On Tuesday and Friday mornings in the spring of 1979, end of that era of denim suits and leather sport coats and, of course, disco, I had a class called Ethics. I didn't care much for the vagueness of the humanities but the pre-med degree required a certain number of hours in the liberal arts and old Dr. Masterson, my semiretired adviser, had suggested this one. I didn't see how these obscure discussions would help one day when I had to decide whether to pull the plug on some poor failed body but it wasn't especially difficult to read the texts and fill up the blue books.
The campus was nearly walking distance from the city's estate section, which, as it happened after class one fine warm musk-on-the-air heart-of-spring Friday morning, I drove into. I'd learned a few days earlier that my boss, or rather the boss of my boss, the chief of us all in the hospital laboratory where I worked, had flown to Miami, Florida. Since I happened to know that his brother lived in Coral Gables, I took this to mean it was a family thing, that they'd all be down there, the wife and the daughter as well. I'd been fantasizing for weeks on their ruination, even to the extent of envisioning various bloody scenarios of murder. (I'm ashamed now to admit that but I knew really that what I wanted was to see them in some living hell rather than the painless void of death, and anyway killing in the abstract isn't so hard to consider, death having no stench in daydreams. I have in the intervening years come to know a few things about the stench of death.) The truth was that the particular mechanism of how to bring about this happy end, the destruction of the Ted Kesslers, hadn't exactly occurred to me yet; I had no idea really even in which direction it might lie. They were an unassailable monolith, moneyed and beautiful and installed high in the city's society, but it was by-god pleasing to pass the stultifying hours in Ethics dreaming about fucking those people up.
Their great grand house lay in the oldest part of the estate section on a narrow red-brick lane lined with oak trees and set deeply back in a grove of more oaks and evergreens and a single ancient willow that wept over all of it. It was built of brick and painted white, with a turret and a shale roof and a huge ever-fresh wreath of woven sprigs on the front door, and in the back sat a wide three-bay two-story garage with swinging doors and a smaller turret of its own. It was all something from a dream, a place you could have spent your life, with its weathered wood-slatted furniture and sunlight-dappled pathways and glens, its vines and mossy trees. I first saw it late the previous fall and remember wondering then and each of the many times I saw it again throughout that winter what it must look like when it greened. Well, here it was now before me, blossomed, fleshed out, sprung.
It'd rained through the night and the grass and the new leaves shined (even the tire wounds I'd made to the turf the month before had nearly healed). In addition to the city cruisers, private cops also patrolled these neighborhoods but the curtain of trees was so dense as to render the house barely visible from the road, and who would suspect anything anyway? I was clean and trimmed of hair, obviously just a friend of the family over to check on their profusion of stuff while they were away, to make sure nothing looked awry. I stepped out into the wet earthy scents of that Eden and oh, the colors vibrated, even the wide black driveway glistened like something new.
The fact was that the simple act of putting my feet on that asphalt constituted a violation and, pathetic and inconsequential as it would probably end up being, I meant it as one. I trembled. It felt strangely like when I'd arrived for each of those earlier visits (that thudding of the heart, that thickness in the throat, that anticipatory scrotal tingling). Here finally I stood again breathing where she breathed, in proximity to the things she touched and looked upon every day, to where she slept and bathed and dressed though she, Joyce, the doctor's wife, my one-time co-worker, my confidant, my playmate, was herself gone far away from it just then.
I wondered if they kept a key under a mat or some other obvious place. The truth was I didn't know if I'd dare do anything more than look around a little, but just that, the looking, the bare fact of being there unbidden, was something, and the simple possibility of doing more, of polluting them in some way, of my malice becoming manifest instead of this awful closeted gnawing made my barren inner landscape begin to feel as verdant again as the real world around me. Then as I stood before the big house a new fantasy came on -- of me, Syd Redding, going through her things.
The front walkway was a mosaic constructed of heavy pieces of slate (some with a greenish cast, some pink, some gray). I remember wondering what this alone must have cost. I peered up at the glistening slate roof and then, as I walked along the edge of the porch examining the perfect shrubberies, the dog, Dog, barked. Inside the house. I moved back toward the front door, the realization of what his yappy presence meant just crystallizing in my brain when the door cracked open and Jessi Kessler (the daughter, sole progeny of the doctor and the nurse) gazed out at me.
I knew her. I mean, I'd met her. She was seventeen, a senior in high school. I hated her the least of the three of them and only really because she was of them. In a vacuum I'd have just found her mildly irritating.
"What are you doing here?" she said.
I could feel the crimson rising like tequila suns in my cheeks. "Um, I had something for your mom."
She waited, watching me.
I said, "We were talking, you know, at work, at the hospital, about stuff, and I said I had this book, and she said she wanted to read it. But I haven't seen her around." (My god, I could lie in those years, just open my mouth and let it run out with no forethought, no planning or conniving at all.)
"She doesn't work there anymore."
"Oh?" I said. "Well, anyway, I happened to be over here and I thought I'd just drop it off."
"She's not here. She's with my dad in Florida."
"Well, it's not a big deal."
"Where is it?"
"The book? Um, in my car."
"You can leave it if you want."
I went back and opened the door and made a pretense of looking in but I knew there was nothing -- even then I liked my spaces clean. I closed the door and glanced at her and opened the trunk, which held, aside from a tool kit and a box of emergency supplies and a spare tire, only my notebook and the texts from the class I'd just had. I picked up the smallest one, a paperback of the Nichomachean Ethics, and carried it to her.
"My mother wants to read Aristotle?"
"Well, I don't know. We were just talking about it."
"Ethics. You know. The hospital?"
She looked at me blankly, she in her too-big corduroys and black T-shirt and a different pair of glasses than when I'd seen her before, heavy ones, these, with ugly black oval frames that somehow flattered her. She had a finely boned face, pretty despite the extra poundage she carried. (It was just the last remnants of the plumpness of her youth, that weight, and would burn off with her final sprint into adulthood, leaving her every bit as unjustly arresting, as beautiful even, as her mother.)
"Fix any cars lately?" she said. It was a kind of joke between us. We met the previous November when I spotted her and her mother broken down along Cherry Street just outside St. V's, our mutual employer (Joyce and I worked the night shift together then, I in her husband's lab as I've said and she as an ICU nurse, part time), and stopped to help.
"Not really," I said. "Just keeping mine going." We paused to glance at the old thing, a rusted military-green Datsun 610, embarrassingly incongruous in that driveway in that neighborhood -- even the hired help around there, the maids and nannies and gardeners, had nicer rides than mine.
"I just got a new Cutlass Supreme," she said.
"Early graduation present."
"Yeah. It's kind of sick, isn't it? You want to see it?" She tossed the book into the house, stepped into a pair of Sorels, and walked out past me. Dog came after her and stopped to sniff my ankles.
"You must smell nice," she said over her shoulder. "He usually growls at strangers."
We followed her across the driveway and through the gate and out back to the garage. She swung open one of the high doors and there it gleamed in all its American newness, a pearly bluish gray with a navy landau roof and the stickers still pasted in the rear window. The license plate said Path 3. I couldn't imagine owning something like this then, at twenty-three, let alone at seventeen.
"What's weird," she said, "is how much I like it, and how much I hate liking it, you know? I really didn't want to like it but it's like a new pet or something, or a different life. Here." She opened the driver's door and waved me around.
"That's a new car," she said, sniffing deeply. I'd never smelled one before that I could remember, if you can believe it. It was upholstered in gray chamois-soft leather but she let Dog jump onto her lap and from there into the backseat, where he began rooting around.
"It's beautiful," I said. It was, truly. I just couldn't quite accept it yet that I was sitting there chatting with the little pudge when I'd come over to maybe do something awful or at least distasteful, a little B and E or just some childish vandalism.
"It's what I get for having to put up with him." Her father, she meant, of course -- I looked at her, unsure whether she was being funny or not. "He's a narcissist, so he compensates like this, you know. If you can't give love, give new cars. It must suck working for him."
"I don't really see him much anymore. I work nights."
"I mean, I did work days, but I moved as soon as they let me."
"Because of him?"
I shrugged. "Not just him."
"Yeah," she said. She pushed the cigarette lighter in, and when it popped back out she said, "You know I got in at Case."
r"I still haven't committed."
"When's the deadline?"
"In like a week."
"Are you going?"
"I don't know. I suppose. He went there, so, you know, Daughter has to." They weren't much for given names, that family. I don't know if I ever heard any of them refer to each other by anything other than pronouns or the most general nouns, He or She or Wife or Husband or Dog (which was truly the little shit's actual registered name -- Joyce showed me the official papers one time; I asked and she told me how much he'd cost, which was substantially more than my car, and him looking exactly like nothing so much as a slightly used mop with feet).
"It's a pretty great school," I said. I'd gotten in, too, once. I had, it turned out (to everyone's surprise) a bit of an aptitude for numbers and the natural sciences. I don't know where it came from. I mean, I'd always done well enough in those subjects but no one ever accused me of being a genius. Then I popped a 780 on the math section of the SATs and all the world, a world that had never seemed to know I was there, began suddenly to regard me. Teachers stopped me in the hallway to chat. Girls who'd never spoken to me started to fawn. And colleges, lots of them, began sending me packets. But things turned another way and I ended up staying here, working crap jobs and picking off a couple classes a semester at the local university, the U of T.
This went on until Masterson (who had a scout's eye for talent and found me in my first month on campus and recruited me as med school material) called the previous summer to say that the lab at St. V's, the huge medical center in the north downtown ghetto, was looking to train a group of pre-med students in phlebotomy, the ancient art of bloodletting, and to employ them weekdays six to nine a.m. to help with the deluge of routine morning draws. It paid six bucks an hour at a time when the minimum wage was something like $2.50, so just like that I became a health care professional with my own frighteningly white lab coat and, after I went to nights, made enough to swing school full time.
"I guess," Jessi said. "It doesn't seem too exciting. He wants me to go pre-med but I see so many assholes like him, I just don't want to be around that. I mean -- " She glanced at me. "You're pre-med, aren't you?"
"I didn't mean -- "
"No, I understand. I know what you mean."
"Anyway, I don't know if that's my thing or not. And I feel like bumming around Europe or something first." She popped a cassette out of the deck and looked at it, then put it back. She said, "Where have you applied?"
"I haven't, yet. I'm only a junior."
"How old are you?"
She nodded. "You want some coffee or something?"
"I should get going. I didn't mean to bug you."
"It's all right. I'm just hanging out. I'm having a party tonight I was sort of getting ready for."
"Actually, I just didn't feel like facing school today. My friends mostly aren't from there. I don't really even like any of those people, you know?" She looked over and said, "Hey, you should come tonight. It's not going to be some stupid high school blowout with a bunch of drunken jocks. We cook and stuff, listen to good music, drink some good wine. It'll be cool."
Could this be it, then, oh, irony of ironies -- my entrée? In exchange for suffering her insipid friends for a few hours, I'd be one giant leap closer to slipping off to do whatever it was I decided to do, plant a bomb or sprinkle itching powder in their beds or shave Dog or some other as yet unimagined degradation.
"Yeah," she said. "It'd be a trip if you showed up."
When I got home I saw my neighbor Donny Tooman lying in the street with his feet and lower legs sticking out from beneath a car. Well, it was his car (a '69 Road Runner 426 hemi to which he'd added so far an Edelbrock manifold and a Ram Air cam, and painted a metallic fire-hydrant yellow), and that was where he worked on it, his mother's single-car garage being reserved for the new Buick she bought every third June, so he always just lay there in the stones with the thing up on jack stands to do his business. It was perhaps the headiness that had come of my unexpected triumph at the doctor's house (talk about your foot in the door) but I felt suddenly resolved to rectify not only my personal grievances but all the fucking aggravations and wrongs and injustices I knew of. It felt as if I'd been sitting watching for too long and now something needed to be done, or rather had always needed to be done but was left for me to do because clearly no one else was going to lift a finger.
I walked over to the Road Runner and stomped on Donny's booted ankle.
"Hey!" he shouted. He slid out and looked up at me. "S'up your ass?"
"Lay off her."
"What you talking about?"
"You know what I'm talking about, Donny. I don't know what you've done or how long it's been going on or whatever you think you have a right to but I'll tell you this -- it ends right now, right here. Or I will seriously seriously fuck you up."
He stared up at me. Blankly, you might say. He was as vacuous a human being as I had ever met.
"Syd -- " he started.
"No," I said, "I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to hear any denials or excuses or justifications. I'm telling you, I find out you so much as touched her after this, I'll tie you down and take Brigman's ax and chop your hand off at the wrist."
"Jesus Christ -- "
" -- will not help you in this, Donny."
I crossed back over to our place, one in a line of tall and narrow clapboard deals on a tarred and graveled dead end street in the old south end. It had been not so long before that a prosperous enough looking place, both the house and the neighborhood, I mean, but it had all changed somehow along with our circumstances. When I was seventeen -- recipient of dozens of come-hither co-eds-lounging-on-the-grassy-green brochures from colleges around the country; on the very verge of beginning to realize my one true ambition, my goal-since-childhood, which was not actually then to be a doctor but just to be somebody -- my stepfather, Brigman Reed (my younger sister Chloe's actual father), was in a bad car wreck. It was largely a result of his own carelessness, for which he would spend six months in the can after his release from the hospital, and he would never really quite recover from it, but it affected me directly because I put off college for a year to stick around and help out at home. By the time Brigman got out, our mother, Sandy, had been diagnosed with metastasized lung cancer, of which she died not long after I turned nineteen. Things had kind of been falling apart ever since. Now, in Sandy's absence (as if she had somehow personally held all of it together) each of the nearly identical houses seemed to lean to one side or the other, and you noticed peeling paint and curling shingles and rotting-leaf-carpeted lawns where there had once been only neatness and care. As for my ambitions -- which had by then, with Masterson's encouragement and as a reaction I think now to the serial crises of Brigman's accident and my mother's illness, lit on medicine -- they stayed hot as ever in the heart of my heart. But time, of course, hurried on, so it was only now, after the break of getting the lab job, after I had finally been able to go back to school full time, that I felt on the verge again of my life.
As I came up the front concrete steps I did the dance -- knees urgently flexed, hand grasping for the nonexistent railing, swearing under the breath (they'd cracked down the middle so they shifted when you stepped on them and for an instant made you think you were falling) -- and came into our shit-stuffed living room. A television alcove jutted out beside the porch, so there should have been plenty of space for furniture, but after Sandy died Brigman (which is all I'd ever called him from the time he and my mom started dating when I was eight) began filling it with stuff he refused for whatever reason to throw out (cardboard boxes of her clothing, stacks of newspapers and magazines, cases of empty beer bottles, the broken remains of Chloe's childhood toys) so now the television sat in the square middle of the room, on boxes, and the two easy chairs were shoved back against the wall and you had to make your way through it all on pathways that had been hewn out between the piles.
Chloe stood inside the door, arms folded over the breast-shelf of her chest, glaring at me. She'd obviously seen or anyway heard my little tirade of threats to her special friend, our forever neighbor-across-the-street, he who was twenty-four to her sixteen.
She said, "You prick."
"Great," I said. "Nice to see you, too. How's your day been, Chlo?"
She was born, my baby sister, with a facial disfigurement called a nevus flammeus, what you might hear called a port-wine stain, just a birthmark really but in her case a huge one -- it covered half her face (the right half, as it happened) from the midline of her mouth and chin up across her cheek to just above her eye and nearly over to her ear -- that darkened as she grew from infancy until by the time she was toddling it was the color I would call magenta, that is, the shade of a just ripening plum when its dark redness has begun to be shot through with a deeper richer violet. It was the crisis of her life, of course, that mask, a horrid torment for a girl who had always been pretty otherwise.
Now, on top of it, she was newly built in a way that made your heart hurt -- well, it made my heart hurt but pretty much every other man's neck twist. Chloe had a bosom, you might say, the sort that even other women appraised. It only compounded the view she had of herself as freakish, as a creature the world had license to regard shamelessly and openly.
She said, "Why can't you just mind your own business?"
What does a girl from a collapsed and hopeless place do when she has a bicolored face and a body that stops traffic? Where does she turn when she has no mother and the shadow of a father and a brother who's utterly preoccupied with his own perceived miseries and injustices, and she wants so terribly just to have friends, to be let in? How does she accomplish that? It's not a hard question to answer. Chloe had not wanted, since the time she was in junior high, for boyfriends, at least.
"Night," I said, and headed up the stairs. I was exhausted. I'd worked the night before, gone straight to class, run a reconnaisance mission that turned into a face-to-face with the enemy and led, quite unexpectedly, to a penetration of their peripheral defenses, so that now apparently I had ahead of me another long night, though of a wholly different sort.
I barely even heard it when Chloe shouted after me, "Why do you have to go around making everyone miserable?"
Copyright © 2005 by Craig Holden
The Narcissist's Daughter
From the outside the Kesslers appear to have it all: Dr. Ted Kessler is a decorated veteran who now runs the lab at a large medical center. He and his wife, Joyce, live with their daughter, Jessi, in a beautiful house in the estate section of an Ohio city in the 1970s. Ted is widely respected as a clinician, researcher, manager, and businessman. But when he resolves to mentor an ambitious working-class student, this idyllic little world is threatened.
Syd Redding, the gruff, streetwise narrator of The Narcissist's Daughter, has no plan in mind for the Kesslers. He's a bored pre-med student with few prospects, a failure for a stepfather, and a sister who seems to be following his example. Soon after he meets Kessler's wife and daughter, he finds himself ensnared in the secret machinations of this magnetic family on the brink of unraveling.
The Narcissist's Daughter is the compulsively readable and suspenseful story of a simple affair that blossoms into obsession, exploitation, and finally, a passion for revenge that threatens to ruin the lives of everyone involved.