The Merchant of Disaster Goes to the Zoo | Fiction | Chicago Reader

The Merchant of Disaster Goes to the Zoo 

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

My friend Charlotte writes the bleakest stories you have ever read.

The plots change, but the bottom line is always sad things happening that aren't anybody's fault. In Charlotte's stories the good guy usually dies, usually young, always without purpose or reason. In her stories there are no bad guys. No derelicts or psychopaths or visionaries who seem like they've found the solution until it turns out they are the problem. Only ordinary people in ugly houses, people who drink too much, smoke too much, get cancer, fall out of love and into debt, run over their own dogs, lie in bed every morning remembering the dismal things that happened yesterday and then get up and drink instant coffee and set off for another round of what we all know by now will be bad news. I mean, if you ever won a hand of solitaire, cheating even, you're better off than the people in Charlotte's stories.

Charlotte's signature theme is the moral insignificance of sudden death. The bride dies of a bee sting at her wedding reception. The baby-sitter drops the hair drier and electrocutes the kid in his bath. A teenager gets his first crack at solo driving, hits the wrong gear, and crushes his mother against the cement wall of the neighbor's garage. A whole family of illegal immigrants makes it across from Mexico, but just when they're safe in Laredo the father gets knifed by a drunk who thinks he's someone else. Whoever is left alive ends up in a diner staring at the revolving cooler full of pies. In Charlotte's stories there is no tragic catharsis. Just a lifetime of bad cars and unforeseen disasters and the slow rotation of pies.

Charlotte's stories often win prizes, especially since she changed her name from Mary Catherine and started dressing entirely in black. The name Charlotte sounds vaguely continental and sophisticated, so you know she doesn't live in those prefab houses she writes about. World-weary chronicles of contemporary futility is what the reviews say about her work. Usually in just those words. Nobody in Charlotte's stories would use the word "futility," so then you know the reviewers are sophisticated, too. Nobody who reads Charlotte's stories would ever know anybody like the characters who inhabit Charlotte's stories.

Her first collection, Nothing, was published by Black Bone Press, but then she got good reviews and an agent and a nice paperback edition with a publisher's logo anyone would recognize. This led to readings and three-day stints at writer's conferences and other cumulatively profitable things that meant she would never have to buy her clothes at Wal-Mart, which further distinguished her from her characters.

Charlotte's next collection, Casa Perdita, was a series of stories about the people who live in a trailer park outside Albuquerque and hate anybody with a Hispanic surname. All she knew about New Mexico was what she had seen on her honeymoon in Santa Fe, but apparently that was enough to go on. Casa Perdita won the Wallace Stegner prize and got made into a movie that was just like the book except the director condensed it all into a single plot and added a lot of on-screen violence.

Charlotte does not herself bother with lurid descriptions of sex or violence, preferring to deal with the aftermath of such events. This means her books can be assigned to the high school market, which is very good for sales. The spareness of her style also makes her stories easy to translate, so she has a pretty big following in other countries. She is always flying off to interesting places like Kyoto or Reykjavik to give readings, for which she gets a minimum $15,000 plus expenses. Sometimes there is a translator onstage with her. Once, in Brussels, she had three translators going--one translating into Flemish, one into French, and one signing her words for the hearing-impaired. She said it was like being in the Cirque du Soleil. When she writes for magazines she gets three dollars a word, minimum. According to Charlotte, she is only in it for the money. That and the flexible hours (important to a single mom) and the freedom to work in her nightgown if she is so inclined.

I know all this because my son Tex is best friends with Charlotte's son Jesse, and Jesse stays with us while his mom is on the road. They are both oldest sons, only sons, possibly lonely only sons, and we mothers think it's good for them to stick together. It's hard to find a true friend, even when you're only five. Danny, my husband, travels a lot on business, so it makes life easier for me, too, having a buddy around for Tex. When Charlotte comes to pick Jesse up, I pour some wine and we talk.

After I assure her that nobody has been kidnapped or caught some terrible disease in her absence, Charlotte tells me about wherever she's been, and then we talk about life in general, which usually turns out to be about business. Computers. Long-distance providers. Self-employment insurance. The changing rules on home office deductions. If you call yourself an independent contractor you can make IRA contributions, write off the spare bedroom as an office. It's not big dollars, but it adds up. Then we usually slide into issues of marketing.

According to Charlotte, the disasters that dominate her stories are a merchandising ploy, pure and simple. She is a happy person who finds it profitable to pretend to sorrow, the way Ralph Lauren finds it profitable to pretend to an intimate knowledge of the British aristocracy. I told her I thought Ralph Lauren was more the rich cowboy style, but she said that just proved her point. Ralph Lauren had polar opposite false identities, gracious breeding and home on the range, so he could hit the market going and coming.

Sometimes I suspect Charlotte is superstitious, afraid to let any tiny incident in her own life creep into her writing. Her stories remind me of those cedar trunks girls used to buy to store things they saved up for their weddings. Hope chests, they're called. Except Charlotte's stories are the opposite, little despair chests in which she can store her anxieties in the literary equivalent of aromatic cedar. She would laugh if I said this. As mentioned, Charlotte insists she's only in it for the money.

Technically, Charlotte is an unwed mother. She became unwed six months before Jesse was born. Before that, she had been married to Charles for three years. She was still Mary Catherine, working as an editor at the Northwestern University Press, when her hotshot lawyer husband announced that the important client he had been spending so much time on was really an associate at Sullivan & Cromwell whom he planned to marry as soon as his divorce was final.

No warning. No complaints or apologies. No regrets that things had not worked out better. Just an announcement, made during Sunday brunch at the American Club in Kohler, Wisconsin. Like many people, Charles waited until they were in a public place to break up his marriage. He was willing to drive across state lines to avoid a scene.

Charlotte cooperated. She didn't say a word. She got up from the table, leaving her eggs Benedict and her half-finished mimosa, walked straight to the car without even stopping to pack, and drove back to Chicago alone. On the way she dictated what would be her first short story, right over the taped deposition Charles had brought along to review during the trip.

That was the one about the secretary who works two jobs to afford the perfect storybook wedding in a rented garden with a million roses and a Grecian temple and a pond with real swans swimming around during the ceremony. Everything is wonderful until the reception, when she gets stung by a bee and dies. I remember reading it in one of those "year's best" anthologies, long before I knew Charlotte. I was struck by the final image of the groom, still in his tuxedo, picking out a honey pecan casket because that was the finish his wife had wanted for their bedroom set. It was the kind of detail that told you a lot about the characters, especially if you know anything about the furniture business, which I do. Honey pecan appeals to people who work two jobs to afford their wedding. If I had been in Charlotte's situation, I would have killed off the groom, but I have to admit her version works better.

By the time her actual husband made it back from Wisconsin in a rented Taurus, Charlotte had his belongings stacked up in bags in the vestibule of their condo. Five weeks later, when she found out she was pregnant, they had already divvied up the furniture and closed their joint checking account, but her almost-ex was still enough of a jerk to get it written into the settlement that she couldn't move their child more than 50 miles from Chicago. Never divorce a litigator, is what I say. Don't get mad, get even, Charlotte answers. She claims all her best death ideas come when she is thinking of Charles.

So here she is, living in a totally rehabbed Victorian cottage in northwest Evanston, making up bad news about people neither she nor her neighbors nor any of her readers will ever have the opportunity to know, which according to Charlotte is exactly how she likes it. A writer should never get involved with her characters, she insists. You have to be able to stand back and be ruthless. Art is art and life is life, and she has no interest in what she calls the fallacy of imitative form. She talks like that, which I find both educational and amusing. Half the time I have no idea what she means.

My own background is in interior design. Right now I just do the books for Danny, who is in the wholesale upholstery fabric business, but before we had Tex I was a stylist for Ethan Allen Furniture. Stylist is their corporate name for a sales clerk who not only writes up the order but also spends hours and hours with customers who want you to do all the picking and choosing for them, but also want you to make it represent their "true personality." Once I figured out "true personality" meant the couch should complement the woman's eyes and hair, I sold tons of furniture. I was the regional top grosser, two years in a row.

That's how I met Danny. He came in to see the manager about custom drapes and pillows, but he arrived during the staff party to celebrate my award. Cake. Applause. A tasteful plaque, real brass on real walnut, none of that cheesy distressed finish. Even a tiny plastic cup of champagne for the visiting salesman, who winked at me during the manager's toast.

What I liked about Danny right off was that he didn't take his product all that seriously, the way some sales reps do. While they were cleaning up the paper plates, he told me about a fantasy he had where he lived in a house where everything was stainless steel. Walls, ceilings, furniture, window frames, everything. The floors in each room sloped down a little, to a central drain, and at night you'd just turn on the sprinkler system to wash it all down. So then I told him my plan, which was very similar except in my house everything was tile. "You get a lot more color options with tile," I added in my best stylist voice. "And there are some wonderful coordinated patterns."

"You think so?" Danny asked, looking at me like his fate hinged on my answer. "What about all that grout to clean?" Then he took my card and went in to see the manager, and I was already wondering what kind of living room furniture would express our true personality. Danny is dark, with curly black hair and big brown eyes the color of Hershey's chocolate, while I am a strawberry blond, so you can see the problem. He called the next night, and before you could say Young Transitional we had a bungalow in Evanston and a son old enough for kindergarten, which definitely shows how time flies. The stainless steel decor is still on hold.

I met Charlotte at the PTA carnival in October, when we were both still flustered by the weirdness of having a kid in regular school. Jesse and Tex already knew each other, from being in the same class. They parked themselves at the booth where you fish for goldfish cut out of different colors of construction paper. Each goldfish has a paper clip on it, and the rod is baited with a magnet. If they managed to catch ten paper fish they got a certificate for a real one, redeemable at a local pet store. It's pretty easy, so neither was inclined to leave.

Hanging around the goldfish booth, peeling tickets off the strips each of us had bought at the door, Charlotte and I started one of those kindergarten-parent conversations that rise up like baby vomit on such occasions. Charlotte thought Tex was named for the Lone Star State, and she asked how we were adjusting to the midwest. In fact it's short for Textiles, a nicknamed acquired because he would bliss out for naps in his father's sample case, but who was I to mock her error?

I thought Jesse was a girl.

In the process of sorting out our mutual confusion, we discovered many signs of cosmic linkage. For example, both our sons hated peanut butter and nap time and neither of them could read yet, which put them at the slow end of their high-achieving group. Charlotte told me Mrs. Jenkins, the teacher, had assured her it wouldn't go on their permanent record. I told Charlotte I heard there was a no-cut policy for peewee soccer. We were trying to outdo each other with how unprecocious and generally lacking in talent our kids were, which is the kind of sick competitive thing you can get into if you stand around a school carnival long enough. When the room parent came around with her clipboard and a list of volunteer jobs, we had bonded so thoroughly that we agreed to work together on the class trip to the zoo. It wasn't until May, which seemed pretty distant in October.

By the time the zoo trip rolled around, Charlotte and I knew each other a lot better. I knew she came from a large German Catholic family in Milwaukee and blamed the failure of her marriage on the fact that her husband was Irish. She knew I wanted to have another kid but Danny wasn't sure we could afford it. I knew that Jesse sometimes wet the bed. She knew Tex's real name. In the context of child-based friendships, which are always fragmentary and incoherent, this ranked as real intimacy.

It took three buses to get all the kindergartners to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Once we arrived, we were sent off in little groups, two chaperones for every ten kids, free to wander as long as we got back to the sea lions at one o'clock. Charlotte and I got Jesse and Tex and eight other boys, since all the little girls had formed their groups sometime in February and refused to be parted.

The boys wanted to see the monkeys and the snakes, but Charlotte steered us to the bird house, instead. There was a room there she wanted to check out, a kind of phony rain forest where tropical birds fly free and the people stay on an elevated walkway. Trees grow up toward the skylit ceiling, pools of water are fringed with ferns and bushes, and the air is full of beautiful birds that would land on your arm if you held still long enough. At least that's what Charlotte claimed. I think she was planning to set some stories in Haiti or some similar depressed, violence-racked tropical country she has never visited, and she needed some local color.

Before you get to the free-flying room, though, before you even get inside the bird house, you have to pass the birds of prey exhibit. This is a very large cage, bigger than my house, in which gigantic ugly birds spend their lives perched on the branches of dead trees, staring intently at anyone who passes. Vultures. Eagles. Hawks. All the ruthless hunters gathered together, keeping their big eyes peeled for anything yummy that might come their way. Not that the birds at the Lincoln Park Zoo do any actual hunting. Their prey is brought to them, leaving the entire day free to perch and stare and think evil thoughts.

Of course, the boys loved it. Jesse couldn't get enough of this one buzzard sitting in a big rope hammock kind of contraption, fixing him with this look I myself did not find so appealing. He wanted to stay until it pounced on something. Preferably a rat. As soon as the other boys heard the word rat they all shrieked and made gagging noises and wanted to stay, too.

No, Charlotte said. We can't stay and watch the buzzards eat. It's gruesome and morbid and I'm sure your parents wouldn't approve. Meaning, she didn't approve.

Think of it as research, I suggested.

Today is not research, Charlotte snapped, sounding annoyed. She didn't even look at me, just fiddled with the strap of her shoulder bag. Today is a kindergarten field trip to the zoo. Studies in animal diversity. A sense of wonder. No killing allowed.

I braced for a crisis, ten bloodthirsty six-year-old boys versus two inexperienced moms scared of a bird in a cage, but fortunately feeding time at the birds of prey is not promoted the way it is for some other animals.

A buzzard waiting for lunch is a pretty boring spectacle when you have no idea when lunch will happen, so after a few more minutes we were able to herd our group inside.

The boys saw the rain forest room as their moment to play Tarzan. Unable to reach any of the vines, they ran back and forth, back and forth, back and forth across the walkway, screaming and yodeling and ignoring all my shouts to slow down until I thought I was going to do something that would get me drummed out of the PTA forever.

Charlotte was paying no attention whatsoever. She was leaning over the rail, watching a small, extremely blue bird perched on a branch about four feet below. The way she was standing, leaning forward on tiptoe, fingertips braced on the walkway railing, it was hard to predict whether she or the bird would take off first. I wasn't surprised when she started talking about how easy it would be for a child to get injured on a trip to the zoo. Charlotte is always imagining disasters and then rushing off to record them on her computer for future reference. I tell her it makes her an irresponsible parent and I won't let Tex sleep over anymore if she doesn't stop. Tex never sleeps over at Jesse's, so this is neither a threat nor a promise.

After the bird habitat we visited the polar bears, watching them swim around through a thick glass window set into the side of the pool. The zoo is like that. You think you're getting up close and personal with nature, but there's always a fence or a trench or a thick glass wall between the visitors and the permanent residents. We are protected from each other, which is probably just as well.

By then it was time to find a picnic table and eat our sack lunches. Charlotte stopped at a kiosk and bought bags of French fries shaped like elephants, and we ate them too, though it seemed wrong to be consuming animals at the zoo. After lunch the boys pitched their lunch bags into the garbage can that looked like a yawning hippo, then ran around the trees for a while, until it was time to get back to our meeting place by the sea lion pool. No one was late. No one got lost, or injured, or even carsick. None of the buses broke down. It was a model field trip.

When we got back to Evanston, though, that was another story. An ambulance and a police car were pulled up in the no parking zone in front of the school, and the principal, a hard-shelled woman of 60, was standing on the steps, crying and hanging onto the arm of the school librarian. Mrs. Jenkins nervously suggested we all wait on the bus while she checked out the situation. Then she was crying, too, and then she came back and told the kids to wait on the bus until their parents arrived to pick them up.

Soon enough we learned the bad news. Seth Walker, a skinny kid in Miss Kinyon's third grade class, had brought his grandfather's pistol to school, not knowing it was loaded. Mikey Fernandez got shot through the head when he crashed into Seth's backpack on the way to recess and the gun went off.

So there it was. A parent's worst nightmare, right at the same neighborhood school where we had the playground run-a-thon last Sunday and the K-1-2 potluck supper a few weeks before. Mikey Fernandez, T-ball player and assistant library helper, huge Harry Potter fan, was dead because he thought it would be fun to head-butt his buddy's backpack. It made no sense at all. I thought for a crazy moment we had all just fallen into one of Charlotte's stories. I have the sense Charlotte felt that way, too. She didn't say anything. She just waited until the bus emptied and took Jesse's hand and walked away.

By the time Tex and I got home, there was a message on the answering machine from Charlotte. She was taking Jesse with her to her writer's conference in Sonoma, she said, and he wouldn't be back before the end of the year. When they came home, we were away visiting Danny's parents. The next news was when Jesse sent Tex a postcard from Vermont, saying he was spending the summer with his mom at a writer's colony instead of at camp together the way they had planned. Then I got a card from Charlotte, a picture of a loon breaking from a misty lake. She was working on a novel about birds. She would be back in September.

Tex is at sports camp, where I hope he is making new friends. Danny and I have pretty much decided to try for another baby. I haven't seen Charlotte for six weeks now, but I can tell she was shaken by the shooting. We all were, but for Charlotte it was a different kind of shock. The honey pecan firewall between art and life has fallen, and she is as stunned as any of her characters. What I can't tell is if it's because she finally experienced the moral insignificance of sudden death, or because she missed it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Maine.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Agenda Teaser

Galleries & Museums
The Art of Dr. Seuss Gallery Water Tower Place
June 16
Performing Arts
December 04

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories