From Atop the Tower

 

When are you going to get a life? That will be his first sentence of the morning, Rob thinks.

“So,” Jarred says. “You’re all set up.”

Oh. Passive aggression.

“Yeah, son, I guess I am.” He looked around. “If you call constantly searching for personal improvement and excellence set up, then yeah, I’m set up.”

The 320-degree panorama of Philadelphia haze murmurs at them. Finally he has drowned the blare of traffic in the distance between him and the street 35 stories below. He got a place on the cheap while the owner was away in Spain. He’ll be here all summer, time enough to collect his space. Plus the place has great light for Rob’s painting—and it’s good against depression as a bonus. It stops far short of luxury, and lacked air conditioning. That accounts for the owner’s absence in summer. But who cares? Bob loves the deck and the view and the quiet, and sleeping outside. His college-student roommates are all away visiting relatives, going to their parties, sleeping over with their girlfriends.

Inside the penthouse, there are different tools of the trade lying around. Brushes, palettes. Canvases—too expensive for there to be many of those. The biggest is Blair’s nude, from the rear, of Lucy, who is nobody in particular, just a model they have for the classes. She never takes off her watch, but in this picture Blaine painted her without it. The light in this picture is great. The skin tones are super. It looks pretty professional and it is the best thing Blair has ever done. It’s only half-finished though, adrift between birth and completion. Blaire doesn’t have courage to complete the painting for fear he will ruin this, his best work so far. Its placement right there, front and center, in the living area, but on the floor leaning against the wall, is planned to catch the eye of every visitor, yet still gives the impression that this is just part of the flotsam of Blaire’s life. Lucy, and Blaire, or so it seemed, were going places. But really, they were suspended in amber.

His son has changed, and it bothers him.

Standing out on the rooftop deck in his boxers is a morning ritual that Rob performs with bad coffee and a bagel as Eucharist. About 800 square feet of the tarred roof is planked over, right now home to a futon, a sleeping bag for a blanket he doesn’t even need in this heat, some pillows, some crumpled up tissues, his little radio, some socks that he took off in the middle of the night, empty chip bags and a beer bottle. He loves to sleep out here because it is too high for the mosquitoes. Maybe they just get too tired to fly so high. Also Rob can’t stand the heat inside. He hasn’t lived in a place with A/C since moving out.

It’s better up here, not just because of the deck, and the view, and the quiet, but because of the altitude. The low air pressure, Rob believes, is better for the soul.

Today is different though, because his son Jarred has taken up residence, holding Court from the fold-out bed that he folds back up and makes every morning even though no one is coming over, saying things like this place is a damn mess. It’s a more and more frequent mishap, now that he has his license and has gained confidence behind the wheel. His son has changed, and it bothers him. Now Jarred has come out to the deck with his Marlboros and lit one right next to Rob during his ritual, invading his space. Rob wrinkles his nose. Neither cancerous incense nor smoke signals are a part of the ceremony. Jarred could at least try to quit, or switch to electronic cigarettes or the patch or try hypnosis or just go to the damn corner of the roof and evacuate Rob ’s space. To avoid looking at his son, he checks his watch. He forgot to take it off again yesterday; it’s been dead for days.

Now he’s come out to the deck with his Marlboros and lit one right next to Rob during his ritual, invading his space. Rob wrinkles his nose. Neither cancerous incense nor smoke signals are a part of the ceremony.

“Searching for personal improvement and excellence, son. Maybe that’s not what you mean by set up,” Rob said. “But it’s what I mean.” He dunks his last chunk of bagel into the black coffee and throws it into his mouth, washes it down, and grimaces.

Jarred pinches the bridge of his nose and makes that that little air-throat sound of his. “I’m sorry Dad. I love you, and I wish I could get through to you, but I just don’t know how. I’m sorry I gripe, but I only want what’s best for you. I’m sorry about Lucinda. I’m sorry about what happened on the duck boat. I know I can’t imagine what you’re going through, and before you say, ‘That’s right, you can’t, son,’ well, that’s why I said it.”

“Son, I don’t want to be gotten through to. Why should I?” He walks away from the cigarette. Never once has Jarred asked if it bothers him. “I’m ‘set up,’ as you wise-assedly put it,” he says over his shoulder. “I’m OK. You’re here to check up on me to make sure I’m OK, or at least same way I was when you checked on me last time, the way I’ll be when you check on me next time and so on and so on and so on.” Off the boards to the edge of the precipice, no railing down 35 stories to the cars, warbling ambulances, people and cops writing tickets for double parked cars which would never be paid. Now his son would mention Mark. He would mention Mark’s job, Mark’s great relationship with Sara, Mark’s money, Mark’s car, Mark’s everything.

Suddenly he is there on the duck boat again when the barge hit in the Delaware, not five miles from here. The duck is upside down and Lucinda is nowhere.

“Listen Dad, you can come back home until you’re all set, until you get what you need, whatever that is. We would love to have you. Mom would be totally OK, it’s what she wants. Mark wouldn’t mind, either, I promise. I understand your feelings, but as for him, he’d be cool with it. He’s really a great guy.”

Great. Great, Rob thinks. “You know—”

Something swells in his throat. He spills coffee on his wrist. He shakes his head and looks for one second more at the smog speckled with buildings. Two Liberty Place. FMC Tower. OK. I’ll do it. Once he has said it to himself there is no stopping the rage. He storms back into to the penthouse, cracks the remains of his coffee to the table, grabs Jarred’s bag and throws it to the hallway, then his neatly folded towels, then his briefcase, because god forbid he should go anywhere without his goddamn personal portable office.

Jarred just stands there mesmerized at the door to the deck. “What are you doing?”

 

Finally the young man lowers his eyes and walks slowly out. Rob goes after him and slams the door.

He moves up to Jarred, shirtfront close. “Out,” he says. “Out. Out and out and out and out. Out, Mr. Mark this, Mark that, Mark everything!”

Suddenly he is there on the duck boat again when the barge hit in the Delaware, not five miles from here. The duck is upside down and Lucinda is nowhere. She’ll never have her first look around the city. The newspapers said the tugboat captain had his radio off and counted the dead and missing, but they didn’t mention Lucinda. Or Rob, as he was ducking his head under again swimming around looking and searching. Not a word about Lucinda, not a word about him. Just raw numbers, facts. “You come out here with your guilt trip. You say you love me but you only love me because you have to. Because you’re my son. You don’t love me for who I am, you love me for what you want me to be.” Jarred starts to gather up the strength for another go. “Not this time Jarred.” He points firmly out the door, feet spread wide as if ready for a brawl. “Go.”

Finally the young man lowers his eyes and walks slowly out. Rob goes after him and slams the door.

Rob looks at his things all folded up and arranged neatly on the coffee table in an alien way. Then he looks back at the door. He goes to the coffee table and swats everything back the floor. He stares for a moment with false satisfaction then kicks the table over. His coffee makes a brown splatter on the wall.

“Screw coffee.” He goes to the refrigerator and comes back with a glass of beer. He sits on the scatted clothes and looks at Blair’s painting leaning against the wall. A droplet of coffee runs down the model’s buttocks.

He squints, puts the beer to his eye, and peers at the model’s pink bottom through the orange-gold brew. He takes off his own watch at throws it at her. “Here you go, baby.” She lets it fall to the floor.

He downs the beer and watches the foam slide to the bottom. He toasts the painting with an empty glass. “Looks like it’s just you and me, Lucy.”

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