The last-ditch fix for Amelia’s financial woes was pitched at an impromptu intervention. Calendar shifts nothing short of Herculean were required for the twenty-minute talking-to, the gist of it being: Marry Peter Vandenberg and his mile-high mound of money. Here you were with your mile-high mound of debt; there he was scouting for a wife. Love, infatuation, tantric sex positions . . . all that stuff completely off the table when you’re trafficking in negative capital.
Amelia’s friends were tired of and even bored by her tragedy but certainly not without pity. “You’ll never get out of debt by blood, sweat, and tears,” declared Trevor. “Deus ex us is your only hope.” Liam the B-school adjunct clapped his hands: “Amelia has declared a campaign goal of marrying Peter Vandenberg. Failure is not an option.” His wife, Izzie, frowned while nodding. “Clear the slate, honey. See what happens.” It took Amy a moment to catch on to speed-therapy round-robin and make with the double-wink she used on fourth-graders. “Nothing lasts forever anymore.”
Amelia had thought her friends were going to make her a joint loan—better yet, a joint gift—that this was the reason they’d arranged to meet at Café de Paris, a seedy latte joint they all still loved on account of pre-millennial smoking history. Her blank expression could barely mask the disappointment.
They’d been friends since the Early Flemish obsessions of their Museum School days. Nothing about Peter Vandenberg was Early Flemish; he was merely Izzie’s cousin. Amelia had met him several times over the course of fifteen years. He was eccentric without being particularly interesting, quickly friendly without being particularly interesting, intentionally anti-intellectual without being particularly interesting. And on top of this he was a big fat man.
“Peter’s finally getting around to thinking about a wife,” said Izzie. “He says he’s looking for a cultured woman who can help him build a collection.”
Trevor elbowed Amelia. “Nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say no more, say no more.”
Her blank expression had now turned sullen.
“Oh, come on now,” Amy said harshly. “Don’t give us that look. You’d rather die than give up your art.”
This, Amelia felt, was the one true aspect of her existence. If she filed for bankruptcy she’d lose her art. The outcome would be likewise if she sold her art. Nullifying the latter prospect, however, was the fact that nothing she bought had appreciated. Most of the pieces had nominal value; a few were worthless.
“It’s my only earthly accomplishment,” she protested.
Liam frowned. “You did not buy art as an investment.”
“It has immense value to me,” she argued, voice quivering.
“There’s no longer any ‘to me’ in this,” said Izzie.
“Your cousin’s a military supplier.”
She waved away the objection. “He makes a little canvas thing.”
“It’s insulting even to joke about.”
“Look,” said Amy, “this is not Degrassi Junior High. You’re in big trouble.”
Trevor smiled. “If you lost your right arm, after a while you’d get used to not having it. Here, all you have to do is lose your right arm for a while. Its temporary absence will make its return all the more enjoyable.”
Amelia was too upset to recite her longstanding cri de coeur: I didn’t use the money for vacations or drugs or clothes or real estate. In this fugue of emotional peril, she could remember that Elysian year of writing checks to the artists themselves, right after the fall of the Wall, but this was before everything in the world began ending in XXXX. When she started putting paintings on credit cards she thought she would stop. When her debt had become officially insurmountable she kept on buying pictures. She hadn’t bought one in a year and a half, but that was only because she no longer had credit. To say that she had exercised discipline would be like calling a chainsaw killer reformed just because you took away his chainsaw.
“It’s a bad stunt to pull on your cousin,” she said.
Izzie laughed. “Peter’s such a miserable child. He’ll never get hurt.”
With that blunt indictment, the Early Flemish intervention group got hold of its sympathy. Remember how their longtime friend had grown up poor, from a large drinking family that, when pressured by weakness within, crumbled like shale—a family that lost farms and candy stores and husbands in snowstorms? And here was refugee Amelia with no legacy let alone checks in birthday card envelopes—didn’t even have a fucking cell phone in 2004, beat back a drinking problem, lived in that ridiculous warehouse, was the only one of them who entered art school because of talent.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Amy began, grabbing for her arm, “you do have beautiful pictures. We love you for that.”
Liam lowered his face to catch Amelia’s downcast gaze: “You’re the Empress Autonomy, Amelia.”
Trevor nodded. “You’re The Selective Eye.”
“Look at us,” said his wife. “We get in debt with two-grand espresso machines and shoes you can’t wear outside a taxi.”
“And million-dollar love nests,” Amy added bitterly.
“Even if we had real money,” Izzie continued, “we’d only waste more of it on stuff.”
Liam nodded. “Look at Trevor, the gallery hag on everyone’s guest list—there to swill Veuve Clicquot, and yet what’s he got? Not one fucking piece of art.”
“We’re only trying to help you get some new ideas about how to deal with this,” said Amy, “to think outside the box about your debt.”
“I’ll call Peter,” said Izzie. “You can at least go on a date. Who knows if he’d even be willing to pay off your debt when you got married.”
The intervention had soured a day that began for Amelia with the wage god’s mid-morning stay of execution. She’d been contracted by a textbook publisher to airbrush the udders from illustrations of cows in an entire elementary-school reading series. It was a three-day, flat-rate job made possible by the state of Texas, which didn’t think its schoolchildren should be exposed to lactation sites. She had once been a relatively successful book jacket designer but now had little legitimate work except freelance proofreading. She’d repeatedly burned bridges, missing deadlines because she took on too much work in hopes of making her minimum monthly payments. But if she could recover from a drinking spell that caused six months of total blackout, she wagered, why couldn’t she survive a date with a big fat man?
Way long ago “big fat man” meant something else entirely—all in one place, big pair of well-pressed pants with a belt acting as equatorial regulator, à la Alfred Hitchcock or Jackie Gleason. But nowadays fat went in every direction; “the fat guy” today had thunder thighs and saddle bags in addition to the enormous gut. Even in Amelia’s childhood, fat boys were an uncommon occurrence—instead of every other kid there was maybe one or two per classroom. She remembered the cruel teasing they endured, although nice girls would circumvent overt cruelty by saying “He’s a cannonball.” Cannonball was the codeword for “fat” because the one thing a fat boy could do to impress was make an enormous splash in a body of water. There would be Cannonball Contests at the public pool every summer, and the winner would inevitably be a fat kid. When nice girls would single out one of their number for ridicule, the weaponry was romantic scenarios with the local Cannonball. The fat kid’s pariah status was so secure that tormenting him directly was beyond the point; he became the object with which to torment others.
Amelia returned to her ridiculous warehouse to find a message from Izzie: “I called Peter and he said he’d have his PA set a date and time. He sounded up about it—he remembers you. Whatever you do, don’t mention the doggie fanny packs—he’s very sensitive since Greenpeace called him out. And don’t mention the vegetarian thing since he’s back to eating chicken.”
Amelia and Peter’s date was scheduled at an Applebee’s next to a Sam’s Club complex close the industrial park where he’d always operated his companies. She borrowed a neighbor’s car and arrived unfashionably punctual. She waited twenty-five minutes in a vestibule with vinyl seats and felt an intense gush of morbid nostalgia for having been stood up in a similar vinyl-seated area of a Lum’s restaurant while dressed for a prom. Though the being stood up part wasn’t technically true, the remorse was so intense that the situation might well have occurred many times.
Through the window she finally saw Peter approaching. However neatly he was dressed (plaid short-sleeved shirt and an expansive take on Dickies workpants), he didn’t look at all like he had money—no person that large could. His company started out making all-weather animal backpacks and now manufactured, among other things, a small part for the interior of armored personnel carriers. As a military supplier, he was successful but not wildly successful—the president and CEO of RoverTech had made the cover of regional business magazines but so far no national ones. He’d been a theater major and was known for making generous charitable contributions as wedding gifts. When Izzie married Liam he gave a thousand dollars to Save the Children and another thousand to United Poultry Concerns.
“Recognize me?” he said with a grand smile—a trick smile she sensed, for the implication was that, at his size, how could she not?
The teenage hostess had directed them to a booth, but Peter re-marshaled movement to a table. He sat down in the way large men do, grabbing out for imaginary things in all directions like a jet pilot in the cockpit, and immediately asked the hostess to bring him an apple martini because the table tent sponsored by a particular brand of vodka declared Thursday the right day for doing that. Amelia passed on the drink.
Just when it seemed he had settled in—which included moving the table with his knees as if it were a lap desk—he announced, “I’ve got to check something in the car. I’ll be right back.”
In his absence, a teenager who looked even younger than the hostess approached carrying the martini glass on a tray; the extreme caution he applied to not spilling the drink made Amelia wonder whether it wasn’t just the Applebee’s management coming down on him but the Devil out near the dumpster: For every drop you spill I’ll shave a year off your life. When the glass was successfully placed on the table, Amelia stared at the light-green liquid like it was a hypnotist’s watch.
The last thing she remembered from that period when it was all vodka all the time was reading a Newsweek article on Britain’s binge drinking problem while waiting to see the gynecologist. She was still painting then and frequented the Dark Horse Tavern in Dorchester, where her painter boyfriend was busy wasting his life. He was consumed by the lore of hard drinkers like de Kooning, Pollock, and Still. He was dim in an over-educated way, believing that “the DTs” was short for Dylan Thomas. Even after he moved back to New York, she continued to hang with the tavern habitués—out-of-work consultants, pink-collar lifers, high-school-equivalency data crunchers, lots of medical records processors. At that time the Horse was Dot’s one daytime bar where union laborers wouldn’t go because of “pansies.” Despite the seeming lack of uplift potential in a bar-full of Boston drunks, Amelia had only fond memories of the place, especially the pink-collar lifers dressed in work separates circa 1994 or 1997 or 2002—whatever year these aging women stopped caring about clothes.
“I got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere—quick, what’s that from?” The president and CEO of RoverTech had returned in breathtaking cinemascope.
When she answered him correctly, he made another gesture to suggest the shooting of craps. “And you love the movie version best I hope I hope I hope?” Most of the restaurant—heads nosing up over booths—was looking at them.
Amelia smiled and shrugged. He seemed to her a contemporary version of the Nicely Nicely actor in Guys and Dolls, though she would christen him Tidy Tidy, as he didn’t seem particularly nice—and of course he was much bigger.
“I just adore musical theater,” he said sitting down. “You?”
“I don’t have a strong opinion about it” was her truthful reply.
“How can you say that?” He sang, I don’t really have a strong opinion about it!
He still had the audience’s rapt attention.
“Wow, that’s amazing,” she said. “You really can project your voice.”
He sang, Wow, that’s amazing. You really can project your voice!
“You’re reminding me of that French movie, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; the one with Catherine—”
“I don’t like the French, OK?”
She nodded. “OK.”
“Screw the French and their dying, small-dick culture,” he said with a nod. “This here,” he whispered, leaning forward and putting his arm behind him, “is all you’ll ever need.” Then he dropped on the table a paperback of The Fantasticks, old and dog-eared. He blinked affectionately at the book, sighing winsomely. “I love Jerry Orbach.”
“Didn’t he just die?”
“You know?” he said with a start. “I need to check something in the car again.”
It was somewhat of a production—him exiting for a second time after having spontaneously burst into song. Amelia didn’t care to know what he was doing in his car, but she did wonder how much of this date one piece of her art was equal to. The Baart Iceland series oil and acrylic, for instance; how many dinners with Peter Vandenberg did that amount to? And the Amburg Heads and Vessels #37—holding hands under the table? a peck on the cheek?
Back in his chair, Peter picked up the enormous menu and looked very serious about reading it. “OK, Batman, riddle me this: the regular Asian Chicken Salad is $9.95 and the Half Size is $8.95. That’s a real brain-teaser. Want to do the math?”
He ordered what would seem a dieter’s plate with two non-fried sides. His table etiquette Amelia was happy to assess as fastidious and neat; he had a delicate touch with cutlery. Still, this being America and part of a chain, in toto he was presented with a lot of food.
He talked at length about his long and frustrating search for the right vacation home in Vermont and how this led him to attend his first-ever auction of fine art and antiquities, in Danbury, Connecticut. “Izzie says you’ve got an impressive collection. Ever do any bidding?”
“I once bid on a first edition of William Blake etchings.”
“William Blake? I thought he was a writer.”
“Both,” she said. “He was both.”
“So how much did you pay?”
She laughed. “It was a joke I was even there. It was way out of my league.”
“You know,” he said with a start, dropping the knife and fork in his hands, “I’ll have to ask you to hold that thought,” and then proceeded once more to his car.
The Blake etchings were from a seventeen-image cycle depicting a man’s life from birth to death. Two of them Amelia could never get out of her head. In one a man holds up a white ladder extending to a sliver of the moon, with the accompanying text “I want! I want!” He is beginning his climb with onlookers poised to gauge his progress. In the other the man is completely alone, apparently drowning in the blackness of Time’s Ocean. He struggles on his back with one arm raised from the turbulent waves: “Help! Help!”
Help! Help! Amelia whispered upon seeing Peter’s now familiar form, tilting sideways as it did in locomotion.
“So you don’t have a cell phone,” he said, sitting down and setting back to eating in what seemed a single motion. “Let’s talk about that.”
“If you want.”
“Don’t they call it being a Luddite?”
“I thought they called it being poor.”
“Nowadays poor people have cell phones. Cell phones and flat-panel TVs and BlackBerrys. So I guess whatever it is you are it’s not poor.”
“That’s an interesting way of looking at it.”
“What do you mean interesting? People say interesting when they mean ‘wrong.’ ”
“Not me,” she said amicably. “If I had thought you were wrong, I’d have said ‘That’s a different way of looking at it.’ ”
“Hear that?” he barked, pointing the fork in his hand toward the ceiling.
He was referring to the faint soundtrack, a song from the seventies that went “Loving you is easy ’cause you’re beautiful.”
“Minnie Ripperton,” he said, “was awesome, died too young. That was a tragedy you don’t hear anyone talk about.” Now he was visibly distressed. “Christ,” he said, pushing his plate away from him, “I don’t even think I can finish eating now.”
Amelia saw that all three of his plates were empty. She looked down at her own practically full plate and put her fork on the table. “Me either,” she said, willing with all her telepathic powers that he’d refrain from singing along with the scat part. But it was too late.
The performance met with lukewarm applause. By the time people had turned back to their food the waiter was cautiously delivering a second apple martini that someone had apparently ordered in appreciation—or maybe in hopes that the performances would stop. This time the waiter spilled most of the drink on the table.
“This reminds me,” Peter began, holding the stem of the glass and swirling the base in the liquid, “of an article I just read about a Lebanese options trader.” She knew he was about to begin a story, but his eyes were fixed on the food on her plate. She handed him the plate and he proceeded to clear away her dinner while describing in great detail the Lebanese options trader’s view of success—something to the effect that “every day you’re playing Chopsticks but with the hope of suddenly waking up to play Rachmaninoff.”
She watched him eat but had nothing to say. “You seem impassioned by this subject,” she finally ventured, which prompted his agreement and then another trip to his car.
On this return, he waved the check he had collected from the waiter. “I’ve really got to wrap this up.”
“Oh, sure,” she said, grabbing for her handbag under the table.
He produced from his back pocket a plastic bag that Amelia at first mistook for a pot stash but that turned out to be a zip-lock container—a Baggie for all intents and purposes—holding a thick wad of folded bills.
“How apt,” she said, standing to collect her bearings. “When you zip it shut, the blue and the yellow strips turn to green.”
“Is that so?” he replied, looking not at her but at the bills his hands were rifling through. “Oh, heck,” he finally said, throwing down the hundred he’d plucked from the wad. “On me.”
“Why don’t you pay at the register,” she said, picking up and handing him the bill. “I’ll leave the tip.”
She walked beside him into the parking lot until she realized she was walking alone. He had stopped at the burgundy van parked in a handicap space near the restaurant’s front door. That was his car, a Windstar parked in a handicap space. He had appeared to be walking from elsewhere in the lot when she saw him arrive, which meant that he had moved the car during one of his trips outside. Did he park in the handicap space because of his size, she wondered, or did he have a handicapped person inside the car? With the tinted windows she couldn’t tell.
“Well, this was fun,” she said. “Thank you for all the singing.”
He stood beside the van looking apprehensive. “I don’t have a lot of friends,” he said bluntly, fingering a set of keys. “What I have,” he continued, now using one hand to slap the keys across the palm of the other, “is a lot of anger.”
“Lots of people do.”
“My therapist told me I should meditate on the words of Shakespeare: ‘I am wealthy in my friends.’ ”
“I think that’s wise.”
He asked her for a pen and wrote his number on a scrap of paper. “Be warned that I never pick up while driving.”
“Neither do I.”
“Ha ha ha. You’re a laugh a minute, Amelia.”
After he drove away, she walked to a far corner of the lot where she’d parked the borrowed car. She stood for a moment to look up at the sky. For the past year she’d been living stone sober with insurmountable debt, living as one would with a chronic, debilitating disease, under a heavy veil of depression but still managing to nurse the malformed thought that a universal irony would surely befall her, that the moment she was in the bleakest financial trouble ever, a wondrous shower of serendipity would occur. The sky made her think of two things: Emily Dickinson’s “Just as the night keeps fetching stars” and Willem de Kooning’s “The universe gives me the creeps.” Two things, she thought; Peter Vandenberg and I have at least two things in common. I, too, have a lot of anger. I, too, don’t have a lot of friends—not new friends anyway. She wished there was more than these two things in common; for instance, she wished he were nice.
But then wasn’t he working on it by focusing on that Shakespeare quote about wealth? Why couldn’t her Dickinson and de Kooning hook up with his Shakespeare? “I am wealthy in my friends.” She seized on this as an indication that he had a soul—somewhere in there at least, encased by all that fat.
Two weeks after the primary intervention, Amelia met her Early Flemish friends for a booster shot, this time at the basement cafeteria of the MFA, where all except Amelia kept up a membership.
“And Peter has these crazy policies about things,” Izzie was saying, “like citrus fruits. Everyone in the family knows that the only citrus he’ll eat are Mineola tangelos”—here Liam nodded—“and for some reason he will only buy them in threes.”
“Three tangelos,” Amy repeated.
“There’s a Prokofiev opera called Love for Three Oranges,” said Trevor. “Perhaps he’s making a cultural allusion.”
“Are you kidding?” said Izzie. “He only listens to Olivia Newton John and the soundtrack to The Lion King.”
“And Connie Stevens and Dusty Springfield,” Amelia added, causing her friends to gaze at her in sorrow.
“What?” she asked in regard to their stares. “I happen to like Dusty Springfield.”
Still the sorrow.
“I’m seeing him again on Friday,” she told them.
“No way,” said Amy.
Amelia made a face. “What do you mean no way?”
“No one should have to date Peter,” said Izzie.
Amy nodded. “We lied.”
“We couldn’t think of any better proposition for you at the time,” Izzie went on.
“But it is a way out,” Amelia insisted. “I’m not giving up any of my art, not one piece.”
If she was trying to sound determined it was mostly for the benefit of herself. She’d been envisioning Peter Vandenberg being talked into a stomach the size of a small change purse via gastric bypass surgery. She’d read that because they were up to their elbows in fat, the Mass. General surgeons who performed these procedures had to stand on stools. Consequently she dreamt she’d been there during Peter’s gastric bypass operation, the surgeons laboring like tiny Italian mechanics standing on wine crates and the ample mound of body like a Fiat with a transmission problem, the strips of fat hanging sloppily over the sides. And then suspended on a hoist above, where the Fiat’s engine would normally be poised while the mechanics worked, was her, Amelia, ready to be lowered inside him.
“You’re dead sure you’d die for your art?” asked Liam.
“No one asked me to die yet.”
“We’ll stick by you if you go for bankruptcy,” Izzie consoled.
“Sure,” said Amy. “So what that they take away everything? You can always use my flat iron.”
“You’re going to need to find a new place real soon regardless,” Izzie continued. “You can’t wait till the last minute with all that stuff.”
The place where Amelia lived—Warehouse 186, a mid-nineties conception for which grant funding never fully materialized—was slated to be gutted for condo development years ago, but a lawsuit by the resident artists had delayed this for an absurd length of time. Two colonies of feral cats had claimed the extreme northeast and northwest quadrants. It fell to Amelia to feed them with twenty-five-pound bags of Shaw’s cat food.
Amy shook her head and made a “teacher is unhappy” pout. “You’ve made such a mess of things, Amelia, and you’re not even a fucked-up person.”
“Are you saying that I’m tragic?” she asked. “Because if that’s what you’re saying, then marring Peter would be fulfilling my legacy.”
Izzie shook her head. “You just can’t trust yourself, Amelia. You’re so level-headed in some ways, but then you can go off the map so easily. You shouldn’t be on your own.”
Amelia stared at her accusers. Just how happy were any of them? Amy was married to a Belorussian scientist who didn’t talk. Language barriers and a speech impediment were his excuse. He had to be around a giant magnet to do his work. Luckily for Amy, who didn’t want to leave her teaching job, Cambridge had not one but two giant magnets. She married impulsively because she got tired of the local dating scene, which she likened to “going to a vending machine where the only choices are Skittles and Mounds.”
Trevor worked for a company that marketed products by enlisting random volunteers to do the sell by word-of-mouth for free. He was divorced and negotiating the raising of his daughter, Fern, a mysterious little girl who clung to her mother’s legs like a philodendron. He seemed to become more terrified of aging now that he was in the homestretch to his forties, having used his boyish good looks as leverage for everything under the sun.
And Izzie and Liam, the Norse god and goddess: every non-working hour of their lives was spent debating the pros and cons of children, as if they were arguing about a flat-rate income tax. Izzie had frozen eggs stashed at clinics in states in three different time zones—“in case of natural disaster, power outages, or terrorist attacks.”
“You’re right that I shouldn’t be on my own,” said Amelia. “Which is why I’m going to marry your cousin.”
“You can find a way out of this,” said Izzie.
Amelia nodded. “By marrying your cousin.”
“But you’re not dealing with the problem,” said Liam.
“Having to have this art . . . ,” Izzie began.
“It’s like it’s the only reason for you to exist,” Amy added.
Amelia continued to nod. “I know that, too.”
“But why does it have to be that way?” asked Liam.
“You can’t always have the world that you want,” said Trevor. “A cookie is a sometime thing.”
It was impossible to convey how she felt—that she knew quite well that she couldn’t always have the world she wanted, that in fact she expected never to have the world she wanted. People deteriorated, love disappointed—humans were mere proxies for unrealizable desire. The organic beauty of her art collection would always be there as a buttress, no matter what, no matter how much she needed a drink. She knew that the moment she focused desire solely on human beings, the punishment would be swift and merciless. She would have to be ordinary, just like everyone else.
At the end of the last day on which Amelia was employed to airbrush udders, Peter arranged to pick her up in town, near the South Station entrance to I-93. The plan was to go to dinner at Hilltop Steakhouse, where they have gigantic seats.
She recognized the Windstar van as it slowed in traffic, only ten minutes late this time, but as she grabbed to open the passenger door, Peter had lowered the window and was leaning over the seat’s current occupant: “You’ll have to sit in the back,” he said.
On the passenger side was a large plastic pet-carrier with an enormous orange cat inside; Amelia could tell it was a cat and that it was enormous and orange because the animal’s fur protruded from the slits on each side of the box. Her eyes were transfixed by the setup, for Peter’s seat was an extra-large swivel affair and the cat’s perch wasn’t even a seat but a platform; someone had customized this just for them.
“Get in the car for God’s sake!” he yelled.
As she feebly attempted to yank the back door, she imagined that this was how it felt to board one of the vans that collected people ordered to perform community service. Whenever she broke down in front of her friends she’d confess to feeling like a criminal with so much debt—“a police cruiser will come and take me away to Walpole.” And then her friends would attempt to comfort her with “You won’t go to jail,” Liam providing the worst-case scenario: “So you do community service, big deal? They pick you up in a van and give you a stick to poke at trash along McGrath Highway.”
When Amelia was inside the vehicle and had slammed shut the door, Peter accelerated in bursts, slammed on the brakes, and performed similar disruptive maneuvers that were hallmarks of bad driving.
“Sorry to yell,” he yelled, “but this is a real bitch stretch of the Commonwealth.”
They both remained silent until the neutral territory of the tunnel, where Peter apologized in song: Sorry to yell at you, Amelia, but this is a bitch stretch of Commonwealth!
Back up in the open air he seemed to have relocated his impresario’s bearings: “And this here is my lovely Velveeta.”
It seemed cruel to Amelia to have an animal bursting out of a box like that. She wanted to ask, “Do you think she needs a bigger carrier?” But then she figured he was probably in denial about her weight, like a woman using pliers to zip herself into a pair of size-4 jeans.
“So she was the reason you kept leaving at Applebee’s?”
“You got it.”
There was only one seat in the back as well—also extra-wide and designed to swivel. This vehicle sold to transport batches of kids could, in Peter Vandenberg’s rendering, only accommodate two large persons and one large cat. Vertical strips of seatbelt webbing formed something of a barrier between front seat and back. There was just the one wide seat plus a bar and refrigerator and a video monitor suspended from the ceiling on the passenger side.
“Have something to drink,” said Peter.
Amelia opened the refrigerator to find it stocked to capacity with hotel-room-size bottles of wine, all them the same Sancerre.
“Can I make a strange request?” he asked her.
“OK,” she said through the seatbelt strips.
“Can we just drive around for a while?”
She didn’t know what to say.
“It’s for Velveeta, to give her the feel of being places.”
“Why don’t you just enjoy yourself?” he said. “Have a drink. I’m the one driving.”
Amelia’s chair swiveled on its own with Peter’s bad driving, like the amusement park ride Cups and Saucers. She had a firm grip on a safety handle that, luckily for her, had not been removed. She gripped the handle and felt that her precarious position in life generally and her precarious position at that very moment were in perfect alignment.
“Well if you won’t have a drink then tell me about that place where you live.”
“It’s part of a warehouse,” she said loudly. “It’s not very pretty.” She paused and added, “So I guess it’s just as well that I’ve got to move out of there soon—when they sell it to a condo developer. I have to find another place.”
She had just been thinking that afternoon that the one thing she would miss about the big dirty industrial box was a smaller box that she considered her sanctuary, the protective container where she slept. She had used pages from an old French art magazine called L’Oeil to cover the walls in a decoupage collage inside and out. It was a hideout like no other.
“What about your art collection?” he asked.
“I need a big place,” she said. “Lots of walls.”
“That’s got to be expensive for one person.”
“I’m hoping I’ll be lucky.”
He laughed. “You want Lady Luck to blow on your dice?”
“Something like that.”
“Tell me about your own painting,” he continued. “Why didn’t you stick with it?”
She hadn’t an answer but an image—the Blake etching of the drowning man.
“I just wasn’t good.”
“How much not good,” he pressed, “a little not good or a lot not good?”
“I used to think a little,” she confessed, “but now I’d say a lot.”
“So does having an art collection make you feel better about that?”
This sounded so hilarious that she laughed. “Nothing could make me feel better about that.”
“You need to find another field,” he advised. “People have got to be good at something.”
She thought, I’m the Empress Autonomy. I’m The Selective Eye.
“You need to get a vocational counselor,” he yelled. “Better yet a life coach, someone to pound your lazy character into better shape.”
It was here that she opened the refrigerator and destroyed the perfect fit of the bottles.
“That’s right,” he said, “have a drink. They’re twist-tops. There’s some plastic glasses in the bar; you screw on the stem.”
She tipped back her head and downed the bottle’s contents. When she finished there was Peter Vandenberg’s face on the overhead screen.
“Surprised you, huh?” said the face. “This makes it easier to chat.”
She opened the refrigerator and grabbed another bottle.
“And here’s a nifty feature,” the face continued. With an audible click the image became Velveeta in her carrier.
He was such a bad driver, she thought; he shouldn’t be playing cameraman while behind the wheel. But as she twisted the lid on a second bottle, she thought again. If this was the life she could expect married to a rich man, she could get used to it. She would remain intoxicated in the backseat for this entire iteration of Amelia.
“Go easy on that,” he said with a laugh. “There’s only forty-five bottles!”
“Two’s probably the equivalent of one glass,” she said matter-of-factly, going for the third.
He laughed. “Just don’t start swinging from the chandelier!”
She was startled to think that something he said was actually funny, but rather than laugh she drank.
“So where to now?” he asked.
She thought of the Blake etching of the man pointing his ladder toward the moon and felt the words tapped out in her heartbeats: I want! I want! She was drunk, and being drunk reminded her of believing she was in love with something. “Take me to your castle!” she shouted.
He laughed. “How about take me to the cleaners?”
When she didn’t reply he repeated his question louder: “How about take me to the cleaners, Amelia?”
“Are you going to kill me?” she shouted back, not looking at his face on the screen—anywhere but there. “Is that what this is for?”
He laughed. “You can call for help if you want. There’s a phone.”
“Why are you driving me around then?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I have a lot of anger, but I’m not a dangerous person. You’ll have to trust me on that.”
“OK, I will,” she said, trying to steady the chair. “But can you take me home? I suddenly don’t feel well. I shouldn’t have drunk your wine.”
What had it been—four, maybe five bottles? She told herself she might recover; she put her spinning head between her legs and thought how she needed to tell him how to get to where she lived. She would have to tell him where to turn and where to keep going straight and where to back up because he’d gone too far. By the time she sat upright they were in the side lot of the warehouse.
“How did you know where I live?” she asked.
“Oh, maybe because I run a Fortune 500 company I have to know these things. Can I come in for a minute to see the place, to see your collection?”
When they were outside the van he said exuberantly, “Just look at all the stars!”
“What stars?” she asked, turning her face toward the amorphous pink.
“Exactly,” he replied. “Urban life sucks.”
At every threshold of entry to her home he shook his head and said, “Some place.”
By the time Amelia was putting the key to the lock of her loft he exclaimed, “Hell, I smell cat box big time.”
“Rodent control,” she replied. “It becomes a lesser of two evils.”
Inside she flicked on the salvaged track lighting; the slow illumination of one cylinder after another suggested a church being riled from slumber for evening service. She desperately needed to pee but stood painfully still.
He was slow going, hands in pockets—a zippity-doo-dah whistle now and then.
“You paid money for all this stuff?” he finally said.
This, she thought, was the extremely difficult part that no amount of alcohol could help.
“Just kidding,” he said. She could tell he was considering singing something but thought better of it. He walked into the box of her bedroom as if it were for sale. “What’s all this oh-ee-I-el stuff?”
“It’s an old French art magazine,” she said to the box. “L’Oeil means The Eye.”
“Well isn’t that special,” he said when he emerged.
“You think so?”
He shook his head. “You live in a real strange place.”
“You think so?” she replied louder.
“Yeah,” he said, “and I don’t mean place like in this place right here, but like the way my therapist means it—where you are in life, what you do, what you want.”
“How do you know what I want?”
He looked her in the eye, again shaking his head. “How can sane people get so in debt?”
She was almost relieved that he knew—that he must’ve run a credit check first thing.
“Women do it more than men,” he continued, “did you know that?”
She just stared at him.
“Women—especially young women in their twenties, way younger than you—get into credit card debt because there’s this light at the end of the tunnel called ‘husband.’ It’s like they’re just treading water until Mr. Right comes along to bail them out. Men don’t act this way because, Christ, who’s going to bail them out? But still everyone does it. There’s no stigma anymore. Tens of thousands of dollars over nothing—shit crapola.”
She nodded. “Hocking my soul to the devil.”
“It’s nothing to be cute about,” he snapped.
She didn’t know what he wanted from her.
“How can sane people get so in debt?” he asked again, only now it came out as a threat. “Fucking how, Amelia?”
She shrugged. “I suppose for the same reason sane people can get so fat.”
“I’d never marry someone like you,” he said with sneering contempt, “but I’ll buy this junk to get your ass out of hock. I don’t get the art, but when you look at it all together it looks like an art thing. It says something, and right now that’s what I want. Tell me what you owe; I’ll write a check.”
She was stunned, despite the gauze of inebriation. “My art is what you want?”
“It’s here right now, I’m here right now; I have the money.” He pulled a checkbook from the Fantasticks pocket. “Or do you accept PayPal?”
People shouldn’t say such brutal things she wanted to scold. But then she saw him exactly for who he was—jumping in the pool, splashing all the girls.
“I might even buy one of the condos that go in here,” he said. “Maybe even this very place. Wouldn’t that be funny? All these pictures would wind up back where they started.”
He’d won it hands down, the Cannonball Contest. He made the biggest splash. Her intoxication felt to have transcended the five small bottles she’d poured into her stomach. She could see she’d been intoxicated for as long as she could remember—with desire, with fear, with her illness, with her terminal situation.
“I need to get a pen and paper,” she said, seeking sanctuary inside her box. “I’ll write the amount on this paper,” she hollered out to him. “I’ll write the agreement, make it official.”
“Whatever your little brain wants,” he yelled back.
As she summoned every last bit of essence to make the pen go, she suddenly understood the erotic appeal of masochism. Hurt me real bad, she thought—even more than this. Torch the huts, steal the children, shoot the chickens.
She handed him the paper; he looked at it and smirked. He made a “May I?” gesture toward the pen in her hand and proceeded to scribble out a check. She took it from him without looking at the amount. Then he put his signature on the paper and handed that to her as well. “Who wants to be Jimmy Carter and keep this?” he asked, waving the pen.
Torch the huts, steal the chickens, shoot the children.
“Urban life sucks,” she said.
“Sure does,” he replied, putting the pen and checkbook in his back pocket, “but only if you can’t afford it.”
He told her he expected all of the pieces to be packed in bubble wrap by the following Friday. He told her that, if he indeed bought this space as a condo, the bedroom box would have to stay as part of the deal. Then he left to return to his van, his cat, and his wealth.
She was no longer on the verge of tears. She felt sick to her stomach and she still had to pee, but most of all she felt ordinary. She didn’t look at any of the pictures she’d just signed away as she walked out of the big dirty box, down the frightening corridor and outside, over to a patch of weeds where she could bend and throw up. When that was over she stood and looked skyward, prepared to count each and every star that couldn’t be seen. Billions upon billions yet all named the same. I want! I want! §