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Authors: Rebecca Miller

Jacob's Folly

BOOK: Jacob's Folly
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Jacob's Folly

Rebecca Miller

Dedication

For D.

—and to Kristi Gunnarshaug

Epigraph

Wild things leave skins behind them, they leave clean skins and teeth and white bones behind them, and these are tokens passed from one to another, so that the fugitive kind can always follow their kind …

—T
ennesee Williams,
Orpheus Descending

Evil is the chair of the good.

—I
srael ben Eliezer, the Ba'al Shem Tov

1

I,
the being in question, having spent nearly three hundred years lost as a pomegranate pip in a lake of aspic, amnesiac, bodiless, and comatose, a nugget of spirit but nothing else, found myself quickening, gaining form, weight, and, finally, consciousness. I did not remember dying, so my first thoughts were confused, and a little desperate.

As the blinding layer of black cloud I was enshrouded in dissipated, I saw the moon: opalescent, crater-pocked, impassive; frighteningly close. Indifferent stars carved up the firmament with their dazzling, ancient patterns. There was an echoing sound, like huge air bubbles escaping flatulently from an enormous wide-mouthed bottle underwater in a Turkish bath with a domed roof, but there was also a tearing—a continuous ripping, as if a universe-sized sheet of canvas were being torn asunder. I now know this was the fabric of time. I felt intensely alone and cried out, but my shriek sounded submerged. Instinctively, I beat the wings I didn't know I had, and rose. I could fly! Was I dreaming? The black air was surprisingly viscous. My wings outstretched, I let myself descend, circling slowly through the thick stuff, passing through roiling, wispy clouds that felt cool on my skin. I was definitely awake. Could I be an angel? Euphoria and disbelief gathered in me. I reveled at having been chosen, against all odds, to
be part of the heavenly host. I yearned to admire myself—or better, to be admired. I knew I must be very beautiful. I flapped my wings, spreading them wide, banking, making a slow round, wending my way down through the night. Below me, a web of lights, like a spume of stars, spilled out into a great darkness. As I neared, I saw the blackness churning, cresting: the sea. I was looking down on the earth! But what were all those lights?

Descending more rapidly as old rosy-fingers passed her bright hand over the ocean, washing it with light, I could now make out a crust of houses, built up on the twinkling island below like a skin malady. The massive grid of roofs rose to meet me vertiginously.

Swirling through the atmosphere, I had no idea where I was, but I knew I'd been gone a long time. Smooth-hipped, humpish carriages gleamed at the doors of the toylike dwellings; streetlamps spilled pools of steady light on ruled streets as smooth as stretched toffee: it was the future, I knew it. The last tool of illumination I had seen was a porcelain candelabrum beside my bed in Paris, in 1773. It was encrusted with light green leaves, tiny pink roses, and cherubim.

Still in the meat of my youth, I lay shivering with fever, my chest tight, sweat trickling down my sides. Now and then Solange would look in on me, the silk of her dress whispering as she moved about the room, replacing my water jug or plumping my pillow. Her gardenia perfume was too pungent for my strangled breath and I turned away as she leaned over me, yet I never took my eyes from the candelabrum. I found it a little garish—but what did I know? I was an ex-peddler, born in a tenement. I was lucky to even be next to this six-branched, delicately fluted masterpiece with twelve naked winged babies crawling over its glazed surface. Cascades of hardened beeswax spilled from each candle and all along the porcelain base, mingling with the cupids and tangling with the roses—the result of a week-long bacchanal, my meager staff too exhausted from entertaining the guests to scrape wax off candlesticks in the morning.

I watched, fascinated, my eyes dry, breath short, as each drip was
formed: at the base of the flame, a little pool of molten wax glistened, plump as a tear on the rim of a woman's eye; when the pool grew too great, it breached the worn edge of the candle, trickling freely along the shaft and finding its crooked path down the petrified waterfall. Moving farther and farther away from the source of heat, the cooling wax became hesitant, cloudy, until it froze entirely, fusing itself to the spillage.

I stared at the wax dripping down the candles for hours and hours, until, at dawn, I died. Sunday, the seventh of February, 1773. I was thirty-one. After that, nothing. And now I was an angel! I imagined myself as a fully formed Christian seraph, a Viking with blond hair, a beautiful chiseled torso, hairless feet, and eyes the color of whiskey. When I was alive, I was dark haired, short, slight, with light eyes, strong teeth, and a thick, long sex that I scented and coiled inside my britches daily with great care and pride, an aspect of my physicality which I hoped had been duplicated by the Almighty; but whenever I tried to look down at myself I could not move my neck, and my arms felt very weak. I assumed this stiffness was due to the long period of being dead.

Something amazing had happened to my sight: it was as if the top of my head had been removed and replaced with an enormous eye. I could see jagged purple clouds drifting above me, the streets stretching away at either side, and the houses below.
This is how angels see
, I marveled.

I noticed a gigantic figure stride out of one of the shiny carriages. Trying to focus on him and ignore the rest of the nearly 360-degree view, I descended cautiously, not yet in full command of my wings, afraid that the man might see me, yet half hoping he would. The thought of bringing this Titan to his knees with astonishment and awe was attractive to me. I imagined myself as an angel in a painting, my chiton frozen mid-billow as I reached my delicate hands out expressively, the object of my communication falling to the ground with awe and wonder, his eyes rolling up in his head.

Yet, as I hovered above him, I had an alarming double vision: I saw the man, and I
knew
him.

2

R
eliable, true Leslie Senzatimore stood on his square of new-mown grass at the cusp of dawn, planted his feet far apart, leaned back, and aimed a glistening arc of piss straight over the fading moon. The heavenly body glowed, lassoed by his steaming ribbon, and maybe even claimed by a man who, at forty-four, had every reason to be content.

Unlike most of the residents of this tree-lined Long Island street, Leslie owned his house outright; a split-level ranch-style home presently stuffed with three sleeping children, one au pair, a splendid wife, two cats, a daughter-in-law, and an aging cocker spaniel. A vintage motorboat, totem of the family's well-earned leisure, gleamed beneath a tarp; four cars, of varying sizes and prices, from his wife's toy-strewn Ford Explorer to his stepson's dusty Slovakian compact, were evidence of busy, work-filled lives. A smaller house to one side was also Leslie's, and contained his hard-drinking in-laws, the most voluble of a spate of dependents that Leslie had welcomed onto his back throughout his adult life like a cheerful Sisyphus. Leslie was a natural hero, and had been ever since the day he had rescued the kittens from under the Bobiks' roof when he was thirteen years old, back in 1981.

On that day, Mrs. Bobik had come puffing into the Senzatimore kitchen and dropped onto the comfy chair by the window, her flowered
housedress darkened with sweat between enormous low-slung breasts, the pale flesh under her arms ruffled like the fat on a plucked chicken. This act immediately claimed the solemn attention of Leslie and his four siblings, who were at that moment eating cereal at the kitchen table, because that overstuffed armchair had belonged to their father—their father had recently hanged himself—and nobody got to sit in that chair. Evelyn Senzatimore, however, stifled an urge to flush the woman out of her house and waited stoically for Mrs. Bobik to unburden herself, as she had nearly every day since Mr. Bobik disappeared, leaving her childless and confused, seven years earlier. A hopeless alcoholic, he had last been seen staggering outside the Woolworth's in Las Vegas by a local honeymooning couple who recognized him as their former school bus driver. This unfortunate sighting did nothing to calm Mrs. Bobik's nerves; the woman subsequently lost pretty much all hold on what most of us would call reality. So, when she charged into the Senzatimore household yelling that there were cats in her ceiling, her claim was met by six pairs of pitying eyes.

“They were mewing all night,” she moaned.

Leslie's mother sighed and looked at Leslie, as if to say,
You deal with this
. This was something Mrs. Senzatimore did a lot these days, whenever life's demands became too much for her. Leslie was the oldest boy, and she knew her child was flattered by, maybe even craved, her dependence on him. It made up, in some tiny way, for the violent loss of a mild-mannered father who had gradually faded out of the family over the past few years. An undiagnosed depressive, Charlie Senzatimore became more and more of a cipher, said less and less, until at last he simply decided to become a real ghost instead of a ghost that sat in an armchair and read the local paper. It wasn't that his children didn't miss him; they just couldn't fix on any one thing to miss, seeing as they'd had virtually no relationship with the man, apart from the one their mother had created for them. “Your father will be furious,” she would threaten, even though they knew that all Charlie would do was shake his head sadly or stalk out of the house,
banging the door behind him. “Your father is so proud!” she would exclaim, as the slender puppet propped up beside her attempted a lopsided smile. Poor Evelyn Senzatimore. Every day she had to get up and paint a vivid portrait of a father and husband who didn't fully exist. Yet when he truly ceased to, when she saw him dangling lifeless in the shed, the strength and volume of her grief amazed her. Whom was she mourning—a work of her own imagination, or the shade she'd shared her life with? Either way, now she had no one to create on a daily basis; she was left with herself, her children, the reality of her life. She missed him unbearably. At last, in death, Charlie had become real to her. Evelyn suddenly felt acutely vulnerable, and so she turned to Leslie, her solid boy.

So it was no surprise to anyone when Leslie, dressed for school in a short-sleeved collared shirt and khakis, his strong frame already taking on muscle, reddish brown hair (“Had the Vikings been to Sicily?” people often asked his mother, forgetting she was Irish) slicked to one side, stood up and said, “I'll take a look for you, Mrs. Bobik.”

“Good boy,” said his mother. “Take your books. You can go to school from there.”

The smell in the Bobik house was suffocating. It wasn't filth—Mrs. Bobik was a scrupulously clean woman—but rather an indistinct, stale sub-odor that Leslie thought must be the smell of abandonment. The place was rank with it. It scared and disgusted him. Looking back, I think it possible that Leslie created his whole adult life as a defense against that smell.

He followed Mrs. Bobik up her narrow staircase, trying not to stare at her massive rump toiling beneath her housedress, then down the cramped hallway, past closed doors masking unused rooms of unborn children, to the tiny master bedroom, a virtual cathedral of religious iconography. The Virgin Mary took center stage in Mrs. Bobik's Catholicism, leaving Jesus to fend for himself on a minuscule cross tacked between two windows. In full color above the bed,
framed on the bedside table, in statue form on the dresser, it was Mary all the way.

“Do you hear them?” asked Mrs. Bobik urgently, still out of breath from the stairs, her huge bust heaving, short legs spread wide like a bulldog's. She was shorter than Leslie, and her watery blue protruding eyes were fixed on his with an expression of questioning surrender. This was, he began to realize with a kind of horror, the final test of Mrs. Bobik's sanity. If he didn't hear these cats, she was officially off her rocker, just like everyone thought she was. He felt himself endowed with sudden, alarming authority, as though he were the doctor who was about to tell her if her cancer was operable. Her coffee breath reached him in nauseating waves. He could hear the blood pounding in his ears as embarrassment and confusion washed over him. He started looking around the room, as if for an escape route. What should he say if he didn't hear the cats? Should he lie? And if he lied, and there were no cats, then what? Should he find a stray cat and plant it in her closet and take it out and then maybe she would stop hearing cats? Was he already late for school? His thoughts were coming so thick and fast that he forgot to listen, but when his wandering gaze found Mrs. Bobik's, her beseeching expression brought him back to his task. He heard the barking of a dog outside, the sound of children calling to one another on the way to school, a bird stubbornly repeating the same flat phrase over and over again. And then, like the faraway cry of a baby, a sinew of sound drifted through the room, barely audible. It was a cat. Leslie was overcome with relief. “I hear it!” he said joyfully.

“You do?” cried out Mrs. Bobik, clasping her plump hands.

“Yes—it's—” His eyes wandered around the room, trying to follow the sound. Now that he had heard the one mewing, he could hear others. There was more than one cat. She was right! But where was the sound coming from? It seemed to be emanating from the air in the center of the room. He opened the closet, looked under the bed, under the dresser. No cats. Then he stood up on a chair and put a glass up to
the low ceiling, just like he'd seen Columbo do on TV. Like an eerie secret, the sound unfurled into his ear; the plaintive mewing of weakened cats.

“Do you have an attic?” he asked.

“Naw, just a little crawl space under the roof. What do I need an attic for? I just had it resealed, as a matter of fact. A board on the side of the house was rotten.”

“When was it fixed?”

“Three days ago,” she said.

“I think you trapped those cats,” said Leslie.

“How did cats …,” began Mrs. Bobik. But Lesie was already on his way back home. His mother and all the other Senzatimore children followed him back up the block, his brother Will helping him carry the tall ladder, which, Leslie knew, had last been used by their father to reach his final destination.

Other neighborhood kids, on their way to school, began to follow him too. “What are you doin', Les?” “What's goin' on?” Leslie said nothing. He just marched up to the Bobik house, ladder under one arm, the strap of his father's heavy tool bag digging painfully into the fingers of his free hand.

With brother Will's small-handed help, he expanded the ladder, set it so the top rested just under Mrs. Bobik's bedroom window. Then, his already prominent jaw set, Leslie climbed the rungs. Just as he reached the top, Mrs. Bobik popped her head out.

“You gonna damage my house?” she asked hoarsely.

“I have to take a board off if you want me to get the cats out,” Leslie explained, holding a hammer out expressively.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” said Mrs. Bobik, retracting her head back inside.

Leslie gently eased the back of the hammer under the new, unpainted board, a few inches above Mrs. Bobik's window, and pulled with a rocking motion, trying to wrest it free. After a few seconds there was a splintering sound and the nails gave way. Leslie pried the remaining
nails out of the new wood, set the board down on the slanted roof. He put his face up to the gap. A sharp, angry hiss emanated from the darkness and Leslie realized for the first time that these cats might not want to be rescued. He looked down at his mother. “It's hissing,” he said.

“Tell Mrs. Bobik—a dish of milk.” Leslie took his mother's advice. Mrs. Bobik handed Leslie a dish of milk. He left it above the dormer window, just outside the opening, and called to the cat.

It took a long while, and he lost part of his audience down on the ground—kids being called away by their mothers to go to school—but eventually a scrawny gray cat walked unsteadily out into the sunshine, like a hostage freed after a month in a cave. She sniffed the milk and began to lap it. Leslie was afraid to move lest he scare the animal, yet he knew he needed to get to the next step in the proceeding. The mewing inside was so thin and high it could only be kittens. The stray had crept up Mrs. Bobik's lattice and along the roof to nestle in a private birthing room.

There were actual cheers as Leslie reached in and pulled out the first frail, mewing creature curled over his hand, a tiny orange tabby, and the exhilaration he felt was total. To be so high up, watched by all, and executing such a good deed—he was hooked to rescue for life.

The sun was high in the sky and Leslie had missed both math and science classes by the time he handed the last kitten down into the crowd of mothers, tiny children, his siblings, and the few kids his own age who had ducked their parents and played truant for the sake of this spectacle. Each kitten handed down—there were eight of them—got a new home that day—and thus began a line of cats that even now, twenty-six years later, populated the town of Patchogue, Long Island. As for Leslie and his family, they adopted a fine tom kitten they named Bob. Mrs. Bobik kept the mother, a fellow victim of abandonment, and slept with her every night, which seemed to do wonders for the poor woman's nerves. The damage to her house was fixed for free that very afternoon by a divorcé with jug ears and a thin mustache,
Vincent McCaffrey, who cannily used the event to court Leslie's winsome mother. Ten months later, McCaffrey legally lifted from her the great name of Senzatimore (
Senza-timoray
, meaning, Leslie's timorous father had told him wistfully many times, “fearless” in Italian) and became Leslie's stepfather. McCaffrey wasn't a bad man, but it was too late to start loving another father, and Leslie felt forced into the world. What he really wanted to do was become a fireman, but his mother begged him not to. Her father—a fireman—had died in a fire, and the thought of losing her son as well as her husband gave the poor woman hives. So that was out. But, determined to make something of himself in spite of his father's voluntary demise and the shadow of doom it had cast on his children, Leslie joined the Navy at seventeen and earned a college diploma while sailing around the world. Returning home, he took out a loan and revived his father's boat repair business, Senzatimore Marine. At twenty-nine, Leslie began to volunteer in the Patchogue Fire Department. He was on his way.

I perceived all this in a futuristic gush as I hovered over the big man: images of his past and inner workings batted at my vision in a vomitous stream of moving pictures, a cacophony of sounds and thoughts. It was an empathic overload, a strain to organize coherently, overwhelming in scope. I imagined what it must be for the Creator himself, who saw and heard the entire world, every thought and action, every tear and fart. I wondered if God was a madman by now, having hallucinated like this twenty-four hours a day for millions of years.

This new, angelic awareness had left me with a distinct sense of unease. I saw into this man so easily, like a hot knife piercing a tub of chicken fat; he seemed good through and through. What did he need an angel for? Very good men irritated and embarrassed me; I had always tried to avoid them. My heart (I felt I had a heart) pumping in my chest, I lowered myself gradually, both craving an encounter and
dreading it. As I came closer to Leslie, I felt a warm tide of air swirl around my body. I felt naked. Lowering myself still more, I found the air around him was nearly hot, and thick as honey. This man stank of woodsmoke. He was still pissing, his face and pallid member both turned toward the dawn sky. I felt he was looking right at me. I waited for him to see me, for the terrible encounter to occur. I assumed that when it did I would know what to say, and I would understand why I had been sent back to earth. Yet Leslie was not reacting. His big jaw set, light blue eyes focused at a point just beyond my head, he zipped up his trousers, turned, and walked away from me, toward one of the box houses. Was I invisible? Suddenly frightened to be left alone outside, I flew behind him, arms outstretched, determined to follow him to shelter. I beat my wings as hard as I could, but the air resisted me. My flight felt turgid. I was floating as much as flying. Before I could reach him, Leslie had opened the door to his house and closed it gently, shutting me out. I set down on the hard, shiny leaf of a bush by the door, folding my wings petulantly as I realized that, on top of everything else, I was tiny—one of those angels that fits on the head of a pin!

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