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Conseil, NY MAG
This is not how the story was supposed to go.
I first saw the face of Claude Holmann in my sketchbook. He was on the last page, one of the last faces. He is there now. He is gray with a blocky forehead and bitter eyes. He was not supposed to be there either.
Claude Holmann was going to be a coffin-maker from the 1930s. He was going to be a depressed and lonely man, trying to make light of his morbid work. Then, he was a performer who hopped between bars and drank himself silly, to the dismay of a foolish girl who was somehow in love with him. And finally he was a rugged and war-hardened man, wandering a rugged and war-hardened world that had been torn to bits by zombies and nuclear fallout.
None of those Claudes were him. I tore them to pieces.
But the face was still there – year 2017, location Earth, a sketchbook somewhere in the hands of a young girl. Claude remains on the paper. Acid-free. Lignin-free.
Sheet number 75. Nine inches by six. Frankly, I don’t know what to do about him.
And that is all.
That is Claude.
• • •
I first started drawing in elementary school. I was no good. But I wanted to draw, and I had stories to tell, so I told them with simple stick figures and balloonish horses.
• • •
In middle school, the stick figures fleshed into primitive people. The horses grew muscles and thinned. I had an art teacher then – Miss Gaffey.
Miss Gaffey was shaped like a crushed can of Coca-Cola. She had once been an artist. Now she taught kids. She was bitter and shrill and had every pencil precisely labeled and stored in a corresponding tin.
I wanted to draw realistically. Miss Gaffey had other plans. She had us color square boxes with bright colored pencils instead, and trilled angrily when our shading was not perfect. I stopped liking color. I drew stick figures again when she wasn’t looking. This time, they came with satiric dialogue and comical expressions. Best of all, they were black and gray and white – Miss Gaffey would have hated them.
• • •
Faces are interesting things, aren’t they? Somehow humans manage to express and interpret emotions with just 43 sections of flesh stretched precariously over a funny-looking bone. Look at someone’s face next time you get the chance. Really look. You may find that it’s more like a thin veil than a mask.
I don’t draw stick figures anymore.
• • •
You must be bored. Enough about me. Instead I will tell you two things:
1. Claude Holmann is not real.
2. Claude Holmann is a hellish amalgamation of everyone you and I know.
• • •
Claude Holmann is coming home after working 10 hours. It is 10:42 p.m. He is tired. He is drunk. The pavement is sand beneath his feet. His feet are wooden beneath his legs.
“Look at that man,” mutters a businessman from his 2013 Subaru Legacy. “Poor dirty man.” A streetlight winks in the side mirror, turns the poor dirty man into a band of light.
“Lovely boy,” whispers an aging lady from a shop-top apartment. “He must’ve been a lovely boy, once.” Claude Holmann stumbles like the words off her tongue.
• • •
Donald and Sarah Holmann were a happy couple. They smiled, they spoke. They held each other when they were sad. And so on. They had a son. They kept him sheltered, fed, schooled, and dressed all proper.
The neighborhood parents often came to visit with their children. Donald and Sarah would smile and nod. Claude would play in the backyard. In the summer, the metal chime hanging from the branch of the weedy birch tree would whistle and clink, whistle and clink. In the winter, it would freeze. It clanked then, like bone on glass in a minor key.
• • •
“Barbie, I’m home.” Barbie was Claude’s roommate. She hated it when he called her that. Her full name was Barbara Hope Bessler. She hated that too. She wanted to be called Barb, and so Barb she was. Most of the time.
Claude knocked. For some odd reason, he found the feeling of the synthetic wood on his knuckles soothing. Fascinated, he kept rapping, relishing the tingling sensation. He felt like an explorer, tap-tapping away at a wall of ice until it gave –
And give it did. It did not reveal a glittering treasure in a secret cave. It revealed a petite woman in a lurid green T-shirt in the shoddy apartment whose lights were off to save on electric bills.
“Three missed calls. At least 20 texts. Where the hell is your phone?” He shook his head. “Just let me in. I can explain.”
“Right.” She moved out of the doorway. “And for the love of God, don’t call me Barbie.”
Claude shook his head. “Sorry. I’m not feeling too good.” He wandered in, using a hand to feel for obstacles. He could feel Barb’s icy eyes following him. She huffed. “No kidding.”
Claude found his way to the couch and collapsed onto it. The dark apartment spun around and around. He blinked.
“Yikes, Claude, how hammered are you?”
He suddenly became acutely aware of a strange taste in the back of his mouth. Like smoke and lilies. Bleak black bile, whiskey-soaked. He looked pleadingly to the shadowy form that he thought to be Barb. “I’m fine.”
And he threw up.
He didn’t remember much after that.
• • •
Claude Holmann traveled 15 years into the past. A time when he was trying desperately not to cry in public, because nobody did. Showing emotion was a bit taboo in America.
Especially for someone like Claude, who was 16 and should’ve been dreaming about life ahead. Instead, he was staring at a blank wall and a poster showing a happy white family with their arms around one another.
This was the Roswell Center for Genetic Testing. They offered tests so people could find out who their families were, so people could become the happy white family on the poster. New immigrants came. Cheating couples came. Separated siblings came. And the Holmanns came.
Claude felt like a character in a horror movie, the dispensable side character who is doomed to pitter fearfully down the dark hallway until the horrible monster jumps out and eats him alive.
Claude’s monster was fast approaching, stepping out of a silver Mercedes that stank pretentiously of diesel fuel. The monster slid his phone into a belt holster as he made his way to the door. Claude turned his back before he got there, reached for his mother’s hand, squeezed it, let go. Her jaw was set firmly. The monster was hers too, after all.
Claude and Sarah refused to look at him. The sound of his breathing infuriated Claude. Smoke and lilies dripped from his eyes, stung.
The doctor that called them in expected little. Most patients greeted her with a smile and gave a little “How are you?” and she would smile back and say “Right this way” and everyone was in a somewhat good mood. The funeral procession of three that followed her did none of this. Sarah put a hand on Claude’s shoulder. The monster swaggered behind them, a smarmy grin plastered on his face.
They were led into a room even smaller than the waiting room. The doctor smiled. “My name is Marcia, you must be Claude. And Donald, Sarah. What a pleasure to meet you.”
She was greeted with silence. Claude and Sarah were too numb to form words. But Donald’s smarmy grin only widened. “Donald Peter Holmann,” he asserted, holding out a big, pasty hand. He left to take a leak after that. He walked with his hips pushed out and his chest puffed like a peregrine.
“I understand you’re here for a paternity test. Claude, honey, why don’t you sit down?”
She had him press his thumbs into an ink pad and then press them on paper. She had him sign his name on the paper too. And finally she pulled out a Polaroid camera and took a picture of Claude Holmann, right there, with the tears making trails on his face and his lips pressed tight in desperation. Then, the doctor swabbed the insides of his cheeks with Q-tips. She put those in a plastic container. And that was all. That was Claude.
He felt sick when his father returned and leaned in the doorway. He didn’t move, just put his hands in his pockets.
“Is it all done?”
The doctor smiled sweetly. “Yes, sir.”
“I didn’t see it.”
“I didn’t see it. I want you to do it again.” His fleshy lips played mockingly at a smirk as he tried to make eye contact – first with Sarah, then with Claude. “How do I know you didn’t alter the sample somehow?”
“Sir, I can assure you that-”
Some people are like children, even when they’ve grown up by our society’s standards. They stomp and throw tantrums and whine when things don’t go exactly their way.
Donald Peter Holmann was one of these people. He watched his son cry with satisfaction, knowing that the tears would break Sarah’s ailing heart. Claude wanted to strangle someone. He settled for standing up. He felt his feet moving toward the monster, unconsciously.
And his mouth gaped for a bit before he finally settled on a word. “Why?”
The monster turned. “Why what?”
“Just why? Why would you do this?”
“Claude, I love you very much and I just want to make sure.”
“That I’m your real dad.”
“Just because? I think you just want to make Mom look bad.”
The monster was silent at this. His eye twitched. Claude felt bolder. “Because you’re a prick, and the court knows. You’re losing.”
At this point, the monster had had enough. He ripped his phone from the holster and swiped through it, seething. “You want to know why, Claude? This is why.”
It was a badly mixed picture of two faces. One was of Claude, when he was younger, nine or ten. His eyes were half-closed. He had a bowl cut. It was extremely unflattering. The other was of a man, a face Claude didn’t recognize. It wasn’t a flattering picture either. Claude made a strangled noise as he pulled the phone away. There was nothing left to say.
Donald Peter Holmann was going insane. “Burn in hell,” Claude called after him.
The monster spat on the linoleum floor. Minutes later, the silver Mercedes was gone.
• • •
When Claude returned from Roswell, Washington, grim exhaustion came with him.
He kept spinning and spinning in an apartment with sunlight dappling through it. Dimly, he could feel the weight of a blanket on his legs. He closed his eyes. The reddish light that managed to get through his eyelids was searing them raw.
He felt a hand on his cheek. It smelled like rosewater perfume. A garbled voice cooed something to him, brushed the sweat-matted hair from his brow. Claude thought distantly of his mother again.
The rosewater hand belonged to Barbara Hope Bessler. She was talking about how she was worried for poor Claude, how she had left a glass of water and some toast for him to eat when he felt better, how she had to leave for work nonetheless.
Claude did not wake up until it was nearing dusk. He went for a walk around and around the block until the lights in apartments began to flick off for the night.
• • •
Mornings are often dramatized by television to seem happier and brighter than they are. The reason is simple – drinking coffee looks much more fun with sunlight and smiles. Good to the last drop, the best part of waking up. And so on. As most normal human beings know, coffee is bitter and was meant to be savored, bleary-eyed in a bathrobe. The only light is whatever the sunrise can muster, because even it doesn’t like getting up at the asscrack of dawn. So the mornings go more like this:
“Morning.” “Morning.” And that is all.
Humans are beautiful creatures.
• • •
Claude Holmann and Barb Bessler were saying their “mornings” to each other over ready-to-eat microwavable breakfast burritos. They both had to go to work. Barb was a waitress. She ferried food to people and then ferried the empty plates to the kitchen. Claude was a data entry clerk. He punched numbers into a computer for an insurance company. Neither liked their jobs, but they paid the bills, more or less.
Claude nibbled at his breakfast halfheartedly, more concerned with his phone. Various headlines quibbled with each other for his attention: a politician said this, a celebrity did that. The faces looked odd, for whatever reason. His battery was low. Barb stood up, shouldered a gray handbag.
“Hey, I should get going. See you tonight, Claude. You gonna eat the rest of that?”
“Yeah.” He took a bite to prove it.
She smiled. He watched her go, went back to his headlines. He would leave for work in ten minutes, like he had done every day for the past year, because the train left punctually and didn’t wait for stragglers. The train was like his job, in a way.
• • •
He thought of Barb on the train. The man next to him was dangerously close to falling asleep on his shoulder, head bobbing in lazy circles. Claude let him.
• • •
Barbara Hope Bessler grew up in Dunkley, Alabama. Her childhood was nice enough.
She had plenty of friends and two brothers and parents who treated them all well. She was outside a lot. She ran and ran until she could run faster than all 10 boys in her class. Despite this, she was not a tomboy – she wore dresses to church on Sundays and always kept her hair long and tidy. Everyone had high hopes for dear little Barbie.
There was just one problem. In the seventh grade, a girl moved to Dunkley, Alabama.
Her name was Laurie. She was black and had a laugh like an Offenbach sonata.
• • •
Claude Holmann shuffled with his keys, pushed open the door. Barb was not home yet. Good. She would not be here to see his failure. He pulled a bottle of whiskey from under his bed and drank deeply. It tasted of smoke and lilies and cleared his head.
The TV had been on since the morning. An anchor confirmed for the millionth time that week that the country called America was indeed in great upheaval. They were going to decide on a new president in a few months. Presently, a candidate was pressing through a crowded hallway, floundering as the press shouted questions and flapped their hands. Claude was reminded of seagulls. They made an awful lot of noise.
He was twirling the bottlecap between his fingers when Barb came home. He slipped the bottle between the cushions as she put down her bag and sat next to him, rubbing her temples.
“How was work?” he asked gently.
“What do you think? Just stupid people. ‘My chicken’s too cold.’ ‘Your food is too expensive, can you lower the price for us?’” she mocked. Barb shook her head and tilted her chin at the TV. “And now this. I hate this country sometimes.”
“The orange guy and the snake lady. Lovely couple, mm?”
“Nuts, both of them.”
Barb grinned. “Nah. One’s a woman and the other hasn’t got any.”
• • •
They stayed up late that night, considering each other. Barbara and Claude had come from opposite ends of the country. They were an odd set – the waitress and the data entry clerk, the one who wanted to change and the one who had given up hope, the lady and the alcoholic.
They could not have been more different.
And yet, by an impossibly twisted myriad of events, they were set on paths that pointed to the same low-ceilinged apartment in Conseil, NY, and had lived together for two years.
• • •
Even during the dark hours of that night it was awfully hot, and when daylight came it only got worse. The sun reached a burning pitch by late afternoon. Humidity poured over everything.
Barb was away. The apartment was quiet. Claude was stretched on the floor, a table fan ruffling his hair and cooling his face. He was acutely aware of how his shirt stuck uncomfortably to his skin as he scrolled aimlessly through his phone.
He turned onto his side and let the phone fall on the ground. It buzzed. He picked it back up. It was a text. Here is what it said:
“Dad passed away.” And seconds later:
“Just thought you should know.”
It was from an unknown number, but Claude Holmann knew who it was. And the texts were for him. Somehow, he found a smile playing on his lips.
He read them, again and again, unable to look away. The texts were like roadkill, horrible and yet intriguing. His thumbs hovered over the keyboard. How is one supposed to respond to the death of a parent over text?
Claude Holmann responded with one word. “How?”
• • •
Barbara Hope Bessler will go back to the summer of 2005, when she is 16. It is that time of day when the shadows stretch and warp. The sun reflects off the water of Lake Huck, where two girls – Barb and Laurie – are standing on a dock, hair dripping. They have known each other since the seventh grade.
“One last swim in the ol’ lake.”
“Yeah.” Barb wrung out her hair with a towel, making little puddles on the pine wood below. “I still can’t believe it.”
Laurie smiled morosely. “Me neither,” she agreed. “They move us around a lot. I wish we could stay.” She paced back and forth, leaving wet footprints as she slicked the water from her arms. “I guess it could have been worse. Four years is a long time for mom. Air Force doesn’t tend to stick around.”
“Only four? Feels like I’ve known you for longer.” The sun was starting to dip below the horizon. “We should get back. Get some sleep before you fly off in the morning.”
“Don’t think I could sleep, anyway. Can we go to your house first?”
Laurie, despite her generally extroverted exterior, was the mediator, calm and constant.
She walked like it, her steps measured and slow, ballroom-dancing alone to a song no one could hear. The sidewalk glinted like the water on her skin, mirror-like bits of mica still finding a way to catch the light. It was pretty, Barb thought.
Walking to the place where Barb lived had more gravity than it used to – everything did, because it was the last time. It looked like most houses in Dunkley; the Besslers cherished it dearly. Laurie dug her toes into the grass, taking a deep breath.
“Sit with me for a minute.” Barb gestured to the front steps.
“I just …”
“I know.” Laurie sat, looking out over the road. She had an odd expression on her face. It looked as though she was crying. Laurie rarely cried.
“I’m all right.”
She took her hand and grasped it firmly. “We’ll still talk. I’ll call you. All the time.” She tried to laugh.
“I know. I will too.” She shuffled closer. “I guess there’s nothing left to do, then.” She was silent as she traced the lines on Barb’s palm and looked up.
“Just one thing.” And they kissed.
It was not perfect like the movies would have you believe. It was more of a touch, a simple gesture, for the mere reason that it felt like the right thing to do.
But through the blinds of the Bessler household, a middle-aged housewife nearly had a heart attack. This was Barbara’s mother, who was afflicted with the terrible illnesses of racism and homophobia. She couldn’t believe her dear little Barbie was kissing a black woman. The door opened with a bang. The mother shouted until her husband came, and the two of them spat disgusting obscenities at poor Laurie. A shoe was thrown at one point. Barb begged them to stop as Laurie ran.
The scandal spread. Her parents called her a sinner and a whore. Barb was not allowed to leave the house. The front porch was no longer inviting – but then again, none of Alabama was.
The first chance she got, Barbara left.
• • •
It turns out that Donald Peter Holmann was killed in a car crash. He had upgraded his car since Claude was 16. It was another Mercedes, more recent, shining and stinking of wealth. He had hit a man in a Ford pickup. The Mercedes was crushed, and the fuel tank exploded. Both cars were consumed in flames, no survivors.
• • •
The dishes needed washing. The sink had been full of plates and cutlery for days. They had both put off cleaning. But Claude Holmann was bored, so he scrubbed and shined them now for the simple reason that it passed the time. The door clicked.
“Hey, Claude? Can I talk to you for a minute?”
“Always.” He wiped his hands, tossed the dishtowel onto the counter. “What’s up, Barbie?”
“Stop it. I meant to tell you earlier, I know this is kind of sudden … anyway. I’m going to a march tomorrow in Manhattan.”
Claude shrugged. “All right. Have fun.”
“I was wondering if you wanted to come.”
“Please? It would mean so much to me. You can take a day off, can’t you?”
“I …” He cared, he wanted to. But there would be so many people. The thought of the noise and being surrounded by teeming bodies waving signs drained him. He wasn’t even there. “I don’t think I can. Sorry.”
She pressed her lips together. “All right.” For a moment, she looked like she would say more, keep trying. “I just really think you should get out there more. Live. Just think about it.”
By morning, she was gone.
• • •
That Sunday, the television screamed a different kind of news. Barb’s march in Manhattan had gone horribly wrong. Initially, it had been peaceful. But there were too many people with too much anger. It became a riot. Windows and bones shattered, one as easily as the other. The police had tried to hold people back. But humans were not meant to be held back.
So there was tear gas. And the screaming from the crowd changed pitch. There were three dead and 14 with severe injuries.
The news anchor reported what the police had told him. And then there were three pictures. Claude stared. The third was a woman with dark makeup, hair cropped close to her head, silver and gold threaded through her ears and nose. She regarded the camera with a challenging leer, but her icy eyes were warmer than a night in August. Her Twitter profile picture was the last face the world would see. She had a name: Barbara Bessler.
The bottle dropped from his hands, shattered on the floor. Warm alcohol bled into the floorboards. The world slowed, and a harsh sound forced itself from his throat. Barbara, Barbara. He put his head in his hands. His tears made tracks on his hands. The news moved on, the pictures disappeared. They had better things to talk about.
So Barbara Hope Bessler died then, on a television screen in a cave-like apartment in Conseil, New York.
• • •
“Scotch. Tennessee. Anything, just get me what you’ve got.”
The bartender raised his eyebrows, came back with a Jack Daniel’s. “Rough day?”
Claude Holmann did not respond. He just tipped back the glass, set it down with a thunk that made the ice cubes clatter. “More.”
“You hear about what happened in Manhattan?” Claude chose to ignore him. “Wild. Just trying to get a point across and they get shot up and trampled and whatnot. And to think – they were all someone’s kid, someone’s friend.”
“Stop.” Claude nearly choked. He swirled the ice in his glass, gestured for another drink.
“Buddy. Cool it. Just tryin’ to-”
“My friend died. She died at the protest.” He propped his elbow on the bar and leaned closer. “Her name was Barbara Bessler. Do you know her?”
“She was a lovely woman. She didn’t deserve to die. I don’t know what I’m going to do without her. I don’t know.”
The bartender froze. “I’m so sorry.”
“She was my everything. She’s been there for me for so long. And when it mattered, I was never there for her.” Claude looked at him from the bottom of his glass. “And you know who else died? My father. He deserved to die. He was in a car crash. I heard and I laughed, and there must be something wrong with me for it, and the only one I want to talk to about it is Barb. And she isn’t here.” Smoke and lilies seared his throat, smoke and lilies dripped from his eyes. He brought his hands up to his face. Crying was still unacceptable in America. “I can’t, I can’t.”
“Look here, buddy. I’m real sorry to hear all this, but I think you’re … well, get your drinks and get out. I’ll call you a ride.”
Claude Holmann lifted his head. “No. I’ll walk.” So Claude Holmann walked.
He found his feet taking him to a bridge. The bridge went over the Tallaway River, a sluggish brown body of water. It looked pretty in the night. It was the loveliest of views. Claude Holmann stood there for a long time.
I suppose this is how the story was supposed to go after all.