That day I walk home from school carrying Test Patterns, the great painting of my junior year, which has hung for a week outside the principal's office and might have stayed there until the end of the term, but someone had written "sucks" after my name in the lower right-hand corner. I'm upset, but I won't paint it out the way Miss Denver wants me to. I don't know why. I have this idea that some restorer in the future might strip away the patch and see it. What difference would that make? I'm not sure. Perhaps I don't want this to be one of my secrets.
I have to walk because the driver won't let me take Test Patterns on the bus. There is a strong wind from offthe lake, and at every intersection it tries to tear the painting out of my hands. Sometimes it almost lifts me into the air. The stretchers break, first one, and then another, right in the middle. The brown paper wrapping begins to shred into feathery little strips.
"Hey, white! You trying to fly?" a girl yells at me outside the Projects, and I say, "Yes! Yes, I am," because I see that she is smiling. Maybe I am, at that, because I'm running and flapping the halves of Test Patterns like great wings.
It's coming apart, but I don't care. When I reach the building where Catherine and I are living, it is a total mess. Paint cracked, canvas pleated, the stretchers busted and sharp as broken bones. I am happy.
I'm about to fly the painting right into the dumpster in the alley; but no, I think, I must examine it calmly, like a car crash, and so I bundle it into a big wad and carry it up three flights of stairs to the loft that my father has sublet for the year.
There is a little boy sitting on the top step, and he squeezes over to let me and Test Patterns by.
"Hi," I say, but he doesn't answer. Not supposed to talk to strangers. He gets up and walks to the door opposite my own to show me that he isn't simply casing the joint, and as I fumble with my keys he keeps his hand on the doorknob as if he's going to open it any second now.
When I pop out again to gather up the pieces of Test Patterns which are trying to get away back down the stairs, he's sitting down again, just where I first saw him.
"Caught ya," I say, and he blushes, his big stuck-outears most of all. "Are you looking for somebody?" I ask, because he isn't playing. He doesn't look as if he even knows how to play.
"No. I live there." He twists around and points at the big door across the hall. It is gray metal and has four different locks. As I think about it, I realize that I have seen him before--a short person usually standing behind somebody in a skirt.
While I walk around duck-fashion, picking up scraps of brown paper and splinters, he makes himself useful by pointing out all the little bits that I'm missing.
"Thanks. Thanks a lot," I say.
"You're welcome," he says, so seriously that I am sorry all at once that I was being sarcastic. I smile to show him I didn't mean it.
"Can I use your telephone?" he says.
I say of course, and leave the door to the loft open so he can wander in by himself. The phone is on the wall next to the doorway and he can run for it in case I try to grab him while he talks.
I hear him say, "I got locked out," but don't pay much attention after that, because I am busy spreading out Test Patterns and thinking about the cracks and holes and wondering if they don't in fact make it better than it was before. I even begin to look kindly on "Celine Morienval sucks," and am about to get out a Magic Marker of my own and add a few more comments about Celine and what she does and doesn't do, when the boy says, "Can my mom talk to you?"
When I take the receiver, I hear a woman laughing.The laugh isn't for my benefit, however, because when I say hello she stops laughing and says very seriously, "I apologize for all the trouble Jacob is giving you."
"It's no trouble," I say. "He just wanted to use the telephone."
"Well, thank you, anyway. He was supposed to go home with a friend after school. I don't know what could have happened ..." She speculates for a while about what might have happened. Imagines emergencies, consults her datebook, considers quarrels. I begin to tune out, just saying "Right" every now and then. She has a nice voice. I understand why she has to explain everything, but I'm having trouble listening because I'm thinking about my painting. The boy, Jacob, is thinking about it, too, walking around it and giving it an occasional nudge with his toe. To see if I really killed it, I suppose.
"What?" I say. Something on the audio track has caught my attention.
"I said I'm afraid I don't know your name."
"Celine. Celine Morienval."
"I'm Mrs. Barker. Jacob's mother. I understand that you're a friend of Mel Hollingsford."
I don't know where she got that idea.
"No. I'm just living here. My stepmother and me. We're subletting the apartment from Mr. Hollingsford."
"Oh. I see," she says. She wants to know a lot more then. How old I am, where my father is, what my stepmother does, and the name of my school. This I discover is all very reasonable on her part, because she is aboutto ask if Jacob can stay with me until she gets home from work.
"Jake," I say, holding the phone so she can hear. "Do you want to stay with me, or should your mother call Mrs. Puccio downstairs and see if you can go there? What do you want? To stay here? He wants to stay here," I report.
His mother promises to be home by five-thirty, and I think I remember to say goodbye, but I might not have, because I know all at once what I am going to write about Celine on Test Patterns.
I get busy right away. I have this big fat marker that makes in a single stroke a red line with gold borders. It is rather wonderful, but deadly poisonous, so I don't use it very often. Now, however, seems the time.
"But Can Celine Fly?" I write in big letters, right across the middle.
"Who's that?" asks Jake, who is watching me with great interest.
"That's me. I am Celine Morienval." I underline my name once and then begin to draw, very carefully, big drops dripping from the line. They might be tears.
"Are you a artist? My dad's a artist."
"Yes, I am an artist." I take out my special silver marker, but I'm distracted by this child and I don't know what to write next. What does Celine do? Whatever will become of her?
"Can I write something?" he asks.
"Yes. Yes, you can." I thrust the marker into his hand and gallop to the refrigerator. When in doubt, see what is in the refrigerator. There is not much. I find a long cucumber wrapped in plastic. An extraordinary object. From Chile, I think.
When I get back to Test Patterns, Jake is hopping from foot to foot, waving the marker around.
"What should I write?" he asks, and I am disappointed in him.
"I can't tell you. You must make up your own mind." But then I forgive him and offer a hint. "It has to be about Celine Morienval."
He nods thoughtfully and scrunches down and starts printing very carefully in the lower left-hand corner of the painting. He has to check every now and then on the spelling of my name, even making me move at one point so that he can see. I'm very touched, but I forget about him, because I see all at once that Test Patterns is not a test pattern at all. It is a flight plan. A convergence of flee and fly. Everything is marked out clearly, because it is for use at night. Here is Celine Morienval, and here is the way she was meant to fly. There are dangers--electrical storms, imminent collisions, warning lights. It is all very clear. It can be made better, of course. There is so much to do.
"There," Jake says.
"There." In very neat second-grade printing he has written: CELINE MORIENVAL HAS DIRTY FEET.
He's watching me carefully with his giggly little eyes in case I try to belt him. I don't belt him, but I'm crushed. Seen through. When I stand up, I can see that he's right. Celine Morienval has dirty feet. I kicked my sneakers off as soon as I came in, and the loft floor is black with graphite and charcoal. Neither Catherine nor I are big on vacuuming.
"Feet of clay!" I cry. "Feet of clay!" I march with as much dignity as possible over Test Patterns or Flight Plan or whatever it is. I can feel the texture of the paint with my bare feet. It is extraordinary. It is like the texture of ripples fossilized in slate.
"Can I do that?"
Jake sits down and takes off his shoes and socks. He folds his socks up and puts them in his shoes, and then trots around the loft on his little pink feet to get them dirty. I am beginning to like this Jacob person.
"Feet of clay!" he yells and jumps on the painting. We march around for a while. He shows me the polka hop. You may think it is strange for an artist to behave this way. It is not. We all hate what we create.
I'm suddenly so bored I want to die.
"Let's watch TV," I say. Jake stops dancing around and looks at me with wild surmise.
"Do you have a TV?"
"Of course. Don't you?"
"No," he says. "My mom doesn't believe in TV."
"She must be a remarkable woman."
"A remarkable woman. A woman of almost superhuman powers of disbelief."
"Yeah," he says. "Where is it?"
It is behind a screen at one end of the loft. My father wanted to "store it away" when we first moved in. Actually unplug it, but I couldn't allow that. I love TV. I watch it as much as I can. It is almost a duty, I think. You see, one day there will come a moment when everyone in the whole world will be watching television at exactly the same time. Everyone. The President and the rulers of the world. The Dalai Lama. Nomads in their tents. Eskimos. Chilean torturers and transplant surgeons. Operators of nuclear plants. Terrorists making their little bombs out of plastique. It is hard work. They all need a break. "Let's see what's on TV," says the Pope to Jerry Falwell.
At that moment, when we're all seated very quietly in front of the television, bathed in its comforting glow like limp little mummies, all the same soft, pale color at last--at that moment ...
There is a mystery here. I'm not sure what will happen. Perhaps we'll all do a slow fade. The real people will be able to relax. No one will be watching anymore every move they make. Rhoda will tell Mary Tyler Moore about this guy she likes and Michael J. Fox will help his dumb sister with her homework. Everything will be better. There'll be no distractions.
"Let's watch Judge Wapner," I say and turn the set on.
"Judge Wapner on The People's Court. It's like a real court. If you have a problem, you don't take the law into your own hands. You take it to Judge Wapner."
"Yeah," says Jake. We sit down on the couch together. We are still there. We don't fade or disappear. Someone must not be watching. Someone must be out shopping or going to the bathroom. It is probably my grandmother. I used to live with her before she moved to Sun City. She watches TV sometimes, but warily, on her feet, with a book in her hand or the spoon she's been stirring the soup with. So she won't get caught.
She worried about how much television I watched when I first went to live with her. She didn't think I was making enough friends my own age. She suggested once that I "plan my viewing" and bought me a TV Guide, but I couldn't use it. I tried, but I felt like a fool. It's one thing to watch Dallas and Dynasty, but it's another to plan to watch them. I mean, when a bum goes through the dumpster behind McDonald's, he doesn't plan what he's going to eat. Maybe he likes it to be a surprise. I am like that bum. A sort of bag lady of television. I just like to see what I'll find.
I show Jake how to work the remote control. I don't think he's ever seen one. As a matter of fact, my grandmother's television didn't have one either, and I didn't appreciate how wonderful a remote control is. I thought they were for people with broken legs, old ladies who have these chairs that stand them up, but slowly. People in bed with the curtains open and no pajamas.
I was very wrong. A remote control opens a whole new dimension of television viewing. Without it, life is flat, dull. With it, various, new, exciting. One need never be completely bored again. Even if all the channels have boring stuff, you can zip through them, looking for that little high, or you can construct interesting dialogues by going back and forth between one program and another. It is always better.
I call the remote control my zapper. You don't want to even consider buying three rooms of carpeting for $212 (thick, bouncy foam padding and installation extra)? Zap! What will happen if you don't send the evangelist that you see before you four and one half million dollars? Don't you realize that he will be struck dead right before your ... Zap!
Jake picks up the principles rapidly. For ten minutes we watch nothing but commercials.
"Wait! Wait!" I say. "This is my favorite." A small town somewhere in the Midwest, washed with eternal sun and pure air.
"Why do you like this one?" Jake wants to know.
"I lived there before I came here. That's my hometown." The camera, obviously a stranger, picks its way down the street, asking everyone: Where is that Burger King? They all know. In my town they all know.
This is a Burger King town ... We know how burgers should be ...
"That's my little brother on his tricycle. Do you see? He's pointing. He's saying, 'There it is! It's that way!'And that's my best friend, Laura Cunningham ... Her dad just bought her that car she's washing ... And there're some people who just got married. Oh, look! It's Debby and Steve! What a relief! I can't tell you! Debby had mono and they thought they were going to have to postpone everything, but she looks great to me ..."
"That isn't real!" says Jake, pushing his face into mine. "You don't really know those people!" He is scornful, but nervous about the tears in my eyes.
No. He's right. It isn't my hometown. I just made that up. But why, then, am I so happy for Debby and Steve?
I blow my nose and then we really do watch The People's Court. The case of the Flagrant Feline. The case of Button, Button, Who's Got the Button. I can't tell who's lying and who's telling the truth. But justice is done. Judge Wapner knows.
Jake's mother and Catherine arrive during a news special on nuclear-plant safety. They must have met outside the door, but once inside the loft, they drift apart, like boxers retiring to neutral corners.
Catherine glances at Jake and me in a faint, shocked way and wanders into the kitchen with her shopping bags. I'm not alarmed by this behavior. It is Catherine's way of saying hello. The truth is that we don't get along too well. Or perhaps it is more serious than that. Whenever I drift into view, I seem to induce in Catherine profound existential anguish. What my old friend and Godpapa Jean-Paul calls nausea. She watches me closely for signs of fading around the edges, indications of growing insubstantiality, the first symptoms of deconstruction. Thisis not, perhaps, as loony as it sounds. After all, no one told her when she was a young graduate student brushing strands of hair from her ovoid face that the French professor with whom she had fallen in love had secreted somewhere in Iowa a lumpy adolescent. I was an un-looked-for absurdity, a serpent in the bosom, a cloud before the sun, a shock, a handful, as my grandmother announced upon her sudden decision to move to Sun City, where, to her intense regret, teenagers were allowed only on closely supervised visits. There was a short, bitter custody battle between my father and my mother, and Catherine lost. My father hopes that we will grow to love one another. We must have much in common since we are so nearly the same age, he observed just before he left on an impromptu lecture tour of seven major European universities. A man of powerful imagination and boundless hope, he has been gone six weeks now.
While Catherine is unloading her bag of gourmet goodies from Marshall Field's, Jake's mother is surveying the premises and wondering if any of this could possibly be catching. Ordinarily I would arm myself with cold contempt, but she is a comely person, even wearing running shoes underneath her pin-striped suit. Jake is glad to see his mother, and while he distracts her, I shuffle the worst of the mes--Test Patterns--off into a corner.
"You must be Celine," says Mrs. Barker, and gives me a terrific smile which warms me up in spite of myself. "Thanks for taking care of Jacob for me. I don't know what I would have done. I had this presentation to giveat the bank, and well ..." She laughs in a helpless way which must send all the vice presidents at the bank running for a glass of water.
"That's okay. It was no trouble."
"Thank you, anyway." Her eyes wander about and then come to rest again on her son. "Jacob! Where are your shoes and socks? And look at your feet!"
Jake panics, naturally, and looks wide-eyed at me. How could I have led him astray in this way?
"We were just watching some TV ..." I begin, trying to fix her eye with mine so that she won't ask me to look at my feet, too. I'm saved by Catherine moseying up. She's frowning in that perplexed way that means she is getting ready to come to the surface and be offensive.
"Turn that bloody thing off, Celine. A person can't think," she says. A remark which demonstrates how dismally she fails to appreciate the point of television. She stares at Mrs. Barker. "I hate American television," she says.
Mrs. Barker blinks rapidly. "We don't have a television ourselves," she says finally. "I don't know why. We just never felt the need ..."
Catherine snorts. "Nobody in their right mind would watch that junk." Mrs. Barker hardly seems to hear. There is something else she wants to tell us. "I'm working full-time now--since Jacob's father and I have separated--and I try to make the time that Jacob and I are together special," she says quietly.
"Yes. It isn't how much time you spend with your child, you know. It's the quality of the time. We like to pay full attention to each other in the evening, don't we, Jacob? Make every minute count." She tousles Jacob's hair and immediately smooths it out again
Catherine has never heard anything so bizarre. "Really?" she asks. "What do you do?"
"Oh, play games, talk about our day. That sort of thing. We're building a model airplane right now. I'm actually enjoying it. I think I must have been deprived as a child."
"Why?" asks Catherine, very seriously.
"Well. You know. Only boys were supposed to build model airplanes ..." It makes Mrs. Barker uneasy to have to explain her little joke. She doesn't realize that humor is simply a mystery to Catherine.
"Sounds a bloody bore to me," says Catherine bitterly.
Mrs. Barker looks her over coolly. She is not, I realize, without nerve of her own, and she's beginning to come to some decisions about how to deal with Catherine. "It isn't a bore," she says simply. "And there isn't anyone I would rather spend time with. Jacob? Get your shoes and socks on now. We're going home."
Jacob dodges out from under her hand and runs to the window. "Can I come over here tomorrow?" he shouts out over the city.
"Really, Jacob!" Mrs. Barker blushes. "I imagine that Celine will have things of her own to do tomorrow."
"No. It's okay with me," I say, but this answer doesn't seem to please her for some reason, and so we part, ships in the night, nothing settled.
When Jacob and his mother are out of the way, Catherine discovers Test Patterns.
"What's this?" she asks.
"You know. Test Patterns."
"I can see that. What the hell have you been doing to it?"
"Oh, this and that. Trying out some things. You know. 'We murder to create,'" I say, making airy little gestures in the air.
"'Dissect.' 'We murder to dissect.'"
"Oh. Is that right?" She is right, of course. I don't know how I got mixed up about that. Murderers should keep their motives straight.
"Oh, well," says Catherine to console me. "It wasn't much good anyway."
"Yes, it was!" I bellow so suddenly we are both stunned. "And now I've ruined it!"
Catherine is surprised that anyone could care so much about a piece of canvas with paint smeared on it. "If you feel that bad, do it over."
"No! No! No! It can't be done over. It's destroyed! Lost forever!" I blubber around the loft a few more times while Catherine makes one or two other dumb suggestions before she goes off in disgust to fry some eggs.
I don't care. Blubbering absorbs my whole attention. I am one of the world's great blubberers.
"Ruined forever! My life is ruined!" I bellow again, and wobble off to bed, a great blob of melting Jell-O.
My bed is high in the air, close to the ceiling, a sort of swing mit futon--the fancy of Mel Hollingsford of which I am most fond. I pull up the rope ladder after me and moan a bit more, assuming the pose in which I would most like to be found dead. But my heart isn't really in my grief. I am distracted by the calendar pasted over my head, each succeeding day blotted out with Magic Marker and imagination. By swinging my legs up and resting my feet on the ceiling, I can make my bed sway gently as I contemplate my future. Three more weeks of school, and I shall burst forth like a rose in time-lapse photography. It's all arranged. A little deal worked out with my father when I arrived just after the New Year. I am going to spend the summer with my friend Sybil in a small villa in Montebene in the foothills above Florence. And--I have not confided this point to anyone yet--I am not coming back. All I have to do to ascend to this heaven is show a little maturity. My father's exact words. "Show a little maturity," he said, which I've doped out to mean: Pass all your courses, avoid detection in all crimes and misdemeanors, don't get pregnant.
He was alarmed, you see, by those reports pouring in like early returns from Iowa. Nothing had been left out. The plastic shoes melting in the dryer, the rabid pet squirrel, the two counts of obscenity (the first when I tried out for the cheerleading squad, the second for my entry in the Sons of Freedom Art Show, theme: My Family), the almost bombed courses in trigonometry and biology, and finally, of course, my unsanctioned stint as roadmanager for the all-girl rock band Oozing Baby in its triumphant tour throughout northwest Iowa. A story, it has been said, for which the world is not yet ready.
Show a little maturity, indeed. It has been child's play. (19) I'm not only passing all my courses but will at the end of the term have enough credits to graduate a year early. I have been as honest and forthright in my dealings with authority as my natural instincts will allow, and as for getting pregnant ... May I quote Mrs. Barker: "We don't have a television ourselves. I don't know why. We just never felt the need."
Show a little maturity. Really, it's hard not to be offended. If I was any more mature, I'd have Alzheimer's disease. No, shortly I will be drifting over the hills of Tuscany, my box easel strapped to my back, the Mediterranean sun bronzing my brow. What could possibly go wrong?