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Vol. 5, No. 3

Anything For Money
by Karen E. Bender

 

~

Lenny drifted through his day at work with a dazed feeling. When he left, the sky was dark and furred with purple clouds. He told the chauffeur not to drive him home immediately, but around the city, and sat quietly in his seat, like a child who had been instructed to be still.
    When he got home, he found the staff assembled in the living room. They were holding pieces of paper. Rosita was wearing a large pot holder on her head. Carlos was wearing a cape. He saw other staffers, whose names he did not remember: a gardener wearing a chiffon scarf around his neck, the pool man. Aurora was standing on a chair in front of them. They were listening to her.
    “Rosita!” Aurora announced. “Your turn!”
    “You, Count! You have cursed me!” She indicated her pot-holder hat.
      “It is what the forces requested,” said Carlos, in a science-fictiony voice.
    “Hello,” said Lenny.
    There was a stunned silence. Rosita swiped the pot holder off her head. Carlos removed his cape and bowed deeply.
    “What is going on?” asked Lenny.
    “We’re rehearsing,” said Aurora.
    “For what?”
    “My movie.” She smiled. “They are all so good at their parts. I didn’t know they all wanted to be actors!”
    He had not known they had any other aspirations at all. He studied them. They looked away, trying to erase the animation in their faces.
    “Thank you, all,” she said. “Rehearsal’s over.”
    He heard murmurings of thanks. Carlos took Lenny’s briefcase and walked, morosely, up the stairs.
    “Rosita! I want my dinner,” he said.
    “Can I have mine, too?”
    “You haven’t had dinner?”
    “I wanted to wait.”
    “Children shouldn’t eat at nine o’clock,” he said. It occurred to him that he had no idea when a child should eat dinner.
    “I always wait for my mom to come home.”
    “When is that?”
    “Six. Nine. Ten. Sometimes never.”
    “What do you eat when it’s never?”
    “Whatever’s around. Ritz crackers. Mints.”
    “Rosita, give her some dinner,” he said. He went to his room.
    

 

~

He entered his bedroom and changed into his silk sweat suit. Then he looked for his favorite comb. It was not in his bathroom or his bedroom; nor could he locate his cologne. Standing in the middle of his bedroom, he wondered what the hell was going on. He went to the balcony and listened; she was still eating dinner. He walked down the hall to Aurora’s room and opened it. The green sack was on the floor; he unzipped it. It was full of little paper bags. Opening one marked MY GRANDFATHER LENNY, he found his headset and his comb and cologne. Lenny looked into the other bags. One was marked MADAME FOURROUT and inside was a postcard of Paris, a snapshot of what appeared to be a friendly baker, and a wooden spoon. Another bag said SAM FROM OXFORD and there was a snapshot of a college student and a silver pen engraved with the initials SNE. There were men and women of all ages and nationalities, and their toothbrushes, lipstick, office supplies. The people represented in the bags were from Paris, Milan, Athens, Buenos Aires, everywhere that Charlene and Aurora had lived.
    He zipped up the sack and walked out of the room, embarrassed by what he had just done. Embarrassment was an unusual feeling for him, and he did not know what to do with it. Then his stomach clenched up in a way that was so acute it was like a physical pain; he had to sit down for a moment and wait for it to go away. In that bag, he saw the history of his own loneliness. He did not know why she had taken these objects from these people, but he believed he understood in some way as well.
    Lenny did not come to the table for another half hour. He was shaken and did not want her to see him. But when he came into the room she was still there; she was waiting for him.
    She was eating with painstaking slowness, carefully scraping the sauce from the poached salmon into a spoon and pouring it in an intricate design onto the grilled tomato. He was not used to anyone waiting for him at the dinner table. He was used to the mobs surging, gray-faced, in the holding room, staffers pacing, tense, outside his office. She was spelling her name in the sauce: AURORA.
    He strode in quickly and took his seat. She had removed the urn again.
    “I was a little hungry,” she said.
    He could see, suddenly, that she was enormously tired, that she had been kept awake, or kept herself awake, far longer than she should have.
    “So,” he said. “Time to get to know each other.” His laughter fell into the room. Rosita brought out a tray filled with glistening pieces of sushi. “Where were you and Charlene most recently?”
    “Paris. Vienna. Argentina. We had a fine time—”
    “What do you do there?”
    “I hang around. I’m very sociable.”
    “What does your mother do?”
    “She is a busy woman.” She shook much more salt on her dinner than was necessary.
    “Doing what?”
    “Many people want to know her.” Her hand waved grandly in the air. “You know she started her own line of baby clothes. Le Petit Angel. She was going to work with Christian Dior—”
    “Before she got thrown into rehab?”
    “No!” she cried out, and her voice curved, suddenly, into a wail. They stared at each other, fearful, as though an intruder had entered the room. She looked into her lap and pressed her hands against her face. Then she glanced past him and said, quickly, “I...I want to talk about success. I want to be a success. I have my own theory—”
    “What is that?” he asked.
    She sat up straighter. “Success is about keeping your eyes open. Being organized. Having a plan. Getting to know people—”
    “Success is luck,” he said. “Some people are winners. Some are not.”
    She gazed at him with an expression that straddled opportunism and love.
    “I have created the most successful show on television. One quarter of the world watches my show.” His voice was husky, honeyed; he wanted to convince her of something. “The ones who win, they’re lucky. They get the question they know how to answer, or they called the office the moment we needed to fill a show.”
    “What about the unlucky ones?” she asked.
    “The losers. Some people are winners, some are not. But we need them, too. So people are grateful not to be them.”
    She was listening.
    “We’re choosing contestants tomorrow in Las Vegas for a special episode there. To be broadcast opposite the Super Bowl.” He punched the air enthusiastically. “Why don’t you come see how I do it.”
    He could not look directly at the joy in her face; it blazed, with a terrible brightness.
    

 

~

He took her in his private jet, the jet that he had Lockheed build for him on a special and secret assignment, a jet that was bigger and faster than anything that John Travolta or Harrison Ford owned. The plane flew with an exquisite smoothness, as though it were cutting through cream. The earth fell away, the ocean a swath of silver, Southern California suddenly tiny and silent and unreal; he looked out the window and he felt a sweet relief blow through him, as though the daughter who had shunned him had never existed, as though no one lived there at all.
    He took a break from the planning session and grandly walked her around the plane, making sure the staff was watching. “This is my granddaughter Aurora—I’m telling her how to become a success. Aurora, here is the plane sauna. My staff tells me that any person of any stature must have one of these on a plane. Over here, here’s the plane game room. This is the biggest pool table in the sky—”
    

 

~

They landed in Las Vegas and set up their camp on a full floor in the MGM Grand. On the show, the contestants were going to run naked through a large, slippery pit filled with bills, trying to grab as many as they could. However, they would be allowed to use only their teeth. Some of the bills would be ones, but some would be thousand-dollar bills. Most of the plane trip had been consumed with discussion of whether to use olive oil or Crisco for the pit. The contestants would have to look good naked, be good at sliding on curved surfaces, and have large mouths. Hundreds of people showed up and were funneled to a conference room, where they were instructed to wait until Lenny arrived. He told Aurora to sit in the room with the contestants so that she could hear his staff prepare them.
    The group looked like they’d been up late for too many nights—their eyes were rimmed violet, their hair desert-burned. They had been around the prospect of instant luck for too long, and they looked worn but grimly entitled.
    Lenny walked in. “All right!” he shouted. “You want to do anything for money? Show me!” Their hungry eyes were set on him. “You, what’s your name?”
    “Lily Valentine.”
    “What are you worth, Lily Valentine?” He pulled a wad of bills from his pocket. “Five dollars? Ten? A hundred?” He flicked the bill against her nose. “A thousand?” He let the bill fall to the floor. Everyone eyed it.
    “You’ll be worth two of those if you can sing for me.”
    Lily’s face flushed. “Sing?” she asked. She was in her forties, with pink-blond hair.
    “ ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ Praise your great country.”
    She took a breath and released it. “O—ooh, say can you see—”
    “I can’t hear you, Lily.”
    “By the dawn’s early light.” She had closed her eyes.
    “Stop!” he said. An aide scooped the thousand-dollar bill off the floor.
    “You call that singing?”
    Lily began to cry.
    “Are you winners or losers?” Lenny shouted at the group. “What are you worth? Just a few bucks?” He listened to his voice boom. “Bye, Lily, go home—”
    There was a shuffling behind him. Aurora was standing up, hands balled into fists.
    “STOP it!” Aurora yelled at him, and ran out of the room.
    Everyone was still; Lenny burst through the door. She was walking with stiff steps down the hotel hallway.
    “Stop!” he yelled. “Why did you do that?”
    She spun around. “Why were you such a jerk to her?”
    “Hey,” he said. “This is how I choose.”
    She backed away, her face new and hard with fury. Fear flashed, brightly, inside him.
    “What can I say?” he said, walking toward her. He held up his hands. “This is what I do.”
    She turned and began to run from him.
    “Wait,” he said.
    He did not know where that word came from. He did not know why he wanted her to stop. He simply wanted to know something.
    “Aurora. Please stop,” he said.
    He remembered how, as a toddler, Charlene would run around the garden, kissing the flowers, the grass, the air. He remembered how she would run up to him and kiss him, her mouth wide open, as though trying to swallow his entire cheek.
    “Aurora. Why did your mother send you to me?”
    Aurora stopped. Her voice was hoarse. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
    He stood, dizzy, watching her run from him; then he told his staff to take over for the afternoon. He walked through the hotel, past the slot machines, where the sounds of people hoping to change their lives were as loud as a thousand bees; he continued through the cocktail lounge, the cigarette smoke a silver fog, then through the numerous gift shops, filled with cheap and ugly artifacts priced so extravagantly the gamblers had to believe they had ascended to a superior place. Then he pushed through a hotel exit and stared, trembling, empty, at the aqua sky. He was so lonely each breath hurt. He had nowhere else to go.
    

 

~

It was dusk when he found her. She was sitting on a bench, staring at a fountain surrounded by arcs of blue light. He walked toward her slowly. He did not know what he wanted, but he felt just as he had many years before, when he was about to rob the liquor store—as though he wanted to change the universe. Then what he had wanted was practical. The universe he wanted to change between himself and his granddaughter was entirely different. It was a universe of feelings, and he did not know how to live in it.
    “Aurora,” he said.
    “What do you want?” she asked.
    He stood in front of the girl: an expensively dressed man, sweaty, against a dark sky. “I’d like to talk to you,” he said.
    She shrugged.
    He sat down and leaned forward, clasping his hands. He did not know how to begin. “What’s the title of your movie?”
    “Why?”
    It was the only question he could think of to ask.
    “Danger,” she said, a thrilled edge to her voice. “This is the poster. It’ll have a picture of an exploding world. There will be huge clouds of smoke. People from other planets will pick up stranded earthlings in their rockets. The saucers will fly through violet rain—” Aurora’s face seemed naked as a baby’s. She awaited his response.
    “Danger,” Lenny said, slowly, for it seemed like a beautiful word. “Danger. It is a great idea.”
    

 

~

The next day, the jet took them back to the mansion. They walked the grounds together and Lenny showed Aurora the whole estate, but mostly he listened to her tell him about her film. The girl spoke quickly, desperately. The plot of Danger was unclear but enthusiastic. It involved runaway missiles, a child army, aunts possessed by aliens, and other complex subplots. Lenny’s contribution to the conversation was not to interrupt. If he did, the girl became furious. Aurora had thought through many of the marketing elements: the poster, the commercial. She became so passionate during her description of the trailer for Danger that she got tears in her eyes.
    

 

~

He was not sure what to do together. His jet took them to Hawaii one weekend to swim with sea turtles, and to London the next for a lavish tea. He imagined intimacy would be like the sensation he had when the jet swung up into the sky, a feeling of vastness; but she was not interested in the green sea around Hawaii, the heavy, sweet cream spooned on a scone. Instead, she wanted to know the most peculiar details about him. What was his favorite color? What was his favorite vegetable? What kind of haircuts did he have as a child?
    One day, she asked him what he was most afraid of in the world.
    “You first,” he said.
    “Spiders,” she said.
    “Snakes,” he said.
    She looked dissatisfied. “Something better,” she said.
    “Earthquakes.”
    These were lies; he did not know what he feared.
    “Ticking clocks,” she said.
    “Why?”
    “When my mother doesn’t come home,” she said. “I listen for ticking clocks. I can hear them through walls.”
    “When does she not come home?”
    “I get scared I’ll be awake forever. I think I hear them down the street.”
    She covered her face with her hands in a small, violent motion. She held them there for a moment; when she lifted her hands, her face was blank, composed. “Tell me what you’re afraid of,” she said, and it was an order.
    “I don’t know,” he said.
    “You have to say something.”
    “I have to think,” he said, but he could not describe his gratitude at the question, for no one had ever asked him this before.
    

 

~

That night, Lenny could not sleep. He went to the kitchen at 2 a.m. for a glass of milk; again, he heard the girl’s footsteps. He watched her walk lightly through the foyer again. He waited until she had left and then followed her through the silent house. Aurora crept like an animal across the gleaming cold tile until she reached one of his coat closets. She knelt and picked up some of the favorite pieces of his wardrobe—his Armani loafers, his Yves St. Laurent gloves. She did this quickly, with a kind of efficiency, picking up items and dropping them. Suddenly, she grabbed two shoes and a glove; lightly, like a ghost, she ran back to her room.
    For a while, he stood where he had watched her; he wanted her to take everything. He wanted to follow her, uttering words of impossible tenderness, words he could never say to his own child: I want to give everything to you.
    

 

~

He still had not figured out what he was most afraid of when, about a month later, she did not come to breakfast. He was surprised by her absence, but thought she was just sleeping late. He called from work to check in.
    “She has the flu,” said Rosita. “She’s sleeping. Children get sick.”
    He found it difficult to concentrate on his work, and came home early to see her. She was groggy with fever, but she mostly slept. The pediatrician said to give her fluids and not to worry.
    A week later, she woke up, coughing; she could barely breathe. The pediatrician told him to take the girl to the emergency room.
    They were borne together on a stale, glaring current of fear. The children’s wing of the hospital was like a haunted house: babies screamed as nurses held them down to take blood from their arms, children wheeled out from operations lay, eyes glazed, tubes rising out of their mouths. The parents walked slowly, like ghouls, beside the gurneys rolling their children out of surgery. They were not who he had planned to meet that day.
    Aurora was with him and then she was in the pediatric intensive care unit. The flu had developed into pericardiomyopathy—an illness of the heart. The doctor brought the residents around Aurora’s bed to instruct them on Aurora’s condition, for it was so rare it had never been treated in the hospital before. Lenny could not watch this. He tried to call Charlene at the clinic, but an administrator got on the line and said, primly, “She left. She ran away two days ago with another patient.”
    “Ran away?” he asked. “Why didn’t you call me?”
    “We were waiting to see if she called us.” She paused. “We assume no responsibility once they leave the premises. There were mutterings about South America.”
    “Find her,” he said, “or I’m suing you for so much money your head will spin.”
    “What do you propose we do, Mr. Weiss? Send our counselors to South America? She wasn’t ready. We can’t force her. We’ll let you know if she contacts us.”
    In his life, he had commanded budgets of millions of dollars, negotiated with businessmen on every continent of the globe. Now he had to act as Aurora’s guardian and he stumbled wildly across the hospital linoleum, as though the floor were made of air. He tried to ensure that Aurora would get good care from the nurses by offering them spots on his show. “We’re having a special episode. Pot of five hundred thousand dollars. You’d have a one-in-three chance.” Standing at the large smoky windows in the waiting area, he stared out at the cars moving down the freeways. Closing his eyes, he tried to change the course of the day, to will the cars to go backward, but they pressed ahead, silver backs flashing, leaving him standing there, alone.
    

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