She goes down the hall to the linen closet and gets clean sheets. Sammy goes back into his room and closes the door. Otherwise it'll mean something that she came alone, and we didn't think enough of her to give her our room. Help me," she says, pulling the fitted sheet across the bed. He rubs the cut on his neck until blood seeps out.
He wonders if the date will call, wonders what he will do with the date if she calls. Will they make a plan to meet? Where will he take her? The Carlyle? Or Ardsley Arms, the motel by the highway that advertises cozy cabins? He can't spend the money. If he spends money Elaine will find out—she's better at math than he is; she does the bills. They'll either go to the date's place, or they'll meet somewhere public, like Rye Playland. He'll buy lots of ride tickets. They'll go through the haunted house, rushing to be finished, released and relieved, before their car kicks through the double doors and back into the daylight.
They'll go through two or three times. The first time, they'll kiss, long and tenderly, as if they mean it. He'll fondle her. The second time, his head will be in her crotch, her mouth on his cock. The third time she'll straddle him—she'll sit so tall that her head will bang against the fabricated fiberglass rafters, the pseudo timbers, which will crack at well-timed intervals over their heads. The things that go bump in the night will be entirely real. Paul looks at himself in the mirror and wonders what's wrong with Henry's hair.
Paul is just like his friends, as is Elaine. Their friends are just like them. The like it that way. When one of the friends changes, when something is different, they all get nervous, as if will be contagious—as if this bit of bad luck or ill fortune will now be visited upon the rest of them. Elaine's words echo in his head: "Who does he think he's fooling? Daniel spread the rest of the caviar on his. It's out of control. They look out the kitchen window. The children are playing in the yard.
Daniel has Sammy trapped, with a butterfly net over his head. It's unclear whether he means big deal as in "none of your business," or big deal as in "a large business transaction. I need some time to myself. Keep an eye on the kids. Isn't she there? And what about Jennifer? Isn't Jennifer there? At the cookout, regardless of the fact that they were all together the night before, they act glad to see each other.
Perhaps they are not acting, perhaps they are genuinely glad to see each other. Perhaps it was difficult being left to their own devices for twenty-four hours. Who knows? But they are in surprisingly good spirits; they are the kind of people who believe in putting on their party clothes and a party face, or at least starting off with a smile. Are you running out? Pour you another? More ice? He doesn't have to eat, he can just drink. He can still drink, can't he? Mortgage, two in prep school, one in that special place—it's a lot, an awful lot.
It's all I do. House, house, house, as though nothing else mattered, as though that's all there was in the world. The Nielson twins, Molly and Mary, play waitress.
- Music for Torching;
- Introduction to Chemical Engineering Computing.
- Music for Torching;
They wear little black dresses with white aprons tied on. The guests applaud their servitude and wonder aloud how much Pat and George are paying them. The guests can't tell the girls apart and so just call them both Mmmm The men hover around the grill, their faces slowly turning red in the charcoal glow. The women are bathed in the cold blue fluorescent light of the kitchen. Each side eyes the other, hoping the gossip being traded doesn't really give the goods away. Henry's date stands in the dark, in a kind of no man's land between the two groups, with only the citronella torch as her guide.
Paul keeps her company. The date looks at Paul. She starts to say something about Paul's hair, but Elaine comes between them. Later, when they are roasting marshmallows, when he's got the date eating off his stick, Paul will try to touch her.
Music for Torching
He'll rest his hand high on her thigh. Far away there is the sound of another party, voices in a distant back yard. Through the trees they can see lights in other houses. Every lit window is like a small stage, a miniature color television set where little dramas play themselves out. Are we our parents? Hearts are warmed. He doesn't tell Henry that she telephoned, that they played doctor, that he scheduled her for a return visit.
Re-Reading AM Homes: Music For Torching
He doesn't tell Henry that chances are the date has a serious problem, something thoroughly beyond both of them, and that he's beginning to think she's incurable. Instead, he asks, "Where'd you meet her? Isn't that unbelievable? Henry runs his hand through what's left of it. Pat Nielson tells everyone exactly where to go.
She seats Paul next to Elaine's best friend, Liz. Elaine waits for him. They have walked to Nielsons'. Walking and drinking is the way it is done. That way they can drink too much, eat too much, and get home still feeling decent about themselves: it could have been worse, at least they got a little exercise, a taste of the night air, at least no one got killed. The problem comes a few minutes later, when Paul has to get in the car to drive Jennifer, the babysitter, who is Liz's daughter, home.
He sits looking up at the house, thinking it looks shabby. Even in the dim glow of the street lights, it looks less promising, less hopeful than the other houses up and down the block. Jennifer comes out of the house and gets into the car. He touches his own lip and eyebrow as if he were speaking sign language. He nods. Jennifer was five when he and Elaine moved in. She is his first memory of the neighborhood. He spotted her playing on the lawn of what was then Roger and Liz's house, and somehow the sight of her, staging a party with her Raggedy Anns—she was dressed like a Raggedy Ann herself—made him think that they could live here, that everything would be O.
He doesn't know why. He makes a turn. Elaine is in the living room, waiting for Paul. She is talking to her mother, who has apparently run away from home. As Elaine talks she rearranges the furniture as though this will make all the difference. After fifty-three years, every now and then you need a night off. By the way" the mother says, "when I got here Daniel was puffy, like he was having an allergy. So I gave him an antihistamine. Her words come off with the dismissive intonation of someone saying "fiddlesticks.
Paul does a strange and suspicious dance, circling around the sofa, around Elaine—like an animal, like a boxer. He circles and drinks. He is drunk, his breath Scotchy, tainted with bitter belches.
He holds on. He bends to put his glass on the coffee table, but the table has been moved. The glass lands on the floor and the drink spills. The mother comes to the top of the stairs. He tears at his wife's clothing. He bites her. He does to Elaine what he'd like to do to Henry's date. I thought you where cute. But look at you now. She begins to cry. Her nails sink into his flesh and stay there. His few remaining strands of hair come unglued and fall forward, hanging in his face. He stops humping her for a moment, flips them back, then starts humping her again.
They stop fucking. They don't finish, they simply stop. You were the fountain, the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel? You were a Roman candle. What could we do now that would be like that? Paul is in the bathroom, looking at himself in the mirror again. He looks at his hair. He takes Elaine's nail scissors and cuts it all off. Embarrassed, liberated, gleeful like a little kid, he runs his hand over his head.
He is ruining something, actively destroying it.
He hasn't felt this powerful in years. All the neatly combed strands are gone. He squirts Barbasol over his head; he looks like transvestite wearing a bathing cap. He scrapes the razor over his scalp, round and round he goes. Paul finishes, thinking he looks better, healthier, more accepting of what he's become. Paul comes out of the bedroom. All the clothing has been dyed pink by a red shirt that got mixed in with the whites. Then she notices his shaved head. He looks at his underwear. It's the law. If you don't go, the police will come and take your father and me away.
As she says this, it seems to occur to her that this might be absolution, a way out—let them come and take her away, so be it. Don't wear any underwear, either. It's your life. I'm only your mother. Paul leaves with Sammy, promising to stop ant the five-and-ten and buy new underwear on the way. It's what's good for you.
Pink is not good for you. She puts the knife down. It happened to your father and me. And we survived. Elaine starts to say something, but the mother holds up her hand like a stop sign, silencing her. The mother has come, the mother has gone; everything is the same as it was. She didn't make it all right again. She was no help at all.
Paul is in his office. He has changed his underwear. The pink underwear is in the trash can under his desk. He thinks about the cleaning lady finding it—pulling it out, taking it home, and giving it to her husband, the cross-dresser. He takes the underwear out of the trash and puts in his briefcase. His secretary puts through a call from Henry. Paul doesn't say anything. His heart has stopped for the moment. He goes back to the phone. Henry is talking to the date, doing a poor imitation of Sean Conner.
The date moans, with a Russian accent. Paul just listens. Elaine is home. She goes from room to room, thinking she should clean, she should dust, she should vacuum.
Elaine thinks she should sit down, make some calls; she should get the dishwasher repaired, the disposal replaced, the leak under the sink fixed, oven tested, shower re-grouted, floorboard fixed, house painted. She should go to the nursery and buy flowers for outside. She should clean out all the closets and give away what they don't need anymore.
Elaine goes from room to room, lying on every bed, sitting in every chair—room to room, thinking. Round and round. Upstairs, downstairs. Faster, faster, she makes mental notes: what is missing, absent, or in need of attention. She makes notes until she feels sick and then she goes downstairs and opens the refrigerator to get a drink. The bulb blows out while she is trying to decide what she wants.
It is enough. More than enough. She goes outside and sits on the steps. She can't go back in the house. She can't go in the house again. She sits on the steps. The air is thick. The mailman comes. All the caviar is gone. Daniel drags a beach chair out of the garage and sets it up for her. She lies down in the backyard. He comes out into the yard with their drinks in hand. He takes off his tie, his shoes, his socks. He wiggles his feet in the grass. She doesn't say any more. They have their drinks.
They have more drinks. The bleating bellow of mothers calling their children home echoes up and the street. Paul set's up the grill—a little too close to the house, Elaine thinks, but she doesn't say anything. He lights the coals. Elaine and Paul are silent, listening for Sammy and Daniel's game.
The static of the children's walkie-talkie cuts through the air. Paul picks of the can of charcoal-starter fluid and squirts it against the house. He asks. The briquettes are almost ready; the coals are dead-white, red-edged, glowing. Elaine goes to Paul and puts her hand around his waist. She balances herself, then raises her leg, her foot, her toe and taps her toe against the leg of the grill. Elaine pulls her leg back and kicks the grill.
The coals fly up and out, the frill tops over. Everything sputters and smokes for a minute and then slowly the fire builds up from the ground, the grass, and moves toward the house. They stand watching as fire creeps up the back wall of the house. Wordless, each wonders if it's a game—a dare to see who will run for the garden hose. As the fire builds their nervousness and excitement grow. Elaine begins to laugh and then stops herself, pinching her cheeks together with her hands.
In the early-evening light, the blue flame is nearly invisible. Fire seeps into a crack in the wall. A line of white smoke rises. Elaine watches, wishing she could hurry it, wishing she could be sure.
- Music for Torching (Paperback).
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Paul leans on Elaine and puts his shoes and socks back on. Elaine walks away, turning back to see Paul blowing on the fire, fanning it with his hands, encouraging the flame. They get in the car and wait for Paul. A few minutes later, red-faced, breathless, he joins them. They drive to a nearby restaurant. The waitress fills their water glasses. Paul and Elaine smile at each other. During dinner they hear sirens. They linger over coffee. The children eat ice-cream sundaes.
When the check is paid, they get back in the car and head toward home. The street is blocked off, there are fire engines and police cars. In the distance, they can see their house in flames with fire coming out of the roof. They watch for a few minutes and then worried someone will recognize them, they drive away. They check into a motel. Paul plays with the blankets, pulling them up over their heads.
Read More. At one point in A. I wouldn't mind taking a crack at it. When we first meet her main characters, a middle-aged couple named Paul and Elaine, they're cleaning up after a dinner party; at the sink, he pulls down her pantyhose and she "accidentally" inflicts a shallow wound in his neck with a carving knife.
Within 20 pages they've willfully set fire to their house by squirting it with charcoal lighter and tipping over the grill—an exhilarating bit of secular blasphemy. Later, as they copulate, she says, "We're awful We're worse than we thought we were, worse than anyone I've ever met. Hommage or critique? Updating or oneupping? Homes's setting seems east of and downmarket from Cheever's "Shady Hill," but she gives us a roaming dog, a roving-eyed husband and a babysitter who seem to have mutated from prototypes in "The Country Husband," Homes's novel ends where that story begins, literally up in the air.
For Cheever, a DC-3; for Homes, a chopper. Homes shows none of Cheever's nuanced ambivalence about leafy, loony suburbia and the annoyingly provincial, thwartedly poetic souls who live there; for her it's a zoo. One kid, as a neighbor confides, "bit a teacher's fingers off, the index and-what's the longer one? He bit them off and ate them They are just part of a series of weird incidents in this twisted and plotless take on modern suburbia. Who knows why? Bret Easton Ellis comes to mind, particularly in the moments of black comedy, but Homes, unlike Ellis, shows flashes of an alarming earnestness.
She seems to take seriously the neuroses of her characters, which undercuts the humor. While the adults act like adolescents, the children retreat into their own private strangeness. After the Columbine school shootings, every editorial writer in the country seems to be asking, who is watching the children? Not the likes of Elaine and Paul. And pathetic. And stupid. And so is Paul. They are also amazingly immature.