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Amalie in Orbit

Excerpt from Chapter One

When Amalie Price came home from job hunting, she found her seventeen-year-old son Charlie sitting naked in the apartment kitchen and talking on the phone.

He threw a dishtowel over his parts and waved. “. . . and if the weight of Mount Washington equals the mass times the velocity, there’s no reason why you couldn’t transport it to the moon.” He covered the mouthpiece, “How did it go?”

“Sorry, Mission Control,” she said, placing herself directly in front of the fan. “I didn’t take off.” Never mind the smooth reentry. The job counselor who interviewed her didn’t appear to be any older than Charlie. He told her that some companies actually liked to hire older employees. And why not? Amalie thought. They make good office pets and don’t agitate for unionization. But since when is forty “old”?

“Hey, look at that sky!” Charlie hung up and rushed to the window, dropping the dishtowel along the way.

“Charlie, I know it’s summer, but please . . .”

“Oh wow, the sunset!” Because of New York’s unique pollution, there were streaks of color over New Jersey. He rushed into his room and came out wearing a pair of torn denim shorts. “I’m taking the bike out. You better check the answering machine. You got a million calls about the tenant demo.”

Charlie was out the door before she could tell him to take his helmet. He refused to wear it because he claimed it suffocated the hair follicles. But suppose he got hit by a taxi? Amalie never worried this much about him while Stewart was alive.

Reluctantly she listened to messages on the machine, most from nervous tenants and a couple from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Amalie had inherited the job of head of the building’s tenants committee from Stewart. The building was slated for demolition but she was hoping that it could still be saved. Stewart had known every inch of the facade, every cherub and mythical animal, all the bearded, horned, and cowled gargoyles on the cornices. He was always looking up, pointing out, instructing. You bastard, she thought, leaving me with this mess. And no insurance, no nothing. I have to compete with twenty-one-year-old Barnard girls for jobs.

Amalie was still fuming over her visit to the employment agency. The smug interviewer had shaken his head as he looked at her résumé. “You’ve been out of the market so long, Amalie. This is 1987. There’s new technology. I see you didn’t complete our application. How am I supposed to file you?”

“This reminds me of Kafka,” Amalie said.

“Yes, I know the agency. They’re real sticklers.” He offered her a melting Tootsie Roll from a basket. “But you know, even a person like yourself has a lot to offer and might liaise well with the public.” Then he had the gall to offer her some advice: “Add a touch of color when you go out for an interview. All black is too depressing.”

“So is death, you punk,” she said and walked out.

In the kitchen, the papaya that Charlie bought for his fruitarian dinner was emitting its enzyme-packed effluvia, stinking up the room. He refused to refrigerate it, waiting for it to ripen naturally. (He also would not keep house plants, forswearing anything bred in captivity, though he made an exception for an ivy that was supposed to be the offspring of a cutting from a plant owned by Albert Schweitzer.) The papaya was ripening like something from a horror movie. Amalie could swear that it swelled with its own juices when left alone at night on top of an enamel counter. Fissures appeared overnight, stains oozed on the wall behind it. Still, she preferred having it here in the kitchen than in Charlie’s room which Amalie regarded as the lost civilization of Atlantis. It was company of a sort, especially with Charlie out of the house. Something alive...