I am aware that if you are a humanitarian and liberal thinker, you are crying over this week’s terrors, but if you’re a conservative and supporter of our current administration you may be feeling triumphant, but currently I am focusing on creativity and staying clear of politics, as hard as that is for me and yes, it is hard to ignore humans in cages. Instead, I am planning for my work with next year’s students while taking a week-long class with two terrific colleagues. During all this plotting I can’t help but remember my own artistry, which is, of course, writing. The place I go to whenever given a second, an empty space, where I fall so hard whenever I have the chance. So… tonight I thought, why not share bits of that imaginative place?
Interested in reading Chapter 1 of a yet to be published novel? I’d love to know if you are… indeed… interested… and what you think afterwards. Please let me know in the comments below, and I’ll add another chapter to the storyline next week if you’d like.
“You still here Mr. Ueland?” In small increments the janitor opened David’s office door until his head appeared. “Still at it Mr. Junior Partner,” standing within David’s office with a portable vacuum strapped on his back he continued, “Look at you, why you working through the night? Them big bosses all impressed already. Time you started working bankers’ hours I’m thinking.”
“Banker? Now that’s funny Fred, very funny, but you know we need to outsmart those bankers in this law office. Better not let Lieberwitz or Stein hear you talking like that.” David leaned back in his ergonomic chair, took off his glasses and allowed his eyes to adjust to the light now pouring in the open door. “Guess I lost track of time Fred. Is it that late already or are you early tonight?”
In the short years since David Ueland landed a promising position at the firm specializing on entertainment law, Fred had been a constant. Both were east coast transplants. Both got a chuckle over the Los Angeles natives complaining about poor weather. Fred started each encounter with some commentary about traffic. When David questioned him about why he stayed in LA, Fred would give one of his three answers: some health condition, some beauty queen, or trouble with the law. David imagined all to be possible, judging from the nagging cough, his stories of painted ladies, and the sleeve of scars and tattoos running up and down both forearms.
David shuffled papers and closed files, then stood to shut down his monitor and collect the coffee cup and energy bar wrappers strewn about his desk as Fred walked over to the large picture window that looked across the twinkling miles of lights moving away from Century City.
David rarely looked out his window. Ironic, he thought, how much an office with a window had meant to him while now he was too busy to notice it. When he was made Jr. Partner the senior partners arranged a ceremony to commemorate the move. Isabella came with a bottle of 12 years old scotch to celebrate, and three framed photos “to personalize the walls” as she put it. Two showcased youthful celebrations in Connecticut with his grandparents, and the other was of Isabella’s graduation when she and David stood smiling in front of her whole extended clan in front of Uncle Luigi’s New York City pizza parlor. David glanced behind his desk and saw the three-framed photos still lined up against the wall, now collecting dust. Isabella couldn’t comprehend how recalling anyone back home wasn’t his priority, wasn’t the reason he was building a future, but for David avoidance was paramount. Only his law degree from NYU and his board certificate hung on the taupe wall next to the shiny black filing cabinet.
“Just look at all those cars down there. Traffic even at this hour. But look west, toward the horizon, you can make out the ocean from here. Mr. Ueland, David, come here and have a look. Just beyond that stretch of lights, that’s Sunset Boulevard I’d guess.” Fred kept pointing out landmarks but David only saw a blurry blackness, his depth perception not a strength.
“You get to the ocean much? With that gal of yours, Miss Isabella?”
Isabella had learned Fred’s name when she helped David move into his first office cubical. It had been her suggestion that they ready him by going to the office supply store and pick up desk items. As the elevator door opened there was Fred, vacuum strapped on, doing the rug. He quickly turned off the machine and started apologizing about not realizing the office was in use, but Isabella placed on one hand on his arm and said how sorry she was for interfering with his schedule. David stood with the bags of stuff, watching, and knew with certainty that she needed a better man.
All packed up David put his glasses back on. On good days David was handsome by anyone’s standard. He didn’t have many good days though, always choosing work over exercise or leisure. His brown eyes sunken from hours of reading, and now screen time, were often glassy. Isabella saw to it that balanced meals awaited him, but David seldom got home before she had them wrapped up and tucked away in the refrigerator. Most nights he felt irritated by her domesticity. He couldn’t help feeling false around her honesty.
“No, we don’t get to the beach too much, although Isabella loves rollerblading along the boardwalk. I’m not crazy about that but she loves it.” David walked around the oversized black desk, now properly organized for tomorrow’s early meeting, “Another clear night in paradise, right Fred?”
“Oh, yes sir, yes sir, paradise. You be needing to get home before that big sun start coming up,” all said with his gaze toward the window. “This weekend get your girl to the beach. Fred’s number one golden rule: keep your lady smiling.”
“Is that right? I thought your golden rule was to keep an eye on the rearview mirror Fred?” Both men exchanged a smile. “I guess you’re right, but for now I’m focused on my career. Got any golden rules about work Fred?” Standing in front of the large window both men stared straight out into the city lights. David rarely stood shoulder to shoulder with anyone talking life and suddenly he remembered why. He felt a cagey closeness that made him sweat. His hand instinctively went to the three silver coins always in his right pant’s pocket.
He turned to leave when his desk phone rang.
“Looks like your girl done tracked you down. I’ll finish up here later, you take that call Mr. Ueland.” Without another word Fred walked out and closed the door behind him.
David looked at his clock. 2:40 am flashed. Life with Isabella had been promising their first year but since they moved from one coast to another, a constant strain pulled at their every interaction. He just couldn’t help being an asshole. Whenever there was a fork in the road, he chose the one she would hate more, as if he were driven to put her through a series of tests, although he only admitted this during rare moments when reflection and drunkenness overtook his self-centeredness.
Paralyzed by the ringing, sensing only trouble on the other end, he wondered why she would be calling at this hour, and not asleep, her law practice equally demanding, but then grabbed the receiver and responded with a gruff hello.
“David? David, is that you?” Instead of Isabella, David heard Beatrice’s voice and felt completely off guard by his sister’s call. How had she gotten his well-guarded work number? Of course, he realized, Isabella would have given it to Beatrice, especially if she could alleviate sorrow. Isabella always tried to mend his family.
“David, I need to talk to you. Pops is talking to her again, actually talking out loud to Momma.”
Immediately Beatrice’s tone of distress hit him. He had left Vermont close to a decade ago and had only short visits with his father and two siblings since, but standing in his office, typically a sanctuary from them, hearing his sister’s panic made him tense down to his toes.
“Beatrice, what’s going on?” David sat back down at his desk and switched on the light but didn’t soften his response. “What’s so wrong that you had to call me at work, and at this hour?”
Beatrice was a grown woman of 27, but in David’s mind, he still saw her camped out under that makeshift nest in the old barn with their younger sibling Peter, unable to face the void their mother’s sudden and unspeakable death caused. The image of those two, filthy and scared, living on cold cereal for two long days while waiting for their momma’s impossible return always shot into David’s guts when he heard Beatrice panic.
Her voice softened to a detached cold once she heard that same tone in his. “Do you want me to call back in the morning? Your morning I mean?” Years of being shut out by David had fractured any real kinship between them.
“No, I’m here. Let’s talk,” Straining to at least be civil, he added, “you don’t sound good. How’s Peter? Everything okay with him?” Covering all bases he added, “With Stephen?”
David knew his refusal to call Stephen a more familial Pops, or Peter the family moniker PK, or even call Marion mother irritated Beatrice, but emergency or not, he couldn’t let his guard down. He stood on this singular platform: their drama was their own doing. Hadn’t he warned them of the consequences if they stayed with their father?
“Everything is fine with PK, in fact, he’s pretty serious about a girl, Kate. She’s at the farmhouse all the time, helps with the gardening, the cooking, she’s great. But not Pops, he’s talking to Momma. Like he sees her. Nothing can shake him away from going out to look for her…”
As her voice trailed off David felt the pull into memory but with practiced control he resisted going there, “Exactly like he was after the accident. Nothing new.” David felt a shock right down his spine remembering that night when he was 12 years old. Now this memory only caused anger, but with one forced breath he regained composure, “Kind of surprising after all his years sober. Last time I came home Stephen was, well better.” He realized as soon as he said it, he realized that might have been a millennium ago. He hadn’t been home for years.
David opened and closed his desk drawers in small measured movements. The lawyer in him kicked in as he cross-examined, “What do you think prompted this recent change Beatrice?”
His sister mustered the same objectivity as David. “Not sure. I started wearing a few of Momma’s old clothes, like her floral apron and that one long skirt with the blue corn flowers, I found them in the back of her closet when I was looking for a quilt. But I don’t know if Pops noticed, you know how self-absorbed he was, is, back to writing poetry all night long, sleeping during the afternoon, like when Grandfather came and found us in the barn. I hadn’t remembered like this before, but yes, I guess like Pops after the accident.”
Hearing his sister say the word accident out loud caused David to grab his emergency cigarette pack from the bottom desk drawer. Those three coins could not calm his heart rate that was on an unstoppable trajectory. Fuck, he thought, minutes into a conversation and mention of Marion’s accident still caused his heart to pound. Even at the opposite end of the landmass the slightest reference forced him to that uncomfortable place. He opened the pack even though he had quit for sure this time. His neutrality vanished. He hoped Fred was on the other side of the office complex by now but he went to push the window open an inch just in case. He knew that Fred would be the last to report him, but he just didn’t want him back.
Beatrice was still talking, “Yesterday in the kitchen Pops says let’s go out to the garden and get Momma, so I say, Pops, Momma is gone, and he yells about me not loving her. I lost it.” David heard her wipe her nose. He inhaled and held the burning smoke. City lights crept along his office walls.
After a few more sniffles she continued, “Then like he didn’t hear me, he says he’s going to see if Momma wants lunch. I watched him from the kitchen window walk out beyond the hill, to where momma used to plant the pumpkins. We let that grass over a few years ago. So I followed him. It’s the third time in just a few days that he’s done this. I know you don’t want to talk about Pops, about what to do with him. It’s just that PK doesn’t see anything wrong. If there is a decision to make I need you.”
“Beatrice, call his doctor. What the hell do you expect from me living in Los Angeles?” David felt paralyzed. He knew for certain he didn’t want to return to that Vermont farmhouse ever again, let alone watch his father garner sympathy. “Beatrice. I can’t solve this, I’m sorry.”
David refused to care about Stephen and he resisted caring about his siblings. In fact he practiced whole days not thinking about them, until it became natural. When he and Isabella moved to Los Angeles he brought no photos of his siblings or parents, despite Isabella’s nagging. He never mentioned having a family with clients or friends or with late night conversations when Fred would get him talking, never mentioned them at all. He was done with all that he told himself, but now, looking out his glassed view of sprawling Los Angeles, a black and white picture populated with strangers moving below his 19th floor window, his grandfather’s dying directive to watch over his siblings nagged him. He waited for Beatrice to say, oh no of course not David, I only wanted to talk this out with you, I know you can’t come. Instead, a sniffling silence came from the receiver.
His grandfather’s loyalty to family swept over him. His failed striving to be that man, the one his grandparents had hoped he’d be, colored him with shame. He held the phone with a practiced resolve to resist caring but his desire for his brother and sister’s lives to move out from under their father surfaced with new strength. Wasn’t this the moment he had always hoped for? When he could once and for all get his siblings away from his father? Finally coax them out of Vermont and their family home?
He decided rashly, “I planned a trip to Los Vegas next week. Already had the vacation time approved by the firm, I could make it Vermont instead. In the morning I’ll call the travel agent and switch my itinerary.” The inhaled smoke burned down his throat and he held it until he felt dizzy.
Beatrice’s relief caused a sudden burst, “Oh, David really? You’ll come? Really? And Isabella too?”
David’s plan to break Isabella’s heart was already lurking in his. Perhaps his return home would dissuade him. Or commit him to it. “No, she’s busy. I planned a solo vacation. Don’t expect too much from me in regard to Stephen. I’ll come to get you and Peter out of that situation, away from Stephen. Peter needs to go to university and you too Beatrice. Let’s look over those grad programs in Boston seriously this time. I have money to help, plus what grandfather left you both in trust, you can start your lives.”
David’s consent to visit was all Beatrice heard. “Thank you David. I didn’t think you’d offer to come. I’m so grateful, really. I’ll get Pops to his doctor. Let’s look forward to this visit,” she sounded strong for a moment.
“Sure Beatrice. But make sure Peter is around. I’ll email you my itinerary.”
It was past 3:00 am by the time he hung up. The open pack of cigarettes on his desk reminded David of that safe place he clung to when everything spun out of control: smoke and work. Checking his office closet he saw the extra dress slacks and clean shirt he kept there were laundry fresh. Switching the monitor back on, he went into the office kitchen to put on the coffee and as night turn to day David went back to working on the Houston case.