Ornament and Crime

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy father has died and in my hand are his remains—ashes pressed and fired into a small, flattish cube—and I’m laboring to insert him into something so he sits flush.  He always wished to be a geometric form (so often did he rail against “the tyranny of the organic”) so I could tell myself he’d be happy, but he also hated bric-a-brac and I think right now he’d qualify, being a small object with no function.  Better to join him with a nice flat plane.  Shim up a gap on a sleek modernist home.  There are plenty around here.  Some are monolithic and shimmering, with metal roofs that sweep across the facades, the entrances coyly obscured.   Others are crouched tight to their lawns, their recessed windows narrowed and aglow.

I walk through backyards, pretending to be a meter-reader.  I’m wearing Dad’s red jumpsuit, the one he wore when in prison, and a tool-belt to complete the look.  I stop and study each house.  I pull out the cube and run it along siding, storm windows, block, hoping to feel it dip into place.  It does, in the back deck of a glass monolith, a house that resembles a drive-in movie screen upon which a scene of a Weimaraner darting between two mid-century daybeds repetitively plays.  I almost leave him, but the cube looks too obvious in the space between boards.

Before he set our neighbors’ dollhouse shed on fire using a silver Zippo—a triumph of utilitarian design—and naphtha, we lived together in a Danish modern home.  What I recall most was cleaning the refrigerator, chasing a smudge of grease round and round, driving it across the steel surface with a Windexed rag only to have it reappear on the other side, so teasing and full of character it seemed like a friend. For Dad, prison was a revelation— he thrilled at the cells, with their efficient layouts, the clean-lined cinder block walls, the low toilets, the austere bunks.  The iconic red Princess phones, heavy with engineering, the Plexiglas turned nicely matte from all the scratches.  The pleasingly unadorned speech of prisoners.

The afternoon light quivers on the horizon edge of an infinity pool. Blocky red chaises sit in the backyard near cast-concrete stools made to look like tree stumps.  I consider dropping him in the pool—it is a nice pool—and saying my goodbye into a swirl of deep-end bubbles. A safe place for the dead arsonist. I am holding him up to the sun, ready to let go, when a shadow crowds my peripheral.  It’s a man, dressed in a beige polo, rounding the corner.  I step behind a streaky potted grass.  The man is carrying a rake.  With superfluous flourish, like someone signing an important document with a triumphant lift of the pen, he makes a small pile of silver leaves.  Paid by the hour, my dad would say, not by the job.

I remember Dad running his hands over surfaces—our granite countertop had pink striations, like veins.  When it was clean—which was often—he would run his palm, quickly, over the whole length and off the edge.  Then he would hold his arm out, trying to keep it at the same level hovering for a second. If there were things on the counter —junk mail, Mother’s shed bracelets, restaurant mints—they were swept off in this way.  My mother used to stop his hand by putting hers down on his and pressing.  For a few moments he moved both their hands along slowly, before his fingers lifted up under the weight, like those overloaded donkey carts you sometimes see on dusty streets, held aloft by their burdens.

While on probation, he tried burning down a house with busy stained glass windows.  The windows depicted a lush jungle scene and the interior of the house was buried under zebra print, fake palm fronds, and red velvet couches.  The owner was the retired principal of my high school.  After he left the school, he wore a fresh kimono every day and walked five small, exotic dogs on a complex twisted leash, so it seemed the dogs were leading one another while the line to my old principal was slack.  During one of these walks, my dad set the old man’s garbage on fire, hoping it would ignite the house, but it only melted the bin part way and made the neighborhood stink.

That’s what ugly smells like, he said, paging through an interior design magazine as two policemen clomped up the stairs, joking with each other so boisterously that when I opened the door, false solemnity snatched over their faces like sheets yanked over caught lovers.  They hid their snickers with coughing fits as they walked Dad out.  For a few days the house was a peaceful place.  Without his expansive connoisseurship, the tyranny of taste, I could experience the toaster, switches, and spoons without a thought to the missteps or glories of their forms.  Mother and I ate off the old, flowered china and didn’t bother to nicely plate the meal, monogramming it with sauce.  He always told me I had the worst problem—no taste—worse than even bad taste since bad taste required at least a point of view.  

The cube is warm in my hand, and I keep sort of tossing it in front of me as I walk.  I’ve never been a good catch, but I’m catching it fluidly each time.  A few people—nannies, mostly, rattle by with strollers and kids squeal as they spot my game. When I was young, after my father went to jail, my mother dressed me bizarrely for quite some time.  For instance, she sometimes had me wear different plaids from head to toe, or found several zippered pieces—pants, shirt, boots—and put them all on me at once.  It seemed to be a problem for everyone else but me. Even school kids, with their reputation for cruelty, felt compelled to give me gentle tutorials on what looked right, speaking with strong authority about what buttons to leave unbuttoned and the like.  When I told my mother this, she grabbed my face, looked me in the eye with unsettling intensity, and told me never to forget the freedom that was ugliness.

My girlfriend Yolanda picks me up by the gate to the development.  I lean over to hug her and she feels the sharp angles of the cube in my palm.  She wants to know why I still have it; wasn’t I supposed to say my goodbyes?  Yolanda is dressed like always—a skirt and shirt, big jewelry, and her purse, fat like a bladder, quivers by the shifter.  It’s made of a soft, crinkled leather and resembles, in its general aspect, those old-fashioned cold compresses for headaches.  A leather tassel hangs off its side like some miniature long-haired women, bound up in her tresses.  There is something obscene in the way the purse rests between us—plops, really—opulent, heavy-bellied, and insolent, like some coddled prince of a foreign land.  The gray-brown color—a versatile neutral, Yolanda said—is so much like the gelatinous skein of fat at the margins of cheap meat cuts.  It is terrible.

The windows are down and the air rushes around us.  I hold the cube of my father in one hand. In a sudden motion, I grab the purse with the other and hurl it from the moving car, and Yolanda howls.  The breaks engage and the car skids to a stop.  Yolanda jumps out.   I look around, praying this was a fluke.  I see the clean-lined road, the nasty brackish ditch water where the purse sinks, the lovely tree canopy, the overstuffed lumps of cumulus clouds.  The world cleaves into beautiful and ugly things; it is just as bad as seeing double or hallucinating.  I watch as Yolanda pulls the purse out of the ditch gingerly, backing up with it like a collie pulling a drowned toddler from a river.  She slips and curses up at me.

I put my head down for a moment, and sit in my own dark.  For years Mother darkly intimated that I would end up like Dad.  She’s in Florida now, amongst her ceramic cow figurines, crocheting garish beach totes—hideous objects, meant to ward off any tastemaker retirees who might spirit her away.  Just a blip, I say to myself, but then I look up and see the shabby-chic glamour of my Yolanda (her skin through the mud like peeling strips of Victorian wallpaper, freckled buds among cream), and I tighten my hold on the cube.


Monica McFawn‘s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, Missouri Review, Gargoyle, and others. Her collection, Bright Shards of Someplace Else, won the 2013 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and will be published by University of Georgia Press in 2014. Besides fiction, she also writes plays and screenplays. Her most recent piece will be read at the Public House Theatre in Chicago this November.

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