Five Points, Vol. 22, No. 2Winter
You’d think it would be a good idea for Jerome to ask his oldest brother about how it’s going with the bees. Tim’s latest job involved transporting bees so that the diminishing bee population visited more fields to ensure widespread pollination. Hard to imagine either of Jerome’s brothers making a contribution to the wellbeing of any living creature.
Jerome cleared his throat. “Tim—that’s what you’re doing? I think? Am I right? You’re transporting bees?”
Tim cracked open his beer. “You think I’m driving bees around and turning bees into lazy fat asses. That’s what you think.”
“No. No. You’re doing—“
“God’s work? I’m driving around bees. Fucked up bees.”
Jerome tried Brian next, determined to be non-specific. “How’s it going, buddy?”
“How do you think it’s going?” Brian’s forehead was so wrinkled it looked like rubber bands stretched across it. “So you’re still selling ice? You think people should pay for that?”
“Well, they do,” Jerome said. “It’s not just flavored ice anymore. It’s glassware, juices, and there’s real environmental consciousness that they’re promoting. Values.”
“Values sell?” Tim asked, looking past Jerome to wink at his wife, Selah.
“No. The company promotes values.”
“Courtesy, compassion, community.” Jerome’s tongue was sticking to his teeth.
“It’s one of the company’s emphases. Values. It’s not hurting anybody.”
“Really? It hurts me just to hear that bullshit. My ass is aching.”
“Really, it’s aching,” Brian joined in. “I can see it ache.”
“Everybody’s asses are aching now.”
Jerome had brought wine—his next mistake. It wasn’t even good wine, but that didn’t help. Big animal parts were going to be grilled. Meat so tough it could double as your floor mat. Wine—that would strike Tim and Brian as fussy and pretentious.
Holding her hair back with one hand, Selah bent over Jerome and whispered “Ignore them. They’re just jealous.” When her husband and brother-in-law went outside to tend the grill she handed Jerome a glass and sat next to him on the couch.
Even though no one was in hearing range Selah whispered. “Do you know the story of the Ugly Duckling?” She pulled her hair back before letting a shining curtain of it drop. “No, I don’t mean you’re the Ugly Duckling who grows up to be a swan. I mean: your brothers are the ugly ducklings.”
“Are we talking about the same story?”
She stopped whispering. “What I mean is: you are the duck. You fit into the world. They’re the swan. They don’t belong and don’t realize it. They should have left the nest of this town a long time ago, flown away, traveled, done remarkable things. But they didn’t. That’s what makes them vicious. A swan—do you know a swan can drown a man? It’s true. It happened somewhere in Wales.”
“They could drown a man. I see now. Thanks, Selah. What’s in this?” He tipped his glass to the light of the television.
“That explains it.”
“You don’t like gin?”
“I get a reaction from gin.” He wasn’t going to explain—he was feeling alienated from her after that Ugly Duckling story. No, she’d never understand the buoyant self-hatred he experienced whenever he drank gin.
When Jerome was a little kid his brothers locked him in a closet for two hours. Put toilet paper in his water glass and called it backwash from his braces. In swimming pools they held his head underwater until he stopped struggling. When he was perched for safety in the willow in the neighbor’s yard they slung snakes at him.
All through his childhood and early adolescence they hammered his inadequacy into his head. Not always with words. With the nail heads of their rage.
When Jerome introduced Isabella, his brothers folded their gargoyle wings, and he gloried in their dwindling. Their dwindling, however, didn’t last long. After the wedding was cancelled his brothers were pitiless. They couldn’t stop referring to Jerome’s lost almost-bride. Isabella’s beauty. Her “fortitude”: a word he never expected to hear from either of them. Especially Brian. Who said it.
After the wedding was called off, Jerome thought his brothers couldn’t continue to resent him. Out of pity. How wrong he’d been. Wrong and more wrong.
“Here,” Selah said. “Lemonade—that will cut through it. Whoosh—not so fast, Jerome. It’s spiked.”
“Selah—you’re trying to destroy me, aren’t you?”
“Oh destroying some things—that would be the best thing for you, honey.”
With the word honey and the sudden sensation of warmth in his throat Selah was in his good graces again.
He woke up on the couch in the living room of Tim and Selah’s house. Apparently someone had stuck paste under his eyelids.
Tim was standing over him. “Hey, party guy, showed your true colors, huh?”
Jerome knew he must have done something awful. He knew, because Tim was smiling. Jerome wouldn’t know why for almost a week.
From the sound of it, Jerome’s new downstairs neighbors had orgies. Four of them lived in the apartment, counting the baby. The woman was tall, horsey, and at first Jerome thought the baby probably was both hers and the squirrely fellow’s, one of those bald-by-choice types. Like those bullet-headed British guys who either break out in an unrhymed sonnet or club you to death. And then the other guy—with shining black hair like in a shampoo ad, like hair clipped from a stallion’s mane.
Jerome got a better look at the woman one afternoon when he pulled into the parking lot. She was sitting on the apartment building’s front steps, her face anguished, the baby in her arms. She hauled herself up, nuzzled the baby’s head, and reentered the building.
The next afternoon, Jerome slipped a leash on his dog Silas. They made their customary round of the development. On the way back to the apartment he saw his downstairs neighbor, the tall woman, out by the dumpsters near the crabapple tree. The baby—its hair as thick as a bear cub’s—was situated on her hip.
Silas pulled on the leash, wouldn’t budge, rested on his haunches only a few yards from the woman.
“He won’t hurt anyone,” Jerome said, apologetically. “He looks bad—he was abused or neglected, I think, before I got him. He’s a good dog.”
“I can tell that,” the woman said. “Oh, he looks like a good doggie.” Her baby lifted his arms, rings of fat around the wrists, and waved at Silas. “Not yet, Claude honey.”
“Claude?” Jerome asked before he could stop himself.
“Claude—after his grandfather. An actor too. You probably think we’ve been torturing someone, if you’ve heard us. How could you not hear us?”
“It all makes sense now.”
“You probably thought we were planning a murder or worse, huh? Last night we were rehearsing truncated versions. Psycho in fifty seconds. Jaws in four minutes. Hamlet in less time than it takes to burn toast.” Her hair stuck up from her head in an unfortunate series of cowlicks.
“You’re all actors—all three of you?”
“Yes—my brother and his partner. They have an act. You could come see us perform sometime, you know? The Luddington Players—it’s a dinner theater? We’re doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream this week. I play Bottom. It’s supposed to be transgressive. It seems pretty normal to me. Except that it’s transgressive dinner theater. We’ve been picking up more work lately. We can almost—we can almost afford the rent for this place. There’s an independent film company that likes some of what I do, and I’ve been helping them out too. I feel lucky to have any work. Then again, maybe it wasn’t luck. I’d already slept with the director. That’s a joke. No, you probably think I have. Which would be all right. If I had. Who am I to judge myself? But I do have the opportunity to sing now. Do you know Dudley Dan’s?”
He said he’d heard of it.
“You should come. I’ll be singing there after the play ends—my great love: singing. Claude is my deepest love. What’s your deepest love?”
She didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, she propped her baby on a blanket stretched under the crabapple tree. When she returned, looking at Jerome steadily, she stumbled.
Jerome caught her by the waist, staggering to hold her up.
She laughed. “Good one,” she said.
“Are you okay?” A strand of her hair was caught in his mouth.
“You’re quick,” she said.
His fingers were sinking into her waist—post pregnancy weight, he supposed. Her wide face grinned at him goofily. Yes, she could play Bottom. He saw it now.
“You meant to do that?” he asked.
“I’ve been practicing for a month. The friend who’s making a film—I’m supposed to faint in the film for him—repeatedly. It’s also good as a joke. My name, by the way, is Aimee.”
He let go of her, and she wilted, this time almost hitting the ground before Jerome caught her.
“I love your face,” she said when she popped upright, Jerome’s arms around her middle. “I just had to see your reaction again. I should warn you: we’re rehearsing something a little, I guess, boisterous tonight. An old play of my brother’s.”
“You must lead interesting lives.”
“Oh—we don’t lead interesting lives. Things are pretty hopeless at present.”
Don’t go there, Jerome warned himself. Aimee, soon enough, would want something from him. His catching her might have been a test. Plus, she was already attracted to him. He knew the signs. He’d feel guilty for not reciprocating. Next, he’d be lending her money. And he knew where this all could lead: resentment. He’d loaned enough money and regretted it. Regretted the loss of the money. Much worse: the vapor of guilt on the faces of former friends.
In one swift movement Aimee picked up her baby from under the crab apple tree. She looked back at Jerome. “You’ll have to meet Keith and Trent.”
If Jerome didn’t get inside his own apartment she’d tell him more than he wanted to know. Too late. Aimee’s roommates popped out of the apartment building’s entranceway. In close-up Keith’s black hair looked even more unreal. The bald one, Trent, turned out to be Aimee’s brother. He was slight compared to his sister, hardly coming up to her shoulder. Jerome wondered where the baby’s father was.
Without prelude, Keith announced, “We’re going to have to find a cheaper place. We haven’t made enough money in months. We’re practically working for free. It’s the death of our dreams.”
Jerome coughed. “I have a feeling that something is coming your way,” he said. Who was he to make that prediction? Silas was dancing around the two men, fretting at his leash.
“You need a walker for your dog,” Keith said. “While you’re at work. We can hear him pacing. He’s not too happy.”
As it turned out, Keith and Trent were wildly eager to help with Silas, for which Jerome agreed to pay them more than he should have.
Keith clasped Jerome in a full-body hug. “I think you’ll bring us luck.” He directed Jerome’s attention to Claude. “I bet you wish you had his hair.”
Before closing the door to the apartment building Jerome caught sight of Keith laying his hands on his own throat as if choking himself to death.
The email from his oldest brother didn’t come with a message, it came with a YouTube clip.
Jerome wasn’t even going to play the video. Then he thought: why not? and heard his own voice:
“That’s one sick thing to refer to a corporation as–as a community. It’s more like that Roanoke Colony where everyone eats each other. Community. Like the community of Salem during the witch hunts. The idea that it’s a community or a family—why would anyone say that? Are you paid to be in a family? Can you be fired from a family? Do you compose quarterly reports for your family? Will one complaint about the family end your family life? What’s this? A Chill Popper? You’re kidding me? Who buys this crap?”
Jerome’s face was in extreme close up. The camera pulled back in time to record his full body wipeout. As he fell backward off the picnic table and onto Tim’s lawn it sounded like everyone laughed—even Selah. Before he toppled Jerome had mentioned the flavors Chill Poppers ought to invest in:
Mule Butt Pate
Your Uncle’s Secret Sauce
Carburetor Gin and Fireman’s Wedding Pig
The flavors he invented hadn’t been exactly obscene because his nephews were there, rubbing shoulders. There were three of them—the twins and Brian’s boy—the twins’ faces deformed by freckles like dung festooned flies, or speckles of blood from a corpse they’d been snuffling. Nasir wasn’t quite so awful, but Jerome’s twin nephews, those ghouls. Something genetic had failed to take Selah into account. Some homicidal forebear had been piped directly into those boys.
In the video Jerome named co-workers. Dante, Conrad, Max. He must have thought he was funny—talking about what a stupid thing it was to buy flavored, colored ice you could make in your own freezer. Yes, he thought he was funny because tides of laughter broke toward him. Of course they were laughing at the fact that he didn’t know he was being recorded.
He wanted to forget how he looked in the video—but there it was, his balding skull gleaming, his eyes vulnerable with ugliness. It wasn’t just that he could never be good-looking, it was that there was something craven about his face—that wish to be liked, even to be loved, was smeared all over him, his smile dripping with need.
He should have known. His nephews were hell’s last spurt. Plus, his brothers enjoyed making him miserable. True—they wouldn’t have wanted him fired. Or would they? They had no respect for what he did. No understanding. They might, in their twisted way, think they were doing him a favor.
Jerome phoned Tim first.
“Take it down.”
“The twins won’t do that. Too late. It’s already been shared and downloaded anyway. Where’s your sense of humor?”
“I’ll lose my job.”
“Take it down.”
“Only the twins can do that, and I have no influence over them.”
“They’re eleven years old.”
“I know. Each is his own man. Something you can think about being.”
“Let me talk to Selah.”
Maybe the video hadn’t been discovered by anyone connected to Chill Poppers. After all, everything was on YouTube. When everything’s available, nothing counts. It’s like that story about a map of the world that’s the size of the world. So maybe there was nothing to worry about?
“Sweetheart, it was only a game for them. They didn’t mean anything by it.” Selah’s voice on the phone was silky, low. “Just don’t give up on them, okay? They know not what they do.”
“They know what they’re doing. Selah, I’m going to take a vacation from all of you, okay? Call me if anyone needs a kidney.”
“Like they’d expect that from you.”
“They’d expect no less. Give my regards to the twins.” He wanted to say “your psychopathic children” but couldn’t. It was a matter of chemistry; he liked Selah.
Selah was still talking. “Brian didn’t bring Isabella out of consideration for your feelings. She’s already like a mom to Nasir.”
“What are you saying?”
“You knew that. You had to. It’s water over the bridge, anyway. Is that the right expression? Under the bridge? You two never married. She’s a free woman.”
Aimee was once again sitting outside on the steps leading to the apartment building’s entrance, holding Claude on her lap. Jerome got out of his car and crossed the lawn. Aimee looked up, and Trent popped out of the door, took the baby, and swung back inside. Usually Silas would be dancing toward Jerome if Keith or Trent let him out.
Aimee called to Jerome before he reached her. “What happened? You look way more than awful.”
He collapsed on the step next to her.
“I’m going to get fired.”
She paused before she said, “Are you sure?”
“Then you don’t know. What did you do that was so horrible?”
“But you thought you were among friends?”
“Actually I thought I was among family.”
“That’s worse. God, Jerry.”
“Sorry, Jerome. Weren’t you only stating your true feelings on that video?”
“No. I was trying to make my family actually like me.”
“Listen. Wait here.”
She ducked inside and came out carrying a sleepy Claude. “Here, hold him. I’ll be right back.”
Claude’s head nestled against Jerome’s shoulder. He couldn’t remember when he had last held a sleeping baby. Not once was he allowed to hold his nephews in their infancies.
Minutes later Aimee returned, sat down beside Jerome, and said, “I can tell you feel better. It’s the miracle of Claude.”
“I guess I can find another job.”
“You’re not going to get fired, and you don’t need to quit the job you have. It’s not like anyone’s hiring around here. Not to be—a doomsayer.” She was leaning close to him, and he endured a wave of guilt. He was holding her baby—as if it was a natural thing to do. He couldn’t be attracted to her. He didn’t have it in him. It was wrong to lead her on.
Aimee said, “You have a job, and you’re going to keep it. Really. They won’t get rid of you just for that.”
“The video isn’t even funny until I fall off the picnic table.”
“I’m sitting on top of the picnic table.”
“Are just your head and chest visible in the video? Before you went over? That’s right, isn’t it?”
“Someone knocked you over, pushing at your feet, lifting your feet up. They knocked you over so it looked spontaneous. Keith tries that with Trent all the time. So do I.”
“I’m going to be sick.”
“No you’re not. What about your parents? Did they always let this go on for years when you were a kid—your brothers treating you like that?”
“I don’t think anyone noticed.”
“And you weren’t going to peach on your brothers, huh?”
“It wouldn’t have done much good.”
“You know what I do when Trent acts like an asshole to me?”
“What?” he was ashamed to ask.
“Nothing. Because he doesn’t act that way. Or not quite enough to bother me. Sometimes. Keith is another matter.”
“It’s somewhat—humiliating—to confide in you.”
“What? No one ever says the obvious to you or sees the obvious and lets you know it? You really don’t have a friend in the world, do you? I’d get tested if I were you. Your brothers may be related to one another, but I’m not sure you’re related to them. I can’t imagine the gene pool that produced—I’ll stop. They’re your family. You’re like Zeus and they’re volcanic clods of ash at the foot of your mountain.”
The realization: George Eliot. That’s who Aimee looked like. The novelist George Eliot. From a portrait Jerome saw when he took a first-year seminar at Mount Cedar College. The same horse-like face and wide jaw, heavy lidded eyes. You imagined George Eliot had mammoth hands under the lace cuffs. The air of intelligence and high competence was there, but on Aimee those attributes could slip any moment into comedy. No other way around it, Aimee was homely, almost textbook homely. Probably she compensated for her homeliness with comedy—to make people forget her sullen, drooping, oddly unforgettable face. Maybe letting himself realize what she really looked like, whom she resembled, was a relief. It would be impossible for her to think he could fall in love with her. Or maybe she was already in love with him—the way she kept trying to comfort him.
Later he couldn’t understand what possessed him to be cruel. “Aimee, I know what this is about,” he said. “But I can’t give you what you want. I’m sorry.”
She stiffened. “What is it I want?”
“I can’t give anyone what they want.”
“I noticed. Even Silas is depressed.”
He wasn’t fired—that was the surprise. Maybe no one even saw the video. Or maybe they did. Strangely enough, he was newly popular. His team now went to lunch together: Max and Dante and Conrad and Jerome. One Friday they tried out a new restaurant called Zonko’s, located among a cluster of warehouses. The name sounded familiar—he thought he’d overheard Trent mention the place.
The walls were mirrored. that struck Jerome as a bad idea. People were self-conscious enough. Who needed to catch their own reflection while eating?
He didn’t notice the waitress until her voice rang out over the table.
Aimee—in a clinging black dress. He could hardly disguise his pity. So this was how she was making ends meet.
The menus were the size of a tabloid newspaper, which meant Max kept bumping his menu against Jerome’s. Aimee took their drink orders, and when she turned around Jerome was embarrassed for her—the bottom of her buttocks was starkly outlined by the black fabric of her dress.
Why should Aimee have to be scrambling around serving people, scrambling with her big rear? She had dreams, and talent—at least Jerome hoped she had talent—and her dreams weren’t materializing.
Within minutes Aimee’s dress was even more plastered to her backside. Either she’d inflated or the dress had shrunk.
After Jerome paid his bill he waited to catch Aimee’s eye.
“Don’t look so miserable,” she said when she hurried up to him at the counter. “It’s a decent job and I’m good at it.”
“I just wish you had more opportunity for your acting.”
“I will. It’s you I worry about.” With that she was falling backward. Before he could catch her she caught herself, gripping the edge of the counter. Her hair swung into her eyes. “See,” she said. “All is under control. I’m proud of everything I do. Everything. Now I have to get back to work.” She loped off, and he felt dizzy, like the blood left his head.
The next morning—a Saturday—Jerome’s neighbors were especially loud. Vaults of laughter shot up from the first floor.
He went downstairs, knocked. Keith opened the door, let him inside, and tapped Jerome’s shoulder, “What I said about the way you looked on that day when we first met—I shouldn’t have said that. You weren’t part of the insult chain. It’s a trick from improv. It’s supposed to sharpen response time.”
Jerome hadn’t overheard anything—at least not anything about his appearance. He asked, “Does it work—the insult chain?”
“Apparently not. But we’re trying. Trent and I are going to call ourselves Inch by Inch from now on. We write our own material. Excruciatingly funny.” Keith paused to push his hair behind his ears. “You know, they’re special people: Trent and Aimee. Trent—well, just look at him.”
Trent and Aimee were bent over Claude in his high chair and making faces. Keith went on. “Trent can do anything. A great mimic. He got you down immediately, the gravelly voice, the floppy gestures, that thing you do with what’s left of your hair. Beethoven hair, he calls it—just shorter and sparser. Aimee is almost as special as her brother—and I’m speaking from a position of extreme favoritism toward her brother. She never sounds like anybody else. She can only be herself. Which I guess is a gift. She can sing. No denying that. Well, Trent sings too. He does something a little different—effortless singing. Aimee is not effortless—with anyone. Look at how she raises Claude. She makes it look hard.”
Jerome started to speak but Keith went on, “She could have a better life. But no, Claude wouldn’t like the city she says. As if no babies ever live in cities. It probably sounds like I’m critical of her—I’m not. They’re my genuine family, you know? In fact, sometimes I test myself: would I endure hot nails under my fingernails for Aimee and Claude? Would I take a bullet—three bullets? Yes. Could I avoid telling a joke about Aimee? No. A person can only be stretched so far before they break.”
The restaurant, Dudley Dan’s, was one of those places with high windows—a holdover from when people didn’t want to be seen drinking, or didn’t want it known whom they were drinking with. Inside, the place was filled with greenish light, like the inside of a pickle jar. Couches were fronted by round tables. A small stage was lit by blue spotlights. Women used to strip here. Jerome was certain of it.
The waitress lit the netted candle on Jerome’s table. He was early and decided to order a second Moonstone Brew Half Time, the recommended craft beer. Soon tables were bristling with groups of people, people who apparently knew one another and some of them seemed happy. But then, too, there were the miserable people. You always had miserable people in a bar. Especially if the place used to be a strip joint. Though no one would mistake that woman at the next table for a hooker; she was wearing a short sleeved turtleneck.
“And you’re doing okay these days?” The words were coming from Jerome’s left. The man, older, with a lined, liver spotted face, pulled out a chair, and sat down opposite Jerome. His eyes were warm, melted looking. A little terrifying.
“I’m fine,” Jerome said, baffled. “Have you confused me with someone else?”
“You’re not a caretaker?”
The man pushed back in his chair, pulled at his right ear, smiled with embarrassment. “So sorry. We’re caretakers. The Caretakers of Penntercrost. It’s our night. You have to get out of the house like anyone else. There are people here who—. I take care of my son. You don’t want to hear this.”
Jerome hesitated. “No, no, I do.”
“But I don’t want to hear it,” the man said. “I’ve heard myself too often. So sorry to trouble you.”
“I see. It’s a club, an organization, something like that?”
“My son needs me twenty four hours a day. So this is the one day some of us arrange to get out. You look like you need rest.” He handed Jerome a card and stared into his eyes. “So you’re doing okay?” he asked.
“Yes—I’m fine,” Jerome insisted.
“You can talk about it.”
“I don’t think I want to talk about it.”
“I’m the same way, man. It’s a privilege, what we do, but it’s rough. I admit that.”
“Well, I’m just here—I know the performer.”
“We came for the singer too. I thought you were one of us.”
“I guess I’m not.”
The man was staring into Jerome’s eyes, without blinking. “Or did you—you aren’t sure if you want to be one of us? I understand that. I was the same way. I had enough to think about. I didn’t see how anything like this could help. But it helped.”
“What are we talking about?”
The door opened, and a harried looking woman scanned the room, eyes widening, apologetic-looking. By the time Jerome turned back the man who had been opposite him was heading to another table.
A tap on Jerome’s shoulder, a spume of garlicky breath in his face.
“You came for me!” It was Keith. Jerome was never before so happy to see his neighbor. With Keith here, he didn’t necessarily appear to be a melancholy loner crying into his beer. He was known.
Keith went on. “Oh wow—Aimee will be so sad she missed you. Claude has a fever—it’s okay. A low fever. He’s going to be okay. Nothing dangerous. But you know Aimee. Don’t tell either of them that I told you this. Their little sister—they lost her years ago. Encephalitis. Aimee is always careful with Claude. As if he could be susceptible. Don’t mention that you know about the little sister. But it explains a lot. Neither of them takes anything for granted.”
Keith hopped on the stage and was soon juggling ping pong balls and scarves. And singing while he juggled. His voice reminded Jerome of his great aunt’s Mel Torme CD. Maybe it was like listening to Frank Sinatra if Sinatra had a severe head cold and considerably less talent. No, that was unfair. Keith had a nice voice. Anyway, Jerome didn’t know much about music.
He felt a new stirring of sadness. He wished Aimee were here, not Keith. And then there she was—next to him, taking off her coat and putting it on the chair at Jerome’s table. Claude was okay, thank god. False alarm. She would finish out the set for Keith.
And then she was onstage and pulling herself up to her full height. She leaned into the microphone in her dopy way and what followed was patter. She was saying small harmless nothings to get the crowd ready, he supposed.
It was awful. Jerome had to hold the sides of his chair. He was so worried for her that he wanted to grab her off the stage. Horse shoes clanged in his chest. Next he was being run over by a truck, his ears buzzing.
Aimee’s voice changed, her mouth assuming a new shape. Jerome shivered. He wouldn’t know if she missed notes—but what he heard—it was a commitment. He knew that much. Her voice—such a clear voice. He felt her voice in his chest, pulling. Such a good voice. He could feel her voice reaching everywhere, even in his feet.
How often in his life would he float inside such moments, when everything seemed to mean more than he could ever say and when he found he had formerly been absolutely wrong—being so wrong it was like a miracle that you ever discover the depths of your wrongness because you’ve fallen too far inside yourself and don’t know how to get up.
He was ashamed of himself. He had been brutal to Aimee when he sat with her on the apartment building’s steps, filling her in on his inability to desire her. And he’d made her embarrassed at the restaurant, pitying her in such an obvious way that she noticed. He was more like his brothers than he wanted to admit. If they met Aimee his brothers would laugh, would see her homely face and big body and they would sneer. Jerome allowed himself a fantasy: she would crush them. Absolutely crush them. Like Godzilla. She would tear them apart, limb from limb, with one swing of her magnificent rear. They didn’t know what they were looking at. She was too good for them, and too good for him.
He remembered how Aimee first let him catch her, how she had trusted his reflexes while baby Claude watched with wide dark eyes from his blanket under the crab apple tree. Maybe she hadn’t even trusted his reflexes. Maybe she always knew she could catch herself in time.
When Aimee finished her act, he tried to hurry to her through the audience.
Finally reaching her, he gasped. She turned to face him, her face radiant.
“Not bad,” he said.
Of course he would say the wrong thing to Aimee. He would say the stupidest fucking thing a man could ever say to another human being he yearned toward. “Not bad,” he repeated, and her face moved away from his. Someone was hugging her—the same man who had so wrongly thought Jerome was what’s called a “caretaker.”
For the next days, until he could get used to it, Jerome was surprised by how aching his loneliness felt. He could feel his loneliness rippling up his spine, like his spine was one of those window shades in an old movie. Mostly though, the problem was in his chest. His chest, stung by bees.
It would take another four months before Jerome could trust himself enough to tell Aimee how he felt about her. She couldn’t stop laughing when he told her, and at first he wasn’t even sure she heard him. She didn’t tell him to leave, and for that he was grateful. Just being in the same room with her and Claude—it felt like a home, a real home, to be there. Maybe that would be enough for him, he thought, although he knew it couldn’t be enough. At least until he could settle down, get back to being himself.
He tried getting into Aimee’s good graces through Claude, which seemed to work, especially when he brought along Silas. Claude couldn’t get enough of Silas. And Silas couldn’t get enough of Claude. The two of them—rolling around on the floor together, Claude patting Silas and looking into first his left then his right ear like he expected to find toys there.
And then, one Friday morning, Jerome learned he was fired. “Efficiency” was cited although he knew someone in Human Resources must have been alerted about the YouTube clip. He was the only one fired in his unit. Chill Poppers. Selling colored ice you could make in your own freezer—his brothers were right about how stupid sounding that was. He himself was right when he told the truth and his twin nephews put that truth on YouTube.
As soon as he got the news he told Aimee, who was outraged, vowed she’d never buy one of those overpriced ridiculous popsicles again. He loved her outrage, the way she stomped around the kitchen in her apartment and took a spatula out of a drawer and waved it in the air at him and Keith and Trent—to make her fury all the more visible. He really loved that.
Until he could find another job Jerome vowed to read Middlemarch from the beginning and finish it. He hadn’t found another job by the point, weeks later, when he did finish the novel, even though at times he thought he’d never have the stamina. Reading George Eliot was like trying to eat a giant block of cheese that kept inflating after every bite. George Eliot really was a mouthful. Sometimes he stared at a phrase of George Eliot’s and committed it to memory to tell Aimee, phrases like “troublous fitfully illumined life” and “blameless people are always the most exasperating.” He didn’t know if Aimee was making fun of him when she listened to him. She laughed at him a lot, that was for certain.
The one obvious, indisputable fact: when he first encountered George Eliot he just wasn’t ready for her.