The only computer at the house of 6364 Beersheba Dr. is a prototypal i-Cloud Port, one of the first models to enjoy warm but not yet hegemonic commercial success. It was gifted to Jack Dunn upon the successful completion of an ad campaign that led to what essentially may be called a market takeover. Jack at the time already had an i-Port. His thirty-one-year-old sister-in-law, a newlywed and professed societal nonconformist, who had settled in Florida on the pretense of love, did not. Jack being a newlywed not too far removed in years (he liked to think), he felt obliged to the family he’d married into, by honor if not by tradition, and so decided early on he had to make a generous show of things, once his wife’s sister Carolyn tied the knot. He could manage it, anyway: he was a rising star creative, newly relocated to the Nashville area with the intention of raising a family sustainably and normally. When Carolyn did tie it, with a New Age potluck/hodgepodge of a ceremony in the backyard of her home in Sarasota, he re-gifted the unopened i-Port to Carolyn and her Bayou-hippie husband, Beaux Denouement. The newly-christened couple were less married than they were agreed on a certain alternative lifestyle premised upon as much shunning of conventional society as could reasonably be practiced. The generosity of the gift was not lost on Carolyn and Beaux, such that they couldn’t bring themselves to get rid of it, and so stowed it in the guest room, and like so quietly concurred that they would overlook this one minor transgression of their professed disestablishmentarianism. The early-model i-Port thus collected ivy for a good decade plus while marinating in the guest room of 6364 Beersheba Dr., second floor. Jack wanted to cultivate a healthy bell-curved habit of information consumption over the lifespans of his children—his wife Jacquelyn had already born three (with another on the way)—and had planned the ages at which they would each receive their own i-Clouds. They were nearing those ages, particularly his oldest, Mary Louisa, but the technology was sure to advance by then, and thus he had no need to hold on to the gifted i-Port from the client as a thanks for the wildly successful campaign he staged as helmsman of a renegade creative team at a strapped-but-daringly-operational ad agency on the west side of Nashville. It would become known as the campaign that announced his genius to the greater U.S. advertising community. Twenty years later, as a senior executive at Patterson Talk, he considered the working relationship he still preserved with the client to be one of the more prudent and repeatedly giving connections of his professional career.
The i-Port features a plastic cranberry inlay and looks dated and bulky but kind of retro-chic in its own way. The i-Cloud Ports are dinosauric compared to the ubiquitous i-Cloud Palms of today—the ones that, true to Jack’s plan, each of the Dunn-Prince children now own. With the proliferation of wireless networks, and the mushrooming appetites of U.S. consumers for information technologies, the more portable and über user-sensitive i-Palms have ubiquited unflaggingly. The i-Ports, designed exclusively for desktop use, had all been phased out in the process. But maybe because it had never been used, the Denouements’ still functioned when the alternatively-raised son of Beaux and Carolyn, starved for normalcy, entered his tech-curious phase as a teen and begged them to let him use it. This was a big deal at Chez Denouement, a sprawling hippie commune at 6364 Beersheba Dr., which had been in Beaux’s family for a time or two and had been taken over by Beaux as the selected residence for his raising of an adamantly non-nuclear family with his wife Carolyn, who shared his desire to live off the grid. Zebulon, then twelve, had his request rejected out of hand, which only served to sanctify the relic i-Port as the token forbidden fruit of the Denouement property, in Zeb’s mind. His younger sister, June, did not secrete the same salivation for IT consumption, which made her really weird in terms of U.S. youth. So Zeb thereupon took to secretly sneaking sessions on the i-Port anyway. It was usually porn he watched but sometimes there were words. After a couple years he’d seen pretty much every combination of girl-guy-girl action and got into sneaking clippings from his dad’s pot plants instead.
In terms of parenting styles, the Denouements and the Dunn-Princes occupied opposite poles of the spectrum. Maybe then it was loyalty to a larger family aesthetic that permitted Jacquelyn and Carolyn to maintain a civil sisterly relationship and encourage their children to grow up knowing their respective cousins through semiannual family trips to each other’s houses. Jacquelyn was the oldest of the Dixie-blue-blooded Prince family, and her four children were all older than Carolyn’s two. Mary Katherine [“Kaylee”], Jack Dunn and Jacquelyn Prince’s youngest and strangest child, had a good five years on her cousin Zeb. Thus there yawned a mild generational divide whenever the families got together, with Kaylee and her older brother John Jr. being the only ones who could somewhat relate to the brattishly Tom-Sawyer-like Zeb and the smallish, uncommunicative June.
Once a year, the Dunn-Princes’ trip to Florida digressed toward the pale green of the South Carolina coasts, through Spanish-moss-laden lowcountry and marshes pocked with crabbing docks. The patriarch had kept a house there on the beach. Of the four Dunn-Prince children, it was John and Kaylee who envied the lives of the Denouements. Whereas Mary Angelica was maybe the best-adjusted of the four, and Mary Louisa the most humorless, John and Kaylee found themselves playing eternal catch-up to the mammoth accomplishments of their older sisters, which accomplishments were already distinguished well before puberty. By the age of eleven Mary Louisa had already won a National Young Scientists competition for a project on greenhouse gas emissions’ effect upon Atlantic laminaria and the disruption of aquatic food chains which relied upon the healthy propagation of said laminaria. A couple years later, Mary Angelica came into her own when she blossomed into a nationally-ranked female on the Jr. ATP circuit’s Under 12’s division, in addition to scoring airtime on ESPN in another fashion by winning the National Spelling Bee that same year. The winning word was peripateticism. For his part, John Dunn Jr., the third child of the high-octane union of clans that was the Dunn-Prince marriage, was a promising basketball star when he reached the same age, playing for his Catholic grade school in suburban Nashville and for an all-Negro AAU team downtown which Jacquelyn explicitly did not know about and which Jack felt secretly uncomfortable about himself, driving his son to the chain-linked playground every Sunday in his khaki Expedition on the pretense of father-son donut outings. John was also a prodigious trivia maestro and breezed through grade school with the minimum expenditure of effort. But none of them had outwardly demonstrated an inheritance of the writing talent for which the Prince family was famed. The house had originally been purchased as a sanctuary for the patriarch’s own writing, in South Carolina. As his family grew, it turned into something of a clan cottage inscribed in its own special aura, in the special aura of family. Once a year, for a choice couple weeks of summer, Jacquelyn’s Dunn-Princes and Carolyn’s Denouements gathered at the arrogantly rustic abode of Lawrence Tabers Prince. Lawrence had never heard of an i-Cloud. He came from an era when writers hammered out their prose on clicking typewriters, the symphony of the clicking essential to the composing of the prose. He still did this as he grew old and never came down to the beach with the others, preferring to stay under the wood fans on the porch, drinking burning-tasting things [Kaylee tested— at her omnicurious age— (age 5)] out of a Vols commemorative orange canteen. His wife, the stately Mary Louise Prince, stayed out of his affairs as a matter of course, so she had even less opportunity to come across anything you might call a computing device. You can imagine, then, the ambivalence with which she first came across the cranberry-inlaid i-Port, still plugged in, in the guest room of 6364 Beersheba Dr. Key word “first”— ▶
He’s sitting with his hands in his lap because he doesn’t know where else to put them. He’s got an itch with the sensibility of an in-law, yet he’s also got a rough, scraped-like burn going on there too. He is adamantly trying to convince the hands in his lap not to make a move. It is probably a futile mission, but in any case he doesn’t know this. Something else hammering at his mind is that the Chik’n’Bun rollergirls are not acting timely with their delivering of the orders today. He should have a Mother Clucker Deluxe greased in his lap right now instead of these fidgeting hands. Juicy, mayo-slathered, spillage-prone— so what if a little soggy. It’s the first springish day in New York City. Usually the rollergirls come out in the spring with their thigh-high nylons and hiked-up skirts and naturally they’re on rollerskates. Also they’re unfailingly hipster, and unfailingly all wear big-framed hipster glasses, these girls. Daniel’s asshole is really, really itching him. The burning sensation is vying for supremacy with the itching sensation. The problem, he’s determined, is the toilet paper, which to save money he’d bought the cheap kind. It’s probably not far off from the tarpaper of the Chik’n’Bun roof. His obsessive-compulsive tendencies lent, and had lent, and continue to lend an overarching agony to his decisions which even the buying of toilet paper was not beyond. Exhibit A: to scratch or not to scratch the asshole. The Mother Clucker is a juicy filet of all-white meat fried to a succulent crisp and layered with shredded lettuce and fresh, sliced tomatos. What happened was his OCDness reared an especially nasty head the night prior and when he’d hit the john to let loose the last round of Mother Clucker matter, he was startled by the segmentation of the discharge, which made him think of clusterbombing in Iraq, like he’d just seen on the news. Which was purely his mind’s wanting to make asinine connections, as minds do, he thought. So upon discharging he got worried that this was not your ordinary bowel movement and felt he had to compensate in a very obsessive-compulsive way by wiping as thoroughly and comprehensively as possible. This you had to do in gentle but maximal swabs against the grain, as it were. The great thing about the Mother Clucker Deluxe is that it’s double the meat, as in a second patty of all-white juicy bliss, plus they add cheese. Mention this ad and we’ll throw in our signature healthy-fried onion rings at no additional cost. But if you agonize in the supermarket for hours on end about which toilet paper to buy and eventually go with the cheapest one as the lesser of two hygienic evils, you’re also sacrificing quality of paper and you’ll end up using more of the paper anyway, because it’s so thin and decrepit. Not to mention the chemical additive they spray it with so as to preserve it. One of the rollergirls, misshapenly pigtailed, makes as if to skate with a tray but she’s quickly followed by another rollergirl whose demeanor, together with the way she grabs the first girl’s arm from behind and practically yanks it out of its socket, indicates bitchy seniority. The contents of the tray cascade to the ground. What happened was he was worried that if he didn’t wipe comprehensively, he would invite that other horrible anal sensation, known colloquially as taco butt, which is pretty self-explanatory as far as the nomenclature of anal sensations goes. Where he was going with the chemical additive portion was that it seems to leave a scratchy, tingling feel. Daniel Greenberg exhibits extraordinary deliberance with the TP, any TP, cheap or otherwise. To be precise, he is a folder, not a crumpler. What he does is he retrieves a length of either three or four squares (this time it was four), folds it first halfwise and then in half again, and wipes. The girl who is obviously a trainee, in her poodle skirt and her green argyle nylons which don’t match the skirt, has her head in her hands and is bawling like a baby as her manager bitches right up in her grill. Daniel doesn’t like to waste toilet paper so he then pulls his hand back to get a look at the yield of the wipe and then folds the paper gingerly over the imprinted region and makes so he can grasp the oragamically-folded TP without compromising the cleanliness of his hand in advance of going in for a second wipe with the fresh surface. Depending on secondary yield and surface area, he can usually go in for a third fold and wipe. Not last night. The older girl looks like she’s gnawing at the younger girl’s face. Their rollerskates match. Hoop earrings, the both of them. What happened was the Mother Clucker matter was out of control. Daniel took to wiping janitorially. He did not want absolutely not no sir to experience that taco butt he’d experienced on the fifth grade retreat to Mt. Pisgah when he broke Excalibur the plastic trowel and had to imp back to the campsite without burying his yield to the leers of “where you been, Danny Boy?” After that they all just called him Excrebur. The six-hour bus ride back to D.C. he counts as one of the worst memories he hasn’t gotten rid of, for physical and for social-developmental reasons. So he wiped comprehensively. The younger girl, the trainee, in her green argyle nylons, has collected herself and seems to be wiping spit from her brow. She bends over unsexually and retrieves the tray’s contents from the sidewalk. The one Daniel provisionally labeled as the manager aggravates away, stage left. But his OCD tendencies came out in full hue and he’d gone through half the roll and the last couple plys had stopped being smeared with blood and were dry again. He flushed the toilet for the fourth time. She has an explicitly non-sexual skate, the trainee, perhaps because it appears to be her first day and she hasn’t yet learned the ins and outs of delivering Mother Cluckers sexually. Then again one doesn’t come to the Chik’n’Bun to fantasize about things you can’t eat. In any case it’s a Christian establishment and they aren’t open on Sundays. He has to scratch so bad even John Madden couldn’t sponsor a salve that could hope to relieve it, but his underwear is bloody already and his ass is raw and feels like a knife’s hot repeated plunging. It’s a very loud clatter of the tray on the patio table that the pigtailed trainee creates upon her skating up. “Thank you,” says Daniel unironically. “Eat shit,” she says, skating off. ▶
Kaylee approached the door and sensed the blue hum ghosting out from under it. It was a rickety old door, warped a bit and haunched on its hinges. Everyone else had gone to sleep and she’d said goodnight to Sawaad, who would stay up, he informed her, as he rolled a cigarette. He was down on the porch rocking in the white wicker rocking chair. Kaylee glimpsed the moonlight through the second floor’s row of hallway windows that opened over the pond, and the freckled tangelo grove below it, sending up its breezy perfumes.
Although the door was down the end of the same hall as her bedroom, K.P. hadn’t wanted to approach it. It let off the most eerie of glows from its frame. Its position as the vanishing point toward which the hallway receded made it all the eerier, commanding the eyes, like so. Night numero dos, post potluck, at Chez Denouement. Grammy’s been MIA the whole time. Kaylee approached. A cockroach scattered; she looked down to where it had feasted, on the sandwich on the plate someone had left before the door. The floorboard creaked beneath her foot. She put her ear up to the door and listened.
The morning of the second day at Chez Denouement. Kaylee has got up all purposeful with the dawn, but Dave and Sawaad have already left for their housework. Contract handymen, they’re up and at it by first light. An ashtrayful of Sawaad’s butts and the remains of a hastily-scarfed breakfast litter the cushionless wicker ottoman on the porch. Kaylee tries to slip past Carolyn’s bangled figure in the kitchen and make for the sliding glass door that frames the ottoman.
“Kaylee!” Carolyn’s whipping up some eggs. She doesn’t turn so much as torque into an akimboed stance, wearing a red kimono incongruously printed with elephants and African tribal motifs. “I’m whipping up some eggs.” Carolyn is average-ish tall and has downy strawberry-blond hair that clefs around her bold, dark eyebrows. With her hand on her hip, the spatula torqued outward in the other, the eggs sizzling behind her as she puffs a strand of Prince-family blond out of her eyes, she looks despite it all to be the true-blood sister of Kaylee’s own mom.
“Oh, I’m not hungry. Can’t eat when I first, get up.”
“Fabulous!” Carolyn goes. She turns back around to poke at the pan, then retrieves two plates from the cupboard. “First day back, gotta be in early for me.”
“Oh,” Kaylee goes. “Already?”
Carolyn whisks the pan off the burner, cuts the flame, and divvies up the eggs. “Try getting my ones up at this hour, no way. Not if they don’t have school, they won’t.”
“I thought you home schooled them? Zeb and June?”
She cocks her head Kaylee’s way and raises an eyebrow that could mean “Them? Please”, or, “Would that I didn’t.” “They’re at that age now we’ve started acclimating,” she goes. “Little by little. Especially Zeb. He’s on five days a week now, class in the morning down near Ringling, then he comes back for the afternoon with Zoë. Come.” She bangles out the kitchen to the porch, anklets achime, a plate in each hand. Instead of sitting down she continues on toward the tangelos. Kaylee feels obliged to follow. Carolyn’s done that thing of hers again where she obliges people to get on her wavelength.
“Eat up.” She passes the plate into Kaylee’s arms and lets go of it without giving Kaylee time to object. She keeps leading Kaylee through the grove, past the whitewashed storm door that opens down to the cellar, and onwards into the yard, their path flanking the pond. “It’s a little cold out, isn’t it?” Meanwhile she’s tearing off strips of warm pita and scooping up the eggs like that. “Did I put fenugreek in here? I don’t remember putting fenugreek in here.” They cut diagonally across the yard, the dew icy and burning on their bare feet, goosebumps rising on account of the chill. “Been back here yet?” This is where they had the funeral.
There it is, the resident monument of Chez Denouement. The live oak burnishes majestically in the sharp-angled light of morning. Creeper mists ghoul around its edges, insinuate themselves among the branches. Nearby, the clusters of jacarandas bare their purplish buds. The miniature Cahokia of domed clods at which Carolyn halts, at the base of the oak, glints with dewy stubble in the sun.
“No, no I haven’t got around—”
The mounds trace a half-moon around a three-foot obelisk of a headstone.
When Carolyn drops to her knees, she appears to dip out of her body for a moment. It’s as if she’s slid underwater, in mid-conversation with you, and she’s no longer present in any immediate way. Speaking to her would be like trying to breach that barrier of water. Before Kaylee knows it she’s prostrate and arranging pebbles into different formations in the nooks between the mounds, stacking them. The pebbles obsidian and magnetic-looking. She takes deep breaths as she does this, drawing from somewhere way within, beyond within— beyond pulmonary reaches. That’s what it looks like. The truth is, Carolyn’s breathing’s exemplary. Yogic, even. Her knees are wet. Without looking she wrests the plate from Kaylee’s hands and dumps the eggs at the base of the headstone/obelisk. One look tells Kaylee it’s a working compost pile, by the moldy heap distended with all kinds of organic browns and grays. She, Carolyn, then retrieves a vial from her robes and pours a viscous, honey-colored liquid over the offering and the apex of the obelisk. She rubs it up and down, lathering it with the libation. In fact it is honey, this liquid. Her eyes are closed while she lathers. When she opens them again, it seems she has to take a few breaths, as if surfacing from that water. She blinks, like jarred from a dream. When she turns to see Kaylee standing there, still as that headstone, the sight gives Aunt Carolyn a start; her eyes go wide and she swallows before she recognizes who it is. Gathers her composure:
Carolyn: “He loved them. Eggs.”
Carolyn recedes into her reverie. Dreamy-mouthed, she goes: “We only hitched in this linga and these fertility mounds couple weeks after. I only hitched.” Kaylee isn’t sure what she means by that word. “Of course, we have to be careful. The line could mean good things or bad things. The line could.”
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about, Aunt Carolyn.”
She breathes a deep breath again. “You know, Kaylee”—her voice lowering—“when your Grammy was first here…we couldn’t pull her away.” A pause. “I tried everything. She only came in at dark. That and the times when it just got too hot to stay outside. We pleaded with her—Mami, what are you doing? It’s July. You’ll drown yourself in this heat. But she wouldn’t listen.” Carolyn’s gaze remains fixed on the “linga”—that obelisk-shaped headstone, gleaming with amber honey. “Can you imagine an old woman like that? She’s eighty-two. That’s a long time to live.”
“That’s a long time to live,” Kaylee echoes.
“You can imagine the shock she must have felt, losing her one and only partner.” She turns to her. “And you know how religious Mami is.”
“I don’t think you can imagine it. She sat here morning and noon. Just staring—staring at that oak tree.” The tree seems to shiver when she says it, in the mist. But to Kaylee it’s more like those moving neon Budweiser “paintings” of Caribbean islands or Chinese landscapes that you see plugged in at frat houses and TN honky-tonks—just playing on the eye’s gullibility. “At this time we didn’t have the headstone. Pappie didn’t want it. He said specifically under the oak tree. Under the oak tree.”
“So what made her move, finally?”
“I bet you haven’t seen her yet, have you?” Carolyn asked. Her hands were smeared with honey. Kaylee shook her head. “For those first—must have been—four weeks— for that time she got up at the crack a dawn and came out here on the lawn chair and just sat and stared at the grave, like I said. But one day she stopped.”
“Usually it wasn’t till dusk she’d go in. This day, it was just a normal day. The sun still had another couple hours to go. Sawaad saw it all from the patio, he says. I was still on summer leave but I was out somewhere. She hadn’t eaten for weeks, or if she had, we definitely didn’t see it. Didn’t utter a word either, the whole time.”
“And what happened?” Kaylee asks.
“All of a sudden she just got up, folded up the lawn chair, and carried it back into the house. Sawaad asked if she was alright, and all she did was say, ‘I think I’ll make myself a sandwich.’”
“That’s all she said.”
“After that, she went up to her room—up to the guest room she’s still at, where we had her staying—and she locked herself in. I don’t know what happened, but she didn’t come out for days.”
Kaylee waits for the end of the story, but Carolyn’s just rocking back and forth on her heels and taking enormous, dreamy breaths. “…And…and that’s it?”
Carolyn turns with a start. “Ha! Yeah, and you know what she does now? Now she won’t come out of that damn room. It’s been four, five, oh, who knows how many months. She just sits there on that damn computer. I wish I never put that thing in there!”—
[Kaylee was seized with a residual brain shiver, for a fraction of a second of that intervening moment.]
—“My mother, using a computer! It’s more preposterous than Jesus.”
Kaylee: “I never thought she knew how to use them.”
“You know what it is, though. Those things are like leeches. And not the good kind. Is why we never allowed our children to use them. Is why we aren’t, we don’t, want that here.” She pauses to gaze off into who knows, Aunt Carolyn does. Getting a little brighter outside. Not so early-morning translucent. She really is gorgeous, in an alternative, non-domesticated way. “Well!” she announces at length. Some fire ants are tunneling out of their mound atop the nearest mound.
“How can I see her? Meemaw.”
Carolyn exhales. “She’ll come out eventually. She goes through these streaks.” She licks her honey-encrusted thumb. “Big plans for today?”
“Plans. Will you—not that I’m pushing you on this, because I completely understand if you’re not ready—and by the way I just want to say we fully support you here, kiddo.”
“Will you, are you getting up to anything today?”
K.P. thinks. “I hadn’t thought of it.”
Carolyn collects the plates and turns to go back to the house. “There’s some bikes in the garage. Why don’t you head down to the bay?”
Kaylee didn’t want to say she’d already helped herself to a bike yesterday. “Great. Good to know. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Be good for you,” Carolyn says, walking toward the house to the muted chiming of bangles. She turns and casts an inscrutable look toward the headstone again, gleaming in the half-sun. “I always take the bike out when my chakras are out of whack. Open some valves down in there, if you know what I mean.”
Jack Dunn’s was a deliberate but not indecisive character, possessed of a sterling work ethic developed in careful counterbalance with the occasional carousing throughout his stellar three years as an undergrad at UVA. He was so together, had the balance worked out so well, that he’d not only been able to graduate an entire year early, but he’d gotten on the pre-law track and admitted into Columbia Law School as early as September of that third year as well. In his trademark inconspicuously affected style, he said as much to a young and haughty Jackie Prince at the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity house, that same year, at the inaugural NASCAR Pros and White Trash Hos fall rush social, which as Deke rush chairman he’d organized himself [he said in as many words]. Jacquelyn, akimboed in her demi-glace spaghetti strap dress that could’ve made a less confident man drop his Tom Collins, shot back in mellifluous East Tennessean: “Don’t call me Jackie. And your fly is unzipped.”
Jack took one look at his vulnerable crotch, which in addition to being visible had begun to bulge, and back at the woman with dirty-blond to-die-for hair cropped elegantly around her ears. “And your hands are empty,” he said to her then. Jacquelyn, as her mother’d named her, and as she’d introduced herself, to the handsome if woefully-dressed [in a camo vest and a Bass Pro Shops hat] Jack Dunn, mistook his unfortunate attempt at making a joke of her lacking a drink for an invitation to do the zipping herself, and in no time at all reared a groomed hand back and slugged this uncouth frat boy square across the jaw. Everyone in the den turned to look, a whole dubious seraphim of white cut-off T-shirts and hunting hats, as the glass of Tom Collins in John “Jack” Dunn’s hand hit the ground with a definitive shatter.
The rest of the night saw Jack caddying a profusion of red Solo cups and Virginia Slims menthols to Jacquelyn and her entourage of sorority gals, all of whom refused to follow the established party dress code. Meanwhile Jack kept drinking too. He’d just been accepted into Columbia, and he was determined to let loose and maybe snag this lady right out from under her irresistible antebellum airs. The plan went miserably. Two hours later he was vomiting behind a bush while Jacquelyn rinsed her heels off with the backyard hose and sprayed him every now and then so he wouldn’t pass out. It wasn’t an act of charity, concern, or budding affection that led Jacquelyn to sit there with him prostrate on a lawn chair well after most of the other partiers had collapsed in similar positions or had retired to dorm rooms reeking of orgasms; she just sat there until Jack came-to consciously enough for her to chew him out to his face. Having done this, her friends already naked in other guys’ rooms, she took off her heels and set off defiantly down the road across campus and walked the three miles to her own sorority house, determined to never see that retard Jack Dunn again.
Jack for his part didn’t really remember anything from that night, but one touch on the cheek reminded him of the treatment he’d received at the hand of a seriously beautiful Southern belle. After staking out her schedule for a few days (he was nothing if not resourceful), he loitered around the communications lecture halls and all but bulldozed her as she came out the door.
“Oh no—” She looked appalled.
“Hey, good time the other night? I think I, er, was a little gone. ’Apologize for that.”
Jacquelyn glared. She was very attractive when she glared. “You don’t remember anything, do you.”
Jack cracked a smile. “I remember enough not to call you Jackie.”
“Great,” she said. “That means my rant was all for nothing.”
“Rant? Hm? What’s with the ranting?”
“Oh God,” she said. “Are you going to let me go to my next class, or do I have to rant again?”
Jack knew she didn’t have a next class. “I have a better idea. How about beer floats at the Five and Dime. They have this thing called a ‘porcupine’. Sposed to be downright—”
“What are you trying to do, get me drunk? I don’t remember that working—”
“—you can’t even taste the beer—”
“—the first time.”
“—and it’s on me. Seriously.”
It was almost more pathetic than his camo outfit had been, this whole appeal—but now, seeing him in his tweed jacket and neatly combed hair, his smile luminous and obviously practiced, Jacquelyn had to admit he was sharp.
“Forget it,” she said.
He was quick on the draw with a pad and pen. “How bout your number, then.”
“Wasn’t one ‘no’ enough for you for a day? Or do you have a quota?” Jacquelyn’s lips were digging into their purse.
“Depends on if you pick up.” He guided the pad and pen gently into her hands.
“You’re pathetic,” she said.
“I’ll call you this weekend.” She wrote a fake number.
When calling didn’t work, it took Jack a good five weeks to get her to even consider going out with him. This made her even more desirable, to Jack’s mind. He was from Nashville, and his parents owned a small country music novelties shop right in the thick of all the honky-tonks and lived like the strange breed of city folk raised on country lore that Nashville tended to produce. Jacquelyn, with her swallowed apicals and swoozy intonation that were the phonetic hallmark of folk from her parts—of East Tennesseeans—Jacquelyn was like a somehow more refined but more provincial version of the girls he’d dated before. She also had an air of regality about her. Like the queen of a small kingdom where everyone wore coonskin caps and walked around naked with nothing but coon furs swaddling their Adams and Eves. [By far the weirdest of Jack Dunn’s remembered dreams.] As the weeks dragged on, Jack wanted to know everything about her. Jacquelyn wanted nothing to do with him.
But he knew how to put on his best act. Eventually he connived his way into a dinner social that Jacquelyn’s Tri Delts were putting on at the end of those five weeks. Jack convinced an impressionable sophomore to take him along as her date if only she didn’t say anything to her sisters beforehand. Then Brother Max was instructed to schmoozle her away once the dinner had begun, which was fine with Max, cause he loathed his date Mary Todd and her consistent “let’s just be friends” banter and was keen on adding a new notch to his belt. Geneviere proved to be both reliable in her non-disclosure and pliable to the advances of Max Dandridge as he slipped her swigs from his DKE-engraved flask. Mary Todd sat like a farouche doll over her roast ham and squash casserole as the schmoozling unfolded in plain view just down the table from her, vowing to ruin her pledge sister Geneviere while resorting, just this once, to something sexual in order to win back Max’s favor. Jack had eyed Jacquelyn down the far end of the table and she’d seen him and immediately turned away with a gag-like motion. As the night went on and Mary Todd appeared to dissolve into a sort of sniffling mess, and Geneviere was practically bowled over in Max’s lap, and the rest of the table was disbanding to dance or to drink or to smoke, Jack conversed his way closer and closer to where Jacquelyn was sitting. When he succeeded in engaging her alone, she struck out before he could get in a word:
“What did you do to that poor girl? Did you put her up to this?” She angled a menacing finger toward his collar.
“Whoa there! Accusatory, are we?” Jack Dunn did his best to look offended.
“This is a ladies’ organization.”
“Ladies! I like the sound of that.”
“Your purse,” he said. She flushed. She grabbed the purse, turned to go, stopped, turned back around.
“I know what you’re up to,” she said. Her ensuing high-heeled stamp toward the other table was a thing of wonder.
But it was the dance floor where Jack Dunn won his first berth in the elite halls of Jacquelyn’s affection. In addition to almost single-handedly keeping the Delta Kappa Epsilon grade-point average at respectable levels (his 4.0 consistently boosted the whole of them off probation), he was an absolute legend on the woodwork. While Jacquelyn and her entourage wallflowered it with their soda waters (she was a firm believer in moderation), Jack and the rest hit the floorboards in a drunken clusterfuck of ties and skirts. Geneviere was somewhere in the mix, not so much dancing as she was staggering. The tables had been cleared away and the black DJ was playing all the go-tos of a sorority social in the mid-70s. When “Twist and Shout” came on and the dance floor parted to make a runway for the drunk or the daring, Jack cantered, shimmied, thrusted, boogied, backflipped, wormed, somersaulted, jitterbugged, lawn-mowered, choo-chooed, and turnstiled [?] his way through a Red Sea of onlookers to many a hoot and a holler.
“What is he doing?” Wanda Jane derided into her straw.
“He’s like a – like an animal or something,” Margaret Rae said.
“Is that a dance?”
“He’s like, gyrating.”
“I’m not even sure that’s a dance.”
Jacquelyn didn’t answer them. She didn’t realize it, but there was something similar to admiring going on as she watched her future husband mime his way onto her radar. Later on, when he passed from girl to girl on the dance floor like a torch that was too hot to touch, and when she’d loosened her legs and let off her dignity enough to join in the shuffle, she thought that maybe there was some smidgen of charm to this man, who was looking dynamite in his tweed jacket and his tie unraveled several buttons below his collar and his white oxford sopping with sweat. Plus he was from Tennessee, wasn’t he? Jack played it safe from then on out, not wanting to appear too aggressive with the young dame but never letting her forget that he was interested. Turns out he is a gentleman, she thought, as she received four tickets to the D.C. Metropolitan Players’ performance of The Nutcracker that Christmas, with the following note attached: “For you and three of your gals. Can’t go this year. Hope they find some use. Just don’t drink before, this one’s a marathon. The folk in your row are really good at making sour faces to people who get up in the middle of the Waltz of the Snowflakes.” Further inspection showed the tickets were in fact for the first row. What was baffling was how he knew that The Nutcracker was her childhood favorite. She’d played the part of Clara when she was still a ballerina, for the small Knoxville company that practiced in the cotillion halls above Holy Name’s rectory. Why’d he go to all the trouble? Jacquelyn’s resoluteness impressed Jack. The usual sorority crowd that hung around the DKE house were all too willing and too 2-D. Jacquelyn was not only opinionated and haughty, but she was sharp, too—there was substance to the grit. Before the holidays were up, Jack had rang her to ask if she’d survived the performance. —I’ll tell you about it in person, is what Jacquelyn said to him. You can buy me that drink of yours. —I’m in an airport and my plane is delayed. Tell me now, he said. —Let me guess. Columbia. —Scholarship talks. It’s snowing bricks up here. Ever been to the big city? —I went to boarding school there. —Marymount? —How’d you know? —It’s not in the city, though. —Yeah, but close enough. Believe or not, I don’t despise New York. You can just tell God created Tennessee first. Before he got tired. —I hadn’t heard that one. —Why’d you choose law school, anyway? Jack thought about that. —I think I have the mind for it. Every day I change, though. Probably I’ll spend two years here and switch careers as soon as they hand me the diploma. —That would be stupid, Jacquelyn said.
Three years later, fresh out of law school and more successful than ever, with a newly-purchased wedding ring snug in his pocket, he got a call from a DKE friend about would he help him put together this presentation for some advertising conference coming up. Jack said why not old buddy old pal. He possessed a most uncanny ability to schmooze. It took about one afternoon at that conference before a crescent moon of suits cornered him with a job offer. “We know you’re just out of school, Jack. Wouldn’t wanna take away from that big city success a yours,” the lean-faced Tom Rose said. “But if you ever think about movin back to Nashville, the ad town’s booming. We could use a mind like yours.” Jack’s mind began calculating. Jacquelyn didn’t want to raise a family in New York. “Just finish out your year, and if you figure droppin a line, you know how to find us.” “I sure will,” Jack said.
When he got back to their Midtown apartment, Jack beheld his wife-to-be in all the shimmer of her evening gown. “Honey,” he said.
She smiled at him from across the room. “Jack. I’m pregnant.”
His heart cantered. “Honey,” he repeated. He moved to receive her across the room. “You’re going to look beautiful in that wedding dress.” ▶
Manuscript no. 15189 began with the following line: “We’ll decorate with prawns and shattered mansard jewels /” and it kicked off a roiling, regurgitating beast of a poem that comprised the entry’s entire first half and which never deviated, for a cacophonous 31 pages, from its flush-left, stacked-line formal arrangement from end to end, reaching a total length of 549 lines without a single stanza break. The poem had no title and ended just as mysteriously as it began: “And we’ll line with blasted chalk the bust of it.” The second half of the book was comprised entirely of sonnets of one stanza each, tabbed down and over toward the center and middle of the page, so that all the text appeared framed by a hovering conjoinment of negative space, a sense heightened by the fact that the lines themselves, while not syllabically uniform, appeared to have been arranged symmetrically, in that they each began at one point and ended at another, as if the text were spatially justified through a word processor (but the author left clear smirches to hint that it had not, in fact, been justified—for example, the tail end of an “e” hanging from the precipice of a preceding line’s abruptly coiffured “t”), to the effect that each of the thirty-four sonnets that rounded out the last half of the manuscript all acted as mirror images of each other, if one were to flip the pages quickly like the pages of a motion-picture book, all suspended in the middle of the page, all reflecting or carrying the residued image of the poem immediately prior, all building a sort of phalanx of calculated, disquieting words that knew exactly why they were there and exactly how they meant to slay you: slowly and with much relish. But this same hypnotizing semblance of order that reigned over the text also seemed to indicate that the words at any time could speed up like accelerated film if you weren’t careful, that is, if the reader, in a state of ruffled chainlinkery to these words, were to be sucked into their momentum as a leaf’s getting sucked among currents in a ferocious stream, lurching from this line to its end and then this line, and then that line’s end and then that line, and then that line’s end and then, go, turn the page, what are you waiting for, the page—and when the manuscript was finally done, when the last sonnet had dragged the reader through its swan song, its indelible march of symmetrical whimsy and dread, the words seemed to cease out of utter exhaustion, collapse without reprise at the end of their irrepressible but haplessly mortal march, leaving the reader with a feeling of gauntly horror or intrigue or both, or something else. As was the case for this one particular reader, who happened to be an intern assigned to filter unsolicited manuscripts through the overburdered submissions system, these last poems and the manuscript as a whole evoked none of the above effects, leaving her quite bored, menopausal, and hungry, and so she pitched it in the trash without further ado, pushed back the groaning chair, exited via the elevator to get lunch at a low-calorie artisanal bakery, and the stapled pages were never seen by anyone else again.
Meanwhile, at a distance either negligible or noteworthy from this scene, the figure of a man could be seen hunched before the bluish glow of a computer screen, the only light in an otherwise tenebrous apartment, a viscous dollop of saliva dangling as a silkworm from the corner of his mouth. ▶