Chapter Two — Ménage
Long before the Palladian window adorning the ornate double stair looked out over a yellow-taped crime scene I preferred the other staircase. Unfortunately since the murder the windows show a really bad view. We’re not allowed to fix up the pool area because the jury might request a field trip. Wouldn’t you go anywhere you could, if you were sequestered in a room full of nose-pickers and butt-scratchers? Even nose-pickers and butt-scratchers don’t want to be around other people’s butts and noses.
The servants’ stair — we call it the children’s stair because that’s the part of the house we inhabit — has no windows at all. Its view is strictly into the past; that’s where most of the family pictures hang. Oz doesn’t care for “frozen moments;” he believes in living in the present. Even though I’m only eighteen I know the present doesn’t help a writer. The past is where it’s at. Ever since I can remember I’ve touched those photos ritualistically on my way downstairs. I like the past, unlike Shelley, who feels embarrassed by last year’s styles. “I can’t believe we looked so stupid!” Memories are a writer’s language.
Trevor used to play a game with me called “The Monster”. I would stand at the bottom of the stairs, giggling at the delicious inevitability of it all, while Trevor, starting out as himself, evolved step by step into this roaring Hulk-like creature coming down to scoop me up and bear me away to his cave. That’s my metaphor for the quiet game of Who Am I Today? I play every morning by myself. By the bottom step I’ve decided what face to wear.
The back stairs were usually safest because Oz and Colleen had lots of parties and I don’t like noisy, drunken strangers. People in groups act least like their real selves, so it’s pointless trying to get to know them.
“Put on your party face,” Colleen would wheedle, “and try to be pleasing,” but that doesn’t work for me. If you try to be your idea of “pleasing” then aren’t the “people” that you meet projections of yourself? Pardon my boredom over mirrored games of mime; I’m interested in truth. I’m starting to think only one on one does a palimpsest of reality emerge.
“Palimpsest” is my favorite new word. Words have layers of meanings because they’re composed of “morphemes”; a morpheme being the part that makes sense. Some morphemes are “bound”, (just like some people) which means they must be attached to something else, they can’t stand alone. So words have memories, not just strength. They trail all the meanings, all the affinities, all the throw-downs they’ve ever had.
Palimpsest means writing that’s imperfectly erased and then overwritten, so that you can see the various additions of thought showing through like the layered cities of an archaeological dig. I can’t think of a better description of the way memory works. Artists always have to see through to what’s underneath and not be distracted by surfaces, however shiny and alluring they appear.
I was scheduled to go into the writing program at Arizona but I here I am suffering without choice through something actually worth writing about. I’m stuck here; this material is forced on me. I’d rather write about somebody else’s misfortune. Writing about something while it’s happening is like simultaneously trying to get your sea-legs and not throwing up, an experience I’ve been through, since Oz considers sailing part of a “classical” education. My body says it’s not for me.
Oz grants that I’m “earthbound” but he always did reach conclusions about people much too fast. Sailing inspired my first poem, How Not to Throw Up, which, like all first poems, is pretty bad. Oz says writing poetry’s like having sex, just plunge in. Get the first time over with so you can really get started.
I say now rhyming “puke” with “poop” doesn’t work, but I was only six. Though written out of deeply felt experience, now in maturity I see that it is usually better to just throw up and not hold it in. Return to port and let the internal and external chaos subside, which is probably what I should do now about these present circumstances.
At any rate I could certainly do a better job of writing about this than the tabloids do, that’s for sure. Talk about shiny surfaces! Swimming Pool Slaughterhouse! is a headline you can see all the way from frozen foods. Then they add an exclamation point, punctuation Oz says you should never use. I say there are plenty of times when nothing else will do.
A possible headline might be, “What Happened on My Summer Vacation, or How Dad was Arrested for Murdering my Mom.” But I digress, which is why no one but me should ever read my diary. It makes me look offensively scatterbrained, when it’s just an artisan dumping out her tools so she can take a good look at everything she’s got. It will never make any sense to anybody but me.
“Palimpsest” replaces “octothorp”, which is the proper name of that number sign on the telephone. It also means any eight-pronged thing. I can turn Jake red with rage just by calling him an octothorp.
So back to my morning ritual. Just writing it out makes me happy. No nightmare can be so bad that this walk downstairs fails to dissipate its fug. If I pause in the hush at the top of the stairs I can feel the photographs waiting with me, yearning for me to touch them like pets, leaning companionably out of their frames, offering their support.
First comes Oz’s father, The Scary General, who used to break three men before breakfast, then youthful Oz a dead ringer for Jake, almost unbearably handsome in his West Point whites, then Colleen so incredibly young and hopeful at her first wedding, so starry-eyed at her second, then Skylar in full graduation regalia, Shelley in a tutu with her crane’s legs encased in pink, Jake posing all cavalier with epee and saber. Christmas in Rome, Easter in Las Vegas, Bastille Day in Paris, Canada for the fishing season, Oz’s birthday (he calls it Hurricane Day — he says they can’t start without him) on the Outer Banks. Colleen in the garden wearing gloves because her eczema’s acting up, Jake teasing bears, Shelley in Jackie O sunglasses, Skylar in a hat worthy of a Queen’s garden party and Oz stark naked cooking fish on an outdoor grill. There I am holding both my breath and a beating fish-heart in the palm of my hand.
This is the only picture ever taken of me when I wasn’t aware I was being photographed, so of course it’s my favorite. We artists prefer the real thing whenever we can get it.
Somewhere in the hall behind me a door banged, making me jump. Jake returning to his own room, most likely. Party’s over, and the work of the day – which in his case means properly representing your caste – begins.
More pictures posed on the lawn at Napier, the prep school I alone didn’t graduate from, because I was thrown out ignominiously for smoking Queen Anne’s lace and then telling the truth about it. (It’s god-awful stuff, thanks for asking.)
Cats and babies land on their feet; turns out I prefer public school because as long as you’re not a discipline problem they let you do pretty much whatever you want. Here the teachers are afraid of the students instead of the other way around and that seems fair to me: if we pay the bills aren’t they employees? In Oz’s colorful phrase, the boss’ dick won’t suck itself.
The art teachers there were touchingly grateful for someone like me to play with. Incredibly, (to my family at least), I think they understood art a lot better than the teachers at Napier ever would. At Napier “original” is an insult. I was also allowed to satisfy my math requirement with a program I found on the Internet, and they let me use my poem cycle “Having Sex With Lord Byron” as my English final. Conserve your gunpowder says Oz. Multi-tasking be damned. “Precocious” or “preconscious” are the only two choices.
In public school if you read a book they’re impressed. I could read whatever the hell I felt like without being told it was politically incorrect or inappropriate or passé or just wouldn’t get me ahead, which is the Napier school mantra.
Oz didn’t want me to go to public school either but when I pointed out he was the one who said writers need to have adventures, he admitted “Touché”. He says anyone can get a good education reading everything they can find and our house has a super library. While Colleen and Trevor worried noisily about what kind of people I’d be hanging out with, Oz gave me a pseudonym “Velda Chai” (means “wild thing”) in gratitude for his screen name. Considering that “education” is a process of sifting through contradictory and self-serving facts trying to figure out what’s what, I think I designed a very good education for myself. History may frustrate, but art does not lie.
Then there’s the extra benefit that at public school you never have to see the inside of a gym if you really don’t want to — they want the talentless to stay away from sports. So there you are, free as a bird at two in the afternoon. What’s not to like?
The family complaint about me is that I don’t listen. At least I think that’s what they said – I wasn’t paying attention at the time. Artists must tune in selectively. You’re building a house of cards inside your head; the least disturbance brings the structure down.
Trevor says my problem comes from being the baby and never getting any discipline. Oz’s military regime for the two boys was very watered down when it came to us. Things that made his neck cords stand out with his sons produced a “whatever” when it came to me. I think this is another example of Trevor shortchanging himself; underestimating his own power. Oz knew if he ragged on me he had Trevor to deal with. Trevor is my “parfait gentil knight”. And there’s age. When Oz got older, he was less interested in family. Hobbies absorbed his interest.
There are three pictures of Trevor. My favorite, touched superstitiously as I descend, captures a microexpression so fleeting the others don’t think it looks like Trevor at all. When he’s suffering he gets this dog-like remote look; I call it Praetorian Nightshift. He really hates having his picture taken because of the adolescent acne thing, but he’s too proud to seem vain and so this expression says, “Bring it on.” So Trevor.
Colleen, who claimed to keep her own allergies in check with the power of positive thinking, had him visiting trendy charlatans, getting shots, bathing in cold water and banned from eating anything really delicious. She ultimately swore it was her “fleuroceuticals” that cured him, using him as a before-and-after success story to his undying embarrassment. I’m sure really he just exerted the power of his amazing will.
I learned to copy him; in my sophomore year I found the most satisfying way to fend off family paparazzi was a faceful of henna tattoos. The resulting hysteria was so enjoyable I went out and got a tongue stud. Trevor worried I would sound different, but thanks to Shelley’s vocal exercises it’s invisible unless I flaunt it. I can twist it out through my lips with my tongue and protrude it at people I don’t like. How I thrill to the shrieks of the squeamish.
After Trevor’s skin cleared he refused dermabrasion because I told him the ripples around his chin look like dueling scars. He told me it was me he’d been dueling for and I said when I get famous he can consider those scars a check to cash.
Trevor has other embarrassing pictures — the “hairy one”, where he’s wearing such wild sideburns Oz called them “côtes sauvages”. Everyone made such fun of him he’s allowed barely a speck of hair on his body since. He shaves like a racer. He wasn’t good at sports the way Jake was; a fact his father ceaselessly drew attention to. You’d think Oz the debater would value his Dean’s list son, but with Trevor he acted as if the physical stuff was more important. He never criticized Jake for needing a harem of assistance to complete any intellectual project.
Down at the bottom of the stairs are all the baby pictures, so here are the ones of me, the little red-headed spheroid everyone wanted to hold. I was just so gosh darn cute. Oz says kids live in the moment, the way you’re supposed to live. I guess infancy is his “beau ideal” of mental health.
Being the baby means I lack grown-up pictures, like me in the to-die-for strapless gown of violent purple ribbed with royal blue (our school colors – go Mudskippers!) taken at graduation, the event we were celebrating the night Colleen died. God knows what’s become of those pictures. Well, God and Colleen. Probably the police have them, they took everything else.
As I said before, Oz eschews family photographs. Over his desk sits only that famous one Lewis Carroll took of his muse, Alice Liddell. If the cops knew it was titled “Open Your Mouth and Shut Your Eyes”, would they have dragged it away with the rest of the porn?
At the bottom of the stairs I slow because I’ll run into someone — usually Mina but maybe Craig – and all I want is to slurp the strongest coffee in silence. Yes, the lawyers are staying in the house, Craig Axelrod, imported from what he calls The Other America, says it’s to keep the cops from bugging the house with listening devices.
Mina says it’s really because Craig despises the Marriott, and there’s no five star hotel closer than Fairfax. I think they just want to be close to us, the way the press does, because now we’re celebrities. Trevor says Thank God anyway because he’s the one who has to pay the bills. It does sort of destroy any shreds of privacy we might have had to clothe ourselves.
I peek around the corner and yup, there’s Craig’s assistant Mina Pyloti, an early riser sitting all collapsed-looking at the twelfth century French refectory table. Contrary to what the needlepoint pillows want to have you believe, it is possible to be too thin. Mina is tall and gangly, with pointy bones sticking out in all directions, looking more like a challenge round of pick-up-sticks than anything walking down a runway.
Oz, who treasures thinness (he used to give Skylar hell) would say it’s just her posture, Colleen would have said it’s the way she thinks about herself, but I say some people need meat on their bones. Whatever she is, she’s sitting squarely between me and a life-giving cuppa Joe. If I had any money, I’d buy a coffeemaker for my room and never come downstairs. But there are no more allowances for any of us because of trial expenses, which is why it burns me up so much when the tabs portray us as spoiled rich kids.
If I could pry Fayette away from Trevor I could maybe get some cash out of him, but his attention is shredded and Fayette not only barks, she bites.
Well, I have to face Mina at some point. If only she didn’t come equipped with some kind of mother complex about us Poor Orphans. Innocence Demands Rescue is the legal concept she quoted as, oohing and goo-ing, she mauled my head and shoulders upon meeting me. More likely it’s her biological clock gonging away. She’s that age.
She doesn’t move as I step out on the distressed-tiled floor (Colleen “rescued” these tiles from a dairy somewhere—probably they weren’t even grateful) and cross over to the coffeemaker. It’s only just been started; can the case be going that badly already? Mina isn’t reading the newspaper; there are no court documents spread before her, instead she sits, head in hands. Hangover?
Untouched in front of her is a bowl of bark-and- twig breakfast cereal reputed to “spark” the system. Was she sorrowing over her irreparably filthy colon?
I take a mug – my favorite, labeled It’s Never Too Late to Start Procrastinating and pour myself a sludge of black gold.
Mina isn’t even dressed. Still garbed in her kimono. Who gave her permission to treat this public place as a forecourt to her boudoir? Even for an attorney with the ordained dispensation of cataloging a family’s most disgusting derelictions this seems too familiar. Where was the verve with which she processed our public misery as recently as yesterday? If like most people she lives entirely vicariously, viewing her own life as distasteful downtime, then reveling in our misfortune should have the effect of making her more real to herself, no? No revelry here. She looked almost like a real human being, one who really suffers. Or suffers at the suffering of others.
Why was I so uncooperative with Jake last night? If I’d accepted his offer, wouldn’t I have his Porsche keys by now? I know he has charge cards. He charges, Trevor pays, Fayette screams. That’s the division of labor. I could be at Starbucks now, shaking my head over the morning paper like all the other people who aren’t in it. Ever since Trevor sold the spare vehicles around this place joyriding has been a thing of the past. The limo is a rental. You’d have to arm-wrestle Spike for it.
She knew I was there. She looked at me over her little glasses and said quietly, “I’m afraid we’ve had very bad news, Brontë. You might not want to go to court today.”
I was in the process of writing “milk” rather pathetically on the magnetized refrigerator list. Whose duty it was to attend to this list might be unclear, but without a car I was well out of it. Clearly Mina had used the last of the milk and I was now sentenced to as many scrapings of powdered creamer as I could extract from an age-encrusted jar. She should be apologizing about that, I was thinking, and not telling me that on day two of the trial the news was already bad my fragile psyche couldn’t deal with it. Had Oz been killed in a prison brawl? Did he escape, or maul a prison guard? There wouldn’t be a trial today if any of those things were true. No plea bargain, I knew that, because I eavesdropped on Oz turning it down. That was when I heard about things like “depraved indifference” and “reckless disregard”.
Mina told me later the law school definition of a “depraved heart” killing is someone opening the lion’s cage at a crowded zoo and not caring what happens. Or, say, leaving an uncovered pool in a state of disrepair for people to fall into.
But Oz said no.
So what could it be?
Mina took off her glasses and fixed me with her big, nearsighted eyes. Her eyes aren’t so bad. She should wear contacts to let people know she’s trying. Without makeup, without those little emo glasses she looked nothing like a high powered attorney’s high-powered assistant, but a forest creature flushed unwillingly by bulldozer.
She said, “Maybe you’d better sit down.”
Maybe I can’t take this. The last time anybody cared about whether I was stayed vertical or folded at the knees was the morning after graduation when I staggered downstairs with the mother of all hangovers to be told Colleen was dead. I went down then. I went way down. How Not to Throw Up should have been a much better poem.
Had those distant relatives always trying to get custody of me and Shelley finally managed to score? Oz warned the trial would bring them around like flies. All that Sturm und Drang had ceased when I finally turned sixteen. Now Shelley and I are too old to be passed around the country like a pair of homeless kittens.
So I sat. “What is it?”
“They’re bringing your mother into the case,” said Miss Pyloti, and she blinked rapidly as if she might cry for me.
I think I sat for a few moments with my face all crumpled, hearing sounds, but not hearing meaning. It was the English language, I guess, but it didn’t make sense.