— Chapter Twenty-One: Andy —
Comedy of Errors may also be purchased from Main Point Books in Wayne.
By the time the contracts were signed with Field and Whitney, Stewart had already begun the process of trying out new ideas for the Kafka series, but from the onset was having difficulty developing fresh ideas. Since his celebration with Carol had been postponed until the following weekend, he informed her that he was dedicating this Saturday and Sunday to work, but by the end of the weekend he had come up with little worth showing to Whitney.
By Monday, he began to panic over his haste in resigning from his job and signing a contract, and taking on the responsibilities he feared he might not be able to fulfill. Prior to lunch, Stewart asked Carol if she’d meet him at his car at the close of the day. Carol realized that Stewart needed her help and suggested that he drive her home so that they could talk along the way, and he could take as much time as he needed to continue the talk after their arrival.
Stewart didn’t join the team for lunch, and remained quiet throughout the afternoon. At 5:15, Carol left the office and spotted Stewart leaning against the deck of his car. She could see, even at a distance, that he was shaking.
“Okay, Stewart. Who died?”quipped Carol, as she approached him.
“No one. But this has never happened to me before,” answered Stewart.
“What’s never happened?”
“I have absolutely no ideas for new panels for my Kafka series. I worked at it all weekend and zip... nothing. I’ve always been able to sit down and come up with a cartoon, even when I hadn’t had any concept before I began... but this time I’ve drawn a blank.”
Carol watched him as he spoke, and saw his eyes darting back and forth, after which he ground his palms into his eyes and then lowered his head. He spoke about the many times when he’d failed to understand a procedure, or the difficulty he had staying on point with a task, but that he always found a way to rise above his situation. She could tell from his stance and his motions that a failure of this kind was new to Stewart, and that perhaps it was a step he had skipped in his development, since he’d risen so far and so fast that he never had to learn about limitations he might still need to address. Carol wasn’t a psychiatrist, but she had experienced a loss of control and confidence when she got pregnant as a teen and later, when she as a newlywed lost her husband to the Vietnam War. She knew that Stewart’s talents hadn’t disappeared over a weekend, and that he was most likely challenged by the import of the decisions he had had to make so quickly.
Stewart rambled on about staring at the empty borders he’d drawn in and the drab copy lines he’d concocted, and Carol listened until he stopped talking, and then she quietly reached up and gave him a kiss on the lips, put her arm around his shoulder and told him about her own feelings of impotence she’d experienced after learning that her husband had died.
“When Andy shipped out to Vietnam, I knew it was dangerous and I was fearful, but I somehow believed that after all that had happened between us, nothing could get in the way of a long and happy life together. I know now that I needed that delusion to get me from one day to the next.
“When I finally heard that Andy’d been killed, I refused to believe it. I had just read a letter from him that came the day before, and had written him back just that morning. It took quite a bit of time for it to sink in that Andy was no longer there for me. He’d been my rock....and he’d continued to believe in me despite my dalliances in art school... and was forgiving of my flaws. He knew me better than I knew myself, and I lost the best part of me when he was gone... and I was alone.
“His body was brought back to the States and there was a service for him that I barely remember. I got a flag, some soldiers fired rifles, some words were said, and I cried my eyes out. For the whole next week. I just wanted to crawl into Andy’s grave beside him, but I came back to work. It wasn’t easy.
“My prayers to Andy turned into silent conversations with him when I couldn’t sleep. I’d ask him questions that a voice in my head would answer. It wasn’t like the prayers of wanting things to change for the best, or for the health of a sick loved one. The prayers, or thoughts, were more about me, and how I could accept what had happened, and how I was going to survive without my friend and lover, Andy.
“The voice in my head was calming, but quite firm, and each morning after an episode I felt that I had been helped somehow by the answers I’d received... while I didn’t always remember my questions.
“You’ve had some rough spots in your life, Stewart, and you’re doing better than almost anyone I’ve ever met at surmounting your problems. It’s who you are inside that defines you, and not your talents and skills. They’ve just made it easier for you to get where you are at this moment. But neither of our journeys are over, and this past weekend was a small bump in the road, and perhaps a bit of a nudge to let you know that you’re not infallible.”
Stewart started up the car and pulled slowly away from the parking lot, onto Lawrence Road and down the hill to West Chester Pike. After turning left at the light, he began to speak in a monotone as he looked straight ahead towards the traffic.
“When I got back to my parents’ apartment on Friday and actually saw the way we’d been living... the small spaces, the crummy furniture and tattered rugs, I suddenly grew terrified that I might fail. I hurried through dinner with my parents, and since I’d told them about the contract and the opportunity I had, they’d become increasingly more interested in my life.But during the meal, I didn’t want to speak about any of it. I went to my room, and lay down on my bed, and just as my head hit the pillow, a large brown roach ran from underneath the cover and over my face. I tried to chase it down, but it disappeared into my closet.
“I had difficulty sleeping that night, and was awakened several times by a hissing noise that stopped each time I turned on the light beside my bed.
“After helping my mother with groceries the next morning I went to my drawing board and tried to think of clever ways that roaches would engage with humans. Unfortunately, nothing I thought of was even mildly humorous. The more I thought about roaches, the more scared I got.”
“So did you step away from the board and do something else?” asked Carol.
“No. I stared at the wall and knew I had to produce something good for my new employer.”
“Well, we see how that worked for you, don’t we?” quipped Carol.
Stewart laughed, and Carol grabbed his arm at the next red light. “You know that you have a special gift, Stewart. Don’t squander it, and you’ll be fine. And don’t overthink your relationship with roaches. Frankly, I think it’s rather funny that a roach ran across your face and was teasing you. Maybe you should think about it from the roach’s viewpoint.”
When they arrived at Carol’s house, she thanked Stewart for the ride, gave him a quick kiss, and said, “I’m looking forward to our celebration, Stewart. Take the night off and then see what comes to you tomorrow as you do battle with the roach kingdom, or perhaps the queendom, or whatever you might call it.”
Stewart smiled and thanked her for listening to his woes. He felt better after talking with her, in the same way he had always felt after discussing his problems with Sharon as a teen, which was so unlike his relationships with either Carla or the elusive and manipulative Debra.
Stewart took Carol’s advice and watched summer reruns on the small TV in his room that evening. He fell asleep early and remained so, with no hissing or other interruptions, until his alarm clock awoke him at 7:15 in the morning.
On his way to work, he took Carol’s lead and turned his attention to viewing his cartoon from the roach’s standpoint, and after returning home from work he made some sketches of a roach relaxing in a man’s tennis shoe and holding his own racket, and another of a roach leaning against the high heel shoe of a woman reaching down to scratch an itch on her ankle. He also developed a few of lines of conversation between roaches including, “Whose home is it, anyway?”, after several generations of roaches are shown being evicted from their home by the newbie owners who’d just moved in.
This thought reminded Stewart of Rodney, and when he arrived at work he walked back to the print shop, showed Rodney his lunch pail, and asked if he would have lunch with him that day.
“On good days, I like to eat outside. Today’s nice, so if you want to walk about a block from here there’s a nice shady spot by a stream.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Stewart, pleased that Rodney was willing to be so receptive after he had inadvertently shunned the man for so long, like most of the others who worked at the plant.
Prior to lunch, Stewart told Carol that he wouldn’t be eating in the office that day, and instead was going to meet the printer for a walk and have his lunch outside. “It has nothing to do with you or the team, Carol. It’s just something I should have done a long time ago.”
“Yes it is, Stewart. If it wouldn’t have provoked a scandal, I would have loved to have spent time with Rodney. He’s such a kind and gentle soul, but he keeps to himself, and a young white woman being nice to him would not be something appreciated around here.”
“So you’ve known of this problem?”
“Of course. Where have you been hiding?”
Stewart had no answer, but Carol then said, “It’s nice what you’re doing. And it’s a shame that you’re leaving. But you now have an audience for any message you choose to deliver. Use it wisely.”
It was amazing to Stewart that although he had struck a few chords that could be seen as political in the cartoons he’d created to date, he had never thought them to be of much import, only darkly humorous slices of life, most of which was dedicated to trying to lift himself out of poverty and educate himself by reading books. Although he learned a lot from history, he mostly avoided news and politics. And now he was given a forum in more than 150 newspapers to make a statement on anything he felt to be important. It was no longer just a statement about his life, or the inevitability of roaches taking over, or of a family of people with flaws that only had a negative effect on one another, but about a future possible for the country and the world.
Stewart was in a much better mood Saturday, since by Wednesday evening he’d produced a number of panels featuring clever roaches using twisted phrases and double entendres that he believed would satisfy Whitney as well as the Field network of newspapers.
Although it was Stewart’s birthday, he purchased a dozen white roses for Carol and was dressed in the same outfit he’d bought for his meeting with Whitney. He rang the bell and Carol came to the door wearing a sleek black dress, heels and a white scarf decorated with large yellow daisies. She carried a clutch and a small overnight bag, and put them on the end table while she smelled the roses, then took one to bring with her, and called to her mother for a vase for the rest. She shouted, “Goodbye, Mom, I’ll be back sometime tomorrow,” before her mother had a chance to intervene.
Stewart walked to the passenger side of the car and opened the door for his date, while Carol entered the car on the driver’s side saying,“I don’t get a chance to drive much. How about if you navigate, since you know where we’re going?”
Carol was definitely not like Debra, who always expected to be treated like a princess. It was refreshing for Stewart to not to feel the burden of anticipating the expectant needs of his date, since Carol could speak her own mind when freed from the conventions of the workplace.
Stewart had calculated the trip to be about a 40-minute drive down West Chester Pike, veering northward on 252 to Route 30. The inn was nestled a block away from a turnoff that ran through the business district of Malvern, a well-heeled borough of Chester County. The sun was still in the sky and the early evening was cool and beautiful when they arrived. Stewart was proud to be seen with Carol, who looked lovely and got looks from the men at the bar as the couple was shown to a draped table reserved for them on the terrace. The menu included delicacies, most of which Stewart had never tasted, but he chose the Snapper Soup and the Beef Wellington, since they were specialties of the General Warren. Carol followed Stewart’s lead and, since he was just turning 21, he showed his license, as did Carol, and they shared a bottle of red wine recommended by the waiter.
Stewart had been to fancy places before, but had always gone as a child taken by an elder, and never experienced the pleasure of being able to pay his own way and share the experience unhindered by doubt, fear or the unsettling thoughts of himself ever achieving ownership of his own existence.
Stewart waited until the wine was uncorked, tasted and poured, to speak to Carol about his lunch with Rodney, and the pride the printer had in his job and his family. Despite the distances maintained with his co-workers, Rodney harbored no resentments. He had grown up with worse, and he escaped the war only because he had children to care for at home. He felt blessed about that, and spoke of the pain experienced by friends and family who had lost ones dear to them. And now he feared for his own children who were coming of age during the Vietnam conflict.
Stewart hadn’t grown up around many people of color. His mother was self-righteously prejudiced against people of several ethnic groups, even the Jewish children she went to school with, whose parents kept the coffers of Oaklane Country Day School bountiful with their support.
He related a story of Rhoda, the cleaning woman in the hotel he lived in for a short time with his parents before moving to Havertown. She invited Stewart to help her clean, and he followed her from room to room wielding his third-year birthday gift of a broom, brush and carpet sweeper. When his parents could no longer afford the hotel and moved into the small house on Lawrence Road, his parents invited Rhoda to dinner one evening. They dined on their laps in the living room, after Stewart heard his mother telling his father about how it “wasn’t proper to eat at the same table with a black person.”
Stewart shied away from Rhoda that evening, and again when his mother returned to the hotel with him for a visit to see the staff that she’d grown fond of. When they found Rhoda, she asked Stewart if he still liked to clean, but he remained silent and turned away from her. His mother was embarrassed, but after the “dinner served on the lap” at their home, Rhoda most certainly would have understood the situation and would have been resigned to her position and her value in the world.
“I never understood why my feelings had changed towards Rhoda, but I must have been aware even then of the differences between us and them. There is nothing I could do for her, except to remember the moment when my love for her was diminished, and how the episode may have affected my relationship with Rodney as well, who I’ve basically ignored except for when I’ve needed his guidance to help me with my job.
“So while eating lunch by the stream, I listened to his stories and tried to catch up with his successes, as well as to take account of my years of oblivion when I thought I lived without prejudice.”
Carol listened as Stewart spoke with emotion, and somehow knew better than to question the reasons for his behavior. He now had a chance to change the course of his destiny and perhaps rectify the path of those many he’d possibly discounted thus far on his journey.
The couple completed their meal with coffee, sharing a crème brûlée, and then were shown to their small suite.
Stewart had showered prior to leaving the house, as had Carol, but she decided to take a bath before sharing the bed with Stewart, who had brought along pajamas, but decided to keep on his undershirt over his pajama bottoms. When Carol returned from the bathroom, she was wearing a cute but revealing nightie that barely reached below her hips to matching panties. She slid into bed next to him and he looked over and gave her a kiss.
“This is your birthday, Stewart, and I have something for you that I know you’ve waited for.”
Stewart smiled awkwardly as she kissed him softly on his face and then proceeded down his body. She then rolled over onto her back for him to return kisses to similar places on herself. She knew that it was very possible that their lovemaking might end quickly for Stewart, so she prolonged the experience by frequently pausing with her touches. But when she took his member into her mouth, he finally couldn’t hold back and he came with a sigh, after which she climbed on top of him and skillfully sank down on him.
Done for the moment, he watched her close her eyes as she rocked up and down and back and forth until she finally came and fell forward onto him... sobbing.
She wiped her tears away, and kissed him softly on the lips, almost as if he was a stranger. He wanted to thank her, but she’d already turned her back to him, and seemed to want it to stay that way.
When they awoke in the morning, Carol said little to him, but spotted the white rose she’d carried with her the previous evening, filled a glass with water and placed the stem into it, balancing the rose against the bathroom mirror.
Leaving the room, she saw Stewart watching her and seemed curious to find him there.
A moment later she awakened from her trance and smiled in his direction.
“It was your birthday, Stewart, but I was the one who received the present,” she said.
“No, Carol. That was wonderful.”
“I used you, and I’ll make it up to you. And thank you for not judging me.”
They got dressed and went down to breakfast. There was little she could think to say, and he had no questions to ask.
They completed the small meal and returned to their room, at which time Carol said, “This time it’s your turn, Stewart. Happy birthday. I’m all yours!”