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Dangerfield needs to describe a sky. He flips through his index card file—S—sky—sunset. Clouds spreading like spilled orange juice. No. Setting sun a closed fist of fire. No. Sky as pink as rose petals. No no no. He needs something that will embody Mundy Rothschild’s lust for Dahlia, the dark queen of his heart. The reader must know that Mundy’s soul smolders like a red twilight for his love. Yes, smolders like a red twilight. Dangerfield leans over his legal pad, his crabbed handwriting scuttling across the page.
He has been working on this novel for five years, and it is still chasing its tail in circles. Or perhaps he is chasing his own tail. It’s a dizzying sensation, this headlong rush toward failure. He hasn’t published anything in eight years. His agent is on the verge of quitting him. Quitting was actually the word she used, as if he was a habit that would kill her if she kept it up.
Once Dangerfield was on top of the world, but that was almost twenty years ago now. A wunderkind—right out of college and already hitting the New York Times bestseller list. He didn’t even work at it back then; it just flowed out of him like water from a tap. His pen pouring out magnificence, his characters stepping fully formed onto the page. It had felt like this transcendence was natural, that he would never lose that gift.
But here he is, forty-five, hairless, and searching through a box of cards for a trite description of a sunset. His last book flopped, and now—sitting on this prison of a balcony, looking through the railing at the cracked concrete of the street below where a man is pissing onto someone’s front steps—it is all he can do to keep from flinging his stupid yellow pad down into the landscaping around his apartment building.
Before he can indulge this impulse his daughter Amanda is at the sliding door behind him, holding her cell phone.
“Dad, Steph wants me to go to a movie,” she says, and he turns to see that she is wearing a t-shirt that makes the words “baby doll” stretch across her breasts. She is fifteen, a beautiful girl—phenomenally beautiful, really—and Dangerfield feels a shudder of horror every time he looks at her. Why does she have to be fifteen? Why does she have to be beautiful?
The idea of her in the world outside the doors of their apartment is terrifying. He likes to believe that she only really exists in the safe confines of their home. Yet here she is, asking whether she can go out, which of course she does all the time. It is possible to imagine her walking down the sidewalk toward the movie theater, the reality of her in space, swinging her arms, looking at the people passing. He imagines all the despicable men that will be looking at her. She’s not legal! he imagines yelling at them from an upper-story window. Pervert! I’ll have you castrated! He will never admit to himself that some of her friends are just as gorgeous as she is, that if he saw them walking on the sidewalk he would not hesitate to notice.
There is no choice but to let her go even though he knows, somehow, that she is not going to a movie with Steph but will instead spend the evening doing who knows what with her boyfriend Joshua. Fatherhood is one thing among many at which Dangerfield can tell he is failing.
“Sure,” he says to Amanda, smiling mildly. “What are you seeing?”
“Heliotrope,” she says, and because he’s never heard of it and has no idea whether it is appropriate for a fifteen year-old, he nods and smiles some more.
“Have fun,” he says. “Home by eleven, please.”
She turns, and he notices as she steps into the living room that she is wearing sweatpants that have the word “Juicy” written across the butt in gold cursive. Why does she feel the need to plaster descriptors all over the body parts one isn’t supposed to stare at? It’s as if she knows the perverts are out there, and she’s taunting them, laughing at them, daring them to stare a minute too long.
For a brief moment, he considers telling her she has to change her clothes.
He looks at the pad in his hands, trying to control the shaking that has come over him at the thought of his daughter and the predators who must stalk her. Mundy’s soul smolders like a red twilight. He can’t stand himself. The pad flutters as it falls, landing splayed amid the cigarette butts in a patch of weeds by the building’s front door.
Dangerfield is his first name, which he considers an indignity. His mother had gone into labor after laughing too hard at Rodney Dangerfield performing on the Tonight Show in 1962. She was overdue, worried that the baby didn’t care to come out, almost unable to sit up with her bigness. So this young comedian on the talk-show circuit became the hero of the day.
Apparently the name Rodney was out because of some acne-faced, heavy-fisted cousin who demonized his father’s youth. Too much bad karma, according to his mother.
“Dangerfield!” she had proclaimed in her hospital bed. “It’s a natural fit. He looks like he’s going to be funny.” Well, Dangerfield thought, watching the peeing man down on the street jiggle, zip up, and settle to loiter against a wrought iron fence, maybe she was right—his life had started to feel like a joke.
In his twenties, when Dangerfield was a literary upstart, the name had seemed smart and curious, a good way to sell books. “Dangerfield Munroe” it said on the blue-black cover of Aluminum Midnight, the white letters stark against a night sky.
“It’s even better than the title,” his agent Karina had said. “I mean, it sounds like the name of some great detective character in a mystery novel. Like you are a character in your own life!” She had seemed slightly amazed by this thought, as if she had never before realized that she was herself in fact not a person either, but a supporting character in a sizzling bestseller. She smiled at Dangerfield, her teeth bright white, her expression shockingly hungry.
She was not an unattractive woman, but the young Dangerfield had been set on keeping business business. It was hard being a bestselling author—people either idolized you or hated you, and neither one led to much friendship or intimacy. He had hoped his agent, of all people, would be able to treat him fairly: pleasant, straightforward, and (he tried not to admit to himself) with just a pinch of the admiration that he had come to expect and thrive on. Instead of being businesslike, however, she was silly, boisterous, unabashedly interested in him as more than just a client. He often came close to quitting her in those early years, but something about her energetic good nature—and her awe at his accomplishments—appealed to him, so he stayed. And stayed, and stayed—at this point they had been together for twenty years, growing old together, never in all that time having slept together even once.
And now she was the one giving up on him. After everything. After all the moments in which he had leaned close to her—slapping her desktop with his palm to make a dramatic point—and stopped just an inch from her face so that they were both sure that this time they would finally kiss.
But always, at the last second, when the tension in the room was so great that a light bulb was surely about to explode, he would pull away, swiping at her desktop one more time to save them from embarrassment. Her face after those near-kiss moments would fall in almost comical disappointment, especially in those early years. He knows now, looking back, that it was her desire for him that spurred him to write—it was her he conjured as his reader, anticipating her esteem, seeking to draw out her approval.
He realizes, looking down at the sidewalk below, waiting for his too-pretty daughter to step out the front door of the building and into the maw of the evil world, that he has always expected to eventually kiss Karina. The light bulb would burst, sparks would shower them from the ceiling, and they would desperately make love on top of her commanding, wooden desk. He has been waiting twenty years for this moment to arrive, yet somehow it never has—for some reason he has never let it. He has always stopped short, watching her expression turn to disappointment and then, though she tried to hide it, sorrow.
Through the bars of his balcony Dangerfield watches as Amanda emerges from the building, the cell phone still in her hand, a miniscule, white purse hanging from her forearm. The smooth crown of her head shines in the fading sunlight, the part down the middle perfectly straight and white. Her hair is the same as Molly’s hair, the only feature she shares with her mother. In all other ways she looks like Dangerfield—her straight nose, squinting blue eyes, figure like a willow branch. Molly is shorter, stockier, with calf muscles like fists and the broad shoulders of a swimmer. She is a woman who looks like she should have disheveled curls—the way everything about her seems to spring with energy—but whose hair is as straight and gleaming as a copper sheet. It was the hair that had made him sleep with her in the first place; the polished panel of it had shone like a beacon through the beer-fogged penumbra inside Clancy’s, and next thing he knew it was four weeks later, and she was pregnant.
He had thought briefly of marrying her, of prostrating himself on the alter of responsibility, but he was at the height of his success just then (age thirty, a free-wheeling semi-celebrity with a perpetual glass of champagne) and the thought of hitching himself to a near-stranger and spending his midnights changing diapers had left him unapologetically appalled. Such people were the ones he made fun of—his wits sharp, the gathered crowd laughing—at cocktail parties and dinner fêtes. Such people were not famous writers, national bestsellers, cosmopolitan intellectuals. No, better to leave the diaper-changing to others, allow his art to flourish for the good of society. The artist should not be fettered.
He had honestly been surprised when she would not be convinced into an abortion. He had thought that was what women did in this situation—businesslike, efficient, like doing the laundry or the dishes. His mother told him he should be ashamed of such an attitude, that his karma was really in the toilet nowadays. But at the time he could not for the life of him understand why this was an unacceptable expectation.
He had been brusque and arrogant with Molly about the child support, annoyed that he could not just get rid of this little problem. She would not want for anything, he said, now that his advances were in the six figures. He had expected her amazement at his success, but instead she had scowled at him, still angry that he would tell her what to do with her body. She told him he could keep his stinking money. Now, looking down at his daughter pausing on the front step to dial someone—probably Joshua—he can see that he was an asshole. And he is also glad that Molly refused the abortion. If he did not have Amanda, he would be entirely alone. She is the one good thing in his life.
“Dad!” Amanda calls from below.
“Dad! You dropped your pad. Do you want me to bring it up?” Her little face looks lovely in the glow of oncoming dusk. It is such a young face, delicate and smooth. She raises her eyebrows, impatient with him, and he stares down at her, wondering how he could have created such a perfect creature.
“All right,” she says. “Well, I’ll just put it in the lobby. Okay? It’s in the lobby if you want it,” and she disappears inside.
Suddenly, he understands. Mundy’s soul does not smolder like a red twilight. No, his lust for Dahlia is instead like a terrible animal that tears him limb from limb. He wants her carnivorously, terrifyingly badly, in a way that makes him mistrust his understanding of violence. But the thing is, he also loves her. The tenderness he feels toward her is so acute it squeezes the air out of his lungs. If he devours her the way he wants to, his love for her might be crushed in the melee, his one true hope for happiness smothered.
No, Mundy’s soul is not like a smoldering twilight at all, but like the maelstrom of a train terminal—confusion, hubbub, people pressing with their sweat and perfume, their jabbing umbrellas and banging suitcases, every sensation heightened, stinging in the agitation of expectation, awaiting the vibration of acceleration, the speeding to somewhere far away and beautiful.
Dangerfield watches Amanda again come out the front door, her stride purposeful—she is now late—her flip-flips ticking up against her bare heels, the little purse tucked up underneath her arm. She flings a desultory wave in his direction as she steps off the sidewalk to cross. She pauses, looking both ways, and waits while a Mercedes passes.
As she moves into the street, Dangerfield sees the man who peed on the neighbor’s front step straighten up and take notice. The man—tubby, Hispanic, in carpenter jeans and a frayed t-shirt—lets out a low whistle, which Dangerfield can hear as if it is issued directly into his ear.
“Ay mami,” the man says in a slow drawl, his eyes following “Juicy” across the street.
Dangerfield flings himself against the railing of the balcony, almost toppling forward with the violence of the effort. The upper rail snaps him back like a seat belt.
“Pervert!” Dangerfield yells, pointing at the man.
Amanda, in the middle of the street, turns to look up, and the man on the sidewalk stares at Dangerfield in surprise.
“That’s my daughter!” Dangerfield yells. “She’s not even legal! I’ll have you castrated!” He jabs his finger at the man again and again like Zeus hurling lightning bolts down from above. Pressed against the railing this way, he can see the sun setting over the river, a heart pulsing downward, a red wound slashed into the sky.
Katherine Gustafson is a writer and editor based in Seattle. Her first nonfiction book, Change Comes to Dinner, was published by St. Martin's Press in 2012. Her fiction has been published in the Iowa Review and Passages North, among other outlets.