February 11, 2015
A walk, that’s what he needed, and maybe he’d try to catch his friend Wolf for lunch. He might tell Wolf about the baby, even though he and Alice had discussed waiting another month, until the end of her first trimester, before they let the news out.
Outside the art department building, the wind bit through his jacket. He gave up on the idea of a walk and headed straight for the student union. Heat hit him as soon as he entered the glass building, and plinking sounds wafted from the game room. A few scattered people sat at small tables in the dining court, no one paying any attention to the overhead TVs. On the far side, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked the snow-covered soccer field. In spite of the wide-open expanse of glass, this place reminded him of an underground bunker. Wolf wasn’t here; his 2-D design class must be running late. Rolly sat at a table by the windows, blinking into the glare.
Last night at dinner, Alice had talked about getting a new car. “Ours feels like I’m driving a Band-Aid box. I want more protection for the baby.”
When he’d protested—they’d be leaving for Norway when the baby was six weeks old, and their cars would remain here in a garage—she’d come up with the idea that they could buy a car over there and, after the year was over, bring it back. Up to now, they hadn’t talked about a car for Norway; he’d assumed they’d buy a junker.
“And we’d save on storage,” she’d added. “Our cars wouldn’t sit idle for a year.”
“Good idea,” he’d said, feeling boxed in. Why did everything have to change?
She’d spread out brochures for baby paraphernalia: car seats, bassinets, changing tables.
“Do we really need all this before we leave?”
“Some we’ll take.”
She smiled her big-hearted, infuriating smile. “Don’t worry. We’ll get the minimum. I just wanted your opinion.”
His opinion? So he now was a baby products consultant? “It’s all fine with me.”
He stared at the white soccer field, still annoyed, scraped back his chair, and headed for the cafeteria line. These days he and Alice were on a balancing scale: what lifted her up brought him down.
Returning with a loaded tray, he saw Wolf wend his way through the tables.
“Good class?” Rolly asked, recognizing the excitement of teaching well and feeling envious.
“A very good class.” Wolf pulled off the gray sweater he used for a winter coat. “Some of them are getting it, the idea of movement edge to edge. I’m hungry. That looks good.” He eyed Rolly’s sandwich. “And you?”
“Nothing’s going right.”
Wolf shrugged, then mimed that some force was tugging him toward the cafeteria. “I’ll be back.”
His Terminator routine was growing old, Rolly thought, as he picked up Wolf’s sweater from the floor to spread it on the heat vent under the window and noticed a skinny, balding guy with a baby in a back carrier stop at a nearby table. The guy wrestled out of the unwieldy contraption holding the baby. Once the kid was in the highchair, he began to bang his fists.
Wolf slid his tray onto the table. “Chimichangas and Chinese fried rice, side by side in the cafeteria. This is America’s great contribution to civilization: voluptuous variety. This and your beautiful on- and off-ramps.”
“Ramps?” Rolly turned from the kid now squawking over a juice box Patient Dad had produced from somewhere.
Wolf, who’d noticed the kid and Patient Dad, turned his back to them. “For your highways. Ramps.”
“Don’t overlook our indestructible plastic lawn furniture.”
The baby threw a banana on the floor and started screaming.
Wolf shifted to see what Rolly was staring at, then shot Rolly a look that said the man had no business bringing a kid into the Union. Rolly agreed. Today he wasn’t going to mention Alice’s pregnancy. To divert Wolf from baby and dad, he said he’d gotten a travel grant of five thousand dollars.
A loud crash erupted. Beneath the kid’s highchair, an overturned tray wobbled in a puddle of coffee. Patient Dad noticed them and said, “I guess I better confine this fellow to home for a while,” as he dabbed at the coffee with a handful of napkins. A kitchen worker rushed forward with towels.
Wolf shook his head. “I do not understand why having children is such a common practice. Children are like puppies, briefly cute when they are young, but forever afterward a nuisance.”
“Let’s get out of here.” How was he ever going to tell Wolf about the baby? “Come to my studio. I want to hear what you think about what I’ve been working on.”
“I thought you were stuck.”
“I started something new as a break from my canoes. I was starting to run dry.” This wasn’t true. With the baby being the nonstop focus at home, he’d decided to work at the college and begun fiddling with some tree branches he’d collected awhile ago and had not bothered to take to his home studio. “I want to see if you think there are any possibilities. Maybe I’m overlooking something.”
Opening his studio door rattled the big windows opposite. His studio was like a large shoebox, thirty by twelve, with high ceilings, a white linoleum floor, and a bank of east-facing windows that leaked wind and rain. But here, unlike at home, he felt unwatched. On one long wall he’d positioned bookshelves, a desk, a cluster of photographer’s lights on stands, and a beat-up couch covered with a Navajo blanket. Heaped near the windows were the casts he’d made from branches that suggested human gestures.
From each limb, he stripped the branchlets and most of the bark, then wrapped what remained with gauze, strips of handmade paper, a thin mix of plaster and polymer, creating his white, deeply textured casts. These he slit open to discard the original wood and left the hollow, hinged cast open along one side. Their watery shadows flickered on the white wall from the draft.
“It’s freezing in here,” he said. “Maintenance must have turned off the heat.” He hooked his parka on the coat tree, wishing he hadn’t invited Wolf.
The casts looked puerile and stupid. He’d been fooling himself to think he might be onto something.
Wolf looped his sweater near Rolly’s parka and strolled toward the cluster of casts. He picked up one that looked like an anorexic’s arm, balanced it in his hand, tipped it this way and that, then snorted and replaced it among the others.
Wolf said, “You, I see, have been reading the French. Everything must be recast — is that it? — in this age when we have all been so divorced from reality that we are only stirred by copies. Authenticity is no longer possible, yes?”
Rolly turned away, to his desk, picked up a squash ball, and hurled it against the far wall, not aiming at Wolf or the casts, but coming satisfyingly close. “The problem with intellectuals is they’re full of shit.”
Wolf shrugged. “You are right, of course. Give me a few moments, will you?”
Hiding his embarrassment, Rolly sauntered to where the squash ball had come to rest. “Look all you want.”
He couldn’t think of a way to ask Wolf to leave without making a big deal, so he juggled the squash ball and stared out the window. Outside, a misty snow was falling, leaching the scene of substance. It looked like a Whistler watercolor.
Wolf stirred. Rolly turned.
“Rolly, I must tell you: This work has no soul. Not like your canoes—that’s good work, I told you, but this — Rolly, you must avoid this — the only word is ‘pretty.’ An interior decorator would put these in the lobby of a corporate headquarters. Or spray them silver and hang them in a shopping mall.”
“Don’t be shy, Wolf; speak your mind.”
“You asked for my views. Now you don’t want them? But you know I tell you the truth. I am your friend. Would you rather I flatter you?”
Yes, he would rather be flattered. “You’re right. You’re saying what I know. I guess that’s why I asked you. I just don’t like having it confirmed.” Rolly walked up to Wolf and squeezed his shoulder. “You’re a good friend, but you don’t have to be such a good friend.”
Rolly nudged one of the casts. “Wolf, this crap embarrasses me.”
“The canoes were good. What happened to you?”
He couldn’t tell Wolf about the pressure from Alice, about the baby, about not being able to work on anything that meant anything real. He picked up a prism. The room, the windows, Wolf, everything was upside down.
“I got sidetracked.”
“Lost your nerve?”
“I don’t think that’s it.” What if this was just the beginning?
Wolf peered at him, waiting for more. After the silence expanded, he said, “You must move on or back. The boats, that has promise.”
Outside, the sky had darkened. When Rolly turned to face Wolf, the studio seemed too bright. “That’s what my sabbatical is about.”
Wolf said nothing but Rolly knew he was thinking that the answer wasn’t to be found in traveling to someplace new. Wolf walked toward the coatrack and reached for his sweater. “You can’t wait for some intervention. Right now, you must hold tight or you lose. Like fishing, you must not slacken when the fish fights. You play it wherever it goes. Even when it plunges deep, you must not weaken. If you don’t do this, you become,” he paused to pull on his sweater, “like all the others around this school: safe and dead.”
Rolly waited for the door to close. When he no longer heard Wolf’s footsteps, he flipped on the spotlights and aimed them at the cluster of casts. He was humiliated to have made this shit, furious that he’d tried to delude himself that it wasn’t total shit, and upset that he’d wasted so much time. He picked up a cast that had reminded him of a woman extending her toe into cold water and tore it in half, then grabbed another one, much shorter, shredded it, and in a fury, ripped and tore every one, paper and flecks of plaster flying, until nothing whole remained. Out of breath, he gathered what was left and stuffed it in the trash. Garbage: that’s all he’d produced since the summer.
Panting, he stared at the overflowing bin. Next to the black plastic, a scrap of white paper had lodged next to damp coffee grounds, causing a brown stain to seep into the paper fibers. A jagged coastline appeared. He retrieved the soggy triangle, pinned it on the wall next to some drawings, and stood back. Maybe what he’d been trying to do wasn’t entirely worthless. Maybe he’d let the baby business undermine him. With sufficient concentration, he could figure out how to salvage something. Wolf was right. He’d lost his way. But there had been some good impulse at the beginning. He’d collected branches that had reminded him of gestures. What he should have been looking for was branches that suggested wounds. Not the pretty but the painful.
He pulled from his cupboard scraps of leather, coils of copper wire, and metal fastenings. He would start again, make new casts, then pierce, cut, and tear them; then he would repair them with sutures, splints, bandages. He would make casts for his casts. He laughed, thinking of it. He would undo the natural prettiness of the branches he’d selected and make pieces that ached. As they should.
LYNN SLOAN’s work has appeared in Ascent, American Literary Review, Connecticut Review, Hawai’i Review, Inkwell, The Literary Review, Nimrod, Puerto del Sol, The Briar Cliff Review, American Fiction Volume 13, Roanoke Review, Thin Air, and The Worcester Review, among other journals. Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and been finalists for the Dana Award, the Katherine Anne Porter prize, and the Faulkner-Wisdom Competition. A visual artist, Sloan’s fine art photographs have been widely exhibited and collected by museums, galleries, and private collections in the United States and abroad. She received her Master of Science from the Institute of Design and taught at Columbia College of Chicago. She lives in Evanston, Illinois. Visit her at http://www.lynnsloan.com.
Adapted from The Principles of Navigation, by Lynn Sloan, Copyright © 2015 by Lynn Sloan. With the permission of the publisher, Fomite Press.
Author photo credit: Chester Alamo-Costello