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Steven Gillis decorative flourish The Crown Upon His Head

Last night as I came upstairs and got ready for bed, my wife woke and asked me, “Are you afraid, Ham?” I stood for a moment in the dark, contemplating her question, assuming her reference was to the trial and what might happen, but when I answered her with this in mind, insisting that I was confident and fearless as all superior men must be—having professed much the same thing to Mindy Patterson as we lay in bed not two hours before—my wife interrupted. “No, not that,” she said. “Are you afraid of me?”

My father, Aaron Pitchmore, once swam the length of Lake Katobi—a distance of nearly one mile—stripped down to his boxers, in late fall when the water had chilled and all the catamarans, sunfish and canoes were docked for winter. The stunt, performed after a wager involving whiskey and tickets to a Shufflin’ Sam Hawkins concert, had my father removing his clothes on the north shore and taking off alone, with no boat to track his progress and pull him in should he struggle and start to go under.

Friends waited on the south side of the lake as my father entered the water just after midnight and reached their shore some fifty-seven minutes later. He was twenty-two, an engineering student at the University of Renton, three years away from marrying my mother and five years from my birth—an otherwise unathletic man, with no appreciable muscle on his narrow frame, underweight and lacking a layer of fat to offset hypothermia as he made his way across the frigid waters of Lake Katobi. When asked why he accepted such a dare and ignored the very real possibility that he’d falter and drown, my father said that he was unconcerned about the risk. “As with all things, it was just a matter of moving forward and not thinking about the distance.”

Tonight we are having a party. My wife believes it’s a bad idea. She says it’s an odd time for us to be entertaining, but I’m of the opinion that we should put up a strong front.

I’ve decided on a medieval theme and select a king’s garments for my costume: the robe regal and warm, the stockings for my legs purple and sheer, the crown set on the back of my head and over my balding patch—six prongs of gold surprisingly heavy. My remaining hair is silver and black, my belly large and round as stone, hidden beneath a dark red t-shirt and the broad belt of my vestment.

My wife wears a gown of silk, put together like Salome and her veils. The colors I’ve chosen for her are green, yellow and blue, purple and gold, the sashes collected and pinned to cover her hips and legs, crisscrossing over her breasts, revealing more than an ample hint of bosom. She will be the party’s queen, still handsome in her middle years, her features fine and barely lined.

As we dress, my wife is concerned that I will drink too much and begin to rant, and asks me to promise not to turn the party into a rally. I assure her, “These are our friends. I don’t have to convince them,” but as she’s brought the subject up, I go on to remind her, “I’m not to blame for anything. There’s nothing I’ve done which is the least bit unscrupulous.” She doesn’t argue, is a kind woman and never complains nor shies away when I ask her to be photographed with me as my attorneys address the media. Her support is unconditional, and yet, as with all things surrendered absolutely, there’s more a sense of obligation than passionate conviction; her devotion is blind, like a sad tic one can’t seem to get rid of. I suppose I shouldn’t fault her for this, should be grateful and understanding that if the interplay between us has cooled after twenty-six years of marriage, two children, three dogs, five cats and several interludes of indiscretion, I’m the one who has taken our love and run it through a blender.

My father founded Pitchmore Electronics in 1963. I was eleven, a large boy with chunky limbs and enormous feet into which I feared I would never grow. (My mother was large as well, yet quite agile and graceful and promising of what I could become.) Before the first of my father’s patents made us rich and we moved across town to Ashton Heights where the houses were grand and painted brightly, we lived in an apartment above Devine’s Hardware. My father taught math at Etchbrook Middle School, a vocation which suited his needs. His decision to reject offers from several major corporations after earning his master’s in engineering enabled him to focus on projects of his choosing.

His personal passion was electromagnetics. ("If you can imagine it, Hamilton, you can create it.”) Working before and after school, relying on friends at the University for use of equipment, conducting research at the library and experiments in borrowed labs, my father toiled this way for several years. His goal was to revamp existing theories in the electromechanical brake, improving the magnetic field by altering the charge in the solenoid, revolutionizing the brake’s effectiveness in the process. After many attempts, my father finally managed to get his idea just right, was issued a patent and immediately entered into licensing agreements with major car, train and airplane manufacturers for a generous annual fee.

A year after opening Pitchmore Electronics, my father struck gold a second time, was instrumental in developing the first cassette recording tape. (Here again the engineering involved magnetic fields, quantifying and reconfiguring the correct amount of electrical impulses from sound to tape and back again.) In partnership with Phillips Co. of the Netherlands, the patent was put in Phillips’ name, but my father received a substantial sum for his contribution along with a three-percent interest in all future sales of blank and recorded tape using the Phillips method. To my father then—as creator—I pour myself a drink and propose a toast. ("Hallow, hallow, hallow!") As progeny, I eventually inherited his business, where I demonstrated a knack for turning a profit.

In 1996 I took Pitchmore public, expanded our holdings, developed a broader manufacturing line and entered into deals with dozens of overseas markets. Under my rule, P.E. grew exponentially. I was able to accomplish things my father never imagined. My success came by way of having the courage to do for our business whatever was needed. With research and development an intrinsically expensive proposition, forever putting red on our ledgers as we bet against P.E.’s future, I learned how to offset lagging debts with a series of loans. All of this was very legal, and only later did I begin exploring ways to keep the value of Pitchmore stock high until our newest products took flight. In 2002, I described certain loans in our financial accounts as sales of equity Pitchmore held in Madrid and Nigeria. My intention was at worst a bit of smoke and mirrors—if only everyone had kept their cool. But then Mark Swarnik got anxious and alerted Howard Delaney, who dumped his stock, and when three of our new inventions didn’t work as they were supposed to, what could I do but sell some of my own shares and not take the hit on my shoulders?

For our party we’ve invited one hundred guests. My wife has outdone herself in the preparation, has hired a professional planner who redecorated our downstairs in keeping with our theme. Dozens of silver chalices are filled with ale and wine, ornate bowls of fruit overflowing, trays of cheese and bread, poached eggs and mutton. The staff is dressed as knaves and knights, stable boys and lieges; the waitresses wear the skimpiest of uniforms—peasant girls and courtesans, milkmaids and harlots. The invitations we sent out gave our guests the option of wearing costumes as well, and many arrive in full regalia.

I hear the cars in the drive and come downstairs shortly after eight. My wife has engaged a band to play what she believes is medieval music and people dance a bit or stand about with their drinks and listen. We live in a large house on the east side of the city. With the children gone—Alison is twenty, a student at Dartmouth, Rick twenty-four and in Kampala, trying to find himself, as it were—the house feels that much more enormous. Having six bedrooms and five baths and so many square feet to wander through, my wife and I can go entire evenings without running into one another.

I mingle among my guests, the green slippers on my feet allowing me to glide across the wood and marble floors. Jerzi Walnush greets me with a hug, his hairy arms jutting out from the sleeves of his false armor. His wife, Helina, is done up in pink leotards and a cone shaped wizard’s hat. (I’ve no idea what she’s supposed to be, and don’t ask.) She presents me with a false kiss, her lips coming within three inches of my cheek where she makes a strange sound—"Mmwwaww.”—and pulls away quickly. My wife dances with Dan Kehanak. Mindy Patterson gives me the eye from across the hall. I go into the den, thinking she will follow, but instead it’s her husband who comes to find me.

Dave is a tall man with an eagle’s beak extruding from the center of his face and eyes like mood rings from the 1970s which turn bright or dark depending on his mood. A podiatrist, Dave owns a chain of outlets—I don’t know what else to call them—where people come to have their bunions, callouses and warts surgically lasered, frozen or scraped away for a fee set on the high end of whatever insurance companies allow. He’s wealthy enough for the work he does, and still he’s angry with me for not tipping him off about Pitchmore. “You should have warned me something was up,” he complains. I shake my head and tell him, “If anything you should be thanking me, Dave, for keeping your nose clean. So you lost a few bucks. If I had tipped you off and you sold short, where would you be now but knee deep in trouble?” I make my point and say no more, mentioning none of the people I did alert. I ask him, “How’s Mindy?”

There is a picture in the den of my father and mother out in a rowboat on Lake Katobi. Shadows cast from the shoreline sparkle across the water. My mother is in a red and yellow flowered sundress, bare-sleeved, her hair tied back, seated in the rear of the boat as my father mans the oars. A white bird flies through the air. The surface of the lake is green glass, and the sun and six cumulus clouds are painted in reflection. My father has on a pale blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up, his thinning hair combed forward. Both my parents appear happy, the expression on their faces captured pleasantly by the camera. The largeness of my mother beside my father’s smaller frame gives the picture an amusing look that delights me every time I see it.

My wife does not like the water. When we go to the beach, or on trips taken as a family to France, Bermuda and the Caribbean, she dresses as if to do battle, with a large hat surrounded by dark veiled netting, sunglasses and loose-fitting slacks and shirts with plastic buttons. In the lobby of our hotels, however, at the bars and decks and cabanas, I encourage her to be more liberal in her appearance. “For me,” I say, and so she peels off these layers and walks shyly about in bathing suits laced together by strings.

At home, the physical contact we share has become less and less frequent—familiarity and age diminishing my interest—while on our trips we approach one another with a renewed spirit I know secretly borders on desperation. I find in the feelings I have for my wife such a mix of hope and sorrow as to leave me completely baffled, and wonder now if all of life is supposed to be this way, a constant battle against erosion.

By ten the party has picked up steam. I’m well into my third drink and enjoying myself a good deal. (Naturally convivial, I’m told that I will make a strong witness, capable upon direct examination of appearing earnest, charming and forthright, and at cross-examination of smiling off even the most incriminating of assertions.) The lilt of mandolins and fifes fill the house through a series of speakers, while men gather in different rooms and talk above the music. Some of the men work for me, others own companies, serve on boards, invest their fortunes by buying and selling whatever has value at the moment. Their conversations tonight bear energy and purpose, everyone eager to discuss my case, determined to vouch for my innocence, knowing how much we’re all in practice birds of a feather. “The government can’t have it both ways.” Jeffrey Fastow jabs at the air with nubby fingers, dressed for some reason in formal attire, a dark tuxedo with red bow tie set beneath his jowls and a checkered cumberbun stretched around his middle. “They expect us to keep the economy going and then they come after Hamilton here with trumped-up charges.”

“What point are they trying to make?”

“So a deal or two went south,” Ben Lawrence pipes in. “Is it against the law?”

“Hell no.”

“What’s wrong with reporting favorable expectations in a prospectus? You don’t enter a transaction thinking it’ll go bust.”

“What did they want him to put down?” Howard Joseph nods at Richard Skilluns and Casy Michaels.

“The loans were listed.”

“Just because the government can’t make sense of the records doesn’t mean there’s anything criminal.” David Koppler in a jester’s suit, complete with bells on his hat and mismatched leggings of orange and green, bobs his head at the others. I walk from one room to the next, cheered by each new group as I arrive, patted on the back and told not to worry, that the case against me won’t hold up and, “The government has nothing.”

“God damn SEC.”

“What’s the problem with friends talking business?”

“Old Hamilton here was just looking out for us.”

“The man deserves a medal.”

I come from the library where Andy Boyle is organizing a list of those willing to serve as character witnesses. The gesture touches me and I walk with confidence back through the main hall, toward the dining room for a plate of cheese and meat. Halfway there I spot Scottie Krautz and wave at him, breaking into a grand march with my crown pitched high, my arms cocked and knees raised skyward. A man standing by the front door watches me and draws my attention. I don’t recognize him. He’s small with white-blond hair combed flat to one side; his hands hold a black fedora, and his grey suit is drab enough to appear an imperfection in a room full of color. I doubt from his appearance that he’s someone’s spouse I’ve yet to meet, and dropping my hands and legs back to a normal stride, I decide he must be with the caterers and has come to pick up a check. The prospect draws me out of my good mood. My wife is supposed to handle these matters. Holding up one finger, I signal the man to stay put while I go get her.

Before my father died, he supported my efforts to expand Pitchmore’s place in the market, though he cautioned me constantly to remember, “The laws of physics are identical to the rules of finance. Too much charge only creates static.”

I walk back through the house but can’t find my wife. The crown on my head has found a comfortable spot and doesn’t slide about as I move from room to room. My robe is heavy, and feeling warm I stop after a minute for a fresh drink, only to find as I turn around that the man is following me. This time I approach him at once, annoyed by his audacity, the impudence of this hireling. I specifically told him to wait.

“See here.” I sound firm. “I asked you to stay by the door. I’m trying to find my wife. She’ll take care of you.” I sip off the top of my drink, consider offering the man a whiskey to show what a good sport I am, but the idea seems unnecessary as I’ve no need to care what he thinks. “Is there a bill?” I say, wishing to take the paperwork to my wife. After a slight pause, the man replies, “There is a bill, Mr. Pitchmore.”

“Well then.” I’ve lost patience, am already looking toward Sheila Rice dressed in a milkmaid’s outfit, the costume cut low across her chest, the skirt designed to flatter her legs and shapely bottom. When I glance at the man again he’s holding a piece of paper. I snatch away it away and point him toward the kitchen. “Wait there,” I say and walk off.

My wife is in the solarium when I finally find her, the glass walls inviting the moonlight. The band is three rooms down and has switched at last to playing real music, a sampling of Brubeck followed by a soft jazz rendering of “Papa was a Rolling Stone.” Speakers pipe the music in. Other guests wander through the solarium. I expect my wife to be holding court, but instead she’s standing near the front window with Dan Kehanak. I pause for a moment in the doorway, watching my wife as she smiles at something Kehanak has said. The sight of them together troubles me in a way I don’t expect. Dan is a drone and nothing like me, a salaried employee at P.E., an accountant who balked at helping me adjust our financial sheets—“The risk isn’t worth it, Ham.”—yet loyal when the buzzards swarmed, explaining away certain discrepancies in the government’s evaluation of Pitchmore’s finances. I like Kehanak well enough, though I feel now it will be for the best if sometime next week I fire him.

“Your majesty.” Jim Fornie bows with half-drunk humor as I enter the room. I roll my hand at the wrist, acknowledging and dismissing him in one motion as I approach my wife. Perhaps it’s the mix of soft light and shadow, but she looks several years younger as I draw near, almost a girl again. I hold the sheet of paper out, waving it a bit while saying, “Your caterer insists on being paid.”

“What’s that, Hamilton?”

I hand the bill to my wife. “He’s been following me around all night,” I feel a need to add this embellishment. My wife reads the paper while informing me, “I paid the caterers already.”

“Well you obviously forgot something.”

“But this isn’t a caterer’s bill,” she brings the sheet up closer to her eyes, examines it once again then passes it not to me but to Kehanak, who studies the numbers for a moment until I take the paper from him and read it myself for the first time. Ten seconds later I’m back in the hall, my green slippers sliding beneath me, absent traction despite how hard I pound the floor. People call out as I pass, my guests gathered in costume and more ordinary attire staring as I rush toward the kitchen. The man isn’t there, has gone back to the front of the house, is standing off to the side, silently observing the festivities taking place around him. I skid along the marble, spilling my drink and nearly bowling over a waitress carrying a tray of deviled eggs and caviar. The piece of paper is held out in before me as I bark, “What’s the meaning of this?”

“It’s what you owe me,” the man calmly answers.

I take a step back, set down my drink and adjust my crown. Guests mingling about now watch me closely while others—including my wife and Kehanak—gather along the wall. My inclination is to throw the man out, use my advantage of weight and height to physically remove him, but with everyone there, I laugh as best I can and grab for his elbow, catching hold of his sleeve while insisting he follow.

I pace us back through the hall, my velvet robe flowing and my red shirt rising and falling over my belly as we enter the den. I shoo everyone out. The man turns as I release him and I stuff the bill inside his suit pocket, demanding to know, “Who put you up to this?”

“You did, Mr. Pitchmore.”

“I did?”

“If you’d like to check the numbers.”

“Check them against what?”

“I assure you they’re correct.” The light in the den causes my shadow to fall across the photograph of my parents in their rowboat on Lake Katobi. The man sets his hat on the desk, removes the bill of fare from his pocket and smooths it out. “Twenty-nine years,” he says. “That’s how long I’ve been with Pitchmore. Back when your father first opened the plant. We were on South Riverton then, a little shop making illuminant digital clocks.”

“Yes, yes,” I roll my eyes. “I don’t need a history lesson. I’m Hamilton Pitchmore, remember.”

“You are.” The man slides the paper closer to where I’m standing beside the desk. Printed on the sheet is a name and address followed by a brief job description. As far as I can tell, the man was laid off when we closed the southside plant as a consequence of P.E.’s recent financial troubles. The numbers tallied represent lost wages, pension and stocks in Pitchmore. “If you could pay me then.”

“Enough of that.”

“It’s no more than what you owe me,” the man repeats. I pick up the paper again, and indignant, accuse him of extortion. “What are you trying to pull? If you think you have a legal claim, go ahead and sue me. If not, you’re trespassing. Your demands are illegal.” The irony of my protest causes the man to smile. Incensed, I straighten my back and throw out my chest. The cuffs of my robe are large sections of fur which shake over my wrist and half my hand as I toss the paper down on the desk and order him to leave.

“It’s a fair figure,” he says, ignoring my demand.

I feel my face grow red, and reaching once more I crumble the paper into a ball and fling it at the man’s feet. “Are you insane? Fair is what Pitchmore has already paid you for your services. You had no problem spending twenty-nine years working for P.E., taking your paycheck twice a month along with the raises and bonuses I generously gave you, living without a worry while I dealt with all the risks, and yet when things don’t go perfectly your way, when in the natural course of business there’s a momentary hiccup, you come crying with your hand out and insist I owe you more. This you call fair?”

The door to the den is opened again, my wife with Kehanak beside her, others behind them watching. Despite the awkwardness of it all, I feel encouraged by their presence, convinced my guests will agree with me and find the man’s intrusion unacceptable—the odd look on my wife’s face notwithstanding—and here I turn back to the man and say, “What is it you think I owe you, exactly? Your pension? But how is that my fault? If and when the plant reopens and we decide not to move manufacturing overseas, the chance for you to earn your benefits will be restored. As for the money you claim to have lost on your stocks, no one held a gun to your head. No one said you had to buy.”

The man steps back from where I tossed the paper, and without raising his voice to match my own, reframes his charge as a more specific contention. “What has happened you could have stopped.”

I spin around, my green toes curled and chin jutting out, a hand on my head to set my crown securely. “Is that what this is about? You think I cheated you?” I purposely step on the paper as I stride past. “Where do you get off accusing me of anything? Look at me. I paid for your life! Do you understand? You work for me! I’m a self-made man while you’re nothing more than someone tethered to my tail. Your charges against me are nonsense. Your losses are not my fault. Now I am telling you for the last time to take your complaints and get out.”

The man doesn’t move at first, and only after a moment does he go to the desk and pick up his hat and place it on his head. He stares at the picture of my parents for several seconds then turns once more to face me. “Your father used to say the same thing, Mr. Pitchmore. Did you know that? He’d come down to the plant in the late afternoon, once a month or so, always with a beverage for the boys and everyone glad to see him. Even after P.E. grew, after your mother passed and your father got ill, he still came down though it was hard on him then. A man is made by his own doings, he used to say. Yes sir, Mr. Pitchmore, there’s no getting around the fact.” He doesn’t linger after this, exits the den and walks through the crowd.

Typically, I’m not the sort to be suckered by sentiment or any argument meant to bait me, but there are times when the imperativeness of taking a stand can’t be questioned and reason must be weighed by a different criterion. No sooner is the incident in the den resolved than I want only to put such foolishness aside and throw myself back into the party. As king, I intend to command everyone to dance, to have the music changed again to something more lively, to kick about with Mindy and my wife, with Sheila Rice and even one of the waitresses who is sure to blush at her majesty’s demands as we perform an inspired two-step. Instead, I see my wife in the hall staring at me, posting looks of judgement, questioning my outburst, leaving me no choice but to answer the man’s last charge with disavowal.

I rush from the den and back up the hall, catching the man as he’s halfway through the entrance. “Wait,” I shout. The music in the house has stopped and everyone is gathering near the foyer to hear what will happen next. I look toward my wife, who’s watching me cautiously. The others, too, all eager to hear what I’ll say. I laugh uneasily and try to keep from shouting, though the second I start my tone goes sour and I’m bellowing much as before. “You want to tell me about my father, is that it? You think the apple has fallen far from the tree, is that what you’re saying? Because I don’t bring you beer and cookies, refuse to coddle you and put you above the demands of my business, you consider me cold-hearted. Of course, you ignore the fact that P.E. grew under my watch, not my father’s. The bonuses you earned, the stock you could have sold for profit were entirely my doing. My father’s virtues served P.E. well for a time, but my strengths,” I say, then stop suddenly, realizing all further talk is simply that. Still intent on making my point, I step past the man and walk outside.

I march out to the drive where my guests’ cars are parked in the oval and down along the street. The first of the three valets hired for the party is dressed as a peasant in felt shoes and brown shirt. I point toward the road and tell him, “Bring me a car!" Uncertain, the boy hesitates, forcing me to go to the board and grab a set of keys which I toss at him. “A car, a car!" I shout, my robe riding up on my shoulders, the fur about the collar moving in the breeze. Nearly everyone has come outside by then, and seeing me signalling them as I rush toward a blue Lexus, they hurry to the board as well, find their keys and chase after their host.

The drive to Lake Katobi takes less than twenty minutes, the roads at this hour all but empty, the caravan behind me creating a tail of lights in my rearview mirror. In order to fit behind the wheel, I have to slide the seat back and remove my crown. I leave the main road and turn down dirt paths to the shore, parking on the grass and climbing out of the car, I put the crown back on. The night is clear, neither cool nor warm but calm, the moon overhead large and white as a dove’s tail. I undo my robe and lay it flat on the stones by a birch tree, kick off my green slippers and roll down my tights. I debate leaving on my red undershirt, but when the others arrive and park some twenty feet away, keeping their headlights glowing so the lake glistens like sheer green glass, I bare my belly and chest and stand before them in my boxer shorts and crown.

My wife is there with Dan Kehanak. I can see her as I turn to face the lights, though I have to put my hand up above my eyes to block the glare. The man in the grey suit has arrived as well, standing off to the side and separate from the others who’ve gathered around my wife. I stare up, completely confident and pleased by the cleverness of my plotting, how this will prove once and for all that I’m a superior man, cut from a particular cloth and not to be challenged or treated with irreverence.

I set my crown at my feet and enter the water. The temperature is cold and I have to move quickly so as not to turn back. Despite my size I’m a strong swimmer, having exercised in this way at many private pools in recent years. I believe my girth will insulate me against the chill. Fifty yards out, I find the stars overhead dotting the surface of the lake. I picture my wife on shore and hope she is happy. I turn my head and see the grey suited man walking along the far side of the lake, following my progress. What folly, I curse, the way superior men must constantly prove themselves to others. A hundred yards out my breathing starts to strain and the lights from shore vanish. I tell myself to relax, that I will bob and float until I get my second wind. The water turns dark and colder as I slip under for a second time, surfacing with a gasp and barely able to make out the lights on the opposite shore where people have gone to await my arrival. That little man. (“That little man!” I think.) Who will ever forgive him?

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Steven Gillis lives in Ann Arbor with his wife, Mary, and children Anna and Zach, and teaches writing and literature at Eastern Michigan University. Steve’s first novel, Walter Falls, was named a finalist for both ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year and The Independent Publishers’ Book of the Year Award, Literary Fiction. It was the only novel to appear on both lists. Steve’s second novel, The Weight of Nothing, will be published in January 2005 and has already been named a Hot 2005 Title. After playing the “starving artist” for many years, working at everything from driving a cab to selling athletic shoes, a bookstore clerk and a sundry of day laborer jobs, all the while finding time to write, Steve graduated from the University of Michigan and wound up at the University of San Francisco Law School. While practicing labor law in DC and then Michigan, Steve continued to write in the wee hours of the morning and late at night, and has at long last put himself in a position to write nearly full-time. Discussions are in the works for turning Walter Falls into a film. Steve is currently working on a new novel, “Temporary People” and has a second screenplay in development. Steve is also the founder of 826 Michigan, a mentoring program for kids 6-18 years of age, and a sister program to David EggersŐ 826 Valencia. When not working, Steve loves to run, read and watch his kids on their swimming and diving teams. He may be contacted at barkingman@aol.com or 826michigan.org.