High Drama in Fabulous Toledo
Martin wants to jump off a grocery store sign and Ellen wants to swallow her engagement ring. Jane wants a good beating and Stef wants a castle to himself. Jay wants a bathrobe with a hole in it and Molly wants a cyborg upgrade. When these six characters find themselves embroiled in a kidnapping gone wrong, reality jumps its tracks and Toledo, that rust belt bastion of disrespect, becomes a playground for fiction and fantasy.
James' postfeminist fiction is smart and accesible; it skips along like a flower girl in moon boots. Still, her trippy narrative packs a wallop with its wry, skin-tight prose, at once insightful and corrosive to reality. Like a postmodern Flannery O'Connor story, High Drama in Fabulous Toledo is unafraid to shake the balance of order and chaos, or toy with our most private fantasies of escape.
"Lily James' deal with the devil has paid off. High Drama in Fabulous Toledo presents a fresh take on the srt of fiction that is knowing, sad, funny, thoughtful and extreme. Put it in your brain and let it entertain you." —Fred Willard, author of Down on Ponce and Princess Naughty and the Voodoo Cadillac
"Hilarious and tragic, High Drama reverberates with questions about the nature and place of fiction and fabtasy in human experience in a parody and exaggeration of that ultimate oymoron: realistic fiction." —Cris Mazza, author of Dog People and Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?
There was this really pretty girl named Ellen, who was engaged to be married to an implacable man named Martin. They lived together, and had regular schedules and habits, and progressed along toward the marriage at a steady pace that no one could criticize. Martin owned a bar. Ellen hung out there. Martin cleaned the bathroom. Ellen cleaned the kitchen. All the time, in the mind of Ellen, Martin had everything under control, and Ellen didn't.
Life is like a long cafeteria line, she thought. You choose one salad, rejecting all the others. You choose one vegetable, one meat, or a pasta side, and you choose a dessert, a drink, and that is that. Some sad people seem to choose the thing they want the least, because that is at least certain. Others linger on the choice, deliberating carefully between the chicken and the fish. Others seem to know exactly what will taste the best, floating along, gracefully selecting and consuming, out of ignorance or wisdom, what is right. Ellen liked to think that she had walked the line with eyes closed, and now stood in front of the cash register, staring at her tray, and it was all foreign, all decided by whim, nothing considered, but all uncontrolled, hasty, final.
She walked around the house with her engagement ring in her mouth, emptying ashtrays and garbage cans. She let the ring slide under her tongue, and then flipped it up to the roof of her mouth, moved her tongue back and back until the ring was almost down her throat. When she was a teenager, she had ridden her horse across a railway trestle over a river, a tributary of the mighty Allegheny, which is itself a tributary of the mighty Ohio, which is itself a tributary of the mighty Mississippi. It was a very dangerous trip, because the trestle was not a bridge. It was a trestle. This meant that the horse had to step carefully on each railroad tie. Nothing was below them but river and rail. She always set the reins down on his neck and put her face into his mane, letting him make his own decisions. She did this because she imagined that if she sat up to steer, she would be tempted to jerk his head to one direction, jab her foot into him, and send them both into the river, just to have the choice over with. This fall might prompt a daring rescue. Then she, changed by the experience, would probably make bold life decisions. Then would come the aggressive behavior, which would appear to her family strange but understandable. The ultimate move to Brazil or France, and the vast and unpunishable adventures that would necessarily follow, all this she had avoided by letting the sensible horse make his own way over the river. After all, it could have ended in only a bump on the head and wet clothes, 15 miles from home.
She thought, What if there is no longer any time in which to reinvent myself? Maybe she could no longer become the kind of girl who just commands a room. She had already met everyone she would ever know, and she had already acted in a certain way: in a way that allowed her to be eclipsed. She had never imagined herself turning out like this, because she always thought that she could move away, or become famous, and her entire personality could change. Now it seemed like that would never happen, because there would always be Martin, and Martin would always know. Maybe, if she were to swallow her engagement ring, she could work very hard, become a dancer, or a painter, meet a whole new crowd, tour in many cities. She choked on it briefly, and spat it out. There were many moments in her life she had passed right through, ignoring every fork, forging ahead toward this, when everything could have been different, had she just veered suddenly left or right, or vaulted straight up. She put the ring back on her finger.
Ellen pulled on her t-shirt, letting her hand slide down over her long torso, feeling where the ring would be if she swallowed it into her stomach. She was long and smooth, with a long rib cage, and a greyhound neck. The room was really Martin’s room, because he liked dark wood, and the burgundy and hunter green in the painting and the bedspread were his colors, not hers. She would have liked the walls bare. She would have liked to open the window, but it was caulked shut. She pulled on her panties. She always slept with panties on, white nighttime panties that came up to her waist. Her hair hung down around her face, falling on her shoulder blades as they stuck out of the T-shirt’s stretched collar. If she had swallowed her ring, then that night when Martin came home, he would be untying his shoes, correctly, sitting on the seat of her vanity. When he had untied them he would pull them off and place them on the floor of his closet, where there was now just enough empty space in the row of shoes for the missing pair. Then he would stand up and pull his shirt off.
“I swallowed my ring,” she would say, “It’s in my stomach.”
She thought that he would not be able to argue with this, that he would not be able to rectify it, adapt to it, assimilate it, or reverse it. But he might come over to her and bend her backwards over the foot of the bed, so that her feet were still on the floor and her upper body stretched across the sheets. He might place his hands over her sternum and move them slowly down until his fingertips butted against the bottom of her rib cage. It would be as if his skin were oiled, and hers made of silky wax. The way he slid over her, exhibiting almost professional sensitivity. Her hands would grasp the fitted sheet, which was well anchored, and could be safely tugged upon. Under her rib cage, his fingers would move on their own, deftly locating her stomach, causing her no pain. He would softly squeeze it, milking the organ slowly. Her torso would melt into a buttery pool of good will under his imagined attentions, and he would easily manage to ascertain to his own satisfaction that she had not in fact swallowed her ring. That she had made it up. Then Martin would withdraw his hands from her, and she would be saved.
“I think,” shirtless Martin would say, standing back, “that if you do swallow your ring, you will be just fine. You will continue as you always have.”
Martin, she felt sure, had never felt like boiling off his skin and inserting himself into a new life. Martin was the cold silent certainty behind every decision, the thing she could bounce back to after almost breaking off, almost leaping out over this or that imagined chasm, then pulling herself back breathlessly, refreshed. Martin had that helpful quality. If he was unimaginative, he was stable. If he was dry, he was clean. And under all of Ellen’s erratic imaginings was this rock of Martin. Listening to her stereo with the right speaker unplugged she could hear strange versions of her favorite songs, with the backup singers too loud, and almost no snare. But there would always be Martin. It afforded her the luxury of her invented anguish.
The phone rang. She answered it, slouching over the small table in the hallway, pulling on her shoes. It was four o’clock. In fifteen minutes she would meet Martin for an early supper at the bar before it opened. This was every afternoon’s plan, with martinis. In the phone against her ear, a man’s voice on the other end said, “Can you hear me? Can you hear me?” When she said, “Yes,” this man told her that he would be out in front of her place in 5 minutes. She said slowly, “Alright, I’ll be there,” and even though the voice then said, “I love you, Erika,” she still went out front, and waited, for nearly an hour, for him to come, and pick her up, and take her away, believing somehow that if he could mistake the number, he could then mistake the address. Of course, he did not. It was a wrong number.
There was this difficult man Martin who was a hard worker and a water drinker. All his life he had been changing, and growing, and making himself into this person who was considerate, and dutiful. And he knew that he was going to marry Ellen, who was beautiful and smart. Martin made money for Ellen, and for himself, every day in his bar where he made a success happen. The bar was called “The Joyride,” in memory of nothing that had ever happened to Martin. At one point in his life, Martin had been angry and alone. Now Ellen and Martin were perfect. It was a beautiful moment – much to be desired and nothing held back. It had seemed to Martin many times that he would not reach this possibility, but now here he was, at the top of his life, looking out on it.
Life is like a channel full of rough water that not only flows but rises, he thought. And you have to swim, up and fast, mechanically bending arms and legs in an established pattern once, again, again, again. And you swim up and up, strong and true, for a long time but not forever. The trick is to get to the topmost point of the channel, where the water meets the lip of it and it begins to spill, before you have to rest. Then you can enjoy one tiny moment of triumph, as you can see out over the edge of it, and see what is there, on the brink, on either shoreline. When you rest you float and when you float you might as well be dead. Because you are a repugnant floating person. Martin knew in his heart that everything would have to slow down and stop, because bars and marriages don’t last forever. In fact they don’t last very long in a town like Toledo, which isn’t even a college town, isn’t even a factory town, just sits on the river swallowing things up.
It would all succumb to a slow rot, everything he had done, everything he had made, all the works of his hands and the perfection of his heart, because he was tired and anyway it was bleeding away from him, beyond his control. And as he looked out on either side of the channel he saw Ellen on one side and the Joyride on the other, and he felt that he would have to stop swimming pretty soon.
And then Martin had a vision, when he was silent and still, waiting with his hands folded for someone to come out of the men’s room in the DMV. In the vision, Martin stood with feet twenty-four inches apart, arms clasped firmly behind his back, on top of the sign belonging to the grocery store across the street from his bar. His face blank, his muscles slack, his tall frame close to relaxed, he stood fully sixty feet above the sidewalk, feet planted. Martin stood on the grocery store sign, and waited for Ellen to turn the corner. She came on foot, traveling from their apartment to their place of employment, which was the bar that he owned.
When Ellen came around the corner, at exactly 4:15, arriving on time for the pre-shift early supper they always shared, he bent at the waist, leaned forward, and plummeted off the sign onto his head. As the vision panned back away from his body, he died quickly and mercifully of a severed spinal cord one fraction of a second after impact. Ellen ran across the parking lot, slapping her hands onto cars that got in her way. She zigzagged to him, fell on her knees beside him, and her lovely hair fell down on each side of her face as she leaned over him. He was crumpled, contorted, and she rolled him over, clasped his pallid cheeks between her palms, and searched his face for life. In misery, she wet his dead face with her tears as she sat astride him, pummeling his cold chest with her little fists. This is how the vision showed him that it would be. It was, in fact, very cinematic. In the vision he saw that, of course, he could become legendary, and Ellen could, and the Joyride could. Even in this stale and irritating city, people tell stories for years.
Of course, with him a suicide, they would all live forever. With him suicided so graphically and in the glare of day, there would be no denizen of Toledo who would not hear of him falling, of her finding, of the bar waiting there empty like a crypt out of which he would rise in the mouths of gossipers and the wheels of rumor mills and the lips of clubbers, punks, rockers, on the third day and into perpetuity. So he began a simple ritual, just to comfort himself, climbing up to stand on the sign and waiting for her to turn that corner.
On that day, with Ellen puttering around at home, Martin breathed deeply of the March air, wrapped his pea coat tight against the brisk wind and climbed to the top of the grocery store sign. At the very first glimpse of Ellen he would dive. And he thought that he would be glad to dive, because it was, after all, all becoming a failure. Just the other night, for example, several young men from the tattoo parlor next door had come into the bar, ripped the soap dispenser off the wall in the men’s bathroom, and had kicked it around on the floor like a soccer ball, making a terrible mess. Stef, his bouncer, had come into Martin’s office beet-faced and puffing with rage. Those tattoo boys had never made trouble before. And yet here they were kicking soap dispensers around in the men’s john. Martin had had to speak to them out on the street, had forced them to go home, had made Stef clean up the mess. It was unstoppable, this creeping decay, these tired arms.
Martin remembered from his military youth something called ironically “The Bar.” This was a long metal pipe rising perhaps 2.5 feet above the tile floor in a hallway between the locker room and the pool. New sailors had been made to straddle this bar, and run along it, sans underwear, to cleanse their butts and balls before entering the pool. In this dank, bright corridor, cold water sprayed up briskly from the bar at short intervals, like a long, terrible bidet. In Martin’s perfect world, every citizen would run such a gauntlet twice a day. It would be referred to bluntly as mandatory anal cleansing, but it would never be discussed. No one talks about tooth brushing after all, and no one considers it an imposition.
Martin considered himself lucky to have lived this long. He tried every day to be courteous, brave, and temperate. While he would have loved to force-march the tattoo boys to the nearest shower and scour them bloody, he let them go home without even cleaning up their own mess. While he had daily thoughts of forcing Ellen into full-body armor to correct her apathetic posture, he never acted on them, never even said, “Could you please stand up straight?” Instead he operated an establishment where people came nightly to get drunk, fall over each other, make false declarations, vomit, piss. It was enough of the penance, for him, enough of the gradual crawl. He was ready to be out of it, beyond it, past it. If this for him was the limit, then let it be the limit.
Often, Martin imagined the perfect place of work. Employees would enter in their spotless uniforms—blue coveralls and red caps over white T-shirts and bright black boots. The plant would be underground and the air and water would be brutally filtered. Every machine would clink respectfully. Every fingernail would be clipped. There would be no wasted words, no misunderstandings, no going back over what had already been done. No rats or mice would get in. The product would be shipped on time, effortlessly, in neat yellow boxes. At the end of a long, white hallway smelling of bleach, his office would be cut into the earth in a perfect cube, and he would stand there, in the middle of it, without a desk or an attendant, feeling the seamlessness of the operation, breathing in and out.
The world would churn ahead forever and ever without friction, without energy loss, without entropy, just beautiful. But instead, in the end, someone had to jump off a grocery store sign and save the world, because there is entropy, and sin, and there is friction, and slouching, and someone has to put an end to it before it all crumbles into dust.
At 4:20 Martin sighed wearily. At 4:30 he began to climb down from the sign, finding the familiar footholds without thought, and dropped onto the concrete in a black humor. After 4:15 it was never feasible, irritatingly ruined, ruined, ruined. He jerked his head to the right and left, sharply cracking the joints and scowling. Arms behind his back still he marched into the club, ready to break heads open on his sharp, deadly chin.
Ellen and Martin lived in glorious Toledo, in the throbbing heart of Northwest Ohio, when the eighties were turning into the nineties, when the Gulf War was about to blow, when Flock of Seagulls had to give up and play small clubs, when bi-levels were becoming bangs. It was a dark little city on a black water, prideful and weak, flaunting its zoo and its smug little university, when its skyscrapers stood like ghosts silent at night and its shipping port cranes and elevators hung monstrous in the afternoon. People from Toledo wanted to be people from somewhere else. But in the interim, there was much cheer.
The Joyride was a tight ship. Upon hiring new employees, Martin had their astrological charts done, so that he would know everything about them, and would be able to predict them, arrange them, save them. It was a bright, smart thing Martin did. For example, he had hired Stef, sullen Slavic bouncer, because born under Venus and Mars, Stef exhibited strong affinity for both romance and violence. These traits made him a most excellent bouncer, because inevitably, he understood things. He was sympathetic, and yet he had a terrible potential for rage so fierce and irrevocable that everyone knew he could suddenly turn sour and bust some serious ass. The days of the month in which Mars was closest to earth were marked with red crosshairs carefully drawn on the office calendar. In these days Stef was expected to feel especially warlike, and was advised not to engage in any conflicts. This is why the tattoo boys conflict had made an impression on Martin beyond the usual barroom drama. It was a bad day for Stef. It required particular monitoring.
When Martin entered The Joyride by the front door that afternoon, shivering a bit and stomping, Stef was already behind the bar, washing glasses with a vacant expression on his wide face. His dark eyes smoldered with a distant thought. His arms moved mechanically. Stef was short, thick, quick. Martin knew that the glasses were already clean, because he had washed them himself before closing last night. One by one, Stef took the glasses down off the counter, washed them, and replaced them dripping.
“I was thinking,” he said, although he did not visibly notice Martin’s presence, “that maybe we could start a little kitchen in the back. Nothing major, just like a little kitchen.”
Martin moved to the bar and took a seat in front of Stef. Inside his head, he imagined a small cushion of air under each shoe as he walked so that he would never touch the ground. His footfalls would be absolutely silent. He would walk with his fingertips outstretched, always touching the perimeters of his personal space. He would never blink. The funny thing was that everyone else also pictured Martin this way, a sleek, well-groomed overlord. He reached behind the bar, blindly locating a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He pulled one out, lit it, and drew on it slowly.
“See, that way, when you and Ellen have your dinners here, you could just eat from the kitchen. You wouldn’t have to order food or bring in carry-out.”
Martin blew smoke out in a directed column. He didn’t like bringing food in or ordering it in, didn’t like eating in restaurants at all. He liked to wash his own vegetables, cut his own meat. But for the sake of convenience, he had given up his wild notions. He half-smiled at the fact that Stef had recognized this and was now bargaining with it.
“And then we could have like a short menu, you know, for the bar. Just appetizers. And I know someone who would come to work as a cook. Or Ellen, you know, needs a job.”
“Ellen doesn’t cook,” said Martin, squinting.
“Well okay,” Stef went on, accelerating his glass-washing, “I know this girl who could cook here, or work here.”
In the four years that Stef had worked with Martin at his bar, he had never brought a friend to work, or a girlfriend. He had come alone to the Christmas parties that Ellen orchestrated, leaving early. Martin deeply, fully appreciated this kind of tight-lipped dispassionate behavior. But he couldn’t help feeling a spark of curiosity as Stef now appeared to be asking for a job for a girlfriend.
“No,” said Martin, “No kitchen. Ellen’s never on time for dinner anyway. We never have it.”
“Fine, okay, I just imagined, you know, you could have whatever you wanted every day, and you could, you know, sit at a table with plates,” Stef said, abruptly tossing his dishrag onto the faucet and backing away from the sink. Martin listened, but since Stef didn’t press the issue, didn’t ask for a different job for this girlfriend, Martin let it drop. For a while he imagined the bar as it would be in a few years when his death had become a myth. It’s not like he expected air brushed pictures to appear on the wall with small lights attached to their frames. But a certain reverence would probably be appropriate.
By the time Ellen arrived, the bar was full. Ellen was supposed to be the hostess, a role she had imagined herself, thinking of pitchers filled with specialty drinks, casual greetings to regular guests, connections, knowing everybody, flashing smiles, glowing. But in this real life she was shy. There was a bubbling persona somewhere inside her, ready to blaze across the room and attract everyone. She put off bringing it out every night, until she forced herself to know that everyone saw her as quiet. She then revised this idealized self to be behind the scenes, thinking and moving and planning, being the classy demure proprietress, holding the strings, keeping out of sight, so that everyone would say, “I never knew!” or “Ellen? Ellen did this?” and gaze at her with new respect.
She watched the band for a while, and it was not a good band. None of the members had any stage presence. The stage stretched across the front of the room, next to the door, so that the window behind the band looked out onto the street. The bar stretched down one long wall, so that one end was close to the stage, and one end was far. In the back of the room was the sound guy. Behind the bar and a wall was a large room where bands could hang out, or store their equipment before they went on stage. Martin booked at least two bands a night. Once, Flock of Seagulls had played there. Lots of times The Connells did. Stef helped the bands load in and out, using a door to the back room, accessible from an alley. Ellen believed and had long stated that the bar needed to be completely redecorated. She thought this would be a good job for her.
She didn’t like the stiff black stools, or the shiny bar surfaces. She didn’t like the white walls and black and white tile, and she didn’t like the bubbles in the tubes behind the bar. She thought it was trashy—too 1986. Perhaps she would draw up some plans for Martin, present them at his desk in his office, wear a suit, be praised. Perhaps she would oversee weeks of work while the bar was closed for redecorating, have hassles with workmen, enforce the contract, cry late at night with the frustration of it all, be comforted. Then when the bar reopened, she would nervously wear a new dress, and sit somewhere quiet and out of the way, to honestly judge people’s reactions. Maybe someone would notice who would hire her to redecorate another bar. Maybe it would all fall into place, one thing after another, until she felt comfortable in Kenneth Cole pumps and a room full of men in wingtips.
She thought that a good idea for decorating would be to somehow mimic the natural light of afternoon. Martin called her a Protestant. Stef came over to where she was sitting at the bar and asked her if she was having a good time. This between them was code for “How are you?” Ellen started a conversation, saying mean things about the new waitress. Stef wasn’t really listening. Ellen said that the new waitress was too quiet and uptight, and then said she was too outgoing and nosy, and when Stef agreed to both, Ellen decided to end the conversation.
“You’re not listening,” she said.
“Yes I am,” he said truculently.
“You’re NOT,” she said, standing up. She looked through the dark bar for Martin, roving around with her eyes, and then slouching back down on the stool. Ellen asked Stef what he wanted to do that night, and he said that he wanted to do nothing, just nothing.
“I’m really not interested in doing anything,” he said, and tapped his fingers on the bar. He was hunched over, one leg bent with its foot on the rung, one leg dangling. One shoulder hunched more than the other one. Ellen assessed him.
“Stef,” she said, swinging her legs around petulantly, “How would you redecorate this bar, if you could? I mean if money was no obstacle?”
“What?” said Stef, jerking his head around toward her, “I have to go.”
“Wait,” Ellen pushed herself off of her stool and grabbed his elbow, “I want to go to the store and get some grape juice.”
Stef eyed the floor, tapped his toe several times on the tile, and said, “No. Get Martin to take you later.”
It seemed to her that Stef was her bodyguard. She liked to pretend that she was more than mildly pretty, and moderately delicate. She liked to pretend that her glamour had to be shaded from the world by veils and gloves, that her companion was a bodyguard, not a coworker. When she walked, she tried to glide. When she knelt, she paid attention to her wrists, and the angle they made with her arms. She was, in her mind, always averting her gaze from the eye of some potential stalker, always slouching to conceal a hidden arch, smiling more slightly, gesturing more softly, always to keep a secret. If to the world this act appeared as simple fear, that was the world’s mistake. Why did Stef really follow her around? He was Martin’s employee, and Martin’s logic was thick.
Later in the night, Martin came out from his office. Now the second band was playing, and they were better, louder. This was Martin’s house band, Ten Pin, and they played here all the time, always bringing in their faithful following to poke their butts around and gyrate and laugh on the dance floor. There were always six or seven girls close to the stage who danced flawlessly through every set and knew all the words to the songs. Ellen still sat at the bar. She hadn’t seen Martin since morning, and due to wrong number episode she had missed their little supper entirely. Martin wafted over to where Ellen was sitting, and picked up a martini glass. He placed into it three pieces of chipped ice, poured into it vodka, and then garnished it with three green olives. He placed it in front of her, keeping his eyes on the band, and around the bar.
“You call this a martini?” said Ellen mechanically.
“You call this a conversation?” he returned.
Ellen picked up an olive and sucked out the pimento. It was a drink she had “invented” called Olive Vehicle.
“I think we should commission a sculpture for downstairs,” she said.
“Would you like to be the model?” asked Martin, now with his hands spread out on the sink behind the bar, his shoulders leaning forward heavily.
“Maybe I would,” she said, “Maybe I would love to be a model.”
“I didn’t say ‘a’ model; I said ‘the’ model.”
“Oh. Well in that case, no, I would not like to be ‘the’ model. I could never come in here again, after everyone had seen me naked.”
“I wasn’t thinking of a nude, actually,” said Martin absently, “Where is Stef?”
“I asked him to drive me to Seven-Eleven for a bottle of grape juice, but he wouldn’t.”
“Do you want me to drive you?”
“Can we go now?”
High Drama in Fabulous Toledo
High Drama in Fabulous Toledo