I have this boat, he said, and swung the model past his pool, his typing pool with me the sole swimmer. He balanced the boat across my Smith Corona. Today’s question is—how can $2.3 million turn this boat around? It’s a destroyer.
Destroyer-creator? I said.
The Upanishads, very good, he said. But not quite. He flipped a porthole open. Put the money in here and voila! A deep fat fryer.
His wife, the mega-secretary, stepped into the pool from an alcove before his office where she reigned pool-side, and enjoyed his smile. His first wife had smiled back, the one who papered his office with 100-dollar bills. This wife did not. Dressed like a folded parachute, all tucks and seams, she must’ve had a cord, but I couldn’t see it. The potato boat? she said, taking it from him. Are you sure it will float with all that fat?
Let’s go to lunch, he said, patting his trim front, eyeing mine.
I said no, I brought a sandwich but she said his son was coming.
We need French fry experts, he said. You must, he said, as if it were part of the job.
We lunched en famille, leaving the office and its boat in the care of an old male underling whose name I had forgotten after my introduction a week earlier, my first day a Tuesday because of the boss’ decision regarding my short week. He insisted I devote—devotion was key—an extra day and the weekend to writing. The underling painted.
The son had revealed my literary ambition. A possible suitor, he didn’t know the breadth of my amatory selection, had planned conquest but as yet had hardly purchased the flag. Perhaps he thought by speaking to his father about me, the job was done. He kissed me long over the menu, to the averred horror of his stepmother. His father derailed the display by whipping open his napkin and retying it into a boat.
The fries will be freeze-dried, all the processing onboard, ready to eat off the shelf. With no property taxes, the boat floats from potato port to grocery, the fries stay fresh forever, he said. A new process.
Forever sounds so nuclear, I said, having just last week devoted my day off to writing about marches, people objecting to converting whole islands into missile silos.
That’s the one piece we’re still working on, said his wife. How did you know?
I beamed, despite my politics. The son coughed. I haven’t described him out of sorrow—his father’s. Where his father’s blue suit shined, sartorially, the son’s jeans-and-t-shirt promised only a laundering, and there was a beard planned but not quite executed. Ever greater degrees in psychology had hijacked his youth. Although curly-haired and tender-mouthed, his most prominent personal habit was checking his pulse every ten minutes or so, neck or wrist. His father had perhaps not noticed this last, the high self-absorption rate ricocheting between family members. Though the son’s imitations of his father were wholly amusing in private, his coughing now signaled at least Freudian rebuttal. A boat with everlasting food, he said. A dreamboat, isolated, inviolate, volatile—will there be fire under that French fry oil? It can’t be safe.
He took his pulse and a French fry.
Yet you still eat, said his father.
A month later I was off the payroll. His wife said the extra help hadn’t been warranted, the boat hadn’t yet come in, as it were. She gave me two days more pay than I deserved, even beyond my extra day. I knew it had little to do with the fate of the boat. A few days earlier I’d met my boss in his office to discuss my future. I took his proffered chair. He and I bantered about what to do with an unconverted strip mall. I admitted I knew a little about strip but not malls, and laughed, the unconscious with nowhere else to go. He didn’t laugh. He rose and came around the side of his desk, his hands outstretched—and his phone rang.
He smiled his broad smile, probably I did too, and he reached back over his desk and took the call.
I found the door. Beyond it, his wife stirred papers.
Thanksgiving the son insisted I come to their dinner as his friend. He wanted me closer, my being off the payroll had preempted his intentions. I imagined him checking his pulse as he dialed me. Besides, he said on the phone, his father had just his heart opened and sewn shut and was feeling what? said his son—sentimental, family-oriented, contrite, and unworthy? and his stepmother was cooking French, and he suspected my larder of having potatoes in the singular. I was touched by his concern. Since nothing had begot something—my firing—I felt deserved. His sister would come too, a jollier version of all of them, a reporter.
The siblings arrived stoned. Passing the potatoes put them into hysterics. The father passed them twice for a repeat performance. His son wept with laughter. The father swore in two languages, less amused, then his offspring conversed in pig Latin and ate everything in sight.
I looked good.
I’m taking up skydiving, said the father after the last slice of pie.
But your heart, said his wife, his daughter, his son and I.
I have one, he said. I may as well use it. This last was directed to the son who had just finished extolling on love according to Jung, mostly straight-faced, with me rolling my eyes, the question of his virginity in neon before us.
His sister took notes in the air.
We all had to attend the skydiving the next morning. The son wouldn’t get out of the car. My dad will fall on me, he complained. It’s a plot to murder me. A son-i-cide.His sister stood mute on the tarmac, pad and pen at the ready, so not laughing as the night before. With his wife and myself, we were three women in wonder at his grin while the pilot strapped on his parachute, fishtailed the Piper on the runway.
I figured he was doing it for me, to get my attention. I didn’t know then that the self-absorbed absorb all the other selves within reach, that such an act both compelled and expelled, was meant to express freedom from the wife and the body and the body’s expressions, the son and daughter both. I hardly figured, except as a body to be breached.
Of course he fell fine. We all climbed back into his station wagon after, driven by his wife so he could take business calls on his return to the office, and he took one, his face going far graver than the one he should have had before he went up. A fire, he told us, the boat sank, he said.
The potatoes were supposed to go on-line next week.
His wife took his arm, her other steering us back into town. There will always be more potatoes.
Write that down, he said to me. Potatoes last, like art.
His son took up all the time I had set aside to write those many unemployed weeks after. He caught me with an out-of-the-blue ardor that changes men into satyrs. Seeing his father die and his resurrection had freed him, not to mention the potatoes catching fire in accord with his prediction. He let his pulse race and we spent days on end naked.
It didn’t last.
This fall Dzanc Books published the novel Pirate Talk or Mermalade, Terese Svoboda's sixth book of prose.