ORBITAL DEBRIS

Fall 2014 / Issue 96

Jennifer S. Davis

I

 

Something about the boy was strange. Not just the way he looked—the sallow skin, the tenebrous owl eyes, the black hair that slumped across his bulbous forehead—but how he moved as he poked about the field behind their neighborhood, his gait brittle, the stick he gripped in his palsied hand twitching like a dowsing rod. Every morning this summer, Addie watched the boy wander in the knee-high grass of the field while she sipped coffee on her rear patio, designed in the New Orleans Courtyard style she’d chosen from the builder’s options when she and Hal bought the place.

It had sounded so delicious then—a French-inspired hideaway to soothe the soul under the wide expanse of stars, your own secret garden. But the market crashed and the money and buyers dried up before the remaining phases of the residential development could be implemented. More than a few of the faux-Craftsman homes were empty—some never purchased, others foreclosed. The cleared field behind Addie’s home, which was intended to boast the pool, community center, and playground, had gone to seed, as Hal used to say, fond of using his farmer’s colloquialisms, although as a concession to her the closest he’d come to farming in the ten years prior to Addie putting him in the ground had been to thumb morosely through Progressive Farmer at the kitchen table, and God forgive her, Addie was grateful for that.

The boy was there now, in the field, the dark gloom of clouds gathering in the east hulking over his form like a reatomizing superpower villain, the kind of unsettling illustration found in the comic books Addie remembered schoolmates wedging in their textbooks so many decades ago. The grass writhed around the boy’s branch-thin thighs, the storm coming in fast as they tended to do every afternoon, the year’s El Niño slamming their corner of Alabama with record levels of rain.

But the boy did not seem to notice the threat above him. He plucked through the field, unsteady on his feet, poking his stick at this and that. Occasionally, he would squat to study the ground, and in those moments, he was completely consumed by the roil of grass: it was as if he’d vanished.

Addie often wondered if the boy’s mother knew how her son, who looked to be no more than twelve or so, passed the day. Addie had seen the woman only at a distance, hauling her trash bin down the driveway or  lingering by the mailboxes staked at the end of every quaintly named street—Cottage Lane, Dogwood Trace, Magnolia Pass—picking through her mail. If the boy’s mother had a husband, Addie had never laid eyes on him. Given the boy’s sullen posture, his brooding stare when he caught Addie observing him, she suspected that the father was dead or just gone. What else but that kind of pounding sorrow would allow a mother to give her boy to a field gone wild, would permit a mother the ignorance of not knowing that at this very moment that boy stood alone under the glare of a fierce storm with no intentions of escaping it?

The rabbits were starting to stir, and they leapt en masse past Addie’s patio. The rabbits were another silly idea from the builder, a queer bucolic touch for a scab of houses wedged between a Walmart and a dilapidated mall. With few natural predators other than the restless housecats who escaped their foyers on occasion, the rabbits did what rabbits do: multiplied. Their pebbly shit studded the sidewalks; it was impossible to take a stroll without soiling one’s shoes. Mounds of rabbit shivered on too-green lawns, watching unblinkingly. Hal, who had been unable to parse the purpose of decorative rodents, once struck one across the head with a potting shovel for habitually shitting on their patio. Addie had watched from the kitchen window; the rabbit did not even think of moving when Hal raised the shovel, could not seem to comprehend that the world might be bent toward necessary violence.

It wasn’t right, Addie thought, to breed the wild out of the wild capriciously. But even now the tremor-eyed rabbits knew what was coming. They stormed the lawn, hopping into bushes, under the latticework of porches. Addie stood, her knees protesting the abrupt movement. “Get out of that field!” she yelled at the boy, the volume of her voice swelling against her cheeks. “You’re going to get yourself killed.” She waved her hands, beckoning him to her patio.

He must have heard her. His head pitched up. His ears cocked. He stared straight at her, his big eyes moons. The black was on him now, the sky preparing to cleave, lightning severing the clouds. The boy hesitated, gripped his stick as if he intended to ignore her, jabbed at something at his feet. And then the sky ruptured, the winds tearing Addie’s coffee cup right off the table, her newspaper scudding to the ground, the brightly colored pages levitating around her calves. A finger of light reached out toward the boy, a perfect spear of lightning, and like a shock cord, it retracted just before it touched him, lassoing back up into the clouds.

Addie had never seen him move quickly before, not like the other kids who played basketball in the alley or scootered around on their wheeled contraptions. No, the boy generally maneuvered like an octogenarian, his legs buckling beneath him, the joints of his body bending at bizarre angles, a little, geriatric-looking Pinocchio.

But the boy was running toward her. Fast. The wind whipped his longish hair into a ducktail; his wet T-shirt stuck to his body like a caul. Even from a distance, Addie could see the boy’s ribs beneath the fabric, each slash of bone. Then he was standing not three feet away, waiting hesitantly at the patio step, just outside the protection of the awning. His thin chest heaved. The veins of his neck jerked. His owl eyes ballooned. He seemed slightly inhuman, some creature the storm had conjured. A horrible thought struck Addie: one day this boy will be a man, his ugly body hovering over some woman Addie could not help but see as unfortunate. And that unwelcomed image—the grotesque angles of his matured face, the eyes like small, raging animals caged in his sockets—shivered her spine; the truth of it, that she’d thought it at all.

 

II

 

When Vivek got home from the old lady’s house, his own home was silent; it smelled of rain and sandalwood. Barely past four, the house was pitch black, the drapes drawn against the soupy light. He found his mother in the living room that hinged the kitchen. She still wore her scrubs, bright teal and freckled with kicking bears in top hats. A fashion magazine draped her lap, unopened. Her profile—his profile—cut a dark, shadowy void. Her thumb and middle finger noosed the stem of a half-full wineglass.

She stared at the curtained window, the last breath of the storm pelting its panes. Vivek knew she hated it, the rain, the constant moistness, the promiscuous green growth of the landscape, the way everything seemed to ooze and seep, but for some reason, she refused to leave, refused to return to southern California where she’d grown up, where she met Vivek’s father, where they lived pre-children—if the family photo albums told any truth—a happy life before his father uprooted her for a job running the regional hospital where Vivek’s mother now worked as a nurse.

Vivek opened the window curtain to allow in what little light the day offered, then eased onto the sofa beside his mother, his thigh almost resting against her own. She blinked, her lashes, as long as spider legs, pinching together then fanning open. Her eyelashes and eyebrows were untouched by the gray that shot through her hair, as if they belonged to an earlier version of herself.

“I lost a patient,” she said.

“I’m sorry.” Vivek thought to hold his mother’s hand, but even as young as he was, he understood that the gesture would be too jarring in its strangeness, what little language of touch they’d known lost to them since his father’s death the year before. They sat together for a moment, both staring out the window at the neat line of spindly, young oaks bordering the sidewalk in front of their house, which they moved into after his father died, his mother in search of a sterile newness, a blank slate.

“A girl,” his mother continued. “She was talking—about some TV show with dancing hippos—and then she wasn’t. She closed her eyes, and that was it.” His mother turned to him when she said this, her face so vulnerable he could barely look at her without feeling the familiar rage punch from his gut to his throat.

“Rice and steamed vegetables okay for dinner?” Vivek asked, unfolding off the couch.

“Sounds lovely,” his mother said, although he knew she would not eat more than a child-sized bite or two. And then, after she thought he was asleep, she’d sip wine in the dark silence. He could not understand it, his mother’s choice to work with terminal children, other than she found comfort in knowing with certainty the outcome of things. There’d been hope for his father, torturous hope for months, and still the end had been like all endings. There’d been none for the older brother Vivek never met, the teenager who died upon impact on an unlit country road, a case of empty beer cans scattered around his body in a loose constellation, the car, a graduation gift, accordioned against a tree, his girlfriend slung over a branch of the same tree, her blonde hair draping like Spanish moss. Or at least, this was what Vivek saw when he tried to imagine the scenario, which he did often enough to scare himself.

No, there had been no hope for Anaadi. Not until Vivek, a consolation baby—no one made a secret about his purpose—entered the world on the first anniversary of Anaadi’s death sixteen years ago. He was reborn, their usually unreligious mother insisted on the rare occasions she drunkenly collided with her living son in the small hours of the night, into Vivek’s own body, a frail and contorted vessel after a botched forceps delivery. If true, other than being a stupid teenager, what horrific thing had Anaadi done, Vivek often wondered, for Yama to punish him with such a body in his new life?

“What’s that?” His mother pointed at the metal detector he’d propped against the coat closet. It looked like a weed whacker.

“An old lady two streets over gave it to me. I ran into her house for a minute when the rain started.”

“Why would a stranger just give you that?”

Vivek shrugged. “She said she didn’t need it anymore. Said she didn’t want things to clutter up her house.”

His mother considered this, studying the contraption suspiciously. “Be careful,” she finally cautioned. “No one gives away things without an expectation of something in return.”

Vivek clamped the rice steamer closed. He’d become the lone cook in the house after his father died from pancreatic cancer, and although he had discovered no secret culinary talent, he liked the ritual of preparing food, felt a certain superiority over the other boys at school, boys who were obsessed with video games and sports and skateboards and flippable bangs. He’d always been different from them, but this distinction seemed noble, unrelated to his uncooperative limbs, which would never have allowed sports and skateboarding even if he had the interest. He did not.

“What would an old lady want from me?” Vivek asked, but even as he said it, he knew that in general his mother was right. No one had ever given him a thing without an expectation of something in return. An unexpected gift of a Snickers at school from one of the shaggy-bang boys had eventually cost him his trig homework, an unwanted kiss on the cheek from one of the skankier girls a peek at his physics exam. Even the sad gift of his body required that he share it with Anaadi when his mother so desired.

The old lady’s house had looked as if she was just moving in or about to move out. Packed boxes towered in the dining room. A widescreen TV rested on the floor. The only visible furniture in use was a table in the kitchen with a few chairs ringing it and a small couch in the living room facing a blank wall where the TV would have been in a normal person’s house.

He’d paused upon entering her home, eyeing the boxes, the bare dining room to the right.

“You moving?” he’d asked, his voice sounding strange in the naked room.

“Sooner or later.”

“If you haven’t moved yet, where’s the rest of your stuff?”

The woman shrugged, said, “I didn’t need it anymore. Probably never did.”

After she ushered Vivek into the kitchen, she fetched a towel and wrapped it around his shoulders, seating him at the table. She poured him some lemonade from a carton she pulled from the side of the refrigerator, then sat across from him, her scrawny hands fisted under her chin. She was tiny and birdlike, her blotched skin loosening at the chin, her nose so long the fleshy tip almost touched her top lip. She stared at him for a minute, runny green eyes narrowed. “I’m Miss Addie,” she said. Her accent, a muddied, old-fashioned drawl, was so thick it would have required subtitles if she were on one of those redneck reality shows.

“I’m not good with kids,” she said. “Never had any of my own.” Then she stood and limped over to a utility closet and retrieved the metal detector, shoving it toward him.

“This was my husband’s. He’d intended to hunt for Civil War nonsense—bullet casings and belt buckles and whatnot—but didn’t get around to using it. Maybe it will help you find what you are looking for in that field.”

“Maybe,” Vivek said uncertainly, but he could not resist reaching for the gift.

She cocked her head, her nostrils shuddering. “What are you looking for, anyway?”

This was what Vivek was searching for this summer: his brother’s class ring, the school mascot, a cartoonish tiger, prowling up the side, the center stone an oversized ruby. One lazy, early June morning it had occurred to Vivek that if what he owned belonged to Anaadi, then in theory, what Anaadi once owned should belong to him. So Vivek swiped the ring from his mother’s jewelry box, intending to keep it for just a day. At first, he slipped his hand into his pocket every few minutes; the ring felt hot to his touch, like a tiny organ pulsing heat. And then, he became distracted by the day’s project, a kite he designed and built himself, which he attempted to fly for hours in the grassy field behind his neighborhood, a childish pursuit he suspected would invoke a barrage of cruel taunts from his classmates if anyone saw him. But that was not a problem, because outside of school, Vivek never saw anyone except his mother. By the time he remembered to shove his hand into his pocket to check for the ring, he found nothing but a wad of kite string.

What he told the old woman, a lie inspired by a television program he’d watched by himself in the darkest hours of the night after waking from another disturbing dream: “Space junk. Orbital debris rocketing around the asteroid belt. Sometimes it breaks through the atmosphere. Bits of rockets and satellites.”

“Good Lord,” Miss Addie had said. “There’s junk in space, too?”

Orbital debris? his brother seemed to say now from one of the photo frames that rested on Vivek’s dresser, his sultry eyes those of a Bollywood star. Their mother had rewritten Anaadi’s modest achievements into epic feats since his death, but his looks required no exaggeration. He was the kind of handsome that made Vivek study his feet when it passed him in the school halls, overwhelming in its intensity, like staring directly into the sun.

Poor Vivek, Anaadi whispered sadly from his photo, but Vivek caught his brother’s faint snigger, and Vivek suspected, not for the first time, that his brother had been a bit of an asshole when he’d felt like it. He actually liked that about him. Boys who looked like Vivek—bug-eyed and bent-backed and perpetually preadolescent—were not permitted the luxury of assholeishness.

The top of the desk served as a shrine of sorts: pictures of Anaadi from diapers to graduation gown; a sterling silver rattle with Anaadi’s full name and date of birth engraved on the handle (there was no such rattle for Vivek); seashells Anaadi had collected from sands of the Gulf on a family vacation as a toddler. And, hidden beneath a photo of ten-year-old Anaadi in a Little League Baseball uniform, a picture of the blonde girl Anaadi had loved, the girl who’d been with him at the end. In the snapshot, she sits on the edge of a bed in purple-polka-dotted panties, her long hair tousled on her shoulders, her knees pulled to her chest and wedged inside an oversized T-shirt. She’s squinting hard at the photographer from under heavily made-up eyelids, her extended hand languidly shooting a bird, Anaadi’s class ring glaring from her middle finger like an angry, bloodshot eye. The look and the gesture seem somehow intimate, an invitation. Vivek had found several photos of the girl wedged inside his brother’s copy of The Call of the Wild, but he preferred this one the most. The edges showed the wear from his brother’s hands, and it made Vivek feel close to Anaadi—mysterious, fabulous, wonderboy Anaadi—to hold his girl in Vivek’s own.

Lila Grayson. That was the name scrawled on the back of the photo. Her last name was Williams now. He’d looked her up on Facebook, and it took a few minutes from there to figure out her current address one town over. He’d marveled at the image of her profile photo, how the tired woman in that picture could also be the glossy-skinned kid who’d once known his brother. Vivek had done the math; she would be well over thirty, almost double the age of the girl tucked into his dead brother’s book.

Last week he had taken his father’s car—a silver, vintage Mercedes his mother was saving for Vivek, though his sixteenth birthday had passed with no mention of when he might get his license—and driven to the adjacent town where Lila Williams now lived, circling the pocked roads for her address. The town was a string of doublewides and boarded storefronts, and after an hour of orbiting the same trash-strewn lawns filled with lanky, mud-kneed kids or knots of young men in low-slung pants with cigarettes pinched between their thumbs and forefingers, Vivek finally found Lila’s place—a small tract house with a patchwork of red clay and dead grass for a front yard. A pack of young children—all boys—ran wild. He parked the car next to the mailbox and watched, waiting, he supposed, for Lila to emerge through the dented front door, wondering how her life might have been different if Anaadi had not died. He liked to think that Anaadi’s death changed the course of Lila’s life. He liked to think that he was not alone. He waited until he could wait no longer, until his mother’s shift ended at work and she would soon be home to discover the missing car, and still, Lila never emerged once to check on her children, never even pulled back a drape.

Vivek caught his mother studying him often enough, her expression a mixture of wistfulness and mild distaste, to know she recognized nothing of her first son in her second, that she never once truly believed any remnant of Anaadi survived in Vivek. But at night, when he finally found sleep, Vivek sometimes saw Lila, the girl as his brother had loved her, and the details of her face—the mole that rode the rim of her upper lip, the freckles scattered across her slightly crooked nose—were so finely etched, the pressure of her lips on his so palpable, that when he first woke, her image still hovering in his mind’s eye, he half believed what he had witnessed was more memory than dream, that Anaadi’s soul, however briefly, burned within him.

      

III

 

Jacob felt like a tool, wobbling down the street on his daughter’s lavender-colored bike, his soaked clothes clinging to his skin, the ragged plastic basket that drooped from the handlebars funneling a spout of water straight at his left cheek. The plan had been to take the Camry, but when he finally worked up the nerve to pull out of his driveway a few hours before dawn, the car refused to start. It took him two hours to cover the ten miles in the rain, which pushed against him like an invisible hand.

He couldn’t remember the exact address of the old lady’s house. It had been pouring when he loaded her donations onto the Goodwill truck a couple of weeks ago—another part-time job that had not paid enough to cover even the electric bill—her house sheathed in rain. He’d been pedaling awhile now, circling the neighborhood, the large stucco homes so similar in structure and color, particularly in the night, that he worried he would never recognize the one where the bird-faced woman lived. The houses were monstrous in size—several so big they required two heating and air units. Some were silent as tombs, the owners probably off at their vacation homes to escape the summer heat. Others had yards littered with trampolines and miniature battery-operated Jeeps, porches crammed with SUV-sized strollers and bike trailers. What kind of work did these people do, Jacob wondered, to own so much stuff?

By the time the rain stopped and the sun began to emerge—a piss-colored smudge in the heavy-lidded horizon—he almost decided to cut his losses. And then he saw the planters on the front porch, two massive, ceramic bowls painted with navy blue fleurs-de-lis. He knew that the planters were plantless, filled only with dry, caked dirt, because when the old lady wasn’t watching, he’d put out his break smoke in one, embarrassed by the intense pleasure of the juvenile act. Jacob dropped the bike behind a row of drooping azaleas next to the house and crouched in the shadows of the two-story Craftsman, bile seeping up his throat.

Since he’d lost his job teaching phys ed at the elementary school during the last round of cuts, in addition to taking any job that came his way, he’d cancelled the landline and cable, pawned the TVs, the Xbox, the laptop, the crappy Walmart pay-as-you-go smartphone, listed his good tools on Craigslist, even sold his blood plasma. Still, there was not enough, and Sharla had been very clear in her terms the past weekend: Don’t come inside this house without rent money. He’d spent the last four nights sleeping in the car, waking at dawn to drive to the empty lot next to the old Piggly Wiggly, where he stood around with the other day laborers in hopes that some douche in an oversized, souped-up truck would choose him for the shit job du jour, which never happened. The younger guys and the Mexicans got picked first, more bang for the buck. Jacob felt like an aging hooker, and when he said as much to Sharla that first night when she came out to the car to torture him with another stack of bills, she snorted, said, “When a four-hundred-pound dude with titties bigger than mine sticks his hand down your G-string, we’ll talk.” Before they met, Sharla had stripped for a few years at a pretty tame tops-off-only joint, but the way she worked herself up about it, you’d think she’d been exploited by a ring of Russian sex traffickers.

Last night he was awakened in the back seat of the Camry by a persistent drip, the moonroof’s seal completely undone by age and sun exposure. He sat there for a long time, stripped to his boxers, the stringy heat of the old car unbearable. It was like sitting in a cow’s mouth. And then he understood—what he needed to do, the only thing he could do.

He chose the old woman because she had seemed so delighted to get rid of her things. She practically hummed when he hauled off a nice set of leather couches and a recliner to the Goodwill truck, spreading her arms wide in the emptied living room as if she were about to break out into a jig. Frankly, Jacob found her joy offensive to people like himself, people who were too panicked about not being able to put gas in the tank and food on their table to kick up their heels when the repo man came to haul their shit off. What was the difference, he reasoned, if he cut out the middle man and took her things himself? She wanted to donate to the poor, and God knows, Jacob was not much, but he was poor.

But standing here now, his face pressed to the old lady’s window, he wasn’t so sure. He’d never stolen anything, unless he counted beer from the stash his father used to hide in his ancient johnboat, and weed from friends in high school, a finder’s-fee pinch from a baggie here and there. Or, if he wanted to get philosophical about it—and Jacob did not—Sharla’s youth, which, according to her latest rant, had been squandered wiping the asses of his two kids.

He peeked inside the house. The old lady was nowhere to be seen, and he hoped that if she was home she was still asleep. A lady that ancient would surely sleep like the dead. He did not allow himself to consider what he might do if she were awake. Jacob spotted a wall of boxes and a large flat-screen TV perched in the foyer, a new collection of things apparently intended for donation. The TV alone would pull in at least four hundred on Craigslist. Then the obvious hit him: How was he going to carry a 55-inch TV on a bike? The panic—the cold clamping of his heart—nearly knocked him out. He pressed his cheek, raw from the hard rain, against the cool of the stucco.

Maybe, he considered, not all was lost. There could be some small stuff, jewelry or collectibles, in those boxes, things he could carry in the bike basket. He surprised himself by laughing at the thought of a man barreling down a county highway balancing a big-screen TV on his handlebars, the tone of his laugh harsh, and he wondered when his own voice began to sound like that of a stranger’s.

He would be less likely to be seen breaking in at the back of the house, which faced an open field, so he eased around the side, hugging the house as he moved, his wet, sneakered feet tripping over a paver brick, a ceramic butterfly, a garden hose, and then something soft, malleable.

Jacob looked down to find the furry belly of a small creature wedged under his heel; his foot jacked up reflexively, his shoe hovering over the animal in midair like a threat. The thing looked to be a rabbit, its eyes glassy and still. It stared straight through him, its narrow rodent mouth agape, the sharp teeth crooked and yellowed. Then it seemed to release a moan, a long, low keening.

Jacob jumped, nearly falling into the hedges, and by the time he steadied himself, he found himself at the back of the house, gripping a poorly molded wrought-iron fence that surrounded a brick patio, a wide field of grass in the distance, black clouds pressing down the horizon like a giant fist. And the moaning—it grew louder, closer, even though the dead or dying rabbit was now a good ten feet away.

Then he saw it, the woman’s body sprawled across the brick patio, a water-logged newspaper a few inches from an outstretched hand. He stared at her for at least a minute before he fully recognized her as human, as the source of the terrible sound. It was the old lady, her clothes matted to her skeletal frame, her hair a thin, see-through cap, her mouth fish-lipping the air.

At her feet, French doors winged open to the kitchen. The small dinette table that took up most of the eat-in kitchen was covered in what looked like stacks of photo albums and old papers, and next to those, a hand-carved wooden box, the kind of box in which people keep precious things. Jacob’s heart lurched instinctively at his good luck, and this response frightened him, because it took only the space of a breath to understand that he would not call 911, that in the end he would step over the woman’s body to enter her home, that he would avoid looking at the yellowed black-and-white photos spread on the table of the old lady when she wasn’t so old—when the thinness of her cheeks appeared pixie-ish and coquettish rather than birdlike, when the man he assumed was her husband still found her lovely enough to bury his broad face in the hollow of her neck—and he would reach for that box instead of the phone that hung from the wall. And later, back at his house, sitting, finally, at his own kitchen table across from his wife and kids, there would be much doubt and regret and sorrow. But in that exact moment—the moment he flipped the lid of the wooden box open to reveal a string of opaque pearls, a diamond engagement ring, and a man’s gold pocket watch—he felt only as if he’d been spared.

 

IV

 

The kids were like fucking animals. Animals. Not precocious. Not curious. Not energetic. Feral animals. Lila had tried to explain this to Trey, that the way things were going she might be dead by the end of the summer, and not metaphorically devoid of life, but straight up dead dead. She’d begged him to hire her some help, even a neighborhood girl for a few hours a week, but he’d laughed it off like silly nonsense, told her money was too tight, that she just needed to put her feet up now and again, take a nap if she could squeeze one in. If Lila closed her eyes long enough for a nap, she had no doubt that she’d wake to complete destruction. Tsunami-style devastation.

Trey still looked good in boxers, stayed sober most nights, and worked hard at his machinist job, but Lila couldn’t find anything else nice to say about her husband. She knew as much when she married him. What kind of guy calls a box of donuts and a 12-pack of Natural Light on a rusted-out tailgate a first date? But she’d been assaulted by a restless anger for a long time after the car accident, a rage that stemmed, in part, from the way the tragedy had defined her, her transition into womanhood, and her inability to say as much without the risk of sounding like a heartless bitch had only exacerbated her righteous self-destruction. She’d been overwhelmed by a want to punish—her friends, her parents, the world, herself. Trey, a good ol’ boy with a pickup truck and a gun rack and tepid blue-collar aspirations had seemed a fine way to do just that, and when he put his hand on the small of her back as she worked her way through the crowded redneck bar she frequented when home from college specifically because her father had asked her not to, she whipped around to face him, placing her mouth over his before he could introduce himself.

She was a year shy of her bachelor’s degree with no employment in sight when she discovered, a few weeks before the end of summer break, that Trey had knocked her up. Being jobless and pregnant and married, even to Trey, seemed a wiser option than being just jobless and pregnant. And if there had been other options, she had been too tired to consider them. Then Peter arrived—a squally mass of flesh—and Lila thought the baby would cement the deal, make her feel like a real wife and mother, fill her days with playdates and onesie shopping and misty baths where she would coo at the baby like serene-faced mothers on Johnson & Johnson commercials. None of that happened. She just grew weary and bored, her anger, at least, dulled by exhaustion. And then the others started coming, no matter how much birth control she pumped into her arm or gut, one boy after another, like goddamn rabbits, the youngest almost two.

Their junk multiplied, too. The house was littered with sippy cups and torn books and ride-ons and little honking cars and tooting trains. The yard was even worse: a disemboweled trampoline, a rusted-out swing set, dozens of sun-faded push toys and tire-deflated trikes. Sometimes Lila thought she’d be buried alive, just slowly sink into the mire of crap, and to tell the truth, she’d be grateful for the escape.

Wine, she recently discovered, helped tremendously. She wished she’d thought of it years ago. Trey didn’t seem to notice the drinking, and she was careful to buy cheap wine at Costco so that he wouldn’t notice the expense either. Over the last few weeks, she’d started a little earlier each day, just testing the waters. Today she didn’t even pour a bowl of Cheerios and make a show of taking a few bites; instead, she filled her coffee cup with merlot, then kept refilling it, the shrillness of the children’s squeals as they ate and dressed blessedly muted.

The rain had been ruthless all summer, and anytime the sky cleared Lila shoved the kids out the door and locked it behind them. They were out in the rain-soaked yard now, all five of them, terrorizing a neighborhood cat they’d treed. Lila knew she should stop them, but she also knew that there was no stopping them, and so she sipped her wine and watched for a moment as Peter, almost twelve now and hell-bent on turning mean, pegged the tabby with pebbles, his little brothers scrounging the ground for more ammo. Even the baby was scratching in the mud on his hands and knees, yelping in delight each time the cat screeched. She thought to yell at them to leave the cat alone, but instead she closed the drapes.

Lila settled deeper into the couch, the mug of wine resting on her belly, her free hand picking at the frayed threads of the floral couch. When she noticed a patch of dried food—most likely yogurt from the morning’s breakfast—she didn’t even think of rising to get a washcloth, and she didn’t feel guilty for not thinking of doing so either. She just shut her eyes, welcoming the stillness.

Lately, when Lila stole moments like this, her body almost floating with the buzz of wine, her mind racing in images—the slope of her own mother’s cheek from years ago, the white, downy hairs gathering the sunlight as she drove Lila to grade school; her friends from college sweating out their beer at a frat band-party, their long, wet hair lacerating their bony shoulders; Anaadi the night he died, sitting cross-legged in front of a bonfire they’d built, etching a cartoonish stick figure of her into the red dirt—she was certain that there must be many Lilas, all living their separate lives at once. Sometimes, she liked to think that if she focused hard enough she could find her way back to one of those other Lilas, that she could hit the reset button, but she suspected it wouldn’t matter much, that, eventually, she would find herself right back here on this very couch.

When she heard the knock on the door, she figured it was one of the kids, forever wanting something, and she waited a long moment before rising, savoring the velvety darkness of her eyelids. She stood unsteadily, holding her mug of wine to her chest as she moved across the cluttered room so the wine would slosh onto her old T-shirt instead of the carpet. She threw open the door, ready to respond to whatever request with an It’s-time-you-learn-to-do-it-yourself, and found herself staring at an Indian boy with bulging eyes and a slab of greasy hair paneled across his forehead. He stood too close to the door, almost inside the door frame. He smelled of dirt and grass. She almost slammed the door shut, but her kids were out there in the yard, and what kind of mother would she be if she considered only her own safety?

So instead she said, as tersely as she could, “What do you want?”

The boy blinked once, twice. “I don’t know.” He pistoned his wadded hands deep into his pockets. Stared at her shyly.

“You selling something?” Lila offered. She peered around him, as if he were hiding a clipboard or a box of candy bars. Behind him, her own boys had stilled. Only the baby crawled in crazy loops around the base of the tree, the cat still clutching to the same branch. Lila’s sons watched her and the stranger with naked curiosity.

“When you didn’t answer the door, I was just going to leave it on the step.” The boy gestured with his chin toward the ground, and Lila spotted a small object close to the toe of his boat-sized old-man shoes. It took a few moments for it to register that it was a ring, its wide band a cheap, cloudy gold. She couldn’t tell if the boy was making some kind of love offering or trying to sell her his mother’s jewelry to buy meth from one of the cook houses on their street. Either way, she wasn’t interested, and was about to tell the boy so in no uncertain terms when he unclenched a hand from his pocket and, without hesitation, touched his hot fingertips   to her face.

“You look older than yourself,” the boy said, like some retard or oracle. Then he jerked his hand away and turned to hobble down the grass-cracked walkway toward an old Mercedes, the bend of his hooked back that of an elderly man. Lila studied the ring at her feet, turning it with one big toe. It was gaudy and poorly made, the red gem only dull glass, the band so thin it razored against the skin of her feet. The sight of it made her angry. More junk. She swept it with her heel into the overgrown shrub for the kids to scavenge later.

 

V

 

First it was Addie’s heart—clogged arteries, an irregular rhythm. Then her lungs—reduced capacity—an afterthought of thirty years of smoking, a habit she regretted abandoning once she realized she would be punished for it anyway. After her knees went and her doctor doled out the assisted-living speech, Addie began giving away her things in preparation for the inevitable move: the heirloom china her mother gifted her when she married Hal; her formal dining room furniture, with the silk-backed chairs she painstakingly protected from Hal’s soiled hands for more than thirty years; and as soon as the Goodwill truck showed up again, everything else she could spare, including the TVs, with their incessant chants of economic doom and endless wars.

She had no children to whom she could farm out her things. There’d been a baby the third year of her marriage, a misshapen boy who never pinked up. The others died within her, a string of miscarriages throughout her fertile years, until, mercifully, her reproductive organs could not even ignite those weak flames. If Hal blamed her for their inability to have children, he never let on—a mysterious softness for a man who railed at her for allowing the chicken feed to mold or the morning paper to get wet—and with each loss, he brought her flowers, beautiful daffodils he left in a mason jar on the kitchen table. After the initial thrill of performing wife wore off, she found herself at twenty only dutifully fond of her husband. But she loved him with an indescribable love those mornings she woke to the daffodils.

She’d expected to experience some anxiety watching the men from the Goodwill haul her things onto the truck a couple of weeks ago when she made the first round of purging, unmoored without the familiar shadows of her household possessions. Instead, she felt strangely liberated, untethered to a past she had no recollection of deliberately choosing. She was also intrigued as the two young men tugged Hal’s leather recliner down the front steps: what must it be like, she wondered, to spend one’s time collecting the detritus of others’ lives?

She was dragging a box of dusty paperbacks to the front porch for the second scheduled pickup when she opened the front door to the boy, whom she’d only seen from a distance in the week since she’d taken him in during the storm, working the field for hours with the metal detector, its robotic burping loud enough to reach her patio. If the whole of America had the work ethic of that boy, she thought each time she saw him struggling through the field, we wouldn’t be in this economic mess. But there was something unsettling about his dogged obsession as well, a futility and desperation that made her look away.

The boy stood on her butterfly welcome mat, balancing a massive platter of cookies. “Nan Khatai,” Vivek said as soon as she opened the door, thrusting the platter toward her. There were at least two dozen cookies, all meticulously shaped, a whole almond pressed into each gut. “Now we’re even.”

“Your mother made these?” Addie said, not reaching for the cookies. How would she ever eat two dozen cookies by herself? Their presence alone seemed like an overwhelming obligation.

“No,” Vivek responded, but he did not appear inclined to elaborate.

“Come on in.” Addie surprised herself with the invitation. “I’ll need some help eating these.”

He lurched inside, his feet encased in cumbersome therapeutic shoes.

“Those don’t look too comfortable.” Addie gestured toward his feet.

“They’re not so bad,” Vivek said.

Vivek slid the plate of cookies on the kitchen counter. The plate appeared homemade, painted a neon green, like some kind of clumpy pottery a kid would bring home from school as a holiday gift for a parent. “The plate’s for you. For the metal detector.”

I have a plate, Addie almost said, irritated that no matter how much she gave away, how many boxes she stacked on her porch, things had a way of returning to her: a free can opener from the bank, a sample issue of a cooking magazine appearing unwanted in her mailbox, a new pair of silk pajamas left on her doorstep at Christmas, a gift from the Baptist church around the corner she’d been maudlin enough to visit once after Hal’s death. But it seemed important to Vivek that she accept the plate, and so she did.

“Thank you,” Addie said, and Vivek shrugged his uneven shoulders.

Addie poured them each a glass of milk, and they stood at the counter nibbling on the sweet, buttery cookies, both silent under the hum of the fluorescent kitchen lights. Addie knew she was not the best at small talk. She’d rarely invited the other farmers’ wives over for coffee and dessert when such things were expected of her years ago, and when she did, the weary-eyed women had filed into her dusty parlor in homemade dresses, their squawking babies and flesh-grabbing toddlers hoisted onto their wide hips, and they’d eaten their pie and sipped their coffee without much chatter, never asking for a second slice or a refill, excusing themselves for one task or another as soon as politeness allowed. Addie always thought that her lack of children made the women uncomfortable, reminded them of how random and precarious their good fortunes were, and those smug thoughts might have conjured up the guilt and fear that pious women steeped in day after endless day, the worry that surely all that good fortune could and should be taken away in a blink of God’s indifferent eye from foolish mothers ungrateful enough to enjoy a sense of superiority over a childless woman. It was easier to avoid such thoughts altogether.

When she said as much to Hal, he’d told her, “That brain of yours is a wild, strange thing,” but he quit pestering her to invite the other wives over, and Addie had grown to appreciate long, languid days of her own company, to deem others’ presence a distraction, so much so that she found herself unsettled by the tender surge of her heart at the forlorn sound of the boy lapping his milk in timid sips. What kind of boy sipped his milk?

“How’s that contraption working for you?” Addie asked. “You find some space junk?”

The boy smiled nervously, pulling a small bag from his shorts pocket. He dumped its contents on the counter: a few barrettes and other hair contraptions, a slew of bolts and nails, two paint-chipped Matchbox cars, a glass hypodermic needle that must have been close to a century old, a fishing lure, a half-dozen defunct lighters, and a mound of coins. No space junk as far as Addie could tell.

“Take your pick,” Vivek said.

“But I don’t want anything,” Addie responded, perhaps too quickly. The boy’s face clouded, and he snaked his hand toward the counter with the intent of sweeping his finds back into the bag. Addie caught his arm with her hand before he could finish, his flesh warm beneath her palm. Wordlessly, she picked through the mound of objects, finally selecting an old-fashioned metal hair comb that was covered in dirt but otherwise in surprisingly good shape, the kind she used as a young woman to pull her once-heavy hair from her face the way Hal had liked it.

Later, after the boy left, Addie studied that comb for a long time, thinking of the woman who must have worn it, of the man who might have admired the length of the woman’s nape with her hair swept up, what she might have been doing when she lost it, if she were still alive, and if so, if she was old now like Addie. She left the comb on the table and fetched the photo albums and her memory box from the cedar chest Hal had made—one of the few furnishings she did not have the heart to give away—and spent the evening poring over the aged photos and keepsakes, studying each snapshot like a clue, a possible answer to a question she couldn’t quite formulate, until she grew too sleepy to sift through the photos any longer.

That was yesterday, and now Addie could see the comb lying a few inches from her face on the patio brick, but she could not make her arm move to reach for it. Early this morning, on a whim, she’d cleaned the comb with dishwashing soap as best as she could and carefully positioned it in her hair, which could hold its weight only after she doused it in several layers of hairspray. Then she’d stepped outside on the patio during a gap in the rain to have her coffee and read the paper, and the next thing she recalled she was opening her eyes to sky the color of gunmetal, her clothes soaked, the comb just in her peripheral vision, her body no longer her own.

That was what she had been trying to tell the stranger, the sad-faced young man who’d been standing over her when she awoke—that she could not feel her arms or legs, and that it was such a strange feeling, to simultaneously exist and experience nothingness. But the young man had disappeared hours ago, and soon after, when the rain stopped for good and the sky finally blued, she heard Vivek, the irregular heartbeat of the metal detector throbbing the saturated air, the sound so comforting that when it stopped abruptly, she thought for a moment that her own heart had ceased beating.

When the metal detector didn’t start back up, she tried to turn her head to see if Vivek was still in the field, but her muscles refused to obey her brain, and in the end, it didn’t matter anyway. She somehow knew the boy had found what he was looking for, that he was gone. Addie was surprised to feel a pang of disappointment that she’d missed it, the moment he discovered that bit of metal the universe had spat out. How delighted Vivek must have been, holding a piece of the heavens in his hand! She could imagine it now, the boy standing in the tangle of grass admiring the treasure nestled in his palm, the way it glinted and blazed in the raw morning light, a tiny sun illuminating an unknowable world.