Jane’s face was slick with sweat. She could not accurately account for the interval of time during which she’d been steaming asparagus and thickening gravy. The entertainment section of the newspaper lay overturned on the coffee table adjacent the dining area. She couldn’t bear to keep passing by the prominent image it bore of her son Chris, unselfconsciously showcasing several thousand dollars of orthodontia.
The previous night she and her husband Gary had been out to a rare movie, rarer still a première. They had lately simplified their diet of celluloid to documentaries and foreign films only, and they saw very few of these. Something intensely unpleasant had happened to the movie-going experience in the previous decade or more, and it wasn’t just the behaviour of the audiences, nor the deafening promos and trailers. Criticism itself had fallen apart. They’d been tricked one too many times into seeing things that, despite receiving enthusiastic notices from all the reputable critics, turned out to be quagmires of casual violence and unrelentingly cynical irony. The Chisolms high-mindedly imposed a complete boycott on Hollywood fare, majors and independents alike – it made no difference. They simply refused to acquiesce to what only a 14-year-old boy could think was ‘edgy’, ‘deep’ or ‘provocative’, and they weren’t listening to any more critics who shared the tastes of 14-year-old boys.
But on this night there was no avoiding their obligations. They stood there after the film, the still centre of a glittering crowd of industry people with their endlessly chiming cell phones, their rimless glasses hovering before their eyes, their streaks and spikes of hair, and their tans – or, in some cases, their cosmetically exaggerated pallor. A late middle-aged couple awkwardly holding flutes of champagne and saying nothing to each other or to anyone else. Dressed in dowdy, but not inelegant earth-tones: he, Gary Chisolm, an associate professor of English literature, in a corduroy suit-jacket and olive turtleneck; she, Jane Chisolm, nurse-manager of the urology ward of the local children’s hospital, in a caramel pantsuit over an ivory silk blouse. Utterly unremarkable in their middle-class normalcy, and for that reason singularly out of place.
Around them, wild ejaculations of praise were cast about, like showers of sparks.
It was like having movie advertisements read aloud to you, at close range, at 150 decibels, the voices competing with eardrum-splittingly loud ambient techno music pulsing through the hall.
“What did you think of it?” he finally asked her, uncertainly sipping at his—by now—nearly flat glass of champagne.
“What did you think?” she deflected the question, unusually taciturn.
Gary tumbled it around in his brain, as if he didn’t know the answer, turning to gaze absently at the crowd.
“Um, I don’t know. I want to hear what you thought.” He stared at Jane.
“Well, I don’t think I liked it as much as his shorter films.”
“No, no, certainly not.” (The familiar comfort of agreement.)
“But there were things I liked about it.”
“Which things?” Gary prepared himself to be astonished.
“Well…” Jane fished about. She’d already consumed all of her champagne, rendering the glass near useless as a stress-relieving prop. “I thought the lead actress had some talent.”
“Yes, some…” Gary tried to draw her out. “And…?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Gary. I think I need to see it again; it all went by too quickly. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Jane was not an imprecise or indecisive woman. Her job demanded exactitude, attention to detail, articulacy. She was no mere paper pusher. Literate, bilingual, she was a professional, someone paid to think. In short, very much Gary’s intellectual equal; that was why the marriage worked. She was withholding, and Gary knew it.
“What did you think?” she asked again.
“Awful,” he said, wondering idly if they would ever put that on the poster:
“AWFUL!”—Gary Chisolm, director’s father
“Just awful,” Gary elaborated, staring indifferently down at his nearly full glass of champagne.
Jane met her husband’s eyes with a look of mixed affection and pain. They both half-smiled. Taking the glass from him, she said—“Yes, awful. God-awful!”—and drank his champagne in a single swallow.
On the poster:
“GOD-AWFUL!”—Jane Chisolm, director’s mother
They had been together thirty years. They had no secrets, and few disagreements. They were of one mind when it came to aesthetic matters, and they had both spent one of the most painful evenings of their lives suffering through their son Chris’s feature film debut: ‘Kill or Be Killed.’ What made it more excruciating was that the audience around them, full of Chris’s overpaid peers, mentors and heroes, was orgasmically excited by the film. They loved it, and the Chisolms could not have been more baffled.
She remained just as baffled the next day as she read the freshly penned and cliché-ridden review crowning Kill or Be Killed “a cinematic masterpiece” and putting the previous decade’s hottest directors on notice that a new talent had arrived and was taking no prisoners. She cringed every time she walked past that picture, saw herself and Gary posed next to their son, looking more like terrified woodland prey than proud, beaming parents of an ‘artistic genius.’
Something smelled wrong. Mineral deposits calcifying on the bottom of a boiled-dry pain. The asparagus was dead limp.
Gary spent the day marking papers and trying not to think about what he would say when his son arrived for dinner about a film he had come, in the last twenty-four hours, to think was not just bad but was a harbinger of the death of cinema as an art form. Its treatment of space alone—incoherent to the point of vertiginous nausea—made it easily the most unpleasant experience Gary had ever had in a movie theatre. He found the prospect of having either to feign approval and bury his self-respect, or preserve it and perhaps irreparably wound his son, profoundly depressing, not least because all of it would be played out in front of his son’s new girlfriend, whoever she might be. He self-medicated as best he could with work.
At seven o’clock sharp they arrived. Gary sluggishly pulled himself up out of his leather chair, removed his glasses, dragged his palms down over his face, and slouched downstairs. Jane was coping in a precisely opposite mode. She had been a whirling dervish of activity for the past two hours. She nearly collided with Gary as they presented themselves at the door. They each embraced the other in one-armed hug of hopeless camaraderie, and took a deep breath.
They opened the door, and—
“Mom, Dad, this is Kiera,” Chris announced.
Jane’s heart just about stopped. Chris’s ‘new’ girlfriend was the lead actress from Kill or Be Killed, Kiera Stanley. She was, of course, jaw-droppingly beautiful. Both were dressed smartly in various black items: his and hers leather jackets, her knee-high boots, his silk dress shirt, her wool mini-skirt. One could scarcely imagine two more antithetical couples. If they weren’t family, they might never have found themselves in the same room together.
“Well, c’mon in, kids, come in,” Jane chirped, a touch more shrill than she’d intended.
“Let me take your coats,” Gary offered.
“Can I get the two of you something to drink? A glass of wine?” They said they’d wait and have their drinks with dinner. “Okay, good. It’s just about ready, actually. Gary, why don’t you take the kids into the front room and have a nice chat while I finish up in the kitchen.”
“Oh, no, Jane, we’ll come and keep you company.”
“Yeah, Mom, let us help.”
“No, no, I’m just thickening the gravy. Really, it’ll be ready in no time. You two sit and have a visit with your father.” Gary and Chris gave in. Jane slipped away feeling a little guilty, but also relieved.
Coming home was always a pilgrimage of mixed nostalgia and revulsion for Chris. His parents could clean themselves up nicely for evenings on the town, but at home the Chisolms could be counted on to don the sort of appallingly ugly sweaters, sentimentally depicting wildlife, that fit like potato sacks and are worn, primarily, in honour of the mentally unstable aunts or grandmothers that had knitted them. Chris had never quite reconciled himself to how two people who held art in such high esteem could be so artless in their own lives. Their cuisine also betrayed a certain lack of aesthetic imagination. They certainly knew fine food when they sampled it, at restaurants or their friends’ houses, but they were beginning to incorporate more and more elements into their diet—mashed turnip, baby beet halves—that suggested they were eating less for flavour and enjoyment than for penitential, nutritional purposes. They were getting old, and Chris lived in a kind of perpetual horror of aging.
“Well, come and sit,” Gary invited them. “So, Kiera, where did you grow up? Are you from the Northeast, or…?”
She was unable to stifle a yawn. Chris took her hand.
“Sorry, Dad. We were both up really late last night.”
“I imagine so…” Gary had already lost his way.
“Yeah, the party the studio threw for us was incredible.”
“There was this amazing DJ from Miami, a ton of food”—as Chris was speaking, Kiera touched her stomach with a wince—“and all the big industry people were there. I made some fantastic connections.”
The subject of the premiere was clearly unavoidable. Gary tried to steer the conversation away from the white-hot centre of the film itself toward cooler, more tertiary subject matter.
“We ran into your old friend Brett McDonald last night. Did you get a chance to say hello to him?”
“No, I was really disappointed. I sent him the tickets a few weeks ago, but it was just so crazy last night. I mean, you saw what it was like.”
“It certainly was… exciting.”
“Yeah, I think this film is really going to open doors for me.”
Kiera was getting bored watching father and son play catch-up.
“Chris’s being modest,” she interjected. “The producers of the James Bond movies were at the party last night and they told him they want Chris to direct the next film in the series. Isn’t that awesome?”
“Yes, wonderful,” Gary echoed, not sounding fully convinced.
“And I know just the actress to play the next Bond girl,” Kiera cooed at her director-boyfriend. Chris smiled absently, preoccupied with attempting to read his father’s tone.
“So you’ll be moving out to Los Angeles, I imagine?”
“Well, yeah, I pretty much have to if I’m going to take advantage of the opportunities that are coming my way. I mean, the whole industry is there, really. And Kiera’s there.” Their hands wriggled over and around one another into a tighter embrace.
“Well, it’ll be a good excuse for us to visit California.” Gary was pleased to be able to say something sincere.
“Dinner’s ready,” Jane hallooed from the kitchen.
Gary leapt up, liberated from the doomed conversation.
They filed into the wood-panelled dining room, Gary a step ahead of the kids. Jane had already plated the food and was setting it on the glass dining table.
“Your turn,” he muttered to her under his breath.
“Come and sit, kids. You’ll both have wine, will you? Red or white?”
She took their drink orders and flitted back into the kitchen.
“Did you see the paper today?” Chris asked idly.
This was a question Jane could answer comfortably.
“Oh, God, yes. I look atrocious,” she said, hiding behind a grossly exaggerated vanity. “I can hardly stand to look at it. You look lovely, though, Chris. It would make a good advertisement for Dr. Baumgartner”—his orthodontist.
Gary chuckled nervously.
“Gary, would you serve the wine?” Jane asked, producing the two bottles.
Chris sat down just as his mother was delivering his plate. The meal consisted of marinated duck (good), steamed asparagus (edible, if overdone), and… (disaster) mashed turnips and baby beet halves. The full horror of advancing age was staring up at him off of fine bone china. He caught a glimpse of Kiera—who had the previous night dined on all the subtlest and most flavourful of Californian cuisine—mock-gagging.
“Well, isn’t this lovely,” Jane said, settling in. She noticed Kiera segregating the turnips and beats off to one side of her plate. “Is there something wrong?”
“Oh, no, it’s just…”
“Kiera’s on a carbohydrate-reduced diet,” Chris offered. “Starchy root vegetables are a no-no.”
Without missing a beat, Jane said, “Oh, really? Which one is it—Atkins? The Zone? It’s obviously working for you.” Kiera wasn’t sure whether to take this as flattery or criticism, but Jane was the very picture of politeness. “I could stand to loose a pound or ten myself.”
Kiera smiled awkwardly.
“Well, in any case,” Jane said, “there’s lots more duck and asparagus.”
“It’s all right, Mrs. Chisolm. We ate too much last night anyway. This will be fine.”
Under different circumstances Jane might have been hurt, embarrassed, red-faced. Today, however, she was just happy to have something—anything—to focus on other than her son’s movie.
“Would you like some gravy, dear?” she asked Kiera.
Gary, knowing nothing of contemporary fad diets, wondered if this wasn’t the stupidest question he’d ever heard his otherwise highly intelligent wife ask.
“Oh, sure. Bring it on,” Kiera responded.
“Really?” Gary inquired. “It’s not something you’re supposed to avoid on whatever diet you’re on?”
“Gravy? No, fat’s okay. Fat’s great. It’s carbs that are the problem. Bread, pasta—deadly. Straight to the hips. I eat fat all day long.”
Jane was pleased, and ladled two huge puddles of gravy onto the waif’s plate.
Everyone relaxed a little as they began to eat, and for a moment or two there was a lipid-induced and wine-accentuated lull. Afraid it would break at any moment, and in the wrong direction, Jane picked up the ball.
“How long have you been acting, Kiera?” she asked.
“Oh, god, I’ve been performing since the day I was born. When I was four I started singing at…” Kiera was the sort of self-absorbed young person who so loved being the centre of attention that she would without hesitation give a twenty-five-minute answer to the most limited and direct of questions. The Chisolms sat through her entire resume, from kindergarten onward, by the end of which Gary and Chris had long-since finished their first serving. Kiera had so exhausted Jane and Gary with her tedious tale of one girl’s rise to minor stardom that they let their defences slip, and Chris saw an opening he could exploit.
“So, you liked the film?” Chris asked.
Two sets of eyes turned instinctively toward each other for support, and then checked themselves, giving both the appearance of staring oddly off at nothing and no one.
“It had very high production values,” Jane offered, wine and anxiety reddening her face.
“Yeah, we had a fairly substantial budget,” Chris confirmed. “But, I mean, what about the story, and the style? The way the film was made?”
“You know, Chris,” she attempted to simulate a more relaxed tone, “I think I’d probably have to see it again. It was very fast, didn’t you find, Gary?” Gary made a vague, non-directional gesture, his head and his shoulders rolling in opposite directions, the actual semantic content of which was: ‘Leave me out of this.’ “I’m not used to such fast movies,” Jane concluded.
Chris was confused. “Huh.”
“You were very good, Kiera,” Jane added.
Gary was still pondering the unconscionable implications of his wife’s statement: ‘I think I’d probably have to see it again.’
“Dad?” Chris inquired. “You’ve been rather quiet.”
“Well, I think I agree with your mother, Chris.”
“Agree with her about what?”
Could he do it? Could he lie and mouth those same terrible words of evasion: ‘I think I’d probably have to see it again’?
“I guess the problem I have is that…”—still trying to strike the right balance between diplomacy and honesty—“…I am not sure I understand the genre.”
“The genre?” Now Chris was really baffled. “What’s not to understand? It’s a variation on all the classic monster themes.”
Gary made one play for visual confirmation from his wife. To proceed or not to proceed? To be honest and break their son’s heart, or to lie, and lie, and lie, and wind up foot-thick, knee-deep, over head and ears in hypocrisy.
Much as it pained her, Jane imperceptibly nodded her assent to proceed.
“Well—and perhaps you can explain this to me, Kiera—I guess I just don’t understand what pleasure young women in particular are supposed to derive from watching these films in which girls like themselves are trapped in the lairs of serial killers, to be elaborately disembowelled by the film’s end unless they are rescued by the unlikely hero. Are young women these days so perverse as to enjoy watching representations of their own torture?”
“I enjoyed cashing the check,” Kiera responded.
Even Chris winced at this.
“Dad, I mean… for God’s sake, you’re a literary scholar. It’s one of the oldest stories in the world: the damsel in distress saved by the hero on the white horse. I mean, updated a bit, edited at high speed for today’s shorter attention spans, and set to an industrial soundtrack, sure. But it’s the same sort of story people have been telling themselves for centuries.”
“But does it have to be so relentlessly ugly and depressing?” Gary mused aloud, not expecting a digestible answer. “Shouldn’t art be in some way beautiful?”
“You don’t seem to get it, Dad,” Chris shot back. “You’re clinging to this old notion of what is ‘beautiful’. The radical thing is that ‘the beautiful’ is now recognized to include certain forms of ugliness.”
“And the tasteful now includes forms of tastelessness,” Jane quipped, quite against her better instincts.
“What are you saying?” Chris was hurt. “My film is tasteless?”
Jane did not demur as clearly as she sought to distract herself with the remnants of her third glass of wine.
“No, Chris, of course not,” Gary came to the rescue. “But I think your mother and I both feel that art should leave you feeling in some way inspired, or richer for having had the experience, rather than just morose and drained.” (He thought better of adding ‘nauseated’.)
“I don’t think the audience feels drained. I think they feel exhilarated.”
Husband and wife didn’t need to make eye contact to confirm that they disagreed with this assessment of the film’s merits.
“Don’t you remember being young? The thrill of being scared?” Chris appealed to his father’s less critical faculties.
‘Yes,’ Gary thought to himself, ‘I remember being young. Better than I understand being old.’ But he didn’t say this. Instead, he added, “I don’t remember the thrill of being assaulted by rapid-fire images of dismemberment and cannibalism.”
Chris stared at Gary in slack-jawed incomprehension. “Titus Andronicus, for God’s sake. That’s William f—ing Shakespeare.”
“But Shakespeare wrote beautifully,” Jane insisted, “even when the things he was describing were ugly.”
Gary recited: “O, thus I found her straying in the park, / Seeking to hide herself, as doth the deer / That hath received some unrecuring wound.”
“Okay, fine, fine, give me a break. Whoever said I was trying to be Shakespeare? Isn’t it enough just to be Chris Chisolm? Apparently not.”
There was silence. Jane sat gently masticating her last mouthful of duck. She’d been saving it at the side of her plate, a delicious morsel of comfort to relieve stress when the inevitable confrontation erupted.
“I guess…” Chris punctured the silence, “I guess I just find it a bit rich to hear all of this high-minded talk about ‘Art’ and ‘Beauty’ from two people wearing matching his and hers Caribou sweaters.”
Jane was a paediatric nurse; she was used to certain kinds of pressure. When parents upbraided her unfairly for some perceived inadequacy in their child’s care, Jane didn’t cry. When she had the temerity to disagree with a doctor, and the doctor—out of sheer malign will—pulled rank and put her firmly back in her place, Jane didn’t cry. But here, at the dinner table, with her son’s girlfriend shunting half of the food off to the side of her plate, and her son—her only son—attacking her vulnerabilities, Jane’s upper lip quivered pathetically, wiggled there for a few moments like a half-dead fish, and then, before she knew it, she let that last bit of duck drop out onto her plate and was weeping insensibly.
“Oh, Christ, Chris, look what you’ve done,” Gary chided. He strode over to his wife and put his arm around her.
“Look what I’ve done?! I’ve been sitting here listening to my parents imply that I am talentless and vulgar, and calling my work tasteless, ugly, and depressing. You know what I find depressing? This house, this family, this whole f—ing scenario!”
Jane let out a brief, mucousy burst that suggested she was about to commence an even more gut-wrenchingly pathetic round of weeping. But then she gathered herself, gently released Gary from his comforting obligations, and wiped her nose with her napkin. The shame at not being able to honestly say she liked her son’s movie was passing away, shading into something else.
“Well, Chris, I’m sorry,” she began, now highly composed; “You don’t have to live here, and we do, so what you think of this house matters not at all. I won’t even comment on the sweaters except to say my mother—your dead grandmother—made these for us!” She was immediately embarrassed by the sound of her own raised voice, but at this point she felt entitled to be unseemly. Nonetheless, she collected herself again.
“Your father and I are very happy here. We don’t find it depressing. And now that you’re making big-time Hollywood money, you don’t ever have to come back and live here again, if you don’t want to.”
She got up and took her plate to the sink, scraping the chewed up, pre-digested lump of duck meat into the organic waste bin.
“Chris…” Gary began in a conciliatory tone.
“No, Dad, don’t bother. It’s okay. I get it. You two are happy and you don’t care what’s happening in my life.”
“No one said that,” Gary assured him.
The four of them sat and (in Jane’s case) stood quietly for a moment as they pondered how to proceed, how to knit the frayed edges of their dignity back into something like a pleasant evening. They failed.
“I can’t help but feeling you came here with an agenda, Chris.” Jane announced this with arms folded, her back turned to the sink. “You came to bully and intimidate us into saying we liked that disgusting movie you made. You’ve got critics and friends galore who think you’re the best thing since...”—she fetched about for a cultural reference that would be equally meaningful to all of them; she couldn’t think of one, and that was exactly the problem—“since… I don’t know what. What difference does it make what we think? Why do you need us to validate what you’re doing?”
“You really have to ask? You’re my parents. Nothing those other people say matters if you think it’s garbage.”
“So you wanted us to lie and say we liked it?”
“No, I wanted your honest opinion.”
“Did you think your father and I were suddenly going to discover a taste for serial-killer films?” his mother asked, dumbfounded. “We may be getting older, but we haven’t been lobotomised.”
“No… I don’t know. I guess I thought I could count on you to be intelligent enough to see past the surface and admire it for its form.”
“It’s form? As best I could tell it took the form of a two-hour television commercial for artificial blood.”
“Jesus Christ, Mom. Enough already. I get it. You hated the movie. You think I’m a talentless vulgarian and you are embarrassed that I’m your son. At least now I know where we stand.”
“No one said you were talentless,” Jane insisted. “I loved some of your short films. The one about the little boy and the balloon – that was charming. What happened to that lightness, that spirit of wonder and enchantment?”
“What happened is I grew up! I’m not the one sitting here getting all weepy over a kitschy, garish Caribou sweater.”
Jane had never hit her son, but at that moment the only thing restraining her from doing so was an unacknowledged hunch, deep within, that it really was an embarrassingly awful pair of sweaters.
“You said you felt that I came here with an agenda,” Chris shifted gears. “I did come here with an agenda. I came here to tell you Kiera and I are getting married.”
“Praaaaaah!” Jane shrieked with irrepressible laughter. A half-second later, she repressed it. But it was too late. It had infected Gary. The next moment he was snorting loudly, which only got Jane going again. Chris involuntarily went into spasm, and the three of them howled and howled, until Jane was sitting on the floor in tears, Gary was half-choking and dangerously red in the face, and Chris was sobbing cheerfully.
“What is so Goddamn funny about us getting married?!” Kiera tried to intervene, but she was not enough of an actress to sell this tone of injured dignity, and her outburst only sent the Chisolms on their next wave of hysterical laughter.
“Chris!” she shouted, striking his arm. “Chris!” But the laughter would not abate.
An hour and a half and several bowls of ice cream later, all were adequately reconciled—adequate, that is, for a family the members of which would soon be living on opposite sides of the continent. Chris and Kiera raced home in the darkness along asphalt strewn with wet leaves, and Gary and Jane settled peaceably into bed, each with a good book.
Fourteen months later, Chris was spending his first Christmas with his new bride at home in Long Beach, California. Since Chris had grown up and moved away, the Chisolms had stopped making much of a fuss about Christmas. Oh, Jane still liked putting up the artificial tree, and she and Gary still bought each other a few gifts. But otherwise, Christmas was just another quiet day at home.
When, mid-afternoon, they’d finished opening their gifts to each other and were slightly toasted on rum-laced eggnog, they opened Chris’s package. Each received (1) an elegant black cashmere sweater and (2) an autographed dvd copy of Kill or Be Killed. Chris had attached a note to the dvds: “Hold onto these. One day, after I publish my autobiography, they’ll be collectors’ items.” Gary and Jane set them aside with a mild groan, and a nostalgic chuckle, having failed to closely examine the reviews, which read:
“Masterful!”— David Derringer, The Herald Tribune
“Relentlessly Ugly and Depressing”—Dad
Copyright © P. D. Walter (2005, 2015)