Saturday, November 29, 2014

Fiction - Runner-Up: A Divorce Tale


There ought to be a new literary genre (actually, it should be a classic, ages-old genre) called “divorce fiction.” After all, Barnes & Noble has an entire section called “Teen Paranormal Romance,” even though teen paranormal romance doesn’t often happen in real life (unless you agree with the guy who quipped, “I thought all teen romance was paranormal”). The divorce rate being what it is, we could use more tragicomic fiction in our lives, to help the many divorce victims cope.

And so, for that reason alone, here is a 100% fictional story I generated entirely out of my own imagination, with any resemblance of any character to any actual person—living, dead, or undead—being entirely coincidental. (“What? There might be zombies?” You’ll just have to see for yourself.)

Runner-Up – A Divorce Tale

See the poor kid painting. He is entirely focused. His home life is hard; his parents’ marriage is falling apart. Is painting a refuge? Is art the only way he can assert a satisfying level of control? Does he long to disappear into the strange undersea world he creates on the canvas?

No, not really. First off, it’s not canvas. It’s cheap construction paper. This is junior high art class. And he doesn’t fancy himself an artist; this work satisfies simply because no matter how bad he screws up, it’s still art. Who is to say he made a mistake? He could literally puke on the “canvas,” and it would still be art. In fact, puking on the painting would probably improve it. Or so he thinks ... his attitude isn’t very good.

And now he’s putting on the finishing touches. Not because the painting seems done, exactly, but because he doesn’t know what else to do, and hopes he’s done enough. But now Ms. Tincture approaches, and gasps. “Oh, Greg, I know just what you need to do to that painting—but I just can’t tell you what it is, that would be cheating! Oh, gosh, I hope you do the right thing!” He freezes, of course, and cannot add a single paint stroke from that moment on, terrified at forever ruining the first artwork he’s ever done that seemed to have any potential. So he screws around with Frank Frymouth for the rest of the hour, the two lads flirting awkwardly with Lisa Westgoober and her friend Wendy Wollrat, a girl who, by virtue of her massive chest, has earned Frank’s devout lust and admiration.

The next day, Greg strolls into the classroom quite casually. He has forgotten all about the state of his painting and its sudden, unexpected artistic potential. Ms. Tincture rushes out to greet him. “Oh, Greg, I’m so sorry, I tried to stop myself but I just couldn’t! I knew exactly what your painting needed and just couldn’t keep from adding the finishing touches! I’m so sorry!” He looks up towards the front of the classroom to see his painting on proud display, with a few subtle charcoal bands added which, frankly, improve the painting dramatically. Greg now knows he can’t get a bad grade on this painting, since the teacher is complicit in it.

The kid, you see, lacks the self esteem to be offended by anything. He lacks the idealism and artistic vision that might have made him take offense to Ms. Tincture’s intervention in his private work. He doesn’t ultimately feel the painting was ever his to begin with. And now, he is probably just glad to be rid of the awful responsibility of figuring out the final touches necessary to turn a class assignment into Art.

And so it feels slightly unreal to Greg when his painting wins a few awards, including a Hallmark nomination. His painting becomes a top-five finalist, and if he wins, he will receive a cash award of $100, which would mean a lot to him—it would enable him to be a big shot among his friends by taking them the U2 concert at Red Rocks in June. And, more importantly, the painting would be reproduced on Hallmark cards, albeit the small ones you buy in packages of fifty to send as holiday greetings.

There is a big awards ceremony in Denver. His mom drives him, and his dad meets them there. His parents seem just as proud as can be. But then, their divorce is on the horizon and they’re already preparing for the upcoming custody battle, so Greg has this unsettling feeling that the real competition isn’t among five paintings, but between Mom and Dad as they attempt to show him (almost for the first time) their loyalty and devotion.

Greg and his parents discover, as soon as they enter the hall, that he has lost the competition. The placement of the blue ribbon announces this ... nobody bothers to break the bad news gently. Greg is just another runner‑up. Of course he is. And of course this means no $100, no U2 concert, no cards to send to relatives for the next twenty years to show that that yes, a Halbrecht had actually made good, that you can brag all you want in your holiday newsletter that little Nathan is only six years old but is learning differential equations from his father, you can write all you want about your National Merit Scholar, you can send photos of your vacation in Greece, but it won’t change the fact that the Halbrecht newsletters this year are enclosed in Hallmark cards that bear a glorious illustration from their very own son. All this vanishes, just like any other mirage. He has lost. How typical.

Still, he was a finalist, and his painting is on display, behind a protective glass, with the other four finalists’. The judges comments are listed below, and the one that really stands out, in regard to Gregs’s painting, is this: “Poor quality paper.” Greg laughs. Not a loud, boisterous laugh, but a little pained chuckle reflecting the disappointment but also the real humor behind it: of course he used cheap paper—this was a school assignment, begun with the intent of satisfying the requirements of the course and getting a halfway decent grade. If he’d had the slightest idea it would be declared “Art” and entered in a contest, maybe he would have used something nicer. On second thought, he wouldn’t have, because he wouldn’t have believed it.

His painting begins to take on a new life as a doomed airliner, its pilot and copilot somehow incapacitated. Greg is cast in the role of the hapless passenger who is forced to try to land the plane (talked down by his teacher, the oddly calm air traffic controller). Of course the plane crashes and burns! Greg looks at the other entries with a strange kind of awe: these were done by actual artists somewhere ... student artists, yes, but good ones, who are confident enough to use high-quality materials.

Greg doesn’t kid himself: these other paintings really do outclass his; he wonders if the judges have given him the nomination as some sort of consolation prize. Still, he gleans a flicker of satisfaction from wondering if the judges felt his ocean-floor corn-on-the-cob had lent a certain reckless integrity to his painting.

See the poor kid leaving the hall and entering the auditorium, where his disappointment balloons dramatically: here he sees hundreds of thousands of other contest winners sitting there. Of course it’s not actually hundreds of thousands, or even thousands, but that’s the phrase that pops lugubriously into his head. “Among these hundreds of thousands of people I feel completely faceless,” declares the narrator silently. He sits right between his parents, of course, to serve as a necessary buffer zone ... a human DMZ.

He cannot look over at either parent without fear of alienating the other, so he can only imagine how they are experiencing this moment. Surely they are either bored, or distracted by their simmering rage at each other. Greg stares straight ahead, watching all the other winners, feeling less and less the nearly-triumphant artist, and more like a chance member of some vast horde. There are so many awards issued—“Man, they’re just giving them away!” he thinks. There are these certificates of some kind, Certificates of Excellence perhaps, and everybody gets one of those. Others, Greg included, get a Gold Key as well, but again, the numbers are huge. He is called up with the others to stand in a long line, to walk across the stage and collect the certificate and the little key. Seeing the table covered with the tall stacks of keys, each in a little plastic box, Greg feels something approaching actual shame. The ceremony ends without any special mention of the Hallmark nominees.

Now, of course, we come to the awful climax of the whole affair: who gets to take the kid home? Well, his mother drove him down, so it makes sense for his dad to drive him home. That’s Greg’s dad’s assertion, and it seems logical to the boy. But his mother isn’t buying it. He almost intervenes, but the spectacle of his parents fighting over him is just so novel. He doesn’t kid himself that he’s the point of the argument; power is the point, and he is merely the trophy. He finds himself paralyzed with morbid curiosity: how far will they go?

Just look at this poor guy. His stomach is starting to hurt. He finds himself buckling in the parking lot under this huge burden, wishing he’d screwed up the painting and could have avoided this whole ordeal. Finally, Mom says, “Well, Greg, if you come with me we have your Pink Floyd in the car.” He is unable to respond, afraid of insinuating that a rock album, of all things, could swing the balance in his mother’s favor. Finally his dad asks, “What is Pink Floyd?” Greg says nothing. He can barely stand up. His mother finally says—with a lightly superior air of teen-culture fluency—“It’s his favorite rock band.” To which his dad replies, “Humph. It sounds like the name of a pig.”

Greg drives back with his mom, brooding the whole way about how seemingly petty decisions like these, once compiled, can form the foundation of a profound estrangement. Will his father ever feel the same way about him again? And what was that way, to begin with?

* * *

William Faulkner wrote, “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” And so, eight years later, with another ceremony looming, Greg’s memory of the Hallmark Affair begins in his gut—at first, as simple feeling, a pain that he gradually perceives as born of unspecific emotion, which then leads into a series of images, and eventually words. This all happens because Greg is trying to decide whether or not to attend his college graduation.

The vague process of knowing remembering believing is responsible for how much strain graduation puts on him. He considers some minor obstacles, like the thesis he still needs to finish, and the two final exams still to go. (If he crashes and burns bad enough on them, they just might make him a fraud, retroactively.) But that’s just an excuse and he knows it. The real problem is that—amazingly enough—his parents are still no better at being civil in each other’s presence than they were on that cold, grey day in Denver, fighting over (him) in the parking lot. He doesn’t want them at his graduation together, but if neither of them watches, why even wear the stupid hat and walk across the stage?

He could tell himself his father wouldn’t come anyway. After all, when Greg graduated from high school, his dad couldn’t be bothered to drive two miles across town to honor him. But this is different—this is college, after all. So Greg decides to take a gamble: he’ll invite his old man, but with very short notice. Exorbitant airfare just might carry the day.

See the young man sweat. He’s no good on the phone to begin with, and since his mom had gotten custody, relations with his dad have been chillier than ever. Stumbling over his greeting, his voice reedy, almost shaky, his barebones reserves of composure hemorrhaging alarmingly, he cuts right to the chase and gives his father the news, and the date. Less than two weeks away.

There is a long silence. What will his father say? He wasn’t even aware that Greg would be graduating. Greg pretends for a moment that his father is overcome with pride, but then has to stifle a bitter laugh. Finally his father says—and this is the first thing out of his mouth— “Are your mother and her husband coming?”

Greg, who is no fool, has seen this coming. “She’s coming, but only because Bruce has a running race in the area anyway.” Another long silence, and then his father, in the same grim tone, asks, “Is she taking you out for dinner afterwards?”

Greg doesn’t answer. He just stands there, staring into space. So it all hinges on dinner? Eventually he becomes aware that his father is talking again, something about a $3 million proposal, something about a deadline, something about plane tickets, and it sounds like his dad is declining. Which is a relief, but also a disappointment.

Look at poor Greg. He’s all bent over, his stomach roiling. Technically, he’s standing there in his little apartment, but he’s not there, not really. In his head he’s back in that parking lot in Denver, still clutching his stomach, still getting punished by a cold wind while his seething parents bicker senselessly over who’s driving him home.

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