It took four days -- ninety six hours of hope, regret, bitterness and busywork. I was counting the minutes to my first gallery opening, working on the portrait, managing the end-of-semester details of tests and grading and final reports, trying to help my kids sort out the complicated turmoil of their own lives.
I checked the Times for Natalie Crane’s announcement, but the small ad she ran for the group show didn’t even give our names and the title, Stepping Out of the Shadow, struck me as unduly cryptic until Natalie explained breezily, “You’ve all had troubles, darling. Nathan has his PTSD after the war, David has been on anti-psychotic drugs since he was seventeen and you … well, you’ve been living with failure, doubting yourself, spending your days teaching perspective to spoiled brats, thinking about giving up – all the standard shadows artists have to deal with. And now you’re all shuffling out into the morning sun, rubbing your eyes and blinking, adjusting to the daylight. It’s everybody’s favorite story – struggle and success. And the narrative sells the pictures, sweetie. Trust me on that. You have to make up a story people want to be part of. They buy a picture and it’s their story, too.”
Well, she certainly was good at it. Her story worked for me. I stopped obsessing about the show. I never even went on her website and I was too busy to stalk the gallery itself.
At home, I cleaned the loft to Joanna’s standards, as if she might walk in at any moment. I found one of her lipsticks under the bed and a pair of her glasses in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator. They must have fallen off her head one night as she was rummaging for a raw carrot or a stick of celery. I put the items aside for her with a shudder of loss like a suppressed yawn.
Life was exhausting without her, a shuffling line of lists and errands and obligations, all performed with a forty-pound pack on my back. I tried to think of it that way, reducing the loss to a load I had to carry. Specifics were my enemy: the scent of her perfume or the smear of her eye shadow on a bathroom towel; a forgotten sweater stuck in one of my dresser drawers, the sound of her voice on our answering machine’s outgoing message, quickly erased, as a criminal might rub the fingerprints off a gun butt. But I had done nothing wrong. Had I? Was I supposed to just go along with her program and pick up the pieces of our life together as if nothing had happened?
Lies reach back and reconfigure the past. It’s supposed to be impossible to change the past, but that’s exactly what a lies do all the time. It’s the revisionist history of new information, as if you’d studied America without knowing that a tenth of the population was black and they’d originally come here as slaves. Revelation after revelation: oh, so that’s how those plantations worked so well! That’s what those riots and sit-ins and marches were all about! Of course in my personal world the epiphanies were smaller: elisions and silences understood at last, all the topics avoided and the subjects changed.
It was more than that, though, more disorienting than that. I struggled to understand it, lying in my bed alone, listening to the wind battering my window, the low jangle and roar of the traffic, the occasional siren moaning and bleating into the distance. It seemed like Joanna had been speaking an entirely different language when we were together, one that sounded exactly like English, but with a different definition for every word, and all our apparent ‘conversations’ had just been bizarre linguistic coincidences worthy of Borges or The Twilight Zone.
I recalled my tenth grade algebra teacher marveling over my final exam, before sparing me with the mercy mark of a ‘D’, saying “You’ve invented a whole new system of mathematics. If it worked you’d be a genius. But nothing adds up.”
Nothing adds up. That was how life felt in this new world I had created for myself with my jealous tantrum at Oliver’s memorial. At times it all seemed arbitrary and trivial – who loved whom, and when and where and why. I could fix it with a phone call, at least it was possible that I could, but it had to be done soon, before Joanna wrote me off completely, forgot about me, found someone else.
I couldn’t do it, though. The thought of her years with him, her months of hiding it from me, stopped me every time, sometimes with my hand on the phone, sometimes just before it started to ring, once after I’d let it ring twice. She must have gotten my number on her cellphone’s caller ID. But she never followed up. I understood why. This was my move, not hers.
Then I thought – how long were we even together? Months, that was what I said? Try two months – well, almost three. Eleven weeks, to be precise. Not enough time to justify all this sturm und drang (Tyler Bains saying to me over drinks, “I understand the sturm but the drang is just beyond me.”). Still, I found myself counting the days in those eleven weeks, going back and opening each one like the little doors in the Advent calendars my Mom hung on the wall at Christmas, filled with small perfect treats: an iggy marble, a black-currant throat lozenge, a match-box car, a fifty cent piece, a little china dog.
This was how high school kids behaved, marking off their two-week anniversaries and one month milestones as if every day was a miracle. But they were right, that was what adults forgot about.
The kids were right.
And the kids were keeping me sane in those broken glass days before the Crane Gallery show opened, even as their own lives tilted out of control.
Ray Tarses was standing by the big front doors of the Dalton school Monday morning, greeting the kids as they arrived. He took one boy aside for a moment, exchanged a few words with another, before letting them go and turning back to the crowd of new arrivals. He carried the awkward authority of a new TSA hire at a small town airport. I half expected him to start confiscating bottles of shampoo and asking the kids to take their boots off. Good thing he didn’t; a sharp wind tugged at us, just ahead of a massive cold front pushing down from Canada. He looked miserable himself, wearing an inadequate camel hair overcoat, fingers freezing in his leather gloves, shifting from foot to foot as he scouted the jostling throng of students.
He gestured me toward him with a curl of his fingers.
“Could you open your coat for me, Chris?” he asked a heavy-set boy who ran the chess club. Chris played drums in a rock band that worked some school dances where I chaperoned. What was his last name? Tomlins, Tompkins, something like that. He unbuttoned his coat.
“What’s happening, sir?” he asked.
“There have been reports of weapons on school property.”
“Whoa. Like – guns or automatic weapons, or --”
“If you hear anything, or see anything, please report it directly to me.”
“Uh, sure, okay.”
He shuffled through the door. Tarses was already looking back to the sidewalk, scanning the faces through the swirling snow.
“Guns?” I said.
“I hope it’s not true. I really have no idea what I’d do if it were. I can’t stand out here every morning on guard duty, and I won’t ask my faculty to do it. But I refuse to install some sort of metal detector barricade in the lobby. That is emphatically not my vision of progressive education.”
“It’s probably just a rumor, sir.”
“That’s your professional opinion? Hello Michael, Sarah, DeMarcus. Sam, could you open your coat for me? Thank you.”
“Are you profiling them with some system, or is it just guess work?”
He turned on me. “I have no idea what I’m doing! But I have to do something. Someone has to stand for the integrity of this school! And how dare you take that tone with me, after --”
He stopped a couple of kids and then stepped back, seemingly tired of the pointless ritual.
“After what?” I said.
He sighed. “You know I seriously considered cutting the arts program entirely at one point. Taking that money and giving it to the science department, turning the art room into a second biology lab. Of course I couldn’t do it. The Trustees, the parents, the publicity. But the fact remains. Art breeds insurrection. Art breeds anarchy.”
“Well, good art anyway.”
“This isn’t funny! You of all people should know that, your own students buying and selling drugs on school property as if this was some ghetto street corner. It’s a disgrace.”
Pat Brinkley had told me this at the memorial service. But she hadn’t mentioned anyone else.
“Students? How many people are we talking about?”
“Right now I can’t be sure. But two of yours, Robert. We have Pam Brinkley on camera, purchasing what we believe to be pharmacy-grade Ritalin from Travis Blake. As artists I suppose they assume ordinary laws don’t apply to them. Well, they’re about to discover the fallacy of that idea. Pernicious claptrap! I hope they didn’t learn it from you.”
“That’s ridiculous. I never --”
“I’m seeing both of them in my office before first period. Their parents have been informed. As her House Advisor, feel free to impress the urgency of this matter on Ms. Brinkley.”
I was Pat’s House Advisor, not Pam’s, but it didn’t seem worth the trouble to point that out. I eased past him and joined the bulge of students pushing into the building.
I was looking for Pat Brinkley when I got to my homeroom on the sixth floor, but I saw Emma Traherne first. She looked like she hadn’t gotten much sleep. She was sitting in a corner talking to Tim Cullen, and from the way he was leaning in toward her, from the poised rigidity of his undivided attention, I could tell he had an all-consuming tragic crush on her. Is there any romantic aspiration more hopeless than falling in love with someone two grades above you in high school ? Maybe a stablehand mucking stalls on an Edwardian estate falling for the master’s daughter.
“—even if you just sit on the bench all season, you get to practice with the team, and improve your skills, and at least you’ll be part of something,” Emma was telling him when I walked up to them. “You’ll meet different people, get some status? And then next year, if you play junior Varsity --”
“But you’ll be gone next year,” he said.
“I – what?”
I stepped in quickly to rescue him. “Emma? You have a second?”
“Sure, yes, totally.”
I walked her over to my desk, spoke softly “Is it true?”
“Paul told you?”
“I’m going to strangle him. I can do it. I have strong hands.”
“I don’t think he told anyone else.”
“He better not.”
“He thinks I gave him bad advice.”
She reached out to touch my arm, thought better of it, let her hand drop. “No, no. That’s just stupid. No one should get a --” Did she sense other kids listening? She lowered her voice. “That operation, at age seventeen. I mean, Jesus. That was good advice. Another piece of good advice would have been, when you buy condoms you have to actually take them out of the package and put them on if you want them to work. But we both should have known that one.”
“That’s all it takes.”
“Tell me about it.”
We listened to the subdued clatter of the classroom, the stuttering grumble of half a dozen conversations, spiked with laughter, the click and squeak of chalk on the board as someone demonstrated a calculus problem.
“What are you going to do?” I asked her.
“I don’t know.”
“Have you told your parents?”
“Are you going to?”
“I don’t know.”
“You have options.”
She looked up with a small bleak smile. “But they all suck.”
“Sometimes it feels like this whole thing is happening to somebody else. Or not happening at all, like it’s just some huge mistake. I woke up this morning feeling like everything was great. That lasted about twenty seconds. Then I remembered.”
“Your parents can help.”
“Parents are a service organization. That’s why Mom always said.”
“Yours, maybe. Mine are busy professionals who outsource that shit.”
The bell rang for first period. She started for the door. I took her elbow, held her back. “Just think before you do anything. Really think about it. You have time.”
“I know you’ll do the right thing.”
“Well, that makes one of us.”
She slipped out of my grasp and started for the door. Pat Brinkley was right behind her.
“Pat,” I said.
“I’m doing an audio visual presentation in Social Studies,” she said. “I have to get it set up.”
“I just need a second.”
I had an idea. It had begun with Tarses, a few minutes ago, and sparked with something Emma had said. It was an inappropriate subversive thought, but it might work if Pat was willing.
She stopped, shifting from foot to foot. “What?”
“You can help Pam. Really help her, if you want to.”
“Of course I want to.”
The room was almost empty and the halls were emptying fast. I didn’t have time to be subtle.
I studied her as I spoke. “Take the blame for the drug deal.”
What had Emma said? Like it was happening to someone else. “They have Pam on film, but they have no way to tell it wasn’t you.”
“They’ll drug test both of us.”
“They need a court order. If she has two days and drinks lots of coffee, she’ll flush it out of her system. And you can take a few doses.”
“This is crazy. Why would I do that? I have a perfect record, Mr. Mallory. Okay? I have never been in trouble, ever for anything.”
“That’s why they’ll go easy on you. But this is the last straw for her.”
“It’ll ruin my applications. I’ll never get into college.”
“No. I mean, yes, it will hurt you. But it will ruin her. You’ll recover. She won’t. You can actually save her this way, Patty. Give her another chance.”
She stared at me, shook her head slowly. “What kind of fucked up teacher gives advice like that?”
“I don’t know. I’m just winging it here.”
“You could get fired for talking like this, Mr. Mallory. Telling a student to lie? Conspiring to commit fraud, or whatever?”
“Then why would you ever -- ?”
“We have a chance to save your sister, Patty. That’s why.”
“If she’s even savable.”
“I don’t know. Just seeing that people are trying might make a difference. Not talking about it. Really doing something.”
“By people you mean me.”
“Putting my future in jeopardy, taking weird drugs lying to everyone, probably getting suspended.”
“Yeah. But Pam will get expelled. And God knows what will happen to her after that. Nothing good.”
“I don’t believe this.”
“If you have a better idea --”
“Well, I do! I have a much better idea! It’s, like, let her take the consequences for all her fucked up behavior and start dealing with her own shit for once! This could be a wake-up call for her.”
“So what if it is, I just – I can’t … ughhh. I hate this. I hate everything.”
We were both officially late now. The school had gone quiet around us.
“Can I at least think about it?”
“Pam’s in Tarses’ office right now. Hopefully denying everything. If you walked in …”
“He won’t believe me.”
“Yes he will. Make him believe you.”
“What if I can’t?”
“What if you don’t even try?”
“Pam will fuck it up.”
“She’ll say something stupid or act weird or – I don’t know. Just fuck it up somehow.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
“Besides, you didn’t think of this – we dress so differently. I’m sure you can see that on the tape.”
“That’s easy. You dress like her when you do things you’d be ashamed to do as yourself. When you don’t want to be seen. This way people look right at you and see someone else. You’re invisible. But you never meant to get Pam in trouble. All the more reason to clear the air now.”
She gave me a grudging smile. “You’re good, Mr. Mallory. Maybe you chose the wrong line of work.”
Whether that meant I should have been a grifter or a cop, I wasn’t sure. And I didn’t want to ask.
“So you’ll do it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Just go in and confess. No one argues with a confession.”
“Yeah because no is stupid enough to confess to something they didn’t do!”
She drum-rolled a volley of punches against my chest.
“Almost no one,” I said, fending her off.
The dropped her arms. “My parents always said I was exceptional.”
“Flattery will get you -- nothing, nowhere, whatever that stupid phrase is.”
“Okay. But this isn’t flattery, Patty. Just an impartial observation.”
She jammed her eyes shut, made a low noise , an angry little growl of submission.
“Go quickly,” I said.
She raised a fist to punch me again, pressed her palm hard into her chin for a second, and then walked past me into the corridor. By the time she’d gotten halfway to the elevator, I could hear her running.
Towards the end of the day, after presiding through a couple of lazy end-of-semester classes, eating a quick lunch and spending half an hour in the teacher’s lounge listening to Paul Benedict and Mike Tonkin bitching about Max Bulajic and the e-reader app he had just sold to Amazon, I was standing back stage watching the kid himself at an Our Town rehearsal. I was actually there for Kara Melamo who wanted me to see one of her brief scenes. In the play Rebecca brother George is complaining about his weekly twenty-five-allowance. “I don’t see how Rebecca comes to have so much money,” he says. “She has more than a dollar.”
And Kara said, with sublime fourteen-year-old smugness, “I’ve been saving it up gradual.” And then, “Mama, do you know what I love most in the world – do you? Money.”
When her scene was over Kara scampered back stage and grabbed my sleeve. “Was I good?”
“You were great.”
“I know everyone’s lines, not just mine. I could do the whole play by myself.”
I laughed. “I think you actually are Rebecca Gibbs.”
They moved on to one of the Stage Manager’s speeches in act one and I stayed to listen. I was curious. Frankly, I hoped Bulajic was bad. I was sick of him. His e-reader app, recorded how long you took to read a page of text or dialogue after a few pages it would move to the next page for you, perfecting the laziness of electronic book consumption. You’d never have to take your hands out from under the covers on a cold night, with the Kindle propped up on your pillow. Apparently all Bulajic had needed to do was ‘tweak the algorithms a little’, since the machine already knew how long it took you to finish a chapter. It would have seemed less unfair -- after all, the world was going to belong to the algorithm-tweakers soon – but I also noticed a hooded sweatshirt he must have designed with Haddon to advertise their comic: good dense material with a sharply rendered three-color silkscreen image of a rosy cheeked business man, his mean squint perched on top of a pinstripe suit and a rep tie, captioned with the line ‘We feel the term “Zombie” stigmatizes us as the undead’, conveniently standing in front of a mirror. you You can see the whole back of his head has been blown off. THE RISEN bannered the illustration, and the whole thing looked alarmingly professional. A lot of it was Paul Haddon, of course, and I was vaguely distressed to see that everything slick and facile in his work transferred beautifully to high-grade cotton fleece.
“Y’know Babylon once had two million people in it,” Max was saying from the stage. Kara and I both turned to listen. “And all we know about ‘m is the names of the kings and some copies of wheat contracts and – the sales of slaves. Yes, every night all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from his work, and the smoke went up the chimney -- same as here. And even in Greece and Rome, all we know about the real life of the people is what we can piece together out of the joking poems and the comedies they wrote for the theatre back then. So I’m going to have a copy of this play put in the cornerstone, so the people a thousand years from now’ll know a few simple facts about us – more than the Treaty of Versailles and the Lindbergh flight. See what I mean? So – people a thousand years from now – this is the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the Twentieth Century – this is the way we were – in our growing up and in our marrying, and in our living and in our dying.”
Everything got quiet after that. Kara leaned against me, staring out at the stage.
“Isn’t he great?” she whispered.
Somehow I didn’t think she was talking about Thornton Wilder.
As I made my way through the school lobby and out to the street I thought – maybe Bulajic’s had a miserable childhood. Maybe his adopted father beats him. Or he’s got some incurable disease. Maybe he’s conquered a club foot or a stutter. That would make it easier to like him. But as far as I knew, Max came from an alarmingly happy family and never suffered so much as a sniffle. “He’s a genetic immune,” Noah had told me a few weeks ago, smitten and proud.
Travis Blake was hammering a big red-headed kid in a pick-up handball game when I started west on 89th Street. The long granite wall of 1095 Park Avenue had made an excellent court for generations of Dalton students. All you needed was a cheap Spaulding and a good pair of sneakers – a far cry from the CityView racquet club where Haddon’s parents had a membership and he played tennis on the roof. To each his own, but I liked Travis’s way better.
It was really too cold for the game and they he both been hampered by bulky down parkas until they warmed up enough to take them off. The coats were draped over the hood of a parked car. I watched Travis finish off a point, making the big kid stumble after a ball that slid down the wall and died.
Travis grabbed his coat and pulled it on as he walked over to me, not even out of breath. The bulky redhead stood bent over with his hands on his knees, panting.
I guess the trick was making the other guy run.
“Hi, Misterr M.”
“Hey, Travis. How did it go today?”
He looked around. The big kid had grabbed hism own coat and lifted an arm as he walked away. We were alone on the sidewalk for a few moments. Travis let out as low hissing breath
“Shit, man. I am so fucked.”
“Or you could have said, darn it, sir! I am so completely devastated.”
“What happened with Tarses?”
“Same old sh – stuff. You know. I’m the designated drug dealer around here. Clincher is -- dude on the tape is wearing a hoodie. Gotta be the black kid. Open and shut.”
“Does he know both your parents are lawyers?”
“Are you kidding? He knows they mix their drinks out of the Savoy Cocktail Book. He knows they collect Rookwood pottery. They go to the damn auctions together. Oh yeah. They be homies from way back.”
I could almost see the ‘air commas’ around the ghetto slang. “I’d love to hear Tarses say that.”
“I’d love to hear my parents say that. You don’t get much whiter than my parents. Total boo-gee bullshit.”
“Bourgeois, man. Acting white. Doing the Uncle Tom thing. ‘I’d simply adore another cocktail, Raymond. The egg-white froth is divine.’I hate that shit.”
A bunch of kids tumbled past us, shouting and shoving. When the passed, Travis bounced the spaulding against the sidewalk and caught it off the wall in a tight three-slap rhythm that reminded me of Steve McQueen, sitting out the Cooler in The Great Escape.
“So are you in trouble now?” I asked him.
“Unless I got an alibi.”
“Do you have one?”
He caught the ball one last time, slipped it into his coat pocket, looked up an my eyes with a quiet level stare. “I was hoping that might be you.”
“Well, you have that after school studio class most days --”
“Which you’ve never attended once.”
“I know, I know, but the timing would be perfect. The drug buy happened just after school. And no one pays no attention to who comes and goes out of there, anyway. No one’s even around except the janitors.”
I squeezed his shoulder. My Mom always said, if you want people to listen touch them while you talk. It’s good advice. “Did you tell Tarses you were in my studio class that day?”
“No man – no, I didn’t say shit in there. I just thought of the studio thing now.”
“Yeah, man, come on – what?”
“You can’t make me your alibi – me and the other kids. Noah Lewis and Emma and the others. That’s nuts. No one is going to lie for you, Travis. Don’t ask them to. That turns all of us into criminals and none of us did anything –m including you! Right?”
I released his arm.
“Right,” he said.
“So what am I supposed to do.”
“Tell the truth. It’s a lot easier.”
“Not this time.”
“So where were you. You weren’t selling drugs. What were you doing? Were you home, would anyone have seen you? Hanging out with friends?”
“Where I was is nobody’s damn business.”
“Well, normally, yeah. But ...”
“That shit’s private.”
I figured it out, looking at his down-turned face. “Want me to guess?”
He twisted his head an inch, reared back slightly – defensive, assessing. “Yeah,” he said. “Sure, why not?”
“All right. I’d say you were in the basement rehearsal room with Sue Jelleme. Maybe -- in the mezzanine reading room in the library? That’s a good place for a quick grope, if you can get it to yourselves.”
“How do you know about me and Susie?”
“Everyone who cares knows already. It’s obvious. No one else matters and they’re not paying that much attention anyway. Tell Tarses, make it confidential.He won’t give you away. It’s not going to run in The Daltonian -- they don’t even have a gossip column, unless Max Bulajic started one when I wasn’t looking and got it syndicated already.”
Travis smiled. “That could happen. But that don’t matter, I don’t care about the school. It’s my parents. You know he’s gonna tell my parents.”
“They should be pleased. I thought they loved everything white.”
“Not this shit. Not me dating some juwanna black chick.”
“A poser. A cocoa puff. A white girl who hangs with the brothers, professor.”
“That doesn’t sound like Sue. I get the impression she’d take you in any color you came in.”
“Yeah, buit my parents don’t know that. They broke us up the last time. They act all white and such, but they are some hard core racist motherfuckers, Mr. M. For true. It’s a fucked up situation.”
“Yeah. But you’ve still got to tell Tarses.”
“Man --” “
“It’s a no-brainer, Travis. Tell the truth and live with it. That beats trashing your life for a lie. Would Sue back you up?”
“Sure she would.”
“All right then. They’ll can looking elsewhere and I know one at least one kid who wears a hoodie.”
“Makes his own. Six months early for ComicCon.” “Max.”
“That’s my bet. Though why he bothers I have no idea. His family’s rich. He doesn’t need money. He’s donating all the profits from this e-reader app he came up with to the school scholarship program. He’ll be on the alumni donors honor roll before he even graduates. Maybe even the Board of Trustees. He’ll be running this place any day now. So why sell drugs?
“He likes controlling people, Mr. M.” Travis clenched a fist. “He likes that grip.”
It made sense. “ You’re probably right, but let’s forget about Max Bulajic right now. I’m worried about you. Be a man. Stand up for yourself and Susie. And beat this stupid drug rap at the same time. It’s a win-win.”
“Unless you live at my house.”
“Hey. Rebel against your parents. You’re 17 years old, for chrissake. It’s your job.”
At that moment I saw Sue Jelleme walking toward us, looking worried and distracted.
“Hey.” She said.
“Hey,” Travis answered, slipping an arm around her waist.
They needed to be alone, but the urge to lighten the tone of the afternoon got the better of me.
“Hey, Sue,” I said. “Can you keep a secret?”
She looked up. “Hi, Mr. Mallory. What secret?”
“You’re getting the Graeme scholarship. Wherever you choose to go to school, you’re getting a free ride, art supplies textbooks and meal plan included.”
“O my God, really?”
“But how – why did you --?”
“It was that painting you started when we took our field trip to the river. You belong in the Hudson school, Susan. That’s what I was thinking that day. So any art school you choose will be lucky to get you.”
“I can’t believe this. This is so great. Thank you so much.”
Impulsively she twirled away from Travis and slammed me into an explosive hug. I grabbed her to keep both of our balance.
“Well now you have something else to talk about,” I said over her shoulder to Travis. “Tarses is going to make the announcement at the last assembly before Christmas.” I disentangled myself gently from Sue. “Try and act surprised.”
It took the subway ride home, a round of house cleaning (Tom Kyle had left his breakfast dishes, as usual) and a glass of wine to really escape my school day. It was like getting the crystallized sugar to dissolve in a glass of ice tea. For some reason I thought of my Mom, saying she liked sucking up the grains from the bottom of the glass through her straw. Maybe I was the same way. The look on Sue Jelleme’s face was so coarse and sweet and simple I could almost crunch it between my teeth.
It wasn’t enough, though. That was the stubborn truth. After dinner I did some work on the portrait, feeling as usual like the part-time hobbyist, the dabbler with a day job. Things were changing, though. I was no super-hero but I did have a secret identity and I was only three days away from his triumphant debut. Life might feel stalled and stunted for Robert Mallory.
But Raoul Morris was well on his way.