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Writers & Lovers (Page 18)

I wait for the idea to calm me down, but it doesn’t. Oscar asking me to move in doesn’t seem like a solution to Adam selling the garage. It seems like another problem. And the problems are mounting. Thomas announces he’s opening his own restaurant in the Berkshires. Clark the brunch chef is to replace him as head chef.

‘But he’s ooful,’ Harry says to Thomas. ‘He’s supremely untalented. And he’s a petty, miserable troglodyte.’

‘It’s Gory’s decision,’ Thomas says. ‘I suggested others.’

On his last night I’m able to say my own goodbye to him in the walk-in. I’m getting a ramekin of butter florets, and he’s sitting on the crate I usually sit on.

‘Casey Kasem,’ he says, but kindly. We’ve always had an understanding. I’m not sure what we understand exactly. We’ve never spoken about anything but apps and entrées. But it’s there. At least for me.

‘I wish you weren’t leaving.’

He nods. ‘Thanks. It’s been a good run here.’

‘Good luck with your restaurant.’

‘Good luck with your book.’ He smiles at my expression. ‘Harry mentioned it.’

‘Thanks.’

At the end of the shift, his wife comes in and helps him take out the last of his stuff. She’s pregnant and carrying the baby way out in front. She balances a fat cookbook on top of the bump. ‘Look, Ma! No hands!’ she says, and Thomas rushes over and grabs the cookbook.

‘You’ll crush her.’

‘Feel this,’ she says, drumming on her belly. ‘She’s encased in steel.’

I didn’t know they were having a girl.

The next night Clark takes over. He brings some of his brunch guys with him and tells Angus and two other line cooks to come back at lunch. He appropriates one of Helene’s pastry counters for salads. He tells Dana to stop scowling, Tony to look him in the eye when he’s talking, and me to wear more makeup or something. ‘You look like a vampire. And not the sexy kind,’ he says.

When service begins he slaps my hand as I reach in the window for my first entrées.

‘Use a napkin.’

‘It’s not hot.’

‘Use a napkin. Every time. Customers do not want to see your filthy fingers on their plate.’

Once Clark starts working nights, more bees swarm into my work life. I start getting my customers confused, my orders mixed up. I have to take long breaks on the fire escape. My whole body feels like it’s a big iron bell that someone has struck, and it won’t stop ringing. It’s like not being able to catch my breath except that I can’t catch any part of me. Muriel tells me to take long slow breaths and scan my body from head to toe when this happens, but I end up gasping for air. Out on the fire escape I do some clenching. It’s the only thing that helps. I clench my fists or press my knees together or squeeze my stomach muscles all at once. Sometimes I start with my face and work down my whole body, tightening each muscle one by one for as long as I can stand it, then letting go and moving on to the next. It’s enough to get me back into the dining room. After a few nights of this Marcus figures out where I’m going and finds me there midclench and drags me back. Sometimes, standing over a six-top and reciting the specials, I feel like I’m breaking up in tiny fragments, and I don’t understand how phrases like ‘with a cranberry cognac glaze’ are still coming out of my mouth or why my customers watching me don’t signal to someone that I need help. There’s some thin covering over me that hides it all. If someone saw inside and called an ambulance, I would go off willingly. It’s my biggest fantasy at these terrifying moments, two EMTs in the doorway with a stretcher for me to lie down on.

The next Saturday night is particularly bad. When it’s over I tip out and settle up and leave as soon as I can. I don’t even say goodbye to Harry. My body is ringing. I can’t feel my fingers. The only way I know I’m still breathing is that I’m still moving. Outside the cold feels good. I want colder. I want ice and snow, something to numb the panic. Two Harvard boys in tuxes come out of the building across the street and go into another. A group of old people, crumpled and slow moving, get into a Volvo near my bike. I hate old people. I hate anyone older than my mother, who didn’t get to become old. At the top of the street there is a guy walking on Mass. Ave. toward Central Square, loping, hands in his pockets. It isn’t him. It isn’t Silas, but the slope from neck to base of the spine is similar. Something awful rises up in me, and I have to get out. I have to get out. I have to get out of this body right now.

I crouch down on the pavement and raw terror overtakes me. I don’t know if I’m making sounds. I’m like that boy in second grade who had an epileptic fit on the classroom floor, shuddering like a machine, only it’s all inside my head, everything in my mind juddering like a hydraulic drill that I cannot stop. There seems to be no way to survive it or to make it end.

I don’t know how long it lasts. Time frays. When the worst of it has passed I’m still crouched on the ground, my forehead pressed to my knee. I raise my head and see my backpack, house key, and wad of cash tips spread out all around me on the pavement. I stand up, worried that someone from Iris will come out and find me crumpled there. It takes me a while to unlock my bike. My body is still trembling, just like Toby Cadamonte’s after his seizure.

I pedal slowly home, spent, but when I lie down on the futon after a warm shower and some muscle squeezing I feel like my body has been plugged into an outlet. More slow breathing. More clenching.

I try to pray. I kiss my mother’s ring, and I pray for her, for her soul and for peace in her soul. I pray for my father and Ann and Caleb and Phil and Muriel and Harry. I pray for the earth and everyone on it. I pray we can all come together and live without fear. And at the end I pray for sleep. I beg to have back the ability to fall asleep. I was once so good at it. I pray hard and yet I’m aware that I have no sense of what or whom I am praying to. I went to church until my mother went to Phoenix, but I never believed the stories in church any more or less than I believed in Pinocchio or the Three Little Pigs.

The panic feels loud as hell in my head, like being next to a speaker at a concert. I turn back on the light and try to read. The words remain words. I can’t hear them. I can’t lose myself in them. A friend in college once said that she didn’t understand how people read for enjoyment. She couldn’t see or feel anything beyond the words. They never transformed into anything else but the sound of her internal voice reciting sentences. She concluded she had no imagination whatsoever. I wonder if I’m losing my imagination. This fresh fear is ice-cold. Never to be able to read or write again. But really, what does it matter? Two more rejection letters came this week.

I spend the night that way, passing through layers of anxiety, humiliation, and despair. Somewhere close to dawn I lose some consciousness. It isn’t sleep exactly, but I have to think of it as sleep because it’s all I ever get anymore.

When the sun comes up, I surrender and go out running. It has to be a long one, because Oscar and the boys are taking me to play miniature golf. John never forgot my boast that I could beat his father, and today is the day I have to live up to it.

It’s cold, the coldest morning yet. There’s already traffic on Beacon, and I have to wait for the light. The river is flat steel, the sun not high enough to hit it yet. I’m still running in shorts because I don’t have sweats, and after a few miles I lose feeling in my thighs. I run to the Watertown Bridge and come back on the Cambridge side. I pass the tall gray hospital with its stacked rows of windows. On the lower floors you can see flowers on some of the sills. Bless them, my heart seems to say. Bless them all. And my throat closes from the thought of people dying in those rooms and their loved ones losing them, and I have to stop running to suck in enough air.

When I get back, a man and a woman are peering into my windows.

‘Can I help you?’

They whip around. The man sticks out his hand. ‘Chad Belamy. Belamy Realty. You must be the writer.’

The writer. Adam is using me to add some clout to his garage.

‘Jean Hunt.’ She’s my age, but her hair is shellacked in place, and she wears a gray suit, stockings, and pumps, all on a Sunday morning.

She asks about the neighborhood. From her tone and the way she phrases her questions I know she thinks I’m younger than she is. I tell her it seems like a mix of families and empty nesters.

‘And you pay to live in there?’ she says.

‘It’s a very desirable location,’ Chad Belamy says, urging me with his eyes to agree.

‘It’s not as bad as it looks from the outside. You’re welcome to come in.’

She and Chad share a look. ‘No need,’ she says. ‘I’d start from scratch.’ She looks at the yard on the other side. ‘It’s a smaller lot than I’d expected. But it might be all I can afford.’

Adam has listed the property for $375,000. And then she’ll have to build a house on it. All she can afford.

She asks me what kind of writing I do, but I say I have to shower before a friend comes over and excuse myself.

That conversation eats away at the protective coating the run gave me, and I’m feeling pretty jagged when I get in Oscar’s car.

Jasper’s crying. I ask what’s wrong and he shows me his hand, his tiny smooth hand with a fresh bloody scrape across it.

‘Oh my God. What happened?’

Oscar bounces a flat hand covertly near the steering wheel, trying to signal that I should lower my voice.

‘Oscar, he has this gash across his hand.’

The hand bounces more emphatically.

John starts shrieking.

‘What’s going on?’

‘He hit me first. He hit me in the eye!’ John screams.

His face is so red it’s hard to tell, but I think I see a purplish bruise to the side of his left eye.

I turn to Jasper. ‘Did you do that?’

Jasper wails a long incomprehensible sentence.

‘Casey, please turn around,’ Oscar says. ‘You’re just inciting them.’

‘Inciting? They’re clobbering each other back there. You need to pull over.’

He laughs. ‘If I pulled over every time they beat on each other we’d never get anywhere.’

‘Oscar, he’s bleeding.’

‘I mean it,’ he says sharply. ‘They’ll be fine.’

I don’t like his tone of voice, but after a few miles they both stop crying. They are laughing about a dog in a pink coat and booties Oscar points out.

Then I start to smell something revolting.

‘God, what is that?’ I try to put down the window but the child locks are on.

There’s giggling from the back seat. Oscar smiles into the rearview. I wheel around.

‘It’s him,’ John says, pointing to his brother. ‘It’s him.’

Jasper gives me a big smile. Then the smell gets even worse.

‘That is so gross. It’s like poop mixed with rotting seagull.’

They all laugh. I’m not trying to be funny.

‘Please let me put down a window.’ I’m trying so hard not to swear in front of them.

‘Someone left her funny bone at home today,’ Oscar says.

‘Someone forgot to take her giggle medicine,’ John says.

Oscar unlocks my window. I lower it and stick my head out as far as it will go.

The clubhouse at King Putt in Saugus is in the shape of a pyramid and the snack bar is a sarcophagus. I decided long ago that if we ever did play mini golf, I’d let Oscar win. I thought I should preserve John’s faith in his father’s invincibility a little longer. But once I get a club in my hand I know I’m not going to go the noble route. I’m in the mood for some glory today.

I fake lightness. For the first two holes I feign unfamiliarity. I’m not completely pretending. I’ve played miniature golf three times in my life. I’m sussing him out, though. I know he’s coordinated. I’ve seen him kick a soccer ball and crack my wiffleball curve into the neighbors’ trees. And I’ve deceived him. I haven’t told him about my years of golf because I knew it would make him curious. It always makes the athletes curious. They think they can beat me, and it ends badly every time. Then they either sulk or try to convince me to start playing again.

The boys hit first, John taking whole minutes to line up his shot and Jasper knocking the ball without thought, surprised when it flies out onto the parking lot.

I’m not very good at the start. The anxiety is at a steady buzz and the putter head is made of red plastic and the carpet is a mangled mess. But I get the hang of it. On the third hole I can it through Cleopatra’s Cave.

The three of them shout my name, gleeful. A stroke of lightning. I keep doing it. I can’t help it. Something takes over. I play the break of the scarab of the fourth hole and put it straight into the mouth of the asp of the fifth. So many years since I’ve held any kind of club. So many years since I’ve felt naturally good at something, good in an empirical, undeniable way that is not reliant on anyone’s opinion.

John is holding the scorecard. ‘She’s beating you, Papa.’

‘I know it,’ Oscar chuckles.

On the seventh hole, when both boys hit their balls into the Nile and run ahead to the shore where they will get them back, he says, ‘What’s going on?’

I shrug and take my next shot.

He shakes his head. ‘Look at you. The way you move. The way you curl over the ball.’

The bees are gone. Muscle memory has taken over, brought my body back to a time when it did not know panic, even under great pressure. Holding this cheap club has calmed me. I give him my first real smile of the day.

‘I played when I was a kid, and I was good. My father started calling me Casey, from that old poem “Casey at the Bat.” Do you know it?’

He shakes his head.

‘It’s just a cheesy poem he loved when he was a kid about a baseball player. Casey’s the best hitter on the Mudville team. And they’re down four-two and it’s the last inning and they have two outs but two crappy players actually get on base and then Casey gets to bat and the crowd goes wild. Strike one. Strike two. And then another swing. “And somewhere men are laughing, and little children shout,” I recite in my father’s baritone. “But there is no joy in Mudville; mighty Casey has struck out.” ’

Oscar is delighted. ‘Mighty Casey.’

‘That’s me. Named for a guy who struck out when it mattered most.’

‘You secretive little prodigy.’ He nudges my shoulder. ‘I’ve got a friend up in Vermont who belongs to the Woodstock club.’

‘No thanks.’

‘It’s the best course in New England.’

‘I know it well. No thanks.’

‘Why not? Look at you.’ He keeps saying that. Look at you. ‘You love it.’

I walk ahead to catch up with the boys.

‘I’m just saying that if you have that kind of talent you should use it from time to time.’

I walk faster.

When we’re done, John tallies up our scores. I’ve beaten Oscar by nine strokes. We bring in our scorecard and the manager writes me up on the chalkboard. First place for the month. ‘I don’t think anyone’s going to top that anytime soon.’ I can tell he doesn’t believe it.

On the way home, the boys are sad I’ve beaten their father. They take it hard. Oscar tries to cheer all three of us up, but it doesn’t work. I have them drop me off in the Square. After the car is gone I sit down on a bench outside of Grendel’s. My head is ringing again. I can’t follow a thought. I feel like crying, but nothing comes. I sit and do my clenching, every muscle I can, over and over.

I have an hour till work, so I wander around WordsWorth. Darkness Visible is on the remainder table, and I pick it up. I’ve never read it before. ‘A Memoir of Madness,’ Styron calls it. Caleb is always giving it to his depressed friends. I start reading the first chapter. Styron has flown to Paris to receive a prize. He is certain he will not overcome the disorder in his mind. He has lost the ability to sleep, is riddled with fear and a sense of dislocation. The writing has that stark lucidity of someone trying to tell you the truest thing they know. The pages are small and I turn them one after the other and my insides burn in terrifying recognition. Paris is only the first chapter, only the beginning of his descent. I shut the book, wipe my face, and leave the store.

While we admire the scope of

We are grateful for the look at

Your project did not strike a chord

This is not quite right for

Unfortunately, at this time we aren’t

Thank you for your submission but

We appreciate you thinking of us

We do not feel passionate enough

 

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