The Writing Disorder



New Fiction


by Michael Burns

      The little L-shaped white house with black shutters, where Lillian Bloemer lived with her dotty mother, was down in a sort of hollow bounded by three giant maples and scattered young pines. Bare vines ran up the side of the house that faced the road and seemed to hold the structure in their grip. Scanlon brought his car to a stop on the snowy road in front of the house, wondering if any of his colleagues had been invited, too. Lillian’s invitation for drinks had taken him by surprise. She had said often enough that she should have him over, but he never really believed she would follow through.
      He got out of the car and looked up at the low sky. A light snow was beginning to fall. There was already more snow on the ground than he ever remembered seeing before Thanksgiving. He must be prepared to find Doug Stambaugh there, or just about anybody except for possibly Dennis Kitchell, or Coach Sorenson, whom Lillian had once told him were two of the most boorish people she’d ever met, which made him wonder how she described him to other people. He’d be civil to Stambaugh, but aloof. He’d watch his drinks and act with utmost dignity. Scanlon sighed and held onto a wooden handrail as he stepped down the three slippery steps to the neatly shoveled path leading to Lillian Bloemer’s front porch.
      Three ears of Indian corn were hung on the black front door. Before he could use the brass knocker Lillian had the door open. “Hello there. Nice you could come. Step in. Let me have your coat,” Lillian said, a highball glass in her hand. She had on the same dress she’d worn at school that day, but she looked lumpier in it than she had earlier, and Scanlon realized with distress that she had probably removed her girdle. As he got out of his overcoat, his eyes fell on his hostess’s pudgy feet spilling over the sides of an expensive looking pair of brocade slippers. She took his coat and hung it in a closet off the vestibule. “What can I offer you to drink?”
      “What you’ve got looks good.” Scanlon rubbed the cold from his hands. “This is very cozy.” Lillian Bloemer, he discovered instantly, kept her house hot, the way Alice kept her house and Kennedy his office. He stood on highly varnished, wide pine boards on which lay a threadbare oriental runner. Standing in a corner was an heirloom grandfather clock. He was startled by his own reflection in a gilt-framed mirror hanging on the wall facing the front door. His hand went instinctively to the knot of his tie. There was the smell of something freshly baked.
      “Scotch and soda, then?”
      “How about just Scotch.”
      “Fine. Come into the living room. Mother’s there.” Lillian escorted him into an opulently over furnished living room, which perhaps only seemed so because of the presence of a baby grand piano. A fire was dying in a raised hearth fireplace. Scanlon would have offered to rebuild it if the room wasn’t already so oppressively hot. And everywhere there were plants. Plants in hanging baskets in the big, many-paned window that looked out upon the dark trunks of the giant maples; plants that bore flowers of pink, and lavender, and orange, shaped like brandy snifters with protruding stamens and pistils. Along an entire wall, potted plants grew under the violet hue of fluorescent lights. Everywhere exotic blossoms such as he’d never seen before, not even in the jungles of Guam or the Philippines.
      Mrs. Bloemer sat in a Victorian love seat upholstered in material like Lillian’s slippers, her lap full of crochet work. She had on a crisp white dress, perhaps the same dress she’d worn when Scanlon met her at Winship’s party in September. She was still as strikingly handsome as he remembered her. What must Lillian’s father have looked like? Mrs. Bloemer’s crochet hook dipped and flashed with astonishing speed. No one else had arrived yet.
      “Do you remember Mr. Scanlon, dear?” Lillian asked her mother in falsetto voice. Mrs. Bloemer smiled faintly, but she didn’t look up from her work. Scanlon thought her eyelids flickered. “It was quite some time ago that you met.” Lillian turned to Scanlon. “Don’t be hurt if she doesn’t remember.”
      “Of course not.”
      “Make yourself comfortable while I fix your drink.” Lillian left him in her mother’s company. Scanlon sat down carefully in a wing chair and fingered its nubby fabric.
      “It’s nice to see you again, Mrs. Bloemer. Your plants are very impressive,” Scanlon said, remembering suddenly that Lillian had once told him that her mother had been a horticulturist of considerable reputation. “I’ve never seen anything like them.”
      “The blue jays, how they torment the kitties,” Mrs. Bloemer replied, in a high- pitched voice.
      “I know what you mean,” Scanlon said, looking over his shoulder for Lillian. “Blue jays are always after my aunt’s cats.”
      Mrs. Bloemer didn’t answer. Her eyebrows rose and fell as if she were carrying on an internal conversation. Lillian was taking a long time to make a simple drink. Probably fixing me an arsenic cocktail, Scanlon thought, looking at Mrs. Bloemer whose perfectly groomed hair seemed to have a blue tint, or it could have been the fluorescent plant lights playing tricks. Scanlon loosened his tie and wondered if it would be impolite to remove his jacket. Lillian arrived with his drink.
      “Try this.” Lillian handed him a thin, cold, monogrammed glass and took a seat next to her mother.
      “I was just telling your mother how impressed I am with her plants.”
      “Yeah.” Scanlon sipped his drink.
      “You don’t have to pretend to be interested in Mother’s plants. I won’t think you’re impolite.”
      “I’m not pretending,” Scanlon said, perhaps too quickly. Lillian laughed and offered him a cigarette from a silver plated case. She took one for herself and inserted it in a silver cigarette holder. He hadn’t drunk much Scotch in his life, but he could tell that what Lillian served him was good quality. He must remind himself not to swill it the way he did the whiskey he was used to drinking.
      “So, how do you like the teaching business so far?” Lillian leaned back and put her arm up on the back of the love seat. Her slippered feet barely reached the floor, and Scanlon couldn’t help noticing that she’d rolled her stockings down below her fat, dimpled knees. He averted his eyes quickly. Scanlon hesitated in response to her question; his mind tangled with too many ways to answer her. “Is that such a hard question, Jack?”
      “The question’s easy enough. It’s the answer that’s giving me trouble.”
      “Well, from all reports you seem to be doing famously,” Lillian swirled Scotch whisky around in her glass like a seasoned drinker.
      “Depends on who’s doing the reporting.” Scanlon kept his eyes lowered in case Lillian had something else to show him that he wasn’t eager to see.
      “The kids adore you. Don’t expect to hear anything positive from your colleagues. It’s the lack of negative criticism that you have to interpret as approval.”
      “Speaking of colleagues ...”
      “I haven’t invited anyone else, if you’re wondering.”
      “Oh.” Scanlon looked up and smiled. “I’m flattered.”
      “Don’t be. I never have more than one guest over at a time.”
      “I see.” They laughed. Mrs. Bloemer looked up from her crocheting to smile, as if she shared the humor. “As for the kids’ adoration,” Scanlon added, “you obviously haven’t heard from them lately.”
      “Oh, I heard all about the other day. No one took that seriously. Just poor Mr. Scanlon having a bad day. You’re as entitled as the rest of us to a bad day, dear boy. Besides, in their eyes you can do no wrong.” How much condescension could he be expected to endure? From Lillian he hadn’t expected it. “If you’d care to hear my opinion, though,” Lillian continued, “I think you’re much too lenient with them. It’s not uncommon with popular teachers who haven’t had much experience. Before you get hurt feelings, remember this is well-intentioned criticism.”
      “I don’t doubt it. The truth is, I don’t believe I’ll be sticking with the teaching business, as you call it, after this year.” Scanlon surprised himself with this declaration, not having consciously formulated any such decision beforehand.
      “That would be the teaching business’s loss.” Lillian smiled. In repose she looked utterly relaxed, soft around her ordinarily hard edges. If only those kids who loved to despise her for demanding more of them than they thought they could deliver could see her now.
      “If I were half the teacher you are, I might reconsider.”
      “My, aren’t we sickening this afternoon.”
      “I mean it. Anyway, I don’t find the work much fun lately, especially the paperwork.”
      Scanlon took a good drink of Scotch. The grandfather clock in the vestibule struck the half hour Westminster fashion. Outside, the snow fell harder. The overheated room had Scanlon sweating, and the alcohol didn’t make it any better. If he removed his jacket now, he’d be embarrassed by his sweat-stained underarms. He tugged at his collar.
      Lillian wanted to know what he intended to do next with his life. He told her he’d considered going back into industrial engineering, but he’d considered no such thing. He had sealed his fate in that profession by his antics at Consolidated after Katie left.
      “Why did you leave the field in the first place, if that’s not too personal a question?”
      “Not too personal, just too complicated. I’m surprised Daryl hasn’t brought you up to date on my personal life.” It was too late to take it back. Lillian’s pencil-line eyebrows rose perceptibly.
      “Daryl has said nothing to me about your personal life, I assure you.” Lillian turned to her mother. “Maybe Mr. Scanlon will fetch another log for the fireplace. Are you warm enough, dear?”
      “Clytemnestra brought home a chipmunk this morning,” Mrs. Bloemer replied.
      “That naughty kitty. Jack, would you mind? The wood is in the shed, just off the kitchen. I’d better show you.” Lillian rose out of the love seat and smoothed the wrinkles out of her skirt with both hands. “Come. I’ll freshen our drinks while you’re getting the wood.” Scanlon went to get wood to add to the inferno, his shirt and underwear clinging to his skin like plastic wrap.
      It was deliciously cool in the shed. Scanlon lingered there to mop his face and pick his shorts away from his crotch before returning to the living room with the smallest birch logs he could find. He placed two on the embers where they instantly ignited.
      “That’s nice dry wood you’ve got there,” he said to Lillian.
      “What makes you think Daryl Winship would confide in me about your private life?”
      “It didn’t come out exactly the way I meant it. I shouldn’t have said anything.” Scanlon stared into his glass, embarrassed.
      “I can’t imagine how else you could have meant it, but there’s no need to act contrite. I’m only trying to generate a little cold-weather gossip. You are in favor of gossip, I hope.”
      “Sure, but I’m afraid I don’t have much to offer.”
      “Come, now. Don’t tell me it’s all business at those evening sessions. If I know these kids, they have plenty to say about us.” Lillian was enjoying herself, color coming into her puffy face, her magnified pupils dancing behind the powerful lenses of her eyeglasses. She crossed one leg over the other and held her slender cigarette holder at her fingertips like a starlet, her pudgy elbow propped on her meaty thigh.
      “I don’t gossip with students,” Scanlon said, hearing indignation in his voice.
      “That’s really admirable, but don’t tell me you haven’t overheard things.” He wondered if Lillian really wanted to know what he’d overheard the kids say about her.
      “I don’t listen to their talk, Lillian.”
      “You don’t have to be coy. I know what they say about me. It’s what they have to say about the others that intrigues me. What do they think of Dennis Kitchell, or that ass Rob Sorenson? I don’t begrudge you your popularity, Jack, but it galls me that kids are taken in by the Dennis Kitchells and Rob Sorensons.” Lillian flicked ashes in the clean glass ashtray at her side. “It only serves to confirm what I already know about their inability at this age to judge character.”
      “Don’t you think we ought to be more concerned about this censorship thing?” Scanlon wanted to get Lillian off the subject of his supposed confidential relationship with the students.
      “You mean Time magazine? I’ve expressed my views to Daryl. We have an understanding.” The playfulness seemed to have gone out of her voice. Scanlon sensed that he had led himself into thorny territory.
      “Doug told me he had quite a go-around with Daryl. What’s your read?”
      “I’m not in favor of censorship, of course,” Lillian said, with a wide arm gesture that she must have imagined produced cigarette ashes on her dress because she brushed the nonexistent ashes away with short, agitated strokes. She smiled quickly to inform Scanlon that she hadn’t lost her composure. Could she also have had an encounter with Winship?
      “Daryl and I have a polite, impersonal, thoroughly professional relationship. I do my work the way I see fit, and he doesn’t interfere. He expects the same consideration from me. And I suggest that if you really want to have as little to do with him as possible that you assume the same attitude.” The finality of her statement left an awkward void in the conversation. For what seemed to Scanlon a long time, the only sound was the steady cadence of the grandfather clock ticking away the long seconds. In desperation, he remembered finally that Lillian had written four children’s books. When he mentioned the fact, she once more became animated. She sat up straight and smiled.
      “I don’t think authors of children’s books are taken seriously enough,” Scanlon said.
      “Are you serious, or just being hyper-complimentary again? In any case, I happen to agree. They aren’t taken nearly seriously enough.”
      “No, I mean it. What could be more difficult? Do you still write?”
      “Not since I’ve been teaching. Ironic, isn’t it? As demanding as the advertising business was, I still had the energy after a twelve-hour day to write in the evening. Teaching leaves me too drained to write.”
      “What about vacations?” Scanlon remembered that Lillian had told him that one of the few virtues of teaching was the long vacations, which she could devote to her writing.
      “I seem to have gotten out of the habit. Mother used to illustrate my books.” Lillian reached over and placed her hand on her mother’s arm. Mrs. Bloemer’s illustrating days were long over.
      “Were they a commercial success, your books?” Scanlon asked before she drifted off to nostalgia.
      “Hardly,” she laughed. “My last royalty check was for a dollar-fifteen.” The price of a six-pack of low-grade beer, Scanlon thought. But he was also interested in this business of writing children’s books.
      “How do you go about it? I mean, how can you, as an adult, know what appeals to their little minds?” Lillian started to reply, but Scanlon interrupted. “How do you decide on language? You know what I mean?”
      “Yes, I do indeed.” Lillian dragged deeply on her fresh cigarette, leaned her head back delicately, and blew a cloud of smoke towards the low ceiling. Her neck was so thick, as thick as Johnny’s grandmother’s had been with goiter. “You have to guard against condescension. Children are not miniature adults.”
      “Once upon a time still in vogue?”
      “It still has the power to enchant me.”
      “Me too. What age did you write for? Is that a stupid question?”
      “Preschoolers. It’s only after they get to school that they begin to distrust their imagination.”
      Scanlon remembered vividly the day he learned how to tell time, and the sense of power and relief he’d felt, having despaired up to that point of ever learning the skill. It was the year before he started school.
      “Yeah. They learn to read and write and figure and tell time. Terrible things to have happen to creative little minds.” Scanlon hadn’t meant the sarcasm, but sometimes he was powerless to help himself.
      “But they have to sacrifice so much.” Lillian sighed and removed her half-smoked cigarette from the silver holder, replacing it with a fresh one. “They have such a wonderful logical system before the schools get hold of them. What goes up doesn’t have to come down, necessarily.”
      “We can’t remain children forever.” Now, in his mind’s eye, he was looking down upon the bare bottom of Johnny Labalm having his diaper changed on the bed in the front room, the bed on which his grandfather later died. “Is there a technique to getting into their psyches?”
      “You must try to project yourself. Go back to your own childhood. Once the physical reality is summoned, the emotional associations come easily enough.”
      “How do you know if you had a normal childhood?”
      “It’s not difficult to know if you’ve had a particularly happy or a particularly unhappy childhood. I suspect yours was unhappy.”
      Scanlon reached in his pocket for his own cigarettes. Lillian offered him a big table lighter with a cut-glass base. Sweat streamed down his face. Despite her excess weight, Lillian showed no sign of being bothered by the heat. “Do you mind if I take off my jacket?”
      “Of course not. Are you too warm? Mother is so sensitive to draft. I try to keep it warm for her.” Scanlon struggled out of his jacket, wondering where on earth Lillian Bloemer got the notion he had an unhappy childhood.
      “You’re wrong about my childhood,” he said, folding his jacket and laying it across his lap, inside out.
      “I suppose next you’ll tell me you’re not a Gemini,” Lillian said, rising from the love seat. “Don’t go away. I’ll be right back.” Their drinks didn’t need replenishing. She’s either off to the bathroom or to fetch the tarot cards, Scanlon thought, disarmed by her casual identification of his “sign.” It would have been easy enough for her to look up his birth date in Winship’s office. Why would she bother?
      Lillian returned with a wooden breadboard bearing a small loaf of freshly baked bread and a wheel of soft cheese.
      “Hope you like Camembert,” she said, laying the board and some large cloth napkins on the coffee table. “Would you mind slicing the bread?”
      “Are you an astrologer, or what?” Scanlon cut into the soft, hot, aromatic bread.
      “I used to give readings for friends in New York for fun. I got pretty good at it too.” Lillian tore off a corner of one of Scanlon’s thick slices of bread, spread a small amount of cheese on it and handed it on a napkin to Mrs. Bloemer. Not accustomed to eating in this fashion, Scanlon watched carefully so that he could follow Lillian’s example instead of wolfing his down the way he would have liked to do he was so hungry. Mrs. Bloemer nibbled delicately.
      “This is really very good,” Scanlon said.
      “Tell me about your happy childhood, then.” For all her physical grossness, Lillian ate as gracefully as her mother. Everything, in fact, about Lillian Bloemer and her mother—their home, their possessions, their hospitality—spoke of grace and gentility. Scanlon felt like a peasant in their company. He drained his Scotch like one, and Lillian was immediately up to make him another. The late afternoon light was quitting, and he wondered if he should turn on the lamp beside Mrs. Bloemer. Before he could offer, she reached out and switched it on herself without taking her eyes off her work.
      “You do beautiful work, Mrs. Bloemer,” Scanlon said, all of a sudden feeling the alcohol coursing through his brain. Mrs. Bloemer didn’t answer. She had that half smile on her lips; Scanlon was mesmerized by the speed of her crochet hook. “My aunt crochets a little.
      Nothing like you, though.” Perhaps she was recollecting a pleasant girlhood memory. Maybe that’s the way it was with senility, coming back full circle to childhood. Lillian was back with another drink for him.
      “Where were we? You were going to tell me about your childhood.”
      “My memories of childhood are poor, I’m afraid. I’ll never make it as a children’s writer.” He had no desire to probe into his childhood for Lillian Bloemer’s amusement or curiosity.
      “Don’t get the idea that it’s a passive exercise, Jack. It’s hard, demanding work.”
      “I’ve never had a creative impulse in my life.”
      “If you say your childhood was happy who am I to dispute it?”
      “What about your astrological instincts?”
      “It’s really none of my business.”
      “It wasn’t entirely happy. There were good times and bad.”
      “Are you more comfortable with your jacket off?”
      “Yes, thank you.” Had he insulted her? Did she actually expect that he’d be willing to reveal facts about his childhood? Perhaps he had misjudged her, and she was nothing more than a tiresome, nosy old maid. Once again there was a breach in the conversation; the loud rhythm of the grandfather clock, the crackling of dry birch in the fireplace. “Looks like it’s starting to come down hard. Maybe I’d better get on the road,” Scanlon said.
      “Should I trust you behind the wheel with three drinks? You’re welcome to stay for dinner.”
      “Thanks, but my aunt’s expecting me. I’m all right to drive. Really.” He felt the effects of the drinks, but more in his limbs than in his head at the moment. In this room he could have easily sweat out as much alcohol as he’d imbibed. Besides, he’d driven his car with more drinks than this in him.
      “Let me fix you a cup of strong coffee before you go. You can spare that much time.” Lillian got up.
      “It’ll only keep me awake.” Lillian had to look at him a moment before laughing.
      “Humor me, Mr. Scanlon. It’s instant. Won’t take a minute.” Lillian left to make him coffee. He felt trapped in the room with its heat, the excess of furniture, Mrs. Bloemer’s proximity.
      “I’d like to have a look at your work sometime,” Scanlon said when Lillian returned with his coffee.
      “Aren’t you sweet. I’ll bring my books to school tomorrow. How’s that for calling your bluff?”
      “Come on, Lillian.” Scanlon raised the cup to his lips. It was too hot to drink. Everything about the Bloemer household was too hot. He could let it come to room temperature and it would still be too hot to drink.
      “Drink it, Mr. Scanlon. I won’t allow you to drive in your condition.”
      “What condition?”
      “You’ve had three drinks. No one has ever been allowed behind the wheel of an automobile after three of my drinks. Would you like to phone your aunt and tell her that you’ll be a little late?”
      “That won’t be necessary.” Scanlon sipped loudly. “Good grief!”
      “Let it cool, Mr. Scanlon.” Lillian, back beside her mother on the love seat, studied him, and though he wasn’t looking directly at her, Scanlon was aware of her scrutiny.
      “How about if I walk you a straight line? What’ll it take to convince you I’m all right to drive?”
      “Finish your coffee and we’ll see.”
      “It’s snowing like crazy. If I stay much longer, it won’t make any difference how sober I am.” Scanlon put his jacket on, felt for his car keys in the right pocket. He’d left them in his overcoat.
      “If necessary you can stay the night. We have a fairly comfortable spare room.”
      “I’ve got papers at home to correct.”
      “There are always papers to correct.”
      “Tell me about it.” Scanlon tested the coffee again, and risked scalding himself just to get some down. “The paperwork is the big reason I’m getting out of teaching.”
      “You think you’re the only one behind in his paperwork, Mr. Scanlon?” Lillian was beginning to get to him addressing him as Mr. Scanl
on all the time. In fact, Lillian Bloemer was giving him the creeps.
      “I really should be on my way now, Lillian. Thanks for the drinks, the great bread and cheese, the conversation, the coffee...”
      “Not until you’ve finished your coffee, Mr. Scanlon,” she said, as if she meant to do something about it if he didn’t finish his coffee.
      “It’s too hot and I have to be going. I’m really sober enough to drive. If I’m killed on the road, you can tell everybody you warned me. All right?” Scanlon moved toward the vestibule. “It was nice to see you again, Mrs. Bloemer,” he said over his shoulder to the old lady. He left the steaming cup of coffee on the table beside his chair. Lillian made no move to escort him to the door. He couldn’t go rummaging in her closet for his overcoat. “All right, I’ll finish my coffee,” Scanlon said, returning to his chair. Her reputation for willfulness was richly deserved.
      Lillian Bloemer watched him sip and blow his way through the coffee, and when he’d finished she tried to talk him into another cup. This time he was able to convince her that he was indeed sober enough to drive his car. She got his overcoat out of the closet.
      “Thank you for coming, Jack. It was a pleasant afternoon, for Mother and me at least. I’m sorry if you think I’m unreasonable, but I’d rather be thought unreasonable than have to carry around the guilt for someone’s untimely death. I hope you understand.”
      “Of course. I’m sorry I gave you a hard time. Thanks for everything, and don’t forget to bring those books to school tomorrow. I really wasn’t bluffing.”
      “Please drive carefully.”

Michael Burns was born in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. He deferred entrance to college to serve in the U.S. Navy for four years in the early days of the Vietnam War. Burns returned to New Hampshire where he met his wife at the University of New Hampshire. Encouraged by his freshman English teacher, Burns first became interested in writing fiction in 1963. In 1971, Burns joined the faculty of St. Paul’s School, a college preparatory boarding school in Concord, New Hampshire. He retired in 2004 after 33 years of teaching. At present, Burns is living with his wife in rural New Hampshire where he is at work on his fourth novel. He has published short stories and essays in Pembroke Magazine, and has had two short stories receive awards in Serpentine’s annual short story contests. From Gemini is a chapter from his first novel, Gemini, and is printed with permission from All Things That Matter Press. They have also published two of his later novels, Where You Are, and Gemini's Blood.

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