YOU WERE WRONG (AN EXCERPT)
At twenty-six, Karl Floor had had a hard life: father dead, mother dead, stepdad sick and mean, siblings none, friends none, foes so offhanded in their molestations that they did not make a crisp enough focal point for his energies. Not that he had many energies — he had few. He wasn’t born wan and slow, but misfortune made him so, and so he felt he would remain till death. Death: it cast a faraway light of exaltation over the future, as the prospect of a shining city on a hill gives comfort to pilgrims enduring a rough sea voyage, but he could not, as the pilgrims could not, get there any faster. He simply had to withstand storms and lulls, eat spoiled food, fall ill for months, never fully recover, and put up a sail at the first sign of wind. The strange woman in the upstairs hallway of his stepfather’s house did not seem to him such a sign. He felt she was twenty-four. She wore jeans and a rose-colored T-shirt over her thin, strong body. She did not have on a mask, nor was she carrying any of his family’s possessions, so Karl may be forgiven for not immediately identifying her as a burglar. A maid, he thought, an amateur from the university who’d tacked up posters around town with little half-cut tabs at the bottom that had her phone number on them that you could tear off and put in your pocket and call her later about daubing the inside of your house with her unwashed rag.
“Hi,” she said.
Dust descended across the close air of the hallway on a mid-afternoon sunbeam that entered the house through a bedroom window to the right. The rose-colored T-shirt was lit by the beam, and now the words fitness instructor formed in his head.
The likelihood of this afternoon’s turning out to be other than grim was nil. His walk home from the high school where he taught math had been halted by the two worst boys from trig — a class of twenty pleasant sophomores and these two, seniors with no feel for trig or any subject that was not the idiot interruption of reasonable endeavor, or, to put it another way, they were assholes — blond assholes, he felt compelled to add. Karl himself was almost blond, and was willing to concede there were many blond people who were not assholes, and many brunettes and redheads who were, but a small, unkind segment of the blond population, he felt, acted out their unkindness as if wearing a blond wig, or as if they felt their blondness made them suitable for a role in which a brown-haired actor, no matter how brilliant the audition, would never have been cast. Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in “The Thomas Crown Affair,” McQueen laughing woodenly and kicking the air in the mod parlor of his mansion after pulling off a two-million-dollar bank heist, and Dunaway in her wide-brimmed hat crying out unconvincingly to the brown-haired chief of police, “Yes, I’m immoral, but so is the world!” That was who stopped Karl on his way home from school, a pair of high-society sophisticates with their own elite moral code, only both male, both teen, both crude, both dumb, both smelling like a week-old milk spill.
“Nice weather, Mr. Floor,” one of them said, and the terrible thing was, it was nice weather, and the punching began.
A grown man, a teacher, beaten by two teens was grim. The central mathematical fact of the beating — two assailants — upset him most of all; five would’ve made it less personal; one would’ve given the dignity of a duel, or the randomness of an encounter with a lone psychopath; two made it intimate, a love triangle in which Karl was the odd man out.
“Are you—” he said to the burglar, forty minutes after the beating.
“Robbing you? Yes.”
“This is your house, isn’t it?”
“Well, I live here.”
“But it’s not yours?”
“So you don’t own anything here?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Whose is it?”
“What’s he do?”
“Not vulgar in that way, just not exalted.”
“So everything in the world is either vulgar or exalted, with a line down the middle?”
“I’m a robber.”
They stood and assessed each other, the young man whose cuts congealed while his bruises bloomed, and the young woman who seemed to him in possession of a relaxedness that, had he been able to bring even his limited knowledge of human souls to bear on it, he’d have recognized as his own fantasy. They stood loosely sandwiched by the hallway’s dark walls, the soft, low, beige carpet pushing up against their shoes. He saw that she was taking in his wounds while he was taking in her mouth, which, given the lips, took a long time: the softer the texture of the lip, and the fuller the saturation of the color red, the more seconds per square centimeter were required for accurate looking; they almost seemed Photoshopped in from a different face, possibly a somewhat larger one. He watched the little movements of this white and lovely face and felt — as he had often felt — that somewhere was written down all the combinations the forty-three face muscles could arrange themselves in, and the corresponding meaning of each, such that in any ten or fifteen seconds, a sentence could be read in someone’s face by the person in command of the lexicon of physiognomy, and, in a minute, a paragraph, but Karl was not that person.
“What are you going to rob me of?”
“Still casing the joint,” she said almost before he’d finished the question, but before that something had moved in her face that he’d have construed as dread had he been confident of his ability to construe. And maybe it wasn’t a movement of her face but a feature of it, an asymmetry, a permanent imperfection that denoted weakness and caused him to see more and better in her than the fit and perfect-faced ass he’d initially written her off as, and to see, further, that he’d written her off as that partly because of his own present facial difficulties, i.e., typical him, he expected everyone today who impeded his progress from Point A to Point B to hurt him, morally if not also physically. Never mind that Point B was his bed of unwashed sheets, and that little good had ever come of arriving there, since as nice as rest in that bed sometimes felt, at the end of it there was only ever unrest. And could a robber do other than improve the misery of this house he was bound to by a promise to a woman now dead?
“Excuse me,” he said, and tried to walk past her down the hall. She didn’t stop him but she didn’t move. He was desperately afraid she would touch his face, or that he would touch hers. As he eased along the wall, his back shoved a small object to the ground. It lay in the carpet, a museum-quality mint-condition prototype of the widget his mother’s sick and mean second husband oversaw the manufacture of, vacuum-sealed in lucite. They stared down at it. He felt what blood remained in his head pool against the inner lining of his face, and had the sensation that they were hanging on the wall while the widget, standing on the floor, observed them. Himself; his wounds; her; her T-shirt and strong arms; the suburban house with two floors, a basement, and an attic; a row of such houses, each with its half-acre of lawn, its tree, its beachhead of sidewalk; a whole town of these; many towns of these together and the big city whose gravity field fixed each in its orbit: all were prefigured and held in balance by the widget in the lucite void.
“Good night,” Karl said, went to his room, lay down on grayish sheets, and slept.
“Hendrix at Monterey and Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’?” she asked, looking at the posters on his walls. “How unimaginative. Wow, it smells like BO in here.”
“How long was I asleep?”
The brown window shades were drawn. The faux wood panels were papered with the Klimt and Hendrix posters and a dozen others — genius rock bands and masterpieces of modern art that lost their luster through repetition in the bedrooms of a million young men on several continents.
“I feel sick,” he said, as if this remark mattered.
She opened the shades. Light wedged into his eyes and pores. She sat on the edge of his bed and sighed. “Harrumph,” he thought he heard her say. Her elbows rested on her knees and her two palms shared the weight of her chin; completing the circle, the elegant but somehow sad rounding of her back. “Yes, this problem is wearying and hard, let’s consider it together,” her posture seemed to say. No buttock but his own had touched his mattress lo these many years. Onto the very edge of his pillow he brought up a small taupe pool of half-digested food.
“Want some chamomile tea? It settles the stomach.”
“Or you could get out of my room!” he said with more force than he’d said a thing in months. From his vantage on the edge of the pillow farthest from the part of it he’d soiled, he saw the hair behind her left ear tautly pulled back by a redoubled scrunchie. The modest triangle of smooth skin between the back of her ear and the front of her pulled-back hair seemed especially vulnerable to his harsh opinion, and now he felt apologetic to this person whose posture on the edge of his bed looked like a lonely little question mark.
“You’re right, of course,” she sadly said, and stood up, and pulled the window shades back down, and left his room, the renewed darkness of which felt like the result of her having left it. She walked back in with a damp washcloth so soft it had to have come from his stepfather’s bathroom, not his own, and she moved toward him, washcloth held out like a weapon.
“Don’t touch me with that thing.”
“I’ll hand it to you.”
“Before you go rob my house?”
“Before I go rob your house.”
The cloth was not just soft but warm: she’d taken the time to let the water from the spigot of his father’s bathroom sink warm up before she’d held the cloth under it. Her game was very deep. She was gone again. He lay supine, the cloth in his left hand now wetting his left thigh. He disliked his thigh and his fate and this rich cloth that had been made a touch of cruelty by the girl who now banged around downstairs, maybe in the kitchen — the silverware, the microwave, the Cuisinart — and would soon be but a memory. He stared through the ceiling and into the attic above it, where the traces of those few bright moments of his boyhood — essays, paintings, a lumpy clay rabbit — lay entombed in dusty cardboard.
She returned again, blowing on the steamy tea in the ancient mug, the old familiar green mug in hands so new and strange his mind could not quite make them hands — a hangnail, he saw, and redness, and faint chapped cracks.
“I think it’s just this room that nauseated you,” she said. “There’s no air in here, there’s, you know, moldy sock smell. Come to the living room.”
“You’re inviting me to my living room?”
His strategy with this mysterious woman would be to go with her to the living room and slowly drink the tea she made him and tell her anything she wanted to know.
“Isn’t this nicer?” she said, on a stuffed chair.
“What’s your name?”
The front door of the house stood open, as did the kitchen door in the back. A fresh spring breeze came through. This room did seem unusually nice to him, throbbing head and nausea to one side. Evidently one’s house had to be violated to be nice, doors flung back, the difference between outside and inside reduced, strangers and breezes coming in; nicer still, perhaps, if the windows were smashed. He looked at her with his right eye while he allowed the left side of his face to roll along the soft, creased, tan leather couch’s back, gazing with his left eye down into the crevice below, the dark unknown region where dwelt pocket change, office supplies, remote controls of old, whole sandwiches of crumbs, decades of dust.
“I guess I’ll start robbing you now.”
“Do you want to know my name?”
“It’s Karl Floor.”
“I got beat up.”
“How do you know? Maybe I was in a car accident.”
“No. What will happen if I try to stop you from robbing me?”
“I’ll beat you up.”
He lightly vomited again, into the crevice. An umber waterfall inundated the land beneath the couch’s cushion that time forgot but vomit remembered.
He had been holding the tea and now put it down on the glass top of the coffee table. Sylvia Vetch sat still and watched him from her chair with eyes of an almost hostile shade of blue, her strong and elegant arms resting on the chair’s arms, her hands clutching them, tapping them, their movements betraying an agitation whose cause Karl knew was relevant to him but was too sad and dumb to figure out.
“Why are you just sitting there?” he said.
Again a wave of something like distress passed through her. “I don’t know.”
“Figuring out what you’re going to take?”
“Well, people who are acting in a play always say, ‘What’s my character’s motivation?’ ”
“But I’m not acting.”
“What are you, stupid?”
“No!” Her face turned red; she stood up, walked toward the door, walked back with hands out as if to strangle Karl, sat down, and looked at him in supplication. This business of eyes, their meanings, their requests, their acts of aggression, their penetrations of the skin, the flesh — astonishing.
“Then why are you burglarizing my house in the middle of the day, with me in it?”
“What’s your point?”
“My point is, what’s your motivation for being here?”
“I don’t have to tell you.” She leaned forward and down in her chair as if she, too, would now be sick.
“I’m asking so I can help you figure out what to take, remember?”
“Oh. Well then. My — uh — motivation is to— God, this is so stupid, who told you people know their own motivations? Not all life is math, you know, where each question has its answer.”
“Why did you say that?”
“That life isn’t math.”
“Because you’re a math teacher.”
“I didn’t tell you I’m a math teacher.”
Her white face went red and she stood up. “I’ve got to go.”
“Sit down!” He did not remember ever speaking to someone like this, even a student, and he felt his words go into her the way her look had gone into him more than once this afternoon. She did not sit down, and he was no longer sitting up. He lay sideways toward the front of the couch, looking up at her as she looked down at him across the low, rectangular, glass-top table with its vintage beer-ad coasters, its stack of books of antique art. He watched the workings of her lungs move her rose T-shirt up and down. Her knees were bent, her arms were bent and tensed, a karate sort of stance she seemed to have leapt into from a sleep interrupted by a stranger’s touch.
“I want a buffer between me and, you know, nothing,” she said.
“What are you talking about?”
“Why I’m robbing you.”
“Oh, well, God, I want no buffer between me and nothing.”
“Only someone raised in Seacrest could say that. Have you ever wandered over the line into Centraldale, where I’m from? Not everyone lives in a beautiful two-story house with a big front lawn. Have your parents ever been unemployed?”
“They’ve been dead.”
“You just roll along through the hours, don’t you, living in this house for free, storing up your teacher’s pension against your last day, as if you could kill time without doing harm to your own life.”
“You don’t know anything about me!” Karl said, though everything this Sylvia had just said about him was true. “Fine,” he said, “if you’re going to leave, leave. Just don’t stay here and lie to me.”
She looked at him awhile, was scrutinizing him, was — if it were possible he was not mistaken — sizing him up in advance of telling him, finally, something true about herself.
“There are forces in this world, my dear friend, darker than I think you’re willing to imagine could ever touch your life.”
“Oh, I can imagine. Two of the ‘forces’ touched my face about an hour ago.” Even as he said this he knew those were not the forces she meant. He sensed that the piece of information in her remark most relevant to him was my dear friend, which affected him as the sequel of something whose beginning he was already supposed to know. “Dark forces?” he said. “Who are you, Princess Leia?”
Something agitated her excessively.
“Tell me who you are!”
“I can’t! Not yet.”
“Why not yet?”
She reached out with both hands as if to gather back into her body the words she’d just said. “Forget it. There’s no why because there’s nothing to tell.”
“There’s a safe in the study with jewels and cash.”
“You’re robbing me, remember?”
“Do you know the combination?”
“No. There are things in boxes in the attic.”
“Of clay, that I made, as a kid, or didn’t make. Another kid made it, and I made one too, but when they came out of the kiln mine was misshapen and his was beautiful. His was the shape and color — blue, various blues — I’d meant to make mine and thought I’d made mine. I refused to believe I’d made mine, I said I’d made his, and believed that, and cried. This all happened at school. The teacher insisted I take mine home, I said I wouldn’t, I said it was only fair I take his, which I thought was mine. This other kid, Mike Schoen, who was stronger than I was and handsomer and nicer and more generous and had better grades and a better rabbit, said, ‘It’s all right, I’d like him to have it,’ or some magnanimous speech like that. He ceded me his rabbit. He didn’t say, ‘This nicer rabbit really is his,’ he needed to let the teacher and me know that he was giving up his rabbit for me. The cocksucker.”
“And you want me to take this rabbit.”
“It isn’t mine anyway.”
“What should I do with it?”
“Give it back to Mike Schoen.”
“I don’t know him.”
“You will, you’ll find him and give him his rabbit and marry him, you two will put the rabbit on your mantel.”
“I don’t want the stupid rabbit.”
“It’s not stupid, it’s my finest accomplishment.”
“Why are you helping me rob your house?” she said in a tone that amounted to a confession that she was not robbing it, if Karl was to be trusted to decipher what tones amounted to.
“It’s burdensome to me,” he said.
“I own it.”
“I thought you said your mean stepfather owns it.”
“I didn’t say he was mean, what makes you think that?”
“Look at you.”
“He’s not the one who beat me up.”
“Yes, but you’re the sort of person who gets beaten up because he has a mean stepfather, which, as a grown man, you should get over.”
“Only people with happy childhoods have free will,” he said. “I own this house with him. My mother, when she was dying—”
“How old were you?”
“Sixteen. She asked me to stay with him and care for him.”
“Your mother asked you to live here and look after him until he dies, in exchange for which you will own the house and any other assets in her estate.”
“How did you know that?”
“I’m intuitive. Why does it happen that the dying person extracts some untenable promise from the living person, and this always happens with the dying person lying in bed and the living person sitting in a chair, and the dying person hates the living person for living, so much that she’s going to cast a pall over the living person’s life by making him do something for a long time that he doesn’t want to do, and the living person agrees to it as if that’ll make the dying person somehow not die? This is just bad faith on both people’s parts.”
“Get out of my house!”
“Well, I wish you wouldn’t yell at me, it’s hurtful.”
Was that a tear in her eye? “I truly hate that you’re in my house and I’m drinking this tea you made me. Whatever awful thing you’re going to do to me, I wish you’d do it already because the anticipation is increasingly worrisome and unpleasant.”
Excerpted from You Were Wrong by Matthew Sharpe © 2010. Reprinted by kind permission of Bloomsbury Publishing.
Matthew Sharpe is an American novelist who also sometimes writes stories and essays. His novels are You Were Wrong, Jamestown, The Sleeping Father, and Nothing Is Terrible. His short-story collection is Stories from the Tube. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. The Sleeping Father was chosen for the Today Show Book Club in 2004. Sharpe has taught writing and literature at Wesleyan University, Columbia University, New College of Florida, the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College, and in numerous New York City public schools under the auspices of Teachers & Writers Collaborative.