In from the Middle-West, Harold Crist Gardner, known as Harry, is a good and talented man who has it all in New York City. Glamorous, fast-track Manhattan; financial independence; success in creative and challenging work; a beautiful, funny, sensuous working wife; two , soon-to-be three children (in private school); a trophy apartment on Central Park West; a house in Easthampton and bright, brittle, witty and ambitious friends.
But Harry has come to a dark wood in himself. He loses his way. He is falling apart. In psychological panic, he seeks himself in alcohol and other women, lots of other women. In scenes so vivid and visceral, a reader is sure to feel intoxicated too and ready to not just break, but to shatter the Seventh Commandment.
In this modern day Odyssey, a Dublin night in the city that never sleeps, Harry struggles against his furies in a riveting, sharply-funny, murderous (literally) combat. His self-inflicted, nearly-fatal actions endanger his now-disintegrating beautiful world.
His soul, in spiritual pain, weighs in the balance and it writhes to find a way home.
"Pages turn swiftly, the tension increases, as Harry's ambivalent journey is propelled toward it's destination..." - Richard Houdek, Critic and Arts Editor, Berkshire HomeStyle Magazine
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In the Middle of the JourneyA Novel
By Robert Shanks
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Robert Shanks
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLately, Gardner had taken to carrying a knife. It was not a very impressive-looking knife, but rather oldish really and rusting slightly. The blade extended perhaps four inches. The bone sides were dark and yellow, and a small piece even had been chipped from one of these.
Gardner was not at all sure where the knife had come from, but, just to settle it for himself, he had decided finally that his son had acquired it, in school probably, or along the way – a fair trade for three baseball cards – or in the dry riverbed of a gutter.
Somehow it had turned up in the apartment one Sunday morning when he had been cleaning out papers and back magazines from his desk and the bookcase which lined one wall of his bedroom. But of this even he could not be certain, since he had malingered so that day – his eyes slow-chewing blocks of type, grazing on every letter, theatre program, tourist brochure or magazine that he picked up; slovenly feeding himself an anarchy of ideas and yesterday's alarms and personalities, before he would assign each of these remainders to the throwaway pile or through a slow shuffle back to one shelf or another for a later – what?
And too, that day, there had been other distractions, he remembered: music, loud from the stereo in the den, which his wife had turned on; television noise from the living room; and overall, the clavichord voices of his children—thin strings constantly striking. Probably too, he had been hung-over. He nearly always was on Sundays.
Now, in the twelfth floor apartment where he lived along Central Park West in New York City, in the bathroom of the master bedroom where carpeting covered the tile floor, Gardner stood shaving. He had a towel wrapped around his waist and his pelvis was pressed against the sink to the left (there were two sinks side-by-side here). He was swishing the razor through the soapy water to clean the blade that was advertised to last fifteen shaves (he had designed the ad layout for it), but which never got him through five.
It was April. The 26th . And it was Saturday. At 6:30PM. Outside, darkness was coming onto the city – cool, but unchaste. It was Gardner's birthday and he was 43.
Why should I be carrying a knife? he thought.
He picked up the filter-tipped cigarette (he had designed the ads for it too) which had been suffocating in the ashtray on the glass shelf just below the sliding mirrors of the medicine chest. I've got to stop smoking, he thought. The ashtray was a clear glass object and etched into it were the words, "Ritz Hotel, Paris." He and his wife had stayed there for a week the previous September. When they were leaving the Ritz, Gardner had packed the ashtray in his bag, along with two towels, soap, shampoo, a shower cap and a lot of swizzle sticks from the bar for his children. Gardner and his wife had two children, a boy, 9 and a girl, 5. His wife was pregnant now in her seventh month. All went or would go to Dalton. All our kids were conceived on vacations. "Dr. Harris tells all couples who are having trouble getting pregnant to do it on vacation," he remembered his wife saying.
As he inhaled, Gardner could smell the overburn of the cigarette. One side of it was scorched and the paper was unconsumed. He inhaled again, carefully, leaning farther forward, but the paper re-ignited and fell into the shaving water. He couldn't catch it.
Gardner looked at the paper in the water. Dead flesh. Ugly. Disgusting. Out of place. Suddenly he felt unable to control things. Vulnerable, Mortal. Nothing. Quickly, he lifted the charred paper from the water and threw it into the wastebasket. He took another deep breath through the cigarette and put it back into the ashtray. The center cannot hold, he said to himself.
He jutted his chin forward stiffly, Mussolini-fashion, and brought the safety razor up to meet it. That did it. It didn't hurt nor was it bleeding yet, but he knew the blade had missed its proper angle and had cut him. The center cannot hold! What was that from? Auden? Yeats? Eliot? I can't remember. Anyway, that says it. I'm halfway home – at least – and feeling lost. From Norma. From myself. From everything.
Garner looked into the mirror, certain, for the second, that his face would disappear. Instead, he saw the cut begin to bleed. He reached over, tore off a piece of toilet paper, wet it and pressed it against the blood.
"Harry," she said, "look."
Gardner looked into the mirror and saw Norma standing behind him.
"What?" he said.
She stood, unnaturally, he thought, as though in a pose, but blurred for all of it, since he didn't have his glasses on.
"Are you looking?"
"How's our time?"
"You're not looking. Look, Harry. Not through the mirror. Turn around."
Gardner turned around and squinted at his wife.
"Well?" she said. "Where are you glasses? Can you see?"
Gardner moved towards her. He saw.
"What's that?" he said.
"A body stocking."
"Swan Lake?" Gardner laughed. "With a knocked up swan?"
"It's the latest." She put her arms around him.
"What ever happened to saddle shoes and bobby socks?"
Norma pulled out of the embrace and looked at Gardner.
"You're bleeding," she said.
"Stigmata. It's a sign."
Norma stepped back and sat down on the edge of the tub.
Gardner turned around and picked up his cigarette. He inhaled and looked at the cut in the mirror.
"You look pretty good still in just a towel," Norma said. "You been exercising?"
"I have a pot." Gardner patted himself below the waistline.
"I didn't marry you for your muscles – or your hair."
"Damn – it is coming out – isn't it?"
"You're like a girl about your hair."
"Oh, don't start that again."
"Well, you are. Doctor Wein–"
"I don't want to hear what Harpo has to say."
"That's another thing–"
"Do we have to take marital inventory now? We'll never get to the damned party!"
"But your stone-age attitude about psych–"
"Norma, please. It's my birthday. What're you going to do with your old bras?
"I'll make ear muffs for the kids. I thought you'd love the new no bra look. All those bouncing boobs on parade."
"Not me. I was breast-fed."
"You look. I see you."
"I said 'fed' – not 'dead'."
"You're always telling me you want other women."
Once. He had told her once.
One night about a year ago (it had come up a lot since then), Gardner had tried to convince Norma that it was unnatural for a man to confine himself sexually to one woman. They had been at dinner – drinking and being good with each other. After that, Norma had started going to the psychiatrist three times a week and Gardner had started drinking more.
"What happened? I thought you had to have everybody?" Norma said.
"The discussion was hypothetical. Intellectual."
"It was a lot farther south than your intellect. You still want them."
"I didn't say that – ever."
"Look, Norma, honey," Norma said, mimicking Gardner, "I've got this wonderful plan, see? I'll go out once a week and get laid – okay?"
"It wasn't just – to – get laid," Gardner said.
"Oh, it was to, though – when you could. Aren't you a little old for the sexual revolution?"
"It was – very complicated. More than just – what you're saying. I suggest we drop it."
"—What was I supposed to do? Say wonderful, go, yes – have a horny holiday. Send a postcard. 'Having a wonderful time. Penis on a pogo stick. Glad you're not here.'"
"Are you feeling insecure about the party?"
"What am I supposed to feel? I look like a kangaroo shop-lifting. And what are you trying to prove? Running around putting your penis into every God only knows – does that make you feel like a big man? The great conqueror? Some conquest! You'll break it off trying to service all the girls who spread their legs in this town!"
"Oh, Christ, Norma." Gardner looked at himself in the mirror and began singing to the image of himself, "Happy Birthday to me, Happy Birth–"
"So, it's your birthday. All right. I'm sorry. I just came in here to get a little reassurance about how I looked. If you liked my new – if it pleased you."
"I told you, yes."
"Why I care to please a bastard who only worries about himself and his own IMMATURE NEED, I don't know."
"Cause you can't live without me."
"You bastard," Norma said and she smiled. "Give me a cigarette."
"I'm just going to hold it."
Gardner took up the pack from the glass shelf and shook out a cigarette for Norma and a new one for himself, and lit his off the one he had been smoking. He handed Norma her's. He went back to shaving. He looked at Norma's face reflected in the mirror. He couldn't see her clearly without his glasses, but he knew her face by memory. Dark, wide, angular. It's an extraordinary face, he thought. Alive, urgent, energetic – a constantly changing transparency of her feelings. Not the death mask most people wear. Not like yours, he thought, looking at himself in the mirror. You have one smile, one frown and mostly a kind of neuter nice look that says you'd like to be liked. But not Norma. He looked at her face again.
"She looks foreign," they had said, out in Indiana – remember? Yes, and I remember liking her even more because of it. And remember guessing right – the first time you met her – about the possibilities of that large mouth? You've come away from it since then a thousand times in a thousand different ways, shuddering and piecemealed and consumed. And her eyes. Brown, running to black – like two visible souls of very good people. Saints even, if they can be trusted for goodness, good enough to match her eyes. And her strong jaw – that made you think you could trust her in a crisis, which you've learned you could. And her hair. Surplus thick and dark and good for clutching and hiding in. She has a good body, too. Full. Strong. I know it's out of fashion now, but it's the kind I learned to love in Correggio. A body that knows what bodies are for.
Norma was still sitting on the edge of the tub. Gardner walked to her and got down on his knees in front of her. He spread the fingers of his hand gently over her swelling tits.
"Oh, Harry," Norma said, softly.
She leaned over and kissed him on top of his head. He looked up at her. She kissed him on the mouth. Their mouths went open. Easily Gardner brought Norma down from the tub rim and onto the floor, while their mouths stayed against each other. He lay over her, gently, because of her swollen belly where the baby was, and stretched her full on her back. He held her securely in his right arm, which formed a cradle for her back. In his right hand he continued to hold the cigarette, which in fire, was nearing its filter-end. His left hand stayed on her breast, his fingers moving softly over the nipple. He continued kissing her and their mouths were open. But as he kissed her, he could not keep from thinking that it was true. That is, about his plan for one night out a week. It was so he could be with a woman who wasn't Norma. Even now, kissing Norma like this, and enjoying it, he could think about it, about wanting other women, and not feel that it was not true, but still not wrong. You've got to admit the honesty of the feeling at least to yourself, he thought. Wasn't that the whole point of psychoanalysis? Or at least a big point? You have to admit your feelings before you can try to understand them. But then, of course, at least with these feelings – the analyst – (old Harpo) – was society-bound to patch you up enough – adjust you – to function within the public proprieties – whether they jibed with your deeper baser motivations or not – and which probably were what confused and shot you down in the first place! And shot down – up – fractured – fractioned – splintered is what you've become!
Gardner's thoughts began to pick over the whole medicine chest of pills he knew he had invented to cool the hot water that had come to boil in his stomach, and which increasingly had lost their potency to help him pretend.
The sweating and crashing boy-men who meet Saturdays in the touch football game in the Sheep's Meadow in Central Park (run, sheep, run) – games which get very rough and the rougher they get, the more you enjoy yourself, and how in the huddles you always ask for the assignment to block the biggest member of the opposing team and refuse to play end or catch passes, which on your high school team had been your position and your special talent. That was too easy! And how, instead, you urge yourself into each bruising and bashing piling-up to guarantee coming home – bone-aching and emptied-out beyond knowing responsibility to any drive you might have for your IMMATURE NEED! So much so that you're too tired to make love even to your wife – even when you want to – and she you!
Gardner thought about the handball pill and the gym-at-the-Y pill and the tennis-before-work pill and the skiing-in-the-winter pill and the hard-ocean-swimming-in-the-summer pill, which was a hard-to-swallow pill especially, because of the young, strong, near-naked bodies of the girls on the beach and for whom, to over come, to blank out, he would go to the swim-too-far-out-pill, the too-far-for-safety-from-unknown currents-and-certainly-for-his-own-stamina-as-a-swimmer pill.
Out there, there were days truly when you were barely able to bring yourself back to shore, when your arms felt like dead penguins and you'd think those birds would pull you down and you would think you were going to die by drowning from your pill; and yet, when you would finally flatten out in the shallow – body touching the bottom – and cork about, breathless in the breaking waves, able to lift only your eyes to the beach – your eyes would look and find a bosom, or a butt, and your sack would fill with grain and your groin with pain – beyond the exhaustion, beyond what you knew was your physical impotence at that point. Even beyond all this, there was still the longing to have her. To go into in her. How can you pretend against such feelings? Pretend? Impossible! Contend almost the same. With that power? Deny that force? With some sniveling 'thou shalt nots'? Thou canst not help was truer. Sure – you try, especially for Norma, since you know it hurts a woman for you to want other women, especially to talk about it. So you remain faithful – against yourself. What faith demands faithfulness against yourself? And so you try to put out the fire in your bag and belly with make-shift, with pills – swilling gin and smoking and successing and sweating bang-on into the man-boys in the park! And you see how the others try – to deny it, put it off, out, away – with Playboy and dirty jokes, harder porn and God-fearing and TV commercials and erotic dreams and paid whores and bets on pro football games, and sometimes (you have also – be honest) by ending up in the bathroom, jerking out the scalding pearliness from yourself in a mixture of embarrassment and displacement and defeat. Is there anything sadder than a married man masturbating? Still – you try – for Norma. Cause you know – even if you don't want to – she can't let you have wanting in your way. That hurts her in her heart and feelings – so much she has to think you're unnatural – a pitiful creature – some carnal Caliban! With this – this IMMATURE NEED! A regressions-boy created by Mom or Dad or some fetching sixth grade teacher!
Excerpted from In the Middle of the Journey by Robert Shanks Copyright © 2011 by Robert Shanks . Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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