wealth

Wealth

Linda Heller

Wealth

Sharon asked Daniel, a young ceramist—they were at a month long glazing workshop in upstate New York—how he supported himself. Most ceramists didn’t earn much and she wondered how he managed to drive a brand-new fully loaded Land Rover. They and a few of their classmates were having lunch at a diner that was popular with the locals, old men with failing vision who in so small a hamlet must have known each other yet sat alone in enormous booths. Only the ceramic students had jammed together, their volume rising as they competed to be heard. This was the first time Daniel had joined them. Usually he sped off between classes to visit one of his girlfriends, an antic that earned him a bit of acclaim considering the short time he’d been in the area and the disproportionate ratio of women to trees. In addition to these midday lovers, he had a fiancée in Pennsylvania who, he said, was standing guard over his house and studio.

Sharon asked if he exhibited at craft fairs. She, herself, had vetoed the task of carting her nearly life-sized sculptures of traumatized women to outdoor bazaars. “Or do you sell most of your work online?”

Daniel blushed. Feigning further humility he said, “Here’s the thing, I come from great wealth.”

Sharon and the others eyed each other as they silently added up their own sorry holdings.

Oblivious of, or was he delighted about the envy he’d created, he said, “As part of being able to do what I please, I get to sponsor a foundation for needy artists.”

“Where do we apply?” Sharon asked with marked gaiety. In truth she wanted to smack him across his face which was handsomer than seemed fair.

“It’s still in the planning stages. But hey, stay in touch. You never know.”

That said, he dashed off without picking up the tabs for their ridiculously cheap sandwiches. Everything was ridiculously cheap in this out-of-the-way town that hadn’t been able to pick itself up and follow its single industry when this industry moved away.

Maybe Daniel was lying. Insecure people often embellished the facts. Sharon googled his last name in the hope that his family wasn’t worth mentioning. Instead, she discovered dozens of entries about his grandfather Isaac Risbach who’d quit Allentown High School to enter the ring as a bantam weight. Ferociously ambitious, he’d eaten his way up to more perilous categories until a fractured eye socket had ended his career. Down but not out, his words, he’d gone on to make a fortune by transforming sludge into a low-cost roofing material. Now in his nineties, he lived in an historically important mansion off Rittenhouse Square. His four children and their progeny were scattered throughout the northeast, where to judge by their occupations, a son composed ariettas while another restrung beads, they lived off his earnings.

Daniel did work hard. He arrived early each morning to churn out audaciously colored, foot-high ziggurats—his versions of little known Mesopotamian burial urns.

“I’m negotiating to bring the originals here,” he told those who stopped by his wheel to examine his efforts. Almost everyone made the rounds each morning to see where they stood in comparison to their rivals. “Importing antiquities can be f’ing hazardous,” he said, “unless you charm the right people.” He rubbed his thumb against his index fingers—the universal sign for money.

“You ought to fear jail,” Pete, a guy his age said. “They’re not enlightened over there. They’ll hurl you into a pit and it’s goodbye, forever.” Nearly as light as air, he swayed on his bare, skeletal feet.

Daniel laughed at his classmate’s naiveté. Unlike Pete, no one would dare corral him and thwart his desires.

His own inventory grew at a breakneck pace while across the studio less confident participants threw their half-finished pieces into the recycling bin. Still despite his blatant I don’t have to, but I do dedication to his craft, he snuck home from the workshop days before it ended thus stranding three fellow students whom he’d promised to drop off at the foot of the George Washington Bridge.

“He’s worse than we thought,” people said, and forgot him.

What Sharon couldn’t forget, what became an obsession was the idea that she should have been the one who’d come from great wealth. Instead she was boxed in.

Youth begets opportunity. Midlife crises are solvable. A man in his forties who can no longer stand his family is still young enough to strike out anew, albeit with less money and more stomach-churning guilt. Even if his finances are limited he can enter certain online sites and start a fantasy life with a hot Russian redhead who while fiddling with her bare breasts will plead with him to send her an airline ticket. Just the knowledge of this possibility will improve his mood enough to revive his interest in his sons’ little league games.

But Sharon was seventy-six, a former textile designer made obsolete by computers and currently shut out of the hiring process by the abundance of younger, prettier women seeking the same low-paying jobs. Unlike Daniel, who through sheer (infuriating) luck could live where he wanted to, her budget confined her to a cramped fourth-floor walkup made smaller by an increasing number of scowling-clay roommates.

In her frustration, she wanted to kick down her walls and send the roof flying without a thought to the falling debris that would crush passersby. While ambulances sped to the scene, high above the wreckage, freed from constraint, from being a mummy stuck in a mummy case, her lungs would fill beyond the normal limit, her brain would be nourished and she’d intuit a heretofore unimaginable path to success.

As it stood the few times she’d shown her work in a gallery, her pieces had looked with horror at those who might buy them, quashing the sale. She’d inherited all the money she was going to inherit. She played the lottery, her expectations rising until the numbers were drawn and she returned to a reality where a thirty million to one windfall wasn’t going to drop into her lap. She’d made mistakes. Her life would never change for the better. Allowed a do-over she’d...? She hadn’t known then and didn’t know now.

“I was blind to something crucial along the way,” she told her friend Jane. The two had struck up a conversation in a doctor’s office a decade earlier and continued it biweekly. “Opposites attract,” Jane had said that first day. Aside from belonging to different generations, Sharon was tall with a flat, androgynous body whereas Jane seemed ready to roll onto her side and nourish a litter. “A door, a ramp. The point is, I missed it.”

“Oh, please. You have just what you want,” Jane said. “You crave freedom. I’m a nurturer. I’d be purposeless without Bill, the boys and the life we’ve built together. Your life is small but so what? You have the time to create.”

Jane was right to a degree. Sharon was stubbornly independent, a feminist who early on had worn T-shirts that said, “Women need men like fish need a bicycle,” even though fish were incapable of pedaling while women were equipped to do whatever they pleased. Or so the movement leaders had shouted. Men were the enemy. They bossed and demeaned you, felt less allegiance to their wives than they did to a piece of chewing gum after it had lost its flavor. Gain a few pounds and they ditched you for the babysitter.

She’d witnessed her father’s cruelties. He’d died young rather than abandoning his family in a more humiliating fashion yet lesson learned. Rather than hunt for a husband, she’d focused on her work, her friends and had been fine up to a point.

But after she returned from the workshop and the green hills, the quiet lanes, the sense of peace she’d experienced, the comfort of like companionship, she suffered a bout of despair so intense she had the frightening urge to jump out the window and at least have a momentary experience of flight before she reached the sidewalk. The only method of bettering herself would be to forgo decency and force her way past the sycophants who encircled Daniel’s grandfather. Alone with him, she’d flirt, slip her hand in his pocket and grab all she could.

More online snooping and her nascent optimism shrank. Isaac Risbach had been widowed three times, first by the girl next door, then by her best friend and finally by the best friend’s sister. So, yes, he was single but in spite of his reputation for prying corporations out of their board’s grasp before they realized what he’d done, when it came to women he proceeded with a pathological caution. Only marrying himself would have held less risk. In addition, he lived hours away in a gated community, wealth being the gate.

At least they had one thing in common. She’d write and praise him for spawning the magnificent lineage that resulted in Daniel. She’d note how popular Daniel was at the workshop, how talented and inspiring. She’d say Daniel had wanted to introduce them but she’d been too shy. “Was I wrong to be awed?” she’d ask.

Men like him flaunted their accomplishments in public and fondled them in private. To give herself a leg up from the typical gold diggers who were young and brazen, she’d gift him with a masterful ceramic replica of one of his finest assets, his house off Rittenhouse Square.

She tended to work in a flurry of emotion, pressing fistfuls of clay into each other. Distortion suited the figures she sculpted, but Risbach’s mustard-colored Georgian was exactingly geometric. Unless every corner was straight, the finished piece would look like a child had made it.

To her surprise, although Jane lived in the kingdom of coupledom and was wise to the devious steps men and women took, she was horrified by Sharon’s plan. “What’s come over you? You’ve never been underhanded. Earn your own money.”

She wanted to shout, “Tell me again, so I understand. Why should I earn my own money when you never have?” Afraid of an uproar, she said, “I’m doing this to have some of the companionship you share with Bill.”

She succeeded in crafting templates of the house’s walls and roof, its porticoes and widow’s walk, its shutters and doors. She placed these patterns on top of the slabs of clay she’d carefully rolled out until, and this was a first for her, their thickness was uniform. That done, she used her sharpest knife. All the while, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde bellowed from the CD player to infuse the replica with the heart-bursting level of love Jane had insisted was necessary if Sharon was to prevail.

At the library, she found pictures of the interiors of Risbach’s house in a decades-old decorating magazine. The author of the article had had a hard time describing Risbach in the worshipful tone required. Risbach had balked at paying for professional help. He’d attended the auctions himself, purchasing his furniture in lots, twelve museum-quality Egyptian revival armchairs, five walnut settees, nine eighteenth century damask panels to get them for the lowest price until, and here the author gave up the pretense of deference and described Risbach with accuracy, noting the fat cigar that had dangled from his mouth, the ashes that had dropped unnoticed, the stench of his body odor mixed with the smell of tobacco, the reporter had had to endure while Risbach bragged about how cleverly he revamped his image from that of a plunderer into a connoisseur. At his death, his Rocco bed with its gold-leafed carvings would surely go to Daniel who’d lie on it spread-eagle while a line of women waited to have their moment with him before they were told to move on. The magazine was kept in a brown binder stamped with the words, “Do not remove from this reference room.” Sharon was therefore discreet when she ripped out the spread, crumpled it and threw the balled pages under the table.

The man was horrible. Daniel had been made from his mold. It would do them good, her newly conniving self thought, to transfer a large part of their holdings to someone deserving.

She debated using clear glass tiles for the model’s windows. Afraid they’d melt during the firing, she chose to make the structure opaque. Weren’t houses meant to conceal what went on inside them, the sulks, the sex and the running fights? But in one as lavish as his? Certainly splendor elevated a person’s moods.

For eighteen dollars each way plus cab fare, she could have taken the train from New York’s Penn Station to the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia and peered through Risbach’s actual windows to see the result of his riches. For most of the day he sat at his Chippendale table, jabbing a fork into a jar of pickled herring or chomping down other snacks. An old portable TV, it’s antenna positioned at a perilous angle, broadcast the financial news.

His current girlfriend Ethel, the youngest, prettiest and only remaining sibling of wife number three, sat beside him, her hair teased into the same stiff bouffant she’d worn in her prime. Her handstitched navy silk dress accentuated her late sister’s pearls.

“Can’t we watch something else?” Ethel asked. “I’m sick of those men spewing gloom. Look outside, Mister. There’s not a cloud in the sky.”

Risbach glared at her. His boxer’s body had shriveled. His spine was now the shape of capital C. His head dangled from what would have been the serif. “For God’s sake, Ethel, are you deaf and blind? Wake up. The ground is about to split open.”

“Are you saying, I’ll fall straight down to China while my skirt rides up? Good. I’ve always wanted to go there. I hear their shops are divine. Isaac, stop talking nonsense and put on some music.”

“Not until they give me the answer.” He took the fork out of the herring jar and threw at her. It landed on her breast and fell onto her lap, ruining her dress.

She was pale now, submissive. “What answer?”

“The f’ing answer.” He turned back to the television. “Did Bette leave you that choker? I told her the pearls stay in the family.”

“I am in the family.”

“Not in mine.”

Jane’s boys were both at the University of Michigan. Bill, a senior pilot for an international airline, was currently shuttling between Germany and Spain. To have someone to talk to, Jane invited Sharon to lunch. She threw Sharon’s coat over a chair. Other chairs also held objects—books, magazines, socks. “We live here, why hide it,” Jane had once said to justify the mess. Still it was true, Sharon thought, family possessions gave life to a place that was absent from hers.

Jane had made her famous hodgepodge soup. Sharon dipped her spoon into a liquid so dense it qualified as a solid. “You must miss your boys terribly,” she said.

“I do. But...” she lowered her voice as though others were listening, “you’re the first one I’ve told, the only one I will tell. Day and night I feel their lips on my cheek. In the healthiest way. There’s nothing Oedipal about us.”

“Of course not.”

The boys behaved as though they were being stalked by a Stasi informer. They bit their nails to the quick and had been chastised by various teachers at various schools for obvious cheating but none of those things screamed, Run before they shoot. As Jane sometimes said about their shenanigans, “Dudes will be dudes.”

“Do you sense Bill too?”

A mutual friend, who’d also demanded secrecy from Sharon, had sworn that when Bill was in Germany he dressed like a woman and had a steady beau. “Once the airline finds out.” The friend had run her hand across her throat.

“Bill’s always with me. He’s the angel on my shoulder.”

The ceramic house survived the kiln. It was glossier than she’d expected, but the walls were straight and the glaze hadn’t dripped. A studio mate said it could easily sell in the right suburban gallery. “It’s charming. Those bleak characters of yours. Life is hard enough without being surrounded by purchased reprimands.”

She swaddled the piece in bubble wrap, cushioned the bundle with Styrofoam peanuts, enclosed her letter, and sent off the box.

A month later she received an email.

Package arrived intact.”

And?” she wrote back, shaking with fury.

And what? Did I ask for it? Who do you think I am? An old fool who farts silver dollars and throws them at anyone?

Bastard.

OK. Do this. Call Edgar Blau. He’s in New York and will take you to dinner.” He’d added Blau’s number.

Edgar Blau agreed to meet her in front of her building. He arrived on a bicycle. One of his shoes had a block on it. His arms were also different lengths which explained the unusual shape of the handlebars. The hand attached to the shorter arm was child-sized and missing the thumb. An eye was filmy. Even so, and who was she to demand perfection, he was a fine-looking man in his early sixties.

He’d brought picnic fare in his knapsack, bread, cheese, root vegetables, paper towels as napkins. He’d forgotten to bring a beverage. They ate on a nearby bench.

“Life can’t have been easy for you,” Sharon said before she caught herself. “I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m what happens when you’re conceived in the back of a clown car. Propriety prevents me from sharing additional details.” He smiled. His cheeks dimpled. His chin had a cleft. If he’d been symmetrical, he could have passed for a movie star.

“If I’m not prying, what kind of work do you do?”

“I have a degree from Carnegie Mellon in Prosthetics and Industrial Adaptations. This bike, for example. I cater to people with special requirements.”

“There are so many of us, you must do very well. Take me for example, I’m like a mole lost in a burrow. Can you make me proper glasses?” She noticed he was half blind. “It’s my mouth that needs fixing.”

He grinned. His teeth were exactly what teeth should be. “Don’t worry. I’m a shock to the system. People get flustered. I find you refreshing.”

“And I think you’re handsome.”

“Aw shucks.”

“I mean it.”

His mouth tightened. She saw his pain, wondered if the countless stares he’d received might make him tolerant of her aged body. If she took his small, four-fingered hand in hers, brought it to her mouth and sucked on it with all the eroticism she could muster, would this act of acceptance change their luck?

“I hope we’ll see each other again,” she said.

“Risbach sent a friend to thank me,” she told Jane.

“A man?”

“Yes, a man.”

“And you like each other?

Sharon and Edgar met the next week at another bench, this one in the park across from a small waterfall. Unable to stand for too long or walk very far, he’d virtually written a guidebook of convenient scenic places to sit. While they’d been apart, he’d entered her thoughts and stayed. She’d pictured him holding out an invitation in print too small to read. She’d hoped the offer, beautifully penned on white deckled paper, was for happiness. She’d feel safe with a man who hadn’t marched through life stomping on the weak. In an overly demanding universe which made no concessions for oddities, he’d swallowed his rancor and been of service.

“How do you know Isaac Risbach?” she asked.

“He and my father were brothers.”

“Were?”

“My father died young.”

“Mine too. Maybe I shouldn’t say this and please don’t think worse of me, but my mother was so glad to be free of him she did a little dance.”

Edgar reddened. “And in her exalted widowhood, did she bang your uncle like mine did?”

“Your mother and Isaac Risbach? They didn’t marry though?”

“She wasn’t his type. Besides, there were other issues. Me, for instance. Damn it to hell, why did we start this?” He clambered onto his bicycle and rode off without a goodbye. Her hopes convulsed in their death throes.

He circled back. “What’s your connection?” he shouted. “The bastard left that out of his email.”

“Yet you agreed to meet me? Oh,” she said, surprised by the depth of her cynicism. “He paid you.”

“Barely, but that’s how it works with us.” He was gone again.

“He’s away,” she told Jane. Shame had turned her into a withholder of facts, among them Edgar’s ethics and deformities.

Jane had just finished reading a book titled Happiness Is Yours for the Taking. She thrust a copy at Sharon, going so far in her enthusiasm as to poke her with it in the gut. “The Universe wants us to thrive. Ask and it appears.” Case in point: Bill was home for good. Despite his age and narrow experience (less than seven percent of the workforce were flyers), he’d just secured a high-paying job in a different field. “Take the right steps and your guy will be back before you know it. Does he play bridge?”

Sharon found Edgar’s address online. Just as she’d suspected, he lived in an industrial area of Queens. Early on, she’d pictured him in a high-ceilinged loft. Now she imagined a janitor’s closet.

Dear Edgar,

To answer your question, I don’t actually know Isaac Risbach. I met his grandson Daniel at a ceramics workshop where he bragged about his wealth. His attitude galled me. Everything about him, his self-centeredness, his tactlessness, the way he pranced about, a prince among paupers, incited me to envy. You must have similar thoughts. Why should Daniel be favored and you be hindered? I wanted what Daniel has and to get it I put my principles aside and wooed the source of his inheritance. Risbach pawned me off on you.

With apologies,

Sharon

She received the note he’d scrawled on his business stationery.

Over the course of three years my father, a chemist, used radioactive acids, formaldehyde, isocyanates, xylene and benzene to develop the formula that converted my uncle’s oil-based sludge into gold. He died from a highly aggressive form of cancer. My uncle is a fast moving, tight-fisted target. If you do meet, ask him if Norma haunts his dreams. Or ask Daniel. He dotes on our family lore.

She went back to the library and checked the Allentown censuses beginning in 1925. The names had been entered by hand inside narrow bands. As though the scribe was tracking sacks of flour rather than troubled families, he hadn’t, as he should have, or may have wanted to, squeezed in, “Woe to them. May God help their plight,” next to their particulars.

Isaac’s father had died before Isaac was born. Within months, his mother had married a teacher, Hershel Risbach, who’d adopted her child. Five years later Arnold became the final addition before Risbach dropped dead and the subtractions resumed.

Sharon searched through digitized versions of old Allentown newspapers until she found a grainy photograph of a bone-thin, fifteen-year-old high school valedictorian. She followed Arnold Risbach’s informational trail to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he’d been one of the few Jews allowed into Harvard and then into M.I.T. By his early twenties he’d worked his way up to the position of head scientist in charge of microwave radios at Bell Laboratories and wed his secretary, a round little beauty named Norma Wolfe. Public word of his success ended there. Despite his accomplishments, no newspaper had honored him with an obituary. Instead the single paid death notice said,

Arnold Risbach, PhD. beloved husband of Norma Risbach, left this earth on February 7th, 1959. He will be missed.

His parents had predeceased him and if one believed what one read, he was an only child. No doubt the brothers had become estranged over money. Isaac was a chiseler and Arnold probably an easy mark, but why had a knowledgeable scientist sacrificed his health to such a pedestrian cause? Had his mother extracted a deathbed promise that whatever the cost, he transform her other (favorite) son’s liability into available cash? Had evil destroyed goodness? Risbach’s company was privately held. Sharon would have to pose as an IRS auditor to access his books, but even that breach wouldn’t answer her questions. For her to stop raging at the injustices that had befallen Edgar and his father, she needed an explanation that religion and philosophy had yet to voice. Incensed, she soldiered on, a biased detective out of clues.

Jane called the ceramic studio. Sharon was wedging a lump of clay past the point where air bubbles might remain, unsure of whether she should make a saleable item or stick to her belief that evident suffering was the major characteristic of serious art.

“Please stop what you’re doing and meet me at the Blue Tulip,” Jane said. “I need you.”

Days earlier, made miserable by unrequited love, her younger son Benji had run up to the roof of his dorm and stabbed himself with a pocket knife. He’d kept his jacket on, the wounds were shallow, but the image of her child assaulting himself as though he were the enemy was harrowing. He was home now under Bill’s tearful watch while Jane sought comfort.

The coffee shop, part of a low-priced hotel, was two flights down and nearly empty.

Jane stumbled in as rank and disheveled as someone who’d just deplaned from a thirty hour flight. “Put us somewhere dark,” she told the hostess. “I have a migraine.”

The hostess seated them in a shadowy nook. “When you’re ready,” she said, and walked away still gripping the menus.

Sharon had never seen Jane stripped of the cheer that had been as much a part of her as her overbite. “Shouldn’t you be in bed? You’re not well. I’ll take you home.”

“No. I had to escape that locked ward, walk, breathe new air. Talk to someone on my side. Sharon, I failed him. He wasn’t ready even with a big brother on campus. He’s young for his age, in some ways he’s a six-foot-tall child. I urged him to stay in the city, to try N.Y.U. or even Pace. But Bill put his foot down. He said I was coddling him. ‘How do you expect him to become self-sufficient?’ as though maturity has to arrive on a certain date or it never will. ‘He needs to become his own person.’ Off he went and look what happened.”

“Did you know he was depressed?”

“He wasn’t. One rejection and my gorgeous, curly haired boy convinced himself he’s a freak. Our love meant nothing, our teachings, the example we set. My mothering.” She wept into a tissue.

“He’ll get past this. You all will. Freshmen often lose their bearings. It’s understandable. But to willingly use radioactive materials?”

“Benji did that?”

“I’m talking about Arnold.”

“Arnold?”

“Isaac Risbach’s brother.”

“Jesus. What’s wrong with you? We almost lost our son yet you obsess over strangers. Where’s your compassion, your sense of reality? Maybe if you’d married and had children.” Jane clambered to her feet. “Check,” she called to a waiter who was absorbed in his phone.

Sharon stared up at her. “I did have children, beautiful children who died in my womb and in my arms and while they slept at my side. And if they weren’t exactly children, if they weren’t children at all, my losses still hit me hard, the loss of my career, my looks, my promise, my hope. I opened my heart to Edgar. I loved him. I still do. He’s a rare being. You have no idea.”

“You hardly knew him,” Jane shouted. The few diners in the room stared. “You saw him what, two or three times before he disappeared? That’s not love. It’s desperation.”

“Risbach paid him to date me.”

“You are deluded.”

“Try to see it from my side. Not everyone has as much as you do.”

To make it easier for everyone, the teacher at the glazing workshop, had passed out a list of the participants’ addresses. Daniel lived at 45 Battle of the Clouds, Angelford, Pennsylvania. His email was d.inthelionspit@gmail.com. His phone was unlisted. Sharon knew these entries by heart and detested each of them for a different reason.

Awash in grief, she rented a car and drove to the foothills of the Alleghenies, specifically to Angelford, which turned out to be a collection of three rival churches, two convenience stores and an abandoned beauty parlor. To her dismay, most of the roads were unpaved. The majority of the town was a forest with an occasional hand-painted street sign hammered onto a tree. She’d forgotten to bring her charger. The battery in her phone died and with it, her GPS. She’d soon run out of gas, have to abandon the car and continue on foot, as lost and endangered as a fairytale orphan. The sky would darken. Unable to see, she’d trip over a log, break a leg and slowly perish from dehydration—God’s punishment, if there was a God, for coveting Daniel’s good fortune.

She saw a sign in the distance. “Angelford Potters, Daniel Risbach, Proprietor.”

Her heart pounded in her ears as she drove closer, bumping over rocks and fallen branches. A chain-link fence, it’s gate open, surrounded a vast empty parking lot and in the center of this mirage, a traditional two-story house stood on top of the flat warehouse roof.

She wanted to turn around and speed home to someone, anyone, who could extract her from this insanity, but that was just another hollow dream.

He’d heard the crunch of her wheels and strode out in his apron looking even stronger and heathier than he had during the summer. He’d grown a beard and his hair was long enough to pull back into a ponytail. He squinted. “I know you. You’re…Wendy Shier, no…you’re…you’re Sharon from the Cayuta workshop. What are you doing here?”

“I have to ask you some things.”

“Wow, I guess so. No emails for you. How long did it take?”

“To find the nerve?”

“To drive from the city. Five hours?”

“Four and a half.”

“On a Tuesday. Yeah, that sounds about right.”

“Can I come in?” She walked stiffly, her back bent from sitting for so long.

He gestured at the breadth of his property. “Enormous, isn’t it? The best part is, I got it for a song. Our local environmentalists put the kibosh on a paper company’s plans for a factory. And here’s the thing. They’d gone ahead without permission. The building was empty. It was going to ruin until I danced down to the county planners and announced that I practice a prehistoric craft that’s sole ingredient is mud.”

“And the house?”

“My addition. I can’t tell you what a kick it is to build on the sly.”

“Does your fiancée like the isolation?”

“Ex. She was too intrusive. Clay demands full surrender or the work is crap.” He stopped just inside the doorway. “Pretty darn neat, wouldn’t you say?”

The shipping station took up an eighth of the space, the workshop, with its single wheel and rows of shelves for tools and finished pieces, filled another eighth, the glazing area was even smaller. The rest, aside from a desk and a few chairs, was empty.

Sharon had rehearsed her visit, mindful of the importance of keeping him calm until she got what she wanted. She’d envisioned leaving with stacks of damning documents to use in a court case, but before she could launch into her opening line, her bladder sent out an urgent signal. “Is there a toilet?” she cried, feeling like an incontinent hag.

He pointed to a distant curtain. “Go easy when you flush.”

He had a shallow urinal without toilet paper, a sink without soap. She contorted herself as best as she could, positive he watched through the slit next to the curtain. There was no garbage pail. She dropped her used tissue on the floor and feeling soiled, defiled and furious at his existence, she came toward him screaming, “Why did Arnold Risbach knowingly use toxic materials? He forfeited his life for your grandfather. And got nothing in return. Edgar Risbach says you delight in your grandfather’s crimes.”

“What the f’ are you talking about?”

“I’ve done my research.”

“Are you out of your mind? Did we even talk during the summer? I barely remember you.”

“I’m not here for myself. I came for someone who needs to be championed.”

“Edgar? He’s hanging by a thread. His organs are as misshapen as the rest of his body. I suppose you know that my great-grandmother married twice. The second time in desperation to a man who’d been crippled since birth. Arnold’s abnormalities were subtler. You’ve seen Edgar. I hear that his daughters are even worse off.”

“Daughters?” Sharon reached for the wall to steady herself. Luminous reds and yellows swirled inside her eyes.

“While I’m descended from bulls. My grandfather boxes with men half his age. Did you hear that? At ninety-three he enters the ring and wins. Now, get the hell out of here.”

He pushed her through the door. She stumbled. Pain shot up her leg.

A girl in her late teens glanced out of an upstairs window. She had delicate features and the bonelessness of someone who’s yet to be hurt. Her hair, like most of the girls her age, fell past her shoulders.

Oblivious of his lover’s concern, Daniel told Sharon, “We get bears here and coyotes. I have a gun. I won’t use it on you. I live quietly and pursue my art. But know that I could and,” he was trembling with rage, “that my grandfather gave them triple the money they deserve.” He stood with clenched fists until she climbed into her car.

She bought a charger at the first convenience store she saw and sat hunched over the steering wheel while she called Jane.

“Jane, you can’t…”

“If you’re worried about Benji, he’s fine,” Jane said, and hung up.

Sharon phoned again. “Please forgive me. I was insensitive, a complete idiot. Can’t we be friends? You’re the only one I can talk to. I’ve just been through something so horrifying I…”

“Give me time. A month, maybe more until the pain you inflicted subsides.”

“Whatever you need.” And her needs?

Against her better judgement, but when had she ever been wise, Sharon took the Number 7 train to Jamaica and tramped past repair shops where kneeling workers with blow torches worked on the sidewalk. She crossed the road and stopped at a brick building. The address matched Edgar’s.

She rang the intercom. A buzzer sounded. Her heart blazed. He was there, had responded. The lobby was poorly lit and opened onto long corridors which led in various directions. After an anxious search, she found Edgar’s studio at the back of this maze. He opened his door a crack.

“I saw Daniel,” she said.

“At a craft’s fair?”

“Where he lives.”

“In Pennsylvania? Jesus.”

Still relegated to the hallway, Sharon pressed on. “He claims you’re seriously ill and that your daughters are too.”

“You took me up on my suggestion? My God. You drove there? I didn’t mean it. I was angry. Yet off you went.”

“I had to. I’ve fallen into a sinkhole alongside good and evil. Why did your father sacrifice himself?”

Although she could only see a sliver of him, she could tell he’d lost weight. “I shouldn’t have barged in like this. Clearly you’re sick and need to rest.”

“Stay a minute.” He undid the chain and steered her into a room where prototypes of prosthetic limbs lay piled next to experimental feeding devices and bedside showers. A funhouse mirror was propped against a wall. Above it an old Coney Island sign said, Pavilion of Fun. “Have a seat. All questions answered free of charge.”

The choice was between a sagging couch and clear plastic chairs. She sank into the couch, hoping he’d join her.

He stayed standing, uncomfortably.

“I assume Daniel told you about our side’s infirmities versus his mighty lineage. My father was haunted by his father’s condition and sought a cure. He studied bone disorders, vitamin deficiencies, viruses. He had no idea he was also affected, only that his health was bad. My mother became pregnant shortly before he died.”

“And his work on Isaacs’ sludge?”

“It’s not the stuff of crime novels. Contemptable, yes. Unforgivable but not surprising. My father raced to learn what killed his father while he could. Isaac funded his experiments in exchange for the roofing formula and once he had it, he reneged on his financial commitments. By then my father also had cancer and was too weak to fight him. In her stupid way, my mother took on the battle.”

“Edgar, I have to say something. I don’t expect anything, just for you to listen. I love you. I loved you at first sight.” She flushed with embarrassment.

He glared at her. “You can’t mean that.”

“I do.” She was crying.

“Out of pity or perversity?”

“For the best reasons. I sensed your kindness, your desire to help.”

“You have quite the imagination. The truth is I’m worse than my uncle.”

“You’re not. You’re noble. Your inventions alone.” With some difficulty she holstered herself off of the couch.

He backed away from her. “My soul is shaped like everyone else’s. My mind and emotions are standard issue.” His anger ricocheted off her chest, battering it. “Certain parts of me differ but that’s all people notice. If your body’s not up to snuff, the rest of you can’t be. When I was a child, I tried to put a stop to the insults by pretending to be Blinky, the lopsided clown, a pose that brought the worst kind of laughter.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Stop saying that. Next I attempted life under the radar and nearly died from loneliness. By thirty I lived in denial. I’d graduated college with honors, had started what was turning out to be a darn good business, had even married, happily, and despite the long list of irregularities that had been passed down to me, I thought, ‘Hey, I’m as okay as the next guy,’ and set about fathering a perfect child. ‘The odds are on our side,’ I’d croon to my wife before we made love. Even after Ilsa arrived with all of her problems, I convinced her to try again. You can’t imagine what it’s done to us to deliberately harm innocent beings, to shorten their lives and inflict constant pain. Yet the law allows it.”

Sharon said what countless others must have. “I’m sure your daughters love you and are glad they’re alive.”

“They say they are and work to be. Lydia was first in her class at Princeton. She achieved those grades in between hospital stays.”

“I’m sorr… Where is she now?”

“She and her sister moved back in with us. The place has become a regular hôtel des invalides. We make it as easy as we can for them so they can focus on their careers. Lydia’s book, part memoir, part history of the study of genetics, was recently published. Ilsa’s a singer songwriter.”

“Good for them.”

He snorted. “None of it was luck. That’s not in our cards. They work damn hard. Harder than anyone else.”

Sharon imagined a white room furnished with computers, musical instruments and four white metal beds expertly covered with freshly laundered sheets.

Surely the wife was exhausted from her role as the remorseful culprit and nurse. She could assist her, share her own good fortune with the family, boons she’d never acknowledged until now, but her longevity was a sign of it, as was her resilience, spotty though it might be, and her small amount of savings. She’d find a little corner, make it her own, sacrifice herself to Edgar’s side of family like Arnold Risbach had done.

“I’d love to meet your daughters. Are they home?”

“If they use their energy to see someone, it’s someone they know, a dear friend or a mentor.”

“I understand. Then please, give them my best.”

“How? I’d have to explain who you are. Look, I regret the way we met. But we’re both criminals and as someone once said, ‘Immoral intentions court wicked results.’ You’d better go. I’m getting lightheaded. I have to rest.” A hand to the wall, he lurched toward the door.

She hurried away from the land of sickness into the healthy outdoors. He didn’t want her. Why want him? She was incapable of balancing scales that Fate or God or maliciousness had knocked out of whack a generation ago.

The subway to Manhattan from that section of Queens ran above ground on a high narrow trestle. A sociologist would have classified her fellow riders as lower middle class. Most were Asian or Hispanic immigrants who, after the surviving the onerous journey to their new country and the formidable settling in, had reconciled themselves to a long wait for another step up. Some slept, their bodies spent. Mothers held babies. Teenagers primped.

The car listed to the side and righted itself. The doors opened. A toothless woman careened toward a pole. “Am I here?” she shouted, gripping it. Terror had etched itself into her face. Her eyes were perfect circles. “Am I here?” She was screaming, sinking into a crouch.

Without thinking, Sharon bolted from her seat, pulled the woman to her feet and held her up. Their breasts mashed. Sharon felt the back of the woman’s ribs. “Yes, you’re here,” she told her. She wanted to add, whether you like it or not. Instead, as her heart opened to the woman’s terrible smell, her drunken confusion, the abuse that had pilfered her sanity, she crooned in a singsong the way she would to a child (we’re all frightened children, she thought later). “You’re right here where you should be on the Number 7 train traveling through Queens.”

“Well, okay,” the woman said. “Okay.”

About the Author

Linda Heller

I received a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, had an honor story in The Best American Short Stories 1991, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, won a Literal Latte Fiction Award and have had stories published in Boulevard, New Letters, The Alaska Quarterly Journal, The Writers’ Rock Quarterly and other literary magazines. I've also written and illustrated fourteen children’s books. THE CASTLE ON HESTER STREET has become a classic and is part of the nationwide third grade curriculum.