Magic And Grace

Magic And Grace



The year of Gibb Chapman’s second great accomplishment was the same year his wife decided she didn’t want to live with him anymore. Strangely, the two events were connected. Yin and yang with a bullet, as Gibb later called it. On his last normal day, the final day of Gibb’s seemingly perfect life, they had a date to meet for lunch at the beach, at a picnic table under tall pine trees. Gibb arrived first and lay atop the hard wood, staring up at the crowns of trees as they cut through cumulus clouds floating in from the Gulf of Mexico. He had never lost his childhood fondness for the lazy habit of cloud-watching. The air grew still, in that odd way it does when someone is nearby but not yet seen, and Gibb sat up to greet Laura. Because it was a workday, his wife wore the uniform of the successful attorney—dark blue suit, starch-white shirt, no-nonsense shoes (but with a decent heel). She’d skipped the nylons, as she almost always did—a subtle touch that Gibb found terribly erotic. Laura stepped awkwardly through the sand in those shoes, her normally full lips now a thin line of determination, and Gibb wondered why she didn’t just go barefoot. “Hi, kid,” he said. “I nearly fell asleep, it’s such a beautiful day.” Behind silver Ray-Bans, Laura said nothing. “I made you a sandwich,” he said, reaching into a cooler beneath the table. He pulled out a ham and cheese for his wife, a beer for himself. Laura unwrapped her sandwich but did not take a bite. “You okay?” said Gibb. She nodded. “Then how has your day been so far?” “Always the same,” she said. “Lots of pissed off people. Anger keeps me in business.” “That’s a pleasant thought,” Gibb said, sipping his beer. “Take a swim with me. It’ll make you feel better.” His wife laughed, not a friendly laugh. “I wish,” she said. Gibb looked at Laura and squinted, trying to decipher this mood she was in. Eventually, he took off his shirt and shoes and trotted to the surf. When he returned, dripping and sandy, Laura held his towel, as she almost always did, and dried his neck and chest. This ritual they often performed on each other—after swims, showers, and baths. It was one of the casually intimate treats of their long relationship. But this time Laura touched him without really touching—a sort of clinical pat down—as if she were dabbing blood. Gibb shivered at the feeling. “I have to get back now,” she said, her sandwich uneaten, and Gibb followed her to her car, parked next to his in the lot of crushed shells. They kissed just once—their habit was to peck three times—and Laura got in to drive off. But at the exit to the main road, her car paused. Gibb trotted toward her for the last two kisses, getting close enough for the sweet exhaust to sting his nostrils, when Laura pulled away onto Gulfshore Boulevard and south, in the direction of her office. Bits of shell flung by her tires peppered his shins. Then she really put her foot into it, the burst of speed shooting her up and over the bridge and out of sight. And at that moment Gibb knew, without knowing how he knew, that there was big trouble ahead. Oh, bloody hell, he thought.

Three months ago he wouldn’t have believed it. He was living the life of his dreams. What Keats Would Do, the novel he’d been rewriting since college, was finally published and had just been released, to decent reviews and a flurry of publicity from his publisher. Initial sales were brisk. Laura seemed as thrilled as Gibb, and they celebrated like newlyweds on New Year’s Eve. When Gibb finally held his first copy, he cracked the spine and sniffed the pages. This was, to him, the smell of success. If he did nothing else with the rest of his life, he had already taken the prize. “It’s almost like being a Beatle,” he whispered to his wife. There was a book tour and there were readings. There were trips and interviews and parties. Lots of parties and lots of drinks. There were claps on the back and cow-eyed women who slipped him scraps of paper with their cell phone numbers. Though Gibb never called them, they did make him smile. For the first few weeks of the tour, he had Laura by his side, which was exactly how he wanted it. This time of their lives belonged to them both, of course. She put her law practice on hold to play author’s wife and sat patiently through his readings and signings, their daughter often asleep in her lap. Asia was three and was Gibb and Laura’s first great accomplishment. (“This is the most important thing we will ever do,” Laura had said, when she was handed their brand new baby girl, and Gibb, suddenly unable to speak, had nodded his agreement.) But the late nights and plane trips were too hard on a child, and finally Laura told Gibb she would have to return with their daughter to Florida. Surprising himself, Gibb did not protest. The truth was that he’d grown tired of leaving parties early to put a child to bed, and he definitely got more attention when wife and daughter were not around. So he saw Laura and Asia to a plane, kissed and squeezed them both, and got back to the business of being a literary sensation. At a publisher’s party in New York one night, Gibb chatted and danced with his agent, Myna Silver. They took turns fetching champagne and toasting each other. He was now her very favorite author, she told him, and by the end of the evening they were huddled on a sofa, fingertips close to touching. There was talk of her apartment being closer than his hotel (though Gibb didn’t think it was), and why didn’t he just stay over? She had a daybed in her guestroom. But Gibb never saw the daybed or the guestroom; he spent the night in bed with Myna. It was the first time in his life he had ever been unfaithful. Though he felt guilty when he got back to Florida—back to Laura and to Asia—he didn’t make it known. In fact, he didn’t change much at all, though he was not stupid enough to sleep with anyone else so close to home, if he had been at all inclined. He spent his afternoons drinking martinis and answering emails from fans (Myna had set up for him a “Gibb Chapman” website, and it got dozens of hits a day). Sometimes he forgot Asia’s lunch until she whined to remind him, or he left her in front of videos for hours. When Laura got home late, he would order (instead of cook) their dinner. It should have been plain to Gibb that something was about to break, and that only he could prevent it. The evening of that day at the beach, he had a few drinks, checked his book sales, and called Myna Silver. When Laura arrived, she could not find their daughter. “Jesus, Gibb,” she said, “she’s barely three years old.” “I can’t watch her every minute,” he said. “I’m sure she’s just hiding somewhere.” Laura looked at the empty glass on his desk and looked in his eyes. “You’ve changed, Gibb,” she said. “When Asia was a baby, you never let her off of your lap, much less out of your sight. Now it’s like you don’t even care. Can you be bothered to help me find her?” “Laura...” Gibb began.

They didn’t have to look hard. When Asia emerged from around a corner, Gibb choked back a laugh. She’d found Laura’s make-up and painted her face, arms and legs. Under her clothes she appeared painted too. But Laura wasn’t laughing. She looked at Gibb and threw up her hands. “I wish you’d never published that goddamn book,” she said. “What’s that got to do with this?” Gibb said, his voice rising a notch. But Laura had walked away from him. “Nice to have your support,” said Gibb to her back. “It’s a good thing Myna’s behind me.” Laura turned with a fury, almost bumping into Gibb. “She’s your agent,” she said. “You pay her and she’s nice to you.” “No one paid her to sleep with me,” Gibb said, the words spoken aloud making his ears burn hot. And then Laura punched him flush in the mouth. Very quietly she announced, “I knew that already, you prick.”

Laura and Gibb first met, ten years before, at a library book sale. Gibb once believed this meant their life together would have the qualities of a fine story. (He had always thought of his own life in book terms, with chapters and characters and plot twists and complications.). It was mid-May, when the bulk of the tourists and winter residents had already gone north, pushed out by the subtropic swelter of the long Florida summer, and the locals got their town and their diversions back—the amateur art fairs, jazz and reggae jams on the beach, and lazy outdoor book bazaars. For its semi-annual purging, the downtown branch of the Naples Public Library had set up rows of folding tables beneath the twisting banyan trees, charging a nominal buck a book. Gibb, winding around tables and examining spines, had picked up a couple of real finds—a hardcover of e e cummings and a battered old coffee-table volume of prints of tropical birds. But when he went to pay for them, he realized he had left his wallet in his car. “Could I leave these right here for a minute?” he asked the woman who was collecting dollar bills and placing them in a metal box. “I’m afraid not,” she said. “We can’t hold books. It isn’t fair to the others.” “I’ll be right back,” Gibb said. “Look, you can see my car from here.” Pinch-lipped, the woman shook her head. Nope. “Oh, my,” was all Gibb could think to say, and he set the books on the edge of the nearest book table and walked to the car for his billfold. When he got back the books were gone. He looked around, thinking perhaps someone (like maybe the tight-fanny at the money table) had already put them back, in their proper Dewey-Decimal places, but he was wrong. His books were in someone else’s arms. “Excuse me,” he said, tapping gently on the back of a woman’s shoulder. “But I think you picked up my books by mistake.” The woman turned, and Gibb sucked a breath and blinked. He blinked again. He would later say that he had been rearranged by his first look at her: the shoulder-length hair so brown it seemed to swallow light, the perfect skin tea-colored by the sun, the eyes that crumpled at the edges in an expression of private amusement, with irises like fat Greek olives. Damn, he thought. Inside, he melted. “No, there’s no mistake,” she said, her eye crinkles deepening. “I just bought these.” She turned the books, opened them, admiring. “A dollar a piece. Wow.” “I’ll give you twice what you paid for them,” Gibb responded, thinking it was quite possibly the stupidest thing he’d ever said, but when the woman’s blank expression became a smile and then a little pop of a laugh, he knew he’d been had. “You saw the whole...” he began, gesturing over his shoulder at the librarian with the cash box. “And so you took them. Funny.” Laura nodded. And Gibb thought, how cool. There were times, he knew, when it paid to be cautious, when it made sense to worry about rejection or failure, but Gibb did not care if this was one of those times or not. He asked her if she’d like to have dinner

with him that night, and when she said yes, he knew—at some level beneath conscious thought—that the course of his life had just altered dramatically. The next day they made love for the first time after an afternoon of hiking and canoeing at Rookery Bay. At one point on the trail, well away from other hikers, where the only sound was the wind buzzing through sawgrass and pines, they got close and kissed for the first time. Gibb breathed the orangy scent of Laura’s hair and marveled at how neatly their bodies fit together, the solid parts meeting curves, the hard parts finding soft ones. Then Laura asked Gibb, in a relaxed way that didn’t sound silly, “Do you have a favorite bird?” He glanced up at a pair of swallow-tail kites, all perfect slopes and contrasts, an uncommon and stunning sight as they circle-glided without riffling a feather. The birds had floated high above them throughout the day, and now they’d been joined by a third. It wouldn’t be the last thing that Gibb would regard as a symbol of their relationship. “Right now I’d have to say that one,” he said, motioning toward the sky with his head so he didn’t have to take his hands from the small of Laura’s back. Laura nodded, as if she approved of his choice. That evening at Laura’s place outside of town, while Laura worked in the house, Gibb prepared to grill some salmon on the front porch. Sipping a beer, he watched fragile petals dance down like a flaming snowfall from the poinciana tree in the front yard. Somewhere else a wooden wind chime clattered, and Gibb realized that he’d never been more awake. Or more content. He wanted to suck in the feeling and jam a cork in the top so it would never get away. Was this what love felt like? When they fell into bed after midnight, the new lovers were awkward and tentative together. But afterwards, exhausted, they could laugh about it, and they didn’t get out of bed again until well into the day, when their growling stomachs finally forced them out.

“Making love to you is like eating Chinese food,” Gibb once said to Laura in bed, when they had been dating just a few months and still leaked passion. “I think I know where this is going,” Laura said and giggled. “Yep, an hour later I want to do it again.” And they did.

“Are you foolish enough to marry me?” said Gibb one evening, after they had been living together for almost two years. “For my sake, I hope you say yes.” They bought a big old fixer-upper in the oldest part of Naples, and Gibb continued to write and cook their meals. Laura did what lawyers do, making a lot of money in the process—money they used to renovate their home, restoring its original old Florida charm. Busy as they were, they still made love three or four times a week, but for all of their efforts, they could not conceive a child. Laura took this hard, like a personal failing, and they endured the agony of repeated fertility treatments. “The only thing that matters is that we love one another,” Gibb insisted, but some days Laura could not be consoled. Then one Sunday morning, Gibb read about babies in China who needed homes, and he knew he and Laura had found their family. So they traveled to Nanjing and adopted a beautiful baby girl who was found in a box by the Yangtze River, on the grounds of a crowded orphanage. That’s how Asia joined Gibb and Laura’s life, and that’s when life got complicated indeed. While Gibb and Laura still learned the ins and outs of earaches and colic (and the sheer magic of being new parents), Laura’s mother died, and her father gave in to his infirmities. Unable to live alone, Frank had nowhere to go but into Laura and Gibb’s guest house, on

the far side of the pool. And it was on the pool deck, between his new little home and theirs, that Frank would while away the hours, day and night, reading sports magazines, drinking coffee, and inhaling Marlboros, despite glares and pleas from his daughter and son-in-law to at least consider his grandchild’s lungs, even if he’d written off his own. (As a concession he switched to Marlboro Lights.) Frank’s coughing jags could wake the dead, and—as their neighborhood was rumored to be built atop ancient Calusa burial mounds—Gibb feared he might stumble upon a ghostly pow-wow some night, with Frank and the Indians enshrouded in smoke, as he slipped out for a moonlit dip. Frank’s coughing spells had another unintended effect. They alerted all within sniffing distance that Frank had become incontinent too, so now when Gibb emptied the trash, he disposed of an extra load of diapers. Perhaps worst of all, the phlegmy racket from the pool deck drifted up and into Gibb and Laura’s bedroom, and often formed the background sound to their Sunday afternoon lovemaking. At first they giggled, but eventually Gibb threatened to drown the old man. But instead, he bought earplugs for two. Then What Keats Would Do found its publisher, and their lives changed again, in ways they would not have imagined those first heady years of their intoxication with each other.

It took six stitches to close the gash in his lip where Laura had punched him. Still, the writer in Gibb could appreciate, in a grim sort of way, the irony in the fact that it was the wedding ring he’d given her that had done the damage. That and all of the aerobic boxing classes she took at the gym. Gibb moved out of the house that night and rented a hotel room on the beach, paying for a week up front because he thought it might take at least that long for Laura to cool off (and for his lip to return to its normal size). By the time he’d paid for the second week, he still had not spoken to his wife. He called her at home but got the answering machine (with his own voice talking back at him!) He called her at work but she was forever “taking a meeting,” and he larded her with emails but they were deleted unread. To pass the time he counted beachcombers and gave up counting his drinks. “Bullshit,” he informed Laura’s secretary one morning, and her office stopped taking his calls at all, so he stirred another drink and looked out at the Gulf of Mexico. Laura would love this view, and Asia would pretend to be flying. Man, he wished he were home.

“Sometimes when things start to go to hell, they get there in a hurry,” Gibb would later remark. Almost overnight, sales of What Keats Would Do slowed to a trickle, then dripped and dropped until they stopped altogether. Myna Silver tried to explain. “A certain slowdown is inevitable, after the initial publicity blitz,” she told Gibb over the phone, sounding very much like an agent again, and not at all like his lover. “But this is a little worse than most. No, frankly, it’s a lot worse.” Gibb, his throat dry, his voice raspy, said, “Um, really? Why?” “You okay?” Myna said, not waiting for his answer. “Anyway, it could be any one of a dozen reasons. Let’s face it, the storyline is a bit esoteric, don’t you think? The ghost of a 19th century poet shacking up with a sexually-frustrated bookstore owner? I just don’t know how much of an audience there is for that.” “You said you loved the book when you took it on,” Gibb said. “Yes, well, sometimes even the best agents can be wrong,” she said, laughing. But Gibb didn’t find it funny. “The thing to do now,” his agent went on, “is to put this book behind you and get started on the next one. What’s it going to be about?” “There isn’t going to be a next book,” Gibb said. He listened to the silence on the other end. “Then I would save my money if I were you,” said Myna before she hung up. It was time for another drink. A whole lot of them, in fact.

What Gibb wouldn’t say to Laura’s face he would write in long, careful letters, spending hours constructing and re-reading them. He had just signed off on another (I miss you more every minute, Gibb) when he heard

voices at his door, then a knock. In the hallway stood two smiling men with divorce papers. So officially it was finished, and Gibb stared at the packet resting in his palm as if he had suddenly lost the ability to read. “Have a good day,” said one of the men. When Gibb lunged to grab the front of his shirt, the other man stepped between them. “Be cool, bro’,” he said.

The settlement was a fair one. Laura would keep the house and furnishings—only right—and Dorothy, their golden retriever, because Gibb’s hotel didn’t allow dogs. They would divide their money seventy-thirty, with Laura getting the greater share—again only right. They would split what was left evenly, except for their daughter, because you couldn’t split a beautiful four-year-old girl without severing something vital. So Gibb, feeling numb from the shoulders up, let Asia go too and killed another eight months or so quietly brooding in his luxury suite on the beach, the bills piling up and his hair growing shaggy. He sometimes watched the tourist families splashing in the surf three stories below and wondered if their lives were living up to expectations. One night Gibb got very drunk, drunker even than usual, and he dreamed his limbs were hollow, his skin brittle, like the pages of an ancient book. In his dream he tried to walk but couldn’t on his shaky legs. His teeth snapped off at the gums, leaving brutal red holes, and his hands, as he put them to his face, broke apart and dropped like dust. Then he saw something that shook him more than his own demise. On a chair in the corner of his bedroom sat four-year-old Asia, watching him, her mouth and eyes frozen wide in horror. He tried to tell her that everything was all right, but his lips were too thick and swollen to talk. Gibb awoke with a holler and felt around to make sure all of his parts were still there. Relieved that they were, he would’ve made an exception in the case of his head. It pounded with a concussive ache. Slowly, he felt his way to the bathroom and flicked on the light, taking a first long look at his suddenly sagging physique and bloodshot eyes. He opened the medicine cabinet and pulled out the bottle of Vicodin he’d been refilling since Laura’s right cross, shuffled to the toilet, and let the remaining pills plip plop plip into the water. Before he could think too hard about it he flushed. Then he staggered to the kitchen, pulled the bottles of vodka, gin, and tequila from the shelves and upended them in the sink. The boozy fumes made his knees buckle, and he felt as if he were saying goodbye to a once-trustworthy friend. Back in his bedroom, Gibb opened the sliding glass doors to the sounds of the sea, the reassuring lull and swoosh reminding him of the mornings he and Asia got up early to collect shells. Then he sprawled face-up across the bed and thought he felt the world shift yet again, though he had no idea where it might be headed this time either.

Perhaps going cold turkey wasn’t such a hot idea, Gibb discovered, as he lay shivering in bed late that night. He could not get comfortable or lie still, though he had not left the bed all day. His body felt alive with crawly things, and he tossed and turned until he dozed for a few moments just before dawn. That’s when he sat bolt upright with a bright and crazy notion. If he didn’t like the way this story was turning out (and he most certainly did not), he would go back and revise it. Just like a book. He would rewrite the ending, tossing out what needed to go, cutting what didn’t work, enhancing character (starting with his own), and laying out a different plot. Sure, the idea made sense—he would get back the love of his life and their daughter. Tough as it seemed, it might just work. What did he have to lose by trying? Gibb popped up, too excited now to sleep, and waited eagerly for nine a.m.

The transaction took several hours, but by noon Gibb had bought a house—the house directly across the street from Laura’s house (and his old house). By late afternoon he had moved in, packing most of his possessions in the back of his Jeep. Asia jumped for joy at her daddy’s big surprise, but Laura’s reaction was more subdued. “Are you out of your fucking mind?” she said. “The idea will grow on you,” said Gibb. “You’ll see.” He knew he had to take this slowly. No one asked Frank, who was out by the pool—smoking and coughing and soiling his pants—what he might think.

Despite his ex-wife’s muted enthusiasm, Gibb loved being back in the old neighborhood, with the mahogany canopies that shaded the streets, the overgrown lawns studded with hoary sabal palms, and the neighbors who felt so at home here they often fell asleep in lawn chairs right next to the road. Gibb and Laura’s street, Second Avenue, had always been one of the quietest in Lake Park, where kids could play ball without worrying much about traffic. But best of all, from the curtainless windows of his new home, Gibb could watch Asia chase lizards on her front porch or twist herself in her swing until she let go and spun like a dervish. And from his kitchen window, at night, if he stood on tip-toe and craned his neck just right, he could see into his daughter’s room—the walls still decorated with the bird paintings he’d hung while she watched from her crib. Often, too, he could see Asia herself, propped in bed, a pile of pillows at her back, “reading” her big colorful books and, he hoped, thinking about him. But sometimes these glimpses of his daughter, coming from this distant and silent perspective, were more like the toe of a boot connecting just below his breastbone, and he had trouble catching his breath. She had grown so beautiful this past year without his even noticing.

Back in the old neighborhood, Gibb could again awaken to the roar of lions—another rediscovered joy. When he’d lived with Laura, windows open during the winter and spring, he had never needed an alarm clock. That was because at five a. m., sharp, the three African lions at Caribbean Gardens—father, mother, and cub—would start their ritual huffing in anticipation of a raw lamb shank or beef haunch breakfast. Just a half mile from the house, the animals at the historic attraction could be heard as if they were camped in the yard. In fact, on the stillest mornings, the lions could be heard two or three miles away. After the big cats ate, the monkeys on their islands yodeled and cackled, hurling their screams and bouncing them off of the water in a manner that sounded part avian, part demon—a snooze alarm in case the lions had not roused Gibb sufficiently. And thus the zoo, and Gibb, would rise for another day. He didn’t realize how much he had

missed this wake-up call of the wild. Something he had not missed, however, were his daily encounters with neighbor Jake Mendenhall. Jake was a young guy, a family man, not long out of the Army. He still wore his hair in a buzz cut, worked incessantly on his house and yard, kept his cars spotless, and never blasted his stereo. Calling everyone “sir” or “ma’am” and always wearing a smile, Jake was a perfect gentleman. Gibb would’ve been the first to admit that he couldn’t ask for a better neighbor. But everyone had a dark side, and Jake Mendenhall’s drove Gibb to distraction. The ex-G.I. was an endless source of neighborly cliches. He was remorseless, relentless, and when Gibb and Laura had lived together, Jake lived right next door. No matter how Gibb tried to time his comings and goings, he invariably encountered Jake Mendenhall in front of his house. “Early bird catches the worm, eh, sir?” Jake would say as he left for work each morning. Upon his return he would announce, “Another day, another dollar, isn’t that right, sir?” Gibb would smile and nod and wave. Weekends saw a new but equally painful collection. “Working hard, or hardly working?” would greet Gibb’s every chore, from trimming trees to washing his Jeep. “Ah, just another day in paradise, sir!” And now that Gibb lived across the street, he would be dealing with these wearying epigrams, these tired, broken-down, fingernail-on-the-blackboard, well-intentioned platitudes shouted through kindly Jake Mendenhall’s cupped hands. It might be the first real test of his sobriety, Gibb thought.

Absent its daily dousing with alcohol, Gibb’s brain kicked into overdrive. After the jitters and the cravings died down, he found sobriety a rush in itself. Not feeling completely crappy every morning nearly beat a good buzz, and his neurons popped like rubber bands, shooting through tangles of memories and thoughts. Throughout the day and into the night, he found himself reciting songs, nonsense ditties from a misspent childhood of too much pop culture. Stuff like the Happy Birthday number from the old Winchell Mahoney puppet show, the one where Uncle Paul sings wishes to boys and girls and moms and dads and aunts and uncles and grandmas and grandpas and puppy dogs and kitty cats and box turtles and canaries... (Gibb could carry it on indefinitely, adding Florida creatures)... and gators and egrets and sea cows and seagulls and lizards and giant cockroaches... He sang the ancient commercials for Slinky and Inchworm, Goobers and Raisinets as he walked the beach each dawn and flared his nostrils to breathe in the briney smells. (Strangely, he had not once walked the beach those months when he lived on it.) He sang silly tunes as he rubbed salt sting into his skin and stumbled over washouts while he watched the stars blink out and the sky pinken. Gibb had reclaimed mornings and was slowly reclaiming his mind. This was a start. Now to make up for all the time he had been wasting.

In many ways Gibb was fortunate, but only recently had he begun to note it. He hoped that at least a few people had enjoyed What Keats Would Do, and though he had loved the fleeting attention and notoriety, the money it might have made hadn’t mattered to him (a damned good thing, according to his agent). B.J., his old college roommate and best pal, once called him “the luckiest undeserving bastard on the planet” to have the luxury of being a “dilettante hobbiest,” and Gibb found it hard to argue with him. He didn’t need to

make money writing novels because he didn’t need to make money doing anything. His mother had seen to that some time ago. She was the one who had cursed him with a brain that beckoned ditties, slogans, and nonsense verse, but she had also blessed him with a comfortable, though far from extravagant, income for life. Most people knew of her—though not by name—and encountered her work every day. “Queen of the Jingle” was what Life or Newsweek had called her, and in her time she made quite a bit of money thinking up tag lines, mottos, slogans—whatever she chose to call them—for popular products or unknown products that soon became popular all because of her. She had a real knack, and eventually her oeuvre grew broad, from diapers to detergent to dry champagne. It began innocuously when Penelope Chapman entered a potato chip company’s contest to come up with a new slogan for their chips. Like everything else she did, Gibb’s mother took this task seriously, driving her sputtering Corvair to the neighborhood market to buy every last bag of the chips, hoping, Gibb surmised, to find inspiration through mass association. Or maybe she was just trying to keep her neighbors from getting a crack at the contest. It was 1973, and Gibb was seven years old. He, Penelope, and Gibb Chapman, Sr., lived in St. Louis, Missouri, proud home of the International Bowling Hall of Fame, a solid if dull city where entering a national contest was considered a racy thing to do, even in that relatively racy time (the sixties did not reach Missouri until sometime in the seventies). So his mother sat at the kitchen table, thumping her pencil against the wood, surrounded by a mountain range of potato chip bags, while Gibb sprawled on the floor, letting gravity and the slope of their kitchen send his die-cast cars to careen against the far wall. To sit among unopened snack bags seemed, to him, more than masochism (though of course he didn’t know the word then). No, it was insanity. “Can I have one, Mom, please?” he whined. “No, you’ll ruin your dinner.” “Just one won’t.” “They have no vitamins,” she said. “All I want is one potato chip. Pleeeease?” “You can’t eat just one, and you know it,” she said. She looked up and out the window for just an instant then started to scribble. What she wrote down won the contest and a check for $1,000, the first real money she had ever made. That’s the way she always told the story, at any rate. Glowing from that success, Gibb’s mother entered another contest, this one for a laundry soap, and won that one too. So while both coasts of the United States struggled to find a new center amid social and cultural transition, and the downfall of a President, Gibb and his mother watched game shows and soap operas, waiting eagerly for the commercials so they could hear actresses and actors speak the lines she’d written in that very kitchen. To the young Gibb it was surreal: his mom was famous. By the mid 1970's she was on the payroll of at least three major marketing firms, freelanced for others, and still worked from home, though now their home had changed neighborhoods and gotten much larger, with three storeys and almost ten acres of ground. Among her commercial triumphs that lived to this day were the little man who sells coffee beans from a basket, the beer whose can pops open with the spewing, foamy sound of its brand name, and the soup slogan that’s still printed on the label of every can of liquid sodium that the company pumps out. Gibb’s mother especially delighted in recalling that this last slogan arose from pure irony. Gibb had been with her as she sat in the gleaming kitchen of their new house in the fancy suburb of Webster Groves. She sipped spoonfuls of thin reddish soup from a bowl, her expression pinched, pained— like it sometimes got when she bummed a cigarette and it turned out to be a menthol. “Well, how is it?” Gibb asked, grinning, knowing the answer already. She smiled back at her son, a loving smile, happy with the knowledge that the two of them had shared in this grand joke of a profession from the very beginning. “Mmm, mmm,” she said, holding a spoonful of soup near her face like an actress in one of her

commercials. “This is good food!” Gibb’s father enjoyed his wife’s success, at least early on. When she was Queen of the Jingle, Gibb Senior was—to his son, at any rate—the family’s Tarzan (which also meant, unfortunately, that Gibb Junior became Boy). At the time, Gibb’s father co-owned, with his brother-in-law, a little trophy and engraving shop within sniffing distance of the Busch Brewery in a dreary downtown district. The shop sold mostly bowling trophies (what else, in St. Louis?), with the occasional statuette for an amateur billiards champ or some pillar of constancy who’d spent fifty years working for the same company. By the time Gibb’s mother had won her umpteenth contest and been put on retainers by several Madison Avenue marketing firms, the trickle of money into the house from her hobby had became a steady flow. Gibb’s father worked after-hours to create a special trophy just for her. It was a gold-skinned woman in jungle garb, holding what appeared to be a head of cabbage in the air like the head of a vanquished opponent. The cabbage was the closest Gibb Senior could come to simulating a fistful of cash and was the obvious focal point of the piece. Gibb remembered that his mother started to laugh when she saw it and then abruptly stopped. Gibb Senior once explained to his son the simple and sound financial philosophy that guided any decent family man. At thirty years old, he was to be earning at least $30,000 a year; at forty, it was $40,000 and so on until, by the time he retired, he should be pulling down at least sixty-five grand per annum, a damned decent wage, Gibb’s father emphasized. If he did all that, a man was a success in the eyes of his family and his community. Anything less, and his life had been a waste of breath. Gibb Senior, however, plateaued well below the second notch, while Penelope Chapman shot right past it, and one morning when he was thirtyeight, he grabbed a sturdy vine and lit out from the Queen of the Jingle and his boy. It was the first time Gibb had seen his mother cry, and for a while he worried that she might never stop. How long it took for his mother to quit working and take them both to Florida, Gibb couldn’t recall. He stopped paying much attention to the passing of time. And neither of them saw Gibb Chapman, Sr., again.

We hope you enjoyed reading this excerpt from Magic And Grace. The complete book is available in print and ebook editions, from

Chad Hautmann was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and received an M.A. in creative writing from Florida State University. He is a part-time college English professor and freelance writer whose work has appeared in a number of commercial and literary magazines and video documentaries. Magic And Grace is his second novel. His first novel, Billie’s Ghost, was published by Penguin Books in 2004. Chad lives in Naples, Florida, with his wife and two children.



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