“Suffering is the pain of constraints. An atom of pure delight, no matter how small, will hold it at bay.” – Raoul Vaneigem
At 7:00 pm on the night of Saturday October 11, a festive Casa Hector flung its doors wide to receive its revelers. Flyers had been posted on telephone poles and shop notice boards in the neighborhood; they’d been emailed around at work (to which many responded “Who is Fred Fuchs?”), and they were passed out to all the regulars that rode the bus. Ike was secretly hoping The Artist would show up; she was cute, and though he tried, he never found a free seat near her to chat on the bus. The intervening week nights since the lucky Lotto win had been filled with trips to the Beer & Pop Warehouse, the balloon place on Murray, the fabric shop in Monroeville, or to the grocery store. They’d baked loads of breadtzels, bought thick rounds of cheese, mounds of crackers, and chips of six varieties.
All that day they cleaned, a regular work crew that started at the top and hit every corner and cornice from the bathroom to the basement. Fred wanted fires in the living room as well as in the stove down below, even though he wasn’t sure he would open the basement for the party. Ike volunteered to start the basement stove fire, then headed upstairs.
He walked into his room and took a deep breath. Kneeling at his bedside, he reached underneath and retrieved a shoebox. He sat on the edge of the bed, the box squared on his lap, staring at it for a full minute before lifting away the lid. The box was stuffed almost to the top—letters with upside-down postage stamps, bits of paper with loopy handwriting, post-its, cards, thick stacks of photos, CDs, tapes, even a fragment of a building model. He blinked once, then plunged his hand all the way to the bottom, pulled out a big handful and stuffed it into the pocket of his sweatshirt. Two more handfuls emptied the box, which he left behind him on the bed. Now he was ready to light the stove—and high time. He felt a dull ache in his chest, though it was no worse than it had been the past four months. If this was going to kill him, he was ready to go. He threw the match in and watched attentively as the scorch widen its ring, before the flame punched through the paper and began its merciless dance. Time moved tracelessly through Ike as he watched from his lawn chair, without focus, empty and dry-eyed, fists thrust deep into his pockets. When he heard the spitting of bark cracking in the heat, he knew his song had ended, and he got up.
“Bye-bye, love,” he whispered, and patted the stove once, for service rendered.
Constantia, resplendent in white, showed up around 8:00 with Paulette in tow, just as she’d planned, an ethereal little figure leading the lean, black-clad Amazon who came behind. They’d agreed to stop in, spend half an hour, no more, and then go home. There was something on HBO Paulette wanted to see. Constantia knew she was only doing her a favor, having little fondness for Fred and none at all for his housemate, Ike. Still, she owed it to Fred to come to his party, after all, and though there was nothing official between them, she and Fred had been seeing a lot of each other lately. He was kind of hard to make up her mind about. It’s not that he was cold exactly, but there was something about his way of talking, even his politeness, that kept a distance between them. Fred was an enigma, but a kinda fun enigma. She didn’t feel much like partying, having just come off a long shift, but given a few beers she might feel differently.
The sound from Casa Hector pulsed down the block. The front door was open and through the glass they were welcomed by the blazing color of Fred’s kaleidoscopic walls. Fred met her as she walked in, about a dozen people in the aqua-colored room behind him, faces aglow with firelight.
“Constantia!” he exclaimed, bestowing upon her an enthusiastic hug. She shrugged a bit in his embrace; she wasn’t used to this effusiveness, chalked it up to drinking. “Welcome to Casa Hector! And hello, Paulette,” he added, spotting her friend. “I’m glad you are here as well. Viva Vinalia!”
She nodded her thanks, patted her roommate on the head and prowled off into the crowd in search of beer and human subjects with whom to amuse herself.
“We have beer and pop,” Fred said, leaning close to Constantia’s ear, so he wouldn’t have to shout. “Elixir, too, of course, if you’d prefer.”
“Elixir?” she said, turning toward him, her lips almost grazing his cheek. Though unintentional, it produced a private smile from Fred. She felt a bright, little pop in her chest. A few minutes later Fred returned, offering her a spaghetti jar of pink brew. She was becoming glad she came.
“Communitas Felix!” he said, lifting his pickle jar, now half empty, high against the aqua walls.
“Cheers!” she said, with a little laugh.
She took a sip and batted her eyelashes a bit as she swallowed. “What is this?” Her inquiry was punctuated by a gracefully manicured index finger pointing back toward the jar.
“That is 11.5 fluid ounces of the House Wine, aka Rose Elixir.”
“I like it.”
“I am pleased.”
“You didn’t dress up?” she ventured, for indeed, Fred was wearing what she’d seen every time they met, denim pants, a blue shirt and work boots.
He looked down, grinned. “This is what I always wear.”
She turned toward the plate glass mirror that hung above his mantle, examining the contrast of her black hair against the white blouse. “I need to get you shopping, get some variety in your closet.”
Fred watched her. In the mirror he noticed the entrance of the woman from across the street who had given him his eggplant seedlings. Nan. He lifted a hand in greeting, and caught her reflected wave.
“That would be against the point,” he said, returning his attention to the substantial Constantia at his side.
She smiled gently up at him, practically seeing him in the clothes she knew he’d look best in, though she said nothing further. Timing was all when planting the seeds of change. A fixer-upper. Her Mom always said those were the best kind of guys to find. And then she noticed the art, really took it in. It made the room look more crowded than it was, their painted heads blended into with those of the living people.
“You’re an art collector,” she said. She couldn’t tell if his smile was one encouraging her to go on or blank because he couldn’t hear her. “It’s…um…really different. Kinda Hogwarts, you know?” The huge-eyed child with the puppy annoyed her.
He shrugged. “It’s not a matter of aesthetics as much as comraderie—they keep me company.”
“Do you like all of them?” she asked, gesturing specifically and with highly arched brows toward the offending big-eyed tot.
“Not exactly, or in the same way. Like a family.”
She seemed to accept that, and for his part, Fred was glad that he had steered the conversation away from her whimsical sartorial notions. He looked at the increasing crowd in his living room. “A lot of people came!”
Half the sound of his voice was lost in the music. “Where’s Ike?” she called back.
“Yes, it is, exactly to my specifications.”
She frowned, shook her head. Grabbing his sleeve to pull him closer, she made another effort. “No. Ike. IKE. I want to say hello.”
Fred nodded, pointing upward. His arm extended around her shoulders, and yet barely touching her, out of an awkward gallantry, he escorted her up the stairs. The walls here were lavender.
The sound was deafening upstairs, bouncing from the plaster walls and the beat-up hardwood floors. There were three rooms and a bathroom upstairs; Fred and Ike had the two larger of the rooms, and the smaller one up front was a reading room. The music, however, was coming from Ike’s room, which faced the backyard.
A folding table had been set up facing the hall, and behind it, was Ike playing DJ. Constantia raised her glass and waved. Ike raised a hand and grinned back, muffled in headphones, bopping to the tunes that thudded from the speakers.
Fred escorted her downstairs again to find some food. Esmeralda and Phil were sampling the goodies when Fred and Constantia appeared beside them.
A flash went off.
”Try again. This time, smile, Fuchs.”
Con leaned in close against Fred’s chest, her face titled with a big smile toward the camera.
“Glad you could make it, Phil,” Fred said as the flash popped in his eyes again.
Constantia smiled and introduced herself to Phil, inquiring whether he’d be putting his photos online.
Fred shook off the aftermath of dark blotches floating before his eyes, and seeing Constantia happily engaged in making Facebook friends with Phil, turned to Esmeralda, who was heaping a red plate with chips and dip.
“Esmeralda! Welcome to Casa Hector. I am delighted you were able to be here.”
She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. Another flash. He kissed her back, as he always did, nervously, a little peck on the cheek.
“Had to come,” she said in the telegraphed form of communication that sufficed in noisy parties. “Wouldn’t miss it.”
Fred turned and swept a sour-faced Constantia forward, his arm circling her shoulders. “Constantia, Esmeralda, my friend from work.”
One flickering glance from Constantia took in the plump figure encased a long graffiti-graphics coat, patent leather platform shoes and a teased up purple beehive. Bitch.
“Hell-o,” said Constantia distantly, locking eyes with her quarry. She didn’t see any tattoos.
“Oh, hi, sweetie!” Esmeralda beamed. “I’m glad to meet you finally. You’re the big secret.” Turning with a look of scorn on Fred, she continued. “You never said what a knockout she was.”
Fred sputtered. Constantia was not immediately ready to be bought.
“It was real nice to meet you,” she said, as she grabbed Fred’s hand and dragged him toward the kitchen. Hoping to find a quiet corner to escape to, she found the kitchen crowded, onlookers focused on two people locked in a political debate that, at this stage, had degenerated into vague accusations of Obama’s supposed Al-Qaida ties and the usual Palin-bashing. It made her blood boil.
“Let’s go outside, OK? I’m getting a little claustrophobic in here.”
Naturally, Fred agreed and shepherded her back through the chattering throngs toward the front door. Sure enough, once outside, the cool air and the comparative quiet soothed her. She felt ridiculous. How could she be so stupidly jealous of a man she wasn’t even sure she liked?
Fred pointed out the roses, hyssop and the redbud tree that was still spangled with big, heart-shaped yellow leaves. She picked one off and twirled the stem between her fingers.
Together they strolled down the driveway and into the backyard to look at the withered remains of the garden, carved pumpkins here and there stuck atop bean trellises aglow with candlelight. Four garden rows marched from the porch the length of the yard. A net of trees clustered along the back property line, making it look like a small patch of woods standing between him and his back door neighbor. The leaves were beginning to turn to yellow. Stars glimmered in the clear sky above them.
“I guess it’s all dead now,” Constantia said, as she strolled in one of the grass lanes that separated the crowded beds.
“Almost entirely, though a few more tomatoes may ripen if the weather stays mild. I’ll soon put up the cold frame for the lettuce. Ike built it for me from old windows. The mint is still lively, and a few of the cold weather flowers will favor us with their purple faces, even if it snows.”
“You have flowers that bloom in the snow?”
The idea of flowers threw her with Fred: a survivalist growing veggies in his backyard, sure, that fit, but rows of roses and snow-flowers? He wasn’t easy to figure out.
“The pansies and chrysanthemums do, though I think our friend, Charles Wattlington, the resident groundhog, has eaten the latter to stubs.”
He’d named the groundhog. She smiled up at him, though he didn’t see it. “You have a regular farm going on back here.”
“I do what I can within City ordinances, which regrettably restrict me from raising goats, though I may add a few hens next year. The garden is a beautiful thing in the summer though. This year I had cherry and beefsteak tomatoes, potatoes, fennel, several varieties of beans, onions, garlic, and herbs—basil, mint, thyme, sage, rosemary, and hyssop. Also lettuce, eggplants, yellow squash, zucchini, and cucumbers, though the latter were grievously sampled by Mr. Wattlington.”
She smiled in amusement, taking hold of his arm and leaning close.
“Over here,” he said, directing her attention with his free hand to the turned up earth adjacent to the bushy eggplants. “I plan on starting an asparagus bed next spring.”
“It’s all lovely, even now.” She glanced up; there was no moon.
“Fred,” she whispered.
He turned, looking down upon the face so pale in the darkness, the one little freckle like a star to the left of her nose. They were alone. The house pulsed and glowed behind them, throwing its shingles of soft yellow light over the vegetable rows. She stood on tiptoes as he leaned toward her, and she kissed him. His arm slipped around her to keep her near, but he need not have feared: Constantia was very much in the mood for making out.
They had been locked together that way, for maybe ten minutes, too absorbed in each other to seek out the comfortable lawn chairs on the back porch, when somebody, two somebodies, stumbled right into them.
“Oh!” exclaimed Constantia, flinging herself backward against Fred, who caught her in a protective embrace. And then: “Oh.”
“My b-bad,” Paulette stuttered, her hand flung strangely behind her. “I—uh—“
The other marauder, who had retreated immediately upon the discovery of the lovers, made as if to call from a distance.
“Did you find them? I think… Fred,” Ike said with some embarrassment when, as he came forward, he saw Constantia in his friend’s arms.
“Ike.” There was an extra formality in his reply.
Ike had walked up to join Paulette. “I told you he might be back here.”
Her eyes slid to him for a second and then back to Constantia, who placidly looked from Paulette to Ike to Fred and back again.
“You ready to go?” Constantia asked her friend. Happiness bubbled up inside her like champagne.
“If you are.” Paulette crossed her arms, the zebra pattern of her leggings glowing in the diffuse light.
“Sorry, Fred,” Constantia said, stretching up to kiss his cheek. She squeezed his hand. “I wish I could stay. I work the late shift tomorrow. Meet me at West Penn for dinner?”
“We shall assail the gastronomic ramparts of the cafeteria together. With panache. Fear not, constant one.”
She giggled, tapping Paulette as she passed. “Come on.”
Paulette seemed rooted to the spot. She made an attempt at a smile for Fred. “Nice party.”
It was almost a question.
“Thank you,” he said, with a minor bow that involved only his shoulders.
“Ike,” she said, as she passed him. He grunted, but did not look up.
Their footsteps retreated up the driveway, accompanied by the lilt of closely whispering female voices, one of which had the clipped intensity of anger. Half way down the block a car engine turned over, and with a spray of gravel, pulled onto the street and disappeared.
“That was inopportune,” Fred said, breaking the silence through which he’d stared at Ike, all the while listening to the women’s departure.
Ike looked up from his feet at last. “Sorry.”
Ike walked back up the driveway. “I haven’t had nearly as much elixir as I think I have,” he said shaking his head as if to clear it. “My God, I need a drink.”
Fred watched him curiously, as Ike ducked back in through the front door. And then he followed.
After a sojourn to the kitchen for an update of his jar of elixir, where he found Wills, seated on the countertop, expounding an outrageous theory about the election to The Artist and Nan, from which room Ike escaped at Fred’s approach. Fred wandered back to the living room. He greeted the older couple who rented next door, looked around for Esmeralda, who must have gone, and decided to sit down in the midst of the merry-making and absorb the happy spirit of the evening.
It had been magical under the stars with Constantia. In the midst of reliving that moment, his mind disengaged, felt as if it were floating away. It was an odd sensation: he was sitting alone, in converse with none, ensconced in his favorite chair in his own living room; fire glittered in the dark firebox, casting its soft light into the faces of the smiling, chattering guests, almost all with elixir-filled pink plastic cups clutched in their hands, friends who swayed and pulsed unconsciously to the thump of the music playing upstairs, the communitas felix all around him, yet in the midst of that realization, he felt alone. It was not a good feeling. There was some indefinable thing, like a spirit, that kept him separate from his goal, from partaking in the beloved community, from descent into the flesh; to live and die in the flesh.
After some time in this uproarious isolation, the chilling presence made itself manifest. He felt a cool breeze ascend to the broad arm of his chair: unexpectedly, it was Hector, his erstwhile pet rabbit.
Fred glanced around nervously, but no one else seemed to notice the shimmering ectoplasmic being crouched at Fred’s right hand. “Hector?” he whispered hoarsely. “Is that really you?”
The rabbit twitched his nose, his ears laid back peaceably over his white back.
“Is something wrong, Hector? Why are you here? Shouldn’t you be in Bunny Heaven?”
The rabbit sighed deeply and turned his head so that one pink eye was focused on Fred. “This is not a happy home, Fred, old friend,” said the rabbit, whose voice was as sweet and clear as that of a little girl who was quite determined, just this one time, to say exactly what she wanted to say.
“It’s not?” Fred said fearfully, glancing around at his cheerful, if bleary, neighbors.
“You aren’t happy, Fred. Don’t you know that?”
Fred shook his head slowly, in denial and confusion. “I’ve friends, Hector. I have a girlfriend—“
“Yet still you are deeply unsettled. Why?” The little voice was cutting Fred like razor blades.
“I—you must mean work—well—it doesn’t really matter, does it? Someday I’ll be free of that.”
“Then what? Will you be happy then?”
“I—I don’t know. Why wouldn’t I be?”
The bunny seemed to smile, or maybe was on the verge of sneezing. His nose twitched rapidly for a full minute, then stopped.
“Your mother needs help cleaning out the attic. You should help her.”
“My mother? You are joking.”
“No, I’m giving you some advice. Pay attention. Look where the starlight falls.”
Even as he said this, Hector’s shimmer began to quiver and with one final blink of the round pink eye, he was gone.
Soon the vacuum and the silence evaporated too and the sounds of the party came crashing over Fred like a tidal wave. The candles had burned low and people began to make their way over to him to say good night, and he rose to wish them a fine evening and to thank them for their attendance, for which he was deeply appreciative. And he would have been, if only he had any idea what had just happened.
Like what you are reading? You can find chapters 1-10 here.