By Ian Ryan
I watched them climb out of their car. His heavy boots provided bass support for the staccato clicks of her heels. She slung her expensive purse over one shoulder and pulled out a roll of breath mints. A manicured thumb popped a chilly white tablet between her crimson lips. He grabbed one hand with the other and cracked his knuckles; muffled pop-pops sounded in the evening air. My parents Harry and Julie Kurtz: millionaires and proud of it.
They disappeared from the field of view my tiny window afforded and announced themselves seconds later with a buzzing doorbell. It took me 12 seconds to button my shirt, eight seconds to reestablish my self-confidence, and another 10 seconds to run down the stairs. My math-deficient brain was trying to figure out how many seconds I had wasted through my inability to multitask when I realized that I was stalling and opened the door.
“Happy birthday, Charlie!” My mom planted a kiss on my cheek and clutched me in an awkward hug. I wiped off the lipstick that had to be left over from that flaming-red smile with the back of my hand and shook hands with my dad. He was ex-military and made a point to crush my hand like the throat of a Viet Cong.
“Hey there, Mr. Charlie Kurtz.” He stepped back and looked me up and down. “How does it feel to be 33?”
“The same as 32 but now with a few wrinkles. Plus the firm belief that I am beginning to die.” I gave them a semi-white-toothed smile and waved them inside. “Come in, come in.”
“You, about to die? Ha!” My mom saw death as something that only happened to criminals, lawyers, and people who don’t wear socks. The fact that it could one day strike her was completely laughable. My parents had, in fact, bought off Death for $2 million a year. Such money could buy one the best medical attention that California could provide. Unfortunately, the only advice my mom seemed to heed was the eight glasses of water rule. “At least eight a day,” she would say, “It keeps the juices flowing.” They ended up flowing so much that she had to go to the bathroom once every hour.
“Where’s your bathroom, Honey?” My mom turned around to ask me, right on queue.
“Second door on your left.”
“Ah!” Her heels picked up the tempo as she trotted off to the bathroom.
“I like what you’ve done with the place,” said my dad, “real nice.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” I pulled the door closed behind him.
“Why don’t you get one of our interior designers in from San Francisco? Joseph is great and makes excellent use of natural light.” He glances up at the ceiling and frowned. “It’s a crime to be living in California and not have any skylights. Put some up there, and you’ll be tan within a week.”
“I don’t want a tan. I want a TV with 700 channels and fancy car made of fiberglass.”
“Really?” He looked at me like he was cataloguing gift ideas.
“Jesus, I was joking.”
“Hmmm.” He winked at me and reached under his jacket, “here.” He produced a wrapped gift and shoved it at me. “We brought something for you.”
“Let me guess,” I said, taking the package and shaking it at my ear, “A box of Godiva chocolates with a… a check stuffed under the bottom tray?”
“Come on; we can’t give you the same gift every year.”
My mom burst out of the bathroom with a sour look on her face. “You have a seashell motif in your bathroom?” She turned to my dad. Harry, he has a seashell motif!”
“The sink nozzles are starfish, and the faucet is a seahorse. A seahorse!”
My dad frowned at me. “I’m calling Joseph.”
“You mentioned our designer? Good.” She turned to me and grabbed my hand. “Chuck, he’d do you a huge service. Now, here,” she hooked my arm with hers; “take me to the kitchen. I’m exhausted.”
“I hear those private jet flights can be pretty taxing.” I walked with her to the kitchen where my dad was already poking at the chicken with a knife.
“Is this thing moist? You basted it enough? You know I can’t eat dry meat.”
“Yeah, dad, it’s moist.”
My mom found a nesting place at the kitchen table and was already emptying her purse onto the polished oak surface. “Now I know… oh, wait. Here they are.” She had found her pack of cigarettes and was tapping one out with a quivering finger. “You don’t mind, do you Chuck?”
“Nah, go ahead.” Her golden lighter– “not gilded” she frequently announced– snap-snap-clicked and spit out a tiny flame. In no time at all she was putting chimneys to shame. Last time I saw her she had been chewing Nicorette and plastering her arms with nicotine patches. My father’s sour expression told me she had given up quitting.
“So,” he said, “how’ve things been going?”
That question was my dad’s little reminder: You own this house because your mother and I want you to. He had all but made that message clear three years ago when they had presented it to me for my 30th birthday. Their accounts had paid for this pleasant house and nearly all the furnishings. They celebrated my independence by securing more shackles around my neck. The bathroom was my own act of defiance.
“Not bad, not bad. I’ve finished three paintings since Thanksgiving. Soon enough I’ll be able to put together a show, maybe sell enough to break even. How’re things with you two?”
“Can I tell him, honey?” My mom was almost falling out of her chair with anticipation. She was smiling at my dad and asked again, “Can I?”
“Well... sure, go ahead.”
“Chuck,” she pulled some photos out of her purse; their glossy finish reflected the glaring lights, “here.”
I took the pictures and flipped through them. They framed a hotel with expensive-looking windows. Interior shots revealed soft lighting and wall-to-wall carpeting. Then I reached the last photo that showed a fluorescent-red sign placed on the outside of this building, lit up in stark contrast to the windows that reflected the bustling city life on a mirror-like grid. The letters spelled out “KURTZ” in inflammatory neon. It was one of those cheap signs found in bars or strip joints with phrases like “4 Drink Minimum” and “Barely Legal”; the tube lighting snaked around to form a purely sinful representation of my name.
“That’s the old Hotel your father and I bought a while back. The one up in Manhattan.” My mom was glowing with pride. “We’ve been renovating the place for about a year now. Each room has a personal computer in it, real fancy-schmancy. Anyway, the bottom floor has a gallery space that your father and I are going to rent out to famous New York artists. We were thinking…”
“No,” I said.
She didn’t stop. “You could show your art there. There’s going to be a big reception there during the grand reopening. The mayor of New York City will be there! Maybe even Bono from U2!” She turned to me dad. “You did talk to his people, didn’t you, Harry?”
“There’s a possibility.” He smiled and fingered a hangnail.
My mom clapped her hands. “Think what that’ll do for your work!”
I opened my mouth to say something, but nothing came out. The cigarette smoke began to irritate my eyes; I found I couldn’t breathe.
“See that sign? We had it made special so you can put it in the private showroom. That way, you can bring it home after you’ve sold all your paintings and become famous and hang it on your wall. Then you can always look at it and remember how you got started.”
“We were going to tell you over dinner but,” my dad laughed and slapped me on the back. “Well, you know your mother.”
“Jesus, I… I don’t know what to say.” I had never seen either of them put this much effort into something for someone else.
I opened a bottle of wine with shaky hands and poured three glasses. My dad made the toast, “To a happy thirty-third and a successful show.” Sitting down to dinner was like listening to a conversation when you are still asleep. My brain was groggy from wine and shock. I only heard snippets of conversation like “This chicken is moist,” and “Where did I put my cigarettes?” I replied mainly with smiles and nods.
Time seemed to slow and drip down the walls and then speed up to a heart-racing peak until my parents fell asleep in front of an episode of I Love Lucy. I opened the gift that they had given me at the door only three hours earlier. It was Godiva all right, a double-tiered box stuffed with enough chocolate to crystallize my veins. The check that I had predicted would be hidden under the bottom tray was missing. In its place was a note that read “Gotcha!! Love, Mom and Dad.” I glanced up at my parents. I didn’t notice it at first, but I was smiling.