“Madame D.C.”

A novel series by “Mario O. Laplume

Book I – Three voyages

 

 “By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The non-existent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.” Franz Kafka

“If nothing can save us from Death, at least Love should save us from Life” Pablo Neruda

“Come forth and let me discover the secret garden of your life” Gabrielle D’ Annunzio

 

Dedicated to

Gladys, my mother, for lovingly conceiving and raising me

Mario, my father, for teaching me how to read and respect books

Noël Marie and Gian Luca, my children, the light of my life

 

Part I – The End

 -“OH… GOD!” Emily screamed. “How could it all end up like this?”

With her right hand still holding the smouldering 9mm pistol, she surveyed with stupefaction the macabre montage she had created with one exact shot.

-“What do you think you’re doing here?” Rufina said. “Reading a novel?”

Emily stared ahead, mollified, motionless. “What ha-ha-happened here?”

Troubling stirrings of echoes were arising through the Venetian hotel’s stone and pine foundation as submerged sentient creatures at the lagoon’s bottom were taking sides for or against Emily, moved by atavistic loyalties of clan.

-“Someone, something’s coming up,” Rufina said. “We must go—now.”

Following Rufina’s supple flight, she dashed down a creaky stairwell leading to an exit door. Emily ran through a maze of dimly lit alleys, until reaching a dead-end abutting a small canal, where she leaned against a wall. Her dress was stained with the opaque splattering of fresh blood and her soul was ruffled by the high-pitched scream of her ad-lib target falling at her feet.

Her tympanic membrane was vibrating with acute sounds, her nasal mucosa was irked by gunpowder’s acrid smell, her retina was replaying the slithery contortion of a body interposed in the bullet’s trajectory and her right hand, grappling with the empowered gun, radiated its heaving numbness upwards.

 

She recalled that, slightly closing her eyes, she allowed the rigidity to take control of the situation, which propelled her finger a few inches backwards triggering the blast before even deciding what the intended target should be.  Her lover, his own lover, maybe even she…. Who was really meant to die? In the end all of them did somehow. She blamed their deed for her misery and they blamed her insanity for their disgrace… How could she possibly harm one of them while traumatizing the other one if she had adored both?

Her doughty kräuter-spirit—crucial for her success as an educator, businesswoman and writer— is spewing out its unbridled passion.

As Emily recanted the troubling details, she paradoxically came to the very same conclusion she had unconsciously reached before: she could not choose herself, so better let the machine do her criminal bidding… Then it seemed almost natural to yield to the overpowering stiffness that ultimately decided who got the full impact of that devilish bang, shaking her right arm.

Even though she might have hoped to end one life while sparing the other one, both existences were irreversibly compromised because, while trying to assist the fallen partner, the caretaker was giving up the innermost energy.

She recalls standing still, as if she were watching a curated exhibit of perversely intriguing appeal but without grasping its significance.

 

Emily, who proselytized as a maverick politician willing to trust those

she served with the truth, deluded herself with a fittingly fabricated fantasy. The overpowering smell of the burning gunpowder coupled with the sweet aroma of fresh blood had contributed to her inertia, which the primal gasp of the fallen one and the odious stare of the survivor could not possibly dent. With the certainty of some unwelcome visit, Rufina’s admonition had finally broken her trance and guided her stumbling steps out of the suite, down the stairs before striding into the ominous outside to reach that lugubrious spot.

A lightning thunderbolt broke the eerie stillness of La Serenissima. Rufina prodded her to get rid of the weapon by escorting her closer to the canal rim—stinking with the sickeningly stalwart “spuzza”—and urging her to extend her petrified hand over the waters to toss her symbiotic appendix. Suddenly taking a life of its own, the Beretta pistol performed a summersault jump into the air and plunged straight down the maroon glueyness, leaving a receding wave in its foggy surface that joined a coterie of similar telltale signs hidden by the diversionary frivolity of the Disneyland-by-the-Adriatic.

Rufina tried to erase Emily’s blouse stains, but her inertia, punctuated by gibberish talk, frustrated a spectre unable to transgress into the physical.

An unusually fierce thunderstorm started to pour down over Venezia.

 

-“You must keep walking, it’s not safe here,” Rufina said. “Get up.”

Emily looked askance at her guardian spirit. “Why? Why?” she muttered.

-“It’s not the right time for dissection—too many hounds are trying to pick up your scent…For starters the Russian thugs are hell-bent on avenging their leader’s death, the HAA zealots are on the prowl here, the AEG militia has sworn to eliminate you. Take your pick—you’ve got plenty of enemies.”

-“OK.” Emily stood up and started walking in the steady drizzle. “Let’s go.”

As soon as she reached the Hotel Danieli, where countless fugitives had stayed incognito, she went straight upstairs, without greeting the porter opening the front door or the concierge handing her the suite’s baroque key. She did not even pick up messages from nosy journalists and adoring fans, eager to know if their lodestar would run as a party candidate or as an independent in the mid-term elections. They understood VIP’s moodiness. She dumped her soaked clothing, took a shower and, draped in a fluffy robe, slumped in a sofa to comb her tousled hair. Rufina was watching her closely.

-“Do you know what I really need right now?” Emily asked. “I’d love to have my mother Susan to talk to…Why don’t you go fetch her, huh?”

If it were possible, she would also beseech Didier’s departed ears, which had bestowed their full attention to her copious woes to find a sensible way out.

 

-“She won’t leave her rocking chair in Portage—that’s why I’m here.” said Rufina whose tolerance for her whims was finite, unlike her company.

-“It’s not the same… You were buried alive too young—you don’t have old age’s wisdom… Hey, how about Father Mauro? His parish is close—”

-“Forget it… He’s away on a Vatican mission down in the Sinai desert.”

As her darling spook—fallen off the Grid in a Singapore’s black op—gave her a Walther PPK, Emily pulled it out of her bag and laid it on the table.

– “Saint Catherine…. Why don’t you go get him? I’ll be waiting right here. Don’t worry about this iron…Keeping it handy—should things get hairy.”

Rufina rushed out while Emily mulled over the brutal reality, shirking her blame, deluding herself that she would wake up, unscathed, from it all.

Closing her eyes, she recalled making love with William… Junior crying for the first time when he was born…. Wang Li slumping on a plastic chair and wringing her hands like a stranded child in a forced recess of her lifetime….

Maurizio’s raucous breathing on her neck as they tangoed in Buenos Aires.

Emily’s mind starts to journey upstream, in a sweeping racconto arising in the mist-shrouded past, encompassing three navigation pathways that, after convoluted detours, converges in the same place.

The ocean of joy and sorrow that we all share as mere living beings.

 

Part II – Three voyages.

                                       Chapter I- Growing up in Kalamazoo

Emily has had her very first awareness of her life as of five years old, a tender age for any normal person to begin the sequence of experienced and stored moments, but her plain vanilla looks always hid a turbulent inner life. In spite of looking like the girl-next-door and sporting the most used and abused first name in the English language, she had the acumen to cunningly camouflage her scrutinizing gaze while at the same time deploy all her keen intuition skills to discreetly vet people’s innermost intentions and desires.

She recalled a frigid December afternoon at her Portage home in the suburbs of Kalamazoo in Michigan, when her cousin Annie came to visit. They were practically of the same age, similar physical contexture, born to women who were similar sisters, but had altogether different personalities. While Emily always tried hard to get along with playmates, even if it meant giving up her favourite doll to her guests, Annie always managed to find an anodyne excuse to ultimately annoy them by showing off her social status. Emily was the first-born child, along with her younger brother George, of an ordinary American family comfortably residing in the working class town of Portage where his unionized father worked as a foreman in its GM plant.

 

Annie was born in a wealthy household headed by her conservative father, a bank manager who despised anything tainted with proletarian whiff.  If they had some kind of social contact, it was due to the diligence of Aunt Matilda—the rogue member of the family—who was the third daughter of Grandpa O’ Neil, sister of Helen, her mother, and Susan, Emily’s mother.

Even though Matilda shared their same staid upbringing, she rebelled early against the quaint timelines and expectations for marriage and children. She steadfastly refused to be only categorized by her ovarian by-products, following her instincts instead to live in a commune of the San Francisco Bay area where she could find refuge from her stultifying parochial hearth.

Matilda had a great social life, with plenty of lovers and moments of ecstasy followed by bouts of depression when they invariably dumped her. However she managed to earn a Doctoral degree in Social Services, which came handy when she decided to go back home to re-connect with her roots.

The massive workers’ lay-offs and forced early retirements in the manufacturing plants—with the aftermath of domestic violence, truancy and alcoholism—gave her the opportunity to kick-start her career in Kalamazoo.  Matilda became a bridging link between her sisters, settled in juxtaposing but unrelated milieus, ensuring they met to forge a common family identity.

 

That amateurish attempt of social re-engineering would supplant the pursuit of Mr. Right in her bucket list of priorities, an endeavour that became more imperative when she invariably failed to lasso any of her sex partners. Being circled by balding luscious married co-workers—interspersed with the occasional closeted lesbian looking for the right partner to come out—she decided to re-direct all her energies to the formation of an All-American family whether her fellow clan members liked it or not. Our Emily included.

That is how Annie landed in her cosy playroom that wintry afternoon. Aunt Matilda had given Emily a nice toy-tea set for Christmas and she was fond of preparing the collation. She liked to pour some imaginary hot water to each of her friends’ cups, making sure they shared in the imaginary feast.  However she would also expect some overt recognition of her homemaker’s abilities, a forerunner of the more dramatic one she would crave as an adult.

She liked to use a white teapot laced with a blue rim—she imagined it had originally belonged to a royal family that went broke and auctioned it. When her playmates’ turn to serve tea came, she offered them an alternative teapot, similar to her favourite one but missing that lace. They understood that it was part of their host’s prerogative and, endowed with the discreet yet powerful feminine sixth sense, they did not dare ask for it, let alone touch it.

 

But that day Annie felt that it was time to teach Emily the ranking in the social pecking order without considering if her cousin was family or foe. If Annie had a chance to besmirch her in a manner that bolstered her richer-than-thou prettier-than-thou pose, Emily had to brace herself for the coup. When her turn came, Annie was ready to pounce. She unwaveringly looked at Emily right in the eye and, refusing to doff her cap in deference, she said:

-“I think I’d like to use the royal pot today… do you mind, dear cousin?”

Emily blanched completely from head to toe, aware of the possible censure.

-“Of course,” Emily said through her gritted teeth. “We’re equals after all.”

-“That we’re not…. I’m the daughter of a winner and you of a born loser!”

It only took two seconds for Emily’s right hand, fashioned as a fist, to hit Annie’s nose right on the septum, provoking profuse bleeding that soiled her immaculately pressed white dress. They engaged in a fiery scuffle on the floor, alternatively punching each other faces with gusto in their rollover, with a wailing chorus of utterly scared little girls who were asking for help.

Susan and Helen showed up and managed to separate the two sparring girls who were panting heavily and looking at each other with unusual rage.

-“What’s wrong with you girls?” Helen said. “Why are you fighting?”

Coyly gazing down, Annie stood unbending and did not utter a word.

 

-“Emily, why didn’t you share your toys?” Susan asked, “How dare you hit Annie? That’s not how you treat a guest—let alone your cousin.”

With her teeth tightly pressed, Emily was seething with a deep anger.

Matilda could not help to add a redeeming twist to the whole affair.

-“Mmm… Should get together more often so you’ll learn how to share— ”

But they were deluding themselves into believing that their angels could stay aloof from the social undercurrents that flowed unobstructed under their feet.

-“Annie—” one of the little girls said. “She-she called Emily a loser.”

“What?” Matilda asked. “Where on earth did you learn that sorry word?”

-“ I heard it too,” said the other girl, corroborating the sparring’s trigger.

-“Right… Tidy up—we’ll get some ice-cream at Baskins Robbins.” Matilda said, herding the girls to the bathroom for a proper clean up. Enough said.

Seizing the whole picture d’emblée, the three sisters had an epiphany. Helen’s face turned tomato-reddish as Annie might have picked up that word when she eavesdropped her pretentiously arriviste father: James O’Brien.

Annie delighted in the nasty little habit of stealthily approaching her parent’s bedroom when they were making love and listen to their moaning. Sometimes they spotted her and yelled to send her away, but oftentimes they were so immersed in their physical manoeuvres that they could not care less.

 

Even though Jim’s quidditas was linked to the entrepreneurial elite, he could not completely shake off his past as a rebellious teenager who had defied the paternal authority to run away with friends to Woodstock in 1969. It was right there where he enjoyed pot and sex for the first time, becoming hooked. In an adult life marked by affected sobriety to the outside world, he kept the entrance ticket to the hallowed event that glued so many Americans. After making love with his wife, he would enjoy smoking marihuana in bed, especially because she never failed to nag him about it, which enthused his contrarian’s impulse to ran away into a beatific limbo of his own making.

Jim would talk endlessly, oftentimes criticizing his bosses, suddenly full of the dignified valour he was so obviously lacking in the real world. Helen would only half-listen to this barrage of nonsensical whining about the evils of banking—the kind of business that brought him so much homely comfort, including a devoted wife willing to cater to all his bedroom follies.

Helen would lie down next to him, pining for the sweet talk of another man. Interrupting him would stoke his uncouth fondness for tirades full of ghastly epithets against her family. Moreover she dreaded that his frenzied ranting might burst into the open, overrunning the firewalls she had patiently built.

Helen invariable reached the same conclusion: Best to soldier on.

 

Aside from that incident forever in their memories, Emily had a quite pleasant childhood, with the little perks of a comfortable upbringing, made possible by the gruelling hours her father George endured in the GM plant. He adhered to the American Dream: work hard and you will come ahead. His daughter was happy with that most ordinary man who was disinclined to express his thoughts, rather slumping in his La-Z-Boy with a cold Bud to watch a NASCAR race or to listen to The Boss. Simple. Straightforward.

However he knew how to correspond her affection in his special way. As Emily liked to rush downstairs to hug and kiss his rugged face, George always made sure of washing it thoroughly with an effeminate soap in the locker room at shift’s end. His face belonged to Emily. It had to be right.

To please his Little Princess, he did not mind smelling like a sissy.

Susan was particularly meticulous in the planning of Emily’s birthday parties, at the behest of George who, in spite of her protestation, was always delayed at the last minute by all his union responsibilities. He was respected because he had the knack of checking people’s raw emotions with just a few well-placed words in order to finally find some palatable compromise for all. It was a gift Emily would inherit from him and that she would use sparingly in her successful business and political careers in a challenging environment.

 

Susan would deck the living room with party paraphernalia, including a few ribbons of royal aspect so dear to her daughter’s heart, which were always of a different significant colour. When she turned two, it was pink to imprint her gender. At three years old, it was purple honouring Barney, the dinosaur. At four years old, it was green to celebrate the Ninja Turtles. At five years old, it was red to celebrate her dolls, Barbie and Ken. At six it was orange to be in sync with the Cabbage patch doll. And on and on and on…

Emily would always save one of these ribbons to playfully encircle her father’s neck when he finally could make it home, usually just in time to be present when the cake was cut with celebratory greetings. Emily would tenderly lead his tired body to his La-Z-boy—away from boisterous children and gossiping mothers—and would suavely cajole him to sit down to enjoy his cake while she embraced him with eyes shut. He was a big lovable mass, avariciously dispensing his emotions in their cosy hearth. Her Teddy Bear.

His circumspection did not matter to her—his company was enough.

She could understand all his gestures, silences and frustrations. She, and not his possessive wife, could read his mind anytime, anywhere. Emily was the real-time translator of his true feelings—what he liked, what he shunned, what he loved, what he hated. The right amplifier for an ageing phonograph.

 

-“You’re spoiling her… Why did you buy her a brand new bike?” Susan blurted out to George after Emily’s sixth birthday party—precisely at the moment when he was sitting in his sofa to watch his favourite TV show. She was using the wifely tour de force that never fails to drive men mad.

-“What did you say, woman? Why can’t I spoil her, eh?”

-“’Cause it’ll raise her expectations of all men… Too dangerous, honey.”

-“Huh, what do you mean? I should ignore her so she’ll have such a low level of self-esteem that men will abuse her at will? Gimme a break!!!”

-“Never showed that deference to me—“

-“Jesus…There you go again…. Can’t you spare your kid from that damn jealousy? Are you nuts?”  George was missing the show’s opening scene.

-“Sorry…My father didn’t treat me that way….”

-“Well…. didn’t we talk hours on end about raising them differently?”

-“Course we did…. I’m certainly proud of your bonding…But after all, I’m a woman and I can’t help it…I admit it—I’m a little jealous.”

-“Come closer then…Let me give ya’ a little bit of medicine…”

-“In the middle of your favourite show? Sorry—don’t want a quickie.”

-“Fine…Go upstairs, refresh, put on kinky lingerie and wait for Daddy.”

-“Keep quiet…. the kids might listen—don’t you take too long.”

 

Emily spent her days in Portage Central High trying to pass unnoticed. Even though she often knew the answers of questions posed in Science or Math classes, she always waited to see if another classmate raised a hand. Her teachers were so used to her self-effacing demeanour that they would ask her point blank when the long silence meant she had to come forward.

Emily. Her curly blond hair. Her deep blue eyes ledged with freckles. Her shapely bust. And her willowy white fingers winging away like a dove. Just seventeen years old. A target of choice for the testosterone-laden boys that she invariably ignored. With her lips a little pursed, hardly ever smiling, her “resting serious face” made her look pensive and judicious and reserved.

She only engaged those who deserved it. Like her buddy: Ralphie.

The small black student, sporting the biggest rim glasses in the school, was the poster child of the nerd, compensating for his physical limitation with good grades. Everybody seemed to be sneering at him behind his back.

Her cousin Annie—the most popular girl in school with her coterie of sycophantic girls, gaga with envy for her wardrobe but without the means to afford it—harassed one of the few boys who could not be brought to heel. Ralphie became her comic foil, not so much by choice, but simply by dint of the way things were: Annie was the arbiter of what was cool in that school.

 

-“Hey, Ralphie! May I join you?” Annie said, standing with her gang in front of him at lunchtime. “Tell me…is it going to rain in Mars today?”

A roaring laughter coming from adjacent tables and a mortifying giggle from the female entourage reduced Ralphie, seated alone, into utter nothingness.

-“Leave him alone, airhead,” Emily said. “He’s too clever for you.“

-“What do you know? Stay out of this, cus—my beef’s not with you.”

-“Beef? Precisely. Why don’t you skip lunch and read a book for a change? You’d just have to watch those big nails—pity if they’d break off.”

-“Listen, I can afford them because my dad is at the top of the food chain—“

-“Speaking of food, aren’t you putting too much weight lately? Your belly is like, like so prominent… Please cut those Snickers bars to ten per day.”

Beduffled at the mere mention of her alluring anatomy—so useful for attracting manly attention—Annie took umbrage at her sarcastic jabbing.

-“But my Bobby can rub it,” Annie said, twirling a strand of her blond hair and smelling it. “C’mon, girls… Can’t stand these two little pricks.”

When they walked out, Ralphie looked at Emily.  “Listen, I can’t—“

-“Forget about it….you’re much better than those bimbos.”

-“No, I really have to tell—“

-“You don’t.” She took his hand. “I’m in your corner—eat your veggies.”

 

Emily calmly sat down next to Ralphie, defiantly looking around her. Nobody dared to stare at them. They would wisely turn their attention away, well aware that she was resolutely circling the wagons around her protégé. Then Emily would slowly caress Ralphie’s curly hair—assuaging him like the comforting sister he never had—while she urged him to eat healthily.

Waiting for Susan’s ride back home, Emily felt at ease in the school library at after-school hours, when there were hardly any students around. She fully immersed herself in the works of Rudyard Kipling, Jules Verne and Emilio Salgari, fantasizing passionately about big adventures in strange lands populated by scary monsters, menacing pirates, and, last but not least, charming beaus galore—just in case she might need some muscular help. She assumed the role of the heroines so intensively that she felt she was fluently speaking their language—French, Italian, or Mandarin Chinese.

The mind of the blonde girl with piggy tails and facial acne flew to the sandy shores of Tangiers where chevaliers were battling plundering pirates. Or to the steppes of the Khyber Pass where the redcoats faced restive tribes. Or to the staid hallways of London’s Geographical Society, where a member was pitching a perilous expedition. Or to the Gilded Age elegance of a New York salon where robber barons were devising a transcontinental railroad.

 

Emily imagined her hero-father in the role of a Genovese warrior, or a British officer, or a French nobleman, or a Yankee potentate. Important men. Not only would she speak tongues, but he would also understand her words, in a mesmerizing variant of the lifelong fascination she had with her father. When Susan dropped by the library to pick her up after running errands and getting little George, Emily would take some time to reluctantly shake her reverie off, without explaining it to her supposedly down to earth-progenitor.

How could Emily explain her difficult relationship with her mother?  It did contain at wealth of affection but also sizeable gender-related jealousy. Emily adored her mother because she appreciated the various tasks—spouse, mother, worrier, short order-cook, after school-teacher, traffic cop, nurse, gardener, tailor, dog walker—performed to provide comfort to her family. That diminutive woman would muster all the necessary energy and time to solve most of the family’s problems in a jiffy without making a fuss about it.

When Susan married George—her school sweetheart—she knew that he would provide for a comfortable suburban life; in exchange she would have to mind all the countless details at home that her man could not care.

Even though she always aspired to be a teacher, she decided that it would be best for her family if she became the “designated-worrier-in-residence.”

 

Occasionally she heard about one of her classmates that managed to juggle a teaching career with the homely responsibilities, sometimes through the local newspaper extolling some kind of achievement award, other times through her mother’s gossip that never forgave her for skipping college.

Unbeknownst to them, Emily had once casually overheard Grandma making those unsolicited tasteless comments to Susan in the family kitchen; she felt Susan’s intense pain and commiserated with her whole-heartedly. Moreover she could not understand why her grandmother did not appreciate her good deeds, thinking she was a cranky old-timer bent on cheap mischief.  But as time went by, Emily saw the point Grandma was maladroitly trying to make, as Susan got weary of her life, clamouring for some kind of change.

Change? What kind of change? She could not share her malaise with George because, not only he would not get it, but he could also turn angry. She could not let the children know that she was unhappy about the division of labour at home because they were the beneficiaries of that tacit raw deal. She could not share her suffocating malaise with her girlfriends because she simply never took the time to develop a sisterhood network to fall back on.

Never satisfied. Hoping for something that was long in coming.

The polymorphous angst of a provincial housewife: Bovarysm.

 

While Grandma admonished her with the same tired endless rhetoric,

Matilda withheld her opinion, partly because she was envious of Susan’s marital bliss but also due to the tolerance acquired living for so many years in Frisco where alternative lifestyles are the norm and not the exception.

She professed the Californian credo: live and let live. Do not judge.

But when Susan voiced her concerns to Matilda, she offered advice.

Hey, can’t you volunteer for a few hours in the kids’ school?

I’m too old for it…Too many unruly adolescents needing redress… How about helping out in the public hospital?

I’m too old for it…Too many demanding geezers full of germs…

I know…How about pitching in at the Catholic parish?

Too young… George swears that the vicar sleeps with lonely widows.

Matilda even elbowed Susan to visit the local library where they read romantic poetry, trying to find inspiration to kick-start their literary careers. Emily faithfully followed all the tribulations of this odd pair, feeling first enthusiastic at every new intellectual ploy devised by the witty aunt to shake Susan’s inertia, then frustrated when it did not dent her constrictive cuirasse.

Occasionally Emily returned early from school, which gave her the chance to watch Susan readying dinner, standing silently kitchen’s doorway.

 

She liked to observe her mother go up and down her small kingdom. With her freshly scented and perfectly pressed apron tied around her slim waist, she often prepared her vegetable soup—a staple at their family table. She usually prepared hearty dishes for the boys—roasts, steaks and pasta. But her femininity made her to have “something sweet” baking in the oven; it could be a delicious fruit tart or Emily’s favourite treat: chocolate cake. All that panoply of choices was planned before she went out shopping to make every cent count. Emily marvelled at the sheer scope of her cooking.

One especially cruel winter afternoon, Emily came home very early.

-“Hey, I’m home, Mom,” Emily said, stepping into the kitchen.

-“That’s you, dear? How was your day?” They kissed each other fondly.

-“It sucked… Where do I begin? We went to the museum, right? And one of the students had the silly idea to check if the fire alarm system worked…. It was pure hell… Mrs. Rogers was so upset that she had a heart attack—”

Susan stopped peeling a potato. “She had what now?”

-“It was kind of more like, like high blood pressure… But she looked awful. They called Fire Rescue to take her to a hospital—we were scared shitless.“

Susan wringed her wet apron above the sink. “Is she still there, dear?”

-“Nope… They checked her out but she didn’t want to go.”

 

-“That’s terrible… You should be more considerate with teachers.”

-“Hello! Anybody home? It wasn’t any of the girls. It was a boy… Get it?”

-“How many times did I tell you that girls should keep an eye on boys?”

-“Seriously? Do you want me to waste my life tagging them to clean their shit, like you’ve done all your life? Sorry—I want much more.”

Susan grabbed a frying pan. “What’s more important than family?”

-“How about taking care of yourself, eh? I don’t want to end up like you…  a pathetic cipher wasting her life spoonfeeding men—that’s not for me.”

THUD. Susan dropped the pan in the sink. “It’s none of your business—”

-“Really? Certainly is if you’re working your butt off all day long for a gruff man who doesn’t even compliment the huge sacrifices you’re making….”

-“Really? You should see the appallingly brute men that are out there—your father’d win the Miss Congeniality contest hands down…Listen to me now Missie, I’m proud of my life choices…. You think I’m a failure for giving top priority to my family’s goals above mine? What a callous disregard—”

Susan, blinded by an upwelling of bitter tears, hid her face in her hands.

-“Sorry. I di-di-din’t mean it like that, Mommy…I love you so much.”

Emily embraced Susan and they remained tightly locked for seconds.

They stifled their sobs while heartbeats were racing off their chests.

 

Emily would later deeply regret venting those feelings with Susan, mortified by the foolish idea that the verbal sparring heralded her calamity.

In the repertoire of guilty feelings that a woman collects during her lifetime, that crucial flash would take pride of place, recurrently mortifying Emily.  The question would linger in her mind, rationalizing the past for redemption. Emily remembered Susan’s languid, defeated appearance that was crying out for help and her complete impotence to free her spirit from angst’s throes.

The tenebrous twilight was deviously drawing—outside and inside them.

Devoid of healing words or deeds, they tried the old feminine remedy. They huddled to shed tears until the impudent cuckoo dared to poke its ugly head out of the clock and struck the cord signalling that it was 3PM, time to pick up little George, another spinning turn in Susan’s droning wheel of life.

-“Got pick your brother up… we’ll chat later, right?””

-“Wait Mom… I’m going too… It’s raining, let me get my coat.”

-“Right, but hurry…we must hit the road before traffic gets really bad.“

Without any hesitation, Emily tagged along Susan in her school run, a gesture that would bring some kind of reprieve to her tormented recollection. It was one of the bitterest misgivings that, as a sensitive female, she would drag along in her trawling lifeline accidentally ensnaring the unbidden catch.

 

Chapter II – Two for one.

“Women are meant to be loved, not understood” Oscar Wilde

          Spiritual concerns were not the mainstay of Annie’s tribulations in her solipsistic ethos, let alone any remorseful feeling vis-à-vis her entourage.  She was an endowed girl, eliciting a rapturous reception in the boys with her fine facial features and big blue eyes, crowned by her flowing blond hair. Round breasts topped by forward pointing nipples lied behind her tight shirt. Her gluteus muscles   in a suave slope begging for manly massage.

And the coquette’s glowing embers makes the ensemble hard to resist.

Annie’s moral agnosticism enabled her to manipulate admirers at will.

The boys went crazy when they spotted her, fighting to be near her at the bus stop, the cafeteria line, the lockers’ assemblage or Friday’s football nights. They tried anything to crack some kind of contact with the provocative belle or at least to be seen around her as the less endowed girls turned magically receptive to them just to catch up with the one topping the popularity charts.

Even her father’s staid co-workers leeringly try to court her sexual favours, deluding themselves into considering her as another fair game-ingénue.

A mirage fostered by her Lolita-manipulations of their fantasies.

 

Annie had set her sight in a very special boy in her High School class. His name was Bobby Immelt. He had the rancid background in the region coveted by her blue-collar mother and her arriviste father; his family had been in Western Michigan since colonial times—or so they always claimed, They had friends and relatives in politics, the police force, the judiciary, etc. It did not hurt either that his own father was an entrepreneurial car dealer who managed to push hundreds of GM cars and trucks out of his parking lot. Genteel society plus plentiful cash to spare was a heavenly combination that could satisfy Annie’s exponential appetite for all the very good things in life.

She does not just liked him for his money; she adored him for it.

Annie had devised a sound strategy to ensnare her unsuspecting prey, turning him into what every girl of her age wanted: a high school sweetheart. She assiduously invited Bobby to escort her home after school, before her parents came back—a stunt they naively considered as a sound study choice. They believed Annie would stay a virgin until the day she would marry; but being made of earthly soil and fresh rainfall, humans respond to their fabric.

Bobby was a medium sized young man with good body mass, yet not overtly muscular like the football stars. However he held his own because he sported an aquiline nose that suggested a rather rancid, noble upbringing.

 

As Annie had already corralled him and marked him as her property, the other girls kept their safe distance from him, fearful of her retribution. Bobby was puzzled that even though most eligible girls were receptive to his advances, not a single one of them would accept an invitation to go to the movies, or have a burger, or even sit down by him in Friday night football. Bobby satisfied his feverish desire for comfort with the providential help of Playboy magazine, purveyors of glossily printed surrogates to lonely males.

Annie had been inviting Bobbie to do homework together for weeks, never failing to arouse his desire for her but always leaving him cold turkey. She would come up to him, her upward pointing nipples ready for warring, caress his face and allow him to kiss her neck while fondling her breasts.

She pushed him aside, playfully feigning to be shocked at his brutish fury while gleefully smiling from the side of her mouth to stoke it further. He would try to push her against the wall but after a few seconds of allowing him to massage her velvety ass through her panties, which she thoroughly enjoyed, she swiftly pushed him aside, rebuffing his engorging penis away.

Fatigued with that charged prelude, the teenagers ended up distraught when Annie’s parents came back home. They always invited Bobby to stay on for dinner but he politely refused to go grab Hefner’s relief tool at home.

 

Annie was not partial to that expedient exorcism of bodily demons, as her inner mercury rose to the point where she could not focus in her studies.

Tired of her father’s admonition about her dropping grades and her mother’s insistence for a check-up, one November morning she decided it was time.

Time to act. She took a long shower, making sure her body orifices were squeaky clean. She poured her mother’s favourite perfume on her chest as a catnip to excite his desire. She put a nice bra with a simple lock, ready to release her luscious breasts.  She donned flexible panties that could stretch out to infinity, allowing easy access to a probing head. Small. Big. Or both.

She could hardly wait until finally the dismissal bell rang in school. She dragged Bobby hurriedly along the city’s streets to her chosen gauntlet.

When they entered the deserted house, Annie pushed Bobby against a corner of the living room while she caressed his groin. Then she opened his zipper and grabbed the arousing penis. She kneeled down and started sucking it.

-“AHHH…right on,” Bobby said, caressing the back of her head.-“Mmm…this cock’s all mine,” said she, briefly interrupting her licking.

-“Wait,” he said, gently pushing her away. “Your folks might come…”

-“Right…Let’s go up to my room—”

They dashed upstairs to her bedroom, undressed and plunged in bed.

 

Bobby started licking all the contour of her engorging femininity.

-“Go a little higher…Right, right there… You found it… Mmmm…”

Bobby’s tongue tip touched her clitoris on and off. “Like it, honey?”

Annie’s body was contorting frenetically. “AHHH…Love it, Daddy-ooo.”

-“Mmm….What a lovely pussy!”  He swept his tongue up and down.

-“Tell me you love me! Say it now!”  She pressed his head way forward.

-“Luv you,” he managed to whisper, choking with her inebriating nectar.

-“AHHH…Louder.”  She rubbed his mouth harder against her little capuche.

-“I love you!!! Give me your sweet pussy, Mama—can’t wait any longer.”

-“Yes! Yes! Come on top of me now—make me your woman.”

Bobby spread her legs wide open and thrusted his penis inside her vagina.

-“No! Hold it! You’re hurting me! Go away from me… asshole!”

-“Oh! I’m sorry…Let me try another pose—it’s more relaxed.”

He went behind her, pulled her ass towards him and started introducing his penis one inch at a time in her orifice. Just like he had read in “Playboy”.

-“See, honey… I’m going slow and you can use as much as you want.”

-“AHHH—attaboy,” she said, her voice soft and limp and lazy with fatigue.

Rhythmically rocking his pelvis back and forth, he started to kiss her neck.

A sudden rush of magma erupted from the tip of his tired manhood.

 

Susan long admired Anna— the heroine of “Anna Karenina”—for standing up against Imperial Russia’s corset with her passion for Vronsky. Even though the required Literature assignment was only a brief excerpt, she read the Tolstoy’s novel cover to cover during her Senior High School year. Her classmates, including the girls, had dismissed the novel as a boring book about something they could not grasp: giving up material comfort for love. Her teacher had tried in vain to explain the meaning of “raw passion” to her pupils but had given up after dismaying of their incredulous blank stares.

The luck of the draw. You find some books; some others find you.

Susan swore that she would never remain in a loveless marriage and would fight to keep romance in their couple, no mater how hard it could be. George cared about her. George loved her. George was not like Vronsky…

She felt happy to be another innocuous-looking wife of American suburbia.

Her mind was building that vote of confidence on rickety scaffolding.

At night—going into deep REM sleep—she becomes another woman. She is Anna—wearing an effortless black gown in a ballroom filled with tulle and music and lavender—when Vronsky approaches her.

As their passion is refracted through the prism of Kitty’s jealousy, she is in the crosshairs of all the eyes and tongues. She. Only she.

 

At dawn, she has to cross the frontier of sleep and the wakeful state.  A midget, with a drab grey coat and a huge cap, stands at the gate.

-“Morning ma’am…Propriety Police—anything to declare?”

She does not respond. “Let’s see.” He fumbles in her brain’s baggage.

-“Mmm-hmm…Can’t pass with any of these eroticized mementos—“

-“Why not?”

-“An honest woman is not supposed to carry them—confiscated.”

-“Don’t… How can I survive my day?” He stripes them all out.

When she awoke—still a pauper after the loss of her fantastic nightly spoils—she focused hard in the household humdrum to avoid feeling a void. Nonetheless the burnout triad—emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and low sense of personal achievement—grew like a vicious ivy inside her spirit.

Susan ’s suburban sprouting was craving for some sliver of sunshine.

When the thought of ending her life came, she ran out of the house. She stood at the school gate, chatting with other mothers who noticed her sombre mood. She followed the advice of someone treated successfully for depression and made an appointment with the family physician, Dr. Shepard. He listened with empathy to her tale and inferred that something was afoot. His examination detected a left breast lump—he ordered a mammography.

 

While her doppelgänger was experiencing the full thrust of her Prince Charging, Emily was inadvertently falling in love with her Prince Charming. Unfortunately for both girls he happened to be the same individual: Bobby. They were pursuing the same object of desire but for a different motivation.

On one hand, the über-practical Annie saw him as the well-connected boyfriend-husband who would serve as her skeleton key to the rightful life, He would enable the final enthronement of the O’Leary clan into the centre of Kalamazoo’s polite society, dumping their proletarian pedigree for good.

There was the problem, of course, of sharing her lifetime with him. She would refine his ways for social interactions but only to a certain point because he had to be malleable enough to accommodate her whimsical ego. If she eventually got bored of Mr. Nice she could get a clandestine partner. She was not losing her precious virginity just for love’s sake. Not a chance.

Her brawn was devising a social engineering plan. It was on the move.

On the other hand, the über-romantic Emily had the opposite plan: she wanted to transform Booby into one of the dashing heroes of her readings. He was the chosen raw material for her moulding of the man of her dreams: articulate, cultured, capable, and above all, passionately in love with her.

Her brain was devising another kind of engineering. On the move too.

 

They would travel together to exciting distant lands, far away from the stultifying mediocrity of a milieu obsessed with material wealth. They would sit down side by side in a fancy café in Paris, sipping a Pernod with the emotionally riveting quality of brilliant, impassioned conversation. They would browse all the smart windows of New York’s Fifth Avenue. In pastry shop of Vienna they would spoon-feed strudel to each other’s mouths.

Once a female chooses a particular mate for her lifetime, she starts to simultaneously design their original movie, with a dedicated script, a stellar cast, a supporting staff and a suitable décor for the “de rigueur” romancing. A man can only hope to join that film production by either becoming one of the secondary actors of the plot or, if he is lucky enough, its main character.

Crafting their stories, Emily and Annie were in a full collision course.

Since childhood, Emily and Annie had been displaying direct and indirect aggression towards each other for many reasons; it begun with the infamous teapot but went on with dresses, hairdos, school grades, music choices, etc.

But the feud became more vicious as they battled for the ultimate man-prize.

Emily was not competing against Annie but with a virtual version of herself; when she looked at her cousin, she wondered if she was missing something.

Forsaking Hate, she likes to summon her sneaky little sister: Pity.

 

-“Why are you looking at him?” asked Ralphie at the lunch table.

Emily made a sullen pout. “What are you talking about, nerdie?”

-“Duh… Like I’m an idiot…You know damn well.”

-“Can’t see what she saw in him…Poor cousin—must be really desperate.”

Like a vigilant hydra, Annie turned her head around to zero in on the pair.

Emily leaned over to whisper. “She’s heard us—your ears burning?”

-“She’s like ten tables away—forget it…How’s your Mommy doing?”

-“We’re getting a second opinion in Ann Arbor next week…The first biopsy was inconclusive…I hope that sucker can be slowed down—at least.”

Ralphie put his arm around her, drawing her close. “There’re options….“

-“Look,” Annie said. “They’re making it out in public…Disgusting.”

-“C’mon,” Bobby said. “He’s just giving her some emotional support—“

-“Do you want to fuckin’ support her too? Perhaps you’re in love with her?”

-“Darling, please…Didn’t mean it like that… I’m crazy for you.”

-“Crazy, you definitely are—can’t see the obvious… Isn’t it, girls?”

The three self-effacing secondary characters in Queen Annie’s court agreed.

Sandra stared at the turncoat. “How could you fall in love with this moron?”

-“Don’t know.” Annie looked at Bobby in the eye. “Show me some respect or you’ll have to spank the monkey—let’s go.” Annie’s posse skedaddled.

 

After her cancer diagnosis, Susan wanted to turn back the clock to the time when she was only morosely ruminating about her stultifying existence. Sensing the end was very near she mused what would become of her family. How could the children cope with it? Who would take care of them? George can’t do it alone. How about her sisters? Will they pitch in or be indifferent? One was married to a jerk and the other one without even that to show for… With those thoughts swirling around her head, Matilda and Helen came into her kitchen, carrying two bags—one with oranges and one with avocados.

-“Hi Sis,” Helen said. “How’s our favourite musketeer doing?”

In their teen years they liked to call themselves “The Three Musketeers”, emulating the merry tale of Alexandre Dumas—an admirer of “la bonne chaire des femmes”—who did not disturb their minds. Like Leo Tolstoy did.

-“Good… Nice surprise,” Susan said. “What have you brought?”

-“Just a little reminder of how much we love you,” Helen snapped while she started opening the upper drawers with strong pulls that shook the kitchen.

Susan confronted her sister head-on. “What the hell are you looking for?”

-“The salad bowl we gave you in Thanksgiving—”

-“It’s in the dining room cupboard…why do you want it?”

-“Don’t you make salads? Only baby back ribs and beer?”

 

-“Know damn well we have nutritious food every day here… Unlike the O’Learys who gorge on glorified junk food served in posh porcelain.”

The three sisters shared the comical banter. The Musketeers were back.

Susan fetched that proverbial bowl for Helen and laid out some cut vegetables she had stashed away in her freezer the previous week. Satisfied, Helen busied herself in a far corner of the table, humming an eighties song.  Susan grabbed Matilda’s arm and dragged her to the opposite corner to talk.

-“Listen, I don’t have much time left….You must promise that you’ll take care of my boys. Emily can handle herself but those two—forget it.”

-“Everything’s going to be all right… The chemotherapy works, you’ll see.”

-“No, it doesn’t! And I get weaker every day. Did you see my skin colour?”

Matilda had noticed the ashen grey tone of Susan’s face, besides the lilaceous haematomas on her forearms due to the multiple intravenous sticks.

-“How could I not? But you must keep fighting for your family’s sake.”

-“That’s why I need to ask you for a favour—before it’s too late… You have to promise me to take care of the boys when I’m gone… Please Sis.”

-“Yeah, of course… I can drop by regularly to check them out.”

-“Come again.”

-“I said that I’d visit them once or twice a—”

 

-“No, dammit…You have to do more than that—you must move in.”

-“What?! I have my apartment, my work, my social life…Sorry.”

-“Keep your work but change your social life a bit… Is it so difficult?”

At that precise moment, little George strolled in, back from school with a ride secured by his sister. He threw himself straight into Matilda’s arms and kissed her right cheek. Matilda nodded approvingly to Susan. It was settled.

A working family consists of individuals that assume a certain role in order to efficiently attain some clear outcomes that will benefit all of them. Virginia Satir divided them in five categories: the hero, the clown-mascot, the scapegoat, the lost child and the caretaker. Matilda yearned for the clown’s carefree role but she was assigned the caretaker’s demanding one.

Matilda could not possibly ignore or deny her dying sister’s last wish.

Emily came in a few seconds later, took a few cookies from Susan’s well-stocked jar, poured a glass of milk and went upstairs to her bedroom. She dropped her backpack, took her jeans off, checked her thighs for signs of irritation after wearing a tight fit, and landed squarely on top of her bed.

Emily called Faye, a heap of feisty femininity, to check school gossip, as the curvaceous brunette was on top of the latest curves of the social loop.

-“Hello… What’s up?”  Emily fidgeted with the cord on top of her chest.

 

-”You finally buzzed. I’ve been calling you like, like… forever.”

-“What do you mean? Didn’t we yakk our heads out at lunchtime?”

-“That’s just like, like… an eternity in our lives. You’re not going to believe what happened—I shouldn’t be telling ya ‘cause you can’t keep a secret.”

– “What happened? Spill the beans—right now.”

-“But you didn’t hear it from me…. comprende muchacha? The thing is that Annie was doing a BJ to Bobby in the toilet before the last bell rang—”

-“No freaking way… That ho is capable of anything. But Bobby?”

-“If she wants to suck it dry, why would he refuse it? Eh?”

-“Of course he’d go for it—men are such a bunch of idiots.“

-“Imagine poor Ralphie’s surprise when he was taking a leak…”

-“Ralphie? Can’t be… I was with him the whole afternoon in science lab.“

-“So?”

-“He asked Mrs. Rogers to go to the john…Only took a few minutes.”

-“Why would he take longer than that? He freaked out and ran away…He talked to Sandra and then she told me… He was like so, so nervous.”

-“Mmm…I remember them whispering, huddled at the bench.”

-“He didn’t tell you ‘cause he knows you have the hot pants for him…”

-“Course not—he’s the last boy I’d date… What did you get in Math?”

 

Emily came to the conclusion that Annie was really infatuated with him because if a less discreet student had caught them, it would have meant outright expulsion, without any kind of reprieve using her father’s influence. Uncle Jim would never forgive what Daddy’s girl dared to do in the toilet…

Damned slut…I’ll take a back seat and enjoy the coming débâcle, playing lily white… It’s finally time for your comeuppance—bitch.

Bobby was her life saga’s chosen star but she had to groom him better so he could ultimately become the partner she was looking for: Mr. Darcy. Hoodwinking her scheming cousin in full public view would be the perfect vengeance to get even for her many sleights, insults, name-calling, faux pas.

Helen poked her head in. “Supper at six… Why aren’t you studying?”

-“Got a little headache… But I’ll be ready by then… Sorry.”

-“Can’t upset your mother… She has enough with your father’s antics.”

-“Antics? No, he’s nervous…it’s just his odd way to let off some steam.”

-“Maybe…Hey, Annie is coming for supper…You can gossip a little.”

-“Yup… Why isn’t she here already?”

-“Oh, she’s finishing some kind of project with her study group—”

-“Must have something really BIG in her hands—such a workaholic.”

As Helen went downstairs, Emily’s face brightened with a smile.

 

Uncle Jim was handling very sensitive issues at work as a result of the transformation of the once mighty American car industry in the late eighties. As the Big Three downsized their capacity and outsourced manufacturing to less union-friendly places in the South and overseas, the Michigan economy took a hit. Less work hours meant smaller paychecks for the breadwinners, frugal shopping for their families, modest or no vacation plans, no indulging in conspicuous consumption—the very staple of the American way of life.

If families could no longer afford to buy new shoes for their children, if they had to give up the restaurant brunch after Sunday mass, then all the business chain would feel the squeeze of the void in working class pockets.   There was a bigger demand for bridging loans as the business default rose.

The top brass of Jim’s bank ignored almost all requests for lending, except for a lucky few with the right profile—plenty of equity to back them, good cash flow in non-cyclical business, powerful connections in society. The rest had to make do with a simple message. Drop dead. We don’t care.

Saddled with the mendacious title of “manager of customer relations”, Jim had the tough task of sitting down with all the rebuffed loan applicants.

Jim daily wallowed in the same mud: what relations are they talking about? The bank was focused in managing money, not the little people’s interests.

 

That morning was particularly difficult because he had to inform Mr. George Blumenthal—the owner of a traditional delicatessen store in the city and an old friend of his deceased father—that his revolving line of credit to pay all the store’s suppliers was being summarily terminated as of that day. His well-stocked store in the downtown area was renowned for its sausages, cheeses, bread, wines, beers, which made it an obligatory family stopover. But people’s tastes changed for leaner alternatives. His cash flow plunged. His bank officer noticed and alerted Jim who swiftly demoted his category.

Loyalty is the hobgoblin of Little People. Plasticity is for the Great.

-“Jim, we’ve known each other for years, you went to my store with your father,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “You know I’m a man of my word—”

Jim sat impassively while the venerable old man, who had given him many freebies on Saturday mornings, fought to regain his once mighty standing.

-“We re-organized our take-out and delivery for shorter waiting times—”

It’s very important to properly position the left hand first on the club….

Jim was watching, in a TV-VCR set mounted on the wall behind his guest, a golf teaching video in a mute mode with close-caption subtitles. Furtively he took a peek at a golf leather bag propped up against the wall. Jim didn’t care what the old man was doing. He was gone from his world.

 

-“There’re many families settling in our gentrified quarter…They love our homemade food but they demand affordable prices. We listened.”

The club’s grip must be centred in the space between the upper thumb…

That’s it…I rest my thumb off-centre. Damn… No wonder I have such a lousy handicap…Must fix it because when I move up… I’ll be schmoozing on weekends with those über-crazy golfers—‘Scuse me! What the fuck is going on here? He’s pulling out graphs? Good Lord!

And I want to fart so badly…Can’t do it in front of this sorry sap.

-“We’ve also streamlined our supply chain. Take a second to look at this graph…. Searching for better prices so we can pass along savings.”

The interlocking grip might further weaken an already weak left hand…

That’s my fuckin’ problem —weakening my grip…What? A salad bar with arugula? Hell’s he talking about? Right—whatever floats your boat, buddy… The instructions on how to use the right hand are coming up—can’t hold it…Fire in the hole…Prffffffffff… Sweet.

After that sublime relief Jim stared at his guest’s face to check if he noticed any wind disturbance. Not a chance. He was absorbed with charts.

-“We’ve been cautious with pricing because we don’t want to lose clients—”

Yaki, yaki, yaki… Talk your head off—you’re dead meat, pal.

 

Place the little finger of your right hand in the space between index and…

No! I missed the beginning of the right hand positioning—fuck me. It’s almost noon…. He’ll have to leave soon for lunch hour. Get lost.

-“I think I made my point. What do you think?” the old man said.

-“Of course you did,” Jim said, “I’ll talk with that asshole in the morning.”

-“Thanks…You should be more careful with your food—too much starch…  Please stop anytime and we’ll prepare you a nutritious salad at no charge.”

So he did notice the awful leakage in the middle of all his jabbering?

Why didn’t he say a word? Why didn’t he react at that sorry stink?

Jim was becoming part of the select, entitled group with carte blanche.  He was like the British Royals happily farting their way through ceremonies.

After touring in awe Westminster Abbey, Jim came to the conclusion that its lofty 14th century navel was designed tall and narrow to ventilate up and out the flatulence of all the notables seated in front pews. A rustic wind tunnel. Only the über-stoic Queen Elizabeth stood nowadays in the way of this airy exuberance and her people, looking stonily ahead while she clutched her MI5 designed-extravagant hat shielding her from a perfidious peer pressure.

Is my peerage in the offing? Sir James O’Brien… Sounds so right.

 

-“Don’t worry,” Jim said, escorting the old man out, “I’ll see to it—”

Even though he commiserated with Mr. Blumenthal, his assigned role in the bank’s structure entailed a servile alignment with its tough business stance; if he wanted to breeze his way up to the very top, he had to swallow hard.

-“Where is my fuckin’ coffee?” said he, pressing the intercom button.

“Sorry, Jim,” the secretary said at the other end of the line. “Coming up.“

Lori came in his office with a cup of freshly brewed coffee. “Here it is.“

-“Er…Why are you so late?”

-“Sorry…I was tied down by a terrible accident in the bridge. The cops took forever to clear the path for traffic. It was really hell—”

-“The bridge in the access road from the highway?”

-“Yeah, that very same one… A crazy hillbilly lost control of the truck and bumped against the railing. It almost broke …he’s lucky to be still alive.”

-“Wow! That bridge is twenty feet above the creek—”

-“Yes… But he didn’t seem to care—he was arrested for drunken driving.”

Lori picked up his messages. Jim drank his coffee. Routine took over.

After lunch, Mr. Osborne, the bank’s president called. “Come to my office.”

KNEW IT. Today is the big day. He’s popping the offer. Finally.

 

Jim took a look at his family’s portrait and his dear golf leather bag.

Sprinting like a gazelle, he went up the four floors to reach his boss’s office, relishing the bountiful perks awaiting him, especially the membership in the posh country club—an induction ceremony included. The sky’s the limit.

-“Good afternoon, Lucy,” he said, stepping in. “Did he call me?”

-“Yes, go right in,” the secretary said. “He’s waiting—”

Slowly prying open the suite door left ajar, he approached the standing boss.

-“Good afternoon, Mr. Osborne. Do you need me?”  Without waiting for his reply Jim strode into the office with the confidence of an indispensable man.

-“Yes, sit.” Mr. Osborne said. Jim’s body frame splurged in the plush leather sofa next to the large window overlooking the city… This is where I belong.

-“Jim…Don’t really know, uh, how to say it…. You’ve been such a—”

-“I know…It’s all right,” Jim said smiling. “Go ahead—shoot.”

-“Okay… The board has decided to let you go—you’re out Jim.”

The whole weight of an African elephant matron, the biggest of the herd, comes down on Jim’s head, stupefying him for a long second.

-“FIRE ME? Can’t understand it!!! I’ve been loyal all the time—”

-“Spending too much of it with losers—you’re emotionally compromised.”

 

-“Emotionally compromised? Of course I am—born and raised here. Fire up? Do these fools want to burn?”  Jim stood up and walked in circles. He stopped abruptly.  “Did you get me a good severance package?”

-“You can retire now with all the benefits owed to you…Don’t you like it?”

-“How can I like this shit? Retiring now means getting only half the pension benefits, almost no insurance coverage for my family, the decimation of my 401K plan….I need those funds to pay for Annie’s college tuition in a few months… What am I going to tell my daughter? That I failed her?”

-“You’re still a young man… You can get a similar job in—”

-“In this economy? At my age? Forget it—it’ll never be the same.”

-“Sorry… Take it or we’ll fire you…You have one week to decide.”

-“ONE WEEK? Is that all after slogging here for twenty years? Listening to your crap, doing dirty work… FUCK YOU! And the cocksucking board!”

Sprinting forward to reach his desk, the terrified boss pressed the intercom.
-“Mrs Bell, we have a problem…Call Security—right away.”

Jim sat still, staring blankly, inured by Osborne’s duplicitous chat. He did not even react when two burly guards came to pull him out of the office. They whisked his limp body out of the sofa, dragging him down the hallway.

–“Offer still stands,” Mr. Osborne said to the departing trio. “One week.”

 

The word of Jim’s swift demotion spread like wildfire in the bank, a collateral effect that humiliated him further because his co-workers started to avert his gaze—as if he were suddenly diagnosed with a contagious disease. Wrongfooted, the new admission in the leprosarium wept alone in the toilet.

Helen answered Lori’s call. “What’s wrong? Is he sick? Tell Me!”

-“They let him go… Come to pick him up…. I’ll UPS his stuff later.”

-“Oh, my God…Sure. I’ll be there in a few minutes. Thanks.”

When Jim came shuffling down the staircase to the front entrance, she could not recognize him: an ageing man, overtaken by a terrible grief, totally lost.

-“Wait, honey… I’m coming.” She ran to support his shuffle towards the car and sit at the front passenger seat. Then she circumvented the car’s front end and sat in the driver’s seat. “What the hell happened to you?”

Putting his arm around her neck, he kissed her. “Let’s go… I’ll tell you.”

After they rode out, he tried to give her a summary of what happened.

-“Christ, this is terrible,” Helen said, sobbing, “Got to call his wife—“

-“Forget it—that number cruncher never listens to her anyway.”

-“Oh, my God…What are we going to do now?”

Leaning his body against the door, he watched the passing landscape.

A yellow police ribbon festooned the barricade at the bridge railing.

 

Emily always took pride in collecting the mail from the family’s box in front of the driveway, every time the school bus dropped her at the corner. Besides the boring bills and obnoxious spam mail, she would be the first one to peruse the glossy pamphlets colleges from all over the country sent her. She was an honour student with almost perfect grade because she made sure to get an occasional B in an innocuous course so as not to appear too nerdy. Unlike Ralphie—the ultimate refusenik—who never missed a chance to excel in his classes and then rub his report card in people’s faces. Eat this.

She was assiduously courted by countless undergraduate schools from places big and small, well reputed and less so, with generous offers of tuition and housing benefits, even as far away as New York, Boston and California. But as her family could need her help in the upcoming months, she decided to initially enrol in a local community college. She had to stay close. Very.

Susan was given a poor prognosis in her second opinion-consultation. She noticed the utter sense of loss in George’s face in their ride back home.

-“Don’t worry, hon,” she said. We’ll beat this as we did before…together. Remember when they told you had a stomach ulcer? Healed so well—“

-“Yeah, I guess,” he said. “Why did it have to happen to you, my angel.”

-“It’s God will… How about if we go to church next Sunday?”

 

-“Good idea, Mommy,” Emily said. “I’ll wear Aunt Matilda’s dress.”

-“The white satin one with the blue ribbon collar? So cute—“

-“Deal,” George said. “Then we’ll go for brunch to the Swedish place.”

-“If I’m ever gone for a long time—you never know what the crazy doctors might want to do…In that case, uh, Matilda should move into the—“

-“Move in? That sluttish sister of yours? She might have gotten some kind of disease in Frisco…My butt refuses to share the toilet seat with her.”

-“Don’t be ridiculous, dear… You and your prejudices.”

-“Difference is fine…But not the kind that makes you sick.”

-“Enough,” said Susan, looking squarely at Emily. “Make sure it happens.”

-“Don’t worry, Mom… Matilda will be there—even if I have to scrub the seat with Listerine every time she pisses.” They all laughed heartily.

Annie had an altogether different plan for her upcoming college years. She was trying to squeeze her way into an institution with the right profile.  That is where the action was, that is where good marriage prospects were. She wanted to hedge her bets just in case Bobby defaulted on his promise to follow her anywhere she went before marrying her with a big ceremony. Annie assumed that her father would pony up the full tuition fees at one of those elite universities because her mediocre grades did not warrant a relief.

 

When Jim came back from his painful dismissal, he laid down in the sofa while Helen was preparing dinner. He had always dreamed of striking it on his own, to become a consultant, or even an entrepreneur of sorts…It had always been a tempting yet delicate dilemma due to the munificent bank pay package, including a life insurance policy worth almost two million dollars. The choice had been made for him. There was nothing more to demur about.

Suggestively listening to Pink Floyd’s “Pigs” with headphones on in his studio, Jim decided to start a consulting firm based at home. It was going to be tight for a while for the whole family—new phone lines, a computer, advertisement in newspapers and radio, networking locally and out of town.

He could use the severance payment to cover those expenses for six months, provided that all the family understood that they had to tighten their belts. No more nice restaurants outings twice per week, no more forays into the mall for shopping and movies every week, no extras like marihuana joints.

There was only one major caveat in Jim’s careful planning—how to convince Annie to give up her dream of studying in a big city, opting instead for the more reasonable option of attending first a local community college. It all made perfect sense to him—she could build up her grades, she would enjoy the homely comfort and continue dating Bobby. She had to agree.

 

Perfect sense? Agree with him? Jim was engaging in the same kind of delusional thinking that had clouded their filial relationship. It resembled the kind she would later like to foster in gullible men to manipulate them at will.

Annie came back from school, very agitated and holding a letter aloft.

-“Daddy, daddy…. I’ve got great news. Oh! You’ll love it!!!”

-“Okay, calm down…sit down and catch your breath first.”

-“My goodness, it’s unbelievable… Where’s Ma?”

-“She’s preparing dinner… We had a rough—”

-“Why are you home so early anyway? Are you sick or something?”

-“No, dear… Something bad happened…. Got to talk.”

-“What? Any problems at work?”

-“Of course not…. We just have to restructure our lives….”

-“Restructure? Hey, we’re doing just fine like this.“

-“Okay, I’ll explain it later…. Let us hear your news first—”

-“Daddy, NYU accepted me. I’ve received their letter… Can you imagine it? I’m going to the Big Apple, Can’t believe it… It’s like so, so fabulous.”

Jim’s heart sank to the level of his feet, unable to show any emotion.

-“Daddy, a biggie beckoned—I’ll be joining the right crowd, as we hoped.”

-“Yeah, of course…But don’t rush to grab the first one coming—“

 

Annie hugged him. “What? They’re not the first… I’ve ignored all the others ‘cause New York or California are absolutely the ‘in’ places to be.”

-“But how about something closer… Chicago or Wisconsin?”

-“No way,” she said, the pitch of her voice rising. “That’s fly-over country.”

-“Wrong…Those places are top rated, with admissions from all over.”

-“Maybe…But they don’t offer the best hobnobbing at the tippety-top of the pyramid…You’ve always said it,” Annie said with a censoring look.

Corralled, Jim was about to shoot his last bullet. “Consider the cost—”

Annie threw her arms around Jim’s neck, kissing him on the left cheek.

-“Isn’t your Sweet Little Princess worth that tiny little sacrifice, eh?”

-“All right, I’ll look into it…I promise—Scout’s word.”

-“Knew I could count on you…Luv you…Got to tell my friends. ”

On her way out she came across Helen, leaning against the doorframe

-“Mommy, how about opening a bottle of bubbly?” Annie said, hugging her.

-“Of course, dear… Please go upstairs to refresh yourself.”

Jim and Helen stared at each other in silence, horrified and undone. Annie’s solipsistic coercion was playing his father again. Jim had no choice.  The brat that they so assiduously spoiled was rolling the dice for the family.

Helen went back to the kitchen. Jim put his earphones back in place.