Living for Art and Stories

One of the first things I did when I got started on the planet, after getting the hang of eating and excreting and some basic motor skills, was draw pictures. I learned to walk late, talking and drawing were bigger priorities for me. Somewhere my mom has a photo of my first drawing from when I was one and a half: a mass of short lines, scribbles and dots on a chalkboard that I told her was a face. I pointed out the “eye-bows.” What got me so obsessed with drawing I don’t know, but I drew all the time. People told me I was good at it and that probably went to my head. Once when I was five I saw a picture in a museum, of a train drawn by Diego Rivera when he was three. I calculated that I could have drawn a picture that good right then, but I would have had two years on him and I could tell that in the imaginary competition in my mind, little Diego Rivera had won. Forty-one years later, it’s easy to see that against me Diego Rivera, and many lesser known artists, will always win.

The thing that I did not struggle with when I was a kid, was questioning the value of art. I took for granted that I did it just because I wanted to. I find that adulthood sucks in large part because everything you do has to have a reason, a justification, it’s got to make money, or at least help someone. Really what it means is that your activities have to justify your existence, and while choosing activities in an intentional way is a good thing, it can also make for a pretty sad baseline.

I spent a lot of years pursuing things I thought had more value than art. And then when I was back to doing art (which was often) I spent a lot of time trying to push the concepts of “art” and “value” back together in my mind. The two kept repelling, like magnets with the wrong sides toward each other. I’m not sure where that struggle went actually, I never came to any grand conclusions, but it has faded over time.

Here’s what I think won out. Two things, first: I really love stories, even the kind that start with “One time,” and end with the person you’re telling it to going, “And?” Sometimes visual art makes stories come to life in a way they couldn’t otherwise. Queens of comics art Marjane Satrapi, Kate Beaton and Lynda Barry, for example, are superb at this. So there’s love and excitement and beauty and poignancy in works I really connect to, whether that’s in books, radio stories or moments from life.

Secondly, I’ve discovered that for me part of the value of art (including writing) is that it’s a big part of the way that I deal with the difficult parts of being alive. Last year I read in Langston Hughes’ autobiography The Big Sea, that he wrote mostly when he felt bad. I felt relieved reading that. Maybe being a writer isn’t all about inspiration, maybe being a writer also means it’s what you turn to when you have to turn to something. And maybe another part of the time it’s just for the imaginary friends you get out of it. In any case, it turns out I’m still doing now what I started as a toddler. Maybe it was all unavoidable.

On that note I’d like to leave you with a story, because that’s what I live for.

One time many years ago I spent ten December days in London, on an impromptu, medicinal visit. I’d been in Spain and was a sort of casualty of love. I stayed with my friend Dina, and while she was working I went out on the tube to different places she recommended. On one of these excursions I went to the National Gallery and stumbled upon a school tour of the Van Goghs, given by a man I remember as resembling the French actor Dominique Pinon of Amélie, Delicatessen, etc. Thirty or so young students were seated on the floor in front of one of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, while clusters of older museum visitors, myself included, stood around behind them.

Monsieur Pinon knelt beneath the painting on one knee, expounding passionately on Van Gogh, and the brilliant way he sculpted the paint into texture, and his important relationship with the painter Paul Gauguin. He spoke of the role of the painting in Van Gogh’s time with Gauguin, and the feud that erupted between them when they were living and working together in Arles, in the south of France. This feud, the lecturer said, caused Gauguin to leave town.

At that moment another visitor at the museum, a man with long hair and a goatee and a puffed-up chest he’d had his arms folded across, called out, “And then he went to Tahiti and shagged all the young women!” He strutted out, as he said this, disappearing into another gallery.

Dead silence. The students stared.

The lecturer, who had frozen mid-sentence, tipped his head to the side and said, “‘Tis true…”

The students laughed. The rest of us visitors laughed. And Monsieur Pinon went on with his talk.


Recently, Jenny Jaeckel wrote an essay for Writer’s Digest called “Bodies, Blind Spots and Quirks” where she talks about writing her novel House of Rougeaux. To find out more about her newest book visit Raincloud Press. Also available to order here, or from your favorite bookstore.

A Theory of Creativity

The Mystery

Most of us are familiar with Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc 2 (Energy equals Mass times the Speed of Light squared) and most of us, myself included, really don’t understand it. I know very little about physics, and based on only my own anecdotal evidence, I would like to offer an additional equation: M = EY2.

This is an equation that describes the relationship, as I often experience it, between the energy of events in life, and the actual events themselves. Nothing scientific or mathematical here, just some nerdy, New-Agey philosophizing. But call it what you will, I believe it speaks to something many people experience, even if it’s not something we generally talk about.

M = EY2.

In this equation, Matter (not Mass) equals Energy times the square of an unknown variable, Y, a variable that will always remain a mystery. Y is squared because mystery seems to have that exponential power; it kaleidoscopes away from itself, and just leaves you wondering.

The way I know about this equation goes something like this: certain events, certain relationships, and certain creative projects arrive with, or are preceded by, a large amount of Energy. For example, sometimes I feel an up-swell of energy that I know will be a project—in my case, usually a book—before I know what that project will be. Then, with whatever time frame it requires, the book takes shape and becomes real. It becomes Matter.

The Fire of Creativity and Relationship

          The separate arrival of energy and matter in relationships has been more rare. In the case of meeting my husband Chris, now twenty years ago, and without going into the details, the energy preceded the event, and then that big energy became the “matter” of relationship, marriage, and family life with our child Asa. I felt something similar upon meeting one friend in particular, an up-swell of energy completely out of proportion to the relationship. The energy was big, and the relationship was brand new, so one did not logically fit the other, and when big energy happens it seems like fate is talking to you. “You’ve met a soulmate!” it seems to say, or, in the realm of projects, “You’ve created a best-seller!” But in this case that energy did not become matter, at least not in a continuing sense. This friend and I had lives that were completely divergent in focus and geography, and that energy, which we both seemed to feel, did not manifest in a continuing friendship. That’s the thing about the energy, it does not always manifest as matter, or it manifests in a very different way than I expect, and that seems to be part of the mystery.

We have all heard people talk sometimes about being struck by something, as if by lightning, or having a fire lit under them. I would characterize the experience of perceiving energy like that, or as the up-swell, or like a river running in a certain direction, or like a force or a presence, or like plugging into a socket, and in other ways too. It depends on the situation.

At the end of my second year at university, at the age of twenty, I heard a classmate read aloud a story he’d written, about meeting someone in Mexico, and walking up a hill to overlook the sea, and there was a line about “glistening palm fronds.” I hardly remember it now, but there was something about that story that lit that fire in me. Up until then, writing, for me, was one of many interests, and nothing serious. I had intended to focus the following year on film and video-making, but that day I scratched those plans, and spent the next two years studying creative writing.

I had very few decent ideas, very little sense of how to handle words, very little to say, and very little imagination. Somehow that mediocrity didn’t stop me. The fire that got lit didn’t manifest in anything presentable for a very long time—far beyond university—though occasionally, and usually in the form of a comic or something visual, I made something nice.

Book Projects

           Since very young, many of my projects were attempts at making books: picture books, comic books, or other art and text combinations. My first graphic novel, Spot 12, Five Months in the Neonatal ICU, that I made in my mid-thirties, was my first serious book, and the first one that I felt became an entity of its own. I had the distinct feeling, in the middle of making it, that it would have its own journey, something separate from me, as if I were raising a wolf cub that would one day return to the wild.

Ten years later, House of Rougeaux, my first regular novel, became an entity too. I was writing a series of short stories, when that happened. The book was maybe half-written (in its first draft) when it sat up and began issuing orders. I was not writing stories, it told me, but chapters, and I was to call them that. The book declared itself to be a novel, and told me what its title should be.

They say creating something is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. I don’t disagree. Making books is arduous, tedious, and the thrilling moments are brief. It takes work to turn energy into matter, though sometimes no amount of work will do it. Once in a while, at least, we ourselves are part of that Y variable. The human being, both energy and matter, is a remarkable instrument, and very mysterious. Exponentially so.

M = EY2. Matter, Energy, and Mystery. The three cosmic playmates, playing tag through time and space, and our own little universes. I don’t understand it any more than I understand Einstein’s work, but it does seem to be real.


Jenny Jaeckel’s first novel House of Rougeaux publishes next week. It’s a literary and historical novel that spans from the Caribbean in the 1700s to Philadelphia in the 1960s. Learn more about this magical novel, or pre-order here. Available in print, ebook and audio (narrated by Bahni Turpin).

Mr. Rat: Storytime

I have never had any kind of stomach for gore, and am too easily scared or disturbed by horror to want to consume it as entertainment. I can barely tolerate little bits of the news.  Hence, I’ve never read the work of Stephen King, except for one book: On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft. I love this book, and I love Stephen King as the writer of it.

In the beginning of the section where he discusses the craft of writing (after the first section that describes his growing up to become a writer), King divides writers into four categories: bad, competent, really good, and the great geniuses. King doesn’t see much possible movement between these classes of writers, except for the potential for competent writers, with much hard work and devotion, to ascend into that of the really good. Myself I hope to I’m somewhere in this category of upward mobility.

Of the geniuses, King says they are “…divine accidents, gifted in a way which is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain… [most of them] aren’t [even] able to understand themselves…” I fully agree that this kind of genius is beyond my ability to understand. That’s how I feel when I read James Baldwin, for example, or one of my favorite authors, Edith Wharton. If you aren’t familiar with the works of Edith Wharton, try her short stories like “Roman Fever” or “The Other Two”. They are like tiny novels. Or try one of her actual novels, like The House of Mirth, which is an entire world folded up into book-size.

What follows is my homage to Edith Wharton. Let’s say you see a heavenly parade in which a magnificent goddess passes by, and somewhere in her wake there’s a little hunched up troll, tooting a tune of devotion on a little horn. That little tune might be analogous to this story. Here goes. I hope you enjoy it.

 

Mr. Rat

Riding the elevated from Grand Central Station to Union Square, Mr. Rat snapped the pages of the Hole Street Journal and perused the Real Estate section. His neatly trimmed whiskers twitched from side to side. It was not yet the rush hour and the other riders swayed languidly with the motion of the train. Outside the city tumbled by, the skyline fading into the yellowish haze of afternoon. Folding the paper with a sigh, Mr. Rat drew a gold pocket watch from his waistcoat and consulted the time. Four o’clock. Enough time to ring Mrs. Rat to tell her he would be dining at his club that evening, make his “detour” and return to his offices to finish up his work on the O’Leary case. He would not be missed at home.

Mr. and Mrs. Rat’s only child, their daughter Celina, had made her debut a year ago, and now Mrs. Rat’s sole devotion was to see her wed. Were he present at dinner, they would only ply him with demands. Celina would be needing a new opera cloak, or set of Parisian parasols for the next summer season. Silk, of course. According to Mrs. Rat, it was essential that Celina be carted around, making appearances in all the right places, and with all the right people, in order to land the right kind of husband. In his day the elders in society brokered the marriages without all the fuss. But things were different now. What with all the new industrialists, new money was mixing with the old so fast the purer stock was growing more diluted by the week. Fashion was overtaking tradition at breakneck speed. It made one very dizzy.

However, he would leave the scheming to the women. A profitable match for Celina was key, he did agree, and he trusted his wife to get the job done. Mr. Rat’s duty was to tend to the firm, bring home the bacon, and as long as he did so he felt he was entitled to a little comfort and pleasure of his own. For some time now this had taken the form of his “detours,” and for the last several months these led him to the heavily feminine apartment, on upper 9th Street, of one Miss Vera Hines, a young lady rat whose sleek fur and refined character were equally, in his estimation, unblemished.

All the bedroom stuff, that had been over with Mrs. Rat for ages. Things were playful enough when they were young, but after Celina, and her brother Boris, who was tragically taken from them in his infancy, the spouses withdrew to their separate corners, and there they remained.

At 4:35 Mr. Rat tapped his special knock on the door of Miss Vera Hines. Even before it opened he smelled her perfume. How long had it been since they met? Nearly a year? At the big painting exhibition at the Rattus Norvegicus. He wasn’t much for pictures but all of rat society attended and he went with an associate, and there he spotted her. Those large, dark eyes, with their coquettish lashes. She was a friend of one of the artists, a model perhaps, not one of the patrons to be sure. They struck up a conversation about one of the pictures. He was charmed. She gave him her card. Two weeks later he went to see her.

Now she greeted him at the door, lashes fluttering, in the silk dressing gown with the Chinese print she knew drove him absolutely mad, and the pearl choker he’d given her last month as a birthday present.

“I’m just dressing for an engagement,” she said, having installed him in an arm chair by the fireplace.

“Dining out?” he asked.

“Mm,” she replied, vaguely affirmative and fiddling with earrings.

It did not occur to Mr. Rat to be jealous. He knew she had friends, other admirers certainly, but the idea that she could have other romantic interests did not cross his mind. Still, it was an opening for their customary ritual.

“Ah,” he sighed in mock melancholy, “out with the younger set. I don’t see why you want to be bothered with an old codger like me.”

“You aren’t so old,” she cooed, coming over to sit on his lap and stroke the greying fur at his temples. “You’re seasoned.” She flashed that naughty smile.

“Like a chop,” he said wistfully, knowing that in minutes he would be making her squeak with delight. She laughed, stood up again, and extended her paw.

“Come help me pick out my slip.”

It did not occur to him that this part of their visits, rather than the romps in the bedroom, was actually the most pleasurable. A lot of things did not occur to Mr. Rat.

The next morning, breakfasting on their cook’s omelette with kippers, the Rats scrutinized different sections of the Times, Mr. Rat again with Real Estate, as many of the clients at his firm dealt in properties, and Mrs. Rat and Celina over the Society pages. A particular article held their interest, about a ball given last weekend at the Van Hole de Berg’s. Celina had danced with a number of the young gentleman rats, but she and her mother had their eye on a certain one. This was Jack Bentley, son of Ambrose Bentley, one of the new industrialists that had clambered his way up society’s ladder in the decades since his crude beginnings. Mr. Rat disliked Bentley’s ingratiating manner, but ignoring a man who commanded that kind of money was bad for business. Bentley’s son however, refined and educated at the best schools, was a real rising star, and one, all agreed, whose destiny it was to outshine his father.

Mrs. Rat read aloud the description of the ball, and those in attendance, while Celina listened and checked the precision of her curls in the reflection afforded by the silver orange juice pitcher. They were ecstatic to see that Celina herself was described as “the radiant young Miss Rat” and was noted in the company of Mr. Jack Bentley on two occasions. Mr. Rat glanced over.

He recalled a moment from the ball, when seated at a table with a few of the other gentlemen enjoying cigars, he felt a tap on his shoulder. Turning round he met the bulging eyes of Ambrose Bentley, huffing to shift his considerable girth around in his chair to address Mr. Rat from an adjacent table.

“They make a fine pair, eh, Rat?” Bentley indicated their children in the crowd, dancing a waltz. Celina’s flowing ivory gown, and Jack Bentley’s crisp tuxedo, not to mention the smiles on their young faces, were attracting some general attention.

Mr. Rat had cringed at the insinuation. Bentley was not his kind, even if he was exceedingly rich, and Mr. Rat had no desire to endure an in-law relationship with the Bentley’s. The thought of the rest of his Sunday dinners in their company made him shudder. Still, he had to admit, as Mrs. Rat was highly aware, that the young Jack Bentley was considered quite a catch, and that the Bentley’s certainly would not object to such a union. The Rats may not be as rich, but as a traditional pillar of New York society, a marriage would be unquestionably advantageous for the Bentley’s.

“I am happy to have him among respectable company, you know,” Bentley had gone on, taking puffs from his own cigar. “Some of those eccentrics he runs around with have Mrs. Bentley overwrought.”

Mr. Rat was no longer listening.

Breakfast concluded, Mr. Rat bid his family goodbye and headed to his office. Midmorning he received a call from Mrs. Rat regarding an engagement to dine on Thursday at the home of the Edward Morrises. The Van Hole de Bergs would be in attendance, as would the Bentley’s. This wasn’t one Mr. Rat could avoid, Mrs. Rat let him know, and promptly hung up in order to “race off to the dressmaker’s with Celina.” Mr. Rat sighed, but soon put the matter out of his mind. Pressing business, like the O’Leary contract, occupied the rest of his morning and bled over into his usual lunch hour. When the moment came that he could extract himself, he took up his hat, coat and cane, and set out for lunch at his club.

As luck would have it, Roger Van Hole de Berg was seated at a table in view of the entrance and waved him over. Van Hole de Berg’s true passion in life was golf, and nothing pleased him so much as an audience on the subject. Mr. Rat didn’t mind. While he chewed his steak, and Van Hole de Berg waxed lyrical on the mechanics of the downswing, he let his thoughts drift back to Vera Hines, calculating their next rendezvous. They only ever met at her apartment, but he wondered if he could find an excuse to take her away somewhere. The Muroidea Inn in Connecticut, maybe. He’d consider that.

Suddenly, an approaching figure interrupted the respective reveries of Mr. Rat and Van Hole de Berg. It was Ambrose Bentley, sweating, smiling, and breathing heavily. “Good day, gents!” he said, leaning one paw on the back of an empty chair.

Mr. Rat was not in the mood.

“Roger,” Mr. Rat said, standing up and tossing his used napkin onto his plate, “please excuse me, I must be off.” He extended his paw to Bentley in greeting and continued, “Bentley, please take my place.” Bentley happily accepted. Roger Van Hole de Berg did not object. He crossed his legs and leaned back.

“Bentley,” Mr. Rat heard him say as he headed for the door, “play a bit of golf, do you?”

Thursday evening the Rats arrived by hired cab at the Morrises’ and were admitted by the butler, who was so tall and gaunt the family called him “Weasel.” He took their wraps and led them to the drawing room where the guests were collecting. Mrs. Rat spotted the Bentley’s at once, on the far side of the room, whispering fiercely to Celina to pretend not to notice them. Appearing too eager, Mr. Rat had often heard her say, never behooved a young lady. When Weasel returned to announce that dinner was served, Mrs. Rat held back until the Bentley’s passed by, and then made a lavish show of being surprised to see them. She offered them her most dazzling smile and shoved Celina forward toward the younger Bentley.

“Of course you remember my daughter!” she cried, and was duly pleased when Jack bent to kiss Celina’s paw. Moments later however she was just as vexed, when the Bentley’s were seated at the opposite end of the table, with all the Morrises and Van Hole de Bergs in between.

“Do you see how Elondra has placed him next to Prissy?” Mrs. Rat hissed into Mr. Rat’s ear. “Well, nothing will come of it. Prissy isn’t half as pretty as Celina.”

Mr. Rat, at least, was relieved not to have to converse with the elder Bentley, nor witness him consume roast and gravy at close range, nor be privy to Mrs. Bentley’s random babbles about dirigibles. How the two of them ever produced something as good as their son was a living mystery. Mr. Rat noticed that Jack Bentley held his own quite well on any topic, and he had an easy confidence. He would make someone a tolerable son-in-law one day.

Mr. Rat had a chance to further consider the notion of a son-in-law one fortnight hence, when the Bentley’s invited them, and several other families, out to their country estate for the weekend. The weather was warming and fresh, and the guests were treated to garden parties, lawn tennis and sumptuous meals. The ladies even received gifts of tasteful imitation silk scarves, that Mr. Bentley, under Jack’s direction, was importing from India. They were all the rage this year in Paris.

Mrs. Rat and Celina went about with their scarves, keeping Jack in their vicinity. Mr. Rat, enticed by Mr. Morris into joining a game of croquet, was just lining up a particularly good shot when his wife approached him, smiling triumphantly.

“See here, Julius,” she said, “I think he’s quite fallen under her spell!” Mr. Rat looked across the garden to where the two young people, were sitting together on one of the white-painted wrought iron benches. He didn’t imagine Celina had much in the way of spell-casting powers, but she did have youth and beauty on her side. Jack Bentley had his head cocked at a rakish angle, and Celina was giggling, her fan tipped up toward her face.

“He must be very witty,” remarked Mr. Rat, judging by the way Celina kept up the giggling. Mrs. Rat went off to join some of the other ladies at the tea table, and Mr. Rat continued his game. He was besting Morris, and that was always satisfying. When at last he won the match, energetically shaking paws with the other players, he saw that Celina and Jack Bentley were still engaged in their tête-à-tête on the bench.

The next few weeks proceeded in their usual way. Mr. Rat and his partners brought the O’Leary case to a profitable conclusion, and attended to the other top tiers of their clients. He was vaguely aware that Mrs. Rat and Celina were plotting to invite the Bentley’s to dine, along with a select few other guests, and spent their breakfasts poring over possible menus. On a Tuesday after lunch at their club, Edward Morris, wanting to even the score after their croquet match, challenged Mr. Rat to a game of billiards. Mr. Rat won that too, and after congratulating his opponent on a fine effort, strutted back to his offices in a state of high gloat.

Thus, he had plenty to boast about when he went to see Miss Hines later that afternoon, for the first time since his weekend away. She’d been busy with something or other. He kept the billiards game like a choice nugget in his pocket, waiting for the right moment to drop it into the conversation. In his actual pocket he had one of Bentley’s scarves, wrapped in tissue paper.

“Just a trifle,” he said, fetching it out and placing it in Vera’s claws. They were seated together on her divan, opposite the slightly open window where the early summer breeze ruffled the heavy, view-concealing lace curtains.

“Oh, how marvelous,” she said. “Thank you, Darling.” She planted a kiss on his cheek.

It was then he noticed the scarf she already had knotted around her neck, almost identical to the one he’d just given her. How had he missed that? “I’ll have a proper collection,” she said. “They’re all over town, you know.”

“Quite,” he said, disconcerted. Anything that was all over town was necessary for a lady to possess, but he was disappointed. His gifts ought to be much more rare and expensive than something she could pick up at a shop herself. He would make a point to visit the jeweler’s when he next had a chance. Perhaps a ruby this time. Something to bring out her eyes.

Gifts of jewels, however, did not stay at the forefront of Mr. Rat’s thoughts for long. There was always much in the way of immediate business at hand, and it was not Mr. Rat’s habit to see much further, on any given day, than the end of his snout.

Such as it was when several days later he received a call from his wife at his office. In a voice shrill with anxiety she beseeched him not to be late that evening. This was the day the Bentley’s were coming to dine. It was an overstatement to say Mr. Rat had forgotten, since he had never fixed the date in his mind in the first place. But he didn’t let on. He assured her he would be there on time.

“For Heaven’s sake,” said Mrs. Rat, and then hung up.

To the mutual rapture of Mrs. and Miss Rat, everything that night went off perfectly. Celina’s youthful assets were displayed to their greatest effect, their cook outdid herself with the pigeon avec aubergines, and the puits d’amour dessert, and the conversation was amiable and erudite. Even Mrs. Bentley’s comments about blimps and zeppelins did not seem terribly misplaced. Most importantly, young Jack Bentley showed every sign of being taken with Celina, and even asked Mr. Rat’s permission, after dinner, to let Celina show him the view from the terrace.

“What did he say?” pounced Mrs. Rat, later when the guests had departed.

Celina smiled dreamily. “Oh, Mama,” she said, “he has ever so many plans!”

“Like what, dear? Don’t keep me in suspense!”

“Oh, building buildings, new ventures abroad…” the women drifted down the hallway toward the bedrooms, leaving Mr. Rat to finish his second cup of coffee with cognac alone by the fire.

Late in the next week Mr. Rat left his office on the pretext of a meeting, and set out to visit the jeweler’s, an exclusive shop he favored, up on 47th Street. He still had a ruby in mind for Miss Hines, something small and tasteful, since it wasn’t a special occasion. A hatpin, maybe. A bell tinkled as he opened the door. A clerk stood to attention.

While the clerk went to fetch a velvet tray of hatpins from a case, one of the proprietors, Mr. Mandelbrot, emerged from the back, removing a monocle from his eye and cleaning it with a small chamois.

“Ah, Mr. Rat,” he said congenially, stuffing the monocle and cloth into his pocket and extending his paw. “What can we do for you today?”

“Hatpins,” said Mr. Rat, shaking paws. The clerk came back just then with the tray.

“How did the pearls go over last time?” asked Mr. Mandelbrot, giving him a wink. He always remembered what his customers bought. “Top quality, am I right?”

“Yes, of course,” said Mr. Rat, avoiding the first question. He bent to inspect the tray.

“We’ve had some serious business in here this morning,” Mandelbrot went on. “A notable young gentleman…” he waited, but Mr. Rat, who considered gossip a woman’s game and beneath him, did not take the bait.

“…was in,” Mandelbrot continued undeterred, “looking at engagement rings!”

“How much is this one going for?” said Mr. Rat abruptly, pointing to a pin with two small red stones, set in gold.

As the jeweler set his elbow on the counter and leaned toward him, Mr. Rat leaned away, holding the hatpin up to the light and squinting his eyes at it.

“Jack Bentley,” said Mandelbrot.

“I beg your pardon?” said Mr. Rat.

“Jack Bentley was here. For an engagement ring.”

Mr. Rat stared at him. He didn’t think the jeweler would know anything about his connection to Bentley. His possible connection. Either way it was deucedly improper that the jeweler should comment on a man’s business to other customers.

Mandelbrot caught the meaning in Mr. Rat’s chilly regard, cleared his throat and straightened. “Oh, believe me,” he said, “I’m not one to speculate. It’s just that Jack Bentley has a slight reputation.”

At this Mr. Rat raised an eyebrow.

“For being a bit unconventional,” said the jeweler. “Been seen with artists. And intellectuals. Some have wondered if he was the marrying kind, but now it seems he’ll be siding with tradition. Good, solid tradition.”

Mr. Rat set the hatpin on the counter. “I’ll take this one,” he said.

“A fine choice,” said the jeweler, “I shall wrap it up for you.” Mandelbrot scurried off, and the clerk returned to take away the velvet tray. Mr. Rat straightened his coat.

Well, well, well, he thought to himself. Aside from the jeweler’s impropriety, this was some interesting news. A vision of Jack Bentley, on bended knee before Celina, passed in front of his eyes. It did make sense after all. To be expected, really. And he was used to things going as he expected. He smiled to himself. A fine match for Celina. Mrs. Rat would be over the moon. And that Ambrose Bentley. Really, he wasn’t a bad sort, not with all that money. Soon enough, it seemed, they would be related.

Later that evening, at home, he snuck a look at his wife and daughter from over the edge of the evening paper, as they sat near the fire, engrossed in their embroidery. Naturally he couldn’t tell them what he’d heard at his illicit visit to the jeweler’s. How soon, he thought, everything would be changed.

Next afternoon he went to see Vera Hines. The ruby and gold hatpin lay in a satin-lined box in the pocket of his overcoat. It was drizzling out, but the sky was bright, with the sun promising to break through the clouds in time for tea. He tapped out his special knock on her door with the handle of his umbrella, savoring the thought of how she would thank him for her gift.

But when she came to the door it was with a somber expression.

“Is everything alright?” he asked, draping his overcoat on a hook of the coat stand. She invited him to sit.

“Julius,” she said, “I have something to tell you.” She hesitated, giving a faraway look toward the window. He had never seen her pensive before. She looked different. He considered making a joke to lighten the mood, but it died in his throat.

“What is it?” His voice came out with a hoarse edge.

“Julius,” she said again, “it’s that… it’s that I’m going to be married.”

Married?

He couldn’t have heard right. Everything went very quiet, except for the clock, ticking on the mantlepiece. Vera looked down at her paws. Mr. Rat did too. A diamond ring sparkled on one of her left claws.

He rocked slightly, side to side. Oddly, he thought he might tip over.

“I don’t want you to think this is easy for me, Julius,” she said. “Knowing you has been… beautiful.”

He blinked. He rocked.

“Who,” he said at long last, “is the lucky fellow?”

How long had she been seeing this other man? He wondered. Indeed, he knew very little about her life outside of their trysts.

“You may know of him,” she said. He could see in her shining eyes that she was very much in love. “His name is Bentley. Jack Bentley.”

If Mr. Rat was shocked before, now it settled over him like a heavy glass globe.

Somehow they concluded their conversation. He congratulated her. They shook paws meaningfully. They said good bye.

Good bye.

He went out into the light rain. He had forgotten his umbrella, but it hardly mattered now.

All the rest of the day and into the evening he went about encased in his globe of glass. Mrs. Rat asked him if he wasn’t feeling well. She suggested he take his tonic and go to bed early. He did, and lay awake for a long time, gazing at the dark ceiling.

The next evening when he came home and took off his overcoat he realized the box with the hatpin was still in the pocket. He stood for a second in the entryway, fingering the box through the cloth. But in the next moment he heard a thump, and then a commotion coming from the drawing room. He turned and hurried down the hall.

Pushing open the door he saw his wife and daughter on the sofa, weeping piteously. Pages of the evening paper lay scattered on the floor.

“Good Heavens,” he cried, “what’s wrong?”

“There!” shrieked Mrs. Rat, pointing a claw at the paper at her feet, “There!”

Mr. Rat scooped up the nearest page. The Society Section. Engagements. “Ambrose and Cressida Bentley are pleased to announce the betrothal of their son Jack, to Miss Vera Hines, of Dartmouth.”

Dartmouth, is that where she was from? He looked to his grieving family, and then back at the paper. It really must be true then. He had the sudden, topsy-turvy sensation that the three of them had all been jilted by the same man. From somewhere in the background he thought he heard the sound of shattering glass.

Lowering himself to the sofa he reached out and patted their paws.

“There, there, my dears,” he said, his voice catching in his throat. “There, there… Surely there are other fish in the sea!”

At breakfast the next morning Mrs. Rat shook out the Society Section of the morning paper. Already there was a small article on the Bentley engagement.

“Scandalous!” said Mrs. Rat. “Why, that Hines girl has no family background at all. What will become of the respectable families if the children continually marry beneath them?”

Celina was quiet. Mr. Rat watched as she nibbled at her toast, around the edges. Hadn’t she done that as a little pup? He recalled an image of her, so small, with such big eyes, nibbling her toast around the edges and he himself teasing her, saying, I say, but it looks like Mother Rat has raised a mouse! He stirred his coffee, and for once did not pick up the Real Estate section.

All morning at his office he sat idly at his desk, a stack of unopened files at his right. Before him lay the satin-lined jewelry box with the hatpin inside. It was black and smooth, a tiny coffin. He fancied he could see through it, like an x-ray. The twin rubies, like two eyes staring back. Had it died? Or was it awake?

The glass globe had broken. Its pointed shards lay in a heap inside his chest. Had he loved Vera Hines? He wondered. But a larger question loomed forward, like a stranger out of a dark alley way: Whom, in his life, had he loved?

He did not know the answer.

A lone tear escaped his eye, slid down his snout, and hung from the end of his nose. It occurred to him that this was something he ought to find out.

Mr. Rat left his office earlier than usual that day. Rather than take the Elevated home, he walked the long distance. Through the business district, through bustling crowds and neighborhoods, past fruit-sellers and newsboys, little girl rats playing hopscotch and old women on their stoops, and at last past the stately mansions of his own street. He arrived home before Mrs. Rat and Celina –he seemed to remember they had gone to call on Mrs. Rat’s cousin– and went into his study to sit down at his writing desk. He drew out a piece of card paper and unstoppered the inkwell.

A little something to cheer you up, he wrote. Yours, Julius.

This he placed on his wife’s night table, together with the ruby hatpin in its box.

The maid confirmed that Mrs. Rat and Celina were dining with the cousin, and at his request served him his dinner on a tray in the drawing room. After this he went to lie down in the bedroom. He was unusually tired.

It was dark when he awoke to someone stirring in the room. He heard the sound of a striking match as his wife lit a candle.

“Just getting in?” he asked. “What time is it?”

“Oh, Julius,” his wife started. “Didn’t mean to wake you. Yes, we were gone longer than expected. Gretolia’s in a state because of George’s gout and…” she stopped short. The candle illuminated the jeweler’s box, and his card. She picked them both up. “Oh, my,” she murmured after a moment. “How very thoughtful of you, how very…” and then she was crying again, silently this time. He sat up and scooted over to sit beside her. She leant her head on his shoulder, quite as she used to, when they were young.

The Rat family passed a quiet summer season. Mr. Rat suggested they spend a week at the Muroidea Inn, in Connecticut. He thought a few days by the lake would do them all good, and, to everyone’s surprise, they went. They rented a rowboat and a picnic basket. He discovered Celina was deucedly good at chess, and won each of their five games. He tried to interest her in croquet or billiards, but she declined. When they returned to the city they found a large, gold-embossed envelope among their letters, an invitation to the Bentley wedding, an autumn wedding, quite soon. Calmed as they were by their week in the country, the invitation caused no consternation. Mr. Rat was glad to see it served merely as another pleasant oppotunity for Mrs. Rat and Celina to plan their attire.

September the twenty-fifth, a Sunday, the Rats traveled by hired carriage to the Bentley country estate, and the nearby church where the wedding was to be held. The sky was a perfect blue, and the foliage brilliant in the turning colors of early fall.

The ceremony and reception were, of course, not without ostentation. The wedding cake nearly reached the ceiling of the hall, the bride’s train stretched halfway across the floor, and the guest list covered the whole of the region. Mr. Rat particularly enjoyed the shrimps with buerre blanc. Mrs. Rat was partial to the music –a ten piece orchestra with rotating soloists– and Celina was pleased to be invited to dance by many of the young gentleman rats, not least by young Muskind, one of the Morris boys.

The merriment culminated at last when the bride and groom were to be sent off on their honeymoon via a hot air balloon. All the guests streamed out of the hall and collected on the green where the great, billowing, purple balloon was being fired up. The newlyweds were loaded inside the basket, the groomsmen and bridesmaids tossed out sandbags and released the ropes. The gas jets roared and the balloon began to rise. Mr. and Mrs. Jack Bentley waved, and the crowd hooted farewells. Vera Bentley threw her bridal bouquet and it clocked Muskind Morris on the head.

Mr. Rat gazed up at the rising sphere, a giant plum ascending to Heaven. Something inside himself was rising too, something as yet unconceived, but that would one day reach a new horizon. Gently he wrapped one arm around the shoulders of his wife, and the other around his daughter. He did not know what tomorrow would bring, but somehow, this was a great relief.

 

The End


House of Rougeaux by Jenny Jaeckel has been compared to recent bestsellers Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and Pacinko by Min Jin Lee. Advance readers and listeners love that it is “historically accurate,” “beautifully written,” “engaging,” and overall, “a wonderful multi-generational family epic.” Don’t miss what Publishers Weekly called  “this rich tapestry of a novel.” To learn more about the audio, digital, and print version of House of Rougeaux visit www.raincloudpress.com or order now.