The Strumpet's Sister, Chapter Two
This is a continuation of a story I began publishing in January. If you'd like to read the first part first, here you go. And now…
In the autumn of 1976, in the small hospital of a small Portlandian suburb, Arthur Worthing’s wife was safely delivered of two babies for the price of one. This was one infant more than the young man had bargained for, and indeed one more daughter than he and his new bride were prepared to name. Had the second child been a boy, he would have been Jade. But Arthur's wife, her head swimming in the green haze swept in by the drugs they'd forced upon her, she swore that was not a girl's name. Or not her girl's name — Arthur couldn't be sure, so slurred were the words of this young woman he barely knew, that he'd knocked up on a night where he'd been slurring just as hard as she was now. And so, behind the glass of the nursery window, in neighboring glass bassinets, there slept Melancholy Worthing and her unnamed twin. Around the corner, in the dive bar just opened in the basement of his family's furniture store, sat their father — their father, he thought to himself — huddled into a booth with a textbook on abnormal psychology and tall glass of whatever Cumberland County concoction they had on tap.
“Whatcha reading?” asked a passerby, once Arthur had drained his glass.
Thinking it might be the waiter, and not yet paying heed to the words coming his way, Arthur held up the empty vessel and nodded that yes, he’d like another.
The passerby gave a brief chuckle, and it was only then that Arthur looked up into the older man’s face. It was only then that he examined the tweed jacket and the sensible spectacles and the neatly trimmed beard.
“I’m sorry, sir,” said Arthur. “I thought you were — ”
The passerby laughed again, with more bluster this time. “Sir,” he said, shaking his head. “I guess I do look old enough to be a sir, don’t I?”
“I meant no offense,” said Arthur, closing his book, offering up his full attention as a kind of apology. “It’s been a long day.”
The passerby looked down at the book to gain the answer he’d sought for at the beginning. “A long day that ends with abnormal psych must be a long day indeed,” he said. “You studying, or is that a sleep aide of some sort.”
Now Arthur laughed, for the first time since they’d put the second baby in his arms and he’d run the numbers in his head about how two college juniors were going to afford two newborn babies.
The passerby slid into the other side of the booth, looked over toward the bar, and, once he’d grabbed the attention of someone over that way, held up two fingers.
“Thanks,” said Arthur. “But I only had enough for — ”
“I’m buying,” said the passerby.
“Thank you,” said Arthur. “I could use another.”
They talked for a moment about where Arthur was in his studies, about what the stranger did for a living, which was teaching art history at a college in Hawaii, and wasn’t that a coincidence, as Arthur had been born out there during the years his father had been stationed in the Pacific. Then the beers arrived and the stranger asked, “So, what made the day so long?”
Arthur felt himself flush as he sipped at the bitter, skunky brew, as if searching for courage in the foam of its head.
“I don’t mean to pry,” said the stranger.
“I became a father today,” Arthur finally mumbled. “I’m a father now,” he said more clearly.
“Congratulations,” said the stranger.
“Twins,” said Arthur.
“Double the fun,” said the stranger, a wide grin playing across his face. “But I’m guessing, by the look on your face, that you weren’t expecting — ”
“No,” said Arthur. “My wife, she suspected something was odd, kept asking me to lay my hands upon her belly and see if I felt two heads, but I never did, so I never gave it much thought.”
“Two boys?” said the stranger. “One of each?”
“Two girls,” said Arthur. “Only we have just the one name picked out.”
“I see,” said the stranger, nodding in between sips of his own beer.
“Or,” said Arthur, “well, Jane has this other name in mind now, but I just can’t stomach it.”
“Really?” said the stranger. “Want to run it past me?”
“Guinevere,” said Arthur. “She said we should name the second one after me, but when I joked that Arthura was off the table, as was Arthurine, she didn’t laugh.”
The stranger didn’t laugh either, but he did offer a kind smile.
“Then she told me, ‘No, a name inspired by yours,’ and that’s — ”
“That’s where Guinevere came from,” said the stranger. “I get it.”
Arthur pinched at the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger and shook his head. He was struck, suddenly, by a vision of his Jane dancing across the lawn of the quad, grass between her toes. He saw her dancing by the cold stone bench where he was studying, saw again the mischief in her eyes as she sauntered by him, felt again the uncomplicated stirring in his loins and in his heart that she’d whipped into him with one simple pirouette, bare leg peeking out from beneath flowing skirt. How he longed for those simpler days just now.
“You’re not a fan of the ornate?” asked the stranger.
“She’s named the first one Melancholy,” said Arthur. “And, if there’d been a boy, he would have been Jade.”
“Jade?” said the stranger. “With a D?”
“And I understand,” said Arthur, “that Plain Jane is no fan of her plain name, that she wants a more unique life for her children, a special life, but does she understand what it means to saddle a person with a name like Melancholy? Like Guinevere?”
“She could be a Gwen,” said the stranger. “Her sister a…” He searched for a nickname. “A Mellie.”
“I was an Arthur,” said Arthur. “No matter how many times I tried Art or Artie, the kids wouldn’t have it. They saw what those two syllables did to me: the clenched jaw, the furrowed brow.”
And this was when the stranger said it, the one thing that made all the difference in the world. “Jennifer,” he said. “What about Jennifer?”
“Jennifer?” said Arthur, puzzled, though the music of the name felt pleasant as it moved across his tongue.
“My wife and I,” said the stranger, “when we were trying for a kid of our own, we had this book — a dictionary, really — of baby names. And I remember reading that Jennifer derived from Guinevere.”
“A compromise,” said Arthur, smiling.
Across the table, the stranger finished his beer. And then he added, a ribbon and bow on the gift he’d just given: “And if your wife thinks that’s too plain, that there are just too many Jennifers in the world today, you might call her Jenna for short.”
“Jenna,” said Arthur, still smiling. “I love the sound of that. Thank you,” said Arthur. “Thanks…” he said, searching his brain for the stranger’s name, which he was sure he must’ve been given by now.
“Michael,” said the stranger. “My name’s Michael.”
Michael stops here to finally take a bite of his breakfast, inhaling an enormous mouthful of now-cold muffin, then throwing back a full swallow of his orange juice. I turn to Taylor to see if she is staring too, to see if her jaw has hit the floor as hard as mine has, but she’s simply beaming at him. She reaches across the table and takes hold of one of his hands in both of her own, then begins to stroke his knuckles with her thumbs.
“Maybe telling him your name was a bit much,” she says, “but — ”
“But that’s what I did,” he says. “That’s what I always did.” And then, after another bite, and through a mouthful of muffin, he adds, “It’s like Harry Potter, the third one.”
She shrugs, says, “I’ve never read them.”
I turn to her and raise an eyebrow. “A kid of your vintage, and you haven’t read Potter? Are you from another planet?”
She raises an eyebrow as she tilts her head to one side. Then she raises her right hand and shapes her fingers into the V of Leonard Nimoy’s Vulcan greeting.
Michael goes on to explain that he knew what to say and what to do because he’d already said it, because he’d already done it. It was just like the third Potter, he tells us — “You haven’t even watched the movies?” I interject and ask Taylor — because in that one, Harry, after traveling back through time via a magical necklace belonging to his best friend, conjures a spell that’s supposed to be too complicated for a boy his age, “but he has no trouble with it, because he’s already seen himself do it.”
Incredulous, I remind him that he wasn’t born until a year later, that there’s no way he could have seen himself help his future father-in-law name his future wife. I feel my heart race ever faster with each absurd word I utter aloud.
He shakes his head, a smirk on his face, mocking me for missing the obvious. “Arthur told me the story before he died,” he says. “I knew my lines. I played my part.”
As he finishes his breakfast, Taylor grills him for details. And he seems happy to oblige. He’d been wallowing in a little hair of the dog when he spotted her in a booth across the way, his Jenna. She was younger than she’d ever been when he’d known her, maybe fourteen or fifteen, and she was doing homework, her head ducked over the books and papers strewn across the tabletop in front of her, but Michael could spot anywhere that mass of Titian curls she’d piled atop her head. She’d been straightening it for so many years by the time she died that no one else might have, but he was the one who woke beside her, the one who bumped into her in the bathroom between shower and flat iron, the one whose fingers tangoing through her tangles could almost convince her to let loose the kid who didn’t give a shit, to walk out their door like the little orphan she’d once played on stage and to hum “It’s a Hard Knock Life” all the way to her studio.
When she collected her things and started for the door a few minutes later, he followed at a distance, doing his best not to scare her. But as she stepped into the darkened alley out back, he worried over her and was overtaken by the chivalrous desire to offer her his arm.
“But,” I protest, “you had to know nothing was going to happen to her, not yet.”
Taylor glares at me. “There are worse things than death,” she says. “Especially lurking in back alleys, especially for the pretty and the innocent.”
Michael says nothing, letting Taylor’s objection stand in for his, and then he continues. “I resisted the urge,” he says. “I held back. But a moment later, I wished I hadn’t. As I held back beneath the awning, she crossed the narrow expanse of the alley and disappeared into the shadows on the other side.”
He rushed to reach her, he tells us, to rescue her from whatever foul force had taken her from him, but that’s when the truly miraculous thing happened. As he stepped into the shadows himself, it was like the heavy curtains of a proscenium stage parted before him; he was swallowed up then by a whirl of lights strobing from both above and below.
It was like being inside a kaleidoscope, he tells us, only the abstract shapes soon resolved into cubist tableaus, which then quickly sharpened into surrealist nonsense — Michael’s words, not mine — before settling into a series of pop art posters representing critical periods from the whole of Jenna’s life. As he reached his fingers towards one, the kaleidoscope would slow and the one poster would spread out into a half-dozen smaller ones, each representing an even more specific moment. And as he drew his face close to each one of those, it was as if the moment were a filmstrip in a projector that was just sputtering to life. When he drew back, trying to take more of this strange sight in, the memories went still once more.
He waded there, in the vast ocean of her too-short life, for a good, long while — or what felt like a good, long while, at least — before the vision of Arthur leaving the hospital caught his eye. And it was into that current that he swam, it was on that wave of emotion and memory that he was finally, ceaselessly, borne into the past. For he wanted to see it all, and so see it all he did.
“In the moments where I had already made my mark,” he tells us, “I simply inhabited my younger self. In the other moments, the moments before me — before she met me, that is — I lingered on the periphery. I never really got involved again, after that moment with Arthur.”
“And did you learn anything?” I ask, searching for the point we are meant to land on, hopeful that we can take our leave of this place once we’ve arrived there. “Did you realize there was nothing you could have done?”
He smiles at me and takes hold of my hands now instead of Taylor’s. “I did everything I could do,” he says. “Everything I was supposed to.”
On our way back to the car, as we step from the darkness of the Sister and into the mid-morning light, we pass by one of the balding old townies who sat in front of us the night before. He is leaned against the wall by the door, a far slighter figure than the one I’m used to in that spot, and he is flicking the lid of a Zippo open and shut. It’s monogrammed, the old lighter, and I can’t tell if it’s a generic grim reaper or Charon himself, so I ask Michael.
“Well, actually,” says Michael, but I stop listening after the adverb. I can’t hear anyone say those two words unironically anymore, not after a semester of hearing Taylor and her friends use them as the foundation for their impressions of the single straight boy who, amongst the previous semester’s class of women and gay men and non-binary folk, could not stop himself from preaching the gospel of neglected nuance and unsung subtlety.
“Spare change?” asks the townie, and much to my surprise, Taylor stops and begins to fish through her wallet.
She asks, “Whatchu need it for, Bobby?”
Bobby jerks a thumb at the door from whence we’ve come. “Breakfast,” he says. But I notice he doesn’t look her in the eye as he says it.
“Tell you what,” she says, producing a ten, “you give me that lighter, and I’ll give you this Hamilton.”
“I need it,” he says, flicking the lighter closed and holding it to his chest.
She smirks at him. “There’s no smoking in there, Bobby. If you’re going in for breakfast, what do you need a lighter for?”
His eyes dart now from Taylor to Michael, from Michael to me. Then he says, “Will you give it back?”
“Sure,” she says, wiggling the ten. “Next time I see you.”
They make the exchange and he starts for the door, then stops just short of it. “What if I need a smoke before then?”
“Bum one off Peter,” she says, pocketing the Zippo and waving goodbye.
“What was that about?” Michael asks, gullible.
“Nothing,” she says, shrugging. “He needs to eat. I’m just making sure he does.”
When we reach the house, the kid in the cowboy boots is sitting on the front stoop. As he pats me on the shoulder, grinning like the Cheshire fucking Cat, Michael tells me that the boots look more maroon than red. But I tell him that’s a trick of the light, just a side effect of the jersey the kid’s wearing, which is maroon, and which is emblazoned with a number that I know the kid has chosen on purpose.
And then, as Taylor parks her car, something else catches Michael’s eye, and suddenly he’s slapping my shoulder instead of patting it. He points at the book the kid is reading and asks if that’s what he thinks it is. I roll my eyes, sigh, and tell him, “Yep.”
“I haven’t seen a copy of that in the wild in ten years,” he says to the kid as we get out. “Where’d you get it?”
“Amazon,” says the kid, handing the book and a Sharpie to Michael. “Will you sign it?” he asks. “Both of you?”
“Sure,” says Michael. “Who am I making this out to?”
“Austin,” I say, and the kid lights up at the sound of his name rolling across my lips.
“What was your favorite part?” asks Michael.
“Well,” says Austin, “I love the bit where Marcus falls for John at Scout Camp. The writer and the football player,” he says, winking at me. “Yum.”
Taylor sees this and ducks her head, rubbing at the back of her neck. She says to him, “You know it’s fiction, right?”
“Ha,” says Austin, as Michael hands me the book and the Sharpie. “This is roman à clef if ever there was one.”
“It’s a comic book,” I say, scribbling a rough approximation of my initials under the elaborate embellishment Michael has offered.
“Graphic novel,” says Austin.
“Well, actually,” says Michael, and he starts to make some point about how, because it’s a collection of issues we published individually, it’s really more of a trade paperback, but he isn’t halfway through the thought before Taylor takes his hand and starts dragging him up the stairs and into the house.
“How long’s that been going on?” Austin asks me, once we’re alone.
I sigh and say, “His whole goddamned life.” Then I hand the book back to Austin.
He takes it and slips into his knapsack. I stare into the maw of the ratty green thing for a second — it was his great-grandfather’s, I remember, a souvenir from the war — and I think again of the damned movie my life seems to be plagiarizing this weekend. I am soothed to discover there’s no purloined jacket inside of the bag, no biography of Errol Flynn. And if there’s a manuscript in there, he’s tucked it into some dark corner of his laptop’s hard drive, where I don’t have to look at it. At least not yet.
“Do you like the jersey?” he asks me.
“It’s the wrong number,” I tell him.
“Bullshit,” he says. “He wore this number from the day he started pop warner to the day he retired from the NFL. I’ve watched his ESPN special like six times now.”
I shake my head, then jab a finger toward his knapsack. “The John in that book is an amalgamation, Austin. Carl Jacobson was a kid who picked on Michael. I never even met him.”
“Oh,” says Austin, ducking his head and nodding.
“Basic math,” I say. “Jacobson was born in 77, same as Michael. I was born in 71. When I was seventeen, I was not fellating an eleven year old.”
“I get it,” says Austin, and though I hope this is when he’ll stand up and leave, especially since he’s started to shiver, he doesn’t move a muscle.
“I’ve tried to make it clear,” I tell him, turning my back to him. “I’m flattered, Austin, but I’m married, I haven’t been with another man in years, and you’re my student, for Christ’s sake.”
As I wait for his rebuttal — because, with Austin, there is always a rebuttal — I stare across Kingsbury at the iron fence surrounding campus. Just beyond it, on the footbridge over Tupelo Pond, a pair of students are having an argument. The boy is gesticulating wildly, his arms flailing as he tries to make his point. And the girl, she is standing there with her hands on her hips, waiting for him to finish. I laugh as I feel, quite suddenly, the pressure of my hands on my hips, as I realize which role I’ve taken on here.
“I was just with your wife,” is what Austin says to break the silence, gravel crunching beneath his feet as he stands. “In therapy, I mean.”
“And?” I say, watching the fight wind down across the street, watching as the girl shrugs and allows herself to be gathered up into the boy’s now-limp arms. I wait, wait for Austin to plead his case, wait to see if the girl will reciprocate with even the smallest gesture or if her arms will hang loose at her sides for the duration of the hug.
“I told her all about how I was feeling,” says Austin. “About what I thought you were feeling after all these years of keeping it inside.”
“Mmm-hmm,” I say, still waiting.
“And she handed me this note,” he says, drawing up beside me. “For you,” he says, holding it out for me to take.
My focus still across the street, I take the note from him, fumbling the exchange so that I have to crouch to catch it. Standing up again, I flip open the folded sheet of paper without looking at it, then quickly glance down at the three words my wife has scrawled across it.
If you must is what it says.
I turn my attention back to the bridge. At the last second, just as the boy begins to pull away from her, the girl rests her hands upon the small of his back. She rests her head upon his shoulder.
“So,” says Austin. “Must you?”
When Angelica comes home that night and finds me in bed with a computer instead of a student, she doesn’t seem all that surprised. She pauses a moment in the doorway to observe me, nods once to herself as she makes her diagnosis, then crosses to her dresser. She stops there just long enough to retrieve the set of mismatched pajamas she favors at the end of long days, then makes for the bathroom. By the time she turns back the covers to slip in beside me, I’ve finally found I’ve been looking for.
“City directories?” she asks, as she puts on her glasses and glances at my screen.
“Trying to prove something,” I say.
She grunts as she turns to her nightstand to flip on the light and collect the book that she’s not reading.
“What?” I say.
“Prove,” she says, “or disprove?”
I roll my eyes. Then, before I can even say it out loud, she responds:
“I do know you so well. And don’t you forget it.”
I turn my attention back to the screen and stare with disbelief at what I’ve found. When I don’t say anything in response to her proclamation, Angelica returns her attention to my screen as well.
“That’s odd,” she says, reading the record I’ve turned up. “Isn’t that the name of the new place downtown?”
“Yep,” I say, closing the laptop and setting it aside.
“And where was that one?” she asks. “The one you just found.”
“Portland, Maine,” I say, pinching the bridge of my nose as I close my eyes. “Or, well, it was just over the line in Westbrook, one of the suburbs.”
“And you didn’t want it to be there?” asks Angelica.
“No,” I say. “No, I did not.”
In the dead of night, I am visited by a vision of the actor Michael Gambon dressed as a flamboyant pirate captain, his tricorn hat held over his chest as he bows his dreadlocked head to me. At first, I cannot trace the origins of all of the disparate elements my dreaming mind has brought to bear on me, but when he hoists his leg onto the bed — Angelica does not stir — when he shows me the stump where his foot should be, it is then that I put it together. When my great-grandfather was lost at sea, all that washed ashore was his severed foot, clad in a boot and a stocking stitched with his initials.
After staring at the book on my nightstand for a second and trying to find my words in the vision of the weeping angel that’s doubled over on the cover, after staring and thinking and staring some more, I offer up, in hope that it’s the right line to get us started, “Who are you?”
“My name is Prior Wal — ” he begins, but then he stops. He stops, turns his head to one side, and lifts a hand to scratch at his red bandanna.
“You want to make a joke,” I tell him. “But you’re confused. We don’t have the same name. Like they do in the play,” I say, pointing at the book.
“Prior to you by some seventeen others,” he says, putting his hat back on as he tries to finish the joke he never really started.
“That’s actually another Prior’s line,” I tell him. “The seventeenth, I think.”
“You’re counting the bastards!” he shouts, smiling, happy for the set-up I’ve given him.
I laugh. “You’re like a boggart,” I tell him. “And I’ve confunded you.”
“I am no braggart,” he says. “I will leave,” he says, making to stand despite his missing foot. “I will leave and this will be the day you will always remember as the day you almost caught — ”
But he doesn’t finish, because I am laughing so hard.
“Oh, I needed this,” I tell him. “I haven’t had a good laugh in — ”
“Why do you laugh at me, sir?” He thumps the footboard with his fist. “I bring bad tidings.”
“No,” I say. “You bring the movie I watched to put myself to sleep” — I gesture now to my laptop and the headphones dangling from it — “the play I’m teaching next semester, and,” I say, motioning toward his missing foot, “the thing I most fear.”
“You fear my missing limb?” he asks.
“That,” I say, “and my tendency to rip off the things that I love.”
“Rip off?” he says, holding a hand to his heart. “Are you the one what cleaved me in twain?”
“In twain?” I say, shaking my head. “That’s cribbed from somewhere too, isn’t it?”
He says nothing.
“And that’s all I’m going to get,” I say. “Right? Isn’t that your point, Professor Dumbledore?”
“Professor who?” he says, but I don’t explain. He’s a fucking hallucination, after all. If it were the real Sir Michael, come down with some affliction of the brain and unable to recall his own career, I might call up IMDB on my phone and jog his memory with a photo of him in a beard and a robe, a wand in his hand. But I haven’t got time for this. In the dream, I stand. And then, in the real world, I sit bolt upright.
I look at the clock. It is almost morning, so I rise and I dress. There is no time like the present, now that I know what I must do.
On the bed, Angelica stirs. “Where are you going?” she mumbles.
“The only way I’m ever going to know what he was really like, what any of it was really like,” I say, “is to see it for myself.”
It’s absurd that I believe any of it, I tell her, to assume that any shred of Michael’s story, upon careful examination, will be found authentic. But I know what I saw in that city directory. She saw what I saw. And so, I’d be a fool not to at least check. Right?
She is snoring by the time I’m done.
I stoop to kiss her goodbye, grab my Moleskine and a pen from the table, then make for the door.
As I close the door, I hear the low rumble of the living room TV drifting up from downstairs. Creeping down the stairs, trying to keep the creaking of the old wood to a minimum, I wonder if it’s Michael who’s up already or if Taylor has spent the night. As I draw nearer to the bottom, I note the orange light washing over the white walls of my foyer but I think nothing of it. Michael has as predilection for comic book movies and their innumerable explosions. I know him to watch bits of these flicks while he’s working out in the morning, while he runs in place or murders his abs with crunches. As I make to grab my keys from the bowl by the door, I remember that I have forgotten yet again to collect my car from the Sister’s parking lot, that we all rode back in Taylor’s yesterday. I sigh, and I turn to the living room to commiserate with Michael, to tell him that I’m going to walk anyway, despite the cold. That’s when I see it.
On TV, behind a banner bearing the bold proclamation of BREAKING NEWS, in the spot along the Merrimack River where the Strumpet’s Sister once stood, there is nothing more, nor less, than a burning husk being licked by the flames of hell itself.
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