Saturday, February 27, 2010

Lee’s Daughters

(c) 2010 Riccardo Berra/Apostrophe









The battered old laptop flickers to life for the first time since my recently famous father last turned it off a year ago, a week before he died. I miss Daddy, mind you, but I don’t go all weepy anymore when these sorts of “first-time-since things” come up, as they still do from time to time. Like a nest of butterflies, hundreds of automated calendar appointments, notes and reminders pop open and I give up trying to swat them closed while they’re still loading. I go down to make coffee. The lawyers had handled all the estate stuff and I’d put this last task off for as long as I could. I could wait a few minutes more. Though his fame like his death was swift and unexpected, my father left things in good order. He was always careful that way. Daddy is the smartest man I’ve ever known.

One, two,
Who are you?

I finished sorting through his file cabinets a few months ago. Clippings, manuscripts, documents, receipts—the papertrail of the man’s life. I’d boxed up some of it, recycled and trashed most of it. I was reminded of Robert E. Lee’s daughters, apparently so devoted to their pater famiglia that at his behest they remained lifelong spinsters. I find this a little pathetic, but understandable. In our family, I am “the smart one.” Lois is the pretty one. Ellie, the baby. We had our roles set out from birth. 

Three, four,
Close the door.

Ellie whined on the Skype call. “Why does sheee get the laptop, while all we get are these little thumb drives?”
“Lee-Lee, you don’t want it. It’s just an old piece of junk. Besides, Mar’s the writer and resident computer geek. She knows how to work with those old clunkers.”
Listen to Lo playing the peacemaker while I grind my teeth. A new role for her.
“The drives are full of Daddy’s photos of us as kids. Lots of old stuff too. Him and Mom young. They’re precious. I don’t really want the damned laptop, Lee,” I said. “I have one already. But Daddy had a reason for giving it to me as he must have had a reason for waiting a year to do so. Listen, are you guys coming back East anytime soon? Mom really misses you.”

I could think of no better way to draw this conversation to a quick, tidy end. One week ago, I’d received the registered letter from Dad’s lawyers, notifying me that there was a parcel at their office with instructions for me from my father that I was to open it a year to the day after his death. No, his instructions precluded shipping it to me. I had to come and retrieve it myself. At first blush, it all seemed rather melodramatic and pointless, but Daddy had a point to everything. So, once again I’d cajoled and bundled Gregg and the kids back into the Volvo and up the Taconic we headed for East Ellenville. The parcel contained two thumb drives and Daddy’s old Dell.

Five six
Pick up sticks.

My own dear father took me out to our favorite diner when I, the oldest of the three daughters, started dating. He told me it was time we had a serious heart-to-heart about “relationships.” Oh God!  Just the two of us, eating pie, sipping coffee; me waiting, praying this wasn’t going to be another sex talk. The first one had been  …  Words truly can’t describe.

Wasn’t quite that bad, but close. After some preliminary discussion about school and a recent writing contest I’d won, this was our weighing my options for future happiness on a sliding scale of paradox discussion.

“Have fun but be careful. Be picky, but broadminded. Women are required to make more choices in their lives,” he cautioned over a warmed forkful of Cosimo’s homemade chocolate pecan. “Not all of them will be ideal.”

Seven, eight,
Lay them straight.

I’d thanked him for his Shakespearian counsel. I’d listened attentively. I’d asked him about work. It was more than a little embarrassing but I didn’t have the heart to say I’d no clue what he was talking about. Ten years into marriage it took me to realize that this was perhaps the single best piece of advice I’d ever receive. And I’m supposed to be the smart one. Daddy you were on the money. You were always on the money.

Nine, ten,
A big fat hen.

“I still have a lot to do here,” I protested the day I sent Gregg and the kids packing back to Jersey. They were just getting under foot and he, darling Gregg, can manage them better at home for awhile.  He didn’t want to be here, again, too much, this sixth time in one year. Him and my mother—don't even get me started. He wouldn’t say so, but he’s damned close to a meltdown. Again. It's at least partially my fault. I haven’t exactly been attentive these last months. The house in Verona is trashed and the sink stinks with unwashed dishes. They left yesterday. Even with the housekeeper coming in daily, he’ll have his work cut out for him.  I haven’t “been there” for him in the other way wives are supposed to be “there” for husbands. It's really on and off with us. I saw the resentment, skepticism, gratitude and release—all that and more in the review mirror; his big gray eyes staring back at me with Danny and the Twins strapped in the back like juvenile astronauts.

Gregg blew a kiss. I blew a kiss. Kiss. Kiss. We maintain appearances, even when there’s nobody to notice but us. It started to snow. A handful of swirling flakes chased the Volvo's receding taillights. I allowed a momentary twinge of maternal panic before I went back inside. They’ll be fine, I told myself. They’ll be fine. Gregg said I should wipe Daddy’s computer clean and donate it or sell it on eBay. He expects to hear from me in a day or so, telling him I’m on my way home. The look he gave me told me it shouldn’t be any longer than that. I will miss my babies. I miss the way we used to be together. So many things we used to say with words are now communicated in the parsed, highly compressed language of looks, gestures and sighs—the shorthand of longterm relationships. You’d think that would make it easier but it just gets harder.

I got my tubes tied when I had the twins. I went back to work at the agency and almost immediately began to fantasize about having an affair. I don’t know where this came from. I was truly shocked. Some of the girls said it totally killed their drive. Not me. It sent me into the stratosphere. Something about just the idea of sleeping with another man made me want Greg more. I wanted to want him more. I imagined confessing to him. Taking his anger and angry sex. Sort of a radical therapy. There were opportunities but I didn’t act on any of them. Then I began to suspect Greg had already availed himself of this type of “therapy.” It’s the little things that give him away. Like the fact that he’s actually nicer to me. That he doesn’t press me for sex anymore or complain when he doesn’t get it. We don’t argue as much. None of this is proof; truthfully, I don’t want to know. Knowing requires acting and acting would fracture a delicate fault line and shatter at least six lives in a million pieces. That’s some grim math. Nobody wants that. Me least of all. Some secrets are secrets for a good reason.

My mom’s voice floats up from the warmth of the kitchen below.
“Mary, you left your coffee. Should I warm it? “
“No. I’ll be down in a second. “
“Then let me warm it for you, it’s gone cold!”

Ten minutes later she calls up again and. I’m still clicking away and grinding my teeth. It’s not that we have a bad relationship, but when Daddy died all her attention swung back to me. My sisters escape the Mom radar by living on the other side of the country and visiting dramatically less often. So I get the full glare of the spotlight. It’s understandable, forgivable, but not always welcome. Isn’t that terrible? Now I feel guilty and can use the coffee and her company. Afterwards, she’ll just need to leave me alone for awhile. I killed off all the appointment pop-ups and got down to the desktop, a stand of trees. There are two large partitions on the document drive, both hidden, so I unhide them. No big deal.

What are you hiding Daddy? The first partition is over forty gigs. But it’s empty.  Erased. I preview a recovery on it and get hundreds of names of mpegs and video files. Ugh, Daddy! I don’t want to know. Men are all alike. When I unhide the second partition another popup appears on the screen—“This drive is encrypted. Please enter your password to decrypt and view.” The cursor blinks annoyingly in the empty field. What the fuck Daddy?  How am I supposed to know what his password is?

Mom’s at the table munching a bit of toast and jam. My cup sits opposite her, steaming vigorously.

Minutes turn into hours. Mom insists on a ride to the Giant Eagle supermarket—for what I can’t possibly imagine. The house is full of food. The kitchen and downstairs pantries could feed a family of six for months. She tells me over the too-hot coffee that she needs to bake a cake. I’m not sure why. Mom, for my entire 40 years on this planet, has baked all our birthday and celebration cakes, baked for friends and family—wonderful bakery quality cakes she sold for a pittance—little more than the cost of ingredients. People took advantage of her, but she never saw it that way. While we were growing up, money was always tight and I pushed her to be more businesslike about her sideline, but I never got anywhere.

Dad tried for years to make it on his own as a writer. He wrote three novels and dozens of short stories. He got a handful of short stories published in small literary magazines over the years, but nothing ever caught fire. So he did freelance jobs. Like me, he did a stint in an ad agency until he couldn’t handle it anymore. He was out of work for years until a job opened up at the community college. I was fifteen when he was hired to teach what they euphemistically call English for idiots. The class was packed with working adults and students who’d somehow escaped highschool reading on a gradeschool level. Daddy never complained about the class or his work. He never talked at all about it. Every night he’d take his tumbler of scotch up to his office and grade paper and write lesson plans. We never knew if he was still trying to sell his writing.

Then, out of the blue, his screenplay sold for a million dollars to a bigtime Hollywood studio. Everybody was shocked by the idea of this 78 year old dude writing his first feature film. It has the touch of the outlandish that Hollywood adores. Especially after the screenwriters’ ageism lawsuits. The laughable part is Daddy wrote that script many years ago, decades before—when he was my age. The movie, one of those big fantasy sword and sorcerer epics came out before Christmas. What Daddy knew—his passion—Le Morte d'Arthur. His PhD treatise was called “Malory in the Age of Chivalry,” but the screenplay “Legend of Arthur” was pure swashbuckle. Knights and their big swords. Maidens and their dragons. Go figure. That it made his widow an instant millionaire with points. Go fucking figure. After toiling his entire life in anonymity, Daddy only had a year or so to enjoy his newfound fortune. At least he had that year. Month after month, “Legend of Arthur” breaks box office records. Every month, Mom gets another fat check from California.

I can’t imagine who’d ask her for a cake now. I already told her I don’t want one. I need cake like I need the extra fifteen pounds I put on these last months. Cake is a fat-bearing torpedo. It knows right where to go. My tits, my best assets are starting to sag. I won’t even discuss the hips. Protest is futile.

“I just need to make a cake. I have to go down to the Eagle. I’d drive myself, but my eyesight isn’t …”
“Enough, I said I’d do it.” My voice is shriller than I’d intended.
“Well when?”
“Right now Mom. Whenever you want.”
“Okay. I worry about you and Greg. He seemed so unhappy. Are things okay between you? You know you can …
“There’s nothing to talk about Ma.”
“Are you grinding your teeth again?”
“No! Can we just get going?”
“Okay.”
“Okay.”

Her and her friggin cakes. I trail dutifully behind her. I need to walk, a real stomp into the woods, not this slow painful crawl down the produce aisle where she meets a couple of neighbors who still offer polite condolences and promise to stop by and “look in on her.”
I’m polite and friendly, but my mind is stuck on Daddy’s F drive.

By the time we get back, I’m hot and flustered and couldn’t sit still even if you held a gun to my head. I tell myself I’ll take the damned walk I’ve been promising myself for three days. The neighborhood winds like corkscrew around a foothill north of the Shawangunk Range. Because it’s an old-style development, they didn’t chop down all the trees and level everything. In the vast tracts of interior space behind houses there are numerous trails leading into old-growth wooded areas where what few kids are left in this retirement community use for hiking, off-roading, drinking and smoking pot. Other stuff, the typical stuff kids have always done in the woods. I pull on my hiking boots. I pull out the Altoids tin where I keep the six joints my office-mate Kevin gave me. I stuff the tin and a pack of matches in my backpocket. Damn, these jeans are so tight. I squeeze my phone in the front pocket and set out. I don’t tell Mom I’m going.

I skirt along the edge of the Anderson’s driveway. Two metal posts and a heavy chain bar the path’s entrance from motor vehicles. As a girl, I’d hop the chain without a second thought. At forty-something, with tight jeans, I skirt cautiously around the barricade.

The trail is etched by ravines and deep gullies. Tiny remnant streams trickle along, where once powerful, ancient washes tore deep into this hillside. Fed by receding glaciers, these waters dropped their booty of giant boulders like retreating thieves. I come to a little wooded crest and find the familiar vaguely chair-like rock that I’ve long considered my own “sitting rock.” I wrestle the Altoids can from my back pocket and light one of the joints.

Marijuana has always had a strange effect on me. I mean I like it. It doesn’t fuddle me out like it does most people. The closest I can describe it, it’s like the polarizing filter on Daddy’s old Nikon. You rotate the filter a quarter turn and suddenly everything seems more vivid. I haven’t had a joint in ages. Not since before Danny was born. I miss my babies but I am luxuriating in my selfish self-ness. I feel a long, peaceful quiet even out around my edges and spread into the woods. Like nature’s caught my buzz.  The day is warm and bright for early March, but the wind still sings and moans and moves the bare trees about like living flutes, a lonely sound I have always adored.

Pot does two other things to me. I almost forgot; it’s been so long. Pot makes me so horny. My stomach flutters and my pulse quickens in a little sad recollection of the mad, passionate escapades Gregg and I got up to after smoking. They say pot renders men flaccid. That was never a problem with him. Not until recently. I don’t know if he’s smoking or not, but he’s sure as hell not waving “Mr. Ironcock” in my face, demanding to be let in. Demanding that I sit in his lap and play pony. It’s more like “Mr. Handcock” or his “other therapy.” There were a couple of times recently when we both seemed primed for action, but they turned into one of those “Don’t worry about it, they say it happens to all men” kind of evenings. He didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to say it. Now I’m feeling a little sad and I have to pee—bad—the other thing pot does to me.

I’m not one of those little prissy girls who need a warmed commode and a closed door to drop trou. I’ve been smoking, tromping and peeing in the great outdoors since before I was teenager. I unbutton my jeans, pull them to knee-level and cop a squat. My stream comes, a thick, steaming gush that makes a satisfying thrum on the dirt between my spread feet. I watch the little yellow rivulet roll and melt into the frost-crusted earth. I touch myself down there, through the coarse nest of hair, spreading my lips, pressing in to milk out any residual fluid in my bladder. One fingertip grazes my clitoris. I’m tempted to leave it there, tempted to rub one out or whatever expression the kids use these days. Why the hell not? You’ve got to take your pleasures where and when you find them. My fingers linger in the wet folds. I feel the cold on my exposed rump and it feels good. The pee has completely soaked in, leaving only a darkened, dampened trail on the earth beneath me.

A sudden crunch of twigs and brush above me shoots my pulse through the roof. A dog barks. I stagger to my feet, yanking my jeans and panties back over my hips. It’s far from a graceful maneuver and I lose my footing, pitching face first where I’ve just urinated. “Motherfucker!” I shout, scrambling to my feet.
“Uh, are you alright?” A voice, a softly-accented male voice comes from where the disturbance originated. A hot flush covers my body as I turn to confront him, a young, slight man in a ski-jacket holding a very large German Shepherd on a leash. I’m trembling now.

“I’m so sorry, I just smelled something good and came to see.”
“You smelled me peeing?”
“No, no,” he laughs. A musical, good-natured laugh. “The other thing you were doing.”

Oh my God, Oh my God, I’m shaking in uncontrollable mortification but the man makes a pinching gesture to his smiling lips. “You ‘ave any more of this?” he asks.

“Oh, oh, I guess.” I wipe my wet hand on the rump of my jeans and retrieve the joint from my sitting rock. “Need a light?

“Oui s'il vous plait. Please,” he responds taking the matchbook and joint from my trembling fingers. He relights the joint and took a deep drag. Still holding it in his mouth, he bends to the dog’s collar and unleashes it. The monster bounds down the hill, straight at me, but just sniffs curiously at my feet before tearing off into the brush. “You don’t need to worry about Charlemagne,” the man explains, exhaling a plume of blue smoke. “’ee is beeg, but very gentle.”

“Charlemagne? What about you? Do I need to worry about you?”
“Oh no, I am of even less concern. Jean Jacques Metier,” he extends his hand. I wipe my hand on my pants again before accepting his.”
“Mary Lindstrom. Look, I’m sorry, I can explain …” 
“Explain what?  What is to explain?”
“Nothing, I guess. I was just taking a hike. I’ve been exploring these woods since I was very young. I used to live … I mean my mother lives …”

He waves his hand and coughs out another lungful of smoke before passing the glowing joint back to me. I take a couple more puffs, then stub the roach out on my rock while he talks.

“You know there is a store up there?” He gestures up the hill.
“Calloway’s.” It was a grocery and package store. They’d folded two years ago when the economy up here went sour. “I didn’t know anybody …”
“Well I own it now. I am a pâtissier.
“You make candy?”
“Chocolats mostly. I bake too. I was at Les Enfants Terribles in New York. Maybe you know it?”
“I work in the city but I haven’t been there yet.”
“Well my desserts are still in demand. There and elsewhere. I make, I ship FedEx. I deliver the delicate ones by hand. I live here now.”
“How nice for you.”
“Are you making fun?”
“No. No. No. I’m serious. I think it’s great. I … I’m a writer. I live with my husband and children in Verona …”
“New Jersey?”
“Yes. Not the other one. I work in an agency. I edit websites. Internet ads. That sort of thing. I have a hiking blog, but I’ve not updated it in so long. I don’t know. I don’t even know if I have a job when I get back. My father was a screenwriter. He died last year and I’m up here helping my mother. She drives me crazy, so I just needed a break.” All this tossed in the air in a flustery blur of words and superfluous hand gestures. But the Frenchman, who I suddenly realized is rather handsome in a boyish, blue-eyed blonde-headed way, takes it all in, nodding solicitously, as if I’m reciting Rimbaud instead of blathering like some premenopausal housefrau.

“Ah oui. Mothers. And I disturbed your solitude. My apologies.”
“No, really.”
“Yes, really, so please, may I invite you, I can put on the fresh coffee and perhaps show you some of my latest works.”
“I don’t think so …”
“Not to be immodest, but I am very good at what I do.”
“I’m sure you are Jean …”
“Jean Jacques. So fine you…”
“Jean Jacques, I really should get back. It will be dark soon and my mother will worry …”

I blush furiously, realizing how juvenile that just sounded coming from a woman nearly old enough to be his mother. Then I compound the error with one word. “But …” 

God, so stupid. That one extra “but” slipped out of my stonehead yap and I instantly regret it.

“… But. Then, you can come tomorrow and I will …”
“I don’t think so.” I raise my hand shyly, the one with the wedding ring.
“Please, you misunderstand. I’ve been trying something new. A new assortiment de chocolat. You can try. Give me an honest opinion. It would be a huge favor. Huge. Please. I beg you.
“You beg me?”
“I do.” He even clasped his hands together.
“Then I consent,” I said with a way too coquettish giggle for a married woman. Who the fuck am I trying to kid? “There’s one condition. You say you bake?”
“I say and I do.”
“There’s this diner. Closed years ago. Do you know how… Of course you know, I’m just being really stupid. I …”
“Just ask.”
“Pecan pie … do you, you know, make it?”
“Tarte de pécan?”
“Tarte de pécan.”
“Oui. Mais bien sûr. Chocolat or whiskey?”
“Chocolate. All the better. One o’clock then?”
“It will be my pleasure.” He actually bowed as I left.

Jean Jacques. Jean Jacques. Jean Jacques. I am skipping down the trail chanting his name like a sixteen year old cunt for a brain.  Jean Jacques. Jean Jacques. Jean Jacques. His very name could be a confection.  Who am I fooling? He’s young enough ... I am old enough … I’m being an idiot I tell myself. Over and over again I say it. Trouble is, it doesn’t sink in.

“Mary, oh my God Mary Therese, where have you been? I’ve been so worried. I tried to call.”
“Mom, I just went for a walk. Reception is spotty in the woods.”
“The woods?”
“Mom, I’ve been hiking these woods for decades.”
“Mary, that’s just insane. Last year the Anderson twins were raped and left in those woods.
“Mom, I heard about that.”
“So? Then you should know better.”
“I do. I know the Anderson girls are little sluts.”
“Mary!”
“I’m just saying Mom, they weren’t walking the woods in daylight. They were drinking with bikers in an afterhours club in New Paltz and from what I hear it had nothing to do with rape.”
“Mary!”
“Mom!”
“There’s no talking to you when you’re like this, but listen, Gena Maffucci is picking me up in an hour. We’re going to Tuesday Bridge Night at the Community Center. You play so …”
“Pass, Mom. I’ll heat up a bowl of soup and work.”
“Don’t stay up too late.”
“You don’t stay out too late.”
“Oh Mary!”
“Oh Mother.”

In all this time, I’d completely forgotten about Daddy’s laptop and the mystery that awaited me upstairs. And it was high time to get to the bottom of it so I could get back to my own home, my husband and my babies. I made up to my mother and heated the soup I’d made the other day. As I sat in the kitchen, Mom bustled around with her preparations. I looked out the window. There were a few snowflakes in the air but nothing to keep her from her appointed rounds. Thank you God. The house would soon be empty. The doorbell rings and Mom twitters “Ooh!” and is off with another warning for me not to stay up too late.

Empty house. Encrypted drive. I again rifle his desk unsuccessfully. I pull out the drawers. Run my hands under the top. There is no mysterious note with the missing password. Logic dictates that it is something I know and he knew I know. He was always careful that way.

A half hour later, I am cursing and grinding my teeth again. I have tried his name, my name, my mother’s name, each of my sister’s names, the name of our borough, all the dogs we ever owned, the name of his screenplay, all the birthdays I could think of and the damned cursor sits there still blinking and taunting me. “Please enter your password to decrypt this directory.”

“Fuck a duck!” I bellow, my voice echoing through the fortunately still empty house. I take the stub of the joint out of the tin and open the office window. A blast assails me and scatters what few papers are left in this office that was once so cluttered with paper and life. I close the window partway and light the roach, smoking it down until it damn near blisters my fingers.

I have my pee in the upstairs bathroom while Dad’s office airs. I return and jam the window down. I’m hungry again and I don’t want soup. Something sweet. I’m staring distractedly at the green trees on the laptop screen behind the blinking cursor when it comes to me just how utterly stupid I’ve been.

Ziziphus zizyphus (from Greek ????f??, zizyfon), commonly called Jujube, Red Date, or Chinese Date, is a species of Ziziphus in the buckthorn family Rhamnaceae, used primarily for its fruits.

Jujubes, a type of starch, gum and corn syrup based candy drops originally produced by the Heide Candy Company. The product was sold to The Hershey Company, and then to the current owner, Farley & Sathers. They are much stiffer than their relatives (e.g. Jujyfruits).

Jujubes, yeah, the stiff ones. Looks a little like a raspberry. Comes in four different flavors. My favorite candy and my Daddy’s pet name for me as a girl.

Jujube. I type it in and the partition blossoms like a flower to reveal three directories with our three names on them. Lee and Lo’s directories are mirrors of the flash drives they’d already been sent.

My directory is a different story. It’s a long string, a couple hundred Word documents.

I chose the first one, the one with the most recent date. Its title of course, is Jujube.doc.

Dear Darling Mary (Jujube):

My precious darling. I knew a long time before you did how hard your road would be. Of all my children, you are the most like me and I pity and treasure you for it. If you remember the advice I gave you as a blushing schoolgirl; you will also recall I did not repeat it on your wedding day. You ‘d made your choice by then and it was not my place as your father to second guess you. Your husband is a good man and I bear him no ill will, even though that’s a father’s prerogative with his precious daughter Still if you are not happy now, it would not surprise me and nobody would be less happy about that than me.  I take no joy in being right about this. I think you probably realized I knew I was dying shortly before they bought my script.

I didn’t know! I didn’t and I have to dry my tears before I read on.

After so many years of struggling, I want you girls and your mother to enjoy these final days. I think we all should be allotted one secret to keep if that secret harms nobody but the keeper. And I enjoyed my final months, knowing you all were so excited. Your mother will live comfortably on whatever comes from the movie, for the rest of her life. Whatever is left when she’s gone, I’ve instructed her to split evenly between you and your sisters. 

But I wanted to give you something more. The other files, 237 of them at last count are all the stories I wrote. As I was so terrible at promoting myself and playing the game, you and I both know how few of them were published. So now, they are yours, all yours to do what you will with them. Many, I think, just need a good editor and from what I can see, you clearly have the requisite skills. But you have more than that, so don’t just stop there. Make them your own. Do what I could not do.

I don’t know how comfortable you’ll be with some of them. While I wouldn’t call them smut, they have strong, erotic themes. I have long been fascinated by the machinations of courtly love, a love that differs from our modern love only by the steps in the dance.

Others of the more contemporary stories perhaps express the gulf between my romantic ideals and the reality of life with your mother. I loved your mother more than words could express, but I am, in my deepest heart, a man she would not recognize. So, I did her the most generous turn a man could do for a loving and loyal wife. I hid my true nature from her, a revelation I make to you with some reservation, this reservation not for my own comfort, but in concern over any pain knowing the truth will cause you. You have always tended to over-idolize me; perhaps after reading, you’ll reconsider. Yet somehow, I don’t think you’ll think less of me than due, for whatever you read here is a reflection of me, as you are, beloved daughter.

As I say, these are yours to do with what you will. 

Forgive your emotional old father Mary. Forgive his many faults as a father and as a man. Take the best of this modest legacy I’ve left you with and use it and your own blazing talents to advance a better way for yourself than I have made for you. None of this is mine anymore. As you read this, I am gone, so it is all yours. I only hope in the fullness of your time that you will have what I have been most, most truly blessed with. A beautiful, gracious loving child to whom you can pass on your true legacy.

I have one final request to make of you. Call Lenny Richtman at Creative Arts when you are ready. Tell him that you’d like to show him a manuscript. He knows to expect your call.

All my love sweetheart,
Dad

I’m not tearing up now. I’m bawling like a baby. I click open the next document, the biggest of the 237. At eight megabytes it is a 300 page novel called Apostrophe. It is beautiful, profane and knowing. It is a story about a committed ménages a trois, three lovers, living in New York during the sixties. It is a story in need of an editor. It needs a woman’s touch. It would make a great movie. I read seventy pages in, making fast, frantic notes until my eyes blur and the words slide off the screen and I can read or type no more. I don’t know when Mom came in. She went to bed without disturbing me. How many nights had she done that for him. Given him his privacy. Managed the day to day mundanities of raising three girls to leave him to his writing. The writing he’d now bequeathed to me.

The horizon is a flat gray smear as I drag the comforter off my bed and crawl onto Daddy’s leather couch with it. My eyes have been so wet for the past hours, I’m somewhat surprised that it’s wet too, this amazing vagina which squeezed out three kids, two at once, which has seen its share of action, but still wants more. That still wants to be desired. To be touched.  If there’s nobody around to love it but me, then I’ll love it. Shivering, even under the thick comforter, my skin against the leather, hand thrust down my sweatpants and working, I don’t feel guilty or weird touching myself in my father’s study. As he said, he’s gone now and it’s all mine. As I rub, my mind goes through a lifetime of lovers, real and imagined, like a Vegas dealer flipping cards, but it’s not until I turn up the face of Jean Jacques Metier, East Ellenville’s newest candyman that I come and I don’t recall when I’ve ever come harder touching myself. Oh, this is a bad omen, I say over and over as a muddy dawn appears and I fall into an uneasy trembling sleep.

Kevin’s call comes at 11:30, waking me. I haven’t slept this late since before my first pregnancy. I have no coffee. I hope my voice isn’t too groggy.

“Hey Mar, how’zit going up there?”
“I’m fine Kev, really. I sent Gregg and the kids home. I’ll be back in a few days” Then a long, uncomfortable silence.

“Mar, I have some bad news. I know it couldn’t come at a worse time. I don’t know how to ah, say it. So I’m just going to.”
“Right. Just say it Kevin.”
“Diulio says I have to let you go. It’s not like you’re like fired. You’ll get severance, a good recommendation. You can collect unemployment. I told her to hold off. I went to the mat for you. I mean with your father and everything. I think it’s really cold. But she’s the Exec.”
“I know, Kevin, it’s okay, really.”
“No it isn’t. You’re my best editor but Mar, I tried to warn you about taking so much time.”
“You did Kevin and I appreciate it.”
“Look, tomorrow, it’s Friday. I can, uh, y’know, come up? Bring more of that, y’know. You asked me for it. You liked it, right?”
“It’s nice. Real nice. But Kevin, I’m with my mother.”
“Geez, I know Mar, but I could find something nearby, it’s just, y’know if you need somebody to …”
“You’re sweet, but I’m doing okay.”
“Okay, fine, where do you want me to send your check?”
“To my home Kevin. Where else?”
“I don’t know Mary. I’m not enjoying this.”
“I know Kevin, Look, I’m sorry. I’m a little upset, but I’m fine, really. You’re a good guy.”
“You’ll keep in touch, won’t you?”
“Of course. I’ll call when I get back. And Kevin?”
“Mary?”
“No hard feelings.”

I pad downstairs still holding on to the phone. That was entirely expected. And nowhere near as hard as I thought it would be. Over coffee, but out of earshot of my mother, I make the second call. An officious young man puts me right through to Mr. Richtman, who has been, true to Daddy’s words, expecting my call. I tell him that I’ve been working on something my father wants him to see. That I can send the first two chapters in a couple of days, but I’d need more time to send the completed work. I tell him as much as I know about “Apostrophe”. He only has one question.

“How much time?”
“Maybe two months. I work fast,” I reply.
“That will be a welcome change,” he quips. “and a distinct pleasure to work with you.” The businesslike crispness dissolves from his voice. “Mary?”
“Mr. Richtman?”
“Call me Len, Mary. I wish I’d known him earlier. Gotten to know him better. I miss your Dad.”
“Me too Len.”

Mom enters the kitchen slowly. I don’t know how much she’s listened to of my side of the conversation. She puts her hands on my shoulders and gives them a little maternal squeeze. She asks if that was work. I tell her it was, but that I’d be changing jobs soon. She tells me a mother’s place is with her children. I tell her that the new job will allow me to write from home, so it would work out just fine.

“I have every confidence in you honey. Always have.” she adds, then toddles off to the den to watch her gameshow. Oh shit! Jesus Christ on a stick. It’s 12:30 already!

I shower and dry quickly. I put on my best silk black bra and sheer matching panties. I pull on jeans and a denim workshirt. I am layered in contradiction. I pull on my hiking boots and tear from the house with a terse explanation for my mother that I “need to walk.”

I trot from the house and am near a run when I approach the trailhead and take the steep climb up to the crest. Panting, I emerge from the clearing an hour later and approach the former Calloway’s from the back. I pick my way through piles of wood and a shamble of construction materials until I approach the backdoor. It’s open, but I knock and his lilting voice invites me in.

I’ve not seen the front of the store yet, but the back, the kitchen, is a revelation. It is complete and fully furnished. I stand in the small mudroom and kick off my shoes, surveying the exposed brick walls. Copper pots and saucepans hang from hooks. Three-inch thick butcher block counters extend from the sink and wrap around three sides of the room. An ancient commercial oven radiates heat and smells I can’t begin to describe. He stands, arms folded amiably, in the center of the room, so immaculately white he gleams, from head to toe, from the top of his toque to the cuff of his creased, ironed white slacks, every inch a… I lose my courage.

“I’m sorry I’m late.”
“But you are not. You are here.”
“I know, but we said.”
“Mary, a lady is never early or late. She arrives precisely when she arrives.”
“Charming, I saw the same movie.”
“Nothing escapes you. It is warm here. Come. Sit. I hope you came hungry. C’est bon. I promised you first, the pie, the tarte de pécan.”

I seat myself at the small country oak table, with a view of the oven from which emerges the heavenly pie, pecans wet with the dark sheen of their own oils, steam rising and curling from the pan like a lover’s fingers. He cuts me a small slice and plates it on a small white china dish. My mouth waters like Pavlov’s pooch and I press my lips together, half afraid that if I open them, that drool will spill down my chin.

“Taste,” he commands.

Pecan pies can be lumpy, cloyingly sweet affairs. Heating improves the texture of lesser pies, but does little for the taste. I raise the first forkful to my lips. The sensations that flood my mouth make me want to weep. The creamy oil of the pecans has infused the chocolate layer beneath them. The chocolate, rich and dark, with just a hint of bitterness, coats my tongue and the roof of my mouth. I let the bite linger on my tongue as waves and waves of pecan and chocolate and their combined notes swirl over my taste-buds like the wind in the trees on the trail. I chew slowly, the caramelized pecans both crisp and creamy in texture, yield, practically dissolve under the pressure of my teeth. I am, as I suspected, in the lair and at the mercy of an artist and each forkful like the first, confirms his intent more than words ever could. Will I let him? Do I have any choice? Should I resist and run from this place as fast as my legs can carry me or abandon all pretense? After all, I’m the one who took to this trail on a wing, like a besotted schoolgirl. But I’m not a schoolgirl. I’m a woman, the married mother of three and I have no delusions anymore.

“So?”
“Jean Jacques, You have no idea what this means. I’ve never tasted anything like this.”
“I am so happy you think so. Coffee?”
“I’d love one.”

He pours a rich, dark espresso, so nutty and aromatic that I wish that I’d saved some of the pie to go with it. All that’s left are a few crumbs. They’re enough. I don’t dare ask for more. What will he think?

“Another slice?”

I hesitate and his eyes study my face. He says, “No, perhaps not. I have other things to show you.”

“I am in your hands.”

“Tant mieux. It is always best to be a little hungry, no?”

“As I said, I am in your hands.”

Stand. Here. He guides me to the counter. My bum presses against the warm, oiled wood. I smell his smell, the sweet yeasty smell of a man and of his baking.

“Chocolat is the food of love, but I don’t suppose you know how it got that way?”

“Something to do with flavonoids and the similarity to arousal compounds.”

“That is the scientific explanation. Now I give you the real one. But only if you consent, and if you do, I must blindfold you.  Do you consent?”

I nod only because I am trembling and unable to speak.

He took my scarf off the hook and tied it gently but securely about my eyes.

“It is a legend, but every pâtissier will swear to its truth. In the 1750’s the Royal Pâtissier to Louis the 15th was searching desperately for a new way to present this delicacy to the king. Up until that time all cocoa had been mixed with milk or water and drunk. Now open your mouth.”

I did as he instructed. He pressed a little chocolate morsel past my lips. “Don’t bite,” he insisted, “Let it melt on your tongue.”

Smooth, creamy milk chocolate flavors wound around my tongue and something else. A spice. Rosemary? Yes, rosemary, pungent, oily, building in intensity. When I finally swallowed, the confection slides down my throat, coating it. I taste it in places I didn’t even know I had tastebuds. I am only dimly aware that the buttons on my workshirt are being very delicately undone. So delicately, it feels like the chocolate is undressing me. I shiver, though I was anything but cold as the shirt slides off my shoulders as if it were dissolving. Two fingertips drew a delicate circle about my navel. They elicit a little shudder.

“So, desperate for inspiration was the young chef that he confessed his despair to Madame Jeanne du Barry, maîtresse déclarée, courtesan to the king. Madame du Barry was a woman renowned for her beauty, wit and the extravagant gowns the king bought her. This kitchen she told him is missing one essential thing. With which she dropped her petticoats. “Kneel,” she commanded the young chef and when he did she took him under her skirts until his face was like this.”

Jean Jacques is by my side. I smell and feel his breath on my cheek, warm and sweet. He presses his palm firmly between my thighs. I am startled by the touch, but can not back away even if I wanted to. When I take a somewhat calmer breath, he slips another tiny morsel in my mouth. This one, a little darker in taste, has a strong floral note.

“Rosewater?

“Oui her scent. Her signature.” As I toy with the little drop of heaven swirling it in my mouth. Jean Jacques’ hands are busy at my waist, undoing the clasp, sliding my jeans slowly down to my ankles. Fingertips again, they sweep my bra and panties. I am, for all intents and purposes naked to his touch. Even without sight, I feel him studying my breasts and hips, these hips that squeezed out three little ones, these breasts that fed them.

“J'approuve,” he whispers, then continues his narrative.

“It wasn’t until after they had made mad passionate love and the lady fair had left, that the pâtissier found his inspiration and made the first bonbon chocolats. He was a brilliant chocolatier, but not so smart at court intrigue. He sent his samples to Louis, whose nickname was "le Bien-Aimé," the Beloved. Tasting these delights the king understood immediately all they implied. He had the unfortunate chocolatier beheaded the next day.”

With that he slips another candy pearl in my mouth as his other hand slips simultaneously beneath my panties and gently caresses my sex. The electric jolt of jalapeno fills my mouth. My eyes water and they aren’t the only part of me that does.

“As every pâtissier knows there is only one way for inspiration and passion to come from your kitchen.” The clasp on my brassiere is released. “You have to bring passion into your kitchen!” Another chocolate is in my mouth. This one is sweet, dark and intensely fruity. It erases the heat of the jalapeno like the snapping of a finger. It is glorious but no taste I recognize.

My breasts, my large café-au lait areolas and firm nipples are in his mouth. I pull my own panties down. He scrambles and tears at his own clothes. He is inside me so fast and hard and I come so quickly and loudly that it rouses the dog who’s been sleeping by the fireplace. Charlemagne trots over to us and licks my toes with his broad tongue. It makes my spine tingle. I scratch him behind the ears.

“Charlie, au lit,” Jean Jacques orders and the dog complies.

The second time is slower and more languid. We feed each other Champaign, crusty bread and chevre. We’ve christened his kitchen with our passion and the smells, tastes and cries of passion. I have no doubt he will be a huge success. As I dress to leave, he presents me with a small red foil jewel box, a remembrance. When I open the box the next day, there are the same four chocolates, from creamy milk to darkest dark, their shape instantly recognized and remembered, the shape I could not discern while blindfolded. Jujubes.

Mom is driving me to the train tomorrow, early, so I can’t work too late tonight. Ignoring the look of reproach she masks as worry, I pour a tumbler of Scotch to take up to the office. I drop in three ice cubes. They bob agreeably in the amber liquid as I walk. I’ll need a couple of sips before I call Gregg and explain as best I can, that I’ve quit the agency. He takes it well. What happens after that? I’ll try to prepare him for that too. Help him to understand. I don’t completely understand myself, but that’s okay. Apropos of nothing, I’ve stopped grinding my teeth. Haven’t done it in days. That’s a good omen. I skype my sisters. I tell them that I’ve decided to keep Dad’s laptop for a backup. For sentimental reasons. Surprisingly neither complains. Lo says she and her kids are coming east next month and will spend their Spring Break with Mom. I love my sisters.  The 237 stories are on my hard drive now, but the laptop isn’t going anywhere. It’s not getting wiped or donated or sold or given away. It’s staying with me, unaltered. It’s what Daddy wanted. And it is, without any doubt or reservation, what I want.


This work may not be reproduced in any way without the express written permission of the author. Riccardo Berra/Apostrophe © 2010

4 comments:

  1. Thank you to the above commenter for yet again the well deserved praise and support to Apostrophe. I too am thrilled to have come across this blog I am so happy you recoginize,like me,among all the stories and blogs published online, this superb, in my opinion literary, style of writing in this realm of erotica! How Riccardo captures intimate thoughts and moments and depicts relationships between men and women tantalizes me! Some of his stories seemingly emanate from love letters, am I wrong here? They strike chords in aspects of my own life that make me weep and feel I am not alone in my own unrequited complicated love life! Thank you Riccardo for your writings!
    Escaping to this blog gives me such joy and aniticipation as to what may happen next!

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  2. Thanks to both of commenters, even though I have no notion of what the Chinese characters say. Louisa, some of my work did begin as love letters. They served as inspiration and still continue to inspire.

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  3. Lucia from NY (a friend of Vi's)March 11, 2010 at 10:51 PM

    After reading this piece I wanted more, I wanted a novel. I love the use of the dad's computer as the focus of the story and the sexy love-making between the heroine and the Frenchman only added to the richness of the story. May we have more please?

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