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Rushton Howard
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The Umbrella...


The Umbrella of the Gardener's Aunt is in the House

I love this book (no matter HOW difficult it is to sell)!  In the lengthy and very chatty Chapter XV, the avant-garde sculptor R. Conrad Hughes (Roy) comes face to face with the woman of his dreams whom he hasn't spoken to for 30 years.  Enjoy!


        As darkness took full command of the sky, Helen collected and organized her thoughts in her usual way: a stroll around her town — not “the” town, or “a” town, but hers.  She needed the cool air to calm her animalistic desire to strangle a certain uncaring weirdo artist.
        In order to love a rusted, tilted town like Unimportant, one needs a native heart and a head that devotes far more brain cells to nostalgia than to economics.  With the boom of her copper mining long gone, the romance of the railroad over, and the closest ranches closer (more in their minds than on a map) to more significant towns, she was now marked for the most part by dingy windowpanes on empty shops.  The once-bold crimson ink of “For Lease” signs in those windows was now faded into a pale orange-pink; the hardware store that had sold those signs was long since out of business.
        Architects have grand categorizations for construction of every possible style — tags such as “Prairie Gothic” and “Carpenter Gothic” — but eventually it all falls under the label of “sagging and forgotten.”  Intricately decorative masonry succumbs to gravity just enough to provide the first cracks, and the inhabitants’ swift reaction is to move somewhere else; somewhere bigger; somewhere on a coast; somewhere “better.”
        For most of her life, Helen’s soul had hovered in a stasis between “Unimportant can be something lovely again,” and “It really doesn’t have to be; I love it as it is.”  She never made an exercise of excusing the broken fences or overgrown yards; to the contrary, it fueled her to remain vocal about countering community apathy.  And perhaps her town wasn’t completely lost yet.  Along most of the neighborhood streets, there were inklings of faded glory resurrected: about every fourteenth house was lovingly revived and cared for.  They were Hope’s little flickering candles in a Dark Age of peeled paint and bent gutters.
        She ended her meandering outside the shabby warehouse that had recently become an artist’s temporary workspace.  The pulsating white glow of a welder’s torch was flashing through the space between the doors and out into the darkness.  Gathering up her best composure, she took a deep breath, aimed a “Give me strength” look up to Heaven, then rolled aside a heavy door and stepped into Roy’s world.
        In a precise copy of my visit to that place, she discovered the old cement-mixer truck, a heap of twisted metal and TV parts, no sign of any art project, and assumed she was in the wrong place.  She spotted the cot, chair and trunk by the wall, and the setup didn’t seem like the accommodations for an award-winning artist (even if she’d known that it wasn’t a “trunk” but a “portmanteau”).  Looking through a bent steel web of the iron junk that had been reworked into a standing structure, she could see a man in gray overalls and a welder’s mask, his back to her as he brandished the narrow nozzle of an oxyacetylene torch, working on the dump-chute at the back of the cement truck.
        She gave a polite “Hello?”  (She hadn’t really intended to be completely polite with Roy, but she really wasn’t positive it was him yet.)
        Her call went unanswered.  The welder was too engrossed in his task.
        She stepped closer to holler at the man with more force and more information: “Hello!  I’m looking for Roy Hughes!”
        He spun quickly, turning his blank gray mask on her, examining her through its dark-glass slit like some 1950s’ cinema robot monster.  There was a pause for a curious tilt of the masked head, then a fluster of clumsy motions as his trembling hands tried to shut down the torch.  Dropping it twice, he cursed coarsely under his breath, finally extinguished the hissing flame, then pulled off the face shield.  He stared her down with the same frightened aspect that had possessed him in their clumsy café encounter.
        Recognizing that face, she chuckled, “The guy I bumped into in Mabel’s!”  That chuckle of hers was actually a release of tension on her part, for she hadn’t believed it when I had told her that Roy would still find her beautiful, but when she saw that he was the tongue-tied man she’d stunned several days back, she could finally trust that my word was true.
        Flustered once again by that singular smile of Helen Costante: Atchison Wolves Cheerleader, Roy’s mind began tumbling into the past.
        “I’m Helen—”
        He stopped her with a raised index finger, and removed his tiny headphones.
        She began again: “I’m Helen Blau.”
        Tucking his helmet under his arm, rather like a Mercury astronaut posing for Life Magazine, he caught his breath and hoped it looked like it was an “after hard work” sort of breath-catching, as opposed to the “Please, God, don’t let me mess up” variety.  But then he lowered his head with an admission of his lameness, mustered some courage, raised his face up, and began a reply that fizzled on the launch pad:  “I’m… um…”
        She waited, then finally fed him his line: “Roy Hughes.”
        “I… um… I was going to say, ‘I’m aware — aware that you’re Helen Cost… um… Blau.’  Then I was going to do the… um… ‘Roy Hughes’ bit.”
        Neither of them knew quite what to say next, so the Almighty got things going with a flick of His cosmic fingers.  Roy had been repairing the mechanisms on which the truck’s collapsible dump-chute unfolded, and having been interrupted, he had left it in a precarious state.  Due to a tense spring on one side and a weak joint on the other, it suddenly jolted sideways, broke apart, and the bottom portion of the chute was flung across the room to make a clattering crash landing on the oil-stained floor.
        Roy and Helen, jarred out of their clumsy silence, came to life and finally began the dialogue for their scene:
        Roy: “Good God!”
        Helen: “What the—?”
        He stomped over to retrieve that errant section of half-pipe and set it on the nearest work table.  “I just can’t seem to get this damned thing to work!”
        “I thought you were supposed to be making an art project.”
        He pointed to the web-like iron framework.  “It’s in the process.”
        “Why are you repairing an old cement truck?”
        “Sometimes when I’m all…”  Lost for words to describe a mentally muddled state, he just traced loony circles around his head.  “…it’s rather…”  Now lost for the proper descriptors to convey a feeling of cleansing, he pushed his hands out away from him and exhaled.  “…to work on something that’s just… mechanical.”  (He had succeeded in locating the word “mechanical,” but it had taken him a moment of twisting the air with pantomime tools.)
        She brightened up.  “So, you have artist’s block?  Does it usually last long?  Gosh, I hope you get over it — like, say, after Christmas.”
        He grinned.  “You jump right in with both feet, don’t you?”
        With a sideways nudge of her head, she suggested, “Let’s get you out of this place and take you for a walk.”  Her hand had naturally wanted to reach out to pull him along, but her good sense forced it to keep safely inside her coat pocket.  (At least it felt like a form of good sense that was behind it.)
        Some boyhood element inside him rang like a game-show “We have a winner!” alarm, but he maintained his composure as he flung away his welding gloves.  Speedily doffing his gray coveralls (and miraculously not falling over as he tripped out of them), he grabbed up his leather jacket.  “A walk sounds like the very thing!  I’ve been cooped up in here for… Actually, ‘cooped up’ refers to being confined in someplace cramped, doesn’t it?  What’s it called when you’ve been confined to a large space?  Let’s say a guy’s been held prisoner in an arena—”
        “It’s probably just called ‘cabin fever.’ ” She hid her annoyance well.
        “No, a cabin is still a tiny space.  But I think you’re on the right track.  Maybe something close; maybe ‘cathedral fever.’ ”
        “I don’t know what it’s called, but I do know what the symptoms are.  The first would be persistent babbling about a marginally interesting notion.”
        As he zipped up his jacket, he looked her right in the eyes — the exact geometric center-points of his pupils aimed directly into the corresponding points of hers — and spoke with directness to match: “Oh, that’s not why I’m babbling.”
        His sincerity shook her, disarmed her.  She was forced into a rapid reconstruction of composure, which was clearly a sloppy patch-job.  “Yes… well…”  She broke her eyes away from his.  “Let’s just talk about art, shall we?”
        “I was.”  That riposte was pointed straight at the topic of her beauty.
        “Stop talking nonsense.  I was afraid you were going to make a game out of this, and I was right.  This is a serious matter to me.”  (“Serious” indeed!  She was restraining a grin!)
        He finally set aside (for the moment!) his teasing tactics. “I realize that.”
        Out on the street now, they began their stroll through Unimportant’s downtown corridor.  The way Roy absorbed the rundown sights with enchantment, and even made low “yummy” noises at the sight of the old buildings, defused some of Helen’s dislike of him.  If he loved her time-beaten town, he couldn’t be all that evil.
        She forced herself to open with some commonplace conversation: “So where do you normally live?”
        “Out on the Oregon coast.  I know that seems like a cliché for a sculptor, but it’s actually part of a government internment program.  They keep all the artists confined to one state in case there’s trouble.”
        “An arts and crafts uprising or something?”
        “Gotta prepare for any eventuality, I guess.”
        “Do you like being back here?”
        He smiled broadly.  “So far it’s been a total kick in the nostalgia pants!  Kurt’s here and he’s the vicar; my other old pal Jake is top cop!  That’s gotta spell good stuff for me!  I can get away with just about anything in this town — immoral, illegal — I have all the authorities in my pocket!  And I must say, you could have gotten into the welcome wagon vein if you’d dug out the orange, black and white cheerleader uniform!”
        She dropped into light acerbity: “I thought about that — I mean, yeah, it still fits; I wear it all the time, it’s just a bit cold out tonight.”  Then, returning to reality… “Sorry to have to inform you: You’re talking to the older, smarter Helen.”
        “I’m not sorry at all,” was his honesty-laden reply.
        “Boys really do go for the dumb cheerleader routine, huh?”
        “ ‘Dumb’?  C’mon!  I’ve never had any dumb-girl fantasies!  Let’s say, hypothetically, that it’s 1979.  You walk up to me in science class and ask me, ‘Do you think the warp field on the Enterprise carries the same molecules of normal space-time inside it, or does it normalize the molecules of warped space as it travels through them?’  Do you think I would have been
        She burst out with a bright laugh.  “No, you would have exploded in delight.”
        “Right!  Cheerleaders are… Well, it’s not ‘dumb.’  We don’t get all flipped out over dumb.  In the teen years, everything’s pretentious anger and dreary music.  Cheerleaders have ‘cheer’ in their name.  They’re oases of optimism in the Land of Mope.  Anyone who doesn’t like cheer is either a jerk or a liar.  Sooooo… does the uniform still fit, or was that sarcasm?  Before you answer, you should know: there’s a hundred bucks in it for you.”
        “Well…” she advised (or almost warned), “let’s stick to the topic of—”
        “Two hundred.”
        “Let’s stick to—”
        “Five hundred!  It’s the taxpayer’s money, so what the hell do I care?”
        “Let’s stick to the topic of your ‘Gardener’s Umbrella’ thing, shall we?”
        “The Umbrella of the Gardener’s Aunt is in the House.  Why does everyone get it wrong?”
        “Because it’s silly.  Honestly, no question has ever been easier to answer!  It’s a completely silly title.  What does it have to do with anything?”
        “Maybe you’ll see when it’s all done.”
        “But just ‘maybe’?  I thought art was supposed to make us see Truth, not confuse us.”
        “Confusion is an experience like everything else.”  He quickly added, “And I’m not talking about a pointless drug-induced sort of confusion!  I’m talking about the confusion of circumstances in reality, which can be reorganized into useful notions and things.  Confusion spurs intelligent people on to other things.”
        “I know.  I’ve seen confusing art.  It’s always spurred me on.  It spurs me to visit a different museum is what it does.  I’ve always thought of art as making order out of chaos.  That’s what singing is: putting a structure to sounds in order to turn them into something beautiful.”
        “But you — your art just makes chaos into more chaos.”
        “I make…”  He fell into his loss of words again, and his hands had to come out of his pockets to help out with their clutching and kneading of the air around him.  “…It’s… There’s a chaos to it, yes, I admit… but to those who look closer, look a second time, and a third time, stare at it and wait… they’ll see that there’s an order inside my chaos.  So, no, I don’t really make chaos.  I make a false chaos and leave it to you to find the order inside it.  It’s like the steak and the lobster.”
        She laughed, “I was hanging on until you ordered the surf ‘n’ turf.”
        “Ah-ha!  You assumed it was surf ‘n turf!  I meant two separate entrees: steak or lobster — and you have to choose.  You order the steak and it’s all prepared.  It’s cooked, it’s seasoned.  They sling the plate in front of you and you start eating.  But if you order the lobster they bring it in its shell with a bunch of tools and a bib, and you have to do the work yourself.”
        She blasted out a laugh.  “I hate that!  That’s why I never order the danged lobster!  It’s the most expensive thing on the menu and the stupid chef didn’t do anything but kill it!  Lobster is a total scam!”
        “Yeah.  And I’m the most expensive thing on the menu, too; though I don’t exactly consider myself a scam.”
        She sighed with a touch of aggravation.  “You’re from Unimportant.  You know that this isn’t just a small town geographically; it’s a small town spiritually, philosophically.  When people anywhere in America use ‘small-town’ as a compound adjective, this is the atmosphere they’re referring to.  Why do we need the most expensive thing on the menu?  Why do we need some sort of abstract shock art?”
        “ ‘Shock art’?  Who told you it was shock art?”
        There was urgency in that question, but it was impossible for Helen to discern whether it wasn’t shock art and he was taking offense at the accusation, or it was shock art and he was panicking at being found out.  She answered, “I’m just guessing from your track record.”
        “ ‘Shock’ means different things to different people.  In fact, every word in every language — and I’m including ‘every,’ ‘word’ and ‘language’ in there — means something different to everyone.  The whole system of verbal communication is inadequate.  With our individual lexicons and motives and priorities… it’s…  Well, think about the fact that in an official dictionary a word can have several different meanings, listed in order of common usage.  All it takes is for our personal inner dictionaries to number them in a different order — your number one definition of ‘shock’ is my number four — and the misunderstandings start piling up.  Then start throwing in modifiers and the chain reaction begins.”
        “Yet, you’re bothering to hold a conversation with me.”
        “And it’s ridiculous.  It’ll go nowhere.  What we should do is I should kiss you and you should slap me.  It’s quick.  It’s direct.  It’s absolute truth.”
        She laughed nervously.  “Let’s not.”
        “Or you could slap me, and then I’ll decide on my move depending on your chosen force of impact.”
        Her annoyance was doubly vexed — having to put up with his forward jokes and having to repress a smile.  “How ‘bout we try the verbal interchange thing for a while, inefficient though it may be?”
        He shrugged, unimpressed but willing.
        She continued, “I’ve heard the old ‘words are inadequate’ argument before.  I don’t think it holds water.  I’m sure every measuring tape, yardstick and ruler is slightly, microscopically different than every other one, but even so, we still manage to build skyscrapers, bridges, airplanes and space shuttles.  Words are close enough in meaning from one person to another that they’re generally worthwhile.  It’s just that people intentionally misuse them.”
        “Exactly!  Nobody’s fudging when it comes to measuring tapes and yardsticks!  …Bathroom scales, yeah.  But people are counting on their words being misconstrued.  I don’t think language was created for the purpose of communication so much as for the purpose of manipulating others.”
        She fired up a teasing smile.  “You’d like me to believe that, wouldn’t you?”
        He grinned in delight and pointed at her with a huge motion as if to say “Brilliant!  Score one for you!”  Then he tacked on an addendum to his theory: “Or perhaps it’s both.  They made it for communication, but the goal of communication — consciously or unconsciously — was/is manipulation.  And don’t forget to count on the fact that the guy doing the listening is intentionally mishearing everything that the manipulator says, because he’s manipulating through listening just as the other guy is manipulating through speaking.  When we speak, we…”  Again: his fluster and frenetic gesticulations.  “…We… damn it! … We put half the burden for our being understood on the guy who’s supposed to be understanding us, but he’s re-editing everything we say the moment it enters his ears.  Then, after deliberately mishearing us, he categorizes our remarks into the boxes in his brain where he thinks such remarks belong according to our motives as he imagines them.  So we have, on the one side, the speaker who’s saying something deceptively and hoping he’s being misconstrued in another way, and on the other side, the listener who’s reworking the speaker’s words and then tagging and classifying them with personal biases.  That’s four misuses of words in every utterance.  A mess, I tell ya!”
        “For a guy who thinks words are inadequate, you sure do use a lot of them.”
        “Thus proving my point.”
        “I understood that.”
        “So you think!”
        They exchanged tightly controlled grins, fully appreciating this tennis match of wit.
        He resumed his rant: “So, the hell with words!  I circumvent the words.  People have too much familiarity with them, and they’re just itching to reassign their own meanings to them.  I put shapes in front of people and that’s that.  ‘Let’s see you re-edit that, bucko!’  That’s the reason, I think, they’re so annoyed by my work: they can’t lazily pretend it’s something they thought I was going to say.  They have to work on it, and that grates, I suppose.  Do you get what I’m saying here?”
        She paused — both in her stroll and her speech — gave him a long stare, then began a slow response, like a train getting up to speed by labored chugs of its pistons: “I… would… like to say, ‘Yes, I get it,’ but in keeping with the spirit of your rant, I’m going to reply that I’m completely baffled.”
        “Which means you do get me!”
        She thought carefully, then answered, “…Nnnnn…no, I don’t.”
        “Thank you!”  His hands instinctively leapt up as if to grab her on both sides of her head, but a force field kept him from grasping and kissing her.  He backed away, disappointed in his own lack of follow-through.
        She spun away to resume her walk (and to hide a smile of amusement), and instantly changed the subject entirely.  “Oh, now here’s what I like!”
        What had transported her with delight was the spectacular scene of Christmas lights festooned on the homes — the rundown and restored alike.  Unimportant being what it is, it had only taken Roy and Helen a few casual steps to leave the downtown area and enter one of the neighborhoods, where it’s that oddly shuffled deck of “slummy hovel” and “reclaimed dream house.”  But with those holiday displays shining like scattered constellations of multi-colored stars, their “class system” could be evened out and set aside for the duration of December.
        “Pretty!” Helen sighed with childlike fascination.  “Don’t you just love Christmas lights?”
        Roy had unconsciously tuned them out, but now that they had “suddenly appeared” before his eyes, he took them in with a touch of nostalgic amusement.  Oh, yeah.  Groovy!”
        I would think an artist would appreciate them, or at the very least, notice them.”
        “Are you kidding?  In a conversation this riveting?  These houses could all have giant gorillas on their rooftops getting attacked by swooping biplanes, and I wouldn’t have noticed until you’d pointed them out.  To be honest, artists don’t have any great skill at noticing things; it’s more likely that they’re good at focusing on one thing and ignoring everything else.”
        “You say ‘they’ instead of ‘we.’ ”
        “Well… if you’d met some of the artists I’ve met, you, too, would steer clear of association.”
        “When did you become an arti— I mean, when did you take up the profession whose name must not be spoken?  I don’t recall you being in any art classes at school.”
        “Yeah.  I was just a shop class kind of kid.  But something happened as I was welding things.  I started seeing the shapes that—  Actually, let me start by asking you what do you see in your head when you listen to music?”
        Finding the question incongruously remarkable, and having never been asked it before, she mulled it over and quickly arrived at the answer: “Mostly I listen to stuff from old musicals, so I just get the scenes from the movies in my head.  I also have a thing for Elvis — say what you want!  So I guess I just see Elvis singing.”
        “Presley or Costello?”
        Her “You gotta be kidding me” stare answered that he should assume the obvious choice of the two.
        He revealed, “Whenever I listen to music, I’ve always seen geometric shapes in my head.  Different music creates different shapes of different colors; and if a song is interesting enough, I can listen to it a hundred times with the shapes growing, reproducing and compounding until it’s almost like a city!”
        “And you always listened to the weirdest music!  You and Kurt and your art-rock albums and whatnot.”
        “Right, ‘cause I like the geometric formations I get from ELP or Yes.  The shapes I envision are complex and weirdly interlocked; curved and winding; spinning and orbiting.  Sometimes they’re fluid and shifting.  If I listen to Bob Seger singing about his old time rock ‘n’ roll, or any snarly-voiced guy, like Springsteen or whatever, pumping his arm up and down on a guitar, I don’t get much in the way of multidimensional pleasure.  I get… well, basically, I get a coffee table in my head.  As I say, I thought this phenomenon was normal.  One day, long ago, I mention it to Kurt; he goes, ‘Huh?  Shapes?’  I ask him, ‘What do you see in your head when you listen to music?’  He says, ‘I usually just see the album cover.’  So, apparently, his imagination was an iPod before the iPod even existed.  Anyway, fast forward a few years and I’ve taken up welding as a reasonable career skill.  I thought I’d just be working on construction sites; never thought it would lead to anything artsy.  But it didn’t take long before I found that I could make objects that corresponded with the things that constructed themselves in my mind—”
        “When music is playing?”
        “At all times!  There’s always some 3-D object or two — or a hundred — floating around in my head.”  At the risk of being classified as thoroughly insane, he continued, ranting with the desperation of someone finally pouring out a dark secret that’s pestered for a lifetime: “I see words as three-dimensional objects, too!  When they move themselves into a sentence, they bump into each other; or scrape against each other; they twist in a void with yaw, pitch and roll — just like individual spacecraft.  They have… have… innocuous sides and— and— and they have sinister sides.  The sinister sides are the ones most commonly turned upward, like loaded dice!  That’s why I can’t work with words: can’t trust ‘em.  They’re sculptures, yes, but devious ones!  Even the small and seemingly innocent conjunctions can have despicable ulterior motives — especially ‘or!’  What’s up with that?  ‘It might be the primary item, but it could just as easily be the secondary item.’  As if all nouns are interchangeable!  ‘And’ — there’s an obnoxious one!  ‘And!’  It demands that you accept everything it connects to as some package deal!  ‘So’ is OK, I guess.”
        She was looking askance at him now — that wary look a character in a suspense film might get when she surreptitiously dials 911 on the cell phone in her pocket so the authorities might hear the dangerous lunacy being spoken by her kidnapper.  Of course, she didn’t do such a thing.  There was no need to… yet.  “You… um…  You like the word ‘so.’ ”
        “Let’s just say I don’t mind it.  I like its contention that there are consequences to actions.  …Or maybe I just tell myself there’s one conjunction that’s OK, so I don’t go utterly mad.”
        “If that’s the case, then you need to tell yourself that more often.”  Her face tensed into the “What sort of lunatic am I walking around with?” expression.
        He pointed out a marvelous illuminated decoration that had caught his eye.  “Oh!  That one’s beautiful!  Easily my favorite!  A big red star all lit up!”
        “That’s a Texaco station.”
        “Oh.  Still… it’s festive, huh?”
        She brightened up as she turned her attention to a display on someone’s snow-covered yard: a none-too-expensive, plastic Nativity scene glowing from the inside out.  “Now, this one is my favorite!  Nice tradition, don’t you think?”  (She had put a little extra oomph on the word “tradition” — just a smidge of a volume and tempo change for that word.)
        “Subtle,” he laughed.
        “Me or the Nativity scene?”
        “Both of you.  You deserve each other.” He had become distracted by the house that displayed that particular cheap Nativity: a three-story red brick wonder of an earlier age, its constitution still quite mighty, but in need of some loving repair.  A classic of early twentieth-century architecture, it sported a bay window at the front, wraparound porch, tiny bedroom balcony and an impressive rounded turret on one corner.  His eyes scanned the structure all the way up to the multiple dormers and polygonal splendor of the complicated roof.  Almost to himself, he sighed, “This was always my favorite house in town.  Not too bad still.  A little care, and it could be something.”
    She spoke with a sad (almost scolding) disappointment.  “This is not what these houses were intended to be.”
        “Everything gets rundown with time.”
        She explained her exasperation: “Sure, there’s the decay of Time — that’s natural — and then there’s a sort of pernicious decay.  Just like with people, there’s an expected lifespan, and then there’s the deterioration of disease.  Think about the guys building these houses way back when.  They were picturing families living lives in them, having dinner, nice yards, kids playing.  They were picturing parents waving in the driveway as the young man leaves home; he comes back in a Navy uniform, looking all sharp, duffel bag on his back; then the folks go gray, and grandkids are running around.”  She turned her attention to a ramshackle house across the way and a few doors down.  “They weren’t thinking, ‘This house we’re building will one day have rusted junk piled up on the front porch, a broken screen door hanging off at an angle, and no one to clean it up or fix things because the owner’s just sitting on a moldy sofa, smoking pot and playing a psychotic video game.’  No, Time’s version of decay has nothing on apathy’s version of it.”
        He indicated the “Sold” banner slapped across the realtor’s sign.  “Well, someone’s bought this one, so that’s encouraging.  Someone sees a future in Unimportant.”  With abrupt energy, he posed the sort of question that requires such abruptness in order to exist: “Back in school, did you realize that I had a crush on you?”
        “Yeah,” she laughed.  “I picked up on that.”
        “Do girls always know?”
        “Actually, no.  Sometimes the guy is just way too shy and the girl is distracted or unperceptive.  Imperceptive?  Unperceptive?  Which is it?”
        “I’m not sure.  I’m… unsure?”
        “Well, who cares about the antonym?  I was perceptive.  I knew.”
        “So why do you perceptive girls let the shy guys twist in agony?”
        “Oh, we test you!” she admitted slyly.  “We ask innocent questions — things like ‘When is the Gettysburg report due?’ or ‘What page are we supposed to read?’ — and you look like you’re about to faint.  Then we move it up to seemingly innocent questions, like ‘Can you help me light my Bunsen burner?’  You see, that one has a possible double entendre mixed into it.  That’s the serious test!  And your reaction is even worse.  At that point we know it’s dangerous to go any further.”
        “So we poor geeks are just guinea pigs?  Every night it’s space aliens sneaking into our rooms to study us, and during the day it’s pretty girls?”
        “That’s right.  You’re nothing but a well-worn, universal test subject.” She nudged him away from in front of that beloved brick house, continued the stroll and got back to the key topic:  “What is your ‘Umbrella-thing’ exactly?”
        He brightened with pride. “It’s a series of colored metal cubes — red, purple, green, orange — with brass designs on them — very spiffy; they move and swivel, and there’s a bank of video screens on a framework around them displaying all this… crazy… very chaotic stuff!”
        She shook her head in disappointment.  “What does that have to do with the town of Unimportant, Montana?”
        “I could splatter it with cattle dung — that would give it a rural flavor.”
        “You’re a bit of a freak, but I have to admit, I’m enjoying this conversation a lot more than I predicted I would.  I told Kurt I was going to step on your face, or something to that effect.”
        “Ha!  You failed to factor in my abundant charm!”
        She rolled her eyes.  “Yeah.  I was unprepared for that.  Still am.  Still waiting.  Look: you’re eloquent — once you get on a roll, anyway.  Well, no; actually, you’re even eloquent when your hands are flapping all over the place.  So why do you make art that’s so obscure?  Why don’t you just say what you want to say to your audience?”
        “You mean, like, be a playwright, or something?  They don’t start making money until four centuries after they’re dead.  Hard to buy a house that way.  Heck!  It’s hard to buy a donut!”
        “But even with your sculptures you could make more direct statements.  You could make statues of actual things.”
        “Random rectangles are things.  When someone looks at one of my works and asks me, ‘What are you trying to say?’ I point to the work and answer,
‘That!’ ”
        “You’re trying to say ‘rectangle’?”
        “Pretty much.  Yeah.”
        “What about when you have something to say that isn’t a shape?  Let’s say, for instance, you want to express what we normal people call ‘cogent ideas’ like ‘War is bad,’ ‘Help the poor,’ or…”
        As she hunted for a second example, he chimed in with one: “…or ‘I love you’?”
        She grinned only slightly, and held the conversation on course. “OK, let’s go with that.  If you’re going to say ‘I love you’ to somebody—”
“Yes, a hypothetical somebody.”  (That was very pointed.)  “Wouldn’t you want to make something coherent instead of something abstract to get your message across?”
        “I think I can accomplish that message with shapes, or possibly shapes and motion.”
        “You can say ‘I love you’ with… geometry?”
        “Damn straight!  Better than with words!”
        “You mean, you could create some geometric… stuff that a girl could look at and she’d instantly know, ‘Oh! He loves me!’?”
        “I think so.  Or the converse: ‘He despises me!’  Now, that would be a dramatic work!”  He seemed to fall into a busy-brained state where he began to plan what such an “I despise you, woman!” artwork would entail.
        She shot him a “You’re disturbing me” look, while asking, “By usurping the Nativity’s spot, are you saying ‘I despise you’ to religion or just tradition?”
        “I’m not going to say what my art is about.  Are you nuts?  It must tell its own story in its own voice.”
        “But look at all this.”  She once again brought the neighborhood lights to his attention.  “It’s a wonderful tradition.  Wouldn’t someone be a real jerk — personally, I want to say ‘counterproductive to the community,’ but for the purposes of this argument, I’ll settle for ‘a real jerk’ — if he went about legislatively shutting this all down?”
        “Ah!  But these are private homes; not public land, and most of these are actually secular displays anyway.”
        “Let’s forget public, private, religious and secular for a moment.  Let’s just examine the need to rip things down.  Say you’re sitting on a park bench on a pleasant, sunny day; you’re reading a book and a guy runs up, swipes your book away and tears it to shreds in front of you… it doesn’t matter if you were reading the Bible or Moby Dick — that guy’s a jerk.”
        He grinned cunningly.  “What if he tore the book to shreds and then all the shreds transformed into snow white doves that fluttered around your head and sang Mozart’s ‘Ave Verum Corpus’?  Not in human voices, which would be kind of unsettling, but in little birdy chirps, which may be cartoonish, but isn’t too disturbing.”
        She stared incredulously for what seemed an hour.  “…I was working in the hypothetical, not the hallucinogenic.”
        “My point is: what if the guy you think is a jerk could… could… show you something… mind-boggling… something miraculous that he couldn’t possibly have shown you without ripping your beloved thing to shreds?”
        She turned a challenging look on him.  “You really think that?  You think your weird ‘Aunt’s Gardener’s Umbrella’ sculpture is going to be so divinely splendid that I’m going to say, ‘Wow!  This is so much better than my tired old Nativity scene!’?”
        “I believe in my art, and, yes, I’m willing to take that gamble.  I’ll put The Umbrella of the Gardener’s Aunt is in the House up against your tired old Nativity scene, and I’ll stand by it!  Yes, there’s a chance you’ll consider it a crashing bore, or that you’ll be hideously offended by it, but I just put my art out there and let the reaction be what it may be.  I’m willing to fail.”
        “But why should the whole town lose its tradition and be stuck with your failure?”
        “Don’t you see?  It’s…”  His passion collapsed quite abruptly.  “Well… that’s a really good point.  Will you go on another walk with me in a few days?  If you promise to ask that same question again, I can promise to get a really good answer worked up for it.”
        “I don’t think there’s much point in another walk.  I don’t think I’ve swayed you at all.”
        “Nope.  I’m a locomotive.  I stick right on my tracks no matter what.”
        “And if some bandits dynamite the bridge ahead of you?”
        “I go chugging right off the cliff.”
        “Not a very logical course.”
        “But a steam locomotive falling into a gorge would be a hell of an art project!”  He instantly began plotting.  “I wonder how I could pull that off?  Where does one get an old train like that?”
        “Meanwhile, I’ll get some dynamite and hire some bandits.”
        “Put a bandana over your nose and do the job yourself, woman!”
        By now they were standing in front of Helen’s house — claimed by her merely in the way she stopped in front of it and set her hand on the white picket gate.  “Well, it’s been a zany chat, Mr. Hughes.  Please reconsider this project of yours.  Try to think like small-town folk.”
        He put on the pose that he was guiltless of anything other than that.  “What could be more delightfully small-town-folksy than walking your baby back home?”
        Though she got a fluttering jitter out of that remark, it was just one single butterfly of the stomach — easy enough to veil with a fake scowl.  “I am not your baby — never was — not in objective reality, anyway.”
        “Objective reality shmobjective… shmre… ality.”  He was disenchanted with that comeback before it was even done, telegraphing his letdown with a droop of posture.  “I’d like to withdraw that remark, having discovered that the Yiddish rhyming disparagement exercise has very limited uses in debate.”
        Her astonishment at his casual but complex sentence structure, which, for the entirety of the walk, had been ranging from “noteworthy” to “dangerously high,” finally compounded into one flummoxed muttering: “You’re the weirdest person on this planet.”
    “Well, let’s be commonplace, then.  I mean we walked all this way, so let’s be pedestrian — see how bizarre language is?  I walked you right up to your gate, so don’t I get a goodnight kiss?”
        “Of course not!” she laughed nervously.
        “Why not a simple ‘No’?  Why must it be the cold granite edifice ‘Of course not’?”
        “Because you’re a good thirty years too late to ask me to the prom!  Because it’s not 1980!”
        “Really?  Then why has ‘I’d Really Love To See You Tonight’ been playing in a loop in my head for the past half-hour?”
        “That was a ’70s hit!”
        “It was still on the radio in ’80!  And anyway, the year 1980 is technically a part of the decade of the seventies!  Decades begin with years ending in ‘1’ and end on zero years!  Ha!”
        “This is the most absurd argument I’ve ever been a part of!”
        “This isn’t an argument; it’s an art project!”
        “There’s just no talking to you!”
        “But I notice you’re not leaving!”
        “Yes, I am!”  She spun around, threw the gate open, and stormed off… for two steps, then twirled around and stormed back toward him with a semi-furious addendum: “Look!  There’s a very—”
        “Ah-ha!”  (A simple interjection that presented her return as proof of some unconscious, though still ulterior purpose.)
        “What?” she snapped.  “I came back to make a point!”
        “And that ‘point’ is…?”
        “That I’m a married woman!  My husband and kids are in that house, not my mom and dad!”
        “That’s why I thought we should kiss here at the gate and not on the porch — where small town America would normally perform such an event.”
        Again, she stormed off; again, she returned in two steps.
        Again, he drew attention to her boomerang effect with a broad sweep of his hands; a “Look at this, will ya, world!” sort of gesture.
        “Stop that!” she snapped.  “I was going to say that Kurt told me to use the fact that you used to have a crush on me to my advantage, but I thought I could get through to you with logic!  I was delusional!”
        “Why is a crush on you outside the domain of logic?  Fer cryin’ out loud!  Being in love with you is sensible; it’s rational!  It’s the only sane notion I’ve ever entertained!  That’s probably what paralyzed me about it!”
        She backed away with a fairly frightened aspect — something akin to being stunned into silence, but with a trepidation about what was bubbling to the surface in her mind.  There was a moment’s stare-down… then she mumbled, “I’d better go.”
        Roy’s mind immediately glommed onto the chasm of difference between “I’m leaving” and the option she’d just chosen.  He was going to launch into a sermon on what her choice of words revealed, but his quirk-laden brain coughed up a more concise (though offbeat) alternative.  A voice from an old classic movie spoke in his head, and the advice it imparted he called out loudly in a gruff fat man’s character voice: “Why don’t you kiss her instead of talking her to death?”
        Helen froze in her tracks and pivoted slowly with a startled grin.  “How’s that?”  (The correct response line!  It’s a Wonderful Life was probably her favorite film of all time!)
        He reiterated (again in the character’s tone and tempo): “I said, ‘Why don’t you kiss her instead of talking her to death?’ ”
        She walked slowly up to him and silently studied his gaze while her face went through a series of curious expressions — manifestations of “Who the heck is this guy?”, “How did he know that I love that movie?”, “What if I…?” and “Maybe I need to do something weird right now.”  At long last, she offered up a deal: “If I kissed you, would you change your mind about your ‘Umbrella’ thing in the park?”
        He seemed open to a shrewd bargain: “…Change my mind how?”
        “Will you move it?”
        “Move my mind?”
        “Move your art project.”
        His ensuing pause made him appear almost catatonic.  It was more a “Brain closed for the season” sort of expression than it was a “wheels turning” look.  Finally… “Yes.  I’ll move it.”  (Replete with decisive head-nod.)
        With the promise spoken, she leaned smoothly forward and put her lips to his — no dithering; no effort on her part to shove herself into it; no roll of the eyes that she had to resort to such measures.
        Even after all the talk leading into it, he was still taken aback, unable to do little more than stand there and be kissed.  His hands made half an attempt to move, but had gone numb and inoperable.  He couldn’t waste any mental energy on those hands, for his mind was busy cracking open a tunnel to the past, so that his late-1970s’ self could reach across the distance and experience the rich dizziness of this long-awaited moment.
        It went on a bit longer than it should have for Helen’s purposes (not in any steamy, grappling frenzy, but smoothly and serenely), lingering just a little past the point where the pact would reasonably be considered to be officially sealed.
        She backed away and took in his flabbergasted expression with delighted astonishment, having long ago thought her power to flabbergast had been lost.  Then, in a flash, she tacked on a late caveat: “And when I say ‘move it,’ shifting it three inches to the left doesn’t count.”
        Though flustered and blushing like a child, he managed to find some of his quirky humor and delivery: “Your devious mind is much more subtle than mine!  I was going to shift it at least six inches!”
        “That’s what I figured.  Well,” she sighed disgustedly (and quite blandly), “you lied.”
        He corrected her with professorial distinction: “I spoke carefully, madam.”
        “I still have to slap you.”
        “Do so.  Only a purely physical act will properly illustrate the disagreeable predicaments perpetrated and propagated by the intrinsically devious nature of spoken communication.”
        She allowed him to complete that wordy (but casually and smoothly delivered) statement, then drew back and delivered a solid swat across his face, not checking the velocity of her swing in the slightest — on the contrary, making sure to get the full potential out of it.

© Copyright 2011, Lee Rushton Howard

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