Christian Gimel was killed by a falling stand-up piano on the day The Dyke was painting the staircase in her apartment building. A chic couple was moving out of their apartment on Sheridan near the university for something closer to the city. As far as The Dyke knew, neither of them played. Christian Gimel, however, had been a virtuoso.
The Dyke was painting the Vertigo descent of the third-floor stairs. This took little skill, because all she had to do was paint a series of concentric boxes. She often struggled with lop-eyed faces and split lips and people who, when painted standing or sitting, appeared to be levitating. When painting geometrically, anything immediately looked good. She had decided to include Christian Gimel in her painting. Although all that was discernable of him was a circular fleck of corn-golden hair, she thought the picture would look sterile without him. He was playing with a toy train set that snaked from the open mouth of his door into the hallway. He had just recently returned from the Glen Gould Young Artist’s Competition in Georgia where he won a 1, 000 dollar prize for what a Louisiana critic called his “autistic” rendition of “Lullaby of Birdland.” The Dyke had seen Christian Gimel play. She, like so many childless tenants of the building, had looked upon Christian Gimel as her own prodigal son. What a wonderful surprise to see small, affable Christian Gimel on the delivery table smiling back at you, not yet circumcised but already neat and free of jaundice. Like so many things in his life, the child’s birth seemed an undertaking to please everyone around him with minimal consideration for himself.
This is why The Dyke punched herself hard on the knee when the Weber piano fell from the flight of stairs above her and, after a strange interplay with the adjacent banister, splintered into three pieces, the biggest falling on Christian Gimel. She was the first one down the stairs and the first one to see the boy’s arm, still growing into a weighty Rolex, severed palm upward in an act of desperate escape or plea. He had been meticulously constructing a Christmas village with his trains. A barrage of carolers looked upon the destroyed boy, all of them plaster and untouched by the accident. The Dyke did not cry or scream. She waited for three movers to join her at the bottom of the stairs and one to begin vomiting into the helmet he had been wearing. It was just like the female half of the chic couple to emerge from the bedroom after hearing the crash and look over the balcony, a hand in the hollowed cup of her collarbone. She wore a tubular dress that had been hastily rezipped. Her face was strangely bright with the irony of the boy’s death. It occurred to The Dyke that such people can comprehend little else than what is shared to whit at a party or while bonily entangled in a set of sheets. Christian Gimel’s blood began to leak from under the piano as though the instrument’s oil was being changed. Someone- a young, purblind man from the fourth floor- finally screamed.
Christian Gimel’s mother was a frequent attendee of Hogeye Arts music performances. The death of her son had left Mrs. Gimel’s body in a state of shock that was reflected, unbeknownst to her, with the Grecian simplicity of bas relief. She had become beautiful in the way that one becomes beautiful after an accident: her cheeks and chin got fuller and her hips widened. Her hair – an achievement by all regards, sometimes the cleanest thing in an entire room — could hang in any shape she desired. Mrs. Gimel usually wanted her hair low and curling, a sort of second jaw. The Dyke did not expect to see her when The Thumpers opened for Professor Tweed at the Lake Street Church in Evanston, but she was there. It had been two weeks since the accident. The Dyke wondered how Mrs. Gimel was alive. She wondered, as she alternately strummed a washboard and blew a kazoo, if Mrs. Gimel was even human.
She took a seat in the back row, making it easier for The Dyke to watch her. The Dyke imagined that there was a circle around Mrs. Gimel’s head and that it was glowing. This was not a circle of divinity, though. Mrs. Gimel was on fire. She was clearly on fire. A stout man sitting two seats down from her could have doused her out. He did nothing. Stupidly, he watched The Thumpers in anticipation of Professor Tweed. Two college girls (they looked to be Kellogg business students bleached with Clearasil), were giggling right behind her, spitting on their glasses and cleaning them and making loud jokes about Terry Gross. It seemed only natural to them that the woman was burning. The Dyke felt like hitting someone onstage. Almost simultaneously, she developed a sharp pain in her lower right quadrant. She reasoned that she was ovulating. She made meaningful eye contact with Abraham as he embarked on a steady, heel-tapping solo. He seemed to be shaking his head, but she couldn’t tell.
Abraham was a freshman at Northwestern and excellent in bed. He did not talk to The Dyke after the show but lay very still next to her while she buried her nose in a basket of pralines Professor Tweed had given him. She cried, mucoused the pralines into wet bits.
“We’re all these tree-hugging love thy neighbor bastards and when our fellow man burns, we do nothing about it?”
“No one was on fire,” Abraham said bluntly.
“The woman in the back row! Didn’t you see it? The flame started at her head!”
“It didn’t start at her head because she wasn’t on fire.”
The Dyke hit him as hard on the stomach as she could and sobbed.
“I’m making soup,” he said. He tried to stifle the cough from the punch.
She said nothing, let him go into the kitchen. She imagined Mrs. Gimel’s face melting. She imagined her sidelong, painted lips bubbling and finally exploding. She wondered how much pressure the human anatomy could withstand from fire or water. It had taken them the better part of a month to get the blood stains out of the first floor carpeting.
Abraham came back from the kitchen looking like a pageboy. He hadn’t even tried to make soup. His favorite subject to discuss was The Dyke’s ambiguous sexuality and her legal name. She always told him that she had no legal name and that she wasn’t sure what she was. This answer never pleased him. He was a soft, lethal Freudian for whom the pervasive phallus was a backroom joke. He referred to her situation as a “lark.” He looked now like he wanted to talk about her. He was prepared to offer reconciliation for something that hadn’t really happened. Worse even: he was prepared to offer her the chance to reconcile to him. She threw the basket of pralines at him.
“Do you want to sleep at my place?”
She shook her head.
“Do you want me to do something different?”
She smiled into the sheets and said nothing. He must have been wondering furiously at what she was thinking.
He got back on his side of the bed with the added weight of a pair of snakeskin boots. He picked up the guitar and began to play the opening chords to a spiritual she recognized as “Before I’d Be a Slave Oh Freedom!” He played more, even while she resisted singing. He began to talk about Morrie.
“We should fire him from keyboard, shouldn’t we?”
“The correct term is ‘saw off,'” she said.
“Saw him off.”
“Saw him off from keyboard,” she completed.
Abraham offered quietly to bring her to orgasm.
“Do you like Morrie?”
“Why are you asking me if I like Morrie?”
“I’m not. Not directly. I wondered.”
Morrie was furiously large. He once claimed to have cultivated his weight as a form of insulation, so he would never have to have a “thin skin.” He was not circularly obese but upright, his body taking the form of a bowling pin. His keyboarding skills were second only to Christian Gimel’s.
He had originally named the band The Naperville Thumpers, “Naperville” disappearing by the suggestion of The Dyke. It had been Morrie who, after driving home from Penn State, hid himself in his basement and called The Dyke to propose the idea of a band. She was at a bar when he called. Stunned to hear his voice, she drove half an hour to Naperville and was pleased to be chastised by him for smoking in his basement. She loved to hear him say she looked awful (she had an angular, half-purple haircut and wore all leather), and she loved to repay the compliment by rubbing the meat of his arm in between her palms, a gesture almost phallic in its origin.
The tubby child-man was suddenly glowing, full of ideas. He would make t-shirts and they’d get PR people and there’d be someone to sell the t-shirts and there would be CDs. He had recently learned how to burn them on his old computer back at Penn. The Dyke remembered Morrie dancing with her around the basement where they had spent summer of their senior year hemorrhaging from the nose after huffing nutmeg, giddy with self-discovery. He thought he was so original. She went upstairs and went to the bathroom, urinating violently. She flushed and waited ten minutes before coming down. Morrie seemed unfazed when she reentered. In fact, he was happier to see her than he had been before.
“What instrument can I play?” she asked loudly.
He blinked with both eyes. “Simple ones. It’s going to be bluegrass-y. Cowbells, washboards, hymns and negro spirituals.”
“Who’s going to buy into this?”
“Whoever wants to.”
The statement was executed with the efficacy and suaveness of a pickup line. She felt a piece of bait caught in the corner of her mouth.
“Everyone’s doing this, forming bands.”
Morrie swiveled around to fully view The Dyke. He gave her a long, up-and-down evaluation that made her squirm. Then he turned back around as if to dismiss her.
The guitarist Morrie found within forty-eight hours of his week home. Abraham was fourteen when he joined The Naperville Thumpers, the other two members of which were well above twenty. He was hemophiliac from East Naperville who frequented the city by cab. He was an expert guitar player when the playing involved steady blocks of ascending or descending chords. From the age of twelve he had dismissed classical guitar and finger picking as “petty” and “childish.” His older sister was a heroin addict and the most sought-after girl at Naperville High. She was pale-skinned while he was azure-skinned. He wondered if sometimes she shot up instead of snorting just to spite him. She developed the pitted scalp and raging acne of a junky and once tried to kill Abraham with a wooden spoon she imagined was a shiv. Her forearms scabbing (scabbing), she was admitted to a rehab facility in Elgin while Abraham entered freshman year without even having touched pot. Fresh from a recent transfusion, he was playing “Man of Constant Sorrow” in front of a coffee place when Morrie saw him. He offered a cut of the band’s salary in exchange for Abraham’s genius. He shifted his girth as if equipped with a visual demonstration of what a colossal world he intended to navigate. The boy was skeletal and pockmarked, maybe a former addict. Morrie took him to the local ER to get a drug test. There was nothing in him except for others’ blood.
“You’re rare,” Morrie told him in the car. “You’re from the worst part of the suburb. There’s so much dope in some kids you can barely see their eyes from behind the stuff.”
“I don’t know anyone who’s a junky.”
“Good. My god, that’s impressive. Hard to grow up clean around here.”
Morrie took Abraham for a soda and by then it was legally time for Abraham to go home. But Morrie wouldn’t allow it. He got the boy’s home phone number and called at a pay phone, leaning majestically against the side of the wall. While Morrie spoke to his father, Abraham thought about running home. His thoughts quickly reverted to running away with Morrie, then finally running away from both his father and Morrie.
In the basement, Morrie introduced Abraham to a song he’d written called “The World’s Biggest Falling Christian.” Abraham thought it was an easy enough upwards progression of chords, but objected to having to play minors. They sounded “whiny and tired.” Listen to the lyrics, Morrie told him, then you won’t mind.
I’m an Alabama rat
Keep a three-iron in m’ top hat
I’ve got m’self locked up
But folks this ain’t the reason
I’m singin’ to y’all
It’s cause I’m the
World’s Biggest, Biggest Fallin’ Christian
(That’s right, he’s the..)
World’s Biggest, Biggest, Fallin’ Christian
I’ve worked the railway joint
Held ‘ole Rockefeller at gunpoint
But I can’t find a place to settle do-hoown
I’m the self-respectin’ kind
Who just can’t make up his mind
Hell, I’m the
World’s Biggest, Biggest Fallin’ Christian
(That’s right, he’s the…)
World’s Biggest, Biggest Fallin’ Christian/em>
Tied myself to the yeller cross
And boy was it a loss
When I saw m’self up in flames for liein’!
Now folks, I ain’t no martyr
But I’d sure as hell barter
My sorry state for something
After dinner, Abraham began to worry that his fingers (the most calloused part of his body) would begin to bleed and said that he needed to go home. Morrie guessed that Abraham didn’t like home and kept the boy in the basement out of noblesse oblige. He told Abraham about his friend, The Dyke, who had dropped out of college and waitressed on and off. He showed Abraham Deep Throat as long as he promised not to tell anyone. Gasping over six different shots of anal penetration, Abraham looked adorable. He looked like something to be molded. Morrie suddenly regretted having to return to Penn after only a week home.
He did not return to Penn that week. He spent an evening he should have been traveling watching The Dyke at her job in a place called Hit Box, a club in Southport that was an epic journey from Naperville by train. The Dyke moved with the assurance of the recently pregnant. He asked her if she had a child. She didn’t answer him. She bent lower to retrieve straws from under the counter. As she bent, he noticed she was neither man nor woman. She was an It in a state of constant torpor. In spite of this, he had awakened to wet sheets after dreaming about her in high school. She finally granted him the dignity of a smile.
“I need to get more napkins.”
“Should I get them?”
“You wouldn’t know where they are,” she said. She moved as though these napkins were in an Eden, access to which only she possessed. Morrie held the door open as she came back out.
“Maybe I should watch from the kitchen?”
“Get something to eat.”
He did. The Dyke was patient as he decided what to order. He asked about the restaurant’s name. He played the role of the bearded, world-wear traveler. She brought him a large plate of fries and a seltzer. Abraham called wanting to meet The Dyke. When Morrie stood outside with The Dyke on her cigarette break, he allowed himself a brief inhalation of the contaminated air.
Christian Gimel’s funeral was held on a small plot of land the family had purchased on the lake. The boy’s tombstone was so close to the breaking tide as to touch it. The Dyke imagined a girl out for a swim in the summer, stubbing her toe on the grave of a child not much older than herself. Mrs. Gimel appeared at the funeral in a dress that was too short for mourning. Her husband, from whom she was newly divorced, wore a black turtleneck with an unbuttoned sports coat. Christian’s entire fourth grade class had assembled at the shoreline, some distance from the ceremony. Their teacher herded them with light taps on the back, the occasional “shush.” They all blinked hazily, hair moussed and suits pressed, little black crows in their grieving uniforms.
The priest who was to deliver Christian into the ground was very old. He was speaking quietly to Mr. Gimel. The Father was unsure about the sand, reasoning that within a few months, the coffin would be uncovered. Mr. Gimel said he and his ex-wife had planned for this. They were coming back every week to check on their son. The hole was very deep, besides, and lined with concrete. He loved the water, Mr. Gimel said. He tapped the wet sand with the tip of his foot to prove it was worth the inconvenience.
The Dyke brought Abraham to the funeral. He wore a modest black three-piece. He seemed to be the only one dressed appropriately. The casket was opened and the sweaty circle of fourth graders crowded to see their deceased classmate, Abraham perched like a rod among them. He left the coffin and nodded at The Dyke, who had begun to feel the windchill from the lake. She went up to examine the body. Christian Gimel was a ball of damp cotton and formaldehyde. He was not buried laying flat but instead strung by a series of slings into a grotesque upward-lunge. His left arm and right hand had survived the crash fairly intact; so had his nose and feet. She could only imagine the painful contortions of his ribcage, the metal and plastic that had worked cheerily, like cosmeticians, to make Christian Gimel semi-presentable for his funeral. She focused on his hands. He had beautiful hands. They both hung downward, one clawing above the other, in a perennial fortissimo.
Mrs. Gimel kissed her son on the forehead and proceeded with the Rite of Committal. She leaned on the Father, who grabbed her around the waist. Mr. Gimel stood next to them, his hands crossed behind his back. The chic couple was not in attendance.
The Dyke cried into Abraham’s lapel on the taxi ride into the Loop. He took her to lunch in the Walnut Room. She was blotchy-faced, he was paying. Constantly withdrawing his wallet. Like a penis, she imagined, and then derided herself for being so typical. She could at least imagine it was a sword. Abraham was careful not to make eye contact with her while she ate her salad. Like a belligerent child, he chose to eat nothing.
They had once spoken of having a child. Abraham had asked her about it when he was seventeen and living in Morrie’s basement, so consumed by all things Morrie that he had taken to shuffling around the house in big socks and humming “Ain’t Got Time to Die.” He asked The Dyke in her car on the way to a Walgreens. Sex was supposed to be the single greatest experience of one’s life, he reasoned, and he was missing out on it. He was losing. The Dyke told him that if they did it while he was still in school, she’d be accused of pedophilia. She left it at that, with Abraham beating a wooden-sounding bass on the window and eyeing her cigarette. When Abraham turned twenty, The Dyke was losing her ability to bear a child. She was barely fertile to begin with and was now aging prematurely. Both free, they were now bound mysteriously by the hollow cave of her blood-shorn uterus.
Abraham went grifting after the Walnut Room. He lied rather convincingly to The Dyke that it was for a sociology class, but she knew better. He stood on the street corner in sunglasses with a harmonica and sang “De Blind Man Stood on the Road an’ Cried.” He got seven dollars and two giggling high school seniors slipped their phone numbers in his coat pocket.
“Honestly. Anyone could feel that,” he said on the train ride to Evanston.
The Dyke took out the phone numbers. Phoebe and Branchie.
“One’s named Branchie,” she said.
Abraham laughed. When The Dyke didn’t, he hugged her around the shoulders. “It should be Brianna. I think she said Brianna but wrote something stupid.”
“Are you going to call them?”
“Of course not.”
He took the phone numbers, folded them and ate them. She watched him swallow and tried to remember the term for “paper eater.” It was pica- something.
“Cryin’ dat he might receib his sight/ Crying dat he might receib his sight/ Crying O, my Lord save- a me. “
The Dyke watched Fulton disappear, then Harlem, and tried to imagine what Abraham would look like burst into flames.
Morrie nursed The Naperville Thumpers for two years before Hogeye purchased them (for two hundred and seventy-five dollars), to be regular opening acts in Evanston. After the purchase, The Thumpers became the brainchild of Art Hogeye. As Morrie had suspected, Hogeye was a real man, as round as he was and perhaps even more influential. Within three months of knowing Morrie, he legally changed his name from Arthur to T-Bone Hogeye. He worked out of a small office building on Wacker that had to rent a recording studio several doors down for an hour at a time. Hogeye Arts was comprised of a group of Columbia College interns who had little to no interest in bluegrass, folk or negro spirituals but were surprised T-Bone was willing to pay them each sixty dollars a day. T-Bone strutted around his office in a gallon hat and a bolo tie, alternately whispering and ranting, imagining he was kicking up dust in an Alabaman way. When an intern brought out her iPod and began to sigh to Michael Bubl , T-Bone pretended nothing was happening. He kept a small washboard in his office on which he played increasingly violent versions of “Down by the River Side.” To uphold their end of the deal, the students made a halfhearted attempt at small-town recording studio. One boy, a Latin Studies major, stood outside the door with his legs crossed and arms folded, hectoring anyone who walked by with an instrument. Whenever Morrie walked in, he was greeted with a “Yahoo!” that lasted until T-Bone sashayed out from his curtained womb of an office, clapping his hands with an authority than denoted emperorship.
T-Bone supervised every practice the band had. At their next gig (the one The Dyke and Abraham had spent many sessions in bed discussing), they were opening for a cousin of Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. T-Bone had no guarantees as to her true lineage, but he had “a line.” When he had “a line,” everyone was supposed to take this as a form of ultimate reassurance. He wanted them to do something like “Folsom Prison Blues” or “Me and Bobby McGee.” Morrie objected on the grounds that neither of the songs featured God or whisky as remedies for the blues.
“The Dyke here, she can only play the bells and the washboard or the kazoo for songs like that.”
T-Bone knew this, but seemed more comfortable affecting an air of not knowing. “We don’t want honky-tonk at this thing, Morrie. We want something a little more real.”
One of the interns released a single, explosive laugh.
“They’re good songs. They’re not hard to play,” Abraham said.
Morrie had brought both his keyboard and flute to the practice session. He looked childish, clutching the flute in one hand and practicing a silent c-scale trill with the other. Abraham positioned his guitar in front of him like a boxy automatic and sang in a low voice:
When I was just a baby my mama told me, “Son,
Always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns.”
But I shoot a man in Reno, just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowin’, I hang my head and cry.
The Dyke played the few notes Abraham had taught her to play on the harmonica. Morrie watched them both and then T-Bone, who was sucking on one of his rings. Abraham became paroxysmal. He shook like a young, skinny Presley, never fully closing his mouth. The Dyke could see the whites of his eyes. She wanted badly to play bass to his Cash.
“Go!” T-Bone shouted. He prodded Morrie with the long stem of a clarinet reed. “Play the goddamn song!”
Morrie took up a classical accompaniment to Abraham’s guitar. He couldn’t hold Abraham down, though. He emerged with a solo that had the entire office clapping. Crawling, T-Bone plugged an amp into the base of Abraham’s acoustic and waited on the floor for the sound to register. When it did, The Dyke feared lightbulbs would break. Morrie stopped playing and picked dead skin from his palm.
“Fuck, this is amazing!” T-Bone screamed. “Folsom Prison!”
“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen!” Abraham said to the ceiling. “I’m glad you could all come out here tonight.”
He launched onto the fourth verse, which began “Well if they freed me from this prison.” The Dyke suddenly regretted having denied Abraham anything on that trip to Walgreens. She had begun to sweat.
Like Abraham had feared in Morrie’s basement as a teenager, his fingers began to bleed. No one noticed this until the front of his guitar had become slick with blood and a little dripped onto the floor. T-Bone yelled for him to stop and Abraham, seeing he was bleeding, reeled with both delight and panic. “This is big enough to die,” he said.
“Morrie!” T-Bone shouted. Morrie pounced on the phone, had Northwestern Memorial on the line. The Dyke tried to stop looking at Abraham. T-Bone, for once in his element, surrounded everywhere by some form of excitement, yelled to the boy outside to look for an ambulance. Abraham’s hand was a wad of t-shirts and cotton and still bleeding steadily when his ride arrived. He spent the night receiving a large transfusion. The skin of his finger was fused carefully together, the blood finally persuaded to clot. The Dyke and Morrie had to wait with T-Bone in the lobby while he explained that generations of young folkists would copy Abraham in an attempt to become “real cowboys.”
“Just load that boy up with gun powder and whisky and he can make any piece of shit gospel song into something that’ll sell,” T-Bone said.
“Everything he’s sung has already been sold,” The Dyke said.
Morrie busied himself with a gardening magazine. When T-Bone rubbed his head and congratulated him on the prodigy, Morrie nodded without looking up. He left promptly at midnight, claimed he was house-sitting. T-Bone drove back to Wacker shortly thereafter, leaving The Dyke to search the hospital for Abraham’s room.
She found him sleeping in a navel-bearing smock, an IV in one arm and a small red light glowing on the middle finger of his left hand. An upwards curve of saliva was unwiped on his cheek. His hair was spiked from exhaustion. She sat down next to his bed. She splayed her hand and pressed it like a starfish to his bare chest.
“Oh God,” he said when he woke up. “Oh my God.”
“Feel any better?”
He shook his head. “You’re beautiful.”
She unfastened her bra and lifted her shirt so he could suck on her nipple. When it became white-tipped and taut, she lowered her shirt and kissed him on the forehead.
The Dyke fell asleep around dawn. When she awakened, Abraham was still pale. She carefully nursed his erection in her mouth, pulling away before the morning nurse came to check on his vital signs. The Dyke apologized for having spent the night but was waved off. After Abraham’s face was cleaned, he was allowed to get up and walk. He walked the whole fourth floor and then rode in the elevator. By dinnertime, he changed back into his corduroys and drove The Dyke home, dropping himself off at his dorm. A slim, greasy-haired boy was waiting on the front steps. He was yelling Abraham’s name, his neck muscles tight like stanchions.
“Harold and I were supposed to jam tonight,” Abraham explained. “I don’t feel like it. I’ll drive up to see you tomorrow.”
The Dyke hugged him. His guitar was strapped across his back and looked like the Mars symbol as he approached the quad. She felt tired, as though she’d forget everything very soon.
There were six messages from Morrie on her answering machine when she got home. They sounded like wind when she tried to listen to them.
“I’m eating dinner,” he said when she called.
There was heavy breathing, then the sound of a can-opener.
“Abraham’s better today. Isn’t that great, what T-Bone said?”
“He was telling me after you left how we don’t have to be an opening act anymore. We could have a small performance.”
She listened for kitchen sounds. Formica and bright lights. Naperville sounds.
“I kind of like it when T-Bone’s excited. Something big’s going to happen.”
“T-Bone’s a fag,” Morrie said. “A real one. He told me once. He told me he had a boyfriend.”
The Dyke tried not to scream or lick the receiver.
“He walks like a fag and claps like one. He’s a fag.”
“Isn’t that great about having a performance?”
“A little one, but a performance.”
“You and I started the band.” His speech was clogged with food. “I called you and we started the band. You and I went to that hellhole together.”
“The fucking high school,” he whispered.
“Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. Tell Abraham I need to talk to him.”
The Dyke’s paintings no longer merited the comparisons her high school art teacher had once made to Toulouse Lautrec’s chloroformed Moulin Rouge and Versailles. He had often used to word “emerging” with regards to her talent, though now she could see he was just denying a lifelong incubation period. It was the morning after Abraham got out of the hospital that she brought Stairs down to Mrs. Gimel. The Dyke was invited in, but her lack of a name made Mrs. Gimel uneasy. She spent fifteen minutes making coffee the “old-fashioned way” in her alcove of a kitchen. When she came out, she studied the small spot of hair in The Dyke’s picture.
“That’s Christian, isn’t it?”
The Dyke nodded.
Mrs. Gimel brought her thumb and index finger together on her son’s head. “Just like that,” she said.
“It was right before the accident. I know it’s no good.”
“I’ve studied art. I was an Art History major at the University of Columbia in New York. You know the first thing I learned to paint?”
“David’s Sabine Women. The one with the mirror at the Louvre.”
The Dyke nodded again.
“I want it, though. How much are you asking?”
Mrs. Gimel laughed, breathing with the ebb and flow of a tide. Her eyes, deep-set, glinted.
“You want to give it to me?”
“Yes. I thought I should.”
“At least let me give you something.”
The Dyke shook her head.
Mrs. Gimel stood up and went to the mantelpiece. “Did you have children?”
“You know what’s convenient about losing one in a devastating way?”
The Dyke said nothing.
“It’s the perfect severance. You couldn’t help it, your child couldn’t help it. It’s neat and tidy. The grief comes in bursts.”
“Did the couple living upstairs do anything for you?”
“They reimbursed us with a hefty amount. They said they’d pay for everything- the funeral, the divorce, expenses in my home or David’s, vacations -as long as they didn’t have to attend anything. They didn’t want the moving men to go to court. They didn’t want to get more people involved than there had to be.”
It struck The Dyke as funny that Mrs. Gimel’s husband should have the same name as Jacques-Louis David.
“When we still lived in New York, Christian was playing the piano at age two, three. He mastered a sonata when he was four. It was obvious where he was going, and even though I should be excited that my child is gifted, I have a letdown. I think ‘Oh here we go,’ and then I berate myself for thinking it. But, here we go .here we’ve got to invest in a tutor and pull him out of school because he’s good in math and here now he’s winning competitions and he wants to be Sergei Rachmaninoff. And I’m beating myself up because I’m the only one who doesn’t feel gung-ho. Hell, I act gung-ho, but I don’t feel it. Do you know? David is happier in bed and sometimes he’d pull the clothes off me in the kitchen right after the bus comes to take Christian to his magnet program. And I’d tell him, ‘Not here’ but he didn’t care at all. Christian comes home glowing and we have Teach Mommy and Daddy nights where I have to break my back over algorithms my six- year-old son can solve easily.”
“I dropped out of college math,” The Dyke said. “It’s difficult.”
“It’s difficult for anyone, right?” Mrs. Gimel said, her eyes wide. “Nope. Not him. I wanted to move out here so it’d be less competitive, but it isn’t. He’s going to Roycemore and knocks off Chaucer in an afternoon. And then I start to feel like I can never compare. I reread The Canterbury Tales, but he didn’t even like it. I remember the discussion. He had his finger up his nose and he was eating grapes and he said the ‘themes were overworked.’ David’s giggling and writing back to his friends in Manhattan that his son’s been offered teaching positions at music conservatories. Roosevelt actually called a couple of times. I remember when it was that I knew I wasn’t his mother anymore. He had given a performance of Isle of the Dead at the Lyric and he was wearing a tuxedo with a cummerbund and everything. A whole orchestra backing him up, for god’s sake! And he leaned down into the pit while he had a standing ovation and a grown man, a flautist, stood up and closed his eyes and let Christian touch his forehead. It looked like something out of Beatitudes! And I think, oh my fucking god. I am not this boy’s mother. And since he was supposed to be my son, that makes me no one’s mother.” She smiled wildly at The Dyke. “You know I’ve always wanted to take up piano and I’ve always been afraid? I get private lessons now, from a lady who lives in the South Loop.”
The Dyke had once been told to pick a focal point when she found herself in an unseemly situation and stare at it until everything was over. She picked a small mole on Mrs. Gimel’s lower lip.
“You understand that the boy isn’t you, and he doesn’t define you, and the bond between parent and child can be severed as quickly as you can go through a divorce. You grasp yourself what the child is going to spend his whole adolescence trying to tell you: we are different people, you and I. We are even in competition.”
The Dyke left without finishing her coffee. The door to the Gimel apartment seemed to swell after being closed, a sort of monster-in-the-closet effect. She ran upstairs to her room and stripped and lay face down on her bed under the covers. She inhaled as deeply as she could and pushed her stomach into the mattress, trying to imagine what it would be like to carry a child. She pushed until her muscles hurt and then pushed harder. The only memory she had of her own mother was when they had taken a tandem nap on Thanksgiving afternoon. Mother had told Father that they would only be asleep for forty-five minutes. They both awakened at seven, when the outside was a bronzed dark and everyone had finished with dinner. “Did we sleep too long?” The Dyke asked. “Never too long,” was her mother’s response from the floor. She wanted to sleep for five or six hours without having to worry about doing anything.
Abraham knocked and she didn’t answer. She made him use his key. Although she could only see through the eggshell haze of the pillowcase, he seemed to be carrying a broken guitar.
“Morrie broke it,” he said. “He called me and said he needed to talk to me. I thought it was about cutting a record. You know Morrie. He’d have us play tintype or wax cylinders if he had his way.”
“And he goes, ‘Were you thinking of sawing me off?’ I thought he knew about us joking, so I said ‘Yeah.’ He tells me he can’t punch me like a man, so he’ll break the next best thing. Then my guitar’s in pieces.”
The Dyke smiled.
“It’s not funny,” Abraham said. “You and I are out of the band. Morrie’s just opening for the Elliot girl.”
“It’s by the Daly Center. I don’t know really where, though.”
He lay down next to her. The scar from the IV looked like a little silverfish in the pit of his elbow. She kissed it and he jumped, exhaled with pleasure. Somewhere on Lake Michigan, the tide was working steadily at Christian Gimel’s burial plot. Yes, The Dyke thought, he’ll make his way into the fingers of the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence Seaway, out into the Atlantic, continent to continent in his little coffin.