What Beauty excerpt

What Beauty (a novel by Mark Beyer)

I call my Dad at least once a week. He sits in a chair most nights, a spot where he can fall asleep under the television’s watchful blue-glow stare. Dad says he prefers to watch sports or a movie thriller, or even some cable-news hate-speak program, because he despises sit-coms and finds dramas ridiculous and sentimental. I can’t blame him. Mom died two years ago. Only part of me is able to understand such grief. 

Dad’s chair, a green upholstered recliner that creaks when he sits in it and groans when he pushes himself out of it with both arms, sits next to the house phone, a black and white cordless model that gets left off the charger stand enough times so that the battery runs down sometime after I call, so we’re often continuing conversations from the day or two before. 

Dad likes to tell me about the Chicago weather, his way of preparing me for what NYC will get the next day or “1 day + x hours” later. He’s convinced this is exactly how the jet stream works. “It’s all about the consternation of calculation,” he says, and deliberates for me weather forecasting statistics. Dad also says things like, “So, how are the dogs?” and “Well, I’ve cleaned the carpets again” and “When’s the last time you talked with your sister?” None are as random as they sound.

Dad is a mathematician, which is to say he’s a tad analytical. This is how I got my name. I have to be glad his favorite arithmetic calculation wasn’t “multiplication.” His name is Carl, which goes with our basic ScandiWeegie heritage (my looks, however, take after the German side of the family; I was teased with “the little Panzer commander” in childhood, among other Hitlerian references in our wop, polack, Mick, and kraut suburb). In Dad’s world, there is always just one right answer to any problem. Given all of that, and that is a lot, he carries a terrible streak of wit buried just below the surface. Ergo, my name. 

Tonight I dial Dad’s number while Belinda washes the plates and flatware from our fresh gnocci feast. I’d crossed streets at a vegetable stand on the way home and, looking at what the old guy wearing a Mets/Yankees cap (two hats cut lengthwise down the middle and sewn together) was selling from his wagon — red apples and leafy greens pulled from their roots, and yellow peppers and purple grapes — gave me the idea to add spinach to the dish. Belinda took extra parma shavings, and I loaded up on a left-over iceberg wedge. We shared a light ruby cabernet. Now, the smell of wine is nearby, sitting shallow in the glass by my side, my lip marks around its rim wrinkling the light passing through. Garlic odors hang on the air. Belinda stands with her back to me, her shoulders rolling with each dishcloth swipe, while I lean my elbows on the island edge, watching her being domestic. The bulb light spots her from above like a club singer. 

I hear Dad’s voice on the line, sleep-awakened and rough from snoring with his head thrown back on the chair. It’s not eight o’clock yet back in Windy. We say our hellos as he wakens and coughs. He spits, too. I trust that that has gone into a cup or napkin on the side table.

Dad says, “What’s thirty-two times one-hundred and four?”

“Some big-ass number, Dad. What do I care?” 

“Come on, Minus. Humor an old man.” 

All our telephone conversations begin this way, his form of male bonding. I tell Dad my answer: 3,327.

“Wrong … Wait, wait! How can you be one number off? You’re always just one number off. That boggles my mind. Math is an exact and sweet science, but always being one number off? The odds are out of this world. Do you know? Can you plumb the odds? It can’t happen!”

“I thought boxing was the sweet science?” I like to tease Dad away from his first trail scent.

“Are you trying to give me a migraine?”

I walk away from the kitchen island, away from the sight of Belinda’s swaying hips, to go sit beneath the wooden arch. I’ve thrown down a drop cloth to practice chisel work on a block of white marble (a “mistake”), which I’ve placed squarely on a wood pedestal. Here I take a seat on the floor and lean against the stone. It radiates its cold core out and through my shirt. Belinda remains in view but only from the shoulders up. Above me, the arch seems a celestial frame. 

“Maybe I miss the right answer on purpose,” I say into the phone. 

“If you’re wrong in math calculation,” Dad says, “you’re usually way off. Such precision, even in error, would demand genius no mere math kid could possess.” I hear a touch of pride within this accusation.

His assumption of a teaching voice is both attractive and repelling. The contradiction is on the order of something one must grow up with to appreciate. I can imagine him sweeping his hand through the air, a professorial move that holds drama and, so, is memorable to the class. For the record, I was never a “math kid.” 

“But you’re always just one away,” Dad repeats himself. “That’s the definition of stupefaction. Seriously, son. Mind boggling.”

“So get a government grant to study my oddity,” I say. “We can spend six months together cruise fishing in the Bahamas. You can quiz my one-off math mind while we struggle with tarpons and sailfish.”

“That’s not a half-bad idea, son.”

“My gift to you, Dad.”

“Ah, but you can’t be away from your work. Can you imagine trying to chisel marble on a rocking trawler? Ho! And the damned boulder would sink the frigging boat anyway, right? Ha! Ha!”

That’s Dad, surgically removed moles and all. (I capitalize “dad” because this man is Dad to me, not a “dad from down the street” we all knew from our childhood neighborhood. Neither is he Dr. Carl Orth, the name he’s known by his pupils, the public, his dentist, and the DMV.)

“Have you spoken to your sister?” he asks.

“No,” I say quickly. When you tear off a bandage on a wound that just won’t heal, you do it fast.

Mary Catherine is three years older than me. Not a big difference, except that she wed young to a man much older, named Donald, already gray at the temples at thirty-four, heavy around the shoulders (but not the gut, thus giving him a top-heavy appearance that made you wonder if he might tip over, capsize). Mary Catherine was out of the house too soon, in my parents’ opinion. I sort of agreed, but today for different reasons than then. First, she focused on the American Dream, and was heartbroken when her older husband left her for his secretary. Talk about clichĂ©, right? Not too fast: Donald’s secretary was male, and they now own a chain of car washes in Santa Barbara. Second, MC decided the next step was to travel a religious path for “self-examination and psychological protection,” as she wrote her reasons to me in a short reply to my (admittedly ill-advised) shorter letter (“What are you thinking?” was one of my queries, as I recall). Never the best thing a young divorcĂ©e could fall back on when she already had the house in Glen Ellyn that gay-Donald left behind by court decree; she had a Ford Bronco (same decree); she had a job with State Farm Insurance. Then Mary Catherine began dating a nice gentleman named Daniel (equally gray templed, but with a happy smile and better center of gravity) that she’d met at a Sunday ice cream social on Chicago’s lakefront, where the church had set up a tented revival area next to the picnic benches dressed in white linen. “Beware white,” Dad said jokingly, after she had described it to us, standing outside mom’s hospital room in her last days. 

“We haven’t spoken for a couple months,” I say to Dad. Belinda has finished the dishes and comes to sit with me. Our legs stretch out side by side. She takes my wine glass and drinks from it, leaving a lip imprint the shade of dried rose petals. I talk into the phone. “Mary Catherine tells me ‘art is the devil’s handy-work.’ How do I respond to this person anymore? The last time I heard words like that was in an American history class. We were studying pre-colonial Puritans. Joseph Cotton. Or was it Cotton Mather?”

“I get those two mixed up myself,” Dad tells me. His equanimity is laced with that singular Midwestern irony we used to call dry-rot (no need for a laugh or a double take). Dad is joshing me, of course. I’m used to being joshed. We are a family of joshers. Or were. Mary Catherine has given all that up. She used to be the best josher of the bunch. The Bible leaves her no room for joshing, not in her suddenly changed and ever-diminutive worldview. Odd, because in my reading of that book Jesus was the biggest josher-character in all of literature. He had to be, considering his foil was the vengeful God of the Old Testament. 

“Find some common ground,” Dad suggests, not for the first time. “Mary Catherine will always be your sister.”

“Our shared genes are as close as I can get to her these days, Dad. I don’t know why she’s grown vindictive. Religion is supposed to be soothing, n’est cest’pas? It’s not like we make fun of her. I just don’t understand why she’s coming from the corner she’s put herself in. Probably I shall never know. She takes every word so seriously. All I’m left with is … c’est la vie.” Dad hates when I use my little French.

“You take your art seriously, son, as she takes her calling. I hear elitism when you speak about such and such.” 

“Hey, guilty as charged, pop. But I don’t spit fire’n’brimstone for dropping church (not that I ever went regularly) — nor do I go around proselytizing Rembrandt’s love for you if only you’d open your heart to him.” I suddenly think I could do this very thing, which frightens me a little. The difference between my sister and me, however, is that I don’t consciously act on an urge to spread the Gospel of Art. 

“Go easy, Minus. She’s in a phase.”

“She’s thirty-six years old, Dad.”

I hear a caustic double-click. Dad’s call-waiting has invaded. 

“That must be her now, Minus. Can we do this again in a few days?”

“Of course, Dad. Get some real sleep tonight, huh? I love you.”

“Sure. I’ll roll into bed right after –”

I hear a kick-clunk … kick-clunk and I miss the last of his sentence.

“Okay, Dad. Tell Sister-Sister that Minus says ‘Word Up’ from New York.”

Dad laughs. “She might like that.” He can take a joke. 

I switch off, letting him move onto his other child.

Belinda reaches for the dead phone and lays it on the corner of the wood block. For a moment I look at the incongruity of wood and rock and plastic phone, and think of incorporating the modern with the classical. I blame this on the hour of night because I don’t practice art fusion. It’s enough to live in NYC, finding French-Mex or Russian-Irish restaurants. Belinda takes my hands and we hold each other. From a safe distance we must look as people who are in love look at each other, with all that time in front of us, and wanting no other person in the world. 

(from pages 79 - 83)

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