Louvre Is All U Need

Fiction
Jason D. Schwartz


The rabbit’s neck bulged where the fence cut in. The fur around its new double chin blushed with blood. Its ears pointed to heaven and its grey body stretched straight back in the air like dry papier-mâché that would crumple if touched.

Ari felt the grass soaking through his white cotton socks. He could taste the rabbit’s creamy, rotted breath. He took a step forward. The trees whispered.

A fly landed on the rabbit’s left eye. Ari watched it dip its legs into the black bead and scrub itself. When it was clean, it buzzed away, weaving through the fence’s rusty rectangles.

Ari took another step forward, shivered, then ran until he was inside.

A new black woman was setting dishes in the dining room. “Hah there!” she called in a Jamaican accent.

Ari looked for a bulge in her clothing. The last woman used to carry a dried-out pig’s foot in her pocket. Ari had found it once, vibrating toward him on top of the washing machine, and screamed. She had asked him to keep it a secret, but he had not.

“I’m Hattie,” said the new woman. Her clingy apron outlined only a hunched, frail body. Tiny dead-skin droplets sprouted from her cheeks but she had a nice smile.

“Hi,” Ari said softly. He picked a scrap of leaf from his lawn-smeared sock, then jogged upstairs. A small wood-framed mirror tittered against the wall.

Mom wasn’t in her bedroom, so he picked up the phone on her nightstand. She had bought the nightstand from an antique store for too much money because it was hand-crafted. Then she put a glass sheet over the top so the etched loopy grapevine wouldn’t wear out. Then she smushed rubber bands under the glass to keep it from sliding, and slipped an old photo in next to the grapevine. Then she forgot about the grapevine and the photo and slopped her People magazine subscription over the glass. But she’d bought the phone to go with the nightstand and Ari liked it because it had a real bell and you had to draw circles with your finger to call.

“Becca Cohen speaking.”

“Mom?”

“Ari, why aren’t you doing your homework?”

“There’s a dead rabbit stuck in our fence.”

“Go get that piece ready for the Bildners. What is it again?”

“Mozart. But—”

“Right. I have to take this call.”

“Wait, Mom?”

The dial tone answered.

Ari peeked into the kitchen from halfway downstairs. Hattie was poking holes through crinkly tin foil with a butter knife. She hummed a song he didn’t know. The tin foil hush-squeaked when she slid the knife out.

The oven gaped behind her. The inside of its door was stained shades of burnt tomato sauce, handiwork of other black and yellow women. Hattie lifted the shiny tin basin wrapped in slit foil, turned her back to Ari, and stooped in front of the oven.

Ari leaned on the banister to keep the last four stairs from creaking. He turned left into the study, out of Hattie’s sight. His clarinet case lay neatly on the forest-green fuzzy chair. He picked the case up and peeked into the kitchen again. Hattie was doing something with her hands on the polished granite counter, but he didn’t have time to see because she was turning toward him. Ari started to tiptoe-race upstairs, but tripped and banged the clarinet case against the banister. He ran fast and loud and didn’t catch his breath until after he’d smashed his bedroom door closed with a flat, wet palm.

Mr. Singer had called Ari a vuhndurkint and then spelled it out for him, w-u-n-d-e-r-k-i-n-d. Ari had written it in his pocket spiral notepad. Below it, he’d neatly printed the definition, good clarinetist. Near the notepad’s beginning was Mr. Singer’s Number One Saying: The hardest part of practicing is picking the instrument up. Ari was a wunderkind because picking up the clarinet was his favorite part of practicing. He liked warming the clarinet’s neck in his armpit so the wood wouldn’t crack when he started blowing. He also liked soaking the reed under his tongue before slapping it onto the mouthpiece. The reed took on a distinct tone as mucous and bits of scrambled egg jammed its pores.

Ari knew he was going to perform today, so he chose his favorite reed by the wood-grain design on its torso and carefully slid it out of its holster. He started with long tones. He thought of a penny plunked into a bathtub and he grew louder and softer with the slow, swelling rhythm of water bumping porcelain. Mr. Singer had called this a mantra. Ari had recorded the word in his notepad. Under it he’d written, warm-up exercises.

Mr. Singer used to play Ari’s clarinet. Each clarinet has its own personality, Mr. Singer had said, so the only way to learn how to play a piece well is to hear it played on your own instrument. Mr. Singer would reach toward Ari as he licked grey foam from one corner of his mouth. His lips were cracked and red because ChapStick is bad for reeds.

Ari didn’t like the reed’s warmth when Mr. Singer gave the clarinet back. He wondered why Mr. Singer’s lips always seemed hotter and wetter than his own. But he was happy to share something special with a grown-up, so his mouth quickly swathed the clarinet’s moist head and he played.

Ari had liked Mr. Singer. Mom had liked Mr. Singer. After Dad moved out, Mom had started to call Mr. Singer “David.” Mom had said David was very business-minded and could help her sell real estate. Mr. Singer and Mom had set up business meetings three nights a week. Sometimes Ari didn’t hear the garage door until morning.

Soon, Mr. Singer started acting weird. After lessons, he’d shift from one leg to another in the front doorway and talk to Mom for too long. The daylight splashed oak leaves against his polo shirt and made his nose slippery. Sometimes before they finished talking, Mom told Ari to go downstairs and play Nintendo. This meant they kept secrets. Ari would choose a shooting game, bite M&Ms in half and crush them between the molars on opposite sides of his mouth.

Once, before he went downstairs, Ari had seen Mr. Singer pass Mom an envelope that had dry rose petals glued all over it. As she read it, Mr. Singer had cupped her elbow with his hand. Mom looked at Ari and then at Mr. Singer.

Then one day, Mom had told Ari he’d never see Mr. Singer again. Mr. Singer was a bad man, she said, and she expected Ari to trust her judgment.

But Mr. Reiter wasn’t as good as Mr. Singer. He was older and fatter and wore black plastic glasses. An elastic sports band clamped the chunky frames to his face. The back of his head folded over the blue strap like a hungry sock puppet.

Mr. Reiter didn’t play Ari’s clarinet. He didn’t play the clarinet at all. “You gotta learn to interpret on your own,” he said on the first lesson, creasing the spine of a thick book so it would stay open. He threw the book onto the wobbly wire stand. Ari read the top of the page before the stand collapsed. It said “Adagio.”

The phone rang in Mom’s room. Ari nestled his clarinet into the bedsheets and ran to catch it.

“Hello?”

“Guess who?”

“Um. Hi, Dad.”

“Ari, it’s good to talk to you. How are you doing?”

“Okay.” Ari stacked the magazines on Mom’s nightstand. He wanted to tell Dad that he was performing today, but Mom said not to let him know when people were coming over. “A rabbit got stuck in the fence.”

“Did it get out?”

He let his eyes relax on the photo that Mom had slipped under the nightstand’s protective glass. “No, he’s dead.”

“That’s unfortunate. Do you want a rabbit of your own?”

“I don’t know. Mom wouldn’t let me.”

“Well, when you love your kid for the child support, you can’t be expected to be the best parent.”

“Dad, stop.”

Mom smiled wide on the photo’s right side. Ari blinked behind her, a little out-of-focus. They were in the kitchen, the weekly China-Wok family talk and Aunt Emily’s last visit before the doctors cut off her breasts and she died.

“I’m sorry, you’re right. You’re too brainwashed to be having this discussion.”

“Please stop.”

“You know, maybe I should get a rabbit for myself. At least with a rabbit, you know that if you turn your back it’s going to fuck around.”

Aunt Emily had snapped the photo as Mom’s knee crashed playfully into a chair. Mom was wearing sunglasses and imitating a klutzy Stevie Wonder between laughter quakes.

The garage door rumbled downstairs.

“Dad I have to go.”

“And why is that?”

“I have to go to the bathroom.”

“Sure you do.”

A hand was wrapped around Mom’s inside shoulder. Its pale arm rested on her other shoulder and disappeared into a red T-shirt. Mom had cut out the head and body in a crooked line.

Ari hung up, went back to his bedroom and dragged a coarse silk cloth through the clarinet to soak up his breath’s dampness.

“Hi Ar,” wafted Mom’s voice.

“Hi,” he said to his room, then stood up.

Mom was sitting at the bottom of the stairs unfastening her pointy shoes. He tried to squeeze past her and she teasingly grabbed his left leg. He clung to the banister to keep from falling. Something ripped in his shoulder. He screamed. “What the fuck are you doing?”

“Don’t you dare use that language with me,” said Mom. The corner of her lip quivered. “Your father was abusive enough.”

Ari looked at the shiny wet infection on her right ankle. Black stocking-dust stuck to its wrinkled brown rim.

“Have you met the schvartze?” said Mom.

He heard Hattie clinking pots under the faucet’s hiss. “Yes.”

“Homework?”

“I was practicing.”

“Go do your homework. The Bildners should be here soon.”

A silvery kinked dust-hair dislodged from her jacket when she stood. It tumbled toward Ari in the lamplight. He flinched, and it disappeared.

*

“So Ari, your mother tells me you’re a clarinet wiz.”

Ari made himself small for Mr. Bildner. The couch wheezed. Lasagna paste squished and bubbled somewhere under Mr. Bildner’s salami-brown button-down.

“Not really,” said Ari, clinging to the couch arm.

“Ar, don’t be modest.” Mom tripped into the living room. Her ribboned high-heels clopped without rhythm on the stained-wood floor. When she reached the Oriental rug, her ankles twisted jerkily. She held out three yellowed prayer pamphlets like a fanned card deck. “These were my dad’s.”

“Well, you should play at the Temple next Friday night,” said Mr. Bildner, reaching for a pamphlet.

“Oh yes, we’d love to hear you at shul,” agreed Mrs. Bildner. The tip of her umbrella-nose pulsated softly when she talked. Ari wondered if Mr. Bildner knew this about his wife. His glasses were thick.

“You know, some synagogues don’t allow music on the Sabbath, but at B’Nai Jeshurun we believe in only keeping the mitzvot that make sense,” said Mrs. Bildner.

“What’re mitzvot?” asked Ari.

“They’re—” Mrs. Bildner fanned herself with a pamphlet. “With such a Jewish name, you don’t know?”

“His father didn’t let me enroll him in Hebrew School.”

The Bildners looked at Ari and tilted their heads compassionately.

“Can you believe it? I grew up in Israel and he doesn’t know a word of Hebrew.”

Ari aimed his eyelids at his knees. The corduroy just below his belt bunched up hollow, then dipped back in.

“Thank God for the Reform movement,” said Mom. “At least now he’ll get a Bar Mitzvah, even though he’ll never pray like a Jew.”

Mrs. Bildner tried to smile. Mr. Bildner shifted and slouched. His denim pants-leg touched Ari’s. “Well, I think you’ll both feel right at home with us,” he said. “We’re a very close-knit community.” He paused to funnel M&Ms into his mouth.

Ari pressed his legs together. Mr. Bildner’s leg still leaned limply against his. Ari gnashed his legs together, breathing in teaspoons.

Mr. Bildner cleared his throat with an open mouth. Brown chunks glistened on his tongue. “We wanted to come over tonight to make you feel like members already so you… you know. Get the feel for what the Temple is all about.”

“So you’re only here on business?” Mom said and laughed.

Mrs. Bildner looked at her husband and her jaw muscle twitched, but then she knotted up her face and made her throat laugh. “Well, who wants to pray?”

“Actually, I don’t know these prayer books,” admitted Mr. Bildner. “Joan, do you remember which prayer comes first?”

“Oh.” Mrs. Bildner flipped through. “I don’t. They have different ones at shul.”

“With more English,” said Mr. Bildner.

“I know it starts with Baruch Atah… Becca, why don’t you lead us?”

Mom slapped her pamphlet face-down onto the glass coffee table and smiled. “You know what, it’s the thought that counts anyway.”

The Bildners agreed.

“Why don’t we have Ari play for us instead?” said Mom. “I really want you to hear how good he is. He practices a lot because he wants to go to Yale one day.”

“Well, I like it too,” admitted Ari.

The grown-ups laughed.

“Go get your clarinet, sweetie,” said Mom.

Ari went up to his room and lingered there to breathe. He looked at his watercolor portrait so he wouldn’t have to think of messing up. They’d bought the portrait last week in a kiosk at Short Hills Mall. “This way, if your father ever takes you from me, I’ll still always have an Ari of my own,” Mom had said. Salty mascara-water had stretched and quivered between black sunglasses and her cheek. Then it gave up and cut a jagged line down her face. “Louvre Is All U Need!” said the kiosk awning.

Mom had framed the portrait herself right there for ten percent off. The glass pressed Ari’s texture-less face at a tilt so he looked crooked no matter how the fake-wood frame hung. His eyelashes were long and straight and didn’t touch.

Ari tried to shake out the willies one last time by rolling his shoulders, then he plodded downstairs. Holding his clarinet in front of him, he stood still until everyone quieted down.

“Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, Adagio,” he said. He held up his clarinet and squinted at the reed. Its tip was stained coffee-brown with bacteria. His tongue tenderly swabbed it twice. He inhaled through his mouth and clamped the mouthpiece between his upper teeth and taut lower lip.

The first phrase sighed into nothing. Then its echo, thick perfume oozing through the room. Phrases dripped into each other and made Ari’s ears tingle.

The phone rang. Ari kept playing.

Mom’s suit-pants swished across the living room to the corner coffee table. “Hello?” into a cupped hand. “No, he doesn’t want to talk to you.”

Ari knew it was Dad. He tried to focus. He closed his eyes and swayed gently.

“Right. I brainwashed him. Tell me, where did he learn to say ‘fuck?'”

Ari bit too hard and the reed squeaked against the mouthpiece. Mrs. Bildner cringed.

“Stealing your money? We need to live. His school, his clothes, his clarinet teacher… Oh don’t you start!”

Ari didn’t care about the Bildners. He wanted Dad to hear him. The next time they talked on the phone, he wanted Dad to say, “You sounded really good on the clarinet. I wish I was there.” He played loud and took risks and now he was at the cadenza, where time gets loose.

Mr. Bildner scooped M&Ms from the glass bowl.

Ari tried to play an arpeggio too fast. His thumb slipped halfway off the thumbhole and the clarinet squawked. His lower lip trembled, and the clarinet shrieked.

Mom held out the receiver and made an ugly face. “He hung up on me.”

Ari stopped. He forgot where he was. “I have to go to the bathroom,” he said.

The Bildners clapped as he walked out.

He rested his clarinet on the bathtub’s lip and looked at the mirror. Closer. One eyelash on top of his right eye stuck out farther than the rest. It was bent halfway and snagged its neighbor. With his fingertip, he raked his eyelashes against the skin under his eyebrows, then looked at the mirror. The eyelash was still there, its root firmly planted.

His earlobes felt hot. He opened the mirror and picked up the tweezers, dropped them with a clatter into the sink, and picked them up again. His face slid slowly back onto the mirror as he closed it and leaned forward.

The tweezers looked blurry when he raised them to his eye. They shivered, clamped down on air, and opened. Then they closed and caught the tip of the bent eyelash.

Ari tugged gently. His eyelid made a soft tick when it came unglued from his eye, the sound of a crayon lifted from paper. He pulled harder, until his eye felt dry and he thought his eyelid was ripping.

He stopped and put the tweezers down fast. They ticked twice against the white porcelain. He covered his eye with his palm and breathed.

“Hattie, one last thing before you go,” said Mom downstairs. “There’s a dead rabbit stuck in our backyard fence. Can you take care of it? I’ll throw in another twenty.”

“Yes ma’am, Ah’ll take kear of it.”

“You’re a life saver. Keep the foot if you want. Just don’t leave it lying around anywhere.”

Ari put his hand down. The bathroom looked faded through his right eye. He leaned toward the mirror again. The snaggled eyelash still clung to his eyelid’s outer ridge.

The doorbell rang.

Ari eased out of the bathroom, toward the front door, hoping not to be noticed. Mom got there first. The outside breathed into the house and made his eyelid tingle.

Ari stepped onto the porch. A large wire cage sat on the cracked concrete. Dad’s BMW snored softly in front of the house, then purred down the hill and out of sight.

A white rabbit crinkled newspaper inside the cage. Its ears twitched. Its pink nose throbbed. Its tears stained the furry corners of its eyes.

“Oh my God,” said Mom.

The Bildners peeked out.

Mom swung the latch open and kicked the cage. She kicked it harder and harder. “I won’t let that man enter this house in any way, shape, or—”

The rabbit flailed out of the cage. It looked at Ari and shuddered. Then it bounded away. Its tail flickered in the shrubs across the street before it disappeared.

Ari clawed the sides of his stomach with both hands. His throat made a raspy whistling sound, but he stopped before it rose to a scream.

“Oh, come on, Ar,” said Mom. “You don’t have time to care for an animal with all your homework and practicing.”

“It’s trayf,” said Mrs. Bildner. “Jews shouldn’t own rabbits.”

The cage door squeaked softly in the wind.

“Fuck you,” Ari said.

“What?”

“Fuck you. Fuck you.” He brushed roughly past the Bildners and trampled up the stairs.

“Don’t expect any dinner,” Mom yelled.

Oy,” said Mrs. Bildner.

Ari closed his bedroom door. No, not loud enough. He opened it and put his weight into it. His stomach throbbed.

He waited for Mom’s front-door excuses, “I’m so sorry, he’s been going through a rough patch.” He waited for Mr. Bildner’s “don’t you worry about it,” and maybe a joke. Mrs. Bildner’s “hope to see you next Friday at shul.” The front door’s weather-proofed whomp.

He slumped on the edge of his bed and waited.

The grown-ups laughed. They were in the living room. The floorboards drowned Mr. Bildner’s story, but his deep voice waded through the brown carpet. They weren’t leaving.

Sludge clogged Ari’s nose. He rubbed his eyes. The sludge melted and tasted like fish and darkened his sleeve. He knew what to do.

He picked his black plastic lamp off of the dresser. The plastic was frosted with dust because Ari only used the ceiling lights. He fumbled with the lampshade, got it off, and placed it near the corner of his room. It wobbled slowly back and forth while Ari laid the bald lamp a few feet away, unplugged it, and zig-zagged the wire so it looked like the plug had ripped from its socket. He was glad there was no lightbulb inside, because he had been afraid he would have to break the glass to make it a believable nervous breakdown. After Dad had his, it had taken Mom a whole night to vacuum up the shattered antique lamp that used to sit on her nightstand.

He swatted the Kleenex box off his nightstand. One of its corners dented as it tumbled across the carpet, landing on a faint baby-formula stain. Then he picked up a wooden cigar box. It was filled with mail-order fossils. Mom had given it to him on the first day of Hanukkah last year. He didn’t want the fossils to break, so he had to take them out one by one. The sandpapery sound of the fragments scraping against each other made him shiver. Eventually, they looked believably scattered. Dead fish stared at him from everywhere, brown skid-marks on limestone.

His clarinet was safe in the bathroom, but the case still lay open on his bed. The bottom half of the case was indented with fuzzy molds where the clarinet pieces were supposed to fit. He’d stuffed the coarse silk swab into the mold of the clarinet’s mouthpiece. The swab smelled of rotting saliva. He threw it toward the door, and its weighted tail stretched out in front of it like a paratrooper landing.

He only threw the old reeds. He saved the newer ones in his pockets because Mom wouldn’t know the difference, along with his spare rubber thumb guard and a small key. The thumb guard kept his thumb from getting red when he held the clarinet for a long time. The key locked the case. He’d never used it, but if Mom ever said he was old enough to join her on a company trip, he would need it to safely take his clarinet with him.

Ari put the clarinet case face down. It looked like it was trying to eat the carpet because a strip of fabric connected its bottom half to its top half, keeping it from opening all the way.

He stopped. He’d forgotten about his portrait, and he had to throw it for real. It would look fake if it didn’t shatter.

He looked at his faint reflection in the glass. Then he looked past it, at the watercolor. That flat stupid smiling face.

He would throw it. The hook would tear a cardboard gash in the eggshell wall. He would whip it at the carpet like a ninja throwing-star and glass would explode as the frame bounced and ripped through the opposite wall and kept spinning through the aluminum siding, the clouds, and the planet’s atmosphere.

“I’m sorry,” Mom would say.

He would sleep. No matter how badly his nose itched, he would keep it buried in the pillow and breathe heavily, steadily.

“Ari, I’m so sorry,” she would whisper, sliding her fingers into his hair.

Ari exhaled and reached up toward the portrait. He lifted it gently off its hook, then carried it to the closet. He brushed a pile of scuffed sneakers aside, put the portrait face-down on the closet floor, and slid the hollow plywood door shut. Then he turned and fell into his bed.

The grown-ups continued to laugh downstairs. Someone clapped. Ari waited a while, then began cleaning up.
pencil

Jason D. Schwartz currently lives in New York City with his fiancée, Alicia. He spent his youth trying to become a professional writer or musician. He is, instead, a tax lawyer. And happy. E-mail: j.daniel.schwartz[at]gmail.com

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