At this late hour, only four men remained at the balcony bar, stoking each other’s laughter with shouted stories. One even bent at the waist, g ripping the back of a chair. Performing for me. Soon, I knew, would come the sharp compliment or offered beer, and I prepared myself by seeming unaware, a man immersed in his life. I stroked Lucy’s hand, doing that thing where I looked from her hands up to her eyes and down again. What she was saying in that low voice, however, the one she risked only when we were alone, I can’t rightly say, for I was listening to the men.
Then Vandaline arrived, and they fell silent. Lucy stood to meet him.
“Ugh, you’re one of those people who’s always heeere,” she said. “It’s like I’m gonna turn around and trip on you.”
“Look, my priest is gonna blush at this thing when I print it in full. All my sins. But I was talking to Max, and he said, and I quote, ‘the heart of his technique is something called’—yeah, here it is—‘the thread.’ ”
A show tune played through the house speakers.
“Now you answer this,” Vandaline said, “and I’m gone. I mean, I walk out the door.”
“It’s a skill you should practice more,” Lucy said.
“Doll, whatever you think of me, I’m after the truth. A servant of the truth. A butler to it, truly,” he said. “Now I wasn’t wrong about everything, was I? Your man Maximilian printed that profile about Giovanni, so I did what any reporter worth his salt would do, didn’t I? I checked the facts, humbly, and published them. Humbly.”
“But what happened then?” I asked, half-turning to the men who tittered at the attention, like schoolboys before an upper-classman.
“Did I get overzealous?” Vandaline said. “Guilty as charged. But, boy, oh, boy, did you prove me wrong. Hell, I’m shaken up just standing here. You think I wanna stand here after what happened tonight? I’m just a butler with my plate, asking someone to put the truth on it, so I can serve it to the public. Warm and tasty. Now, I’m gonna correct the whole thing in tomorrow’s column. My god, am I gonna correct it. This is gonna be the best goddamn advertising you ever got—not that you need it. But, in all seriousness, please, just tell me about the thread.”
“If Max lied earlier,” I said, “why isn’t he lying now?”
“Are you saying he is?” Like a man in a shootout pulling for his gun—with that practiced, defensive quickness—the reporter raised the pen to his pad.
“No,” I said.
To my surprise Vandaline didn’t harass the pause that followed, waiting for me, I guess, to say more. Bless him. Despite himself, he was a collaborator. When earlier in the night, Max’s patter was derailed by the appearance at the foot of the stage of a stubby man declaring that I was a fraud and pretender—well, I immediately recognized Vandaline and was pleased, for I knew he would insist on joining us onstage, where I could do him once and for all.
So it was when he appeared at the balcony bar. In my churning waltz with the public, there was a time to lead and a time to be led, and the upstairs bar of the Communiqué at two a.m. did feel like the venue for a second performance, more intimate than the night’s formal entertainment. “The thread,” I said. Downstairs they’d started stacking chairs and clearing the stage. Shadowy figures scooped up a table’s glasses, four in a hand, and pushed, back first, through the doors. “Well, okay, so most people believe imitation to be an art of exaggeration. There’s truth to this, of course. It’s important, as a tool, it is. But it comes second.” Bernard, I noticed only then, sat at the end of the bar. It might have been a photo of him if not for the smoke rising from his cigarette.
“Now I was fortunate to be born with the elastic limbs, the perfect pitch you and your colleagues have been kind enough to write about. But I would have been lost without this knowledge: The real thing, the heart of it, isn’t exaggeration, or even duplication. It’s selection: knowing which parts of a person to take and which to leave alone.” I frowned the way people do to indicate a concept too complex to be articulated. “You see, everyone disguises himself with certain gestures. A man clearing his throat while snapping open a newspaper, the way a woman covers her yawn on the bus —these gestures are a costume. Now some do it better than others. Some have made perfect little suits for themselves: politicians, for instance, movie stars. Those charismatic types who tool around in their bodies like rented sports cars. They’re smooth, right?”
Vandaline held the notepad at his chest like a cop writing a ticket.
“The miracle of the world, Mr. Vandaline, is that no one’s disguise is perfect. There is in every person, no matter how graceful, a seam, a thread curling out of them. It’s like a pimple that rouge cannot cover up, a patch of thinning hair. Often, it’s the almost- unnoticed thing that’s a thread: a bit lip, a slight sigh. But when pulled by the right hands, it will unravel the person entire.”
In the silence I knew would follow I found myself thinking of Mama. How she and Mr. Derringer looked that day in the glass of the principal’s door: a patch of red (Mama), a blob of black (Derringer). It was a sort of magic, what the closed door did to them, or seemed like it from the outer office where I was made to wait. Across from me, the principal’s secretary, Mrs. Chappabelle, mouthed words she clacked on a typewriter, out of view. Every few minutes she’d look up at the desk’s basket of candy canes. “You don’t want a tasty treat?”
The smile I was holding began to wilt.
“Suit yourself. But if you change your mind, you know exactly where they are.” She winked and had lowered her gaze to the typewriter, thank God, when I burped up, “Suit yourself.”
“What was that?” The phone on her desk rang. “Principal Derringer’s Office . . . Oh, hi, Susan. Yes. But. No. He’s in a . . . you want me to —perfect. Five o’clock at the — okay, great.”
There was a giggling by the door where two girls stood. They grinned like hobos: mouths pocked with missing teeth. “Freak,” they whispered. “Monkey.” I was standing up when the principal’s door yawned open, and out strode Mama. There must have been an event at the library for she wore her fanciest dress: the checkered one with the belted waist and big bow at the collar. It didn’t matter what she wore. Mama was the queen of every room.
She thanked Mrs. Chappabelle, took my hand, and walked me out of the office. Outside it was overcast, and the wind sprayed a hint of salt on the school building, Main Street, and the animal- faced cars as if to prevent it all from going bad. When we reached the curb, Mama looked down at me with an exaggerated frown. It did no harm. Beatrice Bernini was a beautiful woman, I’d heard other parents say. “That Derringer’s a real crow, isn’t he? Someone ought to tell him life’s already started.”
With that, she snatched my hand and just short of skipped me across Main Street, past Lipswitch Avenue to the gusty boardwalk where she plopped down on a bench and promptly folded her legs. She patted the space next to where she sat, and I joined her. Before us stretched the ocean, its gulls and clouds. “Ah, school’s all screwed up. How to laugh. What jokes are. Those should be the first things they teach you. Come.” I sat stiff as a post until she’d ducked behind me and lit a cigarette. “Mr. Heedling, huh?”
Heedling. Whatever interests had led him to the profession of teacher, a desire on his part to spend his weeks in the company of their teen-year- old boys and girls could not have been counted among them. The paraded sense of humor, the jaunty manner some teachers perfect so as to endear themselves to adolescent tastes, Heedling never attempted. He spoke to us like a drunk at a bar: often gruff, rarely dishonest. Word was, he had been discharged from the army after falling victim to, or helping perpetrate, a massacre on a distant, palm-treed island. His method of instruction was one of impassioned repetition. The previous week he had repeated, Don’t you envy Sisyphus? We were forced to scribble it in our notebooks thirty times.
“What did Helen of Troy look like?” he asked that day.
As he lectured, he stalked and circled our desk chairs, curling Mary Hammerworth’s Anthology of Greek Myth around its spine. Since he could fly into a rage if he suspected the slightest bit of day dreaming or note-passing, the class did its best to strike postures of attention. For my classmates, I guess, this involved some theater. Not for me. I loved the Greeks. They weren’t like other stories where you, the reader, decide if they are any good. Questioning Atlas’s or Icarus’s fate was like complaining the ocean rolled the wrong way or the sky carried the weather with too much pomp.
Inspired by those stories, I’d been on good behavior all semester. Each fall was that way, offering a brief window of renewal. In recess I watched the older boys play stickball. The way they strode and wound up to fling the ball, all of it such glamorous evidence of what growing up could do, and every night I went to bed hoping the Big Change would happen, that I would stretch to six feet tall and say goodbye to all that trouble at school.
In fact, things had been looking up. I had even volunteered in class, a once-unthinkable risk made possible by a new strategy. That is, I had begun using the voice of Jimmy Nelson, the bemused and even witty son of Danny Hoagland’s neighbor on the popular radio program The Hoaglands. It seemed a safe choice. For one, Jimmy Nelson appeared on the show irregularly, and when he did, existed, mainly, to air concern in the face of Rascal Hoagland’s latest lawn-ruining mischief. His very off‑to‑the‑sidedness appealed to me.
“Tell me now, what did she look like?” Heedling asked.
“My mother,” Philip Howes volunteered. Philip sat in the front row and was always offering a first response to Heedling’s questions even though our teacher had never approved of his answers and once, in a fit of anger, called him a “true egg sucker.”
“You are wrong!” Heedling said. He asked Alice Krut, who sat behind Philip: “What did Helen of Troy look like?” “Rebecca Rell, the cheerleader.”
“Absolutely incorrect.” He asked Adrienne Chitwood, who sat behind Alice: “What did she look like?”
“A movie star.”
“Oh, god.” He addressed the classroom. “What did she look like?” Silence.
“Jesus Christ.” He turned to draw on the board. Because Mr. Heed ling possessed exquisite peripheral vision, no one misbehaved, even when he faced the black board. He often called on Todd Willinger, third seat, row five, while looking at Mallory Mayhall, first seat, row one. Someone once asked him why he did this, and he gave that person detention.
With staccato strokes, he drew a stick-figure face: two tiny circles for eyes, a line for a nose, line for a mouth. Then he drew curly sprouts of hair. “Helen of Troy!” As with many of Heedling’s lessons, it was hard to tell what the lesson was, but a fury of passion was behind it, so you knew you were missing something.
When he taught us the myth of Orpheus, he kept saying, Music is when something disappears, hovering over us as we scribbled the saying ten times into our notebooks. “Helen of Troy!” Heedling said again, looking almost pleased.
“That’s just a face,” Philip Howes protested.
Heedling stopped and looked at Philip. “Philip,” he said, “be very, very careful.” He marched behind us, to the other side of the classroom. “Helen of Troy! The one and only!”
He was wrong, though. Helen of Troy inhabited our very classroom, three rows to my right through a thicket of profiles. Her name was Margot Stamfield, and she was the chandelier in my brain. Every class I studied her face: the subtle lift of her chin, the hint of a smile. Once when I was heading down the fourth- floor stairs, repeating, “Don’t you envy Sisyphus?” (Heedling’s phrases were like sucking candy to me), I rounded the landing to find her standing there, in all her Martian beauty, clutching a textbook. “Envy him, goddamnit!” I yelped, and sprinted down the stairs.
“Copy this in your notebooks,” Heedling said, stalking the class. A flurry of turned pages. The mouse noise of pencils. “This is a very important face, remember! Essential. Without it, you— what’s this, Ms. Stamfield?”
“It’s what you wanted,” Margot said. Heedling hovered over her desk-chair, I saw when I looked up. “To draw it ten times,” she said.
“Is it? Is this what I wanted, really?” With a light-footed movement Heedling all but danced to the front of the class where he drew, with quick, impassioned stabs of chalk, a second Helen of Troy. The chalk dusted his hands, a very specific feeling. This new figure, Margot’s presumably, looked admirably close, if not identical, to the first. “The same, really?”
“They are, right?” she said.
“Are they, though?” Heedling grinned, approaching her desk again. He could move stealthily, too, with quick, catlike steps I liked to practice.
“I—I think so.”
“Perhaps you’re thinking too much, Ms. Stamfield.” Her lip began to quiver.
“Ms. Stamfield, no need to get emotional, I am simply asking—”
“Ms. Stamfield, I am simply asking!” I found I was pacing along the side of the classroom. I grabbed a piece of chalk, to feel it on my hand. “I’m asking,” I repeated, “if you can answer me that, please? Write the answer ten times, please! I’m asking if you can write the answer and erase it ten times! No, eleven, please, erase it, yes!” Mr. Heedling reddened in the corner of my eye, but my classmates laughed uncontrol lably, laughed in that bottled way, as if soda were bursting out of their noses, Margot among them, and I turned to them and began laughing, too. Yes, this laugh was so delicious, it burst out of me, more and more of it until their faces blanched, Margot’s most of all, as though some mean ghost were parading before them. Yet the laughter kept cascading out my nose, so much of it, like the handkerchief a magician endlessly pulls out of his pocket. Someone grabbed the back of my neck—
“Get out! Get out! . . .” I did it for Mama at the boardwalk.
“You little —Brrring . . . Brrr. Why hello, Principal Derringer’s office —yes, of course. Helen of Troy. Of Troy!”
When I looked back at her, Mama was beyond laughter, already casting her look at me, her Look, I should say, for Mama’s eyes were unnaturally big, like sideways teardrops, and could do things no one else’s could. It was all the parts of her you couldn’t reach, that interior mystery, pushed against their furthest limit, and you gathered how much she hated the rules of bodies, that one person could be only one and that certain spaces would always separate us. Most rooms just weren’t big enough for her.
“You found his thread,” she said. “And you want to pull it, don’t you? Undo his whole costume.” She reached out her hands for me, and I sat in her lap. She growled and squeezed me, crushed me for a moment, in the near-violent way mothers do. The sky was getting grayer. Soon winter would come when darkness falls at four o’clock, and the stars make sad dreaming babies of all the world.
“One day everyone will see you the way I do.” She said this often.
“People don’t like me.”
“I have no friends.”
“Friends are overrated. You’ll get some soon enough and see what I mean.”
“Giovanni,” Vandaline said. “Yes?”
“I said, if everyone has this—this thread as you call it, this seam sticking out—well then, I must ask, what’s yours?”
The men leaned in. At the far end of the bar, Bernard raised a cigarette to his lips. I didn’t dare look at Lucy.
“Why,” I said. “I’m the exception.”
JACOB RUBIN’S writing has appeared in Best New American Voices, New York magazine, Slate, n + 1, and The New Republic. Times Square, a screenplay he co-wrote, was recently acquired by Focus Features. He received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Mississippi, and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College. He lives in New York City.
From The Poser by Jacob Rubin, published on March 17, 2015 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by Jacob Rubin, 2015.