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THE SENDOFF AND OTHER STORIES By LAWRENCE WOOD 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 2005
Copyright 2005 by Lawrence Wood
These stories are dedicated to my parents.
iv ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I would like to thank Padgett Powell, J ill Ciment, Mary Robison and especially David Leavitt for whipping me into better shape. I would like to tha nk the University of Florida for allowing me to spend two years in the unreal world. And I would like to thank my parents for their love and support.
v TABLE OF CONTENTS page ACKNOWLEDGMENTS.................................................................................................iv ABSTRACT....................................................................................................................... vi THE SENDOFF...................................................................................................................1 MISSING........................................................................................................................ ...22 BONES.......................................................................................................................... ....50 AIRPLANE....................................................................................................................... .85 SACRAMENTO................................................................................................................94 SALTWATER.................................................................................................................118 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH...........................................................................................129
vi Abstract of Thesis Presen ted to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts THE SENDOFF AND OTHER STORIES By Lawrence Wood May 2005 Chair: David Leavitt Major Department: English The Sendoff and Other Stories is seven stories about scarred, defective characters trying desperately to find the practicality of their lives through relationships that are often more flawed than themselves. In the title story, a minor league baseba ll player confronts his failures on both a personal and professional level when a teammate, after getting released from the team, throws his own going away party. In Bones, a man considers whet her love inevitably expires after he learns that his dog has epilep sy. The titanium screws in a boys hips in Winters Watchers demonstrates the twis ted notion of comfort in pain. And in Saltwater, a college teacher realizes his knowledge of language is no match for his best students knowledge of everything el se.
1 THE SENDOFF Old Triplett threw his own sendoff party. He was that kind of guy. He bought the booze and some snacks to stuff your face with. He had a nice sound system that played fine, appropriate music for the occasion. He made and then hung streamers that read, Good Luck Triplett! Well miss you, big tim e! Youre the best Danny! No one can replace you! Youre one hell of a guy, Triplett! We were impressed. These were done with careful penmanship and lots of different colors. They did not get in the way of the party. They di d not hang down too low, which is a common error when hanging streamers. They were done the right way. Triplett had prepared the party a couple of days in advance. He told the team about it the day of, right before he was se t to pitch. That was the way it was with Triplett. He always looked ahead, wanted th ings the way he imagined they should be. This was it, a party announced at the last mi nute, only when he arri ved he discovered it had been thought out and organized and wonderf ul. Nice things were said about him all night, and everything was honest. Triplett had deci ded that this was the right way to exit. No other would do. Nobody was surprised by this arrangement. It was Triplett at his finest. Wed all felt this day was coming when Triplett would get cut. I guess he just had a better sense of when it would actually happen. Maybe some guys just know when their time is up. Maybe Triplett knew he didnt have anything left.
2 He and I roomed together on the road. When we werent talking about baseball, which wasnt often, we passed the time telling each other phony stories about our lives. It was clear to me that what we were sa ying was bullshit, but to Triplett, I was hooked into his remarkable life. We were an in teresting duo. He believed everything what I told him and what he would tell me. I believed nothing. Yet we kept our stories a s ecret. Like we had something to lose if they ever got out. Thats how we got along. How we kept our minds off everything that was happening on the field which wa snt anything to brag about. I tried not to point out the flaws in his stories. Like when he first told me that as a kid his eyesight was as good as a wolfs. Literally. And then a couple of months later he told me he was partially blind as a kid because hed eaten some berries you werent supposed to eat when he was on a nature hike. That one I let slide. Others I couldnt resist. And when I did bring up one, hed say something like, Huh, I said that? A nd then just continue with the story he was telling. I liked that abou t Triplett. He didnt give a shit about too much. We were sitting in the dugout waiting to take the field and Triplett made an announcement. He said, Theres a party happening later. No big deal. A little sendoff, Ive been told. A little bit of liquor. Should be okay. We took the field. We didn t talk about the party the re st of the game. We lost the game 13-5. Wed played hard for the firs t couple innings before things started falling apart. Mostly it was Tripletts fault. He kne w it. We knew it. It was past the point of blaming the entire team. For his sake, though, we kept it to ourselves. Hed thrown about seventy fucked up pitches in three innings and we had a good sense that tomorrow
3 he wouldnt be around. We gave him some pats on the back, but didnt try to console him. In the grand scheme of things, the loss didnt matter much. We were here to play for ourselves, to earn promotions. You dont ever like losing, but on this level you can deal with it. Triplett had learned to deal with it. Had learned to d eal with the fact that every time he pitched, he was a big reason w hy we lost. For that reason, we were keen on him sticking around. We use to call him Good Old Triplett, but after awhile we realized he wasnt good at all. One of the worst p itchers on this level Id ever come to know. So we decided, appropriately, to drop the good and stick with the old. Triplett didnt seem to notice. Or if he did he didnt say anything. I suppose th eres not much to say when it comes to your nickname. But then he pulled the glove down and let out a laugh and shook his head. Hed known what was coming. He sat next to me in the dugout with his mitt over his face. I heard some moaning I assumed was crying. I scooted away. Triplett moved to the end of the bench and filled a paper cup with water. He stayed there. Back in the clubhouse after the game, Trip lett was laughing it up with some of the other guys. Xavier Pepper came up to me as I undressed. Xavier was a meaty catcher whod defected from Cuba. After signing on wi th the team, hed changed his name to fit in. We had no other Hispanics. His English was pleasant to listen to. It sounded full of fat. Succulent. You coming to this party? The party shoul d be real kick ass, he said.
4 You bet. Should we say anything to Tr iplett? About the game. Like what? He knows what happened. Xavier shrugged his shoulders. He went to his locker and sprayed Sure deodorant under his armpits. I showered. The water was too hot. I put on my street clothes and shut my locker. Triplett did the same. Wheres this party? I asked. Oh, just at my place. You set it up? Nah. My girlfriend did. Told me sh ed take care of it when I came here. Didnt know you had a girlfriend, Triplett. Oh sure. A couple months now. Shes a doctor, so she works a lot. An ears, nose and throat surgeon, in fact. I couldnt handle that, but she seems to like it. Shes actually the youngest practicing surge on at the hospital. Sounds like a great thing, I said. Yeah, its pretty good. I drove home in my beat up VW Rabbit. Id wanted to get something new for a while, but were not paid the way we should be The car had been a gift from an old wife. We exchanged things somewhat peac efully. I took the car and she took two dogs, the microwave, and the portable phone. She calls me late at night. She doesnt say much, if anything. Usually nothing. I can hear the dogs barking in the background, though, so I know its her. Sometimes I hear a sound like the one Trip lett made after he
5 was yanked like muffled crying or laughing, its truly hard to know. Maybe both. I usually hold the phone to my ear until I cant hear the dogs anymore. Thats when the call no longer matters. Besides, it gets me ma d when I think that shes using the portable phone to call me and not say shit. She had a lot to say about me before she le ft. I suppose I should be thankful that I dont have to hear the yelling anymore. But for some reason I always liked her voice. It wasnt exactly kind. Just protective. It made me trust my life. My ambition. My goals. I cracked open a Keystone when I got home and drank it. I had a message from a woman named Penelope whom Id met at a bar in Little Rock on one of our road games. She was interested to know when the team was coming back. I realized Id given her the right number. I was surprised that she calle d anyway because I hadnt said goodbye. Just left her in the motel room and hopped on th e bus. Im not that type of guy, but sometimes you do things because you can, not necessarily because you want to. Its easier that way. I wasnt going to see her ag ain and that was the way it should be. I figured the party was going to be just the team, seeing how it was a party that was to do with his exit, but with Triplett you never knew. Every so often hed leave the game with a couple of strangers wed never seen before. They were friendly enough. Occasionally hed meet a few of us at the ba r, arriving with some people wed never even heard of. He wasnt the same when he was with those randoms. He would drink different drinks and talk about shit that didnt seem wort h talking about. We liked him the way he was around us. I guess we just want ed him to ourselves. I hoped it would be that way at the sendoff.
6 Me and Triplett played together for part s of two seasons. Except for the stories we told on the road, we were content just to be teammates rather than friends. I suppose I felt that about most of the guys on the team. We would drink together on the road and occasionally at home, but that was just to kill the boredom. Mo st of the guys moved away during the winter, not talking until spring training. By that time half the team was gone, either traded or promoted or cut. Some of the guys move south to play wi nter ball in Mexico or Puerto Rico or somewhere else in the Caribbean. I just go home. Me and my ex-wife lived in New Mexico, which is where shes from. But after that concluded I moved back to Colorado. The winters are nice and I dont ha ve to think about baseball wh ile Im there. Ive got a brother who owns a restaurant so I can help him out, make a few bucks until the spring. Ive been doing this for the pa st four years and if it doesnt change, Ill be headed to where Triplett is. But Im sure Ill be okay. Ive got a good feeling about me. I left the window down. It was humid, but any kind of air felt nice. Since the game Id felt lightheaded, like I wasnt ge tting the proper amount of oxygen, like I was wearing a shirt with a collar that was too tight. I thought of my wife trying to choke me in her sleep. It was before we were married. It was endearing at that time wh en she didnt actually do it consciously. After we made our vows it was a whole different stor y. I felt like a battered spouse, coming to the ballpark with fresh, crimson rings around my neck, like I was an oak tree. But she kept me well fed and came to all my games a nd didnt say a thing whe n, that first year, I would come home with fresh dents on the ca r. She would ignore the whisperings that I
7 was a drunk because I wasnt. But the first year with a contract to play baseball you tend to want to celebrate. Tripletts front lawn was covered with w eeds and smelled like bananas. The walk to his front door stirred my sinuses, giving me a fit of sn eezes until I could safely enter his duplex. But this night the weeds werent in Tripletts plans. Hed gotten himself a mower, a non-electric one. There were a coup le of those Tiki torc hes on either side of the walkway. I knocked on the door. A girl answered it. I wondered if it wa s true that Triplett had a girlfriend. A strawberry daiquiri wa s in her right hand, pressed up against her breasts. You here for the going away party? she asked. Where you going? I asked. She didnt laugh. Not for me, silly. Danny. Hes the one going away. Thats right. She let me through and then shut the door behind me. It was strange to hear his first name. It was like watching a girl from across the bar, imagini ng all the things you could do with her, and then walking over there and discovering she wasnt what you thought she was at all. She was younger or olde r or uglier. She had her flaws. Thats what I thought of when I hear d Tripletts first name. With a first name he was a real person, like the rest of us. When it was just Old Triplett, he was so mething else. He was a person you wanted to be around because he made you forget your problems. But when
8 you heard Danny, when it rang out of the speakers at the park, you remembered that he had his own problems we didnt know about. There seemed to be two types of women, some like the girl with the strawberry daiquiri, girls ready and able to party, and some that youd be surprised to see at a bar, to have a drink at all. Guys from th e team were talking to both kinds. There was an oval shaped metal tub with handles in one corner that was filled with ice and bottles of beer. Some kind of danceable music was playing at a reasonable level and there were red and blue plastic cups stacked on a table along with a covered bucket that held ice and tongs for the ice, and yellow party napkins that had written on them in cursive writing, Goodbye, Sunshine. The rest of the tabl e was clustered with half-full bottles of liquor and tw o-liters of soda and tonic and cartons of juice. Some of the girls had grass leis around their necks, and sang along with the music, singing to the crowd of people. I headed over to the drink ta ble. I poured a glass of bourbon and sipped it slowly. Triplett was talking to strawberry daiquiri be fore he saw me. He made his way over as I surveyed the people awkwardly moving their hips to the music. Hey, man, he said. Good party, Triplett. That your girl? I pointed to strawberry daiquiri. Nope. Old friend. Beatrice. She show s apartments to prospective renters. You dont say. Yeah, my girlfriend got called away. Sh es at the hospital, operating on some poor schlep whos got a tumor in his throat the size of a jumbo chicken egg. Hes not going to have the use of his voice box afterw ards, but at least hel l be alive.
9 Sorry to hear it. Old Triplett poured himself a mix of Southern Comfort and Seven-Up. Did I ever tell you about my babysitter? Triplett asked after taking a big gulp. I shook my head. He was getting ready to begin the stor y, when a guy Id never seen called him over. Remind me to tell you later, he sai d, and went over to talk to the guy. I returned to my drink, tryi ng to remember the parties Id had in the past, the best ones Id ever been to. I came up with onl y my own birthdays. The ones when I was younger, swinging at whiffleballs with plastic bats, and baseballs that rested on tees. Freddy V., our eighteen-year-old first ba seman who was destined to play in the Bigs, stumbled over, hammered and droopy-look ing. He had a lit cigar resting in the palm of his hand. I watched it carefull y, waiting for it to brand his skin. What the fuck is going on? he shouted. His eyes were bloodshot and unstable. I shrugged my shoulders. His head swayed back and forth, like a scale that couldnt get even, and he hummed something to himself. I decided to have some fun with him. Freddy, see that guy over there? I poin ted to a man wearing a Stetson. What about him? He repossesses furniture from old peoples houses. So what? So, its not his job. I mean its not wh at hes supposed to be doing. He aint supposed to repossess peoples shit.
10 Really? Then he sells the stuff out of the back of his truck. Thats how I got my TV and reclining chair. Actually, to be honest, half my shit comes from him. He gets you a real good price. That true? Absolutely. You could go and talk to him, but he doesnt like people knowing about it. I mean, he could get into some serious trouble. He doesnt really want it to get out. Hes got his clientele list. In his glass, Freddy splashed some gi n over a few cubes of ice and sucked it down. He was listening now, no longer pa ying attention to the dancers. How do you know him? he asked. Its a complicated story that involv es a lot of heartache, I said. Sorry, man. Its not your problem, I said. Its mine. I looked away for effect, waiting for the right time to explain. You see, I sort of saved his wifes life, but I couldnt save her from going into a coma, which is where she is today. We just didnt have enough time. Just not enough time, I said, and shook my head, like it was real painful, like I couldve done something else to keep her from fa lling into the coma. Thats fucked, man. It is fucked. Really fucked. Freddy V. gave my shoulder a squeeze. He said, Youre going to get through this.
11 He left me alone with my bullshit thought s. I refilled my cup with bourbon and headed over to a table with chips and dip. There was a woman piling food onto a paper plate. She had a gob of guacamole on her aqua tank top. She wore a black skirt with beads dangling down at the bottom. She wa snt what youd call attractive, but not unattractive either. How do you do? I asked. Her mouth was full of food. She turn ed around and laughed, her cheeks puffed out, trying to retain all the food in her m outh. She stuck out her hand. I shook it. She swallowed. Nice to meet you, she said. You know Old Triplett? I said. She looked confused. Oh, you mean Danny? Right. My names Casey, she said, in a rusty sort of voice. You can call me Felix. Thats a cute name. Its not really mine. I wi sh it were, but its not. I wish my name were Jane, she said. There was a fire blazing outside. Someone had starte d it by pushing over a Tiki torch. Fortunately Triplett had trimmed back the weeds, otherwise wed have been hoofing it out of here. Then what kind of se ndoff party would it be? But Triplett didnt seem to care. It didnt appear to be dangerous, though you never know with fires. I almost started a brush fire one summer in Colorado. But its dry there anything can catch and then, boom, youre in deep shit. But here, its just muggy and uncomfortable.
12 Some nights I think how remarkable it is that we can even light a fire in a place thats so damn wet. But then someone pushes over a Tiki torch and, boom, its blazing over a four by four spot of trimmed lawn. You want to take a look at the fire? I asked Jane. Well, she said, that sounds fine. She filled up her plate with more food and followed me outside. I imagined myself running away with this woman. I imag ined quitting baseball and taking her away, plate of food and all. I thought about things I would say that would make her fall in love with me. Things I hadnt said to my wife. Couldnt say. I dont even know this woman, but immediately I considered a life with her. I made plans with her as we moved towards the fire, along with fifteen other idiotic ga wkers. And I thought, I look like the rest of them. Stupid jocks getting a kick out of a patc h of burning grass. I didnt want to be like the rest of them. I wanted to be like Old Triplett. I wanted my own sendoff party with streamers and fine liquor and groups of people who had never seen each other, but were very important to me. I wanted to do things over again. I wanted to be a better ballplayer. I wanted to be the best. As we ma de our way to the fire I wanted the fire to take off, to start burning like the brush fire I never started, to eat up the entire team. The entire stupid ass team. My boyfriends best friend died in a fo rest fire, Jane said indifferently. Im sorry to hear that, I said, meaning more the part about her having a boyfriend. Well, its over now. My boyfriend is off doing something somewhere else, and Im left with nothing but a promised phone call.
13 We stood watching the fire intensify. We were entranced. The boys were drunk, spitting mouthfuls of liquor ont o the burning lawn. I was star ing at Jane, wondering what her skin felt like, how her hair smelled. I thought about how our lives were different, how she was waiting for a phone call that neve r came, and I got phone calls that were silent, save for the dogs, only there to remind me that once I had things I no longer have. I wondered what Jane and I would talk a bout on the phone, how she would greet me when I picked up the receiver and said hello. What do you do? I asked. The fire picked up steam. I write greeting cards and I work in an adu lt store. Actually I just file movies in the computer for the store. Titles and vol umes, you know. When Im done with that I work on my greeting cards. You have a service? Freelance. Id like to do something with it, but the adult store pays more. I was just trying to get by until my boyfriend retrieved me. Freddie V. came up behind Jane and ga ve me a lewd tongue flick and then laughed, stumbling over his own feet, n early crashing into the fire. I hated him right then and I hated myself for sharing something with him. At one point in my life I probably w ouldve found that funny. I coul dve even pulled that move myself. But not now. Not ever again. It wa s disrespectful on a ni ght like this. It was Tripletts farewell and it should ve been classy and dignified. I wanted so much for it to be something that Id never been a part of. I wanted it to be more than just a baseball team getting drunk and ogling a fire. I didnt wa nt to be what my wife called me before
14 she left with my dogs irrelevant. And what I thought could get me there was Jane. She was worth something. I can make a great pork chop, I blurted out. I didnt want to talk about baseball or about her boyfriend or my wife or anything el se that I thought about on a daily basis. In truth, Id never cooked a pork chop. I di dnt know how. I didnt know what you ate them with or even if they were something wo men liked. But I was sure that if Jane liked them, I could manage to grill up a couple. Im a vegetarian, she said. She finished off the contents of her plate and tossed it into the fire. Whats your story? she asked. I dont have one. Im just here to say farewell to my friend Triplett. I dont know him that well. I came with a couple friends who are in his yoga class. I didnt know he was taking a yoga class, I said. Teaching one, she said. Hes been doing it for years. Every Tuesday and Thursday for as long as I can remember. Every Tuesday and Thursday, huh? All year long? Without fail, she said. Hes the best, I hear. Jane became preoccupied, not with the fire, but the people who surrounded it. The people who were handling it like it was a performance, burning for their amusement. She brushed her hair back and laughed. She said, My boyfriend use to jump through flaming rings at the circus. He was a daredevil.
15 I thought about asking Jane to point out Triplett, to ma ke sure we were talking about the same person, but the truth was, I di dnt care. We shared something very similar that made me feel partially relieved wed both lost someone we shouldnt have. There was no explanation and there never would be Every person at this party had his own story that would probably be as exciting as any story you could ever hear. A sendoff party, I suppose, required th ese types of stories. My stories, the great ones, the ones that are worth telling, always sneak up on me. Just as if Id read them in the morning paper. The story I could tell of my wife was never very interesting until she left. Now it gives me something to talk about. I can te ll people about the dead phone calls and the way we separated. I can say that she used to trade my vinyls at rummage sales for items that she would later give to me for Christmas. But I can also tell them that before we were married she never let me pay for a single meal. That she rode in the trunk of my car one full day because she wanted to feel what it was like to be kidnapped. I told her it wouldnt be the same and she told me that it didnt have to be ex act, only close to the truth. At the time I was embarrassed and wouldn t have told a soul about it. But now I have freedom and its a stor y people like to hear. I can show someone a poem she once wrote me on an anniversary and tell them that shed read it to me and Id just about cried because it was hear tfelt but then shed looked it over and said to me, Poetry su cks. And then shed handed it to me and suggested we rent a comedy.
16 For a two month spell during our second y ear of marriage, after she did anything that she found enjoyable, whether with me or not, shed say, That was the shit. Then one day she dropped it and told me it was yesterda ys news. That one I still think about. I can tell people about my life with a wife and the one that I currently live compare and contrast, that sort of shit. Its just as interesting as anybody elses. You just have to do it the right way. Would you like something from the house? I asked Jane. She shook her head. I left her with the other observers. I filled up my glass with bourbon and tried so me of the dip. It tasted like Cheese Whiz and mild salsa. I didnt like it. A few boys from the team were rubbi ng up against their respective partners, darting tongues into the girl s mouths. Triplett was sit ting by himself, drinking a pink cocktail. I went over to him. He looked exhausted and relieved. What should we talk about? he asked. Tell me about the babysitter, I said. Oh, right. The babysitter. I was going to tell you that one earlier, right? Yes. I had this babysitter when I was younger. She was an ice skater. I do know that. But she also claimed to be a National Geogr aphic photographer. Sh e told me a lot of things when I was growing up. She would di sappear for weeks, which I assumed was for her photo shoots. Best babysitter I ever had. And then one night, when my parents were set to go to a movie, my mom pulled me asid e and told me I had a new babysitter. She
17 didnt tell me why, only that the ice skater would not be coming back. I was upset, of course, and pressed her for more details, but I never got any. Then one day I got this brilliant idea to jump on a bus and ride down to the ice rink to talk to her, ask her why she wasn t coming back. When I got there she was missing. I asked another ice skater and she to ld me they didnt know where shed gone. My parents were furious, pa rticularly my mother. Fi rst she took it out on me but then started in on my father, screaming about ch ores that hed forgotten to take care of, responsibilities hed neglected, and so on. My parents were never really happy again. The fighting only ceased on special occasions, usually when there was company, though sometimes not even for that. After a while I got used to it. Or, I guess, used to it happening every day. Eventually I forgot about my babysitter, only remembering that my trip to the ice rink had se t off the life I now lived. Then when I was in high school, seven, eight years later, I bumped into her at a bar. I didnt know it was her at first. She asked me if I wanted to throw darts. She looked beat up, older than she was. But bei ng with an older woman was a turn-on. We played darts and drank beer. Then we got to talking and soon I rea lized that I knew her from somewhere. I mustve asked her a hundr ed questions, trying to pinpoint her place in my history. I never even consid ered that she was my babysitter. We left it alone. I ditched my friends and we went back to her place. It was in this shithole apartment complex that smelled like sex and acid. We drank some more and then fucked. When we were lying in bed she told me she used to be an FBI informant. She said she was in the witness protection pr ogram because she had to testify in this major case. I didnt really care if it was tr ue, because I was tired and drunk and just
18 wanted to fall asleep. But she kept me awak e, telling me all these ridiculous stories, which eventually got me to ask her questions about the things she was claiming to have happened. Her answers were detailed and seem ingly precise. I thought, wow, Ive just laid an older, exciting, adventurous person. She ran her hand through my hair and I fell asleep. I woke up a couple hours later and she wa s crying. But not just crying, bawling like a baby. She had my wallet in hand and a ll the cards with my picture were spread over the bed. This was when I figured out who the hell she was. She never told me herself, she didnt have to. I just knew. She apologized over and over again. She couldnt stop telling me how sorry she was for having gone through my wallet. But that wasnt it. She was ashamed of who she was. She wasnt any of the things she clai med to be. She was a liar lying for money. And I think she saw my name and thought of my parents. She thought of ice skating and being younger and being pretty. She didnt say a thing. Neit her did I. I patted her hand and pulled her back towards me. We fell asleep. I woke up before her and left without saying goodbye. I didnt leave a note. I think of her when I watch ice-skat ing at the Olympics, he said. We heard a loud hiss from outside. I stood and ran to take a look. The fire had swept across the gutter, licking the leaves th at were jammed insi de it. Flames soon covered the entire wall, and there was a si lence that usually signals the end of the evening. Triplett was standing next to me, watching the fire eat away at his lifes belongings.
19 The soft red that glowed in the sky looke d like a sunset. And for the first time all summer, it actually felt dry. The humidity had been whisked away. Ashes started snowing down on us. Id heard in a crisis youre supposed to stay calm, keep your voice down and speak clearly, so as not to panic the vict im. These can get very ugly if youre not absolutely, one hundred percent, careful. I didnt do what Id learned. I said, Tr iplett, what the he ll are you doing? Jesus Christ, do something. I think your go ddamn house is going to burn down. I looked at him, stricken with what amount ed to fear not for our lives but for his belongings, every single possession he could care about. I think Im going back to Wisconsin to pl ay the banjo in a bluegrass band. Ive always wanted to do that, and now fi nally I have the time. What? What the hell are you talking about? The roof lit up. Screams erupted. Gather ers took off down the street. This snapped Triplett out of his trance. I guess I better make the phone call, he said. He turned back around, watching the fire eat away at the remains of his life as a baseball player. He took a step forward, like he was considering going back in. Right be fore I was able to say anything he kicked at a plastic cup that had been left behind. He then walked away, down the street and up the steps to a neighbors house. I headed towards my car. Jane was gone Freddie V. was gone. Most everyone had vanished. I sniffed the air one more time, searching for banana, but it was gone, replaced by burning oil and cheap painted wood.
20 Driving home, I didnt think of Triplett or Jane or my wife or the party or the team. I thought about what my sendoff party woul d be like. What Id really want to have happen. I know it would be full of little l eague games and Big League Chew. Playoff baseball and lustful, passionate words full of real, honest-to-god emotion. I think Id have grape soda and pizza and cheap beer Backstops and no dugouts and clothes for bases. Id have my dogs chasing after balls that were hit up the middle. Most of all, though, I wanted sound a lot of it. Loud noi se that made you forget what you were thinking or feeling. I needed this bad. I imagined Triplett walking back into the flames. I couldnt see him actually doing it, though deep down I didn t really know if he was capab le or not. In truth, I didnt really know Triplett, which was the worst part of it all. If someone were to ask me tomorrow, reading in the paper that Triplett ha d burned alive, I couldn t say that that was just like Old Triplett. I couldnt tell them that he was stubborn and passionate and miserable and brave and walki ng into burning houses was just a thing that Old Triplett did, because I didnt really know. I didnt know if that was in his character. Or maybe he would get to the doorway and then reconsid er and run to a neighbors to call for help, like Id seen him do. I have no id ea. I wouldnt be able to sa y one way or another. Only that he was a friend that I would miss more for what I didnt know about him than for what I did. If it were my story, Id have Triplett in that house, making the emergency call just as collected as possible, while parts of the house were crumbling in front of him, lit with fire. Then hed hang up and casually navigate himself out of the wreckage, and back out to the street.
21 If it were up to me, Id te ll people that that was the way it went down and that was the type of person Old Triplett was. Because I think thats the way hed like to be remembered. I drank a glass of water at home. I turn ed on my radio and television set and sat on my couch and closed my eyes. I nearly dr ifted off until the phone rang. I answered it. The dogs began to bark. I said, Im going to hit a homerun tomorrow. Its going to be huge. There was nothing on the other line. How are the dogs? I asked. They barked l ouder, like they wanted to make sure I knew they were okay. That they missed me.
22 MISSING Diana and I first got wind of the Cat Mu tilator three months ago when we were staying at a Marriott in Rochester, Minnesota just before our baby died. The story was in the complimentary USA Today that was left outside our room each morning. The article was on the fourth pa ge, without a picture. I was still in bed when I h eard a shriek from the bathroom. It sounded serious, so I got up and rushed to the door. Are you okay? I asked. Wonderful. Im wonderful, she said. Here, let me read you something. And she read me this story about a g uy in our hometown, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, who opened his door in the morning to find th e decapitated head of a black cat looking right at him. The cats tongue was cut out and replaced by, get this, a Post-it note in the shape of a cat that read, Wheres your cat? He didnt have a cat, but was sure it meant something else. Something sinister. But what got me, what iced my bones was what this guy said when he first walked out his door. He said, I heard a scream as I saw the cats eyes staring right at me. It was only later that I realized it was me who had screamed. Diana thought it was absolutely delicious. What did you think? she asked I didnt know what to think. It was one of those moments where you wish someone couldve told you what to think. What the right way to think was. I had no idea. Are you there, Francis?
23 Im here, I said. Dianas always been afra id of not being heard. It is her greatest fear. Not being heard and being left behind. There were thirteen others, all with tale s similar to the one Diana read to me. Fourteen decapitated heads found and nearly a hundred other cats reported missing. What do you think all this means? she asked. Hard to say. Lets talk about it wh en you get out of the bathroom. I could hear her tearing to ilet paper off the toilet paper spindle, shuffling the newspaper as she shifted. I wondered what sh e looked like. I felt like I needed to know, because the image I had of he r in the bathroom was utterl y disgusting. I could see her sitting on the toilet, her face old and wrinkl ed and pathetic. And I knew she couldnt look that bad. I dont know where I got that image of her from, Id never had one like that before. I tried to forget about it. Sometimes, though, things stick. Diana and I had breakfast that morn ing and she rambled on about the Cat Mutilator. Youd think, she said, theyd come up with so mething better. Something catchier, like the Cat Cr ucifier or the Sheboygan Strangler. Anythings got to be better than the Cat Mutilator. Its so boring. Those dont exactly fit, though, do they? Th e guy who did this didnt strangle the cats, and he certainly didnt crucify them. How do you know that? How do you know th e cats werent tied to a cross first, or strangled with wire on a bathroom door before their heads were cut off? How do you know that? I dont. But the nicknames these guys, th ese killers have typically describe a revealed trait of theirs. Does that make sense?
24 How do you know its a man? Why couldn t it be a woman? You dont think a woman could do something like this? Thats typical Youre a goddamn typical man. It went on like this for a little longer a nd then we paid and left. We had some things to do and we did them. Diana was ma d and I was annoyed that she was mad. That day was an absolute, complete disaster. It was our last in Rochester. Diana took the newspaper home with us and taped the article up on the refrigerator. Why dont you star t a scrapbook instead? I asked. This is fine. Im just going to put th is one up. Just a little token, you know? Of what? Arent you at all excited about this famous person in our town? In town, Francis. I think its fantastic. Look here, right here, she said, pointing to the article. USA Today Thats nationwide. And all co ming from this little town. I just thought it might be be tter if it were concealed. Im not sure how other people would react to it, is all Im saying. I dont care what other people have to say. Its not their house. Its mine. Ours. Right, ours. I remembered that moment in the bath room, when I listene d to her pull toilet paper off the spindle. I sensed the same demean or in her. I felt bad for remembering it. Shed highlighted the quotes. I waited for her to suggest we make this case into a musical, something shed done before. It di dnt come. It wasnt playful. It was something entirely different. I let it go. What are you supposed to do?
25 Diana searched through the local newspa per for more information on the Cat Mutilator. The newspaper was from the same day as the USA Today There were two articles. One was on the front page and include d a picture of three of the victims. This disappointed Diana. The second was an edito rial Diana laughed at and threw away. I cant wait till tomorrow to see what else they have to say about the mutilator, she said. Maybe itll strike again. You could tell she wanted to frame it. She adjusted it, considered using a different type of tape, maybe even laminating it. Its just this one, she repeated. I just want to save this one. By the following Friday, on the fridge there were six articles, eleven victims pictures, and one interpretive drawing of what a mutilated cat skull should look like. That one article just didnt co mplete the story, you know? she said. Are we done now? I asked. I wonder what these people are like? Do you ever wonder what victims are like? How their lives have changed or stayed the same? Do you ever think about things like this, Francis? So is this the last of it? I paused, looking at what she had collected. Why dont you put it in the Chuck Taylor shoebox? Thats what its there for. Theres plenty of room. Just put it in there, I said. The Chuck Taylor shoebox contained love le tters and plastic jewelry and a roll of two-dollar bills and movie stubs from dates a nd moderately valued baseball cards. There were two chess pieces that ha d been hand-carved in Italy a nd a basic guide to French. I
26 think it had an autographed pict ure of Huey Lewis, but I can t be sure. That might have been moved to the safety-deposit box. I do know there was a bundle of articles about that serial killer who was around here a couple year s back the guy who performed oral sex on his victims before he bludgeoned them. Di ana loved that story. She would highlight the quotes. Read them like she was in a pla y. I think she mightve suggested something like that before. Making the case into a musical. You could write the music, I could write the words. Compose, I probably said. I could compose the music. Exactly, she said. I really wonder what its like for them. You know, Francis, these cats these people find arent even theirs Theyre someone elses. Can you believe that? I wonder whats more traumatic, having your cat mutila ted or finding a mutilated cat on your front lawn at seven in the morning? I think maybe finding the cat mutilated is worse. Because why would they choose to put a mutilated cat on your lawn? There must be some reason. I think if your cat gets mutilated, its mostly ju st random. Thats a little comforting. It gets you thinking. Her clippings were starting to look like a family tree, the human victims lined up and dates scribbled undern eath their pictures. I had to go to work. I played the piano at this bar called th e Immaculate Club that caters to scum on the weekdays and wealthy, affluent high school kids on Fridays and Saturdays. For the first three weeks I didnt know this. I only played the week days because weekends I was
27 in Rochester with Diana. Its highly irregular that theyd le t me have three weekends off, and even more so given that Id only starte d. But they were sympathetic. I think some people believe its immoral if you arent, in cases like this The baby, I mean. Diana stayed in Rochester while it wa s there. I drove up on the weekends because someone had to pay the bills. But the baby was sick and soon enough, it died. The whole thing was tragic. I had an inkling of what was to come because I asked a bartender why there was a piano in the bar when so many of the cust omers ask me whether or not I thought they should get a jukebox. He told me the piano was for the kids. Whose kids? The kids. That was all I got. He walked away and told me Id have to wait and see. His elusiveness was petty, but intriguing. That first Friday night was scrambled. I came in at five and the kids were already arriving. I ordered a drink and talked to the bartender. Hes really nice and cordia l. He gave his condolences. It was very appropriate and not at all sad. You sometimes wonder how awkward a moment is going to be when it involves a catastrophe. I think we handled it fine. He told me he wanted to hear some Geor ge Gershwin. Said he didnt hear much of it and was in the mood. I said that sounded good to me. I sat down at the piano and played. Th e keys felt good under my fingers and the drinks were stiff. I played what I wanted to play for the first few hours until the kids started to settle in and re quest songs. They were a l ouder crowd than we get on the weeknights, but more pleasant and gentle on my ears. They danced.
28 The tables in the Immaculate Club are small, wobbly, and splintered. You can barely seat three at them. I sometimes quest ion the true purpose of the tables. Theyre remarkably light and would be easy to throw if you were so inclined. I think Ive seen a couple weeknight drinkers tempted to throw one at me. The piano is only a few feet away. That first Friday night, there was a table of three girls dir ectly in front of me. The girls were young, couldnt have been over fi fteen. Yet there was a confidence about one of the girls that seemed unique and unfamiliar. She could hold anybodys attention in the bar. She held mine. You could tell she was wise beyond her years, affable and selfreliant. Nobody else in the place was ev en close. She was quite stunning. Id been playing for about four hours when I took my first real break. I was surprised when I found myself outside smoking with this girl because the break wasnt intentional. Shed come up to me with a dr ink shed had the bartender make for me, and asked me if I could take a break and if so would I have a cigarette with her. I told her I could do anything I wanted, so I got up and announ ced Id be back in half an hour. Its funny how amiable kids can get when they drink. Her name was Priscilla but she wanted to be called Bluebird. Thats what people call you? I asked. Thats what I want you to call me, she said. My friends call me Priscilla or Prissy for short. But I dont like Prissy, it makes me sound like a pussy. Stil l, I let it go because its affectionate and they let me get away with a lot more.
29 Why Bluebird, then? I said. And she s howed me. She turned around so her back was facing me and lifted up her shirt. There wa s a large bird tattooed on the small of her back. Its going to be filled in blue soon, she said. I believe it, I told her. So this is your first day? She fi nished her cigarett e and lit up a second. No, first weekend. Its not bad. Seems like you should be somewhere else, though. You dont exactly fit here, she said. Theres not much work for a piano play er in Sheboygan. They gave me some leeway. I played at a restaurant before. Got tired of it? Things change. You try to move with it as best as possible. At least I did. Did it work? Not often. She laughed. So what are you doing in Sheboygan? Have you heard of the gu y whos mutilating cats? The Cat Mutilator? I havent heard mu ch. You know, I play the piano, too. For eight years. Thats not bad, I said. I hate it. Its good for college applicatio ns, though. Thats why I play it. Thats why most people at my school play instruments. Thats why we do a lot of the things we do.
30 It could be worse. You could be stuck at the Kohler factory for the rest of your life. Or I could play the piano at a shithol e bar for a bunch of high school kids. She didnt smile. It was intimate. Do you want another cigarette? she aske d me. I did. We smoked a couple more and then went back inside. I played some popular music until midnight They started piling out of the bar about that time. Curfew. Bluebird told me shed give me her number, but it would be strange because of her parents. Just to talk, of course. I asked her about her cell phone. I told her Id be interested in hearing her play. She told me her parents checked the phone numbers. It was only supposed to be for emer gencies anyway. Besides, she said, I dont like to play for anyone. I get uncomfortable. So we agreed that wed see each other the following week. She was going out of town the next day. I had a few more drinks at the bar. I asked the bartender what school the kids attended. Some private school fifteen miles west, he said. Ive never been there, but I hear its really nice. Why? Just curious, I said. Diana was mugged once. Next time she ha d to walk alone, she didnt carry a can of mace or pepper spray. Instead she wore br ass knuckles on her right hand. If she were leaving work or a restaurant or a theater, sh ed put those thick, brass rings around her fist. It made her feel good. Started wearing them around the house. I dont know why I wear
31 them, she would say. They make me feel real good. Like I dont know like something Ive never been before. Strong, maybe. Maybe. Then I found the goddamn things behind the conditioner when I was showering. Id very much like to know how you inte nd to use brass knuckles in the bathtub? I asked. I dont intend to use anything, she said. I either use them or I dont. In the case of my knuckles, I use them. What purpose could they possibly serv e while you bathe? I asked. They just make me feel, she said. Make you feel? I asked. Good. They make me feel good, she said. What does that mean? Makes you feel good. Cleaner? Is that what you mean? Cleaner? Not cleaner. You know good. What? You know. When I pleasure myself, she said. I told her it was either me or the Knuc kles. Reluctantly, she put them away. So the Knuckles are in the Chuck Taylor shoebox, too. The shoes that came in the shoebox were a present from my high school baseball coach. It was a hint, I think. Not an explicit joke. Not a gag gift. A hint. Basketball players no longer played in shoes anything like Chuck Taylors. But it was a message. And it was clear. I liked it, so I wore the shoes until they wore out, and saved the box.
32 Id been drinking White Russians all ni ght with Bluebird and felt it in the morning. I slept until one. When I got up, Diana was sitting on the kitchen floor, cutting out another article. Just two blocks away, she said. What? There was a mutilation two blocks away. The Ramirezs found a calico cat in their backyard. It had its eyes hollowed out and th e eyeballs stuffed in its mouth. The cats head rested on top of a stake that was st uck in the ground. Its tongue, of course, was missing but instead of a Post-it note like al l the rest, there was black magic marker writing on the stake that read, Can you see me ? Creepy, huh? Oh, yeah and the cat was from a family that lived thirty miles awa y. Can you believe that? The mutilator drove thirty miles to plant a cat in someones la wn, and hopped a fence to do it. That takes balls. When did you start saying balls? Theres a picture of the stak e in the paper if you want to see it. Im tempted to go over to the Ramirezs and talk to them. N o, I think Ill wait a few days. It might be insensitive to talk to them the very next day. Maybe on Monday. I remembered the bathroom. That putrid image Id carried around of her. Are you going to the store today? I asked. There was no response. Diana! Are you going to th e grocery store today? What? Yeah, I guess. Ill go later.
33 She returned to the article. Can you get me some milk and vodka and Kaluha? There was no response. Diana! Put it on my list, she said. She was still only wearing a nightshirt a nd underwear when I left for work a little before five. I ordered a White Russian and sat down at the piano. Sometimes I took requests. Sometimes I didnt. It depe nded on my mood, which the kids could normally pick up on. You exert an energy that may not be appare nt to you, but those ar ound you can sense it. You dont have to work at it. Its just there. If I was in a bad m ood, people could tell and usually left me alone. Otherw ise, they were zealous when requesting songs, which was all right with me because when Im in a good mood I to enjoy variety. And these kids, if nothing else, could pr ovide variety. That night I wasnt feeling terrific, so I stuck to what I wanted to play. Id had a good time with Bluebird the night before. After we had come back from our smoke break, I watched Bluebird move through the bar, talking and laughing and buying drinks. She had long, shiny amber hair that she woul d occasionally tuck behind her ears when it fell in her face. She wore a white t-shirt and had a turquoise bracelet on her right wrist and two small rings, one on her thumb and the other on her middle finger that were of a similar shade. I wondered if she was going to fill in her tattoo with turquoise. She started singing, out of tune a few of the songs I played. But when she started singing, she gathered a crowd to sing along. I attributed her less-than-perfect
34 voice to the alcohol, which can make you s ound strange, even if you dont know it. The beauty of a long night of drinking is the next morning despite the hangover you can remember what you want to remember. Im pr etty sure she chose not to remember her singing. I did, though. But the next night was different, less energy. Maybe I was just anxious from being at home. I dont even remember what I played. An ensemble of jazz and rag. Nothing popular. There were no complaints. Even in my hostility and annoyance, I admired the place from behind my piano. I watched what took place that ni ght, what probably took place ev ery night. The routine. There was a carousel of kids coming from the tables to the bar and then back again. Seemingly never ceasing. They moved with alacrity and consci ous caution. Which was a foreign concept, a different practice than what most people are familiar with. We are either enthusiastic and eager about doing some thing, therefore enjoying it to the fullest or trying to, at least or we are tentative and slightly suspic ious about it. Rarely do the two meet. It appears to be contradictory. Im possible. But these kids were able to pull it off. And I think it all had to do with me and my piano. Proba bly, Ill admit, more the piano. But I played it and played it with a friendly disposition. I think I can take credit for that. You see, the kids are comforted by the piano. Its something familiar, and they need that badly. Because this place is the clos est thing to adult life th ey can get and it is unsettling. It is not like a house they party at. Its not comf ortable and sheltered. It is
35 not what they are used to and th at can be terrifying. And yet enthralling at the same time. Thats why I say they moved with alacrity and caution. Something new and exciting, yet slightly frightening. Its lik e breathing and choking at the same time. You can see it in their movements and on their faces. At tim es its laughable and other times charming. You can long for the feeling. And the piano is a plausible distraction fr om the surroundings. Its better than a jukebox. Both warm and intimate. I wanted to join them, experience what they were experiencing. But I couldnt. You cant. Not now. And there is a certain recognition that youve moved on, and its, despite the nostalgia, a good thing. Certainly worth feeling. But the night still wasnt the same without Bluebird. Id have to wait an entire week to see her again. By Wednesday Id had enough. Diana, why dont you put the articles in the Chuck Taylor box like the other ar ticles you collected? I asked. Theyll be safer there. I think theyre fine where they are, she said. On Tuesday Id gone to the library to do a little research on Bluebirds family. Funny how much stuff you can find at the library. I was able to get a hold of Bluebirds school directory, which had the names of th e students and faculty. She is the only Priscilla in the school, which was lucky because I didnt know her last name and that was the whole point of the search. So then I was ready to get down to business; I wanted to find out if they had any musical background or were involved in the arts in any way. As it turned out, her father owned his own cons truction company and her mother worked for the government. I did discover that Bluebi rd had won a tap dancing competition in
36 Chicago just two years before. It mustve been a big deal because there was a website dedicated exclusively to the competition. Apparently th e creative gene skipped her parents and went right to her. After the library I went to a pub and or dered fried cheese curds and a brat and lemonade. Id started going to this pub right after Rochester. It was new and not too crowded so I got pretty good service. I didnt have much of an appetite, but just having all three in front of me, the smells and the sm all tastes I could digest made me feel good. Occasionally Id sit in the pub for two, three, four hours. They had a couple TVs that played whatever sports were on at the time and then they had a screen that played movies old and new. I liked to watc h the movies. If there was an old one Id seen Id try to remember where and when Id seen it. I us ually sat through at le ast one movie, but I have stayed around for two before. Diana and I used to watch a lot of movies together. She would get mad when anybody would talk. Shed yell at a complete stranger if they we re talking. Wanted complete silence. Not terribly unusual, I suppose, wanting silence, but when she found herself in an environment that was less than desirable, she voiced her objection in a deafening way. I liked watching them with her, though, because she made you somehow feel like you were the center of attention not the film. You kne w she could feel your presence and that was what she wanted. For all the silence that she desired during a movie, not being heard in life was what sh e hated most. She was afraid of being forgotten, of not doing something that counted, of not getting what she wanted. That why in everything else that we did, from cooking to driving to sex, she liked to talk and you to listen. I will say, that she listened when I played and made ever ybody else listen too.
37 But even there, my music, my livelihood, s poke volumes about who she was. That was something that needed to be heard, too. When I got home from the pub I f ound Diana on the phone with the police department asking them if they had any deta ils about the mutilation that werent in the papers. Just in case I spot somebody suspicious on the street, she said. I want to be able to identify the mutilator. They told her no, all the information th ey could give her was provided in the papers. She was set on solving the case. On Wednesday she was on the phone with some of the victims, asking about details that could help. No, Im not actually with the police depa rtment or any law enforcement agency, just a concerned citizen, she said. She had surprising luck. Diana, youve started to take down some of the pictures of us off the refrigerator, I said. Theres no room for them right now, she said. When was the last time you went to work? I said. You havent been since before Rochester. That was over six weeks ago. You cant keep this up. Its fine. They think Im still there. I dont need to go into work right now, she said. Diana, they allowed you to leave for a month. I think you should call them. Itll be good for you.
38 She looked up and snorted spitefully. We dont need the extra money anymore, she said. When was the last time you showered? Sh e didnt respond. I left her and decided to head up to Bluebirds school to see if I could talk to her. I asked a secretary at the front office what classroom she was in. I told her I was her uncle. She looked at me suspiciously, but then went in the back, retrieved her schedule and told me her biology class had gone on a field trip to the zoo in Milwaukee. I decided to drive the forty-five minutes. I had nothing better to do. It was better than being bored. When I got there it was raining. I tho ught I had missed her for sure. But I saw her run towards a bus that had the name of her school painted on both sides. I called out to her. It was raining hard and people were screaming, so I started running towards her, calling out her name as I ran. When I caught up to her, she looked startled. Hey, she said. Hi, I said. I wanted to talk to you. She looked annoyed. Im sorry, I said. I shouldve waited until the weekend, but I just needed to talk to you. I know its raining, so can we talk another time. Tomorrow? I dont think thats such a good idea, she said. Your parents? I asked. She nodded her hea d. Just have lunch with me tomorrow, I said. Ill come by your school during lunch hour. Well go somewhere special. I wont take no for an answer. I could tell she wanted to laugh, but felt awkward about the situation. I imagined her parents were rather strict.
39 Fine, she said, but thats it. Its sort of strange, you coming all the way out here. Didnt have anything else to do, I said. I smiled, hoping to get her to loosen up. What time? I asked. Be there at noon, she said. She ran onto the bus and I waved. The bus shut its doors and rumbled off. I got into my car and drove back to Sheboygan. I felt better after that and was ready to forgive Diana for some of what she was doing. But I should mention, because Ive failed to acknowledge it so far, that Ive been rather short with Diana myself Im not sure why Id acted the way I had towards her, it just sort of happened. After the night I met Bluebird, I was adamant about Diana buying me milk, vodka and Kahlua at the store. And its peculiar how I acted when she would forget to get it or, later, when she purposely left the store wit hout it. I would questi on whether she really cared about me. Dont you know how much these items mean to me? I asked. How much I need these? Do you know anything? Its not that hard to remember to pick up a gallon of milk, a bottle of vodka, and a bottle of Kahlua when youre in the grocery store. Theyre pretty distinct. They sta nd out. Do you even care about me? First she would try to console me, tell me she was sorry and that of course she cared about me, how could I as k that? Then shed get frus trated and decide the best solution would be to go back to the store and pi ck up the items. Id let her go. It was the least she could do, I thought. As this behavior continued, she became le ss receptive. At times shed come right out and tell me she didnt have the milk or vodka or Kahlua and if I wanted to get some I could drive to the store and pick them out myself.
40 But what really irked me was that my behavior seemed uncontrollable. I was unapologetic, even when I sat by myself and thought about the fight wed just had. I couldnt find any reason why I should be sorr y. It was rational, I thought. I guess it really wasnt, and I started getting the me ssage when Diana refused to apologize for neglecting my repeated demands. Which, l ooking at it now, was probably a major sign. That night I got home from work and f ound Diana sleeping on the couch. I went upstairs and took a shower. When I got out I wrote Bluebird two letters. One I would bring with me, and the other I would send to he r house. I just wanted to tell her what I thought about her and how much she had to offe r. Of course I mentioned her tattoo; she seemed proud of it when shed showed it to me. I was sure she would appreciate compliments. I woke up at about eleven-fifteen. I dr essed and went downstairs. There, on the floor in the kitchen, was Diana. She wasnt examining the Cat Mutilator article. Instead she had her face in her hands and she was whimpering. Diana? I said. She looked up and I could see her face soaked with tears. What happened? I asked. I had gotten a call the previous da y that threatened Dianas termination from her position at the bank if she didnt come back that day. I figured that must have been it. Look, well find you another job, I said. Itll be okay. I had to hurry this up or Id be late for lunch. What? Another job? I d ont care about that stupid, awful job, she said.
41 Then she showed me a picture in the ne wspaper of a guy who was apparently the Cat Mutilator. Well, thats good, I said. The guy is off the streets. Better for the felines. Diana didnt blink. I knew if I didnt leave soon Id be late. Im not sure why I said what I said, but for some reason it seemed fitting. So it was a guy, right? I said. See, a woman could never commit such a heinous crime. That should give you some sort of comfort. Knowing its not your gender. Youre scum. Youre dirt, she said. I knew it had sliced deep. She put her h ead back in her hands and kept muttering, I cant believe hes gone. It wasnt supposed to happen like this. I cant believe hes gone. We kept other things in the Chuck Tayl or box. I think there might have been some foreign currency and a label from a bottle of tequila we drank in Tijuana. I think we had the label, but maybe it was never there. Maybe we had just planned on it. Talked about how funny and appropriate it would be to have a label from a tequila bottle we drank in Tijuana. Maybe we had decided on it and just forgotten it in the hotel. Maybe it was lost in the wash. Its hard to remember. And there was a stopwatch from the same trip. Diana carried it with her when we walked around the town and on the beach. I ll say this much her sense of humor was unique. In Tijuana, the sidewalks are full of Mexicans selling different things. Peppers, gum, watches, hats, beads, batteries. Dian a was never interested in anything that was being sold but, I suppose, found the situati ons, the constant pestering by the sellers,
42 amusing. So she would propose to some of the people that if they completed various deeds and exercises they would be rewarded with American money. Sometimes shed have them stand on their heads for a minute. If they could do it, shed give them a dollar. If not, they were out of luck. Occasionally shed play clapping games with them for a couple of minutes and then gi ve them fifty cents or a dol lar. Whatever she had. But her favorite was the street race. Shed gather five people and time them running as fast as they could down the street. They thought they were racing against each other, so they ran as fast as they could. But Diana didnt find that too entertaining. After they ran and she noted down the times, she d tell them that they would get each get a dollar if they could beat thei r original time. Typically, th ey couldnt. But she found it funny just watching them try. She usually gave them the money anyway. She thought the scenarios she created were a riot. I wa s concerned that they would create one. On the beach, Diana would give me the st opwatch and tell me to time her holding her breath under water. She was impressi ve. Close to two minutes usually. Once, though, she stayed under too long I think she swallowed water, or got stuck, I cant remember and I had to give her mouth-to-m outh. I put an end to the stopwatch after that. I was going to throw it away but she insisted that we keep it, just put it in storage, as a reminder. I told her fine. The Chuck Taylor box didnt have any valuab les. It didnt have diamond or pearl earrings. It didnt ha ve birth certificates or passports. We didnt keep antiques or heirlooms in the box. None of that stuff. Instead it was like a cheap, modest and mutually beneficial safe. For the valueless.
43 A few weeks after the cat mutilator story broke, though, the box went missing. There wasnt, I admit, a frantic search. It was not where it was supposed to be and so I assumed it was somewhere else. Moved in th e process of cleaning. I thought it best to ask Diana. We were sitting down on the couch, watching a show on cable. What happened to the Chuck Taylor box? What do you mean? I mean, where did it go? Its not where its supposed to be. Did you move it? I dont know. Maybe during cleaning. It couldve been moved when I was cleaning. Maybe you should clean more, than you would know exactly where the Chuck Taylor box is. Maybe, I thought. That was enough for me. How far could it re ally go? It wasnt necessarily a bad thing. I occasionally had suspicions that a certain object was being removed from the box, enjoyed, and then returned clande stinely. So I forgot about it. I got up to her school a little after twelve. Bluebird wasnt in sight but as I pulled up to the curb to park, a man came over to my car and tapped on my window. I rolled it down. Are you Francis Billow s? he asked. I told him I was. He began by inform ing me that if I did not stop contacting Priscilla, the family would have no choice but to seek a restraining order against me. I drove off before he could back away from my car. I couldnt understand the extremes a
44 family would take to shelter th eir daughter. I almost had the nerve to drive back and give the lawyer a piece of my mind, tell him that the world is not going away. People need to experience it. Its not healthy. Youre only going to cause problems for her later. Its detrimental. Its not right. I thought about it, but kept dr iving instead. Maybe, I thought, it would be best to clear my mind. Try to understand the rami fications of everything. It would not, I knew, look good if I had a restraini ng order issued against me. Best to wait until Friday. I could talk to Bluebird at th e Immaculate, get everything straight. Things would cool off. When I got home, though, there was more bad news. On the refrigerator was a sticky-pad note in the shape of a cat that read, Fired. You Motherfucker. It was hard to handle. I wont say that I coul dnt breathe, which is what a lot of people say when they get some very unexpected and terrible news. I dont think thats true. I could br eathe just fine. Everything was working for me, everything that needed to, anyway. I guess I probably just looked around the kitchen, our home, to see if anything had changed. I didnt feel much different. Of course I wasnt happy about it, but I think the wind th at was in my sails, so to sp eak, had all but vanished long before this happened. When I must not have been looking. It was, I suppose, unbelievable. In the truest sense of the wo rd. I wouldnt have believed it couldve happened. But there it was. I l ooked at the note and then at the rest of the refrigerator and then around the kitchen a nd then back at the note. I called work and they told me not to contact them again. Theyd send me my wages.
45 I plopped down at my piano and tried to co mpose. I used to love to write love songs for Diana when we first met. I was playing at an inn on the Atlantic Coast in Georgia. I played in the rest aurant and bar. I met Diana one night while she was in the bar. Shed broken an engagement off, a couple of weeks prior to our meeting. We spent three nights together and then sh e had to leave. I thought that would be the end of it, but she came back. She told me a story about her father who sold guitars in Mexico one summer. We talked about how beau tiful it was down there, how, as she put it, easy it is to forget about yourself. It sounded pretty good. Maybe we could go, she said. Maybe we could go and write a musical about how absolutely wonderful it was. You could write the music, I could write the words. Compose. I could compose the music. Exactly, she said. We made it down to Mexico both before and after our wedding. I was surprised. There are times in your life when you talk a bout doing something, taki ng a trip or buying a house or having children and you hope itll wo rk out but a lot of those times it doesnt and youre not surprised because you think th ose things werent meant for you. I think the trip to Mexico was sort of like that for us. And so when it happened, twice, it surprised me. I thought that was a good sign for our marriage. We had to move to Wisconsin after two years in Georgia. We had a baby boy and it wasnt born right. We moved to Wisconsin because Dianas dad works for the Kohler factory. A vice-president. He took care of us while the baby started to recuperate. Then it got sick. Her dad told us to take him up to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Its the best, he said. Sometimes, though, the best doesnt matter.
46 You wonder about why things happen. I couldnt tell you why this happened. I dont think it always works th at way. Sometimes youre not meant to know. It was all very sad. I went to bed before Diana got home. It was early. She slept on the couch. We lived like this for a couple of weeks, not ta lking. She would leave during the day and I would sit at home and try to wr ite music. It was hopeless. Then one day I saw an article in the newspaper about two cabbies whod been found bound and gagged with their throats sl iced open, in the trunk of their abandoned cabs. A third cabbie had gone missing. I thought this would thrill Diana, but when I showed her she glanced at it and continued watching television. I dont care abou t that stuff anymore, she said, like it was out of style. About a week later I noticed that the shoebox was missing. Diana said she must have moved it while she was cleaning. I bought into that explanation until I was searching for an old vest in the spare closet and noticed the tattere d box sticking out from beneath a mountain of mothball s. I yelled to her. I found it. I found the box. There was no response. I heard her ge t up and walk to the kitchen. The house was quiet. When I reached down to pick up the box, there was a scent that was unfamiliar and unnerving. I opened the box to find all of our stuff gone, replaced by what appeared to be a package wrapped in ne wspaper. I took my poc ketknife out of my pocket and made an incision down the center of the package. There was further wrapping plastic bags and plastic wrap. I tore away at everything until I broke through.
47 In marriages, secrets and surprises are rare. You rely on yourself to know your spouse. If all else is falling apart, you main tain some sort of stability. It becomes the partners most endearing quality because you can hold onto it. Nothing else is quite like it, and thats what I enjoyed about marri age. Knowing that you know somebody, that even if youre unsure about everything el se in your life, you know that person. Sometimes better than yourself. But when you learn a secret it becomes something bigger than what it should be or what it ever wouldve b een before you were married. And I think some people believe these things tear people apart be cause there is a feeling of di sloyalty or distrust. How can I ever trust you again? they say. You lied to me. Youre not the person I once knew. Youre not the person I married. Theyre all clichs, probably ones that are said, wrongly, every day. And there is a hint of th at, Ill admit. Trust is huge. When youre younger, if you dont have trust, you dont ha ve anything. I need to be able to trust you. But when youre older, it doesnt mean quite so much. Because you know neither of you is being completely truthful. Not necessarily in a very malicious way. Mostly in an emotional sense. Rarely are your feelings the same as they were when you met. You dont say that, of course, but you re both aware. And youre fine with it. Because mostly you can trust yourself and at th is age thats everything. When a secret is learned, its not so much a feeling of dishonesty or distrust of the other person that you experien ce, but a feeling of confusion. Youve come to rely on your knowledge of that person, an expertise, but when you find out something you never thought possible, it makes you doubt yourself, and thats the wo rst. When youre older,
48 its the absolute worst. When most people say, I dont know you anymore. Or, Youre not the person I knew before. What th ey really mean is, I dont know who I am anymore. And whats absolutely terrifying about it all is how small the secret or surprise can actually be. Im not sure why Diana had gone to such lengths to preserve what was in the box. Perhaps it was a way of sealing them from th e world. Building a kind of fence to protect them from other eyes. From judgment. Who knows? What I found was a bundle of sealed, unaddre ssed envelopes. There were at least twenty-five, all with different names. St eve Irons, Ron Kildren, Dennis Phillips, Janis Buckley, Teresa Lendberg, Guy McIntosh, etc. I took my knife and slit open one. It read: Dear Mr. Collins, I am writing to tell you that I sympathize with your destructio n of life. I know you are not a bad person, only misguided. If you only knew how much I understand your pain. I dont understand why othe rs cant see that. I dont un derstand why they cant just treat us like normal human beings. I just dont understand anythi ng anymore. The only thing that seems to make sense is you. Thats why we should meet. We should know each other, at least as much as possible. Sincerely, Diana Fitzsimmons I opened others, with the same tone, but different subject matter. Some mentioned me. One wrote of a fight wed ha d over burnt toast. Others were more abstract, more elusive. Some salutations we re benign, others affectionate. The farewells
49 ranged from Best, to With Regards, to Love, to Always Yours. The letters were in no apparent order. They were just her thought s, feelings, concerns, dreams, passions, in letter format. They were love letters. They were the type of letters I would never see. I would never receive. I put the letters back in their envelopes and then back in the box. I secured the lid on top and shoved the box into the space in th e closet where Id found it. I walked down the stairs and into the kitchen. Diana was on the kitchen floor with her newspaper articles and a pad of paper and a bowl of soup. I opened the freezer, took out some leftover pizza and defrosted it in the microwave. I put two pieces on a plate and put the rest back. I filled a glass up with wate r and then took the pizza and water upstairs and went into th e bedroom and shut the door. Im not sure if the missing cabbie was ever found I doubt it. But Dianas lack of interest was understandable. You can gr ow tired of the same thing over and over again. The story was stale similar things had happened before. We wanted something new. Something exciting. Maybe just someth ing different.
50 BONES Bones, our five-year-old Ro ttweiler, had started to get the shakes. I found it amusing. My wife May did not share my opinion. Hes for protection, not for amusement, she said. Hed also become inconsistent, ferociously barking at strangers one day and then barking at us the next. Hed be full of ener gy and then inexplicably dazed and lethargic. But I just assumed he was going through a rough patch. Hed learned to clean up after himself. When he urinated in the bathroom, which is where he slept, he licked it up. Self-suffici ent. Thats a trait most would envy, I said. Not me, May said. Is he just going to st art pissing when a rapist is breaking into the house? That doesnt sound like a good time to me. One morning we were both home from work because a great deal of snow had fallen overnight. A long, too-usual silence ha d infected our house that morning so I started an argument so we coul d say something, anything. Which word was more passionate, love or loathe? I told her I thought love was the winner b ecause there are only so many things in your life you can truly love. And when you find that, its like nothing else. Its something youll sacrifice your life for. A nd it makes you feel so many things all at once. Its that powerful. I rubbed her hand.
51 May, of course, chose loathe, which, though fucked up, was what I wanted to hear from her. Ugh, she said, shaking my hand off hers. And then she argued that a person could be consumed by it. Loathing someone could eat up their life. People lo ve a lot of things in life. Bu t it is truly rare to downright loathe something. And it has to be the result of a terrible circumstan ce. You can fall in love with a dozen people at the same time if you want to. But to loathe somebody takes patience and luck and dedication. And we went back and forth, talking mo re than wed talked in months. We werent evasive or elusive, like wed recen tly become. We told each other what we thought. She cited the dictionary, calling attent ion to the minimal entries under the word. Claiming that you cant confuse loathe with anything else. It only means one thing. Theres no substitute. I responded by telling her that you wouldn t plan your life around the loathing of another person. You wouldnt move to a nother state, find a new job, buy a house and adopt a dog for protection if you just loathed someone. How do you know? she said. I didnt. It was true. I had no idea if a person would change their life out of loathing. Perhaps it was possible, though I didnt want to admit it. I shrugged. And I realized, at least at that moment, I didn t love her. Maybe just for an instance I thought perhaps I would never love her again. I didnt know what it was, maybe her tone of voice. Maybe it was the demand in her voice. Maybe it was th e fact that I knew shed already won our debate by a
52 landslide. Or maybe it was because I knew how much she enjoyed the argument we were having. Not necessarily because she thought sh ed won, but because she believed in what she was saying. Because she was passionate about it. And I hadnt seen that from her in a long time. Not towards me, towards Bones, towards work, towards anything. Bones had been sporadically shaking this day, which I attributed to the weather and our ratty house that leaked heat like Bones leaked unsavory fluid. May thought he wasnt acting appropriately. He wasnt fulfill ing his responsibilities. This was evident, she pointed out, when a UPS worker had knocked on the door and Bones, instead of taking the initiative, w ildly barking, and knocking over furn iture in an attempt to get to the front door for first crack at the strangers throat, made a pathetic grunt and limp in the direction of the door, and then flopp ed back down and closed his eyes. We agreed that it was time to pay the vet a visit. We took him the next day. We told th e vet the symptoms. He nodded while we spoke. Its possible he has epilepsy, he said. Youre kidding me. I didnt know dogs could get seizures, I said. Oh yes. Its almost as frequent in dogs as in humans. Thats unfortunate, I said. Is there anyone in the family that suffers from it? he asked. May pointed at me. He does, she said. The vet laughed. No, I mean anyone in Bones family. Hi s parents? Brothers and sisters? No clue, May said.
53 Well, we cant be sure. Unlike humans, dogs cant tell us what theyre feeling so its harder to diagnose. What I would suggest you do is videotape his behavior. You can set it up when he goes to sleep and if you cat ch any tremors or di sorientation during the day, record that as well. In two weeks come in and I should have a better sense of Bones condition. We borrowed a video camera from a nei ghbor and set it up in the bathroom. There wasnt much change in Bones. Some days he was as I remembered him. He was cheerful, affectionate and energetic. He seemed to be without fault. I loved him without hesitation. I took him running. We played fetch. I rolled around with him. Other days he was stubborn, tense and unl oving. I tried to keep his behavior on these days from May. I wasnt sure what shed say. I lied, told her Id stepped on his tail when hed squeal for no apparent reason. I made excuses when he bumped into walls or barked aggressively at either one of us. Bu t she knew better. And besides, there was the videotape, which captured everything Ma y or the vet needed to see. We showed the vet the tape after two weeks. It conf irmed what hed feared Bones was epileptic. But not just ordinarily epileptic severely so. He was having seizures three or four times a day which was most disconcerting, the vet told us. Does that mean he has to be put to sleep? May asked. Oh, no, the vet said. There are a number of medications you can administer daily that will have positive effects on Bones. He s hould still be able to live a healthy life. For how long does he have to be on the meds? Well, itll be for the rest of his life, he said. This is going to have to be for the rest of his life? I said, too loudly.
54 May spoke before the vet could answer. What if we cant give him the drugs? I m ean to say, what if we arent capable of keeping up with it? What happens then? I dont see why you wouldnt be capable of administering the medication needed. Its a pretty simple procedure. Youre both young and healthy people. And you have each other so it wont seem quite as burdensom e as it would if you were alone. Not that I think it would with a dog like Bones, he said. However, animals have been euthanized in the past when an owner does not have the capacity to take care of the pet. Bu t thats something we highly discourage. Can you give us a minute to talk about things? May asked. The vet nodded and left us alone. Much like Id taken her hand during our argument the day before, May held onto mine and started rubbing. I just cant watch Bones deterior ate before my eyes, she said. He just told us with medicine hell be okay. Itll help him out. Its probably just like with people. You take the dr ugs and they stop the seizures. Always? I paused. Most of the time. Listen, itll be okay. Hell get through this. Hes a tough guy. Hes Bones. But he wont be the same. He wont be like he was before. I mean, are you? I was a kid when I got it.
55 But Bones isnt a puppy anymore. Hes not going be the same. I just cant go through with it, May said, putting her hands over her eyes. I looked at her and then Bones and then b ack at her. I thought of the things I would be giving up by giving up Bones. And I looked at May and thought about what Id be like without her, what my life would turn into without my wife. If Id end up finding someone else to love or if Id just end up loathing myself for not making it work? Or maybe it was possible that Id end up loathing her for making me feel like I was still in love. I looked at Bones and then at May and th en at Bones again. I gave him a quick hug and then wiped my eyes and said, Okay, fine. Lets call him back in here. She was horribly ecstatic. May gave me a kiss on the lips and rubbed my hair and told me nice things about my life and our lif e and what Bones meant to us. Then she retrieved the vet. He tried to persuade us to reconsider, but May stayed strong. She explained our hectic schedules, our disorganized home lif e. She exaggerated my epileptic condition, claiming I needed a lot of tending to. We pe rsuaded him, I suppose, after ten or fifteen minutes. We kissed Bones goodbye. After Id signed the death certificate, and the technician had explained the procedure, May turned to me, holding a solemn face, and with more sincerity than Id heard since shed agreed to marry me, since she and I had first made love, since wed made up stories about each other on a train in southern France while she lathered my sunburned back with aloe lotion, since wed picked out Bones at the breeder while promising to make child-making a full-time gig, she said, Youre next.
56 WINTERS WATCHERS Ray was ten and his brother Shelly was seventeen and theyd taken a trip in Shellys green F-150, which was a good truck. Theyd gone up to Summit County to hike around because it had snowed for the first tim e and that was what they liked to do as brothers. This was in early November, dur ing the second go around with Iraq, which was significant to Ray only in that he liked wa tching the bombs explode in the green, night vision light of the networks. It was different than the bottle rockets and black cats and cherry bombs he lit up in the park, prete nding he was firing missi les at some foreign location. The bombs were for real and the thought of them was exciting. On the way back down, Ray and Shelly ate fish tacos and tried to make up slang that they could use in front of their parents. Words that meant something only to them. A language of their own. On a dirt road, in a tiny town half way down the mountain, while Ray and Shelly decided on a word for boob, a car slid out of control and snapped into the F-150. Ray was buckled up. Shelly was to ssed through the windshield. An old wooden fence that used to keep cattle from wandering off and a mailbox that didnt seem to belong to anyone were th e only things around. Shelly lay by one of the fences post. Ray couldnt feel much in his legs. He tried to unhook his seatbelt, but it was caught on something. He didnt struggle. He looked at his brother who wasnt moving. Then he rubbed his legs, which didnt feel like anything. He knew his legs were fucked. They were asleep except he couldnt shake them awake. And they were shaped
57 differently than before. Even if hed want ed to, he couldnt have made it over to his brother, his legs wouldve crum bled. But he didnt want to go over to him. He didnt want to see how much worse off Shelly was. He didnt feel right anyway. He couldnt fo cus on anything. It was better to close his eyes. What was the word they were trying to create? What was it that Shelly had suggested? He shouldve fe lt pain, serious, terrifying pa in, but he didnt and the paramedics blamed it on shock. Two months later it was January, and Ray still had the screws in his hips which isnt really abnormal unless youre a ten year old boy whos used to things being easy to do. Hed been in a wheelchair, but was out of that by the time the New Year had rolled around. He walked with crutches. He hobbl ed with crutches. He held everybody up. His mother would massage his armpits every night because the crutches made them red and tender. But Ray didnt like being at home. His parents yelled at each other. They blamed each other for Shellys death. Ray di dnt think his parents t hought much of him. They mustve thought he was useless. He was a cripple. In February, after Ray had got off th e crutches, Joseph Tobar went missing in Iraq. Ray did not think of him or of Jose phs brother Alexander, whom Ray went to school with. No, Ray thought of those glowi ng green, night-vision li ghts of the networks that hed nearly forgotten about. He thought of the popping of the bombs you heard on television. Those bottle rockets which we re his favorites he couldnt fire off
58 anymore. Ray did not think of Joseph who wa s twenty and was presumed to be in the same place as Shelly. The Tobars had even gotten a letter. The government couldnt confirm that Joseph was dead, but they were confident he wasnt alive. Ray wondered what bombs did to people. If they were like in the movies, where they incinerated anybody within a block of th e explosion. If they just destroyed your entire remains, which was why the government couldnt confirm that he was dead. Or whether they were much slower. If they e xploded and you just watc hed yourself die. If you could feel everything happen to you. If it just drained your lif e away, like the people caught under water, slowly loosing their brea ths until theres nothing left. If it was like an accident. If it, in anyway, resembled an accident. When Ray heard about Joseph Tobar, he t hought of himself. It was only fair. He thought of what hed gone through. Nobody had considered what hed gone through. His parents had a right to cry, to scream. But they werent in the car. They werent trapped by a seatbelt while Shelly lay in the snow by a splintery fencepost. They didnt need to be sawed out of the truck and flown in a helicopter to Denve r. He had the body that was damaged and was bleeding from the inside, which didnt seem all that bad until they told him that bleeding on the inside was worse than when you bled on the outside. They werent the ones with screws in their hips. Ray, though, did start thinking about Al exander, only because they were classmates and Alexanders brother was also dead. If only because he seemed to have more in common with Alexander than with anyone else. For the three months before Joseph Tobar disappeared, Ray rehabbed with a therapist who told him that he was unlucky that he wasnt fully developed, and that if he
59 didnt work harder than hed ever worked before hed be four feet tall for the rest of his life. His parents, meanwhile, treated him like he was retarded. They spoke slowly to him and when out in public, if Ray in any way delayed a response to a question or in making a decision on a pair of shoes or a type of sandwich, his parents would explain to whomever was around that Ray suffered on the in side. And theyd le ave it like that. After school or after dinner, when he had time by himself, Ray would go into the bathroom with the black ceramic tiles and he d make himself put his hand on his hip, as firmly as he could, and move it so the joint w ould shift. That was the only time he could feel the screws. But he could feel them on both sides. He would massage the bone and then the screws and then the bone again. On pa rticularly cold days his hips ached and he always imagined the screws were grinding aw ay at the bone, rubbing off flakes of bone until there was little left a nd they would just fall out, in to his leg, clunking through his body. But he knew that wasnt true. They were in there keepi ng the bones together, healing them, reminding him of what had happened. And by feeling those titanium screws, he kept the event close to him, vivid. There were days when he hated them. And days when they were the only th ings he could depend on. Then after feeling for the screws hed take off his shirt and lie down on the floor and press his face hard onto the cold tiled floor and pretend that he was stuck in a snowdrift, freezing to death. And then he d imagine someone watching him, just standing by watching him slowly die without of fering a hand. Their eyes would meet and the person would not flinch, just watch as Ra y struggled unsuccessfully to free himself
60 from the snowdrift. And then Ray would fall asleep on the black ceramic tiles that could, on very cold days, ice your body. When Ray was feeling particularly shitty, af ter hed finished wh atever it was that he was required to do, hed head towards the bathroom for personal time. But instead of just lying on the ground and touching his hips hed stand over the toilet and rub the screws over and over again until he began to heave. Sometimes hed throw up, other times not. It depended on his mind, his memory If it was sharp and vivid, if he could make out the EMTs bagging Shellys body or revi ve the print of his brother in the snow, it could be almost instantaneous. If he ha dnt done it in a while, it would be quick and easy. On the other hand, if his mind was f oggy, or somehow weighed down, he might not be capable of doing it at all. If hed had a constant streak of vomiting, the streak would inevitably come to an end. It was the least, Ray used to think, he could do. But then Joseph Tobar was presumed to be deceased, and though Ray had thought about Alexander, it wasnt until he came b ack to school after a w eek and Ray could see that Alexander was not the same person hed been before Joseph had gone missing. And that made Ray consider him more. Alexande r was a tubby kid with sandy blond hair that he could never keep out of his eyes, even when Alexander would go to the water fountain and splash water in his hair and slick it back with his hand. This was a constant source of amusement. But when Alexander came back to school he kept his head down and said very little. Teachers didnt push him to answer any questi ons they might have asked him before. He ate his lunch somewhere other th an the cafeteria. Nobody asked him where. There were rumors. Some t hought he took it to a graveyar d to eat with other dead
61 people. One kid said he took his lunch to the boiler room to share it with the rats. But most people just ignored the topic. When Alexander returned to school, Ra y became less self-conscious and more observant of Alexander, even if no one el se wanted anything to do with him. Ray watched him from afar. He was more c oncerned with how Alexander would handle himself. How he would move through school, how he held his head, how he carried his backpack, how he answered questions unrelated to his brother, how he ordered his lunch from the lunch ladies. How hed changed. Ray hoped Alexander would be worse off th an himself. That hed break down. That he was weaker than Ray. Because then maybe everybody would remember Rays tragedy, that theyd realize what hed gone through and theyd respect him for being strong, for handling himself with dignity and cl ass and he was a lot different than people thought. Ray was sure that Alexander was becoming a weirdo, which made him even more interesting. Ray thought about wh at kinds of weird things Al exander did, and that kept him from thinking about Shelly. But then Alexander didnt return. It had been one week and the following Monday he never showed for class. Ray sat across from an empty de sk, expecting to see Alexander walk through the door, not concerne d about being tardy. This seemed like a scenario suited to Alexanders behavior. Ra y was sure hed show up. Even giddy at the idea that hed disrupt the class. That everybody would go quiet as he marched to his desk, head down, feet dragging, hair tangly and greasy, backpack empty.
62 As they moved from language arts, to sc ience, to math, Ray no longer expected Alexander to show up. He just hoped he would. He tried to make excuses for Alexander. Maybe he was sick. Maybe he was out of to wn. Maybe he had an appointment that took all day. Maybe. But it didnt matter. That wasnt the point. Who cared why he was gone? It only mattered that he wasnt in school. Because by the end of the day Ray felt alone. Horribly alone and insecure and angry. Again he was the one with his head down, his feet dragging, his mind preoccupied with getting through school without making eye contact. And he was scared what it might be like tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. Tuesday came and he was the same as he had been on Monday, only that he found himself praying that Alexander would walk through the door. That he would show up and bail him out of the mess that he felt he was in. But nothing. And it was like this on Wednesday and Thur sday. He reverted to his old patterns of self-torment. He pressed his hands agai nst his hips, harder than ever before, and jerked around the bathro om, feeling the screws in his hips Feeling the titanium against his bones. Trying to push them out. Get them out of his legs. Look at them, bloody and cold and useless. That night, lying on the floor of the ba throom, shirt and pants balled up in the corner, stuffed over the heating vent to prev ent himself from warm ing up, Ray missed the snow that started falling outsi de. He had no idea it was even supposed to snow. But it did.
63 Slowly it started frosting over winds hields and glazing the grass that was brownish green and dry and ugly. It covered blemishes that had been quite obvious before. Sometime during the night it stopped, but resumed the next day when Ray was walking to school. But even before that, even before Ray left for his walk, before he got dressed, he felt different. The snow on the ground, maybe an inch, made Ray feel, in a way, nice. It was pleasant. Clean and refres hing. It seemed to patch up sores that he knew were still there, but this morning, fo r a reason he couldnt understand himself, it only mattered that he couldnt s ee them. It covered up the oil stains Shellys truck had left on the street. It hid the small patch of bare land where a bird had been buried by the four of them. It made things look diffe rent. It made him feel different. And then when it started to snow light ly Ray decided on something he hadnt thought of before. Or maybe he just wasn t brave enough to go th rough with it. Maybe subconsciously he had been planning it since Al exander first came back to class. Ray decided to make a detour past Al exanders house after school. Hed just check it out. See what the house looked like. If it seemed anything like his home. If, by chance, he could see Alexander. See how he was doing. Even if he just watched him from a distance. Like at school. Even if he only had to guess what Alexander was feeling. In all honesty, Ray did not expect to see Al exander. He thought he could take a look at the house, maybe peer into a window if he coul d gain enough courage observe any kind of movement, a shadow, a silhouette, an animal that was curled up on a pillow on the floor. To see if Alexande r was anything like himself.
64 But when Ray turned the corner to th e house he found Alexander sitting outside on a chair, bundled up, with his hands stuffed in his pockets, staring blankly up and down the street. Watching for something that wasnt there. Ray paused and then hurried to hide be hind a blue spruce. The snow crunched underneath his feet. He ke pt his eyes focused on the road, studying something that wasnt visible to Ray. A woman appeared from the doorway with a thermos in hand. She brought it to Alexander and then went back inside. Ray lik ed the gesture. Alexander held it in his hands but didnt take a sip from it. Ray want ed to know what was in it. He hoped it was hot chocolate. He loved hot chocol ate. It made him feel warm. Ray waited for Alexander to take a drink, but he never did. He just stared up and down the street, back and fort h, his head shooting forward when a car passed. Ray was cold. His hips started to hurt. He could feel it deep in him. He wanted to get going. As he turned to leave, he heard Alexa nders coat crackle. Ray shot a look over in that direction. Alexander was staring at him. They made eye contact. Alexander held his gaze. Like he was trying to read hi s mind, like he was trying to take something important from Ray. It spooked Ray. He ran. At home that night, Ray considered what hed witnessed. Alexander Tobar was not right. This was obvious. But what harm would it do to take anot her walk over there, scope out the place, figure out what it was Alexander was looking for? Saturday morning Alexander and Ray were in identical positions as on Friday. Alexander was not wearing a hat, as he was th e day before. His hair was dark and looked as if someone had matted it down with butter. He must have serious B.O., Ray thought.
65 That was a clear indication that somethi ng was wrong. Bad odor was the number one telling sign in school. All the kids with B.O. were strange a nd creepy. Everybody knew that. Alexander had something in his hand. It looked like a gun, but he couldnt exactly tell. He thought Alexander was a pe rson who should not be holding a gun of any sort. He shifted his weight when a car drove passed. He adjusted the sleeves of his coat, which brought the so-called gun high in the air. But that was not what it was; Ray could see that. In fact it was a small vehicle. A black dump truck. And on the ground next to him, in a paint bucket, were other ite ms with similar shape and usefulness. What was he planning on doing with those toys? He wasnt playing with them. He didnt have any fireworks that Ray could see, so he wa snt planning on blowi ng them up. Maybe he intended to through them at things. But what do you throw toy cars at? Animals were a good bet, he thought. He could see the practical ity in throwing them at cats. But were there cats around? No, he didnt see a ny. So what could they be for? Alexander put the truck on the ground and stood up. He turned towards the tree. Ray held his breath. He knew this wasnt a good thing. He c ould run, but then that would be a sure sign that he was up to no good. And then it w ould be almost impossible to return. That would be the end of it. So, he just stayed there, sucked in his stomach, held his breath, pressed his body tight to the tree. He stayed still. As still as during the accident. As still as Shelly had been. Dead still.
66 Alexander took a step forward and opene d his mouth, pausing before speaking. Rays stomach dropped, hanging low to the gr ound. He could see Alexander gaping at him. His crooked teeth and slight over bite, his breath becoming visible. He said, You want to play with my trucks? The voice was soft and inviting. It wa snt the harsh cackle of a voice hed imagined Alexander would have. He thought of him as the clown who had a laugh that sounded like an alarm clock buzzer. It was th at sound he expected, even worse. But instead it was pleasant. Friendly. And Alexander was smiling. Hopeful, though not desperate, which made Ray feel comfortable. He shrugged his shoulders. I guess so, he said, and walked, cautious ly, over to where Alexander stood. Take which one you like, Alexander said, while Ray looked into the bucket. He pulled out a crimson dump truck. This is a weird color for a dump truck, Ray said. My brother gave me that, Alexande r said, yanking it from Rays hands. Sorry. Alexander nodded his head. He said, It s a special edition dump truck. Its actually a hybrid dump truck, which means it takes half gas half electricity. Its not even on the market yet. The real life dump truck, I mean. Thats pretty cool, Ray said. Alexander handed Ray a yellow bulldozer th at was a Caterpillar replica. With that one they moved a pile of snow off the sidewalk into the street, Ray pushing the snow
67 into the back of the hybrid dump truck, and Alexander dumping it into the street. Ray thought it looked like his snowdrift, the one he imagined getting trapped in. They didnt speak much after their in itial conversation only occasionally suggesting directions, methods of making pi les of snow. Ray didnt construct any scenarios that involved m oving piles of snow. He ju st went through the motions, thoughtlessly, watching Alexander do the same though he couldnt guess what he was thinking. Maybe Alexander had created a world that Ray was a part of. Maybe he was a new member of the scenario Al exander had built a long time ago. Or maybe Ray had just replaced someone else. The same woman appeared from inside the house, caring a similar thermos to the one Ray had seen the day before. She seemed surprised to see Ray. Oh, hi, she said, flashing a vague, cr ooked smile. She handed Alexander the thermos. Ive got to go, Ray said, leaping off th e ground. The woman walked back to the house. Alexander continued to dump snow into the street as Ray walked swiftly home. He picked three trucks at random out of his crate and then found the replica of a semi Shelly had gotten him one year, and t ook that one out too. Hed bring them to Alexanders. They could do more the next ti me. Maybe they could design a mission that the trucks were involved in. Maybe they we re transporting somethi ng top secret through the snow. Maybe they were going on a raid w ith explosions. Or maybe not. No, that probably wasnt a good scenario to play with Alexander. Maybe it was better to have him decide on one. Then he wouldnt say anything dumb.
68 But there were chores to do on Sunday a nd because Shelly wasnt around to do his share, Rays father had to do them, which made him more upset than usual. His mother was out at the grocery store and though she di dnt let him off any easier than his father did, she at least was nice about it. She st ill looked at him like he was broken, spoiled, which wasnt such a bad thing when Ray had to do his chores. At least she was gentle. His father, however, was not. He didnt even like telling Ray to do his chores at all. His father often told Ray to get going, hurry up, stop dilly-dallying around. Ray once told his mother that he was being tr eated like a slave. She looked at him pathetically, like he was incapab le of ever knowing better. Like he wasnt capable of being anything but a ruined ten-year-old boy. So it was Monday when he was able to retu rn. Hed stuffed his backpack with the trucks. Hed worn extra layers. But when he got there Alexander wasnt outside. There was no chair and no thermos. There wasnt a ny real sign hed ever been there. Ray wasnt exactly sure what to do. He shook snow off of a tree branch, which made a snapping sound louder than hed anticipated. It was suspicio us. It was time to go home. But then he heard clattering at the front door, and it swing violently open, whereupon Alexander appeared in a puffy bl ack snowsuit. He hurried out, not minding the open doorway, and then stopped twenty feet short of Ray. I thought you werent coming back, Alexander said. Why arent you sitting outside? Ray said. My mom doesnt let me stay out here all day. She makes me watch these math and reading videos.
69 You still have school? The videos are kind of neat. N eater than school, at least. Ray kicked at some snow. You dont have to get home? Ive got some time. Well I could get my trucks, if you wanted. Yeah, okay. I brought some in case you wanted to see some of mine. We could play with both, Alexander said. That sounds fine, Ray said, staring at his shoes. Alexander returned with his bucket of cars. They plopped down underneath the Blue Spruce. They dug holes with the trucks and then their hands. They packed snow, forming snow bridges over the holes. They wheeled the trucks across. They made huts out of snow and twigs. They pulled needles off of the tree and filled some of the holes with them. Then sprinkled snow over the holes. For traps, Ray said. Yeah. Those would be pretty good traps. Theyd do damage. A lot of damage, Alexander said. Alexander put the truck down, out of the way of the bridges and holes and said, We should have the semi crash into one of th e ditches. That would make sense. Semis crash all the time. You see it all the time. Theyre crashing into everything. Especially
70 if the bridges are icy. Or maybe we could ju st have them drive over one of the traps. That would happen for sure. Ray shook his head. I dont think so, he said, shaking his head again. Oh yeah, Alexander said. It could defi nitely happen. Theyre real easy to tip over. You see it all the time. No, Ray said. I dont want to do that. I dont want that to happen. He hadnt anticipated this scenario. It wasnt what hed thought about when hed imagined playing with Alexander. It was mu ch worse. But what did he imagine doing? Wasnt it the way you play with cars and tr ucks? You blow them up. You crash them into things. You build ditches and drown the cars in them. You have boulders fall on top of an unassuming line of cars. You bury them alive. You fill holes with pine needles and call them traps. You have semis crash into them. That was what he did with Shelly. That was what hed do by himself. That was the rational thing to do. Ray said, No, thats a lousy idea. I dont like it at all. I dont want to do that. Whats your idea, then? I think mine is pe rfectly fine. Its re alistic. You come up with something, then. Huh? Okay then, Ray said, nodding his head. But he didnt say anything. And Alexa nder didnt wait for an answer. They resumed the tasks they were undertaking befo re. They made small guardrails for the bridges. These took some time because they had to be careful not to break the bridges. The semi was from Shelly. Thats my brother, Ray said. Why didnt you just say so?
71 I dont know. I told you about my hybrid dump truck. That was from my brother whos gone, too, Alexander said. I just told you that I dont know Thats what I just said. Alexander looked down, picked up a truck, spun its wheels and then set it back down. He said, We could just have another truck fall into the tr ap. That would work too. Lets not do that. Let s not crash cars today. I think the bridges need more guardra ils, if you ask me, Alexander said. Thats true, Ray said. They made tight, sturdy guardrails for the bridges. They dug more ditches, filled them up with needles and c overed them with snow. Ray was proud of their work. There were days when one boy or the ot her had obligations th at conflicted with the fortress they had decided they were build ing. Ray was not fond of those days, but it made the days they spent together more ex citing. Theyd tell each other what had happened since theyd la st seen each other. Ray told him stories about sc hool. It was his collateral for playing in Alexanders front lawn. Ray would relay the rumors and the detention sentences handed out. Sometimes he made things up because he could. That was fun. He didnt think he had a great imagination, but it didnt s eem to matter to Alexander. He was always eager to hear more. So it wasnt always bad when they werent together.
72 After a three-day hiatus the longest one to date Ray told Alexander about a tackle football game that was played at sc hool where someone fractured his collarbone, which was made into a big deal, even though Ray didnt know why. Midway through the story Alexander interrupted. He said, Your parents dont mind you coming over here? Ray shrugged. Do you tell them youre coming over here? I tell them I have dete ntion, Ray said. They dont get mad at you? They dont really ever get mad at me. Not any more. They just get mad at each other. Even when its my fault. So they let you get away with everything? I dont know. When I tell them I got dete ntion or when I forget to do something that Im supposed to do they look at me like Im retarded. Then they blame each other for it. Somehow its their fault that Im the way I am. At least they dont yell at you, Alexander said. I guess so. But there ar e times I guess youre right. My mom and dad dont yell at all. My mo m stays in bed a lot. My dad spends time up there too. Sometimes me and my dad eat alone. Snow started to fizzle down. Ray said, Are you coming back to school? Or is this it?
73 I dont really want to go back. I didnt like the way I felt when I came back. I didnt like being ignored. At l east at home I can pretend that it doesnt exist. It didnt happen. So this is it? I think this is it, Alexander said. On the way home Ray had to wipe his face clean of snow an d his tears. He wanted Alexander to come back. He didnt like being at school, but he didnt like being at home either. Home was worse because he had to hear his parent s fight about Shelly and other things because of Shelly. He wanted things to be quiet. But during those rare moments that things in his life were mute, when he walked home from Alexanders, or when he was in th e shower or lying in bed, late at night, he thought of his new friend. He was happy that they had something in common. Something special that others didnt have. Ray didnt know if it was wrong that what he most liked about Alexander was that he had a dead brother too. He knew it was best not to say a nything, but he wasnt sure it was the worst thing in the world. For himself, Ray couldnt help but be thankful that Joseph was gone. It made it easier to remember Shelly and not break down. But others couldnt understand. Ray had been scolded for his frequent tr ips to after-school de tention. His mother had told him that there was no excuse. E nough is enough, shed said. Youll be serving extra detention around here if it happens agai n, shed said. You think your father treated
74 you like a slave, Ill tr eat you like a prisoner with no right s. You wont be complaining about your fathers methods then, shed said. So the next time he was late he told her the truth. Ive been hanging out with Alexander Toba r after school this week, he said. The kid whose brother got killed in Iraq? Ray nodded. Thats pretty morbid, she said. Why would you want to do something like that? Havent you had enough of that? But she didnt tell him not to see Alexande r. She just looked at him like he was crippled, like he was underdeveloped, like he was incapable of reasonable thought or action. With the grass thickly frosted with s now, Alexander and Ray lay on their backs and nibbled on Ritz crackers. This was th e position Ray had found Alexander in after school. His chair was absent and there was no sign of the cars, but he had a plastic container full of snacks. He was staring up at the sky. Why are you always outside? Ray asked. Is it because you dont like being in your house? No, Alexander said. I dont mind being in side. Its just better out here. Whys it better? Because I can see better. Because I cant watch from inside. Watch what? Ray asked, spraying crumbs onto his chest. Im watching for my brother. Where is he coming from? I thought
75 He used to tell me that if you wanted something bad you just had to watch for it. You had to really want it, and if you did it w ould come. We used to do it for Christmas and our birthdays and other times too. Did it work? You had to really want them. If you didnt deep in your heart want them then they wouldnt come. But if you did and you watched hard for them and you thought about them when you were watching then theyd come. Me and my brother used to have a language we spoke that nobody else could understand. We made up words along the way. We spoke it when we were bored or mad or feeling not so good. Thats what we did. Ray finished his cracker. What are some of the words? Alexander asked. I dont remember. You could watch if you wanted to. We could get some chairs and watch from over there by the street. I kind of like it lying here, Ray said. I guess you could watch from over here. I ve never tried it bu t I guess that would be okay. Why do you sit by the street? Because thats where I think hes going to show up from. And thats where me and him used to sit to watch. It worked. Ray nodded. What if theyre dead? he asked.
76 I dont know, Alexander said. I guess you just have to watch harder. They watched lying on their backs and sitti ng in chairs at the street, sipping on hot drinks, eating dried food. They watched th rough binoculars and while the snow turned into slush. They watched through windows by themselves and while crawling up trees in torn jeans and long-sleev e shirts. They were silent and garrulous, evasive and intimate. They watched while Alexander felt the screws While Ray confessed that what hed liked watching most were the green-lit bombs that exploded on TV. They watched while Alexander admitted the same. They watched so hard, it actually worked. One Saturday morning in March, wh ile both boys were sleeping, while Alexanders mother was huddled underneath th e covers, awake, while his father was out, while Rays parents were clattering around, a prank phone call was left on the Tobars answering machine that was so cruel that wh en the Tobars heard it, they didnt even make a sound. Alexanders mother erased th e message. She went to bed. Alexanders father took her Zoloft. Alexander we nt outside and sat on the grass. The government, apparently, had found Joseph. Somewhere in Southern Iraq hed been found. Where? They werent sure. There was a number for the explanation. It was all very official sounding, which made the call that much worse. Some had thought, around the Tobar house hold, that it was possibly Ray. Though it seemed preposterous, based on the deep voice and articulation of large words, Alexanders mother and father felt that it was an avenue worth exploring. Perhaps, theyd said, he was working with someone el se. Perhaps it was Ra ys father whod found it as amusing as Ray had. It was th eir version of entertainment.
77 So this was how Ray found out about the call and how hed learned that he was no longer welcome. It didnt appear that Alex ander had put up much of a fight, but it was also clear to Ray that Alex ander wasnt completely convi nced that it was a prank. Rays parents had received an unpleasant call from the Tobars that was loaded with unsavory language. It threatened phys ical harm to their house and treasured belongings if they wanted to call their son a treasure. It was also suggested that Rays father might want to consider carrying around mace or brass knuckles or a handgun. But Rays parents didnt blame him nor di d they blame each other. Rays father was protective. He told Ray that if he saw a ny of them to tell them to fuck off and then let the police know about it. Youre doing better, he said. Were doing better. Theyre wrong about this, his mother said. Dead wrong, his father said. Dead wrong. Theyre falling apart. They dont know what theyre talking about. Theyre not like us. Remember that. Somehow that sounded right to Ray. They were different. Alexanders mother slept all day, kept Alexander out of school. They let him s it outside all day, watching for a ghost. Wasting time doing nonsense. It was ridiculous. He was not like him. They were better. The Tobars got what they deserved. Rays parents received other undesirabl e phone calls. Ray overheard his father say, Fucking fuck off, and then th e phone slamming onto the cradle. But things were better. There were still arguments, but they were mild compared to what they had been like before. His pare nts didnt look at him lik e he was retarded.
78 They didnt look at him like he was helpless, crippled, useless. Once they mentioned Shelly which made the conve rsation awkward but that was okay too because it was a start. It was sometime during a late aftern oon, after Ray had re turned home from school, that the Tobars discove red it was not a prank. A man came by in official officer dress and explained to Alexa nder and his parents that Joseph had been found in Southern Iraq, tortured but alive. Theyd put him up in one of the hospitals. He had puncture wounds in his arms from the IVs and other th ings they could only guess. They were ready to send him home. And the next day, he returned. There was a story about it in the paper. There was a picture of Joseph pre-Iraq. There were quotes from the family. They were ecstatic. They cried. They thanked God. It was a miracle. Ill be damned, Rays father had said. Guess no more calls, his mother had said. Good thing for that. You bet, his father said. Ray was appalled. His parents treated the story like it was nothing. Like his father had just read the football scores. Like it didnt matter. How the hell could this happen? Ray said to himself. How the fuck could this happen? The TV and newspaper reporters swarmed the elementary school, interviewing students and teachers that knew Joseph or Ray or neither.
79 Midday, one of the TV reporters sto pped Ray as he was on his way to the bathroom. They asked him questions a bout Alexander, about how he felt that Alexanders brother was home. Its pretty good, hed said. Im happy for him. I guess he can come back to school now. Instead of using the bathroom and then re turning to class, Ra y ran. He left his backpack at his desk, the hall pass somewhere in the hall, and the chewed up contents of his lunch in a bush a half-block from the school. It was mostly bile because he couldnt eat much at lunch in the first place. It just so rt of drained from his mouth. It wasnt what he was used to. He didnt feel sick, only tire d. Exhausted, really. And his sides hurt. He could feel the screws in his si des breaking his hips again. It wasnt even cold out and he could feel them in his body, like eggs that had been laid inside his bones, finally hatching into a parasite. He hoped they wouldnt show his awful interview. He could barely contain himself from screaming at them to fuck off, lik e his father had told him to say. Just fuck off. Nobody, he wanted to tell them, had asked about his brother. Nobody wanted to know anything about Shelly, or himself or his sc rews that were destroying his legs. He wanted to ask what they thought it felt like to have your hips fractured. Maybe, he would say, I could smash your hips and then youd feel what it was like That, he thought, would teach them. He spent much of the afternoon in the ba throom. He couldnt make himself throw up, which was not unusual because hed just thrown up earlier, but when he moved his hips and pressed his fingers to the skin and bone, he couldnt feel the screws. He pressed
80 harder, eventually punching at his sides, but he couldnt feel anything. He grew frantic, using both fists at the same time, pinc hing, punching, pounding at his sides, but he couldnt find them. Was it possible that theyd actually fallen out of his bones and were rattling around somewhere? Was it possible that theyd vanished altogether? Is that what happens? His parents found him on the bath room floor and woke him. Youve got a call, his father said. It was Alexander. He sounded different His voice was thick and steady, like oil paint dripping off a paintbrush, rather than m eek and hesitant, like it had been before. He did not apologize for not coming to Rays defense. Well I guess you heard the news, Alexander said. Yeah. Congratulations. That s pretty neat, Ray said. My parents are still going crazy over he re. Theyve sort of been taking him around to see people all day. He looks pretty tire d. I think he just wants to go to sleep. Thats what Id want if I were just coming home from Iraq. Yeah, I guess. But its pretty cool. Anyway, you know what he asked me? If I was watching. That was, like, one of the first things he said to me. He just said he knew when he got out of there that I mustve been watching for him. Or it was God. But I told him it wasnt God it was me watching. Thats pretty good.
81 And you know what else? Alexander said. I told him that I got a friend whose brother got killed and watched with me and that mustve helped too. And you know what else? Unh, unh. He said he wanted to meet you to tha nk you for helping him out. Thats pretty cool, huh? I dont think I really did much for him, Ray said. No, I dont think it was me. You should tell your brother th at. I didnt do anything. It doesnt matter. He wants to meet you anyway. You can meet my brother. I told him you liked the hybrid dump truck he gave me. Ray stayed silent for ten or fifteen seconds and then said, Ive got to go for dinner. Well if you want to come by after school tomorrow well be around. He hadnt planned on ever returning to Alexanders hous e, but when he overheard his father call Joseph, Damaged Goods, he thought it might be worth a peek. Alexanders house didnt look different which surprised Ray. He thought, despite the absence of snow and chairs and tr ucks, there would be something else that had been obviously changed. But it didnt seem lik e that at all. It looked the same, maybe worse. It wasnt as inviting. Before he d felt most comfortable lounging on the grass with Alexander, not thinking of school or home or his accident. But now it simply looked like any other house that hed visited on more than one occasion. It just seemed less important. Joseph and Alexander appeared out of the house. Joseph was messed up. He looks like a concentration camper, Ray said to himself.
82 He was pale and walked with a slight hump in his back. His clothes wore him and he had bruises on his face. There didnt seem to be much to him, and yet he was smiling. Alexander was pulling at his shirt cuff. Ther e was a white Honda Accord parked on the street that the two were steering towards. Ray tried to imagine seeing Shelly like this. Hed had nightmares about Shelly. Hed dream that things werent the way they were, that Shelly was alive and well. And then hed wake up and it seemed like a hor rible trick his mind was playing on him. Those dreams were the worst kind of nightma re, because they made you believe things were better than they really were. Ray had never considered that if Shelly had survived, he wouldnt be the same. He just pictured things going back to normal. That if only his neck hadnt snapped, if the paramedics had got there sooner, that things would be like they had before. But that wasnt true at all. Shelly would probably have been worse off than Ray was. Something would most likely be seriously wrong with Sh elly. And how fun would that have been? It would be more of a constant reminder of what had happened than the screws ever could have been. Maybe it was better for everyone that Shelly hadnt made it. Ray could remember him like Shelly had been before Ray could endure being thought of as retarded because he knew he wasnt. It was quite possible that Shel ly really would have been and that, Ray didnt think, he could have handled. Shelly would probably have been even more fucked up than Ray was or would be. In a sort of haze he heard himself say, Where you going? Joseph and Alexander stopped and l ooked over. Alexander smiled. Thats him. Thats Ray, Alexander said.
83 Ray skipped over to them. He stuc k out his hand. Joseph shook it. Where you going? Ray asked. Going to a movie, Alexander said. You can come along, Joseph said. I think I will. Hed been nervous riding in the car. Joseph didnt seem like a good person to trust with your safety, but Ray was glad hed gone. Joseph bought their tickets and some candy. Alexander seemed very happy, whic h was good, but Ray knew it wouldnt be like that forever. Joseph fidgeted a lot during the movie, and left the theater at least three times. Once Alexander followed and that was nice because Ray had time to himself and he could watch the movie without any distractions. Sitting next to the two was somewhat uncomfortable because Alexander seemed too happy for what had happened. But Ra y knew Joseph was damaged for good. And that was probably going to sting Alexander sometime soon. Maybe even in the redcarpeted lobby of the theater. And for Ra y, he was happy knowing that hed never have to experience that kind of trauma. There ar e better things to thi nk about, to look at, to watch, than a cripple who makes you struggle to remember when he wasnt one. The movie was something he could watch without thinking. It was about Elves. It was a Christmas movie in March. He liked Christmas. He thought of what he might like come December. Maybe he would write it down when he got home. Or maybe hed just try to remember it, think about it until it was time to tell his parents. That was definitely something hed enjoy dreaming of. It wasnt bad.
84 You shouldnt have been able to feel th e screws, his mother had explained, when Ray told her that he couldnt feel them anymore. But perhaps, she said, youve started filling out. Youre growing, his father said. Thats what kids your age do. Got some meat on your bones. And so Ray could think a bout that. Hed stand in front of the mirror in the bathroom, naked, and squeeze his sides, r ub his thighs, feel the flesh that had miraculously appeared at so me point during his sleep. Every morning hed watch himself in the mirror, and think about what hed look like in a year or five years or ten. If hed, in any way, resemble his brother.
85 AIRPLANE I was digging a splinter out of Roses ha nd with my pocketknife in our room at the Holiday Inn in Minneapolis. This was a better method than tweezers, Ive always thought. I was good with knives. I was good w ith my hands. I was thirty-one and a surgeon. We were from Duluth but had come down to see the best malpractice lawyer in the state. I was being sued because Id had a patient die on me. She was old and prone to falling apart. Shed had hip and knee su rgery. Shed had emphysema and severe arthritis. Shed shown signs of dementia. Shed been a wreck. But then I inexplicably a dvised her to have a number of moles removed from her back, for fear that they would become maligna nt. I talked her into it. Her body couldnt handle the stress of the minor surgery, wh ich can happen when a person is old and fragile. The weekend after finding out about the laws uit, Rose held a lawn sale, where we attempted to clean out excess le ather recliners, fishing rods, rifles, exercise equipment, bicycles, movies, video cameras and other thi ngs that made our sale grossly genteel. Fortunately Rose marked everything at retail so the only thing we sold was a painting of an old Spanish cottage somewhere, presumably, in Southern Spain, done by a New Mexican artist. We kept the price tags on all the pieces we hadnt sold and moved everything into the garage. We didnt verb alize what we thought would happen, only that it comforted Rose knowing that ever ything was easily accessible.
86 Rose used the money from the painting to buy condoms, and started to take her leftover birth control pills. I didnt fight her. There was no reason to make things worse. It did scare me, to think that she saw me as unfit to father a child, but it wasnt quite that dramatic. She was, I think, ju st being careful. I wrote the checks for our monthly bills in my car in a parking lot. I envied the people who sent me my bills. How simple their life must be. By referral from another doctor, I made an appointment with the attorney and convinced Rose to come. Rose looked sharp and stayed calm. He was pleasant and we looked happy. We held hands. I told him the story. He asked me if there were doctors who would come to my rescue and I said, Oh, certainly. And we talked about how broken down the patient was. How she was on her way out anyway. The more I spoke, the more we harped on the details of the case, the more we made the patient out to be a degenerate, the mo re I realized how rightful this lawsuit was. And yet at the end of the meeting he wa s laughing, his tongue sl ithering out of his crooked teeth, wetting his lips, as if he were a bout to bite into something deliciously soft and juicy. He was more than fairly confident that he could get me off. Rose didnt seem as turned off as I was, but these da ys it was tough to tell how she felt. After out appointment we walked around the city. We had lunch at an Irish pub by our hotel downtown, then we nt uptown, saw the exhibits in the Walker, and canoed from Lake Calhoun to Brownie Lake. This wa s in May and it was beautiful. Minnesota is a great place to be in May. Id convinced Rose to move here from San Diego with the same line.
87 We dont do enough of this, I said, after we finished canoeing. Youre right, Rose said. I mean it. Well do a lot more of this. We should come down here more often. Come see a show, a concert, a hockey game. We will, she said. Well buy a canoe and go canoeing every weekend. Well buy a boat and sail it up and down the St. Croix. We ll come down and stay in a hotel for the weekend, have dinner and cocktails and see a musical. Af ter awhile well get a cabin and use it on the weekends. Well have two homes. We can come down to get away. Well have an architect design it, have it overlook a lake. Well have an airplane that will get us there faster. Well have it just the way we want it. Ive always wanted to take flying lessons I said. I could learn how to fly the plane and then we wouldnt have to drive. We could rent the plane and fly around and look over the lakes and rivers a nd skyline and then we could st op if we wanted or just fly around until we felt like coming home. Yes, we can do all of that, Rose said. For a moment I believed it. I thought it was truly possible. And I thought Rose wanted it as much as I did. Perhaps she wanted it more. But I knew her words were filled with hope, not optimism. She wasnt ready to return the furniture, to strip them of their sticky price tags. She wasnt ready to abandon the contraceptives. She could only hope that if the time came, she coul d sit confidently next to me in the airplane. We returned to the dock with the canoe. As we were unloading it, Roses hand slipped down the side and caught a slight sliver of loose wood that pierced the palm. She didnt complain.
88 She picked at it on the walk back to th e hotel. She had long nails but couldnt pry it out. It was her right hand. I was walking on the right, so I switched sides and held onto her left. I told her to stop unless she wa nted to push it deeper into her hand. I dug out my pocketknife, cleaned it with the rubbing alcohol Rose had brought from home, and then set her down on the bed. It had been made up by the maids. There were mint-chocolate rods wrapped in plas tic on the pillows. I held one up. You can have this if youre very, very brave. Can I suck on it while youre ope rating? she asked, and laughed. You can suck on it af terwards, I said. Rose and I had removed splinters with a pocketknife a half-dozen times before. It was really better than tweezer s. Tweezers are thick and clunky. A sharp knife can penetrate without spilling any blood. You can catch the splinter a nd ease it out of the skin. I pushed the tip of the blade, slowly, gently, into the palm of her hand. She flinched and I had to pull out. That hurt, she said. Im sorry, I said. We tried again. Her hand jerked. Youre pinching me. Thats why it hurt the first time. Thats why I pulled my hand back. I firmly grasped her wrist and slowly move d the tip of the blade back to the spot. But before I could reach it she shook my hand off. She looked into my eyes and said, I need to take a break.
89 She went into the bathroom. I heard her running the faucet. I needed to wash my hands again, just to be sure, she said, sitting back down. I tried to hold onto her wrist again, but she pulled her arm back. I can do that. Ill just hold my own hand, Rose said. The room was hot. I felt sweat on my forehead, underneath my armpits. As I moved the blade closer, her hand st arted shaking and then it tightened into a fist. I cant get the splinter ou t with you moving your hand. Let me hold onto it. I can make this quick. I dont want you to hold my wrist. You do it too hard. Let me set it on the bed. I can position it so it cant be moved. She rested her elbow on the bed and then steadied the elbow w ith her good hand. Thats not going to work. All youve done is made sure your elbow is secure, but its the hand that needs work, I said. I know what needs work. Just do it, she said. She was brave. I moved closer and she didnt flinch, didnt move a muscle. She was right. But then my hand jittered. Right be fore I could enter her palm it tremored and this time I retreated. What was that? Rose asked. I shook my head. We tried it again and again. We tried it from different angles, different positions. I tried using both my hands. But we coul d never get the blade into her palm. Maybe I should do it, she said.
90 You dont know how to do it, I sa id. Youll cut yourself. Well then do it, she said. Just go ahead and do it. I wanted to do it. Right then I wanted nothing more than to dig that fucking splinter out of her skin and kiss her and take her back to Dulu th and forget everything. I wanted to see the knife with the sliver of wood, free of blood, stuck to the tip. Id wash it down the sink and clean the blade and put it back in my pocket, ready for the next emergency. I lifted her right hand and kissed the spot and then ge ntly held it and took the knife and pierced her skin and saw little dribbles of blood bubble and then surround the knife. I could see the dark, discoloring of the wood through her palm, but my knife couldnt find it. I was slow and careful at fi rst, but soon I was aggressively swishing the knife around, trying to get to the splinter. I looked up at her and sh e was crying. But she held her hand steady, which scared me because I wouldnt have been able to keep my hand steady if the roles were reversed. Sh e looked away from me, past me, around me, somewhere other than me. I pushed harder, hearing her suck in air, squeal, but her hand didnt move. It was pale, small and fragile. It was spotted with blood that had started dripping onto the light blue comforter. It had a knife stuck in it that was much larger and dangerous than the splinter that shed tried to pick out with her fingernails. You must have pushed it down into your skin when you were playing with it, I said. I did it to get back at her for the splin ter. For her bravery. Because I couldnt think of anything else to say or do.
91 She didnt reply. She was elsewhere. Ma ybe she was back in Duluth. Or maybe in the airplane circling the c ity. Maybe she was flying it alon e, me somewhere far away. Maybe that was what was getting her by. I pulled the knife out and went into the bathroom and searched Roses bag for her eyebrow tweezers. I washed them with soap and water. Shed moved to the window. She was holding the complimentary USA Today in her hands. Do you want me to try with the tweezers? She turned and looked at me sadly. I cupped the tweezers, hiding them from her sight. What a shame, she said, and flipped the page to finish the article shed been reading, her right palm smeared with blood. We should bandage that, at least, I said. Here, let me cover it with a towel or a band-aid. She didnt respond. I went back into the bathroom and fo und a towel. I gripped it loosely. Roses hand lay limp against her leg. It looked as if, with a hard tug, it could come right off. I took a step forward and th en stopped. She was staring at me, searching for something she was having trouble finding. I had the tweezers in one hand, the towel in the other and I felt like a clown. I c ouldnt bear getting any closer. Im going to get coffee, I said, dropping the towel on the night table. It was still nice out when I left the hotel. It was quieter than before. A couple blocks down was a diner. I went in.
92 At the register was a stack of USA Today s. I bought one and ordered a piece of cherry pie. The tweezers were still in my hand. There were three stories on the front pa ge. One was about the peace-talks the president was attending in Egypt. Another wa s about all the damage a forest fire had caused in California. The third was a stor y about a three-foot robot that was being designed in Japan to help the el derly in need of assistance. I read through all four while jamming pie in to my mouth. I tried to find the article that would make someone say, What a shame. I pinched my hand with the tweezers, and then twisted, ripping a smidge of skin. There were a lot of words Id use to de scribe the articles but none of them was shame. I thought about what it would be like to loose your house in a fire, or have the first thing you saw in the morning be a three-fo ot robot. It seemed morbid or lonely or exhilarating, but not shameful. That, I couldnt understand. When I was done I tore the articles into strips with the tweezers. My hand hurt but it wasnt bleeding. I pushed the tip of the tweezers back into the spot of my hand that was missing the skin, but it star ted to shake, so I stopped. Id wanted so much to be able to fix her hand and to make this trip make sense. Maybe the airplane wasnt such a bad idea. I was still young enough to take it up. Make it more than just a hobby. Make it my ambition in life. Instead of taking long drives at night I could go up in the plane and fly to wherever. Maybe I could take Rose back to San Diego to visit her family, show her she hadnt made a mistake. I could prove that I was still capable of fi xing everything. There were a thousand different things I could do w ith the airplane. I c ould fly over California
93 and dump water over the fires. Back and forth until they were extinguished. I could save potential victims of genocide in my plane. I could transport the elde rly in my plane, get them whatever they needed food, medical s upplies, clothes, companionship. I could get them as many robots as they needed. I could remove all of our furniture, use the plane, at the very least, as a storage facility, if that was what was needed.
94 SACRAMENTO We ate Mexican at a restaurant called La Me sa on the night of the blizzard. It was my idea. I didnt want to be at home, or surrounded by a hundred people in thick, wet coats scrambling for supplies at the grocery st ores still open. This blizzard was supposed to be big time. Four feet overnight was th e word. Denver didnt usually get these types of storms, so the city was on edge. Most places had shut down early. La Me sa was still open at eight when Belinda and I finally met up. It was the only restau rant I could find serving food. They hadnt paid much attention to the warnings. She told me we were lucky it was still open. Youre right, Id said, before arriving. There was a bar inside that served tequila almost exclusively. There were a half dozen wooden booths and a small, ground level stage that was empty. Framed, autographed photos of Mexican celebrities were hooked to the walls. I didnt recognize a single one. There was also a black and red sera pe nailed to the wall behind the stage. It was frayed at the ends. Belinda and I were the only customers. A waitress and a bartender were worki ng. We sat ourselves. The waitress brought over menus. This place looks like it has poten tial, Belinda said to me. She scanned the room.
95 I have a friend whos eaten here before, I said. He told me it was okay. I had to make a dozen calls before I found one that was open. I ordered a pitcher of margaritas. Beli nda wanted a Corona. The waitress brought us overly-salted tortilla chips and runny, spicy salsa. Belinda and I made a mess of the table, trails of salsa leading from the dish to our own sides. The margaritas had reminded of a night a couple months before, when Belinda and I had drunk super sweet Pina Coladas a nd danced in our underwear to the Battle Hymn of the Republic. You will never be forgotten, Belinda had said. You know that, right? Nobody will ever forget who you are. That s quite an accomplishment. Lets toast to it, shed said. We did. Wed gulped pina colada until our heads hurt. Wed tried to have sex, but neither of us was sober enough to remember to maintain consistent motion. I fell asleep inside her. At the time her words made me feel good. I was happy. I didnt think of the consequences. I didnt think about the meani ng of her words. I didnt think that a few months later wed be having dinner at a chea p Mexican restaurant the night before my best friend Geoff was to return home and Id probably have to settle for her remembering me and what wed done together. That al l Id be was a memory. Being remembered means shit when thats your whole act. Belinda and I met two years ago at a charit y dinner to raise money for an addition to the natural history museum. The additi on was to educate on endangered and extinct
96 birds. Belinda spoke at the dinner. She wa s an assistant professo r of ornithology. We were thirty. Geoff, whom Ive known since I was six, wo rked in the Nutrition section of the museum and secured two free passes to the dinner. The museum was not handing out free passes to all the workers, and Geoff was not supposed to be a recipient of any, but he has a certain charm that allows him to acquire th ings he doesnt have a right to. Hes also missing two fingers on his left hand from a pape r cutter accident when we were ten. It was my fault. People feel sorry for him, wh ich only helps his cause. He never brings it up with me, which sometimes makes me feel incredibly guilty about my carelessness. Sometimes I wish hed rub it in my face. But hes above that. When Geoff got the two passes I was tryi ng to get over an old girlfriend, he was fighting with his, so we used the dinner as a distraction. There would be free food and drinks. We took the opportunity to get dresse d up. We both wore ties and sport jackets. I hadnt worn mine since college gradua tion. We looked good. We looked like we belonged to a place better than where we we re Geoff at the Nutrition wing of the museum, me at the front desk of a Hyatt Regenc y. The evening made us like life again. We were eager and willing to do, try anything, wh ich, I think, is what Belinda saw in us. Shed been worn out by her pursuit of endange red birds. She wanted back what she thought she should still have. What a lo t of people our age still had. There were several speakers that night. Belinda went last. Belinda spoke about the types of endangered birds and what th eir possible extinction would mean to the environment. She spoke about the mating patte rn of the bald eagle and the effects of light pollution on the northern spotted owl, the most endange red bird in the country.
97 I tried to think of the best bird story I had, the one that would make me sound like I knew something about birds, th at I had an honest interest in them, which after hearing her speak, I did. At our table Geoff was eating a piece of caramel almond cheesecake and talking to a guy about calcium deficiencies. At that point in the night he felt guilty about talking to other women, even if he was fighting with his girlfriend. But his attitude changed at some point, which was no good for me. While waiting for the bartender to fill my glass with wine, Belinda came up to me. We talked about birds. She told me th ings I hadnt known. I told her the movie, The Birds still frightens me. We started f lirting because of birds. Then suddenly Belinda was whisked o ff to another part of the room. I stayed by the bar, swishing red wine in my mouth, waiting for her to return, thinking about what our convers ation wouldve led to. I started thinking of my old girlfriend and decided to take my act outside. Winter was approaching. The foothills had seen snow, which meant Denver wasnt too far off. Id never been able to handle winter alone. I got stir crazy. I had mood swings and grew pudgy when I wasnt dating anybody. In Denver, most of the time, even if its cold, the s un is still shining. But on the days when it snowed, when it was overcast and the gutters were filled with black sludge, I didnt feel very well. I had trouble getting out of bed, unless, of course, I had someone there beside me. But more often than not, I woke up alone. This was my fear when I stood outside, smoking and feeling the wine take effect. I worried about whom Id end up with. I tried to convince
98 myself not to call my old girlfriend when I got home, but I knew I wouldnt be able to help it. That was me. I started shivering so I went back insi de. Geoff motioned me over to our table where he was drinking gin. You should go talk to her, he said, pointing to a young girl who was holding a tray with plates of cheesecake on it and shifti ng her weight from one leg to the other. Shes a waitress, Geoff. Waitresses like to have a good time too, Geo ff said. He was slurring his words. I bet they do. Just not with me, I said. Belinda was speaking to a group of men. I caught her looking over. I smiled. Geoff was mashing on the ice fr om his empty gin glass. He said, What you need to do is go and talk to the waitress. Shes cute. I could see you with her. Shes the type of girl that could make you happy. I dont think so, I said. Belinda looked over again, watching our ex change. She was interested in me. I thought she wanted to know more about me. I wanted her to. You go and talk to the waitress. Im going to talk to that woman, Geoff said, pointing to Belinda. Geoff stood up and started walking towards her. You have a girlfriend, I said. You cant do this, Geoff. Youre dating someone. He shrugged his shoulders and then jabbed the air with his fing er in the direction of the waitress.
99 I shouldve caught up to him. I shou ldve told him I liked her. That Belinda could make me happy. That I could see her wi th me. But instead I sat there and watched him work his charm, even as hammered as he was. If she liked me, I thought, shed certainly fall for his charm. A year later they were still doing it. They spent time at movies, and took weekend trips to the mountains. Belinda br ought her students papers back to Geoffs place. Geoff bought extra shaving cream and toothpaste for hers. Belinda knew stories about Geoff as a kid. She knew about me as a kid. They threw dinner parties. They made brunch together. He helped paint he r walls red. She bought a bigger bed. And yet I could deny that they had anythi ng of true substance together until they started arguing about having a baby. Which is also what drove him to Ireland by himself. He went on a Fulbright to study the murals in Belfast, and initially Belinda was going to join him. But then she told him that he would make a good father and he told her he didnt think he would. He told her he thought hed be the kind of father whose kid is always trying to impress him, but its neve r good enough. Hed be the father whod push his kid too hard. Geoff said their kid woul d end up resenting him and resenting her for marrying him. Theyd raise someone very fucked up because he couldnt handle the responsibility. No, he said, it w ould be a mistake to have a kid. They didnt exactly break up. He just boarded the plane without her. Well see what happens, he said. Maybe youll change your mind. Anythings possible, Geoff said.
100 Once hed said to me, You have a child when you realize what you have is not good enough any more. When you dont think you ll be happy again without a change. When youre bored. Id taken him to the airport, alone. I as ked him how he felt about her, how he felt about me taking him to the airport instead of Belinda. Youre my best friend. Why wouldnt I wa nt you to take me to the airport? What about Belinda? Hows that going to work out? I just wish she hadnt brought it up, he said. I shrugged my shoulders. I wanted Geo ff to be happy. I wanted Belinda to be happy. I just didnt want them to be happy together. What I wanted was to be with Belinda. And when Geoff boarded the plane, when he told me that it was clear to him that they were both looking for different th ings, I was happy. He was going to be gone for a year, across an ocean, away from Belinda, far, far away. In my mind I imagined Geoff calling me fr om Ireland to tell me that I was better suited for Belinda. That I should go out with her. That hed met someone in Ireland whom he felt more connected to. Th at everything was going to be okay. When he boarded the plane, Geoff said, Make sure shes okay. Tell her I think shed make a terrific mother. I did tell her, though it was awhile befo re I got the chance to see her. Shed called me one night, upset because shed gotten a postcard from him. He told her he was safe. Belfast was exciting. He was having a good time. She asked me if Id heard from him. I lied and told her no. But I had heard from him. Wed actually spoken. Hed told me a bout his work. Hed told me about the city.
101 Hed told me that he thought it was best th at he and Belinda didn t speak for a while. They could sort out their prio rities in the meantime. I told him I thought it made sense. Two days after speaking to Belinda, I snuc k into the back of the lecture hall where she was teaching and waited until she finished. I stayed where I was when she dismissed class. She came up to me and smiled. She looked sad. Its good to see you, she said. Im sorry about things, I said. I know you are. I am too. I wish things were different. Belinda shaded her eyes with her hand. She shook her head. Theres nothing I can do about it, she said. Do you want to get dinner? Do you think we should? she said. I do. I think this is something we should definitely do. She hesitated. Okay. Ill get my things. I walked her to her car. We decided on a cheap Italian restaurant that served great bread. We shared a twenty-dol lar bottle of Chilean white wine. I followed her home in my Honda. She left her car and got into mi ne. For an hour we sat in that musty car, talking about birds a nd snowshoeing and her students and cathedrals in France shed visited and the documentaries I watched when I was by myself. We talked about getting frozen custard, but we couldn t remember what time the place closed, so we gave up on that idea. Next time, she said.
102 Yes, I said, itll have to be next time. I said something funny that made her la ugh, and then told her good night. I left her thinking about how funny I was. How much fun shed had. If nothing else in life, I knew how to make a good exit. As I browsed the menu, I rea lized I wasnt as hungry as I thought Id been. I had a knot in my stomach. I drank a margarita qui ckly to see if that would loosen it up, but all it did was put pressure on my bladder. Ive got to go to the bathroom, I said. If she comes back, would you like me to order for you? she asked. I dont know what I want you to do, I said. I peed in a cracked, red urinal. Th e bathroom was clean. It smelled like disinfectant. There was some writing on the wall. Phone numbers and caricatures of penises and boobs. Im getting enchiladas, Belinda said when I returned. I nodded. For some dumb reason I was annoye d at her. For deciding before me. For being happy rather than being sad, as I was. I was hoping we could share something, but thats fine. Im just not that hungry. She said, You could take what you don t eat home with you. Then youll have it for tomorrow. I dont want to talk about tomorrow, I said, snapping my menu closed. The waitress came over. Belinda ordered the cheese enchiladas. I ordered a chimichanga. The waitress refilled my glass with margarita.
103 Belinda put her hand out. I reached across th e table and held it. It made me feel better. Whats going to happen? I asked. Do you miss him? Of course I miss him. Im happy that hell be back. Im excited, even. But I want to know whats going to happen between y ou and me. Whats it going to be like? Hows this thing going to play out? Cant we focus on tonight? I thought you didn t want to talk about tomorrow? I yanked my hand away from hers. This is bullshit, I said. Why did this even happen? Why did we even do what we did for the past ten months? What did you get out of it? We were lonely. We were friends who we re lonely and we turned to each other. Fuck that, I said. I was ready to leave. What would you like me to say? That Im in love with two men at the same time? That Im terribly sad about tomorrow? That its going to be nearly impossible to see you after tomorrow? What is it you want to hear? I said nothing. Belinda sighed. We sat silent for minutes. I finished another margarita. The waitress came over and Belinda ordered another Corona. After the waitress came back with the beer, Belinda took a swig and said, Do you think you can be in love with tw o people at the same time? No, I said. But I wasnt sure. I didnt know if a person could be in love with two people at the same time. Not the kind of l ove Belinda was talking about. If that really
104 was what she was talking about. I knew sh e loved Geoff and I didnt doubt that she loved me, but whether she was in love with me was anothe r question. Id convinced myself on an occasion that she was, either by the way she touched me when we slept together, or the way she looked at me or the way she kissed me. But I didnt know for sure. I had dreams of Geoff dying in a bomb expl osion in Belfast. I had dreams of him being beaten to death by a militant. I ha d dreams of gunning him down myself. Those were only dreams, but they helped me with more reasonable possibilities. I played the banjo. I tho ught that if I wrote an amazing song, the most beautiful song ever written, just for her, that shed k eep me. I orchestrated the moment while at work. I began working on it late at night. I sat down with my banjo and I tried to write that song just for her, one note at a time. Bu t I couldnt do it. Perhaps it wasnt in me. But I blamed it on the plinky sound of the instrument. I bought books on tape to learn Italian. We could forget about the cheap restaurants in town, fly out to Italy for so mething so romantic she couldnt possibly go back to Geoff, who wouldve become an Iris h sot. There were words in Italian that I thought could help me keep her. But Belinda felt sluggish after pasta, so I abandoned my lessons. I thought about securing a loan from a bank and then donating it to an endangered birds refuge. I bought books on endangered birds to delight her, but th at wasnt what she wanted from me. She didnt want both of us to be miserable because of the state of our environment.
105 And I thought about calling Geoff and tel ling him. I would convince him, after a while, that it was me who should have her. That we were better for each other. That we wanted the same things. Th at we were pregnant. But we werent and wouldnt be while Geoff was still alive, which made me dream more vividly of his deat h. Of natural causes. Of so mething so peaceful it would be beautiful. That he would die the most beautiful death ever conceived. *** Was what we had worth it to you? she sa id. If Geoff found out about it, would it still be worth it? Or would you regret thes e past ten months? How would you feel about it? I shrugged my shoulders. I cant help the way I feel, I said. I dont regret any time Ive spent with you. I wouldnt regret it. She nodded her head. Would you regret it? Yes. I need to go outside, I said, trying to act as calm as possible. It smelled fresh outside; the snow was co ming. There wasnt a ny traffic. It was quiet. I lit a cigarette. The first time Belinda and I got together was two months after Geoff had left. Thered been other chances. Wed gone out a few times prior to that. Once wed got drunk and shared an oily cheese and mushroom calzone in my car, outside her house. She would take a bite, the oil dripping ont o my ratty car seat, and laugh and move her
106 face towards mine. We finished the calzone and then she started talking about shit. I cant even remember. She sat there and talke d, stalling until I leaned over and kissed her. I wanted to, and I did lean over, but at the last second, I reached past her and opened the door. Ive got to get home, I said. We didnt see each other for a couple of weeks, and it seemed like that would be the inevitable fate of our rela tionship. I missed her but I ha d a good sense of security. A security that would allow me to stay faith ful to Geoff. It somehow legitimized my loneliness. I felt like I coul d endure it if it was for a good reason. This, I supposed, was one. I started spending more time at the Hyatt bar, drinking for free, spilling my guts. The more time I spent away from Belinda, the better I felt. I missed my friend. I knew him better than Belinda and so I could draw on memories from our past that would remind me of why Id become friends with him in the first place. At this point, my life was manageable. But then late one night Belinda came into the hotel, where I was working the front desk, and started to cry. Shed had a conversation with Geoff that day and hed reiterated his fee lings on the baby issue. I took her into the bar. We sat in s ilence. My bartending friend brought me a glass of Southern Comfort doused with ginger ale. This was what he considered his serious drink. When you were dealing with something heavy, you drank Southern Comfort and ginger ale. He had a good per ception of things. Though I hadnt spent time with him outside of work, there were moments, like this one, where I thought that if I lost
107 Geoff, if something happened with Belinda and I lost Geoff for it, I could start a friendship with this guy. He was a good person. Did he break up with you? No, not exactly, she said. I just hung up on him. Then I broke the phone, smashing the receiver on my kitchen table until it broke. Now Im without phone. I ordered a screwdriver for Belinda. It was a drink she liked when she was feeling rotten. And now my kitchen counter has gashes everywhere. Deep gashes. I really messed it up. There are chips and splinters of wood along with the gashes, she said. Im sure that can be fixed somehow, I sai d. Its a counter that can be fixed. I can take a look at it sometime if you d like. I was good at shop. Then after I noticed Id really damage d my counter, I took a serrated knife and carved words into the counter. Id never done that before. Ever. I mean, carved anything into a table. Not ev en during school. It felt good. What did you write? I asked. Just words. Words I thought youd def ace things with. Fuck. Bitch. Shit. Asshole. Dick. Pussy. I tried to write C-UN-T, but I hate that word so much I couldnt get myself to do it. But for the most part I did pretty well. All things considered. How does it look? I said. It could be better. I dont have much woodcarving technique. Maybe you could show me a few pointers. She put her hand on top of mi ne. I didnt remove it. My shift runs another hour, but I could call you tomorrow.
108 My phone doesnt work, remember? W hy dont you just stop over after you get finished. She got up and left. I drove over to Belindas, thinking only a bout my bartending friend. What a great person he was. How accessible and understand ing. I kept my mind off Geoff. I was drunk. I was happy to be so. Belinda let me in. She had Lou Reed playing in the background. Shed been crying. I checked out the count er. It was all fucked up. Along with the words, shed carved stick figures of no one in particular and geometric sh apes. I figured these were the two easiest things to draw with a knife. We sat down on her couch with glasses of red wine. I started touching her hair, and then I ki ssed her earlobe. Her breathing sputtered. I moved my lips to hers. We kissed. A nd then I moved my hand to her breast. We banged our way to the bedroom. I trie d to get out of my clothes as soon as possible, before she or I changed our minds. She stripped. We hid under the sheets. I put myself in her. I started moving. She moaned and then stopped me. We cant, she whispered, and peeled herself off. We can, I said, and I hugged her and pushe d myself back in. I moved again and she moaned and then she repeated, We cant, and I eased myself off her. We continued like this until we were both ready to come. We cant, she said, but we did. She ma de no attempt to move away from me. That was the last time either of us ever said we couldnt.
109 Our food had arrived when I got back to the table. Belinda had waited for me. Im sorry, she said. She was telling the truth, but Im not su re why she said it. Was it because she didnt mean what shed said, or becaus e she was sorry that shed hurt me? Why are you sorry? I asked. Lets not get into it, she said. I want to know, I said. Why do you have to know? Why cant it just be enough that Im sorry? Because thats not how it works. Y ou cant just say things that dont mean anything, I said. She looked at me, and then took a bite of her enchilada. I hated her. I hated her and I hated Geoff. As I watched her cut the enchilada into small cubes, dipping each in its share of mole sauce, I wanted to slap the fork away from her face and shove her plate onto the floor. I wanted to kick over th e table and tell her to fuck off, to have a great life with a guy who would never have a child with her. That hed leave her for someone younger in a few years. That shed never be as happy w ith him as she was with me. That she was ignorant and nave and insecure. I wanted to shake her and ask her wh y she was acting this way. Why she was treating me this way. I wanted to tell her that I would never run away from her. That we were more than just in love. I wanted to ask her what she and Geoff had, if she truly thought that that was worth more than the price of an international ai rline ticket, which is
110 what Geoff chose to pay for rather than staying home with her. I wanted to tell her that I loved her more than Geoff ever could. But I was afraid of what Id hear. Are you not going to eat your food? she asked. She stabbed a piece of the enchilada, dribbling with cheese and sauce, and brought it to her mouth. Then she shrugged her shoulders. I stared at her. Fine, she said, dropping the fork on the plate, making a harsh, cold sound that stuck in my ears. Im sorry that I hurt your f eelings. Im sorry Ive ruined tonight. Im sorry about tomorrow. Im sorry that its cold out and you get down when its cold. I nodded my head. Im sorry for telling you I loved you when I didnt. And not saying anything when I did. Good God, Belinda, I said, but couldnt fini sh what I wanted to tell her. I started to cry. I could feel tears sl owly drip down my face. She made no attempt at trying to soothe me. I didnt wipe them away. I let her watch. And perhaps this was what it had come to her watching me lose it. And I loved her too much to make her look away. Finally she went back to her ench ilada. I ate my chimichanga. I had trouble swallowing my food. My head hurt. You could hear our forks scrapping the por celain plates and the alcohol being gulped down our throats. There was clatter in the kitchen that you could just make out if you were silent. I wanted to apologize for acting the way I had, for arguing with her, for
111 spoiling our night together. I wanted to be g for us to go home and do what wed gotten used to doing for ten months. I wanted to love her one last time and I wanted to tell her how much I wanted to do this. But when I tried to open my mouth, nothing came out. Somehow, the silence seemed fitting. I didnt want to disturb it. I felt at ease. So we sat there like the former lovers we seemed destin ed to be, trying to explain something there are no words for. Trying to make sense of an affair that had gone wrong along the way. We ate our food. Mine was tasteless and heavy. I couldnt stomach much of it, but I kept putting bits of the food in my mouth instead of setting my fork down. I did it to keep busy. I thought it would go on the rest of the night until the bill came, and that would be the end of everything. But then a man and a gi rl walked in, the man carrying a briefcase, and slid into a booth four tables away from us. The hand not carr ying the briefcase was slightly deformed, which made me think of Geoff, though the man had all his fingers. Belinda was facing their table. My back was to them. I turned my head and spied on them. They sat on the same side of the booth, but were not talking. The waitress came over and handed them menus. The man spoke too quietly for me to understand. The girl stayed silent. She was probably between six and ten, Im not exactly sure because I have difficulty with childrens ages. But thats a pretty good guess. The man was in his early forties. Belinda forked more enchilada into her mouth and watched the man and girl. At that moment I hoped her food was perfect. I hoped that she would come back here with Geoff, raving about the food, but secretly thin king of our time here. Thinking about this
112 night. Thinking of me. That was what I hoped, when it came right down to it. I hoped that when she was with Geoff, she would thi nk of me, that she would compare him to me and wish it were me that she was with. Even if she never said it to anyone but herself, I hoped that, having to do it over again, she would choose me. She said, That guy over there is the girls uncle. But hes not supposed to be with her. Hes kidnapped her from his brother and now theyre on the run. Snatched her right after school. Seriously? I said. But you know what? Hes the better parent She should be with him, which is what hes thinking, but its illegal nonetheless. So th eyre running away from a bad situation to make things better, but he knows, he knows things wont be like they should. Eventually theyll catch up to hi m. Eventually hell have to give her back, put her back in a situation she shouldnt be in be cause she doesnt belong to him. And she doesnt know it yet because shes so young and nave, but the situation with him is better than it was at home. Right now she cant see it, but shed be better off with her uncle. But hes not the father, I said. Hes not the father. Hell always be a signi ficant part of her li fe, but he cant ever have her, because as bad as the situation at home is, he still loves his brother. Why did he take her? He thought he could provide her with a bett er life. He thought he could do better. But deep down he just wanted to know how it felt to be a father. To be someones protector. He wanted to feel someth ing that he hasnt felt before.
113 Belinda took a sip of beer. But he cant, she said. Not fully. Not while his brother is around. Hell never completely experience fatherhood while he knows she has her real father. It just isnt possible. Yes it is, I said. Belinda n early spit up her beer. She swallowed and then ran her hand through her hair, catching a knot that she slowly worked out. Then she kept going ove r the same, smooth spot, one hand and then the other, as if shed finally figured out a pr oblem and wanted to relis h in her success. Id have kids with you. Id raise a family with you, I said. Thank you, she said. I closed my eyes and tried to think of something amazing to say to her. I wanted everything from here on out to count. I just wanted things to be good. But I couldnt, so instead I said, But maybe they really think theyre going to get away. Because they arent just fleeing from her father, but this man his names Lenny is also running from something that hes done that hes not so proud of. Theyre trying to outrun everybody and they just might make it. Because hes determined. More determined than hes ever been in his life. Hes stolen something besides the girl. A lot of money. No, something more valuable than th at. Something endangered. Something worth saving. Something thats worth eluding the police for. Right. So theyre together and I think soon shell reali ze that shes supposed to be with Lenny. Her life will be better with him, I said.
114 But he didnt really steal it. Really? No, because it was his to begin with, Be linda said. And you cant steal something that was originally yours. Are you sure? I said. Yes, she said. And theyre trying to get to San Fran cisco because they know somebody there that will help them out, someone who will hide them for a while. They can disappear if they get there. No, I said, theyre trying to get to S acramento. Theyre going to Sacramento because no one would expect them in Sacram ento because its a sh it city. But its got more crime and more places to hide out in. I think youre right. I th ink Sacramento is their des tination. And theyre coming from St. Louis, trying to get there in a da y. Theyre just stoppi ng over in Denver for a meal, but theyre trying to make it before the blizzard hits. They cant afford to waste any time. Not even a night, I said. But theyre concerned about the blizzard. Theyre trying to make it before it hits because if not, they think everythingll be lost. Theyve got to get throug h the blizzard. And if th ey do, they have a good chance of being safe. Probably.
115 Theyll be happy. Hell provide for her. Ta ke care of her. He ll love her like her father couldnt. Hell be there, Belinda said. The waitress brought them their drinks. He drank some kind of soda. She drank a Shirley Temple. And shed grow up in a good neighbor hood and go to a good school. Shed study endangered species, I said. Belinda laughed. Thats sounds about right, she said. The waitress came and asked us if we want ed anything else. We shook our heads. The waiter cleared our plates. When they get there Lenny would go looking for a job. At first hell have trouble. Hell get down on himself, maybe even consider returning home. He has a little girl to take care of and he doesnt have time to me ss around. But then when hes about to give up, he thinks of this great idea and acts on it and its amazing. Hes amazing. And so hes doing his thing, taking care of her and shes studying endangered species in California and I wish I had talked to you, I said. What? she said. That night at the charity dinner. I wish I had talked to you. You did talk to me.
116 I mean really talked to you. I wish I ha d told you how I felt. I wish I had told you what I thought of you the first time I saw you. I wish I had asked you out. I wish I had done a lot of things. I wish you had, too. I wish things were different. The bill came. We paid it. Before we left we went over to the table. Lenny and the girl ha d just gotten their food. I said, Good luck in Sacramento. Hope you get through the snowstorm. He turned and looked at me. He held drink in his mouth. He looked like he wanted to talk and swallow at the same time. We left before he could either. We decided to go back to my place. I c ould live with the fragrance of her and me after tonight. I could live with remembering us in my apartment. I wanted it that way. She rested her head on my shoulder as I drove. It wasnt too late, but there was no traffic. Everybody was anticipating the stor m. I drove fast, with the window cracked and the heater on. Belindas breath wa s hot on my neck. She was asleep. I nudged her awake when we got to my pl ace. We played Lou Reed. We played Bob Dylan. We played Herbie Hancock. We drank coffee to stay awake. And then we made love. Belinda asked me what position I wanted her to be in, but this night I didnt want anything unusual. I wanted to do it the way wed been doing it the whole time. I wanted to think of this night as special, only b ecause we were together, not because it was different from every other night wed spent together.
117 It probably wasnt the best sex Id ev er had. We were both drunk and sad and vacant. But Ill remember this time, every move and moan and gasp, more than Ill remember my first. And right before I fini shed, I told her, We cant, and she laughed and pulled me closer. Belinda fell asleep right after. She curled up into a ball. I lay awake, waiting for the blizzard to come. Ive never been one for snow. Its depr essing. But I wanted it tonight. I thought of Geoff. I did miss my best friend. I wanted to see him. But he could wait. I wanted it to snow like it was supposed to. Three, four feet. The airports couldnt possibly stay open with that much snow. Or maybe I could wake up Belinda and we could get in my car and drive. We could forget everything in Denver and drive through the night, try to miss the storm and head west. We could go to San Francisco or Sacramento and meet up with Lenny and his girl. That would be okay too.
118 SALTWATER For a week when I was six or seven, I pissed blood. I was normal otherwise. It was thick, fiery blood. It felt like somebody had jammed nail files up my urethra. I felt like I was being punished. Th en it went away. Sometime during the night I stumbled into the bathroom, lifted up the se at, and pissed the most foul smelling thing Id ever emitted. But it was deep yellow or pale or ange. Not red. That was the last of it. Wed been at the ocean and I was stung by a fish. I dont know what kind. Something dangerous. The blood was the result of it. I told this to My Best Student. Thats not possible, she said. There isn t a fish that would do that. You must have had a bladder infection. Fish cant do that to you. She had just told me everything there is to know about dangerous fish. There is a lot to know and I retained most of what she had to say. Some of it is not interesting, but when she spoke, I paid attention and preten ded to care intensely, as you do with anybody you have a particularly carnal interest in before that interest is relieved. Other information, however, was quite captivating. She told me the Atlantic torpedo ray can discharge 220 volts of electricity. There ar e no reports of humans having been seriously injured by one. Still, I had said, you have to think so mewhere down the line that will change. Well, I guess, she said.
119 So after she told me that my fish stor y was impossible, I began to think that maybe what I had said wasnt correct. Maybe it wasnt even from the ocean. Maybe Id been accidentally booted in the groin or my bl adder had, in fact, been infected in some capacity. I must have been thinking deeply and di sturbingly about it, because she offered to take me to bed right then. We hadnt done it to date, but the evening was headed in that direction. Shed come over and I had some mo derately priced wine that we both drank. A few weeks later she would tell me about the year she spent in France during high school, in the region where they make Merlot. It was our first tryst, I suppose you coul d say, though wed had meetings in my office when no one was looking. Nothi ng physical, only discussions of the unprofessional kind. There were moments when we discussed her composition, because it was atrocious, but that usually wasnt w hy she came by, shutting the door behind her. Though conventionally, she was not the best writing student, she was my best student in other less-than academic ways. So after my story, she said, I want to go to bed with you because you have an interesting mind. That line was, before the pronoun substitutions, from a Grace Paley story. Id recommended a book of hers when My Best St udent asked for some reading material. Youve read the story, I said. Ive read some other ones, too, she said. What did you think?
120 But she didnt answer. We went to my bedroom. The sex was fine, but Id had better. I could get over the fact that she was my student and I, her teac her. It was never a fetish. But she was eighteen and I was twenty-eight and so Id had roughly ten more years of knowing whats good and whats not. What you can endure for the benefit of your partner and what you need to do to be nefit your own cause. What you want and what you cant stand. My Best Students given name was Carli, which is what her friends called her, but I chose not to use it out of class for anonymity purposes. It was best, when alluding to her within the company of friends that knew of her, to be as elusive as possible. Just to be safe. My Best Student used vague pronouns, spliced her commas, fragmented her sentences, split her infinitives, compounded nothing, only knew that the colon was an organ and it filtered waste, was guilty of fau lty parallel structure, dangled her modifiers and, regrettably, contracted her possessive pronouns. But she must have recognized that this wa s a major fault of hers, and that I could fix it, promptly. I have taught freshman com p. for three years and I am certain that my students know that I know what Im talking about. I think for the most part my students en joy me, if not the class, but My Best Student adored me, which, in turn, turned me on to her. She was a ttractive, but just the adoration she expressed was enough to get me worked up. It was enough to hold closeddoor meetings.
121 At a seafood joint in the Florida panhandle, I told My Best Student that I really enjoyed eating snapper. In fact, it might be my favorite fish, I said. I could eat it frequently, if someone prepared it for me. Yeah, snapper is good, but its not alwa ys a good idea to eat it, she said. Then My Best Student explained to me th at not all snappers are worth eating. The dog snapper, for instance, has been known to cause Ciguatera poisoning, which comes from fish that feed on, among other things, ba cteria found on reefs. It is passed on when one eats the infected fish. Sy mptoms are similar to those cau sed by spoiled fish, but also include intense itching, joint a nd muscle pain, tingling of the lips, burning or pain when cold liquids are touched or drank. At times a victim can have the sensation of drinking something carbonated or feeling an electrical char ge while drinking water. It also affects breast milk, giving the woman a fuzzy sensation. I like tuna a whole bunch, she said. Its real good. I wanted to vomit. I couldve corrected he r. I wanted to correct her. I shouldve said something, because that was why I was there with her. I enjoy tuna as well, I said. It is very good. We both ordered the tuna. What do you know about tuna? I asked. Some things, but theyre not that interesti ng. Mostly I know they re tasty. Thats enough for me. My Best Student was a blonde with green eyes and perfectly st raight teeth. She was very tan from spending time on the beaches in southern California. Her father owned a car dealership and her mother trai ned greyhounds to race. Logically she knew a
122 lot about cars and dogs, but her knowledge of dangerous fish came from somewhere else. Curiosity, I suppose, but I never learned why. We didnt get into it. The greater soapfish is much more intere sting, she said. It has toxic snot. Its related to the sea bass. Or the Atlantic wolffish, which looks like a fish from Super Mario Brothers. Is that right? Oh, yeah. Just like one of those killer fish. In the mornings when My Best Student had stayed over, we went running. Shed been a marathon runner in high school. She s howed me how to stretch properly. We ran early so I could avoid people I knew. She talked up a storm when we were running. I just tried to keep up. She taught me about voodoo, while we spri nted around spiders that had attached themselves to trees. She spoke about Frank Lloyd Wrights archit ecture and making bets during games of pool she played in bars that should never have let her in, while we ran alongside swampy regions that were rumored to hide gators. Id recently rejected kisses from My Be st Student because Id developed a canker sore above one of my canines. She explained the origins of canker sores and that the best way to relieve the pain is by gargling with saltwater. I knew that one, I mumbled, which made me stop and keel over in exhaustion. Did you? she asked. I did it as a child, I said. I guess thats probably likely, she said. And then she explained why it was the best method.
123 She said, The fluid in our tis sue is salty. Canker sores st rip the tissue of its fluids, so when you mix just the right amount of salt into the water, it is very soothing. You have to try to match the solution with what the fluid in your tissue resembles. Like, it replenishes the fluids, at least for a time. Regular water just pulls salt out of our tissue, so thats why its real uncomfortable. I just know its a form of Herpes, I said when we returned to my apartment. Everybody knows that, she said. On one of our runs, when it was particul arly warm out, I tripped over a hidden log and crashed to the ground, bruising my knee a nd skinning my shin. My Best Student had to help me up. I limped home. After a pplying hydrogen peroxide to the wounds, she kissed my leg. She said, I guess youre just getting old. Good God. There had to have been some thing else you couldve said. Anything but that, I told her. What should I have said? Anything but that. Should I have explained how hydrogen peroxide works? she asked. I shrugged my shoulders, then went into the bathroom and took a shower. She left before I got out. I was happy about that. I didnt want to see her, because I wasnt sure what I wouldve said. I didnt have a good response to her question, which was pathetic.
124 I considered giving her a lower grade th an she deserved on the next assignment, or embarrassing her in class. I would wr ite everything she said on the chalkboard and then have my students correct her errors on sheets of paper that I would provide. But of course I wouldnt do that. No twithstanding the obvious professional consequences of angering her, I couldnt stomach humiliating My Best Student. She deserved better. And I knew that if I pu lled something like that, she would deserve someone better. So I bandaged my leg, graded a nnotated bibliographies and read from a forgettable book. We crossed paths in a tavern the next ni ght. There wasnt much said, only looks of mutual apology shot across the bar. Id filled up on liquor and so was only hungry for her. I wanted to take her home. Carry her on my back. I would think of things to tell her that would blow her away. I would pull out old essays and show her what a real academic paper should look like. Then a young, fertile boy of twenty-one or twenty-two wandered up to the table with two pints of beer, handing My Best Stude nt one. He offered her a cigarette, which she also accepted. Id never seen her smoke, and now she was puffing away like an addict of many years. She paid no more attention to me that night, which made me wonder exactly what she meant when she shot me those looks of apology. If shed been anyone other than a student I wouldve approached her, asked her what she thought she was doing. I wouldve gotten into it with her, as is my nature when I drink. But she was my student and I was with fello w teachers and so I controlled myself, leaving the bar w ithout disturbance.
125 I glanced at her bibliography when I came to it. It was thorough. She more than met the assignments guidelines. But I didnt want to contin ue reading it, for fear that the annotations were, miraculously, good. It w ould have been unexpected, to be sure, but I thought, at least this night, it was possibl e. This night I imagined she could do anything. She was not in class the following Monday. For the best, I thought. I yelled at my class about passive voice. I yelled at them about plagiarism. I yelled at them about over-using exclamation point s. I yelled at them about the Cubs and their miserable luck. I did not return their god-awful annotated bibli ographies out of pure spite. Afterwards I went to my office, curs ing myself for having to carry around their stack of papers for another day. My Best Student was waiting for me. I scooted around her and unlocked the door. She followed me inside. You can leave the door open, I said. No, she said, I think youll want to hear this with the door closed. I kicked it shut. Im pregnant, she said. Is this a joke? She shook her head. This has got to be the worse day of my fucking life, I said. Thats an awful thing to say. My Best Student shielded her eyes with her hand. Is it mine? Well, probably.
126 Probably? Who else have you been fucking? That fucking dolt in the bar? Thats the last person who s hould be having children. Pleas e tell me its not his. Do you want it to be yours? she asked. I dont want it to be anybodys. But especially not that mutt. That halfwit. In particular I dont want it to be his. Why dont you want it to be his? He looks like a ventriloquist dummy. Hes the type of person you pack in a suitcase and bring out when youre in dire need of a laugh. I bet hes been stored in trunks before. She laughed. Whats so funny? I dont find any of this funny. I dont think you know the severity of the situation. Do you? I mean, youre fucking pre gnant and it could be mine. She laughed harder. Well, this cant go any further. I mean it, I said, putting my hands on my hip, trying to look imposing. Im serious. Youll need to take care of it. Of course Ill go with you, but this is not something you want. No. Stop, stop, she said between fierce cackles. Enough, enough, she said, regaining her breath. But I hadnt had enough. I wanted to continue with my rampage. I wanted to fuck her up. I wanted to get inside her insidi ous brain and rip out the region that gave her the ability to talk. I wanted to take a scalpel and do it myself.
127 That was a gag, she said. Im not really pr egnant. I just went in for a pap smear and got the idea. Man, you really bought that I didnt think I coul d do it. That went good. There was so much I wanted to say. I thought of grabbing for my letter opener, holding it up to her, threatening her, just to se e how she liked it. I couldve cursed at her, driven her out of my office with a barrage of ferociously filthy words that put to shame anything shed ever said out l oud. Or I couldve used words that shed never even heard of. I could easily have used the English language to make her cry. But I didnt. Instead I said, That went good ? Real good, she said, getting in a few more heavy giggles. Real good? Are you kidding me? Are you an immigrant? Is English your second language? It went well The gag went well Really well. That had, remarkably, cut deep. So deep she stumbled back, nearly hitting her head on the door. I took a step forward, to stead y her, to hold her up, to protect her. But I stopped. I let her crash agai nst the door, and watched her squirm to keep from hitting the floor. I watched her try to fight back from crying. I stood there, watching her fall apart. She opened the door and left. And then she left my class permanently. My friends and I talk about our classes. We talk about our students and what their writing is like. We poke fun at the awful wr iters. We recognize the good ones. We talk composition. We talk about teaching. We ta lk about language because thats what we know best.
128 Months later, during spring break, a group of us traveled down to Naples to see a spring training baseball game. Before the game we relaxed on a beach that was smoother than the ones up north. We did not wear swimming suits well. We were pasty white, some with bellies that hid lin t, others with stomachs that seemed like they could store almost nothing. We were tragic, like a group of terminally ill patients set free for a day. It was hot. I ran as far as I could into the ocean and then flopped down. I thought of all the dangerous fish I might encounter. The blue tang, California scorpionfish, wolfeel, the bluefish, greater amberjack, scallo ped hammerhead shark and, perhaps even the misunderstood barracuda. Of course it wasnt re asonable. I knew that most of those fish didnt inhabit the waters I was swimming in. At least as shallow as I was. But still, I thought about what they would look like swimming next to me, under me, around me. I put my head under, accidentally sw allowing a mouthful of water. The water tasted stronger, but similar, to the saltwater solution Carli had made for me when I had my canker sore. She mixed it to perfection. Then when I was done gargling, she took a sip, swished it around in her mouth, spit it out and kissed me before I had time to react. She kissed me longingly, w ith her tongue, swerving it in my mouth, slithering it over the canker sore, as if she were trying to smooth out something that wouldnt budge. As if she were trying to get rid of it. Her tongue was squirmy, slippery, slick, but it didnt hurt.
129 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH Lawrence Wood was born in Atlanta, Geor gia, and grew up in Denver, Colorado. He graduated from the University of Wi sconsin in Madison in 2002 with a BA in English. He earned his MFA from the Univers ity of Florida in 2005. Prior to coming to Florida, Lawrence worked as a sixth grade sp ecial ed teacher in Denver, and lived in Minneapolis, where he di d very little.