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None of Us Is Perfect and Other Stories


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NONE OF US IS PERFECT AND OTHER STORIES By P. TERRENCE MCGOVERN A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLOR IDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF MASTER OF FINE ARTS UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA 2004

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Copyright 2004 by P. Terrence McGovern

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This document is dedicate d to the people I love.

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I thank my thesis director, David Leavitt. I thank my family. I thank my MFA@FLA classmates. I thank Padgett Powell. I thank Jill Ciment. I thank Laura Lee. I thank other assorted loved ones. iv

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TABLE OF CONTENTS page ACKNOWLEDGMENTS.................................................................................................iv ABSTRACT.......................................................................................................................vi TROPHY BASS...................................................................................................................1 TWO WEEKS......................................................................................................................3 THE EXPERIMENT.........................................................................................................17 SEVEN DAYS IN THE LIFE OF FRANCIS T. HAUTE................................................19 FIRST DATE.....................................................................................................................34 A SHORT-DISTANCE RELATIONSHIP........................................................................43 LIVE NEAR FOREVER...................................................................................................50 NONE OF US IS PERFECT..............................................................................................66 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH.............................................................................................82 v

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Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts NONE OF US IS PERFECT AND OTHER STORIES By P. Terrence McGovern May, 2004 Chair: Professor David Leavitt Major Department: English Enjoy these stories. Some of them are prefect. vi

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TROPHY BASS Damn. Paul Todd, a former English Composition student of mine, cornered me at a student-faculty dinner and got me to agree to go with him on a day-long fishing trip. We have to go this weekend, he said. The shits already rented. Paul was lanky and bookish without actually being book-smart. I remembered him as being disliked by his peers; by the end of the semester they sighed audibly whenever he spoke. I wasnt particularly excited to be trapped in a boat with an oddball, but I was excited to fish again; I hadnt fished since Id gotten married just over a year earlier. The first month of my marriage had been tentative. I likened it to the smoking tinder created from rubbing two sticks: full of potential, and in need of constant attention. There had been no time for fishing. After that first month, Trina and I agreed that it would be counterproductive to be intimidated by the fragility of our marriage. So we became reckless. It was nice. We ate every meal off our best china plates. We were sloppy with our birth control. We bought a second dog without even considering if itd get along with the first. It was nice because we were certain that we wanted to brave broken china and surprise pregnancies and jealous canines together. We felt invincible. Fishing was once again an option. 1

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2 Paul and I fished most of the morning in quiet. I took this to mean he was serious about his fishing and didnt want to scare fish away with idle talk. Gators glided past our boat on missions known only to them. I commented on this to Paul, and he nodded. By noon, I was hungry and about to ask him if he wanted to break for lunch. Without warning, he asked me if I wanted a blowjob. I felt a laugh bloom in my throat, but I paused for a moment and considered the question as one might a third slice of pizza. No thank you, I said. No shame in it, Paul said calmly. Nothing I love better in the world. Damn. I felt as guilty as if Id acquiesced, and it suddenly became vital that I catch fish. Fish would be my alibi. Paul proceeded to catch and release a dozen or so smaller bass with his artificial lure. My shiners caught nothing. Then, with daylight dwindling, I nabbed an eight-pound trophy bass and as if on cue, my heart started to flop in my chest, and I realized then that my marriage to Trina would never be effortless, not ever. When I arrived home, I stepped into my house and held my bass like a lantern, with two fingers hooked through the lip of the massive fish. I was eager to show Trina my prize, and tell her about the slew of gators wed seen, how their relaxed aimlessness had been both creepy and convincing.

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TWO WEEKS All you do is nag, I yell at Lucy Keating, the woman of my dreams. Youre a goddamn nag-queen. Lucy stands with her arms folded and leans against her bedroom door, while I sit in her computer chair across the room. I use my heels to push out from under her desk and wheel into the middle of the room. Youre constantly picking on me, but look at yourself. You whine and bitch about the itchiness of your cast like its a life or death thing and then you expect me not to notice how fucking annoying that is. Casts itch. Get over it and move on. A dot of spit shoots out of my mouth and lands on a wrinkle in her denim pants in the vicinity of her knee, just above the cast she has on her leg from breaking her ankle at a step class. She doesnt notice the spit. I do, and it distracts me from my train of thought. Where am I going with this? I wonder. Sitting in the center of her room isnt helping things. It feels odd to have my lap exposed. The argument started because of her critique of my part in our relationship. Okay. But somewhere in the middle of the thing we switched roles. Now I am attempting to cure her of her nagging problem. Yap, yap, yap. Nothing is good enough Before I can determine what to say aloud, she says, Fine. Too much voice-raising, I realize, as her face begins to close like one of those spaceship doors in science fiction movies: Shhhhhhhhhhhhh-Ksh. I understand her trick of closing off to the world. When I want to be alone in public places, I put on earphones without music and tuck the dangling end of the earphone cord into the waistband of my pants. 3

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4 I have to work early tomorrow, she says, tight-lipped. She moves away from the door and motions for me to leave. She leans her weight on her good foot. I leave and take a taxi to my apartment. I stare out the window of the taxi and watch as an imaginary version of myself, an improved version, a version that doesnt bicker and voice-raise, follows the taxi along the sidewalk, hurdling dog leashes and dodging bike messengers. The taxi speeds through an intersection, and the imaginary version of myself keeps pace by leaping over cars with effortlessly nimble strides. Lucy is the woman of my dreams, at least my waking ones. She is the down-to-earth, no bullshit type. She wears a retainer on her teeth at night, and when she wants to have sex, she takes them out, places them in a drinking glass she keeps by the bed, and says to me, I want to have sex. I sometimes respond, Should I start by massaging Cauc or Asian? Shes half-Asian, and I call her front side Cauc and her back side Asian. She laughed the first time I did this, and even now it still can make her smile. When Lucy calls me from her office, she is busy, sometimes to the point of being edgy, and I try to poke holes in her delicate web of seriousness. When shes packing for a trip, shes indecisive to a childish degree, and I stand by ready to help her make the most trivial choices. (Two pairs of jeans or three? shell ask. One, Ill say.) When shes just been woken up by my phone call in the middle of the night, she can either be a slight grump with a sense of humor (I should get girlfriend-overtime for this call) or a little girl who has just been given the stuffed animal shes always wanted (Hello, I just knew youd call!).

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5 Shes a no-nonsense person, and yet, when she walks, she manages to do it with a large dose of slink. Her hips, breasts, knees and head move to the beat of an imaginary percussion section. I like her slink best when she wears high heels for special occasions. In heels she is tall, taller than me actually, and I have to lift my heels off the ground to kiss her cheek. The cast on her foot has certainly limited her sexy movements. But shell get them back. Four to six weeks at most. I could hold her and pet the kinks out of her long dark hair forever, but she doesnt have any patience for cuddling. Our physical contact can more aptly be compared to the arrival and departure of a stormlightning, thunder, and rain one minute, blue sky and puddles the next. Lucys biggest complaint is that I forget things. And shes right. I forget movies Ive liked, and I get to enjoy them afresh when watching them a second time. I also forget about global concerns, like people starving, war, or AIDS. Sometimes when I do my laundry, I find a five-spot in my cargo pants pocket and dont remember how it got there. If Ive had an argument with Lucy, by the next day, Ive mostly forgotten having ever been upset. Id say my anger has a half-life of about 2 hours, and so after waking up from an eight-hour sleep my anger is about 93.75% gone. In this way, we are different; shes rarely angry for more than a few minutes, but she never forgets that she was upset and why.

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6 She calls me early the next morning. I, of course, have forgotten our argument from the night before. She, of course, has not forgotten, but at least she is no longer upset. Guess what happened on this day a bunch of years back? she asks. I say I have no idea. Seriously, she says. I dont know. Today is my birthday. Oh really, I had no idea, I say, trying to sound like I actually do have an idea but am pretending not to. She knows me too well to fall for this trick. I promise to make up for my mistake. We agree to meet for dinner after work and she says we can talk about it more then. Or we can just talk sports, I say, trying to make light of things. She hangs up right off. I am about to hang up, when I hear a faint noise coming from the phone and think maybe she hasnt hung up after all. I put my ear back to the phone. Dial tone. To me it is a simple case of I-forgot-so-what-else-is-new. I have the ability to forget the larger context in which I live. Many times, all I know is the road immediately in front of me, or the room Im currently sleeping in, or the television show on the channel Im watching. My ability to forget enables me to relax, and so I have a hard time being upset with myself for forgetting something that was important to Lucy. I am ready to forget about forgetting and move on. I go out that morning and find a gift for her. It is a pool-bottom blue sports watch with pulse-taking capabilities. I give it to her when we meet outside the restaurant. The

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7 door to the restaurant is wooden and disproportionately tall, maybe twice as tall as a normal door. The gift, now dangling from her fingertips, looks insignificant in comparison to this door. Once inside, my feelings of inadequacy do not subside. The restaurant is clean but not sterile, and full of thick, dark, manly wood. The prices on the menu seem to say, convincingly, Weve earned the right to charge a fucking arm and a leg for five tortellini on a plate. Lucy begins the verbal attack while I try to decipher the menu: Youve always been self-absorbed, she says, with a tone that says, This is just a statement of the truth and implies no judgment. No judgment? Bullshit, I think. I am not, I say, knowing there is some truth to her statement. I phone my family infrequently. I do not have the sort of friends you can call in a crisis. I have Lucy and I have myself. But hey, Im twenty-eight. Most twenty-somethings are self-absorbed. Were supposed to believe were still young and exciting. Were supposed to bore the living shit out of everyone who isnt twenty-something. Were supposed to have our heads imbedded firmly in our asses as we try to conquer the world on our own terms. Were not ready to admit defeat, mostly because were too full of ourselves to recognize defeat when it kicks our head-plugged asses. If you arent self-absorbed, then why are you incapable of remembering things that are important to other people, like, oh, I dont know, say, your girlfriends birthday? Its not that hard. You could just get a calendar and write down all the things you need to remember.

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8 Id never use it. What if I got you an electronic one? Those things cost a fortune. And they do the same thing as a calendar. And you dont want a calendar. Right. Then I am going to badger you from here to Quacklefuck until you get one. Is that what you want? Quacklefuck? Thats a new one. I chuckle and cave. The next day, I magnet my new calendar onto my refrigerator. I want it in plain view, even if that means it will fall down every time I open the freezer door. I write down some gibberish appointments and then place the pen on top of the refrigerator. When Lucy visits, she comments on the calendar. There, she says. Doesnt it feel so much better to know what important things are coming up? I nod my emphatic agreement. I feel badly about the deception, but Im convinced that it will result in a greater sum total of happiness. The situation is unsustainable. I know this. She gets suspicious when she needs to remind me about the tickets wed bought to see a play, and the jig is up when I fail to produce a gift for our two-year anniversary. Lucy confronts me in my kitchen. We stand facing the refrigerator. The refrigerator stands facing us. We are silent. The refrigerator hums, which seems like its weak attempt to break the tension. The calendar, unprovoked,

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9 falls from the door. The magnet, an advertisement for a pizza joint, scuttles under the stove like a roach. I try to explain things to her. I try to tell her that pinning a number to a day is limiting. I like days to blend into days. I like not knowing if it is the weekend or not. I like everything to feel loose and wasted like summer vacation. Why do you feel the need to plan out the future anyway? I argue. It seems to me that the future doesnt need all that much planning: its just like today with a few minor exceptions. Like, take us. What is our future? I dont know the answer, but it will probably be similar to today, only I will have gotten a haircut. Or the Yankees will be in second place in the division rather than first. Or it will be raining. Or we will be married. Or we will be seeing other people. Or we will be married, divorced, and our son whom we decided to name Caleb will split time between us equally. As I speak, I can see her face going Shhhhhhhhhhhh-Ksh. I imagine myself jumping through her closing-door face just in the nick of time, reaching back across the threshold to pull my hat through, too. Do you agree with anything Ive said? I ask. She remains silent. She opens her mouth, and then closes it again; her hesitation looks fishlike. She tells me that she has goals, and that she wishes that I had goals. She says that she wants someone around who challenges her. She says that someday Ill regret losing someone who challenges me.

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10 Challenge me? I say. You cant even pack a suitcase. Normally, I keep my mouth shut when Im feeling hurt or threatened. Normally, I wait for my quick anger half-life to do its work. But this time I dont. She steps to the refrigerator, grabs a pen, and picks up the calendar from the floor. She places the calendar on the countertop and, in her perfect handwriting, her serious work-style handwriting, she writes under April 23 rd : Lucy dumped me today. At first, I think she is just being a grump with a sense of humor. But then she puts on her coat and collects her things, and I realize that she is serious. Or upset enough to force herself to act serious. I try to apologize, but as I do, something strikes me as funny about the whole thing and I let out a snort. You think this whole thing is a joke, dont you? she asks, looking at me. No, its just that its a little past midnight, and so you should have written it under April 24 th , I say. I cant help myself. She shudders and walks towards the door. Wait, I say. But Im stubborn, and shes stubborn, and after more unproductive discussion, she leaves. For the first few days, I refuse to call the incident anything more than an argument. I leave messages on her phone that say things like, Im just calling because I wanted to apologize for my role in the argument last night. When a week goes by and April becomes May, and I still havent heard from her, I purposefully leave the calendar open to April. The calendar continues to fall off the

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11 refrigerator at random intervals. I pick it up and think, What a funny way to have an argumenton a calendar! A few days into May, the calendar falls one time too many and I pick it up off the linoleum floor of my kitchen and put it in the junk drawer of my desk. Lucy keeps her letters and photos in a large tin container she calls her memory box. I used to have similar box (though I wouldnt go so far as to call it a memory box), but I stopped using it because the concept depresses me. Anything stashed in a memory box is always forgotten and only remembered when moving apartments or on a cleaning binge. How important can something be if years go by without anyone giving it a single thought? Its hard to say how close Lucy and I were as a couple. There doesnt seem to be a standard for measuring such things. If there were one, itd probably be proximity to marriage. By this standard, we werent very close: wed been together long enough to talk about marriage, but we hadnt been together long enough for me to know exactly how or when I might propose. I know the ways I wouldnt propose to Lucy. For instance, I wouldnt propose at a sporting event. No Jumbo-trons. And I wouldnt put the ring in any sort of food item. Maybe Id do it in a garden, a botanical one, preferably with no one around, preferably at dusk. Id bend down on one knee, of course, and once Id decided the logistics, the thing would go down rain or shine. Birds, unseen, could be making their normal chatter from stage left, right up, down, whatever, because I trust the birds and their birdlike instinctsI would not try to orchestrate the birds. I would not try to make the birds sing in two or three-part harmony, or daringly land on my shoulder or Lucys shoulder. Sure, I have perfect pitch, but the birds have something morea

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12 confidence in their tune that no amount of practice can teach. Birds do not live their lives knowing that the worst notes of their songs will define them. It has been nearly two weeks since Lucy broke things off and a funny thing has happened: I am beginning to notice half-Asian women everywhere. Perhaps this statement is out of synch with the parlance of our times. Maybe it would be less racially charged and equally correct to say that it feels like women in general are doing their best to look like Lucy. That it is their way of torturing a stubborn, self-righteous man with large floppy ears hanging uselessly on the sides of his head. But screw it. Now, everywhere I turn, I see half-Asian women. Their frequency defies statistical probability: the percentage of the population that is both half-Asian and female is barely .25%, or one out of every four hundred people. Then why is the bank teller a half-Asian woman, as well as three people in the laundromat, at least seven or eight in my subway car, a whole binocular-toting gaggle of them in the park, and the checkout girl in aisle five at the grocery store? I frequently find myself remembering what Lucy said before she left my apartment for the last time, that whole thing about challenging other people to be better. Its been two weeks since we broke up. I sit at a small round table in a Starbucks and eye the other customers over my book. A woman approaches me. She isnt half-Asian, she is full-white, but two, maybe three of the other Starbucks patrons are half-Asian, and they disapprovingly watch me make eye contact with this white woman. I half-expect the half-Asians to put fingers to their ears and then whisper into their lapels, Asshole at two

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13 oclock. Drinking a Frappuccino. Smelling faintly of Gillette Clear Gel Underarm Deodorant. Ive found that it isnt difficult for me to attract women in a Starbucks. I look good in this setting: I am the well-groomed young man reading fiction among several disheveled women in sweatpants highlighting their textbooks. I look like a fellow who has accumulated lots of frequent flyer miles, gives expensive wedding gifts, and speaks three languages. I look like I read the Times and the Journal over breakfast with one leg swung over the other. I dont look someone who recently just finished working on the campaign of a losing presidential candidate (read: unemployed). The woman approaches my table and contrives a reason to converse. Are you reading this paper? she asks. No, I say. The paper is resting on a table adjacent to mine. I glance up at her after I answer. Her hair looks frustrated at being blond, but shes leaning over me in an aggressive way that I find attractive. The collar to her t-shirt is frayed and large enough to fit three necks; her neck is justified left, exposing her right shoulder and a purple bra strap. She sits in the chair across from me, her quest for the newspaper apparently forgotten. She pulls in her chair and her knee brushes against my crotch under the table. Discreetly, I slide my chair backwards. In one sense, I like it; i.e., inside my boxer shorts, my penis moves like the second hand of a clock up against my thigh. My brain races ahead in time, thumbing through possibilities. But it is depressing because I know I will not be able to shake this thought from my mind: Starbucks girl will never challenge me to be a better person. Will I challenge her? I dont know. I call any erection achieved in a depressing situation the Rotten Banana Effect, or the RBE. The erection

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14 brought on by Starbucks girl is, in my disheartened state, like sneezing with a tight back; nothing ruins the satisfaction of a sneeze like a knot in an upper back muscle. That night, as I watch old TV reruns, I cry a little (partly because it is the ER episode where Dr. Green dies), and then I hate myself for crying, so I punish myself by turning off the TV. The days without Lucy seem less like a wandering adventure, and more like an exercise in aimlessness. I turn ER back on in time to see Dr. Green die. I turn the TV off and go to my junk drawer and retrieve the calendar. I write Death of Dr. Green in the space below todays date. I remember something I want to do tomorrow. I fill it in. Call sister. I continue to schedule the next year of my life. I have always worried that my testosterone level is lower than average, and so the next day I schedule an appointment to get my levels checked out. I also schedule two trips to Dr. Dudley, my dentist, even though I dont want to go. Dr. Dudley has been threatening to pull out my wisdom teeth for years. But I like my wisdom teeth. Ive grown accustomed to their constant throb, like a second heartbeat, only in closer communication with my brain. I also schedule a date with Lucy. I talk to her briefly on the phone. We agree that she will meet me on Friday at 5pm in the lobby of the hotel just down the street from her office. I plan to take her to the restaurant where wed gone on our first date. I make reservations. The three nights before my scheduled date I have a recurring dream in which I can fly. Not like a bird. More like treading water. It takes a lot of work to get off the

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15 ground, maybe half a minute to get above the reach of human hands. In the dream, I desperately want someone to tell me that the whole thing doesnt look as ridiculous as it feels. Lucy doesnt arrive exactly at five and so I doodle an improbable back-up plan on a pad of hotel paper. In the plan, I climb the triple-looped barbed wire fence that surrounds her companys office complex and break into her office and rescue her. While I sit in an oversized chair in the hotel lobby and doodle, I remember the first time I visited a major city. I was nine years old, and the ubiquitous barbed wire fascinated me. Id look at every barbed wire fence and try to find a weakness, a place where I could get around it. Most of the time I didnt even know what the barbed wire was there for or what it was guarding. What was so special about an empty lot filled with piles of dirt and tires? A strip of grass between two highways? Or scaffolding on the sidewalk? And yet I scanned all such fences for possible entry points, always working off the assumption that breaking into a place without being sliced to ribbons was the most challenging aspect of the thing. It never occurred to me to wonder what I would do on the other side. I shift my weight and sink deeper into the hotel chair. After two weeks without Lucy, I look back on April 23 rd (or 24 th ) and see that it is important because it is the day I lost my ability to forget. Or, more correctly, the day I started to remember. This explains why now, when I shut my eyes, I remember only the things I should have done differently. And when my eyes open, I am sensitized to the subtleties of Lucy: I remember impatient glances, poorly chosen words, and the sound of faint sighs. I also remember how her lips stick together for the half a second before she opens her mouth.

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16 Or how her eyes become sharp and reflective when she is excited, like the shiny spots on a sun-drenched lake. For the first time, the accumulation of memories makes my brain feel well lived in. Lucy, woman of my dreams, arrives at 5:15pm. I feel strange for having noticed her unpunctuality. We share each others company for the duration of a five-course dinner. I apologize to her after weve ordered our food, but before the appetizers arrive. It is a wordy thing, my apology. She agrees to take me back. No reason is given, and I dont press the issue. She herself apologizes for being so stubborn. She says that sometimes I do challenge her to be better, in my own way. She says that the cast on her leg has been less itchy of late. Things begin to feel comfortable again during the entre, when we discuss whether we still consider ourselves a couple that has been together for two years, or if our two-week break means that we start back at zero.

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THE EXPERIMENT Patricia was in the middle of an experiment: she was dating seven men concurrently, one for each day of the week. Each man thought he was the only man in her life. Shed told them that she was a nurse and that she only got one night off a week, and theyd all bought the story wholesale. Patricia promised herself that shed become completely devoted to the first man to get to the bottom of her lies. There was a point to her experiment. She knew that she came with a lot of baggage (e.g. bipolar, excessively vain, allergic to dairy), and she didnt want to push her burdens onto just anyone. It was only fair for her to let her boyfriends willingly discover her baggage. Today was Tuesday, which meant Stew Peters. Stew had recently quit being an oncologist to become a roof shingler who smoked Marlboros. He was unapologetically juvenile. He had a habit of having fantastic gymnastic sex with her before extorting small things from her, like all the breath mints from her purse, or a spring-loaded barrette that he would use to launch spitballs. In bed, when he curled himself around her, each of his limbs seemed to have its own walnut-sized brain. They went to the park for a picnic. After theyd arranged the blanket, he said, unexpectedly, I dont think youre a nurse. Im not a nurse. I knew it, he said, banging his hand on his thigh. Im a nurse practitioner. Theres a difference. 17

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18 Are you a good nurse practitioner? Not as good as you are at nailing down shingles, she said. True, he said, and then he launched into a story about how once, when he was on vacation, one of his co-workers had dimwittedly nailed a roof full of shingles upside down and had then collected payment from the unsuspecting homeowner. I felt so bad about it that Ive been climbing up their drainpipe each night for the last two years. I flip and hammer home one shingle each night. The owners are not likely to get suspicious from the sound of a single hammer strike. How many shingles do you have left to flip? she asked him, half-interested, half-believing. Oh, hundreds, he said. At this, he let out one of his deep belly laughs, and then iced it over with a smile. She studied him as he constructed a heaping sandwich: his square jaw littered neatly with stubble, his hair a controlled mop. He wore the cloudless blue sky like a sombrero. If she were a roof, she thought to herself, Stew would be a perfect match. Hed repair her by degrees.

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SEVEN DAYS IN THE LIFE OF FRANCIS T. HAUTE On a Sunday night in late August, Francis T. Hautelimo driver, widower, German Shepherd ownercelebrated his sixty-fourth birthday by eating a chocolate cupcake hed bought from the local bakery. On Monday morning, without ceremony, he died, finally, of a lurking autoimmune disease that hed stopped fighting years before, and instantly became a naked sixteen year old in a bedroom of a house he didnt recognize. Francis wondered if there was a catch to this mother of all second chances. And there was a catch: hed be able to remember his previous life only as long as the people hed left behind remembered him. As the friends and family and lovers and acquaintances in his previous life began to forget, so would he. But Francis did not know the catch. All he knew was he had been sixty-four and dead, or so he thought, and now he was a teenager again, and quite alive. He stared at himself in the full-length mirror hanging on the back of the closet door and he saw that his face looked exactly as it did in old photographs: smoother, gaunter, and less freckled. He saw that his hernia scar was gone and that his chest hairs were once again countable. He ran around his bedroom like a pet-store bird released from its cage. He shadow-boxed, did a few push-ups, and generally tested out his new body until a mans voice yelled for him to come down for breakfast. What, in the hell, is going on? Francis wondered. He knew what was going on: he was young again. But he didnt know what, in the hell, was going on. 19

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20 Francis, please hurry. Youre going to make your father late. This time it was a womans voice. He decided to put his in the hell question on hold for as long as possible. He slid into a t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants that he found on the floor and stepped out of the bedroom. His bedroom. The house was spacious and meticulously decorated with trinkets; it was larger than any house hed ever lived in. A toy-soldier-shaped grandfather clock ticked steadily in the foyer at the base of the stairs. A man and a woman were sitting in front of a meal of eggs and buttered toast. His new mother and father. The man was dressed in a suit and had bags under his eyes. His hair was dark except on the sides near his ears, where it was white. The woman was thin, and slouched over her plate. When Francis entered the kitchen, she straightened and a look of disapproval washed over her face. Francis, she said. Go up and change. Please put on the outfit that I ironed and hung up in your closet. Id rather not have my son going to his first day of sophomore year looking like a slob. Francis wasnt used to taking orders, but the whole situation interested him enough that he didnt refuse. This woman, as far as he could tell, actually cared about what clothes he wore. This was an entirely unique situation for Francis. He returned to his room and quickly changed into the ironed clothes, then went back to the breakfast table, where he suddenly found himself to be hungry, and ate his portion of eggs and toast with voracity. Brush your teeth and lets roll, said the man. I dont want to be late for work, and I dont want you to be late for school.

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21 Francis found the bathroom upstairs and brushed his teeth. The toothpaste was the kind that has the three colors in one tube. Hed never used this kind before. He met the man downstairs. The man had a briefcase, and in his hand he held a cup of coffee and a plastic baggie containing two tan muffins that might have been oatbran, or maybe banana nut. Dont you have a backpack? the man asked. No, Francis said. He followed the man out to the two-car garage, which held two Hondas, a silver one and blue one. There was a chill in the garage that hadnt been present in the house. The man got into the blue Honda and Francis got into the passenger seat. The man opened the garage door from inside the car, and then turned in his seat and backed out of the driveway. They drove over rolling hills on roads bordered by stone walls and large houses. The leaves on the trees were red and yellow and orange. The man listened to the news on AM radio. He sipped from his coffee. You ready for the new school year? the man asked. Sure, Francis said. Are you ready for whatever it is that you do? Hmm, the man said, and he turned up the volume as the man on the radio began to read stock quotes. Francis arrived late to his first-period Honors Geometry classafter hed stopped into the main office and gotten his class schedule, hed discovered that the school was a maze of identical hallways and double doorsand by the time hed found the classroom the second bell had already rung. He opened the classroom door and after seeing his teacher he stood there and muttered, Fuck-an-A. What he was really thinking was,

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22 Its you because standing at the front of the room teaching his class was his first-ever girlfriend, Amy Beer. Hello, Im Mrs. Ianini. Are you in this class? she asked when she saw him staring. He didnt answer. He couldnt believe how beautiful she was. She held a piece of chalk in her hand and was expertly rolling it between two fingers. In her other hand, she held a hooked wooden cane that, combined with her wild white hair, gave her the look of a shepherd. The decisiveness of her movements captivated him. He hadnt remembered her as decisive. She asked him if everything was all right, and when he didnt respond, she walked snappily over to him, her clogs clacking on the tile floor. Sorry Im late, he said, but shed already taken hold of his elbow. She led him to a desk in the front row. You can sit here, she said, letting go of his elbow, and for a moment he thought she recognized him. But then she walked back to the front of the class and resumed teaching as if nothing had happened. Shed probably gone out with countless men since theyd dated. Hed dated countless women since then. He tried to remember some of their names, but couldnt. Its me, he wanted to scream to Amy. Its me, Francis. But he could say nothing like that: his mouth refused to respond to the demands of his brain. In his head he figured out their relative ages: when theyd first dated, hed been eighteen and shed been sixteen. Now he was sixteen and she was sixty-two.

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23 Even with Amy teaching, Geometry was a drag. Francis didnt care about if/then proofs. He had his own if/then proofs to work through: if life was the steady accumulation of dents, then in one instant hed lost forty-eight years worth of dents. He had a theory about why in the hell the reincarnation had happened. He had always believed that there was a moment after you died in which youd be allowed to reassess things, perhaps even allowed to tie up a few loose ends: A chance to say goodbye to an old flame, to fall in love one more time, to drink one last sip of coffee. Perhaps, he thought, Im in some sort of pre-afterlife, a short grace period in which I can settle a few scores and then do whatever people do when they die. During lunch, Francis took an apple off an abandoned tray and then walked to the math department office and put it on Amys desk. Im not going to eat this now, but Im going to want to eat it tomorrow, so it better still be here when I return. This is what he wanted to say. He wanted to be aggressive and spunky with her. He knew she responded to that sort of thing. Instead, he said, Would you like an apple? Amy barely looked up from the papers she was grading and declined the apple. She shifted in her chair, and the lace on the collar of her shirt moved enticingly. He left the apple and hustled out of the office. As he walked the halls, he looked at other high school students and wondered if any of them were like himself, failed older selves also trapped in younger bodies. From the tired way some of them shuffled down the hallways, he guessed he wasnt alone. The contrast between his sixty-four-year-old body and his sixteen-year-old body made him realize that hed been depressed as a sixty-four year old. Hed been thirty

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24 pounds overweight, had a patchy mustache on his upper lip, slouched, and walked with short mincing steps. Hed worn the same five tan button-down shirts in rotation. Hed felt uncomfortable whenever he was forced to stand still. His eyes had been beady and he had obsessively taken off his brown-rimmed glasses and cleaned them with his shirttail. Hed thought to complain was to be smart and opinionated. Hed known he was dying, and he was scared. Hed thought that the world owed him a second chance. And when hed finally died, hed been relieved. Hed closed his eyes, taken a deep breath like he was going under water, and died. He wondered if his sixty-four year old body had been found. Perhaps his German Shepards barking had alerted his neighbors. His guessed his funeral would be in a few days. He wondered if his son would attend. Francis returned to the lunchroom. There, he discovered by asking around that the other teachers disliked Amy both because she drove a Mercedes convertible, and because her husband was some kind of doctor, a vet or something. Francis remembered how he and Amy had been chemistry lab partners during his senior year in high school. Midway through the semester, theyd become more than lab partners: kissing partners. They watched movies at her house, and then shed walk him to his car and theyd both get inside and strap on their seatbelts and begin kissing. Why the seatbelts? Francis had asked her the first time. So we dont do anything we regret, shed answered. They had attempted to stay together after Francis had left for college. Within the first week of being at college, his roommate began having slow sex with his girlfriend in the bottom bunk. They were doing it in a way that they thought was

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25 discreet. Hed asked them if they wanted him to sleep somewhere else when she was visiting, but theyd insisted that he stay, that nothing would happen, that theyd just be doing what he was doing: sleeping. He pretended to sleep through it, and then he actually did begin to sleep through it, and by the following semester, when he got a single room, it almost felt weird not having that gentle rock of the bed. He and Amy broke up over Thanksgiving break. After school, Francis found Amys convertible in the faculty parking lot. He sat in the passenger seat, fastened his seatbelt, and waited. Amy walked out to her car an hour later. What are you doing in my car? she asked when she saw him in the passenger seat. Hoping to make out is what Im doing, he thought. I wanted to speak with you, he said. Come see me in my office during school hours then, she said. She unlocked her car door and swung her body into the drivers seat. She tossed her handbag and cane into the back seat. Franciss head hurt. He tried to think of something smart to say, but couldnt. He put his head in his hands. Whats wrong? she asked. Tough first day? Francis started at the beginning. He explained the bunkbed sex to her, how back when theyd been kids, that incident had somehow defined the difference between their

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26 two worlds. She said she didnt understand. He plunged on. He said that their current situation once again found them in two disparate worldsher the world of adults, and him the world of teenagers. He said that hed made a mistake the first time around. He let their separate worlds divide them, but why couldnt it be different this time? Why couldnt they come together, bringing the best elements of their separate worlds with them? In his mind, Francis was making perfect sense, but when she began to fidget in her seat, it occurred to him that he might not be speaking as clearly as he thought. She glanced out into the parking lot and then at her watch. Here, she said. Ill drive you home. Thatd be great, Mrs. Ianini, he said. Okay, she said, once theyd left the school grounds, Where do you live? He directed her to his house. The wind whistled past. He studied her intently as she drove. She drove fast, almost recklessly, rolling through stop signs. During the last part of the drive she grew calmer, settled into her bucket seat, and went the rest of the way holding onto the bottom of the steering wheel with one index finger. This one, he said, pointing to his house. She stopped at the top of the driveway. For a brief moment, his mind cleared. The people of his former lifehis son, a few of his limo coworkerswere remembering him, in prayer, at his funeral. Ive been given a reprieve, he blurted out. I dont know how long it will last, but I want to use it to do something important. I want to teach every living human how to speak every last one of the worlds languages. And then I want to get on a world-wide radio and read aloud every book ever written. Perhaps this might teach people how to think critically. We

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27 should combine forces, Amy: Ill supply the nave hope, and you the logical plan. I can rally the young people from within, and you can lead them. As he said these things, his mind was racing. For a brief moment, the solutions to the worlds problems seemed simple; he could see them lined up in front of him like the open faces of choral singerswhy didnt he think of these things sooner? he thoughtbut in a matter of seconds, he was left with only the general idea that hed had some collection of grandiose notions. He regretted that he had had few relationships in his former life, and even fewer close ones. He moved his hand to her knee, and she didnt move it away. He asked her if shed find it sad if he grew up and became a limo driver, if he came back to his hometown after college and never left, if he married at the age of twenty-four and became a widower at thirty, if he sometimes lay back-flat on the linoleum of his kitchen floor and tossed a ball up at the ceiling for hours each night, wondering why hed been given sixty plus years of life when it seemed hed finished everything hed ever needed to finish in half that time. She looked at him when he asked these things, and again, he was certain shed finally recognized him, or at least recognized that something about the situation was familiar. He leaned over and planted a kiss on her cheek. She turned, and they began kissing at an odd angle. He began to massage her thigh. After a particularly hard squeeze, she jumped, pushed his hand away, and then mumbled an apology. They sat like that for a few minutesshe muttering to herself, Francis now massaging his own thigh. He assumed they were both thinking the same thing: the kiss hadnt felt the same.

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28 Amy, stiff and uncomfortable. Francis, awkward and aggressive. Or maybe that was how it had been the first time too, only then they were too young and stupid to know any better. Well, youre home, she said. Francis thanked her for the lift. He stayed in his bedroom the rest of the night and refused to go down for dinner with his parents, claiming that he wasnt hungry and that he had homework to finish. Later that night, when he couldnt sleep, he did push ups at the foot of his bed. On Tuesday, he came back for his apple. She was wearing a yellow button-down shirt and jeans and white tennis shoes. She was reading at her desk, and she looked up from her book and said, Please dont leave fruit on my desk. Francis picked up the apple from her desk and took a bite. He remembered that her family had gone to Iceland for a family vacation while she was in high school. Reykjavik. He had kidded her about it for months. He wanted to kid her about it now. Have any family vacations in Reykjavik recently? he wanted to ask. Instead he said, Im worried about Geometry. I dont really think Im getting a handle on it. Would it be possible to get extra help? Sure, she said. You can get tutored if you go to the Tutoring Room on the second floor. Thanks, Amy, he thought. Thank you, Mrs. Ianini, he said aloud.

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29 And please dont be late to my class any more, she said, before going back to her grading. On Wednesday, Francis was happy when he got a 93 on his first Geometry quiz. His mother made waffles for breakfast. His father spent the car ride to school explaining what buying on margin meant. During dinner, his parents told him that they were going to an investment conference on Cape Cod for the weekend, and that he would be home alone, and that they expected him to be responsible while they were gone, that they trusted him and loved him. His mother added that shed bought three frozen pizzas from Sams Club to get him through the weekend. The details from Franciss former life trickled out through his ears faster than ever now. They left a cold dampness on the tops of his shoulders. On Thursday, Francis asked out Emily, a high school girl, and she said yes. Initially, hed found that he was not attracted to the majority of the girls in his grade. In comparison with Amy, the high school girls seemed to lack a certain heft. They were thin and wispy in character and had strident voices. But now, after being rebuffed by Amy, he began to see some of the more positive aspects of sixteen-year-olds. They didnt fear what sort of adults they might become. They didnt even seem to care. Their priorities were immediate things, like pep rallies and geometry grades and football games, and in some ways this short-sightedness was refreshing

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30 Emily lived on a dirt road and she told him that she and the other kids who lived on the dirt road would build speed bumps out of the dirt to deter cars from using it as a short cut between two local highways. He had never met anyone whod built a speed bump. She wore floral-print button downs and vests and gray skirts and gray socks and black shoes with silver buckles. She wore turtlenecks under her sweaters and corduroys with pockets on the thighs. She wore French-looking hats. After school on Friday, Francis went to Emilys house. They did their homework and then played a game of chess. After he beat her handily, Emily made a point of saying that there was nobody else in the house. Then she asked him if he wanted to have sex with her. Even if they were here, theyd never notice, she said. Francis felt cornered, trapped, mated. No, not yet, he said weakly. He wanted to say more, something about how things were moving too fast. Instead, he said, We still dont even know each other. She shrugged and they went back to doing their homework. Later, they went down to the kitchen to make some pop tarts, and when she asked him if itd be okay if they ate them untoasted, he readily agreed. Saturday night, Francis borrowed the silver Honda his parents had left behind when theyd driven to Cape Cod, picked up Emily at her house, and took her to a bonfire party on a beach. At the party, they stood around and drank light beer and chatted. At one point in the evening, someone mentioned reincarnation. I believe in it, Emily said. I want to come back as a bird.

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31 I want to come back as a tree, said a boy sitting to Franciss right, a boy who Francis had heard was on the varsity football team. Francis said he wanted to come back as a sixteen year old, and they laughed, thinking he was making a joke. Someone passed around something that looked like an ornament, but was really a pipe for weed. Someone else passed around a cup of spiked coffee. He took a swig. He drank more light beer, and then dug a small hole in the sand to make a cozy for his can. Later in the night, the football boy spoke up. I amend my previous reincarnation assertion, he said. Forget the tree. I want to be a nice pair of breasts. Francis laughed, and others around him began hooting. And I dont want to be a bird, said Emily over the din. I want to come back as a pimple on one of Tims breasts. The laughter swelled, and then, unexpectedly, Emily spit a swig of whisky into the fire, and the fire momentarily doubled in size, and everyone jumped back. Francis became hysterical with laughter, and he began dancing around the fire, kicking up sand, knocking over cans. Others joined in, and they formed a congo line. Ill come back as a pair of breasts too, Francis said, but only football boy heard, and he slapped Francis on the back, which made him cough, and somehow his cough seemed funny to him, and he started laughing at his cough, which made him cough more, which made him laugh more. Minutes later, he was lying face first in the sand, exhausted.

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32 Early Sunday morning, he awoke to the sound of the doorbell ringing. He sat up in his bed and let terror sketch a quick frame around his heart. Emily was in bed with him, still fast asleep. He slid out and went down the stairs and opened the front door. Mrs. Ianini stood in the doorway, her cane raised, about to knock. Good morning, she said. I was wondering if I could come in? Her curly white hair didnt move when she twitched her head. What for? To talk, she said. About your behavior in Geometry. She winked. She was thinking of something, a memoryhe could see its silhouette playing out behind her eyes. He probed his own memory. He remembered flashes from the night before. The beach. The bonfire. Outside the circle of that bonfire, his mind was dark. He couldnt imagine why his Geometry teacher would be standing in his doorway. He ran his hand through his hair, and a few grains of sand fell to the hardwood floor of the foyer, bouncing off it like miniature dice. He noticed more grains of sand lodged underneath his fingernails. Come in? No. I dont think thatd be a good idea, he said, flicking the sand out from underneath his nails and onto the floor as if he were ashing a cigarette. Francis blinked twice, impatient blinks, and then asked her to leave. Her face sank and she went white. She looked freshly drowned. Her disappointment was jarring. His heart snapped like a branch and he sensed that from here on out life wouldnt be easy; itd be leery and unpredictable. His parents might

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33 find sand in the car and know that hed used it. Or his parents might die in a crash and never make it home. Emily might be pregnant. He watched Mrs. Ianini walk away, her back hunched, her left shoulder curved up to her ear, her cane tapping out its rhythmic beat.Update Field.

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FIRST DATE Please forgive me for being a medical nightmare. Four months ago, a fluke one-car accident reshuffled my priorities and my vertebrae. I take pills for the pain. I take pills to make me somewhat better in the head. The pills that make me somewhat better in the head give me cramps. I get deep tissue massages to mitigate the cramps. I take a pill to alleviate the soreness from the deep tissue massages. I imagine all the pills in my stomach, stacked up neatly like dollhouse plates. But this is not an accurate image. Some of the pills are white capsules, like small pontoon-plane landing gear. One pill is yellow. One of them has a hole in the center like a miniature life preserver. I felt better for a one month window of time that ended a few weeks ago. Better enough to leave the hospital altogether. I went back to work, resumed walking my neighbors dog, and met Jane. Jane and I went on a single date. A few weeks after that date with Jane, my medical condition took a turn for the worse, and I had to go back to the hospital. Complications from the accident, the doctors say. The valves of your heart no longer work the way they should, the doctors say. I have an IV in my arm and electrodes run from my chest to beeping machines. The monitors feature green lettering on a black screen. The monitors are attached to a dot-matrix printer. The dot-matrix printer makes me nervous. I am certain it will jam at a critical moment. I believe the dot-matrix printer to be the weak link in this whole elaborate system thats working to keep me alive. The hospital becomes noisy at night, and it can be hard to sleep. Some of the patients are about to check out of life, and, during the night, they dont seem to want to 34

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35 go quietly. I write during the night. Writing leaves me nearly as rested as sleeping. I cannot see the paper. Forgive me if Im writing each new word upon the previous. I have things to say. My encounter with Jane taught me that its never too late or too early to start getting personal. I have authorial risks to take. I have nothing to lose. The head doctor, a man with short-cropped blond hair and thick-rimmed glasses, put his hand on my shoulder and said that he was doing everything he could, and that he would continue to do everything he could, but that it was time to start preparing for the worst. Things would certainly get worse before they got better, if they got better, he said. He recommended that if there was anyone I wanted to see, I should have them come see me now while I was still lucid. I do not know if risks can be taken by people with nothing to lose. My name is Ray. Im single. For me, life has been getting to know, intimately, the tip of things; I analyze the extremities, and then interpolate. I have no problem meeting women. Anyone with half a brain can figure out which tricks increase your chances of meeting women. My secret to meeting women is that I walk my neighbors dog seven evenings a week. When the dog does his business in the middle of the sidewalk, I dont clean it up. Its not my dog, I say. The minute before I met Jane Berg, I was about to make another clean getaway when I stepped into someone elses dog shit. I was busy using a small stick to scrape the dog shit from my shoe. Im resourceful. I was thinking about how gorillas make ant-popsicles by poking sticks into anthills, and I was filled with a sense of pride for gorillas. We do good work, gorillas and I.

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36 These were my thoughts when a woman behind me said, How long have you had her? I reacted quickly and tossed the stick aside. Since this evening, actually, I said. I pretended to tie my shoe. There are rules to talking to dog people on the street. All talk is directed to the dog, and the owner is to intervene only if the dog cannot communicate a sufficient answer. For instance, if someone were to say, Youre so cute! Whats your name? while petting your dog, you are supposed to reply, Nickels, in a normal tone of voice as if the dog is answering. Nickels, incidentally, is the name of my neighbors dog. She is a chocolate lab with a sleek brown coat. She is my neighbors fifth dog, hence the name. After triple knotting my shoe, I stood, expecting to see someone talking to Nickles. Instead, I found someone staring directly at my left eye. Everyone picks one particular eye to look at when they stare, and I could tell shed picked my left; her face was so close to my own that the angles necessary for her two eyeballs to triangulate made her almost cross-eyed. There were six inches from her nose-tip to my nose-tip, tops. Her breath smelled of coconut shampoo. This was a breach of dog-talking protocol, and I knew it, and all sorts of bells and warning buzzers were going off in my head. Outside my head, I took a step back and set off a car alarm when I brushed a parked car. Further down the street, an ambulance siren raged. The car alarm bought me time to take a deep breath. When the alarm stopped a few seconds later, I explained that Nickles was my neighbors dog, and my neighbors paid me to walk him. The woman nodded, set down a bag of groceries, and petted Nickels. I asked her if she was walking in my direction. She was.

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37 As we walked, I did my best to keep my left shoe as far from her as possible. This involved a wide swinging stride, which made me feel like I was entering a saloon. We chatted, exchanged names. Jane Berg. I stole glances at her, imagining the possibilities. It had been a long time since Id gone into the speculative mode with a woman. My thoughts ran rust-brown, and then cleared somewhat. It seemed that it was okay to breach protocol, that, in fact, a protocol-breaching portal had been opened, and I was determined to shimmy through it before it snapped shut again. I asked Jane to accompany me to a restaurant called Pio! Pio! for dinner. She blinked twice in rapid succession, gunfire-like, and then said yes. I experienced what I can only surmise to be a form of surprise, the kind that makes your heart feel like it has sprouted hairs long enough to tickle the back of your throat, the kind that causes your forehead-sweat to hide in your palms. If Jane were a flock of migrating birds, we might ask the following: What type of birds are they? Does their v-shaped formation have flaws? Where are they migrating from? If Jane were a bird, she would be an ostrich. She was long and thin in the neck and plump in the midsection. The bustle of her midsection rested on two thin wiry legs. Ive read somewhere that honey is the only food that doesnt spoil. It is with this in mind that I compare her fingers, her voice, her eyes, her hair, her rump, her smile, and her touch to honey. Everything about her had that forever quality that was both sweet and dreamy-slow. Stop! Stop! You want particulars, you say? You want exact measurements, height, width? Well, Im five ten, and she seemed about my height. But then again, everyone seems about my height. Everyone except the freaks. So thats something. She wasnt freakishly tall or short. I believe her head was proportionally

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38 small for her body by a tiny bit. She was dressed casually and warmly, neither of which aroused my suspicions given the air temperature and her grocery-shopping task. What else can I say? She had charisma, the kind you wish you could bottle up and force down the throat of any number of past and future acquaintances. Her charisma was infuriating, actually, because she never turned it off. It was like watching the best hot chocolate you can think of (ever had the Spanish kind?) pouring out of a spigot, and you alone have the bottomless cup to catch it with. But if you go away, in the back of your mind you wont be able to stop thinking about her stream of charisma pouring out of her and onto the ground, unused, wasted. This was what I got from our brief encounter on the street. Sure, it was only one data point. But I was happy to be back in the game. This was my first brush with love in months. My memories of head-on clashes with love were hazy and seemed cruelly invented by my mind. I only knew love like I knew earthquakes, or grits. I knew that the concept existed, somewhere, but not currently in my Me-O-Sphere. Before the meal, we both went home to our apartments to freshen up; she to drop off her groceries and I to get rid of my neighbors dog. It may have been a mistake to get rid of my neighbors dog. After all, it was the neighbors dog thatd brought us together. Logistically it made sense for us to be dogless at the restaurant. But I wondered if it made sense romantically. I was happy I had picked Pio! Pio! If conversation bogged down, I knew I could always fall back on explaining what the name meant in Spanish. We had barely been seated before I felt the pressure of holding a conversation with a stranger. I sipped from my ice water. I made a big production of reading the specials off a chalkboard across the room. She read her menu quietly. Do you know what Pio means in Spanish? I asked.

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39 Its the sound a chick makes, she said. The English equivalent of this restaurant is, Cheep! Cheep! Thats right, I said, thinking about how much we didnt know about each other. She went back to reading her menu. I wanted to tell her that sometimes thats what I felt like: a fuzzy yellow chick saying Pio! Pio! in a Cheep! Cheep! world. But this was not the time for such observations. There was nothing left for me to do but read my menu, even though I already knew what I was getting. Our waiter came to take our orders. You go first, Jane said. She was still deeply engrossed in her menu. I asked the waiter about one of the specials (I wanted to seem like I was still deciding). When responding, the waiter got so close to my face that I could see the hairs in his nostrils. Each nose-hair was red, but then got darker on the tip, like the tail of a fox. If I were the size of a poppy seed, I would climb up those hairs and paint yellow pictures of buffalo on the inner walls of his nose. So, what will you be having today? he asked. Ill have the Macaroni con queso, I said. And for you? he said turning to Jane. The same, she said. When she ordered the same meal, it constituted, in my book, a Moment. Now was the time for me to ask her something meaningful about herself. You can get away with things during Moments. Unicorns are more plausible during Moments. But Moments arefleeting. And personal questions asked too early in a relationship can sound like the worst sort of probing. I let the Moment flee. Everyone always says, I want to meet someone. But it doesnt always happen. My high-school gym teacher never met someone and she was a bitter woman who

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40 sadistically made us do hour-long basketball drills around cones when all we wanted to do was scrimmage. I wondered if my relationships didnt happen because of something I was doing or something I was not doing. It was hard to tell, because when I tried to do more or tried to do less, relationships still didnt happen. I chose not to explain to Jane how three months ago Id spun off the road on a patch of ice while driving to my parents house in a suburb outside the city. I didnt explain how the car had come to rest propped up against a tree, wheels facing upward. I didnt explain that although all the major parts of my body were intact, little things, like a fractured spine, a collapsed lung, and a fractured skull kept me in the hospital. I didnt explain that kicking my way through the moonroof glass to escape the car did something to me, that it was the sort of traumatic event that made me stop complaining about the water pressure of my shower, or my habitually tardy mailman. I didnt explain that I felt all talk was superfluous, a feeling that manifested itself in my new habit of reading newspapers while eating, and that led me, in an attempt to ward off insanity, to stop winding the ticking pendulum clock in my bedroom. I didnt explain how sometimes I wondered if Id intentionally crashed my car, or how Id recently skipped work and sat soaking in the tub, fascinated by the fact that I could feel my heartbeat through the water if I hovered my hand near my chest, or how my mouth had hurt for days after recently waking with a smile locked on my face. I didnt tell her that Id recently lost interest in the tips of things, that I wanted more than an elephant hair to prove that he was in the room. No, instead I told her about where I grew up. She did the same. I asked her about her hobbies. She asked me about mine. She told me about the company she works for. I told her some popular movies to avoid.

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41 I called and left a message on Janes phone each Thursday afternoon for the next three weeks. When she didnt return my calls, I took the hint and deleted her number from my phones memory bank to prevent myself from being tempted to call her again. In the weeks immediately following our date, a cousins wedding, a promotion, and a faulty heart valve diagnosis busied my life. In that time, I thought fondly of Jane Berg when I did think of her. I knew I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend a few hours with Jane Berg; she is a quality human being. People like Jane Berg make me feel proud to be part of this complicated homo erectus throng that populates our earth. A few hours with someone like Jane is enough to convince me that we humans, for the most part, are doing our best to make the right decisions despite operating with limited information and unlimited misinformation. There is a patient at the hospital who claims that he might live forever. He never sleeps. When everyone else is asleep at night he sits on the edge of his bed, his feet swinging. The patientVince is his namehas developed a bit of a superiority complex about his potential to live forever. His favorite thing to say, when someone new is wheeled into the ward, is, That guy aint gonna make it. He says it over and over again, sitting on the edge of his bed, a smile on his face, his feet swinging: That guy aint gonna make it. Vince said it to me when I was wheeled in. His words pressed gently against my heart like an unwanted kiss. Shut up Vince, someone said then. I look at Vince now. Hes muttering that phrase. Shut up Vince, I hiss over the sleeping bodies in hospital beds. Vince shuts up.

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42 Pio! Pio! is only three blocks from my apartment. When I was healthy, I walked underneath its green awning and passed its chalkboard-listed specials each day on my way to and from work. This walk was the ebb and flow of my life. I wonder if the molecules from Janes and my first-date footprints could still be found there on the sidewalk. I think not. Even if all the sidewalks of this earth were covered with a crepe-thin layer of topsoil, I couldnt document the comings and goings of the Jane Bergs of my life. Only forensic experts might be lucky enough to detect the path of a single set of footprints from the multitude. But more than likely they would simply find footprint upon footprint upon footprint, stacked up like dirty dishes in a sink. Jane and I failed to connect. I failed to connect with all the Jane Bergs of my life. I never once was able to look at someone and say, I know you better than that. People constantly surprise me. Interpolation is, it seems, an inaccurate science. When a meteor misses the earth by millions of miles, it is considered a close call. For some things, there are no close calls; either a connection is made, or it isnt. And I wonderas I sit here writing in the darkabout the connections Ive made. I wonder how many times Ive been a meteor thats actually hit something. My tendency is to burn to nothing while entering the atmosphere. If this text were a meteor, Id want it to be at least marble-sized when it plunked.

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A SHORT-DISTANCE RELATIONSHIP I sit on my blue rocking chair and read The Economist. My chair is in its forward-leaning position so that I can also keep tabs on my girlfriend, Tina Larabee, as I read. I can see her over the top of my magazineher button-up black sweater, her lemon-sized loop earrings, the slight leftward lean of her nose. Her cheeks are concave, as if shed slept every night of her life on her back with a tea-cup resting on each cheek. Larabee was supposed to be at work all day, that was the original plan, but because her company hired too many people, she is what they call on the beach, meaning that she continues to get paid even though she stays at home and does little or nothing to help the company. Her company insists that her beach status is temporary, but she has been on the beach for 119 days. Not many 119-day things are considered temporary. A broken femur, maybe. Since she has been on the beach, Larabee has become obsessed with an electronic gadget that her company gave her to help facilitate her work for them. She has never let me touch the gadget, but I have been able to determine that it is a very fancy gadget and that it is probably capable of sending emails and playing video games. Its keys light up bright blue when you touch a button or some combination of buttons. She plays with it alone, sitting on a yoga mat on the hardwood floor, typing furiously with her thumbs, peck peck peck, like a tireless chicken, hour after hour. She is typing on it now, her thumbs tap dancing across its keys. The apartment is small and if I were to lean forward, 43

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44 I could touch her face. Or, if I persuaded her to look at the ceiling, I could fill those concave cheeks with a touch of water and make two petite birdbaths. I turn the page of my magazine. I am upset because once again Larabee has chosen the fancy gadget over me, and so I understand very little of what I read. I subscribed to this magazine hoping to increase my intelligence, but so far it has only succeeded in proving my stupidity. Something about farming in Thailand. Or Sweden and the Euro. I am retaining nothing. The peck peck peck sound is not helping things. Larabee stops typing on her gadget. For a moment, the apartment is silent. I break the silence to point out to Larabee that two people who are dating can do other, more intimate things with each other, but she is unflinchingly unmoved. She laughs, but then she is quickly back to typing furiously with her thumbs. I consider the possibility that I might not have been ready to move in with Larabee. If her apartment had a quarter-mile long hallway between the bedroom and the kitchen, for instance, I think the whole living-together thing could work. But her apartment is small. To get anywhere, we have to crawl over each other like restaurant lobsters in a tank. There are only twelve steps between the bedroom and the kitchen. Three steps to the bathroom. The bathroom is so small that I can turn the light switch on and off while sitting on the toilet. Sometimes I sit on the toilet much longer than is functionally necessary and flick the light switch on and off. I want to do it two hundred times but dont because I do not want to push my luck and blow a fuse. This is not what I expected when I moved in with Larabee four months ago. We had been standing on the steps outside her apartment, having just survived a half-dozen one-acts put on by a local theater group, when she pulled out a shiny new key to her

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45 apartment, beckoning to me with it as if it were her curled index finger, and saying it was time to take things to the next level. Ill be at my new job, she said. Youll have the place to yourself most of the day. And besides, she added, youre always over at my place anyway. How could I refuse the key? It was the nicest thing anyone has ever offered me. Within a few weeks Id broken the lease to my apartment and moved in. The circumstances are beginning to have a negative effect on my work. I havent given any work to my editor in almost four months. 119 days. My focus is gone. I barely have enough focus to write a sentence, certainly not enough focus to write a long sentence, not a grammatically correct one anyway; however, it should be noted that in my opinion such sentences are overrated. I am so disillusioned with words that I have begun to draw my novel on my laptop using only numbers, letters and symbols. Here is a drawing from chapter seventeen: O // <==-} -> .--._.-^-(.} )' /{ ( \d ./\, ) -._.> / / `\ /' I did write a letter to Larabee explaining why I think we should break up. I did not intend for her to ever read the letter, I was just letting off some steam, but she read it while I was pretending to sleep while waiting for her to fall asleep so that I could turn the air conditioner from low to high. It was too late to stop her, so I played it cool and feigned sleep. I knew shed never bring it up in conversation, not until she needed to use it as a trump card.

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46 What she doesnt know is that I have a trump card of my own. I know that she also has a break-up letter. I found it in an unmarked envelope on her desk. It lists my flaws and states with clarity why we are not quite right for each other, at least not for the long haul, not forever. Tough to come this close and then realize, oops, we dont quite qualify. Oops is her word, not mine. In my letter, I likened our relationship to being on the top floor of a tall burning building and then tying hundreds of bedsheets together and climbing down to the end of the rope-fashioned out of bedsheets and then finding that we are still dangling adjacent to the third or fourth floors, depending on if you count the lobby as floor one or if you think that the first floor is the floor directly above the lobby. As Larabee would say, oops! I was just blowing off steam. I dont really even know what the bedsheet and burning building metaphor means. Something about coming to the end of relationship and seeing that its not going to work, but holding on for dear life because letting go means a three (or four) story drop. Still, holes can be poked in the metaphor quite easily. What were we doing in such a building in the first place? And why didnt we simply take the stairs? A short State of the Relationship conversation with Larabee would probably do me good, show me that Im being melodramatic, perhaps losing my mind even, and certainly being silly. But I avoid relationship-related topics with Larabee. I fear that fall. I apologized for the writing of my secret break-up letternot directly, but tangentiallyby making Larabee a mix CD, but she only listens to track four. Thats the way she is. She likes to listen to a song over and over again and then to replace it like the sponge in the kitchen sink when its used up. I spent hours picking out the right songs

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47 and placing them in the right order on the mixed CD and she only listens to track four. Was she the same way with her relationships? It is possible that Im her track four. Sometimes I jog in the park because it is a creative way to get out of the apartment. Outside the apartment there are people who have a healthy glow. I do not have a healthy glow. Sometimes after being inside too long I feel white and brittle and thinlike an oversized matzo crackerand I half expect Larabee to slide me into the space behind the bedroom door where the ironing board usually goes. At night, I sleep restlessly and uncomfortably, despite her recent purchase of an air conditioning unit. She says we should sleep with it on low to save money. I say that would work fine if I could actually sleep when it is on low, but I cannot. She says that Ill get used to it. So I wait for Larabee to fall asleep first, and then I turn the air conditioner on high. Only then am I able to fall asleep. I watch her when she is asleep, and, to be frank, I do not think Larabee is sleeping well either. She does not use curse words when she is awake, but in her sleep everything is fuck this and fuck that. During these episodes I shake her gently awake and then stroke her back to sleep, starting with my hand at the top of her forehead and moving the pads of my fingers down around her ear like a comb. Everythings going to be okay, I say. Everythings going to be okay. Now, from the comfort of my blue chair, I watch as Larabee talks into the gadget. This is new. Ive never seen her talk into the gadget before. She gestures with her hand, and shes sitting so close that her fingers brush against my knee. She does not seem to notice. My heart sinks. In the race for Larabees attentions, the gadget has already been winning for the last several weeks. For it to suddenly gain the ability to work as a phone

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48 seems downright unfair. I wonder if the gadget is capable of doing other, more intimate things with Larabee. Could it, for instance, cook her a Baked Alaska? I want to believe that it cant, I want to believe that Im special, and that this is something only I can provide for Larabee. I hold my magazine above her head and shake it, giving her a business reply card shower. Larabee abruptly stops speaking. She puts the gadget down and stands up. She looks me directly in the eye. For a moment, I feel glorious. I have figured out the way to make her thumbs stop tappinga small victory for me over the gadget. Larabee turns away from me and opens the window and then pulls down the curtains with one sweeping motion. She puts on a yellow bikini and then sits on a beach towel that she carefully places on the bed and gets a six-pack of diet cola from the fridge that she places on the beach towel next to her and then she opens the latest Harry Potter and begins to read. I stay seated in my blue chair. The gadget rests on the yoga mat. We both sit and wait for the whole thing to unfold, like a stare-down between two men whove just left a saloon with an agenda. But the thing doesnt unfold. She sits with her head buried in her book and doesnt tell me about her job, or the break-up letter, or the heat. She doesnt even open one of her diet colas; she lets those cans sit in a puddle of their own sweat. I know she is perturbed by something because people dont normally yank curtains down so hard that the curtain rod snaps. People dont normally throw curtains into a dusty corner of the room. It isnt much, but when curtains are the only clue, its natural to make a lot out of the curtains. I hear another snap, the same timbre as original curtain rod snap, but fainter, like an earthquakes aftershock. I stand and investigate. Larabee continues to read and the

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49 curtains continue to sit in a heap in the dusty corner of the room. I notice crumbs on the seat of the blue chair and I brush them onto the floor. Everything is not going to be okay. I strip off my clothes and then tie one of the curtains around my waist like a hula skirt. I walk out of the apartment and down to the park. As I walk, the tip of my penis brushes against the lacy white fabric of the curtain. I sit on a park bench at the peak of a small grass hill. The hill overlooks a jogging path and I watch joggers chase their ambitions. An endless parade of them jogs by like a special breed of eccentric ants. Some wear colorful spandex, some run bow-legged, some are bare-chested and have fabulous muscles. I breathe deeply, my lungs thirsty for the freshness of outside air. It occurs to me that I already know which old college buddys sofa Ill be sleeping on tonight. And I know more. I know that there was a time when Larabee and I laughed and spoke our minds. I know that our relationship became, at some point in the last 119 days, the sum of our flaws. I know that my old college buddys couch cushions will smell of ass and beer, and that during the moments before sleep, with my faced pressed to the cushion fabric, Ill think mundane pre-sleep thoughts and smoke the couch-cushion smell like a pipe.

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LIVE NEAR FOREVER George thought their new house was a brick monstrosity. His wife, Tilly, liked it so much that she had invited the whole neighborhood over for an impromptu housewarming potluck party that night. Its unnecessarily big for two people, said George. They sat in the middle of the spacious kitchen, each eating half a grapefruit for breakfast. You should be excited about the house. Its a huge upgrade for us, said Tilly. I feel like a visitor in my own home, said George. He thought there was something strange about moving into a fully furnished house. The crescent moon coffee table, African candleholders, barstools made from barrels, the decorative driftwood and the black-framed charcoal drawings of nudes were nice, but they made him ill at ease. Certainly the price had been good, well below market value, but in some corner of his mind George wondered if the whole thing hadnt been a mistake. The only thing left to fix is that spot on the wall above the fireplace, said Tilly, referring to the sun-faded outline of a shotgun and gunrack. Why dont I just buy a gun and rack at Wal-mart? It will be so much easier than trying to match the exact color blue. We cant have guns in the house. What if we have kids? We dont have kids. I dont want a gun in my house, she said. 50

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51 Later that evening, minutes before the guests were to arrive, Tilly again brought up the subject of kids. Do you think well ever have kids? she asked. No, George said. I dont have a stomach for kids. Seriously, George. We never talk seriously enough. Ill talk seriously about kids, he said. They had tried to talk seriously about kids before, but there was always some reason or another for not having them: wanting to be financially secure or wanting to travel, for instance. Wanting to hold impromptu potluck parties. For George, his main reason for not wanting to have kids was that he didnt know if he liked himself enough to reproduce. But he figured that he agreed with the theoretical idea of having a kid. It made sense, to propagate the nation and that sort of thing. You know, when I married you, you said you didnt want them, ever, said George. I didnt then. But that was eight years ago. Ive changed my mind. George could feel himself tensing. She began telling him why shed changed her mind. Shed seen her sister and her sisters husband with their child. They were so happy, she said. Stop, just stop. Not now. I just dont see And then the doorbell rang. Please, I need to get that, said George, and he pushed her out of his way, catching her off balance. She fell to the ground and hit her head on the kitchen island. You pushed me, she said. I barely tapped you, he said.

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52 She sat up and put her hand to the back of her head. Im bleeding. The doorbell rang again. You dont ever push me, she said. George didnt quite know what she meant by this. The doorbell rang again and he went to get the door, leaving his wife on the floor. A woman stood at the door holding a bowl of mashed potatoes, the top of which was covered with saran wrap. I hope Im not too early, she said. Hi, Im Nicole, Im your neighbor. Of course, said George. As he spoke, a man bolted past him saying, All right, lets see what you buggers have done to my place. Thats Billy Traber, Nicole whispered. He was the former owner of this house. Hes been staying with me until he finds a new place to live. I hope it isnt Awkward? No, not at all, George said emphatically. She adjusted the mashed potatoes in her hands, and George realized she wanted him to take them off her hands. Ill take those, George said. Let me show you to the guest bedroom were using as a coatroom. Nicole was wearing a dress that was tight and black and severe. Her hair was pulled back into a hairpiece that was held together by chopsticks. She looked like someone whod act relaxed until you did something she didnt approve of. Already, in the span of a few seconds, her demeanor bothered George. George knew himself well enough now to know that when he found a beautiful woman bothersome, as he did this Nicole, it was usually because he recognized that she was going to make his wife uncomfortable. When hed left Tilly on the ground in the

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53 kitchen, shed been wearing a thick red sweater over her black dress. Shed been cold, she said, but he also knew that she was worried about her figure. George knew that he had a limited time in which to make Tilly feel comfortable. He needed to get to the heart of the party, or else he and Tilly would be doomed to hang around the fringes of things, feeling uncomfortable, making judgments. And then, after they were having a good time, he could apologize for pushing her. After George ushered in Nicole back out to the living room, Tilly appeared from the kitchen and greeted Nicole with a smile. Tilly looked vibrant; she was in hostess mode. Billy Traber was nowhere to be seen. As the other guests arrived, George began to feel better. There were a few faces he recognized from around town. Once the majority of the guests had arrived, he stayed in the living room at Tillys side and chatted. He drank quickly at first, and before long he was telling a large group the story of how he and Tilly had met. We met at a house party, much like this one, he said. And when I went to look for a bathroom, she cornered me in the hallway and gave me a kiss. We began dating soon after that. I was teaching at the business school at the time, and didnt realize that she was taking one of my classes until after the semester was over. When I asked her why she didnt say anything, she said, If I had, it would have been harder to get access to the final exam questions and answers before the test. People moaned or laughed in a sympathetically horrified way. George looked around at them. He felt much better. The living room, its deliberate dcor and its view of the sun setting over the lake, no longer seemed so hostile. He took another sip from

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54 his drink and knew there was now a limited time in which hed feel centered and calm, before the drinks would start to unravel him. Dipping the pen in the company ink, were we? asked a man to his side, and a few people laughed. It was the man whod rushed passed him when hed opened the door for Nicole, that Billy Traber. George felt attacked, as if Billy had reached out and ripped a hole in his pant leg. Not exactly company ink, said George. A business school isnt a company, its an institution of higher education, and besides, I didnt know she was a student at the time. Right, Tilly? But Tilly had just put a large piece of biscotti in her mouth. She raised her hand up while she chewed. George took the opportunity to study Billy. He wore his dark hair slicked back on his head, and it was slightly in disarray. He had the potential to be handsome, but instead looked underfed and overtired. His teeth were perfectly straight and white, and when he smiled, it made the rest of his face seem gray. Billy shifted uneasily under Georges stare, and then spoke. Maybe he did ask her if she was a student, but she couldnt answer because her mouth was full. There was a smattering of nervous laughs. Thats uncalled for, said George. I think Dinner is served, interrupted Tilly, finished with her chewing. George had never thought twice about being married to a younger woman until recently. He and Tilly had always been so compatible that worrying about a fifteen year age gap (forty-five to thirty) was a waste of energy. Their relationship, like any other, was a delicate balance of factors, some large, some small, but the fact that theyd been

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55 able to maintain that delicate balance for eight years gave them hope that they could keep it up forever. Trouble began a week after Georges forty-fifth birthday when he heard for the first time that people who died while climbing Mt. Everest didnt decompose. George began to have a recurring dream in which he, in death, occupied a prominent spot at Mt. Everests peak. The dream would begin just as he began to freeze to death. In his dream, as he started to freeze, hed sculpt the face he would present to the world for the rest of time. Hed lick his two fingers and use them to press down his bushy eyebrows, hed move his closed mouth into a slight smile and hed squint slightly to increase his contemplative quotient. It might not have been anything unusual for a man who has just passed the midpoint of his life to worry about his death, but the recurring dream disturbed George. Tilly didnt feel like discussing the meaning of such dreams. Theyre probably just a byproduct of moving to a new house, she said. Theyll go away. But in the meantime, try and focus on being practical and help me out around the house. Tilly was often practical. She kept her hair short. Shed gotten a breast reduction from her parents as a college graduation present to prevent the onset of lower back pain later in life. She had a palm-sized scar on her pelvic bone from when shed had a tattoo removed. The potluck aspect of the party, apparently a new addition to the traditional neighborhood formula, was deemed a success: George overheard people making

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56 comments like, This is the way to do it, this is the way to have a party. He was happy about this, and it somewhat made up for Billy Trabers earlier fellatio insinuation. During dinner, George became engaged in a conversation with a group of men about the state of television, a conversation that quickly degraded into a discussion about a new reality TV show starring midgets. At one point, when George noticed Tilly and Nicole move from the living room couch to the screened-in porch, he excused himself and refilled his drink and then made his way to the porch. Once on the porch, George noted where his wife was sitting, and then stepped out the screen door and onto the lawn. Moths of various sizes fluttered around the porch light. Staring past the halo of porch light and into the darkness, he could just make out the lake. He returned to the porch and found a seat beside his wife, who was talking to Nicole. Nicole was asking Tilly what she thought of the neighborhood. Its nice, said Tilly. But we already knew about it because we moved from just across town. Nicole seemed not to notice. Youll see, she said. Youll see how charming it can be. Especially around Christmas time, oh, with all those lights. George and Tilly had both seen this neighborhood during Christmas time and both had deemed it impressive; it had made them debate the cost of electricity bills. Billy entered the screened-in porch and joined the conversation. What are you three talking about? he asked. The neighborhood, said Nicole.

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57 He looked at Tilly and said, Well, let me give you a word of advice. Dont go five blocks north of here. Its a real war zone. Thats the only drawback to this area. That were so close to the Farringdon Road area. Im going to get another drink. Can I get anyone anything? asked Nicole. People shook their heads. She went into the house. Billy paused, looked around, and then continued. When you want to protect yourself, you need to get aggressive. No one is better at protecting themselves than Americans. How many wars have been fought on our soil in the last one hundred years? None, and thats because we know how to protect ourselves. There was the war on drugs, said George. And Pearl Harbor. For a few seconds Billy scratched vigorously at his head with the two smallest fingers on his right hand, a dog-like twitch, and then continued, How many wars were fought in Canada? Thats because we protect them like a big brother. Same with Mexico, and pretty much all Central and South America. Now over in Europe and Africa and Asia, they dont know the trick of it. So they kill and are killed on their home turf all the time. Tilly opened her mouth to speak, but before she could, Billy stood and raised his hand and pointed at George. You, house stealer, you come with me. Ill be there in a minute, said George, and Billy went back into the house. George put his hand on Tillys knee. He leaned in close and asked in a low voice, How are you? She shrugged.

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58 George remembered when they used to use code words and hand signals to talk to one another at parties. George held up a fist, which had always meant, I love you, but she didnt respond. George put his fist down and watched her face; she was staring off in the distance. He put his hand on her knee again. Oh, Tilly said. I was thinking about the wasps in the handle of the grille. Can you take care of them tomorrow? Just over Tillys shoulder, George saw Billy motioning to him. George patted Tillys knee and excused himself and followed Billy back into the main part of the house, past the staircase and down a long hall. Billy opened a door at the end of the hall and went into the coat room. After shutting the door, Billy pushed some of the coats off the bed and onto the floor and motioned for George to take a seat. Billy sat on top of a short stack of coats in a chair opposite George. Welcome to my office, Billy said. George didnt feel the need to reply. He listened to the faint murmur of voices and music coming from the party down the hall. Do you know whats the only thing that keeps me going? asked Billy. Tell me, said George. The whole thing amused him, this heart-to-heart stuff. The thought that when I die, people will celebrate. People hate me, and my death will be the only joy Ive ever brought to the world. Do you really think youve had that much of an impact on people? No, I guess not, he said simply. George could feel himself sliding off the bed. He stood up, pushed more coats out of the way, and sat back down.

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59 Not to change the subject, but Tilly and I are throwing a good party, George said. The potluck idea seems to be a real hit. Speaking of hit, when I first arrived I saw your wife on the ground. She was bleeding. Do you hit your wife? Excuse me? We arent in there anymore, Billy said, motioning towards the general epicenter of the party. We can drop the formality crap and speak openly and honestly. Do you he paused, gulped, and then continued hit your wife? I dont understand, said George, although he was thinking that he did understand. Im doing this for you, Mr. House-stealer. Billy Traber leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. I dont know anything about you, but I figure I should stop you from ruining a perfectly good marriage. Billy, George said, trying to steer towards safer conversational ground. Before we leave your office, I would like to talk to you about some of your decorating choices. I was really quite impressed by them. Billy stood. Maybe you hit your wife. Or maybe I was seeing things. Maybe its because youre a drunk, said George, his amusement tweaked into anger. Maybe. Billy Traber stood, clumsily rifled through the pockets of some of the coats piled next to George and came up with a folded twenty-dollar bill, which he held up with two fingers.

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60 This wont be missed, he said, and tucked it into his pants pocket. Hang in there, George. And after patting George on the back, he left the room. George didnt feel like rejoining the party immediately. He decided hed first take care of the wasps nest in the handle of the grille. The garage was separate from the house, just inside the edge of the lawn, and a little ways down a hill. He pulled open the garage door and carefully stepped inside. While looking for the wasp spray in the assortment of cardboard boxes, he found a flashlight and clicked it on. He found the wasp spray in another cardboard box and stepped out of the garage and shut the garage door and went back up the hill. The moon was not quite whole. He shone the flashlight on the moon and fancied that he could see a small circle of light weaving along the moons surface. He moved the beam to the house. The house was still at a distance and he could see the lights on, the silhouettes of people mingling. He quickened his pace and went around the house to the back porch. As he approached the grille, two wasps flew lazily into the grille handle. From a distance of a few feet, he aimed the cans nozzle at the hole in the handle of the grille and sprayed. A single wasp flew out, briefly hovered in the air above Georges head as if collecting its wits, and then floated off into the night. George returned to the party. He picked up an abandoned drink and found Tilly, who was talking with Nicole about politics. George sat across from them, prepared to wait the conversation out. It soon fizzled, which was no real surprise because Tilly didnt know very much about politics.

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61 Nicole turned to George and said, Did Billy do the celebrate-at-my-funeral bit with you? He did. He likes to work that one on new people at parties. New people are the only ones whod humor him and go into the coat room for a chat. Hmm. Lets move to the kitchen. Just me and you. They excused themselves from TillyNicole made a big show of it and bowedand then made their way to the quiet of the kitchen. You still look a little disturbed, Nicole said. Im fine. George couldnt believe he was having yet another heart-to-heart talk. I wonder if I could scream and break this glass, Nicole said, staring at her wine glass. She swirled her drink, as if testing the integrity of the glass. From there they debated if a scream could break a glass or not. After much discussion, they decided it could, depending on the pitch of the voice and the thickness of the glass. As they debated, George noticed a young girl, maybe mid-teens or so, sitting at the kitchen table reading a book. Who is that? George mouthed to Nicole during a pause in their glass-breaking debate. Thats my daughter, she mouthed back. She got scared of being home alone and came over. The girl had her brown backpack over one shoulder. She had tea-cup platter spectacles. She was reading a book entitled Why Men Love Bitches. She was hunched over the book, reading intently.

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62 Billy bought her that book, whispered Nicole. He says it isnt fun to live in a world without answers. And its a lot of work to invent answers for yourself. So if you can find someone else whos willing to invent them for you, youve found a gold mine. I see, George said, unable to match her enthusiasm. Thats what Billy says his problem is. Hes not a consumer of invented solutions. He says life and death are merely the bread to your funeral sandwich, and that death is always the thicker slice. You know, hes actually excited to be the headliner at his funeral. Morbid, George said, thinking that Nicole loved Billy in a very uncritical way. He wondered if it would be possible to ever love Tilly in this same way. No, he didnt think so. Theyd been together too long for that. Relationships were cold wars and stockpiled criticism a currency. Billy is certainly morbid, Nicole said. Which is why he will be one of the lucky fucks to live near forever. Did his wife leave him? Oh no. She died of uterine cancer this past spring. That big house didnt make sense without her, so in exchange for his shotgun, Im letting him stay in our guest bedroom until he can find a place of his own. Mossberg 590, with an eight round magazine. A real beauty. You shoot? The girl stood up and walked up to her mother and said something to her in a low voice. Nicole excused herself and followed her daughter out of the kitchen.

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63 George made his way back to Tilly. She was still on the porch, but shed moved to a different chair, just outside a small circle of women who were discussing certain recipe variations. He sat next to her, and she turned from the group and faced him. She put her hand on his knee. He settled back in his chair. After a time, he asked, What do I need to do to get back in your good graces? What do you think? she asked. I think I should apologize for pushing you, he said. He tapped the bottom of his glass on the top of her hand, the glass making a noise against her wedding ring. She was staring past him. George tapped his glass on her hand a second time and again the glass made a noise against her ring. What do you think? She looked at him and leaned forward in her chair and put her head on his shoulder. Kiss me, she said into his chest. He kissed the top of her head. She sat back and looked into his face, not at his eyes, but at different parts of his forehead and cheek in which she seemed to take a sudden interest. He felt her breath heavy on his face. Billy walked onto the porch, tapping a spoon to his wineglass. Please move your conversations to the living room, he said. Were going to hold my funeral. No, not this again, said Nicole, who had joined the women discussing recipes. Yes. And youre giving the eulogy, said Billy, pointing at Nicole before leaving the porch. Nicole followed him. The remaining guests on the porch moved into the living room. George left Tilly standing alone on the far side of the room and selected a walnut

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64 from a bowl that rested on the glass-top coffee table. Having the walnuts at the party had been his idea. A few shells were on the table next to the bowl. George cracked the walnut with a shiny metal nutcracker and ate it. Billy walked into the room and stepped up to the coffee table. He picked up the walnut bowl, and handed it to George. Get these nuts out of my casket, he said, and then he lay down on the coffee table, his hands across his chest. George went back to Tilly, stopping briefly to slide the bowl of nuts between discarded drinks on a wooden card table. Maybe we should stop this, Tilly said, as he approached. In a minute, George said. He leaned in close and said, Well stop it if it starts to get bad. The guests got quiet and moved away from the fireplace. Nicoles daughter acted as the priest. She looked thankful for the attention. She paced in front of the fireplace, holding an imaginary microphone to her mouth. She said she wanted to talk about the role of God in our lives. God, she said must love bitches, because hes a man. People laughed at this. And now, the eulogy, the girl said. She made a show of handing the imaginary microphone to Nicole. Im going to give this speech as seriously as possible, Nicole said. Billy would have wanted it this way. And as she spoke, George could tell that she was making a conscious effort to sound as if Billy were actually dead. Nicole said Billy was the best neighbor and friend a person could have hoped for. Something in the way she said this quieted the crowd. For the rest of the speech, the only sound competing with Nicoles

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65 voice came from the uneven rotation of the ceiling fan. George expected Billy to sit up and protest the seriousness of her tone, but Billy didnt stir. Nicole left the party with her daughter and Billy shortly after the mock funeral. Billy was completely passed out, and a few of the men took hold of him and carried him across the street. The rest of the guests trickled out with their half-eaten serving bowls of quiche and spinach dip, and within half an hour, George and Tilly had the house to themselves again. Tilly showered first, George second, and after his shower he slipped into bed with her and tried to snuggle up against her, but she moved away. The next morning, George woke up early and bought blue paint and painted over the sun-faded spot on the wall above the fireplace.

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NONE OF US IS PERFECT As Martin put his grocery items on the conveyor belt, he caught the cashier looking at the ten dime-sized, dark purple scars on his left forearm. The scars were raised and looked like Braille, only bigger than any Braille that Martin had ever seen. Like Braille for people who were touching-impaired. Did such a thing exist? Martin didnt know. He didnt know very much about Braille. Whered you get those scars? asked the cashier, a brown-skinned woman of indeterminate age. She barely came up to his waist. Her teeth looked distractedturned at angles as if talking to their neighbors. Knife fight, said Martin. He knew it was a ridiculous claim. No hastily stabbed knife could have made the scarred welts on his arm. She shrugged as if signaling the end of her interest in his arm. Thatll be $45.11, she said. Something about the way she shrugged appealed to Martin. Martin was fascinated with these sorts of people, the people on the outer fringe of bell curves. At his company, the paper mill, there was an older woman Martin couldnt get out of his mind. She was confident in her cleavage, and it often left Martin trembling. She was ancientmaybe mid-fortiesbut the exposed top part of her chest between the open lapels of her business suit looked freckled and smooth and rubbery. She intrigued him. But she seemed hardly to notice Martinshe looked right through him whenever they passed in the hall. Just like this little wizened cashier nymph was looking through him now. She was holding out the credit card bill for him to sign. 66

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67 The truth was, Martin had received the scars in a gardening accident. Hed opened the door to his tool-shed and a metal-pronged rake had come off its nail and lunged at him. Martin grew vegetables in secret. Not even Keith, his younger brother, ex-roommate, and ex-co-worker, knew this. Some people, people Martin didnt know, lived in places where everything looked like a garden, where white walls were actually white, where landscaping was an art form. But Martin knew hed never live in ones of these places. The closest thing he had was a small clearing in the woods behind his house. Right now he was growing green beans, sweet corn, and tomatoes. His garden was the one thing in his life that had stayed beautiful even after being touched by his hands. I actually got them when a metal pronged rake fell on top of me, Martin said as he signed and handed her the receipt. Ha. What was there to lose? Shed never tell Keith. Keith was under house arrest. And Keith wouldnt believe her if she did. Keith didnt trust short people. He liked big people. Broad people. People, as he said, with scope. She shrugged again and handed him the yellow copy of the receipt. He stuffed the receipt into his pocket and gathered his six bags of groceries. Martin grocery-shopped for Keiththere, the little brown nymph smiled at him, the spaces between her teeth becoming more prominent, like the gradual opening of vertical blindspartly because Keith was under house arrest and couldnt do his own shopping, and partly because Martin was still trying to convince Keith that he hadnt murdered Keiths ferret. The ferret had been sickly the entire time it was alivethough the vet had said it was perfectly healthy, the poor thing had fits of vomiting after nearly

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68 every mealso Martin couldnt help being a little relieved when it finally kicked the bucket. Still, it was sad to see a living thing die. Keith was a born fuck-up, but then again they were both born fuck-ups. Martin had always seen their relationship in this way: two brothers stranded in the middle of the ocean, playing catch with a life preserver. And now that he had the life preserver, it was only fair for him to throw it over to Keith. Maybe, Martin thought, thats the magic of brotherly friendship: two indubitable sinkers can keep each other afloat. Martin made for the bike rack, which was located at the side of the grocery store, between two green dumpsters. He didnt really mind not having a car. The biking kept him in surprisingly good shape; he was often amazed at how good he felt the morning after a night of drinking, and attributed it to the cycling. While others complained and gulped coffee, Martin felt refreshed, like sometime during the night hed shed his internal organs for newer, cleaner ones. The grocery store was across the street from his apartment and only a mile away from Keiths apartment as the crow flies, but typically it took Martin, who rode cautiously on his creaky mountain bike, in the vicinity of thirty minutes to circumnavigate the hazardous downtown area via the shoulder of Highway I-40. The highway was certainly illegal to bike on, but Martin, whod had two bikes stolen from him in the last six monthsthe last time by a man with a business suit and a Swiss Army knife who claimed that he needed Martins bike to chase after someone whod stolen his carpreferred the predictable rhythm of the wind from passing vehicles over the unpredictable nature of bike theft. What was the name of that physical phenomenon

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69 created in the wake of a passing car? A vortex? A vacuum? He didnt know. But when he steeled himself to the fear of losing control of his bike, that vortex-vacuum phenomenon felt glorious. When Martin first moved into the city ten years ago, the downtown had been booming, but now Main Street was a row of vacant storefronts. For shopping, most people went to huge warehouse stores and multiplexes and malls ten miles outside the city. He had read in the paper that even the Marriott hotelat eighteen stories, the largest building in the citywas thinking of relocating because many patrons had complained that the hotel was no longer in the heart of the city. Six bags. Dammit. Hed bought too much again. He briefly considered cutting through downtown, then dismissed the idea. He would just hang all the bags from the handlebars and take it slow. Three bags on each side. He arranged them on the handlebars and rode about one block before he realized that the bag with the two frozen pizzas and the gallon of milk was throwing his weight to the left and if he continued it would certainly cause him to crash. He set the bags down on the sidewalk. He briefly considered holding one of the bags in his teeth but then had a better idea. He stretched the handles of the heavy bag, the one with the gallon of milk and frozen pizzas, and, after removing his shirt, slid them over his head. He put his shirt back on. The bag made it look like he had a gut. This was much better. The balance between the two sides was restored. The whole setup almost felt comfortable, except that the pizza box was scratching at his side.

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70 When theyd lived together, Martin could keep Keith in line. But things fell apart after Keith went on a bass fishing trip with his girlfriend at the time and her folks. The day after Keith left, Martin found Earl, Keiths ferret, dead in its cage. Martin called Keith and told him about Earl. Keith cried. When Keith more or less stopped crying a minute later, Martin asked him how his flight had been. Not too bad, said Keith. We were delayed a bit in Cincinnati, but other than that it was fine. Martin said, Well, say hi to your girl, and then got the hell off the phone before Keith could cry again. Martin didnt know what to do with Earls body. It seemed insensitive to ask Keith about it, and so he wrapped Earls body in a hand towel and then placed the bundle in the back of the freezer, covering it with a bag of frozen peas. The body was, as far as Martin knew, still buried under the frozen peas. After returning from the fishing trip, Keith announced he was moving out of Martins apartment and getting a place of his own across town. Keith said he couldnt get it out of his mind that Martin had something to do with Earls death, and he didnt want to live with Earls killer, if indeed Martin was Earls killer. Keith said he wasnt pointing any fingers. Martin said you better fucking not be. I was just the unlucky bastard who found the body and there was no foul play involved. Keith shrugged, and said he would be gone by the end of the month; plans had already been made.

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71 Not two weeks after leaving Martins apartment, Keith was caught with a large amount of cocaine in the parking lot of a local shopping center. Martin knew Keith had told their parents he was buying it for friends, that he didnt do drugs. Martin almost believed him, even though he knew that he, Martin, was Keiths only real friend. Keith got six months under house arrest because their parents knew the judge. Keith had a knack for getting out of scrapes. Unfortunately the paper mill couldnt ignore the cocaine rap. They fired him, and so in the span of a few months, Martin had lost a co-worker, and a roommate. Keith was only allowed to leave his apartment to keep medical appointments. But, as he had been trying to convince Martin, there was little harm in going out for a few hours here and there. They dont check a fucking thing, Keith assured him. I dont even think this thing works, he added, patting an electronic band around his ankle. So sometimes on Friday nights they would go down to the batting cages together. Martin kept a steady pedal stroke towards the on ramp for I-40. He needed to go south, so he went under the highway and then took a left onto the slight incline of the cloverleaf-shaped entrance ramp. The plastic under his shirt was making his stomach feel humid and sweaty. The pizzas would certainly unfreeze and the milk would go sour. Just twenty more minutes, he thought. He tried to concentrate on Keith, but found the passing of the cars and trucks distracting. The cocaine had intrigued Martin, the secrecy of it all. He didnt know if Keith had been messing with cocaine all along, or if he had only started after hed moved out. Martin thought of his own secret: his garden. When he died, he wanted to be buried

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72 there. Or dump his ashes there. He didnt really care which. Technically, the garden was not even on his property. But technically, the world could kiss his ass. A light rain began to fall. He biked along the shoulder and tried to prevent the bags from swaying. Once they started swaying, it caused them to hit up against the spokes of his wheels, and the bike became very difficult to control. The handles of the bag around his neck were digging into his collarbone. He thought about stashing some of the food in the woods and coming back for it later, then dismissed this idea. The first truck that passed nearly knocked him flat. The bike wobbled to the right, and he overcompensated and briefly went off the shoulder and into the slow lane. He recovered his balance and used the soles of his shoes to skid to a stop on the sandy shoulder. He took a few deep breaths. He could see the paper mill through the trees just off the highway. His nostrils filled with its pungent sweet smell. He knew that on a day like today, a still and damp September morning, he would be able to smell the mill all the way from Keiths house. Martins attitude towards the mill was mostly ambivalent. Since he was shipping and receiving, he worked a normal nine to five shift. Everyone else at the mill worked twelve to twelve, alternating the day and night shift each week. The paper industry was one of the major employers of the state. Most of his neighbors worked in the mill. The twelve-hour shifts paid great overtime: enough for Keith to buy a Jeep and a satellite dish. But Martin had seen the toll the shift work took on his brother. His appetite was down, and he frequently got sick. And now, apparently, he had a penchant for cocaine.

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73 Cocaine. Sometimes Martin wanted to rip Keiths fucking throat out. As roommates, he and Keith had often argued earnestly in physical fights that resulted in skinned knees, scratches and bruises. At the paper mill, Keith had been somewhat of a celebrity. Martin, however, was the shipping and receiving guy whose name nobody could remember. Martin? a co-worker had once said accusingly to Martin Your name is Martin? You dont look like a Martin. Martin had told Keith about the encounter, and Keith had merely shrugged. But after that, when Keith wanted to piss Martin off, hed say to Martin, Martin? Is your name Martin? You dont look like a Martin, over and over again. Keith lived on the second floor of a building in a complex called Ho izon Village. With its concrete steps and outdoor hallways, it reminded Martin of a motel. He assumed it was under Vietnamese management. Martin locked his bike to a railing and then peeked into Keiths window. He didnt dare knock: Canada, Keiths neighbor, would hear. Canada was emotionally exhausting to be around. Martin and Keith long ago decided that the only solution to the problem was to never be around him. Thin walls sometimes made this difficult. They usually didnt speak when they were inside his apartment, unless they knew Canada was gone. Last time Martin had brought groceries, hed sneezed and Canada had said bless you from his side of the wall. Canadas real name was John or Jason but because he started most of his sentences with the phrase, Back in Toronto they had taken to calling him Canada. Martin could see Keith through a window. Keith sat on the couch, staring at the television, remote in hand. He tapped gently on the glass. Keith looked over and

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74 pantomimed a hello. He got up, opened the door, stepped outside, and then shut it behind him. Canadas home. Were going to have to keep it down, he said. Even though it was nearly seven at night, Keith looked like hed just woken up. His hair was uncombed, which made his receding hairline more noticeable. He wore boxer briefs, but the part of the underwear that was supposed to be around his thighs had bunched up towards his crotch. I was just wondering if you knew where I could score some cocaine? asked Martin. Funny. Here, said Martin, handing Keith the groceries that had been on his bike handlebars. You bike here? Put some pants on, Martin said, as he took off his shirt. He pulled the last bag over his head and handed it to Keith. Martin shivered. It was getting colder, and the rain was picking up. Keep it down, okay? said Keith. Seriously. Put some pants on. Keith was watching a football game. On his coffee table were three frozen burrito wrappers and an empty plate that had a few bits of congealed burrito remains on it. The television was on mute. There was a knocking sound on the wall. Martin and Keith froze. Keith mouthed something to Martin and Martin nodded even though he had no idea what Keith had said. A commercial was on the television and Martin picked up the

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75 remote and started to channel surf. Keith punched his arm and grabbed the remote. The television was now on the local news channel. A news reporter was mouthing words. Over her left shoulder was a large tornado. A line of text said she was reporting live from the Indian Head monument in Cary, which was about ten miles north on I-40. Leave it, hissed Martin. They sat watching the tornado over her left shoulder. It was quiet in the room. Keith looked over at Martin and began to drum his fingers impatiently. Okay, fine, Martin said. Change it back. They watched the football game in silence for a half hour. Martin didnt care about the game. He asked Keith what he was thinking, getting busted like that. Chill out about that stuff, okay? he said softly. I wont chill out about anything, Martin said. Look, Keith whispered. None of us is happy about the arrest. But nobody is really happy about anything, when you really think about it. Everyone thinks theyre overweight, or they dont make enough money, or they arent dating the right person, stuff like that. Millions of people in this world arent satisfied with where they are in the scheme of things. Truth is, none of us is perfect. Why cant we just make our mistakes and move on? Im getting so that I like some of my mistakes so much that I can almost anticipate how good theyre going to make me feel. Lets go hunt down that tornado, Martin said, forgetting about Canada and speaking at normal volume. Keith shook his head, and with his hands, motioned for him to keep his voice down.

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76 Hey, you guys watching the game? asked Canada through the wall. His voice sounded as clear as if he were in the room right there with them. Martin looked at Keith and smiled. Keith sunk lower in the couch. Hey, Canada. We certainly are, said Martin. Oh, thats cool. Nice. Hey, do you mind if I come over and join you? asked Canada. Sure, Canada, said Martin. He was having fun with it now. But you cant come over for another ten minutes, okay? Oh, okay. Ten minutes, said Canada. Kind of weird, but whatever. Martin pointed toward the door. Keith shook his head. Martin picked up a pair of pants off the floor and threw them at Keith, and then pointed at the wall to Canadas apartment. Keith clicked off the game and tossed the remote onto the couch. They walked down to Keiths hunter green Jeep Wrangler. The rain was now steady. Let me drive, Martin said. No way. Keith hopped into the car and slammed the door shut. Martin got in the passenger seat. Keith gunned the car to a start and backed out of the parking space. He turned out of the apartment complex and headed for Route I-40. Keith pulled a case of CDs out from underneath his seat. He kept one hand on the wheel while he unzipped the case with the other. He flipped through the CDs, glancing up at the road at regular intervals.

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77 Take a left here, Martin said, reaching for the wheel. Keith slapped at his arm. I'm driving. Lay off. Keith found the CD he was looking for and put it in the player. Martin didn't recognize it. Keith turned up the volume. So howve you been, man? Keith asked. Keith, turn that down. Keith turned it down. You know, Keith said. I miss you as a roommate. It actually gets pretty lonely at my place without you. I even invited Canada into my apartment a few times when I couldnt take it anymore. No. I dont believe it. Yeah. It was a nightmare trying to get him to leave. I was under the covers and pretending to sleep and I could still hear him out in the TV room, screaming out updates from some baseball game. Howd you get him to go? asked Martin. He just left on his own about an hour or so after I stopped responding. Thats kind of sad. Yeah. Keith scratched his head. You know, Canada isnt a bad guy. Hes a lot like us, actually. He just doesnt have a brother. Or a cocaine addiction. Fuck you about that stuff, said Keith. I told you Keith threw up his hands and then dropped them back onto the wheel. After a few seconds, he turned up the volume on the car stereo.

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78 They turned onto the highway and the sound of the rain plinking the hood of the car go louder. Keith cut into the fast lane. The rain increased drastically; they were entering a harsher region of the storm. Brake lights from other cars lit up. Some cars had pulled over onto the shoulder and sat with their hazard lights blinking apologetically. Keith maintained his speed, using the slow lane or even swerving into the shoulder when it suited him. Horns honked. After they passed the next exit, traffic thinned out. There was just a stretch of gray and Martin had to squint to see through it. Someones shooting at us, Keith said. What? Martin asked. Keith was silent. He slowed the car and peered out the side windows. Something hit the hood of the car, sounding like a can of soda hitting the hood. Keith ducked and then rose slowly in his seat. There it is again, he said. Someones shooting at us. Martin imagined a soaking wet policeman running along side the car at thirty miles an hour and taking pot shots. I dont think someone is shooting at us, Martin said. There was another loud ping. Keith pulled the car over and stopped so quickly that the seatbelts locked up. Hail, Martin said. Large chunks of hail, fist-sized, started to hit the car at regular intervals. From inside, it sounded like artillery fire. This is killing my car, Keith said, but he was smiling. The noise was incredible. Maybe drive underneath that tree, Martin said. Yeah, and get stuck in the mud? No, we can make it another exit.

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79 As he pulled back onto the highway, a direct hit on the windshield spider-webbed the glass. I cant see shit, Keith said. He pulled off the highway at the next exit and parked under a gas-station canopy. Hail was still coming down, but slower now, and smaller in size, like a shower of popcorn. Im going to the bathroom, Keith said, and then walked into the food-mart. As Martin waited for Keith to return, he noticed a woman leaving the food-mart. She had huge breasts and thighs and was making no attempt to hide either of them. The leg-holes of her jean shorts were even with her crotch, and her thighs were thick and in full view. Her shirt was a normal enough purple button-down shirt but after the third button it was ripped all around and showed her midriff. She walked towards Martin and the Jeep as if it were her own car. She motioned for Martin to roll the window down, but the windows were automatic and Keith had left with the keys. He opened the door a crack, intending to communicate through it, but she grabbed the handle of the door and opened it all the way. She put one booted foot on the running board step and her elbow on her knee in a thoughtful way. Damn, thought Martin. Hey, Im Cassie, she said. Hello, Martin said. He was willing to talk to her, but his whole right side felt exposed as he sat in the car with the door open. He looked to see if Keith was coming. He wasnt. Your friend said hed give me a ride, she said. Oh. Youre going to have to get out and lift up the seat, she said.

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80 Right. He stood and pushed back the front seat. As she tumbled in, Martin noticed a turquoise thong making a T above the waistline of her shorts. Just after Martin had gotten reseated, Keith returned, still doing the buckle on the belt of his pants as he approached the car. Keith got into the car and changed CDs before driving out of the gas station and onto the highway. I hope you dont mind, Cassie, but were going to have to swing by and drop my brother home first, said Keith. He lives closer, he added. Closer to what? Martin wondered. Oh, you guys are brothers, she said. Thats so sweet. I have a brother. Me too, Martin said, grinning. It was meant as a joke, but it merely confused her and they drove in silence for a bit. Did you hear about the tornado? she asked. This annoyed Martin. Did she mean had they heard that there was a tornado, or had they heard about something specific that the tornado had done? Yup, said Keith. We were on our way to see it when the hail hit. Oh, the tornado is gone now, she said. It tore up some cornfields and then left. But they found ears of corn a few miles away. Oh, said Keith. Did you see it? No. That food-mart had a radio. I was listening with the guy behind the counter. Keith drove reasonably now, nosing the car around turns. Do you like this town? Martin asked. They were passing the paper mill.

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81 No one likes a place all of the time, she said. Sometimes you do and sometimes you wont. When they pulled up in front of Martins apartment, Keith said, Well, its been fun. Give me a call sometime bro, all right? And he drove off. Martin realized his bike was still at Keiths house. And one of those frozen pizzas was for him. Hed walk over tomorrow. Maybe hed just cut through the downtown area. They werent going to steal his feet. Tomorrow, hed confront Keith. Talk to him seriously. He would go over in the morning, first thing. Though Cassie would probably be in Keiths apartment tomorrow morning. Damnit. And there was always Canada. Being alone with Keith was near impossible. Martin entered his apartment and browsed the refrigerator for something to eat. He remembered the ferret and decided to check if it was still under the frozen peas. It was still wrapped in the cloth. Keith must have known that the ferret was never going to make itthe thing had always been doomed. I should take it out, wait for it to thaw, bend it into the perfect pose and then refreeze it, Martin thought. Hed give it wrinkles between its eyes and would make sure all its teeth were showing. Hed put both paws out like it was ready to pounce. Hed set it up in his garden like a gnome. It would be precious.

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BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH P. Terrence McGovern is a native of Newtown, Connecticut. He is a former writer for The Harvard Lampoon. If he could have a thumb-sized pet shark, he would. 82


Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UFE0004569/00001

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Title: None of Us Is Perfect and Other Stories
Physical Description: Mixed Material
Copyright Date: 2008

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Holding Location: University of Florida
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Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UFE0004569/00001

Material Information

Title: None of Us Is Perfect and Other Stories
Physical Description: Mixed Material
Copyright Date: 2008

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Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
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NONE OF US IS PERFECT AND OTHER STORIES


By

P. TERRENCE MCGOVERN













A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF FINE ARTS

UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA


2004


































Copyright 2004

by

P. Terrence McGovern


































This document is dedicated to the people I love.
















ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I thank my thesis director, David Leavitt. I thank my family. I thank my

IVFA@FLA classmates. I thank Padgett Powell. I thank Jill Ciment. I thank Laura Lee.

I thank other assorted loved ones.






















TABLE OF CONTENTS





ACKNOWLEDGMENT S .............. .................... iv


AB STRAC T ................ .............. vi


TROPHY BASS S................ ...............1............ ....


TWO WEEK S............... ...............3..


THE EXPERIMENT .............. ...............17....


SEVEN DAYS INT THE LIFE OF FRANCIS T. HAUTE .............. .....................1


F IRS T DATE ................. ...............3.. 4..............


A SHORT-DIST ANCE RELATION SHIP ................. ...............43........... ....


LIVE NEAR FOREVER .............. ...............50....


NONE OF US IS PERFECT............... ...............66


BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH .............. ...............82....
















Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts

NONE OF US IS PERFECT AND OTHER STORIES

By

P. Terrence McGovern

May, 2004

Chair: Professor David Leavitt
Major Department: English

Enjoy these stories. Some of them are prefect.
















TROPHY BASS

Damn. Paul Todd, a former English Composition student of mine, cornered me at

a student-faculty dinner and got me to agree to go with him on a day-long fishing trip.

"We have to go this weekend," he said. "The shit's already rented."

Paul was lanky and bookish without actually being book-smart. I remembered

him as being disliked by his peers; by the end of the semester they sighed audibly

whenever he spoke.

I wasn't particularly excited to be trapped in a boat with an oddball, but I was

excited to fish again; I hadn't fished since I'd gotten married just over a year earlier. The

first month of my marriage had been tentative. I likened it to the smoking tinder created

from rubbing two sticks: full of potential, and in need of constant attention. There had

been no time for fishing.

After that first month, Trina and I agreed that it would be counterproductive to be

intimidated by the fragility of our marriage. So we became reckless. It was nice. We ate

every meal off our best china plates. We were sloppy with our birth control. We bought

a second dog without even considering if it'd get along with the first. It was nice because

we were certain that we wanted to brave broken china and surprise pregnancies and

jealous canines together. We felt invincible. Fishing was once again an option.









Paul and I Hished most of the morning in quiet. I took this to mean he was serious

about his Hishing and didn't want to scare fish away with idle talk. Gators glided past our

boat on missions known only to them. I commented on this to Paul, and he nodded.

By noon, I was hungry and about to ask him if he wanted to break for lunch.

Without warning, he asked me if I wanted a blowj ob. I felt a laugh bloom in my throat,

but I paused for a moment and considered the question as one might a third slice of pizza.

"No thank you," I said.

"No shame in it," Paul said calmly. "Nothing I love better in the world."

Damn. I felt as guilty as if I'd acquiesced, and it suddenly became vital that I

catch Hish. Fish would be my alibi.

Paul proceeded to catch and release a dozen or so smaller bass with his artificial

lure. My shiners caught nothing. Then, with daylight dwindling, I nabbed an eight-

pound trophy bass and as if on cue, my heart started to flop in my chest, and I realized

then that my marriage to Trina would never be effortless, not ever.

When I arrived home, I stepped into my house and held my bass like a lantern, with

two Eingers hooked through the lip of the massive fish. I was eager to show Trina my

prize, and tell her about the slew of gators we'd seen, how their relaxed aimlessness had

been both creepy and convincing.
















TWO WEEKS

"All you do is nag," I yell at Lucy Keating, the woman of my dreams. "You're a

goddamn nag-queen." Lucy stands with her arms folded and leans against her bedroom

door, while I sit in her computer chair across the room. I use my heels to push out from

under her desk and wheel into the middle of the room. "You're constantly picking on

me, but look at yourself. You whine and bitch about the itchiness of your cast like it' s a

life or death thing and then you expect me not to notice how fucking annoying that is.

Casts itch. Get over it and move on."

A dot of spit shoots out of my mouth and lands on a wrinkle in her denim pants in

the vicinity of her knee, just above the cast she has on her leg from breaking her ankle at

a step class. She doesn't notice the spit. I do, and it distracts me from my train of

thought. Where am I going with this? I wonder. Sitting in the center of her room isn't

helping things. It feels odd to have my lap exposed. The argument started because of her

critique of my part in our relationship. Okay. But somewhere in the middle of the thing

we switched roles. Now I am attempting to cure her of her nagging problem. Yap, yap,

yap. Nothing is good enough--

Before I can determine what to say aloud, she says, "Fine." Too much voice-

raising, I realize, as her face begins to close like one of those spaceship doors in science

fiction movies: Shhhhhhhhhhhhh-Ksh. I understand her trick of closing off to the world.

When I want to be alone in public places, I put on earphones without music and tuck the

dangling end of the earphone cord into the waistband of my pants.









"I have to work early tomorrow," she says, tight-lipped. She moves away from

the door and motions for me to leave. She leans her weight on her good foot.

I leave and take a taxi to my apartment. I stare out the window of the taxi and

watch as an imaginary version of myself, an improved version, a version that doesn't

bicker and voice-raise, follows the taxi along the sidewalk, hurdling dog leashes and

dodging bike messengers. The taxi speeds through an intersection, and the imaginary

version of myself keeps pace by leaping over cars with effortlessly nimble strides.



Lucy is the woman of my dreams, at least my waking ones. She is the down-to-

earth, no bullshit type. She wears a retainer on her teeth at night, and when she wants to

have sex, she takes them out, places them in a drinking glass she keeps by the bed, and

says to me, "I want to have sex." I sometimes respond, "Should I start by massaging

Cauc or Asian?" She's half-Asian, and I call her front side "Cauc" and her back side

"Asian." She laughed the first time I did this, and even now it still can make her smile.

When Lucy calls me from her office, she is busy, sometimes to the point of being

edgy, and I try to poke holes in her delicate web of seriousness. When she's packing for

a trip, she's indecisive to a childish degree, and I stand by ready to help her make the

most trivial choices. ("Two pairs of jeans or three? she'll ask. "One," I'll say.) When

she's just been woken up by my phone call in the middle of the night, she can either be a

slight grump with a sense of humor ("I should get girlfriend-overtime for this call") or a

little girl who has just been given the stuffed animal she's always wanted ("Hello, I just

knew you' d call!").










She's a no-nonsense person, and yet, when she walks, she manages to do it with a

large dose of slink. Her hips, breasts, knees and head move to the beat of an imaginary

percussion section. I like her slink best when she wears high heels for special occasions.

In heels she is tall, taller than me actually, and I have to lift my heels off the ground to

kiss her cheek. The cast on her foot has certainly limited her sexy movements. But she'll

get them back. Four to six weeks at most.

I could hold her and pet the kinks out of her long dark hair forever, but she

doesn't have any patience for cuddling. Our physical contact can more aptly be

compared to the arrival and departure of a storm--lightning, thunder, and rain one

minute, blue sky and puddles the next.



Lucy's biggest complaint is that I forget things. And she's right. I forget movies

I've liked, and I get to enjoy them afresh when watching them a second time. I also

forget about global concerns, like people starving, war, or AIDS. Sometimes when I do

my laundry, I find a five-spot in my cargo pants pocket and don't remember how it got

there.

If I've had an argument with Lucy, by the next day, I've mostly forgotten having

ever been upset. I'd say my anger has a half-life of about 2 hours, and so after waking up

from an eight-hour sleep my anger is about 93.75% gone. In this way, we are different;

she's rarely angry for more than a few minutes, but she never forgets that she was upset

and why.










She calls me early the next morning. I, of course, have forgotten our argument

from the night before. She, of course, has not forgotten, but at least she is no longer

upset.

"Guess what happened on this day a bunch of years back?" she asks.

I say I have no idea.

"Seriously," she says.

"I don't know."

"Today is my birthday."

"Oh really, I had no idea," I say, trying to sound like I actually do have an idea

but am pretending not to. She knows me too well to fall for this trick. I promise to make

up for my mistake. We agree to meet for dinner after work and she says we can talk

about it more then. Or we can just talk sports, I say, trying to make light of things. She

hangs up right off. I am about to hang up, when I hear a faint noise coming from the

phone and think maybe she hasn't hung up after all. I put my ear back to the phone. Dial

tone.

To me it is a simple case of I-forgot-so-what-else-is-new. I have the ability to

forget the larger context in which I live. Many times, all I know is the road immediately

in front of me, or the room I'm currently sleeping in, or the television show on the

channel I'm watching. My ability to forget enables me to relax, and so I have a hard time

being upset with myself for forgetting something that was important to Lucy. I am ready

to forget about forgetting and move on.

I go out that morning and find a gift for her. It is a pool-bottom blue sports watch

with pulse-taking capabilities. I give it to her when we meet outside the restaurant. The










door to the restaurant is wooden and disproportionately tall, maybe twice as tall as a

normal door. The gift, now dangling from her Eingertips, looks insignificant in

comparison to this door.

Once inside, my feelings of inadequacy do not subside. The restaurant is clean

but not sterile, and full of thick, dark, manly wood. The prices on the menu seem to say,

convincingly, "We've earned the right to charge a fucking arm and a leg for Hyve tortellini

on a plate."

Lucy begins the verbal attack while I try to decipher the menu: "You've always

been self-absorbed," she says, with a tone that says, This is just a statement of the nl inh

and' implies no judgment.

No judgment? Bullshit, I think.

"I am not," I say, knowing there is some truth to her statement. I phone my

family infrequently. I do not have the sort of friends you can call in a crisis. I have Lucy

and I have myself. But hey, I'm twenty-eight. Most twenty-somethings are self-

absorbed. We're supposed to believe we're still young and exciting. We're supposed to

bore the living shit out of everyone who isn't twenty-something. We're supposed to have

our heads imbedded firmly in our asses as we try to conquer the world on our own terms.

We're not ready to admit defeat, mostly because we're too full of ourselves to recognize

defeat when it kicks our head-plugged asses.

"If you aren't self-absorbed, then why are you incapable of remembering things

that are important to other people, like, oh, I don't know, say, your girlfriend's birthday?

It' s not that hard. You could just get a calendar and write down all the things you need to

remember."










"I'd never use it."

"What if I got you an electronic one?"

"Those things cost a fortune. And they do the same thing as a calendar."

"And you don't want a calendar."

"Right."

"Then I am going to badger you from here to Quacklefuck until you get one. Is

that what you want?"

Quacklefuck? That's a new one. I chuckle and cave.



The next day, I magnet my new calendar onto my refrigerator. I want it in plain

view, even if that means it will fall down every time I open the freezer door. I write

down some gibberish appointments and then place the pen on top of the refrigerator.

When Lucy visits, she comments on the calendar.

"There," she says. "Doesn't it feel so much better to know what important things

are coming up?"

I nod my emphatic agreement. I feel badly about the deception, but I'm

convinced that it will result in a greater sum total of happiness.



The situation is unsustainable. I know this. She gets suspicious when she needs

to remind me about the tickets we'd bought to see a play, and the jig is up when I fail to

produce a gift for our two-year anniversary. Lucy confronts me in my kitchen. We stand

facing the refrigerator. The refrigerator stands facing us. We are silent. The refrigerator

hums, which seems like its weak attempt to break the tension. The calendar, unprovoked,










falls from the door. The magnet, an advertisement for a pizza j oint, scuttles under the

stove like a roach.

I try to explain things to her. I try to tell her that pinning a number to a day is

limiting. I like days to blend into days. I like not knowing if it is the weekend or not. I

like everything to feel loose and wasted like summer vacation.

"Why do you feel the need to plan out the future anyway?" I argue. "It seems to

me that the future doesn't need all that much planning: it's just like today with a few

minor exceptions. Like, take us. What is our future? I don't know the answer, but it will

probably be similar to today, only I will have gotten a haircut. Or the Yankees will be in

second place in the division rather than first. Or it will be raining. Or we will be

married. Or we will be seeing other people. Or we will be married, divorced, and our

son whom we decided to name Caleb will split time between us equally."

As I speak, I can see her face going Shhhhhhhhhhhh-Ksh. I imagine myself

jumping through her closing-door face just in the nick of time, reaching back across the

threshold to pull my hat through, too.

"Do you agree with anything I've said?" I ask.

She remains silent. She opens her mouth, and then closes it again; her hesitation

looks fishlike.

She tells me that she has goals, and that she wishes that I had goals. She says that

she wants someone around who challenges her. She says that someday I'll regret losing

someone who challenges me.










"Challenge me?" I say. "You can't even pack a suitcase." Normally, I keep my

mouth shut when I'm feeling hurt or threatened. Normally, I wait for my quick anger

half-life to do its work. But this time I don't.

She steps to the refrigerator, grabs a pen, and picks up the calendar from the floor.

She places the calendar on the countertop and, in her perfect handwriting, her serious

work-style handwriting, she writes under April 23rd: Lucy dumped me toda~y.

At first, I think she is just being a grump with a sense of humor. But then she puts

on her coat and collects her things, and I realize that she is serious. Or upset enough to

force herself to act serious. I try to apologize, but as I do, something strikes me as funny

about the whole thing and I let out a snort.

"You think this whole thing is a joke, don't you?" she asks, looking at me.

"No, it' just that it' s a little past midnight, and so you should have written it

under April 24th, nI say. I can't help myself.

She shudders and walks towards the door.

"Wait," I say.

But I'm stubborn, and she's stubborn, and after more unproductive discussion, she

leaves.



For the first few days, I refuse to call the incident anything more than an

argument. I leave messages on her phone that say things like, "I'm just calling because I

wanted to apologize for my role in the argument last night."

When a week goes by and April becomes May, and I still haven't heard from her,

I purposefully leave the calendar open to April. The calendar continues to fall off the










refrigerator at random intervals. I pick it up and think, What a funny way to have an

argument... on a calend ar!dd~~~~~ddddd~~~~

A few days into May, the calendar falls one time too many and I pick it up off the

linoleum floor of my kitchen and put it in the junk drawer of my desk. Lucy keeps her

letters and photos in a large tin container she calls her memory box. I used to have

similar box (though I wouldn't go so far as to call it a memory box), but I stopped using it

because the concept depresses me. Anything stashed in a memory box is always

forgotten and only remembered when moving apartments or on a cleaning binge. How

important can something be if years go by without anyone giving it a single thought?



It' s hard to say how close Lucy and I were as a couple. There doesn't seem to be

a standard for measuring such things. If there were one, it'd probably be proximity to

marriage. By this standard, we weren't very close: we'd been together long enough to

talk about marriage, but we hadn't been together long enough for me to know exactly

how or when I might propose. I know the ways I would 't propose to Lucy. For

instance, I wouldn't propose at a sporting event. No Jumbo-trons. And I wouldn't put

the ring in any sort of food item. Maybe I'd do it in a garden, a botanical one, preferably

with no one around, preferably at dusk. I'd bend down on one knee, of course, and once

I'd decided the logistics, the thing would go down rain or shine. Birds, unseen, could be

making their normal chatter from stage left, right up, down, whatever, because I trust the

birds and their birdlike instincts--I would not try to orchestrate the birds. I would not try

to make the birds sing in two or three-part harmony, or daringly land on my shoulder or

Lucy's shoulder. Sure, I have perfect pitch, but the birds have something more--a









confidence in their tune that no amount of practice can teach. Birds do not live their lives

knowing that the worst notes of their songs will define them.



It has been nearly two weeks since Lucy broke things off and a funny thing has

happened: I am beginning to notice half-Asian women everywhere. Perhaps this

statement is out of synch with the parlance of our times. Maybe it would be less racially

charged and equally correct to say that it feels like women in general are doing their best

to look like Lucy. That it is their way of torturing a stubborn, self-righteous man with

large floppy ears hanging uselessly on the sides of his head.

But screw it. Now, everywhere I turn, I see half-Asian women. Their frequency

defies statistical probability: the percentage of the population that is both half-Asian and

female is barely .25%, or one out of every four hundred people. Then why is the bank

teller a half-Asian woman, as well as three people in the laundromat, at least seven or

eight in my subway car, a whole binocular-toting gaggle of them in the park, and the

checkout girl in aisle Hyve at the grocery store?



I frequently find myself remembering what Lucy said before she left my apartment

for the last time, that whole thing about challenging other people to be better. It' s been

two weeks since we broke up. I sit at a small round table in a Starbucks and eye the other

customers over my book. A woman approaches me. She isn't half-Asian, she is full-

white, but two, maybe three of the other Starbucks patrons are half-Asian, and they

disapprovingly watch me make eye contact with this white woman. I half-expect the

half-Asians to put Eingers to their ears and then whisper into their lapels, Asshole at two









o 'clock. Drinking a Frappuccino. Smelling faintly of Gillette Clear Gel Und'erarm

Deod'orant.

I've found that it isn't difficult for me to attract women in a Starbucks. I look good

in this setting: I am the well-groomed young man reading fiction among several

disheveled women in sweatpants highlighting their textbooks. I look like a fellow who

has accumulated lots of frequent flyer miles, gives expensive wedding gifts, and speaks

three languages. I look like I read the Times and the Journal over breakfast with one leg

swung over the other. I don't look someone who recently just Einished working on the

campaign of a losing presidential candidate (read: unemployed).

The woman approaches my table and contrives a reason to converse.

"Are you reading this paper?" she asks.

"No," I say. The paper is resting on a table adjacent to mine. I glance up at her

after I answer. Her hair looks frustrated at being blond, but she's leaning over me in an

aggressive way that I Eind attractive. The collar to her t-shirt is frayed and large enough

to fit three necks; her neck is justified left, exposing her right shoulder and a purple bra

strap. She sits in the chair across from me, her quest for the newspaper apparently

forgotten. She pulls in her chair and her knee brushes against my crotch under the table.

Discreetly, I slide my chair backwards. In one sense, I like it; i.e., inside my boxer

shorts, my penis moves like the second hand of a clock up against my thigh. My brain

races ahead in time, thumbing through possibilities. But it is depressing because I know

I will not be able to shake this thought from my mind: Starbucks girl will never challenge

me to be a better person. Will I challenge her? I don't know. I call any erection

achieved in a depressing situation the Rotten Banana Effect, or the RBE. The erection










brought on by Starbucks girl is, in my disheartened state, like sneezing with a tight back;

nothing ruins the satisfaction of a sneeze like a knot in an upper back muscle.



That night, as I watch old TV reruns, I cry a little (partly because it is the ER

episode where Dr. Green dies), and then I hate myself for crying, so I punish myself by

turning off the TV. The days without Lucy seem less like a wandering adventure, and

more like an exercise in aimlessness.

I turn ER back on in time to see Dr. Green die. I turn the TV off and go to my junk

drawer and retrieve the calendar. I write Death ofDr. Green in the space below today's

date. I remember something I want to do tomorrow. I fill it in. Call sister.

I continue to schedule the next year of my life. I have always worried that my

testosterone level is lower than average, and so the next day I schedule an appointment to

get my levels checked out. I also schedule two trips to Dr. Dudley, my dentist, even

though I don't want to go. Dr. Dudley has been threatening to pull out my wisdom teeth

for years. But I like my wisdom teeth. I've grown accustomed to their constant throb,

like a second heartbeat, only in closer communication with my brain.



I also schedule a date with Lucy. I talk to her briefly on the phone. We agree that

she will meet me on Friday at 5pm in the lobby of the hotel just down the street from her

office. I plan to take her to the restaurant where we'd gone on our first date. I make

reservations.

The three nights before my scheduled date I have a recurring dream in which I can

fly. Not like a bird. More like treading water. It takes a lot of work to get off the










ground, maybe half a minute to get above the reach of human hands. In the dream, I

desperately want someone to tell me that the whole thing doesn't look as ridiculous as it

feels.




Lucy doesn't arrive exactly at five and so I doodle an improbable back-up plan on a

pad of hotel paper. In the plan, I climb the triple-looped barbed wire fence that surrounds

her company's office complex and break into her office and rescue her. While I sit in an

oversized chair in the hotel lobby and doodle, I remember the first time I visited a maj or

city. I was nine years old, and the ubiquitous barbed wire fascinated me. I'd look at

every barbed wire fence and try to find a weakness, a place where I could get around it.

Most of the time I didn't even know what the barbed wire was there for or what it was

guarding. What was so special about an empty lot filled with piles of dirt and tires? A

strip of grass between two highways? Or scaffolding on the sidewalk? And yet I

scanned all such fences for possible entry points, always working off the assumption that

breaking into a place without being sliced to ribbons was the most challenging aspect of

the thing. It never occurred to me to wonder what I would do on the other side.

I shift my weight and sink deeper into the hotel chair. After two weeks without

Lucy, I look back on April 23rd (or 24th) and see that it is important because it is the day I

lost my ability to forget. Or, more correctly, the day I started to remember. This explains

why now, when I shut my eyes, I remember only the things I should have done

differently. And when my eyes open, I am sensitized to the subtleties of Lucy: I

remember impatient glances, poorly chosen words, and the sound of faint sighs. I also

remember how her lips stick together for the half a second before she opens her mouth.










Or how her eyes become sharp and reflective when she is excited, like the shiny spots on

a sun-drenched lake. For the first time, the accumulation of memories makes my brain

feel well lived in.

Lucy, woman of my dreams, arrives at 5:15pm. I feel strange for having noticed

her unpunctuality. We share each other' s company for the duration of a five-course

dinner. I apologize to her after we've ordered our food, but before the appetizers arrive.

It is a wordy thing, my apology. She agrees to take me back. No reason is given, and I

don't press the issue. She herself apologizes for being so stubborn. She says that

sometimes I do challenge her to be better, in my own way. She says that the cast on her

leg has been less itchy of late. Things begin to feel comfortable again during the entree,

when we discuss whether we still consider ourselves a couple that has been together for

two years, or if our two-week break means that we start back at zero.
















THE EXPERIMENT

Patricia was in the middle of an experiment: she was dating seven men

concurrently, one for each day of the week. Each man thought he was the only man in

her life. She'd told them that she was a nurse and that she only got one night off a week,

and they'd all bought the story wholesale. Patricia promised herself that she'd become

completely devoted to the first man to get to the bottom of her lies.

There was a point to her experiment. She knew that she came with a lot of baggage

(e.g. bipolar, excessively vain, allergic to dairy), and she didn't want to push her burdens

onto just anyone. It was only fair for her to let her boyfriends willingly discover her

baggage.

Today was Tuesday, which meant Stew Peters. Stew had recently quit being an

oncologist to become a roof shingler who smoked Marlboros. He was unapologetically

juvenile. He had a habit of having fantastic gymnastic sex with her before extorting

small things from her, like all the breath mints from her purse, or a spring-loaded barrette

that he would use to launch spitballs. In bed, when he curled himself around her, each of

his limbs seemed to have its own walnut-sized brain.

They went to the park for a picnic. After they'd arranged the blanket, he said,

unexpectedly, "I don't think you're a nurse."

"I'm not a nurse."

"I knew it," he said, banging his hand on his thigh.

"I'm a nurse practitioner. There's a difference."










"Are you a good nurse practitioner?"

"Not as good as you are at nailing down shingles," she said.

"True," he said, and then he launched into a story about how once, when he was

on vacation, one of his co-workers had dimwittedly nailed a roof full of shingles upside

down and had then collected payment from the unsuspecting homeowner. "I felt so bad

about it that I've been climbing up their drainpipe each night for the last two years. I flip

and hammer home one shingle each night. The owners are not likely to get suspicious

from the sound of a single hammer strike."

"How many shingles do you have left to flip?" she asked him, half-interested,

half-believing.

"Oh, hundreds," he said. At this, he let out one of his deep belly laughs, and then

iced it over with a smile.

She studied him as he constructed a heaping sandwich: his square j aw littered

neatly with stubble, his hair a controlled mop. He wore the cloudless blue sky like a

sombrero.

If she were a roof, she thought to herself, Stew would be a perfect match. He'd

repair her by degrees.
















SEVEN DAYS INT THE LIFE OF FRANCIS T. HAUTE

On a Sunday night in late August, Francis T. Haute--limo driver, widower,

German Shepherd owner--celebrated his sixty-fourth birthday by eating a chocolate

cupcake he'd bought from the local bakery.

On Monday morning, without ceremony, he died, finally, of a lurking autoimmune

disease that he'd stopped fighting years before, and instantly became a naked sixteen year

old in a bedroom of a house he didn't recognize. Francis wondered if there was a catch

to this mother of all second chances. And there was a catch: he'd be able to remember

his previous life only as long as the people he'd left behind remembered him. As the

friends and family and lovers and acquaintances in his previous life began to forget, so

would he.

But Francis did not know the catch. All he knew was he had been sixty-four and

dead, or so he thought, and now he was a teenager again, and quite alive. He stared at

himself in the full-length mirror hanging on the back of the closet door and he saw that

his face looked exactly as it did in old photographs: smoother, gaunter, and less freckled.

He saw that his hernia scar was gone and that his chest hairs were once again countable.

He ran around his bedroom like a pet-store bird released from its cage. He shadow-

boxed, did a few push-ups, and generally tested out his new body until a man's voice

yelled for him to come down for breakfast.

"What, in the hell, is going on?" Francis wondered. He knew what was going on:

he was young again. But he didn't know what, in the hell, was going on.









"Francis, please hurry. You're going to make your father late." This time it was

a woman's voice. He decided to put his in the hell question on hold for as long as

possible. He slid into a t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants that he found on the floor and

stepped out of the bedroom. His bedroom. The house was spacious and meticulously

decorated with trinkets; it was larger than any house he'd ever lived in. A toy-soldier-

shaped grandfather clock ticked steadily in the foyer at the base of the stairs.

A man and a woman were sitting in front of a meal of eggs and buttered toast.

His new mother and father. The man was dressed in a suit and had bags under his eyes.

His hair was dark except on the sides near his ears, where it was white. The woman was

thin, and slouched over her plate. When Francis entered the kitchen, she straightened and

a look of disapproval washed over her face.

"Francis," she said. "Go up and change. Please put on the outfit that I ironed and

hung up in your closet. I'd rather not have my son going to his first day of sophomore

year looking like a slob."

Francis wasn't used to taking orders, but the whole situation interested him

enough that he didn't refuse. This woman, as far as he could tell, actually cared about

what clothes he wore. This was an entirely unique situation for Francis. He returned to

his room and quickly changed into the ironed clothes, then went back to the breakfast

table, where he suddenly found himself to be hungry, and ate his portion of eggs and toast

with voracity.

"Brush your teeth and let' s roll," said the man. "I don't want to be late for work,

and I don't want you to be late for school."










Francis found the bathroom upstairs and brushed his teeth. The toothpaste was

the kind that has the three colors in one tube. He'd never used this kind before.

He met the man downstairs. The man had a briefcase, and in his hand he held a

cup of coffee and a plastic baggie containing two tan muffins that might have been

oatbran, or maybe banana nut.

"Don't you have a backpack?" the man asked.

"No," Francis said. He followed the man out to the two-car garage, which held

two Hondas, a silver one and blue one. There was a chill in the garage that hadn't been

present in the house. The man got into the blue Honda and Francis got into the passenger

seat. The man opened the garage door from inside the car, and then turned in his seat and

backed out of the driveway. They drove over rolling hills on roads bordered by stone

walls and large houses. The leaves on the trees were red and yellow and orange. The

man listened to the news on AM radio. He sipped from his coffee.

"You ready for the new school year?" the man asked.

"Sure," Francis said. "Are you ready for whatever it is that you do?"

"Hmm," the man said, and he turned up the volume as the man on the radio began

to read stock quotes.



Francis arrived late to his first-period Honors Geometry class--after he'd stopped

into the main office and gotten his class schedule, he'd discovered that the school was a

maze of identical hallways and double doors--and by the time he'd found the classroom

the second bell had already rung. He opened the classroom door and after seeing his

teacher he stood there and muttered, "Fuck-an-A." What he was really thinking was,










"It' s you..." because standing at the front of the room teaching his class was his first-ever

girlfriend, Amy Beer.

"Hello, I'm Mrs. Ianini. Are you in this class?" she asked when she saw him

staring.

He didn't answer. He couldn't believe how beautiful she was. She held a piece of

chalk in her hand and was expertly rolling it between two fingers. In her other hand, she

held a hooked wooden cane that, combined with her wild white hair, gave her the look of

a shepherd.

The decisiveness of her movements captivated him. He hadn't remembered her as

decisive. She asked him if everything was all right, and when he didn't respond, she

walked snappily over to him, her clogs clacking on the tile floor.

"Sorry I'm late," he said, but she'd already taken hold of his elbow. She led him

to a desk in the front row.

"You can sit here," she said, letting go of his elbow, and for a moment he thought

she recognized him. But then she walked back to the front of the class and resumed

teaching as if nothing had happened. She'd probably gone out with countless men since

they'd dated. He'd dated countless women since then. He tried to remember some of

their names, but couldn't.

"It's me," he wanted to scream to Amy. "It' s me, Francis." But he could say

nothing like that: his mouth refused to respond to the demands of his brain. In his head

he figured out their relative ages: when they'd first dated, he'd been eighteen and she'd

been sixteen. Now he was sixteen and she was sixty-two.









Even with Amy teaching, Geometry was a drag. Francis didn't care about if/then

proofs. He had his own if/then proofs to work through: if life was the steady

accumulation of dents, then in one instant he'd lost forty-eight years worth of dents.

He had a theory about why in the hell the reincarnation had happened. He had

always believed that there was a moment after you died in which you'd be allowed to

reassess things, perhaps even allowed to tie up a few loose ends: A chance to say

goodbye to an old flame, to fall in love one more time, to drink one last sip of coffee.

Perhaps, he thought, I'm in some sort of pre-afterlife, a short grace period in which I can

settle a few scores and then do whatever people do when they die.



During lunch, Francis took an apple off an abandoned tray and then walked to the

math department office and put it on Amy's desk. "I'm not going to eat this now, but I'm

going to want to eat it tomorrow, so it better still be here when I return." This is what he

wanted to say. He wanted to be aggressive and spunky with her. He knew she responded

to that sort of thing. Instead, he said, "Would you like an apple?"

Amy barely looked up from the papers she was grading and declined the apple.

She shifted in her chair, and the lace on the collar of her shirt moved enticingly. He left

the apple and hustled out of the office.

As he walked the halls, he looked at other high school students and wondered if

any of them were like himself, failed older selves also trapped in younger bodies. From

the tired way some of them shuffled down the hallways, he guessed he wasn't alone.

The contrast between his sixty-four-year-old body and his sixteen-year-old body

made him realize that he'd been depressed as a sixty-four year old. He'd been thirty










pounds overweight, had a patchy mustache on his upper lip, slouched, and walked with

short mincing steps. He'd worn the same five tan button-down shirts in rotation. He'd

felt uncomfortable whenever he was forced to stand still. His eyes had been beady and

he had obsessively taken off his brown-rimmed glasses and cleaned them with his

shirttail. He'd thought to complain was to be smart and opinionated. He'd known he was

dying, and he was scared. He'd thought that the world owed him a second chance. And

when he'd finally died, he'd been relieved. He'd closed his eyes, taken a deep breath like

he was going under water, and died.

He wondered if his sixty-four year old body had been found. Perhaps his German

Shepard's barking had alerted his neighbors. His guessed his funeral would be in a few

days. He wondered if his son would attend.

Francis returned to the lunchroom. There, he discovered by asking around that

the other teachers disliked Amy both because she drove a Mercedes convertible, and

because her husband was some kind of doctor, a vet or something.

Francis remembered how he and Amy had been chemistry lab partners during his

senior year in high school. Midway through the semester, they'd become more than lab

partners: kissing partners. They watched movies at her house, and then she'd walk him

to his car and they'd both get inside and strap on their seatbelts and begin kissing.

"Why the seatbelts?" Francis had asked her the first time.

"So we don't do anything we regret," she'd answered.

They had attempted to stay together after Francis had left for college.

Within the first week of being at college, his roommate began having slow sex

with his girlfriend in the bottom bunk. They were doing it in a way that they thought was










discreet. He'd asked them if they wanted him to sleep somewhere else when she was

visiting, but they'd insisted that he stay, that nothing would happen, that they'd just be

doing what he was doing: sleeping.

He pretended to sleep through it, and then he actually did begin to sleep through

it, and by the following semester, when he got a single room, it almost felt weird not

having that gentle rock of the bed.

He and Amy broke up over Thanksgiving break.



After school, Francis found Amy's convertible in the faculty parking lot. He sat

in the passenger seat, fastened his seatbelt, and waited.

Amy walked out to her car an hour later.

"What are you doing in my car?" she asked when she saw him in the passenger

seat.

Hoping to make out is what I'm doing, he thought.

"I wanted to speak with you," he said.

"Come see me in my office during school hours then," she said. She unlocked her

car door and swung her body into the driver' s seat. She tossed her handbag and cane into

the back seat.

Francis's head hurt. He tried to think of something smart to say, but couldn't. He

put his head in his hands.

"What' s wrong?" she asked. "Tough first day?"

Francis started at the beginning. He explained the bunkbed sex to her, how back

when they'd been kids, that incident had somehow defined the difference between their










two worlds. She said she didn't understand. He plunged on. He said that their current

situation once again found them in two disparate worlds--her the world of adults, and

him the world of teenagers. He said that he'd made a mistake the first time around. He

let their separate worlds divide them, but why couldn't it be different this time? Why

couldn't they come together, bringing the best elements of their separate worlds with

them?

In his mind, Francis was making perfect sense, but when she began to fidget in

her seat, it occurred to him that he might not be speaking as clearly as he thought.

She glanced out into the parking lot and then at her watch. "Here," she said. "I'll

drive you home."

"That' d be great, Mrs. Ianini," he said.

"Okay," she said, once they'd left the school grounds, "Where do you live?"

He directed her to his house. The wind whistled past. He studied her intently as

she drove. She drove fast, almost recklessly, rolling through stop signs. During the last

part of the drive she grew calmer, settled into her bucket seat, and went the rest of the

way holding onto the bottom of the steering wheel with one index finger.

"This one," he said, pointing to his house. She stopped at the top of the driveway.

For a brief moment, his mind cleared. The people of his former life--his son, a few of

his limo coworkers--were remembering him, in prayer, at his funeral. "I've been given a

reprieve," he blurted out. "I don't know how long it will last, but I want to use it to do

something important. I want to teach every living human how to speak every last one of

the world's languages. And then I want to get on a world-wide radio and read aloud

every book ever written. Perhaps this might teach people how to think critically. We









should combine forces, Amy: I'll supply the naive hope, and you the logical plan. I can

rally the young people from within, and you can lead them."

As he said these things, his mind was racing. For a brief moment, the solutions to

the world's problems seemed simple; he could see them lined up in front of him like the

open faces of choral singers--why didn't he think of these things sooner? he thought--

but in a matter of seconds, he was left with only the general idea that he'd had some

collection of grandiose notions. He regretted that he had had few relationships in his

former life, and even fewer close ones. He moved his hand to her knee, and she didn't

move it away.

He asked her if she'd Eind it sad if he grew up and became a limo driver, if he

came back to his hometown after college and never left, if he married at the age of

twenty-four and became a widower at thirty, if he sometimes lay back-flat on the

linoleum of his kitchen floor and tossed a ball up at the ceiling for hours each night,

wondering why he'd been given sixty plus years of life when it seemed he'd Einished

everything he'd ever needed to finish in half that time.

She looked at him when he asked these things, and again, he was certain she'd

finally recognized him, or at least recognized that something about the situation was

familiar.

He leaned over and planted a kiss on her cheek. She turned, and they began

kissing at an odd angle. He began to massage her thigh. After a particularly hard

squeeze, she jumped, pushed his hand away, and then mumbled an apology. They sat

like that for a few minutes--she muttering to herself, Francis now massaging his own

thigh. He assumed they were both thinking the same thing: the kiss hadn't felt the same.










Amy, stiff and uncomfortable. Francis, awkward and aggressive. Or maybe that was

how it had been the first time too, only then they were too young and stupid to know any

better.

"Well, you're home," she said.

Francis thanked her for the lift. He stayed in his bedroom the rest of the night and

refused to go down for dinner with his parents, claiming that he wasn't hungry and that

he had homework to finish. Later that night, when he couldn't sleep, he did push ups at

the foot of his bed.




On Tuesday, he came back for his apple. She was wearing a yellow button-down

shirt and j eans and white tennis shoes.

She was reading at her desk, and she looked up from her book and said, "Please

don't leave fruit on my desk."

Francis picked up the apple from her desk and took a bite. He remembered that

her family had gone to Iceland for a family vacation while she was in high school.

Reykjavik. He had kidded her about it for months. He wanted to kid her about it now.

"Have any family vacations in Reykjavik recently?" he wanted to ask. Instead he said,

"I'm worried about Geometry. I don't really think I'm getting a handle on it. Would it

be possible to get extra help?"

"Sure," she said. "You can get tutored if you go to the Tutoring Room on the

second floor."

"Thanks, Amy," he thought. "Thank you, Mrs. Ianini," he said aloud.









"And please don't be late to my class any more," she said, before going back to

her grading.



On Wednesday, Francis was happy when he got a 93 on his first Geometry quiz.

His mother made waffles for breakfast. His father spent the car ride to school explaining

what "buying on margin" meant. During dinner, his parents told him that they were

going to an investment conference on Cape Cod for the weekend, and that he would be

home alone, and that they expected him to be responsible while they were gone, that they

trusted him and loved him. His mother added that she'd bought three frozen pizzas from

Sam's Club to get him through the weekend. The details from Francis's former life

trickled out through his ears faster than ever now. They left a cold dampness on the tops

of his shoulders.



On Thursday, Francis asked out Emily, a high school girl, and she said yes.

Initially, he'd found that he was not attracted to the maj ority of the girls in his grade. In

comparison with Amy, the high school girls seemed to lack a certain heft. They were

thin and wispy in character and had strident voices.

But now, after being rebuffed by Amy, he began to see some of the more positive

aspects of sixteen-year-olds. They didn't fear what sort of adults they might become.

They didn't even seem to care. Their priorities were immediate things, like pep rallies

and geometry grades and football games, and in some ways this short-sightedness was

refreshing










Emily lived on a dirt road and she told him that she and the other kids who lived

on the dirt road would build speed bumps out of the dirt to deter cars from using it as a

short cut between two local highways. He had never met anyone who'd built a speed

bump. She wore floral-print button downs and vests and gray skirts and gray socks and

black shoes with silver buckles. She wore turtlenecks under her sweaters and corduroys

with pockets on the thighs. She wore French-looking hats.



After school on Friday, Francis went to Emily's house. They did their homework

and then played a game of chess. After he beat her handily, Emily made a point of saying

that there was nobody else in the house. Then she asked him if he wanted to have sex

with her.

"Even if they were here, they'd never notice," she said.

Francis felt cornered, trapped, mated. "No, not yet," he said weakly. He wanted

to say more, something about how things were moving too fast. Instead, he said, "We

still don't even know each other."

She shrugged and they went back to doing their homework. Later, they went

down to the kitchen to make some pop tarts, and when she asked him if it' d be okay if

they ate them untoasted, he readily agreed.

Saturday night, Francis borrowed the silver Honda his parents had left behind

when they'd driven to Cape Cod, picked up Emily at her house, and took her to a bonfire

party on a beach. At the party, they stood around and drank light beer and chatted. At

one point in the evening, someone mentioned reincarnation.

"I believe in it," Emily said. "I want to come back as a bird."










"(I want to come back as a tree," said a boy sitting to Francis's right, a boy who

Francis had heard was on the varsity football team.

Francis said he wanted to come back as a sixteen year old, and they laughed,

thinking he was making a joke. Someone passed around something that looked like an

ornament, but was really a pipe for weed. Someone else passed around a cup of spiked

coffee. He took a swig. He drank more light beer, and then dug a small hole in the sand

to make a cozy for his can.

Later in the night, the football boy spoke up. "I amend my previous reincarnation

assertion," he said. "Forget the tree. I want to be a nice pair of breasts." Francis

laughed, and others around him began hooting.

"And I don't want to be a bird," said Emily over the din. "I want to come back as

a pimple on one of Tim's breasts." The laughter swelled, and then, unexpectedly, Emily

spit a swig of whisky into the fire, and the fire momentarily doubled in size, and everyone

jumped back. Francis became hysterical with laughter, and he began dancing around the

fire, kicking up sand, knocking over cans. Others joined in, and they formed a congo

line.

"I'll come back as a pair of breasts too," Francis said, but only football boy heard,

and he slapped Francis on the back, which made him cough, and somehow his cough

seemed funny to him, and he started laughing at his cough, which made him cough more,

which made him laugh more. Minutes later, he was lying face first in the sand,

exhausted.










Early Sunday morning, he awoke to the sound of the doorbell ringing. He sat up

in his bed and let terror sketch a quick frame around his heart. Emily was in bed with

him, still fast asleep. He slid out and went down the stairs and opened the front door.

Mrs. Ianini stood in the doorway, her cane raised, about to knock.

"Good morning," she said. "I was wondering if I could come in?" Her curly

white hair didn't move when she twitched her head.

"What for?"

"To talk," she said. "About your behavior in Geometry." She winked. She was

thinking of something, a memory--he could see its silhouette playing out behind her

eyes.

He probed his own memory. He remembered flashes from the night before. The

beach. The bonfire. Outside the circle of that bonfire, his mind was dark. He couldn't

imagine why his Geometry teacher would be standing in his doorway. He ran his hand

through his hair, and a few grains of sand fell to the hardwood floor of the foyer,

bouncing off it like miniature dice. He noticed more grains of sand lodged underneath

his Eingernails.

"Come in? No. I don't think that'd be a good idea," he said, flicking the sand out

from underneath his nails and onto the floor as if he were ashing a cigarette.

Francis blinked twice, impatient blinks, and then asked her to leave. Her face sank

and she went white. She looked freshly drowned.

Her disappointment was jarring. His heart snapped like a branch and he sensed that

from here on out life wouldn't be easy; it'd be leery and unpredictable. His parents might









find sand in the car and know that he'd used it. Or his parents might die in a crash and

never make it home. Emily might be pregnant.

He watched Mrs. Ianini walk away, her back hunched, her left shoulder curved up

to her ear, her cane tapping out its rhythmic beat.Update Field.
















FIRST DATE

Please forgive me for being a medical nightmare. Four months ago, a fluke one-

car accident reshuffled my priorities and my vertebrae. I take pills for the pain. I take

pills to make me somewhat better in the head. The pills that make me somewhat better in

the head give me cramps. I get deep tissue massages to mitigate the cramps. I take a pill

to alleviate the soreness from the deep tissue massages. I imagine all the pills in my

stomach, stacked up neatly like dollhouse plates. But this is not an accurate image.

Some of the pills are white capsules, like small pontoon-plane landing gear. One pill is

yellow. One of them has a hole in the center like a miniature life preserver.

I felt better for a one month window of time that ended a few weeks ago. Better

enough to leave the hospital altogether. I went back to work, resumed walking my

neighbor's dog, and met Jane. Jane and I went on a single date. A few weeks after that

date with Jane, my medical condition took a turn for the worse, and I had to go back to

the hospital. Complications from the accident, the doctors say. The valves of your heart

no longer work the way they should, the doctors say. I have an IV in my arm and

electrodes run from my chest to beeping machines. The monitors feature green lettering

on a black screen. The monitors are attached to a dot-matrix printer. The dot-matrix

printer makes me nervous. I am certain it will jam at a critical moment. I believe the

dot-matrix printer to be the weak link in this whole elaborate system that' s working to

keep me alive.

The hospital becomes noisy at night, and it can be hard to sleep. Some of the

patients are about to check out of life, and, during the night, they don't seem to want to










go quietly. I write during the night. Writing leaves me nearly as rested as sleeping. I

cannot see the paper. Forgive me if I'm writing each new word upon the previous.

I have things to say. My encounter with Jane taught me that it' s never too late or

too early to start getting personal. I have authorial risks to take. I have nothing to lose.

The head doctor, a man with short-cropped blond hair and thick-rimmed glasses, put his

hand on my shoulder and said that he was doing everything he could, and that he would

continue to do everything he could, but that it was time to start preparing for the worst.

Things would certainly get worse before they got better, if they got better, he said. He

recommended that if there was anyone I wanted to see, I should have them come see me

now while I was still lucid. I do not know if risks can be taken by people with nothing to

lose.



My name is Ray. I'm single. For me, life has been getting to know, intimately,

the tip of things; I analyze the extremities, and then interpolate.

I have no problem meeting women. Anyone with half a brain can figure out

which tricks increase your chances of meeting women. My secret to meeting women is

that I walk my neighbor' s dog seven evenings a week.

When the dog does his business in the middle of the sidewalk, I don't clean it up.

It' s not my dog, I say. The minute before I met Jane Berg, I was about to make another

clean getaway when I stepped into someone else's dog shit.

I was busy using a small stick to scrape the dog shit from my shoe. I'm

resourceful. I was thinking about how gorillas make ant-popsicles by poking sticks into

anthills, and I was filled with a sense of pride for gorillas. We do good work, gorillas and










These were my thoughts when a woman behind me said, "How long have you had

her?"

I reacted quickly and tossed the stick aside.

"Since this evening, actually," I said. I pretended to tie my shoe.

There are rules to talking to dog people on the street. All talk is directed to the

dog, and the owner is to intervene only if the dog cannot communicate a sufficient

answer. For instance, if someone were to say, "You're so cute! What' s your name?"

while petting your dog, you are supposed to reply, "Nickels," in a normal tone of voice as

if the dog is answering. Nickels, incidentally, is the name of my neighbor's dog. She is

a chocolate lab with a sleek brown coat. She is my neighbor' s fifth dog, hence the name.

After triple knotting my shoe, I stood, expecting to see someone talking to

Nickles. Instead, I found someone staring directly at my left eye. Everyone picks one

particular eye to look at when they stare, and I could tell she'd picked my left; her face

was so close to my own that the angles necessary for her two eyeballs to triangulate made

her almost cross-eyed. There were six inches from her nose-tip to my nose-tip, tops. Her

breath smelled of coconut shampoo.

This was a breach of dog-talking protocol, and I knew it, and all sorts of bells and

warning buzzers were going off in my head. Outside my head, I took a step back and set

off a car alarm when I brushed a parked car. Further down the street, an ambulance siren

raged.

The car alarm bought me time to take a deep breath. When the alarm stopped a

few seconds later, I explained that Nickles was my neighbor' s dog, and my neighbors

paid me to walk him. The woman nodded, set down a bag of groceries, and petted

Nickels.


I asked her if she was walking in my direction. She was.










As we walked, I did my best to keep my left shoe as far from her as possible.

This involved a wide swinging stride, which made me feel like I was entering a saloon.

We chatted, exchanged names. Jane Berg. I stole glances at her, imagining the

possibilities. It had been a long time since I'd gone into the speculative mode with a

woman. My thoughts ran rust-brown, and then cleared somewhat. It seemed that it was

okay to breach protocol, that, in fact, a protocol-breaching portal had been opened, and I

was determined to shimmy through it before it snapped shut again. I asked Jane to

accompany me to a restaurant called Pio! Pio! for dinner. She blinked twice in rapid

succession, gunfire-like, and then said yes. I experienced what I can only surmise to be a

form of surprise, the kind that makes your heart feel like it has sprouted hairs long

enough to tickle the back of your throat, the kind that causes your forehead-sweat to hide

in your palms.

If Jane were a flock of migrating birds, we might ask the following: What type of

birds are they? Does their v-shaped formation have flaws? Where are they migrating

from?

If Jane were a bird, she would be an ostrich. She was long and thin in the neck

and plump in the midsection. The bustle of her midsection rested on two thin wiry legs.

I've read somewhere that honey is the only food that doesn't spoil. It is with this in mind

that I compare her fingers, her voice, her eyes, her hair, her rump, her smile, and her

touch to honey. Everything about her had that forever quality that was both sweet and

dreamy-slow. Stop! Stop! You want particulars, you say? You want exact

measurements, height, width? Well, I'm five ten, and she seemed about my height. But

then again, everyone seems about my height. Everyone except the freaks. So that' s

something. She wasn't freakishly tall or short. I believe her head was proportionally









small for her body by a tiny bit. She was dressed casually and warmly, neither of which

aroused my suspicions given the air temperature and her grocery-shopping task.

What else can I say? She had charisma, the kind you wish you could bottle up

and force down the throat of any number of past and future acquaintances. Her charisma

was infuriating, actually, because she never turned it off. It was like watching the best

hot chocolate you can think of (ever had the Spanish kind?) pouring out of a spigot, and

you alone have the bottomless cup to catch it with. But if you go away, in the back of

your mind you won't be able to stop thinking about her stream of charisma pouring out of

her and onto the ground, unused, wasted.

This was what I got from our brief encounter on the street. Sure, it was only one

data point. But I was happy to be back in the game. This was my first brush with love in

months. My memories of head-on clashes with love were hazy and seemed cruelly

invented by my mind. I only knew love like I knew earthquakes, or grits. I knew that the

concept existed, somewhere, but not currently in my Me-O-Sphere.

Before the meal, we both went home to our apartments to freshen up; she to drop

off her groceries and I to get rid of my neighbor' s dog. It may have been a mistake to get

rid of my neighbor' s dog. After all, it was the neighbor' s dog that' d brought us together.

Logistically it made sense for us to be dogless at the restaurant. But I wondered if it

made sense romantically.

I was happy I had picked Pio! Pio! If conversation bogged down, I knew I could

always fall back on explaining what the name meant in Spanish. We had barely been

seated before I felt the pressure of holding a conversation with a stranger. I sipped from

my ice water. I made a big production of reading the specials off a chalkboard across the

room. She read her menu quietly.

"Do you know what Pio means in Spanish?" I asked.










"It' s the sound a chick makes," she said. "The English equivalent of this

restaurant is, 'Cheep! Cheep!'"

"That' s right," I said, thinking about how much we didn't know about each other.

She went back to reading her menu. I wanted to tell her that sometimes that' s

what I felt like: a fuzzy yellow chick saying Pio! Pio! in a Cheep! Cheep! world. But this

was not the time for such observations. There was nothing left for me to do but read my

menu, even though I already knew what I was getting.

Our waiter came to take our orders. "You go first," Jane said. She was still

deeply engrossed in her menu. I asked the waiter about one of the specials (I wanted to

seem like I was still deciding). When responding, the waiter got so close to my face that

I could see the hairs in his nostrils. Each nose-hair was red, but then got darker on the

tip, like the tail of a fox. If I were the size of a poppy seed, I would climb up those hairs

and paint yellow pictures of buffalo on the inner walls of his nose.

"So, what will you be having today?" he asked.

"I'll have the Macaroni con queso," I said.

"And for you?" he said turning to Jane.

"The same," she said.

When she ordered the same meal, it constituted, in my book, a Moment. Now

was the time for me to ask her something meaningful about herself. You can get away

with things during Moments. Unicorns are more plausible during Moments. But

Moments are...fleeting. And personal questions asked too early in a relationship can

sound like the worst sort of probing. I let the Moment flee.



Everyone always says, "I want to meet someone." But it doesn't always happen.

My high-school gym teacher never met someone and she was a bitter woman who









sadistically made us do hour-long basketball drills around cones when all we wanted to

do was scrimmage. I wondered if my relationships didn't happen because of something I

was doing or something I was not doing. It was hard to tell, because when I tried to do

more or tried to do less, relationships still didn't happen.

I chose not to explain to Jane how three months ago I' d spun off the road on a

patch of ice while driving to my parents' house in a suburb outside the city. I didn't

explain how the car had come to rest propped up against a tree, wheels facing upward. I

didn't explain that although all the maj or parts of my body were intact, little things, like a

fractured spine, a collapsed lung, and a fractured skull kept me in the hospital. I didn't

explain that kicking my way through the moonroof glass to escape the car did something

to me, that it was the sort of traumatic event that made me stop complaining about the

water pressure of my shower, or my habitually tardy mailman. I didn't explain that I felt

all talk was superfluous, a feeling that manifested itself in my new habit of reading

newspapers while eating, and that led me, in an attempt to ward off insanity, to stop

winding the ticking pendulum clock in my bedroom. I didn't explain how sometimes I

wondered if I'd intentionally crashed my car, or how I'd recently skipped work and sat

soaking in the tub, fascinated by the fact that I could feel my heartbeat through the water

if I hovered my hand near my chest, or how my mouth had hurt for days after recently

waking with a smile locked on my face.

I didn't tell her that I' d recently lost interest in the tips of things, that I wanted

more than an elephant hair to prove that he was in the room.

No, instead I told her about where I grew up. She did the same. I asked her about

her hobbies. She asked me about mine. She told me about the company she works for. I

told her some popular movies to avoid.










I called and left a message on Jane's phone each Thursday afternoon for the next

three weeks. When she didn't return my calls, I took the hint and deleted her number

from my phone' s memory bank to prevent myself from being tempted to call her again.

In the weeks immediately following our date, a cousin's wedding, a promotion, and a

faulty heart valve diagnosis busied my life. In that time, I thought fondly of Jane Berg

when I did think of her. I knew I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend a

few hours with Jane Berg; she is a quality human being. People like Jane Berg make me

feel proud to be part of this complicated homo erectus throng that populates our earth. A

few hours with someone like Jane is enough to convince me that we humans, for the most

part, are doing our best to make the right decisions despite operating with limited

information and unlimited misinformation.



There is a patient at the hospital who claims that he might live forever. He never

sleeps. When everyone else is asleep at night he sits on the edge of his bed, his feet

swinging. The patient-V\ince is his name--has developed a bit of a superiority complex

about his potential to live forever. His favorite thing to say, when someone new is

wheeled into the ward, is, "That guy ain't gonna make it." He says it over and over

again, sitting on the edge of his bed, a smile on his face, his feet swinging: "That guy

ain't gonna make it." Vince said it to me when I was wheeled in. His words pressed

gently against my heart like an unwanted kiss. "Shut up Vince," someone said then. I

look at Vince now. He's muttering that phrase. "Shut up Vince," I hiss over the sleeping

bodies in hospital beds. Vince shuts up.









Pio! Pio! is only three blocks from my apartment. When I was healthy, I walked

underneath its green awning and passed its chalkboard-listed specials each day on my

way to and from work. This walk was the ebb and flow of my life. I wonder if the

molecules from Jane's and my first-date footprints could still be found there on the

sidewalk. I think not. Even if all the sidewalks of this earth were covered with a crepe-

thin layer of topsoil, I couldn't document the comings and goings of the Jane Bergs of my

life. Only forensic experts might be lucky enough to detect the path of a single set of

footprints from the multitude. But more than likely they would simply find footprint

upon footprint upon footprint, stacked up like dirty dishes in a sink.

Jane and I failed to connect. I failed to connect with all the Jane Bergs of my life. I

never once was able to look at someone and say, "I know you better than that." People

constantly surprise me. Interpolation is, it seems, an inaccurate science.

When a meteor misses the earth by millions of miles, it is considered a close call.

For some things, there are no close calls; either a connection is made, or it isn't. And I

wonder--as I sit here writing in the dark--about the connections I've made. I wonder

how many times I've been a meteor that' s actually hit something. My tendency is to burn

to nothing while entering the atmosphere. If this text were a meteor, I'd want it to be at

least marble-sized when it plunked.
















A SHORT-DISTANCE RELATIONSHIP

I sit on my blue rocking chair and read The Economist. My chair is in its forward-

leaning position so that I can also keep tabs on my girlfriend, Tina Larabee, as I read. I

can see her over the top of my magazine--her button-up black sweater, her lemon-sized

loop earrings, the slight leftward lean of her nose. Her cheeks are concave, as if she'd

slept every night of her life on her back with a tea-cup resting on each cheek.

Larabee was supposed to be at work all day, that was the original plan, but

because her company hired too many people, she is what they call "on the beach,"

meaning that she continues to get paid even though she stays at home and does little or

nothing to help the company. Her company insists that her beach status is temporary, but

she has been on the beach for 119 days. Not many 119-day things are considered

temporary. A broken femur, maybe.

Since she has been on the beach, Larabee has become obsessed with an electronic

gadget that her company gave her to help facilitate her "work" for them. She has never

let me touch the gadget, but I have been able to determine that it is a very fancy gadget

and that it is probably capable of sending emails and playing video games. Its keys light

up bright blue when you touch a button or some combination of buttons. She plays with

it alone, sitting on a yoga mat on the hardwood floor, typing furiously with her thumbs,

peck peck peck, like a tireless chicken, hour after hour. She is typing on it now, her

thumbs tap dancing across its keys. The apartment is small and if I were to lean forward,









I could touch her face. Or, if I persuaded her to look at the ceiling, I could fill those

concave cheeks with a touch of water and make two petite birdbaths.

I turn the page of my magazine. I am upset because once again Larabee has chosen

the fancy gadget over me, and so I understand very little of what I read. I subscribed to

this magazine hoping to increase my intelligence, but so far it has only succeeded in

proving my stupidity. Something about farming in Thailand. Or Sweden and the Euro. I

am retaining nothing. The peck peck peck sound is not helping things.

Larabee stops typing on her gadget. For a moment, the apartment is silent. I

break the silence to point out to Larabee that two people who are dating can do other,

more intimate things with each other, but she is unflinchingly unmoved. She laughs, but

then she is quickly back to typing furiously with her thumbs. I consider the possibility

that I might not have been ready to move in with Larabee. If her apartment had a quarter-

mile long hallway between the bedroom and the kitchen, for instance, I think the whole

living-together thing could work. But her apartment is small. To get anywhere, we have

to crawl over each other like restaurant lobsters in a tank. There are only twelve steps

between the bedroom and the kitchen. Three steps to the bathroom. The bathroom is so

small that I can turn the light switch on and off while sitting on the toilet. Sometimes I

sit on the toilet much longer than is functionally necessary and flick the light switch on

and off. I want to do it two hundred times but don't because I do not want to push my

luck and blow a fuse.

This is not what I expected when I moved in with Larabee four months ago. We

had been standing on the steps outside her apartment, having just survived a half-dozen

one-acts put on by a local theater group, when she pulled out a shiny new key to her










apartment, beckoning to me with it as if it were her curled index finger, and saying it was

time to take things to the next level. I'll be at my new job, she said. You'll have the

place to yourself most of the day. And besides, she added, you're always over at my

place anyway.

How could I refuse the key? It was the nicest thing anyone has ever offered me.

Within a few weeks I'd broken the lease to my apartment and moved in.

The circumstances are beginning to have a negative effect on my work. I haven't

given any work to my editor in almost four months. 119 days. My focus is gone. I

barely have enough focus to write a sentence, certainly not enough focus to write a long

sentence, not a grammatically correct one anyway; however, it should be noted that in my

opinion such sentences are overrated.

I am so disillusioned with words that I have begun to "draw" my novel on my

laptop using only numbers, letters and symbols. Here is a drawing from chapter

seventeen:

o //

)' /{ ( \d



I did write a letter to Larabee explaining why I think we should break up. I did

not intend for her to ever read the letter, I was just letting off some steam, but she read it

while I was pretending to sleep while waiting for her to fall asleep so that I could turn the

air conditioner from low to high. It was too late to stop her, so I played it cool and

feigned sleep. I knew she'd never bring it up in conversation, not until she needed to use

it as a trump card.









What she doesn't know is that I have a trump card of my own. I know that she

also has a break-up letter. I found it in an unmarked envelope on her desk. It lists my

flaws and states with clarity why we are not quite right for each other, at least not for the

long haul, not forever. Tough to come this close and then realize, oops, we don't quite

qualify. "Oops" is her word, not mine.

In my letter, I likened our relationship to being on the top floor of a tall burning

building and then tying hundreds of bedsheets together and climbing down to the end of

the rope-fashioned out of bedsheets and then finding that we are still dangling adj acent to

the third or fourth floors, depending on if you count the lobby as floor one or if you think

that the first floor is the floor directly above the lobby. As Larabee would say, oops!

I was just blowing off steam. I don't really even know what the bedsheet and

burning building metaphor means. Something about coming to the end of relationship

and seeing that it' s not going to work, but holding on for dear life because letting go

means a three (or four) story drop. Still, holes can be poked in the metaphor quite easily.

What were we doing in such a building in the first place? And why didn't we simply take

the stairs? A short State of the Relationship conversation with Larabee would probably

do me good, show me that I'm being melodramatic, perhaps losing my mind even, and

certainly being silly. But I avoid relationship-related topics with Larabee. I fear that fall.

I apologized for the writing of my secret break-up letter--not directly, but

tangentially--by making Larabee a mix CD, but she only listens to track four. That' s the

way she is. She likes to listen to a song over and over again and then to replace it like the

sponge in the kitchen sink when it's used up. I spent hours picking out the right songs










and placing them in the right order on the mixed CD and she only listens to track four.

Was she the same way with her relationships? It is possible that I'm her track four.

Sometimes I j og in the park because it is a creative way to get out of the

apartment. Outside the apartment there are people who have a healthy glow. I do not

have a healthy glow. Sometimes after being inside too long I feel white and brittle and

thin--like an oversized matzo cracker--and I half expect Larabee to slide me into the

space behind the bedroom door where the ironing board usually goes.

At night, I sleep restlessly and uncomfortably, despite her recent purchase of an

air conditioning unit. She says we should sleep with it on low to save money. I say that

would work fine ifl could actually sleep when it is on low, but I cannot. She says that

I'll get used to it. So I wait for Larabee to fall asleep first, and then I turn the air

conditioner on high. Only then am I able to fall asleep. I watch her when she is asleep,

and, to be frank, I do not think Larabee is sleeping well either. She does not use curse

words when she is awake, but in her sleep everything is fuck this and fuck that. During

these episodes I shake her gently awake and then stroke her back to sleep, starting with

my hand at the top of her forehead and moving the pads of my fingers down around her

ear like a comb. "Everything's going to be okay," I say. "Everything's going to be

okay."

Now, from the comfort of my blue chair, I watch as Larabee talks into the gadget.

This is new. I've never seen her talk into the gadget before. She gestures with her hand,

and she's sitting so close that her fingers brush against my knee. She does not seem to

notice. My heart sinks. In the race for Larabee's attentions, the gadget has already been

winning for the last several weeks. For it to suddenly gain the ability to work as a phone










seems downright unfair. I wonder if the gadget is capable of doing other, more intimate

things with Larabee. Could it, for instance, cook her a Baked Alaska? I want to believe

that it can't, I want to believe that I'm special, and that this is something only I can

provide for Larabee.

I hold my magazine above her head and shake it, giving her a business reply card

shower. Larabee abruptly stops speaking. She puts the gadget down and stands up. She

looks me directly in the eye. For a moment, I feel glorious. I have figured out the way to

make her thumbs stop tapping--a small victory for me over the gadget. Larabee turns

away from me and opens the window and then pulls down the curtains with one sweeping

motion. She puts on a yellow bikini and then sits on a beach towel that she carefully

places on the bed and gets a six-pack of diet cola from the fridge that she places on the

beach towel next to her and then she opens the latest Harry Potter and begins to read. I

stay seated in my blue chair. The gadget rests on the yoga mat. We both sit and wait for

the whole thing to unfold, like a stare-down between two men who've just left a saloon

with an agenda. But the thing doesn't unfold. She sits with her head buried in her book

and doesn't tell me about her job, or the break-up letter, or the heat. She doesn't even

open one of her diet colas; she lets those cans sit in a puddle of their own sweat. I know

she is perturbed by something because people don't normally yank curtains down so hard

that the curtain rod snaps. People don't normally throw curtains into a dusty corner of

the room. It isn't much, but when curtains are the only clue, it' s natural to make a lot out

of the curtains.

I hear another snap, the same timbre as original curtain rod snap, but fainter, like

an earthquake's aftershock. I stand and investigate. Larabee continues to read and the









curtains continue to sit in a heap in the dusty corner of the room. I notice crumbs on the

seat of the blue chair and I brush them onto the floor. Everything is not going to be okay.

I strip off my clothes and then tie one of the curtains around my waist like a hula skirt. I

walk out of the apartment and down to the park. As I walk, the tip of my penis brushes

against the lacy white fabric of the curtain.

I sit on a park bench at the peak of a small grass hill. The hill overlooks a jogging

path and I watch j oggers chase their ambitions. An endless parade of them j ogs by like a

special breed of eccentric ants. Some wear colorful spandex, some run bow-legged, some

are bare-chested and have fabulous muscles. I breathe deeply, my lungs thirsty for the

freshness of outside air. It occurs to me that I already know which old college buddy's

sofa I'll be sleeping on tonight.

And I know more. I know that there was a time when Larabee and I laughed and

spoke our minds. I know that our relationship became, at some point in the last 119 days,

the sum of our flaws. I know that my old college buddy's couch cushions will smell of

ass and beer, and that during the moments before sleep, with my faced pressed to the

cushion fabric, I'll think mundane pre-sleep thoughts and smoke the couch-cushion smell

like a pipe.
















LIVE NEAR FOREVER

George thought their new house was a brick monstrosity. His wife, Tilly, liked it

so much that she had invited the whole neighborhood over for an impromptu

housewarming potluck party that night.

"It' s unnecessarily big for two people," said George. They sat in the middle of

the spacious kitchen, each eating half a grapefruit for breakfast.

"You should be excited about the house. It' s a huge upgrade for us," said Tilly.

"I feel like a visitor in my own home," said George. He thought there was

something strange about moving into a fully furnished house. The crescent moon coffee

table, African candleholders, barstools made from barrels, the decorative driftwood and

the black-framed charcoal drawings of nudes were nice, but they made him ill at ease.

Certainly the price had been good, well below market value, but in some corner of his

mind George wondered if the whole thing hadn't been a mistake.

"The only thing left to fix is that spot on the wall above the fireplace," said Tilly,

referring to the sun-faded outline of a shotgun and gunrack.

"Why don't I just buy a gun and rack at Wal-mart? It will be so much easier than

trying to match the exact color blue."

"We can't have guns in the house. What if we have kids?"

"We don't have kids."

"I don't want a gun in my house," she said.










Later that evening, minutes before the guests were to arrive, Tilly again brought

up the subj ect of kids.

"Do you think we'll ever have kids?" she asked.

"No," George said. "I don't have a stomach for kids."

"Seriously, George. We never talk seriously enough."

"I'll talk seriously about kids," he said. They had tried to talk seriously about

kids before, but there was always some reason or another for not having them: wanting to

be financially secure or wanting to travel, for instance. Wanting to hold impromptu

potluck parties. For George, his main reason for not wanting to have kids was that he

didn't know if he liked himself enough to reproduce. But he figured that he agreed with

the theoretical idea of having a kid. It made sense, to propagate the nation and that sort

of thing.

"You know, when I married you, you said you didn't want them, ever," said

George.

"I didn't then. But that was eight years ago. I've changed my mind."

George could feel himself tensing. She began telling him why she'd changed her

mind. She'd seen her sister and her sister' s husband with their child. They were so

happy, she said.

"Stop, just stop. Not now. I just don't see-" And then the doorbell rang.

"Please, I need to get that," said George, and he pushed her out of his way,

catching her off balance. She fell to the ground and hit her head on the kitchen island.

"You pushed me," she said.

"I barely tapped you," he said.










She sat up and put her hand to the back of her head. "I'm bleeding."

The doorbell rang again.

"You don't ever push me," she said.

George didn't quite know what she meant by this. The doorbell rang again and he

went to get the door, leaving his wife on the floor.

A woman stood at the door holding a bowl of mashed potatoes, the top of which

was covered with saran wrap. "I hope I'm not too early," she said. "Hi, I'm Nicole, I'm

your neighbor."

"Of course," said George. As he spoke, a man bolted past him saying, "All right,

let' s see what you buggers have done to my place."

"That' s Billy Traber," Nicole whispered. "He was the former owner of this

house. He's been staying with me until he finds a new place to live. I hope it isn't..."

"Awkward? No, not at all," George said emphatically.

She adjusted the mashed potatoes in her hands, and George realized she wanted

him to take them off her hands.

"I'll take those," George said. "Let me show you to the guest bedroom we're

using as a coatroom." Nicole was wearing a dress that was tight and black and severe.

Her hair was pulled back into a hairpiece that was held together by chopsticks. She

looked like someone who'd act relaxed until you did something she didn't approve of.

Already, in the span of a few seconds, her demeanor bothered George.

George knew himself well enough now to know that when he found a beautiful

woman bothersome, as he did this Nicole, it was usually because he recognized that she

was going to make his wife uncomfortable. When he'd left Tilly on the ground in the









kitchen, she'd been wearing a thick red sweater over her black dress. She'd been cold,

she said, but he also knew that she was worried about her Eigure.

George knew that he had a limited time in which to make Tilly feel comfortable.

He needed to get to the heart of the party, or else he and Tilly would be doomed to hang

around the fringes of things, feeling uncomfortable, making judgments. And then, after

they were having a good time, he could apologize for pushing her.



After George ushered in Nicole back out to the living room, Tilly appeared from

the kitchen and greeted Nicole with a smile. Tilly looked vibrant; she was in hostess

mode. Billy Traber was nowhere to be seen.

As the other guests arrived, George began to feel better. There were a few faces

he recognized from around town. Once the majority of the guests had arrived, he stayed

in the living room at Tilly's side and chatted. He drank quickly at first, and before long

he was telling a large group the story of how he and Tilly had met.

"We met at a house party, much like this one," he said. "And when I went to look

for a bathroom, she cornered me in the hallway and gave me a kiss. We began dating

soon after that. I was teaching at the business school at the time, and didn't realize that

she was taking one of my classes until after the semester was over. When I asked her

why she didn't say anything, she said, 'If I had, it would have been harder to get access to

the final exam questions and answers before the test.'"

People moaned or laughed in a sympathetically horrified way. George looked

around at them. He felt much better. The living room, its deliberate decor and its view

of the sun setting over the lake, no longer seemed so hostile. He took another sip from









his drink and knew there was now a limited time in which he'd feel centered and calm,

before the drinks would start to unravel him.

"Dipping the pen in the company ink, were we?" asked a man to his side, and a

few people laughed. It was the man who'd rushed passed him when he'd opened the

door for Nicole, that Billy Traber. George felt attacked, as if Billy had reached out and

ripped a hole in his pant leg.

"Not exactly company ink," said George. "A business school isn't a company,

it' s an institution of higher education, and besides, I didn't know she was a student at the

time. Right, Tilly?" But Tilly had just put a large piece of biscotti in her mouth. She

raised her hand up while she chewed. George took the opportunity to study Billy. He

wore his dark hair slicked back on his head, and it was slightly in disarray. He had the

potential to be handsome, but instead looked underfed and overtired. His teeth were

perfectly straight and white, and when he smiled, it made the rest of his face seem gray.

Billy shifted uneasily under George's stare, and then spoke. "Maybe he did ask

her if she was a student, but she couldn't answer because her mouth was full." There was

a smattering of nervous laughs.

"That' s uncalled for," said George. "I think--"

"Dinner is served," interrupted Tilly, Einished with her chewing.



George had never thought twice about being married to a younger woman until

recently. He and Tilly had always been so compatible that worrying about a fifteen year

age gap (forty-Hyve to thirty) was a waste of energy. Their relationship, like any other,

was a delicate balance of factors, some large, some small, but the fact that they'd been










able to maintain that delicate balance for eight years gave them hope that they could keep

it up forever.

Trouble began a week after George's forty-fifth birthday when he heard for the

first time that people who died while climbing Mt. Everest didn't decompose. George

began to have a recurring dream in which he, in death, occupied a prominent spot at Mt.

Everest' s peak. The dream would begin just as he began to freeze to death. In his dream,

as he started to freeze, he'd sculpt the face he would present to the world for the rest of

time. He'd lick his two fingers and use them to press down his bushy eyebrows, he'd

move his closed mouth into a slight smile and he'd squint slightly to increase his

contemplative quotient.

It might not have been anything unusual for a man who has just passed the

midpoint of his life to worry about his death, but the recurring dream disturbed George.

Tilly didn't feel like discussing the meaning of such dreams. "They're probably

just a byproduct of moving to a new house," she said. "They'll go away. But in the

meantime, try and focus on being practical and help me out around the house."

Tilly was often practical. She kept her hair short. She'd gotten a breast reduction

from her parents as a college graduation present to prevent the onset of lower back pain

later in life. She had a palm-sized scar on her pelvic bone from when she'd had a tattoo

removed.




The potluck aspect of the party, apparently a new addition to the traditional

neighborhood formula, was deemed a success: George overheard people making










comments like, "This is the way to do it, this is the way to have a party." He was happy

about this, and it somewhat made up for Billy Traber' s earlier fellatio insinuation.

During dinner, George became engaged in a conversation with a group of men

about the state of television, a conversation that quickly degraded into a discussion about

a new reality TV show starring midgets.

At one point, when George noticed Tilly and Nicole move from the living room

couch to the screened-in porch, he excused himself and refilled his drink and then made

his way to the porch. Once on the porch, George noted where his wife was sitting, and

then stepped out the screen door and onto the lawn. Moths of various sizes fluttered

around the porch light. Staring past the halo of porch light and into the darkness, he

could just make out the lake. He returned to the porch and found a seat beside his wife,

who was talking to Nicole. Nicole was asking Tilly what she thought of the

neighborhood.

"It's nice," said Tilly. "But we already knew about it because we moved from

just across town."

Nicole seemed not to notice. "You'll see," she said. "You'll see how charming it

can be. Especially around Christmas time, oh, with all those lights."

George and Tilly had both seen this neighborhood during Christmas time and both

had deemed it impressive; it had made them debate the cost of electricity bills.

Billy entered the screened-in porch and joined the conversation. "What are you

three talking about?" he asked.

"The neighborhood," said Nicole.










He looked at Tilly and said, "Well, let me give you a word of advice. Don't go

five blocks north of here. It' s a real war zone. That' s the only drawback to this area.

That we're so close to the Farringdon Road area."

"I'm going to get another drink. Can I get anyone anything?" asked Nicole.

People shook their heads. She went into the house.

Billy paused, looked around, and then continued. "When you want to protect

yourself, you need to get aggressive. No one is better at protecting themselves than

Americans. How many wars have been fought on our soil in the last one hundred years?

None, and that' s because we know how to protect ourselves."

"There was the war on drugs," said George. "And Pearl Harbor."

For a few seconds Billy scratched vigorously at his head with the two smallest

fingers on his right hand, a dog-like twitch, and then continued, "How many wars were

fought in Canada? That's because we protect them like a big brother. Same with

Mexico, and pretty much all Central and South America. Now over in Europe and Africa

and Asia, they don't know the trick of it. So they kill and are killed on their home turf all

the time."

Tilly opened her mouth to speak, but before she could, Billy stood and raised his

hand and pointed at George. "You, house stealer, you come with me."

"I'll be there in a minute," said George, and Billy went back into the house.

George put his hand on Tilly's knee. He leaned in close and asked in a low voice,

"How are you?"

She shrugged.










George remembered when they used to use code words and hand signals to talk to

one another at parties. George held up a fist, which had always meant, "I love you," but

she didn't respond. George put his fist down and watched her face; she was staring off in

the distance. He put his hand on her knee again.

"Oh," Tilly said. "I was thinking about the wasps in the handle of the grille. Can

you take care of them tomorrow?"

Just over Tilly's shoulder, George saw Billy motioning to him.

George patted Tilly's knee and excused himself and followed Billy back into the

main part of the house, past the staircase and down a long hall. Billy opened a door at the

end of the hall and went into the coat room. After shutting the door, Billy pushed some

of the coats off the bed and onto the floor and motioned for George to take a seat. Billy

sat on top of a short stack of coats in a chair opposite George.

"Welcome to my office," Billy said.

George didn't feel the need to reply. He listened to the faint murmur of voices

and music coming from the party down the hall.

"Do you know what' s the only thing that keeps me going?" asked Billy.

"Tell me," said George. The whole thing amused him, this heart-to-heart stuff.

"The thought that when I die, people will celebrate. People hate me, and my

death will be the only joy I've ever brought to the world."

"Do you really think you've had that much of an impact on people?"

"No, I guess not," he said simply.

George could feel himself sliding off the bed. He stood up, pushed more coats

out of the way, and sat back down.










"Not to change the subject, but Tilly and I are throwing a good party," George

said. "The potluck idea seems to be a real hit."

"Speaking of hit, when I first arrived I saw your wife on the ground. She was

bleeding. Do you hit your wife?"

"Excuse me?"

"We aren't in there anymore," Billy said, motioning towards the general epicenter

of the party. "We can drop the formality crap and speak openly and honestly. Do you-"

he paused, gulped, and then continued "--hit your wife?"

"I don't understand," said George, although he was thinking that he did

understand .

"I'm doing this for you, Mr. House-stealer." Billy Traber leaned back in his chair

and closed his eyes. "I don't know anything about you, but I figure I should stop you

from ruining a perfectly good marriage."

"Billy," George said, trying to steer towards safer conversational ground. "Before

we leave your office, I would like to talk to you about some of your decorating choices. I

was really quite impressed by them."

Billy stood. "Maybe you hit your wife. Or maybe I was seeing things."

"Maybe it's because you're a drunk," said George, his amusement tweaked into

ang~er.

"Maybe." Billy Traber stood, clumsily rifled through the pockets of some of the

coats piled next to George and came up with a folded twenty-dollar bill, which he held up

with two fingers.









"This won't be missed," he said, and tucked it into his pants pocket. "Hang in

there, George." And after patting George on the back, he left the room.



George didn't feel like rejoining the party immediately. He decided he'd first

take care of the wasps nest in the handle of the grille. The garage was separate from the

house, just inside the edge of the lawn, and a little ways down a hill. He pulled open the

garage door and carefully stepped inside. While looking for the wasp spray in the

assortment of cardboard boxes, he found a flashlight and clicked it on. He found the

wasp spray in another cardboard box and stepped out of the garage and shut the garage

door and went back up the hill. The moon was not quite whole. He shone the flashlight

on the moon and fancied that he could see a small circle of light weaving along the

moon's surface. He moved the beam to the house. The house was still at a distance and

he could see the lights on, the silhouettes of people mingling.

He quickened his pace and went around the house to the back porch. As he

approached the grille, two wasps flew lazily into the grille handle. From a distance of a

few feet, he aimed the can' s nozzle at the hole in the handle of the grille and sprayed. A

single wasp flew out, briefly hovered in the air above George's head as if collecting its

wits, and then floated off into the night.

George returned to the party. He picked up an abandoned drink and found Tilly,

who was talking with Nicole about politics. George sat across from them, prepared to

wait the conversation out. It soon fizzled, which was no real surprise because Tilly didn't

know very much about politics.










Nicole turned to George and said, "Did Billy do the celebrate-at-my-funeral bit

with you?"

"He did."

"He likes to work that one on new people at parties. New people are the only

ones who'd humor him and go into the coat room for a chat."

"Hmm."

"Let' s move to the kitchen. Just me and you."

They excused themselves from Tilly--Nicole made a big show of it and bowed--

and then made their way to the quiet of the kitchen.

"You still look a little disturbed," Nicole said.

"I'm fine." George couldn't believe he was having yet another heart-to-heart talk.

"I wonder if I could scream and break this glass," Nicole said, staring at her wine

glass. She swirled her drink, as if testing the integrity of the glass. From there they

debated if a scream could break a glass or not. After much discussion, they decided it

could, depending on the pitch of the voice and the thickness of the glass. As they

debated, George noticed a young girl, maybe mid-teens or so, sitting at the kitchen table

reading a book. Who is that? George mouthed to Nicole during a pause in their glass-

breaking debate. Thzat 's my daughter, she mouthed back. She got scared' of being home

alone and' came over. The girl had her brown backpack over one shoulder. She had tea-

cup platter spectacles. She was reading a book entitled Why M~en Love Bitches. She was

hunched over the book, reading intently.










"Billy bought her that book," whispered Nicole. "He says it isn't fun to live in a

world without answers. And it' s a lot of work to invent answers for yourself. So if you

can find someone else who's willing to invent them for you, you've found a gold mine."

"I see," George said, unable to match her enthusiasm.

"That' s what Billy says his problem is. He's not a consumer of invented

solutions. He says life and death are merely the bread to your funeral sandwich, and that

death is always the thicker slice. You know, he's actually excited to be the headliner at

his funeral."

"Morbid," George said, thinking that Nicole loved Billy in a very uncritical way.

He wondered if it would be possible to ever love Tilly in this same way. No, he didn't

think so. They'd been together too long for that. Relationships were cold wars and

stockpiled criticism a currency.

"Billy is certainly morbid," Nicole said. "Which is why he will be one of the

lucky fucks to live near forever."

"Did his wife leave him?"

"Oh no. She died of uterine cancer this past spring. That big house didn't make

sense without her, so in exchange for his shotgun, I'm letting him stay in our guest

bedroom until he can find a place of his own. Mossberg 590, with an eight round

magazine. A real beauty. You shoot?"

The girl stood up and walked up to her mother and said something to her in a low

voice. Nicole excused herself and followed her daughter out of the kitchen.










George made his way back to Tilly. She was still on the porch, but she'd moved

to a different chair, just outside a small circle of women who were discussing certain

recipe variations. He sat next to her, and she turned from the group and faced him.

She put her hand on his knee. He settled back in his chair. After a time, he asked,

"What do I need to do to get back in your good graces?"

"What do you think?" she asked.

"I think I should apologize for pushing you," he said. He tapped the bottom of his

glass on the top of her hand, the glass making a noise against her wedding ring.

She was staring past him. George tapped his glass on her hand a second time and

again the glass made a noise against her ring. "What do you think?"

She looked at him and leaned forward in her chair and put her head on his

shoulder.

"Kiss me," she said into his chest.

He kissed the top of her head. She sat back and looked into his face, not at his

eyes, but at different parts of his forehead and cheek in which she seemed to take a

sudden interest. He felt her breath heavy on his face.

Billy walked onto the porch, tapping a spoon to his wineglass. "Please move your

conversations to the living room," he said. "We're going to hold my funeral."

"No, not this again," said Nicole, who had joined the women discussing recipes.

"Yes. And you're giving the eulogy," said Billy, pointing at Nicole before

leaving the porch.

Nicole followed him. The remaining guests on the porch moved into the living

room. George left Tilly standing alone on the far side of the room and selected a walnut










from a bowl that rested on the glass-top coffee table. Having the walnuts at the party had

been his idea. A few shells were on the table next to the bowl. George cracked the

walnut with a shiny metal nutcracker and ate it.

Billy walked into the room and stepped up to the coffee table. He picked up the

walnut bowl, and handed it to George. "Get these nuts out of my casket," he said, and

then he lay down on the coffee table, his hands across his chest.

George went back to Tilly, stopping briefly to slide the bowl of nuts between

discarded drinks on a wooden card table.

"Maybe we should stop this," Tilly said, as he approached.

"In a minute," George said. He leaned in close and said, "We'll stop it if it starts

to get bad."

The guests got quiet and moved away from the fireplace. Nicole's daughter acted

as the priest. She looked thankful for the attention. She paced in front of the fireplace,

holding an imaginary microphone to her mouth. She said she wanted to talk about the

role of God in our lives.

"God," she said "must love bitches, because he's a man."

People laughed at this. "And now, the eulogy," the girl said. She made a show of

handing the imaginary microphone to Nicole.

"I'm going to give this speech as seriously as possible," Nicole said. "Billy would

have wanted it this way." And as she spoke, George could tell that she was making a

conscious effort to sound as if Billy were actually dead. Nicole said Billy was the best

neighbor and friend a person could have hoped for. Something in the way she said this

quieted the crowd. For the rest of the speech, the only sound competing with Nicole's









voice came from the uneven rotation of the ceiling fan. George expected Billy to sit up

and protest the seriousness of her tone, but Billy didn't stir.



Nicole left the party with her daughter and Billy shortly after the mock funeral.

Billy was completely passed out, and a few of the men took hold of him and carried him

across the street. The rest of the guests trickled out with their half-eaten serving bowls of

quiche and spinach dip, and within half an hour, George and Tilly had the house to

themselves again. Tilly showered first, George second, and after his shower he slipped

into bed with her and tried to snuggle up against her, but she moved away.

The next morning, George woke up early and bought blue paint and painted over

the sun-faded spot on the wall above the fireplace.
















NONE OF US IS PERFECT

As Martin put his grocery items on the conveyor belt, he caught the cashier

looking at the ten dime-sized, dark purple scars on his left forearm. The scars were raised

and looked like Braille, only bigger than any Braille that Martin had ever seen. Like

Braille for people who were touching-impaired. Did such a thing exist? Martin didn't

know. He didn't know very much about Braille.

"Where'd you get those scars?" asked the cashier, a brown-skinned woman of

indeterminate age. She barely came up to his waist. Her teeth looked distracted--turned

at angles as if talking to their neighbors.

"Knife fight," said Martin. He knew it was a ridiculous claim. No hastily stabbed

knife could have made the scarred welts on his arm.

She shrugged as if signaling the end of her interest in his arm. "That'll be

$45.11," she said. Something about the way she shrugged appealed to Martin. Martin

was fascinated with these sorts of people, the people on the outer fringe of bell curves.

At his company, the paper mill, there was an older woman Martin couldn't get out of his

mind. She was confident in her cleavage, and it often left Martin trembling. She was

ancient--maybe mid-forties--but the exposed top part of her chest between the open

lapels of her business suit looked freckled and smooth and rubbery. She intrigued him.

But she seemed hardly to notice Martin--she looked right through him whenever they

passed in the hall. Just like this little wizened cashier nymph was looking through him

now. She was holding out the credit card bill for him to sign.










The truth was, Martin had received the scars in a gardening accident. He'd

opened the door to his tool-shed and a metal-pronged rake had come off its nail and

lunged at him. Martin grew vegetables in secret. Not even Keith, his younger brother,

ex-roommate, and ex-co-worker, knew this. Some people, people Martin didn't know,

lived in places where everything looked like a garden, where white walls were actually

white, where landscaping was an art form. But Martin knew he'd never live in ones of

these places. The closest thing he had was a small clearing in the woods behind his house.

Right now he was growing green beans, sweet corn, and tomatoes. His garden was the

one thing in his life that had stayed beautiful even after being touched by his hands.

"I actually got them when a metal pronged rake fell on top of me," Martin said as

he signed and handed her the receipt. Ha. What was there to lose? She'd never tell

Keith. Keith was under house arrest. And Keith wouldn't believe her if she did. Keith

didn't trust short people. He liked big people. Broad people. People, as he said, with

scope.

She shrugged again and handed him the yellow copy of the receipt. He stuffed

the receipt into his pocket and gathered his six bags of groceries.

Martin grocery-shopped for Keith--there, the little brown nymph smiled at him,

the spaces between her teeth becoming more prominent, like the gradual opening of

vertical blinds--partly because Keith was under house arrest and couldn't do his own

shopping, and partly because Martin was still trying to convince Keith that he hadn't

murdered Keith' s ferret. The ferret had been sickly the entire time it was alive--though

the vet had said it was perfectly healthy, the poor thing had fits of vomiting after nearly










every meal--so Martin couldn't help being a little relieved when it finally kicked the

bucket. Still, it was sad to see a living thing die.



Keith was a born fuck-up, but then again they were both born fuck-ups. Martin

had always seen their relationship in this way: two brothers stranded in the middle of the

ocean, playing catch with a life preserver. And now that he had the life preserver, it was

only fair for him to throw it over to Keith. Maybe, Martin thought, that' s the magic of

brotherly friendship: two indubitable sinkers can keep each other afloat.

Martin made for the bike rack, which was located at the side of the grocery store,

between two green dumpsters. He didn't really mind not having a car. The biking kept

him in surprisingly good shape; he was often amazed at how good he felt the morning

after a night of drinking, and attributed it to the cycling. While others complained and

gulped coffee, Martin felt refreshed, like sometime during the night he'd shed his internal

organs for newer, cleaner ones.

The grocery store was across the street from his apartment and only a mile away

from Keith's apartment as the crow flies, but typically it took Martin, who rode

cautiously on his creaky mountain bike, in the vicinity of thirty minutes to

circumnavigate the hazardous downtown area via the shoulder of Highway I-40. The

highway was certainly illegal to bike on, but Martin, who'd had two bikes stolen from

him in the last six months--the last time by a man with a business suit and a Swiss Army

knife who claimed that he needed Martin's bike to chase after someone who'd stolen his

car--preferred the predictable rhythm of the wind from passing vehicles over the

unpredictable nature of bike theft. What was the name of that physical phenomenon









created in the wake of a passing car? A vortex? A vacuum? He didn't know. But when

he steeled himself to the fear of losing control of his bike, that vortex-vacuum

phenomenon felt glorious.

When Martin first moved into the city ten years ago, the downtown had been

booming, but now Main Street was a row of vacant storefronts. For shopping, most

people went to huge warehouse stores and multiplexes and malls ten miles outside the

city. He had read in the paper that even the Marriott hotel--at eighteen stories, the

largest building in the city--was thinking of relocating because many patrons had

complained that the hotel was no longer in the heart of the city.



Six bags. Dammit. He'd bought too much again. He briefly considered cutting

through downtown, then dismissed the idea. He would just hang all the bags from the

handlebars and take it slow. Three bags on each side. He arranged them on the

handlebars and rode about one block before he realized that the bag with the two frozen

pizzas and the gallon of milk was throwing his weight to the left and if he continued it

would certainly cause him to crash. He set the bags down on the sidewalk. He briefly

considered holding one of the bags in his teeth but then had a better idea. He stretched

the handles of the heavy bag, the one with the gallon of milk and frozen pizzas, and, after

removing his shirt, slid them over his head. He put his shirt back on. The bag made it

look like he had a gut.

This was much better. The balance between the two sides was restored. The

whole setup almost felt comfortable, except that the pizza box was scratching at his side.










When they'd lived together, Martin could keep Keith in line. But things fell apart

after Keith went on a bass fishing trip with his girlfriend at the time and her folks. The

day after Keith left, Martin found Earl, Keith's ferret, dead in its cage.

Martin called Keith and told him about Earl. Keith cried. When Keith more or

less stopped crying a minute later, Martin asked him how his flight had been.

"Not too bad," said Keith. "We were delayed a bit in Cincinnati, but other than

that it was Eine."

Martin said, "Well, say hi to your girl," and then got the hell off the phone before

Keith could cry again.

Martin didn't know what to do with Earl's body. It seemed insensitive to ask

Keith about it, and so he wrapped Earl's body in a hand towel and then placed the bundle

in the back of the freezer, covering it with a bag of frozen peas. The body was, as far as

Martin knew, still buried under the frozen peas.

After returning from the fishing trip, Keith announced he was moving out of

Martin' s apartment and getting a place of his own across town. Keith said he couldn't

get it out of his mind that Martin had something to do with Earl's death, and he didn't

want to live with Earl's killer, if indeed Martin was Earl's killer. Keith said he wasn't

pointing any Eingers. Martin said you better fucking not be. I was just the unlucky

bastard who found the body and there was no foul play involved.

Keith shrugged, and said he would be gone by the end of the month; plans had

already been made.










Not two weeks after leaving Martin's apartment, Keith was caught with a large

amount of cocaine in the parking lot of a local shopping center. Martin knew Keith had

told their parents he was buying it for friends, that he didn't do drugs. Martin almost

believed him, even though he knew that he, Martin, was Keith's only real friend. Keith

got six months under house arrest because their parents knew the judge. Keith had a

knack for getting out of scrapes. Unfortunately the paper mill couldn't ignore the cocaine

rap. They fired him, and so in the span of a few months, Martin had lost a co-worker,

and a roommate. Keith was only allowed to leave his apartment to keep medical

appointments. But, as he had been trying to convince Martin, there was little harm in

going out for a few hours here and there. "They don't check a fucking thing," Keith

assured him. "I don't even think this thing works," he added, patting an electronic band

around his ankle. So sometimes on Friday nights they would go down to the batting

cages together.



Martin kept a steady pedal stroke towards the on ramp for I-40. He needed to go

south, so he went under the highway and then took a left onto the slight incline of the

cloverleaf-shaped entrance ramp. The plastic under his shirt was making his stomach feel

humid and sweaty. The pizzas would certainly unfreeze and the milk would go sour.

Just twenty more minutes, he thought. He tried to concentrate on Keith, but found the

passing of the cars and trucks distracting.

The cocaine had intrigued Martin, the secrecy of it all. He didn't know if Keith

had been messing with cocaine all along, or if he had only started after he'd moved out.

Martin thought of his own secret: his garden. When he died, he wanted to be buried









there. Or dump his ashes there. He didn't really care which. Technically, the garden

was not even on his property. But technically, the world could kiss his ass.

A light rain began to fall. He biked along the shoulder and tried to prevent the

bags from swaying. Once they started swaying, it caused them to hit up against the

spokes of his wheels, and the bike became very difficult to control. The handles of the

bag around his neck were digging into his collarbone. He thought about stashing some of

the food in the woods and coming back for it later, then dismissed this idea.

The first truck that passed nearly knocked him flat. The bike wobbled to the

right, and he overcompensated and briefly went off the shoulder and into the slow lane.

He recovered his balance and used the soles of his shoes to skid to a stop on the sandy

shoulder. He took a few deep breaths. He could see the paper mill through the trees just

off the highway. His nostrils filled with its pungent sweet smell. He knew that on a day

like today, a still and damp September morning, he would be able to smell the mill all the

way from Keith's house.



Martin's attitude towards the mill was mostly ambivalent. Since he was shipping

and receiving, he worked a normal nine to five shift. Everyone else at the mill worked

twelve to twelve, alternating the day and night shift each week. The paper industry was

one of the maj or employers of the state. Most of his neighbors worked in the mill. The

twelve-hour shifts paid great overtime: enough for Keith to buy a Jeep and a satellite

dish. But Martin had seen the toll the shift work took on his brother. His appetite was

down, and he frequently got sick. And now, apparently, he had a penchant for cocaine.










Cocaine. Sometimes Martin wanted to rip Keith's fucking throat out. As

roommates, he and Keith had often argued earnestly in physical fights that resulted in

skinned knees, scratches and bruises. At the paper mill, Keith had been somewhat of a

celebrity. Martin, however, was the shipping and receiving guy whose name nobody

could remember. "Martin?" a co-worker had once said accusingly to Martin "Your

name is Martin? You don't look like a Martin." Martin had told Keith about the

encounter, and Keith had merely shrugged. But after that, when Keith wanted to piss

Martin off, he'd say to Martin, "Martin? Is your name Martin? You don't look like a

Martin," over and over again.



Keith lived on the second floor of a building in a complex called "Ho izon

Village." With its concrete steps and outdoor hallways, it reminded Martin of a motel.

He assumed it was under Vietnamese management. Martin locked his bike to a railing

and then peeked into Keith's window. He didn't dare knock: Canada, Keith's neighbor,

would hear. Canada was emotionally exhausting to be around. Martin and Keith long

ago decided that the only solution to the problem was to never be around him. Thin walls

sometimes made this difficult. They usually didn't speak when they were inside his

apartment, unless they knew Canada was gone. Last time Martin had brought groceries,

he'd sneezed and Canada had said "bless you" from his side of the wall. Canada's real

name was John or Jason but because he started most of his sentences with the phrase,

"Back in Toronto..." they had taken to calling him Canada.

Martin could see Keith through a window. Keith sat on the couch, staring at the

television, remote in hand. He tapped gently on the glass. Keith looked over and










pantomimed a hello. He got up, opened the door, stepped outside, and then shut it behind

him.

"Canada' s home. We're going to have to keep it down," he said.

Even though it was nearly seven at night, Keith looked like he'd just woken up.

His hair was uncombed, which made his receding hairline more noticeable. He wore

boxer briefs, but the part of the underwear that was supposed to be around his thighs had

bunched up towards his crotch.

"I was just wondering if you knew where I could score some cocaine?" asked

Martin.

"Funny."

"Here," said Martin, handing Keith the groceries that had been on his bike

handlebars.

"You bike here?"

"Put some pants on," Martin said, as he took off his shirt. He pulled the last bag

over his head and handed it to Keith. Martin shivered. It was getting colder, and the rain

was picking up.

"Keep it down, okay?" said Keith.

"Seriously. Put some pants on."

Keith was watching a football game. On his coffee table were three frozen burrito

wrappers and an empty plate that had a few bits of congealed burrito remains on it. The

television was on mute. There was a knocking sound on the wall. Martin and Keith

froze. Keith mouthed something to Martin and Martin nodded even though he had no

idea what Keith had said. A commercial was on the television and Martin picked up the










remote and started to channel surf. Keith punched his arm and grabbed the remote. The

television was now on the local news channel. A news reporter was mouthing words.

Over her left shoulder was a large tornado. A line of text said she was reporting live

from the Indian Head monument in Cary, which was about ten miles north on I-40.

"Leave it," hissed Martin. They sat watching the tornado over her left shoulder.

It was quiet in the room. Keith looked over at Martin and began to drum his fingers

imp ati ently.

"Okay, fine," Martin said. "Change it back."

They watched the football game in silence for a half hour. Martin didn't care

about the game. He asked Keith what he was thinking, getting busted like that.

"Chill out about that stuff, okay?" he said softly.

"I won't chill out about anything," Martin said.

"Look," Keith whispered. "None of us is happy about the arrest. But nobody is

really happy about anything, when you really think about it. Everyone thinks they're

overweight, or they don't make enough money, or they aren't dating the right person,

stuff like that. Millions of people in this world aren't satisfied with where they are in the

scheme of things. Truth is, none of us is perfect. Why can't we just make our mistakes

and move on? I'm getting so that I like some of my mistakes so much that I can almost

anticipate how good they're going to make me feel."

"Let' s go hunt down that tornado," Martin said, forgetting about Canada and

speaking at normal volume.

Keith shook his head, and with his hands, motioned for him to keep his voice


down.










"Hey, you guys watching the game?" asked Canada through the wall. His voice

sounded as clear as if he were in the room right there with them.

Martin looked at Keith and smiled. Keith sunk lower in the couch.

"Hey, Canada. We certainly are," said Martin.

"Oh, that' s cool. Nice. Hey, do you mind if I come over and j oin you?" asked

Canada.

"Sure, Canada," said Martin. He was having fun with it now. "But you can't

come over for another ten minutes, okay?"

"Oh, okay. Ten minutes," said Canada. "Kind of weird, but whatever."

Martin pointed toward the door. Keith shook his head. Martin picked up a pair of

pants off the floor and threw them at Keith, and then pointed at the wall to Canada' s

apartment. Keith clicked off the game and tossed the remote onto the couch.




They walked down to Keith's hunter green Jeep Wrangler. The rain was now

steady.

"Let me drive," Martin said.

"No way."

Keith hopped into the car and slammed the door shut. Martin got in the passenger

seat.

Keith gunned the car to a start and backed out of the parking space. He turned out

of the apartment complex and headed for Route I-40. Keith pulled a case of CDs out

from underneath his seat. He kept one hand on the wheel while he unzipped the case

with the other. He flipped through the CDs, glancing up at the road at regular intervals.










"Take a left here," Martin said, reaching for the wheel.

Keith slapped at his arm. "I'm driving. Lay off." Keith found the CD he was

looking for and put it in the player. Martin didn't recognize it. Keith turned up the

volume. "So how've you been, man?" Keith asked.

"Keith, turn that down."

Keith turned it down. "You know," Keith said. "I miss you as a roommate. It

actually gets pretty lonely at my place without you. I even invited Canada into my

apartment a few times when I couldn't take it anymore."

"No. I don't believe it."

"Yeah. It was a nightmare trying to get him to leave. I was under the covers and

pretending to sleep and I could still hear him out in the TV room, screaming out updates

from some baseball game."

"How' d you get him to go?" asked Martin.

"He just left on his own about an hour or so after I stopped responding."

"That' s kind of sad."

"Yeah."

Keith scratched his head. "You know, Canada isn't a bad guy. He's a lot like us,

actually. He just doesn't have a brother."

"Or a cocaine addiction."

"Fuck you about that stuff," said Keith. "I told you-" Keith threw up his hands

and then dropped them back onto the wheel. After a few seconds, he turned up the

volume on the car stereo.










They turned onto the highway and the sound of the rain plinking the hood of the

car go louder. Keith cut into the fast lane. The rain increased drastically; they were

entering a harsher region of the storm. Brake lights from other cars lit up. Some cars had

pulled over onto the shoulder and sat with their hazard lights blinking apologetically.

Keith maintained his speed, using the slow lane or even swerving into the shoulder when

it suited him. Horns honked. After they passed the next exit, traffic thinned out. There

was just a stretch of gray and Martin had to squint to see through it.

"Someone's shooting at us," Keith said.

"What?" Martin asked.

Keith was silent. He slowed the car and peered out the side windows. Something

hit the hood of the car, sounding like a can of soda hitting the hood. Keith ducked and

then rose slowly in his seat.

"There it is again," he said. "Someone's shooting at us." Martin imagined a

soaking wet policeman running along side the car at thirty miles an hour and taking pot

shots.

"I don't think someone is shooting at us," Martin said.

There was another loud ping. Keith pulled the car over and stopped so quickly

that the seatbelts locked up.

"Hail," Martin said. Large chunks of hail, fist-sized, started to hit the car at

regular intervals. From inside, it sounded like artillery fire.

"This is killing my car," Keith said, but he was smiling.

The noise was incredible. "Maybe drive underneath that tree," Martin said.

"Yeah, and get stuck in the mud? No, we can make it another exit."










As he pulled back onto the highway, a direct hit on the windshield spider-webbed

the glass. "I can't see shit," Keith said. He pulled off the highway at the next exit and

parked under a gas-station canopy. Hail was still coming down, but slower now, and

smaller in size, like a shower of popcorn.

"I'm going to the bathroom," Keith said, and then walked into the food-mart.

As Martin waited for Keith to return, he noticed a woman leaving the food-mart.

She had huge breasts and thighs and was making no attempt to hide either of them. The

leg-holes of her j ean shorts were even with her crotch, and her thighs were thick and in

full view. Her shirt was a normal enough purple button-down shirt but after the third

button it was ripped all around and showed her midriff. She walked towards Martin and

the Jeep as if it were her own car. She motioned for Martin to roll the window down, but

the windows were automatic and Keith had left with the keys. He opened the door a

crack, intending to communicate through it, but she grabbed the handle of the door and

opened it all the way. She put one booted foot on the running board step and her elbow

on her knee in a thoughtful way.

Damn, thought Martin.

"Hey, I'm Cassie," she said.

"Hello," Martin said. He was willing to talk to her, but his whole right side felt

exposed as he sat in the car with the door open. He looked to see if Keith was coming.

He wasn't.

"Your friend said he'd give me a ride," she said.

"Oh."

"You're going to have to get out and lift up the seat," she said.










"Right." He stood and pushed back the front seat.

As she tumbled in, Martin noticed a turquoise thong making a T above the

waistline of her shorts.

Just after Martin had gotten reseated, Keith returned, still doing the buckle on the

belt of his pants as he approached the car. Keith got into the car and changed CDs before

driving out of the gas station and onto the highway.

"I hope you don't mind, Cassie, but we're going to have to swing by and drop my

brother home first," said Keith. "He lives closer," he added.

Closer to what? Martin wondered.

"Oh, you guys are brothers," she said. "That' s so sweet. I have a brother."

"Me too," Martin said, grinning. It was meant as a joke, but it merely confused

her and they drove in silence for a bit.

"Did you hear about the tornado?" she asked.

This annoyed Martin. Did she mean had they heard that there was a tornado, or

had they heard about something specific that the tornado had done?

"Yup," said Keith. "We were on our way to see it when the hail hit."

"Oh, the tornado is gone now," she said. "It tore up some cornfields and then left.

But they found ears of corn a few miles away."

"Oh," said Keith. "Did you see it?"

"No. That food-mart had a radio. I was listening with the guy behind the

counter."

Keith drove reasonably now, nosing the car around turns.

"Do you like this town?" Martin asked. They were passing the paper mill.










"No one likes a place all of the time," she said. "Sometimes you do and

sometimes you won't."



When they pulled up in front of Martin' s apartment, Keith said, "Well, it' s been

fun. Give me a call sometime bro, all right?" And he drove off.

Martin realized his bike was still at Keith' s house. And one of those frozen pizzas

was for him. He'd walk over tomorrow. Maybe he'd just cut through the downtown

area. They weren't going to steal his feet. Tomorrow, he'd confront Keith. Talk to him

seriously. He would go over in the morning, first thing. Though Cassie would probably

be in Keith's apartment tomorrow morning. Damnit. And there was always Canada.

Being alone with Keith was near impossible.

Martin entered his apartment and browsed the refrigerator for something to eat.

He remembered the ferret and decided to check if it was still under the frozen peas. It

was still wrapped in the cloth. Keith must have known that the ferret was never going to

make it--the thing had always been doomed. I should take it out, wait for it to thaw,

bend it into the perfect pose and then refreeze it, Martin thought. He'd give it wrinkles

between its eyes and would make sure all its teeth were showing. He'd put both paws out

like it was ready to pounce. He'd set it up in his garden like a gnome. It would be

precious.
















BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH

P. Terrence McGovern is a native of Newtown, Connecticut. He is a former writer

for The Harvard Lampoon. If he could have a thumb-sized pet shark, he would.