SHADES OF DENIAL • by Sean Jones

How many times have I been in the room during a Lord family confrontation?  John Lord, age forty, shouldering a grey woolen overcoat, smelling like the Camel menthols he’s just smoked, fills the open doorway of a once-posh Upper East Side apartment decorated in tasteful beige.  On the wall opposite him, three drawn muslin shades fend off harsh noon sunlight while multicolor magazines of horses lie underfoot.  Shattered crystal splinters sparkle on the cherrywood floor beside a white bookshelf overstuffed with psych books.  Next to the self-help library stands a walnut end table topped by a greasy red-and-white paper bucket of KFC chicken.

John’s sister, Mary, thirty-five, smelling like Chardonnay and trust fund money, slouches on the suede couch the hot salesman said was “stone” colored.  Mary wears rhinestoned Gucci sunglasses, a tattered pink Columbia sweatshirt and mocha riding pants.  Her neglected auburn hair sprawls over a square “slate” pillow.

John says with a gravelly voice, “This is out of control.”

“You mean I’m out of control?”

“Mary, if you’d ever admit you have a problem, I wouldn’t feel compelled to show up constantly.”

“I’m fine, John.”

Closing the apartment door behind him, glancing at the glass shards on the floor, John says, “Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.”


“You don’t see an elephant?”

“When you say there’s an elephant in the room, I picture one — when you say there’s not one.”

“No elephant.”

“What elephant, John?”

“Mary, it might as well be purple.”

“That’s worse.”  Mary massages her neck.  “I see a purple elephant and then I have to unsee it.”

“The color doesn’t matter.”

“I — still — can’t — not — picture an elephant and I don’t know what color it isn’t. What well-painted illustration am I not seeing, Salvador Picasso?”

“An elephant would overcrowd this room.”

“No doubt.”

“A purple elephant would do serious damage.”

“Sure would.”

Coughing, John unbuttons his overcoat and says, “That’s how Great-Gram’s crystal vase got smashed?”

Sitting up, looking around the apartment through her sunglasses, Mary says, “Oh. No. Oh, no.”

“An elephant, not someone’s stupor?”

Mary rubs her neck again. “John, the elephant’s not that purple.”

“Lavender, then. Lilac.”

“There is no elephant, and even if there were, it’d be plain. Grey.”

John crunches through horsey mags and lifts the center shade. “No one in the room is in denial.”

“How can I deny denial, Mr. Paradox? Skillful conundrum.”

“No one in the room drinks like a fish.”

“Fish don’t drink.”

As John lifts the left shade, he says, “No one you know failed to tell her family about her D.U.I. arrest on Christmas Eve.”

“No one from your menagerie.”

“No one in the room pawned Grandpa’s gold equestrian medal to pay lawyers’ fees.”


“The medal ran away, hopped a boxcar, joined the circus, went to work with the pachyderms?”

“On the subject of animals, Dr. Doolittle,” Mary says, twisting her beaten copper hair into a bun, “how many packs of Camels do you kill in a good day?”

“That’s irrelevant.”

“John Lord, Big Game Hunter. See his smoking gun.”

“Mary, this isn’t about me.”

“John Lord, bringing home trophies, soon to bag his third trophy wife. Do you visit your exes like you keep tabs on me? Stop by Diane’s apartment, check on her social life? Take the train out to Connecticut and manage Stephanie’s affairs?”

“Mary, I’m not perfect but I’m not destroying my dreams with alcohol.”

“Then, with… ?”

“With anything. With nothing.”

“Well, Mr. Nicotine, where there’s smoke there’s fire.”

“You date enough firemen to know.”

Mary smiles. “Or not enough.”

John wrinkles his nose. “What smells like chicken?”

“Help yourself. In the Colonel’s bucket on the end table. It’s Friday’s, from last night.”

“Today’s Sunday.”

Mary’s smile fades. “Oh, shit. Oh.” Mary glances at the pale spot on her tanned left wrist. “Are you taking me to Mass, then?”

“That’s not a bad idea.”

“Father Willenganz isn’t our father, John. You’re not our father. Our father — who art in heaven — was never much of a father.”

“You need one, Mary.”

In her best John Lord voice, Mary says, “You need one, Mary.”

“You do.”

Squinting, Mary pulls her sunglasses on top of her head. “There’s no father in this room. There isn’t one coming up the elevator. None strolling the street. None at Macy’s on markdown. No fathers for Mary at the Goodwill. None on the orange and white and purple FedEx truck. The UPS stud in his brown shirt and shorts isn’t bringing me one. Can you picture those not-fathers? The whole pack of them?”

“There’s a brother,” John says, reaching for the third muslin shade. “I promised Dad I’d look after you. Even if you won’t believe I’m doing this for you, believe I’m doing it for him.”

Mary lifts her wineglass and swirls its dregs while the engagement solitaire on her right hand scatters prismatic shards. “Save your lungs — I mean that both ways.” She meets his gaze. “What killed Dad is killing you and, yes, I worry about you. John, I can stop my habit any time. Your smoking’s more of an addiction than my drinking.”

John coughs discreetly.

“Don’t believe me? Then go ride Smokey the Elephant back to the savanna.”

I can’t stay silent any longer. Of all the times I’ve been in the room, I’d like to believe they hear me when I say, “Color me your purple scapegoat but I see you two care, care enough to fix this. Until you two admit you need each other’s help, this elephant stays in the room.”

Sean Jones says: “When I read other authors’ bios, they talk about their cats. I don’t have any and I wonder if other authors really do. After all, they’re creators of fiction. Let me tell you about my cats. Jasmine is black Siamese with green eyes and she loves to scamper on the back porch and catch moths in the moonlight. Thor is a tabby who sleeps all day, ironically through thunderstorms. Then, there’s Penelope, a Persian…”

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