This Great Society - Creative Writing



Illustration: Joel Bentley

Robert Wexelblatt: Confession of an Adolescent Arsonist
Illustration: Joel Bentley

       The trouble began when Uncle William took an old chest of drawers on the Antiques Roadshow. A smartly-dressed woman from New York City ran her fingers over it greedily, smiling like a well-stoked pothead.
        “This is truly magnificent, sir. A treasure. The finest example I’ve ever seen of Rhode Island block-front. Any idea of the age of the piece? No? Well it was made around 1780, at the time of the American Revolution. Do you know anything about John Goddard? No? Well, John Goddard, of Newport, is considered the first American craftsman to build block-front furniture. Notice how the contour of the piece’s front is made by three blocks: the middle one concaves, the outer two convex. . .”
        She then grandly pegged its value at around $18,000—“at auction.” They always say “at auction.” I think it’s to cover their tails. I mean, the expert didn’t say she’d give Uncle William 18 grand for it, dovetails, scrollwork and all. Anything can happen at an auction where fools can bid as well as connoisseurs. Anyway, that whole show exists to exhibit the astonished faces of your neighbors, to hear stuff like “You’re joking,” and “Oh, My God, and we’ve been letting the children climb all over it.” Sure, once in a while they’ll throw in a dud. “I’m sorry to say it’s not Meissen but a souvenir of the 1939 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows, New York.” They need the contrast; moreover, it’s entertaining to humiliate some avaricious idiot who’s expecting his putative porcelain to pay for a year’s medical coverage and a yacht.
        When I say the trouble began what I really mean is the feud, the vendetta. According to my mother, William “just took that chest” after Nana had to give up the old Victorian and move to Assisted Living. “He had his pick,” she snarled, “his pick.” That Uncle William picked that chest hadn’t seemed to bother her before Antiques Roadshow, though. In fact, I remember she once referred to it as “that hideous huge dark thing with the bulge.” Her own taste ran to the clean, dull lines of what she called “Danish modern.” She always stressed the Danish part, I think, as if Denmark were so up-to-date it had just been invented. “I need light,” she’d say passionately, like a Manichean or a sunflower.
        It wasn’t as if Uncle William put the thing up for auction and pocketed $18,000. No, he held on to the chest. He actually liked it. He was proud of it and thought it an heirloom. He wanted to keep it in the family. It was also something he had to remind him of his mother. I pointed all this out to Mom, but it was as if I’d lit a two-inch fuse to a bundle of dynamite; she went off fast. “And what do I have? The jewelry that that wife of his didn’t want.”
        “That’s not true,” I said reasonably. “You chose first and, anyway, we’ve got lots of Nana’s things. Dishes and silverware and those compote things. And what’s with calling Aunt Janice ‘that wife of his’?”
        “Don’t be so fresh,” Mother barked. “Oh, the mouth you’ve got on you—and taking his side. . .”
        At this point my older sister Beth, who, being preoccupied with her college applications, paid less attention to all this than I did, stuck in her oar. “But it’s true, Mom.”
        “Et tu? Oh, how sharper than a serpent’s tooth,” Mother quoted. She tended to come out with Shakespeare when she was worked up because she’d been in the Drama Club at Bryn Mawr. When we were younger and more obedient, she used to make us all read Shakespeare together. Beth and I hated it—and I’m still pretty immune to bardolatry—but Father went along, if he couldn’t come up with a ready excuse. He took directions and corrections to his diction with cheerful equanimity. Beth and I used to think he was cowed but then we realized it was just that his life was elsewhere: tennis, golf, business. It was easier for him to go along, within unstated limits. So in the matter of “the Goddard Chest,” as Mother took to calling it, Dad punted. He wouldn’t discuss it. When she got wound up he’d just leave the room or turn on the TV or tactically fall asleep.
        “Well,” said Beth when we discussed his avoidant behavior, it’s always been his method, hasn’t it?”
        “Not sure. Actually, his usual method’s just to agree,” I observed.
        “True. But this is different. She’s obsessed. How much raving you figure he’s had to listen to that we haven’t?”
        “Eww. Lucky thing we’ve got all this homework.”
        “And college applications.”
        We giggled.
        “And Facebook,” I added.
        “And texting.” Beth made her mother face. “What do you read, my Lord? Icons, icons, icons.”
        “OMG. LOL.”
        “Seriously, this thing with Uncle William seems to have driven her right up to the edge.”
        “It’s sibling rivalry,” I said authoritatively, hot from a two-week unit on psychology. “It’s obvious. I mean the chest’s a symbol. That Uncle William has it means Nana loved him more.”
        “Or that he loved her more,” Beth added subtly.
        I shrugged. “Or. . . or maybe it’s just the 18,000 bucks. And the getting on TV.”
        “She can be petty.”
        “But she’s ours.”
        “And Dad’s.”
        “Dad’s not here much.”
        “And next year I’ll be away at college.”
        “Yikes! Don’t remind me.”
        Beth took my hand as if to say, “Let’s never be like them.” We’d always been close. “A pair of confederates,” Mother called us. Seeing the way she and her brother were behaving made us want to fortify our alliance.
        Beth was 17 and, though I was only 15, she let me vet her boyfriends. I didn’t have a boyfriend yet, if you don’t count Freddy DeMaria, who had a crush on me and rode his bike up and down our street every day for two weeks but was too shy to say anything and gave up when he caught sight of Beth and me giggling behind the living room window. After that, it was like I had the plague.

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