A Where Are They Now montage of the Dunn-Prince family might go something like this: slow pan across a dappled quadrangle, whitely crusted with frost. Sun breaking onto veined ivy, dreadlocks of it, scaling a red-brick building—where we now approach a gothic half-oval window, the muddled quality of the glass dissolving as our perspective osmotically insinuates itself to the other side, settling on a tall, assertive woman with hair like burnt agave nectar (she is seated, but we can tell she is tall, oh yes). Scribbling away at a stack of papers, her posture adamantine, the circles under her eyes not visible, she enters the frame surrounded by books: gorgeous antiquarian volumes: the door of her office open, the gothic lamplight from her desk oozing out, distending in a pale arc down the otherwise darkened corridor, her colleagues nowhere to be found, perhaps still asleep, perhaps it is a weekend, the pained grunts and graveled footfall of the men’s varsity cross country team shunting up through the opened window opposite, opened just a crack, just the right draft at this a.m. hour, just chilly enough to keep Mary Louisa’s scholarly efforts brisk and purposive, which at this moment command every atom of her attention, as she peers through ruby-red-framed glasses, a gainsome profile of her figure rendered there in the lamplight;
quick cut to a decidedly more Pacific setting, deep into twilight, hazy crazed orange slipping from the sky, moon out in full, dancing on a power line, as the camera rolls back to reveal more power lines and silhouetted palms; some houses across the street; condos; eccentric Southwesternly one-stories with terra cotta roofing and proudly-announcing mailboxes, a chain-link fence to that one on the left, yards alternately manicured and neglected—we’re zooming out here—the frame widening to encompass the splayed New Balances and ankle-socks of two athletically-long legs thigh-flat against the drive, and then a tennis skirt attached to those legs, an “Endangered Species” thrift store T-shirt dyed in handsomely retro magenta, alphabetically listing all the endangered species of its time of manufacture, modestly rounded breasts pinching the shirt taut just so—“Chinchilla” and “Whooping Crane” rise to prominence on the incline—the red envelope of a Netflix movie resting there and rising and falling with each breath, the frame still widening so we see this tanned, athlete’s body belongs to the smooth, freckled face of twenty-six-year-old Mary Angelica, marigold hair fanning out like a halo, fresh sweat drying on her face and neck, lying back-flat like that on the drive, closing one eye and then the other—the camera makes a quick cut—the moon is crouched right there on that power line—cut, now it’s under—cut, it’s back on top—and the sky is cascading into a deep, pink dusk;
and we’re back on the East Coast, in a dorm, the light noirish and suggestive of poltergeists, maybe we’re on a movie set, but no, this is the legitimate residence of a character we figure deserves our attention—a muscular figure, seated, shooting rhythmically back and forth on a cantilevered machine of some sort, this machine humming like a whipsaw with each backward thrust of his movements (even if we’ve never seen this machine before, we can tell it is sinister, oh it is out for blood); he’s holding a handlebar attached by a retractable chain to this machine, his legs strapped in at a most certainly uncomfortable angle; the humming is somehow audible over the thundering of an i-Cloud’s auxiliary speakers, blasting high-tempo dub/glitch techno—beside the speakers a wheelchair sits empty, watching—; and they really are blasting; on second glance the young man appears to be timing his movements to the beat of the music, kicking and thrusting from his lower body, catapulting himself backwards on his seat along a maybe three-foot-long steel axel, his momentum then carrying him forwards again as he firms up his muscles for the next identical thrust (even since we’ve been watching he’s done at least twenty of these repetitive, chillingly controlled motions, and his skin is peppered with pods of sweat, his whole frame tense— the camera is just hovering, creepily—); and but the music slows, the music is slowing down, there’s this deceleration of the pitch, you can feel it in the waning prominence of the higher-frequency tones, the blips and the synthesized tom-toms, and John Jr. downgrades the force of his thrusts accordingly, and the last twerked shrieks of high hats end abruptly and he allows himself to stop, doubled over like that for some moments, clutching his ankles in their straps, his breathing hysterical, the machine still issuing an eerie residual hum from its ribbed frame; and then the ding of a text message received, and the young man exhaustedly unstrapping himself, and going upon the floor, and leveraging his body into the wheelchair, whence he retrieves the colt-black i-Cloud, examines with a face devoid of reaction, fans the i-Cloud out to full diptyched screenspan, pulls on his triceps, stretches them above his head, wipes the sweat from his brow on the sleeve of his shirt, peers into the screen, starts typing on the portable keypad;
and—whew—we can breathe easy—we’re following a license plate that reads SHAKTIGRRL, taking up the whole middle of the screen, though we can see in the uppermost corners that a sky of strewn-cotton clouds edges into our periphery; we’re in Florida, we’re in Florida because the SHAKTIGRRL license plate tells us so, the sunshine state, it says, framed right there in the middle of our screen against an aggressive vermilion paintjob and those peripheries of cloud-strewn blue; we cut to camera two; the Civic slams to a stop at a light, or right before bulldozing the cameraman, and the young woman with goldenrod hair pinned behind her shoulders, which shoulders now heave forward and then jerk back with the lurch-stop of the car, appears for one second to have actually felt the whiplash, actually registered that it occurred—though we get the impression, a crumpled cinch drawn across her lips [figurative, purely figurative, for your imagination—the shape of a cinch], that she almost wished to fly through that windshield altogether, or would not have protested had that moment resulted in just such a conclusion—while the driver, ovular John Lennon sunglasses on and looking very much to be related to her passenger, could pass for her mother maybe, lets out a “Holy Lordy!” with a smack-of-palm-to-forehead motion, turning to the young woman and back to the road, exclaiming: “You see? You see? The light gets shorter every day. What did I just say back there, these lights are getting shorter every day?” And the girl called Kaylee stares straight ahead, her own imp of the perverse drawing a finger across the fragile windshield of her mind—
Weekly habitation pow-wows at Chez Denouement. Zoë stands before the Sarasota city map tacked to the common room wall, a baton in her hand. Sawaad is sitting in an armchair, peeling a peach. Dave is rather sprawled on the floor, a bundle of violet and indigo flannel. June beside him, in uncanny lotus pose. Grass beside her, on her chest, chin propped on her arms—nose-deep in The Secret Language of Birthdays. Rogerio is of course not without his guitar, strumming softly in the corner. Zoë surveys the room, her ragtag roundtable.
“Honestly, where is everyone today?”
Here is Beaux Denouement: a hammer in his hand, spectacles declined upon his nose, walking his goofy spindly-legged walk. Beaux Denouement, tall and Creole-dark: hair wavy, shoulder-length, the color of a good chocolate roux. Exquisite hair, all in all. Hair that could definitively be placed in the “Christ-like” category. In his torn-bare overalls hiked up geriatrically past the waistline, so high they bare the bottom of the shin, taking freakishly large steps with his freakishly long legs, he emerges from the woods under the slant of day’s-end rays. Beaux Denouement: the reason for all of this (or a lot of this): for the mind-altering Escherian architecture of the chez; for the rows of pole bean, kale, collards, papaya, mustard greens and other varied organics in the north plot of the property; for the treehouse in which son Zeb now smokes what he believes to be his father’s marijuana; for the pH-regulation and healthy algal populations in the pond; for the [reportedly] Paraguayan satyr-looking fellows who have colonized a banyan tree on the eastern edge of the pond; for the pond’s not going to total shit, let’s admit it; for the general ethos and guiding principles under which the quasi-commune that is Chez Denouement was founded, some twenty years ago.
And here is Carolyn Prince: definitely breaking traffic laws, her strawberry-blond hair flapping like a windsock on account of the open window, her grip on the shakti-red Civic’s steering wheel commanding in the way of a mother’s easy grip, the SHAKTIGRRL license plate leaving its Silverado competitors in the dust, barreling down Fruitville and skidding along the southeasterly arc of a turn onto Beneva, tumbling into the neighborhood of the Amish, onto Beersheba Dr., into muted traffic hums and magisterial foliage, deeper into the back, colliding into her driveway. Carolyn Prince: the reason for (among other things): the chorus of sunflowers announcing the drive; the lack of a mailbox; the stepping-stone path through the grass to the porch; a frieze of Surrealist pastorals elaborated in unlikely locales [a family living under the stairs; a man in coattails admiring the unique tectonics of a Chilean isle, himself somehow spirited onto this isle, accompanied by a mermaid; a cabaret of sailfish, etc.]; for the extension of goodwill to her sister Jacquelyn, in the form of an open invitation to take on her sister’s daughter for however long was necessary, citing her totally subjective opinion that perhaps a little time in the Sarasota sun, down at the home of her very own cousins, might just work some good for the troubled girl Kaylee, whom Carolyn just adored, and—just throwing this out there—might just provide the kind of auspicious and totally non-judgmental environment she needed to “realign herself”, like so.
The screeching of the reconstituted Civic into the driveway, mowing down a pinwheel where a mailbox should be, proclaims the aunt-niece pair has returned from some foraging at one of the more outskirtish farmers’ markets. Zeb from his crow’s nest view in the treehouse sees them spin in and remembers, courtesy of a slow, swimming kind of delayed reaction, that he has a chez pow-wow to attend in the common room. He looks at the contents of Mr. Clean—very, so very slowly— … …… [still looking] …… decides, ………… The lighter flares.
It wasn’t that Jacquelyn was strictly opposed to the idea at first; it was more like she startled herself by realizing she really had reached this end of her wits: that she had grown so desperate with her Kaylee that Carolyn’s offer didn’t immediately repulse her, as it might have five years ago.
In fact at this point she was willing to try anything with the girl.
It hurt to see her drift, over the years…to see her become less and less the fertile child of her imaginings.
“I think it’s great, Kaylee,” Carolyn is saying. “You might as well give them a call—that is if you’re ready—I mean we are not all completely opposed to working ‘out there’. I mean, look at me. I’m out there. I make it clear to them I’m doing my own thing, but make no mistake, honey. I’m out there.”
Beaux is trudging up the rows of head lettuce and beetroot and toward the house, squinting into the sun.
And Sawaad, methodically peeling his peach. Sawaad, whose diet consisted almost exclusively of peaches and peach products. Raw peaches, peach mash, peach jam straight from the jar, peach crumble without the crumble…the lone exception being Rogerio’s feijoada, for which he abandons all peach products when it’s made.
Kaylee looks absently at the flier in her hand.
“Have you ever seen lights change so quickly, though? In all seriousness? Oh we are so late.”
Rogerio has this style where he strums with his three middle fingers while splaying his thumb and pinkie finger outward in mock-cowabunga/’90s-miming-of-a-telephone pose [that’s what it looks like] so that they brush and alternately tap the body of the guitar above and below the sound hole. In this way a soft rhythm section emerges, lending a hollow timbre to the melody. 8/9ths of the house is agreed upon this being rather innovative and resulting in something arguably musical.
Dave’s snores at this late-afternoon hour reek suspiciously of sour-mashed corn products.
Grass is mid-sentence, “…born on this day will find great stability in friendships grounded in mutual trust, but are to heed well the inevitable tensions doomed to sabotage any relationship that acquires romantic dimensions.”
Zoë’s foot is really tapping the hell out of that floor.
Beyond the pond’s eastern edge, the casual observer may note a spider-web-like dispersion of hammocks strung from the aerial root network of a certain banyan tree set a little ways into the woods. They are alive and swaying with tanned day’s-end bodies.
Beaux’s path from the woods traces not the eastern edge of the pond but the northern: through the vegetable plots; patches of knucklehead pumpkins and Cinderellas; the yard; across the shadow-strewn grass. The sun eclipsed by a big, bear-hugging elm, bear-hugging the treehouse room of his son, built with Beaux’s own two hands.
Jacquelyn had done the unthinkable at first—calling her sister Carolyn for advice—leaving a message—[the Denouement household had not a working telephone line, yet did abide the concession of an answering machine]—but quickly changed her mind as soon as she received a collect call from “Your sis-terr! Your siiiister, sister! Sister of the wild frontier!” to the tune of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” and was asked if she wanted to accept the charges. That was when she hung up. But five days later she was washing her wine-stained Waterford crystal, an heirloom—a Mary Louiseloom—a wedding gift—and her hands were scrubbing just thoroughly enough that the glass collapsed in her grip and into her long, strong fingers. Brilliant, vermilion trickles cascaded over her soapy palm, down her wrist. She looked out the window above the sink of her new, alien brownstone with its hardly-lived-in feel, onto rapidly-shedding eastern cottonwoods and a 24-hour Laundromat with shrieking indoor lighting—[no other name, just that, Laundromat]—and felt herself beginning to shake. Jack wasn’t around. She gathered a bucket of ice water and sat down on the hardwood kitchen floor, picking each infinitesimal shard of glass from her hand. The water was chummed substantially by the time she inched for the phone again, trying with all her proud bright might to make her voice sound convincingly indistraught as she left another message.
Zeb reaches ve-ry slow-ly under his bed and retrieves a glos-sy co-lor-print that requires some ma-jor tug-ging to get its pages unnn-stuck-k-k from one another. The pow-wow, which only moments ago had seemed so important, has just as soon swum from his mind.
Kaylee wasn’t hearing what was coming out of her Aunt Carolyn’s mouth. Words, fragments, iota of sonic textures. They were limply tapping her brain like taps on a door, not full-fledged knocks but feeble taps, half-knocks, like they didn’t really want to get in. And then after such pitiful expenditure of effort they fell away. And Kaylee could sometimes watch herself watching them fall away. But instead of stepping in, instead of going out after them and yelling, “Wait! I’m here—!”—as after so many trick-or-treaters—she did nothing, just watched, and then not watched, as the rows of linguistic datum tapped and retreated, tapped and retreated, retreated and did not return.
The girl was impenetrable, Jacquelyn said. Impermeable to every motherly advance—Jacquelyn couldn’t hide behind pedestrian diction now—how was a mother to get through? Carolyn listened patiently from the Dollar General parking lot payphone on 41. “I am willing,” she said at length, “to take on Kaylee down here for a while. If that’s what you’re calling to ask.”
No, Jacquelyn was not repulsed. She had always harbored something akin to admiration for her sister’s nearly clairvoyant ability to gauge emotional pulses. But,
“But, I wasn’t asking that. No.”
“I get it.” Carolyn ran into the next sentence before Jacquelyn knew what was happening. “I saw her at the funeral. She looked morose. Like she was the one in the grave.” Jacquelyn found herself not interrupting. “I can only imagine. Two funerals in two months? And this is the idea I’m offering you: what doesn’t make sense about sending her down here, for a couple of months—for however long she needs—to get a little change of scenery?”
Through the other end, Jacquelyn could hear the Doppler-shifting hisses of vehicles speeding past the payphone, and the thought killed her. Her sister, standing in God knows, a kimono or a burqa or something else cultural—a papoose!—calling her from a payphone. On Highway 41.
“Carolyn. You’re already dealing with Mami. I couldn’t—possibly.”
But Jacquelyn also observed that she was acutely not repulsed by her offer.
“…I mean, right? She is still alive there, isn’t she? Carrie?”
An eighteen-wheeled-sounding vehicle roared by with such ferocity it sounded as if Carolyn had been mowed down in its path.
“—if you want to. Just, you know, throwing that out there.”
“Oh God. Where in hell are you? What is this life of yours!”
“Because it just might be the ideal auspicious and totally non-judgmental environment she needs right now. I’m not trying to be her mother,” she added hastily. “Just saying.”
“Carolyn. No.” Jacquelyn could feel that sickly flushness climbing her neck. “You’ve done too much. You’ve already taken on Mami, to the, to the chagrin of all of us. All of us me and Erskine. And I simply cannot ask you to, adopt Kaylee for a semester or, what, more? While you have that burden on your shoulders already. I just cannot.”
“But you’ll keep her holed up with you? What will she do? New York isn’t her home.”
Kaylee cannot muster the strength to run after her aunt, who is dashing over day’s-end rays behind a periwinkle-colored Astrovan and a tripe-colored ’89 Bronco to the kitchen door, two months after the collect call that started all this.
The thing is that once or twice in a day won’t do now, and lifting off only stokes the urge more. So you rub the tips of your supersensitized fingers over the tip of… and with your left hand reach for the Kleenex. Only now the room is l i t e r a l l y s w i m m i n g and like where are the Kleenex, dude?
Jacquelyn, her hand mummified in gauze, was looking at the way the copious applications of Neosporin soaked through the bandage, leaving wide splotches of a distinctly jaundiced hue all over the dressing, and she was thinking whether the word sebaceous might be used to describe the state of the gauze. She decided that, while the gauze could appear unctuous, pinguid, or even oleaginous, it could not, technically, be described as sebaceous.
“Look,” Carolyn was saying, “this isn’t too much to ask. We have the room here. Kaylee knows this place—it’s familiar to her. And maybe…Jacquelyn?”
“Maybe she can connect with mother. Maybe the two of them [another semi gargled past and Jacquelyn missed a lick] …, and like,” she concluded. “They can need each other now.”
In the northernmost room of the second floor of Chez Denouement, Mary Louise struggles with an ebony cardigan, one arm caught behind her back in an uncooperative sleeve. She was unwilling to unglue herself or she was incapable of ungluing herself from the desk chair, its Emily Dickinson austerity, because she was afraid of missing crucial data from the flashy, sound-producing animation coming out of the i-Cloud. When Grammy Louise had first refused to budge from the scene of the funeral—staring into those woods, just staring—the family by and large felt it only natural to give her the space required for the bloodletting of her grief. But as the week went on, and the various family figures of Lawrence Tabers’ late life had returned to their dwelling holes in Tennessee and beyond, and by and by it was time for Jacquelyn and Jack to return to New York, because the movers were coming that weekend with the Steinway and the ecru bookcase, the two of them were forced to say goodbye to a catatonic Mary Louise, to literally talk at her, so unresponsive had she become. [The real dilemma was that she was cold, because she was born without a thyroid, lest anyone forget, and yet the status updates proceeded so fast, and what would happen if she missed one of the updates of her new digital friends? In her day she would have never not returned a phone call, no! Certainly it would look rude if she didn’t respond to all the updates of these people she had come to know so intimately! Hence—the no looking away to snatch the uncooperative sleeve.] In the end, they took off, did Jack and Jacquelyn, along with a morbidly zestless Mary Katherine [“Kaylee”], who nearly rivaled her grandmother in muteness. In those four days after they laid the erstwhile patriarch in the backyard, Mary Louise had done exactly nothing outside of waking very early, walking the length of the yard, and planting herself in a tattered lawn chair she’d installed in the soggy earth on the day of the funeral: sitting there, staring. Soon it became clear she had no intention of leaving. Indeed she appeared to be void of intentions and basic modes of communication altogether. And Carolyn called Jacquelyn, some days later, to say she was just going to keep their mother there and allow her the window of mourning she deserved, asking no questions, for however long she needed. Seven months later she was still catatonic and still squatting.
“Okay, we’re just going to start already,” Zoë is saying.
Some vague rustles of acknowledgment from the crowd.
“Right. So. This is weekly pow-wow number three, annum twenty-eleven, now open for discourse.” She surveys the room. Sawaad, peeling. Dave, snoring. Grass, face-down in astrological determinism. June is typically awash in quiet. Zeb once remarked that “June looks at you makes you feel like a skeleton”. For this comment he received a demeritorious “responsibility” per the chez underage disciplinary scheme. Rogerio, seeing by Zoë’s vexation that he’s missed his cue, fumbles at his guitar and strums out the E minor – F major – G major – and back down again riff that heralds the opening to every pow-wow. At this Dave pops upright—“Present! Present!”—and everyone else shifts half-assedly about.
He felt the hunk in his pants growing. The color-print represented everything in the world out there that had been denied him here. Snazzy snapshots of women with things, with possessions—sleek black sunglasses, chihuahuas in handbags—they didn’t have to be naked for Zeb to get off on them. The phase had passed when sexual stimulation came like easy gold at the font of teenage lust—he was fifteen now, fucking a’—that phase of droning, illicit hours that marked his first discovery of the Internet’s silos of vicarious pleasures. Such a surfeit of holes and fluids to be found! He’d lathered, jerked, stroked, squeezed, and creamed his way through two formative years at a blitzkrieg pace as if to compensate for the thirteen prior. The i-Cloud was defiled with caches of indecorous cookies in the process. But it was a funny thing, [Mr. Clean has been generously incapacitating today, the pages are stuck ver-y fast and all mo-tor a-bi-li-ty is fail-l-l-l-l-ling] what happened to the reams of flesh and virtual playgrounds of orifices and taboos—it was a funny thing that one day the money shot didn’t pack the bang you’d come to savor [there was no “buck” in this equation, the Denouement household being definitively plastic-less, forcing Zeb to seek out the more creative, free-of-charge online playgrounds that didn’t require your credit card number], it was a funny thing that you now had to empty dropperfuls of mom’s eucalyptus oil just to get that leverage that had once come so easy when graced with a view so plump and carmine—it was a funny thing that eventually, after two years of it, there was seemingly no more juice in the cylinder for spread-eagled Asian hotties in dorm rooms. It actually got kind of disgusting. So the next time you’re on a coveted field trip from the chez, and you sneak off for just long enough to step into a Bi-Rite, and you find yourself gawking in the phosphorescent dynamo, at the aisles and aisles of things, of potential possessions, it’s not the K.Y. you covertly stuff in your sock and whose barcode you defile, it’s the glossy US Weeklys and Peoples that you reach for—and when that gets too egregious and overtly sexual you start sneaking over the stone wall into the neighbors’ yard and snatching the prairie-home-chic Land’s End catalogues from the mailbox every week, the ones addressed to Shmuel Yoder Or Current Resident, because you’ve gotten to a point where what gets you off is the stuff, the stuff, the women fully clothed in it, demanding so much imagination to just undress them, and suddenly there is nothing more arousing than a middle-aged prairie wife in white Keds and a knit sweater, hugging a Collie. On a ranch.
“Right. So, em, first order of business. Is.” Not even June has lent her attention. “Is does anyone have any order of business?”
“So, the way that pow-wows work here, people,” Zoë goes, “is we all raise our concerns about the vibe of the house, what needs our attention, what needs our TLC. I’m just the fa-cil-i-ta-tor this week. Right? Are you people alive or what?”
[The thought about the Kleenex has long since swum away from Zeb, replaced by a utopia of women reclined on haybales, decked out in turtlenecks and Stetsons. Stetsons.]
Beaux comes crashing into the common room all at once, all four spindly limbs of him. Where the back hall door shudders on its hinges, he stands in the threshold, breathless, his hands on his hips and his legs splayed out, like a comic poster of himself—[smokey the bear says, only YOU can prevent forest fires]. Whereas Zoë’s surveying of the room was merely posturing, merely borrowed authority, his speaks of true dominion. Beaux Denouement: the reason for all of this (or most of this): standing there smacking his lips in the doorframe, the doorframe that leads to his and Carolyn’s north-facing room, that opens onto thicklavendered stepping stone path, that winds overgrown around the corner, that passes along the tangelos, that peters into vegetable plots and papayas colonized with wasps, that empties, eventually, onto a wide tract of yard, that runs up against the suddenly dense and forbidding woods, that—
At nearly the same time, Carolyn collides with the screen door stage left, and in the overexerted force falls straight into the kitchen floor’s acrid embrace. Her bags of local peaches, a windup lullaby-crooning cherub, and a mock Tiffany lamp—the products of their bartering—go flying all over the place. And then her swimming about on the floor, trying to find her feet. Her puffing her tousled blond out of her eyes. Blue, disheveled eyes, landing right on her husband’s.
“Honey bear,” Beaux goes.
“Papa bear,” Carolyn beams from the floor.
Now moving across the rooms to each other. Now collapsing in open embrace: a goofy entwinement of limbs. The seeming picture of non-nuclear happiness.
Kaylee slips in behind the carnage and finds Sawaad’s seat, Sawaad having ditched it in pursuit of rolling peaches.
“Um. Ahem. Right.” Zoë soldiers forward. “Well, glad everyone—”
“Hmph,” Beaux snorts. “Jerkin’ his gherkin, ’f’ya ask me.”
“—everyone—right. Well I have an order of business, if no one else does.”
“Will you look at what I—what Kaylee and I found today? Kaylee, tell them what we found today.” Carolyn springs to, gathering her bargains.
“Uh. A Tiffany lamp, and a…a angel. That sings.”
“I’m thinking putting it here— [Carolyn’s droll cavorting—] next to the music box. The vibe in that corner is just so calling out right now.”
A lullabying cherub next to a music box—Kaylee thinks, if this doesn’t typify the chez, then what else? It’s the first thing you notice about the place—the legions of crap, everywhere, strewn in every which direction. Not strewn, Kaylee corrects herself. More like methodically and conscientiously dispersed. When she was little, she loved that about her cousins’. The place seemed so expansive, so infinite in its idiosyncratic logic, its stacks of books crowding hallways, its piles of contraptions and handicrafts, its cacti and perennials gushing from pots, nooks, cubbies, shelves—the whole place oozing with stuff. And all the time, Aunt Carolyn, the million-mile-an-hour mind, busying herself arranging, staging, tweaking, stacking, feng shui-ing it all into seemingly orderly compartments of stuff. The gallery of marionettes that assaults the casual dishwasher. The solar system mobile that wasn’t a problem when you were young and short but now got in the way while you tried to shower. Now, grown up, Kaylee sees the chaos in the lining.
In his desk chair up in the treehouse, approaching a state of maximal stiffness over the sandbag-protrusions of a forest-green sweater, Zeb, born right here on the premises, into a bathtub under a wizened tangelo tree, feels he has never once been asked what legions of crap he might like to hoard.
“Yes—and that brings me exactly to what I was going to say.” Zoë turns to the map behind her. The map is peppered with pushpins and yarn. “Folks, we have competition.”
“Competition,” she confirms. “It appears Whole Foods has wised up to our dumpster diving operations.”
“But we’re so careful about it?”
“We ne’r gwo in til day-end?” [Rogerio]
“And yet— [she stabs her baton with such zest]— preliminary recon conducted by yours truly with the assistance of Sawaad and his faithful van [he nods] revealed that there appears to have been a den of Nuevo College mushbrains that were raiding the cans at ungodly hours, before they got busted.”
“The police got a call about some noise complaint, some orgy in a dumpster.”
“It’s in ‘The Collegian.’ Point being, Whole Foods is done. They’ve got a security guard on site 24 hours and they’re starting to dispose of their waste—egregious, absolutely disgusting waste—all by their righteous corporate selves.”
Rogerio hits a lonesome F minor.
“And so,” Zoë continues, “Tuesday duties are moving to the Bank of America office park off Ringling, [attacking the map, rearranging the pins] while the Thursday team consolidates forces on Lido. All in favor?”
Vague ayes; an audible hmph.
Zeb, for the third time today, could feel it crawling, inching its way up…he just had to imagine a little harder…harder, he he…imagine what he’d find under there when he lifted the knit green pullover off her, how slowly and yet how ravenously he’d remove one by one the snow-white Keds… and yo but like the Kleenex? are where?
“Moving on. What do we have to trade with this week?”
The familiar ring of silence.
“…What have you people been doing all week?”
“Ehmm...” begins the soft-spoken, foulmouthed Sawaad, “I’ve seen something, you know? By the pond? The other day? Like a fucking crocodile or something?”
“Yeah!” Grass seconds. “I saw that thing too! I was sitting there in the bowl chair, you know, like, reading, and I swear I saw something come out of the woods. And jump in the pond.”
“Mm, mm. This, precisely. This is precisely what I see. A crocodile, or a crocodile-like creature, jump in the fucking pond. Like it was going for a fucking swim.”
“Is this for real?” someone asks.
“This is so for real,” Grass goes. “I didn’t think nothin of it first, but now you mention it, Sawaad—”
“So there is a motion on the table that a crocodile, or a crocodile-like creature—”
“Maybe it was an alligator?”
“—right, something of the gator family or something of gator resemblance, has taken up residence—”
“Or a caiman?”
“Or a gharial?!”
“—has taken up residence—”
“Hmph, hmph!” Beaux steps forward. “Now hear me up, people. We done had the gator crossins an’ whatnot round these parts.” Beaux’s voice has a salivary timbre to it. When he speaks, he interjects little quick aerated swallows in between phrases, producing a kind of sticky, smacking sound. Pushes his spectacles—glasses just don’t seem like the right word—back up his nose. “Thoseuvus who’r’ere for the great croc chase a ’96 know what I mean.” None of the present company was here for the great croc chase of ’96. “More important, though, we ain’t hardly see no dillas round here. Highway keeps ’em out, woods’re nice ’n’all but ain’t too much to a dilla’s likin’, and mos’ all the pond ain’t half big enough to support them wild-ass traptooths anyhow.”
“I was thinking we could catch it? Or some shit? For bartering, you asked?”
“Point bein’ ain’t no dillas to worry bout much here, I can assure you that—I been back there, y’all know, everyday, and I ain’t seen nothin. With all respect, Sammy. And watch yer mouth.”
“Now you know, Junebug,” the mother in Carolyn goes, “if you ever do see an alligator, you are to run as fast as you can in the other direction. Hm? You know this, right?”
[Sawaad] “I just thought…if we needed…”
“My word for it, Sammy.”
[Grass] “Whatever.” She returns to her Geminis and Leos.
Zoë steps in. “Right. Well, something to be on the lookout for. On the other hand, friends, I hate to break it to everyone—”
“Here it comes.”
“—but we have a cockroach problem.”
[F minor – E major – E minor]
“Yes—Rogerio—thank you. And it really is that bad.”
The unmistakable marigold of late-afternoon rays was stealing in through the window he was facing—the setting of a sun on a whole outside world. Every minute more he spent in here, in this treehouse, in this “commune”, the more he longed to know what lay beyond it. Amber prairies filled with sweater-clad women, reclining on haybales, dipping chalices into troughs of Kool-Aid. His glans was thick with the imagination it required.
“I caulked that up last fall,” Dave says between hiccups. “They’re cockroaches, [hip!], they get out. So what?”
“You should see Bahraini cockroaches,” Sawaad offers.
“Whatever happened to ‘living with the roaches’?”
“Yeah, right—” [Zoë]— “the roaches. Well, scratch that. Scratch that with a meat cleaver or something, cause I’m telling y’all right now that this has gotten out of hand. Yes, Grass?”
“What if the roaches, like, don’t have anywhere to go? What if it’s like Grapes of Wrath? Only, cockroaches?”
“I am going to open this to the floor because that’s how we do it here. But let it be known that I am definitively at my limit. As your facilitator today. My limit.”
“Big fucking things, Bahraini cockroaches.”
“Watch yer mouth round my daughter.”
“Size of your fist.”
“Zoë, dear,” [Carolyn]— “can we table this a second? Kaylee here has something she wants to announce.”
“Kaylee as you all know has been with us a couple weeks now— [ayes, hmphs—] and I, for one, am very excited, Kaylee, for you to…you’ve found something you want to share with us today? That is, if you want to. We are so totally opposed to pressuring you here.”
“I…” Kaylee produces the flier, then wads it shut. “I don’t think so, Aunt Carolyn.”
“Was that from Whole Foods?” [someone]
Kaylee goes flush. “It’s…it’s just something we came across. I’m looking for work.” She watches Zoë’s eyes narrow. “I didn’t know,” she adds.
“Oh! Jeezes! I am so sorry, Kaylee [Carolyn jumping to her feet, scrambling in mini circles] — I did not mean to put you on the spot. Oh dear. Everyone, that is my bad. Is that what you all say? My bad?” She senses Kaylee’s nerves. “Oh, Kaylee. I’m sorry. Look, we are all wanting you to fit in here, to find something for you. Just for you. You just take your time, darling. What a mess I am.”
Kaylee had been hearing most of her life that she was free to take her time, the tacit implication of which was that she didn’t belong, herself, with the rest of them; she marched to the beat of her own, lagging drummer. She forgave her Aunt Carolyn, whom she liked, for lumping her behind that drummer again.
[Zeb, approaching climax: in a field: amber waves of grain: a clothesline: the clothes flapping in the wind: the motherly figure spread-eagled in the dirt:]
“Maybe we should call it a day,” Carolyn concludes. “Final order of business?”
Zoë, miffed, turns to her notes. “Fine. Is, has anyone fed Carolyn’s mother today?”
Rogerio flashes speckled teeth. “Pickhailed tuna cheese, lady Zoë. You know i’s good.”
“And it’s been eaten, or it’s still sitting outside the door?”
“Sittin”, a muffled confirmation.
“Anybody…has anyone seen her out?” Carolyn asks, hopefully.
“Actually,” Grass says from her book, “she came down the other day. For help with the i-Cloud.”
“And Zeb went up.”
“You’ll have to ask him.”
Zeb Denouement, his forearm a burning aching rod, lets out a stiff, sharp cry and dampens, pitifully, the sticky nose of a Collie on page 28 of Shmuel Yoder Or Current Resident’s January 2011 *Special Winter Edition* of Land’s End. In the blank-like space that follows, he crashes back into his room, into his life; finds himself before his window, watching day’s-end rays, watching the peculiar way they bend around the glass.