Inkslinger Award Winner
Issue No. 11 – March 2016
It’s over? Pop asks Debra, the Golden Employment Agency counselor.
Next time wear a shirt without a picture of an upraised fist. Just a suggestion.
Five minutes? he says, tipping his tan beret and easing out of the chair. That’s not right, young lady. Getting here took me over an hour.
Her eyes widen, she straightens her index cards and points to the door. Bye.
In a stuffy windowless office across town, Mom leans forward and jabs the eraser end of a chewed red pencil towards one of her advisees. All right, she says, raising a finger, but that’s all you get. Uno mas! One more chance, comprendo?
Pop has tried bending down to kiss her at the fondue party the night before, hoping to ignite some primal reaction, but he’s misjudged by a few inches.
Phew, what is that stench? she asks, holding her nose.
Oh, he explains, probably the Gorgonzola I bought. Or maybe the raw scallions I had for dinner.
Pop has been planning strategy for months. His idea: orchestrate a cease fire and break the deadlock over a candlelit dinner. Once he catches her fooling around though with Mitzman, towards the middle of summer, he switches to the concept of sneak attack.
When Pop says No, he does not take it as a joke, in fact, No, he does not believe Mom was just applying suntan lotion to that fat slob’s back, she announces to everyone attending the party who’ll listen that this is the pink limit, this is it, and she intends to see an attorney. Tomorrow! Furthermore, Mom says, she has already consulted her sister about the matter and, guess what, Sis is in total agreement: August is the perfect time.
Oh please, Sis says, what is with him? Selling No Hassle Waterbeds? Has he totally lost it?
Well, Pop says, consider the source.
Don’t talk to me, Mom warns him. Please.
What intrigues her first is the jaunty handshake, the snappy way Pop bounds up to introduce himself, Pep Larson he says, like he’s running for office, the spiel he delivers in the dining hall about activists idling in air-conditioned 8 cylinder cars, protesting atrocities against Nature. A propos of nothing. Her table mates clear their throats, eye one another and resume picking at rubbery Waldorf salads, while Mom drops her fork and just glares.
Hmmm, says Pop, touching her chin, a most alarming case. Yes, yes indeed. I believe I may have to study you for a while, my dear. Over demitasse.
When he tosses his scarf over a shoulder and says, Cheerio! she covers her mouth, cracks up and has to flee the room.
Is it what he said? she wonders, while brushing her hair in the mirror. Or just how he phrases things, with that clipped nasal George Sanders accent?
Well, I did think the pacing was rather crisp, Pop tells his roommate, how the bit sailed along, but was it really that funny? I’d give it rather a seven at most. On a scale of one to ten.
They spend the night before Graduation together, then make vague promises to remain connected, but Pop boards a train west and Mom stays behind in the city.
He sends her a cheery postcard with a photo of a man in a straw hat devouring a watermelon, then another a week later of a gypsy woman winking. His message: This is America! West of the Hudson!
She buys a two-tone late model Comet with the presents she gets for her B.A., while her sister suffers an emotional collapse the week after dyeing her hair a resonant shade of brass.
When he phones from a Boulder gas station she spends twenty minutes describing her sister’s condition with clinical precision.
So you think it’s what, he asks, dropping his last quarter into the slot, some coincidence maybe? Or some like chemical reaction?
His calling might otherwise have surprised her, but she is preoccupied with the twice-daily hospital visits and it’s not until the following week that it dawns on her he has extended a half-assed invitation to fly out and join him on the next leg of his odyssey.
She finds an empty phone booth in the lobby and calls his parents, whom she has never met.
Does Muzz know any Barbara from Plainview, she could hear his mother asking her husband.
Plainview? the man says, over the theme song to the Carol Burnett Show. What do I know?
Pop is low on cash, sleep-deprived. Hitching west out of Colorado he leaves his lucky lamb’s wool sweater in the car of an industrial chemist who outlines the critical role his research played in developing a breakthrough they call “permanent make-up.”
Far out, Pop mumbles, staring into the orange purple sunset. What a time-saver!
Mom finds out where he will be crashing when he reaches the Coast and sends him a letter there on monogrammed pink tissue paper stationery which states her sincere intention to get together but, she is sorry to say, at the present moment it is out of the question, she is too enmeshed trying to keep her family intact to devote any energy to her personal life.
Mom signs it, Love, Barbara, and when he reads the florid, impeccably neat curly-cue script upon arrival in California he resists the impulse to phone her again by ducking into the patchouli-scented New Revolution Cafe. LOVE, Barbara? he wonders, gorging on ancho-flavored popcorn, swaying to the sitar. Is that like some dinky classmate autographing your yearbook? Or might LOVE, Barbara perhaps mean something else in this context?
HePop observes signs of rampant prosperity throughout The Bay Area and lands a part-time job in a car wash on the Berkeley-Oakland border. During lunch hour, he chugs Anchor Steam, gets woozy, gawks at passersby with polymorphous desire, flashes random peace signs and scribbles notes on the back of company flyers decrying all forms of authority.
Boy, you got one HAIL of a lot to learn, says Dixie, the head dishwasher at the strip mall restaurant where he scrubs pots till past midnight each Saturday.
Deed I do, Pop agrees.
He arrives at the all-night parties his friends throw long after the rest of the gang is narcotized, and in the candlelight his longings drift mainly to Mom, so he plays Ray Charles on the stereo, You Don’t Know Me, because there’s no Nat Cole, and everyone edges closer to someone but him.
Two months pass, he gets in a good mood and calls her again. When she slurs some words he realizes how late it must be in New York.
Her sister is pregnant. Some druggy acting instructor. Aside from that, it’s just status quo ante, she says, sounding slap happy. Daddy’s still threatening he’ll chuck it all and run off to Virginia, Mother continues professing that she has done nothing untoward that she can recall in raising her children; life follows a predictable pattern of action, inaction and reaction. They’re driving me coo-coo, she says. Every day, asking, What are you doing with your life? Your fancy degree?
Hold on, he tells her, almost shouting, I’m coming back soon.
It’s a crackly connection. An impatient little man in a cardigan sweater is pacing, waiting to use the phone.
I’m through rambling, Pop confides, I’m just about ready to attend graduate school in The City.
They get married three years later, wearing identical white flowing robes. Mom’s sister obtains an illegal abortion, soon after which she suffers nervous breakdown number three. Or is it three and a half? Pop wins a prestigious fellowship but concludes that academia is too formulaic, so he withdraws from the program.
Talking to you, his mother tells him, is like talking to a wall.
But Ma, he pleads, give me a break. It was bad for my equanimity. Not to mention my complexion, all that time in the library. You want I should stagnate?
Go join a commune, she says. For all I care.
He combs the morning papers for a position that could make a meaningful impact, something in the helping professions.
Mom secures employment as a guidance counselor with full Blue Cross and Blue Shield at a famous suburban high school.
They relocate from West 23rd Street to a garden apartment on the South Shore of Long Island. Sometimes they venture out to buy house plants and explore remote shopping malls. They attend an emergency rally at the Nassau Coliseum, get all inspired, and then, later that week, watch most of a basketball game in a nearby facility. On Tuesdays they visit the ShopRite and on alternate weekend mornings Buzzy’s Laundromat. They share the cooking and buy strictly “natural” except for Ring Dings, pancake mix and an occasional box of Nonpareils. She insists they read every ingredient on every label. Stick to established winners, she begs him, please: Bonami, Entenmann’s, Wright & Ditson, Wamsutta, Tip Top, Sominex, Stearns and Foster. Usually she compiles a detailed list before shopping, but essential items still slip through the cracks.
Why do things always take so long? Pop asks her. Let’s just get what we need. He grabs a bottle of generic red wine from southern Europe off the shelf and tosses it in the cart to commemorate some milestone in their relationship.
Don’t exert yourself, Mom says. Please.
Later she lights incense and an unscented candle, he puts Cowgirl in the Sand on the turntable and Nature takes its course, just as Neil Young croons, “This is not the way it seems.’ Before the beginning of “Cinammon Girl.”
Pop gets into a fender bender in a parking lot but the other guy speeds away and he has just cancelled the collision insurance to economize since the Comet is now almost six years old.
Don’t blame me, he says, I had the right of way.
They agree not to tell Mom’s father, because the old man objects to anything less than full coverage, but for weeks Mom squints at Pop as though her eyesight is failing. First she won’t talk to him, then he won’t talk to her. She tapes up typewritten lists of things she likes and doesn’t throughout the apartment. Do’s and Don’ts.
Why can’t you leave things alone ever, he asks her, why must you rearrange everything?
So what is it you do all day? she asks.
Sip coffee, he tells her, and transcribe information. In painstaking detail.
Are you interested in seeing other women? she asks.
No, he says, he loves her.
Oh, she says, really? Then why don’t you get a job and take some of this pressure off me?
Oh, he says, what a good idea! Okay, I’ll do it. Whatever you say. But he still cannot find anything to his liking.
She suggests law school.
Now wouldn’t that gild the lily? Pop asks.
They argue, make up, and, in mid-kiss something catches his eye: Oxydol!
He denounces her for squandering funds on overpriced brand names while their budget remains so tight.
Budget? What budget? she says.
A poverty lawyer who doesn’t dress up, Pop muses, or is that just a touch recherché?
Can you speak fucking English, she requests. Just once?
He brings home a stray cat. It is charcoal gray. Mom rocks it in her arms, says, We can’t keep this, and cries.
She drops him off every morning after he secures a position shelving books at the town library, but Mr. Purvis does not appreciate his work habits and gets him to quit.
He passes cutting remarks when she sneaks a coloring book into the house but she says she got it as a promo at the Shell station and besides, coloring something takes her mind off worrying and getting depressed.
What do you have to worry about? What?
Our future. I’m trying to color away my anger and stress.
He returns from tennis early after losing 6-1, 6-0, and discovers her on the bare wood floor of her office one afternoon, curled up beside the radiator; she is wearing red Doctor Dentons, licking her lips, applying flesh tones to the cheek of a smiling medieval knight.
Oh, bless your little heart, he says, patting the top of her head. Un vrai innocent!
Without looking up, she mentions a few of his more arcane preferences, tells him to go take a shower and he heads straight to the basement.
They conclude something might be amiss.
Once in a great while they invite company over and Mom passes around the postcards Pop has sent years before from his sojourn out west. Sometimes he coaxes her to play the guitar but she always apologizes for not practicing, or that the strings are frayed and out of tune. She tells virtual strangers how intensely lonely she feels. And depressed too, he reminds her, don’t leave that out. When The President gets caught red-handed they polish off a carafe of Vin Rose at a neighborhood clam house, run up a substantial tab and preach anarcho-syndicalist theory to the nodding waiter, right after shooting back a pair of complementary green Crème de Menthe. Once home they total their assets, huddle until dawn and make elaborate getaway plans in the event of a coup.
How far is Tasmania? Pop asks, checking The Atlas.
How much do you think we’d get, Mom says, for your old baseball cards? Those Life Magazines?
They mail letters to former friends which avoid mentioning anything of too specific a nature. They visit a counselor named James who comes highly recommended for his no-nonsense approach. He doesn’t throw anything away, she tells him. Ever. He drives crazy. Look, James says, things take time, stop all this fussing, what’s the worst that could happen? There are three reasons at least for every situation and most have a way of sorting themselves out. Without our meddling. Well, Pop says, that’s reassuring, Jimbo, but bad things come in three’s mostly too, n’est-ce pas? Stop cluttering your life up, James advises. Simplify!
Mom renounces coffee as a gesture of independence and Pop resolves to eat more deli sandwiches and Burger King to combat his self-diagnosed amino acid deficiency. They share a magnum of Hungarian Bull’s Blood wine on their anniversary, compose an adulatory letter to Cesar Chavez and swear resolutely off grape jelly. I will eat my peanut butter dry! Pop declares. Um, could you not call me Babs in public? Mom asks him. Or in private either? It’s unnerving. Much less your Little Babsy.
She saves up to buy a fancy silk blouse and he burns a hole in it with a cigarette he bums at a party. They attend a lecture on The Lost World of Pompeii but he develops a throbbing headache. She drifts off to buy lime sherbet as he sits on a marble bench, rubbing his eyes, hoping it will just go away.
They visit an elderly woman on Central Park West who had once befriended her grandfather, but the woman cannot help them now, she is too busy clearing her throat.
They visit a man further uptown on the same street who stares out his bay window, keeps tapping his cheek and finally leans forward across an enormous oak desk to suggest that, in his humble opinion, her father had been the unsung hero of the Henry Wallace campaign. Locally at least.
Get this Doc, Pop blurts the moment Mom excuses herself, Little Miss Babsy here wants to deduct Girl Scout cookies, right off our Federal Income Tax. Can you imagine?
The man blinks three times and swivels halfway around. Then, re-examining one of his miniature porcelain ornaments in the lamplight, he swivels back. I don’t know what to tell you, is all he says. I just don’t.
On the ride home it begins to pour. She asks why he never discusses his family and their political leanings (which he characterizes as a shade to the right of the Russian Tea Room), prior to pointing out he’s driven north, instead of east, over the Triboro Bridge.
Did you ever sleep with anyone else, while we’ve been married? she says.
Technically? he asks.
They see a black-and-white film about a skinny youngster with no friends and a family of desperate schemers who is scampering around rock piles in shorts and suspenders. The second feature stars an evasive man in a raincoat, slouching in doorways, lighting cigarettes, keeping a watchful eye on the street and adjusting his hat at a rakish angle. She insists they buy an upright piano.
They do not know enough people to help them move the piano so they ask people they do not know.
When they rent half a duplex shortly thereafter, a neighbor with an almost incomprehensible accent claps her hand over her heart and says how relieved she is, she’d heard it might be a bunch of wild you-know-who’s. You can’t catch me! You can’t catch me, her ten year old says, until he spots the piano. Oooh, can you teach me? Pwease?
Pop bares his teeth and answers, No, kid, it’s just actually furniture.
Pop denounces shoveling the driveway with a vehemence he usually reserves for mowing, and then declares that after The Revolution there will be No More Lawns. Or lawn mowers.
And, Mom chimes in, no more shiftless no-good lazy bums skulking around, getting wasted by noon.
They begin to eat every supper out and complain bitterly about prices.
Inflation blows, Pop says. All you ever hear is, What goes up must come down, but boy, is that bull!
Breakfast dishes accumulate in the sink, Mom intimates her feelings are hurt, but the protest fast she initiates lasts only a day. Let me know, she says, when you make a decision. Any decision.
Well, uh, when I get the paper, Pop says, I read it through and through.
She takes a separate vacation with her family, flies back early and he ambushes her at the airport with a bouquet of artificial flowers. I made these, he tells her. With my own two hands.
She announces how she intends to spend more time with her sister, that occasionally she might decide to stay with her overnight. Sis needs her. Sis lives in a cramped studio apartment on West 74th Street with barred windows, a pull out bed and no view of anything but dingy discolored bricks. He says fine, go see your sister, I can fend for myself.
He only initiates contact with other people when she is away. Then he goes mainly to see Mitzman, a friend with whom he makes halfhearted efforts to play ping pong, debate baseball and watch politics on TV, but after repeated sneezing fits he realizes how allergic he has grown to Mitzman’s brand of pipe tobacco.
I’ll do the jokes, Pop reminds him, after a sweaty marathon length match. To which Mitzman replies, That is exactly what she said. He barricades himself behind mounds of the latest gadgetry and, since his divorce, is known to eat five meals a day without consuming one green vegetable. He re-locates to accept a tenure track position in Hot Springs, Arkansas and sends long run-on letters insisting he must come back to New York for the summer, that none of the hicks know how to service his Saab 99. He describes a mysterious rash he’s developed.
Pop reads the highlights aloud and Mom cracks up.
That Mitzman, she says, what a head case.
A Mensa candidate he’s not, Pop agrees.
He inquires when she might be planning to see her sister again and she says, all things considered, Sis is not easy to get a hold of lately.
She’s in one of those phases, Mom says, out all hours, so I guess I should keep an eye on her.
They attend a matinee at Radio City with two of his childhood acquaintances, a couple she describes as totally gross, and after the show Pop insists the four of them go for a drink. My treat, he says.
The guy relates at an excruciating pace the protocol he has followed to get licensed in Humanistic Psychology while Mom excuses herself to call her sister and Pop proceeds to get bombed.
So what are you up to lately? the woman finally asks.
Maintaining a low profile, Pop whispers, looking around. Just in case. Trying to keep my energy up, reading Jean-Paul Sartre. But this time taking notes.
But what is it you do? she asks, and she leans in towards him, eyebrows rising.
Clean up drips, Pop says, liquidate assets and annoy random people. Speaking of which, how much money do you make? Combined, I mean, after withholding.
Mom comes back from her sister’s apartment quoting statistics, despondent because Sis ignores all her sensible advice so Pop proposes they go for a little change of scenery. A yard sale, he suggests, to lift your disposition.
So what do you keep writing always? she asks.
Whatever happens to pop in my head, he says, inching backwards out of the driveway. Drivel mostly. Tales of unrequited love. And alienated labor.
Can you at least send something off somewhere? Or is that too much effort?
Doesn’t interest me. Hasn’t popped in my head.
Then what are you doing it for?
Well, he says, rounding a corner, these words come to me. I’m determined to flush them out into the open, that’s all. To practice my sentence structure.
You’re not a kid anymore. You know, it’s high time—
Hold that thought! Cause I have this dream, he says, accelerating deftly onto the Interstate, that one day you and me, or is it I, will open our own little Mom and Pop around these parts. A Curiosity Shoppe. And, please note, that’s with a silent ‘pe’ at the end.
Souvenirs mainly. Tchotchkes, bric-a-brac, keepsakes and what have you.
That is your dream?
Yup. Just you and me, fox. Babsy and Muzz.
Muzzy! We are not playing house any more. Are you going to apply yourself ever? You’re almost thirty.
Pee-Eee, he says. It’s a recurrent dream.
Muzzy! Watch OUT!
AN Block is a recent convert to fiction writing whose stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Per Contra, Bicycle Review, Umbrella Factory (a 2016 Pushcart Prize nominee), Foliate Oak, Down in the Dirt and others. He has an MA in History and is a Master of Wine who teaches at Boston University. He is a contributing editor at the Improper Bostonian and has published dozens of non-fiction pieces on wine and food.