Want to procrastinate a bit? Here's my favorite chapter from our latest book, the mindbender Axis of Aaron.
“ … something you can touch, and that’s what’s so great about clay, in particular, is that you can really touch and shape it, and I think the first time I really got that was in, like, kindergarten or something, when we made ashtrays for Father’s Day, and isn’t that funny, now that you think about it, that we made ashtrays for Father’s Day? I mean, it was the late ’80s or early ‘90s. Wasn’t that around the time everything got all PC, and everyone started to use the term ‘PC’ in like an almost mocking way, like, ‘Let’s be all “politically correct!”,’ and if that was the case, why were they having us make ashtrays, like we were encouraging our fathers to smoke, like, ‘Hey Dad, have some emphysema!’ Not that my father ever smoked. He did read a newspaper and wear slippers inside sometimes though. Do you want another one of those?”
Ebon looked down at his glass of iced tea. He was sitting in one of the deck chairs, wearing pajama shorts as Aimee waited for his answer. He’d have been cold out here in previous years, but they’d turned the porch into a portico enclosed by sliding glass partitions months ago. His glass was three-quarters empty. Ice rattled. There was an umbrella tenting the tall glass’s top, unsupported now that the liquid was mostly gone.
Aimee bustled away. “But anyway, I remember that first clay ashtray, and the way it felt in my hand. Say, when did Ghost come out? Because I remember being influenced by that pottery scene too, or maybe just by Patrick Swayze because he was hot, and maybe his hotness leaked into my own hotness for pottery. Poor Patrick Swayze. That was terrible, what happened to him. I swear, I can’t watch any of his movies anymore.”
Ebon sat forward. There was a coffee table in front of him, and on its glass surface, precisely in the middle, was a key attached to a bright-yellow foam fob, meant to keep the key afloat if it were accidentally tossed overboard. Aimee had bought the coffee table from some boutique or other. He didn’t remember which, only that she’d been very excited. Beside the key, off center on the table, was a bouquet of red roses threaded with baby’s breath and assorted greens.
Aimee fluffed the flowers. Doing so made her look strangely feminine — overly so, to Ebon’s mind. Her hair wasn’t a mess, but had been pinned up neatly. She was also wearing a short skirt. And a pink blouse. And, for some reason, high heels and an apron.
“I think that sculpting, out of all of the mediums I work in, is my favorite just because you can touch it.”
Ebon looked around the portico. It was open into the house, the living room now flowing into a sun porch where the old outer wall used to be. There were bouquets of flowers everywhere. Aimee had placed them all last night, seeming to feel the need to bring sudden beauty into the mostly finished room. Her art had leaked out of the studio, and Ebon could see in-progress projects everywhere. They worked on remodeling together, and then, when they were finished for the day, Aimee had her art, and Ebon had his boat. He pointed to an easel in the corner.
“You can’t touch a painting?”
“Not in the same way. And you definitely can’t touch music. Or computer-generated art, or really photographs, because then you’re just touching paper or a frame. Sculpture, you can put your hands on. You can remember how you dug your fingers into a certain place, and the feel of the clay when it was wet. So many things are ephemeral. Sculpture is real. A footprint. It creates something you can touch, and see the traces of where your hands moved to make it. It’s proof that you were here. You sure you don’t want another iced tea?”
Ebon looked at the key on the coffee table. It looked strangely out of place. The roses were so incredibly bright red that they looked freshly cut. He could see the bottoms of the stems through the sparkling vase and how they hadn’t so much as darkened or formed a scab where they’d been clipped from the bush. The coffee table was spotless — clear enough that if it were converted to a window it would baffle birds into bashing their tiny heads. But the yellow fob atop it was pocked and dull, the key attached to it a tarnished gray like fine flatware in need of a polish. Ebon didn’t want more iced tea at all. He wanted to go out on his new boat.
“I’m sure. Thanks.”
Again, Aimee turned away. She went to the oven and opened it. Ebon turned to watch her remove a sheet of cookies she was baking, bending forward from the waist, her ass sticking out. Inappropriately, he wanted to walk over and grab it. Her skirt was short enough, he thought, that if he were behind her, he might be able to see her panties while she was working in the oven. He felt and ignored a stirring in his pants. It wasn’t time for that now.
“That smells great. I can’t remember the last time I’ve smelled fresh-baked cookies.”
Aimee turned to look at him, still bent at the waist. Her lips were as red as the roses.
“Holly didn’t bake for you?”
Ebon wanted to laugh. Aimee had just soliloquized about how politically incorrect it was for kids to make their fathers ashtrays in an increasingly smokeless world, and here she was implying that Holly should have baked. And not just baked. Baked for him. Like a duty. But that was a laugh, because even if Holly hadn’t been a staunch feminist and domestically dim, baking cookies for Ebon would have contradicted her largest guiding principle: to do what was best for Holly, not for Ebon or anyone else.
“Holly didn’t bake. Or use her money to pay rent or utilities or for trips we took together.”
“Selfish cunt,” said Aimee.
Ebon looked over. Aimee had placed the sheet onto the cool cooktop and was inspecting the cookies, gently poking each with a spatula.
“I don’t know about that,” said Ebon.
“You kept separate bank accounts. You were supposed to pay half of all your bills together — or, ideally, get a joint account and pay it out of there. But that never happened.”
“We were only married for six months before she died.”
“Time enough to cheat on you,” said Aimee, still poking the cookies. “And not just one time either.”
“You guess right. How long does it take to go to the bank and open an account? But she never had the time. You kept suggesting it, and she always had an excuse. Remember when you had an appointment scheduled but she had an emergency client and you had to cancel?”
Ebon remembered, but it was strange to be reminded about it by Aimee — as strange as the fact that he’d told her about it at all, which he didn’t remember doing. Holly had worked as a freelance makeup artist and had, through a confluence of charisma and luck (and, he thought bitterly, possibly sex for favors) ended up with a very high-income client roster. Holly made excellent money, and Ebon made excellent money, and combined they made very excellent money. That was great, because Holly’s clients were all wealthy, and she’d developed fine tastes. But for some reason, Holly’s money was always spent on Holly’s things, while Ebon’s went to a trifecta: Ebon’s things, Holly’s things, and things for both of them, like rent and utilities and trips.
“To be fair, that was a legit excuse. She wasn’t making it up.”
“Convenient though,” Aimee said. “As convenient as all the other times you were unable to open that bank account. And it’s not like she was making it up to you in other ways.”
Ebon felt a strange need to retort. If Aimee was talking about sex, he and Holly had had plenty. That was part of the problem. Other men complained that their wives didn’t want to have sex often enough, but Holly wanted it so often that Ebon sometimes got chafed. She wanted it enough, in fact, that Ebon hadn’t been able to fill her needs, and she’d had to go elsewhere.
“We did it all the time.”
“Men,” said Aimee, rolling her eyes. “You think everything is about sex. Did I say that I meant sex?”
She clacked around the oven and turned on a small radio mounted under the countertop, tuning in to a station playing bland rock music, her high heels making her ass stand out. Why Aimee even owned high heels was beyond Ebon, but his attention was still at least half on the boat key and off of Aimee’s wardrobe. The day was calm. If he left now, he could motor out pretty far. Maybe, when he returned, he’d have some perspective on Aaron that would make the place feel more stable. Or maybe he could go all the way to the mainland, dock his boat, and take the ferry back. Assure himself that the rest of the world was still going on as usual, and that he was the crazy one. Although, now that he thought about it, was that the answer he wanted? No. Between the two options, he wanted the island to be the problem. Although right now anything different seemed fine.
A Springsteen tune came on the radio. The sun was bright. The roses were pretty. Life was good.
“What did you mean, then?” said Ebon, still in his chair, holding his mostly empty iced tea.
“I meant, did she ever do anything for you at all? Anything spontaneous, just to let you know she was thinking about you? No. Of course not.”
“She booked that trip to Nantucket.”
“And she didn’t have an ulterior motive? She didn’t fuck anyone else while you were there?”
Ebon had never thought so. But now that he considered it, maybe she had. She’d definitely had a client appointment while they’d been “on vacation”; that was why they’d gone to Nantucket instead of somewhere else. The client was male, and he was handsome, and Ebon had seen them flirt. And she’d “made him up” three different times in four days.
“Mmm-hmm,” said Aimee, nodding knowingly. “Anything else, then? Did she ever make you dinner?”
“She wasn’t much of a cook.”
“Did she get you thoughtful presents for Christmas? For your birthday?”
The second half was a trick question. Holly didn’t get him birthday gifts. Or rather, she got him things like “a night of passion.” And they had been passionate. Ebon seemed to remember making Holly come five times during one of them. It had been easy, like eliciting five sneezes with a cloud of pepper.
“She got me things.”
“Face it, Ebon. I’m sorry she’s gone, but you don’t owe her any more mourning.”
“We were together for ten years.” Ebon felt like he needed to argue for his right to some sadness. He and Holly had had good times too.
Aimee put her hand on her hip, her nail polish as bright red as her lipstick and the roses. Behind her, Springsteen ended, and, proving the station’s eclectic nature, “Unchained Melody” began.
“Ah. Long engagement, huh?”
“It took me a long time to feel ready to get married too, you know.”
“And speaking of ten years,” Aimee said, “how many of those years did you wonder about us?”
“You and me.”
“On and off. I’ve always missed you, Aim.”
“I meant as a broken opportunity. What if we’d ended up together all those years ago?”
“I don’t know what you’re saying.”
“What if we’d connected years ago, instead of just a few months ago? How well did we fit, versus how poorly Holly fit you? I invited you to come stay with me after no time at all, and you accepted without a thought. And here we are, together, happy as clams.” Aimee spread her arms to indicate, presumably, the whole of existence on Aaron.
“I don’t know,” said Ebon. “It is what it is.”
“See, that’s how you always were.” She came forward shaking her head. Ebon’s eyes flitted to the dingy, tarnished boat key, but then were drawn back toward Aimee’s vibrant presence. “You just accepted things instead of fighting for what you were entitled to. ‘It is what it is.’ That’s ridiculous, Ebon.”
Without preamble, she sat across his lap. Her legs hung to his side and dangled over the chair’s arm. The backs of her bare legs pressed against the tops of his, feeling powdered and smooth. He felt fabric instead of flesh at one end, realized it was probably her panties, and tried to will away a forthcoming erection.
“You want something, and you think it’s not proper to chase it,” she said. “Almost by default, like you’re never entitled to have your way. But look how Holly was. She was the opposite. If she wanted something, her wanting alone told her that it gave her the right to pursue. Desire led automatically to entitlement. But you? You think that wanting means you must be selfless and that you should let it go and think of something else. But that’s not how it is. Tell me, speaking of sex with Holly … ”
“Um … ”
“Did she ever do anything for you, sexually? Was there one time — even one time — when she didn’t come, but made sure you did?”
“Uh … ”
“I mean, I know she gave you head and swallowed, but that was really for her, because she was — no offense — kind of slutty. Like, she was really into swallowing jizz. I get it. I can get down with that sometimes. But did she ever do it selflessly? Like, you wanted it and she was so-so?”
Ebon didn’t know how to respond. How did a guy draw a line re: the selfishness versus selflessness of blow jobs? He also didn’t know why Aimee was on his lap, or how the top two buttons on her blouse had come unbuttoned. He couldn’t tell if she was wearing a bra, but knew it would be inappropriate to look down and find out.
“I don’t know.”
“I would. I’d totally give you head just to be nice.”
“Thanks?” Ebon wasn’t sure if she was offering. But then again, she’d always talked to him like this. Or at least she had in letters … as a teenager … when her hormones had been stronger and her judgment had been poorer … using less overt language … while not sitting on his lap.
Ebon was starting to rise to raging attention beneath her. It was only a matter of time before she felt him knocking, but before it happened she stood with a casual air and marched back to the oven. He’d forgotten there was another batch of cookies. She pulled it from the oven, placed the second tray beside the first, and began poking at them with a spatula as if nothing inappropriate had passed between them. The radio changed again, this time to Oasis singing “Wonderwall.”
Aimee’s eyes were on the cookies. “What do you want to do today, Ebon?”
He looked at his lap, wondering if Aimee’s last two statements were related.
She said, “I thought we could put up the crown molding in the studio.”
Ebon’s brain battled his erection for blood. “Doesn’t the studio already have crown molding?”
“The recording studio,” she said, gesturing toward the back of the house.
“I thought we could put crown molding in there.”
Something popped into Ebon’s head, and, still afraid to stand and finding his attention back on the boat key, he reached for something relevant to say. “Do you really want crown molding in a recording studio? I’d think you’d want egg carton padding.”
“Below the egg cartons. Aren’t you thinking of resale at all, Ebon?”
“Don’t be sorry.” Aimee turned her head and nodded her chin toward the coffee table. “In fact, maybe you want to take your boat out before we get started.”
Ebon looked at the key, then back at Aimee. She was no longer bent over and was moving the sheet of cookies off to the side, to sit atop hot pads on the countertop. She opened the oven and removed a new sheet, which she placed on the cold cooktop and began tending.
“Maybe?” said Ebon, surprised she’d made the suggestion. He was still watching her lips in profile. They were very red. Despite knowing how inappropriate it was, he kept imagining them places, leaving lipstick rings.
“You don’t mind?”
Aimee moved the sheet of cookies to the side and removed another from the oven. “Not at all. Why would I?”
“I thought you didn’t like the idea that I’d bought a boat.”
Aimee laughed. “What am I, your dead wife?”
Ebon looked at Aimee for a long moment, then back at the key. With a feeling that he should act before time ran out, he reached out and grabbed it, shoving the key deep into his pocket.
Aimee turned away from the stove.
“Funny thing about that boat. About any boat. Do you know how many island artists paint paintings of boats? Go ahead. Guess.”
It wasn’t the kind of question that normally begged a numeric answer.
“All of them,” she said. “When you live on an island, it’s like painting fruit. Only you paint boats. Do you know how many times I, by contrast, have painted a boat, Ebon? Not painted it literally, like walking out to a boat and applying a brush to it, but recreating a ‘boat scene’ on a canvas. How many times? Go on. Guess.”
“I … ”
“And while you’re at it — while you’re compiling this guess — add in the number of times I’ve made a sculpture of a boat, sung a song about a boat, sketched a boat, or written a story about a boat. Then multiply that by the number of boat photographs I’ve taken, other than accidentally. How many, Ebon?”
Ebon felt like he was being grilled by a high-pressure lawyer all of a sudden. “Zero?”
“Goddamn right, zero,” she said, pointing at him with her spatula as if this had been a point of contention. “I don’t know why everyone paints boats. Or fruit. And do you know how many famous artists have come from Aaron?”
“Because they only paint boats. I see the connection. They don’t, I guess. But think about it. How inspiring is a painting of a boat? How moving is a painting of a boat? Can you think of any reason that anyone, ever, would hang a painting of a boat in a museum?”
Ebon was pretty sure he’d seen paintings of boats in museums, but decided not to bring it up. Maybe there was a line between a painting of a boat and a painting that happens to contain a boat. He’d never been an artist and didn’t understand such matters.
“No reason at all,” Aimee said, now moving away from the oven and setting an egg timer on the counter — for what, Ebon couldn’t imagine, though the oven was still on. “Because painting boats is like art masturbation.”
Ebon didn’t want to ask what that meant. He looked at the door. Then he turned (while she wasn’t looking; he got the idea that he’d be yelled at if he looked away during this vital boat-painting discussion) and peered out at the bay. The wind through the trees was still slight; the waves on the water were still gentle and absent of whitecaps even at his vision’s limit. The ocean side would be choppier, but it was usually simple math: double the chop on the bay side to approximate the chop to the east. Perfect conditions, right now, to head out and give Aaron’s water the finger. Perfect conditions for testing the box it seemed determined to keep him inside.
“They need to do something to feel like artists.” Aimee made her way to the kitchen’s far side, where they’d built a breakfast nook that was, as always, packed with more of Aimee’s bouquets from the flower shop. “But do they take a risk and show their souls? No. It’s like these flowers. You can play it safe, but a good florist knows that it’s all about putting the red ones next to the yellow ones.”
Ebon considered protesting that the room’s roses were all red, but he hadn’t realized that so many of the other bouquets around the room, now that he looked, were a carnival of colors. Aimee began to fuss at each she came to, tall heels clacking beneath her. Ebon stood, but then she glanced over, and he arrested his movement toward the door, toward the outside, toward the bay and his boat.
“Or sometimes, island artists realize they’re one-trick, boat-painting ponies, so they try to paint something else. But their ‘original’ work screams of amateur originality. Like they’re trying too hard. Again, like the flowers. Red roses are the best flowers. Face it. So why doesn’t everyone only buy roses?”
Ebon took two steps toward the door.
“Because they’re trying too hard. So they buy daisies, lilies … I don’t know, buttercups or something. Might as well stick to painting boats. And do you know what else? Ebon, are you even listening to me?”
Ebon’s hand was outstretched, fingers brushing the doorknob leading out onto the side porch.
“I think we should talk about our arrangement,” she said.
Ebon looked through the window. A brief gust made tree limbs shake, then stand still. He thought the sky had darkened. The key in his pocket felt pressing, as if it wanted him to hurry.
“Our arrangement?” It sounded like something a girlfriend would say when she wanted to talk about “us.”
“Do you need any money? Because you haven’t worked in a while.”
“I think I’m okay.”
“You’d have to check your bank balance,” she said, “but I’m not talking about your long-term savings. How much can be in your day-to-day account?” She put a finger to her chin as if calculating. “There was, what, a year’s expenses in there when you came, and you spend just under three grand a month, I’d say, but you did buy that boat, and you have residual income coming in to the tune of … ”
“Because I have a lot of money. You know that.”
Aimee went to her purse, which was on the kitchen table, and began rummaging. Inside, Ebon thought he could see the flash of large amounts of cash, as if she’d stuffed it after a bank heist. Outside, there was the sound of a tree branch nakedly raking the cottage’s siding as the wind picked up. Now he could see a few whitecaps on the water, and the sky was definitely darker. Had there been rain predicted for today? Ebon couldn’t remember. He also couldn’t remember what day it was, what the weather had been like yesterday, or whether he’d so much as buttoned the boat down to prevent water from sloshing into the cabin if the waves came up.
“I’m good, Aimee.”
She stopped rummaging. Ebon took the pause as a sign and reached for the doorknob again, but it wouldn’t turn. The lock was engaged. But as he wiggled it, the lock refused to budge. Aimee prattled on.
“You know,” she said, “your agency may already be thinking of letting you go. They kind of already did. But is there really any reason to go back? You’ve been here for three months, I think. It’s December, right? Yes, three months. So I’ve gotta ask: If you stayed here — just moved in, and stopped pretending this was temporary — would that really be so crazy? I’ve lived here all my life, and I turned out okay. That’s the door we painted shut.”
Ebon felt jarred but suddenly realized that the door he’d gone to, after failing with the lock on the first, was only a wall ornament. He could see the plates and screws where they’d sealed it forever, and realized that it would, if it opened, yawn over the fountain pond below.
“How do I get out of here?”
“Well, that’s the question I’m asking, isn’t it? Not only how, but why? You could have stayed here all those years ago, but you left.”
There was a third door at the glassed-in patio’s far end. Ebon moved to it and turned the knob, but it came off in his hand.
“I’ve been meaning to fix that.” Aimee reached into a toolbox that looked like an old-time doctor’s medical bag and handed Ebon a screwdriver as if expecting him to fix it. There were no obvious screws on the knob or on the door’s plate. He ignored Aimee’s screwdriver, set the knob on the floor at the door’s foot, and brushed by her, into the hallway.
“I have a theory,” she said. “Would you like to hear it?”
Outside, Ebon heard a whoop as the wind wound up. His heart was beginning to beat faster, too fast for the circumstances. Clacking heels followed him.
“The island ‘artists’ try to sell their dumb boat paintings, but really they don’t want any success, and it’s only a hobby. So they paint dumb things that nobody would want to buy, except for twenty bucks here and there for something droll to hang in their cottages. Just some fun money. And yet how long does a boat painting take? Does it take any less time than something with heart? Where do their hearts truly lie, Ebon? On the island? Or off somewhere else?”
There was a sliding door at the end of the hallway. It was jammed. At the other end of the hallway was the home’s rear exit — the door he and Aimee had once run through to evade Richard when he’d come home early. But before Ebon could reach it, a clutch of ceiling tiles fell from above in a cloud of dust. Scraps of lumber, inexplicably stored above, came with it. He began to climb over the pile, but it felt too desperate.
Aimee’s hand was on his shoulder. He turned.
“I like to paint things with an expiration date,” she told him. “Like people. Or emotions. Or the feeling of mind and memory. Things that decay. Things you have to capture in a moment because a second later they’re already something different. They’ve changed. They’ve decayed.”
Ebon pushed past her again, this time moving back into the living room/patio area, where he’d begun. He stood in the middle of the room, his skin slick and wanting to sweat.
“It’s the ocean,” he said.
“And that’s another thing,” said Aimee, coming to stand beside him. “Who paints the ocean? As far as life on Earth is concerned, what’s more eternal than an open expanse of water? What changes less? What has less of an expiration date? You want to capture the ocean? Sculpt. But not with something hard, because the ocean is soft. It’s the sort of thing you have to sculpt from flesh and bone.”
Ebon turned. “What?”
“You seem uneasy. Why are you so uneasy?”
“I just want to get to my boat. I just want to get out of the house.”
“I can’t. It won’t let me.”
“The island. The ocean.”
Aimee chuckled. Ebon’s pulse was in his throat. He wanted to slap her for the laugh, but held it in.
“You don’t think it’s strange that I can’t open one of this house’s goddamned dozen doors?”
Aimee rolled her eyes good-naturedly, then reached over and flipped the lock open on the door Ebon had first tried. She pulled it open to December assault.
“You have to jiggle it,” she explained.
“Hold it open,” Ebon said. “I’m just going to grab my coat.”
As he shuffled toward the closet for his heavy raincoat, gloves, and hat, Aimee, one hand set delicately on her hip, said, “Hurry. My cookies are almost done.”
Axis of Aaron is on sale on Amazon US here: http://www.amazon.com/Axis-Aaron-Sean-Platt-ebook/dp/B00OUFFTCK
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