by Jennifer Dickinsonfrom Beloit Fiction Journal
The knot around his neck is strangling him. Richard loosens the tie and wonders if Eve had wanted to kill him when she tied it. She’s beside him, breathing, in and out. A new technique for his wife. Usually she cried and asked questions. How did this happen to her? What did we do wrong? Tonight she breathes.
Richard’s phone buzzes. Their driver is waiting.
“We can’t leave her,” Eve whispers, “You go on.”
Richard texts the driver back, asks for five more minutes. He’d told Eve it was too soon but she’d insisted. How can Katie miss such a big night for you? Richard follows Eve up to Katie’s room. Eve knocks and Richard wonders: If Katie’s dead this time, will I even care?
Eve returns with the key. Katie’s a lump in her bed, whimpering. Eve wraps Katie in her arms and rocks her. Diet Coke cans on the armoire. Piles of clothes on the floor. A painting on the easel: a swamp, like always.
The line at the bar is a mile deep. Richard needs a scotch and soda, six of them really after seeing his daughter like that, at the sight of her room. He hadn’t been inside since there was pony wallpaper and a cage full of hamsters.
Dave appears. A boulder of a man. Sweating.
“Still can’t believe you pulled the trigger, old man,” Dave says. “We never thought you’d leave us.”
Richard smiles. He’s good at pretending to like idiots. He’s made a career of it.
“Where’s Eve?” Dave asks, peering behind Richard.
“She’s sick,” Richard says. “Hates to miss it.”
Bullshit, of course. Though she’d put on heels and blown her hair straight, Eve was probably happy to have an excuse to miss the party. Even if the excuse was Katie’s overdose a week ago. Eve hadn’t been to a firm event in at least a decade. She spent most weekends down in Placida with her sister.
At his table: back slaps, compliments, plans for tennis matches that will never happen. His assistant hugs him and Richard finds a box of Cuban cigars on his plate. He inhales two more scotch and sodas while he waits his turn. It’s the firm’s tradition to roast the people who’d sacrificed their own lives to save a client’s. Roast. A strange idea. One more night of torture, as if forty years wasn’t long enough. Richard imagines his body being slowly rotated over an open flame.
Who would take the mic? What will they say? What is there to say? Richard had loyally served the firm, missing Katie’s piano recitals and horseback riding competitions, even Eve’s emergency gall bladder surgery during which she nearly died.
Eli from the Chapel Hill office learns that his co-workers only laughed at his jokes because he had season tickets to the Jaguars. Amanda from Atlanta should plan on taking cooking classes because she practically poisoned the firm every Friday when she brought in her chocolate chip cookies. Her grandmother’s recipe. “Your granny must’ve been homicidal.” The room explodes into laughter and applause.
Richard signals the waiter. Another scotch and soda.
It’s his turn. Dave lumbers to the podium. What will he say? That once they got trapped inside the lobby of a hotel during a freak Sarasota hailstorm? Dave had confessed he wanted to leave his wife because she didn’t keep up her end of the deal by going to the gym.
“I’ve got the honor of honoring our last firm hero, Richard O’Neill.”
Dave bangs his glass down on the podium. Richard loosens his tie until it’s hanging from his neck.
“I wrote some things,” Dave says, too close to the microphone. “But I don’t need a script. I’ve got it down.”
Dave throws a piece of paper on the floor. He jabs a finger in Richard’s direction.
“Richard’s been with Martin, Steed, Johnson, and Howell for years. He’s seen the firm rise from a one-horse town to a galaxy. He’s given time and eaten a lot of rare steak.”
For a second this makes Richard like Dave. Dave remembered how Richard liked his steak. It’s a small thing. But a surprise.
“No one works harder than Richard. He’s gonna be a hard act to follow.”
Richard swirls the ice in his glass with his finger.
“The thing is,” Dave says. “No one really knows Richard. We call him Mystery Man.”
Richard’s face goes hot.
“No one’s seen his wife in years. We’ve never met his daughter. I think her name is Kathleen. But really, I have no idea.”
The room cracks up.
“Richard comes in at six-thirty every day and leaves at seven on the dot. He’s always available for overtime. He can fly to London at a moment’s notice. I asked him once what kind of music he liked. Anyone guess what he said?”
Sweat beads up under Richard’s collar. His skin itches.
“C’mon, guess,” Dave says.
“Johnny Cash!” someone yells from the back.
Dave shakes his head. “Try again.”
“No,” Dave says.
John Denver. Lady Gaga. Prince. Who are these people? Singers?
“No, no,” Dave says. “You’re all wrong. Our dear Richard said ‘none.’ There is no music he likes.”
The crowd roars. Why is this funny? Didn’t other people value silence?
“And I think that’s really sad. So, Richard, I have a retirement challenge for you.”
This wasn’t fair. No one else had been given a challenge. They’d been handed a Rolex and sent on their way.
“Listen to The Rolling Stones ‘Fade To Black.’ Or Prince ‘Purple Rain.’ Buy a pair of shorts. You live a block from the ocean and I bet you never go. Take your wife there. Drink champagne. Get a life.”
Dave pats him on the back, like he’s done Richard a favor by embarrassing him. For the rest of the night, strangers make suggestions: Eric Clapton; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Billy Ray Cyrus. The millennials offer to make him something called a playlist. One man even pulls him aside and confesses that the only way he survives practicing law is by meditating to Beethoven every morning for thirty minutes. While standing on his head. Richard is in a room full of idiots. He’s glad he will never have to see any of them again.
Richard stares at the boxes on the shelves. A woman’s hand darts in front of him and grabs Special K. He’s after Cocoa Krispies. Eve thinks Cocoa Krispies will help their twenty-six year-old daughter not shoot heroin again. Also grape soda and peanut butter.
When he gets home, Eve says Richard should bring the tray up to Katie. She’s at her easel painting storm clouds. Richard pushes aside tubes of paint and sets the tray down on her desk.
Katie comes over. It’s been years since he’d stood this close to his daughter. He’d forgotten how shiny her hair is, how there’s a dimple in her left cheek when she smiles. He remembers touching the dimple when she was a baby, feeling so proud he and Eve had made such a beautiful thing. Now when he sees the dimple, he feels like spitting. The things he’d done for her.
On her fifth birthday, when he was a lowly associate and had time for nonsense, she’d dared him to climb the oak tree and he’d done it. With his bad knee aching, to make her dimple come out. Then, after he’d started making money, a high school that cost fifteen thousand a year. A Mercedes on her sixteenth birthday. An Appaloosa horse. He’d promised to pay, in cash, for all four years at Brown. Even after she announced that she’d rather study European Art than law.
“Do you like it?” Katie asks, shyly, gesturing at the storm clouds.
Does he like it? He wants to punch a hole through the canvas. He wants to kick her out and tell her to never return. Richard isn’t like his wife. He doesn’t want to give Katie peanut butter. He wants Katie to apologize for making his retirement a joke because there will be no champagne on the beach, there will be nights up wondering if Katie is breathing. Now that he isn’t working, there’s nothing to distract him from the disappointment of his daughter, for the fear for her life. He can’t hide anymore.
“It’s nice,” Richard says, not looking.
Katie thanks him. She meets his eyes.
“You’re killing your mother,” Richard says. “You know that, right?”
Katie and Eve plant a wooden planter and fill it with cacti and rocks. Eve finds an old box of Katie’s toys in the attic and they arrange Barbies in minidresses and little plastic mermaids among the rocks. Katie calls it art. It’s weird but then Richard doesn’t understand art.
Richard stays on the periphery, buried in The Wall Street Journal, watching Tucker Carlson. His life now is studying Katie out of the corner of his eye, wondering when she’ll stab her mother in the heart again. He watches for signs—ones he’s heard about from Eve—but Katie doesn’t sneak off to use her phone. She doesn’t ask to borrow the car at night. She stays on the sofa, buried under a quilt, eating Cherry Garcia ice cream and singing with his wife. Christmas carols. Why are they singing “White Christmas” in the middle of March?
“This time is different,” Eve says one night, coming into the bedroom they used to share.
Richard doesn’t agree and he knows if he says so, they will fight. Eve doesn’t stay.
They wake up one morning and Katie is gone. Richard doesn’t mention his Rolex is gone, too.
Eve doesn’t cry. She drinks cup after cup of coffee and smokes cigarettes on the lanai. Richard didn’t know she smoked anymore. This is a side of his wife he’s never seen. She’s quiet. She doesn’t beg him to help look for Katie. Not that he’d ever combed the streets—he always had a case to prepare for. But now that he’s home, he expects her to ask. She doesn’t. She packs her bags and says she is going back to Placida. She doesn’t hug him goodbye.
Richard paces the house until he remembers there’s a garage to organize. Nail by nail. He owns tools, all of them still in the boxes they came from, gifts from Eve over the years he never opened. The memory of Dave’s speech makes Richard grind his teeth until his jaw locks and he has to massage his cheeks to unloosen it. Eve calls a few days later to say she heard from Katie, a text asking them not to look for her this time.
How presumptuous, Richard thinks. To assume we would look again.
He won’t look. But he can’t stop thinking about her. Without work to distract him, worry makes him wake up, gasping. Several times he grabs his phone, thinking he’ll call his wife and ask: “How did you live like this for all of these years?” Four since Katie’s first overdose. The sicker his daughter got, the more time Richard spent away from home. Now he’s a hostage in their home. Trapped with nowhere to go.
He decides he’ll ready Katie’s room for another use. Another guest room, maybe. Or an office.
Packing her room consumes his days. There’s so much junk. Cherry Chapstick, boxes of Tampax, loose change, first-place ribbons from horse competitions, a collection of kitten-printed socks. He tries to make mates out of them and then notices the cats don’t match up. He hurls it all into boxes.
In her bedside table, he finds a stack of composition books, the front covers labeled with dates. He flips through one and finds where Katie has written: “I hate his filthy jaw” fifteen times down a page. Whose filthy jaw?
At first he tells himself it’s wrong to read the books, that it’s her privacy, but maybe in these pages he can find out why she traded a future at Brown for a drug addiction and a loser boyfriend named Pete in Miami.
The owner of the filthy jaw is Dustin, the boy Richard had assumed Katie would marry. Dustin always came up to Richard and asked: “How is work, sir?” or “Nice weather we’re having, huh, sir?” Sir. What a nice word. No one said it anymore. So what happened? Richard sits down on the floor of Katie’s room and reads the pages of her diary like they are a novel.
She said that Dustin was like a fox, curious and cunning. There are strands of his red hair taped to a page. She slept in his T-shirt. Loved how he opened doors for her.
“I’m so lucky,” she wrote.
She saw a future with Dustin: three children, an oceanfront home with an art studio in the back. Hawaiian vacations. Richard skips the part about losing her virginity. He closes the book when she had a pregnancy scare. He goes to the kitchen to organize the freezer, but he wants to know the rest.
In their senior year, Dustin had a crew accident. The coxswain nailed him with an oar in the left shoulder. The doctor prescribed Vicodin and Dustin gave some to Katie. She says she tried it, liked it, but didn’t see why so many people got hooked. Richard grinds his teeth until his jaw pops.
Dustin, perfect Dustin, gave his daughter drugs first?
Dustin broke up with her. He claimed it was because they’d soon be three thousand miles apart, but Katie wrote that she knew it was because she was “a sad girl at heart.” Why? She had had everything. Katie said he broke her, that she would never be whole again.
Richard Googles Dustin and discovers he’s a divorce attorney in Austin. There’s a photo of him standing beside a blonde woman holding a toddler. Richard considers calling Dustin to tell him: “You ruined my daughter. You fucking motherfucker.” But this would be the exact opposite of the legal advice Richard would give to a client. He always recommended maintaining composure no matter the circumstance.
There’s one more entry in the last of Katie’s diaries, dated six months before her first overdose.
I want to disappear into my paintings. I want to go into the swamp and never come out.
He pours himself a scotch and soda at three in the afternoon. To ease a headache. The next day he pours one at eleven in the morning because he barely slept the night before. He turns the thermostat down to freezing and piles on sweaters. He sleeps in Katie’s bed.
He fires the gardener. His wife hasn’t called in weeks.
He starts packing up the books in Katie’s room. Shakespeare and JD Salinger. His daughter had underlined certain passages, written tiny notes in the margins. I’d rather be Iago than Othello. Holden Caulfield is a catch. Richard was never much of a reader. Catcher in the Rye takes him one day. He sips a drink while he reads, wondering what his daughter saw in Holden. He’s a depressed loser. Iago is a real nut and Othello was an idiot for trusting him. Richard doesn’t understand literature.
On the top shelf there are books about an artist named Octavia Neon. So many. A woman with white dreadlocks, weathered skin. An art professor at Columbia, the recipient of many awards. Her paintings are strange. Small blobs of primary colors on white canvases. How had this enabled her to teach at an Ivy League school? Richard considers putting the books in the trash, too, but then he finds he can’t stop looking at the paintings. Maybe it’s all the scotch he’s drinking, he’s not sure. But he finds them mesmerizing.
He dreams about his daughter. She stands on the edge of a cliff and he runs after her. He doesn’t reach her in time. She jumps into the blue sea. He wakes, in tears.
One middle-of-the-night Richard fiddles with the Apple TV. His wife had bought them the box and when Katie came home, she showed Eve how to work it. Eve had marveled.
“Richard, look at all the things we can watch now!” she’d said.
All the things she could watch. Richard watched the news and nothing else.
Now Richard watches a show about serial killers. He watches a show about a chef in New York who make delicacies out of dead frogs. He sees “Artist Class with Octavia Neon” and clicks on the dreadlocked woman. She stands in front of a blank canvas and smiles serenely.
“The whole world tells you that art is hard. It’s not. Go outside. Look down at the first thing you see. Draw it.”
She holds up a thimble.
“I almost tripped over this when I woke up this morning. Now I will draw it.”
Richard goes to the bar cart and mixes up a drink.
When he comes back, Octavia stands in front of her magenta thimble. It’s probably better than he could draw, but not much.
“People are afraid of painting because they think they’ll have to paint like Picasso. Don’t paint like Picasso. Paint like you.”
Richard Googles Picasso. Better than Octavia Neon and her thimble, but still not very special.
He Googles “most popular painters.” Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Rembrandt. Not one of their paintings impresses him.
Across the wall is one of Katie’s swamps. He’s never studied one of her paintings before. Thick trees against a navy sky. Frogs and lizards float in viscous water. His daughter has a talent for making her subjects look real, like a photograph, better than Octavia’s thimble, which is frozen on the screen. What makes Rembrandt and Octavia Neon better than Katie? Why isn’t his daughter teaching an Artist Class on Apple TV? Art, Richard decides, makes no sense.
Eve texts that she can’t come home and wait for Katie again. She is going to stay on at her sister’s. It occurs to Richard that if Katie doesn’t come home, he might never see his wife again. He wants Eve back, but he’s never been good with words. It’s better for him to be on his own now, no trouble for anyone.
Richard packs up everything but Katie’s easel, canvas, and metal toolbox of paints. At first this is because he doesn’t know how to properly pack up an easel and then it’s because he feels bad doing it, that this swamp might be Katie’s last swamp and shouldn’t be boxed up. He takes down the curtains. He paints the walls white.
He runs into Dave at Lowe’s.
“Listened to Prince yet?” Dave asks, a hammer in his hand.
Richard fantasizes about bashing him over the head with it. Would he go to jail? Probably.
“House projects,” Richard tells him.
This is a lie. Now that Katie’s room is mostly packed up, Richard isn’t sure what to do. Eve will go crazy if he organizes her things, and there’s nothing else left to organize.
“Remember what I said,” Dave says, smiling. “Listen to some damn music.”
What will happen?
At first this is the question. And then the question gets longer.
What will happen to me?
He lies in Katie’s bed, listening to the grandfather clock. He tries to ignore his beating heart.
What would make a grown man lie down in the grass and stare at a ladybug? Desperation, that’s what. This is what he’ll tell the police if they show up. He can’t organize another nail. The house is so quiet. He may never see his wife or daughter again.
The ladybug climbs a blade, plays hide and seek. Richard picks up the ladybug and it rolls into a ball. He memorizes the dots.
Or rather. He thinks he memorized the dots. But when he stares at the blank canvas, pencil in hand, he can’t remember. How many dots? He doesn’t draw. Why didn’t he photograph the ladybug? Are there lots of ladybugs? Will he ever find one again?
He makes a drink. Sips it. Googles “ladybug.”
“Lady luck” they are nicknamed.
He places his laptop on the floor and copies what he sees. When he stands back, he is struck by how terrible it is. “I am a shitty artist,” he says. The antenna looks nothing like the antenna on his screen. He rips the paper from the easel and shreds it.
Octavia says not to be hard on first efforts. This is what Richard always told the new associates, when they lost their first cases. “This happens to everyone,” he’d assure them and then he’d tell the story about his first case and how the judge told him he had no future in law.
“And now look at me,” he’d say. He had such pride. Now he is a seventy-year-old man with no pride, searching for a ladybug at dawn, his bare feet cold against the grass.
He traps Lady Luck in a jar and gives her grass to eat. He sleeps with her next to his bed. He draws her every day. Not on the canvas, but on pieces of paper in a legal pad he used to carry around for work. After a week of drawing her many times, there is one picture he doesn’t hate. Lady Luck looks sort of like a real ladybug.
Octavia has other lessons. She says once you start drawing, you’ll begin to see the world like an artist. “You will appreciate things you never have before,” she says. “And not just things you can see. Sounds and smells. Your senses will be awakened.” She says to keep a record to record observations.
The shush-shush of the palm trees when the wind blows through the leaves
Grit of sand between my toes
Chill of the water on my calves
Scent of honeysuckle
Am I doing this right? He stops asking the question.
One night Richard is drawing Lady Luck during a rainstorm when there’s a loud crack and white light streaks across Katie’s room. He flips light switches. Nothing. He stumbles to the kitchen where he digs out the flashlight from a drawer. He flips breakers. Nothing.
“When your art is going well, let nothing endanger your momentum. This time is precious. Let the paint peel from the walls,” Octavia had said.
Richard lights candles. He returns to his work. He draws all night.
The lightning got the pool pump. It killed the toaster and the television. The garage door won’t open. The home phone line is dead. Richard considers calling Eve to tell her—but then, why would she care?
Richard drinks scotch and sodas and eats cans of black beans and corn. He draws. At night, he lights candles. He sits outside, in the pitch blackness, and listens to the crickets. There’s a smell to the air. Not just honeysuckle. But salt air. Richard hadn’t realized you could smell the beach from a block away.
When it’s been a week, Richard calls AT&T.
A technician comes out, Daniel, who says his modem is dead.
“What’s a modem?” Richard asks.
Daniel smiles. “My mother recently asked me the same thing.”
Usually millennials treated you like an idiot when you asked a simple question, but this Daniel, he’s a good kid. He sets up the modem, fixes the phone line.
Richard offers him a drink and Daniel looks at his watch—good, a millennial who still wears a watch—but he nods.
Scotch and sodas on the lanai. The sun setting. Richard points out the pink streaks and Daniel says it’s been a while since he’d had time to look at the sky. He’s got one kid and another on the way. He lives with his in-laws.
“It’s a mess,” he tells Richard.
Since they’re confiding in each other, Richard feels like it’s okay to ask another simple question.
“Have you heard of Prince?” Richard asks.
“My older sister is a fan.” Daniel studies Richard. “Wait—have you never listened to him before?”
Richard shakes his head.
Daniel pulls out his phone. “This is my sister’s favorite.”
The song is about a pink hat and a sexy woman. Richard likes Prince’s enthusiasm. He says this to Daniel, who laughs, but not in a mean way. He asks if he can download an app on Richard’s phone. Richard says okay, not sure what he’s agreeing to. Daniel works on Richard’s phone for a couple of minutes. Then he explains he’d made Richard a playlist of his sister’s favorite Prince songs. He shows Richard how to open the app.
A playlist. Now Richard understands what the word means.
He listens to Prince while he draws. Learns the songs after a few days. “1999” is his favorite because of the exuberant way Prince talks about partying. Richard has never partied. There are so many things he’s never done.
He Googles “What Should I Do Before I Die” and finds a list. He’s never taken an ice cold shower or ridden a rollercoaster or hiked the Appalachian Trail. Eaten escargot or raw oysters. And he doesn’t want to do these things now. A cold shower or a hike, maybe. Slimy dead fish—no.
The last item on the list: “If there’s one person who needs to hear you love them, tell them. Don’t delay!”
Does Katie know he loves her? Has he ever told her?
He calls Eve and asks.
She is quiet for a moment. “I think she wanted you to take an interest in her life more than tell her you loved her.”
Eve is talking about their daughter in past tense. It’s terrifying.
The ladybug is climbing a blade of grass in the jar. Richard wonders what his wife would think if she could see him now, in his boxer shorts, sitting in their daughter’s bedroom. The grass is knee-high. Spiders are living on the chandelier.
“I haven’t heard from her in months. We have to face she’s not coming home this time,” Eve says. “We have to let her go.”
Richard packs a suitcase and throws it in the car, but he doesn’t get farther than the end of the street. He’d been gone Katie’s whole life. Why would she trust him now?
Sometimes being an artist is overwhelming, like when you walk outside and all you can do is smell the air and look at the sky and you wish you could cover your eyes because there’s so much to take in. The flowers are so pink. The birds are so loud. I love it all! I love it all!
The paper is in the drawer by the front door, buried beneath an extra garage door opener and Super Glue. Scrawly kid script. Katie’s words. Richard reads it over and over, until it’s like a song. I love it all! I love it all! He wishes he could tell her that this is how he feels when he’s outside at night—the crickets—the smell of salt air. He wishes he could show her his drawings. There are so many now.
Richard paints Katie’s room pink again. He organizes the bookshelves alphabetically. He puts away her kitten socks. He tapes the paper he found to the wall. He sets up her easel with a blank canvas. He works on his drawings in his legal pad, a scotch and soda sweating on the floor beside him.
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