by Geoff Schutt
For his eighteenth birthday, Jay’s parents gave him a pair of binoculars. Jay could not tell his parents the real reason he’d wanted the binoculars so bad, that he needed binoculars so he could watch Nina Pickett dance in the morning before her window. There wasn’t anything perverted about this. Nina knew Jay was watching and she actually encouraged him. But he had to see her in close up, so the binoculars were very necessary.
Jay’s routine, even on days when he had to go to work at the Mr. Sirloin Restaurant: five a.m., wake up, gargle with Listerine, brush his teeth. The sun rose closer to six during the summer but the birds began singing at five-fifteen. While he waited for dawn, he drank coffee he brewed in a personal-sized coffee maker in his bedroom. Then he drove to Nina’s street, parked across from her house, and waited. She must have been waiting for him, too, because she always seemed to know exactly when he arrived.
Today he had the binoculars and he also had his first mail copy of Variety (it cost him a fortune to subscribe). He sat on the hood of his Oldsmobile, leaned back against the windshield and held up the copy of Variety so he was sure Nina could see it. The binoculars rested on his chest.
Nina’s father worked for the post office. He already left for work. Nina’s parents were divorced. Her mother lived somewhere else. Nina didn’t talk about her mother. Her mother was like a no-no subject.
Jay tried bringing Nina directly into his thoughts. He didn’t feel quite so inhibited thinking the things he might not be able to say to her given the opportunity. He could be brave, and daring, and explicit.
Nina, he thought, I’m watching you, Nina.
Sometimes he imagined she even answered him, in a soft, sexy whisper.
Nina, he thought, did you think something just then?
Jay talked to Nina’s neighbors. For one thing, he didn’t want them getting suspicious about him parking his car so early in the morning like he was camping out in front of the Pickett house. Which was exactly what he was doing, of course. He assured the neighbors he wasn’t in the habit of loitering, but he and Nina were in love and wasn’t young love such a terrific thing? He told the neighbors that in no way did he wish to cause a disturbance. Which was why he was being so open about it. They smiled and told him it was okay. They thought it was cute, Jay looking up at Nina like Romeo to Juliet.
Jay’s routine: eight a.m., pack up the thermos of coffee he brought with him (he could never get enough coffee), climb off the hood of the Oldsmobile and either drive to work at the Mr. Sirloin or drive home if he had the day off to eat breakfast with his parents.
Nina Pickett was a star. Already. She was the lead in Mame and Annie Get Your Gun. They were only high school productions but she still managed to get herself noticed, even though this was Toledo and not the most exciting place in the world.
They didn’t go to the same high school. They met because Nina was for two weeks a waitress at the Mr. Sirloin. She quit when the hours interfered with her rehearsal schedule.
School was out, graduation all taken care of, and the summer, their last summer of freedom upon them, and Jay wasn’t going to allow his best chance for Nina’s affections to slip by. He was going to win her once and for all. He wanted to marry her, though she knew nothing of this.
Jay went to Nina’s high school and read old issues of her high school newspaper. He took copious notes. For example, during Nina’s freshman year, she had six mentions in the paper. Sophomore year, she had fourteen mentions and one longer feature story. What a celebrity she was! Everybody’s most-likely-to-do-anything-she-set-her-mind-to. And everyone’s most-likely-to-achieve-her-dreams-and-become-rich-and-famous. When she was a junior, there were three features stories and twenty-four assorted mentions. Senior year she had forty-one mentions and four features. It was like the school newspaper was in fact the Nina Pickett Gazette.
Jay had some fireworks for the Fourth of July. He asked Nina’s neighbors for permission to shoot off a couple of bottle rockets in the street. He assured them he had calculated the velocity and arc of a bottle rocket shot off in an enclosed space (bounded by the curb on either side). He insisted that given certain wind conditions he could shoot the rocket straight up and straight down it would come. On the dime.
He watched Nina’s window until she was fixing her hair. He lined the bottle rockets (there were actually four of them) three feet apart in the middle of the street. He waited for Nina to turn her head. He expected her to lean on the window sill for a better look but if she knew what he was about to do she didn’t show it.
The first rocket flew right over Nina’s house. The second rocket followed the path of the first, but the third hobbled a hundred feet into the air, then came down. Almost to the dime. The fourth bottle rocket hit Nina’s roof, then bounced back into the street.
The neighbors were standing in their front doors, watching. They wore slippers and robes and held cups of coffee in their hands. When the first rocket shot up, they put down their coffee and clapped their hands.
Mrs. Rubin, who lived directly across from the Picketts, invited Jay inside for coffeecake and orange juice.
During the twelve to one rush at the Mr. Sirloin, Jay worked the front line. He was a cook. He served up sandwiches and salads. He prepared each plate as a piece of art. He arranged the garnish into funny animal shapes. He was best with the giraffe. He formed the romaine lettuce and parsley into a body and long neck, put a strawberry on top for the head, used a paring knife to make tiny eyes into the fruit. He pushed the plate onto the pass shelf and made small talk with the waitresses. Only found in the wild, he said.
He carved his name in a chunk of melon. Personally prepared by #10. The assistant manager came into the kitchen a few minutes later holding the slice of melon with his bare hands. He demanded to know who #10 was.
Based on his research into high school newspaper mentions of Nina, Jay drafted a list of girls who knew Nina Pickett. Mostly, these were girls who were in the same productions as she was. He took out a phone book and matched up the last names. (He disregarded girls with the common last names, like “Smith” or “Jones,” since he didn’t want to have to call up thirty households to get the right girl.)
Nina had received a full scholarship from the Ohio University Theatre Department. Jay telephoned the girls and said he was working on the Ohio University summer newspaper. He would like to ask several questions about Nina, their new prized student. He said Nina had given him their names as friends who might have something important to say.
He could not find the doorbell to the first girl’s place. She had invited him over. What she had to say, she said, could not be spoken over the phone. So Jay banged on the front door for some time. He heard noises inside but nobody came to answer the door. He walked around to the side of the house and started knocking on the windows. After one complete circle of the house, he tried the front door again. This time, the girl – who was the only person home – answered. She had straight black hair. Her face was pink, like a baby’s skin. She wore violet lipstick and had rather large fake curly eyelashes. It was almost as if, Jay thought, as if she had made herself up for one of the plays she was in with Nina. That would be the kick, wouldn’t it!
They sat in front of a large screen TV in the basement. Jay had out his yellow legal pad. His pen was in the ready position.
“Tell me about Nina,” he said. “What you find striking about her. Also, what you think most people might not know about her. Tell me about the hidden Nina.”
The girl didn’t answer. She used the remote to turn on the television. There was The Price is Right. Bob Barker’s head was huge on the large screen TV.
“Take my hands,” the girl said finally, and Jay held her hands. “You really want me to tell you something about Nina Pickett?” Jay nodded his head. “Do you want the truth, or do you want something that will sound nice in the newspaper?”
Jay said the truth, of course.
“The truth,” the girl sighed. She kept glancing at the TV. One of the contestants was jumping up and down, was screaming, her arms clapping wildly in the air. The next thing, the contestant was up hugging Bob Barker, who seemed rather amused by the attention.
“The truth, please,” Jay said.
“The truth is, everybody is going to know Nina Pickett’s name someday.”
“But what about the real Nina,” Jay said. “I don’t mean the professional Nina. As a person, what is she like? The personal Nina Pickett, I mean.”
The girl smiled and leaned over, kissing Jay on the cheek.
“What was that for?” he asked.
“You’re cute,” she said. “You reporters are always so cute.”
Mrs. Rubin wore a robe made of white terry cloth with tiny round cigarette burn holes along the right sleeve. The reason for the holes, she explained, was a habit from her days as a child, was the way in which she clutched herself while sleeping, especially during nightmares, her left hand tight around her right arm. She would awaken just as soon as she felt the cigarette burning through. At least there weren’t any fires this way. God knows what would happen if she didn’t wear the robe. She was laughing.
Jay told Mrs. Rubin he planned a block party for the neighborhood. Well, for Mrs. Rubin’s street in particular, he said. For Nina Pickett’s street. He had worked up invitations and everything. All the neighbors would have to do was show up, really. Show up with a covered dish is all. Jay handed Mrs. Rubin an extra invitation for the Picketts.
“It’ll be a potluck,” he said. “We’ll have tables set up in the street. If each house provides on table and four chairs, we’ll be just fine.”
Mrs. Rubin poured him a mug of hot tea.
“You are so sweet to do this for us,” she said. “You certainly have our street in your blood.” She put her fingers beneath his chin and lifted up slightly, had her face barely half an inch from his.
“This is from a movie,” she said. “If the man looked into someone’s eyes, he could tell if there was reincarnation involved. The face of the deceased would be etched into the pupils. For instance, you aren’t the second coming of Bobby McCabe, are you? Bobby used to live on this street but he drowned at the quarry when most of us were young enough to have kids of our own at home. We still talk about Bobby.” Her expression grew dark. “Hmmm,” she said, peering deep into Jay’s eyes.
Jay jerked back. “What’s wrong?” he screamed. “What do you see?”
Mrs. Rubin took a sip of tea. “So I guess you’re not Bobby.”
Jay settled down. They drank more tea. They were on their third mugs.
“Some pretty strange things are happening to me,” Jay said freely, his body warm from the tea.
“How many memories do you want to keep?” Mrs. Rubin said.
“I don’t understand.”
“If responsibility gives your life meaning, no one’s holding you back.”
“You mean Nina, don’t you?” he said.
“You’re young,” Mrs. Rubin said. She smiled.
“Yes, I am.”
“Would it make you feel better to be on the couch?” she asked.
She arranged the pillows on the daybed in the living room and made it comfortable for Jay to stretch out, although his legs were too long and hung over the sides, bent at the knees.
“Would you like to be hypnotized?” Mrs. Rubin said.
Jay tried to imagine Mrs. Rubin’s voice as the voice of God.
She was stroking his arm between the wrist and his elbow. “We’re going back,” she said, “way back – to your childhood. Past your childhood, past your birth. We’re traveling back into time itself.”
Jay’s eyes were open. He was suddenly sitting up.
“What do you feel?” Mrs. Rubin said. “What is frightening you so?”
But Jay kept quiet. How could he tell Mrs. Rubin he was afraid of losing Nina?
He had practiced his big speech to Nina:
Firstly, I’m eighteen years old and I’m ready to be in love with you (as if she didn’t already know). Secondly, I love children if you do. Thirdly, growing old with you would be like never growing old, would be like heaven on earth. No. Thirdly revised, on our fiftieth wedding anniversary, we’ll go somewhere like Antarctica, because our love will keep us warm. It’ll be all we’ll need.
Then, on his knees, out with the ring.
I love you Nina. My heart aches for you. You are a shining star in the sky. Your eyes are bright emeralds. Your skin is so soft, like silk. Your kisses are like cotton candy and your smile is radiant like the sun.
Mrs. Rubin said, “It works better on TV,” as she helped him from the daybed.
That night, Jay had a nightmare. His voice was not his own. He was screaming. He couldn’t stop his screaming. He watched himself with horror. The next morning, his father screamed while reading the sports section. Later that day, at the Mr. Sirloin, a customer screamed as a cockroach raced across her plate.
The block party was a grand success. Mrs. Rubin had hooked Jay up with the Henry boy, Ralph, who had his own band. The musicians were set up on the Henry front lawn. Mrs. Rubin said she thought Ralph knew a couple of Sinatra songs. Ralph was the lead singer.
The card tables were piled high with potato and macaroni salads, casseroles, Jell-O desserts and cakes and cookies. Three gas grills were side by side cooking up hamburgers and hotdogs. Coolers were set at the end of the driveways.
Nina Pickett’s father walked out. Jay met him at his curb and offered him a beer.
“I plan to marry your daughter,” Jay said.
“I like cookouts,” Mr. Pickett said. “They remind me of summer.”
“It is summer,” Jay said.
“Well, yes, of course it is.” Mr. Pickett glanced around. “My Nina doesn’t go for this kind of thing. Nina likes extravagant things.”
At eleven o’clock, the neighbors gathered on Mrs. Rubin’s lawn. Mrs. Rubin took Jay by the arm. “We’ve been so happy since you took an interest in our neighborhood,” she said. And she handed Jay a box wrapped with red speckled paper, with a red ribbon tied on top. Inside was a silver tray with his name engraved along with the name of the street and the date. Jay couldn’t help but get all teary-eyed. He wiped his cheeks. He could barely thank them, he was so choked up.
But at the same time, he looked up to Nina’s window and wondered why she hadn’t made an appearance. This was like torture.
The neighbors applauded and Jay had his hand shaken and his back slapped. The party was finished.
The tables were packed up, the grills and coolers taken inside, the trash collected. Jay sat on the curb. Except for the moon and a streetlamp half a block down, Nina Pickett’s bedroom light was the only light in the sky. He watched her window for more than an hour.
He didn’t know how late it was, but finally Nina stepped from her house, into the night air. She was wearing a blue and white summer dress. She seemed for a moment like a ghostly apparition, except her arms were at her sides and she did not look in the least way menacing. More like haunting, Jay thought. Yes, haunting was a good word.
They sat facing one another on the Rubin lawn.
“I love a good performance,” Nina said.
She had a paperback book with her. She rubbed Jay’s knuckles, then pressed the book into his fingers. “My father still reads to me. He says it’s one of his small pleasures,” she said. “This is by Somerset Maugham. It’s about a man who leaves behind everything he has so he can go to Tahiti and paint. His art is his life. Everything else is only the inspiration. The funny part is that practically no one trusts his judgment. He is really alone in the world.”
Jay nodded. He loved to hear Nina talk. She could go ahead and talk all night, if she wanted to. Her voice was so smooth and beautiful, like music.
“This man does have this one friend and this friend believes in him completely,” Nina went on. “This is the kind of friend who will cut off his own ear because he loves a woman. She is the only thing he can possibly love. This woman does not love him, but he is devoted to her because he knows no other way. And I don’t believe that he is sad that she does not love him. His love is strong enough for them both.”
Jay softly kissed each of Nina’s hands, then started on the fingers, one at a time.
“I love you,” he told her.
And Nina answered him back: “I love you.” She said, “I’m not like the girl in the story, you know. Because I love you.”
(excerpt from a novel in progress)
Geoff Schutt’s short fiction has appeared in The Quarterly (edited by Gordon Lish for Vintage Books/Random House), The Best of Writers at Work, The Wastelands Review and The Laurel Review, among others. He has received three artist grants for his fiction-as-performance art from The Arts Commission of Greater Toledo. After living in Ohio for many years, he now resides in the Washington, D.C. area. His novel-length work is represented by James McGinniss of McGinniss Associates Literary Agency, New York City. More about Geoff Schutt is available at his blog, “This Side of Paradise,” at http://geoffschutt.blogspot.com