"Hello, Jerry," said Maeve, and the magnetic bracelet on Jerry Castellani's hand shaking hers let out a jolt. He blinked hard, feeling nervous agitation such as he hadn't since philosophy, meditation, and magnets had aligned his tricky spheres. Maeve was white-blond like a flower, and she smelled like one, too. She had a sexy English accent. She was Tantra's wife. Tantra was Jerry's guru. It was complicated. Jerry kept hold of Maeve's hand as she bent to stroke his cat, and good thing because Plato hissed and whisked her dangling hair into frizz. Balancing her and hauling her up, Jerry felt something envelop him like a cloud. He knew, it was the real thing at last.
"So, how does Tinatra feel about this?" asked Phyllis, leaning her head to one side. She often did this when she and Jerry talked, a smile hovering on her lips as if she expected something remarkable at any moment.
"'Tantra,'" Jerry corrected her. Her smile bloomed and faded.
Jerry propped his feet on her desk and stared out her office window. Ragged snows of February heaped in bergs across parking lots of Niagara Gateway Tech. His office, next door, had the same, uninspiring view.
"Tantra's livid," he admitted, glossing the guru's actual words. "Let's just say, he's totally lost touch with Sufism." He wiggled his toes to make better contact with bumpy magnets on his insoles. Phyllis pushed a stack of essays out of his way.
"Higher good. Absolute love. Selflessness." Jerry leaned to retrieve the paperback he'd let drop when he wandered in. "Here's a Sufi poem. You'll like this."
Jerry held the book up. Phyllis's face was like sunrise in the "V" of the spine. He cleared his throat.
"'Do you know how beautiful you are? In your heart you do, but you hide behind clouds. Your voice should resound from the mountaintops. Your beauty should cover the valleys like sunlight."
The pupils of her black eyes had dilated to the edges of her irises. Jerry nodded and let the book slither to the floor.
"I know. Good stuff. But now Tantra has totally lost it. I feel bad, but he should have seen it coming. Maeve warned him. She told him how distant she was feeling, and that he ought to stick around more, but no&mdah;off to communes he went and left her alone. Even when they're together he does Satsang most of the day. Spiritually, he's very elevated. Otherwise? Eh. Thick as a brick."
"Hm." Phyllis's dark eyebrows lifted and lowered. "She's his wife. I guess he trusted her."
Jerry blinked, hard. Her smile was quick.
"Don't worry. I'm no philosopher, but I do know you have to break eggs to make an omelet. And, if Tantra is clueless—well, things are more convenient for you and Maeve."
With a deep, cleansing breath, Jerry remembered the EST seminar in Santa Barbara. Himself and Maeve in Lotus position. Doing downward dog on the terrace.
"Ooh, baby," he said, and Phyllis put her head back and laughed. She had a lovely laugh, like water pouring from the pitcher of her white throat. Then there was a student, dyed, pierce and vague but also smiling, as if already he were getting what he'd come for already, in the laughter blowing through the room. Jerry swung his feet to the floor.
"Catch ya later, galfriend," he said. Phyllis wiped her eyes and gestured the young man in.
All through the brilliant autumn, gloomy winter, and now, into the cold spring, Jerry stopped in often to report on his saga. Phyllis was happy to listen. She was new at the college, having come that year from someplace near LA—one of the dry, inland cities whose name Jerry could never remember. She taught English, so wasn't spiritual like himself, but Jerry sensed a questing nature in her.
During their conversations—"therapy sessions," Jerry called them—he taught her about magneticity and touted products. The magnetized water bottle, the bracelets, the warm, magnetized dickie he wore beneath turtlenecks. He lent her a magnetized necklace for a sore throat. She returned it, gravely and respectfully, and said that yes—maybe it had done some good, she couldn't be sure.
He dropped off a pamphlet on Quicken Magneticity and offered her the first and second lines at wholesale. She ran a finger over the logo, an attenuated pyramid topped by an eyeball in a triangle. She looked up. Her eyes were dark blue, he saw—not black.
"What is this? It's like the symbol on the dollar bill. Say, this wouldn't be a pyramid scheme—?"
She started to smile, a generous, ready curve of her lips like a cup to catch more of the good humor they'd shared. Jerry's forehead twitched.
"Okay," she said. "I'll think about it. Have a good weekend. Give my best to Maeve."
Telephone calls had taken up where Santa Barbara left off. Jerry called Maeve the first and second times, clutching his plastic bottle of magnet water, sipping to keep his voice steady. Then, after a period of abstinence ("Cleansing," in Jerry's view; "Not being too easy" in Phyllis's) Maeve called him. Her sexy accent had a gulp to it, like something going down a drain with difficulty. Tantra was in India. She was lonely and bored. This wasn't what she'd been expecting from a marriage—not at all. Thrilled, Jerry comforted her. By April, calls alternated every night.
At the beginning of Easter week, Tantra called from Bangalore.
"Jerry! You traitorous bastard! You said you were going to—"
Jerry hung up in a panic. Phyllis helped him plan what to do. He donned all his magnet gear (dickie, pendant, insoles, bracelets, and long underwear), then dialed the long number. His voice hardly wobbled as he informed Tantra that Maeve was coming to Niagara. Sitar twanged in the background. Then,
"Fuck you, Jerry. You know what? You really are no better than your..."
Jerry plunged on.
"I'm returning the ankh. It's wrapped it in the prayer shawl you gave me, and returns to you with all due reverence. Because I realize that our spiritual connection is severed, I've addressed the package to 'Howard Kerbles.' But in the future, I hope that—Howard? Howard?"
He was speaking to a severed connection.
And so, Jerry was nearly in heaven. Nirvana! True to her flowery nature, Maeve perfumed his Niagara County Cape Cod. He assured himself, she was going to be perfection, mentally, spiritually....
And, yes, sexually. They hadn't meant to take that particular plunge quite so fast, but who could resist Maeve in a leotard with her foot over her head? "Oh, dear," Phyllis said, flushing, looking away, making Jerry feel sorry that his friend was such a prude. Maeve wasn't a prude. Maeve laughed, like water in a pipe, bloop-bloop-bloop, to reflect that the sex they had was Tantric. "What Tantra knew about this, was nothing! What he knew would fill this much of my little finger," Maeve chortled, indicating with one white thumb a very small part of that digit.
Jerry was ecstatic! He'd had many affairs, several with students, but none of them long-term, but he had begun to wonder whether he lacked between the sheets. Now, he credited Maeve, and spiritual balance, and Quicken Dream Sleep Magnetized Mattress, for his roaring stamina. He pitied poor Tantra, who had been researching in all the wrong localities. Santa Barbara? Pooh! Asia? Wrong continent! Maeve was all northerly. Her squeaks when they made love were like ice creaking on the mighty Niagara. Delving into her was like following his compass needle true north.
There was one, major fly in the ointment, however. It was the cat. Plato wasn't adjusting well. He grabbed every opportunity to sass Maeve, hissing at her and slashing at her tights, putting runs in them and scoring her white flesh with scrapes. Maeve loathed him back. She proposed de-clawing and -fanging, but the thought made Jerry twitch with electrical upheaval. He let the cat roam at night, and the vision of poor Plato without defenses on the mean streets of Niagara Falls seemed horrible, the thought that Maeve could propose it very mean and surprising. He discussed the matter with Phyllis. Since dumping his guru, he relied on her even more. Jerry described adopting Plato, eight years ago, just after his terrible father died. For Jerry, opening up his life at that juncture had been a gesture of faith and hope.
The tender, scrappy ball of fur reminded him of his own tender, scrappy, boyhood self! This time, that boy would be loved! Tantra had provided good insights at the time, encouraging Jerry to see more connections between cat and master. Both were preternaturally high-strung. Both startled badly at loud noises. Both were like metal filings to the female magnets of their respective species. They were intellectually similar-with his wide face and unblinking, exophthalmic gaze, Plato was quintessentially philosophical.
Phyllis nodded. She knew what he meant. She felt somewhat the same about Doobie, she said. Sure, the dachshund was irascible, sure he tried to bite anyone who got too close, but hey—he was her guy, loyal thought thick and thin. Anyone she took into her heart would have to pass muster with the Doobster! Which suggested that Maeve...Hm.
She urged Jerry to proceed with caution.
The jury was still out on Plato when, in late May, Jerry and Maeve invited Phyllis for dinner at last. Maeve had been shy before, but now her separation from Tantra was official. There was even more to celebrate. She'd met some enthusiasts at the Himalayan Institute, and they'd hired her to teach Yoga privately in their homes. They'd be good backers of a wellness center, or a Quicken hub. There was plenty of wealth even in seedy Niagara, she said. It was just a matter of making connections. Jerry mustn't forget that one of Quicken's Pillars of Wellbeing was "Wealth."
Out of these discussions developed a détente regarding Plato. Struck by the way the cat stalked Maeve less when she was doing Yoga, Jerry wrapped a magnet necklace several times around the cat's head. Plato seemed better—docile, if disoriented. Jerry took notes. Animal magenticity was uncharted territory, and might prove Jerry's niche. He was eager to advance beyond Magnet Associate-Magnet Master, even.
Phyllis arrived in a pink sundress, and alone. "Tell her to bring someone! It'll be less awkward," Maeve had said, and Jerry passed the message along although he didn't think there was anyone special in her life. Someone in LA maybe—Jerry remembered something about acrimonious division of property—but no one here. Which made no nevermind to Jerry. "More for me," he joked.
Phyllis didn't seem awkward. At least not at first. She blew in, charming and chattering and extending a bottle of wine. Jerry kissed her cheeks and led her to Maeve, who was the one that seemed uncomfortable. Very silent, and not her usual, alabaster stillness. Stiff. A flush mottled her face when Phyllis put her head to one side and said how glad she was to meet Maeve at last. How much she'd heard! Maeve would find a warm welcome at the college, too! No, no—the faculty wasn't the least bit snobbish. Far from it (she and Jerry exchanged a smile)! Maeve must be sure to come soon. The faculty dining room wasn't bad.
"I'm Vegan," said Maeve. Phyllis's brows rose, and fell.
"Well. They can probably accommodate you—"
"Jerry, did you buy garbanzos?"
Maeve rummaged in a cupboard below the counter. Now the view from the kitchen window caught Phyllis's eye. When Jerry handed her a glass of wine, she remarked on the pretty green fields. Was this reclaimed land? Yes? And could that plume of mist just visible be the Falls? How wonderful to live so close!
Jerry described how, when he was a kid in this very house, those fields were the site of an automotive plant. The chemical waste was one reason why the Quicken Water Optimizer was so crucial. Jerry stroked the obelisk's chrome cap. He wondered, was Phyllis's drinking water clean? She gave a vague nod, then said that, in her view, the emotional devastation of this region's pollution was equally as harmful as the environmental damage. Most of their students showed symptoms of stress. Didn't Jerry agree? What did Maeve think? Had she had time to form an opinion?
Maeve was tossing a lentil salad, craning her head meanwhile to scan cupboard shelves, where Jerry thought garbanzos might be.
"I'm sorry. Did you say something?"
Phyllis gazed into her glass, gripping her opposite elbow with free hand as if she were cold. When she looked up at Jerry her eyes were wide and solemn. Jerry's lids twitched like an electrical storm. Phyllis edged to the kitchen door.
"Don't mind me. I'll just show myself around while you cook. Oh, Jerry—this must be your cat! Oh my goodness, he's huge! Come here, sweetheart. Are you Plato? I think you are! I think you are! My goodness—what's this around your neck? Whoops! Whoops-a-daisie! Uh-oh!"
Jerry bolted from the pantry where he'd been rooting, reflecting that, though he remembered looking at the yellow cans on shelves of the exotic foods aisle, he didn't remember putting them into his cart. He rounded the corner, clutching a jar of pimentos.
"Be careful, Phyllis! Plato's a little—"
Phyllis had unwound the magnet necklace from the cat's head and crouched, pulling the chain along the carpet so the Quicken charm jumped like a bug. Plato batted at it, claws sheathed. As Jerry watched, the cat did a somersault and showed his belly. Phyllis scratched, smiling down over her bent knees, dangling the charm whose eyeball flashed like a wink. Jerry heard purring thrums. Then they were drowned in the scream of the food processor.
Jerry jerked a grocery cart free. A front wheel dragged, pulling him off course. He bounced the cart up like he'd have done as a kid, popping wheelies to compensate for the bent front fender of his battered bike. He rounded a corner savagely and aimed at exotic foods.
He'd left the women at home, Phyllis in the living room smiling blurrily over a second glass of wine, Maeve in the kitchen hacking up eggplant.
"She's condescending! I don't need that in my life!" Maeve had hissed, her words mercifully obscured by sizzling onion. When Jerry protested, his face twitched so his lip pulled up in a leer. He grasped his Quicken pendant until the violence passed.
Okay, so the women weren't congenial. Maybe he should have foreseen that. But Maeve needn't clench her face like a fist! And that nasty tone—not sexy at all but screechy, like air from a balloon stretched at the nipple like he used to do when he was a kid, making a ruckus to distract his sad mom.
The cart dragged again, swerving so Jerry whanged his knee. He stomped hard on pebbly insoles and swore. "Fuck!"
He was all out of whack. All jangled and unbalanced, like he wanted to jump out of his skin. He might as well be back in the jittery day when his mom would send him to this very store so he wouldn't see his dad whale on her. What a pitiful fiction that had been. "Don't you think your mom is pretty, Jerry?" she'd say, smiling all over her face except in her eyes, having smeared on makeup to cover the marks while he was away. Oh sure, she was pretty-until she wasn't. When Dad was sober he touched her like crystal, and cock-a-doodle-doo'ed about the "classy looker" he'd married. But when he was drunk everything turned inside out. "Whore!" he'd slur. "You're wors'n a cat in heat!"
Jerry side-swiped a Goya display, sending two packages of rice slumping to the floor. He gave them a kick, then thought of the security cameras aimed at every aisle of this theft-ridden place and felt his stomach lurch. Cold seeped into his face and sent it into spasms. Then he made himself stop—just, stop. Must he really be forever stuck in a karmic rut? Forever the stooge of harsh history? It was like an ice-jam.
He clasped his Quicken pendant, breathing, visualizing. Tantra had taught him a trick. Using hypnosis, he'd trained Jerry to "tame the serpent," by which he meant the karmic presence of Jerry's terrible father. "See the serpent. Own him. Love him," Tantra would intone, and Jerry would gather his courage and try. Once, Plato purring like an outboard motor in his lap, Jerry had stared deep into the snake's beady eyes until both he and it had burst into loving tears.
Now, he tried. But instead of a loving-eyed serpent he saw what he usually did. The dark-eyed face of his father, Larry Castellani, deadly with drink and anger, drawing back a fist and swaying, ready to strike.
Jerry caught the rice bag beneath wheels and it burst, crunching and scattering. He pushed on, undeterred. His grandparents, fresh off the boat from Sicily, had named their only son after the most powerful don in Niagara Falls. The trick worked, and still to this day, an occasional policeman who pulled Jerry over for driving too fast or too absent-mindedly would peruse his license and turn pale, wave him on without further ado, as if he were scared to death of a pair of cement overshoes. An unintended trip over Niagara Falls. Jerry had so wanted to divest himself of that legacy. He'd always planned to change his name when he reached Magnet Master—to "Howard Kerbles," actually. Then all that went south, just like things always did.
Before the garbanzos he reached for two yellow cans, pausing when he felt the lightness of jacket fabric flapping at his sides. Where was his wallet? Had he picked it up from the table where Maeve now insisted he keep his vitals? "You'd forget your own name if it wasn't on your driver's license," she said. Hah-hah. He couldn't remember. Probably he'd left it. Sometimes he found himself just blowing past Maeve.
He patted his jacket pockets. Nothing. Not even loose change.
He couldn't buy beans. He couldn't buy jack shit, not without dragging home again and looking the fool. He tried again for a center, shutting his eyes, grasping his pendant. Feeling nothing. Wiggling his feet against insoles summoned only friction. He growled, deep in his throat.
At least cans lent heft. In either hand, dropped to his sides, they gave him balance. In deft repetition of a childhood trick he holstered cans in pockets and felt a surge of power—whether of magneticity or simple kicks it was hard to say. He left the cart behind and sauntered back up the aisle. Casually, he glanced into the all-seeing eye of the security camera perched atop its pyramid of cereal boxes, and saw himself peering, foreshortened, and then passing safely underneath. Glee surged through him and he grinned, imagining himself telling the tale to the dames at home, hearing bleats such as his mom used to make—"Oh, Jerry-you didn't!" He hurried, not fleeing but anticipating. He had one foot on the open-sesame mat before he felt the heavy hand on his elbow and heard the voice, "Hold on there, son." Only then did he break into a run.
Phyllis pushed sunglasses to the top of her head and pinched the bridge of her nose. It was a very LA gesture. She looked very LA, today, in her short dress and flat sandals, wind from the passenger-side window blowing her hair back. Jerry pulled smoothly on to the Robert Moses Parkway.
"You're over-thinking. The beautiful thing about enlightenment is, you don't have to 'understand' it. It just-is."
Phyllis rummaged in her purse and drew out a vial of aspirin, prised it open and put capsules in her mouth. She lifted Jerry's magnet bottle from the console.
"That'll kill you, you know," he said, quietly. She shrugged and swallowed. Her shoulders were the color of toast. From his lofty perch of enlightenment, Jerry realized that his friend was a babe.
"Okay," she sighed. "Let me get this straight. You steal garbanzo beans. Security cameras show the caper, plain as day. You, apprehended, blow a gasket. Right so far?"
Her smile hovered. Jerry nodded gravely, eyes on the road. She sighed again.
"Okay. Maeve gets called. She is not a happy camper. We bring your wallet, and your driver's license makes the guard jumpy as a flea. He wants to let you go. I try and explain that you're a professor, not a criminal, and now things get truly weird. You begin to caterwaul. You're not your father. Neither of you is, or was, a mafia don. You are accountable. In fact, you insist on it—on being arrested. Police are called. Maeve pays the fine. You're happy..."
Jerry nodded, serenely, and felt her staring. "What?"
"Whatever. So. The whole thing causes you to have a...revelation? You feel much better? Furthermore, when a guy falls over the Falls and survives the plunge, it has something to do with—you?"
Jerry turned and looked at her, long and hard. She was honestly befuddled. For himself, the signs and portents couldn't be more clear. He'd watched the news footage over and over, caught by some tourist, and each time he was more amazed. There was this fellow, perfectly ordinary-looking, stepping into the water above the cataract and then whoops—over he went. Film scrambled while the tourist rushed to the verge, but then there was the fellow again, clear as day, picking around in the boulders at the base.
Without a scratch on him.
"Let me connect the dots," he said, gently, slowing to let a tractor-trailer merge, waving back when the trucker tooted his thanks.
"First, Maeve appears in my life. That's a miracle if ever there was one. But it's not the whole story."
Phyllis eyed him, sideways. She'd been careful, about Maeve. She'd said very little, and Jerry was grateful. He nodded.
"Whatever else her coming has meant, it definitely means that Tantra is now gone. That's a challenge. A good one. The master taught me well, but now I, the student, must continue on my own."
Phyllis blew air through lips stiffly o-shaped, then looked over her shoulder with a jerk. "That wasn't our exit?" Jerry shook his head.
"No. Just listen. So. You come over, and Maeve is—distressed. Things heat up. I begin my grocery revelation. I start to realize, I'm attracted to Maeve not only for who she is, or even principally for herself, but in order to heal early trauma—my maimed inner child."
Tears made the highway a blur. Phyllis tut-tutted, giving pats to his arm. Jerry cleared his throat.
"Things don't end there. They seldom do. I muddy the waters further, by shoplifting. All hell breaks loose, and with it comes the truth. I am not 'Larry Castellani.' I am Jerry Castellani. We have some traits in common, but, unlike my father, I want to be true and balanced, I want to be whole, and so, I own up. I insist upon the truth, upon authenticity. In so doing I so prove myself worthy-worthy of the love he never earned." Tears smarted again, this time of joy. Like rainbow amidst the tempest.
"Hm," said Phyllis. "Well. Okay—don't cry. But Jerry, I still do not understand what any of this has to do with getting rid of Plato."
At the sound of his name, the cat in his backseat carrier yowled. Phyllis twisted to offer him soothing murmurs. Her returning look grazed Jerry resentfully.
"Seriously, Jerry, what are you thinking? That someone will adopt him? At his age, and him so...idiosyncratic? Oh, I wish I could take him. I really wish I could! But it'd break Doobie's heart, and...Um—hey."
Her head swiveled wonderingly as Jerry signaled a sharp turn into the parking lot of the Rainbow Mall abutting the Falls. He switched the engine off. The roar of water pressed thickly around them like a glove.
"Jerry? This isn't the ASPCA," she said.
"No. I know. I didn't finish my story."
His voice sounded richly grating in the bubble of the cab. "A hypnotic voice," one student had written, on a teaching evaluation, and in fact Jerry did feel rather zoned-out. The melatonin he'd been taking was affecting him oddly.
"It's too late for Plato, Phyllis. I consulted a vet. Plato is going blind. That's why he is so irascible. Magnets helped him, but they can't stave off the inevitable. You can't take him. I can't keep him. You're right, that he can't be adopted. Plato, in his blindness, needs a miracle."
She'd taken off her sunglasses. Mist from the falls made the sun a dim ball. Her eyes were dark as night.
"You're not, really, thinking of..." she said, very soft. But, of course, she knew. In her heart, she knew.
"Cataract," he confirmed.
Because he hadn't noticed her hand was on the door release, it startled him when the door opened and wind rushed in, and she disappeared like someone sucked from a plane. Then the back door flung open and she was dragging out the heavy carrier. She couldn't go far, or fast, and in an instant Jerry was on her. Just beyond the parking lot the gritty asphalt embankment angled straight down to the rail, past which water pushed off like the shattering edge of the world. Her sandals skittered when he wrenched the carrier from her, so it was easiest to both steady and then just grip her by the waist, half carrying her as he made his way with the carrier on the other side for balance. Later on he realized that of course she must have been scared, but at the moment it didn't occur to him. Yes, she was yelling something, but the roar of the Falls was so loud he could barely hear her, and, as he later pointed out to her, not even the tourists rather close by had not been alerted and just continued their picture-taking, undisturbed by the fracas. That's the thing, about the Falls. They make everyone pretty loopy, not just himself, and in fact the two security guards stationed at the taped-off quadrant where the other fellow had gone over (to prevent copycatters) were too distracted by sound and ozone to notice the ark landing in water just outside their purview but swept to the same verge. Jerry watched it to the lip, then looked away. His father, also, had haunted this spot. God knew what he'd put over the verge, before he'd thrown himself over. God alone knew who the dark-haired woman was in the black-and-white photo Jerry had found in his father's pitiful things, and destroyed. The photo was taken at the Falls, probably just about here. It was the only one Jerry had ever seen in which his father smiled like he really meant it. He couldn't tell whether the woman smiled, too. Her hair had blown over her face.
All things considered, it was a long while before he could make sense to Phyllis. Even then it was hard. At least he wasn't twitching anymore. Before leaving him for a backer at the Himalayan Institute, Maeve had insisted on doctors, and the anti-depressants and Ritalin they prescribed. Too late, they helped. His face felt tired and soft. Phyllis's hard look softened, just a little, as she waited, outside the mail room where they met up since she'd moved her office to the other end of the Humanities building at the start of the new term. His words came slow as mud.
"I didn't mean to scare you. I never meant to hurt you. I thought I was enlightened. I thought I could make you understand. I wanted you..."
The current of thought was thready. The spark was gone that made it possible to say, with the power necessary to make it understood, what he'd thought he'd known. The grand force of attraction. The relative negligibility of any sacrifice necessary to keep it. The grandeur of having, in balanced wholeness, what others had defiled and wasted.
Her blue eyes narrowed, studying him.
"You wanted me—?" she prompted, her head to one side, not smiling, but as if she would if what she offered met what he intended. Then, in some small shrinkage or surprise on his part, she saw how what he intended hadn't been that. Or, half at best. Something in her pulled away. Her smile was cold, her head-shake a collapse like struts pulled out of an abandoned shaft. He had a glimpse of dazzling light before darkness fell.
"I'm sorry, Jerry," she said. "You've lost me."