Shims – By Louis Gallo
If Stella’s husband Dorrit seemed even more “strange” after the removal of his kneecaps, he was, as everyone familiar with the details agreed, lucky to be alive. He walked with more spring than ever, thanks to new plastic patellas, but the accident had somehow intensified his obsession with home repair. Convinced that the floors of his house were sinking, he prowled about after midnight with a flashlight to check basement rafters and support beams before they could snap or collapse without warning. He feared that he and Stella would be buried under a rubble of plaster, splintered two-by-fours and tons of terra cotta roofing tile as they slept. He saw visions of Stella, cold, stiff and blue, pinned under the pulverized crystal chandelier with a coil of aluminum flashing wrapped around her neck. The entire neighborhood slept, but Dorrit, equipped with a beaten old leather pouch of tools, flashlight and kerosene lamp, faithfully inspected the basement–really only a damp, dug-out crawl space; he poked and tapped dusty studs with his screwdriver and found it soothing to hum arias from La Traviata or Aida as he worked.
“Termites are crafty,” he once yawned to Stella, “they never surface except to swarm. Then it’s too late. They deceive you. You don’t know they’ve invaded until your wood turns to honeycomb inside and the house crumbles.” Not finding a single sign of termites did not deter Dorrit. “Dampness too,” he sighed, nodding his finger instructively. “Red oak is like steel but it can’t withstand water. And we’ve got a major moisture problem. I wish I could find sponges big enough to stuff into that damned basement. Sponges–now we’re talking.” Dorrit positively glowed at the prospect of room-sized sponges.
Stella always grilled him about why he inspected the foundation so late at night, but he only shrugged and said that’s when the need hit him. “I get this feeling if I don’t remain vigilant everything will fall apart. Then where would we be?” She saw terror in his rheumy, myopic eyes and remembered vividly the six or so months when he claimed to smell voltage in every room of the house. He would rig up elaborate ventilation systems to draw out fumes and monitor every ac socket with volt-meters, although as Stella will swear, there were no fumes. “It’s all in your head,” she had sighed. “What in the world does voltage smell like?”
“You can’t smell voltage that’s not there, Stella,” he protested in bewilderment. “If it’s loose, we’re in big trouble. Best to take precautions. It smells bitter, like a cross between tar and cordite. Remember that horrible medicine for constipation we had as kids? That’s what voltage smells like.”
Stella could hardly argue the point and placidly endured his zeal until it gradually fizzled, right before the accident. A psychedelically decorated van full of neo-hippies cruising the wrong way on a high rise crashed head-on into Dorrit’s Trooper, loaded with rolls of fiberglass insulation he had just purchased from Home Depot. His doctors claimed the insulation cushioned the blow and saved his life, but Dorrit knew better. “It’s lucky we had those railroads tie,” he would laugh later, “otherwise I’d be in another world.” Stella, who hated the ties, had to admit he was right again. He’d riveted one to each bumper because he insisted the new rubber bumpers were unsafe, even ludicrous. The neo-hippies had all died when their van broke through the guard rail and plummeted onto a tug boat passing through the Industrial Canal hundreds of yards below. An intoxicated captain managed to escape with only minor injuries, although when he surfaced in the murky water his hair had turned white. Later, at the hearing, he said it was like being struck by a meteorite again.
“Again?” inquired the judge.
“Yeszir, your honor,” he said, “one scorched my rig back in seventy-eight. I could see this big blazing basketball in the sky heading straight for your’s truly. I just took another swig of my Jim Beam and waited. Ain’t much you can do, right?”
For many weeks the bloated, drowned neo-hippies bobbing about in their submerged van, haunted Dorrit’s dreams. One night he saw phosphorescent, mutant fish (the Canal bubbled with toxins and industrial waste) swim through a fissure in the windshield and nibble on their soggy hippie flesh. A stunted little perch swam into one of the neo-hippie’s gaping mouths.
But it was the aromatic voltage Stella always found most amusing. Every so often she teased Dorrit by sniffing and raising her long, impervious chin into the air. She had turned soft and chunky in her middle age, but the chin remained that of a severe young spinster.
“What?” Dorrit would ask cautiously.
“I think I smell voltage,” she’d hum.
Dorrit would only lower his eyes, slink away and console himself by thinking about that last scene of the original “Invasion of the Body-Snatchers,” his favorite movie of all time. He had no intention of bickering, which took too much time and energy from the emergency repairs that consumed him every weekend and evening after work. He was convinced that everything needed restoration, every table, lamp, appliance, chair and drain. The walls needed reinforcement. He jacked up a few ceilings. Time had gradually accelerated and entropy hit hard, all at once. Even the atmosphere felt heavier, denser, which he attributed to a local intensification of gravity.
“Well, it occupies his time,” Stella would laugh with her sister, who seemed overly curious about the rafters business. “It’s better now than when he used to watch paint dry,” Stella continued. “He would paint one wall, then sit in the middle of the room on a piano stool and watch it dry before painting another wall. It took hours. Or the time he became obsessed with shims. He started putting shims under everything.”
“What’s a shim?” asked Agnes.
“A little piece of wood, what do you call it?, like a wedge. He said nothing was square because the ground sank at different levels. Once I caught him pushing a shim under my shoe as I sat reading the paper. He said he was just joking. If you ask me, what’s really bothering him is the family reunion. He dreads Henry, you know, Larry’s son? The boy is kind of strange, but he scares Dorrit half to death.”
“What is Henry, some kind of cousin?” Agnes asked indifferently. She had never kept track of relatives, which irritated Stella no end. Stella knew everyone, but between Agnes, who didn’t care, and Dorrit, who didn’t notice, she sometimes deemed herself the only person left on earth who made an attempt to maintain the fragmented, scattered family. She did not hesitate to remind anyone who listened that only her persistent telephoning assured the yearly reunions, even if they took place at Marion’s house. She could hardly invite anyone over what with Dorrit’s jacks and steel beams and mysterious equipment all over the place.
“Well, Larry’s your and my first cousin so what does that make Henry?” she finally asked testily.
“Seems kind of young for that,” Agnes said, switching the cable remote to an aerobics program. “Look at those women in their leotards. Just flaunting if you ask me. We don’t need pornography any more. Oh, to be twenty and shapely again!”
“They didn’t have Henry until their forties. I guess Marion was about thirty. Still. He must be about sixteen though you can’t tell with him. He’s so big. It gives Dorrit the heebie jeebies how he stands around in the middle of a room rocking back and forth, like a whale almost. You tell him hello or something and all he ever says is ‘prove it.’ One time Dorrit told him, ‘Looks like we’re in for some drought for a change,’ and Henry just breathed–you can hear his breathing all the way upstairs–and said, ‘prove it.’ Dorrit eased away to get a drink. Maybe Henry was one of those breach babies.”
“Yeah, I had that experience. He never says anything. So I tried to make small talk, you know, to be pleasant, and told him he’d grown a lot since I saw him last–a lie, he’s always been a boulder–, and he looked me in the eye, defiant as hell, and said ‘prove it.’”
“Dorrit says when you go to Marion’s you can hear ‘prove it’ all over the house. He swears he’s going to tell him one day that only morons say ‘prove it.” Can you imagine Henry saying ‘prove it’ after that?”
“Where’s my Coke, Stel? I’m glad he isn’t my son. I’d have to smack some sense into him. I’ve never seen such a homely boy. Is he a boy?”
“Well . . . it’s a question.”
“You left your Coke on top the bookcase as usual. I wish you wouldn’t put glasses there. It causes rings.”
“Prove it,” Agnes laughed as she got up to retrieve her drink. She was taller than her sister, which Stella had always secretly resented because it made Agnes look classier. Nor had she entirely lost the angular shape they both had enjoyed as younger women. Stella thus found it necessary, whenever she had the chance, to make snide remarks about any new wrinkle or sag she spotted on Agnes’ flesh.
“I hear,” Agnes went on, “you can get those rings out with gasoline.”
Stella almost told her that the skin beneath her eyes looked a little mushier than usual but gasped instead and started waving her hands wildly. “Don’t tell Dorrit. He’ll get a tank of gasoline and connect a hose to it and spray the whole house. He’s always trying to rub out those rings. He says first a ring, then a crater. Our coffee table has that big splotch in it from the time he rubbed it with steel wool until it took off his skin.”
“Really, Stel,” Agnes turned serious, “does Dorrit still check the foundation?” She peered curiously at the jack propped tautly in one corner of the room.
Stella stood crossly and sighed, “I wish I hadn’t told anybody. It’s just a phase . . . you know, like the time you wore purple lipstick. Did we go around thinking you were crazy because you wore that God-awful color?”
“I was fourteen.”
Stella heard the ice cubes clink in her sister’s glass. Agnes only clinked her ice cubes when perturbed. But who had more right to be angry, she wanted to know? Agnes had never cared for Dorrit one bit because she was jealous she wasn’t married any longer. And for the second time, wouldn’t you know. Suddenly she remembered a story Dorrit had told her about when he developed what he called “the blinks.” His sixth-grade teacher did it to him, he said; she was a witch. She tormented him in the classroom and insulted him whenever he passed her in the corridors. Dorrit didn’t know why she hated him so much, but it made him so nervous he started blinking all the time. One day he went with his parents to a family gathering at his Aunt Edna’s house. Everyone sat around talking, Dorrit wedged on a sofa reading a comic book between his mother and Aunt Helen. Crotchety old Aunt Marie, who stared at him from her armchair, turned to his mother and asked, “Why is Dorrit blinking, Lucy?” His mother laughed, “We don’t know. It just started one day. He says his teacher is mean to him.” Aunt Marie shriveled her lips, squinted and looked Dorrit in the eye. The room grew tensely silent until she screeched, “Stop it!” From that day on Dorrit never had the blinks again.
“Maybe I won’t go to the reunion,” Agnes sighed.
Still thinking about Dorrit’s blinks, Stella had not quite heard her, which surprised Agnes since Stella always paid attention.
“Yeah, I don’t think I’ll go.”
It suddenly registered. “What! Not go? You’ve got to go.” She plopped back down in her chair feeling utterly miserable.
“Why do I have to? Because we’ve both always gone? So what? How old are we now, Stel?”
Stella’s mind turned in furious, black circles. Agnes had to go to the reunion; they all had to go. It was sacred to Stella that people went to reunions. She felt so uneasy she let it slip before she could restrain herself: “You’re not going because you’re divorced again.”
Agnes’ ice cubes began to clink in earnest and she looked taller and more formidable than ever. Stella knew she was in for it.
“Let me tell you something, little sister,” Agnes began in low gear, “my divorces concern no one but myself. I’d rather be divorced fifty times than married to . . . .”
“Go ahead and say it,” Stella mumbled weakly.
Agnes, her purse and jacket already gathered, furiously paced the room. “None of my husbands ever poked rafters with a screwdriver in the middle of the night. And here’s something I bet you don’t know: last week when I came for supper, when you holed yourself up in the kitchen chopping your precious little shallots, Dorrit and I talked about some interesting things. You know what he told me? He said he’d just discovered the mystery of glazier pins. ‘What’s that?’ I asked. He said they were tiny metal pins that hold glass panes in a window. He said he was up on the roof putting in two new windows when he stopped to sit down and smoke a cigarette. Turning one of those metal things between his fingertips, he realized that little things nobody knows about hold the world together. When he went to buy the glass he felt repelled by the greasy, dirty machines and squalor of the shop, but as he watched the glass cutter measure the dimensions, oil the glass with a brush and make the cuts, the beauty of the moment struck him. Just then a breeze that smelled like four o’clocks blew through the shop. He felt joyous. That’s the word he used, joyous. The shop didn’t look filthy anymore. It was magical, he said. He said to the glass cutter, ‘I envy you.’ The glass cutter said, ‘There ain’t nothing to envy. This stuff is made of sand.’”
Agnes paused to catch her breath, the words rushing forth like a swarm of bees. She wanted to gauge Stella’s reaction. Stella sat stolidly in her chair, her lips parted, blood draining from her already pallid face.
“Did he tell you that one?” Agnes gloated.
Stella did not respond. Images of pitiful, blinking little Dorrit whirled through her head.
“I know lots more,” Agnes cackled smugly. “He tells stories to me when you aren’t around. He waits for you to leave. That’s how I know he doesn’t tell you everything. Why do you think that is, Stella?”
Stella could never predict the extent of her sister’s cruelty and was no match for it. The one certainty of her current stage of life was that she would always assume a kind of custodial supervision of Dorrit’s oddities. To discover that Dorrit confided in Agnes what rightfully he should reveal only to her ranked in her mind with catching him in bed with another woman. Dorrit had committed adultery with her own sister! Wasn’t that like incest? She felt termites scurry up and down her spine at the thought, smelled something acrid suffuse the room. Loose voltage! She verged on blacking out, though she realized that if Agnes had known anything else she would have rubbed it in. She would have lauded it over Stella with no mercy. When they were children she had forced her to swallow a live earthworm coated with wet mud because she threatened to tell their mother she had seen Agnes let a boy feel her bird-like breasts. It disturbed her profoundly to realize after all these years that swallowing an earthworm had been one of the most sensational moments of her life. She could remember nothing else so vividly or with such intensity. It had in effect prepared her for anything. Nevertheless, Dorrit’s betrayal amounted to something new and momentous, something utterly unexpected and therefore all the more outrageous.
They always arrived late at the reunions because Stella feared capture by one of the more boring relatives who gathered early precisely for that purpose. Dorrit wore his powder blue blazer and a pair of starched khakis while Stella, who had dieted to the point of starvation during the previous three weeks, managed to squeeze into a breezy sun dress she had outgrown three summers earlier. They were ushered by Marion into a house full of people, some lurking near the doorway to survey and assess the condition of each newcomer, the very people Stella wanted to avoid. Like Jack Squallings, whose conversation limited itself solely to the topic of humidity. Another cousin by marriage, Stella caught his stooped frame in her peripheral vision. She quickly turned her back and led Dorrit by the hand toward the kitchen. Jack would not let you get a word in edgewise on humidity, and worse, he had an annoying facial tic. His entire head lurched toward the ceiling whenever he uttered a word beginning with the letter “m.” Dorrit fell behind because someone inquired about the new knees, but Stella tugged persistently and practically dragged him behind her.
The kitchen was always safe because Uncle Melton, whom no one else could stand, always stationed himself near the hors d’oeuvres and vodka-spiked punch; as long as he remained in the room she felt safe from Jack and those he regularly cornered, those with no choice but to listen to his interminable soliloquies on the vicissitudes of water vapor. Stella could imagine nothing worse than being stranded with Jack and Louis Malicion, the family optometrist who always stared at your eyes. Jack and Louis usually wound up together by default and spoke at rather than to each other since they had nothing whatever in common. Uncle Melton didn’t speak at all because he never stopped eating, which suited Stella fine, for she always preferred to watch the goings on rather than participate. No one liked Uncle Melton because he made meaty gurgling noises as he devoured entire plates full of deviled eggs and cubes of pate and cupcakes. He had a bad case of catarrh and hacked noisily into an almost indecent handkerchief.
As Dorrit followed Stella into the kitchen he heard a voice from afar say “prove it.”
“Did you hear, Stella?” he cried, alarmed.
Stella did but she was too distracted to answer her husband. She had distanced herself from him after Agnes’ disclosure, not that he noticed, and she hoped Agnes would show up after all so she could spy on her–and Dorrit. The sisters had not spoken since Agnes stormed out of the house, nor had Stella confronted Dorrit, not because she feared any kind of normal reaction from him but because she wanted to keep him off guard. He had a habit of imploding into himself when faced with disturbing truths, and he genuinely forgot worrisome details. Stella called it convenient amnesia, but with Dorrit it amounted to actual amnesia. He had, for instance, completely forgotten that he once set the cedar shakes of their house on fire when he attempted to remove dozens of mud dauber nests from them with the blow torch. Whenever she insisted he remember unpleasant realities, he started to whistle and gaze at the ceiling. On the night of the fire he had curled into a fetal position in bed and slept soundly for forty-eight hours. He awoke to find his wife sitting on the bed beside him. “I dreamed we met the Dalai Lama,” he murmured. “He had purple lips.”
Stella saw Uncle Melton standing by the table blowing his nose.
“Hello, Uncle Melton,” she said politely, expecting no reply and receiving none other than an abrasive “Gwfffrrq.” He stuffed an entire artichoke heart into his mouth.
Marion had followed them into the kitchen and seemed radiantly tipsy. She had always been a looker, the belle of the family. “You look precious,” she exclaimed to Stella, turning her by the shoulders. “Tell me the secret, puh-leese!”
“Just eat celery,” Dorrit sniffed. “What’s that smell?”
“What smell?” Marion asked.
“Probably voltage,” said Stella.
“No, no . . . like pencil shavings. Has someone sharpened a lot of pencils in here?”
Marion sniffed, giggling, “Well, I don’t know. We did have some exterminating work done. How are the knees, Dorrit?”
“Can’t tell the difference. What’s bone but nature’s plastic? I wish my whole skeleton was plastic. The new kneecaps will last for centuries, long after the rest of me has rotted. Maybe some archeologist will find them and put them in a museum.”
“Hmmmmm,” said Marion, raising her eyebrows. “That’s very nice. Well, you kids have a nice time, I’ve got to mosey about. What’s a hostess for?”
Stella had already heard Agnes’ voice outside the kitchen door and felt a twinge of panic. She knew her sister would come in for a drink, so she had to get away quickly to observe her interaction with Dorrit. There was a back door which led to a small, pinkish patio, and she figured she could peek into the window without anyone catching her. Caught in the act of espionage would mortify her.
“I’m going for some air, Dorrit. Don’t tell anybody where I am, ok,” she gasped.
“You feeling all right, Stel?” Dorrit asked, picking at a platter of Ritz crackers covered with something brown and frothy.
“I’m fine, just don’t tell, promise?”
“Sure, have some good air.”
Dorrit would say something like that Stella thought, slipping out of the patio door just as Agnes pranced into the kitchen dressed all in black with matching stiletto heels. She towered over everyone, including Dorrit and Uncle Melton, who belched profoundly as he checked the cupboards for a package of baking soda.
“Hey, Dorrit,” Agnes called. She walked toward him treacherously and took his hand. Dorrit’s hand always felt limp and soggy. “Where’s my sister?”
“I don’t know, around here somewhere, I guess. You’re all black–like a witch.”
“Bitch is more like it, honey,” Agnes purred. “Will you fix me a vodka and soda?”
“I sure will,” said Dorrit, glad to serve and remove his hand from her grasp. He had always been somewhat unnerved by Agnes and could not comprehend why she cultivated such long, saber-like fingernails. “Have you seen Henry?” he asked good-naturedly.
“He’s out there . . . bobbing,” Agnes snapped.
“Prove it,” Dorrit said.
Agnes threw her head back and laughed. She studied Dorrit as he clumsily prepared her drink. He’s actually sort of good looking, she thought, in a weird way. It’s the clothes and dumb haircut that ruin him. She put her finger to her lips and squinted her eyes so they watered a little. When he handed her the drink, she smiled seductively on one side of her face as she inched closer. He could hear the fabric of her dress rustle. He watched her take a long, breathful sip from the glass, trying to avoid her eyes.
“Tell me, Dorrit,” she said finally, “you know those funny stories you have? Tell me another one.”
Dorrit didn’t know what Agnes meant and suspected he should feel insulted. “What funny little stories?”
“Oh, you know, like the one about those little things, you know, that go in windows?”
“Glazier points!” he cried.
“Yes, and how they hold the world together. Tell me another one nobody knows.”
Stella, outside, regarded herself doubly blessed, for not only could she witness the fool her sister was making of herself but could also hear every word she spoke. Marion had cracked the
windows, and Stella’s ear managed to work itself right into place.
“I don’t know any more stories, honest, Agnes,” Dorrit said. “Rafters, what about the rafters?”
“Oh, everybody knows that one, Dorrit. I want a secret, a story nobody in the world knows but you and me.”
Dorrit suddenly felt his sister-in-law’s breast pressing into his arm. Breasts were always softer than he could have imagined, yet they looked so firm and solid, like tennis balls. Dorrit could think of numerous household uses for such a material if only it could be synthesized and marketed. With respect to Agnes’ particular breasts, he felt both alarmed and excited, but more alarmed, and abruptly stepped back against the table. Agnes pursued him, however, and he found himself wedged between her and an array of hors d’oeuvres.
“Dorrit,” her tact changing, angrily, “I want a story. I mean it. If you don’t I’ll never forgive you.”
“Honest, Agnes, I don’t know any–how about the termites–”
“I know that one, so does Stella. She told it to me. Come on, make one up if you have to.”
Dorrit felt light-headed and beads of sweat began to trickle down his upper arms. “Make one up? I don’t know what you’re talking about. My stories are true.”
Stella, meanwhile, had a revelation: Dorrit could not make up one of his stories if threatened with execution at dawn. The man was incapable of deceit or dissembling. But she could! Dozens of Dorrit-like stories suddenly flared in her mind, all imagined, fictions. She assumed she had learned what she set out to learn and casually breezed back into the kitchen.
“Oh,” Agnes said testily, rearing away from Dorrit, when she saw her sister. “Well, I came.”
Stella smiled serenely, took Dorrit’s soggy hand and looked confidently into Agnes’ eyes. “There was the time,” she said, “when Dorrit had to replace the support beams because moisture had rotted them. I came home from the grocery and found Dorrit bent over in a corner. He had one more piece of rotted wood to pull out. ‘Stella,’ he cried, ‘The walls are floating. Suction alone keeps them up. We have no beams! No jacks either. This won’t last forever, so behold the impossible. I’ve got new beams outside, ready to slide in.’ Then one day he–”
“Stella, I never–”
“Let me finish, Dorrit. Then the basement flooded. We didn’t have the sump pump then. The water rose rapidly and was about to saturate the furnace pilot. Dorrit stood knee-deep in the slosh and bucketed it out fast as he could. He had set up a kind of aqueduct made of some old gutter sections we stored down there, and he poured the water directly into the gutter, which he’d angled to drain outside the basement. A light bulb floated on the surface of the water near where he stood. It went round and round in circles, orbiting Dorrit. ‘If it hits the furnace,’ he said, ‘this light bulb will shine. I’ll be dead, but you’ll have light.’ Another time–”
“You’ve made your point,” Agnes said gloomily.
“What point?” Dorrit asked. He longed to be back home with his crow bar and level and dado blades.
“Grwfffff,” belched Uncle Melton.
At that moment Henry hobbled into the kitchen, stopping short near the entrance. He breathed so intense and rapidly he sounded like a snare drum. He had no intention of eating, apparently; he was just there, as usual. Wherever Henry was, he was just there.
“Hello, Henry,” Agnes chirped, relieved at the distraction.
No reply from Henry, whose tiny ebony eyes oozed from massive folds of fat. “Fluid retention,” Agnes had once told Stella. “That boy won’t be with us long.”
Henry’s breath had become a succession of ominous snorts. Agnes made her way over, pressed her breast against his arm, and said, “Some people are just made for each other, eh, big boy.”
They all waited, even Uncle Melton, who dropped the banana he had begun to devour.
But Henry let them dangle. The breathing became almost imperceptible. He began to roll his head. Only the whites of his eyes were visible. His entire body began to sway. Then, like a monstrous hippo beneath a calm surface, the phrase gathered itself, rushed for the surface and exploded into being.
“Only morons say ‘prove it’!” Dorrit cried triumphantly.
“Akkk, akkk, akkk,” coughed Uncle Melton.
“Count me out of this ridiculous family as of now,” Agnes huffed and tore grandiosely out of the room.
“Dorrit,” Stella cooed, wrapping one of her arms around her husband’s waist as Henry swayed and Uncle Melton belched, “you’re my hero.” Throbbing valentines seemed to flap in the air.
“I am?” asked a bewildered Dorrit.
“But from now on whatever happens tell me first, all right?”
“I always do, Stella. None of that stuff you said really happened. I don’t understand.”
“Some things don’t need understanding,” Stella chirped, leading Dorrit out of the kitchen.
“But Stella, you lied.”
“Oh, think of them as shims, Dorrit, not lies. They keep things straight, don’t they? We all need shims, you said? Bye, Uncle Melton, see you next year. Let’s go, Dorrit.”
Uncle Melton stared at Henry for a moment before renewing his assault upon the food.
“Nice to see you again, Henry,” Stella chirped as they left the room.
Henry rocked on his heels like a bloated torpedo. “Prove it,” he said.