|Jul/Aug 2001 • Fiction|
Evie stirs the spaghetti sauce. I clear my throat and say, "Okay, listen to this. First chapter:"
Finding the Power Within
The vegetable cannery wasn't what the backers had described. I stood by the road looking at my new charge, on the verge of despair. Over the phone, they had portrayed a bustling new cannery, welcoming locals, access to Savannah's port and an excellent highway network. What I saw beside the two-rut track was a bootstrap operation. I had left a thriving shoe repair business...
"Thriving shoe repair business my ass," Evie says. "How can he say that?"
"Wait a second," I say. I continue: "...thriving shoe repair business with five stores in the St. Louis area to take on this start-up venture, and now I was filled with self-recrimination."
Evie tosses the wooden spoon into the sink with disgust, sending red spots blooming on the formica. In August our kitchenette is a walk-in oven, the heat intensified by my irritation that a family of three lives in a one-room apartment.
"How does he have the gall, is what I want to know."
"It reads okay, don't you think?" I rest the folder on my thigh.
She steps out onto the fire escape and lights a cigarette.
"I'm way too close," she says with a well-funneled vent of smoke. "Meaning, I'm in a position to remember that Roscoe was catatonic at the time. It was a complete fiasco, of his own making, and I had to pull him out of it."
"But if he came out of it with something that others can learn from..."
"That he can sell to schmucks," she says. "You know that's what Roscoe's counting on. God, I'm burning up in here."
She clenches her eyes tight. "I just know how he's going to paint me badly in this. 'My first wife, the needy...'" Evie breaks off. "Oh I don't know what he'll say. I just hope he doesn't include me at all."
"Maybe you're right," I say. "Maybe us reading this together is a bad idea."
My brother Roscoe met Evie in high school and they got together real young. Too young. They lived together for a couple of years outside St. Louis, and then they blew apart. I kept in touch with her, to make sure she was all right after they broke up, and one thing led to another. She came to San Antonio, eventually we got married. Roscoe was off jetting around the country. When he asked me to edit his book, I thought sure. It might mend a few fences, and we could use the money. But I should've thought more about Evie.
"He just wants my professional opinion," I say.
I watch Evie pull plates down from the cupboard. "Right," she says. "And he's your brother."
"Doesn't mean we can't deal with each other like grown-ups," I say.
"Want to wash Cindy's hands? We're about ready."
Cindy is on our bed with her shells arranged for a tea party.
"Let's get ready for dinner," I say.
She thumps down on the carpet and in the bathroom reaches on her tiptoes to get her hands under the faucet. When we finish with her hands she soaps up mine, slathering the ink stains at the ends of my nails, rubbing her hands over the callous on my left hand's fingertips.
"Does it hurt?" she says, poking it, unable to imagine skin so hard.
"No," I smile, "I don't feel a thing."
Roscoe's manuscript came in the mail covered with blue priority labels ten days ago, but I've just gotten into it. Although some parts grate on me as they did with Evie, other sections are surprisingly good, and I find myself applying his advice to my situation. The mental exercises for motivation, doing what you believe in rather than what gets (short-lived) approval from others, like my copy editor's salary. Change back from my twenty at the IGA, the coins in my palm. I like that feeling. But what Roscoe's book is saying is, I could do better.
Evie works afternoons at the co-op, so I pick up Cindy when I get off my shift at the newspaper and take her home, where I start going through Roscoe's manuscript. Many parts of it really need a full overhaul.
"But you've never done anything like that," Evie said the first night she saw me scratching the pages up. "We don't even read self-help books."
"It's okay, I've got it," I said. He agreed to pay my daily rate and I can work on it at home while I watch Cindy. We saw the place in Alamo Heights last week and the timing is perfect for getting a few grand.
When I reach the day-care that afternoon, Ruth the manager tells me Cindy has the sniffles and maybe I should take her to the doctor.
"She seems okay," I say. "You really think we need to see a doctor?" There's a shiny seam down the crease below Cindy's nose, but she's giggling and chasing two other little girls around the room.
"It's been going through here like wildfire," Ruth says. "Starts like this, then turns into a fever and tummy upsets."
"What can the doctor do?"
"Cindy should get a flu shot. Maybe you and your wife should too."
At home I give Cindy a handful of orange chewable vitamins and her pirate coloring book. I pull out Roscoe's manuscript. So far so good, and no mention of his first wife.
Breaking Free of Your Conscious Mind
You can turn off the No-sayer in you, and turn on the Yes. You can achieve the highest goals you set for yourself, but you may have to leave part of you behind. And that is the whipped dog part of your conscious self, the part that says, 'You haven't managed this before, what makes you think you can now?'
"Cindy, please stop bouncing on the bed, honey," I say. "Daddy's trying to work."
She laughs and throws her head back. She likes to see her brown hair fly around, it looks elegant. She keeps bouncing.
My main problem with Roscoe's book is I'm not sure how much to trust its facts. In editing, I'm not sure - should I just look for internal inconsistencies? Or should I go further and question parts that stop me cold? Points where I say, 'This didn't happen like this'? I should have cleared this up with Roscoe early on, but I didn't think of it. Now he's off helping a jewelry maker with re-organization in some remote corner of New Mexico, incommunicado. He'll come through the last week of August. By which time we'll really need to give Mr. Suarez a deposit on the place in Alamo Heights. If I can finish before Roscoe arrives, he can pay me for the editing, and boom, we'll plop his check down along with my check from the paper. And he'll be off to his publisher, he says.
So I go ahead and rework the parts that I'm not sure about.
When Mr. Suarez showed us the place he got along well with Cindy, who was getting over a cold. Ordinarily I wouldn't let her out of the house like that but I was so worried that house was going to be snapped up, I just had to see it. But our upstairs neighbor bagged out on watching Cindy and I had to bring her along. She was cranky. Twice she did a spread-eagle on the floor (once on the kitchen linoleum and once on the wall-to-wall in the master bedroom), but Suarez just kept telling me about the new water heater, the A.C.'s efficiency because of the northern exposure, and something else that Cindy's bawling obliterated. Some people can't stay in the same room when she gets like that, but he has kids of his own. Three, he said. I convinced him to hold it for us, at least not sell before letting us counter-offer.
The place has two bedrooms- luxury compared to our efficiency-and a real kitchen, not a narrow path to a fire escape. Great windows, and a bath where Evie can stretch out after a day at the co-op. And Alamo Heights is a reasonable distance from her acupuncture clinic and a bus transfer from the paper's office. It'll be worth the stretch on our money, which is what Suarez says, of course, and which I tell Evie. I won't be editing copy forever. Before long I'll be doing columns, and someday having my screenplays produced.
"Mommy's home, Mommy's home!" Cindy leaps from the bed and lands with a surprisingly heavy thud. Her slight fever hasn't slowed her down. Out the window I see Evie coming up the walk, waving to a neighbor. It must be later than I think - six o'clock or so. I've gotten only three pages done this afternoon.
Going for Gold
To achieve your goal, you have to keep a steady, clear focus on it. Visualize yourself enjoying the satisfaction of it. Here's how. As a boy, there was nothing I wanted more than to see the Chicago Cubs play at Wrigley Field. But a ticket cost too much, not to mention the El ticket. There was no way. My mother told me that. But I knew that if I focused all my energy on that one goal, if I could picture myself handing over the ticket to the ticket-taker at the park entrance, then I was halfway there...
"I was just looking over Chapter 3," I say, cradling the phone against my shoulder. "I love the opening story. I remember that. I think we might need to trim it a bit, though, so people follow the-"
"You know what I'm going for there, don't you?" Roscoe says.
"Sure, and most of the stories do their work of setting up an intimate space, but-"
"More than that," he says. I can hear the echoes of a hotel lobby in the background. "I'm going for concrete examples that people can say, 'Hey, I know this guy.'"
I stir the sauce with the wooden spoon and nod. "Right, but you need to keep the reader moving toward the- Yeah. We can talk about it when you get here. Which is when, by the way?" I look over at Evie, frowning at me.
"Thursday? Sure, we'll pick you up," I say, with a big shrug. Evie shakes her head vigorously. "Which flight?"
"Hold on a sec," he says.
I grab a piece of paper from the junk drawer and write down the number. "Got it. You want to talk to Evie?"
"How is she?"
"Hi Roscoe," she says firmly, walking with the phone into the bedroom.
I meant to broach the topic of payment, but in the confines of the kitchen, with the heat and all, I can't. Plus, money is one of the things my brother and I hardly ever talk about. I decide to wait until I pick him up at the airport, which is right next to Alamo Heights. We can swing past the new place on the way home, an entrepreneurial move to show him what he's getting part of with his payment.
"I thought he wasn't coming until next week," I say to Evie when she comes back into the kitchen.
"Things in New Mexico went faster than he thought." She places the phone back on its base. "I couldn't tell if that's good or bad. And he claims to have to meet with his publisher." She makes finger quotes in the air.
"Thursday. Damn, that puts me in a pinch," I say. "I've still got ten chapters to go."
She blows on the sauce and takes a slurp. "Don't worry about having it done when he gets here. Mm, this is good. When he comes we'll have to put Cindy in with us and move that plant out because of his allergy."
"Right, but I want it nearly done," I say. "Can you watch her tonight? I can get more done at the library."
"Mike, I'm whipped. Work here tonight, we won't bother you."
"Please, Evie?" I ladle the sauce out over the pasta.
"Really," she says, "he doesn't need to see it done. He never finishes anything on time."
"It would make me feel better," I say. "Please."
"You know," she says, taking in breath, "I really don't think this book thing is more important than our sanity. He can wait."
I try to think how to say that the house down payment is at least as important as one cozy night at home. Every way I try sounds angry.
"We'll need that down payment," I say, "and I don't want it as an advance. You know what he'd wring from that."
"Fine," she says. "I'll watch Cindy. Go to the library, or wherever."
I don't track down the whisp of innuendo in that 'wherever.' I grab my windbreaker. It's drizzling. By the time I reach the library, I'm so worked up over the new place and its possibilities that I can't concentrate. The manila folder with Roscoe's manuscript just seems way too much, especially with all those people milling around, browsing the magazine racks, asking the reference desk woman for help. Way too much information and possibility floating around for me to hunker down. I get through a few pages, then start a conversation with Roscoe in the car from the airport, about my plans for two screenplays - one based on our grandfather in San Diego, and one about lovers who underestimate each other.
That night I set the alarm for 3 a.m. and turn out the light. I think Evie is asleep but she says, "It's too much, what they're asking. If Suarez won't come down, we should walk."
Not what I want to hear. "And look how long for another house?"
We both are looking at the ceiling, its endless permutations.
"Till we find one."
"It's not like that location is ideal anyway."
"This is about something else," I say.
"About me making more money. That I need to."
She palms her pillow flat so she can see me. "No it's not."
"I think it is."
"It's just that things come up. We're even afraid to take Cindy to the doctor." Her voice cracks.
"Not afraid. If she needs to go, I'll take her."
She doesn't say anything.
"In two months," I say, "they'll be taking on two new assistant editors and I'm up for one. Then we'll be glad we stretched ourselves."
"You sound like Roscoe."
"This is real," I say, careful to keep steady.
Trapezoids of light arc across the ceiling from the window. The sluish of a passing car dopplers on wet pavement.
"You sound just like Roscoe," she says. "Have it all. Just dream big enough."
I roll on my side and kiss her. Another car passes.
Your Place in the Sun
When you can see your goal achieved, vividly, you are nine-tenths of the way to achieving it. The reason many imaginative people fail to achieve the goal they envision is because they don't see what happens next. When I was in business school, the thing I wanted most in the world was a Corvette stingray. I could see the car, canary yellow, in my driveway. I could even see my girfriend's hair luffing in the passenger window. Yet I did not see myself writing the check to the car dealer, or any day-to-day connection that enabled me to act, no link to the world I lived in.
I'm running a half hour late getting out the door to meet Roscoe's plane. That damned Ruth would not let me go without my promising to "take this little girl to a doctor." I feel her little forehead, she's fine, just a little warm. She does her starfish stretch to keep me from fastening the seatbelt.
"Cindy, please, Daddy has to pick up Uncle Roscoe at the airport. You don't want us to be late, do you?"
Sobs. "I don't care!"
"You don't mean that. You haven't seen him for a long time. He can't wait to see you."
Roscoe doesn't know how to react to Cindy. During his visits he talks to her in a strange voice, one that Evie says made her skin crawl from childhood guilt trauma. Hoping it was just a matter of their getting used to each other, I tried leaving Roscoe and Cindy together during his last visit, while I ran a piece into the editor. When I got back, Roscoe was pacing the edge of the parking lot in front of our apartment. He rushed me.
"Thank God you're back," he said. "I'd rather be left with a caged lion."
If I could get Cindy to the babysitter next door, that would make Roscoe more at ease during the drive through Alamo Heights. But that means a ten-minute detour on top of being a half hour late. What are the odds Roscoe will still be at the terminal?
We finally get started and I hit the gas. We race along 410 East and as we approach the airport exit I realize I haven't dropped off Cindy after all. Change of plans.
Roscoe strides out of the automatic sliding glass door in his usual train of swinging briefcase, rolling carry-on and cell phone. His tie is loose and his wiry hair is in its evening dandelion mode. Through an illusion, the assortment of people entering and leaving the airport appear to be shooting off him like sparks or debris. He's looking around, his chin raised.
Leaning against the car, I flag him down.
"Mike, I was set to take a cab," he says. He must realize his voice sounded hard, because then he chuckles.
"Sorry we're late, Cindy's fighting a cold," I say. "Great to see you."
We have an awkward hug and get his things into the trunk. He kneels into the backseat to give Cindy a kiss. "Remember Uncle Roscoe, Cindy?" he says.
"No!" she shouts. Standing behind Roscoe, I can see her little white boots kick out with the force of it.
"Sure you do." I turn to Roscoe. "She's hot and cranky. Let's get out of the traffic pattern here. Say," I pause as if an idea has just come over me. "We're not far from the place we're thinking of moving to. Wanna swing by there and you can have a look?"
"Sounds great. Maybe another time," Roscoe says. "I'm beat, and I need to make a few follow-up calls someplace quiet. I was dodging bullets the whole time in Albuquerque."
"This place is on the way. Besides," I say, "I'd really like your take on it before we make a bid."
He shrugs. I can see the bags under his eyes. "If you want. I have no idea about real estate here, but-"
"You've got a sense. It'd make me feel better," I say.
"Let's go then."
Cindy quiets down after we get back on 410, but that's just for two exits. I'm thinking through whether we can find Suarez and get him to let us see the inside again.
"So how's Evie?" he says on the exit ramp. He wipes his eyes with the splayed thumb and forefinger of his right hand.
"She's great, she can't wait to see you."
"I'll bet." He smiles sidelong. His eyes sweep from me out the windshield to the woman sitting impatiently at the bus stop. "She hasn't been anxious to see me since we were in high school."
"And she still loves you."
"In her way."
I'm thinking about five blocks. Should I buzz Suarez from the front or call him from the office? Out of Roscoe's earshot would be best, so I can explain his backing role to Suarez in vague terms.
"Albuquerque," I say, when I notice it has gotten quiet. "I've never been there." Cindy is being surprisingly quiet in the back. She bounces against her carseat as if she has a song in her head.
"It's all right. I'd rather talk about your work. About our work." He laughs. "How's our book coming?"
"Oh, it's been a joy," I lie, make a left turn. One thing I've learned in editing is to punch the good news first, and hard. "I really enjoy it. You've struck just the right tone -"
"Watch out." A Firebird zags out of the right lane in front of us.
"We can discuss it later," I say.
He seems nonplussed, suddenly distracted. "What neighborhood is this?"
"It's called Alamo Heights."
"I should've known."
"Here it is." I slow along the curb.
The late afternoon light hits the wall a warm yellow, the lintel above the front door casting a sidelong shadow. It looks hopeful. I remember it more impressive from the back.
"Daddy I'm hu-u-ngry," chirps Cindy.
"We'll get you something to eat in a little bit," I say. "Right now we're going to see our new house. Isn't that exciting?"
"Wait here with Uncle Roscoe and I'll see if Mr. Suarez is in." Before Roscoe can protest I am up the sidewalk and into the brick management building.
Inside the lobby I look over to Suarez's office and the door is closed, as usual. I ask the woman at the reception desk if I can use her phone to call him.
She says only if I can tell the operator how to connect to Hell.
"Just kidding," she says. "Tomorrow would be better."
I walk slowly back to the car. Roscoe is leaning against it. He has all four windows closed, and his left hand sandwiched under his right armpit.
"She bit me," he says.
Learning to Accept Fate
When your dreams become reality, they may not always resemble your initial vision. Then it's time to adapt to their real-life expression, and find the blend of vision and reality that works. After a year, the South Carolina cannery was a success, but not the way I first imagined. Did that mean it was a failure? No. Did it mean my initial vision didn't account for all possible variables? Most definitely.
"Evie, we're home," I call into the apartment. "Evie?"
She comes out of the bedroom with her head tilted back, a washcloth on her forehead.
"Are you all right?" I say.
"Hiya darling," Roscoe says, arms wide, moving past me.
"Hi Ros. I've got a killer headache."
"How was your flight?"
"It was okay." Roscoe hugs her, his eyes roaming the apartment. "I need to make some calls."
"You can use our room," I say. I turn to Evie. "We went by the house. Suarez wasn't there, so we just walked around the outside."
"Like burglars," Roscoe says from the kitchenette.
"Don't look around in there!" Evie calls, her eyes on the wall above my head.
"My eyes are sealed," Roscoe yells back.
"You can see the golf course from the backyard," I say to Evie. "I was standing under that big oak in back, looking over and I could see a slice of the course. It's fantastic. It had a really good feeling. My dad would love it."
"I'm hot," Cindy says.
"Maybe he can buy it. It's over-priced." She turns to Cindy. "You feel hot? Lemme see." She puts a hand to her forehead. "She doesn't feel hot. I can't believe you prowled around the place."
"We didn't prowl. It was daylight. We didn't break in or anything. I just wanted Roscoe to see the place."
"He talked about scaling the fence," Roscoe says as he enters the living room.
"You're kidding," Evie says. Her eyes do that dramatic upward swing.
"I followed him around the side because he insisted, with the late afternoon sun. I was just admiring the nice tree in the yard. But Mike," Roscoe laughs, "he said, 'Let's just climb over, you can't see the bay window from here.' He had his hands set like a stirrup to give me a boost."
"We didn't do it," I shrug. "Suarez wasn't around. I wanted Roscoe to see." I turn to Roscoe. "So you got through?"
"Great. They still have to present it to the board. A formality." He takes a big breath and claps his hands together. "So! Can I take you two to dinner? Or, Mike- did you want to talk about the book first?"
"We can't do dinner out. Cindy's getting over a fever." Evie blows her bangs. "I was going to make something here."
"So Roscoe," she says, taking a breath, "how have you been?"
"Good, Evie. I've been doing real good. I met a nice girl, we've been seeing each other."
"Yeah?" Evie's eyebrows go up. "What's she like?"
"Oh," Roscoe laughs. "You know my type by now."
"Tell me anyway."
"She's five eight, slim, dark hair to here." He angles his hand to his neck. "Very attractive."
"That does sound familiar. And you two are happy?"
"So far." He gives a goofball grin, shrugs.
Evie smiles back. "Why don't you two talk about the book and I'll put something together," she says.
"Works for me," Roscoe says. "So," he said as the two of us sat on the couch, "how much time have you put in on it?"
I pause. "Fifteen days, give or take."
"Fifteen, let's see, that comes to-"
I mouth the number.
"Three thousand dollars," Roscoe says, looking up. "That what we talked about?"
"Now I have a question for you."
"Would you be willing to invest that into something that would give you a fivefold return?" he says.
I hear wind through the grass. "Well in fact, that's exactly what I - what we plan to do," I say. "We'd put that money toward a down payment on the condo we saw this afternoon."
Roscoe looks nonplussed. "I'm talking about a real investment," he says. "You don't live in an investment. And, correct me if I'm wrong, but you don't see triple-digit returns in real estate. I'm talking about a share of royalties."
"What I really want," I say, "is a better place to live and work. And the place we saw-" I smile.
"See, the book needs stonger narrative," Roscoe says. "I'll give you a free hand. Make the storytelling more dramatic. Move some scenes around, maybe. You're the writer in the family. And for that you'd get royalty share." He smiles. "I know in self-publishing the word 'royalty' doesn't sound impressive, but the deal I've struck with these distributors should be a nice chunk of change."
"Self-publishing? The investment I need now is like, more space," I laugh. "Where I can work better. Here, the heat, the construction. I can't get enough done."
Roscoe nods, then squints. He waves his hand over the marked up manuscript, which he hasn't had time to peruse. "Think of the arc of your life, not just the next five years."
"You two big thinkers ready?" Evie calls.
"You should've seen him, Evie," Roscoe says as we move to the table. He points at me. "He really wanted to climb over the fence."
"Ros, you're such a spoil-sport." Evie passes the pasta.
"What's a spoil-sport?" Cindy asks.
"It's someone who's no fun," I say.
"Someone who's no fun?"
"Someone who shells out three grand for grammatical corrections but won't jump over a fence," Roscoe says. He laughs bitterly. "Just kidding, Mike. Worth every penny."
"No fun," Evie says. "Like you were."
"What's grammatical mean?"
"How was I then?" Roscoe says.
"No fun. Not there. You weren't there. You've changed," Evie adds quickly. "You're better now. You ask about other people. But jesus, then. That time you forgot I was at the train station—"
"Christ, forever that."
"So - different subject," I say, waving a hand across a mime's chalkboard, "does your Albuquerque business have anything to do with publishing?"
"No," Roscoe says. "Strictly consulting. For-"
"No business talk at the dinner table," Evie says.
"What's grammatical mean?" Cindy rocks in her chair.
"The weather's lovely," Roscoe says. He flashes a fake grin, eyes nearly closed.
"Is that a restriction?" Evie says. "Is that all there is? Business and the weather." Then she shoots her eyes my way. "Mike, don't pretend that's you. I know you don't agree with that."
Roscoe turns to me, eyebrows raised.
Cindy looks at me too. "What's grammatical?"
"He was joking," I say. "Roscoe knows there's more to life than work."
"Sure," he concedes. He dabs his mouth with his napkin. "A lot more. But you know, nothing takes as much work as work. And that's because Evie, for a man, work is the path to excellence, to fulfillment."
"That's what we're talking about," Evie say. "That's why you're alone here saying that. That's why you can't- Tell Mike about that part of fulfillment. About driving people away."
I feel like the two of them are suddenly alone in the room. Roscoe looks almost hurt. "I'm seeing a woman now."
"What I mean," I say to Roscoe, "is there's a balance-"
"Sure, sure, balance," he cuts in with a wave of his hand. "The middle way. It's just a book. Like Tom Clancy or War and Peace. There's lots of books. Evie, don't get your panties in a knot."
"You bastard. You haven't changed at all." Evie runs into the kitchen.
"What'd I say?" Roscoe's palms turn up.
"Roscoe, just-" I say. "Stop."
"What did I say?"
Our eyes lock, and then he flinches away. The swinging door, the whole scene, is slowing down.
"Evie?" I follow her. She's leaning against the counter, lighting a cigarette.
"I'll be all right," she says, wiping her face. "You go back in and make nice with him. I just need a minute." She takes a breath. "You're so different from him, so much-" She looks up, and in her glance I understand that the difference is what she loves about me and also what puts me down a notch in her gauge of life's chances.
"I love you," I say.
"I know," she laugh-sobs. "Go tell him what that's like."