(Grayscale) Chapter 2
Quinton cradled the small teacup with both hands. He avoided being burned by alternating fingers the way a musician would play the keys of an instrument. Thumbs traced the rim of the cup. Steam rose above the lip and dissipated. Attention drifted from the cup, and the steam, to the activity outside.
He was seated next to the window overlooking Tenth Street and its bustling morning activity. The window provided a view of the red ornamental streetlight poles meant to simulate Chinese lanterns, the brick buildings, the colorful storefront signs, and the regular flow of passersby. Quinton chose the meeting location out of familiarity and comfort. Heung Fa Chun Sweet House was near the ceremonial awning and entrance to Chinatown. It was a tiny place with an uninspiring storefront, but renowned for its sweet and savory. A woman he had dated briefly introduced Quinton to the spot and he had returned regularly, albeit without the woman.
Over the years, those two attributes, familiarity and comfort, were what Quinton gravitated to with more frequency. Places he knew, where he could control the experience. Where there was activity to witness and at the same time seclusion for himself. They were places he went to indulge in the essence of his city and yet be secure in the anonymity the urban setting provided if that is what was chosen – alone in a crowded space. He went as the audience to live theater, to see the human condition, as the voyeur. And he would often imagine the scene, the condition, on a canvas in stark blacks and subtle grays. Sometimes all or part of those scenes actually made it to the canvas from memory of what he observed. Faces mostly and not the happy ones. He searched for the ones that were tattooed with fears or insecurities, or pain, or misery. Sadness was the expression he was most drawn to. Deep, longing sadness.
His work had been described by one critic as raw and real; by another as honest and unapologetic. Rather than embellish or manufacture beauty, yet another explained, he painstakingly captured every line and pore and defect like a documentarian. There were plenty who panned Quinton but those who questioned his relevance did not question his pursuit of the vividly real.
If Quinton actually ever agreed to do an interview, he would have explained that he observed. That was his talent. He could sit for hours and watch paint dry, then find the bubbles, each having a subtly unique shape, and the spots where the original color bled through. While people around him raced through the city, always more focused on where they were going rather than where they were in the moment, or distracted by tiny screens and virtual conversations, Quinton breathed in the space. He studied the environment in its entirety – the beautiful, the repulsive, even the mundane. But outside, looking in. That is how he lived and how he preferred to be. Quinton was alone as much as the world would allow. He was the audience.
Of course, few are completely alone. There was his agent, who saw Quinton the most. There were a few, far off phone conversations with an old friend who had managed to stick around after Quinton had disappeared from the lives of the rest.
There were the fleeting moments when an intimate attraction would break the fourth wall while he sat in the audience, but the digression slipped away as quickly as it manifested. A flirt. Small talk when the stage had gotten too quiet. The occasional sex when it felt right. But it all dissipated like steam. The flirtatious glance vanished as soon as she passed by. Small talk ceased once the action on stage began again. Intimacy withered when the sex was over.
He found comfort in several places throughout Philly, making sure no single place was frequented too often to risk developing stronger, personal connections with the inhabitants. If he was up on 15th Street, it was McGlinchey’s. If he was in Old City, the Tin Angel. If he was in Chinatown, it was Heung Fa Chun Sweet House.
Quinton had arrived a half hour early for his meeting with the writer to clear his thoughts, consider the prospect of taking on a new project. He adjusted the dark sunglasses and let the hair fall in his face to obscure more features of recognition. He had deliberately not washed his hair all week to accentuate a very subtle disguise. Quinton had never met with anyone about his work in person except for Troy. His publisher had never even met him, as they would know him by, Jay Walker. It was a trite pseudonym but the only one he could think of when the first graphic novel was shopped, so it stuck. Troy had managed to be Quinton’s impenetrable firewall and was now assuring the recluse that Jonathon Thomas was not interested in finding the real Quinton, only his art.
Still, Quinton could feel the anxiety bubbling up like the unsettled surface of carbonated soda. Maybe it was because of the potential exposure of the meeting with the novelist. Any risk to anonymity always brought about that unsettled feeling. But there was also the other, the bubbling up that started like anxiety and slowly manifested. Quinton convinced himself it was only the circumstances that Troy had placed him in and pushed the possibility of the other aside, knowing it had started before the meeting was proposed, when that song penetrated his reality again.
‘Jonathon Thomas,’ the name drifted in Quinton’s mind. It was humorous, not the name but the presence attached to that name and the idea such a person wanted to meet with him. Jonathon Thomas and Quinton had some things in common, true. They both told stories, although in different forms. They both experienced success from their storytelling, although the novelist was far more successful than Quinton. But they differed greatly in their place in the world. The novelist was on the stage for all to see and seemed very comfortable with it.
Quinton opened the browser on his smart phone, keyed in a name and tapped a review from last summer.
True to form, the latest novel from Jonathon Thomas is sarcastic and dark. Like his other four novels, it relishes in the grim and leverages that state of being to comment on how we live our lives.
But unlike its predecessors, Here with Apprehension is oddly optimistic as the characters find hope within a collective search for purpose during a sudden reunion. Thomas explores the usefulness of the past and follows the lives of four adults as different as can be, connected only by a few short summer months as teenagers. Brought back together by a major news event, the characters are forced to come to grips with the choices they each made when they were unable to understand the full breadth of the consequences, and whether or not their choices shaped the present.
The reunion takes place in a small town in Southern New Jersey. The rendezvous point is the rooftop of the high school overlooking a large park in a town with blue collar roots, which now clash with the new where simple living is replaced by trendy restaurants and rising property values. The school, the town and the constant reminder of change ensure character reflection with much of that reflection rooted in guilt.
The writer has been accused of having a fixation on death. In the style of the Irish classics, death to Thomas is simply a part of the landscape, as normal as rush hour traffic. The place where he finds true literature is in the landscape’s reaction to death. Here with Apprehension is no different. It is a psychological profile, rather four profiles, of lives impacted by death. How the psyche reacts to the chaos brought on by loss is the question that Thomas’ writing begs.
If the reader is hoping for Thomas’ signature ambiguity, Here with Apprehension will disappoint. One could consider the work a flirtation with the formulaic sentimentality of mass marketed fiction influenced by Hollywood idealism. If Thomas was tempted to conform a bit for the sake of broadening his audience, the conformity is very little. Here with Apprehension resolves in a way that no other Jonathon Thomas novel has, however, the reader witnesses the pieces left behind, regardless if hope bleeds into the narrative for the first time.
The story begins with the main character, Grace, hiking in the forest near her home in Colorado after receiving news of a death. There is anger and frustration in her face as the character climbs the steep trail. The body is disconnected from the expression as she moves with deliberate action as calculated as a programmed robot. Grace reaches a point in the hike where she drops to her knees and eats dirt. It is a ritualistic moment that speaks to a cleansing.
Thomas explores several examples of ‘the ritual’ in his latest work. Some blend seamlessly into the frame as they originate from common American cultural and religious practices. There are a few rituals, like the eating of dirt, that are striking against the suburban American landscape.
Here with Apprehension takes the reader to a normal place and pulls back the curtain to show the shadows that lurk behind the normal. Perhaps the most unsettling moment is when the story ends and the reader is left to contemplate the personal similarities.
Looking up from the small screen, Quinton surveyed the street. The old man dragging the trash cans from the curb, an aching body hunched over and every movement seemed to be anguish. The twenty something young woman with jet black hair and short skirt, exaggerating her movement so that her body swayed like a flag in a steady wind as she checked her make-up in the reflection of her phone. The stains on the sidewalk, representing the activity of the previous night, food or vomit. The discarded magazine, torn and wet on the edge of the gutter. The overweight, middle aged man in a suit hurrying along the sidewalk with an expression of anxiety.
Five minutes after ten, a tall, older man in a sport coat and jeans holding a leather satchel walked through the front door. He was a large man, with a full face, shaved head and thick plastic framed glasses. He looked around and attempted to identify Jay Walker from what he perceived an anonymous artist would look like. Quinton recognized the writer from his book jacket. After watching the exercise for a few minutes, he motioned to the man who smiled and walked over.
“Should I call you Mr. Walker?” extending his arm. “That seems kind of silly.”
Quinton shook, making note of how large the writer’s hand was. “How many times does a name actually get used in a one-on-one conversation. The beginning? Maybe the end?”
“Good point. I have to admit, I have never had breakfast at a Chinese restaurant.”
“I guess you could say I am a fan of your work. I don’t think anything else could have gotten me here,” Quinton said.
The author sat down, looking around the restaurant, the gaze of unfamiliarity.
“Thanks for saying that. And I am a fan too, of you, which is why I called your publisher.” He kicked the satchel under the table and opened the menu. “It was gratifying to hear that they don’t know who you are either.”
The two ordered a fresh pot of tea and a tofu dish called douhua and talked about each other’s work for the better part of an hour without once bringing up the proposed collaboration until the dishes were cleared.
Jonathon then reached under the table, grabbed the old satchel and placed it on his lap.
“Have you ever read a newspaper article and wonder about the people? Not the story but what led to that circumstance? What happened after? Not just wonder, but can’t get it out of your damn head?” Jonathon laughed, then paused and surveyed Quinton’s expression.
“Sure,” Quinton responded, not eager to provide any more of his perspective on that scenario until he knew where the conversation was going.
“I have always been more interested in the lives behind the stories than the stories themselves. Based on what I know about your work, I have a feeling that you feel the same way.”
The two stared at each other for a few awkward minutes, Jonathon looking for more interest and response from his new acquaintance, Quinton unsure of whether to be curious or annoyed. Jonathon wrapped his large hand around the tiny cup and gripped it as if he were holding a fragile insect, firm enough to keep it from escaping but gentle enough to keep from crushing it, and sipped the hot tea with eyes fixed on Quinton.
“Do you remember a story about a poet and his wife who went missing a year ago?”
“Can’t say I do,” Quinton replied.
“It went by in a flash. Reed Mitchel and his wife, Allison. He was quite a writer in his twenties and early thirties and critics were putting him up there with Frost and Merwin, similar courage of a forgotten age. Then he just stopped writing, for twenty plus years. I hadn’t heard anything from him, and I keep up on the literary world or try to. It’s the profession. Then a news story about his disappearance. He was teaching at a small college in PA."
“So the story is about the disappearance of a poet?”
“Well, probably death. They found enough DNA to support that, of his at least.” Jonathon placed the satchel on the table. “And on the surface, yes. But what I am interested in is exploring Allison as subtext.”
Quinton nodded with interest, watching the novelist through big sunglasses and strands of greasy hair.
“In this bag is the first draft of my manuscript, some other things that were part of my research and...” Jonathon rummaged through the satchel and pulled out a leather bound book… “Allison’s diary.” He slid the book across the table to Quinton.
Quinton picked up the book with the care of an archeologist examining a rare and valuable relic. “How did you get this?”
“I bought their house.”
“Reed had no living relatives. Other than a few mentions of the town Allison was from, her origins or any familial connection could not be discovered. There were no claims to the house. It went to Sheriff sale, so I bought it and all of its contents. The diary was in the bottom drawer of a dresser.”
Quinton thumbed through the book, feeling his stomach knot, as uncomfortable as if he were watching her undress without her knowledge. Parading naked for all to see was one thing, but to steal a glance of the unwilling is something entirely different. Quinton was certainly a voyeur in his own right, but he collected images in his mind that inspired a finished product. He never committed theft verbatim. He never announced to the world to look at Joe Somebody at Apartment E who sits at that bar drinking his paycheck away while his family suffers at home. People around him inspired his work, no individual was his work. Except one person, but she was safe as long as she was a secret.
As Quinton flipped through the pages, Jonathon was watching. The pages passed by Quinton’s eyes in a blur, deliberately, with the intention of not reading a single word. He arrived at the end where pages were torn out. “Missing pages.”
“One of the many interesting facts we have here,” Jonathon remarked.
Quinton closed the book and pushed it across the table in the direction of the writer. “I have never been much into the exposé. It is the exploitive factor that doesn’t settle well with me.”
Jonathon leaned forward, his elbows on the table, his face resting in those enormous hands, the plastic glasses peeking out like the periscope on a submarine.
“I hear you. And I am not sure I have a defense. All I can say is I had to. I have never attempted nonfiction, but I just had to write about this one.”
Quinton gave a nod of acknowledgement. Obsessing over a subject was hardly something he could criticize.
“I am committed to giving the absolute most care to this story, and to the people,” Jonathon continued, “for their sake, and my own reputation.” He leaned back in the chair and pulled a scrunched, half-smoked cigarette from the inside pocket of his sport coat and gently rubbed it between his thumb and index finger.
“It is crazy for me to stray from what I know. I write fiction. But I can’t get this story out of my head. It needs to be told. Read my manuscript, read the other materials – her journal. If it doesn’t speak to you, send it all back to me. But if it does, please, draw what you see. This story needs your pictures. I can’t explain why I feel this way, it just does.”
Quinton looked down at the journal and back to the writer’s eyes, gauging his sincerity through plastic frames.
“Not going to make any promises. I will look through it.”
Jonathon smiled and put the used cigarette between his lips. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of keys, sliding them across the table. “Keys to Reed and Allison’s house. The address is in with the other materials. Feel free to take a ride out there. Stay if you want, as long as you want. There are no deadlines here.”
The two men stood and shook hands. “I am grateful for your consideration,” Jonathon Thomas concluded and left the restaurant. Quinton watched him pass the window, smoking the used cigarette.
That evening, Quinton sat on the floor of his loft and emptied the contents of the leather satchel. There were newspaper clippings, photos of the couple together at various events, brochures of the college where Reed taught, two collections of Reed’s poetry, a flash drive wrapped in a paper that read research, a copy of the police report, Jonathon’s manuscript, three manila folders filled with the writer’s notes, and Allison’s diary.
Quinton lay down on his back and held the diary in the air, feeling the worn leather with his thumbs. It wasn’t particularly old; however, it was handled often. Every page was filled with hand written words. Quinton flipped to the back and counted the torn edges at the end twice, determining that four pages were missing.
As he thumbed the torn pages, he noticed the binding of the diary was cut along the outer edge of the inside of the back cover. He gently pulled the fabric from the leather binding and slipped his index finger inside, far enough to feel the hard edges of a concealed paper product of some sort. He reached into his denim pocket to retrieve a small pocket knife and used it to slide the concealed objects to the surface. Placing the diary on the floor, Quinton studied the new discovery – five black and white photographs of porcelain dolls.
They had miniature Victorian dresses, realistic hair with ribbons, hauntingly pale faces and big lifeless eyes. The top photo was all of them on a shelf, about thirty dolls, lined up in a seated position. The other photos were close-ups of their individual faces.
He closed the diary and examined the spine that was littered with doodles, all the same image. Spirals, in threes. Two atop one, the same configuration, the same basic image, over and over.
Quinton placed the doll photos next to the diary on the floor and randomly picked up the other photos of the missing couple, studying them, unsure of what he was trying to learn in that moment with the contents of their lives and the summation of a writer about their lives spilled in his living room. Quinton stared up at the high ceiling, at the old rafters that were left intact from the original warehouse that once occupied his address. He made mental notes of Allison’s face from the photos, concentrating on the distance in her eyes, almost vacant, and the glowing pallid skin. He wasn’t sure exactly what Jonathon had experienced that had drawn the novelist into the story so intently. For Quinton, if he decided to take Jonathon’s offer, the cause would be those seemingly harmless photos in big rooms with other smartly dressed people, Allison on Reed’s arm supporting her husband. He had yet to take in a single word from the young woman’s diary. He had only studied for a brief moment the photos, and they said a lot. In Allison’s eyes, he saw escape.
Quinton sat up and grabbed the satchel. He opened the flap and sunk his hand into the leather body to open it up so he could return the contents. But when his hand reached the bottom, he felt a stabbing pain and immediately withdrew his hand from the bag. Blood trickled from a small gash on the edge of his palm. Quinton gently reached back in with the other hand and retrieved the final object that managed to remain in the bag when he emptied the contents – a single steel hairpin, sharp, with an ornate handle made of some kind of bone.