A Fine Kettle of Fish
By: J. Jules
For Alex, who shares my love/hate relationship with toasters.
As a general warning, although I do not often focus on themes of homosexuality, sexism, racism, abortion, and other controversial subjects I do usually include them in many of my stories and many of my characters. A Fine Kettle of Fish may very well contain some offensive topics and I do not advise that you read further if you are easily offended by such things.
Also, I do not have a beta for this story and I would thus appreciate any forms of constructive criticism that you may have for me.
Thank you very much for your time.
Chapter One: The Penny Drops
One night, to settle herself, Rose Sterling bashed a toaster against her stubborn lover's head.
A naturally disillusioned woman on the receiving end of a brutal divorce, Ms. Sterling had a long history of temporary beaus by the time she caught Joseph Bray's parietal lobe with the blunt face of her least favorite kitchen appliance. However, she had never been so aggressive with any of them before. Standing over Joseph's crumbled and cursing form – a swearing, bloody mass of curls and freckles – Rose felt a queer sense of satisfaction in the act; as many of us do after bludgeoning someone who's been pissing us off.
Out in the hallway, just beyond Rose's front door, Albert Kliener was not visiting his sister anymore. The two of them had been engaged at the table of the girl's one-room apartment when Albert had foolishly consumed three or five glasses of Sauvignon Blanc, and then drifted onto the subject of politics and the glass ceiling. It was not a very wise decision on his part, as few intoxicated choices are. In a heated debate, Natalie tossed Albert out of the shanty apartment, throwing a number of invaluable objects after him. An act that she would later regret as the disposable camera that collided with his temple would, in two days, be the cause of his prolonged and unfortunate demise. The very same camera, ironically, that would seal Rose's fate. If Rose ever heard of how Albert died she would've probably laughed. As it was, she never found out.
For now Albert Kliener was alive. Dying, but alive. He slumped dejectedly against the wall with the semblance of a kicked puppy, noting enthusiastically that the pattern of the wood on Natalie's door looked vaguely like a fish eating a light bulb. The pattern of the wood on her neighbor's door, he noted further, looked like a book sheltering a child from the rain. And the pattern of the wood of her neighbor's neighbor's door looked like nothing, but it thumped. Albert tilted his head curiously to the side; doors didn't often thump on their own, after all. He wondered, briefly, if it would be too rude to peek inside and investigate. Just to make sure that everything was okay, that Natalie's neighbor's neighbor wasn't getting robbed in the middle of the night or anything like that. Carefully, he armed himself with the camera and the small lamp that had been thrown at him, and cautiously peered into the thumping apartment.
The thump that Albert Kliener had mistaken for the possibility of robbers had been Joseph Bray's head colliding with Rose's heavy, metal toaster. Albert stared in shock at the scene – which he perceived reasonably as an assault – and scrambled hurriedly with the disposable camera that would be the death of him come Monday. Hastily, he snapped a sloppy and out-of-focus picture, before hiding himself in the corner of the hallway to quietly contemplate the death he would experience when this mad woman found out that he had immortalized her crime in a photograph. The idea that he would die of slow brain damage never even crossed his mind.
"Probably," Natalie would note sadly at her brother's wake, "Because I damaged the part of his brain that would think of such a thing." Then she would break down in tears and her cousin, Margaret, would exclaim "Just like that dreadful Rose Sterling!" and join her sobbing cousin in mourning.
In the picture, Rose's expression conveyed the general notion that she thought bashing a young man's head with a toaster was one of the best ideas she ever had. In actuality Rose did not think so; not when she thought about it. The mess of blood on the checkered tile, and the screaming and cursing, and possibly damaged toaster was a bit too much to explain to her roommate, Michael. Moreover, it had not been her aim to actually hurt Joseph. But she might have, while nudging Joseph with her foot to rouse him, nudged a little too hard not to be considered a kick. And this image, caught with the cheap lens of a disposable camera, looked very much as if she thought abusing this young man was a good idea—her best idea. As a matter of fact, this image – of Rose standing, loosely robed, over Joseph Bray's vulnerable and bleeding form, grasping a great, metal toaster with one hand whilst kicking the boy abusively in the side with her foot – essentially launched the masculist campaign.
Phellan Vance was the name of the man who ruined a few years of Rose's life. The name "Phellan Vance" was an unfortunate title, carelessly cobbled together by the boy's trailer trash mother, who passed him off to his grandparents when he was one and promptly headed for Vegas. When said quickly, the name almost became cool. Phellanvance, Rose and Michael later discovered, was the only way you could say it without laughing.
But the name "Phellan Vance" worked well for the leader of masculist campaign, and for the campaign itself. Climbing up to the podium in his white caftan, Phellanvance would outstretch his arms dramatically and exclaim to the crowd of testosterone "I am Phellan Vance!" and then glare very harshly at anyone who snickered, or didn't clap. There was rarely ever a masculist who didn't take the name seriously. It was a dramatic sort of name that the media ate right up, and the intelligent morons among males too.
"All the idiots stay out of the masculist campaign." Rose remarked irritably one morning. "Its entire company is made up of no-nothing know-it-alls."
Phellanvance was one such no-nothing-know-it-all. He would preach endlessly to a throng of dumb men about the growing evils of women, using the picture of Rose and Joseph as his prime symbol. "A new kind of domestic violence!" he would announce. "This woman – this harpy – is abusing this innocent Shepard!" Michael didn't know about how innocent Joseph looked, lying naked on the floor with his junk hanging out, but he noted helpfully one morning that the masculist campaign was basically a swarm of anti-feminists. But Rose would only snort at the blonde's aid and wonder aloud how the hell the masculists and Phellanvance got that photo to begin with. "Were they spying on me?" She shouted to the heavens.
Michael knew, of course, that neither Phellanvance nor the masculist campaign had been spying on his best friend. Natalie had told him about it. He knew, sadly, that Albert Kliener had overheard the commotion of the toaster in the middle of the night and seen Rose and Joseph in their bloody ritual. Thinking he was witnessing a murder, the man had snapped a photo of the scene, and then that it wasn't until Monday that he gathered up enough courage to go to the police, despite his sister's ardent protests for him to go anywhere. "He had been complaining of a headache all weekend." Natalie noted tearfully to Michael. "I asked him why on earth he needed to go out but he wouldn't tell me, and I wouldn't help him. He just left and I guess he mistook Phellan Vance's office for the police station or something." That was exactly what happened. Dying, and in a rush for justice, Albert Kliener spied Phellanvance's small advertisement company and mistook it for the Georgetown police station. On his way to the glass door, he slowed, swayed, swooned, and finally expired right before the advertiser's eyes, a small envelope clutched in his dead hand that read in very neat cursive "ASSAULT".
"I dunno," Michael would shrug every time Rose asked about the picture. Out of nervousness he would extend a proposition of food to console the woman. "Cashew?"
Rose hardly had a stomach for nuts. She didn't like having to crack their shells, and liked even less the crunching noise the shells made when crumbling and flaking off the nut and onto her clean countertop. "I know," she announced determinedly. "I'll send him a letter. Asking him to please not use the picture of me and Joseph."
"Joseph and I, teacher," the blonde boy corrected. Rose would go on.
"Do you think that would work, Michael?" she would ask. And Michael would shrug nervously.
"Peanut?" he offered. She took the peanut and threw it at his head.
Rose sent two separate letters to Phellanvance. After their message was not only ignored but also exploited, Rose shrugged and gave up on talking any sense into the masculist campaign. "I tried," she said. "I'll just have to wait until it blows over. The more I send him the more he'll have to talk about." Phellanvance knew this was certainly true, and he sincerely hoped that Rose would keep sending letters. "Not use this photo?" He would exclaim to the roaring crowd of 241 males gathered at Union Square. "Not use this photo! This picture that a dying man gave to me with his last breath!" The story of Albert Kliener's death was, by far, the masculist campaign's favorite. "Early Monday morning!" Phellanvance would reiterate. "I heard the steps of an angel approaching my home, and looked out the window to see his pale face in the sun, his cry like a screaming newborn!" It had really been his advertisement office, and he had actually looked out the window because a fire truck had just whistled by, its siren ear splitting as it drove passed. "The angel collapsed on my welcome mat," Phellanvance seemed to like to stress the idea that he welcomed people to his home, which was really his advertisement office. "And I rushed after him, but he was already dead. Killed by the deadly blow of his own sister! He held a message in his hand—for me. I picked it out of his heavenly clutch; it was this picture!" Although rarely known by the general public, there was never a masculist who didn't know that the out-of-focus logo of the masculist campaign had been delivered to Phellanvance by a dead man, yet a gasp never failed to run through the crowd at these words. Phellanvance would let the shock sink in, and then end the story with a solemn. "I knew just what to do with the picture then."
It was true. Phellanvance did know just what to do with Albert Kliener's photograph. He knew people, and he knew just what he wanted. Phellan Vance wanted to be famous. And more than anything, Phellanvance knew how to advertise. He had a cult-like following within a week, and cameras clicking at every angle of him and his campaign within a month.
"The message of this photo is as clear as day!" Phellanvance, the cult leader, would preach to a crowd of 778 at Washington Square. He would point to certain details of the blown up photograph beside him. "You can see here how vulnerable the man is; naked and shivering against the tile! His mouth is open, he is screaming in agony at the abuse the woman thrusts upon him!" In the photograph, Joseph's mouth was open because he was cursing and as far as Rose could see it had been and usually was the man that did the thrusting. "His limp manhood is exposed, symbolizing the devitalizement of man." Joseph was a little miffed at being described as devitalized, and he was a little queasy at being touched – even in photograph – by Phellanvance's knobby, and spidery fingers. "And the woman: strong and standing. Her exposed right breast symbolizing the immorality and proud arrogance of woman!" Rose was about as happy about Phellanvance groping the picture of her right breast as Joseph was about him rubbing on the picture of his dick. She found some amount of humor in the choice of symbols though, as it was the manhood and womanhood that had inevitably led to the toaster incident in the first place.
Admittedly, it had been Joseph's manhood that had persuaded him to go for Rose's exposed womanhood. She didn't rightfully blame him for that, but she hadn't been very happy about it at the time either. She had grabbed the toaster and instinctively bashed it against his head. Not her best idea, but it worked. Rose hardly understood the commotion of her attack with the toaster in the first place. She had not killed Joseph; she had only given him a very strong headache. The situation could've turned out much worse, but the toaster had been plugged in when Rose grabbed it and when it was forcefully unplugged it had slowed Rose's swing with a jerk. In the end, she was timidly sorry for Joseph's bleeding head, so what was the problem?
The problem was this: Albert Kliener had twice mistaken something he saw, and Phellanvance wanted to be famous.
"Because of this picture!" He would proclaim to the gatherers at London Square. "Because of this undeniable proof of woman's evil, this campaign will never die!"
"It'll blow over," Rose assured her class when they finally got up the gall to ask her about it. It had been Brendan Tarb who had blurted out the question and broke the awkward silence. Rose didn't care so much about the curiosity, but she wished that Brendan had worded it more delicately than "What is with that picture of your boob floating around?" but she should've guessed as much from a student like Brendan. She didn't doubt that her semi-nakedness was all Brendan had noticed. Bianca Harriet was a much more observant pupil with refined speech and good grades. She was also dumb as a doornail.
"When do you think it'll go away?" she asked Rose. Rose didn't know when it would go away exactly, but she thought that she and her class would probably be done studying Catch 22 by that time. "A couple months or so," was her half-hearted guess.
Of course, Rose was wrong to this end. To her credit, there was no way she could've known how amazing Phellanvance was at stretching things out. People kept sending him letters and he kept talking. By the time Rose's class was finished with Joseph Heller's witty novel, he was doing well with his campaign in France, and messages were coming in every day. Even Michael sent one.
"Oh please don't," Rose had complained to her roommate when he told her. "The last thing I need is this going on even one letter longer." Michael was baffled.
"Don't you want support?" he asked her curiously, cuddling up to the arm of the sofa. Rose didn't want support. She didn't want interviewers, or gossip, or arguments, or popularity. Unlike Phellanvance, Rose did not want to be famous. She groaned.
"I want everybody to let it blow over," Rose explained, but Michael had been convinced at least a month ago that the masculist campaign was never going to blow over. Phellanvance said it never would. "Trust me, Michael," Rose told him sternly. "This will blow over." The boy was doubtful though.
The masculist campaign probably bothered Rose less than it did Michael Mabel. Rose was older, and used to these things after all. Michael, barely twenty, could scarcely contain himself and could not, for the life of him, comprehend Rose's calm and content demeanor. It disgusted him that she could joke about the situation. In turn, Rose was appalled that Michael could not be a little more optimistic, like he usually was.
"It's not even really joking," Rose complained to Natalie while helping her move in the things that her brother had left her. "It's killing time. It's a hobby—a pastime. It's certainly not vulgar or distasteful like Phellanvance groping my breasts on canvas." The hobby and pastime Rose was referring to was her habit to label the periods of commotion caused by the masculist campaign, and allude to them regularly. "Ah. Back in the Feminist Era," or "You know that girl that came to our door during the Grocery Store Stage?" They were simple titles, for simple stretches of time. Naming the stages of her brief popularity was one way Rose kept sane and entertained. She delighted herself with the timeline. First was the Chatter Stage, and then the Plague of Interviewers. Following that was the very short Feminist Era, and then the Masculists' Protests. With the two groups so near to one another there was inevitably WWIII, and then the Recovery Period when all was quiet. The Recovery Period was very short though, and followed by the Grocery Store Stage when Rose could hear her name on every soccer mom's disgusted lips in every Publix in Georgetown. After that, there was Catch 22, and finally, after that there was "International", which Rose was almost certain was Phellanvance's favorite. International ended almost simultaneously with Michael's doubt, and everything quietly started to slow down after that. Michael had named the phase during that time; he had named it the I-told-you-so Period.
"Well I did," argued Rose, sipping a diet coke. Michael stared lethargically at the TV, at the chipped tooth of the News Lady announcing some of Phellanvance's fallbacks.
"Yes, yes. You did," he agreed lazily, stroking the cat. "But you know it's probably just a slow time. Like the Recovery Period. Hell will come back. You know that, right Rose? It will come back. I don't want you to get your hopes up or anything." Rose shrugged carelessly.
"Michael," she addressed calmly. "This will blow over." Michael frowned.
"I'm not so sure."
But Rose was right. It did blow over. Almost as soon as it seemed to begin, Phellanvance's great project helplessly faded out of the limelight. The masculist campaign was shot to its knees with the quick, cruel blow of time and a decrease of comprehensible letters. When Phellanvance went international he had not only slowly lost America's easy interest, but there was also one drawback he had not anticipated: language. When Phellanvance went international, he could no longer read or make example of many of the letters that were sent to him. The masculist campaign slowly faded out of Rose and Michael's lives. They disappeared from the headlines, and were sent quietly to nestle on the third or fifth page of the news, and eventually not even in the news at all.
The first sign of the masculist campaign's waning that the pair experienced took place in the supermarket when a bagboy stopped Rose suddenly and exclaimed. "Hey! I know you!" Michael had bit his lip, and prepared for the worst when the acne-suffering teen surprised him. "You teach at my school!" Rose smiled.
"Yes, that's me," she conceded, and waltzed out of the store with a very smug look on her face.
Thus it was over. The masculist campaign had lasted about one year; an accomplishment that could be considered "Valiant, but ultimately failing." Rose Sterling might have put it in simpler terms. As she would word it, "It left even quicker than my husband." Out of all the periods of Rose's popularity – the Grocery Store Stage, or the brief Feminist Era – Rose thought happily that the whole ordeal within itself seemed the absolute shortest of all.
Rose was used to things being temporary. In her life, everything was impermanent and momentary with the exception of inconsistency and cigarettes. Even Michael, Rose knew, would one day find a nice guy to settle down with and move. She was used to things leaving, and she had always been thus prepared for Phellanvance and the masculist campaign's departure.
One thing she had never expected, however, was their return.
The phone call had come at two in the afternoon with a shrieking, solid ring. Michael was busy reorganizing the spices in the pantry at the time and he called Rose into the kitchen to pick it up. Moodily, she snatched up the receiver with a dignified grunt.
"Hello? Ms. Sterling?" the voice buzzed. It was faint and surrounded by thunderous blasts of car horns. "I'm calling from my cell, I'm on the road to your place."
"Who is this?" Rose was not a phone person, and lacked much of the tact and eloquence that Michael had when receiving calls. He glared at her from the pantry, and shook the paprika threateningly, which made it spill and in turn made him yelp and scramble to clean it back up.
"Arthur Sodd, ma'am. Listen, I understand you have Mrs. Willows listed as your attorney but I think you would be much better off if represented by a man in your case."
"Case?" Rose echoed, she rubbed her eyes and swallowed, and leaned against the kitchen counter. She didn't like the way Arthur Sodd said the word man. It was the same way, she recalled vaguely, that Phellanvance said the word, and perhaps this is what tipped her off. "What case?"
"Mr. Vance is suing you for the murder of Joseph Bray, ma'am."
"Joseph Bray is dead?"
"Yes, that's the spirit, Ms. Sterling." Arthur Sodd chimed. "Keep up that innocent attitude. I like the way you think, Rose. Can I call you Rose? Listen, I've got to go. I'll be at your apartment soon. Don't talk to any reporters, OK?"
"Wait—" The receiver clicked, and a long, beeping noise filled the silence. Rose stared at the phone. Michael stared at Rose. The cat stared at Michael. The penny dropped. Somewhere, Rose knew, God was laughing.