LAST WALTZ

6.

“Nobody buys vinyl anymore,” I tell Mom when she starts threatening to sell yours. And even as I say it, I’m thinking they’re worth a fortune.

I’m stooped over The Last Waltz, Record 2, Side II, a strip of felt in one hand, a bottle of cleaning solution in the other. “The Shape I’m In.” Get it? Danger, the bottle tells me, Avoid contact with eyes.

I check the amp, the receiver. I stare at the needle. Behind the record player I find, coiled like a snake, a tangle of wire you never bothered explaining.

 

5.

Mom finds you. She will decide later on that she sensed something. She will claim the dog growled, that the wind rustled the trees. I know what she means: she means we all saw it coming. I couldn’t tell you why I never mentioned the dream to her: sound, noise, vibration, bright lights, heaven. Being born must feel like this, or else giving birth. Here is this thing, finished and begun. Here I am. Here we are. Toward the end, I couldn’t stand to be in the same room with you. I clung to details instead, doctor visits and lawyer visits. One day I organized your record collection.

Now I ask, “Who are we supposed to call first? The ambulance, or do we go straight to the funeral home?”

 

4.

Heaven will look like a spaceship: a blur of lights, four notes like a torch song to the Wyoming sky: “Life is a Carnival.” Take a load off. Toward the end, Dylan will show up. They’ll play all the hits. The crowd will go nuts.

 

3.

I wish it brought out the best in us, but it has brought out more than that. While Mom sleeps on the couch, I walk out to the garage, to the bookshelf where you keep them lined up, pristine and priceless.

The White Album. Exile on Main St. Skull and Roses.

Dylan. Dead. Doors.

I hate what’s going through my head. Blonde on Blonde. Cash or credit.

 

2.

The night before the day before you die, they run Close Encounters on Channel 7. The movie is one of your favorites: aliens land in Wyoming and give a free concert. Mom and I watch, with commercial interruptions, until she falls asleep. Around midnight, I tug on her arm and wave toward the bedroom where your breath—even I notice it—comes slower.

“I can’t,” she says.

She can’t?

She says, “The respirator.”

 

1.

Lungs. Liver. Brain. Kidneys. Lungs.

Your ears don’t work like they used to, either: side effects, I guess. I’m almost sure you can’t hear Levon Helm thumping in the next room. And yet:

“You hear that?” you ask.

“Hear what?”

I am already trying to forget your finger cocked at me, your eye stabbing from its socket. “Again. Hear it?”

“Hear what?”

“Scratch in it.”

“I don’t hear it,” I tell you, knowing you’re right, knowing I do.

That’s how things like this go. Oscar Wilde’s last words were, “Either this wallpaper goes, or I do.”

Your last words are, “Listen better.”

 

0.

Hear that sudden cutting out, this ending-before-the-end. Hear the dog growling. Hear the wind in the trees. Hear me talking in my sleep. Do you hear that? Here’s what I’m trying to tell you.  Listen. Better.

IN THE MUSEUM OF TENSE MOMENTS

I tell my daughter I’m taking her to the new museum for her birthday present.

“But what if I don’t want to go?” she asks. “What if I want another Bot Buddy for my birthday present?”

“You’ll like it,” I say. “And you don’t need another Bot Buddy.”

Of course, I’m not sure she’ll like it. It might be too soon to go; the museum is so new, the crowds are still terrible, there are still kinks to work out. The average TripAdvisor rating is only three stars. It’s expensive. Also, maybe Jane is too young: she just turned eleven. The museum is intended for older audiences—but not too old. You have to sign a waiver promising not to sue if you have a heart attack or suffer from “emotional distress.”

“All the cool kids are going,” I say. “The high school kids.”

This is true. You see them around town in their MTM T-shirts, which feature a big bloodshot eyeball and the slogan I’m Not Telling.

Jane is going through a difficult stage, spending too much time in her room with her VR animals and her Bot Buddy, Naomi—she works on a virtual ranch she designed when she was seven with her VR father before the Glitch. She stays up late feeding tigers and roaming the camp with her rifle, stalking a shadowy bandit that steals eggs and sets fires. Her teachers report that she’s intelligent but unmotivated. Instead of thought-waving with other kids she just watches movies on her finger screen. She made Naomi punch another kid’s Bot Buddy and then denied it, even when there were goggles everywhere recording it.

I tried to tell her stories of my own childhood, the things I’d endured, my own loneliness. And look, I turned out fine! But we don’t seem to share the same language. I told her how I used to carry a phone device in my pocket or in my purse, how I had to send text messages to people to know what they were doing. And her grandmother—wow, she had to wait by the phone for a boy to call her. It was a plastic machine, I told Jane, and it hung on the wall with a long curly cord, and it rang when someone wanted to talk to you.

She said, “I have no idea what any of that means,” then clamped her VR set on and went off to hunt the bandit.

 

The line begins a block away. A cold rain is spitting down, and we shiver in our coats. I’m glad I made Jane wear her boots. We haven’t been to the city in almost a year, not since we last visited her VR father in his midtown loft. I designed him myself. He played the piano and the trumpet. He told jokes. He said, Atta girl. I gave him a face like a friendly lion and hair like a twentieth-century rock star. He wore skinny ties and chinos and had big yellow paws. He was perfect, and Jane loved spending time with him, but when the Glitch happened, he was deactivated and I never got around to reformatting him.

“Are you nervous?” I ask Jane, as we shuffle toward the entrance.

“A little,” she says. The other people in line are in their thirties, forties, and older; a few give us disapproving glances, and one woman says, “This is no place for a child.” But the scanner beeps  green as Jane and I enter, and I feel vindicated—especially when I see the scoldy woman beep red and be taken aside by Nurse Bots for extra Health and Wellness scanning.

You have to deactivate all of your screens, and Bot Buddies aren’t allowed past the cloak room.

The marble hallway opens to a set of eight rooms, and the crowds stream into them, disappearing into more and more rooms. There are no Bot Docents; there is no map.

“I guess just start anywhere,” I say.

“I wish Naomi was here,” Jane mumbles as we follow a line of people into a brightly lit room. “What is that?”

“It’s a bench,” I say. “And an old man.”

Because that’s what it is. A green wooden bench, the kind you used to see in parks. And a white-haired man in black trousers, a tattered blue windbreaker. His face is both gray and yellow. He’s hunched, staring into space.

“What’s he doing?”

“He’s sitting.”

“Ohhh, he’s a Povvy.”

I forgot that she even knew about Povvies. They were pretty much swept out of the country a decade ago.

We watch as a young woman in blue jeans and a turtleneck sweater walks into the exhibit. She has long dark hair pulled back in a ponytail.

“Hey,” the man calls. “Pretty lady.”

“Oh no,” says Jane.

There’s some shoving behind us, and a man whispers, “God, I hated Povvies.”

“You got any change?” the Povvy shouts, but the woman ignores him, walking past, looking straight ahead. “So I can buy a meal? I just want a meal.”

“No,” the woman says, and then another glass door swings open and she walks up to a window that says ice cream and hands a piece of paper to a man in a paper hat.

“That’s money,” I tell Jane.

“I know that.”

The old man is walking toward the woman with the ice cream. “I saw you,” he says. “I see you. You said you didn’t have any money, but you did. You too good to talk to me?”

“Let’s move on,” Jane says, so we follow a stream of people into the next room, where three suitcases churn around on a conveyer belt while a woman and her tiny son stand next to it, gripping each other’s hands. All the suitcases are marked not yours.

“They don’t have their stuff,” I explain to Jane. “And there’s nothing they can do about it.”

“Huh,” says Jane.

We make our way through more rooms. There’s a teenage boy sitting on a single bed, staring at a phone—“See, it’s one those old ones,” I tell Jane—picking up the handset, putting it back down again. Picking it up.

In another room: a dining room table with six people eating silently, not making eye contact. Two sputtering red candles on the table, a turkey carcass.

“Who are those people?” Jane whispers, and I say, “I think it’s a family.”

I’m starting to think it’s all getting through to her: the ways the world used to work, all the opportunities for missed connections and miscommunication and misunderstandings and helplessness. We hurry past blue flashing lights, past small children holding out candy bars. A man with a clipboard, calling, “Just a moment of your time.”

A woman sits by herself at a restaurant table and stares at her wristwatch, a concept I once tried to explain to Jane. Then she takes out a phone device and starts pushing its buttons.

“She can’t use thought-wavers to find out where her friend is,” I say. “She has to try to find her with that phone, using words. But her friend isn’t answering.”

“Is her friend dead?” Jane asks, her eyes wide.

“Maybe. But the woman won’t know it until later.”

“Ohhh,” says Jane.

“Do you see how easy it is for you?” I tell her. “You have it so easy.”

She doesn’t say anything.

We enter a room strung with crepe streamers, a disco ball twirling from the ceiling. A girl Jane’s age sits by herself in a chair while a group of boys stands nearby, laughing. One of the boys keeps looking at the girl. When he looks away, she looks at him. There’s a window behind them, rain slanting in bright shards through the night sky.

“It’s a middle school mixer,” I explain. “He wants to dance with her and she wants to dance with him, but they don’t have thought-wavers or finger screens.”

“I can’t stand this,” Jane says. “It’s awful.”

I watch the boy drift over to the girl. “It’s beautiful,” I murmur, but Jane has already turned away. She’s staring at her fingers even though the screens are deactivated.

“This isn’t even a real museum,” Jane says, loud enough that several people stop and look. “I want Naomi and my animals. I want to catch the bandit before he burns down another fence.”

I watch the boy and girl staring at each other, their faces flushed and terrified. The last time I felt this way was when Jane was still a baby, before the screens and the lion-father, when my heart was like that glittering ball twisting just out of reach, suspended and cracked open. Maybe now is the time to tell Jane that the bandit is me, that I’m keeping an eye on her, tiptoeing through her animal kingdom and setting small, harmless fires. I open the traps and let the wild rats roam free. Sometimes I’m a snake slithering just out of sight.

I turn to tell her how proud I am of her, that I’ll buy her whatever she wants in the gift shop. “This wasn’t so bad, was it?” I say.

But she’s gone.

Maybe she’ll come back, or maybe she’ll find her way to the exit, and the doors, and the world beyond it. In a moment, I will look for her, calling her name, stopping strangers and asking, “Have you seen my daughter?” They will think I’m just another exhibit, and maybe I am.

Through the big window, the rain has turned to snow, swirling past the silver buildings. We don’t have snow anymore; I don’t think Jane has ever seen it.

The Greensboro Review Literary Award Story BONHAM FERRY ROAD

Little Joe hit Buster from behind with a three-foot section of galvanized steel, hit him so hard the single flat note of it echoed through the welding shop like a bell. The whole shop stopped working and watched Buster drop to his knees. His eyes rolled back and he fell flat to the ground. There had been no argument, no warning. When Joe ran back through the front office and out to the street with the pipe still swinging in his right hand, no one tried to stop him. After he was gone, I watched while the others gathered around Buster, shouting at each other to call an ambulance, to chase Joe, to do something. Instead I simply walked out the back door where my truck sat in the parking lot. Joe had changed everything and I needed time alone to think it through.

I left the shop and drove through Bonham, down Main Street, over the tracks at the far end of town where a green tractor hung its sickle bar over the levee’s edge and laid waste to the goose grass on its slope. The news of Buster and Joe followed me like a shadow. A sheriff’s car roared past with its carnival lights bright beneath the overcast sky. I drove down to the river with the cold wind at my back, down Bonham Ferry Road where Buster and his wife, Sarah, lived on a hump of ground raised up out of the bottoms. The cornfields, cut down to great stretches of stubble, left the road naked and lonely in the emptiness. I drove to Buster’s house even though I knew Sarah wasn’t home. If Buster was still alive, she’d already be on her way to the hospital in Hannibal.

The house was empty and quiet. I parked at the foot of the long gravel drive and shut off the engine. It had been three years since the house I rented in town had burned along with almost everything I owned in the world. When Buster heard about the fire, he insisted I stay with them until I got back on my feet. He drove me to his place through the tall summer corn after work, telling stories the whole way to take my mind off things.

“There’s no ferry on Bonham Ferry Road,” Buster told me. “They moved it to a better landing downstream twenty years ago. There’s only one reason for people to be down here now. That’s the way I like it.”

Buster put me up in his spare room for over a month while the insurance company processed my claim. I wore Buster’s clothes, ate dinner at his table. While he was gone in the evenings throwing darts or shooting pool in town, I would sit on the back porch with Sarah and watch storms sweep down into the bottom from the south.

Now I was glad Sarah was gone. I needed time to get my head around what had happened to Buster, to understand what it meant for us. The truck windows fogged up as I sat in the cold, blocking my view of the empty house and the ruin of the cornfields.

 

Sarah called after midnight, but I was still awake. “Everyone’s gone,” she said. “I’m so tired.”

“Is he dead?” I asked. There was a pause. I could tell she had been crying.

“No,” Sarah answered. “He’s up in the hospital now. They’re not sure about anything yet. He may never wake up again.”

“Maggie’s boy got him good,” I said. “The whole shop saw it happen.”

“Christ, Charlie,” she said. “Have you talked to the police?”

“Not yet.”

Her uneven breathing filled the silence. “What’s going to happen?” she asked.

I remembered the way it sounded when Joe took his shot. I remembered the way Buster lay on the floor, still and quiet as a dead thing. “It depends on who finds Joe first,” I said. In the dark of the new moon I stared at the dim outline of the bedroom window while Sarah breathed into the phone, saying nothing. She knew where Buster stood in the town.

“I just hope the cops find him first,” I said. “The way Buster treated Maggie, Joe had a right to do something. Cops may understand that. Buster’s friends won’t.”

“I don’t want to be alone tonight,” Sarah whispered.

I kept staring at the ghost of the window. “Call your sister. She’ll come stay with you.”

“I want you to come over, Charlie.”

“I can’t.” The neighbor’s dogs were barking wildly. “Call your sister.”

“I love you.”

“Don’t say that,” I told her.

Her words sounded ridiculous there in the dark with Buster still breathing, with his friends out for blood, with Joe on the run somewhere. I hung up the phone as the German shepherds slammed into the chain-link fence like fists knocking on a door.

 

I remember seeing Little Joe pinned up against the wall of Pop’s Bar in town just a year before, his face crushed against a framed picture of Johnny Cash, his cheek bleeding from the broken glass. Buster had Joe’s right arm wrenched up behind his back. The boy screamed as Buster put his weight into him, a high-pitched, unnatural scream as the tendons stretched tight. At fourteen, Joe was already a big, awkward boy, but Buster was a man. His thick neck flushed red even as he smiled. He was drunk. I was drunk. The whole bar was drunk, watching Buster put the boy into the wall.

Old Pop came up from behind Buster and put his face up to his ear like he was telling some big secret, but I knew what Pop was whispering. I wanted to say the same thing. “Put him down. He’s just a boy.” Joe’s face was livid with hate and pain. He screamed as if Buster was tearing his arm clean off. Buster tried to smile again, as if it was all a joke, a lesson Maggie wasn’t strong enough to teach her own boy, but the scream changed everything. We all knew better.

“Go easy on him,” said Pop’s wife.

“You don’t want to break his arm, do you?” said Buster’s best friend, Randy, laughing.

I wasn’t laughing, but I may as well have been for all the good I did. When Buster finally let him go, Joe staggered toward the door, sobbing. He cradled one arm with the other and kept his eyes on the floor.

“Go home to your momma, Little Joe!” Randy jeered. “Go home!” echoed the other voices in the bar. For Christ’s sake, go home, I thought.

Joe pushed his way out the door without looking back. Old Pop just shook his head and went back to business. The show was over.

 

The cops came to the welding shop the next morning and finished taking statements. Mrs. Murphy, the boss’s wife, stopped me at the time clock and frowned. “They’ve been asking for you, Charlie,” she whispered. “They want to know why you took off out of here so fast yesterday. I told them you were just upset about Buster. We’re all upset about it. What Maggie’s boy did was awful.”

“Awful,” I said. Maggie’s time card was still untouched in its slot. “Where is she?” I asked.

Mrs. Murphy frowned. “She tried to ride with Buster in the ambulance. Thank goodness the sheriff stopped her before Sarah showed up. Right now she’s waiting at home in case Joe turns up.”

When it came time for me to give my statement, I told them everything I could remember. “We were working just before lunch yesterday when Joe came in. His mom, Maggie, is the receptionist here. Before anyone could stop him, Joe took a piece of pipe off Petey’s workbench and hit Buster in the back of the head with it. Buster had his back to the door. He never saw it coming. Then Joe took off.”

When the cops asked if I knew Joe’s reason for going after Buster, I thought of the murder in Joe’s eyes when he swung the pipe. I remembered how he looked at Pop’s Bar, screaming, his arm pulled back.

“Buster fooled around with Maggie,” I told them. “He beat her up pretty bad a few times. Everyone knew about it.”

“Are you friends with Buster?”

“I’m friends with Buster’s wife,” I answered.

 

Maggie started flirting with Buster from the day she began working at the shop. It was early summer. Buster rode his Harley to work that morning, his sunglasses hiding everything from her, but Maggie grew up in Bonham and knew he was married. Buster wore his thick gold high-school ring on his left hand instead of a wedding band. In fights he would lead with his right and end it with his left. “A lot of people wear scars from that ring,” I told her when she first asked me about him. His buddy Randy had a four-inch scar beneath his right eye from a fight with Buster over a girl their senior year. The next day they were friends again. Buster was like that.

Maggie didn’t seem to care that Buster was married. She didn’t care that almost everyone knew someone Buster had beat up over the years. Buster was confident and dangerous. Welding for the shop made him more money than others, and he wanted her, that was clear. Maggie was young and pretty in a careworn way. She smiled at him every morning and blushed when he teased her. The first and only time she did that to me, I almost fell in love with her, too. I guess Maggie was dangerous in her own way.

 

I first remember seeing Buster, Maggie, and Little Joe together at the county fair the summer their affair started. Joe was thirteen then and seemed to like having Buster around. Buster threw money around all day long, buying nachos and Cokes for Joe and tickets for the roller coaster. When he thought no one was looking, he put his arm around Maggie.

Mrs. Murphy fanned herself in the thick summer air and smiled at them. “I think it’s sweet how Buster’s started looking out for Maggie’s boy.”

It wasn’t sweet. As night fell and Buster got more beer in him he got less careful with Maggie. Soon Joe was alone spending Buster’s money on the carnival games while Maggie sat on Buster’s lap in the beer garden beneath the hard tent lights. It was then, with Maggie draped drunkenly across Buster, both of them laughing like fools, that the whispering started.

“Where’s Sarah tonight?” Mrs. Murphy asked. I knew Sarah worked the night shift every third weekend at the nursing home on Route 3. Somehow that made her suspect, as if she gave Buster the opportunity to cheat on purpose. Rumor in town was that Sarah refused to give up her job and raise children, denying Buster the family that everyone believed would settle him down for good. Maggie was too close to Buster, too alluring, and Sarah was at fault, as if Buster also had something missing inside him, some great space that Sarah refused to fill.

I remember how they all looked that night, so good the whole town pretended that they were a real family and Sarah was the enemy of all that was good and wholesome. At the time I thought they might be right. I could still laugh about it, remembering the stolen nights Sarah and I spent in the spare bedroom while Buster was out fooling around with Maggie.

 

Night in the bottoms is a special kind of dark. During the new winter moon, with the air so clear and cold you can see the faint blur of the Milky Way, you feel utterly alone, like an astronaut in space. I drove down Bonham Ferry Road toward the steady light from Sarah’s house as if it was the only light left to follow, the only shelter in the cold void between the river and the bluffs. I knew there would be people at Sarah’s that night. It was the only safe way for me to see her.

Buster’s friends sat out on the front porch smoking cigarettes beneath the stars as I walked up. “How’s she doing?” I asked them.

“Just got back from the hospital,” Randy said. “Buster’s still hanging on.”

I nodded and looked around at their hard faces. “I know Sarah’s got plenty of help right now, but I just wanted to stick my head in the door and see how she’s holding up.”

“The cops said they’ll try Joe as a minor,” Randy said, ignoring me. “He’ll walk out of jail on his twenty-first birthday like nothing ever happened.”

“He’s only fifteen,” I said.

Randy shook his head. “He’s a man now.”

“There’s nothing we can do about the law,” I told him.

Randy dropped his cigarette on the porch and ground it out with his boot. He studied me while the faint murmur of voices drifted out from the house. I could hear Sarah talking, trying to get rid of Randy’s wife and the other women who’d followed her back from Hannibal. I could still hear Minnesota in her voice. She had two older brothers, both Swedes, tall and blond with thick shoulders and bright white teeth.

“We figure Joe’s holed up somewhere in the state forest,” Randy said at last. “He used to go hunting up there with Petey’s boys. Tomorrow we’re all going out to find him.” He stared through the shadows, waiting for me to answer.

“What do we do once we find him?” I asked.

Randy paused, a heartbeat. “We bring him back,” he answered. “Are you coming, Charlie?”

I couldn’t get in to see her. Randy and the rest of Buster’s friends stood on the porch like guard dogs, their eyes half closed, waiting for someone, anyone to challenge them for her. “What time are you heading out?” I asked. “I’ll meet you there.”

The light from the kitchen shone on Randy’s scar, making it seem new. With Buster, all was forgiven the minute he slapped you on the back or bought you a drink. No hard feelings, no questions. Buster’s friends were ready to hunt down Joe out of love, not fear. Only love could forgive pain. Without it, pain festers into hatred, as it had in Joe, in Sarah. In myself.

 

I kept my dad’s old Winchester .30-30 stuck in the back of a closet. When I was twelve, I stole the rifle from his locked cabinet and walked into the woods alone, my pocket full of cartridges, hoping to escape far enough out into the trees to avoid being caught. An hour later, on the banks of Walker Creek with the rifle in my lap, I sat trapped between the desire to shoot the gun and the temptation to run home. I loaded the magazine, levered a cartridge into the breach, opened it, kicking the shell to the ground, then loaded another. In time I started sighting in everything around me: a beaver bullying his way through the honeysuckle, the last sycamore leaves waiting to fall, my own shoe, as if to dare fate.

Then the dog came. She was a ragged, feral mutt, white and black, full of burrs and half-starved. She shambled down the bank to the cold water and drank deep, ignoring me. I could see her ribs beneath the fur and the knots of bone along her back. The deer rifle went off like a cannon, driving my shoulder so hard I fell back against the muddy bank, yet the shot was good. The dog dropped where she stood.

My father had never been a good shot. He used soft points to help his chances even if it meant wasting meat. The dog’s entry wound was little more than a vague blemish in the thick white fur behind her shoulder, a bit of blood, a pale glimpse of naked bone. The other side, where the fattened slug came out, was an obscene mess. I stood trembling over her while the creek bubbled across the rocks, my ears ringing as I fought the urge to throw the rifle down and run away.

When I got back I cleaned the rifle like my father taught me, careful to remove any evidence of what I had done. Then I locked it away and didn’t touch the gun again for fifteen years.

 

We gathered before dawn to look for Joe. Randy stood spring-tight with his old scar livid in the truck lights. His brother Ray smoked in silence, hulking up behind him like a ghost, every bit of six and a half feet tall and built like an Angus steer. Petey crouched down and drew pictures in the fine gravel of the drive. Bob Cotton brought his four grown boys, all dressed in brown duck coveralls with morning beards and clean new rifles. Amos and his half brother Roger shared sweet black coffee from a thermos lid. Ross from the farmer’s co-op chewed the last of his breakfast with his eyes on the ground. I recognized Skip and Paul from the river, and John the ferry pilot with his buddies Dave and Jake and poor Dumb Bob who opened and closed the gates when the boat landed. Buster’s only neighbor, Buddy Creech, came with his binoculars and a cooler full of sandwiches his wife made that morning. The Smith boys were down from Hannibal and Old Pop was there too, still half-drunk as he rooted around in the back of his truck for his gun.

Everyone was there to look for Joe, familiar faces even in the dark, familiar voices, all but a handful. Six of Buster’s friends from across the river stood at the edge of the group, muttering back and forth, smoking cigarettes like soldiers.

 

What Little Joe did was hardly in cold blood. No one could keep a secret in Bonham, and Buster didn’t even try. When trouble started between him and Maggie, it happened in front of everyone. They would argue in the bar or Buster would show up to throw darts, alone and angry. Some days they would work all day without saying a word to each other.

One day, Maggie showed up to work with her eyes red, holding her purse close to her ribs, keeping her face turned away from everyone. She sat down at her desk and let the first phone call of the morning ring itself out without answering. When Mrs. Murphy cleared her throat, Maggie jumped in her chair.

“Where’s your head this morning?” the old woman asked.

Maggie shrugged and settled back against the hard-backed desk chair, obviously in pain, as if she could hardly stand the weight of her own body pressed against the wood. I stared at her from the break room and stirred sugar into my coffee. Sarah had warned me about Buster from the beginning, how he acted when he got angry.

“Buster’s just an overgrown boy,” she told me. It was our first night together. She paused, pressed her hand against her stomach. “No, I guess he does think, at least with me. He never hit me where it would show, not even when he was drunk.”

That night I lay beside Sarah on the hard spare bed and felt my gut coil up tight as I studied her face. I ran my thumb across her cheek, so delicate, so easy to break. It was something she and Maggie had in common. Both were small. Buster stood six foot four. He could carry pieces of steel I couldn’t lift off the ground. Buster wore heavy steel-toed boots everywhere he went. Buster could’ve killed either one of them without trying.

“Do you think he hits Maggie?” I asked. It was the first time I had mentioned Maggie. Sarah seemed startled to hear it, but sighed and draped a thin arm across my chest.

“The only good thing about Buster and Maggie is that he stopped hitting me,” she said.

Driving out Bonham Ferry Road with Buster after my place burned down, I felt like we were friends. Now hatred sat heavy on my chest.

Sarah seemed to fall asleep after that. I watched the numbers on the clock glow above her pale shoulder. Buster played darts in Hannibal every Friday until well after midnight. We were safe for a while. Finally Sarah stirred and turned her back to me. “If he hasn’t beat her yet, he will,” she said. “There’s no reason for him to change. And she’ll take it, too, you just watch.”

As I pulled out of her driveway, my stomach was tight at the thought of Buster’s headlights coming toward the house. There was no ferry on Bonham Ferry Road. I had no business being down there in the middle of the night when Buster wasn’t home.

 

As the sun came up through the trees, I hiked into the woods with the boys from the ferry to look for Joe. Randy had decided we were the worst fuckups of the bunch.

“Go check the campsite up by the spring,” he told us.

I knew there was no chance Joe would hide somewhere so obvious, but I didn’t argue. Randy took Buster’s out-of-town buddies to the caves along the bluffs where Joe was sure to be hiding. I led our group to the least likely spot with my father’s old rifle slung, unloaded, over my shoulder. Dave and Jake had never hiked in the forest before. It wouldn’t have mattered if Dumb Bob had been born there. No one would ever follow him anywhere except off his ferryboat.

We found the tiny campsite late in the morning, five miles off the main trail in a grove of shabby hickories at the top of a hill. The fire pit was cold and empty. Dead branches and leaves lay undisturbed on the ground. Even Dumb Bob could tell that no one had camped there in months.

“It’s a long way back,” he said, sighing. Dave and Jake nodded and crouched together next to the fire ring.

“No shots yet,” said Dave. “I guess no one found him.”

We sat together beneath the hickory trees and waited, telling stories about Buster while the rising sun warmed the air. None of us knew what we were waiting for. Jake shared the rumor that Buster ran cocaine across the river, how he hid cash all over his sprawling property.

A cold spread through the backs of my legs even as the sun climbed higher. Out in the woods I could hear the first stirrings of a warm fall day, the kind of day every deer hunter hates. I could remember a warm November weekend long ago when my father came home from the hunt without a deer, sweating in his coveralls, his face red. We sat together in the kitchen with the windows open and the green smell blowing through the screen. We stared across the table at each other, helpless against the warmth. Now the warm sun and cold ground fought a silent war inside me. My hands shook as I wiped the sweat from my face.

Dumb Bob told the story of Buster and Dottie, the dancer he’d met at the River Club before he got mixed up with Maggie. Bob was in awe that anyone could have a girl like Dottie. “He just reached out and took her,” Bob said, shaking his head. “I don’t know how he did it.”

“Coke,” Dave said under his breath. “That’s how you date a stripper.”

“You remember the night Buster fought that trucker outside Pop’s place?” Jake said. “He put the guy down with one punch, broke his nose just like that. Everyone thought it was over.” He rubbed the back of his neck and shrugged. “Then Buster started kicking the poor guy as hard as he could while he was crawling away, one shot after another. The guy tried to cover up, but it didn’t do much good. If I hadn’t pulled Buster off of him, he would’ve killed the guy. I’m sure of it.”

I hadn’t seen the fight with the trucker, but I could picture it in my head, except in my mind it was me on the ground trying to cover up while Buster took his shots. Every time I left Sarah I thought about what would happen to me if Buster found out. “Do you think Maggie ever bothered to fight back?” I asked. The guys stared back without answering.

My father never touched me, not once, but he was an angry man. There were days I’d come home from school and hear him slamming around the kitchen cabinets or pacing up and down the hallway in his heavy boots and a scream would rise up from my gut and burn its way to the back of my throat. If I wanted to, I could count the days I held that scream in my mouth like a bird bashing itself bloody against its cage.

When Buster put Joe against the wall at Pop’s Bar, I recognized the sound. Later, when Joe took his shot at Buster, I knew the boy was empty. The scream had left him wide open. The day I left home, my father hugged me like nothing had ever come between us, as if we were normal, he and I. I hugged him back with that same scream still burning inside me. Sitting there talking about Buster, I realized that it was still there. I had never dared to let it go.

“Would you do what Joe did?” I asked the ferry boys. “If someone hurt your mother over and over again, would you have the guts to make it right?” They still didn’t answer.

Three gunshots echoed through the trees. Dumb Bob jumped to his feet and raised his rifle to his shoulder even though the sound was far away. We waited in tense silence for a fourth shot, but none came. A cloud of gnats hovered between us, drawn out by the warmth of the day, lured close by the smell of our sweat. When nothing else came, we started back down the trail. This time I marched last in line, nursing a familiar, sick feeling. I was glad the others couldn’t see my face.

When I left the hunt, I didn’t bother making an excuse and the others didn’t ask. It was almost dark when I pulled out of the park and headed out toward Buster’s dead-end road.  I knew Randy had found Joe, that the gunshots meant the hunt was over. I knew Sarah was back at the house alone. Hot and sweating in my coveralls, I drove to Buster’s house with my window wide open. The air grew cold as the sun went down and the wind swept out of the north.

The house was dark and quiet, the driveway empty, the door to the pole barn open and swinging. Everyone had gone. I walked slowly around to the back where Buster’s mud-caked boots stood empty beside the door. I walked and listened for voices, looked for light behind the curtains. The back door was locked. I found the right key after four tries and opened the dead bolt with a dull scrape of metal.

Buster used to sit by the back door on a kitchen chair and smoke with the door cracked, blowing his smoke out into the night in an effort to appease Sarah. The smell of tobacco lingered there, guarding the door with the threat of him, the unquestionable fact that this was his space, and he would be back to claim it. Walking in that night, with Buster gone, I noticed the empty space he left behind. The memory of his cigarettes was old and faint, obscured by the warm food smell of the kitchen and the sweat that stuck the shirt to my back.

The house seemed empty, still as frost. I walked into the master bedroom and stared down at their bed. Sarah always folded back the covers. Now the blankets were tucked up beneath the pillows like a closed door. Someone else had made it up that day.

A sudden creak of weight shifting on the floor braces at the back of the house made me jump. The noise came again and I followed it slowly out of the bedroom and down the dim hallway toward the back of the house. Buster kept a loaded .38 revolver beneath the bed, but I left it alone. I could see the back bedroom in my mind, the mismatched furniture, the stiff, cheap sheets on the bed. An old rocking chair sat in the corner by the window, hard and uncomfortable. The nights I spent with Sarah were always in the back bedroom. I would sit in the chair and watch her dress in the moonlight, my weight shifting back and forth on the floor with the same rhythmic creak. Someone was there now. I recognized the desperation that hung heavy between us as I knocked softly and pushed open the door.

“It’s Charlie,” I said quietly.

Sarah sat in the chair rocking back and forth. Little Joe slept on the bed, his filthy clothes leaving mud on her grandmother’s quilt. Sarah looked up at me with her eyes full of the ruins of her life. I started to talk, but couldn’t.

“He showed up this morning,” she whispered. Her voice was bruised from crying. “He hasn’t slept in days. I told him I’d help.”

“He can’t stay here,” I sighed.

Sarah nodded. I took a blanket from the closet and covered him up. His face was peaceful beneath the dirt. “He’ll be all right for now,” Sarah said as she closed the door behind us. In her bedroom I watched as Sarah got undressed and slipped naked beneath the sheets. I followed with my jeans still on. She pressed tight against me and closed her eyes while I stared up at the ceiling. Their bedroom was a foreign place. My hatred of Buster was cold and useless there.

“Buster’s gone,” she whispered at last, then took a deep breath. “I love you, Charlie.”

I closed my eyes and let her words sink in. Buster’s gone.

“They called me just before you came. He never woke up.” She squeezed harder and buried her face into my shoulder. “What are we going to do now?”

I kept my eyes closed and felt my body tighten beside hers. I was in Buster’s bed with Sarah, surrounded by his things, the smell of him. After hearing the news, I felt helpless even against his memory. Buster was gone. Before, it had seemed just a matter of time before he would sit up in his hospital bed and pull off the wires and hoses that bound him. Now he was dead, his ghost just an echo in an empty room.

Little Joe had screamed when he cracked, but I was a full-grown man. My fear passed silently out of me as the truth came in. There was no ferry on Bonham Ferry Road. No dogs barked there in the empty night. In the other room, Little Joe slept for the first time in days.

The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story SNARES

Gordon reached across the jumble of plates for the bottle of raki. He’d lost track of the conversation around him. The taverna sat high on a hill, its balcony overlooking the Sea of Marmara, but even at a height the smell of murky water and dead fish reached his nostrils. Citronella candles flickered on the tables. Gordon filled the bottom of his glass with the aniseed liqueur and then splashed in mineral water. He swirled the glass in his hand and watched the mixture cloud. How did it happen? How did two clear liquids combine to form a hazy one?

So many things had become unclear. Three weeks ago he’d been in Missouri. Now here he was in Turkey, drinking late at night, no longer ensnared by thoughts of wife or child.

Earlier in the evening, Gordon had eaten stuffed grape leaves. He’d dipped flat pita bread, still warm to the touch, into an eggplant puree that tasted of wood smoke and garlic. After clearing the dinner plates, the waiter had brought out a handheld vacuum sweeper and, as if he were holding a silver brush and pan, had run the whirring Dustbuster across the tabletop. For dessert, Gordon had been served sweet Turkish coffee, but he’d drunk too far down into his cup and tasted the bitter grit of coffee grounds on his tongue.

Across the table, one of the experienced teachers—Matt, a pockmarked twenty-something—licked the rolling paper and twist-sealed the ends of a joint. He wore a red t-shirt with an emblem of a crescent moon and a single star, the Turkish flag. His biceps were the size of Gordon’s thighs. Matt looked up and met Gordon’s stare. He nodded his head toward a Ziploc full of grass on the table. “I scored it today in Martiköy.”

“Obviously you haven’t watched Midnight Express.”

Matt clicked the wheel on his Zippo. “Dude,” he said in mock-surfer, “you so need to chill out.” He lit the joint, dragged deep, and passed it to Kari, his girlfriend. Gordon felt certain that Matt had swapped place cards in order to sit next to her tonight.

The restaurant had been rented for the night by the school’s director. This was the first party of the year, one she called “a mixer.” In her officious manner, she’d stood at the start of the evening and announced, “I’ve jumbled you up, new teachers and old-hands.” She’d clapped. “Go. Find your places.”

A bit later, a band had played and Gordon had watched the Turkish women on the faculty dance to frenetic Eastern rhythms played on instruments he couldn’t identify—lutes and zithers, perhaps. Unlike the expats, the Turks had dressed for the evening, and many of the women had worn short skirts and tight blouses. As he’d watched their hands snake overhead, he’d felt a sexual frisson, although he knew that they weren’t dancing for him.

Now only this table of diehard drinkers remained—the others, both Turks and expats, had taken the minibuses back to campus. He wasn’t even entirely certain where they were. Somewhere beyond Martiköy. A little village on the coast. How had he missed that last bus? He was drinking too quickly, he thought, and not paying attention. Tierney had a car; he’d said he would drive them all back to campus. Tierney was ass-falling drunk, but Gordon had no choice but to wait for the man to give him a ride.

The waiters were gathered around a television at the corner of the bar where they watched a soundless soccer game, waiting, apparently, for the table of inebriated Americans to go home. The skunk-sweet scent of burning cannabis drifted across the table, and Gordon wondered how long it would be before the waiters smelled it too and called the police. “Don’t you teach civics?” Gordon asked. “And ethics?”

Matt exhaled a lungful of smoke. “I only teach the theory.”

The woman who sat to Gordon’s right was named Sheryl, and she was the new librarian. Like him, this was her first overseas job. She was divorced. Childless. She wore Birkenstocks and a linen dress, and her dark hair, parted in the middle, hung around her face. She reeked of patchouli oil, and her legs were unshaven, but he was willing to overlook those faults because she kept herself fit; because she was attractive in an earthy way. He’d decided that she might be his only reprieve from a year of sexual abstinence. The younger people had already coupled up, and the other women close to his age—thick-ankled and graying—repulsed him.

“Let’s go down to the sea,” Sheryl said suddenly.

Gordon looked down the hill to the sea. It was a steep descent along a narrow dirt path. The trail disappeared into darkness. He doubted they could hike it in their street shoes. “Sure,” he said. “If you like.”

All night he had been filling her glass when it got low, telling jokes, cupping his hand around a match to light her cigarette. He wanted to reach out casually; to wrap his hand around her upper arm and feel under his thumb the scarred circle of her smallpox vaccination, but he was unsure of his timing. Perhaps he was too drunk to make good choices. But then, he thought, that I’m aware of being drunk means I’m not too far gone.

“I love the water,” Kari said. She pinched the joint between thumb and forefinger. “I want to live on the water.”

This was Kari’s first trip outside of the U.S., and earlier in the evening she had told the group stories of her adventure: “On the flight, there was a picture of a little airplane on the television screen that showed you just where you were. We flew over Greenland!”

A cat mewed near Gordon’s feet—a group of strays had gathered on the balcony. Two of the braver ones jumped to a nearby tabletop where leftovers still remained. Others swished their tails around the perimeter of Gordon’s table. They were filthy-looking creatures, their faces puffed with scar tissue.

“I’m going to forage for food,” Matt said. He took an empty plate and began to travel from table to table.

On the other side of Sheryl sat Tierney, a man a bit older than Gordon, a long-term expatriate. A fat poseur, in Gordon’s estimation. Tierney was drinking Turkish gin, spelled on the label with a “c” instead of a “g,” a gut-rot concoction that Gordon couldn’t stomach even when mixed with Schweppes. “You know, last year’s math teacher vanished,” Tierney said. “One day he just didn’t show up for school.”

Gordon realized that he was being addressed. He had heard the story of his predecessor. He knew the man had packed a single suitcase and taken a cab to the airport, leaving the rest of his belongings in his apartment. Gordon had heard the story, and he knew the point of it: Tierney thought that he, too, wouldn’t last out his contract.

Tierney motioned for the joint and Kari handed it across the table. As she leaned forward, Gordon caught sight of her breasts under her loose blouse. The pink of her nipples. “Turkey will do that to you,” Tierney continued.

Matt returned with a plateful of odd appetizers—dolmas, half-eaten pita bread, fried fish. “We’re not just expatriates, you know,” Matt said. He plunked the plate onto the middle of the table. “We’re, like, refugees from reality.”

“Stop trying to scare us,” Gordon said. He reached again for the bottle of raki. “I think we can all cope.” He could tell what these two thought of him—that he was a naïf, a romantic, not tough enough for the expat life. It was ridiculous; as if anyone couldn’t start anew. Gordon sloshed the raki into his glass, surprising himself with the unsteadiness of his aim.

Tierney flicked a bit of fish off the table and the cats leapt upon it, fighting and hissing.

“Does nobody else want to go down to the sea?” Sheryl reached out and took the joint from Tierney. She took a toke and blew smoke out through her nose. Gordon wondered what it would be like with her. Her armpits, he thought, like her legs, would be unshaven.

“You’ve heard there’s a spook on campus?” Tierney seemed to be speaking directly to Sheryl.

“I don’t believe in ghosts,” Kari announced, as if this opinion were a sign of her intellectual integrity. She wasn’t pretty, Gordon decided. Her lips were full and her eyes were large, but her features were overexaggerated.

“He means a spy,” Matt said. “CIA. One of my students says he heard it from his father, who works in intelligence. If you believe that.”

Sheryl held out a forkful of salmon and a large black cat inched toward it. “What would those fuckers be doing at our school?”

“I’m betting on Gordon here,” Tierney continued. “A neo-con James Bond for the new millennium.”

Gordon wondered if he really might be the spook that Tierney was talking about. That would be fitting irony, wouldn’t it? Tierney would have to revise his opinion of Gordon as a Midwestern know-nothing.

Spook wasn’t the right word. He hadn’t been recruited, not exactly. There had been no papers signed, but he had been in contact with a woman who worked for the CIA—Marnie, an old classmate. She had been interested when he told her that he was moving to Turkey, and she’d suggested they talk again. Unlike Matt and Tierney, she valued his opinions about the world.

Suddenly one of the waiters ran from the bar, shouting, clapping his hands, towards their table. Shit, Gordon thought, we’re busted. The waiter must have caught the scent of the marijuana. But no—the man kicked at the cats, which scattered and leapt over the wall of the balcony into the brush, and then he returned to the television at the bar.

Matt pinched out the last of the joint and threw it over the balcony. He picked up the bag of pot from the table and crammed it in his pocket. “The sea,” he said. “To the sea.”

“Let’s take the bottles,” Tierney said. “We’ve paid for them.” He picked up the gin in his left hand and handed the bottle of raki to Gordon. “Be careful with that, Gordon,” he said. “Drinking is the expat’s disease.”

Gordon rose to his feet. He took a step and realized that he would have to concentrate to walk a straight line to the door. As he passed the bar, he noticed their waiter reaching for the telephone.

Tierney stopped in front of Gordon at the exit and turned back to face the waiters. He touched the top of his head. “Allahaısmarladık,” Tierney said.

The waiter covered the receiver with his hand. “Güle, güle,” he replied.

They walked around the back of the taverna to the seaside path.  “What was that you said?” Sheryl asked.

“It’s a kind of goodbye,” Tierney said. “The person leaving says, ‘Allahaısmarladık,’ which means something like ‘God watch over you,’ and the person left behind says, ‘Güle, güle,’ which is ‘smilingly, smilingly.’”

“It sounds like it’s easier to be the person who stays than to be the person who goes,” Sheryl said. “‘Güle, güle’ I can say.”

Staying and going, Gordon thought. Jeanne had stayed; he had gone. The memories sneaked up on him when his guard was down—when he lay in bed waiting for sleep or, like now, when he was drunk.

He had been fixing breakfast when Jeanne had come into the kitchen. “There’s a puddle in the bed,” she’d said. “It doesn’t smell like pee.”

He’d looked at her, not understanding.

“I think my water broke.”

She was only in her twenty-third week. They rushed to the hospital, but the baby was coming too early, far too early. “Not viable,” the doctors said, an ugly term that he still couldn’t shake from his memory. Jeanne went into labor; she seemed to be in shock when the contractions started. “Push,” the nurse shouted. “Think about what you’re doing.” When the baby was born, the nurses wrapped it in a blanket and let Jeanne hold it. A girl. Gordon had held out his pinkie finger to the baby, and she grasped it with her tiny hand. She lived only a few minutes.

Jeanne never recovered. After the baby died, her milk came through, just as if she had a child to feed. It leaked through her bras and T-shirts. It left stains that wouldn’t let her forget the child that they had to bury. Gordon couldn’t escape his vision of the baby, its flesh almost translucent, but Jeanne’s pain was deeper, unfathomably deeper. There was no consoling her.

She started smoking again, buying cartons of unfiltered Chesterfields. Her skin was bad and her complexion sallow. When he suggested therapy, she turned on him, like a cornered animal. “What do you know about it? When have you ever grieved?” He was shocked by her anger; it was as if she was another person.

Gradually he gave up. He wasn’t wanted. He took the dog, and he found a single trailer outside of the city in an area surrounded by woods. It meant a long commute to school, but the rent was cheap, and he liked the feeling of living in the country.

 

The descent to the beach was even steeper than Gordon expected. The path was a soft silt that gave way under his feet; he found himself grabbing at clumps of stiff grass to keep from sliding all the way down the hill. His eyes still hadn’t adjusted to the darkness, and he could barely see what lay in front of him. Gordon took a swig from the bottle and slipped again, spilling some of the raki onto his shirt. He felt the cool alcohol evaporating against his chest.

Sheryl stopped suddenly and Gordon bumped into her. In the darkness, his hand brushed against her ass. “I’m going to kill myself in these,” she said. She took off her sandals and carried them.

“Fuck!” he heard Matt yell. “Fuck, I’ve lost the goddamned bag of pot.” Gordon could hear him shuffling his hands around. “Shit. It cost a fortune.”

Gordon thought again of Sheryl, the momentary contact, the firmness of her flesh under his hand. He imagined them together; would she want to be on top? The thought excited him.

“Found it,” Matt said. “It’s okay. Let’s go.”

Gordon was already so sick of him. Matt, who had lived in Istanbul for one year and hence regarded himself an expert on all things Turkish. And then there was Tierney, with his practiced blasé air. They thought Gordon was a Missouri hick—poorly traveled, poorly read. But he knew about Turkey. He’d read histories and guidebooks; he’d always wanted to travel. After Gordon had gotten the job in Istanbul, he’d watched the opening scene of From Russia with Love on DVD—Bond arriving in Istanbul by rowing through the Basilica Cistern. And when he first arrived in Turkey, he’d stood in the cistern, amid the myriad columns, thinking that he had done it. Istanbul was no longer a pipedream.

The trail flattened out at the bottom. Gordon’s eyes had begun to adjust to the dark. The beach was rocky and littered with plastic bottles and beer cans. At the water’s edge, they picked their way across huge slabs of stone. They sat on the seawall.

“I’m going to roll another one,” Matt said. He took out the bag from his pocket. “Shit. I can’t see if there are seeds in here or not.”

“Let’s chance it,” Kari said.

Gordon took a swig from the bottle of raki. Drunk straight up, the taste of licorice was overpowering. He sat on the rock wall and listened to the waves.

“The cats were pretty,” Kari said. “I’ve hardly seen an animal since I got here. Except lizards.”

“Muslims don’t keep dogs.” Matt flicked open his lighter. His face was briefly illuminated by the flame. “They think they’re unclean.” He blew out the end of the joint, letting it fade to a glow, and then passed it to Tierney.

“You want to see a dog?” Tierney pinched the joint and took a  long toke. “Go to the zoo at Topkapi. They’ve got dogs in cages.”

A flashlight combed the beach some distance down the coast from them. Crabbers, Gordon thought. At night, after the tides, one could spotlight crabs on the beach. They froze in the light as if mesmerized and waited to be netted.

“My dog died last year,” Gordon said. He wondered why he had begun this story. He knew it was a bad idea. “She was an Irish setter, and my wife named her Priscilla, after Priscilla Presley. Our first dog had been named Elvis.”

“Do you know,” Tierney said, “that in Turkish you drink a cigarette instead of smoking it?”

“Then you must be fucking thirsty,” Matt said, reaching for the joint.

Gordon took another drink from the bottle. The story was unlikely to maneuver him any closer to Sheryl’s bed, but still he blundered ahead. “Priscilla’d had pups that I’d given away, but she still had her milk. And then this kitten came into the house. It was just tiny, but Priscilla adopted it. The dog used to nurse the kitten. I’d never seen the likes.”

This would be a good place to stop, he thought, while the story was still cute, but the raki had loosened his tongue. “Then Priscilla disappeared. One day she just didn’t come home.” He paused, hardly able to speak. “And the kitten didn’t understand that all dogs weren’t his friends. He got torn apart. Strays.” Gordon felt the tears coming, but he wouldn’t be caught crying over the story. He took a swig of raki from the bottle and pretended to choke. He held his hand up to his throat.

Sheryl pounded his back. “Can you breathe?”

“Give him some water,” Kari said.

“Fuck that,” Matt said. He flicked the roach into the sea. “If it’s not mixed with raki, he won’t know what to do with it.”

The beam of a flashlight swept across the area where they sat. “Oh shit,” Tierney said.

It was the polis, two young cops. They looked like boys, brothers perhaps, barely old enough to shave. The shorter cop aimed his flashlight from face to face, and Gordon held up his hand against the glare. Bigger brother spoke brusquely in Turkish.  No one answered, and it occurred to Gordon that the others were too drunk, or too fucked up, to be of much use. “Do you speak English?” he asked.

The taller one spoke again. Gordon could recognize only the anger in the voice.

Tierney turned to Matt and whispered, “Itch-day e-thay ot-pay.”

“Speak English,” Matt said. “They don’t.”

“Get rid of the smoke!” Sheryl hissed. “Get a brain.”

“I’ve dropped it. Don’t worry.”

Tierney seemed to be waking up to the situation—he began to speak to the cops in Turkish. The cops pointed up and down the beach, talking loudly. At last Tierney turned back to the group. “Drunk sweep,” he said. “They say we can’t have liquor here.”

Gordon thought back to the empty beer cans littering the beach. “Tell them we didn’t know.”

The shorter cop suddenly grabbed Tierney’s arm and pulled him towards the road. “I don’t think he cares.”

The other policeman gestured for the bottles. He took the gin in one hand and the raki in the other, and then he gestured with the whole of his outstretched arm, pointing up the beach, across the rocks and to the road, where a paddy wagon sat.

Although he’d made a fool of himself by talking about the dog and the kitten, Gordon thought, at least there were a few parts of the story he’d had the sense to censor. He hadn’t told them about moving away from Jeanne. And he hadn’t told them that the dog hadn’t simply disappeared—when Priscilla didn’t come home, he’d gone looking for her.

Gordon had walked through the woods that surrounded his trailer park. “Priscilla! Here girl,” he’d called out, listening to hear her scurrying through the brush towards him. He walked hours before he found her. She looked unmarked, but she was dead. And then he saw the dark wire wrapped around her neck. Strangled to death. Poachers had set a snare under this fence to catch whatever animals might be using the run.

He had called Jeanne, drunk. “Priscilla died,” he’d said.  “Can we talk?”

“Let me get this straight. You’re upset because the dog died.” She’d begun to cry. “Gordon, just leave me the fuck alone.”

It was soon after that Gordon had remembered his dream of Istanbul. He’d realized he was free—no wife, no pets, nothing to tie him down.

 

The paddy wagon smelled of drink and body odor. Three dirty, ragged men, habitual drunks from the look of them, sat glumly on the bench that lined the far side of the van. Gordon took a seat on the bench opposite them. Sheryl and Kari sat next to him, and then Matt and Tierney pushed in.

The taller of the two cops climbed into the wagon and sat opposite Gordon, still holding a bottle in each hand. The short cop climbed into the front of the van, a wire screen separating him from them.

The paddy wagon lurched forward onto the road. The van braked hard and he slid into Sheryl. “Sorry.” He wondered if he might put his arm around her.

“Are they really going to run us in?” Sheryl asked.

“Cool,” Matt said.

Gordon felt horribly, painfully sober. The raki had left him with a licorice slosh in his stomach, but his mind felt clear. The others, incredibly, seemed not to understand their situation.  “Look around at these people,” Gordon said. The hard-looking Turks in the wagon stared at the floor and did not speak. “They’re scared shitless. This is no joke.”

“What?” Kari asked. “Is drinking some kind of hanging crime here?”

The van picked up speed again, and Gordon looked for a handhold. His back bounced against the hard backrest. The van slowed suddenly and then thumped through what seemed to be an open trench. Gordon went airborne.

“These roads are un-fucking-believable,” Kari said. “There are more potholes than road.”

“Once, on the way to Martiköy, I flatted two tires,” Matt said. “The second time I bent a rim.”

Sheryl laughed. “There must be a good Roman road down there somewhere.”

“If it was a Roman road, it’d be straight,” Tierney said. “These things are goddamned goat paths.”

“Can none of you focus on what’s happening?” Gordon said. This trip was bad news—he didn’t know much about the Turkish police, but he had a feeling that there would be no reading of Miranda rights. “We’re being taken to a Turkish jail.”

“Dude, chill,” Matt said. “We were drinking on a beach. They’ll make us pay a fine.”

“Maybe the waiters phoned in the marijuana,” Gordon said. “Have you thought of that? You all weren’t very subtle about it.” Through the front window Gordon could see headlights coming straight at them. The driver made no move to change lanes.

“Do you think we should offer up some baksheesh?” Tierney asked. “I’ve bribed my way out of a speeding ticket but never out of a Black Maria.”

The headlights in the windscreen grew larger and brighter. Gordon gripped the bottom of his bench with both hands. Shit, he thought, we’re going to die before we’re even interrogated.

“Maybe I really should have ditched the pot,” Matt said.

“You don’t still have it,” Kari said. “Do you?”

“Fuck, yes.” Matt patted a noticeable bulge in his front pocket. “I only got it today, and I paid way too much for it.”

The headlights seemed to be right on top of them. “Allah, Allah!” the driver shouted. He twisted the wheel hard. Kari slid off the bench and went to one knee on the floor. Sheryl clutched at Gordon’s arm. He could feel the van begin to tip. The driver jerked the wheel again and the van rocked from side to side before settling on its suspension.

“Holy shit!” Sheryl said.

The taller cop had also toppled to the floor. He knelt now by the wire mesh, still holding their bottles, and shouted at the driver.

“They drive like children in pedal cars,” Matt said. “They don’t steer, they just point their cars in a direction.”

“Lane markers and road signs are just advice here,” Tierney said.

Gordon wanted out of the van. He wanted to go home to his lojman and lie down; he wanted this day to end. So many things had gone wrong, starting with his morning classes. In Kansas City, Gordon’s strength as a teacher had been that he made math fun. Every teacher wanted to be liked—it was the great secret of education—but a math teacher had to work so much harder than most. Gordon had kept a pair of Groucho glasses in his desk. He’d played Jeopardy with the homework answers. Each March, he celebrated Pi Day.

But here, the students weren’t amused by him. They insisted that they had exams to prepare for, pressing him to move faster, but the math was more advanced than anything he’d looked at in years. There were problems in the book he couldn’t solve. Sometimes he’d resorted to asking his best students to show their work on the board and then nodded appreciatively. But today he’d been caught—two of the students had disagreed on a proof and had asked Gordon who was right. “Let me double-check my work and get back to you on Monday,” he’d said lamely.

How the fuck could Matt have held onto the marijuana? What if they were searched at the station?

He thought again of his meeting with Marnie. If the worst happened, if they were jailed, would she have some pull? Could he mention her name to the embassy? Perhaps that would somehow compromise her.

The paddy wagon seemed to have reached a town. Gordon could see streetlamps overhead, and the driver turned down one road and then another. At last they stopped. The short cop opened the back door, and the Turkish men began to pile out. The other policeman motioned for Gordon to follow.

Outside the van, the night air was cool. “Where are we?” Sheryl asked.

The Turks began to single file into the police station, as if it was a drill they knew well.

Tierney glanced up and down the street. “Welcome back to Martiköy, Gordon.”

 

During Gordon’s first days in Turkey, the school had organized a bus to Martiköy so the new teachers could do their shopping. The Saturday market had sprawled throughout the city, and Gordon had left the group to explore. Vendors’ tables filled every available space on the sidewalks. In America, food was wrapped, sanitized, sealed; here, huge bags of spices sat open, whole sacks of saffron, stick cinnamon, and cumin. Pigeons pecked at sunflower seeds until they were shooed away. Gordon went a block further and the smell of the fishmongers’ stalls assaulted him.

Women haggled over prices and men walked arm in arm.  Despite the heat, the men wore long trousers; some had jackets and woolen skullcaps. Many of the women wore headscarves and their bodies were made shapeless by long raincoats. He saw one woman dressed head-to-toe in black being led by a man—no slit was cut into the veil for her eyes. Gordon had worn shorts, and a white-haired man slapped his cane into Gordon’s bare legs as he passed.

He tried to make his way back to where the bus had parked. Before setting out, he had picked out a merchant selling huge stainless steel pots as a landmark, but since then he had come across others selling identical goods. Was this mosque the same one that the van had parked near? The world had become a mass of the unfamiliar. Surely this was what it was like to grow old, to become senile and confused. He felt nauseated as he realized that the bus had surely departed. At last he found a taxi driver who understood where he wanted to go. “Twenty dollar,” the driver said. Gordon nodded. He was probably being ripped off, but what else could he do?

When the taxi had pulled up at his lojman, a group of teachers sat on folding chairs in his lawn. They’d cheered as he got out of the taxi. “Gordon! Gordon!” Matt had handed him a can of Efes beer, and Tierney had said, “We always have a bet at the start of the year—who’ll be the first person to get lost.” He’d motioned to the others. “We’re your backers.”

 

Inside the police station, the group was herded into a dimly lit room filled with Turkish men, picked up, apparently, on earlier sweeps. The men stood quietly, heads bowed. Many held their hands protectively in front of their genitals.

“This isn’t looking so good,” Tierney said.

No shit, Gordon thought. Already he was wondering how he would explain this to the headmistress. In the country for less than a month and already busted. Matt with his fucking marijuana. Were they allowed to call the embassy? “I should tell you something,” he heard himself say, but then he stopped and began again, whispering. “If this gets bad, I may be able to help. Before I came here, I talked to a CIA agent,” he said.  “An old girlfriend. She says she works for AID, but everyone knows it’s some kind of light cover. When I told her I was coming here, she asked me to keep my eyes open. I can contact her.”

The others stared at him for a long moment without speaking. At last Tierney said, “So you think you’re the spook?” There was a laugh in his voice.

“Maybe,” Gordon said. “I don’t know.”

“Haven’t you just blown your cover?” Kari asked.

“Dude, I never took you for a snitch.”

Gordon studied Matt. “What do you mean?”

“A snitch. A fink. A narc.” He patted at his bulging pocket. “Who do you think she wants you to spy on? It’s not like you speak Turkish. You don’t have access to secrets. If she wants you to spy on anybody, it must be on us. The other expats.”

“Maybe she was just talking,” Sheryl said. “‘Keep your eyes open.’ I mean, it doesn’t sound like you’re on the payroll.”

This wasn’t the reaction Gordon had expected. He’d pictured himself as a quiet hero, helping with national security, fighting terrorism. He’d thought they might be grateful for his help. He’d thought Sheryl might be impressed.

The two young cops sprawled in folding chairs, smoking strong cigarettes. The room was quiet. At last, a mustachioed policeman entered. He looked around at the silent group. When his stare fell on Gordon and the others, he called out in Turkish. The brothers sprung to their feet. They dropped their cigarettes on the floor.

“We’re foreigners,” Tierney said. “Yabanciyiz.

The police officer spoke in harsh tones to the two young cops, who looked away. After a moment, he walked up to Gordon’s group, motioning with his hand. “Gelin,” he said. “Come.” He led them out of the room. At the exit, he pushed the door open and wagged his finger in their faces. “Only a drunk on bar,” he said. “Never in beach.”

“Right,” Matt said. “On bar only.”

“We understand,” Gordon said. Matt, the idiot, was asking to be searched. “It won’t happen again.”

Sheryl sniggered, at what Gordon was unsure.

Iyi Geceler,” the policeman said. “Goody night.”

“Let’s get out of here,” Gordon said. He walked down the street and the others followed, laughing. At the corner, he heard footsteps behind him. “Bakarmisiniz?” the tall policeman called. “Raki. Cin.” He handed the bottles to Tierney and jogged back towards the station.

Maybe Tierney’s right, Gordon thought; maybe there is some kind of madness to this place. Gordon had arrived thinking only of the adventure, but these past days had been harder than he had expected. Chaotic.

Already he was sick of living out of a suitcase. He’d brought only a few days’ worth of clothes; he had nothing for the colder weather that was approaching. In his shipment there was a trench coat that he’d bought in Kansas City, a Humphrey Bogart kind of coat, replete with epaulets and belt. He’d chosen it not only for its practicality but also because he associated it with foreign correspondents and spies. But his shipment had never arrived. He was using a jam jar as a drinking glass. He had to wash out his few clothes in the kitchen sink.

Yesterday, Gordon had left school early and caught a ride into Istanbul. He’d gone to the shipping agent’s office with the belief that he might get a firm answer if he spoke to the man face-to-face. “Very good news,” the agent had enthused. He was sweaty and beer-bellied. “We are only waiting for your shipment to clear customs. Perhaps tomorrow.”

Gordon felt his jaw tighten. It was the same thing he’d heard every day for the past weeks. Always tomorrow, Gordon thought. “Does a bribe need to be paid?”

“We take care of baksheesh,” the man said. “Don’t worry. Soon. Perhaps tomorrow.”

“So I can call you tomorrow?”

“Yes, yes, call. But perhaps not tomorrow. Perhaps tomorrow tomorrow. We will let you know.”

And then Gordon had begun the trek back to school. Without a car, the journey took hours: a ferry ride across the Bosporus, a crowded commuter train, and then a minibus. Near the ferry station he’d been surrounded by a pack of grubby shoeshine boys calling out “Shiney? Shiney?” Gordon had waved them off. “Suede,” he said. “Don’t shine.” But one of the kids daubed brown polish on the leather regardless. Gordon had shoved him, perhaps harder than he’d intended, and the boy had tumbled face first, his shoeshine equipment clattering on the cobblestones. Gordon had turned quickly and walked away, but the boy had followed him, reciting all the English words of abuse that he had heard others hurl at him, words he probably didn’t fully understand: “Piss off! Bugger off you little prick. Go to hell.”

 

Gordon looked down the street. No traffic. No pedestrians.

“We’re miles from my car,” Tierney said.

Most of the shop windows were dark or shuttered, but opposite them, a window display of headless mannequins dressed in puffy wedding gowns glowed violet-blue under an ultraviolet light.

“We’re not going to find a taxi now,” Matt said. “We might as well wait until morning.”

“What a window dressing,” Sheryl said. “It certainly makes me want to get married.”

Tierney held up the half-empty bottles. “Let’s have a drink.” He sat on a park bench facing the bridal gowns.

“I just want to get home,” Gordon said. “I want to find my bed.” His wave of sobriety had passed. He realized that he would feel very, very sick tomorrow. Or perhaps it was today.

Sheryl slumped onto the bench next to Tierney. She held her head in her hands. Gordon hesitated a moment, and then sat next to her. Kari and Matt glanced at one another and folded themselves up cross-legged on the sidewalk, facing the bench. Tierney placed the two bottles on the ground in the middle of the group. “Şerefe,” he said.

Gordon leaned forward for the raki. As he reached for it, his hand outstretched, he watched the liqueur begin to slosh inside the bottle. The entire bottle, he realized, was vibrating. He sat back and put his hand against the wooden bench; it too trembled. And then in the shop window the black lights flickered off; the wedding dresses vanished. The streetlights, too, faded to a glow and then went out.

As suddenly as it began, the vibration ceased. He became aware of the din of the street. Sirens wailed and horns honked, each with its own steady cadence. Car headlights flashed on and off along the otherwise dark street.

“Holy fuck!” Sheryl shouted above the hubbub. “Was that an earthquake?”

“A little temblor,” Tierney shouted in response. “We get them all the time.”

One by one the alarms began to quiet. “I’m so freaked,” Kari said.

Matt said, “Don’t worry. It’s over. It was nothing.”

“I don’t know what happened to the power, though,” Tierney said. “That’s unusual.”

As Gordon’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, he realized that Matt and Kari had begun to make out. He could just see Matt’s hand moving under her blouse. He couldn’t stop himself from watching.

The lights flickered back on in the shop window, and Matt and Kari separated. Gradually, the overhead lamps began again to glow. Tierney picked up the gin and took a swig. “You see? All’s well that ends well.”

“Does it end well?” Sheryl asked. “Is this a major fault zone? I worried about lots of things before I took this job—terrorism, hospitals, the blood supply. I didn’t think about earthquakes.”

Tierney shrugged. “Someday there’ll be a big one, and then Istanbul will be screwed. A lot of these buildings will collapse like sandcastles. I’ve seen trucks hauling used rebar—they wait for the concrete to set a little, and then they pull out the rods to use somewhere else.”

Gordon reached out his hand to touch Sheryl’s arm. He meant it as a gesture of reassurance, but she stiffened. “What are you doing?” she asked.

He had failed so miserably this evening to impress her. He reached for the bottle of raki and took a pull. He felt suddenly dizzy. Why was he so unable to make a connection with this group?

No matter where you go, there you are, he thought. There would be no secret dockings in the Basilica Cistern. He wasn’t James Bond, only a would-be snitch. He wasn’t free, only alone. No one gave a good goddamn about him.

Matt and Kari engaged in another embrace, no longer worried about an audience. She moaned softly. “I’m going for a walk,” Gordon said.

He put the bottle on the ground and rose unsteadily to his feet. The sidewalk seemed to move with him, and he stumbled forward. He made his way across the street. In front of the bridal shop he stopped and studied the oddly-glowing dresses.

Gordon thought again of his dog lying dead under the fence. The snare, a cable with a locking slide, had been designed to tighten as the animal struggled. It gave back no slack. If Priscilla had stayed still, if she hadn’t tried to fight her way out, she might have lain there until he’d found her. Instead, she had twisted and turned, pulled against the wire, until it strangled her to death.

Gordon tried to force the image from his mind. He leaned forward and rested his head against the shop window. From behind him, across the street, he heard again the clink of bottles. A burst of laughter. Gordon lifted his head and turned to face the group.

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, PART IX: FREDDY VS. THE MADSEN BROTHERS

Part I

 

1984.

A grainy picture, speckled with static and imbued with blue as if someone had taped cellophane over the television: this is how I saw the original, the first, the best. The sound was harsh or, at times, muffled and inaudible. My parents had left me with my brother Owen for the evening. He was fifteen, five years older than I, and said, “Tonight, we’re going to watch what I want to watch.”

The commercials for A Nightmare on Elm Street had been playing for weeks, and the other kids in my elementary school were already talking: “There’s this burned-up guy, and he kills you in your dreams.” Until then, the scariest movie I had seen was Godzilla vs. Megalon, and I cowered in the couch as Godzilla battled a humongous cockroach with a drill on the top of its head. They trampled Tokyo, kicking cars out of their path, snapping telephone poles like toothpicks. When it seemed as if the cockroach had won—Godzilla lying on the ground, foam oozing from his mouth—I started to cry, and when my brother saw what I was watching, he said, “Paul, you’re such a wuss.”

Our parents forbade Owen from seeing A Nightmare on Elm Street, but he snuck in after buying a ticket for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan. He smuggled our video camera—the size of a cereal box—into the theater. And now, I was his test audience.

He watched as I squirmed and shuddered. At one point, a silhouette rose, and I thought Freddy was emerging from the television screen (he has a penchant for materializing out of solid objects), but it was only a lady going to the restroom. On the tape, Owen admonished: “Move it, bitch!” Occasionally, the picture jiggled as he repositioned the camera on his lap. His jeans rustling, the squeaking of the seat: these became dead leaves blowing down Elm Street, the scrape of Freddy’s fingernails against pipes.

I thought Owen would protect me, but when Freddy sprang from the shadows, I jolted from my seat, and he pushed me away. “God damn it,” he said. “If you’re going to be a pussy, I’ll turn it off right now.” He pulled the bag of potato chips closer to him, and his tube-socked foot pushed a Coke can off the coffee table. The music started screeching, and I covered my eyes. “This part isn’t scary,” he said. “It’s cool.” When I unlaced my fingers from my face, a geyser of blood erupted from a bed.

For weeks afterwards, I had nightmares. None involved Freddy, but I remembered Owen walking ahead of me, wearing his blue NASA T-shirt. I saw the back of his head, brown curls sticking out like coils of wire. I ran towards him, but my movements were labored, as if I were running through Bisquick batter. I fell further and further behind, and with each step, I became more and more frightened that I was going to lose him.

After the movie was over, he asked, “Wasn’t that awesome?”

I was still quivering.

“I bet none of your friends have seen it yet.”

I shook my head, not wanting to seem uncool.

“You should tell all of your friends how sweet that was.”

“Okay,” I said.

He leaned towards me. “Good,” he said. “If any of your friends wants a copy, tell them to give me a blank videocassette and six bucks.”

 

Part II: Freddy’s Revenge

 

1985.

Once Owen got his driver’s license, he disappeared frequently. He saw Freddy’s Revenge at a drive-in with two friends Dad disapproved of. He skipped dinner that night, and my parents and I ate in tense silence. Dad stabbed his pork chop with his fork and chewed as if the meat wouldn’t break apart.

I stayed up until I saw headlights come into the driveway. I listened: the grind and crank of the parking brake, the transmission winding down like an asthmatic. Owen, smelling of beer, stumbled up the stairs, and I tried my best to quiet him. I didn’t want Mom and Dad waking up.

“How was it?” I whispered.

“Not as good as the first.” He put his hand on my shoulder and pushed down, propping himself up.

“Was it scary?”

“Nah,” he said. “It was kind of gay.”

The floor creaked. He had trouble going faster than a shuffle.

“What do you mean, “gay”?”

“Like in the first one, you see a tit, but in this one, there’s no boobies anywhere. Just sweaty guys walking around in their underwear.” He leaned against the wall. “And there’s this one part where an old guy’s naked ass gets whipped bloody. That’s totally gay.”

Looking back, Part II is totally gay; or at the very least, homoerotic. Phallic signifiers include a pop gun held crotch-high, a snake wrapping itself around the protagonist, and, of course, Freddy penetrating male bodies with his trademark fingerknives. I won’t even mention the disco-housecleaning scene. Some critics contend that the film reflects mid-80s conservatism; for instance, the predatory coach who sets his lascivious sights on the protagonist arouses a horror rooted in homophobia, rather than in Freddy himself.

But back then I was eleven, intrigued. “Gay” was how you described someone one step down in the social pecking order; how could a movie be gay? I’d never seen another man’s backside before, although I’d been spanked: once for talking back to my mother, then again for skipping school. But whipped bloody? The thought made me shiver.

“Gross,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said, “gross.”

Months later, my parents and I were browsing the video store when I saw the cover for Part II. The still photo: a shirtless guy, hair wet and slicked back, water beaded on his face, holds up Freddy’s glove. Was he in his underwear? Was he the one that got whipped? I brought it to my parents and begged to see it, but Dad replied: “You’re too young for that trash.”

So I did what every red-blooded adolescent does: I finagled a sleepover at a friend’s house. He had laissez-faire parents who had no problem renting an R-rated movie for us. I sat on the far side of the sofa, away from my friend as the movie flickered into life. I clasped a pillow to my chest and pretended not to be transfixed when this ugly, scarred monster, who had slowly been taking possession of a teenager, burst fully formed out of the beautiful boy’s body.

 

Part III: Dream Warriors

 

1987.

This is where everything changes.

With Dream Warriors, Freddy hits the big time. Dokken, whose logo embossed three-ring binders of countless freshman girls, sings the theme music. Indeed, Freddy, with his sardonic one-liners and uncanny ability to pinpoint his opponent’s weakness and exploit it in the most gruesome way possible, becomes a pop- culture phenomenon. Part of the thrill of a prototypical slasher film, I’ve read, is the conflicting identification process that the audience undergoes: they see themselves as both monster and hero.

In the meantime, Owen fed me a stream of gore: the entire Friday the 13th opus, Sleepaway Camp, any movie featuring a knife, blood spatters, or a chainsaw on its cover. He also used me as an alibi: “I’m taking Paul to the movies.” If my parents gave me money for candy or popcorn, Owen confiscated it. Babysitting fee, he called it. He bought my ticket, and while I watched the movie, he went elsewhere. Afterwards, I was expected to wait. Every Friday night around eleven, I sat on the curb and watched boys leaving with their arms around their dates, watched them drive cars blaring heavy metal from tinted windows, rolled down halfway. The parking lot emptied before Owen picked me up, the theater lights off, me in the dark.

After Dream Warriors let out, I waited three and a half hours. Security drove by twice, and I told them that my ride was coming any minute now. On their third and fourth patrol, I lay in the shadows near the dumpsters, imagining what my super power would be. Magic? Kung fu? More than anything, I wanted to be like Kristin, the heroine: able to bring anyone I wanted into my dreams.

When my brother finally arrived, I was standing in a field of broken glass. For the last hour, I wandered the parking lot, picking up empty beer bottles, and throwing them hard against the wall of the theater. The shattering, the shards, the glints of light from the highway—I felt powerful.

“I’m sorry, man,” Owen said. “Guess I lost track of time.”

I crossed my arms, refusing to speak.

“Are you hungry?” he asked. “Let’s get something to eat.”

We went to a Village Inn far from our house. “Get whatever you want,” he said, eyes bloodshot. The lamp hanging over our table gave him a dusty aura.

I ordered a hot chocolate, which my parents never let me get because it had too much sugar. We ate our burgers in silence. He reached for my French fries, but I pulled the plate away from his greedy hands.

“If Mom or Dad asks why we’re late, tell them the truth, okay?” He slumped in the booth, his boots sticking into the aisle. “Tell them I took you to get something to eat.”

The waitress came by with our bill.

“I know you’re mad at me,” he said, sitting up. “Let me make it up to you. Do you want to drive my car?”

I nodded. I’d never driven my brother’s car.

“I can’t hear you.”

“Yes,” I said. I was willing to make that concession.

“Good. Pull the car around front and get in the passenger seat. Honk the horn when you’re done.”

My father had been giving me lessons in the family Buick, but kept one hand on the parking brake, ready to pull it back at a moment’s notice. Even though my brother’s VW Rabbit was smaller, the seat was set way back so that I couldn’t reach the pedals. As I fumbled underneath for the lever, I found a chain of foil-wrapped condoms.

Five seconds after honking the horn, my brother tore out of the restaurant and jumped into the car. We squealed out of the lot. I looked behind us and saw the manager, his red tie flapping like a panting dog. He was yelling, but I couldn’t hear anything over the revving engine.

“We should do this more often,” Owen said, accelerating into the night. “Just the two of us.” I was hyperventilating, the buzz running through my hands and feet. I was scared. Not jump-scared like when a cat comes screeching out of nowhere, but scared like the person in the audience who murmurs, Look out, look out, he’s right behind you!—the fear of a person who isn’t prepared for what comes next.

 

Part IV: The Dream Master

 

1988.

I admire the series’ willingness to kill heroes. Nancy survives Part I, but dies in Part III. Kristin bests Freddy in Part III, only to succumb in Part IV.

Owen had gotten kicked out of the house by Part IV. He couldn’t hold a job for more than three weeks. His stints as a line cook, golf caddy, and parking valet ended when he, respectively, slept through three shifts, smoked weed in the clubhouse, and stole money from people’s glove compartments. When he drove drunk into a ditch, totaling the Rabbit, my Dad told him to leave. He packed his belongings in black trash bags. He crashed at a friend’s place before finding an apartment, which he shared with three roommates.

For a while, I worried that my parents would tighten the screws on me—curfew, withholding car keys—but I was the good son. I had compiled a list of colleges I wanted to attend and left it where they could see it.

Every three weeks, Owen called for money. Dad obliged, mostly, but those times he refused, Mom would send me out the next morning with an envelope. I usually skimmed ten dollars off the top. Deliveryman’s fee. So when Owen called to talk to me, I was surprised. Mom said, It’s for you, in a voice that made me think that someone had died.

“Do you want to go see the new Nightmare on Elm Street?” he asked. Metal clanged in the background, as if he were in a junkyard. “I hear it’s awesome.”

“Sure.” Our conversation felt like a long-distance call, like we didn’t want to rack up charges.

“Cool,” he said. “I’ll pick you up.”

When I told my parents that I was seeing a movie with Owen, they looked at each other like it was a bad idea. My horror movie habit was worrisome enough. Now, they were concerned how else my brother might influence me.

“Midnight,” Dad said. “No later.”

In the car, Owen reached towards me like he was going to muss my hair, like he did when we were younger, but punched me in the arm instead. “Why do you always have to dress like a doofus?” he asked. At the theater, he made me buy the concessions and upgraded the large popcorn to an extra large tub with lots of butter. He kept it in his lap until there were only broken pieces and old maid kernels left. When Freddy made his first kill, my brother raised his arms in a headbanger’s salute, and I saw that the lettering on his Poison Tshirt had chipped off until only a ghost of a lower-case “s-o-n” remained. His jean jacket had holes in the wrong places for them to be deliberate. And he smelled the way Freddy might: smoky, sour, stifling. When he laughed, people in the rows ahead of us turned and glared. I sank low and shook my head when he offered me a sip of the soda I had bought.

Afterwards, in the lobby, he clapped my shoulder. “Wasn’t that great?” he asked.

“Don’t be gay,” I said, ducking away. I let him walk a few steps ahead. I knew I could catch up if I wanted.

Years later, in grad school, I defended the movie: “Clearly, it’s a Marxist text,” I said. “Freddy, a patriarch who commidifies and consumes souls, is defeated when Alice, in a show of unity within social class, absorbs the powers of her dead friends. Sure, its surface is capitalist and bourgeois, but the use of Brechtian aesthetics and alienation effects add a subversive, avant-garde subtext.”

“Yes,” my professor said, “but you seem to ignore the fact that the film was crap.”

 

Part V: The Dream Child

 

1989.

Coolest death ever: The victim, Mark, is sucked into a black-and-white comic book by Freddy. Mark is still full color and whimpers as Freddy terrorizes him, destroying the scaffolding around them. But when Freddy mocks a girl that Mark had loved, he morphs into a superhero with guns strapped to his arms and shoots repeatedly, until Freddy falls to the ground, perforated. But before the audience can relax, Freddy rises as “Superfreddy,” impervious to bullets. Mark quickly runs out of ammo and backs into a wall. With the first slash, Mark, who has now been transformed into a two-dimensional drawing, bleeds out his color, which collects in a pool at his feet. He’s as pale as a pen-and-ink drawing, and Freddy rips him to shreds.

Or so I’ve been told.

Owen was serving an eighteen-month sentence for driving with a suspended license. The car was stolen. And there was a switchblade under the passenger seat. Dad didn’t disown Owen as much as he started forgetting Owen. He took Mom and me to the photography center at Sears and slid the new three-person family portrait in front of the one that included Owen. Whenever someone asked, “How’s your son?” he’d reply, “Oh, Paul is doing great.”

Mom and I paid Owen a visit in early September, a month after the movie’s release. Our time was limited to twenty minutes, and as Mom spoke with him, she started choking up. Owen rolled his eyes. She beckoned me over to talk while she composed herself.

Owen had grown a beard, and his hair was long and shaggy, covering his neck. His hands were brown and rough, like he’d been breaking rocks all his life. People had always said that the resemblance between us was strong—I thought I was better looking—but when my reflection on the plexiglass superimposed onto his face, I felt like I was looking into my future: me, with a few extra pounds, six inches taller, dark lines of worry etched into my face.

“I need you to do me a favor,” Owen said. His voice had ragged edges. “Go to my apartment and grab my stuff. Just cram everything into some bags and hide them in the storage room at home. Can you do that?”

Here he was, behind bars, still bossing me around.

“I’ve got a Nintendo,” he continued. “Keep that for yourself.”

Most of my friends had Nintendos, and it was a pain going over to their houses to play Super Mario Brothers. Whenever it was my turn, they chastised my lack of gaming abilities: No, you’ve got to jump on the mushroom, then over the pit.

“Just promise me something,” he said. “Promise that you’ll wait to see The Dream Child. You can’t see it without me, okay?”

“Sure,” I said. “It’s a deal.”

“All right!” We high-fived either side of the inch-thick glass.

I was too late, of course: his roommates had already sold the stereo system, the cassette tapes, and rifled through his closet. At the foot of his bed, however, was a two-foot-high pile of clothes that reeked of cigarette smoke. To my surprise, at the very bottom of the pile, as if he’d hidden it for me, was the Nintendo. I wrapped it in a pair of jeans to slip it out, and when I got home, my fingers trembled as I connected the cables. On the underside of the console, written in permanent black marker: Property of Danny Biemiller. I’d never heard of him.

I never got the chance to see The Dream Child with Owen, and only recently put it in my DVD player for my dissertation. Drew, my boyfriend, who freaks out if you yell “Boo!” in a dark room, sat down to watch it with me.

“These movies are hilarious,” he said.

I had read about the movie extensively; I knew its plot, its structure, its contribution to the Freddy mythology. It was all spectacle, no specters. And yet, when the sound of ripping flesh heralded the opening credits, I had trouble breathing. Drew paused the movie, and red slashes froze on the screen; the words A Nightmare on Elm Street had not yet emerged from them. I hit stop and buried my head into Drew’s chest.

It’s still the only one I’ve never seen.

 

Part VI: Freddy’s Dead, The Final Nightmare

 

1991.

Lamest death ever: Freddy draws a stoner into a psychedelic television show, which devolves into a poorly animated video game. Using a joystick, Freddy knocks the guy around, makes him hop back and forth. His friends attempt a rescue by detaching the controller, but Freddy has a PowerGlove, which was, back then, an exciting development in Nintendo gaming. The stoner is knocked into a mob of angry father figures wielding tennis rackets and is, presumably, pummeled to death.

I wanted the movie to be better than it was. During the previews, I jittered. Owen knuckled me in the leg and whispered, “Quit shaking the whole goddamn row.” I couldn’t help it: not only had this movie been touted as the definitive end of the series, but I had also sneaked out of the house for the first time. I followed the path Owen had taken for years: open the second-story bedroom window, dangle from the ledge, drop into the wet lawn below. Nothing was going to keep me from enjoying this movie, not even the fact that my parents had grounded me for two months.

Earlier in the week, I had been at K-Mart to buy a new game, but the Nintendo cartridges were stored in a cabinet that had to be opened by a cashier. It was a lot of trouble. But as I was leaving, I noticed Marble Madness on a stack of steering wheel covers in the automotive aisle, as if someone had changed his mind on the way to the checkout. It wasn’t a game I particularly wanted, but no one was around: no shoppers, no workers in their red polyester vests. So I shoved the game into my waistband and untucked my shirt. And suddenly, I was no longer a Goody Two-shoes who collected comic books and occasionally cheated at Dungeons and Dragons; I was bad. My fingertips and toes tingled. It felt like I was breathing helium. When I noticed the rectangular bulge in my stomach, I hunched over. I looked for security, double-checking each aisle, but no one was following me, no one that I could see. But, at the exit, a heavy hand grasped my shoulder with a grave, “Come with me, son.”

Dad picked me up from the holding room. In the car, the air between us crackled. I rubbed my wrists, trying to erase the red handcuff gouges on my skin. At home, Mom was preparing dinner. When I explained what had happened, she slapped me, then went back to chopping celery. I remembered this same silence from when Owen had lived at home. Each time the school called with a delinquency report, we ate dinner with disappointment hard and cold in our throats. I only caught the periphery of the emotion then, a hand-me-down sadness. Now, I felt as Owen must have: caught in a nexus of shame and resentment, unable to say either I’m sorry or Why won’t you say anything?

I think the early ’80s mantra of teenager control—never yell—had affected my parents unexpectedly. When my father’s anger emerged, it resulted in a complete communication collapse. That night, he only said one thing: “Jesus, two fuckups in one family.” But the comment wasn’t directed at anyone. It was a thought that had mistakenly taken form. Mom wrote her feelings on a yellow legal pad, in which she apologized for striking me and outlined my punishment. I found the note pinned to my door the next morning as I was getting ready for school.

This was in my mind as I sat in the theater. I wanted to have a good time—that was the whole point of sneaking out—but the movie was a total letdown. Owen laughed out loud at scenes that made me cringe. The 3-D effects gave me a headache. Even worse, Freddy was given a bizarre backstory: he had a wife and a daughter. America’s favorite psychopath was a father.

After the movie, I ripped the earpieces off my 3-D glasses, punched my thumbs through the red and blue cellophane, and threw the scraps at the screen. As he drove me home, Owen talked about how cool it was when the girl wrapped the cord of an electric coffeepot around her arm and pounded her abusive father’s face into putty. I commiserated, telling Owen of my grounding, adding the same indignant huffs that I’d heard him use. When I was done, he said, “You’re such a dumbshit, Paul. Don’t you know that those globes in the ceiling actually hide cameras?” Without swerving the car, he nailed me hard in the chest, in the muscle where it would leave a bruise.

At home, my parents’ bedroom was dark. As I unbuckled my seat belt, Owen leaned over and said, “If anything ever happens to Mom and Dad, you’re the one who has to bail me out. You know that, don’t you?” When I didn’t answer, he opened the ashtray and threw the contents at me. “Stupid fucking idiot,” he said. The passenger door shut itself as he peeled away. I brushed myself off, then realized that I was locked out. There was no way to reach the window. When Owen snuck out, I had always been there to open the door for him. But I had no superpowers, not even in my dreams. I couldn’t conjure someone to open the door for me.

The ash stung my eyes, and I closed them. I sat on the stoop, shaking my head, trying to wake up.

 

Part VII: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

 

1994.

Owen called my dorm at Columbia. He didn’t announce himself. Just asked, “So what was that all about?”

He was working as a bouncer; I was preparing for midterms. The previous semester, I had been given a foundation of Freud, Jung, and Foucault and was now wading through Mulvey, Bazin, and Silverman. The twice-weekly screenings in an auditorium classroom, sitting at cramped desks designed to prevent comfortable slouching, had already resulted in three nervous breakdowns. A group of us realized that our sanity required a momentary escape from the Bergman oeuvre, and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare was our trashy fun du jour.

But I found the film fascinating rather than mindless, and now that I was a film studies major, I wanted my brother to cease being a passive observer. I wanted him to engage in the issues the film raised: the collapse of the nuclear family; suburbia as wasteland; the narrative of self-esteem and self-reliance. I wanted him to go beyond the body count.

So I explained: New Nightmare jettisons the schema of the original series for a more postmodern, self-reflexive stance. It creates a liminal space that exists between story and reality. Its meta-movie qualities (the “fictional” Wes Craven writes a script which is exactly what the actor Wes Craven performs) help blur the lines between ‘real’ and ‘not-real.’ The parallelism between the ‘real’ of the movie/the ‘not-real’ of the movie-in-a-movie and the ‘real’ of the audience/the ‘not-real’ of the movie evokes a disjunction, a fission between levels of reality. It begs the questions: What is reality? What is fiction? What is a story, and what are actual events in someone’s life? Are these lines as distinct as we’d like? And what happens when someone (or something) transgresses these lines?

“Oh,” said Owen. “So that means Freddy’s dead for good, right?”

Yes, I assured him. Freddy is dead.

 

Part VIII: Freddy vs. Jason

 

2003.

For years, a rumored showdown between the two great horror franchises of the ’80s circulated on the Internet. Various treatments and scripts had been pursued and rejected. And now, almost twenty years after the first Nightmare on Elm Street, the two icons will go head-to-head.

I can already imagine Owen’s enthusiasm: Wasn’t that cool how Freddy burned that dude alive? I really hoped that it was gonna be gorier, but they’re probably saving some for the sequel. I’m glad he’s back, after all this time. I’m sorry we didn’t see it together, but it’s in my blood, man, and I know it’s in your blood too.

Owen had cleaned up: he had a steady gig as a warehouse night watchman, a girlfriend—all the trappings of reality. Dad had even welcomed him back into the family. He told me how Owen had him pretend to be a former landlord so that he could rent an apartment, how Owen tried to get him to invest in a downtown parking lot that would be converted into condos any day now.

“Since when did your brother know anything about real estate?” Dad asked me.

I had just started my master’s program and lived in a studio above an Italian restaurant.

“Search me,” I said.

When I last spoke with Owen, he was still freaked out about my being gay, but said that as long as I was happy, he was fine with it. He was proud that I had gotten so far in school; he couldn’t wait for my graduation, and I made him call me Dr. Paul, even though I hadn’t finished.

He’d already been dead for three years when we had that conversation. The police said that there’d been a robbery at the warehouse, and he was shot trying to stop it.

Bullshit, he said. I fell asleep on the job and you-know-who got me.

Really?

God’s honest truth.

Am I in trouble? I asked. What’s keeping him from getting me?

He started to answer, but I woke before he finished.

I only catch glimpses of him now: his elongated face in the convex security mirrors that stores hang high in the corners. Or, on the street, a whiff of dusky cigarette smoke makes me suspect he recently passed by. Once, when I was stuck on a Byzantine problem in my dissertation, his voice, distant, distinct, called out: Duh, Dr. Paul. Lacanian levels of observation.

I relish the signs of the new movie’s arrival (the machete-versus-claw poster, the trailers pulsating with subsonic bass and sharpened knives) because it is in my blood, the blood that brings life to fear, that gives meaning to anyone who’s ever walked down a dark street by himself.

We who watch horror movies know three simple truths: first, you can never escape your dreams; second, when you’re alone, the world is a darker and much more dangerous place; and finally, most importantly, you can never kill the monster.

But you can be ready for him. When Freddy comes for me one of these terrible nights, when even Drew can’t wake me, my brother will rise up and say, Man, you’ve picked the wrong brothers to fuck with.

THE FALL OF ROME

He shouldn’t have worn sneakers. That was a mistake. A shower would have helped, too. Why could he never remember that skipping a shower didn’t lend him a feeling of rebelliousness, as his mirror would like to have him think, but only made him feel slimy, insecure? Conner stopped to retie his shoelace in front of the library. The library was closed now, as were the dining halls, the student center, and the university bookstore; a week ago Conner had sold back his books for Professor Palma’s course, Ancient Rome. Forty-one dollars and ninety-three cents. Conner felt guilty for selling these, and so had kept The Twelve Caesars by way of apology. He’d imagined Professor Palma watching him from a hidden window, nodding.

The campus in summer had always pleased Conner. He walked through the rose garden watered, dusted, and weeded only for him, it seemed, and across the quad, where frisbees no longer sailed; through the memorial tower archway, whose marble crest Conner had never taken the time to read—it was a luxury that he could now, if he wanted to. If he wanted to, he could do just about anything. He stepped out of the way to let a grounds crew pass.

When he entered Professor Palma’s office, the professor greeted him by saying, “Looks like you’ve been shorn.”

“Shorn?”

“Your hair.” Professor Palma gestured Conner to a leather chair. Conner sunk into it, so that his eyes were barely level with Palma’s desk. “You’ve cut off your long hair.”

“Oh,” Conner said. He hadn’t cut his hair. It was odd, seeing Professor Palma seated behind a desk. Conner had never noticed, until now, how mottled his beard was. Up close, you could see patches of red, brown, blond.

“My mother always used to call that a summer cut. Every June she’d take me and my brother to the barbershop. They’d put a wooden board across the chair, to make us higher. Afterwards, we’d get to pick a prize out of a plastic barrel. It was called Joe’s Secret Barrel. How do you like that? Joe’s Secret Barrel.”

“Joe’s Secret Barrel,” Conner said. “Well.” He felt himself smiling his nervous smile.

“Comic books, mostly. And bubble gum. Bazooka Joe.”

What would happen, Conner wondered, if he never got around to asking his question? “Professor Palma,” he said. “I have a small problem I’d like to bring to your attention.”

Professor Palma nodded. “I see.” In class, Professor Palma sometimes steepled his hands across his face in the middle of lectures. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” he’d say, “let me submit the following.”

“It’s about my final grade,” Conner said. “You gave me a B-, which I totally understand, because of the midterm and everything, but the thing is—” Conner suddenly had no idea how he was to finish the sentence. How did anyone know how to finish their sentences? Professor Palma was looking at him like he was explaining how to butter toast. “The thing is, I was wondering if there was any way you could change it to a B+.”

Professor Palma drew his lips together and nodded. “I see.”

“I’m really sorry to ask,” Conner said. “I know how annoying grade change requests can be. That’s why I didn’t email you about it. I thought a meeting would be better.” He offered a clumsy smile.

“A meeting,” Professor Palma said.

“Right.”

“Face to face. Mono e mono.” Professor Palma chopped the air with his hand.

Conner nodded. Behind Professor Palma, he noticed a bulletin board crammed with postcards, cartoons, photographs. In the largest photograph, Professor Palma was standing atop a windy mountain, a woman beside him, a little girl in a pink baseball cap clutching Professor Palma’s leg.

“I’m not quite sure where to begin,” Professor Palma said.

“I’m sorry,” Conner said. “I’m only asking because I think my participation towards the end of the semester really picked up and I didn’t miss a class all year and,”  Conner felt himself losing some sort of advantage, “and if I get a B+ I’ll be able to go to the honors graduation ceremony next year.” Why did he always say more than he wished? He felt his face grow warm. “My parents are coming,” he added, idiotically.

“Well, that’s quite a lot for us to think about, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

Professor Palma next addressed his fingers, which were quite large, Conner noticed. “Please know that I’m not in the habit of giving grade changes, although my students seem to be forever in the habit of asking for them.”

“I know.”

“Students seem to think that a grade is something negotiable. I’m not sure why this is,” Professor Palma said, then raised one eyebrow, “but I have my theories.”

Conner, expecting one, was surprised when the professor only opened his desk drawer and rummaged through. The open drawer gave off a smell of chalk dust and damp wood. “As I was saying, I have my theories. A part of me wonders if the feeling of negotiability arises from a student’s sense of entitlement, a problem I’ve wrestled with all my academic life, but more in recent years. I wonder if there’s a new breed of student on the rise, quick and on the make, philosophically opposed to failure, but morally blind to failure’s lessons. Do you see what I mean?”

“Mmm.”

“And another part of me wonders if, as students evolve, as a university certainly hopes they will, their thinking evolves too, and, attendant to this growth—I think of it as peeking over a high fence, for some reason—is the slow realization that all grades, as all knowledge perhaps is, are inherently subjective. Am I right? That question of ‘What really is the difference between a B- and a B+,’ or that nagging question ‘What are the clear, defensible, and unalterable criteria for an A?’”

“Right.” The flesh around Professor Palma’s eyes nurtured a single brown mole. “I see what you’re saying, but it’s more that—”

“The Unanswerable Question!” Professor Palma laughed, as if this had been a joke between them all along.

“Right.”

Outside, two pigeons landed on the sill of Professor Palma’s window. They made a noise like iced tea pouring into tall glasses.

“I wouldn’t ask. Normally, I mean.”

“My wife says I have too many theories about things. A little secret for you to remember: no one knows you better than your wife.”

“Right.”

Professor Palma looked at his watch. “I’m sorry, but I’m meeting someone else at noon.”

“I’m sorry to ask for this,” Conner said. “I really am. But I’m not asking because I think an exception should be made for me.” He tried to read Professor Palma’s expression, but the expression conveyed only imperfect vision, cloudy skies, and a single, unasked question: was it Colin or Conan? “I’m just asking because I think I’ve earned it.”

“Well, I’m sympathetic,” Professor Palma said, “to a point. But you most certainly are asking that an exception be made for you. That’s without debate.” He continued before Conner could point out that one of the pigeons had now made its way inside the office and was currently bobbing towards the glinty magnifying glass atop Professor Palma’s Oxford English Dictionary. “But I suppose that’s the human condition, isn’t it? Thinking an exception will be made for us. Hoping the universe is Godded indeed, and hears our call.”

As if a punchline, the phone rang.

“Excuse me.” Professor Palma picked up the receiver. “Yes, speaking,” he said. “The Camry. Right. Yes, I spoke to Henry about that. I said I spoke to Henry about that. Right.” The pigeon, forgetting the object of its desire, was now sitting just inside the window. It looked at Conner without really looking at him, somehow. Eyes like shrunken pennies. “That’s not what Henry said at all.” The professor shook his head. Was the change of grade form in his desk? Conner wondered. “Well, you’ll have to let me talk to Henry about that,” Professor Palma said. “I said you’ll have to have to let me talk to Henry about that. Right. Fine. Yes, that’s my home number. Right.” He hung up. “Mechanics,” he sighed. “But of what?”

“Professor,” Conner said.

Professor Palma checked his watch again, then pulled a carbon ledger from the desk drawer. “I will keep this with me,” he said, “as a reminder of our meeting.” He filled in a few lines, then folded it in half. “I will keep this with me and think about our meeting.”

Conner felt the advantage swing his way, like a hurled rope. How could he mention that the form needed to be submitted by tomorrow? “Thanks,” Conner said. “There’s just one more little thing. It seems that the deadline—”

At that moment, Professor Palma’s door flew open. A beautiful, impossibly skinny woman entered the room and immediately began swatting the pigeons away with a rolled-up newspaper. “Dirty, filthy birds!” she cried. She knocked into Conner’s chair. “Why do you let them do this, Gerald? Why?”

“Calm down, Magda,” Professor Palma said. “Please.”

Magda closed the OED with a sudden, thunderous clap. “Making filth on these beautiful books. Please to go! Go!” She chased one pigeon out the window, then cornered the other near Professor Palma’s bookcase. The pigeon bobbed its head and spread its ugly wings. For a moment Conner was afraid the pigeon was going to fly around the room, when Magda unrolled the newspaper like an enormous catcher’s mitt and, with one, startling motion, scooped the bird up and deposited it out the window. “There!” she said. She pushed the window down, which screeched to a close. “Filthy birds.”

It would be hard to say that anyone looked attractive scooping a live pigeon into a newspaper, so how had this woman managed to do so? Perhaps it was the breath heaving in her chest, or the way she now brushed her gorgeous, silky hair—it really was silky—from her eyes without the least trace of self-consciousness. Maybe it was the clothes she wore, a white halter top and strangely dark, European-looking jeans, cut low enough to expose her brown stomach, with its taut belly button like a punctuation mark. But, more likely, it was because Conner had been in love with this mysterious woman all semester. Magda. This woman who sat in the front row, challenging Professor Palma with her sharp, angry questions, flipping the pages of her exotic notebook with a barely contained rage, crossing and recrossing her long legs from which expensive-looking, high-heeled shoes dangled, even on snowy days. His friends had a name for her, one of Conner’s inventions. Frenchy.

“Do you know Magda?” Professor Palma said. “Magda, this is—”

“Conner,” Conner said. He shook her hand, which had rings on every finger.

“Magda is helping me on a dig this summer,” Professor Palma said. “In lovely Tunisia.” He laughed like this, too, was some sort of joke.

“Oh,” Conner said.

“These filthy birds, I hate them. Why do you let them have their way, Gerald?”

Professor Palma made a beats me face. “I suppose I’m too soft,” he said.

Magda made a tschh noise, then pulled a spool of tape from her purse and tossed it onto Professor Palma’s desk. “This won’t work,” she said. “They fall down.” She removed a bundle of yellow flyers, half-sheets of paper bound with a rubber band. “Please try something else.”

“Magda is helping me look for volunteers for the dig,” Professor Palma explained.

“Every one, down. I go back, try again, but forget it. Down again.” Magda lifted a stapler from Professor Palma’s desk. “Maybe this,” she said. She tried stuffing the stapler in her purse, but it wouldn’t fit.

“I was just telling Conner that I was on my way to another meeting,” Professor Palma said. “With Dr. Ancusi.”

Magda threw her hands up in the air. “Why? We’re never going to get out of here. Already it’s—” she checked her watch. “Please, come on, Gerald.”

The rope that had once swung so close now made a second appeal. “I could help,” Conner offered. “I mean, with the flyers. It’s no problem.”

Professor Palma looked not at him, but at Magda. “Sounds like you’ve found a volunteer,” he said.

Magda sighed. “Fine,” she said. “If this is how you do it, Gerald.” She handed Conner the stapler. “But we’re leaving soon, right? I’m so hungry.”

“Right,” Professor Palma said. “We’ll meet back here in fifty-five minutes or so.”

“Fifty-five minutes or so,” Magda said. “You American men. Can’t even say ‘an hour’ without covering your tracks.”

When they were about to leave, Professor Palma glanced at Conner and said, “I’ll be thinking about our meeting.”

 

Outside it was getting cloudy. It would be a rainy day after all. How had Conner not noticed the saplings along the college mall offering up their silvery undersides like raised pom-poms? Clouds gathered above the administration building, blanching the gold from its dome. He and Magda walked along the mall, where work crews were repairing the pedestrian walkway, whose intricate brickwork had always secretly pleased Conner. He liked it that the university lavished so much attention on his walk home, to the dining hall, to the classrooms where he was so often a star.

“Already they fall apart,” Magda said. She kicked a small stone a remarkable distance. “A quarter million dollars, for what?”

“Yeah,” Conner said. “It’s crazy.” He had already given up on flirting, from the moment Magda descended the history department stairs in twos and threes, leaving him to his hurried, but cautious single steps behind her. But maybe he’d given up too soon. Although it was growing darker, Magda donned a pair of enormous yellow sunglasses.

“This whole place is crazy,” she said. “Look!” She pointed to the workmen walking the scaffolding outside the geology building. “The whole place falls down. They throw money away on nothing!”

Conner nodded. Listening to Magda, with her waving arms and mirrored lenses, was like being scolded by a gorgeous, fantastic insect. “I know,” he said. “This place drives me crazy.”

They separated to place flyers on the notice boards flanking the walkway entrance. The boards were freckled with concert notices, sublet announcements, weeks out of date. It saddened Conner to think of the old notices; he didn’t like their suggestion of empty apartments, darkened stages, of good times long gone. He stapled Professor Palma’s flyers atop posters for free condoms. Want To Earn $$$ AND Discover The World? the flyers began. Conner couldn’t imagine Professor Palma thinking up the dollar signs. Maybe those were Magda’s idea.

She returned to him now, and began her conversation again as if no time had passed whatsoever. “They throw away what is worth keeping and keep everything that is junk. Junk!” She ran ahead to the next board and stapled three flyers in the time it took Conner to staple one. “This is a junk place, right? Just look around. Tell me this isn’t!” Before Conner could answer, Magda grabbed a handful of his flyers and began stapling them to a large tree.

“Uh, I don’t think you’re supposed to do that,” Conner said.

Magda turned an angry look on him. “Why?” She punctuated her question with a punch of the stapler. “Why should we care when they don’t? Tell me why.”

“Well—” Do not say, Because I like these trees. “Because I don’t think that’s what Professor Palma wants.”

“Ha!” Magda said. She ran ahead to the next tree and stapled another flyer. “There! That’s what Professor Palma wants.”

Conner, sensing whatever chances he had of gaining Magda’s interest slipping beyond his reach, grabbed one of the tree flyers and tore it in half. “I don’t think so,” he said. He stuffed the torn flyer into his pocket.

Magda looked at him with what seemed new respect, he thought. “Ha!” she said, then raced to another tree, stapling two flyers at once.

“Not the trees,” Conner said. He tore the flyers down, but Magda only laughed and darted across the quad, where a grounds crew was distributing mulch beneath a bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson. The Jefferson Garden was intended to make Jefferson look deep in pastoral contemplation, but somehow conveyed the sense that he was horribly lost and preposterously overdressed, a wedding guest wandering from a wrecked car. When Magda passed the crew, the three crew members stopped working, gawked. “I’d run too, boy!” one of them called to Conner. Conner turned to acknowledge him, but only caught Jefferson’s bronzed gaze.

“You have very high morals,” Magda said when Conner reached her. She swiped the rest of Conner’s flyers from his hands. “You are a moral person, right?” She laughed, then stapled a clumsy row of flyers along a low tree branch. “A good boy.”

Conner was about to contradict her, when the clouds opened up and rain began to fall. He pulled the flyers from the branch. “It’s starting to rain,” he said.

“But not on you,” Magda laughed. She kept stapling the branch, testing him. “Not on the perfect student.”

I’m not the perfect student, Conner wanted to say, but, in a way, he was. He had a high grade point average, arrived early to every class, pledged the best fraternity, volunteered to lead blood drives, food donations, Toys for Tots. Would you like to lead this class? one professor had written across the bottom of his essay exam. Let me know when you need a letter of recommendation—please! But, for all his other successes, Conner had failed to gain Professor Palma’s admiration. Every day, he’d sat in the front row, taking copious notes, raising his hand to nearly every question. He’d memorized whole passages from Suetonius, and occasionally worked these into his responses, hoping Professor Palma would recognize them, but Professor Palma only nodded, dismissing him. “Yes, well, there’s that, of course,” he’d say, then call on someone else, his gaze passing over Conner like a swift cloud. When Magda spoke, Professor Palma nodded enthusiastically, said, “Yes, right. Good observation,” or, most aggravating to Conner, “That’s perfectly said.” Each week Conner kept a private count of who had raised their hand more often, him or Magda, making sure to keep ahead. Now, he watched her staple another flyer to a sapling still tied by ropes, and wondered if she and Professor Palma were sleeping together.

“We should get out of this rain,” Conner said.

Magda ignored him. “Who cares if it rains?” she said.

“Well, I’m going back.”

Magda turned to face him, revealing, for the first time, the outline of her breasts through her rain-soaked shirt. She smiled a crooked smile. “So, go back, then,” she said. There were tiny beads of rain on her sunglasses, like jewels. It began to pour.

Conner was deciding whether he really wanted to leave or not—what did that smile mean?—when Magda broke into a sprint and ran to the Jefferson statue, where the grounds crew had since fled. Conner followed her without trying to appear to. Magda was eyeing the Jefferson statue for a likely staple spot, when she took one flyer and speared it over Jefferson’s bronze quill. The flyer sagged in the rain, but Magda had places for others: the points of Jefferson’s three-corner hat, his pondering finger—raised, as if asking a question—even, against all physics, the tip of his nose. Conner stood behind her, watching her handiwork. Then he stepped closer and found himself touching her shoulder, her damp, exciting shoulder. “Magda,” he said. But Magda sped away, laughing. Conner followed.

“You made him into a clown,” Conner said, when he reached her under the memorial tower archway. He wanted his tone to be conspiratorial, but it came out as an accusation. He could not catch his breath. Magda was watching the rain, her arms hugged to her chest. She shrugged. “This place makes lots of clowns.” They stood that way for a while, not talking. Conner wondered whether he’d done the right thing, touching her, then felt angry at himself for worrying about that. Why wouldn’t Magda face him?

“Do you know they want to get rid of Professor Palma?” Magda said.

“They do?”

Magda nodded. “They say they want him to retire, but they just want him out.”

“Oh.”

“But Gerald wants to stay. He wants to stay, but they want him to leave.” Magda made a noise that Conner thought might mean tears, but when Magda faced him, she was not crying. “It’s crazy. Even his wife—his own wife!—wants him to leave. Can you believe it? For what? So she can play golf and drive a big car. Gerald would die living that way. Can you see him playing golf?”

Conner could very well see him playing golf—he was surprised he didn’t already, actually—but shook his head no.

“No,” Magda said. “But his wife—” she waved her hand. “Don’t let’s talk about her.”

Conner stepped close enough that he could see the gooseflesh of Magda’s damp arms. A thin bracelet clung to her wrist, made entirely of string. In class, she sometimes pared a large apple with a small knife while Conner watched, the lecture a sudden jumble of slides and maps, Professor Palma’s voice a radio from a passing car. “I’m sorry,” Conner said.

“For what?” Magda said, then began to cry. When Conner placed a hand on her shoulder, Magda pushed it aside. “You shouldn’t pay attention to a woman’s tears,” she said. She walked to the other side of the archway, peering out at the rain falling across the quad. At times, the rain blew in from the archway, but Magda did not move to the middle where Conner stood, so he wondered if he should approach her again.

“I’m so hungry,” Magda said, to no one in particular.

“Yeah,” Conner said. Once, he’d followed Magda after class. Just for a few moments, until she turned towards south campus, walking against the traffic lights, her notebook clutched beneath her arm. Conner stopped at the light, feeling suddenly ridiculous and creepy. What was he doing?

“I’m so sick of this,” Magda said, but Conner couldn’t tell if she meant the rain or university or something else altogether. But he knew one thing, and it was a surprise to him: he was about to approach Magda and put his arms around her, gently, if she would have him. If she would have him, he would lean in for a kiss.

“I’m so sick of waiting,” Magda said. She wiped her eyes. “I really am.” And, before Conner could reach her, she was off running again, through the rain and across the quad, puddles exploding from her feet. Conner hesitated, then followed. Thank God, he thought, as he reached the history department, where the door was still flung open wide, rain blowing in. Thank God I didn’t.

 

Conner found them in Professor Palma’s office, Professor Palma donning an enormous raincoat thirty years out of style. Magda was behind him, looping a thick belt through the coat, straightening the shoulders.

“Rain gear,” Professor Palma said. “Ah, who knows the caprices of the weather?”

“Please keep still,” Magda said. She reached the belt around him, then tightened it in the front. “You move, it’s not going to work.”

“I’m under strict orders, as you can see,” Professor Palma said. He had his arms raised like a child.

“I see,” Conner said.

“I was just telling Magda, as it turns out I didn’t have a meeting at all,” Professor Palma said. “I had my days mixed up.”

Magda clicked her tongue. “You get everything mixed up, Gerald.”

“I make no argument. Guilty as charged,” Professor Palma laughed. Conner offered a weak smile. How good it would feel to leave this office. How good it would be to leave this campus. Why had he come here in the first place? “But I’ll have you know I made a nice hour of it, listening to the rain and catching up on my reading. It’s a fortunate day when I can find the time to catch up on my reading.”

Conner was about to mention the deadline for the grade change, when Magda pulled a floppy rain hat down over Professor Palma’s ears. “There,” she said.

“Well,” Professor Palma said, “as you can see, it looks like we’re about to depart.” Magda placed a folded umbrella in his hand. “Whose is this?” he asked.

“Yours,” Magda said. “Let’s go, Gerald. I’m so hungry.”

“We’re going to eat,” Professor Palma said, “but I’ll be thinking about our meeting, won’t I, Colin?”

“Thanks,” Conner said.

“Gerald,” Magda said. She tugged his sleeve.

“You can leave the rest of the flyers on my desk,” Professor Palma said. “I hope I can trust you to close the door behind you until it clicks, if you don’t mind. We seem to be having a small food emergency here.”

Magda pulled Professor Palma out the door. “Oh, he’s very trustworthy,” she said. “He’s got high morals.”

Professor Palma seemed not to hear. He gave one last look at Conner, his smiling head pinched between the folds of his rain hat, a look that conveyed how happy he was to be bundled in his coat, a meal on the way, the pleasure he took in being someone who could be looked after and adored, whose most minor requests were matters of consequence, someone who, despite all his years, still mattered, who deeply, deeply mattered. “Until it clicks,” he said.

Conner stood in the office until he could no longer hear their footsteps. The rain beat against the windowpanes, closed now. He placed the flyers on the desk and was about to leave the office when he saw a solitary piece of paper in the trash can. The grade change form, still folded in the middle. Conner unfolded it to find that Professor Palma hadn’t filled in a thing, except, absurdly, his signature at the bottom. The signature was oversized, nearly illegible. Conner folded the form into his pocket.

And it wasn’t his walk across the rainy campus that perplexed Conner, nor was handing the slip to the woman at the registrar’s office, who barely read it over while chewing a pen, nor was it the ease with which he’d found himself saying, “It’s an A,” when she asked what grade to enter—none of these things troubled Conner on his walk home. Only this: why, with all the rain shading them from the world, with its sudden loan of permission, why hadn’t he the courage to kiss Magda?

The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story THE GLASS MOUNTAIN

“Quiet, now,” she told us. “It’s like Tinker Bell.”

“What’s like Tinker Bell?” Gnome asked. It was a stupid question, but we forgave him because his eyes were the color of a sandstorm, and he sat still as an injured bird.

“If you don’t believe, it won’t come true.” Aunt Halina was patient with these types of questions. She wasn’t really our aunt. She smelled like melted butter, and she had a scar on her chest that she wouldn’t let us see. She started the story again.

“The glass mountain is very far from here, but you can find it if you know where to look. Past the dirt road that forks toward the empty sea, past the tree whose white flowers yawn open for the moon. Past the stone pillar shaped like a monk. If you are faithful, the mountain will let you find it.”

Eva and I had heard the story at least seven hundred times. It was our favorite. We even liked it better than the ones Halina told about her dead husband, Fillip, who had worked on a barge, and the parties they had floating in the middle of the river. Gnome, on the other hand, was new. He sat on an upside-down bucket, holding his breath, listening to the sounds of the world getting dark. We were jealous of his hearing the story for the first time. Eva picked a daddy longlegs off the screen door and dropped it on his shoulder.

“Does it break?” he asked. He cupped the spider in his palm and released it into the grass. Eva pouted.

“It doesn’t break,” Halina pronounced solemnly.

“Are there princes?” he asked.

“The princes all die, you know,” I told him.

Halina put on her splinter face, and it stuck inside me until I squirmed. “Hanna exaggerates,” she said. “She’s not to be trusted. She doesn’t believe.” She leaned in close to Gnome and put her hands on his sunburned cheeks. “Do you believe, little Gnome?”

“Yes,” he said. “I believe.” His ears were kind of pointy, and out of all of us, he was the one who looked like he belonged in a fairytale.

Eva let her head plunk against my shoulder. The stars were blinking awake in the summer blue sky, egged on by crickets and lovelorn frogs.

“We’ll begin again,” Halina said. “The glass mountain is very far from here.”

 

The glass mountain was just a story, but we pretended to believe it so Halina would tell it over and over again until we felt like we understood. The story went like this . . .

Sometimes you didn’t know you were at the glass mountain until you walked into it. The townspeople used to find it by the smell of dead birds at its base, but at some point the birds learned to fly around it. The glass mountain was smooth and heartless and perfect. At the top, a princess lived in an enchanted castle, hidden by the clouds. The princess didn’t have a name. Of course, she had a name before, but when the witch flew her up to the castle, she cast a spell. If the princess ever spoke her name again, the castle would shatter. Glass would rain down on the people she loved—her mother, her father, her sweet, tone-deaf sister whose lap had always been her pillow.

In front of the princess’s castle, the witch planted a tree with white apples. She sent a sparrow down to the town with a message—if any man could make it to the top of the mountain and pick one of the apples, the princess would be saved. The witch wasn’t jealous of the princess’s beauty, though the princess’s hair was made of crushed moonlight and her eyes were violet-bright. The witch was under a curse and had not slept in seven years. One afternoon, the princess wandered into the witch’s field and fell asleep in the goldteller flowers. The princess didn’t wake until the witch had her in midair.

 

Part of the reason I loved this story was that I related to the witch. While Eva would fall asleep during a five-minute car ride to the grocery store, I stayed up nights staring at the ceiling of my bedroom, turning the dripping spackle into shapes and characters, creating stories about an evil school bus driver who captured children and drove them to the forest where she kept a secret lair. Some nights I pretended to be sleepwalking, and I’d wander out of the house and into the yard, feeling my way past the trees blindly, arms extended, mouth half open and drooling. Which is how I discovered Gnome, a few weeks after he moved in next door with his father, curled up in our garden and watching me silently.

 

The rescue missions were constant and ill-fated. A knight would ride his horse partway up the mountain’s slick surface then slide back down and break his neck. The men of the town dug a mass grave nearby, but the bodies of the horses were too big to fit. Inside the windows of the princess’s castle, fingerprints and nose smudges accumulated. The witch cursed her with sleeplessness, and she sat, listening to the high, harsh scratching of the glass, the screams of the horses, the dull thuds when men and animals landed on the ground. She wished they would just stop trying. She wished she could lay her head in her sister’s lap and sleep.

 

Gnome’s mother had died of lymphoma the year before he moved next door, and his father, a brisk and obsessively neat lawyer, didn’t like stories. He thought they were indulgent and, more importantly, useless, since they were incapable of beating back grief. Gnome’s mother had always used different voices when she’d told him stories, and sometimes she’d even made shadow puppets to highlight the most dramatic scenes, such as when little boys fought ooze-dripping monsters and won using the improbable technique of running through the monsters’ legs. Gnome told me all this under the tent created by an overhang of ivy off the side of his garage, a place infested with mosquitoes due to stagnant water trapped in warped gutters, a place where it was impossible to sleep and where night after night we tried.

Eva, with her easy sleepiness, was banned from the spaces that Gnome and I inhabited. I held tight to the excuse that she was too young and the tent was too small, but the truth was that I was jealous of my time with Gnome, just as I was jealous of my time with my sister. I was careful to guard against overlap, protective of what belonged to me alone. Eva didn’t know of Gnome’s desperate fear of hospitals, the way he turned pale and sweaty when he heard his mother’s name. Just as Gnome didn’t know of Eva’s dreamlife, the way that in her dreams she slept behind glass, the way that this was peaceful for her.

Eventually, Gnome’s father started dating a woman with eyes and hair that matched his dead wife’s, got remarried, and moved Gnome away from me, but for a few summers, at least, he was mine, curling at night like a fern against my body as we hunkered down in the green scents of our hideout. I even let him tattoo a mountain on my back with a safety pin and a licorice-scented marker, let him carve me with pinpricks that ascended toward my neck. When my back got infected a week later and landed me in the hospital on IV antibiotics, Gnome didn’t come to visit. I told Eva that the pain was worse than anything else in the world, so she would blow on my skin when it started itching. When the scabs fell away and uncovered the scars, I missed the hot salve of her breath.

 

In seven years, only one knight came close to saving the princess. He arrived in golden armor, and in the sunlight, he looked like a man made of fire. The princess bowed her head when she heard him charge, but the sound she expected, the sound of gold kissing glass, was replaced by the sound of horse hooves cracking their way closer. From her window, it looked like the knight was riding on sky, and he leaned forward, readying his burning body to pluck an apple from the tree. Just as he approached the peak, the witch, who had turned herself into a hawk, sailed down and sunk her talons between his horse’s eyes. The horse fought for only a moment before it began its downward slide, its hooves engraving the mountainside with a deep furrow.

The princess listened as the townspeople began digging a new grave. She lay her head against the window and closed her eyes.

 

Eva became obsessed with saving things. I tried to tell Aunt Halina that the story was going to kill my sister, but by then she’d decided I was not a reliable source of information. Eva’s crusades were always huge in scope, limited only by the shortness of her legs and her attention span. She once spent the entire month of June going door-to-door and asking people not to kill bugs they found inside their houses, to instead scoop them up with a newspaper and release them outside. The summer she was eight I convinced her that the clouds were going to retire at the end of the year, and she tried to build a ladder tall enough to reach them, to try to talk some sense into them. That was the summer she broke her leg.

 

In the winter of the seventh year, a young man arrived at the glass mountain at dawn. His shirt was dirty, and his pants were shredded over his left hip. He didn’t have a horse, but he’d tied the claws of a wildcat to his hands and feet. As he stood at the base of the mountain and pressed his pale forehead against its cool surface, the townspeople crowded together and gossiped. He was much too small to have killed a wildcat. He was so skinny a wildcat wouldn’t eat him. Death by a wildcat would be a kinder fate than death by the mountain.

It began to snow. The young man smiled, blushed, and started climbing. A thin layer of glistening white settled on the glass so that the outline of the mountain was clear against the horizon. The young man’s movements were slow and careful—first one hand, then the other, then each foot behind him. This was going to take a long time, the townspeople thought. They wrapped themselves in blankets and got comfortable.

When night came the young man could go no further. The glass was too steep, and he was tired. His hands were crusted with a thin layer of frozen blood from where the claws had worked into his skin. In the morning, he thought, he’d just let go, let gravity carry him down to the pretty white grave below. But tonight, for one night, he would hook his claws on a glass ledge and sleep. He dreamt of falling through the glass and landing on the mountain’s inside. He dreamt of shattering glass and the sky rushing up around him.

At midnight he was woken by the calls of a hawk flying down from the apple tree to inspect the shadows. Hunching his shoulders, the young man braced himself for the waking sensation of talon tearing through flesh, and when the bird had him fully pierced, he reached upward, releasing the wildcat claws and holding tight to the bird as it carried him up toward the castle. At the apple tree, the hawk swooped down, heavy with the young man’s weight. He had dreamed of this too. He pulled his father’s knife from his pocket, sliced cleanly through the bird’s woody legs, and fell through the silvered branches to the ground.

 

The rest of the story—the young man throwing his white apple at the dragon and freeing the princess—we hardly cared about, fixed as we were on the moment when he plucked the splinters of bird feet from the unraveling skin of his shoulders. But Gnome wanted more of the story, more and more, until he was so full on it he could finally curl up and sleep.

“Then what happened?” he kept asking.

Aunt Halina indulged him, telling him how the body of the hawk was found days later in a neighboring town, telling him how the dead knights came back to life at the bottom of the mountain, mounted their dusty horses, and rode off with their shining armor into the winter light.

Eva had fallen asleep by this point, her melon-heavy head in my lap, her lips blowing kisses at the sky. “Why didn’t the mountain ever shatter?”

Aunt Halina would answer questions about anything, all the hard ones that our parents would ignore, about her dead husband, our dead dog, the dead baby that was found in a dumpster that we weren’t supposed to know about.

This question stumped her.

 

When Halina died, years later, I was in college, where my sleeplessness had grown deeper and settled in under my eyes. A few days after her funeral, I got two letters in the mail, which I took to the basement physics lab where I worked as a research assistant. A tree had recently fallen against the building, damaging the ventilation ducts in the basement, and the ducts that had been rerouted into our lab carried with them the smell of outside, frozen grass and rotten leaves that were thawing and cooking in the steam heat. I’d been up all night talking to Eva, who was wearing headscarves and stringing her apartment with Christmas lights in Halina’s honor.

The first letter was really a postcard from Gnome stuffed inside an envelope with a postmark from Chicago, where he was in law school. I read it absently, wondering how he’d heard, if his ears had finally rounded out, if he’d turned out handsome and well-rested. I hadn’t seen him in almost eight years, although we’d been writing to each other, sporadically, since the summer he moved away. I read the card a few times before I finally caught his postscript: I hate law school. Every time I dream about you, I wake to the sound of shattering glass.

The other letter was from Halina, sent by the executor of her will, and it smelled like melted butter when I opened it. She’d left me a box of seeds she’d dried from her flower garden, a photo album filled with pictures of her as a young woman, wearing scandalous dresses and dancing on a barge, and her wedding ring. She’d also left me a key I was supposed to give to Gnome. Tell him he was my favorite, she’d written. And tell Eva she was my favorite. You were also my favorite.

I smelled the letter for as long as it took me to start crying, which was longer than it should have. My eyes had been awake too long, and they were reluctant to produce tears even when I told them to.

 

Eva died three months later. She’d come down with a fever in Puerto Rico, where she’d been busy with her new crusade of saving the baby sea turtles, and by the time the doctors had found the welt from the spider bite in her armpit, there was little they could do. Gnome showed up at my apartment two days later, his body slim and drooping like a willow tree, wearing a tie and sunglasses and carrying a vase filled with ivy. He offered to go to the airport and wait for her body to arrive. He offered to drive me to the funeral.

“Where are your things?” I asked him.

“I didn’t bring any,” he said.

The Puerto Rican funeral parlor hadn’t put any makeup on her, and when they opened the casket at the funeral home, her skin was covered with purple splotches that fanned out like spiderwebs. My parents left the room. Because Gnome put his hands on my shoulders, I tried to stay calm and resist the urge to vomit. I wanted to give the director instructions—make her look natural, not too much rouge or lipstick, no blue eye shadow—but I couldn’t.

“She’ll need something else to wear,” he said. They’d sent her to us in what looked like a tie-dyed bathing suit cover-up. “Do you have any of her clothes? Are you the same size?”

I couldn’t speak. All I could hear was shattering, and when I opened my mouth, no words came out. We’d never been the same size, but in my mind, I slipped on her clothes, her swollen skin, her spider bite.

“I’ll bring something this afternoon,” Gnome said. Then he reached across me and closed the casket.

 

After the funeral Gnome disappeared for a week. When he came back, he had a tent and a sleeping bag strapped to his back.

“I forgot to give you your key,” I told him.

“I dropped out of law school,” he said.

“Are you going somewhere?”

“I’m going to go find it,” he said.

“Find what?”

“The mountain.”

The sun was setting behind him, and I squinted my eyes and looked for a line of glass in the distance. All that I saw was red light flooding the doorway and the glowing outline of Gnome’s darkened body. I was tired.

“Come with me,” he said. “I want you to come with me.”

When I turned to go inside, I had to step over the failing branches of his shadow, tilted in a puddle of purple red light. He waited in the doorway while I gathered my things.

 

We headed west. It was already dark when we left, so after a few hours of driving, we pulled off onto an abandoned road and found a patchy forest to camp in. The ground smelled like burnt wood, and the dew crept up around the tent while we drank cheap whiskey to keep warm. With the wind blowing in the branches above us, it sounded like the trees were singing.

“She always had a crush on you, you know.”

“Who?” Gnome asked. “Eva?”

“She used to put apples outside her bedroom door before she went to sleep, in case you came at night to rescue her.”

His face screwed up, and I could tell that it upset him to hear this, but I kept talking, telling my sister’s stories, listening as her name filled the dark spaces between us, until I felt too tired to talk anymore.

Neither of us expected to fall asleep, so Gnome took out a can of Sterno, and we roasted marshmallows and ate them until they made us sick. Part of me kept expecting him to lean over and kiss me, even though it was only partly what I wanted. I’d kissed Gnome before, a million times, behind a curtain of ivy, with bugs crawling up our legs and biting us. I wanted it and didn’t want it the way I wanted and didn’t want physical pain. Just before the Sterno burned out, Gnome pulled up a pantleg to examine a mosquito bite, and I suddenly wished that I had shared him with Eva, wished that I had shared them with each other. I was waiting for the light to go out so I could cry.

I didn’t really want Gnome to kiss me. I wanted him to let me sleep in his lap like a sister.

 

Day two on the road we ate raw potatoes from a vegetable stand. A hummingbird flew in through the rear passenger-side window and rammed its tiny, panicked body into my headrest until I shooed it out with a newspaper. Gnome got an angry call from his father, so we found a nice, quiet river, made a little boat from sticks and leaves, and sent the phone sailing away from us.

“I would’ve been a terrible lawyer,” he said. “I’m too gullible.” Then he added, “Not like you.”

The breeze gave out, and through the water, we could see a wreath of minnows encircle the makeshift raft, until the phone started ringing and the vibrations made it capsize.

“It’s not so different,” I said.

“What?”

“You believe in things that couldn’t possibly be true, like Halina’s stories. I believe in things that sound like they couldn’t possibly be true, but they are. Dark matter. An expanding universe. I believe in alternate dimensions.”

Gnome stared into the water for a minute as his phone sent up bubbles like a cartoon fish. “That’s a start,” he said.

The next day we gave up on direction and took roads based solely on their names. Rabbit Hash Road. Bliss Boulevard. Lonesome Highway. We counted roadkill and hitchhikers and honked when we saw someone litter. Through the open windows, it felt like summer. We talked about home and the nights when we had known each other. We talked about Eva and the things she’d never get to save. We compared the sunburns on our forearms and breathed the sticky air.

At sunset, we drove into a lumberjack festival. From the car, as we approached the river, all we could see above the crowd was a line of men running on the water. Gnome reached over and grabbed my hand.

We made it just in time to see the chopping competition, the men hacking fiercely at their piles of wood, and we browsed through the winning stumps from the chainsaw carving competition. Gnome bought us T-shirts and homemade sausages, and we sat at a picnic table with a family who didn’t have nearly as much awe for the festivities as we did.

“If you think this is something, you should drive out to Spangler,” the woman said. From her cooler she dispensed juice boxes to her writhing sons and a beer to her husband. “They have an arboretum with all the weeping trees you could ever imagine.”

“I can burp the alphabet,” the younger boy announced.

“Jacob.” The father made an unpleasant face but went back to his sandwich when Gnome started belching the alphabet backwards.

“They built the whole thing around these Japanese trees called star magnolias. They don’t know how they got there, but they’ve been there for ages. Huge flowers, like blown up softballs.”

“White flowers?” I asked.

Gnome wasn’t listening, distracted by the eruption of a war sound from the other side of the crowd. The boys shot up and began tugging their father’s arms.

“It’s the Super Chain,” he said. “They rig up a chainsaw with a motorcycle engine.” He signed to his wife that he was taking the boys to go see it. Gnome trailed off behind them.

“White flowers?” I had to yell to be heard.

“It’s in Spangler,” she shouted. “A couple miles past the Stone Monk. Just stop and ask for directions. People around here are friendly.”

 

We were driving again, avoiding the question I would’ve asked before we left, had I actually thought we would find the place. What would we do when we got there? Gnome had returned from the chainsaw exhibition with mild hearing loss and a glinty axe whose handle was stained with hand sweat.

“Hold it,” he’d shouted, placing it in my hands. “It’s heavy.”

Behind us, dust bloomed wide across the road. We drove with the music off, bracing ourselves for what we could brace ourselves for. When we found the Stone Monk, we got out of the car and stood back from the tourists and their pictures. Neither of us had brought a camera. The monk’s head was pointing downward, in a pose of apology or shame.

At the arboretum, Gnome took a white flower from a star magnolia and hooked it through my hair. I felt shy about plucking flowers from the tree, so I gathered them from the ground and dropped them in my purse. For a moment, I thought I’d press one in a book and send it to Eva, and then I remembered. The petals left white dust on my fingers. They smelled like crushed moonlight, the way I’d imagined it to smell, after traveling through cold space to squeeze though curtains of ivy.

“Where does this road go?” Gnome asked a man with a rake.

“Landfill,” the man told him. “Where the lake used to be. The road keeps going, I think, but I wouldn’t drive that way without a gas mask.”

“What do you think?” Gnome asked, back in the car.

“Landfill or bust,” I told him.

He reached up and adjusted the flower behind my ear, and I could see that he was afraid. I wasn’t sure if he was afraid that we would find the thing or that we wouldn’t. Most likely, he was afraid of the same thing I was—the wakeful space that would come after.

“Drive,” I told him.

 

The glass mountain is very far from here, past the dirt road, past the empty sea, past the stone monk with his eyes that look like mourning. The glass mountain is smooth and heartless and perfect.

Inside the car, it smelled awful. Outside the car, it smelled worse. We stood together and pressed our hands against the glass, so cool, so quiet, so beautiful. I wished Eva were there to see it. I was tired, and I wished Eva were there, so I could sleep.

Gnome got his axe from the car and stood at the base, staring up at all that glass. His eyes looked tired. There was no castle at the top. The mountain had brought us to it, and we stood there, obedient, waiting to find out what happened next.

Gnome raised the axe over his head. His name wasn’t Gnome, but I had found him in our garden.

I was afraid that if I said Gnome’s real name, everything would shatter.

The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story YEGUAS Y CABALLOS

It was late in the night but Larry sat on the old church pew that served for the bench on their porch and he watched the great cumulonimbus flare out over the plains, anviling tall into the night. The thunder came rolling over the creosote, as though somewhere out in that darkness a colossus stood billowing canvas out from him far into the heavy storm air. The first gusts of wind were just reaching the porch and he drank out of an old crockware pitcher full of mescal that Luis had brought him. The downdraft hit the house and Larry’s hat blew off and landed on the ground and the smell of rain came in rich and deep on the wind. The first drops began sounding on the tin roof of the house and Larry thought with his insides warm from the alcohol that it was fitting that there be storm outside as there was storm inside and he fell asleep out on the old church pew with the mescal on the ground beside him.

 

He was in the kitchen early, the darkness still filling the house, and his flour-covered hands moved back and forth over the yellow Formica countertops, setting the coffee to boil and mixing the batter white to amber gold. He took a knife and cut a section of butter and dropped it into the cast-iron skillet, watched it fall into itself, then turned and poured batter from an old tin cup into the sizzling grease. The bubbles began coming up through the batter, and he flipped the hotcakes in the skillet and waited for the other side to brown.

When he had two neat stacks of cakes, he covered them with towels and pulled a match from his shirt pocket and lit the oven, setting it to a low heat. He put the cakes in the oven and walked back towards their room, his boots clicking softly against the old wood floors. He sat beside her on the bed, passing his rough hands gently over the skin of her face until she awoke.

“Morning,” he said.

She moved out from under his hand and sat up in the bed.

“I made us some breakfast if you want to eat with me before you go.”

“Alright,” she whispered.

She looked at him sadly and got out of bed and he rose with her, wrapping her in a blanket and holding her beside him, her brown hair twisted gently in his hand.

They ate quietly for a while and finally he put his fork down beside his plate.

“You don’t have to do this.”

“Yes, I do. I have to.”

He was quiet, the muscles in his jaw bunching and releasing under his lean skin as he chewed. His stomach was sinking.

“No, you really don’t,” he said. “I’m goin’ to work here in a second. I guess I’ll see you around, huh?”

“No, you probably won’t.”

“What are you goin’ to tell the girls?”

“I’m not telling them anything.”

“Just like that then? Drop them at school and be gone.”

She didn’t say anything.

“What am I goin’ to tell them?”

She looked off through the window at the graying dawn in the yard and past that to where the horizon was beginning to become more definite, the eastern edge glowing at the hastenings of the sun.

“You’ll think of something,” she said.

He took her plate and his and he walked over to the sink and placed them both down into the water where they rang dully against the pan and the silverware and he washed off his hands and dried them on a rag hanging from the oven. He walked back to the table where she sat wrapped in the blanket that had been on his father and mother’s bed before his and he kissed her head a last time.

“I’m always gonna love you, you know that, right?”

“No, you’ll forget. Soon enough.”

“No,” he said looking at her. He looked at her for a long time. “No, I won’t.”

He walked towards the door, pulling the keys to his truck out of his pocket and taking his hat from the hook on the wall. He turned back and looked at her.

“Where you gonna be?”

She didn’t say anything. She just looked away. He stood with his hand on the wooden door frame looking at her then he turned and walked out.

He got up into the truck and turned the keys in the ignition and waited until the orange glow plug light went off, then he put his head against his hands on the steering wheel and sat. He sat for a long time and he thought he could see inside of himself, the mesquite wood around his heart darkening, the coals fading. He was afraid that what life there was in him might leave entire, and he willed himself to hold fast to the sparks for his daughters but he didn’t know if he could. He wasn’t sure that such little sparks could survive in all that dark. Finally, he looked up and pushed the key forward and the Cummins shook itself to life. He put the truck into gear and rolled up the dirt road away from the little house, the light from his daughters’ room spilling amber into the blue morning.

On the side of the road a mile or so up from his house there was a rattlesnake swallowing one of the gray desert rats that run across the roads at night. Its mouth gaped, its jaws unhinging grotesquely, and the white diamonds of scales shimmered serpentine down its back. He thought of swerving to kill it but he didn’t, he just passed on.

 

When he got to the ranch house he parked out front, leaving the engine idling, and walked around to the back. He knocked on the cracked wood of the screen door before letting himself in. Mr. Raburn looked up from his paper and set down his coffee.

“Mornin’, Mr. Raburn.”

“Mornin’, Larry.”

“What needs gettin’ done today?”

“Well, that storm last night knocked down some fencin’ over in the Madrugada.”

“Alright, I’ll get that back up. Any of the cattle run?”

“No, no. I called up Jorge and Luis after the rain slowed and they drove the cattle into Oscuridad before the flash was over.”

He took a sip from his coffee. “You want a cup?”

“Sure, I’ll take some coffee,” Larry said sitting down. “You want those cattle back in the Madrugada when I finish with the fence?”

“I’ll get Jorge and Luis to do that again. When you’re done come on back up here, the loader’s got a leak in the hydraulics that needs fixin’ and after that I ordered some steel to replace the windmill, I might have you pull the gooseneck into town to go pick it up. We’ll work on that for the next few days. I figure we’ll oil up the old Aermotor gearbox.”

He took a sip from his coffee and read absently from the paper, a corner of it lifted in his hand off the table.

“Did you know we’ve had that gearbox and the blades since back when my daddy ran this place?”

“No, sir, I didn’t know that.”

“Well, it’s true. Anyways, we’ll use that and the blades again but we’ll build a steel base where the wood is now. I’ll get you to weld the base.”

“Yessir.”

He had gotten up and was about to walk out when he turned back.

“Mr. Raburn.”

“Yeah, Larry, what you got?”

“Sarah Beth left this mornin’.”

“When’s she comin’ back?”

“I don’t know if she is, sir.”

Mr. Raburn had picked up his paper but he put it back down and he looked at Larry for a little while pursing his lips.

“I’m sorry ’bout that, Larry, I really am,” he said finally. “You take the time you need.”

“Well, I thank you. I’ll get to that fencin’.”

 

The morning clouded as he worked and he ran the barbed wire rusty through his hands in the gray light.

“We’ve broken it all,” he said to no one. We broke every last bit, he thought sitting down on the ground among the tall white blooms of the Lechugia.

 

He moved slowly up the line at school, the big white Dodge idling low and throaty, the gooseneck behind it. When Abby saw his truck she walked over to him carrying her lunch pail in her hand and her pink backpack that they had gotten for her before school began and the dry desert wind tossed about her light hair. She had a piece of manila paper in her other hand and after he had reached across the bench seat and opened the door for her she climbed up into the truck and gave him the piece of paper.

“What’ve you got, Abigail?”

“I made it for you,” she said smiling mischievously.

He looked at it as she pulled the seatbelt over her little body. It was a picture of him on a horse with her in front of him and hills behind them and his heart tightened as he looked at it and he didn’t know why.

“The horse’s name is Parnell,” she said.

It was a gray horse with dark spots.

“Where’d you think of a name like that?”

“I don’t know,” she said shrugging. “I just did.”

“I like it. It’s a good name.” His voice was shaking and he cleared his throat, and breathed in deep to steady himself.

They pulled out of the parking lot onto Sul Ross and drove towards the middle school to pick up Isabelle.

“Scoot on over so Izzy can get in.”

“She can sit in back.”

“The back’s dirty, sweetie. Plus, I want you to come over here and sit by me,” he said teasingly.

She giggled and moved over to sit in the middle of the bench. They pulled in and picked up Isabelle and he was quiet driving towards Morrison’s.

“Where are we going, Dad?”

“We’re goin’ to Morrison’s, Izz. I gotta pick some steel up for Mr. Raburn. I think we’re gonna be building a new windmill where the old one used to sit.”

“Is everything okay? Mom was crying when she dropped me off at school today and she wouldn’t say why.”

He couldn’t look at her and he thought he was going to cry but he didn’t.

“Mom left, sweetie.”

He said it quiet and he wasn’t sure the girls had heard but they had.

“Where’d she go?” Isabelle asked.

“I don’t know. She said she was goin’ to the city but she wouldn’t say where.”

“When’s she coming home?” She was starting to cry.

“I don’t know, sweetie. I don’t know that she is.”

Isabelle was crying and Abigail didn’t understand what had happened but he pulled them close to him on the bench seat and he held them against his rough work shirt and told them not to be afraid.

“We’re gonna do alright in this one, okay, girls? We’re gonna do okay.”

 

That night he cooked fajitas that he had made out of flank steak bought at the supermarket before he picked the girls up at school. He grilled them outside on the barrel grill over charcoal and he grilled peppers and onions wrapped in aluminum foil and tortillas. The coals glowed through the tortillas in the dusky air. When he served the tacos to the girls it was with green onions and cilantro and a salsa he made himself. Before cooking the fajitas he had mixed dough, flour and shortening and butter and a touch of sugar and salt, and he rolled the dough in his heavy hands and put it into the refrigerator. He melted butter and mixed in brown sugar and cinnamon and he poured it over green apple slices and rolled out the dough and cut it deftly into a circle and placed it in an old clay-fired pie dish. He put the apples in and crisscrossed it with dough and sprinkled some of the butter and brown sugar over the crust and he put it all in the oven. He thought that the girls would be happier if they had something nice to eat and they were a little bit, but the night was dark all the same.

After they had eaten he put the dishes in the sink and he took the girls back to their bedroom and made Abigail take a shower and they both brushed their teeth and he pulled the curtains closed and tucked them in. When they were in their sheets he told them stories about when he rode in the rodeos, about the broncos and the bulls, fierce eyed and wild with madness. He told them about when he rode the famous Red Rock, how he had held for seven seconds, almost eight, but lost in the last bit. How the bull glistened under the auditorium lights as he stomped great holes straight to the heavy core of the earth. He told them about hunting in the Del Carmen with his father when he was a child. How they had come upon a black bear in the forest and how the thing reared up on its haunches bellowing down at them. He said that he almost shot the bear but that his dad put his hand on the gun and told him to wait. His dad had said if the bear charged that they would shoot but until then that they could let it live. He said that the bear finally took its head from out of the sky and that it glided gloriously dark back into the pines. While he spoke Isabelle was quiet and Abigail played with the shapes of the shadows of her hands in the lamplight.

After his stories were told he kissed them both on their heads and he turned the lamp off and walked out of their room.

 

He went outside and drank half a bottle of cheap whiskey, letting the brown liquid burn his throat and flutter his eyelids. The charred oak taste of it and the alcohol fumes floating into his lungs when he breathed. He stood out there on the plains looking up at the stars. God, the great welder. His torch spattering the sky with the blazing bodies of the heavens illumined. He wondered at the strangeness that man should be the metal that the Lord chose to be his craft. How the divine torch must never stop working and repairing what the world does to people. How the heat of His gun is set to the limit of what men might bear and must be so and that that limit is a thing far beyond where most men believe it could be. He thought maybe the Lord needed to learn to work faster, though, that too many spirits became unbonded to the bodies they were meant to inhabit. End up with too much cold metal and not enough fire. A train’s whistle blew far distant and the darkness parted for the sound of it and then closed again as it passed. He went inside and stripped off his pants and his shirt and he got into his bed. Sarah Beth’s ring was on her bedside table with her pearl earrings and there was a note that said to give the ring to Isabelle and the earrings to Abby. He slept though he didn’t think he could.

 

He got up the next morning and he took the cereal out of the pantry and the milk from the refrigerator and he woke the girls and they both had forgotten for a moment what had passed.

“Was it a dream?” Isabelle asked.

“No, sweetie, it was no dream. We’re gonna be alright, we’re just gonna have to take it a day at a time, okay? It’ll be hard for a while, that’s just the way it works, alright?”

 

He was all that morning looking at the plans for the windmill and thinking about how to set up the trelliswork for welding, the best angles to use. He welded a seven-by-seven-foot steel square that would be moored to two piles driven into the ground around the well. Mr. Raburn walked into the barn where Larry was welding, the sparks of metal bouncing off his canvas shirt and falling about his boots below.

“Larry, you doin’ alright?”

Larry stopped welding and pulled his hood up over his face. He was sweating and his eyes were red.

“I’m doin’ alright, sir. Could be better, I guess.”

They stood for a while, quiet, Mr. Raburn looking over the base.

“When Sadie died a few years back, I couldn’t think straight for weeks. Even just the simple day-to-day things, I couldn’t do them right. And I know what you’ve got is different, as leavin’ while you’re still alive is a thing of choice, where death, well, there ain’t much choice in that, is there?”

“No, sir, I imagine there isn’t.”

Larry picked the corner of the base up and pushed on it, absently testing the strength of the weld.

“Mr. Raburn, I’m gonna be alright, I think. I’m pretty sure I will at least, but I worry about my girls, Mr. Raburn. I don’t want them to start hatin’ people too young. There’s time enough in the future for that. I don’t want them to get it when they’re just girls.”

“Larry, if you need time, I can give it to you.”

Larry was quiet for a while.

“I’ll be alright. Thank you, though.”

 

That evening Isabelle came to him embarrassed.

“What’s wrong, Izz?”

“Dad, I’m bleeding.”

“Where, sweetie?”

“My privates,” she said turning her face from him. “My stomach hurts.”

“Oh, God,” he said, “it’s okay. You’re having your first period. Shit, I wish your mom were here right now.”

He realized as he said it that he shouldn’t have and she was crying. He held her shaking to him.

“I’m sorry, Isabelle. I shouldn’t of said that. Listen, sweetie, wait in the bathroom. I’ll go into town and get you what you need. You’ll be okay, this is just part of growin’ up. Get some Advil for your stomach, I think you’re havin’ cramps. It’ll make it hurt less.”

She said okay into his shirt, but he could hear that she was afraid.

He went and told Abigail that she needed to sit with her sister and talk to her, that he would be back in just a bit.

“What’s wrong, Daddy?”

“It’s alright, your sister’s just feeling a little sick. Listen, I’ll be back in just a bit. Sit outside the door and talk to your sister, alright?”

“Okay.”

 

When he got to the store he walked to the counter a little bit embarrassed and he asked one of the women clerks what he should buy if his daughter was having her first period. The woman told him that he should get sanitary napkins and a heating pad.

“We already have a heating pad, but thank you,” he said, and he went on and bought a box of sanitary napkins.

He left the Dollar General and headed towards the Flying J.

 

The diner was quiet and he walked towards the row of silver swivel benches in front of the bar. She was sitting behind the counter with her legs crossed and Larry thought to himself that she had always been something prettier than what you’d expect to find where you found her.

“Blueeyes.”

She turned a little bit surprised.

“Bobcat,” she said, “it’s been a real long time.”

She walked around the counter and hugged him.

“Yeah, I’m sorry about that.”

“It’s okay. It’s nothin’ I wasn’t expectin’.”

“Listen, Sarah Beth left me a few days ago.”

“Oh, no,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay. It’s just, Izzy’s havin’ her first period and I need someone to talk to her. I don’t mean to put you to anything, I just don’t have anyone else to go to. Raburn’s wife’s been dead for years and I ain’t talked to many women enough since I married Sarah Beth.”

“Listen, sweetie, I understand. I haven’t forgot you neither.”

He smiled for the first time in a while.

“I appreciate it, I really do. I’m sorry it’s been so long. You look like you’re doin’ well.”

“I am. I’m doin’ alright.”

They left the store and drove towards the ranch and the desert stretched far about them and the stars pressed down against them.

 

When they got to the house he gave Blueeyes what he had bought at the store and he showed her to the bathroom and told Isabelle that there was an old friend of his who would help her. He heard the toilet flush and they waited for a little while and then the door opened and Isabelle let Blueeyes in and Isabelle looked up embarrassed.

He took Abigail and they walked to the porch and waited.

“Is Izzy going to be alright?” Abigail asked him.

“She’s goin’ to be fine.”

“Who’s that lady?”

“She’s a friend of mine from when I was younger.”

“She seems nice.”

“She is, sweetie. She’s a good lady.”

 

When Blueeyes came out, she and Isabelle were talking and Isabelle was thanking her and Blueeyes told her that it wasn’t anything. Blueeyes got into Larry’s truck and he asked her where she wanted him to take her.

“I still live over on Means.”

“Alright, I’ll take you there.”

They drove in silence for a while, cottontails tearing like shooting stars through the high beams.

“Listen, Blueeyes, I really appreciate this more than maybe I can tell you.”

“I know, sweetie. It’s okay.”

They were quiet for some time.

“When’d she leave you?”

“Three days ago. I cooked her breakfast, and she took the girls to school. Then she left.”

“Why’d she leave?”

“I don’t know. She changed, I guess. People change. Mostly it seems in ways that are hard. It says in the Bible, ‘Like iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens another.’ I wonder sometimes at whoever wrote that down, if maybe they spent all their time around priests or in churches. It’s been my experience the other way around.”

“I’ve seen what you’re sayin’, sweetie.”

“Yeah, well, you ever see anything else, you let me know. That’ll be the place where I’m headin’.”

“I’ve seen somethin’ else. People can be good to each other, Larry, for a little while at least. Maybe not much more than a little while though. I saw it in your girls tonight. You’re not a bad father, Larry. Those girls love you.”

He was quiet and when they got to her house and she opened the door to leave and the light came on in the truck there were tears falling down his face.

 

When he got home he walked in to make sure the girls were alright, and they were both asleep. He pulled their covers up about them and kissed them on their heads and walked into his room.

 

In his dream the night came dark and bare down the hillside, constellations upon constellations dripping from her naked skin and her eyes blue where he thought they’d be brown. The stars running off of her pooled molten in the troughs of the hills and shined upwards into the sudden blackness without.

She walked to him almost shyly saying, “I’ve seen you looking at me.”

“Yes,” he said, “almost every night.”

“Why don’t you ever talk to me?”

“I didn’t know I could,” he said, “or that you’d want me to if I knew how.”

“I do,” she whispered silvery onto his cheek and through his hair. “I do.”

When she spoke her words were warmer than he would’ve imagined them to be, and when she kissed him it was with the gray gentleness of owls’ feathers delicately touching the dark.

“I don’t know what I’m doing right now,” he said. “I got two girls and me and I don’t know what to do.”

He woke near tears with longing for the dream to be real but it was not and he felt that he was more alone in that moment than he had ever been, the stars softly glowing between his sheets.

 

The next morning he woke up and cooked the girls French toast and the agave was blooming outside the house, the white of the blossoms astral in the dawn light, and hummingbirds and bees orbited about it like tiny planets filling with nectar.

“I don’t want to go to school today.”

“Izzy, you’ve only got a day more and it’s summer, and I’ve a treat for us.”

“Tell me what’s the treat and I’ll maybe go to school,” she said smiling.

“I think we’re gonna go to the beach.”

 

He talked to Mr. Raburn that morning about taking a few days off and Mr. Raburn said it would be okay so long as the windmill was finished. Larry stayed and worked hard in the hot summer sun. He worked the bright blue gun and his bronzed skin glistened about his neck from the heat and he reckoned that he drank a whole cooler of water the day he set up the windmill. Luis worked the loader to hold the steel up and Jorge and Larry made sure the angles were correct. The wire feed sounded a Morse code too fast to comprehend and the windmill stood up and the gearbox was set into place and unlocked and the sucker rod began pumping down and back deep into the ground and the concrete cistern filled again with water.

 

The next day they pulled onto the road, the turbo whine rising ghostly into the morning dark. Isabelle had asked if Blueeyes could come and Larry said he would think about it. He called her later that night and invited her. He told her that it was for the girls and that she needn’t consider him, though he would be happy to have her too.

“I’d love to, Larry, I really would,” she had said.

They listened to AM country stations and they all sang along and for a while they kept the windows down, everyone’s hair strangely alive in the little pool of wind inside the truck. Beside them the clouds drug their heavy shadows over the dry ground.

 

He had called ahead and rented a condo in Port Aransas and they spent the day on the beach and grilled hot dogs for lunch, the summer taste of ketchup and mustard filling their mouths. Larry sat with Blueeyes in his bathing suit and his cowboy hat, and the girls played in the surf, jumping the waves and throwing their hands over their heads and falling into the foam. The waves rolled all up and down the beach and the sky held no clouds at all.

“What’ve you been doin’ these years?” Larry asked.

“For a while, it was what I was doin’ when I knew you. I mostly stopped that. I saved money durin’ the last few years, as funny as it might sound. Lately, I’ve been workin’ the counter and such. Bob and his wife have been pretty good to me.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” he said.

She looked down at a cockle shell that she was running her fingers over and her hair fell darkly about in the wind.

“Every so often I see one of the old-timers, but there’s not fun in it anymore. I don’t think really that there ever was. For a little bit there was at least the idea of it. I don’t know. Lately, I can’t think on the past with much fondness.”

“Everybody’s got what they aren’t proud of.”

She looked off over the beach and watched the girls. The gulls cawed crassly in the blue sky.

“Some have more of it than others,” she said looking up at the birds. “I’ve been gettin’ better at not blamin’ myself for things I’ve done. A little better at not blamin’ everybody else, but that’s been maybe harder. Maybe not. You only get one go of this thing. It’s not like you get to start into it knowin’ how to do it. You just kinda feel your way along.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re probably right.”

She looked off at the horizon over the sea, the flatness of it almost unbearable where the sky touched down onto the waters.

“I’d see those other girls and they’d get to dyin’, mostly just in their eyes but some of them actually. I tried not to let it touch me, but sometimes watchin’ death creep in on the eyes of those other girls got me shook up pretty good. I walked in one day to Loreen lyin’ naked and pale in her rosy bath water. She’d cut her wrists.”

She picked up the speckled shell and threw it down towards the sea.

“I can’t say I’ve been shown much to recommend life to me, but I’ve taken a likin’ to it all the same,” she said, standing up from where they were sitting, brushing the sand off her legs.

“Larry, thanks for inviting me out here. I’ve been needin’ to get away for a while.”

“Yeah, you’re welcome. I’m glad you came.”

The girls were walking up from the water.

“Blueeyes, I’m sorry if any of the things you look back on that hurt were things I had part in.”

“Listen, Bobcat, I always loved you.”

They laughed.

“No, you weren’t ever bad to me. I waited for you to come back for a long time, but I guess I wasn’t that surprised when you didn’t,” she said.

 

That night Larry lit a lantern and parceled a section of beach out of the darkness and there was the smell of kerosene burning. The girls ran about in the paraffin light catching the little sand-colored ghost crabs, diving around on the sand laughing and yelling.

“Daddy, I got one,” Abigail yelled, running up to him, holding a yellow plastic bucket up to the lantern, her hair all adrift in the shore wind.

“Yeah, sweetie. It’s a pretty lookin’ one.”

 

After he put the girls to bed, their sheets hot against their sunburned skin, he walked out onto the beach by himself. The sand was wet against his bare feet and the onshore wind blew warm off the sea. He stood beneath the heavens burning, the stars pulsing like coals in the wind. He stood there for a long time and he loved his girls such that his heart ached and he prayed that they would stay unbroken, but he was afraid because he knew that the world breaks everything. That almost none escape its iron embrace, clutching and pressing the souls of men into the shape of a thing not touched by God for a very long time. He knew also, though, that some survive and so he prayed that his daughters would grow strong enough that they could keep themselves away from some of the night. After he had stood a long time on the beach he turned and walked back into the condo.

 

When he went inside, he found Abigail in his bed and she was sobbing.

“Sweetie, what’s wrong?”

She was half-asleep.

“I don’t want you to leave us. I don’t want you to leave.”

He couldn’t say anything for a long time. He just held her, his jaws clenched, and when he spoke he was crying.

“I’m not goin’ to leave you, I promise. And I won’t promise you what I can’t keep.”

She quieted and he held her until she stilled and he fell asleep with her pulled against his chest all nested in the covers and the dark.

 

Outside the stars caught in the mesquite branches and on the thorns, and everything went swinging on round the pole star, grinding the nocturnal mills.

Offshore in the deeps of the sea, sardines swirled in great silver shoals upward between the serried rays of moonlight, and two marlins cut through the schools, their great swords thrashing back and forth, flashing bright in that marine dark, flashing like meteors through the black water.

THE BEST DAMN FLAGGER IN AUDRAIN COUNTY

“Look’s like Zach’s working late,” Jane said, pointing in the direction of Bill Keating’s soy fields with one hand, the other hand on the wheel. “Maybe he’s got more work than he can handle by himself.” It was a baited comment, but I looked anyway, watched my brother’s Air Tractor running back-and-forths in the sky over the fields. I hadn’t worked in weeks.

“I heard something about Zach running around with Laura Keating,” I said. “He’s probably trying to get in good with her dad.”

“It’s not like your brother to work late, even for a woman. Makes me wonder why he doesn’t need your help.” The words slid from the side of Jane’s mouth as she let the wheel play back and forth in her palm. “If he can afford a new GPS and has enough business to work ’til sundown, seems he could use an extra hand.” I held our three-month-old son on my lap, lifted him as Jane plowed through a pothole. He squealed with ignorant delight as my hands tossed him in the air and my head banged against the back window of the pickup. Jane choked down a laugh. When I wasn’t working, she took extra pleasure in raking me over the coals. I reached over with my free hand and turned on the fizz of AM radio, searching for snippets of the Cardinals game as we bounced our way home.

When Jane and I married a few years back, her father set us up in this townhouse in downtown Mount Poplar, or what passes for downtown in a place like Mount Poplar. He also dressed me in a sales position at his dealership—“Bennett Chevrolet, family owned since 1982.” Despite its name, Mount Poplar is like the rest of southeast Missouri: flat. Living in town meant we didn’t farm for a living and were therefore of a certain class. But I couldn’t stand downtown. Whenever Jane went on one of her tirades, I longed for an endless expanse of green to swallow her words. Fortunately, the IRS audited Jane’s father two years into our marriage. The townhouse and my job were the first extravagances to go.

Since then we’ve been living in this run-down house on my dad’s farm. We conceived our son on the same patch of land where I was born and not much Jane says gets to me anymore. She stopped talking to her father when the money ran out, but I drive by the dealership every once in a while to check in. Last time I caught him fiddling with the engine of a client’s trade-in, his tie tucked into his dress shirt, his blazer hung on the raised hood. Jane’s dad started as a mechanic way back and it pained me to see him back where he began. My father’s farm loses about twenty grand a year but government handouts put him in the black. He grows corn and soy. When tobacco was king in the eighties, he stupidly tried to plant it. Within a few years the soil was sterile and the tobacco never flourished.

After Jane and me moved into the farmhouse, she spent most her days in bed watching soap operas and crying about our fall from grace. Dad gave us the house for free but he turned down my offer to help on the farm. “I got Mexicans that work for almost nothing,” he said. “Why would I hire you?”

I spent my ample free time fixing up the house, occasionally taking drywall jobs in town or helping Zach with his business, Zach’s Aerial Application. He fixed up an old ag plane he bought as junk and came up with a motto: “We’ve got your crops covered, from Z to A.” I think it was during the first few months after I returned to the farm, the months Jane had lost the energy to give me a hard time, that I was happiest. We were just making ends meet and life seemed manageable.

After the house began to take a more respectable shape—a secure banister, new carpet, a dry basement—Jane came out of her depression and life changed again. Rather than letting me pick and choose projects as I saw fit, half-completing them until something better came along, Jane made a list of my “chores” and clipped it to the refrigerator. She tied a bandanna around her head and tromped around the house with two water buckets—one dirty, one clean—and talked each night about the amount of work she’d done making our home “acceptable.” She took whatever money I made and shopped for furniture at flea markets, replacing the family relics with things more suited to her taste. Sometimes she dragged the heirloom furniture, pieces that had been my mother’s mother’s, into the dank basement, where it was forgotten.

As Jane’s presence in the house grew, mine shrunk. It was around this time that Jane became pregnant. During the first trimester, before the morning sickness and added weight, our relationship improved. We snuggled and talked about baby names and made plans, but as her stomach grew, Jane became distant and cold. I think she was in a pain I never really understood.

 

About an hour after we survived Jane’s drive home, the phone rang and I watched Jane set our son in the center of the kitchen table where we take our meals. His legs kicked as if he were some sort of shelled ocean creature stuck on its back and trying to grab the sand.

Jane twirled the phone’s cord in her free hand. “Saw you flying pretty late today,” she said into the receiver and raised herself on the balls of her feet, stretching. “He’s on the couch, but I think he’s free tomorrow.” She made no effort to get my attention. “I already put him to bed,” she lied. I looked at our son, thrashing less wildly now, accustomed to a hard surface and the inability to right himself. I wished he would start screaming and expose Jane’s lie. “Let me get your brother,” she said and motioned me toward the phone. As I grabbed it, she kissed me pertly on the cheek. I never understand her in moments like these. She took our son into the TV room and closed the door.

Zach asked me to work the next day, said he had a bookkeeping backlog because he’d been too busy flying and sleeping with Laura Keating. I indulged him by asking about the relationship. He told me about the all-the-time sex and her father’s money.

“Bill’s getting something out of you too, I suppose,” I said.

“Application at cost. Or close to.”

“So you get the girl and he gets the fertilizer.”

“That’s right, man. I barter like a Chinese trader.” I heard a girlish laugh in the background. “So I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow,” I said and hung up.

Jane poked her head through the door and stared, her own endearing way of asking if I was working the next day.

“You’ll need to watch him tomorrow,” I said and she nodded. She popped open a Mich Ultra and took a long drink.

“Zach asked if we are going to the barbecue tomorrow,” she said. “His band’s playing.”

“I guess we should.” Jane sucked her teeth. I wondered where she had placed our son. She treated him like a set of keys, like some object she didn’t mind losing, figuring it would turn up again eventually. I opened the refrigerator and pretended to search for leftovers until I heard her shut the kitchen door.

 

When he first bought and repaired the ag plane, Zach talked about the two of us starting a business together. I didn’t have any money to invest but took flight classes even though I had no talent for it. I was nervous on the short takeoffs, felt sick to my stomach making the low-flying turns of a crop duster, and had trouble maintaining a steady line when buzzing fields. The kicker was the licensing test. For part of the test, a pilot takes you up in a puddle jumper while you’re hooded. He flies a good distance from the landing strip, constantly changing course, and places the plane at an awkward heading. About fifteen minutes in, the pilot sets the plane on cruise, switches seats, and asks you to right the plane using only the instruments. Vertigo always set in as I tried to sense the plane’s course. The difficulty isn’t reading the instruments; it’s more about trusting them. You can right the wings, nose, and rudder, get to the proper altitude and heading, and still swear the plane is listing, flying sideways through the air. I failed the test twice before passing. I tended to make slight adjustments based on my senses and when the hood was removed, I would realize we were flying crooked—the nose raised, the wings angled.

That final time I took the test, I cried in the cockpit as the instruments told me one thing and my brain another. The instrument panel blurred from the tears that I tried to wipe away without the test pilot noticing, but I stuck to the instruments and passed. Jane wanted to celebrate when I came home with a license, but I went straight to bed and told her we would go out another night. She tried to wake me with a midnight blow job but I pushed her away. The next night, after I took her for a steak dinner, she slept stiff as a board.

“Anyone can learn to fly,” Zach told me afterwards. “But the best pilots, they have natural ability.”

“So I won’t be flying your prop?” I asked.

“Only one plane anyway,” Zach replied. “I’ll always need somebody flagging in the field, though.” From then on I was dropped as a business partner and became a hired hand. I took Zach up on his offer and helped him as a flagger and bookkeeper.

I never told Jane about my failures as a pilot, and I’ve never taken her up in a plane like I promised, never even flown since I got the license. Back then Jane still believed I could provide her a good life and I didn’t want to disappoint her.

 

Zach picked me up at seven in the morning, his socks and boots sitting between us as he worked the clutch and gas with his bare feet. “This girl, I tell you what—” he said and took a deep breath. I waited for him to finish but he just rolled down his window and spit. I fumbled with the stereo until he reached over and turned it off. “I woke up with her on top of me,” he said and gave a sort of tribal whoop. “All ready to go, her father asleep downstairs. Man, she sweats.” He shimmied with excitement from the memory.

“Her father hear you?” I asked.

“She says he sleeps without his hearing aids.” I imagined old man Keating waking up one random night, reaching out to the bedside table for his hearing aids, only to hear the moans of his daughter. I wondered if he would jump to his feet, grab a shotgun, and confront Zach, or if he would just sit in bed, mesmerized by Laura’s animal sounds, the rhythmic scratching of headboard against wall. I imagined myself with Laura Keating, lifting her into the corner, her legs wrapped across my hips like a broad belt, her arms pressed against the walls for support.

I looked over at Zach and wondered if he could read my mind, but he had his head arched toward the window, opening his mouth wide and taking in big gasps of air before letting them go. “If the wind holds off, I think I’ll have you flag this afternoon,” he said. “You know, for old times’ sake.”

“I didn’t bring a mask. Why not just use the GPS?”

“I have some masks at the office.”

To call Zach’s trailer an office is a bit misleading. Most of the ag pilots keep their planes at the same landing strip, about thirty minutes outside Mount Poplar. On one side of the runway about twenty square trailers with attached garages stand evenly spaced. The pilots leave their planes out when they’re working, as if the planes were Old West ponies tied to hitching posts. Zach still hasn’t built steps to his trailer, so there is a two-foot drop to the ground, and inside everything from the carpet to the blocky desk and shelves is a sort of stain-swallowing brown. A phone and answering machine with a blinking red light perch on the corner of a desk littered with crumpled papers and cups of tobacco spit.

I pulled an old typewriter from the desk drawer and heaved it onto the desk. “I’m gonna check on the plane,” Zach said and I asked him to flip on the lights before he left. The fluorescent overheads buzzed and flickered, brightening and darkening the room without any particular rhythm. I organized the papers on the desk into two piles—clients and suppliers—and put anything marked urgent or overdue on top. Then I checked the phone messages, new and old, and made detailed notes before deleting them.

Zach came back, started the coffeemaker, and laid down on this tan love seat he’d picked up on the side of the road, letting his legs fall over the edge. He kicked the side with the heels of his boots. I wondered what it meant about me that Zach, with his mounting debt and cavalier business habits, was considered the family success.

“So, what’s the damage there, cowboy?” he said in a rather poor Texas drawl, giving a lazy sweep of his hand toward the desk.

“You need to call Schneider Chemical. They left two messages saying you’ve used all your credit.”

Zach reached into his jeans pocket, pulled out a rubber-banded roll of cash. “Let’s pay him in person,” he said and jumped up from the couch, his cowboy hat falling from his head. “Like the good ole days.” The morning sun had plastered Zach’s yellow hair to his forehead and exposed a receding hairline. I realized for the first time how meticulously he combed it when he went hatless. I took off my own farmer’s cap, revealing a healthy bald spot and broad forehead, giving Zach a view of the future.

“You rob a 7-Eleven?” I asked.

“Just got paid for a job,” he said, waving the bills. “Tax free.”

Business went on like this: calls about missed payments, lies about checks lost in the mail, promises for new ones to be sent. Zach made the phone calls, and I watched him pace the carpet, gesturing wildly with his left hand, which held the base of the phone. Sometimes he settled the receiver between his ear and shoulder so he could use both hands to make a point. And when the person on the other end talked at any length, he rolled his eyes and wound himself like a mummy in the phone cord. In the end he charmed his way out of every problem. He always knew the right excuse to use: how busy he was and how that meant he’d be a great client in the future, how he liked to fly but wasn’t much for paperwork, how he didn’t even know anything had been the matter until I went through the paperwork, or how he had fallen for this hot little piece and how his mind couldn’t focus with that apple-bottom ass running around in his head all day.

I tired of Zach’s voice, grabbed a cup of coffee, and walked outside. A pilot from three garages down rolled by in a refurbished biplane without any tanks attached, just a hobbyhorse flyer. He gave a quick wave as he adjusted himself in the seat and set his helmet and glasses. At the end of the runway he made a loop turn, straightened the plane, and accelerated. Even as he gained speed, the plane seemed to pass in slow motion. I could make out the details of its structure, the stabilizer bars of the wings, the thin wheels and rusted body with aluminum patches welded to the tail. I felt like I’d been transported to 1918, that this was a man off to fight the Germans. Three-quarters down the runway he began to take the air, a slight wobble as he lifted the nose, and ten seconds later just a fleck in the sky.

I made my way over to Zach’s Air Tractor. It was bright yellow with red accent paint, the leather pilot’s seat polished, the windshield spotless. Zach had only so much care to give the world and so he’d always looked out for two things first and foremost: himself and his plane. I picked up a couple pebbles from the ground and tossed them into the spotless cockpit.

For the rest of the morning, Zach dictated invoices, estimating materials and hours haphazardly as I typed them on the typewriter. The keys kept sticking and I had to make corrections in pen. Zach would look at each invoice, point to the typos, and say, “Fifty cents,” as if he were docking my pay.

When we finished I called Jane. The phone rang six times before she picked up and said, “Yes?”

“Is that the way you answer the phone now?” I asked.

“I’m making lunch,” she said. “And I feel like I have changed a thousand fucking diapers already.”

“He is a baby,” I said. Zach dropped to his knees and pretended to weep.

“Wow,” Jane exclaimed. “Here I’ve been spending all day in this house wondering why I married you and I just got it. He’s a baby! Genius.”

“You can leave the house,” I said. “You have the truck.”

“Make sure Zach pays you today,” Jane said and hung up.

“Can’t win with that one,” Zach said. “Jane’s like a green pony, man. You just gotta keep getting up there until she gives up and stops bucking. Might never happen, though.”

“That’s real wise, Zach,” I said. “You should be a marriage counselor.”

“If there’s one thing I know,” he said as he leaned over, placed one hand on the arm of the couch, and began to move his hips back and forth, “it’s how to break down a green pony.” His hips quickened and his free hand grabbed his cowboy hat and flailed it as he humped the furniture. I wondered if he was imagining Laura Keating or my own wife beneath him. “Let’s go,” he said immediately after letting out the dramatic moan of a climax. “We gotta quit dickin’ around and get to work.”

 

I drove Zach’s truck east on Highway 60 toward a couple cornfields he had to treat with Atrazine. It felt good to be driving. Ever since we had the baby, Jane made me ride passenger-side. I found Zach’s Skoal in the glove box and an empty can beneath the seat. I rolled the windows down and enjoyed the tobacco buzz. On a good Missouri day, you can place one finger on the wheel and drive straight for miles, never catching up to a slow-moving tractor, never dodging a deer loping across the road.

By the time I reached the farm, I heard Zach’s plane in the sky behind me. He swooped down toward the truck, turned the plane sideways about twenty feet off the ground, and gave me a big, childlike grin. I put on a mask and an extra flannel shirt I’d found in the office, lugged the orange flags to the cornfield. When I waved one in the air, Zach stopped circling and turned the plane on course, coming down over the field. I set the flag in the ground and moved down the row with the rest of the flags.

Zach steadied the plane about ten feet over the corn and opened his tanks, the stalks swaying slightly under his pass. There’s a beauty to the danger of a plane so near the ground, the lack of room for error. As I watched Zach fly, a familiar pang of jealousy welled up in my stomach. I longed to have his view from the sky. Instead I covered my mouth and crouched down, eyes closed, as he passed overhead, the splatter of herbicide against my clothes, the chemical smell dappling the air. I checked the application and waved a flag to let Zach know the cover was good. Then I found the edge of his spray, took five large strides, and waved the second flag. Zach looped the plane like a rolling pigeon and rather than spraying back and forth, the way a man mows his lawn, he returned on the same axis, spraying only as he headed west.

We finished both fields in an hour, and Zach buzzed me one last time as I collected the flags. I drove back with the windows down to air out my chemical-covered clothes. By the time I got to the office, Zach had closed up shop. “Scoot over and keep the motor running,” he said and hopped in driver-side. He tossed me a white envelope with a rubber band. It was filled with twenties, almost a thousand dollars’ worth, and I couldn’t help but imagine the smile on Jane’s face when she fingered the bills.

“Why so much?” I asked.

“I probably owed you some back pay,” he said and I raised my eyebrows. “Don’t let those unpaid bills fool you,” he said. “I’m rich. Also, just so everything’s on the table, my GPS is busted. I need you to flag until I can get that bastard that ripped me off to fix it.”

“So flagging wasn’t just a trip down memory lane?”

“Hell it wasn’t,” Zach said. “Didn’t it feel like old times? Didn’t you have fun?” I didn’t answer him, but it was true. I smacked the envelope against my thigh, said thanks. “No need for thanks,” he said. “You’re gonna buy me a couple rounds before the barbecue.” Then he sniffed the air. “You smell like fucking herbicide.”

We stopped by Clemens’ Bar and some of the drunken, retired farmers walked by and smelled my shirt. “Ain’t no weeds gonna grow on you, Youngblood,” one laughed, exhaling stale beer and cigarette smoke.

Zach told them I was the best damn flagger in Audrain County and they nodded and turned serious. “Had a friend who flagged,” one said, patting me on the shoulder. “Got cancer. They was spraying real mean stuff. Doctors blamed it on the cigarettes, but he didn’t smoke except when he was drunk.”

“Sorry to hear that,” I said.

“It don’t matter,” he said. “He was gonna die sometime. I’m just saying. I hope things changed since then.”

“It’s just part-time work,” I said and took a drink. I bought the man a round but we ran out of things to say and turned our attention to the Cardinals game. The new stadium was filled and some kid named Reyes was on the mound. The old men traded Mexican jokes, said, “He’s diggin’ into the mound like he was born for it,” said, “It’s so hot in St. Louis today, a man can’t help but get a wet back.” Reyes threw shutout inning after shutout inning. Zach tapped my arm in the bottom of the seventh and we stood to leave. “Kid can pitch,” he said as La Russa decided to pinch-hit for Reyes.

 

Zach dropped me off and Jane was out of the house yelling about something before I even had a chance to say goodbye. The sun was just beginning to set, a long summer sun, and I stared at it and let Jane’s words pass me by.

“Awww, shove it, Jane!” Zach yelled, and even though she scowled at him, it turned into a smile. Zach revved the engine and backed out of the drive, his arm out the window, middle finger exposed to the sky.

Jane tramped through the dry grass without shoes, her sundress flapping about her knees, her splotched legs pumping in and out of view. “You gotta clean the boy up ’cause I need to shower and get ready,” she said, walking straight up to me. “You smell like chemical,” she added. “Wash your hands before you touch him.” She turned and plodded back the way she’d come.

I washed my hands at the kitchen sink and changed our son’s diaper. Then I soaped my hair and underarms and stripped down to my underwear, trying to make as little mess as possible while Jane showered. I picked up my chemical-soaked clothes in one hand and perched the baby on my hip with the other, letting his soft skin meet mine, his little hand perched just below my chest in a clump of black hair as we walked to the bedroom to change.

Jane came out of our bathroom a throwback to the stunning girl I’d married. She still fit into her slim Wranglers, which molded to the curve of her hips. And she wore a flower-printed cowgirl shirt tucked in tight so that her chest pushed the fabric away from her body. I knew it was more the work of the bra than her breasts, which had given way to gravity, but none of that mattered. She was beautiful. She let her hair down for the first time in as long as I could remember, a straight cascade running to the middle of her back, and gave herself bangs, which covered her tight, tanned forehead and softened her face.

I imagine that moments like these are when a husband falls back in love with his wife, when he grabs her passionately and tosses her on the bed to make wild love. But I’d placed our baby boy on the center of the bed, where he napped silently. And I suspected that if I grabbed Jane and tried to romance her, she’d push me away and say, “I don’t need you mussing me up right now.” It’s the sort of thing she’d said before. At the time, I’d laughed because it made sense but now I know that that was the beginning of our decline, that what began as solid reasoning turned into dull living, and that once logic ruled our marriage, Jane and I never stood a chance. I tried to save us by convincing her to stop taking the pill, but I’d been fooling myself, and had only prolonged our misery for the life of a child.

“Is that what you’re wearing?” Jane asked.

I looked down at my outfit—jeans, boots, and my best plaid-printed snap shirt. “Well, I don’t look as good as you, Jane. You look beautiful.”

I tossed her the envelope of twenties. Her eyes widened as she looked inside, and she turned to me openmouthed. “How much?” she asked, the breath almost gone from her voice.

“About a thousand.”

“We gotta get you some new clothes,” she said and came over and sat in my lap and stroked the hair at the side of my head and kissed me full on the lips. Then she went into our closet and grabbed a cowboy hat. “Here you go, pardner,” she said, tossing it to me. “Put that on.” I tilted the hat on my head and Jane placed another lipstick kiss on my cheek and sashayed out the door with the cash. I picked up the baby and stood before the mirror. I think at a certain point men always see their fathers staring back at them. I half-wanted to apologize to my own son for this, but instead I grabbed his travel bag and bassinet and met Jane in the truck.

 

The barbecue was in full swing by the time we arrived. A tent had been put up, perhaps in the hope of rain. A flat, barren patch of dirt served as the dance floor. Jane and I found a table underneath the clear blue-black night, and she made a trip to the troughs of beer and tables of boxed wine to mingle with old high school friends. I watched her down two glasses of wine in the time it took for me to feed our son his bottle. She returned with a beer in each hand and I went for a plate of food. The party had already become a microcosm of our life: passing our son back and forth while running away from one another.

I noticed Zach at a table with Bill Keating, carrying on a conversation while tuning his guitar. Bill seemed unimpressed but humored Zach. I knew then that Zach and Laura wouldn’t be an item for long. Even Zach couldn’t charm a hawk like Keating. Laura was standing off to the side in conversation with a girlfriend, and remembering Zach’s description of their escapades, I admired her from afar. She was rounder than Jane, with curly blond hair that cupped her cherub face, her pink cheeks. Everything about her was soft; she had none of Jane’s hard lines. Her gestures were small and graceful. Zach finished tuning, tipped his hat to Keating, and grabbed Laura around the waist.

His band was mediocre, Zach more caterwauler than singer, but people danced all the same. And when a neighbor offered to watch the baby, Jane and I two-stepped for the first time in years—me stumbling along like an oaf as she led. “Still not much of a dancer, are you?” she said when we sat down. The alcohol had taken the playfulness from her voice. I rubbed the soft yellow hairs of our sleeping son. Jane turned away and looked into the distance as she drank a beer.

Zach excused himself from the stage after a while and let the others play some bluegrass. He came over to our table and we applauded as he approached and he pretended to wipe sweat from his brow. “Gets boring up there,” he said and sat down between us.

“You were great,” Jane said in a boozy warble and leaned in close. “Also,” she said, unable to keep her voice a whisper, “thanks for the cash.”

“Don’t thank me,” Zach said loud enough for me to hear. “I didn’t do the work.”

“I suppose it doesn’t matter where it comes from,” Jane said and took Zach’s hand. “Let’s have us a dance to celebrate.”

Jane and Zach blazed the ground with a fast two-step—her hips moving to his slightest touch. I clapped along with a large group of others when the song finished, but instead of calling it a night they stayed out for two more, the third a slow song. Jane, who had a friend bring her a glass of wine while she danced, let herself fall into Zach and rested her head on his chest. As he spun her around, our eyes met and he gave a slight toss of the head, as if to say, “What can I do?” But Jane, she was oblivious.

Laura Keating walked by my table and before I realized it, my arm had reached out and brushed hers. “How ’bout a dance, Laura?” I said.

Her sweet face beamed down at me. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “Yeah, sure.” Then she motioned to the bassinet on the table. “What about him?” she asked.

I’d forgotten about our son, sleeping beside me. “He’ll be fine,” I said and took her hand in mine.

We found a spot next to Zach and Jane, and Zach joked about me stealing his girl. Jane looked perturbed, not so much because I was dancing with Laura, but because we’d disrupted her dance with Zach. Laura didn’t bury her head into my chest, but she didn’t shy away and my right hand was excited, perched on her hip, the fault line where jeans met shirt. I spun her and she laughed and came back to me, her chest almost meeting mine. Zach spun Jane in response, but the alcohol had made her woozy and she stumbled back before he perched her upright. “No more of that,” he laughed, and Laura laughed along with him.

I looked at Jane’s distant eyes and wanted to be anywhere but there. I looked over Laura’s shoulder to the table where my son slept alone, wrapped in a blanket, the candlelight flickering over his chubby face. I worried about the flame. I worried he would forget about me. Did I think that the world would protect him? That sometimes the wolves leave the sheep alone? I wanted to run to him, to cradle him, and take him far away, but I just clutched harder at Laura, squeezed her hand, and balled her shirt in my fist, trying to focus on her uncomfortable smile.

The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story PROPER BREATHING

Hunkered down in his cellar, Trevor practiced what Mr. Contellini had said. When you reach for the high notes, imagine you’re pinching a lump of coal between your butt cheeks. Tighten your muscles and squeeze so hard you could change the lump into a diamond. When you stand, imagine you’re a marionette dangling from a string. Pretend the string is tied to the center of the ceiling and also to the center of your head and that it twists around your backbone, suspending your body in a state of perfect posture. Chest forward, shoulders down. Stand tall. Now sing like that.

When school was in session last month, Mr. Contellini had taught Trevor the exercise where he lay on his back and lifted a five-pound dictionary on his stomach. This was supposed to help him learn how to properly breathe. If Trevor inhaled deeply, not just shallowly in his chest, his lungs ballooned and took up extra space within his rib cage, forcing his stomach to pooch up over the waist of his pants and raise the dictionary an inch or so higher. Mr. Contellini had shown Trevor how, if he pressed a fist into his belly, he could make more breath and sound come out of his mouth than he’d ever thought he was capable of producing. He could sound like St. Veronica’s church choir or like angels in Christmas movies, pure and haunting, with perfect pitch. In the final months of seventh grade, Trevor had hung out in the music room a lot to avoid the playground during lunch. He had stayed after school, shaking spit from the plastic recorders and dusting the xylophones because he’d gotten cut from the traveling track team and didn’t have the guts to tell his father. “Relax and pretend you’re sniffing a rose,” Mr. Contellini said, running his fingers through his silver hair or jotting a note in the blue book he used to record ideas for vocal warm-ups. “Then exhale like you’re breathing through a candle you don’t want to blow out because it’s your darkest hour and you need a light by which to see.”

Now it was mid-July, and lying on a cot in his basement, Trevor could relate to wanting a light somewhere in the heavy dark of things. His basement felt like a cave, cobwebs in every corner, walls of mud and slate. Pipes gurgled and hissed, dripping a dark brown liquid onto his forehead. Even though the temperature outside was a blistering ninety-four degrees, the air around him was cool and smelled of dense, moist earth. The twin windows, high above his head, showed only the grass that grew against the panes, and somehow the low ceilings and echoing space made his voice sound richer, even better than in the shower. On the first day of summer vacation, Trevor had set up a practice studio with a cot, a pitch pipe, a canteen of bottled water. Every morning, for the past five weeks, he’d descended to the basement where he sang scales until his throat hurt or practiced diction, repeating tongue twisters like “selfish shellfish” or “hemorrhoidal removal.”

He exhaled dramatically, starting with a high-pitched squeal and letting his voice plummet through lower, deeper ranges. The air spilled out of him and the dictionary on his stomach sank.

“Pipe down,” his father yelled from upstairs.

“Vocal chord warm-ups,” Trevor called back. “I’ll try and keep it quiet.”

But his own sound never annoyed him. It lifted him up. It made him feel light, but also big, and he imagined his voice leaving his mouth as vapor and changing colors as it rose through the darkness, blue or red, depending on whether he was singing loudly or softly, using his head voice or chest voice.

Tired of practicing, Trevor put on his headphones and listened to Arlo Guthrie. It was 1989, and kids in the neighborhood were wild for Madonna, Milli Vanilli, Fine Young Cannibals, New Kids on the Block. But Trevor wasn’t afraid of being different. He was afraid of going upstairs, where the kitchen table was covered with pill bottles and syringes, doctors’ phone numbers and rolls of gauze. The day before school ended, Trevor’s father had come home from the hospital without a lung. This was the second kind of cancer he’d fought in two years. Trevor’s mother blamed Agent Orange. Up until last year, Trevor had thought Agent Orange was a Russian spy who wore sunglasses and a trench coat and carried strategic weapons, like laughing gas, in the pockets of his pants. Each time his history teacher said, “Vietnam was a debacle,” Trevor envisioned his father waging fierce battles against Agent Orange in the rice paddies of Asia, unsheathing a stun gun to elude Agent Orange’s capture or sprouting a propeller from his helmet in order to fly free of Agent Orange’s grip.

Trevor could hear his father bumping around upstairs. His father said “Chrissake” to no one in particular, then spoke in a gentler voice when he called Trevor’s mother at work to ask her what he should have for lunch, an English muffin or a rice cake. Some days his father hobbled down the stairs to check on him, and Trevor raced to the back of the basement, where he couldn’t be seen from the bottommost step. “I’m busy memorizing ‘Alice’s Restaurant,’” Trevor would say. This was the longest song he knew, the song which bought him the most time alone, unbothered. In this way, Trevor managed to avoid one or two awkward encounters with his father each day. But today he hadn’t heard his father’s slippers padding down the basement steps or seen his father’s hand choking the wooden railing. When he opened his eyes, his father hovered several feet above his cot. His father’s brown robe draped open at his chest, melted butter-colored spots dotting his undershirt and boxers.

“I’m practicing breathing,” Trevor said to his father’s floating face. “If the dictionary doesn’t rise, I’m not breathing with my diaphragm. My breathing’s too chesty. Air’s not filling me up.”

“You look like a skinny Buddha,” his father said. “Your concentration’s frightening.”

Trevor’s father asked if he wanted to get some sun, and Trevor said no and went back to doing what he was doing: breathing in, then breathing out.

“You don’t want to see what those Harvey boys are up to?”

Trevor shook his head. His father turned and mounted the stairs. His robe swayed across the back of his vein-webbed calves. Halfway to the top, he turned around. “Meet me in the yard in five minutes. And get the bat,” he said. “We’re practicing hitting.”

 

Trevor found the bat in their garage along with the life preserver they used as home plate. He dropped the life preserver in front of the makeshift backstop, a woodpile. His father came outside wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt. His skin was gray. He no longer had eyebrows. This was weirder, Trevor thought, than the fact that he was bald. Lately, Trevor was aware of eyebrows everywhere he went, who had them, who didn’t, their texture and color and shape.

Trevor didn’t swing at the first ball his father pitched, a high and wide riser, an underhanded throw. Pitching seemed to knock his father off balance.

“You all right?” Trevor asked.

“Line up your knuckles. Keep your eyes on the ball.”

Trevor tried to correct his grip, sliding his fingers up the throat of the bat, squeezing harder.

“Relax,” his father said. “Watch those chicken wing elbows.”

Trevor swung and knocked a ball into the road. The next pitch, Trevor swung and missed. He picked up the ball and lobbed it back to his father. The ball fell short and rolled to his father’s feet. “Really put your body behind it,” his father said, and Trevor said, “That’s what I’m doing. I’m really trying to do that,” and in another smaller voice added, “You should put your body behind your pitches, too.”

They couldn’t end on a bad hit. That was the rule. Trevor popped a foul ball into his mother’s garden, and when he asked his father if it was good enough, his father said, “Nope.”

“Step into the pitch,” his father said. Trevor tried to relax, thinking of shifting his weight between his legs, rotating his hips. He fixed his eyes on the ball. When he swung at the next pitch, he hit it head on. The ball hit his father’s chest. His father grunted and collapsed onto his knees. For a moment, Trevor couldn’t move. He felt gutted and weak. His throat wouldn’t swallow. He couldn’t stop staring. His father put his hand in his mouth and bit down. Then he must have seen Trevor’s face because he removed his hand from his mouth and said, “I’ll be all right. Give me five minutes. Why don’t we pack it in?”  His father stuck his hand back into his mouth and bit down harder. “All right?” his father asked through his teeth. When Trevor said nothing, he said, “Buddy?”

Trevor walked to the front door, peeking back over his shoulder. His father hadn’t moved. In the kitchen, Trevor opened the freezer and pulled out a frozen bag of peas. He left the peas on the kitchen table next to the prescription bottles, so his father would notice them and ice himself when he came inside and took a painkiller. Then Trevor slumped downstairs to the basement, where he stood on his cot so he could see through the windows into the front yard. His father recovered his posture. He seemed to be catching his breath, and Trevor watched him remove his hand from his mouth and pull away the other hand, which rubbed the sore spot where the ball had struck him. His father tossed a ball above his head and tried to hit it with the bat. The ball rainbowed over the apple tree and dropped into their neighbor’s yard. Then his father threw the bat on the ground and kicked it.

Trevor had almost killed his father with his first and only hard line drive. He’d always dreamed of beating his father in a game of blackjack, or at bowling, but he didn’t want today to be the day he started beating his father at games for good.  To distract himself, he put on his headphones and tried to remember his proudest moment from seventh grade. It had happened one afternoon in May. He was wiping eighth notes from Mr. Contellini’s blackboard. In the music room, he was surrounded by cymbals and banjos, posters of Peter, Paul, and Mary and Joan Baez. When Mr. Contellini wheeled his wife into the room, Mrs. Contellini looked nothing like the picture of her on top of the music room’s piano. In the photograph, she kneaded dough and smiled at a camera, wearing pink lipstick that made her lips look bright and full. In person, her face was a droopy mask. Her mouth yawned open, and she couldn’t stand or move her fingers. Her skin was too big for her skeleton, and Mr. Contellini pushed her chair toward the blackboard because her hands were too soft to turn the wheels.

“Meet my apprentice,” Mr. Contellini said to his wife, gesturing toward Trevor.

Trevor waved and scrubbed the blackboard more dutifully than before.

Mr. Contellini wheeled his wife closer to Trevor and said, “Trevor, this is my wife, Antonia.”

Trevor peeled her hand off her lap and squeezed it and then dropped it. He left chalk prints on her thumb, which felt like it didn’t have any bones.

“He’s the one I told you about,” Mr. Contellini said, “the one with the voice like angels.” Mr. Contellini knelt beside his wife’s chair and looked up into her eyes. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped something from the corner of her mouth. Then he turned back to Trevor and said, “She’d like to hear you sing.”

Trevor suggested “Feeling Groovy.”

“How about ‘Danny Boy’?” Mr. Contellini said.

Trevor focused on landing softly on each note, not coming down too hard or heavy, too sharp or flat, and on letting the sound spill out of him like the breath that escaped his body when he slept. You couldn’t color a song with any phony feeling but when you sang a sad song you could think about sad things and make the notes sound better, truer, sadder. Singing to Mrs. Contellini, Trevor thought of the cocoons caterpillars cast over trees in summer after nibbling lacy patterns in all the leaves until they’re gone, and he thought of flowers without petals, fingers without bones.

When he finished the song, he stood in the music room’s silence. The string instruments hummed. He looked to Mr. Contellini for approval, and Mrs. Contellini closed her mouth and began to blink rapidly. Trevor was nervous she would cry on account of him. Her hands made a wobbly steeple against her chin. When her jaw unhinged, the bottom half of her mouth looked like a drawbridge reeled down after a tall ship’s passing.

“Lank lou,” she said.

Trevor nodded and reached for his wet paper towel so he could finish mopping the blackboard and then move on to polishing the piano.

The next morning Mr. Contellini caught him in the hallway, grabbed him by the shoulders, and nearly pinned him against the wall. “She hasn’t spoken out loud since September,” he said. “I thought it was gone, that skill, like walking or needlepoint.”  Trevor could smell coffee on Mr. Contellini’s breath and, looking up his nose, saw a thicket of black hairs. Mr. Contellini’s fingers dug into his shoulders, but Trevor felt giddy. Blood rushed to his head.

Trevor didn’t see Mr. Contellini’s wife again until the last day of school. She came to their concert in her wheelchair. Trevor stood on the bottom row of risers in his chorus black and whites. He thought, If she stands and walks across the cafeteria and steps around the sixth graders, sitting cross-legged on the floor, then my voice has healing powers; my lungs and pipes are magic. But she fell asleep during warm-ups, her head flopping over onto her chest. Trevor’s mother snuck in through the back door late and brought his father’s best friend, Buzz, and mouthed, “Traffic. So sorry,” and Trevor wondered if she understood how disappointed he was that Buzz was filling in for his father again. The chorus sang “This Land Is Your Land” and “Free to Be You and Me.” Mrs. Helgarty snapped a string on her guitar. Cassidy Sparrow, playing piano, had not practiced a single lick. Debbie Wheeler forgot the lyrics to her solo, and Trevor watched Mr. Contellini to see who would cry first. Trevor’s eyes felt sudsy, full of soap. Debbie Wheeler covered her mouth and said, “Oh my gosh!  Can we start all over?” Mr. Contellini dropped his conducting wand, and when he stood after retrieving it, his eyes were drippy, melting into his face. He wiped one eye with the back of his hand. Tears, Trevor thought. Those were definitely tears. When Mrs. Contellini awoke, the songs were all sung, and the school year was over.

 

Before Trevor’s father had met his mother at a bakery in Boston, he’d been a three-sport letterman at Malden Public High. In the fall, he’d run cross-country. In the winter, he’d played hoops. In the spring, he’d played baseball, hitting third in the lineup, manning second. He’d gone on to Berkshire State, pledging Kappa Sig and starting at small forward on a dark horse team that made it to the Division II Final Four. In the war, he’d piloted choppers and rescued bodies stuffed in bags. He’d come through in one piece, no bullet wounds, no shrapnel scars, his mind still intact, which was no small accomplishment, according to Trevor’s mother. If his father hadn’t been a tough guy, he most likely would have been a dead one. This was the point Trevor’s mother drilled into his head whenever he dumped on his father and asked her to repeat the story about the time she’d hitchhiked to Berkeley and slept on a school bus with Jimi Hendrix.

“Your father’s a bulldog,” she said, “but with the very best intentions.”

On Thursday night, Trevor’s father dragged him to Riverside field. In the backseat of the Chevy, Trevor pulled on his sport socks and cleats. His mother drove, and his father sat in the passenger seat and gave Trevor fielding instructions he was supposed to remember in his muscles. “Stand in the ready position. Don’t flinch when the ball hits your glove.”

Buzz came along for moral support and sat squished beside Trevor, his long legs folded up against his chest. Twice, Trevor’s mother looked over her shoulder and asked Buzz if she should scoot up her seat, and twice Buzz said, “I’m fine, Marcella. Don’t worry about me.”  Trevor didn’t worry about Buzz. When Buzz winked at him, his caterpillar eyebrows hopped above his eyes.

Trevor’s little league team was Glevins’s Vacuum Cleaner Sales and Services. Mr. Glevins was the coach. His son, Kevin, played first base and had biceps and blackheads more typical of a twelfth grader. Kevin batted first and knocked a fly ball over the center fielder’s head. Trevor batted last. His team was down 3-0 by the time he stepped to the plate. Bending his knees, he wished one strike was enough to send him back to the dugout. His father stood behind the backstop. The pitcher smacked the ball against his glove. Trevor tried to imagine the sound of his bat cracking the ball into the parking lot beyond the outfield, but his father broke his concentration. “Choke up,” he said. “No, choke down. That’s too high.”  Trevor swung at an outside pitch and missed. When the umpire called a strike, his father yelled, “Horseshit call. He checked his swing.”  Two more strikes, and Trevor slogged back to the dugout.

On the bench, Trevor heard his father sideline-coaching one of his teammates. “Nice and casual,” his father said, “don’t tense up your upper shoulders.”  At home plate, his father was breathing instructions down Kevin Glevins’s neck. One of his hands squeezed the top of Kevin’s bat. Players and spectators waited for Trevor’s father to stop interfering with the game. Kevin listened and nodded politely, but when Trevor’s father hobbled back behind the backstop, Kevin winked at his friends in the dugout, then rolled his eyes and pinched his nose and waved his other hand in front of his face.

In the final inning, a ground ball ricocheted off Trevor’s glove. Trevor followed the ball into right field and lost sight of it in the weeds. Everyone screamed, “Over there. Over there,” and pointed, and Trevor heard his father yelling, “Dammit, Trevor. Don’t quit now.”  Trevor glanced back at the spectators and, in his head, screamed for everyone to shut up and disappear.  His father stopped shouting, turned purple, and stumbled toward the trash bin. He coughed something pink into his hands. Trevor’s heart leapt into his throat. He stopped chasing the ball at the same time his mother jumped out of her seat and pushed through the packs of parents, siblings, and dogs. When she reached his father, she steadied him with one hand cupped beneath his elbow and wiped blood-tinted phlegm from his chin.

 

After the game, Trevor was afraid to go home. He didn’t want to be alone with his parents. Lately, whenever Trevor snuck upstairs during the day, he found his father catnapping on the couch, sections of the Boston Globe unfolded on his chest, the newspaper rising, falling, flapping with every shallow breath he took. In the parking lot, Buzz said he’d give Trevor a stick of gum if he named five players on the ’84 Celtics. Trevor said, “Larry, Curly, Moe.”  Trevor’s mother stood in front of the driver’s side door and told Trevor’s father he couldn’t get behind the wheel.

“Honey,” his father said. “Give me the goddamn keys.”

“You need to calm down,” she said. “I’m not going to let you drive.”

“Then I’ll walk.”

“I’m not going to let you walk.”

“Help me out here, Buzz,” his father said, holding his hands up to the sky.

Buzz said, “I’m sorry, Marcella. Maybe you should hand them over.”

Trevor’s father slid in behind the wheel. Nobody spoke. Trevor sat in the backseat and counted the stop signs his father drove through. When he’d counted five, he began counting houses with lights on in every window and, finally, he started looking for storage sheds and culverts he could live in when he ran away. He held his breath for all of Marlboro Street, seventeen houses long. Outside, it was darker but no cooler. Buzz knocked Trevor’s knee and whispered, “You win some. You lose some.”  Trevor pretended he couldn’t feel or hear him. When a pickup truck pulled out in front of them, his father jammed the brakes. The Chevy stopped short. Golf balls beneath the backseat rumbled toward the front. His father didn’t say a word, and Trevor studied his clenched face in the rearview mirror.

When they reached their driveway, his father brought the car to a stop in front of the garage. Buzz got out and said, “Adios, amigos,” saluted his father, and walked to his car. Then it was only the three of them. His father gripped the steering wheel. His mother rubbed his father’s neck. His father leaned into his mother and rested his head on her shoulder. The two of them stayed like that while cars passed on the road, shimmying over the ruts and potholes. Trevor hummed the loudest note he could sing without being heard.

 

That night, Trevor lay in his bed and stared at a string of white beads he’d strung over his bedroom window and a plastic Nerf hoop his father had nailed into the wall. He tried to practice breathing, but every breath was too throaty because his chest was too tight. When his mother knocked on his door and asked if she could come in, Trevor nodded. He felt his mattress slope where she sat on its edge. She smoothed out the bedspread where it wrinkled around her. His mother had the toughest hands Trevor had ever seen, thick and callused finger pads from playing the guitar forever. She could pick up hot pots and not get burned, prick her fingertips with pins, and they wouldn’t cut or bleed.

“You awake?” his mother asked.

“Just thinking,” Trevor said. When he was little, they played campfire in his room, shutting the door, turning off lights, draping a red tapestry over a single low-lit lamp. As they knelt around the lamp on the carpet, his mother played guitar and sang hippie songs, like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” or regular campfire songs, like “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” and Trevor always sang “my body lies over the ocean” because that was how he thought it went.

“About what?” his mother said.

“Do you believe that music can make things happen?” Trevor said.

“Do you?” she asked.

“I don’t believe in superheroes or superpowers.”

His mother frowned. “I’m sorry you’ve had to grow up so fast.”

“But I sometimes think,” Trevor said, “maybe regular people have powers and they’re not smart enough to use them. That’s why crap things are always happening.”  Trevor touched his lip. “I’m not going back to baseball,” he said. “Will you tell him?”

“He gets riled up. It’s not your fault. Everyone has rough nights out.”  She grabbed hold of his foot and squeezed it. “You know how much watching you means to him.”

“Will you tell him anyway?” Trevor asked.

 

For the next few days, Trevor only emerged from the cellar to eat or sleep. Lying on his cot, he imagined he was losing his soul. Not the soul within his body, but the soul within his voice. When he sang scales, his voice was tinny and flat, and when he sang “Alice’s Restaurant,” his voice sounded thin as if he had just been socked in the stomach and was trying to sing without a heart and without oxygen. He could feel the basement’s darkness sucking away his desire. He no longer wanted to practice breathing or impress Mr. Contellini on the first day of school or sing so majestically Mrs. Contellini would rise from her wheelchair, do jumping jacks and cartwheels. He didn’t care if Debbie Wheeler got the better solo at their fall concert and he wouldn’t cry if she forgot the lyrics and spoiled the show.

One afternoon, Buzz stopped by and prank-called the town selectman, whom his father called “a flaming liberal.”  The hollow sound of his father’s laughter made Trevor want to run upstairs. Instead, he plugged his ears with his headphones and listened to the Bob Dylan song about everybody getting stoned. Another morning his father called down from the kitchen, “If you want to practice bunting, you know where to find me.”  But when Trevor tiptoed upstairs he found his father sitting in a chair beside the window, watching the municipal workers patch the road. He didn’t seem to hear Trevor open the cabinet or turn on the faucet or nearly break a glass.

“Dad?” Trevor said. But his father didn’t move. “Would you tell me if it was back, Dad?” Trevor asked. Yesterday, he’d found his father sitting at the top of the basement stairs. His father had just returned from an appointment, and his mind was somewhere else, somewhere untouchable, zooming ahead to the future or back to his childhood. Now, his father sat in the same room, but Trevor didn’t know where his father was. He didn’t turn around or acknowledge Trevor’s question. When Trevor coughed deliberately, his father didn’t budge.

 

During the first week of August, his father called down the stairs, “Did I ever tell you about the time I met Johnny Most?”

From the basement, Trevor yelled back, no.

“You know who Johnny Most is?” his father said.

“Nu-uh.”

“The Celtic’s play-by-play radio announcer. You should know that. Get on up here.”     

His father sat on the couch, propped up by a pillow. His robe fell open at the waist. Trevor saw his boxer shorts and his stomach and the hole in his boxer shorts that opened to his penis. Trevor didn’t know where to stand or how close to sit, so he hovered in the doorway that separated the living room from the kitchen. Even from a distance, his father’s freckles were large and dull like the brown spots on old people’s hands. His father waved him closer. Trevor took two steps into the room.

“Most people don’t know this,” his father said, “but back when I was playing ball at Berkshire State we sent a real solid team to the Division II Final Four. Me at small forward, John Havlicek’s cousin at the post. At the point, a scrappy black kid straight out of the Navy. We played the Rochester Hornets in the semis, meat-and-potatoes boys from upstate New York. I had twenty points and eleven boards by halftime, twenty-one and thirteen on the game.”

“That’s good,” Trevor said, standing stiff.   

“I was magic that first half. Every shot I threw up found the net. Every rebound bounced my way. After ten-odd years of being a solid player on every ball club I’d every played on, I was the goddamn MVP. Every muscle did exactly what I told it. All eyes were on me. Best feeling in the world.”

Trevor stepped back and leaned against the door jamb. His father fell back into the couch and pantomimed shooting a basketball toward the fireplace, right arm extended toward the ceiling, a flick of the wrist, a wince of pain. “Still with me?” his father asked.

Trevor nodded.

“Atta boy. Remember I said Johnny Most?  Well, at halftime, we walked past a concession stand on the way to the locker room, and there he was, buying hot dogs. He said, ‘C’mere a sec,’ and leaned into me so I could smell the coffee on his breath. He said, ‘BC passed over a real ballsy, brainy player.’  That was it. I had to keep on walking. He was standing in a line. But it was goddamn Johnny Most—smoker’s voice, that million-dollar grin—a man who knows a thing or two about basketball, telling me I was something special.”     

Trevor wanted his father to stop staring through him as if the thing worth seeing lay on the other side. He thought about telling his father about his singing, how he’d broken Mrs. Contellini’s silence, and how, when Mr. Contellini had shaken him by the shoulders, his breath had stunk, too. Instead he asked his father if he wanted a glass of water. “Not now,” his father said. He waved Trevor off. Outside, the municipal workers returned with steamrollers.

“What happened next?” Trevor asked.

“After I talked to Johnny?”  His father rubbed his neck. “After I talked to Johnny, I went into the locker room and listened to coach. Coach said one strong half doesn’t win a ball game. We needed forty strong minutes. I started thinking about the best-case scenario, me scoring forty points, going on to finals. Maybe I could transfer to Holy Cross, get a scholarship. Second half, Rochester threw their best defenders on me and they stuck like glue. Hacked me, slapped me, stepped on my toes, whatever it took. I got mad when the refs weren’t seeing it. I was a hothead back then, not like you, got hit with a technical foul, then another. Was tossed from the game with eight minutes left. Yada yada yada. Two years later, I went off to fly helicopters over the jungles.”

Trevor said, “You still scored twenty points in a half. How many people can say that?  Not me.”

“Not yet,” his father said.

“No, Dad. Not ever.”

“Come here,” his father said. “Let me see you.”  He held out his hand and, when Trevor came to the spot where his hand was waiting, his father took his wrist and pulled him closer so they were looking eye to eye. His father’s grip was gentle. He looked Trevor up and down, taking in his shaggy hair, his Dylan T-shirt, his Indian moccasins, his frayed blue jeans. “Never say never,” his father said. “I didn’t hit my growth spurt until the summer I was fifteen.”

“No, Dad,” Trevor said, softly. “I’m not ever going to score twenty points in a half.”

His father’s sickness smelled like last night’s chicken dinner in this morning’s kitchen trash. Trevor tried hard not to wince and turn away.

 

“How much do you want it?” his father called from the couch the following morning when Trevor went upstairs to grab a snack.

“Want what?” Trevor asked.

“Whatever it is you want with your singing.”

Trevor stepped into the living room. “To be bigger and better?” he said. His chest tightened. He was no longer sure of what he wanted from his music.

“How much?” his father said, sitting up.

“I used to want it a lot,” Trevor said. “Now, I want it . . . I don’t know.”

“You have to really want it,” his father said. “If you’re not willing to fight for it, someone else will want it more and they’ll come along and steal it.”  His father stood, and the couch cushions maintained the lumpy imprint of his shape. “Do you really want it?” he asked again.

“I guess,” Trevor said.

“Not ‘I guess,’ yes or no.”

“Yes,” Trevor said.

His father motioned Trevor to come closer. “I’m gonna tell you something I’ve never told anyone, not even your mom. Remember this name: Chip Watson, Master of Mass Hysterics.”

“Is that a nickname?”

“Stage name,” his father said. He paused and stroked his chin like a real big thinker. “I was going to tell jokes, be a comedian, make people laugh about things people can’t laugh about but need to. Like losing friends and minds and jobs. Ever hear of gallows humor?”

Trevor said, “But Dad, it’s not too late.”

His father patted Trevor’s head, mussing his hair and smiling in the same way Mr. Contellini had in June when Trevor suggested perhaps his wife could relearn how to walk this summer or relearn to knit with yarn and needles.

“Wait here,” his father said. When he returned from opening his special drawer in the kitchen, he handed Trevor a newspaper clipping. It was an audition announcement for Youth Pro Musica Choir for Boys. Tryouts were on a Tuesday, less than two weeks away. Trevor held the audition announcement, terrified and thrilled.

“Stand there and give me the best song you’ve got,” his father said, pointing to a thin cone of light that filtered in through the windows. His father slumped back down on the couch in the part of the living room where sun didn’t hit until late afternoon and where shadows in the morning cast dark circles under his eyes. Trevor started to sing “Scarborough Fair,” beginning tentatively and faltering on the first high note, but then gaining steam and sounding more and more practiced, smooth, and pure. He was as far as the part about parsley and sage when his father slapped a couch cushion. “That’s not going to cut it,” his father said. “Louder. Clearer. Much more confident.”

When Trevor began again, his father said, “Don’t do that tapping thing you’re doing with your foot. It’s distracting. And figure out what you’re going to do with your hands, either behind your back or at your side. Pick one.”

Trevor began one more time, knowing he would cry. He could feel his eyes burning, his lungs shriveling up like old balloons. He thought of Mr. Contellini and his wife and how even a grown man couldn’t fight back tears at a concert when a person he loved was letting go of life a little more each second.

“Hey,” his father said. “Back up and start again. Try not to flare your nostrils.”

Trevor put a firm foot down on the carpet. “Stop,” he said. “Let me do it my way.”

“But you don’t know the world. Sometimes you look—” his father frowned—“like such an easy target.”

Trevor said, “But you don’t know how to sing.”  When Trevor closed his eyes, he imagined pinching a piece of coal between his butt cheeks, squeezing so hard he changed the coal into a diamond. He imagined a string tied to the ceiling and also to the top of his head and that five weeks of breathing exercises had stretched his lungs to the size of industrial-strength trash bags.

“Don’t laugh,” he said to his father when he finished visualizing and opened his eyes.

“Is that what you do?” his father asked.

“And then I do this,” Trevor said. He did his exaggerated belly laughing, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, and the warm-up where he buzzed his lips like the revving engine of a motorcycle, broom, broom, broom, and he searched his father’s face for a sign that maybe once, because he liked the sound of his voice, or the tickle of a small noise forming and spreading throughout his chest, he had done these things, too. Trevor decided to sing the song about the sound of silence because he liked how a song could be both beautiful to listen to but also sad to sing, and he sang it to a chip in the plaster above his father’s head.

“What?” he said afterward.

“Nothing,” his father said.

“I thought you said something.”

“It was nice,” his father said. “You sang it nicely.”

“Nice enough to make the cut?”

“I can’t predict the future,” his father said. “All you can do is compete.”

“But if you had to guess?” Trevor said. “If you were picking, would you pick me?”

“I think I might,” his father said. “I think you’d make it damn hard not to.”

 

They trained like this for the next week and a half, held mock auditions in the living room in which Trevor’s father played the role of choir director, throwing his hands in the air when Trevor’s voice cracked on a high note or putting two fingers in his mouth and whistling when Trevor sang especially well. One day after practicing, his father showed Trevor a golden plate from Thailand, an oil painting of a horse, pricey knickknacks around the house which, his father said, were “worth something in case anything happened.”

“I’m not going to remember that,” Trevor said. “You’ve got to stick around.”   

Another morning, his father said, “Come here and show me that left hook I taught you.”  He held out his palms, and Trevor said, “I forgot,” and his father said, “Plant your back foot. Untwist your torso. Show me.”

Trevor wound up and swung his left fist. Gently, at less than a quarter-strength, he knuckled his father’s palm.      

On the day of tryouts, he slicked his hair with tap water and a comb. He buttoned a church polo over his favorite tie-dyed T-shirt. His father wore madras golf shorts, which hung unevenly off his hips, but which he told Trevor were more “artsy and sensitive” than his dung-colored robe and sweatpants. The church where the auditions were held was made entirely of stones. The altar was lit by sunlight that streamed through stained-glass windows and left red and purple shadows on the floor. The organ itself was small but had tremendous bronze pipes which spanned from the floor to the ceiling. The choir director, Yolanda Gregor, asked Trevor to stand beside the grand piano and sing arpeggios and sight-read notes. Her single black eyebrow rose in an arch on her forehead as she said “ooh” and “yes” and “lovely” in response to his sounds and warm-ups. When it came time for Trevor to sing his tryout piece, he expected his voice to be swallowed by the large vaulted space, but instead his music, his words—Morning has broken like the first morning—echoed back to him, sounding so rich and pure he half expected the kneeling disciples in the stained glass windows to lift a finger in a salute or wave. His father sat on the edge of a wooden pew, elbows balanced on the pew-back in front of him, hands clasped together in a knot that hid his face.

 

In the Chevy after the audition, Trevor said, “I feel like a thousand bucks.”

“I’m not going to bullshit you,” his father said. “You were something.”

Trevor asked if they could go through the drive-through at KFC.

“Sure, Bud, anything to celebrate.”

“I have one more thing,” Trevor said. “I feel kind of strange about asking it.”

“Shoot,” his father said.

“Can you say ‘hemorrhoidal removal’ ten times fast?”

His father repeated the tongue twister six times before his words slid together. Trevor cracked up so hard he couldn’t breathe.

At the drive-through window, Trevor asked his father to ask the attendant for chicken strips and bottled water. He said, “Did you know the best nutrition for your voice is water?”

When they got their food, his father parked beside a dumpster with a view of an abandoned factory.

“Want one?” Trevor asked, holding up a chicken strip.

His father touched his stomach and shook his head.

“One more thing,” Trevor said. “If I make it, will you come to my concert in October?”

“That’s at least two months away.”

“That’s why I’m asking now.”

“We’ll see,” his father said.

“No, promise,” Trevor insisted.

“Buddy, don’t push me on this one, okay?”

Trevor swallowed a mouthful of food and looked at the deserted factory with its No Trespassing signs and razor wire. He decided not to look at his father until he apologized and promised to go. When this didn’t happen, Trevor imagined asking Mr. Contellini to adopt him, and Mr. Contellini saying yes, and his father feeling slighted, like Trevor felt now.

“The cancer came back,” his father said, “in my other lung.”

Trevor dropped his food into his lap. “But one is all you’ve got.”

“Yeah, well.”  His father flicked his fingers against the steering wheel.

“You can have one of mine,” Trevor said. He’d expanded them. Now they were bigger.

His father touched his knee. “That’s not how it works. I think you know how it works.”

“I think I’m going to upchuck,” Trevor said. He opened the car door and vomited chicken strips onto the pavement. Then he closed his eyes and started humming inside his head. He plugged up his ears with his fingers. He put his head between his knees. Buzzing noises filled the car, and his brain.

His father said, “I couldn’t keep it from you much longer.”  He touched Trevor’s back.

Trevor unplugged his ears. “I already knew. I couldn’t stand it.”

Trevor felt his father’s arm around his shoulder, pulling him closer across the console between the seats. Without meaning to, Trevor fit into the space between his father’s arm and rib cage. He could smell his father’s smell and could feel his father’s nose in his hair, resting there or smelling his smell, or both. As much as Trevor didn’t want to, there, pressed against his father’s ribs, he could feel the alternating swell and shrinking of his father’s chest and could hear a lisping noise rattle through his father’s body. If his father’s lung stopped working, he would be the first to hear it quit.

“You’re braver than I knew,” his father whispered, “staring down such a big secret alone.”

When Trevor started to cry, his father’s grip tightened around his shoulders. Trevor dug his nose deeper into his father’s ribs. When he sniffled, his nose squashed against his father’s skin and bones and hurt. But he wouldn’t let go. He held his ground. He clung on tighter, daring his father not to pull away first.