Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1


Carl caught up with them in the Berkshires. Lila wanted to see some art and JJ, not crazy about art, just wanted a change of scenery. They went from the mountains of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont to the old people and snobby New Yorkers in Williamstown. JJ watched them with growing ire.

“Yeah, we’ve been staying at JJ’s,” Carl said.

JJ tuned in to the catch-up-on-the-news chatter. “Both of you?”

“Yeah. She’s house sitting for you right now.”

“So, you’re back together?” Lila, JJ noticed, seemed less than thrilled by the news of Anne’s return into Carl’s life. Or, she was less than thrilled by Carl’s apparent happiness over this development.

“The change of scenery helps. Who knows when the novelty wears off? But the sex…” Here Carl pounded his fist into his other hand, repeatedly. “Let’s just say that my cup runneth over.”

“We can do without the visuals,” Lila said.

“Are you guys in my bed,” JJ asked.

“Speaking of visuals,” Carl said. “This Whistler’s Mother is completely overrated. It’s just a painting of his old mother. Why all the hubbub?”

Lila said, “The image has been co-opted throughout the years as an example of the good old American values of hearth and home.”

“And stern old ladies,” Carl said.

“They used it to sell war bonds! It’s a good example of, once you put it out there, it’s not yours anymore.”

“Meaning, it doesn’t matter what the artist meant, or didn’t mean. Shit, it could just be a very good painting of his mother. But, once it’s out there, it’s open season for interpretation.”

“And he insisted it meant nothing,” Lila said. “It was just a painting of his mother and should be appreciated as such.”

“Poor naïve Whistler,” Carl said.


JJ had slipped back into the antechamber with the painting. He wanted another look for himself and couldn’t stand art talk. Lila took one art history class years ago and she was a goddamn expert. And Carl. Carl would hold forth on any topic like he wasn’t a bagel baker with a shitty marriage. JJ stood behind some people seated on a bench and beheld Whistler’s Mother. There was a certain…dignity? Austerity? He didn’t know the word but there was a power there. What made a painting into art? Why do some paintings make the leap and some remain flat and lifeless? JJ didn’t know. But, this Whistler’s Mother felt like art. He took his phone out and got a couple pictures before a guard appeared at his elbow.

“Sir, no pictures,” she said and touched his camera arm. Simultaneously, an older guard standing near the painting added to the whole room, “No pictures allowed, folks.”

Several people glanced at JJ and looked away as if not wanting to stare at a facial deformity. They were too polite to cluck their tongues but they didn’t need to. The room was thick with the disapproval of this uncouth nincompoop. Whistler’s Mother just sat there, placidly disappointed, like a sour parent whose kid has taken up facial piercings. JJ slunk away to the hall.

“I got a picture of her,” he said to Lila and Carl.

“You can’t do that,” Lila said. “That’s like stealing.”

“I think it’s bad for the painting,” Carl said.

JJ walked past and kept going down the hall. He felt like a heel, sick with exposure to the world of nature and people. His closest friends, his girlfriend(!), were conspiring with museum guards to make him raw and frustrated. Inviting Carl had been a bad idea. The trip itself had been a bad idea. They couldn’t even get out of New England! Not even two months into his grand road trip across the USA and he felt like guzzling a quart of Jack Daniels. His mouth watered and he froze. A new determination came to life in his gut and head. He stared into the distance as people moved around him like they moved around a pillar. Then he turned back, poker-faced, to subtly speed their departure. Cooperation, for the time being, was crucial to his new plan.

“Let’s get a suite at the nicest place in town. With the lottery money,” he said, to stop the polite protests.

“I thought you were mad,” Lila said.

“Nope,” JJ said. “I just want to get out of here.”

“Agreed,” Carl said.

They all smiled and linked arms, the best of friends, and headed to the parking lot.

Whistler’s Mother? She couldn’t care less.


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Swamp or Bog?


Lila asked, “What’s the difference between a bog and a swamp?”

“No idea. Standing water in a swamp?” JJ peered out over the cattails from beneath the brim of his cap. Early afternoon in sticky late summer.

They lounged under a tree on dry ground above a bog in New Hampshire. Or was it a swamp? It smelled like a swamp. But, everything below the mountain ridges smelled swampy and fetid in the humidity. The shade was good, especially if you stayed still. Dragonflies hovered and darted, like technicolor futuristic bi-planes. JJ thought dragonflies to be living proof of God. What a creature! Of course, God also created the mosquito, so hold the applause.

“That sounds right. Standing water. Pools of water in a swamp. Spongy ground in a bog.”

“Either way, it’s nice to be up here above it all. High and dry.”

“High and dry,” she murmured and dozed off into a boggy half-sleep. A murky continuing of a dream from the night before. A variation on the chasing dream. She is being pursued through a mazelike series of scenes from her life. A camp where she used to be a teenage counselor. She hurried through the arts and crafts cabin and overturned a bin of perfect oak leaves for tracing and art projects, and felt a surge of sadness. Then she was in Boston from her college days, pushing through tourists at the public gardens and disrupting wedding pictures on the bridge above the swan boats. The wedding party all looked at her without expression as she rushed through. She fled the gardens and emerged on a street in Paris, where she always wanted to go but had never been. She somehow found a bike and sped down the Champs Elysees like a figure in an Impressionist painting, more panicked now because she speak French at all. Weren’t they snotty if you couldn’t speak French?The-Champs-Elysees-Paris-xx-Georges-Stein

Who was the pursuer? Who wouldn’t just leave her alone? She never got a clear look. Sometimes she would turn and just get a glimpse of a figure wearing a dark hoody walking after her, unhurried and relentless, not concerned at all that she could get away, biding his time until she tired and fell or just stopped.


Paris broke up, her dream bike wobbled, the image faded, the fear remaining.

“Lila,” JJ whispered and shook her shoulder.


“Let’s get moving. We have to do another 5 miles before dark.”

Oh yeah, backpacking in the heat, in New Hampshire.

“You know,” she said. “Let’s go ahead and invite Carl for a few days.”

JJ was quiet. “I thought we decided about this.”

“I know, but he was really weird when we called the house. That tornado…a close call…”

JJ sighed. “Okay. I guess it’s the right thing to do. Especially with his marriage all messed up again.”

“We’ll call when we get back tomorrow.” Don’t seem too eager, she told herself.

“Okay. Let’s go.”

“You go ahead,” Lila said. “I’ll follow you.”

“Ha,” JJ snorted. “I’ve been following you since yesterday.”

“My turn to chase you,” she said and hoisted her pack.

“Who’s chasing anyone,” JJ said and hoisted his own.

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Change in the Weather


Carl paced from room to room, checking the views from each window. Thunderstorms were coming. First, murmurings from the west, then rumblings and a cool breeze promising a break in the oppressive humidity. It was the first cool breeze in a week. There was no air conditioning in JJ’s farmhouse. “That guy”, Carl thought as he paced and sweated. “Too good for an air conditioner.”

Carl was house sitting for JJ. Or, hiding from Anne, his wife. Or, taking a break from her. Or, giving Anne a break from him, and not for the first time.

The breeze picked up and Carl watched the sky. There were clouds up there he had never seen before, moving in odd ways. Heavy sporadic raindrops blown from the storm proper hit the windows and roof. This was going to be a whopper. A direct hit, he thought. He made the rounds and closed the windows. Then he went onto the porch.

Two things happened as soon as he got out there. The air raid siren went off from the center of town and a car appeared, headlights on, speeding up the road from town. “That looks like my car,” he thought. As it pulled into JJ’s driveway, he realized it was his car, with his estranged wife in the drivers seat.

“Tornado warning!” Anne yelled as she hopped out.

She ran from the car as the rain picked up and Carl looked again at the sky as the siren droned from town. A section of the sky had separated from the brooding clouds above and was rotating slowly over the town. The edges of this huge rotation were tinted yellow like jaundice, boding illness and breakdown. “We’re fucked,” Carl thought.

They watched together as the funnel formed from dust rising up into the turning cloud, not so much touching down as taking shape between ground and sky. The twister came toward the mountain. Carl could see individual pieces of debris being pulled up into the funnel; branches, shrubs, and flat flipping panels of wood or cardboard. And, was that a Little Tykes kiddie car? “Cellar,” he yelled.

The tornado never hit the farm, moving up and over the mountain about a quarter mile to the south. (The swath would be visible for years). Carl and Anne sat in the dirt-floor basement, side-by-side on a couple of lawn chairs, holding hands and listening.

“You were worried about me,” Carl said.

“You asshole,” Anne said. “I was scared.”

“Scared enough to come find me?”

“Sad when you put it that way.”

They were quiet, straining to hear upstairs. There was some wind, but the house was not ripped away. There would be no Wizard of Oz hallucination or destructive aftermath.

“So, can I come back home?”

“Why don’t we live here for awhile?”

“At JJ’s?”

“Why not. A change of scenery. Aren’t they gone for awhile?”

“You know him. Could be another week. Or, a year.”

A pause as they listened. Silence.

“You know, if this was a novel, we’d fuck right now,” she said. “Narrow escape. Hearts pumping.”

“This is no novel, that’s for sure. But let’s fuck anyway.”

So they went upstairs to JJ’s bedroom with the storm moving off , the sky having turned from yellow to green, and sirens coming from the town below. They opened the windows. The humidity was gone and it was just nice to be naked in bed with someone you loved and hated, as a cool breeze came through the room.



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Unease in Maine


JJ watched the fire, the pulsating red coals down in there, below the wood. Camping in Maine on the road trip with Lila. A beautiful night, high fifties, perfect weather for this perfect campfire after a sun soaked day. Stars out, not a cloud in the sky.

JJ was uneasy.

In fact he was downright irritable. Earlier, he had watched Lila as she ate a lobster. (Not Lobstah! JJ saw the t-shirts. People who bought a t-shirt with the word “Lobstah” on it? Morons.) JJ looked at Lila as Lila gazed at the picturesque Maine harbor. Revulsion at her chewing. He noticed the age in her face, the lines around her eyes, and the way her throat moved when she swallowed. He watched her crack the shell of the poor little prehistoric monster on her plate, her fingers dripping with butter. She was really enjoying herself! All that moist ripping and relishing of juices. Brutal! Who the hell was this woman?

“Eat it, JJ,” she said. “Just do it.”

He had started to. And the tail meat was good. Except there was this brown goop that clung where the tail met the body, soiling the nice white meat. It was persistent, the clinging of this brown goop. It wouldn’t rinse away and it just smeared when he tried to flick it off. He couldn’t ignore that. Shit? Guts? Brown effluvium from any body; crustacean, mammal, or other; should never be eaten. Seriously.

“It’s okay,” she said. “It all tastes like the sea.”

But he couldn’t eat any more of it and she shook her head as if he had left his cap on during the national anthem.

And now in front of their perfect campfire on this perfect evening he couldn’t shake that peevish feeling. What’s the big deal? Except that Lila had moved on and was toasting a marshmallow with the focus of a chef working some delicate morsel over the flame. The tip of her tongue stuck out in concentration and the light gave her face a glow and god, yes, she was beautiful. It just annoyed and shamed him all over again.

He got his own stick, impaled a marshmallow, and shoved it into the flames. The mallow caught fire and sizzled as the flame worked around it, leaving a black flaky shell.

“JJ!” she said.

“That’s the way I like it.”

“Okay,” she said. “Look at mine.” She showed him the golden swollen orb on the stick. She put her head back and dramatically lowered the mallow into her open mouth like an eager fire eater. She closed her mouth and removed the stick, molten white mallow coating the point, and she moaned with delight. She savored, smiled, and then said, “You’re going to have a hard time matching up with that tonight.”

To JJ, she looked grotesque in the firelight, like some ravenous wood goddess devouring bits of men as they were forced to watch. “I’m going for a walk,” JJ said and started away into the dark.

“That’s my last try tonight,” Lila said and threw the stick toward the fire. It clattered on the fire ring and bounced away. “Come back when you’re done being a dick.”

“It might be awhile.”

“That’s fine.”

He walked away from the firelight and was fully wrapped in the dark.


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That’s That


“This is perfect,” Carl said. “A door closes and God opens a window.”

“So,” JJ said. “She’s serious this time.”  They spoke of Anne, Carl’s lukewarm wife.

“Who knows, who knows? She’s seriously fed up. The usual shit. No ambition, no money, look what those people have, why can’t we have that. Same old shit. It’ll blow over.”

They were in JJ’s farm house, in the midst of camping gear strewn all over the living room and kitchen. Tents, sleeping bags, pots and pans, spatula, propane, clothes, boots, lantern, flashlight, batteries, rope, Cracker Jacks, toilet paper…

“Well, you can stay here until we get back. Or she takes you back.”

“I could come with you,” Carl said. “I mean, can I come?”


“Can I meet you somewhere? Like for a weekend?”

JJ thought of the three of them, Carl, JJ, and Lila, all in a tent together, and disgust rose in his gut, unlatching an old trap door to a cellar in his mind. Cobwebs of jealousy and resentment. He suspected Carl and Lila had been together once or twice. In fact, he knew it. It didn’t bother him day-to-day, but still, it was there like a blemish on an otherwise jolly photo of three amigos. The eye was drawn to that blemish and it could never not be seen. “I don’t think so,” he said. “We’ll see.”

Carl took that in. “Y’know, I know a few things about life. I wouldn’t be a friend if I didn’t bring this up.”

There was a hardening in JJ’s chest, familiar and automatic since his parents or teachers called him out on something. Stealing his sister’s babysitting money or breaking a school window with a thrown apple, it didn’t matter if it was justified or not. His jaw tightened. You’re not the boss of me.

“It seems to me like you’re running from something,” Carl started. “You can’t escape yourself. You can’t outrun yourself. Wherever you go, you’ll be sure to find yourself there. You can run all your life, but not go anywhere…”

Carl droned on. Deep down, under the growing layers of resistance and resentment, the swamp of guilt bubbled. Down there, JJ knew Carl was trying to help him, that maybe he was right. But, this was Carl, kicked out by his wife, still an overnight bagel baker. Carl, the fucking philosopher. Nobody tells me what to do.

“Enough!” JJ said, louder than he intended. “Just, enough.”

“All right, all right.”

“I’m sorry, but just stop with all that. I’m not some invalid. I need to live.”

“I’m just worried about you, man. You’re like my brother.”

The guilt swamp bubbled and the anger was swallowed in the morass. How can you hate and love someone in the same moment? JJ sighed. “I know, me too. I feel the same way. But, I have to move, man. I have to get moving.”

“But, that restlessness. It’s not a good thing. That’s all I’m saying.”

Why wouldn’t he just let it go?

You think you’re better than me?

“Thanks, I guess,” JJ said through clenched teeth. “But I’m going away with Lila. You can’t come. But, you’re welcome to stay here while your marriage is broken.”

“And that’s that?”

“That’s that.”

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Careful What You Wish For


At Lila’s.

“I can’t believe this Katelyn thing,” she said. “I mean, she’s hot!”

“Who’s that?”

“Katelyn Jenner? Bruce Jenner?”
“I heard something about this,” JJ said. “Is that his daughter?”

Lila just looked at him. “Incredible,” she said. “Where have you been hiding?”

“That’s a complicated question.” He went over to the couch and sat next to her. A TV show, loud and brash with celebs and quick clips, jumping between a photo shoot, a magazine cover, and a seventies athlete with that non-athletic body and hair. Pre-1990 athletes looked so puny. And, those shorts! Even Michael Jordan. And, then he remembered. The decathlete became a woman. “Wait, that’s her? Him?”


More of the same, JJ thought. You could be whatever you said you were these days. Unless you were white publicly posing as black. That wouldn’t go over too well.

“Could we turn that off? I want to ask you something.”

Something in his voice. Lila got very still and stared straight ahead. JJ reached across her for the remote and turned the TV off. “Not THAT something. Relax,” he said.

She let out a sigh. Relief? Regret? A catastrophe avoided? “You just kind of sounded weird,” she said.

JJ felt himself slide toward being offended. He could picture them married. Why couldn’t she? It was conceivable. But, stay the course. Don’t let that JJ sensitivity, the delicate ego of a fourteen year old, don’t let that throw you off. “I want to take a trip with you,” he said.

“That would be great. Let’s go to the Cape for the weekend.”

“No, not that kind of trip. I want to hit the road for a while. Do the nomad thing.”

“The nomad thing? For how long?”

“A few months, at least. Maybe a year?”

Lila was quiet, looking at JJ. This was not good impulse control, she thought. He used to have these big ideas all the time. Old behaviors: not good. But, it was also a relief to hear him propose something weird and grandiose. He was getting so docile and comfy with all that lottery money and that house. Everything was fine with them. It was just so goddamn fine these days. She asked, “What does your sponsor say?”

“He thought it might be good. A journey of self-discovery kind of thing.”

She knew it was a bad idea, that it was bad for him. And something in his demeanor, she knew he was lying. She knew that Professor Tom character didn’t approve. She just knew. But…

“And what about my job? And my rent?”

“You hate that job and I’ll pay your rent.”

They sat in the still and quiet void created when the TV show was turned off. A wall clock ticked from the kitchen. A car drove by. Then, a truck or bus. JJ dared not look at Lila. His heart pounded. He wanted this and he was afraid to speak. And, he was afraid of the answer.

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s do it.”

And, for some reason, his heart just sank.

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Wings Clipped?


Sunday night AA. In the parking lot, it’s the meeting after the meeting. Cigarette smokers and laughter. People talking in twos and threes. Two women hugging, one in tears, the other whispering comfort and encouragement.

JJ met with his sponsor, Professor Tom, in the front seat of Tom’s old Chevy pickup (bench seat!). A little close for comfort, from JJ’s perspective. “I’m going on a trip,” JJ said.

Tom didn’t respond right away, but stared into the dark, chewing his gum. He always had some gum going since he quit smoking a few years back. Or so JJ’s been told. He’s only known Tom for about a year, since limping back into the AA fold. Tom asked, “Where are you going?”

“I don’t know,” JJ said. “Me and Lila are going to drive around the country.”


“To be with Lila. To get away for a while.”

Professor Tom chewed and JJ could feel the beginnings of internal squirming. “It’s not a good idea,” Tom said.

I met this guy on the mountain. He inspired me to take a journey.”

“Does this mountain guy know about you? About your love of self-destruction, self-deception, and self-sabotage?”

It’s Mountain Dude, JJ thought. Mountain Dude. “No, but it feels right. I didn’t get sober to not be free. Besides, Lila…we just want to be together.”

Now Tom turned. JJ could just see Tom’s eyes in the yellowish light from a parking lot lamp. There was concern there in the warm depth of his look, but cold skepticism in his squint and cocked eyebrow. “As your sponsor, I suggest you not take any journeys of discovery right now.”


“And here are my reasons. One, you’re still a newcomer and only on step three. That’s the only journey you need to be concerned with right now. Two, we often plan our relapses without even knowing it. Three, you won’t be doing any service for other alcoholics while roaming the land. That’s key. And four, the last thing you need is to detach from the roots you’re putting down. You need to stay put and dig deeper.”

“Are you forbidding me to go?”

“It doesn’t work like that. You can do whatever you want. I strongly suggest you stay put, though. For both you and Lila’s sake, if you really want to be with her.”

“It’s different this time.”

“Yeah, you have more to lose than ever. Your house. Lila. The lottery money. You can’t see it, but I promise that you can lose it all and wash up somewhere pretty quick.”

“But…I feel so good. I haven’t wanted to drink at all.”

“Like I said, I can’t stop you. But I strongly suggest you stay close. Go away for the weekend with Lila. What does she say about this?”

Pause. “I haven’t told her.”

“Okay. That’s your assignment. Go tell her what you’re planning for her. Then call me.” Tom reached for the column and started the truck. “Meeting over.”

“Alright, thanks.” JJ hopped out and closed the door. “I’ll call you,” he said through the open window.

“Talk to Lila,” Tom said and drove away.

“That didn’t go well”, JJ thought. “Well, fuck him. Lila will love this.”

So, he went to find out.

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