The punctuation bothered me more than the jibe. After I dashed off a reply on the back of a catalog card from my collection, for a novel called Death in Suburbia "Wow is right!!!" I wrote I added his offensive letter to the scraps of paper already heaped on the hallway carpeting. I kicked a path to Nic's studio and found her perched over her drafting table, bare feet hooked on the rungs of a stool.
"Pardon," she said preemptively.
Without looking up, she waved an ink-stained hand at a riot of paper, paint pots, glue brushes, and cardboard.
I lowered the sound on an Edith Piaf CD. "Who's the project for?"
"Club Med," she said unenthusiastically.
"How'll you use those?" I pointed at some photos pinned above the table: palm trees and sunsets, sandy beaches, a couple in rapturous embrace.
Nic reached for a cleverly hinged pop-up that made the palm trees sway when the brochure was opened.
"And the couple?" I asked.
She swiveled around to face me. "They will do what lovers are supposed to do, Zander if I can get them to stay together."
My stomach rumbled. The walk home had made me hungry. "Want to hit that new Malaysian place on Broadway?"
"Pas ce soir," Nic said, turning back to her work. "Deadline."
"Then let's order in."
"But we are broken."
"The expression is broke,' Nic . . . I still have some coupons for those satay skewers you like."
"No, I must work."
"Okay. Can you at least take a look at this?" I fished out Jesson's call slip. "Have you ever seen such lettering?" Before I could show her, Nic stretched out an arm and raised the volume on the CD player, effectively ending the exchange.
I retreated to the kitchen and made do with a bowl of Shredded Wheat. Irritation kicked in again when I saw the sink; it was so filled with dishes it resembled a library book drop at the end of a long weekend. And the recyclables! Their consolidation showed a total disregard for the nuances of plastic. Yet what really got me was the fridge.
Nic and I had talked through our organizational differences more than once and had, I thought, reached an understanding. The upper rack was to be reserved for tall objects, with smaller items claiming the narrow spaces below. So why did an aggressively horizontal platter of apples and nectarines now dominate the topmost shelf? True, Nic had put together a composition worthy of Cézanne, but that hardly negated the fact that we'd agreed fruit belonged in the compartment designated to hold it, namely the one marked fruit.
I told myself to let it go, which only accelerated the swirl of petty thoughts. How could a woman skilled enough to create exquisite pop-up cards and books leave a mountain of greasy dishes in the sink? How could her sense of style coexist so peaceably with a capacity for clutter? I tried to repatriate the apples and nectarines, only to find that the fruit bin had been packed with high-speed film, tarot cards, and various herbal remedies Nic's mother had sent from Toulouse. A catalog started running through my head: messiness, homeopathic medicine, sexual voracity . . .
I shifted the Cézanne one level down. As I was attempting to relocate a stick of butter whose color, I took pleasure noting, resembled that of Jesson's yellow vest to the dairy compartment, a clip of imported French suppositories bearing the all too evocative name Ammorectol clattered to the floor. Unable to cram the foil-wrapped bullets back behind the plastic door, I yanked open the vegetable bin. There I discovered further proof of Nic's relentless subversion of order.
From under a rotting cabbage I pulled a small package of "Big Boy Brew," the humiliating residue of her most recent effort to restore my virility. After tossing the cabbage and twigs and shoving the butter back where I'd found it, I halted the reconnaissance, determined to calm down by researching the source of Jesson's distinctive lettering.
Copyright © 2001 by Allen Kurzweil. Reprinted by permission of Hyperion.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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