Author of SAVING MISS OLIVER'S & NO IVORY TOWER

Introducton to right-wing radio jock, Mitch Michaels, a character in No Ivory Tower

CHAPTER FOURsailing-boat-979134_640-1

It was three o’clock in the morning and Mitch Michaels was wide awake.

Ordinarily the two Vicodins he had swallowed at midnight would have taken him all the way to six o’clock, and then there would be the limo ride to the studio where, as soon as he leaned forward into the mike, he’d imagine all those people nodding their heads, guys mostly, driving to work all over the country, their shoulders relaxing because they were hearing what they already believed, and his pain would melt away. But there was no show today because it was a holiday weekend and he was not in his New York apartment; he was in his summer house on the beach in Madison, Connecticut, and without the daily morning rage vent to look forward to and with the disturbing presence just down the hall of Claire Nelson, his daughter’s long-legged, willowy guest with the raven hair and deep-set, innocent eyes, he knew that, in another half an hour, if he didn’t take another pill, the electricity that was then a mounting tingle at both sides of his lower back would pulse down through his buttocks and explode in his hamstrings and toes like bombs going off every minute and a half. Ninety seconds exactly. He’d counted them. It never varied. The worst part was waiting in between.

He didn’t need to turn the light on to find his way down the hall to the bathroom past the room where his daughter Amy and Claire were sleeping because it was just a little shingled cottage, which he and his wife had bought when he was still a sportscaster for seventy-five thousand dollars. Seventy-five thousand! It was worth six hundred thousand now. He knew because he’d had to pay her half that to buy his half from her when they divorced—which he was happy to do—until he figured out that it made her rich enough to enroll their daughter in that school. “How would you feel,” he’d asked on his show, pretending he was talking about some other family, “if you had no say in what kind of a school your daughter goes to?”—forgetting that most of his listeners sent their kids to public schools and didn’t have any say either. The more he’d learned about Miss Oliver’s School for Girls in Amy’s freshman year—how the students addressed their teachers by their first names—or even nick names! How the kids were allowed to dress like savages and read books like Catch 22—as if they knew enough by then to know why we fought that war and what guys died for—the more cheated he felt. It didn’t help that his ex-wife, as sole custodian of his daughter, in total control of when and if he could visit with her, had obtained a court order prohibiting him from stepping foot on the campus.

In the bathroom, he opened the medicine cabinet and reached behind the row of bottles containing aspirin and ibuprofen and vitamin C and Barbasol Shaving Cream to where the one containing the Vicodin pretended to hide, opened it, and shucked two into his palm. Only ten left. He put one back and swallowed the other. He’d learned to take them without water because water was not always handy, and besides, if he drank water now, he’d have to get up and pee when what he needed was to be obliterated in sleep. The doctor in Madison didn’t know there was a doctor in New York who filled out prescriptions too—or, anyway, pretended he didn’t.

On the shelf beside the sink sat his daughter’s guest’s toilet kit. Toilet. What a nasty name for what’s in there: toothbrush, toothpaste—lipstick maybe? What else? He reached, touched the soft leather, ran his fingers where the zipper was slightly opened, then, shamed, pulled his hand away. Never before in his life had he imagined that a teenager would stir him. Girls that age, especially if they were as beautiful as this one, were people you needed to protect! He didn’t understand that this one’s ability to stir feelings very near to lust in him was a purposeful application of power, in this case just for the hell of it, and he was as addicted to being around power as he was to painkillers—because maybe they were the same. But he did understand that when the Vicodin kicked in and he was back in bed in the dark, not counting the seconds until the next explosion, he might dream of her, and because he hoped he wouldn’t and still wanted to, he was shamed still more.

Yesterday, Amy and her mother had driven from their home on Long Island to meet Claire at JFK, where she’d flown in from London. They spent the day and that night in the city—Mom’s treat—all three in the same hotel room. This morning, Amy’s mother had put them on the train in Grand Central Station; he’d picked them up an hour and a half later at the New Haven railroad station. They were still glowing from their New York City fun. Claire’s dad, a VP of a NYC investment bank, recently transferredto the London office, was busy that weekend, Amy explained, and Claire, whose mother had abandoned the family when Claire was eight years old, didn’t want to be in London alone, so Amy invited Claire to spend the weekend. Then Amy’s mom would drive them both to Miss Oliver’s. Typical of Amy: innocent, naïve, kindness personified, but he also knew that she’d never spend a whole long weekend alone with her dad. Just don’t listen to my show, he’d told her every time she let him call her on the phone. Just forget that part of me, and we can like each other again. He was that straight with her. No, she said. Every time. No way. You stop and then we will. That made him love her all the more. “Of course, you can bring a friend,” he’d said.

They’d gone straight from the railroad station to the house and put on their bathing suits and walked to the beach across the front lawn in bare feet, and he remembered when she was five years old and she stepped on a bee and it stung her and he carried her back to the house, feeling her arms around his neck, and in the house, put ice on it, and it stopped hurting just like he told her it would. It was one of those times when he was almost crazy with happiness, but now they couldn’t go swimming because the water was full of jelly fish, which happened more and more now in August than it ever did before, and so they sat on a blanket in the hot sun while he tried to keep his eyes off Claire as she told about her life in London. Oh, I’d love to go to England, Amy said—an enchanted sophomore to a post-graduate student. He’d coached her in T-ball and early soccer, and now looking at her in her one-piece modest bathing suit, he saw she didn’t have that chubbiness anymore and wondered if she was wearing it so she wouldn’t have to listen to him disapprove.

Now, with the pill inside him, he turned out the bathroom light and headed down the hall to his room where he’d get back in bed and tell himself not to worry about whether or not he’d be able to sleep. Over and over, Don’t worry, he’d say. Don’t worry, don’t worry because what do you think is keeping you awake? Worrying about whether you can sleep, that’s what. Well then, stop worrying, idiot! Just lie there if you have to, it’s not the end of the world, but he’d already turned around. He went back into the bathroom and this time when he turned on the light, the glare off the tiles was an explosion in his eyes. He opened the medicine cabinet, found the bottle of Ambien, squinted at the label hard to make sure that’s what it was and swallowed two, imagining them landing on the Vicodin, and just to be sure popped a Benadryl. Then he turned out the light and it was somehow darker than it was before, like the inside of a camera or the bottom of the ocean, and he had to feel his way with his hands on the walls, his fingertips along the grooves in the old fashioned tongue-and-groove paneling that still smelled like just-cut-down trees and the door behind which his daughter and Claire Nelson slept, where he wanted to stop and listen to them breathe, but he didn’t. Moonlight shone through the windows in his room, his big empty bed right there in the middle. He climbed up into it, and few minutes later he was on the thin line between sleeping and waking, wondering if he would ever cross over. And then oblivion.

In the morning, he got up at seven, relieved, maybe even proud, that he’d managed not to dream of Claire, and he didn’t swallow any pills, just black coffee, and took a long walk on the beach to kill time until Amy and Claire woke up. An hour later when he returned they were still asleep, obviously, being teenagers. So he mowed the lawn, the big green sward in front of the cottage that swept down to the seawall. He figured the roar of the lawn mower engine would wake them up, but at nine o’clock they still hadn’t appeared downstairs. He was tempted to climb the stairs and wake them up, but he was afraid to annoy his daughter. As soon as they did wake up, he’d propose they go sailing. It was one of those blue-skied September days you only get once in a while and you remember forever, the air light and buoyant, and everything sparkling, the Sound as blue as the sky with little whitecaps. If they got going early enough, they could take a lunch and sail all the way across the Sound to Long Island and back on the southwest wind, a broad reach in both directions. In the meantime, he might as well mow the back lawn too. He liked the mindless back and forth, it soothed him. So he cranked up the mower again and set to work. The scent of the honeysuckle that trailed up the trestles on the back of the cottage drifted to him and he was almost happy, thinking of how Harry Truman mowed his own lawn in Missouri even though he’d been the president of the United States and of Ronald Regan cutting brush in California.

The window of the room where Amy and Claire slept looked out over the back lawn, and so he left the mower’s engine on and parked it in neutral right below the window, where it roared for at least a half an hour while he raked up the cut grass, a finishing touch he’d never done before and never would again. After he saw through the back kitchen window that the girls had at last come downstairs to the kitchen, he went on raking to show them the reason the mower was still roaring—and sending exhaust fumes through the open kitchen window into the house—was that he had simply forgot to turn it off, and that it was very important to get all this grass raked up. But they weren’t even aware he was raking the grass. Sitting at the kitchen table, side by side, their backs were to the window.

“Oh, you’re up!” he said, sauntering into the kitchen a few minutes later. He was still holding the rake, as if he’d forgotten it was in his hand.

“Why didn’t you just come upstairs and wake us up?” Amy stared at him. “Don’t you think that would that would have been better?” Her irritation frightened him. Claire looked at him, then back to Amy by her side, then back to him, like someone watching a play.

He felt his face get red and turned away and carefully leaned the rake against the wall in a corner, as if that was why he’d brought it in. “I thought we might go sailing,” he said, still facing away.

They didn’t answer. He turned around. Amy and Claire were looking at each other. Claire was wearing blue pajamas. Amy was in pajamas too, he supposed, but he didn’t know what color because they were underneath a robe. “We could take a lunch,” he said. Claire turned her gaze from Amy’s face to his. “How about you, Claire,” he said, “would you like to go sailing?”

Claire held his gaze just to see if she could, though she’d never admit to herself that’s what she was she was doing. When he couldn’t hold his gaze on her any longer and had to look away, she turned to Amy and nodded her head. “All right, then, let’s go sailing,” Amy said.

It was too late now to sail all the way across the Sound to Long Island and back. He wasn’t surprised by how disappointed he was. They’d sail east instead, toward the mouth of the Connecticut River.

They bought sandwiches and cokes for lunch at the grocery store by the marina in Clinton where he kept his boat, a t
hirty-two foot sloop, which when it was still true, he’d named Amy’s Delight. It had two bunks and a head and a tiny galley below. He was well aware that if Amy were the same age as Claire, who’d be a college girl if she were not doing an extra year at that school he hated, he would have bought beers instead of cokes. Amy wore his black L.L. Bean woolen shirt over her bathing suit. It dwarfed her, coming down to her knees and made her look younger than she was, a middle school kid, instead of a high school sophomore. That was all right with him; she could stay that age forever. Claire wore his big red hoodie. It covered her down to just below her bikini bottom because she was that much taller, and it made her long legs look as naked as they really were. It was hard not to imagine that the hoodie was all she wore.

They jumped down into the boat and Claire said, “I don’t know a thing about sailing,” and had the good sense to climb halfway down the companionway to get out of the way, and Amy went forward like he’d trained her, before the trouble between him and her mom, to take the clips off the furled jib and then came aft, and they hauled it up together and then she helped him haul the main sail halyard, and then he turned to her and said exactly what he knew she knew he would: “Will you take us out, Amy?” And as if no misery had ever happened between them, she smiled and said she would and gave that little funny salute he’d taught her, and there was such a hot red surge of love for her like a live thing rising in his chest he thought he’d never be able to breathe again, his eyes flooding and his lip quivering, and he turned away so she wouldn’t see a grown man crying and jumped up on the dock to cast off the lines.

He took the stern line off the cleat on the float and flipped it to Amy, who, sitting at the tiller, coiled it at her feet while he went forward to cast the bow line off. Claire still stood in the companionway, a mere passenger, nowhere near center stage, just watching. He un-cleated the bow line, pushed hard on the nose of the boat to swing it away from the dock and jumped onboard, and Amy pushed the boom and the tiller hard to the left and jibed expertly around in the very narrow space of the crowded marina to head for open water.

Anybody else would have used the motor.

As soon as they were past the jetty, a strong wind heeled the boat way over and he was glad to see that Claire, still standing in the companionway, was scared. He sat down on the bench on the windward side, just forward of his daughter, and said, “She’ll go a little faster if we tighten it a bit,” meaning closer to the wind, but what he really wanted was to heel even more and scare Claire more. He wanted water coming over the lee rail into the cockpit. He wanted her to lose her composure, but you might say he just wanted to show off for her.

Amy nodded her head and pushed the tiller down, and he pulled the main sheet in a little further and adjusted the jib sheets, and Amy’s Delight came up still closer to the wind and heeled still further over. Water did come in now over the lee rail, sloshing in the cockpit before exiting through the scuppers, and Claire, feeling much too close to the down side of the boat, abandoned the companionway and climbed up the slant to the windward side and sat down next to him, bracing her feet against the floor of the cockpit to keep from sliding down off the bench. There were bands of paleness on the tops of her feet where her sandal straps had prevented the sun. “Isn’t this fun!” he said, and Claire nodded her head and tried to smile.

They sailed like this for another half an hour or so until they were several miles out from the Connecticut shore. Amy said, “Now, Dad, is it time, do you think?” raising her voice over the sibilance of the rushing water and the wind and the throb of the windward stay, and he nodded his head to say, yes it was time— because even if it wasn’t time yet for them to come around and get the sail on the other side and start the long slide downwind toward the Connecticut River, this was one day he wouldn’t correct her, and he un-cleated the sheets and Amy pushed the tiller way down and the boat first heeled even further over so that Claire grabbed his hand and said, “Oh!” And then the boat righted itself as it swung and there was the lovely shuddering of the sails as the boom came over and they were going downwind now, even faster, and except for the fact that Claire wasn’t scared anymore because the boat was upright with the main on one side and the jib on the other, Mitch Michaels, who hadn’t dropped a pill since three in the morning, was as happy as he’d been in years.

So happy in fact that he forgot all about the tendency of the wind to fade on summer afternoons and ultimately cease all together—which is what happened that Saturday afternoon of the Labor Day weekend a few hours later, just as they were about to poke into the mouth of the Connecticut River. The sail that had been so taught went almost slack and the boat slowed. Amy didn’t even ask him whether she should come about and head for home; she just did. “We should have headed for New Haven instead,” she said. If they had, they would have tacked upwind while the wind was strong, and come home downwind when it was weak. Now they had to do the opposite. They both hated to use the motor.

Soon the wind died altogether, and Amy’s Delight lost all way, rolling in the swell, the boom swinging back and forth, and it was suddenly hot and misty, the sky turning from blue to white, and even the Sound itself succumbed to lassitude. Mitch Michaels started the motor, and Amy put it into gear and steered straight for home, and the exhaust from the motor, with no wind to blow it away, hovered around them, stinking.

Even so, Mitch was still happy. These things happen when you go sailing. But then Amy asked Claire, over the throb of the motor, if, since sailing wasn’t fun anymore, would she like to sun bathe “up there,” pointing to the deck forward of the cabin. Claire didn’t answer right away, glancing at him, catching his eye, asking, without saying, would you mind? Of course he minded. Who knew how long it would be before he had Amy’s company again? But he said, “I’ll take the tiller.” He could have put the automatic pilot on and gone forward with them, but he wasn’t invited.

He moved over and took the tiller from Amy, and the girls took a step forward. “Wait!” he said and reached into a cutty built into the bench and pulled out a tube of sunblock. “You better put some more on,” he said, holding the tube out. He knew it was silly to try to postpone Amy’s going up forward and leaving him alone. How long does it take to put sunblock on? Amy took her L.L Bean shirt off and Claire took the sunblock from him and handed it to her. Amy rubbed the sunblock on her arms and, bending over, the front of her legs. Then she handed the tube to Claire and turned around, and Claire applied the stuff to the back of Amy’s shoulders and legs. It wasn’t so long ago that it was still okay for him to do this for her.

“Now you,” Amy said and turned around and took the tube from Claire. He could swear that Claire turned her head to make sure he was looking before she peeled his big red hoodie up over her head. Claire bent over, reached her two arms up to her shoulders, and pulled the hoodie up, slowly, slowly, he thought, to tease him, he was sure, while his daughter watched him watch, and there Claire was seconds later, tall, flat bellied in her tiny bikini bottom and thin top that didn’t cover the rounded tops of her breasts, about as naked as you can get and still be in a bathing suit. She didn’t glance at him now; that would have been too obvious. If any other girl her age, even one just as pretty, tried to do this to him, he’d laugh and tell her to put her clothes back on, but there was something knowing about this one, something that made her older than her nineteen years.

Claire took the sunblock tube from Amy. She said, “I’ll put this on up there,” pointing forward where they would sunbathe. He knew she knew perfectly well what she had been doing. Maybe she was beginning to have second thoughts.

“But what about you, Dad?” Amy asked. “Shouldn’t you put some on too?”

He shook his head. “Never use the stuff.” It was true. He didn’t wear a helmet when he rode his bike either. And once when the buzzer in his brand new BMW told him to put his seat belt on, he smashed his hand against the dashboard so hard trying to shut it up, he sprained his wrist. He could actually laugh at himself about stuff like that, but he wasn’t laughing now. He’d been played like a fish. The two girls went forward, and he took the sails down and steered for home.

The girls came aft just as he nosed the boat into its berth and shut the motor off. Amy jumped off to tie up. Claire gathered up the remains of the lunch. He handed her the hoodie without saying anything, and she put it on. He wanted to say, Don’t you ever try that again, but he would have needed the upper hand for that.

By the time they got back to the cottage, it was almost seven o’clock. His back was beginning to hurt again. It would only get worse. He wanted to go upstairs into the bathroom and take a Vicodin, but the girls went straight there to shower, so he poured himself a vodka on the rocks and went out on the porch where he put charcoal in the grill and lighted it off. They’d have a steak. Amy could make the salad.

But the charcoal wouldn’t burn. It just sat there as if it wasn’t supposed to. He blew on it and rearranged it, getting his hands all black and sooty and it still wouldn’t burn. First the goddamn wind went down and now the fucking grill didn’t work! He gave the grill a petulant kick, almost knocking it over as the two girls appeared on the porch, looking fresh from their showers, dressed almost alike in cut-off jeans and T-shirts. Amy stayed back. She knew better than to talk to her dad when he was like this.

Claire stepped forward. “Can I help?”

“No! I can do it myself,” he said, picking up the can of lighter fluid and leaning over the grill.

“Dad, don’t!” Amy said. Too late. Her father squirted much more lighter fluid than you are supposed to on the charcoal.

“Watch out!” Claire lunged forward and pulled him back just before the stuff exploded and a jet of flame leapt up. It would have burned him. “Are you all right?”

“Of course I’m alright. Can’t you see it’s burning?” he said.

Claire laughed as if she thought he was joking.

“Dad, I’ll make the salad,” Amy said.

He went back into the kitchen, poured himself another vodka and took it up stairs into the bathroom to get the Vicodin. It was still steamy from the girls’ showers. Draped over the shower stall door were his daughter’s one-piece bathing suit and the tiny top and thong-like bottom of Claire’s bikini. Did they shower together? He was very careful not to imagine his daughter naked in the shower, but there was Claire, nude, soaping herself, as clear in his imagination as if she had actually been there. Right then and there, he decided to find a way to make Claire leave that school. No way was he going to let her corrupt his daughter. He put the pill in his mouth and washed it down with the vodka. Then he combed his hair as best he could since he couldn’t see himself clearly in the fogged-up mirror and went downstairs and poured another vodka. He took the steak out of the refrigerator and went outside and put it on the grill while the girls set the table. With the pill and the vodka in him, and a decision made, he felt a little better. He guessed that he’d been coming to that decision all along.

He went to bed early that night, almost right after dinner. He wouldn’t have if he’d had Amy to himself, but it was obvious she was a whole lot more interested in this older girl—who actually lived in a foreign country!—than she was in him. Upstairs on his bed, he tried to read but fell asleep with his clothes still on and dreamed that he wasn’t asleep—that he was wide awake in his bed and the window was open and the two girls were talking on the porch right below the window.

I didn’t do it with any boys, one voice said.

With who, then?

A teacher.

Claire!

And then he dreamed he was only dreaming. When he woke up, the moon was shining through the window and a breeze had come up fluttering the curtains. He took off his clothes and put on his pajamas and went into the bathroom where the bathing suits still hung and swallowed an Ambien. It was three in the morning. No voices rose from the porch below.

In the morning, at breakfast, he said, his voice casual, “Claire?” He’d had a good night’s sleep, he was feeling fine. And when Claire looked up, he said, “Tell me, why did you leave that other school in the middle of your senior year?”

“Because my father was transferred to London,” Claire answered, her expression blank.

But he wasn’t watching Claire’s face. He was watching his daughter watching Claire. It was obvious by her expression he hadn’t been dreaming. He had his ammunition now.

There are lots of ways of finding out things people would prefer to keep secret, and he was good at all of them. All he needed to find out whether Claire had told the truth or had made up the story to impress his daughter was to get his hands on the faculty list of Central Park Academy at the beginning of the previous year, and the revised one that would have been distributed after Christmas vacation.

How hard could that be for a man with his connections?

 

 

 

 

 

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