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A Taxonomy of Barnacles
By Galt Niederhoffer, James C. Strouse
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2006 Galt Niederhoffer
All rights reserved.
Trot had just arrived at the Barnacles' when he was tackled to the ground. A large mass moving at a breakneck speed clipped him at the knees. He lunged to avoid what he thought was a dog, but tripped and landed on his side. Winded, he remained still for a moment then stood up cautiously. The dog, Trot realized with some surprise, was not a dog but a man. The man was Bridget's father Barry, rolling rapidly and, it seemed, dangerously into the living room.
"Pardon me," Barry said once he'd come to a full stop. He lay on his back, both arms outstretched, eyes scanning the ceiling as though for cracks. His odd choice of dress, red pants, yellow T-shirt, and a stained seersucker jacket contributed to Trot's confused sense that this was all part of some beloved family joke onto which he would soon be let in.
Trot stared curiously at Bridget's father.
Barry stared curiously at Trot.
"Doctor's orders," Barry said blithely, extending his hand toward the ceiling.
Assuming Barry wanted to shake his hand, Trot offered his in return.
"No," Barry scoffed. "Help me up."
Trot recoiled in embarrassment. Bridget glared at Trot impatiently and, before Trot had time to respond, extended a hand to her father and hoisted him to his feet.
Though his hip had been replaced three years ago in May, Barry still preferred this mode of transportation to more traditional ones. Finding his mobility severely compromised after the surgery, he had taken to rolling around the house whenever he was in a rush. Rolling, Barry found, diminished impact to his hip, enabled him to make dramatic entrances, and when necessary, disoriented guests who were already ill at ease in the Barnacle apartment. Barry rolled into rooms as he did most things in his life, without apology or awareness of its idiosyncrasy, as though rolling were one of many ways to enter a room, as though one might choose to walk, roll, or dance into a room depending on one's mood or the time of day.
No doubt, this willingness to choose an alternate path accounted for Barry's success. One did not get to be New York's Pantyhose Prince without a penchant for innovation. Indeed, Barry Barnacle clung to his business more feverishly than his products did his customers' thighs. (At times, he also seemed to cling to his customers' thighs as feverishly as his products.) But, like all great businessmen, he knew when to hold and when to sell. The same force that projected him across the living room floor propelled his course in life. After changing his name from Baranski to Barnacle, Barry catapulted from Brooklyn's Brighton Beach to Manhattan's garment district, where he quickly made his fortune and proceeded, at a tumble, to the Upper East Side.
Like many sons of immigrants, Barry worshipped at the altar of hard work. He lived in a world ordered only by the invincible logic of cause and effect. Of course to most, Barry's logic seemed quite illogical, compelling him to use socks as gloves, to wear the first two shoes he came across in his closet — even if both belonged on the same foot, to leave the house in clothes that betrayed not only his bad eyesight but perhaps early signs of color blindness, to mix plaids and stripes with such abandon that one could easily mistake his attire for a parody of a certain country club type, to eat so rapidly and with such neglect of his napkin that his daughters refused to dine with him, to retain such a heavy Brooklyn accent that "daughter" came out as "doowater," "mister" as "mistah," and "salt" as "soowalt." And, at the moment, to choose to roll into a room for a reason that made perfect sense to him while it seemed, to everyone in his vicinity, to have been designed for comic effect. All of these behaviors could be expected when Barry adhered to common sense. When he threw common sense out the window, Barry was indisputably eccentric.
"Hello, Bridge," Barry chirped once back on his feet with the jollity of a proper English gentleman.
"Hello, Dad," Bridget said. "You remember Trot."
Trot tried to seem as unfazed as Bridget by Barry's odd entrance.
"Of course," Barry said without making eye contact. "How's your painting going?"
"Not very well," Trot admitted and then, when he was sure Barry wasn't listening, he added, "Because I don't paint. I'm a writer."
Bridget turned to Trot and shrugged a quick apology.
Trot did not return the shrug. He only stared at Barry, smiling politely. Barry's black bushy eyebrows, Trot couldn't help but notice, would benefit from being clipped.
"Very good," Barry barked with more incongruous formality. He surveyed the room, glanced quickly at Trot, then turned to walk out of the living room, beckoning Bridget to follow. Before disappearing, Barry swiveled on his heels and looked expectantly at Trot.
Confused, Trot looked expectantly at Barry.
"Bridget?" Barry's eyebrows raised an inch.
"Christopher," she said, smiling apologetically.
Trot braced himself; Bridget only addressed him by his real name to reprimand him or deliver bad news.
She paused for a moment, as though he had failed to comply with a perfectly reasonable request. "Trot," she whispered, now irritated, "would you mind taking off your shoes?"
"Yes, of course. I mean, no. No, I wouldn't," Trot stammered. "I wouldn't mind one bit."
Bridget smiled gratefully and paused again. Trot stared back, still confused. Finally, realizing Barry required physical proof that his orders had been followed, Trot knelt down, removed his shoes, and displayed them to Barry for inspection while he stood in his socks. Satisfied, Barry nodded with an utter lack of emotion and headed from the living room down the hall with Bridget trailing behind. For the next several moments, Trot stood perfectly still, trying to decide whether standing or sitting was the more appropriate choice. Opting to stand, he noted that the room, due to its size and acoustics, was more a great room than a living room. The nearest hall, Trot decided, was more of a corridor. The nearest door was not a door but a potential for escape.
Early in March, Barry Barnacle had asked all six of his daughters to come home for Passover, which is to say he asked his ex-wife, Bella, to contact them and ominously summon them home. On receipt of this invitation, the girls sensed trouble. Barry was an atheist and never celebrated Passover. He only called all six girls together to inform them of an illness in the family, to dispense with cryptic information about the family's finances, and, once, to showcase a new invention of which he was especially proud. The girls, though they spoke and e-mailed frequently, had scattered across the eastern seaboard like a handful of tossed coins. Still, each one heard and heeded the call and planned her return to the Manhattan apartment, eager to surprise her beloved sisters with the length her hair had grown, the new music she'd acquired, and the number of boys she had kissed since the sisters were together last. The Barnacle sisters, though they pretended to grumble, liked nothing better than to put on ugly pajamas, cram into one of their twin beds, lie together like egg rolls, and stay up until four in the morning discussing the mysteries of life.
Bell, the eldest, was living in Brooklyn. She claimed she preferred to look at Manhattan than live in it. Lately, she'd been feeling strangely disoriented, as though she'd woken up on the wrong side of the bed, when, in point of fact, she had simply woken up in someone else's bed. Though no one had actually spoken to Bell, everyone was hopeful she would attend. Her sisters had left numerous messages on her answering machine. One had even reached a human voice, a roommate who claimed, with understandable aggravation, that he only saw Bell on those rare occasions when she bothered to pay her share of the rent. Bridget lived in the West Village with Trot, her boyfriend of three years. Though Bridget routinely declined his proposals, her sisters felt it was fair to say Bridget was on a ring watch. Beth was at college in Massachusetts, studying rigorously. Belinda was at boarding school in a town near Beth, rigorously studying boys. Beryl and Benita, the youngest girls, still found boys insufferably boring, a sentiment for which Barry was duly grateful since both girls still lived at home.
Of all the girls, Bell was the most skeptical of her father. Since adolescence, she had filtered him through a sieve of sorts, evaluating his various notions with mixed curiosity and mistrust. Due to the degree to which she had been privy to her parents' divorce (and, as a result, her parents' worst qualities), she was far more irreverent than the others. Accordingly, she was wary of the general opinion that Barry was eccentric, believing instead that her father was borderline insane. She dismissed most of her father's claims out of hand, combating them with wild teenage logic while he, in turn, dismissed everything she held dear. Bridget was simply too busy to be bothered with her father. The most conventional of the bunch, she was instinctively embarrassed by Barry and learned early on that an arm's-length attitude kept him at a healthy distance. Beth, though she understood and, in some way, respected her father's imagination, was too preoccupied by her own peculiar thoughts to bother with her father's.
Belinda, hostile even before adolescence, sometimes seemed to go out of her way to antagonize her father. Even as a toddler, she bristled at her father's demands, rolling her eyes, shaking her head, and holding up her tiny palms defiantly. Beryl's thinking was too abstract to register much from the literal world. When she did, she considered her father with the vague pity of a fortune-teller. Benita, the youngest and, by all accounts, the most promising of the six, enjoyed the majority of her father's attention and aspirations. She was caught between two opposing forces; too impetuous to side with her sisters and way too eager for her father's praise to defy him. As a result, she catered to her father in a way her sisters found quite nauseating. They routinely and fairly singled her out, accusing her of being a goody-goody and a sympathizer.
As in all families with more than one daughter, fighting was a certain by-product of family gatherings, sometimes reaching such hysteria and volume as to cause concerned neighbors to call the police. But usually the girls restrained themselves to hair-pulling and scratching, only hitting and punching in extreme situations, such as when coveted clothes were stolen or important calls were poorly notated. Six girls in such close proximity were liable to sense each other's angst and were painfully susceptible to the same mood cycles, a casualty of science that caused the apartment to experience monthly fluctuations from homicidal rage to harmony. But for the most part, the girls got along, preferring each other's company to others, insulated by their family's size and singularity. In peacetime, the girls were even prone to sympathy pains, whereby one would sense when another was down and rally around the dejected party like a shepherd herding a lost sheep.
Instinctively, the Barnacle girls knew to keep boys from their family. They were wary of two possibilities: that the family would scare off the prospective suitor or that their wealth would entice him. The Barnacles' money and eccentricity made them more and less attractive respectively, causing visitors to experience the odd and improbable sensation of simultaneous repulsion and attraction. Trot's first visit three years ago was not an exception to this rule except for the fact that it was exceptionally bad. Of course, he had not done himself any favors by beating Benita at Ping-Pong. He felt he had no choice but play to win after he dropped the first game and the little brat laughed in his face when he attributed his poor play to a glare. The low point of the visit occurred at dinner when Bridget was caught in a series of lies about her so-called childhood friend and neighbor Billy Finch. As punishment, every time Billy's name was uttered, Trot reduced his contribution to conversation by one syllable. By the time dessert arrived, he had stopped speaking altogether.
At the moment, Trot stood alone in the living room, floundering more than fidgeting. He regretted, as he had suspected he would, his choice to pair a pale blue shirt with a brown corduroy jacket. The chaos of the Barnacle apartment made him wish he had worn white. The great room was literally breathtaking, its size augmented by the color of the walls. The walls were capped with George Washington molding painted a rich navy blue, a color that gave the room an underwater quality, a depth and certain resonating vibration that was reinforced by the odd acoustics of the space. A faint pulsing note filtered in through the walls as though someone were playing a piano nearby and repeatedly hitting middle C. Trot wondered idly if any of the room's bookshelves could be made to spin by pressing a button, perhaps revealing a secret room or an alternate exit.
Both the room's grandeur and its disrepair betrayed family history.
If the style of the room could be classified, it would be called Baroque Eclectic. It contained a hodgepodge of old opulence tempered with Bella's personal flourishes. Its decorator's determination to achieve elegance and individuality required flouting the rules of decor. For the walls, she avoided the forest green striae favored by so many Upper East Side ladies because, she claimed, green evoked the outdoors and made her feel itchy, as though she were at a garden party at twilight being attacked by mosquitoes. Whereas most women might have relegated bold patterns to one or two areas of the room, Bella rebelled against this mandate. She opted for patterns in all areas, coupling a wild swirling Persian rug with an equally dynamic floral chintz for the sofa, even though the two palates did not so much complement each other as challenge the other to a duel.
Paint, fabric, and artifacts in the room had weathered decidedly since their installation, betraying that the room had been assembled in one concerted flourish. The decorator's recent apathy was obvious even to the most amateur detective. A thick layer of dust added height to books already nudging at overhead shelves. Blue paint on the walls peeled sporadically like rivulets on a hiker's map. Patches of pink in the sofa's classic floral chintz put the original fabric to shame as misplaced cushions revealed the discrepancy between this pastel shade and the fabric's original deep red. The style of the room seemed outdated even for the staid Upper East Side, betraying a lack of awareness of trends toward minimalism.
And the books, the endless array of books. In most Upper East Side apartments books functioned as props, tucked neatly on shelves or atop coffee tables as a cumulative emblem of the erudition of the residents. But, in the Barnacles' apartment, books were used for their intended purpose and then several more still. Once familiarity made a book obsolete, it was reincarnated in a second life, finding a new home and raison d'être somewhere in the apartment. In all cases, a book's placement revealed its utility. A stack of Shakespeare's tragedies towered next to the living room sofa, usurping the place of a standing lamp. A pile of textbooks next to the television indicated a favored homework spot. An anthology of poetry tucked under the right foot of the dining room table served to level a slight imbalance in the furniture. In all cases, these books had accrued conveniently over years, taking on, like most things at the Barnacles', odd and unpredictable identities.
The room's topography was a study in time; each layer unveiling a different civilization, a new pile of books, a different stray shoe, another abandoned board game. A glass coffee table occupied an inordinate amount of space in the center of the room, its surface entirely obscured by a pastiche of objects. Clutter is, of course, common enough in a New York City apartment, a place where the needs of family exceed the resources of the metropolis. However, these objects were entirely uncommon. These were not coffee mugs, coasters, and stacked magazines, but rather dirty test tubes and stray conch shells. Though the apartment appeared normal enough at first glance, upon closer study it betrayed a certain peculiarity. The sheer quantity of things and their incongruous nature combined collectively to accost Trot with a tangible weight. This excess and its seeming lack of organizing principle produced a tangible physical effect, a spinning sensation not unlike being trapped on a broken carousel.
Excerpted from A Taxonomy of Barnacles by Galt Niederhoffer, James C. Strouse. Copyright © 2006 Galt Niederhoffer. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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