One cold dark night Willis steps off the bus at the Greyhound Station in Chaffeyville. His father, the Boom, just died and Willis is returning from the wake and the unrelenting rails and shrieks of his mother, the Roar. He’s already late for his shift at Li’l Donut House where he finishes the donuts and suffers the cold shoulder of his co-worker, Jenelle Powe. When he approaches the green neon of the donut shop and sees the bearded baker and Jenelle in her kelly green uniform in a passionate embrace at the empty counter, Willis bolts from the station, crosses the parking lot and charges into Chaffeyville Forest. In the black of night he blubbers through the bare trees, the crisp vines and sharp briars, ripping his sleeves, tripping over dead logs, bruising his knees on outcrops of granite, until he emerges on the raised banks of Chaffeyville Lake. Down below, the lake’s surface spreads out steaming and gray, as vast as the sky. Stepping back he takes a running start and jumps, but hits smack on the frozen surface, spins into the middle, lies still for a moment until he understands why he isn’t drowning. The cold soothes his brain. He relaxes into it, the ice informing him, instructing him. Then he jumps up and skating in his sneakers impresses into the lighter gray powdery patina, darker Payne’s gray lines reflecting the solidity of the ice and the depth of the lake. He doesn’t see these dark lines as he skates them, he doesn’t analyze or consider his path but just skates, in long curves, small jumps, short one-footed dots and interlocking loops, resurfacing the lake into pale ridges and dark grooves. At dawn, from the rimy bank, he recognizes the pattern as a fingerprint. Returning with a 35 mm camera pilfered from Boom's wake, he shoots several rolls of film before the sun warms the image into a blue-gray slush.
“What are these?” Jenelle asks waving a lake photo she’s snatched from Willis’s apron pocket.
“I skated that on the lake.”
“Really?” She studies the photo.
“What’s up,” the baker asks.
“None of your business,” she tells him.
While Willis breathes the sugar dust from her black hair, iridescent under the Li’l Donut House neon, Jenelle fingerprints him in cocoa on a sketchpad sheet he provides. “It’s a hunch,” she says. “I’m taking this to the library after work.”
The next night he’s squirting Bavarian crème into yeasty donuts when she comes up behind him, wraps her arms around him. “You skated only the identification portion of your own left index finger.”
Inside a week she creates a bulging portfolio of his photographs that she calls The Lake Print Series. Then she schmoozes and nags and insists all over Chaffeyville until she finds Gallery Caesar, an obscure shop off Franklin Street, currently displaying blown glass, life-sized elephant heads, transparent except for the their black eyes and milk white tusks. She makes an appointment and sends ahead 8 x 10s of the Lake Print Series to the attention of the owner, Caesar Pang.
At the entrance to the gallery, Caesar greets them, clicks his heels, bows and kisses Willis’s hand. “Genius,” he proclaims.
In the main gallery Caesar pours champagne and toasts their future together.
“Who’s the artist?” Jenelle says nodding in the direction of an elephant head occupying one end of the main gallery. In a wild elephant bellow, its trunk pitches several feet over Jenelle, the tallest of the three humans.
“It’s like a fingerprint with a face,” Willis says.
In a squint accentuating slight epicanthal folds, Ceasar steps back and observes the seated Willis Settle. Then he twitches his pencil mustache, lifts his chin says, “There is no artist beside Willis Settle.”
On the drive home, from the passenger seat Willis tells Jenelle, “He’s like a god.”
“He’s in business. He’s a businessman. You don’t know anything about businessmen.”
“Some kind of god. The God of Art.”
Jenelle stops the car on the side of the road.
“So he really impressed you?”
“He was impressive.”
“Okay. If he means so much to you.”
On her cell, Jenelle punches in the number for Gallery Caesar.
“We’re getting married,” she tells Caesar Pang. “Would you be a witness?”
“I’d be honored,” Caesar tells her.
“Satisfied?” she says, handing Willis the phone.
He blushes at this the first he’s known of their engagement.
During the last ice storm of the season, Chaffeyville press in tow they are married before a Justice of the Peace, an elderly female witness habitué and Caesar. Thanks to Caesar, images from the ceremony circulate in a few regional newspapers and then, as it happens, on a few art-oriented blogs: in a two-piece ivory wool blend suit, Willis peers up from his shy nod; beside him Jenelle in a black, long-sleeved silk qipao stares at the camera, gold flecks catching the light in her sad dark eyes.
By the first thaw, Willis has a successful show at Gallery Caesar and buyers and people who listen to him speak.
At Gallery Caesar Willis practices his speech in front of Caesar and Jenelle. “When you reach a cul-de-sac, trace over the ridge. As the ridges disappear, so do the furrows, and the limitations of the self.”
“Brilliant!” Caesar applauds and kisses Willis’s pale cheeks.
Jenelle rolls her eyes and looks away.
Throughout the summer, at private and university galleries, he delivers lectures with titles such as “Tracing: The Path to Enlightenment” in which he postulates that tracing the paths in the furrows of one’s fingerprints lead the aspirant to transcend the self. He encourages his followers to shave their hair in the shape of the Lake Print as he has done and then to follow the furrows with a stylus—“Your finger will do,” he says, though at the lectures Caesar sells a variety of styluses ranging from $5 for plastic to $50 for silver. Standing before a close-up of the one of the Lake Print photos displayed on an enormous screen, Willis addresses his audience. “Starting at the delta, you will never reach an end.” He points a red laser beam at the delta, the entrance to the double whorl print on the screen. “The fingerprint is not a maze,” he says, illustrating a typical path, a meandering really, on the photograph. They trace during the experiential portion of the gathering.
But following the furrows in his own printcut stirs distant cries as if from a buried nursery. “It’s Efferton,” he tells Jenelle, his hometown, his little room, under the dominion of the Boom, his father, the Roar, his mother. Jenelle convinces him to grow out his hair and drop the actual tracing portion of his lectures. He does as she asks but insists his disciples, who now call themselves Printheads, continue the practice on their own. “Tracing,” Willis tells them, “is the most vital part of the Print experience. You can’t think yourself into transcendence.”
His big break comes when Caesar who is from Chicago piques the interest of a particularly favored producer of the Oprah Show. In a dizzying few months plans are laid: Willis along with Jenelle and Caesar appear on an Oprah theme show: Cult of the Artist. Willis’s segment is first. Oprah politely listens while he illustrates his tracing method as usual by pointing his laser at an oversized Lake Print photo. When he explains that transcendence of the self is achieved by overcoming the ridge, Oprah deadpans the audience who scream with laughter.
After they take their seats and Jenelle has joined them, Willis answers Oprah’s questions about the origin of the Lake Print.
“You’ve made no secret about your suicide attempt, Willis, that you came up with this idea because the lake you intended to drown in was frozen.”
“Makes sense to me,” he says. The audience titters. Then Oprah looks at them producing several guffaws. Jenelle hums a low scary hum.
“Can you tell us why you don’t wear your hair in this Print cut?” Oprah asks.
“My wife doesn’t like it.”
He feels the vibrations of their laughter inside him. He chuckles a bit.
“Is that true, Jenelle?’
“I have to say, Yes.” Jenelle smiles.
The laughter reaches almost a frenzy when Caesar leads a throng of Printheads onto the set.
“You’re great,” Oprah tells Willis during the break.
“They laughed at me.”
“They love you.”
After their segment, Willis sits between Jenelle and Caesar in the front row of the audience and trembles for the remainder of the show, through the segment featuring the French artist wearing a black helmet and flak vest and Grocho glasses and nose masks who with his followers sets off tiny but beautiful explosions sparking a rainbow of airborne colors on sidewalks all over the world thus advertising their belief in the imminent end of the world via international warfare that will he says begin in the Middle East—hence the glasses, and through the final segment featuring the New York artist in wet suit and flippers who has made widely popular the wearing of wet suits and flippers in downtown Manhattan as a protest against global warming.
“What do you think of Willis’s success,” Oprah asks Jenelle in Oprah After the Show.
“He’s an artist,” Jenelle says. “A true artist.”
“Good answer,” Oprah says. “You’re a lucky man, she tells Willis who can’t help but nod.
“And you’re the man who is making him famous,” she says to Caesar.
“Willis Settle is destined for fame,” Caesar says. “I just made a few phone calls.” The audience applauds and Caesar bows his head.
On their return to Chaffeyville a large group of Printheads greet them at their little newlywed bungalow. When they open the front door, the phone is ringing. “We’re famous,” Caesar says on the other end. “The gallery is full of Printheads. We have mountains of mail from everywhere.”
Jenelle, Caesar and Willis form a corporation, Printheads, Inc., its registered office at Gallery Caesar, its website—www.printhead.bz—offering merchandise and instruction—screen savers, coffee mugs, decals all with the Lake Print pattern, The Printhead Handbook, CDs and DVDs of Willis’s most popular lectures. Caesar hires temps just to answer the mail and the email.
Then they are rich. Willis’s face emerges from its constant shy bow revealing his strong jaw, his soft vulnerable mouth, his blue-gray eyes that look right at you, Caesar says. He says Willis is coming into his own. But every knock on the door, every ring of the phone upsets Jenelle who spends more and more time in their bedroom where she stares into a handheld mirror and sketches self portraits that are almost all her big sad eyes. The warm nights he camps on the lawn with the Printheads throw her into early morning rages. One midsummer night, she sets a Printhead’s VW afire. Watching it burn from a safe distance, Willis and the Printheads hum “Auld Lang Syne.” Jenelle tears out of the driveway in their Audi just as the VW gas tank explodes.
The more popular the movement, the more she fumes and the less she eats and sleeps. She’s angular and unpredictable. She takes unexplained late night trips not returning sometimes until dawn. Willis never knows when she’ll give him the look, a glare really that locks him into her face, softens his spine. He has no defense against the look. He tells Caesar that Jenelle is unhappy. He pleads with him to help.
“I don’t want to lead the Printheads,” he tells Caesar. “Not if it disturbs my Jenelle.”
Caesar holds Willis’s hand for a moment. “My dear Willis Settle. She’s jealous. It is a problem of celebrity. She wants the money but she does not like the attention you get.” Caesar stands, his arms akimbo. “Do not worry. I am opening Chicago Caesar’s, a gallery in downtown Chicago where there are no known Printheads.”
“But the Printheads on Oprah,” Willis says.
“I shipped them in from North Carolina. Chicagoans are too practical to Trace.”
Jenelle and Willis buy a big house on the North Shore where they chase each other and make love in the beautiful blue living room. On the top floor in his studio, of Jenelle’s design, Willis paints at night, hoards of acrylic children, clambering atop each other, each vying to be the star of the canvas. He tells Jenelle about a family vacation in Florida. The Boom and Roar had taken him to the Ponce de Leon’s Alligator Farm. In ten foot cages thousands of baby alligators scrambled in a blurry gray-green panic. He’s never forgotten it.
“The exhibition,” Willis says. “We’ll call it Florida,”
“That makes no sense,” Jenelle says.
“The Master decides,” Caesar says at their first meeting in his new downtown gallery.
“And what the hell is this?” Jenelle says, nodding toward Caesar’s head now sporting a tight black print haircut made the more severe by the ample use of a glossy product Caesar has had developed called Print Glow. “$39.95 on our website,” he says.
“We’re dumping the Printhead business. You said so,” Jenelle says.
“It’s beautiful,” Willis says out the side of his mouth.
“Good for business,” Caesar says.
Jenelle sighs deeply. “That’s the end of it, Caesar. No more Printheads. You grow that out.”
“It’s just for business,” he says.
He spreads before them sketches for Willis’s first one-man show in Chicago Caesar’s.
At home after Jenelle has gone to bed, Willis stands at the bathroom vanity with the sideburn trimmer he’d used to cut the print pattern into his hair originally. He turns on the shower full force before starting at the crown of his head. From the delta to the core is easy, automatic, something driving him that he can’t resist. Hair flies everywhere catching the light floating in clouds of steam from the shower, catching him with it, filling him so that he stands on top of something, he is something. He feels the cut with his hand and automatically begins tracing. How warm it is to trace, he observes. What had he worried about before? This is not a problem. This is the solution. His spine elongates. Just as he seems poised on the edge of knowing everything there is to know and loving the universe, Jenelle opens the door. “What have you done?”
“You said we were finished with this.”
“I couldn’t help it. And uh it’s good for business,” he says through the steam and hair.
Jenelle’s feels the top of her teeth with her tongue then purses her lips. “Do what you want, oh Great One. Do whatever you want.” She slams the door, stomps down the hall and slams the door to their bedroom. Just as he’s swept the last bit of hair from the white and blue tile, the phone rings a hateful ugly ring in their bedroom. He tiptoes down the hall and listens at the door. Jenelle says, “You had a heart attack? Then you must come and live with us.”
Jenelle arranges for Willis’s mother, Edith Settle to move from North Carolina into their guest bedroom. “But it’s my mother,” Willis had said. “I can’t work. I can’t do anything with my mother here.”
“That’s right, Willis. She’s your mother. You are her only son. Are you going to let her rot in a nursing home? Is that the kind of man you are?”
He doesn’t tell her that he’d made a list of area nursing homes and had even called a few to discuss rates.
The Roar arrives on a Friday night. Willis watches as Jenelle props her up on her pillows so that she can breathe properly and watch TV, then she administers a number of pills from a big basket of pill bottles.
“I want more of those,” Roar says.
“You’re only supposed to have one for sleep,” Jenelle says.
“Willie,” Roar says. “Tell her.”
“Better give her what she wants,” Willis says.
“Willis,” Jenelle says. “She can only have one.”
While Jenelle argues with Willis, Roar pours out a palm-full of pills and swallows them. When Jenelle turns back, Roar is already smoking a Virginia Slim and turning channels on the remote for the TV on the other side of the bed. In the ashtray on the nightstand her upper plate grins ghoulishly sporting cigarette butts on its molars.
“She shouldn’t smoke in bed,” Willis tells Jenelle while they’re lying in bed.
“You said yourself she gets what she wants.”
That night Willis can’t sleep for the Roar’s TV blasting a QVC make-up marathon. “Can’t you make her turn it down?” he asks Jenelle. “She’s your mother,” Jenelle mumbles. In a few minutes Jenelle breathes softly in deep sleep. QVC is offering free shipping on a Multi-Mask Make-Up Pak. He holds pillows against his ears. Then all night through the At Home Spa Specials, the Face Lift in the Shower, the Dermabrasion Jamboree, he throws off the covers, pulls them back on. Finally towards dawn, exhausted from his efforts, he falls asleep.
Waking from dreams of low-lying bogs and sinking bridges, Willis glides his arms across the satiny sheets. These are Jenelle’s soft smooth sheets, not the sandpapery sheets of Efferton. “Jenelle,” he says to the sheets. “Pretty Jenelle.”
Then he sits up quick, his hands coiled in layers of chiffon film. It’s Roar’s sea-green peignoir. The smell tears his eyes, a gestalt of Final Net hair spray, cigarettes, and an aged, self-loathing uterus.
He casts it toward the door but it settles at the foot of the bed like a beached jellyfish. “Jenelle,” he shouts and leaps for the door just as Jenelle enters.
“The peignoir! LOOK!”
“Your mother’s gown? What are you doing with it?”
“I woke up and there it was. She’s been in here.” He speaks too fast and gasps as he speaks.
“Willis.” She curls her finger for him to follow.
In the guest bedroom, redolent with the sweet rot of pyorrhea, the Roar lay snoring, her belly rising, pausing on the inflate, collapsing. He’s seen it before, this gasp, the shudder, the swelling belly, as if something inside struggles to escape the mush of Bugles, Velveeta, and Rotel tomatoes. He shudders at the prospect of that murky tissue.
“Why would this poor woman walk all the way down the hall to scare you with her peignoir?”
He holds up two fists full of green chiffon. “Look,” he says.
“LOOK.” He shakes the peignoir in her face.
Caesar advises Willis to share his feelings with her. “What is a marriage without communication?” He squeezes Willis’s hand. “She must understand. Your mother needs a nursing home. You are a working man. You do not need this distraction in your home.”
That night while Jay Leno’s monologue blasts from the Roar’s TV, Willis whispers to Jenelle’s sleeping body, neatly contained in its pink pajamas, how the Roar had originally bought the gowns to wear for her kidney stone excision, the first of numerous excisions, procedures or infections requiring hospitalization. Willis devoted much of his childhood to washing and drying the gowns, folding and packing them, in what seemed an endless cycle, Boom growling in the background.
She snorts and rolls onto her stomach. He lies back. In sleep he flails in a pool of peignoirs, the Roar everywhere, her big toes sticking straight up to indicate her stress level. Willis kicks and heaves.
When Willis tells Caesar that he can no longer paint, Caesar says, “Enough is enough. You cannot work in this house. And you cannot work with this.” He points at the ceiling above which the Whitney Houston screams, “I hate you, Bobby Brown” on TV and the Roar snores.
“Jenelle loves her.”
“Then where is Jenelle?” He points to his watch. “Two o’clock in the morning, Willis.”
“She’s very busy.”
“What is she doing? I have followed this loving wife. I have seen her in the lobbies of the Drake, the Renaissance, Embassy Suites.” He counts off downtown hotels on his fingers.
Jenelle is hollering, “What have you done to your mother?”
Willis runs sinking in sea-green chiffon.
“We’ve got to help her.”
In the hall he hears a woman moaning in labor on TV and an even louder rasping, like a leaking bellows.
“I can’t go in there,” he yells over the racket.
“You’re coming.” She pulls him by his hand. “I’ve called the paramedics.”
Wrapped tight in a long black coat, Jenelle follows the gurney and the EMTs out the door. “Get the peignoirs and drive after us.”
He closes the door and snaps his fingers. “That’s for you,” he says heading for the kitchen. On the butcher paper tablecloth he scribbles for a while. Then jumps out of his chair. It’s his fingerprint, left index. He touches his hair, the ridges and grooves of the double whorl. His throat contracts. He calls Caesar Pang.
“Sit tight, my friend. I am on the way.”
The sun is rising over the lake illuminating the house, and what a beautiful house, so many windows, the naked swaying crowns of the sugar maples pitching shadows against the pale blue walls, like an underwater arbor. He wanders through it whimpering. It had been a miracle that he’d won Jenelle. Why would she think a fingerprint beautiful?
When Caesar arrives Willis clings to him crying. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.”
“No apologies, Willis. Enough is enough.” Caesar’s printcut shines black blue in the overhead light of the foyer.
“We shouldn’t have done it. We shouldn’t be wearing print cuts,” Willis says.
“Willis Willis Willis.”
“She said to bring the peignoirs,” Willis says, clinging to Caesar’s lapels.
Then they’re driving in Caesar’s Saab on the early morning expressway.
“You do not worry anymore. From now on you will stay with me in my home. You will wear a printcut. You will not wear a printcut. The choice is yours, Willis Settle.”
The smell of the peignoirs from the backseat is too strong. He sticks his head out the window. The cold wind off the lake sustains him. Caesar holds his hand.
“She could go any time.” Jenelle says.
“Here are the peignoirs, Jenelle. Please put them away. You know how they upset your husband,” Caesar says.
Jenelle lights a cigarette and adjusts the oxygen tubing flowing into the nostrils of the snoring Roar.
“You don’t smoke,” Willis says.
Jenelle taps a long cigarette ash onto the peignoirs spilled onto the floor and gives Caesar the look.
Caesar plucks the cigarette from her fingers and drops it—sphish—into a plastic water cup.
Willis sucks in air but can’t exhale.
“Willis and I are going for coffee,” Caesar says.
“You’ll stay with me,” he whispers, leading the artist down the hospital corridor. “The exhibition opens in a week. There is much to do. And Willis, there is something else I must tell you.”
“Jenelle won’t like it.”
“Jenelle does not make the decision. We will vote her out of Printheads, Inc.” Caesar says guiding Willis past a waiting area where a beautiful woman sobs on the shoulder of a man in a lab coat.
“The exhibition,” Willis says, choking a bit.
“She doesn’t like the name.”
“The Master makes this decision.”
Seated at a cafeteria table, Caesar wraps Willis’s hands in his fingers. “Willis. I will tell you now. I was saving the surprise for the opening but now is the time. Please listen carefully.”
Willis focuses on Caesar’s nose.
“There are Printheads in Chicago, Willis Settle. Many thousands of them. More than anywhere else. I helped them organize when we lived in Chaffeyville. They live, they meet, they trace in Chicago. They are ready for the Master. I have brought you here to lead them.”
“The exhibition is for her. I’ll change the name.”
“You aren’t listening, Willis. Think.” Caesar drums his fingers on the table. “One moment. I will get the coffee.”
Caesar leaves him at the table.
“I’ll call it ‘Jenelle: Queen of the Canvas,’” he tells the sugar packets. “She’ll like it better.”
“Code Blue Code Blue,” a pleasant voice announces over the PA system.
“Mother,” he says, “Jenelle,” and runs down the hall.
Hospital people perform a sort of ballet over the gasping Roar. A young woman won’t let Willis enter the room.
“Where is my wife?” he says.
Caesar arrives holdings two capped Styrofoam cups. “Jenelle just left,” he says. “I saw her.” Willis faces him then rushes toward the elevator.
The Checker Cab Willis boards pulls away from St. Elizabeth’s entrance.
“You’re a leader of men,” Caesar shouts. “The Printheads await you.” As he chases after the yellow car, steaming coffee sloshes over his hands. He throws the cups onto the driveway, stands in a puddle of coffee and raises his scalded hands, fingers spread and steaming in the sharp cold air.
BEVERLY BROWN's fiction has appeared in various publications including Denver Quarterly, Chicago Review, Confrontation, and An Illuminated History of the Future, a Fiction Collective 2 anthology. Currently she's working on a novel entitled Malethean Fields that sprang from the short story appearing here in TheAdirondack Review. A North Carolinian, she lives now in Chicago where she and her husband Cary tap dance in fancy Alexander Ultima tap shoes.