by kathleen maher
pictures by rhoda penmarq
7) Grow or Die
As of last week, even before Mad Mike and company started demolishing the shop, I agreed to start doing seven meetings a week, at Y’s, conference halls, corporate headquarters, downtown clubs, you name it. Maggie does the bookings.
One night I’m in a run-down, hundred year old building on State Street, with ancient gray carpeting, orange plastic seats, and the smell of microwave popcorn permeating the air.
Another night I’m addressing a bunch of ad execs at the Marriott.
Some nights, I speak to a few hundred people, other nights a few dozen. I do my little shows in library discussion rooms and Methodist conference halls, basement bingo parlors, and yesterday afternoon, in the stately home of the woman presiding over the Kenilworth Beautification Association.
I used to think that possibly Carlos was right—I have a special gift, but lately, seven nights a week, I have to wonder if it makes a bit of difference what I do or say. I’ve promised Carlos I will keep going we’re financially unassailable. Or at least “not unstable.” Meanwhile, he is in the process of buying three new bakeries, where I can extend the blessings of the bread and benedictions of the chocolate éclairs.
“And who,” I ask, “is negotiating these purchases?”
“Fletcher and Franklin and I.”
“I know about real estate, Malcolm. I know this city. I know what I’m doing. And I’ve waited all my life for this, okay?”
“Oh, me too,” I say as Maggie closes down her phone.
“Next Tuesday,” she says, “Oak Park Town Hall Theater, eight o’clock.”
“You know, when I was a little boy,” I tell them, “and people asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up? I always said: run about a great, big rented conference room, lift my billowy shirt, and show everybody my wounds.”
“Are seven meetings a week,” Maggie wonders, “too much?”
“No,” Carlos says. “Don’t get all cynical and self-critical, Malcolm.
You’re doing great. It’s easy for you—anybody can see that! Besides, this is the crucial time. We either build momentum now or interest will fade. I know! I’ve been through this before: If we don’t keep growing, we’ll die.”
8) Astrology is Nonsense
Today is my twenty-ninth birthday. No, April 20th was my twenty-ninth birthday but it’s also Adolph Hitler’s hundred and twelfth birthday, which is why my mother insists my actual DOB was the day I was due, not the evil dawn at which I prematurely arrived.
This morning, I recalled reading in an astrology book that those born on April 20th can, when speaking to crowds, project an extraordinary power over them. Isn’t that stupid? What astrological addendum goes to those born on Hitler’s birthday? ‘If you don’t watch yourself, you might murder six million people?’
So whenever I start wondering if I could be one of the genuine prophets, double my idiocy, why doncha? I can’t take this. My head aches. The shop’s in ruin. Everywhere I look everything is pure and total shit.
9) Something Like Family
For my birthday, Maggie hopped up and down, saying, “Here’s my gift, Malkie. Open it first.”
The box she gave me came from the Nature Company, and as I started to shake it, she jumped up, “Careful. It’s alive. Dormant but—” She turned around, crossed her fingers, and whispered, “Oh God don’t let me spoil the surprise.”
I untied the ribbon, lifted the lid, and she said, “It’s for when the shop is finished. Outside, in the back, I thought we’d plant a garden.” It was a kit for raising butterflies.
“They had one for hummingbirds too, but I don’t know, I liked the idea of butterflies better.”
My parents called from San Francisco, using a speakerphone so they could both talk at once. Did I get my birthday present? Yes, I said, the briefcase was beautiful.
“Coming up in the world!” my father declared.
“It’s not that we’re not proud,” my mother said, her voice wavering. “It’s just that, that we worry. No one can have all the answers. And you . . .you really do tend to go overboard.”
“Next year—thirty!” my father thundered.
“We want to come see you,” my mother said. “Well, we’re in the middle of construction. . . ”
“So tell us when’s a good time.”
“Okay, I will.”
“Nothing like family,” Stephanie said. “Your face is the color of marinara sauce.”
“You have to get over that,” Carlos said. “We’re self-made. That’s what sets us apart. We’re your family now. Where we come from, how we were brought up—none of that matters any more.”
“Can we talk about something else?”
Then Carlos gave me a gold neck chain with RWR in the center.
“Very tasteful,” I said. “Very apt. Thank you.”
“RWR” Carlos said, fixing the chain on my neck. “It’s so perfect.”
“Unpronounceable, though. I think it’s better when you can say the acronym like a word.”
“Oh, well,” he said, determined not to seem miffed.
God, I was tired. It’s terrible when Carlos is sincere. But as I sat there, with the thing around my neck, he got not just sincere but sincerely soap opera. Carlos! He kissed my hand and said—in front of Maggie—that I was his prince! (Of course Stephanie was also there, but being waitress extraordinaire, she somehow conveyed that she hadn’t really heard us.) I laughed—couldn’t help it.
“All right,” Carlos said. “Be like that.”
He stomped into the kitchen, made himself a gin and tonic and drained it in front of us. Then he brought the gin and tonic bottles to the table and mixed himself another one.
“We do not conform,” he said, “to designated strata.”
“We’re beyond demography,” Maggie said. (She’s so good with him and so good with me. Where would I be without her?)
“Well, my family life,” Stephanie said, her face red now, “has improved fantastically this year. It’s the extra money—I find I can buy a little time, and a little freedom. I can make my sister’s life a little less sad.”
Stephanie put a hand on my shoulder, kissed my cheek, and handed me a flat, sky-blue box. More jewelry from Tiffany’s? Oh! It was a simple silver picture frame, five by seven, with a photograph of me twelve years ago, young, handsome, dazed and grief-stricken, in front of the shop my parents had just bought for me.
“Where did you get this?”
“I took it one afternoon after my shift.”
“One afternoon a long, long time ago,” I said, feeling touched and tearful.