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Vol. 3, No. 2

The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine
by Melissa Bank

II

Archie answered the door wearing a black cashmere sweater I'd given him as a Christmas present. "Hello, dear," he said. He sort of patted my shoulder.
    Behind him I saw peonies on the dining-room table. They were white and edged with magenta, still closed into little fists. "Oh," I said. "My favorite."
    He said, "Yes, I know," and his eyes said, You're not yourself.
    While he poured club soda and squeezed lime into it, he told me that he'd stood over those peonies and asked, ordered, and begged them to open, but they were as resistant as I'd been at the beginning.
    "Maybe they're seeing someone else," I said.
    For dinner, we were having soft-shell crabs, another favorite of mine. While he sauteéd them, I told him that my father didn't have the leukemia you usually heard about; it wasn't the kind that killed people right away.
    "Good," Archie said.
    I said, "But he's already had it for nine years."
    Archie was setting our plates down on the dining-room table, and he stopped and turned around. "Nine years?"
    I nodded.
    We sat. I repeated what my father had said about not wanting the illness to interfere with my life, but I was afraid Archie would suspect what I did, so I said it out loud: "I think maybe he didn't think I could handle it or help him."
    "No," Archie said, "he didn't want to put you through it." My father had been strong and noble, Archie said, which was how I was trying to see it, too.
    I reminded Archie that I'd barely passed non-college-bound biology, but I understood that the leukemia and chemotherapy had weakened my father's immune system, and he'd become susceptible to infections, like the shingles and pneumonia he'd already had. I told him that my dad's doctor--Dr. Wischniak--had come over to answer our questions--my brother's and mine--privately. I'd asked only one, How much time does he have? Dr. Wischniak said he couldn't answer that.
    "No idea?" Archie said.
    I shook my head.
    We took our coffee into the living room. He stood at the stereo and asked if I had any requests.
    "Something Blue-ish," I said.
    While he flipped through his records, he told me about the time he'd asked his daughter for requests; she was about three and cranky after a nap, going down the stairs one at a time on her butt. He imitated her saying, "No music, Daddy."
    "I told her we had to listen to something," he said. "And she languorously put her hair on top of her head and like a world-weary nightclub singer said, 'Coltrane then.'"
    He only saw Elizabeth once or twice a year--I'd never met her. I asked how she was, and he said she was beautiful and smart and impressive, finishing her junior year at Stanford. She'd spent the year on a kibbutz; he might meet her in Greece over the summer.
    I said that I'd been hoping to go to Greece that summer myself, but I wasn't sure now.
    He sat beside me on the sofa, and patted my hand.
    When we talked about Mickey's reading, I admitted that I hadn't read Loony yet, and Archie promised to get a copy to me. I could see how proud he was of the book, and I was wondering if I'd ever felt that way or would, when he asked what I'd acquired recently.
    "Malaise," I said. I wasn't ready to pinpoint how nowhere my career was. "I have a new boss," I said.
    "Who's that?"
    I said, "Mimi Howlett."
    He said, "I knew Mimi when she was an editorial assistant," and right away I thought, He slept with her.
    He asked me what the last book I loved was. I was trying to remember the title of any book I'd read recently, when he added, as though it was just another bit of conversation, "Did you read my book?"
    "Yes," I said.
    "Did you like it?"
    "A lot," I said.
    He asked if I minded that he'd written a novel about us, and I said, "I minded the way you submitted it to my publisher," which was on the condition that I'd be Archie's editor, and I'd refused.
    "It was a mistake," he said. "I'm sorry."
    "I know," I said.
    He said, "I was a little bit desperate."
    "Can you be 'a little bit desperate'?" I asked. "Isn't that like being 'a trifle horrified'? Or 'mildly ecstatic'?"
    "Leave a man his dignity," he said.
    I said, "The amazing thing was that you pulled off a happy ending."
    He said, "We deserved it."
    "How're you doing on the drinking?" I asked.
    He said, "Great," and told me that he'd started taking a drug called Antabuse, which would make him violently ill if he drank. Plus, he'd been to AA. He showed me a white poker chip they'd given him to mark his sobriety. He said he didn't go to the meetings, but he carried the chip around in his pocket all day.
    I told him I was happy for him. Then I said, "What do you think they give away at Gamblers Anonymous?"
    When he hugged me good night, it was just arms and squeezing, but now the familiar lack of comfort comforted me. I'd once told him that his hugging reminded me of the surrogate wire mothers in the rhesus-monkey experiment; it was more like the idea of a hug than the real thing.
    "Archie," I said, "your hugging has not improved."
    He said, "Lack of practice."

 

~

He called the next day and asked if I wanted to have dinner.
    I confessed that I was criminally behind in my submissions and planned to read my head off.
    "Bring them here," he said. "And I'll behead myself, too."
    I called home before leaving the office. It was a relief not to pretend to be busy. "You sound good," my father said, and I could hear how pleased he was.

 

~

I sat in Archie's big leather armchair. He stretched out on the sofa. When I started to say something, he said, "No talking in the library," and reminded me that I was there to work.
    After a while, he said that he was ordering Chinese, which he called Chinois, and what did I want?
    I said a librarian's "Sh."
    He called and ordered--he knew what I liked, anyway--and when our dinner arrived and we set the dining-room table, we both made a joke of not talking and became our own little silent movie. We exaggerated our gestures and expressions; he held up the chopsticks in bafflement--What can these be?--and mimed conducting an orchestra.
    Over dinner, he asked how I'd gotten so far behind on submissions.
    I hadn't wondered how--it had just seemed to happen--but now I tried to think. I told him that I wasn't liking anything I read, which made me think it was me and not the manuscripts. "So I reread everything," I said. "And I can't reject anything." It was the truth, and a relief to know it.
    "Did this start after you found out about your dad?" he asked.
    I shrugged; it seemed wrong to blame it on that, especially since my father had never used his illness as an excuse.
    He said, "It's perfectly natural to doubt your judgment about doubting your judgment."
    Back in his den, he said, "Let's see what you're reading."
    I handed him Deep South. "I don't even know what this is about, except bugs," I said. "I keep rereading the first chapter."
    He looked at the first page. "It's about a writer who wants to be the next Faulkner."
    "I got that much," I said. "But what if he is the next Faulkner?"
    "He ain't," Archie said, turning a page.
    "But I can't just say that," I told him. "I think Mimi wants me to write reader's reports."
    "These are for Mimi?" he said.
    I nodded.
    "All of them?"
    I nodded.
    He looked at me, and I could see that he understood what I hadn't wanted to tell him.
    "Write: 'This guy wants to be the next Faulkner, and maybe he is, but I can't get past the first chapter.'"
    "That's all I have to say?" I asked. "And I can stop reading it?"
    "Yes, dear," he said, handing the manuscript to me. "Let's see the rest."
    He read the first chapter of all the manuscripts I'd brought, and said, "Nothing wrong with your judgment." Then he asked why I didn't like each one and, using my words, dictated the note I should write to Mimi.
    Without a word about my demotion, he explained nuances of my position in the new H---- hierarchy, describing office politics I'd been oblivious to.
    "I should know this already," I said.
    "No," he said. "How does anyone learn anything?"
    I said, "I feel like I'm Helen Keller and you're Annie Sullivan."
    "Helen," he said fondly.
    I pretended to sign and mouthed, "You taught me how to read."
    He had a barky laugh and I laughed just hearing it.
    Then I admitted what a terrible time I was having with Mimi. I told him that she looked at me like she couldn't tell if I was smart or not, and that I actually became stupid around her.
    He said, "You have no idea how smart you really are."
    I said, "Did you sleep with her?"
    He said, "No, honey."

 

~

"These notes are great," Mimi said the next afternoon.
    "Thanks," I said.
    "But the reader's reports you wrote before were a lot more thorough," she said.
    I was about to say, I'll write reports if you want me to, but then I pictured having to read the bug novel all the way through. Instead, I repeated something Archie had said: "It doesn't seem like an efficient use of my time."
    She looked at me as though I'd spoken without moving my mouth. Then she said, "I guess notes are okay." She dismissed me from her office by saying, "Thanks."
    I heard myself say, "No problem," which I'd noticed non-native English speakers sometimes said instead of You're welcome.

 

~

Archie had to go to a dinner party, but he suggested I work in his den. He said, "If you want me to, I'll look over your work when I get home."
    I didn't want to go back to Ritaville, and my office was fluorescent desolation. I said, "Are you sure you don't mind?"
    He said, "Why would I mind?" He told me that the key was where it always was (under the gargoyle's tongue) and to make myself at home.
    I did. I read in the leather armchair, with my feet up. I finished all the submissions I'd brought and wrote notes to Mimi. Then I stretched out on the sofa with the copy of Loony he'd given to me.
    I woke up to him covering me with the afghan.
    "Hi," I said.
    "Do you want to wake up and go home," he said in a low voice, "or sleep in the guest room?"
    "Guest room," I said.

 

~

Archie told me he was reading a manuscript by a neurologist, and it made him wish he could talk it over with my dad.
    They'd met only twice, at my aunt's funeral and then at the shore, a visit that gave new meaning to long weekend. What I remembered about it was that Archie had smoked a cigarette on the dock and thrown the butt in the lagoon. I'd looked at him as though he was a terrorist threatening our way of life and said, "We swim in there." My voice sounded as haughty as my mother's had the time a handyman had parked on our lawn and I'd told her, "You can't expect everyone to know your rules." The whole weekend was like that, hating Archie and then hating myself for it.
    What he remembered about the weekend was how much he'd enjoyed sitting on the porch with my dad. They'd talked mostly about publishing and books, and now Archie realized that my father had just wanted to put him at ease. "He was so cordial to me," Archie said. "If that weekend was hard on him, he didn't show it."
    I remembered my father's relief at our breakup, though he'd never said a word against Archie.
    Archie was watching me. "What did your dad say about me that weekend?"
    I said, "He said you were charming," which was true.

 

~

We cracked open our fortune cookies and traded the little slips of paper, as we always had. My fortune was about the value of wisdom over knowledge. His was "Great happiness awaits."
    When he took a bite of his fortune cookie, I said, "Don't eat it--Jesus! Now it won't come true!"
    And he spit it out in his napkin.
    I said, "You know what I've always loved about you?"
    "What?" he said, resting his chin on two balled-up fists in imitation of a swooning schoolboy.
    "You're willing to swallow your pride to make me laugh," I said. "Or spit it out in a napkin."

 

~

I said, "The good news is that these are the last manuscripts from my archive."
    I said, "The bad news is that these are the last manuscripts from my archive."
    He said, "Let's go to bed."

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