Short Fiction

Matthue Roth.jpg

Matthue Roth

Selected by Guest Editor John Matthew Fox, author of I Will Shout Your Name

Followed by Q&A

Jackie, but Famous

 

Jackie had been running for the train, the 6:02 out of the city, convinced she was going to miss it, but also convinced that, with the correct combination of actions—magical gestures, glances at good luck omens like doves and not evil ones like pigeons, not stepping on any cracks in the pavement—she might still be able to make it. She wasn’t going to make it. The elevator took forever to come. The stoplights were against her. Traffic was still too heavy to safely run across. She walked fast, arms stiff, cutting through the air to her sides. She passed the length of one parked car, then another. The street was still too busy.

Jackie thought of all the streets she’d jaywalked, every near-miss of a collision she’d ever had, all the alternate lives of herself she’d massacred. These days she played it so safe. What is it about getting closer to death, she thought, that makes us more wary of cheating it? At nineteen she would have thrown herself in front of a car, trusting nothing other than her own immortality. Now she was forty-nine and fearful of every red light. She had spent years living in the city, frolicking through traffic. Now it was almost 6:02 and she was one train ride away from her home, her bed. Maybe dinner first, if the kids were home. More likely they wouldn’t be.

The light changed. Traffic cleared. Jackie checked her watch—5:57. If she’d bought her ticket ahead of time (she did; she always did) then she still had a chance to make it.

She did it. She broke through the space between a taxi and a late-model Honda parked tight, just gave a little hop over where the bumpers almost touched. (She wondered if anyone on the street had seen that, a middle-aged skirt-suited woman clearing a ninja jump—but no time to stop and look, no time!) She hurtled the highway, three lanes, four, five, nearly six—and then she froze in place as an overtall delivery truck roared its rusty engine and reversed out of its spot on the train-station side of the street, perpendicularing out of the space and narrowly missing Jackie.

The truck didn’t take her by surprise.

She took her by surprise.

Behind the truck—behind the now-vacant space that the truck had surrendered to rush-hour traffic—there was a billboard. The billboard was a large one, puffy and bright, with silhouetted letters like an old Broadway show. The letters spelled out the title of an album, or what Jackie took to be the title of an album, along with the name of the performer and an in-motion, several-stories-tall photograph of a woman, Godzilla-sized, eyes half-lidded, body contorting, almost doubled over, caught mid-swing, her pursed lips blowing into a saxophone as big as a fire station.

The woman was Jackie. The photograph was of her. And the letters in the billboard, they were spelling out her name.

A horn behind her. She jumped, first out of her skin, then out of the way.

She looked again. It was still there.

She grabbed her camera, snapped a quick photograph for confirmation, checked the time before stowing it away. 6:03. Oh, well. The trains wait for no one, even if you’re famous.

~ ~ ~

She got home late. Her daughter was out but her son was over. He wanted dinner. Lately she had begun to hate dinner, both the idea of it and the process necessary: making, eating, the small talk that it begged for. Her son had been home from college, on break for what felt like years. When did her dinner responsibility stop? Shouldn’t you be able to graduate from dinner?

“Hey, Mom, how was work?” Bobby hopped off the barstool in the kitchen where it didn’t look like he’d been doing anything but lying in ambush for her. “So, you making dinner or what?

The kitchen was shaped like an old diner, with a bar in the middle and a door at each end. Jackie had entered through one door and she kept right on walking to the other. “Cook your own dinner tonight, Bobby,” she said. “I’m famous.”

He wasn’t in the habit of listening to her—mostly he still hung around the house because it was free rent and easy food (most of the time, anyway) and, above all, he was already in the habit of being there.

Not many things registered on his seismograph. But this new, unexpected mother of his, a mother who had no dinner but told jokes and was the slightest bit sassy, intrigued him. He intercepted her before she could make it through the second door. “Famous how?”

“I have my ways.” A smile teased its away across her face: she did not often have secrets, and even if she did, she suspected it would be difficult for other people to appreciate their value. The last time Bobby looked interested in seeing her was last Christmas.

But perhaps she’d misread him. Impatience, petulance grew from his excitement. He clucked at her. “You’re home so late,” he said. “I’ve just been waiting around. It’s too late to go into town. What should I do?”

“Look at this,” she said, withdrawing her phone from its belt clip. Sliding into her billboard.

He grabbed it. “This looks just like you,” he said. “How’d you do that?”

She gave a proud shrug.

“Is it a cousin?”

“It’s not a cousin. I don’t have any cousins, you know that.”

“But it looks so…” Bobby fumbled. “So tight and smooth and real! So good.

“I look good!”

He was right, though. This other-her wore clothes smartly, calculatedly, with a sense of purpose. Tight in certain places, room to move in others. Her body was the same as Jackie’s, she would swear it—even the spread of freckles across the bridge of her nose and cheekbones was identical—but this other Jackie, the dynamics of her motion, the stance she stood in, the things about this other Jackie’s life that might have led her to act this way, to be this way, to play the saxophone and allow billboards of herself to be manufactured and printed, this Jackie could only guess. She couldn’t even imagine.

Bobby was playing on her phone. Pulling up something, paging through something.

“Hey, Mom,” he said. “How long has it been since you Googled yourself?”

“Since I what?”

“You know, when you look for yourself on the Internet? Hey, this other you, she’s pretty popular,” he said. “It’s weird I never heard of her. Look, she’s even played on the Late Show.”

“I have?” She stared deep into the screen of her phone like she was staring down a hole to the other side of the world, or into the hole of her own grave. She felt something strange growing inside her, something that came from her, something altogether alien. She seized her son’s hand. “Bobby,” she said.

“Mom?”

“Let’s go out for dinner. To a restaurant.”

He looked at her like she was crazy. “But we never go to restaurants.”

“Maybe that’s why we should.”

“With Dad?”

She nodded. She was throbbing with excitement. “We’ll wait till he gets home and then we’ll go. Call your sister, too. Maybe she’ll want to meet us.”

~ ~ ~

Erica didn’t want to meet them, of course, but she came anyway—conceivably more out of a rubbernecking curiosity about this sudden and unorthodox decision, this peregrination, to a restaurant, on a weekday. She sat near a corner of their square table, pretending to fiddle with her bracelets but in reality studying the menu with a careful, practiced, sidelong intensity.

They used to come here every week. Sunday evenings before a week of school. Each of them had their regular order. Somewhere along the line, however, other things became priorities. Tee-ball. Youth group. Jazzercize. Not being with the kids for a two-hour meal, sustaining conversation and the forced suspension of embarrassment. Restaurants were expensive. Well, not now. She was a superstar.

Bobby was talking about her. He was telling the story to Erica, to Jake, and they were laughing. Not laughing at her, of course, but at the idea of it, at this secret identity she’d hidden from them, that she could be a jazz virutoso in the first place, Bobby was saying. She barely knew what jazz was.

“I do,” she protested, “a little bit.”

Jack reached across the table, moved aside the ketchup bottle and squeezed her hand.

“Even if you get famous,” he said, “we’ll still love you.”

She saw them sitting, husband, daughter, son, like three walls marking the borders of her. This was her legacy, her completion, the goal of anything she had ever done, the reason she worked those long days as receptionist at the law firm, plus an hour and a half travel time each way—not so that she had money, but so her family had it, to keep them afloat and alive. And here they sat, Jake eating with his hairy wolfman fingers, a world map of BBQ sauce splatters across his shirt. And Erica on her phone, because when was she ever not, because even when she had to talk to her family, she had to talk to her friends. She lived ten minutes away, above the nail salon where she worked, but she may as well have lived in another country. And Bobby, dear Bobby, slow Bobby, self-absorbed Bobby, space cadet Bobby. She loved them all. She would have died for them, any of them, without a second thought. Only living with them was the hard part.

Late into the night, after they dropped off Erica and stowed away the leftovers, Jackie sat alone at a booth in the kitchen. She put on the radio, which was what she did when she cleaned up, only there was nothing to clean up. She stared at nothing in particular. At some point Jake drifted over to kiss the top of her head where her hair split. “I’m going to bed,” he said. “Come up when you’re ready.” He was already in pajamas.

But tonight sleep felt foreign, like catching sight of a toy she had long ago given to charity. She knew she was meant to be awake. Even so, the dozen things that needed doing—emptying the dishwasher, opening the mail, putting away the things around the house that over the rhythm of the day somehow just became unmoored, as if by themselves, as if each object was one of her million tiny children—she always did them methodically, without thinking, but she found she could not do them now.

Instead she was drawn to her son, sprawled across the futon in the family room, fiddling on the family computer. She was touched to see he hadn’t left, moved that he still liked inhabiting her house. She entered the room and, before seating herself in the loveseat perpindicular, walked over to him and touched his head.

She watched him as intensely as he watched the screen. She held her breath inside her swelling lungs, not daring to believe this unshaved boy, this functional adult human, in his catalog-fresh v-neck t-shirt, a virgin tuft of chest hair puffing out (When had he started growing chest hair? From where had he acquired it?), that he’d come from her body, that this was the same creature she’d held in her hands who kept her up all hours of the night, that somehow she was capable of creating such a thing from the gossamer nothingness of the universe.

“Oh, Mom.” He looked up, surprised to find her inside her own home. With that smile he could have been five years old, so innocent and unconnected to her.

She was suddenly embarrassed. “You’re busy,” she said. “I won’t disturb you—stay down here as long as you like—”

“No, wait.” He clicked at the computer, jumping from window to window, as agile as a digital frog. “I found something for you.”

It was her website. Of course. Across the top, a movie of her played, movements she knew she’d never moved in before. He moused around the different crannies of the site: samples, photo gallery (a photo gallery!), her tour.

“You don’t really have to look at this,” she said. “It doesn’t even look like me. It’s just silly. It’s not me—”

He crocked his index finger and tapped the screen.

“It might not be you,” he said. “But a whole bunch of people are still expecting to see you on Broadway next Monday.”

She blushed, then groaned. then blushed again.

“I couldn’t,” she said. “I couldn’t.” She stared harder at the site. “And it’s so expensive!”

Mom. It’s your show. You could just walk in for free.”

Her mouth tightened. “I could never! That would be stealing. We’ll pay for the concert fair and square.”

Bobby looked at her in surprise, but it was nothing compared to the surprise that Jackie felt at herself.

“So…” he ventured. “We’re going?”

“We’re going.”

~ ~ ~

The tickets were expensive, but she put it on the emergency credit card. These were the things you saved up for.

It was just her and Bobby, a date. She’d dressed up to work, in a sweater so resplendently sequined that people asked was it her anniversary, was Jake up to something special?

“Oh,” she agreed, “it’s special.”

She met Bobby at the train station after work. He was overdressed and early, astonished by and afraid of the crowds. He had both the directions and their tickets on his phone but he had printed out copies of both. On the way to the theater, once they had shed the crowds, he held onto her hand like he did when he was a boy. They both stared at the flamboyant lit-up signs that advertised bright, sparkle and flower-enhanced versions of the world, a different delusion inside each frame. At last they came to the marquee bearing Jackie’s name. They looked at each other. Are we doing this? They looked at each other: We’re doing it.

The lobby was scarce and the doors to the inner theater were locked, which was strange, for the tickets specifically noted the time Doors 8:00. They lingered, eyes on the other on-timers, periodically glancing toward the merchandise table where albums of music Jackie never made were stacked beside shirts that bore her face.

The other people in the lobby were not what she expected. They were young, they were dressed at once respectably and lasciviously, in lace and shiny fabrics, looking half famous themselves, showing skin but never speaking loudly, a type of distinguished that she recognized at once and did not understand at all.

“Jackie!” shrilled a voice, and she spun around before she could realize, whoever it was probably didn’t mean her. But she did. A skinny young blonde thing, hair piled high, was coming at her.

The woman changed directions but didn’t lose a single breath on her speech. “This is another one of your jokes, right? Something else for the papers? Come on. Everyone’s backstage.”

“No, really, it’s not me—” Jackie protested.

But there Bobby was at her elbow, “Sure, why not,” he was saying, giggling, nudging her, going along for the ride, “you caught her, the jig’s up, let’s go backstage.”

The woman glanced skeptically at Bobby, but with no resistance from Jackie, she allowed him to follow. Backstage was a good twenty people, maybe more, in a velvety but sparse office-type space with bottles of wine and plates piled high in castles of fruit. Bobby moved to take some, but she gave a sharp glance and mouthed the word, Stealing.

He sank into the background. She became surrounded. People asking her questions. People trying to tell her facts, stories, opinions. These people all had a certain look, a sleekness and shinyness to their skin, more alien than human.

But: they talked to her. They flocked to her! They took no notice of her ums and hms and fidgeting, just kept on talking and kept on trying to impress her. They floated opinions, glowingly, of her, questionably of other musicians, as if waiting for her to sanctify them or knock them to the floor. She squirmed out of the vortex of their gazes, afraid they would pay too much attention to her, until she realized, all they wanted was to pay attention to her.

And as she stood, surrounded by the voices that churned together until she could understand none of them at all, she began to realize: it didn’t matter. Nothing she did mattered. She wasn’t here because she’d done anything or because she had the power to do anything, but only because of circumstance, fate, what was expected of her because a complete stranger happened to share her face. She was Jackie. She was not Jackie. She was all the potential of Jackie, all the pasts and all the possibilities, everything that ever was and everything that could ever be. What wrong turn had she taken, what decision had she made that resulted in her being this and not that, a secretary not a sax player, or all the other things she was, mother, fanfiction writer, lay deacon, emphatic bacon fan—how many of them was this Jackie, too? And where was she now?

The young blonde chaperone had vanished, but there were plenty of others at her side. She turned to the nearest.

“Do I have any kids?” she asked.

The girl gave a laugh, not a real laugh but a nervous ha-ha laugh. “Not that you know of, I think,” she said. “There was that guy you were seeing for a while in Kyoto, and there were rumors, but that didn’t last of course. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she said airily, and repatriated her attention to the person on her other side, a young man with his shirt half unbuttoned, and was surprised how easily she could. She felt a flutter of nervousness in her stomach, when would the real Jackie appear? She thought about what the real Jackie would do. Probably ignore it. She tried to.

The people were talking faster and more excitedly now. Someone passed her another glass of red wine—her third? She scanned the backstage crowd. Bobby had gone missing, too.

She hoped he was okay.

She hoped he was enjoying this as much as she was.

She hoped he wasn’t drinking too much.

She downed the glass. A hand touched her elbow. “I know you’ve got to go on, but I’ve been dying to ask this.” A smartly dressed man, shirt unbuttoned one button too far, a light dusting of stubble. “What inspired ‘Chrysler Building 23rd Floor’? It’s so sad and beautiful and... full. I must know.”

The Chrysler Building! The 23rd floor! But... that was where she worked. How could the other Jackie know?

When was she going to show up?

Through the crowd she saw her son, the blond woman, giggling into each other’s ears, ducking inside a doorway. She was about to push away and ask if they needed anything, but another young man, even more lost-looking and eager than the last, was saying, “Excuse me, Jackie? Your band’s ready, it’s time to hit the stage.”

Then she was being led off, away from the crowd and the red wine and safety, into a narrow, crowded, lonely hall. Something hard and metal and clicky was pressed between her hands. The man who was leading her ducked beneath a velvet curtain, and so did she, and the lights were blinding and somewhere behind them she could see a thousand smiling faces. In the center of the stage there was an empty microphone. She approached it, raised the heavy thing to her lips, wondered how it worked. She closed her eyes and blew.


Matthue Roth's most recent book is the novel Rules of My Best Friend's Body (Hevria Press). His picture book My First Kafka was called "eerie and imaginative" by the New Yorker. He's written for Sesame Street and helped create the personality of the Google Assistant, Google's artificial intelligence. He lives in Brooklyn and keeps a secret diary at matthue.com.

Note

I used to work across from Penn Station in midtown New York City. Rush hour there is beautiful: it's all the tightly-polished expensive and powerful fashionistas and trendy people crashing into an army of suburban commuters, people with thick glasses and stained ties and perms who only exist on the Manhattan streets for these few minutes, in between offices and suburbs. And they're so much more interesting to watch than the professionals. If there's justice in this world, they should be the people on the billboards. Maybe sometimes they can be.

Q&A

With what fictional character would you most love to spend the day?

Rubeus Hagrid from Harry Potter. Find someone who hugs you like Hagrid hugs Harry, and you won't need anything else in your life. Plus, baby dragons.

What is your favorite day of the week?

Monday. It's like the moment just before you unwrap a present, where it can be anything.

Which movie have you seen over and over again? What keeps you coming back?

The Goonies. For a while I was writing a novel based on it (old Jewish men in Brooklyn find a treasure map, then pirates ensue), and I had all of it memorized—the words, the visuals, the sound effects. Then I had to take some time off. But then I came back, and now it's the only movie I can watch in the background while I do other stuff. It's like an old friend, constant and reassuring.