[img_assist|nid=899|title=The New Kid, Charles Hosier © 2006|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=123]Jerome bought a jewel-encrusted scepter at the Army-Navy store. It cost eight dollars.
The scepter was in a special bin—actually; just a cardboard box with the lid cut off—located in a dim corner at the rear of the Army-Navy store, near the rack of Big & Tall Camouflage Fashions. The cardboard box had a wooden paint stirrer stapled to it and stapled to the paint stirrer was a hand-written sign: DISCONTINUED DAMAGED ONE OF A KIND.
The scepter looked weird there, thrown in with mismatched waterproof socks, outdated hunter’s sausage, and compasses stuck on SE.
The scepter glittered. Jerome picked it up. It was surprisingly light. He turned it every which way. He didn’t fool himself. The jewels covering the surface of the scepter were luminescent crimson and gold, but they were imitation—ruby and topaz colored glass. Yet Jerome was very much taken by the way they caught the light.
Jerome was not a sophisticated man but—and perhaps this is surprising—he knew a scepter when he saw one. The artifact he now held was a (no doubt) very cheap modern replica of a real scepter, which is basically a gaudily decorative type of stick used throughout the ages by rulers of all kinds as a symbol of royal power. Jerome remembered pictures of the British crown jewels he’d once seen in the encyclopedia at his grandfather’s house.
an orb, and
a robe, and
a bracelet, and
Jerome had read that Oliver Cromwell melted down many of the originals of the British crown jewels. But the Royalists made a comeback, and so did the jewels. Jerome had turned the yellowed pages of his grandfather’s encyclopedia, looking at photographs of the gleaming baubles, mesmerized by their otherworldly quality, and by the example, the message of the uncaring waste of such spectacular wealth. Like Cromwell, he’d thought: Have they no shame? But he’d been weirdly excited by the photographs.
The Queen of England’s scepters are three feet long. One is topped with a four-sided head containing exquisite, gilded carvings of St Stephen, asserting the Crown’s (temporal) authority over the church. The other has doves.
The Army-Navy scepter Jerome held in his hands was only—he guessed—about seventeen inches in length, topped with an oblong, three-sided knob, and ornamented with simple Celtic-looking designs. It seemed toy-like; a child seeing it might take it for a magic wand.
Jerome hesitated. An eight-dollar scepter purchase (including tax) would require use of all the funds he’d intended for the purchase of new laces for his hiking boots, as well as the cost of carfare home. In other words, if he bought the scepter he’d have to walk the several-mile distance back to his apartment—in boots with broken laces.
But Jerome decided he would buy the scepter. Granted, it was silly, but there was, to him, something irresistibly appealing about the idea of a non-royal guy using all of his “worldly goods” to purchase a bejeweled artifact. He imagined showing it off to people at work, or better yet, just displaying it casually on a loop descending from his belt so his co-workers would be intrigued and provoked into asking him about it. He’d reply in one of these ways:
This scepter? You never noticed it before?
Or: I spent everything I had on it. Every penny in my possession.
Or, simply: Bow down, peasant.
He wouldn’t mention the eight dollar figure unless pressed.
Alice was a woman Jerome had known. He’d seen her the first time when he was part of a large group of people all going to the movies. She was the sister of a sort-of friend of his. Jerome sat in the row behind Alice and he liked
her neck, the way she showed it when she tilted her head back to laugh, and
the flickering gray-blue light from the film which shone on the top of her hair, and
her profile, when she turned to whisper something to her neighbor, though it blocked his view of the screen.
The next time Jerome saw Alice was when he attended his sort-of friend’s wedding reception, at a neighborhood catering hall. It was dark and hot in the hall and the ceilings were low. Alice wore an emerald dress. She was drunk, and there was something on her mind. When Jerome asked her to dance she cheered up, and laughed in a theatrical way, and took his hand. Once out on the tiny dance floor, she broke away from him and gyrated wildly, lifting her knees too high and flailing her solid body around and paying, it seemed, very little attention to the music, which was romantic and slow. (Jerome had purposely waited for a slow number to come up before his approach.) Embarrassed by his partner’s display, his face hot, Jerome saw people watching, pointing, and laughing—but he stayed with Alice . He marched forward and took her hand again to keep her under control, and that worked for a while, but her hand was slippery and on one unexpected turn she broke free from his grasp and lost a shoe and spun toward the too-small table with the wedding cake on it. Alice fell without putting her hands out; there was a meaty thud. Her body rolled and jarred one of the table legs and the cake shuddered but didn’t fall. Everyone laughed once they saw the cake was all right.
Jerome picked up Alice ’s lost shoe and then he picked up Alice . Her right shoulder strap had detached itself from the back of her dress and, rooted to the front, stood half-erect, an emerald serpent wavering beckoningly in the air between them. As he raised her to her feet, Alice brought her hot-breathed mouth close to his ear and whispered: Where do you live?
She stayed with him all that night and some of the next day. They had sexual intercourse 4½ times.
Jerome called Alice on three different occasions after their night together before it became clear that she didn’t want to see him again, not even to have sex ½ times more, to even things out. Jerome gave up because he didn’t want to be a creep.
The young dark-eyed male clerk who waited on him gave Jerome a peculiar, malevolent look when he took the gleaming scepter up to the cash register to pay for it, then rudely snatched the proffered money from his hand, saying nothing. Jerome, curious to learn why an Army-Navy store was selling scepters, was so baffled by the boy’s hostile body language that he could only meet the clerk’s silence with his own, unsure how to broach the subject of the scepter’s origins in the face of such apparent animus.
When Jerome returned to his apartment, he sat for a minute on the sofa to catch his breath, winded from the long walk. Then he gingerly inserted his moist right hand into the softly creased brown bag in which he’d brought the scepter home, and, with two fingers, pulled it free and let it swing inverted before his face, a sparkling pendulum, trailing warm flimmering smiles of scarlet and gold, which lingered in the air before fading. Jerome’s apartment was
But the scepter shone brilliantly, and the room was newly lit.
Jerome carried the scepter to the bathroom, turned on the light, closed the door, and faced the full-length mirror hung on the back of it, the only mirror in the house. He posed with the scepter, adopting various postures:
clutching the scepter tightly across his chest, then
pointing it at the mirror, as if giving a command, then
naked and pointing.
Jerome expected that holding the scepter would make him look—and feel—different. Like he had felt when looking at the pictures of the crown jewels. Or during that time with Alice .
But Jerome did not look or feel any different. He was not exalted. In fact, he looked and felt rather silly, a glowering commoner grasping a cheap shiny stick.
Jerome decided that a scepter was not enough. He would need a crown.
Jerome looked up “crowns” in the phone book. There was a small entry for the word between “Crowd Control Equipment” and “Cruises,” but it only advised him to “see Dentists.”
Jerome thought about the problem for a couple of days. Where does an average guy buy a crown?
During the time he was thinking, Jerome did not take his scepter to his job with him as he had planned; he left it home, on the bureau. Each day when he returned from work, Jerome approached the bedroom and peered in at the scepter. It seemed wrong to keep it there, as if thrown down without care on the dirty scratched wooden surface, lying next to his much less-shiny keys and loose change, but trial and error had proven that the scepter didn’t look right anywhere else in the apartment, either.
On the third day, a Saturday, Jerome thought: Why not see if they have a crown at the costume shop?
The shopping trip was fruitful. Not only did Jerome obtain a crown, he also got an orb and a cape. They all came together in a cardboard box with a cellophane window. The box was called “Royal Fun Kit.”
The kit seemed intended for use by children, and that worried Jerome a little, because he thought the crown might not fit. And the mottle-faced woman behind the counter would not let him take it out of the box before purchase to try it for size; in fact, she seemed to think he was joking when he suggested it.
Jerome took the Royal Fun Kit home. In the bathroom, he found that the crown was too small (almost comically so), but when he wore it and the cape (short and purple, with a faux ermine fringe) together while tendering both the orb (gold-colored plastic, with red paste jewels) and the scepter, he saw something new appear in the mirror.
[img_assist|nid=901|title=Wheat, Charles Hosier © 2006|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=149|height=75]15.
I am my true self, and
no one can deny it, and
a king must have a queen.
Jerome took off his regalia to eat dinner; it just seemed wrong to eat a chicken pot pie while wearing a crown. After his meal, he called his sort-of friend and endured a bit of uncomfortable chitchat before he managed to steer the subject of the conversation around to where Alice might be. The sort-of friend off-handedly remarked that Alice spent most Saturday evenings drinking with her girlfriends in a tavern called Alane’s Hole. Jerome immediately steered the conversation to another subject so his sort-of friend would not get a weird vibe from him, then hung up as soon as politeness would allow, turned off the lamp, and sat in the dark, thinking.
After a while, Jerome went to the bedroom and got the scepter, brought it into the living room, and held it near the window. He pretended that the pale light coming in emanated not from the flickering street lamp outside but from moon glow, or the cool illumination of stars.
Alice sat with her friends Lisa (small and dark) and Jennifer (large and red) at their regular table. The bar had gotten quieter and quieter as closing time approached.
It’s the shank of the evening, Lisa said.
Jennifer was thirty percent less intoxicated than her friends since she was the designated driver. She said: No, it’s later than the shank. It’s the rectum, the rectum of the evening.
Alice and Lisa both laughed, even though they didn’t understand. When you’ve been drinking the word “rectum” is always funny.
It was around this time on most Saturdays that Alice and her friends complained about men. They said that
all the good men know they’re good and avoid getting married, or
all the good men are already married, or
there are no good men.
The soft murmur of conversation surrounding the three women ceased suddenly and they looked around to see what was going on.
There was a man in a crown and a cape standing in the entrance to the tavern. In one hand he held a big shiny ball and in the other a glittering stick. He began a magisterial procession in their direction.
Oh crap, said Alice .
Jerome moved with regal deliberation along the irregular aisle between tables, surveying the faces around him, searching. The patrons he passed were shocked, awed, and silent. Some of the drunker ones bobbed their heads.
The spell lasted until Jerome saw Alice and approached; the approach brought him within range of the ceiling fan, and one of its leisurely circling blades knocked his crown off. Unfazed, he stepped to one side, reached down, reacquired the crown, and perched it back on his head without breaking the eye contact he’d made with his queen. Meanwhile, the commoners in the bar erupted into laughter—even the approaching waitress, who had previously been sure she’d seen everything.
Jerome raised his scepter above his head and the bar grew quiet instantly. Tufts of fake ermine escaped the fringe of his cape, impelled by the ceiling fan. They floated in the air, orbiting him like moons.
Jerome quite dramatically dropped his arm so that the scepter pointed at Alice .
I choose you, he said, to be my queen.
Alice blinked. Her friends turned to look at her, then turned back to look at Jerome. He smiled, majestically.
Alice started to stand. Jennifer grabbed her arm.
Alice , don’t, she said.
I can’t help myself, Alice said. It’s a royal command.
Toward dawn, Jerome returned from the bathroom and noticed something glittering under the bed. He knelt down and picked it up. The scepter. He looked closely at it in the lavender light. It was missing two stones, he noticed. But it was still a lovely thing.
Jerome knelt on the edge of the bed. In his absence, Alice had imperially invaded his side of it, sprawling with covetous assurance on as much square footage as she could cover. She was naked, and quite unconscious. Jerome studied her as the sun rose.
drooled a little, and
was nonetheless glorious.
Jerome placed the scepter next to Alice . There, nestled against her left breast, glimmering in the auspicious golden aurora of sunrise, it at last looked right, safely at home with one of its own kind. James (Jay) W. Morris grew up in Philadelphia and attended Central High School and LaSalle University, where he was awarded a scholarship for creative writing. His fiction has appeared in numerous literary magazines and for a time he worked as a monologue writer for Jay Leno. Recently, his first play, RUDE BABY, was produced by the City Theater Company of Wilmington, Delaware. “Regalia” is the second story of Jay’s to appear in Philadelphia Stories.