The Paper Clip
A half-inflated blue grocery bag flaps in the branches of the hedgerow. If he walks across the neighbor’s panhandle to pull it down, he’s trespassing. Holden is sure the neighbor must have seen it, too. Are they both letting it sit there, flapping, in a plastic test of wills?
There was no discussing it.
He lived in a North Baltimore neighborhood where people said they didn’t have any money, but somehow had the best of everything: private schools, swim clubs, vacations, luxury cars. Who came to their parties was one of the most important social bellwethers. Their guest list was the envy of the neighborhood.
Holden’s wife’s cat needed a nine thousand dollar operation to remove a tumor in its brain.
On their honeymoon to Cancun, the calypso music drove Lindy crazy.
A man who took heavy starch in his shirts and wore cuffs in his pants, Holden hated the cat, the way it hid its shit and pried into everything in the house, like his office, his files.
That morning, he goes for a cardiac stress test and waits as they shoot his bloodstream full of nuclear material to make glowing images of his beating heart.
“The isotope makes your heart glow wherever the blood flows. If there’s a blockage—no glow,” says the pretty technician, old enough to be a grown-up, young enough to be his daughter.
“Bright heart,” he says.
“Bright heart, yes,” the technician says and laughs softly.
Until his play about war called Three Men Screaming and Crying won the Pulitzer Prize and a National Critics’ Circle Award in the same year, he never really believed that things got tough for famous people.
He recalled how he and Lindy met. He—unmarried—approached her—married—at a party.
“If he ever goes out of town and you want some company, just call me.”
He gave her a business card.
He was surprised when he said it. He was more surprised when she called.
Lindy was always what her girlfriends called “an emotional eater.”
When he comes home from the stress test that morning, she is already practicing in the music room. She is playing Mozart, a rondo. When she takes a break, he comes into the kitchen.
“I’m radioactive,” he says.
“I can’t live with you anymore,” she says. Her face looks like stone.
“Well, it’s only for about six hours, until the half life kicks in.”
“No, I mean, I can’t live with you anymore,” she says.
She is putting flowers in a vase. He puts some in too. She takes his out.
Incompetent cervix? What the hell did that mean?
“The only way this can possibly work,” he told her on the first day they secretly met at the hotel along the waterfront, “Is that if we get caught, we —both of us—have to be prepared to deny each other. Cold.”
Lindy smiled, took another sip of wine. She fixed him with that half-lidded gaze that made his head feel warm.
“I really don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.
“Good. That’s it. That’s good—exactly like that.”
It was a nice clean hotel with a heated pool and lots of clean, white towels and a white tiled bathroom. It had the good satellite channels and a pull-out clothesline in the bathroom for their bathing suits.
When they were first dating, Lindy liked to take her clothes off in public, on a dare.
She goes back into the music room and packs her satchel. She is due at the Lyric by 3:00 p.m. She realizes she’s thinking about where her garment bag is stored.
Later that afternoon, Holden goes to the window to see if the blue plastic grocery bag is still in the hedgerow, then accidentally knocks a paper clip off his desk and watches it fall to the carpet under his chair.
He looks down but does not see it. He gets up and then crouches down, on hands and knees, searching for it, but does not see it. He crawls around under the desk, rubbing his fingers through the carpet for it.
Why don’t you write a fucking tragedy about it?
“Disaster is a freak thing, an accident,” he explained. “Tragedy is from somebody’s flawed nature. The sinking of the Titanic? Disaster. Bridge falling on three cars on the Interstate? Disaster. Man who, drunk, hastily loads the backhoe that strikes the bridge just before it falls on the three cars? Tragedy.”
When she arrives home late that evening, Lindy finds him curled up under the credenza in his office.
He has torn out the carpeting, the walls, the wiring, pulled the furniture apart, shredded files, drafts.
She starts crying and calls 911.
When they wheel him out, sedated, strapped to a gurney, the paper clip falls out of the cuff in his pant leg and makes a noise on the tile in the hall.
© D.R. Belz
D.R. Belz is a Baltimore satirist and fiction writer, whose work has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore Examiner, the City Paper, and other newspapers. A contributor to NPR’s The Signal, his poetry, fiction, and humor have appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger, Oregon Review, Antietam Review, Macguffin, and other literary journals. His collection White Asparagus is available in both print and e-book.