It’s hard to know which of us began to wear our shoes in the apartment, but one of us did—one of us, then the other. First it was just in the kitchen, but soon there were tracks in the bedroom, bathroom, living room, everywhere. Old receipts and leaves crept in. The floor grew filthy. We got out-of-season colds. Ellen let clumps of her hair tumbleweed around, clogging the carpet, the drains, and I was no longer careful with the dishes, dropping plates and glasses so often we learned not to flinch at the smash, and though we still recycled, we did so poorly, never rinsing, never sorting, curbing them on the wrong night. We both knew the baking soda had been in the freezer a very long time, many years, a lifetime, but neither of us made a move to dispose of or replace it.
Perhaps, I thought, we had both given up together, both given up being good at exactly the same moment.
Around this time the commissions stopped coming and I decided to take a job I was grateful to have but hated to do: teaching (I use this word loosely) a watercoloring elective at a law school downtown.
Half the students came to class stoned or loudly eating takeout noodles from a Chinese restaurant across the street. The rest openly disparaged the idea of making something so useless as art, insisted this wasn’t a real class, that it was just meant to be stress relief.
Like adult coloring books, one of them said, none of this really matters.
And isn’t that great, I said, isn’t it just so great that nothing matters? They stared at me and blinked at the floor, or maybe it was the other way around. One yawned, making the one next to him yawn, then the one next to her, and the yawning spread like that, like a wave of sports fans.
Early in the semester, as I was demonstrating a technique for creating a nuanced palette, I noticed an inky bruise on my white shirt (we’d stopped sorting the laundry, letting the darks bleed on the lights), which would have been fine except it soiled my strategy of overdressing for class to get them to take it seriously. Friday afternoons already felt like the crumbling end of something, and I knew I was just a mangy little adjunct in stained clothes with the perpetual look of having just been slapped. They blended their pigments into muddy grays and browns and fondled their telephones. They all had telephones and spent most of their time gazing at them.
Some of them had two telephones; one of them carried, it seemed, three telephones.
How could I even call this teaching? All I did was speak to a roomful of people who made no reply. No discussion. No inquiries. Nothing even remotely Socratic. They were pointedly silent during the critiques. Once I tried to rally them with something like a motivational speech about how watercolor, unlike other water media, requires the artist to anticipate and influence the movements of liquid instead of trying to fight them.
It’s a lot like being a lawyer, I said, repeatedly shifting my weight from one leg to the other. Or it might be like that. You know, leveraging a situation…the uncertainty and improvisation you might need…in…
I returned my attention to the painting tacked unevenly to the corkboard.
Okay, so who’d like to start the critique? Sean had disregarded the landscape assignment and instead painted a cartoon duck in a gray puddle. Someone sighed heavily, though when I turned to see who it was, they all appeared to have been sighing.
Does anyone have something to say about Sean’s landscape? Yes? No? This silence, I thought, could choke a person.
Okay, I’ll start. So I think you’re developing an interesting sense of line, but I’m curious, Sean, about how you came to the decision that this would count as a landscape?
It is a landscape.
It really just isn’t, you see—Actually, there is some land, right there—
This doesn’t even matter, Megan interrupted us both, something she had the right to do as the class’s self-appointed leader. We’re going to be lawyers, not artists.
Others nodded. Some were asleep.
Well, when you’re lawyers you can sue me for improving your graded-wash technique, but for now you’re in my classroom and I require participation. Anyone else? Anything to say to Sean?
I felt as if I were standing on a building ledge, a hard wind blowing in my face. Megan used a plastic stylus to make a note on some little device while cutting her eyes toward me.
Well, if there’s anything you need to say to Sean, I guess you can say it to him at some point between now and the rest of his life.
When I came home from class that day, Ellen was crying, bent over her knees on the couch just sobbing and sobbing. I sat beside her and whispered, What’s wrong, what’s wrong? She kept on for some time and I thought, Well, someone is probably dead, and I must admit I hoped it was her mother. She’d had a long life, after all, and she was mean as hell and I never liked her, though I could stand Ellen’s father, always chuckling in a corner and offering me Scotch again and again so he could freshen his own glass. In the last year her mother had become insistent about Sunday mass and Ellen had, rather quickly if you ask me, given in, first complaining on her way out of bed, but soon coming home with a superior glint, smug about enduring multiple punishments before noon on a weekend and all of this could be over, I thought, as Ellen wept, if only her mother was dead.
A half hour later she sat up, wiped her face, went to the kitchen, took a whole raw chicken from the fridge, and began rubbing it with dark spices. It seemed her mother would live another day. I watched her hands on the chicken, watched the spices darken its pale, dead skin, waiting for her to explain herself.
How was class, she said, staring out a window as her hands mushed the carcass.
After dinner we sat on the back porch and she lit a cigarette and told me she had been renting cars in the middle of the week, driving them in circles all day. North on one highway, south on another, west and east again. Her expression was guilty and defiant, as if admitting an affair she didn’t regret.
And just…driving around?
I would have asked more, but she made no room for it.
Have you ever heard, she said, then interrupted herself with a long pull from her cigarette (and when had she taken it up again?), about that culture in ancient Mesopotamia that believed a man wasn’t really a father unless a stone the size of his child’s skull was shoved up his ass as the birth was taking place?
She knows how much I love obscure history, but this blindsided me. She blew smoke over her right shoulder.
My God, I said into my hand.
She crushed the stub into a potted fern, covered her face, and began to silently heave. I thought she was crying again, but when I went to her—What’s wrong?—she jolted.
I’m kidding, she said through laughter. God, you’re so—you’re so—
I just take you at your word, I said, remaining calm and speaking clearly.
Relax, she said.
I am relaxed. I was relaxed.
You’re so uptight. She was turning the lighter over and over in one palm. Sometimes I think it’s because nothing bad has ever happened to you, so you can’t even take the thought of something bad happening to anyone.
You know that’s not true.
Name one traumatic thing that’s happened to you.
This is ridiculous.
One thing, she said. Name one traumatic event.
For a moment I tried to take her request seriously: I paged through the years—grade school, college, adulthood—and thought of my parents—kind and wealthy and alive and well, but it didn’t seem right, it just didn’t seem like a thing I should be doing, trying to legitimize myself this way. I stopped thinking. I crossed my legs and watched her flick the lighter on, smiling, swishing her fingers through the flames. Maybe she was the traumatic thing that had happened to me, I thought but didn’t say.
Ellen went inside, made a big show of sliding the glass door behind her to keep the air-conditioning in—something I only had to ask her to do for about three years until she could be almost reliably counted on to do it—then she mushed her face against the glass, nostrils flared, cheeks puffed, showing all her teeth. A smear of face grease and spit was left behind.
You only learn who you’ve married after it’s too late, like one of those white mystery taffies you have to eat to find the flavor, and even then, it’s just a guess.
And maybe there are times in a life where a person just tries to hold still, like your whole dumb life is a game of hide-and-seek and the seeker has just entered the room and you’re curled under the coffee table and if you only hold your breath you’ll survive another round. I was thinking of this the afternoon one of my watercolor lawyers, Leroy, seemed to have fallen into a trance at his easel after consuming a large container of hot-and-sour soup. He’d been still for a full hour. I’d been keeping a peripheral tab on him to ensure he was blinking, breathing, but the time had come, I thought, for an intervention.
Are you okay?
He stayed still for just long enough that I almost began to repeat myself but he spoke: I’m thinking…about what I…could…paint.
You know, you’d really be better off at least trying.
The whole class had stopped whatever little work they were doing and were now all staring at us.
Heidegger said, Leroy said, in a heavier voice, that the possible ranks higher than the actual.
Well, I said. My heart rate increased. It’s always been unclear to me what Heidegger’s fucking problem was, but you’ll need to get to work if you expect to get a passing grade. You can’t improve unless you try.
We’re not trying to improve, Megan interrupted. We have better things to do!
Everyone has better things to do, I said to all of them. That’s not the point. The point is you’ll never get anywhere if you don’t accept that other people get to tell you how to behave. That’s what a law is. What kind of lawyers do you plan to be if you can’t even—
I’m just here for the attendance credit, Megan said. A unified silence. I was nothing more than their enemy, I realized then. I stood in the way of everything they wanted. I almost cried—perhaps I did cry, though just a little. Didn’t they understand? Didn’t they feel moved at all by making something beautiful?
Megan? I called out, transfiguring my pain into anger, clenching my jaw. Is Megan here?
Megan snorted, folded her arms.
Well, I guess Megan’s been absent today, I said.
Megan frowned, then smiled, and her smile slowly widened to show teeth. It was somehow clear we were both thinking of how her tuition paid my wages, perhaps only a dollar of it, but still. She was the customer—always right—so she carroted that dollar above me, or perhaps had it there in pennies, flicking them at me one by one.
I let them go early, drew the blinds to the room, spread out facedown on the linoleum, maybe slept for a moment, maybe just licked the floor. I tried to hold still, to hold very still. It seemed I had entered some phase of life in which I was everyone’s enemy. It was not clear how long I would have to be here, hiding.
And maybe it was just autumn, that back-to-school feeling, that cyclical reminder that everything falls apart, or perhaps it was just the loneliness I’d felt since Ellen had become something more like a mean roommate than my wife, but lying there in the dim art studio I began to think back to college, specifically of that guy Jared—a townie, some years older, a sort of suspicious person but the right kind of suspicious for the time. We did Jägermeister shots, drove drunk, set an old couch on fire—or rather, he did all these things and I warmed my palms in the heat of his wildness. We spent whole weekends smoking terrible pot and listening to worse music. He had a vast collection of bootleg Grateful Dead cassettes and approximately one emotion.
After a few months Jared and I had a falling out and I wondered if perhaps this would have counted, to Ellen, as a traumatic event. It was spring break and we were stoned at his apartment, which I later realized was just a motel room. We had been playing video games and drinking grape soda for a few days when there was a knock at the door. Jared went to open it and another Jared was there. Jared shook Jared’s hand and the new Jared came in, sat down, took my controller, and started playing my side of Mario Kart. I was saying What the fuck? over and over, until I realized I actually hadn’t been speaking at all, was just slumped over, stunned. Both Jareds looked at me. One of them asked the other if he thought I was okay. The asked Jared shrugged at the asking Jared. Eventually I found the energy to run out of there without my shoes, ran until I realized neither Jared was chasing me, that they had both just let me go. The next day when Jared came by my dorm I pretended not to be home, stared at the door until the knocking went away.
Weeks later I found him lurking outside the science building after my chemistry class. He had my shoes in a plastic grocery bag, said he owed me an apology. Turns out he had a twin, had planned this whole thing as a prank.
You freaked out pretty bad, dude. I guess that bud’s pretty strong or something, I remember him saying, kicking at the ground, and another thing, he said, he had to come clean about—come clean, these were his actual words—was that he wasn’t twenty-five, he was nineteen and a half with a good fake ID, and he hadn’t really been homeless for a year, really he just had a lying problem, though he was working on it.
How did one actually work on such a problem? And what do you even do with someone who tells you they have a lying problem? Could they be lying about their lying problem? And what was the difference, other than rhetoric, between a liar and a person with a lying problem? I imagined his lying problem as a calculus equation so large he would have no choice but to give up on it and live in that motel room forever.
But I swear I’ll pay you back, for the grand, I mean, and the plane ticket.
It doesn’t matter, I said, because it didn’t. My grandfather, who had died when I was a baby, had set up a trust fund so large and swelling it frightened me, so I’d just been giving it away. Months before, when Jared asked me for a thousand dollars and a round-trip ticket to Milwaukee, I didn’t even ask him why. I’d nearly forgotten about it.
It matters to me, dude, Jared said. It matters to me. I’ve been working on getting my shit together, on, like, growing up and shit.
It’s really okay. I walked back to my dorm and Jared biked his little stunt bike the other direction and I never saw him again. I had decided just then that Jared’s aesthetic didn’t suit me anymore and I was going to steer my life in some other, better way. I was going to start tucking my shirt in. I was going to cut my hair.
But there on the art-studio floor, defeated, I felt oddly sentimental about Jared, how he wore shorts and Tevas year-round, how he seemed to feel nothing. Before Ellen became my mean roommate, long before she was even my wife, back when our talking was 50 percent backstory and no percent groceries, she would often tell me of the litany of horrible things that had happened to her, each time telling me the lesson she’d learned from the trauma, so maybe Jared had taught me that if someone tells you his whole family was killed in a house fire and he’d been surviving on his own since he was sixteen and that person is also selling drugs you’ve never even heard of, and if he’s also living in a motel room and says everything in the exact same tone of voice—maybe that is just too many things and you should avoid that person. Still, I wondered what had become of him, his lying problem, his obscure drug business. Had he gone to jail? Had he ever gotten his shit together? And how could you even tell if a person has effectively gathered their shit?
I must admit, I find it both convenient and upsetting how easy it is to find a person now, how you can just type a name into a telephone and more often, it seems, than not, you can find a trace of them—a job, a college, odd photograph, wedding announcement, mug shot, obituary as survivor or subject. It seems anyone can seem to know where almost anyone else seems to be.
Though I felt that Jared should be unfindable, a figment, he appeared immediately. He was running a highly trafficked blog called The Grateful Dad. He’d cut off his dreadlocks, become Christian, gained some weight, married, and created three small children with an extremely pale woman.
I found a picture of her on a post titled “The Grateful Mom”—a low-angle shot, her pale hair and skin nearly disappearing into a pale sky. I scrolled through the many pages of the blog, went months and years back, scrolled through infinite comment threads, read paid product placements, the parent-of-the-week series, the tips and hacks and softly religious prayer-like paragraphs Jared posted each Monday. I was still holding the phone close to my face when the door to the art studio opened. It was Sean, backlit by the hall light. I was lying flat on my stomach, head on its side, facing him.
Forgot my hat. He crossed the room, picked up a red baseball cap, and hurried away.
That afternoon, I found Ellen in a fine mood. She was blasting a Motown record and swaying around the living room with the vacuum cleaner. I smelled cookies baking.
I stood at the door and smiled at her. I was returning home, but it felt more like she was returning from something, like she had been hiding in a body that looked just like her body but wasn’t her body and now she’d come free of that other body and she was herself again, uncomplicated, but when she saw me, the real Ellen vanished.
Home early, she said.
Isn’t that nice?
No response. She coiled up the vacuum cord like a roadie running late.
I sent my terrible students home early, and I don’t like to complain, but they are really just terrible.
I told her about the Heidegger thing, and Megan, and their many telephones, and though I’d just said I didn’t like to complain I realized then that I really did like to complain, a little.
A little vitriol could make you feel human, give you the sense that you may be the kind of person who could break something on purpose, throw a plate at a wall just like that, just to prove a little human point. I made sure to leave gaps in my tirade for Ellen to interject, to affirm me, to say, Yeah, yeah, fuck them and their laws, but she remained silent, had turned the record off, sat still in the kitchen looking at her folded hands.
And how was your day? I asked.
She’d never been hesitant to tell me about her work, scientific research for a book she was writing on a topic that, to be honest, I never really understood. Something about tropical bat populations, or bat populations of the tropics (there was some difference in the terminology that I never correctly remembered, a forgetting that she believed indicated a disregard for her career—Her career: She spoke of it as if it were a person dangling from a cliff’s edge—so I learned to ask general questions). Regardless, she stayed quiet for a long time until she finally addressed her clasped hands: I just think it’s absurd that you think it’s fine to complain to me about your job when you know you don’t have to do it.
But I do have to do something with my time, I—
You could live on that trust the rest of your life—
Well, so could you.
She scoffed. You’re going to go there? Really? You’re really going to go there?
Well, no. I certainly did not want to go there, and I had no intention of going there, but she, it seemed, was already there, so it was too late—
It’s not mine and I don’t want it, you can keep your fucking money! she screamed. I’ve said this a thousand fucking times—it’s poison. I’ve said this a million times—it’s a complete sabotage to having an original thought to be that coddled—I don’t want you to even mention the fucking trust fund—
You were actually the one that brought it up.
Her face went slack. I smelled cookies burning.
When the front door slammed, a few hair wads and dust clumps were kicked up in the gust. I ran out to the stoop to see her driving away in a gray car I didn’t recognize. She drove slowly, coming to a complete stop at the end of the block, signaling, turning left.
As night fell, I sat in the living room looking at that dent in the wall from years ago, where she had thrown a volume of The Oxford English Dictionary after I told her, a week after our courthouse wedding, about the fund, how much was in it, how I didn’t really know what to do with it, how I didn’t take anything out anymore unless I had a bad month or a client was late to pay.
So you do those cartoon things because you—what? You just like doing it?
I wanted to say—but didn’t say—but severely wanted to say that it wasn’t kind of her to reduce my hand-painted children’s room murals to mere cartoon things. Instead I said nothing, though I could have said that early and consistent exposure to dynamic and well-crafted imagery tailored for a child helps to develop their understanding of space, color, and composition and is essential to their later ability to solve problems creatively. Or I could have told her that children who grew up sleeping by a hand-painted mural were 80 percent more likely than the average child to earn college scholarships and 40 percent less likely to behave violently or self-destructively as an adolescent, but I had told her all this before and could vaguely remember her disputing the statistics as not purely causal, but I suppose I expected, perhaps wrongly, for her to remember that at least I believed that my work had a measurably positive effect. Regardless, she was the one with the moral currency to spend, since she’d just learned of this kept secret and that I actually owned our apartment, had bought it in cash years ago, and there was no landlord named Alvin.
For a while I’d been making massive anonymous gifts to various charities, but the financial planner had rigged it so I’d probably never pay taxes again, which felt unfair, and later I found out that several of the charities I had donated to were shut down for corruption, hadn’t done a fraction of the good they said they did—so I just stopped thinking of the fund. When the quarterly statements came I just hand-shredded them and flushed them down the toilet. I felt guilty for even feeling guilty and felt even worse for feeling guilt over guilt over all this privilege so I decided to do absolutely nothing, to just let it all sit there. It all felt unreal, a number in a computer somewhere that had been passed down to me like a genetic mutation.
But she wasn’t angry that I’d been lying to her—she was angry I’d come clean, that she couldn’t unsee this safety net below her.
I could stop everything right now and it wouldn’t matter. There’s no urgency to anything I could make or do now—there’s no, there’s just no actual reason for me to, to even get up in the morning.
She was pacing the room, her breathing shallow and hands clenched at her sides when she leaned over, picked up volume seven of the OED—a gift I’d given her last Christmas—and flung it across the room, making a dent in the drywall I’d done myself.
I just married a goddamn university endowment!
This made no sense but I didn’t correct her. It was just one of those times when I had to let her say absurd things, a sort of emotional demolition.
I understood what she meant when she said, back then and many times since then, that the fund was a curse. I just didn’t think she needed to throw something to make this clear to me. This was the difference between us.
Hours later, long after dark, she came back from her drive. We went to the grocery store together, though we wandered alone, neither of us sure of what we wanted. I stood for a long time in the dairy aisle studying a $7.59 quart of yogurt after noticing an as seen on the grateful dad shelf talker below it. A cartoon version of Jared’s head was on the container with a speech bubble: The only yogurt I’ll feed my kids!
Ellen and I reconvened at the register—she had an onion, a bag of black beans, a sack of flour, and Café Bustelo. I had potato chips and yogurt.
Oooh, you got the Grateful Dad one, the cashier said—you got kids?
We nodded no, watched our groceries go down the conveyor. Though we used to buy organic whole-bean coffee from a local roaster, aware of the atrocious working conditions and environmental impact of conventional coffee production, we had, for some silent reason, switched back to the cheap stuff. We also stopped bringing our own bags, started saving twenty cents a pound on conventional over organic bananas, stopped obliging chatty cashiers with small talk. If they asked how our day was going we just stared at them. If they pressed further, asked us what we were doing today, we said nothing or sometimes, when we were feeling bold, we said, Nothing.
On the walk home Ellen said, That yogurt was, like, eight dollars, but all I did was make some kind of noise to let her know I had heard her, but had nothing more to say on the matter. We ate half the chips standing over the slant-ripped bag until I crumpled it up and threw it in the freezer to demonstrate our shame. She smiled at this; I claimed it as a victory, a sign that everything was really fine, would always be fine. A few minutes later I asked where she’d driven this afternoon, but hadn’t noticed she’d fallen asleep on the couch.
Walking to school the next week I decided the real enemy of learning wasn’t the students’ apathy or their belief that there was no use in making useless things—the enemy was the telephone, how it made life seem to be happening elsewhere. Life is here, I imagined myself telling them. Life is at the easel, noticing the world, interpreting it very slowly. Perhaps I could turn this whole class around, make it feel exciting and fast, like an inspirational montage. It was possible that a few of them would abandon law school for the blistering uncertainty of the life of an artist.
I was passing by a liquor store and a small cardboard box advertising a vodka was out on the curb, the perfect size, I thought, to collect all their telephones on the way into class—no telephone, no attendance credit—and the first few students seemed more than willing to turn over their devices (though, yes, they were also a little reluctant, eyes narrowed, noses turned, ever so slightly, up) but it wasn’t until Sean that there seemed to be a problem.
Do you want to know what I really think of this?
You’re taking a rather cowardly and immature stance to believe a smartphone has any legitimate power over the mind, he said. It’s just standard liberal hand-wringing, pretending to be progressive and tolerant, but being afraid of every little change or advancement, and despising anyone who doesn’t live in the way the liberals think is best.
That may be, I said, but you’re still going to turn it in if you want an attendance credit, and technically, if you have one more absence I can fail you.
You’re actually not within your legal rights as an adjunct elective instructor to demand we forfeit our personal property or risk failure.
I’m not a lawyer, but neither are you, and we both know that is a bunch of bullshit.
Leroy sort of nodded at this as he came in, tossed in his telephone with what seemed like a kind of knowing happiness though he may have been stoned or already full of noodle soup.
I took a long route home that day, through a warehouse district, then a rich young person’s neighborhood that still believed itself to be a warehouse district. As I was cutting through a small crowd gathered outside a bookstore, I nearly knocked over one of those A-frame chalkboards. It said the grateful dad book launch! 5 pm! kids welcome! and someone had even re-created that cartoon version of Jared from the yogurt container, in flesh-toned chalk. The crowd was mostly women, ten to one, most of them yoked in one way or another to a child or baby. I was still squinting at the chalkboard when I heard my name.
It’s so good to see you!
It was Anne, a client from a few years back, and she went in for a hug. I could not imagine it was as good to see me as she was making it seem. Her black-haired child stood below us, looking upset in that demonic way that beautiful children can be upset. I had painted a three-wall Alice in Wonderland mural in her nursery. It was based on the Carroll illustrations and had taken almost a month to complete.
Anne and I exchanged the kind of nonspeech that people with nothing to say to each other end up saying to each other and I even asked, How’s the mural?—immediately regretting it, an inquiry about some walls in her house.
Oh, we actually had to have it covered. Lena, well, she decided she couldn’t handle it.
I looked down at Lena, her little mouth pursed like an animal anus.
I’m so sorry, Anne said.
Don’t be. It’s really not a big deal at all.
We really loved it though. It was just—it was really great for those few months before Lena started talking.
I started to say something but Lena stamped my toe and ran into the bookstore. I pretended it hurt less than it did.
Sorry, she’s been weird lately, like, her whole life—she’s just weird. But you know, like Jared says, we don’t get to choose who our children are, we only choose what we teach them.
Is that what he says?
Aren’t you—are you here for the book party? You have kids, right? I just figured with the mural thing—
Well, we thought we would, at some point, but I don’t know.
Anne squinted over my shoulder as if she was trying to recognize someone several blocks away. I mumbled something about how I was fine with it, completely fine with the way my life had gone, and just then I caught Jared’s eyes through the bookstore window and saw that flicker of confused recognition, the wrong place for a person, the wrong person for a time, an awful reminder of how no matter how much your life changes, it doesn’t. He smiled unhappily, broke away from the person he was talking to, and came outside.
Long time, brother! Jared hugged me with that heterosexual back clap.
Anne looked at him as if he were a cake she wanted.
Hi, she said.
Hi there, he said. A certain kind of famous person just pretends like they sort of know everyone, I thought. Can I borrow him for a second? He didn’t wait for Anne’s reply before guiding me toward the edge of the sidewalk.
So what’s up, dude?
Oh, you know, man, a nervous teen in me said, just living, you know. And congratulations on all this. I saw you on a yogurt.
Yeah, pretty wild, but I can, like, feed my family and stuff now.
Listen, is this about the money I still owe you? Because I had to settle a lot of debts and I’m really not liquid at the moment—man, you knew me at a weird time. I was such a fuckup back then, but you know, it’s just that’s how Christ had to teach me.
It’s not the money, I don’t need—
But I’m going to pay it back, you know, I haven’t forgotten. I just—wait there, hold on—
Jared dashed into the bookstore and I saw Anne watch him, almost go after him, look back at me, look at the bookstore again. He came running out smiling, aware of how everyone around him was watching him run, admiring his run, wishing to also run so gracefully. He was carrying a book.
Here, he said. I even signed it.
Oh, you didn’t have to do—
Yeah, but I really want you to have it. You have kids now, right?
Yeah, two. Joe and Chelsea.
Rad—so you’ll totally understand this. It’s part memoir, part cookbook, part parenting guide—you know, tips and tricks and stuff. And actually it’s part devotional also, though marketing didn’t want to emphasize that part—
He opened the book in my hands to the middle.
On every page there are these thoughts from me, you know, just something to think about—and he pointed to a couple lines of boxed text.
Jared’s Thoughts: It’s super incredible how all these great things can happen, yeah? Take a moment to think about all the great stuff in the world! #THINKABOUTIT #AWESOME
There was a child’s drawing of a bird and what looked like a fried egg beside it.
One of my kids did those. And since there are exactly three hundred and sixty-five pages in the book, it also works like a yearly devotional. You know—Jesus really said that prayer can happen anytime, in any kind of voice, you know? Like it doesn’t have to be all Thy and Thou and everything. And, you know, this was Jesus saying this.
If there was anything I could have said to him then, I still don’t know what it was.
Anyway, they don’t want me to push the Jesus stuff and I get it. I really do. The Christianity of old white men has to die, blah blah. I get it. And obviously, we’re white men and we’re not exactly young anymore, ha!
A bitter taste filled my mouth, my whole head. I did not believe or did not want to believe there was a group to which Jared and I both belonged. I tried to hide this feeling from showing up on my face, just stammered something until a bright blue hybrid stopped beside me. I hadn’t even heard it approach. Ellen leaned over from the driver’s side to push open the passenger door.
Get in, she said.
Curbside service, Jared said, very nice, dude! We’ll be in touch, yeah? We’ll get this all sorted out. He shut the car door behind me.
What are you doing in this neighborhood?
Driving, she said, speeding through a yellow light. What are you doing over here?
Taking the long way home—
And going to some kind of party?
A book thing. I held the book up. I sort of stumbled into it, but then it turns out I actually know the guy.
You know the Grateful Dad.
You’ve heard of him?
He’s horrible. My mother sends me links to his blog all the time.
We went silent. Any mention of her mother caused the air temperature to immediately drop. She is truly a wretched person. On this fact, we always agreed.
But you know the guy?
From college, yeah.
Several silent minutes later she stopped outside our building, found a spot right in front, though she kept the engine running and we both stayed in our seats.
It’s just—I think it’s just—She turned the engine off. I think I just find it weird that you randomly went to this guy’s book party, this guy of all people. This really isn’t anywhere close to your walk home and it just seems to me— It seems to me that—
She started the engine again and said, You know how I feel about parenting.
It was something we’d never talked about, had pointedly been not talking about for years now.
I’ve got to go somewhere, she said.
It doesn’t matter.
I didn’t say anything else, didn’t even want to, just got out of the car and she drove off. It seems to me you’ve got no option when a person tells you they’ve got to do something.
That Monday I got a phone call from the dean, and that afternoon I went to his office, papers everywhere, like someone just aimed an industrial fan at his door.
So we have something here of some concern, some concern, that is, to our students, the experience they’re having in your classroom, and thus it’s a concern to us, to the school, to what we stand for, that is, giving our students—who pay our salaries, you know—giving them the best learning experience we can give them. And I want to say that I appreciate you, appreciate your, your, painting, your, um, your enthusiasm for painting, but some concerns, some causes for concern have arisen and I just wanted to share with you some of the—I don’t want to call them complaints, but they are complaints—some statements about a few aspects of your class that, uh, that bring them some displeasure. So I’ll just read a few of these…
He cleared his throat and began.
“Instructor doesn’t understand the meaning of an elective.”
Well, I said, isn’t it, by definition, something one elects to do—
“Instructor has something against lawyers. Instructor doesn’t seem to respect law school. Instructor marks students absent to class when they are actually present. Instructor came to class reeking of alcohol.”
Okay, well, you see, with that one, I found this box outside a liquor store but part of it, I later realized, had been soaked in maybe vodka? But I have a bad sense of smell and—
Sure, okay, and if you could just hold your defense until the end, that would be great. “Instructor drunkenly forced class to give our cell phones to him. Instructor openly wept in class. Instructor ‘accidentally’ drank and threw up a jar of paint water. Instructor seen sleeping in his classroom. Instructor seems to be going through some personal problems. Instructor is overbearing. Instructor curses too much.”
The dean cleared his throat again, longer this time until it turned to a cough, then a hacking cough, then a truly worrying hacking cough. When he finally stopped he kept his eyes closed, hand on chest, peaceful like a corpse.
You know, I said after a long silence, it’s the pollen lately, or maybe the pollution, it makes my eyes water. They thought I was crying but it was allergies. It’s really—
Listen, the dean said, his eyes still closed, you’re a creative person, an eccentric, and I really do think the world needs creative people, creativity and the arts in general, so I’m not saying the world doesn’t need you, because it does, I think it really does, I just don’t think it’s reasonable to expect law students to go along with all your ideas about this, uh, this painting stuff. And honestly, the elective program was the previous dean’s idea and I’ve been meaning to end it. They’re lawyers, or they’re going to be lawyers, that is, and we don’t expect anything else of them, really. The world doesn’t need its lawyers to be well-rounded. So what I’m going to do, because I am a reasonable person, is, I’m going to let you keep teaching the class, but I can’t require the students to attend anymore.
I felt like a map that had been refolded the wrong way. I wondered if I would still give demonstrations and set up still lifes and explain techniques to all the empty easels. I wondered if any of the students would still show up.
I thanked the dean, though I did not feel thankful.
Standing outside the law school I got a telephone call from Ellen and I thought of how the story of this failure might entertain her, provide her some amusement. I had always wanted to be interesting to her. Perhaps that’s how you know you still love someone, that their interest is still something you want, to hold their attention while they hold yours. It should be like two hands, like two notched logs.
She was weeping when I answered the telephone. I could hear her heave. When she eventually spoke she asked where I was, told me to stay right there, that she was coming to get me. Minutes later she drove up in a small red car. Her face was dry and pale.
We drove in silence, toward what I didn’t know. For a while I thought maybe all her pain was over now, that maybe whatever it was had been fixed and we were really going somewhere together.
My mother’s in the hospital. She said this as if she were telling me her mother was expecting us for lunch.
Is something wrong?
With her, or…
With her. It seems that, it seems—she’s probably going to die. Her voice shook.
Oh, I said, trying to measure how appropriate it was that I felt nothing but relief.
I offered to drive but she refused.
I love driving, she said. I love driving more than anything.
When we got to the ER we stood in a long line, then there was some confusion over whom we needed to check in with, what floor or wing her mother was in. Finally a nurse walked us to an elevator, pushed us in, pressed a button, said to take a left on the third floor, then a right, then check in with the nurses’ station there. Only after the elevator doors shut did I notice Ellen shivering and lightly sweating. I put my arm around her hunched shoulders.
It’s just that…It’s just that she taught me so much, she said, her tone a little more angry than sad.
It occurred to me that I didn’t know what was (medically) wrong with her mother. I had been given no assurance that her mother’s life was even legitimately endangered. It would have surprised no one if this woman had gone to the ER for something benign, then told everyone she was dying. She was the resident terrorist of the family, constantly sabotaging her own children and siblings and in-laws, setting off emotional suicide bombs at every chance. For years we’d been trying to get her to start drinking again because at least then she’d eventually fall asleep. She told us drinking was bad for her skin, bad for her waistline, bad for the glint in her eye, and she told me once that if she ever found an easy, secure way to have someone killed there would be a lot of funerals to attend all of a sudden, but perhaps, she said, putting her face a little closer to mine and lowering her voice to a whisper, you wouldn’t be around to attend them—then she laughed, but I couldn’t tell what kind of laugh it was. When I told Ellen she laughed too, and we laughed together. (What kind of laugh, I still did not know.)
She is a goddamn maniac, Ellen said, but she was family and this meant something, to Ellen, that family, no matter how hostile, no matter how jokingly homicidal, was inextricable and owed something. It had always been a wonder that Ellen had survived a whole childhood under this woman’s scorn. She had once saved three weeks’ allowance for Mother’s Day flowers but when the delivery came her mother took them to the garbage disposal and forced them down by the bunch. They were ugly, her mother said, hideous.
The smell of pollen now makes Ellen livid. Springtime is brutal.
It may be impossible to unknow some things.
At times I’d wondered what, exactly, Ellen could have inherited from her mother.
The only thing I was sure she’d gotten was a utilitarian bitterness that had always charmed me. She’d say things like, Mother’s Day is just another way for a person to marvel at their own existence, or, The Freudian view of psychological development means parenting is a sort of fascism. It was clear how she’d come to such conclusions and she believed them so fervently that I began to believe them too. When you spend enough time with someone, there’s always this sort of balancing and rebalancing, like walking a slackline, a continuous correction. For instance, in the days after the incident at the hospital, we became even more absentminded at home, a laziness that culminated when one of us (we each believed it was our own fault) left a teakettle whistling in our empty kitchen, all afternoon, till all the water steamed out and the metal burned and warped. The fumes seemed to be noxious, or so our neighbors said—they left voice mails that were at first polite, then increasingly incoherent. They became forgetful, drowsy, and after this, they were never quite the same.