly as many years as he had not been able to finish a book, and he was immediately irritated.
“Seamus!” the voice squeaked. The voice of his brother had never caused him anything but annoyance. It had always been a squeak, before during and after puberty. Before the other schoolboys’ voices had started to crack, it had been a squeak. After the other boys’ voices had changed, a squeak it remained.
“Maurice,” he said with a groan. And before his brother could get another word in, he said, “I have to go. Goodbye.”
“Five minutes. Five minutes is all I ask.”
“I’m in the middle of something terribly important. I can’t talk, not for a moment.”
“Everything is in place, Seamus. We’re waiting on you. All you have to do is pull the trigger.”
“Er, about that . . . Listen, Maury, I’ve been thinking–”
“Never a good thing, Seamus. You do too much of that already. You’ve made a career of thinking, and look where it’s gotten you.”
Regarding his rubble heap, Seamus had to agree that thinking had not gotten him anywhere he wanted to be.
“All you need to do is take the money to the bank, open an account, make a deposit, and we are rich men.”
It sounded so simple. Of course it wasn’t that simple.
“Maury, listen to me. This idea, it’s criminal.”
Maurice laughed at the remark. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Nothing, to you. You are a convicted felon.”
Seamus had bailed his brother out of jail after his first offense - shoplifting as a teenager - and the many times he had been convicted since. They were petty crimes, mostly. Seamus remembered even when they were young, how easy his brother could lie, or cheat, or steal. He seemed to lack a conscience. Seamus sometimes thought that had he not been there to bail Maurice out, his brother likely would still be in jail. And sometimes he thought that this might not be a bad thing. But despite himself, he had always been there for his brother, at least when times were good. But now that times were lean, and he was the one struggling, he was the one needing a handout, in Maury’s mind, by letting him into his most recent scam, he was being there for Seamus.
“I should never have let myself get talked into this in the first place,” Seamus lamented.
“Talked into it? It was your freakin’ idea. You masterminded it, for Chrissakes!”
“That’s completely untrue.”
“Is it?” his brother countered. “I suggested an insurance scam, maybe credit card fraud, but you said it had to be money counterfeiting or you wanted no part of it. Now that it is just this, you want no part? Explain this to me.”
“Maury, I have to go.”
“Seamus, I don’t have to remind you that the Bruise Brothers won’t be too happy when they hear that at crunch time, with the ball in your court, you’re pulling out.”
“You’re mixing metaphors. I can’t talk to you when you’re speaking illegibly.”
The wit of these words, if there was any, was lost on Maurice’s dull ears. “I don’t have to tell you what they’ll do to you,” Maurice said in a threatening voice, which meant one marked with significant pauses between syllables. “I don’t have to remind you what they did to the last guy who didn’t go through with his end of the deal.”
“I have to go.”
“They cut off the poor fellas balls and fed ‘em to him!”
If Seamus’ fingers hadn’t been fastened to the keyboard, he’d have covered his ears to avoid the reception of such words. “I said I have to go, Maury!” he said.
“You don’t want to be a eunuch, do you?”
For the fourth time Seamus said it was imperative he end the conversation, adding, “I have an appointment.”
“Before you go, I need you to do something for me.”
“Do something for you? As if entertain your inane conversation hasn’t been enough?”
“I need you to go see the wifey, tonight.”
“Your wife? Tonight? I can’t possibly,” Seamus said without hesitation. “I have to work, to write. I’m in the middle of something that could be . . . something.”
“Well go see her tomorrow night, then. I’ll be out of town all weekend. Tonight, which is Friday, all of tomorrow and possibly Sunday, depending on how things go.”
“I thought your business trip was concluding this afternoon. You said you’d be back in time for supper. You told me this Wednesday. That was two days ago.”
“That was then, but now I’m in the middle of something myself, Seamus. It’s very big.”
Seamus had heard that before. “Are you in Vegas?” he asked. There was silence. “You’re in Vegas. Are you winning?” Again there was silence. “You’re losing.”
“Just go see Dolores,” his brother retorted. “She gets lonely when I’m gone, and she, you know, really likes you.”
If you only knew, Seamus thought. If only you knew.
My Lord, thought Seamus as he made his way to the agency’s twelfth floor, taking the stairs two at a time. Midway up, he concluded that the decision to forego the elevator had been a terrible mistake, and his lungs agreed with him in this regard. It has been twenty-five years since I was eighteen. A whole quarter century. God I feel old. Ancient, even.
Back then, the market for children’s fiction was not what it now was, in the current Harry Potter boom. Back when he was starting out, there had hardly been anything current for a child to read. As a child himself, Seamus had been raised on television. But Goldfarb was quick to take to Seamus. Goldfarb appreciated his literary perspective, as he said, and though only ten years Seamus’ senior, with no wife or children of his own, had become a sort of father figure. But sadly, at least for Seamus, who had no relationship with his biological father, their association had gone sour. After the Crusader series, even during the writing of the fifth and final book, Seamus had become flaky, temperamental, confrontational even. In Goldfarb’s words, an agent’s bane. But Goldfarb had stuck it through with him, and in the first several years of the dry spell, through the new millennium, he made it a point of calling Seamus regularly, just to check in, as he’d say. Seamus had probably said some things he shouldn’t have - his tongue had a tendency to get real loose when he drank, and when unable to write, and during his divorce five years past, he had drunk gallons, Bourbon at night, and Vodka during the day. But Seamus was sure Goldfarb would forgive him the past.
After all, he’s like a father to me. Never mind that my biological father treats me like an ingrown toenail. And besides, when he hears my pitch, he’s going to be really blown away.
Entering the twelfth floor, Seamus walked past the receptionist without so much as a glance her way.
Her “Excuse me, sir,” and “You can’t go in there without an appointment” fell on deaf ears as Seamus barged right through the doors and into the conference room, in which a meeting among the five agents and a publishing house representative was in progress.
“Ira!” Seamus exclaimed after his eyes dizzy with exertion had scanned the room and fixated on the purpose of his journey.
“Seamus,” Ira said back. The word came in a low drone. Clearly, Ira was less than enthused.
“How the hell are ya, man?” He stumbled as he entered. His legs were wobbly from the twelve story climb.
“Are you drunk?” The sneer Ira Goldfarb gave him would have had a sobering effect if indeed he were drunk.
“Drunk?” Seamus laughed off the accusation. “If I’m intoxicated, it is merely by the ecstasy of my creativity. I’m onto something very significant. I’ve struck gold, man!”
Those present in the meeting, all dressed primly in suit and tie, rendered Seamus a puzzled stare. Goldfarb excused himself and led Seamus into his office, lest as he thought things really get out of hand.
“You know, Seamus,” Ira began as he closed his office door, “it would have been better had you made an appointment.”
“I didn’t think I’d need one. You talk as if I’m some commoner. After all, I am . . . me! Have you considered this?”
Apparently, Ira Goldfarb had not.
“You know how busy an agent’s life can be,” Ira said, looking Seamus up and down. “And look at you. At least have the forethought to shower before visiting me in my place of business. I have a reputation to uphold.”
“You mean you are not impressed?”
“Are those pajamas you’re wearing? And what’s with the beard? It doesn’t suit you.”
Seamus hadn’t shaved in weeks, more out of laziness than purpose. “You don’t think it makes me look dignified? Stroking it helps me to think. To conjure the creative voice, I must rub the genie’s lamp, you understand.”
“Seamus, why are you here?”
“Why am I here? Why, you are my agent.”
“Was your agent. Our contract expired years ago, too many to count.”
“Really? I wasn’t aware.”
“You haven’t written anything in . . . since before your son was born.”
“Must you drudge up the past?”
“On a lighter note, how is little Stevie?”
“He’s eight, I think.”
“Not how old is he. How is he?”
Seamus shrugged. “I can’t speak about that with authority.”
The remark puzzled Ira, and at his desk he shifted papers. “As I was saying, you haven’t written anything in years.”
“You are wrong there, dear sir. I have written a great many things. I could line the walls of the Twin Towers - if they still graced our fair city’s skyline - with what I’ve put down on paper. Volumes I have written. Reams of prose, some of which even approaches the poetic in intent, if not in form. I just haven’t been able to finish anything.”
“If you have not finished anything, then you haven’t written anything I can sell, which as I see it is the same thing as not writing anything at all.”
“Point taken. But wait till you hear what I’m working on.”
Ira feverishly scratched his head. “Seamus, I’m in the middle of a very important meeting.”
“What can be so important? What can be more important than your meeting me?”
“Random House wants our guy Martin Seville to do a children’s version of Shakespeare. Shakespeare in prose, possibly with pictures. You know, introduce English literature to today’s youth. Sounds great, don’t you think?”
“Dumb down Shakespeare?” Seamus grunted the words with disgust. “Is nothing sacred anymore?”
“Don’t be pompous, Seamus. Seville has a built in audience. The kids love him. I trust you are familiar with his work.”
“I glanced at it once, while seated on the toilet. It’s a habit I have every morning. I had a great crap, but I don’t know what this says about his writing, as I am very regular in my bowel habits.”
Ira waved the remark off. “Martin Seville is carrying this agency. Reminds me of you in your glory days. His prose just sparkles. Scintillates, is the word the critics use. He really jumps off the page. Grabs you by the shirt collar, tickles you till you giggle with delight. I could go on, but I have to go.”
“Ira, I’m asking you for five minutes. Five minutes to forget your Seville and focus on the writer who built this agency.”
Reluctantly Ira Goldfarb seated himself at his immense desk and listened to Seamus’ pitch. There was a time in the not too remote past when Seamus had been known for his way with words. In fact, he thought he spoke more eloquently than he wrote. He could hold a room with his story, once anyway. But now that the moment of truth came, and he had his agent’s undivided attention, he was at a loss. Standing before Goldfarb’s expectant face was somehow like facing the blank page, and in this regard practice had not made perfect. He tumbled over a few beginnings before saying, “I’m writing the next great American novel. It’s a gem of a read, really.”
“Really?” Ira tried to summon interest, however vague and uninterested. “How far along are you?”
Seamus was silent for a moment. “Well, truth be told, I’m almost through,” he lied.
“When will it be finished? Give me a date. You know I think better with numbers.”
“Well, actually, precisely, here’s the thing,” Seamus began, and at last he decided to come clean. “I’ll tell ya, Ira, I’m having a bit of trouble with the main character. I don’t know how to portray him realistically.”
“Seamus, you’ve written about witches and warlocks, dragons and ogres, fairies and unicorns. Surely whatever character you’re writing at present should give you no trouble.”
“I’ve written the bad and the ugly, but writing the good is, well . . . it’s another story altogether.”
“I’m writing about a good man, Ira. More specifically, about a bad man that becomes good.”
“Well perhaps what you lack is a frame of reference.”
This startled Seamus, because this very same thought had occurred to him earlier that day, indeed had been haunting him for weeks, ever since the start of his . . . he couldn’t say the words. Instead he said, “Never mind that. When it’s done, I want to give you first look before I, you know, shop it around.”
“What’s it about, other than what you’ve said?”
“Hmmm . . .” Seamus tried to summarize the story in his mind. But then he tried to remember when the last time had been that he had left his apartment. Probably when he had picked up Mallory, or maybe to see Dolores. Whenever it had been, it wasn’t recent or often, and he felt out of touch speaking. Writing and speaking were certainly talents separate and distinct, he mused. How to summarize a work he had only half written, a work he didn’t know how to end. Maybe he was being premature. Maybe coming to see his agent after all this time, and unannounced, was hasty. But he needed to get off the phone with Maurice, needed to get out of his apartment, and most of all needed to generate some energy in his story, which if he didn’t write anything soon might die from neglect, like a plant deprived of sunlight.
“It’s a rag to riches story, morally speaking,” he began, after sucking in air and holding in his breath. “It’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, told in reverse. It’s Armageddon, the final battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, waged in one man’s soul.” He exhaled deeply and smiled. “That’s what my story is about, in a nutshell.”
“That’s it? That’s what you’re writing?” Ira’s brows knitted.
This was not the response Seamus had in mind.
“Doesn’t sound like a children’s story.”
“It’s not for kids, dammit Ira. It’s an adult novel. Grown ups read too!”
“Seamus, this agency specializes in children’s literature, we have for years. You know that.”
“You have since I came on board. Before me you were floundering, looking for the next great American novel, and now I’m handing it to you on a silver platter!”
At length Ira Goldfarb rose from his chair, shaking his head. “Frankly I don’t think your idea is saleable.”
“How can you say that?”
“Seamus, think! A morality tale? With Biblical tones? It practically condemns itself! We’re past the turn of the millennium. No one fears the end of the world anymore. That’s so . . . year two thousand!”
“It’s the symbolism. It’s not to be taken literally.”
“You know, Seamus, that’s exactly what your problem is. Everything’s symbolic with you. Your symbols become your suspicions. Frankly if it weren’t for the successes we’ve shared I’d laugh you out of this office, but I’ve given you your five minutes. Times up. You have to go.”
“Ira, please. It takes a man to admit when he’s desperate. I’m not there quite yet.”
“Are you on drugs?”
“You should be.”
And taking a business card out of his wallet he handed it to Seamus.
“Here’s the number of my shrink. He sees patients on Saturdays. If you call him now you can probably get an appointment for tomorrow afternoon. In fact I’ll call for you.”
He buzzed his secretary.
“Marsha, hold,” Ira said through the intercom. “Seamus, what you have described to me is writer’s block. I’ve seen it a thousand times.”
“You know I hate that term. It’s so blunt. It tries to be metaphorical, but it ends up being, just–”
“In your case it’s true. You’re blocked.”
“I’ve written two hundred pages!”
“Of a novel that’s unfinished and that you haven’t the slightest idea how to complete. It’s textbook writers block.”
“Is there such a textbook? Perhaps I should read it.”
“ Seamus, don’t be silly. My shrink helped me through my divorce, I think he might be of some help to you.”
“You were married?”
“For three years only. Divorced two.”
“I didn’t even know. Has it been that long?”
“Go see the shrink.”
He buzzed his secretary a second time. “Marsha, put me through to Dr. Newton, and have Mr. Merriweather escorted out.”
Seamus rose. “Ira, when this sells, you’re really going to regret not giving it a look.”
“I’ll look at it if you’d like, but I already know what I’ll see. I’ll see you, Seamus. And look at you. You’re a wreck.”
Without waiting for an escort, Seamus let himself out.
Dr. Lawrence Newton’s office was spacious, minimally furnished, with lots of potted greenery, flowing water, statues, sculptures, and windows open to the outside air. Breezy, is the term Seamus used as he entered and seated himself across from the man. His initial thought was that the doctor looked very young. In fact Seamus swore he couldn’t be a day past thirty. He found himself wondering about the man’s credentials. Why was he coming to this college kid recently removed seeking advice? He wanted to leave, and though the chair in which he sat was comfortable, ergonomic even, he suddenly became very restless, wanting to be anywhere but where he was.
“Mr. Merriweather, how are you feeling?”
“You don’t waste any time, do you?” Seamus replied. “You get right to it. Heart of the matter. Well then, I’ll answer a question with a question. What has Goldfarb told you about me?”
“Very little, actually. He said that the two of you had in the past shared a business relationship, and that you might derive some benefit from someone to talk to.” Dr. Newton smiled.
He had only met the man, and already Seamus found himself getting drawn in by Newton’s open, easy manner. His smile was almost infectious. Seamus winced in return.
“That’s all? He didn’t call me a pill-popping, hard-drinking amoralistic pig?”
“Are you those things?”
“Only on my better days. Do you know about my books?”
“I am familiar with your writing but am ashamed to admit I’ve not read any one of your books. There are five?”
Seamus nodded. “But you shouldn’t be ashamed. They are silly, the whole lot of them. Filled with fairies and queens. Fit for kids.”
“You’re your own worst critic.”
“Hardly. I could show you some reviews of my work. They’d take the skin of your back, they’re so scalding. Do you read?”
“I’m more of a mystery buff, when I do read fiction. Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Raymond Chandler, that sort.”
“What’s your favorite novel?”
“Why do you ask?”
“It tells a lot about a man.”
“You said that without hesitation. It’s remarkable. That’s the book that made me want to be a writer.”
“Why is that?”
“Well doc . . . do I call you doc?”
“I have a PhD, but I’m not a medical doctor. You can call me Larry.”
“Seamus. Glad to meet you.”
Dr. Newton smiled.
“Well. . .” Seamus began, and suddenly he felt very self-conscious. He didn’t usually have any difficulty discussing himself. He was his favorite subject, but at the moment he felt exposed, at a loss.
Great, he thought. Writer’s block has made its weary way to my tongue.
“How old are you, Mr. Merriweather?”
“I’ll be forty-five in October.”
“And what is your religious affiliation?”
“Well, my mother was Catholic, and my father is a Jew. You might say I was born confused, and to this day remain committedly so. I am not committed to much else, actually.”
“I’m curious. The name Merriweather. Is it–”
“My father’s last name is Eisenstein. Merriweather was my mother’s maiden name. After she died, I took it as my own. You see, I always felt I was more my mother’s son.”
“How old were you when your mother passed?”
“I was just a kid.”
“How old precisely?”
Seamus didn’t have to think about it. “She died two days after my ninth birthday. What does that say about me?”
“That remains to be seen,” Dr. Newton replied. “The questionnaire you filled out in the waiting room says you are married.”
“I have a son.”
This Seamus had to think about. “He was born in April, or was it May? So that would make him eight or nine, depending on the actual month.”
“Today is May the first.”
“I meant the month my son was born.”
“You don’t know your son’s birthday?”
“My wife and I have been divorced for five years. I haven’t seen much of my son since the divorce.”
“Not even on birthdays and holidays?”
“Sheila, my ex-wife, is a Jehovah’s Witness. They don’t celebrate birthdays or holidays, or so she tells me. And she’s very protective of him, I might even say possessive.”
“Really? How so?”
“Doesn’t let him out of her sight. Doesn’t even trust the housekeeper alone with him.”
“But you are his father. Surely you can be trusted?”
“I am her ex-husband, Larry. She trusts me less than the housekeeper. A housekeeper she can hide her things from. I’ve already stolen from her, she says.”
“What have you stolen?”
“The best years of her life. Her self-confidence. Her faith in men.”
“She says those things?”
“I may be allowing myself a little poetic license, but that’s the gist.”
“Have you made an effort to be a part of Stevie’s life?”
Seamus didn’t answer.
“Back to your mother’s passing. What did she die of?”
“My father killed her.”
Seamus had been looking for a reaction, always got one when he delivered this line at parties, but if Dr. Newton was shocked by these words, his impassive face did not advertise the fact.
“I’m speaking symbolically, of course,” Seamus added.
“I gathered that much. Go on.”
“My mother died of breast cancer.”
“But you hold your father responsible.”
“He was a very abusive man. Still is.”
“Abusive in what sense?”
“He wasn’t physically abusive, couldn’t be. He’s a cripple. Lost a leg to the knee in World War Two. Land mine, I think it was. My mother was his nurse. She married him because she felt sorry for him. They call that by a name, don’t they? That syndrome?
The doctor ignored the question. “Is this what your mother told you?”
“No, but I gathered so much. I can be insightful when the impulse seizes me,” Seamus replied. “My father never forgave her for that. He used to say that he married beneath him! And his family wouldn’t accept her because she wasn’t Jewish, even though they don’t practice their religion, the heretics. Anyway, my father has a tongue like a knife. And he cut my mother very deep. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
“Have you also been wounded, metaphorically speaking?”
“I have thick skin. But my mother was very sensitive. She was an artist.”
“As are you. You are, after all, a writer.”
“My writing has been called many things, doctor. Art was never one of them.”
“So your father verbally abused your mother and in your mind his remarks had something to do with her illness.”
“I’m not a scientist, and I know it could never be proven, but that is what I believe, yes.”
“What did your father say that hurt your mother so?”
“I can’t recall. I blocked it out.”
“Ira mentioned you were having difficulty finishing something you’re working on. A novel. Is this true?”
“Yes, but just because I’ve blocked out the particulars of my father’s cruelty has nothing to do with my writing difficulties, if that’s what you’re getting at. I blocked him out long before I was a writer and I wrote a lot of stuff. Good stuff! Saleable, at least. And I remember a lot of what my father has done, and how he believed my mother to be unfaithful. On her deathbed, he still accused her of imagined infidelities with all sorts of men she’d never even met! She was not unfaithful. It was him. He believed her guilty of his own crimes. He is paranoid and delusional. She was too good for him. He killed her with his hatred. She would not leave him, because of me. She wanted us to be a family, wanted me to have a father, and he was not a great father - not even good - but he was blood, and in my mother’s mind no stranger, however loving and kind, could share that bond. I used to pray that she left him. I used to wish for his death, and in the end it was she that died, and my father lives to torment me!”
Seamus was on the verge of tears. He expected something, consolation, commiseration, something. After all, wasn’t that what therapists were for, to soothe?
“Are you seeing anyone romantically, Mr. Merriweather?”
“No,” he lied. He told himself that technically it wasn’t a lie, as he wasn’t seeing any one - he was seeing any two. Two women, neither of whom did he care to discuss at present, as one was married (to his brother) and the other at only seventeen was jail bait.
“I urge you not to lie to others, or else you’ll never be truthful with yourself. Have you any friends?”
“I spend most of my time writing. Writing entails that I be alone.”
“Any brothers or sisters?”
Somehow the shrink was hitting on all the areas of his life he did not wish to talk about - his father, mother, son, the women in his life, and now his brother.
“One younger brother. Maurice.”
“Are you close?”
“As close as you can get to a degenerate gambler slash small time criminal who has never worked an honest day in his life and lies like most men breathe - continuously, effortlessly, and necessarily.”
“Does that mean you are not close?”
“Currently we are in the process of planning a counterfeiting scam that I masterminded, which if I can go through with it stands to make us hundreds of thousands of dollars in untraceable cash,” Seamus replied. “We have never been closer - or farther apart.”
Why not just let the shrink have it? Seamus thought. Surely the whole patient-therapist confidentiality thing would prohibit Dr. Newton from turning him in. But would it? Seamus was not sure. At length he added, “I’m only kidding.”
But this time Dr. Newton did not say he gathered so much. Instead he said, “About your writing, what is it you’re working on?”
Finally something Seamus was interested in discussing. He wiggled himself up in his chair and leaned forward, rubbing his hands together vigorously. He felt charged with adrenaline. “It’s a great story, really. The best idea I’ve ever had. I take a wicked man, I mean a vicious and cruel son of a bitch, with no moral integrity. A man that would kill his own father if he stood in his way, and this man has a revelation midway through the story that changes him profoundly.”
“He becomes a good man.”
“I didn’t think it was so obvious, but yes, he becomes good. I’d even say great.”
Seamus perked up at the approval. “I’ve written the bad man, described him in perfect detail, down to his most venial sin. I’m at the revelation, the moment of epiphany, the moment that will change his life forever.”
“And you’re stuck.”
“Will you stop completing my sentences! It’s true, I haven’t written a word in two weeks. Actually I’ve written a great many, but all I’m left with is the blank page.”
“If you could change your life in one way, Mr. Merriweather, what would it be?”
“I’d finish writing this story, write it the way it needs to be written, without compromise.”
“The rest would take care of itself.”
“Meaning . . .”
“All my problems would be solved.”
“By your problems you are referring to estrangement from both your father and your son, financial woes, unsavory amorous relationships you care not discuss, possible criminal dealings, and general angst. Am I leaving anything out?”
Seamus fidgeted in his chair. Amazing, he thought. “You’re worth the two hundred buckaroos Ira is paying you for our hour together.”
Dr. Newton ignored the sarcasm in Seamus’ tone because he was not being sarcastic, but only seeming so. It was as close to a compliment as he could bring himself to give.
“So what’s your diagnosis, doc?” The tone in which Seamus phrased the question was intended to be pejorative. Uncomfortable in amicable associations, he always had to say or do something to unsettle the balance. His mother, were she alive, would say that in this way he took after his father. “Has our time together clarified the mess that I am?”
“Actually, I diagnosed you the moment I heard your age.”
“You’re in the midst of a midlife crisis.”
“Me? At forty-four? Impossible. I’m much too young.”
“The average life span for a white American male is roughly eighty years, Mr. Merriweather. Technically, you’re past the mid-way mark.”
“I wasn’t aware.”
“The more you educate yourself about your condition, the more you can make it less painful.”
“My condition? You make it sound as if I am diseased.”
“You’re at a transition in your life. How you choose to confront this transition is up to you.”
“What are my options?”
“I’d like to share something with you.” Dr. Newton fished through the contents of one of his desk drawers and extracted a sheet of paper. “It’s about your condition.”
“Would you stop calling it that!”
Dr. Newton read the following. “‘An emotional state of doubt and anxiety in which a person becomes uncomfortable with the realization that life is halfway over. Commonly involves reflection on what the individual has done with his or her life up to that point, often with feelings that not enough was accomplished. The individual may feel bored with his life, job, or partner, and may feel a strong desire to make changes in these areas. The condition is also called the beginning of individuation, a process of self-actualization that continues on to death. Most common age range is thirty-five to fifty, and in men it lasts about three to ten years. The changing factors which affect personality development include work/career, children, aging parents/death of parents, physical changes associated with aging. Average age of onset is forty-six–’”
“And people accuse me of running late! I’m a year early.”
“‘For males, the trigger for mid-life crisis tends to be work-related. Characteristics of mid-lifers include a search of an undefined dream or goal, desire to achieve a feeling of youthfulness, acquiring of unusual or expensive items–’”
“Which in my destitute straits would not apply.”
“‘Paying extra special attention to physical appearance– ’”
“I could probably use a shave, and a manicure.”
“‘The need to spend more time alone–’”
“Wrong on that account.”
“And a deep sense of remorse for goals not accomplished.’” Seamus put his head down. Dr. Newton set the paper down. “There you are, Mr. Merriweather. How does it fit?”
Seamus shook his head in disbelief. “Midlife crisis? Me?”
“Men in your shoes often seek answers to the meaning of life, a search that ultimately leads to God, whichever God is a matter of personal preference. You said your father was not a practicing Jew?”
“I was raised Catholic by my mother until her death, and I remained so until puberty. Hormones kicked in, and sins of the flesh followed. I was expelled from Catholic school for drinking the blood of Christ.”
“I am assuming by that you mean wine? You do not attend Church?”
“No, but I used to be an altar boy.” Immediately after he said this he wondered why.
“My advice to you, Mr. Merriweather, is to go see a priest.”
“This is great,” Seamus said with a laugh. “My former agent sends me to his shrink who suggests I see a priest. Who will I be sent to next? The Almighty One Himself?”
“If things go well, yes.”
“The Almighty One is you. We are all authors of our own fate, Mr. Merriweather. To write the good, it is necessary first to be good.”
Again, Seamus frowned.
“Ever read Aristotle?”
“Never when the sun is out. He’s much too depressing.”
“In his Poetics, Aristotle writes that authors portray most convincingly the emotions they actually experience, be it love, anger, jealousy, or wickedness. Or, as in your case, virtue. You cannot write the good because your inner meter, as Hemingway calls it, sniffs the bull. This moral character you’re trying to write is not convincing, because you are completely amoral yourself. You have no problem writing the anti-christ personality, because you identify with this character, but in order to identify with the christ persona, you must become good. Right your life, and the story you’re writing will follow.”
“If you knew all this the moment I came in, what’s been the point of the half-hour since?”
Dr. Newton smiled. “As you said, I had to earn my fee.”
“If only you knew,” Seamus muttered.
Seamus took the elevator to his second floor apartment, and he placed the stack of bills on the kitchen counter next to the unwashed dishes filled with roach seed, as he called the crumbs, remnants of take-out sandwiches and week old fried chicken that his body had digested long before the vermin got their first pass. He searched the empty refrigerator after hearing his stomach grumble and realized it was already four in the afternoon and he hadn’t eaten anything all day. With no food to be found, he poured himself a glass of tap water and drank it down in one gulp. He ignored the rusty aftertaste and poured himself another glass, which he didn’t drink. He set the glass down by the sink and scowled at the stack of bills, and at his reluctance to look over them. He had no intention of paying them, had no money, as the first one he opened, when at length he could bring himself to open it, attested. It was his bank statement, and it announced in no uncertain terms that his account balance was in the negative. The account was overdrawn $31.99, including an overdraft fee of $29.99, indicating that he had gone only $2 in the negative.
“Musta been the movie I rented and paid for with my check card,” he said aloud. The movie he had rented was As Good As It Gets, with Jack Nicholson as cynical novelist. He hadn’t gotten through the first ten minutes before he stopped watching. It was too close to home. “Forgot to figure the purchase into my expenses.”
The statement informed him that for each day his account was overdrawn he’d be charged an additional $29.99. He fished through his pockets hoping that his loose change would add up to the delinquent sum, but he found in his jeans exactly eight-four cents. That was what he was worth, as things stood. “Eighty-four was a good year.” It was the year he had lost his virginity. But he didn’t think about his first sexual experience for long. His mind occupied itself with thoughts of pennies. From the time he was eighteen until he began to feel financially in the red - at his divorce at forty - he had thrown away every penny that came into his possession, regarding the cent as a useless denomination. He’d probably thrown away five pennies a day, or $1.50 weekly, which was $75 a year for twenty years, or $1500. Imagine if he had that money now, what he would do! A hot meal. A decent pair of clothes, probably a manicure. He used to be so well-manicured. He scowled at his overgrown fingernails, with their hangnails and their grit. The hands of a menial laborer, and he was a thinking man without a job! What had happened? Where had he gone wrong? What had his life become but a cruel mockery of the fairy tales he had once written with success?
The phone rang. Thinking it was his brother calling to nag him about his involvement in their venture, he let it ring. Maurice was impatient and would never ring more than five or six times. When the phone kept ringing, Seamus had to negotiate the obstacle course that led from the kitchen to the living area and search under a heap of dirty clothes to find the phone at last. It was his ex-wife Sheila on the other end. Instantly he regretted answering it. As they spoke he took the cordless back to the kitchen and flipped through his unopened bills, discarding most of them in the already overstuffed kitchen wastebasket. He hated emptying the trash almost as much as he did doing the dishes.
“Sheila, what a pleasant surprise,” he said flatly.
“Spare me, Seamus. Where is it?”
“To what do you refer?”
Seamus always adopted a certain naivety in his tone when talking to his ex-wife. He wondered how long he had done that, and why.
“I haven’t received a check from you in nearly two months.”
Great, thought Seamus. Another overdue bill to add to the ever-growing stack.
“Just because you got that sleazy lawyer to negotiate the monthly alimony payment down to one thousand, don’t think you can skip out on it altogether. You owe me two thousand in cash. I need the money now.”
“I don’t have it, Sheila my sweet, and if I did, I can assure you I’d need it more than you.”
Sheila’s new boyfriend was a well-to-do stockbroker, more than capable of providing for her excessive needs. Seamus knew it was just to aggravate him that she still demanded any money at all.
“Besides, what could one who has everything possibly need?” Seamus thought this a hackneyed phrase, but he felt trite having to justify his miserable financial predicament to his ex-wife, so the words seemed apropos.
“I’m getting married. I need it for the wedding.”
Despite how he thought he felt about Sheila, his heart sank just a little at these words.
“We are getting married in Maui in two weeks. Your alimony check is our plane fare. Seamus, are you still there?”
Seamus was at a loss for words.
“Mommy, who are you talking to?”
It was the voice of Stevie, Seamus’ young son. Seamus thought he could almost hear it crack. He was only eight or nine, and already his voice was entering adolescence. Seamus didn’t have his first testicular hair until aged fifteen. It amazed him that at half that age his son was a little man. Maybe they were very different. Was he even the boy’s father? What did he look like? It had been so long. Had Sheila been with another man? No. He was the philanderer. She had always been totally faithful, until she had found out about his infidelities, then ran off with Mr. Wall Street big shot, who spoke her native tongue, was even from the same Brazilian city, Rio de Janeiro. Seamus had tried to learn Portuguese but foreign languages did not come easily for him. He lived in the English language, spoke it, wrote it, thought in it. Wore it on his sleeve. To leave it was to cease to be himself. Sheila had always resented him for it. You don’t accept me until you accept my tongue, she had said. But as a Portuguese speaker, he couldn’t get past hello and goodbye. Kind of symbolic of their relationship. Years of greetings, usually taking the form of sex, and then the final bitter farewell.
“Is that Stevie?”
“No, it’s my other eight year old, who just happens to sound like Stephen,” she said with bitter sarcasm.
“Let me talk to him.”
“Not now. He’s busy. Paolo is giving him his Portuguese lesson. Already he writes like he was born in Brazil.”
“Who is it mommy?” Stevie again asked.
“No one, amor. It’s just the garbage man.”
“The garbage man? For Chrissakes, Sheila, I am his father!”
“Not that he is aware, you’re not.” To her son she said, “Go in the other room, Stephen.” And then to Seamus: “He thinks his father is dead. Paolo will be his father. Already they get along like they share the same blood.”
“I’m not dead. I’m very much alive, and I desire to see my son!”
Seamus wondered why the desire to see Stevie was suddenly so strong. He had hardly made an effort to see the boy in the five years since the separation, he liked to think because a former live-in girlfriend had discouraged it, saying she was no babysitter. He liked to think that was why they had broken up. But the truth of it was they broke up because she had found someone younger, richer, better looking. And she hadn’t been to blame. He had never made any effort. He was too wrapped up in himself, in his writing. Even in the first three years of Stevie’s life, when Seamus had been around physically, he wasn’t really there. His thoughts in the clouds, his attention never present, he had hardly acknowledged his son’s existence. But he tried to comfort himself with the notion that parenting was a skill like any other skill, one that needed to be taught, and lacking a healthy father-son relationship of his own, without an adequate father to lead him by example, Seamus had never learned, so he really had never failed, or so he liked to think.
“I demand that you let me speak to my son.”
“You are in no position to be making demands,” Sheila replied. “And why all of a sudden do you care?”
I was just asking myself that very same question, was what he wanted to say, but instead he said, “If you let me see Stevie, I’ll come up with the two thousand dollars I owe you, how’s that?”
“How’s this. You come up with the two thousand you owe me, and I let you see Stephen.”
“Why can’t your new beau support you? Surely two thousand is a pittance to Mr. Wall Street.”
“He can support me, and he will, but you have a debt to me, for what you put me through when we were together, and how hard it was for me to raise our child on my own for so many years. Do you recall in your booze-blunted mind that there was a time in the not too distant past that you would not see our child?”
“I don’t recall handing you my refusal.”
“I’ll refresh your memory, then. I had to pick him up from school, make him breakfast, put him to bed, soothe him, help him with his lessons, do everything short of . . . everything I did! And while working two jobs!”
“You didn’t have to work so hard. I-I--”
“You, you! You insisted I work, even though we didn’t need the money. And what did you do? You drank and womanized. You debased our love! I was loyal to you. I never did anything to deserve the abuse of being your wife. Why do you want to see my son now, and not then, not for all those years, when I needed you?”
“The truth of it is, after we split, it was too painful being a father to our son. Seeing the boy reminded me of you. He looks so much like you.”
“How would you know what he looks like. You hardly see him!”
“I know. Seeing him reminded me of my mistakes, and I just couldn’t face it, but I think I can now. I am more mature.”
“More mature?” Sheila laughed bitterly. “You were forty when we split. You are forty-five now. What is the difference? A few less hairs on your head?”
“Don’t take jabs at me, Sheila! I don’t want to argue, but I have to see my son, I simply must! I have to make up for lost time. I have to make up for my mistakes!”
For a time Sheila was silent. At length she said, “Get me my money and I’ll let you see him, but not as his father. If you let on you’re his father I’ll never let you see him again, is that clear? I’ll take it to court. Paolo has friends in high places. They’ll say you’re unfit to be a parent. You can’t even take care of yourself.”
“Don’t be cruel, Sheila.”
“Cruel? Look at your life. Unless you have a woman to care for you, you can’t even wash your own dishes! I lived with you for five years. You don’t love women, you need them. You look at them for what they can do for you, and only that!” Regarding his dirty dishes, Seamus had to recognize that there was some truth to the accusation.
“And so I’ll say again, come up with the money and I’ll let you see your son. You’ll be his bastard uncle. But on no terms are you to be his father. I don’t want him to grow up confused.”
Before Seamus could protest the phone went dead.
Hanging up, Seamus’ attention was caught by one of the few remaining bills that hadn’t yet made its way into the trash. It was forwarded from his father, whose chicken scratch handwriting he recognized. As a boy he’d taught himself his father’s hand in order to forge his father’s signature on his report cards, which were always less than scintillating. He had practiced so much the chicken scratch had become his own. In this way he also took after his father, his mother would say. Opening the envelope he found it to be a bill for the repair of a rocking chair.
Odd, he thought. I bought that chair for my father last Christmas, and already he has broken it. And if that is not bad enough, he sends me the bill.
He’d have to pay his father a visit. He was overdue at the nursing home, where he made himself go once a month, and the hour he’d sit with his father in silence interrupted by the old man’s defamatory outbursts was sixty minutes of pure agony. But he’d always make himself go, month in, month out, for the sake of . . . he knew not what. Maybe it was the curse of the first born.
His thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door.
The word escaped him before he could disguise the glee the tone conveyed. Why did he feel the need to disguise the pleasure he felt at spending time with her? Was it because she was only seventeen? Was it because society would regard him guilty of an inappropriate association? He’d never been one to care what others thought. Why start now? Was it because when he had met her he was posing as an English tutor, peddling his services in what really was a blatant attempt to meet girls, and young girls, the girls you find at community colleges, aged seventeen to twenty, and she was the youngest of the young? He had considered targeting the local high school, but was deterred by the thought of too many campus police and suspicious parents. Community college was the first foray into adulthood, and he would act as tour guide of life’s sensory delights. But he had told Mallory this the day he met her, when it became clear to both that they got along well, and clear to him that she’d be just a friend, nothing more. He liked her too much to lust after her. Strangely the act of sex for him was rooted in anger. If he didn’t at least feel dislike for the object of his attraction, he ceased to be attracted, the act of sex itself no longer appealing. Perhaps his guilt stemmed from the fact that he did not respond in kind to Mallory’s advances. She was attracted to him - for what reason he couldn’t identify, broke, shabby, and gloomy as he was - but she called him charming. You are looking for a father figure, he had told her. And maybe I’m looking to be a father . . . he had told himself.
They had been physically intimate, but over the course of their three-month part-time affair, the groping and the kissing had lessened in quantity and intensity, and he knew it was all because of him.
“May I come in?” she asked, still standing at the threshold. In his dusty corridor, in her sun dress and with the golden locks of hair framing her clean features, she was like a burst of sunlight in his black life. She giggled as she said the words. She was wearing the white button-up knit sweater he’d bought her for her birthday. He found himself regretting the $70, mourning the sum’s loss, but it became her so that the vision of her wearing it was worth at least that much, maybe more.
They hugged as she entered, and her breath and fragrance were as sweet as her face. From behind her back she presented him with a gift, wrapped in blue shiny paper and wound with an orange ribbon. Blue and orange were his favorite colors. Mallory knew this. She knew many things about Seamus that others didn’t know, things he might have referred to as trivial, but her knowledge of them made them seem somehow significant.
“What is it?” he asked as she handed the box to him.
“But it’s wrapped so perfectly. I’d hate to ruin the perfection.”
“You’re stalling,” she said.
Seamus shrugged and tore it open. He opened the velvet lined wooden box to reveal . . .
“Not just any pen. It’s fountain-tipped, which Stephen King says is the best word processor. I learned that in my American Lit class.”
“Well if Stephen King says it, it must be right. After all, he is the king.”
“I was thinking you could use it to finish your book. It comes with eight ink cartridges. Each cartridge holds like thirty-thousand words, the man at the bookstore told me.”
“That’s like three novels, right in the palm of my hand. Thank you. I type my books, but it’s so sweet of you, really. Thank you.”
For a moment he felt awkward. He hugged her, hoping the gesture would dispel his awkwardness.
“What are you doing buying me gifts anyway? You should be saving your money.”
“I am. Did you notice the symbol?”
The pen’s glistening silver clip was in the shape of a treble clef, the universal sign of music.
“I chose that symbol so that what you write will be a symphony of words,” she giggled.
“Thank you.” He hugged her again. He no longer felt awkward. “What did I do to deserve this?”
“It’s for the term paper you helped me with–”
“Oh, yes. How did that go?”
“I got an A minus!”
“An A minus? What the hell!” He was enfuriated. “What’s the minus for? That paper was perfect!”
“There were some grammatical errors, just a few.”
“Grammar was never my strong suit. I always relied on an editor for that.”
“The grade saved me. I passed the class! Design school here I come!”
Mallory’s dream was to be a fashion designer. She couldn’t afford all four years, so she decided on community college for the first two, and then she’d transfer to design school once she’d earned enough money babysitting.
Seamus hugged her a third time, because it seemed the thing to do. This time Mallory held on a bit long. She breathed into his ear and ran her lips along his cheek, to his lips. The gesture did not seem to fit her, and she performed it a bit awkwardly, Seamus felt, as she kissed him full on the mouth. He recoiled.
“You act like we’ve never kissed!”
“I know we have, but you never grabbed my crotch before!”
During the kiss, her hand had drifted to his groin and given it a firm squeeze.
“Did you like it? I could do it again if you like.”
Seamus felt his loins stir. He backed away and spun round the kitchen counter, so she would not see the impression her hand had left on his growing sex. “I think this writer’s block is going to my head,” he lied, pointing to his crotch which was now shielded from view. If he had to suffer writer’s block he’d use it to his advantage, to get out of encounters he didn’t feel he could go through with. In truth, he was more sexually attracted to Mallory than he’d thought, but his recent conversation with Sheila had inspired him with the desire to be a father, and fathers didn’t have sex with their children, but she wasn’t his child, but she was a child, not yet eighteen.
And so his thoughts ran.
“I’m going through an . . . asexual period in my life. An impotence of sorts.” He wanted to say impotence of the soul, but thought that sounded too symbolic.
Mallory believed his words, and he wondered if lying was worse than having sex, and he thought it was, so he decided to have sex, and telling Mallory he had to get back to work, he went to visit his brother’s wife.
Dolores had been particularly aggressive on this occasion, as digging her long sharp nails into the flesh of his shoulders she had left long scratch marks along both of his arms, and she had tugged his wispy hair until he felt only half of it was left on his head.
Catching their breath they lay atop the bed’s ruffled covers in quiet contentment. Dolores lit a cigarette, offered Seamus one, which he declined. It was a secret habit, his smoking. He wouldn’t even confess it to a priest, if he’d gone to confession, which he wouldn’t do, so he wouldn’t have to. Strangely he thought of the priest at that moment. A certain Father Hennessy, pastor of the parish he’d attended as a Catholic schoolboy, but before he could pursue this thought, or determine why he was having it at that precise moment, the phone rang. Seamus was about to suggest that Dolores answer it when she shook her head no, as if in reply to his thought.
“But it might be Maurice,” he said. “He might get suspicious.”
“It is Maurice. And he won’t get suspicious.”
It was Saturday night, and Seamus knew that Maurice would be in Las Vegas through the weekend, possibly through Monday, which was a holiday. He wondered if Dolores knew how long he’d be gone “on business.” Surely she didn’t know of the Vegas trip. Maurice was rotten at a lot of things, but he was a decent liar.
“Hey, babe,” Maurice’s voice said on the machine. “I’m stuck in Arizona till Sunday night, maybe Monday. The convention got held up due to unforeseen circumstances.” (Maurice’s favorite excuse.) “Miss you, love you.”
Dolores looked at Seamus, raising her eyebrows at him. The expression unsettled him. He felt caught in the middle. His loyalty to Maurice wasn’t strong enough to prevent his amorous affiliations with Maurice’s wife, but wouldn’t allow him to reveal to her the full extent of his brother’s gambling involvement. So Seamus did not know how to reply when Dolores said, “What do you think, from the sound of his voice is he winning or losing?”
“Huh?” was the only reply he could muster.
“I can always tell, you know.”
“You mean you know? And all this time I thought that by not saying anything I was helping my brother out.”
“Who are you kidding? I am a woman.”
“I guess it’s true, then, what they say about a woman’s sixth sense.”
“I don’t know about that, but I am his wife. I have access to his credit card statements. So what do you think, is he winning or losing?”
Seamus thought that Maurice sounded upbeat on the message. “He sounded good. He’s winning. I can’t believe we are having this conversation.”
“You think he’s winning? He’s drunk. He drinks when he’s losing. He’ll have a good roll tonight, a long roll that will give him hope, and he will stay up too late to keep it going and wager too much and he’ll go down further, and he’ll come home early.”
“How do you know all this?”
“He never calls when he’s up. Fears it’ll jinx his roll. He’ll be here tomorrow at noon.”
Seamus felt himself deflate. He had hoped Maurice’s absence would give him another day with Dolores, or night. Night was better.
“He’ll come home and push you harder about this little scam you boys have going,” Dolores said as she propped herself on her elbow and played with Seamus’ chest hair. He felt his chest hair was his best feature, for it covered his worst feature. His concave chest, which carried a scar from where he’d had open heart surgery as a boy, to rectify a dysfunctional heart valve. The surgeons had fixed the defect, but in many ways he was still heart-broken, and in this opinion he knew he was being overly sentimental.
“You know about the scam? Jesus, can we not talk about it?” Seamus implored. “I’m hoping if I ignore it long enough it will go away on its own.”
“You know your brother. He can be persistent when he wants something. That’s how he landed me.” A dark haze overspread her features as she said, “I regret the day I ever laid eyes on the vile cheat.”
She looked away spitefully then came back to him.
“So, have you given any more thought to what we talked about?” she asked.
Now Seamus sat up.
“No,” he said, “because it’s crazy.”
“What’s so crazy about it?”
“You can’t be serious. Maurice may be a lot of things, but he is my brother.”
“Oh come off it, Seamus. He’s a pain in the neck. You said so yourself.”
Seamus had, many times in fact. Maurice only called when he wanted something. And his demands were always outrageous. Case in point, the counterfeiting business. But had that been his demand, or had it been Seamus’ idea all along? He tried to remember the origins of the whole half-baked mess, which didn’t even make sense to him, and he had thought it up (he admitted this to himself after giving the affair a moment of thought).
The scam had been inspired by what Seamus had read about a Korean-made super dollar which the U.S. said served as income and attempt to undermine the U.S. economy but which Korea condemned as the CIA’s attempt to issue a pretext to war (this a direct quote from the article). He had approached the scheme as he would have the preparation for a novel (which he always plotted meticulously), with extensive Internet-based research, and had gotten everything - the red and blue security fibers, the security thread, and watermark, the federal reserve seal, inscribed security thread, treasury seal, and plate number - down to a perfect match, so that even experts would need to study a note intensively before determining it a forgery. The printer was skilled at the intaglio and typographic printing processes used to render the actual American notes. Seamus had even suggested that if met with local success, they might court a North Korean diplomat and funnel bills through the North Korean embassy, which would reimburse the diplomat for his expenses with forgeries intermingled with real U.S. dollars in a one-to-one ratio. Seamus had gotten this idea from a Wikipedia article. He also suggested that they sell the hundred dollar bills for seventy dollars to prospective buyers on the street if things went as planned.
Seamus couldn’t believe he had dreamed up the affair, which he’d been able to distance himself from while his creative urges flowed through the first part of his novel, but when his energies stalled, he had revived the idea in his brother’s mind, and for the last two weeks things had moved with dizzying speed. All he needed to do was make a deposit, and assuming there were no complications, they would be rich, and worry free, and life would be good. Seamus condemned the tequila which he blamed had instilled him with the liquid courage to put the plan into motion.
Bad things happen when I am drunk, he said.
And now he could add possible jail time to the genital herpes that had plagued him since his college days and that commemorated that roll in the hay with the stripper he’d picked up at the bar. The whole thing was taking on a life of its own, and Seamus found it frightening.
I am a writer, for the love of God! I spend my days with lofty ideals and honeyed phrases as companions. What business have I in the underworld of petty theft!
The whole affair had become a vampire, draining his life and energies, causing him to live in fear of the great unknown. Forging currency. How ludicrous was the idea! Ludicrous even more was to go through with it, which the brothers had begun to, enlisting the services of “The Maker,” a man who had designed an exact replica of the US one-hundred dollar bill, and a “materials man,” as they called him, who had access to the fabric from which dollars were fashioned. He turned the two men onto “Mr. Machinery,” who had pieced together the equipment necessary to put template on fabric and with the right kind of ink, made what resembled Benjamin Franklin to the very nose hairs. All that remained was for Seamus to establish a bank account with the cash funds which afterwards would vanish in the system. It was less risky than simply spending the money, as this might be traced. Seamus had done a little research and found that when a bill was deposited in a U.S. bank, the bill’s identification number wasn’t noted at the time of deposit and therefore could not be traced to the person making the deposit. So, after depositing the sum – and as a writer he had made large deposits in the past, so it wouldn’t look suspicious – he could thereafter make withdrawals and distribute the new bills among the participants in the scheme: the maker, the material’s guy, Mr. Machine, and the Bruise Brothers, who Maurice had recruited to see to it that nobody sniffed around the whole affair. It was ironic that depositing money in a bank would leave less of a trace than making random purchases, but that was a loophole in the system, the governing belief being that a money forger would seek to spend his wares indiscriminately, rather than deposit them in the U.S. bank he was in the end robbing.
As Seamus saw it, making the initial deposit, he was the guinea pig, but it had been his idea, and he was, after all, the only one without a criminal record, so he was the safest bet. But they are betting on my life, he thought. And yet, what life do I really have? If he made a small enough initial deposit, in the amount of, say, one thousand dollars, even if caught the punishment was a slap on the wrist, a couple months at most, and in a white collar country club of a prison, which Maurice pointed out would be a step up from the decrepit shack that was his current home. And the Bruise Brothers had connections in the joint. They’d see to it he got the royal treatment, if such existed. He’d be out on good behavior, probably leave before he wanted to. It was a sure thing. But to Seamus it was criminal, and though he had done his fair share of lying and cheating, he had never stolen, so it was a step down, and prison, regardless of what his brother, who had been there, made it seem, was still prison, meaning one couldn’t leave if one so desired. And he valued his personal freedom. Granted he was currently miserable, but he consoled himself with the admission that misery was at that point in his life, and for reasons he was unaware, his choice. In prison there was no choice but to remain until the sentence was served, and yet, no matter how bad his life as free man could become, at least he was still free.
“Seamus!” Dolores shouted. “Where are you!”
“I’m sorry,” he said, shaking himself out of his reverie. “Dolores means pain in Spanish, doesn’t it? What were we talking about?”
“We were talking about my soon-to-be dead husband.”
“Yes, Maurice. Maurice is a pain in the neck, but he’s your husband.”
“Not if you kill him. Then you can be my husband. I won’t even have to change my last name.”
“My brother and I don’t use the same last name, Dolores. You know this. Besides, why do you hate him so much? I mean, I have a reason for hating the man who over the years has stolen thousands from me, has tarnished my reputation through association with his criminal friends, has invaded my living space, and wrecked my automobiles. But what has he done to you?”
Seamus forgot that Maurice had committed the worst of all a married man’s crimes. He had cheated on Dolores. Seamus forgot this because Maurice had not actually cheated on Dolores. Seamus had only told Dolores that his brother had had an affair - while on a business trip, as the details went, and with a stewardess staying overnight at his airport hotel. This was a story Seamus had tried to embellish but grew tired midway through the telling, and thought it better to make the made-up infidelity a one-time thing because otherwise it would require maintenance and modification in the form of additional lies, and he didn’t have the energy for this, as his imagination wasn’t particularly robust of late. In short, Seamus had lied to Dolores in order to arouse her ire, as he knew that the passionate woman she was, operating by the eye-for-an-eye motto, would take Maurice’s eye out on Seamus, and it had worked. Upon word of her husband’s purported infidelities, she ran for consolation into another man’s arms, the nearest man’s arms, Seamus being the nearest man. He knew she was not attracted to him. Each session of sex was a fuck you to her fucking husband, each pelvic thrust punctuating her anger and leaving no room for doubt. He knew she wouldn’t marry him if Maurice were dead, was just using the prospect of marriage to bait him. And yet it wasn’t bait he’d bite at. He’d married once, and once had been enough.
As Seamus lay beside his brother’s wife, he reflected that he wasn’t a violent man, and certainly not a killer, and yet he found himself considering his brother’s death, if he could find a way to perpetrate the deed without a bloody mess. And why did he have such a thought? Again his mind returned to the half-baked counterfeiting scam. He finally admitted to himself that he didn’t have the courage to commit the crime - if courage were warranted - and was too cowardly to confront the Bruise Brothers who Maurice warned him lurked behind his refusal. And by killing Maurice, if Maurice were out of the picture, everything bad about his life would disappear. The Bruise Brothers wouldn’t want to be associated with a murder investigation, and this would send them on the run and out of his hair. And just like that, crime and criminals would disappear, and only the killer would be left. Seamus shuddered at the thought.
“I can’t go through with it,” he told Dolores after she expressed her anger in colorful expletives at the lying cheating son of a . . . and so on that Maurice was. Hearing these expletives, Seamus could feel naught but shame. He had ruined the one good thing in Maurice’s life. What Maurice had with Dolores was genuine, and now that she saw him as cheater, their relationship was ruined. And he’d done it all for sex, and while telling Mallory how asexual he felt. And he realized his life was a web of deceit, and it was he that was caught within.
Another round of sweet albeit adulterous lovemaking made him forget about his problems for a time. But before she would let him leave, Dolores pointed out that if he didn’t come up with a workable plan for murder, the sex they just had would be their last. Seamus knew that his addiction to her flesh was greater than his aversion to death, greater also than the love he felt for his brother, and he knew he would think of a plan.
“Very nihilistic of you,” Seamus responded, for this was how his father answered the “How are things” with which Seamus had greeted him.
“Waiting for death, same as always.”
Their relationship was essentially loveless, and after so many years, they’d given up pretense and spoke baldly with one another, senior more so than junior, perhaps because senior was more bald.
“Nurses treating you well?”
“Better than my own sons, the ingrates, and they’re more pleasant too. I haven’t heard from Maurice since he sent me some postcard from the Bahamas, almost a year ago.” Maurice had never been to the Bahamas. It was just one of his lies. “How’s his lovely wife, Dolores?”
“I assume well. I don’t see her much.”
Seamus wondered whether he still smelled of her sex. He hadn’t showered since the previous night’s amours.
“Why are you here?”
“It’s that time of month, dad.”
Funny choice of words, comparing the visit to a woman’s menstruation, and fitting: whenever he visited his father, he felt on the rag.
Seamus always visited his father at or around the first of the month. It was one of the few areas in his life in which he abided by a schedule. Scheduling his visits was the only way to assure they would occur. Otherwise he would likely forget about his father, block him out. But he felt compelled to visit, out of respect for his father’s seed. I am obliged to love you, but not to like you, he once thought of saying but never did. There were a lot of things he felt but never said. What he did say was:
“I received this in the mail.” He laid the opened bill on his father’s lap. His father put his glasses on and took a moment to recognize it for what it was.
“Why are you giving this to me?”
“It was originally addressed to you.”
“And I sent it to you.”
“I figured you might have done that by mistake.” One of your increasingly frequent episodes of senility, he felt like saying. He had to restrain himself from being cruel.
“Your chair broke. I had the courtesy to get it fixed, and I sent you the bill.”
“My chair? I bought it for you.”
“And it broke!” his father barked back.
“You broke it.”
“I sat on it and one of the moldy, rickety wooden legs cracked.”
“And that is my fault?” Moldy and rickety? I could say the same thing about your leg, you ingrate!
“Yes it is your fault. The chair is cheap. If you had invested in a chair of better quality, it wouldn’t have broken, and you wouldn’t have to pay to get it fixed. A real pain in the ass, getting it fixed, by the way. Took me forever to find the receipt. Then I had to call the company. It’s not easy getting access to a phone around this dump. Then they had to come pick it up. I had no chair for two days, had to spend them in bed. Consequently, I have bed sores.” He shook his head. “You’ve always caused me grief, Seamus. Why can’t you be more like your brother Maurice?”
“Oh here we go–”
His father had never acknowledged his literary successes, calling writing a waste of time. He believed Maurice to be the real success in the family. Selling door to door, just like his father. Now that was work. The real way to earn one’s daily bread was not by sitting around all day dreaming of fairies and elves. It was humiliating!
“And I am humiliated to be your father! You know, Sheila was the best thing that ever happened to you, and you found a way to mess that up!”
“Do you ever think of my mother?” was what Seamus wanted to ask, but he knew the response would enrage him, didn’t want to soil his mother’s name by hearing it on his father’s tongue. Standing there, he tried to look at his father, really see him for what he was, past his resentment, past all the past, just see him for the man he was. He was not able to do it. He just saw his mother’s murderer, a thief who had stolen from him the only one he had ever truly loved. And so, all he said was, “I will pay the bill. Goodbye, dad.”
Leaving the home, Seamus dropped the bill into the trash and heading for the subway tried to block his father from his mind.
It was a bright day and walking in the sun lifted his spirits somewhat. He walked aimlessly, not thinking of where his feet would take him, past the delis and the vintners and the outdoor markets, through construction zones and streets teeming with cars and people. His feet led him to the church he’d attended when he used to attend church, thirty years ago. It was Sunday, and the church was empty, between Masses. He went in.
Father Hennessy would be an old man now, he thought as he made his way to the front of the church. He thought about how he as altar boy used to assist Father Hennessy at Mass, and how the priest would visit Seamus’ Catholic school and urge students towards a life of good. Seamus remembered how much he had liked the man. There was something about his gentle face, soft voice, something soothing. But Seamus didn’t listen to the sermons. His mind would wander. To girls, and sports, and his comic books.
Seamus found Father Hennessy in the first pew and sat next to him. The smell of incense wafted round them. He remembered that it was customary for the priest to pray in the pew. Many priests wouldn’t let the congregation watch them pray. They wanted to create a distance between themselves and the common man, as though they prayed to God on different terms, not on the knees, with lowered head, closed eyes, and muffled voice.
He didn’t want to disturb the father in his prayer, but just after he seated himself, Hennessy turned to him and placing his hand on Seamus’ shoulder said, “Seamus, nice to see you!”
“You remember me?”
“Of course. I remember everyone whose life I touch, and whose life touches mine. You were an altar boy. You assisted me at many a Mass.”
Seamus marveled at how in thirty years Father Hennessy had not changed. His thick hair was white then, it was just as thick and white now, his face, creased from worry over his parishioners, Seamus presumed, had gained a few more creases, and more care. His water blue eyes seemed to see into one’s soul. Seamus wondered what they saw in his.
“That was a long time ago. I’m afraid I’ve changed.” Seamus had nothing in common with the thirteen year old he was when Hennessy had seen him last. “In ways I can hardly recognize myself.”
“Your spirit is still the same.”
“My spirit?” Evidently Father Hennessy could see into one’s soul.
“You were always such a spirited boy - if a little mischievous. How are things now?”
“Not too good. That’s why I’m here.”
“Yes. Thank the Lord for misfortune. It keeps us close to God.”
“Well then I’ve never been closer. Never been further away either.”
“I feel a confession coming on,” the priest said, with jovial eyes.
As a boy Seamus had been required with his class to once a month confess his sins to Father Hennessy. When it came his turn, he would always recite the same sins, generic ones, whether or not he had been guilty of committing them. I said a bad word. I didn’t do my chores. I kicked the dog, forgot to pray, and so on. The real sins, the lustful thoughts, excessive masturbation, bouts of shoplifting, forged signatures, pot-smoking, he’d never confess to. That was private. It had never dawned on him when he was a boy that in lying in his confession, he was compounding his sins, rather than being absolved of them.
“I’m not much of one for confessionals,” Seamus said.
“Yes, I remember. Always the same sins with you. Chores. Dogs. Bad words. Every time.”
Seamus was amazed by the man’s powers of recollection. Had Seamus such powers, there was no telling what he could have done with his life. Thinking about it, Seamus was at a loss to name a single profession that required heightened powers of recollection, but knew there must be several.
“Don’t consider it a confession,” Father Hennessy said. “Think of it as a conversation, one that you are having with yourself, with God listening. And we don’t have to enter the confessional. In fact, I’d rather we didn’t. I’ve spent years of my life in its small confines, and I’ve never gotten over the claustrophobia it causes me. But as I said, a bit of suffering keeps us close to God.”
“What about a lot of suffering?”
“A lot of suffering could lead a man astray. Too much suffering and we lose our hope, and our faith, and our desire to do good.”
“I think I’ve lost my desire to do good, if I ever had it, and it’s really causing me a lot of problems. Too much suffering, Father. Too much suffering.”
“Before there was suffering, what was there? What was its cause?”
Seamus thought about it for a moment. He carried angst around with him like a coat of arms. He forgot how life had been before, or what had caused him to put his coat on. At length he said, “I think that I don’t have any love in my life.”
Father Hennessy considered this. Seamus hoped he wouldn’t deliver a long sermon. If he did, his mind would surely drift. He thought, feared, that the priest might mention Seamus’ mother, who had been very active in the church, having served as Altar Society president. But instead Father Hennessy only said, “To bring love into your life, you must start by loving yourself.”
“I don’t know, Father. I mean, look at me. I’m shabby, unkempt, with terrible manners, sloppy habits, and total self-absorption. I’m really not all that lovable.”
“God loves us all.”
“Easy for you to say. You’ve devoted your life to good. You’re easy to love. I’ve been selfish all my days.”
“See for yourself where you stand in God’s eyes.”
“How do I go about that?”
“For your penance–”
“My penance.” Seamus dreaded the word, which called to mind Hail Maries he had recited as a boy, or said he would recite and never did.
“This was an informal confession, and confessions bring penance.”
“Okay, then. Let’s have it. How many Our Fathers do you want me to repeat.”
Seamus wondered whether he could remember the words to the Lord’s Prayer.
“For you penance, I’d like you to read God’s gift to Moses. The Ten Commandments. Do you remember them?”
“Oh, lessee–” Seamus tried to recall them.
“No, not now. On your own time, in private. Do you own a Bible?”
“I’ll have to look.”
“Here, take mine.” Father Hennessy took the leather-bound book by his side and extended it to Seamus.
“I can’t take your copy. I couldn’t possibly . . .”
“I always have an extra one lying around, for moments such as these,” he said with a gentle smile. “Take it.”
Seamus took the Bible.
“Read the Ten Commandments, Seamus. See where you stand in God’s eyes.”
“I will, if this is my penance. But I have a hunch it won’t be high.”
“Do you remember the story of Paul of Tarsus?”
“Paul is my middle name.”
“Paul is your namesake.”
“Paul is a biblical figure? I can’t say that I remember.” It pained Seamus that he did not know about the man after whom he’d been named, if indeed his mother had had biblical Paul in mind when granting him his middle name.
“Paul of Tarsus was one of the earliest Christian missionaries. He came to faith through a vision of the resurrected Jesus while on the road to Damascus.”
“I vaguely remember the story,” Seamus lied. In truth he had not the slightest idea what the priest was talking about. He felt restless, and wanted to get up and leave. But something made him stay.
“Paul was a prolific contributor to the New Testament. He was given the name Paul by Christ. His name had been Saul before his conversion to Christianity. As Saul, he was a notorious persecutor of the church. That is, until his conversion on the road to Damascus, when after a bolt of light from the skies brighter than the Sun, he heard Jesus say to him, ‘Why do you persecute me?’ These words blinded him more than the Sun’s rays, and he did not regain his vision until his baptism.”
“Well, like Saul, I am blind.”
“Like Paul, you will contribute greatly to the word of God.”
“Thank you for your faith in me. It means more than you know. My own father–” Seamus did not finish his sentence. Overcome with emotion, and with Father Hennessy’s Bible in hand, he left the church, and ran home.
“I must have thrown it away without thinking. How little I think these days. How exhausting thinking can be!”
Evidently the bill was past due long enough for the telephone company to disconnect the phone, this Seamus concluded without so much as a thought as he let out a sigh and headed over to his dusty couch, where he seated himself and placed Father Hennessy’s Bible atop his lap. He searched haphazardly, absentmindedly through the crisp pages. The Bible was new, had never been opened, a gift for him, meant for him, almost as though the priest had expected Seamus that day in the church.
“Ten Commandments. That’s pre-Jesus Christ, so it would put it in the Old Testament somewhere.”
The Old Testament was over five hundred pages and nearly forty books. Seamus opted for the Internet. It took him exactly three minutes to locate the Ten Commandments on the computer. He wondered whether Father Hennessy had ever used the Internet. He didn’t look like the type. The Internet had come into vogue when the priest was already well into senior citizen status. He hoped Hennessy would not think the gift in vain if he knew that Seamus hadn’t used it. He promised himself to read at least a passage or two. No, better yet, he’d read the Commandments in the priest’s Bible, now that he had the book and the verse.
He reseated himself on his dusty couch with a sense of accomplishment. For a man who had not been able to work in weeks, doing something as little as finding a biblical verse seemed a tremendous feat, and he congratulated himself. He looked out his dirty window at the 9th Avenue traffic and noted that what had been such a pretty day looked miserable when viewed through his windows, covered as they were with soot and grime and cobwebs. He opened the windows and regarding the night sky, he took in a breath of air. It smelled of exhaust, and he coughed. He tried to locate a star or perhaps the moon in the heavens, but found there none. The world was forsaken.
“I should get out of this city,” he told himself. “But this is where the publishing world thrives. Oh, but what does that matter. I’m not an agent or a publisher. I can write wherever I choose. I can rent a lodge in the mountains, or a villa by a vineyard, or . . . I’m wandering again. I’ve got to stay on point.”
Turning back to the Bible, he found the book in which the Ten Commandments were located. In more ambitious times he’d have read a few passages before, to get the back story of Moses, the burning bush, and . . . he forgot the rest of the story, found that he didn’t particularly care. He’d just read the ten themselves, and his penance performed, he’d be in better standing in God’s eyes, which he hoped would mean something.
The Ten Commandments appeared in two different books, Exodus and Deuteronomy. Glancing over the text, he found the language strange and could not remember the interpretation he’d been made to memorize in 6th grade Bible Studies. Again he found himself at the computer, and located a web page with the Ten Commandments in simpler, modern terms. Dumbed down, he thought to himself, like Shakespeare for kids. Was he in the midst of his mid-life crisis, as Newton had referred to it? Regressing to his childhood? In any event he read the Commandments to see, as Father Hennessy had said, how he ranked in God’s eyes. It was fitting that the Commandments belonged to the Old Testament, which was accepted by Catholics and Jews alike, in contrast to the New Testament, which Jews tended to ignore. The New Testament told of Jesus, and the Jews believed their Messiah was yet to come, or at least that was how Seamus remembered it. He somehow felt comforted by the fact that as a Catholic and Jew, he would be reading what was acceptable to both, common ground, in keeping with his upbringing. He was by nature a skeptic, and in recent years he bordered on atheism. There must not exist a God, for if there was, he would not create someone like me, was what he had often told himself. He knew he was wallowing in self-pity, and yet this knowledge did little to lessen the intensity of the emotion those words conveyed.
Seamus read the Ten Commandments, one by one, to see how he stood. After having scrolled through several interpretations of the individual meanings of each of the ten, he decided to interpret them how his fancy saw fit, or how he thought they applied to him. He needed a yard stick, as in his own eyes, he wasn’t measuring up. Let’s see if God holds the same opinion.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the Land of slavery.”
And the First Commandment read You shall have no other Gods before me.
How to interpret that? Seamus had no god, bordering as he did on atheism, so he was not in violation, was he? But not believing in God made him guilty, for their was not a God for him to put others before. His guilt was glaring when he considered the many gods he did worship, in the symbolic sense of the word. Money, fame, red wine, a good filet (when he could afford it). Sex. Those were his gods, at whose altar he gave praise, in the symbolic sense of the terms altar, god, and praise. If he were a batter at the plate, he’d be oh for one.
The Second Commandment ran a paragraph long. It’s essence was: You shall not carve any idol to worship.
He was assuming this meant the worshiping of sculptures and statues, which didn’t apply to him, who steered clear of sculptures and statues, and didn’t have the money to buy either. He allowed himself a self-satisfied smile.
I’m one for two. Batting five hundred. Not too bad.
But again the symbolist in him took hold. He was involved in a counterfeiting scheme, coining money that would bring him great wealth - if all went as planned, and if he could bring himself to go through with the plan, and not get caught. He was engraving, or arranging to be engraved, money, one of his many false gods, to worship.
As a man who had lied to himself (and to others) all his life, it was best once and for all to allow himself a little honesty, and his conscience called him guilty of the violation of Commandment Two.
Three: You shall not take the name of God in vain.
God damn it to hell was Seamus’ frequent refrain in these days of literary famine.
Guilty. Oh for three.
Seamus was finding as he went along that he was less able to justify himself or to excuse his transgressions. It was as though he were being judged by a cold, impartial intelligence that was his own but was at the same time separate and distinct from his ego, which was rooted in its instinct for self preservation. It was as though his ego was dying, and he felt himself dying, and with his ego and himself went his hope in his goodness. What had Father Hennessy done? Was this penance some evil ploy to turn him against himself, or was he being brought to justice by himself? He didn’t know, but felt compelled to go on with his Biblically-guided process of self-evaluation.
Commandment Four: Keep the Sabbath day holy.
The Lord was said to have created the earth in six days, and to have rested on the seventh, and so should man, using the Sabbath (Saturday or Sunday, depending on one’s interpretation) as a day of rest, worship, and reflection. When Seamus wrote, he wrote all seven days. When he wrote, he was always writing, and writing was his work. Before today, he hadn’t set foot in a place of worship in thirty years, hadn’t prayed in equally as long, and when he had prayed, prayer for him had been simply going through the motions. What he did do on the weekends - both Saturday and Sunday - was to drink himself into oblivion and have more sex than he did or could during the week. This worship of his body didn’t seem the worship God had in mind. Guilty, his conscience decreed. His conscience was developing a voice of its own, and the voice of his conscience condemned him. If the Sabbath were to be a day spent with family - some interpreted it that way - he was guilty of failing to fulfill it on that account as well.
Zero. For. Four, he pronounced.
If this were a ball game, the game would be over. He would be a loser. It wasn’t over. Six commandments waited to stamp themselves on his conscience. Seamus rose from his computer and sulked around his apartment, noting once again its dreariness and disarray.
This place is like a dungeon, he said to himself. The term hellhole came to mind.
By living in such a mess, I’ve been punishing myself for crimes that only now I realize I’ve committed.
His conscience compelled him back to the computer screen, and he read the Fifth.
Honor your father and mother.
He loved his mother with his soul and cherished her memory, which sustained him in the most troubled of times, but he despised his father, and this feeling fresh within him, rekindled after the recent hour spent in the presence of the miserable man, he pronounced himself half guilty. Fifty percent is a failing grade, his days as student had taught him. Guilty of the fifth. Things weren’t looking too good. He ventured on, compelled to the ultimate end, which he already sensed, his glaring amorality, wickedness, revealed to him in all its stark . . . nakedness. That was a redundancy. His literary powers were failing him. He couldn’t even wax eloquent about his moral ineptitude.
Six: You shall not murder.
“Jesus Christ!” Seamus screamed, and he condemned himself for this his most recent violation of Commandment Two. The whole plan to kill his brother Maurice, and for Dolores, Maurice’s wife, came glaringly back to his mind, the terribly plan which he conceived as a form of lip service, to prolong her sweet caresses, keep the dream, despicable to him now, of their togetherness alive. But the sex was so good. He would almost call himself an addict, if he’d had an addictive personality, which he didn’t. But would the prospect of losing Dolores drive him to murder his own brother? If the murder were clean and simple, and pain free, he thought he could do it. He had already researched the means, had in mind several poisons and their mode of administration which would end his brother’s life. Painlessly, he comforted himself to think. But the notion of murder was not at present very comforting. In fact it plagued him, calling to mind the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, one brother slaying another to achieve a selfish end. But the plan had built such momentum, and Dolores was so insistent. She hated her husband, and all because Seamus had made him out to be something he was not. The truth was that, all his energies directed towards the gaming tables, Maurice had nothing left to desire in another woman. Dolores was his everything. He truly loved her. And Seamus had desecrated that love, by making Dolores believe that her husband had violated the sanctity of their marriage.
God, am I corrupt.
Again a violation of number two. Even in an admission of his own guilt Seamus stood guilty some more. Could he indeed bring himself to take a life, and his own flesh and blood’s for that matter? Phrasing it this way, he didn’t think so, but he feared his mind would change when next he’d be locked in passionate embrace with Dolores. Maybe that time wouldn’t come. But he couldn’t say no to her. He was addicted to her flesh. He had an addictive personality when it came to her. She was yet another of the gods he worshiped and placed before a god he didn’t believe in.
Moving along. . .
The seventh commandment was against adultery.
Speak of the devil.
Better to mention the devil than once again to utter God’s name in vain. He felt close to the devil now, in violation of Commandments one through seven as he was.
Eight: You shall not steal.
Reference again to the counterfeiting scam, half-baked though it was, which if taken to completion could result in thousands of stolen dollars.
Please let me be innocent of one. One is all I ask.
Commandment Nine. Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Seamus took the term bearing false witness to mean lying. Neighbor meant fellow man, fellow brethren. His brother. He had lied to his brother’s wife about his brother, misrepresenting Maurice for his own adulterous, lascivious, malicious gain. Guilty again.
And then there was one, the Tenth Commandment, which he hoped would hold his salvation, for if he were innocent on one account, there would be hope.
The Tenth Commandent read, Do not covet your neighbor’s wife or goods.
Not fair! Seamus thought. By breaking the Seventh, I have shattered the Tenth. Covet is desire. I desired Dolores before I bore false witness against Maurice in order to commit adultery with her.
“Jesus Christ!” he said again, breaking number Two. He was on a roll. “I am a living breathing violation of God’s sacred covenant with man. All Ten Commandments I have defiled, and I stand condemned.”
With a casualness which surprised him, Seamus tossed aside the sacred scripture. It landed on the floor. That was probably a sin, too, he thought.
“I am a bad man,” he lamented. “At least I still have promise as a writer.”
And his eyes moved in their sockets and fixated on the computer, where his open document glowed at him. It was unfinished, but it was proof of his possibility. If he could redeem himself as a writer, maybe in God’s eyes he’d be redeemed as a man. The thought occurred to him that he should save the document to disk. He hadn’t done so. Somewhat superstitious, he held the notion that a work shouldn’t be saved until it was completed, as to save it was to etch it in stone, symbolically speaking. But the first part of the novel, all two hundred pages, he’d read and reread so much as to be of the mind that it was a finished work, could almost stand on its own. And so he peeled himself from his dusty couch with the intention of saving the finished first part, but before he made it to the computer, the lights went out.
Odd, he thought, that all the bulbs in the apartment should expire simultaneously. But then he noticed that his computer screen ceased to glow. Odd, he thought, that my screen’s bulb should be on the same clock.
And then the thought of unpaid bills occurred to him. Specifically the unpaid power bill. And he prayed - wrong term, as he hadn’t prayed in thirty years - that the curious shortage was not what he was increasingly suspecting. But it was. The power had gone out. And with it, his computer. And with it, the finished first part of the next great American novel. And with it, all of his remaining faith in himself, in his work, and in God, vanished.
And Seamus slouched on his dusty couch in his dark apartment, illuminated only by the distant lights of the city, which seemed so far away, another world.
“I’m dying,” he cried. “I’ve died and gone to hell.”
Dramatic words, but he was in a dramatic mood, fatalistic even. And all he could do was sleep, and before he could sleep, he felt the compulsion to offer a prayer to God, the first in thirty years. And in his prayer he wished for it all to end. An end to his misery. His frustration. And end to him.
“Oh God, if you grant one sinner his only wish, grant me death. I know I have hell to pay, but even hell is more inviting than the life on earth I have fashioned for myself!”
And closing his eyes, he slept.
“Funny,” he thought. “I don’t remember leaving the phone on the counter.”
The evening prior, initially disgusted by what he felt was the telephone company’s impetuosity at disconnecting his bill after sending only six warning notices, he had flung the phone in the direction of a potted plant. Missing the potted plant it caromed off a bookcase and came to rest in a corner of his rubble heap. He later felt guilty about this rash display of anger, uncharacteristic of a man of mild temperament but ever more frequent, and picked the phone up and placed it on the floor by the couch, where it had remained while he slept, or so he thought.
Picking up the phone, which had a dial tone - so it wasn’t his imagination, it had actually rung - he then placed it back on its body and was struck by another revelation.
This is not my phone.
Indeed it wasn’t. It was a black old model phone, not of the cordless variety. Outdated, but it suited the apartment nicely, he thought. And looking around the apartment, he said, “This is not my apartment.” And indeed it wasn’t. The basic layout was the same. Front door leading to bedroom on the right, and on the left, kitchen leading to living room. But this apartment was well-lit, and it was neat. Very neat. A place for everything, and everything in its place, was the phrase that came to Seamus’ mind.
Where am I?
He mosied around the apartment, amazed at how much room there was to move, without books and stacks of unfinished manuscripts and dirty dishes and half-eaten pizzas and piles of wrinkled garments to litter the way. He walked to the window, which was clean, to behold the city, which was New York, or so the cabs and the license plates on the cabs said, but it was not the New York of the night before. Something was out of place. He was out of place. Out of time.
Where am I?
And at this moment he happened to pass a mirror and when he beheld his image, he gasped.
Who am I?
For in the mirror’s reflection he beheld a fat man, with spectacles (Seamus preferred contact lenses, practically never wore his glasses, except when he chose to look dignified, which was rare), and most noticeably a full head of hair. The man he beheld in the mirror, his reflection, was neatly attired in a robe and slippers, not in the soiled white t-shirt and holey denim jeans Seamus had worn the night before.
What the hell?
And he rushed over to the kitchen, hoping to find there a stack of bills. His kitchen had a stack of bills, he presumed this kitchen did as well. But it did not. All he was able to find was a framed plaque with a newspaper in silver, which read, “To Ernest M. Shelby, for excellence in reporting. 1942.”
Who the hell is Ernest Shelby?
Ernest Shelby was a familiar name.
Distant relative? No. Family friend. Nope. Creditor? Not that either. Wait. Ernest Shelby is a character in my novel!
And when he saw a framed picture of Ernest Shelby - it sat next to the plaque and featured the man wearing a suit at his office desk - he realized it.
I am Ernest Shelby.
The mirror’s image matched the face in the frame. And after a breathless moment, he burst out laughing.
I must be dreaming!
And he laughed so much it hurt, and the pain in his sides led him to the opinion that this was a very realistic dream.
I hardly dream...
This was true.
He made straight for the refrigerator, which was well supplied with an assortment of edible delights. Lox. Cream cheese. His favorite bagels. Caviar. Left over take-out. Prime rib.
He made himself a sumptuous banquet of a breakfast and said to himself as he savored a bite, “I wish I dreamt more often.”
The phone rang again. He did not answer it. He was too consumed by the consuming of his food to have another care in the world.
If it’s important, they’ll call back.
After he had eaten his fill, and even cleaned up, which was unlike him, inveterate slob that he was, he seated himself in a mahogany chair and lit a pipe. Seamus was not a pipe smoker. He had never lit a pipe before, much less smoked one.
“What a shame,” he said to himself, as he enjoyed methodical puffs of the Persian tobacco. “A pipe is one of life’s exquisite pleasures.” It was for Ernest Shelby, as he had written it, and now it was for him. And as he watched the tendrils of smoke dance and sway along the walls, he thought of the phone, and its curious ringing.
Funny, this is just how I began my novel. Ernest M. Shelby, reporter extraordinaire, awakens in his tidy apartment in World War II New York to a phone call from the editor of his newspaper, who announces that Salamander Rex, convicted criminal who fascinates Shelby and whom he’s been following for months, every detail of his life and crimes taking down, has just been let out of prison, acquitted for the charge of money counterfeiting - of which Rex was of course guilty, but had a clever and crooked attorney to get him off the hook. What a resemblance to my story!
Seamus had written that Shelby hadn’t answered the phone the first or second time because he had a large breakfast and pouch of tobacco to attend to first, but the phone would ring a third time, and Shelby would answer.
The phone rang a third time, and despite himself Seamus rose and answered it.
“Ernest,” said the voice of his editor. “Flash! Rex is a free man! Meet me at the courthouse ASAP!”
Seamus did not say a word after his initial Hello?, and before he could utter a response the line went dead.
Well, I don’t know where the courthouse is. Well, I do actually. I mapped it out in my mind before writing Chapter One. It’s within walking distance. Two blocks down, and one over. On the right. Across the street from the diner. But at the moment I have no pressing desire to go anywhere, or do anything, other than remain in this tidy apartment, and help myself to another serving of . . . strange, the consistency of my dream. It all happens in the novel exactly as I’ve just experienced. In Chapter Two I do go to the courthouse. Shelby does, I mean.
And momentarily Seamus shivered at the verisimilitude.
I’m glad I don’t dream very often. Dreams can get a little unsettling.
He settled himself on the sofa, which was distinctly not dusty.
Never before in a dream had he the knowledge that he was dreaming.
This gives me freedom, this knowledge. Knowing it is a dream, I can do or say as I please, without fear of consequences.
The thought contented him.
He wished his boss would call back. He’d tell him off. He’d written the boss as a cantankerous widower who took his misery out on the reporters.
If he calls back, I’ll tell him I quit, and spend the rest of this dream living a life of ease and pleasure, consequence free, debt free, and happy. In fact, I think I’ll call and announce my resignation, effective herewith!
But he found he didn’t know the number to the office, not offhand. Shelby had never used it in the story. And Seamus had never written it.
I’ll tell him later. For now I’ll just have the intention of tendering my resignation, and I’ll remind myself to do so at the appropriate time.
He was hungry again, and he decided to spend the day consuming the contents of Ernest M. Shelby’s well-stocked fridge, but just as he was about to put a rolled up piece of smoked salmon in his mouth--
Seamus awakened at the moment he was to take the first delectable bite of the second helping of lox, to find his hands empty. He sat on his dusty couch, in his rubble heap, wearing the stained shirt and holey jeans of the night before. He looked out the grime besmeared window to find that it was midday, in Midtown, in modern day New York.
He shook the sleep from his heavy head and rubbed his weary eyes to behold the obstacle course of books, papers, dirty plates and other junk and proclaimed inwardly, “I’m home.” He was not rejoicing. When he compared his dreary living conditions, his reality, with the reality of Ernest M. Shelby, he was left to despair. Where were the silk robe and leather slippers, the pipe, the refrigerator replete with refreshments? Sprawled along his dust-soaked couch, without the energy to lift himself, he tried to think back on how he had gotten himself into his present plight, and as ever, he was at a loss.
“I am lost,” he cried, inwardly of course, as saying the words out loud would make them too real for him to bear.
The apartment in which Seamus currently resided was a sublet, and he the subleasee. It was a co-op and belonged to an Indian woman, one Mrs. Ayodya Patel, formerly Ms. Ayodya Gupta, married and living in Bangladesh. Seamus had subleased it after the divorce, intending for it to be a temporary arrangement. His wife, learning of his infidelity, had summarily expelled him from the luxurious apartment they shared on the Upper East Side, and needing a place and quick - and as he had no friends, could never live with his brother, who was single at the time and was a slob, then and now - he agreed to the first arrangement he could locate. He had intended for it to be a six-month arrangement, as in that time Ms. Gupta was due to return from visiting her family in Bangladesh, but in that span she had fallen in love and married and as Mrs. Patel had no desire to return to New York, but would gladly accept rent on the place as long as Seamus was willing to stay, and too lazy to search for alternate lodgings, and with money no issue, Seamus had been all too glad to keep paying the $1500 monthly rent, and in form if not in name, he had made the place his own. He had even cleaned the closets of her things, leaving them in storage, and refilling every nook and cranny with his clutter and riff-raff. He knew that practically speaking getting a place of his own would be a better investment ten times over, as the hefty sum he paid the woman monthly for the use of her place was money tossed away, and would be better invested in a place he owned, but alas, he was not a business man, he said liked to say (and with a heavy sigh of resignation), and living as he did in a world of creativity and wonder he would not, could not have his wit dulled with the trite and trivial world of business affairs, even if it stood to pad his pocketbook. Boy did he think differently now, in fact he was of a mind to move out of the place, find a modest place of his own, if he could ever summon the energy involved in the move, and arrangements, and connecting phone and internet and cable. It was all so tiring! And so he stayed on in discomfort.
Mrs. Patel’s place was a one-bedroom, and luckily for Seamus, who had few material possessions of his own, it had come completely furnished with her things, all paisley and pastel, but Seamus didn’t mind. Having few friends, he had no guests to entertain. No one would think his tastes strange. The bedroom he never used. Cramped, its one window looking out onto the adjacent building’s time-worn side, with its loft bed so high up and close to the ceiling that to sit up in bed was to bang one’s head, Seamus preferred to sleep elsewhere, and he could not write at the little desk the room contained, not amidst all its clutter, so he made clutter of his own in the living room, which served at once as his bedroom (he slept on the sofa, it was hole ridden and lumpy and he had not had one peaceful night of sleep in five years, not to mention it lay beneath the windows, which in the hot months he was required to leave open, as the place didn’t have air conditioning, and the 9th Avenue traffic was so loud that when he could sleep he’d dream of honking horns, obnoxious merchants, boisterous drunks, and sirens, so many sirens), office (his computer he placed on the coffee table in front of the sofa, on which he sat when attempting to write), library (Ms. Patel was evidently not much of a reader, had no books or bookshelves in which to place books, so his books, his only real possessions, lined the walls from floor to ceiling), and entertainment center, if the black and white t.v. which crackled and fizzed and was always between pictures, and received only the basic channels, could be called a source of entertainment. The closets Seamus had emptied and filled with his own riff-raff were home to whatever he had been able to salvage from the Upper East Side apartment in the five hours his wife had given him to clear out - mostly books. The kitchen was filled with dirty dishes and the floor lined with crumbs, or roach feed, and its countertops cluttered with unpaid bills, delinquent notices, final notices, and notices of cancellation and legal action.
This was Seamus’ life. It had once been so bright and prosperous. What had gone wrong?
Surely the divorce had catalyzed a change, but even then, his creativity had for five years been parched to the point of being shriveled, and Seamus liked to believe this was why he had been driven to cheat, though in truth he had always been unfaithful, never having had a single girlfriend, lover, or spouse on whom he hadn’t played around. He was eternally restless, always seeking new experiences, looking for validation of his own appeal in the caresses of another woman, and the more the merrier. Man was not meant to be monogamous or mate for life, he contended in what had become a sort of eternal refrain, though with time he learned to refrain from saying these words to romantic prospects, as women seemed to find such a notion a real turn-off, and understandably so.
“I give up,” he sighed, and he scowled at his apartment, which wasn’t even his, which made its squalor better, and worse. Powerless to rectify the mess, having nothing to do, and tired though he’d been awake for such a short while, he lay himself down to rest his care-worn head.
“Don’t see many of those driving around,” he said to himself. He recognized the model. He’d researched cars appropriate to 1940's America and had described a very similar car in his story, second chapter, specifically. As he’d written it, the car had swerved to avoid hitting Ernest Shelby on his way to the courthouse, where he was to cover the release of the notorious Salamander Rex, the vicious main character he had dreamed up - nightmared into existence, was a more fitting term considering Rex’s penchant for evil. Salamander Rex, the man Seamus was trying to take through a life of crime, to a revelation, a see-the-light moment of enlightenment, and onto a noble path leading to his culmination as a good man, the denouement. Denouement. Seamus liked the sound of the term and the way it looked on the page. All those vowels side by side.
It’ll be interesting to meet the man, see how he compares in person to the guy I thought up in my mind, and . . . wait a minute, what the hell is happening, where am I and why?
He thought it odd that in two consecutive nights he’d have the same dream, different but the same.
Two straight nights, I dream I’m in my story. Consecutive nights, consecutive chapters. Chapter One, Shelby gets the call from his boss to come to the courthouse. Chapter Two, he goes to the courthouse and covers Rex’s acquittal and then . . . wait a minute, this is all too bizarre!
Seamus had been having this conversation with himself while standing on a street corner. His attention turned inwardly, he was unaware of the hustle and bustle going on around him, but then a fat lady carrying a bag of oranges bumped into him and screamed, “Watch where you’re going, retard!”
“That’s odd,” he thought. (Many things were odd.) “I’m not going anywhere. I’m standing still!”
And his attention redirected outward, he was amazed at the verisimilitude!
Considering his surroundings, he marveled at how much and how precisely the world in which he currently found himself resembled the one he’d thought up and written down. New York in the 40's, with changes that on a whimsy he had chosen to include, little has-beens or yet-to-bes. Anachronisms, as they were called. The kid wearing the Doc Martens shoes, which hadn’t come out until the 60's, the businessman talking on a cellular phone, the messenger speeding about on a 21-speed. Little flights of fancy that Seamus had chosen to include in his fictional world, to lend an air of disbelief to what he thought the reader might take as an unbelievable story. After all, it was one thing to go from decent to evil, fall from grace, Jekyll to Hyde, but a total conversion of the soul to nobility was the stuff of the imagination.
As he walked to the courthouse, whose location he intuitively knew, although he’d never actually been there, not physically, he glimpsed himself in a shop window and stopped in his tracks when he beheld Shelby staring back at him, in all his bloated, ruddy jolliness.
“Sweet Jesus!” he exclaimed. “Realizing where I am, I forgot who I am!”
And he reached for the pipe he knew he’d find in his breast coat pocket, and lighting it, continued on his way. He was hungry and dug his hands in his pockets hoping to find there loose change, but his pockets were empty, and he remembered having written it that after receiving the call from his editor Shelby had hastily dressed and rushed out of his apartment without his pocketbook, and that his fellow reporters inviting him to lunch after their business at the courthouse was done, he wouldn’t have to pay.
“Nice to be able to predict the future,” he remarked inwardly. “I’ll have to take advantage of this.”
Soon he was at the courthouse. Seamus as Shelby arrived late, as Seamus as writer had written. Rex was exiting the courthouse flanked by attorneys, policemen, guards, reporters, photographers, and protestors, and as Seamus beheld him, a shiver went up his spine. It wasn’t the likeness that Rex the man bore to Rex the product of his imagination that unsettled him so. It was the viciousness. If all the anger, all the greed, all the lust, all the cruelty - in short, if all vice could be distilled in one soul and that soul given flesh and blood form, that form would be the form of the sneering, sadistic, almost satanic Salamander Rex. Seamus might have wondered what other s words applied, if he weren’t so shaken with fear. Standing six feet three inches, with swarthy skin and well-creased features, his brow ever furrowed in a contemptuous frown, Rex stood broad shouldered and severe, his thick raven hair slicked and fixed to his head, his pin-stripe suit hardly containing his muscle-bound body. And when he spoke, his speech took the form of a growl that struck fear in the hearts of the listener. Even his bodyguards he dwarfed. They couldn’t protect themselves from him, if he chose to direct his rage their way. The reporters asked their questions, which they phrased in the politest terms that their terror-stricken brains could conceive, and Seamus kept his distance. Somehow to be near the man was to take part in the evil that seemed to emanate from him.
Is Shelby supposed to take an active part in the questioning? At the moment Seamus could not remember, his mind paralyzed by fear. Fear of my own creation, he said, but the words offered little consolation. With quick fluid movements which belied his bulky form, Rex entered the limousine which awaited him and which sped off before Seamus could give birth to a single question. He wondered what he would have said had his voice not failed him, in the end deciding that had he the courage he’d have shouted out at Rex, “If you are half as cruel as you look, you deserve to be condemned forever!” This was how he felt.
Before Seamus had time to reflect on his faulty reporting, his fellow reporters approached him and just as he might have predicted, did predict, they asked him to an early lunch, across the street at the diner that was their hangout.
The diner Seamus was of course familiar with before entering, as he had written it to be vintage 40's, with booths, and pictures of popular Hollywood Stars - Gable, Grant, and Hepburn - gracing its walls, and of course a jukebox. He had nodded his acceptance to their invitation without meaning to do so - almost as though it was fated - and found himself seated with two reporters and one photographer, at a booth by the window by the front door. To buy time, as the others seated themselves and ordered coffee, Seamus was at the jukebox, punching in the numbers that corresponded to current forties favorites. He was about to interact with characters in his story, his own creation, sort of like God descended among men, and yet at that moment he wanted more than anything to just wake up.
I’ve had enough of sleep, and of this dream, and I am tired.
But his presence at the table was required, required by the story and by the characters that beckoned him over with expectant glances and waves. He had tarried long enough at the jukebox. It was time to behave. He needed to play his part.
What goes on in this scene? He had read and reread Chapter Two a dozen times, even rewritten it once. Surely he should remember what went on. Curiously he drew a blank.
He seated himself amongst his compatriots, but before he did so, as the nurse arrived with three coffees and one water (neither Seamus nor Shelby was much of a coffee drinker), he yelled, “Watch out!” but the reporter nearest him, Al Reznick, did not move quickly enough and as the waitress tripped, the coffee cup that slid from her tray landed in Reznick’s lap, drenching his cotton slacks in scalding decaf.
“How did you know that was going to happen?” Reznick exclaimed, his amazement at Seamus/Shelby’s foresight outweighing the pain the burn must have caused his sorry thigh. “You warned me of the accident before there was any sign it was going to take place!”
“Amazing,” the others said, but when their lunch arrived, their appetites prevailed and the incident was quickly forgotten.
The conversation that ensued centered on Rex’s exploits and recent acquittal, just as Seamus had written that it would. The Shelby that he was seemed distracted, and his lunch mates noticed this. Before they could ask him what was wrong, he pointed outside the diner’s window, at a girl proceeding along the sidewalk on her bicycle, with her dog upon leash, in tow.
“That dog is going to die,” Seamus said soberly.
“Some one is in a somber mood today,” Reznick said. “You act as though my coffee spilt on you.”
“Just watch,” Seamus said.
Sure enough, the dog, almost as if on cue, in a burst of energy sprung away from his owner’s grasp and crossing the street at the most inopportune time, came into deadly contact with a Ford’s front fender.
“Either you have a way of attracting catastrophes, or you know something we don’t know. What’s the scoop, man?”
Again Seamus shrugged.
“Shelby, you feeling alright?” Reznick asked.
“Do it again!” the photographer urged with childlike exuberance.
He didn’t need asking twice. “The next song that juke box plays will be Nat King Cole’s ‘Stardust.’”
And sure enough, that song came one. The reporters were amazed at the correct prediction, but didn’t seem to be aware that the song wouldn’t come out for another decade. This was another anachronism that Seamus as writer had chosen to include.
“You were just at the jukebox,” Reznick said. “That song was your selection.”
“The waitress will now go over and disgusted with the song because it reminds her of a love affair gone sour, will unplug the jukebox and tell the manager that it is broken.”
At that moment, the song cut off, and the waitress scurried away from the player, to notify the manager of its “malfunction.”
“Someone’s not telling us something.”
“Yeah, Shelby, what’s the scoop? What do you know that we don’t?”
“Everything,” Seamus said, momentarily swept away by his own predictive powers. “You’re thinking about your wife, Reznick. You promised to return home with a bottle of milk and a loaf of bread and you’re afraid that after this early lunch you won’t have enough money to make good on the promise.”
“Damn if he’s not right,” Reznick admitted.
“I’ll loan you the cash, don’t you worry,” the other reporter said. Seamus hadn’t given him a name. “Tell me what I’m thinking,” he asked.
“I don’t know.” Seamus honestly didn’t. “I don’t even know your name.” The reporter was a very minor character. A filler, Seamus would have said. He hadn’t given the man a back story or much thought. “If I had to guess, I’d say your mind is blank. You exist just to fill the seat.” Seamus hoped that didn’t sound harsh. “I created you on a whim.” That probably sounded harsher, and pretentious.
“My name is Douglas,” the reporter said, taking justifiable offense at such brusque treatment from someone he had considered a friend. “You talk as though you’re a god or something.”
“Shelby, what has gotten into you?” Reznick asked.
“A predictor of events, a God complex. Next thing you know he’ll be speaking in tongues,” said the photographer, also nameless.
“No, tongues aren’t my thing,” Seamus said. “I never was any good at foreign languages. Just ask my ex-wife.”
“Now he’s hallucinating,” Reznick told the others. “Shelby, you’ve never been married. I’ve never met a more committed bachelor. You’re against the institution altogether.”
At a nearby table, a thin man with a timid expression and sallow cheeks made eye contact with Seamus. He didn’t know who this thin, timid, sallow man was. He’d written in his story, “The diner was peopled by common men and women, going about their common lives...” without venturing into a personal description of any single patron. The man seemed to take particular interest in Seamus, and looked at him fixedly. Seamus was the first to break eye contact. He quickly forgot the man, his mind wandering to other thoughts, which his lips gave expression. He was wondering at the power of God, who has created everything, but may not have control over all He created, at least not the minor details. Seamus had been able to amaze Shelby’s compatriots with his prophetic abilities, which was natural enough, as after all, he knew what everyone would say or do, having created them. But perhaps he couldn’t predict their every word or deed but only the ones he’s written about, and he marveled at the free will which his creation boasted of, extrapolating from this that perhaps we as God’s creation can do or say things which God did not anticipate or cannot predict, and so ourselves have a certain amount of free will, to work within the confines of fate, and out of God’s hands.
Perhaps,” Seamus mused aloud, “God just set up the world, wrote its first few chapters, or maybe the entire first half, and left the rest up to creation. Maybe it wasn’t predetermined after all, at least not everything.”
Seamus had always considered himself a fatalist, that everything he said, thought, or did was predetermined, and could not be otherwise, and now he saw that maybe he was just using the doctrine of fatalism as an excuse to give up, as though the fact that he was making a mess of his life was not really his doing but his Maker’s and he didn’t have to take responsibility. Conveniently he had used this notion as an excuse to let his lowest urges run rampant through his life.
If I want to lie to a married woman to have sex with her and then at her behest kill her husband, my own brother, I can, because God in His infinite wisdom has planted that desire within me, and if I do it, it is because God wanted it done, it was necessary to be done, part of a whole whose majesty and mystery I, as mere instrument of fate, am unable to see in the living of it.
Seamus had hitherto believed this and now it seemed ridiculous to him, as the characters that were his creation were doing and saying things he’d never have imagined. He had control, just not total control. He had intended to prevent the coffee from spilling on the lap of Reznick, but was unable. He had created it thus, and had been powerless to alter the event. His dining partners thought him crazy, or trying to be avant garde, holding this spirited dialogue with himself, and he resolved to confine these musings to his mind.
It could get me into trouble. I could wind up like the dog, road kill.
After all, Seamus knew how prophets turned out. He wasn’t that far removed from his Biblical studies of thirty years before not to remember that Jesus Christ had evidenced prophetic powers only to wind up hammered to a wooden cross, impaled in the side, and left to die a miserable death. Seamus’ life was miserable, but not that miserable.
I don’t want to call too much attention to myself. They might crucify me, just like they did to Christ, though likely by different means. I believe shotguns are the preferred mode of do-it-yourself execution these days, or possibly a bludgeon to the head.
Thinking these distressing thoughts, Seamus decided it was better to lay low, not call any attention to himself. He deemed it best to associate with minor characters, be the minor character he was, rather than stand out as a prophet or holy man. He had been assigned to follow Rex, he would do so, but at a distance.
Just get by became his motto.
“I just need to wait till I wake up,” he said in a low voice. “Just sit pretty, till then.”
“What did he say?” the others wondered.
Before Seamus could answer–
Dr. Newton was kind enough to see Seamus on very short notice. It was either this or else he happened to have an opening in his schedule, or perhaps a recent cancellation. Seamus didn’t know, but he was anxious to have his strange dreams, if dreams they were, interpreted by someone who was or who at least called himself an expert. Seamus did not know whether Dr. Newton was an expert on dreams but he hoped this might be the case. In any event the man had to know more about dreams than did Seamus, who knew next to nothing.
Earlier that day, Seamus had woken up in his apartment having dreamed the conclusion of his novel’s second chapter, minus Shelby’s impromptu prophesies, of course, which the character didn’t actually say, not in the novel that Seamus had written, or was writing.
Seamus had walked to Newton’s office and caught him just as he was about to leave the office for lunch.
“I need to talk to you,” he said as they met by the elevators. “I’ll wait for you to get back if that’s okay.”
Dr. Newton invited him along to the restaurant - he customarily lunched alone with his thoughts and Mozart playing through headphones but wouldn’t mind the company - where over salads and sandwiches they could chat, if Seamus didn’t mind. Seamus was famished. He told the doctor that he didn’t mind.
“I think I’m going crazy,” he said after they seated themselves in the restaurant’s patio, by a spouting statue of Cupid. Seamus requested the patio so that he could smoke. He no longer felt compelled to hide his dreadful pastime, and over lunch he smoked innumerable cigarettes.
“I’ve been having these dreams,” he began after taking several mouthfuls of the pastrami sandwich he had ordered. “Not your ordinary dreams, if any dreams are ordinary. What I mean is that I didn’t dream that I was naked in public or falling from a high place. I’ve been dreaming that I’m a character inside my book.”
“Inside your unfinished novel? A Happy Ending?”
Seamus nodded. “I’m impressed that you remember, though I don’t know if the title will remain. I always attach a working title to a novel in progress, and it is subject to alteration, as the story unfolds, but that is beside the point. The point I am getting at is that in these dreams, I am a character in my book. A rather minor character, at that. A reporter following the life and crimes of the main guy.”
“I don’t see anything strange about that,” replied the doctor. “We often dream about our work. Your writing is your work. I don’t see anything strange. Why is this troubling you?”
“Well, the thing is, I only dream a chapter at a time. The first dream began at the novel’s beginning, and ended at the end of Chapter One. The next night, last night, I dreamt Chapter Two.”
“And what troubles you about this?”
“The perfect order of it all. I thought dreams are supposed to be random. Absurd. Besides, I usually never dream.”
“We all dream, Seamus. You do, too. You just don’t remember your dreams.”
“That’s comforting to know, I’d almost say cliche,” Seamus said with a snort. “And here I always thought my lack of dreams a reflection on my poor imagination. Good to know it’s only a reflection on my poor memory. Still, I’d like it to stop. Let me rephrase that. First I’d like to know what it all means, then I’d like it to stop.”
“Why? What troubles you about your dreams?”
“You keep asking me the same question.”
“You have yet to give me a suitable answer.”
“Yes, well . . . they’re so . . .” - here Seamus permitted himself an expletive; since reading the Commandments he had been trying to obey them more - “. . . Goddamn real, so real that when I wake up, it’s as if I haven’t slept. I’m exhausted all the time. And I can’t work when I’m tired.”
“You do look stressed, I’d even say frazzled. These dreams may be a product of you mental and emotional turmoil.”
“That’s why I wanted to talk to you. Do you have any experience interpreting dreams?”
“The subject interests me immensely, as a matter of fact. I keep a journal by my bedside, and when I awaken, even if it’s in the middle of the night, even if just to pee, I write down all I can remember, then read it later and attempt an explanation.”
“So you can interpret these dreams of mine? I’d really owe you one. Ira at least would. I can’t pay just yet, but I’d be indebted to you if you could help me.” Seamus thought his voice carried a pathetic tune that was becoming his anthem of late.
“Mr. Merriweather, our dreams are our personal explorations of the psyche, and their interpretation is subjective, and best left to the dreamer. What do you think your dreaming you are present in your novel–”
“Don’t you mean trapped in my unfinished novel?” Seamus corrected
“Yes, if that is what you mean. What does that signify to you?”
Seamus snorted. “For God sakes, that’s why I came to you, man! I haven’t the slightest idea. You’re supposed to be the expert.”
“You’re the expert of you. These are your dreams.”
“That may be, but I want them to end.”
Dr. Newton took a sip of his tea. “Here’s what I think.”
Seamus leaned forward, all ears. At last, he thought.
“A struggling writer with a life in disarray dreams that he is a character in his story, forced each night to live a chapter of the tale, beginning at the beginning. Good summary so far?”
“Please go on.”
“Why would he do such a thing?”
“Yes . . . why?”
“As a man, his dreams are an attempt to escape his less than perfect life by entering the world of his creation, the world of his story. However, he fails to see that just like the story he writes, the life he lives is of his own making. God created the Earth, Mr. Merriweather. Heaven and hell are man’s doing. Make of your life what you wish.”
Seamus regarded him quizzically. “And I thought I was insane.”
“I’m not done.”
“Then finish, please.”
“As a writer, your unconscious belief is that by living in the world of your story, you may somehow breathe life into it - the way God is said to have given Adam his first breath - and by doing so, revive the story so as to complete it. That’s my interpretation, for what it’s worth.”
“So how to make it stop? I can’t go on dreaming like this, doc. It’s killing me. Sounds overly dramatic, but I feel it’s true.”
“Fix your life, Mr. Merriweather. The rest - your book, your dreams - will take care of itself.”
Moments later - or what he thought was moments later - he was startled into waking life by the persistent tick of typewriters, all around him, and he opened his eyes to find himself in some type of office, surrounded by men wearing suits, smoking cigars, and wearing wide brimmed hats, and typing furiously. He was also smoking a cigar, wearing a suit, and typing furiously. He stopped typing when he realized that he was typing.
I’m in Chapter Three.
Seamus, once again as Ernest Shelby, was seated at his desk in his cubicle at the Globe. He surveyed his surroundings. On all three cubicle walls were attached newspaper clippings, photos, and other scraps of information about Salamander Rex, in what to Seamus was a sick shrine to depravity, but to Shelby was the mark of a remarkable man. The walls were a scrapbook of murder, violence, deception, and every other sin imaginable.
My God, thought Seamus, his eyes scanning the clippings. I am covering Satan himself.
Just then the boss came over to Seamus and slapped him on the shoulder with the breaking story, hot off the press.
“You’ve done it this time, Shelby. Some great writing, son. Let me be the first to congratulate you.”
He handed Seamus the article.
“I’m told you didn’t ask the man a single question on the day of his acquittal, and yet you covered him as though he’d granted you an exclusive one-on-one interview. What insight! Sure to win you a prize. Today’s printing will sell out in record time, let that be known to all, hear ye, hear ye! Go ahead, read what you’ve written. See it in finished form. We’ll allow you a moment to gloat.”
Seamus’ eyes devoured the article that Seamus as Shelby had written. His eyes ran over endless superlatives. The greatest . . . the most spectacular . . . the most daring . . .
“It is like an ode to viciousness,” Seamus as Seamus said.
“You are your own worst critic, son,” the boss said with a chuckle. “Word out is you’re adding mind reading to your list of credentials. Tell me what I’m thinking.”
“I don’t know,” Seamus said at length. “But I’ll tell you what I’m thinking. I’m thinking I’m about to be sick!”
And he brushed past the boss and down the stairs and out of the building. He needed a breath of fresh air. Ironically he wanted a cigarette, then remembered that Shelby smoked a pipe, or was it a cigar? Neither was in his breast pocket. He sat down on the curb.
“Excuse me, mister?”
He looked up. The face belonging to the voice was familiar. Where to place it? This life or the next? Dream or reality? Which is real? Then he remembered. The man looking down on him was the thin timid man he’d made eye contact with at the diner, just after he had finished his impromptu prophecies, and just before he’d resolved to stop prophetizing altogether, as it could get him into trouble. He hoped he wasn’t in trouble.
“May I have a moment of your time?” the familiar face said.
Before Seamus could answer the man seated himself on the curb beside him. Their shoulders touched. Seamus found he did not like to touch the shoulder of the make believe. He did not like to be the make believe, even if it was his make believe.
“My name is Percy. Percy Stevenson.”
“Stevie is my son’s name,” Seamus replied without thinking.
The man smiled. “I was wondering if you could spare a desperate man a little advice. I overheard you speak of things you couldn’t possibly know. You’re a man of great power, I can see. Could you help me? I am terribly in debt.”
That makes two of us, Seamus felt like saying.
“I am a gambling man, and I owe a great deal of money. Money I don’t have.”
“If you’re asking for a loan–”
“I would never think of asking for money.”
“Well you see that makes two of us. But I thought you were going to ask me for a loan.”
“I’m asking you to predict my future.”
“Maybe I’m not the mind reader that you think.”
“Please give me your advice. As a man of great wisdom, what do you think I should do?”
“If you can’t pay your debt, bargain your way out of it.”
“I have nothing of value, except a wife and newborn son, who mean more to me than my own life. You see, sir, I lost my job.”
“I don’t know how I can possibly be of help–”
“The bookmaker I owe works for Salamander Rex, the man you are following.”
Seamus thought about this. He remembered now. He had written a minor subplot involving a man who owed money to Rex and skipped town on the debt, and Rex did not pursue him, which was supposed to serve as evidence of his innate clemency and foreshadow his conversion to the just. The man would leave town with his wife and newborn child, to start a new life elsewhere. He’d disappear from the story, and out of harm’s way. Seamus felt like telling Percy Stevenson to run, for that is what the character would eventually do, but as he was about to say this, he reconsidered.
I’ve run all my life, and with less than satisfactory results. To tell him to run is hypocritical of me, as a man. And even if I don’t give this advice, no matter what I say to this
man, he’ll run anyway. That is how I’ve written it. For my sake, I should tell him to face his debt. He’ll still run and be saved, but at least I’ll be giving him a bit of good advice, which may help me in the long run, just how I’m not exactly sure.
“What are you thinking of doing?” Seamus asked.
“Just as I suspected.”
Once again Seamus assumed the role of God, and it gave him pleasure.
“I advise against this, my good sir.”
“What do you think I should do?”
“Stay. Confront your debt, and you inability to pay.”
“You think I should go to the bookie?”
“I think you should go to Rex himself. Explain your situation. Tell him you made a bad decision, but you have a family. Ask for his forgiveness. Appeal to his clemency.”
“Are you kidding? The man has no conscience. He would not hesitate to destroy me. You know that. You’ve written it.”
“What did you say?”
“You’ve written a hundred articles about the man.”
“Oh, well yes.” Seamus cleared his throat. “What I’m trying to get at is, we are basically good, all of us, even the worst of us. Appeal to the goodness within Salamander Rex, and you will find salvation.”
“It could get me killed!”
“Yes, but run and you’ll never forgive yourself. That is worse than death. But I’m telling you, you won’t die.”
“I believe you. I will take your advice.”
As Seamus watched Percy Stevenson rise and trail off, he thought that had he an extra hand he’d have used it to pat himself on the back. He had just given the best advice of his life.
Just then a car drove by, dangerously close to the curb, and Seamus as Shelby was on the verge of being splattered with a face full of grit and grime, but before he could witness the splash stain his well-pressed shirt–
“Sorry to bother you so early in the morning,” he said when she opened the door to the apartment she shared with a sorority sister. She was wearing sweat pants, and seeing her schoolbooks strewn along the coffee table, Seamus guessed she had been studying. Seamus thought she must have recently awoken, and yet her face was as fresh as it always was, which was very.
“Early in the morning?” Mallory repeated. “Seamus, it’s six in the evening.”
Earlier on when Seamus had awakened, his wristwatch read five o’clock. As it was still dark he presumed that it had been five in the morning. Which was easy to believe, as he’d fallen asleep at ten p.m. the night before, and customarily slept six or seven hours.
“Six in the evening? That means I’ve slept eighteen hours,” he said.
“Oh Seamus, come in.”
He sat himself on her sofa and she brought him a glass of orange juice.
“It’s all that I have,” she said apologetically.
“Orange juice is fine.” He gulped it down without the glass leaving his lips and winced as he set it down. He waited for himself to catch his breath. Mallory waited too. When she tired of waiting, she said, “I’ve been calling you, you know.”
“My phone’s been disconnected.”
She was silent for a moment. “You look like you haven’t slept in days.”
“I haven’t, and yet I have.” Seamus wanted to laugh, to make light of his situation, but the sound came out as a sort of cough.
Mallory looked confused.
“I’m not making sense,” Seamus said as he lifted the glass from the coffee table and brought it to his lips, only then realizing it was empty.
“Would you like more juice?”
He set the glass down. “What I really need, Mallory, is your help. Are you busy tonight?”
“Just have studying to do. But if you could help me get through an interpretation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis then I’m all yours.”
“Another term paper? For a design major, you sure take a lot of literature courses. The Metamorphosis is a favorite of mine. I’d have done my thesis on Kafka, had I gone to graduate school. Lead me to thy typewriter.”
For the next several hours, Seamus helped his young lady friend with her paper, or rather, he wrote it - longhand. Two thousand words in a little under three hours. He reread what he had written, noted several spelling errors, but did not have the energy to correct them. He was amazed at how effortlessly the paper had flowed out of him.
“Be sure to run a spell check after you type it, and read it over before printing it.”
Mallory took the sheets of paper and set them down on her desk. She looked at him expectantly. “I’m ready to fulfill my half now. What do you need me to do?”
Seamus cleared his throat. “I need you to sleep with me.”
“Seamus!” Mallory blushed.
“Let me rephrase the request. I need you to lie in bed with me.”
Mallory giggled with delight. “That’s what all the fellas say, you devil. Why don’t you tell me what’s really on your mind. I’m a big girl, you know.”
“Watch me while I sleep, is what I meant.”
He took her hand and led her back to the sofa, thinking how best to explain.
“I’ve been having these dreams, Mallory. Very vivid. Very strange. I need them to stop, just once and for all, stop. Does that make any sense? Have you ever had that type of dream that just keeps on going?”
Mallory looked at him quizzically.
“What I’m trying to say is . . . I need for you to come to bed with me. Just lie down with me until I fall asleep, and when I appear to be dreaming - you know, the whole rapid eye blinking and face twitching thing that dreamers tend to do - I want you to wake me up.” He snapped his fingers, hoping that the production of sound might help to augment the overall effect of his words.
“I get it,” Mallory said with a conspiratorial nod. “You’re hoping I snap you out of your dream.”
“Yes, exactly!” he exclaimed. Instantly sober, he then said, “Will you do it?”
“I must admit, Seamus, that when you asked me to bed I thought you had something else in mind.”
Seamus shrugged. “I know, Mallory. I would have liked . . . I mean, I would like, if I could, if I was really able . . .” Realizing it was useless, he stopped short, hoping his overall awkwardness would convey the general message. Whatever the general message was, he hoped Mallory would get it, and hoped he’d remember it when the time was right. He hoped this made sense but feared it did not.
“But yes, if sleep with you is what you want me to do, I’ll do it!”
“Okay,” Seamus said, breathing a sigh of relief. He then thought the expression overly dramatic, but somehow didn’t care. “Where should we do it? I mean, in whose bed, yours or mine?”
“We can stay here?” Mallory said, as if requesting.
“That’s a good idea. I concur. My apartment’s a depressing mess. Besides there’s no power. I mean no electricity, and the leftovers are starting to stink. The whole place has a foul air. Let’s stay here.”
“Okay, but try to clean your apartment, Seamus. Maybe the depressing mess that it is, is giving you the trouble that you are having, sleeping.”
“I’m sleeping fine. My dreams are the trouble.”
Just then the front door opened and into the apartment stumbled Mallory’s roommate, with her boyfriend in tow. Their faces bore the expressions of those who have been drinking for several hours, first happily and then with indignation. The roommate stopped to regard Seamus with a look of complete disgust before leading her boyfriend into her room. Slamming the door behind them, they turned on the stereo, and in moments rock music was throbbing, and the floorboards groaning - in time to each pelvic thrust, Seamus presumed. He looked at Mallory.
“How long do they usually go on?”
“Sometimes all night, I’m afraid,” she sighed. Seamus sighed with her.
“How do you sleep?”
“I go to the library. My grades have improved a whole letter mark since we moved in together.”
“Good, well, we’ll have to go to my place, I suppose.”
Seamus led Mallory into his apartment, lit several votive candles that he wished were scented and apologized profusely for the mess, the stench, the heat, and the general “disgustingness” of his living quarters.
“We might have had better luck sleeping through the noise of my apartment, which is at least clean,” Mallory said.
“I was thinking the same thing, but I have a feeling I need to be here to have the dreams, and as I can’t sleep over indefinitely–”
“You could move. We could get a place.”
“The two of us? But you’re leaving in a year. You’re going to school. You have dreams, dreams that carry you away from this place.” He hoped this would pass as an excuse. Her possible move was not the real reason he cared not enter into a contract with her.
“Most leases are one year. After I moved out, you could get a roommate.”
“What would the landlord say if a middle aged guy signed a lease with a teenager who was not his daughter?”
“We could say we’re related. You can be my long lost uncle, or something.”
“Better than a bastard uncle.”
“Nothing.” Seamus was suddenly irritated. “Look Mallory, can I just get through the night? I asked you over to help me out.”
“I’m trying to help you out. All I’m saying is that if our little experiment doesn’t work and you keep having your dreams, there are other options we can explore, together.” She sidled up to him and took his arm tenderly in hers, giving it a squeeze.
“Let’s go to bed,” Seamus said.
“Now you’re talking.”
Minutes later they lay side by side facing the ceiling, only twenty inches overhead. Seamus had decided that if this was going to be a sleep-over, they should do it in bed, as his couch was uncomfortable for one, and for two it would be impossible. As they stared at the crusty ceiling, Mallory insisted on holding his hand. He allowed this.
“How come we’ve never, you know, done it?”
“Please dear, this is neither the time nor the place.”
“Not the time or the place? We are in bed together at night. If not now then when and where?”
Seamus closed his eyes.
“Is it because you think I’m a virgin?” she asked.
“The thought never crossed my mind.” His eyes remained closed.
“So you don’t think I’m a virgin?”
“I’ve never given your sexual status any thought.” This was a lie. Seamus had, and he suspected she was a virgin. There was a time not too long ago that he hoped to be her first sexual encounter, this till he realized he liked her too much to lust after her. He actually enjoyed her company, and he hadn’t enjoyed a woman’s company since he was a boy. With the women who came after his mother, it was all about sex.
“I don’t believe you,” she said. “You’ve thought about it. You’re thinking about it now.”
“You are.” She kissed his neck. He felt the gooseflesh prickle the skin of his arm. “Do you like when I kiss you like that?”
“Mallory, we need to focus. I asked you over for your help.”
“I’m trying to help!” She placed her hand on his bare stomach. Beneath her touch, his abdomen quivered.
“What are you doing?”
“Shhhh...” she said. She pulled down the covers and kissed his belly. And then she kissed below.
Before he could complete his thought, Seamus drifted off into unconsciousness.
“Seamus?” she said at length.
His eyes opened.
“What happened?” he asked.
“You fell asleep.”
“Did I?” His torso shot up. He hit his head on the ceiling. “Dammit!”
“Were you dreaming?”
“No, not that I remember.”
“You must be really tired. You passed out and I had barely even begun. Didn’t get to finish.”
“Oh, that . . .” Their recent goings on returned to his mind. He grabbed his crotch, which was where he had left it. “I told you. Lots of stress.”
“So, do you think it worked? Did I snap you out?”
“I don’t think so. I think I have to start dreaming and then get woken up, before the dream is over, for it to work.”
“How do you know when it’s supposed to be over, your dream I mean?”
“When the chapter ends.”
Seamus sighed. He didn’t want to have to explain himself any more than was necessary, but for the sake of courtesy, he sketched for Mallory a verbal portrait of his dreams, his novel, and where he was, somewhere in between.
“I think you just need to finish your book. Be done with it, once and for all.”
“I wish I could.”
“Have you used the pen I bought you?”
He shook his head. “I need for these dreams to stop before I can go back to writing. I can’t produce anything while under such pressure. And yet I feel that if I don’t start writing before the dreams end, if I get to the part of the book that I haven’t written, I’ll just . . . sort . . . of . . . disappear. Die in my dream. Or cease to exist. You know what I mean?”
“You know what they say happens when you die in your sleep. You die in real life.”
“That’s just a myth.”
“It’s not. I read it.”
“How could anyone possibly prove such a thing, without dying first. It’s like proving there’s life after death. You’d have to come back to life and state your case, to have a . . . case.”
“I believe in that, too.”
“Life after death.”
“Of course you do.” Seamus grunted. “Look, can we try this again?”
“Sure.” Mallory started to go down on him for the second time.
“Can we skip that part?”
“Sure.” She frowned.
“Wait for me to be asleep for a little longer this time, before you rouse me. And don’t arouse me, if that makes any sense.”
“How long did you wait last time?”
“Almost thirty minutes.”
“This time, wait an hour. And don’t wake me up unless I’m doing the things that dreamers do. Got it?”
“Good thing I brought some reading material.” She took the latest issues of several gossip magazines out of her purse which was by the bed and didn’t look at Seamus again. He closed his eyes.
When Seamus opened his eyes again, all around him was black.
“Where am I? Mallory?” He couldn’t see a thing. His arms were paralyzed by his sides. He couldn’t move them. “I must have slept on them. Am I asleep? Am I dreaming? Am I Seamus or Shelby? Hello?”
When his arms woke up, he groped himself, and seeing his stomach was grumbling and flat, he knew he wasn’t Shelby. Feeling around the bed, he felt a woman’s body beside him.
She didn’t respond.
He shook her. She didn’t respond. He found her face with his hands, felt under her nose. She was not breathing. “Holy shit!” He scrambled out of bed, in the dark. Forgetting where he was, he hit his head on the ceiling and losing his footing on the ladder that led to the ground, he fell the six feet and landed on the wooden floor with a crash and a right shoulder crunch.
The next several minutes he spent groping for a match, and when he found one and lit it, and climbed up to bed, he held the match in Mallory’s face. Her eyes were wide open, staring at him, her expression blank and fixed.
“Oh my God. Mallory? What has happened?” And then–
“Booh!” she yelled, and blew out the match. For the second time, he fell from the bed and came to a crash on the ground, this time on the left shoulder.
At a local park several hours afterwards, as Seamus held an ice pack Mallory had purchased to his lumpy head, she apologized for scaring him.
“I thought a good fright might snap you out of it,” she explained.
“Your funk. Kind of like when you’ve got the hiccups, you know?”
Seamus didn’t respond.
“Had you been dreaming when you woke up?”
“Nothing. It’s hopeless.”
“Let’s go to my house. The bunnies are probably asleep by now.”
In her bed, the two got cozy. Seamus tried to at least, but he had a splitting headache, a bump on his forehead, his shoulders throbbed, and the bunnies, as Mallory had called them, were still going at it in the next room.
“Do you still want me to wake you when you fall asleep?”
“Forget it. Let me rest. I’m too tired.”
Mallory kissed him on his bump and turned off the light.
“Was I dreaming?” he asked, he presumed to Mallory, before he even opened his eyes.
“You’re dozing. You’ve been dozing all morning.” The voice that spoke these words was several octaves lower than the voice of Seamus’ underaged girlfriend. Seamus might have even called it raspy.
Seamus opened his eyes and turned in the direction of the raspy voice to see Shelby’s boss glaring down at him, cigar clamped between his teeth.
“I’m trying to get your input on this breaking story before it goes to print and you keep nodding off.”
“What’s it about?” Seamus as Shelby asked groggily.
The boss snatched the article which Seamus had unknowingly been holding and read, rather he barked, “‘Rex kills again. Family guy gets the axe. Common man Percy Stevenson was viciously slain for the sake of a gambling debt unpaid–’”
“What? Wait!” Seamus screamed, jumping to his feet. “Say the name again.”
“Rex. A thousand times Rex!”
“The other name!”
“Oh my heavenly Jesus. Give me that.”
Seamus snatched the article from the boss’s hands and fastened his eyes to the page.
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
He ran out of the room. The boss shook his head, nonplussed.
“Must be that time of month . . . again.”
Outside, holding himself up with the aid of a street lap, Seamus vomited into a garbage bin. He wiped his mouth and looked directly into the sun until he blinked. Strangely that made him feel better, but blinded by the sun’s light he ran straight onto a seeing-eye dog’s paw. The dog bit his leg. Seamus looked at the sun again, hoping it’d help alleviate the pain that gripped his shin. It didn’t. He found a newsstand and grabbed the nearest newspaper his hands could find. It was not his Globe, which hadn’t yet printed the story his boss had just read him. No newspaper had, but the pictures of Percy Stevenson were everywhere.
“Dead,” Seamus mumbled. “Imagine that. And after I had given him such good advice! He wasn’t supposed to die. In the story he doesn’t die, not in my story he doesn’t! This must not be my story. I didn’t write it this way, and yet I’m in it, so it is my story.” He cradled his head, which suddenly throbbed. “Oh, the guilt! Why didn’t I just keep my mouth shut? Shoulda let him run! He’d have been off to safety. His wife and kid too!”
Rex, if Rex was the murderer, had also killed Percy Stevenson’s wife and child. Seamus felt sick again.
“This is not real. It must be make believe. It must!”
He pinched himself. It hurt. He slapped himself. That hurt, too.
“God let me wake up!”
Passersby looked at him as if he were crazy. He feared they might be right.
“I’m losing my frigging mind! I’ve got to do something. Find Rex. Stand up to the man. Where does he live? I don’t know. Of course I know! I made the street name up. Used my mother’s name. Lorraine Way, I called it. Hah! Easy! But I don’t go see him in Chapter Four, or Five, or any! Shelby never sees him, not in the entire first part, not face to face, talking to each other type of seeing. Ah, forget it. This story has changed, and even if it hadn’t, the power went out before I saved it. And I’m speaking not just electrically but narratively! I don’t have a copy but what exists in my mind, and my mind is so damn jumbled!”
Seamus thought for a minute.
“To hell with the story! I’ve got to see Rex.”
Seamus thought for another minute.
“What if I share Percy’s fate? What if the vicious man that Rex is chooses in a rage and on a whim to take my life? What if both Seamus and Shelby cease to be, in one fatal swoop or trigger pull or bludgeon over the head? Aw, forget about it, what type of life do I have? Say I die. I’ve little to lose. Maybe as Mallory contends there is life after death, and maybe my life will be better, after having done something good. I need to see Rex. That will be something good, whatever bad happens to my person.”
Rex’s gated mansion was tucked away in the hills which overlooked 1940's Manhattan. There were no such hills in real life. Seamus had created them for his story. Hollywood Hills in the Upper East Side. East meets West. Shelby didn’t drive a car but had plenty of pocket cash and so Seamus took a cab and gave the driver Rex’s address. They reached Rex’s street before noon.
“I’ll get him just as he is about to sit down to lunch.”
As Seamus had written him, Rex was a methodical man, every activity and endeavor strictly scheduled. Even his bowel movements, two in the a.m. - one after coffee, one after eggs and toast - were planned in advance. Rex’s lunch consisted of rack of lamb on Tuesdays, and it was Tuesday. The thought of lamb made Seamus hungry. Of all the meats, lamb was his favorite, although he was incapable of digesting it and it never failed to give him intractable diarrhea. Despite the diarrhea that would ensue, he hoped after speaking to Rex he’d be offered some leftover lamb - that is, if he weren’t dead.
He had the cabdriver drop him off a block away from Rex’s estate. As he had written it, Rex had purchased the entire city block and instructed his armed guards to shoot at all passengers of any car that used the street or came into sight, even if they’d just made a wrong turn. The blocks were long and hilly in this ritzy marathon, and neither Seamus nor Shelby was in very good shape. He arrived at Rex’s wrought iron gates lathered in sweat, and taking his breaths in gasps. As he’d written it, Rex kept two armed security guards with automatic weapons stationed on either end of the house, on the roof. He also kept two rottweiler dogs which he fed raw meat, but only once per day, to keep them hungry. These dogs, like the security guards, were trained to kill on sight, though of course by different means. Seamus thought about how best to get to Rex, who he knew would be on the terrazzo, with his two dogs, feeding them scraps and taking intermittent bites of his own. He’s be reading the newspaper which always had at least three articles devoted to his dastardly deeds, or copycat crimes, committed by his admirers and attributed to him. This would have caused lesser men great concern, having the crimes of others in addition to their own against which to defend themselves, but Rex employed only the shrewdest attornies, about whom it was claimed that they could get Hitler himself off the hook for his war crimes, if they could speak German.
Seamus had an idea.
“I am a reporter. Shelby is, at least is. I’ll tell Rex I’ve come for an interview. An exclusive. I’ll appeal to the man’s vanity. Promise to write a real promotional piece. Make him look glorious. Of course I won’t write such a thing, and even if I did, it’d never get published, not in the real world, nor in this world I’ve created, or any world other than hell itself.”
Seamus took his reporter’s credentials out of his pocket, along with a copy of the most recent edition of his newspaper, which Shelby always kept in his back pocket, and in its usual position was the camera, round his neck. Holding the newspaper in one hand and his credentials in the other, he buzzed the gate, with a mind to walk in the front door, once admitted. At first he thought his plan doomed. One of the two security actually fired a shot, and it tinged off the iron, and Seamus thought he felt it whiz past Shelby’s hat.
He yelled, “Mr. Rex, sir, it is your humble servant and would-be biographer. I have come to write down the story of your life, and to get it straight from the source. From you!”
Rex, dining as Seamus had predicted on rare meat with his four-legged brutes, heard the commotion, grumbled to himself - he hated commotions in the middle of a meal, as commotions never failed to give him indigestion - and stalked over to the window, where he saw the little pudge of a man that was Shelby, quivering in the hot sun, the perspiration dappling his twitching brow. He saw the camera round Seamus’ neck, and recognizing the adornments of an investigative reporter, he yelled to his guards, “Cease your fire!”
And when his guards, who stood almost directly overhead, heard his command, they obeyed.
“Escort him in,” he said. “It seems I have a guest.”
When the guards had done their master’s bidding, and Seamus had taken his place at the other end of the excessively long dining table, Rex said, “It has been a great while since I’ve invited a guest to lunch.”
Seamus had been served roast beef. Not prime cuts, but the meal placed before him smelled exquisitely nevertheless. He wondered about the whereabouts of the lamb he’d written of. It had to be somewhere. He thought of searching under the rug. But he didn’t see a rug in the room.
I must be so hungry as to be delusional.
“But a man of your status is a special occasion in and of himself,” Rex continued. “Percy told me all about you, before I slit his throat. He said your powers of prediction go beyond the human, into the realm of the, shall I say, supernatural. Tell me, Mr. Shelby, what do you see when you look at me?”
Before this Seamus had wanted to introduce himself as Shelby and make his offer for an interview, but Rex already knew who he was, had read his articles, and suspected the desire for an interview.
“Do you mind if I finish my meal? I suffer heartburn when I talk while eating.” Seamus said this hoping Rex, with his indigestion, might understand.
“Yes I mind!” he roared, his fists crashing down on the table and scattering the silverware. “You are my guest. Do as I tell you. Speak now or I will feed you to my hounds!”
His two Rottweilers seemed to salivate at these words. Seamus wished they’d been fed a bit more meat before he arrived on the scene.
“Well, sir,” said Seamus. “I see a powerful man.”
At this Rex seemed pleased, but his mood abruptly shifted to one of annoyance.
“Tell me what I don’t know. Flattery will not save you. Only truth. Only truth!”
Seamus found himself remembering the words of Mallory. If you die in your dream, you die in real life. He’d thought the words foolish at the time, but now he feared their truth.
“I see a man who has created an empire on the lives, fortunes, and dreams of other men. I see a man who at his roots is scared, and is hounded by his unworthiness, and this unworthiness is the fire that propels him forward, and has made him what he is.”
Seamus was expecting to die right there, but Rex’s demeanor seemed to soften. Was he getting through? After all, if this man is me, as the shrink says, he feels what I feel, though his lack of love has brought him a bit more success than mine has me.
“And you feel profoundly unloved. And alone. A hopeless romantic at heart, you feel that one day, should you conquer the world, you might be worthy of another’s love, when in fact you must first feel worthy of your own love, and conquering the world will only make you hate yourself, for all the people you have wronged along the way.”
Seamus paused here. His hands gripped the antique chair on which he sat. The armed guards he expected at any minute to get an order and fire away. But such a command didn’t come. Rex only said, “Go on. What do you see in my future?”
“Are you familiar with the story of Paul, the apostle?”
Rex glared at him.
“Of course not, you’re not a religious man, I should have known.” He said these words almost to himself. Looking at Rex, he said, “Let’s just say, you will have a great revelation, a visit with a holy being dressed in a common man’s threads, and you will emerge from the encounter a changed man, and you will embark on the life of the good. Your potential for good is greater than your capacity for evil, which as you’ve shown is great. You will become a great man, and you will do great things. You will love yourself, and in loving yourself you will be worthy of another’s love. You live alone with your dogs and guards, but in the future, and nearer than you might think, I see you surrounded by a big family, with a beautiful wife, smiling children, and much happiness.”
Rex seemed pleased, but a moment later he growled, “I told you flattery won’t save you!”
And he overturned the table with superhuman strength. The dogs were in a frenzy.
“Guards,” growled Rex, “kill that man!”
The guards had been eager for the command almost as much as the dogs for the food, and in one motion they lifted their automatic weapons and pointed them at Seamus, who covered his ears with his hands and closed his eyes. But the blast he expected to rattle his heart did not come. Not a sound was heard, as–
This woke Mallory up. Seamus also thought he heard her roommate and roommate’s boyfriend stir. Or maybe they were still having sex.
“Eureka? What is that supposed to mean?” Mallory asked, grumpily. She wasn’t normally a grumpy sort, not even in the morning, but being awakened so unceremoniously brought out the worst in her, which still wasn’t all that bad.
“Isn’t that what you yell when you’ve found gold?” Seamus asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve never found gold.”
“Well I have!” Seamus jumped out of bed and walked into his pants, as he moved to the door.
“Where are you going?”
“To live my life. I’ve got a lot to live for!”
Walking towards his apartment, Seamus noticed a certain spring in his step. A certain sprightliness. He was prancing, and he was happy.
“I narrowly escaped death by an unknown mechanism,” he said aloud. “Call it Deus ex machina.”
The term referred to a poetic device employed in Greek tragedy, in which the gods came out of the clouds to alter a story’s events. Seamus had felt the hand of God drop out of heaven and pull him out of harm’s way, and not a moment too soon.
“Imagine being blown to pieces, and by my own creation. I can see how Jesus Christ must have felt, on the Cross. There I go again getting religious. I am truly in the midst of a mid-life crisis. But it’s my life, my crisis, and I’m ready to live it, come what may.”
Seamus thought he saw how his story would proceed. He had been looking for an epiphany for Rex to have, and descending into his story as reporter with prophetic powers dispensing excellent advice he had been a vehicle for such an epiphany. Of course, Rex didn’t react the way a man on the verge of goodness would be expected to, but maybe he needed some time, just as Seamus now needed some time - not to write, but to live.
Returning to his apartment, he decided to start cleaning up his life by cleaning up the mess that was his rubble heap. His plan was to find among the riffraff enough of value to approximate in sales what he owed his ex-wife. Then he could see his son, and embark on the tricky task of having a relationship with his own flesh and blood.
What began as a scavenger hunt for saleable pieces quickly evolved into a large scale clearing-out. Most of what he gathered was junk, and consequently he threw it away. The truth was that all he had of value were his books, early editions of several early works of great American writers, but he had thumbed through the texts so many times that their once mint condition had become excellent and now was only poor-to-fair.
Seamus sat himself on his couch that was no longer so dusty - he had shaken the individual pillows out, banged them against the wall - and as he looked around at the result of his day-long labors, he sighed with the understanding that he owned nothing of value. He wondered where all the money had gone. It was buried in Sheila’s apartment. His tastes had always been simple. He couldn’t stand thinking of money so he drove it from his mind.
“At least the place looks clean,” he said, trying to be optimistic.
He had even polished the windows.
“I might even ask my son Stevie over. We can have ice cream. Kids love ice cream. Of course first I’ll have to pay the electricity bill and stock my empty refrigerator.” He’d thrown out all the rancid accumulations. “And even before that I’ll have to pay the phone bill so that I can call him, which brings me back to the topic of money.” And again he drove it from his mind. Then he realized that of all his bills, the only one that had been paid for him was the water bill, which came with the rent, which would be past due in a little over a week, and which Seamus doubted he’d be able to pay when the time came.
“I’ll use the shower while I still have water. I’ve done a fine job cleaning up my living space, now onto my person.”
The first thing he did was to give himself a shave. He couldn’t run the razor directly over the tangled mass of three-inch long wiry hair that blanketed his visage. First he had to use the scissors. After removing every last hair, he thought he could hardly recognize the man staring back at him. It was similar to what he had felt when he first met Shelby, by being Shelby - in a clean apartment, staring at its clean-shaven tenant. It felt good to groom oneself, and best of all, it was free. He ran the scissors through his hair for a trim and was surprised at the pleasing results. Then he manicured his nails - first cutting them, filing them, and then clipping the cuticles. He even took out a buffer and gave them a shine.
Then he rescued an old suit from his once overstuffed closet, which that morning he had relieved of half its wardrobe, all that was moth-eaten, worn thin, and carried memories of a former life. He considered holding a garage sale but dismissed the notion almost as immediately as it had come to his mind.
“This stuff is junk. The fact that it belongs to me doesn’t make it any less so. It holds no sentimental value whatsoever. If anything it brings memories of times I long to forget. Better to leave it out on the curb. Let the homeless scavenge it.”
In fact, he called the Salvation Army and had them pick it up. Then he realized they would sell his possessions and earn a profit, and he thought that should anyone earn a profit from one’s things it should be their owner, but he didn’t call them back to cancel the pick-up as he had more important things to attend to than making money, like seeing his son. But if he didn’t come up with $2000, he’d not get to see his son. This thought disappointed him greatly, and he drove it from his mind with the same force he’d driven out the prior thoughts of money, resolving to make himself presentable and get his life together, first things first.
Donning the suit after de-linting it with some scotch tape he had lying around, he was impressed with how good he looked. Dapper even. No hair on his face lent the impression of more on his head, and the weeks with less food had melted the extra few pounds he’d been carrying around the mid-section.
“Everything for a reason,” he said. He was becoming an optimist.
As soon as Seamus had put on the suit and been satisfied with his appearance, he took it off and hung it back up. It was night now, and his cleaning duties had left him in sore need of some rest. He’d put the suit back on in the morning, and he’d go see his son, broke as he was. And for the first time in nights, Seamus did not give the world of his story much thought. He didn’t bother himself by trying to remember where the story had left off and where he would reenter. The story had taken an unseen turn, and was off in new territory, and he didn’t much care where it went, even if it picked up at the shot and wound up with his death. Well, perhaps he did care, but not as much as he thought he might. He resolved not to get too involved in the world of his story. Now that he was so caught up in the world of his life, the story held less interest for him. He did regret his failure to save his file, and considered trying to retype the novel from the beginning. Now that he had the epiphany scene down - it was etched in his mind, he had lived it - he almost felt the rest of the writing would take care of itself. If he ever got back to writing.
“I’m just so tired....” he said with a yawn. And he blew out his bedside candles, closed his eyes, and thinking of his son, he slept.
But the spell was not broken. He opened his eyes once again to 1940's New York. Shelby was lying beneath a tree in Central Park, reading a novel. Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Evidently it was Shelby’s day off. Seamus decided to make it his as well. He closed his eyes again, and opening them, was back again in his once rubble heap and now nice and neat apartment. And dressing himself once again in his suit, he went to see his son.
“And first impressions are of such immense import, everyone knows that. Onward I tread, and sweat I will if sweat I must.”
He knew Stevie’s school because Sheila had mentioned it once on the phone. It was a public school and he now felt that his son would be better educated at a private school. He thought it strange that he hadn’t felt that way before, hadn’t cared about where his son went or what he did. Sheila had once told him she had chosen public school because she didn’t want her son to grow up snooty - as Seamus had. She wanted Stevie to be around normal kids, at least for the first couple grades. Sheila’s parenting ways were a mystery to Seamus.
“Who am I to talk?” he asked himself. “I’ve been an absentee in my son’s life. And to think that all these years he has been just around the corner.”
The elementary school Stevie attended was indeed just around the corner from Seamus’ apartment, in Hell’s Kitchen, as Midtown Manhattan was called.
“Not a safe place for children to be, not even during the day. A poor choice of schools. But again, who am I to judge?”
Seamus guessed his son to be in the second grade. That is where he as a boy of eight had been in his schooling.
“Perhaps he has skipped a grade.” He thought this a distinct possibility. “He might have, if he has inherited my potential.”
Seamus had tested gifted in the second grade and thereafter had never been much more than a C student. The curse of the gifted, he had dubbed it. Doomed to be bored. Eternal ennui, he liked to call it, a phrase coined by Lord Byron. A clever way of saying he was a lazy underachiever.
“I hope my son is not lazy, and if he is, that he is not an underachiever, if it is possible to be one without being the other. Perhaps it is for the best that after giving him life, I have not been a factor in his life. I wouldn’t want him to pick up my bad habits. But now that I’m a changed man . . .”
In truth Seamus had done precious little to change his life other than clean his apartment and groom his person - things most human beings, both the gifted and the lazy, generally perform on a weekly basis - but at the moment he felt swollen with unlimited potential, the way he’d felt as a child.
Arriving at his son’s elementary school, which was in a residential area, and this relieved him somewhat, he did not cross the street, but rather he remained on the other side, at a safe distance, feeling somehow protected by the traffic separating him from the school’s playground, which at present was filled with children of various pre-adolescent ages immersed in various games, games that Seamus knew and had once loved very much, games like handball, tetherball, kickball, hopscotch, hide and seek, and tag.
“All these fertile imaginations,” he said, filling his lungs with the fragrant air of spring. So much potential, waiting to be tapped. Like so many living, breathing gold mines.” And then the thought occurred to him, “ By comparison, with no potential and little imagination, I feel inadequate. I am inadequate.” And he was crushed once again by self pity.
As he watched the children play - it was evidently recess as all the grades from kindergarten through sixth were on the grounds - the thought occurred to him that he might be taken as some would-be child molester, surveying would-be prey. He tried to laugh off such a notion, but then the thought occurred to him that by definition he was a child molester. Mallory was legally still a child. The thought depressed him and he drove it from his mind, instead occupying his mental energies in the search for his son among the sea of children. He guessed that a child of eight would stand around four feet six inches. He tried to recall the boy he had been at the age of eight, but that was too far back to remember for a man who hated to dwell on the past. He knew one thing. He had been pale as a boy, was pale now. Stevie had inherited Sheila’s olive skin complexion. So they were different in this way. He wondered in what other ways father and son might differ. What ways were they the same? Then thought occurred to him that it must not be recess but rather it was after school - it was now nearing three o’clock in the afternoon, where had the time gone? - and that these children engaged in games must be awaiting their parents, or the school bus, to pick them up and take them home. Seamus wondered whether Sheila would pick the boy up or whether she would assign the task to the bus driver. Never would he have suspected that the boyfriend, Wall Street hotshot that he was, would take time out of his busy schedule to confidently swing Stevie onto his shoulders and carry him to his new Mercedes convertible - it must be new or else it would not be without license plates - but that is just what Pablo Santos, Sheila’s soon-to-be second husband, did. Seamus experienced his own brand of rage, which started in his throat and stayed there, and which he couldn’t gulp down. His rage was like a tumor, and it made it difficult for him to breath.
“That is my child!” he screamed, inwardly of course. “You imposter!”
But his vocal cords were paralyzed. He couldn’t get any words out. He thought he’d feel much better if he could speak, but all he could do was to think, all he could ever do was think, and thinking without action was killing him.
“I’ve never picked my son up from school. Last time I saw him he wasn’t even in school. I don’t have a job, and with all this free time, you’d think I’d spend as much of it as I could with my flesh and blood, and instead I don’t even recognize him, that is how rarely I see him, and this is a condemnation of my inadequacy as a father. I am inadequate, through and through. Blatantly so. Indeed, I am a cruel mockery of a man. The opposite of what my Maker intended. And now I am wallowing in self-pity, and sadly, wallowing is my only joy!”
It was true. Seamus had not recognized Stevie on Pablo’s shoulders. It was only in recognizing Pablo, whom Sheila had paraded around him at a few social gatherings over the years, that Seamus had been able to infer the identity of his offspring.
“The boy looks nothing like me. Amazing, and yet I could have predicted it,” he said to himself.
As Seamus watched the man who was to replace him stride down the block carrying his own son on his shoulders, he was wonderstruck at the resemblance Stevie bore his father-to-be. It was as though spending years with the man, living day-to-day, had caused the resemblance.
“Maybe Santos is his biological father.” The thought of Sheila’s possible infidelity comforted him. “After all, Sheila could have had an affair. Oh, that is impossible! I was the perfidious one. She didn’t start seeing him until after our son was born, was almost two years old, if my memory serves me. At least that’s when she told me about the affair. But the affair may have gone on well before she chose to confess it to me.”
Seamus considered demanding a paternity test.
“Oh what’s the use! Even if I am his real father, as I know that I am, it doesn’t change the fact that it is that man and not I, who has been there for the boy. Pablo Santos has proved to be more Stevie’s father, regardless of what DNA would show. And Stevie looks so happy on the man’s shoulders. Never mind how ridiculous they look. A practically grown boy being carried like that. I could never carry him on these frail shoulders of mine. He must weight a hundred pounds. With such a load, my back would most assuredly go out before I got two steps down the street. That Santos sure is strong. He’s probably a raging animal in bed . . . .”
Seamus watched as Santos swung Stevie into the car, tousled his hair, then hopped in himself and sped off. It had the air of a commercial for good parenting, or a moving postcard. “He drives so well. I don’t even own a car, not anymore, and even when I did, I couldn’t drive with such dexterity. I call myself a writer, and yet I’ve never even learned how to type! Dammit it is sure hot!”
Seamus would return to his son’s school the following day, again in his suit, again in the scorching heat, and sweating profusely, but this time earlier in the day, and locating the second grade classroom he presumed was home during the week to his son, he stationed himself outside it, on the sidewalk but behind a row of shrubs which granted him view of the room while obscuring his own person. The classroom’s window was closed, so he couldn’t hear what was going on inside. He thought the fact that he was a deaf man in his son’s world fitting, as he’d been blind to his fatherly failure until the day before, and now that he could see, he was left deaf and mute.
From the view granted him, Seamus judged the twenty-something female teacher was reading the twenty-something eight-year-olds a story. The children were seated around their teacher on the classroom carpet, in rapt attention as she turned the pages of the hard bound tome which lay in her lap. He wondered what the story she read could possibly be and found himself wondering what the appropriate reading material would be for such children. While maintaining his invisibility, he inched closer to see if he could make out the title of the book she held. He cleaned his glasses against his jacket’s end - he’d taken to using his glasses again, on a whim. His suit was dusty, and made his glasses dustier still.
“My goodness!” he cried. “It’s my book. She’s reading my book!”
Indeed she was. Ms. Flaherty was reading the first book in the Crusader series. The series was marketed for kids aged nine to thirteen. The fact that she was reading it to a class of eight year olds was evidence in Seamus’ mind that this was an advanced class, and his son an advanced student. He felt himself swell with fatherly pride as his eyes scanned the classroom to locate the boy. He needed to see the boy’s expression at that moment.
“How is he reacting to what his father wrote? Does it delight him? Do the monsters terrify him, as I had intended? What would he say if told his father wrote the story which was now being read to him? I’ll tell him I wrote it for him! I didn’t think so at the time, never thought I’d ever even have a child until it happened by accident, but I know this now. I wrote it years ago so that one day, today, I might be able to stand outside my son’s classroom and watch my the product of my dreams being read to the product of my loins. I am so excited!”
Again his eyes scanned the room but could not locate his son. Standing on his toes until his legs ached, he at last espied his son. Lying on the rug. Fast asleep. Seamus frowned.
“My story put him to bed. I wrote him a bed time tale!” he said with forced gleefulness, in what he knew was a pathetic attempt to disguise the fact that his writing obviously did not interest his son. “Well, at least the other students seem to like it. And maybe the teacher is not reading it with enough energy.”
Again Seamus waited for school to let out, again he watched Santos carry his son away on his shoulders and into his fancy car, back to his fancy life.
“Must be a routine with them. Every day is father-son day. How pathetic! God I wish that were me!”
Then the thought came as a compulsion that he needed to go inside his son’s classroom.
“I just need to be close to him, maybe sit at the little fella’s desk. I’ll say I’m an uncle. I’m in town visiting, just for the day, and . . . no, better to tell the truth. I’m his father, and that’s what I’ll say.”
He entered without hindrance to find the teacher at her desk, correcting papers in the otherwise empty classroom. He promptly told her he was the father of Stephen Merriweather.
Ms. Flaherty looked up from her papers, and removing her glasses, said, “I’m sorry, sir. You must have the wrong classroom. There’s no child by that name.”
“He goes by Stevie.”
“We have a Stephen Santos....” She seemed to regret saying this, as though it were too much information to give a stranger.
The boy had taken Sheila’s last name. History was repeating itself. Would he grow to hate his father the way Seamus hated his own father?
“That’s him. That’s my son,” Seamus said.
The teacher regarded him suspiciously. “Who are you?”
“Why, I’m his father.” He said the words as though they were obvious, as after all they were obvious to him.
“I’ve seen Mr. Santos,” she replied. “He’s tall, dark. Decidedly handsome.” Seamus thought he saw a blush overcome her features. “You are certainly not him.”
“You are correct in your surmise, ma’am. I’m not Mr. Santos, but I assure you I’m the boy’s father. The biological father. I sired him.” The term sounded strange on the tongue. Seamus felt strange saying it.
“If we had a geneticist in house I’d prove it to you. A sperm sample would clinch it!”
The pen dropped from Ms. Flaherty’s hand as she said, “How did you get in here?”
“The door was open. I just walked in. It was the natural thing to do.” As he said this he strolled along the aisle, hands thrust in trousers, as nonchalant as he could be. The rows of desks separated him from the teacher and served as a barrier to her disbelief. He looked at the classroom wall on which were stapled various watercolor paintings made by the students. As Seamus regarded the explosions of color, he looked for his son Stevie’s painting but had trouble finding it.
Maybe it is asleep on the rug . . . .
“I think I’d better call security,” the teacher said as she rose. Without waiting for his reply, which would not have come even had she waited, for Seamus was immersed in the search, she marched out of the classroom, bent on making good on her intention. Seamus didn’t notice. Something inside him compelled him to seek out his son’s work, as if in it resided a clue to some mystery. Shortly thereafter, he heard footsteps in the hall. The steps of boots that from their stomping sound must have belonged to a big man.
“Must be the guards,” he mused. “They’re coming for me.” The thought did not cause him the consternation he thought he should have felt.
He tried to hear in the forthcoming steps if there were one or two men attached to them. He couldn’t decide, instead keeping at his search, and finally finding his son’s artwork. It was a picture of a Christmas tree.
“The boy has no artistic talent,” was the thought that immediately came to mind. He found himself wondering why well into the new year the teacher had left pictures done around the holiday season, several months past. “This wall needs new art. The kids need a new teacher.”
Underneath his son’s rendering of a Christmas tree sat a child, all alone. The child was drawn in a stick figure style, which complimented the shabby tree, and written in chicken scratch were the words, “What Stevie wants for Christmas.” And next to the word Christmas was a blank space.
“I’ll be damned,” Seamus said. “A mystery within a mystery.”
And seeing the muscle-bound guard appear at the classroom door, he broke into a sprint.
Being chased by a man carrying a gun was somehow a very liberating experience. Maybe it was the simple act of running as fast as his spindly legs could carry him that created the feeling of release. Though he smoked compulsively and hadn’t run since freshman track, he was able to stay out of the burly man’s grasp, and the guard gave up after about two city blocks. Seamus wondered whether he’d radioed in the authorities, as in his imagination that was how things worked, so he continued at a canter for another several blocks and turned several corners for good measure, until he’d practically lost himself. He had to find a street name to place himself in the correct corner of Manhattan.
After catching his breath, he proclaimed aloud, with eyes directed upward, “Stevie is my son!”
If someone asked him how he’d come to this strange conclusion, he wouldn’t have referred to the boy’s poor drawing ability, which he shared and as dad might have passed on genetically if such a trait were inheritable. It wasn’t the statement the boy in his drawing had left unanswered, though Seamus himself was notorious for not finishing his thoughts. It was these things but more importantly it was that he referred to himself in the third person.
“The little one calls himself by his own name. As a tyke I referred to myself in such a manner. This tendency of mine irritated many, I know, but it was uniquely me. No one else did it that I have seen or heard of. No one but me, and now Stevie, my son, my flesh and blood and very own son!”
And on such a dubious revelation he hung his hopes and he renewed his resolve to have a relationship with his son.
“Yeah well, I feel like hell.”
Seamus had visited Mallory at her apartment because he needed someone to talk to, and finding her there he invited her to Central Park because he had no money and unless you wanted to ice-skate or hail a horse-drawn coach, the park was free. Besides, it was a beautiful night, he made himself admit, though the night’s beauty was the least of his cares. To convince her to abandon her studies and join him, he had promised to tell her a story. She thought the idea romantic.
“How can you be depressed? All the stars are out. They’re, like, shining down on us.”
Mallory thought she saw a shooting star and pointed to it. Seamus said it was probably a comet on its way to blowing off part of Florida.
“Don’t be so grim! Make a wish. Wish upon a star, Seamus. It will do you good.”
“I wish I had two thousand dollars, cash.”
“You always talk about money.”
“It’s because I don’t have any. Poor people tend to do that.”
“Stop thinking about money and tell me a story. Poor people can fulfill promises too, you know.”
He sighed. The story he planned to tell was a story he knew by heart.
“Oh, okay. There once was a man, the story began.”
“Goodie, it rhymes! What type of man was he?”
“You know, the ordinary sort. Nothing all that special.”
“They never are, not at the outset. That’s what the story’s for, I suppose. And then what happened?”
“Give it time. I’ve only just begun.”
“I’m impatient when I want something.”
“I’ve noticed. Look at the stars. Think of light. Light travels so fast, but appears to move so slowly as not to move at all. Let that thought slow you down.”
“And then what happened?” she said again.
“This man aspired to greatness. ‘Great things I’ll achieve,’ said he.”
Mallory giggled. “He sounds funny.”
“It’s a direct quote. Greatness did he aspire to, and for a time he was . . . almost good.”
“Is this a poem or a story?”
“Shut up and listen,” Seamus said with mock severity. “But then . . . he fell.”
“They always do.”
“Yes, I suppose they do.”
“And then what happened?”
“Then . . . I don’t know. I haven’t gotten past that part in the story.”
“This man is you.”
“This man had a son,” Seamus said with renewed vigor.
“You had a son?” Mallory asked, propping herself up on her elbows.
“I have a son.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because I hardly knew. I did know, but I didn’t realize.” Here Seamus also propped himself up on his elbows. “If that makes any sense.”
“How old is he?”
“He’s good. Looks happy, at least.”
“Not how is he, Seamus. How old is he.”
“Sorry. I always get that mixed up. He’s eight, I think.”
“You have an eight year old son? He’s practically a teenager!”
Seamus thought about it. “Well he will be in five years, which is more than half the life he’s lived so far. I’d hardly call that practically.”
“Oh Seamus, quit being so literal. Imagine, a child! I want children. Tons of them.”
“One ton is two thousand pounds. That’s pretty heavy.”
“But you’re right, child rearing is pretty heavy stuff. Just ask my mom. I was a wild little girl.”
With his characteristic skill, Seamus turned the conversation back to him. “I wouldn’t know how heavy child rearing is, really, as I haven’t played much of a part in my son’s rearing.” The word rearing amused him and he enjoyed saying it several times in a sentence.
“You mean you haven’t taken him ice skating in Central Park?”
“I haven’t even taken him for ice-cream.” He wanted to take his son for ice cream, wanted it more than anything he’d ever wanted before. The desire surprised him.
“That is sad to me.”
“It’s sad to me, too.”
“Why don’t you do something about it? Take him for ice cream.”
“I wish it were that simple.”
“It is, really. You browse the glass case, choose your flavor, and maybe a topping, place your order, and pay. Okay, I guess the last part might give you a little trouble.”
“I wasn’t referring to my financial travails.”
“Excuse me. You usually do.”
“I was referring to the fact that his mother won’t let me see him, expressly forbids it, actually. She imposes unreasonable prerequisites. I’m having a hard time fulfilling them because they are unreasonable.”
“You never told me you were married.”
“I’m not married. Marriage is forever, and well . . . Anyway, I didn’t think it would matter. If anything you might use bygone lapses in judgement against me. Call me used goods.”
“Was she a lapse in your good judgement?”
“I think I was more a lapse in hers.”
“I’m sorry, for her sake.”
“Don’t be. She’s exacted her retribution. I’ve had to pay interest on whatever I cost her.”
“I have a feeling we’re moving back to your favorite topic. Money.”
“The lack thereof. Specifically, the lack of two thousand dollars. I didn’t want to bring it up, but I can’t get it out of my mind. And I knew if I lay here tonight without saying anything about what I was thinking about, you’d ask me what I was thinking, because you always do that.”
“You know me so well.”
“You know me better.”
“Well, I’d hate to disappoint you and so I’ll ask you, why two thousand dollars?”
“Payback for a failed marriage, one caused by my infidelity, selfishness, immaturity, and general incorrigible irresponsibility. Now there’s a term. I should write that down.” But Seamus found he was without a pen. Figures, he said to himself.
“You were those things to her? I wouldn’t think you the type, Seamus.”
“I’m only kidding.”
“I know you are not. So let me get this straight. Your ex-wife demands two thousand dollars–”
“Alimony, which I don’t have.”
“Or else she won’t let you see you son?”
“You’ve summed it up rather patly. I’d say if design school doesn’t pan out, you’d make one helluva therapist. All they do is repeat what you say.”
“I’d say she has you by the balls.”
“Bolas, is the term she uses. She’s Brazilian, you see.”
For a while they lay in silence, dwelling in the night, staring up at the stars, quietly breathing in the delightfully warm air. Seamus found the weather did not suit his grim mood and so he resolved to be happy, or at least, pleasant. He wondered how he’d go about this. In the end he decided silence was best. At length Mallory said, “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll loan you half of what you owe your wife.”
“One thousand dollars, cash.”
“I could never. You don’t . . . I mean, I couldn’t and you couldn’t–”
“I’ve saved that much babysitting.”
“You’ve saved it for design school. That’s your dream money. I could never think, would never think. I can’t, so I won’t.”
“Hear me out. I haven’t finished. I’ll give you my savings, if you can come up with the same amount. Match me. One plus one is two, if my math is correct. Seems simple enough to me.”
Seamus felt imaginary butterflies flap their diaphanous wings in his throat. “I’ll pay you back, if it’s the last thing I do, if I die trying, if I . . . how will I possible raise one thousand dollars?”
“That is up to you.”
“I suppose I could sell my car. It should fetch at least that.”
He hadn’t seen his car in two weeks. It had stalled on 56th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, and lacking the money to get it towed or fixed, he’d placed a “For Sale” sign on its windshield. He hadn’t received any calls about it, but his phone had been disconnected for the past several days, so that wasn’t saying much.
“I’ve been meaning to tell you, your car is not where you left it. I checked.”
“You mean it’s been stolen?!”
“Impounded is more like it. You left it in a towing zone.”
Seamus knew he should have left a letter to the authorities indicating that his car was not abandoned or parked illegally, that it was just stalled. But he had lacked a pen and paper at the time. Figures, he had told himself at the time.
“Dammit!” he now screamed. “There goes an easy grand!”
“Seamus, that car was a piece of junk.”
“Tell that to the asshole that stole it!”
“Nobody stole it! You’d have to pay someone to take it off your hands. And now the city has done it for free. You should be saying good riddance.”
“I could have gotten something for it. I had a stereo installed, ten years ago, in fact under ten years ago. That stereo alone would have fetched a hundred or so, at least. I mean, it cost me that much to install!”
“That was practically in the 80's. Ever hear of depreciation?”
“How else to raise one thousand cash? I can’t think of an easier way than by selling something you don’t want, can you?”
“How about selling something you have? Why not do what you do best?”
“And what is that? Worry about money?”
“Word is, you’re a writer.”
“I’m a writer who hasn’t written anything in I can’t remember, it’s been so long. I’m a writer with writer’s block. There, I finally said it! I can admit defeat, once and for all! I have failed!”
“Well, you know the saying, ‘Those who can’t do–”
“Those who can’t do, teach. I used to heckle my high school science professor with those very words.”
“So teach writing. I’ll send out an email to all my sorority sisters, tell them to forward it to their friends. It’ll say, ‘Seamus Merriweather, exemplary author of fairy tales–’”
“I’m by no means exemplary.”
“‘–is conducting a writing seminar this Saturday. Twenty dollars a head.’ Fifty attendees, and you’ve got your thousand dollars.”
“It sounds so easy.”
“Easy as one, two, one thousand.”
“I dunno, Mallory. I don’t think I can do it.”
“Why not? It’s two hours of your time, spent talking about what you’ve spent your life doing. It’s what you know. And I told you I’ll set it up.”
Seamus found himself warming to the idea. He was a decent public speaker. In the past he’d held book readings and signings. He thrived in the public eye. But that had been another time. When he had been successful. Now he was just a wreck, like the car he no longer owned.
“We could hold the seminar in one of the lecture auditoriums on campus. On a Saturday, when no classes are held.”
“I don’t know . . .”
“All you have to do is show up.”
“You make it sound so simple.” Seamus felt like he was talking to his brother, being urged into something he didn’t think he had the ability to pursue to the end. He consoled himself with the reflection that the present venture, at least, didn’t involve prison time if it unraveled. Or did it?
“You have to see your son.”
“The night sky is beautiful,” he replied, hoping to buy time.
“I’ll set it up.”
Seamus gave in. “You are too good to me.”
“I know,” she said. “But one day, you’ll prove yourself worthy.”
“Let’s see,” he said to the expectant audience. At that moment he predicted that in the near future he’d be booed off the stage and that the students would demand a full refund of the ten dollar admission fee, and that he’d be left back at square one. His hands dug themselves into his jean pockets. He’d have jingled loose change had he any. “I’d like to thank you for coming today.” He decided it best to be seen as Mr. Nice Guy. That way they’d be gentle in their condemnation of him.
“What have I gotten myself into?” he asked himself. “What could I possibly offer of value to these eager ambitious minds? Who am I but a has been mired in mediocrity?” He liked the phrase mired in mediocrity and resolved to put it in his next book, or perhaps fit it into his current one should he get back to writing it. The thought gave him momentary hope, an escape into the world of his potential, then his mind returned to the audience in front of him and his reality left him to despair. He had promised himself not to give into self defeat and despair, and was failing to fulfill this promise. He had thought about reading excerpts from the Crusader book, but he didn’t especially love his reading voice. In fact, when Bantam had made an audio version of his novels, they’d paid an actor to read them aloud, an actor Seamus had never heard of. Seamus had asked for the job and they had refused, saying an audio version of his book would not happen if his voice came attached to it. He had to admit it was a good business decision on their part. After all, he had a slight lisp. It came out when he said words like lisp, so he never said such words, and rarely wrote them, for fear of having to read them, which the makers of audio disks would see he never did.
The silence was thick.
“If I cut through it with a knife, it’d probably bleed. I’d probably bleed.”
“You know,” he said to the crowd, “it wasn’t that long ago that I was a student sitting in the very same seats in which you find yourselves, full of promise and potential, and filled with self doubt. And now, years later, having had some meager success, I am still that same student. A student of life, still filled with self doubt, but urged on by my potential, and the hope that I may one day realize it. Funny how little has changed. The price of your admission today has bought you a book you may never read, perhaps because you have already read it, or perhaps the business of life doesn’t leave much time for fairy tales. I wrote that book based on a dream I once had of a perfect world, filled with perfect people, doing perfect things. The best case scenario. A utopia of sorts. It sold in the children’s section. Children live in a perfect world. One of imagination. Whimsy. Infinite possibility. I urge you never to leave that world. Keep it alive, long after your childhood has died. The death of a person comes long before the death of the physical body. It begins with the death of the imagination. Never cease to dream. In dreams you are truly alive.”
Seamus thought it best not to touch upon the literal truth of these words, how in the previous week or so, he had never been more alive, and mostly when he had been asleep. He felt the students might not understand. He wouldn’t have understood the truth of his words, as a student. He wouldn’t have understood two weeks ago.
“I don’t mean to sound preachy. As a child I was made to attend church, and I’d often fall asleep when the priest gave his sermon. Just don’t tell Father Hennessy.”
Father Hennessy was the community college’s pastor.
“But if what I’m saying does not inspire you to dream, and to believe in your dreams, then take your money back right now, and keep my book, whether or not you ever read it.”
Here Seamus found himself once again at a loss for words. He did not know how to proceed.
“That’s about all I have to say. Are there any questions?”
By creating a forum for discussion, he hoped he might gain some time to think of something further to discuss. Audience participation might inspire him.
Just then the school’s dean - whom Seamus recognized from his collegiate years, though he couldn’t recall the man’s name, but was sure it began with an M, and might have rhymed with a fruit, he forgot which fruit exactly, but regarding the man was certain that it was a fruit he despised - appeared at the back entrance.
“What is going on here? Seamus? Is that you?” Mr. Fruit’s squinty eyes glared at Seamus for a long unanswered moment. “The lecture auditorium is closed on weekends. Are you teaching an extension course I do not know about?”
“Yes,” Seamus offered, then he thought better of it. “No. In actuality, I’m trying to raise money I desperately need. I have very noble intentions.”
The dean regarded him with a look of puzzlement. The seminar attendees did, too. “Regardless of what your intentions are, what you are doing is against campus policy. You can’t be here. You must clear out. Now.”
“Yes, sir,” he replied.
“You heard the man,” Seamus said to the audience. “Please leave me your mailing addresses. I will send each of you a signed copy of my novel in progress, when it is finished.” He thought of adding the words, “provided I finish it,” but decided to maintain at least a semblance of confidence in his perseverance as a writer.
The dean looked at the guards who flanked him, one on each side, dressed in black, with holstered weapons, and crew cuts, and moustaches. They started forward.
Seamus found himself stepping back in rapid reverse strides, out the back entrance. As he undertook a full sprint from the armed guards, the second time in as many days he was running from the authorities, he hoped Mallory had collected the admission price. If she had, he’d be roughly $1200 the richer, and with the money she’d add to that, he’d be able to see his son.
Lying atop Dolores, in a bath of their bodily fluids, he determined that these thrusts would be his last inside his brother’s wife. Almost at the climactic brink, he rolled off her and came to a rest on his back.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“I wasn’t through.”
“Well I was.”
“No, you weren’t. Don’t think I can’t feel when you don’t come inside me.”
“That’s a triple negative. Expressly forbidden.”
“What do you mean?!”
“I mean I’m through. I’m through doing this. I can’t, not anymore.”
“What is wrong with you?”
Dolores had been able to tell that his thrusts were half-hearted - or half-assed, the term Seamus used - and had driven her nails even deeper within the flesh of his back, as though to goad him on to completion. It worked and it yet did not. He didn’t thrust more vigorously, but she had drawn blood, and his blood on her skin made her feel somehow fulfilled.
“I’ve grown a conscience, and I don’t know where it came from. I woke up this morning and it was just here, in my head.”
“Don’t give me your bullshit about a conscience. You are my love slave. You exist to please me!”
With these words Dolores resumed her favorite position, atop him, straddling him with her robust thighs. These thighs crushed his rib cage as he tried in vain to buck her off. From behind her, she groped for his sex and finding it dangling between his legs made a vigorous attempt to stuff him back inside her. Enraged to find his soldier not standing at attention, she sidled up his torso and came to a stop with her thighs around his neck. Holding his hands to his side, she squeezed her thighs together in a sort of death grip.
“I can’t breathe!” Seamus gasped. “You are choking me!” As he felt the life ebb out of him, she released her grip and lay down beside him.
For a time, the two lay side by side, staring at the ceiling. Both were breathing heavily. Seamus’ face was red. Around his neck was a welt. They looked as they always did after the climactic end to sex, but for him this time had proved to be anti-climactic.
“And here I thought the power you held over me was purely sexual. I never thought you held my life in your hands, or more accurately, between your legs. You could have killed me, woman!”
“I should have!”
“I can’t do this anymore,” he repeated as he rose from the bed and hastily dressed. Wearing her nightgown, Dolores watched him in disbelief.
“Where do you think you are going? You can’t leave!”
Standing at the foot of the bed, facing her, he said, “I have a confession to make. “Maurice, my brother, is not the man you think.”
“Oh really? Are you saying my husband, the man I know to be a compulsive gambler, a pathological liar, and an incompetent con man is not those things?” She laughed bitterly. “I’d say you are crazy!”
“Well yes, he is all of those things, I’m afraid. But he’s not a cheat.”
Again Dolores laughed bitterly.
“He never cheated on you. He never had an affair. He’s one hundred percent faithful to you, always has been.”
Dolores blinked several times in wide eyed silence.
“You lied to me!”
“To take me to bed!”
Seamus hung his head down. The universal admission of guilt.
“Why, you bastard!”
And from beneath the mattress on her side of the bed she pulled out a butcher knife. It gleamed in the morning sunlight. The glint made Seamus squint. He shielded his eyes. He wondered what else he’d soon need to shield.
“I ought to kill you, you miserable son of a bitch!”
“Hey, let’s not involve my mother in this! This is between you and–”
Before Seamus could finish his thought, she leapt off the bed and made after him in predatory strides. He jumped out of the way, only narrowly escaping the stroke of the blade. Despite never having see her cook, he could tell by the way she wielded the piece of steel that she’d spent a great deal of time in the kitchen, or had killed a lot of chickens in her native Mexico. Either way he felt cooked.
As he ran along the hall he asked himself why Dolores had kept a butcher knife beneath her mattress. Was it to defend herself against a potential burglar should one visit her home in the still of night, while her husband was away? Surely not. Their home was tucked away safely in a residential area, with families on either side, and guard dogs stationed in virtually every yard. Was it kept for just this occasion? Had she predicted that Seamus had betrayed his brother in order to bed his brother’s wife, and had been lying in wait for the truth to be revealed, which was now? Unlikely, he thought, as he turned a corner and entering the living room stumbled over the coffee table and nearly lost his footing as he slid over a rug. He was nearing the front door and the safety it promised, on the other side. Perhaps she had been plotting the murder of Maurice. That was it! Knowing Seamus didn’t have the “cajones,” as she had put it - bolas, in Portuguese - to kill his brother, she’d prove herself a bigger man than he, and do the deed herself. Yes, that was it! And by copping to his lie, he’d just saved his brother’s life. Granted he’d put Maurice’s life in jeopardy in the first place, but he did not consider this. All that was on his mind at this moment was the front door, whose handle came gratefully into his grasp. And he turned the handle. And found it locked. He ducked and the knife came swooping down, grazing his balding head and burying its blade in the wood of the door. And before Dolores could pull it out, the door opened, from the outside.
“Maurice!” Seamus said as his brother came into view. “You’ve come at such an opportune time! May I ask what you’re doing here?” He was amazed at how quickly he’d been able to recover his composure.
“What am I dong here? What a strange question, Seamus. This is my house!”
“Indeed it is, but you were supposed to be out of town, on . . . hmmmm, business.” He winked at his brother, as though to indicate complicity. He felt that if he could turn the spotlight on his brother’s lie - Maurice’s business had been the usual gambling spree, which as usual he’d tried to hide from his wife - he could turn the attention away from the lie he was on the verge of creating: namely, that he was not at his brother’s house to adulterate his brother’s wife, but for some other reason, he knew not what, hadn’t figured that part out just yet.
“I wanted to surprise Dolores, with flowers.”
Dolores’ soft spot was flowers. She melted when she saw them, and burned with desire when they were given to her.
Dolores threw the door open wide. Maurice did not see the knife stuck on the inside. Taking the flowers, she hugged her husband and kissed him feverishly. Seamus stepped out of the way of the passionate display.
“I missed you!” Maurice said.
“I have you back!” Dolores said in return. As they rubbed noses, she glowered at Seamus. He thought that he had never seen such hatred conveyed visually. “I want to welcome you home, my love,” she told her husband. “Come with me to the bedroom. Let me show you just how grateful I am to have you back. I was so foolish to allow lies to get in our way.”
Maurice seemed puzzled, but the thought of her approaching sex swiftly erased the confusion that her words conveyed.
Watching such a rapid transition from anger to sexual arousal, Seamus was stunned, and as Dolores led Maurice away, he said, “Wait a minute!”
A moment before he’d wanted to get out of his predicament, which held his life on a razor’s edge, quite literally. Now out of it, he wanted back in. Things just weren’t making sense. A moment before, Dolores wished her husband dead, only to welcome him back into her arms. A moment after wishing Maurice dead, she’d attempted to take Seamus’ life, and now she paid him no notice. The fact that Maurice was not suspicious about his brother’s unanticipated presence in his home, with his scantily-clad wife, was the least mysterious element in the whole strange picture. This could be chalked up to the fact that Maurice was abundantly naive, and he trusted his brother implicitly, if in this case erroneously.
“Wait just one minute,” Seamus said again. The two lovebirds appeared to notice him for the first time. “What about me?”
“You can let yourself out,” Dolores said.
“Oh, I’ve just remembered,” Maurice said, only then seeming aware of his brother’s presence. “There’s someone I want you to see. There are two, actually. They are brothers. I was wondering if you’d recognize them.” Maurice gestured outside, where through the window Seamus saw two churlish brutes of men, leaning against a dirty pick-up truck, staring fixedly in the direction of the house. They seemed to nod at Maurice’s introduction. Seamus shivered.
“Must be the Bruise Brothers, come to collect . . . me,” he thought. To his brother he said, “Before we get to that, and before you two get to . . . that, I have a confession to make.
“Seamus, please!” Dolores said. “Forget about it! You’ve done enough disgrace!”
“No, I can’t. I need to say this.” He turned to Maurice. “Maurice, you as my brother trusted me alone with your wife, encouraged it even, for reasons we won’t explore. And as my sick sign of gratitude, I lied to you, and to her.”
“Seamus, whatever do you mean?”
“Whatever do I mean? You are sounding like me. Don’t talk like that. I mean simply, this. I told Dolores you were having an affair.”
Maurice laughed. Seamus did not. Maurice got the message. “Are you serious?” Seamus nodded. “You are serious.” Maurice turned to Dolores. “And you believed him?” Dolores nodded. “Well, I’m flattered at the thought of at least seeming to be appealing to someone other than my wife, whose attraction for me I’ve sometimes doubted.” And he added after considering the issue for a moment, “Well, no harm, no foul.”
“There’s more,” Seamus said.
“Seamus!” Dolores warned.
“I haven’t told you why I told your wife this lie. I did so to get her into bed, hoping that the indignation she’d feel towards you she’d channel sexually towards me, in the form of, well, you know. You’ve heard the term angry sex?”
Maurice laughed. “What an idea!”
“And it worked,” Seamus said flatly.
“It worked?” Maurice asked. Dolores nodded as she glared at Seamus, who was thankful the butcher’s knife planted in the door was safely out of her reach. “Well now, that is a doozy. I really don’t know how to feel.”
“I did a bad thing,” Seamus said. “I am a bad man. I am sorry.”
Maurice stared at the ground.
“Please say something Maurice. Tell me you hate me. Anything is better than nothing.”
“I think I’d better invite my friends inside. It’s hot in the sun. Dolores, you can make iced tea.”
Dolores played the part of obedient wife and went to fetch some tea. Seamus could not understand her sudden change of heart. Then he remembered something she’d told him once. A loyal woman, she demanded loyalty in return. She’d rather a man beat on her than cheat on her, was how she had phrased it. She loved Maurice, until she believed him a cheat, and now that this illusion was swept away, she picked up her love and loyalty where she’d left off.
As she trailed away, Maurice said to his brother, in a whisper, “I’ve given up gambling. I won big this weekend, bigger than ever. I have decided to go out on an up.”
Maurice smiled at his brother as he began to turn the knob.
“Maurice, how can you be so casual at a time like this?”
“Casual? It is my day off. How do you expect me to be?”
“Maurice, don’t do this to me!” Seamus pleaded. “I’ve been a bad brother, and I’m sorry. There’s something else I need to tell you.” He leaned against the door to close it. “I can’t go on with the plan. I’m not a criminal. I can’t do it. Remember when we were kids, when they’d ask us if you needed food, would you beg for food or steal it, and that was supposed to tell you a lot about who you were, as a person? Well I can’t beg and I can’t steal. I’d rather starve. But I don’t want to die!” Seamus stepped back from the door. “You can open it now. I’ll face my fate.”
“What are you talking about, Seamus?”
Maurice opened the front door.
“Guys, come on in. There’s someone I’d like you to see.”
As the two brutish men entered, Seamus expected to meet his death.
“Hello,” Seamus said. “Nice of you to look me in the face before doing what you do best. You may now pull out your semi-automatics, or whatever is your killing means of choice.”
“Seamus, don’t you recognize these guys?” He said to the men, “Forgive my brother. He’s been acting strange today.”
Seamus’ eyes had been squinted shut. He opened them and looked at the two brutes towering over him.
“Fellas, as I said, I accept my just due.” And closing his eyes once more, he held out his hands, in what he believed was a fitting gesture of surrender.
Maurice said, “Again, I apologize. My brother writes fairy tales. He speaks funny.”
Seamus opened his eyes, surprised to still be breathing. Maurice patted him on the shoulder.
“Seamus, you remember Phil and Chet, from back at Oak Woods.” Oak Woods was the high school Maurice had attended. “Varsity linemen. All City. The Bruise Brothers, we used to call them. You remember, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Seamus said. No, he meant.
“I ran into them at the track. Twenty years, and they still recognized me. I brought ‘em over to your place the other day but you weren’t around.
“The Bruise Brothers? You mean, they’re not trained killers?”
Maurice laughed. “I figured you needed a little pushing. But after this weekend, I’m in the clear. Don’t need the money, and the counterfeiting business you thought up had a lot of holes. We were asking to get caught, if we went through with it.”
Dolores came back with a pitcher of iced tea which she set on the kitchen table along with a tray of four glasses. Regarding the glasses, and assuming the role of odd-man out, Seamus thought it time to leave.
“Well, nice to see you again, Phil and Russell.”
“Chet,” one said.
“I’d better get,” Seamus said.
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay? You look dehydrated. A refreshing glass of ice tea might do you some good,” Maurice said.
Seamus was not given time to answer.
“No,” Dolores said. “He has to go.”
“All right, Seamus, I’ll see you later.”
Seamus let himself out.
Walking home, Seamus was struck by what he had learned about his brother that day, and the extend of his brother’s love intoxicated him and at the same time filled him with grief. Maurice had forgiven him, and with only the vaguest apology, for lying to his wife and taking her to bed. Either he was totally brain dead, or loved his brother unconditionally. Seamus leaned toward the latter.
“My brother is my teacher,” he told himself as he blistered in the hot son. “And I have a lot to learn.”
“I’m probably becoming arthritic,” he said to himself. His father was arthritic. And senile. “I’ll probably be senile next.”
Waiting to see his son, he thought of his father, and he thought that having such a thought seemed odd, was odd, at the moment.
“I never think of my father, not unless I have to. Not unless I’m in the man’s deplorable presence. And even then, I try to block him out. God I hope my son doesn’t regard me the way I regard my old man. His thinking of me as a deplorable wretch would crush me. Even the possibility that he might have such a thought destroys me.”
He waited at the door to see his son. He began to tap his foot. It was a sign of impatience, but he considered himself patient, at least inwardly so. “I’ve waited all this time,” said he. But no one answered. He knocked a second time. Again his knuckles ached.
“I hope they’re home.” He didn’t know who they would include. He hoped it would include his son. If it did, Sheila would certainly not be far off. He hoped the other man, her man, Santos, was away doing something, maybe golfing. “I hope he golfs, for my sake. It’s Saturday and the day is clear and breezy. Good golfing whether, but I wouldn’t know. I’ve never golfed.” Seamus thought the sport of golf inane. As he saw it, golf consisted of a bunch of drunk middle-aged tired men trying to use their rods to stick it (the ball) into a hole. He preferred chasing younger women, as ultimately it boiled down to the same aim. The desire to get some. And the aim was juvenile, more befitting of an adolescent boy than a man with so many . . . Seamus decided not to pursue this thought further. “Stay on target. Day with son. Promise of fun. Central Park and ice cream, and . . . ” he couldn’t think of what else.
Standing at the door, he thought, “Why isn’t anyone answering?” He rubbed his forehead. “Don’t they have a housekeeper?” When he had lived there, Sheila had insisted on employing one Margarita De Silva, among whose tasks was the answering of doors. “Maybe nobody’s home. I wouldn’t put a stand-up past Sheila. Take the money and run.”
Seamus had met Sheila for coffee the day before. It was supposed to be for coffee, but they had ended up drinking ice water. He had ordered ice water because it was free and free was all he could afford, she because she didn’t drink water and so would not have to stay long enough to consume the glass’s contents. Neither left a tip. Sheila left the table $2000 richer, and Seamus with the promise that he’d have the following afternoon with Stevie, “four hours, noon till four, and no more,” and he’d be introduced as her step brother twice removed, whatever the term meant. What if she took the money and ran off to wherever she said she was planning to remarry - Mexico was it? - and took Stevie with her, leaving Seamus out in the cold? “I wouldn’t put it past her. I abandoned her for all those years. One might even say I have it coming.”
He thought of knocking a third time. His rheumatoid interphalangeal joints - that is what the medical books called them - weren’t up to the abuse. Instead he rang the bell. Moments later, Margarita answered.
“Mr. Merriweather?” She smiled, genuinely pleased to see him, and a little surprised. Sheila probably had not notified the maid of his visit. He had never told Sheila that once, way back, he and Margarita had “gotten busy,” as the saying went. He tried to put lustful thoughts out of his mind. It was easier than he’d have thought. Margarita had put on weight. And she wore a wedding ring. Married women were a turn off to Seamus, except of course Dolores, whose rib crushing thighs had been his weakness and virtual demise. He decided to dispense with pleasantries. “I’m here to see Stevie.”
“He’ll be right out,” she replied, pleasantly enough. “Please have him back before four.”
Seamus wanted to say that the deal was four, but didn’t and felt ripped off. “Two grand for four hours comes to five hundred an hour. More, actually, as it is now five minutes after twelve.” He thought of asking for a refund, but then berated himself for being so damn money conscious. “Is the lady of the house in–”
Margarita closed the door before he’d finished the question. After asking it, he wondered why he even cared. He hadn’t come to see Sheila. He only wanted to see his son.
Moments later, Stevie appeared at the door. Margarita had to urge him outside with a gentle nudge of his shoulders.
“This is your Uncle Seamus,” she said. “He’ll bring you back before dinner.” She closed the door, leaving the two, man and boy, father and son, together at last.
Stevie looked up at his father expectantly, and Seamus thought, morosely. “He’s inherited his grandfather’s sneer,” he thought. He said, “Hello there,” with as much brightness as his dry throat would allow. He was choked up. “You probably don’t remember who I am. I haven’t seen you since you were still in diapers.” After saying it, he wondered whether this were true. Did children wear diapers at aged three? He condemned his ignorance in the matter.
The boy shrugged before heading down the steps. When he noticed that Seamus did not follow, he turned and asked, “So where is your car?”
Seamus cleared his throat. “It’s in the shop.”
The boy didn’t seem to believe him. Strange how much could be conveyed in a look, Seamus thought.
“Truth is, I don’t have a car. I did, but it was either impounded or stolen.” He thought of explaining how he’d run out of gas in a tow-away zone, and had not left a note on the car’s windshield to explain the circumstances for whatever meter maid or traffic officer that might happen upon the vehicle, but thought better of it.
We don’t have much time. Better not to get bogged down in insignificant details.
“Where are we going and how will we get there?” The boy was so matter-of-fact.
“Central Park is within walking distance. How’s that?”
The boy shrugged and led the way. When Seamus caught up with his son - he’d had to speed walk - Stevie said, “I know you’re not my uncle.”
“Your mother told you?”
Stevie shook his head. “I figured it out myself. Mom’s easy to read. She hates you like an ex-husband. You’ve got to be my dad.”
“She told me that Pablo, uh, Mr. Santos, was your father . . . ”
“She told me she told you that Paolo was my father. His name is Paolo. Mom hates it when you call him Pablo. Pablo is the Mexican equivalent. She said it makes him sound like a gardener.” The boy leered at Seamus, who found himself averting his gaze from the steely-eyed stare of his young progeny. “Anyway, he’s okay. But the jury’s still out on you.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Let’s see. You abandoned mom when I was three, never paid me any attention when you were around, never wished to see me till now, when for some inexplicable reason you are desperate to have a relationship.”
“You’ve figured that out on your own? And you’re how old?”
“Mom talks, and I listen, and you don’t know my age.”
Seamus didn’t know how to proceed. “Well, however old you are, you’re very grown up for your age.”
They arrived at Central Park.
“You want ice cream? Kids like ice cream.”
“I’m lactose intolerant.”
“Really? So am I. That doesn’t stop me from eating ice cream, though it probably should. I can’t stand the bloat.” His son frowned at him. “I’m sure they have flavors that don’t have milk. Like sherbet. Do you like sherbet?”
“Sherbet is not ice cream.”
Seamus cleared his throat.
“You’re out of your element, I can tell.”
Seamus felt exposed.
“Why did you ask to see me?”
“I’m perfectly capable of accepting mom’s new mate as my dad. As I said, he’s okay. That’s what she wants, for me to accept him, and I want to make her happy, so I will accept him. We don’t need you.”
“Can we sit down for a moment?” Seamus asked. He felt on the verge of collapse. They sat.
“I need you, Stevie. Me. Your father. I know that sounds desperate.”
“It sounds inappropriate. You haven’t been a father to me. You have no right to call yourself my father.”
“I’ve made a great deal of mistakes in my life. I see that now.”
“It’s because you’re in a mid-life crisis.”
“So my therapist tells me.”
“Your therapist? You’re just a kid, how can you . . . why do you . . . why are you in therapy? Is it my fault. Has my absence given you deep emotional problems?”
“Don’t flatter yourself. Every kid has a therapist. It’s en vogue.”
Seamus thought the expression very precocious. He thought his son very precocious. Though he hadn’t been much of a father, he was proud that such a boy was his son.
“I’m sorry for not being there, Stevie. I’m here now, if it means anything.”
“You should say sorry to mom. She’s the one you hurt. With me, you were never there. I never knew what I was missing, and seeing you now, I don’t think I missed much.”
“You are very direct.”
“Paolo, or dad as mom has me call him, is a good father, especially when you consider I’m not his blood. He tries hard. He’s teaching me Portuguese. He coaches my Little League baseball team.”
“I used to play baseball,” Seamus said.
“If you were my father, maybe you could coach me. I’m having trouble hitting curve balls.”
“Kids your age are already throwing curve balls?”
“They’re throwing them, but I’m not hitting them. Paolo doesn’t know how to pitch curve balls, so he can’t help me there.”
“I used to be a pitcher. I had a wicked curve.”
“Maybe you could help me, if you were my father.”
“I am your father.”
“You have to try harder. Blood is not all it’s made out to be.”
Seamus had never felt more judged in all his life, not even by his own father. But here, it was deserved.
“Are you sure you’re eight?”
“I’ll be nine in July.”
Seamus hadn’t even got the month right. “July what?’
Seamus resolved to never forget the date.
“I’m old for my age, or so my therapist says.”
“I was too, at your age. You take after me.” Seamus wondered how else his son took after him. Seamus couldn’t remember what he had looked like as a pre-adolescent. His mother, an amateur photographer, had loved to take pictures, but the pictures ceased with her death, when he was eight, his son’s age. He wished his mother had lived to see her grandson, wished she’d lived to see Seamus grow up, but her role as mother ended at her son’s eighth birthday, the age of his son when his role as father was just beginning.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us, so my therapist says,” Stevie said.
“I’m willing to try if you are,” Seamus answered. And then, “Whatever you want for Christmas, it’s yours. This I promise you, always.”
“Okay, dad. And as for my other dad, you you can call him Pablo around me. I think it’s kinda funny.”
He dropped his son off at his home before four. He had made that promise and he kept it. They’d spent their four hours in Central Park, hadn’t had any ice cream. Stevie didn’t care for ice cream, and the butterflies in Seamus’ stomach left no room for food. His overall impression of the boy was that he was his mother’s child. He couldn’t see anything the boy had inherited from him. In his demeanor, genetics had skipped a generation, and he’d taken his grandfather’s cynicism. Stevie regarded his dad the way Seamus regarded his own father, with cold disdain. Seamus wondered if he hadn’t been too hard in his judgement of his dad. It must have been hard to raise two boys as a single parent, and at least he’d been there.
Walking to his present home from his former home, Seamus lamented his role as a father, and his role as a son.
“Seamus, I think you should come over.”
Seamus let out a sigh. He had been preparing his formal apology since the brothers had last met. “Maury, if this is about–”
“It isn’t. Dad is dead.”
The funeral, Seamus was told, had been scheduled for that very day. When he said he thought this a bit hasty, Maurice informed him that their father had passed two days before, and he’d not been able to reach Seamus by telephone.
“How did it happen?”
“He died in his sleep.”
“A good way to go, I suppose.” Was it? He could not think of a better way. Dying in one’s sleep was painless, which was good, but it was also unannounced, without forewarning, which wasn’t so good. Seamus had once read about a man who after given general anesthesia for a routine surgical procedure remained comatose for three weeks, kept alive on venting machines and intravenous fluids. But eventually he awoke. Seymour Eisenstein was gone forever.
The funeral was a meager gathering. As Seymour had not been a religious man, it was decided that it should be held at a funeral home, which was by definition non-denominational. Seated in the audience, Seamus saw the pastor - was that what the man lecturing at the podium was called? - speak but he did not hear him. Instead his attention was fixed on his fellow mourners, if indeed they could be called mourners. Were they grieving? Other than his brother and brother’s wife, he did not recognize a single face among the dozen or so who stood in attendance. Were they nursing home residents? Nurses? Old poker buddies? Perhaps scattered among them were friends of his mother. He yearned to reach out, investigate the identity of each of these mysterious possible mourners, but this feeling quickly gave way to remorse for not being the son he could have been.
I spent my life judging my old man, demanding inwardly that he be a better father, while not once expecting more of myself as his son.
Maurice had requested that Seamus say a few words, but he declined. This created a conflict within him, as to reveal his true feelings for his father would be to disparage the man’s name, but to speak highly would be hypocrisy. A eulogy was meant to be an expression of praise, which he could not give without giving into falsehood, and he’d resolved to be a more honest man. His brother would accept no refusal.
“Someone from the family needs to speak. It’s either you or me. We’re the only ones left. I’m dull-witted and vulgar with words. You are a poet. Your words are your world. Say something that will have a lasting effect.”
Amazed at how poetic his brother had sounded in remarking his poetic abilities, Seamus allowed himself to be persuaded, and yet as the sermon came to an end, and he was gestured forward, he trembled inwardly. He had not written a speech and none had come fully formed to the tip of his tongue. As he held the microphone, Seamus tried to look into the eyes of those in the audience, to gauge their emotions, if such were possible. He’d forgotten his glasses, and so all was a blur.
“Thank goodness I didn’t write a speech,” he told himself. “It’d do me no good right now.”
“Seymour Eisenstein,” he began, “was not a perfect person. But cannot the same be said for us all? He was ridden with flaws, and as his elder son, I was perhaps his biggest critic. I saw his flaws. Sometimes I saw them glaringly. Indeed I may have exaggerated them. Hyperbole is, after all, a poet’s device.”
How can I call myself a poet? How can I be turning the attention onto me? Blast it!
“But despite his inadequacies as a father, one thing can be said. He was always there. My mother passed away when I was very young. My brother Maurice was even younger. My father could have run from his duty, into the arms of another woman, away from the sadness of death, away from the thankless responsibilities of father. He could have abandoned his children. But instead he stayed, and fulfilled his fatherly role. He was not the most loving man. I never heard him speak the word love, not to me his son or to anyone else. But what is the need to proclaim your love in words, when you prove it in deed? He was always there for me, a good father. He attended my Little League games, though he never cheered at them. He read my books, though he never praised them. I didn’t understand it at the time, and still don’t fully, but what I took for criticism may well have been his belief in my potential, one that I have yet to achieve, but in his memory, will strive.
“I blamed my father for what I interpreted as lovelessness, without seeing that I too was guilty of blame. I never told him how much I loved him. I’ve never even said those words to my own son. But sometimes words can be so weak. My father loved me in his own way.”
After accepting the condolences of those in attendance, Seamus and Maurice stood alone, over their father’s lifeless form. Seamus could not bring himself to look down at the body, which deprived of its soul, would not resemble the man, he was sure. If alive Seymour would surely have worn a scowl, but the embalmers had given his face an almost cheerful expression, his features contorted into a half grin, one which Seamus never knew his father to wear, not since his mother had been alive.
“He loved her much more than I ever fathomed,” Seamus said. “His way of expressing that love, with cruel severity, was his own. It was genuine. I was wrong to judge him.”
“I’m leaving,” Maurice said.
“Yes, it’s getting late. I should go as well.”
“I meant leaving town. Dolores and me, we are moving.”
“We won’t know till we get there. It’s time for a change.”
Seamus looked over at Dolores, who waited by the door, anxious to leave.
“I’ve sworn off gambling. I’ll probably stop lying too, since most of my lies were to cover up my gambling. We’re going to renew our vows. Our love is stronger now, after all that happened.”
“I’m sorry, Maurice.”
“Hey, if it had to be someone, best to keep it in the family.”
“You amaze me, Maurice, you really do. You’re a bigger man than I ever could have imagined, and I’m proud to be your brother.”
“Goodbye, Seamus,” Maurice said. “Take care.”
“Send me a postcard.”
As Maurice moved off, Seamus lurched forward and grasped him, holding his brother to his breast in a hug. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d hugged Maurice, but knew that it had been too long. He felt the warmth of the human embrace, and it almost made him weep - for love, for life, and for death.
“My father passed,” Seamus said as Sheila opened the door to let him in. Moments later they were seated at the kitchen table. She had made them coffee, which both drank.
“He really loved you,” Seamus said. “I used to think, when we were married, that the only thing he loved about me was you. I sometimes think that, still. After the divorce, he never ceased to berate me. Every time I’d go visit him, he’d say the same thing. ‘Sheila was the best thing that ever happened to you, Seamus. Without her, you’re back to being what you were before her: a nobody.’”
Sheila said, “He said to me once, one day when we were at the club - Stevie had just been born, and you were at your usual place, at your writing desk, living in a world of your own creation, dead to the world, dead to my world - he told me if he was you, if he had had a girl like me, he’d have given her the world, not waste it on empty dreams.”
“He never understood the writing life. That was always our problem. He never understood me.”
“He understood me, Seamus,” Sheila said. “What I needed from a man.”
“He understood you better than I did.”
“No, Seamus. You understood. But your work was your mistress. You preferred it, and empty affairs later on, to the real thing. Your father was a simple man, and he saw the world clearly. For all your complexity, you cloud life. You make it much more difficult than it needs to be. And for that, you suffer, and you make others suffer, needlessly.”
“I think I need to suffer. Somehow suffering gives me substance. It makes me whole.”
“It doesn’t have to be like that. There’s much joy in simple things. People need more joy in their lives, Seamus. They want to read about joy. Your writing was well received when it was simple, when you wrote about joy.”
“Yeah, well received by children.”
“Children are the toughest to please. They see through the baloney. If you don’t believe me, look at Stevie.”
Seamus had to admit that she was right. He didn’t say this, only said, “Where did it all go wrong? I cannot tell you how many times I’ve asked myself this question. Lately, it’s been all that’s on my mind.”
“I think you’re finding your answer.”
“I’m only sorry that it had to happen so late,” he said. “We could have had a life together.”
“We did have a life.”
“Yes, but it could have been so much more.”
“You could have been so much more.”
“Well, I’m not finished. The best is yet to come.”
“I hope for your sake this is true.”
Seamus finished his coffee and said, “Congratulations on finding love, Sheila. After all I put you through, you deserve the world.”
“I always did deserve the world. We all do. The trick to getting what you want is to stay out of your own way.”
“Such is life,” he thought. “I always regarded myself as fixed and complete, steady as a rock in the stream of existence. How could I have labored under such an illusion? How wrong I have been!”
Seamus had not allowed events to shape him. He’d resisted change, and in so doing he had stunted himself, closing himself off to the infinite possibility that was life.
A knock at the door announced the unexpected arrival of Mallory. Looking at her, in all her fresh expectancy, he regarded her as strange, a vestige of his past, foreign, and he could not relate to her. He realized he did not know her, for after the events of the day he was no longer the man who knew her, if he’d ever known her, ever known anything outside the cloistered world of his self-absorbed musings, a world he now struggled to escape, for it enslaved him, and he had grown tired of being its slave.
He didn’t ask her in, so immersed was he in these musings.
Desiring to be free of the shackles of my thoughts, thinking so, shackles me still.
Mallory entered without invitation. She carried with her a backpack filled with Seamus knew not what.
“I tried calling you. Your phone seems to be working again. At least that’s what it seemed. I mean it rang, but you didn’t pick up.”
“I was away,” he said.
“Where have you been. You look changed.”
“Many places, and I am. So much has happened since I saw you last.”
Mallory set her bag on the kitchen counter and waited for Seamus to elaborate, but he did not. His voice was caught in his throat.
“I want to stay,” she said. “I want this to be the night. Our first night.” She looked at him with such hope, and there was such finality in her voice. Seamus saw his future in her eyes, a possible future, at least, but he felt distanced from it, for it was a future that involved the man he once was, but excluded the man he had become, or needed to be. He needed to take responsibility for his life, but recoiled from the certainty that in being who he needed to be would mean being reckless with Mallory’s heart.
“I can’t,” he said. He wondered if she could understand. In a perfect world, she would read his mind, see in it the desire to be alone, to reside in the understanding of what was, and the expectancy of what needed to be. He felt she did not, and so he said, “I need to be alone. You can stay, but I won’t be here.” He realized that he was on the verge of committing the crime that had characterized his life: physically present, but always somewhere else, unavailable, unattainable. But it needed to be this way, and so he added, “I won’t be here the way you need me to be. I feel alone, and I need to be alone. That’s how it has to be.”
When Mallory left without giving a word or so much as a glance or the betrayal of an expression or gesture, he berated himself for what he took to be his insensitivity.
It was because of Mallory that I saw my son, and I didn’t even thank her. Trying to be a better man, I’m so focused on the attempt that I remain self-centered, and selfish.
He seated himself on his couch and watched the glowing computer screen. The blank page lit his face, and the cursor seeming to wink as if to beckon him, but he was strangely unaffected by this. He thought of his father gone by, and his son, yet to come. He thought of his dreams, which had taken him through the first part of his book, and left him once again at the blank page. And he thought of death, his father’s, and his own. If he went to sleep and awoke once again within his story, just as he had each night for the previous two weeks, he’d awaken to a world not yet created. Would that mean the end of the story, of his character, of him as a man? He thought he should be more concerned with his survival, and in the attempt to prolong his existence, as writer, character, and man, thought he should sit himself at the computer and facing the blank page attempt some words. But he was tired. And he lay his head down, thinking of death, his father’s, his own. And if death were to come, he’d accept it. He thought of his father, and how in his eyes the man had never been quite good enough. He thought of his mother, who loved him just because. He thought of his son, in whose eyes his worthiness had yet to be determined. He thought of Father Hennessy’s command to love himself, of Dr. Newton’s belief in his mid-life stalling, and how it had been mirrored in his mid-story creative halt. He thought of Sheila’s unfulfilled hope, Mallory’s shattered dreams. But most of all, he thought of sleep.
“I am me. I live,” Seamus said. He got up and went to the window. He opened it and looked outside. Modern day New York, in all its bustle, and without any of the anachronisms he’d have included had it been his story. But it was his story. The story of his life.
Back in reality, it was the first time in two weeks that Seamus had not woken up in a fictional world. In that time, as Ernest Shelby, he had lived through all fourteen chapters of the finished first part that no longer existed, not on paper, not anymore. He stared at his computer screen. It was glowing a blank white page back at him. The screen’s stare was not so frightening as before. He helped himself to a heaping bowl of Whole-Bran cereal. He’d also gone grocery shopping, and deciding it was time to eat with his health in mind, had purchased the highest fiber cereal he could find. Whole-Bran had in one serving 50% of the daily requirement of fiber. He poured out two servings, bathed them in milk. Nonfat, also a first for him. Before today his standard breakfast, when not consisting of root beer and a cigarette, when he’d eat anything at all, was Cocoa Puffs and chocolate milk. He took a bite of the high fiber cereal. It tasted like card board. He thought of adding sugar. He could eat cardboard if it tasted sweet. But he didn’t have any sugar. And even if he did, it’d probably be better not to add it.
“It would defeat the purpose of this health kick I’m on.”
Instead he added fresh strawberries, neatly sliced. Strawberries were a new addition to his diet. Seamus hadn’t eaten any fruit since his mother made him drink orange juice for breakfast, nearly forty years past. The only fruit he had eaten since had come in the glazed jelly-filled donut he’d eaten once weekly religiously since selling his first novel twenty years ago. He wondered whether syrupy strawberries were really fruit, or just refined sugar with food coloring made to look like fruit.
Forty years. Twenty years. How time flies.
Seamus took another bite of his cereal soaked in nonfat milk and sweetened with strawberries, and it was okay. Finishing his breakfast, which he washed down with coffee - of the decaffeinated variety, to give his frazzled nerves a rest - he washed the bowl and the mug and the dozen other bowls and mugs and dishes that lay in the sink, washed them thoroughly. It took muscle to scrub the hardened grit that clung persistently to the porcelain.
Doing dishes is exercise. I can see why I’ve avoided the task this long.
Seamus then showered and shaved, and brushed his teeth two times, even flossed. He hadn’t flossed since his marriage days, when Sheila had worked as a dental practitioner and demanded he floss. His gums enjoyed the stimulation. He then put on a clean pair of clothes. A dress shirt and slacks. He even put on his patent leather shoes, which he shined before slipping on his feet. He was dressed for Sunday, and today was Monday.
But today is a holy day, he told himself.
In fact, the slacks and shirt he now wore had been his usual attire when he’d written the Crusader series. Back then he operated with the notion that well-written fiction should be written by a well-dressed man. Dressed for success he’d produced novels that succeeded in the marketplace. In his thirties he’d gotten in the habit of wearing pajamas when he’d write, sometimes even writing in bed, propped up on pillows, unshowered and unshaven. Wearing pajamas, sleepy and scruffy, he’d written those unfinished novels which mocked him in the corner of the apartment until the previous week’s episode of housekeeping, when he’d thrown them out, the whole lot of them.
And he sat down at his desk, and resumed the staring contest with his computer screen that for the last two weeks had gone interrupted. This time he was determined to win.
The only way to win is to write. I’ve reformed my life as a man, now to restore my career as a writer.
He placed his fingertips on the keyboard. The sensation felt strange, unfamiliar. As though he’d never done it before. He typed the words: Happily Ever After, by Seamus Merriweather, and he created a new page. And he began to retype the first part of the next great American novel, from memory, from his heart, from his soul, and it would be a long time before his fingers left their place. He wrote frenetically, and he smoked innumerable cigars. He’d sworn off cigarettes, but to avoid the nasty and potentially distracting effects of nicotine withdrawal turned to tobacco in a different form. Cigars were without additives or chemicals, one didn’t need to inhale to derive the pleasant stimulatory effects, so they were easy on the lungs, and his favorite author, Mark Twain, had extolled the virtues of cigar smoke, so he felt himself in good company.
Seamus had begun retyping the first part of his novel at ten that morning, and his wristwatch revealed the same hour that night when he next read the time. He had not left his desk in twelve hours, had written continuously without allowing himself ingestion or excretion of food or fluid. Bodily functions did not pester him, his fingers occupied with the transcription of the novel’s events, his mind with the reflection on the events of his life, and in the page were married the two, fact and fiction. He was that man, Salamander Rex, his antagonist turned protagonist, an amoral man called to the good after a moment of epiphany, brought on by . . . Seamus himself.
He’d re-written the entire first part of the novel when at last he was able to tear himself away from his computer. Two hundred pages. It had previously been three hundred, but he had edited out a third of the story’s original content, in the interest of economy. The last two weeks of living, in addition to making him a better human being, had made him a better writer. Cleaning up his life, righting wrongs, he was able to write the wrongs in his story, deleting unnecessary characters and scenarios, cleaning up the plot.
When he was done, he was mentally and physically exhausted. It was nearing midnight, on what day is it? Seamus could not remember. Writing the first part, and living it as he wrote, he’d gone through weeks of experiences, and so lost track of time.
He made himself a sandwich. Brie cheese and dates on whole wheat bread, with two glasses of red wine. He considered sleep, but the blank screen beckoned him back. His foe had become his friend. What had been a threatening stare was now a welcoming smile. Uncharted territory to explore. A life to be lived. A mystery in the making. Seamus washed the dishes, dried them, put them away. He washed his hands, brushed his teeth, and lit himself another cigar, the day’s fourth, or was it the fifth? And placing fingertips to keyboard, he typed the words Part Two, and he wrote. And wrote. And wrote. The sun came up, and he wrote. The sun reached its peak in the sky, and he wrote. The sun descended beneath the western horizon, and he wrote, fueled by cigar smoke, and a sip or two of water every now and then, when thirst called, though during that time he was so caught up in his story that he lived outside his body, distanced from its promptings, unaware of its needs, for the sake of the greater need of fulfillment, the story’s completion, the characteristic Finis he’d type once every plot line was resolved, each character complete, and the antagonist a protagonist, realized in the realm of the good.
This novel is a metaphor for my struggle, he thought as he typed. A metaphor for life. My life. My midlife crisis.
The crisis was no longer as bad as it had once seemed. He was winning the battle.
Whether this book is ever published is immaterial to me. In the writing of it, I will have won.
The story’s second part wrote itself. He wrote it almost automatically, hand never leaving the page, pen moving forward in swift strokes, as if the words were dictated to him by his dreams, by his heart. The revelation that Rex underwent was prompted by the strange meeting with Ernest Shelby, investigative reporter and known prophet. The advice Seamus had given himself, to do good, he dramatized as Shelby’s urgence that Rex, at heart a good man, should abandon his foul ways and embark on a life of right action. Salamander had become Solomon, named after the builder of the first temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, and great in wisdom, wealth, and power. Seamus had been reading the Bible and had come upon the story randomly, learning that when God had asked Solomon his wish, he replied that he wanted an understanding heart and was given a great intellect, great wealth, in addition to widespread fame and respect.
Living his advice, Seamus was able to dispense it as Shelby, and take it as Rex.
By his estimation it was Thursday that he finally wrote the word Finis. Thursday at ten in the morning, four days since he’d written, rewritten, the novel’s beginning. Close to one hundred hours of work, in which he’d produced four hundred double-spaced pages of text, roughly one hundred thousand words. One thousand words an hour. Unheard of. As recently he had struggled to produce one thousand words in a week, to do so in an hour was miraculous.
My life is a miracle.
Saying this, he felt foolish, but the man that he had become believed in miracles.
He showered, his first in four days, and shaved. And he brushed his teeth again. He printed his novel, and then filled in the missing v’s which the stubborn keyboard had refused to type. He dressed himself. And with the finished manuscript nestled under his arm, having learned so much in the living of the writing of it, he decided it was time to go back to school.
Searching the campus, he felt like a foreigner, and at his own alma mater.
Sooner than expected, he found Mallory among a smattering of students at the food court. He espied her at a distance, her clothes, all peaches and pinks, though blurry, standing out among the crowd of students dressed in comparatively drab grays, olives, and navy blues. Arriving at the coterie, as Mallory came into focus, he stopped short, finding her dangling delightfully on the arm of another student. A male student. Tall. Well-built. Handsome, even to Seamus’ critical eye. Like a younger, American version of Pablo Santos.
Seeing Seamus, the students dispersed, as though on some unspoken cue. The male student at Mallory’s side was the last to move off, not before kissing Mallory on the cheek - she seemed to enjoy the gesture - and glaring at Seamus.
The two found themselves alone, and something in Seamus told him it would be for the last time. Seamus was the first to break the silence, which seemed to him strained, and strange.
“I’ve searched the campus for you,” he said. “At last, here you are.” He tried to seem joyful but felt the words catch in his throat.
“I’m flattered,” she said. He thought the words artificial, endowed with a quality that was unreal, dreamlike, but this was not a dream he wished to have.
“You should be,” he said, trying to be casual. “This campus has a perimeter of three miles. You can’t imagine what it takes for a guy my age to traverse such a distance on foot.”
Standing in front of Mallory, under the scrutinizing glances of the other students, Seamus felt foolish. Mallory seemed not to notice this, and he was grateful for it.
“It’s nice to see you, Seamus. I missed you.”
“No, you didn’t.”
Seamus was glad to be reassured, but hated that he needed her reassurance.
“I brought something for you,” he said. From behind his back he presented the manuscript. “Tah-dah!” The gesture seemed childish to him, and he condemned it.
“You finished it!” Mallory was genuinely surprised, and pleased.
“Where do you think I’ve been all week but at my desk, typing away.” Why do I feel the need to explain myself, he wondered within.
“You are just humoring me.”
“No, really. I am happy for you.”
An awkward silence ensued. Seamus felt the withering gazes of her classmates. They seemed to burn a hole in his head.
“Actually, not to seem needy, or anything, but I thought you would have called me, to check up, see how I was doing . . . .”
“You did seem strange, when we last parted, or should I say when you ran out on me.”
“That was the time before. The last time we met, you ran out on me, truth be told.”
“Oh. That meeting. I must have blocked it out of my mind. False hopes will do that to you.”
Seamus said nothing.
“I guess I was starting to feel somehow in the way.”
“Oh, Mallory, you could never be in the way.” Seamus’ tone betrayed the longing he wished to conceal. At that moment, how he longed to hold her! At the very moment that he realized he could no longer have her.
“Well, that’s how you made me feel. I can’t deny my feelings.”
“But you do.”
“Well, I shouldn’t.”
Mallory was silent. Her silence spoke volumes.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart.” Seamus felt the term sweetheart seemed out of place, but he felt so sweetly towards her. Feeling this, he felt out of place, as though he was giving too little too late. He added, “My insensitivity gets the best of me sometimes.” And hoping to fix everything with a few words, said, “But I’m a changed man.” Saying this, he looked at her brightly. His eyes were made to squint from the brightness of his heart, and from the sun’s light, which was at that moment shining directly into his face.
“I’ve changed as well,” she said soberly. Seamus had never been treated so coldly by her. By contrast, she looked brightly at the male student who stood waiting for her beside a tall tree.
Seamus wondered if he could hear the unspoken conversation they were having. He felt he could, and their exchange was filled with the love that he longed she’d direct to him, the love she had directed to him, unrequited.
“Mallory, can we go somewhere?”
“Where do you want to go?”
“Anywhere. Away. Somewhere we can talk in private.”
He felt the male student’s eyes on im. It felt eerie and made him shiver the way one does on a cold day, when faced with rain that will not abate, hopeless that the sun will shine, resigned to the cruel cold of the elements.
“I have class.”
“Please, Mallory. Just for a minute. Let’s get away. Far from here. Let me take you far away.” I am becoming desperate. I know this.
“Wherever we go, I’ll be the same girl, the one you didn’t want, not when I wanted you.”
“I want you now!”
“You want me because you know I no longer want you.”
“Why don’t you want me?”
“Because you didn’t want me in the ways I need to be wanted.
“You’ve found someone.”
Seamus felt the words superfluous. It was obvious.
“I wanted you to want me like that.”
“How did you want me to want you?” The conversation sounded ridiculous to his ears, and yet it needed to be had.
“Must I explain everything to you? You know what I mean. I waited as long as I could. Sometimes I thought there was hope. But I was just deceiving myself.”
Seamus thought he detected tears well in Mallory’s eyes.
“You’ve found someone,” Seamus repeated, “and it’s not me.”
Mallory nodded. “Jesse likes me the way I need to be liked. He wants to introduce me to his parents.”
“I’d have introduced you to my parents, but they are dead.”
“Oh, Seamus, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s all right. I’m feeling sorry for myself.”
“Oh, Seamus,” Mallory said again.
“The fault is all mine!” he whispered, more to himself. “Why can’t I ever get anything right? Once again, I’ve screwed up.”
“You’re a great guy!”
“I just want to make you happy!”
“Then be happy for me. Can you try?”
Resigning himself to failure, Seamus said, “I’ll try.”
The campus clock rang three times. The students scurried away to their classes. Mallory’s boyfriend remained by the tree, watching, waiting. He reminded Seamus of one of Rex’s rottweilers. He wondered whether Jesse ate raw flesh and decided he’d rather not find out.
“Before I go, there’s something I want to give you.”
Out of her pocket she drew a business card, handed it to Seamus. He read the name on the card.
“Elaine is a friend of my mom’s. She’s a fiction editor for Random House.”
“You mean, the publishing house?” Despite himself, Seamus felt a thrill course through him.
“You told me you were shopping for a home for your book. Now that it’s finished, I thought you might run it by her.”
“I’m overjoyed that you should want to help me shop my book around, but I wanted for you to read it.”
“I will, when it’s published.”
“If it’s published.”
“I have faith in you. I love you, Seamus. Always have.”
“Shame it couldn’t work out.”
“It did work out. Just not the way I had hoped.”
“Life teaches us to bear disappointments. This is my first lesson.”
“This is my millionth.”
“So you are an expert. Life’s lessons make us wise, if we learn from them.”
“Perhaps you are right.”
“Goodbye, Seamus. Save me a signed copy?”
“And say hello to Elaine. You’ll like her.”
Not nearly as much as I like you, thought Seamus as he watched Mallory walk away, into the arms of another, and out of his life. In the male student’s arms, she was content. And he held her as though he never would let go, in a way Seamus had never held her, free of guilt or consequence, present in the moment of their budding love, and supremely content.
Leaving the campus, Seamus lamented love lost. But had it ever been truly love? Would it ever have been? So many years her senior, old enough to be her father, as he’d so often told her, he’d never have been able to give himself over totally to transports of affection, and with him she would have been doomed to unfulfillment, just like his ex-wife. It was good that it ended before it had gotten ugly, as it surely would have.
Walking home, with his manuscript clasped beneath his arm, he had what for him amounted to a revelation, and he turned his steps in the direction of Random House Publications, on Broadway and 26th, determined to find Elaine.
The last time I barged in unannounced on someone affiliated with the world of publishing, I left in disgrace, less an agent. But at this point what do I have to lose? It’s been so long since my last publication I’m as good as unpublished. The worst that Ms. Goodwin can say is she’s not interested. Maybe I’ll be escorted out. It’s better than being chased out. And I’ve had my fair share of run-ins with the law, and chases. At this point a chase wouldn’t even faze me. I have nothing to lose. I’m back at square one. It’s as if I’ve been reborn.
Seamus entered the building, and entering the elevator, proceeded to the twenty-sixth floor. He entered the elevator with one other person, a lady of the age of thirty-something, he’d have guessed. She was dressed in a grey business suit, and her blonde hair was pulled back to reveal a face that glowed.
“What floor?” Seamus asked her.
“Twenty-sixth,” she said with a smile.
“That’s funny. That’s me too. It seems we are traveling in the same direction, both going up,” he said, flippantly he thought. I am being inane.
“Do I know you?” she asked as they traveled upward.
“Are you trying to pick me up? Because I was about to ask the same thing of you, and I’m trying to pick you up.” Again he laughed. She laughed too. This is a good sign, he thought. Both of us laughing. I had expected a slap in the face.
“Seriously, though. You look familiar.”
“I have that face you see on every street corner of New York. Exceptionally Jewish, and I’m not even. I get mistaken for Woody Allen sometimes, but he’s far more attractive. Taller, better built, with more hair.”
“I love Woody Allen!”
“Do you? I love Woody Allen!”
As they spoke, the elevator stopped several times, on several different floors. Seamus thought it stopped on all floors, and on each floor, one or more additional passengers piled in. As it filled, Seamus and his interlocutor were pulled farther and farther apart, until they had to talk over a width of six or so disinterested heads.
“What’s your favorite film of his?” he asked over the heads.
“I’d have to say Annie Hall,” she said.
“Really? I liked that film, but much prefer his newer stuff. Hollywood Ending did it for me. Brilliant, I thought. The whole psychosomatically blind thing. Very clever.”
“My favorite was Manhattan, hands down,” said a man.
“You must be thinking of Manhattan Murder Mystery,” a lady put in.
“No, thank you. Just Manhattan, with that young girl.”
“Muriel Hemingway. Charming creature, that one,” said another.
“She was nominated for an Oscar for that role, if I’m not mistaken,” said the man.
What Seamus hoped would be a prelude to romance had turned into a group conversation about the merits of Woody Allen’s body of work. Luckily as the elevator ascended, passengers piled out, and by the time they reached the twenty-second floor, they were once again alone.
“It’s a good thing,” Seamus said. “We were so jam-packed for a moment there I thought we’d get stuck in here, which with all these people would have been a terrible catastrophe. I’m awfully claustrophobic. But right now, with you, getting stuck wouldn’t be so bad.”
“I’m sorry, I never asked your name.”
They arrived at the twenty-sixth floor, the elevator alerting them with a ding. Before the pretty lady could say anything, the elevator dinged again. And it dinged a third time. As it dinged, the door jerked and stuttered, as if wanting to open but unable to fulfill its desire, if elevator doors could be said to possess desires of their own. In the glimpse that it gave them they saw they were in between floors.
“Looks like you got your wish,” she said casually.
“We’re stuck? This can’t be!”
Seamus felt whatever courage he might have hoped to have, fail him completely. He hated tight places. Granted, a moment before they’d been in the same tight place, and he hadn’t a care in the world, but then they had been going somewhere, moving, in motion. It was only moments before, and yet it seemed so far off, another reality, one to which he desperately wished to return.
“I’m afraid!” he cried.
Suddenly it got very hot in the elevator, at least to Seamus, who saw stars.
“I think I’m having a panic attack!”
The pretty lady regarded him with amusement. She was completely calm, enjoying the show. The change was so abrupt he had to be acting, she thought.
Seamus tried to breathe, but his lungs were paralyzed by a mortal fear.
“I was stuck in an elevator one other time,” he said through labored breaths. “Once when I was very young. It did not turn out well.”
Seamus was about to say he had fainted as a boy stuck in the elevator, when . . . he fainted.
He awakened in the pretty lady’s lap, staring into her pretty face. She was stroking what little hair he had on his head, which was wet with perspiration. They were still in the elevator. She looked down on him gently, and gone was his distress. He felt safe, relieved.
“How long was I out?”
“Not long. How do you feel?”
“Safe,” he said, and smiled up at her. “I never did get your name.”
“My name is Elaine.”
“You’re the one I wanted to meet. I mean, I was going to meet you.”
“Well, here we are. It’s nice to meet you.”
“I’m Seamus,” he said as he sat up.
“I gathered,” she replied. With her chin she gestured towards his manuscript which lay on the floor beside them. The title page with his name was visible.
“I thought I recognized you. I love your work,” she said. “Works, I mean. I read all of them as a girl.”
“Somehow that makes me feel quite old,” he said.
“Is that so? Well, your prose makes me feel quite young! Without a care in the world. Sometimes, if I’ve had a bad day, I’ll pick up one of your books, open it to a random page, and read a few lines. I always feel better. The way you write is so fresh and bizarre. Random, even, but with such insight into life. You have such imagination. It enthralls me, really.”
“Really? Why, I could go on listening to you forever,” he said.
Just then the elevator ascended half a floor, and the door opened. The whole twenty sixth floor, which meant all of Random House, had gathered at the elevator, along with the two firemen who were responsible for fixing the malfunction. Seamus and Elaine were greeted by cheers. Regarding Elaine, who smiled so sweetly, Seamus didn’t want the moment to end.
“May I take you for lunch?” he asked her in a voice low enough so that only she might hear him.
“I was just coming from lunch.”
“How about dessert, then?”
“Okay, it’s a date.”
Without hesitation, Seamus hit the button for the first floor. Although they had never set forth out of the elevator, it was the wildest ride Seamus had ever had.
Seamus hesitated. When he’d pitched it to Ira, he had been so summarily shot down he winced at the memory. She sensed the hesitation.
“Or would you prefer I read it without knowing anything about it, no prior knowledge?”
Seamus was silent a long moment. He had to choose his words carefully. He knew that whatever he said about his work would imprint itself on her mind and influence her reception of the whole, such was the nature of first impressions. Granted he’d already made a first impression on her with his previous works, and she was impressed, but this novel was so different, it had nothing in common with his prior writings, as if written by a different hand. Indeed he was a different man now than the last time he had put a novel onto paper.
“It’s a story of redemption, really. About a lost soul who comes to see the light, and changing his life, becomes a good man.”
Elaine seemed pleased. “Well, I can’t wait to meet this man.”
He handed her his manuscript, which she placed in her bag before setting it down alongside her. They were seated at an outside table, along the sidewalk. It was a beautiful day. As technically it was past lunch, the noon rush being over, they had the restaurant to themselves, as well as the sidewalk, and the street. It was unusually calm. The calm before the storm, Seamus thought, and just as quickly as he thought this, he banished the notion from his mind. Why must I destroy every tranquil moment with unfounded premonition!
“You know, I feel like a first time writer. It’s been so long since I wrote a full-length novel, and even longer that I last saw one I wrote go into print–”
As he said the words, a hooded man walking along the sidewalk stooped down and with a swift movement grabbed Elaine’s bag and set off in a sprint.
“That man just stole your purse!”
Elaine didn’t look perturbed. “It’s okay, the purse was imitation Chanel, and I didn’t have anything of value inside.”
“But I did! My m-m-m-!” Seamus cried. He couldn’t get the word out.
“Your manuscript! Yes! Oh my God! Seamus I’m sorry!”
“It’s my only copy, and my computer crashed before I had a chance to save it to the hard drive.”
This was true. He had thought nothing of it at the time. With the manuscript in hand - he had printed it before the crash, which occurred just as he was about to hit the save key - he could always retype it, or pay someone else to do so.
“Why am I sitting here explaining this to you when I should be in heated pursuit of the thief!”
Seamus got up and started after the man. He could not ignore the fact that again he found himself running. He’d run so much in the past few days, indeed his whole life he’d been running, always from someone, usually from himself. But this time it was he who was giving chase. And after only a few days of giving up cigarettes, he felt it easier to breathe. Turning the corner, he was almost gaining on the thief, who crashed into a fire hydrant and bumping his knee had to continue with a slight limp.
“Stop, thief!” Seamus yelled.
Nobody heeded the words.
“Help, fire!” he screamed. Surely people would respond to this, he thought. Nobody so much as looked his way. One woman yawned.
As the man crossed the street, he banged into the side of a car coming to a stop at the intersection, its tires screeching on impact. The man tipped over the car’s hood, and Elaine’s bag and with it the manuscript flying out of his arms, he came crashing down on his shoulder. He got up and continued his flight, leaving the bootie behind him. A group of construction workers who happened to be working on a nearby apartment complex decided at that moment to give pursuit, now that Seamus didn’t need them. Picking up Elaine’s bag, and verifying that his manuscript was still inside, Seamus rose to thank the car’s driver for unintentionally saving the day - when he beheld a very familiar vehicle.
“Where did you get this!” And again Seamus yelled, “Stop thief!”
“Relax, man,” the driver said. “I own this car. I have the papers. Got it at a government auction. Paid next to nothing. It’s a real lemon. In the two weeks I’ve had it, it’s already broken down twice. You want it back, I’ll give it to you for half what I paid. Two hundred fifty. Real cheap.”
“Thanks, I’ll walk,” he said, and seeing Elaine arrive at the corner. Her look of concern gave way to one of relief when she saw him safe, and before even she saw her bag in his arms. He thought the relief in her face matched the relief he’d felt when he’d awakened in her arms. They were relieved to find each other.
“Thank God I found you,” she said.
“Thank God I found you.”
And handing Elaine her bag and with it his book, he kissed her long and full on the mouth. And the onlookers applauded, even the driver of what in another life had been Seamus’ car.
Another life, Seamus thought. And he kissed Elaine again.
He decided to walk around Manhattan. Letting his legs take him where they would, his head drifting with the clouds, his body set to autopilot, his feet wandered the streets, desultorily. They revisited familiar places - his old grammar school, his son’s school, the church, Central Park - and took him to places he didn’t customarily frequent. Jamaican Heights, which he’d always regarded as crime-ridden and dangerous, he wandered into after dark, and somehow felt unafraid. He could defend himself, should the need arise. After all, just that day he’d apprehended a criminal. His car had, but he’d been bold enough to chase the man down, had gotten back his manuscript, and rescued Elaine’s bag. She’d made light of it, but the bag’s contents were not entirely without value. He’d saved the day, after she had saved his in the elevator.
Things were finally looking up for Seamus, who found himself alone on the subway, which traveled as fast as his thoughts. In two weeks he had been completely metamorphosized. Once a liar, cheat, soon-to-be-thief, his writing career stalled, and his family life in ruins, he had resurrected himself, Christ-like, and had become the man that two weeks ago he hadn’t been able even to portray on the page. The present was good. Whether or not Random House accepted his manuscript was immaterial. Of course he wanted it to be published, but being able to finish it, and by living it, was the real accomplishment, and he had love to look forward to. No matter what Elaine had to say about the worth of his literary labors - she could hate it on all accounts - it wouldn’t change the optimism that stamped his thoughts of the future, their future, together. He was a hopeless romantic, with hope.
“All writers are,” Seamus thought. “Anyone who can sit in front of the blank page and for days, weeks, months, years, put their dreams down, without any guarantee that they will ever be read, and in the knowledge that more often than not they won’t, is by definition a hopeless romantic. But I have hope. I am full of hope. I am hopeful. A hopeful romantic.”
He never thought his romanticism extended to the realm of the heart, but Elaine’s face awakened in him an emotion which had lain dormant for many years. He’d always held the notion of true love as some abstract entity existing in the minds of the writers of fables, and not all writers of fables, not him. But the moment he had seen her face, in the elevator, without knowing who she was or what she could potentially do for him, as the vehicle for his novel’s sale, he felt something strange arise within him. A faint remembrance in a long forgotten ideal, which existing in her fine face brought itself back to his mind in full force, and with it the theory that he’d once held but had long since abandoned. Not much of a mystic, or a believer in the unseen, unless it existed in his mind, he once believed that before we are born, all of us, and possibly again at death, we see our lives, the lives we will live or have lived, pass before us, in a glimpse. We see the baby born, the man or woman we are to become, our jobs, our work, our family and friends, successes and failures. We see our love. This foresight would explain deja vu, the feeling of familiarity with something that should not be familiar, as it has not yet been experienced. That we glimpse our lives, its purpose, in our subconcious, and the purpose of life is to dig that purpose up from its place of burial, like a jewel-laden treasure, and let it light up our lives. Elaine’s face was his buried trove. She had existed in his mind long before she reflected in his eyes. He felt that in the glimpse of his life, when merely a particle in the ethers, a potential, Elaine was the face of his future, and now she existed in his present. And now that she was with him she would never leave, he would never let her go. And he was content in this knowledge.
“I’d rather she call me before I get home, and I can call her back. I have to wait till I am sure that she has called, but how can I be sure? How will I know?”
He didn’t have an answering machine or voice mail, nothing to record her message, should she call. The thought just occurred to him, and it crushed him.
He got up and as he plodded along the sidewalk, head down, immersed in his reflections, he bumped into Mallory, who was with her new boyfriend.
“I thought you were leaving town?”
“I am, this evening. The weather here is too perfect not to have a stroll.”
“Yeah, love is in the air. I mean that.” He giggled, then thinking laughter inappropriate, frowned.
“Seamus, I’d like you to meet Lance.”
“Hello, Lance,” he said, shaking the man’s hand. “Mallory, can I speak to you alone. It will only take a moment. It’s very important.” He wondered why he needed to go to such great length to explain himself.
“Sure,” she said. “Lead the way.”
Seamus led her a few steps from her boyfriend. Standing before her, he found it difficult to contain his excitement. He wanted to scream out, “I’m in love!” Instead he said, in as calm a voice as his desires would allow, which wasn’t very, “I want to thank you for introducing me to Elaine. I went by the publisher yesterday after we spoke. She’s really swell.” Swell? What a trite term to describe the lofty effect the woman of my dreams has had on me. But he granted himself the less than spectacular word, thinking it better not to reveal the full extent of his feelings, as Mallory might think any superlative a base attempt to flaunt his joy, to make her jealous.
“Really?” Mallory said, puzzled. “I wasn’t aware.”
“You don’t think she’s, um, swell?”
“Of course I . . . Seamus, what time did you go see her?”
Who can be bothered with details at a time like this? “I can’t remember the precise time,” he said. “It was, about . . . right after I saw you I ran over there. Whatever time that was, it was just after.”
“That’s strange. I spoke to Elaine last night, called her to say you’d be in touch. She never mentioned anything about meeting you.”
“That is strange.”
Maybe I didn’t make much of an impression. Maybe my book didn’t make much of an impression. Here I am celebrating our illustrious future, and Elaine has already forgotten about our past.
“Really strange,” he repeated. “Elaine, right? That was her name? Elaine?”
“Yes, of course. Elaine Goodwin. That is who you spoke with?”
“Yes. Well, I think. I mean, we didn’t discuss her last name.”
“What did you discuss?” Mallory asked.
At the moment, Seamus could not remember anything about his meeting with Elaine Whoevershewas. It was all a vertiginous blur. The particulars eluded him. All that persisted was his desire for her to be his.
“You did mention me? I mean, you must have– ”
“No,” Seamus said with a shake of his head. “I didn’t see the point. I just assumed she was who you told me she was.”
“You mean who you thought she was.”
“What do you mean? I mean, how many Elaines can there be at Random House?”
Mallory appeared to look through him. She shook her head. Her eyes were sympathetic. Seamus wondered why the sympathy.
“Random House employs several hundred people,” she said. “You must have seen that when you walked through the office complex. You did go to the 26th floor?”
“Well, no, actually. I met Elaine, my Elaine, in the elevator. We left the building. It was too stuffy. We had lunch. Dessert, actually. Tiramisu. It was sweet. She was sweet. The whole thing was sweet. I’m being silly.”
Lance approached and pointed at his watch. Seamus thought the gesture an impatient one, tinged with jealousy, or at the very least, neediness.
It’ll never work, he found himself thinking.
“What did she look like, your Elaine?” Mallory asked, with Lance present. She touched his arm gently. This calmed him.
“Thirties, blondish, breathtakingly beautiful.” Permitting himself a superlative, Seamus said these words to Lance, as if to convey to him there was no need to be threatened by the interaction.
“Elaine Goodwin is in her forties, but you could say she looks younger than her years, I guess.”
“I’m not good at guessing a person’s age. When I met you I thought you were fourteen and look, you turned out to be seventeen. Somehow I don’t think that helps my case.”
Lance frowned. Seamus didn’t notice.
“Is your Elaine blonde?” Seamus asked.
“And she is beautiful?”
Mallory hesitated. “I guess.”
“Seamus, she’s my mom’s friend. I’ve known her since I was eleven. She’s practically family. I have no objectivity. She has a beautiful heart?”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Well, what’s her identifying feature?”
Mallory cleared her throat. “Her figure, I guess.”
“I know what you’re saying. My Elaine was wearing a suit, but I could tell she had a really rad body. I haven’t used that term since I was a teenager. She makes me feel like a teenager. Her body was really knockout. It knocked me out. I passed out, literally.”
“Seamus, Elaine weighs four hundred pounds. Well maybe three-fifty. She just got back from the fat farm.”
His jaw dropped. “My Elaine is not your Elaine.”
Mallory shrugged. “I guessed so much. Sorry for guessing.”
“Then what Elaine did I meet?”
“One of the other however many hundred employees at Random House, I suppose.”
“This is so strange. What are the chances that the Elaine I meet at Random House is not the Elaine I was meant to meet at Random House, and that I’d give my novel to a stranger, and happen to fall in love with her.”
“You fell in love with her?”
“I’m afraid so. I’m not afraid, really. I couldn’t be happier, or more sad, considering that my Elaine is not who I thought she was.”
“Well, do you have her number?”
“I have the number you gave me. I have another woman’s business card. I gave her mine, though. She said she’d call me at my apartment.”
“Well what are you waiting for? Go!”
Seamus kissed Mallory - on the cheek, for her jealous boyfriend’s sake - and rushed across the street, and as he did so, he got bowled over by a car, his car, his former car.
“Jesus Christ,” he said, picking himself up. “You are everywhere!” he told the driver, who unceremoniously gave him the finger. Seamus shook his head, and patted himself down for any blood or broken bones. He found none. He doused his anger with the knowledge that the one in the wrong had been him, for crossing on a red light. And yet he felt justified in his anger, but for one who could have just been killed, or at least maimed, he was distinctly not in the least bit angry. His personal safety was not at the moment his priority. He had other more pressing concerns.
Bounding up the steps to his apartment he exploded through the door in time to hear the ringing phone, and when he picked up, the dial tone on the other side, informing him that he was a moment too late, crushed his hopes. Now he was angry.
“Damn that driver of my car!”
Had I not been plowed into in such an untimely fashion, I would have made it home in time to receive her call.
He waited for the phone to ring again. He waited the remainder of the day. It did not ring again. He fell asleep by the phone, hoping its ring would rouse him, and answering it he’d find his true love on the other end, and asking her who she really was, he’d learn everything. The key to his existence seemed to reside in the mystery of the unattainable.
“I am in love with a stranger who holds my hopes in her hands, which are a simple seven digits away.”
Seamus crumbled to the ground. Thinking the gesture overly dramatic, at length he rose, and seating himself at his writing desk, he took the fountain pen Mallory had given him and without thinking wrote the following words:
“He waited by the phone for seven days and seven nights. Without food or water, without a shower or a shave, he waited. For twice as long as it had taken him to write his magnum opus, he waited for his love. It was Friday afternoon when she finally called.
‘Did you like it?’ he asked
‘I loved it,’ she replied. ‘I’ve read it three times, and each time it delights me more.’
‘That’s wonderful. Who are you?’
‘Who am I? You know me. You kissed my lips.’
‘I did, and I’d like to kiss you again. I want more than anything to kiss you again. But before we get to that, please tell me who you are.’
‘I am Elaine. Elaine Hayes.’
‘Hayes, huh? Do you work at Random House?’
‘No. I was just visiting my mother.’
‘Then you don’t know an Elaine Goodwin?’
‘Of course I do. Elaine Goodwin is my mother.’
‘She took back her maiden name after she divorced my father, which is why we don’t have the same last name.’
‘Funny you should share the same first name.’
‘I was named after my grandmother. We were, my mother and I.’
‘I thought you were your mother.’
‘That is strange. We look nothing alike. I mean, we both are blonde, but I take after my father. The luck of the Irish, you know?’
‘No, I don’t know, but I’d like to find out.’
‘So you gave me your manuscript thinking I was my mother.’
‘I gave it to you because I love you.’
Elaine laughed. ‘Surely you’re joking.’
‘I’m only partly joking. And don’t call me surely.’
‘Other than your reference to the movie Airplane, which by the way is one of my favorite movies in the entire world, what part isn’t the joke?’
‘The part that’s serious, of course. I’m very serious, when it comes to you. And my seriousness makes me giddy. I hope you take my giddiness seriously.’
‘Well, I loved your book. Mom did too.’
‘You can’t be serious!’
‘I am. It took her a while to get to it, which is why I didn’t call you immediately. Mom is very busy. But good news! Random House wants to publish it!’
‘That’s great!’ Seamus said, jumping up from his desk. He hit his knee on the table and it hurt. The pain brought him back to earth. ‘This calls for a celebration! What day is it?’
‘What are you doing for dinner?’
‘I’m having dinner with you.’
‘You’re having dinner with me? You’re having dinner with me. Great! Oh, wait. My son. I have a son. Stevie. He’s eight, of this I am sure. We’re supposed to rent Harry Potter tonight, all six or eight or howevermany of them. A marathon movie watching experience, it’s supposed to be. You probably don’t want to watch Harry Potter with us?’
‘You kidding? I love Harry Potter. I’ll bring my daughter.’
‘Stacey. She’s six.’
‘Should we invite the father?’
‘He’s no longer with us.’
‘I am too. But now I have you.’
‘Well then, it’s a date.’
‘Oh, one more thing,’ Elaine Hayes added. ‘Random House wants to know who to send the agent commission to.’
Seamus thought about it for a moment. ‘Send it to Mallory. I owe her.’
‘It must be some debt. Because fifteen percent of five hundred thousand is–’
‘Enough to put her through design school. She put me back on track. Got me through a real rough time in my life. It’s the least I could do.’
‘You want to tell her or should I?’
‘You tell her. I wouldn’t want to make her boyfriend angry. Seems like the jealous type.’
‘Ok, then. I’ll see you tonight. Sevenish?’
‘Sounds good. Oh, and what’s your number? I thought I lost you once. I don’t want that to happen again.’
Elaine gave him her number.
Hanging up, Seamus headed for the shower. Happily Ever After was not far away."
Setting down Mallory’s fountain-tipped pen, Seamus read what he had just written and it pleased him. Hastily dressing, he went to Random House, where he asked for Elaine Goodwin. They met. She was massive. Definitely not the Elaine he had met. He had already known this much but needed to see it with his own eyes. Wearing layers of flesh, she asked him about the novel he’d written, saying she was looking forward to giving it a look. Seamus said he’d give it to her, if he could find it. Before she could comment on the strangeness of his words, he asked her if by chance another of her same name happened to work at Random House. Squinting, she finally replied that she didn’t think so, but could not be sure, as new hires happened every day. He told her he needed for her to be sure, he was sorry to inconvenience her, but if she wouldn’t mind checking? Graciously, he thought, she had her secretary check the employee list. Having done so, the secretary called back saying there was no other Elaine at Random House. He thought of asking her if anyone there knew an Elaine - “other than you,” of course - thought of asking if anyone had been expecting to see an Elaine, specifically last Friday, in the early afternoon, but he felt foolish. He couldn’t expect her to go around asking each and every one of the employees such an incidental tidbit. Instead he asked, “Is there an Elaine that is an author at Random House?”
Ms. Goodwin could answer this personally. As the book buyer she had signed on every author that Random House had employed in the last ten years. Without hesitation, she said there was not.
“You don’t happen to have a daughter named Elaine?”
She looked at him as though he were crazy.
“Thank you for your time.”
“Your book . . . don’t you at least want to tell me about it?”
“I prefer you read it with an open mind. I’ll bring it around one day.”
Seamus returned to his apartment. He did not wait for the phone to ring. Inside he knew he would never hear from Elaine. She was gone forever. His chance at true love, gone. His chance to resurrect his career, gone. For now, but not forever. He was left only with the change he’d undergone. And this left him with hope. He reread the ending he had written, the ending as he would have wanted it to be, with Elaine calling and loving the book and Random House purchasing it and the movie date they had made. Of all this, the only true thing was the Harry Potter marathon he had secured with his son for that night. This pleased him, and he looked forward with even greater hope. Then the thought came to him, and he decided to make what he’d written the perfect ending for his new novel, as yet untitled. And reaching for a pad of paper, and the fountain pen that Mallory had given him, he wrote the words: “In heaven’s name I pray,” and would make these words the perfect beginning.
And just then, the phone rang.