She was the kind of mother who let you watch R-rated movies at indefensible ages. She was culturally Catholic—though non-proselyte—and protested few of Catholicism’s tenets. She was more of a lunch-line Catholic, Jacquelyn was, picking and choosing which tenets to go with [see Kaylee, a squeaky three years old, chewing a slimy white balloon she found in Mommy’s and Daddy’s bedside wastebasket]. Those that she did choose, she clung to with Vatican zeal. All Angelica’s and John’s friends liked her (Mary Louisa was probably reading at the given time). She was the kind of hip, religiously-adherent and community-respected mother who could sashay with a rosary and crucifix in the a.m. and tear donuts through a cul-de-sac in the penguinine minivan come midnight, to the mouthwatering of eighth-grade John’s friends, riding in the back, hootin’ and hollerin’ about how cool Mrs. P was and not minding at all that she used words like “hip”. She was known to take a charitable position toward the Jews.
The kind of mom who went through her son’s Facebook photos when no one was around and then cleared the browser history, Mama Prince was a conflicted blend of nostalgic Reaganist and wannabe-get-with-the-times feminister. What John didn’t understand was a mother’s desire to secretly know her children in ways that the motherly code forbade or kept at arm’s length in the name of good taste. It wasn’t necessarily creepy that Jacquelyn went through her son’s photos or belabored herself, privately, with coming to know the dimensions of her son’s character otherwise denied her by the dictates of trendy, hands-off parenting. The Internet, if nothing else, allowed her this elasticity of espionage.
She’s sitting in front of the computer.
The phone seemed to ring from a long way off—out there, somewhere. It seemed like an unreasonable demand to answer it.
It just won’t stop ringing, is the thing.
She was the kind of mom who didn’t reserve courtesy for solicitation calls to her own casa in the evening. You can’t read scripts in peace anymore. Just a few minutes of your time, ma’am, for the National Organization for Women’s random survey of “Women in Work,” [Jacquelyn imagines it looking like that, but on the solicitor’s notepad it is neither capitalized nor bracketed with quotation marks] to be featured as the centerfold in the upcoming and big-deal V-Day e-issue of NOW magazine. Would she be able to spare a few minutes of her time, ma’am?
Sexual orientation, if any?
Above her shoulder, the window looks out on solid blue Brooklyn evening. Stars frame themselves in the cold.
“I am Jacquelyn Prince, fifty-six years old, mother of four. I have a mortgage, I am married, I own a car. I own a personal computer. I belong to the Women’s Club. Local RNC volunteer coordinator, Nashville chapter. No, I don’t work. Six months and counting in New York here and I haven’t found a decent family-oriented church I’d want to visit more than once. Now tell me what’s wrong with that picture.”
Has she ever worked in the past? In any part-time capacity? How often does she volunteer, without compensation?
“Does childrearing count?”
There’s a slight hitch in the connection and what the solicitor was meant to take as “childrearing” is heard instead as “ilde bing” and the solicitor has to give a warm chuckle to indicate she sympathizes. And does your husband work full-time? About how many hours a week would you say, your husband, he puts in? As I said, all portions of the survey are voluntary. I see. Current salary you—he—brings home a year? Well thank you for your time, Mrs… Prince. She looks at the clock and the rosemary chicken sitting tight on simmer. Happy coming V-Day from the NOW community.
She was the kind of mom who double-clicked when it wasn’t necessary. Backed up against the desk’s triptyched mantelpiece, the fruit bowl offers its fake cornucopia of gourds and melons. The clicks and scrolls of the i-Cloud populate the apartment with dumb sonic textures. It’s propped on a sleek i-Cloud lectern like the good old tablets of Moses; the sight is just as commanding. Jacquelyn’s subscriptions hover in a kind of Venn diagram upon the screen. She’s got a good dozen of them open, rotating among each window, reading a sentence or two from this page, a sentence from the next, following the jumps of spans of attention. The Mothers’ Club scripted a new self-help novel from that author Tillman last week, ever since Oprah selected it for discussion on her daily cloudcast (which Jacquelyn’s also got up, in one of those windows). The Catholic League’s scripted service today is a group reading of the loaves and the fishes, Matthew’s version. Congregation’s welcome to comment on any of the proposed threads. There’s also a zombie romance novella open in a third window and a Nashville Bridal calendar offering the latest gossip in day-by-day speculative pop-up windows. The scripts help her keep in touch with the Nashville circles. She’s started reading the liberal NYT since she moved Northward, which is open to the “N.Y./Region” section. You can just scroll the pointer over the nebulae of windows to bring the one you want to prominent perspective on the screen. There’s Mary’s Gourmets open in a fifth or sixth window with a promising recipe for squash and beet salad with orange juice vinaigrette. Another window hovers with an ad for hair-loss serum and another features a pimply-faced kid bent with pants at ankles over a keyboard beneath the billowing adjuration, Don’t be a squatter! If you buy a domain name, Use It! a message from the internet real-estate conservation committee. Of course Facebook’s open alongside these, and another network detailing the e-books she’s reading, and another monitoring her tennis friends’ commentary on the French Open quarters match between Milavic and Del Rostro, which, in turn, is concurrently streaming in another window several layers back in the diagram of windows she’s scrolling back and forth through.
A shortlist of descriptors for the apartment in which she finds herself might include the words: capacious; ochery; odorous.
John had a squeamish time of it when his mother first friended him on Facebook. But then it seemed that other people were friends with their mothers digitally, why couldn’t he be? He wondered whether refusing to accept a friend request from his own mother really would threaten their real-life relationship as severely as he was imagining it would.
The photo album bears the ambitious title “everyone i know”. Jacquelyn isn’t familiar with the girl whose album she’s snooping through now, but John seems to be tagged in preponderance compared to the other flask-swilling gents popping up now and again in what is quickly turning out to be an album dedicated to successive nights of partying in grim locales—a montage of questionable activities. The Facebook folks have also informed her, in a just-conspicuous-enough northeast corner of the screen, that in fact Molly Parr and Mrs. Jacquelyn Prince sit no less than one degree of separation away vis-à-vis the web avatar of her true-life flesh-and-bones son.
Odorous – referring to the effluvia of overcooked poultry penetrating the apartment. Olfactory attention isn’t so compelled, though; like jumping in cold water, only to get used to it thirty seconds later, all Jacquelyn registers after two hours plus of sitting in the chicken’s fumes is a plain old domestic funk.
She was the kind of mother who wanted her children to be happy but couldn’t help but be devastated when they all chose to interpret her wishes by flying the coop as soon as those wishes became operative. Mary Louisa kept in touch, that was true…as did Angelica, in intervals… and she’d gone through more money, doctors, and family therapists for Kaylee in the last couple months than she’d care to reckon. John Jr., though. Jacquelyn pushes her graying hair—the salonist’s henna-brown a poor concealant—back behind her ear. The kind of kid who was accused of plagiarizing papers he’d really written, John had left for college four years ago without the scholarship everyone had wagered on. Only two Thanksgivings and a funeral had brought him back since.
It occurs that empty, inky, and languorous could also be invoked.
The kind of mother with a talent for lie detecting that bordered on clairvoyance, Mama Prince wears a silver evening top with a black sash tied big and thick across an ankle-length black skirt. Her slippers debatably Japanese, bobbing one ankle over the other to the tune of the “Dinner Party Classics” script rolling on random in a window far buried beneath the others. She lights upon a photo of special unsettling quality. John’s back is dark with sweat, his porky shoulder leaning from the wheelchair’s armrest, reaching for something on the ground. This Molly Parr character some feet away, dancing with other girls in various stages of undress. Glowsticks, oppressive strobe lights. Behind them, a figure in baggy jeans convening, hand hovering over open palm, with another—his profile rotated to meet the camera, brow angled at the lens like an annoyed Velázquez interrupted from his work. Neither of the two figures is tagged in the photo. John’s face in the foreground is just turned up at the camera, seemingly half a moment before the click of the shutter.
Just then there’s a click at the door. “Jackie?” Jack is always inquiring after people when he walks in a room. “Jackie? What’s that smell?”
Quickly, Jacquelyn closes the window. She turns the music up and pushes the chair back, all in one motion. Jack’s around the corner. How to explain again that the agent hadn’t called, that no one was biting on the latest bid? She chose to look cheery instead. Honey! How was work? A new client meeting? Did your presentation go well? Listen, about the house… Oh, you had oysters? You think you can’t get stuffed on oysters, but you’re telling me? No, I haven’t waited long. No, no, the house can wait… It’s rosemary chicken. Of course I don’t wish you’d told me you went out! That’s what aluminum foil is for!
It was a rotten thing to have, the leaks. You could get in trouble. Like the time with John’s friends. How they were crowded around the bathtub and the staring. With teachers too. How to like explain that it was natural, that it was just something you did? Then one of them called the principal’s office. There’s too many doctors, when you think about it. There’s doctors for all kinds of things. Mental things, physical things, emotional-type things, and then the ones who just fill out the script for you. They have some nasty-ass smiles, the script types. Doctors who’re there to examine or to sign the script, too. Those are different ones from the filling-script ones. There’s a doctor to sign and a doctor to fill the orange bottle and slide it to you. The first one usually just it happens in a room, like a white room, not the kind with books. There’s doctors with books, too. But those aren’t the same ones. The leaks are truly nasty. Sometimes you sit for a literally eternity. Usually you get a signature twice a week or once a week if you’re stocking up and mom gives you a big enough check. They stopped running credit at the place on East Houseland is what they said; so checks. People are capable of some pretty nasty-ass looks, if you’ve considered. Especially with checks. People are suspicious. Script types. They’re not even the real doctors. So they wear coats. Dogs wear coats. The leaks put you in some bad positions, always happened when you didn’t want them to. What happens with teenage boys and diving boards, the same. There’s doctors where you sit in a chair and there’s books on bookshelves and you’re sposed to act comfortable. The lady before said to bill her. You meet some weird-ass folk in where you’re waiting at. All she said she goes “Bill me later, honey.” She’s got a fat wig on and sunglasses. Sunglasses. Really. Big-framed and periwinkle. Every week she’s doing 90, the same. Walk in at the same time and leave one after the other. And the script type is all nodding from behind her coat and Plexiglas. It’s a washed-auburn wig, the novelties kind, the Broadway kind. The rattle of the orange bottle when the script type slides it across the counter and the woman in the wig who’s done her 90 she picks it up. White in the room and the floor with its goin on reflecting the white bulbs above. People have some weird-ass sense of normal when you walk up to the counter and they turn you down and they’re asking check or cash and you go, So what’s with the no credit anymore man?
IN FLORIDA, A LEGACY BOILS OVER—AND INTRIGUE FINDS COMPANY
NEW YORK (Liza Mumson contributed reporting from Sarasota) – When news of Lawrence Tabers Prince’s death leaked late last summer, readers and critics found themselves conflicted over the trailblazing author’s legacy, and not a little miffed. Prince had long earned the reputation for eccentricity on the page and reclusion off of it—but his later years devolved into the stuff of legend as rumors of an alleged “master obra” attended his woefully infrequent smoke signals to the literary world. Months later, fans and bloodthirsty detractors are still waiting.
Prince, known for his restlessness with regard to style and genre, first made a name for himself with a searing portrait (and thinly-veiled autobiography) of a Swiss-German immigrant family in East Tennessee. But it was his later career that saw an often reckless warping of form that would earn him the reputation for experimentation that came to influence an entire generation of American authors.
Word of his death only surfaced a couple months after the fact. Sympathetic forecasters of the “obra” swallowed the news awkwardly, while naysayers got to briefly gloat on the grave. Others insisted that the late Prince was still alive somewhere, having absconded out of the suffocating eye of the media. There is at least one group in rural upstate New York that publicly denies the obit as one giant media confection—possibly orchestrated, out of tact, by a provocateurish Prince himself. Meanwhile, the whereabouts of the real grave remain a topic of speculation among diehard followers, and a topic of guarded lips among family spokespersons. What is known for sure is that his family actively suppressed word of his death in the months that followed, a fact that has aroused not a few suspicions.
The Prince family, as a casual Google search will show, is no stranger to unsavory headlines. Soon after the news leaked, familiar questions surrounding the author’s life found renewed pretense for debate: What had he been doing in the last more or less decade, as his persona approached the kind of hermitic mythologizing usually reserved for the likes of Salinger and Lao Tzu? Had anyone come closer to knowing what happened the night of the infamous car accident—an episode the public by and large was still in the dark about? Whatever happened to son E.C., the onetime author himself? Had Prince really been working on a final manuscript? — and if so — Who had it now? Or who was keeping it from getting out?
We might do well to follow these questions south, to a place where a bush-league mix of rumor and intrigue indicates Prince spent an inordinate amount of time, during his last years: to a house in Sarasota, Florida. Today, the property is just as detached and serene as you’d expect to find in the city’s sizeable Amish neighborhood, a couple miles inland from the bay […]
Dave is back by one or two on a given day from his handyman work round the rich folks’ baysides; today he rolls up with the ’89 Bronco at quarter past. He kicks off his beat-up hiking boots at the kitchen’s screen door and tiptoes across the sticky linoleum. Dave’s default walk when he enters any room is the tiptoe. His own room claims a southeastern nook of the chez’s first floor, with a window that looks toward the street and the pitched lawn on the other side of the creek, inclined to the main road. There’s a good view of the Bi-Rite buzzing behind its dogwoods and the Mermaid Motel in the lot beside it, plastic bags ghosting by like tumbleweeds. A smaller pair of easterly windows, the kind that open outward, relay bizarre light-reflections across the ceiling at different hours from their slotted angle onto a tinsel wind chime hanging from the eaves of the porch, catching the rays and the gleam from the pond. The bastard room of the house, wedged off the common area and the kitchen, his is smaller than most, crammed with a double bed, a closet full of flannel, and a paint-chipped chest of drawers,
[Dave doesn’t see the long-gowned, vested figure shift behind the bushes to adjust the safari cap on its head. Poking from the outline of the boxwoods, were he to see, the scarlet-red contour of the figure’s gowned pantleg creased and folded as the leg moved.]
Yesterday, it was cranberry-walnut banana bread made with good dark Appalachian sorghum. The recipe’d called for sugar, but how bland. The day before that it was Bavarian pumpernickel. Today it’s Swedish summer rye. Dave shoulders open the door, saliva gathering in the jaw. He makes straight for the closet. It’s full of flannel, it’s full of breadbaking books, and it’s full of moonshine. Mason jars of the stuff, cluttering the shelf above the Scotch-tape wardrobe below. The design of your everyday closet is a fine piece of craftsmanship. American work, no mistaking it. Summer rye, even in January, seems like a great idea all the time. Brilliant how easy the top comes off them Mason jars. How structured and how dependable. There’s the shiny ring that unscrews in a jiffy, the airtight lid popping off, and that pungent sylvan smell blasting straight up. The first gulp tastes ambrosial. Dave falls onto the bed and lets the burn swim from lips to throat to belly, tidal-like. Even after you swallow, the taste keeps coming back like that, in and out. Genius.
Kaylee pads down p.m.-dappled stairs just as Dave sequesters himself in the room and starts thumbing through a splotched-brown copy of The Tassajara Bread Book. Caraway seeds: check. Honey: check. Zest of orange: —this is Florida, for God’s sake. Kaylee’s already slipped out the screen door when he bumbles back across the linoleum on the balls of his feet. It’s Dave’s hour to commandeer the house, when most of the others are either gone or occupied. He lifts the plastic lid off the old-school turntable in the common room, and sets the toner arm down on luscious licorice vinyl [the speakers sputter and crackle ahead of the opening notes to his favorite Leonardo Balada concerto], swilling all the while.
Around the corner of the house, Kaylee offs a leaning bike. Comes the voice from the porch: “Heyyyy Kayyyleeee!” —The bike jumps. “Shi—Jesus, Grass. Scared me.”
Sunglasses on, donning a straw sunhat, Grass is curled up as before in the bowl chair. “Where ya off to with that bike?”
“Going for a ride, I guess?” Kaylee wears a green CSX hoodie and thigh-revealing shorts.
“Well duh. I meant like where ya goin to, dude.”
“You know, I don’t really know yet— [Balada’s opera thunders behind the sliding glass door]— the bay, maybe? What’s that noise?”
“Oh, that? That’s Dave. He bakes.”
Grass leans in. “He’s an odd one, if you ask me.”
“I like oddwalls.” Kaylee takes a breath. “Hey, Grass. Maybe you can help. I have this, like…hum in my head. In the back. Ever since I got here.”
“Any worldly thirteen-year-old wisdom to get rid of this?”
“Ex-cuuuuuse me. I’m fifteen, thank you very much. And I told you, you shouldn’t sleep so late.” Grass’s sunglasses are the opaque purple kind. A passing cloud darkens the view.
“I got up early today. Really. Witnessed an I don’t even know what to call it ceremony of some kind with Aunt Carolyn.”
“Oh—that.” Grass leans closer and has to catch herself from falling out of the chair. “The eggs thing? I stay away from that.”
“You know about that?”
There’s a loud crash in the kitchen and a high-pitched laugh. Grass turns back: “If I were you, Kaylee, I wouldn’t go near that place.”
[With raised eyebrow] “That place?”
“You know. The tree,” she whispers.
“Grass, I can’t hear you—” There’s a vinyl-induced shriek followed by the clatter of dishes, and then another, kind of, giggle.
“Anyway, I know he’s like, was, your grandpa and all. But if you ask me—somethin weird goin on over there.”
“You got a lot of opinions,” Kaylee says. “Therapist types like to tell me that’s healthy.”
“Yeah, well…you know, Kaylee, [Grass settles back in a pleased crossed-arms pose] I’m just a fifteen-year-old runaway with nothing to lose, really. Fifteen, mind you.”
A jiggle-bellied chuckle from the kitchen, drowned out by Balada’s running bass line, as a dollop of batter spins off the misjudged angle of Dave’s inclined whisk and completely misses his open mouth, gooping onto long-unshaven cheek.
“Did you say he bakes?”
“All those half-eaten loafs in the kitchen—”
“The pantry, the cupboards, the common room—I even saw one in the second-floor bathroom yest—”
“All his. I mean, this is a communal casa and all, but there’s only so much bread we can eat. There’s one right there.” There’s the nibbled crust of a sesame-pumpkin loaf right there.
“Literally in the armorie above the sink. Like it was hidden there.”
Grass pushes her glasses up. “Dave’s not altogether there. He had a mystical experience with a mushroom in his twenties and has since turned into a pilgriming amateur mycologist. He’ll tell you about it I’m sure.” [Something like a caterwaul pealing from the kitchen.]
The cloud has seemingly called an audible and parked itself right over the sun. Its reflection in Grass’s purple shades quivers. Kaylee’s standing with the bike. The porch door whip-slides open, and Dave emerges with thinning hair atousle and a big mixing bowl tucked under his arm. High-decibel Balada blasts out.
“W– — — ——– ?” Dave goes.
“— — — ——!”
“WE CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!!”
[Disappears. Balada plunges. Dave returns to the threshold.] “Who wants to lick the batter?” He holds up a goopy whisk. “It’s heavy on the caraway.”
“Oo!” [Pops up from chair]
“K.P.!” His Bunyanesque flannel is pelted with whisk-droppings.
“What’s on order, today?”
“Swedish rye. Where you goin?”
“The bay, maybe.”
“Oo, this is right!”
“Hard to fuck up the old Swedish rye. But the bay. Just got back. If you see a fine slab of drywall bakin out by MLK, that’s mine.”
“Hey Dave—you’re the fungal medicinist of the lot.” Grass’s lips smack with the batter. “What would you do about a hum in the back—is that what you said?—in the back of the head?”
“Are we talkin like a concentrated hum, or a like, crest-and-trough kind of hum?”
[Smack, smack.] “A cresting what?”
“Like a radio signal, hovering between frequencies. Like that?”
Kaylee goes, “Actually, it’s more like these zaps, just once in a while. Yeah, a zap. And then it leaves a hum. Like that.”
Dave’s eyes flash. “Zaps, zaps…hmm…you know I’ve heard about this one mushroom. American agaric. Grows in the Ozarks or somethin like that.” Balada gets contemplative with the string section. “Sposed to relieve… [he appears as thumbing through a mental index, his eyes all watery] ‘psychic haemorrhaging from the frontal lobe.’ ‘Known to restore deficiencies related to the depletion or overexertion of hippocampal activators.’”
“See?” goes Grass.
He’s smacking too. “That reminds me. Enjoy that whisk.”
“Already did—” —but he’s slipped back into the house and cranked up the volume; Balada’s guitars fulminate over a tuba.
Kaylee turns. “Well I’m off, Grass.”
Grass is peering up at the cloud. “You think it’ll stay there forever?” Inside, the metal-on-metal shink of a Mason jar’s lid unscrewing.