Fiction / Original Fiction

Bloom Creative Writing: “Bust,” by K. L. Cook

Epiphany, January 6th, a warm winter day, excellent for the Arizona mountains—“the perfect day,” sculptor Frances P. Jerrund says on the phone. We are meeting in downtown New Bridges, and then perhaps we’ll tour the Shakespeare West grounds. She might want to soak in some festival aura as we prepare for our fiftieth anniversary, which just so happens to land during the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. My farewell year. 

She’s won some major international commissions, including sculpting busts for diplomats and authors in Paris and Belgium. Qualifies as local, though she’s only been in town a few years. It’s not clear to me why she lives here, but Cassandra, the gossip hound, suggests divorce, children, caretaking for aging parents.

The whole bust ordeal is Cassandra’s idea, and I have gone along with it reluctantly. She’s my youngest, the CFO of Shakespeare West, and this is part of the Legacy Campaign she cooked up with our artistic director to appease the Board of Trustees. If we are to survive artistically and financially, we must simultaneously honor our past and launch the festival into the future, she says. The founder is the pivot point, of course, so this sculpture is a symbolic gesture. During the Midsummer Celebration, on my 80th birthday, the bust will be unveiled and christened, like a ship. I’ll smash my own face with a champagne bottle (this was my idea), make self-deprecating jokes about a bust of myself replacing me, and hope I won’t sound too pathetic.

Frances P. Jerrund shows up twenty minutes late, and while in the past this would have irked me—punctuality one of my articles of faith—today I’m grateful. I’ve forgotten my cell phone. Again. I often forget my phone, because I don’t really like it. Supposedly a gift, but really a way for my children to keep track of me. I sit in the gazebo on the square and watch the townspeople—dog walkers, retirees out for their morning constitutional, city workers taking down lights and ornaments from streetlights and evergreens, attorneys rushing up the courthouse steps, hippie students strumming guitars and playing bongos on the north side, a gray-haired woman accompanying them with improvisational dance. I enjoy the morning, in other words, and my lack of irritation about Frances P. Jerrund not showing up on time comes, in part, from my hope that she will not show up at all. We’ll call this off or defer to another day, when I feel more bustable.

The irony of having a bust made of myself is not lost on me. A bust is a sign of your significance, a symbol of endurance worthy of the ages, worthy of geologic time, carved into stone that may last an eon or two, an idea I feel uneasy about. But bust is also a term of violence. I’m going to bust you in the nose. Or a verb of escape. I’m going to bust out of here. And, of course, a woman’s bosom. A bust man myself, I can’t say the word without thinking of my mother, who always referred to breasts as “a bust,” and my first wife, so easy with a joke, who’d say, “Would you like to touch my busts, Zebulin?” in a funny, unidentifiable accent. Bust also means to go broke, as if bankruptcy is a place we can just visit and return from. That is where I am—both personally and with the festival—on the brink of going bust.

Birmingham Museum/Unsplash

“Mr. West?” I open my eyes to find Frances P. Jerrund. I recognize her from the website photo. She’s tall and, it seems, muscular. She wears old denim jeans and a flannel shirt. In her early fifties, I think, with thick silver hair, braided in a cord that gleams snake-like on her left shoulder, with the final frayed end past her waist. Her face, unadorned by makeup, is wizened by a network of wrinkles. Her teeth are a little crooked, tarnished by cigarettes and coffee, I presume, and her eyes are asymmetrical. I find her striking and substantial, strangely gorgeous, and I feel suddenly awash in her presence. Perhaps it is this day, the perfectness of it. Perhaps it is my own vulnerability; I’m still not back to full strength after the cardiac event I had last summer, on stage, and the subsequent surgery and recuperation. Perhaps it is simply the fact that I recognize a kindred spirit, a fellow artist, but one I do not compete with. 

“Ms. Jerrund.” I smile and extend my hand. 

She apologizes for being late, and I tell her there’s no need, that I was enjoying the day. She joins me in the gazebo, where we talk about all sorts of things, except this intimate journey we’re about to embark on together and my embarrassment because it seems so self-aggrandizing. I find myself, after only a few minutes, wanting to make clear that this wasn’t my idea, that my daughter persuaded me, that such a narcissistic, long-lasting symbol is part of the ridiculous Legacy Campaign. But I realize it would be tantamount to an apology or mitigating explanation; I abhor both, so say nothing.

After an hour, I ask her if there is anything we need to do to begin the process. “This is what we need to do,” she says. “I have to get a sense of who you are.”

“Sounds very personal.”           

“It is. The project will take months of work. I’m going to be living with your head for a long time and trying to do right by you. I’ve discovered this time is perhaps the most valuable.”

This sounds esoteric, but in her gentle yet no-nonsense way of speaking, it seems more like a simple description of her process rather than a manifesto. I like her already and decide this bust business might not be so bad after all. 

We stroll to the brewpub across the street, and eat and drink a respectable sampling of the fare, though I am restricted by my diet to a tomato basil soup and grilled chicken breast (another bust). We talk and talk, and when happy hour rolls around, we order Buffalo wings (strictly forbidden, but what the hell) and margaritas, which the owner, whose son was in the greenshow as a high school student and later got a role on a successful sit-com, offers on the house. He must know that the festival is on the verge of bankruptcy, which makes me uneasy. I don’t want to become a charity case, a doddering failure who needs tokens of financial generosity.

What do I learn about Frances Jerrund, and what does she learn about me? Plenty, I suppose, though I can’t remember a specific thing we talk about. Is that part of her gift—to engage someone in pleasurably addictive conversation about nothing? I have this gift as well. By the end of our day together, after food, laughs, mischief, flirting, and linguistic misbehavior, I want nothing more than to lean across the table and kiss her gorgeous wrinkled face, and I tell her so. She leans back in her chair and laughs and laughs.

“The stories are true then. You’re just a lecherous old drunk, aren’t you?” But there’s no malice in her words. She says it in such a jovial, conspiratorial way that it almost seems like a compliment.

It is already dark when we stumble away from the pub. The sun does not stay out long this time of year, and the mountains in the west make sundown seem a half-hour earlier than it should be. I’ve not drunk this much since the heart attack, and I feel fantastic and a decade younger, though I worry that I might not wake the next morning. Then where would the festival be?

By February, I pose for two hours three times a week at her studio. Sometimes we wind up in the rumpled studio bed, a small mattress covered in a paint-spattered calico blanket.  She is steadily working on the bust of me, among many other projects scattered in her warehouse-like studio. I have not been to her home because, she says, it’s not really her home, but her parents’, and they are old and ailing and do not like visitors. There’s a joke here, though she plays it deadpan, because she and I (especially I) are also old. 

Cassidy Dickens/Unsplash

There is a dusting of snow, more coming, the pine forest alive with arms of white, our breaths misting in front of us when we venture outside, for a stroll to get lunch, or a walk for me around the block and up and down the streets of this mountain town, with the air thin and arid, just the way I like it. I am determined to walk four miles a day to build my stamina, so that by May and June, when rehearsals and the performances and other festival shenanigans commence, I will be ready and not fall back on bad habits. There will be no repeat of last summer, when exhausted and on the verge of a breakdown, I collapsed, the ambulance delivering me to the place I least want to go, the place where doctors and nurses venture each day into an antiseptic crypt of eventual death. If you spend too much time there, you begin to catch the habit, and from there, it’s a mudslide into the grave. So I exercise, and when I’m sore, I’m grateful because it means I’ve worked hard on behalf of the great Shakespearean actor Zeb West’s instrument, to make it stronger and prepared for the demands that lay ahead.  

Today, of all days, when the sun is out, temperatures have deceptively climbed into the forties for a few hours, and the streets and sidewalks are precarious with snow and iffy patches of ice, Frances’ parents unexpectedly show up. We are entwined in the little bed when they clamber onto the steps, their canes clomping, and knock on the front door. Frances says we should ignore it—probably UPS delivering her art supplies, he’ll leave them on the doorstep—but then we hear her mother call out. Frances slips deftly and without undergarments into a ratty old t-shirt and overalls, hooks them quickly on one side, and I think, She’s done this before

I can imagine the bad schoolgirl she was several decades ago, the bohemian artist with too many boyfriends and too many drugs, obsessed with her crazy visions and her love of paint fumes and gooey bright acrylic, a girl who made good nonetheless, showing them that an artistic life could be achieved, despite their doubts, and has turned now into a model daughter, sacrificing for her parents by renting a studio in downtown New Bridges. 

I listen to her and her parents as they bicker in that familiar way aging children bicker with their ancient parents, the power rebalancing, her chastising them firmly but kindly about her studio, her space, she’s an artist, remember, and that means sometimes people pose not entirely dressed and she has to protect their privacy and their trust, so it’s important that they don’t barge in, unannounced, remember we talked about this. 

And then I don’t hear them, time passes, a door opens and closes. I think it’s safe, so I go make a cup of tea, standing naked in the kitchenette, and turn on the kettle and wait for the water to boil as I stare out the tall windows, where I can see the snow-covered mountains that fringe our town through melting icicles. Just as the water begins to hiss and I lift it up to pour, the front door bursts open and her father—a tall, skinny, Ichabod Crane-ish looking man, his face shadowy and withered, consumed by an old man’s daily reckoning with the fickleness of his prostate, something I know all too well—makes a beeline toward the bathroom.

But then he catches sight of me, and I am face to face with my doppelganger—two old men, one naked and the other eager to pull down his padded drawers and deal with the vulnerabilities of his body. He is bald, but my hair is long and shaggy, as I prepare for my parts as Lear, Prospero, and Falstaff—the great trifecta that I will be playing this final summer in the festival that bears my name. I have stopped dying it, so it’s growing out white, with black tips, and my chest is covered in white fuzz. We size each other up, both surprised but not shocked. I wonder how many times this scene has played out for them over the years—the stolid parents of Frances P. Jerrund, confronting the debaucheries that artists like to commit. Maybe he’s used to it. 

“You’re the actor,” he says, his voice all pipes and whistles, and I don’t know if he’s asking for confirmation or simply identifying me.

Freeze-framed, in this comic moment, I’m aware that though he is probably around my age, he seems ancient. Despite my cardiac episode last summer and the subsequent surgery and rehab, I do not feel ancient, refuse to feel ancient, ever.

“Yes,” I say, “I’m the actor.” I feel the impulse to reach over and shake his hand, but such formality seems absurd. After an awkward moment, I say, “Frances is making a bust of me for the Shakespeare West Festival.” 

He nods, as if he knows this and knows more than he’s willing to talk about. “I’m heading to the john.” He dodders toward it with greater velocity than I thought him capable. I fill my cup, sneak a couple spoonfuls of sugar, a decadence, and dress quietly while the tea cools. I hear his cane on the wooden porch, the whispered murmuring of Frances’ mother, and then they’re actually gone.

“I’m sorry about that,” Frances says when she returns a half-hour later. “They’re worse than toddlers. I had to take them home.” 

“I met your father,” I say. 

“Yes,” she says, smiling, “He asked me if I was going to make a bust of your penis.” 

Back in my posing chair, I am distracted as Frances sketches, capturing me with quick deft flicks of her pencil. I wonder what she thinks about having a lover her father’s age, if it makes her anxious, given that her own father is clearly in decline. But I don’t say anything, don’t want to muck up our time together with meditations on age or fathers and daughters, and so I close my eyes and concentrate on the script for Lear until I can almost see the blank verse in my mind’s eye, but it’s a little too fragmented. How sharper than a serpent’s tooth. I mouth the words, as many of our players do. Howl, howl, howl, howl, howl.  

Photo by Lena Menefee-Cook

K. L. Cook is the author of six books–most recently a collection of stories, Marrying Kind, and a collection of essays, The Art of Disobedience. His debut book, Last Call, which he published at the age of 40 in 2004, won the inaugural Prairie Schooner prize from the University of Nebraska Press. His fiction and essays have appeared widely in journals, magazines, and anthologies, including Glimmer Train, One Story, Prairie Schooner, American Short Fiction, Threepenny Review, and Best American Mystery Stories. His essay, “The Secret Story,” appeared in a previous issue of Bloom. He co-directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing & Environment at Iowa State University and is a member of the graduate faculty of the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University. “Bust” is adapted from a chapter in his current novel-in-progress, Shakespeare West. His author website is www.klcook.net.   

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