“…God will give you blood to drink.” –Sarah Good
It did not go away—as everyone said it would. At nine months Ida was diagnosed with an obscure disorder. It was thought to be caused by an infection in the eyes at birth, a condition that amplifies the production of the rare pigments in the iris, increasing them until they dominate the eye. When most babies’ eyes shift from the lapis slate of infancy to their final and common color, Ida’s eyes turned wolf yellow and remained that way. They smoldered under her white bonnet like filament at low voltage.
This was startling to everyone. To her parents. To those who cooed at babies and drew close to see her. To those who lifted her cap to peer in at the bland, lost little face, and found those inquisitive, lupine eyes.
Soon people lost their inhibitions completely. “Can I see?” they asked, waving and jogging toward her mother across the square that divided the cemetery from the church yard, following her into stores, down the produce aisle. Ida’s mother would often turn to find a strange man standing behind her, cornering her against the lettuce. No introductions. “Mind if I have a look?”
And what could she do? She would turn her child from her shoulder, bob her on her forearm and let the stranger’s eyes stare into Ida’s, “Ain’t that a thing,” some said. “They’ll go away,” said others.
What happened when Ida was fourteen was in many ways inevitable. She had been so long an object of curiosity—a kind of unconsummated desire—and the rumors had been in the wings from the beginning, jealous and impatient understudies, anxious for their turn on stage: “I bet she has a forked tongue,” “I bet she howls at night.”
In church that morning Ida had been holding her late grandmother’s wedding band in her mouth. She was bored and had taken it off her finger and was flipping it over and over on her tongue while the reverend, a soft-eyed older man named Quatrous, was preaching the prophet Amos.
After church her mother stayed and talked while Ida wandered outside to wait on the warm church steps. From there she saw a horse standing across the street in the shade of a tremendous live oak. It was tied by the bosal to an ornamental iron fence capped with sharp hand-hammered finials. The fence had been there for a hundred years and it lifted and sunk where the roots of the oak pressed up beneath it, causing sections of finials to aim inward in concave depressions and others to fan out lethally like the rays of the sun on old celestial maps.
She was moved toward the horse by a restless feeling the church service put inside her. Like the residue a flash bulb leaves hanging in the air—an exposure that turns with you when you turn and stays out in front of you when you close your eyes—the long stillness of the hour had made the world distant and unreal and the horse was a part of the dream. She wanted to touch the tight tendons of the leg, wanted to run her hand over the muscles and across the steep hill of the flank.
As her hand neared the horse’s front shoulder it seemed a spark left her finger tips, and if not a spark, something like it, something inside her, something she carried that leapt. An invisible surface was breached. The animal spooked and reared and she fell back and watched as the horse grew tall and then taller again, impossibly tall. It came down near her, the hooves clattering on stone. A taste of iron in her mouth, a notch in the tip of her tongue. The horse went up again and she watched as it tried to clear the old iron fence. She watched as the mecate caught and she watched still as the historic finials disappeared into the smooth barrel of its underbelly.
The sound it made was significant, married to its meaning. A song lived somewhere inside the sound and it drew men toward it. From the far end of the road, and from around the corner, and from across the street, they hustled toward the sound of the horse. But the noise Ida heard had not come from the horse but from somewhere inside her. The sound was the sound of her mind when she saw the horse descend, it was the sound of a sawmill clutch before the belt gains, the sound of resistance, of wishing it could all be turned back, the sound of a loud blister in her palm after a day of raking leaves, the long wooden pews creaking, the organ growl, the doxology, pedal tones that are felt before they can be heard. It was a sound like the nameless world.
The horse’s front hooves pawed and reached for the ground while the animal remained suspended. On the sidewalk, in the shadow, it seemed the horse was running hard in a four-beat gait and the shadow was something projected out of the horse, some vital extension escaping.
The mare bled out from its barrel. Its large eye widened above her. She watched the eye as the blood left the horse, black ink streaming down the scroll work, over the nodes and twisted pickets. The big eye rolled languidly and then centered itself like the by-point globe inside her father’s liquid compass, regaining its mysterious traction to the world. She watched the eye work to stay in the world, to keep a hold on it.
Men seemed to come from everywhere then. They mobbed around her, shouting to each other, crowding in. Their boot heels slipped in the blood, streaking it with clay. They scurried around the horse’s suspended body, over the fence, placing their backs alongside the animal’s body and lifting with their legs. This was all organized by shouting and by something unspoken, the frantic purposeful feeling, not unlike joy, that men take in things terrible and unlikely.
Shouts rose suddenly to stop lifting; a man who did not hear fell to the ground beneath the horse and when he rose his dark suit pants were purple with blood and brilliant in the sunlight. The mare squealed when the lifting stopped and stamped its back legs and the men around it moved away and the horse descended only farther into the finials until it stood with its front hooves on the ground. It rested. It contemplated its pain.
Everyone on that corner knew it was Quatrous’s horse and that he had just bought it the week before. He was one of the only men in Shell Bluff to still bring a horse into town and it was only on Sundays. Quatrous made the decision. He stepped out of the church across the street and without looking twice at the scene—the men sweating, their feet slipping in the blood—he asked one of the police officers for a pistol.
Ida had been carried across the street and propped up against the trunk of a large sweet gum tree. Her eyes were glazed and the world inside her pitched and turned. Her mother took off her shoes and threw them away and held her face and stared into it and saw nothing but the vivid gold eyes, focusing on nothing. The pistol snapped, ringing the air between the short buildings, and the horse sunk entirely into the finials as a large flock of pigeons rushed out from the limbs above Ida’s head.
The women in the prayer meetings shuddered to hear each new story—though they, most of all, spread them around—and would then commence to praying for Ida and her freedom from what they called her oppression. Many believed the incident to be associated somehow with her grandmother’s wedding band and wished her to take the band off.
Ida’s grandmother had lived with them for as long as Ida could remember and her presence in their house was robust, solid, heavy with laughter. Her grandmother seemed so physical an object, and by comparison her parents, who were not affectionate people, seemed frail, as if strong laughter would sift them right out of the world like ash.
Ida would sit with the old woman in the evenings for hours and run her fingers down the large distended blue veins in her hands, tracing them as they warped over the bones, pressing them down and watching them grow faint, disappear, and then appear again. Her grandmother never resisted being touched and Ida loved this about her. She would let Ida do her hair up in all sorts of bizarre arrangements, twists and bows with confectionary zeal, everything short of cutting it, and the grandmother sat with her eyes closed, drifting in and out of sleep.
Ida was twelve when her grandmother died and her grief was immense. The wedding band was left to her for her own wedding day, but she refused to leave it in its envelope in the stationary desk. She screamed when it was asked from her and the screaming rattled her mother’s nerves. She was allowed to wear the ring, with the condition that she was only allowed to wear it on her right hand. It fit loosely on her slim fingers and Ida developed the habit of keeping that hand pursed into a fist when she walked or ran, giving her appearance a new ferocity, as if she were perpetually charging up to sock someone in the mouth.
After the horse died a series of stories developed. Desire was let free. One of the first stories that circulated throughout Shell Bluff—and even beyond, into Milledgeville and Sparta—was one that a number of people attested to seeing personally. Her grandmother’s wedding band would disappear from Ida’s finger and reappear in her throat. It happened at school. The ring appeared suddenly in her throat and was trying to choke her. Ms. Addison slapped her firmly on the back and out fell her grandmother’s ring onto the floor.
“Why’d you swalla that?” the teacher asked.
“She didn’t though,” said another girl. “It disappeared right off her finger. I saw the whole thing. It was there and then it was in her throat and she was choking. It showed up in her throat. I saw it all. I saw the lump in her throat. It’s trying to kill her.”
The word “booger” and the song, “Ida and her booger sitting in a tree…,” became a musical phrase that lived in Ida’s landscape, a bob-white’s call, a whippoorwill. The sounds of the words and the notes of the song were factual things that traveled through the air and scared her. She was oppressed. She was prayed for. All of it scared her.
Soon Ida hated being left alone, certain now, after all the words, and songs, and taunting, and prayers, that when she was alone she was not. Her fear of being alone, the fear itself, fed the rumors and as the rumors grew so did her reluctance to be around too many people, or too few, or to come near an animal, any animal, which could be difficult when almost everyone in Shell Bluff owned some number of livestock.
There were other things to reignite the story whenever it seemed to be dying down: a girl said she had a secret to tell. Her name was McCuen. She had six brothers all called by the same last name and no one knew their first names. They were McCuens. To call one was to call them all, but for Ida, McCuen was the girl who reeked of kerosene during the short Georgia winters. She was the girl who lived with her tribe of brothers and was skinned-kneed and ugly in appearance despite the fine features of her face and the way her eyelids lay softy over her almond shaped eyes, as if they were perpetually half-closed.
McCuen led Ida by the hand into the bathroom stall and instead of disclosing a secret began to softly stroke her arms, and then her cheeks, and hair. Ida felt the pressure of the girl’s hand on her head and then the hand moved to her cheek and then to her shoulder and Ida’s heart began to pound and at the same time she struggled to keep her eyes open, as if she were running full speed into sleep.
After the first kiss Ida let her lips part and McCuen kissed her again and it summed in her mind into a litany. It was a hot afternoon on a bank of red maples turning suddenly cool; it was water dripping off her fingertips, tugging each finger toward the ground with invisible force; her hand was swollen from a wasp sting, a hand that was numb and large and didn’t feel like her own when she touched it with the other; it was six pieces of coal she once found in her school desk, black like sin; it was soft like owl feathers and heavy like fruit.
They might have kissed a thousand times—it seemed an infinite space between each one. She never kissed back but it did not matter, she did not have to. They came one after the other. There was another girl there who saw them standing together, who had walked in quietly behind them and saw their shoes staggered in, facing each other. And she could tell, she just could, by the position of their feet and the odd silence, and she knew what was happening. It was this girl, hurt with longing and self-consciousness, who told her mother what she had not seen but knew, who told her friends that she had seen what she had not, who told everyone she could that Ida had seduced McCuen with her witch eyes. Then she added to the story as it needed adding, added that she heard them speaking together, in one voice speaking, and that they spoke in a language she had never heard before.
Ida’s parents received visitors who offered their advice, who spoke of how they had cured their own children from similar dispositions. McCuen spent two weeks out of school and no one knows what happened to her those two weeks, but when she returned to school she never looked at Ida again.
A few months passed and Ida was exhausted and numb to everything. She avoided animals completely, certain that whatever was with her would scare them, cause them to jump off of cliffs or hurl themselves on sharp objects.
Ida would be made a member of the church in early August. She completed her membership class uneventfully and the date was printed in the church bulletin with the names of the other children to be made members. The following week Ida’s named stood alone and the other baptisms were all rescheduled.
On the afternoon of the event Ida was picked up along with her family by a tall young man with greasy hair who drove a long pink Buick convertible. He introduced himself as Jimmy. Jimmy had just come down from Columbia with his new wife and was excited to be part of the occasion. On hearing from his brother-in-law that there would be a baptism he insisted on driving the family. He treated them like prominent figures in a grand parade. He left the top down on the Buick. He spoke loudly, over the radio—which he did not turn down, even as he pulled into the church parking lot to meet the caravan that contained the minister and what seemed a large number of cars and trucks that would follow them to the river. Compared to her father’s truck, the Buick went smoothly, suggesting the familiar road with its washed out creeks and roots while transcending it. Soon the other cars in their party were no longer visible. Ida gave up tucking her hair behind her ears and let it swirl around her face while her mother kept both her hands on her hat and her father wore his dark suit and a tight smile across his embarrassed face.
“I remember my first baptism,” Jimmy yelled at his passengers. “I thought the man wouldn’t ever let me up and when I did get up I tried to sock him in the face. He was messing with me. I swore he was. He looked small to me and I thought I could take him but he was strong as an ox. God. He was strong. He threw me right down again into the water and held me there until I gave up.” He reached back and slapped Ida on the leg and laughed as the Buick veered slowly toward the tree line. He corrected into the road and aimed the rearview mirror at her. “So don’t try it,” he winked.
“I thought you said you didn’t baptize till you married Q’s little sister.” Ida yelled back.
“Honey, that’s not your place,” her father turned.
“I didn’t.” Jimmy said.
“But you were baptized as a little boy?” she asked.
“Honey,” her father said again.
“That’s true,” he declared, laughing, “I got baptized as a boy but didn’t get saved till I married Q’s sister. I guess I was on layaway.”
Jimmy’s laughter caused the limbs to shake overhead and the light to spill down through the trees. He had tears in his eyes he was laughing so hard and the car was swerving and Ida felt herself being made new. Thurston Harris’s Litty Bitty was playing on the radio and the music was infecting them all. A strange sense of buoyancy entered her bones. She would walk across the water, she would bob like a cork. They smiled as they looked at each other, a family but strangers to themselves, figures made from air and sugar and gossamer, confections from a dream.
Baptisms were carried out in an eddy along the Savannah River where it takes Miller’s Pond Creek. There is a sandy wash a few steps up the creek mouth with good shallow clear water and the current is soft. Quatrous often said he loved the spot. It reminded him of those lesser-known lines from Cloverdale: “Lead me forth beside the waters of comfort.” “You see, the water doesn’t need to be still,” he would say on a Sunday morning, “‘Cause the best water keeps on moving, don’t it. You go get a drink from Telfair pond up above the dam and tell me it don’t taste like a slick froggy. Now go get you a drink from Keysville at the head and you’ll lay yourself face down and say Lord have mercy. Good water knows it’s not done. It’s got a race to run along the earth. Amen? It’s not home. No. But it’s bringing home with it, just not there yet. Who else ain’t home? We aren’t. That’s right.”
As the cars pulled up they could already see it wouldn’t do. The river was swollen and banking violently. The party walked the upstream path together in a single file just to see how the creek mouth looked and it didn’t look any better. What had once been an eddy was a brown churning place. Every so often a log would drift in and spin a few times like it was in a washer and then shoot back out into the river.
The men stood on the bank watching the river surge by, already intoxicated by the level sheen of light—if only it were small enough for them to run their hand across it, like a table top, to examine it, they would. Quatrous took off his shoes and rolled up his pant legs and prepared to wade in a few feet where it seemed the slowest. He needed to see how bad it actually was before he would give up his spot.
“Easy now,” Jimmy said, laughing.
“Woooo,” Quatrous said to the crowd, widening his eyes. They laughed.
“Is it cold enough?” Jimmy yelled.
“Woooo,” he said again, “no, it’s tugging though. It’s tugging.”
He waded back carefully and reached his hand up to Jimmy to help him step out just as he slipped in the slick kaolin clay that banded the bank. He went down on his face before he could get his hand down and the current pulled him immediately out of the creek mouth. As it did he rolled casually onto his back as if he were expecting as much to happen. It seemed like his belly was made of cork the way he shot out into the Savannah, bobbing in the rapids as he accelerated. He was cruising very quickly out of sight, disappearing in the shade of large maples and hickories and then reappearing on the other side moving faster than he was before and then he was gone.
Ida and Jimmy were racing along the bank shouting with others, Jimmy running ahead and laughing so hard he could barely keep Quatrous in sight. Ida’s feet slapped along the packed footpath. She caught glimpses of Quatrous, down low close to the bank. He would occasionally roll onto his stomach and reach for a branch overhead and then, having missed it, roll back onto his back to look where he was heading. When there wasn’t a limb to reach for he kept his arms down by his side and used them as paddles to direct himself.
After two or three attempts he finally got hold of a low hanging Possumhaw limb and was immediately stretched out longways downstream so that he couldn’t get his feet underneath him to walk out for fear of increasing the drag and breaking the branch. They all moved to go down when Jimmy grabbed Ida by the arm and said, “No sugar, you stand right here.” He made her hold onto a skinny tree and nodded to confirm that she would not leave it. He and another man went down the steep bank carefully together holding onto washed out tupelo roots.
“You finished bathing?” he yelled down to Quatrous.
“I’m just thinking,” Quatrous said.
“About how to get out?”
“No. About what it means.”
“It means you’re a clumsy old man, is what it means.”
“Maybe. Maybe,” he said, the water streaming around his face, framing his red skin. His thin white hair pasted and pulsing on his brow like a jelly fish.
“Do you want to hear my plan?” Jimmy said.
“Go ahead then.”
“I’m gonna hold onto this tree with one hand and put the other on your arm and when you stand up the current is going to swing us around and pull you into bank and then you can grab onto those roots over there. How’s that sound?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
The rest of the party arrived as Quatrous was crawling carefully up the bank on his hands and knees and Jimmy was making his way up alongside, holding onto the trunks of trees, practically climbing from one to another. Ida’s father held Quatrous under the arm as he stood. The preacher took off his tie and rang it out. “Well, where to?” he said. “We might as well do this while I’m still wet.”
Ida was baptized in a pond off Claxton-Lively road. It was fed by an aquifer and it was the coldest water she could ever remember being in. He put her under and the water ran across her chest and she thought she felt her heart stop. When he pulled her back up she was shivering so hard she couldn’t walk. Quatrous lifted her and carried her out of the pond and she sat down in the hot sand beside it while waves of dizziness, something near ecstasy, shot through her mind and body. The sun warmed her and she thought of nothing and it was in the nothing that the figures and voices of her life swung around her like a globe of stars being cranked and she heard the sound of the Buick’s radio and she felt the heavy light entering her again, an opening in her mind, the opening of a fist.
It had been a little over a year since the horse had died and Quatrous thought it was time to bring her near an animal again. He thought they might give it a few tries, thought he would even teach her to ride and that the sight of her up on a horse would be good for the neighbors to see.
The Latvian was a heavier animal, good for light draft work and riding and above all, calm as a tortoise. Ada was already standing when she saw Quatrous walking the animal around the bend in the road. Her dress was clinched in a ball in one fist above her knee, her other hand on the door knob. Her eyes were wide and tracked the horse fiercely as they came. She stood like a deer at the edge of heavy woods, every nerve balanced. As soon as Quatrous turned up their long drive and it became clear he meant to visit the house she ducked inside.
He knocked on the door.
“Ida, come out here and meet this lady, she’s real sweet.”
He waited. He heard Ida and her mother talking softly.
“You want to know her name? Abigail. That’s sweet, isn’t?”
“Go on,” her mother said.
Quatrous left the door and went down to the animal and petted it and pulled an apple from his pocket and feed it a bite and pulled the apple back.
“Want to feed her this apple?” he called.
Ida came out with an uncertain look on her face and took the apple carefully, keeping her eyes on the horse like it was a blasting cap.
“Go on,” Quatrous said. He motioned with his hand to show her how to lift the apple up. She watched the motion from the corner of her eye and lifted her hand up.
The horse took a step forward, moving her mouth out toward the apple. Ida pulled the apple back quickly and then launched it across the yard into the garden. The horse turned to watch the apple fly and when it turned back to her she caught it on the side of its nose with her closed fist. The Latvian’s eyes grew wide. She slapped it several more times with her palm as it turned from her in a trot. She screamed and caught it once more on the flank with the flat of her hand, sending it into a steady gait out of the yard toward the road. A truck coming down the lane slammed on its brakes to let it pass in front. The horse swerved tight around the truck’s hood, almost colliding with the fender before heading off in the opposite direction along the creek bed. It looked as if it would run the rest of the way home if home wasn’t in the opposite direction. The mother screamed after her daughter but Ida did not stop. She disappeared after the horse, the newly long legs pawing the ground with incredible speed. “I’ll grab the truck,” her mother said. She went quickly inside the house. The screen door slammed.
Quatrous walked calmly out of the yard with his hands stuffed down in his pockets. His head down.
“Damn it,” he said to himself.
As he came to the road he saw the hoofprints where they turned up the packed earth and he saw the ring lying brightly beside the spot in a slick of mud. He put his boot heel on top of it and pressed it down deep as if it were the head of snake. He kicked some earth over the spot to trod it down a second time and waited there for Ida’s mother.
“ Father Brother Keeper is marvelous. To read the work of Nathan Poole is to discover an immense, beautiful secret, rich with private histories and the rhythms of our complex, haunted world. These are stories to cherish, a debut to celebrate.” ~ Paul Yoon
Available February 15 from Sarabande Books
I’d been holed up with a new project, and it seemed time to get out and breathe some fresh air and talk to people, an outcome that the solitary nature of my work sometimes led me to desire more than dread. I’d received an email about an opening reception at an art gallery, the owners of which were two of the friendliest people I’d ever met, and I was an acquaintance of a friend of a friend of the artist and had been to two openings for this same artist at this same gallery before and had seen this acquaintance at both of them. I planned on speaking with him at the opening about my project, and I liked the idea that I wouldn’t see him again for two or three years and could therefore minimize the effect of any adverse reactions to whatever I said.
I arrived about an hour after the opening began, hoping to reduce distractions by giving my acquaintance enough time to view the show. The artist was a specialist in geometric shapes, mainly triangles, trapezoids, and parallelograms, painted in a variety of bright colors and floating against an abstract background that suggested a brooding, subdued turbulence, an occasional gnarly, dissonant tree root bursting through the surface as if hurled by destiny. I scoped out the crowd, an impressive turnout, the usual buzz and nodding and handshaking and knowing laughter. I didn’t feel at ease, one side of the room already rising and spilling me toward the door, the floor on the verge of grabbing me by the leg and yanking me outside, you don’t belong here, leave and nobody will get hurt. The art did nothing at all for me, except for the tree roots, which appeared to have come from another dimension and aroused an almost painful urge to lift the frame or remove it from the wall and check the back to see if some design or pattern could be found there that would alter the context of the front side, and if the front side, seen in this new and broader context, would again reverse you to the back of the canvas, and so on, a type of narrative rotation that would intentionally undermine the geometry on its face. One of the gallery owners approached me, which she never failed to do, and she actually seemed glad that I’d come, though I’d never bought anything from the gallery and knew her gladness must have been limited to such an extent that it barely existed, and who could blame her, yet her face showed nothing but good will. Where does her good will come from? I wondered. I couldn’t imagine how she could think I was worthy of her welcome, worthy of her welcome, worthy of her welcome. As I was saying how good it was to see her, a well-dressed woman walked up from behind me and she greeted her as warmly as she had me and, not wanting to exhaust her kindness, I moved on, deeper into the front end of the L-shaped gallery, and continued to the elbow of the L, where you could inform a staff member if you wanted to buy a painting. Glasses of wine were also available in the elbow, but I turned away from the wine, fearing that even a small amount would trigger avalanches of verbosity.
Sure enough my acquaintance, whom I believed was still a friend of a friend of the artist, did happen to be in attendance and was standing just on the other side of the elbow, though I couldn’t be sure if this chain of personal connections remained unbroken because the artist and the friend of the artist were both rumored to be insane, at least intermittently, and prone to tirades against real and imagined enemies. Whatever the case, my acquaintance was laughing at or with a slender man who leaned in and blabbed a few words that had an edge, that caused my acquaintance to flinch and grimace as the man departed. I saw it as an opportunity to stroll up and greet him, possibly taking advantage of his relief at seeing someone other than the apparent wisecracker, but as soon as he saw me his eyes narrowed and without glancing back he took off for the end of the L, as if fleeing to a back door or a line of shrubs outside to hide behind. I resented his aversion to me. All I’d ever done when I’d spoken with him was share an assortment of views on subjects I could no longer recall. So after hesitating briefly I decided to rise above his snub and dare him to repeat it. Did he see himself as superior to me in some way, and if so on what basis? And who else was I going to talk to? Someone else might appear, but I wasn’t aware at the time of another potential listener. I caught up with him along the far wall, his head turned at an angle as he stared at a painting.
Hello, I said, and he replied with the same word but did not take his eyes off the canvas. How’s your work been going? I asked, struggling for rapport. I’ve been stuck lately, he said and at the word stuck he looked at me as if I embodied the word, or that’s how I took it and with good reason as far as I could tell by his rigid posture and sniffy look. I made a mental note to remember the word sniffy. I enjoyed the sound of it and could use it in my project, perhaps over and over and in this way raise the subconscious nostrils of the reader, a sense engager, engager, engager.
I’ve started a new project, I said, that I thought you might be interested in hearing about. He pursed his lips, his attention directed at the geometric subtleties of the work before him. If you’re stuck you may find something useful in my method. I write down everything at every reachable depth that passes through my mind, continuously, or as close to that as I can get. I have a spare ballpoint pen on my desk and a second spiral notebook in case I need extra materials and I let it fly, scenes and images, words from past dialogues and the imagined thoughts of others, their lies and aversions and judgments, and I want it all in handwriting, no word-processing software used at the outset. I want to engage my entire body and thus strive toward awareness of whatever flows through body and mind to form consciousness. And as the narrative progresses I attempt to work from what was written in previous pages, to dredge interpretations and meanings from that text, to develop a deeper narrative and then to proceed further with an interpretation of the interpretation, spiraling downward and outward at the same time. This method does not exclude the possibility of introducing new events and scenes, but they must grow out of all that has unfolded before them. But the underlying issue I hope to address in this project is the question of whether, on the whole, the source of difficulties in human contact–
At that point my acquaintance, whose name I could not quite remember, raised his hand directly in front of my face, a gesture unambiguously equivalent to a stop sign. Once again he fled, again not looking back, leaving me stunned that he, a fellow writer, could lack any curiosity about my project, and at such a crucial point in my elaboration, as if I’d been describing something utterly trivial or revolting. I stood frozen in my mental tracks.
Then I heard a voice and looked toward the sound of my name, the word calling me back. It was Alexandra, a young woman half my age or younger, shy but inclined to express her opinions. She’d blush as these opinions spilled from her, her eyes imbued with an admirable sincerity, and the redness of her face caused her freckles to disappear. Her head usually tilted forward as she spoke and back as she listened, her mouth hanging open to varying degrees depending on the extent of her credulity. I saw her occasionally at museums or movies and I’d made an appearance at her book club. Before meeting with the group I’d felt a horror of hearing their opinions and had imagined them riding through my mind on horses and lashing it with swords. Still, I’d been grateful to be invited and immediately found them all pleasant and receptive and I retained some regret that I’d disagreed with nearly everything they said about my stories. I’d admitted to them that most of it had nothing to do with what I was thinking when I wrote them, adding that this experience was not at all uncommon for me and that I often wondered as I listened to people’s opinions on any number of subjects whether I belonged to the same race as they did. What could I have expected them to say to that? Did I want to dissuade them from speaking?
I read your story in The Milky Way recently, she said, already blushing and tilting her head, her ponytail swaying a bit, and I wanted to talk to you about it. I read it twice actually, once in the waiting room at my dentist’s office and a second time while I sat in the chair before he came in. He runs late, and I like to read something on my tablet until he gets to me. This one appealed to me more than some of your others. I still don’t get the one we talked about in the book club about the guy who killed his eighty-five-year-old father while sleepwalking. I don’t know if we’re meant to imagine a history that would have provoked the murder or if we’re supposed to think we can be completely different people in our dreams, an idea that appeals to me, but the story doesn’t offer support for either of these interpretations so nothing holds it together for me, even though I’ve thought about it quite a bit and find the tumbling words in the story similar to the way my mind works, but don’t tell anybody.
Her face was extremely red at the end of her statement and I felt relieved to be listening to her, in no imminent danger of making a nuisance of myself.
So with this new story I had an idea that you might say was not what you were thinking when you wrote it and is irrelevant because of that, but I thought you could have the story as it stands and then write a parallel version with the same character and situations but this time the guy is taking Paxil. It would be obvious, I think, that you’re comparing how he experiences things in a different emotional state.
She leaned back then, head moving to her listening position, the redness draining from her face, receding from the center back toward her ears, which were still red and looked warm to the touch.
That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of using parallel narratives, but in my mind the narrator is already taking Paxil so if I wrote a second version, as you suggested, it would be the Paxil-free narrative. No names are mentioned in the story, and that’s because a side effect of the drug is that he can’t remember people’s names.
Her mouth slowly opened as she assessed my reply and its possibly ironic content.
I like the story as it is, she went on. It’s one of my favorites of yours, along with the one about the baby who speaks German although his parents are both American and speak English. I get it that the child caregiver speaks German to the baby, but the question of what causes him to prefer the sound of German makes the story more interesting. Does it portend a deep-seated and maybe innate rebellion against his parents that will endure and develop throughout his life, or what? The questions raised by the German-baby story drew me further into it rather than throwing me into a funk, but I don’t think I could tell you why. I better get back to my husband, Homer. He’ll get jealous if I talk to you too long. I don’t mean that’s what this is about, but it’s how he’ll look at it. Are you enjoying the show?
Too many triangles for me, but I like the roots.
Me too. Where do they come from?
She left me, her hands twitching at her sides, a jittery sign language that I understood perfectly, understood perfectly, perfectly, just as I understood her impulsive urge to express her thoughts, plunging ahead despite the tension sometimes aroused in the speaker and the listener. It was conceivable that like me she struggled with the problem of whether you were intruding or indulging yourself in an unwelcome way and whether you were doing it intentionally or unintentionally or quite a bit of both. I’d never met Homer, whose wrath she may have risked in speaking to me, but I watched her go to the man I guessed must be him and was happy to see him absorbed in his own conversation.
It then occurred to me that I had no reason to stay a moment longer at the gallery. I was suddenly disgusted by the sight of people’s mouths moving and by the sizes and shapes of their teeth, and I imagined their empty stomachs roaring and them on their way to dinner after the show. I suddenly noticed the number of people avidly scanning their phones and poking whatever they poked on them. How could I have been so self-absorbed not to see it before? I imagined them walking into space with their phones, stepping forward onto down escalators, unaware of the drop as they tumbled forward, or striding obliviously off cliffs, eyes on nothing but their phones as they plummeted. Everything I saw in them filled my mind with noise and static, but what was the cause of my disgust? What did I care what they did with their phones? Did I fear that the mouth movers would angrily pounce on my body and eat me? What an absurd idea.
I got myself going and walked around the corner, not looking over my shoulder for a possible farewell glance from my closed-minded acquaintance, eyes directly on the front door, which a couple happened to be leaving through. They held it for me and I was out, drawing in a breath more free than any I’d taken inside, soothed by the air on my skin.
It was nice to see you, Alexandra said from behind, and the tone in her voice brought on a smile.
I looked back and saw her walking through the door, one of her hands tightening into a nervous grip.
I don’t know why I said that about the alternate storyline with the Paxil. I didn’t mean it. Maybe I wanted to provoke you, I don’t know why, just forget about it. I did think about the idea, seeing the story through a changed lens, and I guess I wanted your reaction.
I wouldn’t change the story, but it’s worth thinking about it in that light. I’ll do that. And I admit I hadn’t thought the narrator was taking Paxil.
I didn’t think you meant it, don’t worry.
She went back into the gallery, her final comment lingering as I pondered its implications. I’d preferred to see my comment about the narrator using Paxil as ironic, but why dress it up with a fancy label when I was simply lying to her and she knew it? How did she see me, I wondered, and how much had I unwittingly embarrassed myself when we’d spoken? So-called experts claimed that language should be used to connect people so why did I use it to distance others and thereby drive myself deeper into an isolated void? They claimed consistently that human contact made you happier, a subject that I questioned and explored in my handwritten pages. I felt strongly ambivalent on these subjects, but I couldn’t deny the simple pleasure at hearing Alexandra say, Nice to see you.
It disturbed me that she might see me as a liar, and though I saw no sign that she held it against me I held it against myself and knew she had a right to expect more from me. I’d been all set to get in my car and begin talking back to the unruly chatter inside my head and when I arrived at my desk to spill out as much of it as I could reach and try to make sense of it, the two warring sides of myself, the misnamed voice of reason and the wild animal that I rode around on without a saddle arguing with each other and trying and probably failing to come to an enduring resolution or peace. My throat clenched as I stepped toward the gallery and opened the door to look for her, into the arena with her potentially pugilistic husband. But why escalate the drama when I didn’t know what would happen? Two adults could have a conversation without anyone having to call emergency services.
Alexandra wasn’t far away, but she was standing next to the same man as before, presumably Homer, who appeared strikingly nondescript. If I closed my eyes virtually no image of him would have remained. I had second thoughts, but then she noticed I’d come back in, and she must have sensed that I wanted to speak to her because she was leaving Homer’s side. Words mounted, rising to meet her, and now here she was, eager to listen.
My latest project is to unburden myself, I told her, speaking far too fast, to heave onto the page the unending internal racket and to rewrite it again and again, each succeeding page and chapter originating from the buried content of the previous sections or chapters, until I reach a conclusion about whether I am the instigating source of the racket and its effects on my outlook or if it arises from the inherent conflict involved in human contact. Does it come from a partly submerged and untamed animal inside me, from networks of confused neurons, or is the noise an inevitable product of a collision between me and others with all parties sharing responsibility for the impact of the crash? I tend to think the source of the noise is me. What you said about Paxil suggests that. If a pill can change the outlook then that implies the problem’s source is within the mind. I wanted to resist the idea of putting Paxil in the story, out of fear that I alone am the cause of my anger and resentment and constant mental yakking, but on the other hand I haven’t been able to dismiss it.
So are you unburdening yourself or increasing your burden? she asked, her head tilting forward, the aptness of her question jolting me. All the words piling up, all the uncertainty in the process, and can you hope to explain the true nature of what you call the racket or to make what it may or may not want to tell you understandable enough to put it to rest? How much can you expect yourself to know or understand and how can you think there could be only one source, you, for what goes through your mind? And in the end, no matter what you do or think, maybe it’s just there and you could decide not to listen to it so much. It wouldn’t go away, but it might help.
Just when I thought we might be getting somewhere, Alexandra assuming the role I’d hoped my acquaintance might fill, Homer walked up, his face taking in mine.
I haven’t had the pleasure, he said and extended his hand, which I shook, though something in his choice of words made my flesh crawl.
Alexandra told him my name and explained how she knew me, her explanation doing nothing to reduce the intensity of his curiosity. He glanced at Alexandra to judge her degree of interest in me, vigilant for clues of a deeper attachment, but she revealed no concern he’d unmasked a secret and no hint that she wished we hadn’t spoken or that I should depart in order to defuse an impending uproar. Homer edged between us, obstructing our visual path, threatened by what he saw as my nearness to her.
His phone went off then, and he apologized to us as he snatched it off his belt. He turned his back to me but kept an eye on Alexandra, putting his hand on her arm.
He’s a doctor, she said.
I see he appreciates you, I said.
Her mouth tightened, stifling a pained smile. Homer gripped her arm tighter and I imagined his hand affecting the flow of her blood, her blood. Anyone could see she didn’t want his hand on her arm, but I cautioned myself that I couldn’t know what forces were at work between them, what words he might say about me on their way home or in their bedroom. I knew I shouldn’t assume the worst of him or make excessive inferences about her stifled smile. But were they excessive? So what did I have in mind, to disengage his hand and take her away from him? Was I the one to be feared, the one most in danger of being driven by haywire emotions?
Alexandra’s blush had reappeared, and as he spoke in a low tone to his phone she removed his clutching hand. I wanted a private word with her, but how could I do that without riling up Homer and therefore making the situation more difficult for Alexandra? Besides, Homer had returned his phone to its holster, and he was telling Alexandra they had to leave, a patient needed him. It was good to meet me, he said, his eyes now looking in the general direction of my face but not exactly at my face, preferring, as I saw it, not to fully acknowledge me. I said it was good to meet him, mirroring his words, I suppose, out of some sense of safe boundaries, though my resignation troubled me.
Alexandra’s blush had not left her, perhaps because he had her arm again, though not as firmly this time. But she didn’t seem afraid, which led me to reject the idea of following their car and pulling up alongside them if I witnessed a violent argument, Homer swerving from his lane, arms flailing. And as I imagined my pursuit I asked myself what got into me thinking like this. Why did I conjure up disparaging scenarios and attribute what originated in me to the motives and behavior of others?
I watched Alexandra and Homer exit the gallery, his hand moving to her back, nothing wrong in that, no gripping, no taking possession, only a touch. She turned at the door and gave me a suggestion of a wave, her freckles imperceptible beneath her face’s redness. Was I failing her? Why did I confront myself with this question? She wasn’t a prisoner and she could make her own decisions, and he had a patient to see.
I had a lot to recount, to weave thematically into my broader narrative, unrecognized elements and echoes to dredge up on my encounters at the gallery. I considered emailing my contact person at the book club to ask for Alexandra’s email. I could let some time pass and then write to her for an update, see if everything was going well for her. I saw it as fortunate that my memory couldn’t call up a clear image of Homer’s face. I told myself I wouldn’t be watching for him wherever I went, at some depth expecting to observe something that would cause me to develop further suspicions about his worthiness as Alexandra’s husband. But if I did happen to come across him at the grocery store, say, I might recognize him or, more likely, he might recognize me. We might stop and exchange a look of recognition. But what would the recognition consist of in each of us? For his part, would it have been limited to a passing awareness of a familiar face? I cautioned myself not to presume to know the obscure density and culture of Homer’s mind, but I suspected it would consist of more.
After giving it more thought I decided not to email Alexandra and resolved to stay out of their business, but as I worked the narrative constantly led me back to Alexandra and Homer. Did my brain crave obsession? If so, I couldn’t reasonably think I’d improve matters by involving them in my pathological patterns.
I continued with my routine, piling up the pages, and if I needed some space or missed the sight of other people, I went for long walks at the mall. I was forty minutes into one of them on a Saturday afternoon, my back hurting after hours hunched over spiral notebooks, when I saw Homer heading into the lower level of a department store, his phone hooked on his belt. I tried to ignore him, kept going, but found myself cursing his strutting gait, his obvious indifference to everything around him, headquarters of the world right inside his skull, how lucky for him to be such a person.
I decided to turn back and have a chat with Homer, realizing that without knowing it I’d been looking for him. I could start off with a phony apology for taking up Alexandra’s time at the gallery and for arousing his concern. I was sorry if I’d been inconsiderate of his feelings, I’d say, and regretted any difficulty I might have caused. It made me sick to think of this loathsome display of insincerity and I couldn’t begin to imagine how he might receive it, but if he didn’t accept my apology and became agitated I’d be under no obligation to be civil to him. If his voice got loud and he poked me with his finger or tried to tell me off, his eyeballs protruding with bulging anger yearning to find a way out, I couldn’t be blamed for taking up for myself, a time-honored principle of human interaction. Homer was considerably younger than I was and I had a sore knee and a hip that could benefit from surgery, but I still had enough juice left to step up if the little shit chose to disrespect me. In view of his line of work he should be healing people, not pushing his wife around or stirring up conflict and animosity. Did he think his profession gave him special rights, exclusions from the rules of behavior that applied to the rest of us?
I saw him at a sale table, as nondescript as ever, thumbing through stacks of trousers. He sensed me nearing and cocked his head.
Is that you, Homer?
He squinted at me with annoyance and then looked behind him. No one was there.
Who the hell is Homer? he asked. For that matter, who the hell are you?
My mistake, I said.
I made my escape as fast as I could. The unidentified shopper had no interest in hearing a superfluous explanation, and his breath was so bad that I wanted to don one of those plastic suits scientists wore when handling toxic materials. I couldn’t think of a more perfect person to make me feel like an idiot for mistaking him for someone else. All my raving about Homer and what would happen if he didn’t accept my ludicrous apology had been nothing but delusional drivel.
And though I fled the scene I couldn’t get away from the humiliating thought that I habitually devoted excessive time and effort to becoming a bigger and better fool. I resumed my walk at a reckless pace, the background mall music a blur, the shapes of others shifting in every direction. I needed to control my breath, control my breath, calm down the lurching, rumbling animal, all too aware that it would be with me wherever I went. I should leave the mall, get home and back to work, before I spotted another phantom Homer, subconsciously egging myself on with some melodramatic fantasy of rescuing Alexandra from a dark hidden room off a tortuous hallway, risking further episodes of mistaken identity, one of which would no doubt be my own. The unclouded truth was staring me down. I couldn’t look at people without injecting my self-generated racket into the picture, and the way I saw others had far more to do with me and my needs than anything to do with them. How could I have failed to halt my inner debate and fully accept this fact? I often didn’t even meet people halfway but invaded them, knocked down walls and painted the ones left standing. Had any of them invited me in? Did I care? Why did I persist in doing this? Was boundless stupidity or insufficient humanity enough to explain it? What less disparaging motive could I unravel? As the man fleetingly known as Homer had asked: Who the hell are you? Did I really want to know? Should I vow to control myself and permanently cease working on my project?
I changed direction, focused on walking out through the door that I’d entered, not far away, only minutes. I could get in my car and lock the doors and wait for my mental fog to subside, all those who happened to be nearby safe from me until I merged with traffic and drove with purpose toward my desk, where, I could already feel it, the relentless onslaught of verbalization would continue.
A woman stands alone in the surf. She’s up to her mid-thighs in the water, warm Gulf of Mexico water, and she can feel the strong undertow of the sea. It pulls her legs and sucks the sand from under her feet. It’s tremendous—this undertow—a force of nature—powerful. But, she’s determined to stand in it. So, she does.
She’s not entirely alone. Her lover is near, standing behind her on the dry sand, holding a bag of beach supplies. She calls for him to come to her and though at first he doesn’t move, eventually, after she throws him a stare, he does. He might be a boyfriend—most would describe him as such—but that sounds too serious for the woman so she says lover, even though they’ve been in each other’s lives for years. It’s okay to say lover, since it’s been off and on. This is what she tells herself.
It’s not really swimming weather. Though warm, the wind is too strong. It whips the dry sand, sprays saltwater on her body, and plasters her short hair to the side of her head, molding it like a swim cap. The gulls sail around her without moving forward, hovering close to the ground, wings expanded in the constant breeze.
She walks deeper in, letting her fingertips trail on the water which is murky, browned with swirling sand.
They came from out West, or rather she did, from Los Angeles. He’s in New York now, an emerging actor, though if he hasn’t emerged by now, pushing into his mid-thirties, she knows he never will. She could have helped him at one point since she’s a little older than he and more experienced and it’s her business too—not acting, but getting actors to do what they do, getting, in fact, all those involved in the process to do what they do. And do it right. And on time and on budget. She produces. More than anyone else, she makes it happen.
They’d met up in Galveston (“in the middle,” she had said) because she wanted to look at the sea wall there first—a movie idea that’s been rolling around in her head ever since hurricane Katrina hit, then Rita, a period drama about the devastating one from 1900; a timely retelling to show people what real suffering looks like. And so she stood on the wall and took it in, felt its strength and the seas’ and she knew her idea was solid. She also knew she’d have to wait for another storm to hit (and hit hard) before she could pitch the idea for real. Though that would only be a matter of time.
Then they drove the full length of the Gulf Coast—her driving the entire way because that’s what she does—through the swamps of Louisiana, that endless elevated highway, and then lonely New Orleans, and onward to this panhandle town in the pit of Florida. She picked it precisely because it is on the panhandle and small and unassuming and would likely be deserted this time of year.
This is supposed to be a vacation, a getaway in between projects. It’s the off-season, the middle of October but still pleasant enough. And she likes him enough; he’s familiar (had been one of many at one time), which she’s fine with, since she doesn’t feel like trying all that hard right now. The town is deserted, like she thought it would be. There’re even fewer people than she expected. At first, she’d thought that maybe Katrina was still lingering here—or Rita or BP: Florida gets a little of all of it don’t they—but after the first hour, she could tell that the town has been like this for a long time. It’s kind of dumpy. They stay in a motel.
In the surf, wading against the undertow, she is already badly burned, cooked while sun tanning on the beach without any sunscreen. He, her lover, had forgotten the lotion at the motel and she made him go back to fetch it. He had forgotten her new two-piece as well, and, in the meantime, while waiting for the suit and lotion on the empty beach, she had taken off her clothes down to her bra and panties and sunbathed that way. The burn has put a floral print pattern on her breasts from her lace bra, two little arcs of flowers. That night, sitting on the bed in the motel room, she will think it’s kind of pretty, but it also hurts like shit and she will blame him for it and make him go from store to store, looking for the right kind of aloe.
She doesn’t respect him very much. She thinks he’s a pushover. She thinks he’s weak.
She says this a lot. People are weak. It’s her wisdom, what she’s learned, a phrase which she deploys like shooting rain over the people who work for her, over others whom she takes to bed, and over him.
So why is she with him? It’s not money, even though he has it; he’s had the semi-luck of a semi-talented man, but in the end she has much more of all three: money, luck, and talent. It’s not intellectual either. He’s not dumb per se, but she knows that she is much, much smarter than him. He’s creative; there’s that, but he is by no means brilliant. He is, on the other hand, very attractive and she loves men. He’s a good lover. More importantly, she knows that she can make him do things. Anything she wants. This is why she’s with him, has been for so long, off and on. This is what she tells herself.
Almost every single boyfriend she has ever had has brought up that one Velvet Underground song, Stephanie Says, the one with her namesake being compared to Alaska. And every one—which includes this near-successful, near-talented, malleable, yet good-looking man—gets her same flat stare, the same, really, wow, you know, you’re the first one to make that connection. I’m cold too? You must be a fucking genius.
She has no problem treating people this way. Because she has always been very honest and upfront about herself with others, and if someone still wants to be with her knowing full well how and what she is, well then, she immediately loses respect for them. They are like pets coming back to an abusive master. Morons. Idiots. They deserve whatever she doles out.
As she sits with him in the motel bed, late at night watching TV, flipping through the channels, she can feel her body radiating heat. Her burn is intense. She’s naked because of it, stripped down with no covers because everything that touches her scorches. She flips the channels quickly, the room darkened briefly between screens. Eventually she comes to one of her own shows, one that she has produced, and even though she’s not particularly proud of this one, it does make money like a garbage dump. She puts down the controller and proceeds to apply and reapply the aloe carefully, smoothing wide slicks of it on her arms and thighs, across her flowery chest. She has a glass of ice water by the bed which she drinks from occasionally, small, cool sips, and the cold water seems to instantly soak into her, gone forever once it passes her chapped lips. She looks at him lying next to her in the TV light, prone and relaxed in his grey striped boxers. She looks at him staring at the TV, just watching, comfortable and very much unburned as her show fades to commercial. She takes her glass from the nightstand and holds the cold water above his beautiful bare chest. She smirks at him. She says to him, “How tempting, what would you do, I mean, really, what could you do?” She likes to push this pushover.
Then, this lover, this man she has spent countless meals with, traveled with, lived with briefly on occasion, fucked in every manner possible, directed according to her will, bossed around, dominated, this man looks at her calmly and says right to her face that she should really stop confusing someone being weak with someone being nice. And his eyes don’t flicker a single millimeter when he says it. She is the one who looks away first.
This throws her. She withdraws her glass. She’s off kilter for the rest of the night. Sips her water slowly. Watches her terrible show in silence. Her body is burning and she can’t use it against him to right the balance of power, distract herself from his comment. It was different than anything he had said before. She sensed something different in his voice, a line drawn in the sand. But why now? Why here? What had changed in him? Or, was it even him at all?
She remains off kilter into the next day—awakens to it after sleeping in, her sunburn and her racing mind having kept her up most of the night. Her skin in the late morning air is dried and crinkled fire when she moves; even a cold shower seems impossible—although she does it anyway, and then stays in it for a long time. On the beach the day before she had decided that she wanted to eat at a pier she had seen in the distance. When she’s finally ready, finally through her routine, it’s mid-afternoon and they begin the long walk towards the pier. It is while walking with this man on the beach towards that pier that she starts to think of him and all their time together, all their years spent mutually or tangentially. Replaying all their past interactions as they walk. Moments, instances she thought she had controlled but which now, with every gritted step, become increasingly unclear to her.
The day before, wading in the surf, the undertow tremendous, she was so determined to stand in it. She’d called him over to join her from the shore where he was. But he hadn’t come. She’d called to him again and again, come here, come on, again, come here, and finally, eventually, he did come. And she’d thought at the time that somehow this meant she had won. Had won.
I want to eat here, okay—had won; no, not here, take me somewhere else, okay—won again; now get the check—won; and take me home—won; and take off your clothes and get your ass on the floor, I’m tying you up—won.
These previous thoughts now seem incredibly trivial to her. Presumptuous. He might have acquiesced for any number of reasons. On any number of occasions. As she slowly walks with him through the sand, dangling shoes in hand, she becomes more and more embarrassed by her past actions. She starts to see this man, with his pale eyes, his graceful tapered hands, as some form of saint for being with her. A good man. And she starts to see herself as some form of corrupting evil for being with him, for exposing the goodness that is him to the corroding influence that is her—the idea making her think that she might just be what she has never truly believed herself to be: A bad person.
There are crabs all over the beach. Little zigzagging darts of movement. She is startled and jumps at their incursions. She even moves to him for support, for some weird form of protection. A line of footprint divots converges in the surf behind them.
She starts to remember stories he’s told her, from his life, his childhood. Stories she thought at the time were tedious. She remembers him as a kid on another beach collecting burrowing crabs in his little hands. They tickled his palms as they tried to escape. She never offered a real reaction to this story or to any of the many he’s told. Not one meaningful comment. She thinks there must be pages of responses somewhere out there. Responses that she should have given.
She stops walking. He continues on alone without her for a pace or two, before turning to the sea. She looks at him standing there by himself, white shirt billowing, face aglow, squinting at the dipping sun. They’ve been walking a long time. She thinks, admits, that he looks very strong, squinting that way in the light, as if he is facing the struggles and limits of his career and his age and himself and is doing it graciously and with pride. She thinks of his face, the clean angles, the scratch of his unshaved cheek, the boy softness of his mouth. She thinks of how she never talks to him in the present, asks him how he is, or what else might be happening in his life. She opens her mouth to do so now but nothing comes. She wants to say so much but she has no idea how to organize the words.
She sees then how all of these acts of love, with him and every other person she’s been with, or moved away from, dumped on, every other person she’s used, conquered, bested, and left, how all these things have soaked her straight through, unnoticed. She feels flimsy and useless like a wet paper napkin. The inside of her chest aches, physically hurts, like nothing she’s ever felt before, and then, finally, after all this time, and beyond all reason, for some stupid fucking cosmic purpose, it cracks and she becomes human, compassionate, affected by her lover—she’ll say it: her boyfriend—of so many years, finally matched up in synch with him. Standing on the beach in a crystalline moment.
Now, this is the moment when you have to trust her, the her that is her, the producer, the leader, the bossy girl from the playground, the manipulator of men and women and audiences alike, that coaxer of heartstrings. So please, just do it. And pay attention. It’s very important:
Did she reach all these conclusions just like this, just like she says it happened, all on her own, standing on the beach with him in this beautiful moment? Did her feet rest in sand and her eyes on him when she had these life altering realizations?
You know her. Was it there? It’s a simple question. Was it there?
Well, if not there in that exact spot, in that exact way, then surely it was close to that, maybe after their meal on the way back to the car, before they started driving to the motel. She should be allowed a little poetic leeway. The parking lot sounds nice too, the sun just set, orange glow fading, walking hand in hand. She would take that. It could have been there. She could have done it. Made the leap.
But you do know her after all. So then, her doubting friends and lovers, please, if you would: Did she at least realize all these things before they got in the car, before they started driving back, before they crossed that intersection and were hit by the drunk running the red light? Did she at least realize it all before they flipped and landed upside down? Before they stopped spinning? Before all the scraping metal and splintered glass went silent? Please, if you could, because she’d really like to know what you think. She values your opinion on this, even if she might not want to hear it.
Well then, she would insist on going further. Another step into the water. Was it in the very least—this last, most important very least—before she looked at him hanging broken beside her, before she heard his wet breathing slow, before she saw his eyes, those beautiful pale eyes, so glossy, then still, only inches from her own? Well, what do you say? Did she realize it all before it was too late?
Was it after? Days after. Weeks after. Months after.
She will say it was before.
Just like she says it happened. Back on the beach.
It was before.
And for all those idiots who love her, either then or now, she would say to them that she now vows to never create another one of you for the rest of her life.
That the only reason she’s still even here, that she hasn’t walked into the ocean herself to join the undertow, is that while she did finally realize that she cared for this man—cares for him more now even after the fact; after he’s gone—he wasn’t the one she loved most.
For that she has to go way back, which she’ll do to survive, back to the only boyfriend who never brought up the Velvet Underground song. He was from Alaska. And she’s sure he still lives there. She’s sure at least he’s still used to the cold.
And who knows, maybe, if she ever stops moving, she’ll drop him a line, somewhere out there, at one point. It would have to be a very small line with no details. She does have her principles and when she makes a decision she sticks with it. Maybe just a postcard with nothing on it, or a photograph of some vista she might see and think he might like. She reserves the right to do this.
To all the others, lovers and friends, all those who have played with her, she wishes them well. Really, she does. She wishes them the best. Good luck. She hopes you succeed. She hopes you survive.
The potholes in the road were filled with muddy water because it had rained the night before. Some of the holes, jagged around the edges, were the size of miniature craters and every time we reached one, we stomped our feet in it and sloshed the brown water on each other. We roared in excitement, our voices pummeling the cool and heavy morning air, as the water splashed on our clothes and skins. It was as if the dirty liquid were seeping into our bodies and energizing us for the task at hand. We were on our way to burn a thief.
We were partly shoving and partly dragging him along with us, hands under each armpit to keep his shaved head and muscled torso upright. At first, when we’d caught him hiding under the carpenter’s workbench with Auntie Naa’s smartphone stashed precariously in his boxers, he’d played stubborn, locking his arms around a leg of the bench when we’d tried to pull him out by his waistband. But a head-twisting slap had left him dazed and pliant. We’d hoisted him to his feet and stripped him of his tools, a screwdriver and a knife with a curved, glinting blade, similar to the ones the butchers used to slice through singed goat hides in the market. After that we’d yanked off his jean trousers, causing him to trip over his callused feet, and fall, and ripped off his t-shirt to reveal the crisscross of smooth, raised scars that decorated the entirety of his back; the man was obviously a career criminal. A bottle of kerosene and a box of matches were not hard to find.
“I beg you in Jesus’ name,” he’d started to cry when we began shoving and dragging him, head lowered, in our midst as we jogged down the main road. We’d ignored his pleas. Jesus himself, in all of his white glory, would have had to come down to rescue this guy. We’d caught others like him before but had let them go after a simple beating with our shoes and belts. Big mistake. They had returned with reinforcements while we slept, broken into our homes, tied us up and struck us with the blades of their machetes and the butts of their locally-manufactured pistols, and taken all that we’d toiled for and cherished the most. At least once a month, we woke up to find that a family in our neighborhood had been beaten and robbed. Two weeks before, armed robbers had shot Mr. Francis, who worked at the passport office, in both hands because he’d refused to tell them where he’d hidden his laptop. They preyed on our mothers who traded in the market and had to wake up while the sky was still gray to meet with the middlemen who supplied them with yams and tomatoes from the north and cassava and okro from the south. These criminals grabbed them while they waited for the buses, which ran infrequently during the early hours, slapped them until their faces ballooned, and stole the monies that they hid in the shorts they wore underneath their cloths. Lately, these animals had begun tearing off these shorts and raping our poor mothers! Right there in the open! Why couldn’t they just take the money and leave?
And we weren’t even rich people. Small Frankfurt, our neighborhood on the outskirts of Accra, consisted of two and three-bedroom bungalows haphazardly thrown together so that street names and house numbers would not make sense if they were ever introduced. Ours was one of those communities where most homeowners had not painted their houses and were comfortable with the grayness of the cement blocks. Cement blocks on which city workers frequently scrawled in red paint: REMOVE BY ORDER OF THE ACCRA METROPOLITAN ASSEMBLY. If only the Assembly cared as much about the state of our roads. All but the main road were un-tarred and the red dust that was whipped up by cars coated us and everything we owned. When we washed ourselves in the evenings, the water that spiraled down our drains was red. Not that we could afford to bathe every time we scratched our skins and saw the grime that accumulated underneath our fingernails. The water pipes had not yet reached us–and seemed like they never would–so most of us were buying water by the barrel from the dented water tankers that lined up on the side of the main road like the UN convoys that we watched on TV, driving into warzones. We were, therefore, stingy with the water in our drums and buckets. Not like those people who lived in neighborhoods like Kponano and Alistair. Those people who watered their expansive green lawns at noon when the sun was highest and had large flat screen TVs in their pristine villas and small flat screen TVs in their gleaming cars. People whose homes were littered with the things that robbers sought; the kinds of things that we barely had.
We neared the open field where we planned to burn him. There was a large mound of trash at the east end of that dusty tract of land, a putrid collection of the degradable and the non-degradable. We picked up speed, our feet rhythmically pounding the pavement like a police battalion marching against protestors. In fact, we were speeding up because of the police. We were sure that someone would have called them by now; they would fire bullets into the sky to disperse us if they showed up. The thief would be rescued, held for a few weeks, and released back onto the streets to terrorize us. We weren’t going to let that happen.
There were many others who wanted to stop us. Word of the thief’s capture and of our plan to necklace him had spread quickly. People, mainly women, had lined the road while others ran behind us. They still had on their sleeping clothes; the women with their cloths tied around their chests and their hair gathered in hairnets. Toothbrushes and chewing sticks poked out of many mouths.
“This man has a mother somewhere o, you cannot do this,” Auntie Naa was screaming from somewhere behind us. You would think that she would have been grateful that we’d retrieved her phone and were about to punish the thief who had stolen it. That we were about to send a strong warning to others who refused to work and, instead, chose to use our community as an ATM. Another woman began to ululate. In between the piercing cries she shouted, “Come and see o, our youths are about to kill somebody’s son.” Annoyed, we began a protest chant that immediately drowned her out.
Weee no go gree
We no go gree
We no go gree
Weee no go gree
“We will not agree!” we sang. We clapped our hands and stomped our feet harder. The surface of the un-tarred road onto which we’d branched was too damp to produce dust. Instead clods off dirt flew into the air around our feet and stung those whose legs were uncovered. Not like we felt the pain. The chant had thrown us into a frenzy. We’d become encased in a bubble, generated by our lungs, that blocked out any sound that wasn’t produced by us. We were one clapping, singing, stomping body, pulsing with our determination to avenge what those criminals had done to us. This one, who was stupid enough to strike at dawn when some of us were awake and alert enough to begin the chase as soon as Auntie Naa raised the alarm, would pay the debt that his brothers owed. It seemed like he’d resigned himself to his fate and had stopped crying out the name of his Jesus. Or maybe he hadn’t stopped, but how were we supposed to know that, enclosed in our bubble like we were?
As we stepped onto the field, we were approached by about twelve of the older men who were not with us. They’d come to rescue the thief. We immediately formed a circle around him. They might have invaded our ring of sound but we dared them to break through our solid wall of flesh. They threw their bodies at our barricade but we held strong and surged forward. They stumbled and fell at our feet. We would have trampled them if they weren’t our fathers, uncles, and older brothers. We marked time until they got to their feet and began to stagger away, defeated.
We threw the thief onto the edge of the trash heap so that his head was cushioned by rotten bananas and cow entrails while his legs lay on the red dirt. We pulled a frayed tire from a ledge of waste above his head and formed a semicircle around him. It was time. He was now frantically searching our faces and boring through our eyes with his. His eyes were watery. We became still. Our throats closed up and our sound bubble began to rise and float away without us.
“God will not forgive you, don’t do this,” we heard one of the women shout.
“Why won’t the men stop them?” someone else cried.
Their voices were intruding on us, breaking our concentration. We had to act quickly. We lifted his shoulder and put the tire around his neck. He was whimpering. He cupped both hands and began slapping them together. The fool thought he could beg his way out of this. As if he and his friends listened when our mothers pleaded with them at the bus stop in the dark. We poured the kerosene over the length of his body. Some of it splashed on our legs and we drew back, our chests heaving. We were struggling to breathe; there was no air, only the stench of kerosene and garbage. The thief, on the other hand, was breathing just fine. He began struggling to stand up, as if the kerosene had ignited his desire to live. The tire around his neck made his efforts clumsy, almost comical. We jabbed our feet into his legs and thrust him back down onto the trash. He started doing the thing with his eyes again, looking at me as if he was trying to escape from his body into mine, through my eye sockets. My palms became slick with sweat. My hands stiffened and I felt that if I wriggled my fingers, they would break with a loud clack. This had never happened to me before. Even when I dissected a frog in the lab for the first time, when I made a vertical incision down its abdomen with my scalpel and pulled apart both glossy flabs to reveal the dark brown of its large intestine and the pale pink of its small intestine. My hands had been steady, flexible. But now, my wet and stiff fingers caused the matchbox to slip and fall.
“Pick it up,” Henry said to me. The matchbox had landed near my right foot. It was touching my big toe.
Why should I be the one to pick it up, weren’t we all standing there? And who was he to tell me what to do?
“Priscilla, stop wasting time and pick the thing up,” Kweku said. We were standing pressed so close together that I could feel his sweat on my arm. I turned my head and glared at him.
“Don’t you have hands?” I snapped. I was used to fighting with Kweku. He’d sat behind me in school since kindergarten and we both planned to study biology in the university next year. I stepped back so that the matchbox was no longer touching my toe.
“My sandals!” Susan yelped. She’d been standing behind me, mashed up against my back. I ignored her. Hadn’t she known she was wearing sandals when she was jumping into puddles of dirty water a few minutes ago? Besides, she was the one who’d brought up this idea about burning the next thief we caught. She’d been furious because robbers had broken into her house, stripped her father naked, slapped him around, and made him do jumping jacks in front of his family. He’d had a heart attack the next day. She’d said that necklacing was how people dealt with robbers in other places, maybe in other countries. When she brought up the idea I should have told her that that is not what is done here.
“I beg you, sister,” the thief sobbed. Now he was focused only on me. No one had made a move to pick up the matchbox.
I retreated further into the wall of people behind me. A chorus of “agyeis,” “ouches,” “ahs,” and “ohs” followed my move. I imagined us falling down on each other like dominoes, falling so low that we were face to face with the thieves, rapists, and murderers who dwelled at that level. When I turned, each person was still erect but shuffling backward. Sensing his moment, the thief struggled to his feet, lifted the tire from around his neck, and dropped it on the ground in front of him. I stepped back even farther; I didn’t want kerosene on my uniform. The man began to walk sideways in the gap between the pile of rubbish and the now-cracking wall that we’d formed. I didn’t try to stop him. No one else did. He glanced at me and then at his escape route, once. Three seconds later, his legs were scissoring the air as he ran toward the opposite end of the field. A voice in the back–it sounded like my mother’s–said, “Won’t you people hold him until the police come?” I didn’t answer, no one did. We began to disperse. I had to go back home; I hadn’t even had breakfast yet and my shoes were wet.
Look for more work by Peace Adzo Medie in Issue 6, due out this November.
“Drinks,” Muzzie says. “You, me, and Chen—a celebration in Dizzy’s memory. Not a drinking party.” He won’t go that far with it—but Kev knows that though he never went to college, never set foot in a frat house, Muzzie holds a pretty clear definition of what a drinking party entails: keg stands and beer pong and at least twenty women. Though it’s his first night back in Pennsylvania after almost ten years, he knows every note Muzzie’s going to play before he ever plays them. That’s the way it is among former band mates.
The drinking will take place at The Smiling Skull, a bar outside Emberland, and the way Kev sees it, he’s got no choice but to go. Muzzie, in full bandleader mode, has let slip the dogs of guilt and gossip. He’s requested the honor of Kev’s presence, called him up to the big show for the kind of drinking they never got to do back in high school, at least not legally, and word’s gotten around: The Mourning Afters are back together—one night only—and even if they won’t be performing, you can still stop by and throw a few back with their long-lost frontman, Kev Cassady.
Kev, to his credit, at least looks the part of a rock star. His T-shirt, Aerosmith today, is authentically faded. His normal flannel traded in for a mustard brown cardigan, in honor of Kurt Cobain on the anniversary of his death, though he’ll be disappointed later when no one in the bar picks up on it. There’d been a contest back at Tony’s, the not-quite-Los-Angeles-but-you-can-smell-it-from-here dive bar he’d hung around in with the rest of Del Lago’s fading rockers, one that went something like this, Name the greatest dead musician after Cobain? Free drinks for the guy with the best answer. Shannon Hoon a popular choice. Layne Staley another. But Kev was always partial to Andrew Wood. Without Wood, you wouldn’t have had Temple of the Dog or Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains never breaks through to the big time. He never won any free rounds with that answer—Wood died four years before Cobain—but he kept tossing it out there anyway. Wood was a rocker worth buying a round for.
Dizzy, too—though Kev’s not so sure it’s a great idea.
In Emberland, The Smiling Skull looms like a set piece from an action flick about anarchist biker gangs that roam Death Valley picking off unsuspecting tourists. You’ve seen the movie about a hundred times: Some nervous-looking rebel hoping to earn his stripes picks a fight with the wrong dude, a loner-type with an eye patch, a guy who’s just minding his own business, drinking to forget his badass past. The young squid, hopped up on whisky and bath salts, ambushes Eye Patch in the parking lot and leaves him for dead, maybe kills his pretty barmaid girlfriend by accident—the one who’s never seen the ocean—and before you know it, there’s a ruthless one-man war party roaring down the highway in hot pursuit of the whole gang.
That’s the real charm of the Smiling Skull.
Otherwise, it’s pretty much like any other small-town bar, serving cold beer in the bottle and watered down drinks from the well. Muzzie’s snagged a table near the back, surrounded himself with drinking buddies—guys Kev recognizes from high school, the girls on their arms closer to their teens than their thirties. It’s a real “Glory Days” crowd, in the Springsteen-ian sense, and tonight they all want to hear about Kev’s exploits in The Golden State. He’s the boss, has got top billing, and they’ve gathered so that he can serenade them with tales of what it means to be a flesh and blood rocker. Not that they believe him to be anyone important. They’re all smart enough to know he isn’t rich or famous, but they remember The Mourning Afters, and they want to know when his album will be made available on iTunes. They’ve heard that on the West Coast a man with a guitar and a demo tape and a notebook full of big ideas can make a cottage industry of himself. After all, isn’t that how all the great bands did it going all the way back to the Beatles? They’re hoping that maybe he’s brushed shoulders with someone they’ve heard of—Eddie Van Halen or Ritchie Sambora.
It’s a different world today, nothing like the 60s, or 80s, or even the 90s for that matter, but they don’t want to hear about that. They want the classics. They’re chanting for Kev to play “Freebird” for the hundred-twenty-seventh time. And what choice does he have? You always give the fans what they want.
It should be an easy-enough gig. These are men who buy their polo shirts in bulk. They lease sensible cars. They’re hardware store clerks, high school teachers, IT professionals. Most have never left home, except maybe during college where they sowed their wild oats enthusiastically and returned five or six years later with news that the world is, in fact, much larger than Emberland and rounder than previously reported. Their girlfriends wear heavy concealer over their pimples and dayglo flip-flops on their feet. It’s the kind of group that hangs out in a bar with a steer skull on the sign. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the script. And yet, when conversation turns to California, Kev disappoints. Offers up a shrug. Talks weather and traffic.
“The Chinese food is top notch,” he says.
Eventually, banter swings back to the local—whether it’s going to be a dry summer again, whether any of the men will find time to get out in the streams before Memorial Day, whether the high school baseball team will fare well at regionals—and Kev takes the opportunity to ask Muzzie, “What happened to just you, me, and Chen?”
“I’m here,” Muzzie says. “Chen’s on his way. The question is: where the hell are you?”
Kev shrugs. I’m here. Just wondering.
The beer—Muzzie has been ordering an endless round of pitchers for the table—is watered down. The appetizers stingy. A plate of nachos, brand-X tortilla chips with a toxic yellow cheese sauce and pickled jalapeno slices from a can. Soggy onion rings, grease pooling on wax paper. You can’t expect too much, they tell him. On the weekend everything has to last to closing time. Including the entertainment. Through a beer fog, Kev hears Muzzie say, “Ask the man of the hour. He’ll tell you all about it.” He’s talking to a guy with a big gold cross chained around his neck—worn on the outside of his shirt, of course. The man’s girlfriend is a good head taller than he is. She’s turned in her chair, holding her shoes by their straps and furiously chatting with one of the other girls.
“Muzzie tells me it’s a rough life being a musician. I guess you probably play a lot of joints like this one to make ends meet.”
Rock and/or Roll. Rock—with or without the Roll. Rock, and could you please bring the Roll on the side? The topic of the hour. Kev can’t think of anything he’d rather talk about less.
“You don’t know the half of it, bro,” Muzzie says. “My man’s eating his food out of tin cans six days a week, and on the seventh it’s eat the can or go hungry.”
Muzz, Kev thinks. Give it a rest. He finishes another pint.
“That’s the high cost of free living,” Muzzie says. “Everybody thinks your average rocker is just a showman, but you’ve got to be equal parts musician and accountant, even the lowliest of the low. Out there,” he says, pointing in the general direction of the door. “Even the littlest worms ride big hooks.” He elbows Kev. You’re on.
Kev’s never been a mean drunk—a little melancholy maybe, his perception heightened by the alcohol rather than dulled—still he could hack Muzzie apart with an axe right now. Even at sixteen, booze had strange effects on him, made him see things he didn’t want to see, and so he’d sworn off it for the most part. Drank ice-water more often than not. Nursed a beer when the occasion called for it. But tonight’s different. He’s home—back sitting among people he never expected to see again—and in a funeral parlor across town, Dizzy’s body is lying motionless in a pine box, his second-hand Fender slung across his chest, perpetually silent. Floating above the table, Kev watches himself pour another, sees Muzzie singing his lonely ballad though the volume has been turned way down. At the bar, the bartenders, weekend replacements, rush in slow-motion to refill drinks. They’re yin and yang—one a cage fighter with a twisted nose and a nasty looking cheek scar, the other the sensitive type, a mustard stain on his collar but no worries, his mom uses Tide with bleach. Muzzie jabs him again, harder this time, and Kev takes a long sip. Stalls for a while.
“Chit-chat. Swap lies. Baffle them with your glorious bullshit,” Muzzie says. “Is that too much to ask of an old friend?” He’s followed Kev to the men’s room, forgotten the unspoken rule about not talking to a guy when he’s holding his dick.
“Right now, this is a delicate enough operation without you crooning in my ear,” Kev says, focusing his aim on the pink urinal cake in front of him.
“In case you’ve forgotten, small talk is a currency in this town. Thanks to small talk, I drink for free most nights. And Kev, buddy, I love drinking for free. I love it, man.”
“God forbid I ruin your discount, Muzz. It’s not as if I have a lot on my mind right now,” Kev says, zipping up, and when he gets to the sink, Muzzie’s waiting with a paper towel in hand.
“Just be human,” he says. “That’s all I’m asking.”
Kev nods, though mostly because that’s the direction his chin is moving anyway. Muzzie’s talk of talk and currency makes his head swim. His brain buzzes like a blown-out amplifier. In truth, there’s little about his time in California that he wants to share, least of all with an expectant crowd. Least of all with Muzzie. He’s let them think he’s something he isn’t, and now he’s in no condition to maintain the ruse, to give it the TLC it demands. The real story—that he squandered time in a bar with other wannabe musicians while his guitar case gathered dust, that he waited a lot of tables and watched a lot of basic cable, that he lasted all of three gigs as the front man of a Pearl Jam cover band, The Jeremy’s, before his band mates took a secret vote of no-confidence and started auditioning replacements behind his back—is an unforgiveable sin. Better he should’ve rotted away in small-town obscurity.
Give them what they want, he thinks, splashing himself with water, shaking out the nervous energy, pumping himself up the way he would have had he ever gotten a chance to take the stage in front of a real monster crowd, but the truth is he’d rather be anywhere else right now.
“I figured you’d want all this,” Muzzie says, leaning on the door. “All that prodigal son stuff.”
“Sure,” Kev says. “Let the record show you’ve got a big heart.”
Exiting the bathroom, the bar looks even more crowded than Kev remembered. It’s doubled in volume in the time it took to drain one eighteen-ounce bladder. Young people standing shoulder to shoulder, jostling.
“No one ever fell over dead from telling a story, you know?” Muzzie says, clapping him on the shoulder, and then, somehow, as if by magic, he’s disappeared into the crowd.
Right, Kev thinks. You get their attention, and I’ll break their hearts.
At the end of the bar, one of the girlfriends is sitting by herself, a spot open next to her, her boyfriend with the big crucifix nowhere to be found. “So you’re the one who got out,” she says to Kev who, picking his way through the throng of bodies, does a double take. He notices her out of the corner of his eye, the one who’d been holding her shoes, an unlit cigarette dangling from her lips. And for a moment, he wishes he was the kind of guy who carried a lighter. Muzzie is nowhere to be found, has undoubtedly made his way back to the table to gather the groupies for round two. The girlfriend’s purse sits in her lap like a pet. It’s one of those impressively tiny bags that snaps at the top. She’s dressed in tight blue jeans and a teal shirt that shows off her tan cleavage. Her hair piled high on her head, intentionally messy.
“Who are you supposed to be?” she asks, eying his sweater. “Charlie Brown?”
“No one special,” Kev says, pointing down at the empty glass with lipstick marks. “Can I buy you another round?”
“I’m not really drinking,” she says. “I’m waiting for the bathroom.” And they both glance back at the restroom hallway, as though to catch the faint sound of flushing toilets.
“I’d offer you a light,” Kev says, his shrug conveying the rest.
“I’m not really smoking either,” she says.
She picks the straw from her glass and noodles it in her mouth, and in that moment she seems older than he’d first guessed. She should be somewhere else—sitting with her girlfriends from work at the tiny Chili’s bar just off the highway or maybe changing into a pair of flannel PJs and curling up on the sofa with a glass of Chardonnay and a bag of microwave kettle corn. This ain’t her scene.
Kev says, “Your boyfriend was grilling me pretty hard about music.”
“That’s a terrible come on,” the girl says. “If you keep saying things like that, no one is ever going to buy that you’re a rock star.”
“I’m not a rock star,” Kev says. “And that wasn’t a come on.”
“Try saying it again, only put the emphasis on ‘star’ this time. I’m not a rock star,” the girl says, pressing her finger to her chin.
“I’m not a rock star,” Kev says.
“Star,” she says. “Rock star. You keep practicing. I’m sure you’ll get it eventually. Before you know it, they’ll be throwing their panties on stage.”
“Who are we talking about here?”
“Muzzie,” she says. “And the rest of those idiots.”
Kev glances back toward the table. They are idiots, he thinks. But so’s he. In fact, he’s made a living out of being idiotic. Wasn’t that the joke about the difference between a livelihood and living—one makes you money, the other makes you poor? Eight years ago, The Mourning Afters had all had dreams, but he was the only one dumb enough to actually believe that following his was a good idea. At least, that’s part of the story. Kev thinks about telling her this, starts in with a clever reply, but when he turns back, it’s only to see the girl disappearing into the men’s room.
Back at the table, Kev’s arrived just in time to watch two of the boyfriends start arm-wrestling. They’ve stacked the dirty plates like a tower, swept away the crumbs and the congealed gobs of cheese sauce. Rolled up their shirtsleeves, their arms stretched across the tabletop like long, white fish. The two men look at the others, grin. They’re playing, but not really. It’s what happens when you stick around the same town too long, Kev thinks. The concept of play becomes all twisted up in your mind. It gets lost among the primitive high school desires that somehow never go away. So you laugh, and you make jokes about it, trash-talk like a couple of testosterone-crazed jocks, until the arm-wrestling goes on just a little too long or one of you tries a little too hard—perhaps a vein pops out at the temple and threatens to give you both away. You’re about three seconds from everyone else realizing the sad truth: that somewhere under all the congenial bullshitting, the two of you really care who wins this pissing match. And then what choice do the two of you have? Inevitably, someone has to take a fall. The winner gets to gloat.
Kev hears the crowd groan, looks up from his beer in time to see the taller of the two guys kiss the air around his biceps.
“Have we really run out of things to talk about?” The voice floats from just over Kev’s shoulder, and he half turns so as not to miss the spectacle surrounding Conor’s arrival. Conor, the once-and-never-again bass player for The MA’s. Conor who’d had more than a little to do with Kev’s decision to leave town. He pulls up a chair at the far end of the table, next to Muzzie, parts his sports coat and straddles it backwards and, after he’s shaken the right hands, bumped a few fists, winked at a couple of the girlfriends, he nods at the waitress, and from the bar she escorts his first magnanimous purchase of the night: a round of shots for the entire table.
Muzzie scowls—he’s wearing the look of the usurped. The shake of his head says, This is your fault, Kev Cassady. You bombed. Cut short the set list and left a gaping hole. And look what happened.
Kev shrugs. Sorry, Muzz. Maybe if I could see the set list in advance from now on?
He’s actually relieved to be out of the spotlight. Let Conor carry that burden with his unbuttoned collar and his gold watch and his perfectly trimmed fingernails. Kev’s more concerned about Ramie—she’s nowhere to be seen, and that’s a good sign. It might mean she isn’t here at all. Though maybe she never comes here. Truth is, he doesn’t even know if Ramie and Conor are still an item. Muzzie would know, but Kev won’t be asking that question any time soon. Got too much sand in his pee-hole, as his Dizzy would say.
“To Dizzy,” Conor says, as if on cue, raising his glass. The rest of the table follows suit. “They say every man has his demons. That was definitely true of our dear departed friend. But if I know Dizz, he’s up there somewhere strumming on the prettiest Strat you’ve ever seen, and he’s looking down on all of us right now, happy to see so many of his pals gathered here celebrating life.”
There’s a million and a half wrongs in that stupid salute. For starters, Dizzy wasn’t the kind of guy to play a shiny Stratocaster, or any other “pretty” guitar. He’d have sneered at the idea. Second, Dizzy didn’t know or couldn’t stand half the people at this table. If he were here now, he’d be in the bathroom, hiding from the crowd and shooting up. Dizzy wasn’t possessed by any demons. He wasn’t haunted by bad memories or dark thoughts. He just loved heroin. A lot, as it turned out. The only question that remains, as far as Kev is concerned, is whether or not it’s tasteless to raise a glass to his memory.
Still, Conor’s address is met with a chorus of applause, the requisite encores, and from across the table, Kev watches as Muzzie shuts his eyes and leans far back in his chair.
“So, you seen Ramie, yet?”
It’s an obnoxious question—the kind that only gets asked when you’re closing down the bar, drunk and bored and maybe looking to pick a fight. Muzzie’s band of merry drinkers is down to four: him, Kev, Conor, and the guy with the cross whose name Kev can’t remember now. They’re drinking a double-shot of something Conor calls “The Three Wise Men”—Jack, Johnny, and Jim—and Kev keeps pinching his legs beneath the table to make sure they’re still attached. He shakes his head at the thought of Ramie, imagines her shaking her Joan Jett-haircut right back at him and twirling her drum sticks over her head.
“You should look her up,” Conor says, leaning conspiratorially across the sticky wooden table.
“Now why would I want to do something like that?” Kev says, leaning back and studying the steer skull behind the bar. It seems to be following his gaze. Maybe even mocking him a little—Hey, pard, settle down now; no need to go seein’ red. Kev shakes the thought away, and it must signal some sort of weakness to Conor because he sinks his teeth in deep and doesn’t let go.
“Seriously. You should,” he says.
“Last I heard, you two were a couple now,” Kev says.
Conor rolls his rocks glass in his hand as though he’s trying to warm it up and grins down at the ice. From the wall, the steer skull chimes in without invitation: Listen to that feller, buckaroo. If you were as horny as I am, you’d mosey on down the road and give that filly the ole’ what-for.
When Conor finally whips his head up, his eyes practically gleam. They’re beautiful eyes, Kev thinks, terrifying. They remind him of the first time he ever watched Pearl Jam’s Jeremy video, the way Eddie Vedder with his high cheek bones and intense grin made him feel terrified and maybe a little confused. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that exactly. We’ve scratched each other’s itches from time to time.”
“Sounds sexy,” Muzzie says sullenly, his words a serpentine slur in his mouth. He’s eyeballing the dead cow above the bar now, too, and his glare says it all. Yeah, I hear him. And if he’s not careful, he’s gonna get popped in the kisser.
Conor shrugs. “It’s an okay arrangement,” he says. Then he makes a show of licking out the inside of his glass. He has a tremendously long tongue—the kind of tongue that might give Gene Simmons a run for his money—and there’s no mistaking the innuendo. The guy with the cross laughs, high-pitched and girlish, and so Conor stops, grins. Shrugs again.
“What about you, Kev? I’m sure you got plenty of tang in California, being a rock star and all.”
It’s not really a question and so Kev doesn’t really answer. He keeps his eyes focused on Conor, shakes his head slowly. Notices how quiet Muzzie has gotten, which is a bad sign. “I’m not a rock star,” he says.
“Come on, man,” Neck Cross says. “I need all the pointers I can get.” And Kev recognizes his role in tonight’s performance—he’s the guy who self-deprecates about his lack of sexual prowess for laughs. There’s one in every group. He’s probably not nearly as bad as he claims to be, but buy him another round and he’ll start moaning about how poorly endowed he is.
“You want a pointer? It helps to be rich,” Conor says, winking at the waitress who’s come to clear their empties. Kev vaguely remembers some story Conor told earlier in the night, one he’d only half heard, about how he had big plans for getting back into the energy business, wanted to harness the thermal power from the mine fires below Accident or something. He’d been a little too drunk to follow by that point. “I plan to drag this county into the future kicking and screaming,” Conor had said. “You ought to come see the plant I’m building outside of town.”
Kev had only nodded.
Now, he wishes Conor would talk about something boring like that, instead of this different business.
“If you like fish tales, you’ll appreciate this,” Conor says, and he launches into a graphic sermon about cunnilingus, about finding the g-spot and eliciting an endless series of earth-shattering, headboard-rattling orgasms. Parts of it sounds geographically plausible—just barely—though Kev has his doubts about any of it being true. He may not be a rock star, but he’s spent enough time between the sheets to know better than to believe any man-to-man sex advice that comes unsolicited. The guy next to Conor is clearly getting off on all this talk though—he’s thinking about practicing these tried-and-true techniques on his girlfriend, who has already taken the car and gone home alone. Kev can’t imagine that one letting old Neck Cross anywhere near her delicates tonight, no matter how worked up Conor’s story gets him. Not after the arm-wrestling fiasco.
Besides which, that’s not what this story is about. Guys like Conor don’t care about g-spots or the female orgasm. It’s not about pleasuring women. Or even pleasuring a woman. This story is about pleasuring Ramie in that read-between-the-lines sort of way. Conor is polishing the biggest trophy in his case. Rubbing Old English into the deepest notch on his bedpost. And it’s all for Kev’s benefit.
“Look at who I’m speaking to,” Conor says. “You know what I’m talking about.”
“It’s been a long time,” Kev says. “I can’t really recall. My relationships mostly all end the same way.” He punctuates his point by replicating a nose-dive plane crash with his hand. Fill in your own blanks.
That man ain’t talkin’ relationships, pardner; he means ruttin’, the steer skull starts to say, before Kev silences it with a dirty look.
“Hey, no offense meant, partner,” Conor says.
“Come again?” Kev says, and now he’s not sure who’s talking anymore.
Conor extends his hand almost graciously—the same hand that has, if you believe his story, brought Kev’s ex-girlfriend to the brink of death countless times—and it’s clear that he’s passing the totem. It’s your turn now, rock star. What stories of debauched sexual conquest do you have to share tonight?
Had he given it enough thought, Kev might have come up with a good rock and roll story, but it wouldn’t have involved sex. It wouldn’t have even involved California. His favorite story was more like a fuzzy memory from just after high school. The Mourning Afters. Conor had been there. Ramie, too. They’d all been playing at a bar near State College, one of their first really big out-of-town gigs, and they’d hit a streak of bad luck. At a gas station, one of them (Kev still wasn’t sure who, though he could take a guess) had locked the keys in the van, and they’d had to wait almost an hour in the rain for a locksmith, a little old guy who had to be on the verge of celebrating his very own bicentennial. By the time they got to the gig, it was late. A rushed sound check. No time to eat or drink or even take a leak. No time to fix their misspelled name on marquee out front either. The club owner threatening to dock their already meager pay. And Kev, feeling the first hints of fuzz at the back of his throat, practically begging the guy for something to wet his lips—an iced tea, a bottled water, anything.
They couldn’t even hear themselves playing through the cheap monitors the house had set up at the front of the stage, but they somehow managed to limp through the first set even though no one was dancing. Kev’s voice was growing softer and hoarser the longer they played, and they’d made the rookie mistake of saving some of the toughest covers for the end of the night. By the time they got to “Livin’ on a Prayer” the song had taken on a new meaning for Kev. No way he was going to be able to take it up an octave that last time through the chorus. No way he’d make it back out alive. He’d be lucky just to survive to the end of the song. Only he was committed to it now. Too late to turn back, and so he leaned forward and let her rip and what came out wasn’t his own voice, or even John Bon Jovi’s voice, but Muzzie’s voice, and out of the corner of his eye he could see Muzz practically kissing his microphone and nodding. I’ve got you covered this time, buddy.
That was his favorite rock and roll story.
It’s the kind of gesture that makes Muzzie not only the best band mate in the world but the best friend a guy could ask for.
Which is why it doesn’t surprise Kev now to see Muzzie returning from the bar, coming up behind Conor slowly and holding his Miller Lite by the neck. He’s just singing back-up. Before Kev can even move to stop him, Muzz has raised the bottle. Kev knows what carnage comes next—the shattered glass, the deep laceration to Conor’s scalp, the trickle of blood that runs down from his ear, maybe worse—and he’s got his eye on the guy with the cross, is worried that after losing the arm wrestling match, he’ll be looking for any excuse to prove his manhood.
This is going to be bad, Kev thinks.
Darn tootin’, Tex.
Of course, none of that happens.
What happens is that Chen arrives. Studious, nervous, chicken-winged Chen. Only he doesn’t seem so scrawny and bookish now dressed in his tan Assistant Sheriff’s uniform. He very quietly takes the empty from Muzzie’s hand, clapping him firmly and humorlessly on the shoulder. “Don’t spill your beer,” he says.
For a moment, Muzzie stares up at him dumbly. Then he says, “Hey, Chen’s here,” and he wraps his arm around their ex-keyboardist’s back and gives him an awkward, sloppy kiss on the cheek and adds, “and he smells really good.”
Kev lights the cigarette he bummed from the bartender in the polo shirt on the way out. A few more months on the job and that kid will know better than to share his spare Camels with every drunk who seems appreciative. Truth is, Kev doesn’t really smoke. Just likes to light one up every so often when he’s been drinking.
From Muzzie’s front porch, Kev can hear the sounds of the late-night freight train making its way through downtown Emberland and the grandfather clock chiming three a.m. in the hall behind him. He feels that warm, familiar buzz behind his eyes, and his feet are sore from the walk back to Accident. He and Muzzie have dispensed with the chairs, choosing to sit on the top step instead as they polish off the last of the six-pack Muzzie bought on the way out of the bar.
Kev studies the label on his beer bottle, holding it up to the porch light. He knows just when he’s got Muzzie’s undivided attention. Knows how to ask a question without asking it. Clears his throat.
So. Conor and Ramie?
Muzzie studies a groove in the porch railing. Though Kev can’t tell for sure, he seems exasperated—his sigh says it all. Move along, man. I’m telling you, there’s nothing to see there. Just smoke and mirrors. Snake oil and tonics.
Satisfied with his answer, Kev takes a deep drag, offers the cigarette to Muzzie who shakes his head, and then exhales a slow silvery cloud that reminds him of the mine gas below.
“Do you think I’d look better with mutton chops?” Kev says, rubbing the side of his face.
“Chen should have let me clock the bastard,” Muzzie says.
“I’m sure there will be other opportunities.” For a moment they both stare down at the subsidence pit.
The way Kev sees it, he has a choice to make. He’s here now, in Accident. Nothing waiting for him back in Del Lago. He could always stay awhile. The question is: does he want to? If he goes back, it’ll mean renting another one-room hole-in-the-wall. More crap jobs for little pay. He might open his guitar case more often this time, but probably not.
Kev stubs out his cigarette on the porch and pulls his arms up into the sleeves of his Cobain sweater. At night, under a full moon, the smoke from the mine fire is ghostly, almost peaceful, and Kev is astonished when two men emerge from the dense fog, wearing mining outfits like the one his old man used to wear. He grabs Muzzie’s arm, starts to say something, but it’s clear that he’s the only one seeing this. Side effect of the booze. Weird visions. It’s like Muzzie said: Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.
“You didn’t play a damn thing in California, did you?” Muzzie asks.
“I was there seven years and I didn’t change guitar strings once. You do the math.”
Muzzie nods, takes a long swig from his Miller Lite, and that’s the extent of it. No guilt. No questions. No disappointment. He tosses his empty out into the yard, and the bottle cuts directly through the closest miner before landing in the grass. As if on cue, Kev throws his bottle, too. And then he watches the two phantoms pass, sees the Fender guitar slung over the one miner’s shoulder and realizes he’s just said goodbye to Dizzy.
“Who was it who decided on where Tallahassee should be?” Toby asks questions, and we laugh a lot. Stupid things really. But it makes you think, and it helps to pass the time. He takes the money when people pump their gas, and I do most of the other things, like brake jobs, tires, and shocks. Mostly minor repairs, quick jobs that get a good price for the boss. Mr. Cutter keeps things under control and drives the tow truck when somebody breaks down on the highway. That’s how he makes his big money. He says when you break down on the interstate, you become desperate. “The main thing we give them is a sense of security,” says Mr. Cutter. I call him Mr. Cutter, but everybody else calls him Harry because the name of the business is Harry’s Gas Station. “If we didn’t charge ’em a lot, they’d think we did a half-assed job,” he tells me and Toby. And later Toby says to me, “Using that logic, we should charge Harry a whole lot more for what we do.” Toby mostly takes care of the cash register and points out the restrooms and gives people change for the cigarette machine. And he sells candy and soda to the sweaty little kids and tells the traveling salesmen where the phone is. And he hands out maps when the customers want them.
You can’t say anything to Toby. He’s always changing it around and making it funny. Mr. Cutter’s always saying Toby’s nothing but a smart-ass college kid. But I don’t find anything wrong with having a little fun. Toby graduated from a community college and is going to a four-year. Though he’s smarter in a lot of ways, I’ve been here sixteen years, and I know a lot more about cars. But, boy, Toby knows more about everything else. I could tell Betty kind of liked Toby, but I didn’t pay much attention to it.
Like I said, Mr. Cutter owns the station, but he isn’t around much because of driving the tow truck, and he owns another station, where the town people go for gas. I’ve worked for him for sixteen years. I know he doesn’t like Betty coming around because he thinks she distracts me. We get a lot of business in the summer. There are always cars boiling over and people always need gas. Most of our customers come off the interstate. Toby started working after college let out for the summer. Mr. Cutter told him right away to call him Harry, but he never said that to me. We don’t get many locals because we’re a little overpriced. Toby lives up north, but he has an uncle who lives here so he asked Mr. Cutter for a job. And he started calling him Harry right away.
Just to make things more interesting, Toby decided that we should do something with the maps, so we uncreased them and laid them out on the desk in the office. People are always asking for maps because people are always going places. Toby told them not to trust those GPS things, and he told the customers, “There’s nothing like a map to get you to where you’re going.” Toby took some scissors and began snapping them. When he was finished, there were a whole bunch of cities lying on top of the desk. Peoria, Orlando, Savannah, Nashville, Columbus. He told me to refold the maps and put them back in the racks. Toby said, “Think about it. A couple driving along, looking for Tallahassee. The husband turns to his wife and asks her to check the map. She pulls it out and says Tallahassee’s not there. And he says, ‘What do you mean, it’s not there?’ And she says, ‘Look, there’s a hole where Tallahassee should be.’” Toby has a real imagination. When we were finished, the desk looked like a battlefield with all these fallen cities. Every state had at least one city gone. So no matter where anybody was going there’d be something missing. At least, that’s the way Toby saw it.
Betty and I have always known for the last three years we are going to be married. She works in the local diner as a waitress. We’ve been saving our money because we think by the beginning of next year we can afford a trailer. I’m ten years older than she is, but her parents like that. Mr. Dodd says that I’m a “maturing influence.” I knew she kind of liked Toby because she’d laugh at things he’d say even if they weren’t funny. That’s one thing you learn about women. Most of the time Toby is funny, so I didn’t much notice. Betty is twenty-two, which I think is a perfect age.
Toby decided that we weren’t finished with the maps, so on another day he pulls out this little white bottle from the desk drawer. In the office we have an old Royal typewriter that keeps breaking down. Mr. Cutter says we got to get a computer, but he says that every time the typewriter’s not working, and what he says doesn’t amount to much when it comes to spending money. The typewriter has so much grease on the keys, you can’t really make out any of the letters. And that’s why I didn’t know we had any Wite-Out and didn’t know what it was. Toby found it. He likes to rummage through Mr. Cutter’s stuff. I tell him he better be careful, but guys like Toby don’t have to be as careful as guys like me. I found that out most of my life. So Toby takes the Wite-Out and asks me to get the maps off the rack. Then he begins dabbing the little white brush like he’s painting with shoe polish. When he’s finished, he takes a black pen from his shirt pocket and very carefully writes something. He has real small handwriting anyway—but this was ridiculously small and perfect. He dabbed away the word Tuscaloosa and wrote in Vacancy. “How do you like that?” he said, and he held up the map for me to see. “Vacancy, Alabama.” He dabbed out Pearl, Mississippi, and wrote in Ruby. He replaced Hopkins Hollow, Connecticut, with Hopkins Hole. Sometimes he’d write in something that was a little off-color, like Beaver Shot, Oklahoma, or Pussy, Oregon, or Cock, Wisconsin. “Some old maid,” he said, “will be asking directions for Cock. Or some minister will be seeking Pussy.” I have to admit it was pretty funny.
We get all the license plates through here. At one time or another, I’ve seen the license plates of every single state, and that includes Hawaii and Alaska. I may not have been many places, I tell people, but a lot of places have been to see me. You got to see something after sixteen years. After I’d seen the license plates of all fifty states, I got to admit the job became kind of routine. I know Toby is young, even insensitive at times, but he makes the job enjoyable. He’s always got something going on. And sometimes he gets me thinking, like when he asks me if I believe in something and I say yes, and he shows me I didn’t really mean to say yes. That kind of thing. Then Toby has these crazy questions, like puzzles, that can keep you going crazy for days.
I have to tell you something else he thought of that was pretty good—though some might not understand. We had this little hole we drilled in the side of the ladies’ restroom. We hid it behind boxes and oil cans. After we drilled, he had me chisel out some so we could see at a better angle. It made me feel a little uncomfortable, but Toby said, “Hey, there’s no harm in just looking.” I felt bad in a way and only pretended to look. Toby said that the New York State license had the best pair of legs he’d ever seen, and I agreed though I had no reason to.
Toby wasn’t finished with the maps either. He got real tricky. Sometimes with green, red, and blue Magic Markers we’d put in other highways. Where we thought it might be nice to have a highway, we put it in. Without any inconvenience, without any cost, without any dusty detours, wham, we made you a highway. Just like that. We had an interstate going from Charlotte to Fayetteville to Lynchburg to Charleston to Knoxville. Some of our state highways climbed out of lakes and other times they’d drift off to nowhere. Sometimes we’d put roads where they seemed to be needed, and at times they were just useless and pretty. Some states seemed to have so many roads they didn’t know what to do with them, but we’d add more until the whole map was choked with them.
We got so good at altering the maps that we moved some cities from one state to another. We’d put Spokane where New Bedford should be, and Little Rock where Spokane should be, and Topeka where Little Rock should be. I tell you we got good at it. Toby’d say, “We’re doing the country a favor.”
About two weeks ago, Toby came into work real upset, like I’d never seen him before. I don’t know if he had an argument with Mr. Cutter or his uncle. But something was wrong, so I told him I’d take care of the pump if he’d work at fixing the air hose that seemed to be clogged. Betty came over during her break. She bought me some metric wrenches from the Ace Hardware. I told her she shouldn’t have done it because we’re trying to save money to buy a trailer and we’re going to get married, probably in February. It was a sunny day and that made the oil stains next to the gas pumps sparkle in a greasy sort of way. Nothing’s prettier than a gas station on a sunny day. It was a real scorcher. There was a haze around the car hoods. Betty said she had to get back to the restaurant, but she had to use the ladies’ room first. I got her the keys which were attached to a flat piece of wood that said “restroom.” I was about to take the lug nuts off a Ford truck when I thought about the peephole. I was hoping no cars would pull up because Toby was fixing the air hose and I was going to the back room. I pushed aside a couple of smudgy oil cans and pressed my eye to the hole. There was Betty with her back leaning on the wall over the sink, her dress up around her waist and Toby there. The weather and the cramped dark room made me feel real uncomfortable. I thought about the box of metric wrenches. Then a horn started to blow. Later, when I saw Betty, she handed me the key. Her eyes looked crushed. They had the color of one of those oil stains. Her body seemed to hum. Before she left, I thanked her for the wrenches.
Toby’s going back north in a couple of days. I found out that Betty put a picture of herself in his glove compartment. I can’t be mad at Betty. Toby is sure better looking, and he certainly is smarter and funnier. I say I saw the license plates of all fifty states, but that’s not the truth. I don’t think of buying the trailer anymore, but that will probably change. I decided not to say anything to her or Toby. Toby would only turn it around and get me laughing. And if I said anything to Betty, I’d feel really hollow inside. I went to Toby’s car and opened up the glove compartment.
I don’t laugh as much at Toby’s jokes. He’s always thinking up something new, but I don’t pay as much attention. He asks me what is wrong, but I don’t say much. “Nothing,” I say and that’s usually the end of it. In a way, I’m not looking forward to the day when Toby’s gone. But I know one thing. I’ll keep handing out our maps to the customers. I’ll give them maps with a couple of things missing, a border here and there, a capital or two, a city or a town, some river misplaced. But they’ll also contain some amazing new things. Highways that never before existed. New cities or old cities in new places. And wherever these people are going, they’ll always be surprised at how we got them there, even if it’s not where they want to be. Still, they’ll always be surprised, and that’s not so bad. They could wind up anywhere and that would be worth it, I suppose.
I’d kind of like to be there when Toby opens up the glove compartment. I know he’ll see Betty’s picture, and that will probably make him feel good. And then he’ll see the road map, and I know he’ll open it because he’ll guess something is up. It took me a long time to do it, and he’ll appreciate that. I’d like to see his face when he sees every town and highway and everything with its new name. “Betty” written everywhere. Betty mountains. Cities named Betty. Betty rivers. Betty highways. Who knows? Maybe his car will break down. And he won’t know where to tell anybody where he is if something bad happens. It will make him feel kind of weird. Being so smart and all. Except about cars and things that can happen. He’ll think somebody knows something. It won’t really matter, but it will give him something to think about.
“You just have to admire all the possibilities,” says one character in Patrick Lawler’s short story collection, The Meaning of If—a sentence that encapsulates the myriad of “if’s” explored in these pages. At times surreal and yet so realistic, we hear each “muffled whisper,” we see each “muddy photograph,” we know each “secret life,” as if it were our own. These are familial stories of transition and transformation—both mental and physical—that consider the question “What if?”
When I pick Kirti up from the bus station, I don’t want to look at her all at once. It’s been years since I’ve seen her last and I want to take her in piece by piece. I look at her brown arms that hug her dirty yellow backpack to her chest, a pose too childish for her twenty-three years. Her elbows are so dark they’re nearly purple, from the bunching of her skin. Her right ear has a ring pierced through the top of it, like a goat’s.
“Let me take that.”
“It’s not heavy.”
I unlock the car. It’s a hot day and the seats have been baking in the sun. Kirti rolls her window down. She’s got sunglasses on that cover most of her face, so I’m allowed just her large, elegant nose and her cheeks, browner than I remember.
“It’s almost never hot here.”
“I don’t believe you. Remember last time I came?”
“You’re just picking hot days to visit. We can go to the beach.”
She’s looking out the window, her hair, loose, blowing all around her face. Prettier than me, of course, as little sisters are. The sunlight falling on her face looks like internal radiance, that old trick. Her lips are parted and I can see the white-yellow edge of her teeth.
“I don’t feel like the beach,” she says.
We get out of the car, and I notice that her gait has changed. It has become slower and more swaying, a little dreamy. She lets me hug her, but holds herself away. The house is clean—has been cleaned for her. The day before I came home from work early to dust and vacuum and put away. From the corner of my eye I watch Kirti as she looks around. She hardly seems impressed, but I didn’t really expect her to be. I take her to the guestroom where the air mattress is all set up and she puts her backpack down at last. She’s wearing an uncharacteristically loose dress that gathers on a cord at the neck and falls to her knees. Her legs are unshaven, hairy as a man’s.
“Are you pregnant?”
“Kirti.” I catch myself. “You don’t look fat. I’m not saying you’re fat.”
“What are you saying?”
“It’s the way you’re holding yourself.”
She rubs her hands in her hair. She’s taken off her sunglasses, finally, and I can see her black, bus-tired eyes. “Okay. I was going to tell you. I just didn’t want you to freak out.”
“I’m not freaking out.”
Since there is no place to sit except the air mattress, we stand awkwardly in the doorway. I have managed, at least, to keep my voice tremendously level.
“Have you told mom and dad yet?”
“Not yet. They’re going to lose it.” Then she says, “Where’s Brianne?”
“She went to pick up sandwiches for lunch. Are you hungry?”
She shakes her head.
“What do you want? We have OJ and milk, and I have some of that French lemonade mom used to get.”
“Just some water.”
I go to the kitchen and lean against the counter. It’s hot. Even with all the windows open, we’re not equipped for it, have only one mostly ineffective fan. Something I have not thought of, since we use it in our room when we sleep. We’ll have to buy another one for Kirti to sleep tonight. Take a few deep breaths. In an emergency I am often calm, and can hold myself back until it’s passed. I pour my sister a glass of buttermilk and bring it to her. She’s moved to the living room, slipped off her shoes and tucked her feet up on the couch.
“Water, I said.”
“Have it, na?”
She wraps both hands around the glass and holds it to her cheek, then her forehead. Cold, and slightly sour, sweetish too, and thick. I remember her, of course I do. She drinks it quickly and with pleasure, and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand.
“Do we have to talk about it right now?”
“No,” I say. “We don’t have to do anything. Have you seen a doctor?”
“I’m perfectly healthy.”
“Kirti, are you crazy? You have to see a doctor.”
“For fuck’s sake, I saw one. That’s what I’m telling you.”
“Well, what did he say?”
“What did she say?”
Kirti shrugs. “I’m about four months in. Everything looks fine. Need to take folic acid. No papaya, which is weird. But okay, I don’t really eat papaya.”
“Yes, four months, stop repeating everything.”
“Do you know who the father is?”
“Yes, I know.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not trying—I’m just trying to get my arms around it.”
“Listen, Anu, I promise we can talk about this. I just really, really don’t want to right now, okay? Can we please talk about something else?”
But we both can think of nothing else to say, and so we sit together in silence. Kirti runs her finger along the rim of the glass to scoop out the last of the buttermilk that has clung to the sides. She’s hungry but won’t ask for food. Her body, even now, is skinny, partly because she is naturally lean and partly because she hasn’t been taking care of herself. Her hair is thin, pulled back from her face, fuzz at the widow’s peaks where you can see the scalp. In this light, her skin is waxy and sallow. Skinny—our mother was never skinny. From my earliest memory she had a soft comfortable body that spread out with age, each hip large enough to seat a baby or a small child. Her lap, sought in moments of distress or the babyish need for comfort, often provided the kind of solace the mother’s body gives, even while her mind is elsewhere.
I am not skinny like my sister. My hips are wide, childbearing hips. My thighs and belly, between which I carry my useless womb, are both soft, a fact that in earlier years shamed me, then made me hopeful, and now seems like a waste.
Brianne’s keys are in the door and then she appears. Tall for a woman, my Brianne, pale and slender, wearing a checked shirt, carrying the bag of sandwiches. A moment passes between us that is enough to make the smile on her face wane slightly, but she puts down the bag and says, “Kirti, you’re here. It’s good to see you,” and Kirti stands and lets herself be embraced.
“It occurred to me that we don’t have a fan for her. For tonight.”
Brianne’s look says Is that all that’s the matter. “I got one while I was out. Arctic Hurricane.”
“You’re incredible,” I say and get up to kiss her. She puts a hand on the small of my back. We took tango classes one summer and she liked it more than me. But we were not well matched in tango, we both tried to lead.
“How long was the bus ride?”
“Thirteen hours, Jesus, you must be exhausted,” I say. “I didn’t realize it was that long from San Diego.”
“I didn’t come from San Diego,” says Kirti. “I think I’m going to lie down for a little bit.”
Kirti herself was a sort of surprise, at least to me, born a full ten years after my birth, to the month though not the day, in summer. I had long gotten used to my place in the world, and watched my mother’s belly grow for months with a mixture of anxiety, envy and anticipation. During this time my mother was self-contained and dreamy, and I grasped her hair, her hem, her fingers often in my hands, though I was already too old, wanting to reach her. Her lap, which had often held me, became to full to fit me, so I placed my head there, until that too didn’t fit. My father stood with me on this distant shore, watching my mother drift out further and further, though he seemed less troubled by it—she had already once returned to him. But she never returned to me, not quite. Instead, my father joined her and I stood alone, looking over the gulf that separated me from my mother and father, and feeling myself to blame.
Kirti arrived tiny, born premature, and stored for the first few days in a plastic case in a room full of infants in plastic cases, row after row of them arranged before the window like unopened toys. My parents spent their days and nights in the hospital, and I stayed with my next door neighbor, Tillie, and her mom, who took us, every day, to the community pool. I saw my sister just once in the hospital and couldn’t hold her. My dad held me up and pointed: that one, three over from the right. I didn’t know how he could tell. She looked just like all the other babies.
But something did come over me, when I at last got to pick her up. She was too weak to hold up her own head. Her hands were pink and exact, replicas in miniature of my own. Her skull, still soft, rested in the cup of my hand and her eyes looked right into mine. I looked back into those eyes and smiled.
She naps for most of the afternoon. Napping, maybe reading in there, or just looking out the window at the tree in the backyard, which brushes its leaves against the glass with the wind. Brianne and I eat together, and talk, quietly, about the news Kirti has brought. I can see immediately Brianne’s relief, which is premature, and entirely misplaced. She is more of a mystic than me and trusts the universe to provide everything one desires, at the right time of course. When she tells me this I ask her about people who are poor or dying of AIDS. Why hasn’t the universe provided them with a cure, money for dinner? What makes us so special? Brianne shrugs. Maybe they’re not asking right, is what she says, which we both know is a bullshit answer.
“She hasn’t said anything—anything—about adoption. We don’t know anything yet. And even if she does—”
“Do you think she wants to be a mother and raise a child? She’s come here for a reason.”
“Please, please stop,” I say. I’m sort of furious. “We don’t know anything yet.”
“You can’t trick yourself out of getting hurt by not hoping for things.”
I look away from her. There are tears in my eyes. The worst thing right now would be for Kirti to walk in and catch us: two dirty lesbians scheming to steal away her baby. Brianne doesn’t know Kirti very well and what little she knows should make her suspicious—my sister has the most fickle heart of anyone I’ve ever known. We finish our meal in silence. After the dishes are done there is nothing to do: we cleaned yesterday, and did the grocery shopping; laundry’s not until next week. Emails have been answered, bills have been paid. I had thought that the three of us would go for a walk, to the park or the beach, or go see a movie. I have made a list of restaurants to suggest for dinner, but have not planned for this. Kirti’s presence in the other room is constraining. We move quietly. I pick up my book, but have trouble focusing, I keep moving my eyes over the same sentence, the same three words.
Brianne wants a baby too, of course, almost as badly as I do. Not badly enough to carry it inside her and give birth to it, that’s the difference. After the usual sperm bank stuff failed, I had six rounds of IVF and three miscarriages within the first trimester; the other times my womb rejected the eggs outright. After the last miscarriage, I decided to stop trying. It felt too much like when I was in high school and in love with a girl in the senior class. I was a freshman. That girl was so tall and cool, she had a perfect face, and it was a shame to love her. I was so ashamed of it. Something about the way I had been made was wrong, I had been assembled incorrectly. I could at that time already see the ways in which Kirti had improved on me: bubbly, a charmer, a pretty child, and social, with her plump little cheeks and arms. It was all you could do when you saw her, little imp, with jam inexplicably smeared around her mouth, to not pick her up and kiss her. As she grew older she thinned, her cheeks and thighs became sleek. But that was an improvement on me, too.
She’s in her studio, Brianne, listening to Philip Glass. I can hear him, muffled, through the kitchen wall, circling himself, and adding, circling, and adding.
“What time is it?”
Kirti’s sleepy voice. Her hair’s mussed, nearly standing on end in the back, her feet are bare. And, I can’t help it, I see her, for a moment, exactly as I always did when she was little, her plump face further softened by sleep.
“Five, I think? Five-thirty?”
“I slept.” She sits down next to me on the couch and puts her head against my shoulder. Her hair is soft, a little oily against my cheek.
“Yes. For a few hours. Are you hungry?”
“Your sandwich is soggy.”
I bring it to her on a plate, and she eats it quickly.
Nods again. Mustard on her cheek. I wipe it with my thumb. I bring her some bread and cheese and milk and a cold, peeled egg, which she eats with an unthinking hunger I have never seen in her.
“Your new place is nice,” she says when she’s finished. “It sort of makes you think how much of a dump your old place was.”
“I mean, you fixed it up nice. But it was sort of just a cardboard box.” She looks at my face and says, “I’m giving you a compliment.”
“Where are you living?” I say.
“Well, sort of—sort of—I was living in Fresno for a while—”
“Yeah, and then I was visiting some friends up in Nevada City. There’s a farm up there we were all working on. I worked there for a few months.”
“And now—well, nowhere, I guess. I have some of my stuff in storage back in San Diego.”
“Where are you going once you leave here?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
“And you were thinking maybe you could stay here.”
“I wasn’t thinking anything, Anu.”
“It sure seems like that, doesn’t it.”
She, oddly, remains pacific, only shrugs. “What’s amazing about life is that you never quite know where it will take you.”
“So you’re just swimming in the sea of life, huh, just floating on your back, drifting this way and that, wherever the current takes you, impregnated—maybe like a jellyfish, they just shoot their sperm out into the water, you know, Fresno, Nevada City, your sister’s place, and then who knows where for what or for how long and what after? The universe is full of mysteries.”
“Jellyfish shoot their eggs in the water too. They don’t get pregnant.”
“Okay, thank you Mr. Scientist.”
“I can leave, you know. I’m happy to leave.”
“And go where? To mom and dad?”
“I’ll figure it out.”
She looks proud. That familiar tilt of her chin. She used to confess to me, when she was little, her crimes, her secrets. She used to hug my neck as she slept and I was the one to carry her from the car. Now, I cannot see the oily panic that may be welling underneath the surface of her calm, or the anger. But she’s come here, hasn’t she, to me and not someone else. Perhaps she’s in trouble—and then I almost laugh for thinking of it like that: what does trouble look like if not this?
“Kirti,” I say. “Stay, okay? I’m sorry. Stay.”
She just nods.
The drive to dinner is silent, no surprise there. Brianne and I refrain from the private conversations couples sometimes conduct in public through glances, touch. She drives, and I look out the window. Kirti, sitting kitty corner from me in the backseat looks out the window too. I glance up and see her averted eyes in the rearview mirror. She’s showered and changed into a new, but similar dress, gathered at the neck and cotton, loose. This one is white; she knows well to set that color against her skin. It is her trick to glow when you catch her in your vision but are too afraid to stare, some illusion she must have learned early in life and has always used to her advantage. At the restaurant, we order a bottle of wine for the table, and she has a few little sips. “In Europe they drink through the whole thing,” she says, and I let it pass along with everything else.
“So, Kirti, you were in Nevada City? Farming?” Brianne says, bravely wading in.
“What was it like up there?”
“Oh, beautiful. We had chickens. When I first got there it was snowing, and we were all staying in this trailer together. We had to wake up really early—I mean, really, really early. And work with your hands, you know? And at the end of the day, you had these eggs, you’d planted carrots for the summer, and harvested—turnips or whatever, there wasn’t that much during the winter—you had the feeling you were really doing something. It wasn’t just punching things into a computer all day. You made food.”
“I worked on a farm for a summer too.”
“You did?” I say.
“Yeah, back in Boise.”
“You never told me. A potato farm?”
“We grew other things,” she says. “Aside from being stunningly homophobic, Boise’s pretty nice.”
“So you say.”
Kirti shifts in her chair. She dips her finger absently in her glass and licks at the residue the wine has left. I try to remember back to what all my books said about four months pregnant. Does she ache, are her breasts tender? Can she feel the baby move inside her? She has not yet rested her hands on the neat curve of her belly the way that pregnant women always seem to do, which sends a knife through me every time. She feels watched, and looks up, not shying from me, meeting me, my eyes with hers. They are the same color as mine but slightly different in shape, rounder, and have a small pocket of red in the inner corner of each, the first place to be filled with tears. They are sad eyes, even when they are not sad, when they gaze calmly across the table.
“I still can’t get her to come visit,” Brianne says to Kirti. “It’s been ten years and she won’t visit my hometown. They have bike lanes!”
“I just don’t want to go somewhere where I’m not welcome.”
Brianne tilts her head and lifts her eyebrows at me, you want to do this now?
I shrug. You brought it up.
“My parents are pretty old-fashioned,” she says to Kirti, half apologizing.
“Ten years, and where are the Shahs?”
“At least they’ve met you,” I say.
“Oh god, our parents are the worst.” How easily she can say that, Kirti, how much it takes for granted. “You can’t take it personally.”
“I’m going to go to the bathroom.”
It’s empty. I wet a paper towel and pat it all over my hot face. When I get back to the table, Kirti is telling Brianne that they made their dresses from old sheets they found on the farm. Brianne’s face is fixed on my sister’s: not politely, but with genuine interest, at her story or her prettiness I’m not sure.
“I didn’t know that you knew how to sew.”
“It’s not that hard. They had a sewing machine.”
“We have some maternity clothes at home you could have,” says Brianne, “right?”
“Right,” I say. The food comes, but I’m not all that hungry. The wine has soured my mouth. Kirti eats and eats, finishing her plate of pasta, and then mine when it’s offered. She likes the restaurant, the food, it’s been a long time since she’s been taken out. My parents will lose it, they really will, but they’ll get the grandchild they feared they’d never have, and will soften and forgive when they see its face.
“If you guys want to,” Kirti says, in a show of politeness. We order three kinds.
At home she tries on a pair of jeans with the stretchy front panel and a pretty, expensive dress that we never should have bought to begin with, empire waist, eyelet lace, white, with little sleeves. We had been excited, the first time. At the store I tried everything on, filling out the extra room with my imagination. The clothes still have their tags.
“You can keep that,” I’m sitting on the closed toilet seat, watching her look at herself in the full-length mirror hanging from the bathroom door. “It looks really nice on you.”
“It’s a little big.”
“You’re going to get bigger.”
“It’s too hot for pants.”
She pulls them off her. Then she pulls the dress off too and stands in her underpants in front of the mirror. No bra, and her breasts have swelled, tipped in brown nipples. There is something almost grotesque about it, her belly, big as the distended belly of a starving child. A faint black line runs down the center of her, as though drawn in by a pencil. Her face is so tender.
“Have you thought of a name?”
“I don’t know. Maybe Shasta.”
“If you want your baby to grow up to be a hippy.”
“That wouldn’t be so bad.” She looks at me in the mirror. “I’m not dumb, you know.”
“I never said you were dumb.”
“I can see it. What you’re thinking.”
“You don’t know what I’m thinking.”
“You used to tell me that I was dumb. You used to sit with me in the back of the car and whisper it in my ear.”
“Don’t you remember?”
“Yes, I do. I’m surprised you do, though. You were little.”
“I didn’t mean it.”
“No. Of course not. I was just a kid. You only remember the bad parts.”
“I don’t,” she says, “I remember other things.”
She thinks. “Like…how you let me sleep in your bed. You didn’t just lie down next to me, you put your arms around me.”
I remember that, too. Warm and soft as a little animal, burrowing. She would narrate her dreams as she dreamt them.
She holds my gaze in the mirror. “Don’t I look different?”
“Yes. You didn’t use to look like such a mountain woman.”
She smiles, my beautiful sister. I ask, “Whose baby is this?”
She pulls her farm-made dress over her head, and sits on the lip of the bathtub. “Well, at the farm, I met—he owned the farm. He’s a little bit older.”
“And what happened?”
“What do you think?” She shuts her eyes tight for a minute, and opens them, still dry. “He wasn’t married, but he had just separated from his wife. And he had a little kid already with his wife. A baby, really. It’s messy, you know, he didn’t tell her about me and I met her, I met them both, that little kid and—anyway. It’s done.”
“Done? What does done mean?”
“I mean I left. He didn’t want anything to do with it. So I just left.” Her eyes are all red. “Don’t say it.”
“Whatever you were going to say.”
“You think I’m going to yell at you?”
“You want to, don’t you?”
I look at her, trying to see her as a stranger would. For one thing, I can see nothing childish about her at all, not the firmness of her pose, not the tight set of her jaw, not the pucker between her brows. For another, I can see it now, not panic, not anger, but sadness, vast and ocean gray coming up through her eyes and tilting the corners of her mouth, though she doesn’t cry. And shame, plastered over by false pride, the way she has deliberately squared her shoulders. How she’s grown since I’ve last seen her. It’s taken me this long to sniff out her broken heart.
“I want you to have her.”
With something like anger, I say, “Don’t say that unless you mean it.”
“I mean it.”
“Have you thought about it?”
“I thought about it, Anu.”
“Think about it more.”
“If you don’t want her just say so.”
Her. Not it, her. I look away. Kirti is just in the corner of my eye, and luminous again. A student, an artist, a stock girl, a farmer, a mother for nine months and then whatever she wants next, passing from one thing to another, as easily as a little bird darting from flower to flower. A child, six, and careless with a doll that had once been mine, drawing on its face with indelible ink, blacking out the eyes.
“I thought you would be happy.”
Shaking my head. “Why didn’t you get an abortion?”
“Because of you.”
In the bedroom Brianne is sleeping with a book open on her chest. The fan is on, and ruffles her hair and the pages every time it swings around. There is a small smile on her face, which is just the way her mouth is at rest, like a dolphin’s or a dog’s. She wears glasses to read.
I like this room. The bed takes up most of it, but it has a big window that looks out onto the city, a shelf of light in this dark. I don’t think I can sleep. I change into my nightgown and have to climb over Brianne to get into bed. Reading Moby-Dick again, and she’s lost her page. I shut the book and take off her glasses and switch off the light. A baby, three of us, a tiny army against a hostile world—is that what I had thought? Or proof that I was who I was meant to be, that I could give myself whatever I needed? I wanted that small body in my arms. It is something that existed before reason, words. Her arms around my neck.
“Are you crying?”
“Not really.” Brianne turns over and puts her warm feet against my shin. “Are we going to be parents?”
“I don’t know.”
“What did she say?”
“She says things just to please people all the time.”
With a sigh, she pulls herself up, out of sleep. “Why do you think so little of her?”
“Do you think she’s prettier than me?”
“Anu. I’m not going to do this with you.”
Her face is a soft shape against the window. So pale, so reasonable, my Brianne, my complement, my opposite, my shame, my heart, my worst fear. One summer she took my two fists in her hands and unclenched them, smoothed them out to the palms, and I fell in love.
“Let’s go swimming tomorrow. We haven’t gone in such a long time.”
“If the weather holds.”
Which will go first, Kirti or the heat? I can see her in dirty shorts and a straw hat, standing on the top of a hill. The farm covers the slope in verdance, curly heads of lettuce, vines of blooming squash, Paleolithic fronds of kale. A man, the father, stands beside her with no face. And between them stands the child, their natural daughter, skin the color of earth, wheat colored hair, hands tiny bunches of carrots, cooing. I reach my hands out to this girl and she runs away.
After breakfast we drive north, out of the city. Kirti rolls the window down. She is delighted to be crossing the bridge, which wears today a skirt of fog that will vanish before noon. She’s borrowed a two-piece that barely fits her breasts, and she looks oddly voluptuous when she takes her dress off at the shore of the lake. Her eyes are less tired than yesterday. Brianne holds her arm to mine, as she often does, to compare our colors, never in her favor. Out of the three of us, she is the only one to slather herself so entirely in sunscreen, she smells of it pinkly. We sit on a blanket on the shore, heating our bodies until we feel the desire to cool them in the lake, Brianne with Moby-Dick, Kirti with a book on philosophy she’s picked from our shelves, and me with a magazine that I look up from often, to stare out across the water. A pair of children in colorful bathing suits wade into the lake, and I think of Tillie and me, swimming at the community pool the week of Kirti’s birth. Tillie had wanted to splash around and make up water games—kid’s stuff. I just wanted to swim from one end to the other. I’d touch the wall of the pool and turn right back around again, shutting my eyes tight against the stinging chlorine.
The baby would look like me. The greater world would see her and assume she was mine without question. But I would know. In three years, another person might return to me, someone who has finally settled with the wildness of her youth, coming to me with her arms open, wanting back her child. And how easily the world could tilt from mother to aunt, aunt to mother.
“Christ, Anu, are you always this morose?”
I look up at her. She’s crosslegged on the blanket next to me, sitting up very straight. Somewhere along the line she has corrected her terrible posture.
“Don’t needle me.”
“It’s not hot enough yet.”
I look at Brianne. “How many times are you going to read that book?”
“Go on,” she says.
I take off my shoes and walk with my sister to the water, watching her slow, careful steps. So close, she smells peppery, and her back bears the traces of dormant acne. There’s a welt on her arm, purple in color and perfectly triangular, where once, long ago, I accidentally burned her with the tip of an iron. I touch it. The skin has cooled and healed, but still remembers.
“That hurt like crazy,” she says, looking.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
We’re at the water. It is cool, but not cold. Touches our feet, pulls away, returns. Our wet skin is the same color.
“I can feel her move now. It’s so weird. She has eyelashes already.”
“You can’t feel that.”
“The doctor told me.”
Kirti walks in a little further, covered in goosebumps, feeling at the ground with her feet before she puts her weight down. Her shins, and then her knees. “Be careful,” I say.
Her thighs, her waist. Then all at once, she ducks her head down and disappears, and comes up grinning.
“I do it slowly.”
“It’s worse that way.”
I wade in to my knees, then my thighs. The water is cold under the skin of the sun-warmed surface, true cold, and murky from the silt stirred up by our limbs. I feel bright, entirely awake. I too duck under the surface of the water and hear it booming in my ears. Push out and knife my body into the water, pulling myself with my strong arms. Kirti is just a few feet away, floating on her back. Her toes poke the water, her nose, her breasts, her belly. Her eyes are open, serene. Standing, I look back at the shore, Brianne is sitting right where we left her, pale pink and tiny. In that entire thousand-page copy of her beloved book, there is only one sentence I found underlined and starred by her hand: Ah, the world! Oh, the world!
The trick of floating took me a long time to master. I was always sinking at the knees. It was Brianne who taught me, balancing my body’s mass in her hands in the YMCA pool. I doubt anyone had to teach my sister. I let the lake lift me. The trick is to stay loose, which is harder than it sounds. I can see us from above, two planets spinning their separate orbits. But we have the same eyes. She closes hers, I leave mine open, filling them to the brim with sky.
Southeast Asia, 1996
Heejoung took the job as a flight attendant because she wanted to see the world. It has been three years. She has seen the world. Its major cities have blurred together. Bangkok’s floating paper lanterns are superimposed onto Singapore’s harbor. She calls this place Hong Kong—no, she calls it HKG. Her life becomes simple. An abbreviation of life. There is night and there is day, there is sky and there is earth, and earth, in the day, is a runway imprisoned by razor-crowned fences.
She does not own a cat or a fish or a plant. Nothing heavier than forty kilograms. She stores large possessions in her parents’ sewing room, in Daegu. The rest she drags in a navy blue suitcase from one airport hotel to the next. She dislikes her coworkers because they are her only friends. She dislikes the things that they talk about. The metaphysics of their employment. They tell her—when she says she wants walls she can paint, furniture of her choosing—that life is one long transition. This job, they gleefully attest, is preparing them for the series of journeys that await them after death. Heejoung detests this idea.
In SGN (Ho Chi Min City) she abandons her crew and books a first class ticket to Seoul. An aisle seat, beside the stranger—a handsome stranger—who will become her husband. During takeoff she leans over him, captivated by the shrinking city, and does not recoil when she feels his hand on her back.
Snow erases their lawn, their driveway, and the flat tar roofs of neighboring houses. The world is now what remains. A stripped dogwood stretching tangled branches. Slush spotting the road. And her husband—in his new Red Sox parka, its sun-flickered price tag still on the sleeve—shoveling a path from the front door to the mailbox. Heejoung drags a dining room chair to the window. Her husband shovels toward the house until, from this angle, she cannot see him. She leans so close to the window her breath fogs the glass. The front door slams. Fists of snow fall from the roof.
Clotheslines web the buildings together. Shirts and pants dangle like doomed, colorful insects. Jun, age two, hammers something wooden with something plastic. Sang Min hammers her stomach from inside, with small feet and curled fingers.
They live on the 17th floor. The street is a rumor. Her husband does all their working, shopping, drinking. There is no reason for her to leave their apartment alone and therefore no spare keys. Housework keeps her active, he tells her. Good exercise.
Her days go as follows:
She raises one son with one hand and keeps the other hand pressed to her belly.
She spices skinned rabbits with kochujang and daenjang.
She lets love be made to her.
She is told she is happy.
At night she explores the unlit apartment pretending the furniture, in the dark, isn’t the table, the counter, the couch of the day. She gazes at the apartment complex across the alley. Sometimes she sees an American woman undressing in front of a vanity. When she sees this woman Heejoung likes to turn on the dining room light, hoping to make herself visible.
The woman’s apartment is dark this evening. But the apartment above hers is lit. Its window opens. Two large pillows are tossed outside. Then sheets. Photographs. A glass vase that shatters amazingly. An unzipped suitcase is held outside and flipped upside-down. Clothes float slowly to the ground. Then a woman steps onto the windowsill. Heejoung scrambles to bed.
Whitfield, March 19, 2008
Her sons are five and seven years old and they revere their father. They ask Heejoung for the same kimchi and boiled egg lunches their father eats. They like wearing black slacks and oxfords; they prefer briefcases to backpacks. Every morning, they beg him for a ride to school. While his driving them is not abnormal, it is uncommon, and this morning—the way that he insists on choosing their clothes, how he demands they eat their breakfast faster, how he tells them, before leaving, to kiss and hug their mother goodbye—perplexing.
Why would they leave for school 30 minutes early? Heejoung wonders. Why would he ask her, on Saturday—two days after she asked for divorce—if she would mind if he drives them on Thursday? He never asks her approval for anything. Is he trying to respect her? To prove he is different now?
In the foyer, she asks Sang Min, while zipping up his windbreaker, if he would like to go to the park after school. He shrugs. She can see he’s not saying something. Jun sprints out the front door. His brother squirms free, chases after him, and they run to the car swinging their briefcases in low matching arcs.
After they leave Heejoung anxiously cleans. She mops the kitchen and bathrooms. She polishes utensils, then polishes spatulas, peelers, and whisks. She dusts ceiling fans. Bakes seventy-two cookies, eats one and a half. She vacuums the boys’ room. When she opens their closet, to vacuum in there, she finds stripped hangers piled on the floor. The dresser contains three socks, a white T-shirt, torn jeans, some underwear. Bear Snores On and 365 Penguins, their favorites, remain on the bookshelf. Their toothbrushes are still in the green plastic cup next to the sink. This calms her, briefly.
She calls her husband. No answer. She leaves numerous messages. That afternoon the boys do not emerge from the school bus. She chases it on foot, but is unable to catch up. She runs home and calls the school. Her sons were marked absent, she learns, excused by their father.
Whitfield, March 19, 2008
What if she had told her husband that the boys should take the bus, instead—that she wanted to cook them a big breakfast? Eggs and black beans and brown rice? That she didn’t want them to sit in the lunch room for 30 minutes, supervised by a gruff gym teacher reading the sports section? Would he have said, “Okay, fine, but I’ll pick them up,” and taken them to Seoul on a later flight? Would he have signed them out during lunch and raced them to Portland? Would she have found their empty dresser in time?
In time to do what?
In Korea, men remember her face. They see it on KBS news. MBC news. They download the image of her on the courthouse steps, face strewn with pixelated tears, from the Korea Times website. They send letters. In them they express sorrow for her cowardly husband’s actions. They propose discussing his cowardice over dinner. Some men claim to be lawyers. They promise to win Heejoung custody of her children. But first she must meet them for dinner. She doesn’t. They spell too poorly for lawyers. Other men ask how horrible a man must be in order to abandon such a beautiful woman, an intelligent woman, a woman who must eat out occasionally, right? A mechanic in Seoul compares her husband to a bunny rabbit and then compares himself to a lion. But a lion would chase her in person. A lion would not fix others’ cars.
The letters speak to her vanity but keep talking. They remind her that her husband has fled to Korea with her children, leaving, in their place, two mortgages she hadn’t known existed. The letters remind her that the Korean judicial system supports him. A father cannot kidnap his children, the court has decided. And: The children live in a large white house, their beds made daily by a capable stepmother. They are well fed and better educated; they earn top marks at boarding school. He has hurt her, not their sons. Doesn’t she want what’s best for her children?
Whitfield, March 19, 2008
What if, during breakfast, Jun got oatmeal on his collar and when she brought him upstairs to change the closet was empty? Would he have said that Dad stuffed their clothes in a suitcase? That he planned to take them to Seoul?
Whitfield, March 19, 2008
What if, as she zipped Sang Min’s coat, he said, I need to tell you a secret: Dad defaulted on his second mortgage. Our TV, our swings, this briefcase (he lifts it over his head, leaning from the effort), everything belongs to the bank?
Whitfield, March 19, 2008
What if as her husband waited in the car the boys said, adorably, in unison, Dad tries to buy our affection with toys and sweets because, unlike you, he does not really love us and fears we will not love him back? That is why he is kidnapping us. Because we love you more than we love him. Would she feel any better if they said that?
Whitfield, March 19, 2008
What if they said? What if they said? What if they said?
A church friend has given Heejoung a hostess job at the Japanese restaurant he owns. The restaurant is rarely busy. She spends entire shifts considering appeals to the high court in Seoul, or imagining the American court, which has granted her custody, reaching its hands into Seoul to scoop up her sons and return them to Whitfield. She reimagines that morning in March, down to the fried-egg-and-boy-sweat scent of Sang Min’s jacket, the granola bar crumbs she found on Jun’s pillow. She enters the morning wherever she pleases. During breakfast. Hugging Sang Min and reaching for Jun. From the front door watching her husband’s Corolla drive off. But she cannot change anything. She has created a museum in her mind.
Eric, the first waiter on shift, tells her he loves her. He does not really love her. It’s a game they play. She tells him she loves him. He leaves to check on his tables.
Bored, Heejoung watches people rush past on the sidewalk, noting hairstyles, the wash of their jeans, distinguishing limps. Sometimes, hours after they pass, or days, weeks, they return to the restaurant, and she likes to surprise them with her memory, to smile and say, when they open the door, “I knew you’d come back.”
The women waited for Olivia. Perched on their lawn chairs beneath the dogwood, which blossomed in leathery white bursts, Nel thought they looked more like they were waiting for their youth. Leanne had slathered on so much foundation she resembled an overripe tangerine, and Connie stank of French perfume. Nel regretted wearing new capris. The white pants had looked effortless on the pretty, child-like model in the catalogue, but they hung limply from her own middle-aged waist. What would Kevin call them if he walked into the backyard now? A gaggle, she thought. A gaggle of women, hoping for some mid-afternoon miracle that would transform them from mere sacks of marriages and motherhood into pristine girls again.
She was perhaps being melodramatic. They waited on Olivia, the childhood friend they had not seen for twenty-five years, ever since she’d disappeared with her new-found husband to Iran. Then Iraq, then Jordan, then God only knew where because they’d lost touch. Tajikistan, maybe. Somewhere unpronounceable that would make her friends back home twist their mouths ungracefully.
Olivia was late.
Leanne swatted at the yellow rain of pollen. “It’s hot,” she said. “Too hot to sit outside.” She’d foolishly worn mascara, although summer had arrived early in Durham. Now gunpowder splotches seeped from the corners of her eyes.
“Drinks.” Connie leapt from her seat. “Margaritas? Mimosas? Olivia loves mimosas.”
That Nel only had whiskey and gin did not concern Connie, who clattered through the sliding door into the house. The women had been inside each other’s homes and lives since they were girls; they treated each other’s houses as if any and all could be hostess, although today it was Nel’s turn. Nel’s house. Nel’s liquor cabinet Connie was raiding. Connie had begun the twelve steps to sobriety four times now. She never made it past step one. “One and three-quarters,” Connie claimed.
“Good Lord, I feel like Moses marching through the desert.” Leanne dabbed her cheeks. “The icing on your cupcakes is melting, by the way.”
“It’s lovely out here,” Nel said.
“You’re showing signs of sun damage, Nel. Building all those shacks…”
“It’s taking its toll.”
Over the years, Connie had found the bottle, and Leanne had found God, while Nel collected plywood and power tools and paint to rebuild houses that were falling apart. The Durham streets were haunted with the addresses of buildings she’d gutted over the years.
Nel placed a mesh fly cover over the pretty cakes and tea sandwiches she’d made. It was a little warm now that the sun had clipped the chimney, filling the gutter with light. But Nel would not budge; the garden was beautiful. Dandelions pushed through the soil. Leaves unfurled, thin-skinned and pale. At the bottom of the gravel path, the pond sparkled with the stars you couldn’t see during the day.
“Outside or in, Olivia will seat us wherever she feels like anyway,” Leanne complained. “She always gets what she wants.”
“The type of woman who goes to ladies’ night at the gun range…”
Leanne stared into the sky above the pond as if it might turn into a shell of wood. She was into her spirits. Water turning into wine. Women dissolving into salt. She saw salvation in the eye of every storm.
Olivia was in town to dispose of her mother’s remains. Nel had learned this from Leanne, who’d heard it from her pastor and had carried the news directly to the house Nel was restoring on Morning Glory Road. Nel had looked up too fast and slipped on the pitched gable, scraping her knee against the hip of the roof. That evening she’d sat beside her husband Kevin, who was counting his overtime hours till retirement, while he pretended to read his book. Nel did not mention Olivia. She watched the midges cluster around the porch light.
They heard her voice first, calling out to ask if anyone was home. Connie, who had returned with three tall glasses, loud with ice, snapped upright, and Leanne’s face tore unpleasantly into a smile. Then a shadow rubbed against the table, buffing the iron a tin-can blue. Olivia. Appearing as if summoned from the nastiness that had been leaking from their hearts.
Nel had imagined this meeting for years. She’d thought Olivia’s skin would be leathered from years beneath the Arab sun, her thin body cured into strips of tough salted meat, like jerky that had been well-chewed. Olivia herself would be shy at first, then grateful for being received. Nel had never settled on whether there’d be tears, and this uncertainty paralyzed her momentarily. She couldn’t say for sure, but when she turned, she thought she smiled politely and said “welcome,” or “hello”; at least not “where were you, you bitch?” This last, a surprise, since she had not been angry with Olivia before she arrived.
Olivia was thicker. She wore an exquisite floral print dress in satin and lace that wrapped too tightly across her wide hips and thighs. When they hugged, Nel’s body grazed the folds of her ample flesh, soft and lumpy, and smelling like modest mountains of cold cream.
They stepped apart. Leanne drew in her breath, exhaled, folded her arms. Connie grinned. Nel offered Olivia a sandwich. “Barbecue?”
Olivia hesitated. “You’re not vegetarian now, are you?” Connie said. Squawked. Her glass was already empty.
“I always have been,” Olivia said. Only lapsed at times.”
Such as the first seventeen years of her life, if Nel recalled right, setting the assorted pork and salmon-cream cheese sandwiches down among the cupcakes, speckled with bacon bits.
The booze, at least, sufficed. When Connie returned with a pitcher of straight gin, a plate of limes, and an extra glass, Olivia did not protest.
“You must miss alcohol,” Connie said. “Living among Muslims.”
“There’s no shortage of alcohol in Syria,” Olivia said. “Syria invented beer.”
“Still,” Leanne said. “It can’t be as easy as drinking in a Christian country. It can’t be as easy as drinking here.”
“I’ve had wonderful wine in Syria. It’s so close to Europe after all.”
Which North Carolina, with the vast Atlantic eating at its shores, was not.
“What’s it like…” Nel began.
“Glorious. A hassle changing anything when your streets are stuffed with history, but Syria has such a sense of place.”
Nel nodded, absently. She was trying to dry the sweat from her calf. Her husband had been right. The pants made her look old, exposing her ropey blue veins.
Olivia said, “Still, life is life everywhere, you know?”
They did not. They’d only ever lived in Durham.
“I meant, what’s it like to be back here after all this time,” Nel said.
“Little’s changed apart from the empty buildings. Half the town is boarded up.”
This was not true. The city was thriving. But as Nel was about to say as much, she noticed that the paint on the table had turned a jaundiced gray, and in places had chipped away. She saw the garden as Olivia did: the lawn a mean tangle of weeds, the earth beneath Durham, clay. Only the cruelest plants survived. Kudzu crept along the branches and strangled the telephone poles, as if squeezing out the last breath of spring. Even the pond water was warm and stagnant. Its surface shone as if coated in Vaseline.
That was Olivia, alright. She turned gold into sawdust. Because she’d lived in the Middle East, swum in the Mediterranean, though they were just names you could point to on a map, like anywhere else.
Nel had dreams of water. Not of vast ocean-blue stretches though. She dreamt that she melted, and melted, she made a small puddle of liquid that spread across the floor and seeped away, leaving nothing behind. Not even a stain.
“Blame Nel,” Leanne said. “She bricks up buildings to make shanty-towns.”
“I redevelop buildings to create affordable housing,” Nel explained. She tried to sound upbeat. “Durham’s experiencing a Renaissance. Of sorts. And the poor are being pushed out.”
“We’re bereft,” Leanne said, straight-faced.
“I rip open decaying houses, pull apart the loose felt matting on the roof, the skew nails, the rotten beams; then I stitch it all back together again, properly.”
Nel enjoyed what she did. She enjoyed sanding the floors, softening the strictness of the wood until the planks were pale and quiet, like the bones of a whale. She’d started fixing up houses a few years ago, driving the old roads while her son was in Iraq. He’d since returned from his final tour, all in one piece, thank God. But there were so many projects that still needed her attention. A house, of course, was not a child. Nel knew that. She knew that it would splinter and rot, and in the end would never be more or less than what she’d made.
“So you do all that work and then just give the house away?” Olivia asked.
Nel shrugged. “Sometimes I keep something to remember them by. An old pistol was left behind at the place I’m fixing now.”
The Morning Glory house sat behind a textile mill, abandoned except for kids and gangs and kids in gangs, who used it for sex and drugs and stabbings occasionally. “It’s one of those Remington Rands popular with the military.”
The women wanted to see the gun. Nel had hidden the pistol from her husband and son, who would have thought her guilty of some misplaced sentimentality, and was pleased to have the chance to show it off. In the bedroom upstairs, she felt between her underwear for the slim barrel and the case of cartridges.
“Good Lord,” Leanne said when Nel set the gun and box on the table. She held the pistol in her upward facing palms as if in supplication to some old God. “My pa had one of these.”
“My brothers, too, in Vietnam,” said Connie. “They taught me to shoot on M1911s, in case I got mixed up with the wrong type of man.”
Fat lot of good that had done.
The conversation turned to men. “A rather grand term for those ‘round here. Most are just boys who’ve gotten pruney skinned and started sagging in places,” Leanne said.
Connie agreed, spilling a little as she poured herself another generous glass. “Richard struggles with microwave meals. Well, I didn’t marry him for his brains.”
That much was true. Richard was good looking, but not so much so that many other women would wait on him hand and foot. He fooled around and drank. Sometimes when he drank he liked to fight. Often with Connie.
“I don’t know why you married him at all,” Nel said.
“Oh, Nel,” Olivia said. “We’re women. There’s always someone after us. We don’t want just someone, though, do we?”
“I thought you were happy enough with anyone,” Leanne said.
The pitcher slipped from Connie’s hands, spraying the sandwiches with gin as it fell into Olivia’s lap, then clattered over the patio. The women cried out and tried to dab Olivia’s dress with small squares of tissue paper, but their attentions would have been useless even if they weren’t half-hearted, and they quickly turned to simply surveying the damage. Connie dried the pistol with her hem, and racked the slide expertly.
Olivia laughed. Perhaps it was then, happy in her sticky dress, that they knew she did not resemble the tormented woman they’d created while defending her from gossip once she’d left, knew that she would not climb upon the cross they’d cobbled together for her, that she’d escaped because she believed their lives were wanting.
“Baptized with booze,” Leanne said.
Connie retrieved a bottle of gin from Nel’s liquor cabinet and plonked it down beside the crustless, now sodden, sandwiches.
“How lovely,” Olivia said.
The food, the little party napkins, the paper umbrellas in the kitchen cupboard Nel had bought in case the reunion turned rowdy, all seemed such a waste. Even the weather was turning; a cloud passed across the sun and the bricks began to darken.
She held her breath as Leanne picked up the pistol and aimed at the honeysuckle, squinting down the sight, though she knew that when triggered, the pin would only click. The pistol had rusted. Its machinery was ruined. With a thorough clean it might be resurrected, but she wouldn’t have it serviced.
“What I should have done before the lout left with my credit card,” Leanne said.
Nel shook her head. “You’d have had a line half-way to China looking for your help, and no time to pray.” Olivia smiled at Leanne and Connie and Nel, as if it were all a joke. Mostly, it was.
“You should have brought your kids,” Connie said, refilling Olivia’s glass.
“Just one son. Ardavan studies the cello in Berlin. Not that you’d know. All he talks about is the internet.”
Connie nodded, vigorously. “My son is the same. He’s in Afghanistan, but I just hear about the video games he’s played.” Her voice sounded strangled in the heat, thick with coming thunderstorms.
“My youngest buys and resells stuff online to pay for college,” Leanne said. She hunted in her handbag, found a pack of Marlboro Lights and passed them along. “The military’s not high-minded enough for Clayton. He prefers to sit around a table discussing how democracies are made.”
Which was obvious, to them, anyway: by guns, by bombs, by blood.
“Smart kid.” Olivia lit a smoke and washed the taste out with gin. “Ardavan’s a pacifist, too. Learned from the best, right? Lord, our fathers would have tanned our hides if they’d found us marching against the draft.”
“Which was why we didn’t,” Nel said. “The college girls in Chapel Hill did that. We were only fourteen.”
They’d trooped to church early Sunday mornings instead, before they’d washed the taste of toothpaste from their tongues.
“Leanne didn’t mean Luke was more useful than his brother,” Connie said. “She meant that Luke was willing to lose his life for us. For our freedom.”
Nel wanted to correct Connie. She didn’t admire these kids because of the danger they were in. A boy would throw away his still-unshaped life before he understood its worth. She was impressed by the cut of their collar, the stiffness to their shoulder blades, their obedience to order. You could imagine resting your head on such a body that would not flinch or falter beneath your great, invisible weight. Nel remembered how proud she’d been, seeing her son in uniform. His certainty thrilled, and she’d felt an immense joy that encompassed the sweating day, the hard bleachers, and every one of those cadets.
She’d loved her son when he looked lovely as a soldier. But then he came home from war and wasn’t lovely any longer. Wasn’t waking at dawn and performing his duty. Instead, he fell into disrepair. He sat before the television and God help her if she didn’t pray the fucking power would cut out one day and never turn back on. She avoided him. She accelerated her own schedule, combing the grass for nails, packing the shingles, rotted from years of neglect and shot through with damp holes, into tidy bundles that could be carted off for trash.
“We never marched against the Vietnam War,” Nel repeated. She didn’t know why she needed Olivia to admit she’d lied. Kevin said Nel would choke some day, swallowing Olivia’s tripe hook, line and sinker. Of course, he was jealous. He’d loved her once, too. But Nel had never followed Olivia, never wanted anything except to understand what was in her mind, which had been Nel’s as well, when they were young.
“No one supported the Vietnam War,” Olivia said with a slug of gin.
Leanne said. “You were obsessed with Vietnam vets.”
They’d hunted the boys being shipped away, stalked those who had returned. They’d lavished their affection on those poor souls, who were moved by their generosity. “You hussied up to every dick in uniform, married or not.” At fifteen, they’d tested boundaries they hoped they could not cross.
But they had. They had crossed those invisible lines in the sand and become women far too young. Olivia almost had the child to prove it. If Nel hadn’t driven her, slightly drunk, to the clinic, and waited, sticking uncomfortably to the felt seat while they did whatever it was they did, her boy would have been a year older than Nel’s.
Sometimes, through a wet windshield, Nel thought she saw the pale child swimming through the rain, across a street. His delicate spine, like a sea creature, seemed to have just uncurled. Only after a moment, she realized it was not Olivia’s son, but hers, painstakingly paddling against the current to go back to where he’d been and would not be able to return. And she wondered if it hadn’t been cruel to bring him into this world in the first place, if it would have been kinder to keep him a warm, safe secret of the mind.
“The things we did for love.” Olivia shook her head. “We were young and foolish then.What wonderful days those were. What heartbreakingly beautiful days.” She threw back her head as if to swallow the water in the atmosphere.
They were still foolish as far as Nel was concerned. Only now they were also old. Nel was disappointed in Olivia, in her lame surrender of the history that had tied them together all these years. Dirty clouds streaked white stripes across the Carolina blue, like burnt fat. Nothing would cool them that May.
Olivia upended the bottle into her glass. “The lengths I’ve gone to for love over the years…” She gestured vaguely a great distance. “I spent a week once floating in the Dead Sea.” She slurred a little as she leaned in and squeezed out the last lime juice from the leftover pulp.
Olivia and her husband Darius lived in Jordan then, and one evening were scheduled to attend a fundraising gala for the King’s Cancer Foundation—one of those dreadful events where, faced with microscopic bite-sized meals and emaciated flutes of champagne, guests mill about like parrots repeating the same few lines. Rarefied parrots, obviously, flashing fine silks from Shanghai, delicate leathers worked in Italy; furs from Moscow it would be too hot to wear.
Traffic was abysmal—in the summer a sheet of exhaust settled over the tops of the buildings like a cowl—so Olivia was to meet Darius with the tickets at the Opera House. But an hour before she was to leave, she realized the tickets were missing.
Darius had paid a handsome sum for the event. He was angling over some business deal and his presence at the party, she’d been made to understand, was vital. In search of the stubs, she ransacked the kitchen cupboards half undressed, upended the living room drawers, and shook free the important papers she stored in old library books from her youth, whose margins had been marked up with secret messages years before. Olivia was the type of woman who only appeared not to notice that she inspired unreasoned devotion.
While Olivia generally avoided entering her husband’s office—Darius was particular about his papers, which he placed in delicately balanced, right-angled stacks she feared upsetting—her options had run out, and she removed her slippers and slid the door aside to tiptoe barefoot onto a smart seal-gray rug she did not remember purchasing. The rug beneath her feet was cool and soft, and she shivered, maybe anticipating already what else she might find.
In plain view beside the missing tickets, for instance, a series of documents she knelt to read. Olivia had been under the impression she owned her apartment, but on the mortgage contract she found only her husband’s and son’s names were listed. The reason for the loan referred to a business venture she did not recognize. She took her time reading the fine print. Eventually, even the fancy rug began to scratch. Olivia collected the tickets then, returned the papers to their original position, and that night ate shrimp scampi the King had paired with a dry Austrian white wine. Before bed, she and her husband made love, as they generally did on Wednesdays, but with more vigor than usual. Perhaps inspired by the unusually excellent food, which had caused Darius to rub his paunch with pleasure. Perhaps because, after so many years, her husband could surprise her still.
But Olivia did not forget what she’d read. The papers preyed on her mind as she planned meals and settled the household accounts. She burnt rice thinking about The Oasis Club, which she thought sounded like an escort service. Finally, the power went out when she was blow-drying her hair because she’d forgotten to pay the electricity, and she lost her number one rank at the tennis courts after missing two consecutive games. That was when Olivia concocted a plan.
“I was kidnapped,” she said, gleefully.
Being kidnapped in a Muslim country was actually much harder than the women might have thought. Olivia secreted cash away over a series of months, skimping on imported groceries and allowing donations to lapse. Then she ran an advertisement in the university’s newspaper: Well paid short term work available for computer programmer. Discretion necessary.
She arranged to meet the boys (they were invariably men who’d applied) at Café Des Arts, a student bar her set did not frequent. Still, afraid of being recognized, she took little care with her appearance, not bothering to touch up her pasty skin or smooth the puffiness beneath her eyes.
She regretted her decision when she met Sami. He was a broad shouldered young man, with heavy eyebrows, and perfect skin she wanted to ruin. He glowered at her over the table and she stumbled over a question about his computer experience.
“What do you care? You won’t know what I’m talking about,” he said.
“Plenty of women know a thing or two about computers,” she said.
“Not your age.”
She’d walked stiffly away, wrecking a pair of sandals on the dusty roads when she couldn’t find a cab. The whole affair, she’d realized, had been a silly idea.
And that should have been the end of it. For a week she played bridge and tennis again. She even had the oven cleaned properly. But somehow she soon found herself in the same café, this time wearing stilettos and pants too tight for underwear. Sami sat in a corner, picking through a book.
“I need voice scrambling software and an untraceable phone line,” she said.
He raised his eyebrows, as if the act took real effort, and she breathlessly explained what she wanted him to do.
“We should meet to discuss the logistics.”
He shook his head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Olivia did not recognize the pity in his smile. She only knew it was not kind.
A week later, she booked herself into a resort on the Dead Sea shore, even though it was February, and only tourists crowded the beaches and restaurants. She’d wanted nothing to do with the negotiations. Sami was to demand a million dollar sum and leave a message for Eleanor Smith at the hotel when it was done. A million dollars seemed a reasonable amount.
Did thoughts of the negotiations trouble Olivia as the skin on her back stretched and bunched beneath well-oiled hands? When she rinsed salt from her body in mint scented showers, did she wonder if her husband had contacted Ardavan yet? No, if Olivia thought beyond the edge of the pool that fell away to wave-damaged rocks, it was to think of the twist of Sami’s thin-lipped mouth, to bask in the tingling sensation that came from both waiting for and dreading to hear his voice, knowing they would then not speak again.
Olivia lay at the lowest point on earth. She covered herself in mud, set hot stones along her spine. When she rose from the waters washed clean, she swore it was as if she had been made new.
One hundred and thirteen hours after she checked in at the resort, her husband offered a five hundred thousand dollar ransom. She accepted—Sami sounded bored—and returned in the back of a fraying leather-seated cab, sun-tanned. She and her husband never spoke of the incident, and the ransom money never transferred.
“Five hundred grand,” she said proudly. And only a hundred and thirteen hour wait.
Leanne downed her gin in one long gulp. “What did you expect? You abandoned us all to marry a stinking Arab.” She leaned forward on the table and waved her empty glass dismissively. “And you know what? You’re not smarter, more dignified, more cosmopolitan for fucking a foreigner. You’re still Olivia Gauss of Durham, North Carolina. Nothing more. Just paying to go to fancier parties. That’s all. And you try to tell us about war…”
“We were evacuated from Iran, Lebanon, Iraq…” Olivia said.
“You know about broken houses and someone else’s blood. When your son listens to gunfire, not Bach, when he dies, you’ll know about war.” She stopped herself. Drew a breath. “It’s a crime the good Lord blessed you with a kid after what you did. It’s unjust. So don’t sit there looking so pleased with yourself. You’re just like the rest of us: old and dumb and fat. Only worse, because you don’t seem to know you haven’t won.”
Connie clasped and unclasped her hands. She did this so often, the skin between her long fingers had reddened into hot, secret sores. The color of the rashes they’d imagined their sons suffering from, chewing on the sand that got everywhere.
“I didn’t realize…” Olivia said.
Leanne shook the bottle at her side. “What kind of party is this? We’re out.” It had hurt her terribly, wishing it had been her youngest son with his money-making schemes and not Luke who’d died.
Connie rose unsteadily to her feet, still holding the bottle, and stepped toward the house, then halted suddenly, swaying where she’d stopped. From the driveway, they could hear Kevin’s truck brake, and the engine die. No one moved to clear the glasses from the table. A strange lassitude had settled over them. It was as if Leanne’s outburst had taken something physical, something muscular from them all. Nel couldn’t even bring herself to hide the gun.
Only Olivia seemed immune to this torpor, and she pulled from her handbag a long, dark blue piece of material, the color of the sea. Leanne and Connie watched, horrified, as she placed the cloth over her head and folded the fabric expertly around her face, securing the corners with bobby pins she pursed between her lips. A silk ocean slipped down her back.
Then the sliding door opened with a metallic squeal, and Olivia smiled widely at Nel’s husband.
“Hello, Kev,” she said. She’d always been fond of him. Even after she got rid of the kid.
Something creased in Kevin, folded in on itself as he studied each of the women in turn. Nel would be lying if she said that she did not imagine sometimes what her life would have been like without a son. Mostly, she imagined it wide open and glamorous. On bad days, it was just the same. They loved each other, Kevin and Nel, in their way.
Nel was not jealous of the large other world into which Olivia had vanished; she had a son who had served his country and survived, a caring husband, which was more than most. She built affordable housing for heaven’s sake! Her goddamn world burst from the tight seams into which it was sewn. If anything, Olivia’s world was not wide enough. They’d imagined so much for her. They were bound to be angry in the end that even she could not escape the disappointments of age.
“What’s going on?” Kevin asked.
“Get some whiskey for us, will you, love?” Nel lit a cigarette from the open carton and thought of all it must have taken for Olivia to place her faith in a single man, to tuck her incredible soul into a tiny corner of her husband’s heart. No matter how fat, how excellent the container, he would not be able to contain that trust. And why should he? Why should they covet such small prizes as a husband’s love when they’d compromised the rest of their lives away? It seemed such a silly thing to cling to.
“Nel, what the heck is going on?”
The house creaked. The hot wind shook the pipes, which shuddered and struck the wooden walls. In a few hours the sky would be dark as the inside of an oven, and the lightning would flicker like busted filaments. But not yet. Nel was ready now to talk.
“We are remembering,” she said, perfectly happy. They’d started to look back, started to pull apart the story they’d constructed to cover the desperation that gnawed in those dark, empty minutes at their lives. She could feel a new loneliness crack apart inside her, like an egg. There was no stopping now the kingdoms they could lose.
Milena always reminded me of a backdrop to a bleak landscape, a woman unlikely to arouse much conscious consideration, though she hovered around like an uncertain but inescapable future punishment. She popped in and out of our lives at random, insignificant moments. There was, for instance, that typically drab October afternoon in Frankfurt. I was strolling along the river with my mother and her friend Sandra. The harsh wind was blowing dead leaves around our feet, and we were getting our first bitter taste of German fall. I was only half-attending to the adults’ conversation, as I recalled that morning’s history class. The teacher had called on me to summarize the assigned reading. I’d pretended I hadn’t read it, embarrassed by the thought of speaking in front of everyone in my broken German. “I don’t know,” I’d quietly murmured and shaken my head. My classmates bore silent witness to my humiliation, as my heart crawled under my desk in shame.
I caught fragments of Sandra’s story about a recent date with a German banker. “Nothing special,” she snorted, and pulled her mink coat more tightly around her. “He’s insignificant. I’m a bombshell compared to him.”
“You didn’t have fun?” my mother asked.
“How could I? I could smell his bad breath from across the table. At least I got a free dinner out of it. I should focus on Bosnian men again. They understand me so much better.”
Someone suddenly called out my mother’s name.
“Lili, is that you?”
We turned around, and there she was, Milena. Like some preordained misfortune that had finally caught up with me.
She lived in our dilapidated apartment complex on the outskirts of Frankfurt. The place was a hub for Bosnian refugees. Our families gravitated towards each other, grasping for any sense of familiarity in their new world, for people they could talk to easily, without having to string together awkward words in a harsh, foreign tongue. Milena came from our hometown of Jajce. Her husband Dalibor and my father had been high school classmates, bonded by shared memories of long bygone days, when their pranks had been the talk of the town and a promising future awaited – steady government jobs and apartments in one of Jajce’s new building complexes, vacations on the Adriatic and cars on credit, all the comforts of small-town Bosnian adulthood they could rightly expect to be theirs. And yet it had all turned out otherwise.
My mother always begged me to befriend their daughter Sanja. “Sanja’s your age. Be nice to her. She doesn’t have a lot of friends,” she pleaded. I sometimes halfheartedly tried to draw her out. But attaining popularity among my German classmates was no easy feat for an awkward Bosnian refugee girl, and the last thing I needed was a strange friend like her to set me back. Sanja, with her translucent cheeks and the prominent dark blue vein on her forehead, didn’t seem to care that much for my friendship anyway. Though every once in a while, she did look away from the TV screen and open up to me. Once she fleetingly whispered into my ear, “I hate growing up. It’s so stupid. My period won’t stop. I’ve been bleeding all month.” She’d seen a doctor, she told me. He had advised her to relax. But that must have been difficult in a household like hers.
As Milena hurried towards us, her long, brown scarf blowing wildly around her, I realized we had not seen their family in a while.
“Are you on some crazy new diet? Have you stopped eating?” my mother asked as she embraced her.
“It just peels off. I don’t know why,” Milena said, and nervously waved her hand into the air. As she did so, the scarf slid to the side and revealed a set of brown bruises along her neck.
“I called you a few times. Nobody ever answers the phone.”
“I haven’t been home,” she said and moved closer to us. Then, with her eyes darting around, as if she were on the lookout for some looming danger, she volunteered in a confiding voice, “I don’t live there anymore.”
“What do you mean? Where did you go?”
“Not too far away,” she whispered. She straightened her back, looked at us and continued. “It’s a shelter for women. Visit me sometime. Sanja’s with me.”
“We’ll come soon,” my mother said and nudged me, a quiet admonishment to stay silent, just as I was about to open my mouth to ask questions.
Milena’s hushed allusions to marital strife were not surprising. All the Bosnian couples around us fought. Alcohol, religion and our many bitter losses were their arguments’ steady themes. The walls in our apartment complex were thin, and gossip about the latest screaming match spread with unbounded fury. Except for a couple of childless newlyweds, who’d married ecstatically in the midst of the worst fighting, as if the unraveling of everything around them had been a dream and not their reality, I could not think of a single family that was unaffected by the complex mess our transient lives had become.
But Dalibor and Milena’s fights seemed more ominous. Like so many Bosnian couples, they had different religious backgrounds. Dalibor was a Catholic Croat and Milena, an Orthodox Serb. Dalibor sometimes complained bitterly to my father, a bottle of beer attached to his hand. “She should convert to my faith. Shouldn’t she?” What am I supposed to do with that woman? If she won’t, she can go to the river and live under the bridge. Or float away with all those ugly container ships. Someplace far away.”
We didn’t talk to Milena much longer that November afternoon by the river. “Don’t tell Daco where I am. He doesn’t know,” she said and walked away from us towards the bridge underpass. As her bony back faded into the distance, blending with the flock of gray ducks that were resting peacefully under the bridge, I wondered about Sanja. Was she still bleeding every day? Or were things better for her in the shelter?
After our encounter by the river, I did not give Milena or her altered circumstances much further thought. Perhaps it was more pleasant not to think of women like her. Or perhaps my own, well-worn worries preoccupied me too much to leave any emotional space for the sorrows of casual acquaintances.
A few months later, Sandra mentioned she’d seen Milena shopping with her husband at Aldo’s. “They seemed happy,” Sandra said, puffing on a cigarette.
“I guess this means they’re back together,” my mom replied slowly, in a flat voice.
Soon afterwards, we received an invitation to Milena’s baptism. She was to convert to Catholicism in Paulskirche on a Sunday afternoon. We did not attend, and we never went to Dalibor and Milena’s house again. We moved to a different neighborhood where there were no Bosnian families, cutting us off from that epicenter of gossip that was our old apartment complex.
Still, news of Milena and Dalibor trickled in now and then. They were part of the initial wave of refugees that returned to Bosnia when the war ended. I wasn’t surprised. Dalibor had always said he’d be the first in line to go back. To him everything was better in Bosnia, the tomatoes and the cheese, and the air he breathed and the water he drank. But there were food and fuel shortages when they returned, and Dalibor could not get back his old job at the Elektrobosna factory, which he’d been counting on all along. At first he did some construction work for the United Nations peacekeeping force. In later years, he opened a shop in the town’s center, near the waterfall.
My grandmother still lived in Jajce, and she mentioned Milena to me over the phone. “She looks like an old woman,” she said. “I didn’t recognize her at first. I almost walked right past her.”
Milena wasn’t seen out and about much. Dalibor took over the grocery shopping and other household chores, full of some newfound, seemingly inexhaustible energy. Local women made fun of him when he cheerfully bargained with the peasants over cheese prices at the marketplace. The only time Milena left her house was when she visited abandoned Orthodox monuments near Jajce, or the ruins of the Orthodox Church of the Most Holy Mother of God, near the catacombs. The church was bombed during the war. Nobody had bothered to clean up the ruins, though some stone slabs and fragments of icons still littered the church grounds. She did not seem to mind. She sat among the wreckage, her eyes fixed for hours at some vague spot in the distance.
People also sometimes saw her walking along the Pliva river near the waterfall. She’d stand at the shore and stare at the currents, a brooding, solitary woman who’d aged abruptly and unkindly. Nobody bothered to talk to her or tried to penetrate behind the half-veiled sadness that encompassed her. That is, until the day her body washed up on the Pliva shore at Jajce’s exit, swollen and with some dead leaves and branches tangled in her hair. Then she was suddenly the only thing on everyone’s minds.
Dalibor buried her in the town’s Catholic graveyard. It was a miracle he found an open spot of land amidst the many overgrown, forgotten graves of Jajce’s dead, whose families had emigrated too far away to tend to them.
My grandmother, who was always up to date on the latest local tragedy, was well informed about Milena’s case. “Of course she died of guilt. She never wanted to be a Catholic. Her conscience wouldn’t give her any peace. Why did he bury her in the Catholic graveyard, people ask. It was the final straw. That rogue should have known better.” I wondered what else there was to the story, and what had really been going on behind Milena’s house curtains while we’d treated her as a mere shadow.
For a while, Milena was all that people talked about. But they tired of the topic eventually. The gossip slowed to a trickle and Milena’s story was supplanted by some other, more current tragedy. For some reason, I kept my silent tabs on the remnants of her world. Though I’d never thought much of Milena when she was alive, in death my preoccupation with her grew. I periodically inquired about her daughter and husband. Somebody told me he still had his small store. Sanja worked there, too. After closing the shop at twilight, they usually strolled together across the bridge towards their house, their steps aligned in silent harmony.
After Milena’s death, Dalibor took up gardening. “When it’s nice out I bet you anything he’s out there weeding the flower beds in his dirty blue overalls,” my grandma said. “He’s obsessed. As if nothing else exists. It’s the most beautiful garden in town, though. That much I’ll admit.” I asked her to send me a photograph of the garden, which I now keep in a drawer with some old letters and other sentimental trinkets. Every once in a while, I pull it out and study the image, searching for who knows what, as I behold the neat rows of red and white roses in their springtime bloom, the potted yellow geraniums by the entrance gate and the lilac jasmine trees lining the garden’s edges.
Want great poetry and fiction every month?
For the last hundred miles, Brooks’ ten-year-old son, Adler, had been yelling profanities out the window. It started during a break from driving. To stretch their legs they jogged down a rural road along the wire fence separating the pavement from endless rolling hills of grazing land. The red-hued cattle saw them coming and turned parallel to the road, their stampede kicking up a billowing cloud.
Adler kept chasing them. “Stupid cows,” he yelled, as they dashed in the direction he was going, never doubling back or turning away from the road, where they’d be free of him. It was only when Brooks got tired, over a mile from the car, that he had the boy turn back.
“Can you believe that,” Adler said, walking backwards so that he could keep taunting the cattle. “Dumb Cows.” Then he sucked in his breath and bellowed, “Asshole cows!” while eyeing his father to gauge his reaction. When there was none, he yelled it again. “Asshole Cows!”
Back in the car and driving with his window down, Adler screamed into the wind, emptying every cuss word he knew at the animals. Brooks didn’t interfere. He hoped bringing the boy to open, wild places would help him purge whatever anger was knotted up inside of him, and if this was the sound of that happening, he was okay with it.
“Look at that candy-ass, schmuck of a baby cow,” Adler said as they passed a Black Angus calf that had somehow gotten through the fence and was separated from its braying mother. Adler undid his seatbelt and reared around so he was propped on his knees, looking out the rear window of the car. “I think we should help that one.”
This was in western Idaho. That day alone they’d passed hundreds of miles of rolling landscape sectioned off by barb wire into pastures full of Black Angus and Indian ponies, and as they had no real schedule, no time frame, Brooks did a U-turn and pulled onto the side of the road. When he cut the engine and heard the sad bleating of the mother cow, he imagined himself silently lifting the calf over the fence and seeing the look of understanding and pride on Adler’s face.
The shoulder of the road dipped down a twenty foot embankment that Brooks had to jog to keep from falling. At the bottom of the slope he realized how wrong he’d been about the size of the calf. It must have weighed several hundred pounds. Seeing Brooks dash toward it down the incline, it tried to force itself back through the wire. The barbs bit into the fat part of its hind leg and tore back some of the skin. The calf spit out a terrible Muurrrr. Mawwww. When its mother stepped closer, Brooks saw that she was easily a foot taller than he was, and he leapt back. But the calf was stuck. Its struggling moved the wire up and down like a jigsaw blade, and the pink gashes in its body widened as it writhed. Muurrrr. Mawwww. Brooks stood back up and reached for its leg to pull it loose.
“Push that son-of-a-bitch through!” Adler yelled from the road.
Brooks stepped forward and planted the sole of his sneaker against the flailing calf’s leg. He booted it through, tearing its skin worse, but freeing it back into the pasture. The mother ran to it and they both trotted away. Brooks studied the tufts of bloody skin and black fur shaking on the barbs. The calf had probably stepped through the wire easily enough, and would have found its own way back had he not scared it. He felt foolish, and hoped Adler hadn’t seen the cuts.
“That was smooth,” said Adler as Brooks climbed back up to the road, but he didn’t look to see if his son was serious or mocking and he didn’t want to know. A familiar wave of uneasiness appeared to descend upon him from the vast blue sky. His mind went numb except for some hot, dark presence in that corner that he tried to avoid, the corner from which emanated his sad, mealy-mouthed self-doubt.
They got back into the car and kept traveling, west by northwest, the way they’d been for the last three weeks, slowly finding crooked back roads to lead them across country. Brooks tried to shake the fear such wilderness raised in him and to remember that he’d wanted this—a chance to give Adler the wonder, the essential miracle of the world. This was the opposite of where he came from. In Illinois, where his marriage had imploded, he had ached for wild places, for some geographical feature to make him feel peaceful and humble, opposed to the traffic in his suburb, which made him feel frantic and small. For a long time Brooks did not say anything.
Then Adler pointed out the window to a river that cut a serpentine path through the wilds. “Dad, God damn, will you look at that,” as if offering a foul mouthed benediction to the unfolding road.
Want great poetry and fiction every month?
For a week in the middle of March, Paul Haberman felt increasingly out of sorts. Not much appetite, lousy sleep. In meetings he’d find himself absently chewing a knuckle. When the phone rang after nine at night, he braced for calamity. The wind blew hard against his bedroom window, and he imagined his neighbor’s oak tipping onto the roof. Lying in bed, with Cynthia huffing peacefully beside him, he asked himself what could be the matter and then did his best to answer. Maybe he’d been working too hard. Maybe he was troubled by the state of the world. Maybe by the fact that his stepchildren were growing up too fast. Or maybe it had been two months since he’d taken his car to the Baron. As soon as it grew light enough outside, he picked up the phone and dialed.
“Dr. H!” the Baron shouted on the other end of the line. “Why’s it been so long?”
“Lost track of time,” Paul said.
“You, maybe. But not that big beauty of yours. She needs a man who’s regular.”
“Any chance I can bring it—her—tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow, huh? Pretty busy, doc. But for your sweet lady, sure.”
The Baron always called Paul doctor, and Paul never corrected him. At first he’d held back out of caution; maybe all the Baron’s clients were doctors, and if he found out Paul was only a lawyer, he might turn him away. Paul had since crossed paths with others of the Baron’s clients, and among them were a pharmaceutical executive, a stock analyst, the president of a pest company. But now they’d known each other more than three years, far too long to set things straight without embarrassment. Still, Paul hadn’t quite gotten used to the idea of the Baron picturing him in a white coat, peering into people’s ears. When the Baron said, “Better cancel all your patients before noon,” it took Paul a moment to answer, and when he finally did, he could only murmur, “They won’t miss me.”
“I doubt that,” the Baron said. “But it’s what I appreciate about you, doc. Most of these guys, they think a medical degree turns their turds into bonbons.”
The misunderstanding had likely come about because it was a doctor who’d first sent Paul to the Baron—a podiatrist, who’d talked for an hour about his Alfa Romeo while digging a plantar wart out of Paul’s heel. As it turned out, he had a hard time talking and working at the same time, and he’d often pause to make a point, bloody scalpel jabbing the air above Paul’s toes. “I thought the whole transmission was blown. But the Baron talked me down. Cost me a couple grand, but she runs better than ever.” Paul worried the novocaine would wear off before he’d finished so refrained from asking questions. But after the third mention of the Baron he couldn’t resist. The Baron of what? By then, in any case, the doctor was cauterizing the hole in his foot, and he wanted distraction from the smell of his burning flesh.
“You don’t use a dealership, do you?” the doctor asked. “Might as well have my two-year-old change your oil.” Then he lowered his voice and glanced over his shoulder to be sure the nurse wasn’t lurking in the doorway. “Don’t tell him you’re a patient. Just say I sent you.”
He slipped Paul a card. The Flarin’ Baron, it read. Italian and American cars only! Underneath the phone number was a drawing of a hot-rod with flames bursting out of its rear. Was this meant to inspire confidence? After the doctor finished, Paul hobbled across the parking lot on his still-numb foot. He had no interest in Alfa Romeos that could take a hairpin turn at eighty miles an hour, without braking. But all the way home he thought he heard something rattling under his Imperial’s hood. That afternoon he called the number.
The truth was, he always believed something was wrong with his car. Within a few weeks of having it serviced he’d imagine his tires were going bald on one side, or his brake pads were wearing thin, or his radiator had cracked. The more time passed, the more convinced he became that a complete breakdown was imminent. Not having learned to drive until he was in his late thirties, he was still amazed that a person could sit behind the wheel of a metal box and careen down the freeway without exploding into flames as fierce as those on the Baron’s card. Every so often he’d open his hood and gaze into the tangle of pipes and wires, belts and filters, and understanding nothing of what he saw, experience an odd palpitation in his chest, along with a flash of heat in his face. How could this mess get him down the street, much less across state lines? How could it keep him from stalling on the Turnpike or from skidding into a semi on the George Washington Bridge?
Driving into downtown Denville, where the Baron’s garage was tucked between the old library, abandoned for a larger and less convenient space to the north, and an imposing Methodist church, Paul already noted a loosening in his neck muscles and jaw. The blustery weather had calmed, and though the sky was still overcast, through the dashboard vents he caught an anticipatory whiff of spring. He breathed it in and promised himself he’d come here more often. So what if it meant taking a morning off work once a month?
The garage was a nondescript building made of cinder blocks painted blue, with two sliding aluminum doors that were always closed, and set to one side, a fiberglass garden shed that served as an office. There was no sign to mark it, nothing in the way of advertising or welcome. Paul knew to pull around back, where a pair of pick-up trucks from the fifties sat on blocks, rusting beside a metal fence topped with sagging barbed wire. There he honked three times, and with the engine still running, he waited. Five minutes passed, ten. Finally, a windowless door—too small, it seemed, for the size of the building—sprang open, and out stepped the Baron, in dark blue coveralls and safety goggles, unruly tufts of black hair above both ears and centered over his forehead. Clear scalp everywhere else.
“Doc!” he called, arms spread, palms up, as he made his way across the yard, a void of cracked concrete and discarded exhaust pipes. “Why you treating this baby so bad? She needs some lovin’.”
When he reached the Imperial, he stroked its hood and cocked an ear to listen to the hum of its belts. Then he walked around it twice, kicking tires, signaling Paul to turn on headlights and blinkers, pointing up to indicate he should step on the gas. “Shove over,” he said, and Paul slid into the passenger seat. With the Baron came the smell of singed fabric or hair. For another few minutes, he fiddled with turn signals, wipers, heat controls, radio knobs, frowning the entire time, and Paul readied himself for bad news. But the Baron only nodded, caressed the steering wheel, leaned close to the dashboard, whispered something Paul couldn’t hear. Then he straightened, smacked his hands together, tipped his head to the side. “Off you go.”
Paul slipped out and watched him roll the Imperial around to the front of the building. By the time he made it there himself, the car had already disappeared inside, and the sliding door was closed. In three years he’d never once glimpsed what went on behind it.
Instead he waited in the little office, on the only chair, which was really just a stool on wheels in front of the folding table that served as the Baron’s desk. The only other furniture in the shed was a filing cabinet, either full or unused, stacks of papers leaning against it. On one wall hung two flags, Italian and American. The others were covered in posters of cars—Maserati and Mustang, Fiat and Firebird—none of them framed, several hanging loose at one corner, a smudged loop of tape showing where it drooped forward. The only image not automotive was a photograph of the Baron, whose real name was Ronnie Gianella, with his wife and three mostly grown boys, the oldest twenty-three, the youngest seventeen. The photo, also unframed, had been shot on a cruise ship. In the background, calm Caribbean water an impossible blue, a lumpy ridge of coral visible in the distance. On deck, everyone was looking in a different direction, one of the boys leaning over the railing, another scowling at the camera, the youngest laughing at something out of sight. When it was taken, the Baron, five years younger, had had more hair but looked otherwise unchanged, broad squashed nose and skin the color of smoked pork, little eyes that seemed to have trouble peering out of their deep sockets.
Of them all, only his wife appeared content, a few steps removed form the group, smiling serenely at her boys, head covered in a silk scarf that didn’t hide the absence of hair underneath. When Paul had first come to the Baron she’d just finished her second round of chemo. “Seems to be doing the job,” the Baron had said. But then, slicing both hands down his chest, added, “Didn’t save her beauties, though. Went from Delray curves to flat as a Caprice.”
It was half an hour before the Baron joined him in the office, and when he did, he was frowning again, shaking his head, safety goggles reflecting the overhead light. Before he could open his mouth, Paul stood and said, “I know I should have come sooner—”
“You got that right.”
“It’s been a busy time.”
“No excuse,” the Baron said. “Great girl like that, you shouldn’t neglect her.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“She needs attention. You know how it goes—she starts feeling like she’s being taken for granted, then she gets cranky.”
“Is it bad?”
The Baron’s expression shifted from disapproval to sympathy, and he put an arm around Paul’s shoulder. “Could be worse,” he said. “Could be a lot worse. Be thankful for that.”
He led Paul to the table, where he penciled out a list of services, adjustments, replacement parts. Paul understood little of it—didn’t tires rotate automatically whenever he drove?—but he agreed to each of the Baron’s suggestions. Cooling fan? Okay. Oil pan gasket? Sure. Wiper blades and fluid? Yes, yes. Only when the Baron mentioned an evaporator coil for the air conditioning did Paul hesitate. “Something’s wrong with the air?” he asked. “Seemed to be working just fine.”
The Baron frowned again and took a step away. “Sure it works,” he said, voice inflected with insult. “But efficiently? Hell no. Chews through all our girl’s gas. Notice how often you been filling the tank?”
Paul hadn’t. Nor had he turned on the air since last summer. But he gave an apologetic shrug and gestured at the list. “Whatever you think it—she needs.”
“Can’t do things halfway,” the Baron said. He leaned back on his heels, thumbs tucked into cloth loops on the coveralls. Pinched brows shadowed the whole of his eyes. “Not here.”
“You’re right. I know.”
“Come to me, it means you’re all in.”
“Of course,” Paul said.
“She worth it to you?”
“Okay, then,” the Baron said. His brows relaxed, and he touched the tip of his pencil to his lips. “So. We finish off with some new spark plugs, grease the drive shaft, and she’s a girl who feels pampered.”
For a minute the Baron scrutinized the list, tapping the pencil on the tuft of wiry hair above his right ear. Then, without itemizing anything or making any calculations, he came up with a number, scrawling it quickly at the bottom of the page. He circled it, slapped the pencil on the table, shoved the paper at Paul, and turned his back, attending to a piece of mail he pulled from the top of a nearby stack. Paul knew to wait a moment before picking up the pencil and adding his initials. After he did, he cleared his throat and asked, “How’s Janelle?”
When the Baron turned back to him, he was grinning a tired grin, the goggles propped on top of his head. “Thanks for asking, doc.”
“Last time I was in she was getting ready for radiation.”
“Seems like it took. We’ll know more next month.”
“I’ll be thinking about her.”
“Could be worse, you know? Two years, total remission. And they got it early this time.”
“And the boys?” Paul asked. “Doing any better?”
The Baron blinked his little eyes and wiped his palms on the front of his coveralls. “Up and down, I guess. Mike’s working again, but his marriage, forget it. John and me, we just do better when we don’t talk at all. He’s good to his mom, anyway. And Jeremy, I think he’s learned his lesson. He’ll stay out of trouble, for the most part. But he’ll never have a normal life, not now. I’ll be taking care of him until they put me in the ground. But you know, could be—” He ran a hand down his face, recharging his grin, and let out an awkward little shout of laughter. “How ’bout you? Aside from your beauty out there? Things been good?”
Paul rubbed a thumb over his knuckle, chapped where he’d bitten it. “No complaints,” he said.
“I’d swap places with you in a heartbeat, doc,” the Baron said. Then he backhanded the air in front of him, as if swatting away clinging fingers. “Now get lost so I can take care of your girl.”
For an hour Paul walked around the little town center, poking his head into a magazine and cigar shop, a jeweler’s, a bakery where he came away with a cheese danish. He ate it on a bench in the riverside park, watching mallards paddle around the shallows, dipping green heads into murky water. The sun had begun breaking through clouds, and though the air was still crisp, he was comfortable enough to lean back and stretch an arm across wooden slats, two fingers picking idly at flaking paint.
No complaints. Wasn’t it true? Sure, there were the long hours at work, the traveling that wore him out, the sore throat that had nagged him much of the winter. There was his stepdaughter Joy, fifteen, spending afternoons with a rodent-faced boyfriend—her first—who lived with his grandmother in a dilapidated bungalow just off Route 10. Where the parents were Paul had no idea. He wore shirts that hung lopsided, jeans rolled above filthy sneakers. Whenever Paul answered his calls, which always came at odd hours—ten-thirty on a weeknight, seven on a Sunday morning—he didn’t say hello or announce himself but just grunted, “Can you put her on?” A month ago Joy had come home with mouth-sized bruises on her neck. Last week, while folding laundry, Paul picked up a pair of silk underwear, blue and trimmed with lace, far too small for Cynthia.
And then there was his stepson Kyle, two years younger, recently hammering sheets of plywood into a sprawling maple at the edge of the backyard. Wasn’t he too old for a treehouse? Paul asked, and in response, Kyle spit in the grass and said, “It’s not a treehouse. It’s a fort.” To keep out marauders? “Man, I just need my own space,” Kyle said. He’d swiped the wood, it turned out, from a construction site at the top of the ridge, and a few evenings later a contractor knocked on the front door. He’ been up and down half the streets in the neighborhood so far and had found his supplies at every house with a kid in junior high. Paul led him out back and helped him carry away what wasn’t already nailed down. He wrote a check for the rest, while Kyle sulked in the half-built fort, a pair of boards leaning crookedly across two limbs, a rickety ladder of two-by-fours spiraling up the maple’s trunk. “He’s not really mine,” Paul told the contractor, who tucked the check in his pocket and said, “Know what you mean. I’ve got two. Most days I’d happily sell them to the fucking circus.”
These were things he might have complained about, but not to the Baron. They weren’t the same as having a son unemployed and breaking up his marriage, another who wouldn’t speak to you, a third who’d broken into a liquor store and gone to jail. They certainly weren’t the same as having a wife who’d lost her breasts and hair to cancer, who was having radiation treatment after a two-year remission. They were things he could keep to himself, though now they seemed to drift with the ducks crossing to the far bank, the current carrying their opalescent heads and sooty backs a dozen yards downstream. Janelle Gianella. It was a lovely name, one of the loveliest he’d ever heard. He’d always wondered if she’d married the Baron just so she could have it. On his third or fourth visit, the Baron had insisted Paul call him Ronnie, but Paul had never been able to, not even in his thoughts. It was too silly a name for an adult. Why not go by Ron or Ronald? A few visits later, he’d asked Paul if he might take a peek at his wife’s latest PET scan, see if he agreed that she needed another round of Cytoxan. “We like our doctors fine,” the Baron said. “But you know, sometimes it’s good to get another look.” He’d be happy to, Paul muttered, but it wasn’t his specialty, and he didn’t know if he’d really be able to help… “I understand, doc. You’re a busy man. Forget I asked.”
Janelle Gianella. He found himself repeating the name silently, the sound of it as lulling as that of the water easing past. What had he been so anxious about all month? Why chew on knuckles and fret over kids whose mother only shrugged and said, “They’re not half as bad as I was when I was their age.”
Overhead, crows squawked at something nearing their nest—a squirrel? a hawk?—and leaves rustled though there was no breeze. It was warm enough now to take off his jacket, which was scattered with flakes of paint and pastry. He checked his watch. Two hours had slipped by as swiftly as a sign on the freeway. When he made it back to the garage, the Imperial was back outside, parked on the street in front, hubcaps shining in the fresh sunlight. The Baron was waiting for him in the office, sitting on the stool, arms folded across his chest. If he had any other cars to work on today, they didn’t seem to be here now. Paul had his checkbook in hand but had learned not to have filled anything out ahead of time, or at least not to have entered the figure the Baron had written down.
“You look relaxed,” the Baron said. He picked up the pencil again and began tapping it once more on his lips.
“I don’t get too many mornings off.”
“Patients don’t give you much of a break, I bet.”
“I’ll pay for it later,” Paul said. “But it’s worth it.”
“Good to put yourself first every once in a while.”
“Everything go smoothly?”
“She’s a tough girl. Hardly any tears.”
“There’s always something.”
“Nothing too bad, I hope.”
“Well, doc,” the Baron said. His sympathetic look was back, though this time he didn’t put an arm around Paul’s shoulder, didn’t rise from the stool. “Considering the possibilities, no, not too bad.”
“What was it? What did she have this time?”
“Of course I couldn’t know until I got in there. Not just the evaporator coil, but the housing, too, and the housing cover. But you’re lucky. The condenser, that’s the big one. No problems there. Be grateful for that.”
He wanted to be. There was plenty to be grateful for. But hearing the Baron say so irritated him, and he couldn’t keep himself from saying, “I never noticed any trouble with the air.”
This time the Baron’s expression wasn’t insulted but injured. Without goggles on, his eyes had a precarious quality, always on the verge of weeping, it seemed, and usually the sight of them made Paul turn away. But now he found himself waiting to see if tears would really fall. “Any time you want a second opinion—”
“I trust you,” he said, more sharply than he meant to. “What’s the damage?”
The Baron, looking no less hurt, squinted and tapped the pencil. He thought for a minute, two, and then wrote. The number he finally passed along was three hundred dollars more than the original. Paul filled in the check and handed it over without a word. “She did just fine,” the Baron said. “Treat her well, and she’ll take care of you for a long time.”
“Appreciate it, Baron,” Paul said, catching sight once more of the photograph of Janelle and the boys, her smile less peaceful than chilling, he thought now, so removed from the distress of everyone around her. Why couldn’t he call him Ronnie, just this once? After all he’d been through, why not give him that one small thing, instead of begrudging him a few hundred bucks? “I’ll be thinking good thoughts,” he said, and then, knowing he shouldn’t, added, “When the results of the next scan come in—”
“All right,” the Baron said, standing abruptly and waving the check at the door. “Now get back to your patients before they start thinking you skipped out to play golf.”
He followed Paul out to the curb, watched as he opened the Imperial’s door and slid inside. The sunlight set him blinking, and he couldn’t seem to stop. He had Paul rev the engine several times, run the windshield wipers, press on the brakes while he checked the rear lights. Then he patted the trunk and said, “You’ve got a keeper here. We should all be so blessed.”
He stayed where he was as Paul put the car in gear and rolled down the street. He was still there, in the rearview mirror, by the time Paul made it to the intersection and began to turn. There was no question the Baron was taking him for a ride. He’d known that for some time now. What bothered him wasn’t going along with it so much as realizing how badly he needed it. He couldn’t wait to hear the Baron say, “Your life sounds all right, doc,” only then believing it. It didn’t matter that the Baron knew nothing about him, not even what he did for a living. Why couldn’t he decide his life was all right for himself, without having to compare it to someone’s whose wasn’t? Why did he have to do so over and over again, every other month? There was probably something unethical about it, or maybe immoral, and one day he might decide to stop.
For now, though, he let himself enjoy gliding down the quiet, late-morning freeway, floating on rotated tires, all parts greased and slipping across each other without friction. Before he made it to the train station, he turned on the air conditioning and bathed in the cool breeze, knowing that for a short while—the rest of the day, the next week or two—he’d trust metal and rubber and the mostly smooth pavement underneath.