Mr. Gaynes sidesteps past me through the doorway. He doesn't stay in the kitchen long; as soon as I sit down at the table in the adjacent room he's standing next to me. My heart beats like a fist in my chest.
“How you doin'?” I touch the ribs on my right side, by instinct. Tender, but better every day. He puts his hand on my shoulder. We haven't looked each other in the eye since I came home from Rutgers two weeks ago and we had the confrontation, but I look him in the eye and he looks back. He wants the best for me, like any father, no argument there.
“Did you sign up?” Mother asks, setting three phone books on the chair at the head of the table.
“Well . . .”
She picks up Mr. Gaynes and sets him in his customary place, chin above the table. Mr. Gaynes is 3-feet-6. He's still wearing a jumpsuit with “AHI” on the left breast – for American Home Inspection – and a tape measure, razor knife and six-way screwdriver on his belt.
“All kinds of bleeding around the perimeter,” he says, “and that's the least of it. U-valve issues, and the jalousies . . . anything but waterproof. A sieve, more like it. A mess. A good looking number, but a mess. These postwar houses . . . I don't see much pride. If the product's flawed, the customer deserves to know. If they don't know, they're going to find out, and they don't want to find out $300,000 later. That's where I come in. My integrity,my credibility.”
“That's why you're the No. 1 home inspection company in America ,” Mother says, bringing in the roast.
“Imagine purchasing a home and finding out the pipes are screwy. One day you go to take a shower and splat, rust on your head.”
“Yuk,” says Mother.
“Or the roof leaks. Who do you blame?” He adjusts his belt. I get the feeling the sale got blown. He doesn't like doing that. It makes him fidgety, chatty, regretful. He wants everyone to make money, if possible, but he has to do what's right for AHI, for him, and for his customers. “You should be able to trust your home. If I tell you the plumbing is good, or the roof's got 20 years, that should mean something.”
“It does mean something,” Mother points out.
“Father?” Mother asks.
Mother helps him off his seat. He speed-walks to the bathroom.
“Use the step-up!” Mother tells him, then to me: “He forgets sometimes.”
Mr. Gaynes returns to a roast, mashed potatoes, green beans, rolls, a pitcher of water, and Sis comes down from her room. Sis got a new chin for her 18 th birthday, a strong, jutting chin, like a middle linebacker, but no cleft, she was adamant about that.
“Eleven days,” she says, looking at Mother.
“You're going to be so beautiful,” Mother says “Even more beautiful than you are now.”
“I'm nervous but excited.''
“You'll be fine,” Mr. Gaynes says.
“Atlantic City !” Mother says.
Sis is headed to Baltimore for a beauty analysis, then one year at the School of Cosmetic Reconstruction , or SCR, around the corner from the Tropicana. We're all guessing they burn off that mole over her eye and get into the feet and ankles and turn them inward just so, instead of outward. Sis is pretty like Mother, that classic, virginal, milky look of Raphael, but she walks like Charlie Chaplin and they could suck about 15 pounds of fat off her back. You can really see it in a bathing suit. The chin was a gift from Mother and Mr. Gaynes. The rest gets paid with her settlement money. She was in a pretty bad accident.
“It's gonna be so strange,” Sis says. “A 6-footer.”
“Or close,” Mother says. “Depending on the risk. It's easier to make someone shorter as opposed to taller. That's what the doctor says.”
“They told me 5-10 at the least,” Sis says.
“The boys won't be able to take their eyes off you,” Mother says. “You'll be a beautiful bride, even more beautiful than you are now.”
“Your mother was a beautiful bride,” Mr. Gaynes says.
“Or they'll make me a showgirl,” Sis says. “They place a lot of girls.”
The food makes the rounds; Mr. Gaynes is barely visible behind the mashed potatoes.
“I can't get over it,” he says, feeling the texture of the table, like a blind man reading braille. It's a Dalton trestle with a hand-carved alder base with mortise and tenon joinery, he points out. Planked top. Panels on either side, which allow for drop-in leaves, extending the length to 110 inches, big enough to seat 10. A sun valley finish in mahogany stain. Mother bought it with her raise. It has to be one of the finest tables in all of Camden . Our house is one of the finest on the north side, Victorian, good-sized, a couple of rooms that get about as much foot traffic as a collection agency.
“You bought the rest of everything,” Mother tells Mr. Gaynes. He gets jobs because home buyers like an inspector who can fit into scuttle holes, lofts, those kinds of places. Two more bone fusion procedures and he'll reach his goal of 3-feet-3. He gets the fusions done on his days off but it's worth it; he gets 30 percent more jobs than when he was 5-7.
Mr. Gaynes arches his back and lets out a sigh. “Back problems,” he says. “Gone, gone.”
He talks about his past, his follies, retiring to Cape May , on and on, circling back to his work at AHI, which we've all seen firsthand. The realtors respect him. They fear him. He finds things. A house keeps no secrets from Mr. Gaynes.
“Marcus, answer your Mother's question. How did it go at AHI?”
“Yeah, tell us,” Sis says.
“Don't pester,” Mother says.
“He can't do anything,” Sis says.
Mother corrects her: “The pictures are very nice.”
Mr. Gaynes tells the story of how he went into home inspection because real estate was booming. “That's capitalism,” he says. “If you pay attention and you're willing to sacrifice, you can do better than your parents did, see? Dad was a copy editor . . .”
Baltimore Sun!” Sis says, like she's answering a question on a game show.
“Your Mother's family lived on the south side. Ate donuts for dinner, because that's all they could afford.”
“Atrocious,” Mother mutters, pouring a glass of red.
“It's your turn,” he says to me. “But you have a problem.”
Mr. Gaynes sees the soul as physical, like a heart or spleen, possibly doubling as a kidney or liver. He's pretty sure it's in the stomach area, which is all well and good as long as it's kept in its place, he says. But when it gets too big, when it expands beyond its place . . .
“Mine swelled up in my 17 th and 18 th years and about ruined my future,” he says. “You have to get it early or it takes over your body, like a tumor.”
Everyone knew early on about the problem. You know it when someone's got a large head or ears that stick out or buck teeth, and a sentimental soul marks you the same way. I sketched winter landscapes, dream sequences, caricatures of teachers. I talked to my family through handmade puppets, some of whom they came to like, like the dim-witted Carl Stegner. I read Chaucer and James and Dennis, which isn't too terrible except it came at the expense of schoolwork, housework, important stuff, caused me to lag, made me strange to those around me, then I'd lash out or weep or go to my room to draw or puppet.
I'm 23 years old and feel soft and dreamy, like I haven't shed my baby fat, though all my friends have grown up to be lean and hungry, like cats prowling around the marketplace.
The first time Mr. Gaynes worked my gut was when I came home with a bad report card from Mrs. Peterson's third grade class. He sensed the tumor eating away at ambition, gave me two sharp karate chops and he was right, I did better on my next report card. After that, he observed from afar until two years later when he caught me puppeting in the garage when I was supposed to be in class and he should have been at work.
There were maybe a dozen whippings like that, and he had allies in family, teachers, pastors and coaches; they all seemed to be conspiring to shape me. They gave me a pretty good working over, but I'll say this about Mr. Gaynes: He always felt badly afterward, always explained why he did it.
Now that I'm home for the summer, with useless degrees in philosophy and literature, and this AHI deadline coming up, I've noticed he's coming at my solar plexus more often, in a more concentrated way. The last one bruised ribs but didn't break them.
“Time to make a choice,” Mr. Gaynes says. “You can go government or you can go business. Government is business without risk, business is government without restraint. You can make more in business, but government gives security. Take your pick.”
“Your brother did well in government,” Mother says, pouring her second glass of wine.
My eyes shift to a picture on the mantel, between the potpourri and a pewter cat. My brother is an urban planner in Boston . They reshaped his eyes so he could read maps easier, opened them up so they take up most of his face, like a badger's. He makes six figures at least.
“Yeah, Jerry made it big in government,” Sis says, working the solar plexus, but more subtly than a fist or karate chop, which brings the puppet, an eloquent, obstinate bird named Condescending Jackass, out from underneath the table.
“He's not contacted AHI. He's neither applied nor inquired about applying,” the bird says. “The idea of going under the knife frightens him.”
Mr. Gaynes' fork clanks against his plate.
“But the deadline,” Mother says.
“Call him a coward . . . all those instruments, lights, doctors. They sweat above the eyes, you know, like they're concealing something.”
“You're not a coward,” Mother says.
“The cutting and slashing, my god, he dreamed he was a cake.”
“That's ridiculous,” Sis says.
“He's not a cake, not even close. A good case of the heebie jeebies, you could say.”
“Aw.” Mother's sympathetic.
“The scars. We haven't even talked about the scars. He's not a stone, you know, he has a mind, a heart . . .”
Mr. Gaynes fixates on a place on the table, like he's trying to burn a whole in it with his eyes.
“The whole thing upsets him. He won't do it, can't. There are choices in life, yes? One can choose for oneself. He's not a tree, is he? To be sawed into pieces. We can agree on that, can't we? That he's not a tree, but something different? That he's not a birthday cake?”
“Why does he talk like that?” Sis wants to know, scowling at Condescending Jackass.
“He's waiting word from the Philadelphia Sketch Club. He'll be an artist, maybe a welfare case. The former will hold and even thrive, the latter will give way in time. He's sorry it didn't turn out the way you planned.”
“Sketching club?” Mother asks.
“Stupid,” Sis says.
“It's paid for through the first semester by his work at the Whitman House and several well-received puppet events, held in the garage.”
“They're paying for that?” Sis says.
“Capitalism! I thought you'd be proud!”
“I'm disappointed in this,” says Mr. Gaynes. Mother pours her third glass of wine.
“As for practical affairs, he'll find work at the Museum of Art, or Rodin, or watching over that diminutive bell.”
“I can't tell you how disappointed I am,” Mr. Gaynes says.
“He's been studying DeCosta, Desiderio, Bo Bartlett . . .”
“I don't understand this,” Mr. Gaynes says.
Sis points at either me or the puppet, I can't tell. “Why does he have to talk like that?” And Condescending Jackass, who is known for a violent temper, bites her hand.
“I'll have you know that not only will he be famous but you'll be famous,” he tells her, touting my half-finished masterpiece, which depicts a shirtless boy with a muscular stomach suffering blows to the midsection, only to rise above the mob. The working title: “Goddamnit, that hurts.”
“He'll be in the louvre and you'll be mired in Camden , the most dangerous city in the United States , more dangerous than Detroit , for god's sake. Who puts a prison in the middle of a city?”
A pall settles over the table.
“I'd be an ingrate if I didn't thank Mother, on behalf of the artist. Your work was his first inspiration. It's a shame you didn't stay with it. He loves you more than he can say.”
“I think I can get to 100 words,” she says, placing her hands on the table and air-typing.
Mother used to type 70 words a minute, but she peaked out. She wasn't going to type any faster with stubby hands, so she agreed to the procedure. Now she types 90 words a minute. She can reach the keys easier. She gets a 5 percent raise for every 10 extra words she types. She's self conscious about her hands, until she gets two glasses of wine in her, then she's not self conscious at all. One night she invaded a ballgame down the street, showed the boys how she can palm a basketball using her thumb and middle finger.
“It helps with gardening,” she says. “I can dig deeper.”
“On behalf of the artist . . .” Condescending Jackass raises a glass.
“You should call him selfish jackass,” Sis says.
“Thank you to Mother for his hand and his eye and the human leniency,” he continues, “and no thank you to everyone who is not Mother. That extends to city proper and society at large, which I refer to in the singular, a collective tyranny which seeks to smash to insignificance what exists in the human faculty that does not comply or consent.”
Sis can't stand it any longer; she flees to her room. Mother pours another glass of wine; she's a half a glass away from not having to worry about crying. Mr. Gaynes, standing on his chair, holding a phone book overhead, tries to come down on the puppet with all of his force but feet and phone book slip from his grip – the book splays on the table, to an advertisement for shoes – and he starts talking about double glazing, cripples ,balustrades, egress and standards of practice , but he's a phone book down, I can't see him anymore, just the hands feeling around for the meat.