April 8 2019
The hour of our birth had been carefully forecast, a winter’s day Cesarean timed to coincide with Dr. Feng’s lunch break. The doctor pulled me out first, indignant and squalling, like a hotel guest roused and tossed before checkout. Lulu came next, and was so perfectly quiet that at first they thought she wasn’t breathing at all. Then they thwacked her on the back and her cries joined mine and they laid us side by side, boy and girl, two underwater creatures suddenly forced to fill our lungs with cold dry air.
Dr. Feng had operated on our mother as a favor to our uncle, his old classmate. Otherwise we would have been born in the hospital down the street, where a woman had bled to death after a botched Cesarean the previous year. The family had been in the waiting room for hours, and at last the father-to-be pounded on the doors of the operating room. When no one responded, the family pushed them open to find the lifeless woman on the table, blood pooling on the ground. She was alone: the staff had stripped the medical certificates that bore their names from the wall and fled as soon as the surgery went wrong.
From the start we were lucky, not least because we had each other. As twins we’d been spared the reach of the government’s family-planning policies. For the first few weeks of our life, our skulls had matching indentations from where they’d been pressed against each other in the womb, like two interlocking puzzle pieces. Later in life, when we were apart, I used to touch my hand to the back of my skull when I thought of her, as if seeking a phantom limb.
We weren’t in any way an extraordinary family. My mother worked as a warehouse clerk, my father as a government sanitation planner. When he was forty-seven, his division chief—a fanciful man who once dreamed of being an artist—decided to build a public toilet in the shape of a European clock tower. He’d been to Europe and had been impressed by the cleanliness of the toilets and the loveliness of the architecture and wanted to combine the two. Like most artists, the division chief had a fragile ego, and shortly after my father balked at the project’s expense he was fired. It was the sole act of independence he’d committed in his life, and it cost him his career.
From the time Lulu was ten, my parents worshipped at her altar. Her precocity was evident early on; it was like a flag being waved energetically from a mountaintop. Neither of our parents had much education, and it stunned them to find themselves in possession of such a daughter.
When we were small, we played devotedly together. Lulu was a great inventor of games, which often incorporated whatever she’d read most recently: one day we were stinkbugs looking for the right leaf on which to lay our eggs; another we were herdsmen fleeing Mongolian invaders. She was braver than me; once, she even snuck into the apartment of the elderly woman who lived opposite us and had left her door ajar while retrieving the mail downstairs.
“It’s full of newspapers, stacked as high as your head,” Lulu said excitedly, eyes glowing as she dashed back to our apartment. “There’s a giant orange cross-stitch on the couch, with a peony and six fishes.”
As a child she was always reading: even at meals she would sit and scan the back of the juice box. She must have read it a million times, aspartame and xanthan gum and red No. 9. It wasn’t a conscious thing—she just seemed to feel uncomfortable when her eyes weren’t fastened to a page. She had a mania for lists, too. By eleven she’d memorized every bone in the human body, and she used to recite their names to me at night in an eerie voice as I held a pillow over my head: sternum, tibia, floating rib.
In high school, I rebelled against her brilliance by playing video games, lots of them, spending hours whipping a gun back and forth across dusty landscapes empty of people, except for those who wanted to kill you. Usually there were six or seven of us at my friend Xingjian’s apartment, and we would take turns and cheer one another on. We were an army, invincible, or if we weren’t invincible we could hit Replay at any time, which was pretty close to the same thing.
Lulu, meanwhile, was a model among model students. She studied so intensely that it left her physically bowed and exhausted, like an athlete running a daily marathon, and at night she dropped off to sleep without a word. My mother fed her stewed mushrooms that looked like tiny brains when their stems fell off—they would be good for Lulu’s studies, she said. She gave me some as well, though by then it was plain that any hopes for academic glory resided with her daughter, not her son, the constructive effects of mushrooms be damned.
When we sat for the college-entrance exam, it surprised no one that Lulu scored high enough to earn a place at a university in the nation’s capital, a bus and a train and a plane ride away. My mother wept with what she said was happiness. “A scholar,” she kept saying. “A scholar.” She and my father, she liked to remind us, hadn’t studied long before going to work in the factories.
“We are so proud,” my father told Lulu. There was an intensity to his expression that unnerved me. One of our schoolbooks had a black-and-white illustration of a long-ago eunuch serving a feast, staring hungrily at the food on the emperor’s table, and there was something of that look on my father’s face.
The night Lulu left was overcast, the twilight that preceded it a peculiar mixture of orange and ochre. Earlier that day, my father had given her a gift: her very own laptop. It was thick with promise, like a fat slice of cake, sheathed in blue plastic. It wasn’t like the old computer that we all shared, which stuttered and stalled, its keys sticky with grease and crumbs and bits of hair. This one had keys that yielded obediently when you touched them. I’d stared at it enviously, too filled with longing for words. “Don’t worry, you’ll get one, too, when you leave, the exact same,” my father said.
At the airport, our parents assumed expressions appropriate for refugees being abandoned at a border. “Lulu, be good,” my father said. I stood there awkwardly, a little resentfully. Lulu turned and flashed a peace sign as she went through security, and we watched her pink hoodie and striped zebra baseball hat retreat into the crowd until she was gone.
April 1 2019
The boys rooted for Griff, even though he was a miserable bully who jimmied and pried at their weaknesses and made up weaknesses if he couldn’t find any, such as calling you a “knock-kneed piece of shit” even if your knees had never knocked your whole life. He tripped them and laughed at the ensuing pratfalls and slapped them around when he could get away with it. He punked them out, dragging them into dark rooms. He smelled like a horse and made fun of their mothers, which was pretty low given the general motherlessness of the student population. Griff stole their desserts on multiple occasions—swiped from trays with a grin—even if the desserts in question were no great shakes; it was the principle. The boys rooted for Griff because he was going to represent the colored half of Nickel at the annual boxing match, and, no matter what he did the rest of the year, the day of the fight he would be all of them in one black body and he was going to knock that white boy out.
If Griff spat teeth before that happened, swell.
The Nickel Academy was a reform school for boys: juvenile offenders, wards of the state, orphans, runaways who’d lit out to get away from mothers who entertained men for money, or to escape rummy fathers who came into their rooms in the middle of the night. Some of them had stolen money, cussed at their teachers, or damaged public property. They told stories about bloody pool-hall fights or uncles who sold moonshine. A bunch of them were sent there for offenses they’d never heard of: malingering, mopery, incorrigibility. Words the boys didn’t understand, but what was the point when their meaning was clear enough: Nickel.
The combat served as a kind of mollifying spell, to tide them over through the daily humiliations. The colored boys had held the boxing title for fifteen years, since 1949. Old hands on the staff still remembered the last white champion and talked him up. Terry (Doc) Burns had been an anvil-handed good old boy from a musty corner of Suwannee County, who’d been sent to Nickel for strangling a neighbor’s chickens. Twenty-one chickens, to be exact, because “they were out to get him.” Pain had rolled off Doc Burns like rain from a slate roof. After he returned to the free world, the white boys who advanced to the final fight were pikers, so wobbly that over the years the tall tales about the former champion had grown more and more extravagant: nature had gifted Doc Burns with an unnaturally long reach; his legendary combo had swatted down every comer and rattled windows. In fact, Doc Burns had been beaten and ill-treated by so many in his life—family and strangers alike—that by the time he arrived at Nickel all punishments were gentle breezes.
This was Griff’s first term on the boxing team. He’d arrived at Nickel in February, right after the previous champ, Axel Parks, turned eighteen and was released back into the free world. Griff’s emergence as the baddest brother on campus had made him Axel’s natural successor. He was a giant, broad-chested and hunched like a big brown bear; his daddy, it was said, was on a chain gang in Alabama for murdering his mother, making Griff’s meanness a handed-down thing. Outside the ring, he made a hobby of terrorizing the weaker boys, the boys without friends, the weepy ones. Inside the ring, his prey stepped right up, so he didn’t have to waste time hunting. Like an electric toaster or an automated washing machine, boxing was a modern convenience that made his life easier.
The coach for the colored team was a Mississippian named Max David, who worked in the school garage. He got an envelope at the end of the year for imparting what he’d learned during his welterweight stint. Max David made his pitch to Griff early in the summer. “My first fight made me cockeyed,” he said. “And my farewell fight set my eyes right again, so trust me when I say this sport will break you down to make you better, and that’s a fact.” Griff smiled. He pulverized and unmanned his opponents with cruel inevitability through autumn. He was not graceful. He was not a scientist. He was a powerful instrument of violence, and that sufficed.
Given the typical length of enrollment at Nickel, most students were around for only one or two fighting seasons. As the championship approached, the boys had to be schooled in the importance of those December matches—the prelims within your dorm, the matches between your dorm’s best guy and the best sluggers from the other two dorms, and then the bout between the best black fighter and whatever chump the white guys put up. The championship was the boys’ sole acquaintance with justice at Nickel.
Trevor Nickel had instituted the matches in 1946, soon after he came on as the director of the Florida Industrial School for Boys, which was opened by the state in 1899. Nickel had never run a school before; his background was in agriculture. He’d made an impression at Klan meetings, however, with his impromptu speeches on moral improvement and the value of work, the disposition of young souls in need of care. The right people remembered his passion when an opening came up. His first Christmas at the school gave the county a chance to witness his improvements. Everything that needed a new coat of paint got a new coat of paint, the regular beatings were relocated to a small, white utility building, nicknamed the White House, and the dark cells were briefly converted to more innocent use. Had the good people of Eleanor, Florida, seen the industrial fan that was kept in the White House to mask the sound of the screams, they might have had a question or two, but that was not part of the tour.
Nickel, a longtime boxing evangelist, had steered a lobbying group for the sport’s expansion in the Olympics. Boxing had always been popular at the school, but the new director took its elevation as his remit. The athletics budget, long an easy target for directors on the skim, was rejiggered to pay for regulation equipment and to bolster the coaching staff. Nickel had maintained a general interest in fitness. He’d possessed a fervent belief in the miracle of a human specimen in top shape, and had often watched the boys shower to monitor the progress of their physical education.
“The director?” Elwood asked, when Turner told him that last part.
“Where do you think Dr. Campbell got that trick from?” Turner said. Nickel was gone now, but Dr. Campbell, the school psychologist, was known to loiter at the white boys’ showers to pick his “dates.” “All these dirty old men got a club together.”
Elwood had met Turner shortly after his arrival at Nickel. In the mess hall, which was loud with the rumble and roil of juvenile activity, Turner had bobbed in his own pocket of calm. Over time, Elwood saw that he was both always at home wherever he found himself and also seemed like he shouldn’t be there, inside and above at the same time, a part and apart.
They became friends in the school infirmary. Turner had swallowed soap powder and made himself sick to get out of his work assignment, and Elwood was recovering from his first White House beating. On his second day at Nickel, Elwood had had the dumb idea to break up a fight. The school’s superintendent, Spencer, didn’t care who’d started it or who’d tried to stop it, and had whipped the lot of them. Elwood had come to in the school hospital. The beating had embedded bits of his dungarees into his skin, and it took the doctor two hours to remove the fibres. It was a duty that the doctor had to perform from time to time. Tweezers did the trick.
Now Elwood and Turner were hanging out on the bleachers, while Griff sparred with Cherry, a mulatto who had taken up boxing as a matter of pedagogy, to teach others how not to speak about his white mother. He was quick and lithe and Griff clobbered him.
Catching Griff at his regimen was a favorite occupation those early days in December. Boys from the colored dormitories made the rounds, as did the white scouts from down the hill who wanted the skinny. Griff had been excused from his kitchen shift since Labor Day to train. It was a spectacle. Max David kept him on a diet of raw eggs and oats, and stored a jug of what he claimed was goat blood in the icebox. When the coach administered doses, Griff swallowed the stuff with a lot of theatre, then mortified the heavy bag in revenge.
Turner had seen Axel fight two years prior. He had been slow on his feet but as solid and abiding as an old stone bridge; he had weathered what the skies decreed. Contrary to Griff, with his mealy disposition, he’d been kind and protective of the smaller kids. “I wonder where he is now,” Turner said. “That nigger didn’t have a lick of sense. Making things worse for himself, probably, wherever he is.”
Cherry wavered and sank on his ass. Griff spat out his mouthpiece and bellowed. His friend and training companion Black Mike, a wiry youth from Opelousas, stepped into the sparring ring and held Griff’s hand up like Lady Liberty’s torch.
The likely white contender was a boy named Big Chet, who came from a clan of swamp people and was a bit of a creature. “Do you think Griff’ll knock him down?” Elwood asked.
“Look at those arms, man,” Turner said. “Those things are pistons. Or smoked hams.”
To see Griff quiver with unspent energy after a match, two younger boys unlacing his gloves like retainers, it was hard to imagine how the giant could lose. Which was why, two days later, Turner sat up in surprise when he heard Superintendent Spencer tell Griff to take a dive.
Turner was napping in the warehouse loft, where he’d made a nest among crates of industrial scrubbing powder. Turner had warehouse detail, so none of the staff bugged him when he went alone into the big storage room. No supervisors, no students—just him, a pillow, an Army blanket, and a transistor radio. It was his second stint at Nickel, after a brief free-world excursion that had ended when he threw a concrete block through a windshield. The owner of the car, a dumb redneck, had had it coming; the state of Florida thought otherwise. Turner’s parents were dead, and there was no one else to speak for him. The loft was a little place he’d carved out for himself. He spent a couple of hours a week up there.
The closing of the warehouse door woke him. Then came Griff’s dumb donkey voice: “What is it, Mr. Spencer, sir?”
“How’s that training coming along, Griff? Good old Max says you’re a natural.”
Turner frowned. Any time a white man asked you about yourself, he was about to fuck you over. Especially Spencer, who never passed on a chance to send a boy to the White House for a licking or to one of the third-floor cells for an attitude adjustment in solitary confinement. Griff was so stupid that he didn’t know what was happening. In class, the boy had struggled over two plus three, like he didn’t know how many damned fingers he had on his hand. Some foolhardies in the schoolhouse had laughed at him then, and Griff had stuck their heads into toilets, one by one, over the next week.
Turner’s assessment was correct: Griff was unable to grasp the reason for the secret meeting. Spencer expounded on the importance of the fight, the tradition of the December match. Then he hinted, “Good sportsmanship means letting the other team win sometimes.” He tried euphemism: “It’s like when a tree branch has to bend so it doesn’t break.” He appealed to fatalism: “Sometimes it don’t work out, no matter how much you try.” But Griff was too thick. Yes, sir . . . I suppose that’s right, Mr. Spencer . . . I believe that is the case, sir. Finally, the superintendent told Griff that his black ass had to take a dive in the third round or else they’d take him out back.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Spencer,” Griff said. Up in the loft Turner couldn’t see Griff’s face, so he didn’t know if he understood. The boy had stones in his fists and rocks in his head.
Spencer ended with “You know you can beat him. That’ll have to be enough.” He cleared his throat and said, “You come along, now,” as if herding a lamb who’d wandered. Turner was alone again.
“Ain’t that some shit?” he said later. He and Elwood were lounging on the front steps of their dorm. The daylight was thin, winter coming down like the lid on an old pot. Elwood was the only person Turner could tell. The rest of these mutts would blab, and then there’d be a lot of busted heads.
Turner had never met a kid like Elwood before. “Sturdy” was the word he returned to, even though the Tallahassee boy looked soft, conducted himself like a goody-goody, and had an irritating tendency to preach. Wore eyeglasses you wanted to grind underfoot like a butterfly. He talked like a white college boy, read books when he didn’t have to, and mined them for uranium to power his own personal A-bomb. His education, in fact, was to blame for his presence at Nickel. Though still a high-school senior, he’d been taking night classes at the local colored college. He was hitching to campus when the cops stopped the car that had picked him up; it was stolen. Nonetheless—sturdy.
Elwood wasn’t surprised at Turner’s news. There was no question that Griff would make it to the final match. “Organized boxing is corrupt on every level,” he said with authority. “There’s been a lot in the newspapers about it. Only reason to fix a fight is because you’re betting on it.”
“I’d bet on it, if I had any money,” Turner said.
“People are going to be upset,” Elwood said. Griff’s victory would have been a feast, but almost as delicious were the morsels that the boys traded in anticipation, the scenarios in which the white contender lost control of his bowels or threw up a geyser of blood or spat white teeth “like they were chipped out with an ice pick.” Fantasies hearty and fortifying.
“Sure,” Turner said. “But Spencer says he’s going to take you out back, you listen.”
“Take him to the White House?”
“I’ll show you,” Turner said.
They walked ten minutes to the laundry, which was shut at this time of day. Turner asked Elwood about the book under his arm and Elwood said a British family was trying to marry off the oldest daughter to keep their estate and title. The story had complicated turns.
“No one wants to marry her? She ugly?”
“She’s described as having a handsome face.”
Past the laundry were the dilapidated horse stables. The roof had given way long ago and nature had crept inside, with skeletal bushes and limp grasses rising in the stalls. You could get up to some wickedness in there if you didn’t believe in ghosts, but none of the students had arrived at a definite opinion on the matter, so everyone stayed away to be safe. There were two oaks on one side of the stables, with iron rings stabbed into the bark.
“This is out back,” Turner said. “Once in a while they take a black boy here and shackle him up to those. Arms spread out. Then they get a horse whip and tear him up.”
Elwood made two fists, then caught himself. “No white boys?”
“The White House, they got that integrated. This place is separate. They take you out back, they don’t bring you to the hospital. They put you down as escaped and that’s that, boy.”
“What about your family?”
“How many boys you know here got family? Or got family that cares about them? Not everyone is you, Elwood.” Turner got jealous when Elwood’s grandmother visited and brought him snacks, and it slipped out from time to time. Like now. The blinders Elwood wore, walking around. The law was one thing—you could march and wave signs and change a law if you convinced enough white people. In Tampa, before coming to Nickel for the second time, Turner had seen the college kids with their nice shirts and ties sit in at the Woolworths. He’d had to work, but they were out protesting. And it had happened—they’d opened the counter. Turner hadn’t had the money to eat there either way. You could change the law but you couldn’t change people and how they treated each other. Nickel was racist as hell—half the people who worked there probably dressed up like the Klan on weekends—but, the way Turner saw it, wickedness went deeper than skin color. It was Spencer. It was Spencer and it was Griff and it was all the parents who let their children wind up here. It was people.
Which was why Turner had brought Elwood out to the two trees. To show him something that wasn’t in books.
Elwood grabbed one of the rings and tugged. It was solid, part of the trunk now. Human bones would break before it came loose.
Betting had been small-time when Director Nickel ran things—purity of the sport, etc. Nowadays, the fat cats turned out, anyone in three counties with a taste for wagering. The big match was split up over two nights. On the first, the white campus and the black campus settled on whom to send to the main event. For the past two months, three boxing rings had been set up in the gymnasium for training; now only one remained, at the center of the big room. It was chilly outside, and the spectators stepped into the humid cavern. White men from town claimed the folding chairs closest to the ring, then came the staff, and beyond that the student body crammed into the bleachers or squatted on the floor, ashy elbow to ashy elbow. The racial division of the school re-created itself in the gym, with white boys taking the south half and black boys claiming the north. They jostled at the borders.
Director Hardee acted as master of ceremonies. He rarely left his office in the administration building. Turner hadn’t seen him since Halloween, when he’d dressed in a Dracula outfit and distributed sweaty handfuls of candy corn to the younger students. He was a short man, fastened into his suits, with a bald pate that floated in a cloud bank of white hair. Hardee had brought his wife, a robust beauty whose every visit to the school was thoroughly annotated by the students, if furtively—reckless eyeballing called for mandatory beatings. She’d been Miss South Louisiana, or so the story went. She cooled her neck with a paper fan.
Hardee made a few remarks. The chairman of the board, Mr. Charles Grayson—the manager of the bank and a longtime Nickel supporter—was turning sixty on Friday. Hardee made the students sing “Happy Birthday.” Mr. Grayson stood and nodded, hands behind his back like a dictator.
The white dormitories were up first. Big Chet squeezed between the ropes and bounded into the center of the ring. His cheerleaders expressed themselves with gusto; he commanded a legion. The white boys may not have got it as bad as the black boys, but they were not at Nickel because the world cared overmuch about them. Big Chet was their Great White Hope. Gossip nailed him for a sleepwalker, punching holes in the bathroom walls without waking. Morning found him sucking on his bloody knuckles. “Nigger looks like Frankenstein,” Turner said. Square head, long arms, loping.
The opening fight went three unremarkable rounds. The ref gave the decision to Big Chet and no one argued otherwise. He was regarded as an even personality, the ref, ever since he’d slapped a kid and his fraternity ring had left the kid half blind. After that he’d bent a knee to our Savior and never again raised a hand in anger, except at his wife. The white boys’ second match opened with a pop—a pneumatic uppercut that whisked Big Chet’s opponent into a childhood fear. He spent the remainder of the round and the next two skittering like a rabbit. At the ref’s decision, Big Chet rummaged in his mouth and spat out his mouthpiece in two pieces. He raised his big old arms to the sky.
“I think he could take Griff,” Elwood said.
“Maybe he can, but they have to make sure.” If you had the power to make people do what you wanted and never exercised it, what was the point of having it?
Griff’s bouts with the champs of the colored dorms were brief affairs. Pettibone stood a foot shorter than Griff, an obvious mismatch when you saw them toe to toe. At the bell, Griff barrelled out and humiliated his quarry with a battery of zip-zip-zip body blows. The crowd winced. “He’s having ribs for dinner!” a boy behind Turner shouted. Mrs. Hardee shrieked when Pettibone floated up dreamily on his tippy-toes and then toppled to kiss the dirty mat.
The second match was less lopsided. Griff tenderized the boy, Wilson, like a cheap cut of meat for three rounds, but Wilson stayed on his feet. He had two bouts going—the one that everybody could see and the one that only he could, in which he was trying to prove his worth to his father. His father was long dead, and thus unable to revise his assessment of his firstborn son’s character, but that night Wilson slept without nightmares for the first time in years. The ref gave the fight to Griff with a concerned smile.
Turner surveyed the room and took in the assembled marks, the boys and the bettors. You run a rigged game, you got to give the suckers a taste. Back in Tampa, a few blocks from where he lived, a street hustler had conducted rounds of Find the Lady outside a cigar store. Taking suckers’ money all day, weaving those cards around on a cardboard box. The rings on his fingers sparkled and shouted in the sun. Turner liked to hover and take in the show. Track the hustler’s eyes, track the marks’ eyes as they tried to follow the queen of hearts. How their faces collapsed when they saw they weren’t as smart as they thought. The hustler told Turner to beat it, but as the weeks went on he got bored and let the boy hang around. “You got to let them think they know what’s going on,” he told Turner one day. “They see it with their own eyes, distract themselves with that, so they can’t see the bigger game.” When the cops hauled him to jail, his cardboard box lay in the alley around the corner for weeks.
At Nickel, Turner was transported back to that street corner. Watching a game of Find the Lady, neither hustler nor mark, outside the game but knowing all its rules. The next evening, the white men would put up their money and the black boys would put up their hopes, and then the confidence man would turn over the ace of spades and rake it all in. Turner remembered the excitement of Axel’s fight two years ago, the deranged joy at the realization that the black boys were allowed to have something for a change. They were happy, existing for a few hours in the free world, then it was back to Nickel.
Suckers, all of them.
The morning of Griff’s big match, the black students got up wrung out from sleeplessness and the dining hall bubbled with chatter about the dimension and the magnitude of Griff’s looming triumph. That white boy’s gonna be toothless as my old granny. The witch doctor can give him the whole bucket of aspirin and he’ll still have a headache. The Ku Klux Klan’s gonna be crying under their hoods all week. The colored boys frothed and speculated and stared off in class, slacked off in the sweet-potato fields. Mulling the prospect of a black champion: one of them victorious for once, and those who kept them down whittled to dust, seeing stars. Griff strutted like a black duke, a gang of young boys in his wake. The younger kids threw punches at their private, invisible adversaries and made up a song about their new hero’s prowess. Griff hadn’t bloodied or mistreated anyone outside the ring in a week, as if he’d sworn on a Bible. He was unbothered by Spencer’s order, or so it seemed to Elwood. “It’s like he forgot,” he whispered to Turner, as they walked to the warehouse after breakfast.
“If I got all this respect, I’d enjoy it, too,” Turner said. The next day it would be as if it had never happened. He remembered Axel the afternoon after his big fight, stirring a wheelbarrow of concrete, gloomy and diminished once more. “When’s the next time the fools who hate and fear you are going to treat you like Harry Belafonte?”
“Or he forgot,” Elwood said.
That evening they filed into the gymnasium. Some of the kitchen boys operated a big kettle, cranking out popcorn and scooping it into paper cones. The younger boys chomped it down and raced to the back of the line for seconds. Turner, Elwood, and Jaimie squeezed together in the middle of the bleachers. It was a good spot. “Hey, Jaimie, aren’t you supposed to be sitting over there?” Turner asked. Jaimie’s mother was Mexican, and the Nickel staff didn’t know what to do with him. First he’d been put in with the white kids, but after a day of working in the lime fields he’d got so dark that Spencer had had him reassigned to the colored half. Now he went back and forth.
Jaimie grinned. “Way I see it, I win either way.”
Turner crossed his arms and scanned the faces on the floor. There was Spencer. He shook hands with the fat cats in the front row, the director and his wife, and then sat down, smug and sure. He withdrew a silver flask from his windbreaker and took a pull. The bank manager handed out cigars. Mrs. Hardee took one and everyone watched her blow smoke. Wispy gray figures twirled in the overhead light, living ghosts.
On the other side of the room, the white boys stomped their feet on the wood and the thunder bounced off the walls. The black boys picked it up and the stomping rolled around the room in a staggered stampede. It travelled a full circuit before the boys stopped and cheered at their racket.
“Send him to the undertaker!”
The ref rang the bell. The two fighters were the same height and build, hacked from the same quarry. An even match, the track record of colored champions notwithstanding. Those opening rounds, there was no dancing or ducking. The boys bit into each other again and again, trading attacks, bucking the pain. The crowd bellowed and jeered at every advance and reversal. Black Mike hung on the ropes, hooting scatological invective at Big Chet, until the ref kicked his hands away. If Griff feared knocking out Big Chet by accident, he gave no sign. The black giant battered the white boy without mercy, absorbed his opponent’s counterassault, jabbed at the kid’s face as if punching his way through the wall of a prison cell. When blood and sweat blinded him, he maintained an eerie sense of Big Chet’s position and fended the boy off.
At the end of the second round, you had to call the fight for Griff, despite Big Chet’s admirable offensives.
“Making it look good,” Turner said.
Elwood frowned in disdain at the whole performance, which made Turner smile. The fight was rigged and rotten, another gear in the machine that kept black folks down. Turner enjoyed his friend’s new bend toward cynicism, even as he found himself swayed by the magic of the fight. Seeing Griff, their enemy and their champion, put a hurting on that white boy made a fellow feel all right. In spite of himself. Now that the third and final round was upon them, he wanted to hold on to that feeling. It was real—in their blood and their minds—even if it was a lie. Turner was certain that Griff was going to win, even though he knew that he wasn’t. Turner was a mark, after all, another sucker, but he didn’t care.
Big Chet advanced on Griff and unfurled a series of quick jabs that drove him into his corner. Griff was trapped and Turner thought, Now. But the black boy gathered his opponent in a clinch and remained on his feet. Body blows sent the white boy reeling. The round dwindled into seconds and Griff did not relent. Big Chet squashed his nose with a thunk and Griff shook it off. Each time Turner saw the perfect moment to take a dive—Big Chet’s rigorous assault would have covered even the worst acting—Griff refused the opening.
Turner nudged Elwood, who had a look of horror on his face. They saw it: Griff wasn’t going down. He was going to go for it.
No matter what happened after.
When the bell sounded for the last time, the two Nickel boys in the ring were entwined, bloody and slick, propping each other up like a human tepee. The ref separated them and they stumbled crazily to their corners, spent.
Turner said, “Damn.”
“Maybe they called it off,” Elwood said.
Sure, it was possible that the ref was in on it, and they’d decided to fix it that way instead. Spencer’s reaction dispelled that theory. The superintendent was the only person in the first row still sitting, a malignant scowl screwed into his face. One of the fat cats turned around, red-faced, and grabbed his arm.
Griff jerked to his feet, lumbered to the center of the ring, and shouted. The noise of the crowd smothered his words. Black Mike held back his friend, who appeared to have lost his wits. He struggled to cross the ring. The ref called for everyone to settle down and delivered his decision: the first two rounds went to Griff, the last to Big Chet. The black boys had prevailed.
Instead of cavorting around the canvas in triumph, Griff squirmed free and traversed the ring to where Spencer sat. Now Turner heard his words: “I thought it was the second round! I thought it was the second round!” He was still screaming as the black boys led him back to the dormitories, cheering and whooping for their champion. They had never seen Griff cry before and took his tears for those of triumph.
Getting hit in the head can rattle your brains. Getting hit in the head like that can make you addle-minded and confused. Turner never thought it’d make you forget how to calculate two plus one. But Griff had never been good at arithmetic, he supposed.
Griff was all of them in one black body that night in the ring, and all of them when the white men took him out back to those two iron rings. They came for Griff that night and he never returned. The story spread that he had been too proud to take a dive. That he had refused to kneel. And if it made the boys feel better to believe that Griff had escaped, broken away and run off into the free world, no one told them otherwise, although some noted that it was odd that the school had never sounded the alarm or sent out the dogs.
When the state of Florida dug him up, fifty years later, the forensic examiner noted the fractures in the wrists and speculated that he’d been restrained before he died, in addition to the other violence attested to by the broken bones.
Most of those who know the story of the rings in the trees are dead by now. The iron is still there. Rusty. Deep in the heartwood. Testifying to anyone who cares to listen.
March 25 2019
That Henry James, when he got old, rewrote his early work was my excuse for revisiting, at ninety, a story I had written in my twenties. I was ten years old when I had to leave Austria, so the day with my father in the Alps must have taken place on our last family holiday, the previous August.
I wished Mutti were coming, but she had woken with one of her migraines. I stood outside the hotel, in the grass, getting my shoes wet with dew, waiting and wanting for nothing. “Light tinkled among the trees,” and the “grasses gleamed sword-like,” says my story. Curious how our language asks for similes. What is something “like”? The sky was “like liquid light,” I wrote. “Liquid” is close, but it’s not quite the right word. “The mountain’s back looked like something sculpted; one had the feel of the distant footpath in the fingertips. Between the mountain and myself, the land cupped downward, containing light like a mist.” How was it “like a mist,” the essence of which is to obscure? I remember it as a white, chilly presence. A dog barked and barked and barked and the purity of the air carried the sound to where I stood waiting.
On the road at the end of the hotel gardens, a group of silent walkers passed at the steady pace of those who have a day’s march ahead of them, young people. I followed them with my eyes. This was the moment that the sun crested the mountain—a sudden unobstructed fire. It outlined the young people’s backs with a faintly furred halo, while here, in the garden, it caught the head of a silver dandelion, fiercely, tenderly transfigured into light. I experienced a bliss of thought, new and inevitable, and I said, “Lieber Gott, if I ever ask you for anything, you don’t even have to listen, because nothing is necessary except this.” I knew that was right because of my vast happiness, and then my father called me and we walked out of the garden and started up the road.
My Vati was a tall man in excellent spirits. In August, the Viennese banks closed. In the mountains, my father wore knickerbockers and an Alpine hat with a feather. In his pocket he had a book in which to look up the names of the wayside flowers, trees, and birds. As we climbed, he pointed through the pines to the village farther and farther away below us. Vati’s plan was to reach the Alm by noon and take our lunch in the Alm hut. Did I know, he asked me, what an Alm was? It was a meadow high in the mountains where the cowherd brought all the cows from the valley to spend the summer eating the healthful upper grass, but I was being the world-famous ice-skating star Lucinda in her velvet dress with a skirt that swirled when I did my world-famous pirouette and I couldn’t listen to what my father was explaining.
Oh, but the sky was blue! It is bluest when you lie on your side and look through the grasses that grow by your cheek. I watched a spider climb a stalk that bent under its weight.
I sat up. People were coming along the path, two men—young men walking together, one talking, using his hands. The other, who walked with his eyes to the ground, brought up his head and said something that made the first one shout with laughter. I watched them. They slowed their steps to look back at the people coming behind them. One of the girls called gaily, and the two groups joined. That was what I wanted to do when I got older—walk with friends, talking together and laughing.
I looked after them with a suddenly sharpened interest. “You know something? Vati? I think those are the people I saw on the road this morning, when I was waiting for you. Vati, do you think they are the same people?”
Vati was asleep. It was rare, it was awesome, to see a sleeping grownup. His two shoes pointed skyward. Where his trouser leg folded back it exposed a piece of leg above the sock. I averted my eyes.
We resumed our ascent and it was hot and grew hotter. The climb became harder and steeper, until I thought I could not lift my foot to take the next step, and the next, and the next for the several hours it took us to reach the top.
It was many years later, lying in the semi-dark and stillness, cleaned up and dry, after birthing my baby, my first—I could see where she lay wrapped, not crying, and everything was well—that I remembered sitting at long last, after climbing beyond my strength, under a tree in the shade, breathing in and out.
You know you have reached the top of the mountain when you are looking at a new world, the existence of which, a moment ago, you could not have suspected, ranges upon ranges paling into the blue distance, and here a peak rising and a second and a third, the relation in which they stand to one another becoming familiar under the blue sky. On the green expanse the cows graze, or move a step from here to there. When they lower their slow heads to chew the grass, the bells around their necks softly jingle.
My young folk sat at a long trestle table in the Alm hut. The cowherd, who sat with them, had a pipe between his teeth. The rumble of his voice, interrupted by the young people’s chatter and laughter, made its way to the table where my Vati and I were having our Mittagessen. It was a meal that I still think about and have not been able to reproduce: Kaiserschmarrn (the Emperor’s Pancake) served with blueberries. Alpine blueberries grow low to the ground and are both sweeter and sharper than the fruit you know. And a glass of fresh cow’s milk.
I ate and watched. The girls were pretty and talked; the boys were tall and thin. I could see their knees. I loved how they clapped one another on the back and put pepper in one another’s soup and liked one another. I wanted to talk about them and I asked Vati who they were and where they were going, but he quieted me with a gesture. Vati, a city man, took an interest in the Alpine type and wanted to listen to what the cowherd was saying.
There was a general movement—the meal was breaking up. The young people gathered themselves. Vati and I followed them out of the cool dark of the hut into the sheer heat of midday. One of the boys, whose yellow hair jutted over his forehead, stood by the door adjusting the straps of his rucksack. Vati also took an interest in young people and questioned the boy about his party and their plans. Leaning against my father’s leg, I listened to the boy’s companionable answers and felt that life could offer no better happiness. Vati was reminded of his own young touring days and launched upon an anecdote. It was hot. I squeezed my eyes against the fierce brightness in which the blond boy’s head expanded and contracted among the little waves of heat. Vati’s voice proceeded upon the air, wanting to convey an idea of the exact conical rock formation that had been attempted. He described the attempt, and the failure that he, Vati, had predicted. I watched the boy’s hands play nervously with the ends of his straps and said, “Vati!,” saw the boy’s eyes steal to where his companions waited a little way along the path, and said, “Vati, let’s _go! _” Vati was recounting the witty remark made by himself in connection with said attempt and failure, laughing largely, recalling the occasion. The blond boy cackled foolishly. I saw the boy looking foolish and tugged on Vati’s sleeve. “_Let’s go! _” The boy excused himself, had his hand wrung long and heartily, dived for his freedom, and was received with laughter and a round of applause.
My face burned and I did not turn to look after the young people. They were going farther on and Vati and I started on our homeward journey.
The intensity of the midday light had burned the color out of things and deadened them. I was angry with the boy who had not wanted to hear Vati’s story and had wanted to get away from Vati. I hated the young people who had clapped their hands and had laughed. My father was walking along in a flow of spirits, and I was sorry for him because I had not cared to listen to the things he wanted to tell me. I resented and disliked this bad feeling, which would not let me be comfortable and be Lucinda the world-famous skating star.
And I began to grizzle. I was tired, I said. There was a stone in my shoe and I didn’t feel like carrying my cardigan. Vati stopped his yodelling and looked at me. There was no stone. Vati put the cardigan in his backpack. I rubbed my right temple with the back of my right hand and said I wanted to go home. We were going home, Vati said, we were on our way home, but I meant home now. Vati said, “We’ll be home soon, we’re almost home, in a couple of hours.” He offered to tell me the story of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, and the fight between the mongoose and the snake, but he had told it to me before. “How about an ice cream when we get home?” I understood that my father did not know what to do with me when I was like this, and I was afraid. I knew that this was God’s awe-full answer, for hadn’t I told him in the morning, “If I ever ask you for anything, you don’t have to listen, because nothing is necessary except this.”
The sun was gone, all light absorbed by the ring of mountains that stood around us, soft and velvet purple, without the play of color or movement save for our panicked descent. My father had hold of my wrist and hurried me along so that the stones rolled underfoot.
color and light
color and light
March 18 2019
The first time he sees her she’s getting into his brother’s car. He’s sitting in the back seat and she gets into the front, closing the passenger door behind her. Then she notices him. She cranes around, eyebrows raised, and then turns back to Declan and says, Who’s this?
That’s Aidan, Declan says. My brother.
I didn’t know you had a brother, she says mildly.
She turns around again, as if accepting the inevitability of having to speak to him. Older or younger? she asks.
Me? Aidan says. Younger.
The interior of the car is dark, and she narrows her eyes before concluding, You look it.
He’s only a year younger, Declan says.
The woman has turned away now to roll down her window. She has to wind it down using the small lever on the door.
Your parents were busy, she remarks. How many others are there?
Only us, Declan says.
They got it all out of the way quickly then, she says. Sensible. Declan pulls out of the parking space and back onto the main road. Cool night air floods through the open window. The woman is lighting a cigarette. Aidan can see only the back of her head and her left arm, elbow angled.
I’ll drop this lad home and then we’ll go for a spin, Declan says.
Sounds divine, the woman says.
On their right is a row of houses and shops, which tapers off as they reach the end of town. Then the caravan park, the golf links. Does the woman already know where Aidan lives? She doesn’t seem curious about how long it will take to get there. She exhales smoke out the window. The surface of the golf course glitters darkly.
What do you do, Aidan? she asks after a minute or two.
I work in the hotel.
Oh? How long have you been there?
Few years, he says.
Do you like it?
It’s all right.
She flicks the stub of her cigarette out the window and rolls the window up. The car is much quieter then and things seem to hang unspoken. Declan says nothing. Aidan bites gently at the rough side of his left thumbnail. Should he ask her what she does for a living? But he doesn’t even know her name. As if apprehending this very problem, Declan says, Pauline is a writer.
Oh, Aidan says. What kind of things do you write?
Films, she says.
For some reason Aidan does not wish to seem surprised by this knowledge, though he doesn’t think he’s ever been in a car with a screenwriter before. He just makes a noise like Huh. As if to say, Well, there you are. The woman, whose name is apparently Pauline, unexpectedly swivels around to look at him. Her hair, he notices, is pulled back from her forehead by a wide velveteen band. She has a strange smile on her face.
What? she says. You don’t believe me.
He is alarmed, feeling that he has offended her and that Declan will be angry with him later. Of course I believe you, he says. Why wouldn’t I? For a few seconds she says nothing, but in the darkness and silence of the car she looks at him. In fact she stares at him, right into his eyes, for two or three seconds without speaking, maybe even four full seconds, a very long time. Why is she looking at him like this? Her face is expressionless. She has a pale forehead and her lips are pale, so her mouth appears as one delicate line. Is she looking at him just to show him her face, the face of a screenwriter? When she speaks, her voice sounds totally different. She simply says, O.K. And she stops looking at him and turns around again.
She doesn’t speak to him again for the rest of the journey. She and Declan start talking instead, about people and events that have nothing to do with Aidan. He listens to them as if they are performing a play and he is the only audience member. Declan asks her when she’s heading off to Paris and she tells him. She takes out her phone and starts looking for a photograph to show him. He says that someone called Michael never got back to him about something and Pauline says, Oh, Michael will be there, don’t worry. Outside the windows, the darkness is punctuated only by passing headlights and, far up in the hills, the flickering lights of houses, hidden and revealed through the leaves of trees. Aidan has a feeling of some kind, but he doesn’t know what the feeling is. Is he annoyed? Why should he be?
Declan indicates left for the estate. The street lights grow brighter as they approach, and then the world is populated again, with semi-detached houses and wheelie bins and parked cars. Declan pulls up outside Aidan’s house.
Thanks for the lift, Aidan says. Have a good night. Pauline doesn’t look up from her phone.
He sees her again a few weeks later, in the hotel. She comes in one night for dinner with a group of people Aidan has never seen before. She’s not wearing a hairband this time—her hair is fixed quite high on her head with a clasp—but it’s definitely the same woman. Aidan brings a carafe of water to the table. Pauline is talking and everyone else is listening to her, including the men, some of whom are older and wearing suits. They all seem fascinated by her—how unusual, Aidan thinks, to see grown men hanging on the words of a girl in that way. He wonders if she is famous, or somehow important. When he fills her glass she looks up and says thank you. Then she frowns.
Do I know you? she says.
Everyone at the table turns to stare at Aidan. He feels flustered. I think you know my brother, he says. Declan.
She laughs, as if he has said something very charming. Oh, you’re Declan Kearney’s brother, she says. Then turning to her friends, she adds, I told you I knew all the locals.
They laugh appreciatively. She doesn’t look at Aidan again. He finishes filling the glasses and goes back to the bar.
At the end of the night he helps Pauline’s party to get their coats from the cloakroom. It’s after midnight. They all seem a little drunk. Aidan still can’t tell what they are to one another—friends or colleagues or family? The men are watching Pauline, and the other women are talking and laughing amongst themselves. Pauline asks him to call some taxis for them. He goes behind the desk and picks up the phone. She places a hand delicately on the counter, near the bell.
We’re going to have a drink at my house, she says. Would you like to join us?
Oh, Aidan says. No, I can’t.
She smiles pleasantly and turns back to her friends. Aidan dials the taxi number, gripping the phone hard against his skull so the ringtone shrieks in his ear. He should have said thanks, at least. Why didn’t he? He was preoccupied, wondering where her house was. She can’t live in town, or he would know her. Maybe she’s just moved to town, or maybe she’s working on a new film. If she even really writes films. He should have paused for a second to think about her question, and then he would have remembered to thank her. On the phone he orders two taxis and then hangs up.
They’ll be here shortly, he says.
Pauline nods without looking back at him. He has made her dislike him.
I didn’t know you lived around here, he says.
Again she just nods. He has the same view of her now as he did in the car the other week: the back of her head, and her neck and shoulders. When the taxis arrive outside, she says without turning to him, Give Declan my best. Then they all leave. Afterward the waiter who cleared their table tells Aidan they left a huge tip.
A few days later he’s working the front desk in the afternoon, and a queue forms while he’s on the phone. When he hangs up, he apologizes for the wait, checks the guests out of their rooms, wipes their keycards, and then sits down on the wheelie chair. Guests really don’t have to do that—wait to be checked out. They can just leave their keycards on the desk and walk off, without the formal goodbye. But Aidan supposes they want to get the official go-ahead, to have their departure acknowledged in some way. Or maybe they just don’t know that they’re allowed, and assume they’re not without being told so, because after all, at heart, human beings are so extremely submissive. He taps his fingers on the desk in a little rhythm, distracted.
Declan and Aidan are in the process of selling their mother’s house. Declan has a house of his own already, a smaller one, closer to town, with a twenty-year mortgage. People thought Aidan might move back into the old house, seeing as he’s renting outside town and has to share with housemates, but he doesn’t want to. He just wants to get rid of the place. Their mother was sick for a long time, though she wasn’t old, and he loved her very much, so it’s painful to think of her now. And in fact he tries not to think of her. The thought creates a feeling—the thought might at first be only an abstract idea or a memory, but a feeling follows on from it helplessly. He would like to be able to think of her again, because she was the person on earth who loved him most, but it isn’t yet possible to do so without pain—maybe it never will be. In any case, it’s not as if the pain goes away when he doesn’t think of her. A pain in your throat may get worse when you swallow, may be almost unbearably painful when you swallow, but that doesn’t mean that the pain is gone when you’re not swallowing. Yes, life is full of suffering and there’s no way to be free of it. Anyway, they’re selling the house, and Aidan will come into a little money, though not a lot.
That night Declan comes to pick him up from work very late, after two in the morning, and Pauline is lying in the back of the car, apparently drunk. Ignore her, Declan says.
Don’t ignore me, Pauline says. How dare you?
How was work? Declan asks.
Aidan closes the door and puts his bag down at his feet. O.K., he says. The car smells of alcohol. Aidan still feels that he doesn’t really know who this woman is, this woman lying on the back seat. She’s coming up fairly often in his life at this point, but who is she? At first he thought she was Declan’s girlfriend, or at least a candidate for that role, but then in the hotel the other night she seemed different—glamorous in a way, with all those men looking at her—and of course Declan wasn’t there, and she even invited Aidan for a drink afterward. He could ask his brother, How do you know this girl? I mean, are you riding her, or what? But Declan’s sensibilities would be offended by that kind of thing.
How would you get home if you didn’t have a lift? Pauline says.
Walk, Aidan says.
How long would it take? About an hour.
Is it dangerous?
What? Aidan says. No, it’s not dangerous. Dangerous in what way?
Ignore her, Declan repeats.
Aidan is my good friend, Pauline says. He won’t ignore me. I left him a very generous tip in his restaurant, didn’t I?
I heard about that, he says. That was nice of you.
And I invited him to my house, she continues. Only to be cruelly rebuffed.
What do you mean, you invited him to your house? Declan asks. When was this?
After dinner at the hotel, she says. He rebuffed me, cruelly.
Aidan’s face is hot. Well, I’m sorry you felt that way, he says. I can’t just walk out of work because someone invites me to their house.
I didn’t get an invite, Declan says.
You were busy, Pauline says. And so was your brother, obviously. Can I ask you something about your job, Aidan?
What? he says.
Have you ever slept with any of the hotel guests?
For fuck’s sake, Pauline, Declan says.
They are driving past the caravan park again now, where the smooth curved roofs of the caravans glow with reflected moonlight, white like fingernails. Beyond that, Aidan knows, is the ocean, but he can’t see or smell or even hear it now, sealed up inside the car with Pauline laughing and the air smelling of alcohol and perfume. Doesn’t she know that Declan doesn’t enjoy that kind of banter? Or maybe she does know, and she’s aggravating him on purpose for some reason Aidan doesn’t understand.
Don’t listen to her, Declan says.
A car flashes past and disappears. Aidan turns around to look at her. From this angle her face is sideways. It’s actually quite long and oval, like the shape of a headache pill.
You can tell me, she says. You can whisper.
You’re flirting with him, Declan says. You’re flirting with my brother right in front of me. In my car! He reaches out and punches Aidan on the arm. Stop looking at her, he says. Turn around now. You’re messing and I don’t like it.
Who were all those people in the hotel the other night? Aidan says. Were they your friends?
Just people I know.
They seemed like big fans of yours.
People only act like that when they want something from you, she says.
She lets him continue staring at her. She lies there absorbing his look, even smiling vaguely, allowing it to go on. Declan punches him again. Aidan turns around. The windshield is blank like a powered-off computer screen.
We’re not allowed to sleep with the guests, he says.
No, of course not. But I bet you’ve had offers.
Yeah, well. Mostly from men.
Declan appears startled. Really? he says. Aidan just shrugs.
Declan has never worked in a hotel, or a bar or a restaurant. He’s an office manager with a business degree.
Are you ever tempted? Pauline says.
Aidan touches the window handle on the car door, not winding it up or down, just toying with it.
We did have a writer in the other night who invited me back to her house, he says.
Was she beautiful?
Pauline! Declan says. You’re pissing me off now. Just drop it, O.K.? Jesus. This is the last time I do you a favor.
Aidan can’t tell if Declan is still speaking to Pauline now, or to him. It sounded like he meant Pauline, but Aidan is the one receiving the favor of a lift home, not her, unless there’s another favor running concurrently to this one. Everyone falls silent. Aidan thinks about the linen room at work, where all the clean sheets are stored, folded up tight in the wooden slats, bluish-white, smelling of powder and soap.
When they pull up outside his house he thanks his brother for the lift. Declan makes a dismissive gesture in the air with his hand. Don’t worry about it, he says. The shape of Pauline’s face is visible through the back window, but is she looking at him or not, he can’t tell.
Two weeks later, the arts festival is on in town and the hotel is busy. Aidan’s manager has to call him in for an extra shift on Friday because one of the girls has laryngitis. He finishes work at ten on Saturday night and goes down to the seafront for the closing ceremony of the festival. It’s the same every year, a fireworks display at the end of the pier. He’s seen the display ten or twelve times now, or however many years the festival has been going. The first time he was a teen-ager, still in school. He thought that his life was just about to start happening then. He thought that he was poised tantalizingly on the brink, and that any day—or even any minute—the waiting would end and the real thing would begin.
Down on the beach he zips his jacket up to the chin. It’s crowded already and the street lights on the promenade cast a gray glow over the sand and the sea. Families pick their way down the beach with buggies, bickering or laughing, and boats clink in the marina, a noise like handbells ringing, but random and disconnected. Teen-agers sit on the steps, drinking cans and laughing at videos. People from the festival hold walkie-talkies to their ears and stride around importantly. Aidan looks at his phone, wondering if Declan is around, or Richie, or any of the gang from work, but no one’s said anything in the group chat. It’s cold again this year. He puts his phone away and rubs his hands.
Pauline is already walking toward him by the time he sees her, meaning she has seen him first. She’s wearing a big oversized fleece that drops down almost to her knees. Her hair is pushed back from her forehead by a hairband again.
So you do have days off, she says.
I actually just finished, he says. But I’m off tomorrow.
Can I watch the fireworks with you or are you with someone?
He immediately likes this question. Turning it over in his mind only seems to reveal additional angles from which it can be admired.
No, I’m on my own, he says. We can watch together, yeah. She stands beside him and rubs her arms in a pantomime of being cold. He looks at her, wondering if the pantomime demands some kind of response from him.
I’m sorry I was such a mess the other night, she says. When was that? Last week, or whenever. I think Declan was annoyed afterward.
Did he say anything to you about it?
Me, no, Aidan says. We don’t really talk about things. The lights overhead go down and the beach is in darkness.
Around them people are moving, huddling, saying things, taking out their phones and shining torches, and then at the end of the pier the fireworks begin. A line of golden sparks shoots upward into the sky and ends in a colored point: first pink, then blue, then pink again, casting its brief hypnotic light on the sand and the water. Then a whistling noise, as low as a breath, and above them in the sky, exploding outward, red blossoms, and yellow and then green, leaving soft fronds of gold behind. When the fireworks burst, it’s silent color and light at first, and a second later the noise: a loud crack like something breaking, or a deep low booming that goes into the chest. Aidan can see the tiny missiles flying upward hissing into the sky from the pier, almost invisible, and then shattering outward into fragments of light, glittering like pixels, bright white fading to yellow and then gold to darker gold and then black. It’s the darker gold, just before black, that he finds most beautiful: a low ember color, darker than a glowing coal. Finally, so high above they have to crane their necks to see the whole shape, three dazzling yellow fireworks, consuming the sky, eating the whole darkness. Then it’s over. The street lights come back up.
Beside him Pauline is rubbing her face and nose with her hands. Cold again. Aidan realizes, obscurely, that a lot depends now on Pauline’s having enjoyed the fireworks—that if she didn’t enjoy them, if she thought they were boring, not only will he no longer like her but he will no longer have enjoyed them either, in retrospect, and something good will be dead. He says nothing. Along with everyone else, they turn back and leave the beach. It’s possible to walk at only one speed, the speed of the crowd, which seems like the slowest and least comfortable speed at which humans can move. At this pace Aidan keeps bumping into people, small children keep running out unexpectedly in front of him, and prams and people in wheelchairs need to move past. Pauline stays close by him, and at the top of the promenade she asks if he’ll walk her home. He says sure.
She’s staying in one of the houses on the seafront. He knows the street; it’s where all the holiday homes are, with glass walls facing the ocean. As they walk, the rest of the crowd falls away behind them. When they reach her street it’s just the two of them alone in silence. There’s so much he doesn’t know about Pauline—so much, it strikes him with a different and slightly surprising emphasis, that he would like to know—that it’s impossible to begin asking questions. He doesn’t know her surname, or where she’s from, what she does all day, who her family are. He doesn’t know how old she is. Or how she came to know Declan, or how well she knows him.
You know, as to what you were saying the other night, Aidan says, I actually did sleep with a guest at the hotel once. I wouldn’t go telling Declan about it, because he doesn’t approve of that kind of thing.
Pauline’s eyes flash up at him. Who was the guest? she asks.
I don’t know, a woman staying on her own. She was a little bit older, maybe in her thirties.
And was it a good experience? Or bad?
It wasn’t great, Aidan says. Not that the sex was bad but more that I felt bad about it, like it was the wrong thing to do.
But the sex was good.
It was O.K. I mean, I’m sure it was fine, I don’t even remember it now. Something at the time made me think maybe she was married. But I don’t know for a fact—I just thought it at the time.
Why did you do it? Pauline says.
He goes quiet for a few seconds. I don’t know, he says. I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that.
What do you mean?
You just seem like someone who understands these things. But when you ask that it makes me feel like I did something weird.
She stops walking and puts her hand on a gatepost, which must be hers. He stops walking, too. Behind her is a large house with big windows, set back from the street by a garden, and all the lights are switched off.
I don’t think it’s weird, she says. I used to have a boyfriend who was married. And I knew his wife—not well or anything, but I did know her. I’m not asking why you did it because I think it’s sick that you would sleep with someone who was married. I suppose I just wonder, why do we do things that we don’t really want to do? And I thought you might have an answer, but it’s O.K. if you don’t. I don’t either.
Right. Well, that makes me feel better. Not that I’m happy you were in a bad situation, but I feel better that I’m not the only one.
Are you in a bad situation now?
No, he says. Now I would say, I am in no situation at all. I feel like my life basically isn’t happening. I think if I dropped dead the only people who would care are the people who would have to cover my shifts. And they wouldn’t even be sad, they’d just be annoyed.
Pauline frowns. She rubs the gatepost under her hand like she’s thinking.
Well, I don’t have that problem, she says. I think in my case there’s too much happening. At this point everyone I’ve ever met seems to want something from me. I feel like if I dropped dead they’d probably cut my body into pieces and sell it at an auction.
You mean like those people you were with, at the hotel.
She shrugs. She rubs her arms again. She asks him if he wants to come inside and he says yes.
The house is spacious and, though furnished, appears curiously empty. The ceilings are high up and far away. Pauline leaves the keys on the hall table and walks through the house switching lights on in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. They reach the living room and she sits down on a gigantic green corner sofa, with a flat surface so large it resembles a bed, but with cushions at the back. There is no television and the bookshelves are bare. He sits down on the couch but not right beside her.
Do you live here on your own? he says.
She looks around vaguely, as if she doesn’t know what he means by “here.”
Oh, she says. Well, only for now.
How long is now?
Everyone always asks questions like that. Don’t you start. Everyone wants to know what I’m doing and how long I’m doing it for. I’d like to be really alone for a while and for no one to know where I was or when I was coming back. And maybe I wouldn’t come back at all.
She stands up from the sofa and asks if he would like a drink. Unnerved by her previous speech, about going somewhere alone and never returning, which seems in a way like a metaphor, he just shrugs.
I have a bottle of whiskey, she says. But I don’t want you to think I have a drinking problem. Someone gave it to me as a present—I didn’t buy it myself. Would you have even a small half glass and I’ll have one? But if you don’t want one I won’t have one either.
I’ll have a glass, yeah, he says.
She walks out of the room, not through a door but through an open archway. The house is confusingly laid out, so he can’t tell where she’s gone or how far away.
If you want to be alone, he says aloud, I can go.
She reappears in the archway almost instantly. What? she says.
If you want to be alone like you were saying, he repeats. I don’t want to intrude on you.
Oh, I only meant that . . . philosophically, she says. Were you listening to me? That’s your first mistake. Everything I say is nonsense. Your brother knows how to deal with me, he never listens. I’ll be back in a second.
She goes away again. What does it mean that Declan “knows how to deal with” Pauline? Should Aidan ask? Maybe this is his opening to ask. She returns with two half-full tumblers, hands him one, and then settles down on the sofa beside him, slightly closer than where she had been sitting previously, though still not touching. They sip the whiskey. It’s not something Aidan would ever drink of his own volition, but it tastes fine.
I’m sorry about your mother, Pauline says. Declan told me she passed away.
They pause. Aidan takes another, larger sip of whiskey. You’re seeing a lot of Declan, are you? he says.
He’s sort of my car friend. I mean he’s my only friend who has a car. He’s very nice, he’s always driving me places. And he usually just ignores me when I say silly things. I think he thinks I’m a terrible woman. He wasn’t impressed with me the other night when I asked you those vulgar questions. But you’re his baby brother—he thinks you’re very innocent.
Aidan pays special attention to the fact that she has used the word “friend” more than once in connection with Declan. He feels it can have only one meaning—a thought that makes him feel good. Does he? he replies. I don’t know what he thinks of me.
He said he didn’t know if you were gay or straight, Pauline says.
Ah, well. As I said, I don’t talk about things with him.
You’ve never brought a girlfriend home.
You’ve got the advantage of me here, Aidan says. He’s telling you all about me and I don’t know anything about you.
She smiles. Her teeth are extremely white and perfect, unrealistic-looking, almost blue.
What do you want to know? she says.
Well, I’m curious what brings you to live here. I don’t think you’re from here.
That’s what you’re curious about? Good grief. I’m starting to think you really are innocent.
That’s not very nice, Aidan says.
She looks wounded for a moment, stares into her glass, and says sadly, What made you think I was nice?
He doesn’t think he can answer this question. In truth he doesn’t think of her as particularly nice. He just thinks of niceness as a general standard to which everyone accepts they can be held. She puts her empty glass down on the coffee table and sits back on the couch. Your life isn’t as bad as you think it is, she says.
Well, neither is yours, he replies.
How should you know?
Everyone wants your attention all the time, so what? Aidan says. If you hated it so much you could fuck off on your own somewhere—what’s to stop you?
She tilts her head to one side, places a hand gently under her chin. Move to a remote seaside town, you mean? she says. Live the quiet life—maybe settle down with a nice country boy who works hard for a living. Is that what you had in mind?
Oh, fuck off.
She gives a light, irritatingly musical laugh.
I don’t want anything from you, he adds.
Then what are you doing here?
He puts his glass down. You asked me to come in, he says. You asked if we could watch the fireworks together, remember? And then you asked me to walk home with you, and then you asked me inside. And I’m the one who’s inserting myself into your life, am I? I never wanted anything from you.
She seems to consider this, looking grave. Finally she says, I thought you liked me.
What does that mean? If I liked you that means something bad about me?
As if she has not heard him, she replies, I liked you.
He now feels utterly confused as to why they seem to be arguing, confused to the point of abrupt despair. Right, he says. Look, I’m going to go.
By all means.
He experiences this parting with her—this parting he himself announced spontaneously and called into existence—as an excruciating ordeal, almost a physical pain. He can’t quite believe he’s going through with it, actually standing upright from the sofa and turning away toward the door they entered through. Why is everything so strange now? At what point did his relations with Pauline begin to violate the ordinary rules of social contact? It started normally enough. Or did it? He still doesn’t even know if she’s his brother’s girlfriend.
She doesn’t rise from the couch to see him out. He has to make his way through the half-lit, cavernous house alone, fumbling through dark hallways and at one point a dazzlingly bright dining room toward the front door. Why did she say that, about settling down with a “nice country boy”? She was just trying to provoke him. But why? She knows nothing about his life. Why is he even thinking about her, then? At this moment, reaching the front door of Pauline’s house, with its glazed glass reflecting back at him an unrecognizable image that he knows to be his own face, this strikes Aidan as the question without an answer.
Several weeks later he’s in the back room trying to find a Continental power adapter for a guest upstairs when Lydia comes in saying that someone at reception wants him. Wants what? he says. Wants you, Lydia says. They’re asking for you. Aidan closes the drawer containing the hotel’s selection of adapters and, as if in a dream now or in a video game, his actions under the control of some higher intelligence, he stands up and follows Lydia out of the back room, toward the front desk. He already knows, before he sees or hears Pauline, that she will be there waiting for him. And she is. She’s wearing a dress made from what looks like very soft, fine cloth. An older man is standing beside her with his arm around her waist. Aidan simply notices all this neutrally. His image of Pauline is already so confused and obscure that to see her in this situation cannot indicate anything really new about her.
All right, Aidan says. How can I help?
We’re looking for a room, the man says.
Pauline touches her nose with her fingertips. The man swats her arm and says, You’re making it worse. Look. It’s going to start bleeding again.
It is bleeding, she says.
She sounds drunk. Aidan can see that her fingers are bloodied when she draws them away from her face. He bends over the computer at the desk but does not immediately open the room-reservations interface. He swallows and pretends to click on something, actually just clicking nothing. Is Lydia watching him? She’s at the desk, just a little way to his right, but he can’t tell if she’s looking.
For how many nights? Aidan says.
One, the man says. Tonight.
They’re not going to have anything at such short notice, Pauline says.
Well, let’s see, the man says.
If you’d told me you were coming, I could have arranged something, she says.
Relax, the man says.
Aidan swallows again. He’s conscious of a kind of throbbing sensation inside his head, like the flicking of a light, on and off. He moves the mouse around the screen in a show of efficiency and then, impulsively, pretends to type something although there is no keyboard input open onscreen. He’s certain Lydia is watching him. Finally he straightens up from the computer and looks at the man.
No, I’m sorry, he says. We don’t have any rooms available tonight.
The man stares at him. Lydia’s looking over at him, too. You don’t have any rooms? the man says. Every room in the hotel is taken? In the middle of April?
I told you, Pauline says.
Sorry, Aidan says. We can get you something next week, if you’d like.
The man moves his mouth like he’s laughing, but no laugh comes out. He removes his hand from Pauline’s waist, lifts it up in the air, and lets it drop against his own body. Aidan is careful not to look at Pauline or Lydia at all.
No rooms, the man repeats. All booked up. This hotel.
I’m sorry I can’t help, Aidan says.
The man looks at Pauline.
Well, what do you want me to do? she says.
In response the man lifts his arm again to point at Aidan. Is this your boyfriend? the man says.
Oh, don’t be absurd, Pauline says. Are you going to develop paranoia now on top of everything else?
You know him, the man says. You asked for him.
Pauline shakes her head, dabs delicately at her nose, and flashes a kind of apologetic smile at Aidan and Lydia across the desk. I’m sorry, she says. We’ll get out of your way. Can I ask you to call a couple of taxis? I’d really appreciate it.
Oh, we can’t share a taxi? the man says.
Coldly now, Pauline replies, We’re going in opposite directions. Under his breath, with a kind of frozen grin on his face, the man says, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it. Then he turns around and walks toward the large double doors of the hotel entrance. Lydia picks up the phone to call the taxi company. Pauline, without any change in her demeanor, lifts the hotel pen from the desk, takes the pad of paper, writes something down, and then tears the sheet from the pad. She takes out some money, encloses it in the note, and pushes it across the desk toward Aidan. Looking only at Lydia, she smiles and says, Thanks so much. Then she exits, following the man through the double doors.
When the doors swing shut, Lydia is still on the phone. Aidan sits down and stares into space. He hears Lydia saying goodbye, then he hears the faint click of the receiver replaced in its cradle. He just sits there. Lydia finds the note on the desk and nudges it in Aidan’s direction with the end of a pen, like she doesn’t want to touch it.
She left this for you, Lydia says.
I don’t want it.
Lydia uses the pen to flick open the note.
There’s a hundred euro in here, she says.
That’s O.K., he says. You take it.
For a few seconds Lydia says nothing. Aidan just sits staring blankly straight ahead. Presently, as if making up her mind, Lydia says, I’ll put it with the tips. She wrote you a note as well, do you not want that? I think it just says thank you.
You can leave it, he says. Or, actually, give it to me.
Lydia gives it to him. Without looking at it, he places it in his pocket. Then he rises from the chair to return to the back room to find the power adapter for the guest upstairs. He won’t see Pauline again before she leaves town in a few days’ time.
all will be well
all will be well
March 11 2019
Once upon a time, I was addicted to a salon. I never called ahead, and rarely had to wait—not everyone went to Lily’s for a haircut. The old men Lily called uncles sat at a card table, reading newspapers and magazines in Chinese and Vietnamese. The television above the counter was tuned to a channel based in Riverside, and the aunties—related or not related to the uncles—watched cooking shows and teledramas in Mandarin.
I was the only customer under sixty, and the only one who spoke in English. With others Lily used Vietnamese, Cantonese, or Mandarin. The first time we met, I lied and said that I had been adopted by a couple from Holland when I was a year old and that we moved to America when I was in middle school. Lily forgave me then for not being able to speak one of the languages she preferred. Brought up by foreign devils, she told a nearby auntie in Cantonese. Half foreign, the auntie said; hair still Chinese. Half devil, Lily said; brain not Chinese. Both laughed. I smiled blankly at Lily in the mirror, and she smiled back. What do you do? she asked, and I lied again and said I was a student. She picked up a strand of hair and let it fall. My hair had just begun to show signs of gray. What subject? she asked, and I said I’d gone back to school because I wanted to become a writer. Will you make money being a writer? she asked, and I said not really.
Lily’s salon was a few blocks from the high street where armed robberies rarely made even the local news. The salon was caged in metal bars, and there was a chain on the door, which Lily unlocked when she saw her customers coming and locked again right after they entered. If there was a fire, none of us would escape, I had thought when I first started to go there, though that didn’t alarm me. I had two small children then, both in preschool, but, despite others’ warnings, I did not feel susceptible to the various dangers that the world could dole out. If the world had a mind to harm, it would do so to the prepared and the unprepared equally. Does being a mother give one the right to bluff? If having children is a gamble, one has no choice but to bluff.
We lived on the college campus where I was teaching at the time. Enclosed within the fences was a land of trees and ponds and creeks and fountains. The flowering quinces near our house were said to have been planted by the servants of the founder’s family in the eighteen-sixties. The preschool was in a building that, with its white stucco and Spanish tiled roof, looked like an outdated resort in the Mediterranean. America was a young country, California among its youngest states. The college was a mere débutante in a world of grand, old institutes, but all those trees and bushes and buildings gave me the impression that life could be as slowly lived, as long-lasting, as we wanted it to be.
Still, the world was full of perils. Some rather real, some rather close. Once, campus security sent out a warning that an unaccompanied pit bull had been spotted roaming near the swimming pool. Once, an armed man was chased into the cluster of faculty houses on a Saturday night; with police cars and helicopters outside, we turned off our lights and listened to a CD of a French children’s drama called “Madame Magic,” designed as a language course. Sometimes a drive-by shooting happened on the street corner near the preschool, and on those days the children were deprived of their outdoor time. All these threats, strangely, didn’t worry me as much as the eucalyptus trees. A recurring fear I had, during those years, was that on a windy day a eucalyptus branch would fall on our heads. In one of the earliest conversations about nature I had with my children, I pointed out that the settlers had made a mistake introducing eucalyptus trees to California. A fire hazard in the dry season, I said, and in winter storms there was the danger of falling limbs. That didn’t scare them, though; on our walks they would sing, “Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree.” Someday, we decided, we would go to Australia and see koala bears and kangaroos and kookaburras.
When I went to Lily’s, I wore a dark sweatshirt and bluejeans, with a twenty-dollar bill tucked in the back pocket. Once, returning to campus after a haircut, I ran into a colleague. My goodness, she said, I thought you were a student. I blend in, I replied. I could easily have booked an appointment at a boutique salon in one of the more picturesque suburbs. Lily’s was only a few blocks from the college, but was my time so precious that I couldn’t drive twenty minutes to a safer neighborhood? Mencius said that a man of wisdom does not stand next to a wall that is about to topple. Even though I wore sneakers and was a fast runner, I should have known that nobody can outrun a bullet.
I went to Lily’s more often than was necessary. Had I been superstitious, I would have thought that she had put a spell on me.
Lily liked to chat. There were always dramas in her life. Once, her husband broke a toe when he tripped on the carpet that they had finally installed in their house, after ten years of planning. Once, her youngest son, who went to a state university, overslept on the very same morning that a man hacked at random pedestrians with a knife on their street. “He could’ve been killed,” Lily said. “He’s the laziest of the three, but now he says it pays to be lazy.” Her father-in-law, just before his death, had made friends with a man whose first name was Casino. “The poor man thought it was a sign that he would win some money,” she said. “Turned out Casino was not a true friend. Casino didn’t even go gambling with him.”
I listened, smiled, and asked questions—these were my most tiresome traits, and I used them tirelessly. Each encounter was a test I set up for myself: How long could I get people to talk about themselves without remembering to ask me a question? I had no stories to share. I had opinions, and yet I was as stubborn as Bartleby. I would prefer not to, I would reply if asked to remark on people’s stories. In any case, Lily didn’t care about my opinions or my stories—she got plenty of both from the uncles and aunties. I liked to believe that she had waited years for a perfect client like me.
Elsewhere, I wasn’t entirely free from the demands of stating my opinions. Once, a student complained about a J. M. Coetzee novel I’d assigned. It’s so insulting that this book is all about ideas and offers nothing for the heart, she said, and I snapped, unprofessionally, that in my view bad taste was more insulting. Once, a student called Charles Simic a misogynist because he hadn’t written enough about his mother in his memoir. Read a book for what it is, I admonished the student, not for what you want it to be. The student replied that I had only stale ideas of what literature was about. “My goal is to dismantle your canon,” she said, pointing to the Tolstoy and Chekhov on my desk. “They’re not about real life.”
What is life? I wanted to ask. What is real? But right away I felt exhausted. I longed to sit in Lily’s chair. She would trim my hair and talk about the bubble-tea-and-frozen-yogurt place her husband had decided to invest in, or her neighbor’s new profession as a breeder of rare goldfish, or her oldest son’s ridiculous dream of quitting his job at the law firm and attending a culinary institute. Canons did not have a place in Lily’s life. If she were to dismantle anything, it would be a house worth buying as a flipper.
So I went to Lily’s. To my surprise, that day she did not want to talk about her husband or children or in-laws. Or perhaps it was a different day when she decided to tell me a love story. It didn’t matter. All those stories she had told me before had been only a prologue.
It took one haircut for me to get the bare bones of the story, and a few more to gather the details, and still a few more for me to start looking at Lily askance. What was real? What was life? Perhaps we could all make up stories for ourselves when we didn’t know the answers.
Here’s Lily’s story.
She grew up in an ethnic-Chinese family in Vietnam. At sixteen, she fell in love with the Vietnamese boy next door, who was sixteen, too. She was beautiful, he was handsome, but when war broke out between their countries the following year Lily’s father decided that it was no longer safe for his family to live in Vietnam.
“Tuan came to my parents,” Lily said. “He asked to leave the country with us. He would do anything just to be with me, he told my parents. My father said, ‘You’re not our son, you’re your parents’ son.’ ”
I thought about that war, three weeks and six days long, which was nearly forgotten now. When I was in elementary school in Beijing, my best friend subscribed to a children’s magazine that often featured stories set on the border between Vietnam and China, with illustrations of maimed bodies and bombed villages and the heroic faces of intrepid soldiers. But, placed in history, that war was no more than a skinned knee or a sneeze to mankind. When Lily asked me if I knew the history between the two countries, I almost slipped and said yes. Then I remembered: I was supposed to have grown up in a country far from Asia, with an enviable childhood.
Lily’s family had become boat people, migrating from Vietnam to Hong Kong to Hawaii and later to California. She had helped her parents in their Chinese takeout, apprenticed with an older cousin who ran a hair salon in Los Angeles, married, and had children. This nondescript life of an immigrant would have continued, if she hadn’t recently had news of Tuan, the boy of her girlhood.
“Our story is like a movie,” she said.
“Like a play,” I said. “ ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ ”
“Do you know someone who can make our story into a movie?”
For a while, Lily kept asking me that, and each time I replied no, feeling bad for delivering disappointing news, yet not bad enough to stop going to see her. Years of standing in the same spot—cutting and shaving and dyeing and listening to the uncles and aunties—had turned Lily into an unhurried storyteller. She took detours, and, like a verbal magician, offered dazzling distractions and commonplace tricks. “Where does your husband get his hair cut?” she asked once. “Tell him to come here. I’ll give him a discount because you’re my best client.”
More people came into the story, marching in and out like a platoon of extras. Her schoolmates were remembered. Some of them had also had crushes on Tuan. The friendships between the fathers and between the eldest sons of the two families were recollected, but friendships severed by war were hardly worth a movie. Lily’s parents had sympathized with their daughter when they first left Vietnam, but soon afterward they had shown impatience when she pined.
“Well, I can’t blame them,” Lily said. “Love doesn’t put rice in the cooker or a roof over our heads.”
“What does love do?” I asked.
“Oh, love makes a good movie,” she said. “Without movies, what would we do with ourselves?”
Tuan cried for three days and three nights in front of Lily’s old house after she and her family left. No one could pry his fingers off the chain lock. At the end of the third night, his older brothers were finally able to take him back to their house. Everyone thought he was going to die.
“Three days and three nights,” Lily said. “Never a step away from our door.” She had heard about this from an old friend whom she had seen recently when he and his wife were visiting their children in America.
Could anyone cry non-stop for three days and three nights without food or drink or sleep? But what right did I have to doubt the boy, what right did I have to want him to express his heartbreak more poetically or die more realistically, like Michael Furey? For all I knew, Michael Furey had been a figment of Joyce’s imagination, as perhaps the boy was of Lily’s. I did not know sorrow then, and later, when I did, after my elder son’s death, I thought that Lily’s young lover had been fortunate to have so many tears in him. Sorrow only desiccated me. Tears came to an end. Desiccation persisted.
The boy did not die. He recovered and eventually moved to another province in Vietnam to teach mathematics at a middle school. A woman in town fell in love with him, though he did not reciprocate. “He was waiting for me to come back,” Lily said. “Before we parted, he said he would wait for me all his life.”
A life of waiting was interrupted by a bout of illness, during which the woman took care of Tuan like a good wife. After that, the two were married, and together they raised three daughters.
“Isn’t it interesting that he has three daughters and I have three sons?” Lily said. “Think of where our promises went.”
“Did you promise to return?” I asked.
“Of course I did, but we left as refugees. We knew we wouldn’t go back.”
“But he could’ve kept his promise.”
“Now, that’d be a really good love story,” Lily said. “But I don’t hold it against him that he didn’t. He shouldn’t have.”
The next time I went to Lily’s—after I’d been away for two months for the summer holidays—she looked ruffled. “Where have you been all these weeks?” she asked, and before I could answer she said, “My friends have put me in touch with Tuan.”
“Did you see him?”
“No. How can I? We aren’t the kind of people who take time off from work, and he lives in Vietnam,” Lily said. “But they gave my contact information to him. He wrote and asked about my family, and told me a few things about his wife and daughters.”
Everything was fine, then, I thought. A love story had arrived at a tranquil ending.
“He asked me to forgive him,” Lily said. Oh dear, I thought. “Do you think I should call him? He asked me if I would be willing to talk on the phone.”
“Why not?” I said.
“What if I turn out to be a disappointment? Not the girl he remembered?”
“It’s only a phone call. You won’t see each other. You’ll just hear each other’s voice. Say a few nice things. You don’t have to talk about the past. The two countries were to blame, not the two of you.”
“What if he turns out to be different from the boy I remember?” she said.
“Maybe you shouldn’t call him, then,” I said. “You don’t have to.”
“But how can I not? If I miss him this time, we’ll miss each other all our lives.”
The phone call didn’t go the way I had imagined. I had thought that Lily and her former lover would have a bittersweet conversation about their youth, and exchange a few superficial details about their marriages and their children, nothing too concrete, happiness and adversity both withheld. Or that they might be more forthright as adults and take a philosophical view, agreeing that their love might not have weathered the changes as they grew older. They would tell each other that they would remain friends. They might even say that their two families could become friends.
But I’m not a good writer of love stories. There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of by my limited imagination.
When Lily finally called, the man had no words but only tears, and she listened to him sob. “He was disturbed,” Lily told me. “I almost felt like crying myself, but I kept saying to him, ‘Hello, do you have something to say? We’ve waited for this for so many years. We can’t waste our time crying.’ ”
After a long while, as he was still crying, one of his daughters took the phone away from him. “It’s too much for Father,” she said to Lily, calling her Auntie. Lily asked the girl about their family life in Vietnam, and she answered with warmth. “Father often talks about you,” the girl said. “We all feel you’re part of our family.”
Lily was working on the nape of my neck when she said this. I couldn’t catch her eyes in the mirror. She didn’t sound perturbed when she recounted the girl’s words, which troubled me. Her voice was dreamy in a menacing way, like a voice-over in a movie. I pictured an actress standing in front of an open window, her back to an unlit room, the moonlight cold in her theatrical eyes. Does he deserve your love, or does he deserve to be killed by you? she asked herself, her face frozen with indecision. Do you have a choice?
“And then,” Lily said, “you won’t believe this. The daughter said that all three sisters’ names have a Chinese character from my name. I never told you. My Chinese name has the character ‘blossom’ in it. He put the same character in their names.”
I shuddered, the way one shudders when stepping out of the hot summer sun and into an abandoned tunnel. Where had that thought of a tunnel come from? And then I remembered. It was an abandoned nuclear shelter next to our apartment building in Beijing. My parents’ generation had dug the tunnels when it was feared that a war between China and the Soviet Union was inevitable. In elementary school, I had played truant often and gone into one of the tunnels with a box of matches. The damp and moldy air, the scurrying bugs and rats, the rusty nails I had collected in a box as treasure—I felt terror imagining my children on an exploration like that. Yet I had been happy then.
“And then his daughter said, ‘Auntie, I don’t think Father can talk with you today. It’s too much for him. We worry about his health. But do you want to talk to Mother? She is here. She wants to talk with you, too.’ ”
“Did you talk to his wife?” I asked, knowing that Lily’s pause was a gesture to allow me to be included in her narrative.
She did. I would have, too.
“Do you know anyone who could make this into a movie? I’m telling you, it’s a love story, and it’s a movie.”
“I don’t know anyone who makes movies,” I said. “But what happened? You talked with his wife, and then what?”
“She came on the phone, and I liked her voice right away. I think he married a good woman. She called me Sister. Like the daughter, she also said he talked about me often. And then she said, ‘You don’t know how much he loves you. You will never understand.’ And all of a sudden I started to cry. Imagine that. I didn’t shed a single tear when he was bawling on the phone. His wife said, ‘But you shouldn’t cry, Sister. You should be happy. You’re the only love he’s had. All these years he’s kept your photo on our nightstand.’ ”
“In the bedroom the two of them share?” I asked.
“Yes,” Lily said.
“Are you serious?”
“Why would I lie?”
Why would anyone lie to anyone? But people do, I thought, all the time.
“I talked with his wife and then with the two other daughters,” Lily said. “It was a long phone call. And I didn’t hear a single word from him. But you know what made me the saddest? His wife said, ‘You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known.’ No one has ever said that to me.”
We both looked up at the mirror. I had not thought of Lily as a pretty woman. I was an exhausted young mother then, courageously blind to the dangers of the world and stubbornly blind to its beauties. I now studied Lily, and thought that she was indeed pretty. I also started to think that she’d made up the whole story, just as I had invented my upbringing in Holland. We all had our reasons for doing this as long as no harm was done. Even so, I began to resent Lily. She must have put a spell on me, tricking me into her chair, hypnotizing me with girlish dreams that had not been hardened by life.
“Maybe you can write my story, and then someone will make a movie from it,” Lily said.
I should have stopped going to Lily’s right away. Perhaps she had seen through me. Tell me a story—she must have known that every time I sat down in her chair I was making that request—a real story, Lily.
Let me tell you a story—she agreed—and let me make it unreal for you.
We saw each other one more time after that. She had promised to show me a copy of the photo of her and the boy, the one he kept in his marriage bedroom. A photo would prove nothing, I thought, but where else could I go for a haircut? Finding another salon would be like starting a new relationship, forging a new friendship, while all I wanted was to keep the unknown, good or bad, at a distance. Forget life, real or unreal. What I wanted to do was to raise my children as a good mother should. In those years, the days seemed long, never-ending, and sometimes I felt impatient for my children to grow up, and then felt guilty for my impatience.
The photo that Lily showed me—what can I say? Years later, after my son died, I felt a constant ache, similar to what I had felt for Lily and the boy when I saw them in the photo. The same ache, I imagined, would afflict those who now looked at photos of my son—he died at about the age Lily and Tuan were when they fell in love.
But that ache was still as distant and as theoretical as a nebula when I was sitting in Lily’s chair. She opened an envelope in which a sepia-toned black-and-white photo was preserved between two sheets of tissue paper. The girl in the photo was dressed in a white áo dài, and the boy in a white silk shirt and a pair of white pants. She was beautiful, he was handsome, but those were not the words I would use to describe them. They were young, their faces cloudless, their bodies insubstantial, closer to childhood than to adulthood. They looked like two lambs, impeccably prepared by their elders as sacrifices to appease a beast or a god. Would anyone have been surprised to hear that they died right after the photo was taken? Some children were born tragedies.
“What do you think?” Lily asked, studying my face.
“Wow,” I said.
“Maybe you can write a romantic novel about us.”
When tragedies drag on, do they become comedies instead, or grow more tragic?
I could not make a romance out of Lily’s story. She was not the first person I had let down with my writing. During those years, when my children were in preschool, at the beginning of each semester we were asked to send a care package that was to be kept at the school in case of a catastrophic earthquake. In the care packages we were to include a few nonperishable snacks, a family photo, a small stuffed animal, and a note to the children, telling them that, if their parents could not make it to the school, there was nothing for them to worry about. Everything would be fine, the note was to say. Everything would be all right in the end.
I had always prepared the snacks and the stuffed animal and the family photo, but I had never been able to write that note to my children. What could I say to them? If your teacher is reading this to you, it means that Mommy and Daddy are late picking you up; it may also mean that we will never come back for you, but all will be well in the end.
We lived through their childhoods without being hit by a deadly earthquake. The care packages were returned to us when the children graduated from preschool. Still, if a writer cannot write a simple note as a parental duty, what meaning is there in the words she does write?
A few days ago, I got an e-mail from my former student who had vowed to dismantle my canon. She said that she was travelling in South America. She mentioned a few things she had learned from our clashes. “I remember that once you said to us: One must want to be great in order to be good. To this day I still wonder why you looked sad when you said that,” she wrote.
Under what circumstances had I said that? And sad about what? Had she written to enlighten me about what real life was, I would have applauded her consistency. Instead, in her long e-mail, she talked about what I had taught her. I, too, had been young then; how could I have taught anyone anything? All will be well all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well, yet I could not even write a lying note to console my children.
the starlet apartments
the starlet apartments
March 4 2019
When Peter Todbaum and I were twenty-five, and three years clear of Yale, I lost track of him for a short while. I had been living in New York City, working as an assistant at F.S.G. and writing short stories that no one wanted to publish, when he got back in touch. He had acquired an agent and was going to Hollywood. He wanted me with him, as co-writer on a stack of ideas he promised me he’d already developed and vetted with his representation, and which needed only my hand. Mine alone! I, Alexander Duplessis, was the writer he needed! Not Robert Towne or Herman J. Mankiewicz! I alone could grok and conjugate Todbaum’s sensibility, and, besides, he had a place picked out for us in Burbank. We’d shack up together and bash out treatments, and it would be a gas, gas, gas, like Yale without all the pointless Yale stuff, and with a great deal more cocaine. Hearing this, I was his, I was there in a heartbeat. I saw two birds in a bush and had not one in my hand.
The place was the Starlet Apartments, a classic thirties two-story complex curled around a pool. Monthly rentals, with a motley assortment of long-term and short-term occupants, and plenty of empty apartments, too. It was right in the shadow of the high-walled Warner Bros. lot, so you’d have to joke that the place was named for its traditional use as a lunchtime casting-couch liaison site, and your joke was surely right. We holed up there, batting out projects poolside or in the paltry ground-floor suite we shared, with the A.C. cranked. In the evening, we drove to West Hollywood bars in Todbaum’s father’s cast-off BMW and pounded Jägermeister shots and tried to pick up women, in many cases women older than us, and never once succeeded, and didn’t care. We were so full of ourselves and our projects—Todbaum’s agent called every few days to see how we were doing; he was champing at the bit to get us into “good offices” as soon as the material was ready—that we worked on the material at all hours, popping out new ideas even at the bars, even while blitzed on German digestif. Sometimes we stayed at the Starlet and worked side by side in deck chairs, while the complex’s young tenants teasingly tried to entice us to join their pool parties.
Blitzed or hung over, we fastened ourselves to the task. We were Wilder and Brackett, or Budd Schulberg and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Todbaum was the bullshitter; I, the hands on the keyboard. He’d circle me in great fugues of self-infatuated improv, doing voices, abruptly changing dialogue or the names of characters, forcing me to hurriedly xxxxxxx out endless lines on the Canon Typestar, a kind of proto word processor that heat-transferred the type on to the page. Then he’d jerk the pages from my hand to scribble further emendations, or ball them up and toss them into the suite’s corners. We hammered out one whole script, a horror movie based on an unpublished story of mine; and four or five long treatments, several of them broad, idiotic comedies pegged for the stars of the day, Carrey or Sandler or Murphy. Our pet, our favorite, was a sci-fi movie we called “Yet Another World,” a tale of alternate nightmare Earths—one a “Mad Max” post-apocalyptic landscape, the other an Orwellian dystopia—that begin to communicate with each other to form a mutual resistance to their twin conditions; in the story, a man from the post-apocalypse (Harrison Ford, probably, or Bruce Willis) falls in love with a lady scientist from the dystopia (Michelle Pfeiffer, so hot in glasses!).
Todbaum and I sold none of what we wrote at the Starlet, though we did run those notions in and out of a great number of meetings. We excelled in near-misses that may not have been near at all, and were, in any event, epic time-wastings, involving follow-up conference calls and weeks of waiting, or requests for further writing on spec which were only occasionally rewarded with anything more nourishing than a free coffee. By the time our run concluded, with Todbaum’s agent’s Rolodex exhausted, two things were apparent: First, that I, the silent partner, the keyboard man, could bang out immense quantities of more or less the thing that was needed in this town, the fuel it all ran on, and that sooner or later I actually might be rewarded for it. Second, that Peter Todbaum had a different gift, for spinning rooms into a kind of visionary frenzy on the pinwheel of his tongue, even if the rooms, for now, quit spinning as soon as he exited. More than one of the development executives we met with joked to him, in so many words, “You should have my job!” Soon, he did.
But that’s getting ahead of the story of the Starlet. In the last of our five months living there, my sister graduated from college. Baginstock, on the coast of Maine, was one of those boutique liberal-arts colleges that younger siblings go to in order to avoid their family’s legacy school. Madeleine was only two years younger than me. The fact that I was the older sibling may still have mattered back when she accepted my invitation to crash with Peter Todbaum and me at the Starlet.
She did so in order to avoid landing back at “home,” on Fishers Island, the place where our parents had elegantly retired, albeit almost penniless, after shoving us both off to, and through, college. In the wake of Baginstock she’d had enough of the Atlantic coast for a spell, perhaps. Certainly, enough of our parents. She’d majored in environmental science and oceanography, and had in her last year moved into a collective off-campus house dedicated to organic farming. That’s to say, she had no special purpose in Los Angeles, let alone in the entertainment industry. But what purpose was needed, beyond curiosity, at twenty-three? And what two insurgent industry horndogs wouldn’t want a tall, attractive sister to accompany them into the West Hollywood night life, to make them appear less loserish?
Maddy had attained her full height. Or—looking more closely, as I did—she’d been encouraged by her righteous communal friends to straighten and not be ashamed of her full height. She was taller than I was, taller than our parents (who’d begun shrinking), and taller than Peter Todbaum, when he rose to greet her. She and Peter hadn’t met in our college years, and when she came through the door of the suite, her only luggage a hiker’s backpack, her air-travel attire a tank top and high-cut jean shorts, I felt his instant excitement at her presence.
“Well, fuck me in the heart,” he said. “Who’s this undifferentiated whisper of womanhood?”
“Peter, Madeleine,” I said, as if at a freshman mixer.
“From what the Sandman here told me, I was picturing a little mud hippie. Some kind of hairy-ankled garden gnome.” Todbaum liked to call me the Sandman—a reworking of my nickname, Sandy, and a joke about how I’d conk out in the middle of parties, or one of his ceaseless sentences. I’d mentioned how Madeleine had cured herself of childhood ailments, including that of preppiness, through her devotion to farming and the outdoors, through a macrobiotic diet and other alternative-health practices. “Maybe there’s a secret Dutch gene lurking in the Frog Family lineage, eh?” He liked to riff on my last name and the suggestion that all my pretensions—reading, jazz, wire-rimmed glasses, and wine—were traces of French ancestry. “Someone must have taken a walk on the Walloon side.”
“Sorry?” said Madeleine, even as she came out of a brief embrace with me to offer her hand to Todbaum. He lifted it to his lips and licked. Then, still holding it up, blotted off the moisture with his left arm’s sleeve. But he didn’t let go.
“You look fresh off the Prinsengracht Canal,” he said. “One of those implacable leggy things the tourists dream of. Where’s your bicycle?”
She caught up to this, a little. “Oh, it folds up small. I’ve got it right here in my pack.”
Todbaum’s manner of acknowledging this was to turn to me. “She walks, she talks, she—whaddayou Frogs call it?—she ripostes.” And then he took her hand to his mouth again and—was I imagining things?—bit, substantially, into the meatiest part of her palm. I wasn’t imagining. Maddy jerked it away, into her pocket, and turned red.
Oh, my sister! Hand-holding toddler, mutual confidante and whisperer, agonizing every-night violin-practicer, and stricken sufferer of childhood psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis! Scratching your bow and scratching your scabby elbows! All those hours you spent smoothing lotion onto your arms and legs and neck, sunning in hope of a solar cure, sweet klutzy embarrassed kid, so unready for your height, teenage prisoner of your flaking and sore knees! Though we’d drifted apart somewhat, in high school, Maddy was lodged in my somatic sense of myself. I felt as though the center of my chest might once have been fused to hers, as though we’d been conjoined twins with one multifarious heart. Now—I mean then—I threw her at the nearest crooked monster available, the first chance I got.
It happened before I knew it. I was too identified with Todbaum to discern the wretchedness of his hungers, or perhaps I was unable to discern how much less ordinarily wretched they were than my own. Maddy must have taken our cohabitation for some ratification of a general O.K.ness—why else would I live with him? Collaborate with him? Take his money and his cocaine? Todbaum and I, in our Starlet phase, were another version of twins, a buddy golem constructed out of a typewriter and a telephone and Todbaum’s entrancing, maniacal all-night filibusters. Maybe Maddy would have been a sitting duck in any event.
Todbaum worked by indirection. By what he called, quoting Howard Hawks’s description of his favorite form of dialogue, “a three-corner shot.” After that initial welcoming flare of his response, he back-burnered Maddy for a day or two, made her watch us work, seemed only grudgingly amused at our sibling familiarities, even slightly impatient to find her on the couch when he emerged for morning coffee. We went out drinking the first two nights, and he half ignored her. The third night, a Friday, when the Starlet broke out in its usual half-assed pool revels, which we usually disdained, Todbaum surprised me by suggesting that we stay in. There were some new faces, he said. A cutie or two. We wouldn’t have to drink and drive for a change, just fall back into our rooms. Only later did I see how every part of this was congruent with his aim. Assuming he’d formed it in advance.
I woke at four or five on a deck chair, my throat raw. Todbaum had poured liquor and pot not into Maddy—well, he’d likely done that, too—but into me. And, from me, conspicuously withheld the cocaine. My hair was stiff and rank with chlorine, though at some point I’d got back into my T-shirt and jeans. I’d either made out with one of the not-terribly-cuties or tried to and only kissed and fumbled. The power Todbaum’s suggestions had over me was awful. I was alone now. I went to the door. The suite was locked, my key inside. I rattled at the handle a little, imagining that Maddy would hear me from the couch, but no. I didn’t ponder this, but instead staggered up North Pass to the Bob’s Big Boy on Riverside, to feed my young, still drunk hangover with hash and eggs.
When I circled back, an hour or so later, I found the suite door unlocked but Todbaum’s bedroom door shut, and no sign of Maddy. Instead I discovered, on the kitchen counter, a note in Todbaum’s hand—Go catch a flick, we could use a few hours—atop two twenties. This was before cell phones. The desolate spaciousness between humans, between human moments, not yet filled in with chattering ghosts of reassurance. You could hear yourself not think. I saw “Raising Cain,” a 10:50 a.m. matinée, then ate a bulb-tanned hot dog and sneaked down the corridor, into “Unforgiven.” I wasn’t wakened until the credits rolled.
When I returned to the Starlet, Todbaum’s door was open. I saw no sign, one way or another, of what activities might have taken place there. But Maddy’s backpack was gone; all trace of her seemed to have vanished. And neither she nor Todbaum was to be found, the rest of that day, or into the night. His car was gone, too.
Did I call the police? “Two recent college graduates slipped off in each other’s company. I’m worried the attraction may not be mutual.” I did not. Did I call our parents? “The thing is, Dad, my friend is a—” Well, what was he? I didn’t have to decide. No, I conducted my own search, first on foot, then, humiliatingly, by taxicab. I hit the bars, the widest circuit, the Dresden, the Viper Room, Musso & Frank, places we’d drunk in and others we’d intended to. I invaded the Chateau Marmont. I’d pictured them on a revel, in other words. As though Todbaum had simply nudged me aside and plugged Maddy into my place—maybe they were trying to pick up women together. Although it wasn’t the likeliest picture in the world, it was the best I could conjure.
I had to direct the last cab to a cash machine near the Starlet just to pay off the meter. My account was below five hundred dollars. I walked to Bob’s Big Boy for the second time that day, a day that had turned into my first night in Los Angeles not in the company of Todbaum. I fell into my own sorrow, wondering where I’d ended in my life—as if I’d ended anywhere! At twenty-five! It was a temporary cover for my fear that something had happened to Todbaum and Maddy, or, really, to Maddy. When I walked back, I checked Todbaum’s usual parking spot. The BMW had returned.
I ran up to find them, but no. The suite was still empty, as I’d left it. My sense of helplessness, underscored by hours spent at the mercy of Los Angeles without a vehicle, was now a self-fulfilling thing. There was a name for this. I’d been taught it in college: learned helplessness. Yet this was more surreal, as if I were the victim of some will-destroying parlor trick. Todbaum’s BMW moved of its own accord, the suite doors locked and unlocked themselves, the humans refusing to appear. I stared at the empty rooms in dumb wonder, as if contemplating an M. C. Escher drawing.
When sleep began to overtake me, I stretched out on the couch, where Maddy had camped. This wasn’t in solidarity, exactly. More that to retreat to my room might be to invite further shenanigans at my expense. I wanted to stake out the main space. As I settled in, it occurred to me that I should drag a pillow and a blanket down to the street and sleep across the hood of the BMW, so it couldn’t be started again without my knowledge. That was the onset of crazy thinking, that margin of delirium signalling the body’s merciful shutting down of the mind. No one interrupted my sleep, and I didn’t wake until late the next morning.
The riddle’s answer was sleep’s gift, fully present in my understanding. It wasn’t an M. C. Escher drawing or a Zen koan. It was a plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face thing: the Starlet Apartments had plenty of vacancies. It fit with Todbaum’s languid complacency, his stated preference for using what he called “available materials,” his way of throwing money at any situation. I’d slept in my clothes, had only to tie my sneakers to rush outside. The complex was structured in such a way that from the pool area I’d gain some kind of view into both tiers of apartments. Maybe I could judge, even in daylight, which formerly vacant suite showed signs of new occupancy.
The day’s party was under way. Or the previous night’s had never ended. Party such as it was. A pair of women in midriff-knotted T-shirts and bikini bottoms sat on the kiddie steps, immersed to the waist, smoking American Spirits, with melted ice cubes in a tumbler for a soggy ashtray. One of these was my might-have-been-couldn’t-remember.
“Where’s your suit?”
“Have you seen Peter or Maddy?”
“They’re busy little rabbits.”
“What does that mean?”
“No time for you or me, baby. They’re in the twilight zone.” Then she noticed me casting my eyes along the balcony, reading curtains left to right.
“I need to talk to them.”
“Well, go talk to them, then.” Her glance was enough, just.
The door was locked, the curtain drawn. I wasn’t going away. I made a conspicuous noise with the door handle, and tapped at the window, too. When the door cracked open—I heard the chain come off first—Todbaum stuck his head out.
“Just in time,” he said. “We’re out of ice and a few other things—” Though Todbaum wore the same Indonesian silk robe in which he would pace all day around our suite, dictating while I worked the Typestar’s keyboard, his money clip was in his hand. He peeled off a series of twenties and began to stuff them through the gap. “I’ll find you the car keys, if you hold on a minute—”
“I want to talk to Maddy.”
“Not just now, Sandman.”
“I’m serious, Peter.”
“Aww, don’t make me spell it out in plain English, you’re breaking my heart. The reason we’re talking like this is that Maddy asked me to make you go away.”
“Let her tell me that.” A line I’d have scratched from a draft. Would I reach through the door gap and grab Todbaum by the collar now? I didn’t.
He lowered his voice. “We’re all consensual adults around here, Galahad. Don’t infantilize your sibling.”
“What did you do?”
“What do you think we did? Took the edge off, basically. You know what Hamlet said, right? ‘You’ll groan to take my edge off.’ Which, if I’m judging right, is what you’re in need of and didn’t get: your ashes hauled. Am I correct, sir? You find yourself passed over by the poolside?”
“Let me talk to her.”
“No tears were shed, no coltish animals were harmed in the making of this major motion picture.”
We haggled. I don’t recall which of my appeals drew Todbaum’s curliest scorn, only that it got pretty curly. I think he came outside, to stand with me on the balcony; I recall sensing that we’d gained the attention of the women smoking in the pool below. Maybe I’d raised my voice. We were both halted, then, by the click of the lock behind him.
What ensued next was a blundering sequence, one mimicking comedy, but not funny. Todbaum in his robe, locked out, pleading appeal in turn to the closed door, to me, to the dawningly curious onlookers, to the nowhere-to-be-found apartment manager. The pool women involved themselves, displaying a remarkable capacity to seem drunker in a crisis, despite the fact that they weren’t drinking, as if drawing on unseen reserves. Their semi-boyfriends appeared before too long, and ushered Todbaum away to be placated or reasoned with, so that the women could prove to Maddy, with whom they’d begun speaking through the door, that he wasn’t near. Todbaum reappeared and demanded his car keys, and the process of placation had to begin anew. I was given the car keys. Maddy would be smuggled downstairs—she’d refused to speak with me while on the premises, but I’d be allowed to drive her to LAX. I should wait in the car. I suppose I was being placated, too, though I don’t recall any unreasonable behavior on my part, or any reasonable behavior, either—I felt I’d stood dumbly to one side, a helpless observer. Yet there was this sense of my being managed, too. I had no idea whether the absurd strictures were Maddy’s, or conjured up by our loopy intermediaries. Well, soon enough, they’d made good on them: Maddy appeared at the car, fully dressed, bearing the overstuffed hiker’s pack, which she shoved into the back seat. She wore a turtleneck, far too hot for the occasion. Was it this which made her cheeks look so flushed? It reminded me of how she’d dressed as a teen-ager, to conceal the flaky skin of her neck.
I protested. Maddy made it clear that I should drive, if I wanted even a syllable from her. I drove.
“Wow,” I said. “You have a ticket?”
“They sell tickets.”
“So, I’m, like, what, your cabdriver? After you vanish for two days?”
“Did I? Vanish? Is that what I did?”
“I don’t know, Maddy. Maybe that’s not the word for it. Are you going to tell me what happened in there?”
I felt her emphatically not looking at me as I slid Todbaum’s car onto the 101. “I am not going to tell you what happened in there.” These words stacked like bricks between us.
“O.K., fine, whatever. So you’re just going to let Peter completely ruin this whole thing for you? I was going to show you L.A.” The car was hot. I cranked the A.C. For once there was no traffic.
“Well, you didn’t show me L.A. You showed me, what is this? Burbank? Toluca Lake? You showed me the Starlet Apartments. But maybe you don’t know the difference.”
“You sound—” I started this despite myself, and finished it that way, too. “You sound like Peter.” A part of me wanted to wreck Todbaum’s car, to wreck the squalid progress of this event.
“That would be natural, since I’ve been listening to nothing else for days.”
Oh, sister. Oh, reader. When is the moment to admit that this story has no good ending? That my unknowns remained forever unknowns, that I carry on trying to describe something I don’t understand? Even then, my college chum had already begun his inflation, through the ranks of the ordinary mortal assholes possessing a desk and a telephone, to assume his rightful place. He transformed himself into one of the sacred monsters of that town, a packager known for wrangling talent and intellectual property into fertile conjunctions, for spooking money out of dim corners of the Pacific Rim and Eastern Europe. He was one of those who defied the usual precept—that, despite all the power talk, the only people who could really make anything happen were the seven or twelve bankable stars. Todbaum made things happen. He made a few stars, too. And my own career.
He began by bringing me in as a kind of triage expert on broken projects. In that way he kept me in the game, but also in a box. I got script-polishing work, hugely remunerative and creatively pointless. My credit wouldn’t ever appear onscreen. Still, I became useful. My name bounced into agents’ offices, as the one who’d salvaged such-and-such. A remora, I fed in Todbaum’s wake. The more he loomed into legend, one reviled for his whims and abuses, for his savage truncations of personal visions, and yet also one whose calls you couldn’t afford not to take, the more my legacy with him—you knew Todbaum at school? Sweet Jesus, what was he like then? Was he already . . . Todbaum?—the more this legacy kept my manager’s phone ringing.
The heat in the car that day was the heat of Maddy’s face, the bottling of unwept tears as she razed the bleached hillside with her eyes. She raised a finger to swab beneath her eye, and it was then that I saw the twin-crescent bite marks on her wrist. At first I pretended I hadn’t seen them.
“You didn’t have to listen for days,” I said. “I didn’t ask you to do that.”
“No, Sandy, you didn’t ask me.”
I couldn’t compute her sarcasm. “Why didn’t you just walk out of the room? He didn’t restrain you, did he?” I knew, too much, about Todbaum’s fantasy predilections.
“Not in any way you wouldn’t recognize.”
I reached over and tugged at the neck of her sweater. The imprint of Todbaum’s teeth was just below, turned blue. For what it was worth, her skin was otherwise smooth, no sign of psoriasis. She slapped away my hand, though I’d drawn it back already.
“Before you say anything, Sandy—”
“What?” I should have been enraged. I felt baffled.
“That isn’t the problem, it isn’t anything.”
“You like that?”
“I like that.” She was angry now. I would always stand, I saw, at the doorway of those with predilections, those like Todbaum and my sister, and feel a fool for wondering, for not belonging even at the doorway.
“So, what’s the problem?” I said sulkily, unwilling yet to be contrite.
“Maybe you can have a thing you like, but have it in the wrong way.”
“You weren’t his captive? He didn’t stop you from leaving?”
“He did stop me, but not how you think.”
“What kind of words?”
“I’ll find a real cab. Or I’ll hitchhike—that ought to go well. I don’t want to be in this car anymore, Sandy.”
“Maddy, please.” I almost told her what she knew: I was her brother. I wanted it to mean something more than I suppose it did. “Let me drive you where you want to go. To the airport. Do you even know what airline?”
“Domestic whatever, right.”
We drove in silence until, soon enough, we sat in silence at the white zone, exposed to the riotous sunshine. LAX was the only airport I could imagine feeling like this, with a six-lane freeway up on top, possibly an entire new city under construction, the second story of the Tower of Babel. Abruptly, Maddy leaped free of Todbaum’s BMW, that decrepit father-poisoned vault of a car, or so it felt now, then opened the rear door and swung her titanic backpack onto the curb, before I could help. I dashed out anyway, and told her I was sorry. I began again to plead. What if I found somewhere else for us to go—would she stay a day or two, at least? We could go to Disneyland. We could look up our cousins in San Diego. Rent a convertible and drive the Pacific Coast Highway. She shook her head.
“It’s O.K., Sandy.”
“Are you going to—are you going to tell Mom and Dad?”
“There’s nothing to tell.”
“If there’s nothing—”
“Sandy, listen now. I want you to listen.”
“Tell me. Anything. I’m listening.” We were inspected dispassionately by a curbside check-in attendant. The word “skycap” drifted into mind. That was what they were called. Maybe I could offer one of them the keys to the Beemer and join Maddy in flight.
“Peter didn’t say anything but words.”
Though this was nonsensical on its face, I felt I understood, and I was relieved. And then at last she was crying. And I couldn’t keep myself from asking again, and it was then that she said the last thing she’d ever say to me about what had transpired between her and Todbaum in the Starlet Apartments.
“He didn’t do anything to me that he doesn’t do to you.”
“What’s that?” I cried. “What does he do to me?”
“What he’s doing all the time, you fool, Sandy, oh, don’t you see?”
“Practicing? For what?” For eating the world, I heard myself think.
But Maddy was done. She allowed me to embrace her, though without unslinging the backpack. A heartbreaking rigid embrace, such brittleness in Maddy’s trapped arms, my hands not quite meeting around the fullness of the pack, fingers locating instead the bulky contour of her hiking boots inside, my eyes briefly finding those of the skycap, who offered me nothing, not even a sneer. He’d seen too much, too often, transacted here. Then she was gone.
February 18 & 25 2019
I can’t tell you my name. Or the name of the rural village where this story took place. My father is a feared and respected man there, and I do not want to bring shame upon him. He was born on those fertile plains but he made his career in the city, where he became an important man who wears suits and drives a big car. In my sixteenth summer, he sent me to “that hole” to learn the hard life of the countryside, to strengthen my soul and my muscles. “I don’t want you to be like those idle boys who wander our streets,” he told me. “There you will learn how to live.”
My memories of that summer are hazy. All the days blurred into one, and I could find nothing to distract me from the boredom. I offered to help with farmwork, but nobody dared put me to such a thankless task, because I was a judge’s son and my arms were so thin. The other teen-agers in the village kept their distance. When they met up to drink stolen beers in the evening, they never invited me to join them. I could hear them laughing and burping from my bedroom, where I lay and stared up at the earthen ceiling for hours on end.
Most of the villagers were illiterate. There was no electricity in the village yet, and nobody had a television or a computer. They entertained themselves by spreading ridiculous rumors or by telling stories that a city kid like me found hard to believe. That summer, everybody was talking about a girl from the area who had been rejected by her clan. The boys said that she had sullied the honor of her village with her brazen behavior and that she now roamed the streets like the dog she was. The old women said nothing. They just lowered their eyes. I imagine they were praying for the soul of that young peasant girl. I listened with interest to conversations about the mysterious vagabond, always on the alert for any new information. That sordid tale, whose protagonist lived new adventures every day, was my only source of entertainment. During the days, as I halfheartedly helped look after the animals, I would listen for the latest rumor, passed from mouth to mouth, growing more exaggerated and distorted with each telling.
One afternoon, a man named Achour suggested that I go to the plains with him to gather grass for the animals. He was a big, strong man, about forty years old, with a round face aged by the sun. He was wearing a little wool hat that he took off from time to time to scratch his head. When he smiled, you could see his toothless purple gums. The man was a colossus, and on several occasions I had witnessed his extraordinary physical strength. He was followed by his ten-year-old son, who already seemed used to the tough farmwork. I asked the boy if he went to school, if he liked his teacher. But he just glared at me suspiciously and wiped the snot from his nose with the back of his hand. As we walked, Achour talked to me about my father, to whom he owed so much. He treated me with a deference that made me uncomfortable, and I barely said anything in response. I was seized by the beauty of the landscape, by those wheat fields shining gold in the dazzling sunlight. In the distance, I could see the outlines of the Atlas Mountains. I almost said something, but I knew that Achour would just shrug: these fields were all he had ever known. We walked past a herd of cows so thin that I could count their ribs. Their ankles had been tied together with rope to keep them from running away and they were chewing on a bramble bush, immobile and disillusioned. We got to work. Achour taught me the least tiring way to fill the big jute bags we had brought with us. I was daydreaming, enjoying the silence, when we spotted a woman, only a dozen yards from us, silhouetted against the sun. At first, I thought I was hallucinating. I wondered if the stories I’d heard in the village had affected my mind, if I was seeing a mirage. But the figure came closer: it was a young woman, shuffling toward us. Achour turned to me and from the look in his eye I guessed that, like me, he was thinking about the mysterious girl that the villagers were always talking about.
“This one’s for you!” he shouted, suddenly excited. “You don’t get a chance like this every day!” Like a man dying of thirst who suddenly finds water, Achour started running toward the girl. She watched him without reacting, weighed down by fatigue, resigned to her fate. She did not try to run away. And, now that I think about it, where could she have gone? How could she have escaped from Achour, in the middle of those empty fields, half an hour’s walk from the nearest house? I said nothing. I did not try to dissuade him. Partly because he didn’t give me time, and partly because, deep down, I wanted something to happen to save me from the deathly dullness of that summer. Achour reached the girl and beckoned me over. When I came within a few feet of them, I could hear him threatening to hit her if she screamed or if she didn’t do what I wanted. He made her sit down amid the wheat stalks, which hid her face, and brutally tore off the harem pants she was wearing under her djellabah. Then he gestured with his hand. The same gesture you make to your guests when you want them to taste a dish that you have prepared. A gesture of invitation, with his huge, red, calloused hand. Without a word, I accepted.
Today, I cannot explain what was going through my mind at that moment. All I can do is recount the facts and acknowledge that I knelt down in front of the girl and that, while I was unfastening my pants, I heard Achour walking away, calling to his son to keep a lookout. I cannot be certain that my memories of her correspond to the reality, but when I think about it I have the sense that she was barely sixteen years old. A child’s full, round cheeks. Dark rings under her long-lashed eyes. Unlike most country girls, she did not look worn out from working in the fields. Her skin was soft and cool. She did not say a word. She did not resist me. As I moved closer to her, as I lay on top of her slender body, she turned her head slightly to the side, as if her only act of freedom were not to see me. She seemed to have accepted the idea that she had no choice. I penetrated her, and tried to kiss her, but she did not respond. She abandoned herself, not in the sense of someone who is offering her body out of love but as someone who uses her mind to escape a terrifying situation. I cannot say why, but I had the painful impression that I was not the first, on that beautiful, sun-drenched day, to press her against the ground and possess her. I withdrew. As I got dressed, I became aware that my hands were stained with blood. The sight of that blood, on my fingers, on her thighs, shook me from the torpor that had enveloped me up to that point. Hurriedly, I helped her to get dressed. I grabbed her harem pants, which Achour had thrown to the side, and handed them to her. I looked away while she put them on and, to cover my discomfort, attempted to make conversation. I asked what her name was. I tried to find out where she had come from, where she was going. How old she was. All she said was “I’m hungry.” I leaped up, as if entrusted with a divine mission. Achour, who had seen me getting dressed, was coming toward me. I beckoned him closer, eager to find something to satisfy the vagabond’s hunger. But Achour cheerfully misunderstood my gesture, and, like a beast, threw himself on the young woman, who this time tried to resist. She screamed and scratched the peasant’s face. She was ready to gouge his eyes out. I stepped in and managed to calm them both down.
“She’s hungry,” I explained to Achour, who shrugged. “So?” he seemed to ask. In his mountain village, hunger was a constant state, a habit formed in childhood and staved off by smoking hash or brewing homemade alcohol. But I insisted, and, in the end, Achour sent his son to the village to find something to eat and drink. “Say it’s for the young man, you understand?” He smacked the boy sharply on the back of his head. The boy mounted a donkey and yelled “Ra!” before clicking his tongue. The donkey set off.
The three of us sat in the wheat field for nearly an hour. The girl was a few feet away from me, and more or less the same distance from Achour. She sat with her legs stretched out in front of her and stared straight ahead in silence. Achour chewed on a stalk, stood up to survey the horizon, and sat down again, cursing his son, the slowness of donkeys, and the stupidity of women. Finally, the boy arrived with a round loaf of bread, some butter, and a steaming teapot in a wicker basket. We could have given the food to the girl and left then and there, especially as it would soon be dark. But the boy kept repeating, “Mama said we have to bring the teapot back with us. She said she’d beat me if I forgot.” We sat down again and drank our hot tea together, like one happy family. She the gentle, loving mother. Achour the brave and faithful father. And I the elder son, who would take care of his little brother. As we drank, the girl kept looking up at us with fearful eyes. She seemed afraid that we would go, leaving her alone in that dark and deserted field. Several times, our eyes met and I had the feeling that she wanted to say something to me but did not dare speak in front of our two boorish witnesses. Had I been more courageous, had I been a good man, I would probably have gone over to her so that she could speak to me in confidence.
The sun was sinking toward the horizon, and the sky had turned fuchsia. Before our eyes, the countryside was lazily fading into night. The boy picked up the teapot and tossed it into the basket. Holding the donkey’s bridle, he insisted that I ride the animal. Watched by Achour, I feigned indifference. I wanted to appear manly, so I barely even said goodbye to the girl. But in the half-light of dusk I turned around several times and saw her, standing there in the middle of the field. She had covered her hair with a black head scarf and crossed her arms to keep warm. All the way back, I kept thinking about her, and about the cold night ahead of her. About the predators who would attack her: men, animals, members of her clan seeking vengeance. About the blanket I could have fetched for her. About the money I could have slipped into her hand that she could have used to buy a bus ticket out of this place, which had trapped her and was eating her alive.
When we arrived at the village, Achour couldn’t wait to tell the men about my adventure. They watched him wide-eyed, drooling slightly. They laughed, and I was proud of the looks they gave me. In that moment, I forgot my regrets and the coldness of the night. I interrupted Achour and told the rest of the story myself, adding anecdotes and lewd details that made those hicks burst into laughter. In my telling, the girl became a happy, lustful peasant girl, full-breasted, buttocks spread. We rolled in the grass, then lay back giggling. My audience was won over. The men congratulated me, slapping me on the shoulder.
That year, my father was transferred to Casablanca and I began my senior year of high school. There was no question of my wasting long summer weeks in the fields again. My studies had become my sole preoccupation. I was, my father said, “the pride of the family,” and he moved heaven and earth so that I could go to France and enroll at a reputable university. One year after my encounter with the vagabond, I moved to a small French town to study engineering. During the week, I worked until late at night; I was the last one on campus to turn off my desk lamp. On weekends, like all my friends, I chased girls and drank until I vomited. I was happy.
And then, one night, I had a dream. I was sitting in a horse-drawn carriage. The leather seat was torn and flakes of gray, moldy foam were spread out over the wooden floorboards. We were riding at a frantic speed through the streets of a southern city, which could have been Seville or Isfahan. The wheels were bumping over the cobblestones. My hands gripped the armrests so tightly that the tips of my fingers turned purple and numb. I was terrified. At each jolt or lurch, I imagined that I was about to be hurled earthward and that my skull would end up like those smashed bitter oranges which litter the ground around trees, their sour scent seeping out.
The driver kept whipping the horse harder and harder, with a rage that I could not understand and which, strangely, made me feel ashamed. I wanted to tell him to stop. I wanted to come to the animal’s defense, to encourage its master to go easy, but I didn’t dare let go of the slender iron support that kept me from falling. As we entered a square, I managed to put my hand on the driver’s shoulder. It was at that moment that the horse collapsed. The carriage flipped over, and the poor old nag lay lifeless on the ground. Its body seemed to distend, its muscles to melt. Its death was like a grateful surrender. The driver leaped from the carriage and threw himself at the animal. Insanely, absurdly, he tried to drag it to its feet. He grabbed it by the teeth, sank his fingers into its flared nostrils. But the horse’s eyes stared into the void. I leaned over the corpse, with its visible ribs. I hadn’t noticed how gaunt it was. I put my hand on its sweat-soaked rump and recognized the familiar scent of my childhood. The clean smell of animal sweat, the smell of earth, garlic, brackish water.
When I woke, the sheets were soaked and my hands were groping at air. It took me several minutes to clear my head. I was afraid to turn on the light and find myself in a macabre tête-à-tête with a rotting corpse. All that day, the smell of my dream clung to me. It was the smell of the peasant girl’s hair, the smell of the fields mingled with her sweat. During the weeks that followed, I could not rid myself of that uneasy feeling. I felt haunted by that imaginary carriage ride. I heard the whip cracking against the horse’s flesh, I relived its collapse, and my heart shrank at the idea that I was going to die on the sidewalk of an unknown city. Day and night, I would walk around, escorted by a feeling of sadness, by the consciousness of a crime whose name I dared not speak.
asleep at the wheel
asleep at the wheel
February 11 2019
T. Coraghessan Boyle
The car says this to her: “Cindy, listen, I know you’ve got to get over to 1133 Hollister Avenue by 2 p.m. for your meeting with Rose Taylor, of Taylor, Levine & Rodriguez, L.L.P., but did you hear that Les Bourses is having a thirty-per-cent-off sale? And, remember, they carry the complete Picard line you like—in particular, that cute cross-body bag in fuchsia you had your eye on last week. They have two left in stock.”
They’re moving along at just over the speed limit, which is what she’s programmed the car to do, trying to squeeze every minute out of the day but at the same time wary of breaking the law. She glances at her phone. It’s a quarter past one and she really wasn’t planning on making any other stops, aside from maybe picking up a sandwich to eat in the car, but as soon as Carly (that’s what she calls her operating system) mentions the sale, she’s envisioning the transaction—in and out, that’s all it’ll take, because she looked at the purse last week before ultimately deciding they wanted too much for it. In and out, that’s all. And Carly will wait for her at the curb.
“I see you’re looking at your phone.”
“I’m just wondering if we’ll have enough time . . .”
“As long as you don’t dawdle—you know what you want, don’t you? It’s not as if you haven’t already picked it out. You told me so yourself.” (And here Carly loops in a recording of their conversation from the previous week, and Cindy listens to her own voice saying, “I love it, just love it—and it’d match my new heels perfectly.”)
“O.K.,” she says, thinking she’ll forgo the sandwich. “But we have to make it quick.”
“I’m showing no traffic and no obstructions of any kind.”
“Good,” she says, “good,” and leans back in the seat and closes her eyes.
The fleet is available to everybody, all the time, and you don’t even have to have an account for Ridz. The thing is, Ridz isn’t going to take you directly to Warren’s house or to the skate park or whatever destination you tell it, because it’s programmed to take you first to the Apple Store or GameStop or wherever you might have spent money in the past. So it isn’t really free, and you have to plan for the extra time to listen to the spiel and say no about sixty times, but then, eventually, you get where you want to go. Some kids—and his mother would kill him if she knew he was one of them—just step out in front of any empty fleet car that happens to be going by and commandeer it. You can’t get inside if you don’t have the trip code, of course, but you can climb up on the roof and cling to the Lidar till you get to the next stop or the one after that.
That is what Jackie happens to be doing at half past one on this particular school day, clinging to the roof of one of Ridz’s S.D.C. Volvos and catching bugs in his teeth, when his mother’s car suddenly appears in the other lane and he freezes. His first instinct is to jump down on the curb side, but they’ve got to be going forty miles an hour—which feels like a hundred with the way the wind is tearing at him—so he flattens himself even more, as if that could make him invisible. His plan was to go over to Warren’s and hang out, nothing beyond that, though he could see a forty-ouncer in his future and maybe another hitch over to the beach with Warren and Warren’s girlfriend, Cyrilla, but now, with his mother’s car inching up on him, all that’s about to go south in a hurry. She’ll ground him for sure, cut his allowance, probably report him to his father (who won’t do much more than snarl over the phone from Oregon, where he’s living with Jennifer and never coming back), and then go through the whole charade of taking away his phone and his games for a week, or however long she thinks is going to impress on him just how dangerous that kind of behavior is.
All bad. But then, when the car pulls even with him, he sees that his mother, far from looking out the window and catching him in the act, isn’t even awake. She’s got her head thrown back and her eyes closed and Carly’s doing the driving without her. He doesn’t think in terms of lucky breaks or anything like that—he just accepts it for what it is. And, at the next light, he slides down off the car and takes to his feet, his back turned to the street, to the cars, to her.
The reason for the meeting with Rose Taylor is to arrange legal representation for a homeless man named Keystone Bacharach, who spends his days on the steps of the public library with a coterie of other free spirits and unfortunates, and at night sleeps under a bush in front of the S.P.C.A. facility, where he can have a little privacy. What most people don’t realize—and Cindy, as an advocate for the homeless, does—is how psychologically harrowing it is to live on the streets, where through all the daylight hours you’re under public scrutiny. Your every gesture, whether intimate or not, is on display for people to interpret or dismiss or condemn, and your only solace is the cover of darkness, when everything’s hidden. And this is the problem: the S.P.C.A., in a misguided response to a rash of break-ins, graffiti tagging, and dumpster diving for syringes and animal tranquillizers, had deployed one of Knightscope’s Autonomous Data Machines to patrol the area, which meant that Mr. Bacharach was awakened every thirty minutes, all night long, by this five-foot-tall, four-hundred-pound robot shining a light on him and giving off its eerie high-pitched whine before asking, in the most equable of tones, “What is the situation here?” (To which Mr. Bacharach, irritated, would reply, “It’s called sleep.”)
A week ago, she went down there after hours to see for herself, though her sister had called her crazy (“You’re just asking to get raped—or worse”) and even Carly, on dropping her off, had asked, “Are you sure this is the correct destination?” But they didn’t know Keystone the way she did. He was just hurt inside, that was all, trying to heal from what he’d seen during his tour of duty in Afghanistan, and if he couldn’t make a go of it in an increasingly digitized society, that was the fault of the society. He had an engaging personality, he was a first-rate conversationalist comfortable with a whole range of subjects, from animal rights to winemaking to the history of warfare (light years ahead of Adam, her ex, who toward the end of their marriage had communicated through gestures and grunts only), and he was as well read as anybody she knew. Plus, he was her age, exactly.
He was waiting for her in front of the S.P.C.A., dressed, as always, in shorts, flip-flops, T-shirt, and denim jacket, his hair—he wore it long—pulled back tightly in a ponytail. “Thanks for coming,” he said, taking the gift bag she handed him (trail mix, dried apricots, a pair of socks, a tube of toothpaste) without comment. “This is really going to open your eyes, because, no matter how you cut it, this is harassment, pure and simple. Of citizens. In a public place. And it’s not just me.” She saw now that there were half a dozen other figures there, sprawled on the pavement or leaning against the wall, with their shopping carts and belongings arrayed around them. It was almost dark, but she could see that at least one of them was familiar—Lula, a woman everyone called Knitsy, because her hands were in constant motion, as if trying vainly to stitch the air. The street was quiet at this hour, which only seemed to magnify the garble of whining, yipping, and sudden startled shrieks coming from the S.P.C.A. facility behind them, and if it felt ominous it had nothing to do with these people gathered here but with the forces arrayed against them. She said, “Is it due to come by soon?”
He nodded in the direction of the parking lot at the far end of the facility. “It went down there, like, fifteen, twenty minutes ago, so it should be along any minute now.” He gave her an angry look. “Like clockwork,” he said, then called out, “Right, Knitsy?,” and Knitsy, whether she knew what she was agreeing to or not, said, “Yeah.”
The night grew a shade darker. Then one of the dogs let out a howl from the depths of the building, and here it came, the Knightscope K5+ unit, turning the corner and heading for them on its base of tightly revolving wheels. She’d seen these units before—at the bank, in the lot behind the pizza place, rolling along in formation in last year’s Fourth of July parade—but they’d seemed unremarkable to her, no more threatening or intrusive than any other labor-saving device, except that they were bigger, much bigger. She’d only seen them in daylight, but now it was night, and this one had its lights activated—two eerie blue slits at the top and what would be its midriff, if it had a midriff, in addition to the seven illuminated sensors that were arrayed across its chest, if it had a chest. Its shape was that of a huge hard-boiled egg, which in daylight made it seem ordinary, ridiculous even, but the lights changed all that.
“So what now? It’s not going to confront us, is it?”
“You watch,” Keystone said.
The K5+, as she knew from the literature, featured the same Light Detection and Ranging device that Carly had, which used a continuously sweeping laser to measure objects and map the surrounding area, as well as thermal-imaging sensors, an ambient-noise microphone, and a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree high-definition video capture. It moved at a walking pace, three miles an hour, and its function was surveillance, not enforcement. She knew that, but still, at this hour in this place, she felt caught out, as if she’d been doing something illicit—which, she supposed, was the purpose of the thing in the first place.
But now it was stopping, pivoting, focussed on Knitsy, whose hands fluttered like pale streamers in the ray of light it emitted, which had suddenly become more intense, like a flashlight beam. “What is the situation here?” it asked.
Knitsy said, “Go away. Leave me alone.”
The K5+ didn’t move. It had been specifically programmed not to engage in conversation the way Carly did, because its designers wanted to avoid confrontations—it was there to deter criminal activity by its very presence and to summon the police if the need should arise. Now it said, “Move on.”
“Hey,” Keystone called out, waving his hands. “Over here, Tinhead.”
She watched the thing swivel and redirect itself, starting down the sidewalk toward them. When it came up even with her and Keystone, it stopped and focussed its light on them. “What is the situation here?” it asked her, employing the voice of one of NPR’s most genial hosts, a voice designed to put people at ease. But she didn’t feel at ease—just the opposite—and that was a real eye-opener.
What happened next was sudden and violent. Keystone just seemed to snap—and maybe he was showing off for her, thinking, in some confused way, that he was protecting her—but in that moment he tucked his shoulder like a linebacker and slammed into the thing, once, twice, three times, until he finally managed to knock it over with a screech of metal and shattering glass. Which was bad enough—vandalism, that was what she was thinking, and her face was on that video feed, too—but then he really seemed to take his frustration out on the thing, seizing a brick he’d stashed under one of the bushes and hammering at the metal frame until the unit set off a klaxon so loud and piercing she thought her heart would stop.
Just then, just as she was thinking they were both going to get arrested, Carly pulled up at the curb. The door swung open. “Get in,” Carly said.
REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE
It was a meme, really, that got them into it, a clip of the scene in the old movie where two guys were playing chicken and the greaser who wasn’t James Dean got the strap of his leather jacket caught on the door, which repeated over and over till it was just hilarious. After that, curious about the movie itself, they dug deeper and it was a revelation—teen-agers stole cars and raced them on the street and there was nobody there to say different. Even better, because this was back in the day, the cars just did what you wanted—all you had to do was put the key in the ignition (or hot-wire the car, if you wanted to steal it), hit the gas, and peel out. He must have seen the movie (or parts of it) at least twenty times with Warren and Cyrilla, and, if Warren was James Dean and Cyrilla Natalie Wood, he guessed he’d have to be Sal Mineo, though that wasn’t really who he wanted to be.
“Better than the dude that goes over the cliff, though, right?” Warren says now, waving his forty-ouncer at the screen, and Cyrilla lets out a laugh that’s more of a screech, actually, one of her annoying habits, but that’s all right—he doesn’t mind playing a supporting role. Warren’s almost a year older than he is, and he doesn’t have a girlfriend himself, so to be near Cyrilla, to hang out with her, see what she’s like—what girls are like, up close—is something he really appreciates on every level.
They’re coming up on the part where Natalie Wood, her eyes burning with excitement, waves her arms and everybody stands back and the two cars hurtle off into the night, when Warren, who has his arm around Cyrilla on the couch and one hand casually cupping her left breast, says, “I have this idea?”
Warren’s grinning, so Jackie starts grinning, too. “What?” he says.
“Let’s us play chicken. Reënact the scene, I mean. For real.”
He just laughs. Because it’s a joke. Real cars, cars that do what you want, cars you can race, are pretty much extinct at this point, except for on racetracks and plots of private land in the desert, where holdovers and old people can pay to have their manual cars stored and go out and race around in them on weekends, though he’s never seen any of that, except online, and it might just be a fantasy, for all he knows. “What are you talking about?” he says. “You going to steal a fleet car?”
“No,” Warren says, levelling a look at him. “I’m going to steal two.”
She’s in the car on her way to the library to pick up Keystone and bring him to Rose Taylor’s office so they can begin the process of filing a public-nuisance lawsuit against the S.P.C.A., when Carly says, “I don’t mean to worry you, but the house sensors indicate that Jackie hasn’t come home from school yet—and the calendar shows no extracurricular activities for today, so I’m just wondering . . . ?”
Cindy’s feeling distracted, her mind on Keystone and the way he stood up for her that night on the street, or at least thought he was standing up for her, which amounts to the same thing. “I wouldn’t worry. He’s a big boy. He can take care of himself.”
“Granted, yes, but I can’t help thinking of last week, when he didn’t get in till after dark and had no explanation except”—and here she loops in Jackie’s voice from the house monitor—“ ‘I was at Warren’s, O.K., and his mom made dinner, O.K., so I’m not hungry, so don’t even go there.’ ”
“Listen, Carly, I’m just not up to this right now, O.K.? I’m trying to focus on getting Keystone over to Rose Taylor’s and then I’ve got to get back to the office for that five-o’clock meeting, as I’m sure you’re aware, and then there’s the fund-raiser after that . . .”
“Sorry, I just thought you’d want to know.”
She’s staring out the side window watching the street lights clip by, picturing Keystone pushing himself up off the concrete steps of the library and crossing the sidewalk with that smile of his lit up just for her. She’s curious to see what he’ll be wearing—“I clean up pretty good,” he told her, promising to dress up for the meeting—not that it matters, really, just that she’s never seen him in anything other than what he calls his “street commando” outfit. The street lights are evenly spaced, like counters, and after a moment it occurs to her that the intervals between them are getting shorter and shorter, so she turns, focusses on the street ahead, and says, “Aren’t you going too fast, Carly?”
Immediately the car slows. “Forty-four in a thirty-five zone, but there’s no indication of speed traps or police units, and since we are running six minutes and sixteen seconds late, I thought I would expedite matters.”
She’s feeling angry, suddenly—and it’s not Carly’s fault, she knows that, but the comment about Jackie just rubbed her the wrong way. “I didn’t give you permission for that,” she snaps. “You ought to know better. I mean, what good is your program if you can’t follow it?”
“I’m sorry, Cindy, I just thought—”
“Don’t think—just drive.”
Of course, Carly was right, and if they wind up being ten minutes late to pick up Keystone that’s nobody’s fault but her own. “All right, Carly, I’m sorry—good job, really,” she says, only vaguely aware of how ridiculous it is to try to mollify a computer or worry about hurting its feelings.
“Since we’re at the library,” Carly says, “will you be acquiring books? Because they have three copies of the latest installment of the Carson Umquist series you like—and they’re all in the special ‘Hot Reads’ rack when you first walk in. I mean, they’re right there—you don’t have to go twenty feet. If that’s what you’re looking for. I’m not presuming, am I?” “Pull up here,” she says, and that’s when she sees Keystone, in a pair of tan Dockers and an emerald long-sleeved shirt with a pair of red fire-breathing dragons embroidered on the front. He looks . . . different—and if she’s surprised by the dragons, which really aren’t the sort of thing she imagines Rose Taylor appreciating, she tries to hide it. She’s smiling as he comes up to the car, and he’s smiling, too, and now he’s reaching for the door handle . . . but the door seems to be locked, and she’s fumbling for the release. “Carly,” she says, turning away from the sight of his face caught there in the window as if Carly were an actual person sitting in the driver’s seat, when, of course, there’s no one there. “Carly, is the child lock on?” “I’m sorry,” Carly says, “but this individual is untrustworthy. Don’t you recall what happened last Tuesday evening at 9:19 p.m. in front of the S.P.C.A. facility at 83622 Haverford Drive?”
“Carly,” she says, “open the door.”
“I don’t think that’s wise.”
“You know what? I don’t give a God damn what you think. Do you hear me? Do you?”
HER FATHER'S LAST DRIVE
He was in his mid-seventies back then and he’d never really been what anybody would call a good driver—too rigid, too slow to react, baffled by the rules and norms of the road and trying to get by on herd mentality alone. To complicate matters, he suffered from arthritis and wound up developing a dependency on the painkillers the doctor prescribed, which, to say the least, didn’t do much for his reflexes or his attention span. He was a disaster waiting to happen, and Cindy and her sister, Jan, kept nagging him to give up driving, but he was stubborn. “I’ve seen ‘King Lear,’ ” he said. “Nobody’s going to take my independence away from me.”
Then one morning, when her car was in the shop (this was before S.D.C.s took over, when most people, including her, still got around the retro way), she asked him for a ride to work and not only was he half an hour late but when they finally did get on the freeway he drove his paint-blistered pickup as if the wheels had turned to cement blocks, weaving and drifting out of his lane and going at such a maddeningly slow pace she was sure they were going to get rear-ended. She was a wreck by the time she got to the office and so keyed up she didn’t dare even take a sip of her morning grande, let alone drink it. She Ubered home that night, though, as a recent divorcée and the mother of a two-year-old, she was trying to cut her expenses, so that was no fun. As soon as she got in the door, she called Jan.
“We’ve got to do something,” she said. “He’s going to get killed—or kill somebody in the process. It’s a nightmare, believe me! Have you been in a car with him lately? It’s beyond belief.”
Jan was silent a moment, thinking, then she said, “What about that refrigerator you’ve got to move?”
“What refrigerator? What are you talking about?”
Her sister didn’t say anything, just waited for her to catch on.
“Can we do that to him? He’ll never talk to either one of us again, you realize that, right?” She was trying to picture the aftermath, the resentment, the sense of betrayal, the way he used his sarcasm like an icepick, chipping away at you flake by flake, and how he’d parcelled out his affection all his life and what that was going to mean for the future. “It’s not going to be me,” she said. “I’m not going to be the one.”
“We’ll both do it.”
“How’s he going to get around? I’m not driving him, I’ll tell you that.”
“The bus. The senior van. Whatever. Other people do it. But what about Luke—what if Luke asks him? He’d never refuse Luke.”
Luke was Jan’s seventeen-year-old son, and as soon as Jan pronounced his name Cindy realized they were going to take the easy way out—or, no, the coward’s way.
The next Saturday morning, Jan dropped her son off at their father’s apartment so that he could borrow the truck to move the imaginary refrigerator, and the moment the keys changed hands their father’s time behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle, which stretched all the way back to when he was two years younger than Luke was then, came to an abrupt end.
THE HACK SUPREME
Another day, another slow, agonizing procession of classes that are like doors clanging shut in a prison one after the other, and then they’re at Warren’s and Warren’s parents are at work, so they have the place to themselves to make preparations. The first thing is the punch, which means pouring grape juice, 7 UP, and about three fingers of every kind of liquor in the cabinet into a five-gallon bucket purchased at Walmart for just this purpose. Then snacks, but that’s easy, just bags of chips, pretzels, Doritos, and whatever. Cyrilla rolls a couple of numbers, and he and Warren pull out their phones and give everybody a heads-up: nine o’clock at the end of Mar Vista, where it dead-ends at that weed lot and the cliffs down to the ocean.
He’s not a bad hacker himself—since as far back as he can remember, he’s hacked into Web sites just for the thrill of messing with people a little—but Warren’s in another league. If anybody can steal a fleet car—two fleet cars—it’s him. So, after dinner (he texted his mother to tell her he’d be eating at Warren’s and then sleeping over, too), they go out on Cabrillo, where there’s a ton of cars going back and forth between pickups and drop-offs, and just step out in front of two empty ones, which slam on their brakes and idle there, waiting for them to move. But they don’t move. Warren has already hacked into the network on his laptop, and now he’s accessing the individual codes for these two cars while all the other cars are going around them and they have to hope no surveillance vehicles come by or they’re dead in the water.
That doesn’t happen. The doors swing open for them and they get in and tell the cars to take them out to Mar Vista, where Cyrilla and some of the others are already gathered around the punch and the chips, waiting for them to get the party started. It’s beautiful. It’s perfect. He can’t remember ever seeing a prettier sunset, all orange and purple and black, as if the whole world were a V.R. simulation, and if his heart goes into high gear when a cop car comes up behind him and swings out to pass, that’s all part of the game and he’s O.K. with it. O.K. with everything. He’s going to be a hero at school, an instant legend, because nobody’s tried this before, nobody’s even thought of it. And, yes, it’s dangerous and illegal and his mother would kill him and all that, and he did say to Warren, trying to be cool and hide his nerves, “So who’s the greaser that goes over the cliff, you or me?,” and Warren said, “Forget it, because we’re both James Dean, and I’m not even going to try to make it close. I’m going to jump out way before and if that’s chicken, O.K., sue me, right?”
Once they’re there, the real work starts. Warren—and this other kid, Jeffrey Zuniga, who’s a genius and destined to be class valedictorian—start disabling the cars’ systems as much as possible, so they’ll go flat out, because what kind of a race would it be if these two drone cars just creep along toward the cliff? All right. Fine. And here comes the movie.
He and Warren, drawn up even, both of them drunk on the punch and laughing like madmen, revving the engines on command (it’s as simple as saying “Redline” to the computer), and Cyrilla there waving somebody’s white jacket like a flag. It’s fully dark now, kids’ eyes in the headlights like the eyes of untamed beasts, lions and hyenas and what, jackals, and then they’re off and all he’s thinking is, If Warren thinks I’m going to bail first, he’s crazy . . .
THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE
It isn’t a date, not exactly, and if Jan ever finds out about it she’ll never hear the end of it, but she takes Keystone out to the local McDonald’s for a Big Mac and fries. It’s not as if she hasn’t taken other housing-challenged people out for fast food, men and women both, so they can sit in a booth with some kind of dignity and use the rest room to their heart’s content, without the manager badgering them every step of the way. But this is different. It’s a kind of celebration, actually, because Rose Taylor filed the suit and, within hours, she had a call from the head of the S.P.C.A. wondering if they couldn’t work something out, like using the K5+ primarily in the parking area and limiting its access to the public sidewalk.
Keystone is back to his usual garb, with the addition of a military-looking camouflage cap he’s picked up somewhere and an orange string bracelet Knitsy wove for him. He’s in good form, high on the moment and her company (and the dark rum he surreptitiously tips into their Diet Cokes when no one’s looking), and she’s feeling no pain herself. There’s something about him that makes her just want to let go—in a good way, a very good way. And the rum—she hasn’t had anything stronger than white wine in years—goes right to her head.
“You know that this place—the S.P.C.A., I mean—has a furnace out back, right?” he says, leaning into the table so she’s conscious of how close he is to her, right there, no more than two feet away. “And maybe your attorney friend can eventually get them to stop harassing us people, but what about the animals? You know what it smells like when they fire that thing up? I mean, can you even imagine?” He pauses, bites into his Big Mac, chews. “You’re in a house, right?”
“Uh-huh, yeah. With a yard. And I know I should really adopt one of those dogs, I really should, but I can never seem to get around to it—”
“That’s not what I’m saying—I’m not trying to lay any guilt trip on you. The people that should feel guilty are all these clueless shitwads that see a puppy in a store window and six weeks later dump it on the street. . . . No, what I’m talking about is the smell, which you don’t get out in the suburbs, with the windows rolled up and the air-conditioning going full blast. Am I right?”
He is right. But whether he’s right or wrong or whether he’s accusing her or not doesn’t really matter. What matters is the intensity of his voice, the gravel in it, and the way his eyes look right into her as if there were nothing separating them but the illusion of a Formica tabletop and the recirculating air, with its heavy freight of warmed-over meat and hunger.
In the car, she takes the leap and asks him if he wants to come home with her. “There’s a shower,” she says. “And clean towels—I can offer you clean towels, right? Isn’t that the least I can do? As your advocate, I mean?”
It’s dark now, but for the yellowish sheen of the McDonald’s arches and the fiery glow of the tail-lights of the cars at the drive-through window. He doesn’t say anything and she keeps waiting for Carly to butt in, though she gave her strict instructions to keep quiet, no matter what. Finally, he sighs and says, “It’s an attractive offer, and I thank you for it, but I don’t want to be anybody’s pet.”
She doesn’t know whether she should laugh or not. Really, is he joking? “But why don’t we do this?” he says. “You drive me back to my place and we’ll sit on the wall there, finish the rum, and see what happens. O.K.? Sound like a plan?”
All the way there, Carly’s silent, except to comment on the traffic conditions—“There’s a lane closure on Mission because of roadwork, so I’m going to take Live Oak to Harrison, which is only a two-minute-thirty-five-second delay”—and she finds she doesn’t have much to say herself, anticipating what’s to come and thinking about the last time she had sex outdoors, which had to have been twenty years ago. With Adam. On a camping trip.
When they step out of the car, the night comes to life around her, rich with its crepitating noises and a strong sweet wafting scent of jasmine, which is all she can seem to smell—not the reek of the dogs or the crematorium or the hopelessness of Knitsy and the rest of them, but jasmine blooming in some secret corner. She likes the way the full moon comes sliding in over the treetops. The rum massages her. Then Keystone takes her hand and he’s leading her to the wall and everything’s falling into place . . . until one of the dogs lets out a howl and they both look up to see the K5+ unit wheeling toward them, its lights on full display. “Aw, shit!” Keystone spits, and before she can stop him, before the machine can wheel up to them and inquire what the situation is, he’s halfway up the block, confronting it. He seems to have something in his hand now, a pale plastic bag he’s pulled out of the bushes, and in the next moment he’s jerking it down like a hood over the thing’s Lidar, rendering it blind. It stops, emits its inquisitive whine for a count of eight, nine, ten seconds, and then triggers its alarm.
So much for romance. So much for Rose Taylor and human rights. The noise is excruciating. Every dog in the S.P.C.A. starts howling as if it were being skinned alive, and you can be sure the cops are on their way, no doubt about that. But here’s Keystone and he’s grinning, actually grinning, as if all this were funny. “You know,” he says, raising his voice to be heard over the din, “maybe I am ready to be a pet. You want a pet? For tonight, anyway?”
He doesn’t wait for an answer, just puts his arm around her and guides her to the car. But Carly’s having none of it. Carly’s got her own agenda. The locks click shut.
“Open up,” Cindy demands.
The car ignores her.
“Open up. Carly, I’m warning you—”
One long pulse-pounding moment drifts by. The car is a dark conglomerate of metal, glass, and plastic, as inanimate and insensible as a stone. She’s angry—and frustrated, too, because she’d been ready to let go, really let go, for the first time in as long as she can remember. The dogs howl. The klaxon screams. And Keystone is right there, smelling of the Mrs. Meyer’s hand soap somebody must have given him a gallon of, his arm around her shoulder, one hip pressed to hers. She wants to apologize—For what, for a car?—but that doesn’t make any sense. “I don’t know,” she says, frantic now, and are those sirens she’s hearing in the distance?
“Oh, fuck it,” he says finally, throwing a glance over his shoulder. “Let’s just walk. We can still walk, can’t we?”
He isn’t wearing a leather jacket. He doesn’t even own a leather jacket. He’s just a kid in a simulation, the fleet car jerking along over the bumps in the field, and the night waiting for him out there like an open set of jaws. He keeps glancing over at Warren and Warren keeps glancing over at him as if this really were chicken—and he’s not going to be the one to cave first, is he? But that’s not the issue, not any longer, because what he is just now discovering is that the door is not going to swing open no matter how many times he orders it to, and the brakes—the autonomous brakes, the brakes with a mind and a purpose of their own—don’t seem to be working at all.
On this, of all nights, she has to be wearing heels, but then she’s wearing heels to impress Keystone, whether she wants to admit it or not. Men find heels sexy. He finds them sexy—and he told her as much when they were standing at the counter in McDonald’s, placing their order. Now, though, she has her regrets—they haven’t gone five blocks and she’s already developing a blister on her left heel and her toes feel as if someone were taking a pair of hot pliers to them. “What’s the matter?” he asks, his voice coming at her out of the dark. “You’re not giving out already, are you?”
“It’s my feet,” she says, stopping and shifting her weight into him to take some of the pressure off.
“It’s not your feet—it’s your shoes. Here”—he braces her with one arm—“just take them off. Go barefoot. It’s good for you.”
“Easy for you to say.”
“Hell, I’ll go barefoot, too, no problem—in fact, I like it better this way,” he says, and in the next moment he’s got his flip-flops in one hand and her shoes in the other and they’re heading up the sidewalk under the faint yellowish glow of the street lights in a neighborhood that may or may not feature broken glass strewn across the pavement.
It’s better than three miles to her house, and she’s so used to relying on Carly she manages to lose her way, until finally she has to pull out her phone and follow the G.P.S., which is embarrassing, but not nearly as embarrassing as seeing Carly sitting there in front of the house, running lights on, waiting for them. “You!” she calls out as they cross the lawn. “You’re going to hear from me tomorrow—and that’s a promise.”
But then something happens, something magical, and all the tension goes out of her. It has to do with the grass, its dampness, its coolness, the way it conforms to her toes, her arches, her aching heels. The simplest thing: grass. In that instant, she’s taken all the way back to her girlhood, before Adam, before Jackie, before her infinitely patient dark-haired father taught her to balance clutch and accelerator and work her way through the gears in a smooth, mechanical succession that opened up a whole new world to her. “This is nice,” she murmurs, and Keystone, a hazy presence beside her, agrees that, yes, it is nice, though she’s not sure he knows what he’s agreeing to.
There are no cars on the street. Her house looms over them, two stories of furniture-filled rooms humming with the neural network of all the interconnected devices it contains, the refrigerator clicking on, the air-conditioner, appliance lights pulsing everywhere. In a moment, she’ll lead Keystone up the steps, through the living room, and into the back bedroom, but not yet, not yet. Everything is still. The moon is overhead. And the grass—the grass is just like she remembered it.
what can you do with a general
what can you do with a general
February 4 2019
Linda was inside, on her phone—to who, this early? From the hot tub, John watched her pace in her robe and an old swimsuit in a faded tropical print that probably belonged to one of the girls. It was nice to drift a little in the water, to glide to the other side of the tub, holding his coffee above the waterline, the jets churning away. The fig tree was bare, had been for a month now, but the persimmon trees were full. The kids should bake cookies when they get here, he thought, persimmon cookies. Wasn’t that what Linda used to make, when the kids were little? Or what else—jam, maybe? All this fruit going to waste, it was disgusting. He’d get the yard guy to pick a few crates of persimmons before the kids came, so that all they’d have to do was bake them. Linda would know where to find the recipe.
The screen door banged. Linda folded her robe, climbed into the hot tub.
“Sasha’s flight’s delayed.”
“Probably won’t land until four or five.”
Holiday traffic would be a nightmare then, coming back from the airport—an hour there, then two hours back, if not more. Sasha didn’t have her license, couldn’t rent a car, not that she would think to offer.
“And she said Andrew’s not coming,” Linda said, making a face. Linda was convinced that Sasha’s boyfriend was married, though she’d never brought it up with Sasha.
Linda fished a leaf out of the water and flicked it into the yard, then settled in with the book she’d brought. Linda read a lot: she read books about angels and saints and rich white women from the past with eccentric habits. She read books by the mothers of school shooters and books by healers who said that cancer was really a self-love problem. Now it was a memoir by a girl who’d been kidnapped at the age of eleven. Held in a back-yard shed for almost ten years.
“Her teeth were in good shape,” Linda said. “Considering. She says she scraped her teeth every night with her fingernails. Then he finally gave her a toothbrush.”
“Jesus,” John said, what seemed like the right response, but Linda was already back to her book, bobbing peacefully. When the jets turned off, John waded over in silence to turn them on again.
Sam was the first of the kids to arrive, driving up from Milpitas in the certified pre-owned sedan he had purchased the summer before. He had called multiple times before buying the car to weigh the pros and cons—the mileage on this used model versus leasing a newer one and how soon Audis needed servicing—and it amazed John that Linda had time for this, their thirty-year-old son’s car frettings, but she always took his calls, going into the other room and leaving John wherever he was, alone with whatever he was doing. Lately John had started watching a television show about two older women living together, one uptight, the other a free spirit. The good thing was that there seemed to be an infinite number of episodes, an endless accounting of their mild travails in an unnamed beach town. Time didn’t seem to apply to these women, as if they were already dead, though he supposed the show was meant to take place in Santa Barbara.
Chloe arrived next, down from Sacramento, and she had driven, she said, at least half an hour with the gas light on. Maybe longer. She was doing an internship. Unpaid, naturally. They still covered her rent; she was the youngest.
“Where’d you fill up?”
“I didn’t yet,” she said. “I’ll do it later.”
“You should’ve stopped,” John said. “It’s dangerous to drive on empty. And your front tire is almost flat,” he went on, but Chloe wasn’t listening. She was already on her knees in the gravel driveway, clutching tight to the dog. “Oh, my little honey,” she said, her glasses fogged up, holding Zero to her chest. “Little dear.”
Zero was always shivering, which one of the kids had looked up and said was normal for Jack Russells, but it still unnerved John.
Linda went to pick up Sasha because John wasn’t supposed to drive long distances with his back—sitting made it spasm—and, anyway, Linda said she was happy to do it. Happy to get a little time alone with Sasha. Zero tried to follow Linda to the car, bumping against her legs.
“He can’t be out without a leash,” Linda said. “Be gentle with him, O.K.?”
John found the leash, careful when he clipped it to the harness to avoid Zero’s raised stitches. They looked spidery, sinister. Zero was breathing hard. For another five weeks, they were supposed to make sure he didn’t roll over, didn’t jump, didn’t run. He had to be on a leash whenever he went outside, had to be accompanied at all times. Otherwise the pacemaker might get knocked loose. John hadn’t known dogs could get pacemakers, didn’t even like dogs inside the house. Now here he was, shuffling after Zero while he sniffed one tree, then another.
Zero limped slowly to the fence line, stood still for a moment, then kept going. It was two acres, the back yard, big enough that you felt insulated from the neighbors, though one of them had called the police once, because of the dog’s barking. These people, up in one another’s business, trying to control barking dogs. Zero stopped to consider a deflated soccer ball, so old it looked fossilized, then kept moving. Finally he squatted, miserable, looking back at John as he took a creamy little shit. It was a startling, unnatural green.
Inside the animal was some unseen machinery keeping him alive, keeping his animal heart pumping. Robot dog, John crooned to himself, kicking dirt over the shit.
Four o’clock. Sasha’s plane would just be landing, Linda circling arrivals. It was not too early for a glass of wine.
“Chloe? Are you interested?”
She was not. “I’m applying to jobs,” she said, cross-legged on her bed. “See?” She turned the laptop toward him for a moment, some document up on the screen, though he heard a TV show playing in the background. She still seemed like a teen-ager, though she’d graduated college almost two years ago. At her age, John had already been working for Mike for years, had his own crew by the time he was thirty. He was thirty when Sam was born. Now kids got a whole extra decade to do—what? Float around, do these internships. He tried again. “Are you sure? We can sit outside, it’s not bad.” Chloe didn’t look up from the laptop. “Can you close the door,” she said, tonelessly.
Sometimes their rudeness left him breathless.
He put together a snack for himself. Shards of cheese, cutting around the mold. Salami. The last of the olives, shrivelled in their brine. He took his paper plate outside and sat in one of the patio chairs. The cushions felt damp, probably rotting from the inside. He wore his jeans, his white socks, his white sneakers, a knitted sweater—Linda’s—that seemed laughably and obviously a woman’s. He didn’t worry about that anymore, how silly he might look. Who would care? Zero came to sniff his hand; he fed him a piece of salami. When the dog was calm, quiet, he wasn’t so bad. He should put Zero’s leash on, but it was inside, and, anyway, Zero seemed mellow, no danger of him running around. The back yard was green, winter green. There was a fire pit under the big oak tree which one of the kids had dug in high school and ringed with rocks, but now it was filled with leaves and trash. Probably Sam, he thought, and shouldn’t Sam clean it up, clean all this up? Anger lit him up suddenly, then passed just as quickly. What was he going to do, yell at him? The kids just laughed now if he got angry. Another piece of salami for Zero, a piece for himself. It was cold and tasted like the refrigerator, like the plastic tray it had come on. Zero stared at him with those marble eyes, exhaling his hungry, meaty breath until John shooed him away.
Even accounting for holiday traffic, Linda and Sasha got back later than he expected. He went out onto the porch when he heard their car. He’d had the yard guy put up holiday lights along the fence, along the roof, around the windows. They were these new L.E.D. ones, chilly strands of white light dripping off the eaves. It looked nice now, in the first blue dark, but he still missed the colored lights of his childhood, those cartoonish bulbs. Red, blue, orange, green. Probably they were toxic.
Sasha opened the passenger door, a purse and an empty water bottle on her lap.
“The airline lost my suitcase,” she said. “Sorry, I’m just annoyed. Hi, Dad.”
She hugged him with one arm. She looked a little sad, a little fatter than the last time he’d seen her. She was wearing some unflattering style of pant, wide at the legs, and her cheeks were sweating under too much makeup.
“Did you talk to someone?”
“It’s fine,” she said. “I mean, yeah, I left my information and stuff. I got a claim number, some Web site. They’re never going to find it, I’m sure.”
“We’ll see,” Linda said. “They reimburse you, you know.”
“How was traffic?” John asked.
“Backed up all the way to 101,” Linda said. “Ridiculous.”
If there were luggage, at least he would have something to do with his hands. He gestured in the direction of the driveway, the darkness beyond the porch light.
“Well,” he said, “now everyone’s here.”
“It’s better this way,” Sam said. “Isn’t it better?”
Sam was in the kitchen, connecting Linda’s iPad to a speaker he’d brought. “Now you can play any music you want.”
“But isn’t it broken?” Linda said from the stove. “The iPad? Ask your dad, he knows.”
“It’s just out of batteries,” Sam said. “See? Just plug it in like this.”
The counter was cluttered—John’s secretary, Margaret, had dropped off a plate of Rocky Road fudge covered in Saran wrap, and old clients had sent a tin of macadamia nuts and a basket of fig spreads that would join the fig spreads from years past, dusty and unopened in the pantry. Lemons in a basket from the trees along the fence line, so many lemons. They should do something with the lemons. At least give some to the yard guy to take home. Chloe was sitting on one of the stools, opening Christmas cards, Zero at her feet.
“Who are these people, anyway?” Chloe held up a card. A photograph of three smiling blond boys in jeans and denim shirts. “They look religious.”
“That’s your cousin’s kids,” John said, taking the card. “Haley’s boys. They’re very nice.”
“I didn’t say they weren’t nice.”
“Very smart kids.” They had been good boys, the afternoon they visited, the youngest laughing in a crazy way when John dangled him upside down by his ankles.
Linda said that John was being too rough, her voice getting high, whiny. She got worried so easily. He loves it, John said. And it was true: when he righted the boy, his cheeks red, his eyes wild, he’d asked to go again.
Sasha came downstairs: her face was wet from washing, some sulfurous lotion dabbed on her chin. She looked sleepy, unhappy in borrowed sweatpants and a sweatshirt from the college Chloe had gone to. Linda talked to Sam every day, Chloe, too, and saw them often enough, but Sasha hadn’t been home since March. Linda was happy, John could tell, happy to have the kids there, everyone in one place.
John announced that it was time for a drink. “Everyone? Yes?” he said. “I think let’s do a white.”
“What do you want to listen to?” Sam said, controlling the iPad with a finger. “Mom? Any song.”
“Christmas songs,” Chloe said. “Put on a Christmas station.”
Sam ignored her. “Mom?”
“I liked the CD player,” Linda said. “I knew how to use it.”
“But you can have everything that was on your CDs, and even more,” Sam said. “Anything.”
“Just pick something and play it,” Sasha said. “Christ.”
A commercial blared.
“If you subscribe,” Sam said, “then there won’t be any commercials.” “Come on,” Sasha said. “They don’t want to deal with that stuff.”
Sam, wounded, turned the volume down, studied the iPad in silence. Linda said that she loved the speaker, thank you for setting it up, wasn’t it nice how it freed up all this counter space, and dinner was ready anyway so they could just turn the music off.
Chloe set the table: paper napkins, the cloudy drinking glasses. John had to call someone to look at the dishwasher. It wasn’t draining properly, and seemed only to marinate the dishes in a stew of warm water and food scraps. Linda sat at the head of the table, the kids in their usual spots. John finished his wine. Linda had stopped drinking, just to try it out, she said, just for a while, and since then he had drunk more, or maybe it only felt that way.
Sasha pinched a leaf of lettuce from the salad bowl and started chewing.
“Excuse you,” he said.
“We have to say grace.”
Sasha made a face.
“I’ll say it,” Sam said. He closed his eyes, bowed his head.
When John opened his eyes, he saw Sasha on her phone. The impulse to grab the phone, smash it. But best not to get mad, or Linda would get mad at him, they would all get mad. How easily things got ruined. He refilled his wine, served himself some pasta. Chloe kept reaching down to feed Zero scraps of rotisserie chicken.
Sasha poked at the pasta. “Is there cheese in this?” She made a show of not taking any. There was only wet lettuce and some shreds of chicken on her plate. She sniffed her water glass. “It smells weird.”
Linda blinked. “Well, get another glass then.”
“Smell,” Sasha said, tipping it at Chloe. “See?”
“Get a new glass,” Linda said, and snatched it away. “I’ll get it.”
“Stop, stop, I’ll do it, it’s fine.”
When the kids were little, dinner was hot dogs or spaghetti, the kids with their glasses of milk, Linda drinking white wine with ice cubes, John with his wine, too, tuning in and out. The kids fought. Chloe kicked Sam. Sasha thought Sam was breathing on her—Mom, tell Sam to stop breathing on me. Tell. Sam. To. Stop. Breathing. On. Me. How easily a veil dropped between him and this group of people who were his family. They fuzzed out, pleasantly, became vague enough that he could love them.
“We’re sorry Andrew couldn’t make it,” Linda said.
Sasha shrugged. “He would have had to fly back on Christmas anyway. He has his son the next day.”
“Still, we would’ve liked to see him.”
“Zero’s being weird,” Chloe said. “Look.”
There was chicken on the floor in front of the dog but he wasn’t eating it.
“He’s cyborg now,” Sasha said.
“Maybe he can’t see?” Chloe said. “Do you know if he’s blind?”
“Don’t feed him from the table,” John said.
“Not like it really matters at this point.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Can you imagine being a dog?” Sasha said. “Being ready to die and then just, like, no, you’re cut open and they put something inside you, and you’re still alive? Maybe he hates it.”
John had had a similar thought out on one of Zero’s shit walks. Zero had looked so mournful, so ill at ease in his harness, hobbling in the wet grass with his pale-pink belly, and it seemed awful, what people did to animals, pressing them into emotional servitude, keeping them alive for one last Christmas. The kids didn’t even care about the dog, not really.
“He likes it,” Sam said, bending to pet Zero roughly under the chin. “He’s happy.”
“Gentle, Sammy, gentle.”
“Stop, you’re hurting him,” Chloe said.
“God,” Sam said. “Calm down.” He sat back hard in his chair so that it scraped the floor.
“You made him mad, look,” Chloe said. Zero circled back to the grimy beanbag they used as his bed. The dog settled down in the lump of fake fur, shivering, staring at them.
“He hates us,” Sasha said. “So much.”
They watched the same movie every year. John opened a bottle of red and brought it into the living room, though only he and Sasha were still drinking. Linda made popcorn on the stove, a touch burnt. He felt for the unpopped kernels on the bottom of the bowl, rolled them around his mouth to suck the salt.
“Let’s go,” he said. “Let’s get a move on.”
“Are we ready? Where’s Sasha?”
Chloe shrugged from the floor. “Talking to Andrew.”
The front door opened. When Sasha came into the living room, she looked as if she’d been crying. “I told you guys to start without me.”
“You know, Sash, we can take you to get some clothes tomorrow,” Linda said. “The mall is still open.”
“Maybe,” she said. “Yeah.” She went to lie next to Chloe on the carpet. Her face was lit by her phone, her fingers tapping away.
The movie was longer than he remembered. He’d forgotten the whole first section, down in Florida, the train escape. Of course that one actor was a faggot, that seemed obvious now. The retired general, the inn, snowy, snowy Vermont—John fell into a lull, all this East Coast hale and heartiness, everyone in ruddy good health. Why had he and Linda stayed in California? Maybe that was the problem, raising kids in this mild place where they didn’t know the seasons. How much better off they’d have been in Vermont or New Hampshire or one of those states where the cost of living was cheap, where the kids could have done 4-H and gone to community college and got used to the idea of a small, good life, which was all he had ever wanted for his children.
The kids used to love movies like this when they were little, those old, live-action Walt Disney movies, “Pollyanna,” “The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band,” “The Happiest Millionaire.” Movies where the fathers were basically Jesus, the kids crowding around whenever the dad came into a room, hanging off his neck, kissing him, oh Pa-paw, the little girls said, almost swooning. Such great faces, those old actors. Fred MacMurray, the one from “The Music Man.” Or was he thinking of the actor from “Little House on the Prairie,” the boxed set that they’d watched in its entirety? Pa was always shirtless at least once an episode, his feathery hair so deeply seventies. John had read the girls those books when they were young. The Little House books and the book about the boy running away to live in the mountains, the boy running away to live in the woods, books about young people out in holy, unspoiled nature, fording clear brooks, sleeping in beds made of tree boughs.
Onscreen, Danny Kaye was singing, the blonde in her pink dress dancing, her great legs, and John hummed along, off key, the dog in the room, he could tell, the harness jangling though he couldn’t see the dog, but someone else could take Zero out, one of the kids. That’s why Zero was alive, anyway. For them.
He had fallen asleep. The movie was over, but no one had turned the television off. His wineglass was empty. Everyone was gone. They had left him alone. The room was dark but the holiday lights were still on outside, casting a peculiar glow through the windows, an eerie, alien brightness. It occurred suddenly to him that something was wrong. He sat, unmoving, the wineglass in his hand. He remembered this feeling from childhood, the nights he lay paralyzed in his bottom bunk, hardly breathing from fear, convinced that some evil vapor was gathering itself in the silence, gliding soundlessly toward him. And here it was, he thought, finally, it had come for him. As he had always known it would.
A spasm in his back, and the room reoriented itself: the couch, the carpet, the television. Ordinary. He stood up. He put his wineglass on the coffee table, turned out the hallway lights, the kitchen lights, went upstairs where everyone, his family, was sleeping.
The next day was Christmas Eve. John carried two cups of coffee up to the bedroom. It was sunny outside, the fog burning off, but the bedroom was dark, Colonial dark, anachronistically dark. Linda had picked the dark wallpaper and the dark curtains and the fourposter bed, and it’s not as if John had some vision of what he would have preferred. On the nightstand on his side of the bed: a wooden tray of pennies in the drawer; a shoehorn still in its plastic package; a chubby anthology of crime stories. In the closet, a broken-down device that he had used to hang upside down for twenty minutes a day, good for his back, until Linda said the sight was too frightening.
Linda sat up in bed and took the mug, her sleep shirt twisted up around her neck, her face rumpled. She blinked a few times, groping for her glasses.
“Sasha’s awake,” he said.
“Was she nasty?”
John shrugged. “She’s fine.”
“I’m afraid to go downstairs. She was so upset yesterday. About her bag. It really unnerved me.”
“She seems fine to me.”
Was that true? He didn’t know. Sasha saw a therapist, which John was aware of only because Linda paid the health insurance and Sasha was still on their plan. In high school, Sasha had also gone to a therapist, someone who was supposed to help her stop scratching her legs up with tweezers and nail scissors. It didn’t seem to do anything but give her new words to describe how awful her parents were.
When the kids were young, Linda had gone to a ranch in Arizona for a week or so, a health place. He guessed it would have been after one of the bad periods, when she sometimes ended up locking him out of the house, or taking the kids to her mother’s. One night, Sasha, nine years old, had called the police on him. When they arrived at the house, Linda told them it was an accident, cleared everything up. It was years ago, he told Linda when she brought it up. And things had changed after that. Linda came back from the health retreat with a book of low-fat recipes that all seemed to use mango salsa, and a conviction that she had communed with the ghost of her childhood dog during a guided meditation in a sweat lodge. And she’d decided that John needed to see a therapist. It was, he supposed, an ultimatum.
He’d gone twice. The man had prescribed him antidepressants and a mood stabilizer, and given him a handout of breathing exercises for impulse control. That first day on the pills he’d felt something like mania, his thoughts a bright crumple of tinfoil—he’d cleaned both cars, taken boxes down from the attic, decided he would have the crew turn the space into a painting studio for Linda. He had climbed out Chloe’s nursery window to empty the gutters, clawing out wet clumps of leaves and bird shit with his bare hands, hands gone blue and bloodless from the cold. When he’d wiped his cheek with his shirtsleeve, it came back damp. His whole face was wet. Even though he was crying, it was not unpleasant, like those times he’d taken mushrooms in high school and sat out in the nature preserve by Salt Point, tears streaming down his face when he felt the wave start to hit, his mouth filling with drool. On the roof he had leaned back on the shingles, considered the drop to the yard below. What had the calculation even been? Not high enough. He had not taken the pills again.
And how had it happened, the eventual neutering of his anger? He was too tired to knock things over. What had Sasha said, the last time they’d got in a fight? She’d been crying, on a trip about how he used to throw food at her when she didn’t eat it. These things seemed so far away, and then eventually they got farther away, and then nobody talked about them anymore.
When he brought the empty mugs down to the kitchen, Sasha was holding up a white package, a cardboard box opened in front of her.
“What are these?” she said.
“Where did you get that?”
“The box was on the counter. I just opened it, sorry.”
He snatched it away. “Was it addressed to you?”
“Sorry,” she said.
“You just do whatever you want?” He was aware that he was almost yelling.
“I said sorry.” She looked scared in a way that made him angrier.
“You might as well have it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”
For Christmas he had bought everyone those DNA kits. Linda, too. A pretty good present, he thought. He had been proud—he’d got everyone a DNA kit and an AAA membership. Who could ever say he didn’t think of his family?
Sam came into the kitchen, already dressed.
John slid a box toward him. “Here.”
“It’s your Christmas present,” he said. “You just spit into these tubes. It’s all included. Send it off. It comes back and tells you exactly what your DNA is.”
“Cool,” Sam said, making a show of studying the package, turning it over in his hands.
“You know,” Sasha said, “this is basically just giving your DNA to the police.”
“But you guys can find your heritage,” John said. “Find relatives. Learn about the family.”
Sasha smirked. “This is how they found that man who killed everyone. The serial killer. Through some fourth cousin.”
“They weren’t cheap,” he said, hearing his voice rise. Probably, he thought, his kids didn’t even know his own father’s name. Unbelievable. He took a breath. “I got one for everyone.”
Sasha looked at him, looked at Sam. “Sorry,” she said. “It’s great. Thank you.”
In the afternoon, Chloe put on home movies. Sam had transferred all the tapes to DVDs as John and Linda’s Christmas present the year before. Zero sat quivering beside Chloe on the living-room floor. The dog smelled, even from the doorway, faintly of urine. Chloe didn’t seem to notice, nuzzling into his neck. She was eating a microwave burrito off a paper towel. It looked damp and unpleasant, oozing beans.
“Want to watch with me?” she said.
He was tired. The living room was warm, the heat on. It was fine to sit in the big chair, to close his eyes, listen to the voices. It was his voice. He opened his eyes. The camera was jerky, handheld, John walking it down an empty hallway. Let’s go say hi to everyone, he said. Let’s go find them.
It was a house they had not lived in for at least twenty years. What an odd house it had been. So many levels and nooks, big dark beams. A row of pine trees whose branches the kids used to grab through the car windows as he drove past, the snow that covered the bedroom skylight. How strange to see it again, conjured from nothing. Their old life. The camera caught his sneakers, the carpet, the flash of a tweed couch.
“Where is that?” Chloe asked.
“You were a baby. We only lived there a year or two.”
It was hard to remember when it would have been exactly, but they lived in that house before Linda’s father died, so it was probably ’96 or ’97. It looked like winter, and maybe it was the winter that bears kept breaking into the car, often enough that he had to leave it unlocked so that they wouldn’t smash the windows. Sam liked seeing the muddy paw prints, though Sasha was deathly afraid of bears, wouldn’t even come out to look at the tracks.
What else did he remember about the house—the stone fireplace, the collection of pig salt shakers, the cramped kitchen with its mustard-colored refrigerator that they packed with cubes of hot dogs, the freezer limping along, barely keeping the waffles solid. The girls had shared a room. Sam in that nook. They played Go Fish and War, they made houses of cards, they watched “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.” Linda’s brother came over all the time. George was still married to his first wife, Christine—she was beautiful then, hair that curled up at the ends, breasts that were always half out of whatever shirt she was wearing. John pulled her onto his lap, and Linda slapped his shoulder, Jo-ohn, Christine wriggling off but only after a few minutes. George and Christine got divorced, how many years after that? Christine fat from antipsychotics and claiming that George had pushed her down the stairs.
“Look at Mom’s hair,” Chloe said. “It’s so funny.”
Linda was wearing glasses popular at that time, brown saucers that made her eyes a little goggled.
She waved the camera away. John! Stop! The video cut out. He closed his eyes again. He heard only static. Then:
Sam, sit down.
It’s his birthday.
It was a nice present your grandpa got you.
The cake looks good.
Hold up how many fingers, how old?
It’s a special puppet. Be very gentle with it.
What do you want to be? You want to be a doctor?
It wasn’t me. It was this guy.
Don’t touch the puppet. We’ll be very careful with it. It’s very expensive.
Sasha. The baby’s sleeping. Don’t touch.
Sasha stood in the doorway. “What are you guys watching?”
“It’s so funny,” Chloe said. “You should watch. You were so cute. Wait, let me put on the one of you. It’s really cute.”
The camera shook, pointed at the carpet. Then tilted up to Sasha in a nightgown, sitting on the bottom step of a staircase.
How old are you?
Who’s that there?
Is that your Gecko? Is it Gecko? What are you doing?
Making a Flounder house.
Ariel and Flounder.
And who do you love? Do you love your daddy?
Who do you love more, your daddy or your mommy? Do you love your daddy the most?
John glanced at Sasha, but she was gone.
She was in the kitchen, ripping paper towels off the roll, square by square, floating them on a puddle under the table. “Zero pissed again,” she said. “Jesus,” she said, the roll of paper towels now empty. She was almost sputtering. Her eyes were puffy and red. “Why doesn’t anyone clean up the piss? It’s disgusting. The dog pisses all over this house and no one even notices.”
“Your mom loves that dog,” John said. Sasha nudged the paper towels along the floor with the toe of her boot. He guessed that she would not actually take the step of picking up the towels, actually cleaning up.
“Any news about your bag?”
Sasha shook her head. “There’s this Web site to check, but it just says it’s still in transit,” she said. “I keep refreshing.”
“I can take you to the mall if you want,” he said.
“O.K. Yeah, thanks.”
He stood for a moment too long, expecting—what? Nothing. She didn’t pick up the paper towels.
Sasha was silent on the drive, thirty minutes up Highway 12. Not much traffic.
“You see they’re still not done with the hotel?”
He’d been outbid on that job. Good thing, since it was all tied up with the city anyway, people writing letters to the editor, wanting traffic-impact reports.
Sasha kept checking her phone.
“Do you have a charger or something?” she said.
When he reached across her to get the one in the glove box, she flinched.
He forced himself not to say anything. He should have let Linda take her, or one of the kids. He put on the radio, already tuned to Linda’s favorite station. It played Christmas music starting on Thanksgiving. Sam had told him that all radio was just programmed by computers now.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light.
Hadn’t one of the kids’ classes done this song one year at a Christmas pageant? The kids dressed as angels in cut-up bedsheets, Linda making them halos out of tinsel.
Sasha pulled down the sleeves of Chloe’s sweatshirt and put her phone, now plugged into the charger, on the console between them. The background of her phone, John saw, was a photo of a family on the deck of a ferry. A woman, a man, a kid. The woman, he realized after a moment, was Sasha. She was in a bright-blue anorak—beaming, windswept. A young boy was sitting in her lap, and a man, Andrew, smiled with his arm around them both. The thought came clearly to John that they missed her. This man and his child. She was here and not there and they missed her. Why should that be so strange? The screen went blank.
She’d had a boyfriend in high school, or maybe it was Chloe’s boyfriend, a rangy kid with a dark bowl cut, a sharp nose, raw, red nostrils. The boy had been nice enough, except that he’d eventually snapped—was it drugs? Or maybe he was schizophrenic, John didn’t remember. His parents had called John and Linda once to see if the boy was staying with them. This was years after they’d broken up. The boy hadn’t been staying with them, of course, and his mother told John over the phone how the boy had put a dead bird in the coffee machine, how he thought his family was trying to kill him. How he’d disappeared and they had no idea where he was or how to find him. John had felt bad for the boy’s mother, embarrassed, even, by her unself-conscious grief, and glad for his own children: healthy, normal, off living their lives.
“Maybe you and Chloe should make persimmon cookies tonight?” he said.
“No one eats persimmon cookies. You don’t even like them.”
“I do like them,” he said. He felt hurt. Though he couldn’t remember what persimmons even tasted like. Astringent, maybe, soapy.
“All those persimmons are just going to rot if you don’t,” he said.
She didn’t care. She didn’t remember any of the good things. The night he’d woken them up, piled them into the back of his pickup with blankets, driven them to the reservoir, where they made a huge fire, where the kids sat on towels on the damp ground and ate burnt marshmallows off sticks. There was a photo from that night he used to keep on his desk, the three kids looking tired and happy and bundled in the bright, optimistic colors of that old clothing—and then how did that seem suddenly to mean nothing? Or the month all the kids had chicken pox and slept on sheets on the floor of his and Linda’s bedroom, nude and dotted with calamine lotion, the bathtub drain clogged from their oatmeal baths. So many illnesses and broken bones and sprained wrists and cracked skulls.
They didn’t care. As a girl, Sasha had watched “The Wizard of Oz” so many times that the tape had snapped.
“Do you remember that?” he said. “How much you liked ‘The Wizard of Oz’?”
“What?” She looked irritated.
“You loved it. You watched it twenty-five times, more. It must have been more. You broke the tape.”
She didn’t say anything.
“It’s true,” he said.
“Sounds like Chloe.”
“It was you.”
“Pretty sure it was Chloe.”
He tried to feel kindness toward her.
Even on Christmas Eve, the parking lot at the mall was full. He guessed he shouldn’t be surprised by that anymore, people wanting to shop instead of being home with their families. It used to be shameful, like being on your phone when someone was talking to you, but then everyone did it and you were just supposed to accept that this was how life was.
“You can drop me off here,” Sasha said, already opening her door. “This is good. You want to come back in, like, three hours or something? Meet back here?”
He might as well swing by the office, just to check on things—no one was there, of course, no other cars in the office park, the heat turned off, but it was good to sit at his desk, turn on his computer, answer a few e-mails. He signed some checks. He liked the office when it was quiet. John drank room-temperature water, wobbling in a paper cone, from the water fountain. They should start ordering regular paper cups. Linda texted that the neighbor had called. Zero had got out somehow, made it a few houses before someone found him.
All ok now?
Fine, she texted back.
She’d said she’d wait until after Christmas to put Zero down, but now, with the pacemaker, who knew. The dog would probably outlive John. Another hour before he had to get Sasha. He found a granola bar in his drawer that crumbled when he opened the wrapper. He tipped the pieces into his mouth, chewed hard. Margaret was with her son in Chicago: photos of her grandson were on her bulletin board, a tin of tea sat on her desk along with the tube of hand cream she used assiduously. Before she left, Margaret had turned the calendar—a freebie from the hardware store—to January. He checked the time. He knew he was going to have to get up, sooner or later, but there was no reason to leave until he had to.
He circled the parking lot once before he saw Sasha, leaning against a post, her eyes closed. She looked peaceful, untroubled, her hair tucked behind her ears, her hands in the pocket of Chloe’s sweatshirt. If he remembered correctly, Sasha had not got into that college. She had never been a lucky girl. He rolled down the passenger-side window.
“Sasha,” he said, louder.
“I kept calling for you,” he said, when she finally approached. “You didn’t hear?”
“Sorry,” she said, getting into the car.
“You didn’t buy anything?”
For a moment, she looked confused.
“I didn’t like anything,” she said.
He started to pull away. It had rained at some point without his noticing; the streets were wet. Other drivers had turned on their headlights.
“Actually,” Sasha said, “I didn’t even look for clothes. I saw a movie.”
“Oh?” he said. He couldn’t tell if she was trying to elicit some specific response. He kept his face empty, his hands on the wheel. “Was it good?”
She told him what had happened in the movie.
“Sounds sad,” he said.
“I guess,” Sasha said. “Everyone said it was supposed to be good. But I thought it was dumb.”
Sasha’s phone chimed on the seat between them.
“But why would people want to go see a movie that makes them sad?” John said.
Sasha didn’t answer him. She was busy typing, her face washed in the light from her screen. It had got dark so quickly. He turned on his own headlights. Her phone chimed again and Sasha smiled, a small, private smile.
“Is it O.K. if I call Andrew? Really quick. I’m just going to say good night,” she said. “It’s late there.”
He nodded, keeping his eyes on the road.
“Hi, sorry,” Sasha said, speaking low into her phone. “No,” she said, “I’m in the car.”
She laughed, softly, her voice dropping, her body relaxing into the seat, and at the stoplight John found himself tilting his head in her direction, straining to make out what she was saying, as if he might catch something in her words.
January 28 2019
So I’m telling a younger friend of mine about a strange incident that took place back when I was eighteen. I don’t recall exactly why I brought it up. It just happened to come up as we were talking. I mean, it was something that happened long ago. Ancient history. On top of which, I was never able to reach any conclusion about it.
“I’d already graduated from high school then, but wasn’t in college yet,” I explained. “I was what’s called an academic ronin, a student who fails the university entrance exam and is waiting to try again. Things felt kind of up in the air,” I went on, “but that didn’t bother me much. I knew that I could get into a halfway decent private college if I wanted to. But my parents had insisted that I try for a national university, so I took the exam, knowing all along that it’d be a bust. And, sure enough, I failed. The national-university exam back then had a mandatory math section, and I had zero interest in calculus. I spent the next year basically killing time, as if I were creating an alibi. Instead of attending cram school to prepare to retake the exam, I hung out at the local library, plowing my way through thick novels. My parents must have assumed that I was studying there. But, hey, that’s life. I found it a lot more enjoyable to read all of Balzac than to delve into the principles of calculus.”
At the beginning of October that year, I received an invitation to a piano recital from a girl who’d been a year behind me in school and had taken piano lessons from the same teacher as I had. Once, the two of us had played a short four-hands piano piece by Mozart. When I turned sixteen, though, I’d stopped taking lessons, and I hadn’t seen her after that. So I couldn’t figure out why she’d sent me this invitation. Was she interested in me? No way. She was attractive, for sure, though not my type in terms of looks; she was always fashionably dressed and attended an expensive private girls’ school. Not at all the kind to fall for a bland, run-of-the-mill guy like me.
When we played that piece together, she gave me a sour look every time I hit a wrong note. She was a better pianist than I was, and I tended to get overly tense, so when the two of us sat side by side and played I bungled a lot of notes. My elbow bumped against hers a few times as well. It wasn’t such a difficult piece, and, moreover, I had the easier part. Each time I blew it, she had this Give me a break expression on her face. And she’d click her tongue—not loudly but loud enough that I could catch it. I can still hear that sound, even now. That sound may even have had something to do with my decision to give up the piano.
At any rate, my relationship with her was simply that we happened to study in the same piano school. We’d exchange hellos if we ran into each other there, but I have no memory of our ever sharing anything personal. So suddenly receiving an invitation to her recital (not a solo recital but a group recital with three pianists) took me completely by surprise—in fact, had me baffled. But one thing I had in abundance that year was time, so I sent off the reply postcard, saying that I would attend. One reason I did this was that I was curious to find out what lay behind the invitation—if, indeed, there was a motive. Why, after all this time, send me an unexpected invitation? Maybe she had become much more skilled as a pianist and wanted to show me that. Or perhaps there was something personal that she wished to convey to me. In other words, I was still figuring out how best to use my sense of curiosity, and banging my head against all kinds of things in the process.
The recital hall was at the top of one of the mountains in Kobe. I took the Hankyu train line as close as I could, then boarded a bus that made its way up a steep, winding road. I got off at a stop near the very top, and after a short walk arrived at the modest-sized concert venue, which was owned and managed by an enormous business conglomerate. I hadn’t known that there was a concert hall here, in such an inconvenient spot, at the top of a mountain, in a quiet, upscale residential neighborhood. As you can imagine, there were plenty of things in the world that I didn’t know about.
I’d felt that I should bring something to show my appreciation for having been invited, so at a florist’s near the train station I had selected a bunch of flowers that seemed to fit the occasion and had them wrapped as a bouquet. The bus had shown up just then and I’d hopped aboard. It was a chilly Sunday afternoon. The sky was covered with thick gray clouds, and it looked as though a cold rain might start at any minute. There was no wind, though. I was wearing a thin, plain sweater under a gray herringbone jacket with a touch of blue, and I had a canvas bag slung across my shoulder. The jacket was too new, the bag too old and worn out. And in my hands was this gaudy bouquet of red flowers wrapped in cellophane. When I got on the bus decked out like that, the other passengers kept glancing at me. Or maybe it just seemed as if they did. I could feel my cheeks turning red. Back then, I blushed at the slightest provocation. And the redness took forever to go away.
“Why in the world am I here?” I asked myself, as I sat hunched over in my seat, cooling my flushed cheeks with my palms. I didn’t particularly want to see this girl, or hear the piano recital, so why was I spending all my allowance on a bouquet, and travelling all the way to the top of a mountain on a dreary Sunday afternoon in November? Something must have been wrong with me when I dropped the reply postcard in the mailbox. The higher up the mountain we went, the fewer passengers there were on the bus, and by the time we arrived at my stop only the driver and I were left. I got off the bus and followed the directions on the invitation up a gently sloping street. Each time I turned a corner, the harbor came briefly into view and then disappeared again. The overcast sky was a dull color, as if blanketed with lead. There were huge cranes down in the harbor, jutting into the air like the antennae of some ungainly creatures that had crawled out of the ocean.
The houses near the top of the slope were large and luxurious, with massive stone walls, impressive front gates, and two-car garages. The azalea hedges were all neatly trimmed. I heard what sounded like a huge dog barking somewhere. It barked loudly three times, and then, as if someone had scolded it severely, it abruptly stopped, and all around became quiet.
As I followed the simple map on the invitation, I was struck by a vague, disconcerting premonition. Something just wasn’t right. First of all, there was the lack of people in the street. Since getting off the bus, I hadn’t seen a single pedestrian. Two cars did drive by, but they were on their way down the slope, not up. If a recital was really about to take place here, I would have expected to see more people. But the whole neighborhood was still and silent, as if the dense clouds above had swallowed up all sound.
Had I misunderstood?
I took the invitation out of my jacket pocket to recheck the information. Maybe I’d misread it. I went over it carefully, but couldn’t find anything wrong. I had the right street, the right bus stop, the right date and time. I took a deep breath to calm myself, and set off again. The only thing I could do was get to the concert hall and see.
When I finally arrived at the building, the large steel gate was locked tight. A thick chain ran around the gate, and was held in place by a heavy padlock. No one else was around. Through a narrow opening in the gate, I could see a fair-sized parking lot, but not a single car was parked there. Weeds had sprouted between the paving stones, and the parking lot looked as if it hadn’t been used in quite some time. Despite all that, the large nameplate at the entrance told me that this was indeed the recital hall I was looking for.
I pressed the button on the intercom next to the entrance but no one responded. I waited a bit, then pressed the button again, but still no answer. I looked at my watch. The recital was supposed to start in fifteen minutes. But there was no sign that the gate would be opened. Paint had peeled off it in spots, and it was starting to rust. I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I pressed the intercom button one more time, holding it down longer, but the result was the same as before—deep silence.
With no idea what to do, I leaned back against the gate and stood there for some ten minutes. I had a faint hope that someone else might show up before long. But no one came. There was no sign of any movement, either inside the gate or outside. There was no wind. No birds chirping, no dogs barking. As before, an unbroken blanket of gray cloud lay above.
I finally gave up—what else could I do?—and with heavy steps started back down the street toward the bus stop, totally in the dark about what was going on. The only clear thing about the whole situation was that there wasn’t going to be a piano recital or any other event held here today. All I could do was head home, bouquet of red flowers in hand. My mother would doubtless ask, “What’re the flowers for?,” and I would have to give some plausible answer. I wanted to toss them in the trash bin at the station, but they were—for me, at least—kind of expensive to just throw away.
Down the hill a short distance, there was a cozy little park, about the size of a house lot. On the far side of the park, away from the street, was an angled natural rock wall. It was barely a park—it had no water fountain or playground equipment. All that was there was a little arbor, plunked down in the middle. The walls of the arbor were slanted latticework, overgrown with ivy. There were bushes around it, and flat square stepping stones on the ground. It was hard to say what the park’s purpose was, but someone was regularly taking care of it; the trees and bushes were smartly clipped, with no weeds or trash around. On the way up the hill, I’d walked right by the park without noticing it.
I went into the park to gather my thoughts and sat down on a bench next to the arbor. I felt that I should wait in the area a little longer to see how things developed (for all I knew, people might suddenly appear), and once I sat down I realized how tired I was. It was a strange kind of exhaustion, as though I’d been worn out for quite a while but hadn’t noticed it, and only now had it hit me. From the arbor, there was a panoramic view of the harbor. A number of large container ships were docked at the pier. From the top of the mountain, the stacked metal containers looked like nothing more than the small tins that you keep on your desk to hold coins or paper clips.
After a while, I heard a man’s voice in the distance. Not a natural voice but one amplified by a loudspeaker. I couldn’t catch what was being said, but there was a pronounced pause after each sentence, and the voice spoke precisely, without a trace of emotion, as if trying to convey something extremely important as objectively as possible. It occurred to me that maybe this was a personal message directed at me, and me alone. Someone was going to the trouble of telling me where I’d gone wrong, what it was that I’d overlooked. Not something I would normally have thought, but for some reason it struck me that way. I listened carefully. The voice got steadily louder and easier to understand. It must have been coming from a loudspeaker on the roof of a car that was slowly wending its way up the slope, seemingly in no hurry at all. Finally, I realized what it was: a car broadcasting a Christian message. “Everyone will die,” the voice said in a calm monotone. “Every person will eventually pass away. No one can escape death or the judgment that comes afterward. After death, everyone will be severely judged for his sins.”
I sat there on the bench, listening to this message. I found it strange that anyone would do mission outreach in this deserted residential area up on top of a mountain. The people who lived here all owned multiple cars and were affluent. I doubted that they were seeking salvation from sin. Or maybe they were? Income and status might be unrelated to sin and salvation.
“But all those who seek salvation in Jesus Christ and repent of their sins will have their sins forgiven by the Lord. They will escape the fires of Hell. Believe in God, for only those who believe in Him will reach salvation after death and receive eternal life.”
I was waiting for the Christian-mission car to appear on the street in front of me and say more about the judgment after death. I think I must have been hoping to hear words spoken in a reassuring, resolute voice, no matter what they were. But the car never showed up. And, at a certain point, the voice began to grow quieter, less distinct, and before long I couldn’t hear anything anymore. The car must have turned in another direction, away from where I was. When that car disappeared, I felt as though I’d been abandoned by the world.
A sudden thought hit me: maybe the whole thing was a hoax that the girl had cooked up. This idea—or hunch, I should say—came out of nowhere. For some reason that I couldn’t fathom, she’d deliberately given me false information and dragged me out to the top of a remote mountain on a Sunday afternoon. Maybe I had done something that had caused her to form a personal grudge against me. Or maybe, for no special reason, she found me so unpleasant she couldn’t stand it. And she’d sent me an invitation to a nonexistent recital and was now gloating—laughing her head off—seeing (or, rather, imagining) how she’d fooled me and how pathetic and ridiculous I must look.
O.K., but would a person really go to all the trouble of coming up with such a complicated plot in order to harass someone, just out of spite? Even printing up the postcard must have taken some effort. Could someone really be that mean? I couldn’t remember a thing I’d ever done to make her hate me that much. But sometimes, without even realizing it, we trample on people’s feelings, hurt their pride, make them feel bad. I speculated on the possibility of this not unthinkable hatred, the misunderstandings that might have taken place, but found nothing convincing. And as I wandered fruitlessly through this maze of emotions I felt my mind losing its way. Before I knew it, I was having trouble breathing.
This used to happen to me once or twice a year. I think it must have been stress-induced hyperventilation. Something would fluster me, my throat would constrict, and I wouldn’t be able to get enough air into my lungs. I’d panic, as if I were being swept under by a rushing current and were about to drown, and my body would freeze. All I could do at those times was crouch down, close my eyes, and patiently wait for my body to return to its usual rhythms. As I got older, I stopped experiencing these symptoms (and, at some point, I stopped blushing so easily, too), but in my teens I was still troubled by these problems.
On the bench by the arbor, I screwed my eyes tightly shut, bent over, and waited to be freed from that blockage. It may have been five minutes, it may have been fifteen. I don’t know how long. All the while, I watched as strange patterns appeared and vanished in the dark, and I slowly counted them, trying my best to get my breathing back under control. My heart beat out a ragged tempo in my rib cage, as if a terrified mouse were racing about inside.
I’d been focussing so much on counting that it took some time for me to become aware of the presence of another person. It felt as if someone were in front of me, observing me. Cautiously, ever so slowly, I opened my eyes and raised my head a degree. My heart was still thumping.
Without my noticing, an old man had sat down on the bench across from me and was looking straight at me. It isn’t easy for a young man to judge an elderly person’s age. To me, they all just looked like old people. Sixty, seventy—what was the difference? They weren’t young anymore, that was all. This man was wearing a bluish-gray wool cardigan, brown corduroy pants, and navy-blue sneakers. It looked as though a considerable amount of time had passed since any of these were new. Not that he appeared shabby or anything. His gray hair was thick and stiff-looking, and tufts sprung up above his ears like the wings of birds when they bathe. He wasn’t wearing glasses. I didn’t know how long he’d been there, but I had the feeling that he’d been observing me for quite some time.
I was sure he was going to say, “Are you all right?,” or something like that, since I must have looked as if I were having trouble (and I really was). That was the first thing that sprang to mind when I saw the old man. But he didn’t say a thing, didn’t ask anything, just gripped a tightly folded black umbrella that he was holding like a cane. The umbrella had an amber-colored wooden handle and looked sturdy enough to serve as a weapon if need be. I assumed that he lived in the neighborhood, since he had nothing else with him.
I sat there trying to calm my breathing, the old man silently watching. His gaze didn’t waver for an instant. It made me feel uncomfortable—as if I’d wandered into someone’s back yard without permission—and I wanted to get up from the bench and head off to the bus stop as fast as I could. But, for some reason, I couldn’t get to my feet. Time passed, and then suddenly the old man spoke.
“A circle with many centers.”
I looked up at him. Our eyes met. His forehead was extremely broad, his nose pointed. As sharply pointed as a bird’s beak. I couldn’t say a thing, so the old man quietly repeated the words: “A circle with many centers.”
Naturally, I had no clue what he was trying to say. A thought came to me—that this man had been driving the Christian loudspeaker car. Maybe he’d parked nearby and was taking a break? No, that couldn’t be it. His voice was different from the one I’d heard. The loudspeaker voice was a much younger man’s. Or perhaps that had been a recording.
“Circles, did you say?” I reluctantly asked. He was older than me, and politeness dictated that I respond.
“There are several centers—no, sometimes an infinite number—and it’s a circle with no circumference.” The old man frowned as he said this, the wrinkles on his forehead deepening. “Are you able to picture that kind of circle in your mind?”
My mind was still out of commission, but I gave it some thought. A circle that has several centers and no circumference. But, think as I might, I couldn’t visualize it.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
The old man silently stared at me. He seemed to be waiting for a better answer.
“I don’t think they taught us about that kind of circle in math class,” I feebly added.
The old man slowly shook his head. “Of course not. That’s to be expected. Because they don’t teach you that kind of thing in school. As you know very well.”
As I knew very well? Why would this old man presume that?
“Does that kind of circle really exist?” I asked.
“Of course it does,” the old man said, nodding a few times. “That circle does indeed exist. But not everyone can see it, you know.”
“Can you see it?”
The old man didn’t reply. My question hung awkwardly in the air for a moment, and finally grew hazy and disappeared.
The old man spoke again. “Listen, you’ve got to imagine it with your own power. Use all the wisdom you have and picture it. A circle that has many centers but no circumference. If you put in such an intense effort that it’s as if you were sweating blood—that’s when it gradually becomes clear what the circle is.”
“It sounds difficult,” I said.
“Of course it is,” the old man said, sounding as if he were spitting out something hard. “There’s nothing worth getting in this world that you can get easily.” Then, as if starting a new paragraph, he briefly cleared his throat. “But, when you put in that much time and effort, if you do achieve that difficult thing it becomes the cream of your life.”
“In French, they have an expression: crème de la crème. Do you know it?”
“I don’t,” I said. I knew no French.
“The cream of the cream. It means the best of the best. The most important essence of life—that’s the crème de la crème. Get it? The rest is just boring and worthless.”
I didn’t really understand what the old man was getting at. Crème de la crème?
“Think about it,” the old man said. “Close your eyes again, and think it all through. A circle that has many centers but no circumference. Your brain is made to think about difficult things. To help you get to a point where you understand something that you didn’t understand at first. You can’t be lazy or neglectful. Right now is a critical time. Because this is the period when your brain and your heart form and solidify.”
I closed my eyes again and tried to picture that circle. I didn’t want to be lazy or neglectful. But, no matter how seriously I thought about what the man was saying, it was impossible for me at that time to grasp the meaning of it. The circles I knew had one center, and a curved circumference connecting points that were equidistant from it. The kind of simple figure you can draw with a compass. Wasn’t the kind of circle the old man was talking about the opposite of a circle?
I didn’t think that the old man was off, mentally. And I didn’t think that he was teasing me. He wanted to convey something important. So I tried again to understand, but my mind just spun around and around, making no progress. How could a circle that had many (or perhaps an infinite number of) centers exist as a circle? Was this some advanced philosophical metaphor? I gave up and opened my eyes. I needed more clues.
But the old man wasn’t there anymore. I looked all around, but there was no sign of anyone in the park. It was as if he’d never existed. Was I imagining things? No, of course it wasn’t some fantasy. He’d been right there in front of me, tightly gripping his umbrella, speaking quietly, posing a strange question, and then he’d left.
I realized that my breathing was back to normal, calm and steady. The rushing current was gone. Here and there, gaps had started to appear in the thick layer of clouds above the harbor. A ray of light had broken through, illuminating the aluminum housing on top of a crane, as if it had been accurately aiming at that one spot. I stared for a long while, transfixed by the almost mythic scene.
The small bouquet of red flowers, wrapped in cellophane, was beside me. Like a kind of proof of all the strange things that had happened to me. I debated what to do with it, and ended up leaving it on the bench by the arbor. To me, that seemed the best option. I stood up and headed toward the bus stop where I’d got off earlier. The wind had started blowing, scattering the stagnant clouds above.
After I finished telling this story, there was a pause, then my younger friend said, “I don’t really get it. What actually happened, then? Was there some intention or principle at work?”
Those very odd circumstances I experienced on top of that mountain in Kobe on a Sunday afternoon in late autumn—following the directions on the invitation to where the recital was supposed to take place, only to discover that the building was deserted—what did it all mean? And why did it happen? That was what my friend was asking. Perfectly natural questions, especially because the story I was telling him didn’t reach any conclusion.
“I don’t understand it myself, even now,” I admitted.
It was permanently unsolved, like some ancient riddle. What took place that day was incomprehensible, inexplicable, and at eighteen it left me bewildered and mystified. So much so that, for a moment, I nearly lost my way.
“But I get the feeling,” I said, “that principle or intention wasn’t really the issue.”
My friend looked confused. “Are you telling me that there’s no need to know what it was all about?”
“But if it were me,” he said, “I’d be bothered no end. I’d want to know the truth, why something like that happened. If I’d been in your shoes, that is.”
“Yeah, of course. Back then, it bothered me, too. A lot. It hurt me, too. But thinking about it later, from a distance, after time had passed, it came to feel insignificant, not worth getting upset about. I felt as though it had nothing at all to do with the cream of life.”
“The cream of life,” he repeated.
“Things like this happen sometimes,” I told him. “Inexplicable, illogical events that nevertheless are deeply disturbing. I guess we need to not think about them, just close our eyes and get through them. As if we were passing under a huge wave.”
My younger friend was quiet for a time, considering that huge wave. He was an experienced surfer, and there were lots of things, serious things, that he had to consider when it came to waves. Finally, he spoke. “But not thinking about anything might also be pretty hard.”
“You’re right. It might be hard indeed.”
There’s nothing worth getting in this world that you can get easily, the old man had said, with unshakable conviction, like Pythagoras explaining his theorem.
“About that circle with many centers but no circumference,” my friend asked. “Did you ever find an answer?”
“Good question,” I said. I slowly shook my head. Had I?
In my life, whenever an inexplicable, illogical, disturbing event takes place (I’m not saying that it happens often, but it has a few times), I always come back to that circle—the circle with many centers but no circumference. And, as I did when I was eighteen, on that arbor bench, I close my eyes and listen to the beating of my heart.
Sometimes I feel that I can sort of grasp what that circle is, but a deeper understanding eludes me. This circle is, most likely, not a circle with a concrete, actual form but, rather, one that exists only within our minds. When we truly love somebody, or feel deep compassion, or have an idealistic sense of how the world should be, or when we discover faith (or something close to faith)—that’s when we understand the circle as a given and accept it in our hearts. Admittedly, though, this is nothing more than my own vague attempt to reason it out.
Your brain is made to think about difficult things. To help you get to a point where you understand something that you didn’t understand at first. And that becomes the cream of your life. The rest is boring and worthless. That was what the gray-haired old man told me. On a cloudy Sunday afternoon in late autumn, on top of a mountain in Kobe, as I clutched a small bouquet of red flowers. And even now, whenever something disturbing happens to me, I ponder again that special circle, and the boring and the worthless. And the unique cream that must be there, deep inside me.