Marty Kepler sat hunched over the table all afternoon. Like the rest of the furniture in his temporary home, the table was cheap, its chairs mismatched. He wondered what Fritjof would have made of it all, of him, working on one of his "sad little stories" in the dining room of the famous writer's childhood home. It was late March, both here in Columbus, where he was, and there in Berlin, where Fritjof had remained. At the airport, Fritjof had left Marty with a kiss and a promise to join him in Georgia in a month. Then Fritjof was gone, hopping the bus back to the flat they shared. Less than a couple weeks later, four boxes had arrived at the writer's house, containing all the things Marty had brought with him when they'd moved to Germany ten months before.
Though Marty suspected the last thing the world needed was another breakup story, this didn't stop him from taking his place at the table every morning. He thought back to that moment in the airport and how excited he had been at the prospect of showing Fritjof his home state, the road trips they would take to Atlanta, where he had spent his childhood. How hard his heart had pounded at the idea of the two of them spending three months together in a beautiful, 1920s bungalow, their living expenses covered by the creative writing fellowship he'd won.
By early evening, the walls were broken up by gauzy, pink wedges of light. Normally, Marty would have stayed where he was, working, but tonight he couldn't since he was being forced to entertain—an event being held in his honor. He would've done anything to get out of it—he wasn't the entertaining kind—but there was no way out; he had signed the night over when he'd accepted the fellowship.
Pushing away from the table, Marty was glad to leave Fritjof and the story behind. In the kitchen, he grabbed a cold beer and went onto the porch, just as a car pulled up to the curb. He thought it was probably another fan, a bookworm or grad student come to see where the legendary writer had grown up. ("At twenty-three years old," read the historical marker stationed in the yard, "she was the youngest writer ever to win the Pulitzer Prize.") As he sipped his beer and the car continued to idle, Marty pictured the evening ahead, wondering who besides Walk would turn up at the reception.
The car's engine went silent, and Walk climbed out of the car. A porcine man in his early seventies, he shut the door, then called out a long, slow bellow of a hello, which made Marty cringe. Everything about the man was too loud, from his hospitality to the clothes he wore. Tonight, he was in a neon-pink polo shirt, bright red slacks, and a boater. All curves and rounded edges, he looked to Marty like an overstuffed piñata. He had met Marty at the Greyhound bus station that first afternoon, a blithe, chatty spirit of welcome. In the three weeks that Marty had been living in the house, Walk was still the only person with whom he'd had any contact, although tonight that was about to change—or so Walk had said on the phone this morning, reminding Marty again that his obscurity would not last forever. "I can't tell you how many people I've heard from," he had said. "So many RSVPs."
The headlights blinked off as Walk waddled up the path, pausing halfway to ask, "Would you mind helping me with the platters?"
"Mmm. Spicy buffalo wings," Marty said the moment he popped open the trunk. Under the dome of the plastic lid, they sat arranged in wet, orange stacks. As he lifted the platter, his mouth watered in anticipation, already savoring the tangy, greasy skin, already licking his fingers clean.
"For that which ye hath asked, I shalt deliver unto thee," Walk said. "I can't guarantee them, though—store-bought rather than homemade. A travesty, I know, but you will forgive me for it, I'm sure."
"I don't hold grudges," he said, swallowing the rest of the thought, which had to do with a certain German asshole. No dwelling, he told himself and marched up the steps. He was almost through the door when Walk let out a wheezy sigh. Marty turned to find him peering into the trunk with an all-consuming ponderation. In the near dark, Walk's face was all the more spherical and jowly.
"Let's forgo the platters for now. The boxes of wine need to be chilled at once," he called.
After setting the platter on the porch, Marty quickly returned to the trunk. Grabbing one of the boxes, he lifted it only to have it dribble warm white wine all over him. "Captain Ahab, we've sprung a leak," he said, just as Walk stepped onto the porch and accidentally kicked the platter, sending it and the wings scattering across the porch and into the yard.
"You imbecile," he hollered, as Marty hurried past him into the house. As he flipped on the porch light, he caught Walk peering down again, this time in disgust, his face congealed into a hard, mean smile, which he directed at Marty. "I am such an imbecile," Walk added lightly. "I'm afraid we'll just have to make do with the Moroccan platter, then. Let's just hope we don't have a gastronomic revolt on our hands, should the food run out. There's nothing scarier than a houseful of hungry southerners, as you know."
"Do you want me to run up to the store?" Marty asked.
"There's no time," he said, gazing down at the dirty wings as though they were his deformed and felled children. "I will clean this up. You will clean yourself up. Get thee downstairs and into the shower. You do own a coat and tie, don't you?"
Since he'd known him, Marty had come to see that Walk thought he needed to be parented and found this characteristic both comforting and irritating. There was in him a streak of Fritjof, who had also taken up the role of father. "Fritjof was supposed to bring my suit," he said, suddenly sad.
"Tusk, tusk. Let's try not to be Mister Glum Writer tonight," Walk said. "This is your night. Remember what I told you: people are just dying to meet you."
A silly phrase, which he wished Walk would stop invoking. "I have khakis," he said.
"I suppose that will do," he said, kneeling to collect a handful of the wings. When he stood up again, he let out a wheeze, his face shining red and sweaty from the exertion. In the light, Marty thought he saw a tear roll down the smooth precipice of his freshly shaven, glistening cheek, and plunge away.
"I'm sorry about the platter," Marty said.
"Oh, no, it's not that. You see, Greer and I—" But he didn't go on. He plopped down on one of the steps, removed the boater, and buried his head in his hands, his body jiggling as he cried silently. Beads of sweat popped out on his craggy, bald pate, which he lifted after a minute. "I had to say goodbye to him," he said, more to the night than to Marty. "Oh, we hide so much from ourselves, don't we?"
"Only when we have to," he said, though he wasn't sure that the whole human race wasn't just playing one long, exhausting game of hide and seek with itself.
Walk stood up and brushed himself off, then wiped the tears from his puffy, toad-like blue eyes. "Maybe later, after the fete, I will take myself to the Motel 8, where I stashed him," he said. "Just to…just to check on him, you understand."
"You stashed him?" Marty asked, dumbfounded.
"A tedious if lurid tale: he stole something from Marjorie," he said croakily. "Oh, but how could I have been so stupid?"
"You aren't stupid," he said.
"Greer loved—loves—me. I loved—love—Greer. You'd think I would have learned by now that this is all that matters." It isn't all that matters, Marty thought, because if it did, Fritjof would have stepped off the plane in Atlanta. Walk let out a snuffle and blew his drizzly nose into a handkerchief. "Okay, Mister Writer, you must get under the shower," he said. "In the meantime, I will deal with the fallen fowl."
Before he went into the house, Marty hesitated on the porch, gazing at the historical marker, where he imagined Fritjof reading the words on it, as he read each word on each marker they came across in Berlin—a city full of markers, monuments, memorials. Marty had loved—still loved—this about him, this sense he had of his own place inside history, how close he was to it and how he honored what had come before, and after. For the first time since he'd been back in America, he wondered what it might have been like if he hadn't boarded the plane, if he hadn't let Fritjof get on the bus. If I'd stayed, he thought, how might things have gone?
He thought about the writer who had lived in this house and about her masterpiece, which he still could not bring himself to read. (He had never read a single one of her stories, a fact that he had flubbed on his application. In his essay, he had described his own work as belonging to the same rich literary tradition as hers, though he had no real idea to which tradition he belonged, southern or otherwise.) He wondered then about the people who would be arriving in less than half an hour, all these strangers who were just dying to meet him. And he a stranger among them, living inside this shrine to one of their heroes, reminders of her all over the walls, photographs and portraits of her, even a crummy timeline detailing her meteoric rise to fame.
If Marty Kepler had had his own timeline, it would have shown only this: that he was thirty-six, thirteen years older than she had been when she'd produced her masterpiece, that he had published a moderately successful collection of stories called When It's Best Not to Play the Heart, which had won an obscure literary prize, and that once, in the early days of his career, he'd been praised by Entertainment Weekly as "a young writer to watch out for." He was no longer young, and no one, it seemed, was watching for him anymore. Like many writers, he wondered if his golden days were behind him, if he hadn't plateaued. Nothing he wrote these days was masterful, he knew; nothing he wrote would win the Pulitzer. You write sad little stories about sad little people living sad little lives, Fritjof had once said. Had he been so wrong? Marty still didn't know. He only knew that he had to get this tidbit into the story, too, because, he thought, it helped explain so much about them, their characters, who Fritjof had been, and who Marty now was.
Downstairs, Marty pulled the balled-up khakis out of his duffel bag and looked them over in dismay. He shook them out, grabbed a hanger and hung the khakis on it, then carried the hanger with him into the bathroom, hoping the steam would resuscitate them. Because the house was old and still had original plumbing, he never knew what to expect once he stepped under the shower. Tonight, it hiccoughed and spurted, alternating between ice cold and scalding hot. He adjusted the faucets, turning them this way and that, until one of them came off in his hand and he was suddenly laughing, at the spluttering showerhead, at the inane duck wallpaper, but mostly, at himself. He was still laughing when he replaced the faucet and turned off the water, still laughing when he wrapped the towel around his waist, still laughing when he examined the still-wrinkled khakis.
He put on a fresh pair of jeans and a button-down shirt. Back in the bathroom, he brushed his hair and gargled with mouthwash. Sometimes, after he rinsed his mouth, he looked up in the mirror, convinced that Fritjof was there, a momentary impression of him beside him. Marty still felt him everywhere, even in this house that contained nothing of him.
The stairs creaked, which startled him, and he stifled a gasp. Though he did not believe in hauntings, he was fairly certain that the famous writer was displeased to find a man as lackluster and untalented as he was occupying her former space. He wanted to tell her that he had won the fellowship honestly, that he had beaten out hundreds of others, but he thought she probably knew all of this already and remained silent.
"The first of them has arrived, Mister Writer," Walk said. "Are you presentable?"
"Is that a trick question?" he asked, glancing around the dark-paneled, subterranean room, much creepier now that night had fallen.
In a couple of hours, the house would clear out, and he would descend the stairs again. It would still be early, the time when he and Fritjof used to eat dinner or bike off to catch a movie. Time worked differently when they had been together; it moved in a hurried succession of coffees and cigarettes, of moments packed with affection. Sometimes, they met by accident in the hallway of the flat and stopped, as if they'd never met before. The hugs they then gave each other lasted for minutes and were full of warmth and promise. He missed these accidental meetings, Fritjof on his way to ask a translation question—he translated German and Austrian art criticism into English—Marty on his way to ask what he wanted for lunch. They worked in adjacent rooms: Marty at the kitchen table, Fritjof at a beautiful Biedermeier desk, a gift from his parents, who lived in Munich. More than missing these accidental meetings, though, he missed having him in the next room, his voice through the wall, his chair scraping the floor. He thought about those ten months and how he hadn't gotten much of any writing done, not because he couldn't, but because secretly all he ever wanted to do was spend his time out in Berlin with Fritjof. It had been the first time in his life that he had felt okay about being so utterly useless and unproductive. There will be many more days to work, he had thought, but these days belong to Fritjof.
Marty wandered upstairs and through the kitchen, which led into the dining room, where he found the table on which he wrote—his tablet, his pens, his dictionary—cleared off. A cloth fell over the table in doily drapes of cheap, white polyester. The Moroccan platter sat in the middle, the olives swimming in oil and glistening unappetizingly under the tacky brass chandelier. A lemon cake as bright as his tablet had been sliced and set on a crystal plate. The boxes of wine rested at the edge, one of them still dripping sporadically onto the hardwood floor. The air was charged with smoke and through the open front door, he caught two students, a couple, blowing cigarette smoke into the warm night air. Walk was entertaining the other six arrivals—a trio of English professors and their respective spouses. A round of mild applause broke out when they saw him. "Aw, shucks," he said, which elicited some laughter, though not from Walk, who glared at him, running his bulgy, disappointed eyes up and down his apparently unacceptable dress.
They made room for Marty, who joined the circle, as the smoke drifted into the house through the screen door. He watched the students, who stood close, hip to hip, and passed the cigarette back and forth, laughing. In it, he heard himself and Fritjof, all the times they, too, had stood apart at a party, belonging more to the intimate and mysterious loop of each other's company than to the party itself. Inside this loop, Marty had felt himself expand and contract with love.
Two more students arrived: a chubby fiction writer, who told him that she'd read every story he'd ever written—"That mustn't have taken very long," he said—then asked him who his agent was, and a tall woman with a wiry gray braid, who told him about every writing class she had ever taken.
"I love to write!" she said and reached for an olive. "This house has such a complex energy. Can you feel it?" She stared at one of the portraits of the famous writer hanging crookedly on the wall. Marty felt a sudden urge to straighten it but didn't. "What are you working on, if I may ask?" She chewed another olive, then spat the stone into her palm.
"Another breakup story," he said.
"Oh, my favorite. What's it about?" she asked.
"It's about a breakup?" he said, realizing suddenly that each of his stories—published and unpublished—was nothing more than a breakup story in disguise. Before he submitted any of them to a journal, he went on to the website to see what the editors were looking and not looking for. Most had no thematic restrictions, while some others did and were adamant about it. One reputable journal, he remembered bitterly, had returned one of his stories with a small note attached:
Dear Mr. Kepler,
In the future, please refrain from sending us any more stories about breakups as we have grown weary of them. Also, try for a little more tenacity in your prose.
Yes, and now, if you don't mind, I'd like you to leave and take everyone with you, Marty wanted to say to the woman. The story was whipping around him, an errant wire jumping with sparks, and he wanted to capture it before it went dark and lifeless.
Marty could tell the woman was hankering for him to ask her what she was working on, but he was saved from having to by the arrival of an elderly woman, who swooped down upon Walk, looped an arm through his, and approached Marty directly. She was dressed in bright summer colors, her face rouged and red-lipped. Around her, the air smelled of lavender and hairspray. "I am the merry widow of Stark Avenue," she announced. "We are so thrilled to have you here." The bangles on her wrists jangled as she reached for a falafel. "Every time I step out of my house, I can feel the crackle of creative electricity. Wasn't I just saying that to you, Walker?"
"Yes, Marjorie," he said. "Now, I must steal our writer away for a moment, but I will bring him right back." He led Marty onto the porch. "Stygian witch," he said. "You have to be careful with her. She sees and hears everything if you know what I mean." Marty didn't. "If you ever want to 'entertain,' just make sure the blinds are drawn. That's what I mean."
"Entertain whom?" he asked.
"A good-looking young man such as yourself must have needs," Walk said. "I would offer my services, but I'm sure I would be spurned."
A thin, angular black man pulled up to the curb on a ten-speed, then chained it to the historical marker. He then stood there, trying to make out the words in the dark. Under Walk's light wheezing, Marty thought he heard him reading aloud to himself.
"So, would I?" Walk asked, reaching for Marty, who took a step back and away. "I just ask you to be honest with me."
"Look," Marty said, hesitating, "I don't want to hurt your feelings—"
"I have no feelings left to hurt," Walk said, grinning, just as the chubby writer bounded up, a few other guests in tow.
"I was wondering if you'd grace us with a little reading of what you're working on," she said. Her excitement, shining palpably in her face, filled him with courage, and for one brief second he thought, Why not? Then he took a good look around him at the other faces, noticeably bored and indifferent, and declined.
"I'm flattered," he said.
"I'm sure you are," Walk murmured. Turning to her, he added, "If you're interested, young lady, I am renting him out for private parties at $500 a pop."
She let out a laugh, which did not catch on. "She wrote that book about Columbus," she said, gazing at the writer's house, clearly hoping to change the subject. "The entire town shunned her for it."
"With good reason," Walk said, eyeing Marty. "She divulged too many secrets. If you ask me, a writer should never shit in his own backyard."
"What about in someone else's backyard?" This from the black bicyclist, who was standing now just beyond the small, closed circle.
Everyone, including Marty, pivoted toward him. "Who might you be?" Walk asked, his eyes flickering with flirtation.
"No one important," he said.
"Oh, but everyone is important," he said. "I am Walker Price, director of the Southern Literary Alliance. I don't think I've ever seen you at any of our functions."
"I'm fairly new to Columbus," the black man said, extending his hand. "Lansing Phelps. Pleased to meet you."
"The pleasure is all mine," Walk said, abandoning the circle and Marty, who abandoned the circle as well to go back into the house. As he went, he heard Walk say, "You must tell me everything about you. Who are your people? Where do they come from? Do I detect Appalachia in your vowels?"
On the porch, Marty picked up an errant buffalo wing, as the chubby fiction writer announced that it was time to go dancing. Then, she was off, flanked by her reticule, all of them indiscrete shadows floating to their cars. He turned to the empty space beside him, where Fritjof ought to have been. "You would hate this," he whispered, recalling the parties they had attended and how, instead of socializing, Fritjof used to disappear into an empty room to read a book that he'd smuggled in. His unwillingness to mingle had irritated Marty, who scolded him for it later. Now, he understood it differently.
In the house, Marty slipped past the remaining guests—about twenty had shown up and half had already left, although it was still early, just before eight o'clock—and went into the dark conference room. He sat down in a mustard-colored chair and stared at the glass cabinets, dark, too, with the dark artifacts of the famous writer's life: an Olympia typewriter, a couple of trunks, a snow globe, a cigarette lighter and ashtray, a diary. He thought back to this past New Year's Eve and the party he and Fritjof had attended. They hadn't known anyone—a friend of a friend had invited them, then hadn't shown up. Marty had gone around shaking hands and making small talk, while Fritjof, ever polite, disappeared into the kitchen to help the host. At one point, Marty lost track of him completely, and stumbled through the spacious flat until he found his lover sitting by himself in an empty guest room. Just after midnight, the Berlin streets were alive with shouting and firecrackers.
"I'm sorry," Fritjof said, sipping from his plastic champagne flute. "I'm just—I'm feeling strange."
"Strange how?" Marty asked, sitting down beside him. "Happy New Year, by the way."
In the light through the windows, Marty made out his lover's long, pale face, his neck splotchy and big ears red, which only happened when he drank champagne. "Melancholic," he said. "I don't know why. It will pass."
"It didn't pass, though, did it?" Marty now asked the air, understanding at last how Fritjof must have seen into the future that night and had concluded that he couldn't spend another year with him.
"Whom are you talking to? What are you doing here in the dark?" Walk asked, shuffling into the room. "You don't want people to think you're rude, do you?"
"You care more about what people think of me than they do," Marty said, opening his eyes.
"Do you want me to clear the house? Is that it?" Walk asked, his voice full of a trembling, angry shock. "Well, I will do no such thing. Things like that just aren't done around here. You have an obligation to keep, so I expect you to climb out of your crypt and rejoin the living."
When Marty finally emerged, the few remaining guests were stationed around the table, picking over the Moroccan platter. They dipped baby carrots into hummus and broke apart the last of the falafel. They gouged at the lemon cake and filled and refilled their plastic cups with wine. They were about as interested in Marty as they were in hearing about how he spent his days at the table, writing the same old story yet again.
Though he wanted nothing more than to drag himself downstairs and into bed, Marty turned to the nearest guest and stuck out his hand. "Marty Kepler. Thanks for coming out tonight," he said.
"I've been dying to meet you," he said. "I'm Lansing Phelps."
"So what kind of writer are you?" Marty asked. "Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenplays?"
"Oh, I'm not a writer," Lansing said, laughing. "I read, though. I've devoured everything she ever wrote." He glanced at the wall on which hung the crooked portrait of the famed writer. Then, he went right up to it and, as if it were a priceless painting, straightened it with a careful delicacy that brought tears to Marty's eyes; it was as if he were straightening Marty himself. For a moment, he felt the thick, black fingers on his skin, and shuddered. Under the chandelier, the man's handsome, unlined face glowed ruddily, his cheeks sprayed with freckles. He kept his hair close to the scalp, regulation short, thought Marty, drying his eyes, ashamed.
"You're military," he said after Lansing returned.
"Another strike," he said. "Me—sprockets and gears. I repair bicycles. My wife, Trudy, she's Army. Deployed to Afghanistan."
"I see," Marty said.
"Nah, you probably don't," Lansing said, as Marty stepped in closer and took a big gulp of wine, swallowing hard.
"This stuff goes down like battery acid," he said, spitting it back into the cup. "If it'd been up to me, we'd be drinking whiskey, but nothing's up to me."
"Puts hair on your chest," Lansing said. "You look furry enough already, though. Maybe you should cut back."
"Fritjof liked to run his hand over my stomach and say, 'Tummy hair of power to the rescue,'" he said, uncertain how to go on now that he'd conjured Fritjof up.
Lansing took a step away, as if in retreat, his eyes suddenly hardening, then softening just as quickly. It seemed to Marty he'd said the wrong thing and wanted to take it back. "Did he die?" Lansing asked hesitantly.
In the story, Fritjof hadn't died, but perhaps, thought Marty, it was time to change that. "Yes," he said. "Right before I came here. A horrible, tragic death. Life support and everything. All those tubes running in and out of him, all those machines bleep-bleep-bleeping."
"I'm sorry," Lansing said with a whispery rasp. His face held further signs of retreat, although his body remained solid and unmoving.
"You shouldn't be," Walk said, ambling up to them, cup in hand, the wine sloshing out of it. "He is lying to you." He took a sip of wine, then another. Marty could only imagine how many glasses he'd already had. His face was flushed and oily in the light, and his shirt had come un-tucked and was stuck to him, a big sweaty stain blooming in the center of his back. "Frito, or whatever his name was, left him at the airport and never looked back," he added, swaying in place. "I can't say I'm not beginning to see why."
"His name is Fritjof," Marty said with a defensiveness that surprised him.
"How macabre to name a child 'cemetery'!" Walk said, tilting his face toward Lansing. "That's not very kind, is it?"
"It's Fritjof, not Fridhof," Marty said. "Hear the difference?"
"I only hear the mermaids singing," Walk said, staggering to the table to refill his cup as Marty, flustered and beside himself with fury, wandered out the door and onto the porch. He sank into one of the Adirondack chairs, happy to be alone.
Though he was never really alone because from inside the house came the echo of Walk's bellowing voice: "No, Marjorie, I have not had enough, thank you very unkindly. Give me back that cup or prepare to meet your end."
Marty shut his eyes, then plugged his ears with his fingers, hoping that all of it—the house and everything and everyone in it—would disappear. As he sat like this, he thought about the story he was writing and how much better it might be if he did kill Fritjof off. None of his characters ever died, but maybe it was time to rectify this. Maybe it was time to write with tenacity, to bloody up his work with the bodies of his past. Maybe it was time to stop clinging to those who had left him and show them as they truly were—weak little men with weak little souls. He had loved Fritjof, every follicle, every cell, every fart, loved him until he thought he might implode from it, and this was what he had got in return—silence, not even a phone call, not even a goodbye. He sat there, bathed in the cool night, and began to rewrite the story in his head, but he didn't kill Fritjof off. Instead, Marty became the one who slipped away, the one who got on the bus, and in this way, he steeled himself against his grief and in this way, he thought he just might be able to survive it.
When Marty opened his eyes, Lansing was seated next to him in the other Adirondack chair. Unplugging his ears, he let his fingers fall to his lap, just as Lansing said, "I used to live in New York and work in the theater, directing one-man and one-woman shows. Now, here I am, in Georgia. No-man and no-woman shows." Walk came to the door, muttered indecipherably, then retreated into the house. "He's kind of a mess, huh? Well, living here can't be easy on him. Everyone's goddamn Army, which would be okay if they talked about anything other than deployments and college football." A moth traveled in arcs around them, and they watched as it somersaulted through the air. "The only thing I want to talk about is the death of my baby."
"The death of your baby," Marty said, enunciating the words slowly, repeating them as if Lansing had just spoken a foreign tongue. "I'm sorry," he said, though the word emptied itself of meaning and fell with a thud, useless and hollow, between them. Marty had the urge to lean over, take the man in his arms, and hug him, though this gesture seemed as useless and hollow as his condolence.
"Trudy handed me Jackson—that's what we named him—then she fell asleep. I shut my eyes for about an hour, and when I woke up…" He scratched his temple as if to recall an idea or to forget one, Marty wasn't sure. The man's face was dry, yet his words were wet and sticky with sorrow. He stared directly at Marty and something sharp and disturbing passed out of him and into Marty, who felt the pang of it, like what had passed between him and Fritjof that day in the airport.
"I shouldn't have said that about Fritjof. It was insensitive," Marty said.
"You were angry. I sure as hell know I would be, too," he said, his own voice blue and shaking. "The hardest thing of all is not leaving ourselves when someone leaves us."
The night was perfectly still and quiet, but then the house rumbled with overheated voices, which spilled through the open windows. Something made of glass tumbled to the ground and smashed. A second of silence, then the front door creaked open and out stepped Marjorie, moving down the steps like an amoeba in her loose, free-flowing caftan. Walk stumbled out after her, clutching in his hands a box of wine, which splashed down his shirt and pants.
"Greer is my business, Marjorie," he said at her back.
"You made him my business when you brought him into my home and sat him down at my table," she said. "We were having such a lovely dinner, too…" She said this last part almost wistfully, her big, hurt eyes resting on Walk, who brought the box up to his mouth and drank. "Seventy-two years old and behaving like a schoolgirl. Where is your dignity?"
"He fucked the dignity out of me," Walk said as Marty leaped up. He was about to tell them that the party was over, that it was time for them to go, but then he was wresting the box away from Walk and setting it down in the grass.
He coaxed the drunken, deflated director back into the house, the light from the chandelier falling across the messy, disfigured room—the table lay toppled on its side, one of the legs broken, the Moroccan platter overturned and oozing on the floor, the portrait of the writer now lying face down in a puddle of wine. The other guests had vanished.
"Oh, how did I ever get to be so old and stupid?" Walk asked pleadingly, as Marty settled him on the love seat, then went to rescue the portrait. As he did, Lansing floated into the room and sat down beside Walk. "Have you read him?" Walk asked, pointing at Marty, who was drying off the portrait. "He was the best of the worst of them. We had only twelve applicants, a record for us. Last year, we had four. No one knows about us because no one reads her anymore. She has fallen out of favor, but I do believe she still has so much to teach us about grace. Don't you agree? Look at the way she championed your race. Back in the 1950s, it was just unheard of to write about Negros as she did. Even if it is fiction, she gave your race a leg up. She adored you."
Marty winced when he heard this, then glanced at Lansing, who just sat there, his lips sagging a little at the corners, though the rest of his face appeared unchanged, almost placid, thought Marty. Then, without a word, Lansing got up and walked out the door. Marty heard him unchain his bike, then nothing but the faint sound of voices, Marjorie's, then Lansing's. He imagined Lansing biking through the empty streets, then riding up to the empty, dark, house, pausing at the door before he entered. His wife overseas, no sleeping baby to check on, no babysitter to pay. What had it had felt like for Lansing to shut his eyes on one world only to open them up on another? he wondered. Those brief moments when all of it had finally come together—mother, son, father resting peacefully—and then the shattering, the horror.
A definitive and prolonged silence fell over the house, over all of Columbus, and if he hadn't known it was just past nine o'clock, Marty would have guessed it was the middle of the night and he'd been trying to rehang the portrait for hours.
"I painted that," Walk said with pride, stretching his globular body out on the love seat. "I knew her, you know. We were good friends. Oh, the fun we used to have in this house."
"You don't say," Marty said, returning the portrait to the wall. The writer's mournful black eyes peered out at him as usual, and he had to avert his own. "I never would have guessed."
"Do not be churlish with me, Mister Writer," Walk said. "I think you should show us a little more gratitude. It will make your stay here that much more pleasant."
"Is that a threat?" Marty asked, as the portrait jumped off the wall and crashed to the floor.
"Be careful with her," Walk bellowed, and he lurched toward Marty, who swerved out of his way. Walk approached the portrait, lifted it up, and hugged it gently. From behind it, Marty thought he heard Walk whispering. Then, he handed it back to Marty and gestured to the wall. "Delicately. Very delicately," Walk said. Marty took the portrait and turned to the nail on the wall, as Walk took his place on the love seat again and went on: "All I was really implying is that I could suddenly find you an unsuitable house guest. I mean, look around you. Well, it's vandalism, isn't it? I could even have you arrested, but I'd never do any such thing. It would reflect so poorly on us…"
As he continued to speak, Marty shut his eyes against the unbearable, searching eyes of the writer. An amateurish portrayal, the colors all wrong, he thought and wondered then just how friendly she and Walk could have been for him to paint such an ugly picture of her. Opening his eyes, he groped for the nail, but his approximation was all wrong, and when he heard the canvas rip, he paused, shuddering, yet didn't stop. He dragged the portrait down the nail, ripping it further, right down the center of her face, until her eyes turned back into the corners of the room. He let the painting drop to the floor, prepared for the worst, to meet Walk's brazen fury, but Walk's voice had trailed off, and he let out a few snuffled snores.
Over the snores came the hard patter of footsteps on the porch and briefly he hoped that it was Lansing. Instead, Marjorie oozed back into the house, took one look at Walk, and blanched, the hostility draining from her face. "He didn't used to be like this," she said to Marty. "He lost someone quite close to him a long time ago and since then, well, it's been boys like Greer. Lost, married, lonely boys who come here for basic training and are then shipped off to war. None of them ever stay." For a second, Marty doubted if he himself would make it the full three months. "The happiest people are those lucky enough to move on, you know." Yet how did anyone manage to move on from such things, the death of a future with a man you still loved, the death of your newborn? He didn't know. The only thing he knew for sure was that Fritjof was sound asleep in the bed they used to share. Marjorie glanced around the disastrous, messy room, and upon seeing the portrait, let out a groan. "Look at that. Now he'll have something else to regret in the morning. If you don't mind, I will leave him right where he is."
Telling her he didn't mind, although he did, Marty led her down the porch steps. Lansing and his bike were gone, the historical marker now leaning curiously in the yard, and this filled him with a strange, unaccountable sadness. Marjorie, oblivious to the marker, said her goodbyes and seeped away, a walking, lumpy lava lamp in the dark. He watched her go, then turned to the house, the white columns and whitewashed front steps shining under the pale moon.
Back in the house, Marty went into the kitchen and grabbed a broom, then swept up the shattered crystal plate, the shards of which lay all over the dining-room floor. As he dropped the shards and the greasy Moroccan platter into a trash bag, he wondered what to do about the table, deciding to leave it right where it was. It wasn't his table nor his house, yet in a certain odd way they were both his now, he thought. He carried the broom and the bag into the kitchen, imagining what Fritjof would have made of the evening. If he had been here, though, he knew that Fritjof would have only disappeared and that Marty would have found him later in one of the rooms, his face in a book. More than anything else that had befallen him tonight, this image of his lover left him desiccated and weak.
As he went around switching off lights, Marty revisited the story he was working on, wondering then if he would abandon it to write a new and different one—a story about a lonely writer who did not want to write another breakup story, about an old man who did not know how to move on, about an aggrieved father who came bearing his own heartbreak. Never write a dead baby story, he had been warned and warned again. Yet these things happened, and someone needed to write them down. Not as a memorial to the past but as a living, breathing dedication to this time and place, where he was. Where they all were.
Marty pulled a blanket out of the closet and settled it over Walk, then locked the front door and went downstairs to the apartment. He drew the blinds across the French doors, which led out to the small backyard, and then he surprised himself by opening the door and stepping through it. He took a seat on the rickety, wrought-iron bench and shut his eyes, imagining the writer when she was a child, when she lay on her back in the cool, soft grass, staring at the stars. Then, he, too, was lying on his back in the cool, soft grass, staring not at the stars, because there weren't any, but at the thin layer of clouds and the hazy moon. Nothing was ever exactly the same, and how could it be?
Yes, Marty thought, I will try to write a different kind of story and I will call it, "Things Like That Aren't Done Around Here," and I will tell it honestly and I will tell it well. From the heart, as they say, and he tugged at the grass.
Notes from the Author
The inspiration for this story came to me during a reception much like the one Marty's forced to throw and attend. A woman, who'd seen the flyer for the event, showed up, got drunk on cheap white wine, and then, while I was smoking a cigarette on the Juliet balcony attached to the side of the house, found me and said, "I'm so glad you're here. I want to tell you about the death of my baby." Et voila, a story was born.