This item has the following downloads:
1 SLAB, PILLAR, BLOCK, AND BEAM By KEVIN HYDE A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF MASTER OF FINE ARTS UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA 2009
2 2009 Kevin Hyde
3 To my family
4 ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I thank my advisor, Padgett Powell, for his patience, guidance, and wit. I would also like to thank the other faculty here who offered instruction and advice: David Leavitt, Jill Ciment, Mary Robison, Michael Hofmann, and Brandy Kershner. A huge thanks to my family, who have all supported my work. Thanks to my Mom and Dad for all the love and encouragement, in myriad forms, over the years. I thank Steve, Sean, Ryan, and Brandon for their humor and willingness to put up with me. I couldnt ask for better brothers. Im grateful to all my friends and colleagues for the feedback and advice theyve given me, especially Tony Luebbert, Rachel Khong, Kate Megear Sarah Sheldon, and Philip Pinch. I give special thanks to Tarah Dunn, who has helped me in countless ways.
5 TABLE OF CONTENTS ACKNOWLEDGMENTS .................................................................................................................... page 4 ABSTRACT .......................................................................................................................................... 6 THE DJINN OF THE BUR J ................................................................................................................ 7 VIDELICET ........................................................................................................................................ 38 ARISE THEREFORE ........................................................................................................................ 40 LUZERNE ........................................................................................................................................... 53 THE NEW SHIPWRIGHTS .............................................................................................................. 59 PRAXINOSCOPE .............................................................................................................................. 68 Biogr aphical Speculation, Part One ........................................................................................... 68 Interview One The Club Pro .................................................................................................... 68 Biogr aphical Speculation, Part Two .......................................................................................... 69 Interview Two The Brother ...................................................................................................... 69 Biographical Speculation, Part Three ........................................................................................ 70 Inter view Three The Previous Man ......................................................................................... 71 Biogra phical Speculation, Part Four .......................................................................................... 72 Inter view Four The Newspaper Man ....................................................................................... 74 Intervi ew Five The Wife and Mother ...................................................................................... 75 Extrapolated Father ..................................................................................................................... 76 THE FOURTH JUDGE ...................................................................................................................... 78 CINCTURE ......................................................................................................................................... 84 WE WERE EMERGENT ................................................................................................................... 97 One ............................................................................................................................................... 97 Two ............................................................................................................................................ 105 Th ree .......................................................................................................................................... 112 Four ............................................................................................................................................ 121 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ........................................................................................................... 131
6 Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts SLAB, PILLAR, BLOCK, AND BEAM By Kevin Hyde May 2009 Chair: Padgett Powell Major: Creative Writing This thesis offers eight stories and one novel excerpt. The majority of the stories examine the ways in which consciousness, language, and subjective reality interact with and impinge upon the experience of objective reality. Whether due to the influence of memory, belief, or love, the characters in these stories have difficulty negotiating between the present, external world and the internal world of their thoughts. Arise Therefore, Luzerne, and The New Shipwrights can be read as a linked series of stories, but each story also stands on its own.
7 THE DJINN OF THE BURJ Hamza, faithless and miserable, did not laugh at the pissing mans penis. What he did laugh at, after a long day of cleaning bathrooms in Dubai Mall, was the penetrative, sexual movement of his toilet brush, which he was plunging rigorously into the hole of a urinal. Hamza supposed that the pissing man, using a urinal farther down the row, must have mistaken the fai nt laugh as a slight against the length of his exposed penis, because the man turned slightly and said, in Arabic, Dont laugh. It becomes smaller at lower altitudes. It becomes smaller when I descend to this level. That remark, uttered so casually, indi cated to Hamza the mans anomalous demeanor was it insanity or eccentricity? Who spoke of descending to levels? Sheikhs, perhaps, but this man was no sheikh. He spoke broken Arabic, like Hamza, and had the face long, thin, bearded of a Kashmiri, or a Punja bi. A Pakistani, Hamza thought, a countryman. Hamza decided to take a chance. He stood up, addressed the man in Urdu, and gave him his hardest salaam, with all the vowels drawn out. The man, still holding his penis, which was still pissing, responded in k ind and introduced himself. Im a crane operator, he said. Im a custodian, Hamza answered. After Hamza explained why hed been laughing, the two of them made tentative plans to meet at the entrance of Dubai Mall when Hamzas shift was over. They want ed to compare notes on their respective professions, a courteous habit left over from their lives in Pakistan, where complaining artfully about ones job informed as much everyday conversation as did the topics of politics, cricket, and the weather.
8 The crane operator met Hamza at the front doors, holding a bag from the Gap. Trousers. One quarter of my paycheck, the crane operator said. For pants. They walked down Doha Street and out of the Financial Center. They caught a cab north, toward Satwa Park, where things were a little less hectic, and the construction not as prevalent. At the Caf Rotana, the two of them sat outside, under the awning, facing the road. Over coffee, the crane operator told Hamza about his job. I work on the Burj, he said, a ll day. In the crane. In the skyscraper? Hamza asked. On top of the skyscraper, the crane operator answered. Lifting, turning, all day. There is no stopping it. I get a break for lunch. Chicken biryani that I heat up by leaving it on the dash. I sl eep in the Burj, the crane operator said. Hamza swallowed his coffee too quickly and choked. Why? Hamza asked. Why would you ever want to sleep up there? The crane operator leaned over the table and put his right hand on top of his left. Look, he said, moving his coffee cup so that it sat on top of Hamzas, imagine that this is the Burj these two cups and imagine that I am a gnat no! smaller than a gnat. Im the runt of a gnats litter of gnats, unable to fly yet. At the very top, here, he said, and pointed to the lip of his coffee cup. How long do you think it would take me to get to the bottom? Hamza thought he did not know enough about gnats to answer the question. An hour, he said, an hour and a half? The crane operator laughed. Longe r, he said, keep going. Two hours, Hamza answered. It couldnt be longer.
9 Three hours, from my cab to the street, said the crane operator, frowning. Ladders, I climb; elevators, I ride; stairs, I descend. Three hours. That is why I sleep in the Burj. The crane operator rubbed at his bearded chin. At six in the morning they expect the crane to lift and turn, and to keep lifting and turning until six at night. If I were to leave immediately for the ground floor, I would catch a cab at nine, ride the half hour to my apartment, and fall asleep at ten. I would sleep until quarter past two, prepare myself, and then catch a cab to be back at three in the morning, when I would begin the ascent of the Burj. After sleeping for only four hours and fifteen minutes, I would be shaky at the controls, struggling to complete simple movements with the crane. An I -beam, misplaced, would drop and kill three men three fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, friends. Because I wanted to sleep in my own bed. So I sleep in the crane. Sometimes in one of the construction offices on the 135th floor. I sleep in the crane to keep myself from murdering my friends. This is my first day off in a month. Hamza thought about this and removed the crane operators coffee cup from the top of his own. Thats much more complicated than a gnat, I think. The crane operator laughed. Uf Allah, he said. And what about you, custodian of the Dubai Mall? Janitor to the biggest mall in the world. That is a monstrous task as well. Whats the worst part of your day? he asked. Cleaning up after these haram zadas ? Hamza sipped at his coffee, staring out at the cars passing by on 308th street: he counted three BMWs, seven Mercedes, and two Bentleys in a short interval of traffic. Dubai. When I see the hijabi women shopping. Thats the worst, Hamza said, because it makes me wonder what my mother is doing. In Lahore. And it makes me wonder when Ill have a wife, a hijabi girl, who will shop with my money.
10 The crane operator did not speak for a moment or two. I have a wife not hijabi but let me tell you, being married is not like the films. We dont break into song. We dont make love like two wild lions in the desert. Being married is, he held up his hands as if he were preparing to wash t hem made of the things you do: cleaning bathrooms, removing trash, mopping floors. Dont be in such a rush, the crane operator said. Enjoy that. He pointed to one of the Cafs waitresses, a busty American looking girl. Shes got good balance. Hamza laughed. I could prove to that girl that she should like me, right? Women like to shop. I work in a place of shopping. Therefore, she must like me. I am a portion of the shopping experience. The crane operator smiled and nodded. You know what the hadit hs say? What the Prophet said? The crane operator paused and put his index finger in the air and said, in a steady voice, Even the lowliest beggar can marry a beautiful woman. Every good woman likes a man who has needs, and beggars are the neediest. Toge ther, they preserve religion and protect their private parts. Although I may have misremembered that one, said the crane operator, fanning his face. Sounds right though. The two men sat and sweated in silence for a minute. Several other patrons of the caf yawned simultaneously. Hamza turned in his chair to find the Burj in the skyline. It cast its shadow at sunrise, some said, for two miles, to Jumeirah Beach, into the Gulf. Motherfucker, Hamza said, staring at the tower. Whats it like up there? he asked the crane operator. Thin air. Hard winds. I see strange things. You know in an airplane when you see people and cars below and theyre all ants and beetles working? Doing antwork and beetlework? Thats what its like for me, all day. Being highe r, he said, I think differently. My thoughts come
11 faster. Its like a sandstorm blows through my head and fills it with grit. Grains of thought that stick with me. Like what? Hamza asked. I see more of Dubai than any other man. I am its top man. It could be said that I witness more of Dubai, the actions of Dubai, than anyone. That I am in a position to witness each full day of the city and its people: kisses, fights, miracles, crimes. And I am building that building, and no one will know it when the y live there. A painting has a plaque, and a sculpture has a sign, but that building no tenant will know their homes walls and floors are my handiwork. That is its own crime, in my thoughts. The Burj ought to bear my name, even if written small, somewhere. The crane operator tapped the table with his fingertips, as if he were playing the keys of a piano. And I have seen a djinn. Hamza frowned. Who spoke of djinn these days? Old men who had retreated into the Quran, away from their families. His grandfat her, in the year prior to his death, had told Hamza of having seen a djinn when younger. On his walk to his mosque in Lahore, his grandfather claimed, he had seen a man in the branches of a red berry tree, sitting calmly, crouched. The man in the branches, so his grandfather said, appeared to waver in form, distorted like the air above a hot black road. When Hamzas grandfather approached the red berry tree, the crouching man moved around to the other side, like an escaping squirrel, and eluded the grandfat hers gaze. A resting djinn, his grandfather said, who allowed me to see him in the shape of his race. Not as a bird, or a goat, or a snake. Smokeless flame. A full djinn. Hamza, ten years old then, thought his grandfather meant only to impress how imp ortant it was to attend mosque every day; the intended moral was that his grandfather would have missed the djinn if he hadnt gone to prayers at the mosque.
12 A djinn? Its not too high for them, yeah? Did it wear a hard hat as well? Hamza asked, chuckli ng at his own joke. A man at the next table over glanced up from his paper and shook his head like a put upon father. The crane operator lifted his chin and pulled on the point of his Van dyck beard, as if sharpening it. You asked me, he said, what it was like up there, in the Burj, and that is the truth. In the hadiths, remember, a believer can be a coward, a believer can be a miser, a believer can be a beggar, a believer can be ugly, but he cannot be a liar. Hamza did not, despite the crane operator s confidence, remember that hadith. I am a believer. Not a liar, said the crane operator. And the djinn stood on the arm of my crane and observed my work. Hamza tried, wanted, to believe in Allah, to believe in the Prophet, and to believe in the Qura n. Those were the aspects of Islam he wished he could embrace in full faith. But djinn, he thought, had inhabited Islams hazy desert past, when Muslims lived as nomads, scattered; they belonged to a time when people did not understand the rules of the nat ural world. When an excellent camel could be a mans best friend. When an intruding snake had to be addressed as an emissary of the devil. Those times called for djinn. The present, he suspected, did not. Forgive my disbelief, Hamza said. I didnt mean to insult you. He inclined his head slightly in the direction of the crane operator. But, if I can press you, can I ask please what the djinn looked like, since I have never seen one. Hamza thought the crane operator would recite the standard epithet f rom the Quran, that a djinn took form as smokeless flame, a phrase that Hamza had always interpreted to mean that the djinn bore a strong resemblance to the flaming American comic book character, the Human Torch.
13 Interrupting them, the American -looking waitress flung a white towel on the table, as if she were surrendering her duties, and asked if the two men wanted more coffee. The crane operator requested that the waitress bring them chai instead extra milk, extra sugar, chai. The waitress, sweaty at he r neck, nodded her head and kept her eyes on the passing cars of the road. She looked helpless, Hamza thought. He had an urge to grab her around the waist and hug her, standing, while he sat. She moved away and whipped the towel over her slender neck. Ch ai, the crane operator said, shoving some wet napkins out of the way. Chai is the right drink for this time of day. Its a sunset drink. I cannot tell this story without chai or the promise of chai and rusk. He leaned over and said to Hamza, The djinn didnt have a skin of flame. Not as it says in the Quran. More like, say, a mirage. The crane operator stood up and pushed back his chair. Bathroom. Im going alone unless youd like to check out the work of your peers. Hamza waved him on. Hamza listen ed to the afternoon noises of Dubai: the sounds of construction and the sounds of people. He imagined the cranes slowing, the concrete settling, the rivets cooling. The men descending from scaffolding. Sounds of creaking metal, warning sirens, solid object hitting solid object, booted feet on gravel, sand, and asphalt. Arabic, English, Urdu, Hindi, Persian. He heard someone up the street say Catch that cab in Arabic. Cars on the highway, a few hundred yards from the caf, passed, and the baffles of the gu ardrail cut the traffics whooshing into Morse code. Hamza listened: short -short -short long -short. Meant nothing to him. By the time the crane operator returned, the chai and rusk lay on the table, ready. Hamza dipped a dry piece of rusk into his chai cup, soaking it. Rusk, husk, he thought, is rusk the husk of a cake? Is that where the name came from? A cakes shed skin.
14 The crane operator took a deep, slurping sip of chai and bit into his dry rusk. So, as I was saying, he said, the djinn stood at the tip of my cranes arm, neck bent, observing, I think, the construction. The crane operator stood up on the seat of his chair to demonstrate. He put his arms to his sides and peered down at the table, as if bowing to something huge and regal behind Hamza. Sitting back down, the crane operator said, It stood out there for a whole day. It walked around a bit, along the length of the arm. Like a curious bird. What did it look like though? Hamza asked. Perhaps, Hamza thought, his grandfather had been tell ing the truth his story of the djinn was not simply an enjoinder to pray at the mosque. Hamzas hands shook slightly as he stirred his chai, and he found himself surprised at his investment in the crane operators story, as though, if he could verify his grandfathers description, Hamza would indirectly partake in the same encounter with the ancillary, invisible world. Have you seen the movie Predator? the crane operator asked. Hamza shook his head no. Well, if you had seen it, youd know how, in that movie, the alien was camouflaged by its surroundings: jungle, sky, and grass. The djinn did that, in a way, but I could see its outline clearly. It seemed to siphon the skyline into itself. I felt frightened, at first, but the djinn started to show me sce nes on the screen of its body. It displayed pictures of Dubai, places I recognized, and people I knew. My wife, at home, playing with our daughter. One of the foremen, yelling at some of the ground crew. A muezzin, calling people to prayer at Jumeirah Mosq ue. The djinn did this at long intervals. It watched the city for hours, head down, studying. Then it turned toward my cab and played me those projections. The crane operator beckoned Hamza closer, and lowered his voice to a deep whisper. His breath fann ed Hamzas neck hair. Close to twilight, the djinn displayed a scene from, I think,
15 the future. Myself and my wife, grayhaired, framing our daughter and her husband at their wedding, all seated on a red couch. The djinn stepped close to the window of the cranes cab and pointed at its own body. There, in that wedding scene, I recognized my infant daughters features stretched to the proportions of a grown woman. It brought me close to tears. Then the djinn jumped off the cranes arm and vanished. Hamza l eaned back in his chair and felt the chai rise up sickeningly in his throat. He swallowed and coughed. He missed what the crane operator said. What was that? Hamza asked. I said I havent seen the djinn since then. A month ago. The crane operator rubbed his hands together. One cant blame it though. The building has grown so much higher in that time. Perhaps too high for the djinns taste. The crane operators revelation reminded Hamza of an encounter he had had, three months prior, with a homeless man in the Malls parking lot. Leaving work, Hamza bumped into the man just outside the rear employee entrance, and mistook him for a fellow custodian, since the man wore plain, rough clothes and spoke with a Punjabi accent, like many of the workers in the city. At first, while they talked, Hamza thought the man intelligent and funnyhe made a good joke about the sheikhs junior wife and the massive erection of the Burj but then, the more the man spoke, the more clear it became that he was unstable, a victi m of too much sun, too much poverty. As Hamza fled the scene, the man shouted after him, You are all full of him! Fight! Sitting at the table with the crane operator, Hamza thought he detected the same slow movement towards incoherence in his companion, who, like the homeless man, had camouflaged his delusions with charming behavior.
16 Well, Hamza said, laying some cash on the table, that is no small feat to climb that building. Maybe the djinn is taking its time on the ascent. Enjoying the views from t he lower floors. Stopping to smell the steel. He smiled, gazing down at the table. Perhaps your djinn he laughed, has made the classic djinn mistake of getting trapped in a lamp. Hamza stood and put his hand out to the crane operator, ready to give the man a hearty salaam and forget him thereafter. The crane operator grabbed Hamzas arm near the elbow and held him with a strong grip. You can choose not to believe me. Thats fine. Hamza wrenched his arm away. I dont need your blessing to doubt, he said firmly. But, the crane operator resumed, remember that I didnt make the djinn. Im merely bearing witness. Youre offending, wellthe one who Hamza approached the crane operator and leaned over to speak, but the crane operator caught him by the hand again. Meet me at the base of the Burj in two weeks, on the eve of Eid -Al -Adha, and I will prove to you the existence of that djinn, the crane operator said. I know it will return. Theyre like us, arent they creatures of habit? Hotter -blood ed, maybe, but like us. The crane operator released Hamza, and the agitated custodian jogged down the sidewalk to the next intersection, bumping the shoulders of passersby on his way to the bus stop. His head felt pressurized, as if it were full of weath er, much like the weekend days when he emerged from a theater, after seeing a lengthy, wild movie, into the bright afternoon. Hamza opened the door to the air -conditioned bus stop shelter and sat down next to an old, turbaned man a Sikh, Hamza guessed. Th e vents in the curved roof of the shelter dried the
17 sweat on Hamzas brow, and he considered the crane operator. Who was that man to question anyone? A man who spent his days alone in a machine. A lever -puller. A laborer. Banchod, Hamza whispered to him self, absentmindedly. The Sikh man shoved down the bench a little, wary of the young man who had just called him a sister -fucker. The bus ride took thirty minutes, from downtown Dubai to Al Jafliya district, north of the tallest parts of the city, into t he workers neighborhoods. Hamza put his head against the bus cool window and tried to nap. The driver rode the brakes hard, and Hamzas half -dreams were perforated by moments of sudden, waking panic, when he thought he would fall out of his seat and roll to the front of the bus like a discarded bottle. The realtor had sold Hamza on his fourth -floor apartment by invoking simple enticements: proximity to public transit, coziness, quiet, and like -minded neighbors. After he had moved in, Hamza tested the rea ltors assertions. True, he could see the bus stop from his one window. True, the dimensions of the apartment straddled the line between cozy and stifling. But those last two of the apartments promised attributes did not obtain. The neighbors, Hamza reali zed, were not so much like -minded as single -minded, a mind that craved bhangra music and strong cooking smells at all hours of the day. He had once awoken at three in the morning to find a bald man, his age, sitting in the hallway on a crate, pouring cups of turmeric into a pot warmed by a camp stove. The bald cook had a boombox clamped under his right arm like a newspaper, and it was cranked. Shadows in the hall, the singer whined from the stereo, hoping there it might be you. When Hamza asked what the fuck the man thought he was doing, the bald man said, pointing to an apartment door, Its too crowded in there to rock out, and went back to stirring the pot. Hamza called the man a pig and told him to go back to Karachi. He slept that night with
18 a pill ow over his head. A piedterre, the realtor had called the apartment while showing it off. A place to put your feet, she had translated for Hamza, which in retrospect also seemed false. He could barely stand to set foot in the building. Good nights, Hamza spent watching cricket or football matches on his television, eating halal burgers or fried pakoras (both his mothers recipes), letting the anxiety he acquired at work dissolve into a low key exhaustion. Bad nights, he did the same things but in the contemplation of his worries; he pored over the choices he had made, the ones that had brought him from Lahore to Dubai, that had transformed him from a medical student into a master janitor. The process of recollection and the attendant deep nostalgia co mforted Hamza even while it reminded him of how he had failed, how he was still failing. It reminded him of how, in school, when his class had studied the Partition, he had noticed the way in which those past, distant events became causes of other, nearer events, chained together firmly to terminate in the untidy present. It was funny, Hamza thought, how neatly success could dovetail, over time, with failure. Arriving home after the rough bus ride, Hamza found no games on television, no good food in the fr idge (he had forgotten to shop in his rush to get away from the caf), and a blinking light on his answering machine. He suspected that, after his behavior towards the crane operator, he deserved some punishment maybe a stubbed toe, or a small burn but wha t he received seemed disproportionate to the offense. His father, he knew, had left the message. No one else who called ever bothered to leave messages. His mother hated the sound of her recorded voice, and so only spoke to Hamza on a live connection. Beca use his father had little experience with voicemail, the messages had the shape of a one-man dialogue, during which, in a display of virtuosic deduction, he often answered his own questions.
19 Behta his father said from the answering machine, why dont you answer my calls? I suppose youre busy. Are you making enough money? If youre working so much, youre okay, I guess. Have you seen the news about Attock? Its been everywhere, so you must have. Please call, Hamza. Khudafiz Chotu, can you hang this up for me? Which button? Here. Hamzas younger brother, Rafa, spoke, Khudafiz bro. Talk to you soon. Then the machines tape clicked off. Based on his fathers inability to ring off, Hamza guessed that they had called from Rafas cellphone, which meant that his parents had gone into Lahore to visit Rafa at school. Khudafiz Hamza answered, and pushed the button to erase the message. He spoke the religious valediction as a force of habit; he hadnt prayed in a month. Hamza took a can of chickpeas fro m a kitchen cabinet and opened it. He poured the contents into a bowl and grabbed a fork. This smells like dog food, he thought. In the middle of chewing a bite, he realized that the meal represented a new nadir in his life. This could only be more sad, he thought, if I were doing this wearing only my underwear. They missed him, he knew his family and his friends back in Lahore. He thought of the day he had left on the airplane to Dubai, how Rafa and his parents had given him endless group hugs in the drive way of their house in Garden Town the morning of his departure. He remembered how his mother had unwrapped and adjusted her hijab over and over, nervously, tucking it under her chin; how his father had whispered a hundred last reminders in his ear, about m oney, prayer, their love, their pride; how Rafa, standing off to the side, hands in the pockets of his baggy jeans, had suddenly reached forward to shake Hamzas hand as the latter climbed into the cab, and, planting a wad of rupees in his palm, smiled and told his older brother, pulling away in the cab, When Im flush, Im flush, bro.
20 Of all the reasons people had for leaving Lahore business, politics, grief Hamza thought that marriage and love took precedence over the others, and probably accounted for a good percentage of Pakistans emigrations. He had formulated that theory on the plane to Dubai, while scoping out the other passengers, among whom he counted at least five or six young men his age with romantic, eager expressions on their faces. Grooms. So many went abroad to find love or to escape its consequences, he thought. His two best friends, Ameer and Khizr, had recently gone to America seeking good Muslim girls or hot blond women; they had decided ahead of time to settle down with whichever prese nted the path of least resistance and highest marriageability. Hamza knew several family friends and distant relations who had moved out of Pakistan after broken engagements, or after swift divorces. Hamza himself belonged to both sets of romantic emigrant s: he had left Pakistan to forget a girl, and he had come to Dubai to find a new one. Six months before, during his second day of medical school, at Allama Iqbal, he had found Kareema. He discovered her in his Anatomy class, where she had been sitting one row in back and to the right of him in the lecture hall. She was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen in Lahore, and a hijabi to boot. Whenever another student in the seats to his rear asked a question, Hamza whirled around, straining his back gripping the armrest with both hands so that he could watch her reactions. Even when the question came from somewhere to his left, he still turned in her direction, casting his eyes at the ceiling and at the periodic table on the wall, careful not to let his gaze linger on her for too long. She had one of those faces, he thought at the time, that you might stare at and never grow tired of, never fully apprehendcomplex like Les Demoiselles of Picasso, but more human, and more pretty. He pictured her in a movie, in an unending close up, her light -skinned, oval face, her dark wide eyes, her lip-shaped lips, lit up on a screen for him.
21 When he returned home from school that afternoon, he tried to describe her to Rafa, but could only come up with variations on general ities. Pretty as hell, chotu. Kind of girl that stops you from searching any further. He told Rafa hed have to make up new Urdu words to fully capture her beauty in language. Rafa laughed. After he saw her, Hamza went straight for the old school ghazal s to his mind a necessary component for the soundtrack of such a crush and Hindi movie songs. He walked around campus singing Chaiyya Chaiyya and Insha Ji Utho under his breath, hoping to see the girl from Anatomy. He asked around, tried to get some ba sic background info on her name, family, status, devoutness but had little luck. There were too many hijabi girls at Allama Iqbal who were hellishly pretty, so none of his friends could narrow down the field based on that description. Try passing her a note in class, Ameer said. Ask her to write back with her name and her marriage plans. Khizr told Hamza to steal the class roll from the professors desk and intuit her name from the list. If Bollywood movies have taught me anything, Khizr said, it s that if this romance is meant to be, you have to work for it. Peering and leering will get you nowhere. You cant just pleer at her all class. Hamza settled for pleering. He finally caught a break one afternoon, late in the fall semester, when he saw the girl from Anatomy wave goodbye to a group of girls and work her way, dodging lunchers on the grass, over the quad and out towards Shaukat Ali Road. She hustled through the gate, her arms curled overhand, praying mantis like, around her books. Hamza followed at a respectful distance, keeping an eye on her bright green headscarf as it disappeared and reappeared among the shifting
22 field of strange heads and faces, among the sidewalk strollers oncoming and passing. The girl from Anatomy turned down a side street, and Hamza swung around the corner in time to see her make another turn. With fewer people around, he knew he had to be careful about his pursuit the closer he got. He joined her, thirty feet behind, on the pavement of an old residential street that was broken and fissured, he thought, by the massive stone houses on both sides, which looked as if they had been dropped down to the land from a great height. She must have heard his footsteps echoing. He damned his hard heeled loafers. He wanted to catch up to her, but to do so meant increasing his pace, and there was a fine line between the loud clopping footsteps of a friendly suitor and the menacing gallop of a rapist she would not stop to discern the difference, Hamza thought. She would flee. He could either take off his shoes and run her down in his socks (scary for her, painful for him), or perhaps make his presence more obvious by stepping harder, strutting like a gallant, and whistling a sweet tune. Odd, but less threatening. He quickened his walk and broke into an off key rendition of Allah Allah Lutf, laying his nasal tenor bare for her benefit. The girl from Anatomy turned her head back over her shoulder, her green headscarf bunched up at her chin in a knot like a blossom, and stopped. Thats not how it goes, she said, and sat down on the front stoop of a house. The song. The range of reactions Hamza expected from her alarm, suspicion, indifference did not include a critique of his singing. He fell back on politeness, surprised by her rema rk, and apologized for his mangling of the song. Whats your name? she asked, gazing up at him from the steps. Youre at Allama too, arent you?
23 Hamza, momentarily bewildered by the implicit miracle that she recognized him, and thus had previously noticed him, said, Im going to be a doctor too. She laughed at him. A singing doctor, maybe? she said. Ambitious. Im just going for the regular M.D. Hamza looked away, up the street, and tried harder to be serious. I meant, yes, Im in your class. We have Anatomy together. He leaned against the stoops banister. Whats your name though? he asked. I dont think Ive ever heard it. The girl shifted her weight and stood up, presenting her tiny hand to him. Kareema, she said. Kareemakareemakar eeema, he thought. Finally. They walked together in the early evening as far as her house, about which Hamza had lied and said was on his route home, despite her place being located, truly, in a different postal code from his own. They talked about classm ates, professors, and the pressures of school, and how much their families futures rested on their scholastic performance and success. Hamza found it remarkable how good a listener Kareema proved to be, remembering the names of people he mentioned in pass ing as if they were her intimate friends. He loved that they could bond so well over complaints, as other couples bonded over their shared interests or the similarities of their families. After dropping her off at the edge of her familys property and wavi ng a semaphoric goodbye with one of his books, he started running home. Running for her! he thought. The sidestitch that spread in his chest was for her! He stopped his run abruptly when he felt rising vomit, which was certainly not for her. Their relatio nship grew through a weekly pattern. He saw her in Anatomy class three days per week, ate late lunch with her on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and accompanied her home,
24 separated by a chaste lateral distance, at the end of the week. Hamza, motoring from her par t of town, usually made it back to his house just in time to join his family for Friday prayers at the mosque. He couldnt help but space out during the imams weekly lessons thinking at every slack moment about Kareema but he tried to offset that by prayi ng with physical fervor. He bowed lower than anyone else, painfully stretching his hamstrings; he forced his head into the mosques carpet until the piles fibers stuck to his face; he gave his responses in his most Muslim voice a timbre he hoped suggested seriousness and austerity. With Kareema on his mind and his body in the mosque, his prayers often switched, almost seamlessly, from thoughts of the divine to thoughts of love and back again, as if the association of romance and religion formed a natural, perfect circuit. He perceived a strengthening of his connection both to the believers around him and to the words of the Quran, as though within his affection for Kareema lay the key to true, fully felt belief. His crush on her, when she was still just the girl from Anatomy, had given him the ability to identify (sometimes painfully, sometimes loosely) with myriad love songs, and now that he knew and loved her, he suspected that the same process was at work, to an even greater degree her presence in his lif e gave him access to new forms of devotion. When he and Kareema were in each others company, they discussed family, religion, music, politics, movies, love (but only theoretically, as if they were debating certain subatomic particles), medicine, Lahore, a nd Pakistan. Hamza admired Kareemas thoughtfulness, and her ability to answer his questions with such intelligent, insightful remarks that he consequently wondered why he had asked the question in the first place. She made difficult concepts so clear, so graspable. One afternoon, on their way to her house, he had been thinking aloud about Islam, about what it meant to be a true Muslim. Kareema put her hand across his chest to stop him like his
25 mother did, even then, when she had to brake suddenly in the c ar and he or Rafa were in the passenger seat. She pulled her hand back and said, Does it matter if you believe everything or not, if youre true, as you say, as long as you behave as if you did, and as if you were? No one not his father, not his grandf ather, not his imam exposed him to such brutal and essential thoughts as she did. The end came from America in the form of an investment banker, a family friend. Older, rich, and marriageable. Kareema missed classes for a week and returned engaged. Since by custom she ought not speak to him directly a de facto wife already Hamza heard it through five of her girlfriends, whisper -down-the lane style. Engaged with what? he asked Shantha, Kareemas best friend, when she told him. If shes busy, tell her I ll see her later, he said. Shantha clarified. Puda, Hamza said in reply. Wish that puda good luck charming her husbands weak American dick. Hamza skipped weeks of Anatomy class. No point in going, he figured. In the objective part of his mind, he knew he was losing his shit, but couldnt find any way around it. It felt vitally important to lose his shit, to become more and more ragged. He wanted to sink into misery in order to punish her. When he wore the same hoodie every day for a month, listene d to nothing but Coldplay, Sinatra, Tal Bachman (Shes So High consoled him), and the ghazals of Ghulam Ali, wrote Kareemas name on his arms with a ballpoint pen, and disregarded friends and family, it seemed
26 to him as if he were performing a rite, or f ormulating a new asceticism one that relied on heartbreak and portable music. When he daydreamed about hiring some criminal (the idea of who he could hire remained vague he pictured only a short fat man in a balaclava) to kidnap Kareema and himself, to pu t them both in the same windowless room, and to demand, at gunpoint, that he and Kareema have endless sex for the degenerates amusement, he suspected his brain had gone awry. When he snuck off to the Heera Mandi, Lahores red light district, to drink at one of the brothels, got tight as a tick (so said the bartender that night) on vodka that tasted like Lysol smelled, and slept in his clothes in the front yard of his familys house, in full view of the neighbors, because he had lost his keys, and was help ed through the front door by his father who had spied him from the upstairs window during his morning prayers, he knew he was fucked up. Hamza told his father he had been out for a late -night walk, and had fallen asleep accidentally while stargazing. His f ather shook his head and pointed at Hamzas jeans, which were streaked with vomit. Perhaps, his father said, you should steer clear of stargazing, if the night sky makes you so sick. Shortly after that night, Dubai appeared to Hamza, deep in his loves ick depression, as a slickly western antipode to Lahore. He couldnt stay in Lahore when he knew that Kareema still lived and breathed in the same space, engaged. Lahore, to him, belonged to the past, with its fortified walls, its gardens, its mountains, i ts dirt, its poverty, its mosques. Dubai, on the other hand, seemed to move forward continuously, bejeweled with newness, wealth, extravagance, beaches, and freedom. He heard stories and gossip about the opportunities of Dubai some Pakistani dude had marri ed into the sheikhs family and spent his days playing videogames and making tea from powdered rhino horn; another guy had done some time on a construction site in
27 the city, worked diligently, and been promoted to a supervisory position at the Burj Al Arab, the seven -star hotel that looked like a sail, and the only place on earth, one wag said, where Allah would spend the night. The women of Dubai were reputed to be like other beautiful women, only more so finer -skinned, bigger -breasted, tighter assed, ri cher, and wilier. Persian Amazons, in short. All that drew Hamza to Dubai seemed so false and flimsy in retrospect, but it had catalyzed his disappointing transformation from a first -year medical student an aspiring surgeon into a lonely, clinical, compet ent janitor at the biggest mall in the world; such was the power of Dubais allure. Not many places in the city hired Pakistanis med -school drop -outs or not for anything but construction, cleaning, food service, or childcare. Hamza took some solace in the fact that, despite the mindlessness of his job, cleaning toilets at least distracted him from thoughts of Kareema. During the week after meeting the crane operator, Hamza found two reasons to lend credence to the story about the djinn and to make an ascent of the Burj. The first involved his simple rumination upon the crane operator, which he accomplished in the silence and security of the many bathroom stalls he cleaned at the mall. There was a man, Hamza thought, who believed, who possessed faith in abun dance. What motivation could have spurred him on to lie in that caf to a new acquaintance a countryman, no less when he stood to gain nothing? The crane operator had not asked for money, he hadnt sought Hamzas allegiance or attempted to draft him into a ny whacked -out jihad The crane operator had related his experience, and Hamza had scoffed at him. He had treated the crane operator as if he were a kusra a transvestite, on the streets of Lahore someone ready-made for ridicule and scorn. When, Hamza wond ered, had he last heard such an optimistic story? Such a cause for hope? The crane operator had seen the
28 future projected within the diaphanous body of a holy being, and had earnestly believed what he saw. Hamza had dismissed the mans sincerity as the by -product of too much work, too much religion, and too much solitude. But just because the crane operator lived under the burden of labor, faith, and isolation, did that make what he said false? Hamza envied the crane operators fervent belief. What more did he require to recognize those beliefs as the truth? The djinn, he thought. The djinn and its vision of the future. The second reason confronted him at his workplace, in the long wide hallways of the mall. He had just finished scrubbing down the two food-court bathrooms, and, after cleaning shit off the top and bottom of a changing station (which suggested to him the possibility that someone had tried to diaper a chimp), and extracting twelve shish kabob skewers arranged ingeniously on a sunken bed of toil et paper so that they protruded, pike like, out of the water from the bowl of one of the toilets in the womens restroom, he was ready to take a break. Employees of the mall ate gratis in the food court, so he picked up a plate of lamb korma from MerCurrie s and chose a table away from the crowded dining area, where the patrons behaved as if possessed by a gluttonous rage, and he sat facing the mall, to watch the people pass by. Then he saw Kareema, or a woman who, for all the slight differences in dress an d posture, might have been her echo. She wore a hijab, and had the same beguiling type of face, same fair skin, same blossom -shaped knot fastening her headscarf. The echo of Kareema held the hand of a small boy, and pointed with her free hand at the stores window displays. Hamza felt as though someone had just poured warm soda into the marrow of his bones, and he put down his fork when it started clattering as his hand shook against the edge of his plate. As far as he knew, via Rafa, Kareema had not yet he ld her wedding, and so he supposed, before the woman drew nearer and he examined her face more closely, that he was witnessing the future Kareema right
29 there in the mall. For the remainder of the day, for the rest of the week, he thought of little but Kare ema, the crane operator, the Burj, and the djinn, as if he were a child again and those things were suspended above his bed as the four cardinal objects of a mobile. Hamza jogged over to the Burj construction site during his lunch break on the eve of Eid-Al Adha, dodging the caravans of dump trucks and backhoes that roared into and out of the sites gates. A man in a green hard hat yelled in Arabic, speaking too loudly and quickly for Hamza to parse the words. Green Hard Hat ran towards Hamza, waving both arms wildly as if swarmed by malarial mosquitoes. Adhab! Adhab! he yelled. Hamza held his palms up at shoulder height and said, Whoa, friend. He explained to Green Hard Hat that he merely wanted to send a message to the crane operator. Which one? the construction worker asked, pointing to the three cranes attached, like remoras, to the sleek body of the Burj. The one at the top, Hamza said, raising his voice above the sound of metal hitting metal. Give him this, please. Hamza handed over a fol ded note. Green Hard Hat looked over the three Urdu sentences. What does it say? he asked. I obtained some American pornography for him, Hamza lied. I told him how much he owes me. That seemed good enough for the construction worker, who smiled and whistled at a younger man holding a thermos. Ill give it to a runner, Green Hard Hat told Hamza. Youll get your money. Better take off now, though. Yella yella He turned Hamza around by his shoulders and pointed him towards the gate.
30 Hamza hoped that his note would reach the crane operator in time. Ill meet you tonight. Outside the Burj. Your friend, the custodian. He hoped that what he had written was enough to coax the man down. The crane operator stood, smoking. He had one foot propped agai nst a black and yellow railing that ran along part of the mesh fence at the edge of the Burjs construction zone. Hamza approached and said, from a few feet away, Didnt know you smoked. The crane operator flicked the cigarette over his shoulder, over the fence, in a long arc. Why would you, custodian? Weve only mixed in polite society. The mall, the caf. This place, he said, pointing with his index and middle finger at the Burj, is a different story. They shook hands. Plus, the crane operator said, you ran away before I lit my post -chai cigarette. Hamza apologized, saying that he had been foolish to discount the story of the djinn. He asked the crane operator to forgive his rude behavior. The crane operator laughed. I probably would have done the same thing if I were in your shoes, he said. Nothing to forgive. He pulled on his beard and rolled a stone away with the toe of one of his boots. Id like to still show you, he said. I think its important that I show you. They went throug h a side gate, just wide enough for a man, and entered the construction yard. Hamza gazed up at the Burj he had never seen it from so close. He had to put his head all the way back against his shoulders, as if sitting in the front row of a movie theater, t o take everything in. The Burj had reached its final height, he knew the owners had announced it in the papers and on TV and the exterior, covered in mirroring glass, reflected the early evening lights of the city. Hamza thought the building looked like a set of telescopes, of differing lengths,
31 bound together. The whole thing gave the impression of machines and materials cooperating with the thrust of the building, as if the inanimate world were urging itself skyward. The crane operator came back and grab bed Hamza by the arm. We have to hurry and get inside, he said. The security people will be here soon. We cant be on the ground. The interior of the Burj, from where Hamza stood in the future lobby, resembled an enormous hive, if a hive were built wit h stacks of unfinished basements rather than honeycomb. Lines of rebar snaked into and out of walls, emerging at one point only to disappear a few feet further down, and it looked to Hamza almost as if the concrete had set quickly and arrested the steel in mid -slither. He stared at a piece of graffiti, drawn in black marker on the cement, that depicted a naked woman, legs spread, with a vagina like a gaping mouth. Her breasts were the letters V and U. She had no face on her head. The crane operator led Hamza to a service elevator screened in by glossy red wire. He closed the gate behind them and locked it, then pressed a button with a peeling paper label that said, Office. Okay, the crane operator said. I can take you up as high as 123. Thats where the elevators stop. From there youll have to take stairs and ladders. Forty floors. Ill give you the keys you need to make it the rest of the way. No work tomorrow because of Eid, so no one will bother you in the morning. He spat on the metal floor and sai d dust softly. Im going home tonight, but Ill meet you on 123 at sunset tomorrow afternoon. Dont be late. Hamza hooked his fingers through the loops of wire on his side of the elevator. What about the djinn? he asked. How do you know it will act ually appear? The crane operator frowned and said, I dont know. But, he raised his hand to stop Hamza from interruptingit stands for belief that, if it appeared to me before Eid al -Fitr, then it could appear to you before Eid al -Adha. Keep your eyes open, huh? Pray. See.
32 The elevator stopped suddenly and the crane operator inserted a key into a large button, turned it clockwise, and depressed another button. The elevator started moving again, faster. Also, dont touch anything in the cranes cab, he said. Ive got it just the way I want it. Hamza suspected that traveling for forty minutes in a small elevator with a stranger would perhaps surpass any degree of awkwardness he had previously experienced, in close quarters or otherwise. He wished th at the crane operator had not given him so many instructions in so short a time at the beginning of the journey, effectively eliminating the main topic of conversation. Mercifully, the crane operator dozed against the elevators wire walls for much of the ride, waking occasionally to check the floor numbers as they sped past, which gave Hamza time to reconsider the particulars of the situation. Regarded extra -contextually, Hamzas plans to spend the night in a crane on top of the tallest building in the wor ld in the hopes of seeing a djinn and discovering some aspect of the future his, Kareemas, his familys probably smacked of delusion or religious hysteria. From the inside looking out, though, within that elevator, Hamza knew that he had found the right t rack. The crane operator had chosen that bathroom and that urinal for a reason not by blind chance and he had presented Hamza the opportunity of access to the truth. Not a mans truth, or a governments truth, or Islams truth. The djinn, Hamza thought, st ood outside and on top of human things and observed. The djinns truth was the truth of logic and deep structures immutable and foundational, divine. The service elevator started slowing down, and came to a halt with a quick expulsion of air, like a brakin g roller coaster. Hamza shifted his weight, impatient to exit. The crane operator extracted his key from the button, reattached it to a huge ring that hung from a belt loop on his pants, and flung open the wire door. Your stop, he said, turning to Hamza
33 The number 123, painted in foot -high, white numerals on the walls, looked strange to Hamza outside the context of simple counting. He had trouble connecting the sign One hundred twenty third floor with the physical reality of the building that was, un til he got closer to the windows. Gazing down, he saw a plain of lights stretching out, the city, bordered by the darkness of the undeveloped land. Other towers, some complete and some half built, rose only to the height of the Burjs fiftieth or sixtieth floors, Hamza guessed, as if they were in their skyscraper infancy and the Burj already fully mature. You see those stairs? Take those, forty floors up. Youll come to a brown metal door. That leads to the spire, and from there youll have to climb a la dder to get to my crane, the crane operator said. He enumerated the steps on his fingers, bending each one wristward until it was almost perpendicular to his palm it seemed to Hamza as if he were trying to snap off his digits. Got it, Hamza said, I go t it. Just keep going up. The two men shook hands, and the crane operator patted Hamzas back. InchaAllah, you will see the djinn. I hope that it shows you what you want to see, the crane operator said, quietly. I hope you dont come down disappointe d. He detached the metal ring from his belt loop and pulled two long keys from the bunch, indicating to Hamza which one went to the brown door and which one went to the crane. After he closed the door on the service elevator and pushed the button, he sa id, already descending, Alhamdulillah, custodian. Tomorrow. Hamza leaned over and watched the elevator go down the shaft until it was a small red dot, a pomegranate seed, far below. As he climbed, he counted his steps. Forty stories, thirty -four stairs per story. Goddamn, Hamza said aloud. More than thirteen hundred steps. He was winded already, on floor 132.
34 What if, he thought, the djinn did not appear to him? Only two outcomes could result from the climb: the djinns visitation, or a day wasted in a cranes cab. If the djinn appeared, nothing guaranteed it would once again show the future. But just its existence, he thought, would be enough. A djinn. What if it showed a future that he didnt desire? What if it showed him stretched out on a gurney i n his custodians uniform, dead? Or showed Kareema, deliriously happy, cradling a baby in her arms, hugged by her husband? What if, as with the crane operator, it showed a scene of bliss? Of him and an unknown woman, married, together? He longed to draw a flow -chart. He kept climbing. Why did he want to see the djinn? he asked himself. 143, twenty floors to go. He wanted to see the djinn because he was jealous of those who believed. He desired their faith. If he were to calibrate it precisely, what he year ned for was to feel obliterated by true faith, by the force of it. Connected fully to other believers. All his life, he had witnessed men and women compelled to commit terrifying and beautiful acts by the force of their faith. Fathers disowning daughters w ho had loved the wrong man. Wives devoting the work of their lives to the happiness of their family. Men who memorized the Quran, every sura so that they could recite it for the benefit of the illiterate. Believers who blew up themselves and others. Wealt hy families who gave more than a third of their income to the destitute. He did not feel, in his experience of Islam, the imperative to submit. He wanted to believe like his father believed without doubt, and with humility. For his father, religion occupie d an integral position in life. In fact, for his father, the two things life and religion were co -extensive. One did not exist separate from the other. What Kareema had said that being a true Muslim meant acting as if one were true had excited him at firs t, because it presented a practical option. What did it matter, he had thought, whether you believed, as long as you acted as if you did? The results, functionally, were the
35 same full believers and half assed believers both could perform acts of kindness, charity, and faith, and none, save Allah, would be the wiser. Even then, as a half assed believer, you could state with conviction that you did as much good, effected as much well -being and fellow -feeling, as a full believer. Submission, he had figured, co uld be multiply realizable. But after Kareema, during his disintegration, he had found that view untenable. In Lahore, after he found out about her engagement, he had tried and failed to love her selflessly to love her without the promise or reality of re ciprocal affection. He prayed for her happiness with the American. But he felt nothing. No solace. He thought that by selflessly loving Kareema from the hermitage of his mind, he might be rewarded. Allah would recognize his lonely kindness and send Kareema, penitent, back to him. For why had Allah allowed him to find Kareema in the first place if she were destined for someone else? Perhaps, he thought, climbing the stairs, he received no solace because he did not really want her happiness. In retrospect, h e knew that he prayed for her happiness as a means to secure his own happiness, that, in the back of his mind, he only desired that she come back to him. He had behaved, in praying, as if he selflessly loved her, but that had brought him nothing, because t here had been no qualitative feeling of selfless love in his prayers. If he were to follow Kareemas idea and behave as if he believed, without the feeling of belief, he could only imagine that he would bring himself more sorrow, immedicable sorrow for whi ch no words existed. Belief or disbelief. It appeared to be such a simple disjunction, but it was not a choice. He could no more will himself to believe than will the way of the future. Two more floors to the cranes ladder. What a building, he thought He loved the sound of his footsteps on the stairs, the quiet noise of rubber against dusty cement. Like slippers on hardwood. What would it be like to hear that sound every day? Even the men who worked on the
36 building the architects, the electricians, th e contractors, the crane operators had the Burj, if nothing else, as a connection. They submitted themselves to the idea of the tower. This vision. Steel, glass, and concrete. Someone had conceived of the idea of the building and extended it into physical truth. Maybe that was why the djinn liked to perch at the top. It recognized a kindred form in the Burj. What was a djinn after all, but a divine idea extended into physical truth? Hamza thought it stood to reason that, if he were able to see the djinn, he d be able to grasp the divine idea behind it. Hamza unlocked the brown metal door and swung it open onto the roof. He waited to let his eyes adjust to the darkness outside after the bright construction lights of the stairwells. He stepped out. So high up, he thought. High but stationary. A stellar feeling. The wind blew, hot and dry. He listened for a minute. A murmur, hollow and deep traffic. Then a bell, maybe. Or the clang of iron and not a bell. Two tones low and high almost in harmony. The citys hum ming swarms of air conditioners. He put his hands on the ladders bottom rungs and started the last leg of the ascent. At the top, Hamza opened the cranes door and pulled himself into the cab. He dropped onto the torn seat, and it exhaled the scents of sweat, mango juice, and chicken biryani. He stretched out his legs and folded his hands on his chest, breathing deeply. He slept fitfully, disturbed when he felt the crane vibrate, buffeted by the wind. When the sun rose, an orange sliver cut by the hori zon, its light shone on the city and Hamza, leaning forward in the cab, saw that many construction cranes faced west, as if offering their prayers, in obedience, to Mecca, and that only a few, in the pose of infidelity, faced east. That could not be chance he thought. He tried to stop the questioning part of his mind from dragging him, slowly, back down into doubt. And as he tried to push away his disbelief, he felt the
37 presence of certainty, slight and wavering, within himself and outside himself; as if t here were, both below the line of his thoughts and beyond the sound of the wind, a thing barely in being like a faint voice, or a flickering image that might vanish if he did not turn his full attention to it. On the arm of the crane the shape of a man app eared, in a way that it seemed an extension of the skyline but also apart from it, almost set in relief upon the air, and the figure raised its hand in a gesture of greeting, as if having come from a long way off. Be quiet, Hamza told himself. Remain still There is nothing that cannot be seen from up here.
38 VIDELICET Lets not and say we did is what I told her although that seemed to be the perfectly worst way to perform a small adultery. Most people do it the other way around, she told me in the laundry room. I had come out of the restroom into the laundry room a few moments prior, drying my hands on a washcloth, and she had grabbed my cock through my jeans, which is no mean feat considering the thickness of denim (her maneuver probably co uld only have been more difficult had I been wearing snowpants or some unlikely burlap overalls). Not that I hadnt imagined, since within an hour of meeting her and on a seriously occasional basis from then on, what it would be like to fuck my former empl oyees young wife. But on account of her husbands being close by in my dining room in addition to his having hearing that was keen as a hunting dogs I had to tamp myself down and not indulge in puerile mental projections of what she would look like in ac robatic triple -X ultra -porn poses: her hair loose, underwear slid, breasts uncoupled from bra, her face turned back over her shoulder with her fingers in her mouth, breathing ragged like she had just returned from a brisk run or had gardened the shit out o f her flowerbed (which I knew she kept neat because I had seen it). No, so, what gave me pause when she pressed her compact body up against me in the laundry room and I felt her breasts compress and spread in a topologically complex way onto my chest was t he clarion thought that this woman, my former employees young wife, had attended, as any wife would, to her chronically ill husband, who was sick not with anything fatal but with one of the sicknesses that merited the tag of disease but fell short of s yndrome and that had set up shop in his lower intestine or below the -waist area. That clear (but maybe apocryphal) notion I held kept me from grabbing her by the handholds of her lower ass (an ass which I had watched and recognized such was its shape as o ne whose curvature bespoke alternating epochs of HagenDazs and Pilates). And that notion
39 took form as a colorful image, almost a variation of the iconic Piet, of her involved in tender custodianship of her invalid husband and his shoddy bowels, which in my mind at that moment discharged what resembled something close to spat -out chewing tobacco. That image had attained the status of brute fact empirical certitude, to my mind and meant that despite her undeniable hotness, I would not be fucking my former employees very young and very small wife, in any position, and would have to extricate myself from the laundry room and the gentle pinioning of her breasts, by, perhaps, doing something ridiculous. Something off -putting. For example, by telling her that I d empty my joint checking account if she emptied hers first. Or by holding the washcloth up in front of her face and saying, see, look here, I cant because Im on the rag, leaving the washcloth firmly in her Palmolive -softened hands as a souvenir.
40 ARISE THEREFORE Who was present when the gathering of coal miners and local men convened then on the night of June 30, 1875, in the rear room, upper floor of the H. House, Tamaqua borough, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania? Edward Kerrigan, Michael Kenaugh, John Cuin, Sean McAllister, Tom Duffy, and Timothy Connolly; all miners save the last, a manufacturer of agglomerated concrete and an acquaintance of the others due to shared public membership in the Ancient Order of Hibernians and privat e membership in the Molly Maguires. What occupied the six men in the hour and a half prior that had necessitated the interruption of their afternoon discussion? The Workingmans Benevolent Association, a union devoted to the protection, support, and advoca cy of the interests of manual laborers, held a Friday meeting at which the attendance of the six prenominate men was required. How did the six array themselves in the upper rear room of the H. House? Connolly, Kenaugh, and Kerrigan sat on the northward sid e of the centrally positioned maplewood table, and Cuin, Duffy, and McAllister were on the south side. If a bisecting line were drawn down the table north-south, would the resulting arrangement of self -seated men appear symmetrical? No. Timothy Connolly had removed himself to a chair to the right of Kenaugh on account of Connollys olfactory sensitivity to the noisome odors and alcoholic reek wafting from Kenaughs person. Therefore, Connollys selected position put him past the meridian of the table, full y into the western hemisegment of the table, while the others occupied the eastern portion.
41 Of what provenance were the smells emanating from Kenaughs person? Accumulated coal particles from the colliery, the preponderance of which, atomized in the proce ss of mining, had traveled by air onto Kenaughs clothes, skin, and hair, and by the movement of his arms and torso into the uncirculated air of the H. Houses upper rear room. With respect to the alcoholic aspect of Kenaughs aroma, the primary constituents were whiskey (unknown distillery) and a tincture of ale (Anthracite Brewing Company, Scranton, Pennsylvania). What factors bound the six men together, outside their overlapping membership in the union and the Order? Nationality (Irish), creed (Catholic ), income (low), and domain (Girardville and environs). Why did the sextumvirate reconvene in the H. House after having already met earlier that day in a less formal fashion? Michael Kenaugh wished to present to the conclave a certain complaint that invol ved both himself and another party, about whom it would have been imprudent to speak at the earlier meeting, which had been held in a more public venue (the street adjacent to Sean McAllisters house) and during which a general attitude of postprandial rel axation had obtained, so much so that Kenaugh believed it inappropriate to broach the subject that weighed on his mind. Instead, in the course of the union meeting, he had a quiet word with John Cuin and requested an opportunity to air his grievances in a more secluded arena than either Hazelton Street or the meetinghouse of St. Marys church (in which the union provisionally conducted its business). John Cuin had acceded to Kenaughs proposition and stated that the upper rear room at the H. House might be utilized for such a purpose.
42 Did John Cuin suspect the nature of Kenaughs complaint? Yes. John Cuin had been made aware, through diverse channels, that Michael Kenaugh did not regularly conduct himself as a man of probity in his dealings with figures of authority either within or without the collieries, and indeed was not entirely honorable in his behavior towards fellow coal miners and townspeople. How had Kenaughs status as an occasional reprobate been established and transmitted to John Cuin et al.? A gradual accumulation of evidence, principally relayed via three discrete anecdotes. The first comprised two related stories, the events of both having occurred within the bounds of the Chapel Hill colliery: per the popular retelling by other coalworkers, Kenaugh had approached a group of fellow miners sitting around a small fire, upon the slope of a sideshaft, near a large mixed mass of coal and waste rock, and had attempted to warm himself by the fire alongside the other men, but saw that there was no space for him. The circumference of the fires thermal range stood delimited by broad -shouldered men, cheek by jowl with one another, excluding Kenaugh from the heat. To gain access to the fire, Kenaugh had reportedly adduced a full powder keg, carried upon his own broad shoulders, and offered it as argument by placing it squarely onto the hot embers, stating to those in circumflagration that if they would not move, then he would make a place for himself. Frightened by the prospect of the explosion, and the c onsequent burns, deafness, lacerations, dismemberments, and assorted injuries they might suffer, the other miners around the fire scattered to take cover, out of standard blast range of a full powder keg. Kenaugh then withdrew the keg from the embers, sat down upon it, and proceeded to smoke leisurely from his pipe. At another time, indeterminate in the retelling, Kenaugh had deliberately injured a breaker boy in situ by lodging the incisive point of his
43 pickaxe in the boys right foot; whether due to some real or imagined slight, the act had been the subject of widespread speculation, much of which centered on the fact that Kenaugh disliked being observed at his work in the mine, and detested Welshmen, and that those two hatreds had reached an intersection in the person of the breaker boy, whose family reputedly had emigrated from Ceredigion, and who was known to study the various coalworking techniques employed by the miners in the mine. The third and most widely circulated story concerning Kenaughs lack of character dealt with his perhaps accidental but still reprehensible injuring of John McCartins wife. Kenaugh had come home drunk one night and found that he could not gain ingress to his own house: the door was locked and he had forgotten his key. He wa lked around through the alley to the back door of the McCartins, where he knew John McCartin would be, in all probability, sitting up in kitchen, a room that Kenaugh could easily espy through the windows adjacent to the McCartins rear door. As chance or something would have it, after climbing the dozen or so back stairs up to the house, Kenaugh saw John McCartin indeed seated at his kitchen table, in the midst of a tte tte with his wife Sarah, then pregnant, also seated. Kenaugh knocked at the door, s ubsequently opened by Sarah, and requested, as intelligibly as he was able to in his inebriated state, to stay overnight in the McCartins house, perhaps in their front room upon their low -slung couch. In the course of ascending the aforementioned stairway Kenaugh had stumbled three times and lost his equilibrium six times. In crossing the kitchens threshold, Kenaugh wrongfooted himself twice and grasped the posts of the doorway to regain equipoise; he in fact still remained transfixed in the entryway to the kitchen, his right hand resting on the post, buttressing him upright, while Sarah McCartin stood just behind him, in the open doorway, and John McCartin arose with his right hand extended in welcome. Unthinkingly Kenaugh forsook his load-bearing pose a nd swung his right hand around to meet McCartins in a
44 firm shake, but took two large steps backwards to steady himself and in so doing knocked Sarah McCartin, six months pregnant, over the liminal wooden strip of the doorway and down the two flights of s tairs. How did Sarah McCartin fall? 8 feet vertically, extended across the 6 -foot cathetus of the stairway, a diagonal distance of 10 feet total, bruising her arms, legs, and neck on the wooden railings and the blue slats of the stairs. Did she recover q uickly? Delivered her baby within the week. What was the character of the delivery? Premature. Who of the other four men were aware of the three foregoing histories in re Kenaugh? Kerrigan, McAllister, and Duffy. Connolly only knew the first two. This co uld be attributed to Connollys status as a bachelor, since the third anecdote had traveled mainly via the distaff network of wives and young mothers. How did the meeting open? John Cuin addressed the five men in his baritone voice, and spoke succinctly a bout the need for ongoing vigilance with respect to the prejudicial behavior of the Coal and Iron policemen and the mine supervisors and managers. Cuins peroration included a reminder to all men that they ought keep an eye on their fellow miners, to prote ct them when protection was warranted, to assist them underground and aboveground, since by his lights their shared nationality and creed made it incumbent upon each of the six present to do his duty and lend a fellow Irishman a hand when a hand was needed.
45 Where were the mens hands during Cuins exhortation? Cuins on the table, clasped; Kerrigans left hand pulling on his mustache, right hand lying flat on the table; Kenaughs right hand engaged in exploration of right nostril, left hand clenched in a digiform circle or loose fist on his knee; McAllisters steepled together; Duffys only partially present: sixty percent of the left -hand metacarpals and thirty percent of the right hand phalanges having been blown off in an accident two years prior, the m anumitted pieces now decomposing in the Chapel Hill slurry: his surviving hand-shapes were folded carefully on the table; Connollys in his pockets. What were the contents of Connollys pockets? A billfold that contained three bills totaling eleven dollar s (Connollys wages for the week), a prayer card that depicted Saint Aloysius Gonzaga in orison, and a small penknife he had inherited from his father. Did Kenaugh present his complaint to the conclave? Yes. Following on the heels of Cuins opening remark s, Kenaugh began his rambling disquisition. He detailed the facts of the matter: on several evenings in the late spring and early summer, while walking home from the Black Harp (a local bar frequented by all miners), he had been accosted by one Patrick McC arron, Girardville policeman and night watchman, and had been given a hard time, specifically by the patrolmans billy club, which McCarron has used to beat a harsh tattoo upon Kenaughs crown. Kenaugh, in his calumny, painted McCarron as a cowering lapdog of the mine owners, a man who had forgotten his own blood, a man who derived the entirety of his days pleasure from the beatings he administered to the coal blackened, the exhausted, the hungry, and the injured. Kenaugh continued to cast aspersions
46 upon McCarrons character, for the benefit of the five others who listened, or appeared to listen, in the upper rear room of the H. House, saying that he had heard tell of McCarrons inability to take the Eucharist because of an unabsolvable sin he had committe d a sin for which there was apparently no penance the priest could formulate and deliver for McCarron to cleanse his peccable soul. Kenaugh, in concluding his diatribe, stated that his complaint deserved consideration, perforce his position as the body-mas ter of the Hazelton lodge of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and that retribution should be carried to McCarrona sinister man whom he compared to the Protestant landlords, and to the English, who had made their Irish ancestors into hungry ghosts with all celerity and severity. At the end of his oratio recta, Kenaugh added that he put the matter before the other five with well -felt humility, and would respect their surely just decision, since they were to his mind men of prudence and sound judgment. Whose mannerisms and rhetoric had Kenaugh inadvertently mimicked? Those of John Siney, then head of the Workingmens Benevolent Association, whom Kenaugh had observed speak on many occasions, the most salient of which being the aftermath of the Avondale mine fi re, six years prior, when Siney had called for the men to heed the manifest warning of the tragedy and join the union. What did the other five men ponder during the course of Kenaughs monologue? Cuins thoughts spread over a wide variety of topics, hinge d together by the weakest connective tissue: he thought primarily of his dislike of Kenaugh, then realized that those thoughts were not conducive to fraternity, which provoked him to memories of his own brother, long dead, buried in Wicklow, and he remembe red the way in which the grave marker, in the few years between his brothers burial and his own emigration, had been encroached upon at its border by grass which seemed to reach inward toward the center of the marker as if striving to
47 excise the alien pre sence of the gravestone. Kerrigan thought of the nights he had enjoyed at the Black Harp, in the company of other miners, and the draughts of A. B. ale he had ingested, the many pints, put end to end, he saw then with amusement stretching from Schuylkill c ounty downstate into the city, a snaking trail of ale. McAllister carefully considered Kenaughs words and how much they reminded him, in an oblique way, of the hymns derived from the Old Testament, but realized that Kenaugh was not a man whom he would def end if it came to a showdown, under other circumstances. Kenaughs rage was an earthly rage, a secular anger, a petty anger like a childs, but he was as alone in this country as any of them, and that outweighed much of McAllisters attendant misgivings. D uffy at the outset had ruminated upon his experience of the Avondale mine fire, moved in this direction by the resemblance of Kenaughs speech to that of John Siley. The Avondale disaster had occurred before his own disfiguring accident, so at the time he did not have the perspective he currently possessed, but Duffy recalled how fastidiously and vividly he had identified with the trapped miners, how he had imagined their burning and what it must have felt like, the flames that took as their fuel the blacke ned ichor of the earth the inverse of the heatless tongues coolly flickering on the anointed heads of the Apostles consuming bodies with ceaseless vigor, a subterranean pyre. At the start of the Avondale fire, he had been working outside the colliery, a fe w hundred yards or so from the breaker head, and he heard a great sound like the rushing of water or air through a small space, but magnified to an unnatural degree, and he turned and saw a tail of flame shooting from the mouth of the shaft, singeing the w ood frame of the breaker head, erupting. It was after that point that there were extensive lacunae in his memories, stretches of time where his mind must have been silent, for he retained from the later events of that day only two images: women crying mothers, sisters, lovers singing out for Gods mercy; and that column of flame, blown up through
48 a topside airhole, smoke limned and red -churning against the sky, a sign of nothing holy or providential. Connollys mind had tended to thoughts of his companions at the table, to their acts and their words. He was not close to any of the other five, working a different job of labor as he did: he spent his days joining stone together, where they spent theirs cleaving it apart. He could not figure what impact their d ecision today, regarding Kenaughs complaint, would have on the conditions of their lives, how the destruction of one cowardly lickspittle of a watchman could effect a change in their existence, which seemed to him immutably thin, tenuous, and desperate in this new country. Connolly found that his thoughts often moved mercurially, and he amended his line of thinking: perhaps, he conjectured to himself, what they decided today would bring some good into being; the deed might lift not just Kenaughs heart but the hearts of others as well, and he pictured them a hundred hearts, disembodied, arrayed, a beating congregation. Maybe their decision would embed them thereafter in the memory of the people in this place, and Connolly had a fleeting vision of the six of them sunk into concrete, conglomerated together in the yield: Cuin Connolly Kerrigan Kenaugh McAllister Duffy, an ashen, uneven monument fit to stand in a holy spot set aside. How did the men vote when the vote was called for? All six in the affirmative What was Kenaughs reaction to the outcome? A single nod, two firm tugs upon his beard, and a statement that he desired a clean job of it. He said he knew a fellow who could provide the firearms, but that still left them wanting the hands to perform the action. Kenaugh requested that the other five tender two names for the deed, two men who had no acquaintance or familiarity with the situation or the patrolman McCarron.
49 Why did Kenaugh place such a qualification on his request? When similar complaints, precisely twenty -eight in number, had been placed in the charge of preceding conclaves, the temptation had arisen to allow the aggrieved party to dispatch the punishment himself, a temptation that had been too alluring to resist on seventeen of those previ ous occasions; which choice had led directly to the arrest, prosecution and incarceration of three others, and the capture and killing of another three men. Since the death of that sixth man, those in the conclaves had posited a solution: for any act ordai ned as just reprisal, the members chosen to make the attack must be disinterested, unknown to the intended victim, and preferably from outside the relevant county. How many names ran through the minds of the other five? Four hundred ninety -six names, of w hich one hundred twenty were unique (only occurring once across the mental tallies of the five men), the majority of which were known to John Cuin, renowned for his ability to address almost any miner by his both Christian and surname. Why were certain na mes discarded in favor of others? For lack of trustworthiness, for evidence of acquaintance with Kenaugh or McCarron, for weakness, for dogmatic beliefs, for intractability, for viciousness, for eccentricity, for turpitude, for profligacy, for unreliabilit y, for apostasy, for ugliness, for laziness, for heaviness, for hirsuteness, for decrepitude, for stupidity, for afflictions, for connections, for attachments, for propinquity, for enmity. How many names did the five men, all except Kenaugh, produce as li kely candidates? Two each. Ten total.
50 Who were the ten total? John Doyle (miner) and Finn ODonnell (miner), via John Cuin; Brendan Murphy (butcher) and Colin Walsh (miner), via Kerrigan; Riley OBrien (miner) and Tim Finnegan (miner), via McAllister; Da niel Ryan (driver) and Nolan Kelly (miner), via Duffy; and Flann Kehoe (miner) and Gerald Connolly (miner), via Connolly. Was the last of the ten names offered any relation to Timothy Connolly? Yes. Gerald Connolly was the younger brother of Timothy, born in Coolea, County Cork, four years after the birth of Timothy, and recently transplanted to Pittston, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, where he worked at the Lattimer Concrete Co., placed in that position of employ by Timothy Connolly a fortnight after Gerald Connollys arrival. Why did Timothy put forward the name of his younger brother Gerald, particularly given the fact that Gerald had only recently started to find his feet in his job and in the town? Timothy believed his brother to be the best -suited man for the job. He fit the general criteria: disinterested, a stranger to all and sundry in Schuylkill County, Irish, Catholic, young, strong, smart, and dependable. Timothy also hypothesized that, if Gerald were to deliver himself of this duty, i.e. accompli sh the task fully and satisfactorily, he would position himself correctly on an inner orbit of the AOH, where he, Timothy, might collude with him in the promotion of both their interests. It was all well and good that the members referred to each other as brothers, but it was another thing altogether, Timothy thought, to have ones own actual brother close by. Which two of the ten names were chosen? Finn ODonnell (miner) and Gerald Connolly (miner).
51 How many obscenities were uttered in the course of t he aforementioned discussion? Fifty -five. Most numerous were those that urged the Lord God, in some fashion, to curse a person or thing. Who was elected to instruct the two men about the planned action? John Cuin, being the body-master of the Girardville lodge, the most senior master in the four county area. What integral details did Kenaugh supply that were to be relayed to the two assassins? The hour and path of McCarrons nighttime beat; the optimal points of attack upon the beat; the name and address of the man who could provide two .32 caliber pistols; the address of a house to which the two men could flee, if circumstances necessitated, after the action; the exact wording of the spoken message to be delivered to McCarron just prior to the discharge of the weapons. What was the wording of the message? Noli nos tangere : Do not touch us. How had Kenaugh arrived at such a form for the sentiment? He had memorized it after hearing the same said by John Siley at a Workingmens Benevolent Association. Kenau gh, when he intoned the message, pronounced the words No-lee, naus tankray. When the conclave was adjourned and the meeting came to its end, how did the six men exit the upper rear room of the H. House? In a procession, down the stairs: Kenaugh, Kerrigan McAllister, Connolly, Duffy, and Cuin. The last -named locked the door of the room behind him and followed the rest to the first floor and out the building.
52 What did the men see, as they walked down the front steps of the H. House on the night of June 30th ? The dirt in the street, horses high -stepping past in staccato clip -clop, men they knew and men they didnt dark in night and coal -blast as they walked home from the mines, and the full June moon, the strawberry moon, partly obscured by the cleft of a c loudbank, weakly red as an old ember, commending them all, they thought, with its reflected light.
53 LUZERNE Through the smudged window of the classroom, Edward could see the sun shining on the hill of the school. His classmates were still standing, talking. Afternoon break had been over for five minutes, but the teacher had not yet returned. They were supposed to be reviewing their history books. Edward refused to read the textbook unless he was forced to, but the sitting down was his concession. Better to be at least halfway obedient rather than stupidly rebellious, he figured. Edward looked down at his left hand, which was covered in faded, bleeding ink lines. Directions home. Three days into the school year and he still could not r emember how to get back to his house. It was getting harder not to wash the hand, but he was too ashamed to ask his mother to redraw the map. Sweat had turned his tiny palm into a mess of tangled blue lines, like one of his own drawings. When the teacher finally returned to the classroom and saw the students milling about the room, his features twisted into an unfamiliar arrangement, a different version of his standard angry face. Children! Take your seats immediately! he shouted. He smoothed the folds in his vest. Im shocked to see that none of you knows the rules about break yet. He walked slowly back and forth in front of the chalkboard, then marched up and down each row of desks. How is it that Edward Connolly knew to sit down at 1:30 and the re st of you did not? Edward could feel his head grow hot. This would not win him any friends, he knew. He whispered a slight prayer into his cupped hands to the Holy Mother Mary, asking her to please stop the teacher from mentioning him by name and to do her best to protect him from any beatings his classmates might have in store for him after school. In exchange, he promised to
54 stop swearing under his breath and gave his word that he wouldnt tell his little brother any ghost stories for a month. Edward f elt the wall furnace kick on, felt the shimmer of its heat burning through his shirt to his elbow. It was still early September, and the weather had not yet turned cold. He took the furnaces awakening as a sign. Saint Aloysius Grade School sat halfway up one of the highest hills in the county, above the town, above the river, above everything save the true mountains. When Edward walked through the doors at dismissal time, he could feel the tumble of the hill tugging at him, the pull of the town and his home somewhere down below. The sun was strong and bright that afternoon, as it often was up near the school; it shone so hard sometimes that Edward thought it almost made a noise as it struck the trees and grass. In the summer, when they had first moved to t he town, he had asked his father why the hill was always so sunny, and his father had told him that it was because of the coal in the ground, that the sun was striving for it just like the miners, that the sun could feel the blackness of the veins of coal rolling through the unbeating heart of the hill. Edward did not believe this explanation. The sun knew nothing, and had no need for coal. Edward shaded his eyes with his hand as he left the school building and walked down the footworn path. Hey, Connoll y, an unfamiliar voice shouted from behind him, somewhere back up the path. Edward looked over his shoulder and saw three boys from his class. One he knew was a Lithuanian boy, who spoke English in a slanted, deliberate way. The other two looked messy, an d were dressed in clothes like Edwards. The way they had said his last name made it difficult for Edward to tell if they were truly angry or merely irritated. The group walked towards him.
55 What? What do you want? Edward said. He thought it best to be on the defensive, considering what had happened that afternoon. He knew that obeying school rules, regardless of motivation, was a cardinal sin in the eyes of his classmates. Thought you were so smart, didnt you? one of the boys said, walking in front of the other two. Not smarter than you. I just wanted to sit down. Edward watched the three boys circle around him. He felt a kind of twisting and pulling in his stomach. He was nervous already about following the directions home, and he did not want to have to fight. The boy talking to him had long, thin brown hair and a pale, fat face. Edward thought that the boys head looked too big for his body. Think youre better than us, huh? Your dad works in the mine just like ours do. Here the boy poked Edwards chest, right in the middle button of his shirt. Youre no better. No, Edward answered. Never said I was. The other boy took a step back and looked at Edward, judged how hard he was. He motioned to his two companions, who walked over and sto od next to him. They whispered to each other and the Lithuanian boy pointed toward the mountains. They seemed to come to an agreement. Edward did not want to wait any longer, did not want to hear what they would say next, and turned to leave down the path. Wait there, Connolly. If youre the same as all us, you can get a little dirty. Cmon. I cant. I have to get home. Edward was tired, and was not as afraid of these boys as they probably thought he was. His father had taught him to box, had taught him how to swing and turn his fist to break a nose or shatter a cheekbone.
5 6 If you dont come, well beat you and your little brother every time we see you alone. The fat boy smiled and mimed some punches to illustrate. Rocks, sticks, nails, bottles. W hatever, well use it. Edward realized with a cold shiver how much of a stone fool he was. He knew he should have just kept on walking, followed the directions on his hand until he reached his tall, narrow home at the bottom of the hill, near the river. If they wanted a fight, he could deal with it, probably hurt one or two of them. It was fine for them to threaten him alone, but he didnt want to risk his little brother, who was too young and too small, and who could not defend himself in any way. He would go with them, he decided. The colliery buildings were up on the right side of the path that the boys walked upon. Edward had been up there twice with his father in the summer, and knew where the entrance to the mines was, but the boys were hiking thr ough the woods in a different direction, and had steered off towards the left, along an alternate cut in the trail. No one had spoken since they left the school, and Edward felt the still, heavy atmosphere of a mistake every time he breathed in deeply. The sky was purple through the trees, branches looked thick and painted against the color of the sunset. Maybe the others were tired, he thought, and that was why the silence. After they had gone another fifteen minutes of walking past the colliery, they came to a small, clear area, spread out with gravel and fist -sized rocks. It was a braitch hole, an unused airshaft. It was jagged and small, five feet across at most. Edward had heard stories from both his father and his mother about people, usually drunk and young, who had been injured in a braitch hole, trying to climb down late at night, without lights, without any knowledge of the hole or the way it laid within the ground. They gathered around the edge.
57 There it is, said the boy with the fat face. S ure looks deep, the other one said, and grinned. The Lithuanian boy merely stared at Edward. Scared? No, said Edward. Ive seen it before. He was lying, and he hoped the others couldnt tell. Im going home now. It was just starting to turn dar k, and there were more than three miles of path between this hole and his house. Edward glanced quickly at his palm. He would have to try to memorize the directions before the light failed completely. The Lithuanian boy grabbed his wrist. Look, he said, and turned Edwards hand so that the others could see the palm. What is that, Connolly? They squinted their eyes at the lines. Drawin pictures on your hand? Edward pulled his arm back hard. Its none of your worry, he said. He rubbed his wrist w ith his fingers. Well, said the fat boy, go ahead. Edward looked at him to see what he meant. The fat boy narrowed his eyes. Weve all been in there. Now you have to climb down. If youre just like us, then youll climb down. He took a few careful steps towards Edward and pointed to the braitch hole, across his own chest. Youre new. Your familys new. If you come from coal, he paused and kicked a small rock forward, youll prove it. Edward recalled seeing his father come home from work, exhaus ted, glazed over with black dust, as if his body had been traced over with a pencil again and again. He knew who and what his family was. He wanted to be back with them then, with his brother and his mother in the kitchen, setting the table for dinner. In their old town, they had eaten meals with their neighbors,
58 had picnicked with people from their parish, played with children from other counties. This town was different, worse. No one spoke to them after church on Sunday except the priest. His father was often upset, seemed unsure and imbalanced. He spent much of his time at home either asleep or absorbed in the Bible. His mother complained about the way she was received by everyone, in shops, and in the streets. This town was strict. It was not easily imp ressed. Edward looked up at the sky, at the ribbon of twilight still in it. He could not imagine how things would ever be better, how he could bypass this time and this place. There seemed to be no way around it. If Edward could have seen just for a seco nd, somehow, in a mirage or vision or epiphany, the way his life would be, the person that he would become in thirty years, his adult Edward self, and the long, wending, incandescent progression of events that drew its own way from that moment to the next and to the next, and how insignificant this hole was, how ruthlessly petty and tiny these people were, if he could have seen it, glimpsed it like the sun through a sheer bank of clouds, and realized how quickly he would forget this town the town and the so ft, brown water in the river and the gray rising scope of the mountains and the ink lines drawn gently on his hand by his mother scraped away by the hard, hard coal, by those stillborn diamonds dusty and black; if he could have known, at that moment, that one day he would forget all of it, he might not have chosen to lower himself into the hole, inch by inch, gingerly, with tense arms and a grimace of effort, down into the hole, a sweat bead hanging on the length of his eyelash, his legs scrambling optimistically for rocks, into the dark hole, not knowing how or if he would land or where he would emerge, his heart beating the ribs of his small chest with a primal thump, further down into the dark, quiet hole. If he could have seen it, he would not have clung there to a shorn, black edge, suspended in earth, transfixed. He would have risen confidently, and walked quickly and silently to his home, with the mountain at his back, and the town there below him at his feet.
59 THE NEW SHIPWRIGHTS We had bombed Lebanon for four weeks, and so that was thirty days about where we had nothing to eat but rice and beans, day in and day out, no meat to speak of on the whole ship. Well, not all true. There was meat for the officers, but only liver. That liver was spoken for by t he COs. They snuck it around, and tried to keep it from the rest of us. The Eisenhower reasoning in 1958 went that officers needed meat to think straight, particularly in the midst of Operation Blue Bat, and since I didnt have any, I must have been thinki ng dead wrong. I was sick as hell of rice and beans. One day, towards the end of the shelling, four or five days before we stopped, I went snooping around the back rooms of the mess hall. I saw a piece of liver, limp and cold, but I took it and stuffed it right in my pocket. Jammed it in my pants. I knew one of the furnace rooms below was always empty, so I went down there and figured Id cook the liver up. In the furnace, if I had to. I was starved enough that I would have eaten just about any form of mea t imaginable: seagull, rat, anything with muscle. This was not a fine piece of meat, not even a fine piece of liver. I put it in one of the tool pans lying around the furnace room, and I cooked that meat in the dregs of what I poured out of a fuel oil can, on the head of a furnaces mud drum. I thought it would make me sick, but I was hungry enough that I didnt care one ounce. There were more pressing concerns, I can say: hunger pangs that echoed in my gut. Some of the other guys smelled it, obviously it m ust have stunk to high heaven, and they came and barged in on me while I was sitting there tending the liver, flipping it in the pan with my bare fingers. I had to fight them off, those jackals wanted a piece of it, telling me how they were done with rice and beans, how they were all famished. The officers told us later that our meat had been sent on to Beirut, for the people there, and that was why we had to make time with plain rice and beans, neat. So my shipmates were packed in the furnace room staring at me
60 while the liver is frying up black in the pan, because of the oil, and I had to tell them no, get back or go to hell, I didnt care which, I wanted to eat that entire piece of liver, stem to stern, ab ovo usque ad mala as Sister Theresa used to say, it was mine, my dinner. The other guys could see I meant business, and how much business I meant, so most left me well enough alone, and some stuck around to see how I was going to eat that pan -charred liver. There were no utensils in the furnace room, th at should go without saying, so I found one small dirty wrench, and used that to cut up the meat, which I grabbed with my fingertips and blew on until it had cooled enough that I could stand to have it in my mouth, touching my tongue. Each piece was soaked with whatever fuel oil they used in the furnace rooms of destroyers, so who knows what kind of damage I did to myself. I might have been the only sailor, enlisted sailor, to eat a filet of anything that entire month, and it showed in how bent out of shape everyone else got over that liver, that my closest buddies, even Floyd, thanks to some smartass, began calling me Eagle Eddy, since I had scavenged that meat straight out of the mess and pocketed it down to the furnace to eat it alone. Rice and beans eve ry day though, some of the guys said they felt like they were legally Mexican by practice. We got so thin even a medium gale would have knocked over half the sailors on the ship if we were standing on main deck. After the bombing in Lebanon was done, the o fficers must have known we were getting antsy, not to mention malnourished, and they announced next port as Barcelona and three-day leave once we got there, and we were all, to a man, bowled over by that news. Not one of us had set foot on land since Toulo n and Lord knows we had all had our fill of being on a sailing ship at sea. Spain was another place altogether, and I eventually found my way around Barcelona better than I ever got around Philadelphia, and that was even while Floyd and I drank a heavy
61 lo ad at the bars and wandered all over the old town of the city. I hung out with Floyd more than the other guys because I picked him out as a coal -cracker from day one on the ship. By the words he used and the way he said them, I recognized him as from anthr acite country from the get -go, and then I overheard him tell an ensign how he was booted from Kings College in Wilkes Barre, and that sealed it. We were thick as thieves from there on out, and in Barcelona we ended up walking that talk. Most of the guys went all over the map, stumbling from bar to bar, trying to pick up whatever they could for free, drinks and girls, or chicas both, but Floyd and I were much too lazy for a drinking tour, and we stuck with one bar until we had tied one on tight. My genera l drinking hierarchy went from gin martinis to straight gin to Canadian whiskey to Irish whiskey to beer to whatever local sauce was on hand, whereas Floyd drank only any brown liquor or nothing at all. Once we sat down in a bar, we stayed sitting in that bar. On the first day of leave in Barcelona after we had both wolfed down three full plates of thin, spicy ham, jamon, that hit the spot Floyd and I had boozed our way into a late afternoon funk, one of those stretched-out, violet hour lethargies, and the bartender just took change out of our initial twenties and laid the drinks out on the bar, spilling whiskey on the bills, foreign and domestic mixed, and Floyd must have been about as bored as I was, or something about that place just did not fit, so when he slammed down a shot and stared off through the open door, I thought we were on the make for something else entirely. I packed up my cash and pushed back from the bar, and made a point to brush my coins toward the bartender, who nodded thanks with close d eyes. I crammed my money in a wad into my wallet and tapped Floyd on the shoulder kid was three months younger than I was, so I could call him kid, and he was a full foot shorter, stout, with black hair, a broken looking bent up nose, and he got excited by the
62 most unpredictable shit. He would fly into a rage at the mention of the easiest jobs of work the officers assigned, and then other times, like when there was a fight in the mess, he sat still, placid, praying maybe, he was spiritual, minding his own thoughts. I put two fingers on Floyds shoulder and he fell off his stool, close to cracking his head on the corner of a little hardwood table. He smacked the dust off his pants and his uniform, and we hustled out of the bar, back into the street, where I wanted to wander down nearer the water, so that wed be only a stones throw from the ships dock whenever it was that we got fully and truthfully drunk. As unriled as he had been in the bar, Floyd seemed stirred by the fresh air, brightened, and he strolled down the avenue, and I hung back a bit from him, since the sidewalks were narrow and we made way, like right sailors, for the civilians coming through. I asked Floyd what had him feeling so blue -skied and clear, and he told me he had gotten wind of a promising opportunity from some of the guys who had done leave in Barcelona before, they had told him to go aboard the Santa Mariathis was not the real one, Floyd made sure to inform me, but a replica that the Spanish had constructed at some point after t he war and floated as a museum for tourists. I objected by reminding Floyd that we had just spent three months locked on a ship and there was no joy that I could find in willfully burning our free time by knocking around at dusk on an old, fake ship. He c ollared me and pulled me over to an alley next to the sidewalk. I swatted away his hands. Floyds face was flushed, and he was working his mouth around as if he had a lipper of tobacco in his cheeks. He said he had to come away from Barcelona with a souve nir for his little brother, really wanted to bring a foreign thing back for his little brother, Michael, who played football at the same elementary school that Floyd had attended in Pittston, and more than anything Floyd had set his sights on going to the Santa Maria, because he had heard from a snotty ensign that on
63 board the Santa Maria stood a full life statue of Christopher Columbus, and on the explorers head was a loosely secured metal helmet, which Floyd had convinced himself would fit roundly on his little brothers fullback head. I told Floyd I thought we were in Saint Judes patronage there, and that he would be better off if he and I went down to the bars next to the port, where I would stand him at least one round, maybe more. I thought that ther e was no end to the hell we would catch from the officers if we carried it off and they got a whiff of what we had done. Floyd pulled up short of my nose and told me to consider the jam he was in, how important it was that his little brother, Michael, hav e this helmet, and he wondered why I could not see how absolutely central this souvenir was to him. He felt it necessary to remind me of my own little brother, Tommy, about whom I had spoken at length when we were out on the town in Toulon, and Floyd rambl ed about how he would do the same turn for me, if I were in his shoes and it was Tommy who played football and lived his young life in Pittston. Barcelonan passersby were looking in sideways to the alley the whole time and I noticed the mothers that caugh t sight of us shooed their blondhaired children onward with both hands. I agreed to go so that we could leave the damn alley, and because I thought that no matter the circumstances or pressure upon him, Floyd could not produce a plan that would result in two sailors, both half in the bag, successfully looting a national museum of Christopher Columbus statues helmet. We found our wayafter a half -hour of blind guesses at what streets to take, and after exercising the patience of strangers with our collab orative, jazzy Spanish over to the false Santa Maria, which was stiff -docked at a short wharf and which overflowed with tourists. Floyds grand plan for the theft of Columbus helmet involved two steps, or three steps if you included the getaway, and seeme d to have been informed heavily by cartoons and Westerns, but
64 as he had told me while we walked our feet flat in the city, it was simple, and what I had to do was distract the guards while he grabbed Columbus hat, and then he would whistle as a signal and wed take off to sit down at some dark hole in the wall where we could drink diligently. I got cold feet as soon as I started walking up the gangplank to the entrance, but Floyd kept jabbing me in the back, pushing me past skinny kids in shorts and cluste rs of laughing couples. When we got on deck, I realized how large the ship was, since it provided ample room for at least the fiftysome people who were still touring and inspecting the rigging, cleats, and cordage of the fake Santa Maria. We took it all i n for a minute, astounded by the scope of the shipbuilding, before Floyd broke off and waved me over to the below decks stairway. I followed him down the worn stairs and we came into a huge room, a converted and expanded cabin room, in the center of which, there was no mistaking, stood the statue of Columbus, on a low black pedestal. If Floyds heart was revved as bad as mine was, he did not let on, but he took a turn around the room, cruising for the guards and staring at that helmet, whistling like a dandy on the promenade. I planted myself against a wall display of historical maps and watched the crowd. It was thinning out, and there was a line going up the stairs on the opposite end of the room, but I counted enough witnesses still present that out of that number there surely existed a fleet -footed Columbus fan who would brook no desecration of the explorer, especially not by two American sailors. When Floyd slid over next to me, he had a loopy grin on his face, and he jerked a thumb over towards an elaborate glass case on the far side of the room that looked like it was filled with knotted ropes, upon the corner of which case, on his elbow, a stocky guy with a gray uniform leaned. That was the only guard, Floyd told me, and he assured me that he had scrut inized every face in the hall for the telltale satisfied hardness that accompanies bored authority, and found no
65 other possible obstacles for our little caper. So now I was on. Floyd slunk off to work his way next to the statue, and he camped next to the p edestal so he could gaze up deeply into the bronze eyes of Columbus. The plan went that he would wait for my distraction to sink in before scrambling up to snatch the helmet, which he was somehow certain had not been actually welded to the statues head. I walked over to a corner near where the guard stood and coughed a few times to loosen my voice. I clapped hard, took a deep breath, and yelled in Spanish at the top of my lungs the strungtogether small phrases I knew, los ojos de la muerte, mi amor, distu rbing gobbledygook mixed in with what I hoped would be interpreted by the crowd and the guard as an imposition of the Spiritus Sancti. The guard ran over to put his hands on me, and several older women shuffled closer to see who my love was, and whether or not they too could catch a glimpse of the eyes of death. I yelled more intensely when the guard tried to calm me down, and I tried to listen for Floyds signal, but there was too much chattering among the Barcelonans for me to pick out an American whistle from the background mishmash of foreign languages. I had the frightening thought, while the guard forced me to the wooden floor, that the goddamn helmet must have been welded to the statues head, how could it not be, there was no rationale for a loose br onze helmet, and I imagined Floyd perched on Columbus shoulders, pulling at the curved edges of the thing, straining at the welds, and that was why he was taking so long with the whistle. My throat cracked and I felt raw, so I had to stop yelling. The gua rd let me get to my feet. I rubbed my face and brushed some dirt and splinters off my pants and looked around for Floyd. Nothing doing. He wasnt in the crowd. I squinted and wrinkled my nose, and opened my eyes wide, to show everyone that I was recovering from my spiritual cramping. When I got a little clear of the knot of people around me, I saw that the little black -haired bastard had done it,
66 the helmet was gone, there were only stray, broken bindings at the crown of Columbus head, and no one had yet noticed it. I paid a quick Gracias to the guard, and took the stairs running, back out onto the deck, where I checked for Floyd again, and half -expected to see an albatross roosting on the Santa Marias yardarm, but there were only gulls and no visible tra ce of Floyd. We were successful New World marauders of the Old World. Since the ultimate step in his plan required our getting away to a side -street bar, I thought Id follow through on Floyds orders and meet up with him back at the ship, and he could jus t owe me for what Id drink. I walked up the Carrer dAnnibal and slumped into a bar on one of the corners, and decided myself tired and rich enough to drink straight gin, which I did for the rest of the night, until the place closed and a fat barman andale d me out on to the sidewalk. If I had not been so exhausted, I might have half -hearted my way to another bar and maybe to a hotel, or into a girls any girls bed, but I was too curious about Floyd to try my luck, so I watched my feet walk all the way b ack to the port, to the USS Hopewell parked right where I left it. When I got to my bunk, some of the other guys were carrying on about their nights, girls, and liquor -work, and I had to shout to make myself heard over their noise. I asked if they had se en Floyd. I asked if they had come across him anywhere in the city. Seager raised his hand and said hed heard some of the officers talking about a hubbub in the infirmary between Floyd and one of the COs. Since he was in the infirmary, I guessed that mean t the poor son of a bitch had been caught and beaten, or tripped and fell on his escape from the Santa Maria, or had gotten drunk and forgotten how to walk straight. There was nothing I could do about it, unless I did a bust up to a limb on purpose, I woul dnt have gotten into the infirmary that late at night, or at all, without a serious injury. I climbed into bed, uniform on, and pulled the covers up to my chin, and
67 rolled up next to the bulkhead. A row of gray rivets was almost within kissing distance fr om my lips, and that was the way I liked to lie down. I fell asleep that night thinking of how I would escape the Navy, if it were up to me, skip out on that last year, maybe become a shipwright, building hulls deep enough to hold the houses and yards of neighborhoods, whole families of sailors sailing grandparents, sailing children, sailing dogs, I could build ships for everyone, wrapped tight both in layers of heartwood and sheets of metal, sailing with sails, sailing with turbines, from ports -of -call to ports. I saw Floyd two days later, after we had left Barcelona. He told me how hed run all the way back to the ship with Christophers helmet tucked under his arm, cutting into his ribs. He said he slipped on the stairs from the main deck and dropped th e helmet and a CO had been right down the hallway, up late with insomnia. Floyd tried to talk his way out of it, and the CO didnt seem to know enough to know what Floyd had was stolen, but he saw that it was old, heavy, and not a standard souvenir, and that an enlisted man was drunk or deranged in his presence, so he grabbed the helmet and walked up on main deck and threw it off the side of the ship into the ocean. Floyd said he made a move to dive in after it, but the CO tackled him on the deck and pinned him down for a second. Floyd said he got up, took a swing and missed, and woke up in the white sheets of the infirmary with nothing to speak of but a bruised hip and a broken tooth. I told him I could believe it, and I told him that while it might be a fa ct that all boats rise together in a high tide, the opposite is also true.
68 PRAXINOSCOPE Biographical Speculation, Part One As he watched her dip and twirl on the parquet floor, the young man thought about how she had been shaped, how a million unr emarkable events determined the face, the weight, the hair, and the height of the exact person he saw. She was, he thought, an unbelievable configuration of skin, muscle, and bone. She danced with one of the older members of the country club, a beblazered, white -haired gentleman who couldnt quite pull off the wrist -wrought turns and twists that he was putting her through. The contrast between her polite grace and the older mans limby, arthritic movements was stark and unignorable. But the young man notic ed how she smiled widely, and had a curlicued, skittering laugh. Interview One The Club Pro: There was no doubt in my mind that he had enough talent at least to enter the Open qualifier. Swing like that? Its natural, no way to teach it. At a certain p oint, it comes down to the way your bodys put together, the twine of your ligaments, the way your bones stand, length of your arms and such. Some of it depends on how you played as a kid too not just golf, all the sort of activities you use to while away a long afternoon. Baseballs good for it. Swimming too. Really anything with some fluidity in the movements. Id bet money it was the chores his old man gave him when he was a kid, especially splitting logs for firewood after school and such. Told me about that once or twice. Must have hated it, but swinging that axe made him right for this game. Before that arm injury, he never lost a tournament here at the club that I know of lost plenty of bets, plenty of balls like we all do but when it came down to bra ss tacks, he was clutch as hell.
69 Biographical Speculation, Part Two He was sitting at one of the round tables near the bar, directly adjacent to the dance floor, suit jacket on his chair back, tie slightly loosened. The song stopped and the couples wound down slowly, dropping their poses. She walked straight to the bar, her gown shooshing quietly as she went past. He heard her say, Gin and tonic, please. He thought about going up to her right then, but hesitated some slight note of exhaustion in her voi ce made him check himself. He got up, grabbed his jacket and whisked it onto his back in one quick motion, shot his cuffs out just a bit. She noticed him, as she turned away from the bartender, but only as a brisk movement that got caught in the very corne r of her eye. He stood before the framed mirror in the bathroom and washed his hands, then shook off the water and smoothed his hair back. He evaluated his reflection for a moment, and assumed the expression that he hoped he always wore when he thought no one was looking. The band had just started up again, and he felt the misty heat of the party on his face as he re-entered the ballroom. Interview Two The Brother: You have to understand something about your dad: he didnt rush into things. When he wa s ten and I was eight, I remember our dad, your grandpa, asked us to make a list for Santa Claus. This was a couple days after Thanksgiving, and we were still swimming in leftovers. I think I finished my list within an hour ran to my room and broke out the loose -leaf and pencil ASAP. Your dad on the other hand deliberated for weeks, he sweated over this list, pored over it at night, after school, whenever he had a free minute. Wrote it out in that neat little cursive he had. I think he finally turned it in maybe a few days before Christmas, and asked Dad to put a rush on it at the post office so it would get to the North Pole on time. I asked him what had taken him so long to do it, and he said to me, in all seriousness, I didnt want to make any bad
70 choice s. Ten years old! You would have thought he was filing the familys taxes or writing his will. Now that you know that, you can maybe see why the thing with Elizabeth was such a shock to everyone it was so fast. The way he just jumped into it, how quick and intense it was, and the way it ended, of course. Entirely out of character, all of it. I know now, looking back, that even though I was too young to realize it, the person I saw then, with her, was the clearest, most important version of your father. Oka y, when I say that, I mean that you could almost look at his life like it was a triptych. There was the way your father was before, and the way he was after, but its what happened in that space in between thats what really happened and mattered to him. I dont want to put too fine a point on it, but youre old enough to hear this. Thats what I think when I think about my brother. Biographical Speculation, Part Three He had diagrammed on a cocktail napkin the exact path he would take when he walked up to her and asked her to dance. This flightplan, crumpled up in his jacket pocket now, was one of those nervously fashioned souvenirs of his own insecurity, and the next day, or whenever he found it again and realized what it was, he knew he would burn, momen tarily, with embarrassment. She was still standing at the bar, idly shifting her drink from hand to hand, watching couples dance, smiling at the entire ritzy mishmash revolving in front of her. He looked straight at her and tried to catch her eye. She gave him only a sweeping glance. He made his approach, from her direct west, to the spot next to her, and settled himself in as if he had been called over for an urgent conference with the bartender. She felt how close he was, and turned to look at him. He held out his hand to her, palm up, angled slightly, and asked her without hesitation, Would you care to dance?
71 Yes, she said, Id love to. Her bracelets clinked quietly into the crook of her elbow as she lifted her arm and folded the cool weight of her palm into his. Interview Three The Previous Man: That was a tough time for yours truly, right after the break up. We had been dating for a while, almost two years, and then out of nowhere, she decides she wants to be with someone else. Didnt stri ke me as quite fair. We didnt have a perfect relationship by any means, but we had some fun. I had talked to my parents pretty seriously about marrying her after graduation. My pop was even going to set me up with a job at his firm, entry level insurance, just so I could stand on my own two. Save up for a house, maybe kids down the road. So her leaving was a shock. Kind of messed up my last year of school, threw a big old wrench in the works. But it came out all right, you know? Met my wife a few years lat er, working at the insurance company, which, let me tell you, made that job a lot less boring. Makes it easier to wake up in the morning when you spend all day with someone you love. Can I say that I still think about her from time to time? Because I do, but not in the way that you might guess. I wont say anything about your father since I dont know him, or know anything about him outside of what Ive read. So I cant blame him for any of it. But she was, at heart, such an exciting person. It was a sham e what happened or not a shame, really, just a waste. When we were together, I saw it in her: she had good sense, wasnt afraid to speak up, ever. She would have done some good, in whatever she had chosen to do. She would have been a great mother, no doubt about it. But whos to say that things would have turned out any different if I had still been with her then? Hard to tell. No way to tell.
72 Biographical Speculation, Part Four For the first few moments, he saw her only in pieces, in frames: the dangle of her pearl earrings as she spun on the dance floor, the shadowy bounce of a stray dark curl over her eyelid, the shiny spring -grass green of her dress awning over her skin, the sfumato of her downy, bare arms wrapped around his neck. He held her in his hands as closely as he could without losing sight of most of her. She knew his hands as heavy, warm apparitions on her waist. When their faces came closer together, she felt the wind of his breath in the cup of her ear, and grinned at the tickle of it. S he bent her head back at an awkward angle to get a quick peek at his face, at the asperity of blue in his eyes and the rough grade of his chin and jaw line. She knew she liked him more than a little when she felt him give her hips a tentative, almost imper ceptible squeeze, like he was making sure she was still right there in front of him, still bound by the soft shape of his arms. The song ended, and they both needed some fresh air. They were hot, from the dancing, from being so close to each other. She l ed him across the ballroom and through the hallways to the side doors of the building that opened on to the grounds. The exterior of the country club was decorated for Christmas with clusters of white lights: wound above lintels and along posts, threaded i nto the dead branches of the trees and hedges, precisely embedded in window sills, they fixed the garden in a reflective, ornamental glow. They stood on the brick patio and watched their separate breaths mix in thick, ghostly plumes. He offered her his jac ket. The brass -button ends of the too long sleeves hung down through her crossed arms. She shivered next to him. Michael. Elizabeth. She smirked and offered him a handless sleeve to shake. Pleased to meet you, she said. He chuckled and bent down t o kiss the crown of her wrist through the jacket.
73 You dance so well, he said, even when your partners clumsy. You shouldnt be too hard on yourself, she whispered. Oh, I didnt mean me. Who was that fellow you were dancing with before, I know Ive seen him around the club. He paused. She was giving him a hard look. Thats my father, she said. Even though hes 55, he still moves better than you do. He felt himself blush against the cold air. This was going all wrong; he had steered the conversation into such a pit. Im sorry. That didnt come out right. I just meant it as a compliment. He sighed and thrust his hands into his pants pockets. She walked to the edge of the patio and looked up into the clearings of the fidgety winter sky He paced back and forth behind her for a few moments, thinking. It surprised him when she turned around and laughed right at him, peals of laughter that resounded in a brittle, metallic way. You were so nervous. I could feel you leering at me from acros s the room. A girl always knows when shes being looked over, she said coolly. I could tell when we were dancing that you had to work yourself up to ask me. You are a little intimidating. Thats only because Im so tall, she said, and stood on her tiptoes, in her heels. See? She took a few tottering steps in his direction. He caught her by her elbows and looked down at her. Wheres your date for tonight? he asked. She bit at her bottom lip. Hes at home, with his family. They live pretty far away, so he couldnt make it. His heart sank. This would end up as an isolated incident. She just needed attention, and he happened to be in the right place at the right time.
74 So you do have a boyfriend. How long have you two been together? He heard the unconsciously sharp and detached tone in his voice. He breathed deeply. She turned her face away from his. Ten months, here and there, she said. Were not exactly engaged or anything, if thats what youre asking. There was an invitation in the re somewhere, he knew. He took a risk and made the willful leap from that second to the next; he decided that whatever this was this episode between him and her, and however it would eventually end he wanted it to be because of him, what he had done, and n ot because of what he had let pass by. He held her face in his hands and kissed her deliberately, and felt her arms wrap around his neck, and it was like he had been kissing her that whole time, had known how her lips would feel before his mouth had even t ouched hers. Their embrace was as still, as bright, and composed as a paintinga discrete moment unchanging as a fact of the past. Interview Four The Newspaperman: Did you read the article I wrote about it? Good article. I dont think I can tell you muc h more than what I put in the paper. It was so long ago, and its hard for me to recall specifics about any one story, even one like that. It was the talk of the town for a while, given your fathers family and how well known he was at the club. Local golf legend. Dont see that much anymore that is, hometown heroes of any degree. Not many local anything legends. But it was a closer knit place then, more news got around from neighbor to neighbor than was reported in the paper. Terrible crash. You wouldnt k now it to look at it now, but thirty -five years ago that area out by the river had the most winding, twisted roads you can imagine. Not much in the way of rails either, since people knew, or usually knew, to take it slow down there. Guy that almost
75 hit you r dad, Wodnewski, Wodniski, something or other, left town over the matter. Didnt like the looks he got. Police you know Doug Kohnken, he was the first on the scene they determined that it wasnt anyones fault in particular, just that one of the drivers w as careless, drifted a little, and your dad swerved too hard away from the river, caught his right wheels in a ditch and rolled the car. Broken leg, both arms, crushed ribs, concussion, you name it. The girl, Elizabeth Evans, was thrown. Your father made i t out of the hospital in time for the funeral, and had your uncle bring him and his wheelchair to St. Theresas for the service. Closed casket, of course. I never spoke to your father for the story, so I cant help you on that end. His choice. Your grandpa rents were not exactly forthcomingthey didnt appreciate the attention, and were pretty beaten up about the whole thing, naturally. It was a slow summer for news here in town, and that was the biggest story for months. Not sure who else you can talk to th ats still around now might try her family, but thats a long shot. Interview Five The Wife and Mother: I dont want to talk about it. Your father never wanted to talk about it, so I dont see any reason why I should. What year? We met three years afte r it happened, if thats where youre going with this. September 9th, 1967, your father and I had our first date. He picked me up and took me to see a movie over in the city. No, I wasnt ever curious, about her or what had happened. I would never have eve n known about it if my friend Cathy hadnt mentioned it to me. She called me up, and this was when your father and I had been seeing each other for a few months already, she called me up and asked if he had ever told me about his accident. Of course he had nt, why would he? So she told me that, after she met him for the first time, something about your father had seemed so familiar something about his name. She had asked her mother if she knew who he was, and of course Mrs. Shallenberger knew, since they al l used to live damn
76 near in the same neighborhood as the Evans. Thats how I found out, not from any weepy confession by your father, or hidden stacks of photographs and love letters. And I didnt want to open old wounds, so I left it. Not to sound callous but it wasnt as if this was an old girlfriend who I thought he might sneak around with behind my back. Itd take some real effort to do that. So no, I never felt compelled to ask. There was only one way that I know it affected him, and maybe this was hi s own odd memorial to her, or maybe he was just too superstitious but he didnt drive down by the river, not on that section of the road. Hed drive miles out of his way to avoid it. Or if he absolutely had to go down that part, hed wait for a time when h e knew I was free and hed ask if I could drive him. You know, the way you remember your father is always going to be different than the way I remember him, or the way your brothers remember him; you could only see certain aspects of him from the right per spective. You werent married to him, so you wouldnt know just how good a dancer he was well you saw him at your wedding, but he was even better when he was younger. Or how he had a nervous habit of doodling nonsensical little notes to himself on everything, in that slanted chicken -scratch handwriting he had. Thats how it is to be someones child though he was always your father to you, just as Im always your mother. Even if you are old enough to see me as a person, Im sure everything I do is still filt ered through your expectations of the place Ive occupied in your life. You could only have seen a sliver of the person your father was, just as a function of having been your fathers son. Now lets look at those pictures you brought. Extrapolated Father: You wonder how it would have been if you were born from her instead of from your actual mother. Were you the inevitable first child, waiting, alongside us somewhere, for your own birth? What son would have been my son, if not you? I can tell you. You would be different.
77 As drastically different as I was from the minute she was alive to the minute she was not. That was a change that I did not see coming. The last part of her I lived with was her arm, stretched out towards the windshield before the crash. W e were next to each other just once afterwards, when I put my hand on her coffin and thought about her body, split and then stitched together, lying within; thought about how the face of the thing inside that coffin would only be a mockery of the color and flush of the face I had known. Feel free to try, as hard as you can, to imagine me as I was, the prehistorical version of the father you knew, as just a son, a man, a person in possession of himself. You might have photographs around you, in imbricate l ayers on the floor. Notes that youve taken, memories of me, gross, misguided, and inaccurate. Whatever combination you attempt, whatever sequence you choose, all youll find is a choppy, blurry picture of my life, soundless and colorless, animated in the most unnatural manner, lacking every characteristic that formed the familiar me, and what youre left with is a revolting vision only of that which youve forced into being: a work of brute, discontinuous mimicry, as far a cry from the real thing as could be.
78 THE FOURTH JUDGE Graham refined his idea of Hell while driving a 94 Buick Regal west on I 64 a couple hours after he had maybe crippled his landlady for life. He had pushed her down a flight of stairs during a dispute over unpaid rent. Graham didnt focus on the dispute so much as the ultimate consequences of it. He felt every bump in the road thanks to the loose suspension of the Regal, and he was starting to think his way around the contours of Hell in a way that reminded him of how his co-w orkers in the IT department explored and tested new software how theyd say, Im really getting a feel for this thing. Graham was wrapping his head around the shape of Hell, and the lay of the land, to him, resembled the sets of Night Court and Its A L iving two sitcoms from his childhood that had been in almost constant broadcast either in new programming or in syndication, and whose characters all appeared to live in the places they worked. The only evidence of the outside world existed in the title s equences of both shows, when scenes from presumably New York were shown for Night Court and a long montage of the Its A Living waitresses featured them entering the Bonaventure Hotel accompanied by the theme song of the show, all arm -in arm, showing up for work simultaneously and ecstatic. But beyond that it was if the cast of characters on both shows lived in ignorance of the existence of the real world, as sheltered as those Amazonian Indian tribes who still thought of the sun and moon as deities. All of that had formed the basis of Grahams notion of Hell the sitcoms suspension of time and place: Judge Harry always made jokes and would make jokes forever; Dan Fielding, states attorney, liked women and wanted women forever; Amy Tompkins worked hard for her tips and would work forever for those tips; and Sonny Mann the piano player longed for the waitresses and would long for them forever. The two sitcoms were what immediately came to
79 Grahams mind whenever someone said the word existentialism, which he had not studied much but took from its use to mean something like sophisticated despair. It seemed possible but weird to Graham that the shows creators had had this in mind when writing the sitcoms and knew that they were providing a valuable service b y acclimatizing viewers to the idea of everlasting entrapment and routine. What terrified Graham more than anything else about the two sitcoms was the way he could project himself so easily into the worlds of the shows, not as a central character, since t hey were all defined and solid, but as one of the people shown on screen momentarily, as extras, dining silently at one of the waitresses few tables, or among the seated gallery in the courthouse. The articulation of this fear did not, to Grahams mind, m ean that his concept of Hell revealed certain aspects of his own personality and character, that he feared being a silent extra on the shows because he did not want to be marginalized or ignored and forgotten after his death. The kernel of Grahams terror which he could only bring himself to think about in passing, such was its enormity when he thought rigorously about it, incorporated the normal concerns over being forgotten but also elements of being actively tortured. When he imagined his own Hell, he th ought of himself dressed in a white dress shirt (collar unbuttoned), a gray sport coat, and khakis, sitting in the back row of the Night Court gallery, alone in the row, able to observe the actions of the shows characters but unable to speak or move, for eternity: he could feel the curves of the wooden bench, the woven jute texture of his wool sport coat against his wrists, and hear Judge Harry Stone and Attorney Dan Fielding trading unsubtle puns and innuendoes with defense attorney Christine Sullivan, gr eeted by unanimous laughter from those in attendance, hearing Whats next on the docket? every five minutes forever, in a place where it is always night and no one sleeps or leaves.
80 Grahams worst real life fear, which he thought fed into his idea of He ll, was that he had never had, for one moment of his life up to that point, an original, insightful thought. He had never had a thought that no one else could claim as his own. He would never write a great line of code, or find a perfectly elegant algorithm. He would die an unoriginal person, which when he thought about it struck him as a frivolous and insane fear, the kind of thing only a reasonably well -to -do person of some education would be terrified by. Given the real fear of the majority of the world s population, he was a selfish fucking idiot and probably deserved to die a grisly death. He had never been able to express this fear to any of his friends. It seemed to Graham that his fears were better articulated by other people, smarter people, in book s and movies and essays, so that when he tried to speak at any sort of length or examine these fears out loud, he was greeted by nods and soft noises of recognition before he had even finished expressing the crux of his fears, because his audience was alre ady familiar with the concepts he was clumsily discussing, and familiar even with the terms he employed to construct his explanations. Theyd say things like, Yeah, Im with you, or Uh -huh, or Gotcha, all of which made him want to stop talking and le ave. Or, the person he was speaking to would say, That sounds just like suchand -such, which made Graham want to grab his listener and slap him or her in the face repeatedly and ask, How do you already know this if youve never heard me say it before? The only way out was a flight into isolation or seclusion living in the woods, in a cabin, or in the desert somewhere meditating away from other people, where he might have access to more of the natural world and where he thought it might be easier to for get, for long stretches of time, the unreal problems he had manufactured for himself, even prior to the possible crippling of his landlady. He wanted to be through all that shit, get right down to it: clear thinking. Real thinking. He knew it sounded lame and New Agey, but it was the best option for him and he was
81 angry with himself for not having had the courage before to take the necessary steps to leave his little one bedroom apartment in the roadside complex he had rented from the now paralyzed landlady But even in the woods or the mountains or the desert, it would be difficult, Graham knew, to faithfully connect with what he was seeing and be able to perceive truly and clearly the reality of the natural world. Sometimes when driving in the countryside in Virginia, or even when he had been at the Finger Lakes in New York, he tried to imagine what the landscape would have looked like had he been the first person to see it, half a millennium before, and it was impossible; he could never displace himself f ully from the present, there was always a passing car, the ambient noise of people, an electrical tower in the distance, an overhead airplane to disrupt his line of thinking. Sometimes, particularly in places loaded with majesty and conducive to wonder, like Muir Woods, or the Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone, all of which he had visited, he had to remind himself that he was actually staring at a mountain, or a geyser, or a stand of redwoods that it was real and he was sharing space with that feature, he was in the same air and he had to push away the sneaky feeling that the scene in front of his eyes was merely a vivid slide, like in the View -Master toy he had as a child. It seemed to Graham a special indication that something was wrong with him, if, when he wa s standing in Muir Woods among the trees, near the ocean he had to convince himself that he was standing in Muir Woods by repeating to himself, I am in Muir Woods. It was like the rare occasions when he prayed. He was not particularly religious, but he had done a lot more praying in the few hours after the accident with the landlady. The problem was that he could never stay on topic, on message, because he worried about the contents of his prayer how dumb and selfish his prayers must ring in Gods ears. He could never just pray in a
82 straight line. Sometimes in the middle of thinking diligently about becoming a better person and paying penance for his sins or whatever, some horrible image or word would pop into his head. A few years ago, during a difficult period at work, he had been praying in bed before going to sleep but then thought of Mary and the historical size of her breasts the actual words that passed through his head were Marys tits which made him put out his hand in the pose of a stopping gua rd and say out loud, Whoa. In those circumstances, he went back to the beginning of his prayer and to his initial intention: a reset. It often took him so long to pray that he would just give up in the middle and decide he was a failure at prayer. Though he had in fact shouted an oath, Jesus fucking Christ, when the landlady fell down the steps backwards and lay on the landing with her legs splayed at an unlikely angle. A still life, he had thought weirdly at the time, Unconscious Landlady. He had fled to his apartment, grabbed his car keys, and took off west on I64, no destination in mind but West, like the course of the empire. But he did have an idea of where he was going at the end of the day (which was a phrase one of his co -workers used with annoy ing frequency, but that seemed to fit these circumstances) : he knew that the kind of person who pushed landladies down flights of metal steps into crippling or fatal falls was not the kind of person who ended up doing well in the afterlife. That the kind of person he wasunexceptional in so many aspects already did not earn a spot in heaven or even purgatory by committing rash crimes over something as petty as rent. If he gave himself a real once over diagnostic, thought hard about all the ways that he had caused other people pain, minor and major, he knew hed find that he deserved that Hell his Hell. The one where his soul or shade would sit in the gallery, dressed in bland but nice clothes, his hands in his lap, staring forever out the windows of the Nigh t Court courthouse at the painted fake skyline of New York.
83 He rolled down the drivers side window and spat into the wind because it felt like an all right thing to do, under the circumstances. He said, Fuck. Then he sped up.
84 CINCT URE They found him at the lunch table just as he was about to take a careful bite of his peanut butter and jelly. When the Sisters said his name from across the room, and his friends quieted down around him abruptly, he let the sandwich fall on its plastic bag. The grape jam had infected the bread, and there was a thumbprint of purple sogginess right in the middle. Lunch was already ruined. Sean, can we have a word with you? Sister Wanda asked. She was with Sister Agnes, the meanest. The conjunction of the two of them meant there was something serious. He must have hesitated too long in apprehension, because Sister Wanda added, Youre not in trouble. We just need to ask a favor of you. This felt new. He could not reasonably conceive of any skill or p ossession he could lend them that they would want and did not already have themselves. Sister Agnes closed her fingers around her rosary beads and raised her eyebrows at him above her wiry glasses. Yes, Sister, he said. They made no move to sit down, so he stood. Both nuns were taller than he by a head. Sister Wanda wore no wimple, but Sister Agnes did, and so she looked more like a penguin, as his father called the nuns, than did the other Sisters. Lets talk in the hallway, shall we? Sister Agnes s aid. We have a small problem, Sean, that we think you might assist us with. She put her arm around his neck, and he felt her hand as a warm, tined presence on his shoulder. The other students watched them walk out of the cafeterias main room, and Sean h eard the initial lowing of their scandalized oohs as he and the Sisters turned the corner into the hallway, and then the lunchtime chatter ratcheted back up to normal levels.
85 Sisters Wanda and Agnes escorted him into the coatroom, adjacent to the entranc e hallway. He wanted to guess what the favor was, but he thought it best to keep quiet and allow them to speak first. He waited. Sister Agnes gave Sister Wanda a look and turned out her right palm, as if she were unveiling Sean for approval. There is a funeral, Sean, today at the church. Sister Wanda said. We have no altar boys to serve the Mass, though. She sighed deeply. All the older boys are in standardized testing this afternoon, so we need someone younger to take over. Someone who is good. H e knew his mother had signed him up to be an altar boy at the last months conference, but he thought he had heard that there was to be some training and practice beforehand. Perhaps the Sisters had divined some special aptness in him. Still, he worried. Ive never served before, he said. How will I know what to do? Thats fine, son, Sister Agnes said, and shook her head. We wouldnt send you over there unaccompanied, no. Joseph Murphy, from Mrs. Duffs homeroom, will be serving with you. Father J ason is presiding, and he will instruct the both of you in acolyte method prior to the Mass. She had said ack -a -light. He thought the way the word sounded meant it related to the candles on the altar. He longed to use the brass lighting staff that had a bell on one side and a wick on the other, and which was shaped like a stretched -out saxophone. You should head over to the sacristy now, Sean, Sister Wanda said. Father Jason is preparing for the funeral, and hell need your help with the incense. Both Sisters stepped aside for him to go, and it looked like a black gate swinging open. He felt his stomach digesting air.
86 Can I finish my lunch first? he asked. The peanut butter and jelly certainly had become a gooey square by now, he thought, but the cookies, carrots, and juice in his hard plastic lunchbox would sustain him. Pack up your food and eat in the sacristy, Sister Agnes said. Yes, child, we dont want you to starve. But remember that there will be time to eat afterwards too. Sister Wa nda patted his head. Her arms, at her shoulders, looked heavy and thick, like the branches on a maple, he thought. They ushered him out of the coatroom and into the cafeteria where everyone went silent again. He swung his lunchbox against his legs as he crossed the macadam between the two school buildings. The new school, where he went, was for first through fourth grades. New school had toffee colored bricks and white rain gutters. The Old school, where he would be next year, was for fifth through eighth grades, and the building had gray stones at the bottom, and dun bricks for the rest. In a little while, his friends would be outside in the recess yard, playing t -ball and tag, and maybe foursquare. He hated foursquare because the rubber ball bounced too fast for him and all the tall boys played hard. T -ball had to be the best game for recess, he thought, since it involved the most number of people, and everyone got to bat at least twice. Plus the girls who didnt play tag or foursquare watched from the s ide, near the electrical pole by the new school, and stood in little bunches of two or three to cheer. Lynn cheered for him sometimes, when he had a good hit, or caught the ball for an out. Shed put two fingers in her mouth and give a sharp whistle; he liked that. He had to walk a dogleg around the corner of the new school to get to the church, and he thought itd be fun to peek into the basement windows on his way, to see who was down in the
87 library while he roamed free in the world. The windows of the n ew school eaved open on long hinges, and almost all of them had been swung open to let in the cool fall air. He crouched down next to one and poked his head into the small gap between the metal frame and its angled, dirty pane: the first -graders were seate d at the tables in the front part of the library, reading silently. Miss Mich, who had been his teacher three years before, stood near the checkout desk chatting with Mrs. Freese, the librarian. He had thought three years ago that he would marry Miss Mich, because she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, but one of the girls in his class had said you could not marry a teacher, it was against the law, and he had cried for three nights and then had moved on. The first -graders looked so tiny at their tables, making small haste with their books. His younger brother, Brian, was in first grade but in a different homeroom, not Miss Michs. On library days now, Sean played a game with Lynn; she found books in the card catalog, and whoever found the book a nd got it off the stacks first won the round. He liked it when they looked together at the hard beige cards in the wooden drawers and their heads touched and her hair fell on his neck and inside his collar. Collect your books, Miss Mich said to the children. He picked up his lunchbox and walked away. He had only been inside the sacristy once before, when he had run an urgent note to Father Tom from the main office. The doorway of the sacristy opened on to the little garden next to the shrine of the Virgi n Mary, before whom he crossed himself as he passed. Ivy had consumed the stone roof that covered Mary, and it flowed down to the ground in copious layers. He thought someone ought to remove the ivy; it was a shame for Mary to be trapped in vines. The sacr isty door pointed at the top was made of heavy, dark wood, and he opened it after struggling with the black iron latch. Upon entering, he almost knocked into a waist high
88 golden stand that supported a kind of bucket with a crowned lid. The light was dim, he saw, because of the curtains, which were drawn tightly. He lifted the buckets lid, which slid on a thin chain through its middle, to look inside: it was empty. Thats the censer, Father Jason said, startling Sean. He had not seen the priest enter. T hats what we use to burn the incense. Father Jason made his fingers move like smoke, raising his arms up towards the ceiling. Oh. For incense, Sean said. He let the lid fall down to clang chintzily against the bucket. Sorry, he said. No, thats fine, Father Jason said. He crossed the room with his hand extended. I dont think weve met yet, have we, Sean? Pleased to meet you. What followed was a turbulent handshaking ritual, a manual storm, elaborate in a way that Sean had not known was possible: Father Jason gripped his hand, pumped it once, hooked this thumb around Seans in a hand -hug, wiped his fingers along the boys, then made his hand into a gun and pulled the trigger. Sean had gotten lost after the first up and -down, and had let his hand go limp, hoping just to make it to the end without injury. Lets try that one more time, Father Jason said. Shake, Grab, Swipe, Shoot. They ran through the process twice more, until Sean had finally performed to the priests satisfaction. There you go Father Jason told him. If you can do that, the Mass should be a breeze. A thin boy with caramel -brown hair and a flat face opened the door and sat down in the chair against the wall. Sean recognized Joseph Murphy from math class. He was in the other h omeroom, with the students who were in second track. Joe had roughly as much face as a muppet, Sean always thought there was something too neat and clean about it, something that suggested clamps and carving tools. Joe and the priest engaged in the same ha ndshake that Sean
89 had just finished, and then the three of them stood in silence for a half -minute when all was said and done. Well, I suppose we should get started, huh? Father Jason asked. The boys nodded. Sean wanted nothing more than exacting instruc tions that he could follow to the letter, and he hoped the priest would hurry up. What do we wear? Joe asked. Dont we get those robes or anything? Yes, good eye, Joe. That should be the first order of business. Father Jason walked toward the other e nd of the sacristy, near the altar. Lets get you both into costume, he said, and beckoned them forward. The priest moved to the front of the altar before they did, and they watched him bow and perform the sign of the cross. Always show your reverence boys, he said. Christ is present. Father Jason pointed to the lit red candle in the corner. The boys copied his movements while he observed them fully from the far side, standing next to a shabby little wooden door. In here, my friends. Father Jas on twisted the knob and led the boys into a narrow room. A rack on their right overflowed with white robes and red ropes. These albs are arranged from shortest to longest, front to back. All the cinctures are about the same length. Just tie them around your waist. The priest lifted one alb up from the rack and filed it back into what must have been its proper place. Ill leave you two to it. He backed out the room and, before closing the door, said, Come back to the sacristy when youre done with the vestments. Sean and Joe stood for a moment, unmoving, and stared at the robes. Joe lifted one up over his head and waggled his arms through the holes. The hem came down to the tops of his knees. This cant be right, he said. I think it should be down to near my ankles, right?
90 Sean shrugged. Ive never done this before, he said. I dont know what were supposed to look like. He wanted to ask Joe if he was nervous too. I wonder who died, Joe said. Do you think therell be a ton of crying people? I wouldnt like that at all. He had taken off the first, miniskirt alb and was trying on a new one. Sean selected a robe from the middle of the rack and got lost somewhere between the right sleeve and the head hole, but sprang forth finally, exasper ated. There might be some crying. Ive never seen a funeral, except for in movies or TV, Sean said. Would it be loud weeping, he wondered, or would it be quiet sniffles? If he didnt cry for the dead person, was it a sin? Would the family think he was a bad and uncaring altar boy? Maybe he could ask Father Jason before everyone arrived. Both boys had trouble with the cinctures, and were unable to make the tasseled ends match up evenly after tying the square knots around their waists. Sean liked the sof t hair feel of the cinctures unwound ends; he felt like a longago medicine man like the Amazonians he had seen in the World Book with two delicate shrunken heads swinging suspended from his middle. The boys thought they looked the part well enough though and crossed themselves (in an abbreviated manner) in transit to the sacristy. A bright sharp smell wafted towards them from the censer. Father Jason had changed into his robes all black with lines of glinting silver. He held a burning puck of charcoal i n a pair of tongs, and gestured to the boys to move forward. Sean had the sudden fear that the priest was going to deposit the ember into either his or Joes cupped hands, much as if it were the Eucharist itself, as some kind of occult initiatory practice. Boys, good. Father Jason looked at their robes and nodded. All right. Can one of you lift up the top of the censer for me?
91 Sean went quickly over to the gold bucket and slid the crowned lid up along its chain, holding it still with three pinching f ingers. Thank you, Sean, Father Jason said, and flicked the charcoal into the buckets ashy interior. Now we just need to let that sit for a moment, then well add the incense. The priest scrunched up his nose like he was about to sneeze. Gets smoky, so well wait until just before the Mass. Sean let the lid down slowly to the bucket where it fit with a snug metallic certainty. So, friends. I see youve got your cinctures tied in a custom way. Father Jason smiled at the boys, moving his head b ack and forth so that they were both equal recipients of his bearded grin. When I was an altar boy back when there were saber -toothed tigers still around he laughed we tied our cinctures so the tassels fell side -by-side, and to the right. You two, he gestured with hands outstretched, palms up, have blazed your own sartorial trails though. Neither of the boys knew what sartorial meant, but each guessed that it was not intended as a compliment to their dressing skills. What did it matter at a funeral Sean wondered. People would be watching his face, not his clothes. Lets re -tie those, shall we? Father Jason asked. Watch how I do it. Joe, please hand me your cincture. Joe handed the red rope over, Sean thought, as if he were reluctantly surrendering a long loved firearm. Loop around, once through, and twist to the side, Father Jason narrated during his demonstration. He tossed the rope back to Joe and shepherded the boys through their corrections.
92 Now, Father Jason said, lets figure out whos on first for this. One of you has to swing the censer when we process from the back of the church to the altar, and the other has to carry the cross. Joe raised his hand. Ill carry the cross, he said, and raised an eyebrow at Sean. Im taller. Fair enough then. Sean, youre on incense, and Joes got the cross. The priest went swiftly over to a side closet and pulled out a thick wooden staff with a brass ligature at its end. Joe, go out to the altar and mount the cross on this. Joe shoul dered the rod and heaved it out, letting the bottom scrape the floor, and limped toward the altar. While Seans back was turned, Father Jason had apparently added the incense, for a small cloud of thick gray smoke erupted from the holes in the censers crowned lid. Sean could not fathom how he was expected to do anything during the Mass if he had to stand with this bucket held stiffly before him at all times. The scent, strong and sweet, was already unbearable, and both the boy and the priest started to cou gh, and brushed away the sweet and strong smoke with their fanning palms. This should abate in a minute or two, Father Jason said. He went around to the altar side door and peeked out. Joe skirted past him, cross in hand, staff end supported by the top of his right foot. Sean was reminded of his grandfather, who walked with a heavy leg. Wow, Joe said, pointing at the hanging cloud of incense. Powerful stuff in there. Maybe we should get some air in here, eh? Father Jason said. Just as he whisked the sacristy door open, a man appeared on the outer step, hat in hand. Ah. Hello, the man said. Im here to see FatherJason, I believe. The man twirled his hat once around. Im Doug Pennington, the son.
93 My condolences, Mr. Pennington. Ill be presiding today. Father Jason extended his hand to Mr. Pennington, and Sean wondered whether the priest would try to cheer up the man with his circus of handshakes, but Father Jason merely grasped the mans hand once then let go. Do you have any question s for me? Youve got the readers prepared, right? Ah, yes. Thats all set. I only came by to deliver this, Mr. Pennington said, and handed Father Jason a crumpled envelope. Thank you, Father. And thank you too, boys. I know my dad appreciates it. He turned sharply and walked away down the path that led to the churchs main entrance. Father Jason shut the door. The smoke had dissipated. The priest unfolded the flaps of the envelope and extracted a sheaf of bills. He pulled out his wallet and put the money inside, then clapped it shut. He stared into the air above the boys heads for a moment, opened his wallet back up, thumbed through the cash, and retrieved two fives. These he rolled up and gave to the boys in the form of a tight green tube. Split that up after Mass, he said, and bestowed the money to Sean, who undaintily lifted up the edge of his alb and jammed the notes deeply into his pocket. Sean looked at Joe, who was equally shocked, and tried to secretly convey his disbelief at their luck. Who knew they would be paid for serving the Lord? Was this how it always was, Sean wondered did odd men finance all the Masses for the dead? The world of the priests had suddenly acquired a new sheen of glamour and celebrity to his mind. All right, kids what do you say we get this show on the road? the priest asked. He took a quick peek at the pews and pronounced it a packed house. Well process up from the back, like I said, and then come right back in here after we bow. Were going to do this on the fly. Something about Father Jasons breezy manner did not sit well with Sean. He wished to know what would be required of him well ahead of time, and this spirit of slapdash collaboration
94 unnerved him. How would he put out the coals in the censer after the procession? When did he and Joe have to escort the bread, water, and wine from the back to the front of the church? Should he cry if he truly felt grief for Mr. Penningtons dead father, or would that be wrong would the family think he was faking it? Sean craved absolute answers, and the priest seemed to him to be the kind of impatient adult who would not explain things fully, but merely stall with simple examples and big gestures. The procession went up the aisle well enough with Joe hobbling along under the weight of the cross and Sean swinging the censer violently, and Father Jason took care to direct both boys with stage whispers up at the altar. Sean held the book for the priest he did not read it from the altar as the Pastor, Father McCole, did, but rather wanted it within licking distance of his face, or so it seemed to Sean and tried to hold it as rigidly as he could, though it made his arms and wrists burn fiercely. Joe was on the far side, and sat near the door to the room of the albs and cin ctures, and he had to do less, far less than Sean during the mass. Joe carried the cross and rang the bell for the blessing, and that did not seem five dollars worth of holy work. Maybe there should be some negotiation with Joe afterwards, Sean thought. After Father Jason delivered the homily, an old man approached the altar, bowed, and climbed the pulpit. He said he was the younger brother of the man who had died: James Pennington. He spoke in a weak, halting way, Sean thought, and stopped sometimes for whole minutes. But the brother did not cry. Some older women in the front few pews were crying, but it was not the wailing that Sean had expected. Sean had a younger brother what was he doing right then? Learning words maybe, Sean guessed. The dead mans younger brother said that he remembered when their father had died and how they had told stories about him at the funeral and so he would tell a story about his older brother Paul now. Sean stared at the casket, which
95 was raised up on a kind of stretcher, c overed by a white cloth with a candle stitched upon it in green and gold thread. Would Mr. Paul Pennington hear the story, from wherever he was? The dead mans brother began the story, which Sean could not follow exactly, and told of the time they had snuc k out of their house and tried to camp in a field nearby. The voice of the brother grew more authoritative as he went on, louder and steadier, and Sean watched him wave his hands in the air to illustrate something they had done with twine and sticks. Sean glanced at the lit red candle in the corner and remembered that Christ was present, and he listened to the words of the dead mans brother, and it occurred to him, in no way that he could articulate clearly afterwards, that his own funeral would certainly be similar to this one, that he would die some day in the future and present the same occasion for his family, that his younger brother would speak about him in much the same way, perhaps about events that had yet to happen, and old women would cry softly in the front pews maybe it would be Lynn, he thought, maybe she would be there crying. It was sad and ugly to think like that, but he could not stop once he had started, and the saddest part of it was thinking about who would come to the door of that sac risty down the line and pay the priest in an envelope. Who would be the altar boys sitting on either side of the altar and what they would think boys who were not born yet and would not be born for many years upon years and would it be their first funeral too? He wondered all this as he sat in the chair near the sacristy and gathered the two tasseled ends of his cincture in his hand and squeezed them. Those new boys at his future funeral might think the same thoughts he was having right then, and on and on and on. Even after the Mass was over, he could not say what had happened, what had triggered that line of thought, because it was not as if he had thought it in words, but more as pictures, and those projections had came from the same place as wherever the answers to
96 math problems came from to him during a test, or much like when he sometimes provided the correct response to a teachers question about homework or a textbook and it was more or less as if he felt instead of knew it. Somehow the shapes of thos e unbidden thoughts always fit correctly. Years later after he had forgotten the Sisters hands on his shoulders like white bony epaulettes, the funeral, the dead mans brother, the priest, the shrunken heads on the rope, and the chintzy clang of the cens ers lid on the day in high school when he first learned about Charon, the underworld boatman, he remembered and longed for the five -dollar bill that he had peeled away from the other one after the funeral, because the money had gotten rolled together, and each note, even after separation, had remained curled in upon itself like something pried forcefully from its shell.
97 WE WERE EMERGENT One While we waited in the yellow sunlight, our drinks stood coolly on the picnic table in the shade, sweat ing. Birds flew overhead in chattering arcs. The barbecues burned, and filled the air with a pleasant, appetizing smoke. Up until that day, June 4th, 1997, the day on which our parents did not return, the park had really and truly been the right place for our family a natural home away from home. On that day though we of course waited patiently for our parents to return. We had no cause to behave otherwise. They had gone to the grocery store for more buns. We had forgotten to pack the extras. When she and our father had left in the long, brown station wagon, our mother said, Dont go anywhere, well be back in a second. Okay, we had said. After fifteen minutes of sitting in the sun in the open field near the picnic area, we got bored. Michael, the ol dest, tossed his baseball up in the air and caught it himself. Where are they, he said. How hard can it be to find buns? He tossed the ball in a very particular way: he first aligned the balls seams stitches with his fingers, then leaned very far backward and threw the ball overhand into the air directly above his head. Often, due to this method, the ball would sail in a slow parabola away from his position and land several yards behind him, in patches of grass studded with balding dandelions. Jonat han, the youngest, went over to the picnic bench, cleaned off some dried bird droppings with a twig, and sat down. Yeah, where are they? he asked. I dont even care about having buns, we can just eat with our fingers.
98 I walked over to the bench and t ook a sip of my soda. It may be too early to tell, I said, but this could be the best can of soda Ive ever had in my life. Bullshit, Michael said. You say that every time Mom and Dad buy us soda. And its true, every time, I said. We were ge tting more bored, and being bored made us restless. Lets go down to the water, Jonathan said. Lets just do something instead of waiting. Theyll find us when they get back. We stayed down at the water for at least an hour, playing our favorite gam e, which involved two of us running back and forth between point A and point B, while the other tried to catch the runners. We called it the Game, and although there had been previous versions of the Game, this one was the current one, and the current one always replaced the older ones completely. The brother who acted as interceptor in the Game had free reign of the area, but the two brothers who transmitted themselves back and forth had to stay on a certain path between the two points. That was important, because thats what made it fair, and made it a game at all. When I was a runner, I felt as if we were the expression of a natural, primitive circuit, a demonstration of the movement of a simple thought. None of us ever remembered who invented each of the Games, just that they were there for us when we needed them, when we wanted to play something easy. When we tired ourselves out, we realized that our parents had not come to fetch us for dinner, had not reminded us to stop playing, and had not, in fact, even come back from the grocery store. Michael looked at the sky and stuck a finger in his mouth, then pulled it out and gauged the wind.
99 We should get back home, he said. We cant wait around all afternoon. Jonathan frowned at him and kicked at some thing in the dirt. Why would they leave us here? he asked. As some kind of test? To see whether or not we can make it home on our own? Something probably just held them up, Michael said. Maybe they saw someone they knew at the store. My thoughts t ended towards the devastating: both parents enmeshed in a hideous car wreck; both parents killed as they bystood a violent robbery; both parents overjoyed at having successfully shed themselves of their cumbersome children. If we walk itll take a while, I said. We should get going if were going to make it before it gets dark. We crammed the remainder of the sodas into our shorts pockets, along with the cookies and chips, and threw away the other picnic supplies: the charcoal, the napkins, the paper plates, and the condiments. Jonathan squirted a swirl of mustard into the trashcan for good measure. We kept the red andblack checkered blanket, since it was one of our mothers favorites. Jonathan and Michael considered the pros and cons of hitchhiking, but we quickly abandoned that idea when we remembered the story our father had told us about the single time he had hitched a ride. When he was eighteen, he had planned to ride across the country on his bike with friends from college, over the summer break He was in Nebraska when he caught the unraveled lace of his shoe in the bikes gears and crashed to the side of the road, ruining his bike in the accident. His friends wanted to stay with him, to call off the rest of the trip, but our father didnt want to be a spoilsport. He told them to go on, that he would be fine, that he would find his way back home somehow. His friends protested, but eventually continued their trip after they saw how insistent
100 our father was. What he did then, he told us, was the wr ong thing: he gathered up his bike and walked it towards the nearest town. He flagged down a ride from an older man driving a station wagon, who let him stow his bike in the back. He would always get serious at this point in the story. He would say, on the many occasions when he told the story, that the older man had made him uncomfortable in the way that being tickled made him uncomfortable (our father hated every style of tickling: the flange, the feather, the wedge, and even the cascade), that the older mans existence was somehow an affront, that he seemed steeped in unpleasantness and despair. Our father said that the older man reminded him maybe too much of his own grandfather, who at that point was long dead, but who had been, by all accounts, very mu ch a drag on the family and a consummate sourpuss. He told us that we would understand when we were older. (Michael, as the oldest, told me that he still did not quite understand the gravity of that part of the story, but maybe soon, maybe next year would be the year.) So our young hitchhiking father, not yet a father then, politely asked the older man to stop his station wagon and please let him out as soon as possible. The older man insisted on taking him at least to the next town, and our father said he had never been so alarmed and angered in his life than he was at that time, in the station wagon with the older man. Now he wished he had just stayed with his friends, or at least accepted their offer to remain with him in that town until he could find a s uitable replacement bike. Instead, he told us, he stewed for three days in a beige motel in eastern Nebraska, awaiting the arrival of our grandfather, who had agreed to the hassle of driving twelve hundred miles to pick him up and take him back home. Since we had heard the story more than once a year for every year we had been alive, it had become familiar to us, so much so that we often told it to each other in imitation of our father, incorporating his habit of making exuberant hand gestures as a means of explaining complex issues and his technique of trailing off at the ends of sentences only to
101 resume again in a higher, delicate tone of voice. And so we came to the conclusion that it would be better, much better, to walk home from the park along the wooded route, where it was much cooler, and where there were fewer cars on the road. When we arrived back at the house, our parents were not there either. The car was not in the driveway, at least. Jonathan said that he thought they might have parked somewhere down the street, so that they could jump out and surprise us when we walked in the front door. Although the front door was locked, it still seemed possible that they were going all out for us, for the surprise, and so had locked themselves in, and were hi ding somewhere. Michael unlocked the front door with his house keys (as the oldest, he was granted certain material privileges that Jonathan and I were not) and we entered expectantly. No shouts of welcome greeted us. No balloons swarmed in the living room No streamers curled along the banister of the stairs. No cakes had been secretly baked. No bearded relatives waited in the wings to congratulate us on our self -sufficiency. No new household animals licked us with wet tongues. No parents emerged from the hidden pockets of the house, no matter how many times we called their parent names, or daringly cried out their first names. They were not home. During the first full day of our parents absence, the day after their disappearance, we careened through the house on our own paths and muttered words of distress and blame under our breaths. Our mourning, if we had acknowledged it as such, was disorganized and shabby, a thin cloud of grief to which we each contributed according to our own abilities. Michael decl ared that his patchy facial hair was now an unhappiness beard, which made it sound more important, although it still looked like a cheekborn coat of iron filings. He started looking through our parents mail, their archived bills, notices, and correspond ence. Jonathan burrowed himself in a pile of our mothers afghans and shawls, and sweated through the day by watching
102 home videotapes in chronological order. He said he wanted to relearn our family history and catch up on old times. When he passed me in the hallway on his way to the bathroom, he smelled like a handful of hot coins, and carried himself like a penitent shuffling, bent, robed. I decided to rummage through our old toys to see what I could find. I thought: maybe a yard sale? Maybe thats what s hould be done. We had unfettered access to the cash that rattled around in Jonathans piggy bank, but besides that, we only possessed the sheaf of savings bonds in our parents upstairs safety box, which none of us thought we could legally redeem. If our p arents were truly gone, we would need cash, I suspected, and lots of it. So while Michael and Jonathan pursued their means of coping, I arrayed our late childhood toys (remote -controlled, diecast, interactive) on three long card tables on the front lawn. I made some signs: Yard Sale, Nice Things for Children and Others. I staked two signs at each end of our block and one in the grass median of the main street of our neighborhood. When the people came, alone in their cars, they picked over the tables, toggle d switches on our toys, and they whistled little glissandos at the prices, and whispered to each other gleefully. Towards the end, an old woman who lived down the next street collared me near the front door of the house. She had that particular elderly habit of perpetually chewing in place, and looked as if she were loosening some tight bindings in her jaws, or working up a mouthful of courage. Whose is this, son? she asked, holding one of Jonathans Hess trucks up to her eye. Does this belong to you? It used to be my brothers, I said. He doesnt need it anymore. Its just junk, so were getting rid of it.
103 The old woman stared at me, mouth aquiver. I stepped up to the door and smiled down at her. Im sorry, she said, and paused. For your loss, I mean. What loss? I asked. It hurt me, in some sense, to think of this woman pitying me, pitying us. Its not my toy. Well, this must be a hard time for you, she said, squinting at me. Its five dollars, if youre interested. I turned and stepped through the front door. I went to the bay window in the dining room to watch the front yard, through the lace curtains, to see what the old woman would do. I waited until she had shuffled back to the pack of late -day browsers that surrounded the tables, a nd I made the sign against suspicion (an extended series of finger crossings and entanglements) that our mother had taught us when we were young. I did not want the woman to know that our parents were gone and I was afraid that if she knew, she would cause an uproar in the neighborhood, sounding an alarm and making trouble, summoning all her grandmotherly fervor to the task. She seemed, at first blush, to be the kind of older woman who rooted out familial irregularity with the same passion that others of he r age reserved for baking cookies, fawning over grandchildren, and referring to desserts, in earnestly naughty tones, as sweet indulgences. We did not need any caretakers, or workers, or guardians to oversee us all of which would swiftly be brought to ou r doorstep, I imagined, by the old womans misguided attempt to fix something that did not need to be corrected. We could live without our parents, I thought, in something less than a full family, but greater than a series of lonely siblings, something new and unnamable. When I came back out from the house again, into the yard, the old woman was gone and most people had left. The sun was close to setting, and a persistent breeze was playing with the
104 overhanging sleeves of our fathers coats. I gathered up the remaindered toys our tops, dice, and twisted hula hoops did not sell well and threw the whole armful into a cardboard box, which I labeled by drawing a slinky on each of the six sides. I straightened and culled the money that I had stuffed haphazardly into our fathers toolbox, and jammed the bills into a coffee mug for safekeeping, and left an inch of dull, handworn coins at the bottom to mingle with leftover nails and odd screwdrivers. All told, the yard sale had made us over fifty dollars. We were fi ne, or would be fine. The next morning, a Monday maybe, there was a knock at the door. We were all sitting around the dark wooden table in the breakfast nook, heads bowed down into our cereal bowls, slowly lifting spoonscapes of pebbly corn puffs into our mouths. Ill get it, Michael said. He came back into the kitchen a few minutes later holding a large, taped package. Open it, Jonathan said. It must be something good. We looked at the weird markings on the packages topside. There was no address ee, only our address. I thought that it might be something sent by our parents, or to our parents, and that the package would provide us some clues. Michael and Jonathan cut the tape and ripped open the box. We scooped out the packages kidney-shaped Styro foam innards, and found a dark plastic bag at the bottom. I said, Cut it open. The bag held the prettiest, heaviest bike helmet we had ever seen. What could be discerned from that, none of us knew. Jonathan put it on his head and fastened the straps under his chin with a click.
105 My daily helmet, he said, for everyday accidents. He made the sign against generic harm with his left hand, touching each finger to thumb seven times. Take that off, Michael said. He grabbed for Jonathans head, but Jonathan dodged him and ran into the kitchen. Whatever, Michael said, you look ridiculous. We stood in the kitchen together and listened to the cat clock tick its eyes and tail back and forth. None of us had anything to say. Two When I went to bed that night in the room which I had formerly shared with Michael (he had commandeered the master bedroom, as the natural heir), I was feeling anxious, and so I made the sign against nocturnal death, which always took me a while to complete, since it involved a ha lf -dozen steps and many personal intentions. We learned and employed the signs as a habit drawn from our mother, because once, our mother had belonged to a convent where she learned the signs, and they were, as she said, something unrenounceable. We knew of our mothers time in the convent initially via photo albums that she kept, not quite hidden, in a cedar chest in the closet of her and our fathers bedroom. Six years prior, when Michael was eleven years old, I nine, and Jonathan seven, we had found the albums, wrapped in a red heart -patterned wool blanket, during a game played at Christmas. We played a version of hide and seek wherein each brother who was not the seeker had to conceal an ornament from the tree that represented himself in some way, and s o Michael was a bluebird, I was a winter bear, and Jonathan, as the baby, was a candy cane. The goal of the seeker was to first find a hidden brother and then the brothers hidden token, which had to be in the same room as the brother, no more than five fe et away.
106 Michael had found Jonathan in our parents closet, and discovered the candy cane, in the cedar chest, folded into the pages of one of the volumes of the white leatherette baby books devoted to each of us. I had hidden in the same room, folded up under our parents bed and walled off behind old boxes of our mothers shoes, but I emerged when I saw, through the lookout slit I had arranged, Michael and Jonathan sitting on the floor of our parents closet, Indian style, with a very weathered-looking a lbum spread across both of their laps. Michael turned the stiff pages, and we all three examined and pointed at the bewildering, almost incomprehensible images. We prodded the photos with our nails and lifted the static heavy plastic to finger the polaroi ds and dull, cloudy portraits of our mother, posed in scenes and settings that we were barely able to believe or recognize or grasp without physically holding the photos in our hands, up to our faces, close enough to smell the chemicals of the pictures. There she was our breakfast, lunch, and dinner mother, our laundry mother, our first aid mother, our tuck -in mother, our second-opinion mother, our own dear, personal mother out in the world before us, thinking her bright thoughts and looking very young. She wore a fur coat and stood, smiling, in front of a birch tree. She sat at a picnic table, hair done up in a dizzying swirl, surrounded by young women in uniform blue jackets, laughing and clutching her hands to her chest, happy. Seeing my mother like that, while in the company of my brothers, living in ways that we had never known or witnessed, had a displacing effect, and it felt to me like waking up in the middle of the night, or in the morning, and seeing my hand, after my arm had fallen asleep, and not knowing whether or not it was still attached to my body. It was also like coming upon a pattern within a section of wallpaper and seeing some remarkable and uncanny resemblance to a familiar face.
107 We paged through the album and found, after a few blank pa ges, a different series of photographs. In these, our mother wore a plain black dress and the casual version of a nuns wimple, which always appeared to be cocked at an angle on her head, exposing her brown bangs. She never posed alone, we saw, but only in the company of other trainees, whose faces were pale and dour,like pumpkins left in the field after Halloween. Her expression in these pictures disclosed nothing. We sat there, in a triangle, on the floor of the closet, supporting the photo album with the tops of our folded legs, and we talked about how weird it was that our mother had never told us about her girlhood adventures, about being a nun. She certainly didnt act or look, we agreed, like any religious figure we knew: she had none of Reverend Tom s impersonal nosiness, which we encountered reluctantly each Christmas and Easter, when he greeted us outside the church after services with a whimsical handshake of his own design and asked us all in turn how we were doing in school and in our sports. She did not bless anyone outside of nearby sneezers, nor did she say or bestow grace upon any food, drink, car, or dwelling, as some of our friends parents did. The only practices of our mother that we thought carried a whiff of otherworldly devotion were th e signs she made, the signs against specific harms, accidents, and embarrassments, which she had taught us very early. When we found her in the kitchen and confronted her with the strange evidence from her youth, she laughed at us. We asked her about he r apprentice nunship. She finished washing the plate in her hands, and put it in the rack to dry, then wiped her palms on the bottom of her shirt, and took the photo album from Michael. Her movements in the kitchen always appeared efficient and automatic. I found myself watching her sometimes from the dinner table as I set out the silverware, and felt soothed by her regular, careful mealtime haste. When she laid the album out on the kitchen counter, we pressed in next to her as she paged through, and pointe d at the details
108 in the photos that we thought best made our case: look at you here, we said, and here what were you thinking, who took this picture, where were you, where did that hair come from? and when she got to the bleak sequence of pictures of herse lf in her nun finery, we reiterated all our earlier questions. Although she didnt sound angry when she spoke, and she wasnt sad, or at least didnt show it, she talked about her time in the convent and her decision to pursue a vocation, as she called it, in a similar tone of voice to the one she used when she read our books to us at bedtime, as if she were speaking to us about someone whom we had never known and would never meet: a character in a story, or a relative who had died before we were born. Wh yd you do it, Mom? Michael asked. He slapped his hand on the counter like TV detective interrogating a suspect. It was a mistake, on one hand, she said, and on the other hand, it was the right place for me then. She had gone to the convent at St. Hildas, she told us, shortly after turning eighteen, and had stayed there for seven months as a postulant. Toward the end of her highschool career, she said, she had felt confronted by the poverty of options awaiting her after graduation. A few of my gi rlfriends ruined themselves trying to coax proposals out of their steady boyfriends. Two or three were off to state schools for college, which I thought was like more of the same high-school la di da, but in a bigger venue. Five out of every ten had hopes for secretarial or receptionist careers, and swore theyd probably die old maids if they didnt marry by twenty. She told us that, when she thought about her life after high school, her post curricular life, it had felt as if a wave of bleakness were risi ng up to meet her. I went to St. Hildas because I wanted a break, and I didnt know how long of one, from the stern task of everyday, unimportant living: the talking, eating, moving, and thinking, thinking, thinking about what to do.
109 We pestered her f or details about the convent, which was, in retrospect, our attempt to get some conversational distance between us and what our mother had said about her disappointing entre into the age of majority. The sisters, our mother said the real nuns wore their habits for everything: sewing, washing up, gardening, playing tennis, praying, of course praying, the matins, lauds, vespers, and compline. To turn their heads, the sisters had to turn their shoulders too, which always made our mother happy that she was o nly a postulant, and so did not have to dress in the starchy, restrictive vestments of the full brides of Christ. What she had initially considered aspects of the cloister that would save her life the extended silence of each day, the self cocooning within a non -secular space, the induction into the esoteric practices of the signs, the brute routine that eroded her most trite worries all wore thin within a matter of weeks, and although she still had hewn closely to the doctrines for postulants, and had spok en with the Mother Superior about the discernment of her vocation, she believed she was chasing down something that, by its very nature, should not be pursued actively, and this realization hit her so acutely that she woke up every day in her room from tha t point onward feeling as if she were merely attending a long and wearisome costume party. Plus, she said, as postulants, we were allowed to bathe only once per week, and the ammoniac reek of sweaty cotton quickly grew pretty nauseous to me. I stood there in the kitchen with my two brothers and listened to her speak. To reconcile my mother as she was, standing next to me with one hand on the photo album and one hand on Jonathans head with the idea of the dissatisfied, smelly dilettante she had descri bed seemed like it would require the kind of dedicated but ultimately fruitless thinking that I knew from my own private explorations of things like infinity, heaven, or outer space: too hard, too weird. Michael looked shocked and pensive, and his expressi on resembled his on -the -verge of a -sneeze
110 face, while Jonathans reaction to the story (hugging our mothers legs, sitting on the kitchen floor) fell more in the area of general boredom. What happened then? I asked her. Yeah, Michael said. I want to know how you got out of there. Our mother shut the photo album and put it on the ledge above the sink. Your father showed up one day. He was the means and the end of my leaving the convent. She smiled. Quite a charmer, your father. This was news to us. We could grant that our father had a way with words we had all born silent witness to his talent for small talk and his inability to refuse any attention, two characteristics which overlapped maddeningly often during family get togethers, block par ties, school visits, after baseball games, or in line at the bank, for instance, and almost always when one or all three of us were with him and could be dragged front and center as props for his pleasantries, anecdotes, and jokes but it strained our capac ity for belief that our father could be called a true charmer. Right, Mom, Michael said. So Dad stormed the convent and married you away from the nuns? Michael looked at me askance as if to say: theres got to be more to this. Ask your father what he remembers, she said, and swept some crumbs off the kitchen table into her cupped hand. Hell give you his side of it. We found our father out front, where he was pushing the lopsided snow shovel through the week -old ice around the sidewalk with kic ks, grunts, and profanity. Whenever he did yardwork, he seemed to assume the personality of someone who took selective, angry pride in his labor, and who made this known in every aspect of his appearance and demeanor (when he mowed the lawn in the summer, our father wore a polo shirt tucked deeply into jean shorts his
111 only concession to the heat and cursed with every breath he drew), which I had otherwise recognized only in certain lackluster pool lifeguards, the kind who yelled at everyone for running, eve n if you were just doing a brisk walk, but who looked the other way when some older kid dunked your head. When we got down to him, near the street, he stopped shoveling and waved at us. Come to help out? he asked. Were helping Mom set the table, Mi chael said. He was a much quicker and more experienced liar than I. But we just wanted to ask you about when you met Mom at the convent. Oh yeah, sure, he said, as if this question were along the same lines as an offhanded request for snack money for school, or for a ride to a friends house. So, long story short, which Ill tell you more of when I get inside, is that I was working as a plumbers apprentice, not helper mind you thats a plunger, and my guy got a call to come double -quick to St. Hilda s, or Helgas, whatever it was, since the pipes in one of the dormitories or cellblocks had burst, and the good sisters were rosary-deep in water. We get there, right, and this old bat, who was the boss nun, is yelling at us to please hurry up and fix the leak because otherwise the assistant nuns wont have anywhere to sleep, etcetera, and she asks us not to talk to anyone since wed be disturbing their work and peace with our outside worldliness. I start working on chasing down the leak, checking all the r ooms, when I see your mother, whodid you see the pictures? We told him we did. So you know what she looked like. Skinny, dark, pretty. It was like surprising a wild animal in mid -drink at a stream. She kind of stared me down for a minute. He leaned his weight against the handle of the shovel and crossed his feet at the ankles. Grandpa sent me to parochial
112 school when I was a kid, so I had some experience with the religious. I told your mother Id have the leak fixed as soon as possible, so that she could sleep in a dry place that night, and we talked a little. I told her I had a big thing, affinity, I mean, for nuns, which she seemed okay about. She only had her novice orders, so I came back and visited a week later, under the pretense of extending m y good pipe -side manner, following up on the leak, and I talked to her a little more that day. He wiped his beard with one gloved hand, and it made a noise like paper ripping. Your mother had designs to become a full -fledged nun, he said, and I effe ctively put paid to that. He laughed, and we laughed with him for a minute. Then he told us to move out of the way and to go back inside and help our mother. I thought of all this on the night of the arrival of the bike helmet, as I fell asleep. Things we re changing in the house, getting more and more interesting without our parents around, and that they would be sad to have missed it, whenever they returned. Three On the third morning after our parents disappearance I found Jonathan and Michael in the ki tchen, both still unshowered, Jonathan wearing the bike helmet, shuttling back and forth between the cupboards and the stove, collaborating on the production of a lopsided stack of thick pancakes. The pancakes, misshapen and lumpy, like our mothers, lay on a fine china plate on the counter, with confectioners sugar on them, and in a lake of syrup. Hey there, sweepy boy, Michael said to me. He held a batter -coated whisk in his hand. He grinned. Watch this. He turned and, when Jonathan bent over the ra nge to check on the cooking pancake, flung droplets of batter onto Jonathans helmet in a christening motion. I now declare you Prince Bisquick, Michael said, defender of the flapjack realm.
113 Jonathan groaned, then punched Michael in the chest. Youre the queen, then, jerk, he said. Queen Jerkoff. Jonathan grabbed for the utensil in Michaels hand. Impossible, Michael said. He whisked his scepter away. This is not how a prince should behave. When is breakfast? I asked. As soon as the prin ce here finishes, Michael said. Why dont you set the banquet table, huh? I took three of our favorite plastic plates out of the plate cupboard and arranged them on the table, in our customary places (Michael, even before that day at the park, had sat at the head of the dining room table our parents had preferred to sit on the same side together and Jonathan and I had spread ourselves out opposite our parents, making sure to give each other lots of space, since we were both loud and clumsy eaters). Fork s, knives, syrup bowls for dipping: set. We were still observing some of the familial rites, at least when it came to meals. Out of some strange obeisance to our missing parents, we all three had been washing our plates and cleaning up after ourselves even wrapping and storing the leftovers maybe not as carefully as we might have done had our parents been present, but in our own way we were domestically pious. Michael and Jonathan brought the stack of pancakes, the butter dish, a carton of orange juice, a nd the syrup over to the table. We sat and passed the bottle of Mrs. Butterworths around, filling our syrup bowls to their brims. Our father, who wasted no opportunities to needle our mother, often mimicked a priests blessing by saying, Do this in memor y of me, as he poured into his personal dipping bowl, from a height of two or three feet, his special blend of genuine
114 Vermont maple syrup and artificial honey. None of us, it seemed, had inherited his skill and accuracy, as we had learned long ago from o ur disastrous attempts to imitate him. Button, button, whos got the button? Jonathan asked. I passed him the butter. We resumed eating. Zhonafinn. Syrup, Michael said. Jonathan did not look up. Brobot. Joe Nathan. Dude dude dude dude, the s yrup, please. Michael waved his hands in the air vigorously, as if signaling to a taxiing airplane, or beckoning home a dim -witted dog. I laid two fingers in the crook of Jonathans arm and tapped twice, sent a telegram to his brain. Oh, sorry, Jonathan said, handing over the syrup. Its so loud when I chew. He pointed to the helmet. I can hear my hair grinding against it. Then take the goddamn thing off, Michael said, or no more juice. He grabbed the half -full carton of OJ from the table a nd cradled it to his chest as if it were a newborn animal, keeping the top with its open paper beak stained by pulpy dribble elevated. This was not a flimsy threat, we all knew. Jonathan was famous, even outside the family, for his inexplicably constant t hirst, which impelled him to smuggle sachets of fruit punch, cans of soda, and bottles of water into school, into movie theaters, and even into church. Once, while we were sitting across from each other in the waiting room at the dentists, I had seen him pull a green toy canteen from his coat pocket, take two gulps, and replace the container so quickly that I wasnt certain I hadnt imagined it, until he winked at me and handed the canteen over. It was Dr. Pepper, his favorite. Around the house, he had ear ned the nickname Drink Jackal (courtesy of our father), for his habit of scavenging the remainders of any beverage we left unattended for
115 longer than ten minutes, and our parents had jokingly theorized that, as the youngest, Jonathan had developed this beh avior as a means of survival that he had discovered a niche in our family ecology and promptly occupied it. In taking the juice hostage, Michael was engaging Jonathan in nothing less than tabletop brinkmanship. I say no to that, Michelle Jonathan said because you cant hold on to that juice all day. He unclicked and re -clicked the helmets chinstrap. And you know it. I pushed my chair incrementally back from the table, so I could get a better view of both brothers. Michael lifted the carton in both hands up above his head. This little thing? he asked. You dont think I can hold this all day? No, Jonathan said. Maybe, I said. Lets bet. What the hell with what? Michael asked. I had suggested the gambling without really thinking it through, just as a means of dtente. They both stared at me, waiting: Michael, in the pose of Atlas, with the upraised juice; Jonathan with his helmets straps dangling, like a Hassids earlocks, against his cheeks. The coffee mug and the toolbox, stu ffed with yard -sale cash. I had hid them, one inside the other, in the garage, among our rusted gardening shovels and old bottles of motor oil. No one but our father ever spent time out there voluntarily: it was the place where chores were forged. Hold o n, I said, and Ill show you. The garage was a sibling to our basement: it held as much, or more, junk and had the same still atmosphere. At least the basement only contained the faint scent of its damp cement floor, whereas the garage held a strong sc ent of dust, gasoline, trash, and grass clippings. We
116 hated the garage, but thats what made it a perfect hiding spot for a red toolbox full of strangers money. I brought the box back inside and put it on the table. I undid the latches and lifted the lid Jonathans and Michaels surprise manifested itself as a long whistle and a short profanity, respectively. Jesus, Michael said, after a moment. I noticed he was still holding on to the orange juice. Is this why Dad spent so much time out there? What a pack rat. Jonathan reached over and grabbed the coffee mug full of bills. He mimed a drinking motion, wiped his mouth, and said, This coffees too rich for me. He laughed, and we laughed together. Jonathan had one of those hard charging giggles. So what is this from? Michael asked. I explained about the front yard vending I had done while they slept. I tossed a half -dollar back and forth between my hands as I spoke. I hadnt felt much anxiousness, or anything, at the time of the yard sale I had don e it mostly just to do something useful, to gain some traction on what had happened but the expressions on my brothers faces when I told them about what I had sold made me believe that what I had done was tantamount to robbing graves. Shit our Lincoln L ogs? Michael said. I kinda wanted to keep those. He had set the OJ down on the table. Didnt sell, I said, and neither did most of the Hess trucks. I directed this comment at Jonathan, who had spent hours poring over our toy collection when younger. Jonathan half grinned at the news. What should we do with this? he asked, waving the mug in the air.
117 Split it up, Michael said. Its only fair. He assumed the attitude of someone taxed by heavy moral obligations. We should each have some of the money. I dont know about that, I said. We have no idea how long theyre going to be gone. We might need the cash for groceries, or to pay the bills whatever. I thought again about where our parents might be, what they were doing were they lying in ho spital beds somewhere, wrapped in full body casts, suffering twinned amnesias? I looked out the diningroom window. There were only so many possibilities. We dont have to worry about the bills. Not right now, Michael said. I saw it in their papers it s all automatic. He put a finger to his lips. Remember when Dad was all excited about that? The money moves back and forth on its own. Michael took some coins from the box and jumped them over each other like checkers. Like that. Yeah, money. I thin k I need to buy a new videogame, Jonathan said, to distract myself. Theres not that much money, I said. We should only take a small portion each, and leave the rest in case of emergency. I pictured them clinking their glasses of champagne together on a moonlit beach, on an unnamed island. One slips up and says our names, the other, in mock forgetfulness, says, Who? Michael sighed. The banker has spoken, he said. So lets do it. He was referring to the fact that, whenever our family played any of the numerous board games that involved the meticulous dispensing of fake currency or capital, I had been the go-to guy. I had inherited a small talent for math from our father, which, when coupled with the autodidact traits I got from our mother, made me popular with teachers, less so with my peers, and earned me a perpetual appointment to the role of banker in Monopoly exchequer in Treasury cashier in Mercantile!
118 and comptroller in Municipality I had been trying to abdicate those positions for the past year with no success. Jonathan handed me the mug and I had to smack the bottom a few times to extract the fat roll of singles, fives, tens, and twenties I held it up to my nose, on a sudden whim, and sniffed it: memories of birthday cards. I spread out the notes and counted them aloud, vaguely aware of a slowly developing disagreement between Jonathan and Michael. (Michael: Who took a dump in the upstairs bathroom this morning and forgot to flush? Jonathan: Not me.) Fifteen. (Michael: It must have been you. Jonathan: Why?) Twenty -five. (Michael: Because it stank like diaper poop. Yours are, like, fermented. Jonathan: Wrong.) Forty -eight. (Michael: Stop drinking so much goddamn milk. Jonathan: Unh uh. Its good for me.) Sixty -three dollars, all face up, I said, letting the last single fall on the pile where it hit with a whisper. I think we should keep thirty safe. Which would give us Michael paused. Eleven a piece, I said, which is enough. The extra buns that day, I thought I wanted to have bought those. Back in a second, shed said. Did time pass differently for them? Could
119 we have zonked out in the park? Maybe we were still there. Wasnt there that episode of The Twilight Zone ? I pinched myself. Cool stuff, Jonathan said. Gum, candy, videos, soda, games. Michael stood up. He raised the carton of orange juice again, in one hand, to eye level. To us, he said. Barons of Industry! We laughed and he sat back down. He smiled at Jonathan and me, back and forth, weirdly mirrorin g what our father did when he thought hed come up with a particularly good bit, or said something designed to provoke our mother into her put upon fit of eye rolling and huffing they were like two familiar Vaudevillians at those times, running the routine together. It had never gotten old, for us at least. Too bad theyre missing this, Michael said. I wonder where they are? Jonathan asked. Somewhere else, I said. We sat there at the table for a minute, unmoving. We thought our own thoughts about them. The key was to keep doing what we were doing working through the days as long as we could. Periods of inactivity seemed to murder whatever life we had resurrected within the house and ourselves, and brought us up flush against the situation, the fami lial abridgment. We should try to find them, I said. We should use our money to get them here. Im going to keep going through their papers, Michael said. Theres a lot of shit up there. He gave us a slowly elevating thumbs up, gesturing to our parents (now his) bedroom. Maybe thats something. I didnt finish the videotapes yet, Jonathan said. Ill watch more. Harder. He clicked together the straps of his helmet. I dont know what else we can do, I said.
120 Go to Mom and Dads work, maybe, Michael said. Ask around or something. That wont work, I said. Plus people will freak out. I imagined myself, dressed in my best polo shirt, walking through the halls of our parents workplace, stopping the men with ties and the women in dr esses, and discreetly requesting a quick word in the break room. There, surely, all bets would be off: proper and improper authorities would be summoned with corporate alacrity to nurture and interrogate me no doubt I would find myself wrapped in a thick b lanket (despite the early summer heat), sitting in someones office or in the rear of an ambulance, confronted with questions for which I had zero answers. Look, Ive thought about this, Michael said, moving his hand in a chopping motion in tempo with his words, if they were dead, the cops would have told us. No police have shown up yet, and its been a few days. That means theyre not dead. Maybe, I said. I hope so, Jonathan said. He lowered his head and stuck a fork in his pancakes. Im sur e theyre okay, pal, Michael said, giving me a sidelong paternal glare. Well figure it out. Jonathan nodded. I stood up and portioned out the cash to Michael, Jonathan, and myself: $11 apiece, in stacks of varying height. We each made the sign agai nst theft before pocketing the money. We cleared the plates from the dining room table and loaded the dishwasher. We were our fathers sons and our mothers sons, and we knew our parents were out there somewhere those were facts. Facts cant be lost, we th ought. They dont go missing. Facts, once found, are found forever.
121 Four While I brushed my teeth in the upstairs bathroom, which Michael had been right did still smell haunted by something potent, I decided I needed to get out of the house. It came on a s a sudden urge, like the times in school when I was fine one minute and then the next I had to piss so badly that I was sweating and wagging my knees together, willing myself to make it to the end of the period. The desire to get away from the house felt insistent and vital, and I didnt ignore it. I found Michael in our parents bedroom, scribbling notes in his bubbly longhand, seated on the floor with piles of paper radiating from his position. He looked meditative, entranced. I told him I was going out for a while, and he held up a hold -onone -minute finger. He glanced up at me, pen end between his teeth, and nodded. Pick up some bread and milk if you can, he said, as I was leaving the room. Were almost out. He turned his attention back to the sca ttered work. Downstairs, I saw Jonathan. He was lying upside down in the crotch of our sectional couch, in the living room, legs extended up on the leather headrests. A video of one of our past Christmases played on the television, and I heard our father say, off -camera, Santa and I spent five hours putting that together last night. Jonathan sat up straight when I came into the room. He had one of our mothers shawls tucked under the bike helmet, with the effect that his appearance suggested a desert nom ad cum crochet hobbyist. Im going for a walk, I said. Cool, brother, he said. Maybe get me a cold soda on your way home? Are you telling me or asking me? I asked. This was a favorite conversational move of our fathers, which he deployed exclusi vely when quizzing us on our homework or fielding
122 orders from us for take -out food. He had once inadvertently reduced Jonathan to tears a while back with the telling -or asking question a situation that was catalyzed by Jonathans stuttering (long since gon e) and our fathers confusion over whether the order included pepperoni or pepper only. Im tasking you, Jonathan said, grinning, with bringing me a cold soda. Fair enough, sheikh. Will do, I said. I bowed to him. See you in a bit. Bye, pal omine, palomino, he said, staring at the TV. I walked out the front door and down the steps to the sidewalk, into the sunlight. I heard a group of kids playing basketball up the street, their shouts and the staccato echoes of their dribbling, and as I passed I watched them break the game and take long drinks from their water jugs. The rising and falling tones of lawnmowers moving back and forth over yards and the gaps between the houses alternately muffling and amplifying the noise created complex audit ory illusions so that, whenever I expected to come upon a neighbor in mid -mow, I discovered instead that the sound must have come from somewhere farther back, somewhere hidden. I rounded the corner at the intersection of Maurice Lane and Mill Road. I saw M r. Ramsey standing ankle-deep in a pile of mulch, where he seemed, from where I was, to be sorting through and discarding individual mulch flakes, one by one. I knew that Mr. Ramsey had a reputation for eccentricity, particularly with respect to his landsc aping habits, which my father had once described as almost vengeful, but what he was doing then appeared to me the labor of either someone clearly insane, or a person paying a heavy penance. I wondered, as I approached his yard, whether this meant that i n the autumn he might try to rake the entire floor of the neighborhood woods.
123 Hi, Mr. Ramsey, I called from up the street. How are you? I wanted him to just skip right over any discussion of his sorting activity. Mr. Ramsey tossed aside a few (presuma bly) bad mulch chips and looked up, shading his eyes, as I approached. Hey there. One of the Seager boys, he said. Despite living in a house that sat diagonal from ours, and having been introduced to us multiple times, he could never remember our first names. Maybe to him we three looked too much alike. How are your parents? Havent seen em in a while, he said. Theyve been busy, I said. You know how it is with them. I didnt know how it was with them at that time, of course, and hoped he would t ake what Id said at face value. Oh yeah. Trust me, son: I know how it is. He pointed at his feet with both index fingers. Do you see this? he asked. I mentally recited a poem of obscenities, and made the sign against imposition behind my back. No luc k. Mrs. Ramsey thought any old mulch would work for the flowerbed. Not the case. This stuff she bought is full of sour tanbark. He shook his head, and gave me a look that implied the evils of sour tanbark should be self -evident. So yeah, I know how it is, he said, and produced a theatrical, barky laugh, as if he were reading each individual ha off a cue card. I was already walking away when he finished. Good luck, Mr. Ramsey, I said. See you later. Tell your parents I say hi, he said. He gave me a thumbs up and bent back down to attend to his pile.
124 Walking up the long hill of Mill Road, I came to the steps of the public library. If it werent for the sign outside, one might guess the building served instead as a sort of municipal memento mori, or a structure built as an homage to grim, utilitarian Soviet architecture. I liked the library because almost no one patronized it partly due to its appearance, partly due to the dearth of books in it. I had often thought that if libraries ever merited m ottoes, Nothing thicker than a periodical might have worked for ours. I had the idea that if Michael and Jonathan were contributing to the search for our parents by writing and reading, and watching and sweating, respectively then I had an obligation to do the same, to try to find our mother and father, and what I wanted to do at the library was get my hands on some precedent examples, if there were any, of the vanishing acts of parents. I wandered between the second -floor stacks, picking up slim volume s in the section labeled Crime Interest, a name that must have represented the staffs attempt at plainspoken marketing. A book entitled Wrong in Itself: Exposure, Infanticide, and the Fates of Orphans piqued my interest, so I grabbed it and several othe r likely looking titles and made for the long, metal reading tables in the middle of the first floor, taking care to pile the books around me in a manner intended to ward off inquiries and commentary from the few vagrants and shuffle ins who snuck past at weird intervals in search of the librarys bathroom, and who interpreted even accidental eye contact as full license to approach, accost, and converse. While looking at a book called Spectacular Negligence which detailed the striking case of a five -year old British boy who, left at home by his parents while they went on holiday, lived alone for a week and survived by eating lollipops and chips, I saw out of the corner of my eye someone walking towards me. I lowered my head deeper into the book, pushing my rib
125 cage into the edge of the table, and made the soft sign against unsolicited attention ( noli me tangere whispered three times). From under my eyebrows, I peeked: a girl sat down across from me and pushed some books aside; her hands, tan wrists, stre tched past the reading lamp into my field of vision. She didnt say anything. I felt my cheeks grow flush. I suspected she was waiting for me to look up. Hey, she said, and waggled her fingers in the gap between my face and the pages, as if she were wa ving hello to the book itself. I lifted my head. She had straight black hair, and one of those noses that, in its curvature, looked like a tiny ski jump. Her face had a brightness, or a polish maybe, that brought to mind certain television weatherwomen. She smiled. I followed you here from Maurice Lane, she said. She mimed a walking motion, pumping her arms at her sides. Not where I thought youd end up, she said, and turned her palms up at the lackluster surroundings. Huh, I said. I had never b efore been followed by so much as a dog, let alone a girl with (evidently) high expectations. Whats your name? she asked. Before I could answer she leaned over the table and reached out to me, her pink nails hovering just under my nose. Im Nicole, s he said. I had a delusional thought about kissing her knuckles, from pinkie to index, but instead I slid my hand underneath hers and gave it a weak shake. David, I said. Saying my own name brought me back towards recognition of the fact that she had, m oments before, admitted to following me to the library. So, I said with feigned casualness, why are you here? You know, Nicole said, theres a long answer to that.
126 I shrugged my shoulders. Okay. Im in this town because my grandmother lives her e and my parents wanted me to spend the summer with her, since shes old and alone and not to be mean or anything, but Ive been bored out of my mind, and I was sitting on the front porch of her house when I saw you walk past. You looked like you were going somewhere worth going, walking so fast, I thought maybe you knew a good place to hang out, somewhere with, you know, fun people. She arranged her fingers into a rough bracket shape, as if handing me an invisible box. When I saw you, you looked sort of with it. I thought maybe you were off to like, a carnival, or a skate park, or a neat coffee shop. Sure. Yeah, I said, and laughed nervously. I can see that. In truth, I seriously doubted that I had ever, up to that point in my life, done anything, e ither on purpose or accidentally, that might objectively be considered with it. I supposed this fact was now apparent to Nicole, given where I had led her. Are there even any of those things in this place? she asked. Her tone of voice slid higher and higher into hopelessness as she spoke. I didnt want to disappoint her again, this weird and open girl. She bit on her thumbnail, frowning, and I thought for the first time what it would have taken for me to do what she had done under what circumstances w ould I voluntarily creep after a stranger, into an ugly, uninviting building, and strike up a conversation? I had no idea. Theres Shortys, I guess. They have coffee there, or at least Ive seen people drinking what looked like coffee. Its pretty neat, I said. Its also a drugstore, I added, thinking that that might impress her. All right, she said. Lets go. Is it close by? What are you reading anyway?
127 Just some stuff I found upstairs, I said. Seemed interesting. I thought that if Nicole rev ealed that she was the daughter of an FBI agent, or, even more unlikely, a psychic locator of persons, then I would tell her about my parents. Otherwise I wanted to keep everything about it to us to me and Michael and Jonathan because it was our own proble m, and handing it over to anyone else would mean too much work and too much talk. Leave it, she said, and stood up. Wheres this pretty neat drugstore? Nearby. I left the books on the table, and we walked, she behind me, out the heavy doors and down the steps, towards town. On the way to Shortys, Nicole explained how she had arrived at her grandmothers house a few days earlier, and had spent most of her time there doing her summer reading and listening to her grandmother tell anecdotes about her son, Nicoles father, which stories often depicted her daughter in law, Nicoles mother, in a less than flattering way. At first, Nicole had thought her grandmother was being funny, but it became clear, after a dozen or so of the hostile reminiscences, that Grandma Liz (as Nicole called her) intended every detail in earnest. I started spending a lot of time outside, she said. On the porch. I told her that I was jealous, since none of our grandparents were still alive, and only one had lived to see all th ree of the grandchildrens births. A mean grandmother might be better than a dead one. She laughed at that. While we walked the half -mile into town, I thought about how much Nicole reminded me of a family vacation we had taken, to the shore, three years prior. It had been a big production, all around, our first family trip in a long time, a gap of six or seven years between it and the weeklong stay we had had at our aunts house in California. Nicole didnt remind me so much of
128 the vacation the drive, th e hotel, or the destination but rather of a small event that had occurred during it. The first few days after we had arrived at the shore were filled with nothing but bad weather, and so we all spent our time trying to distract ourselves, in different ways from the disappointment at first we were cooped up with our parents in the hotel room, watching movies on cable or playing card and board games, then they let us loose, and we went running through the hallways, to go riding up and down on the elevator, a nd then finally we went swimming, all of us, sometimes for two or three hours, in the hotels heated pool. Our parents became friends, via our fathers poolside small talk, with another set of parents, who were up from Atlanta visiting relatives. They had two daughters one, Allison, there with them at the shore, and another one away at school. On two evenings when our parents grew tired of swimming, they invited the Singers (the other couple), to dinner in the hotels restaurant, and on the second night the y let us all Michael, me, Jonathan, and Allison stay to keep swimming, because we whined so much. And since the pool was shallow, and had two lifeguards (one at each end), they agreed that it would be all right, there was no harm, as long as we were carefu l and watched out for each other. Jonathan and Michael got worn out, or hungry, and went back up to the room, leaving Allison and me in the pool with a few slowly bobbing adults. We swam back and forth underwater between the sides of the pool, to test our endurance. We splashed each other, and tried to make waves. It was what I could not have said beforehand that I wanted, the time spent with Allison, but having it, being in it, made me think I could detect the first part of something that extended far into the future, an event that I already knew then while it was happening that I would remember later. (This was how Nicole reminded me of Allison.) Allison and I got out of the pool after everyone else had long left. Allison wrapped one towel around her waist and one around her head. They were white towels with blue trim and the hotels
129 name stitched in rough blue thread, thin and worn in spots like hotel pool towels often are. She went to take the stairs back to her parents room and, as she was walking down the hallway, I saw that she had wound the towel on her head in such a way that the back end, the loose end, funneled to a point in a way and drooped, a windless windsock, onto her neck. Then the weather had cleared up and we spent the next four days straig ht at the beach. This was also the vacation when, after Michael and I had been in the ocean for an hour or so, we came back to our familys little plot of sand, to dry off and to catch our breaths Lets get our land legs back, Michael said and Jonathan a nd our mother were still in the waves, but our father was sitting down the shore some distance, oddly far away. After we had dried off and were beginning to get cold from the wind, Michael went to go see what our father was up to, down there at the other e nd of the beach practically. I stayed on the blanket and shook sand from our shoes until Michael and our father returned, both looking unhappy and windswept. Later on that night Michael asked me to get a soda with him from our floors vending machines, and while we were out of the room he told me that when he had approached our father on the beach, treading softly on the half -wet sand and coming up behind him, he had seen writing in the area between our fathers legs, and a stick in our fathers fist, and he was able to make out that the first three words were I HATE MY in capital letters before our father heard the grainy sound of Michaels feet in the sand and quickly erased everything by raking his fingers down and through the letters. Neither Michael n or our father spoke about it on the walk back to the blanket, but Michael said, as he sipped his soda, that he wished he had not seen what he did, and compared it to the time he had walked in on our parents, in the kitchen, our father with his hand on one of our mothers breasts. But Michael added that the scene on the beach was far more unsettling, more like a crime than an accident, he thought. Neither of us could figure which was worse the fact that Michael had
130 seen the words at all, or that he hadnt se en the entirety of what our father had written, and that there were so many unthinkable ways for that sentence to end. Is that it? Nicole asked, pointing to the low -slung shopping center ahead. We had been walking for a while in silence. Shortys is a t the end of the row, I said. I felt a bite of conscience when I remembered I had told Jonathan, See you in a bit. They had told us, that day in the park, Well be back in a second. That bit had stretched into hours and that second had stretched into days. I guessed, sadly, that as chance or something would have it, I had inherited our parents sense of the passage of time.
131 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH Kevin Hyde was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania. He received his bachelors degree in philosophy from The C ollege of William and Mary. If any University of Florida graduate or undergraduate student ever reads this thesis, after it is accessible, and can prove so, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org an email address that w ill be held by the author for the foreseeable future, and the author will provide the reader and correspondent with either one single -panel comic, or one crisp dollar bill.