Under the Rainbow, page 1
Under the Rainbow
This book is for Rita and for Bret and for Nathan
Donald’s toenails are holding him back. They are too long. There is something metaphysical about it, he thinks; about this inverse relationship between nail length and luck. He has had not a bit of good luck for over a month now. At least a month has passed since last he trimmed his nails.
Now, even as he searches the bathroom for nail clippers, he resents his accomodation of what surely is, another part of him warns, mere superstition. But that is what I am, he thinks; a superstitious man. He is made to look silly by his many superstitions, made to look neurotic, although only to himself and his wife Jessica, fortunately, for he takes great pains to conceal his superstitions in public. He knows how unreasonable they are. How indefensible.
For nearly thirty years now—maybe forty; he remembers so little of his childhood—he has been telling himself such things as, If I trim my nails my luck will change. Over the years he has trimmed his nails in excess of three hundred times, but how often have his fortunes correspondingly improved? Once? Twice?
And yet he continues to hope. Metaphysics is his last resort.
“Jess?” Donald calls from the top of the stairs. “Where did you hide the nail clippers?”
The clippers are missing from the bathroom. The medicine cabinet is virtually bare. On the top shelf lays a thermometer, on the bottom a tube of triple antibiotic salve. Donald gazes upon those vacated shelves and goes weak. There are no drugs, no medicines, no remedies anywhere inside his house. The flu season is but a few months away.
Donald’s fifteen-year-old son Travis has been trying to kill himself lately. He tried aspirins but gave himself away by puking in his bedroom. He tried carbon monoxide but the car idling in the garage screwed up the television reception, so that Donald went out to the garage during a Light Days Oval Pads commercial and confiscated the car keys. Travis tried zapping himself in the left temple with the stungun from his grandmother’s purse, but all he accomplished was to whack his head against the wall when he passed out, only to awaken three minutes later with a trumpeting headache. And this time there were no aspirins in the house.
Jessica has emptied the house of all medicines and cleaning solutions, any substance which by ingestion might reduce a healthy six-foot boy to a stony corpse. She has thrown out Donald’s .44 revolver and his .22 automatic. She has replaced the GE gas oven with a Whirlpool electric model. She has junked every knife and pair of scissors and every vaguely bladed object she could find.
“But nail clippers?” Donald asks. “How can he possibly hurt himself with nail clippers?”
“He’s very determined,” she says.
“I honestly don’t think he’s the stabbing or slicing or clipping type.”
“That’s something we need never find out, do we?”
“I think he’s just dabbling,” says Donald. “He’s fascinated by the idea of death. He’s experimenting.”
“Life isn’t a chemistry set. This is dangerous.”
“I blame it on your mother,” Donald says.
Travis is not sad or depressed or morbid or morose or sullen or bellicose or brokenhearted or lonely or despondent. He is neither melancholy nor timorous. Neither dolorous nor gloomy. He is not confused about his sexuality, or, it seems, about anything else. In fact Donald wishes that he could be as happy as his suicidal son.
Travis is eager to die because he loves all things beautiful and he believes that death is the ultimate beauty. The consummate reward. The doorway into the finest art gallery in all creation, meditation room of the sublime, orchestra pit for the celestial musicians, heaven, the culmination, the final frontier.
Donald isn’t so sure.
Donald would feel more comfortable talking to Travis if the boy were not so tall. Donald, at five feet ten and a half inches, feels dwarfed by his slender son. Donald sees himself as a shrinking gnome with grotesquely long toe-nails, dwarfed not so much by Travis’s extra two inches of height as by his exuberance, his élan, his, strange as it sounds, joie de vivre.
“Promise me you won’t try something like this again,” Donald says while holding a cold compress to the goose egg laid on Travis’s skull by the stungun attempt. “Promise me that this nonsense will stop.”
“I wish I could, Dad,” says Travis with a dopey smile. “But sometimes I just feel so dingdonged happy, I can’t help myself.”
Helplessness is a condition Donald understands; too well. He has a mistress.
“Just don’t ever get the idea that I am your mistress,” Donald’s mistress, Leeanne, chides one evening. “I am your lover, your companion, your friend, your soulmate, your confidante, your ally, your counsel, your comrade, your pal.”
To Donald’s eyes, she is none of these things.
“I am also,” she reminds him, “vice president in charge of merchandising. The youngest vice president and the only female vice president in the history of my company. So I am nobody’s fucking mistress. But you, you’re not even management. You’re a photographer, and a freelancer at that. You don’t even have a master’s degree! So if anybody here is a mistress, mister, it’s you. You’re mine.”
“May I borrow your toenail clippers?” he asks.
Donald blames Deirdre, Jessica’s mother, for Travis’s current view of death. Deirdre, a widow, lives three blocks away, visits daily, showers Travis with expensive gifts, and, since before the boy could utter a word, has been schooling him in the doctrine of doom. It is a religion that should have frightened the bejeezus out of the boy, should have made him just as fearful and neurotic as the rest of western civilization. And yet, somehow, Deirdre’s tutelage has backfired. Despite all the sermons Travis endures with a smile, all the pamphlets Deirdre reads to him, he has managed to absorb but a tiny percentage of her dogma.
Deirdre preaches the evil of drugs, sex, rock music, condom machines, masturbation. She prophesizes the end of the world in seven short years, the horror and unrelenting agony of Armageddon, mankind’s innate wickedness, the underlying villainy of life.
Travis listens patiently, even attentively. At the end of each session he pulls her into his arms, kisses her floury cheek. “Thanks for caring so much, Grandma. You’re A-number-one.”
Travis is a flowerchild thirty years too late. Donald wonders if the boy’s brain is producing an overabundance of L-dopa. Or if he, Donald, has somehow passed on a demented gene. If his sperm is stunted. If he is the bequeathor of a fucked-up chromosome.
“He’s dyslexic or something,” Deirdre says to Donald and Jessica.
Jessica says, “He gets straight A’s. He’s an honor student.”
“He must be reading subversive literature.”
“Only what you give him to read,” Donald says.
“This is what happens,” says Deirdre, “when a boy grows up without a strong male role model.”
“Hey, what am I?” Donald asks. “I taught that boy baseball and basketball and soccer and chess. I’ve taken him swimming and skiing and camping and spelunking. I’m teaching him to drive. I gave him his first haircut. I taught him how to pee standing up. I have been with that boy every single day of his entire life!”
Deirdre looks severely at Donald’s wife. “If you don’t get that child to a doctor soon, I will.”
When shaving, Donald always shaves from the left side of his face to the right. Always buttons his shirt from the bottom to the top. Always pauses outside his son’s bedroom before retiring, lays a guardian kiss upon the door, whispers too softly for anyone to hear, “Sleep tight, my darling. Daddy loves you.”
Always, each time Jessica drives off to work or to t
Always, whenever he drives off somewhere, Donald cuts a quick glance back at the house, wishes it well until his return.
Always he pisses into the left side of the toilet bowl. When using a public urinal, he makes certain to squirt into each of the drain holes, moving left to right from the bottom hole to the top.
Always, he locks every door in the car before driving his family anywhere.
Always he pulls on his left shoe first, ties the laces, then puts on the right.
All of these habits, these and the many more he performs daily, are more than mere habits to Donald. He performs them consciously, and feels somehow off-balance, incomplete, if he neglects one of them. They are tiny rituals for him, protective behaviors.
A psychologist might tell Donald that he is an obsessive personality. Donald does not care what a psychologist might say. Psychologists know absolutely nothing about the human soul, its need for rhythm, the vibrations of perfection, the frequency modulation of truth.
All Donald knows is that these little rituals of his, these neurotic habits, are important.
He does not know why.
Donald worries about his son but he does not know how to talk to him. It isn’t natural to be so happy. Especially at fifteen. Maybe, as Jessica fears, such happiness is dangerous. Jessica’s mother certainly thinks so. But Jessica’s mother is dangerous.
“Travis is too big for his age,” she complains. “He’s bigger than anybody in our family, Jessie. Bigger than yours too, Donald.”
“You don’t know everybody in my family,” Donald says.
“I know everybody I care to know. And a few I don’t.”
Donald at fifteen was a thoroughly miserable boy. And look, he thinks, how well I’ve turned out. Superstitious, neurotic, guilt-ridden, clinging to improbable hopes. A perfectly ordinary man. Still, Donald wants something more for his son, his only child.
“Have his hormones checked,” Deirdre advises. “He acts like a neutered cat.”
“His hormones are just fine,” Donald says.
“How do you know? Have you caught him masturbating?”
Donald is too savvy to fall for this trick question. If he answers yes, Deirdre will launch into a tirade about the sins of onanism, the spiritual filth of self-abuse. She might even accuse Donald of Peeping Tomism, closet homosexuality, incestuous tendencies. If he answers no, she will attack him for taking no interest in his son, a negligent father, inferior example of a man.
Donald, for his part, wonders in silence. Is Travis’s senseless happiness evidence of a kind of retardation? Up’s Syndrome? Chemical imbalance? And if so, what is Donald’s duty as a father? To arrange for special training? Drug therapy? Institutionalized care?
Donald wishes he had someone to talk to. Someone to talk through. A kind of bellhorn from whom his crowded thoughts would blossom more eloquently, more persuasively into the ears of Travis, Jessica, Deirdre, the world.
Donald once had a friend who would have served such a purpose well. Jerry, a smooth talker, a natural orator, a former lawyer, dead now, gone these many years. Not many really but enough to be quintessentially gone; four years, four-tenths of a decade. He had died at the age of forty-one, cardiac arrest while honeymooning with his fourth wife in St. Croix. He had been parasailing at the time. When they brought him down out of that blue Caribbean sky (Donald watched it again and again on the videotape Jerry’s wife gave to Donald at Jerry’s funeral), when they splashed him down gently in that blue Caribbean sea, everybody had thought Jerry was sleeping or faking sleep, his body limp, a dangler, he dipped into the waves so politely, a courteous man, no struggle with death.
Donald and Jerry had been buddies since their undergraduate days. College roommates. Both graduated with honors from the Communications program. Donald became a freelance photographer, hustling from one assignment to the next, never earning more than thirty thousand a year, depending on the income from his wife’s flower shop to get them over the rough spots at the beginning, middle, and end of every month. Jerry went on to law school, hung out his own shingle, started his own firm, became a millionaire by the age of thirty-five, married four wives, fathered six children, engaged in (he claimed) affairs with over a hundred different women, and died without a whisper, without a single voiced regret, while gliding like an angel through a thin cerulean sky.
Donald has another friend, a bachelor, never married, his best friend now that Jerry has sailed out of the picture, a high school English teacher named Wright. But Wright hasn’t spoken to Donald in over three months now, won’t answer the door when Donald knocks, won’t reminisce about Jerry over a pitcher of beer, won’t do any of the things they used to do because Donald knows what Wright did not want anyone to know, that Wright is dying too, of prostate cancer, that particularly masculine way to die.
Over three months ago Donald drove to Wright’s house to invite him along on an assignment, photos for the city zoo’s new brochure, mug shots of the polar bears, mudwrestling hippos, spider monkeys at play. Donald arrived on Wright’s block just in time to see Wright’s Toyota heading down the street. Donald follows, stays out of sight, makes it a game. Wright parks beside the Medical Arts Building, goes inside and walks down the long hall of the first floor, enters a waiting room through a doorway marked UROLOGY: DRS. SEHERAN AND ARMITRAGE.
Donald hides in the hallway until the receptionist tells Wright to go into the office now, and Wright trudges into the office, and Donald takes a seat in the waiting room with his ear all but pressed to Dr. Seheran’s door.
Donald hears the doctor’s voice, which should be lilting and melodious with its East Indian accent, but is as flat and black and heavy as a pancake griddle. Wright’s face when he emerges from the office is flat too, the griddle has walloped him but good.
Donald escorts Wright silently to his car, they scuff along side by side, Donald at one point slipping an arm around Wright’s shoulder and squeezing him close. Without goodbyes, Wright climbs into his car and drives away. Donald follows; follows Wright home. But Wright refuses to answer the door when Donald knocks. Wright refuses to answer the bell, the telephone. Donald waits in ambush for him at the high school where Wright teaches, but learns that Wright has gone on extended sick leave, nobody knows why.
Donald telephones daily. He leaves a short message on Wright’s answering machine. “Hey buddy, it’s me again. Just wanted you to know I’m here. Whenever you’re ready, just call. Don’t try to go through this thing alone.”
And Donald sits in the basement where his own office is. His own phone and answering machine. His darkroom. His space. He sometimes sits in the darkroom with the door locked, all lights extinguished but for the dim red bulb he uses when processing film.
Hanging on a single strand of wire suspended across the room is a strip of film, stillshots Donald made from Jerry’s honeymoon videotape. The red light shines through these dangling negatives to cast Jerry dimly on the wall. Jerry hanging limp against a flat gray sky, neither rising nor falling, neither living nor dead.
Sometimes Donald talks to this shadow; he asks questions, he voices fears.
More and more often of late, Jerry answers.
Donald seeks advice, enlightenment, from Mrs. Tesler, Travis’s music teacher. She is a full-bodied woman, amply-fleshed, not yet forty, face as round and happy as a sunflower. They are alone in a bright room filled with instruments, golden tubas and shiny xylophones, a drum set, bass viola, piano. Pasteboard cases embracing clarinets and flutes, oboes and saxophones. Row after row of hard metal chairs. Mrs. Tesler smells of chocolate fudge, a quarter-pound block of it on the piano. Playing softly from the stereo speakers mounted on the walls are James Galway and the Tokyo Strings, a song of the sea, kelpy strands of sweetness.
Donald tries not to look too frequently at Mrs. Tesler’s breasts. One fleeting glimpse every thirty seconds seems about right. He would like to dive into the
She sucks a crumb of chocolate from her middle finger. Donald would like to fuck her in the sound booth. “Travis is a joy,” she says. “Not only is he developing into a very fine baritone, but he is … how can I put this? He’s the most lovely young man I have ever had the pleasure to instruct.”
Donald wonders what to make of this compliment. He has heard similar remarks from the neighbors of serial killers.
“In your opinion then, he’s doing okay? Socially as well as academically?”
“Academically, he’s at the head of his class. But you know that already. Socially, Travis is the most popular boy in school. Everybody adores him. He’s gracious, polite, compassionate, considerate of every other student in the school, no matter what his or her social and/or economic status.”
Donald wants to wring his hands. Oh my, oh my, what’s to become of my boy?
“I’m certain he’ll be elected student body president this fall,” Mrs. Tesler says. “And him only a junior. It’s unprecedented!”
Donald wants to thrust his head between Mrs. Tesler’s all-ensconcing breasts. He wants to sob his guts out as her hand pats softly and her deep voice murmurs, “There there. There there now.” He wants to fall asleep with the taste of chocolate in his mouth. He wants to sleep without dreams, hearing only the muffled pulsing of breast-blood in his ears, muted strains of Galway’s flute, a fluttering thread of silver music adrift in a heavy sea.
Travis is sitting on the ground in the back yard, feeding broken bits of cracker to a gray squirrel. The squirrel takes the crumb from Travis’s hand, chews rapid-fire, swallows, reaches for another.
“Who’s squirrel is that?” Donald asks.
“Nobody’s squirrel, Dad. He’s wild.”