“Otherwise Unremarkable"

Fiction by Stacey Donovan

Stub DeForest is the 17-year-old narrator of this novel excerpt.

Here and there I like to detox from talking, which means I stop listening to what anyone says. When that happens I like to reminisce. Today let’s go to Best Hampton, where my Aunt Barb and Uncle Joe live. He runs Deep Water Security, which pretty much means he loops around the neighborhood since not much crime happens there except for stuff like dogs crapping on neighbors’ lawns. When that tragedy occurs, the real cops field the complaints to Uncle Joe, who mans up in his neon blue fake police uniform and investigates the crisis. He’s made a mint as an impostor cop because he’s been at it since his Army days, which is how Uncle Joe and Aunt Barb can afford to live in an oceanfront “cottage.”

They had only one kid, my favorite cousin, Crater. Even though lawn crapping is usually the most dangerous thing that happens in Best Hampton, my adventures with Crater veered toward the unusual. We’re still the ones who starred in the most memorable mystery ever in Best Hampton South, when I was 13 and Crater was 16 — which meant he could drive.

Even though Crater’s car was a rancid old Mustang bequeathed to him by Uncle Joe, to me it was a miracle on wheels. It rolled us into the world, far away from the house where Mom played piano, Aunt Barb modeled, and when my dad crawled out from the city on weekends, he and Uncle Joe chilled on the big deck with the ocean view, chugging cheap beer and pricey bourbon.

That Mustang saved me from having to listen to their drunken arguments all day, and also freed me from Mom and Aunt Barb, who couldn’t have been more different from each other, evidenced by the sideways eye arrows they shot at each other.

It was Mom’s Russian summer, when she played Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and Mussorgsky. The extent of her entire social life. She constantly bemoaned the fact that her hands were not as big as Rachmaninoff’s, but whose were?

I Googled to discover that Rocky’s hands were truly gigantic, which is what made it possible for him to play his arguably most famous piano concerto, No. 2, C minor, Op. 18. His elephantine digits could stretch a 13th on the keyboard. A regular guy’s hand can barely manage a 10th, apparently. Rocky tossed gigantic chords into his music too. No. 2 is dirge-like and atmospheric, but I’m not in the mood for that now. Mom was in the mood for it all the time that summer, and I learned what a trip those Russians were.

Before the 2nd concerto, Rocky had only been composing mediocre stuff, which the critics ripped him for, including his 1st concerto. Then there was his 1st symphony, slammed by other Russian composers, one who infamously said that the only other terrible musicians who could possibly enjoy it were the failures who died and went to Hell where they were doomed to listen to it forever.

Tolstoy didn’t like Rocky’s Symphony No. 1 either (Mom said he hated Beethoven too, which makes a guy who wrote a ridiculously long book seem pretty witless). Poor Rocky. The disaster of his 1st symphony and his mentor and bud Tchaikovsky’s suicide descended him into three years of clinical depression and writer’s block.

Mom likes to tell this story since she’s a fan of hypnosis, because that’s what got Rocky up and composing again. A doc by the name of Dahl said to him every day for three months: “You are a great composer. You will compose great music.” And out came Piano Concerto No. 2.

Creative types, take note. It seems like it’s a good idea to listen to those voices in your head sometimes, the ones that tell you you’re great, anyway. I have a suspicion you have to be great to begin with for this to be true.

Too bad that doc didn’t do anything for Tchaikovsky, who apparently offed himself because he was gay. Which seriously sent you to Siberia at the time. An urban legend says Chai drank unboiled water during the mid-1800s cholera epidemic, but a slew of other theories mention that he poisoned himself with arsenic. This happened barely more than a week after he finished what became his final work, Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, “Pathetique.”

There’s more to say about this, but let’s stay positive. My favorite piece of music then was Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which has a big history of its own. Apparently Moose wrote it in memory of a close artist pal who died young. Even though Moose missed his bud, he wrote the piece after some other Russians put together a swaggy show for the dead guy. The music pretends that it’s a tour of an art collection. Each part, called a movement, is supposed to be a picture from the art show. To a 13-year-old boy from Brooklyn, that was mind-blowing.

You can listen to it online; try the opening movement to the most famous part, “Promenade.” Go ahead, it won’t bite you. It will make you remember that you know this tune and if you don’t, start listening to some old music if you want to pretend you have any culture at all, which is a big deal in Best Hampton, particularly if you don’t have any money.

Then there’s Aunt Barb, to whom music meant nothing. She specialized in two things: chain-smoking and posing. All day long she would change into different outfits, which would make my stomach ache in an unusual way. Then she would pose and smoke. Pose here, leaning casually but importantly against the doorjamb of the formal dining room, and puff puff puff.

She liked to say that, “Shall we eat in the formal dining room this evening?” Or pose here, sitting, standing, or lounging, steaming cup in hand of the most special tea in the world grown so deep in the rain forest not even the poisonous snakes the length of city blocks or even more deadly gargantuan spiders the size of spaceships would get within a half-mile of the special place. Only experts who were in the know would even consider going, risking not only life and every possible limb but very possibly unintentionally divulging the special secret location of the tea to the enemy, i.e. capitalist competition.

The word for the day, in case you are not listening, is special. Pose. Special. Tea. Special. Clothes. Special. Effect indifference, garment yourself with major outfits that never leave the house, posture the pose that displays how special you are. Not only do you deserve that tea, so obviously heaven-sent especially for you, it’s a perfect companion to posing, or perhaps prompting the intensity of posing exclusive to Best Hampton poseurs. Otherwise, I really like Aunt Barb, and am truly impressed that she can smoke three packs of cigarettes per day. If you break that down into hours and minutes she is puffing away every other instant she is awake. Special ashtrays even decorate the shower caddies.

Special! As my girl Collins likes to say, it is this way because this is the way it is.

Regardless, it was a special summer for me. The first adventure was Elbow. He was a mastiff-rottweiler mix, possessing the boxy, bone-crushing features of each so that he looked like the Frankenstein of dogs — minus the neck screws. His mug alone was the size of a baby watermelon. When Crater extended his monster-sized hands they barely surrounded the animal’s head. (He’s the one who should’ve been playing piano, but don’t mention that to Mom.) Not only that, the 160-pound bulk of black dogdom was a guard dog, which meant that everywhere Crater went, Elbow was sure to go. Otherwise, Uncle Joe would’ve shot him.

In a way, Elbow actually created the Crater we know today. There he was at 16, epidemic with acne and hormones, constantly perplexed at the instant wood caused by the mere nearness of the opposite sex. As legend has it, on one otherwise unremarkable afternoon in July, the furry lug lunged from an army of bushes bordering Uncle Joe and Aunt Barb’s house and bit a chunk out of Crater’s face.

Crater had just been marveling at a recent sighting of the hottest babe in town Blanche Quaker’s enormous chimichangas, which threatened to imminently tumble from the ridiculously scanty brassiere that attempted to shelter them beneath her ever-flimsy top. He was attempting to show me how big they were, hands up high-fiving the air, when the flaming red azalea bushes parted and my cousin got nailed.

After the bloody ride to the hospital — Crater drooling, Aunt Barb shrieking, and Uncle Joe cursing at Aunt Barb to shut up — it was up to me to play the kid so my aunt and uncle would stop making such a scene. I pretended to cry.

The doc pieced Crater’s face back together as I held a mirror so C. could watch. His stitched-up left cheek looked like a gory tic-tac-toe game, and Aunt Barb had to drag Uncle Joe out of the room. He had gone as white as the hospital sheet, making barbarian sounds like he was the one not only getting stitched up but killed at the same time.

When we got home, the colossal creature — he was pretty impressive, shining in the sun like a Greek statue — sprawled across the perfect lawn, and now Uncle Joe’s face turned bright red like the blood all over Crater’s shirt.

“You are shitting me,” he muttered.

“Joe — the cursing. The kid’s in the back,” Aunt Barb said, meaning me. All summer, I was “the kid.” As if I didn’t know what shit was. It’s the crime on the lawn, losers!

“Don’t tell me what to do, I’m gonna off that freakin’ mutt.”

“Like hell you are, we have to call the police.”

“Are you out of your mind? This is when they call me, or do you not remember where your wardrobe comes from?”

“If you say so, Joe, but how are you going to get out of the car with that Brobdingnagian right there?”

“The what? Speak English for chrissakes, Christ Almighty.”

Car pose. Turn slowly. Hand on headrest. Pose. “Don’t you Christ Almighty me, you illiterate. It is English. When was the last time you read a book, a real book, not some ridiculous manual on night vision goggles?”

While they went at it, Crater gave me that look, flourishing it with the zip the lip sign and slipping out of the car. Uncle Joe and Aunt Barb had amped it up so high they didn’t even notice.

Crater ambling toward the dog. Dog ambling toward Crater. Crater steps toward the dog, dog steps toward Crater. Crater lifts his left foot, dog copycats. Crater inches forward and dog, curlicue tail microscopically quivering to the observant eye, inches closer. Only when they were less than a foot away from each other did Uncle Joe and Aunt Barb notice.

“Shit! Joe — ” she whispered.

“Jesus, Mary and. . . .”

“Shut up Joe. Look.”

It was like a slo-mo vid as Crater dropped to his knees and spread his arms wide like the hands of God (c’mon, all this Christ-Almighty-Jesus-and-Mary crap is asking for it) and the dog hurled himself down and wriggled belly up in the grass like a Brobdingnagian baby. Crater was all over him like they’d been separated at birth and the hairy lug slobbered all over the uncratered side of his face. Elbow has not budged from Crater’s side since.

And that is how Crater got his name.

Yo, I’m back from the reminiscence, but not completely. Before I listen to another word anyone says, I’ll listen to “Pictures at an Exhibition,” and who knows, I might even Aunt Barb it and change my threads. Next movement: the mystery.


Stacey Donovan, a novelist, ghostwriter, and book editor, is a member of the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop. This piece is an excerpt from a work in progress. She lives in Amagansett.