I know that I’m depressed, sensitive, and selfish. I’m just determined to do this thing, which is paint in solitude, and I will burn bridges to do it, including relationships.
Why it interested me is because it happened. There are many things that happen that are of no interest to anyone. They are events without purpose, expended energy just for the practice of expending energy. But this business in Connecticut was quite different; not that I really believe it happened, you understand, the way they said. No, I can’t say I believe it totally. There really was so little proof, and proof is so necessary, if only to be examined, dissected, and then refuted. There were facts, but facts are so forgetful. It was the physicality of the event that dissuades the eye. It was all a lot of surface, which may have an inner meaning to those involved. But to me, I can find no real purpose to it—just nothing. An empty event, purposeless, but I must say, arresting.
I interviewed the whole crew. After all, I am a social columnist. It’s really not my kind of story, even though it happened at a luncheon, and everyone knew me. After they got to know me even better they were quite open, I think, or as open as people decide to be when they decide to be open. Sometimes I interpreted what they said. Other times I left it to you. It’s the damnedest story, a mystery of sorts—unexplained phenomenon. But they told it to me, and I leave it to you to judge… . As they say, all mysteries are the mysteries of the human spirit. Even if you see shadows on a distant star, the mystery is us.
I’m not sure Mrs. Job ever thought I would write this down. I wasn’t sure myself. I wasn’t certain I had the courage. The mystery deepens as man sees his own reflection. His hand is the hand of darkness. Maybe the story has nothing to do with the Jobs, or the Clapps, or Melanie, or anyone else, just one of those crazy quirks of nature that somehow adopted them. I suppose one is not adopted by the inanimate, but I’m not sure. It started three months ago with the beginning of August. Mrs. Job was going to have a luncheon. The Jobs’ lawn was having a hard time of it, a lot of brown spots. Mrs. Job was looking for her gardener, Sam, who was sitting on the roof in his pirate uniform, where … well, let’s start from the real beginning.
Real beginnings are always difficult, but I suppose I’m it. I’m your basic real beginning. I think it’s best to start from what is known, proceed to what is unlikely, and finally come to rest at what is unbelievable. I’m the social columnist for the “Beigewater Sentinel,” which is all too tenable for me, almost disgustingly tenable. I would prefer to be almost any place else. But, when this position was offered to me one hallucinatory evening by a drunken red face which somehow seemed less drunk than the other drunken red faces in the room, I said yes. It seemed like a pleasant interlude between college and my youthful anticipations of immortality, so I took it. I’ve been interluding for five years now. The point at which interlude becomes occupation has always been somewhat problematic to me. But, as I sit here on my canvas-backed chair, with my feet on the rough, wooden desk, in the flickering twilight of my dying kerosene lamp, I know the truth, as I wonder if I’m inhabiting one of those legendary dead-end careers. I lean back in my chair and stare uninterruptedly at my canvas ceiling, listening to the sounds of nature propagating itself. I wonder even more.
I live in a tent, rainbow colored and custom made for me. Only in summer do I live here. I’m just playfully eccentric, nothing doctrinaire, mind you. I cohabit with the golden mean. The ancient Greeks had a saying: Everything in moderation. I once asked a professor of mine if that included moderation itself. He answered me three days later by running off with the departmental secretary. I learned it could be dangerous to ask certain questions of certain people. Maybe that’s why I’m not a philosopher. I love the smell of wet canvas, the dull sound of rain hitting my cloth roof. There are still joys in the woods. I had gotten my assignment to cover the Jobs’ luncheon at Pinwheel’s Garage. I use Pinwheel’s phone. I have none, which is both a relief and an inconvenience. I can only take the human race in small doses, and no phone helps. Each day I make the rounds of several strategically located public phones and a few private ones. My office has my schedule and they catch me as they can. All this may seem very mysterious, but I cultivate mystery. As much as bread, man needs it to survive. Man does not starve by bread alone, my friends.
Seeing the Jobs again was not high on my list of priorities, but I have to eat. I always found the Jobs a little too straitlaced for my taste, but what the hell. Of course there are the Jobs’ neighbors, the Clapps, and that voluptuous fifteen-year-old daughter of theirs, Divinity. Ah, Divinity. There has always been a real question whether Divinity Clapp had a face. I always thought she did, giving the power and the silhouette human lips, but I am told I was just saying that to gain a few provocative favors with a certain variety of liberated females, some of whose phones I use. To me, Divinity was really more than a well-blossomed phenomenon. She had her own special kind of style, a sort of untamed self-indulged wilderness. But, I’m getting ahead of myself; and I do like Divinity.
The heat last summer was relentless—each day when the sun would set, the heat wouldn’t. The air hung on us as a bad memory. At eight o’clock that morning Divinity Clapp stood at the back screen door of her parents’ house, took hold of the handle and opened the door. Looking back over her shoulder briefly, she walked into the morning air. She whined in that earnest teenage way, plaintively crooning each word into sounds too heavy for their meanings, “Why is it always summer?”
The screen door closed with a long squeak and a slightly hesitant slam. The small female hand left the aluminum-alloy door handle, corroded with years of intermittent Connecticut rain. Divinity Clapp, dressed in a slight bikini, walked to the side of the clear aqua pool, put her portable radio on the iron wicker table, removed her towel, and sulked. Almost without looking, she sat down in a blue lounge chair by her side with a heaviness that had a strange resemblance to dead weight. She put her hands, which were now fists, on either side of her chin, and sighed through her manicured fingernails, “Mother, eight o’clock in the morning is always boring.” She looked upward, as if some god were responsible for her teenage boredom. “Mother.” The word was filled with a kind of pathos, anger and pleading that only an adolescent could give to a word repeated so often. It comes to mean everything and nothing. “Mother!” She repeated it with more emphasis, as if that alone could change the ultimate response. “Mother!”
Mother was in the kitchen. She had finished moving the breakfast dishes from the butcher block table to the sink. Using a rubber plunger, she stuffed the remains of breakfast down the garbage disposal with all the elegance and refinement of someone force-feeding a goose. Every time she put her weight on the plunger she grunted. Her husband, Hugh, sat on the chair near the table, turning the pages of his newspaper. He had been furious at everything for years. As he turned the pages, he didn’t see words. He saw rage. “Must you use that plunger in here?”
“It gets the job done, dear.”
Hugh turned the pages faster. The wailing from outside continued.
“Mother, I can’t remember when I got up this morning. Is that normal?”
“Very normal. You weren’t paying attention.” Cynthia looked at her husband. “Anything interesting in the newspaper, dear?”
“I haven’t noticed anything.” Hugh was in no mood for banter. He was turning the pages two at a time. On each page the words flew by in narrow bands. The words had lost all meaning. They had become mere design, both repetitious and dull. Hugh was late for work. He didn’t care. He was eyeing the last chocolate doughnut, which lay abandoned in the crumb-filled, chocolate-stained box. He was wondering why the doughnuts weren’t being served on a plate as they should be. Maybe he was the last person to know how doughnuts should be served, an anachronism in Connecticut, the last survivor of a dying world. Ideas ballooned in the predatory of his mind. Fearful, he pretended he could forget his own fear. He swallowed that part of himself a gulp too far. Beware the famine that becomes the feast. What we are lives a cannibal. Hugh belched, a gentlemanly belch, eying the doughnuts while feeling fled in lightning around his brain. And so Hugh mined his passions flat—to a willful balm. But Hugh was basically an optimist. Maybe the doughnut was some insidious plot to disgrace him in front of his neighbors, the last act of some wifely infidelity before he was thrown to her lawyers. If he ate the doughnut, the plot would fail. But he was afraid to eat too much sugar. He might develop diabetes. He was caught, paralyzed by the insinuations of small things. He had also forgotten the directions to his office. After twenty years in the same office, he had forgotten the directions.
Hugh remembered that he turned left at the end of the driveway, but then all was blank. He was blocked. Hugh wasn’t worried. He was calm, very calm. Maybe if he kept driving it would all come back to him, like an old song which was remembered only as you sing it. Hugh did not like singing. At that moment his wife gave a last victorious grunt and looked up from the sink.
“Breakfast was nicely done this morning, don’t you think, dear? Just the way it should be, the sink and all well stuffed,” Cynthia crooned her little joke, wiping her hands on a towel. “I’ll put this plunger away until the next time. I know you’ve got things on your mind.”
“What things?” Hugh was looking for salvation from any quarter.
“I’m sure I don’t know.” Cynthia certainly suspected. “You seem rather depressed.”
Hugh didn’t answer. Cynthia was absent-mindedly looking out the kitchen window. She didn’t see Divinity, who was doing calisthenics—bending from the waist, this way and that; then turning from the waist; then lifting her arms, first up and then back until her hands touched behind her shoulders, her breasts straining against the cloth of her halter. Divinity had a way of doing things quietly that could wake the dead. Mrs. Clapp gazed toward the cloud-strewn horizon. With a start she said, “Oh!” A brief moment of disbelief, then, “Hugh, the Jobs’ house has disappeared!”
“I’m certain it’s still out there somewhere.” Hugh said, while his finger played cat and mouse with the doughnut in the box.
There was a rising flame of anger in Cynthia’s voice. Cynthia was embarrassed. She felt she was being mocked by the entitlements of wayward things. Maybe if she didn’t mention it again all would be well. She changed her mind. She spoke, overwhelmed by another self, as if below her desire there was some other desire. “Well, it used to be on the hill, and it’s not there now. Houses don’t move!”
“Maybe it was pushed.”
“That’s not amusing. Simply not amusing. A house in a community is missing. God knows where. And you show no interest.”
“I’m interested. I just don’t have the energy to show it.” Hugh dozed off with his fork protruding from the doughnut. A moment later he roused himself, looked at his watch, and rose from his seat. He was now really late. “When I get to the office, I’ll call for the bloodhounds.”
As a gesture of reconciliation, Hugh walked to the sink and looked into the summer heat, across his lawn, over the split-rail fence, past the well-tended fields where the horses sometimes grazed, up the slight rise to where the house of Amanda Job used to be, but wasn’t.
“Hum… . I don’t even see that weird flag the gardener put on their roof,” said Hugh. The hill on which the Jobs’ house used to stand was obscured by filaments of rising white clouds, which resembled a huge forest of exotic white feathers. Theorizing to himself, he said half aloud, “It looks like fog.”
Cynthia looked at the sky, which was blue and cloudless. “It can’t be fog, dear… . It looks more like smoke… . Maybe there’s a fire… .”
“That’s totally idiotic. It’s not smoke.” The unexpected made Hugh feel even more uncertain of himself. Beads of rage glistened on his forehead. His anger made him feel weak, his weakness fed his rage. He clenched his teeth. A small can that was perched in a precarious nest on top of the garbage bag at that moment fell. Hugh felt ready to murder the inanimate tin. He tried to kick it. The can rolled away. Hugh’s foot caught on the cuff of his pants. Heels in air, Hugh fell with a dull and hollow thud. The silence then was palpable. Hugh felt dented. Hugh turned over onto his knees, ready to rise. He looked like something canine which had been doused with water. He almost shook himself. There was a sound of something small and granular hitting the kitchen window. Cynthia turned toward the sound, for some reason expecting to find hail. She found sand.
There was an eccentricity in the wind that day. Divinity, who sat only a few unprotected feet from the kitchen window, was not pelted by the sand. Staring at her new portable radio, she was trying to decide what shape, color, and size she would like her music that day. She thought of her choice of stations, her choice of disk jockeys. They all sounded the same—her choice of similarities. Her head contemplated each station on the dial. She was fascinated by the switches, the labels, the colored lights shining jewel-like against the black plastic case. As in a trance, she sat motionless, like a Buddha contemplating the universal Ohm. Divinity was involved. The growing alarm in her mother’s voice was an alien port in a dream-swept sea.
“Hugh, I hate to bring this up, but there is sand playfully bounding against our windowpane,” Cynthia said, picking up a teacup with an emphatic nonchalance, the razor of her voice tearing through the paper of the air. Cynthia thought that English deadpan was marvelously upper crust. Unfortunately, she couldn’t quite carry it off with the required English aplomb. Although she had watched enough old movies to get the style, she lacked the experience and the imagination to comb the feathers of the absurd.
As she unfurled her hand in a gesture of understatement, the tea cup slipped from her finger. It smashed unceremoniously against the foot of the door, three inches from Hugh’s head. It was the silence speaking its strange truth in accidents. Cynthia apologized. For what, she was not sure. Hugh smiled and creaked to his feet, brushed the shards of cup from his hair, muttered something about the neighborhood. Turning on his heels, Hugh walked toward his wife. He took her in his arms, bent her backward, and, as she balanced on one toe, he kissed her passionately. Unfortunately, this interlude was more a product of suppressed anger and guilt than of a romantic longing. Hugh could never deal with his own ambiguous feelings toward his wife. Basically he hated her; but he hid his feelings from himself and from her with these overly gestured demonstrations of affection. But now, for Hugh, a more painful insight intruded on his play therapy.
“Cynthia, why do you always kiss with your mouth closed?”
“My lips weren’t closed,” was the almost inaudible response. Cynthia’s voice was muffled by Hugh’s mouth covering hers, and by her efforts to talk through her own clenched teeth. Cynthia could never cope with a reality that was too intense. She believed that a good reality was like a good servant—it should be a discreet nonentity. And in that vein, she always felt her husband’s affection was a little bit too stagy to be authentic.
Hugh made the best of a bad situation even worse. Deep within himself he flew into a rage, but all that bubbled to his less-than-volcanic surface was … well … the brief masculine laugh of a grade B Western variety. Hugh hitched up his belt as if he were carrying a pair of six-guns. Rage had deflected itself into pantomime.
“That should hold ya till this evening, little cow-poke gal,” said Hugh in his best cowboy imitation. He swore he remembered Gary Cooper using those very words. Actually, Cooper never used them, or anything like them, but, in the distortions of Hugh’s mind, they had a familiarity and thus the nomenclature of power. He was adopting the shadows of their authority. Hugh felt alive.
Cynthia left his arms and looked at him with an expression that was both quizzical and exasperated. Hugh sensed that his reenactment of a vaguely remembered cinematic conquest had utterly failed. For a moment, there had been a sense of triumph in Hugh’s voice, before self-doubt enfolded him, as he swaggered, artificially bowlegged, toward the front door, stopping with a certain resolute good cheer to say “Adios” to Divinity, whose firm young body and swelling adolescent breasts arrested his attention longer than Hugh thought appropriate.
Divinity, who was busy ohming with her radio, acknowledged his farewell with a vague wave of her hand, casting her gaze in the general direction of somewhere. Remembering the sound of the voice, she smiled at the form shadowed in the screen door. Hugh smiled at her smile. Cynthia smiled because she thought it appropriate. Hugh thought of Divinity again, and armed with a new six-pack of guilt and a sense that he had finally been firm with his wife, he wandered toward the front door. As he left the kitchen his gait began to disintegrate rapidly and his swagger began to roll and bow, like a top at the end of its spin. As he closed the front door, he seemed to be a man intoxicated, drunk on nothing more than hope, thin air, and dying images.
When Hugh left, Cynthia decided it was time to find out what had happened to Amanda Job’s house, if possible, and, why the sand was swishing against her window. She turned back toward the sink expecting to find sand, but instead she found sunlight. Across the pasture, on its slow-rolling hill, was the Job house, dignified and solid, with that strange flag fluttering on the roof.
“Ground fog,” Cynthia said, relieved to know that houses don’t disappear on their own. It was also nice to know there was always an explanation, logical and obvious. Cynthia looked at her clock. It was eight-forty. At twelve there was to be a luncheon at the Jobs. She had better get organized. The day’s events were just beginning.
George Minkoff has written several bibliographies concerning American publishers working in Paris in the 1920s and ’30s, including the Bibliography of the Black Sun Press and the Bibliography of the Black Manikin Press, both standard references in the field. He is also the author of the In the Land of Whispers trilogy, a historical novel concerning the first generation of English in the New World. Minkoff is also an authority on rare and antiquarian books.
I know that I’m depressed, sensitive, and selfish. I’m just determined to do this thing, which is paint in solitude, and I will burn bridges to do it, including relationships.