A SHORT STORY
“No individual has any right to come into the world and go out of it without leaving something behind.” George Washington Carver
She reminded herself a hundred goddamn times to keep her mouth shut. And still she forgot when it mattered.
Jean Margaret Fisher dug with the fingernails of her left hand into the cuticles of her right, lacerating the already wounded ridges of half moons and thought angrily, “I never, ever learn.”
Jean knew she’d had to do something. She felt paralyzed, her creative drive suspended, out of reach. She needed to restart full throttle. At that moment she faced a roomful of wide-eyed criticism glossed as patronizing curiosity.
They didn’t fool Jean. The artificial sweetness was as obvious as the tiny chunks of canned fruit visible in a Jell-O mold. She tugged orange braided ties at the neck of a turquoise crepe peasant shirt. A worn denim maxi flared around her ankles, above bare feet shod in strappy sandals on cork platform soles. She loved the indifferent comfort of clothes that said: “I am an artist.” She fiddled with a tightly curled strand of shoulder length hair that glowed like a burnished penny and that made her feel especially apart from them.
Her mother-in-law smoothed a non-existent wrinkle on her trim salmon colored skirt. “Why now, darling?” she managed through gritted teeth. Waiting for an answer from Jean, she fidgeted a string of pearls from the neck of her ivory Shantung blouse.
“Oh, you know, it was, um, already in the works before, um, before Fred’s….” Jean chattered helplessly. Schottenstein was kind of forced on her when they married. “No, I don’t mean forced, you know….” She meant she’d had no choice. Or at least she was unaware of a choice. “It was quite an ordeal. To get my name back, I mean, going through the courts and all.”
“So, nothing is wrong then? Frederick approves?” Jean followed the manicure. Fingernails, the color of the inside of a seashell, rose to a powdered cheek. Her mother-in-law’s hand clenched, and then relaxed as she patted her dark, lacquered hair layered into an immoveable shag.
Frederick sidled up beside his wife, patting Jean’s head like an indulgent parent warns a sharp-tongued child. “No, nothing is wrong Rona. She means her artwork, her paintings, how she signs them.”
The company of Frederick’s aunts and uncles, niece and nephew—Jean’s in-laws—resumed their interest in the food laid out on the dining room table. Her sister-in-law, Dawn, is the daughter of vastly prosperous Texans, who grew up on a ranch second only in size to Lyndon Johnson’s, whose family, in her words, “picked cotton.” A recent convert to Judaism, she cast a benign glance at her children fingering the pickles. Her husband, Frederick’s brother Jacob, was out of town.
Jean’s announcement had quieted them down, no small feat as they gushed over Frederick still slightly hollow-eyed from his recent hospitalization. Everyone tread carefully now, like they were wearing ballet slippers on a stage of crushed glass.
Jean inspected what looked like the entire menu of the Madison Deli spread before her. It was Uncle Maury’s doing. This was no time for his sister’s fancy schmancy ‘petty fours’ or whatever she called them. The family summoned required comfort food. And there it was in abundance, loaded onto the Lenox saved for special occasions. At the center lay a football-shaped mound of chopped liver, symbol of Frederick’s high school glory days. Cold cuts, speared with toothpicks bewigged in frilly cellophane, began to curl at the edges. A pair of old Sheffield silver chafing dishes separated pastrami, roast beef, and brisket from potato pancakes. There was smoked fish and crudités, which to Jean looked suspiciously like shriveled celery and raw carrots drained of moisture. Humble staples, like coleslaw and potato salad, were upgraded into gilt-edged porcelain Chinese bowls. “It’s tradition,” Maury said, when asked about the glistening, pocked lumps of gefilte fish that appeared for the first time since Poppie died, and as yet, no one had touched.
Too much food, thought Jean. It was a lot to take on for a girl raised on vegetables boiled to death in the English manner. A nostalgia for fish and chips had never induced her mother to batter cod for them. It was a lot to take on for a girl whose American father had left before she was ten years old. He died, but in her mother’s eyes he’d left them. Her father, Dennis, had been a musician, a piano player on tour with the big band when her parents met in Leicester. They married and her mother, Margaret, returned with him to the lower eastside of Manhattan. Love at first sight, Jean guessed. Her mother said little more about the marriage than it was the drink and cigarettes that killed him.
“It’s where you get it from,” she’d admonished Jean.
“I don’t smoke,” Jean shot back.
Jean sipped the last of her drink. Sweet vermouth. The imprint of her lips clung to the sticky rim of her glass like an SOS. She’d asked for bourbon and this is what she got.
Admittedly, it was the wrong time for Jean to reveal that she was reverting to her maiden name, or bad timing as her father-in-law suggested in the surgeon’s deliberately imperious manner. But why did Frederick have to add that he thought she’d be more comfortable with her maiden name? That would surely open a can of worms from an already overstocked shelf. Jean popped a maraschino cherry into her mouth and rid herself of the sticky glass. She stopped at the walnut bar cart and chose from among cut glass decanters draped with engraved labels. “Even the liquor gets dressed up,” she mumbled. She poured straight bourbon over ice. She gulped from the glass, tapping the pressure. That was better, much better, she thought, and started for the living room.
Sprawling apartments on Central Park West were like museum exhibitions in the hands of a doctor’s wife who aspired to meticulous conservator in displaying her possessions. The rest of the family had retired to the living room, volleying trivial remarks around Frederick, avoiding anything about why he was hospitalized. Maury’s benevolent profile shadowed the curtained windows above the park.
Jean hated the heavy gold and cream damask that choked the light. Cigarette smoke hovered in the room like a depleted dust storm. Tasseled tiebacks on the drapes reminded her of loosened belts on overfed guests. She never understood the purpose of a valance. A plumped, elaborately floral-patterned sofa, Jean habitually called a couch, was overrun with decorative needlepoint pillows. The Persian carpets and oriental vases cum lamps topped with pleated silk shades, she hated it all. No surface lay uncluttered; there was nowhere to rest the eye. Cloisonné was her mother-in-law’s passion and it was everywhere in the apartment. Even the soap dish in the guest bathroom was her handiwork. Whenever Jean’s painting was mentioned Rona added demurely that she, too, dabbled a bit. Her abstracts embodied Mondrian and hung alongside expensively framed lithographs by Picasso and Dubuffet.
Frederick’s nephew snuck up behind Jean and filliped her on the back of her arm. She yelped, shooed him from her and returned to the dining room.
Frederick appeared wearing his time-to-get-the-hell-out-of-Dodge look. “What’s with Jakey?”
Jean waved vaguely, as if to say it doesn’t matter.
“Are you drunk?” he asked.
“Maybe a bit, it’s been a long day,” she replied, nibbling a potato pancake.
“Don’t be forgetting this y’all,” Dawn purred. She held out a fringed wool rectangle. Rona had presented it to them earlier and Jean had promptly tucked it out of sight. Her mother-in-law’s go to gift for family and friends: the needlework pillow. “Gone Antiquing” and “Daydreaming” were her favorites. “I already have two of these.” She sighed and tucked a strand of naturally blonde hair behind her ear. She nodded to her children who were tearing up and down the long hallway, skidding like frenzied cats on the geometric pattern of a headache inducing kilim rug. “Your turn,” she said. Jean studied the pillow, its meticulous stitching: “Whenever a child is born, so is a Grandmother.”
Usually they walked to the east side through the park to their walk-up on 94th Street. The staying power of summer light was still evident in August so she was surprised when Frederick insisted on taking a cab.
“We’re practically there,” Jean griped.”
“You’re tired,” he told her, “and drunk.”
At home, absent the scrim of family, she noticed Frederick’s paleness, an uncertainty in his movements. He’d lost weight and his jacket hung from his frame like an empty garment bag. He would not return to medical school. His father had connections. Already there were inquiries made at Rockefeller Institute. Frederick would be granted some time off before he began his doctoral work, something in research, at the university. She had not been included in these plans. She was the last to know he’d been hospitalized.
Jean, too, had quit school. She didn’t want to be a social worker. Her mother wanted her to be a social worker, or a teacher, even a nurse. Her mother wanted her to be something. An artist was not something. At the end of her first year at Hunter College, with her mother retired from her job at Metropolitan Life and in Florida at a safe distance, Jean became an artist. When Jean met Frederick she’d just started working in an art gallery on Madison Avenue. The clientele were mostly women with too much money on their hands and not enough time to spend it. If they didn’t play tennis or mahjong, or engage in ego stroking charity work, then, like Frederick’s mother, they shopped.
He’d pushed open the door to the gallery, with his mother fussing at his shirt collar.
“Rona,” he’d whined comically, “behave.”
“My son, the absent-minded doctor,” Rona said to no one in particular.
Jean was both new to the job and to a child being on a first name basis with its parent. Hers was ‘mum.’ To address her as Margaret would have been unthinkable. She’d been left to entertain or, more like, be entertained by Frederick while the gallery owner took a valued customer under his wing. Frederick joked self deprecatingly, was pleased with Jean’s laughing response and expressed interest when she told him she was an artist. He’d asked for Jean’s telephone number, well out of his mother’s earshot.
Despite deprivation Jean was a surprisingly cheerful child with a singular imagination. Her mother had, albeit unconsciously, tried to tame liveliness in a daughter that challenged her own inner angry life. Jean had always been content in her solitary pursuit but she realized soon after meeting Frederick that she was lonely. An impetuous courtship was one way to combat the loneliness.
She quit the gallery and they eloped. They returned from Maryland and Jean found an entry-level job at Columbia University in the Fine Arts Library. It was quiet work and she enjoyed handling the fine leather bound volumes of art history. She shared a basement room a few blocks further east and downtown from their apartment and set to painting seriously. Between Frederick’s studies and her job and dedication to her art they rarely spent time with each other. When they did it was usually at family gatherings or parties thrown by Frederick’s fellow med students. Jean had never quite understood Frederick’s heated pursuit of her. It all fell into place, though, when she met his brother, Jacob. Sibling rivalry—striving to upset the most apples in the parental cart—compelled them to marry ‘outside.’
Jacob and Dawn met in New Orleans when they were students at Tulane University. Cool, blonde, a cheerleader and a Southern Baptist, Dawn bested even Jacob’s revolution and horrified her parents by marrying a New Yorker, a Jewish New Yorker. After discreet enquiry on Dr. Schottenstein’s part she was received like a bit of exotica that had fallen into their midst, something to be re-fashioned to enhance their status. Dawn played the folksy card. She gave them attractive, precocious grandchildren. She started a decorating business from home, which was a late 50s architectural sugar cube in Pound Ridge. She began placing Rona’s abstracts in living rooms across Westchester County, seducing her mother-in-law’s circle with relentless southern charm. Jean remained the enigma.
And she and Frederick were like strangers now. He went out in the day, usually to his father’s office or to spend the afternoon with his mother shopping to fit a thinner body. He was never allowed anything less formal than tan chinos and pastel polo shirts adorned with little green alligators. Jean kept track of it all in her journal; that he’d accompanied her to the library that morning, telling her he needed a change of scenery and how she had been unaware that Frederick was found, unconscious, in the men’s room on the floor above in Schermerhorn Hall.
She’d gone home at the end of her day thinking he’d just not bothered or forgotten to let her know when he left, which was not unusual for him. It wasn’t until later that evening that her father-in-law telephoned. He’d been the one they called. Frederick, it seemed, had had a breakdown. He was exhausted, his father said, and they would concentrate on getting his strength back for the moment.
When Jean visited Frederick the following day she was not prepared for the restraints on his wrists, his motionless body. Alone with him in the room, she felt pointless and grabbed a stray sock that lay on the floor like a failed flotation device. Suddenly Frederick reared up, stared confusedly at his tethered hands and then faced her, wild-eyed. Jean leaned in to catch something like an ominous draft from a deep cave.
“Fred? What is it?” she whispered.
“I want to kill you,” he croaked.
His mother arrived and Frederick fell back against the pillows. “You should get some rest, dear,” she chided, casting an apprehensive glance at Jean. “You look terrible.” After what seemed like an eternity her sister-in-law pulled Jean’s crimped fingers from the sock and led her from the hospital to a waiting cab.
Jean had taken a few days off from the library. She was, in fact, exhausted. Days dragged in slow motion. While Fred was in the hospital she’d scrubbed the apartment until her fingers puckered. It was on the third floor of an old brownstone. The floor was uneven and every closet door stuck. Casement windows she’d thought were so quaint were murder to wash and very little sunlight eked through the tiny diamond shaped pattern into the front room. Every bit of furniture, all secondhand finds, shone with Olde English. A matchbox terrace off the bedroom at the rear of the apartment was not often utilized for anything more than storing their bikes because of the mad woman above who fed the pigeons.
Not long after his homecoming Jean and Frederick had a heart-to-heart. “You’re not…?” he started.
“What? Happy?” she replied.
“No. I was going to say you’re not painting.”
Jean waffled, making small excuses. “A bit blocked. Only temporary. I’m drawing more.”
Frederick asked about Taylor. Mary Jo Taylor was her full name but because she was never sure if she preferred the feminine or the masculine she just called herself Taylor. Taylor admired Jean. She was in awe of her passion but she was also a little intimidated by her. They’d met at a student party. Taylor was a cousin of Neil, one of the med students. She was, like Jean, an artist. Taylor was fresh from Louisville, Kentucky and new to the city. She and Jean shared the basement studio. Taylor worked in a bar nights and weekends. It was perfect.
“Is she back?” Frederick asked. “Invite her over for a drink.”
A half-finished bottle of Henry McKenna held down one corner of the map Taylor spread out on the floor of the front room. The smell of marijuana lay in the air like virtual netting.
“I’m jealous,” Jean pouted and rooted in the ashtray.
Taylor smiled, gratified. “There’s more where that came from.” She produced another joint and continued tracing a route with her fingertip. “I only made it to the Painted Desert. Next time I want to go to Abiquiu.”
“Yes!” Jean hollered, raising a jelly glass half full of the strong brown liquid.
Frederick looked puzzled. “Abiquiu?”
“Georgia O’Keeffe,” Taylor and Jean replied, laughing in unison.
“Oh,” he said, chastened, “of course.” Gamely he offered: “You ought to do something like that Jean.”
Jean resisted a sharp comeback. Instead she ignored him and spoke to Taylor. “You know. I just might.”
Taylor looked up from the map. “Really? Cos if you’re serious I’d go right back. We could go together. We could paint.”
“She doesn’t have a license,” Frederick declared. And then, as if his wife had not heard, “You don’t have a—.”
Taylor interjected: “You can get one, a temporary one, in a couple of weeks.”
“She doesn’t drive,” he said slightly more insistent.”
“I’ll teach her. We’ll start right away.” Taylor dragged deeply on the joint and grinned. “Let’s start now!”
Frederick watched helplessly as the two women threw themselves across the map and head to head they giggled and plotted.
“Well, maybe start tomorrow. You’ve had a bit too—.”
Taylor’s excited response rose above Frederick’s appeal. “We’d better make some tapes. We cain’t count on the car radio. There’s gonna be some long stretches of highway. God almighty, it was torture listening to Havin’ My Baby all the way through Kansas.”
First thing, Jean got her learner’s permit. They went out driving in Taylor’s tangerine colored Beetle every chance they got. They began slowly after the rush in the evening, navigating carefully along the drive around Central Park. Sometimes they started out at midnight after Taylor’s shift. Jean’s confidence grew and every time she changed lanes or accelerated with a little more daring, Taylor slapped the dashboard with glee: “Damn, girl. You are a natural!” They cheered when Jean no longer slammed the clutch and stopped nervously shifting into a lower gear that nailed them to a steep incline at 103rd and Lexington. On weekends when neither had to be at work in the morning, they worked in the studio until just before daybreak. High on turpentine and glorious anticipation, Jean carefully navigated the Beetle downtown on the FDR, her heart racing faster, at first, than the speed she was traveling. Soon they ventured across the 59th Street Bridge and doubled back just in time for sunrise over the city. They rewarded their achievement with breakfast in Greenwich Village at an all night café called Pennyfeathers.
Everything looked different from behind the wheel. The city, especially on the upper eastside, lay in dormant splendor. They’d cruise past the Andrew Carnegie pile on Fifth Avenue. Jean pointed out where Truman Capote had begged for alcohol from passersby from a window of the imposing rehab center on 93rd and they never tired of the ghostly façade of the old armory silhouetted against a moonlit sky. Taylor spied the squadron motto carved into the red stone.
“It means Charge!” Jean told her.
“Bootayanahvont!” Taylor yelled as they sped past.
Jean passed the written and aced the road test. She slipped behind the wheel like a seasoned diver into a wetsuit. She stopped tearing at her fingers, seeing them displayed so nakedly on the steering wheel. Once Taylor screwed up the courage to ask Jean why she was so eager for this trip. She’d be away from her husband for what, three weeks at least? “I’m feeling really shadowy, that’s why,” Jean answered. She added that they couldn’t rush a thing like this. Maybe they needed more time, a month, six weeks. “If you can swing it,” she said and did not wait for Taylor’s answer.
A professor of Frederick’s was induced to buy a painting from Jean. Frederick and Robert were close friends. Everyone called him Havermeyer or Doc. She had only met him once at a raucous party in his SOHO loft. For months before he was hospitalized Frederick had rolled in late at night red-eyed and uncommunicative after studying with Professor Havermayer. Since Fred’s release there had been no mention of his downtown friend when once they seemed inseparable. Jean, emboldened, arrived at the loft on a murky stretch of Greene Street, uninvited. She nervously made a case for the sale of one of her larger paintings. It was easier than she’d expected.
Jean’s bags stood on the landing. She had only to pack the cassette tapes. She and Taylor had agreed right off the bat to mix tapes of their personal choices. Taylor was more Harry Chapin and the Allman Brothers. Jean was Joni’s free man in Paris. She was midnight at the oasis. She was Steely Dan and Bob Dylan and Zappa. They bonded over the Eagles and the Stones and early Beatles. They agreed to throw in Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5, Elton John and Grand Funk. They had their doubtful moments: Barbra Streisand? The Way We Were?
“I dunno,” Jean admitted, “It feels right. I loved the movie.”
So, that gave Taylor Jim Croce, and the Steve Miller Band. Wild Thing was a yes and John Denver a definite no.
It was nearly 3 A.M. The air breathed cooler as the seasons changed. Jean closed the bedroom door. Frederick had an interview later that morning at Rockefeller. Her sketchbooks lay on the coffee table, unpacked. Instead, she’d decided to bring lined notebooks, bought a really good pen. Frederick often said that Jean saw everything in black and white, which was not necessarily meant as a compliment. Maybe she did. The studio wall was hung with huge white sheets of Rives BFK; graphite line drawings that Frederick described as diluvial. Jean had to look it up: like something caused by a flood.
She’d quit her job at the library and had not told Frederick. It was the first time she lied to him. She thought it might not be the last.
A familiar car horn tooted in the quiet street, still dark. There was cash in her wallet. She left the credit card on the table. Who was Jean Shottenstein? Her temporary driver’s license said: Jean Margaret Fisher. Jean would be sure to drive the last bit, the best part on their return. Driving into Manhattan at daybreak. Nothing better.
LEAVING is an original short story by Linda Danz.
STORIES ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND Writers Guild of America, East #R28299
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business organizations, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The use of names of actual persons, places, and events is incidental to the plot, and is not intended to change the entirely fictional character of the work. © AUGUST 2011