Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Light Dream

Because Paula Blake is planning something secret, she feels she must account for her every move and action, overcompensating in her daily chores and agreeing to whatever her husband and children demand. Of course I’ll pick up the dry cleaning, drive the kids, swing by the drugstore. This is where the murderer always screws up in a movie, way too accommodating, too much information. The guilty one always has trouble maintaining direct eye contact.

“Of course I will take you and your friends to the movies,” she tells Erin late one afternoon. “But do you think her mom can drive you home? I’m taking your brother to a sleepover too.” She is doing it again, talking too much.

“Where are you going?” Erin asks, mouth sullen and sarcastic as it has been since her thirteenth birthday two years ago.

“Out with a friend,” Paula says, forcing herself to make eye contact, the rest of the story she has practiced for days ready to roll. She’s someone I work with, someone going through a really hard time, someone brand-new to the area, knows no one, really needs a friend.

But her daughter never looks up from the glossy magazine spread before her, engrossed in yet another drama about a teen star lost to drugs and wild nights.

Her husband doesn’t even ask her new friend’s name or where she moved from, yet the answer is poised and waiting on her tongue. Tonya Matthews from Phoenix, Arizona. He is glued to the latest issue of Our Domestic Wildlife—his own newsletter to the neighborhood about various sightings of wild and possibly dangerous creatures, coyotes, raccoons, bats. Their message box is regularly filled with detailed sightings of raccoons acting funny in daylight or reports of missing cats. Then there’s the occasional giggling kid faking a deep voice to report a kangaroo or rhino. She married a reserved and responsible banker who now fancies himself a kind of watchdog Crocodile Dundee. They are both seeking interests outside their lackluster marriage. His are all about threat and encroachment, being on the defense, and hers are about human contact, a craving for warmth like one of the bats her husband fears might find its way into their attic.

Her silky legs burn as if shamed where she has slathered lavender body lotion whipped as light as something you might eat. And the new silk panties, bought earlier in the day, feel heavy around her hips. But it is not enough to thwart the thought of what lies ahead, the consummation of all those notes and looks exchanged with the sales rep on the second floor during weeks at work, that one time in the stairwell—hard thrust of a kiss interrupted by the heavy door and footsteps two floors up—when the fantasy became enough of a reality to lead to this date. They have been careful, and the paper trail is slight—unsigned suggestive notes with penciled times and places—all neatly rolled like tiny scrolls and saved in the toe of the heavy wool ski socks in the far corner of her underwear drawer, where heavier, far more substantial pairs of underwear than what she is wearing cover the surface. It all feels as safe as it can be because he has a family too. He has just as much to lose as she does.

And now she looks around to see the table filled with cartons of Chinese food from last night and cereal boxes from the morning, and the television blares from the other room. Her son is anxious to get to his sleepover; her daughter has painted her toenails, and the fumes of the purple enamel fill the air. Her husband is studying a map showing the progression of killer bees up the coast. He speaks of them like hated relatives who are determined to drop in, whether you want them to or not. Their arrival is as inevitable as all the other predicted disasters that will wreak havoc on human life.

“Where did you say you’ve got to go?” her husband asks, and she immediately jumps to her creation. Tonya Matthews, Phoenix, Arizona, new to the area, just divorced. Her palms are sweating, and she is glad she is wearing a turtleneck to hide the nervous splotches on her chest. She won’t be wearing it later. She will slip it off in the darkness of the car after she takes Gregory to the sleepover and Erin and her friend to the cinema. Under the turtleneck she is wearing a thin silk camisole, also purchased that afternoon at a pricey boutique she had never been in before, a place the size of a closet where individual lingerie items hang separately on the wall like art. A young girl, sleek, pierced, and polished, gave a cool nod of approval when she leaned in to look at the camisole. Paula finally chose the black one after debating between it and the peacock blue. Maybe she will get the blue next time, already hoping that this new part of her life will remain. Instead of the turtleneck, she will wear a loose cashmere cardigan that slides from one shoulder when she inclines her head inquisitively. It will come off easily, leaving only the camisole between them in those first awkward seconds. She tilts her head as she has practiced, and with that thought all others disappear, and now she doesn’t know what has even been asked of her. Her heart beats a little too fast. She once failed a polygraph test for this reason. She had never—would never—shoot heroin, but her pulse had raced with the memory of someone she knew who had. Did she do drugs? Her answer was no, but her mind had taken her elsewhere, panicked when she remembered the boy who gave her a ride home from a high school party with his head thrown back and teeth gritted, arm tied off with a large rubber band while a friend loomed overhead to inject him, one bloody needle already on the littered floor.

You can’t afford to let your mind wander in a polygraph test—or in life, as now, when once again she finds herself looking at her husband with no idea of what he has just said. Her ability to hold eye contact is waning, the light out the window waning, but the desire that has built all these weeks is determined to linger, flickering like a candle under labored breath. Somewhere, her husband says, between their house and the interstate, are several packs of coyotes, their little dens tucked away in brush and fallen trees. The coyote is a creature that often remains monogamous. The big bumbling mouthful of a word lingers there, a pause that lasts too long before he continues with his report. He heard the coyotes last night, so this is a good time to get the newsletter out, a good time to remind people to bring their pets indoors. Dusk is when they come out, same as the bats, most likely rabid.

The kids are doing what they call creepy crawling. Their leader picked the term up from the book Helter Skelter. They slip in and out behind trees and bushes, surveying houses, peeping in windows, finding windows and doors ajar or unlocked. Their leader is a badly wounded boy in need of wounding others, and so he frightens them, holds them enthralled with his stories of violence or murder. They might not believe all he says, but they believe enough to know he is capable of bad things. As frightening as it is to be with him, it is more frightening not to be—to be on the outside and thus a potential victim.

To the kids he looks tough with his tongue ring and tattoos, his mouth tight and drawn by a bitterness rarely seen on such a young face, some vicious word always coiled on his tongue and ready to strike those who least expect it—though he has to be careful when bagging groceries at Food Lion; he has been reprimanded twice for making sarcastic remarks to elderly shoppers, things like You sure you need these cookies, fat granny? He has been told he will be fired the next time he is disrespectful, which is fine with him. He doesn’t give a shit what any of them says. Dirt cakes the soles of his feet, like calloused hooves, as he stands on the asphalt in front of the bowling alley, smoking, guzzling, or ingesting whatever gifts his flock of disciples brings to him. He likes to make and hold eye contact until people grow nervous.

When Agnes Hayes sees the boy bagging groceries in the market, her heart surges with pity, his complexion blotched and infected, hair long and oily. “Don’t I know you?” she asks, but he doesn’t even look up, his arms all inked with reptiles and knives and what looks like a religious symbol. Now she has spent the day trying to place him. She taught so many of them, but their names and faces run together. In the three years since retirement, she has missed them more than she ever dreamed. Some days she even drives her car and parks near the high school to watch them, to catch a glimpse of all that energy and to once again feel it in her own pulse. She still drives Edwin’s copper-colored Electra and has since he died almost two years ago. She would never have retired had she seen his death coming, and with it an end to all their plans about where they would go and what they would do. One day she was complaining about plastic golf balls strewn all over the living room, and the next she was calling 911, knowing even as she dialed and begged for someone to please help that it was too late.

The school is built on the same land where she went to school. She once practiced there, her clarinet held in young hands while she stepped high with the marching band. Edwin’s cigar is there in the ashtray, stinking as always, only now she loves the stink, can’t get enough of it, wishes that she had never complained and made him go out to the garage or down to the basement to smoke. She wishes he were sitting there beside her, ringed in smoke. Their son, Preston, is clear across the country, barely in touch.

Sometimes creepy crawling involves only the car, cruising slowly through a driveway, headlights turned off, gravel crunching. There are lots of dogs. Lots of sensor lights. Lots of security systems, or at least signs saying there are systems. The boy trusts nothing and no one. He believes in jiggling knobs and trying windows. When asked one time, by a guidance counselor feigning compassion and concern, what he believed in, he said, “Not a goddamn thing,” but of course he did. Anyone drawing breath believes in something, even if it is only that life sucks and there’s no reason to live. Tonight he has announced that it is Lauren’s turn to prove herself. She is a pretty girl behind the wall of heavy black makeup and black studded clothing. She wants out of the car, but she owes him fifty dollars. He makes it sound like if she doesn’t pay it back soon he’ll take it out in sex. She is only here to get back at the boy she loved enough to do everything he asked. She wants him to worry about her, to want her, to think about that night at the campground the way she does.

The leader reminds her often that he was there for her when no one else was. He listened to her story about the squeaky-clean asshole boyfriend, feeding her sips of cheap wine and stroking her dyed black hair the whole time she cried and talked and later reeled and heaved on all fours in a roadside ditch.

“He’s an asswipe,” the boy had said. “He used you.” And then later when she woke just before dawn with her head pounding and her body filled with the sick knowledge that she had to go home and face her parents, he reminded her again how much she needed him, couldn’t survive without him. “I didn’t leave you,” he said. “Could’ve easily fucked you and didn’t.”

And now she is here, and the boy who broke her heart is out with someone else or maybe just eating dinner with his parents and talking about where he might choose to go to school. He is a boy who always smells clean, even right off the track where he runs long-distance, his thigh muscles like hard ropes, his lungs healthy and strong. He might be at the movies, and she wishes she were there too—the darkness, the popcorn. She wishes she were anywhere else. She had wanted her parents to restrict her after that night, to say she couldn’t go anywhere for weeks and weeks, but they did something so much worse; they said how disappointed they were, that they had given up, how she would have to work really hard to regain their trust, and by trust it seems they meant love.

The leader is talking about how he hates their old math teacher. “And I know where she lives too.” He circles the block, drives slowly past a neat gray colonial with a bright red door, the big Electra parked in the drive. “What’s the magic word?” he mimics in a high Southern voice and reaches over to grab Lauren’s thigh, then inches up, gripping harder as if daring her to move. He motions for her to unzip her jeans, wanting her to just sit there that way, silver chain from her navel grazing the thin strip of nylon that covers her. Lower, he says, even though there is a boy in the backseat hearing every word. She feels cold but doesn’t say a word. Her shoes and jacket and purse are locked in the trunk of his car. “For safekeeping,” he said. She is about to readjust the V of denim when he swings the car off the side of the road behind a tall hedge of lagustrum, where they are partially hidden but can still see the house. “Like this,” he says and tugs, a seam ripping, and then he slides across the seat toward her, his mouth hard on hers as he forces her hand to his own zipper. The boy in the backseat lights a cigarette, and she focuses on that, the sound, the smell; she can hear the paper burn.

Erin and her friend, Tina, sit in the backseat, and Gregory is in front with his Power Ranger sleeping bag rolled up at his feet. Paula will drop him off at the party and then go to the cinema, and then she will still have time to sit and collect herself before driving seven miles down the interstate to the Days Inn, where he will be waiting. The children have said that this car—their dad’s—smells like old farts and jelly beans. They say he saves up all day at the bank and then rips all the way home. Gregory acts this out, and with each “Ewww” and laugh from the girls, he gets a little more confident and louder. He says their grandmother smells like diarrhea dipped in peppermint and their grandfather is chocolate vomick. They are having a wonderful time, mainly because it’s daring, the way he is testing Paula, the way they all are waiting for her to intervene and reprimand, but she is so distracted she forgets to be a good mother. When he turns and scrutinizes her with a mischievous look, she snaps back.

“Not acceptable, young man, and you know it,” she says, but really she is worried that they are right and that she will smell like old farts and jelly beans when she arrives at the motel. Her cell phone buzzes against her hip, and she knows that he is calling to see if they are on schedule, calling to make sure that she doesn’t stand him up again.

“Aren’t you going to answer that?” Erin says. “Who is it, Dad looking for underwear? Some lame friend in need of a heart-to-heart?” The laughing continues as Paula turns onto the street where a crowd of eight-year-olds and sleeping bags is gathered in the front yard of a small brick ranch.

“One of my lame friends, I’m sure,” she answers but with the words pictures him there in the room, maybe already undressed, a glass of wine poured. They have already said so much in their little notes that it feels not only like they have already made love but like they have done so for so long that they are already needing to think up new things to do. Her pulse races, and she slams on the brakes when Gregory screams, “Stop!”

“Pay attention, Mom,” Gregory says. “See, they’re everywhere,” and she thinks he means her lame friends, or kids at the party, but he picks up one of those little gourmet jelly beans, tosses it at his sister, and then jumps from the car. “Thanks, Mom,” he says, and Paula waves to the already frazzled-looking mother who has taken this on. Thank you, Ronald Reagan. That’s when the jelly bean frenzy started, and then after her husband said something cute and trite about sharing the desires of the president since he was now a vice president at the bank, all his workers gave him jelly beans because what else can you give someone you don’t know at all who has power and authority over you? He got all kinds of jelly beans. And now if people hear about the neighborhood wildlife, it means many more years of useless presents—coyote and raccoon and bat figurines and mugs and mugs and more mugs. She will write and send all those thank-you notes. She will take all the crap to Goodwill.

Sometimes Agnes watches television in the dark. She likes a lot of these new shows that are all about humiliating people until they confess that they are fat and need to lose weight or that they are inept workers who need to be fired or bad members of a team who need to be rejected and banished from the island. Her pug, Oliver, died not long after Edwin did, and she misses the way he used to paw and tug and make a little nest at the foot of her bed. She misses the sounds of his little snorts in the night. How could there have been a moment in life when she wished for this—the quiet, the lack of activity and noise? The clock ticks, the refrigerator hums. She could call Preston. She could give him an apology, whether or not she owes it. What she could say is that she is so sorry they misunderstood each other. Or she could call him and pretend nothing ever happened. She keeps thinking of the boy at the grocery, trying to place what year she taught him. Who were his parents? What is his name? Some children she gave things to over the years—her son’s outgrown clothes and shoes—but then she stopped, dumping it all at the church instead, because the children never acted the same afterward, and that bothered her. They never said thank you, and they never looked her in the eye, as if she had never made a difference in their lives, and that was what hurt so much when she thought of Preston, how easily he had let a few things make him forget all that she had done for him in his life. She stated the truth, is all. When Preston planned to marry Amy, she told him how people might talk about them, might call their children names.

Right after Edwin’s funeral, he called her Miss Christian Ethics, Miss Righteous Soul. He told her he wished he could stay and dig into all that ham and Jell-O but that Amy was at the Holiday Inn waiting for him. “They let dogs stay there too,” he said and lingered over the prize rod and reel of his father’s she had handed to him, only to put it back and leave. She hasn’t seen him since. Now her chest is heavy with the memory, and her head and arm and side ache.

The parking lot stretches for miles, it seems, kids everywhere in packs, snuggly couples, the occasional middle-aged, settled-looking couple Paula envies more than all the others. The Cinema Fourteen Plex looms up ahead like Oz, like a big bright fake city offering anything and everything, a smorgasbord of action and emotion as varied as the jelly bean connoisseur basket her husband’s secretary sent at Christmas, a woman Paula has so often wished would become something more. Wouldn’t that be easier?

“He’s here,” Tina says and points to where a tall skinny kid in a letter jacket is pacing along the curb. “Oh, my God. Oh, my God.”

“Puhleeze,” Erin says, sounding way too old. “Chill out. He’s just a boy.” And then they collapse in another round of laughter and are out of the car and gone. Paula’s hip is buzzing again. Buzzing and buzzing. What if it’s Gregory and the sleepover is canceled? Or he fell on the skate ramp and broke something or needs stitches and her husband can’t be found because he’s out in the woods with a flashlight looking for wildlife? Or maybe her husband really does need her. He just got a call that his mother died. Does she know where he put the Havahart trap? And when is the last time she saw their cat?

Lauren is feeling frightened. The other boy, the one from the backseat who is always quiet and refuses to talk about the bruises on his face and arms, has announced he’s leaving. He can’t do this anymore. The leader slams on the brakes and calls him a pussy. The leader says that if he leaves that’s it, no more rides, no more pot, no more anything except he’ll catch him some dark night and beat the shit out of him. “I’ll beat you worse than whatever goes on in that trash house of yours,” he says, but the boy keeps walking, and Lauren feels herself wanting to yell out for him to wait for her. She has always found him scary and disgusting, but now she admires his ability to put one foot in front of the other. He says he’s bored with it all—lame amateur shit—but she sees a fear in him as recognizable as her own. “Let him go,” she whispers. She is watching the flicker of television light in the teacher’s upstairs window. “Please. Can’t we just ride around or something?”

“Afraid you won’t get any more tonight?” he asks and leans in so close she can smell his breath, oddly sweet with Dentyne. The lost possibility of his features makes her sad, eyes you might otherwise think a beautiful shade of blue, dimple in the left cheek. He pulls a coiled rope from under the seat. “You gonna stay put, or do I need to tie you up?” She forces herself to laugh, assure him that she will stay put, but she makes the mistake of glancing at the key in the ignition, and he reaches and takes it.

She cautions herself to keep breathing, to act like she’s with him. “Next one,” she says. “I need to collect myself.”

“Well, you just collect,” he says. “I’ll be back to deal with you in a minute.” She doesn’t ask what he plans to do. His outlines of all the ways such an event might go are lengthy and varied, some of them tame and pointless and others not pretty at all. He has already said he wants to scare the hell out of the old woman, let her know what it feels like to have someone make you say please and thank you every goddamn day. The girl watches him move into the darkness, numb fingers struggling to finally zip her pants back up, to pretend that his rough fingertips never touched her there. She will get out and run. She will leave the door open and crawl through the hedge until she reaches the main road. She will call her parents, beg for their forgiveness. There is no way now to get her shoes or phone, but she moves and keeps moving. She thinks of her bed and how good it will feel to crawl between clean sheets, to stare at the faces of all the dolls collected before everything in her life seemed to go so bad. Now all the things she has been so upset about mean nothing. So what if she let the handsome, clean-smelling track star do everything he wanted to do? She liked it too, didn’t she? Not making the soccer team last year, being told on college day that she had no prayer of getting into any of the schools she had listed, most of them ones he was considering if he could run track. But losing or getting rejected—that happens to a lot of people, doesn’t it? She can still find something she’s good at, go somewhere. Right now she just wants to get home, to shower herself clean with the hottest water she can stand, to soap and scrub and wrap up in a flannel robe. She once watched her uncle skin a catfish, tearing the tight skin from the meat like an elastic suit, and she keeps thinking of the sound it made, a sound that made her want to pull her jacket close, to hide and protect her own skin. She feels that way now, only there’s nothing to pull around her, the night air much cooler than she’d thought—and she keeps thinking she hears him behind her, so she moves faster. She is almost to the main road, the busy intersection, the rows of cars heading toward the cinema. Her foot is bleeding, a sliver of glass, and she is pinned at a corner, lines upon lines of cars waiting for the light to change.

Paula’s cell phone buzzes again, and she takes a deep breath and answers. “Where are you?” he asks. She can hear the impatience, perhaps a twinge of anger, and his voice does not match the way she remembers him sounding in the stairwell. When she pictures his face or reads his tiny penciled scrawl, it’s a different voice, like it’s been dubbed.

“Almost there,” she says and tries to sound flirtatious, leaving him a promise of making up for lost time. Then she glances out her window and sees a girl she thinks she recognizes. Shirt torn and barefooted. They certainly won’t let her in the theater that way. The girl is so familiar, and then she remembers—her daughter’s school, story time in the library. But that was years ago when the girl’s hair was light brown and pulled up in a high ponytail. She knows exactly who she is. This is a girl parents caution their good girls against. She is rumored to be bulimic. She locks herself in the school bathroom and cuts her arms. She once tried to overdose on vodka and aspirin and had to have her stomach pumped. She gives blow jobs in the stairwell of the high school in exchange for drugs. She has blackened ghoulish eyes and jet black hair, silver safety pins through her eyebrows and lip. Paula has heard parents whispering about her at various school functions. They say, “Last year she was perfectly normal, and now this. She was a B student with some artistic talent and a pretty face, and now this.” She is the “Don’t” poster child of this town, the local object lesson in how quickly a child can go bad.

Agnes is trying to remember what exactly it was she said to anger Preston so. She had tried to make it complimentary, something about skin like café au lait. She had often seen black people described that way in stories, coffee and chocolates, conjuring delicious smells instead of those like the bus station or fish market across the river, which is what a lot of people might associate with black people. Her maid once used a pomade so powerful smelling Agnes had to ask that she please stop wearing it, but certainly Agnes never held that against the woman; she couldn’t help being born into a culture that thought that was the thing to do.

“Sometimes it’s not even what stupid thing you say,” Preston shouted, the vein in his forehead throbbing like it might burst. “It’s how you say it. So, so goddamned godlike.” He spit the word and shook all over, hands clenched into fists. But now she wants him to come back and be with her. She didn’t know coffee would be insulting. She is going through her phone numbers, she has it somewhere. That same day she reminded him that even the president of the United States said things like that. The president had once referred to his grandchildren as “the little brown ones,” and why is that okay and chocolate and coffee are not?

It’s your mom, she practices now. Please talk to me, Preston. She is dialing when she hears something down on her front porch. The wind? Her cat? There was a flyer in her mailbox just this evening saying how she should not leave the cat outside.

Lauren shivers as she stands there on the corner. She expects to hear his car roar up any second and wonders what she will do when that happens. She will have to tell her parents that she lost her purse, that it got stolen, and her shoes and jacket. She shudders with the thought of the boy pawing through her personal things, a picture of the track star cut from the school newspaper, a poem she was writing about the ocean, a pale pink rabbit’s foot she has carried since sixth grade when she won the school math bee with it in her pocket. The light is about to change, and she concentrates on that instead of imagining her parents’ reaction. Just once she wishes one of them would pull her close and say, “Please, tell me what’s wrong,” and then she would. She would start talking and not stop, like a dam breaking; she would tell them so many things if there were really such a thing as unconditional love. But instead they will say, “What is wrong with you? Why are you doing this to us? Do you know what people are saying about you?”

“Do you need a ride?” A woman in an old black Audi leans out the window and motions her to hurry. “I know you from school.”

She does know the woman, the mother of a girl in her class, a girl who makes good grades and doesn’t get into trouble. Not a popular girl, just a normal girl. A nice girl who smiles shyly and will let you copy her notes if you get behind. Erin from Algebra I freshman year. This is Erin’s mother.

She hears a car slowing in the lane beside her and runs to get in with the woman just as the light changes. “Thank you.”

“My daughter goes to your school,” the woman says. She is wearing a low-cut camisole with a pretty silver necklace. Her black sweater is soft and loose around her shoulders. The car smells like crayons and the woman’s cologne. “I’m sorry my car is so messy. My husband’s car, that is.” Her cell phone buzzes in the cup holder, but she ignores it. “Where are you going, sweetheart?” she asks. “It’s too chilly to be out without shoes and long sleeves.” Something in her voice brings tears to the girl’s eyes, and then her crying is uncontrollable. The woman just keeps driving, circling first the cinema and then many of the neighborhoods around the area. The girl sinks low in her seat when they pass the teacher’s house, that old Pontiac still parked behind the hedge. She can’t allow herself to imagine what he is doing, what he will do when he finds her gone. They drive out to the interstate and make a big loop, the woman patting her shoulder from time to time, telling her it’s okay, that nothing can be that bad. Every third or fourth time the woman asks for her address, but for now the girl just wants to be here in this car riding. The woman’s cell phone keeps buzzing and buzzing. Once she answers it to the loud voice of her daughter from the movie lobby saying she will need a ride home after all. “Are you mad, Mom?” the girl screams. “Is that okay?” And the woman assures her that it is okay. It is fine. She will be there. Then she answers to say she saw their cat early this morning. And then, apologizing when it rings again, she answers and says little at all, except that so much has happened, she just might not get there at all. “In fact,” she whispers, “I know I can’t get there.” And Lauren knows there is a good chance that she is part of what has happened, but the heat is blowing on her cold feet and the woman has the radio turned down low with classical music, and her eyelids are so heavy she can barely keep them open. When she was little and couldn’t sleep, her parents would sometimes put her in a warm car and drive her around. Her dad called it a “get lost” drive, and he let her make all the choices, turn here, turn there, turn there again, and then she would relax while he untangled the route and led them back home, by which time she would be nearly or already asleep. There was never any doubt that he could find the way home and that she would wake to find herself already tucked in her bed or in his arms being taken there.

Preston’s answering machine comes on, and Agnes is about to speak, but then she hears the noise again and puts down the phone. She wishes she would find Preston there—Preston and Amy, waiting to embrace her and start all over again. Preston in his letter jacket like he was all those nights she waited up for him and said, “Where have you been, young man?” And Edwin would be in the basement smoking, and Oliver would be rooting around at the foot of her bed.

Her chest is tight with the worry of it all. She swallows and opens the door. Nothing.

“Here, kitty,” she calls in a faint voice. She steps out on the stoop into the chilly air. The sky is clear overhead, a sliver of a moon. There is a car parked way down at the end of her drive, just the front bumper showing beyond the hedge. It wasn’t there when she came home. Perhaps someone had a flat or ran out of gas. She calls the cat again and hears leaves crunching around the side of the house. She waits, expecting to see it slink around the corner, but then nothing. There is more noise beyond the darkness, where she can’t see. And it is coming closer, short quick sounds, footsteps in the leaves. She is backing into the house when she thinks she sees something much larger than the cat slip around the corner near her kitchen door. She pulls her sweater close and pushes the door to, turns the dead bolt. The flyer talked about coyotes and how they have been spotted all over town.

The girl finally tells Paula where she lives, a neighborhood out of town and in the opposite direction from the motel. Paula’s cell phone beeps with yet another message, but now she ignores it. She doesn’t want to hear what he has to say now that he has had time to shape an answer to her standing him up yet again. She parks in front of a small brick ranch. The front porch is lit with a yellow bulb, all the drapes pulled closed.

“I’m happy to walk you up,” Paula says, but the girl shakes her head. She says thank you without making eye contact and then gets out, making her way across the yard in slow, careful steps. Paula waits to see if a parent comes out, but the girl slips in and recloses the door without a trace.

Paula sits there in the dark as if expecting something to happen. And then she slips off the cardigan and pulls her turtleneck over her head. The message is waiting. He might be saying this is the last time he will do this, he has wasted too much time on her already. “Why are you fucking with me?” he might ask. Or, “Who do you think you are?” The chances of him saying he understands completely and they will try again some other, better time are slim. She imagines him there in the room, bare chested and waiting, already thinking about his other options, his better options. And she imagines her own house and her return, sink full of dirty dishes, purple nail polish and Power Ranger figures everywhere. A litter box that needs scooping and clothes that need washing and an empty pantry that would have been filled had she not been out buying lingerie all day.

She saw a coyote just last week, but she didn’t report it. She was standing at the kitchen window and glanced out to see a tall, skinny shepherd mix—except just as her mind was shaping the thought about someone letting a dog run loose in the neighborhood, it came to her that this was not a dog. It was wild and fearful looking, thin and hungry, and she felt a kinship as they stood frozen, staring at each other. Everyone wants something.

The leader can see her in there, old bat, holding her chest and shaking. She looks like a puppet, her old bitch of a body jerking in time with his jiggling the knob. “I wore your fucking boy’s shirt,” he will say. “Thank you so much. That little polo fucker really helped turn my life around.” She lifts the phone and pulls the cord around the corner where he can’t see her, so he jiggles harder, leans the weight of his body against the door. “Loafers! Neckties! F in fucking math.” He creeps around and climbs high enough on a trellis to see that she is slumped down in a chair with the receiver clutched against her chest. “Say the magic word,” he says and covers his fist with his shirt before punching out the window. “Say it.”

When Paula pulls up to the theater, Erin and Tina are waiting. A tall, thin boy in a letter jacket trails alongside Tina, his hand in her hip pocket in a familiar way, and then they kiss before the girls get in the car. Paula is about to mention the girl she picked up but then thinks better of it. She wants to say things like, “Don’t you ever . . .” but the sound of her daughter’s laughter makes her think better of it.

“I can’t believe you, like, ate face in front of my mom,” Erin says, and Tina blushes and grins. She is a girl with cleavage and braces, betwixt and between.

“Jesus, Mom, let some air in this stinkhole car,” Erin laughs, and then the two girls talk over the movie and everyone they saw there as if Paula were not even present. Paula can’t stop thinking about the girl and how she came to be on that busy corner with no shoes, how she looks so different from that clean-faced little girl in a library chair, and yet she is one and the same. And what will she write and slip to her co-worker on Monday, or will she avoid him altogether and pretend nothing ever happened, that she never ventured from her own darkened den in search of excitement? She imagines the coyotes living as her husband has described, little nests under piles of brush, helpless cubs curled there waiting for the return of their mother.

“I’m sorry if I messed up your time with your lame friend,” Erin says sarcastically and then leans in close. “Really, Momsy, I am.” She air-kisses Paula and smiles a sincere thanks before turning back to her friend with a shriek of something she can’t believe she forgot to tell, something about cheating, someone getting caught with a teacher’s grade book. She has licorice twists braided and tied around her throat like a necklace, and her breath is sweet with Milk Duds.

The old woman is dead or acting dead, the recorded voice from the receiver on her chest telling her to please hang up and try her call again. It’s one of those houses where everything is in place, little useless bullshit glass things nobody wants. She looks as miserable dead as she did alive. It makes him want to trash the place, but why bother now? He didn’t kill her. He didn’t do a thing but pop out a pane of glass. He searches around and then carefully, using his shirt so as not to leave a print, takes a golf ball from the basket beside the fireplace and places it down in the broken glass. Television is too big to lift, no purse in sight, not even a liquor cabinet. She gives him the creeps, and so do all the people looking out from portraits and photographs. He’ll tell the girl that he just scared the old bitch, threatened to tie her up and put a bullet in her head until she cried and begged for his mercy and forgiveness. He’ll say he left her alive and grateful.

The moon is high in the bright clear sky when Paula ventures outside to look for their cat. She pulls her sweater close and steps away from the light of the house, the woods around her spreading into darkness. Her husband is sleeping, and Erin is on the phone. There were no messages other than the one on her cell phone, still trapped there and waiting. She hears a distant siren, the wind in the trees, the bass beat from a passing car. Please, she thinks. Please. She is about to go inside for a flashlight when she hears the familiar bell and then sees the cat slinking up from the dark woods, her manner cool and unaffected

Advertisements

silk.jpg

That summer I was twenty-one. I worked in a big tent with the words The Palace of Illusions in blue on a white banner stretched across the entrance, making doves vanish from cages, holding a big snake by the neck so it would coil around my chest, sawing my girlfriend, Alice, in half inside a box or cutting off her head. When she talked, a seemingly disembodied head on a platform across the room from the rest of her, girls would scream and sometimes faint in their boyfriends’ arms. I liked to think it was my skills, not just the sultry weather and the beer everyone was guzzling from wide plastic cups. I was the Illusionist. I made believers out of skeptics, convinced ordinary people of an extraordinary world that existed just on my stage. I was good, is what I’m saying.

I bet you were, the girl said. This is your studio?

She was taking in my room, the water-stained wallpaper with the roses on it, the frayed edge of the carpet. My hot plate on top of the waist-high refrigerator. Cans of spaghetti and soup, neatly stacked next to the sink. For real? she said.

Here, you can check out some of my pictures, I said. I took an album of wedding photos from the dresser, that I show couples when they ask. It’s white leather, with gold bells stamped on it, and makes a nice presentation.

She still had half a slice of the pizza I’d bought her on the boardwalk. She set it carefully on the refrigerator in the wax paper, wiped her hands on her short skirt, and took the album.

These are nice, she said after a minute. Everybody looks happy.

Thanks. You can just sit on the bed.

She sat, crossing her legs, balancing the album on one thigh. She had a bruise there about the size of a sand dollar, yellowed and nearly gone. You almost couldn’t notice it. I wondered if it would show up in the photos.

I’ve never done this before, she said.

It’s not hard, I said. You just need to sit there. Or you can lie down, if you want. Realistic is good. I screwed the camera onto the tripod, which I keep set up in the corner by the dresser, and looked through the lens. If you just want to take off your shirt and bra, that’s fine, I said. I can pay you more for full nudity though.

Okay. She put the album on the floor and set her blue nylon backpack on top of it. She stood up and pulled her T-shirt over her head, then stepped out of her heels and unzipped her skirt. She removed her bra, and her panties that had a kitty’s face on them, and stood there pressing her legs together.

Why don’t you put the heels back on, I said. It usually makes for a better picture.

She slipped them on again, and her naked legs looked longer. She was tiny, like Holly was. Was, because Holly’s dead now. Deader than a doornail, as Don John said earlier on the phone, giving me the news. The phone’s down the hall. It never rings for me, but this time it did.

Doornail, Don John repeated. Ha ha, he said, and then coughed. I didn’t mean it like that, he said. In the carnival, Don John used to do a blockhead act, putting a five-inch spike up his nose.

A friend of mine just died, I told the girl.

I’m sorry, the girl said, sitting back down on the bed. What was her name?

Holly, I said. I hadn’t said her name aloud in years.

What was she like?

Long story, I said. Try hands and knees, I told her. That’s a popular one. I watched her through the camera and pushed the shutter down halfway to focus.

The train was rocking along at a pretty good clip, somewhere between Hutchinson, Kansas, and Ardmore, Oklahoma, which was our carnival’s next stop. Outside the windows, the dull world barely registered before it was gone: backyards where clothes flapped empty on lines, overturned tricycles, seas of rusted stripped cars next to tire mountains, gas stations, broken-windowed factories. It was ugly and ordinary, like the town in Ohio where I grew up, and I was glad not to be a part of it anymore. My mother had left me and my dad when I was nine, and my dad was an alcoholic who smacked me around before I was big enough to defend myself. When I got older he left me alone, except to steal money from me or hit me up for loans. I lived with him while I went to the state university, because I couldn’t afford a place of my own. When I got my degree I had looked around for anything that would get me out of town.

Alice was lying on her berth, looking like she was asleep, and I picked up my camera. She was the first girl I’d ever made love to, and even though I’d seen her naked, she was still as new to me as the freaks and cons we were traveling with. Alice and I had joined the carnival together. She’d been my girlfriend for six months. Now she was the Illusionist’s Beautiful Assistant. Put your hands together and welcome her, ladies and gentlemen. I’d brought my Nikon and a duffel bag of Tri-X, planning to make a portfolio that would land me a scholarship to art school somewhere. Somehow I had managed to talk sensible, pre-med-in-the-fall Alice into a little pink outfit and cape and high heels. Besides my interest in getting close to what was under her clothing and possibly swirling inside her level head, I was afraid I’d be lonely without a companion. I knew I could handle the act—I’d been doing magic since high school—but I didn’t know about traveling alone with a bunch of carnies. So it was a relief when she’d shrugged and said, Sure, Martin, I’ll do it, and started organizing the clothes on the floor of my closet so I could decide what to bring.

I didn’t try to hold the camera steady, figuring it might be interesting to see how the motion of the train blurred her face. She was dreaming, I thought from the twitching of her closed lids, and I wished there were a camera that could capture what went on inside her head so I could study her dreams later, in private. My own dreams were filled with carnies. Darryl the Gentle Giant in his size-22 shoes. Missy Mister, the half-man, half-woman. Lobster Girl with her deformed hands. Don John, who ran the Scrambler and ate fire and also did the blockhead act. In my dreams, the carnival had set up its tents and rides, and I wondered if that was the case with Alice.

Martin, Alice said, surprising me. Her eyes were still closed. I don’t want you to take my picture, okay?

I thought you were sleeping.

I was.

I popped off one more, just to annoy her. It was a bad habit I’d fallen into over the last couple of weeks—annoying Alice. We’d been together constantly for almost a month, fighting over things like my leaving the toothpaste uncapped or losing the sunglasses she kept replacing for me in every town. Lately, even when she was right next to me, I felt like she was miles away. If she got mad enough, she’d come back from wherever she was and talk to me.

Outside the compartment, Holly went by, singing “A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Everybody passed our compartment on the way from the poker game to the bathrooms at the end of the car.

I lowered my camera and set it in my open suitcase on the floor, on top of my jumbled T-shirts. Alice rolled over in her narrow berth, turning her back to me. One strap of her halter slid down her shoulder, revealing a pale white strip that had been hidden from the sun, and I picked up the camera again.

There goes Holly, Alice said to the wall.

Let’s smoke some pot, I said.

Pass, Alice said.

I rummaged through the junk on the narrow corner shelf and found my marble pipe and the baggie. I guess she and Jack had a fight, I said.

She’s such a—Alice turned toward me, looking for the right word. She would never say bitch, but I thought that was probably the word she wanted. There were a few I might have used, like sexy and even glamorous, but not in front of Alice. You know, she said, turning over and watching me light the pipe, it’s probably not good to alter your brain chemistry so often.

Do you think they had a fight? I said.

THC causes convulsions in rats, she said. Alice had already bought some of the textbooks for her classes. She had been telling me all week about animal experiments. Rats, for example, sometimes were forced to swim until they drowned. Alice hardly ever smoked pot.

She coughed when I lit the match, like the smoke was already getting to her. Last night, she said, Holly was yelling at Jack in front of their trailer, telling him he was bad in bed. She said she’d rather you-know-what a monkey. The word had probably never passed Alice’s lips.

Pretty harsh, I said, taking a hit. Holly and Jack, the carnival’s owner, usually traveled separately from the rest of us in an Airstream trailer. I thought of Holly standing in front of Jack in her tight capri pants, her overdone makeup, her white-blonde hair teased up. Telling him off, though he was twice her size. She wasn’t a midget, but she was small—a tiny woman with enormous breasts that always looked, when they swerved your way, like they were being offered on a platter. She had a voice as sharp as the spikes on her high heels. Alice and I hadn’t been able to stop talking about her since first being introduced. Holly was a second assistant for some of the tricks in my act, when she wasn’t too drunk.

Alice said, I’d never talk to you the way she talks to Jack, if we were married. Poor guy. Holly’s on him all the time.

Yeah, I said. I looked around for my camera, realizing I’d set it down at some point. The pot was really good sensimilla. I’d bought it from Dani, a female midget chanteuse who dressed in feather boas and sequined cocktail dresses. I flashed on Holly in bed, riding Jack’s big stomach, her breasts bobbing and swaying, and I began to get hard. Alice and I hadn’t made love since Calgary, several stops ago.

Do you think we should get married someday? Alice said.

She had propped herself up on an elbow and was watching me, like she was seriously considering it. I held the pot smoke in as long as I could, then let it out in the direction of the window. I saw my face in the glass, a scared, pale face, floating in the blackness that was either Kansas or Oklahoma.

I don’t know, I said.

Do you think we will?

You mean, like, can I read the future?

She dropped back on her pillow, and lay there staring at the bottom of the upper berth. I knew she wanted me to talk about kids and family and a bunch of other shit I wasn’t ready for. Suddenly I was sorry I’d asked her to come.

I’ve got a corner room on the third floor, which is the top one. Sea View Apartments, it’s called, but you can only see a sliver of the ocean, and only from the window at the other end of the hallway. Every night I listen to Louis, the guy next door, opening and closing his dresser drawers, laying out his clothes for the next morning. I’ve seen him in a cage at the video arcade on the boardwalk, making change, coming out to fix the machines when they break. We nod to each other, but that’s about it. He sees me coming in with girls, and he doesn’t ask. He’s not around much except late at night. Washing up, running the tap, brushing his teeth: I can hear all that. When he flosses I lie in bed listening to the little clicks the floss makes as he pulls it from between his teeth, and wait for him to run the tap again, and spit twice, and then get into bed.

At least Louis doesn’t snore. He must be the only old guy who doesn’t. Once he’s in bed it’s quiet, and I can listen to the sounds coming in through the window, the Atlantic a couple of blocks away smashing against the rocks and the oily pilings of the pier, crickets down in the grass of the vacant lot outside my window. The night train passes a half-mile away, a long disappearing sound headed down the coast to Florida. Every night at 11:00, sometimes 11:05, 11:17, once as late as 11:58. I can’t sleep until it goes by. Tonight I can’t sleep, period. I just keep remembering things, things that happened nearly thirty years ago. I look at the ceiling in the dark, at the constellations of stick-on Day-Glo stars I put up there. They’re pretty much what you’d see if you were looking up at the sky down south during the summer. Hercules, Lyra, Scorpio, the Corona Borealis. They hold a greenish light for a couple of hours after I turn off the switch, and then they fade.

In Ardmore we set up in the dirt and dry grass behind a shopping center. Hours before, there had been nothing but gnat-ridden air, a litter of fast-food trash, a few scorched places where some bored kids had probably tried to set fires. Now there was the basketball toss and penny pitch, and a shooting gallery full of metal ducks tracking around, ready to topple with any well-aimed blast from the rows of air guns. There were booths of plush bears in bow ties, purple pigs and striped snakes and pinwheels that clacked and glittered. You could whack the Love Meter with a rubber mallet to send the ball straight up its column from Cold Mashed Potato to Red Hot Lover. Beyond the tents the rides looped and plunged, defying the sedate motions of ordinary machines.

My tent was the largest. Out front on a bally stage we had a little black kid in a top hat who made moves like a robot and never cracked a smile. Inside we had a bearded lady, a midget in a tux who played the piano for Dani, whose feather boa turned into a real boa constrictor, and a guy in a diaper who lay on a bed of nails. In the science tent across the way were jars of fetuses: two-headed frogs and goats, animals with six legs that should’ve had four. Once there had been a guy who bit the heads off live chickens, but that was before my time. I wished I could have seen that. In one of the sideshows, which I turned people toward after my act—Only a dollar more, folks, you don’t want to miss this amazing transformation—we had Gorilla Girl, who wore a skimpy fur outfit and stood in a cage and turned into a gorilla through a trick with mirrors. When the gorilla pretended to break out of the cage people would turn and run, sometimes smacking into the big aluminum tent poles. Gorilla Girl had the touch. She could make people believe, like me.

Jack and Holly didn’t roll in until that evening. I ducked out the back of the tent for a hit off my pipe and saw Holly sitting on the steps of the trailer, fast smoking a cigarette—drag, exhale, drag, exhale, like she needed to get to the end of it before somebody stopped her—holding a quart bottle of something between her thighs. She had on tight lemon-colored jeans with little silver studs running up the sides, and a ruffled yellow top that left the cream of her shoulders and tops of her breasts exposed. She looked like a banana waiting to be completely peeled. When she looked my way I cupped my hand around the pipe and lowered it. She started toward me, and I ground my thumb into the bowl to kill the fire and slipped it in my pocket.

Want some? she said, dangling the bottle by its neck.

I’d better not. I have one more show to do, I said. The truth was I didn’t drink, except for an occasional beer. I couldn’t get past the gag reflex that hit me when I even so much as smelled real liquor. The first and only time I’d tried drinking it, in junior high, I got violently sick on my dad’s Canadian Club, and then he punched me in the ribs for getting into it.

Only way to get through this shit, Holly said.

Yeah, this is some shit, I said, trying to sound casual. It felt good to say shit and not get a dirty look. I felt stupid not accepting a drink and wondered if Holly thought I wasn’t old enough.

How’s your act tonight? she asked. She was supposed to be in it, but earlier Jack had conveyed the news that Holly was having her time of month, as he put it. I wondered if Jack remembered that she’d used her period as an excuse less than two weeks ago.

The act, I said. Great. I wanted to say something tough and worldly, but nothing occurred to me. I looked down at her breasts and then at her wicked little mouth, imagining her doing to me what Alice had only agreed to do twice, and I tried to swell my whole body toward her without actually taking a step in her direction.

You’re cute, she said, and reached up and patted my cheek. She looked off, toward the narrow strip of the midway you could see between my tent and the next one. I could hear the pock-pock of the air guns, and the rock music from the Scrambler, and yells coming from the Zipper, where people were sent up in cages on long metal arms and flipped upside down while their change and keys fell into the grass. I could hear Holly breathing, a low panting like she’d just been running, and I had the urge to put my ear against her left breast to see how fast her heart was beating; mine was going a million miles an hour.

Have a drink with me, she said, offering the bottle again.

I would have, but I didn’t want to gag in front of her. I decided I’d better practice first.

No? she said softly. Little boy doesn’t want a grown-up drink? she said, in a baby voice. Too bad he doesn’t want to play.

Next time, I said. I have to get back.

Promise? she said, still in baby talk.

I wanted to hear her say Do it to me in that voice. Promise, I said, backing away from her. A couple of kids on the Zipper started screaming their heads off.

Okay. Bye-bye, she said. She turned and wandered back across the clumps of grass, her heels sinking in with each step.

The next place we set up was hardly a town at all. Most of the store windows were boarded up or covered over with news papers. There was an old movie theater marquee that advertised UMMAGE SALE S TURDAY. The rides ran without anyone on them. For my noon show, four people showed—a tired-looking farmer and his wife and their two dusty kids. It was hundred-degree mid-July heat outside, and hotter in the tent. I knew they must have scraped up money for the tickets, and even though Jack wanted to cancel the show and Holly and even Alice said forget it, I insisted.

I had on my ruffled red tuxedo shirt and black velvet bow tie, the microphone around my neck on a bent wire hanger, and I began my spiel, Welcome to the Palace of Illusions, we will amaze you and confuse you, and I acted like the tent was packed with people.

Ladies and gentlemen, I said to the little quartet below me. Today, on this very stage, you will see things you cannot, will not, and possibly should not, believe. But you will see that there are more things on heaven and earth than have yet been thought of in your philosophy. I always liked saying that part. I made up my own spiels, from out of my head and bits and pieces of things I’d heard or read.

The farmer hawked tobacco onto the ground, making a loud sound in his throat first, working it up. His wife leaned back in her chair, hands folded on her fat stomach. Their kids kicked their legs and looked around—at the ceiling of the tent, at Alice holding the dove in her hands.

I threw a white cloth over the dove, turned Alice three times around, and whipped off the cloth to reveal a long-eared white rabbit. I took a bunch of tiny red handkerchiefs, stuffed them into a hole between my thumb and forefinger, and transformed them into one long, sinuous scarf, a hieroglyph of fantastic promise I waved in the stale air. The farmer spat again. The wife closed her eyes. The kids sat there chewing their candy apples. The little boy kicked the girl, not looking at her, and she turned and pinched him. I just kept going. I was sure I’d get them with the guillotine trick.

Holly crouched down behind the guillotine and put her arms through the holes in the stocks—her arms and hands that were supposed to be Alice’s. Alice stuck her head through, and I stood in front of the guillotine and lowered the fake blade. A little distraction with the cape, and I picked up a box that supposedly had Alice’s head in it. Meanwhile, Alice was climbing down underneath the stage on a ladder and crossing to climb back up on the opposite side. I carried the box to a platform with a false bottom and set it down, and Alice stuck her head in from the bottom.

In the stocks, Holly waved her hands around. The hands were supposed to look alike because the women in the audience would usually notice them from when I first brought Alice onstage, notice the shape of her fingers and the color of her nail polish. Alice had been hired partly because she had small freckled hands like Holly’s. When Holly didn’t feel like doing the act, Jack would have to find a local girl.

I tapped the box with my baton, and the sides fell away, and Alice’s head talked.

I feel kind of dizzy, she said.

That’s usually when girls screamed and fainted. I guess I wanted to give that family the same feeling, to give those kids something to take home with them and remember when they were older. Something they could believe in, even if only for a fraction of a second, an instant of amazement they could keep, no matter what.

From behind the curtain Dani cranked up the music that signaled the finale, and I strode to the front of the stage and bowed. Sweat dripped off my hair, and my shirt was soaked. I looked down at the four of them. They stood up, but they didn’t clap. They just stood there dully like a little group of cows, the kids working their candy apples in their jaws.

As they shuffled out of the tent Alice gave me a sympathetic look, but Holly came over and punched me in the arm. For a small woman, she hit pretty hard.

What a waste, Holly said.

Leave him alone, Alice said, and moved toward us.

Holly waved her away. Her fingernails were bright red, like Alice’s, and they each wore identical fake diamonds on their left hands.

How old are you? Holly asked me. I’m almost thirty, she said. I’m getting too old for this.

Behind her Alice looked at me, and shook her head. I rubbed my arm where Holly had hit me. Alice walked down the stairs off the stage, and out the far end of the tent. I started to follow her, then stopped.

You’re not old, I told Holly, though I kind of thought she was. I looked hard at her face, something I’d never really done, at the little lines at the corners of her eyes, and then I thought of how old she’d be when I was nearly thirty, and how those lines would look. But somehow that made her seem even more glamorous, like aging was just stage makeup. I didn’t want to get off the stage; I liked being up there, a part of the show.

Maybe if Alice had done something dramatic, screamed at me or punched Holly instead of walking out of the tent, everything would have turned out differently. But what happened was this: I let Holly drag me behind a canvas wall. She stood on a stool and put her little lipsticked mouth all over my mouth and eyelids and neck. I let her lift up my shirt to lick my nipples, and when she took off my cummerbund and pulled my cock from my pants, I was glad her hands didn’t feel anything like Alice’s.

Holly could squeeze through the smallest window of opportunity. Every time Jack turned his back for five minutes she’d be sneaking out to meet me. She took to traveling on the train, giving us the opportunity to do it late at night, between cars, the metal plates shifting and grinding beneath my feet while I pushed her against the doors to the caboose.

During stopovers we’d take off after my 10 p.m. show, into the fields just beyond the noise and lights of the carnival. The high school couples would be spinning on the Ferris wheel, the guys swinging their feet to make the cars rock wildly so their girlfriends would get scared and cling to them. I’d lie back with my hands behind my head and look up at the stars while Holly jounced up and down on top of me. The idea of art school took on a hazy unreality. I thought instead of wintering in Florida, then heading back to Canada and down through the states in an endless loop, beguiling the crowds, doing the guillotine trick with Holly and some other, anonymous girl.

Holly’s favorite place to make love was underneath the Matterhorn ride. You could sneak through a small door in the side and go in among the scaffolding and levers and gears. Above us the music pumped and the kids screamed, whirling past a cheesy painting of the Swiss Alps, while the ride jockey yelled, Do you wanna go faster? The question would be followed by a long, collective squeal of Yeahhhhh, and then the screams and shrieks would get even louder. Holly would scream too, Faster, I wanna go faster, and I’d put my hand over her mouth to quiet her.

But Holly didn’t want to be quiet. Once she screamed when the ride ended, screamed right into the silence between the music stopping and the people climbing out of the cars and clomping down the wooden ramp. I imagined everybody above us knowing exactly what it was—the sound of self-destruction, pure and simple. It was the sound of a train speeding toward a bridge over a deep canyon, a bridge that’s been blown up. I heard it, and I knew it, and I fell for her any way. And after that, when I let her write her name in hickeys on my back, her little mouth sucking until she made the lines of the H, the circle of the O, the lines and curves of our deceit stretching from one shoulder blade to the other, I knew things were going to get worse and worse.

In the carnival I learned how to put on a show, and how to steal from people so they don’t know you’re doing it. You can count out a handful of bills and make it look like you’re giving correct change, but you’re not. I learned that some people will believe anything, if you give them half a chance, that some people don’t want to look too hard at what you show them. Jack would put his arm around me in a fatherly way as we waited for hot peanuts from the concession stand. He gave me lovemaking tips, presumably meant for me and Alice, consisting of confusing poker metaphors: don’t bet the pot, keep your deuces wild, watch out for the one-eyed queen. Alice helped with the act, and read her medical books, and pretty much ignored the fact that I was coming into our compartment late at night, stuporous from sex and vodka. I had discovered the ancient trick of mixing in a little juice—tomato, grapefruit, cranberry—and had initiated myself, with Holly’s help, into the pleasures and requirements of excessive drinking.

That summer when I was twenty-one I shot pictures of Alice reading, painting her nails, leaning over the steel sink in our compartment to shampoo her hair. I thought I could catch her out, somehow—that other Alice who might be inside, waiting to burst forth in sequins and peacock feathers from the quiet, even-tempered Alice. I shot the man stretched on his bed of nails with an overweight woman from the audience straddling his chest, and the cashier who’d been discharged from the Navy with a Section Eight, meaning he was crazy, sitting in his ticket booth with his tattoo-covered arms folded on the counter. I took pictures of Jack, holding the black poodle he walked around with, or eating a bag of French fries drenched in brown gravy. I shot Holly in nothing but her spiked heels, Holly bending forward cradling her nipples in her palms. I knelt over her on a bed in a cheap motel room one afternoon, and took photographs while I entered her, pictures of how she looked when we were making love, so that later, when it wasn’t real anymore, I would still have her beneath me, her freckles showing through her makeup, the white underneath her arms, the small oval stain on the pillow next to her.

All that stuff burned in a fire a couple of years ago. I don’t remember how it started, but I was still drinking then.

In early August, we arrived in Tallahassee. The first night, Holly took off with Jack somewhere, so I found myself at loose ends. I went on the train and checked out the poker game, but there were too many people playing already. I went down the hall to our compartment, and knocked before I opened the door.

What do you want, Martin? Alice said, but not like she really wanted to know. She was lying in her berth, reading Grant’s Dissector. In it, I knew, there were pictures of people being cut open.

Talk to me, I said.

What’s the point? Alice said. She didn’t lower the book. She talked into its pages, like she was reading aloud from it. You’re just going to keep on drinking and being an asshole, she said. Her voice was steady, but I knew she was mad. You think you’re such a big deal, she said. Just because you get on a stage and do some stupid tricks. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not real life.

It’s better than real life, I said.

How would you know?

I just know.

I want to get married, Alice said. I want to have kids one day.

Me, too, I said. But I was thinking, Not yet. I was thinking I had plenty of time. I was thinking that I was in love with Holly, and it felt better than anything I’d had with Alice.

I want to get married, Alice said again.

To me?

No. She finally put the book down, and looked at me. I want to go home, she said. I can’t take this shit anymore.

So the next day I walked her over to the Greyhound station. I bought her a Tab and a Snickers bar from the machines. In the warped mirror of the candy machine I looked weird, my face elongated, my long hair too bushy and thick. Alice sat on a molded orange plastic seat with her suitcase beside her and an enormous panda bear on her lap, a present for her little sister.

A farewell photo, I said, raising my camera.

Martin, she said, and I took the shot, Alice’s head down, the panda bear’s shining glass eyes, the blur of her raised palm saying, Don’t.

That night I went alone into town, to a place called the Do Drop Inn, and drank until the pour spout of the Smirnoff bottle the bartender had set on the counter doubled itself. I headed back to the train, to the compartment without Alice in it, and took a picture of her empty berth, the depression in the pillow made by her head. I smoked some pot and shot the smoke spiraling up, and drank some more vodka from a bottle I had nearly finished, and kicked the bottle across the compartment and watched it ricochet back. I got out the .38 Jack had given me after the incident with the Hell’s Angels, and lay on Alice’s berth holding it, wondering if it was loaded. At our last stop over the Angels had been drinking beer out of their helmets and generally being rowdy, and one had climbed onstage to try and kiss the local girl who was putting her arms through the stocks. The whole place had closed down instantly, the carnies coming up the midway with pipes and chains. Jack escorted the Angels to the gates with a pump shotgun. Afterward he said I should have protection. At first I thought he was talking about condoms, and I was sure he knew about me and Holly. Jack was a big man, and I’d always been a little scared of him. Seeing him wave that shotgun at the Hell’s Angels made me sweat. He handed me the .38 and patted my shoulder. Don’t go shooting this off without provocation, he said. Keep it in your pants, he said, and I mumbled a thank-you and walked off.

I put the gun on Alice’s pillow and took its picture, and then I felt like finding Holly and something more to drink.

She was sitting out front of their trailer in a folding chair. I saw the bright spark of her cigarette zigging back and forth, fast, as usual, and smelled the mixture that was her—smoke and Jack Daniels and face cream.

What the fuck, she said. I’ve been looking for you all night.

Alice left.

Oh, baby, I’m sorry. Come inside, Holly said, getting up. She moved toward me, and I stepped back.

Listen, she said. When the summer’s over, we’ll take off. I know where Jack keeps his cash. We can just go—wherever we go. She waved her cigarette, like it was going to illuminate a path for us.

I’m planning on art school.

I like art. I’ll go, too. She dropped her cigarette in the dirt and came over, and put her face against my shirt. I need you, she said.

Jack, I said.

Still counting the day’s receipts, she said. She took a handful of my shirt and gently pulled me toward the trailer. I followed her inside, past the kitchenette. She found the gun in my back pocket, took it out, and set it on the nightstand. Then she pulled me down onto the bed.

She started kissing my neck, moving underneath me. I remembered the way she had sounded that night weeks ago, out back of my tent, that sweet voice, and I let her unbelt my pants and helped her pull off my boots. Soon we were naked and making love.

That was when Jack showed up, carrying his little poodle under one arm, and said, It figures.

After that, things happened kind of fast. I rolled off Holly. She was screaming, Shit, shit, shit, shit. I looked at Jack and there was something sticking out of his pocket. Maybe I saw it was the black handle of a screwdriver and not a gun, and maybe I didn’t know for sure. I don’t know what I was thinking. That if it weren’t for Jack, Holly and I could be together. That I wanted Jack to disappear. That he had caught me and Holly and I was in for it. Maybe that’s what I thought later, and not in those few seconds. I grabbed the gun, turned wildly, and fired. The gun sounded louder than a gun should, in the close air of the trailer. It kicked and my hand jerked up. Jack staggered backward, toward the built-in bench on the far wall. He dropped the dog.

Tonight, after I got the news about Holly, I took a walk on the boardwalk. There are rides at the end, past the noisy video arcade where Louis works, past the booths with the same prizes they’ve always had, but I never go as far as the rides. I go as far as Guess Your Weight and Age, a booth like the one I worked in for twenty years, after I got out of prison and hooked up with a different carnival. That’s where I found this girl, a little sixteen-year-old who obviously thought she looked much older in her short skirt and heels. She won a pink bear from the kid at the booth—he guessed nineteen—but I could tell she was in high school, or should have been. I asked her to pose for me. I told her she had model potential. She looked me over and said okay, and I bought her a slice of pizza on the way up.

I don’t touch the girls. I just take pictures and give them some money and ask them to sign a release saying they’re over eighteen, whether they are or not, and I turn around and sell their nakedness for a little more money to a guy who has an Internet site.

I also have a running ad in the paper for weddings. Now and then I’ll get a call to show up at a church or someone’s backyard, and I’ll spend the day taking the usual poses, like the bride and groom about to cut the cake, her hand over his on the knife so the rings show. Then I sell them the negatives and I’m done, no expensive packages to convince them to buy. My services are cheap, and they’re still getting a professional, which they like.

When I take pictures of the girls I think of the men who will look at them and not know how their voices sounded, how they brushed the hair out of their eyes, how they were timid or afraid or sometimes proud, men who don’t care who they’re looking at. Sandy, Lily, Jane, Maria. I can put a name to every face, every pair of breasts. I remember which one was beaten by her father and which one wanted to work in radio and which one left crying in the middle of the shoot, while I was putting in a new roll of film. They’re all pretty, and they really could be models. I try to give them that hope, to show them that someone saw something special in them. In a way it’s just like shooting weddings. The camera captures them at their best. Those newlyweds, they’ll be fighting soon. Disappointment is what they have to look forward to.

I gave the girl a few more instructions: lean back on your elbows, open your mouth. Just writhe around a little, do whatever. She had Holly’s body, the narrow waist, breasts that looked too heavy for her. She had that sweet voice that sounded more innocent than it was.

Holly’s liver gave out, Don John had said on the phone. He coughed again. He’s got cancer, but he’s still smoking. Last I heard, he said, she was hooking in Vegas. You can bet it wasn’t any place like the Mirage or New York, New York, Don John said. Don John always kept track of Holly. The last time he told me about her he said she had arthritis. Her hands looked like Lobster Girl’s, he said. Once I asked him if she ever asked about me, and he let a couple of heartbeats go by before he said, Yeah, sure, all the time.

The manager of some hotel found her, Don John said. Anyway, he said. I thought you’d want to know.

This girl I photographed tonight had on too much makeup. She opened her legs like she had something inside her, something besides a great emptiness needing to be filled.

I could do something else for you, she said. For a little more money.

I don’t want that, I told her.

I don’t mind, she said. Honestly.

I knew how good she’d feel, and I wanted to go over to the bed, to put my hands on her and hear her moan. I thought of how Louis, if he were in his room, would hear her. But he wasn’t there. No one was there but me and this girl, and I could have done what I wanted with her. I could have released this feeling into her, instead of lying here with it now.

I’ve done it before, she said. I’m not as young as you think.

I know how old you are, I said. Just stay still.

This girl, I didn’t ask her name. I was tired, and I didn’t need to know her story. I took one more picture. I held her in the frame of my camera, just for an instant, an instant in which I might have loved her, and then I let her go.

banyan.jpg

The wedding had already been canceled once, and now the bride and bride, or bride and bridegroom, whatever, were late coming down the stairs, and everyone in the house was worried. It was tight, that word, bridegroom, plus totally handy here in western Mass., the land of gay weddings, it felt very hip and very old-timey at once. (In school Vee had learned Massachusetts was an Indian word that meant hilly place; he liked learning about words, where they came from; back in ninth grade, his hippie teacher, Mrs. Josephson, had made them look up everything, even words they knew.) Obviously bridegroom was an excellent word because it did double duty, both boy and girl, you didn’t have to decide or make any suggestion that the actual bridegroom didn’t like. Which was perfect for Vee because he happened to be videotaping the wedding, that was his job, his business, he’d already shot, like, five lesbo weddings since they’d become legal, his business was booming, was entirely word of mouth in the small, heavily lesbo town in which he lived. Besides, Vee didn’t like to offend anyone, especially on the boy/girl question, online they called it your gender expression, whatever, Vee had his own sensitivities in that particular area, he’d get to that later; but also, you can’t build a business if you run around insulting people left and right, so he was grateful for that word, he was grateful for bridegroom.

The house was humongous—a monster Victorian—but seemed almost small with all the guests just standing around smiling hard and sipping drinks and talking in an exaggeratedly unanxious way, trying not to notice that the bride and bridegroom were, like, forty-five minutes late. It was the kind of house his mother liked to sell, all gleaming wood and built-in bookcases, and furniture that looked too good to sit on. Vee had positioned himself at the foot of the winding staircase in order to capture the happy couple as they took their very first steps into the room.

Shooting weddings was not Vee’s only business, he had several, his father liked to say he was a Veritable Young Entrepreneur, though there was something condescending about the way that he said it, something slightly mocking that Vee didn’t like. His other businesses included babysitting (which was how he’d met Beth and Lena), included lawn care and snow removal, included pet sitting, included basically any single thing that his college-professor clients needed. Vee specialized in college professors because his father was one and had introduced him to several, and, well, because they didn’t do much for themselves, either wouldn’t or couldn’t, they needed lots of help, which was part of his business plan, they were an actual niche market, here in the college-fat Pioneer Valley, a market Vee could exploit, and he did. And made mad, mad money, which he absolutely happened to need.

Vee needed money for his surgery. Or surgeries, plural, likely there’d be more than one. Now Vee was circling back, circling back to the question, already established, of gender expression: Vee happened to have been born Olive, née Olive, in other words, he was actually born she not he, though he couldn’t remember, it went so far back, the first time he switched the pronouns in his head. Right now he was sixteen years old and his actual transition was years and years away, but Vee knew it would come, this was America, after all, where anything and everything was possible, or so people said, anything was possible if you worked hard enough, which he did; Vee worked harder than anyone he knew.

So he was glad to shoot the wedding, though in this particular instance he was making some green by ripping his own heart out, because he happened to be madly and passionately and devastatingly in love with Lena. The bride, not the bridegroom. Vee babysat for Lena and Beth’s little boy, Max, who was mixed race, though his white parents were not. Maximilian was adopted, plus a great kid, if a little serious, if a little self-important. Maybe he got it from his moms, they were serious themselves, though maybe earnest was a better word, maybe supercorrect, though not in a tight-fisted way, more in a genuine, heartbreaking, we’re-gonna-do-right-by-our-brown-son kind of way.

What was cool about Max was that Max knew Vee was a boy. At six years old, without asking, without any conversation. He just felt it, saw it. Maybe it was easier to see at six than at twenty, who knew, maybe it was a childhood thing, an ability everyone had but eventually lost: seeing people’s true sex, gender, whatever you wanted to call it, not just the bodies they came with.

Which was when—meaning at some point during this digression, Vee digressed, it was a problem of his—Beth put a hand on his shoulder. Vee actually jumped a mile, jumped straight out of his skin, an expression he’d heard but never understood until then. Somehow, Beth had snuck down the stairs without his noticing. She wore a superelaborate tuxedo, black and gray with that cutaway tail and high-waisted, pin-striped pants. Beth said to Vee, quietly, but with a kind of dignity, her voice just loud enough for everyone to hear: Max is having a hard time, could you come upstairs and maybe talk to him?

Of course Vee felt bad, felt guilty as sin. He liked Beth, he really did. She had a nice masculinity, supple and playful, not rigid like so many butches. She wasn’t a professor, she renovated houses and had recently offered to teach Vee some of the tools of her trade. She didn’t disdain, like some people Vee knew, actual hard work, meaning work with your actual hands. Vee meant no disrespect to Beth by falling in love with Lena. It wasn’t anything he could control, who he loved and who he didn’t: there was no will involved in falling for someone, was there?

Though he was against gay marriage, if you wanted to know the truth. He’d never tell anyone, not here in the Valley, where lesbians outnumbered civil servants, like, 3 to 1. And he’d never do anything—protest—he wasn’t rabid, for god’s sake—he wasn’t an asshole. Perhaps his stance was a contradiction, but he didn’t care. Life was full of contradiction. When he thought about marriage, really what he thought about was a man and a woman. He pictured those little plastic dolls on the top of the cake: boy, girl, tuxedo, dress. He pictured—what was his name?—that dude who pounded on the glass in that ancient movie (his mother’s favorite)—the one who’d shouted, Elaine! Elaine! Vee loved that scene. Who didn’t? He loved the longing it produced. Honestly, what Vee pictured when he pictured a wedding was himself and Lena. Boy, girl, tuxedo, dress.

Which—you can see the problem with digression now—Lena was the mother of all digressions. Where was he? Where was he? Oh, right: Vee was following Beth up the stairs two at a time.

The reason the wedding had been canceled once before was that Lena had turned up pregnant and Beth was not the father. That is, Beth was not the responsible party, if you followed Vee’s logic, if you caught his drift. The baby wasn’t planned, wasn’t made through artificial insemination, they’d already gone that route, long before adopting Max, word was they’d tried for, like, five years back then and hadn’t been able to make a baby. So when the pregnancy became public, the wedding got canceled, and Beth took off. But eventually, pretty soon, in fact, she came back; she said she couldn’t bear leaving Max. For months the pregnancy had been the talk of the town, everyone had a candidate, or a theory, which was basically the Secret Life of Lena.

Then a few months later, to everyone’s surprise, the wedding was back on. There was no—how to put it?—no public story. No explanation of how the pregnancy happened. No long-standing affair or one-night stand was confessed to. No implausible cover story was retroactively constructed (like they’d gone back to the doctor, say, in order to make a little brother for Max, which people would have believed, Vee thought; people would have been relieved to have something—anything—to believe). No, there was no comforting story, it was just what it was—Lena had a baby in the belly—that was that. As if the baby had materialized out of thin air. As if it was—what’s that called?—sui generis. Which was Latin. Mrs. Josephson was big on Latin words: it meant unique, one of a kind, though in biology it meant species-wise one of a kind, that is, in a class (or genus) by yourself. Which she was, Mrs. J, she definitely was, but that’s not the point. The point is that everyone in the town had to swallow the fact of that baby. Everyone, yes, but especially: Beth. Beth had to swallow it, first and foremost. Which she did, or seemed to. Vee thought it wasn’t the Secret Life of Lena that was so hard to fathom, it was the Secret Life of Couples.

Now Vee was upstairs in Max’s bedroom, trying not to think about Lena and Beth or about who the father was—trying not to wish too hard that he had made the baby—ridiculous, he knew, but that didn’t keep him from wanting it so—and trying to interest little Max in his, Vee’s, camera. The two of them were lounging on the plush carpet in front of Max’s gargantuan toy chest. What toy didn’t this kid have, Vee wondered, but then felt bad about his lack of generosity: he could see how miserable Max was.

Here, Vee said finally, giving over the camera. Why don’t you shoot me?

Max sort of scowled.

That’s just an expression, bro. Shoot means, like, record.

Max was incredibly pretty, everyone said, with creamy brown skin and huge, expressive dark eyes. He had a lot of wild, soft curls, the edges of which were tipped in yellow. Right now he wore a kid version of Beth’s tuxedo—he was best man—which made him look weirdly old, like one of those adults with that disease where your body doesn’t grow—you stay kid-sized your whole life long.

Vee said, Why don’t you record a movie of me?

Of you?

Or of you and me, hanging. Whatever.

Max frowned, which was softer than the scowl, sadder. Max’s sadness had a vastness that made Vee feel his own. He remembered the day he discovered that Max knew he was a boy. They were at the Hampshire Mall, just window-shopping, killing time—Lena had asked Vee to take Max to a movie there—and suddenly Max had to pee, and he grabbed Vee’s hand and started toward the men’s room. When Vee hesitated and said, No, this way, and pulled in the opposite direction, Max screwed up his face and shook his head, all seriousness, and said, No, Vee, that’s the women’s. Boys go to the men’s. We’ll get in trouble. And so Vee, who dressed so you couldn’t tell just what he was, boy or girl, and whose hair wasn’t supershort but wasn’t long either, just the perfect length to hide his face, went with Max to the men’s. Which was Vee’s first time ever passing. His first time ever smelling the public smell of maleness, which was part funk, part chemical cleaner, and part something else he couldn’t name but was definitely not in the women’s. And which was part of why—that ecstatic day—he loved little Max. Or if not why, how hard.

Now Max said, Are you ever going to get married?

Vee shrugged. I guess.

Why?

I don’t know. It’s what people do when they love each other.

Why?

Dude. I thought you were over that “why” stage, like, three years ago.

Max wrinkled his nose. Which Vee counted as an almost smile. Max turned the palm-sized video camera over and over in his little-man hands, then pointed it at Vee. He got up on his knees and brought it close to Vee’s face—too close, in that way of people who don’t know how to use a camera. Do you love someone now?

Vee blanched. He was pretty sure Max hadn’t touched the record button. I guess so, he said, gently pushing the camera away. I mean, yeah, sure.

Who?

No one you know.

A girl or a boy?

A girl.

Max sighed. He put the camera down. Mommy has a baby in her belly.

I noticed.

A big one.

Sweet.

Do you think so?

Sure. I always wanted a brother or a sister.

Why?

Vee shrugged. Company.

Max’s eyes grew wide. Grew glassy.

Parents can be, well, a drag. It’s cool—I always thought it would be cool to have someone else in your family who got that. I mean, got how they were a drag.

Still on his knees, Max sat back, settling his butt down on his heels, thoughtful. He fingered the delicate, pointy triangles of his elaborate vest. He put his finger in the minipocket on the left triangle and scooped out nothing, scooped out air. Once, twice, three times. He was staring at his finger in the tiny tuxedo pocket when he said, Do you think the baby will be white?

Vee felt his throat close. It was something he hadn’t thought of. During all the crazy conversations concerning just how that baby got made, he hadn’t once thought about what color it would be.

I mean, more white than me?

Vee swallowed hard and shook his head. He forced his dry throat open: I have no idea.

I don’t want to be in their stupid wedding.

I don’t blame you.

Max popped back up onto his knees. Really?

Vee nodded. He choked out: Really. It’s, like, their thing. Not yours.

Yes, Vee, that’s it! That’s it! He scooted closer. Could you tell them? Explain?

Vee shook his head. Look bro, you just have to do this. You don’t really have any—

Everyone says that I’m black, but I’m not. I’m white.

Vee just sat there.

I can tell how much they want me to be. Black. African American.

Vee had a terrible sinking feeling.

But I’m not.

Sinking, sinking. Vee didn’t want, for all the world, to hurt little Max, who he loved like a brother. But at the same time, he thought what Max was saying was wrong, wrong, incredibly wrong. Beautiful brown Max was beautiful because he was brown—though that didn’t sound right—because he was Max, who happened to be brown—though it was more than happenstance—his brownness was an inextricable part of his beauty, of his Max-ness—why was this so difficult to explain—intrinsic?—to articulate in some way that did not feel weird. Wrong-weird.

What was inextricable? That was the question. In America, where Max could be, where Vee could be, anything he wanted.

That was the sinking feeling.

That was the panic. He’d had it before. Sure he’d had it—this was maybe three years back, when he’d first gotten online and found his boys, his peeps, when he’d learned everything there was to know about FTMs, which is to say, about his own difficult situation. When he learned about hormones and hysterectomy and phalloplasty. When he’d learned that the muscle of the forearm or the leg or the chest wall could be used to make the penis. The beautiful penis. When he’d learned not to panic about his own developing body. (I’m drowning, he’d first thought, when the breasts had started to grow: I’m drowning in my own flesh.) If Vee worked hard enough, if he put all his money in the bank, he’d definitely have the surgery. Nothing could stop him, not even his parents, who had no idea, who had no fucking clue. Now Vee glanced at Max, who was waiting, patiently waiting, for his response. There was no surgery to become white, was there?

But the two weren’t the same, weren’t equivalent: Vee knew that they weren’t. But how to explain that to Max? Vee supposed it was the whole history of—which Vee had learned about from Mrs. J, she’d done a special unit on the whole, horrible history—even though she was an English teacher, not a history teacher—she’d spent like eight weeks on the terrible, colonial—some kid even objected, said, What on earth does this have to do with good grammar, with topic sentences?—but she’d been undeterred, had told them about the colonial, the imperial, the blah, blah, blah. That’s how he would sound to Max, Vee realized, no matter how well intentioned: blah, blah, blah.

Now Max cleared his throat, still waiting. He blinked his long, wet eyelashes at Vee. For a second, Max actually looked like that ancient cartoon character—what was her name? With the humongous eyes—Betty Boop, that was it. Only Max was the Betty Boop of hope and sorrow, not the Betty Boop of sex. Maybe hope was sorrow.

Look, bro, Vee tried. It’ll destroy your moms if you refuse to be in their wedding. And it’s way too early to destroy them. Trust me. You’ve got a whole lifetime to destroy them. There’s no rush, man. You’ve got plenty of time. There’s no rush.

Vee stood, offering Max a hand. Max sighed and rose and brushed the lint from his tuxedo pants, his fingers lingering on the silky stripe that ran along the outside seam. For a second, Vee felt envious of Max’s natural, meaning his biological, his effortless boyness. And then he felt ashamed of his envy, ashamed, of course, because of what Max had just told him, and so Vee said, Nice stripe.

Max looked up.

Seriously, that’s, like, a cool stripe. Totally tight. I like your tuxedo.

Max frowned.

You look like, I don’t know, a banker or a movie star or something. You look like you’re from another era, Edwardian, or is it Victorian? I always get those two confused.

Upstairs, a door opened. Vee listened and waited, grateful at this point for any distraction. Max waited too, craning his neck toward the sound. Now feet on the stairs. Then Lena passed the open door to Max’s room, looking in without seeming to, her eyes straight ahead. That dress was formfitting! Honest to god, Vee could see every inch of her belly, her amazing breasts sort of resting on top of that magnificent belly!

Vee felt—well—he was overwhelmed. He wanted to get out of there. But he had to stay, to finish his job, the videotaping, to complete his commitment to Lena. Luscious Lena. Of course he also wanted to hang, to just be in her presence. But since his conversation with Max, it cost him something to be there. He didn’t know what, exactly, but he could feel it costing.

A minute or so after the flush of a toilet, Lena floated into the room. Hey, my friend, she said to Max.

That belly was like a missile.

Hey, said Max, his little-man eyes soaking her up, his irises getting darker, richer. Lena looked back at him the exact same way. The two of them—no exaggeration—they didn’t even know Vee was in the same freaking room!

Time for us to get downstairs, Lena said, one hand reaching behind her—classically—arch-fucking-typically!—to support her bowed back. Our friends are waiting for us. You ready?

Max nodded and set his shoulders, good soldier, and went over to his mother. He tried to lean into her, to encircle her with his arms and be taken up by her, but the magnificent belly was impossible to grasp, actually kept him away.

Lena said to Vee: Can you wait here a minute? We’re gonna skip the whole descending-the-staircase thing. I’m gonna go down with Max and just talk to our friends and then Beth will join us—she’s taking a minute—she needs a minute—and when she comes down, we’ll just get this thing done. Her voice rose the tiniest bit and now Vee could see as well as hear the strain, see the anxiety in her beautiful, determined face. As if the wedding had become some kind of hurdle, an obstacle to her happiness instead of a gate. I don’t want—let’s not videotape anything but the bare-bones ceremony. Just the I-dos, okay?

Sure.

The thing about Lena was she had this aura of goodness and kindness. When she looked at Vee, her expression said the entire world could collapse around him, she didn’t care, she only cared about what was coming out of his mouth that very minute. She was hot and smart, sure, unbelievably so on both counts, but she was also incredibly, incredibly kind. And given Vee’s particular situation, kind probably topped the list of necessary attributes. Kind trumped hot, but with Lena it didn’t have to, kind was hot, and hot was kind. There was this perfect feedback loop of Lena-ness. Honest to god, it was a relief right then to think only of Lena and just how much Vee wanted her.

Nice dress, he said. It’s totally tight.

Lena blushed, and then Vee felt bad—he didn’t want her to think he’d meant—so he said, I mean, cool, hot. It’s a totally hot dress.

Lena smiled and said, Thank you, and now it was Vee who was blushing, blushing hard. Then he said, suddenly, not knowing that he was going to say it: You don’t have to, like, go downstairs.

Lena sort of flinched. What was that? Her hand was in Max’s hair and the flinch made her pull, unintentionally, one of his curls. Max looked back and forth from Vee to his mother.

Vee said, He doesn’t actually want to be in the wedding.

Lena looked stricken. But I thought. She glanced down at her son. I thought you were ready?

Max shrugged, confused now.

Vee nodded. They say every wedding is a tragedy for somebody.

They do? Who says that? Is that Tolstoy?

My friend Philo.

Oh. Do I know him?

I don’t think so. I met him online.

Oh. Is that safe? Meeting people online?

I guess so.

Well, I hope not. I mean, I hope my wedding isn’t a tragedy for anyone.

Is the baby a girl or a boy?

The baby? A boy.

How lucky.

Lena half-smiled. For Max, you mean. How lucky for Max to have a brother?

No, I mean how lucky for the baby. How lucky to be born a boy like that.

Like what?

I don’t know. Just a boy.

Well, I think girls are pretty great.

Do you?

Of course!

I like girls too, I mean, I love them, but—

And then Lena got this expression on her face like at last she understood. She’d been looking, well, pained, but now some stupid light broke through, and the lines around her eyes and mouth sort of smoothed, and Vee realized she thought that he was just like her: she thought Vee was a girl who liked girls, just like her.

Why is it, he wondered, that everyone always thinks you’re like them, when you’re not? Why does everyone always think it’ll make you feel better? Being the same. When it doesn’t.

So Vee said, blurted out, really: I’m against gay marriage. If you want to know the truth.

And Lena said, Oh, dear, and looked down at Max. She put a hand on his shoulder.

Vee felt panicky. He wanted to explain, to tell Lena, well, everything. About himself and about Max. About how they’d gone together, Vee’s first time ever, to the men’s. And how impossible it was to tell just what was inextricable and what was not. How he wished he was sui generis like the baby.

But that was way too much to say. And so he said, I didn’t mean it like that.

And Lena said, her face earnest and protective at once, How did you mean it, then?

And Vee said, I don’t know. Because he didn’t.

aa1.jpg

This was 1988. The car was silent, and it was late. They’d left her little apartment in Chattanooga, Tennessee, an hour before, much too late to avoid the awful holiday traffic. It wasn’t until somewhere around New Hope that Rose ventured a question.

“Does your family have a dog?”

David shifted as if coming out of a light sleep. “Not since Cody,” he said. “She’d slobber all over you. She was hit by a car way back when I was in high school, though.”

“I’m sorry,” Rose said, remembering now that he’d told her this before, maybe when they first met. “Is your father—what’s he like? Is he nice?” She’d met him once before, but only briefly.

“Yeah,” he said, after a pause. He was looking out the window at the gray strip malls, floodlighting the swaths of dripping kudzu—pretty, Rose called it—and tapping his fingers against the door of the car. “He’ll like you. I know I talk about arguing with him all the time, but he’s not actually scary.”

Rose tightened her grip on the steering wheel. She was driving because David had been up all night, working. He was an engineering grad student, studying now the propellers of large watercraft: how the tiniest flaw in the fine-grain metal could displace incredible volumes of water. What an amazement it was, he told Rose, that such slight shifts could alter or correct the course in such meaningful ways. (“Like everything,” Rose said, smiling.) She brought up dolphins and pilot fish and powerful sharks. “How do they do it?” she asked. How is a propeller like a shark tail? One of their private riddles. They had been together for just under a year, and David had not gone home to visit once in this time.

Rose steered around a station wagon and let several seconds of silence slip by before she said, “How do they cook their turkey?”

David settled back in his seat and closed his eyes. “Who knows,” he said. “The regular way. I’m surprised they can afford dinner this year.” Then, eyes still closed, he put a hand on her knee and squeezed it. Through her leggings she could feel the weariness of the gesture, the familiar way his hands today bore the long night’s marks of complicated modeling, of figuring neat endless rows of equations.

They wouldn’t reach Lynchburg until ten or eleven and Rose was somewhat relieved; David assured her this meant that most of the family—there were five of them stuffed into a three-bedroom house—would be asleep.

Last summer in Chattanooga, Rose had briefly met his parents, Jay and Karen, and all but one of his siblings, and it was this mysterious younger brother, Eddie, she was worried about. There was a complication with him, which David had been slowly laying out for her over the past few days—the extent of which she was only just beginning to understand.

Eddie, who was fourteen, had only a week before been caught touching their youngest brother, Jackson, who was only four, “inappropriately.” (“Oh my God,” Rose had said. “What do you mean?” But David wouldn’t, or couldn’t, tell her right away.) The thing that made it either worse or better, David said, was that Eddie had been adopted into the family at age three, and now that the rest of the family looked back they could “pinpoint” the “signs” that something like this could happen. “As if we even know what that means,” he said, disgusted. Signs like: Anger, when given orders. Burning with a persistent feeling of persecution. Refusing to be potty trained. Fire setting. But then David could remember harboring such small defiances himself.

Rose hadn’t wanted to ask too much about it. David would lock something away in his head for days and then wake her in the most silent hour of the night to blurt it out and ask her what she thought. A veterinarian in training, she found that her skills in handling wary cats and waiting for injured birds to stop flapping around light fixtures had improved marvelously since she’d begun dating him.

Eddie had never exactly fit into the family. He looked different, Rose gathered—was stockier and heavy browed, and he filled a large gap between the older and younger Hutton siblings. David had been thirteen, his younger sister Amy four, when their aunt died of a heroin overdose and left Eddie locked in a car in her apartment’s parking lot, an overheated tear-streaked toddler. The aunt was the sister of their father, not their mother, but Karen had plodded through the adoption process, accepting all the assessments and small invasions and court documents that couched everything in terrifyingly final terms. This had made David’s high school years chaotic, it seemed, but then once college had swallowed him up his parents had had another child, Jackson—Jackson who never stopped giggling, Jackson upon whom the world was bestowed.

But a week or so ago, Eddie had been snuggled up behind Jackson, who was asleep on the couch, and when their father looked over from the television he thought he could discern some sort of faint gyration under their blanket, a fixated movement against Jackson’s leg, which had wandered or sleepily kicked between Eddie’s. Eddie admitted to accidentally rubbing up against Jackson—he hadn’t been paying attention, he said. But this had to be reported, and corrected. The law was clear about preventing further molestation, particularly when an adopted child was involved. If something else were to happen, and it came out that it wasn’t the first incident, they would risk losing Jackson. So there were steps to take. Certain measures, made more difficult by monetary limitations. His parents had caught Eddie with a cache of pornographic magazines about a year ago, and had enlisted the help of their pastor—obviously it was beyond that level now, and they had to act decisively if they didn’t want Child Services knocking on the door and tearing the family apart. Eddie would have to go to some sort of rehabilitation facility, the kind that was within reach financially—the kind run not by psychologists but by men of God.

They’d removed Jackson from his and Eddie’s room after the porn incident; in the year since, he’d been sleeping on the couch. Now, surely, everyone was wondering what the right questions to ask Jackson were. How to find out if this was the first offense, without making the little boy uneasy. No one would use that word: molest.

So things with the Hutton household were taking rapid turns. Rose had accumulated the basic points of this situation but she couldn’t imagine them, couldn’t hold them all in her mind at the same time.

“Maybe I shouldn’t go with you,” she’d suggested when David first told her of the developments. He shook his head no. “I need you,” he said. This would be Rose’s first Thanksgiving away from home.

When they arrived the house was dark except for the kitchen, where Karen was picking the meat off the breast of a stewed turkey. She welcomed them with a tired smile and put her finger to her lips.

“Hi, Rose,” she whispered, and hugged David tight. “Everyone’s asleep. We’re having two turkeys this year,” she said, her arms still around him. “Your dad smoked this one for soup and your grandpa is roasting one tomorrow. We’re eating at his place.”

They’d woken Jackson; he was clamoring to get up from the couch and sit in his brother’s arms.

“All right,” Karen sighed, lifting the blanket off him. “But in a few minutes you have to get right back to sleep.” She watched as David scooped his little brother up, rubbing his chin against Jackson’s soft hair and sagging against the kitchen counter.

Rose excused herself to brush her teeth and, claiming exhaustion, went to bed in the heavy darkness of Amy’s room. The girl was on the top bunk, stirring a little when Rose opened the door. Rose saw, before she closed the door on the hall light and negotiated the cluttered room, that passages from Scripture were scribbled in Magic Marker on cardboard and tacked to the walls. David hadn’t spoken much of his evangelical upbringing, but he’d once called the house a Jesus camp, remembered hellfires springing from every neglected crack in the floorboards. The devil always hiding in the corners. Waiting for every wavering believer.

Rose pulled the covers up over her ears—a trick she’d learned as a girl for warding off evil spirits. Amy turned over in bed above her, and the whole structure creaked and shifted.

Rose had been looking forward to this trip for months; when David had mentioned the possibility of staying in Chattanooga and cooking a big dinner with friends she’d gently dissuaded him. They’d never gone anywhere together. Her mother had congratulated her on getting invited to the family holiday, with a teasing lilt in her voice. Rose’s parents knew all about David and always asked, “When are we going to get to meet this boy?” They were excited to meet him because Rose had never before spoken of a suitor as perfect. What this word meant to her parents was probably a well-tailored shirt, a ready smile, and a ring box in one pocket. What it meant to Rose was a hand that didn’t forget hers, a head that turned to her when she spoke, and that ready smile.

Rose had had her share of unfortunate relationships, but other than that there were no scandals in her family history, no hushed troubles to be whispered over during holiday gatherings, and she’d kept quiet about this new development in David’s household. It didn’t belong to her, and she wanted the image of David to remain pure and shining to her parents, replete with all the brightness of a promising future.

As her body quieted its shifting beneath the blanket she realized she could hear the murmur of his voice, rising and falling with his mother’s, and she wondered, until she fell asleep, if they were talking about the situation, if there was anything to be done for anybody.

The house was small and slightly slipshod in its integrity; at six or seven the thuds of bare feet on floorboards and the shriek of old plumbing woke Rose. She turned her face to the wall and crammed a pillow over her head. She had a stuffy headache.

She wanted some help in navigating the family; Amy was only fifteen, and in large groups David was prone to forgetfulness, apt to get lost in a televised football game and forgo all introductions. Rose had never even met his grandparents; she knew that his grandmother had been paralyzed on one side of her body by a stroke, and that his grandfather liked football. Or baseball.

She thought of the day ahead: gauging whether everyone wanted hugs or handshakes, trying all the dubious dishes without taking overzealous servings, chatting easily but not frivolously, seeming confident but not forward. The other night she’d stood in front of her closet and deliberated, agonized, over her dresses and shoes. “Do you think they’ll make fun of me if I wear heels to Thanksgiving dinner?” she’d asked David. “Or will they think I’m impolite if I don’t?”

“They won’t care either way,” David said, stuffing a razor into his traveling bag. When he looked up and saw her face, saw that she was holding a shoe in each hand, he came over and put a gentle hand on her head. “They might think you’re a little overdressed,” he said.

“I’m afraid I’m going to feel weird around them.”

“Listen,” he said, “we don’t have to go. It’s not too late. They know we’re busy with school.”

“Of course it’s too late.” Then she dropped the shoes to the floor and held her hands up. “I don’t see how they’ll want a stranger crowding up the house when all this just happened with your brother.”

He set his bag down, and rubbed his hands up and down her arms. “If you want to stay, it’s okay. It won’t look like a dodge. But it’s not as bad as you think. My mom specifically invited you. She wants to spend some time with you.”

Rose looked up. “Really?”

“Really. And I even talked to her about it after she told me about Eddie.” He squeezed her arms and moved his hands to her face. “Really.”

The lovemaking that followed was clumsy. They had to toss piles of unpacked socks and lotions off the bed, and their various straps and buttons resisted removal: stubborn little sentries.

“Ouch,” Rose said once, and David said, “Sorry, sorry,” shifting his hips and feet. “No,” she said, “your elbow, it’s digging—” and he said, “Okay” and moved, and then, “You’re sure you want to go.”

“Yes,” she said, “I do want to go,” and they looked at each other, breathing, and then picked back up, relearning, easing back into something. And then in a renewed frenzy Rose had packed jeans and boots and heavy pullovers.

Now she squinched her eyes shut, and when she opened them again it was nearly nine. She’d overslept.

The Huttons didn’t drink coffee, she discovered. Jay and Eddie had already gone to Jay’s parents’ house, Karen and Amy were supervising Jackson’s dressing in front of the TV, and the kitchen counters were cold and empty. Rose waved a groggy hello and was surprised when Amy crossed the room to hug her.

“David’s still asleep,” Karen said. “You can go in there and tap him if you want. I figured you guys would ride with us to Grandpa and Grandma’s.”

“Sure, sure,” Rose said. “I’ll just go wake him.”

She pried the door of the boys’ room open and found David on the top bunk, mouth open. She shook his shoulder and he moaned huh-uh.

“Please wake up, David,” she whispered. “I think we’re about to leave. I have to get dressed and I haven’t had the coffee to make conversation on my own.”

“They’ll make coffee for you.”

“No!” she said. She hadn’t even seen a coffeemaker. “I don’t need it. Just please get up!”

“Okay,” he said. “But you have to go back to your room. My mom wouldn’t want you in here while I’m getting dressed.”

Rose dressed in a flurry, wishing she’d given herself time to shower. Everything felt muddled and hurried. She could hear David knocking elbows into the walls as he struggled, sleepy limbed, into his clothes while kicking shoes under the bed. Abruptly she wished they were back in her apartment—cooking together, a pitiful browned chicken and her own pies and sauces, making phone calls to their parents, lonely pledges to one another.

David’s grandparents lived in the soft crowning hills on the far outskirts of town, down gravel roads and over wooden bridges. In the car the family spoke of various aunts and uncles and cousins: who was where and what they had grown up to be. Karen said, “I’d say the Huttons have great genes, huh, David? We can produce some pretty good-looking kids.”

Rose brushed her bangs to hang evenly across her forehead and tucked her chin. Once, she’d overheard David’s mother mock his sister for being a stylishly dressed airhead—“Amy should’ve been born blonde,” Karen had said, and Rose, who was fair-haired, prayed no one would glance her way. All the Huttons were tall and impressive brunettes, with bold aristocratic shoulders and commanding strides. Short, pale Rose felt whimsical, a flitting, insinuating presence among them. Surely Karen was wondering about Rose’s genes, evaluating, now, the set of Rose’s profile and the thickness of her hair. Though Karen still had a young child scampering around the house, David had confided that she’d had him at nineteen, and that she prickled him, occasionally, teasing and not teasing, about not yet giving her grandchildren. He’d gone so far as to say he wasn’t sure she would’ve had Jackson if there had been grandchildren somewhere instead. Rose wished she could open the visor mirror and see if he was squirming in the backseat. His parents didn’t know, explicitly, that the two of them mostly lived together in her snug one-bedroom. It was a sinful love nest—the kind the church frowned upon as leading nowhere. But perhaps Rose was not the only one who saw all its possibilities.

Rose’s family members were champions of Thanksgiving. They played Scrabble before dinner, and charades after, with extravagant gestures and a certain allotment of props. The table never held less than four bottles of strapping red wine, and Rose’s mother, in her special red holiday apron, spent two days on the turkey. Rose was in charge of the cranberry sauce with orange peel, the glazed crescents of acorn squash, and the bourbon pecan pie. They curled their hair for dinner and put Vivaldi—feast music—on the stereo, and they all tried to outdo each other, spectacularly, with the thankfulness toasts. It was also not encouraged to leave the table before seconds and thirds had been attempted.

But here they were in Lynchburg. Dinner had been a quiet, hurried affair. They filled their plates in the kitchen with turkey and canned cranberry sauce, and carried them to the dining table. Karen had prepared a nice stuffing with sausage and oysters. Rose sat across from Eddie, who was set apart from Jackson and never looked at anyone. Their grandmother had come out to the table in her wheelchair and Rose had introduced herself, praying she was holding out the correct hand. She wasn’t; Arlene extended her left hand and they clasped fingers, smiling at each other. She had a very nice smile, Rose thought. For her part, Rose smiled anytime someone looked at her. They all held hands around the table and lowered their eyes while the grandfather, Russ, said the prayer.

“Our Heavenly Father,” he began. Across the table Karen held Arlene’s listless hand and Rose, lifting her eyes just slightly, saw the younger woman’s hand massaging and working her mother-in-law’s useless fingers. Eddie held his mother’s other hand, clasped tight. Rose felt that, next to her, David had his eyes open. She wanted to look to him but didn’t want to get caught with hers open as well. David had told her that the extended family was not as religious, and as Rose listened she felt the words of the prayer slipping away, indeterminate and half-mumbled. She felt Eddie’s legs fidgeting under the table, and then Jay’s hand came up and clapped the boy’s shoulder. The quiet head bent.

“It’s my fault,” David said. “I kicked him.”

The prayer halted and the bent heads turned to him.

“He knows to hold still when we say grace,” Jay said, and then the prayer went on. But Karen took her hand from Arlene’s and reached under the table to clasp David’s knee. Rose knew this because the searching hand brushed her own knee for the briefest of moments, and she shut her eyes furiously to keep something at bay. She did not open them until Russ intoned “In Jesus’s name” and they murmured “Amen,” and then she watched Eddie’s dark head until it came up. Karen took up her fork, and around her, with a clatter, the others did the same.

Rose couldn’t help envisioning future Thanksgivings at her own home—her parents plying David with coffee and background questions as soon as he came up the stairs in the morning, the crisp turkey, the bottles of wine, the long warm hours at the table.

After dinner they gathered in the den to watch the game. Rose, curled in a corner of the loveseat, wished desperately that she had brought a book, that it wouldn’t look rude to read. She played with Jackson when the boy brought a set of cars to her, looking up occasionally at the screen and the mute faces and Arlene’s inert form, part warm body and part wheeled machine; and at Karen, who watched Eddie instead of the television, snapping at him when he didn’t bring his cup to the kitchen and whenever he roughhoused with Jackson. Amy mimicked her mother, warning Eddie to look away whenever a racy commercial came on. At such times Rose looked away, but once she tried to interest him in a conversation.

“Are you a Volunteers fan, like everyone else?” she asked, gesturing at the others scattered on the couches.

“Yeah,” he said, fiddling with a cushion.

“So what else do you do when you’re not in school?”

He almost met her eyes. He shrugged. “We study a lot,” he said, and then Jackson ran by and he pretended to trip the boy. He loved to play with Jackson, and now was only allowed to when supervised. He made car noises tirelessly and held the boy in the air, giggling nearly as hard as Jackson. She could tell by the quickness of his smile he’d forgotten all the eyes on him.

Jackson was the only sign of life. The world was all in order for him. Pretending to be invisible, he hovered behind David and bonged a foam football on his head, hooting and hollering when David grabbed him with his sure hands and swung him over his head, high in the air, telling Jackson he’d toss him up to the ceiling, tickling and teasing until the boy writhed with giggling. David was next to her on the loveseat and when Jackson crashed to the cushion between them she imagined them as a family, warm and wriggling. She wanted to crawl over into David’s lap and kiss and caress him, to get back some of their warmth. But he was interested only in the plays on the screen.

She stood and went into the kitchen to ask Russ if he needed help with anything. He looked around the kitchen, but everything that needed to be put up was already covered, the gravy boat wiped clean of dribbles.

“Nah,” he said. “I don’t think there’s much to be done.” He looked at her; she was holding her hands behind her back. He seemed to be searching for something to offer her. “It’s nice to have a young couple in the house,” he said.

Rose scooted herself onto a stool at the counter, next to Arlene, who was smoking a cigarette and looking off at the television, the whole bulk of her looking hunched and immense under the clothes and at the same time spindly, the skin drooping off the frail, pointed bones.

Russ pointed at Arlene. “I remember how it was, meeting all her family for the first time,” he said. “Now, there was a big, loud clan. I don’t think I even met most of them before the wedding, and then I had to be all polite and remember everyone’s names, when all the time I was sweating in my tux and nervous as all get-out.”

“Nononono,” Arlene said. It sounded as though it hurt to come out. She had turned and was looking from her husband to Rose, waving the hand that held the cigarette.

“No?” he said. “What did I get wrong?”

She reached for a notepad on the counter. It had an attached pen. Rose saw that it was covered with hours’ or even days’ worth of scribbled communications: ciphers in some ancient, unutterable language. Leaning over Arlene’s shoulder as the woman began to write, Rose realized she’d be unable to read it. Not wanting to betray herself to Russ, she cast a pleading glance at David in the other room. But his attention was fixed on the game.

Arlene pointed at the ungainly text, a child’s exercise in freehand drawing. Rose tried to make the letters take shape.

“F—full? Fuel?”

And then Amy was on Arlene’s other side, one finger on the notepad.

“Is it ‘lake,’ Grandma?” she asked. Arlene nodded, grunting, “Yeh-yeh.”

“He met them at the lake?” Amy said.

Russ watched them, his large hands spread on the counter. “I’ll be darned,” he said. “I did meet them all at their lake house. They had some big party by the water and your grandma here invited me and then didn’t pay any attention to me the whole day. Back then she had a whole string of suitors. She had the cutest swimsuit on,” he said. “Real cute little freckled knees.”

He bent to cup a flame to Arlene’s next cigarette, and then she was staring off at the TV again, for all the world as if the party at the lake had never happened.

Amy put a soft hand on Rose’s shoulder and smiled at her. “Want to come help me gather up Jackson’s toys? He’s been throwing them everywhere.”

“Sure,” Rose said, standing and returning the smile. “Of course.”

She went to bed that night not tired, as not-tired as she’d ever been, hungry and wide-eyed, mashing her head into the pillow. David had gone to bed early and she’d followed suit, unwilling to accompany the family’s stragglers in their gloomy vigil—the kids watching approved television programs, Jay glowering at the paper in his armchair, Karen wandering in and out of their bedroom, perpetually warning Eddie that his bedtime was approaching. After a long while Amy came in and climbed the ladder to the top bunk. When Rose cracked the bedcovers up from her head to let in the air, she could hear that the living room had fallen silent and that David and Eddie, now in their bunk beds in the next room, were murmuring to each other about the rehabilitation camp Eddie would have to attend. The wall separating the two bedrooms didn’t quite meet the outside wall, and there was a thin strip of light there where the boys’ lamp was seeking to cast its light and with it the unhappy undulations of their conversation into the girls’ room. She heard Eddie say that he had been given a list of clothing and camping equipment he would need, that they would all sleep in some sort of bunkhouse, that they would rise at six and pray and then tend to the animals—pigs, maybe, and chickens; Rose strained to hear, caught herself straining and felt ashamed, let their voices trail off as she shifted in bed.

“Amy,” Rose whispered. “Are you awake?”

“Mm-hmm,” Amy whispered back.

“Are you, you know, doing okay with everything?”

She felt Amy move her face closer to the edge of the bunk. “Do you know about all that happened with Eddie?” the girl asked.

Rose hesitated. “Yes,” she admitted. “David explained it to me. I mean, a little. He didn’t want me to feel weird coming here.” She paused. “I don’t feel weird around Eddie, you know. I feel terrible that your family has to go through this.”

When Amy was silent, she wondered if she’d been too blunt. But then Amy said, “Me and Eddie are almost the same age, you know.”

Rose held still. Was something forthcoming, some miserable obscene confession in the dark of the room? “That must have been hard on you,” she said.

“He was always different from us. We thought it was hard for him to come to us so old. He remembered his mother back then. I guess she hit him. And she never changed his diaper.”

“David said.”

“But he used to ask for her. My mom hated it. We told him not to.” Amy was quiet for a moment, and the sounds of the next room, the whole other world going on in the dark there, filtered in. “I remember being so mean to him sometimes.”

A sound like a sniffle came and Rose thought Amy might be crying. She saw, in the molten light from the alarm clock, the splay of Amy’s fingers on the side of the bunk, and she reached up and covered them with her own. Suddenly she wished her training were in the behavior not of animals but of humans.

“You guys all tried, Amy,” she said finally. “His mother never did. That’s where the blame lies.” So tidy. But enough disorder lay ahead for a young girl here.

Amy turned her hand over and squeezed Rose’s. They withdrew their fingers and stuffed them under the warm covers.

“You just have to hope that a new environment will help give him some perspective. And that he’ll learn things, and change . . . he’s still a kid, he has such a long way to go. Maybe this is just a phase,” she said.

“That’s what I pray every night,” Amy said.

“That’s nice of you,” Rose said. They were still whispering. “I’m sure it helps that he knows everyone’s supporting him.”

“Rose?” Amy said. “I’m glad you’re here. I don’t want to talk to my parents about this anymore.”

“You can always talk to me,” Rose said. “We’re friends.”

The next morning there was coffee. David must have said something. They all sat watching football, David with his head on the armrest of the patterned couch. He was getting sick from the dust and the secretions from the ladybugs that annually sought shelter from the cold in their last dying weeks. Rose and Jackson had rescued the first one she’d found, whisking it outside, Jackson making ambulance noises. Karen had laughed at them. David was allergic to many things—hayseed, certain flowers, cats and dogs and birds (the sun, even, Rose thought on cranky days). She might never be able to have pets in their home, if they had a home.

At eleven the house emptied out as everyone but Rose and David caravanned into town to brave Black Friday. Eddie volunteered, at first, to remain home, but Karen, a list of sundries the camp required crumpled in her hand, promised him a new warm jacket from Walmart. Rose realized she’d been waiting, bracing almost, for a moment alone with Eddie, and wondered what she’d planned on giving him. An honest smile? A warning? But the Huttons were careful. He was an unexploded bomb.

“I’m going for a walk,” she announced when the van had pulled out, zipping herself into jacket and boots. She inhaled in relief on the porch, in the clear, sharp air, crystalline and sunny against the stripped branches, the cold just tolerable on bare skin. She was impatient with herself, impatient with her impatience. She would be extra-friendly when everyone returned. She would revise her attitude, dismiss her discomfort. She wanted to comfort David if he fell sicker, to radiate tenderness—but all these things required privacy, the ability to pad into the bathroom to pee without worrying the door would be yanked open on her, the measured comfort of brewing a pot of coffee. The door opened behind her and she turned to see David coming out, zipping up his jacket.

“I’ll walk with you,” he said.

“You don’t have to.”

“I know,” he said.

He offered his hand and she took it. Together they stepped off the porch and started down the driveway, turning right. The road was tunneled with bare branches, unmoving in the clear light. There was scurrying in the bushes and Rose recalled seeing the fleeting white undersides of a rabbit’s back feet in their headlights as they’d pulled up the other night.

“Are you okay?” he asked. “You’re quiet.”

She rubbed her thumb against his palm. “I’m sorry,” she said. She looked up at him. “I’m not used to all these people. I have to keep this look on my face all the time, like I’m not uncomfortable or tired or—I’m not used to not having any privacy. It wears on me, I guess, I didn’t realize how much. And I’m not sure how I’m supposed to behave with Eddie—” she stopped and squeezed his hand. “I don’t know if that’s fair,” she said, “I’m sorry for complaining. It’s just—I have to pretend not to be shy and all this commotion is just making me shyer.”

After a pause she said, “I know I’m still complaining.”

“I thought you knew what it would be like,” he said. “It drives me crazy not to have any privacy here. I thought about getting a motel. I could have told them I didn’t want you sleeping in the house with Eddie . . . with Eddie there. They would’ve understood, I guess. But Mom would say sleeping together is such a poor example.”

They were coming around a bend in the road. The round coin leaves on the shivery birches were atremble in ragtag fashion. At an old pump house, with what looked to have once been a tractor next to it, a cattle guard stretched across the road, enforced by a long steel gate.

“We can keep going,” David said. “There are horses and cows on both sides of the road in here. There aren’t any houses for a long stretch.” They walked carefully over the cattle guard’s long grid. Cows shied away from these, though if they stepped through, their leg bones would be strong enough to take the jolt, while the slender, delicate foreleg of a horse would shatter if one slipped through the grating.

David started to unhook the gate, but Rose ducked through the space between the second and third bars and stood up on the other side. “I used to walk this way with Cody,” he said, following suit. “Our dog. I wasn’t so allergic then. She’d get in trouble for chasing chickens over here. When my parents told us she was dead I thought one of the farmers over here had shot her for it.”

Seeing this gate from the turn into the driveway the other night, Rose had imagined that she and David would go for drives up here, sneaking off, winding along the tree-lined road until they crested that hill and, out of sight, make love in the car, coming back flushed and happy, clinging to each other, to find the family still clustered around the same television channel, none the wiser. Now she saw how impossible that was. These were trials, big and small, to be endured alone.

“They have chickens and pigs and things at this place where Eddie’s going,” David said. “He was telling me about it last night.”

Rose tucked her arm in his, waiting. Pebbles skipped and skittered from their feet.

“I just feel so bad for him,” he said. “They have to get up early and pray, and it’s all about what you’ve done wrong and how all that shit sends you to hell and you can never do it or think of it again if you want God to forgive you. . . . Maybe the getting up early and the chores and stuff, caring for animals, will help him out and teach him to be responsible, get his mind off things.”

“When does he have to go?” she asked.

“In a week.”

“I didn’t think it was so soon,” she said.

David said nothing.

“Well, does he get a break? Christmas vacation?”

“Nah,” he said. “Only for emergencies. It’s like a drug rehab. For years. There might be visiting hours every month, or something. They can’t make phone calls and they can only write to immediate family. And they censor the letters first. So no one really knows what’s going on in there.”

“That should be illegal,” she said, appalled. “You don’t think—”

“Who knows,” he said. He had disentangled his arm from hers and was kneading one hand against the other palm, over and over. “They don’t have any sort of degree in psychology, and those kids could be in there for anything,” he said. “I guess they would get him a real psychologist, though, if they could afford it. But it would be thousands of dollars a month. They can’t really afford the Jesus camp as it is.”

They walked on, kicking at the ragged weeds bordering the road, and then he said, “I wish I could tell him he’s not going to hell. I remember how impossibly great the idea of telling him that felt when I first thought of it . . . it would be so freeing for him. But I can’t undermine my parents.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets. “That place is just going to make him think he’s going to hell for eternity. And no one understands eternity like us.” He was shaking his head. “I don’t understand what happened,” he said.

She started to say, “I guess this wasn’t the best time for me to tag along, huh,” but when she looked over he was crying.

“Being here is bringing back all these memories,” he said, not looking at her. “My mom was so crazy when they adopted him—nothing was in her control. My dad was working so much to pay for this new extra kid and she was alone all the time with us and Eddie was the odd one out, he was still almost a baby and he cried all the time; he refused to be potty trained until he was way older, like five or six.” He dropped his voice suddenly to a whisper. “She told me she used to stand over his crib and think, I’ve made a mistake.

She thought of Karen, her kind smile, how she looked Rose full in the eyes when they talked, and the way she nestled Jackson up in her arms, and the worried set of her pretty lips. Her love was so apparent when she looked upon Jackson, or Amy, or David. David was moving away, out of Rose’s hands, turning to the trees lining the road, coming back and letting her kiss his forehead, the bridge of his nose.

“It was so obvious,” he said. “I tried to make up for it, I tried to give him extra love, which meant I ignored Amy because my mom gave her special attention . . . that’s one of my life’s greatest regrets,” he said. “We don’t know how to talk to each other.”

Her mind went to Amy last night, sniffling in the bunk above, touching her fingers. Perhaps David had never heard Amy cry. “They all know you love them,” she said, helplessly.

“I used to wake up in the night and think about how much I wanted to get out of here. I had a list under my pillow of things I would take with me, and a map of the best way to walk to my grandparents’ house in Virginia. It was the only place I could think to go. Eddie doesn’t even have that.”

“He’ll make it,” she said, thinking back to the blank happiness on Eddie’s face yesterday. “He’s a good kid.”

“That’s what’s so awful about it. We have to sacrifice him, to keep Jackson.”

He let Rose hug him and she felt his damp lashes blinking against her neck.

“I don’t understand,” he said, “how people who are so good by themselves can be so fucked-up when you put them together.”

“He’s good,” she said again, rubbing her hand behind his neck. “He’ll make it through and he’ll grow up and become a man and figure it out,” she said, pulling back and trying to meet his gaze, “just like you did. He has to do it on his own. And someday,” she said, the idea coming to her like a gift, a sudden light, “somebody will love him.”

Gradually his breathing slowed and he let her take his hand and they started back. Beside the road, behind sagging fences, horses and cows looked at them with dispassionate curiosity, chewing long sheaves of grass and wild oats. She wanted to go to them and get their warm breath and foamy slobber on her hands but didn’t let go of David. “Let’s drive into town,” he said. “I want to get out of here for a couple hours.”

In the car they flew down the country roads, rising with the bumps. Sometimes, he said, even when he was far from home, the thought of driving these back roads was the only thing that could make him feel better. The sunroof was open and the music was loud, some tape he’d had since high school. It gave her a physical pain, to realize how often he must have driven these roads—he never talked much about home, and somehow she’d imagined that he hadn’t lived in this place very long, but he had—knowing that the only place he could go was back home, the only route to take this desolate loop, passing by the school where, she knew, he brooded and was bullied and still believed everything his parents taught him to believe. All the houses looked the same, all those white buildings, trying to retain whatever charm they had, the tin-roofed trailers next to the one beautiful plantation. The country was beautiful, in its way—the trim lawns before all the trailers with their stovepipes puffing smoke, the sloping pastures leading down to scrubby-wooded gullies. She felt the sky enclosing them in the valley, the little county’s whole world enclosed here in the hills, all the sordid hopes and failures and Southern family values left to bloom and burst and die, quietly, in here, tucked away from the rest of it all. She realized she was pressed back against the seat, as if expecting impact. But she didn’t ask David to slow down.

They were coming up to the Jack Daniels distillery, forever located in the dry county—before, she had imagined touring the place. She saw now that this too was an impossibility, that there was no tourism on a trip like this. Still, she asked him to stop.

“Let’s go in,” she said. “Let’s do something weird that will make us feel better.”

David pulled into the gravel parking lot and shut the car and all the noise off. They looked up at the strangely small sign and the white building that housed the distillery.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

She leaned over to him. “You’ll make this right in your own life,” she said. “That’s what it’s for.” His blue eyes were lucid now. This was her favorite thing: to look into his eyes and know they were seeing each other. She kissed his face, pushing his hair aside from his forehead, damp like a child’s. “You don’t know how much I love you,” she said. “I know you think it’s not that simple.” He was shaking his head. “But it’s pure to me,” she said.

“I like the way you think of it,” he said. “It’s something pure, for me to protect. I need that, if it’s okay.”

They got out and entered the distillery, David holding the door open for her. Inside the smell of sour mash overpowered them and they decided against taking the tour, opting instead to poke around the gift shop. They kept close and held hands, wandering through the aisles. David’s breath was slow now and he joked about the kitschy gifts. “I guess your parents would think this is all very quaint,” he said. Rose picked out a little single-shot bottle of honeyed whiskey, thinking she’d send it to them with a postcard. They’d never been to a place like this.

Thanksgivings got easier; together, David and Rose grew older. They married and visited Rose’s parents for the holiday, young daughters in tow; they bought their first house and hosted their own Thanksgivings. Jackson graduated from college and got married. That year he and his wife, a quiet Methodist, cooked the meal for the entire family. The Huttons had survived.

Rose had learned to read the signs: The slope of David’s back when he came home from his job at the college near Lynchburg said he’d shouldered another failure. The strain in his voice when Eddie called for money meant he couldn’t summon the love for another go-round. The weight of his hand on her shoulder when they discussed leaving Tennessee belied his assurances that one day they would. Most of all, the lines in his face on certain mornings meant he could no longer brace himself against his own disappointments. He needed her to lift him up, to restore that image of himself, replete with the brightness of a promising future. It was work for her, and it became a kind of loyalty until she couldn’t remember how it was before. She had no regrets, but from time to time she wished things were different; small things, the hesitations and missteps that added up, grew heavier.

And she wished she hadn’t first offered her love that way—as a shrine, pristine and brightly burning, a light he could turn to for solace. Then maybe he would have come to it himself, willingly, gratefully, palms upturned.

a4.jpg

Joanna had met Ben and Maddie at a consent workshop at her house. It was part of a “Safer Sex” series that one of their mutual friends was organizing, and Maddie, four at the time, had impressed Joanna by staying quietly at Ben’s side with a cache of Magic Markers, doodling spiral patterns on his jeans while the grown-ups practiced saying, “Could we take this slower?” and “Can I take your bra off?”

“Is she yours?” someone asked Ben.

“What do you say, Mads?” he’d asked the little girl.

“I’m my own,” she said solemnly, and Ben grinned and kissed the top of her dirty-blonde head.

“She’s my daughter,” he said, “but she belongs to herself.”

Joanna was living then in a dingy turn-of-the-century mansion that had been owned long ago by a wealthy pharmacist but was now rented out to a cluster of punks intent on converting every habitable space into a bedroom. At first glance the house looked like any other punk house in Minneapolis—bikes tangled on the porch, Xeroxed flyers on the walls, ripped-up alley armchairs, and a half-working piano crouched in one corner of the dining room—but past the shabby furniture and scuffed floors the house still had a certain sedate grace to it. The wood trim was dark like sturdy velvet, and dust-smudged chandeliers dangled from the high ceilings. Big windows, bright sun. There were lots of houses like this in Joanna’s neighborhood, houses that had once been illustrious but were now sag-backed and cheaply rented, and sometimes she stood at the corner of her street and imagined the pavement was filled with horse-drawn carriages and big-skirted ladies instead of janky two-doors and cigarette butts.

Ben reminded her a little of the house: he was dirty and messy bodied, too tall with too-short arms, but there was an elegance in the lines of his voice, a sketched-out courtliness in the way he moved. He and Joanna were partnered up for an honesty exercise and sat across from each other in a sunlit corner of the living room, maintaining eye contact while Ben described pushing his fingers into his junior high school girlfriend, even though she’d asked him, weakly, not to.

“She said she wasn’t ready to go that far,” Ben said, “but I was thirteen and completely single-minded. She didn’t protest physically so I figured it was okay, but then once I had my hand, y’know, she just lay there, completely still. Her eyes were wide open.”

At his side, Maddie was applying a purple pen to the knee of his jeans, and as he spoke he rubbed her back absentmindedly. Shamefully, Joanna found herself turned on—something about the gentle back-and-forth of his hand over his daughter’s small shoulders and the erotic contrition of his story. She stared at his mouth and, later that evening, kissed it, after they put Maddie upstairs in her bed to let her sleep while the grown-ups drank whiskey. Ben slid his fingers loosely around Joanna’s neck when she pressed him up against the kitchen sink, and knowing that his daughter was wrapped in Joanna’s quilt, face buried in her pillow, made the kiss seem even gentler, more intimate. Intentional.

 

Now they lived across the river in St. Paul, and Maddie was nearly eight. Ever since she’d hit her twenties, Joanna had noticed that time moved faster with every passing year; a month at twenty-seven was much shorter than a month had been at fifteen—yet even so, it rattled her, how quickly Maddie seemed to grow. Day by day she was taller, thinner cheeked, more of a person, and Joanna felt herself rushing to try and catch up, to mature as swiftly so she could stay the necessary steps ahead. But sometimes she still felt unbearably young. Which is what she told Ben when he asked her to marry him so she could adopt his daughter.

“You’re older than I am,” Ben pointed out, which was true by a few months.

“I don’t mean physical age,” Joanna said. “Besides, you’re always saying you want Maddie to be her own person. As far as my heart’s concerned, I’m Maddie’s parent—the law doesn’t need to get involved. Do you want her thinking she’s something that can be signed away, like property?”

“We’re talking about adoption,” Ben said. “Not real estate. What I want is for her to feel safe, secure. And, most importantly, to know that if something happens to me, she’ll end up with the right person.”

The right person, which of course made Joanna think of the wrong person: of Maddie’s mother, Caroline, who just last week had sent a letter from Winnipeg, her spiky handwriting blinking from the page like eyelashes. I’m nearby now, she wrote. You could send Maddie on the bus to visit—as if anyone would put an eight-year-old on a Greyhound alone; as if anyone would trust Caroline to meet her at the bus stop. There was a phone number on the bottom of the letter. She can call me if she wants.

Ben had a night class that evening, working his slow way toward a certificate in electrical engineering, so it was just Joanna and Maddie in their small house. Joanna had been reading aloud to her for years, but lately Maddie preferred to read by herself, sitting up in bed with her nightstand lamp on, stern-faced like a tired woman. Tonight, though, she handed over a battered old picture book and scooched aside so Joanna could lie next to her on the narrow futon.

“Read it in your gloomy voice,” Maddie said, tucking herself under Joanna’s arm.

“There once was a herd of elephants,” Joanna read, slow and glum like Eeyore. “Elephants young, elephants old.”

She was imagining Caroline, though, not elephants. She’d met the woman once but not for more than a minute, and she retained only a vague impression of skinny tattooed arms and blue eyes set too far apart, like a fruit bat’s, like Maddie’s. And once she’d found, wadded up in a shoebox in Ben’s closet, a yellow silk slip with Caroline’s name written across the tag in Sharpie, as if she’d worn it to sleepaway camp. It had a rotten smell, like dying flowers, and Joanna thought she detected the scent of diesel from the trains Caroline caught out of the Minneapolis yard.

“Jo, you skipped a page,” Maddie said, and burrowed her warm body closer, like a puppy trying to nurse. Joanna wedged an arm between them to get some distance.

“You’re a better reader than I am, Mad Dog,” Joanna said. “How about you take over?”

Maddie shook her head. “You.”

So Joanna began reading again, and Maddie put her head down and let out one of those animal sighs that never failed to ping against Joanna’s heart. It wasn’t a question of love.

 

After Maddie fell asleep, Joanna sat in the living room with her laptop and Googled photographs of Caroline. She’d found three, and it had taken her a long time to locate even those; until the return address on the letter last week her searches had been too vague, too vast, turning up gymnast Caroline Lees and sand artist Caroline Lees, and Korean nun Caroline Lee, but never the Caroline Lee Joanna needed. She’d met her before she’d met Ben, though only for that single second, a quick introduction in a crowded doorway as she was leaving a potluck and Caroline was arriving. “She has a kid,” a friend told her later. “Hard to believe,” and Joanna had agreed, although already she’d forgotten Caroline’s face—no one had told her to fix it in her mind. So many times since she’d wished there was a way to know which seemingly light moments would later become weighted.

The pictures she’d found of Caroline were all from the University of Winnipeg, where Caroline was a graduate student. The first two were thumbnails and indistinct, but the third was big and bright and direct, and Joanna maximized it on her screen and stared into that eerily familiar face: Maddie’s face, but warped—wider mouthed, smaller chinned, blonde hair cut short in a twenties-style bob. The accompanying article was from a university newsletter, a summary of an undergraduate class Caroline was apparently teaching, First Nation, First Books, and every time Joanna read it she was stunned at how poorly she’d been imagining this girl. She’d published papers, attended conferences, edited a collection of essays, and all these years Joanna had pictured her grease smeared and fierce in the metal cubby of a freight car, traveling directionless. But she wore lipstick, and aside from the delicate line of a tattoo curling out of the neck of her blouse and onto her collarbone, she had no visible wildness. Caroline had gone respectable.

Joanna closed her laptop and stared intently at the ceiling, as if she could read the beige drips of cheap paint. You couldn’t hop trains with a kid, but you could study—people did it all the time. Was this what had prompted the letter? A permanent address, a steady job, a career path, maybe a boyfriend, and the only thing missing from the picture was a child. Which she’d had, and given up, and perhaps wanted to take back. For the first time Joanna felt her own power over Caroline, which shook her, so long had she felt herself in thrall to the woman. Sometimes when she and Ben were in bed together she imagined she was Caroline, and she took sweet, shameful pleasure from it, as if she were siphoning away some pleasure Caroline herself may have had. She liked to imagine Caroline imagining her. Was Caroline lying on a couch this very moment, thinking of Joanna, and of Maddie and Ben? It was nine o’clock, a Wednesday night, and the weather was warm for early, northern May—she might be on a dinner date, sitting outside at a metal tabletop in a cardigan with folded-up sleeves. Or in a bar with other hip-haired academics, drinking beer from a frosted glass. No, Joanna told herself, you’re being romantic: likely she’s alone in her apartment, in pajamas, chewing on a toothbrush. Likely, she’s as lonely as anyone.

 

When Ben came home that night he checked on Maddie first thing, as he always did, but tonight Joanna wondered if it meant something more, if maybe he was rethinking his trust in her. She’d never known him when he wasn’t a father, and she wished sometimes that she had. Overall he was good-natured and funny, but as a parent he had a dim humorlessness about him, and when Joanna said, watching him peek into Maddie’s room, “She sneak back in through the window yet?” he only blinked at her, stone-faced.

“How was class?” she tried again, trailing after him as he went to rummage through the fridge.

“Good,” he said, distracted, then: “No leftovers from dinner?”

“No,” said Joanna.

“Is this chicken okay?” Ben asked, waving a Tupperware container at her.

“Your nose is as good as mine,” she said, and watched him assess the contents, shrug, and go to the sink for a fork. She sat down across from him at the table as he dug into the cold food, and resisted the urge to offer to heat it up. Partnership didn’t have to mean micromanagement.

“It’s supposed to rain tomorrow,” he said. “Do you want to take the truck?”

The driver’s door of her car, a tenacious old Mazda, had eaten its own window the morning before, and she hadn’t had a chance to get it fixed. Ben worked close by, but she worked across the bridge in Dinkytown as an administrative assistant in the geography department of the U, surrounded by the same office ladies who’d stamped her paperwork when she was an undergraduate. “Yeah,” she said. “That would be great. You don’t mind?”

He chewed, swallowed, and said, “Of course not.” He never spoke with his mouth full. “So. You think any more on what we talked about?”

“Give me more than half a day, my god. This isn’t a casual decision.”

“I know. I’m sorry. It’s just—I mean, you said it yourself, it wouldn’t really change anything but your legal title.”

“I didn’t say that,” Joanna said, though she couldn’t remember exactly. “What I said was, I needed some time to think. Have you spoken to Caroline about this?”

“Not yet,” Ben said. “And I can’t say I’m planning to.”

“Don’t you think she deserves to know you’re thinking about terminating any parental claim she has to her own daughter?”

“Well,” Ben said, “no. I don’t think she deserves to know anything. Even if she refuses consent, which she won’t, the law will override her—she gave up any formal rights to Maddie a long time ago.”

“Formal rights are different from emotional rights, Ben.”

“She doesn’t have any emotional rights.”

Joanna stood up and stalked out of the kitchen, though she knew it was an immature move. Proof, she thought, flopping onto their bed and hugging a pillow to her chest, that she was too young to be a mother. Except she’d been doing it for four years now, and had even felt at times that she was better at motherhood than she’d been at anything else in her life. Her own mother was affectionate and attentive in a mindless, natural way that was comforting to the point of obliteration. Most of Joanna’s friends had realized by their teens that their parents were not all-powerful, nurturing gods; they were, rather, fallible human beings like themselves—but Joanna had been years behind in reaching this conclusion. She’d nearly had a heart attack when, at twenty-one, she’d discovered her mother smoking a joint in the backyard while she trellised her tomato plants.

“How long has this been going on?” she’d demanded, and her mother had gazed up at her with bloodshot, amused eyes.

“Since I was seventeen,” her mother said. “What, you think you have the monopoly on fun in this house?”

Yes, Joanna had thought that. Which, she’d decided later, after she’d smoked a joint herself and calmed down, was a good thing—a testament to her mother’s seamless love. In Ben’s house there’d never been any doubt as to the allocation of fun: his mother was a delightful, furious drunk, and his father a murky-eyed NASCAR addict. They often called Ben for financial advice, and Joanna knew that as a kid he’d stayed up many nights straining for the sound of their car in the driveway, certain they’d left for the last time and would never come home. This kind of self-parenting childhood stuck with a person, twisted things up inside them, and, Joanna believed, had led Ben to where he ended up at nineteen: on his knees in a grimy kitchen in front of his train-hopping pregnant girlfriend, begging her to keep their baby. “If you can’t handle it,” he’d said, “I swear I’ll take full responsibility.” And he had.

The bedroom door creaked open and Ben poked his head in, lifting a thick, apologetic eyebrow. Joanna patted the bed and he stretched out alongside her, an arm slung instantly across her waist, his lips at her temple. No amount of fighting could diminish the physicality of his affection. He was a hugger-outer.

“I want to ask you a delicate question,” she said.

“Uh-oh,” said Ben.

“Back when you first found out about Maddie, was it the baby you wanted, or Caroline?”

Ben groaned into her hair. “I’m not trying to tie you up to me, Jo. Maddie’s not a piece of rope, and anyway, this isn’t about us. Marriage would be a formality.”

“So you wanted Caroline.”

“I don’t know what I fucking wanted. Yeah, Caroline. And, I don’t know, something to do? A purpose? An outline for the rest of my life?”

“That’s a terrible reason to want a kid.”

“Okay, smart-ass,” Ben said, and pulled her closer, incongruous with his tone. “Name a good reason.”

Joanna waved a hand. “To carry on the royal line.”

“Having a baby is always a selfish decision. I mean, not the actual being a parent part, but the decision itself. Selfish as hell.”

Which, Joanna wondered, was more selfish on the scale of things: to have the child in the first place, or to leave it behind?

“And if we get married and I adopt Maddie?” she said. “Is that selfish?”

“No,” Ben said without hesitation, but Joanna never trusted a quick answer.

 

The next afternoon, on her half-hour lunch break, Joanna went to the top floor of the humanities building and found an empty classroom. She was ten floors up, and the wind-driven rain that lashed against the windows was louder than it had been below, more powerful. She flicked on the classroom light and then, when it poured harsh yellow on the scuffed desks and whiteboard, turned it off again and walked the perimeter of the cool, cloud-dimmed room, phone clutched so tightly that her fingers began to sweat against its plastic skin. She dialed the number. She stared down. Finally, in one fast movement—like stripping off a Band-Aid—she jabbed the Talk button and lifted the phone to her ear, thinking Please don’t answer, please answer, please don’t.

Caroline answered singsong, as if calling out to herself, voice throaty and brusquely girlish: “Caaaaaroline!”

“Caroline?” Joanna said, like a shouldered parrot. “Hi. Hi, this is Joanna, from Minneapolis—Ben Singer’s girlfriend? We met once at a potluck. You probably don’t remember me.”

There was a long silence. “Were you wearing green?”

Joanna blinked. “I have no idea.”

“I think you were. I think you had on a green dress. Is everything okay?”

“Oh, yeah, no, everything’s fine. I was just calling to—well, you sent that letter, with your phone number? So I just—thought I’d call.”

“Uh-huh,” Caroline said slowly, and Joanna grabbed a fistful of her own hair and closed her eyes.

“About Maddie,” she said. “I thought I’d call about Maddie.”

“Is she all right?”

“She’s great,” Joanna said. “She’s really great. The thing is—Ben and I have been together for a while and, you know, I think we’re in it for the long run, and obviously Maddie is a big consideration, and we’ve been talking about adoption lately, or Ben has, and I guess I just wanted to talk to you about it too. Before we make any decisions.”

“Adoption?” Caroline said. “Like, you adopting Maddie? With all due respect, why isn’t Ben calling me about this?”

“He doesn’t want to include you until he has to,” Joanna said. “But I don’t know, that felt . . . unfair, to me. I didn’t tell him I was going to call.”

“Why are you calling?” Her tone was curious, blunt edged. “To ask my permission? Or to politely lay it down for me?”

“I haven’t made up my mind about this,” Joanna said. “About what I’m going to do.”

“So, what,” Caroline said, “you want advice?

“You’re Maddie’s mother,” Joanna said. “I’m trying to respect that.”

“She came from my body,” Caroline started, and Joanna waited for her to continue, to refute any other claim, but she was quiet.

“I love her,” Joanna said. “I want to take care of her. I’ve been taking care of her.”

“I haven’t,” Caroline said. “I haven’t even seen her in five years, Joanna. She’s already more yours than mine, at this point.”

“She doesn’t belong to either of us,” Joanna said. “At least, not until I sign these papers. Then she will be mine.”

“What am I supposed to say?” There was a catch in her voice like a snag in cloth. “I’m not going to try and stop you.”

“But you sent that letter,” Joanna said. “Out of nowhere. You must want something.”

“I don’t know,” Caroline said. Then, quietly, “I have dreams about her. About a little girl. Really bad dreams—that I’m trying to drag her out of a lake, or that someone’s pulling out all her teeth. My friend, she’s a therapist, she says the little girl is me, a manifestation of my unconscious, but I never told her about Maddie—I don’t tell a lot of people, for obvious reasons. They’d think I’m the worst kind of woman.”

This was probably true, so Joanna said nothing, just waited, listening to Caroline breathe down the line.

“After she was born I was in a constant state of panic,” Caroline said after a moment. “I kept thinking I would accidentally put her down somewhere and forget about her and lose her and I’d have to kill myself. Every morning when I woke up and remembered I was a mom I wished to god I could go back in time and get an abortion.”

“Jesus,” Joanna said, stupidly.

“I’m just being honest here,” Caroline said. “Leaving was the best, most relieving thing I’ve ever done.” She paused, and Joanna heard the click of her throat as she swallowed. “Except lately,” she said, “I’ve been having that same kind of panic. I keep thinking, Shit, where’d I put the baby? Or I think I’ve left the burner on, or my bike unlocked, or parked my car in a no-parking zone, and it’s all the same awful feeling, the ‘Where’d I put the baby?’ feeling, only there is no baby.” She drew in a ragged breath, let it out. “It’s hard to think of yourself as a good person when you know you did something so awful.”

“Maddie turned out fine, though,” Joanna said. “She’s happy, she’s healthy.”

“That should make me feel better,” Caroline said, “but really, it almost makes me feel worse.”

Joanna pressed the cell phone to her ear and perched on a desk, drew her knees to her chin. The rain kept up its reassuring scourge against the building, and she felt safe and calm and so tender toward Caroline, toward her naked little voice, her erratic breath, the hitch at the end of her words.

“I don’t want to take anything away from you,” Joanna said, mostly believing it. “I’m just trying to be fair. To figure out if you want to be a part of Maddie’s life.”

“I guess I do,” Caroline said. “Honestly, I wouldn’t have expected it to hurt so much, to think she could belong to someone else. But it does hurt.”

“That’s all I wanted to know,” Joanna said. “That’s why I called.”

“Does this change anything?” Caroline said. “For you, I mean?”

“I have to think,” she said. And only when she’d hung up moments later did she realize that Caroline hadn’t asked a single question about Maddie—about how she was doing in school, what she did for fun, if she liked drawing or Legos or playing outside, or if Maddie was growing up to look like her. Joanna would have asked. She was sure of it.

 

They went out to dinner that night, to a Chinese restaurant Maddie loved, and Ben cracked all their cookies and read the fortunes out loud. “A musical opportunity is in your future,” he said, and flicked the strip of paper across the booth at Maddie. “Maybe it’s time for you to start piano lessons or something, huh?”

“Gross,” Maddie said. “I want to play the tuba.”

The kids Joanna had known who’d played the tuba were all, without exception, fat and quiet, glasses sliding down their noses, greasy hair pressed flat by their mothers’ worried hands. “What about the drums?” she said. “Or the saxophone?”

“Or the xylophone,” Maddie said. “I would wanna play the xylophone.”

Joanna exchanged an amused glance with Ben and trapped one of Maddie’s feet between her own under the table, wiggled it back and forth. “Whatever you want,” she said. She looked at those dirty-blonde curls, the widely set cornflower eyes, this girl who was so much lighter toned and smaller framed than Joanna herself, and she felt an unforgivable wave of relief that Maddie was so lovely. What would it be like to have a dark-eyed girl, chubby the way Joanna had been through elementary school, hovering mothlike on the fringes of popularity but never quite close enough to feel secure? She knew women who took their daughters’ appearances personally, as if every frizzy hair or extra pound was a deliberate knife to the eye. But if the kid wasn’t genetically yours, if you didn’t see all your own flaws playing out on her skin, was it different?

“Mads,” she said. “I want to ask you something.”

“Shoot,” said Maddie. It freaked Joanna out sometimes, how many of her phrases seemed to have been picked up from television.

“Do you ever think about your mother?” she said.

Across from her, Ben stiffened, tension in every line. Maddie looked up at him, uncertain, and he said, “That’s a funny question, huh, kiddo?” His voice was tight. “Joanna—”

“Hang on,” she said. “I’m asking Maddie, not you.”

“Really?” he said. “Because it feels directed at me.”

“Not everything is about you,” she said, trying to keep her tone pleasant.

“No,” he said, and put a heavy hand on his daughter’s head. She had gone silent, big eyed. “It’s about Maddie.”

“Right,” Joanna said. “Of course. It’s not about me at all.”

“For the love of—”

“What I’m trying to say, Maddie,” she said loudly, speaking over him, “is that I’d like to adopt you.”

Ben opened his mouth, then closed it. He blinked.

“I want to be your mom,” Joanna said, and felt tears begin to clog her throat. Maddie was looking at her now, not at Ben. “Do you understand what I’m saying? I want to adopt you, so legally you would be mine.”

“Ours,” said Ben.

Maddie put her fist on the table, gently. “But I’m my own,” she said.

Ben laughed, momentarily startled out of his chagrin, and Maddie whipped her head around to glare at him. “I am,” she said. “I am my own.”

“Well,” Joanna said. “We all are.” She wanted to say more, but couldn’t think what.

Ben stepped in. “The only thing that would really change is names: I’m already Dad, and now Jo would be Mom. Does that make sense?”

“You can’t just change your name,” Maddie said, but she stared down at her plate of lo mein in an attempt to hide the beginnings of a shy, delighted smile. And who had taught her this, to hide her pleasure lest someone see it, and ruin it? It was the kind of gesture you learned from watching your parents.

Ben saw it too, that smile, and he lit up with his own. He reached for Joanna’s hand across the table and squeezed it very hard—part affection, and part displeasure for the way she’d handled the conversation. “We can talk more about this later,” he said. “But what do you think, Mads? Is that something you’d like?”

“Okay,” said Maddie, and looked at Joanna with a deep, suspicious happiness. Then she pushed the last unopened cookie toward her father. “Do this one now,” she said.

“Jo,” he said. “Listen to your fortune.”

But Joanna barely heard him. She was thinking of Caroline, of the quiver in her voice, the way her lips must have trembled while she spoke. It cost a lot to admit regret: you paid for it with every golden image of yourself you’d ever formed, you melted them down till they were unrecognizable. When they had cooled, you were a new and better creature, your impurities burnished, your core solid. Maybe, Joanna thought, it was worth it in the end.

Image

On the day our daughter arrives, we have gone a few blocks from home to check out a Lambretta motor scooter that someone has for sale. Annie climbs on the seat and straddles my back while I take it for a test run around the neighborhood. It is a beautiful, clear evening, still very light and warm but with the first pink edges of a lazy sunset just starting in the west, and there is a fragrance of clover in the air and the distant hint of charbroiled burgers from someone’s backyard grill.

Annie’s hair whips around in the breeze, and if anyone notices us at all, across the well-tended yards and gardens and the vacant lots like generous meadows, they see a red-bearded young man with muscular arms carefully guiding a motor scooter up and down the quiet village streets of Yellow Springs, Ohio, and a beautiful young woman who resembles Queen Brunhilde or an angel, with windswept blonde hair three feet long, clinging to him; and if they look a little closer or a little longer, they will notice too that the angel is very pregnant.

I remember slowing down, cruising to a stop at one corner, catching the weight of us on one foot, and Annie saying, “Hold on a minute.” She climbs off and duckwalks a few steps and touches her skirt.

“Are you all right?” I say.

“I think my water just broke.”

“Does it feel all right?”

“Just wet is all.”

“Well, good for you,” I say. “Get on, and I’ll take you back home.” I kiss her on the mouth, and she straddles me again, and we putt-putt off down the street even more carefully than before.

I hate my job. My cubicle in the PR office at American Cash Register is situated so that I am always visible through the large clear-glass partition of my boss’s office. In fact, he has his desk placed in front of that glass partition so that whenever he glances up from whatever he is doing, the first thing his eyes alight on is me. The effect is that I have the uncomfortable feeling that I am being watched constantly by my boss, Mr. Rector.

I’m not by nature an especially private person, but to be watched so continually by such a dour, intense, and rigidly judgmental man as Mr. Rector, with his large, wide-set gray eyes and his shaggy brows and his tightly clenched jaws, has a crippling effect.

As assistant to the director of PR, what I do most of the day is copyediting, proofreading, and writing bios, obits, and news releases. The bios are usually about promotions of very ordinary people, or new staff members, who sound like very ordinary people. These are all bureaucrats—we don’t deal with the tech end, which is probably more interesting. The obits summarize the salient details of unexciting lives, and the news releases make a big deal about next to nothing. It’s difficult to write such tripe without succumbing to moodiness.

This is the first desk job I’ve ever had, and if it’s what a sitting-down sort of job is like, I may not be cut out for it. I can’t find the meaning in it. I have a hard time being low dog on the totem pole and a hard time concealing that I think certain persons over me are morons. But I’m a married man and a new father, and I have to be a breadwinner.

The only other job offer I received was from a group of back-to-the-landers called Green Freedom. Green Freedom advocates living self-sufficiently on small plots out in the wilderness. They have an old mill on several hundred acres in rural Maryland and want someone to lead their PR efforts and to live at the mill, which they hope to make a centerpiece for a cluster of homesteads.

I was actually attracted to this idea, to the promise of a more physical life surrounded by nature, where I could be closer to Annie and Skeeb all day, and I had taken a bus trip down to Maryland to check out the place and had gotten the offer, but the money was ridiculous and the mill was awfully shabby. I didn’t give them an answer except to say we couldn’t do it for $50 a month, and Agnes Grantham, the leader of the group, said she’d launch an appeal to the board to raise the offer.

I imagine the hidden valley, the old mill, and the meandering stream in the springtime, with the leaves coming out and birds singing and the sun lighting up the fields.

But here I am at American Cash Register, and I’ve decided to do something about my miserable excuse for a typewriter. During my first week on the job, I’d mentioned it to Mr. Rector, but he only mumbled something about the typewriter budget having already been committed for the year, and that I would just have to get along as best I could.

Rector in his chair, poised like a bird of prey above his newspaper. I put my head around the corner and ask if I can have a word with him. He motions me in and makes me wait while he finishes a paragraph of the New York Times. Finally he looks up. “What is it, McGee?”

“I’m having so much trouble with this typewriter,” I say. “I wonder if there isn’t something that could be done? The spacing mechanism is completely out of whack, so each time I press a key or the space bar, the machine advances two or three spaces. Also, the return no longer works, so I have to advance it manually by turning the roller with my fingers at each line.”

“With your fingers!” Rector says. “My, that is a terrible imposition! What do you use the rest of the time—your kneecaps?” He snorts at this.

I don’t share his mirth but plunge ahead. “I understand that the budget is committed. I’m not asking for a new typewriter, but isn’t there some procedure that would allow us to have this one repaired? This is affecting my work.”

“It’s affecting your work, is it? Well, think about this, McGee—if we sent it off to be repaired, what would you use in the meantime?”

“I’d be willing to get along without a typewriter for a few days, sir, if it meant getting this one fixed.”

“I’ll bet you would, but how would you finish your work? Would you expect my secretary—in addition to all the work she does at present—to type up your copy as well?”

“No. Of course not.”

“Then who would?”

“Well, we might do the repair during a slight lull in the workload,” I say, “or at a time when we didn’t need finished copy for a few days.”

“A slight lull! Have you ever seen a slight lull in the workload since you have been in this office, McGee?”

“No.”

“When do you imagine this slight lull might occur, McGee? Sometime around Christmas, perhaps?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Rector. I only know this typewriter is driving me crazy, sir, and I thought I should let you know that. Of course, if it can’t be fixed, then I’ll try to limp along as best I can, just as I have been.”

“You’re a real martyr, aren’t you, McGee?”

“No, I’m not. At least I’d rather not be,” I say with a smile. He doesn’t smile back.

“Let me tell you something, McGee. That typewriter was my typewriter for twelve years.” He pauses to let this information sink in. “I bet you didn’t know that, did you?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“That typewriter always had a few quirks, but I learned to manage it. I learned to adjust to its quirks. It’s a perfectly good typewriter, McGee. It was good enough for me for twelve years, but it isn’t good enough for you. Isn’t that what you’re saying?”

“Perhaps it was newer in those days, or in better repair at the time,” I say.

“You’re saying that you’re too good to use my typewriter, a typewriter I found perfectly serviceable for over a decade. A person of your stature, who has worked here for barely six months, should have a brand-new typewriter.”

“No, I’m not saying that.”

“A person of your stature should perhaps have a nicer office space as well. How would you like to have my office, McGee? Or perhaps you would like the president’s office! Wouldn’t that be more to your liking? Some mahogany paneling and your own private bathroom. I’m having lunch with him today. If you like, I could ask him for you. He might be willing to trade offices with someone of your eminence. Then again, he might not.”

I can feel my ears heating up—I am sure they must be reddening. “No, I’d rather you wouldn’t,” I say.

“Why not?” he says. “You don’t want a better office?”

“My office is quite all right. It’s my typewriter that has its problems.” I hesitate. “But I’m sure I can make do if there’s no other solution,” I say.

“McGee, get the hell out of here.”

On Saturday morning, I’m in downtown Yellow Springs on an errand for Annie, and a dark-haired man approaches me on the street. “Hello there,” he says. “You look like the kind of guy who might be willing to play the Good Samaritan and offer assistance to a struggling vagabond such as myself.” I keep on walking, giving him a sideward look. He’s a thin blade of a man with plastic black-rimmed glasses and a squarish head, oddly flat on top, and he looks like an intellectual. He is wearing a bow tie, and he has a weird little close-cropped mustache and deep indentations or furrows in his cheeks that give his face the look of a studious hound dog. “Wait just a minute,” he says. “Please—I really am in a pinch!” I stop and confront him head-on.

“You certainly look strong enough,” he says. “I’m sorry to impose on you like this—I really am—but I’m just new in town, you see, and I have this bookcase that’s too big to carry alone. I’ll pay you fifty dollars for five minutes of your time.”

I’m in no special hurry, so I listen to his sob story and then go along to help. He is moving into a cramped one-room apartment over Deaton’s Hardware on Main Street, and he has gotten his large bookshelf wedged into the stairwell, and then he has a procession of large boxes he is trying to move across the parking lot of the Super-Duper, from a ratty red Plymouth. He’s quite a bit older than I am; he’s maybe thirty-five or forty and a little hysterical with his problem, and he showers me with flattery every step of the way. So I end up spending about half an hour, until the job is done, after which I refuse to accept his money. I doubt that he even has fifty dollars.

We shake hands, and I say, “Are you here to teach at the college?” and he says, “No, as a matter of fact, I just got out of prison!”

“Oh, you mean you just got a divorce?”

“No, I just got out of prison.

“Right—but what’s the occasion?”

He twists his mouth into a self-deprecating little smile and claps his hands together. “No—I really just got out of prison.”

“Oh, you mean prison prison?”

“Yeah, prison prison.” He stares at me with a steady, significant gaze, almost a glare. I don’t know what to say next. I’ve never met anyone who’s been to prison.

“How long were you in for?”

“Seven years for the doctorate!” he says.

When I get home with my baby oil, talcum powder, and lettuce, I tell Annie: “You’ll never believe this character I just met downtown. He was something else. He looked like a cross between Hitler and Mr. Peepers, and he just got out of prison!”

“An ex-convict?” she says. “Does he know where we live?”

“He’s completely harmless, believe me.”

“Luke,” she says, “sometimes you’re too friendly for your own good,” and she pulls out her left breast and sticks it in the baby’s mouth.

Later that week the ex-convict, Wain Bagley, calls and invites me to stop by his room for a chat after work. He has some important questions he wants to ask, and he wants me to see his place now that he’s fixed it up. His small bed is off to one side, and the rest of the space is devoted to his desk and writing area. His bookshelves are crammed with books, photos, a small animal skull, a stuffed goat’s head, and candlesticks. The walls are covered with prints and posters.

“I’m getting in with the kids at the college paper,” Wain says, his hound-dog face animated with excitement. “Their adviser, Professor Wilson, actually invited me to his house! Look at this article here. You didn’t know I was so famous, did you?” He hands me a typed page and motions me to have a seat. The article is titled “Above All a Novelist.”

What makes a writer? According to Wain Bagley, writing is a passion and a compulsion. “Why should I stay alive if I don’t write?” he says. Bagley has been working on his novel, The Raving of Thine Enemies, for four years and expects to take another year to finish. He has written six unpublished novels and has had one short story published.

The Raving of Thine Enemies is an epic about five bank robbers. The first part describes the men and tells how they became thieves. The second section takes place in prison, where the five men choose a Judas to blame for their incarceration. In the third part, one of the robbers becomes Saint Sabato and gives his life for the Judas.

In his writing, Bagley tries to explore two Nietzschean thoughts: “All truths are for me bloody truths” and “How much truth can a spirit endure?”

Bagley lives in a tiny cluttered room containing hundreds of books. One expects the whole pile to come crashing down at one’s feet. Often Bagley’s light may be seen burning at his window until well after three in the morning. He may live modestly but hopes for better things in his future. “After I publish this book, I want to retire in exile to a Mediterranean island and write there for the rest of my life.”

“I didn’t realize you were a writer,” I say. “So am I.”

“Seriously? What have you written?”

“Just a few articles so far. I want to do something in the manner of Tom Wolfe. Do you know his work?”

“You mean Look Homeward, Angel?

“No, this is a different Tom Wolfe. He’s a journalist, primarily, but a different sort of journalist.”

“Oh, I see. So you want to be a journalist?”

“A different sort of journalist, yes, except that right now, working at American Cash Register, I don’t have any time to write.”

“Uh-huh!”

“This is a nice piece on you here. I’d like to read your work sometime.”

“Likewise, Mr. McGee. I mean, Luke. But aside from this aspiration of yours to be a journalist, you’re a printing expert, am I right? You order paper and you know the printers in the area, and you place orders and that sort of thing?”

“Well, that’s one thing I do, yeah. I write PR copy, and then I help design a format for it, and then I send it off with instructions to various printers, and then they send it back and I have to proof it and so on, and then I end up with a finished brochure or whatever.”

“That’s exactly what I thought! That’s perfect.”

“Perfect for what?”

“It complements what I would bring to the plan, you see.”

“Which is what?”

“Knowledge of the market niche. You would be the production element and I would be the marketing element. You create the product and I distribute it.”

“But what is the product?”

“Aha. That, my friend, is the million-dollar secret. If I give that away, what do I have left? You might decide to execute the plan without me.”

“Of course I wouldn’t. Besides, you said yourself that you have the marketing knowledge that is necessary to the plan.”

“True enough. Nevertheless, I feel I must wait until the moment is right. This is a big step for me, a very big step. To be perfectly honest with you, it has personal consequences that go far beyond the details of the business arrangement alone.”

“I see. Well, let me know when you’re ready to be more specific, Wain. I’m so busy now I don’t know if I’ll be able to get involved in anything that may be time-consuming.”

I want to help him rehabilitate himself, but I can’t imagine getting involved in a business deal with him. But before I can say anything, Wain is off on his thing. “I suffer from a great ambivalence,” he says. “I’m afraid it’s the most basic operating principle in my life, the most fundamental obsession.”

“And what would that be . . . exactly, Wain?”

“I would like to be, like the great Nietzsche, ‘beyond good and evil,’ and sometimes I feel that I am. Then I feel that I am capable of extreme altruism or the most abject atrocity you could name but, at the same time, above praise or retribution, that I am invulnerable. I could work out any of a number of schemes and make them succeed blissfully. I could be filthy rich!—oh, I shouldn’t be telling you this—but then suddenly, like a dark cloud, I remember those years in prison, and I think: ‘No, I would only fail miserably again. No risk is worth that punishment. None. I must resist temptation at whatever cost. Never again crime. Never again sorrow. Poverty, let me embrace you. In poverty there is freedom. Now you know the worst.”

“So you have, in fact, sworn off crime. You’ve identified some of the impulses that got you into trouble before, and you are working to resist them.”

“You could say that.”

“But sometimes the temptations seem very tantalizing?”

“And sometimes resisting them seems foolish. These are not ordinary times we are living in. To be fully alive, one must constantly adjust to the changing of the times and seize the day. One must not be bogged down by conventional ideas of morality because too often they are lies designed for enslaving the masses, impediments to higher action. The enlightened man must be beyond good and evil—or else he is doomed to being merely ordinary, and a historical afterthought.”

I put the Beatles’ album on the turntable and crank it up and snatch Skeeb up in my arms and hold her little hand out in a swaggering, debonair fashion and dance around the room. She loves it. There’s a magnetic smile on her face and her eyes light up. “If I fell—in love—with you.” No “if ” about it, I think. I’m a total goner. The top of Skeeb’s head smells sweet and talcumy.

Annie opens the refrigerator and stares into the white light. “If Wain’s going to stay, sweetie-babe, you’ll have to go to the store. We’re out of just about everything.”

“Okay, are you up for that, Wain?”

“Why not?” he says. “It’s true—my social calendar is over- flowing. But tonight I’ll make a place for my favorite couple, the McGees!”

As soon as I lay Skeeb down in her playpen, her face wrinkles up. “Uh-oh,” I say. “Skeeb says: ‘A little girl gets hungry too. Come on, you guys, stick one of those delicious pink things in my mouth!’ ”

Annie smirks, then picks Skeeb up and holds her in her lap on the couch and unfastens her blouse and raises Skeeb to her breast. Skeeb twists her mouth like a fish, trying to locate the nipple, then makes tiny kissing noises as she catches hold, curling her little fist around the edge of Annie’s collar and sinking into the pure rapture of the suck.

I say: “ ‘That’s more like it,’ Skeeb says.” Annie gazes into Skeeb’s eager little face and smiles as I give her a quick kiss. Wain and I get our coats and hike down to the orange VW bus and head on out into the evening toward the lights of town. Inside the Super-Duper, I seize a cart and start pushing it, and Wain follows along at my heels like a visiting relative or a dignified elderly observer. We visit the cereal aisle and the dairy case, then hover together over the meat displays, taking in the sea of bright, cellophane-wrapped slabs with the sky-high prices stamped neatly on each package in purple ink like premium cow’s blood. I handle several of the slick, cool steaks, as if I am weighing them—the porterhouses and sirloins large enough for the three of us—but finally, reluctantly, I put them each back in place and throw a package of hamburger into the cart. The steaks are simply too expensive. As if hypnotized by this transaction and my decision, Wain lingers over the steak display while I wheel onward, down past soup and soap, where my nose tickles uncomfortably close to a sneeze near the laundry detergents.

“Look at this,” I say to Wain when he has caught up. “Every goddamned jar of peanuts on this shelf contains monosodium glutamate as a flavor enhancer. This stuff ’s been shown to cause brain damage in laboratory animals!”

“If you have only one brain to give,” Wain says, “give it all to Super-Duper!

“This really pisses me off,” I say. “How could they be so stupid or so venal—to keep putting this brain-rotting crap in perfectly good food! I wouldn’t touch these lousy peanuts with a ten-foot pole!”

“Super-Duper will be sorry. They will be very sorry,” Wain says, “when the people find out.”

“I know better,” I say. “But what about the poor working-class people who don’t bother to read the labels—day in and day out, turning their brains into pudding!”

“What can a concerned citizen do about corporate crime—that’s the question,” Wain says, “—short of all-out guerrilla warfare?”

“You tell me.”

“I will,” Wain says. “I will.”

Fuming, I roll the cart to the checkout counter, where I unload and pay. The groceries fit tidily into one standard grocery sack, and the two of us walk out and across the parking lot.

As I unlock the VW, Wain says, “Wait a minute. I forgot something.” I watch him rushing back toward the bright cavern of glassy light, then I tuck the grocery bag into the backseat and get in to wait for him. I let my eyes unfocus on the light-streaked windshield, the distant brick-and-glass bulk of the Super-Duper, the mushroom of pinkish light above the village.

Suddenly Wain comes skipping toward me, his black raincoat flapping wildly behind. He bounces the door open, and in one long sweeping gesture, he dramatically fishes a huge square of steak from inside his coat and slaps it down on the seat between us. “One porterhouse,” he says. Then taking another steak out from under his coat and laying it down on top of the first, he says, “And one sirloin.” Then taking yet another one out and placing it on top of the first two, he says, “And not to forget the lovely T-bone!”

“My God!” I say. “Where did you get those?”

“My contribution to the McGee feast,” Wain says radiantly. “The people aren’t entirely brain-dead yet. Sometimes the people strike back!”

After dinner, Annie joins us in the living room for the last of the coffee.

“What were you in prison for?” Annie asks Wain. “Seven years is a long time. It must have been pretty serious stuff.”

“What? Oh.” Wain holds the back of his hand against his mouth and appears to be lost in thought.

“I mean—if you don’t mind talking about it,” Annie says. “I understand if you’d rather not.”

“No, no, not at all. It’s an entirely fair question. And I want to be totally honest with you about that. You’re my best friends—you deserve to know the worst there is to know about me. Seven loonnnggg years. Can you imagine it? In the flower of my youth. With all my natural gifts wasting away.”

“It must have been terrible,” I say.

“Try to imagine the Wain you know—this Wain—in prison alongside hardened murderers and junkies and rapists and psychopaths of every stripe. Ugly and dangerous men! Violent criminals who would think nothing of slitting your throat or selling you down the river for a cigarette butt. Who would think nothing of beating and gang-raping a slender and innocent young boy such as myself in those days—just for recreation. My God! How did I ever survive? Maybe I didn’t. Maybe I died back there. Now there’s a thought!

“But you did survive, and here you are,” Annie says. “You’re out now and starting on a new life.”

“I’m out, but, oh, prison gets into a man’s soul! It’s on my face and hands! Can you see it? Prison! It’s everywhere on me, and I can even smell it! Sometimes when I’m walking down the street in bucolic Yellow Springs, encountering my fellow citizens face-to-face, as it were, I ask myself, ‘Do they know? Can they tell by looking at me?’ ”

“Of course they can’t,” I say. “You look quite respectable. You look like a pillar of the community.”

“That’s a good one. You think so? All I need is a bit of human recognition, a bit of hope—that’s all I ask, something to look forward to. Possibly there’s still time to turn this twisted life around and find solace and even love! Even love! Possibly I will put crime behind me for good, and it will turn into a faded memory. Do you think such a change is possible for someone so corrupted by a miserable past?”

“Why not?” I say.

“Why not indeed . . . I’m afraid I was a bitter disappointment to my father, of course. He never actually recovered from the consequences of my bad behavior. I was an excruciating embarrassment to him. In a manner of speaking, he was a man who died of embarrassment. He just dropped dead one day—before I got out of prison.”

“What about your mother?” Annie says.

“My poor mother has turned into a sweet old lady with a bun and an eye patch. She drinks Black Velvet straight from the bottle and never goes out except to the liquor store. I haven’t done much to improve her disposition, either, but we get along well enough, even famously on occasion, though her miserable lifestyle with ten cats depresses me enormously.”

“She still lives in Dayton?” I say.

He nods. “I drop by every so often to cheer her up, and we reminisce about the old times when my father was still alive and didn’t know his only son and heir was a convicted felon . . . Oh, but I’m evading the issue, aren’t I? As usual, I have the most difficult time coming to the point. I come to it eventually, but first I move to the left or to the right. I try to outflank it. You want to know why I was in prison.

“Well, only if you feel comfortable talking about it, Wain. If you don’t, then we can leave it for another time,” I say.

“Let me say, first of all, that I made various stupid mistakes. I had a brilliant plan, but the mistakes came about in the execution. They were not moral mistakes; they were just plain ignorant mistakes. I underestimated the resolution of those who own the money and who therefore run the world, their determination to hold on to their power, prestige, and money, and all the sumptuous fringe benefits that accompany it . . .

“For a while, for a brief moment, I did succeed! I walked out of a bank one day in Springfield, Ohio, into the bright sunlight of a July morning, and I was a multimillionaire! This boy right here—Wain Bagley from Dayton, Ohio, a self-educated high school dropout with a checkered past and no legitimate history of accomplishment. I was carrying two enormous briefcases full of bills, suitcases really, enough money to last me the rest of my life. Oh, I remember that day so well—what a feeling! What a supreme moment, the pinnacle of my life up to that time. Let me tell you, obscene wealth is a wondrous thing. What it does for your self-esteem can only be imagined by those who have not experienced that feeling firsthand. Sometimes, in my weaker moments, I think that feeling was worth all seven years in prison. Sometimes, I think I could kill for that feeling! But of course I couldn’t. Oh, no, I would draw the line at that. For I have met the real killers, and I am not one of them.”

“How long did it last?” I say. “How long did you keep the money?”

“Long enough to experience the feeling of it, the sheer elation, long enough to know I could not rest until I experienced it again—no, I exaggerate. Sometimes I get carried away with my own dramatizations. To be perfectly honest with you, I’ve abandoned the idea of extreme wealth. That was what prison was all about—I needed to be rehabilitated. I needed to learn to be more realistic in my expectations and in my thinking processes. They thought they could brainwash me, but they were wrong! No—there I go again, playing the fool. Tweet-tweet!

“How did you arrive at that day?” I say. “How did you end up with the money in the suitcases?”

“I’ve done it again, haven’t I? Evading the central issue as usual—beating around every bush in sight but the one most in need of a thrashing. I really can’t help myself—it’s my nature to be somewhat digressive. You’ll find that out. For some reason, I am always attracted to the larger picture, to the more elaborate conception of a thing. Like Conrad, I tend to avoid walking straight up to a fact. It’s practically an epistemological principle with me, if you follow my meaning. The hard truth of the matter is that I embezzled. I embezzled for quite a while and then, somewhat later, after the thrill of that wore off, I moved to passing checks, which is much more exciting. I was a paperhanger, as they say; but quite a serious one. I was adept at persuading people to cash my silly little pieces of paper—that was always my chief talent. It seemed a harmless enough game, really, a child’s game. I did not intend any harm, you see. Then, once I had started, it was so easy and so very lucrative, and then I became complacent. I’m afraid I didn’t take it seriously enough, not nearly as seriously as the FBI. They were terribly upset with me, of course, especially since I eluded them as long as I did. But eventually I paid the price for my innocence—oh, did I pay! They exact a vicious penalty upon those who don’t play by their rules. That’s what I found out the hard way.”

After Wain leaves, Annie says, “He’s not as bad as I thought. I think he’s quite bright, actually—and sensitive. All that excessive courtesy and his pretense of madness are just a cover.”

“For what?”

“To find out if you agree with him or not, and because he likes to dramatize everything. He’s very shrewd, really.”

“I just find him enormously likable,” I say. “I don’t know why.”

“You just like him because he agrees with everything you say.”

“That’s not true. I just really genuinely like him.”

“Well, watch out,” Annie says. “I don’t think he can be trusted.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Just an instinct, sweetie.”

“Well, sure, he’s somewhat manipulative . . . and guarded. But you’d have to expect that, wouldn’t you, after what he’s been through? Just for survival, I mean. I don’t hold that against him.”

“It’s hard to figure out what he really wants from us, though,” she says.

“Maybe nothing more than friendship,” I say, “and companionship. I don’t think he’s ever met anybody quite like us before. Maybe, at some level, he wants to see what makes us tick.”

“We’ve never met anyone like him before, either—not even faintly like him. I think he has complicated motives.”

“He may not know why himself,” I say. “He’s just trying to sort it all out, I think, and find himself a life; and, with us, he’s found two people willing to listen and to take him seriously.”

Soon, Wain becomes a regular at our apartment, often showing up at odd hours, most often around dinnertime, unannounced, with some tasty dessert, a bottle of wine, or a handful of T-bones, which he stuffs in the refrigerator over our polite protests. He’s always full of eccentric opinions and advice, and he characterizes himself so emphatically as our friend that we begin to accept it. We look forward to his visits. He’s older than we are and more experienced, and the idea that this full-fledged, freewheeling adult craves our friendship is flattering. And I’m full of empathy, and curious about him. When he talks about crime, it’s hard to believe he hasn’t simply made up being in prison in order to seem more romantic and entertaining.

As I am walking home from work, Wain zooms up on his bicycle, dodging small clots of half-melted snow along the curbs. He seems agitated. “We need to talk,” he says.

“What’s the matter?” My first thought is that the police have somehow gotten wind of the check scheme he’s been trying to talk me into, or that he’s in trouble for shoplifting.

He climbs off the bike and walks beside me. “You—I have a great deal of . . . respect and . . . honor, I might say, for you, Luke. Let me tell you that, huh-huh. Surely you know that—don’t you?” He’s so out of breath from the pedaling that he barely gets the words out, so I stop. “You look so kind standing there, huh-huh. But there’s no hope for me—I’m absolutely mad. I’m a madman, huh-huh. I mean every word of it. I have great hope for you—as a writer and as a man.”

“What is it, Wain, for God’s sake? You aren’t thinking of anything drastic, are you?”

“Drastic?” He lets his head waggle and his eyes roll up toward the trees and the ivy-covered wall of a nearby building. “No, I’ve been through all that. I’m going to remain living, if that’s what you mean. I tried suicide once, you know, a long time ago, and failed. It was a failure of nerve, pure and simple. At the very worst, I’ll simply retire into my cloister, pace the floor, wring my hands, and foam at the mouth . . .”

“About what, exactly?”

Here’s the point . . . No, I wouldn’t say it that way, but here’s the point . . .” He whispers, “There is no point! No . . .”

“Is this a philosophical discussion we’re having, or are you about to tell me something?”

“I think I should be completely open with you about this, Luke. Annie is confiding in me too much—I think she is making these overtures because she is worried about the future or simply because she is a neurotic woman—a female. Surely you can imagine how uncomfortable such a thing makes me. I don’t know how to respond to these mysterious feminine needs because I am purely and simply gay and always have been, as you know. It’s just a fact I have to live with.”

“Maybe you’re confused about what she means.”

“I’m sure I am. How is any male to know? I am first and foremost your friend, and of course I would like to be her friend too. But I don’t know if I can be friends with both of you when she wants to confide in me things about you that I have no business knowing about.”

“Like what?”

“Like how she’s afraid her sex life with you may be crippled because things are so different since the baby was born. Your penis is so big! I mean—really! Who needs to know that? This news is too much with us, late and soon!”

“Well, it must be traumatic to be cut open the way she was. Have you considered that? I think she’s having some sort of postpartum depression, Wain. She’s still adjusting—that’s all. Did she act like she thought this was a permanent condition?”

“It sure did sound that way to me. But who can know the human heart? Tweet-tweet!

“What else did she say?”

“Well, see, now I feel like a tattletale. I’m just totally caught in the middle, and it’s very uncomfortable. How can I be your friend and her friend too?”

“Don’t worry—I’ll have a talk with her when I get home and we’ll straighten it all out. What else?”

“That wall there, that ivy-covered wall there reminds me of the philosopher’s walk . . . in Heidelberg . . . where the great German philosophers discussed the burning issues of the day, huh-huh. There was also something about her fantasies about other men and something about your father’s promiscuity after your mother died.”

“How in the hell did that come up?”

“God only knows. Believe me—I couldn’t care less. This is not a role that I want to play—it’s ludicrous. She said something about wanting to see me every day so we could talk about her problems. But I refused. Can you believe it! There are people who get paid fifty bucks an hour for that kind of work, mister, and they’re called shrinks. And I am not going to allow myself to become some harried housewife’s secret psychiatrist!”

“I’ll have a talk with her about it and get it straightened out. Don’t jump to any conclusions. You might have misunderstood. I’ll try to find out what is going on with her, okay?”

“Sure,” Wain says. “Good.” Wain places his big hand on my forearm and a rapturous look comes into his eye. “Luke, I have such a lot of respect and admiration for you—and for your manhood and your friendship. If I was going to get myself tangled up in some hideous triangle with a married couple, you would be the one that I would want to make love to, if I could do it without losing your friendship. But I don’t know if that would be possible, and I certainly don’t want to even think about such a possibility.” He squeezes my arm. “I wouldn’t want to take a chance of jeopardizing our friendship—which means more to me than simple lust—any day of the week.”

“Wain, I just don’t think of you that way, and I never will.” I back up a step—to escape his grasp—and pat him awkwardly on the back. “You know that. That could never be a possibility.”

Wain smiles winsomely, almost ecstatically. “I know you have a limited imagination in that regard—I’m willing to live with that. What choice do I have?” He chuckles. “One has to learn to accept the ridiculous limitations of one’s friends. Whew!—this is getting too philosophical for me. What do you say we put an end to this rambling, useless discussion . . . Just let me say, in conclusion, just let me say this—and I never want you to forget it: It has been a privilege walking with you through the ivy-covered walls of Heidelberg.” He makes a deep bow and pretends to flourish an imaginary hat, then he turns his bike, swings his leg over the seat, and pedals off down the block at top speed, glancing back to wave—a huge, enthusiastic wave full of cheerfulness and friendship.

When I open our door, Skeeb is crying her eyes out and Annie is bustling about in the kitchen, ignoring her.

“What’s wrong with Skeeb?” I say.

“See if you can get her to shut up,” Annie says. “She’s been driving me crazy all day.”

I go over to the playpen and discover she needs a change. I say, “Skeeb says: ‘This diaper is soaking wet, you guys. Get me some dry clothes this instant!’ Poor Skeeby-doo.

ירוק בטבע

ירוק בטבע

השגת תובנה חדשה על הטבע היפה …