What a Piece of Work I Am (A Confabulation)
by Eric Kraft, as Peter Leroy
Paperback Cover ..... Preface
The Sultry Older Sister of My Imaginary Friend

MY BEST FRIEND was my imaginary friend, a boy named Rod, short for Rodney, friend of my own invention. I based him on a boy that I met by chance one day, a runaway boy who was passing through Babbington on his way to somewhere else, anywhere, nowhere, who-knows-where. I brought him to meet my great-grandmother Leroy, because I happened to be on my way to see her, and later, long after the runaway boy had left town, one day when Great-grandmother and I were trading secrets, I confessed to her that I considered him my best friend. 
   “What was his name again?” she asked. 
   When Great-grandmother asked me a question, I was never quite sure whether she was testing me or simply wanted to know something. Did she know that I didn’t really know the boy’s name? Did she suppose that I would have made one up? 
   “Rodney,” I said. “Rod.” 
   “Oh, yes,” she said. “I remember. And what was his last name?” 
   I was ready for this. I had a last name for him. It had been given to me, gratis, one day in the schoolyard. I had witnessed the taunting of a sullen, dark-haired girl by a group of other, livelier girls. Over and over they repeated, in singsong voices, something that may have been “Koochie-koochie-koochie-koo. Would she take it off for you?” The lively girls laughed. The sullen girl stared at the ground and turned and walked away. As she passed a line of boys leaning against the schoolyard fence, they took up the chant, too. I had no idea what all of this might have been about. I was seven, and the actors in the little drama might have been thirteen. On the way home, however, I found myself repeating the chant, as well as I remembered it. The distortions of memory and repetition twisted it into something like “Koochie Koochikoff,” and, eventually, in the days that followed, into what I used for Rodney’s last name. 
   “Lodkochnikov,” I said. 
   “What?” she said. 
   “Lodkochnikov,” I said again, slowly. 
   “Hmm,” she said. She stared at me long and hard, then gave a little shudder and said, “Well, we’ll see.” 
   After that day she asked me about my friend Rod Lodkochnikov often, and when I described the imaginary adventures we had, the games we played, and so on, she always seemed relieved, as if she feared that he would be an unsuitable companion for me. She never got his name quite right. She was convinced that he was called Raskolnikov, and that’s the name that stuck as a nickname, Raskol for short. When I was little, I thought of this Raskol as a wanderer, sent by luck or fate to be my friend, but as I aged, or, possibly, as I matured, I came to see that he hadn’t come from anywhere; he had been with me all the time. Although I had made the shell of this friend from bits and pieces of other people—scraps, used parts that I’d picked up here and there from the junkyard of my memory and imagination—his head and his heart were mine from the start, and that’s why we got along so well. 
   Most children give their imaginary friends up after a while, ignore them, send them away, or let them go, but I kept mine, and along with him I kept his entire family: his enormous half-witted brothers, his sturdy and long-suffering mother, his violent father—a battered, belabored, and disappointed man—and his sultry sister, Ariane. When I was a boy, I was in love with Ariane. She was fascinating, dark and shapely, luscious as a ripe plum, and if she were here now, looking over my shoulder as I write these words, she’d be likely to say, “Take it easy, there, boy. Don’t spread it on quite so thick. Control yourself.” 
   For a few months when I was eleven, Ariane and I spent our afternoons together, afternoons that seem incredible to me now, the two of us alone in a dark little room at her parents’ house, watching movies on television. She allowed me, now and then, to brush against her, to lean against her, or even to give her a fleeting caress, if I disguised it as an accidental blunder, and she allowed me, with no restrictions at all, to look at her. I was allowed, even invited, to enjoy the sight of her, to appreciate the way she looked. In that sense and that sense alone she gave herself to me, and I took what she offered—regarding her, considering her, contemplating her for hours. The television set was always on during our afternoons together, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. I spent my time watching Ariane. A work of art needs a viewer. 
   I entertained—and endured—uncontrollable fantasies about her. I imagined a reciprocal affection and even—I’ll be delicate—a consummation of that affection, but I was just a boy, six very significant years younger than she. I was disheveled and ignorant, sweaty, loud, half-baked. Still, I like to think that she recognized my childish love for her and understood it, and that it pleased her. 

A COUPLE OF YEARS later, when I was beginning to escape my childishness, I began to flirt with Ariane in a more overt way that she couldn’t have failed to recognize. I began to try to tell her what I felt for her, but my complex, fragile feelings were drowned out by the thunder of my roaring, snorting, charging adolescent lust, and the stammered protestations of affection that I managed to get out always wound up coming out as the sort of thing that made her say, “Take it easy, there, boy. Don’t spread it on quite so thick. Control yourself.” 
   At about that time, Ariane got a job at a resort, though “resort” is really too grand a term for the place. It was a motel with pretensions. She worked there for about a year and a half, as a maid, a waitress, and hostess—and then something happened to her, something that I didn’t understand. She distanced herself from everyone—her family, her school friends, me. 
   I blamed myself, of course. I accused myself of having gone too far with her. I must have said the wrong thing, something that made her draw a curtain. She seemed to turn inward, but she moved outward, leaving home and moving into an odd house of her own down in the scruffiest part of town, the shadowy warehouse area near the docks. I visited her down there, now and then, passing an evening with her at her place, but I found the surroundings and her circumstances unsettling. Paradoxically (but she would disapprove of my use of that word), although she was living by herself, I no longer felt the splendid isolation from the prying world that had made our earlier afternoons so sweet, and I felt none of the old privileged freedom to view her without shame or self-consciousness. In fact, I felt almost nothing but self-consciousness when I visited her there, and that self-consciousness dulled my senses, muffled me. We still enjoyed each other’s company in a shallow way, but often when we spoke she seemed to be thinking about something entirely different from what she was saying, and no matter how many hours we might chat, there were still so many things deliberately left unsaid that they made an insulating hollow between us, like the dead air in an outside wall. The evenings we spent together ended alike: the silences would lengthen and finally I would say that I had to go. She would show me to the door, and after I heard it close behind me I would walk away with my head down until I was out of sight, in the shadows. 
   Sometimes, I would walk to her part of town without telling her that I was coming. I’d find a spot where I could see her, and I would watch her for a while, just watch her sitting in her living room or puttering in her kitchen. I might watch her for an hour or so, but after a while, when I had decided that I wasn’t going to walk around to her kitchen door and knock, I’d give up and go home. 

I WENT AWAY to college, stayed away for graduate school, and then returned to teach molluscan biology, local history, folk etymology, and recreational mathematics at Babbington High. When I returned, Ariane was still in town, at the same place, down by the docks, but I didn’t see much of her. I just never seemed to have the time. Then one night her house burned down and Ariane was killed. 
   Again, I blamed myself. If I had been there—who knows. Perhaps the fire never would have started. Perhaps I could have put it out. Or perhaps we would have died together. When I start a thought with if, I tend to get lost in a maze of possibilities, and soon I’m furious with headstrong fate for having, in haste to get from then to then, chosen a single route, and a wrong one at that, an unacceptable one, when so many others would have served, such as the one that I have described in the pages that follow, which provides a fire extinguisher at the critical moment and allows her to telephone me one night, a few years after the fire extinguisher saved her. 

I WAS READING when the phone rang, and I was reluctant to answer, but I’ve never been good at ignoring a ringing phone, so I picked it up after the third ring. 
   “Hello?” I said. 
   “Peter?” said the voice at the other end of the line. 
   “Yes,” I said. 
   “I bet you don’t know who this is.” 
   It sounded like Ariane, but I wasn’t sure, and when people ask you to guess they usually have some trick up their sleeve. 
   “It’s Ariane,” she said, without requiring me to guess. 
   All my boyish feelings for her came back to me, and for a moment I saw her in my mind’s eye just as she had been—back when I was eleven and she was seventeen, when she was somewhere between girl and woman—as if I had seen her earlier that day, but because the truth was that I hadn’t seen her for months, I immediately felt guilty about it. 
  “How are you?” I asked, and I heard in my voice a phoniness that embarrassed me. 
   “Fine,” she said. 
   “I haven’t been down there to see you in a while,” I said. “I—” I could taste the lame excuses in my mouth. 
   “Oh, never mind about that,” she said. “I called you to tell you something that—well—that I can hardly believe.” She paused. Apparently she was waiting for some response from me. 
   “Oh?” I said. 
   “I’m leaving Babbington.”
   “Wow,” was all I could think of to say. I had regressed to early adolescence. I had begun to feel the same aching yearning for her I had felt so many years before. “I—I—really don’t know what to say,” I said. This happens to me, sometimes. It’s not really that I don’t know what to say, but that I can’t seem to get hold of it. Everything I might say seems to be on the other side of a fence, guarded by a drooling dog, inaccessible to me. 
   “It’s time for something else,” she said. “Time for me to do something else, maybe it’s even time for me to be someone else. Anyway, it’s time to go.” 
   “I—I’m—astonished. It’s hard to think of Babbington without you. You’re an institution.” 
   “I know,” she said. “Think of the broken hearts! But I’ve had enough of it. Anyway, before I go, I want to see you.” 
   “Oh, sure! I want to see you, too! I’m not letting you out of town without a good-bye—” 
   “I don’t mean just to say good-bye. I want—well—I have some stories that I want to tell you. Maybe I just want to get nostalgic. Maybe I miss your attention. I don’t know.” 
   “I’ll come over.” 
   “This will take a while,” she said. “It’s not a one-night stand.” 
   I’m sure I was blushing. 
   “Do you mind spending a few evenings with me?” she asked. I had the pleasant feeling that time had reversed our roles, that she was flirting with me. Perhaps I was flattering myself, but a guy needs some of that now and then. 
   “Not at all,” I said. 
   “Maybe we can curl up together on the sofa and watch television.” I could hear her smile. 
   “For old times’sake,” I said. 
   “Tomorrow night? Seven?” 
   “I’ll be there,” I said. I hung up. My palm had left an interesting pattern of sweat on the handset. 

FOR ABOUT A MONTH, in my version, I saw her nearly every night. Most of the time, she talked, and I listened. I took notes; she did not. I tried to get a word in now and then, and now and then she allowed me to, but most of the time she did the talking. She had a lot to tell me. When she had told me all her stories and we had, finally, said our good-byes, I went home, a little dizzy from it all, put the notes into a carton, labeled it “ARIANE’S STORY,” and put it in the cellar. Years passed. She wrote to me, long, rambling letters that arrived at irregular intervals from distant, exotic places as she meandered halfway around the world. I saved those, too. 
   In December of 1992, Gregory Tschudin’s film On Display was released and a fierce northeast storm struck, the third severe storm in a few months. The storm battered this old hotel where I make my life, and flooded the cellar, and the film jarred my memory. While I was cleaning the cellar, sorting through the mementos I stored there, many of them now destroyed, I came upon the notes I had taken during the month I spent listening to Ariane. Now sodden and fragile, they were all but illegible. Her letters, which I had packed in a bundle, fared better. I was able to dry them out and read them. As I read, I found myself reminded of those nights that we had spent together and our conversations, and I was not at all surprised to find that as I recalled the things we had talked about and the time we had spent together I was already beginning to think of writing this book. By the time I had finished the last of her letters I could see the book. I could picture it finished, almost feel it in my hands. I was astonished to discover how much of what I am now I owe to Ariane. In so very many ways, she made me what I am today, even though I made her up. For me she exists at an intersection that is the confabulation of many myths, the anastomosis of several narrative lines, a crossroads in a labyrinth of tales where secret doors lead from one story to another, and she’s waiting there for me. It was she who taught me the sustaining value and rewards of a rich inner life, lived in the imagination. It was she who taught me the clarifying power of words. It was she who taught me to look beyond myself to find myself. She taught me all the things that were essential to my creating a life for myself, and to my creating a self, and she also taught me—largely through example, rereading the letters showed me— how very many things can be explained in terms of clam chowder. Along the way, I see now, she groomed me to tell her story, and so I have. I hope I’ve done it justice. I hope it would have made her proud. 

Peter Leroy
Small’s Island 
July 26, 1993 


Poignant, Dizzying
Karen Karbo, New York Times Book Review
Kraft Cooks Up Another Treat
Timothy Hunter, The Cleveland Plain Dealer


What a Piece of Work I Am is published in paperback by Picador USA, a division of St. Martin’s Press, at $11.00. 

You should be able to find What a Piece of Work I Amat your local bookstore, but you can also order it by phone from: 

Bookbound at 1-800-959-7323 
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Libros en Español: What a Piece of Work I Am is also available in Spanish from Ediciones Destino

Paperback Cover
Copyright © 1994 by Eric Kraft

What Piece of Work I Am is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, dialogues, settings, and businesses portrayed in it are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. 

First published by Crown Publishers, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022. Member of the Crown Publishing Group. 

Now available in paperback from Picador USA, a division of St. Martin’s Press. 

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