Even to the Edge of Doom

Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UFE0020971/00001

Material Information

Title: Even to the Edge of Doom
Physical Description: 1 online resource (201 p.)
Language: english
Creator: Ramsey, David B
Publisher: University of Florida
Place of Publication: Gainesville, Fla.
Publication Date: 2007


Subjects / Keywords: English -- Dissertations, Academic -- UF
Genre: Creative Writing thesis, M.F.A.
bibliography   ( marcgt )
theses   ( marcgt )
government publication (state, provincial, terriorial, dependent)   ( marcgt )
born-digital   ( sobekcm )
Electronic Thesis or Dissertation


Abstract: This collection of stories is populated for the most part by good-hearted people with questionable decision-making skills. 'Cape Fear' is a series of interconnected shorts about a group of tweakers on the Carolina coast, and a haunted house. The other stories include love, loss, and animal trivia. Sometimes, noses are broken; typically, the tide comes in.
General Note: In the series University of Florida Digital Collections.
General Note: Includes vita.
Bibliography: Includes bibliographical references.
Source of Description: Description based on online resource; title from PDF title page.
Source of Description: This bibliographic record is available under the Creative Commons CC0 public domain dedication. The University of Florida Libraries, as creator of this bibliographic record, has waived all rights to it worldwide under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights, to the extent allowed by law.
Statement of Responsibility: by David B Ramsey.
Thesis: Thesis (M.F.A.)--University of Florida, 2007.
Local: Adviser: Leavitt, David A.

Record Information

Source Institution: UFRGP
Rights Management: Applicable rights reserved.
Classification: lcc - LD1780 2007
System ID: UFE0020971:00001

Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UFE0020971/00001

Material Information

Title: Even to the Edge of Doom
Physical Description: 1 online resource (201 p.)
Language: english
Creator: Ramsey, David B
Publisher: University of Florida
Place of Publication: Gainesville, Fla.
Publication Date: 2007


Subjects / Keywords: English -- Dissertations, Academic -- UF
Genre: Creative Writing thesis, M.F.A.
bibliography   ( marcgt )
theses   ( marcgt )
government publication (state, provincial, terriorial, dependent)   ( marcgt )
born-digital   ( sobekcm )
Electronic Thesis or Dissertation


Abstract: This collection of stories is populated for the most part by good-hearted people with questionable decision-making skills. 'Cape Fear' is a series of interconnected shorts about a group of tweakers on the Carolina coast, and a haunted house. The other stories include love, loss, and animal trivia. Sometimes, noses are broken; typically, the tide comes in.
General Note: In the series University of Florida Digital Collections.
General Note: Includes vita.
Bibliography: Includes bibliographical references.
Source of Description: Description based on online resource; title from PDF title page.
Source of Description: This bibliographic record is available under the Creative Commons CC0 public domain dedication. The University of Florida Libraries, as creator of this bibliographic record, has waived all rights to it worldwide under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights, to the extent allowed by law.
Statement of Responsibility: by David B Ramsey.
Thesis: Thesis (M.F.A.)--University of Florida, 2007.
Local: Adviser: Leavitt, David A.

Record Information

Source Institution: UFRGP
Rights Management: Applicable rights reserved.
Classification: lcc - LD1780 2007
System ID: UFE0020971:00001

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2007 David Ramsey 2


For my best unbeaten brother, Nathaniel Klein, who came to visit one winter when Id almost lost my footing. 3


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS My parents funded the pub lication of my first book, Tom the Fish, and have supported me in all of my harebrained sc hemes and questionable haircuts. I would like to thank David L eavitt for his wisdom and encouragement, and for trying diligently to explain the gramma r of repose. Jill Ciment, Padge tt Powell, Mary Robison, David Leverenz, and Susan Hegeman all offere d invaluable criticism and advice. Corey Brewer, Al Horford, and Joakim Noah made my stay in Gainesville infinitely richer. All of my fellow MFA students have been capit al critics and friends. Special thanks to Julie Christenson, Eric Maxson, and Magdalene Powe rs for their generous and astute reading; Daniel OMalley and Stephen Prie st for staying up all night with me; and Lee Felice Pinkas, for putting me up, putting up with me, and a million tiny things. 4


TABLE OF CONTENTS page ACKNOWLEDGMENTS...............................................................................................................4 ABSTRACT.....................................................................................................................................7 ITCH................................................................................................................................................9 ON THE FIFTY-FIFTH CONSECUT IVE DAY WITHOUT A FIGHT......................................19 THE NOW IMPALPABLE DUST................................................................................................28 LOTTO..........................................................................................................................................30 CAPE FEAR STORIES.................................................................................................................48 Powers.....................................................................................................................................49 Commitment..................................................................................................................... ......51 Dont Stop Talking............................................................................................................. ....55 Change....................................................................................................................................56 Haunted ...................................................................................................................................58 History....................................................................................................................................62 Resolute....................................................................................................................... ...........64 Karate......................................................................................................................... .............69 The Sage Advice of Jerome....................................................................................................71 Glory Gone.............................................................................................................................72 Morning..................................................................................................................................77 Lincoln, Ecstatic!....................................................................................................................78 SOUTHBOUND..................................................................................................................... .......86 EVERYONE IS BLEEDING......................................................................................................104 LETS GO BOWLING............................................................................................................... .115 MILLARD ON THE BRINK......................................................................................................120 SAND AND SKY........................................................................................................................129 LOVE........................................................................................................................... ................131 JUSTICE......................................................................................................................................136 NEW ERA........................................................................................................................ ...........138 ROTTEN......................................................................................................................................151 5


FLOATERS.................................................................................................................................154 JENNIFER, IN HER REGRET...................................................................................................165 THE PIER....................................................................................................................................170 DISPOSAL..................................................................................................................................173 PRAYER......................................................................................................................................178 SAME OLD BLUES....................................................................................................................184 AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF BLUE..................................................................................................190 ONE HUNDRED THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE YOU GO AND SAY THAT...............194 STORY FOR SISTER............................................................................................................... ..198 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH.......................................................................................................201 6


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 EVEN TO THE EDGE OF DOOM By David Ramsey August 2007 Chair: David Leavitt Major: Creative Writing This collection of stories is populated fo r the most part by good-hearted people with questionable decision-making skills. Cape Fear is a series of interconnected shorts about a group of tweakers on the Carolina coast, and a haunted house. Th e other stories include love, loss, and animal trivia. Sometimes, noses are broken; typically, the tide comes in. 7


Love alters not with hi s brief hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116 8


ITCH John Sullivan Hayworth was thirty years old when he and Colleena woman he had only recently decided against marryinghydroplan ed in her Toyota Camry and spun into an oncoming truck on the highway. She had been in the midst of saying, You are a child, you are a but he did not have a chan ce to hear the second half of her insult because they were suddenly gone into rain and metal. The second half might have been coward. That one had always been a go-to move for Colleen. Hayworth hadnt been alive for upwards of twenty-four hours now. It was difficult to determine exactly. But some time yesterday afte rnoon he had expired, he knew that much, and it was getting on toward evening. He itched. This was a concern. Post-expira tion, he had been itching non-stop. Strange, because he had no body. He was some kind of sp irit or soul or ghost, he reckoned. Yet the pervading, free-floating itchiness persisted. Hayworth had other concerns. One thing, he wa s a man of science. Life, he had assumed, amounted to brain activity. You had some years as a living, thinking animal and then the switch went off. But here he was, thinking this, and itching. He was dead, but the switch seemed stuck halfway between. Another concern: He didnt know where Coll een was. His side, the drivers side, had borne the brunt of the collision, so it was possibl e, though unlikely, that she was still alive. He couldnt make it out. After the accident and the br ief but forceful realization of impending death, everything went dark for a moment. He felt himself traveling, felt a slow and woozy coming to consciousness, and he began to th ink, to think and float about. Just now, he had floated up three stories a nd through a wall into a kitchen, where a tiny Vietnamese woman was cracking an egg. This floating business was tricky. He didnt have a 9


proper steering wheel, or joystick. He tried to will himself out of the apartment but that only turned him in circles. Though without bodywithout eyes, ears, etc.he could see and hear and smell the Vietnamese woman and her kitchen. And why was he in a strange kitchen, in the company of a woman he had never seen in his life? A Vi etnamese woman? The knowledge that she was Vietnamese was solid, but its origins obscure. The itching had grown obscene. The Vietnamese woman was shouting to herself, maybe cussing in Vietnamese. She was making some fried rice, and yelling something fierce. Flecks of spit flew from her mouth. Hayworth thought, I could go for some of that frie d rice, though it was not entirely clear how he might consume anything in his cu rrent state of bodiless floating. To tell the truth, it was lonely, being dead but still conscious, moving around with no steering wheel. No one knew he was there, he couldnt speak. Maybe th is woman spoke some English and they could have a little convers ation if he could only figure out how to communicate. Hayworth wondered what she might like to talk about. Her face was plum-shaped and brown. He wanted to swim over a little closer to her but he was stuck in the spot where he was. She poured soy sauce over the rice and eggs and onions sizzling in the pan. She was still hollering and now, Hayworth realized, she was crying too. She wa s crying hard, wailing. It was coming out of her like she was shedding some virus. Hayworth felt himself drifting, out of the kitchen and through the building into the chilly evening air. Goodbye kitchen, goodbye weeping Miss Vietnam. 10


His consciousness, or whatever it was, headed north up Sacramento Boulevard. He was going rather quickly and felt a sens e of nausea. He had no stomach, so like the itch, this feeling remained somewhat abstract, but intense nonetheless. He finally parked at a bar about a mile up, then floated through the open front door. He had begun to wonder whether there was some kind of being operating his motion, and he gave a silent thanks to his operator, if there wa s one. Hayworth appreciated going through a door instead of always drifting through walls. Still, he remained disgruntled about the operators choice of locale, if there was an operator. He ha d never been to this bar. That morning he had spent two hours in an elevator shaft. If the fl oating was supposed to be some kind of Ebenezer Scrooge deal, the moralizing was haphazard and weird. Two men sat at the bar in hunched posture ove r their beers and Hayworth slowly floated above them. Duck-billed platypuses are dreamers, said one of them, a big red-faced man wearing a big plaid hat with ear warmers, though the bar was steamy. Duck-billed platypi, sa id his friend, and snorted. Puses, the fist man corrected him. From the Latin. I ought to punch you in the fuck ing nose, said the second man. Yeah, well. The two sat and drank. They drank in rhythm with each other, like old partners. Well, the first man said. Fuck Marla. Ill drink to that, said the second. And they did. The muscles in the first man s jaw were undulating steadily. Best damn woman Ive ever met though, he said. Fuck her. But still. 11


Man, we ought to try and get tickets to the game. If you knew the half of what she done. You remember when you kicked the shit out that boy after the game? Was that ? Id like to shoot my memory w ith a shotgun, said the first man. Shoot, said the second. They drank. I read about, in Japan, theyve invented a lit tle refrigerator robot th at will open a beer for you, said the second man. He belched gently. It stores beers and then takes one out and pours it in your mug with a perfect head. Theyve always got something, the Japane se, said the first man. Why is that? Youd think there would be more robots by now. When I was little, I always figured robots would be everywhere now, like robot maid s and robot cab drivers. We could have us a little more leisure time and make th e robots pour our b eers and whatnot. Hell. The second man clutched at the small of hi s back. Been acting up again, he said. He took a long drink and looked at hi s friend. I wouldnt mind being a robot, really. I could get in to that life, all that logic, you know? So long as they gave me a nice look. Maybe pod-shaped, with some buttons. Racing stripes wouldnt look bad. What was she even thinking? Im too da mn mad to cry but I could cry. I would voluntarily cry over this situation. She said, he listens I wanted to hit her. I wouldnt, you know, but I wanted to. Like I dont li sten. Like listening is some ki nd of magic thing. Ive got ears. Weve all got goddamn ears. 12


And here again went Hayworth, floating backwards and away. A man of science, Hayworth happened to know that the big red-fa ced man was right about duck-billed platypuses (from the Greek, actually, platypous flat-footed). Ornithorhynchus anatinus a freak, a ducks head apparently glued to a beaver. In grade schoo l, they teach you that they are the only mammal that lays eggs. They do not teach you, for some reason, that they are also the only mammals with venom. The male has a spur on its leg filled with poison that he can throw onto a predator. The stuff is strong enough to kill a dog. The kicker, though, when it comes to duck-bille d platypuses, what the red-faced man at the bar was on about (and how he knew this was a mystery to Hayw orth): the duck-billed platypus has the most REM sleep of any animal, mo re even than humans. The little bastards are the deepest sleepers in the world, scientists ar e off studying them right now, finding links to the behavior of the planets earlie st animals and God knows what el se. The freaks are dreamers. Hayworth floated along slowly, past a line of strip malls cl osed for the night. The notion that he, like the platypus, might be dreaming, had occurred to him, of course, but he had long ago dismissed it. It was too long for a dream, the pacing too like life, without the strange shifts into slow motion or rapid time of nighttime fantas ies. Unlike dreaming, he was too aware of his distant and complex backstory. He could think, though he was trying not to, of Colleen, even as the two men in front of him rattled on at the bar, even now as he floated. Well, he preferred not to think about her. The point was, he retained details not relevant to the action unfolding in front of him. He thought: in 1986, Roger Clemens went 24 and 4, in 1987, he went 20 and 9, facts that he had memorized when he was a boy. That was not the sort of fact one had access to in a dream, he was sure of it. 13


Colleen was a nurse. Hayworth had not been anything, per se. For thirty years he had been of body and in those years he had done very little. He knew some things. He had some degrees, for example. He had known, but not don e. His floating path began an up-and-down motion, as if he was going over waves. He bega n to speed up and the buildings on his right and left blurred. He tried to close his eyes, but he had no eyes. Hayworth thought about the red-faced man, ready to cry over Marla. When Colleen cried in anger, she would dig her fingernails in her palms, burrowing them in so deep that she would wake up the next morning with little purple-red cr escents in the soft fat of her palms. The last few months, she had been mad so often that he ha d nearly forgotten that she had ever not been mad. She was, or had been, a good woman. He had n early forgotten this too. Why was it so easy to forget things? When Hayworth had been laid up badly with mono, she would sit by his bed and sing Johnny Cash songs with a fake British accent. What a strange lady. Maybe he hardly knew her. It made him laugh, the Cockne y soprano voice singing, How much longer will it be till we cross that Mason-Dixon Line? or whatever. Because of the mono, the laughter hurt his throat badly, but was a comfort nonetheless. The up-and-down-wave motion subsided some and his floating slowed. A dog began to run alongside him and bark. It was an old, mang y-looking thing, part Collie, Hayworth guessed. Maybe the dog could see him? He tried to communicate to the dog, to do some kind of dogtelepathy. He thought as hard as he could: Dog listen. I need some, maybe some help. The dog ran lazily alongside him for a while a nd then trotted off to pee on a car. Hayworth wondered about the men at that ba r, about Marla. He wanted to know them, and her. Hell, the dog, too. Last New Years, he hadnt been able to think of a resolution, and 14


that would have been a good one: Do a little mo re getting-to-know. He wished he had his body and maybe an island where he and the dog and thos e old men at the bar and Marla and the crying Vietnamese woman and Colleen could all get togeth er and just sit on the beach. They could drink some of those colored drinks with little umbrella straws. Hayworth could tell them a thing or two about the indigenous ocean lif e. That sounded all right. Colleen probably wouldnt go for that, rea lly. She was an antsy woman. She never much liked the company of strangers. She would have been worried that the men at the bar were trouble or that the mangy dog had rabies, or something. Yesterday, they had been driving to the pawnshop together to get rid of a television. They were in a phase of getting ri d of things. Hayworth had said something out loud which he shouldnt have, which he didnt altogether mean t o. If things, he had started. Ill miss this, going to the pawn shop with you. There is no one I would rather be with, she had told him. Right now, forever. But I cant, because you wont, because you give up too easily. He had said: I dont even know what that means. Because its easy, its because its easy, you are a natura l at giving up. Youre goddamn good at it. He floated west through a s ubdivision and wondered whether he would always itch. The irritant, whatever it was, ne ver wavered. He had been hoping that he would just go numb eventually. He wanted to call uncl e, to just end it, but that wasn t an option so far as he could tell. He had made a list of reasons that he coul d not marry Colleen, to organize his thinking on the matter. That seemed awful now, shameful. It was one thing to think th em, but to write them 15


down. She lied sometimes, about small things. Th eir senses of humor didnt quite align and neither of them could help but get unreasonabl y angry when that came up. She didnt trust him and had a spy impulse, opening letters addressed to him and the like. And so on. It was a stupid list. Just the process of list making had pushed h im to sour on new details. He had always been a list maker. The more he thought about it, they had never done him much good. He felt low down, felt as though Colleen had sp lit on him. He missed her with the lowgrade anger and regret and false pride of rejection. That made no sense. She hadnt split on him, it wasnt her fault that he had died and was floa ting past strange houses and could not float to her or speak to her or do anything at al l. She might be dead herself. The list had been stupid, but not wrong. But what difference did that make, did its rightness make? He hadnt done right by her. He had coll ected these details about which he could be narrowly right and slowly willed the tw o of them to failure. Why had he made petty catalogues of her faults? He had faults of his own. Sometimes wh en she would tell him about her day, he would drift and think about dinosaur sk eletons. What kind of person would do that? He was an ass. That was the trouble, he thought now She had seen or thought shed seen something better than that and he did not believe her. Early on, he used to make fancy sandwiches in the morning and pack her a lunch to take to work. Once, he made her a diorama about pira tes. She loved pirates, he didnt know why, but she did. He made her the diorama out of the blue using little pirate fi gurines he had bought off the internet and a wood boat he ca rved and painted. She said it wa s the best present shed ever gotten. More of that, he thought. It would have been different if I had done more like that. 16


His floating path veered off the road and se nt him through the houses in the subdivision. He coasted by families sitting down to dinner, past an old woman watching a police show on television, through empty hallways. Hayworth thought about Colleens ears, which just like his own had no lobes to speak of, like some strange animals. He could hear her voi ce in his head, he could remember it perfectly. Despite trying to lose her New Engla nd accent, she still sometimes dropped an r especially when she was angry. The way she said coward, th at last syllable was l ong and slow, cow-wood. He missed that, the way that word sounded from her. He wished he had been a nurse. He had not done much to help others in his life. He was knowledgeable but unhelpful. The knowledge itse lf was unhelpful. No one wanted to know about duck-billed platypuses. He had been more than unhelpful, he thought. He had done harm. When he was a very small boy he used to leave pieces of bread on the concrete steps in front of his house and wait for the ants to swarm. He would use a rock, or just his fingers, to smash the ants. He would lord over the ants, tell one of them, Run left, not right, or you will die. The ants, for some reason, usually picked the wrong way. He would show mercy for ants that obeyed his directions, but smash those that didnt. Slowly, he would massacre nearly all of them. He would put his eyes very close to the concrete so that he could see the minisc ule explosion of the inse cts thorax, the little sphere pop with juice. That was him, that was Hayworth. Coll een was a nurse. He was a smasher. He floated into somebodys outdoor pool, into clear, dark water that he could not feel. The sun was setting and under the water he could see deep-orange light refracting on the surface. 17


He wanted to go back to that Vietnamese woman badly. She was still crying, he could sense it. She had been wronged somehow, somethi ng awful. He wanted to comfort her. He wanted to call her little sister even though she was older than he was. But he was dead. It doesnt get older than that, he t hought. He would say: its all ri ght, little sister. He would hug her, only he couldnt. He missed his body. It was immensely sad to him that he could not hug her, that he could not remote control himself to her, could not speak to her and call he r little sister, that she was crying, he felt certain, that she was crying still. It was enough to make him cry too, but he couldnt do that either. I am sorry, little sister, he thought. He itched, and floated, and wished that he could sleep. 18


ON THE FIFTY-FIFTH CONSECUT IVE DAY WITHOUT A FIGHT Dont tangle with Pangle or youll be in a bad angle. That is what they say, the children. Most of them: snot-nosed, unreliable, mean, with fingernails long and dirty. Ruffians. Scoundrels. I am in the wrong profession. That is what my friends and family tell me. Up yours, I tell my friends and family. But the children are right about Pangle She is a mean old bitch. When the school first hired me she dug her fingers into my knuckles when she shook my hand and looked at me sticking out a pointy, freckled ch in and hissed, You probably have a lot of ideas, fresh out of school. She kept shaking my hand in quick ups and downs, gripped tight I said nothing, just stood there regarding the network of veins, flat and blue, on her sk in. Theyre going to walk all over you, she said, and let go. She has an Adams apple that hangs l ong and low like a mans, and loose jowls that flop down below her cheeks, so that the jowls and the Adams apple make three queer points beneath her face, perfectly spaced. Her age is uncertain. It is between 40 and 100. Around the eyes, in the loose cheeks and the gnarled and veiny hands, she looks near death. But she wears shorts in the warm months and has long, unblemished legs, with the shap e and color of youth. It is a mystery. She is a virgin and that is part of th e ruining of her, I suspect She has not been touched and that is no idle speculation: she stood up be fore her church congregation and bragged as much, spoke of her strength in saving her raggedy skin for marriage. She is Church of Christ, or some such. None that would let me in, most likel y, but another teacher is a member and told us the story in shrill, gossipy whis pers over coffee in the teachers lounge one morning. That is no surprise, said I. I coul d smell the virginity on her. 19


What I smell on Ms. Pangle is cats, sa id Herm Liles, one of those fairy teachers who can only teach elementary school because the tots dont yet know to call hi m fag. She smells like she bathes in cats and cat hair and cat pee. We sound like the children, said Gloria Frist, whom the children call Ms. Piss, as do I. Listen to us. She is always finger wagging at us in a pussyfooted manner such as that. She is the assistant principal but sh e behaves like a librarian. I will say this for Pangle: she is no pussyfooter. The state says we can paddle the studen ts unless the parents sign a form saying we cant. The parents neednt bother with me. Im not the paddling type. But it is a tough spot for a kid in Ms. Pangles class whose parents dont request the form. She uses a ruler and puts chalk on it, I have been told by the children, so that she can ma ke sure to see the mark and hit the same spot on every lick. Though not physically large, the woman is a slugger wi th the ruler, I am told. This morning before school I was ta lking to Ms. Swanson in the teachers lounge. She was telling me that I ought to ca ll her Lisa if the children arent around. It gives her the willies me calling her Ms. Swanson, she said. The main r eason, I think, is this: ea rlier this year, for a good portion of September a nd the whole of October, Ms. Swanson and I were at it several times a week. It was my first time rolling about with a teacher. The part I liked best was yelling, yes! Yes, Ms. Swanson! Yes, Ms. Swanson! Seriously, okay, call me Lisa, she was saying this morning. Yes, Ms. Swanson, I said. On the back of my neck, I felt the cold of fingers and I lurched forward. It was Pangle. You took my spot, Mr. Tanner, she said, and sucked her lips into her mout h so there was just a slit there. 20


Thank God she cant get at me with a ruler, I thought. Someone took mine, I said, which was true. So am I to take someone elses spot ? she asked me. And then theyll take someone elses spot? That sounds like an awful pattern, Mr. Tanner. We have a system. That sounds like chaos. Her jowls shook softly. I watched them flap. Mr. Tanner, she said, I am asking you to move the car. Okay, I said. Okay okay. My spot still taken, I had to park on the street several blocks up. I am likely to get a ticket there. The whole bit caused me to be late for class. It is a bad day for that as the kids are riled up already, it being the first day back from winter break. They have new sneakers and video games and the sweet memory of not-school is fresh ag ain in their minds. Insurrection is a danger, compounded by my tardiness this morning. An hour in we are doing all right though the lesson this morning is unpopular, among both them and me. The state requir es that I teach them to write in cursive, though I myself do not write in cursive and I know of no grown man who does. I imagine I am forced by law to teach it to them because the lawmakers themselves were once forced to learn it and they imagine it a reasonable hazing for the states youth. What can you do? Jackassery abounds. The ones who can do the cursive well in my class are the same who had a knack for it when I myself was a kidsmiling, do-good girls and the quiet, dull boy s who draw well but have no friends. Jones, my favorite student, is struggling mightily with the cursive. The pencil marks on his paper are no kind of writing of this world. A series of tiny, my stical pictures scattered about 21


the page. The boys name is Thomas Jefferson Smith, but he goes by Jones, for some absurd reason I am not aware of. These kids have nicknames coming out the ass. Earlier this year, Jones became enraged at the P.E. teacher, who had called him out at second base in a game of kickball. Jones refuse d to leave the base, which halted the game. Mrs. Potts, the stumpy little P.E. teacher with a sad old useless crush on Mr. Liles, tried to cajole the boy for a bit and then just started sc reaming at him. Really let in to him as I hear it. Fine, said Jones, and dropped his pants and defecated on second base. I was called out from my break period a nd went out there with Ms. Piss to investigate the scene. Jones, with his pants back up, was standing next to the base with his arms crossed over his chest and face furled up in a pout. The shit was a perfect, thin coil about the length of a tongue depressor, sitting there ri ght in the middle of the base. Mrs. Potts was crying. Everyone else was quiet, save for two. Fat little Stevie Morehead was sitting on the ground, Indi an style, pointing at the poop and laughing. And me: I was laughing and trying to hold it in, so that it sounded like squealy farts coming out of my pursed lips. Jone s was suspended for a week, which was sad for me. Like I said, he is my favorite. I like the bad kids. I have few of thoseI am under the im pression that the administ ration tries to put those types in Pangles class. I look over Joness shoulder as he scra wls gibberish like a lunatic possessed. Jones, look here, keep the p going into the ne xt letter. I take his hand and trace it th rough the right motion. See how it loops and goes right into the o? Keep your pencil to the paper the whole time. Mr. Tanner, this aint how I write, he tells me. He has no meat on him, Jones, and he takes up little of the big woode n chair beneath his desk. 22


Jones is retarded, announces Leila, a pale-faced girl with a crush on him. She loves him badly, and is cruel. Jones ignores her, for which I am thankf ul. He gets it in his head to pummel smaller kids who call him names sometimes. Breaking up fights can be dangerous business. I got in the way of a pair of fourth graders in the cafeteria brawling over some stray comment a while back, and took an errant punch in the groin. That was 54 sc hool days ago, which I know because the school office has a big dry erase board on the door, and it says, Park Hill Elementary, proud to have gone 54 days and counting without a fight. It is always sad when they have to start over, and claim to be proud over less than a week. Jones plays it cool wi th Leila. He looks at her, open-m outhed and silent. The state says retarded is one of the words th at I am not to tolerate in my classroom. But thats not a fair word to ban. Its too hard. They say it too much, and the occasions for its use too frequent. I say, to hell with it. Let them have that one. Leila, worry about your own work, I tell her. Jones is gripping his pencil in his fist lik e he means to stab his desk to death. Jones, hold it proper, I tell him. He put s it down and picks it up between hi s fingers. He goes back over the p slowly, follows it up to the o. There you go, I say. I turn around and walk to the next table where Jason is sitting up st raight in his chair and sleeping. He has an enduring posture, I will say. He is always sound asleep with his back as straight and sure as a flagpole. I sneak up to him and give a great big clap above his head and he jumps a good half a foot out of the chair, his back still a perfect line as he goes up and falls back down. The crowd goes wild. Quiet, I say. Only te n more minutes to finish up. 23


Behind me I hear Leilas voice in a hu sky hush. He lucky he not in Ms. Pangles class, she says. I turn and her hand is cupped over her mouth. The kids are piss-poor whisperers. They imagine me deaf, I suppose. Shed of whipped him. Care to share something with the whole class? I ask. I am always saying such shit as that. Dont tangle with Pangle, Jones says. Thank you for the advice, Mr. Smith. If you dont finish copying that passage, youre going to have to tangle with me. The class la ughs and Jones looks back to his work. I am good for a laugh, which works in a pinch. Pangle. I am still hot over the car this morning. Another story about her, relayed to me by Jones himself, is this: years ago, rumor has it, sh e so terrorized a boy that he bit her, took a big chomp on her forearm. His front tooth came right out against the hardness of her arm and fell to the floor. She picked it up. No tooth fairy for you, she said. The boy began to cry and she leaned in. I collect these. Toke ns of misbehavior. She looked to the class. Keep your mouths shut or Ill take yours too. And she belted the boy one-handed with a ru ler, fiddling with the tooth in the other. This story is not to be believed, of course. Jones told me his cousin knew the boy who lost the tooth. Jones is a liar, and those he list ens to not decent. But the children know the story, and the ones with loose teeth are scared to wiggle them in her presence. And who knows? I wouldnt put it past her. There is a knock at my door and up go a dozen arms, hands waving and shaking, and noises like oooh and mmm popping through the r oom. The kids are overtaken when there is a knock. They love to answer the door. They would make good butlers, every one. 24


I call on one of the quiet boys far ahead in his cursive transcrip tions. Dana, go ahead. Ah, man! and Dang! erupt from among the unchosen. Dana waddles to the door and opens it and a boy from one of the other third-grade classes, a boy I dont know, comes running in and does a slide to me like an iceskater, hi s feet nearly slipping on through into the air. I steady him at the shoulders. Slow down there. He is wearing his big brothers clothes, it looks like to me, swimming in cloth. He stands there, his eyes open so wide you can see the curv e of the balls inside the lids. Can-can-can you, he stutters. He tugs on hi s pants, which are falling. Speak, son, I tell him. Ms. Pangle, he says. Dont tangle with Pangle, Jones says. Hush, I say and turn back to the boy. Whats your name? Howard. Tell me what happened, Howard. Ms. Pangle, she done fell straight down to the floor. She might be dead. The kids are up and two steps to the door and I slam my hand down on the desk. Sit, I say. We are finishing the assignment. Dana, youre the monitor, okay? Dana is already nodding and smiling. I will be right back, I say. If there is so much as a peep while I am gone, someone will be practicing cursiv e during recess. I take hold of Howards hand and wa lk out, where Cole Jackson, another of Pangles charges, is outside my door. Dewey did it, he tells me, following me down the hall. Dewey did what? Dewey hasn t the strength to knock her over. 25


He said something to her. Well, what did he say? Cole looks at Howard, then at me. You can tell me, you wont get in trouble. He was messing with Chemelle. Kept licking her face. Ms. Pangle told him get up, she was going to whip him good. And he said, chew on my dick. Right to her. She got all red and screamed and fell over. Dewey is a bit retarded. Hes the only one not properly scared of Ms. Pangle, the only one whod dare to cross her. Chew on my di ck. The woman has heard worse, I am sure. Is it a heart attack? Cole asks. I dont know, I say, open Ms. Pangles door, and we walk in together. The kids come running. She bleeding, says Joe, the tallest of the bunch. She is bleeding, I correct him. Stupid habit. She hit her head on the desk when she fell, Cole tells me. I walk to the center of the room, the ki ds parting. She is on the floor passed out, a little patch of blood, dark and thick, beneath her head. Cole, go to the office, tell them we need the nurse and the principa l in here now, I say. Dewey did it, one of the girls says. De wey is standing in the co rner with his lips puffed out. I didnt do nothing, he says. If he has any remorse for the dick business, it is hidden deep in the boy. 26


All of you, hush. Perhaps I should start with the CPR. I dont know CPR, in fact. I am required by the state to, but I faked my documenta tion and no one noticed. No one pays attention to anything any more. It is worth a shot. I know the gist. I put my own mouth to her dry lips and breathe hard. I take in a bit of her air. The taste of her breath is foul in my mouth. Onions and mustard. It is cold. I slam my hands on her chest. The bone is sharp and concave. I pick up her head. It is spilling. I keep with the breathing, trying to flush some life in, but Im doing it wrong, I am suddenly certain of that. I hear the footsteps of the nurse and the principal and others, running down the hall, nearing the door. I look up and the runts are surrounding me. There is no commotion. They are silent, watching: stunned that the old bitch is bleeding blood. 27


THE NOW IMPALPABLE DUST I had the dream again. The one where you are dr iving and I am sitting in the backseat and there is no one else in the car: it is just you and me the two of us and then we are gone, off the cliff and into the water, and you are saying punch out the window and I am saying no just breathe deeply and I am saying then it will be all right and you are saying you never learned, never listened, punch out the window. You had the dream again. The one where your teeth fall out. You have decided that these dreams have wi sdom we ought to listen to. I have decided a cigar is just, etc. You have said that you miss Topeka. You are not being ironic. It is winter. By calendar it is spring, but it is winter nonetheless, freezing and soft. I am saying: It was just a dream. You ar e saying: Remember when you hoped to be a fisherman? (It is dangerous and lucra tive on commercial fishing boats Among legal work in this country, it is the job on which you are most likely to lose a limb. I have a cousin that did it and for four months a coke-addled captain fed him food not fit fo r a man. And do you know what the captain said to complainers? He said: Itll ma ke you turd boys, itll make you turd.) I told you that story the second time I saw you, which was in Philadelphia. You listened and you laughed and something in your face reminded me of fruit. That is not something Ive ever told you. It felt too strange or personal. You had the thinnest lips and the smallest teeth. You mispronounced a word. Your fingers brushed against my collarbone. The first time I met you, back in Kansas, I di dnt tell you any stor ies or say anything. I thought, I will regret this silence. Now, today, the silence is on me again. You are saying: Ive slipped in to hating, or not hating but just not liking, not laughing, not loving, not light, not. Youve let me slip. 28


I am not saying anything. So you are saying: where are you, what are you, what are you thinking, what is in you? I am thinking of my grandmother. She told me a story about 1934, about blinding black storms, about the day she was playing alone, im agining herself a princess and then it came suddenly and she was gone and lost in it. Like sn ow, but black. It filled her. It smelled like greasy pepper. The search party found her the next morning, tangled up in barbed wire. She had barely any breath. When she awoke she was whispering the Lords prayer to what she thought were angels. The barbed wire made a scar on he r arm that looked like Christmas lights. Remember the dust we made, driving back roads back home? Remember when you would laugh and yell at me for driving too fast, for making so much dust that it came through our open windows, so we breathed it together and choked for air? I am not saying anything. You are saying: Do you know what your dream means? It means that someone is drowning. I am thinking just breathe and you are thinking I never should have come here I know. You will be gone soon. You will be gone tomorrow, rubber wheels on earth and concrete, as quick and uncatchable as a storm. 29


LOTTO Jessie Brantley cried every time he lost the lottery, which was every time. Carrie and I knew this because Mr. Brantleys house had rose bushes in front of his big bay windows, which made spying easy. We would sneak there on Wednes days and Sundays when they announced the winning numbers. Mr. Brantley bought one ticket from the Mobil station down the street for each drawing. Carrie was the one who saw him do it first. She was a better spy than me. She scouted out a lot of houses on her own to find out which one s were most promising. Mr. Brantleys was by far her best find. They announced the lotto winner at 10 p.m. The first time she took me to see Mr. Brantley cry was a cool autumn night. We he ld hands and crept through the darkness. Youve never seen someone cry like this, Carrie said. Its like watching an animal die. She gave my hand a faint squeeze and lift ed her other hand to look at her watch. Come on, its almost ten. Mr. Brantley bought one ticket each time. Y ou were allowed to fill out the numbers yourself, but Carrie had concluded th rough further espionage that he always just had them print it at random. Maybe he wanted to distance himself fr om the responsibility of the losing numbers. We arrived a few minutes before ten and kne lt behind the rose bush. There he is, Carrie whispered. The angle was perfect. We could see hi m sitting straight and hard against the couch. He held the lottery ticket in his right hand, resting on his lap. He wa s really watching that television. He didnt blink. Carrie looked down at her watch. Here it comes, she said. What if he wins? I asked. No one ever wins the lottery, she said. 30


This didnt make sense, but it did. Mr. Brantley leaned forward slightly on th e couch. He looked down at his ticket and back at the television. He crumpled the ticket in his hand and continued to stare at the screen. His head fell and his chin touched his neck. He ran his fingers through his hair. Just wait, Carrie said. Mr. Brantley lifted his head. He must have b een in his mid-fifties. He had big, clear-blue eyes. At the time, he just seemed old, but thin king back on that face, he must have been handsome at one time. Tears were coming out of his eyes, quick a nd profuse. His shoulders shook, his thin pink lips contorted, and his eyebrows curled inward. He buried his face in his hands. His stomach was sinking and rising in gr eat, breathy bobs. Then he stood up, still crying. The tears just kept coming. The faucet was turned on all the way. The tears left him in such abundance th at youd think he would have run out of tear material. But the supply was inexhaustible. He st arted to howl, loud enough that we could hear it from our hiding spot outside. It was beyond a sc ream, beyond a siren. He was shrieking in some new register. Should we do something? I aske d. He might need the hospital. This is just what he does, Carrie sa id. Its the same thing every time. We kept watching. He began to pace around the room, still sobbing with everything in him. Carrie was right. Id never seen anyone cry like this. I still havent. It looked like he was talking to himself, but we couldnt make out the words. He sat back on the couch and stared at the ceil ing and cried and cried and cried. 31


Carrie and I started coming each lotto night to see Mr. Brantley cry when he lost. We wouldnt talk much. We just sa t together holding hands and watc hing him. Sometimes he would fall to his knees. Sometimes he would roll around on the floor. He would go on for about twenty minutes and then we would sneak home. We never laughed. In retrospect, this seems amazing. That fall, when we discovered Mr. Brantley, I was eleven and Carrie was twelve. Thats not the kindest age. But somehow watching Mr. Brantley was different than being in school where we were constantly giggling over the misfortunes of others. Neither Carrie nor I were raised in religi ous homes. My parents were long-lapsed Jews. Carriess mother was a Unitarian but she didnt make Carrie go to church. Her father, I would wager, wanted nothing to do with religion, thoug h I dont remember him mentioning it. In any case, walking through the night and taking our spot by the ro sebush, sitting together and watching him weep, that was the closest thing we had to church. Thats the only way I can describe it. We were reverent. I broke Carries nose on my thirteenth birthda y. It was summer and we were playing oneon-one basketball in my driveway and I got her w ith a forearm. She sat on the concrete and held her nose, blood spilling into he r lap. She was laughing. What ki nd of guy would foul a girl? she asked. I should get my dad to kick your ass. Then she passed out. At the hospital, I sat in the waiting room w ith her father. He had a PhD in botany but worked instead as some kind of engineer. I dont know why. He was about a foot taller than me, or thats how I remember him. He had massive gr ay eyes, with puffy dark circles beneath them. We were silent together for a while in the waiting room. 32


Then I said, Im sorry. I couldn t think of anything else to say. He turned and looked at me, then at the ceiling, then back at me. He scared me to death. I think Carrie knew that, and felt a mixture of amusement and compassion for my fear. She thought her father was a hoot; I remember imagini ng he might have been some kind of secret killer at best, a bloodthirsty r obot and/or vampire at worst. Shell be all right, he sai d. He picked up a months-old Newsweek and began reading. I just sat there. After a while, he looked up fr om his magazine, said, Happy Birthday, and looked back down. Carrie did turn out all right, other than, init ially, a nose swollen out to the width of her eyes, and, permanently, a small, diagonal bump on the bridge. For several months afterwards, she had to wear a face mask to pl ay basketball. It had thick white strips of foam along the cheeks and forehead, and then a piece of clear molded plastic over the nose, with black straps that clasped around the back. She looked like a character in a horror movie. We had always been evenly matched at bask etball but I think she beat me every time from then on because I was scared to death to foul her too hard. One day, a few weeks after she broke her nos e, Carrie called me and invited me over. This was a little odd, since we usually spent time at my house. My dads at work if thats what youre scared of, she said. Com e on, Im tired of your place. So I went. We drank lemonades in her kitche n and did our best imitations of the French teacher at our high school, Ms. Lockwell. Ferm la bouche, Pierre, Carrie said, dragging her vowels with puffed lips. We called her Mademoiselle Cockswell. We were hysterical. 33


After a while, she told me to come upstairs, that she had somethi ng to show me. She had a big bedroom, probably twice the size of mine. Carries mother wa s a painter and the walls were decorated with her work, including an impressioni stic portrait of Carrie si tting Indian-style in a field of blue and yellow flowers, at the head of her bed. Carrie was horribly embarrassed by it, but her mother insisted that it was in the perfect spot. Look, I got us something, Carrie said. She opened a drawer in her dresser and produced a pair of black binoculars. They looked old, and fancy. For spying, she said. We didnt go spying as much as we used to when we were younger but we still checked in on Mr. Brantley at least once a month. Where did you get these? I asked. I stole them, she said. From a church auction. Youre going to go to Hell, I told her. Its cool, she said. Unitarians dont believe in Hell. She looked at me through the binoculars. I think a blackhead may be formi ng on your nose, she said, and laughed. She handed me the binoculars. I peered thr ough them at her, the outline of her face now large and close. She had gray eyes with tiny sp eckles of blue. A patch of freckles sat between them and spread up to her forehead, dotted across her face like cities on a map. I moved the binoculars down slightly. Her t op lip was maroon and thick, and it disappeared into her smile. Okay, theres my face, she said and covered herself in her hands. I turned the binoculars to look around her r oom. I zeroed in on another painting of her mothers. It was an abstract swirl of ocean blues descending outward into a pool of darkening 34


shades of forest green. It looked like a torn ado, imploded. I moved the binoculars along the wall, to her dresser. She had left a drawer open and there was an enormous yellow sweatshirt on top. Ive never seen that shirt, I said. Its my dads lucky shirt, she said. He wore it at a r ace track once and won a bunch of money. She walked to the drawer and held it up to her body. It came down almost to her knees. He gave it to you? Yeah, he said it could only be lucky for him once. But it might still have some juice left for me. She put it on over her tee-shirt and sat on he r bed. The sleeves concealed her hands. She pulled her legs up and sat Indian-style, just like in the pa inting above her. I like you, she said. Do you know that? I like you too, I said. I looked at her the wr ong way through the binoc ulars, so that she looked like she was unreachably far away. But I like you like how Mark and Kaylee lik e each other, she said. They had been the hot-and-heavy couple the previous year at school. I put the binoculars down. I could feel my h eartbeat in my temples and my fingertips. I liked Carrie that way, I had liked Carrie that way as long as I had unde rstood what that way might possibly mean. And in some vague, unspeak able way, I had assumed that she liked me back. When we were much younger, we had sometim es said that we were married. But we had not done more than hold hands, and the more clear it became that there was more to do than that, the less we held hands. I said, Okay. What about you? she asked. 35


I like you, I said. Like that. I sat down next to her on the bed. I handed the binoculars to her. She pointed them at me and I put my eyes right against the outer lenses We stared at each other through the binoculars, so that I appeared large and close to her and she appeared sma ll and distant to me. She pulled them down and set them on her nightstand. She laughed and looked at me and her eyes were the color of oyster shells. She held out her hand and we wrapped our fingers together. I leaned toward her and our faces brushed. Ow! She pulled back. My nose. Sorry, I said. We dont have to. Its just tender. Let me put on my mask. What? So you dont re-break my nose, klutz. She got the face mask from her nightstand and strapped it on. Try again, she said. She was blinking and thats about all I could see of her face, obscured by the mask. I wasnt nervous. Maybe you wont believe me. But I couldnt be ne rvous with Carrie. I put my hand around her neck and we put our mout hs together. The nose guard smelled of sweat and plastic. Her tongue was soft against my own. It didnt feel like something new. It felt like something we had done a thousand times. There was a Chinese place we used to eat di nner at on the weekends, only about a halfmile walk from our houses. I cant remember the name of it anymore, something about a Dragon, Golden or Hidden maybe. They had an elaborat e all-you-can-eat buffet, and Carrie and I would 36


play a game: each of us had to pick the fattest customer we could find, and each time our customer went and got more food, we had to get more food. We would stuff ourselves so thoroughly we could barely walk afterwards. When I graduated from junior high, we went to the Chinese place to celebrate. The next year we would be back in school together. Youre going to like it, Carrie told me. We can skip class easy. Ill take that guy, I said, pointing at a ma ssive guy making his way up to the buffet. He was shorter than me but probably we ighed at least four hundred pounds. Ill take his lady, she said, nodding her head at the woman by his side nearly as large. My dude patted her gently on the behi nd when they got to the buffet. No fair, shes a woman, I said. We had always gone with mammoth men. So am I, jerk, Carrie said. And I can eat more than you. We filled our plates, making sure to pile on as much as our doubles. I loved Crab Rangoon and General Tsaos Chicken. I ate so much of it when I was a teenager that even the smell of Chinese food makes me sick nowadays. Carrie told me more about high school over dinner. She told me about the only cool teacher she had found, Mr. Howard, who taught algebr a and used to play professional basketball in South America and never gave homework ove r the weekends. And the many horrible teachers, the morons and the sociopaths and the fundamentalis t Christians. She told me about the few kids she could actually manage to carry on a convers ation with, and the nast y girls who started a rumor that she stuffed her bra, and a tennis play er named Townes who seemed a bit retarded so she called him Downs. It sounded to me like it couldnt be any worse than junior high. 37


Well, Im glad youre going to be around, she said. Things are easier when youre around. Then she kicked me in th e shin under the table, for no r eal reason. She did things like that. We kept packing in food, but despite their gi rth, the eating pair we followed kept things relatively reasonable, so we were just comfortably full. The waiter brought our checks and the fortune cookies. The fortunes were our favorite part of eating there. I split open my cookie and took the little s lip of paper out. Ive never liked the taste of the cookie itself. Goddamnit, I said. This isnt even a fortune. It said, You will soon be more aware of your growing awareness (I still have it, actual ly. I kept them all.) Thats some Chinese wisdom and shit, Carrie said. Real wise. What did you get? Jesus, she said. Hope is the denial of reality Someone was having a bad day at the factor y, I said. I thought it was funny but Carrie didnt. She crumpled it into a little dot and dropped it into her glass of water. They never give you a real fucking fortune, I said. We should write a letter. To the Chinese government maybe, she said. Lets have them send some Cr ab Rangoons while theyre at it. We paid our checks and I walked her home and kissed her goodbye. But I hadnt even made it off her lawn when she came back out. Wait! she shouted. I walked back to her house. What is it? I asked. Dont go, she said. 38


She grabbed me at my elbow, tighter than I was expecting, tight e nough to hurt. I walked in the house with her. The front door opened straight into the livi ng room, where her mother was swaying and making a low moaning sound like singing. I always thought her mother was pretty. Like Carrie, only older, and with auburn hair instead of bl ack. I couldnt figure out what she was doing; she might have been dancing, or she might have been drunk. I turned to Carrie and she was looking at he r mother. I looked back, and I thought for a moment that her mothers hands were bleeding, but then I saw that they werent just red, they were blue and green and ye llow. She was painting. She had her painting supplies spread out on the floor and she was painting the walls. It was an abstract mess. It looked like colorful vomit. Mom, Carrie said. Her mother looked up and started laughing. Mom, Carrie said again, but she couldnt say anything else. You have no idea! her mother screamed. W hat do you think? Do you think your father loves? What is wrong with you? I remember thinking that there was some thing I should be doing. Maybe, I thought, I ought to just try and separate Carri es mother from the paint. This would, at the very least, spare the walls from further assault. Then I looked at Carrie. She was crying, the first and only time I ever saw her cry. Her mother fell to her knees and stuck her hands in a bucket of blue paint. She was crying too. She put her hands to her temples and smudged her cheeks with blue. The paint fell in tiny droplets from her hands to the floor. 39


To Carrie, I whispered, Im not going anywhere. Her hands were clenched into fists. It looked like she was trying to pull the tears back into her eyes. She made a sound that might have been a cough or might have been something like a laugh. Youd better not, she said. Her father came into the living room the n. Her mother was still crying. She lay down on the floor. There was paint everyw here. Her father stood there a nd didnt say anything. He was breathing slowly, I could see his chest rising and fa lling in exaggerated swe lls. Carrie and I were still standing by the door. Carrie had her h ead down, like she was trying not to look. Were going to my house for a while, I said. Her father nodded. My parents said she could sleep in the guest room tonight, if she wa nts, I added, lying. We got out of there. We stopped at a pay phone on the way home and I called my parents, told them I was watching a movie at Ca rries, that Id be home late. We stopped by the rose bush by Mr. Brantleys place. I dont know why. It looked like Br antley had gone to bed, though it wasnt all that late. We sat down by the bush and didnt say anything for a while. Do you think hes going to lose tomorro w? Carrie asked. Tomorrow was Sunday. Do you think hes going to cry? I hope not, I said, and Carri e leaned her head on my shoul der and went to sleep, for a little while. Carrie was right, high school was easy. We would skip class and go make out in a storage closet she discovered in the old gym that no one ever used anymore. We perfected our imitations 40


of various stupid students and teachers and admi nistrators. We were a ppalled by their stupidity. We hated almost everyone but each other, ha ted them together, lovingly, the two of us. Every few months, Carrie would tell me about some new incident with her mother. She delivered all of this as comedy. The time her mo ther poured a pot of boiling water on the dinner table. The day in November that she spent tw o-hundred dollars at a Ha lloween-store clearance sale (I benefited from this one; she gave me ten bars of bat-shaped soap as a present). Once, she nearly got arrested when she tried to take a pa inting off the wall at the local gallery; she left rambling letters for Carrie in the mailbox; one morning, she filled the sink with pencil shavings. I would laugh with her. I think thats all she wanted. We kept checking in on Mr. Brantley. He ke pt buying lottery tickets kept losing, kept crying. We should leave him a present or someth ing, I said one time. Cheer him up. Hes angling for a little more, Carrie said. Whats wrong with him? I asked. Whatevers wrong with him, winning the lottery would bust it wide open, she said. I think hes thinking about that. If he ever won the lottery, he wouldnt have to care about anything any more. He must just want that so bad. He must have too much to care about. Sometimes I wonder if he won, whether hed start bawling anyway, ju st out of habit. Carrie popped her thumb knuckles, a habit of hers when she was thinking out loud. He wont win and he knows it. Hes unlucky. I gue ss thats what he really cant stand. We would bring the binoculars and watch hi m in close-up detail. We could focus in on the lotto ticket in his hand and almost make out the numbers. We could see the warm flush of his cheeks and the tears form in his eyes, the shaking of his hands and his shoulders and his lips. We 41


could see his horror, the same every single time, as if he was newly surprised. The binoculars were amazing. It was like we were right next to him. On Christmas morning, when Carrie was a junior in high school, she and her father woke up and her mother was gone. I used to always wish she would just disappear, she told me the next day, at my house. I wish I could take that wish back. What happened? I asked. Whyd she leave? Whats wrong with you? She yelled this, and made the face she made sometimes to teachers and her parents and even sometimes to friends, but never to me. You always ask so many fucking questions. You always want to know why why why. I felt faint. I didnt know exact ly what it was, but I knew that I had said something horribly wrong. I wished that someone would come and punch me in the face. I started to say something, I dont know what and she put her hand around the back of my head. She touched her forehead to mine. Im sorry, she said. Im so glad youre he re. What are the chances? Of all the people in the world, youre the only person I can talk to and you liv e right down the street. If you werent around, Id throw up. Id puke. Im sorry too, I said. Carrie crossed her eyes and faked a massive underbite. Would you still love me if I looked like this? she asked. This was a game we played. 42


Would you still love me if I looked like this ? I pulled my bottom lip almost up to my nose. Regardless, she said. She put me in a h eadlock and told me she wished we were Siamese twins. I remember we were bored a lot that winter We kept hoping for snow that never came. She had gotten a new video-game system for Chri stmas and we spent most of our time playing that in her room. The last day of break, I was ha nging out at Carries and she went to take a shower. They had a billiards room in their basement, and I occupi ed myself playing pool while I waited for her. Her father walked in and came to the table. He started racking the balls, without saying anything. I couldnt figure out wh at was going on; he normally stayed in his office when I came over. He collected the balls and lined them up deliberately in the rack. You break, he told me. Okay, I said. I took my shot and knocked one in. On my next shot, I missed badly, but one of my balls went in on the ricochet. Carries father started la ughing. I tried to laugh too, but found that I couldnt. Do you want to know what love is, Peter? he asked me. I just stood there, trying to l ook at the pool table and not hi m. I think this was probably one of fewer than twenty times that he had even spoken to me. I couldnt tell if I was supposed to say something back. 43


I looked back up and he was leaning against th e pool stick like a can e, running his other hand over the top of his scalp, wher e the hair used to be. Its ti ming, he said. Thats about it. Timing, and fucking luck. Carrie mentioned her mother less and less. Eventually, they heard from her sister, Carries aunt. Her mother had gone to Califor nia. She didnt have a telephone number. We had quit going to the Brantley house, but one time in spring, Carrie suggested we go by for old times sake. We went on a Wednesday evening and crouched down in our usual spot. Mr. Brantley was on his couch, rocking a little bit, rubbing the lottery ticket with his thumb and burying the television with his gaze. Goddamnit! Carrie screamed. I turned and her face was red, her eyes close d. I looked back inside and Mr. Brantley had jumped off the couch, startled. He started walking toward the window. Come on, I said, and pulled Carrie up by the shoulders. I star ted running, dragging Carrie by the arm until she ran too. We ran all the way back to her house. She was out of breath when we got there. She bit down on her lip so hard I was afraid it might start bleeding. You dont have to say anything, I said. Its all right. Y ou dont have to say anything. I pulled her head into my chest and her breath was warm against me. We stopped playing the spying game after that. 44


That summer, Carries dad told her he had a job offer in Cleveland, and he was going to take it. They were going to leave in August, before th e new school year started. Her last night in town, we had a late dinner at the Chinese place. We didnt talk much, I remember. We didnt play the game, following the fa t people. Like all of the fortunes from that place, I still have the one I got that night: If the wind comes from an em pty cave, it's not without a reason. When we got to her house, she ran he r finger along the bump in her nose. Ive known you for so long, she said. I hate writing letters, I said. Lets walk more. We walked to the gas station down the stre et, the same one Mr. Brantley bought his lottery tickets from. It was closed and the parking lot was empty. Lets look at the conste llations, Carrie said. We lay down on the concrete and looked up at the sky but we could barely see anything. Theres the big dipper, I lied. There is the sleepi ng rodent, she said. What? She took my hand and guided it, pointing at th e almost starless sky. See that triangle, thats the head. Do you see the whiskers? And th ere is the body, those st ars there. See how the whole thing is crumpled up? Like its sleeping. Theres Mr. Howard, I said. He was a scie nce teacher at our school. I made a picture with my index finger. See, theres his moustache. I pointed directly above us. 45


And that one, hes a warrior, I said. Hes clutching his heart. Its pretty, she said. I said: Dont go to Cleveland. She said: Sometimes I love you so much it feels like my bones are going to grow right out of my skin. She said sh e didnt know what that meant, and told me not to ask. Later on, in the throes of all my high-school horniness and lo neliness, I re-imagined this scene with us making love, losing our virginity. But Im glad we didnt. We just lay next to each other, our fingers deep into the meat of each ot hers hands, and didnt say a thing, the lights in the parking lot shining down on us brighter than the stars. I live in Jacksonville now and sometimes I play the lottery. The other day it was up to 93 million. The part I like best is imagining what I would do if I won. I get outlandish. I think, Im going to take a helicopter just to go to the grocery store I think, I will make sculptures of angels out of caviar I dont know why. You just start expanding the spectrum of possibility. You get odd. Then I think of all the people I would like to give a little mone y to. All the people I would like to take along with me to trips to places like Belize. I dont even know where Belize is, but then it wouldnt matter if I had all thos e millions. I think about all of the things that suddenly wouldnt matter. I start thinking of charities. I pick out wh ich charities I would give money to and how much. Its your lucky day, Oxfam! Breast-can cer researchers, who do you love? Thank goodness I won this money. 46


You keep at this long enough and you will forget that you havent really won. It really isnt that hard to fool yourself. I get the ticket and watch the television a nd I lose. No one ever wins the lottery. I wonder if Jessie Brantley is still alive, and buying lottery tickets, and losing, and weeping. I wonder all sorts of things. I can fill whole days with wondering. Today I turned thirty. Seventeen years ago t oday, I broke a girl named Carrie DAndreas nose. Then about three years la ter she moved away, and two year s after that we lost touch. Another three years, and a strang er, trying to shoot his brother-in -law in a parking lot in New Haven, Connecticut, missed. He hit Carrie instea d. She was at the wrong place at the wrong time. She was a victim of bad timing, bad luck. If I do win the lottery, none of that will change. 47




Powers Me and Martha Washington were going to stea l some iced tea because it was furious hot outside and on top of that we were weary. We wanted some caffeine, cold. We had a big day ahead of us, going to try and ge t jobs at the public library. I dont mean to say I was with Martha Washi ngton that you read a bout in history books, of course. Dont be silly. Its a coincidence is all: young, sweet, beautiful Martha Gonzalez, with blue eyes out of nowhere, married my brother, Ernest Washington. They were old-fashioned about names and she took his once they got hi tched. Me, Id as soon take on the gals name. Gonzalez is the better name for my money. We ll, they thought differe nt. Now shes Martha Washington and thats that. My thinking on the iced-tea theft was that th e fellow that works the counter at the Lil Champ has an eye patch. If we could distract hi m to his left side, someone could sneak out the door on his right, where the patch was. MW had the job of distracting the dude. She went in and asked him did they have the ribbed sort of condom, and then when he brought them down she said, no, I meant the thin kind, or a different brand, and so on. The condoms were kept behind th e counter to the left of th e clerk, making a free avenue in his blind spot. Plus, the talk of condoms might distract him on top of it all, since MW, like I said, has these lovely blue eyes and a nice little figure. So she was carrying on about the rubbers and I made a tiptoe walk with the iced tea in hand. I was as quiet as an India n, or a cat. I couldnt wait for th at iced tea. I was parched. Well the eye-patch clerk turned and saw me tip toeing with the iced tea and he said: You going to pay for that? MW, she gets a little jumpy. We had run out of speed. That doesnt bother me so much, but it gets MW especially ju mpy and she pepper-sprayed this man in his one 49


good eye. He was hollering cusswords that sound ed like they might have been a different language, I dont know. We ran out of there. Somehow I managed to dr op that iced tea before we cleared out, that was the worst part. They had a video camera in there, in the Lil Champ. Ernest kicked the shit out of me. I think MW would be better off with me, if you wa nt to know the honest truth. I think wed be better off if we moved to Portland, Oregon. They have a park out there I hear d about thats filled with roses. Me and MW, both of us, like roses. Erne st doesnt know the first th ing about flowers. Why do things always go so wrong? It seem s like everyone has some kind of superpower, like that dude at the Lil Champ, either he could see right thro ugh that eye patch or maybe he had some super-human hearing and he could sense th e tapping of my tiptoes. MW and me, were not like that. We dont have special pow ers. I wish, sometimes, that we were the only people in the world. 50


Commitment We had made certain commitments. Including: No leaving of the house unless it was to acquire Little Debbie snack cakes or double-side d tape. This was a strange one. We had long, long since lost our appetites. Th e snack cakes were an abstraction. It seemed vital to stock up on nourishment, in the abstract. The double-sided tape was just a phase. We were in a double-sided tape phase. My name is Jerome. I was born in Concord, Ca lifornia. I can eat eight saltine crackers in one minute without the benefit of wa ter. Or I could, at least, at one time. I could do all sorts of things. We had also committedmyself, Spalding, Tom, Sim, and Glorynot to speak of ghosts. We were in Henry Lapladers house. Spaldi ng is housesitting, or may have stolen the house. He suspects Laplader is dead. This stri kes me as implausible. He was never the dying type. We had committed these moments to memory. I told Tom, I will not forget the shape of that hat. It was a sailor hat of some kind, blue, but the shape escapes me now. Tom told Glory, I will not forget the shape of your breasts. Glory slapped him, ki ssed him, something. It is very difficult to remember now. It was Sunday, and we had been in the house for at least four days. Spalding was making a great fuss about our accountant, who had not yet arrived. The accounts must be done! he kept shouting. We had no money, but Spalding has a soft spot for numbers, and progress. Tom had committed to leave North Carolina by spring. He was thinking San Diego, or Holland, or some other place. Spalding suggested M ontana. I havent actually been, he said. But I hear the sky is like ocean. 51


We turned the television on, to the news. There were many developments in the world. There was a war on. The man reporting on the war was on the scene and the scene was windy. His hair blew back behind him so that you could see the full scope of his round forehead, and the thin yellow line where his face makeup began. Sim said: Im going to the video store. We were aghast. No leaving, said Spalding. Unless youre procuring vital foodstuffs or double-sided tape. Well never run out of double-si ded tape, Sim said. He had a point. We had built up an enormous reserve supply. Glory began giving hi m a back massage and that was that, no more talk of video stores. We had committed to read all of the novels of Graham Greene. Tom cant even read, but he is loyal to us and to our commitments. He is a joiner, a friend. Spalding began to cry and then Glory did too and then Sim. We are like little babies, Tom said. I love babies. I wish I could feed you from my breasts. They kept crying, Spalding and Glory and Sim. We had committed various crimes. We had stains on our permanent records and nothing by way of attorneys. All of us had committed robbery, none of it armed. We had no arms. We had only our force of will. We were deeply, ba dly guilty: of loitering, second-degree assault, drug trafficking. We were murderer s, whether or not we had actual ly murdered. It was in us. Tom began to complain about his love life. He was seeing a Mexi can girl. She was so beautiful that every time I saw her, it felt as though my face might be gin shaking, as though my teeth might fly out of my mouth. She loved Tom. She forgave and forgave and forgave. Tom said that he wished he had a time machine, and he could skip ahead to the falling-apart part. Or go back to the beginning. He couldnt, he said, abide the middle, the midst. 52


We had not, none of us, committed adultery. None of us could, really, because we had not made commitments to marriage. We had nothing to break. Sim began to panic. He said that his br other Ernest had stolen all his money. He wondered whether the police might have been vi deotaping us. He noticed a certain way that Glory looked at him, that she knew. He thought we all might know. He thought the ocean was criminally large, that the world was entirely too big. Fuck those fuckers, he said. Fuc k them fuck them fuck them. I know, said Spalding. We were committed to bailing out our friend B.J., who had gone to jail, who had been there now for several days. We need our accoun tant, Spalding noted. Sim began to alphabetize the books on Lapladers shelf. We need our ac countant, Spalding repeated. No one listened. I began to play solitaire. Are you cheating at so litaire? Tom asked. Of course, I said. All of us had committed acts we werent proud of. We were masters in the art of poor decision-making. But we knew it, and could love with in it, could swim just fine in our sea of wrong-headed choices. We turned off the television and sat together in a circle. Instead of holding each others hands, each of us held our own hands, left in righ t. We promised to each other that we would never stop feeling the way we felt. We swore off self-improvement. We committed to wallow. We hated each other, with the worlds most unbreakable love. If I die, said Glory, dont let anyone say anything nice. Dont let anyone lie. 53


We wont, we said. It was a living will, a dying wish. Though all of us were liars, this was a promise that we knew was different. Same goes for me, said Tom and Spalding and Sim and me. It was a family secret, a commitment we could keep. 54


Dont Stop Talking How do you say bad idea in Spanish? Tom asked. You know I dont speak Sp anish, Jerome said. Youre always so testy about that. My Spanish teacher in Junior High was a perv ert. He tried to touch my genitals. Or somebodys genitals. I miss Junior High. Well I swore off Spanish for life after th at. I refuse to know one word of it. The trouble with you is youre always talking. I was going to tell you a story. Ive got stories of my own. Thats the trouble with you. I worked in an old folks home one time. Thats what you ought to do. I need to tell Elisa this whole thing is a bad idea. Because the elderly, theyll li sten to you all day. Theyre like champion listeners. What kind of name is Jerome anyway? Are you part black? Its a Catholic name, for St. Jerome. Even alone in the desert, he felt temptation. He said: My face was pallid with fasting, ye t my will felt the assaults of desire. Im not even really named Tom. I just made it up. Im dying of thirst. I wish the ocean was fr esh water. Id go drink the whole thing. Elisa, her eyes are no bigger than my fingernai ls. Its like shes an alien, or from another country. I think thats what gets me. Listen, Sim Washingtons house blew up yesterday. Next thing you know itll be us. See thats my point. Youre worr ied about all the wrong things. 55


Change Tom eyed the tourist and licked at his dr y lips, which felt like dryer sheets. He concentrated on his approach, on his gait. He wille d the beat of his heart to pause in its mad racing. He saw himself through the tourists gaze. He evoked calm competence; he oozed normalcy. Buddy, he said. Buddy, bro, partner, man, friend, amigo. He squeezed his eyes. Warmth. Ronald Reagan. The tourist shuffled his feet. He looked at Toms navel. Bro, Tom said. Listen, this is going to sound lame, but I locked my wallet and my keys in my car and Im just trying to sort it out, if you could loan me a dollar. Tom watched him. Tourist looking back. Tourist thinking: loan? Right, Tom said, laughing, warm laughter, ha ha ha. I guess Im really asking if I can have a dollar, unless I see you tomorrow. The tourist fidgeted. Let me see, he said. He put his hand in his pocket. His fingers danced against the pocket, like he was typing on his thigh. Well, he said, and tried the other pocket. He was meaty and pasty. If Tom was hungry, he might have looked good to eat, but Tom hadnt been hungry in ages. Im out, got nothing, said the t ourist. Im sorry. Good luck. Backing, backing, backing away. He turn ed, walked to his car too fast. Tom walked after him, half-running, then a sp rint. He was planning on tapping the guys shoulder but he bulled straight in to hi m instead, tackled him to the concrete. He straddled his legs around the dudes waist and punched him in the nose, began to bury his face with punches. The face wa s soft against his hands. Keep the money, just dont lie, Tom spat at him. 56


He dug his hands in the tourists pockets. Receip ts, keys, pennies, old failed lotto tickets, a folded-up map, a lighter, cigarettes, the phone number of someone named Hugh written on a napkin. No real money. Well, how about that? He had wasted his fists on the last honest moth erfucker hed ever meet. Some sort of security was running over. Im sorry, he said, blood dripping from his knuckles onto the mans moist and bludgeoned eyes the last honest th ing hed ever say. 57


Haunted Sim was the first one to actually se e a ghost, and he was mortified. Tom and Clio were in the midst of reconstructing the VCR, which they had taken apart, when they heard a low cooing sound. Did one of you cut the provolone, Jero me asked, or is someone singing? Its only someone having sex, Tom said. He was intently manipulating an idler tire. Theres some sort of allegory in the VCR, Clio said. Crappy picture quality compared to Beta, you know. Fuck you, Tom said. How can you possibly still be alive? The idler tires were difficult. The noise grew louder and longer. Someones in trouble, Jerome said, and began to chew some Bubblicious gum, grapeflavored. RCA simply licensed out the VCR technology, Clio said. The crying continued, and slowly formed into words. Heeeelp! Heeeelp me! Someones in trouble, Jerome sa id. He blew a large purple bubble. Thats only Sim, Clio said. Jeromes bubble popped. This cockfucking idler tire, Tom said. Clio offered a short history of the format wars between Sony and RCA in the 1970s. Tom became angry at the VCR and stomped it with his foot, scattering the tiny parts across the dusty hardwood floor. Jerome said something, about something else. Help me! Please! Help! 58


The screaming was coming now in staccato shots. Suddenly gripped with boredom, the three went to check on Sim. He had been sleeping in one of the house s many guest bedrooms ever since his own place had exploded. They walked to his room, op ened the door, and found him in bed with the blanket pulled up to his eyes, screaming for help. All of them felt a horrifyingly vivid dj vu. In fact, this exact same scene had played out just the day before, when a bird had gotte n in Sims room through an open window. Ass, its just a bird, Tom said. Im bringing this to Spalding. I vote we ban you from the house. Or at least until your ornithophobi a passes, offered Jerome. Sim, still under the covers, pointed to the corner of the room. There hovered not a bird but a ra ggedy creature with yellow skin that appeared to be dissolving and eyes the color of snow. He wa s wearing some kind of soldiers uniform but something was wrong with him. The outline of his body was soft and vague. He was floating several inches off the floor. Tom lunged forward and attacked him with a vicious right jab, but his punch went straight through, and his fist pumme led through the thin white wall. Leave this place, the soldier, or whatev er he was, howled. Leave this place. Sim began to cry. Were friends of Spalding, Jerome said. Hes housesitting. Leeeeave this place! Clio poked gently at the thing and his finger passed through. My fist is stuck, Tom sai d, his arm inserted into the old house up to his elbow. 59


Jerome began to laugh. Spalding warned us about this. Youre a ghost! Clio said. This seemed to take the spirit out of the ghosts routine. He paused in his moaning. Sim leapt out of bed, sprinted out of the room, and slammed the door behind him. These damn walls, Tom said. He pulled hi s arm back with great force and ripped a grapefruit-sized hole in the pl aster. He fell backwards through the ghost and onto the floor. No wonder Laplader could afford this mansion, Jerome said. Its a lemon. You know Henry? the ghost asked. He had dropped the business of frightening them entirely. Were housesitting, Tom said, and began to in vestigate the floor. We need to have the wood in here replaced. We need to replace everything. Spalding is housesitting, Jerome said. Were his associates. What is wrong with you people? the ghost asked. Who are you? Jerome asked. Do you have a name? I am Captain Auld. They call me Twilights Revenge. Well call you Leo, Tom said. You look more like a Leo. You look like Bette Davis, the way your skin is melting, Jerome said. Well call you Leo, Tom reiterated. Youre on something, Leo said. All of you. Clio offered him some speed, but he declined. Thats really a nasty habit, Leo said. Deeply unhealthy. Hitler was injected with amphetamines on a da ily basis, said Clio. Meanwhile, he was vehemently opposed to smoking. A very strange litt le man, Hitler. 60


Weve outlived you damn it! Tom yelled at Leo. He gave speed to his troops, Clio said. Chocolates lace d with methamphetamine. The pilots got Fliegerschokolade, flyers chocolate. Leo, tell us, whats it like, being dead? Jerome asked. The tank crews got Panzerschokolade tankers chocolate, Clio said. Your German accent is impeccable, Leo said. Im going to fix that VCR, Tom said. You smashed it, Jerome pointed out. Someones got to fix it, Tom said. Sim returned to the room wearing somethi ng nylon as a blindfol d and hyperventilating. He looked lonely. What we need is some pancakes, Tom said. What we need is some dental floss, Jerome corrected him. The ghost disappeared then. This, they w ould discover, was par for the course. The ghosts always vanished, right when things were getting interesting. 61


History Pudding was sitting on the beach and crying and the waves were coming in softly and slapping him at the knees. He must be out, said Martha. Id cry too. I just sold to him this morning, Clio said. Hes not tweaking, Jerome said. How do you know? Tom asked. You cant cry on speed. Your body stops making the tears. You cant hardly even spit. Everyone on speed at the time, which wa s everyone, tried to cry. No one could. Ive seen nothing in the literature about me th and crying, noted Clio, a historian and a chemist. Did you know, in the s they used it to treat Parkinsons? He needs comforting, Glory said. I think I cried on speed just the other day, Spalding said. It just so happens were happy. Horseshit, Jerome said. I for one am desperately unhappy. Miserable, Martha volunteered. Inconsolable, Sim said. Young Pudding has a long history of depression, Clio said. He prided himself on his role as the historian, with the result that everyon e despised him. They only tolerated him because he was also the chemist. Pudding slumped over and put his sobbing face into the water. It looks like hes drinking th e Atlantic, Jerome said. I think Im coming down, Martha said. Lets go waste some time, Tom suggested. 62


I second the motion, Jerome said. To the house. Everyone left to pile into Jeromes van and head back to Henry Lapladers place, where an afternoons worth of speed and spooks awaited them. Glory stayed behind and watched the contin ued weeping of Pudding, whose real name unbeknownst to anyone therewas John Lindsey Pi nkoson. Even Clio, with his endless capacity for the facts of every case, di d not know Puddings given name, or that when he was ten his mother fatally poisoned herself and his father at breakfast in a nor thern California motel, or that the best friend hed ever had was his little sister Callie, or that Callie had gotten sick for no good reason, or that he held a deep conviction that anything he touched would rot. None of them knew any of these things a bout Pudding, and this was no accident (this was why they hated Clio)they were pastless by design. What they did know about Pudding: he had a beebee gun, was criminally stupid, lazy and violent, lied reflexively, stole their drugs, vomited on their pillowcas es, shot Tom in the rear with his beebee gun, also shot a rabbit in the eye a nd an innocent tourist in the toe at point-blank range, had a funny name and a funny face, had very vocal fears of the Tooth Fairy, stole tips off of the bar. Pudding, in other words, deserved to cry, to suffer in the water. He didnt deserve to have Glory, in a rare act of kindne ss and sympathy, sit next to him, and silently pull his head into her chest, and later drag him fr om the water and lie next to h im on the sand, saying nothing, her ankle brushing lightly against his own. But she di d anyway, spent the day with him, something warm by his side. 63


Resolute Martha sat alone in the hous e, which was not hers. What had happened to those things that were hers? She had become a non-owner. And becoming itself: her becomings had become not her own. She was bitterly sick of ghosts. She drank from the endless stock of warm b eers that Henry Laplader had left behind, and put low-grade speed up her nose, and twiddled her thumbs. Sim had gone to steal some gum. Their jaws craved rhythm and movement. She wished she had someone to talk to. She had a great deal to say. A ghost they called Alonzo hovered to Martha She didnt know why they called him Alonzo. They ought to quit naming them, she thought. They were less bothersome as interchangeable spooks. Once named, they never left. Alonzo, why is this house haunted? she aske d him. He floated, a translucent image of an elderly painter. This had ta ken them some time to figure outthey thought he was covered in horrific wounds, but in fact he simply sported paint-stained overalls. You must paaaay for what youve doooone, he droned in a ghost-voice, but his heart clearly wasnt in it. Martha was the opposite of scared. She took the last line of speed. She couldnt stand it, when things came to an end. No ones keeping track, Martha said. Of what? the ghost asked, in his regula r-old-Alonzo voice, a Midwestern drawl. Of what Ive done, she said. Do you have any uppers? Martha, you have a one-track mind. The ghost floated up to the ceiling and began a series of gentle somersaults. He smelled, in a mu ted way, of onions. All th e ghosts did, for some reason. 64


As badly as Martha wanted to speak, she de tested the dead-end conversations with the ghosts, so she chewed very sof tly on her tongue. She thought about occupying herself with some potato chips, but they were out of potato chips, and now speed. Th ey were always running out of things. She quickly grew tired of this not-speaking. I am against the future, as a rule, Martha said. I am anti-future. You people never make any sense, Alonzo said For example, here I am, a ghost. You ought to be frightened. I feel all right now, but it wears off. Ev erything wears off. If I didnt know what was coming, I could at least enjoy what Ive got. Martha, I think you would feel better if you slept, Alonzo said, and floated down to join her. Martha swiped at the poor ghouls face, but her hand went right through, like every time. Ive noticed, you people have trouble learning from experience, Alonzo said, and gave Martha a nasty ghost-grimace. His mouth turned insi de out, so that she could see the roots of his decayed teeth; the whites of his eyes filled w ith red; his cheeks collapsed into his skull. It actually scared her, briefly. She wi shed that Sim, who really was afraid of the ghosts, was there. She took comfort in his fear. This is a well-decorated house, Martha said. Spacious, and theres beer. I like it myself, Alonzo said. I feel some thing of a duty to it. Its hard to explain. Thats our trouble. We get this house, and then we get you. Every silver lining has a cloud. 65


Thats not much of a joke, Alonzo said. Martha ignored him, cackled. She began to dance. She shook her little hips and hummed to herself. Its been a hard year, Alonzo said. Martha sang: Tiiiime is work ing against us, yes it is. What happened to you? Alonzo looked as t hough he might cry, but of course ghosts cant cry. Can you say anyt hing in earnest anymore? I married a man named Ernest, she said. Its been nothing but trouble. There you go again, Alonzo said. I was knocked up, Martha said. But that was something we lost. Alonzo began to bellow in a low wail. He kne w Martha wouldnt scream, but instinct is a powerful beast. Ghosting just came out of him sometimes. Where is Sim? Martha asked. He probabl y got lost. Hes always getting lost. Martha, I think we ought to take stock, Alonzo said. We still have plenty of beer, not enough toilet paper but loads of notebook paper, plum out of bubble gum Thats not what I meant. Were halfway through the year. Im not a calendar-keeper, Martha said. The days run together. Alonzo looked at her sympat hetically. The area around his bl ack eyes crinkled and his cheeks rouged warmly. He really had a very emotiv e face, despite his appare nt lack of muscle or connective tissue. Dont the days run together for you, ghost? Martha asked. They have been, since I died, Alonzo c onfessed. But Im angling for a change. 66


Then Martha said: In high school, they cal led me Magnolia. She didnt know why she said that. How have you been doing on your New Years resolutions? Thats what I meant about taking stock. Ive given up on making resolutions, she said. I know my limitations. I find that horrifying, Alonzo said. I want you to know that. I find you horrifying, Alonzo. Youre a ghost. Perhaps thats a neat mechanism by whic h to divide the world. People who make resolutions and people who have given up. Martha spat, in no particular direction. The ghosts were always getting intellectual. Alonzo continued: I think that ideaknow ing your weaknesses so well that youve abandoned resolutionsits the same basic impulse as a realist foreign policy. Kissinger, Scowcroft, and so on. Martha sucked on her bottom lip and found it entirely devoid of moisture, like tonguing at cardboard. She wanted to spit again, again in no particular dire ction, but she was out of it, out of spit. She wished badly that she could, like Al onzo, lack physicality entirely. She thought: if I could only be a spirit, things would be different. She craved gum, and Sim, and so many things. You ghosts, she said. You have it so easy. The grass is always greener, Alonzo said. What were you, before a ghost? Martha aske d. Tell me about your life. Tell me about painting. Is there a science to co lor? Alonzo, have you ever made a long series of mistakes? The past is always m eaner, Alonzo said. 67


Spalding used to have this inspirational ca lendar he kept here. One month had a picture of the ocean. It said, the tide turns at the peak of the storm. Things couldnt get much worse for you, Mart ha. Spalding is right: Things are looking up. Sim says next year hes going to move out we st. He says things are going to change in our favor. I had two resolutions last year. First, to haunt more creativelytry to branch off from the obvious spooking, think outside the box. And sec ond, to accept the thi ngs I cannot change. The speed had just about worn off and Ma rtha felt as though she might throw up in reverse, if there was such a thing. Things were always wearing off. One time, Sim stole all these flowers from th e supermarket, she said. I mean, he really went to town. And he took me to the beach, and he told me the names of them. I think he was making some of them up, I dont know. It didnt matter. Later, he got caught by the cops for floral theft; later he swore that he would move out west next year; late r Ernest, old Ernest, who really is sweet deep down, he beat Sim to a pulp and I think its what he would do to me if he wasnt so sweet; later we ran out of gum and Sim went to get some and never came back. But that one day on the beach, he showed me the di fference between a cushion chrysanthemum and a standard chrysanthemum. Boo! Alonzo said. He had grow n bored, as he always did. He makes a lot of promises, Sim does, she sa id, but that was the most beautiful thing hell ever do. 68


Karate Did you remember to lock the front door? Spalding asked. Im thinking of going to nursing school, Glory said. Im thinking about going into politics. You have an awfully small head for politics. I am full of ideas, big ideas. I mean the actual physical size of your head. Heres an idea: karate lessons. Would you call this place a manor or a mansion? Something more elegant. Hacienda? I loathe alliteration. Haunted Chateau now that has a certain ring. Something is wrong with the wa lls in this hacienda. Its not the walls, its us. Theyre so fragile. Its weak plaster. Pudding and Tom were arre sted last night. Ive decided: Im going to take up karate. I want to be able to defend myself. Do you know what they were arrested for? Im always on the defensive. They stole spoiled fruit from the grocer y store. That doesnt make sense. It does sense: They were probably going to play fruit baseball. That makes sense. But whyd they steal it? What does the grocery store want with spoiled fruit? I think the shape of my lif e would be entirely differe nt if I knew karate. They would have let them have it for free. 69


Did you remember to lock the door? You dont need to know karate. Its not just for me, Glory. Id defend you too. Im satisfied that youd try. Look at me. Id be pummeled and gutted. Its true, youre bound to lose. But Ive ne ver minded that about you. Its never bothered me. You always know just what to say. 70


The Sage Advice of Jerome I would like not to be able to picture their faces, Tom said. There arent enough curse words in the world, Jerome said. They were in the mens bathroom in the public library in downtown Wilmington. They were together in a stall. I cleaned the damn hell out of her car, on numerous occasions, Tom volunteered. What you didnt do was love her the way she needed to be loved, Jerome said. Tom felt as though his head might explode. Jerome did too. No explosion came, though. Never did. I dont know, Jerome said. Then he talked and talked and talked, ten thousand words probably. It was like music, or th e mating calls of insects. Tom saw the words. They were spilling out of Jeromes lip s like Spaghetti-Os. All that wisdom, and I still wish it was so me other way, Tom said. If this is what living somewhere else is like, I hope I never leave. Tom felt as though his heart mi ght explode, but it did not. 71


Glory Gone B.J., I think his name was, he was laughing in a way that sounded like a beehive. I cant explain, but thats what it was, an ominous buzzi ng. Tom and Jerome kept telling him to shut up. We were at a funeral and it was inappropriate, the beehive-laughing, even if we had kept our distance, half a football field from the assembled mourners. We were all amazed that so many people had come out for her. We thought we were the only friends Glory had. I say Glory. I wish I knew that to be true but I dont. Even among the names I can remember, probably most of them arent ev en real. Code names were all the rage. Glory, while alive, spoke often of rescue. To our knowledge, she ne ver followed through on her plans: to liberate caged animals, to offe r shelter to the homeless, to nurse the sick. She frequently stole, from all of us, everything we had. She was an exuberant listener and a graceful swimmer. She had maroon hair, cut short and without purpose, so that the red clumps stuck this way and that like a pile of sticks. She had enormo us blue eyes, moist and electric. Her lips were swollen, fire-engine red. Her ha nds were tiny and always warm Her whole body was warm: soft arms and little round belly, corpulent chest and freckled shoulders. She often sang for no reason. She sang church songs that none of us had ev er heard before. She loved crystal meth, and televised dog races, and fire She was stunning, a dream. Now Glory was dead. We could hear the gathered, black-clad mourners singing. They sang church songs. Glory, Glory, Pudding said. Come out, come out wherever you are. She would have hated this, Tom said. B.J. was still laughing, but he managed to muzzle the buzzing. Now it sounded worse, whimpering and squealing like a broken trumpet. 72


Jerome told him to hush and Tom socked him in the ear. What are you laughing at? I asked. I was always more diplomatic than Tom and Jerome. Look at those people, he said. I dont think a singl e one of them owns a watch. Its the most watchless crowd Ive ever seen. And he went back to his private, crumpling hilarity. Thinking on it now, that was the last thing I ever heard B.J. sa y for the rest of my life. Glory was born here, Clio said. She lived here her whole life. He was always such a historian. It wasnt raining that day and this seem ed off, atonal. Everything seemed off. Stop all the clocks, Jerome said. Cut off the telephone. I can barely feel my fingertips, Pudding said. B.J. kept chortling. He was leaning agai nst a tree and he looked in pain. I said that someone ought to take him ho me but no one heard me. Suddenly, everyone was talking at once, except for B.J., who wa s laughing. We sounded like a murder of crows. Back in high school, according to rumor, Glory had been a state-champion swimmer. There were rumors about all of us and our highschool glories; these stories were all lies. But her, as the champion, her soft white arms thrash ing against the pool: this one we believed. I still do. Clio, who kept his fingernails one inch long, pl aced a dab of crank in his nail and snorted it. For me, Martha requested, and Clio obliged, dipping for a bit more with his nail and holding it to her nose. Martha took it in. Then she sat down and began to carefully braid the grass, like hair. 73


We should have dressed in costumes, Sim said. I would have dressed as a werewolf. Will our bodies decay faster than normal folks? Tom asked. Its so obvious, Sim said. Id have dressed as a werewolf. Everything seems to move faster, Tom said. Just yesterday, Glory ripped the windshield wipers off every car on Market Street. That must have been months ago, I said. It was snowing then. Martha would have dressed as a garden, Sim said. The way she ripped those wipers, you had to see it, Tom said, even though we had seen it. She was like a snow angel. Glory died on the beach, for no reason. I cant stand funerals, Ma rtha whispered, from the ground. Its all the bad parts of airports, none of the good parts. Sim tried to bend down and kiss her ear, to s how her he knew just what she meant, but she turned away. She was crying, I sa w. Then I realized: so was I. Lets go, Tom said. Somewhere else. Show some respect, Sim said, heroically. Toms right, Martha said, getting up. There is no talking allowed here. We need to talk. I have a lot of things. Its bullshit, this shit, P udding said. This isnt us. Jerome began to walk, and we followed, except for B.J., who had fallen asleep against the tree with a smile on his face. 74


We walked through town. No one said anythi ng. No one except Martha, who talked the whole way, but I didnt listen. We kept walking. We were like soldiers marching. We were exhausted with the walking, but no one complained. Jerome took us to the beach. We collapsed on the sand. People were beaching about: tanning and volleyballing a nd chatting and kissing. It isnt right, I said. They shoul d have closed the beach today. What does that mean? Martha as ked. You cant close the beach. Lets go swimming, Jerome said. Were filthy. We need, all of us, a bath. We stripped to our underwear. People are looking at us, Sim said. Theres no one here but us, Jerome said. Dont be silly. What I remember: I wanted to organize th e grains of sand. I dont know why. But I was thinking that it was wrong, the way the sand was just spread across the beach without a plan, rearranged with every tide. There was no reason to it. I wanted th ings in order, I wanted to arrange all of the grains and ro cks so that they were where they ought to be. Things had gone awry. I told them. I told them that we needed to arrange the sand, and I fell to my knees and began to gather the grains. I felt overcome with power and purpose. Jerome grabbed me and lifted me up. Spalding, we need to bathe, he said. Together. People are looking at us, Sim said. Tom punched me in the ear. 75


Dont you touch him, Martha said. Were always trying to goddamn touch each other. No one said anything. I wanted to live insi de of Martha, and ev eryone. I scratched my teeth. Lets have some of this, Clio sai d. He reached into his pants pocket. I have a mirror in my purse, Martha said. She placed it on the sand and Clio crafted two lines. Martha went first. Then Clio. Clio cut a line for Jerome, then Tom, Sim, Pudding. I we nt last. I could see the blacks of my eyes in the mirror. I cant stand funerals, Martha said. I cant stand funerals, Sim said. Jerome ran to the water. We followed him, a ll of us, sprinting with everything in us. We were Olympians. We were running faster than th e birds were flying above us. We ran into the ocean and kept running, though the water was horribly cold. We didnt drown, none of us did, but we were prepared to. 76


Morning We were floating, flying on the beach, Darlene and I. We were up so early it was hardly light outside. Even the surfer s were still sleeping. Probably the fishermen too, I dont know. We were having footraces so fast that our feet we re hovering above the soft hot sand. The soft hot muscles in my legs were loose and thrusting of their own accord. That is a nice feeling, when you dont have to tell the muscles what to do. Darlene was running right along side of me, just as fast. The wind was cold in my mouth. We would not stop sprinting, I deci ded. We would sprint all the way down the cape. Our l ungs would finally explode at ju st the same minute, the very same second. Everything is timing. Darlene was not her real name. Her real na me, her real name, I dont want to know. She fell. I fell too. I dove into the sa nd, tasted sand, it tasted like bread crumbs and steel. We made love. She said: You remind me of this boy I gr ew up with named something like Lunchtime or Bedtime. I cant remember, but his name was a time of day. Dont tell me, I said. Lying in the sand, I waved my arms and legs and made a sand angel. I made an angel, I said. Why do they call this Cape Fear? Darlene asked. In 1585, the English came here and went into a panic of fear, I told her. They thought they would shipwreck. Darlene began to cry and I rolled over next to her. I put her sandy face onto my chest. Thats the saddest thing Ive ever heard, she said. The waves came in hard and steady like a marching band. The tide was coming, light was coming, people were coming, but not yet. 77


Lincoln, Ecstatic! I wasnt at all surprised when old Lincoln showed up. I was used to ghosts in that house. It was cavernous and decrepit, furnished only with disordered shelves of books, half a dozen couches in heinous disrepair, ya rdsale curiosities, and an endless supply of warm beer. Henry Laplader, the mansions owner, had warned me ahead of time that the place was haunted. Its like a damn bed and breakfast, he told me. I ought to get a guestbook. Henry was a freelance photographer and private detective who had always been generous enough to do some pro-bono work for me in a pinch. I had been house sitting for him for about six months. Or perhaps at that point the house was mine. It wouldnt have surprised me at all to find out that Henry was as dead as the old ghos ts snooping around all the time. He said he was going on extended vacation, indefinite, to Florida. Maybe he was swimming in the panhandle or maybe he shot himself in the face. To this day, I havent a clue. It was afternoon and I was watching television when Lincoln arrived. It was a real nice program about cockroaches. Get this: Roaches can live for a month without food! They can hold their breath for forty-five minutes! And there was Lincoln, the tallest ghost Id ever seen, looking lik e the history books, top hat and beard. You dont scare me, I told him. I just want to get that out of the way right now. I dont blink an eyelash at your kind a nymore. It was true. They just showed up, ghosted about, and you got used to it after a while, the way you tire of mosquitoes and quit slapping. Lincoln just hovered there. Say boo, I told him. Make yourself useful. 78


He remained where he was, regarding me with his sad, dark Lincoln eyes. He ran his thumb along his bearded jaw line. His eyes were like little raisins in a desert. He was staring at me and I thought my ribs would shatter. Finally, he spoke. Im not one for spooking, he said. Youd think Lincoln would have a deep voice, but the words came out in tinny false tto. He sat next to me on the couch. It was always funny when the ghosts sat down. What wa s the point, when they could just hover? I came here for the scenery, mostly, he said. I love Cape Fear. I came here for the crank, I to ld him. But its all dried up. This was true. No one knew where Clio was and no one else had speed. Id managed to buy a hundred milligrams of Adderall off of the paperboy, who had a prescription for his ADD. But I had mashed it up and snorted the whole thi ng within a couple of days. Give or take, I dont recall. It wasnt the same. And in any case, the pills were blue and the next day I had to pick out a good half dozen sky-blue boogers, which gave me the willies. Perhaps I could be of service, Lincoln said. Who are you supposed to be? I asked. Lincoln produced a couple of pills from beneath his top hat. This was something. I picked this up at a warehouse I was haun ting in D.C., he said. From what I can gather, its Ecstasy. Shall we? Thats just what Wilmington, North Carolina was like at that part icular time. Things happened. Okay, I said. He gave me the pill and I swallowed it. I think Ill try one myself, he said. 79


I was skeptical. I knew very little about the physiology of ghosts, though I had read that ecstasy wouldnt work if one was taking antidepr essants (a non-issue for me; I was unmedicated sad). You dont have a body to fuck up, I told him. Lincoln looked at me gravely and swallowed the thing, somehow. I looked back at the television but now it was the news. I turned it off. Lincoln rose from the couch and began to make a speech of some kind. Yea! Hope and despondency, pleasure and pa in, are mingled together in sun-shine and rain; and the smile and the tear, and the song and the dirge, still follow each other, like surge upon surge. He was deeply into it. What? I asked. William Knox, Lincoln said. He was Scottish. Thats my favorite poem. I thought I might turn the television back on. Lincoln was giving me the creeps. Whats your name? he asked me. Spalding, I said. Like the basketball? It seemed anachronistic, hi m knowing that. I nodded. Im Abraham, he said. I know, I said. Then he made a long series of jokes. I t uned him out. I wasnt studying his humor. He kept chuckling at himself, in a fals e little tremor of his lips. 80


The pill hit me first. I reclined on the floor and moaned happily. What can I tell you about the way it felt? Go try some. Are you in pain? Lincoln asked. The opposite, I told him. Just wait. Lincoln began to pace. He looked like the sa ddest ghost Id ever seen. I was worried he might ruin my buzz. But after a while, he said, Oh m y. He began to lick his lips. Mr. President, you were, I cant tell you how much I appreciate what you did for the Union. I suddenly had immense love for this ghost. Lincoln was hugging himself. I cant believe it, he said. Is this what other men feel? I had no idea what that meant. I started rubbing my ear against the sofa, which felt tremendous. Lincoln was cooing like a cat. I have popsicles, I said. Lincoln didnt seem interested. He was giggling. I wanted a popsicle badly. Dont go anywhere, I said. We have to stic k together. Stay right there and Ill be right back. I went and got a cherry-flavored popsicle fr om the kitchen. Tom had been stealing frozen desserts lately. I made a mental note to tell Tom th at I loved him. He alwa ys had just the thing. This popsicle was magnificent. Once I started lic king, I couldnt stop. I stayed in the kitchen working at it until Id had the whole thing. 81


I went back to check on Lincoln, but he wa snt in the living room. I immediately felt lonely. I wanted to tell Linc oln how much he meant to me, but I was afraid he was gone. Sometimes the ghosts just di sappeared without warning. Maybe I should take a shower, I thought. Then I heard a cackli ng sound from upstairs. I went up to check. A million microscopic bubbles were forming and popping inside my lips. The edges of my fingerprints were a lovely maze to touch and I was rubbing them, ecstatic, sweating, warm. I found Lincoln in my bedroom. He had go tten up on my bed. He wasnt hovering, he was standing there. And laughing. He was la ughing like someone whos discovered laughing for the first time, a dawn-of-laughing kind of explosion. Ive never been so happy, he said, and began jumping on the bed, up and down, up and down. Youre too tall! I yelled. The ceili ngs were high, but not high enough. Im free, Im free, Lincoln chanted in a sing-song, until finally he got a big enough bounce and his head slammed into the ceiling, busti ng through plaster. I wa s thinking, him being a ghost, that his head would just pass right through. But he seem ed to have solidified. Perhaps a side effect of the drug. The top hat fell on to the bed and crumpled into nothing, vanished. And Lincoln, he didnt have a care in the world. He kept jumpi ng, pummeling the ceiling. It was raining powdery white plaster. Come on up, its amazing, he told me. 82


I did some jumping with him. I couldnt make it up to the ceiling like him. But he kept busting his head on through. After a while, the ceili ng was just about gone. Lincoln rolled off the bed and collapsed on the floor. I love you, Abe Lincoln, I said. Then I wa s worried that was a silly thing to say, but Lincoln seemed touched. I tried, he said. Then he said: Spaldi ng, youre a friend. I feel an extraordinary bond. Then we went downstairs and had ourselves a dance party. Jerome had a large jam box he kept at the house and we played some disco tunes. Youd never have guessed it, but Lincoln could really move. He got loose and flung around his tremendous limbs like spaghetti. We had some beers. Sometimes a little beer will keep things going. Spalding, Lincoln said. Iv e never had a day like this. I wanted to be in his army. I thought: Can I bequeath those few things that are mine to a ghost? Ive been unwell, for a very long time, he said. I imagined myself the president. At this time, I was five feet ten and weighed about a hundred and twenty pounds. I had not been employe d in almost a year. I was wearing a womens basketball jersey. I dont remember why, I only remember that I had been wearing it for several weeks. But, sitting there with Lincoln, the presidency seemed within my grasp. I began to imagine a step-by-step process. Law school. A specialist at the DEA, ho ho! Congress. Legislation to revolutionize the health-care system. I wouldnt want the presidency, the people would demand it. Debates, a ferocious come-from-behind victory. I imagined leading the country through a harrowing war. I imagined coming back to the Cape after my term was up. An old man: tired, satisfied. 83


I realized Lincoln was talking. When I was of body, you know, I dared not even carry a knife in my pocket. Sorry, I said. I was thi nking about something else. To ease me of this power to think that through my bosom rave s, Ill headlong leap from hells high brink and wallow in its waves. Tell me something else. Lincoln stood up straight in all of his great height. Besides, this Duncan hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been so clear in his grea t office, that his virtues will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against the deep damnation of his taking-off. I was really stirred. There was something about Lincoln. I felt as though my insides were expanding in reverence. Who wrote that? I asked. Shakespeare, he said. I downed the last of my beer I was in a luxury of relaxati on. Lincoln was great theater. Dont stop talking, I said. Surely God would not have created such a being as man, with an ability to grasp the infinite, to exist only for a day! he sa id. No, no, man was made for immortality. Who wrote that one? I did. He looked past me for a moment. Then he began to moonwalk. Will this end? he asked me. Will we always feel this way? I didnt want to tell him, so I didnt. 84


Listen: that was ten years ago. I am thirty-three. I will die young. I will die soon. I miss Cape Fear, I miss methamphetamines, I miss Li ncoln dancing and dancing. I wish he would come on down here to Memphis, but he will not; he never will. 85


SOUTHBOUND John Gorman squinted down the Florida Turnpike and tried not to breathe in too much of the air in his car. There was a leak of some ki nd in one of the rear passenger windows; it had been leaking for a good while and now the cushion had begun to mold. The car smelled sweet and rank, like spoiled apricots. The other trouble with the car was that the sun visor had broken off. John had been shielding his eyes with his hand but had grown tired of this, and now he just squinted ahead and let the light come in, let his eyes blur and water. He was going to Miami to see his cousin Ellie, whom he hadnt seen in twenty years. She had called and said, I heard. This meant that that she had heard about Anne, his wife. Six months before, Anne had turned on her car in the garage of their st ucco-over-concrete-block house in Orange Park, a suburb just south of J acksonville, drunk some chamomile tea, and gone to sleep. She had left no note. Except the day before she had written, on a sticky pad on the refrigerator: Dont forget to pick up the gerani ums. John decided that th is was her note, more or less. Ellie had heard, probably, from someone in the family who was concerned over Johns general well being. Likely, Ellie was also concerned. She had said he should come down to visit. We live in the same state, after all, she said. He had lost his once-promising job at an architecture firm, or quit, it was ambiguous. The weather was getting chilly. He had neve r been to Miami. Okay, he said. He had been driving four hours and had an hour to go. He was tired. The highway before him was bathed in overwhelming sunlight. It seemed that he had been tired for a very long time. At a Kangaroo station in Jupiter, he pulled over to fill up on gas. In the gas station, he grabbed a six-pack and pictured Ellies face. It was a severely outdated picture he had in his head, of course. She had wide blue eyes and shin y blue braces. Her hair was straight and yellow, 86


parted in the middle and combed firmly down the sides. She had little red nicks on her lips, from the braces, he guessed. Just the gas? asked the pock-f aced girl behind the counter. Well, John said, this too. He put the six-pack on the counter and handed over his credit card. The girl smiled at hi m. She had braces too, but hers were clear. It looked like she had little slivers of gelati nous goo stuck between her teeth. John felt queasy as he signed his name. Back on the road, he began to vaguely worr y, as he had periodically on the way down, that he ought to bring some sort of gift to Ellie. He kept seeing signs along the highway for fresh Florida oranges. He had thought about getting some but could you really gi ve Florida oranges as a present to someone who lived in Florida? It smacked of desperation, he decided, a drive-by present. This was the sort of thing Anne would ha ve been in charge of, fi guring out what to bring Ellie in appreciation of her hospitality. It wa s amazing to discover these simple, basic gaps. When it came to the Anne thingsthose issues and problems that had been under her purview he found himself now helpless and stupid. He opened a beer, took a hard pull, and placed it in the cupholder. He had only seen Ellie about ten times in his life, all when he was a boy. Once, Ellies parents had hosted a family reunion at their house in Atlanta when John was 11. Ellie would have been 13. It was the usual se a of laughing adults, most of whom he couldnt name, telling him he had grown. He was nibbling at something at the buffet sp read when Ellie poked him in the ribs from behind. Hey, she said. 87


John was silent in reply. He was from Bristol, Tennessee, and he had always been intimidated by his Atlanta cousins. This is boring, she said. Yeah, John said. It hadnt occurred to him that it was boring. It hadnt occurred to him to judge the party one way or the ot her; he just had to be there. I know a fun place, come on, she said. Are we allowed to leave? John asked. No one will notice. Follow me. She took his hand and led him. Her fingers we re longer and more slender than his own. Her grip was gentle but solid, he remembered. Her hand was cold. She led him through the party and out the ba ck door into the woods behind the house. They crawled under a barbed-wire fence and she took him to an oak tree that formed a sort of seat at its base. This was my hiding place when I was little, she said. I used to run away from home, or thats what Mom and Dad thought, but really I would come here. Its nice, John said. He couldnt think of anything else to say. They sat together. John bit at the fibr ous skin bordering his fingernails. Ellie got up. I wear a bra now, did you see? she said. What? I have breasts. Boobs. She lifted her shirt and showed her two small breasts, concealed behind white cloth. Want to see them? she asked. John said nothing. She lifted her bra. 88


Want to touch one? she asked. John stood up. He reached out and palmed one of her breasts. The nipple was tiny. It felt like hard candy. You can squeeze, she sai d. He pinched it between his fingers. Ouch, she said. Not so hard. She bit at her lip, her braces digging in. Let me take off your pants, she said. Sh e undid the snap, unzipped him, and pulled his pants down to his ankles. She reached for his unde rwear. He would never forget the cold brush of her fingers at his waist. She pulled them down and looked at him. His erection pointed straight at her. She placed a finger on the top of it and tapped. Does it hurt? she asked. John looked down at it and said nothing. What does it feel like? she asked. She put her hand, soft and cold, around it, a nd ran her palm over and around and tickled with her fingers underneath. What does it feel like ? she kept asking, touching him in different ways. What does it feel like? John continued to say nothing. Or that was how he remembered it. While much of that afternoon was stark and clear in his memory, the actual touching was hazy. He had no sense, for example, of how long it went on. He just knew th at at some point, he came. This had never happened. His face flushed. I dont know, he said, swallowing his own words. That wasnt pee. Im sorry. Its all right, Ellie sa id. She laughed and put her fingers in her mouth. No, its not pee, she said. John dabbed his index finger at the stuff and placed it on his tongue. It was a mild salty cream, like curdled tears. 89


Lets go back and see if more food is done, Ellie said. She helped him pull up and button his pants. They walked back to the house. Ellie shook her hips when she walked, exaggerated to the left, John remembered, so that it looked like she was limping. He had seen Ellie only once more after that, several years later, in passing at a Christmas party. They made small talk, surrounded by adul ts. That was the last time he saw her. John tossed his empty beer can to the pa ssenger-side floor and opened a second one. Anne didnt drink and John had quit, mostly, out of solidarity with her. He missed it occasionally, but not too badly. He had started up again after she died. It was easy to get right back into it, turned out. He coasted along in the slow lane, paying little attention. He took sips of beer and listened to someone give Christian financial advice on the radio. The sun began to dip and the glare became tolerable. He began to sing. Financial advice, he sang, to the tune of something, he didnt know what. Sunny window, going to Miami, I am tired. He sang loudly, and finished his beer, and started another. It was around 6:30 when he got to the exit. He telephoned Ellie. Hi, where are you? she answered. Like John, she had lost all trace of her Southern accent. Taking the exit now, he said. He coughed. His voice sounded wrong, throaty and muted. Why dont you just come straight to the rest aurant? Im worried we re going to lose our reservation. Its just down the road from my place, so I can wa lk. She gave him the directions. He kept drinking, regarding the orange-red twilight out his window. 90


When he arrived, he paid $8 to park in a lo t across the street from the restaurant. He needed to watch his money. He hadnt bothered to look at his bank account in some time, but he was probably getting close to the end of his f unds. He vaguely understood that he was probably going to have to ask Ellie for money to get back home, but he wasnt ready to think about that. He walked up to the restaurant, a fancy-looking place called Trios. Like many of the buildings in south Florida, the roof was painted a color that looked like it might make for a good toothpaste. Johnny, is that you? A short woman with cu rly, dirty-blonde hair approached him, beaming. Had Ellie called him Johnny when they were growing up? He couldnt remember. She hugged him firmly. You look just the same, she said. Wow, he said. Its been Too long, she said. Here, I got us a table inside. He followed her. She was shorter than he remembered. The restaurant was abrasively cooled, at least down to sixty, John guessed. G oose pimples pricked up on his arms and he rubbed them as they walked to their table in the back. Youre going to love this pla ce, Ellie said as they sat. Do you still like calamari? I remember you used to love that when we were kids. John didnt know what to say. He did like cala mari, but he had no recollection of eating it at family events. He would have guessed he hadnt even trie d it until college. So, she said. Tell me everything. John continued to rub at his arms and tried to strategize. The idea of the trip, of just getting up and going, had appealed to him a gr eat deal. And Miami. How could you live in 91


Florida and never come to Miami? But he did not particularly want to ta lk about Anne. Probably that was all Ellie wanted to hear about. For th e past six months, everyone he was close to had become ravenous and exhaustive listeners. They couldnt get enough of listening, and sympathizing. He couldnt stand it, their listening and his talking. Ellie coughed a laugh. Thats an impossibl e question, she said. Im sorry. Its all right, John said. Its good, you know, to finally see you. Ellie cracked at her knuckles deliberately. Oh, I found this picture this morning, she said. Of that time your mom took us all to the space museum in Huntsville. I coul d barely even recognize myself. She handed him a Polaroid shotJohn was ar ound nine in the pi cture, and standing alongside his older brother Tom, Ellie, and a coup le of cousins he didnt recognize. They were standing in front of a large white rocket, which pointed straight and up above them. Youre making such a strange face, look, Ellie said. The others were mugging for the camera but John had his head twisted skyward. The sky, John said, it turns into space fift y miles up. John had been so enthralled by the museum that the following summer he conv inced his mother to send him to space camp, where he memorized space trivia that was still with him. Ellie laughed. You were paying be tter attention than me. The waiter arrived, a thin man w ith his hair arranged in neatly gelled yellow spikes, and told them about some specials while Johns mind wandered. Ellie looked a li ttle bit like Goldie Hawn somehow, he thought. 92


Can I start you with some drinks? the wait er asked. He had a cutting, feminine voice. The question sounded like an assault of some kind. Ellie ordered a house red and John followed suit. Are you still at the same firm? she asked. Im between things, right now. Kind of, navigating. Ellie sipped at her water and peered at him sympathetically, and John jammed his fingernails into his palm s beneath the table. Cheers, Ellie said. To family. They clinked their waters and drank. John r ealized he was dining with an absolute stranger. He wished, for the first time in months, to be in his home, in Orange Park, hidden in the useless enormity of his king-sized bed. John pretended to peruse the menu, but when the waiter returned w ith their wines, he simply ordered what Ellie was having. He had, actually, very little appetite. My mom is really excited that were getting together, Ellie said. Our moms were so close. I dont know if I realized that growing upI never really paid attention to the adults, you know? It was real hard for Mom when Dad took he r to Atlanta. She missed your mom a lot, and I think she was always sad that the cousin s didnt spend more time together. John worked on his wine and listened. He realiz ed that he wanted badly to ask her about the excursion to the oak tree when they were kids, but he could think of no mechanism by which to bring something like that up. The more he tho ught about it, that topi cutterly in appropriate even to make mention ofreally amounted to the ma in point of interest in seeing his cousin. He wasnt looking forward to th e rest of the evening. 93


Ellie twisted her fingers through the curls of hair that dangled down over her forehead. Her lips were a soft pink, no lipstick, and natura lly curved, so that she always looked like she was on the verge of smiling. John, she said. Her voice had a low warmth and John was startled by the sound of his own name. It sounded like a familiar song. I know you must think that no one can unders tand, that no one can possibly know, she said. And thats probably true. To a point, thats true. But I can maybesomething. I can relate. John took the last drink of wine left in his glass. He held the liquid on his tongue, swirled it over his gums, let it warm in his mouth. He want ed another glass, or so me beer, but he thought it might be rude to order another dr ink when she hadnt finished hers. Four years ago, she said, Phila man I ha d been dating for a while, I think for sure we would have gotten marriedhe passed away. It was a car wreck, just out of the blue, I was home one day and got a call from the hospital. John was worried that she might start crying but her stare was fixed and dry. I was a mess. I didn t think Id ever get th rough it. And I wouldnt have, I couldnt have alone. I c ouldnt do it all by myself. John ran his teeth over his bottom lip. Why di d people act like that, like Anne had just died ? A car crash, a bad turn of fate? She had left The therapist he had gone to th ree sessions with had told hi m it wasnt healthy to keep harping on the why. When John asked, What on earth is healthy to think about?, the therapist was silent in reply. Still, John had tried, without much success, to follow the advice. He even threw away the list he had made a couple of weeks after it happened. The list looked like this: 94


1. What did she long for? Job? Pl ace? Meaning? Something else? 2. That look she had sometimes. The on-Ve nus look. The fake laugh after whats the matter? 3. That one night, last year (?) 4. Brain chemistry. Check medical journal sonset of mental disorders at 30? 4b. Family History. Great uncle, almost surely a manic depressive. Father, always extremely distant and gloomy. First cousin a ttempted suicide in college. 5. Something from childhood? Broach with mother? 6. Something about me. Something I did. He had thrown away the useless lis t, but it was with him still. John? Ellie had her head tilted to the side. John looked at his empty wine glass. I dont know what my mother told you, he said. But you know, its not that Im not doing things. I do things, you know, with people. John, do you go to church? Do I what? Are you going to church? I know your parent s werent the most religious growing up, mine werent. Not, I mean its not something I do as a, as consistent routine, I wouldnt say. He caught the eye of the waiter and motioned him over Could I have a beer maybe, a Bud? Ellie, would you like something? She laughed gently. Im still working on my wine. A Budweiser, the waiter said, a nd turned. He was a snooty little guy. Youre going to think Im some kind of weirdo, Ellie said. This caught John badly off guard. She had a te nder redness to her cheeks and he again feared that she might start crying. No, he said. What do you mean? 95


Well, like I was saying, when that happene d with Phil, I couldnt have gotten through it just on my own. John bit at his fingers. He realized, absurdly, that he had been hoping the weirdo comment might segue into something about the handjob. He wondered if Ellie remembered that afternoon with the same clarity of detail that he di d. Maybe she had done that sort of thing lots of times. Or maybe she had repressed the memory. J ohn had read about people repressing memories of early sexual encounters. John, Ellie, said, and he saw th at her hand was on top of his. Her skin felt cold against his own. She had been talking but he had not been listening. Going to church, and thinking on what happened, praying on it. I know this is going to sound kind of different, but I got in touch with something higher and th at got me through it. I made a connection, with Jesus. The waiter arrived with the Bud and poured it fo r John in a tall, thin glass. Ellie still had her hand on top of his. John badly wanted to ge t at the beer. He felt suddenly very sleepy. You think Im crazy, Ellie said. She smiled, and her eyes creased in that same sick sympathy. She pulled her hand back. You look like you want that drink. Im not necessarily the most religious type John said. He tried to make a smile that replicated hers, but it felt waxy and wr ong on his face. He went for the beer. Im not going to try and convert you or anything, she said. It wa s just, powerful. And youre family, John, I mean it, and I want to share it with you. My life has just become a different thing entirely. Like I was living in a foreign country before, and now Ive come back home. 96


To Miami, John said. He was feeling a slig ht buzz. He could never have guessed that Ellie would hit him with a Jesus angle. Sh e hadnt mentioned anything like it on the phone. Religion made him feel awkward, nervous in a strange, teenage way. Thats not what I mean, she sai d, and laughed. You know what I mean. She laughed a lot, and John reali zed that this had always been so, that he could recall her always laughing at the dinner tabl e at family events. It was a co mfort to him to discover a small link between this new Ellie and th e old one he had fleetingly known. Their food arrived, some pretty array of vegetables and orzo. The portions seemed comically small. For a while, they ate in silence. John finished his beer and ordered another one, loose enough now to let his wo rries about manners pass. I didnt mean to come at you out of the blue, Ellie said. She was a very apologetic, empathetic person, his cousin. John nibbled at a small piece of asparagus. It tasted of glue and rubber. He ha d noticed that he could barely taste anything anymore. You didnt do anything wrong, he said. What had happened to him that he now saw empathy as grotesque, even villai nous? He had grown wretched. The alcohol was flush in his neck and his f ace. He thought of the camping trips he used to take with Anne on the beach. They used to go ev en out of season, when it was really too cold, but Anne would wrap her arms around his face while they slept and cushion his head against her chest, and he would fall into dreams in the he at and comfort of her body. In the morning they would walk on the beach in silence. And after a while, she would hum a waltz and take his hands and slow dance, the waves of the incoming tide a slow percussion beneath Annes hushed 97


melody. The color of her eyes, impossibly, was the same as the ocean, a muddied blue, wet and dark. John drank his beer and found th at it too was tasteless. He forked at his food and watched Ellies lips, which kept talking and smiling. I was talking with my mom this morning, I remember you were always a little artist, she said. Its funny how that already showed up, I mean, that you would be an architect. I havent been doing very much architecti ng lately, John confessed. Was that a word, architecting ? John felt that he was losing control in some way he could not identify. I couldnt draw a straight line, still cant she said. John appreciated this, her brief failure to acknowledge what hed said. I read somewhere, something like, Show me the boy at sevenand I will show you the man. I dont believe that, really, but anyone could have guessed it back then, you an architect, me in real estate. I was always good at selling things. You were convincing, John said. Ellie laughed, the same disarming warmth. John ordered another beer and they told stor ies and stale jokes about their relations. They shared a slice of key lime pie for dessert. She didn t need him to say much. Talking to her wasnt the taut exertion that he had lately come to exp ect from conversation. He felt guilty for his bitter impatience with Ellies initial concern, and ev en more for thinking so much about their childhood dalliance. It wasnt strange that Elli e didnt bring it up, it wa s admirably normal, it was grace and restraint. He was disgusted with himself. It really is nice to see you, Ellie said. To connect again. What you were talking about earlier, with God, I didnt mean to be John started. Rude. Before, I didnt mean to cut you off there. 98


Oh, come on, I was the one being rude, Elli e said. I talk too much. I was imposing. I dont know if I could even tell you a singl e thing from the Bible, John said. In the beginning. Thats about it. You have turned my mourning into dancing for me, Ellie said. You have put off my sackcloth and girded me with gladness. John didnt know what to say. His cousin, it seemed, had gone new-age and batty, but there was some kind of safety in the singsong of her cadence and the ease of her face. Isnt that beautiful? she asked. After Phil, when I didnt know what else to do, Id take the Bible down to the beach, find a line like that and just let it wash over me with the sun. The mean queeny waiter returned and handed th em their check with a half-roll of his eyes. John felt some small urge to hit him. This had been happening to him, especially if he had been drinking. Muted bursts of rage at strangers. This was, he had read in a book on mourning given to him by his mother, perfectly na tural. He wanted to strangle. Ill get this one, Ellie sai d, reaching for the check. John had an instinct that he ought to protest, but he did not. He was running out of money, but more than that, he felt that Ellie had long since taken charge of the evening. He wanted to ride that out. His stomach, he realized, was growling. He hadnt had enough to eat but the thought of more food made him nauseous. Ellie paid and suggested they take his car b ack, since she had walked. As they made their way out of the restaurant, John glanced lazily at her hips. They had that same shimmy to the left that she had years before, and he felt charged: another tiny link between th e girl and the woman. It was dark and cool when they got outside. 99

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Im praying for you, Ellie said. Its okay if you dont believe in that, but I want you to know that Im thinking of you, that I feel fo r you. I think that has to mean something. She took his hand and looked at him. John fe lt unsteady, he felt a rush of something, he did not know what. He tried to speak but coul d not form any words. He squeezed her hand, hardhe wanted to lose himself in the cold whit e flesh of her palms and he leaned forward, just to breathe, just to share in the breath of her mouth. Ellie jerked back, and John stumbled back wards to the sidewalk. He sat on the ground and Ellie stood above him with her hands up, as if she was blocking him from a charge. He remained sitting there for almost ha lf a minute, then slowly stood up. Im sorry, he said. I forgot I think I forgot where I was. Dont think this is rude, but are you all ri ght? Ellie said. Her smile was gone. Are you drunk? John put his head down and kept his eyes on the ground. He realized that he was crying. He hadnt cried in months, and the liquid formed in his eyes as a foreign substance, acidic. Ellie didnt move. He wished that the ground beneath him would grow soft, that he might slide in like falling into quicksand, sink into the hotne ss of the pavement and the soil. Why dont I drive? Ellie said, finally. John ha nded her the keys. They walked together in silence to the car. Look, youve had a long day, Ellie said. Lets just get you some rest. Im sorry, I dont even know what happened, John said. He felt like some other person entirely, as though he was an imposter in his body. I sort of lose my place sometimes. 100

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Its okay, Ellie said. Her face had softene d. We all do. There was that deep, abiding empathy again. But John had let go of resisting, had allowed himself to open up to her kindness. He felt like a small boy, running to the arms of mother after a temper tantrum. They got in the car and John tried to cover the beer cans on the floor with his feet. The car was enveloped in the hideous reek of mold. Ellie didnt say anything about it. The passenger side still had a sun visor, with a mirror. His lips were dry and purple. Th ere was a brown stain on the collar of his shirt. John closed his eyes but found that he could not sleep. He was a little surprised that Ellie was still going to let him stay at her place. She wa s probably horrified of him. He recognized that he was horrifying, and wanted somehow to fix it. But he was too weak. He was too tired. Ellie drove them the short distance to her apartment. Do you need help with your stuff? she asked. Oh, I just have this little bag, he said. Traveling light, I guess. He tried to pepper his speech with a new normalcy. They walked to her apartment. The street was lined with the same toothpaste-colored roofspastel oranges and a qua blues and hot pinks. Its this one here, Ellie said. Ive got the guest room all set up for you. Youll be real comfy, I think. John paused at the stoop in front of her apartment. I havent been myself, he said. I know, she said. I keep thinking I should say something. This keeps happening to me. Its like I have a stutter between my head and my voice. 101

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We can talk in the morning, Ellie said. The easy smile was back on her face. When you were talking about the religion thi ng, John said. He shifted his feet. Where did it come from? Ellie sat on the stoop. I dont know, she sai d. It wasnt even something I did. It was just something I needed and it came. John sat next to her. I dont think God w ould work for me, he said. It seems like you have to have a certain mind for it. It really changed me, John. It was like something stronger than me was steadying my shoulders, holding my hand. I wasnt alone anymore. Did you see Him? Did you see God, or Jesus? The higher thing that got you through? In a way, she said. John turned. He didnt want to look directly at her and looked instead straight ahead. He wanted to laugh at himself and at Ellie, but he ha d no laughter. He put his fi ngers to his teeth and chewed and found that he had alr eady gone through the skin. He tast ed the gentle salt of blood. You think Im nuts, she said. I can tell. But it wasnt true, though he knew it should have been. He didnt th ink she was nuts. Or, if he did, that seemed a trivial concern. What do you mean, in a way? he asked. Well, not like a vision. Nothing like that, no thing, I dont know, mys tical. It was simple. Just a presence. I had been going to church with Phil but I wouldnt say I wa s a serious believer. Church, John said. Other than weddings, he had only been to church maybe half a dozen times in his life. He always ended up laughi ng, accidentally, and having to excuse himself. 102

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One afternoon, I was on the beach. See, its just right down there. A three-minute walk, thats why I got this place. I had taken some time off work. I would walk there every morning and spend the whole day alone. I had been reading the Bible, a nd trying to pray. I didnt know what I was doing, or why, but I was just desperate, ready to try anything. And one day, on the beach, I just had this feeling. It was physical. Not anything sp ooky, like a voice, but there was, I dont know, communication I was made to know that someone was with me, that it was God. I was told that I didnt have to keep trying so hard, to feel better, to feel normal, that He would help me, that He would see me through. They sat in silence for a wh ile. John could hear, he thought, the waves in the distance. If I could know why, John said. I try to think, and I cant even remember an unhappy word she ever said. She was the happiest person I ever met. I thought we lived in each others heads. But you dont know a goddamn thing. Sorr y, I didnt mean to say that. But you dont know anything. I cant stand this state. I cant sta nd all the sunlight here. I cant stand anything. He put his head down into his lap, and closed his eyes as tightly as he could. He was trying to make his head implode He felt Ellies hand on his shoul der. The night had gotten cool, and he felt his body shiver slightly. The Lord is close to those who are of a broken heart and saves such as are crushed with sorrow, she said. She said it in nearly a whisper. John tried to feel a presence. He tried to invite a comforting spir it. But he felt only his cousins hand, and heard only the faint t hump of the waves against the shore. 103

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EVERYONE IS BLEEDING Johnsons nose is not altogether attached to his face. The right nostril is slashed and dangling free from the nose proper, like a hangnail just before the final bite. His face has paled from its normal olive tone: some of the blood has dropped from s hock, and also a good deal of blood has exited entirely, out of the slash in his nostril and into his apar tment and then the car and then the cold hospital air. Goddamn, Mona says. What is the hold up? Mona met Johnson two-and-a-half years ago. They both went, alone, to a midnight screening of Cool Hand Luke. Johnson talked all the way th rough. He could perfectly mimic Newman. They both knew about half the lines by h eart, so together they managed to echo almost the whole thing. Mona followed him home. She plays with the ring on her finger, tw isting it around millimeter by millimeter. It is the engagement ring that once belonged to Johnson s grandmother. It fits too tightly, but only a little. Johnson and Mona have been waiting in the emergency-room lobby for five minutes now, which isnt all that long in the grand scheme of the universe, something that Johnson knows well, having once taken a class in college on the grand scheme of the universe. He was one of the few non-football players in the class, nicknamed Moons for Goons. The grand scheme aside, five minutes is a long go of it if your nose is not altogether attached to your face, if there is blood everywhere. There is blood everywhere: Johnson has a pink washcloth pressed against his face, holding his nose in place, and the red has soaked through th e pink, crusted on his hands, continues to soak, on his arm and clot hes and the floor and everywhere. Mona is deeply fatigued. You cant help who you love. That is her excuse, to her mother, her friends, her shrink. Th e only noises in the hospital are voices shouting instructions 104

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and the low moaning of Johnson. They ought to put on some kind of mood music. They ought to provide some sort of distraction. She stares at Johnson. I told you that was a jackass place to put a knife. Johnson, earlier that year, had been in a novelty shop in Nashville, Tennessee, and found a high shelf with miniature guitars and ju mbo knives. He bought one of each. They were a hoot, if you asked him. You never liked that knife, Johnson sa ys. His voice, oddly enough, has grown more nasal since the accident, even though he now has le ss in the way of nostril to produce the effect. Never liked it, he repeats. This was true. You jackass, Mona said at the time, when he bought the miniature guitar and the jumbo knife and also a wax figurine of General Robert E. Lee. Aside from what she saw as the uselessness of the thing, what par ticularly groused Mona about the knife were the big blue letters on the blade, which read Bad Mofo. Irony is a pale excuse for simple bad tast e, she told him. He farted, which he could do on command, a fond trick of his for ending argu ments, punctuating insults, etc. She had, for the first year or so that she knew him, found this amusing. Johnson, with the help of a ladder, had placed the knife on the thin ledge that inexplicably lined the walls of their apar tment just below the high ceilings. Mona was despondent, on both aesthetic and sa fety grounds, but she had just moved in to Johnsons place; also, he had been willing to compromise on th e issue of purchasing a box spring and frame for his mattress, which had previously served him comfortably on the floor. So the knife stayed. It was sitting proudly in its usual place on the ledge above the bathroom when Johnson opened the door of the bathroom to talk to M ona about the fact that she would be going to 105

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Chicago in one weeks time. Chicago was the ho me of Clyde Mifflin, Monas previous lover. Clyde Mifflins friends called hi m Miff. Johnson called him Muff. Dont say zero, Johnson said. Out of one million, what are the chances that something might happen? Dont say zero. Cl yde Mifflin, horribly, was a drummer. Johnson played no instruments. As he spoke, he jumped in place, jumped and jumped. The freckles on Monas chest, he thought to himself, might rea lly be more accurately described as moles. He giggled shrilly, which always happened when he was ashamed. It was a shameful thing, thinking that of Mona. It used to be, whatever thought of Mona came into his head, he could say out loud, right then. Lately, that wasnt true. Mona said nothing in reply. What are the chances? he repeated. Mona put her head underwater in the t ub and came back up. For a moment, she could hear nothing, until the slight pop of air came back to her ears. Gradually increasing, she said. Johnson kept hopping, tapping the wall in front of him, above the bathroom door and below the knife. This was a leftover habit from grade school, when every boy would jump and slap the top of every doorway to show off progre ss in his burgeoning hope of touching the rim of a basketball goal. Johnson was jumping while he talked to Mona, tapping and coming down and jumping and tapping again. Mona mi ght have complained, but she was immersed in warm water, which produced in her, if not quite pa tience, a stronger cap acity to ignore. He hit the wall too hard. The knife tipped a nd fell, just as he ju mped to tap the wall again. The jumbo knife was unreasonably shar p. Though the big blue letters on the blade presumably were meant to refer first and foremost to its owner, they were an apt description of the instrument itself. The bad motherfucking lacer ating power of the blade gained momentum as 106

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it fell, an effect enhanced by the upward thrust of Johnsons leap. Johnson and his knife met each other in midair, on the nose. To Mona, in the tub, in the midst of calli ng Johnson a paranoid je rk, it appeared that Johnsons face had suffered a minor explosion. Blood driplets had fired in an arc tailing just below the bathroom door and sprinkling over th e tiled floor, a few reaching the brand-new chartreuse bathmat that Mona had bought just a week earlier. The knife had made its way clear through the portion of Johnson whic h it had encountered and was now sticking in to the wood floor below. Cocksucker! said Johnson. Fuckajohn. Cock Fuck! And then he fell to his knees, his hand loosely at his face, blood still leaving him in a downpour. Mona screamed and jumped out of the tub. Johnson felt white and nauseous. Above him, Monas arguably moley tits were bouncing and dripping. I think Im all right, he said. Oh God, Mona said. Johnson. She made a sound like she might cry but she didnt. Johnson looked up, looked at his hands, and very briefly passed out, the drops of shower water falling gently from Monas hair onto his blood. At the emergency room, a middle-aged man has taken his seat next to Mona in the waiting room. He leans over Mona and regards J ohnson. You about dead, he says, his breath smelling of whiskey and mold and cats. Johnson says nothing, holding his nose, still bleeding. Mona taps her fingers on her knees in rhythmic thwacks. Did Muff teach you that beat? Johnson asks. Johnson, Mona says. Let it go. 107

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My name is Churchill, says the man. They call me Churchill. I forget this sometimes, but I think youd make a terrible mother, Johnson says to Mona, the nasal whine of his voi ce crescendoing to a squeal. Mona, for the first time this evening, laughs. It comes out of her like she has been saving it up, like she is sick with it, like vomit. Im sorry, its your voice, she says. Your voice. You sound like, maybe a weasel. How do weasels sound? Monas lips are pulled in under her teeth and her tongue darts out of her mouth with each heaving guffaw, and Johnson tells himself that he will never forget the way her face looks, her eyes so bright and distant, her neck taut with laughter. He will carry the image with him forever. He can imagine himself an old man and calling up that awful picture. And he will do it, he knows. Seriously, Johnson says in his weasel voice trying to restrain the weasel, which only makes it worse, tighter, higher in pitch. You are incapable of nur turing. If I was, say, bleeding to death in an emergency room, you are the last person I would want by my side. The last. Mona is laughing to the point of tears now, listening to Johnsons strange new weasel voice. Churchill is laughing too now. Sure, he says, coughing, sure. Churchill, you must know, how do weasels sound? Mona asks. Johnson looks at Mona. Once, she painted him a portrait of a monkfis h, because he said it was his favorite animal. She once told him that he was exactly the person she had dreamed of when she was lonely and depressed in junior hig h, that she had drawn pictures of exactly him. She swore it. Sure, Churchill says. About like that. He leans over Mona to again note Johnsons appearance. You need a doctor, son, he says. 108

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I know, Johnson says. Im in too much pain to talk. You two just have fun. Mona doubts thisnot the pain, she has no doubt of thatbut she is deeply suspicious of the notion that the pain will slow Johnson from talking. Mona is right. Most people, he says. Most people would say to hell with Chi cago. I am bleeding out the goddamn face. Sure, says Churchill, sure. Whose side are you on? Mona asks. Churchill, whom people call Churchill, was born Thomas Jefferson Caffey in Palestine, Texas, though both the name and the location ar e now distant memories. He can speak three languages, but thats neither here nor there. As to the question at hand, he is not on either side. He is on the peoples side, something he is not shy about pointing out. Churchill is on the peoples side, he says. He stands up. This man needs a doctor. Stat. Come on now. He begins to dance, flapping his arms in the short, rapid flickers of a bat, highstepping with his knees as his hips jostle s lightly from side to side. Though soft and pudgy, Churchill has kept the prodigious flexibility of his youth. (As the teenage Tommy Caffey, he spent five years as a gymnast; he is full of su rprises if you happen to do the research.) His highstepping is incredible. The knees fly above the pa unch over his belt, past his chest and nearly to his chin. You go Churchill, Mona says. Johnson moans. A doctor, Churchill yells, still dancing. The blood runneth. Holy hell. He about dead. Weasel-voiced and all that. Stat, a doctor. He be gins to howl as he shimmies and steps, a deep, sustained lament as piercing as a train whistle. 109

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Mona is laughing again, and even poor Johns on giggles a bit, which unfortunately makes it feel as if the Bad Mofo knife is doing curly cues into his brain. Worms, thinks Johnson. Great big worms are worming through the innermost regi ons of his head. Tears come suddenly and he buries his head in his chest as Churchill howls on. A nurse arrives on the scene and puts her arms gently on the shoulders of Churchill, which stops the dancing as if she has turned a switch. Churchill, what are you doing here? she asks. Maam, we need a doctor now, Mona says. Look at him. Johnson lifts his head and removes the washcloth, revealing the mess of new blood and dried blood, the gash which has ripped the inner side of his right nostril, the flap of skin and cartilage connected on one side but not the ot her. Mona has a point. He doesnt look good. The nurse, however, having worked in an emer gency room for most of her adult life, is not easily fazed. A bloody face wont earn you any special privileges. Were going to fit him in as soon as we can, she says. Is this an insufficient godda mn emergency? Mona asks. We had a ten-car pileup tonight, says the nur se, quiet and level, as she has been trained to be (and disarming, almost motherly, as she happens to have a knack for). We are saving lives. His nose isnt going anywhere. We will get to your husband soon, as soon as we can. It wont be long. In the meantime, keep applying pressure. Hes not my husband, Mona says. Shit, says the nurse. Churchill. A puddle has formed at his feet, dark yellow. Sure, Churchill says. Sure. 110

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Now the pain is too much and Johnson loses hi s place. He is gone from the hospital, on a softball field in the suburbs of St. Louis. He is in left field and his father has hit a lazy fly ball that drops ten feet in front of Johnson and rolls ha rd. It is an old, ratty field, and the ball hits a pebble, or something, and stops rolling, flies up into Johnsons face. He is surrounded, he is being carried, there are adults sa ying it is broken. He is ten year s old, too heavy for his mother now but she carries him anyway, sa ys it will be okay. His father says: not in the new car, hell get blood everywhere. His mother says, shh, her hand is warm on the back of his neck. Mona will think it is a Jewish nose. Mona w ill run her finger over the crook in the night. Johnson opens his eyes and the sharp light of the emergency room makes him dizzy. A custodian mops the urine in front of them, with Churchill looking on. Are you all right? Mona asks. I might, Johnson says. I might throw up. Bu t he finds that there is nothing in him. A new patient, a lean young Mexican man, is crying acros s from them, his shoulder wrapped in a makeshift bandage, bloodied. Jesus, Mona says. Everyone in here is bleeding. Not Churchill, Churchill says. Thats not true, Johnson croaks. Look at your leg. Just below his cut-off denim shorts, Chur chill has a nasty yellow-red scab on his knee which opened during his dancing, and has since been oozing and leaking down his calf. Johnsons nose throbs. It feels like his en tire face is undulating. He looks at Mona. Will you still love me if I have a terrible scar? Will you still hate me, I mean, if I have a terrible scar? 111

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For better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, I will hate you, Mona says. She smiles, he smiles, a little. She places her thumb on the edge of his earlobe, her fingers on his temple. An accidental gestur e: something she normally only does in her sleep. Johnson turns to Churchill. It wasnt always lik e this, he tells him. I want you to know that. Sure, says Churchill. Sure. Smell like some thing in here. Your nose, son. Smells like human urination. Mona, lets go to Worcester, Johnson says. Its pronounced Woo-ster, Mona replies. J esus. She finds that she is crying. There are no tears, yet, but she can feel the rush of them. She feels sick. Lets go to Worcester, Johnson repeats, th is time properly. The two of them had been there together, once, about a year ago. They were returning from a visit to Monas parents and got horribly turned around in Worcester, wher e it seemed like every street was a one-way. Johnson was yelling and bludgeoning the steering wheel with his palms. Remember when we got lost there? Johnson asks. You were screaming curse words Id never heard before. You started singing, Mel Torm or something. Mona lets herself laugh. Comin Home Baby. In a Russian accent. Torm in a Russian accent had made Johnson laugh so hard that he teared up and couldnt see the traffic. He nearly rear-ended a pickup so they pulled over and shared the best slice of pumpkin pie either one of them had ever tasted. 112

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The countrys first public asylum was in Worcester, Mona says. She has a knack for this kind of fact, a knack that J ohnson, in the not-too-distant past could not resist. Freud visited there, she says. Well, there, Johnson says. There was a museum for Bob Cousy there too, I remember. The basketball player. I guess he was born there. What we ought to do, I mean once my nose has recovered, what we ought to do is go to Worcester. Mona, her eyes fixed and flat, lightly presse s the washcloth that J ohnson holds against his face. Keep applying pressure, she says. Churchill, remember, can speak three different languages. He could tell them in English or in Spanish or in Gaelic that whatever may or may not have happened in Worcesterand regardless of whatever historic ally important asylums or muse ums honoring a great white point guard might be located thereinthat Johnson and M ona have soured. Church ill, it is true, has been in no shape to have a lover for some time now. He has nothing by way of a home, and spends most of his time in the emergency room or the police station or th e mall. He pees freely. He smells of cats. But he has had his share of love s (he is full of surprises). Not everything in the memory of Thomas Jefferson Caffey is intact. No t everything is available. But the loves are there, they are with him, and he knows the misery of caring too much. It is too big, he thinks. Everything matters What is in them is too big to carry. He has known Johnson and Mona only minutes, true, but he is certain. The dam is in shambles. There are termites in the trees. Churchill has his strengths and weaknesses. But he knows what broken looks like. Well, thinks Churchill, the man is about dead anyway. Hes bleeding as it is. So he skips the soliloquy. He just hums, an old song he lear ned in the Army. He doesnt know the words, but 113

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he is a born hummer, so it hardly matters. He is humming like nobodys business, a march, long and slow. Thats nice, Mona says. It is, Johnson says. As Johnsons name is finally called, as he is led away to stitches, emergency nose repair, what have you, Churchill waves, humming with everything in him. 114

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LETS GO BOWLING I dont want to bring you down with a sad st ory, so what Ill do is tell you the most cheerful thing I know. One day my husband came home late. This happened all the time. I had made a very impressive casserole dish. I got th e recipe from a magazine, but I added cumin. You can add cumin to just about anything and it wi ll taste newly fancy. I had this casserole on the table and the kids were at space camp in Huntsv ille, so I put candles on the table and had the lights dimmed, the whole shebang. I began to drink wine, by myself. Half an hour passed and then he called. Go ahead and eat, he said. He told me not to wait. I did anyway, for another hour, and drank more wine. When my next-door neighbor Sammie called, I was pretty well snookered. Sammie was a writer for a company that crafte d personal ads for their clients. They would come in for an interview with Sammie and then she would make them sound charming in a hundred words. Also she was a novelist. Grace, she said. Thats my name. Im hungry, I said. Lets go bowling, she said. That casserole looked good but I didnt want any part of it, so I went bowling. Sammie drove. The left side of her long gray -black hair was braide d and I knew this was a bad sign. She compulsively braided her hair when she had the blues. She was on a great deal of medication. She had been as long as Id known her, so I cant say one way or the other whether it was working. My sister is sleeping with one of my ex-husbands, she said. I wondered whether she could even remember which one. She had a gratuity of exhusbands. 115

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Bastard, I said. I must have been thoroughly drunk. I dont use that kind of language. Sammie began to scream while she drove. This went on for several minutes. I was alarmed, believe me, but Sammie at least is a goo d driver. I didnt want to be at home, in any case. After a while she stopped screaming and became chipper. This would happen with her. I absolutely love bowling, Sammie said. Ive never been, I said. Oh my, she said. No! Impossible! Maybe when I was a little girl. Grace! What a night. Im opening you up to a whole new world. That was a pretty dramatic thing to say, but I didnt respond. I was hoping they served wine at the bowling alley. When we arrived there, they had us trade in our shoes for shoe s that all the bowling patrons shared. That sounded filthy to me, but they said I wouldn t be allowed to bowl if I didnt use their shoes. I didnt wa nt to disappoint Sammie. We got a lane and started bowling. Sammie was doing a lot of shouting and clapping. I kept rolling the ball into the gutter. There were two men in the lane next to us. One of them was wearing sunglasses. People do the strangest things sometimes. The other one was a yellow-haired, pasty man with a pleasant smile. His body was hanging out over his waistlin e. He hadnt made a real good decision on pants, in terms of size. 116

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The man with the sunglasses was a good bow ler, I guess. He kept knocking down the pins and he would shout, Gallaghe r, youve outdone yourself again! The other one was Hurt. Actually it was Hearst, but Galla gher had a funny way of talki ng and couldnt really say the s. About halfway through our game, Sammie made a strike. She leapt in the air and shook her bottom thoroughly. That there is a woman that knows how to bowl Gallagher said. He spoke at an extremely high volume and I wondered whether he had hearing problems. Damn right, Sammie said. I am a woman that knows She began shaking again, and gyrating her stomach. Gallagher came over and they sat next to each other. He was a large, hairy man. He had on a sleeveless shirt and even his shoulders were hairy. Sammie slid her arms around those hairy shoulders. They put their foreheads together a nd whispered. I thought: he still has his sunglasses on. I took my turn and put the ball in th e gutter both times. I didnt mind. Hurt came over and poured me a glass of beer. Im not much of a beer-drinker but I went for it. It was cold and sparkled on my tongue. I was having a fine time. The men got done with their game before us. Th ey sat with us while we bowled. We kept drinking the beer, except for Sammie, w ho couldnt drink because of the meds. Gallagher, youre a great big animal, Sammie told him. She began to kiss him on the chest. Gallagher shot at the ceili ng with index-finger guns. I just love that shirt youre wearing, Hurt told me. I ha d on a red silk blouse from Bloomingdales. It was a nice shirt. 117

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My high score is 225, Hurt said. If Id st arted younger, I think Id of scored a 300 by now. Its a game that you get better with experience. He had this smile that he l ooked like he was born with. He had taken care of his teeth, too. I appreciate a man with a good smile. I told him, I bet you were just the most handsome young man. Someone could take that the wrong way, but Hurt just kept smiling. Sammie had put on Gallaghers sunglasse s and they were whispering and doing something like a dance together ev en though they were sitting down. Youre as pretty as they come, Hurt to ld me. I felt right then like he was right. I only knocked down about a dozen pins the whole night. On the last frame, I got another gutter ball on my first turn. I was tire d, and the beer was making my body heavy. Let me show you, Hurt said, when I went fo r my second turn, the la st one of the night. Pull your arm back like this. The lesson turned into something more like a hug. He put his hand on my bottom and let it linger there in soft circles. Ill tell you: I let hi m. Im not that type, but I try to be generous. He looked like he needed it more than I didnt want it. The education wasnt a complete failure: I knocked down one pin. What we need to do is go look at the stars, Sammie said. We paid and got our shoes back. I was glad to be back in my shoes but a little sad about leaving the alley. We walked out in the parking lot. I saw that Gallagher and Hurt were powerfully drunk. I realized I needed to be fri ghtened. They were big men. But then I said to myself: Grace, you can wait and be scared tomorrow. 118

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We sat on the hood of Sammies car and looked at the sky. You couldnt see the stars at all. Gallagher began to sing. It wasnt a song we knew but we joined in anyway. Hurt went to his truck and got some Budweise r, in cans. I had no idea what time it was. I had a beer. Sammie began to cry, and Gallagher ran his hand s down the braids of her hair to comfort her. Me and Hurt just sipped at our drinks and watched them for a while. Fuck that bastard, Sammie said. Fuck him, Gallagher agreed. Then she started laughing. She c ould really switch on a dime. Its a new era, she said. Grace went bowling. Shell get better with experience, Hurt said, very seriously. Sammie got up from the car and put her arms up to the sky. What a night Gracie, she said. We are love ly, arent we? Were a couple of gems. Hell yeah, Gallagher said. Hurt tried the maneuver with his ha nd, but I blocked him this time. We most certainly are, I said. 119

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MILLARD ON THE BRINK Millard means to shoot his wife and himsel f this afternoon. He is hoping that one bullet will go through both of their heads with one shot. He is hoping, furthermore, that they will be holding hands. He is working on the logistics. He has been working on the logistics since yesterday. Visuospatial reasoningthe skill, acc ording to many psychometricians, most closely linked to innate intelligencehas be en, for Millard, always a mystery. Millard is eighty-four years old. His son, whose name is al so Millard, tells his wife sometimes, Papa is not well in the head. The younger Millard ca lls his father Papa, a moniker neither invented nor endorsed by Millard the elder, who thinks it makes his son sound faggoty. Millard has long been concerned about his only ch ild sounding bent, though he voices this to no one. He had a dream once in which his son enga ged in open-mouth kissing with Roger Staubach, who happened to be Millard Sr.s favorite quart erback. He had a dream once, also, that he himself was open-mouth kissing with his boy. This dream, howe ver, he cannot remember. In fact, the wellness in Millards head is just fine, thank you. He is sharp as a tack. He went to the doctor two months a go and the doctor told him, Ill be damned, Millard. This right off the bat didnt sit well. There was no need fo r that kind of language. The doctor continued: Id swear you were fifty. You are a healthy man. You are a miracle. Well, Im tired, said Millard. The doctor suggested that perhaps he simply needed more activities. Millard felt that he was plenty active but he offered only an affirm ative grunt to the unhelpful advice. The real reason for his fatigue is his wife, Sophia, also eighty-four, but not a miracle. Their son does not go around whispering to his wife that Sophia is no t well in the head beca use there is no need. There is no need to assert the obvious. She is deeply, fully, un recoverably not well in the noggin, and it has been that way for several years now. 120

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Sophia often loses track of who or where she is. Or, more painful for Millard, she rarely knows when she is. One moment she thinks its their wedding day. Next thing you know, its late winter, 1979, when a bat had gotten in the hous e, a nuisance Millard disposed of with a thunderous backhand, unfortunately employing the cas t-iron pan that Sophia had inherited from her mother, a choice of instrument for which he was never forgiven. This displaced chronologythe baffling, rapid shifts in perspectiveoffends Millard, though of course he knows that is wrong, of course he knows it isnt her fault. His own identity, he feels, is being slapped around, made a joke of. She will think he is her mother or their son or, once, the postman from her girlhood home in Colorado Springs who had, unbeknownst to anyone, taken her virginity. There are, in fact, other things that make Mi llard tired, even if the deterioration of Sophia is the main one, even if that is the kicker. For example, the programs on the television. For example, Wheel of Fortune. It is offensive to Millard how easy the show has gotten. The puzzles used to be a challenge, he was just sa ying to Sophia the other day. Now theyre easy as pie. Alls well that ends well Ridiculous! But it takes the darn ed guests just as long to solve them. The contestants are getting stupider. That is not my car, responded Sophia. Take your hands off me. Other things that make Mill ard tired include: Th e mismanagement of the Dallas Cowboys over the last decade. The occasions on which he finds that he cannot make his mind come up with the word he is looking for. The unres ponsive, automated voices that ring him on the telephone, admonishing himfals ely, unfairlyon various problems which he does not in fact have with his credit, cable bill insurance, etc. The soft, ponder ous ache in his knuckles when he makes a fist. His son urging him to move, along with Sophia, into a home. The fact that his son, 121

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instead of becoming a lawyer, became something called a mediator. The execrable deterioration in quality of the newspaper funnies. No one can tell a half-decent joke anymore, if you want to know Millards opinion. The kind of gun that Millard bought so as to quit out on all th e tiredness is a doubleaction revolver, a Smith & Wesson Model 10. He ordered it at Wal-Mart a month ago. He was there anyway to get a new front-left tire. Millard is wondering what will happen when he pulls the trigger. He is wondering if, in the moment starting with the sque ezing of the trigger, then th e drop of the hammer, then the explosion of gun powder, then the path of the bul let, then the meeting of the bullet with skin, bone, insides: In that moment, will his life flash before his eyes, like they say? It will start, he thinks, in Ar kadelphia, the town in which he spent the first four years of his life and which he does not now remember. There will be his father, a r eal-estate agent, also named Millard. There will be his mother, tall, black-haired, green eyes spaced far apart on her face, the most beautiful woman that he has ever seen. There will be the breathing noise his father made when he whipped him, like a snoring dog. There will be the cold fat of his mothers triceps, where he buried his face in cold and gentle skin. What else will show in the biographical filmstrip of Millard Howard Carpenter? The first girl he kissed, on a hot day in Oklahoma City in 1935, Clara Downwater, who would have been pretty but for an unfortunately wide spread of wet orange acne on her face. It was not the acne, however, but the shocking coarseness of her small, flat tongue which she pr essed against his lips. It was this that made him vomit, a little on himself and a lot on her, which in turn led her to explode in tears, which in turn made Mill ard put his head down and sprint home. 122

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And: 1937, also in Oklahoma City, four days after his fathers heart quit pumping while he was asleep, Millard dressed in a black su it purchased two years prior from the Sears catalogue, two years, unfortunately, in which the boy had grown several inches in both height and width, so that the suit was now around his body as tightly as lin en around a mummy. So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom, spoke the preacher. Millard, suffocating in that suit, was not listening; he was thinking, it is up to me now, it is up to me and I am ready And: The only man he knowingly killed, a s hort Italian boy who he shot in the eyeball from five feet away in Salerno, on the western coast of Italy, in September, 1943. (Millard, that same year, had in fact killed three other so ldiers that he was not aware of.) The boy was screaming something in Italian before he die d, a language that Millar d did not understand. He did not wonder what he was sayi ng. He wasnt the curious type. And: The first time he met Sophia, in Tuls a, 1946. She is right ready to meet a handsome man like you, her grandmother had whispere d to him. Her hair was straight and long and held the light, like black water. She laughed at his jokes before the punchline. She had a habit of pulling her lips down when she laughed, because her four front teeth were at badly crossed purposes. She had moved to Oklahoma three months before. And how are you liking the Sooner state? he asked her, sure, strai ght, too loud. She smiled and brought down her lips, which seemed to Millard to be teeming with blood, maroon and overfilled, sliding over her teeth like curtains. I like it here, Mr. Carpenter, she said. I do mi ss the mountains, but the sky here, isnt it something? It just goes and goes. Millard thought to himself, that is a fine woman there. Millard was right. 123

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There will be the birth of his son, there will be hours at the downtown branch of the bank for which he worked for five decades, there wi ll be every dog hes ever owned. There will be plenty. It has been a while. It has been eighty-four years. This business of imagining his life flashing in a moment before hi s eyes gets him to thinking that Sophias life has been flashing, erratically, before her eyes for three years now. Its like the moment before death in slow motion. That is no pace to die. Millard, what are you doing? Sophia asks She walks into the bedroom and gingerly climbs into bed next to him. Arent you supposed to be in school? She is talking to their son, not to him. Millard touches his thumb to her cheek. Im just going to have a shave, he says. Sophia looks at him and giggles. Youre just a boy, she says. She has the very same pale-brown eyes she always has. Millard feels that he owes it to his wife of fifty-seven years to put a stop to things. Things, both generally and specifically, have gon e wrong, have gotten not right, not appropriate, not how they ought to be. It is as if their liv es were being guided along nicely in a boat on calm waters, steered smoothly on course, and now, late ly, slowly but surely, the boat has begun to leak, the boat is sinking, the boat has gone t opsy-turvy. Everything is upside down, wrongside up. Well. The shaving cream and hot water lather softly in his palms. Theres a proper way to do what needs to be done. Millard certainly has no intention of going about it with dayold stubble muddying his face. He will be properly shaven, clea n. He applies the cream to his face in slow, 124

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long strokes. The skin on his face sags in th e mirror, hanging low and loose, pulling downward, like it might pull his face clear off his head. Y ou look like a hound dog, he says to the mirror. He uses a Mach 3 razor, running the blade down his face, clearing the cream, revealing shiny skin in its wake, the color of a pear. No cuts, no nicks. For the most part, so far as Millard is concerned, the various invent ions and technological innovations of the last fifteen or twenty years have turned out to be no great shakes. Th e Mach 3 is the excepti on. It is a pleasure, a comfort, a machine. The first year that he and Sophia were marri ed, long before the dawn of the Mach 3, long before all sorts of things, Millard had trouble with cutting his face while shaving. This deficiency puzzled him; in all facets of life, he was bot h careful and dexterous. Sophia would dab a napkin in hot water and clean these cuts, press the clot h tightly against his neck until the blood stopped. It was childish, he knew, to keep botching the ta sk. When the cuts eventu ally stopped, when he got the knack of it for good, when he was flawless Sophia ran her finger down his newly shaved face one morning and told him, I know this sounds silly, but I miss dressing your battle wounds. Two days later, Millard punctured hims elf with the razor on purpose, a crooked red centimeter on his jawline. Right away, he thought: That was a fool thing to do Sophia wetted the napkin and applied it to the cut, her fingers holdi ng it firmly in place, her other hand palming the back of his neck. She closed her eyes and said, Thank you, this once was enough, thank you. Millard dries his face and regards himself again in the mirror. For an old hound dog, his face is as lean and handsome as he could hope. He doesnt look bad. He doesnt look bad at all. He has no plans to prepare an elaborate last meal, for him or his wife. In Millards opinion, taste is an overrated sense. He doesnt get what all the fuss is about. There are only two foods that he allows himself to get excited about, and then it is more for what he sees as the 125

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sturdiness of their sustenance, ra ther than for their flavor. Those two foods are sardines and graham crackers. He happens to know that grah am crackers were invented in 1829 by Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister who avowed that the fiber content in unsi fted wheat flour might help control lustful urges. Millard happens to know this because he is a wizard for trivia. When he watches Jeopardy, he tries to buzz in before the other contestants. The way he buzzes in is by whistling with his fingers, a piercing maneuver taught to him by his fa ther, and which Millard tried unsuccessfully to pass on to his own son. This method of buzzing in while he watched Jeopardy used to nettle Sophia to no end, but she no longer seems to mind. She no longer snapsit sounds like a jungle in hereand Millard can play his game in peace. To his surprise, he misses these fussy interruptions. If Millard buzzes in first and answers the J eopardy question correctly, he records the score for himself. Meanwhile, he adjusts the scor es of the contestants wh o he beat to the punch accordingly. Regarding who buzzes in first, he does not cheat. Millard is a meticulous man. Using this process, he makes Jeopardy into a four-contestant game in which he takes part. He wins three out of four times. Based on this record, it is certainly possible th at Millard would have been a great success if he had made an actual appearance as a guest on the show. It is certainly possible that he would have cleaned up. Unfortunately, Millard has always had a deep, grinding stage fright. In the spring of 1968, upon being named manager of the downtown branch, he was asked to give a speech at a function for the entire regions empl oyees. When he walked up to the podium, his legs were as heavy as tar. He was careful about not putting his lips too close to the microphone. Wholly aside from volume issues he had read an article in Life about the possibility of 126

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microphone electrocution. He tried to speak. He c ould feel sweat droplets rolling. They tickled. His voice would not function. The sounds he trie d to make came off as lazily and without purpose as those sweat drops easing down his face. No one knew what happened next: that everyt hing inside of him ca me suddenly out into his pants, as if he was a boy. No one knew because he turned quickly, walked straight out the backdoor of the ballroom, strai ght to his car, and drove home. After showering and changing, he threw away the soiled clothes in a dumpster down the street. He told Sophia, left at the function, that he had become violently ill, feverish, a nast y and sudden onset of the flu perhaps. This was one of less than a dozen times in his life that he lied to his wife. Millard has been thinking about that incident just today. He hopes that this particular scene wont be replaying itself when his life flas hes before his eyes. He is wondering whether he will have any control along those lines, whethe r some sort of self-editing function might be involved. He certainly hopes, for example, to get a fl ash of the touchdown he scored as a highschool senior. Because Millard was small and slow of foot, he rarely made an appearance in any of the games. But midway through the fourth quarter of an Octobe r game, with the game in hand and several starters hurting, hi s number was called. Millard took the pitch on the three-yard line and ran in his awkward, asymmetrical fashion, he ad down and leaning left At the one, he dove for the end zone, with hardly an idea of where he was or wher e he was going. A tackler tattooed him helmet to knee. His hand, clutching the ba ll, reached forward. He was flying. When he landed, the front inch of the ba ll was resting across the goal line. The referees arms were straight and up. 127

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His father had been dead for a full year when he made this play, the only positive yardage he would ever gain in his foot ball career. But his mother was still alive, his mother was standing up, and for the first time in his young life, Milla rd heard her raise her voice. She was yelling, flapping her arms in a clumsy clap and holle ring with everything in her: Millard, Millard, Millard, Millard! It is the pr oudest moment of his life. Even more than that moment, more than anyt hing, he would like to get a glimpse of his eightieth birthday. Sophia went fishing with him, which she normally refused to do. The fish werent biting, so they played checkers on the boat, the two of them, until the sun set on the river. The next day, she went for her morning walk and didnt come back. He drove around for two hours before he found her in front of the post office. Her right knee was scraped and bloody. She just kept saying, I dont know, over and over again. The days after that were worse. Millard has returned to the bedroom and loaded just one bullet into the gun. He takes Sophias hand. He has, he believes, figured out the logistics. Millard, if youre going to play golf today, ta ke this pan of tomatoes, Sophia tells him. Put them on the dash while you play and well have them sun-dried when you get home. Isnt that a lovely trick? That is th e last thing she will ever say. Lord, I miss you, Sophia, he says to her. The pupils in her graygreen eyes are dilated. They are as big, almost, as dimes. Its b een so long, Millard says. He is ready. 128

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SAND AND SKY Here is a very sad song, taught to me by a Polack from Wisconsin that I met in the service: In Heaven there is no beer, so lets get drunk while were down here. The part I found sad was how happy it made him, that idea. His name was Dan. He had a last name I couldnt pronounce. He had a huge fat foamy nose. The skin on this nose appeared to bubbl e as though it had been burned, as though it might soon melt. When he spoke, he stretched out his consonants in that flat Midwestern way. That voicea long slow drag. It made me think of flat land and flat farm and white women. I was twenty years old and had never fallen in love, only fucked. Dan was a virgin. Dan called pussy the pink When I get home, Ill be swimming in the pink, hed say. The boys would say, good luck. The boys would say, a mug like that and the only pink hed be getting would cost him in green. Everybody loves a veteran, Dan would say. Ill be booming babies all over the land. He always complained about the food. This isnt meat hed tell us. You havent had meat. He talked about the food back home, and his mother, and how he could drink a full case of beer, and women. Tits, legs, ass, and the pi nk. That boy was going to explode with hunger. Dan, like me, survived the war. He went home to his mother and got, I bet, a heros welcome. Im sure she made him kielbasa and po tato pancakes and sauerkraut and pork chops. That night, I bet he got so dr unk he couldnt see. Who knows, ma ybe he finally found the pink. Then, six months later, he got shot in the teeth by hi s drunk daddy. The surviving back then, out there, was for nothing. Last night, I had a dream about the desert and deadly lines of light. This happens sometimes. Dan was there in the dream. It wa snt Dans body, actually, it was a classmate of 129

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mine from junior high. But in the dream I understood it to be him, Dan the Polack, from Wisconsin. He was dancing, in the desert, dodging bullets with every hot shimmy of his hips. Sometimes I believe in God and sometimes I dont. I play it by ear, as far as that goes. This morning, when I awoke, I prayed: I asked that Dan might be granted cold, cold beer and some of the raunchy, vibrant lig ht of life, wherever he is. 130

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LOVE Mitch sat on his porch one Saturday afternoon, rubbing his temples and sipping at a strangely bitter cup of lemonade, and wondered if he ought to call the police. The neighbors were at it again, yelling at each ot her like murderous lunatics. Mitchs wife Caroline came out to watch too. Mitch eyed Caroline. Her ankles had expanded with age, though she was not much pa st thirty. The blood, or something, had somehow all gone down there and now she had what Mitch and Caroline herself used to call cankles when they were younger. This meant that the ankles were half-calf. Mitch, shirtless on his porch because the weather had taken a nice turn that afternoon, regarded the wavy white stretch-marks on his love-handles. He didn t have much right to look askance at the cankles. All Im asking, all all all, is that you try a little fucki ng harder, Tanya, the neighbor, shrieked. This was a shriek that Mitch had not previously heard come out of a human being. It was loud but so high in pitch th at it was barely audible, near to a dog-whistle, Mitch decided. She was crying while shrieking, and the tears we re flooding and almost spraying, like some sort of explosion had happened, like the way blood spurts if you pop an artery. It was something else. Should we call the police? Caroline quietly asked Mitch. Dont know, he said. The violence seems to be strictly conversational. He had reached a sweet spot in his lemonade. Ma ybe the sugar had sunk to the bottom. Whatever I do is wrong! yelled Dennis, Tanyas boyfriend. He had a li ttle bit of a lazy eye that would become more exaggerated wh en he got steamed. He looked like a cartoon, thought Mitch, with his eyes buggered and crossed, his face swollen and red. Whatever I damn well do is wrong. Caroline sat down next to Mitch on the porch swing. This was rare. When they had begun dating, they always shared the same seat, even if it was a ludicrous thing to do, even if there were 131

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far more comfortable options available. They just preferred to be next to each other, to touch hip to hip. This had dissipated, however. A more c onventional idea of comfort had prevailed. They liked a little space. Tanya was doing a full-body cry now that was a lmost like a dance. She was swinging her arms in sharp little waves. She was saying question words, with no context. Whyyy? she cried. Whaaaat? Whoooo? Hooooow? Dennis got up close to her so he was spitting th e syllables in her face. You make me feel enormous, he said. I dont even know what I mean. Dont ask me, What do you mean? God, you make me feel like an elephant Here he bellowed, in a low re gister. Is that the noise an elephant makes? I dont fucking know. I dont fu cking know. And he bellowed again, and began to swing his arm in front of him, perhaps like the trunk of an elephant. I dont know you at all, scream ed Tanya. You are gone, gone. Mitch bellowed. An elephant! A fucking elephant! What are they arguing a bout? asked Caroline. Caroline asked too many questions, Mitch thoug ht. It was interrupting the show. She was too inquisitive. Mitch felt a great fatigue. He was worn out, tired of context. I think even theyve forgotten, he said. Dennis and Tanya had stopped taking turns in the yelling. They were hollering at each other at the same time, the way umpires and coaches scream into each ot hers faces at baseball games. It was some theater. Mitch closed his eyes and picked up scattered words and phrases. Never should haveice -waterall you carebutcherThanksgivingbitch. Tanya dropped to the ground, sat there Indian -style looking up at Dennis, stopped yelling and just cried. He stopped yelling too. I wi sh I didnt, she cried. I wish I didnt. 132

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Dennis turned around and walked back into the house. Tanya sat there on the ground sobbing. Should we do something? Caroline asked. Probably not, Mitch said, taking a last sweet sip of lemonade. Dennis might get homicidal. Lets stay on the porch. Dennis came back out of the house wearing a bumblebee costume that Tanya had worn for a Halloween party hosted by Mitch and Caroline the previous fall. Whats he doing in that bee costume? Caroline asked. Not sure, Mitch said. Maybe he thought he ought to get dressed up. Dennis wore a little black cap with dangli ng antennae. The midsec tion was a yellow-andblack-striped velvet fat suit, and he had on black tights underneath. The thing barely fit him. The tights didnt even come to his knees. Like an argument suit? Caroline as ked. Who puts on a costume to fight? Not sure, Mitch said. Tanya was still crying on the ground and Dennis was coming at her in the bee suit, waddling awkwardly. Mitch wanted to get some lem onade but he didnt wa nt to miss anything. It was like watching television, especially the way that Dennis and Tanya seemed oblivious that they were being watched. Okay, Dennis said. He took a deep breath. The bee suit had apparently helped him to gain some composure. What are you doing in my Halloween costume? Tanya wailed, standing up. What are you doing? 133

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Listen, Dennis said, his voice softening al most to a whisper. Just stop. Baby, youve forgotten who I am. Its me. Come on. He reached to hug her. Get away, she said sla pping at the bee. Why are you w earing my costume? What is wrong with you? Your costume? Dennis returned to yelli ng. I bought you this motherfucking costume. You think any of that shit in there is yours? Do you think any of it is yours? Everything could be so easy if you d only let it. I dont understand. I dont. Now Dennis was crying too. J ust stop. Please just be like you were. Be like October. Remember the picture we took with you in this su it? Remember that night? Please, Tanya. Ill do anything. Fuck you, you fucking bumblebee! Dennis turned back to the house. What kind of girl? he said to himself. What kind of person? He waddled inside of his house. Is that it? asked Caroline. That aint it, said Mitch. The two sat there watching Tanya cry in her yard. Dennis came back with a vacuum cleaner. It lo oked to be a Hoover, and a nice model. I never should have given you a motherfuck ing thing, Dennis screamed, still wearing the bee outfit. He lifted the vacuum cleaner and began to swing it in the air. Fuck you, fuck your cocksucking vacuum cleaner, Dennis said. Cocksucking vacuum cleaner, whispered Mitch, and smiled. He imagined the Hoover inhaling Denniss cock. 134

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Fucking Hoover! screamed Denni s, swinging it in a circle. Goddamn bumblebee! Tanya returned. Buzz, Dennis said, helicoptering his whole body with the Hoover swinging wildly out in a circle. Buzz buzz. Fuck you. Buzzing fu cking you. I wish October never was. I wish September never was. He slowed his movement and swerved dizzily toward the oak tree. He lifted the Hoover high behind his head and swung the thing in the mo tion of a golf club, directly into the tree. He kept on swinging, abusing the hell out of the tree. This is how I love you, said Dennis, who was really crying like nobodys business now. Buzzzz. Buzzz. The Hoover was splintering into pl astic fragments flying out from Dennis like tiny firecrackers. The vacuum bag exploded and clumps of lint and dust floated into the sky. Buzz, screamed Dennis, axi ng the Hoover with everything in him. Buzz, oh God, fucking buzzzz. Mitch allowed himself to laugh, a little. This was too much. Dont, said Caroline, but she wa s laughing too, a muffled giggle. Well, at least were not like that said Mitch. He squeezed his wifes hand, which was small and cold in his own. 135

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JUSTICE My client was thoroughly guilty and reeked of it. His name was Joe Barry Carroll. The family name was Lee, so this was strange. His father was a big-time fan of Joe Barry Carroll, a good-but-not-great center in the NBA in the s. He didnt really like the name Lee all that much anyway so he just skipped it and na med the boy after JBC. It takes all kinds. In any case, I called my client J.B., like ev eryone else. He was 24, si x feet tall and twohundred pounds, and had an IQ of 75. He had used his two-hundred pounds a nd 75 IQ to beat the snot out of a professor at the community colle ge and the professors dog as well, a black pug named General Tsao. It was my professional opinion that the dog was his major trouble. You start putting a real hurting to a pug and you are going to lose the favor of your fellow ci tizens in a hurry. No one is going to get too worked up about a community-college teacher. Thats what I told J.B. the first time I met him, in my of fice. The dog, I said, is your trouble. That fucking thing had it coming, he said. He sucked in his saliva, which made a little snorting sound. This was a habit of his, I learne d, to punctuate his statem ents. It sounded like a broken drain. I dont think we ought to put you on the stand, I told him. J.B. said he didnt care much either way. At the trial, I tried to focus the jurys attention on the professor, whose name was Neil Carroway. We were lucky, J.B. and I, because th is Carroway really was an irritating nancy and you could see where someone might want to get at him. He had a way of talking that sounded like he was giving a lecture. Maybe that just happens to professors after a while. 136

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Lord, I love trials. I cross-examined the hell out of Carroway. I was in a zone, I dont even know what was said. I called this postman to the stand and he tes tified it hadnt been a beating so much as an argument. I dont know what his racket was, but I took it. I speechified. I obfuscated. When I was done, I sat down next to J.B. and he leaned over and whispered to me, You talk like someone. I ought kick your fucking teeth. He made that strange little noise, sucked the spit back down into his throat. I got to thinking then that maybe J.B. was doomed from the get-go, from the moment his dad decided to call him Joe Barry Carroll. Name s can be a burden. I had a client once named Richard Nixon. He went by Richie but that didnt help, and he did some time for insurance fraud. Something you may or may not know is that J.B. s namesake, Joe Barry Carroll, was, like Nixon, a tragic figure. Carroll wa s a seven-footer who went to Purdue University. In 1981, he was regarded as the best young basketball pros pect in the nation. The Golden State Warriors traded a young center named Robe rt Parish and the third pick in the draft (used on Kevin McHale) to the Boston Celtics for the first pick in the draft, which they used to take Carroll. Carroll had a decent run, averaging just over seventeen points a game over ten years. Parish and McHale, unfortunately, went on to spectacular Hall of Fame careers, and the deal is considered one of the most lopsided trades in the history of basketball. The name Joe Barry Carroll, through no fault of his own, is synonymous with a pinnacle of poor decision-making, of fiasco. This trade is one of the reasons that Red Auerb ach, then the general manager of the Celtics, is considered one of the shrewdest executives in the history of professional sports. Auerbach, like me, was a Jew who enjoyed smoking cigars after victories. I am, in fact, smoking a cigar right now. I got J.B. off. He is a free man. Hopefully he wont shoot a dog. But Im concerned. 137

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NEW ERA Joseph woke up on a hot July morning and rolled over to his right, to the section of the bed that had, on the previous four-hundred morn ings, give or take, b een Mariannes. His mind was still halfway in the dream he had been having, in which he was bathing in his boyhood bathtub with several friendly dragons. The morning light cam e flying through his window and his haze receded. He was not underwater. No splashing with dragons. He pulled the pillow into his body and held it like a soft companion. He was wet with sweat. The air conditioner was busted. It blew air but it wasnt cold air, instead a lukewarm, sickly breath. He had turned it on before going to bed anyway, to keep up appearances. It was 8:00. He had beaten the alarm by a half an hour. He couldnt stand it when this happened, but Joseph found that once he woke up there was no going back to sleep. He rolled back to his side of the bed, then back to Mari annes. He rolled back and forth across the whole bed, dampening the sheets with his sweat. He ha d always thought of the bed as being on the small side, but for just one pe rson it was massive, actually. He got up and cracked his back. For the firs t time in a very long time, he had slept without pajamas, completely nude. Marianne c ouldnt stand sleeping naked, an issue Joseph had initially contested until relenting after a mont h or so. He walked around the room, still naked. Marianne would have referred to this as parading around naked. Joseph decided to make it a parade all right. He began to march, high-stepping in a circle around the room, his genitals flopping along in rhythm. He did this for several minutes, until he was out of breath and sprawled down on the bed coughing. He wondered whether Marianne was aw ake or sleeping in. He thought about the dragons in the bathtub a nd tried to decide what it might mean. He had taken a dream-interpretation cl ass once, at his health club. This was several years ago. There 138

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was one man who always dreamt that his penis was detached and he was using it as a car key or a cellphone or some such thing. They always had a lot to talk about w ith that guy, but Josephs dreams were never as interesti ng as all that. Maybe they coul d have had a good chat about the dragons though. The phone rang. He grabbed it after one ring. It was an automated thing, selling life insurance. The robot voice was asking him if he had done everything he needed to protect his loved ones. Joseph hung up the phone. He stretched again and got out of bed, shower ed, and dressed. He began to make the bed and stopped. That was something he never did before Marianne. I dont need to make the bed if I dont feel like it he thought, but then he made the bed anyway. He went to the kitchen. He realized that he had not yet spoken today, other than to say hello to the robot hawking life insurance. Good morning, he said, to no one. His voice sounded tinny. Good morning, he tried again, this time in a strong baritone. He smiled. Joseph went to the fridge and got out the eggs butter, and milk. He cracked the eggs into the large bowl he used for scramb ling and began to stir them. He added a splash of milk, as his mother had taught him to, and went at them until they turned a silky, uniform yellow. He lit the stove and buttered the pan, then poured in the contents. Shit, he said. He had used five eggs, as he did every morning when making scrambled eggs. But that was for two. He ate the whole batch anyway, along with his normal piece of toast and apple. He had to go well past the point of being full to finish them off and the meal sat heavily in his stomach. When he brushed his teet h, he thought for a moment he might vomit, but he did not. He held it in. 139

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At 9:30, he met Clark Bowers at his office for a meeting. Halfway through, Clark asked Joseph if he was distracted. I dont mean to Clark started. Your mind seems somewhere else, Joe. I think it was something I ate, Joseph said. Maybe, would you excuse me? He went to the bathroom, and was gone for some time. He and Clark decided to postpone the meeting until the following morning. Joseph locked his office door. He re-organized his desk. He looked, periodically, at the telephone. At around 11:30, he got a call from Cliff. Joseph didnt know Cliffs last name. They played on a softball team together, had a number of mutual friends, and Cliff often invited him out to drinks. Joseph usually went and usually had a mediocre time. I heard about Mary, Cliff said on the phone. Marianne, Joseph said. Theres not so much to hear. Come meet me for lunch. I think Im too swamped here. I wont take no for an answer. Youre a friend in need, by God. Really, Cliff. Meet me at Harrys. Lets say noon. Just a lunch, it wont hurt. Cliff hung up. He was quite good at that, at ending the conve rsation before Joseph had a chance to turn something down. When Joseph arrived at Harrys, Cliff was alr eady there and had ordered a bottle of white wine. Joseph winced. I can just take a quick lunch, Cliff, he said, sitting down. 140

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Then youll have a quick drink, Cliff said, filling the two glasses. You grew a moustach e, Joseph said. I think its a stronger look, Cliff said. You should try one. Youve got the mug for it. Might be kind of a Tom Selleck thing for you. Whatever happened to him? They drank, talked about soft ball, ordered, drank more. You seem to be holding up all right, Cliff said, finishing off hi s second glass. Lord knows Ive been there. Joseph regarded Cliffs jaw, which was soft a nd caved in to his face, as though it had just been punched. Cliffs jaw moved, and he told Jo seph about the women from his past. He told him about the day after, the week after, the month after. He told him it would be all right. Joseph finished his second glass. Marian ne was allergic to white wine. It made her sneeze like crazy. Red wine was fine. Go figure. The waiter brought their food and C liff ordered another bottle. I shouldnt, Joseph said, but too softly for Cliff to hear. They ateCliff heartily, Joseph unable to stomach more than a few bites drank the second bottle, and Cliff talked. He talked about his family. He talked about his fa ther, how he had all of a sudden gone Christian. I can be a spiritual guy, Cliff said. Im not going to get weird on you, dont worry, but I can be a spiritual guy. But my dad, hes been calling and talking about going to church I dont need to have some guy lecture me while I sit there on a damn bench and sing a bunch of folk songs. I dont need that to get spiritual, am I wr ong? Im visiting him this fall and if he tries to drag me there Shoot, maybe Ill just play it safe and arrange to leave Saturday night. Joseph began to laugh out loud. He realized he was drunk. I know, right? Cliff said. 141

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Joseph looked at his watch. Listen, before you go back to work, I want to buy you a shot of whiskey, Cliff said. Okay, Joseph said. Okay okay. Cliff wanted to drink to freedom, but Jose ph objected. They settled on the future. They took shots to the future. How badly do you have to go back to work? Cliff asked. I dont know, Joseph said. He wobbled a bit as he stood up. I have a couple of friends Im m eeting, you should come, Cliff said. Okay okay okay okay. Joseph called in to his office and said he ha d gone home with a stomach virus. They took a cab to a loft apartment downt own to meet Cliffs friends. Who are these people? Joseph asked. Jane and Brittany, Cliff said. I met them out a while back. Havent I ever mentioned them? I might not have been paying attention, Joseph said. Jane and Brittany were drinking cockta ils when they arrived at the loft. This is Joseph, Cliff said. Joseph, I pr esent the lovely Jane, and the beautiful Brittany. Pleasure, Joseph said. Weve been dying to meet you, Jane said. Cliff told us all about you. She held her drink up. These are called salty dogs. Have you ever had one? About to, Cliff said. Make us two. 142

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Its grapefruit juice, gin, and salt, Britt any said. Jane thinks they taste like chicken nuggets. Everything tastes like chicken, Jane said. Jane and Brittany both looked young. They spoke in loud, laughing bursts. Jane had very straight orange hair parted at the middle and combed down firmly. She was pale, quite tall, and shapely. Brittany was short and slender and paced when she spoke; even sitting down her feet moved in rhythm to her words. Her hair was a deep auburn, nearly identical to the color of Mariannes hair. Jane handed Joseph his drink. We heard about your girlfriend, she said. Were sorry. Joseph looked at Cliff, who winked at him. News travels fast, Joseph said and took a long pull at the salty dog, which tasted more like gin than chicken. Cliff and Jane went off somewhere. Jane is a phenomenal artist, Brittany sa id. Her show got a write-up, now I forget where it was, but an important magazine. Th eres something about her. Have you noticed? Theres something famous about her, Ive always thought it. Joseph stopped listening. He wondered what he ought to do with the room that Marianne had used as a study. He didnt need a study really. Maybe he should get a pet. A reptile of some kind. Cliff and Jane returned and the four of them sat on a couch in the living room and drank their cocktails. Brittany turned on the televi sion and they watched a program on the nature channel about dolphins. 143

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They dont tell you any of the good stuff, Cli ff said. The mammary glands of a female dolphin, for example, open into a pair of sacs on either side of the anal opening. I know a great deal about dolphins, as it happens. Jane bit her lip and ran her finger around th e rim of her glass. Joseph worked on his drink. He didnt care about dolphins particularly. He looked at the walls of the apartment, which were decorated with enormous splo tchy abstract paintings. He thought: My name is Joseph. My name is Joseph and I should be at work. Are you going to Cliffys birthday party? Brittany asked him. Cliffy? Two weeks from Friday, my place, Cliff sa id. Youre coming. The big 3-0. Again, he winked at Joseph. Joseph didnt know how old he was, but would have guessed at least 35. I could use another salty dog, Joseph said. Another round of chicken nuggets, coming right up, Brittany said, collecting the empty glasses. They drank salty dogs until they ran ou t of booze. They watched a celebrity-gossip show and part of a horror movie. We dont have anything else to drink here, Jane said. Its ha ppy hour at The End. Maybe I should head home, Joseph said. No fun, Brittany said. Nonsense, Cliff said. They got in a cab. Cliff rode shotgun and Jo seph rode in the back seat between the two girls. Joseph thought about napping on the ride over, but one of the girls kept saying something softly into his ear before he actually dozed off. Jane told him that she was 22, she told him she 144

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would never work a full-time job again, she told hi m her toes were cold, she told him he would look good with a tattoo, that pretty much everyon e looks good with a ta ttoo. Brittany told him that when she was a little girl she collected ci cada shells. She told him that he reminded her of her brother. They got to the bar and Cliff bought a r ound of whiskeys. Joseph wondered how Cliff always seemed to have so much money. He wasn t sure what he did for a living. He was some kind of professor maybe. Cliff and Jane went off on their own again. What do you think of Jack? Brittany asked Joseph. Who? Oh, I thought everyone knew Jack. The bar began to play very loud rock music from the speakers. It was something from the s. Do you know this song? asked Joseph. Jack is a genius, but insane, Brittany said. Cliff thinks hes dangerous. Do they have anything to eat here? What? Joseph repeated himself, yelling over the music. Brittany produced a peppermint candy from her purse. Joseph took it, but it went poorly with the whiskey. He felt suddenly very tired. I had this dream last night, there were dr agons, dragons in the t ub, Joseph said. Instead of shouting, he leaned over to sp eak directly into her ear. I hate nightmares, Brittany said. She put her hand on his knee. 145

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But it wasnt a nightmare. I was made to know I could trust the dragons. They werent speaking, nothing like that. But I knew that they were safe, that I was safe. I had a nightmare once where fanged penguins ate me alive, Brittany said. She smiled sympathetically. Joseph drank. Cliff and Jane returned with more drinks. Im a red-headed cowboy, sang Cliff. I dont think I know that song, Joseph said. The girls began to talk about Jack. Joseph ga thered that Brittany had slept with him a few times several months before. Then he realized that Brittany was talking to him. He slowly gathered what she was telling him, that she im agined he would be a good father. She said she could always tell. Joseph thanked her. He looked at Cliff and saw that he had spilled whiskey, or something, on his shirt. Marianne couldnt stand Cliff. He thought about how much of a bore she would have found the afternoon. She would have made him leave some time ago. Behind Cliff was a panel mirror on the wall. Joseph looked at his reflection. He imagined himself with a moustache. He saw that he had also spilled something on his shirt. More drinks arrived. Joseph went to the ba throom. Someone had written, Jean Paul Sartre, dead old farter, on th e wall above the urinal. Joseph de cided, while he peed, that he should make a list. He should do more baking. He should get more exercise. Drink less. He would come up with more items for the list late r. He would have to remember to write it down. When he got back to the table, the others were playing some sort of game. He said something and everyone laughed. You have to take this, Brittany said and gave him a shot. He drank it and Brittany handed him a beer. You look just like my brother, she said. 146

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This beer tastes strange, Joseph said. Everything tastes like chicken, Jane said. Cliff kissed her. Is there a phone in this bar? Joseph asked. What? Brittany yelled back. She laughed a nd took hold of Josephs drink and drank it herself. Joseph got up and went to the bar. Is there a phone? he asked the bartender. Payphone outside, he said. Joseph walked out. He put two quarters, the on ly money he had on him, into the slot, and dialed Mariannes number. Hello? Marianne answered. She sounded al ert and rested. Joseph wondered if she was alone. Hello, she said again, and he almost hung up, but he had spent his last quarters to place the call and he felt that he should carry on. I miss you, he said. Joseph, Marianne said. What are you doing? he asked. What? I was thinking, if youre not doing anything, we could go somewhere. Theres this place with great pancakes I know, I dont know why we never went, I al ways meant to. We could just eat some pancakes. Nothing major. Are you drunk? 147

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No. Or, mildly. Im hungry. Earlier today I was fullermore fullhow would you say that? I was more fuller than Ive been and now Im hungrier, seriously, th an I have ever been. Its animal hungry, something like that. Joey, lets talk later on. Later in the week. I miss you, he said again. I know, she said. They hung up. Joseph walked back in to the bar. He was desperately hungry. He r ealized that he was swerving. Marianne, he wanted to eat some pancakes with her. As he got to the table, his knees buckled, a nd he collapsed. Jane whispered something to Brittany. Joseph remained on the floor and felt his stomach growl. Im all right, he said. Fine fine. He looked at this wa tch. The glass was cracked. What time is it, anyway? he asked. Who knows Joey? Cliff said. And who cares ? Cliffs left eye was half-closed, which always happened when he was drunk. Its eight, Jane said. It was only eight oclock. Come join us at the table, Brittany said. Youll feel better with us. Id rather stay down here, Joseph said. Id like to sit down here and wait. Someone asked, Wait for what? He didnt h ear who said that. He stayed on the floor. He waited until he would no longer crave the pan cakes, until his appetit e would no longer ache. He had been awake now for twelve hours, he calculated. He sat on the floor and he waited. 148

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The waiting was long. The clocks were moving far too slow. At the table, they ordered p itchers of beer. Brittany kept trying to tell a joke about a farmer and an albino cow but coul dnt remember the punch line. After a while Jane and Brittany pulled Jose ph up by the shoulders. They looked at him and seemed sympathetic, or frightened, he c ouldnt tell. Brittany wiped at his chin. They sat him on a stool and gave him some ice water. Cliff was gone somewhere. Joseph stared into the mirror. He wanted to speak, but he couldnt form the words. He wanted to tell them that they neednt be worried, or frightened. He would just have to wait, to wait until he was all right. He sipped at the ice water and it stung his teeth. That would be wors e, he realized: When the wait ing was over. It was awful to think of that future of feeling fine. That biggest letting go, the final loss. Brittany pet him on his head. I am the very first Brittany, ever, she said. Joseph looked at her. Jane had left. My parents, they made it up as a name, in 1983, she said. You can look it up, there were no Brittanys before me. They started a new era. I should be getting home, Joseph said. Where are we? They named my sister Starling, Brittany sa id. That one didnt catch on so much. She handed him another peppermint. He bit into it. These mints dont taste right, he said. Brittany stood up on the table and began to dance. A funk song was playing, another one Joseph couldnt place. No one in the bar seemed to mind that she was on the table. She thrust her 149

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tummy and tossed her knees and elbows about. Sh e was moving ferociously, independent of the bar musics rhythm. Today, today, Brittany said. I think this was the best day of my life. She swirled her pelvis. Joseph rubbed at his eyes. His stomach growled again. She said, I cant wait for tomorrow. 150

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ROTTEN Dicky Cunningham went rotten in about 1993 but no one killed him or even bothered to complain much. Cunningham himself recognized th is lucky-for-him state of affairs, but it brought him no joy or consolation. The lack of consequences for the rottening of Dicky Cunningham served to exacerbate the process. He was more rotten today than he was yesterday. He will be more rotten tomorrow than he is today. Just one example: yesterday, Cunningham stepped on the toe of Billy, a boy on our street who sells lemonade. He really mashed at the poor kids foot, for no good reason. Billy took it in stride. Billys a good kid. But still. Today, Cunni ngham approached Billy and leapt toward him, springing his knees up to his chest and sending both feet down on to Billys in a double stomp. One shudders to think what additional Billy-pa rt he might add to his mashing repertoire tomorrow. Cunningham is forty years old. The American male Caucasian often goes rotten at forty and Cunningham would be unremarkable if he had grown mean just th is year. But he has been at it for thirteen years now. Possible causes for Cunninghams callous, longstanding, gratuitous malignancy include: 1)His father was also a long-term scoundrel. Hit young Dicky upside the head with flip-flops and magazines for no real cause. 2) The name Dicky, which caused early classmat es to call him Dickhead, Dickcheese, Rubber Dicky, etc. They also sometimes simply laughed at the mere mention of Dicky, unammended. 3) Based on decades-old gossip, Cunningham has an unusually small reproductive organ, described by at least one former flame (who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons of confidentiality) as unworkably small and like a film canister and by another (ditto) as a scientific anomaly. 4) His mother. Breastfed him until the age of three; dubbed him Dicky at age four when Richard, Rich, Richie, etc. would have been pe rfectly fine and might have avoided possiblecause #2 altogether; andwhen he was eighteen a nd she thirty-eightswallowed a lethal pile of ibuprofen pills, chased down with Old Crow whiskey. 5) Deoxyribonucleic acid. The Lord works in my sterious ways. Maybe he was just born an asshole. 151

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It is clear simply from looking at Cunningham that he has gone rotten. His eyes, dullbrown and usually half-closed, are spaced too far apart on his face. He has grown soft and flabby around his midsection, he has no hair to speak of, except on his back, where it grows in unwieldy curls that tuft out from the bor ders of his clothing. There are splotchy orange stains on the neckline and sleeves of his shirts, probably eith er chili or vomit. When he speaks, which is rarely, he surrounds each word with a baritone gurgle that sounds as though some kind of amphibian might be dying within him. Just in the last six months, Cunningham ha s been arrested for disturbing the peace, indecent exposure, manslaughter in the first degr ee, manslaughter in the second degree, vehicular manslaughter, and loitering. All charges have been dismissed. Cunningham has an excellent attorney, from out of state, rumored to be from out of country as well, but these rumors are unverified. I have petitioned the Sub-Committee on Comm ittee Formation three times now, asking that a Committee be formed and charged with addressing the rotten descent of Dicky Cunningham. The first go-round I suggested an Ad-Hoc Committee on the Socialization and Possible Eventual Extermination of Richard Cunningham. The next time, I proposed the Socialization Committee, which would have had br oader powers to deal with future scoundrels as well as Cunningham himself. Last week I su ggested a City-Beautification Committee that would have had a role both in improving the floral displays on the highway median and exterminating unwanted thugs. The SCCF rejected all three by unanimous vot e. They are infamously conservative and stingy about doling out new Committee permits. My case was not helped by my reputation (entirely undeserved) for an overzea lous drive for committee-formation. 152

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Meanwhile, Cunningham kicked me in the geni tals this evening on my way home from work. I have been icing them tonight, but they remain sore. It is Wednesday, normally the night for the wife and I to twiddle fiddle but I ach e too much from Cunninghams kick. I remember when this was a nice place to live for nice people like me. 153

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FLOATERS His vision was not good. B. George Haley, for th e last several months saw quick flashes of light in his periphery and also strange speck s floating around in the shapes of tiny animals. Other times, everything w ould blur. It was getting worse, taunting him. He was deeply nervous that his father would soon kill his dog. He had thought of killing his father, instead, but was always backing out at the last minute. This had been going on his whole life, thirty years. He loved his father, in the end, but was concerned about the dog. Georges father, Burt Haley, had been fired from his job as a bagger at Krogers. He was a poet, was the trouble. He had also, according to th e manager, a friend of Georges in fact, been snorting growing quantities of methamphetamines in the bathroom. This was a bad combination, the poetry and the speed. It made for a pisspoor bagger. Also, he had a temper and suckerpunched a teenage clerk in the privates for sayi ng something nasty about Eisenhower. Burt Haley worshipped Eisenhower. Burt was sixty. He took things very seri ously: Eisenhower, poetry, etc. But he was serious, George thought, in a juve nile, silly way. He was a dope, a ninnyhammer. Now, for example, he had gone and taken on a third wife, Charlotte, a nd suddenly there was a good deal of talk of murdering Silas, Georges basset hound. Burt should not have married Charlotte, w ho was, obnoxiously, from Charlotte, North Carolina. She was twenty years Burts junior, ha d firm breasts the size of softballs, played oboe, second chair in the city orchestra. She had lovely eyes the color of dying grass but a harelip that George couldnt bear to look at. She hated dogs. Now George was on his way home from work to tell Burt and Charlotte that they needed to clear out of his house. His father had lived with him for going on five years. When he got hitched with Charlotte, a month back, George figured they would get a place of their own. Instead Charlotte just moved in to the converted study where Burt had an air mattress. Putting his 154

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father up was one thing, but Charlotte was too much. She brought out a violent impatience in Burt. She would also do things like give Burt little wet kisses on the ear in the mornings while George was trying to enjoy hi s cereal. It was horrible. George was riding the bus, because he could no longer drive. He had been diagnosed two weeks prior with retinal detachment. He was goi ng to get laser surgery as soon as he won out haggling with the insurance company. Miniscule, translucent doggies danced in his vision. These were called floaters. George t hought the doctors ought to come up with a better word. It was a serious problem and that wasnt a serious word. It sounded like bathroom talk. When he arrived home, his father was sit ting on the living-room floor wearing only cherry-red underwear and writing verse in his notebook. He di d not look up when George entered. Im going to shoot the shit out of that dog, Burt said. Have you looked for a job today? George asked. This is my work, Burt snapped. He kept at the writing. George sighe d and went into the kitchen, poured himself a glass of milk. Where is Charlotte? he asked. Fingernails, Burt said. Charlotte had immaculately manicured nails. He suspected this had been part of the attraction for his father, who had a hand fetis h. Georges mother, who moved to Las Vegas without warning when George was fourteen, ha d lovely little hands, brown sugar colored. The white half-moons on her nails we re unusually large, extending mo re than halfway up into the pink. When she left them, Burt shattered every mirror in the house. He screamed but didnt cry. He took all the bedsheets, even Georges and burned them on the front lawn. 155

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George took in the whole glass of milk at once, thick and cold. He went into the living room and sat on the couch. Silas came trotting over and lay down at Ge orges feet. His long brown ears spread out on the floor. He licked Georges shoe. Your motherfucking dog ate anothe r one of my poems, Burt said. Ill talk to him, George said. That dog doesnt understand what youre sayi ng. Hes the worst kind of dumb. Hes inbetween dumb. He cant understand you, cant fo llow orders, but hes not dumb enough. What was the name of that lab you had? Charlie. Charlie was a nice dumb. Retarded, full on. T oo dumb to see one of my poems and think its food. That takes a little sliver of intelligence see? This one, hes not quite retarded. Dumb, but just enough wit to get himself in troubl e. Im going to shoot the shit out of him. George rubbed Silas on his head, jiggling the loose skin. Anyways, Dad, theres something we need to talk about. Then a flash. It came from the right side, a brief blast of white light. George shut his eyes tight and put his head down. He thought that he would get used to these sudden bright bursts in his vision, but he had not. They still knocked him loose, scared him badly. What the hell is wrong with you? Burt asked. He was unsympath etic to the retina issues. He was nearly blind himself. George looked up at his father, who had th e same face as his own, but damaged. The eyes hung lower, the cheeks caved, the wrinkles dragged his lips into a permanent frown. It was like looking in the mirror, but worse. 156

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Dad, Silas has lived here th e whole time youve been here and he never bothered you before. Im fucking sleepy. Im going to the restroom. His father got up and walked down the hall way to the bathroom and slammed the door. George got up and followed him, Silas trailing. He put his ear to the door. There was nothing at first, and then a thunderous, damp snort. George tried to open the door, but it was locked. Silas barked. I swear! yelled Burt from the bathroom. What are you doing in there? George put his hands on his temples. His bad eye was going. It felt as though it was receding into his hea d, into skull and brain. He looked down at his dog and saw only a messy form of brown. If a man cant urinate in peace! his fa ther hollered. Another prodigious snort. George steadied himself against the wall. He blinked hard, and blinked again, and waited for the blurring to pass. You still out there? Burt aske d. Perverted is what you are. George heard him turn on the faucet. Silas howled at the door. You just keep at it, mutt, Burt said over the running water. Geor ges vision steadied enough to allow him to walk Silas back to the couch. Georges father joined him a minute later. You check the mail yet? Nothing for you. Those Paris Review cocksuckers, Burt said, and belched. Dad, Ive been thinking a bout our living situation. Finally, Burt said. Let me go get my gun. Should we do it out back? 157

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The front door opened and Charlotte walked in, her nails long and sharp, with a thin layer of light-pink polish. Burt stood up and received an enveloping hug from his wi fe. It appeared that there was some activity in Burts cherry-red underwear, and George look ed away. Another stab of light shot by in his peripheral vision. George is going to let me shoot that dog, Burt said. Why dont we just give it away? Charlotte asked. The floaters shimmied and twirled about in Georges vision. No one is shooting anything, he said, and tried to take a large, slow breath to steady himself. Youre always goddamn sighing, Burt said. That isnt true, Dad, George sai d. Thats the opposite of true. You boys talk too much, Charlotte said, pa tted Burt on the ass, and walked to their room. Burt sat down next to his son and regarded Silas, who had dozed off, and was snoring huskily. He gave Georges knee a slap. Son, are those Duckhead tr ousers youre wearing? I dont know, Dad. A man needs to dress with class. Dad, youve been married for a month now. Those look like what you might get for your very first pair of pants. Little-boy trousers. You cant just stay in the study with Charlotte here foreve r. You need to start looking for your own place. I think youre lonely, B. George. 158

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His father enjoyed calling him B. George, though no one else did. He had given his son the absurd name B. George Haley, over the object ions of Georges mother, because he thought it sounded more writerly than simply Burt George Haley, his own name. This was the first in a series of small battles that his father ha d won over his mother, until she won the war by hightailing it to Nevada. Dont change the subject, George said. Dont you change the subject, Burt said. Lately he had begun to spit when he talked, and a pair of tiny saliva globules le ft his father with the sentence, getting George just below his eyes. When was the last time you had a woman? What does that have to do with anything? Youre lonely, son, and youre taking it out on me. I feel for you, though, I want you to know that. I have great empathy. L oneliness is a terrible beast. Y ou can always talk to your old man, son, Im always here. Burt gave his sons shoulder a hard squeeze and got up and walked to the bathroom, casting a mean stare back at Silas on his way. Youre a good boy, George said, petting the dog with his foot. No ones going to shoot you. Silas moaned drowsily. The floaters floated about. Vision trouble had grown excrucia tingly tiring. George wished that he was simply blind. He reclined on th e couch. He wondered whether his father might overdose on amphetamines. He knew very little about the drug, whether an overdose was even possible. He would have to research that. Th at wouldnt be, he thought, a horrible outcome. 159

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His fathers unpleasantness ha d hardened of late. The speedwhich Burt preposterously insisted he didnt takemight have been a factor, but mainly, it was marriage that had exacerbated the difficulty. He saved up the majo rity of his tenderness now for his wife. It was a low blow for his father to bring up Georges love life. He had tried to make it clear that he detested when his father broached such matters. Last month, he had taken Stacy, a secretary at his office, on a date They went to a fancy seafood place. The oysters didnt agree with George and he spent most of the date, their last, in the bathroom. It had been some time since he had spent quality time with a woman. He looked at his pants. Charlotte came in and sat down Indian-style on the floor. She was always sitting on the floor. Your nails look nice, George said. This was true. She had a hell of a set of nails. Thanks, dear, Charlotte said. Dont mind me if I dont talk for a little while, Im going to meditate. She closed her eyes. Burt returned to the living room. Have you seen the mop? he asked. The bathroom is filthy. Its five oclock in the af ternoon, Dad. Put some pants on. No one has any problem with my body. Can t a man walk around in comfort in his own home? This is my home, George said. Charlotte, do you have a problem with seeing my legs in the afternoon? I think you look lovely, honey, she said, her eyes st ill closed, and giggled. Thank you. If were going out, Ill put on a godd amn suit. But a man can lounge a bit in the home. 160

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He sat behind Charlotte and began givi ng her a massage while she meditated. George thought about reading the newspaper, but reading had become oppressive since the eye trouble. He wanted to stra ngle the health-insurance bastards. B. George, you really need to enjoy life more, Burt said. George looked at his father but his vision was blurring again. Ive had a long day, he said to the blur. Ive had a long month. Look at your dog. Hes handsome, Ill admit, but sinister. There is something criminal about him. Leave Silas out of it. Im seeing just the leg of a sparrow, rest ing on a piece of rotted wood, Charlotte said. Its all in such vivid color. What? George felt nauseous and blind. Im abstracting, she said. The conversation, Im abstracting on its music. Listen to the notes. Its like an improvisatory jazz. Dad, you two need a place of your own, George said. Im going back in to my headspace, Charlotte said. I probably wont talk for a little while. I think youve upset her, Burt said. Im going outside, George said. He got up and steadied himself. The blur was receding a little bit, but the floate rs kept showering down. Come on, Silas, he said. His father was in a mood, and he thought it best to avoid leaving him alone with the dog. He walked out with Silas and sat on the stoop. The dog kneeled by his side. He was remarkably obedient, and re liable. He was as solid as they came. 161

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Georges life, he decided, had descended in to lunacy. This despite a conservative temperament, no eccentricities of habit, a respectable job, a da mn good dog. It was his father. His father was a poet, and an asshole. His lunacy was contagious. It had spread through Georges house and into his life, into his body. George spat. He wanted to murder poetry. He could barely see. Silas blinked his yellow-brown eyes and licked Georges face. George watched Doc Mitchell, across the street, teac hing his 10-year-old daughter how to throw a football with a perfect spiral. Another flash blasted in his peri phery and knocked the pict ure loose. It was like getting slapped with light. George put his head in his lap and tried to th ink about nothing at all. He thought maybe he could meditate, like Ch arlotte, though he loathed the very word meditate as well as Charlotte. His father came out, now wearing a track suit Silas must have done something with the mop, he said. It really is fu cking filthy in that bathroom. George stood up and faced his father. Dad, you havent been listening to me, he sa id. You and Charlotte need to clear out. Youre letting that dog come between us, Burt said. That mutt means more to you than your old man. Its not the dog. I keep telling you to leave Silas out of this. I always liked you, B. George, always have. You need to leave, Dad. Im not well. I might kill you soon. I dont want to do that. Burt began to chew at the air vigorously. He crinkled his face and stared at his son. You got no cause to say that, he said. I cant believe its you. That s low-grade. Thats just dirty. 162

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His father kept on talking but another flash of light hit George and he stopped listening. The floaters took the form of mutilated dogs, raini ng before him. Then they turned into rhinos. Their tiny mouths seemed to move as they fell. George thought he could read their lips. They were saying, were here to stay We need to reconnect, son, Burt said. Let s do it together. Let s put old Silas down. A floater shaped like a miniature bird dallied in front of Bu rts nose and George reached back and popped it with his fist. The blow knoc ked Burt back but didnt knock him over. You cocksucker, he said, and bulled his h ead into Georges stomach, knocking the both of them off the stoop and onto the lawn. He ro lled on top of his son and punched him in the mouth. George kneed his father in the balls and tried to strangle him, but couldnt keep his grip. Silas barked from the sto op, and scratched his ear. Charlotte came outside then. You fellows are terrible dancer s, she said. Burt wriggled free from his son and stood up. Son, Im going to kick your ass, he said. He turned to his wife. Charlotte, lets make love this evening. Lets drink some very nice wine. George got up and tackled his father. Burt wrapped his legs around his sons, but George found that he was a good deal stronger. He broke free and hit Burt in the stomach. The old man wheezed. George delivered a second blow. Dont hurt him, George, Charlotte said. He didnt do anything to you. George was now on top of his father and in c ontrol. He punched him in the eye, and did it again. Im dying, screamed Burt. 163

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George quit punching but stayed atop his father. Burt was co mpletely out of breath and didnt try to escape. Silas bayed in long high wails like a drunken singer. Fine, you miserable bastard, Burt said. I ll move. Ill move ri ght now, as soon as you get off of me. Charlotte, start packing baby. Were going to the Holiday Inn. George couldnt really see his father clearly, in defeat. Ever ything had gone blurry again. And the floaters kept on coming, an endless da ncing parade. He tongued at his teeth and found that his fathers single blow had knocked one out. Still, he couldnt help but smile. For the first time in a very l ong time, things were looking up. 164

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JENNIFER, IN HER REGRET He loved her, with longing and venom. This, the love, had long been enough. He told her once: What I want is some kind of m achine, such that we could be together at every age. Share popsicles as toddlers and hold hands as teenagers, lose it at the prom and watch bad television in midlife, repeat stale jokes as elderlies. I wish we could slide in and out of all these. He said: My fondness for you, reckon, is anchored by some totality. He was from north Georgia and spread his vowels over her like hot saltwater. It made her own Ohio accent sound flat and short, and she half-accidentally adopted his phrasing. She adopted other things too: music (country blues) clothes (ratty ball ca ps), sports (Georgia football), drinking (bourbon and beer). The drinking, though, she couldnt keep up with. His name was Burch. He made love to her with his ball cap still on. He did it with tempestuous desperation, like a high-school boy. He smelled like a foreign country somehow and watching him above her she wanted hi m to paint her with his sweat. They met on an excursion, on a lark. They met in a car. They met over whiskey sours, with pop country on the radio as their soundtrack. They met and they met, all over town. You could fall in love with him, at first blush, before you put too much thought into it. She did. He was too big. He had a body that belonge d on someone else. He had massive dark shoulders, freckled and dotted with tiny curly hairs. His gut had none of the softness of fat. It was hard, like a pregnant belly. He was a good f oot taller than Jennifer, and seemed embarrassed by the discrepancy. He lumbered in his great mans body, clumsy, stooped, shy. He was hairless on his chest, like a boy. He wept openly when her dog, Howie, succumbed to heart disease. 165

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They took trips to the beach in his car, Cecile. Burch was the type to name his car. Burch was the type to drive to the ocean in the middl e of the night just because he wanted to be immersed. They would swim naked and the water wa s fierce and frigid against their skin. And so they ran back to shore, wrapped each ot her in warmth, drowned in white sand. It was difficult to sleep next to him sometimes because he had chronic nightmares. He was a wild, unruly sleeper. He snored. And sometimes he spoke, in whispers, and it was horrifying: a distant anger she did not know. He made her, once, a clipper ship ou t of popsicle sticks. He called her baby always. While she knew in some abstract way that baby was a clichd a nd unspecific term of endearment, no one had ever called her that before And something in the wa y he said it, the only word he ever spoke softly, made it belong unm istakably to heronly her. He once bought her every single copy of All the Kings Men her favorite book, then on sale in the entire city of Gainesville. By way of explanation: I di dnt want no one else to have it but you. Burch was cancerously stupid, which he became dimly aware of from time to time. The awareness was no aid, however. It only lent a viol ent pathos to his idioc y. He had a tattoo of a manatee on his wrist because he had met Jenni fer on a swimming-with-t he-manatees trip in Crystal River. It was a stupid tattoo. Tattoos themselves were stupid. But there was a sweetness in his stupidity, boy-loyal and unrelenting. What was love, after all? She convinced hers elf, at the time, that it was more than anything a sweetly stupid hanging-on. A cer tain wise failure of judgment. She had been so good at convincing herself th en, and others. She felt, sometimes, like a defense attorney for Burch. She overwhe lmed and obliterated every jury. 166

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And forgiveness: she sustained them. Her fo rgiveness was powerful and magnificent and inevitable, like a hurricane. She forgave him fo r tearing up all of her photographs from college. For vomiting on the hood of her car. When he cal led her mother at three in the morning, screaming that she had betrayed him, weeping and yelling, over and over, I look just like you The time he was arrested for putting a hammer through a Ms. Pacman machine (this one, mystifyingly, sober). She forgave him for the window he broke in her living room and the one in the kitchen, for promise-breaking an d forgetting, for his drunken hatefulness, for the things he said, for his unbending failure to be bigger than himself. She forg ave him his ruination, constant and contagious. His employment was oblique. Love and booze were vividly dr awn in Burchs life, they were massive and flagrant. But ev erything else was vague and half -baked. He had lived in North Central Florida his entire life. He had ambitions, at various times, to become a fireman, a filmmaker, a truck driver, a girls basketball co ach. He wanted to move to Wyoming, which he had driven through once. The telephone wires, he said, stretched out like great big veins pumping through the empty land. His destiny, she came to realize, was more of the same. The way I love you, he said, is like this: The wa y a drowning man might cling to a pier in a thunderstorm. White-knuc kled and thrashing. The love stopped being enough, in time. Jennifer, sitting at the air port and not reading the music magazine she had wasted her money on to waste some time, laughed out loud in sm all disgust with herself. He used to make crude drawings with nonsensical captions. The Descriptive Insuffi ciency of the Humidity Index (An Argument for Language). What had wa rmed her to such charlatan charm? 167

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Their conversations, in the last several m onths, began to sound like a snarky play. Jennifer: You urinated on my luggage last night. [This was true.] Burch: I am sorry. [Also true.] Ill clean it up. [Not true.] Jennifer: You have a nice way of talking, Burch. Burch: You have a nice way of everything. Jennifer: I miss the snow. Burch: I like the snow when it melts. Jennifer: I just need to pract ice, and then I could hate you. Burch: Whats so bad? About bad habits? Their fights became something more like playacti ng. It was a hit at parties. She couldnt remember, sometimes, whether they were kiddin g, or whether he was eating through her from the inside out. One night she found him curled up on the living-room floor, for once sleeping calmly, snoring softly into a sweater of hers, which he had in his arms as a pillow. And she watched him and realized that he wasnt snoring, but singing in his sleep, a quiet t une she recognized but could not name. And it was not a final explosion, a last straw, but this: a reminder of his tender smallness. It was this that allowed her to leav e, so that she might jump ship with kindness, without malice. Burch used to carry a little bottle of hot sa uce with him wherever he went, so he could put a few drops in his beer. Jenni fer, sitting straight and stiff on the hard blue chair of the Jacksonville airport, closed her eyes and tried to will herself into forgetting that. She wanted the facts of the case dismissed. 168

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She looked at the woman sitting across from her, reading the newspaper and gripping the shoulder of her toddler son, who st uck his tongue out at Jennifer. She crossed her eyes at him and he hid his face behind the paper. On the monitor playing CNN, a tropical storm was moving north from Miami. The airport hummed with the gentle chatter of solo passengers on their telephones. Over the loudspeaker, boarding for her flight was announced. It would start in five minutes, at Gate B17. Jennifer drew in her stomach and expelled all of the breath she could, emptying herself out. Gate B, she thought. B for Boston. She wished she had never gone to Florida. She wished the taste of gulf water was gone from her tongue. 169

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THE PIER Sara dragged her pinky down the sagging ja w-line of her great-grandfather. How old are you? she asked. Put up your fingers, he said. She lifted her right hand. Both hands, he said. P ut all your fingers up. She raised both. How many is that? he asked her. Ten, she said. Im ten. See, a smart girl, he said. Now put them up again. Give me another ten. Sara did as she was told. Aga in, he said, again, again, ag ain. She lifted her fingers ten times ten. Will I be that old? she asked. I dont know, he said. Ill have to take a look at your feet. Why, Didi? Sara asked. Lets see if you have the feet for it. Sara took off her socks and lay on the ground, her feet pointed in the air for investigation. Her great-grandfather regarded the soft white soles. Not nearly enough water in those, he said. Where do I get the water? Sara asked. The lake, of course, he said. He lifted his own bare feet from ground and showed her the deep yellow wrinkles, like spoiled fruit. Where do you think I got mine? Lets go down to the lake then Didi, Sara said. 170

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Of course, he said. He got up slowly from his chair. With his spine gnarled in a downward arch, he was only a head taller than Sara. The two walked hand in hand out of the house and down the path to the beach. The sun was directly above them and beads of sweat sc urried down her great-gra ndfathers face like translucent ants. The tide was high when they got to the beach and the sandcastle they had made the day before had turned to mush. Well have to get our feet in the water, he said. The lake will give you feet that will last you a hundred years, like mine. They walked to the waters edge together leaving soft footprints in the sand. Sara shrieked when the water rolled out ove r her feet. Cold, Didi! she screamed. Well have to be brave, he said. The water came back hard er this time, up past their ankles. Sara held her breath so she wouldnt scream. There, he said. Thats a br ave girl. They took a step forward, and another, until their feet were completely immersed. The tide came in and out, slapping at their knees with gentle waves. They stood together in silence, holding hands, letting their feet soak in the lake. Have we done it, Didi? Sara asked after a while. Will I live to be as old as you? Lets go look, he said. They walked back to the beach and Sara flopped on to the sand and lifted her legs. Her great-grandfather took her ti ny wrinkled feet into his hands and inspected them. I suspect youll live to be a hundred, he said. You ve got the feet for it. He sat next to her on the beach. Sara lifted hi s foot and looked at it. The nails were gone. The bones knobbed and knotted in strange angles. 171

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I suspect youll live forever, she said. I hope so, he said. Will you build another pier Didi? Sara asked. She pointed to where the pier used to be, before a storm had destroyed it that fall. He r great-grandfather looke d out on the water and wiped the thin layer of sweat from his forehead. Should we build another castle? he asked. An even bigger one Didi? An even bigger one, he said. Sara ran to the dry sand, the ground hot on the rumpled skin of her toes, and her greatgrandfather followed her slowly. The two worked qui etly, piling the sand almost as tall as Sara, to build a castle strong enough to weather the incoming tide. 172

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DISPOSAL Steve and Bill looked at Danny and wondered whether their fishing trip was more or less ruined. Danny was sitting in the boat with a whole mess of documents, knick-knacks, photographs, and various other items useless to the mission at hand, which was a nice little fishing trip. They hadnt gone fishing in ages. You ought to have said something about this, said Steve. This is all of it, said Danny. Burning it wouldnt have been right. This is more like it, more how it went, floating away. Do you see what I mean? I dont think its legal Danny, said Bill. Its littering is what it is. You know what I miss? asked Danny. Thi s sound like choking she made when she was breathing in her sleep. It wasnt anything to keep you up, you know, it was just like a small animal. Like an animal in trouble. Steve spat into the river. He baited his hook with a bloodworm and Bill did the same. The morning sun was strong above them and the light criss-crossed in yellow patterns on the browngreen water. Danny sat looking at th e pile at his feet. Splotches of skin were reddening on his neck, bright and veiny pattern s that looked like islands. What I want to know is why, he said. You know thats something she never did say. Bill dropped his line into the water. Youre a grown man Danny, he said. Someone had to say it. Carol Ann was long, long gone. It had been six months now. Go out there ranger and bring in a stranger, Steve said. He reared back and cast off with a grunt. Bill shook his head. He and Danny we re not fond of Steves habit of casting off in the boat as if he was on a pier or bank in shallow waters. But Danny did not make his normal guffaw. He just sat there, rocking back and forth. 173

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He picked up a letter from the pile. First one she wrote me, he said and tossed it into the river. It floated gently next to the boat. He picked up a dis posable camera. Thirteen pictures of us on this thing, never developed. He droppe d the little yellow camera, producing a gentle splash. Youre scaring the fish, Bill said. Why dont you bait your rod, Danny? Steve said. Danny said nothing. He picked up a few more letters and tossed them overboard one by one. I got five hundred on Tech today, Bill said. Whats the spread? Steve asked. She took my favorite dress shirt, Danny sai d. His neck was turning a deeper red. The one that was kind of pin-striped, you know? Six and a half, Bill told Steve. You know that shirt, dont you? Danny dropped a pair of plates into the water. Maroon stripes. Yeah, thats a good bet, Steve said. Wore that to your wedding Stev e, Danny said. You and Sarah. I was reading Sarahs National Geographic the other day, Stev e said. Did you know not everyone has sticky ear wax? Some folks have a dry, crumbly sort of deal. Mostly Asians. Youre making things up, Bill said. Read it in National Geographic. What do you know about it? Danny threw a White Sox cap overboard. Hold up now, I gave you that damn hat, Steve said. 174

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It was Carol Anns favorite, Danny said. She said she loved a ba llplayer, loved that look. Damnit Danny, Bill said. It was too much information. It was ruining the fishing. Got one! Steve called. Its a croaker. Bill was getting steamed. Danny was enough as it was, and now he was remembering all of Steves annoying fishing habits, casting off lik e he was trying to break a distance record and calling out the fish before hed reeled her in. Steve was right, pulling in a croaker. He wriggled the hook out of its mouth and dropped the fish into the cooler. Look there Danny, Steve said. You bring one in too or Im not cooking you dinner. In the cooler, the croaker made a noise like a muffled frog. Danny had a big pile of receipts in his hand. You know I kept these? Kept her receipts just because I loved the way she signed her name so much. The way the a loops, look at that. Its just like her somehow. He threw the receip ts into the air over the water and they swayed and twirled in the wind like a hundred tiny white kites. He began to sing, his voice falling and crack ing, a commotion of badly missed notes. He sang Do You Wanna Dance, which had been thei r song. It was a Bette Midler song, which Bill and Steve had never heard before, though they could tell it was a womans number. This was too much. Some sort of action was needed. Bill began to reel his line into the water. What are you doing Bill? asked Steve. Doesnt look like you got anything. Bill said nothing, finished reeling in to reveal nothing on his hook. He brought the rod into the boat and got up. 175

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Its time to snap out of it, Bill sa id, approaching Danny. You get away from me! screamed Danny. You get the hell away from me. Bill grabbed Danny and tried to pull him up from his seat by the shoulders. His back foot slipped on WealthCare, a Christian financial-advice book th at Carol Ann had gotten Danny for Christmas the previous winter, and the two men toppled onto the floor of the boat, with Bill on top. Danny reached up, grabbed his friend by the neck, and rolled him over. He was reaching back to punch Bill in the m outh when Steve came from behind and pulled him off. You bastards! yelled Danny. Bill charged at him and bulled his shoulder into Dannys chest, knocking Danny and Steve back to the other side of the boat and over the side into the water. His momentum carried him with them. Th e three men landed with a tremendous splash. They treaded water together, the dank water filmy on their faces. A ll three were out of breath. They said nothing. There was nothing to say. Steve paddled over to the boat and held to the side. He wiped at his eyes. He could hear the croaker croaking in the cooler, just barely now. He got himself back up into the boat and the other two men followed. Steve wrung his shirt out over the side. Bill fiddled with the untouched bloodworm on his hook. That Tech game is going to be huge, Steve said. Wont it? Sure will, Bill said. Danny took his seat by his pile. Let me see that, Steve said, pointing to a pair of womens blue jeans. Danny handed him the pants. 176

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Go out there ranger and bring in a stranger! Steve yelled and threw them as far as he could out into the river. Bill walked over and picked up a book and tossed it over the side. Danny chucked a photo album. They kept on going through the whole pile until the boat was surrounded, until nothing was left but them and their beer and their gear, and the dying croaker in the cooler. 177

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PRAYER It was the last year I live d on Nebraska Avenue, the next-to-last week of school, I remember, and as usual we met up at the High land Community Park, a d ecrepit patch of grass and black-asphalt basketball courts on Missouri Avenue. I loved sp ending the afternoons there after school, although I had to co me up with a steady stream of lies about my whereabouts. My daddy didnt want me anywhere near that park. Our neighborhood was called the Nations, on account of the streets being named for states. Or sometimes it was also called the cr acker ghetto, on account of the poor whites that lived there. These streets were arranged w ith a sloppy geography. Nebraska, reasonably, was next to Wyoming, but it was bordered on the other side by Nevada. Somewhere around where the Mississippi Rive r would have been, it stopped being the cracker ghetto. It stopped being wh ite and started being black. Th e black part wasnt called the Nations. It was called the States. Thats where I wasnt supposed to go. Missouri Avenue was right on the border be tween the Nations and the States, and both the black kids and the white kids met up at the park after the bus dropped us off. Too damn hot, Rhody said, one afternoon. Im going to invent me a outside air conditioner. We were sitting around on the grassy hill a bove the basketball court. That spring was grinding, record-breaking hot, a f act which my mother inexpli cably blamed on our neighbors, forcing a move that fall. As usual there were about fifteen of us. Rhody was there, and Thomas, Brandi, Tad, Heather, Doyle, Tanisha, Fish. Others, whose names now escape me. And Kiki was there. Hanging out at the park was best when Kiki was around. She was a f oot taller than me, spaghetti skinny, her limbs impossible, oak-co lored, extending indefinitely. She had some 178

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measure of intimacy with a good number of the boys we went to school with. Not that shed gone and done the whole deed, necessarily, but she we nt as far as we were aiming. (Not with me, the preachers son, the quiet one. I hadnt done anything with anyone.) Kiki was telling us about so me boy that day, lots of boys. Most of yall retarded, she said. Most of yall dont know what to be doing where. She was sitting Indian style, wearing a bluej ean skirt, and I could almost see inside. Shemarco tried to rub his thing on my stom ach, she said. I t hought like he was fixing to try and stick it in my belly button. Thats why I got me a high-school boy, said Heather, a bleach-haired, red-faced girl who lived on my street, for whom breasts had co me first and most prodigiously. Most of yall aint even fingered. The blood filled in me, sore all over. Yall sluts anyway, Rhody said. Dumbass, Kiki said. Ugly too. The air wa s already damp and cottony, too cruel for spring; the sweat formed at my neck and found its way down, collecting in the dip at the small of my back. That summer, the cicadas, up from thirteen years underg round, would swarm over everything, as dense as rain. The buzzing had just begun, a still-soft hum of tuneless radio static that would be deafening by July. What about Darrell? I asked. I was always as king her about the boys shed been with. I had a powerful need to hear about everything sh ed done with every boy shed done it with, what she liked and what she didnt, the glories and fa ilures of all those dumb clumsy lovers. If I myself brought a black girl home, I believe my daddy would have whipped me second, after the girl. 179

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Darrel sick, Kiki told us. Darrel cute, said Brandi, appalled. Him be having them slippery hands, said Kiki. Anyways, I dont like them highyellow boys. Kiki like white boys like me, said Rhody. Yeah right, she said and held her fingers apart an inch and laughed hard, doubling over with it, holding her stomach and heaving raspy giggles. Tanisha laughed too and so did Brandi. Ev eryone laughed, so I did too, I laughed and it felt good. Fish picked up a pebble and threw it up in the air. Look here, said Rhody, and we looked. He stood up and he had a gun, the first one Id ever seen. I remember that it looked enormous, too big for Rhody. It reminded me of when I tried using my fathers 34-ounce ba seball bat; the thing looked heavy and unwieldy in his hand. Whered you get that? asked someone, maybe it was Frankley, who lisped not just the letter s but nearly every consonant, who left town later that year. Or maybe it was someone else. My daddy closet, said Rhody. He fingered the trigger, the handle, the barrel. He have a bunch more, too. Let me see that, said Tad. Tad went to our church. Later, he would become a night watchman at the mall. Get away, said Rhody. He pointed it at th e ground. Yall know how to play Russian roulette? No one said anything. I put one bullet in and spin and shoot. My brother done it. One time in six you die, but he aint scared. Who wants to try? Dont be messing with that, said Kiki. 180

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Do yall dare me? Rhody asked. His skin was even whiter than mine and it seemed pulled too tightly on his body, as if he had been made with an insufficient surface area of skin for the body it was meant to cover, like ill-fitting bedsheets stretched to the corners. His hair, clumped with grease, dangled over his tiny pale eyes. No one dared him. Come on, do you dare me? he repeated. I dare you, said Doyle, who hardly ever said anything. He was a fat white kid who lived next door to Rhody, his voice like a girls His last name was La Rouche and so he was called Doyle the Douche, though weat le ast Ihad no knowledge of the meaning. All right, look here, I got a bullet, said Rhody. He sl otted it in the barrel. He let it spin. Rhody was smiling, smiling big, showing the rows of teeth on top and bottom. His teeth were dotted with tiny bumps, as if the pimple s lining his jawline had slipped into his mouth. Gray splotches stained the yellow. Each tooth had a small space between the next one. Dont be doing that, said Kiki. Shut up, said Rhody. You scared. Well you dumb, Rhody, said Kiki. She crossed her arms over her tiny chest. You go on and die then. Rhody kept smiling and he laughed, forced his la ughter out in airy chokes. He pointed the gun at his head, along the line where his hair was shaved underneath dirty bangs. Thin lines of perspiration ran from his ears to his chin. I didnt want to see what was going to happen next. I wanted to be somewhere else. My whole body pulsed wildly with my heartbeat. My legs were tu rning into water under me. Fish cracked his knuckles Tad licked his lips. 181

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What I started thinking about, for some reason: the riverbank half a mile south, where my daddy had taught me how to clean a fish five ye ars previous. Hold her steady, he said, when my knife slipped. My fingertips were so dry and s ticky and crinkled that they seemed to turn in on themselves, like skin dehydrated. You took her fr om the world, he said. He said: The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth. Rhody pulled the trigger. I closed my eyes. Th e belly of a fish will open up to a proper knife as free and easy as ai r escaping a punctured balloon. I heard a click. Not a bang. One in six, five in six. Rhody had gotten not unlucky. I think about that day and I cant believe how frozen we all were. We sat around Rhody and watched him like a television show. I think about this every time Im back home, as I am now, trying to sleep with my legs dangling ove r my high-school bed, about ten miles from the Nations and the States. After he pulled the trigger, Rhody really st arted laughing. Then he was laughing so hard he was crying, then he was gone. I knew yall was all sissies, he said. I knew yall was scared. I aint scared of not hing. I aint scared. Then no one said anything, not for a while. It was silent but for Rhodys last pitches of laughter and the meek hum of the first cicadas. Then Thomas said, Well, lets play ball. And we did. Thomas got his ball and we walked to the court and the boys played ball while the girls played hand games. I was on Rhodys team. We won. Later, not much later, Rhody died. He and hi s big brother ran away from home and they were hopping freights somewhere. Rhody jumped too early or too late and slipped under the train and it cut him in half. 182

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But he did not die that day at the park on Mi ssouri Avenue. What I mean to do tonight is express my gratitude, Lord, for not taking him that day. 183

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SAME OLD BLUES Sherman wasnt wearing pants. He was si tting on his couch and singing, Ive got so much love to give, as loud as he could, so as to overwhelm the game-show sounds coming from his television, when the doorbell rang for the fi rst time in several days. Here was a tough spot. He liked the idea of a little c onversation, but this visitor might try to get him to do something involving putting on pants, and he di dnt like that idea at all. Sherman hadnt been wearing pants for severa l days now. He was instead wearing plaid pajamas that he had cut off at the knees to make shorts, because it was hot. The window unit in his apartment was busted. The pa jama shorts were perfect. The doorbell rang again. Sherman remained on the couch. He regarded the bone structure in his hand. Hand bones, he thought. Another ring. Whoever was at the door had probably heard him singing, could probably still hear the television. Not answering the door at this point was too much, he decided. He got up from the couch and walked to the door. Igno ring the doorbell would seem too deliberate. If a friend of his was there with vague plans to get him into some pants and out of his house, a non-answer might solidify th ose plans. Such a friend might return with reinforcements. Sherman opened the door. Good afternoon, said an angular teenage boy. My name is Cal Ostenkamp and Im with CALPIRG. Were a not-f or-profit citizens watchdog group. I was hoping to talk to you about some new rules that the Bush administrati on is considering that w ould allow EPA officials to consider pesticide tests conducted on humans when setting public health standards. The boy was maybe sixteen, his sandy hair in a buzz cut and his face overwhelmed with rose-colored acne, topped with a thin layer of perspiration. He wa s wearing a retainer that maybe caused a little bit of a lisp because he said peth-ti-thide tethts. That was the only spot he had slipped on, but that run of c onsonants had been too much. 184

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What day is it? asked Sherman. Cal hesitated. He turned his feet inward like he had to pee; it looked to Sherman that he was fearful of some unforeseen trap. Its Friday, said the boy. Well, TGIF, then, right? Sherman, at least in the comfort of his own home, didnt mind a little company. He thought maybe he ought to let the boy in for some cream soda or something. It was hot outside and the boy looked exhausted. Sir, the thing with these new rules is there are loopholes that are downright scary, said Cal. I know it sounds like something out of scie nce fiction, but they ll allowand might even encourage human pesticide experiments. Even on children or pregnant women. That is scary, said Sherman. Listen, you look beat. How long have you been at it today? About three hours, said Cal. And Ive got another hour to go. He wiped his forehead and added, unconvincingly, but I really belie ve in what Im doing, you know, informing the public about all this. Well, do you want a cold soda? asked Sherman. Were not really suppos ed to accept. Sherman realized that the boy might be worried he was some kind of criminal, and that the cut-off pajama shorts he was sporting might seem weird. But Cal Ostenkamp was tired, and thirsty, and he had made his quota for the day. Okay, he said. Well, I could use some water. Come on in, Sherman said. 185

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Shermans apartment was small and undecorated except for the stacks of newspapers along the walls. Sherman had gotten about four months behind on his newspaper reading but he meant to catch up. As long as he read them in order, he figured, it didnt so much matter that the news itself was out of date. Hed catch up in time. He turned off the television and went to th e kitchen and poured a cream soda for himself and a water for the boy. Have a seat if you want, he said. Take a load off. Cal sat on the couch and Sherman handed him the water. So how long have you been doing this, knocking on doors and all? Sherman asked, taking a seat in the rocki ng chair opposite the couch. Three weeks now, said Cal. Its like a summer job. Something I really believe in though. If you care about this issueI mean the pe sticides and allyou could donate and help us in our fight. Cal was supposed to ask for $1,000 first and then work his way down, but something about Sherman made hi m decide he had better start a little lower. He was thinking about maybe $100, but Sher man cut him off. Why are you named Cal? asked Sherma n. For CALPIRG? For California? I dont know, said Cal. I dont think so. I never asked. Im named for William Tecumsah Sh erman. Do you know who that is? Cal shook his head no. A union general in the Civil War, Sherman said. He burned everything from Atlanta to the sea. He said, War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over. Is that underwear youre wearing? Cal asked. 186

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This, no. These are pajama shorts. I made them myself. The boy looked dubious. Im not wearing pants, Sherman explained. The boy said nothing. As a policy, I mean, he continued. Im done with pants. Im done with going outside. Cal looked a little shifty. How long? Your policy. Its been two weeks now. Ive been catch ing up on my reading, is one thing. Cal took a large swig of water. Sherman looke d at him. The skin on the face was really quite grotesque. Even the few spots without pimp les were flushed and slick in anticipation of pimples to come. Cal downed the rest of his wate r. Sherman asked him if he needed more to drink and Cal looked at his watch. I know you need to go, Sherman said. But ha ve another water. Its hot out there. He got up, took Cals glass, and walked to the kitchen before the boy responded. Youve got a lot of newspapers, Cal said. How old did you say you were? Eighteen. Do you have a girlfriend? Sherman asked, returning with a water for Cal and a new cream soda for himself. I had one, recently, Cal said, and then di dnt know why hed told Sherman this. In CALPIRG training, he had been taught that the on e thing you shouldnt use to persuade potential givers was something from your personal life. Something happened, Sherman said. She said I had gotten solipsistic. I didnt even know what that meant. 187

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Tho-lip-thith-tick Goddamn, Sherman said. Goddamn damn. I looked it up in the dictionary. I memorized it. A theory holding th at the self can know nothing but its own modifica tions and that the self is the only existent thing. Maybe thats me, I dont know. I didnt mean to have a theory. The boy stared right through Sherman. Its an ugly word, Sherman said. I cant stand that she said it. I loved her, Cal said. I know I did. He had never said this out loud before. It was like he was drunk off the water. Something about Sherman I didnt mention. He adored the South. He wrote to a friend that secession was madness. He cried as he wrote the letter: It will make me fight against your people, whom I love best. Bethany was her name. Is her name. I think shes got something with my friend George now. It isnt right, Sherman said. At least its your friend. Mayb e thats worse. But George, if hes a good guy, thats something. The busted air conditioner made a sound like a muffled gunshot and then rumbled on uselessly. Is there a reason about the pants? Cal asked. The no-pants rule? Sherman pulled at the waistline. He took his final sip of cream soda. Its a woman. Its Janie. Its a woman every time. You want it to be something bigge r that gets you, that brings you down. You want to be one of those sad old fuckers who comes back from war nightmaring and damaged. You want to be King Lear, something. But its all shit. War, or politics. George Bush 188

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and his pesticide tests. What you eat, where you go, it doesnt mean a thing. Its a woman every time. Youll never learn. Sherman got up and turned the television back on. Cal saw that a slight hole had formed on the seat of the pajama-shorts. I guess I need to be going, Cal said. Im supposed to report back to the office. The television played another game show. Sherman gave Cal a one-hundred-dollar check. He could think of no particular reason not to. 189

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AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF BLUE This is the story of my life. My mother raised me by herself in Missoula, Montana. She taught Spanish lit at the university and taught me how to throw a fastball, because my dad wasnt around to do that sort of thing. He split town when I was still in my mothers belly, probably to California but were not sure. She had already forgiven him before he even crossed the state line because thats the kind of lady she was. She named me for him: Cass. My favorite food was canned pineapples. I wa s scared of fire, and ghosts. My mother made me keep a journal, and sometime I wrote, but mostly I drew elaborate spider webs. Once I looked at it in adulthood and found this sentence: If you find this, the code is in the cabinet; remember still those things you must avenge. Overall, I was an average kid, I guess. In school, I would sit in back and read pa perback mysteries under my desk. In ninth grade, I called a boy named Doyle a retard. He was, a little bit, but ther e was no call for me to say it. He ambushed me in the boys bathroom I was washing my hands and he came from behind and slammed my face against the mirror. It ga ve me a scar to the right of my eye, a thick pink sliver that I thought looked li ke fish bait. My mother thought it made me look like a man. In that very same bathroom, I lost my virgin ity to a girl named Jane. This was my senior year. We met there after school and did it standing up in one of the stalls We didnt bother to take our shirts off. The act was just mild wet wa rm darkness. I remember mostly that Jane had on makeup that made her eyelids look bruised and her breath was cold as sleet against the skin of my neck. My mother taught me the fastball well. I made All-State my junior and senior years and got a scholarship to UCLA. I pitched there for a y ear and a half and then blew out my elbow. It made a sound like a toy gun. After that, there wa s no more baseball, just more paperback 190

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mysteries in more classrooms. I graduated with a degree in soci ology, which I put to use selling insurance. Ive been doing that for a long time now, fi rst in San Diego, then Phoenix, and now Houston. I always drink too much or not enough. I never quite get to where I mean to go, as far as that. Ive never voted. I ne ver got my wisdom teeth remo ved and nothing bad came of it. Everythings a scam. I still got the scar on the side of my eye and I run my index finger up and down the length of it by habit. I always thought Fish Bait w ould have been a good nickname for me. No one ever gave me a nickname until I was thirty year s old, when I met Muriel, and she called me Blue. My eyes, theyre the colo r of overwashed denim. She said it the very first time she saw me, at a bar in Houston. She walked up to me and said, I ought to call you Blue. I said, I ought to kiss you. I dont normally say things like that in bars, I dont know where it came from. She was also thirty but look ed younger than me. She had soft olive skin and great big sympathetic black eyes. A pile of dirt y-blonde hair tumbled over her forehead in tiny curls. She came up not even to my shoulders and I lifted her by the waist and we kissed, all tongue and fury like teenagers. Her breasts were soft little raquetballs and their softness ag ainst my own chest made me want to fall inside of her. Her body, I will never forget. She was slim, but there was none of the hard, manly angularity of the exercise-obsessed types you normally meet in bars. She was a full, sweet woman, the hint of a belly poking out above her jeans and my hands sliding down to grip her like plump fruit. 191

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We played pool and she talked. She had been a concert-level pianist but gave it up. Now she was a schoolteacher. She liked tequila and art-deco furniture She had a hard Texas twang, cut by the hint of a stutter. Something in that voice and the mess of hair and the soft openness of her body made me feel like I was exploding, like I was suddenly and newly bigger than the tired confines of my person. She beat the shit out of me in pool. I was, for the first time in my life, in love. She came home that night and moved in a week later. She would make me breakfast in the morning and wed make love on the kitchen fl oor before we went to work. She had this way of laughing, a schoolgirl giggle that came toppling out of her. Shed say, Blue, you make me feel like a little baby and a million years old, all at once. I di dnt know what she meant, but I did. Her eyes were like little black planets. We lived together for a year and then we got married. It was a small wedding. My mother was there and we smoked dope that night, Muriel and me and my mother. My mother held our hands and sang Amazing Grace. Dont let anyone sing that at my funeral, Mu riel said. I aint no wretch. Then we laughed all night, until our ribs were sore and we ran out of tears. When lung cancer took my mother a year later, I kept maki ng love to Muriel so much that her whole body filled up the sp ace of sadness. I was all right. I kept selling insuranc e and Muriel kept teaching fifth graders. We took walks in the evenings. Shed stop sometimes and make me dan ce with her, to no music but the crickets and the cars. She was a fine dancer. We took a trip to Atlantic City one time. She lost two hundred dollars and I lost more and we didnt care at all. We made mincemeat of the hotel bedsheets and held each other in nakedness and sweat and I could not believe my fortune. 192

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Muriel and I joined a bowling team. We went to church. We went dancing in bars and had dinner parties. Before I met her, I had stuc k mostly to myself. B lue, she said, why dont you like people? I told her I save d all my liking up for her. She sa id: I want to grow you out of your head, baby. I want to deliver you unto the world. And she did. My sweet sweet baby girl, with her stutte r and her kindness, with her huge unblinking eyes and her easy laugh, with her breasts and hips and bottom brimming with tender youth Muriel, who made me sausage biscuits every morn ing, who softly tolerated my sad old need to watch baseball games and moan, who snored al l night like a wounded dog, who loved tequila and me, loved and loved and loved she died one night in Mexico. Then there were about ten thousand days afte r that and not one of them meant a thing. 193

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ONE HUNDRED THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE YOU GO AND SAY THAT (A HISTORY, A LOVE STORY, AN APOLOGY) 1. Imagine me an ancient map. 2. Not the real artifact, but the kind you fabri cated as a childcrinkled, rubbed in dirt, the corners burned. 3. Here is how I return: surrounded by a whisper parade. 4. A lottery ticket and a list to guard against forgetting. 5. An anti-noose, knitted from telephone wires. 6. I will place a present on your knee (a familiar song). 7. Position your banjos. Turn them into Tommy guns. 8. Gather up every country-song carwrec k. With them, build a junkyard, build a playground. 9. Susanna, the first time I saw you it was s nowing out of season, smack dab in the middle of Arkansas. 10. I wanted to eat your fingers like little sausages I wanted to live inside your chest. 11. A never-ending echolalia, a tying up of teeth, the opposite of dancing. 12. Let's you and me lounge in our lacks. I'll touch my tongue to kryptonite. 13. We are pudding-spined and soft in the knuckles. 14. But: We collect everyt hing. We are keepers. 15. A circus train wreck, and the animals and oddities sca tter like locusts across the Indiana flatlands. 16. Memorize the architecture of the echo chamber. 17. Chitter-chatter/chat ter-chitter: Hera's none the wiser. 18. Inch by inch by inch. 19. What I bought at the dollar stor e: a light-bulb set, an Afri can-American mermaid doll, potato chips, dishsoap, a bright orange hat, some bubble bath. 20. Imagine it in airplane script: I am sorry. 21. Cicadas, the way they sleep. 22. For your birthday, a hear t made of rubber bands. 23. I know: Tammy asks only that you give all you can 24. First, you were Susanna, spied upon. 194

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25. Then you were Susanna, an imaginary friend. 26. In Arkansas, I fell in love with Susanna immersed in hot water, money gone on horses. 27. In New England, Susanna, a declaration punctuated by fire alarms. 28. In the southern tip of the nation, Susanna, a ping-pong dance. 28. Once, Susanna, you stood with Magdalene. 29. Susanna: twin sister; don't you cry for me; a grayhair from my very first church. 30. The unfamiliar familiarity of airports. It is, somehow, like Sundays. 31. Categories of regret: carto graphy, don't listen, listen. 32. Re-arrange the bedsheet boundaries. 33. Remember. 34. Is there anything so tragic, after a ll, about Mark "The Bird" Fidrych? 35. Who wouldn't take comfort in one rhapsodic year? 36. I saved even your receipts. 37. A record: the way that you imagined your name. 38. Hibernate. Live only in leap years. 39. As we age, it's not just the way we look th at changes. The way we smell and feel and sound and taste, a glorious decay. 40. Imagine history as a tunnel for two. 41. We were inventors, in our tiny nation. 42. A new geometry, lotto-ticket sailboa ts, our very own set of cusswords. 43. If I ever tell you I'm leaving Arkansas agai n, plant yourself in front of the train. I hope you blockade the highways and bomb th e airport. I hope you tie me up. 44. The appetite of moths. 45. There is something Susanna isn't saying. 46. There is something Susanna didn't keep. 47. If I am to sink, I will loosen my lips in anticipation. 48. The oldest woman in town. 49. The way the oldest woman in town sings (like a brittle requiem, like a re-telling). 50. One hundred postcards, one hundred tiptoe dances, one hundred I-am-sorrys. 51. One hundred eyelash wishes. 195

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52. Tonight we'll talk in poppycock. 53. We'll make lists! We'll make amends, and promises. We'll make the opposite of love. 54. We will reminisce, and the reminisci ng will make for a memory of its own. 55. Remember the time we remembered the time? 56. Listmaking as a reckoning of the thread s we spruced from the story proper. 57. The perseveration of old lovers. 58. Repetition as nostalgia, as a way of keeping. 59. Perseverance, superp owers, a pot of gold. 60. Imagine Arkansas as the exact shape of my hand. 61. The necessity of sap. 62. Once I made a list of reasons to leave. And it was just like this one, almost word for word. 63. When I was a boy, we used crab apples for currency. 64. When I was a boy, we never said, when I was. We were concerned only with the current. 65. Find a flowchart in the river-current rhythms. 66. In the aftermath of the New Madrid ear thquake of 1812, they sa id the Mississippi River actually flowed backwards. This was, of course, an illusion. 67. Richard Burton, was he crying? Truth and illusion 68. Even at our worst we are knowi ng, willful in our platitudes. 69. A soft home for fingernails. 70. Fearless folks dont know nothing about brave. 71. Displaced narcissism: in a group-picture, I only see you. 72. Studies in etymology: Poppycock, from the Dutch, pappekak soft dung. 73. The opposite of an airport chair is a comforting alarm clock. 74. The opposite of nostalgia is a game of slaps. 75. Until your hands turn red, until they turn purple. 76. Sometimes, Susanna, you look at me and it says: I am tired. 77. It says: I do not miss the ocean but I badly miss the tide. 78. Hair so fine it will not cut your gums. 79. A vial of clean red blood, mine. 196

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80. Imagine yourself the engineer of a toy tr ain set, the safety of a circle-track! 81. How we move is round and round. 82. Quiet now, Ill show you. 83. The song, our song, a la nguid loving shortcut. 84. A neatly ordered box of unfinished letters, including sheets entirely blank (there is worthy progress simply in the procuring of paper for the cause). 85. The outline of your weight on bedsh eets, like an impre ssion in the snow. 86. Garlic cloves, kleen ex, nursery rhymes. 87. The old unused shifter car, for lessons. 88. East Tennessee in winter: the way it snows. 89. You run away come summer time: the way it goes. 90. Nothing, nothing, so sweet as postponement. 92. Lets hunt a little longer for banana fish. 93. Heres to Quentin, and his Italian girl! 94. Worse, even, than the inevitable: the countdown. 95. A game of slips, a long drive to the ocean! 96. A hermit crab was murdered by a sea anemone. 97. I fled into the sea, and bled, and peed. 98. For your birthday, you want: A Percoset, a poppycock, a perfect set of toes. 99. Here, my dear. 100. Catalogue my cracks. Imagine this the glue. 197

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STORY FOR SISTER Danny and Maggie were playing with the critte rs, which were called cicadas. Before this summer, there had never been critters like these. They were thirteen-year cicadas, Dannys father had explained to him. They came up from underg round, for some reason, every thirteen years. The cicadas buzzed constantly, like radio st atic turned all the way up. They left shells everywhere, hard brown crusts in the shape of the critters themselves. These were excellent to throw at girls. The bottom of the sh ell, the leg parts, would stick to clothes and wouldnt let go. Maggie lived down the street from Danny. Sh e was far more fun than the other girls because she was not afraid of the cicadas, or the cicada shells, or anything. She had round, darkblue eyes. They looked like blueberries, Danny thought. He thought they looked like fresh blueberries, although this was only a phrase he had overheard on the cooking programs his mother sometimes watched. The only kind hed ev er actually eaten were frozen blueberries, sweet and painfully cold, which dyed his fingertips purple. Maggie had come over and they went to the creek behind his house. There were lots of trees back there, which meant lots of cicadas. Danny picked one off of the leaf of a low-hangi ng branch. He held it by the wings and he could feel the soft, hurried vibration of their aborted flaps against his fingers. Whats that one named? Maggie asked. I dont know, Danny said. His name is Sloggle Slop, she said. Danny placed it on his arm. The cicada walked, it s legs gently pricking his skin. Its eyes were tiny red balls and the wings were translucent and as thin as paper. Brown lines made a pattern on the wings like a fi ngerprint. The bug flew away with a noisy buzz. 198

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Tie your shoes, Maggie sa id. Whats wrong with you? Danny bent down and tied them. He used bunny-ears loops, whic h Maggie said was wrong but he didnt care. She didnt know everything. Maggie sat down next to Danny. Danny sat down too. How old are you? he asked. You always ask me that, she said. Im six. Im nine. I know. Danny lay down in the dirt and began to roll slowly toward the cr eek. Maggie rolled after him. Danny put his face into the water and blew bubbles. It was hot and heavy and wet outside and the cool water of the creek felt good. Listen, Maggie said. She began to blow bubbles and hum at the same time. It was a gargled Happy Birthday. Its not my birthday, Danny said. Its somebodys birthday, she said. Danny got up and found a stick and gave it to her as a present. She kissed him on the shoulder in thanks. Danny began to do some jumping jacks and Maggie joined him. They counted up to thirty. I can do a hundred, Danny said. I can do two hundred, Maggie said. You liar, he said. Maggie stuck her tongue out. The cicadas buzzed and flew around them. What if your name was Doonie? she said. 199

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What if your name was Moogie? he said. He pointed. Look. There was an orange cat sleeping under a tr ee. Maggie picked up a live cicada and threw it at the cat. It dinged the sleeping animal right in the head. The cat leapt up and pawed at the sudden buzzing, contorting its back with such force that it did a kind of f lip, barely landing on its claws. Dang, Danny said. He smiled and jumped. Maggie was full of miracles. Do you have a brother? Danny asked. You always ask me that, Maggie sa id. I have a little brother, John. I wish I was your brother. You can be. You dont know what it means even. You cant be brother and sister and have different parents. We can do whatever we want, Maggie said, and waded into the creek and squatted and peed to prove it. Whats wrong with you? Danny asked, but he di dnt mean it. Maggie only laughed. Watch, Maggie said. She held her breath, cl osed her eyes, and stuck her face into the water. She came up smiling, her face dripping. Im your sister now. Danny waded out and did the same. Im your brother! he shouted. You dont have to shout, she said. Then they had a contest to see who could find the smallest pebble in the creek. Then they made up a great new game called Water-Bicycle, then they had a cicada-shell war. Danny threw one right in the blue of her eye, and sh e wasnt scared, not even a little. 200

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BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH David Ramsey is just a little guy. He grew up in Nashville. He got his B.A. in history from Brown University and his M.F.A. in creat ive w riting from the University of Florida. 201