Norbert Pearlroth Might Have Been a Lawyer


By Tony Woodlief

Two days before he blisters Michael’s legs with a cigarette lighter, Ricky drives them all to Jupiter to see the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum. Believe It or Not comics are Ricky’s chief reading material. While other men discuss newspaper headlines, Ricky recites oddities documented by Mr. Robert Ripley.

“They went and got themselves this Pakistani!” he shouts over the wind thundering through the Tempest’s open windows. “And they made a fire pit right there in the Radio City parking lot, and that old boy strutted across them coals like he was walking on the beach! Mister Robert Ripley hisself inspected his feet!”

Ricky squints at his sons and Michael in the cracked rearview mirror. “And you know what?”

The boys shake their heads.

“His soles was cool as cucumbers!”

Michael makes an appreciative noise. Denny puts Bobby in a headlock and together they roll onto the floorboard behind Ricky’s seat. Michael’s mother fights to keep her mystery book open against the inrushing wind.

“We got ourselves a weird fucking world, boys!”

Ricky rents a motel room with louvered glass windows and bedcovers woven from what feels like mannequin hair. That first night he sits with his back against the headboard beside Michael’s mother, who sleeps on her belly with a pillow over her head. Ricky watches the muted television and smokes. He leans off the bed to open his beer cans by the floor with a muffled shush. In the flickering haze his mermaid tattoo appears to be swimming. She has a grim, judgmental face—not at all what Ricky envisioned when he commissioned her. Sometimes he talks about finding a tattooist who can make her more cheerful.

In the boys’ bed, Michael lies closest to the window and watches Ricky’s smoke slip like a wraith between the slats. When Ricky is finally asleep, Michael rolls off the mattress to hang suspended by its tucked bedsheet over the crevice between bed and wall. He carefully works the sheet off his half-brothers, using its slack to rappel to the musty floor, where he lies with arms folded across his chest like a dead boy. He gazes through the window slats at the dim and constellated stars. Sometimes at home, when Ricky sends him to fetch ice from the aluminum tray in their freezer, the cubes stick to his fingertips. He imagines stars burn cold like that.

The next morning, Michael’s mother sleeps in while Ricky takes her sons to IHOP. He sets his newest Believe It or Not carefully beside his coffee cup and orders pancakes with whipped-cream smiley faces. “Did you boys know in 1934 they had a four-year old deputy in Wichita Kansas? That’s younger than you, Denny!”

Denny, finger halfway up his nose, chuckles. Bobby is somewhere under the table.

“Now he’s a DA up in Philadelphia.”

“What’s a DA?” Michael asks.

“Districk Attorney.”

“What’s that?”

Ricky lights a cigarette. “Kind of lawyer sent your daddy to prison.” A passing waitress tells him there’s no smoking in the IHOP. He stubs his butt into a pat of margarine. “Shoulda gone to Waffle House.”

Their waitress brings their dishes on a tray. Ricky whispers to the boys that at Waffle House, they balance your plates on their arms. He asks the waitress if she can direct them to the Believe It or Not museum. “The phone book back at our motel has a bunch of pages ripped out,” he says. “Everybody acts like they’re in a movie nowadays.”

The waitress squints at him for a moment. “There’s never been a Ripley’s in Jupiter that I know of, hon.”

Ricky’s mouth tightens. He glances at Michael, then turns his face to the window. “Y’all eat,” he says.

Back at the motel, Ricky opens the cooler and fishes out a pack of bologna tucked sideways between beer cans. He tosses it at Michael, followed by a loaf of white bread. Michael fails to catch either.

“Fix us some sandwiches for the road, boy.”

“Off to the museum?” Michael’s mother asks, eyes on her mystery.

“We have to drive all the way to Orlando,” Michael says.

“Orlando?”

“Hurry up with those sandwiches, boy.”

“They don’t have a Believe It or Not here.”

“Musta shut down,” Ricky says. “Where’s my goddamn cigarettes?”

Michael’s mother points to her purse.

“Our waitress said there never was a Ripley’s in Jupiter.”

Ricky delivers a kick to Michael’s hindparts that launches him onto the bed. His mother sighs into her book.

In the car, Michael slumps in the passenger seat and thumbs through Believe It or Nots. He marvels at pictures of Mr. Ripley on an elephant, Mr. Ripley in a canoe surrounded by crocodiles, Mr. Ripley smiling beside a pygmy. The inside cover of every book includes an odd name in small print: Norbert Pearlroth, Research Director. Michael pictures Norbert Pearlroth in a lab coat, dissecting the eyes of cyclops children, the feet of firewalkers. He thumbs through the pages for Norbert’s picture, but Mr. Ripley is the only unmutated man he can find. Mr. Ripley is bucktoothed and doughy, like a prosperous beaver. Michael chuckles.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

Ricky’s mood brightens as they approach Orlando. He slaps Michael’s leg. “Hey boy, they teach you about Charles Lindbergh in school?”

“Yeah.”

“About how he crossed the Atlantic first?”

“Yeah.”

“Well Mr. Ripley proved he was 67th to cross.”

“Then why do all our teachers say he was first?”

“Once a teacher gets something in her head, it don’t come out again.”

Michael imagines 66 pilots grinding their teeth as they read about Lindbergh’s supposed triumph.

Ricky glances from the road to Michael several times, impatience rising. “Well?”

“What?”

“Don’t you care how they got it wrong?”

“How?”

Ricky speaks from the corner of his mouth, like a man in the know. “First, a couple pilots flew across together. Next, a whole blimp went over. Then Europe sent a blimp of their people this way. Add ‘em all up, and Lindbergh’s number 67.” Ricky smiles triumphantly. His solemn mermaid ripples as he waits for a reaction. Receiving none, he sighs. “The whole world shouting Lindbergh! Lindbergh! and it was Mr. Robert Ripley alone who had the head to figure out the real numbers. And the balls to tell the truth.”

“But he was first to fly by himself, right?”

“Ripley?”

“Charles Lindbergh.”

Ricky scowls. “Sure, I reckon. If you wanna get technical about it.”

They sit in silence for a few miles. Denny and Bobby have fallen asleep in a tangle on the back seat.

Ricky slaps the dashboard. “Hey, so this Chinese couple had their baby born the day Lindbergh crossed the ocean. You know what they named it?”

“What?”

“One Long Hop.”

Michael chuckles.

“I’m serious as a heart attack, boy. Mr. Ripley verified the birth certificate hisself.”

Michael nods.

Ricky hands him a cigarette. “Fire me up.”

Michael pushes in the lighter knob and watches it with vigilance. When it pops out, he snatches it free and holds it to the cigarette’s tip. The Tempest fills with the sweet smell of fresh-lit tobacco. Michael hands the cigarette to Ricky. Ricky punches his arm, but not hard.

At the museum, Ricky pays a woman behind a window and shushes them like they’re entering a cathedral. He leads them in reverence past displays of shrunken heads, miniscule sculptures inside the eyes of needles, a full-size car made of matchsticks. There is torture-chamber machinery and mutant skeletons and X-rays of reptiles in the midst of digesting oddities. A roomful of ancient surgical equipment. A pharaoh’s tomb. A room stocked with garishly colored optical illusions. There are photographs of Mr. Ripley grinning beside assorted freaks and wonders. There are none of Norbert Pearlroth.

They stroll across short-napped red carpet bespeckled by waxy patches of old gum. The air smells of air conditioning losing its battle against humidity. Near the end, they stand before a giant spigot that floats mid-air, pouring a continuous stream of water into a wooden bucket. This fixes the boys in wonderment.

Ricky asks if they know the trick. No, they say in unison. Ricky smiles. They beg him to tell how the spigot works. He smiles and shakes his head, as if he’s sworn an oath. His not unkind smile makes Michael want to preserve his face, like one of those shrunken heads. He pulls Ricky’s arm and offers a long Pleeeaaassssee. His wheedling begins to erode Ricky’s smile, but he can’t stop himself.

“Cut it out,” Ricky finally snaps, yanking his hand away. “Goddamn, boy.” He eyes Michael like he’s the strangest thing in this place.

“I have to pee,” Denny says, fingers pinching his wiener through his shorts, eyes on the gushing water. “Me too,” says Bobby. In the bathroom, Michael stands at a urinal while Ricky helps the little ones. Nothing in him wants to come out. He presses his pelvis forward and pretends.

“Damn boy, you don’t need to hump it.”

The final exhibit is the ghost of Mr. Ripley himself, a shimmering blue phantasm. Ricky stands before it with hands on hips. “Goddammit, I forgot the camera.”

“The sign said no pictures,” Michael says.

Ricky regards Michael like he represents every obstacle Mr. Ripley had to overcome to bring his treasures to civilization. He points at the image. “Boys, this right here was a bona fide adventurer. The real deal.” He looks at Denny and Bobby, who hang from the velvet rope separating Mr. Ripley’s ghost from mortal passersby. “Y’all need to get out and see the world one day. See it while you can.”

Michael gazes respectfully at Mr. Ripley’s ghost. He tries to project to Ricky the impression that he too will follow in Mr. Ripley’s footsteps.

Back at the motel, Ricky says he wants to nap with their mother. He sends them outside to play, so they search the graveled back lot of the adjoining Shoney’s for bottle caps. Michael is the authority, passing judgment on the RC Colas and Tabs and Pabst Blue Ribbons proffered by his half-brothers. Feeling mean, he denies that any of the caps they find are rare. They stamp their feet and accuse him of being unfair. When Denny begins to cry, Michael helps them search. They can’t turn up anything good, so he surreptitiously drops a Grape Nehi and a Sundrop near a seashell and points. “That’s a pretty cool shell,” he says.

The boys tell him that the shell is like any other crappy shell. Michael points closer and closer, until finally Bobby gives a little shout and snatches up the bottle caps. Michael makes him give one to Denny. The boys force their hands into his, and he walks them around the block.

The sun has turned late-afternoon golden when Ricky emerges from their motel room with his cooler. He leads the boys across the street and down a sidewalk and across another couple of streets, until they stand on dry, hot sand. The younger boys squeal, and Michael chases them into the waves, where they tumble and taste hot salty spray.

Ricky sprawls on churned sand and cracks a beer. He flexes his arms and watches the passing women and girls. The boys wrestle. Whenever one is on the bottom too long, Ricky shouts to fight like a man. The sun hangs low over the motels behind them. In one of them, Michael’s mother lies dreaming.

After lounging for a while, Ricky plops down amidst his sons and Michael where they labor over sandcastles. He rakes armfuls of sand into a mound. He presses empty beer cans into the corners for turrets, and shows them how to make flags from twigs and seaweed. As they work together in the thickening light, Michael imagines passersby thinking: What a nice family. That they make it true by thinking it.

A pack of teenagers cackle as they shuffle past, and Ricky’s mouth pinches shut. He considers the sand caking his belly, brushes shell grit from his mermaid. He grunts to his feet, lumbers through shifting sand, and crouches by his cooler to root beneath melting ice for a cold one. He drains it in a few gulps, opens another. He squints toward the ocean, and Michael. Ricky is like a weathervane, like a prowling lion, like a storm approaching an island.

 Michael leans over his sandcastle with a piece of shell, and uses it to carve ports and crenellations. He becomes a workman on the parapets. He crouches so low that the sun lurking behind the motels can’t touch him, but there’s no avoiding Ricky’s gaze.

Then Ricky has him by the thin meat of his arm, and is walking him into the short rollers slapping crossways into one another, over the suckling bed of crushed shell, onto the packed and rippled sand, past breakers ambered at their peaks, into molten bronze swells. “You need to work on your swimming, boy” Ricky says. Michael whimpers as cold swells engulf his belly, his chest, his throat. Ricky is clench-jawed and seaward-trudging, like evolution in reverse. His eyes are set on some distant vision. He says Swim, boy, so Michael slaps the water with his thin arms, keeping his toes on the ocean floor. When Ricky realizes that Michael is cheating, he curses, lifts him by his armpits, and launches him seaward.

Michael strikes the water and sinks. Underwater he hears the rush of waves gathering force, the swish of sand, the buzz of a distant engine. He paddles to the surface, sobbing, swimming desperately toward Ricky, who winces at this diaper-baby his wife has saddled him with. His disgust washes over Michael.

A woman with leathery skin shouts that they shouldn’t be in the water, that the sharks come close this time of day. Ricky has had his fill of women telling him how things work around here. He lifts Michael by the arm and the hem of his cut-offs, and throws him further out to sea.

As his body hangs over the water Michael sees his brothers and the old woman and the sea creature painted on Ricky’s arm, all observing him like he’s some kind of curiosity. He’s certain the ocean will envelop him like a coven of mermaids. He’ll sink deeper and deeper, and the people on shore will return to their sandcastles and coolers. They’ll forget Michael’s name as the mermaids gather round to press their secrets into his lungs.

He plunges into the waiting cold, but his feet don’t touch bottom because Ricky has thrown him past the sandbar. He’s overwhelmed by the sensation of sinking, even as he struggles skyward. The sharks must sense his thrashing. He breaks the surface, but a swell covers his mouth before he can scream. He flails toward Ricky, who regards him like a fish-boy that Mr. Robert Ripley might direct Norbert Pearlroth to dissect.

Michael is sobbing. Ricky drags him shoreward, and deposits him snot-slicked and shivering beside his sandcastle. Crybaby Michael lowers his head beneath the judgment of passing strangers.

That night, Michael again rappels to the floor beside his bed. He considers the skyhung points of cold fire that are beyond even Mr. Robert Ripley’s reach. If he’d had any children, Ripley surely would have hurled them into shark-infested waters too, in order that the fit might rise like cream. But Michael thinks Norbert Pearlroth, sympathetic to unlikely things, would have shown him how to shoot up from the water like an otter. How to move across it without choking on salt and fear.

Michael pulls himself up from the crevice, a boy rising from his grave. Blued moonlight fills the room, striking the mirror before which Ricky stands in his saggy white underwear. His skin is corpse-like in this light. He slowly turns his head left, then right, like a man examining his shave. His eyes, blackened by shadow, stare into themselves. Dark into dark, depth into depth.

Michael moves back onto the bed, very slowly, as if he’s trapped in this room with a lion. In the bed he nestles his back against Denny’s slight frame, covers his head with the sheet, and does not move.

The next morning, Ricky comes in early from somewhere and rousts the boys. He shoos them into clothes and out to the Tempest, which is thick with stale smoke. He drives them to Waffle House, orders them bacon and eggs. He says they can go hungry for all he cares, but they aren’t getting any goddamned pancakes. Michael asks what about waffles, since it’s Waffle House, and Ricky looks like he wants to smack him through a plate-glass window. When the food comes, Ricky stubs out his cigarette in an ashtray and shovels fried eggs and dripping hashbrowns into his mouth.

Back at the motel, he takes them to the pool and slouches into a deck chair. Michael’s half-brothers horse about on the shallow-end stairs. Ricky watches them through a cloud of smoke, beer can by his chair leg, Believe It or Not in hand. Michael takes a chair on the other side of the pool and opens one of Ricky’s discarded Believe It or Nots, the one focused on sea creatures and island monstrosities.

Ricky’s shoulders begin to relax. “They got free divers in the islands,” he says, “can go down a hundred feet, no gear or nothing. Boys no older than you, Mikey.”

Michael nods as he studies a grainy black-and-white photo of a real-life mermaid.

“Goddammit boy, why don’t you get in the pool and work on your swimming?”

“I seen that,” says a beer-bellied man who’s just settled onto a chair nearby. “The free divers.”

Ricky looks over at him. “That right.” He rolls his magazine into a tube. “Where’d you read it?”

“No, I seen it. Polynesia. They paddle out into the bay and dive with nothing but a knife. For pearls.”

“Polynesia.”

“Yep. Was there in the service.”

“I saw a lot of weird shit when I was in Vietnam.”

They talk about the weird shit they’ve seen. Ricky draws liberally on Mr. Ripley’s reports. The stranger takes small sips from a beer bottle and squints at him. Ricky gets rolling, cracking beers and making his mermaid’s scales ripple as he recounts wonders he’s never seen. He starts in on a two-headed shark he said swam up to a pier he was fishing in Australia, and the man interrupts him.

“Where in Australia?”

“Hell, I don’t know. Somedamnwheres.”

“I hear the sharks come closer to shore in winter.”

Ricky raises his beer can to the stranger. “There you go. It was round about New Year’s, in fact. Cold as a witch’s tit.”

The stranger chews the inside of his lip while Ricky relays his mutant-shark tale, then stands and pads away to the pool’s gate. Ricky’s voice trails off. The man closes the gate behind him, turns, and says: “Funny thing about Australia—that I remember from being there—is our winter is their summer. Have a nice day, buddy.”

Ricky glances across the pool and catches Michael’s eyes on him. He considers his Believe It or Not strangled in his palm, tosses it onto the empty chair beside him. Michael slips lower, so that his magazine blocks Ricky’s gaze.

“Ya’ll boys come on out.”

Denny and Bobby complain as they drag themselves up the pool stairs. Michael rolls off his chair and makes for the gate.

“C’mere, boy.”

Michael walks over to where Ricky slouches. His half-brothers bicker over a towel as they drip water on their father’s discarded magazine. Ricky tugs a strand dangling from Michael’s shorts. “D’you know a boy up in Clemmons drowned when his cut-offs got caught in a pool drain?”

“No.”

Ricky eyes Michael as if he has in some way contributed to the boy’s death. He slides his lighter from the plastic wrapper of his cigarette pack. “Hold still,” he says. He sits up, takes hold of the dangling strand, and snaps his lighter under it. “Hold still, goddammit.”

Flame slowly climbs the strand, leaving a trail of scorched denim. Ricky runs his lighter up and down the blackened thread until it glows. Michael straightens his knees to keep the burning fabric off his thighs.

“Goddamn you I said still.” Ricky lights another strand, and another. His sons watch quietly. A whimper floats up Michael’s throat. He tries to edge his sneakers backwards, and Ricky seizes his arm. He lights more strands. Michael’s trembling causes the burning fibers to entangle his leg hair. He imagines fragments from exploded stars colliding with his thighs. A terrible odor fills the air, and Michael is crying.

“Stop it,” says one of the little ones. Their crying breaks Ricky’s trance. He considers Michael, then points to his sons with his lighter. “Look what you done.” He rises from his chair, sending empties skittering across the concrete, and tows his boys to the gate. Michael stays still as the glowing threads gradually blacken. That peculiar odor dissipates in the coastal wind, but even after their long drive home, Michael smells it.

And Michael grows, for this is how God avenges children. He works his way through college. In the course of his graduate work in chemistry, he learns that the primary polypeptide that binds human hair molecules is keratin, which, when burned, releases volatile sulfur compounds. These bind with oxygen and hydrogen, taking on a shape and size that allows them to lodge easily in nasal passages. Michael learns this is why sometimes you can smell burned hair for days.

One day, during a lab session at Columbia, it dawns on Michael that Ripley’s empire had been headquartered in New York City. Surely this is where Norbert Pearlroth lived. Maybe he still does—is even a professor now, on this very campus. Michael actually looks out the window when he thinks this, at the sidewalks dissecting the grounds below. He has never seen a picture of Norbert Pearlroth, but he believes he could recognize him, if only he knew where to look.

With just a little sleuthing, Michael tracks down Norbert’s address. But he’s too late; Norbert has been dead for five years. Mrs. Pearlroth won’t let a stranger inside their apartment, but her son agrees to meet Michael for coffee. He tells Michael that the Public Library’s Main Branch, just down the street, is where his father spent six days a week, for 52 years, unearthing nuggets for Ripley. He says his father had been a law student in Krakow, before the First World War forced him to America. That he knew 14 languages. That he got a job at the Jewish Post of New York, answering reader questions about the origins of their surnames.

After Ripley found Norbert he paid him a decent wage, but no royalties. Eventually a media conglomerate bought Ripley’s empire, and forced Norbert to retire. He researched interesting facts and mailed them to his former employers, without pay, for the rest of his life. He died just days before his 90th birthday. The library staff had planned to throw him a party.

After Norbert’s son tells Michael these things about his father, Michael goes home to his apartment and drinks for three days, as if he is the son whose father has died. What might Norbert have told him about the meaning of his own name?

When he is older, and has all but forgotten Norbert Pearlroth, Michael bears an armful of driftwood to his family’s beachside bonfire. He steps too close, and his bare foot slips into the flames. The driftwood tumbles from his arms as he yanks away his foot and falls backwards. Sparks shoot high into the night air. His children say Whoa, in chorus. His wife seizes his heel and pushes up his jeans cuff, like he’s one of her emergency trauma admissions. Laughter bubbles from the children once they see their father isn’t burned. They’re happy in their well-hemmed shorts. They know little of fear.

It’s the first time in thirty-five years that Michael has smelled this peculiar combination of scorched denim and hair. For a moment, he is again a boy by a pool behind a motel in Jupiter. He kneads his thighs and feels the knots in tight rows beneath his skin. Bitter seeds that never fruited. He blinks and becomes a father again, a father beside a crackling bonfire, unafraid of anything except everything this world might do to children.

Michael’s oldest son sees him knead his thighs and this reminds the boy of the time their father ran his hand along a park bench before his children sat on it, and got a sliver of weathered wood in the meat of his palm. Michael’s son remembers the blood dripping onto his father’s pants. He remembers his father’s expression, which was something like satisfaction. He remembers loving his father fiercely in that moment, and feels this love again as he watches Michael rub his thighs like they, and not his jeans, were what the fire bit.

Michael never answers, when his children ask why there are patches on his thighs that won’t grow hair. Nor does he explain why they never visit Grandpa Ricky, who sends them Christmas cards. Grandpa Ricky, who inscribes the cards he sends with interesting facts, like how a chicken once lived for 17 days with its head cut off, and how a sailor who lost his comb off the coast of England found it on a beach in New Jersey, and how a star fragment no bigger than a cigarette weighs more than a man.


Tony Woodlief

Tony Woodlief’s short fiction has appeared in Image, Ruminate, Saint Katherine Review, and elsewhere. His novel, The Boy Who Came Back, is forthcoming from Slant Books. He has an MFA in creative writing from Wichita State University, and lives in North Carolina. He can be found online at www.tonywoodlief.com.


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