Sunday, October 19, 2014

Fiction #55: Jéanpaul Ferro

Four Darks in Red

The kid was really a no one, bouncing up and down in his boat across the frothy waves, traversing the wake of a luxury liner, and then swiftly guiding himself to the rocky shoreline of Huckleberry Island, where it seemed as though the party had been going on for years without him.  Jake could barely make out the rippling Hammond organ of Booker T & the M.G.’s Green Onions playing nearby.  As one hand rose across his sweaty brow he noticed the jaunty shadows of all the Shining Ones, all of them dancing inside the bakehouse as an efflorescent glow bleed silently out the window blinds, cutting across the bare darkness like sunbeams.  Quickly, Jake tied the boat to an ashen tree trunk littering the shore.  His heart began to quicken.  He stood there in his Nordstrom’s suit looking like a patchwork knee-deep in seawater right there on the pebble beach.  He knew that he had been banned from going to the party by her father—one of those maniacal dudes that made all boys feel invisible.  Yet he found himself there anyway.

As he started to walk along the beach he smiled at the thought of her.

Now Georgia Benjamin was no ordinary girl.  No.  She was the type of girl who had the right mix of everything.  Smart.  Well read.  Had passport stamps of most of Europe; Jake had even talked her into volunteering one summer to help the less fortunate in Ethiopia, and she loved it.  This was a girl who had to stop for every stricken critter and turtle along the roadside.  She liked Modern Art like her mother, Katherine, did, especially Kandinsky and Rothko.  And there was this heartened look that came to her face whenever she got afraid and her lips started to purse together—the kind of look that made Jake Brunelli want to spend the rest of his life with her.  They had met in Providence while attending Brown University together.  He was there on scholarship.  Her family had been going there long before the revolution.  

As his feet sloshed through sink hole after sink hole along the pebble beach he managed to think that maybe somehow her family still might want to foster him in.  Jake’s father, Alejandro Brunelli, had been a sort of folk hero to him; an Italian-Argentinean who literally had to carry his infant son on his back across the Patagonian Andes to escape the military junta of 1976 Argentina.  His mother, Nadine, gave wine-soaked bread to family infants, risking her life as she hid them in the cutouts of old furniture, the political killings and disappearances becoming a nightly ritual.  Alejandro and Nadine may have only been servants after they immigrated to the U.S., but his parents had helped everyone they ever encountered.  Jake couldn’t fathom why anyone at the top of the heap, someone like a Lionel Benjamin, wouldn’t want to lend a hand to help someone else out of the wiles of the swamp.  It certainly seemed like the Christian thing to do.

Soon he stood there in front of the old bakehouse of the Squantum Club, painted a farty fort-brown like a lodge no one was supposed to see.  A beautiful primer of lobster and mussels steaming nearby wafted through the cool night air. 

As he breathed in this beautiful aroma his heart began to quicken again.  He could hear all the earsplitting guests conversing wildly inside.  It was then that he pulled out the ring to check on it again.  Twenty-two years old was quite young to be getting married, especially for 1998.  People got married at forty now.  And he knew it.  But he knew life was short and happiness could be fleeting.  You could be dead.  Or he could be dead.  Or Georgia could be dead in the blink of an eye.  Even that annoying guido at the jewelry store earlier that afternoon—buying his Johnston girlfriend that chunky bracelet with her name tattooed in diamonds—he could be dead tomorrow too.  Jake had lost both parents to cancer within months of each other.  His father, Alejandro, had been dead only six months now.  It was still so fresh in his memory that he found himself still talking to his dad whenever he got lonely.  He realized that there was no special envoy dismissing one person in life while saving another; no omniscient God in a smoky backroom, drinking Jim Beam and smoking Camels, pulling on strings for jigs—this person stays, this person goes!  But as he stared at that ring he held in his hand he did think he could somehow quell the tsunami of pain he always felt trying to rise up somewhere deep down inside him.       

Right then Jake cleared his throat, pretended to be Richard Burbage, or at least Russell Crowe, and he rushed headlong into the bakehouse, where all these marvelous sounds bleated back and forth like at a carnival. 

Strangely, inside wasn’t what he imagined.  At first he didn’t see Georgia at all.  And then there was all this bickering.  People sat around drinking bourbon and complained about nonsense when there were real problems out there to solve.  Other people, sharply dressed men and women, stood around looking beautiful, slender, and tall.  He noticed Uriah, Georgia’s baby sister, standing off in a corner right in front of the dark windows that overlooked Narragansett Bay.  She was eating Russian Tea cake and drinking a cup of coffee.  He was surprised to see that she had cut her long blonde hair short like a boy.  Out of nowhere, she raised her coffee cup up toward Jake to get his attention.  They all attended Brown together.  She was studying literature in hopes of becoming a writer some day.  Uriah would often tell anyone who would listen that she was going to be the next female David Foster Wallace.  She had actually introduced Jake to her sister.  He considered her a good friend.

Walking across the dance floor Jake noticed several people he thought he recognized, but wasn’t too sure about.  He was fairly certain the rotund guy to his left, the one making all the jokes with the old women, must have been the flamboyant Mayor of Providence.  Next to him he recognized Senator Kennedy from Massachusetts.  He was surrounded by ten impresarios all dressed in matching Brooks Brothers suits, each of them with satin blue ties, everyone drinking Gladding Punch—brandy, rum, sugar, Nutmeg, and milk.  Over to the right stood a man Jake thought must have been the CEO of General Motors, because the poor sap, balding and paunchy, had a blue patch on his sport coat with a big GM underlined in subtle light-blue.  He was canoodling a cute twenty-something as he kept trying to tempt her with a drunken little chimpanzee dressed up as Uncle Sam.  Strangely, the chimpanzee had on what looked to be a campaign slogan pinned to his posterior, although Jake couldn’t get close enough to make it out.  The rhythms of a small orchestra that had been set up inside the bakehouse played Glenn Miller’s In the Mood, shredding the whole place down.

Jake stood there like a talking cucumber at cattle ranch.  He tried to inconspicuously fit in, coughing into his hand, and then walking over to Uriah, trying to stay undercover for as long as he could.  It was actually fairly easy, letting the flailing chimpanzee, which was drinking a beer now and moon walking, as these otherwise astute people all stood around in a circle, clapping their hands, egging on their hapless little friend.

Jake spoke to Uriah teasingly as he walked up.  “You’re father’s such a fine dancer.”  He said this as he looked down at the chimpanzee.  “Now please tell me he’s still a towering drunk.”

Uriah leaned in close so nobody else could hear.  “Daddy is the kind of drunk who has to stop himself from drinking out of all the half empty glasses.  Believe me.  I’ve seen it.”  Both their eyes scanned the room at all the half empty glasses lying around.

Jake got an odd feeling as he watched her sip on her coffee.  He knew she had problems.  He partly blamed himself.  Nonetheless, she actually seemed taken off guard when he reached over, took a swig of her coffee to see if it was spiked, and then handed it straight back to her. 

An annoyed look came to her pretty face.

“Hey?” She leaned in close again.  “Look, Jake, I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like that.  Now do they?”

He watched as her ears slowly began to turn as red as a raspberry.  He stared into those blue eyes of hers now.  He felt badly for both her and her sister.  Georgia had confided in him many a night about how their father treated them so poorly.  He knew for a fact that Lionel would berate them, simply because they hadn’t been born boys.  He often called his daughters handmaidens right in front of company.  He had read a book once, and he was now a self-proclaimed pragmatist—someone who truly believed in his heart that helping others or the poor would only hurt them in the long run. 

Uriah must have noticed the thoughts written on his face, because she touched Jake’s hand very tender as though to distract him.  “Father has his own way,” she tried to say.

Jake was about to argue the point when he caught sight of her sister walking in from the loggia outside. 

Even after all these years seeing Georgia stopped Jake right in his tracks.  He had dated other women before, of course.  Nice women too.  Even attractive ones.  The kind of women a mother wants her son to bring home to her family.  One girl could be pithy.  And another one kind.  Yet another one beautiful.  But no girl could be all things; no one accept the wonderful girl from Ruggles Avenue whose gorgeous exterior was only surpassed by the beautiful pastoral that rested so blissfully inside her.

Simply seeing Georgia made him feel alive.  Somehow her presence loosened all the darkness caught up inside him.  He noticed the faint way she had to smile at all her father’s friends, the same way a baker’s wife might smile pleasantly at pastry in front of company.  Her summer tan was gorgeous.  And her blonde hair had lightened so much from the sun that it almost matched the sparkling light-gold hues of her sequined dress.  Walking in the door of the bakehouse she could have passed for a blonde Cleopatra. 

Suddenly, her smile changed to self-doubt as she spied Jake standing over there. 

She rushed over to him with her blue eyes looking down as though she was afraid to catch anyone’s eye.

Her hand thrust out and grabbed his wrist quickly.  “What are you doing here?” she whispered.  “Are you mad?” 

Jake thought it was somewhat amusing that he had defied her father yet again.  Could a man really tell another man where he could and couldn’t go?  

“Have some Russian Tea cake while you’re here!” Uriah told them.  She held her plate of cake out to both of them.

At first Georgia nodded like she wasn’t interested. 

“Just have a little,” Jake entreated her.  She had been looking awfully skinny at Gooseberry Beach the week before.

He took a bite of the cake now.  “It’s delicious.  Come on.  You can feel how good it is on the tips of your lips.  Just try some.”

A waning smile came to her face.  “Oh, no thanks,” she said.  “If you can feel it on your lips, Jake, you know it’s going straight to your hips.”  She smacked her hand against one hip as she smiled.

He let out a frustrated breath.  “Oh, come on.  Live a little.  It’s not like you’re going to turn into a pumpkin.”  He turned and looked at her sister.  “When I take her out to dinner all she eats is salad.  I think she’s going to turn into a rabbit.”

“I’d make you get me lobster,” Uriah joked.  “What would I turn into?”

He turned, exasperated, and looked at Georgia now.  “A girl can get too skinny you know.”

She laughed.  “Oh, no she can’t!” 

Georgia looked at her baby sister, and they both gave each other a subtle nod like they had done a thousand times before.  Georgia nodded back to her.  “Alright.  Alright.  You two are impossible.”  She reached over and took a big bite of cake.  She nodded approvingly like it was very good.  She then turned and looked back at Jake.  “Okay.  I listened.  Now you have to listen.  We have to go.” 

“We just got here,” he said.

“Yeah, but you’re on daddy’s Enemies List,” Uriah said.  

“You’re kidding, right?”

Georgia gave her sister an icy stare now.  “Uriah?”

Jake knew not to fight every battle.  So he took Georgia’s hand and started to walk out with her, leaving the Squantum Club and bakehouse until a mischievous smile slowly began to form across his face.

Halfway across the room he playfully pulled Georgia back a couple of steps. 

He gently pushed her toward the center of the dance floor now, where he got down on one knee. 

“No, no, no,” her voice nervously started to appeal to him. 

The whole room got quiet. 

All of a sudden the little chimpanzee, drunk on Dos Equis and champagne by now, came waddling over with his right-hand drawn out.

He tried to grab the blinding white box that Jake held up to his girlfriend.

“Oh, no, that’s not for you,” he said, gingerly trying to push the little guy back.

Thankfully, the cute brunette came over and took little drunk Uncle Sam back to her table with her and the GM guy.

Suddenly, Georgia’s face stared to turn flush.

Jake kneeled in front of her, holding out his hand, opening up the blinding white jewelry box that he held, so she could see the contents inside. 

A stunning diamond ring set in white gold sat atop his palm like on a lily pad.  He had worked tirelessly for three years after class and during the summer months to save up enough for that ring.  Alejandro and Nadine had left him little after having to pay their hospital bills that racked up to almost a staggering two-hundred-thousand.  All he had now was their little bungalow up in North Scituate and an old Austin Healey that hardly ran.  

The astute orchestra that was right there suddenly began to play the theme from Jacque Offenbach’s Barcarole. 

Jake stood up now, nervously put the engagement ring on Georgia’s ring finger, and looked at her.  

“Yes!  Yes.  Yes,” she shouted in the most excessive spirit of joy and healing he had ever heard.  She thrust both arms around him.

Like everything he had ever wanted was about to come true, he lovingly took her in his arms, and they started to slow dance from station to station around the dance floor, dancing almost effortlessly like a young Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr.

… For one brief shining moment inside the Squantum bakehouse everything seemed to give way.  They stared lovingly into each other’s eyes like when hard-pressed men, the first immigrants of America, stood on these same dusky shores and watched the cloud cobbled sky almost as though the only thing they needed to know was that somehow tomorrow always held a greater possibility than today. 

Lionel Benjamin and his consorts came busting into the bakehouse no holds barred. 

The gang of ten had been meeting up at the Mansion House about a land grab they were about to undertake down in Virginia.  Lionel had been a great success up to that point.  He was even featured on the cover of Time Magazine once.  But his success was only in the financial arena.  Someone must have tipped him off about Jake.  Ironically, it was Jake who saw him first.  He watched those obsidian eyes of Lionel staring straight at him.  They looked like two blackcurrants plucked out of the face of a scarecrow. 

Jake stood his ground, but it was Georgia who began to look timid.  She started to tug at his arm like they had to finally leave.  It was right in that moment when Jake remembered going to the Cable Car Cinema with her only three weeks back to see The Damned by Luchino Visconti.  Both of them had worn these stupid 3D glasses as a joke.  He remembered her smile as she turned to him during the middle of the show with a look on her face like she was trying hard to imitate Elton John.  He wanted to give the feeling of that tender moment right back to her now.

As they made a dash toward the entrance of the bakehouse they happen to see one of their Brown classmates, Ayla Hoffman, right there.  

Ayla stood outside a hallway door completely taken off guard.  She was a brunette who was studying medicine.  Her nervous hands pulled at her canary colored mini-skirt, trying to get the flimsy thing back up over her shoulders. 

“Ahhhhhh, you’ve got to be kidding!” Georgia said exasperated as she realized who it was.  Jake could hear the disappointment in her voice.

Out the same door Ayla had just exited from came Dietrich Albert, a longtime acquaintance of Lionel who went around telling everyone that he and his longtime wife, Lila, weren’t really faithful to each other anymore, but that they were still “monogamish.”

Georgia gave her classmate a disappointed look.  “Does Tequila just make your dress fall off, Alya?” she asked.  Jake tugged at her arm that they had to go.

Outside, they nervously walked around in the dark around little Huckleberry Island.  Georgia held onto her high heels as she leaned on Jake every few steps so as not to fall along the shifting pebbles of the beach.  He noticed how she kept looking down at her new ring and then down at the empty black footprints they kept leaving behind them.

“You remember the time we had to eat Chinese food using pencils?” she asked.  Her normal tenderness slowly started to creep back up into her voice again.

“Oh, yeah,” Jake quipped with a smile.  “It’s an adventure every time you come over to eat.  That was the same night we had to drink our green tea out of saucers like two pups, because I didn’t have any glasses.”

“I mean who doesn’t have any glasses?”

“Aw, come on.  Good times!”

When they got down near the boat on the shore they stopped to look around. 

It was quiet sans for the ruckus still going on back up at the bakehouse.  All through the sky that evening the heavens was simply bejeweled in stars.  To the south of them sat the twinkling lights of the Newport Bridge.  To the north stood the brood shoulders of the Providence skyline. 

Georgia kept staring over at the bridge to the south of them.

“We can’t keep doing this forever can we?” she asked.  She turned and looked at him now.  

Jake gently put his hand against the side of her face. 

“Look,” he said very tender.  “You can’t let someone else can’t run your life for you.  It’s ultimately your life.”  He turned and looked back up at the bakehouse and then right back around at her.  “This is a moment.”  He pointed his hand around the beachhead.  “When a moment fails you have to move onto the next moment.”  He pointed his hand back at himself now.  “Georgia, honey.  I am the next moment.  I can take care of you.  We can take care of each other.”

He watched those blue eyes of hers fixate on him.  Sometimes she got this frustrated look whenever he tried to fix things the way a man does sometimes.  But the look he saw on her face now was something totally different.  It frightened him. 

“No matter what happens just know that I love you,” she tried to tell him.

“I don’t even know what that means.” 

Her hand kept fiddling with her ring.

“There are just so many things you don’t know,” her voice said faintly.  “Do you know how lonely it is to be me?  Do you know how lonely and hard it is to be a woman nowadays?”  Her blue eyes stared at him now.  She looked up at the bakehouse and then back down at the loneliness caught on his face.  “A woman can never be the weaker sex anymore.  We all have to be brilliant all the time.  And fast.”  She nodded her head.  “And beautiful too.”

“But you are.”

“No, I’m not.  I’m actually tired is what I am.  But every day I’m supposed to be sexy, creative, and energetica cook; a playboy bunny; a mother; a queen; a daughter; sometimes a dyke; other times a quiet thing; sometimes an artist; sometimes an automaton; maybe an angel one day; a moth another; a devil; Joan of Arc; Julia Child, Mother Teresa; and Mary, mother of Jesus.  I don’t even know who I’m supposed to be sometimes.  I can’t figure this whole thing out.  Jake.  I know I feel things I shouldn’t feel.”

He reached over and gently took her hand to try and reassure her.  “You don’t have to be anyone for me.  And you certainly don’t have to be perfect.  We’re all allowed to make mistakes you know.  That’s who we are as human beings.”

She nodded her head like maybe this wasn’t true.  “I don’t think,” she said, “I’m allowed to make mistakes.”

Before her words were cold on her lips the sound of yelling and a dish being broken against the wall back up inside the bakehouse started to echo down the beach.  

It was Jake who motioned for them to go back up.  “You’re sisters still up there.”

Worry immediately overcame all her other fears.  “Okay,” she finally said.

When they walked back into the bakehouse, much to their surprise they saw a drunken Lionel, fallen in a heap in the middle of the dance floor, where all his special guests looked down upon him like feeble ghosts who could do nothing of their own initiative.

Jake noticed a vein that always popped against the side of Lionel’s forehead.  It seemed to be throbbing right then. 

It only took a second for Lionel to spot him.  He pointed for three of his attendants to subdue the alien that somehow found a way into their midst.

“Daddy, please!” Georgia cried out to him.  Her sister rushed over and had to hold her back.

Lionel dusted himself off as he slowly stood up.

As Jake struggled with all three gowns he watched Lionel go over and put his hands against the sides of his daughter’s face.  He had this look of pity in his eyes as he stared at Georgia.  “You’re my eldest,” he said in that raspy baritone of his.  “You have to help your father carry the heavy burden of this family.  Who else is going to do it?”  He said this last part to her almost delicate.

Georgia quickly retreated from his grasp like her father was a snake that had just bit her. 

And then it came whispering to her the second she saw the pain emanating from her younger sister’s face.  She turned back around and glared at her father.  She slapped him right in the face as hard as she could.  “How dare you?” she said to him with utter disdain.  “We had a deal!”  A second later she went running from the room.

Jake had one guy with his arm around his neck now.  Another guy tried to lift his left leg up from the front.  A third guy, a big Samoan whose body odor was the nastiest funk anyone ever smelled, kept tugging at Jake’s belt, trying to lift him up and move him forward.  Jake purposely stepped on the guy’s foot to try and get him off.

As the struggle spilled out to the entryway, Jake was taken off guard when he spotted Georgia inside the open door of the ladies room.  She sat there staring at herself in front of the mirror as she sobbed.

Lionel came rushing over. 

When he spotted his daughter in the ladies room he almost looked sorry for her.

“What are you looking at?” he said, almost like he was traumatized seeing her like that.  He almost looked desperate. 

An impenetrable look of sadness came to her face right then.  She looked over at her father.  This was the man who had raised her.  This was the man who had tried to give her everything.  But sometimes everything could turn into nothing.  She looked over at the three men struggling with Jake now.  She turned and looked back at herself in the mirror like she was pathetic.  “Nothing,” she whispered softly to herself.  “Nothing.  Nothing.”

A second later Jake was flung through the air out the front door of the bakehouse, where he found himself deposited on the wet ground right beside Burnside’s old cannon. 

He sat there on the moist grass with his hands folded together out in front of him like he had just been thrown out at home plate.  For a moment he thought he could somehow remedy the situation.  He thought of his father, Alejandro, carrying him high over that mountain range.  But as guest after guest came walking out, each one of them looking down pitifully at him, most of them pretending that he wasn’t even there, Jake knew deep down inside that the party was over. 

After another moment of sitting there dejected, trying to think about what to do, trying to think about all that had transpired over the years of knowing Georgia, he could only find it within himself to look around in astonishment.  As he looked up at the nighttime sky at those same stars that he had looked at earlier with Georgia it seemed so utterly abnormal to try and do things where it hurt everyone yet no one else was helped at all.

And then out of nowhere he saw a glimmer of light escape from the bakehouse door as it came bursting wide open again. 

His heart began to surge as he saw this almost disembodied hand stick itself out the door, flinging something through the air over toward him.

Ting.  Ting.  Ting. 

The object made a dull metal sound as it bounced midway across the driveway, landing on the wet grass near where he had been deposited. 

As his eyes focused on the object, an orb really, he saw a piece of moonlight flicker at it atop the dewy tips of the grass.

Slowly, his hand clinched down over it.  He picked it up. 

“No,” he said.  His voice sounded as though it had been crushed. 

It was her ring that he held in his hand.

Jake sat there feeling humiliated.  A second later he could feel the cold stain of the wet grass starting to bleed through his underpants now.  All that haunting music that had been playing up at the bakehouse started all over again.  For a second he thought his heart might burst. 

The bakehouse door quietly opened again as this lonely figure started to slowly walk down over to where he sat.

Feeling hope for a second he sat up upon his knees. 

But the only thing he saw was the little chimpanzee who was dressed in his red, white, and blue Uncle Same outfit. 

In silence they gave each other a sympathetic look.  It was almost like they were compadres.  

Out of nowhere the little chimp unceremoniously began to wildly beat Jake atop the head. 

As his hands went to cover himself the crazy little thing snatched the engagement ring straight out of his hand. 

A stunned looking Jake, the pressure mounting inside of him, watched in horror as the little chimpanzee stuck his ugly speckled tongue out at him.  He then dance around, smacking himself shamelessly atop the head while he made these hideous monkey sounds.  “Eee eee aah aah ooh ooh!”  Jake sat there helplessly as passersby after passerby walked along the edge of the dew filled grass, its surface sparkling like a million diamonds, all the departing guests of that night looking over at him like he was some sort of cheap sub-human, simply because he had no invitation, the dissonance of the chimp echoing an even more horrible cacophony all around him through the cool night air: “Eee eee aah aah ooh ooh!”

All of a sudden Jake leaned in close as he could now make out the small campaign slogan that had been pinned to the little chimpanzee’s posterior.

…We’re Not In Kansas Anymore, it read.

He looked around.  He could hear the rustling of the wind in all the tall Rhode Island trees.

*

Jéanpaul Ferro is a novelist, short fiction author, and poet from Scituate, Rhode Island. A 9-time Pushcart Prize nominee, his work has appeared on National Public Radio, Contemporary American Voices, Tulane Review, Tampa Review, Columbia Review, Emerson Review, Connecticut Review, and Saltsburg Review. He is the author of Essendo Morti – Being Dead (Goldfish Press, 2009), nominated for the 2010 Griffin Prize in Poetry; and Jazz (Honest Publishing, 2011), nominated for both the 2012 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize and the 2012 Griffin Prize in Poetry. He is represented by the Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency. Website: www.jeanpaulferro.com * E-mail: jeanpaulferro@netzero.net

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