Previously in Unbound Fiction:

I Was Just Looking (February 21, 2001)
"Her scarlet djelleba was torn slightly at the hem. He gazed at the smooth, graceful curve of her calf, deliberately revealed, he was certain, for his eyes only." By Joe Kuhl.

Daniel Wentworth (January 24, 2001)
"No one knows just when he left, only when they noticed that he was gone, and some of us don't even remember that." By Rachel Carpenter

"The Faithful" (December 20, 2000)
"It's thirty-two degrees, officially freezing, and we're getting ready for a Christmas Eve swim. Harvey's idea. 'It'll put the fear of God in you better than church.'" By N. M. Kelby

"Presidential Election" (November 22, 2000)
"My dad wanted his last few years to be in the spotlight. He wanted to be center stage. He drew up his plan to crack the presidency." By Mary McCluskey

"Fat From Shame" (October 26, 2000)
"Enter pissed-modern history.... The struggle, strangle, poof, thuppernong, last gasp of religion, art, language, memory, and the electricity of the heart." By Clyde Edgerton

"Bluegrass Banjo" (September 27, 2000)
"The fat musician picked wildly. He wore a pained expression, as though the music were getting away from him, and gradually he looked up from the instrument and into the audience with a wide-eyed helplessness." By Allison Amend

More Unbound Fiction

More fiction from The Atlantic Monthly

Atlantic Unbound | March 21, 2001
 
Unbound Fiction
 
Points of Interest
.....

GERALD
It was a homework assignment. I know it sounds ridiculous, but that's all it was.

THEA
You know, he said, like Ms. Meyott gives you at school and you're always leaving crumpled at the bottom of your backpack and forgetting to do? That kind. He was always studying. He'd get these big books from the library and we wouldn't see him for the rest of the weekend. Mom would be like, all right, let's go into the city and see a show, just us girls. I think she kind of liked having me to herself at first.

GERALD
It was an intermediate class, and I had zero experience. I felt I had to work extra hard to catch up.

THEA
Mom said we had to do our best to be supportive, he was just trying to improve himself. How come? I said. Then her eyes went funny. I wondered if she was thinking about that last report card I got from Ms. Meyott. I wondered if she was thinking it's weird how ever since he lost his job he's so into learning stuff and like I'm so not.

GERALD
How many times do I have to say this? A job is not something you up and lose one day. It has to be taken. It involves a lot of planning and detail work on the part of people with more power and brutality than yourself.

THEA
Anyway, it's gone.

GERALD
I admit it wasn't easy at first. There's a tendency to feel somewhat unanchored. To drift.

THEA
And ever since then it's been really weird. Like the two of us are stuck in the wrong bodies or something. I mean, I'm the one who's supposed to be taking piano and photography class and going to art museums on the weekends. He's supposed to be lying around in his undershirt watching game shows.

GERALD
I find that people tend to make stereotypical assumptions about the unemployed. You'd like to think your own family would be more understanding.

THEA
What's his problem, anyway? Do you know?

GERALD
You begin to search. You begin to cast around for a new direction.

ROBERTA
I had no idea. How could I? It was just a homework assignment. Perfectly pedestrian. I've been giving the same one for years.

GERALD
Roberta, in all honesty, assigned a number of things for homework that fell into the category of weird. It's her style to be provocative. Every artist has to have a little capacity for outrage, she told us. You have to cut through the bonds of sentimentality, step outside the conventional perceptions. You have to train yourself to see what's really there.

ROBERTA
I like to write something on the board that first day, when they first come in and take off their coats...

GERALD
Art's true subject is the human clay. She wrote it up on the blackboard and then stared at us over her deli cup of tea and lemon, as if she was daring us to ask what it meant. We hadn't even taken off our coats yet. Later, at the end of the lecture, she explained that it was from a letter that W. H. Auden, a famous homosexual poet, had written to Lord Byron. I found this a little confusing, since it was my impression that Lord Byron had been dead for centuries and here he was still receiving mail. Anyway, she was a terrific teacher, I could see that right off. A real gift. The world, she said, is full of riches. You just have to open your eyes.

THEA
Julie says not to worry. The judge is a nice man, a reasonable person. He'll be home soon and things will go back to being how they were.

GERALD
Let me take a second to point out that Roberta has been teaching this same course for six or seven years now. That her work appears in galleries all over Europe.

ROBERTA
Berlin. Amsterdam. Madrid. We're negotiating with a small dealer in Prague. Domestically, there's the Modern, the Whitney, the Jewish, ICP, ICA, MOCA, the DIA, P.S. 1...

GERALD
Her reputation is growing and growing. You can see it in the way she carries herself. There's a posture, a bearing, a kind of physical charisma that shows up when someone knows what they're about, when someone's on the move. I had it myself for a couple of years, I think, when I first got out of graduate school. I used to run around the city in this beautiful leather bomber jacket. I felt like a flyer, an ace. I felt like a lover. I think I was wearing that jacket the day I first met Nancy.

ROBERTA
...two NEAs. A CAPS, a NYSCA, a Siskind, a Ruttenberg. Shortlisted last year for the Prix de Rome. Didn't get it, but look who they picked. I mean, come on. Everyone knows how political that is.

GERALD
Also let me cite the fact that on the physical plane alone she is a formidable presence, Roberta. She's five ten and stocky with a buzz cut. Wears nothing but black, eats organically fed meat. There's a diamond stud in one lobe of her nose, the point of which I don't even want to speculate. Who argues with such a person?

ROBERTA
That? Oh, God, do I have to? Let's just say it's a political gesture. Let's just say what it signifies is an attempt to break through the usual gender dichotomy of victim and victimizer—taking control of the picture, if you like. What the French call l'écriture féminine. You've read Cixous? Oh, forget it...

GERALD
Maybe you've seen the clippings from ARTnews and Artforum. They're very effusive. Not that I'd heard of Roberta myself, of course, when I first saw her name in the catalogue. But I'm a bad example. I drew blanks on Stieglitz and Moholy-Nagy and Cartier-Bresson, too. Man Ray I thought was a kind of fish. They don't refer to such people at business school, even in the Ivy League. They just don't come up.

ROBERTA
I let all kinds into my class. Old people, junkies, housewives from Jersey. Bennington grads. My philosophy is equal access. Open admissions. Though of course I try my best to weed out the yuppies.

GERALD
She asked me why I wanted to take the course. She didn't like it that I was wearing a suit, I could tell. But I told her the truth.

ROBERTA
He mumbled something, I can't remember. Some utter bullshit about dreams.

GERALD
I said that I'm one of those people who has trouble remembering their dreams in the morning. I thought this was a sign of limitation. It seemed important to try and have some dreams when I was awake.

ROBERTA
Then as I was putting on my coat someone came up and said they had a scheduling conflict and suddenly I had this space open. He was still just standing there. Kind of a puppy dog effect, if you know what I mean. He was going to follow me home, I thought, if I didn't let him in. So I let him in.

GERALD
I went out and bought a 35mm Leicaflex SLR, a Vivitar 283 flash, and a hundred rolls of Kodak Tri-X black-and-white film.

ROBERTA
I tell them not to worry too much about the equipment. There'll be plenty of time for that later.

GERALD
The Hasids on Forty-seventh Street were rude to me at first. Then they saw the gold card. They saw the half-dozen catalogues I'd cross-referenced. They saw the three different issues of Consumer Reports, circled and starred. They saw that we were going to do business.

ROBERTA
The first few weeks I tell them not to worry about the technical aspects. I want them to find their material first. Their true material. This requires some clear-eyed investigation of their own lives, what Walker Evans called "the search for a usable past." It can be a little scary for some.

THEA
He started looking over old albums. He'd get kind of moony at dinner about all the great weird stuff he did when he was in high school. Like I guess he was some kind of hippie or something. He had a lot of hair. He used to hitchhike a lot, he said.

GERALD
I used to do a fair amount of hitchhiking. I don't remember why. The summer I was nineteen I hitched all the way to San Francisco. I don't remember why I did that, either.

THEA
Mom kept rolling her eyes, like big deal, you know? Old news.

GERALD
I remember empty roads. Gas station johns. Moldy socks. The weight of my backpack. I remember all the signs I scrawled on ripped-up cardboard that the wind blew away.

THEA
Knowing him, I doubt he was a very good hitchhiker.

GERALD
To be honest, I was not a very good hitchhiker. I didn't have the patience, the calm. I just couldn't stand there and not care where or how I was going. Even when I finally made it to San Francisco, I got lost in the middle of Golden Gate Park and wound up drinking tea in the Japanese gardens with some Australian kids who'd devoted their lives to following around the Grateful Dead, and then later we smoked some hash and fell asleep in a grove of eucalyptus, and there was this girl with a funny accent and practically nothing in the way of breasts whom I thought I was going to have sex with but didn't. The next day I turned around and started hitching home. I never even saw Chinatown. I never even saw Fisherman's Wharf. An amazing waste of time, now that I think about it.

THEA
Julie says I'd be good at it because I'm lazy and I like to hang out a lot. She says it's different for girls, though.

GERALD
Lately, though, I've been thinking about that trip. I've been wondering why at a certain point you lose the feel for that kind of thing. Why the time passes so quickly without it. Why, at a certain point, you can't even remember what possessed you to do it.

THEA
He said, let's take the afternoon off and have milkshakes. Rocky Road, he said.

GERALD
A hot day. There was some ice cream in the freezer. I don't remember what kind.

THEA
It turned out to be vanilla.

GERALD
I don't remember what kind. I was out in the backyard, reading a book of theory that Roberta had put on the syllabus. Nancy was at her office. Thea and her friend Julie from down the street had some kind of noisy production going with the sprinkler. It was a hot afternoon. The grass was high and thick. The book talked about different ways of seeing. How the relation between what we see and what we know is often so unsettled. It talked about how the experience of watching the sun set never quite fits with the explanation that it's really just the earth turning away. That sort of thing. I realized I felt that way a lot. Watching Nancy undress for bed, for example, always makes me tense. It's as if the idea of my wife and the fact of her body are two very different things somehow, and there isn't room for both of them at the same time.

Then I heard Thea yell out that they were thirsty. I thought, what the hell, give them a treat. It was my call; I was the one doing the parenting, as we call it. I was the one doing most of what we called the parenting those days.

THEA
He'd pick me up from school. He'd do the grocery shopping. He'd go to the bank, the post office, the drug store, the dry cleaners. He'd cook the dinner.

GERALD
Being unemployed, it's a lot more work than you think. You need a reliable car and a head for details. Plus the shame, of course, which is considerable. The shame of always being around so much.

THEA
Julie kept asking, why is he always around so much? But I was used to it by then, I guess.

GERALD
I feel sheepish admitting this, but in the old days I used to go in early to the office sometimes, earlier than I had to. There was no particular reason. I just liked the feeling of being there—alone at a clean desk, no cracker crumbs or crayons, no background noise. Just sitting in a cone of my own light.

THEA
Besides, sometimes he was really nice to have around. He'd give us treats and stuff. The milkshakes, like that was his idea, not ours. Mom would have given us yogurt. Nonfat.

GERALD
I went into the kitchen and got out the ice cream and milk. It had been so long since I'd had a milkshake, I couldn't remember what else was supposed to go in. The blender was a little crusty at the bottom; I tried to remember the last time we'd used it, and couldn't. It occurred to me that maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all. I might wind up poisoning everyone. But we really wanted milkshakes that day, so I went ahead and made them.

When I came back outside with the blender and three glasses on a tray, Thea and her friend were sprawled out on their bellies on the tall grass, still wet from the sprinkler, giggling about something.

THEA
Julie was telling me about this thing she found in her mother's drawer. By the bed.

GERALD
And then, I don't know, there was something about the way they looked that made me think: remember this. The light, the bees humming in the grass, the lazy inconsequential flow of the afternoon, and your daughter, your irritable knock-kneed eight-and-a-half year old daughter, who will never be just this way again, just this tanned and skinny and unselfconscious, this careless, careless...

THEA
She said, hey, what's he doing?

GERALD
I didn't think about it after that. It was all reflex. We were seven weeks into the course by then, and maybe that day for the first time I was beginning to get it, you know? To feel it. The lens was starting to move inside me now. It wasn't some idea any longer but an impulse. A kind of itch.

THEA
Oh, that? He's been into that for a while now, I said.

GERALD
I forgot to say that I hadn't done that week's assignment yet.

ROBERTA
A documentary of your work environment. The assignment was broadly defined. You have to leave the parameters loose. The last thing you want to do is restrict anyone.

GERALD
Of course I had no work environment at the time. Which was a problem. It was getting to be a very serious problem, in fact. You might say I'd slid down a bit toward the depressive end of the spectrum. Nancy wasn't being such a great sport about it, either. She began to make remarks about my weight, my hair, my libido. Remarks about shrinks. Remarks about lawyers. I don't think she meant anything serious by them, but I can't deny they had an effect.

ROBERTA
They begin to look at their own lives a bit more closely. The idea is to heighten their perception of external realities.

GERALD
You know what it's like to be unemployed? It's another country. Another country with another language and another climate, with a population made up exclusively of old people, children, and the occasional adulterer. You're not sure what the laws are. You don't know how the money works. You don't know where to eat lunch. You don't know when your visa will expire. But after a while you get used to not knowing. And that's the scary part. The way you adjust. The way after a while not knowing starts to seem almost like knowing.

THEA
I was just happy to see him excited for a change. He'd been having kind of a hard time.

GERALD
Then out on the lawn it struck me: this is my country. This lawn, these trees, those girls. This is my clay. This is my goddamned work environment.

THEA
I told her, don't even look at him. Just ignore him and he'll go away.

GERALD
The first roll I shot from behind. The sun had dipped a little, and the weeping willow was creating some minor havoc, shadow-wise. I began to worry if there was enough exposure.

THEA
He started walking around us in circles.

GERALD
I decided to bracket around the meter. I used three different exposures. I was concerned that details would be lost. I remembered to adjust the F-stop to ensure consistent depth of field.

THEA
Julie was getting a little nervous. Think we should put our clothes on? she said. I just laughed.

GERALD
The girls were glowing from backlight. Everywhere I pointed, the frame just filled up with them. I switched to a telephoto. I wasn't aiming at their faces, only their legs. Not even all of their legs. I shot two rolls on the backs of their knees alone. Then I kept going.

THEA
He said, Hey, guys, do me a favor...

GERALD
I wanted to see how it would look if they turned over and the light fell directly onto their faces. First I tried stooping down. That didn't quite do it, so I went for the flash. I was thinking of those old Marlene Dietrich movies, the way they'd light her face from above, those luminous rises and hollows. I thought maybe I could do something like that. So I put the flash up as high as I could. Then I took off the telephoto and got out the macro. I went in close.

ROBERTA
Cartier-Bresson calls it "the decisive moment." When the action captured in a photograph and its abstract composition come into dynamic tension.

GERALD
Very close. I was right up under their necks. For a second, none of us moved. It was as though we all sensed that something important was happening. The girls were no longer girls any longer. They weren't Thea and her friend Julie from the third grade. They were something else now, something not quite personal, but larger, stranger, altogether different. Other, Roberta would say.

ROBERTA
To trap the object at a given moment. The technique and the object become inseparable. The object is the technique and the technique is the object.

GERALD
...it wasn't even human, what they were. It was like they were just extensions of my arm, my eyes. They were these long, slender, marvelous forms, sort of like moonscapes, bumpy in some places and smooth in others, and it was all going to pass if I didn't do something very fast. I felt I needed to get them inside the frame somehow so they wouldn't disappear.

ROBERTA
The proof that something was there and no longer is. Like a stain.

GERALD
A confirmation.

THEA
Julie finally said, this is boring. I'm going home. I said, what about the milkshakes? But she was already gone.

GERALD
And that was it, really. That was the whole thing. But I had the strangest feeling later on. It was like I used to feel sometimes after sex with Nancy, a calm after the storm. The sense that for a change you've taken part in things the way you're supposed to—that just for a moment, you've been the center of it all and everything around you was just another piece of the same thing. And you too, you know? You too.

THEA
They were all warm and runny by now. I didn't even drink mine; I just left it for the bugs and went in the house. Mom came home at six, and we had burritos, and I forgot all about it. It wasn't till a week or so later, when the police guys showed up, that I even remembered.

GERALD
I was still worried about the exposure, so I told the clerk at the photo lab to push the film. Probably that's what got his attention. A very disturbed individual, that guy.

ROBERTA
I tell them at the end of the term: if you're serious about continuing, you'll need to set up a darkroom of your own. You don't want to have to be depending on someone else.

GERALD
Things got very messy after that. What with the police, and the lawyers, and the judge, and the psychologists, and the preliminary hearings, and Nancy... It's really difficult to overstate how messy things got after that.

THEA
They say the judge might let him come home next week. Pending, they say. Whatever that means.

GERALD
Me? Oh, fine, fine. Nancy has been very supportive, in her way. Nancy has been a real trouper. The thing is, I'm worried about Thea. What has she learned from all this? What is she going to think of me? I don't know, maybe I really did do something wrong that afternoon. Maybe I did stray across the line. But whose line? Do you know? Because I can't seem to find a line of my own.

THEA
Everyone keeps asking how I'm doing. It's really boring. Once a week I have to meet this lady from county services. I'm fine, I say. Don't worry about me. Worry about him. Worry about her. Worry about Julie. They're the ones having trouble.

ROBERTA
What do you expect? Apologies? Listen, art is de facto subversive. By making so much of its own reality, it breaks the chain of the realities around it. That's just how it works.

THEA
Julie says it's on account of the cicadas last summer. They do something to the air, she says, some electrical thing that messes up people's heads. I think maybe she's right. I mean, you've got these little bugs buried in the ground for seventeen years, and then one day they all just pop out buzzing like crazy, and every time you walk you hear this crunching in the grass from all the tiny skeletons... You can't tell me that's normal.

But then when we did our science unit, Ms. Meyott said everything that happens in nature is normal. Even the very strange things, she said, like hail, and fireflies, and those huge komodo dragon lizards you see in the zoo. Ms. Meyott has a master's degree and a birthmark on her cheek that looks like Australia. Even Julie thinks she's a smart lady. So now I don't know what to believe.

GERALD
You should see the letter she sent last week. Lizards, dragons—the poor kid is obviously having a rough time. Still, it was nice to get a letter from her. One thing about families is you're so close to people that you lose perspective. I mean, Thea's my own daughter, but I never knew until now what a letter from her would look like.

THEA
Mom says we have to help each other through the rough patches, even when we don't understand. Especially when we don't understand.

GERALD
The thing is, I still haven't seen the photographs. Have you? Do you think they'll let you take a look? Because the way things are going, I may never see them. But that's okay, in a way. That's okay. Somewhere out there are a hundred and forty-six pictures I shot that afternoon, and one or two of them might be really good. Maybe even exceptionally good. And that's enough for me, for now. Just to know that it's possible. Just to know I was able to capture a few moments in time like that, instead of it being the other way around. That I put myself into the picture a little. That's enough.

THEA
I didn't understand most of his letter, to be honest. He said he was beginning to think a different way than before. He said it could turn out to be a blessing for him to have to be on his own for a while. People do their best thinking when they're alone, he said.

ROBERTA
I'm taking the spring term off. I'm behind on my own work as it is. And frankly I'm a little saturated with teaching...

GERALD
Roberta used to say photography is just a way of chasing shadows. You chase and chase until they're out of sight, then you try and find your way back, and if you're lucky there are points of interest along the way. That's the whole thing in a nutshell, isn't it?

ROBERTA
You can overdo it, you know. The anxiety of influence stuff can get overwhelming.

THEA
It's funny, this thing that happened the other night. I caught my mom smoking. I got up to pee and I saw her in Dad's study, just standing at the window, puffing away. It was weird. I'd never seen her do it before. She'd take these like really deep breaths and hold them in, then blow out the smoke. It was kind of scary to watch.

GERALD
Thanks for the charcoal and paper, by the way. They'll do nicely.

THEA
It was like she was somebody else, not my Mom anymore, like if she looked up and saw me she wouldn't recognize me, either. But she didn't look up, so after a while I went back to bed. Only I couldn't fall asleep after that. I kept remembering the way her eyes looked behind the smoke, all half-shut and wet. I thought she was looking out the window, but now I wasn't sure. Because you could see her there, too, in the reflection. So I don't know. The smoke looked sort of blue in the light. Maybe she'd had more than one; maybe she'd been smoking for hours, maybe she'd smoked the whole pack. Even after she stubbed it out it just hung there around her shoulders. It was sort of pretty in a way. At least to me...

GERALD
Yes, well, I'm sorry, but I need a little time to myself now, okay? No offense. It's just that I'm anxious to get started. You can understand that, can't you...

THEA
I wonder if, you know, he ever saw her like that.

GERALD
...how anxious I am to get to work?


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Robert Cohen is the author of
The Organ Builder and The Here and Now. His most recent novel is Inspired Sleep. He teaches at Middlebury College.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.