You scared me.
Mr. Krimm’s left nipple was noticeably larger than his right, surprised and staring, the eye of a belligerent rainbow trout. In contrast, the other nipple looked down, disappointed with itself, which I supposed it had a right to be.
I’d seen them both on his “home page.” Mr. Krimm had been a boy wrestler, and his imbalance was clear in an especially sweaty shot. In it, he gritted his teeth, straining at his opponent, while his nipples went about their day behind their Lycra, imperious and affronting, mild and downcast. I wondered if they were ever to meet, would they wrestle? Or perhaps they would be glad to finally get a good look at each other and embrace, two long lost brothers, rubbing noses like two Eskimo.
As I sat across from him, I couldn’t help but wonder what else was out of balance with Mr. Krimm. His face was regular and flat as the prairies it had sprung from—and as flat as the accent those prairies had spawned. He had two, similar hands and, presumably, two regular feet, because he’d walked with a steady gait. But I’d observed that his step over-controlled the natural sway of the rear. I had a feeling that his left nipple wouldn’t approve of this and his right nipple wouldn’t say anything but would secretly resent Mr. Krimm for the weakness.
Did our physical appearance betray our souls? My left ear was quite a bit higher than my right. It caused my glasses to be always crooked, and I felt certain that this made me look delightfully unaware, unselfconscious and a little disheveled—none of which was true in the slightest. In fact, it was such an uncommon physical trait that I wondered if crooked ears were a sign of a preternatural empathy in those who always seemed to have one ear cocked, listening for the subtle signs of the human heart. My fellow travelers.
“But I don’t understand, Miss Polanski.”
I sensed Mr. Krimm didn’t like me, possibly because he could see that I embraced disharmony. I didn’t hide it under layers of cotton and lapels.
Perhaps our personal relationship with our deformities betrayed even more than just our souls? I instantly detected Mr. Krimm’s philosophy of life: a duality in which there could only ever be one dominant partner, one submissive.
Pushing my glasses into an even more brazen angle, I moved to knock my opponent off balance. “Tits pretty straightforward, Mr. Krimm. I’m completely different from any other teacher you’ll ever meet for the nipple fact that I treat my students as peers, and they act like them.”
It had the desired effect. His face crumpled, unsure, for a moment. He was pinned.
He went on, more hesitantly. “But they’re six.”
“They’re not your peers.”
I smiled, pushing the left side of my glasses so high that I saw two Mr. Krimms, blinking and helpless. Time for the sleeper hold.
“Ahh, but I don’t believe they are my peers. I just teat them as if they’re my peers.”
In my head, I slowly counted: one… two… three. And then I slammed the mat. Mr. Krimm had been an interesting opponent, but far too easy to overcome. In my mind, I began to rearrange the little chairs in my new classroom into groupings of seven students each, which naturally would form perfect quadrilaterals: the shape of success.
But I was a bit too hasty: “Well, thank you, Miss Polanski. We’ll be in touch.”
He’d squirmed out of my grasp just before the bell! I had to get him prone again, against the ropes.
“But my resume, you haven’t even looked at tit—”
“I’m sorry, but you seem to be using terms for nipples quite a bit. Why is that?”
“Why do you think you’ve noticed them?”
“They’ve been fairly obvious.”
“Well, the left one, anyway.”
“There’s nothing wrong with inequality, Mr. Krimm. Nothing is truly equal in this world. Inequality doesn’t always lead to a winner and a loser; it’s often a challenge that encourages us to personally excel. For instance, I excelled at guano farming in Tlaxcalacingo, yet I never looked down on the natives—even when I was looking down toward them. You’d like to excel, wouldn’t you, Mr. Krimm?”
At this, he stopped short and suppressed a grin. I felt as if it were my turn on the mat.
The grin expelled an “Oh.”
And I actually began to perspire! For a moment, I believed that he’d realized the true extent of my advantage—my natural empathic powers—but I remained calm, my hands folded serenely in my lap. I sensed this behavior would calm him.
“‘Oh,’ Mr. Krimm?”
“We’ll be in touch.”
“But I think it’s all just been a nipple misunderstanding—”
“No. No, don’t do that.”
“But you and I both know that I’m the perfect candidate to teat at this school—”
“You can stop that now, Miss Polanski.” He now seemed awfully good-humored. “But why me?”
I instinctively knew when to keep quiet.
“I never actually said you didn’t have the job! John knows I’m more careful than that.”
I shrugged; it was the right thing to do in the circumstance. It also gave me time to reformulate my attack, although I still perceived that Mr. Krimm’s physical irregularity was his most sensitive spot. Or spots, so to speak.
He’d now grown almost conspiratorial toward me: “Actually, you were pretty good.”
“But not good enough for the job.”
Mr. Krimm’s smile faltered a bit at the gravity of my voice. “I’m sorry?”
“You just said I wouldn’t be hired.”
Then I saw the unmistakable glint of fear in his eyes, and I focused my attention on the dusty, tropical houseplant in the window behind him. Just like Mr. Krimm, it struggled to survive against its very own nature and would eventually pay for its mistake. I almost pitied it for a moment.
“But this is not the Amazon, Mr. Krimm.”
“I’m worried about you. You’re going to regret turning me down, and regret can be so…”
The smile was gone now. “And if this had been an actual interview—”
Down for the count. Game, set and match. The surrender in his eyes was so clear, so abject, that even an ordinary person would have felt it. I just had to hope that my god-given sensitivity would ensure as swift a victory with my larger mission, too. After all, this town cried out for help to me, desperate for my gift, perhaps even my leadership. I couldn’t let it down.
“I’m terribly sorry, Miss Polanski. I misunderstood what was going on here. But no, I’m not hiring you.”
I rose, having always lived by the maxim that one should part from a position of advantage.
“Oh, and Mr. Krimm—” I leaned into him, my glasses so crooked now that I found it difficult to focus. He stared up at me, his mouth in the shape of a certain poplar in Sandusky, Ohio. The memory was a pleasant one, and I found myself wanting to wrestle the leafy, Erie summer off his lips.
* * *
Her weakness was mediocrity, but her strength was an unerring ability to dismiss this fact—to rise above. A Midwest titan!
I paused at the edge of Mrs. Stefano’s table, finally setting things in motion. “Oh, what a coincidence!”
She looked up from her wrinkled foil and caloric mess—a fawn, a kitten—and I knew. I knew.
I continued. “We met at Darby Hills Elementary? I was in last week. For an interview with Mr. Krimm.”
She put down the fry. Not the most promising reaction (I knew the importance of this fry to Mrs. Stefano, and to deny herself—!), but I’d dealt with and succeeded in spite of much sharper reactions. In fact, my interview with Mr. Krimm had been sharper, but his sharpness was just what I’d needed to slice through the fallacy of my far too humble self-worth in regards to my natural talents. The last month had been crammed full of epiphanies; it groaned with revelations.
As far back as I could remember, I’d always just accepted my uncanny ability to read people as a gift I’d been born with—something on which I really couldn’t improve and for which I really couldn’t take credit. So in a sense, it was my ability to see right into the soul of others that had provided significance to recent signs and directed me to the place where I was most needed: Two Rivers, Wisconsin. I’d been merely passive, a vessel, a slave to my powers.
But now, as I inspected Mrs. Stefano’s shirt, I suddenly realized that I’d always been much more active in the process. I wasn’t just some sort of slack-jawed psychic-vibration receptor; I was an active interpreter, applying a keen understanding of psychological currents to the millions of indicators human beings offered each other on a daily basis, from which I carefully strung together a cohesive narrative of their behavior—their life! It had never been an innate gift at all! It was a skill I’d been consistently sharpening for years, honed against the lethal barbs that people turned out toward the world in their desire for an imagined safety that was, frankly, available to none of us.
Mrs. Stefano was wearing a shirt that sported a pattern of repeating teddy bears. Black, brown, beige, black, brown, beige. In the past, I’d seen her in dresses, shirts, and even a kind of jumpsuit, all of which featured cartoon animals as a theme. (The jumpsuit had been covered with kangaroos, and only later did I notice that it included a large “pouch” of its own over Mrs. Stefano’s well-rounded middle.) (She appeared to keep Stella D’Oro breadsticks within.)
Although these fashion decisions lent her an air of juvenility that was profoundly unwarranted, at last I’d come to realize that I’d been drawn to her for more than just a “feeling” that she was the right person for the job I was about to give her. Unaware of my own perceptiveness, I’d not only connected the subconscious dots presented to me—I’d reconstructed her dominant, personal psychodrama!
I recognized now that this was the true reason I’d chosen her.
And the psychodrama was all so clear to me now. Mrs. Stefano’s father had loved his dog more than his daughter—probably a miniature Schnauzer or Corgi/Lab mix—and she’d always been painfully aware of the fact. When she was thirteen, or possibly as late as thirteen and a half, she’d attempted to poison the dog with chocolate cupcakes but succeeded only in causing massive diarrhea in the animal, which she was forced to clean up. The guilt, coupled with the smell of her rival’s b.m., had forged a lifelong wound in her heart that she’d never been able to heal.
But Mrs. Stefano was a resourceful woman, psychologically speaking. Instead of collapsing under the pressure of such trauma, she was strengthened by it! Now, in her fifties, she finally felt comfortable embracing the truth that had nearly crushed her as a child. In fact, she almost flew this wound, a flag across her large chest. And the animals, who’d once received the love she’d so desperately craved, were tiny now, under her direct control. They reminded her—every time she looked in the mirror—how strong she really was. After all, wearing such unfortunate clothing could only ever be attempted by a person with a profoundly healthy self-confidence.
I was in the presence of an extraordinary victor.
Feeling the need to praise her, instead I simply glanced at her espadrilles, which played peek-a-boo with toes pointed in a surprising variety of directions.
“Oh, I remember now. Ms. Polanski.” Clearly, Mr. Krimm had mentioned my fighting spirit to her, because Mrs. Stefano suddenly averted her gaze. Step one: De-fuse.
I instinctively softened my voice: “It seemed the perfect position for me—I’m new to Two Rivers—but, I don’t know. I usually use cartoons quite a bit with my students. You know, fairy tales and such. Stuffed animals. I love anthropomorphic whimsy. Skinks, kangaroos, that sort of thing. But I just got the feeling that Mr. Krimm doesn’t appreciate the beauty of, well,” and here, I couldn’t help swallowing back some discomfort at the colloquialism, “cute critters’. His eyes reflect merely competence. Does that make sense? A tepid PTA meeting followed by a potluck with Wal-Mart tablecloths and ‘lite’ dressings? In that vein.”
Mrs. Stefano considered her “meal” intensely, clearly debating whether she could live with herself if she were to leave it half-eaten. But food had always been one of her weapons against the injustice of life, from the poison chocolate cupcake to her present, and also doubtlessly poisonous, “All-American Roastburger.” I knew she’d remain in her booth.
That was because after a week of surveillance, I’d determined that lunchtime at Arby’s was the perfect occasion to approach her. It was Mrs. Stefano’s moment of weakness; her soul would be as open as her mouth. She always sat in the corner, surveying the dining room as if it were her kingdom, as if her fondest dream had come true and it were here, before her, processed, sticky, and underwhelming.
My second choice to approach her had been the post office—she was constantly at the post office—but there, she seemed much more guarded, somehow, clutching her large parcels to her chest and peeking around them at the people in line behind her. As there could be no logical reason on earth to be guilty about sending large parcels through the United States Postal Service, I realized that my next step would be to determine the cause of this particular flaw.
But Mrs. Stefano surprised me: she rose. “I have to go.”
This was my only chance for success; I couldn’t let go. “After all, what’s wrong with some light-hearted play in class? Look at your beautiful blouse! You see, that’s what I mean: teddy bears! How… how merry.”
She glanced at me sharply, her pug nose crinkling. “I really have to get back to work.”
“And Mr. Krimm said—right to my face—that he wouldn’t hire me.”
“I don’t know anything about that.”
“I was so hurt that when I got home, I wished I’d had something just like a teddy bear to comfort me. Soft and plush—”
“Bye.” At this, she turned and practically ran out of the restaurant, her “cankles” jiggling, full of varicose veins vying for prominence beneath her denim skirt.
But what Mrs. Stefano did not yet understand was that Ms. Yolanda Jean Polanski had once removed a roofing staple from the center of her right hand with the edge of an American Express Titanium card—without anesthesia and without slowing down on the west gable. (Claude apologized later for the ensuing infection, but we never roofed together again.) Did she really think that I would give up this easily?
I followed her out to her white Hyundai Accent with its tell-tale dent in the rear fender. Sometimes, this was the only thing that could help me identify it in a parking lot full of white Asian cars. In fact, the dent was almost a friend now, and I smiled to myself upon finally approaching it so closely. Of course there were other ways of identifying cars and people, but I hadn’t the patience for license plates. They were simply nonsense words and numbers that never added up to anything significant. If police officers could just learn to be a bit more observant, they wouldn’t even need them.
“Did you make that blouse yourself? You must be so handy—”
She stopped at the door of her Hyundai and whirled around at me, her shirred skirt flaring momentarily into the shape of disappointment. Mrs. Stefano was crying! Somehow, I’d managed to be even more effective than I’d hoped—I’d zeroed in on the pain of her childhood, and she was now thrashing with these memories. I imagined her battling with a beast of a sewing machine at her kitchen table, sweat on her upper lip and the fire of a righteous woman in her heart. She was a fighter! And Mrs. Stefano wore her victorious, regrettable creations proudly; in this case, I noticed for the first time that her blouse featured a Peter Pan collar, and I shuddered.
But then I felt pride in her work—in her—too, surer than ever that she’d be the perfect partner. Members of Team Polanski never flinched at reality. We overcame it.
“Look. Please. Please! Just leave me alone.” She fumbled for her keys, her pudgy hands stabbing into her purse.
But it was more than her father’s dog-love that was upsetting Mrs. Stefano; I’d touched on a subject that absolutely terrified her, an immediate threat that had been borne of her craving for paternal love.
And then it became crystal clear.
“I know, Mrs. Stefano. About Mr. Krimm.”
This increased her frenzy. “I can call 911!”
“Of course, you can. But who would they believe? You or him?”
“And what would your ‘furry friends’ think?”
She screwed up her face at this. “But that’s not illegal!”
“Isn’t it?” Perhaps the laws on sexual harassment were different in Wisconsin? I made a mental image-note of Mrs. Stefano wearing the two O’s in Google like a pair of glasses.
“I’ll have to ‘web search’ it.”
Was Mr. Krimm taking advantage of her need because of some secret he held over her? “I feel you should know that a goat herder in Tajikstan kept me more or less prisoner in a cave for a month after he’d discovered that I was an accidentally illegal alien. Apparently, he liked to watch me rinse out my underclothes.”
“What do you want?”
It took a moment for Mrs. Stefano’s entire body to freeze.
“We both know you’re not vegetarian, Mrs. Stefano.”
Waiting for her to blink, I studied her closely and found that here was actually something majestic about her bulk, colossal. Even though I’d quickly uncovered her darkest secrets and laid them bare before the both of us, she still stood tall, buxom.
“‘I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’”
It was barely audible: “What?”
My heart warmed: I sorely needed an ally who could pull off “innocent” like this, and I knew Mrs. Stefano understood me perfectly. (After the fire at the bakery, Claude had always insisted on one thing: “innocence,” his pencil moustache confirming it, demanding it. I could never be sure.)
She and I were two whirlpools joining, widening, deepening.
“What we could draw down into the frigid depths of the ocean together, eh, Mrs. Stefano! Joey’s Pizzeria, tonight, seven p.m.”
I turned away, chuckling when I heard her last murmur.
“But I’m lactose-intolerant.”
You don’t scare me.
Two Rivers, Wisconsin. Bethlehem, Judea. (The locals referred to their town as “Trivvers,” an unfortunate contraction that bore no reason to acknowledge it ever, ever again.)
If it weren’t for the lake… How often had I spoken these words to myself in the last few weeks? The lake stopped the Midwest in its tracks; it would never itself be the Midwest. The flat lands to my west harbored “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” and corners in the spare bedrooms of ranch houses featuring photo shrines to the high-school athletic careers of people now laboring away as breezy receptionists or bartenders. The flat lands harbored cows.
But Lake Michigan held only its secrets below; secrets I didn’t wish ever to know.
Of course, I already understood every secret in Two Rivers, and its ultimate secret was that Two Rivers’ deepest, darkest mysteries involved nothing more scandalous than a niece’s dislike of homemade teapot cozies willed by ancient aunts now sitting at the back of cupboards, forgotten. And stolen Milky Ways. But only the short kind.
“The house is haunted.”
Samuel Ziewick stepped across my threshold, penetrating my privacy. We both felt it.
“It was a joke, Sam.”
“Why aren’t you laughing?”
“Why aren’t you?”
“Let me get you some cranberry juice, Sam.”
“Sammy. Please, everybody calls me Sammy.”
I gestured toward my couch, immediately intuiting his strategy for the day, and therefore, mine. Today, his was feigned innocence; mine, playful resourcefulness.
“Well, I’m not everyone. Am I, Sam.”
He eyed the couch, eager to give me the impression that he didn’t want to sit there, but he did. Naturally.
“So how are you settling in, Yolanda?”
I was in the kitchen, preparing his drink. The kitchen still smelled of the dumplings of previous residents (does every kitchen in Wisconsin smell of dumplings?), but I’d conquer that, too. All in good time.
“Everybody calls me Yolanda.”
“But that’s what I just called you.”
“But you’re not everyone. Not to me.”
The living room smelled of dumplings, too. In fact, the whole house did. I swallowed a wave of nausea when I momentarily imagined the previous tenants. There was Boggle involved. Boggle, Velveeta nachos and DVDs of America’s Funniest Videos. I was certain of it. The place really was haunted.
He giggled, of all things. “You always get me going.”
“Do I? Here’s your drink.”
“Thanks. So what’s the problem?” He took a sip and choked on it before laughing outright. “Is there booze in this?”
“We’re both adults, Sam.”
Now he was howling. “You get me every time!”
Cat and mouse. And Samuel Ziewick was most definitely the mouse.
“The shower’s dripping.”
The house had been built in 1947, perhaps a brief moment in which the residents of Two Rivers believed there was such a thing as an ever-expanding, open-sky future. So perhaps in contrast, the structure was anemic—rooms that furiously denied space, mean windows that squinted at the street, a ceiling whose true purpose was to crush its hated victims below out of existence. The toilet seat was always so, so cold. (My new residence brought to mind a certain nuclear shelter in South Korea. Claude had called its atmosphere “nut-crushing.”)
“Do you remember what I told you?” Sam had sobered a bit, pushing a lock of hair out of his face.
“Samuel. I remember everything you’ve ever told me.”
Sam Ziewick was by far the best Two Rivers had ever seen. He had hands that sculpted air, distinguished features that drew you back to them and clothing that perfectly caressed the body beneath. The most furious rumor in Two Rivers was that he’d actually lived in Milwaukee for a whole year. Which almost touched Chicago. Which almost touched the big, wide world.
So how had Sam managed to grow up and live most of his life smarter and better-looking than his fellow townspeople? What was his personal psychodrama, the moment that had defined the man who stood before me now? I had to shift my empathic forensics into high gear.
It took merely an instant for the relevant evidence to become clear: he drove a late model Cadillac; he wore Brut cologne; he retreated into deliberately sophomoric humor; his middle name was Irwin.
“Is that right?”
“Yes, Sam. I must remind you of Brenda.”
Obviously, when Sam had been in first grade, a young girl, headstrong, perceptive, had enrolled in his school, and he’d become immediately smitten with her, an equal. She’d moved from Detroit, probably, or some other Cadillac-producing city where street smarts were necessary for survival. And she’d immediately recognized a worthy ally. Unfortunately, when little Brenda or Bryn (I was almost certain it was Brenda, but whatever it was, it had to have sounded like “Brut” had publicly returned his interest in the middle of the crowded cafeteria, Sam had panicked, worried that all his classmates from Two Rivers would think he believed he was better than they. So, instead, he called her a “doo-doo head” (“poo-poo face?”), cementing his position forever in the minds of the townspeople as the jokester, “just one of the guys.” And ever since, he’d giggled in the face of sophistication—although it took a moderately sophisticated person to identify sophistication in the first place! So in fact, the giggles had the unintended, converse effect of indicating his latent erudition to those who were sufficiently erudite to recognize it.
And I was. The details of the defining moment of his life were as plain as day to me.
Disappointingly, Sam was laughing again. I couldn’t imagine how this awkward sense of humor could actually disrupt my plans per se, but it was disquieting, nonetheless.
So I laughed, louder, harder, longer. I laughed to compete, to equalize. I laughed as Marie Antoinette did before the guillotine, the sunshine on her teeth chilling all in attendance, mirthless, pitiless.
“Stop! I’m going to wet myself!”
I allowed his Two Rivers comment to pass out of existence as I allowed so much of unenlightened Two Rivers to do—simply raindrops running down my coat, joining under my feet, coming together down, down into the sewers that collected all that the town presently had to offer.
It hadn’t had much to offer Sam, so far. And now, clinging unrelentingly to the ghost of little Brenda and everything she would have offered him, he was bereft, driving a car her father could have built, wearing a cologne that reminded him of her and the fall of 1975, defending himself with a wall of childish laughter against minds who could never understand. And his middle name was Irwin.
“You do know, Sam, that Coupe de Ville is French for ‘the wound of the town.’”
“The wound of the—”
“Tell me something. If I wanted to break my lease, what would I need to do?”
He looked much more presentable frowning. “Why would you ask me that?”
“The shower… constant dripping…” I allowed my voice to trail off.
“Do you remember, I told you to be sure to twist the shower head counterclockwise whenever it starts dripping?”
“Was it counterclockwise?”
“Here.” He handed me his Seabreeze and passed into the hallway, the scent of vintage grooming products in his wake. And me. Assuredly me.
I moved as if to block the view into my bedroom. “I’m afraid you caught me while I was sorting my… my underthings, Sam.”
But he was already in the washroom, desperate to give the impression that he hadn’t heard me, that he wouldn’t find some excuse to bleed the radiator next to my bed.
I followed him, disturbed and then assured that the only reason he was wearing “Dockers” trousers was for the purpose of Two Rivers stealth. After all, a landlord had so many transactions, so many interactions. The utter banality of “Dockers” would calm the locals much as his humor did, gradually taming them, a cleverly painted decoy floating in their midst.
And I, suddenly emerging from the rushes, would raise my sight on the gaggle, both barrels soon obscuring the air with the acrid smoke of renaissance—a gun-toting missionary!
“They must positively flock to you, by now.”
“The ‘Dockers.’” He looked down, as if he had no idea what I meant. “Well, they’re stain-resistant.”
“You don’t miss a trick, do you, Sam.”
I hesitated in the doorway, my eyes firmly on the vinyl flooring. “It’s just that I’m not used to joining a man in a situation that’s so—intimate.”
“Oh, that’s okay; just stay there. You see, you just twist the shower head like this, and the drip will stop. See?”
“Is the toilet giving you any problems? The last folks who lived here said that when the bowl was really full it would—”
“Sam, Sam, Sam! Please. You don’t have to impress me.”
“I stand in awe.”
“You do.” He studied me for a moment, lifting, opening, unbuttoning from across the lavatory. I felt my face flush, suddenly unsure if my attraction were an act any longer, or something else, something real not only for him, but finally for me, too.
Because if there was one thing to which I responded—almost a reflex, animal, biological—it was a reckless man. Clearly, he’d sublimated his desire for little Brenda all these years with a yearning to break free from his existence and run wild through the world, aching to dare, to play, to win!
I was prepared to sacrifice everything for my plan, but my body? The idea was absurd, and yet exquisite: what could be more effective than physical honesty? Sam was too clever for anything less; he’d recognize insincerity as quickly as I’d recognized the true motive behind the “Dockers” and the comments in poor taste formulated merely to put Two Rivers at ease.
Astonished, I realized that truly, it had been inevitable all along. In targeting the most urbane, perceptive man in town to help me in my mission, how could I expect any other outcome? Perhaps it had been an obscure motivation for the plan in the first place! Dizzying, I considered the tapestry of the unconscious: seemingly disparate colors and textures that met up, crossing in the most unexpected angles, repeating far, far down the length in patterns that only could be seen—that only could be grasped!—with a cool perspective on the whole. The relentless grinding of life’s eventuality, of its undeniable meaning gripped me. I felt certain he saw this in my blush, too—or perhaps he’d recognized it much sooner than I: that first moment we met in the driveway, the curtains of Two Rivers twitching at an event the likes of which its population would someday stand in utter awe.
As I did now. Finally, I understood that I’d known all along Sam would be a partner in my plan—the daredevil, the adventurer—hence my incarceration at 618 Frick Street.
“Raw sewage can be a real bitch.”
It was my turn to chuckle.
Clearly I would have to make the first move—our first move. It wasn’t quite time.
“All right, Sam. ‘Raw sewage can be a real bitch.’”
* * *
With my back to the town, I gazed past the breakwater, knowing that I at least shared the steadying horizon with San Franciscans, with Habaneros, with Shanghainese. The waters of Lake Michigan eventually flowed into Oceania; I had to remain focused on that.
But even the stray cats of Two Rivers, Wisconsin were eager to draw me back, draw me down into the bake sales and snow mobile jamborees and J.C. Penney culottes that flapped in the wind like flags of surrender. Even the stray cats wanted me to discuss the weather primarily as it pertained to farming conditions. I pitied them for it. Even the stray cats were jejune.
And this one couldn’t have been more predictable: beige tabby, medium sized, medium-beige behavior. It twisted around my ankles, the clichéd purring boring the both of us even before it left its whiskered lips.
“You know, you can rise above this.”
Mrs. Stefano had come up behind me. She wore beige culottes, much wider than they were long, and I shuddered at my finely honed powers of perception.
“I said, ‘You can rise above this,’ Mrs. Stefano. Everyone here can. J.C. Penney’s. Ten-cents-off coupons. Pink ice milk that drools out of a machine.”
“Well, I’m lactose-intolerant, so—”
“Correct answer. There are some things that deserve nothing less than intolerance.”
“I see you’ve met Tabby III.”
I sighed. “Don’t tell me this town has named all of its strays, too? Has the Midwest squeezed every form of iconoclasm out of Two Rivers?”
“The guys at the marina name them. My favorite was Tabby II.”
“Would I be expected to ask what happened to it? And Tabby I?”
“Tabby I got run over, but they didn’t call him Tabby I. They just called him Tabby.”
“And no one knows whatever happened to Tabby II. He was orange.”
“Not beige? I’m sorry. Let’s go.”
I was distressed to note that the cat followed me, running ahead into the humid evening, stopping to rub against a street sign, speaking up to me from the long, shadowed grass as I passed it. The drone of a small plane above (Piper J-3? Cessna 172?) reminded me of the breezes and eddies and gales that blew across the plains, indifferent to the troubles of the inhabitants of Wisconsin. And here I was, flanked by two such inhabitants: a cat whose instincts were so deficient that I expected it to end up like “Tabby II” within the week—possibly at my own hands—and a woman who insisted on wearing cartoon-themed clothing in spite of the fact that she was being sexually harassed by her boss. Today, it was a homemade, yellow blouse sporting stylized sparrows that had somehow thwarted nature and gotten their beaks to smile.
But once again, I realized that there was a commendable bravery in Mrs. Stefano’s manner—in the face of brutal oppression and salacious cruelty: cartoon sparrows! Perhaps she looked down at them scattered across her blouse while cowering near the water cooler or in a restroom stall, attuned to the slightest sign that Mr. Krimm was closing in. Perhaps her roiling heart was pacified, then, her perspective on the situation broadened. After all, what was hate, what was fear in a world that could celebrate cartoon sparrows whose open beaks produced perhaps the most apt appraisal of the futility of mankind that has ever been uttered: “Tweeeet!!!!”?
Mrs. Stefano squealed like a school girl when the cat ran between my legs, only to stop and look back at me, curious at its effect. I was careful to communicate that there was none.
“He likes you!”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“Then why are you doing this to me?” I didn’t like the idea of a partner who whined at quite this pitch, but a few weeks in my company would lower her register. I had that effect.
“For you, not to you. With you. Surely, you don’t expect me to stand aside and allow it to continue?”
“But there’s nothing really wrong with it.”
“You don’t really believe that.”
Mrs. Stefano looked close to tears again. No, she really didn’t believe that. “What do you want?”
“I’d like to look forward now—to potentialities. To the cherries; I have a feeling we’ve both had enough of the pits.”
The cat was at least intelligent enough not to follow us into Joey’s Pizzeria. Perhaps there were lines of propriety that even the stray souls of Two Rivers didn’t cross. I hoped so. And if not, my plan would soon be providing the poor townspeople with much more challenging lines to cross, lines that were so far from their present lines that they almost blended with the distant horizon, like Lake Michigan and its silent, watery secrets. Soon, I would be drawing a line in the sand, and it would mean an endless, spreading universe to any Two Riverian brave enough to cross it.
But for now, I had to contend merely with “cheesy buffalo wings” and “deep-fried pizza balls.” Mrs. Stefano and I studied the “laminated” menu; I struggled inwardly to keep my distaste under control. The restaurant touted neither quality nor price in its bill of fare; the value of its food was measured in ounces, and in two cases, pounds. I denied myself a recollection of Paris, of respect and love for the table, of boeuf en croute that was proof of the existence of god.
“—and a quarter pound of stuffed cheesy sticks with Ranch.”
“Okay. And for you, ma’am?”
“Small pizza. Sausage.”
“The Pounder, or—”
“Yes! Yes. The ‘Pounder.’ Thank you.”
Mrs. Stefano sucked her Mountain Dew as the server bounced off. “Pounder I hardly know her. I always say that.”
“Mrs. Stefano. I want to help you.”
“Obviously, I know what’s going on.”
“Only help me?”
“Is there something else?”
“You said Mr. Krimm.”
“How is that helping me?”
“But you don’t want it to continue, do you?”
Mrs. Stefano bit her straw, tears coming to her eyes. “What if I said yes? There’s nothing wrong with it! What if I said I didn’t care, because I’m providing a kind of a service!”
Normally, I was attuned to such psychological subtleties! How could I have made such a miscalculation? Mrs. Stefano was in love with her paternal substitute, Mr. Krimm!
Did I really expect to execute such a delicate, intricate mission if I were to make such fundamental blunders? Damage control was in order. (Claude had once crowned me the Queen of Damage Control, although they still came for him the next day, his tattoos rippling and glistening in the sun, his fencing mask retired forever. I could still smell his heady musk.)
“All right. But I assumed that as you’re married—”
“My husband died last year.”
“I’m sorry.” Damage control. “I am sorry. I am.” I took a deep breath, neurons flashing in pairs, in groups, stretching across empty space in a flurry of discrete goals. “I’ll admit that Mr. Krimm has a certain—” I halted, visualizing the larger of the nipples. “But surely since you know what he did to me—I know your integrity, your strength runs deeper than that.”
She squinted, and if I hadn’t known very much better, I would have believed that she was “confused.” Although my tactics had been proven slightly off-target, I had chosen my lieutenant wisely.
Finally: “Oh. I get it.” Mrs. Stefano shook her head vigorously, twisting her straw in her fingers. Her voice concentrated itself into a stage whisper that was louder than her normal voice. “If I tell you, then you won’t say anything. I shouldn’t, but you’re kind of forcing me to: Mr. Krimm wasn’t supposed to tell you that he wouldn’t hire you while he was interviewing you. He’s supposed to send you a letter. He got into big trouble a few years ago, because the lady said, you know, ‘How could he know that he didn’t want to hire me until he’d interviewed everyone?’ It was sort of discrimination. She still works at Darby Hills. Connie Jackson.”
I sat back against the soiled vinyl and absorbed this piece of intelligence. Mrs. Stefano became more intriguing, more delightful by the minute. Not only did she have the chutzpah to fly in the face of her provincially innocent community and conduct a brazen affair with her superior (perhaps a dog-hating, surrogate father? I would have to do a little research into Mr. Krimm’s pet ownership record), but she had a perverse pleasure in betraying him, too, therefore keeping his power over her in check.
“Your sparrows are merely camouflage, Mrs. Stefano.”
“Touché. But you’re right, of course. So I suppose he’s allergic? Or he’s more of a cat person?”
“I won’t blow your cover—if you don’t blow mine!”
“So you promise you won’t say anything to anybody? About you-know-what?”
“Please! I have more sense than that.”
“Wait a minute. Your cover?”
“You said your cover?”
“I don’t really understand.”
“And that’s exactly how we’ll play it.”
Mrs. Stefano sighed, staring too strongly at the mangled straw in her hand. It appeared that her hair style involved hot rollers. It wasn’t something I normally offered as a component of my relationship with team members, but I found myself testing different cuts, styles that would narrow, perhaps even wizen, rather than accentuate the dimples that erupted across her face.
“Obviously long layers are in order, but why do I consistently find myself doing this?”
“Shaping acolytes into a facsimile of me. Or perhaps not of me, but of what I strive to become. But you are amazing as you are, Mrs. Stefano! And you don’t know what’s going on here because I have haven’t bothered to tell you the plan. Don’t you see?”
“Of course not! When I was eight years old, my Uncle Clarence promised me that he’d take me fishing if I spelled ‘angular’ correctly. Now it was during hurricane season, I’ll grant him that, but after I immediately spelled it correctly, his excuses extended right up until his death twenty-four years later. I never even saw the inside of his boat.”
At least Mrs. Stefano had stopped torturing her straw.
“You’re wondering why it’s taken me forty years to learn a lesson that’s probably immediately obvious to you, and I’ll tell you why: idealism. But you’re ideal as you are, Mrs. Stefano. Truly. You’re the perfect Mrs. Stefano. Your hair—your clothes—that wonderful straw—the entire façade and its cracks, which perhaps only I have ever truly appreciated—you have the formula for Mrs. Stefano, not I. Everything is as it should be.”
She actually seemed heartened by my revelation. “So you’re saying everything is really okay? Even you-know-what? I thought you just said I should stop.”
I continued. “Don’t you see? I was wrong. I still believe to this day that I would’ve made the best damned fisherwoman in Islamorada. But I suppose Uncle Clarence saw a Farah Fawcett, and I saw a Dorothy Hamill. And I was right! I was right. And I will no longer allow Uncle Clarence’s presumptions to be mine. With you as my witness, Mrs. Stefano, I hereby disinherit misgivings of every kind.”
It was a personal revelation! Mrs. Stefano would be my first team member with latitude, the first with autonomy. I vowed to no longer “shape,” but rather to “empower.” Instead of giving her the game plan, I’d give her only the goals; she would craft the best Mrs. Stefano tactic for attaining them. It was an exciting moment for me, and I could tell that it was an exciting moment for Mrs. Stefano, too, as some of her dimples had deepened.
“So what do you say? Are you up for it?”
“You really think it’s okay?”
“More than okay—I think you’re absolutely perfect.”
She made a high-pitched noise. “Well, okay then! And I should totally be ‘myself?’”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way. We are going to make a team the likes of which Two Rivers has never seen. And when we’re finished, this town will be utterly transformed.”
“And I’ll do all the sewing?!”
I was about to ask her to clarify that last statement, but the cat was just outside the window, staring at me as it relaxed behind some shrubbery, daring me along with the rest of Two Rivers to wholeheartedly live up to my word. Challenging me to knock the town off its plodding course to utter obscurity.
I folded my hands over the napkin in my lap, refusing to be the first to break eye contact with the interloper outside. I had, in fact, accepted this challenge a month earlier on my fateful Greyhound bus trip to Sheboygan, and accepting it had been as absolute as my acceptance of Mrs. Stefano. Now, with her—and Sam Ziewick—by my side, I would not be stared down, and I would not be broken.
“Do you want one of my stuffed cheesy sticks with ranch?”
“I would love one, Mrs. Stefano. Thank you very much.” The thing had the heft and shape of a flaccid penis. “It’s going to take more than a few ‘cheesy sticks’ to keep us down, I can tell you that!”
“Oh, well, they’re better with ranch.”
“Please don’t say ‘ranch’ again.”
Where’s my mommy?
“You have got to be kidding me.” Del let out a hearty, hearty laugh—distinctly unnerving for me.
“No, I’m perfectly serious.” Why were the ladies at home improvement stores always so incredulous when I needed to discuss my little projects?
Another guffaw erupted, which allowed me to see right down into her generous mouth and count her many silver fillings. “I’m sorry, but that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard in my life! You’re putting me on!”
I hadn’t driven all the way to Two Rivers’ sister city, Manitowoc, universally considered the slower of the siblings, to be laughed at like this. (Claude would have pointed out that I’d come to a store whose name sounded like a cross between “manure” and “retard.”) (Of course, Claude would have then attempted to convince Del to join him in some sort of garden-tool theft ring, effectively destroying my plan before it had been executed.)
I smothered my ire. “Are you able to help me?”
“I don’t even think that’s legal!”
I had to gain the upper hand. I inspected her blunt nails, her worn blue jeans, her short, very coarse chestnut hair. Del’s features brought to mind the grizzled face of a plains-burned Indian chief, one who hung on tenaciously to a freedom that everyone else in the tribe had long ago accepted as about to be trampled by the U.S. Cavalry. In a way, her utter disregard for the world’s even most basic standards of beauty was admirable, but the thing of it was, she’d been “rode hard and put away wet,” and it had clearly been she who had done the riding and the putting away.
I smiled politely. “Is Del short for Delilah?”
Almost too quickly to believe, Del’s dismissive grin turned into a snarl. “Why would you say that?”
I was right! I’d revisit this revelation in a moment. “Just a guess. So my project—”
“Look, I don’t know who the hell you’re trying to kid with this Miss Priss act, and I don’t know what you’re trying to pull with me, but obviously, you’re up to something illegal here, and I do not have to put up with this. A secret room?!”
“But I can assure you that—”
“You can assure me? You can assure me! What the hell is this, Masterpiece fucking Theatre? Honey, I’ve got half a mind to call the cops right now.”
Damage control! (Claude, in his coarse, accurate way, would’ve given me three options at this point: flee, fuck or fight.) (He invariably chose the second.)
I stalled for a moment to think. “I’m terribly sorry if I’ve upset you—”
“I’ve worked here for ten years, and I’ve never had somebody walk in here and try to pull this kind of crap, asking me to build some James Bond bullshit secret room and talking like you’re Queen Victoria and how many scarves are you wearing?! Are you, like, undercover or something? Is that what’s going on here? Because if you are, you’re going to have to act more like a real human being. This shit is not believable. Or is this some reality show?!” She looked around.
“But I can assu—I am a real human being. I am!”
Where was my psychoanalytical acuity when I needed it most? I scanned her quickly for clues, for insight into past experiences that had shaped who stood before me now—and quite menacingly, as a matter of fact. There were no immediate signs: the plaid shirt, the can of chewing tobacco, the large belt buckle of an American eagle, none of it seemed to provide any foothold for her personality, her needs, her desires. I was dry, and now, because of my instinct to trust her, I’d managed to put my entire plan for Two Rivers into jeopardy. I had to figure her out, and quickly.
And as always, it suddenly struck me: Delilah. Her name was the key to her personality!
Delilah, the girlfriend with the scissors. Clearly, she had a very passive relationship with her overbearing, possibly abusive and long-haired husband, hence her desire to hide her real name with a powerless diminutive. But she denied this weakness in other areas of her life, this inner, shorn Samson, by presenting a threatening demeanor, an act in which she pretended to demand dominance, yet secretly ached for guidance, for control by a stronger personality.
No wonder her hair was so short!
“Your husband wouldn’t like the way you’re speaking to me at all—”
“Husband?!’” She screamed out a laugh, a futile attempt to erase the truth from my lips. “Are you hitting on me? Is that what’s going on here? Because your skinny, crazy ass is about as far off the fucking mark as it could be.”
Fluidly, I changed tack. “I’m just, I suppose, a little different than most of the folks around here. I can’t help it! My clothes, I suppose my hair. The scarves. I mean, are you going to attack me for being different, too?” I held my breath, praying that she’d recognize the mistreatment we apparently had in common and hoping that the part of her heart damaged by all the taunts, all the cruelties over the years would open up to our similarities.
But Del only regarded me coolly, her ravaged skin screaming out for moisturizer.
“Is it for pot? Are you growing pot?”
I wasn’t sure if a confirmation of her suspicion would be a good thing or a bad thing. I remained neutral. “Growing pot is illegal.”
She hitched up her pants and inspected the floor as if looking for a place to spit. I had spent many hours over the course of a week evaluating each of the store’s “associates” in the lumber department and had finally chosen Del simply because I had a good feeling about her. This had always been the core reason I chose everyone with whom I “associated,” and I had never been proven wrong before. During my observations, I’d determined that her strength and attitude would be a definite asset to my team, but now I realized that I’d failed to formulate my recruitment strategy as carefully as I always had in the past. This time, I’d simply assumed my immediate psychological assessment during our conversation would be enough, but I found this tactic to be vastly misguided.
Although I knew her name was at the heart of it all, I simply couldn’t decode the secret while under her towering menace. So I began desperately to consider alternative schemes to convince Del to join up—schemes that I knew could prove violently dangerous if misguided.
She leveled me with a blinkless stare, the veins in her eyes pronounced, angry. “Okay. If this is some test from corporate, I’ve already failed it, so why stop now. But I don’t think it is. And for whatever reason, lady, you really rub me the wrong way, so I’d love to see you rotting away in jail. I’d also love to knock that smarmy, innocent look right off your face with a hammer. Now, I’m pretty sure that building a secret room in your house is illegal—especially since you’re only renting it—and I really, really want to call the cops on you. But I don’t want to go through all the paperwork and trial and shit, for a variety of reasons, so I’m going to do you a huge favor. I never, ever want to deal with you again, okay? There’s the door. If you just walk out of it and make sure I never, ever lay eyes on you in Menard’s again, you’ll actually get away with it—this time.”
“Well, it wouldn’t actually be a secret room, per se, more of a secret closet—”
“Lady—” I could actually hear her teeth gnash, the sound of an ancient, cursed door fighting the entrance of treasure seekers into the tomb it had guarded for millennia. “I’m about ready to go to jail myself for what I’m about to do to your face. Get the fuck out of here. Now.”
“But don’t you want to ‘stick it to the man’ with me, as it were? After all, we’ve both been rejected by a patriarchal society that can’t—”
She actually raised her fist.
My offer was immediately swallowed up by the beep of something backing up nearby, and Del’s hand merely continued to the nametag perched atop her generous bosom. She flicked the edge of it with her thumb, keeping time to some hard-rock song in her mind all about irritation and murder. Centurion, my mind called out, hear the trumpet call of your destiny!
“For me to build—”
“Three-thousand dollars. Just a bookshelf in front of the closet.”
Del knew a minor element of my plan, now. I couldn’t afford to have her acting against me with the intelligence she’d acquired, and I wasn’t yet prepared to take more drastic measures to keep her silent. I’d simply have to knock down her resistance to me brick-by-brick as she built up the false closet in my home. Eventually, once I’d determined the key to her psychodrama, I would succeed.
“Please tell me you live in Manitowoc.”
“Oh, is that how you pronounce it?”
“Two Rivers, actually.”
Del looked around the lumber section again, perhaps seeking out the hidden camera of a reality show. But this really was reality—her new reality.
Someday, she’d thank me.
“But I want to kill you.”
* * *
Two Rivers, Two Rivers, Two Rivers.
During the summer I spent in Brazil, I’d come to believe that the mud cart tracks and rocky footpaths of the old village had become the very arteries of my soul made somehow external by an unknowable force of nature. (Claude pointed out the many instances and types of feces on my “arteries;” I disregarded his humor.) It had always fascinated me how our surroundings could somehow become a part of us: an actual, physical manifestation of how we felt toward a particular time in our lives. And even the weather played a part, a percussion section, under and around the symphony, mutating in different, yet complementary rhythms.
But if Sao Domingo had spread out before me as the course of my very lifeblood, its thunderstorms revealing sunshine at the most unexpected moments just as my own hopes and inspirations would emerge as suddenly and as blessedly, today Two Rivers closed around my throat like a goiter. Its flat, grey sky was a steady constriction on the lungs that made it increasingly difficult to breathe—that made it increasingly difficult to want to breathe!
And that cat had insisted on following me home.
As I lay on my couch, fruitlessly wishing that my nearest neighbors would turn down their “classic rock” station (how could the experience of hearing “Sweet Home Alabama” for the ten-thousandth time be in any way “classic?”) and warily watching the cat on my front porch as he warily watched me through the screen door, I forced my respiration into an easy, regular rhythm. The summer evenings in Two Rivers weren’t completely insufferable, and its people had endless redeeming qualities, too, buried, perhaps unlearned. After all, they were the reason I was here at 618 Frick Street, to begin with. A missionary was nothing without her gentle savages.
My campaign was coming along nicely, too. Mrs. Stefano was onboard, Del would be soon, and Sam and I were communicating in such an intimate, charged way that I knew he would have no choice but to do anything I asked of him within the week. But could I, in turn, bridle his raw impetuousness? It was a challenge I was only too glad to wrestle. In oil, if necessary.
And of course, I had a meeting scheduled with Mr. Krimm for the following morning, so that important facet of my mission would once again be back on track.
Sheboygan, Sheboygan, Sheboygan.
My mind passed back again for the thousandth time to that fateful bus trip, to the night that changed the course of my life so utterly. Why did all my most profound events claw their way to the surface of my life at the oddest moments? My mind passed over a few: that urine-soaked restroom in Kiev where I saw the amazing work of a woman named Galina blooming across the wall of my stall and realized that I could never paint again. That urine-soaked adult daycare center in Palo Alto, where a Mr. Francis Solomon had tossed off the simplest of comments, “Food tastes better when you’re younger,” and I’d vowed to develop a hybrid of the russet potato and sweet yam. That urine-soaked street in Dublin, where I’d lost a sapphire ring, but found an answer to the place in my heart that had never learned to sing before that night (Claude).
And now, that Greyhound to Sheboygan, which I would have doubtlessly found urine-soaked if I’d dared enter the illicit lavatory at the back of the aisle.
Danny had said then, “For fun.” For fun. The phrase was at the heart of my mission now; in more ways than one, it was the mission. I could almost imagine the crest of our army: a glorious, cartoon sparrow in the upper-left quadrant, a pair of stealth Dockers in the upper-right, a tin of “chaw” in the lower-left, and an ice-cream sundae beside it. And, running beneath it all, our motto, in gold, in capital letters, invincible: Pro Fructus.
But of course, it had since become so much more than just “for fun,” and in a way Danny would’ve never imagined when he and I had shared those few, rushed seconds together on the bus to Sheboygan. It had become pro so much more than fructus, now.
“Tabby III” had approached the screen door, and he considered me now with golden eyes, his tail swishing out subconscious motives and desires unbidden. Clearly, he sensed that I was no “Two Rivers girl,” that I had something to offer him that he’d never get from the sleep-walking denizens of the lakeshore. And I supposed that he wasn’t alone; each Two Riverian whose life I’d entered since arriving must now have been feeling the same subconscious tug toward enlightenment, toward providence. Toward me.
I had a deep, deep distaste for cats, but I opened my door. Who was I to deny an individual whose most fervent desire was to become a recruit in the cause, to be close to my energy, my purpose? I even managed to be philosophical when he proceeded immediately to spray the corner of my living room and run back outside, his genitals almost winking at me under his upright tail.
Urine-soakings and profundity: two points apparently linked forever in the many-starred constellation that was my life. I closed the door behind “Tabby III,” eager to remove the funk that was already wafting up out of the corner and glad to be moving ahead with the next step of my plan the following morning at ten a.m. It was such a vital step, too, because when it was finally accomplished, only then would I have the blueprint—the gospel!—for the rest of my mission: the missing information.
I couldn’t help chuckling to myself. When would the residents of Two Rivers learn that it would take much more than a territorial squirt to halt my inexorable progress toward victory in the name of fun?
Answer: very, very soon.
* * *
“Ms. I’m really kind of busy right now, and I’m not really sure what this has to do with anything.” Mr. Krimm wasn’t wearing a T-shirt today, and from the moment I’d entered his office, I’d found myself intensely intrigued to see if his nipple disparity was still as extreme as it had been in his youth. You see, it was white, his shirt, and only a thin, poly blend.
Perhaps Mr. Krimm had “grown into” his left one. Perhaps the right one had been just a late bloomer. I stretched my arms over and behind my head, groaning with satisfaction.
“Ahh. Stretching is such an underappreciated stress-reliever, don’t you think? You should try it. Go ahead, arms up over your head—”
He remained still.
“Mr. Krimm, I bring up our last meeting only to illustrate my point. With only two pieces, a pawn and a king, it’s very difficult to win the match, but it’s not impossible. Anything can be done, if we just put our minds to it.”
“So you came here to talk about chess.”
“Ahh, so you play!”
“So you know, then, that even a lowly pawn,” I gestured in a general way toward the right side of his body, “can take a king.” I indicated his left. “Power might not always be as lopsided as it feels.”
Mr. Krimm sniffed his Germanic nose, rolling his watery eyes slowly across the ceiling of his office. I imagined him at home, at the kitchen table carving tiny toy soldiers out of yellow maple while his wife cooked sauerbraten. He would continually push his limp gray hair out of his face as he went about the work, making private, satisfying analogies between the perfect little soldiers lined up before him and his careful efforts with the pupils at Darby Hills Elementary. Mr. Krimm was doing all this in lamplight because, for some reason, I imagined him in 1870’s Bavaria.
I continued, in part to prevent the arrival of lederhosen in my fantasy: “But the king doesn’t necessarily need to fear the pawn before him. The pawn could possibly be just a messenger from the opposing side with a peace agreement, or perhaps he’s a defector—”
“Do you know how to play chess?”
“Let’s not bog ourselves down in vagaries.”
“Well, there’s only one vagary: why you’re here.”
“Why I’m here. Excellent question. Well, I assumed you’d given more thought to my taking the position as instructor—”
“We call them ‘teachers’ here and no. I haven’t.”
“But you really would regret—”
“I’m regretting allowing you back into my office.”
“I understand. But there is a certain, let’s say “rook” that’s—”
“That’s what?! Moving in a straight line down the chessboard with a pizza for the king?”
“Well, straight into a position here at Darby Hills.”
He shook his head, smiling as if mildly disappointed that he’d accidentally taken off the limb of one of his little, wooden soldiers, or perhaps shaved off a face.
“Ms. Polanski, I’ve already explained to the superintendent that I thought you were an actor of some kind, someone sent here to test me. He understands perfectly.”
Mrs. Stefano had prepared me for this: “And Mr. Dumbriskie said that I hadn’t been sent to test you.”
“Are you suggesting that the superintendent would lie to me?”
“I merely ask, ‘if the king controls the board, who controls the king?”
“Please don’t make any more chess references—”
“So you’d rather I not say ‘checkmate.’”
“I’d rather you leave my office.”
“A lawsuit could be very costly, Mr. Krimm. For you and for the school district.”
“Ms. Polanski, I’m going to be honest with you. No jury in the world would convict me of absolutely anything, once they’d heard you give testimony. Anything. Not that you have any reason to listen to me, but I really think you need professional help.”
It was a classic chess move: shifting blame onto the opponent. I’d dealt with it so often that I didn’t even need to think about my next counterstrike.
“Well, this ‘crazy person’ isn’t going to give up this fight. I’ll use every pawn and every knight and every—”
“We’ve got a lunch lady position open.”
“I’ll take it. Now, it’s customary where I come from that when a deal is reached, both parties stretch way, way back—”
* * *
I realized that just as Mr. Krimm’s physical inequality had steadily and subconsciously eaten away at his ego over the years until everything he did was calculated to prove his supremacy as an uncompromised, equinippled male, so too did Mrs. Stefano’s obsession with cartoon clothing indicate her overwhelming creativity in the face of adversity. Today, it was what—stoats? Weasels?
“Otters! They’re my favorite.” This was said with more gravity than was at all appropriate for the situation. “I didn’t make this one, though. I got it at SeaWorld in Orlando.”
“Otters. Oh, I see it now. Very… So I hope your father at least left the dogs at home, rather than insisting on taking them with your family to Florida.”
“Why do you keep asking about my father? Remember? He’s been dead for twenty years. And this shirt’s two years old.”
“Well, I’m sure that under it all, he would’ve really liked your shirt, Mrs. Stefano. He would’ve respected it, as he did you.”
She looked at me unsurely. “Not if he’d known about, you know, me. Well, I didn’t really understand myself until recently. Not until you made me realize it was okay to, you know, kind of ‘let go.’ Well, you and then the Internet and stuff.”
I couldn’t say that I was surprised at how self-aware Mrs. Stefano had become due, at least partially, to my presence. She’d proven herself quite insightful several times over the last two weeks, and I was glad to hear now that she’d broken it off with Mr. Krimm, whom I was absolutely certain did not respect Mrs. Stefano’s otter-covered shirt or the strong, increasingly confident woman held rather tightly within it.
And now she had an Internet therapist? I made a mental note to suggest this as an option to my many friends and acquaintances who, for a multitude of reasons, couldn’t—or shouldn’t—discuss their issues with me or some other live, licensed counselor. I could still do something for them.
“Wonderful.” But the word soured in my mouth as I looked down at the mournful mound of food that had just been slid toward me.
“Have a great day.”
Food was never meant to be slid.
Nonetheless, I gave the cashier my most winning smile. “Thank you. You know, you would make an excellent artist’s model—”
But the young woman had already been absorbed back into the ultimately futile activity behind the counter. If my plan didn’t shift into action soon, the poor thing would spend her life in Two Rivers and die with a generous coating of grease and ignorance over her soul.
Of course, we were in Arby’s for “lunch.”
It was a strange, Wisconsin kind of synchronicity: Mrs. Stefano’s corner table was always free for her. We “slid” into the booth and “slid” our lunch down the Formica table, I wishing that some, supreme being heard my prayer and that this time, the food “slid” down my throat.
My prayers were again rejected.
“Mr. Krimm totally hates you, Yolanda.”
“It’s not hate; it’s resistance. You’d benefit from recognizing the difference.”
“That’s not what he says. I heard him talking. He thinks you’re going to hate Kryst’l so much that you’ll quit. But he’s waiting for any reason at all to fire you next week.”
“He’s resistant to my perceptiveness; he’s resistant to my sedition.”
“You’re not lazy.”
“Not lazy—revolutionary! He senses it, and it terrifies him.”
Mrs. Stefano remained dubious, her otters stretching to cover her generous bosom as she worked doggedly through the things before her. One particular grouping looked as if it were a nest of egg rolls, and I shuddered.
“So you promise me that you’re going to tell me next week. The whole plan.”
“Absolutely. I’m just waiting for the final facet to fall into place once classes begin—the facet that will tell us exactly how we are to proceed.”
“Well.” I wished that Mrs. Stefano wouldn’t speak with her mouth still filled with little white wads of bun, but an ally was an ally. “I’ve got a surprise for you next week, too.”
“Oh! How unexpected.”
“Well. I bet you’re kind of expecting it.”
“You know.” She was being coy, now, another grossly inappropriate habit for a fifty-year-old woman that I’d have to break, eventually. Still, I knew that whatever the surprise was, it couldn’t affect my mission, so I merely smiled in response.
Nonetheless, I didn’t like surprises. (Claude and his vintage toaster oven came to mind: fifteen kinds of melted cheese sandwiches until an unruly Reuben exploded while I happened to be standing nearby, shattering his career as an amateur short-order cook and mine as a deli-foods admirer. As far as I knew, he never touched another hot sandwich again, but the toaster oven remained on the counter, the inoperable centerpiece of his failure.)
I didn’t like surprises because they were specifically designed to throw one off balance, to compromise one’s ability to react in the most advantageous way. I’d made a career—a life!—of maintaining the advantage. Of course I remained measured in even the most unexpected gales, but it was work! Surprises drew me away from my confrontations, my schemes, my seductions. I resented them.
“So, Mrs. Stefano, you haven’t ever wondered what it would feel like to, I don’t know, wear a band of leather around your neck?”
“Oh, I suppose like a collar of some sort.”
“What, like a dog?”
“Isn’t it interesting that you brought up dogs.”
“Well, I’ve never wanted to be a dog.” This was said slyly, with layers of moist meaning. Perhaps I’d miscalculated, and her father had preferred the company of the family’s gerbils to that of his daughter? Or maybe he’d ignored her in preference to a pet otter!
But I didn’t want to rush our work untangling Mrs. Stefano’s harrowing past and so approached at another, more oblique angle.
“But there must have been some happy, healthy activities from your childhood.”
I continued, as if neither one of us had noticed my flinch. “Polka? Your father made you dance?”
“Well, the whole family. But it’s kind of died out now.”
Undoubtedly by euthanasia, I thought to myself, but I had to soldier on, just as Mrs. Stefano had been soldiering on for me over the past few weeks. I owed her that much.
“Well, then, we’re going to polka. I’ll find out where it’s occurring in the area—”
“Occurring! You always talk so funny. ‘Occurring polka.’” Her dimples deepened, her titter rang through the restaurant. For a moment, her head was turned in just such a way that there was a marked resemblance to one of the otters on her shirt, playfully cracking an oyster open. My heart felt just like that oyster.
“Mrs. Stefano, we are going to polka. You’ve been on this earth far too long to let your debilitating childhood rob you of any happiness you can gather. I simply won’t allow that to happen. We are going to polka: you and I and your wardrobe menagerie!”
“I didn’t have a debilitating childhood—”
“Call it what you will. Now, that subject is closed for the day. I’d like to discuss next week.”
Shrugging, Mrs. Stefano started in on the “egg rolls.” They didn’t smell like egg rolls, and I wished, yet once again, that America would respect traditional cuisines, rather than mixing and matching them as if they were tattoos running up its arm: a pair of dice, the Japanese symbol for strength, Satan holding a stick of dynamite in one hand and a boomerang in the other. (Claude had once drugged me and attempted to tattoo a chupacabra on my thigh. But I’d drugged him, too.)
“There is a family that moved to Two Rivers three months ago, and their youngest son is starting first grade at Darby Hills. Danny Kravitz. I’ve gathered a great deal of information on them—and on him—already, but I need more.”
“Is this part of the plan?”
“This is part of the plan. You are part of the plan. Do you have access to—”
She dropped her voice and looked around the restaurant. “No, no, no. They don’t let me near the files or anything like that. I’d totally get in trouble if I tried. I’ll only know more about the student if he comes to Mr. Krimm’s office, and I can talk to him and whatnot.”
“But I know everybody at Darby Hills. Maybe I can do some checking around that way.”
“Excellent.” I “slid” my food away from me, having barely moved it around in its container.
“So the plan has something to do with this little kid, Yolanda?”
“It has everything to do with ‘this little kid.’”
“And you promise that you’re not, you know, trying to kidnap him or something. It’s really not bad or anything, right?”
I tore my eyes from the egg roll that disappeared into her mouth. No matter what part of the globe from which they originated and what exotic ingredients they contained, the world’s cuisines were simply carbon-based matter, were they not? To be immediately broken down by stomach acids into chains of carbohydrates for the purpose of life.
I had to live. Picking up my “Ultimate BLT,” I leveled Mrs. Stefano with my most piercing stare.
“Mrs. Stefano, once I can extract the final piece of the puzzle from this young man, our team will be responsible for the best thing that’s happened to Two Rivers. Ever.”
She nodded sagaciously, the flakes of eggroll skin that covered her chest bound to be consumed by other forms of life down the food chain. It would be the best thing that would ever happen to a certain lucky paramecium, and I silently thanked her for her good deed.
Briefly entertaining the thought of Mrs. Stefano constructing me a kaftan with paramecia all across it, I then simply took a bite of my Arby’s carbon matter. Microscopic life clearly wasn’t my wardrobe theme.
Suddenly she screeched, and I was worried for a moment that a bun wad had lodged in her throat.
My concern was unnecessary: “Polka I hardly know her!”