Every night my father took the path from the cemetery to our house. I could hear his footsteps in the garden. I pretended to be asleep while he looked for the stick that he used to hide in my closet. I left the door open for him and played an amusing game with him – he left his eyes in his grave and every time I hid his stick in a different place.
I watched him with half an eye until he gave up. Then he curled up on the floor, miserable and tired. I got out of bed, took his hand and walked him back to the cemetery gate before the people of the house woke up. He walked through the gate confidently and with assurance, and I watched him from a short distance as he disappeared among the graves.
I’d never thought of getting rid of the stick—by throwing it in the river, for example, or breaking it on the garden wall. On the contrary, I’d taken extra care of it since my father’s night visits began. After each visit I got rid of one of the scars he had given me with it. I had one on my right shoulder, one on my left leg, and many small scars here and there—some visible and some beneath the skin.
I had gotten rid of all but one scar that was left at the bottom of the list. I didn’t know where it was on the skin or beneath it. One last visit from him and it would all be over and I would have eliminated them all. This time I would leave him lying curled up miserably in the corner of the room for longer than usual. I might wait until dawn or until he swallowed his pride and asked me openly to escort him back to his grave before the sun came up.
But he didn’t come for three nights. His absence made me very anxious. Had he caught on to the game? Or had he given up hope of finding his stick?
On the fourth night I decided to look for him. Maybe he had lost his way or was having a long doze in his grave. But this would be his last visit to us and then I would leave his stick on top of his grave and he wouldn’t bother walking around at night dead and blind.
At two o’clock in the morning I left my room quietly, taking care not to wake my mother, who leaves the door of her bedroom ajar. Then I crossed the living-room and the garden and made my way towards the cemetery. I didn’t think about how I was going to persuade my father to visit us for one last time. I didn’t have any particular plan in mind. But what dead person doesn’t hope to be invited out for a walk at night so that they can breathe cool refreshing air?
At the cemetery gate I spotted two shadows moving in the distance. I couldn’t make out their features in the dark. I went closer slowly and watched them from behind a large tree. It was my mother laying into my father with the stick. My father was trying to avoid her blows but he wasn’t moving from where he was or making any noise.
From my hiding place I heard her say, “You bastard, I told you not to hit him on the head. Don’t hit him on the head or you’ll kill him.”
I felt my head and found a deep wound covered with dried blood.
A few minutes later the two of them were making their way towards the house with tired and heavy steps.
I went through the cemetery gate and disappeared among the graves sunk in darkness.
As soon as he saw his friend, who had just arrived from back home, in the airport arrivals lounge, he asked him, “Did you bring it?”
His friend gestured to the backpack hanging off of his shoulder as if he was waiting for this question. “You drove me nuts with all your phone calls asking me to bring you a handful of dirt. Do you think you’re the first person to move away from home?” He pulled a bag of dirt out of his backpack.
He looked expressionlessly at his friend who had just come back from the homeland and took the bag of dirt from him. He walked off silently toward the train platform.
He remained silent on board the train as well. He couldn’t hear the creaking of the train’s wheels or the giggling of the young redheads with septum rings or even the shouts of the lads cheering on their football squad. He was staring at the dirt-filled bag in his hands.
The people who walked past him quickly stared at him, thinking he was either drunk or asleep. Even when the conductor asked him for his ticket, he took his ticket out of his pocket and handed it to him without taking his eyes off the bag of dirt. The conductor pursed his lips and scowled as he placed the ticket back into his hand, which was still hanging in the air. It had been three years since he’d left home. In this new country, which would never be home, he’d faced all manner of difficulties. He had spent an entire year in a shelter for refugees and the past two years in a house that felt more like a hovel. He hadn’t had a chance to learn the language of this new place, he hadn’t made any friends, and he couldn’t find stable work that suited him. Days in this new city, which constantly kept him at arm’s length, passed slowly. He’d have gone crazy a long time ago if it weren’t for his mobile phone. His mobile only rang sporadically, but it was a good entertainer. When he dialed a phone number at random, he would instantly apologize: “I’m sorry. I dialed the wrong number!”
“Don’t let it happen again,” the angry voice on the phone would often reply. But it wasn’t a game that he could easily give up. He needed to hear another human being’s voice, if only for a few seconds.
The social services office in the city was pressuring him to get a job, but his first priority was to learn the language, even though there was no one to help him. One day he broke down in the socials services office in front of the social worker whose head looked like a ball with two blue eyes and a sharp tongue. “Please, I’m begging you, give me a chance to learn the language before I start working”.
He took a language class for three months. By the end of it all he could say was “I’m so-and-so, from such-and-such country,” and a few other sentences for everyday life.
Letters from social security began once again rain down on his cold, mute mailbox that only ever contained those dry and emotionless letters.
He had to take a job doing door-to-door advertising. He spent hours walking through the desolate, graveyard-like streets handing out flyers for restaurants, barber shops, and even sex workers. On Wednesdays and Saturdays he distributed the classifieds section too. His toenails turned black and then fell off. The dogs that barked on the other sides of doors as he tried to stuff flyers through the letterbox terrified him. A bitter taste in the back of his throat would nag at him as he continued his route. It wasn’t just the dogs. It was the dogs’ owners, too. They shouted at him, without bothering to look at him or acknowledging his morning greeting: “Don’t put this shit through my door!” Then they would drive off. He would lower his head, bite his tongue, and move on to the next house.
The train stopped at the station before his Some people got off and others got on. The redheads with the septum rings were still laughing as before, but the football fans cheering on their successful team got off the train, holding their beer cans aloft.
He glanced at the girls and then back at his bag. He tightened his grip as though he was worried that someone would steal it from him. The train set off.
He felt alone wherever he went. On trains, in restaurants, at block parties, in crowded shops. He couldn’t bring himself to look other people in the eye. He was worried that someone would speak to him in that language that he couldn’t understand, so he never responded to anyone. He just pretended that he didn’t hear.
He wasn’t speaking his own language either, so he began to worry that he was going to become mute. He started talking to carpets and windows, to clouds and the crosses on top of church spires. He even began speaking to the mannequins in display windows outside shops.
When he got home, he unlocked the door and whispered to the silent dirt lying in the bottom of the bag he was carrying, “Come in.” After he walked in, he said, “I’m sorry for making you leave our country, but I needed you.”
He took the bag into his bedroom and lay it down on his pillow. “No, that isn’t the right place for you!”
He moved the bag into the living room. He didn’t like that either. He was confused now. He tried placing the bag all over his little apartment until he finally decided to keep it in the bathroom. He poured the contents of the bag of dirt onto the cold, humid floor. That tiring, dry, silent dirt, which had witnessed thousands of his footsteps, rose up into a mound on the floor of the bathroom. He could almost hear the dirt wailing as it was poured out, speck by speck, on to that unfamiliar floor.
His heartbeat began to race and tears filled his eyes. He stared at the mound of dirt and as his voice trembled, he said, “I smell the scent of destruction in you, the earth of home.”
He took a big swig from the can of beer he was holding. “It’s been three years since I left you. Forgive me if I’ve forgotten how I used to speak to you. Forgive me if I’ve been rude to you on this dreary evening. Do you remember when the police surrounded our house and then stormed into my bedroom? Do you remember when they broke my pens and burned the pages on which I’d written about my love for you? They did it in front of our very eyes. Do you remember how they confiscated my books and carried them off in dirty bags like frightened rabbits? They handcuffed me in front of your eyes—if you have eyes, I mean—and took me away, kicking me, throwing me like a bag of straw into the back of a Jeep that was almost the same color as you. You stayed silent, Dirt, licking the boots of the security services, failing to feel the pain of my handcuffed wrists!! When they brought me back in the same Jeep a week later, I saw you through the window. My heart almost broke when I saw their tires defiling you.
You watched in silence as the Intelligence Service’s boots drew horrific scenes across your surface as you languished in your soil-silence, your soil-sleep.
Do you remember that autumn when my heart broke?
Yes, of course you do. My darling used to leave a trail across you every afternoon as she made her way to my room. She would put her hands over my expectant eyes and say, laughing “Guess who?” I always played dumb. I traced her hands with my own. They were like two tame pigeons. Then I ran my fingers across her full lips and down to her apple-breasts and her thighs… I’d say, “You’re a fairy!!”
We rolled around like two surging clouds being buffeted by maniacal winds.
My beloved’s footsteps wove a tissue of lies every afternoon. You knew all about the traps that she set out for me, but you never once whispered in my ear: “Watch your step!” You never once said to me, “You fool! Don’t fall for a mirage. Your heart will die of thirst.” You never said, “Put an end to this game. Your heart will be crushed.” We were friends, Dirt. I wrote my best poems about you. I used to smell you as hard as I could. I used to leave your dust on my eyelashes and clothes for weeks at a time, never brushing you off.
I used to say, “This dust is sacred, this is dirt’s dust, the dirt that slumbers outside my front door, the dirt that embraced my suppressed childhood and wasted youth.”
His eyes became redder and redder and the line of beer cans on the mirror shelf emptied one by one, but he continued to stare at the mound of dirt on the bare, silent bathroom floor.
“Now I just drift from place to place. I carry my broken heart with me, but I still haven’t found anyone who can put it back together for me. You’ve seen me bewildered dozens of times—if you can even see that is—but you’ve never once broken your silence. Why didn’t you rise up from beneath my sad footsteps and fly into the sky to tell everyone in this criminal city of my heart’s pain? Why didn’t you warn me about all the traps that were laid out in front of me? I was the one who used to think of you as a mother, as more than a mother.
“I set fire to my house and all my books to protest against my miserable life. I nearly set fire to myself. You observed me silently. Maybe you secretly said to yourself, laughing, “The boy’s lost his mind.”
Protecting you and loving you gave meaning to my life. It used to drive me crazy whenever I heard anyone insult you. I would try to hide you in my eyes and shield you with my gaze. I was ready to give my life for you. But you? Ah. What do you expect me to say now?
“Tell me, what did you do for me when the world came for me and when the mills of hope crushed my heart and made it into a burning paste? What did you do for me when you found me pathetic, miserable, and hungry? I wept for you. I defended you from the wind that wanted to blow you away from my front door. I didn’t sleep so that I could keep the dirt thieves from abducting you and taking you to some unknown land. Tell me—if you have a tongue what did you do for me when I fled to this country that will never be my country?!
“You just watched me—if you can see that is—go from place to place searching for my wandering sense of self, searching for a quiet life, an uncomplicated love. But you couldn’t be home to that life, or to that love.
“You stayed quiet. Just as you are now on the cold, bare floor this silent night. Don’t come to me later and ask, “Why did you bring me to this exile?”
“You’re the one that led me to this sorry state. You’re the one who exiled me. This is all your fault, Dirt. so don’t think that I’m going to put you beside my pillow so that I can smell you every morning and say, “Ohhh, I can smell heaven in your every speck!!” No. No, never. But I will—”
Suddenly undid the buttons of his fly and quickly pulled it out. He began urinating on the mound of dirt; a silent whine reverberated against the cold, moist bathroom floor.
I can’t recall when I first started scribbling those little notes I later stashed in various hiding places around the apartment. It sure as hell could not have been a lot earlier, because at the time I was still a little girl and surely needed to have first learned how to read and write.
But I do remember quite clearly the day when the light tapping sounded on the door, in an attempt to reproduce the cadences of “I did it my way!” It was the last day of some school vacation, 10 AM. She was still in the shower, and rather chipper—a surprise in itself. “Open it, come on, get there fast, open the door already. Say I’ll be out in a jiffy,” she kept yelling.
I shuffled over to the door.
And there he was. Impatient to come in. Moishele, Regina’s husband, with his little white mustache. His potbelly threatening to burst through his shirt buttons. The man was shaped like a pistachio nut whose shell was fitted with a tiny sheaf of bristles. Likewise swaths of porcupine hair gleaming with Brylcreem pulled down towards his jaw on both sides of his head.
So there he was, eager as a beaver, arms outstretched to wrap themselves around me the way grownups sometimes do to have fun with kids.
I ducked nimbly. His scissoring hands failed to trap me and he almost fell on his nose. I could hear the whiplash produced by his near miss.
I flew down the hall leading to my room. From a safe distance I blurted out: “Mom’s still in the shower and dad took Davidi to get some shoes.”
Moishele must have managed to retrieve his balance, since in no time he was in the living room. There he settled to wait for her, whistling “I did it my way!” just slightly out of tune.
The next thing that happens is the bathroom door swinging open. She emerges wearing her red galabia, lavishly embroidered at the top on both sides of her exposed cleavage, gleefully humming back “I did it my way!” She strikes a ta-da! posture with the hip-swing to match, before rushing into the slithery arms of the visitor, who has risen to meet her. And now, using that phony falsetto of hers, she giggles herself silly: “Oy, Moishele, what a surprise! Where’s Regina and the kiddos??”
Moishele retorts with a question of his own: “What’s the matter, Tamara, can’t one hug this honeybee sweet little thing that ran away from me for dear life?” All the while fluttering his hands on her butt, which certainly is not about to run off anywhere. Not that I needed to actually see that to know it was happening.
Instantly her cheerful tone gives way to that loud, domineering, screeching voice. The familiar note announcing the onset of yet another tantrum.
“Doreet! You cheeky brat! Over here at once! And now, apologize! What’s wrong with you, running away from Moishele like this?! Right now!” And she’s back to giggling, trying to recoup her upbeat mood: “This child has no manners. Doesn’t appreciate being loved.” Then, turning to me, hissing: “You should be thankful anyone should ever feel like touching you, you scrawny, redheaded monkey…”
I was always capable of dodging Moishele’s embrace. Her violent outbursts of rage were harder to elude. Any attempt to do so would only fan her fury. And the violence that followed would get meaner. I knew she would still be there after he left.
I dragged my feet along the hallway to where I could glimpse the living room, then veered left into the kitchen. The large, serrated knife lay on the cutting board next to a loaf of bread. I deftly grabbed it and hid it behind my back. Her yelling resumed: “Come on, did I not tell you to get over here and apologize to Moishele?!” The mustachioed pistachio was marking time, one hand wrapped around her waist, the other flung forward to do the same for me. She speared me with the devastating look reserved for this very moment, the brief moment just before she’d totally lose control. She demanded: “What is it you’re hiding behind your back?” stomping one plump foot whose long toes were painted flaming bright crimson.
I returned her stare, this time without fear. I remember well the slow motion of my hand, making its way around my ribcage, then setting the handle against my stomach with the sharp business end pointed at the couple facing me.
“It’s the bread knife,” I told her.
The bread knife, to chop off Moishele’s hands, that always aim to hug little girls as well as their mothers.
This took place the day before. And the next day I gathered my notes from their various hiding places and bundled them into little piles: there were quite a few notes. I went out into the nearby sunflower patch, that was taller than my red head, and I burned them all. I no longer needed them.
And as she kept threatening and screaming like a crazy woman, all the while re-casting the sequence of events that had just transpired with lie upon lie against the background of Mr. Pistachio’s whitening face – I knew.
I knew that I no longer needed any notes to protect me. Knew that I could remember very well. That I could rely on my own memory. That she could no longer confound my with her lying. I knew that lies make me sick to my stomach, and only sticking to what I know can keep me sane. More precisely, can keep me from going crazy. Crazy like her.
SOV THADE TAGE EM EREB, OF RER IN KARHIDE, ON GETHEN
I live in the oldest city in the world. Long before there were kings in Karhide, Rer was a city, the marketplace and meeting ground for all the Northeast, the Plains, and Kerm Land. The Fastness of Rer was a center of learning, a refuge, a judgment seat fifteen thousand years ago. Karhide became a nation here, under the Geger kings, who ruled for a thousand years. In the thousandth year Sedern Geger, the Unking, cast the crown into the River Arre from the palace towers, proclaiming an end to dominion. The time they call the Flowering of Rer, the Summer Century, began then. It ended when the Hearth of Harge took power and moved their capital across the mountains to Erhenrang. The Old Palace has been empty for centuries. But it stands. Nothing in Rer falls down. The Arre floods through the street-tunnels every year in the Thaw, winter blizzards may bring thirty feet of snow, but the city stands. Nobody knows how old the houses are, because they have been rebuilt forever. Each one sits in its gardens without respect to the position of any of the others, as vast and random and ancient as hills. The roofed streets and canals angle about among them. Rer is all corners. We say that the Harges left because they were afraid of what might be around the corner.
Time is different here. I learned in school how the Orgota, the Ekumen, and most other people count years. They call the year of some portentous event Year One and number forward from it. Here it’s always Year One. On Getheny Thern, New Year’s Day, the Year One becomes one-ago, one-to-come becomes One, and so on. It’s like Rer, everything always changing but the city never changing.
When I was fourteen (in the Year One, or fifty-ago) I came of age. I have been thinking about that a good deal recently.
It was a different world. Most of us had never seen an Alien, as we called them then. We might have heard the Mobile talk on the radio, and at school we saw pictures of Aliens—the ones with hair around their mouths were the most pleasingly savage and repulsive. Most of the pictures were disappointing. They looked too much like us. You couldn’t even tell that they were always in kemmer. The female Aliens were supposed to have enormous breasts, but my Mothersib Dory had bigger breasts than the ones in the pictures.
When the Defenders of the Faith kicked them out of Orgoreyn, when King Emran got into the Border War and lost Erhenrang, even when their Mobiles were outlawed and forced into hiding at Estre in Kerm, the Ekumen did nothing much but wait. They had waited for two hundred years, as patient as Handdara. They did one thing: they took our young king off-world to foil a plot, and then brought the same king back sixty years later to end her wombchild’s disastrous reign. Argaven XVII is the only king who ever ruled four years before her heir and forty years after.
The year I was born (the Year One, or sixty-four-ago) was the year Argaven’s second reign began. By the time I was noticing anything beyond my own toes, the war was over, the West Fall was part of Karhide again, the capital was back in Erhenrang, and most of the damage done to Rer during the Overthrow of Emran had been repaired. The old houses had been rebuilt again. The Old Palace had been patched again. Argaven XVII was miraculously back on the throne again. Everything was the way it used to be, ought to be, back to normal, just like the old days—everybody said so.
Indeed those were quiet years, an interval of recovery before Argaven, the first Gethenian who ever left our planet, brought us at last fully into the Ekumen; before we, not they, became the Aliens; before we came of age. When I was a child we lived the way people had lived in Rer forever. It is that way, that timeless world, that world around the corner, I have been thinking about, and trying to describe for people who never knew it. Yet as I write I see how also nothing changes, that it is truly the Year One always, for each child that comes of age, each lover who falls in love.
There were a couple of thousand people in the Ereb Hearths, and a hundred and forty of them lived in my Hearth, Ereb Tage. My name is Sov Thade Tage em Ereb, after the old way of naming we still use in Rer. The first thing I remember is a huge dark place full of shouting and shadows, and I am falling upward through a golden light into the darkness. In thrilling terror, I scream. I am caught in my fall, held, held close; I weep; a voice so close to me that it seems to speak through my body says softly, “Sov, Sov, Sov.” And then I am given something wonderful to eat, something so sweet, so delicate that never again will I eat anything quite so good…
I imagine that some of my wild elder hearthsibs had been throwing me about, and that my mother comforted me with a bit of festival cake. Later on when I was a wild elder sib we used to play catch with babies for balls; they always screamed, with terror or with delight, or both. It’s the nearest to flying anyone of my generation knew. We had dozens of different words for the way snow falls, floats, descends, glides; blows, for the way clouds move, the way ice floats, the way boats sail; but not that word. Not yet. And so I don’t remember “flying.” I remember falling upward through the golden light.
Family houses in Rer are built around a big central hall. Each story has an inner balcony clear round that space, and we call the whole story, rooms and all, a balcony. My family occupied the whole second balcony of Ereb Tage. There were a lot of us. My grandmother had borne four children, and all of them had children, so I had a bunch of cousins as well as a younger and an older wombsib. “The Thades always kemmer as women and always get pregnant,” I heard neighbors say, variously envious, disapproving, admiring. “And they never keep kemmer,” somebody would add. The former was an exaggeration, but the latter was true. Not one of us kids had a father. I didn’t know for years who my getter was, and never gave it a thought. Clannish, the Thades preferred not to bring outsiders, even other members of our own Hearth, into the family. If young people fell in love and started talking about keeping kemmer or making vows, Grandmother and the mothers were ruthless. “Vowing kemmer, what do you think you are, some kind of noble? some kind of fancy person? The kemmerhouse was good enough for me and it’s good enough for you,” the mothers said to their lovelorn children, and sent them away, clear off to the old Ereb Domain in the country, to hoe braties till they got over being in love.
So as a child I was a member of a flock, a school; a swarm, in and out of our warren of rooms, tearing up and down the staircases, working together and learning together and looking after the babies—in our own fashion—and terrorizing quieter hearthmates by our numbers and our noise. As far as I know we did no real harm. Our escapades were well within the rules and limits of the sedate, ancient Hearth, which we felt not as constraints but as protection, the walls that kept us safe. The only time we got punished was when my cousin Sether decided it would be exciting if we tied a long rope we’d found to the second-floor balcony railing, tied a big knot in the rope, held onto the knot, and jumped. “I’ll go first,” Sether said. Another misguided attempt at flight. The railing and Sether’s broken leg were mended, and the rest of us had to clean the privies, all the privies of the Hearth, for a month. I think the rest of the Hearth had decided it was time the young Thades observed some discipline.
Although I really don’t know what I was like as a child, I think that if I’d had any choice I might have been less noisy than my playmates, though just as unruly. I used to love to listen to the radio, and while the rest of them were racketing around the balconies or the centerhall in winter, or out in the streets and gardens in summer, I would crouch for hours in my mother’s room behind the bed, playing her old serem-wood radio very softly so that my sibs wouldn’t know I was there. I listened to anything, Lays and plays and hearthtales, the Palace news, the analyses of grain harvests and the detailed weather reports; I listened every day all one winter to an ancient saga from the Pering Storm-Border about snowghouls, perfidious traitors, and bloody ax-murders, which haunted me at night so that I couldn’t sleep and would crawl into bed with my mother for comfort. Often my younger sib was already there in the warm, soft, breathing dark. We would sleep all entangled and curled up together like a nest of Pesthry.
My mother, Guyr Thade Tage em Ereb, was impatient, warm-hearted, and impartial, not exerting much control over us three wombchildren, buy keeping watch. The Thades were all tradespeople working in Ereb shops and masteries, with little or no cash to spend; but when I was ten, Guyr bought me a radio, a new one, and said where my sibs could hear, “You don’t have to share it.” I treasured it for years and finally shared it with my own wombchild.
So the years went along and I went along in the warmth and density and certainty of a family and a Hearth embedded in tradition, threads on the quick ever-repeating shuttle weaving the timeless web of custom and act and work and relationship, and at this distance I can hardly tell one year from the other or myself from the other children: until I turned fourteen.
The reason most people in my Hearth would remember that year is for the big party known as Dory’s Somer-Forever Celebration. My Mothersib Dory had stopped going into kemmer that winter. Some people didn’t do anything when they stopped going into kemmer; others went to the Fastness for a ritual; some stayed on at the Fastness for months after, or even moved there. Dory, who wasn’t spiritually inclined, said, “If I can’t have kids and can’t have sex anymore and have to get old and die, at least I can have a party.”
I have already had some trouble trying to tell this story in a language that has no somer pronouns, only gendered pronouns. In their last years of kemmer, as the hormone balance chances, many people tend to go into kemmer as men; Dory’s kemmers had been male for over a year, so I’ll call Dory “he,” although of course the point was that he would never be either he or she again.
In any event, his party was tremendous. He invited everyone in our Hearth and the two neighboring Ereb Hearths, and it went on for three days. It had been a long winter and the spring was late and cold; people were ready for something new, something hot to happen. We cooked for a week, and a whole storeroom was packed full of beer kegs. A lot of people who were in the middle of going out of kemmer, or had already and hadn’t done anything about it, came and joined in the ritual. That’s what I remember vividly: in the firelit three-story centerhall of our Hearth, a circle of thirty or forty people, all middle-aged or old, singing and dancing, stamping the drumbeats. There was a fierce energy in them, their gray hair was loose and wild, they stamped as if their feet would go through the floor, their voices were deep and strong, they were laughing. The younger people watching them seemed pallid and shadowy. I looked at the dancers and wondered, why are they happy? Aren’t they old? Why do they act like they’d got free? What’s it like, then, kemmer?
No, I hadn’t thought much about kemmer before. What would be the use? Until we come of age we have no gender and no sexuality, our hormones don’t give us any trouble at all. And in a city Hearth we never see adults in kemmer. They kiss and go. Where’s Maba? In the kemmerhouse, love, now eat your porridge. When’s Maba coming back? Soon, love. And in a couple of days Maba comes back, looking sleepy and shiny and refreshed and exhausted. Is it like having a bath, Maba? Yes, a bit, love, and what have you been up to while I was away?
Of course we played kemmer, when we were seven or eight. This here’s the kemmerhouse and I get to be the woman. No, I do. No, I do, I thought of it! And we rubbed our bodies together and rolled around laughing, and then maybe we stuffed a ball under our shirt and were pregnant, and then we gave birth, and then we played catch with the ball. Children will play whatever adults do; but the kemmer game wasn’t much of a game. It often ended in a tickling match. And most children aren’t even very ticklish; till they come of age.
After Dory’s party, I was on duty in the Hearth creche all through Tuwa, the last month of spring; come summer I began my fast apprenticeship, in a furniture workshop in the Third Ward. I loved getting up early and running across the city on the wayroofs and up on the curbs of the open ways; after the late Thaw some of the ways were still full of water, deep enough for kayaks and poleboats. The air would be still and cold and clear; the sun would come up behind the old towers of the Unpalace, red as blood, and all the waters and the windows of the city would flash scarlet and gold. In the workshop there was the piercing sweet smell of fresh-cut wood and the company of grown people, hard-working, patient, and demanding, taking me seriously. I wasn’t a child anymore, I said to myself. I was an adult, a working person.
But why did I want to cry all the time? Why did I want to sleep all the time? Why did I get angry at Sether? Why did Sether keep bumping into me and saying “Oh sorry” in that stupid husky voice? Why was I so clumsy with the big electric lathe that I ruined six chair-legs one after the other? “Get that kid off the lathe,” shouted old Marth, and I slunk away in a fury of humiliation. I would never be a carpenter, I would never be adult, who gave a shit for chair-legs anyway?
“I want to work in the gardens,” I told my mother and grandmother.
“Finish your training and you can work in the gardens next summer,” Grand said, and Mother nodded. This sensible counsel appeared to me as a heartless injustice, a failure of love, a condemnation to despair. I Sulked. I raged.
“What’s wrong with the furniture shop?” my elders asked after several days of sulk and rage.
“Why does stupid Sether have to be there!” I shouted. Dory, who was Sether’s mother, raised an eyebrow and smiled.
“Are you all right?” my mother asked me as I slouched into the balcony after work, and I snarled, “I’m fine,” and rushed to the privies and vomited.
I was sick. My back ached all the time. My head ached and got dizzy and heavy. Something I could not locate anywhere, some part of my soul, hurt with a keen, desolate, ceaseless pain. I was afraid of myself: of my tears, my rage, my sickness, my clumsy body. It did not feel like my body, like me. It felt like something else, an ill-fitting garment, a smelly, heavy overcoat that belonged to some old person, some dead person. It wasn’t mine, it wasn’t me. Tiny needles of agony shot through my nipples, hot as fire. When I winced and held my arms across my chest, I knew that everybody could see what was happening. Anybody could smell me. I smelled sour, strong, like blood, tike raw pelts of animals. My clitopenis was swollen hugely and stuck out from between my labia, and then shrank nearly to nothing, so that it hurt to piss. My labia itched and reddened as with loathsome insect-bites. Deep in my belly something moved, some monstrous growth. I was utterly ashamed. I was dying.
“Sov,” my mother said, sitting down beside me on my bed, with a curious, tender, complicitous smile, “shall we choose your kemmerday?”
“I’m not in kemmer,” I said passionately.
“No,” Guyr said. “But next month I think you will be.”
“I won’t! “
My mother stroked my hair and face and arm. We shape each other to be human, old people used to say as they stroked babies or children or one another with those long, slow, soft caresses.
After a while my mother said, “Sether’s coming in, too. But a month or so later than you, I think. Dory said let’s have a double kemmerday, but I think you should have your own day in your own time.”
I burst into tears and cried, “I don’t want one, I don’t want to, I just want, I just want to go away…”
“Sov,” my mother said, “if you want to, you can go to the kemmerhouse at Gerodda Ereb, where you won’t know anybody. But I think it would be better here, where people do know you. They’d like it. They’ll be so glad for you. Oh, your Grand’s so proud of you! ‘Have you seen that grandchild of mine, Sov, have you seen what a beauty, what amahad! ‘ Everybody’s bored to tears hearing about you…”
Mahad is a dialect word, a Rer word; it means a strong, handsome, generous, upright person, a reliable person. My mother’s stern mother, who commanded and thanked, but never praised, said I was a mahad? A terrifying idea, that dried my tears.
“All right,” I said desperately, “Here. But not next month! It isn’t. I’m not.”
“Let me see,” my mother said. Fiercely embarrassed yet relieved to obey, I stood up and undid my trousers.
My mother took a very brief and delicate look, hugged me, and said, “Next month, yes, I’m sure. You’ll feel much better in a day or two. And next month it’ll be different. It really will.”
Sure enough, the next day the headache and the hot itching were gone, and though I was still tired and sleepy a lot of the time, I wasn’t quite so stupid and clumsy at work. After a few more days I felt pretty much myself, light and easy in my limbs. Only if I thought about it there was still that queer feeling that wasn’t quite in any part of my body, and that was sometimes very painful and sometimes only strange, almost something I wanted to feel again.
My cousin Sether and I had been apprenticed together at the furniture shop. We didn’t go to work together because Sether was still slightly lame from that rope trick a couple of years earlier, and got a lift to work in a poleboat so long as there was water in the streets. When they closed the Arre Watergate and the ways went dry, Sether had to walk. So we walked together. The first couple of days we didn’t talk much. I still felt angry at Sether. Because I couldn’t run through the dawn anymore but had to walk at a lame-leg pace. And because Sether was always around. Always there. Taller than me, and quicker at the lathe, and with that long, heavy, shining hair. Why did anybody want to wear their hair so long, anyhow? I felt as if Sether’s hair was in front of my own eyes.
We were walking home, tired, on a hot evening of Ockre, the first month of summer. I could see that Sether was limping and trying to hide or ignore it, trying to swing right along at my quick pace, very straight-backed, scowling. A great wave of pity and admiration overwhelmed me, and that thing, that growth, that new being, whatever it was in my bowels and in the ground of my soul moved and turned again, turned towards Sether, aching, yearning.
Are you coming into kemmer?” I said in a hoarse, husky voice I had never heard come out of my mouth.
“In a couple of months,” Sether said in a mumble, not looking at me, still very stiff and frowning.
“I guess I have to have this, do this, you know, this stuff, pretty soon.”
“I wish I could,” Sether said. “Get it over with.”
We did not look at each other. Very gradually, unnoticeably, I was slowing my pace till we were going along side by side at an easy walk.
“Sometimes do you feel like your tits are on fire?” I asked without knowing that I was going to say anything.
After a while, Sether said, “Listen, does your pisser get…”
“It must be what the Aliens look like,” Sether said with revulsion. “This, this thing sticking out, it gets so big … it gets in the way.”
We exchanged and compared symptoms for a mile or so. It was a relief to talk about it, to find company in misery, but it was also frightening to hear our misery confirmed by the other. Sether burst out, “I’ll tell you what I hate, what I really hate about it—it’s dehumanizing. To get jerked around like that by your own body, to lose control, I can’t stand the idea. Of being just a sex machine. And everybody just turns into something to have sex with. You know that people in kemmer go crazy and die if there isn’t anybody else in kemmer? That they’ll even attack people in somer? Their own mothers?”
“They can’t,” I said, shocked.
“Yes they can. Tharry told me. This truck driver up in the High Kargav went into kemmer as a male while their caravan was stuck in the snow, and he was big and strong, and he went crazy and he, he did it to his cab-mate, and his cab-mate was in somer and got hurt, really hurt, trying to fight him off. And then the driver came out of kemmer and committed suicide.”
This horrible story brought the sickness back up from the pit of my stomach, and I could say nothing.
Sether went on, “People in kemmer aren’t even human anymore! And we have to do that—to be that way!
Now that awful, desolate fear was out in the open. But it was not a relief to speak it. It was even larger and more terrible, spoken.
“It’s stupid,” Sether said. “It’s a primitive device for continuing the species. There’s no need for civilized people to undergo it. People who want to get pregnant could do it with injections. It would be genetically sound. You could choose your child’s better. There wouldn’t be all this inbreeding, people fucking with their sibs, like animals. Why do we have to be animals?”
Sether’s rage stirred me. I shared it. I also felt shocked and excited by the word “fucking,” which I had never heard spoken. I looked again at my cousin, the thin, ruddy face, the heavy, long, shining hair. My age, Sether looked older. A half year in pain from a shattered leg had darkened and matured the adventurous, mischievous child, teaching anger, pride, endurance. “Sether,” I said, “listen, it doesn’t matter, you’re human, even if you have to do that stuff, that fucking. You’re a mahad.”
“Getheny Kus,” Grand said: the first day of the month of Kus, midsummer day.
“I won’t be ready,” I said.
“You’ll be ready.”
“I want to go into kemmer with Sether.”
“Sether’s got a month or two yet to go. Soon enough. It looks like you might be on the same moon-time, though. Dark-of-the-mooners, eh? That’s what I used to be. So, just stay on the same wavelength, you and Sether…” Grand had never grinned at me this way, an inclusive grin, as if I were an equal.
My mother’s mother was sixty years old, short, brawny, broad-hipped, with keen clear eyes, a stone-mason by trade, an unquestioned autocrat in the Hearth. I, equal to this formidable person? It was my first intimation that I might be becoming more, rather than less, human.
“I’d like it,” said Grand, “if you spent this half-month at the Fastness. But it’s up to you.”
“At the Fastness?” I said, taken by surprise. We Thades were all Handdara, but very inert Handdara, keeping only the great festivals, muttering the grace all in one garbled word, practicing none of the disciplines. None of my older hearthsibs had been sent off to the Fastness before their kemmerday. Was there something wrong with me?
“You’ve got a good brain,” said Grand. “You and Sether. I’d like to see some of you lot casting some shadows, some day. We Thades sit here in our Hearth and breed like pesthry. Is that enough? It’d be a good thing if some of you got your heads out of the bedding.”
“What do they do in the Fastness?” I asked, and Grand answered frankly, “I don’t know. Go find out.
They teach you. They can teach you how to control kemmer.”
“All right,” I said promptly. I would tell Sether that the Indwellers could control kemmer. Maybe I could learn how to do it and come home and teach it to Sether.
Grand looked at me with approval. I had taken up the challenge.
Of course I didn’t learn how to control kemmer, in a halfmonth in the Fastness. The first couple of days there, I thought I wouldn’t even be able to control my homesickness. From our warm, dark warren of rooms full of people talking, sleeping, eating, cooking, washing, playing remma, playing music, kids running around, noise, family, I went across the city to a huge, clean, cold, quiet house of strangers. They were courteous, they treated me with respect. I was terrified. Why should a person of forty, who knew magic disciplines of superhuman strength and fortitude, who could walk barefoot through blizzards, who could Foretell, whose eyes were the wisest and calmest I had ever seen, why should an Adept of the Handdara respect me?
“Because you are so ignorant,” Ranharrer the Adept said, smiling, with great tenderness.
Having me only for a halfmonth, they didn’t try to influence the nature of my ignorance very much. I practiced the Untrance several hours a day, and came to like it: that was quite enough for them, and they praised me. “At fourteen, most people go crazy moving slowly,” my teacher said.
During my last six or seven days in the Fastness certain symptoms began to show up again, the headache, the swellings and shooting pains, the irritability. One morning the sheet of my cot in my bare, peaceful little room was bloodstained. I looked at the smear with horror and loathing. I thought I had scratched my itching labia to bleeding in my sleep, but I knew also what the blood was. I began to cry. I had to wash the sheet somehow. I had fouled, defiled this place where everything was clean, austere, and beautiful.
An old Indweller, finding me scrubbing desperately at the sheet in the washrooms, said nothing, but brought me some soap that bleached away the stain. I went back to my room, which I had come to love with the passion of one who had never before known any actual privacy, and crouched on the sheetless bed, miserable, checking every few minutes to be sure I was not bleeding again. I missed my Untrance practice time. The immense house was very quiet. Its peace sank into me. Again I felt that strangeness in my soul, but it was not pain now; it was a desolation like the air at evening, like the peaks of the Kargav seen far in the west in the clarity of winter. It was an immense enlargement.
Ranharrer the Adept knocked and entered at my word, looked at me for a minute, and asked gently, “What is it?”
“Everything is strange,” I said.
The Adept smiled radiantly and said, “Yes.”
I know now how Ranharrer cherished and honored my ignorance, in the Handdara sense. Then I knew only that somehow or other I had said the right thing and so pleased a person I wanted very much to please.
“We’re doing some singing,” Ranharrer said, “you might like to hear it.”
They were in fact singing the Midsummer Chant, which goes on for the four days before Getheny Kus, night and day. Singers and drummers drop in and out at will, most of them singing on certain syllables in an endless group improvisation guided only by the drums and by melodic cues in the Chantbook, and failing into harmony with the soloist if one is present. At first I heard only a pleasantly thick-textured, droning sound over a quiet and subtle beat. I listened till I got bored and decided I could do it too. So I opened my mouth and sang “Aah” and heard all the other voices singing “Aah” above and with and below mine until I lost mine and heard only all the voices, and then only the music itself, and then suddenly the startling silvery rush of a single voice running across the weaving, against the current, and sinking into it and vanishing, and rising out of it again… Ranharrer touched my arm. It was time for dinner, I had been singing since Third Hour. I went back to the chantry after dinner, and after supper. I spent the next three days there. I would have spent the nights there if they had let me. I wasn’t sleepy at all anymore. I had sudden, endless energy, and couldn’t sleep. In my little room I sang to myself, or read the strange Handdara poetry which was the only book they had given me, and practiced the Untrance, trying to ignore the heat and cold, the fire and ice in my body, till dawn came and I could go sing again.
And then it was Ottormenbod, midsummer’s eve, and I must go home to my Hearth and the kemmerhouse.
To my surprise, my mother and grandmother and all the elders came to the Fastness to fetch me, wearing ceremonial hiebs and looking solemn. Ranharrer handed me over to them, saying to me only, “Come back to us.” My family paraded me through the streets in the hot summer morning; all the vines were in flower, perfuming the air, all the gardens were blooming, bearing, fruiting. “This is an excellent time,” Grand said judiciously, “to come into kemmer.”
The Hearth looked very dark to me after the Fastness, and somehow shrunken. I looked around for Sether, but it was a workday, Sether was at the shop. That gave me a sense of holiday, which was not unpleasant. And then up in the hearthroom of our balcony, Grand and the Hearth elders formally presented me with a whole set of new clothes, new everything, from the boots up, topped by a magnificently embroidered hieb. There was a spoken ritual that went with the clothes, not Handdara; I think, but a tradition of our Hearth; the words were all old and strange, the language of a thousand years ago. Grand rattled them out like somebody spitting rocks, and put the hieb on my shoulders. Everybody said, “Haya!”
All the elders, and a lot of younger kids, hung around helping me put on the new clothes as if I was a king or a baby, and some of the elders wanted to give me advice—”last advice,” they called it, since you gain shifgrethor when you go into kemmer, and once you have shifgrethor advice is insulting. “Now you just keep away from that old Ebbeche,” one of them told me shrilly. My mother took offense, snapping, “Keep your shadow to yourself, Tadsh!” And to me, “Don’t listen to the old fish. Flapmouth Tadsh! But now listen, Sov.”
I listened. Guyr had drawn me a little away from the others, and spoke gravely, with some embarrassment. “Remember, it will matter who you’re with first.”
I nodded. “I understand,” I said.
“No, you don’t,” my mother snapped, forgetting to be embarrassed. “Just keep it in mind!”
“What, ah,” I said. My mother waited. “If I, if I go into, as a, as female,” I said. “Don’t I, shouldn’t I—?”
“Ah,” Guyr said. “Don’t worry. It’ll be a year or more before you can conceive. Or get. Don’t worry, this time. The other people will see to it, just in case. They all know it’s your first kemmer. But do keep it in mind, who you’re with first! Around, oh, around Karrid, and Ebbeche, and some of them.”
“Come on!” Dory shouted, and we all got into a procession again to go downstairs and across the centerhall, where everybody cheered “Haya Sov! Haya Sov!” and the cooks beat on their saucepans. I wanted to die. But they all seemed so cheerful, so happy about me, wishing me well; I wanted also to live.
We went out the west door and across the sunny gardens and came to the kemmerhouse. Tage Ereb shares a kemmerhouse with two other Ereb Hearths; it’s a beautiful building, all carved with deep-figure friezes in the Old Dynasty style, terribly worn by the weather of a couple of thousand years. On the red stone steps my family all kissed me, murmuring, “Praise then Darkness,” or “In the act of creation praise,” and my mother gave me a hard push on my shoulders, what they call the sledge-push, for good luck, as I turned away from them and went in the door.
The doorkeeper was waiting for me; a queer-looking, rather stooped person, with coarse, pale skin.
Now I realized who this “Ebbeche” they’d been talking about was. I’d never met him, but I’d heard about him. He was the Doorkeeper of our kemmerhouse, a halfdead—that is, a person in permanent kemmer, like the Aliens.
There are always a few people born that way here. Some of them can be cured; those who can’t or choose not to be usually live in a Fastness and learn the disciplines, or they become Doorkeepers. It’s convenient for them, and for normal people too. After all, who else would want to live in a kemmerhouse? But there are drawbacks. If you come to the kemmerhouse in thorharmen, ready to gender, and the first person you meet is fully male, his pheromones are likely to gender you female right then, whether that’s what you had in mind this month or not. Responsible Doorkeepers, of course, keep well away from anybody who doesn’t invite them to come close. But permanent kemmer may not lead to responsibility of character; nor does being called halfdead and pervert all your life, I imagine. Obviously my family didn’t trust Ebbeche to keep his hands and his pheromones off me. But they were unjust. He honored a first kemmer as much as anyone else. He greeted me by name and showed me where to take off my new boots. Then he began to speak the ancient ritual welcome, backing down the hall before me; the first time I ever heard the words I would hear so many times again for so many years.
You cross earth now.
You cross water now.
You cross the Ice now….
And the exulting ending, as we came into the centerhall:
Together we have crossed the Ice.
Together we come into the Hearthplace,
Into life, bringing life!
In the act of creation, praise!
The solemnity of the words moved me and distracted me somewhat from my intense self-consciousness. As I had in the Fastness, I felt the familiar reassurance of being part of something immensely older and larger than myself, even if it was strange and new to me. I must entrust myself to it and be what it made me. At the same time I was intensely alert. All my senses were extraordinarily keen, as they had been all morning. I was aware of everything, the beautiful blue color of the walls, the lightness and vigor of my steps as I walked, the texture of the wood under my bare feet, the sound and meaning of the ritual words, the Doorkeeper himself. He fascinated me. Ebbeche was certainly not handsome, and yet I noticed how musical his rather deep voice was; and pale skin was more attractive than I had ever thought it. I felt that he had been maligned, that his life must be a strange one. I wanted to talk to him. But as he finished the welcome, standing aside for me at the doorway of the centerhall, a tall person strode forward eagerly to meet me.
I was glad to see a familiar face: it was the head cook of my Hearth, Karrid Arrage. Like many cooks a rather fierce and temperamental person, Karrid had often taken notice of me, singling me out in a joking, challenging way, tossing me some delicacy—”Here, youngun! get some meat on your bones!” As I saw Karrid now I went through the most extraordinary multiplicity of awarenesses: that Karrid was naked and that this nakedness was not like the nakedness of people in the Hearth, but a significant nakedness—that he was not the Karrid I had seen before but transfigured into great beauty—that he was he —that my mother had warned me about him—that I wanted to touch him—that I was afraid of him.
He picked me right up in his arms and pressed me against him. I felt his clitopenis like a fist between my legs. “Easy, now,” the Doorkeeper said to him, and some other people came forward from the room, which I could see only as large, dimly glowing, full of shadows and mist.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Karrid said to me and them, with his hard laugh. “I won’t hurt my own get, will I? I just want to be the one that gives her kemmer. As a woman, like a proper Thade. I want to give you that joy, little Sov.” He was undressing me as he spoke, slipping off my hieb and shirt with big, hot, hasty hands. The Doorkeeper and the others kept close watch, but did not interfere. I felt totally defenseless, helpless, humiliated. I struggled to get free, broke loose, and tried to pick up and put on my shirt. I was shaking and felt terribly weak, I could hardly stand up. Karrid helped me clumsily; his big arm supported me. I leaned against him, feeling his hot, vibrant skin against mine, a wonderful feeling, like sunlight, like firelight. I leaned more heavily against him, raising my arms so that our sides slid together. “Hey, now,” he said. “Oh, you beauty, oh, you Sov, here, take her away, this won’t do!” And he backed right away from me, laughing and yet really alarmed, his clitopenis standing up amazingly. I stood there half-dressed, on my rubbery legs, bewildered. My eyes were full of mist, I could see nothing clearly.
“Come on,” somebody said, and took my hand, a soft, cool touch totally different from the fire of Karrid’s skin. It was a person from one of the other Hearths, I didn’t know her name. She seemed to me to shine like gold in the dim, misty place. “Oh, you’re going so fast,” she said, laughing and admiring and consoling. “Come on, come into the pool, take it easy for a while. Karrid shouldn’t have come on to you like that! But you’re lucky, first kemmer as a woman, there’s nothing like it. I kemmered as a man three times before I got to kemmer as a woman, it made me so mad, every time I got into thorharmen all my damn friends would all be women already. Don’t worry about me—I’d say Karrid’s influence was decisive,” and she laughed again. “Oh, you are so pretty!” and she bent her head and licked my nipples before I knew what she was doing.
It was wonderful, it cooled that stinging fire in them that nothing else could cool. She helped me finish undressing, and we stepped together into the warm water of the big, shallow pool that filled the whole center of this room. That was why it was so misty, why the echoes were so strange. The water lapped on my thighs, on my sex, on my belly. I turned to my friend and leaned forward to kiss her. It was a perfectly natural thing to do, it was what she wanted and I wanted, and I wanted her to lick and suck my nipples again, and she did. For a long time we lay in the shallow water playing, and I could have played forever. But then somebody else joined us, taking hold of my friend from behind, and she arched her body in the water like a golden fish leaping, threw her back, and began to play with him.
I got out of the water and dried myself, feeling sad and shy and forsaken, and yet extremely interested in what had happened to my body. It felt wonderfully alive and electric, so that the roughness of the towel made me shiver with pleasure. Somebody had come closer to me, somebody that had been watching me play with my friend in the water. He sat down by me now.
It was a hearthmate a few years older than I, Arrad Tehemmy. I had worked in the gardens with Arrad all last summer, and liked him. He looked like Sether, I now thought, with heavy black hair and a long, thin face, but in him was that shining, that glory they all had here—all the kemmerers, the women , the men —such vivid beauty as I had never seen in any human beings. “Sov,” he said, “I’d like—Your first—Will you—” His hands were already on me, and mine on him. “Come,” he said, and I went with him. He took me into a beautiful little room, in which there was nothing but a fire burning in a fireplace, and a wide bed. There Arrad took me into his arms and I took Arrad into my arms, and then between my legs, and fell upward, upward through the golden light.
Arrad and I were together all that first night, and besides fucking a great deal, we ate a great deal. It had not occurred to me that there would be food at a kemmerhouse, I had thought you weren’t allowed to do anything but fuck. There was a lot of food, very good, too, set out so that you could eat whenever you wanted. Drink was more limited; the person in charge, an old woman-halfdead, kept her canny eye on you, and wouldn’t give you any more beer if you showed signs of getting wild or stupid. I didn’t need any more beer. I didn’t need any more fucking. I was complete. I was in love forever for all time all my life to eternity with Arrad. But Arrad (who was a day farther into kemmer than I) fell asleep and wouldn’t wake up, and an extraordinary person named Hama sat down by me and began talking and also running his hand up and down my back in the most delicious way, so that before long we got further entangled, and began fucking, and it was entirely different with Hama than it had been with Arrad, so that I realized that I must be in love with Hama, until Gehardar joined us. After that I think I began to understand that I loved them all and they all loved me and that that was the secret of the kemmerhouse.
It’s been nearly fifty years, and I have to admit I do not recall everyone from my first kemmer; only Karrid and Arrad, Hama and Gehardar, old Tubanny, the most exquisitely skillful lover as a male that I ever knew—I met him often in later kemmers—and Berre, my golden fish, with whom I ended up in drowsy, peaceful, blissful lovemaking in front of the great hearth till we both fell asleep. And when we woke we were not women. We were not men. We were not in kemmer. We were very tired young adults.
“You’re still beautiful,” I said to Berre.
“So are you,” Berre said. “Where do you work?”
“Furniture shop, Third Ward.”
I tried licking Berre’s nipple, but it didn’t work; Berre flinched a little, and I said “Sorry,” and we both laughed.
“I’m in the radio trade,” Berre said. “Did you ever think of trying that?”
“No. Broadcasting. I do the Fourth Hour news and weather.”
“That’s you?” I said, awed.
“Come over to the tower some time, I’ll show you around,” said Berre.
Which is how I found my lifelong trade and a life-long friend. As I tried to tell Sether when I came back to the Hearth, kemmer isn’t exactly what we thought it was; it’s much more complicated.
Sether’s first kemmer was on Getheny Gor, the first day of the first month of autumn, at the dark of the moon. One of the family brought Sether into kemmer as a woman, and then Sether brought me in. That was the first time I kemmered as a man. And we stayed on the same wavelength, as Grand put it. We never conceived together, being cousins and having some modern scruples, but we made love in every combination, every dark of the moon, for years. And Sether brought my child, Tamor, into first kemmer—as a woman, like a proper Thade.
Later on Sether went into the Handdara, and became an Indweller in the old Fastness, and now is an Adept. I go over there often to join in one of the Chants or practice the Untrance or just to visit, and every few days Sether comes back to the Hearth. And we talk. The old days or the new times, somer or kemmer, love is love.
*Copyright © 1995 by Ursula K. Le Guin . The story first appeared NEW LEGENDS in 1995, and then in THE BIRTHDAY OF THE WORLD, published by HarperCollins in 2002 Reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.
*Image: Dancing the Dance of Life by Andrea Wan.
The restaurant is crazy busy and my entire head is engulfed in the heat and steam and smell of all the dishes being cooked and readied on the line. I am tired. I am always tired but this is where I like to be. Where I belong. Everything seems to be as it always is but when I look up from the trout I am just about done sautéing and see someone I don’t recognize standing where the servers stand while waiting to pick up their orders, I think I am hallucinating.
He is young, maybe thirty, slight, not smiling. But his lips are parted and his teeth—very white—are clenched down in a hard bite. He is too handsome. There is menace in the way he is looking at me.
“You need some help,” he says.
I am thinking the same thing. I need some help, I should call out for some help, because despite the kitchen heat my skin is cold and I know the hairs standing up on the back of my neck have nothing to do with the kind of fear I normally have when I am feeling threatened. This is something else.
But maybe I am dreaming. God knows I am exhausted and no one notices anything is amiss. Waiters use their hips to back him out of the way as they reach for plates and he disappears but then like a wave, he rolls back up after they’ve gone. I close my eyes, open them fast and there he is. I want to swallow but my breath is in the way.
“You need help,” he repeats, morphing through the steam this time into a lost boy, his forehead the kind you want to brush hair off of.
I hear myself say, “I don’t know, do I need help?” and when it comes out it sounds like flirting. Someone is flirting with this stranger-boy on my line in the middle of my dinner rush. The trout is overcooked, beyond saving.
His face relaxes then. “You look like you do,” he says.
There have been some things I wish I’d had the prescience to understand before acting on and when I remember them, I want to set myself on fire. But right now time is moving too fast for memory to intrude. When I don’t answer, he says, “I put in an application for a cook. Your ad said you needed some help.” That is true. Then he looks around the madhouse that is my kitchen and says, again, “You look like you need help.”
What do I look like? It has been so long since I have thought about it, since I was pretty. I have been sweating behind the line for two hours, for too many years, and sweat makes my small face wet and a bright red. At the end of every dinner shift, when I go into the employee bathroom at midnight to splash cold water on my face, I find my morning mascara, that small homage to vanity, has left my lashes and settled into the deep cups of skin beneath my eyes. I am forty-five years old, always bone-tired yet plagued with nervousness all the time, even when I sleep. I am married to my South Beach restaurant, entering it in the dark mornings and leaving it in the darker nights so I never see what I am supposed to look like, the public I might be compared to were I ever to put myself among them. I hardly see the daylight. I wear chef whites every day, stained with grease and sauce. I know exactly what I look like and feel surprised, and then ashamed, that I am so sorry about it right now.
“Why did you do that?” I ask him. It is the next morning and he is here to fill out the paperwork.
“Do what?” he asks. He is wearing the same jeans and black t-shirt he’d had on last night but now, somehow, they are miraculously clean.
“Just show up,” I say. “Come into the kitchen like that, at the height of the dinner rush.” I sound like a punishing mother, someone trying to teach someone a lesson.
“Because I knew you’d be here then.”
I have to admit that makes some sense. I look at his application. He has left the space for his address blank.
“Where do you live?” I ask.
“And it’s true,” he says. “You need me.”
I am not afraid anymore. Last night, when I finally got a hold of myself and told him “Fine, go back to the prep kitchen and help,” it felt like I was doing something that absolutely needed to be done. It felt like we both needed help. Now he tells me that when the restaurant closed, he had gone to an all-night Laundromat and convinced two drunk girls to let him throw his clothes in with theirs. While his jeans and shirt washed and dried, he sat in his boxers reading the newspaper. They had given him two beers. I can imagine the whole scene, him charming them with his good looks and serious stare, their wanting to help him.
I hire him for a two week probationary period. I don’t know him, don’t know who he is or who he’s been so I try to watch him when I can. I can tell he has worked in a restaurant like mine before, can tell by the way he handles the equipment in the prep kitchen, by his movements and his focus, by the fact that he never asks anyone any questions. But there is so much to do when you own a restaurant and today I am all over the place—in my office planning menus, then working on the books, in the stock room taking inventory, then the walk-in cooler doing the orders and much of the time I don’t know what he’s doing. I don’t forget about him but I’m not always sure where he is.
In the late afternoon, I find him on the line. He has made a shimmering pea mousse to serve under my house salmon. I am surprised but then I am angry. I ask him who he thinks he is. I ask him how he made the mousse and he won’t tell me and that is how I discover he is a trained chef. I am a trained chef and never share the recipes I’ve invented with anyone. I know all about the relationship between privacy, thievery and pride. Still, I find the secrecy insulting until he gives me a bite and I am whisked away on the pleasure of peas.
After the two weeks, I let him keep the job because there were mashed potato cups filled with foie gras, the pineapple-jalapeno salsa and Serrano Ham panini, the roasted marrow toasts, a peach bombe, old customer raves, new customers—younger and so hip—forming a line outside at night, willing to wait however long it took to be seated. In my restaurant.
He is quiet, never late. I don’t know where he lives. Or what he does when he is not at work and sometimes I forget about him but then when I realize that he is at the restaurant during every shift, even the ones I don’t pay him for, I start thinking about him all the time. This is my restaurant, I am the boss, so I ask him questions, try to figure him out.
He answers everything too vaguely. I think he thinks his life is none of my business. Maybe he is right. He is a good worker, that’s all I need to know. Or maybe he is shy. I am shy, I get that. Then one day, out of the blue, he says he thinks we should close between 4 and 6, that that would give the kitchen time to regroup, the staff a chance to have a meal together. He’s already prepared it—lentil soup, spinach salad, grilled ham and manchego cheese with roasted tomatoes and pesto. The food is so good, comfort food but with an indefinable touch. He tells me to sit down, next to him at the table with the staff, and I do. We eat.
I start to like him, and then I discover I like having him there. Everyone else likes him, too. He does his job in the back kitchen but then when I’m not looking, he helps everyone else with their jobs. He shows the waiters a new, more sophisticated way of laying the napkins on the tables. He teaches the bartenders to make a drink with vodka, shaved ice and shards of fresh ginger; they start to offer it as a house specialty and we can’t keep up with the demand. He asks me if we can serve our scallop appetizer on the ceramic spoons I only use for private tastings. He cooks the staff meal, the family meal, every night.
One night he sees me struggling over the books in the office and he tells me he can help. He was right from the start, I need help. I let him install a program in my aging computer that transforms my bookkeeping into some-thing I actually like to do. He smiles. He works the day shift but is still here for the whole night shift and the hostesses tell me the customers love him. At night he greets them, sometimes walks them to their tables. I can’t explain why I didn’t know he was doing this, how he managed to do so many things without my knowing even though I knew he was there. I am not sure why I am letting it happen except that I am so much less tired than I ever was before he came. And business is booming.
Last night I found a stack of our linen napkins layered and folded into the shape of a pillow in the basement storage room. It was on top of an oversized garbage bag he was obviously using for a blanket. When I confronted him, he said I saved his life.
And when I wake up one morning some weeks after to the sound of the water running in my shower, I wonder what has happened to my own life. For the first time in ten years, I am sleeping in my bed. We drink our coffee there. He shampoos my hair, reads comic books out loud, makes love to me as if I am something precious, rare and fragile, something he must take care not to break, as if he knows me. After, he rubs his white teeth barely over my skin and I am afraid that he will bite me but he never does and because he never does, I relax. I know I should be at least a little frightened but I’m not.
When we are not at my apartment, we are both at my restaurant working. All I know for sure about his past is that something he won’t talk about happened and when he came to me, he was jobless. Homeless. But instead of wondering how on earth I’d let a stranger, practically a boy, infiltrate my small life, I fall headfirst into the supreme relief of not having to do everything myself in order to keep everything going. I fall into having someone to sleep with at night. Now I never look for him, wonder where he is. Like magic, he appears without warning beside me wherever I am—the line, the prep kitchen, the salad station—puts his arm around my waist and presses into me. Kisses me on the mouth. I do not know who I am. I think I am falling in love.
I discover he is a wizard with numbers so I let him oversee the purchasing. He is a whirlwind of energy and sometimes everywhere at once—the bar, the walk-in, the prep kitchen, the front of the house. I start to forget that he has not always been here, that we did not build this restaurant together. That I used to be alone.
Before he came, once in a while a guest would request to see the chef, and I’d tuck the wet sweaty hairs back into my headband, wipe my hands on my apron, and go out into the dining room to accept the compliments. But I had forgotten how to be social, comfortable only with people who worked for me and slipping in and out among the strangers in places I needed to go—the pharmacy, the grocery store, the dry cleaners. But he is so different, as easy and happy in his chef whites in the prep kitchen as he is in a suit in the dining room. Every restaurant needs someone like that.
He has even made some friends. A group of guys who eat dinner in the restaurant every Saturday night. He joins them. They are all unemployed chefs. I ask him if he thinks we should hire any of them but he says they are looking to start their own restaurant. At first, I like the stories he tells me about them. They are easy to listen to and I remember what it’s like to have pals and I am happy for him. I never expected to be enough for him. But then one morning, over coffee before work, it hits me.
“Are these people you are going into business with?” I ask.
“Honey,” he says, “I’m with you, aren’t I?” He frowns, as if I am hurting him. “You’re acting crazy.”
Because I am crazy. I am living with someone fifteen years younger than I am, someone who appeared in my restaurant and knew exactly what was going to happen, assumed things I didn’t know myself and was right. I went from working 15 hours a day without a break to spending an hour in the ocean every day at 3:00. I went from sleeping alone on my couch to spending nearly every waking and sleeping minute with a stranger who I thought was an illusion. I feel like he has always been here, that he is solid and I am safe. I didn’t know I needed that kind of safety until it was there everyday.
I have a right to be crazy. I am middle-aged, bony. My face is thin, drawn. There are a lot of wrinkles. But this man touches it. He wipes it when it sweats, he moves the stray hairs from it, he looks right into it. He kisses it all the time.
“Maybe you are crazy,” I say because when I think about this life, I know I don’t understand. And then I don’t want to think anymore so I say, “Maybe they are crazy. You don’t really know these guys. They could be thieves.”
I know an assortment of psychotics and thieves. They go anywhere they want with the extraordinary self confidence of the desperate who have nothing to lose or the stupidity to believe they will lose nothing. If they want money or liquor or sex, if they want to scare someone for real or just for kicks, if they merely want something to eat for free, they walk into places they don’t belong and demand to be seen and to be served. In South Beach, where bums and drunks share the streets and beaches with celebrities and wealthy tourists, it is often hard to distinguish between the real threats and the mere expressions and that’s what makes it so dangerous. Once I barred a mogul from entering my restaurant because he looked like a thug. Once I let a pair of thugs stay late in the bar because they looked like moguls; after we closed, they robbed two of my waitresses on the street. Some killers look only like thieves. Some thieves are a special kind of killer. I know these people, and I watch out for them.
So it makes me nervous to hear about these guys he eats dinner with every Saturday night, makes me wonder who they really are. I become afraid for him, start to think that he is being conned. I know he picks up the tab for their dinners. I don’t care about the money. I tell him to be careful because I want to protect him. He says, “don’t worry. I think people are basically good. You gave me a chance, didn’t you? And I know them better than you knew me.”
This is true. He’d come from a mystery I still know nothing about to the places—my restaurant and my home—that I know best. And he knew I would take him, and then trust him. His instincts are good.
I don’t have any friends. I tell myself it is by choice though, truly, I have morphed into this solitary person without realizing it. After my husband left, I didn’t know how to turn myself back into someone who could trust anyone again. I threw myself into culinary school and then into work. I like the people who work for me and I am glad to have them near me but before he came, I thought I only needed myself. I thought I knew myself, which is why I didn’t sense my own loneliness creeping up on me. I never saw it coming and then, abracadabra, it disappeared.
Just like a thief, while I wasn’t looking, he took away all of the things I had been afraid of. And he replaced them with the things I had forgotten ever wanting, like coming home and having a brandy and listening to music with my aching feet in someone’s lap instead of falling asleep on the couch in my chef clothes, having sworn off my bed years ago. Like having someone to walk home with after work, to scramble late night eggs for, someone to touch, who wanted to touch me. Slowly, subtly, bit by bit, he took me and left me fearless.
I think I am lucky, blessed. That somehow someone or something divine decided that I deserve this life I am living, really living, now. But then the spell is broken because the one morning, I wake up alone. I want it to be a dream. It isn’t the first time I close my eyes to conjure back what I think I can’t live without but before him, I had sworn it would be the last time. Back then, before the restaurant, before the work, when I learned that I was the kind of woman it was easy to leave, I had crumbled. Then I had begged and pleaded and promised to do anything to fix myself, to make myself right. Even though I did not know what was wrong.
This time, I am ready for a fight. By the time I get to the restaurant, my teeth are rattling. It is a steamy summer morning but I am shivering. I go back into the kitchen and he comes out from behind the line; it is clear he has been there for hours. He’s reorganized the walk-in cooler and now everything we need is in clear view. He’s dusted all the bottles in the bar. He’s taken the crate of lemons that had begun to spoil and made forty individually-sized citrus cakes for the dinner service. It is seven in the morning and the rest of the staff won’t be in until ten. In the dining room, he’s set a table for two with a bottle of champagne chilling. He pulls lobster burritos from the oven and feeds me mine while he explains that sometimes when he can’t sleep, he just needs to work. I understand this because it is true for me too but it doesn’t take away the ache and panic. I am so angry. After the first bite, I say, “Feeding me is hokey,” because I am so unsettled by the way I love it. But he is undaunted. He says, “You think this is hokey?” and leads me downstairs to the office where he has blown up an air mattress and lit candles.
The last time I had felt this way was the first time and I knew nothing. I was so young, thought it would last forever, didn’t understand how love can be consumed by fear and instead of stomping it out like a fire, I stoked it, tended it, fed its restlessness bite by bite so that it could never be satisfied and never be finished. I was so frantic trying to keep the fire alive that I didn’t see it growing out of control.
He says, “Look, I know I scared you. I’m sorry. But everyone comes to everyone with a history. We’re learning how we are together, but we’re still who we were before.”
I don’t know who he was before. And I had left who I was before a long time ago. I replaced her with someone who saved her heart for taste and texture and smell. Who used her head for everything else. Who made things make sense. Making sense is what saved me, sustained me. It’s what pulled me out of the ashes and wed me to a career that relies on all the properties of fire. It’s what recreated me into a person surrounded by people, by cooks and waiters and bartenders and dishwashers and vendors and customers, so I didn’t know I was alone. What I learned, in addition to how to cook, was that every time something went wrong, if I could make sense of it I could make it right. I didn’t take chances until I let a stranger into my kitchen, into my bed.
I made sense of him. He was young but already too tired. He wanted stability. He wanted to make a life with someone in an industry he loved and understood. He knew how to operate every piece of equipment, how to increase profits, how to train cooks and servers. He was a fabulous, inspiring, inventive cook. He could butcher meat, he could skin a Dover sole in one move, he could suspend caviar in sabayon as easily as he could make grilled cheese. These things made him happy and they made sense to me. He knew that by just giving me a bite of something I hadn’t had before, I would cave. That my heart would take over. He knew how to get there.
So when I get to the restaurant this morning, after having been with him for over a year and a half, and my key won’t turn in the lock, I know I am dreaming. About banana pancakes. I was not surprised that he left me in the middle of the night because since the first time, it has become a ritual and one I celebrate like a teenager. This morning I showered and shaved, put on lotion, per-fume. I hope he is making banana pancakes because that’s what I have a taste for. Banana pancakes with pecans and caramel syrup. I will let him feed them to me, bite by sweet bite, because I always do. Because I am certifiably hokey in love.
I try the key again and again and then so hard it actually snaps off in the lock. I look like a thief, trying to break into my own restaurant. It is only seven in the morning and no one is out on the street yet. I cup my hands to either side of my face like blinders and peer inside. The lights are all out and so it gives the illusion that nothing is there, that my restaurant is an empty room. Like when I first started, when I had been emptied out and bought a space I could fill. The tables and chairs seem to have vanished. Maybe he moved them. Maybe he is redecorating the dining room or washing the carpet. I knock. And wait. I knock again, and call out his name. No one comes. So I knock again and again and again, each time harder and then harder than that so that he will hear me, emerge from wherever he is and make the fear starting to smoke and smolder inside me curl back into ash.
A police car cruises by and the officer gets out and asks to see some ID but I have nothing that says this space belongs to me. My key is broken in a lock where it didn’t fit. My face is wet so I know I am crying and my teeth are clenched and they hurt—everything hurts—and then without seeing it coming, I start screaming, appear crazy, delusional, all the kinds of crazy I know, like someone to fear. Me. Someone to fear.
The cop pats my shoulder and asks me to calm down. When I do, he looks through the window and then asks me to tell him what is inside my restaurant. My description does not match what he sees. “There’s no stained glass hanging there, maam.”
“What about the coffee station?” I say. “In the back corner? The espresso machine, regular coffee maker, two pots, one for decaf…” I rattle off my inventory like an auctioneer.
“Nothing back there, maam. Nothing at all. Is there someone we can call?” Of course, there is! I think. Call him. We’ve been robbed! He is probably tied up somewhere in the restaurant, waiting to be saved. Why didn’t I think of this before? How much time have I wasted? He trusts everyone. He would have let anyone in. He could be dead in there!
I recite his cell phone number and while the officer dials, I wipe my eyes and gather my strength and stand up straight. I’m coming, don’t worry. I’m here. I’m coming, but a message on his cell phone says it’s been disconnected. I paid the bill last week.
“Is there anyone else?” he asks me.
Anyone else? No, no one. There is no one else.
“Uh, ma’am?” he says, because I have not answered him and am staring into the black window, my place. “An employee maybe? A manager?”
Yes, there are employees. Waiters and dishwashers. There are hostesses, line cooks, two sous chefs, busboys, a sommelier on the weekends. There are day managers and night managers. Sometimes there is a harpist in the dining room, a quartet in the bar lounge. There are lots of people, really nice people, who come here every day and night to eat. An entire world of wonderful people.
I want to tell him this but don’t know how when I look up and see Adele, the night manager, standing there. I hear her identifying herself, asking what’s wrong. I hear her identifying me. I hear her saying she is here early because she left her cell phone in the hostess stand last night and needs it now to call her mother. I wonder why she didn’t just call her mother from her home. I wonder what would have happened if we had been naked on the air mattress in my office, eating banana pancakes with our fingers, hearing someone upstairs rummaging around the hostess stand. We would have thought we were being robbed. We have been robbed.
Another policeman comes and together the two men bust open the door and Adele and I walk in. Adele says “oh my God oh my God” over and over again. I do not speak. Adele starts walking around the dining room, touching the walls, moving one hand over the other as if the missing tables, chairs, linens, vases, flatware will miraculously reappear from behind the dusky pink wallpaper I put up myself. In my lonely days. When I thought I was safe. Poof. Everything has disappeared. There is nothing in the dining room, the bar, the lounge. All the plates and glassware, the water pitchers, the creamers and sugar bowls, the cream and sugar. Gone. The kitchen is an empty stainless steel vault. The huge Hobart to the tiny paring knives, the pots and pans, the tongs and spatulas and slotted spoons, and strainers, everything has vanished. The food is gone, the steaks and chops and fish and ribs, potatoes and onions and garlic, all the oils and vinegars, the spices and herbs, the truffles, pates, flour, butter, yeast, milks, the extracts. The walk-in cooler is cleaned out, except for a crate of rotting lemons.
I pull one out and my fingers fall through the soft blue and white mold to the decomposing flesh with its rancid sorry smell. How did he ever use these to make cakes? He was a magician. I sit down on the cooler floor, the terrible lemon in my palm, and try to turn magic into sense. Sleight of hand.
The police are asking me questions, but their words are jumbled and meaningless so I can’t answer. They turn to Adele, who is crying. I hear her say his name, describe him, but the description doesn’t sound like anyone I know.
The bigger of the two policemen very gently slides his hands under my arms and lifts me up. He walks me into the dining room, forgetting there is nowhere to sit, and just as gently settles me onto the carpet that apparently could not be pried up in time.
“Is there anything I can get you?”
But what can you pull out of thin air?
“Can we call someone else?” the officer asks. I try to conjure up the image of his Saturday night friends, men I never met. He could not have done this alone. I hear Adele rattling off names and numbers.
“Ok. Good,” I hear the officer say. “We’ll call them. In the meantime, do you want to go get your boss something? A cup of coffee? She needs something.”
What do you need when everything is gone?
Something small. Just one small thing, something that I could make disappear, something irreplaceable that would be gone for good. The tip of a finger. The bottom pearl of an ear. A toe, something I could run my teeth across and then bite off, clean and fast. a real thing, a real loss, that by being gone would say over and over again, forever, that I had been there.
*This story is taken from: Party Girls by Diane Goodman, Autumn House Press, 2011.
*Copyright © 2011 by Diane Goodman.
My parents always had visitors. They would come in the evening and sit in folding chairs on the back porch of our small house in New Brunswick. They greeted me—an only child —with the warmth of aunts and uncles. “How are your studies proceeding, Manny? Are you making good progress in school?” Except “good” sounded like “goot” and “school” like “skoo.” I hated the name Manny, after my dead grandfather, and insisted everyone call me Matt, an all-American name for a boy born in 1954, but our visitors didn’t know or remember to do this. Speaking the language was hard enough for them in their accents that thickened on their tongues like cornstarch the longer and more intensely they talked through the night with my parents.
Every summer my mother and I would go to the Lake Kiniwa Hotel in the Catskills, outside Liberty, New York. My father would stay behind to run the grocery and come up on weekends. Dora, my mother, waited on tables at the hotel, and in 1970, when I was sixteen, I worked as her busboy. The guests who had once numbered in the hundreds amounted to less than sixty, two stations worth of customers. Few children stayed at the hotel anymore, perhaps just a grandchild or two coming up on weekends. Some of the guests were the same ones who had visited our house over the years. They would cup my chin when I came over to clear their plates and pinch my cheek for good luck, even though I was bigger than my father, which wasn’t saying much, since he was only six inches taller than my five-foot mother.
I was all too interested in money, according to my parents. My “preoccupation,” as they referred to it, came to a head early in the season that summer of 1970 when Mr. Borwitz, one of our guests, died of a heart attack after dinner. The next day his daughter arrived to claim her father’s things; I didn’t hesitate to mention that it was the end of the month and neither my mother nor I had been tipped for our services. Mr. Borwitz’s daughter, a tall blonde wearing a silk scarf, whipped out two one-hundred-dollar bills, a premium on what we could normally expect. I presented the money to my mother, who was not pleased. “How could you?” she asked. “You run up to a grieving woman with your hand out begging?”
“First of all,” I said, “I wasn’t begging. It’s our money—”
“It was a tip!” my father, Isaac, interrupted; he’d driven up for the weekend. “A gratuity, which, by the way, I don’t agree with. Either you pay someone what they deserve—”
“Second of all,” I said, stopping him before he went off on one of his lectures about the dignity of the worker, “she wasn’t grieving at all. She was all business, complaining about how much crap her father had brought up with him and how would she ever get it all in the trunk of her big fat gold-trimmed Cadillac!”
“Go to your room, Manny!” which was what they called me when they were mad or wanted to make me mad.
“I don’t have a friggin room!” I screamed back. I shared one with my parents on the third floor of the hotel.
“What’s happened to your compassion for others?” my mother implored.
“A khazer,” my father muttered.
I was a selfish person, not quite a goniff, a thief, but close, and although my secular parents scorned religion, the opiate of the masses, after all, they didn’t hesitate to employ old world Yiddish for its unmatched tonal accuracy in evoking disappointment.
“Bad move,” Irwin said, when I told him of the incident. I’d known Irwin all my life. He was the other waiter besides Dora at the hotel, and we’d been neighbors until he went off to college. Twenty years old, he’d just finished his sophomore year at the University of Michigan. He’d gotten a low number in the draft lottery and wasn’t sure what he was going to do; his student deferment would no longer keep him out of the army. “Maybe Canada,” he said, when I pressed him.
“What about being a conscientious objector?”
“That wouldn’t work for me. It’s the conscientious part they might have trouble with—I’m not the most peaceful person.” He looked grim when he said this.
“You should have just pocketed it,” Irwin said, when I told him about getting the money from Mr. Borwitz’s daughter. He gave my shoulder a squeeze.
Every Tuesday, Nick and I—Nick worked as Irwin’s busboy and was a local kid from Liberty—placed newspapers written in Russian on about half the seats of our stations. Though I couldn’t read it, I knew that this was the equivalent of the Daily Worker, only with less stateside news and more of the Mother Country. I can’t say how many of our guests were actually members of the Communist Party, but a number of them spoke Russian as fluently as Stalin, whom they still defended. I’d taken to arguing with Mr. Peach—yes, that was actually his name, though it had been changed from the original Petrosky—about how he could possibly support the killing of millions of citizens. Stalin’s crimes were well known by this time. Hadn’t even Khrushchev changed the eponymous city’s name to Volgograd, for good reason, since Stalin was a mass murderer?
“And what of the attacks on Negroes in this country, Manny? You haven’t seen the news? Fire hoses and dogs, bombings and beatings—you call this democracy?”
“At least we have the right to protest,” I said. “In Russia you’d be arrested and never heard from again.”
“Let me tell you something,” Mr. Peach said, leaning on his cane. “The worst is yet to come.”
He tapped his cane on the hotel porch. Ten feet from us a card game went on, but no one paid attention to our argument. “I tell you this country will be ripped in two.”
I don’t think Mr. Peach was referring to the Vietnam War or racial strife. Rather it was his dream of the revolution: workers pouring into the streets and freeing the masses from capitalism, of which, sadly for my parents, I was its chief exponent.
I CAME close to drowning that summer. I’d gone down to the lake in the evening after I served dinner and shortly before dark. No one went to the lake anymore. Only frogs and water bugs disturbed its glassy surface. Dragonflies buzzed above me as the sun started to set behind the white oaks and birch trees, their branches casting shadows across the water. I hadn’t bothered bringing a bathing suit because I wasn’t planning to swim—just paddle a canoe around until I got tired and could sleep through my father’s snoring.
I took off my shirt and paddled in one smooth motion, enjoying the burning in my muscles. An old handball wall and a sagging badminton net stood on the opposite shore, nearly overgrown with chokecherry bushes. When I got to the lake’s center, I sat a moment, listening to the crickets and watching the flreflies come out, eating the handful of blackberries I’d picked on my way down the path. I lay back in the canoe, closed my eyes, and then opened them a minute later to see how much darker it had become. My hand strayed below. I thought about Sheri Savitz who had bent over to pick up her pencil in civics class. Her pink sweater had risen above the waist of her skirt and revealed the top of her matching pink panties. Not good—not up here at least, without any girls my age and only a summer of frustration ahead, so I stopped and stripped off the rest of my clothes and dove in the water to shake myself free of the memory.
I tried to exhaust myself swimming as furiously as I could in no particular direction. And when I wearied of that, I dove down to the slimy bottom of the lake, grabbed a hunk of muck, slapped it against my chest, and then shot back up like a missile piercing the water’s surface. I must have done this about fifty times. Finally after almost an hour and now tired enough to sleep, I looked for the canoe, but it was gone—having drifted back to the far side of the lake, a good hundred yards away. I turned on my back and tried to float and stay calm. I’d completed a Red Cross swim class, in case I wanted to be a lifeguard at the hotel, but of course our elderly guests rarely swam in the pool and the camp for kids had long ago been disbanded. So I knew what I had to do, yet when I looked behind me I saw that I’d gone in circles. In the dark I’d lost my reference point on the opposite shore. And then I got a terrible cramp in my leg that was so painful it affected my whole right side. I used my left arm, but that only made me go in even tighter circles. Panic set in. I started breathing faster and took water in my mouth from favoring my left side too much. You’re a strong swimmer, I kept telling myself, stay calm, breathe evenly. But when I checked my progress and saw how far I still remained from shore, fear washed over me. My leg, aching with pain, threatened to pull my whole body under.
“Hey! You okay out there?”
My body stiffened immediately. It was a girl’s voice, familiar but too distant to recognize.
“No,” I said.
“What’d you say?”
“HELP!” I shouted.
“Coming!” the voice said. I didn’t think about being naked. I didn’t care that I had no idea who was coming for me. I couldn’t concentrate on anything other than the seconds passing. Then I heard the other canoe and grabbed hold of its solid bow.
ABOUT Irwin. We’d both come up to the area since we were young, attending the red-diaper summer camps and belting out the words to “Joe Hill,” “Union Maid,” and the “World Youth Song.” Once, when I was eight and Bobby Melk teased me about being skinny—he had called me Road Map because the veins showed through in my chest—Irwin, twelve years old, the same as Bobby, punched him in the nose. Irwin was “confined to quarters,” but when pressed as to why he had punched the boy, he wouldn’t say. He didn’t want to be seen as heroic in defending me, because this somehow diminished my stature, and he didn’t want to rat on the kid, because this diminished his. So he would only explain he’d done what was necessary. I finally told the counselors the story myself. Then we had a long group meeting at the baseball field about all of us being brothers and sisters and sharing beliefs in the common good and “from those with the most ability to those with the most need,” a variation of a speech I’d heard all my life. Bobby Melk mumbled an apology to me. Irwin was asked to apologize to Bobby—in front of the group. Irwin stood up and though we could have expected anything, he put two fingers in his mouth and blasted a whistle, at which Rusty, the camp’s Irish setter, came racing down the hill and sat at rigid attention in front of Irwin, an astonishing show of canine fealty.
“Irwin,” the counselor said, not knowing what to make of Rusty’s sudden presence, “don’t you have something to say to Bobby?” But Irwin snapped his fingers and Rusty twisted in the air like a hooked fish. Then Irwin put his hand out flat and motioned down, and Rusty put his snout on his front paws and crawled toward Irwin as if in jungle combat. We red-diaper campers cheered; Irwin must have been training him all along. The counselor’s plea for self-criticism and apology was drowned out, and Irwin, who had forgiven me for telling what happened, waved to us over his shoulder as he bolted into the woods with Rusty.
He was sent home the next morning to his parents, our neighbors. Of course that made him a martyr and started a movement of its own at the camp: Why had Irwin, our young comrade, been “expelled”? Why did he have to apologize to Bobby Melk, the camp bully (who later that summer wound up getting caught stealing)? Didn’t Irwin represent all the good things the camp was trying to teach us about fellowship? Indeed, just being associated with Irwin shot up my prestige at the camp, and in the absence of the real person, I mythicized his exploits, and invented some, by flashlight late at night.
So it was a great surprise to discover that my rescuer proved none other than Irwin’s fourteen-year-old sister, Julie, who’d just arrived that evening with her parents. She’d been sitting alone on the bank of the lake.
“You’re shivering,” she said when she reached me. “Get in.”
True, I was shivering, but not from cold as much as embarrassment at being saved by a fourteen-year-old girl who’d had a crush on me for the last several years. “I’m good here.”
“Don’t be silly, Manny.” When she leaned over I smelled peppermint chewing gum on her breath. I tried to rest my elbows on the side of the canoe, as if we were just having an idle conversation at the edge of a swimming pool. “I won’t look,” she promised, but there was more chance of me walking on water than getting into that boat naked with Julie. She’d obviously been watching me swim around, perhaps even followed me to the lake, and grateful as I was to be alive, I was irritated too.
Eventually Julie gave up trying to persuade me and paddled, as I held on to the stern and kicked along. When we got to shore, I asked her to turn away while I got my clothes from the other canoe, which had drifted to the lake bank. I had the distinct feeling she failed to obey my request as I streaked toward the boat, my buttocks flashing white in the moonlight.
THE next morning my mother fainted while serving breakfast. She dropped her service tray of twelve bowls of oatmeal. In the kitchen, I heard the loud crash and rushed out. I’d worried this would happen. For weeks, I’d pleaded with her to let me carry the tray, but she insisted she was strong enough. She would not, or could not, carry it one handed above her shoulder and had to hold the wide tray in front of her as if presenting a big birthday cake. Her face would turn red, she’d huff and puff, her back would creak under the strain, and she’d barely make it to the tray stand. I would chase after her, but she’d shoo me away: “This is my job, Manny. If I can’t do it right, I shouldn’t do it at all.”
“Don’t be stubborn,” I told her. But she wouldn’t listen. She didn’t want to be dependent on anyone, even her son. For years she’d schlepped at the store helping my father, cashiering and pushing around stock. She was her father’s daughter, my grandfather a Russian Jew from Odessa, who’d made his living as a tailor and hadn’t stopped working even in his seventies when nearly sightless he could only sew by touch.
Irwin was already at my mother’s side when I got there. She’d recovered enough to sit up. All around her were the shattered bowls, the metal lids, and gobs of oatmeal. Seeing her there dazed, her white apron between her spread legs, terrified me.
“Mom,” I said, kneeling down. “What happened?”
“I got dizzy, Matty.” She never called me Matty. Manny, or maybe Matt when I reminded her. “I saw stars—just like they say! ” She tried to make a joke out of it, but nobody was laughing. The guests had gathered around.
“Please give Dora some air,” Irwin asked. They shuffled back a few paces.
“She needs a doctor,” said Mr. Drach. “Anybody a doctor?”
No one answered. They were all communists, no high rollers here.
I got up and went to the serving station and poured a big glass of water. I held it to her lips. “Thank you, sweetheart,” she said. “I must be dehydrated.”
“You ready to stand up?” Irwin asked her. My mother nodded. Irwin motioned for me to get on her other side to help. Although my mother was a small woman, I was surprised at how heavy she was when we tried to lift her. Dead weight. She didn’t have any strength in her legs. We supported her until Mrs. Fishman pushed a chair under her, and she sat down again. “Just give me another moment,” she said. “Then I’ll be ready to go.” She drank some more water.
Irwin went to the kitchen for a mop. I kept my eye on Dora while the chef started to dish up more oatmeal. After a while, she stood up on her own. “I’ll take over, Mom,” I announced. I’d expected her to protest. I was only sixteen. But Miriam, the owner, who had come in from outside, nodded her consent. My mother didn’t argue.
SHE rested during the afternoon, while I served lunch without a hitch. Irwin’s busboy, Nick, the local kid from Liberty and sixteen like me, hustled between our stations and kept up with both jobs. But of all times, Miriam insisted that Nick and I polish two bus boxes full of flatware, a messy, smelly job. “Dora is ill,” I complained to her. “Can’t this wait?”
“It’s been waiting all summer. There’s nothing you can do for your mother right now. Let her have a good long rest.” Talk about your lapsed socialist. I’m not sure Miriam gave a damn for the Movement. She’d hosted the group for years, and despite their dwindling numbers, she counted on their core business. My mother was supposedly a distant cousin of hers, but we weren’t exactly treated like family. We had a small and hot room (I’d gotten two fans from the storeroom and put them near my mother to keep her cool) and were asked to work seven days a week. This was no union job. I didn’t care because I was young and glad for the work, any job, but I worried for my mother. It was no secret that my father’s grocery, in an increasingly downtrodden and crime-ridden section of New Brunswick, was barely making it, squeezed out by the larger supermarkets that had opened in the suburbs. His customers were the poor and elderly who walked to and from the store. They paid in food stamps, and when those ran out at the end of the month, my father extended them credit.
He prided himself on never being robbed and informed me the best protection a person can buy is generosity, but this didn’t keep his shelves from growing sparser, his creditors from leaning on him, and the other merchants from going out of business like swatted flies.
As Nick and I worked away at the silver, Julie came into the dining room, a moment I’d been dreading. She was wearing a red bikini and looking for a can to curl her hair. “You have one?” she asked pleasantly, her voice bright, her green eyes shining. I said I’d check in the kitchen. I dawdled a moment looking through the trash for an empty vegetable or fruit can the right size.
“Here you go,” I said, when I found one and came out with it.
“Thanks, Manny.” I shrugged. Matt, Manny, what did it matter? I’d almost drowned and was standing in front of my bikini- clad savior, her breasts substantially larger than when she used to come to my house and ask if she could play golf with me, a capitalistic sport if ever there was one that I’d taken up and devoutly played every Saturday. Or she’d come over with a plate of cookies. Or a quiz she wanted me to take in a teen magazine to determine if I was more a feeling or thinking person. This had been going on for the last two years, and now she was, as they say, developed, curvaceous and tanned, her lips a frosted pink. Nick dreamily rubbed a silver cream pitcher as he stared at her. Technically she and I, at this time of year, were only two years apart—her birthday in May, mine in July—but we were miles apart otherwise: I was going into eleventh grade, she into ninth, a huge gap in teenage time. It wasn’t so long ago that I’d watched her set up her stuffed animals in the backyard with nametags while she practiced gymnastics in front of them.
“I’d better get back to work,” I said.
“See ya,” Julie said. Barefoot, her hips wriggling in her low-slung bikini bottom, a scalloped shell of sun-bleached downy hair fanning out from the small of her back, and trying to balance the can on her head, she made her way out the door.
“Wow,” said Nick.
“She’s fourteen,” I said. “Just.”
Nick smirked. “Just right, you mean.”
“Not cool,” I warned him. I was grateful Julie hadn’t mentioned anything in front of Nick about saving me from drowning. “Let’s quit polishing,” I told him. “We’ve got to set up for tonight.” The hotel, more from tradition than demand, kept kosher, separate plates for lunch and dinner, no flayshadig with milchedig. And we had a few guests, mixed among our fellow travelers (and even some of those), who were observant. I set out the dinner plates and silverware, folded the linen napkins like swans tonight—I could do hares and doves too—and nestled them in the goblets, then I went to check on my mother.
BUT before I could get there, I became distracted by loud voices on the porch. Irwin, who had just come back from picking up clean tablecloths for breakfast because the laundry delivery truck had broken down, was going at it with Mr. Hower, also one of our visitors in New Brunswick, but someone I’d never cared for. He often drank and became loud and argumentative—obstreperous, my father called it. I’d gone to a number of protests with my parents, until I told them I didn’t want to go anymore, and Mr. Hower was always out in front. Usually we’d join a larger group, farm workers, strikers, civil rights marchers, and fit in alongside them, beefing up their numbers, until someone, specifically Mr. Hower, would unfurl the Communist Party banner. People would suddenly part from us as if the Red Sea had opened. Mr. Hower would inevitably call them weaklings or cowards or phony baloneys, or on one occasion, though my father disputed it, “proletarian pussies.” I knew I’d heard right. And I didn’t trust him.
Mr. Hower had stormed off and Irwin was breathing hard, as if he’d been in a fistfight, not just an argument. Mrs. Krantz and Mrs. Lieber, both widows, squinting up through their thick lenses at six-foot-two Irwin, were telling him not to pay any attention.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said.
“What were you yelling about?” I wasn’t going to let it go. Between my mother’s fainting, my near drowning, and now this nasty argument, things were getting out of hand, especially considering the hotel’s usually arthritic pace.
“It was about those shootings,” said Mrs. Lieber. She meant Kent State, which had happened in May.
“What was Hower saying?”
“He thought the students were expendable,” Irwin said.
“If they had more sense, they would have made themselves part of a larger movement, been better organized and kept their focus on the greater good. No one should mistake themselves for being indispensable. What bullshit. He was trying to bait me. And I let him.”
“No surprise you lit into him,” I said.
Mrs. Krantz said, “He’s a very pushy man.”
“Yes, he is,” Mrs. Lieber agreed.
“He likes to get people’s goat,” Mrs. Krantz added.
“Does he ever!” Mrs. Lieber echoed.
“We’ll stick up for you,” Mrs. Krantz said, “if anyone gives you the business.”
They adored Irwin, who had grown a beard at school but had shaved it off to work at the hotel, as well as cut his dark curly hair. He’d promised his mother that he would help out Miriam, though he could have made more money at one of the bigger hotels, the Concord, Browns, the Flagler, the Pines, even Grossingers.
“Er toig nit,” Mrs. Lieber said, which I understood well enough to mean Mr. Hower was a loser.
I SERVED dinner that evening while my mother rested. As soon as I’d swept my station, I went up to see how she was doing. My father, who’d just arrived, a day early to be with my mother, was sitting in bed with her, both of them in their stocking feet. “See?” my mother said, patting the top of her head as if it were a good puppy. “All better.” She looked pleased, and the color had come back into her face.
My father wiggled his toes at me like sock puppets. “We’re very proud of you.”
“We are,” my mother said. “People stopped by and told me how well you’ve been taking care of them.”
“You’re growing up, son.”
They looked tiny, if happy and relieved, sitting in that small double bed (I slept on a cot the size of a strip of bacon). They’d surely forgiven me for whatever disappointment I’d caused them over Mr. Borwitz’s daughter.
“Sit, sit,” my father asked. “Tell me what you’ve been doing all week.”
“You know,” I said, looking at my watch, “I think I’m going to take a walk.”
“You just came upstairs! It’s getting late.”
I shrugged. “I guess I’m not sleepy yet.”
“I’m sorry, son,” my father said. “We should have insisted on getting you your own room.”
“That’s okay.” I knew they’d done it to save money. One room was free, a second would have meant a deduction from our meager pay. “I’m glad you’re feeling better,” I told my mother.
“Thank you, darling. You were a wonderful help.”
I went downstairs to the kitchen. Sometimes I would sneak into the walk-in refrigerator and just sit on a covered plastic bucket of floating pear halves and eat everything in sight: hardboiled eggs, salami, herring, grapefruit, olives, potato salad, cheesecake . . . I was always famished. My face had become leaner, my shoulders and chest broader, and I could barely close the top button of my white shirt to snap on my busboy’s bow tie. Like any growing adolescent I was on intimate terms with a refrigerator, in this case an entire walk-in, and considered it my rightful compensation for seven days of labor at seventy-five cents an hour, which didn’t include set-up time.
But when I sat there this evening, chilled as a beer glass, the cooler’s fan silencing any noise outside of my own thoughts, I didn’t eat. I just wondered if my mother would ever be able to stop working and if my father had expected this hard life, striving all hours of the day and justifying it by always saying he was “just one of the little people” trying to survive. It was as though he secretly believed his life meant more if he suffered as an example than if he succeeded as an exception. But who was I to blame them for the life they’d chosen? Sitting next to each other in bed, sharing some grand dream of a better world, planning to picket for fair housing, debating excitedly whether they should fork out the cash to print leaflets this time around or use a mimeograph machine, my father the treasurer, my mother the secretary of a nearly penniless and shrinking organization . . . and could I ever have made them happier, with any academic accomplishment or extracurricular achievement, than when I came home in second grade and reported that I’d refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance because it contained the words “one nation under God”? Who was to say their illusions were any worse than the ones I would collect over the years and lose? I felt too young to know something so disappointing, but I did.
I went outside and walked in back of the hotel to the casino, closed years ago. Julie and Irwin were there talking in the dark. I sat down next to them on the peeling wooden steps of the casino. Bats regularly flew around inside; pounds of guano were rumored to be above the rafters.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Just talking,” Irwin said. Julie was wearing white shorts, all the better to show off her tan legs. Not one to be out of step with the times either, she had on a blossom-bursting, tie-dyed tank top.
“Am I disturbing you?”
“We’ve pretty much wrapped it up, right Jules?” If her sulking look was any indication, Julie didn’t seem to agree.
“Really, I can leave,” I offered.
“Stay. In fact, you kids talk,” Irwin said like an uncle. “Give me a hug, Jules?” He put his long arms around her and she weakly reciprocated. He got up and left.
“What was that about?” I asked. “You look crushed.”
“He makes me so mad.” She put her head down between her knees.
After a long silence, I said, “Are you going to tell me why?”
“He won’t tell me what’s going on. He’s arguing with Mom and Dad about not going back to college. He’s got more important things on his mind than college, he says. So I keep asking him what’s wrong, and he goes, ‘Nothing’s wrong, Jules.’ ‘Is it the draft?’ I ask him. ‘No.’ ‘Did you get a girl in trouble?’ He grunted. I guess that meant no. He’s always told me everything before, everything.”
“Maybe he’s just trying to figure things out for himself.”
Julie lifted her head and looked at me. “I didn’t tell anyone,” she said. “About the lake.”
Now that she’d brought it up I couldn’t pretend it hadn’t happened. “I was embarrassed out there. I could hardly face you, let alone thank you.”
“You would have made it. I just gave a lift, was all. Anyway, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I almost drowned once in Cape May. Irwin had to pull me out.”
“He’s good at saving people too. You’ve got a regular family franchise going.”
“Stop it,” Julie said, slapping my arm, but letting her hand linger there. “Don’t tease. I’m not in the mood for it. My brother’s treating me like a complete child. Everything’s so ‘personal.’ He actually used that word when I asked him what exactly his plans were for next year. He’s never been like that around me.”
I was listening, but I was also wondering if she was right. Would some survival instinct have finally propelled me safely to shore on my own?
“My parents are bugging me, too,” she said. “They won’t let me go to Long Island for a week. My friend Cindy’s parents have a house on Fire Island. We’d be there by ourselves for a couple of days while her parents traveled. I made the mistake of telling my mom that part, too—dope that I am.”
“It does sound a little unsupervised.”
“I knew you’d say that.” She brushed the ground with the toe of her sandal. Her nails were polished a pearly white. “Forget it,” she said. “Everyone’s turning against me anyway.”
“Nobody’s turning against you. Irwin’s in a bind, worried about being drafted—”
“He won’t even discuss it. He just keeps saying to leave him alone. He has to figure out what to do. Go to a psychiatrist and get a letter, I told him. ‘I’ve never been saner about things,’ he told me, but he was incredibly angry when he said it.”
I thought about Irwin’s explosion on the porch today. Julie was right about his anger, but I’d seen something else too—fear.
She put her hand on my thigh. “Let’s stop talking about my brother,” she said. “How’s your mother doing?”
“Better, thanks.” She let her hand drop further over my thigh and leaned her head on my shoulder. I thought about her lining up the stuffed animals in her backyard. She was still a skinny little girl then, using a deodorant can as a microphone to sing to those same stuffed animals, and though that shouldn’t have mattered now, our bodies having regenerated their cells several times over according to my tenth grade biology book, I couldn’t do what every new cell and engorged muscle in my body wanted to. “It’s getting late,” I said. “I’ve got to get up early and serve breakfast.”
“I don’t eat breakfast,” she said. “I don’t give a damn about breakfast.”
“I have to,” I said. “I don’t have a choice.”
“Then go. Leave. Desert me like everybody else,” she said, pouting and pointing her finger away, as if casting me out from the garden.
IN the morning, my mother was back at work, with my father’s help. At one point, they both carried the tray out, Mother on one side, Father on the other, as if moving a sofa across the room. “Come on, let me do that,” I said.
My father took me aside in the kitchen. “Leave your mother alone about the tray. She doesn’t want to look helpless.”
“But that’s exactly how she looks carrying it like that.” “Please,” he said, “she wants to do it this way.”
So I kept my mouth shut. Irwin went about serving, but I noticed during a lull he was standing at his station drinking coffee, which we weren’t supposed to do. After breakfast, he took me aside. He looked as if he’d lost weight since he’d first gotten here.
“What did my sister tell you last night?” he asked. “Nothing,” I said. “Just that she was worried about you.”
“She didn’t tell you anything else?”
“No. What’s wrong?”
He didn’t answer me. Not directly at least. “I want you to do something for me. If I’m not here tomorrow . . .”
“Wait—what do you mean, if I’m not here?”
“Just listen. I want you to tell my parents I’m okay. Can you do that?”
“Where are you going? Is this about the draft?”
Irwin took me to the end of the porch. Mr. Abrams, who once had to “disappear” for a few weeks after being subpoenaed during the McCarthy hearings, was playing a game of solitaire and occasionally glancing up at us. Irwin lowered his voice, just a bit. “I’m going to South America, all right? But you can’t tell anyone. I’ll be fine. I’ll contact people as soon as I can.”
“What are you talking about? Where in South America? Are you in trouble?”
“Take it easy,” he said. He wrapped his arms around me, just as he had his sister last night, and hugged me hard. “And take care of everyone, okay?”
“Julie’s very upset—”
“Keep an eye out for her most of all.”
“Irwin, you just can’t leave—what about your guests?”
He laughed and shook his head. “You would worry about that. The least of my problems, Matt.”
By the next morning he was gone. Everyone was looking for him. Miriam told me to check his room to see if he’d overslept, but I knew he wouldn’t be there. When there was no answer, she got a key and opened the door—an empty room, all his stuff missing. “What’s going on?” she asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said.
His parents came down next. Mr. Winterstein was a tall man, like his son, and Irwin’s mother was built more like her daughter, curvy; the ever-creepy Mr. Hower had always leered at her when she came to our house. I told them the same thing I’d told Miriam, and now my parents too, who had lined up in the hallway outside Irwin’s room: I knew nothing. But Mr. Abrams had mentioned I’d been talking to Irwin on the porch and that we were “whispering.”
“You must tell us,” my mother said, “if you know anything.”
“I don’t,” I said.
“Why would he take off like this?” Irwin’s father asked. “We were arguing, yes, about his going back to school, but this isn’t like him.”
Meanwhile, our guests were clamoring for breakfast. “We have people waiting,” I told the group jamming the hallway as if we were in a Marx Brothers movie. “I’ll take over Irwin’s station,” I announced, and that’s what I did, for the rest of the summer.
JUST before the season ended on Labor Day, we had a visitor at the hotel, a balding man with thick black glasses, wearing a dark blue suit and white shirt. He spent time speaking with Miriam in her office. I was down by the pool, cleaning it, and thinking that I wouldn’t come back next summer, that I didn’t want to work with my mother and see her sweating and grunting over this job, and that if I refused to return, money or no money, maybe she would too. My name was paged over the PA system: Manny Heffer- man, please come to the hotel lobby.
“This gentleman would like to speak with you, Manny,” Miriam said. My father was back in New Brunswick, and my mother had gone shopping in Monticello. “He’s with the FBI.”
“My parents aren’t here,” I said.
Ken Boyer, that’s what he said his name was, clapped his hand on my shoulder. “Let’s just talk for a couple of minutes. No big deal, Manny, right?” The term “super-friendly” came to mind, not in a good way.
“Why don’t I sit in too,” Miriam said. For once she seemed to be on my side and concerned about me.
“Sure, no problem,” said Agent Boyer—as I would later refer to him. “But I think Manny’s a big enough fellow to have a private chat. Aren’t you, Manny?” It felt patronizing, his appealing to my pride and maturity, as if he were talking to a child, but there was a threatening edge to his good cheer that also backed Miriam down, and she left us alone in her office.
He placed a legal pad on the desk in front of him and laid his fountain pen—gray with marble swirling—across it. “So how’s your summer going, Manny? You enjoying working up here? I understand you’re a waiter now.”
Since I was only sixteen and there were limited numbers of hours I could work, I just nodded vaguely.
“Got some good fishing around here, too, I hear. You fish down at that lake?”
“Used to,” I said, “when I was five.”
“Brookies, bass, walleyes . . . how’s your friend Irwin doing?”
“Irwin. You and he are buddies, right? Heard from him lately?” Agent Boyer spun his marbled pen on the pad, a big smile on his face.
“I haven’t,” I said.
“I was hoping you could help me out, Manny.” It bothered me that he used my name so much. “He spoke with you before he left here, didn’t he?”
“Who told you that?”
“All I want to do is talk with your friend.”
“I really think I should have my parents here. They wouldn’t like me meeting alone with you. I shouldn’t be doing this, I’m only sixteen—”
“Seventeen,” Agent Boyer corrected.
“Just a few days ago.”
“You’re not a kid who lies, are you, Manny?”
“I’m not lying—”
“You just did about your age.”
“I forgot . . . I’m so used to being sixteen.”
Agent Boyer rubbed his hands together as if trying to start a fire. “A little cold back here,” he said. “Fall will be around before you know it. So what was it exactly that Irwin told you before he left?”
“He didn’t say anything.”
“I think he did, Manny. In fact, we know he did.”
It was the first time he’d used the word “we,” and it sent a shudder through me. “I want to call my father.”
“You want to get your father involved in this?”
“What do you mean?” I said.
He smiled without amusement, his eyes flat. “Just what I said.”
“My father had nothing to do with this!”
“With what? Oh, you mean with this?” Agent Boyer opened his briefcase and laid out a photograph of Irwin in a crowd of college students. He was holding a rock in his hand and facing a row of police with gasmasks on.
“I don’t know anything about it,” I said, and I didn’t.
Agent Boyer nodded agreeably. “Okay, how about this one?” He slipped a larger glossy photograph out of a manila envelope. My breath caught. It was a photograph of Irwin talking with my father outside his grocery in New Brunswick. Irwin had a beard then that dated the photograph, but I didn’t know how far back. It could have been as much as a year. “Irwin was our next door neighbor,” I said. “He came to the store all the time. Where did you get that picture?”
Agent Boyer put the photographs away without answering and knit his fingers into a ball. “You seem to know a great deal about his whereabouts, Manny. I’m sure you can think harder about them now.”
THE following winter my mother died. She’d had several more dizzy spells. Her doctors had advised her just to rest. It was most likely her diabetes or high blood pressure, they said. But one night after we all went to see the movie Mash, and allowed ourselves a good, if dark, laugh on a cold evening, she curled up in the back seat of our Plymouth on the ride home, claiming she was suddenly tired. She let out a sharp whimper that we thought was a sleep noise. By the time we reached our driveway, she’d died of a brain hemorrhage.
Many of the same visitors who’d come to our house over the years attended the funeral. Mr. Peach was there and Mr. Abrams, as well as Mrs. Lieber and Mrs. Krantz, although Mr. Hower was notably absent. They talked amongst themselves, offered their condolences, and told me how wonderful a person my mother was —not an enemy in the world. They drank the coffee and ate the knishes and kugel we had put out for them. My father, who hadn’t stepped foot in a synagogue since my bar mitzvah (that I’d insisted on, not for the least of reasons being money), sat shiva and asked me to join him. He was worried about me, a seventeen-year-old boy and only child losing his mother. I smoked my grief away, and when cigarettes didn’t do the trick anymore, I took up grass and kept myself stoned for my year of mourning. If anyone asked how I was doing, I said great, and believed it.
Julie and her parents were at the funeral, of course, but not Irwin. No one knew where he was. People suspected Canada, but I’d perhaps thrown the FBI off the track by telling them South America. “You haven’t heard anything from him?” I asked Julie.
“No, nothing, zip,” she said, and dropped her head. I could see the clean pink line of her parted brown hair that hung straight down her back now. She looked sophisticated in her black dress and a single strand of gold around her neck. Her parents were sick with worry about Irwin and still believed I was holding something back.
“Are you?” her eyes pleaded. “You can tell me now, if you are. It would give us all some peace of mind, no matter what.”
“He said he was going to South America—the same as I told the FBI.” I didn’t tell her that I feared for my father and mother if I didn’t cooperate, and that Agent Boyer had made it clear he knew everything about them—and me—and that he somehow knew, too, this was my greatest childhood fear: my parents would be taken away and executed like the Rosenbergs. I’d never quite outgrown it.
I turned away from her eyes, which were wide open with expectation. “He’s fine,” I said.
Julie put her hand on my arm, a steadying touch for her. “What are you saying?”
“Just that Irwin could always take care of himself. We both know that.”
“I want him back,” Julie said. “I can’t stand not knowing where he is and if he’s okay. Sometimes I feel crazy. Oh, God, your lovely mother just died and look at me going on about my problems.”
I put my arm around her shoulder. She kissed me lightly on the cheek and said to stay in touch, such an adult phrase. I was almost—or yes, I was at that moment—in love with her. “I’m so sorry about your mother, Manny.” It didn’t matter now. Irwin was the only one who remembered to call me Matt, anyway. I would be Manny from hereon, the name my mother had died calling me. Honor your name; name no names, my father had always told me.
I got a scholarship to a small liberal arts college in the Northwest. The summer of my freshman year I went camping with a student group in the Three Sisters Wilderness. One night, I wept uncontrollably for my mother. A girl from my economics class, Sandra, sat by me, and didn’t ask what was wrong, for which I was grateful. She seemed instinctively to understand I couldn’t do anything but weep, after years of not doing so. In the morning I decided when I went back in the fall I’d switch majors from marketing to history and would become a high school teacher.
Years later, when I was married to Sandra and living in Portland with our first child, a daughter named Daria after my mother, my father called to say he’d heard from Irwin’s family, who had moved to Florida. Julie had gone into broadcasting and was an anchor on a New Jersey TV station, married to, my father didn’t fail to mention, a lawyer for the ACLU. “You won’t believe it, Manny. Irwin’s been right above us all this time.”
“Canada! Under an alias. Michael Winn. All these years and his parents didn’t know a thing!” Irwin was coming home to serve an agreed upon sentence for the bombing of a ROTC building on campus. No one had been hurt in the incident, but it was a federal building and he would have to face the consequences. Amnesty had been granted to those draftees who fled to Canada but not to radicals who took action into their own hands. My father didn’t approve of such violence, but he could certainly understand the frustration that led to Irwin’s act.
I felt enormous relief, mostly because I could stop hiding what I’d kept secret all these years, telling no one, not even Sandra —that I’d been sending Irwin money from the part of my mother’s life insurance left to me. Nor was it for purely educational reasons that I’d gone to college in the Northwest. I’d cross the border into British Columbia, zigzag through the province, and meet him in remote places to bring him any news I had of the family. When the war ended and the threat of discovery and prosecution lessened, we eventually lost touch and I destroyed the phone numbers I had used to contact him.
That day on the porch at the hotel, after mentioning loud enough for Mr. Abrams to hear that he was going to South America, Irwin had whispered the first of these numbers and told me to memorize it, swearing me to silence. “Remember me,” he said. He bent his head down and rested his damp forehead on my shoulder, adjuring me to forgive him for what we were about to do.
*Steven Schwartz, “The Last Communist” from Little Raw Souls. Copyright © 2018 by Author. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Autumn House Books, www.autumnhouse.org
A cat was lying in the ditch by the exit road to Skogså, one of those long, strange autumn days when I’d just entered seventh grade but mostly tried to learn about magic, if any occult powers existed and if so which ones they were. When our car came closer I saw it lying stretched out on its side with eyes closed, right at the desolate end of the carriageway with the forest on one side and the rubbish tip on the other. It looked like it was sleeping. Just next to the shrubs that took over behind the dirty, yellow containers. At the bottom of the ditch ran a greenish sludge, a sluggish brook, and here and there gleamed small splinters of glass from the big clock-shaped COLOURED GLASS bin some distance away. I saw the cat first but didn’t even have to say anything to Mum. I just perceived it inside myself, and then she saw it too. Mum told Dad to stop the car and when he had done it both she and I went out. We went out under the restless cloudy sky vaulting above our heads. I hoped it was dead. The speed limit was sixty, most of them died immediately. You saw them along the roadside when you went to town. Mostly squirrels and foxes. Hares, birds. A badger once, striped and beautiful as an extraterrestrial. Some managed to get into the thicket to die in peace. But they all died.
When we got closer we saw blood running out of one ear. A narrow bright red trickle that was already drying. Both Mum and I recognised her. It was the homeless one. She had no name, but her tortoiseshell fur was black and luminous silver. Most of the time she used to be fat or have a kitten at her heels. But now she was small and empty. Her ribs could be seen through the fur.
The cat had lived outside since her owner returned to the town a few years before. He was one of the summer visitors, one of those who came and went. Who had a cabin near the bog and probably thought it was nice to have a kitten during the holiday, something for the kids to have fun with. Assumed it would manage just fine, and then driven away. That’s what Mum had said. Someone in town had tried to take the cat home when she saw it wandering around town without a collar, since there would be winter soon. Several people had got involved. Mum too would probably have taken it, if Dad wasn’t so allergic. But it was as if the cat became feral as soon as she didn’t have anything to do with people. No one succeeded in catching her. Two winters the cat had survived on her own, as by a miracle. And it wasn’t the winter that took her after all, but the road.
But the cat wasn’t dead. When we were just steps away from her, she opened her eyes. One of her eyelids couldn’t quite keep up. But the whites of her eyes gleamed from fear. She tried to crawl away, dragging her hind legs along the ground. I stopped, couldn’t look at her at all, how she tried to flee from us, what could I do, nothing. The cat could even be dangerous, scratch and bite. But Mum reached it in a second. A choked sound came out of her which made something shift in my body, as if all liquid had run out and just left some shrunken shells that rubbed against each other inside.
– Come back here now, shouted Jimmy from the backseat and knocked on the car window with his hockey club. Mum didn’t seem to notice. She had squatted down and put her hand on the cat, light enough as to hardly touch it. This seemed to calm it a little, or maybe it was too weak to react anymore. The lowest part of its back ended in a strange way. The increasing drizzle made Dad switch on the windscreen wipers behind us. Mum shook her head slowly, she didn’t look as big either now, when she looked at it.
Jimmy knocked on the window pane again. He was late for his training, that’s why he was making a fuss. The sludge in the ditch smelled sour and toxic. It had probably been drawn out of all the metal and plastic lying behind the grating up there on the ground. The greenest of the colour had gathered in a slimy band floating on top of the clay. Not a single blade of grass grew on the slope, everything was dead. Just gravel and soil and poison.
– Her back is broken, said Mum.
The eyes of the cat had slid shut again. Its breathing was weak, hardly noticeable. Its tail matted by clay. Mum looked around, her face totally calm, as when she was at home and tried to remember where she had put the newspaper and methodically ruled out alternatives one by one. To the right, at an angle behind her, lay a coarse stone half covered by tightly compressed gravel. Her fingertips whitened when she started rocking it back and forth until the soil let go of it. Rain dripped from her fingers and forehead as she raised her hand. It happened so quickly, the single strike, I turned away but still saw it. Stone in fur. Stone against flesh and bone. She took off her jacket, wrapped it around the cat and lifted her up. On our way back to the car I saw Jimmy rolling his eyes as he pointed at his wristwatch. Dad wound down the window.
– Not inside the car! he shouted.
She stopped, for just a moment, and turned to me. Maybe the change had already happened, because I remember that her eyes were shining, of something.
– Will you open the hatch?
It was the same day me and Mum buried the cat under the old willow that she moved up to the attic. Everything happened so suddenly that no one understood where she had taken off to. I went out and looked in the yard. But when I came back inside Jimmy said where she had gone. And that the door was locked. She had collected a few things, the folding bed, the little armchair from the living room, some of my books that were hers to begin with. Now and then she came downstairs to eat, otherwise we hardly saw her. Apart from the hockey, Jimmy was still grounded, but he kept to his room. The house fell silent. Dad didn’t say a word. Not at first. I heard him mentioning it to one of his friends on the phone. He laughed, but there was something new, kind of nervous, in his voice, as if there was a small, wet and hairy animal in his throat that he couldn’t swallow.
We waited for her to make one of her famous “statements.” She was an old hippie, Mum. That’s what Dad used to say, anyway. “One week it’s the government, the next we can’t eat meat and the third there’s some war she’s read a report about in the paper.” I knew that what he said about Mum was mostly for fun, because he liked her ideas most of the time. As long as he didn’t have to do anything, like coming with her to demonstrations, signing petitions, stapling information to notice boards or standing outside the liquor store to collect money to save the old railway bridge no one used anymore. But it wasn’t at all as fleeting as Dad made it sound, Mum had always been political. Previously, her statements could come almost anytime and become quite heated. When me and my brother were younger we had mostly listened and soaked up her words with varying attention, but lately it had changed so that Dad and he formed a united front and started arguing with her. Sometimes there would be trouble. My brother used to giggle at Mum when she got fired up and then she got hopping mad. Daddy loved it. I usually didn’t say much. I agreed with Mum in most things, actually, but if I said so both Dad and Jimmy would tease me to death. So I kept quiet. Sometimes she would cry a whole day about something she had read. Like this latest war. She had asked Dad if we could be the foster family of one of the refugee children. But he said no, that we didn’t have room. Or time. And Mum did work all the time, as did he. She nagged and nagged, no one could nag like her. Then someone from the police called and told about Jimmy, and after that she hadn’t nagged at all. All her energy went into speaking with Jimmy. She went into his room and closed the door and stayed for a long time. Then she wanted Dad in there too, but he thought she was better at things like that. They started arguing, mostly she. Don’t you understand? she yelled one night, I heard it straight through the door and all the way to the depths of my body. Don’t you understand what they’ve done? But later she stopped yelling. Stopped arguing too.
She had become so quiet that everything was strange, and then left me behind down there in the strangeness and gone upstairs and locked herself inside.
Since Mum moved upstairs it had become Dad’s responsibility to take care of everything at home, a responsibility he didn’t shoulder quietly. He needed to get a recipe for the simplest things and complained about me and Jimmy that we never helped out, that he was like a slave in his own home and that we were the most spoiled kids in the world. Jimmy was as good as Mum at slinking out of the kitchen, so I had to do everything instead. I tried to protest, but Dad had always been indulgent with Jimmy. Let him rest a bit, he just got back from training, Dad would say if I pointed at the piles of dishes. And I didn’t have the energy to keep nagging, I wasn’t like her. But every time I gave in it felt like I was losing something, that something was running out of my hands and down the drain with the dishwater, that something was being pulled out of my body, making the ground toxic.
When Mum hadn’t stopped after more than a week Dad got fed up. Made up errands up there and looked for things that weren’t even there. He knocked till Mum asked what he wanted. and when she offered to bring what he wanted downstairs if she found it he got even more annoyed.
– Open the door now, Ingrid, he said. You behave like a child.
But she refused, so he kept knocking for minutes. It could be heard all over the house, I couldn’t focus on my math. But she didn’t seem to care. Finally he gave up and came swearing down the stairs, started rummaging in the cupboard for an extra key without finding any. When he saw me standing in the doorway he shut the cupboard immediately.
– Don’t look at me like that, he said. Nothing of this is my fault.
Then he left. The sound of shots from Jimmy’s video game was the only thing that could be heard.
It turned out that she had quit her job at the hospital. I was the first one to notice. It was in October, and a water leak had forced the head teacher to close the school for the day, so I went home to cram. Most in my class had gone to the café they always went to after school or if we had a free period. I didn’t drink coffee yet. Ever since they let me skip fifth grade and change class I hadn’t had anyone to be with, and during breaks I mostly sat staring at my pen, trying to make it move by the force of thought. This was the way it was. More than a year had passed now, so I was used to it.
On my way home I saw that Klara was back, she came from the ninth-grade corridor with her friends. Although she passed me in the entrance hall at just a few meters’ distance she didn’t say hello. Even though she had been at our house twice. She had cut off all her hair. Madde in 9A stared at me, with a black look in her eyes. Apparently she had found Klara, on the top floor in the bedroom of Danne’s parents. Her dress over her head, passed out. They even pumped her stomach. I thought that would feel like being turned inside out, twisted, drained, stretched. Like an old shirt.
Mum heard the bang when all my school books landed on the hallway floor before she came out of the kitchen. It was a pretty comical sight. A big scrap of meat of some kind was hanging out of her mouth (which was strange since she was a vegetarian) and she looked a bit guilty. Maybe because I had surprised her at large in the house.
– You’re so early, was the only thing she said, chewing.
– There was a water leak at school, I said. Why aren’t you at work?
And then I got to know that she had quit.
It wasn’t the same downstairs without her. Dad had some sort of allergic reaction and was whinier than usual, he walked around sniffling and rubbing his eyes. Or else he just watched TV. She used to come to my room in the evening when I sat with my homework, to stroke my hair and ask me if I wanted something to eat. Said that I’ve done enough for today, I don’t have to be best at everything. I even missed all her outbursts about things Dad thought were small potatoes. Ever since I was little she and I had had our own private jokes, as when we pressed the tongue against the inside of the lower lip, crossed the eyes and said whatswrongwithyouthen? And then we laughed like maniacs. Jimmy thought we were incredibly childish, so we always made sure to do it when he had his friends over. She knew how to listen, and she always had the right things to say. But most of all she knew when to be silent. When saying anything didn’t help, because it was just the way things were, in class, or when Dad just wanted to tease. Then it felt great that she actually didn’t say anything, but just kept quiet for a while. Afterwards she always had some suggestion. It didn’t have to be anything special, maybe just a crossword she needed some help with.
And at night when I lay in bed without being able to sleep I thought about how she too was lying there, right above my room in the rickety folding bed, and then it was like someone went into my body. That another body went into mine and filled it up, so big that it stretched my skin, my head, and all my thoughts started teeming until it got unbearable. But I could hardly move, because the other body was heavy as lead inside my own. And when I finally fell asleep, I dreamt the same dream I always dreamt. That I was in a black space, being squeezed between the golden cog wheels of a huge clockwork. I tried to get out of there, but my sweaty hands slid off the metal. And the ticking made me almost insane. I had taught myself the technique of waking up before it was too late, before I got squeezed to death. And then I stood up straight on the floor, made the sign and pronounced the right words to see the truth. Then I walked three rounds counter-clockwise to avoid coming back to the same place when I fall asleep again. I had read about this in one of Mum’s books. Sometimes it worked. At other times I woke up in another dream instead, in which my room was similar but still different. So similar that I thought it was really my own room and walked three more rounds even there. Sometimes the room was empty apart from the bed, as if to say that there was nowhere else to go, and then I fell asleep back in the first dream, or in a new, strange dream I couldn’t remember later. Once I tried to resist the dream room and sat down on the floor in a corner instead of returning to the bed and going to sleep there, but when I leaned against the wall it gave way and I started falling and falling. After this happened, my rebellions in the second dream room stopped.
Before Mum moved upstairs I had reported all this to her, and she had said that processing your feelings at night was good, since you didn’t have to worry so much about them during the day. And this was true in a way. I worried less about what I processed at night, but in their turn the dreams led to new things to consider. Would the dream room ever become so real that I could continue living there without suspecting anything? In a parallel world, where a similar Mum existed, a similar brother, a similar school, similar books and similar things to worry about. And finally: would that be any easier?
One Saturday I pulled on my winter coat and went outside to sit on a garden chair I had carried out from the storage shed. I set it down in the heap of leaves inside the picket fence and angled it towards the attic window. Then I sat there staring. The window up there was open and I could hear her playing music, her old LP records from the seventies. The record player that used to be in the living room had disappeared a few days after she had moved. She was singing a strange melody, not at all the same as on the record, with odd words I didn’t understand. Words of different types. As if she was singing in a thousand languages. Maybe she was dancing. She used to do that sometimes while cooking, on the mat in the kitchen. With rolled up trouser legs. I waited for her to see me sitting there, or call for me to come up. But she never looked out.
Later that day, as we were sitting around the dinner table, some of Dad’s friends came over. Mum disappeared quickly as usual, after saying hello and kissing Dad on the mouth. It was Jörgen from Dad’s old job and then Olof and Rickard who he had met during military service. Just as she was heading upstairs she looked at me and there was a flash of something in her eyes, I don’t know what. I opened my mouth to say something, anything. But nothing came out, and she was gone.
Dad’s friends punched Jimmy on the back and greeted me on my way to the sink. Then they sat down at the kitchen table.
– So it’s true what we heard, said Jörgen. That your wife has taken a lover up there in the attic?
Everyone started laughing and Dad took out glasses from the cupboard and laughed too, but I saw that his face was completely stiff. Jimmy, who had stayed put, answered for him.
– Yes, we think she’s doing some voodoo up there, or has a mysterious women’s club.
Which made them laugh even more, and Jörgen turned to me.
– Then you at least should be let in.
His face was reddish, flaky and rough as a stone.
– I don’t want to be in any weird club, I said.
I felt ashamed at once and regretted it, it felt almost like they were laughing at Mum. But they hadn’t noticed what I said.
– You look bloody awful, said Rickard to Dad. Have you caught a virus or something?
Dad sat down at the short end of the table.
– It’s some kind of allergy, he said.
– Maybe you’re allergic to all the housework, said Jörgen and everyone started guffawing again, Jimmy too. He sat next to the window and spun his mobile around with his index finger. Lately I had hardly been able to look at him, his hands had become so big and chunky, just two flabby fins, really, and his face was as coarse as a large pig’s. He probably weighed eighty kilos now, I used to run faster than him, but now I wouldn’t have a chance, he had gained muscle, and his voice just got deeper and deeper every day. He sounded like Dad and the others now. And a few days ago as he passed me the potatoes his hand brushed against mine and I could feel how it was completely moist from sweat and I felt like I was going to puke then, get turned inside out, and then I got different pictures of him in my mind of what he looked like naked, both when he looked like a grown-up and when he was in that yucky in-between stage of down and smirk and dandruff and pimples. Previously he had been smooth just like me, now it was like a lardy thick film had been laid over him. It had happened that we played together when we were younger, of course, and sometimes we had bathed in the same tub. Just the thought of all that could almost make me cry. As if someone would force me to bathe with him now, as if he could climb into the bathtub when I was there without asking me, and what I would do then. A heavy machine of sweat and flesh. He would just grin at me, like he did at everything, and give me an Indian burn until my arm fell off or the skin got ripped to shreds.
When I had done the dishes, I dried my hands on the kitchen towel and left the kitchen. All my homework was finished already, which was a minor miracle. I knew that Dad and his friends would play cards and drink beer all night. Jimmy would probably play computer games as usual. No one would disturb me.
I took out my portable CD player and sat down on the bed. Soon the whole universe was filled by The Cure, not the least sound from the kitchen penetrated the music. I stretched out on the bed with my hands on my tummy and closed my eyes. Started yoga breathing as Mum had taught me and tried to enter that special, almost meditative state I sometimes could end up in when I listened to some specific music. Even before I got sleepy I had fallen asleep.
When I woke up the record was finished. It was past one o’clock. Through the wall I heard that there were still people in the kitchen, even though I knew that Dad was getting up early in the morning to drive to the garage with the car. I had to pee, so I pulled out the earphones and put the CD player on the chest of drawers. When I had peed and brushed my teeth I went to the kitchen to get a glass of water. Everyone was still there, Jimmy too.
– Hi and hello, said Jörgen when I came in.
I could see they were drunk, since their outlines were kind of vague and Dad was a bit red in the face. The windows were steamy and the table was full of beer cans. I asked idiotically enough what they were doing, with a cheeky voice I didn’t recognize. Everything looked a little blurred, as if I could see all the particles in the air, how they floated slowly around, in and out of all the wet mouths, down in the lungs and then back up and into me.
– We’re sitting here talking about life, pet, said Jörgen.
– Weren’t you going to hang up the laundry, I said to Jimmy. But I was ashamed, felt so proper, just like at school when everybody rolled their eyes at me raising my hand. Jimmy had a beer in front of him, held tightly in his hand.
– Will do it later, he said.
– Jimmy is sitting here to get some words of wisdom from us who’ve been around a while, said Jörgen.
– Some beer too, I see, said I, unable to control myself, as I took a glass from the cupboard and filled it with water.
– A little beer can’t be that bad, said Dad. He’ll be eighteen soon, you know.
– He is sixteen, I said.
– And how old are you now? asked Jörgen, a little sluggishly.
– She is thirteen, said Jimmy.
– Oh dear, we’d better behave then, said Jörgen to Olof and nudged him with his elbow.
– I hope you aren’t a spy for Big Sister up there? said Olof.
I began saying that I wasn’t anything, but Dad interrupted me.
– As long as she’s up there, I’m in charge down here, he said. And I don’t think a beer or two is anything to moan about.
– Sure, I said and left the kitchen.
They started laughing again.
Back in my room I lay down on the bed and pulled the duvet up to my chin but knew that I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Couldn’t get Jimmy’s bloody arrogant look out of my head. The one he had when I thought about what had happened, which I didn’t even know anything about, really. The whole school knew more about it than I, since no one ever told me anything. Not even Mum. All of them just looked at me, or looked away. Disconnected pieces were all I had. And I had never been at Danne’s house, where the party had been. There were often parties there, apparently, maybe his parents travelled a lot. But even though I’d never been over at Danne’s, or even at any party at all, I could see the door in front of me. I could see everything, through time and space. I could see through walls. How the living room is full of beer cans, how the windows are steaming up and people are standing everywhere. They’re snogging, and yell to make themselves heard over the music that has blown out the loudspeakers that have started scratching just like Jimmy’s speakers scratch because he never takes care and does whatever he wants to. Some are smoking cigarettes, maybe even indoors. A few are on the veranda. A blonde girl is throwing up in the flowerbed, it looks like bloody chunks. But I turn my eyes away and force them to look upwards, towards the door on the top floor. Up there everything is quiet, the door to the bedroom is that to the right of the staircase, painted white. It is ajar. The music from the apartment below is subdued and sounds hollow and wailing, as if played backwards. The corridor light falls into the darkened room, the double bed is made, but the coverlet is crumpled and pulled down from the pillows. And there lies Klara. Sleeping, in the middle of the light cone from the door. As if she has gone up to rest, to get away from everybody for a while. Maybe she has fought with Madde, otherwise they would have been together, as they always were at school. But Klara had probably got so drunk that she had gone to bed. Everyone in school said that Klara loved to party. That Klara would always “pass out.” Her face is turned away, it’s hard for me to see her properly. I can see through all other walls but not through these, here I can only see the crack, and my eyes lose their foothold into the darkness at the sides. Klara is lying there, and her long hair has spilled out across the bed. It disappears down into the fold of the coverlet, making it look extremely long, and reaches down over the sides of the bed. Klara is the prettiest of all the girls in the whole school, even when she has passed out she is more beautiful than all of them as she is lying in the light falling in from the corridor. But it’s so dark in the corners of the room. A darkness that swells and shrinks back but grows a little bigger all the time. It takes over everything. And then it is like everything disappears for me, kind of sinks a bit farther away in my field of vision. The stripe of light from the door wobbles, someone has walked past. Something moves in the blackness. The light is broken again. There is someone else in the room.
Maybe they did it for the fun of it, I don’t know. I can just see a large hand pulling up her dress and then I can’t see anything more, the light starts flickering and fluttering and becomes all grainy until I have to look away, and then the whole picture disappears. But I know that Jimmy was there. I know it, because in science class I heard Mikaela tell Linnea that Madde had said that Klara had told it to the police. Before she withdrew her report, she said to the police that Jimmy and Danne and Robin and Ante had been inside there. Even though she was so drunk that she was asleep, she had noticed them being there. And maybe she had seen Jimmy’s grin, his idiotic bloody expression, maybe that’s what she had seen then. The same as he had in the kitchen now, as if nothing had happened. Nothing at all.
And out there sat Jimmy and Dad and Olof and Jörgen and Rickard laughing. I could hear it all the way to my room. Perhaps Mum heard them too, or maybe she was sleeping, it didn’t matter much anymore, because she didn’t do anything, just let them laugh as they pleased.
After maybe twenty minutes I heard the kitchen chairs scraping against the floor. Shortly afterwards Jörgen and the others were walking on the street past my window, their voices getting lower and lower until they finally disappeared. And then there was silence for a while. Nobody went to the toilet to brush his teeth, both Dad and Jimmy remained in the kitchen. I saw them while looking straight through the walls, they spoke quietly with one another, excited, bombastic. But I couldn’t make out anything they said, I just saw them, how they sat closely together, striking their beer cans together in a toast before gulping down the rest. A few minutes later the entrance door opened and closed. I sat upright on the bed, switched off the bedside lamp to be able to see outside in the dark. It was Jimmy, on his way to the garden shed. I saw the door resist a little when he pulled the handle, like it used to in winter when the ground frost forced the threshold upwards. He jerked it open and disappeared inside. After a while he came out again with something narrow and oblong in his hand. I went to the window and looked out from behind the curtain, but couldn’t see what it was. He got into the house again and I heard him and Dad talking, but not what they said. They laughed a little, and one of them hushed the other.
It got quiet again. Then I heard the stairs creaking. Suddenly I understood. It was the crowbar. They wanted to enter the room.
I almost ran to the door, felt that I had to stop them. But I halted. What did it matter if they forced that door open? They only wanted to have some fun with Mum. It’s just for the fun of it.
But a strange light shone inside me. And I knew that just shouting wouldn’t do. To stop them I had to take the crowbar from them with my own hands. That was the only way.
So I opened the door and entered the corridor, but as I started running upstairs, I heard how they, with a sound that resembled a tormented animal, bent open the door and shouted something to Mum. I froze in the middle of my movement. Suddenly everything fell completely silent. Something ice-cold ran slowly through my body. I could feel it as it found its way through my throat, down my stomach, out to the sides and down over my thighs till it gathered in my knees in two whirls. Then I heard someone crying.
It gained strength, she wailed and almost started howling, no, not howling, it sounded hollower. Long, moaning sounds from the depths of a body. They grew louder, so loud that I didn’t even hear Dad and Jimmy returning down the stairs. They said nothing when they passed me where I was still standing, ready to run. Their eyes looked completely empty as they disappeared to their rooms, but I remained standing without going upstairs to comfort her.
The day after I woke up late, remained in bed for a moment, listening. Dust moved in dreamlike patterns above my face. The house was quiet. I went upstairs, fumbling. It felt so empty everywhere. The door to Jimmy’s room was open. The bed wasn’t made.
The stairs to the attic were dim, the wood of the worn-down steps felt smooth against my feet. I went as soundlessly as I could, halfway up I saw the attic room door standing ajar. Clear marks of the crowbar. Broken-up bright wounds in the door frame. The light streamed out onto my feet.
I pushed open the door.
That she had managed to tidy up so much was incredible. I remembered the room as being crammed, dark and filthy. Dirt-encrusted windows, a thick layer of dust on heavy rubbish bags and long-forgotten furniture. But now it looked like any other room, smelled weakly of citrus, wood and incense. Between two purple lengths of curtain the mild winter light fell onto a desk full of books. In the middle stood a gleaming typewriter with an empty sheet of paper. The folding bed was made, and on the floor next to it was a glass half-full of water. A few thin, downy strands of hair had fastened to the sides of the glass, the water was a little dusty. I took a few steps that way, but stopped again. A sound, like a thump. Or a hollow note struck somewhere in the house, dampened by the journey through the walls but reaching me at the exact moment I stopped. I stood in silence, listening. The distant rattle of a magpie outside the window. Nothing else. It was colder up here, and I was barefoot on the wooden floor. A few centimetres from my toes I saw that someone had drawn a white crayon line that disappeared under the red oriental rug on the floor in front of me. My hand trembled slightly as I hid it behind my back. I was right at the edge now, of something. Very slowly, as if not to show it, I opened my mouth a little. The rest of my body was still, which was decisive. I made the sign with a quick movement of my hand next to the spine, it was hardly visible. The intense concentration made the skin of my face tighten across my forehead and temples. I said the word very quietly, almost inaudibly, and very calmly, in almost complete silence. Even so, it would probably be heard. Then I took the first counter-clockwise steps of the circle. When I was ready I halted. My whole body felt numb, my eyes looking around, searching. But nothing happened. Not even the magpie could be heard now. I turned around to leave. But halfway out of the room I could see a billowing movement in the corner of my eye. It came from the floor, behind the curtain of the nearest window. As if something had been sitting there for a while, but now was on its way out.
His heart suddenly flipped over in his chest. “Just like a carp in the kitchen sink,” Grigory Katz thought. To calm himself down, he stuck his nose into his scarf and breathed in his own warm air for a few seconds. Then he began to watch the tracks where a train ought to appear, but it was late and instead he ended up watching, like an eager child, another train pulling up to the next platform. Since he was untroubled by the trifling concerns of passengers, Katz was already enjoying the sight of that other train slithering along like a gray snake, adroitly swerving like mercury around the bend and then pulling up to the platform with inexorable stately majesty, like a wave, and just like a wave — iridescent — the lights of Tel Aviv were reflected on it. The train was gone, but Grigory Katz’s curiosity, like a warm wasp, had awakened and hung in the air, quivering, somewhere to the side, and then, with a sense of relief finally descended into someone’s bag. Katz saw a man’s swarthy hands groping around for something in the bag, then taking out a tube of toothpaste and a toothbrush and putting them into a backpack. This was clearly well thought-out beforehand: the man had already known where the bag would be and that the backpack was close by, and for some reason Katz felt contented to be privy to the other person’s minor logistical considerations. The young man looked like an Indian. What awaited him today — a night in a stranger’s house, a stay in a hostel or a night flight? No matter what it was, Katz knew that there would be people and places the fellow didn’t know, and it would take place just before night fall, which concerned and agitated the man slightly; Katz envied his anxiety, and he happily and tenderly imagined the other man’s evening. But then he immediately felt sad. He was like a stray dog that walked alongside people, taking a few steps with everyone who went by. When will I finally have a home? He did have a home, but after the loss of his daughter and the death of his wife, for some reason he constantly forgot it.
But he had something better. He had the street. He now looked at the poor and homeless in a different way. He recalled hearing that some of them stubbornly refused to go into the warmth, to sleep with a roof over their heads, and now he understood that some of them felt more comfortable on the street. He couldn’t decide if grief had made him hard, or if a slice of life had been revealed to him — truly opened to him — and so it no longer seemed as dreadful as it had in the past. Now when he saw a homeless person on a bench, he saw in this unremarkable form a person whose kettle was just about to come to a boil on the stove. And sometimes he was right. Maybe not about the kettle, but look, for example, at the two men playing chess with a plastic cup instead of a queen. Next to them a bottle of cola, half-drunk, stood on an old advertisement. Now Katz never agonized over whether or not to give a hand-out. He could grope around in his pockets for a long time, looking for the exact coin he wanted to give, and then secret the rest of his money back in his pocket without being embarrassed. Did he feel like one of them, was the street his home? Of course not. Katz loved warmth and comfort, but it was on the street that he was able to have his “rooms” — that’s what he called the small but perceptible spaces that sometimes appeared during his brief contact with strangers.
His housing — a clean little corner apartment in a freshly built house that he moved into after his wife’s death — had frozen and turned into something ethereal and transparent. The plastic drop cloths that he had left up after the walls were whitewashed certainly added to the apartment’s unsubstantial aura, but there were more tangible signs. From time to time the apartment gave up to him its airy fauna: pale lice, ants with rickets (both of them were weak, semi-transparent). There were completely extraordinary little spiders with bead-like bodies and the most delicate, awkward legs — he was terrified of hitting them with his mop. Sometimes he found their fragile, white cocoons in the corner. Then ethereal flora appeared. In the sink where he once washed his clay-covered boots with reckless bachelor abandon, a tiny lavender flower on a white stem grew out of the drain, and next to it another one sprung up, this one with a bud curled inward, like a large-headed fetus. Perhaps all of those creatures were waiting for him to buy a lampshade to cover the bare lightbulb, and then, in soft interior lighting, they’d warm up, take on whatever it was they should have had — fuzzy legs, whiskers, or pigmentation for heaven’s sake… But Grigory Katz didn’t buy a lampshade. He quickly walked down the bare winter street that smelled of porridge, then of rubber, and then for some reason of magic markers, and he stopped at the crosswalk; on the other side of the street a woman waited at the crosswalk just like him, and then they were walking in opposite directions across the black and white stripes, and their movement toward each other had an extraordinary painterly quality, a kind of symmetry fraught with meaning, and Katz lost heart and wanted to shamble along clumsily to shake off the solemnity of the movement, but he didn’t give in to it and passed her without speeding up or looking at her, sensing how a room took shape: an entire life lived with that woman — the room hung over the intersection… but like an architect testing the durability and beauty of a structure, he walked down the sidewalk and strode on, led by the beacon of a yellow orange in the mesh pocket of a big strapping fellow, but then he immediately forgot about it because the shawarma vendor had put speakers on the street playing whooping and hooting, and Katz had already become a gangster crossing Harlem at night: he did the first take, and that very first take was a good one — he could tell — and walked along under the gaze of the cameramen and make-up artists, walked across dozens of monitors, walked, slouched and bounced along, and he forgot that he had meant to sit at a table and have a bite to eat, but it was too late – he’d already moved on, he never ate on the set, the king of hip-hop needed a light empty stomach so no shawarma for him now — and then he’d gone by, it was history now.
He loved being outside his house more and more and began to live only in his street “rooms.” He stretched out his walks when he had somewhere to go, and if he had nowhere to go, he organized fake forays on errands with meticulously invented legends. But no one asked him about them, and no one had any intention of catching him in the act. But most important — and this was amazing — his morbid, insatiable curiosity went absolutely unpunished. People didn’t notice his attentive gaze, probably because his body’s overall benign contour was immediately perceived as non-threatening. That was certainly true, but for some reason he still felt like he was a scout on reconnaissance, or maybe — however embarrassing to admit — a secret agent. Someone whose life was in danger because “he knew too much.”
Because, actually, he did know too much. All he had to do was get on the tram and he already knew about the love between the tall, gray-haired man and the older woman sitting up front. When they got off and a student carrying a cardboard portfolio sat in their place, Katz again somehow knew that this boy, an artist, was, unfortunately, completely without talent. “Why is he without talent?” he asked himself sternly. “How can you say that, off the top of your head?” “I can,” someone very calm and merciless replied, and deigned to explain. “His portfolio is too thin. The boy is a slacker. And on top of it, he doesn’t have drive.” (The artist thoughtfully itched his long neck which had a boil coming to a head at the spot where the chain of his feeble, scrawny vertebrae began.) “Go on, take a good look,” the same merciless voice said to Katz, indicating the boil as if it were incontrovertible proof of mediocrity. “Look! What did I tell you?!”
Katz suspected that his grief was to blame for all this. It was his grief that gave him this stern new way of seeing, this new person to talk to, whom he both loved and hated. If he turned that gaze on his wife or daughter, what would he have seen? Would he have begun to loathe them or would he have loved them even more? Suddenly he wanted to look there, into the past, using his new lens. He squinted, expecting to see at least something that would tug at the edge of memory, like pulling the corner of a silk scarf.
He recalled, of course, some bit of nonsense. He remembered blindly groping in her handbag. (She had asked him to get money to pay the gas bill — her hands were covered with flour.) He was amazed by the black sateen lining. He recalled the handbags of his mother and grandmother from his childhood, after the war, with red satin or dark blue velvet mouths exhaling warm breath that smelled of the theater. His wife’s handbag — actually not a handbag but a shoulder bag, to be exact — was spacious and empty. He groped around until he found her wallet and one other thing, which surprised his blind hand. It was a vial — a glass pyramid. He held the vial in his hand, it was a perfume bottle, probably French. The black obelisk shimmered wickedly and seemed to have been specially made to be awkward — no matter how you turned it, it wouldn’t lie in your hand. He said, it seems, to his wife then, “This thing — you could kill someone with it. Do you really carry it around with you?” “That’s why I carry it,” his wife laughed, “For self-defense.” But his mother and grandmother never carried perfume in their purses. They stood in front of the mirror and tapped out several drops onto a handkerchief. But it would have been stupid to tell her that; fashions change. Now that he thought of it, how did it smell, her perfume? He couldn’t remember. She never put on perfume at home in front of the mirror. She put it on somewhere else, at work. In the cloakroom? The ladies’ room? Where? And for whom, by the way? Should he try to direct his new gaze on the black pyramid, screaming at it soundlessly “Attack!”? But he didn’t want to. He wanted to remember how pleasantly squat the base of the bottle was, how he peered at the glass in the ashy half-light. And his heart flipped over again and he thought, “like a carp,” and realized the similarity: although the heart beats constantly, we don’t notice it, but when we do, we get scared, as if it were bad to be beating, although it’s the opposite — it’s a good thing. Those carp were called “live fish,” but they were dead, and everyone knew that they were dead, and that’s why people were scared when a fish flipped over — it was unexpectedly alive and it frightened them. He leaned against the wall, unwinding his scarf, and, smiling, remembering how the carp slapped his tail and grandmother and mother squealed and jumped back from the sink.
Late that afternoon they were ordered from the crippled field. Sweat streaked sunburned faces and soaked their prison blues. To the west, the sun had grown huge and crimson as it nipped the horizon; broken strings of pink clouds, the tops darkening to purple and black, drifted above its crest. Ramsey hadn’t seen it from such a perspective, not segmented by chain link or razor wire, in years. Although shadows had grown long and distended, it would be midnight before the heat would abate. The monotonous drone of insects, awakened by twilight, sounded like rapid, wireless static.
He and the others who had searched were shackled from hand to foot and then chained together. As they shuffled toward the Bluebird, prodded in the back with shotgun barrels if they stumbled, the links rattled like tempered wind chimes. After climbing aboard, they were herded to the rear into a steel mesh cage from which the seats had been removed and the windows blackened and barred. Since the bus had remained at the field all afternoon, the bare metal sides could sear flesh, so they sat on the floor, in the center of the cage, huddled back to back, arms resting on folded legs. Webster’s body had not been loaded. Ramsey assumed he lay where he had been killed, submerged in the sea of oats.
After they were counted, a guard, wearing a dun colored uniform, slammed and locked the narrow, sheet steel door. He stepped to the side, peering through the mesh, and flashed a whiskered, yellow grin as he rattled the keys, like ringing a bell. He was just one of many, all seeming emotionally cloned, governing Ramsey’s life, shamelessly flaunting their authority and license to abuse. Most, it comforted him to hope, probably despised their plight as much as he did his. He imagined them living in dented trailers, strewn like discarded cans along unnamed dirt roads, some alone, drinking themselves to sleep while watching reality TV; others with bitchy, pregnant wives and burdensome children running wild.
While Ramsey and the others waited, sweltering, body odor thick, the guards opened a cooler. They popped tops and guzzled beer. With his free hand, the driver twisted the key. The starter growled, slowing with each rotation, until just when it seemed it might expire, the engine coughed and backfired to idle. He shoved the floor shift forward several times, stomping the clutch and scraping gears until the transmission engaged, the bus lurching ahead, the driver struggling to steady the steering wheel with one hand. Cans, some trailing foam, sailed out the open door. The interior began filling with a thin, blue haze and the stench of burnt oil and spent gasoline. The bus wobbled along the rutted dirt road, the chassis grating like a rusted hinge.
Although residents had named the squalid settlement Carson Springs, as the town grew, the artesian sources and natural springs, which once fed twisting, unmolested streams churning over stones abraded smooth by time, had been harnessed and diverted through hand hewn canals leading to the town. The clay banks of the depleted streams became etched with gaping cracks, the waterless depths littered with skeletal remains, the bordering forests withered and broken.
Before the townspeople arrived to civilize by building the first church and banning the sale of liquor, ancient, nihilistic pioneers, with a penchant for women who were not delicate, had subsisted for decades on the same land, distilling, fishing, hunting, and enduring hardships they felt earned them an endowed immunity from newly imposed limits. But when one of original settlers lethally avenged a “squatter’s” intrusion, he was tried and sentenced to death. Most of the residents, including children, attended the execution, which had become a social event. The condemned, his expression defiant, his hands tied behind, sat backwards on a mule. A crudely fashioned noose, the attached rope dangling loose from a live oak limb, was strung around his neck. A minister read the Twenty-Third Psalm. After he sanctimoniously proclaimed: “Amen” and slapped the Bible closed, the sheriff reread the jury’s verdict and then nodded to the animal’s owner who cracked a whip across the animal’s flank. It bolted, leaving the man dangling. The drop had not broken his neck, so for several minutes his legs stroked the air, as if he were trying to run.
No one claimed the body, because those who had first settled the land with him had already packed up and moved, rather than conform to flags and The Word, northwest to distant mountains where they hoped to find a less troubled land.
Years later, after the town had grown and graveled streets named, the state paved SR 92 which ran straight thirty miles from the state line, north past Carson Springs, to connect with highways leading eventually to the Canadian Border and both coasts. Sheltered by ridges dense with hardwood and pine, the town grew in the center of a copiously fertile valley bordering the prairie, the western landscape featureless and barren and worn, the horizon, wavering with the sun, stretching between blue mountain ranges so distant they looked like fallen clouds.
George Smiley built Carson Springs’ first store, a sagging building, which looked as if it had been constructed of driftwood, sitting skewed on a rock foundation. George sold anything one might need, merchandise in disarray, pots and pans, yokes and bridles, hanging, in no particular order, from rafters and unadorned walls. For a while he sold the only gasoline in Carson Springs, dispensed from a single Ethyl pump in the middle of the furrowed, dirt parking lot, the Sinclair dinosaur standing on its pedestal out by SR 92. Even after Fred’s Market, a spotty, regional chain, moved in with lower prices, wire buggies, clean-shaven clerks in white aprons, and two grades of Esso, most folks still, out of loyalty, shopped with George, a generous man who would gladly run a tab for anyone who walked through the door.
Why his wife left had moved in with her sister back in St. Louis, no one ever knew, not even his boy Dewey. Some gossiped of another man, others of a divine irrationality unique to the frontier, compelling some to flee, others to wander wide-eyed, speaking in tongues, into the desert mists where nothing can survive except sooty gray rats that evolution has taught to place only two feet at a time against the blistering sand. Within a year George came down with cancer and succumbed six months after the diagnosis. Most folks felt one thing led to the other.
“Doctors said he was eat up,” the story went, “but he never was the same after she took off. I think that’s what brought it on. His body and spirit just give up. It happens, you know?”
Dewey tried running the store for a while after his father’s death, but everyone knew he was a braggart and a drunk, usually opening late, if at all. The old loyalties soon faded after George’s death, and Fred’s became the place to shop. One Saturday, when he woke with a hangover and no money, Dewey held a sale, everything for whatever folks felt like paying. People filled toe sacks and cardboard boxes, while Dewey berated their treachery, and rattled change into a metal pail beside the door. By noon, the shelves and racks were bare. The building wasn’t worth much, and you couldn’t give the land away, since so much of it went unclaimed, so Dewey walked away without bothering to lock the door.
Once inside the double electric gates, they stumbled from the bus. The guards who had transported them removed the shackles; two guards responsible for the entrance counted them again. One stood on the threshold of the control booth, hands plunged in his back pockets, his lower lip packed with tobacco. The other called out names listed on a clipboard, holding it at arms length and squinting. Each inmate responded with eyes submissively averted. When he came to Webster’s name, he nodded before calling it louder than the others, his voice slick with contempt, and then, after making a show of the intervening pause, marked through it with a flourish.
The shuffle of voices, colliding, indistinguishable, filling Ramsey’s days on the crowded compound had by that time been confined behind locked dormitory doors, the grounds empty except for prowling guards, the only sounds a distant whippoorwill, its plaintive cry unanswered, and an annoyingly nasal female voice barking coded numbers and names from portable radios clipped to the guards’ belts. Night had silenced the insects inspired by the gloaming.
Since the other inmates had been fed, the guards led them into the empty chow hall and handed each a standard sack meal: a stale bologna sandwich, the bread soggy with mayonnaise, an apple, and a glass of lemonade, which most never drank. A black working the kitchen had been caught pissing in the vat. They ate at burled pine picnic tables. Although posted regulations forbade speaking in the chow hall, during scheduled meals, with hundreds of inmates shuttling in and out by dorm assignments, each allowed fifteen minutes to eat, the scraping of feet along with the clanging of metal plates and utensils being tossed onto a conveyor created a cacophony indigenous with captivity. However, with so few in the cavernous room, a fork dropped inadvertently, keys rattling, a sneeze, a murmuring between guards, whispers, almost, became amplified in the spaciousness, echoing, as if one wall were answering another, like spirits conversing. The relative silence tempted Ramsey to shout his name, just to hear it repeated, softer each time until it dissolved to silence, like dying, he thought, without the attendant trauma, the most he could hope for, but there would be sanctions if he dared, a period of solitary confinement, like living in a shadowy cave, or worse: the loss of his windows.
* * *
After Fred’s came to Carson Springs, Sonic followed a couple of years later, the Desert Inn Motel soon after that, and then, given its logistical advantages and undemanding labor pool, Chrysler built a small factory at the end of a new, quarry rock road to manufacture radiator thermostats. At times it employed as many as thirty people. With approval from Fred’s corporate management, the city council began planning to expand the local store into a truck stop to service the eighteen-wheelers speeding by each day in increasing numbers. Excavation had begun for the additional underground diesel tanks, but then, as part of a flood control project, the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Tamaha River where it sliced deep between precipitous slopes in the neighboring state, which heartily endorsed the endeavor because of the recreational areas for boating along with a market for lakeside lots it would create. Within two years, however, a tongue of warm, murky water began filling low-lying areas several miles north of Carson Springs. Lacking political influence, their protests were harmlessly absorbed by a bureaucracy designed to quell dissent. SR 92 soon disappeared beneath ten feet of brackish water. Eventually the Corps began regulating the spillways and the advance that had become a languorous but methodical flood abated, but Carson Springs had become the end of the road. SR92 emerged many miles to the north across the great, stagnant lake at a town named Vale, but it couldn’t be seen even on the clearest day.
Ramsey lived with almost two hundred inmates, mostly blacks, far fewer whites, and one Ukrainian who didn’t speak English, but after having his head pummeled like a punching bag a few times, translation became unnecessary. Housed in one of eight dormitories, each a dusty, concrete block building with galvanized roofs and epoxied slabs, iron framed, double bunk beds filled the interiors, three rows down the center and two, parallel to the others, lining the longer walls, the beds about eighteen inches apart. For his first two years, Ramsey was assigned a lower bunk, the head against the wall. And then his longevity and lack of disobedience merited an upper bunk, but still with nothing behind but reinforced, concrete block. Two years later, he was moved to an upper bunk with a window behind, and then, on the anniversary of his eighth year, an upper bunk in a corner with a view out two windows, one of four coveted locations.
With access to their factory no longer profitable, Chrysler moved the operation to Mexico, leaving the workers staring in dismay at the plant’s shuttered doors and despising more each day the unassuming migrants laboring in the fields. Someone artlessly sprayed “FUCK YOU” across the front wall in red. Then the bank foreclosed on The Desert Inn, with its ten rooms and pink flamingos standing crooked on wire legs. One morning the dark-skinned woman with a red spot on her forehead who ran it loaded her station wagon and headed south, leaving the beds made with clean sheets and the green neon sign on SR92 blinking “Vacancy.” And then the Sonic, whose presence had been overly ambitious, dismissed its employees with two days notice and one hundred dollars severance. Fred’s remained in business, but half its employees lost their jobs. The pits that had been excavated for the proposed diesel tanks filled with muddy water and became breeding ponds for mosquitoes during the summers. The population of Carson Springs began aging and declining, so when the state proposed building a prison nearby, no one objected, the citizenry fearing poverty more than the threat of escaped convicts.
After they had eaten, lines were assembled outside and then each began moving in different directions toward their respective dorms. Cameras mounted high on building corners swiveled to track each group. Ramsey had never been on the compound at night, the grounds so fully lighted that no shadows were cast; no trees, no leaves to mottle the ground; the stars, whose humbling canopy he missed, blinded.
The noise inside the dorm, without rhythm or tone, seemed more aggravating than usual after the relative quiet of the day. Some played cards or Scrabble while others lay in bunks staring emptily with hands laced on their stomachs; a few, who knew how, were reading. Showers were over, but since Ramsey and the others who had searched were late through no fault of their own, the guard magnanimously turned the water on for three minutes, reminding them that he was not required to, and handed each a clean towel. Ramsey always tried to shower immediately after supper, before the tiled floors became slick from inmates masturbating with impunity in the large, open stall.
Once in his bunk, he tried to block the noise, broken words mostly and mirthless laughter, by remembering its absence outside, as if by concentrating, everything around him could be locked in a cell of its own. Solitude, besides freedom, was the thing he missed most. Squinting against blinding fluorescents dangling just out of reach, he woke each morning groggy-eyed to screaming bells, which marked the sequence of relentless rituals dictating his life. During the day, if the din became unbearable, he’d retreat to the remotest corner of the recreation field to try and escape the sounds, but even there the air was stained by cop-killer rap drifting from ghetto blasters inside the open shed where the blacks, their dreadlocks dangling like willow bangs, worked with weights to further enhance arms so bloated they looked like wings. While many whites withered as captives, laboriously shuffling their feet, as if somehow gravity had been enhanced, most blacks seemed to thrive, strutting the compound with an ethnic buoyancy, reveling in the social reversal.
Someone asked about Webster. Ramsey told them what he knew. Although he tried to push it from his mind, the image of Webster lying among the crushed oats, the top of his head scalloped away, burned with a sunken anger. Ramsey doubted the body would be claimed, most outside allegiances, including his own, surviving no more than a year. To him, it seemed inevitable. How many weekends could they sit with families and ask about a sister or a brother, a father or mother, a son or daughter, and speak hopefully of a future that might never come? On Sundays, some stood as close as permitted to the front gate, plaintively watching the visitors enter, waiting for someone they knew, or perhaps, expecting no one, trying to remember what it was like to be free and have someone care.
Webster would be buried without ceremony or marker in an overgrown field that bordered the dump; no one would mourn his loss.
As they had boarded the Bluebird at the field that afternoon, emergency vehicles began arriving, their red and blue lights turning the twilight into a violence of slashing red and blue. And then the business of assigning responsibility, if possible, for the girl began; cameras flashed; men, slipping white coveralls over their street clothes and snapping on latex gloves, crawled on hands and knees, sifting through the maze of stems, dropping minute pieces of this and that into clear plastic bags, a wooden stake with a day-glo ribbon stapled to the top marking the location.
After Dewey ran through the money from the sale at his father’s store, he took a job loading feed at Slater’s Mill for six dollars an hour. On that Tuesday, he called in sick, as he often did, and drove out to the abandoned factory in his pickup, an oxidized blue Dodge with rusted rocker panels and a premiered front fender. He emptied what remained in a bottle he’d stashed under the seat and napped until it wore off. He woke with a boner and a parched throat. He checked himself in the rearview mirror. His eyes were bloodshot, and he hadn’t shaved in days. He raked a hand through his hair, reset the mirror, and headed into town, empty cans and broken tools rattling around the truck bed. After passing the old trailer sitting on a red clay lot scooped out of a loblolly pine thicket that ran from the factory to the edge of town, he saw the girl, her hair braided to the waist, walking toward him, a book bag dangling from her shoulder; he thought nothing of it at first, but then he slowed and stopped beside her, his elbow crooked out the window.
“Hey,” he said and smiled. “What’s your name?”
“Melissa Gayle,” she said, squinting against the sun and shading her eyes. She wore a starched white blouse and a plaid skirt, the hem several inches above her white socks and black patent leather shoes.
He opened the door by reaching through the window and stepped out, looking both ways along the road.
“You know me. You and your momma used to shop at my store.”
“Come on, I’ll give you a ride home.”
She pointed in the direction of the trailer.
“It ain’t that far.”
He took her arm.
“Come on, I wanted to talk to your momma anyway.”
He lifted her into the cab and shoved her to the passenger’s side. He tossed the book bag into the bed, started the truck, and turned around.
“That’s where I live,” she said as he sped past the trailer toward the abandoned factory.
* * *
An old singlewide sat down the factory road, from what townspeople called “the junction to nowhere,” beneath a large willow, its twisted mane reaching the ground and bunching atop the sloppily tarred roof. Although within walking distance of town, no other dwellings were built close enough to be called neighboring. The trailer had been placed there fifteen years before by the town’s only realtor, who also sold and serviced farm implements. He posted a rental sign in the front window. People had moved in and out, none staying more than a year. Most were drifters and drunks who had to be forcibly evicted. It had been empty for several months when the woman showed up one day in a fully packed, hump backed, Oldsmobile station wagon and rented the place, just her and the little girl. No one ever saw her with a man or any strangers entering or leaving the trailer. At first she drove to town, but something happened to the Oldsmobile. The tires eventually dry rotted flat.
The woman was bone-thin, bird-like, even, pale skinned, with a long face and large eyes, her hair, the color of stone, tied behind in a bun. Like her mother, the girl was all knees and elbows but with red hair and freckles. Each month the woman deposited a railroad pension check in the bank, paying cash for food, always counting her change carefully. If someone spoke, she would respond politely with a shy smile.
The woman enrolled the girl in Rosewater Elementary and Middle School, the only one in the county.
“She was never a problem,” said one of the teachers.
“Smart as a whip,” said another.
The woman had even invited the visitation ladies inside the first Thursday night they came to call, fixing coffee, chatting civilly, promising to attend Sunday school, which she did the following weekend. The women gave Jesus and His Disciples coloring books and a box of crayons to the girl before they left, holding a brief prayer meeting at the opened door.
Around dusk on the day Dewey had picked the girl up, he drove back from the factory alone, both arms itching from weed rash and insect bites. His hands trembled. He passed through town, honking and waving at the sheriff, who sat outside the office, elbows draped over the back of a wooden bench. Dewey drove north on SR92 toward the water, the lights in his rearview mirror having vanished, and turned off onto a grassy path, matted down by truck tires, few people knew about, and those who did held their tongues. Sumac and low, broad-leafed trees obscured the entrance. Despite idling the truck in gear, it still bottomed a couple of times, limbs clawing the windshield and scraping the sides, cottontails scampering out of the beams. An old bootlegger named Mel lived at the end in a two-room log cabin with hubcaps nailed along the front wall. Several rusted cars sat on concrete blocks, hoods yawning open, an engine dangling by chain from a thick, sycamore limb. A reflection of the moon rippled in the lake behind his cabin.
Dewey took a quick step back when a German shepherd, snarling and baring its teeth, lunged at him as Mel cracked the door.
“I’m tapped out,” the old man growled in a smoker’s voice, holding the dog’s collar with both hands. “Come back in a day or two.”
“I need something now,” Dewey said, opening his hands submissively.
The old man kicked the door shut.
Dewey drove back to town. A dually pulling a carrier full of bawling cattle passed in the opposite direction, the radio blaring music. He stopped across from the courthouse, under a streetlight, and counted his money. He had enough for the thirty-mile trip down SR 92 to an all night liquor store just across the state line.
Searchers found no trace of the girl at the dump or around the abandoned factory. Fishermen launched Jon boats into the murky lake, probing shadowed marshes along the shore but soon abandoned the effort. Some in hip boots waded the drainage ditches surrounding a large field, banded by barbed wire and choked with oats ready for harvest, looking for evidence of damaged and broken stalks, suspicious trails, all the obvious places where someone might have thoughtlessly discarded a child. No such evidence was found.
Vultures were a common sight, floating in imprecise circles on thermal pillows, constantly trolling, so few people paid them any mind, but when they began drifting above the field in greater numbers, the implication became clear.
Since the field was so large, over a mile square, and the crop so dense, the sheriff asked the prison for help. Ramsey and other inmates, all with records free of disciplinary infractions, were caged in the Bluebird and driven to the field. Flanked by guards armed with shotguns, they stepped unshackled from the bus.
Determined to complete the search before dark, the sheriff assembled two lines at opposite ends of the field, each to proceed methodically toward the center. Due to the size of the field and the waist high crop, one line could not see the other. Except for the vultures and strings of manmade clouds dispersing as soon as they formed, nothing occluded the sun, inclined toward afternoon and punishing without quarter, shirts sweat plastered to itching backs, the air thick with heat that Ramsey felt through the soles of his brogans. A shuffle of birdcalls, along with the croaking of frogs and the ratcheting sound of summer insects, formed an unscripted, ubiquitous chorus. Dragonflies rested their twin sets of veined, translucent wings by lighting atop the swaying pods for a moment, their bodies swathed in twisted rainbows. Mosquitoes began swarming and feasting upon exposed skin. No-see-‘ems clogged nostrils and ears.
They waited for what seemed an unnecessarily long time as a deputy communicated with someone on the other end by portable radio. Finally he blew a whistle for them to proceed. That the crop would be damaged could not be helped. Men and women stretched across the field, each a few yards from another, moving deliberately, arms extended, hands brushing the ripened pods aside, scanning the ground. Even the owner, his wife and sons, and their migrant workers, chattering in their own private language, joined the search. As Ramsey pushed ahead, his pants brushing the stalks aside made a sibilant sound with each step, like breath being expelled, as if he were treading upon a living being.
Although it lasted less than a day, Ramsey relished the freedom, not freedom from the sense of being unfettered, but the quiet and the vast prospect above, which seemed unlike the one visible from the compound.
At first he wasn’t sure. The shimmering horizon distorted what appeared to be figures spread across the field, but then heads and torsos began to form, as if rising out of the earth.
As the two lines came within sight of each other, those with Ramsey glanced at one another, expressions bemused, catching the faintest odor carried by shifting breezes, at first dismissing it as an aberration of the heat, until it grew stronger and could no longer be ignored. His line tightened and closed on itself, approaching the fence, hands covering noses and mouths as the stench became nauseous. They stomped the oats flat, trying to find the source. The one who found her, an older man wearing overalls and a straw hat, shouted and raised his hand. He tied a red bandana across his face. Dozens crowded around the body. For a careless moment, guards, their weapons lowered, forgot about the inmates. The girl lay naked, her arms and legs splayed, as if she had been tossed over the barbed wire from the access road just a few yards away. Decomposition and the feeding of scavengers led to speculation that she had been killed soon after she went missing. Beetles and maggots swarmed the frail body, a haze of green-backed flies hovering with a low, malevolent hum. Her face was unrecognizable, the skin covering her body drawn tight to the point of splitting and darkened as if sheathed in teal. The time elapsed since she’d disappeared had allowed the oats to right and repair themselves, concealing the body. A thickset woman, in a long, flowered dress with puffed sleeves and wearing a denim bonnet, dropped to her knees, and with hands clasped under her chin, began to pray aloud, but no one else made a sound. A female cardinal, its color robbed by gender, squatted on the top strand of the nearby fence, bobbing its tail for balance.
Neither Ramsey nor anyone else had noticed the black named Webster back away until he was several yards from the group and someone shouted. It was as if they all had been awakened from a trance, requiring a moment to orient themselves. That’s when he began running, his arms and legs flailing like a string puppet, as if he was frolicking rather than trying to escape, which, with the thickness of oats, would have been impossible. Without being ordered to, he stopped and turned, facing his captors. He ripped his prison-blue shirt free and tossed it aside. Bathed by the sun, his sweat drenched body seemed to glow. He held his arms straight to the sides, smiled, and dropped his head back. For a moment, with only an unblemished sky behind and his upper body seeming to emerge from a blur of gold, he appeared suspended. Then a shotgun exploded. Webster dropped from sight, the moment imbedded in Ramsey’s memory. He thought of the Zapruder film, as Kennedy clutched his throat, a crimson spray blooming behind, marking the moment of his death, and of his Uncle, who raised him and thankfully had passed on before Ramsey was disgraced, setting a watermelon on a stump for target practice, the pulp and seeds scattering like brain tissue and bits of skull. Everyone rushed to where Webster lay, everyone except Ramsey. He remained beside the girl’s body. It didn’t sicken him to stare at her remains; neither did it fill him with sorrow nor a sense of outrage. Could he remember a time when it might? Or had he evolved antithetically? After so many years, he couldn’t be sure.
While the others huddled, staring at Webster with train wreck fascination, Ramsey could have dropped to his knees and crawled away, obscured by the oats. In the confusion he might not have been missed for at least half an hour; by that time he could have been well on his way, and with night coming on, an effective search could not have been launched before morning, but then what? He had nowhere to go, no plan, a short-lived escape for which the consequences would have been severe.
* * *
After leaving the liquor store, Dewey felt like celebrating, one hand resting atop the steering wheel, the other wrapped around the neck of a bottle of low-grade alcohol. He sang along tunelessly to a cassette playing: “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma,” his voice switching from normal to an annoying falsetto as Shelly West alternated verses with David Frizzell. But then, another sound. He flicked the volume down. A rod knocking, like a morning after headache. He pumped the brakes up and pulled into a 7-11. He got out and lifted the hood. He uncapped a gallon jug of recycled forty-weight and filled a dented, tin can that he then carried to the front. Acrid smoke spewed into his face when he spilled some on the exhaust manifold. He lowered the hood but then raised it again when it failed to latch and slammed it shut with both hands. A jagged chunk of Bondo fell off.
After crossing back into the state, a colonnade of grain elevators, which had stood empty for years, flashed momentarily in the sweep of passing light, but then no other structures, no lights ahead, behind, or to the sides, nothing but thirty miles of untamed forests between him and Carson Springs. A foraging possum waddling across the road turned to face the truck, its eyes glowing red when caught in the beams.
“Roadkill!” Dewey laughed and swerved to crush it beneath the left front tire, but as he did, the right side dropped onto the shoulder. He jerked the wheel to the left, tipping the truck. It rolled down an embankment, jettisoning metal and glass, until it came to rest on its roof in a muddy swale, steam hissing from under the hood. Dewey lay broken and bloodied on the shoulder where he died, but not quickly. Sometime later, after the lights of the crumpled truck had gone dead and the radiator expelled itself, an eighteen-wheeler, its cab glowing yellow, sped past. The driver glanced at the road, not realizing he was lost, and then at a swindle sheet spread across the steering wheel. The book bag had tumbled from the bed of Dewey’s truck and come to rest beside the road’s segmented center. The tractor’s front tandems ripped it apart, shredded paper swirling upward in their wake like confused butterflies.
Robert Earl had seen it in others, tradition dictating their lives, growing old in family albums that would someday be put aside and forgotten; at times, when alone, their gaze fixed at some middle distance, wondering if there might have been more. And he had tried it himself, a marriage that led to divorce, his wife married to another. Two boys he’d never wanted calling another man father. But he thought of it, the way destiny had wound its way through his life, as just the way things were, random, one event following another capriciously, without pattern. The secret, he concluded, was to expect nothing and accept the inevitable. He paid what the court had deemed fair, and, for that, he got to spend two weekends a month with his boys. He’d rather have not seen them at all, just in passing, maybe, but it would have been unseemly and injurious to his image. Although they were grown and gone, for years he tolerated the four days by watching them fight and buying whatever they wanted. He thought of it as penance.
By the time the cruiser, its lights off, pulled in between the willow and the disabled Oldsmobile, it was almost dark; the trailer windows glowed. He had been elected to eight two-year terms as sheriff, so it was something he’d done many times: telling parents that their son or daughter had been crushed beyond recognition in a grinding head on collision, or a wife that her husband had dropped dead of a coronary while counting his change at Fred’s, or apportioning anguish and relief in an emergency room, reading from a list following a fatal school bus crash. It had nothing to do with him, and he ordered his life so it wouldn’t.
Two deputies accompanied him, one driving, the other in the back seat, not for support for what some might consider a trying moment of responsibility, but more a demonstration of authority. Once, after leaving the washroom at Sonic and zipping his pants as he walked along the hallway leading to the serving line, he heard someone yell: “All your fuckin’ cash, man.” He stopped and pulled his .357 Magnum from its holster to shoulder level, the barrel pointed at the ceiling. He could see the robber’s back reflected in the front window. He then stepped clear of the dividing wall and leveled the pistol, which was only inches from the temple of the robber, who held a Glock on the frightened cashier.
“Drop it,” Robert Earl said but pulled the trigger before the man had time to respond.
They closed the restaurant for half a day to clean shards of skull and bloody tissue from the fry baskets, the condiment bins, and the walls.
He and two deputies attended the funeral, standing to the side, shoulder to shoulder, hats in place, as the dead man’s brothers comforted their mother. He and his men were not there as a matter of respect, or to express regret for having done what had to be done, or to solicit some expression of forgiveness or at least understanding, but as a warning, much as he and his men in the 1st Cavalry had done in Vietnam by tucking death cards in the mouths of fallen Viet Cong.
The door to the trailer opened as they climbed from the cruiser and placed ten-gallon hats atop their heads, leveling the brims. The woman stood, hands on hips, as a silhouette, the light behind seeming to bend away and around her so that she appeared as a stick figure, slight in stature but intimidating and anonymous.
“You found her,” the woman said in a flat, hollow voice. It was not a question.
“Yes, ma’am,” Robert Earl said just as dispassionately. “I’m afraid so.”
She stepped back into the light and, by casually opening her hand away from her side, invited them in. On a coffee table with a glass insert, an open coloring book with crayons scattered across the top.
After they sat, backs rigid, on the end of their bunks nearest the aisle for the eleven o’clock count, and the lights were turned off, the snoring and the stench of near naked bodies sweating in the still, humid air began. Ramsey lay on his stomach, chin resting on his laced fingers. He would not fall asleep easily, and when he did, still vigilant, with an edgy awareness, like some exposed animal, in peril, always seeking but never finding shelter. He watched the field, a gentle cross breeze caressing his face. Although he could not see the men still searching for clues, flashing lights sweeping in ocher waves across a shelf of fog sliding unevenly like silt low above the field said that some remained. He thought of Webster, not of the moment when his head exploded, but of the moment, the timelessness of it, between the decision to leave and the end, which had not really been an ending at all. Most would say it had been an act of desperation, which if reflected upon rationally would never have been attempted, and, after a cursory investigation, which would exonerate the guard who had fired, that was how it would mostly likely be reported, as an aborted escape, but Ramsey alone knew he had succeeded, that, like a translucent cicada husk clinging to a winter-stripped limb, Webster had left nothing behind to kill.
Ramsey had seen him on the compound but noticed nothing to distinguish him from hundreds of others, most, like Ramsey, with little hope of ever being released, and if they were, of use to no one, danglers, feeding along the edges. But Webster had not been just another jailhouse punk. He had had vision and, when he had smiled and offered himself sacrificially, had imparted to Ramsey the gift of clarity.
Without reference he had no sense of time, but it must have been close to midnight before the flashing lights surrendered the night; a razor-thin sliver of grinning moon, its edges feathered by mist, hovered as the great, silent field began repairing itself.
They’re married, but not to each other.
Nat unlocks the door and then steps back, to let Ella go in first. The hotel room is high-ceilinged and square, and a double bed takes up most of it. On the bed is a cream-colored quilted spread. Pale heavy curtains frame the window; thinner, translucent ones obscure the view. The carpet is thick and cocoa-colored. There is an ornate bureau, imitation French, and a gilt-framed mirror. The room is close and airless. They have no luggage.
Ella moves ahead of him, stopping near the bed. She’s in her late twenties, and thin, with long chestnut-colored hair. She turns, so that she won’t see herself in the mirror. She stands facing away from him, looking down. She has never done this before. She hardly knows this man, and this is a terrible mistake. She has made a terrible mistake, coming to this airless room with someone who, it turns out, is a stranger. She stands motionless, awaiting perdition.
Nat follows her into the room.
He has never done exactly this before, either, never done anything quite so bold and crude as to rent a hotel room at lunchtime. What he did was always out of town, with women he never intended to see again. It was mostly in Los Angeles, a place full of beautiful, complaisant girls, happy to be taken out for dinner and then back to his hotel. Those encounters had been brief and distant. But this, now, is in his own city, only blocks from his own apartment, with a woman he does want to see again, and he’s afraid he’s starting something large and irreversible. What he’s afraid it means is the end of his marriage. He had known, somewhere in his mind, that his marriage had become tenuous, (his feelings for his wife have become ritualised and impersonal, mostly obligation, an absence of emotion) but he had not realised until now that it would end. He won’t be able to go on like this; he’s going too far. This is reckless, indefensible, and he’s doing it in the name of lust, which is, right now, notably absent. He understands that coming here was a mistake; he believes he loves this woman.
He wonders if today can be salvaged. Perhaps it’s the room – should he have gotten a bigger one? But no: it’s the silence, the immobility of the room that’s the problem, the implacably fixed furniture, the hushing carpet, the heavy curtains, the whole place awaiting human animation.
He likes looking at her. He can’t take his eyes from her. She’s small and slight, with a polished curtain of hair spilling down her back. Her head is bent.
Ella is looking down at the bedspread, waiting for the worst. It is shameful, it is excruciating, that she’s become part of this. What if she’s seen by someone she knows, in this corridor of bedrooms, with this man who is not her husband? What is she doing here at lunchtime, with a man she hardly knows? She can’t look at him. She can feel his presence – large, solid, he’s much taller and stronger than she is – standing behind her. She’s now obligated to go through with this, since she agreed to come. It feels like an execution. She dreads his touch.
She thinks of her husband. He’s downtown right now, in his office, in his shirtsleeves and suspenders. He’s on the phone, or making a point to someone – he loves making points, stabbing his finger in the air – or having another cup of coffee. He’s doing something completely ordinary. He’s not betraying her utterly, betraying her to the bone, though he has. But he’s not doing it right now, and she is. She could call him, there’s an ivory phone on the table by the bed. He’d answer at his desk, his voice familiar. “Hello?”
It was a mistake, but she has to go through with it. She is obligated: of course she knew what it meant, meeting at The Plaza for lunch. Now she will have to have sex with him in this strange airless room. She will have to offer him her naked body. She would rather die.
Nat steps closer to her.
It was a mistake, that’s all.
He turns her body to him and glimpses her grieving face. He puts his arms around her and stands still, holding her close without moving. He can feel her, rigid and fearful. He says nothing, embracing her quietly. It’s a mistake, that’s all. What he wants is for her not to be miserable. What he wants is to expand around her, to become the ocean in which she is suspended. He holds her until he feels her quiet, until she understands that she is safe, and that all he wants from her is this close holding, this understanding.
* * *
They’re married, and now to each other.
The divorces were tumultuous and unhappy, but Nat and Ella persevered. They weathered the storms, they made their way determinedly through the torment towards each other.
Now they have been married for nine years, and they love each other. They’re knitted deeply into one another and they warm themselves at each others’ hearts. They long for each other, and their bodies teach each other pleasure, but they fight terribly. They say unforgiveable things to each other. Once, Nat took Ella violently by the Ella’s shoulders. “You make me so angry,” he said. “Some day I’m going to kill you.”
Ella, beside herself with rage, was pleased. “Fine,” she told him, satisfaction in her voice. It seemed a vindication, proof of something.
When they are not fighting they are happy, they are drunk on each other. But when they fight Ella fears they will split apart, and if they split apart, she fears it will be the end of her. She can’t imagine herself, if this marriage fails. She can’t imagine her life if Nat were to leave her. She can’t imagine her existence without him; it would be black and meaningless, the void. It is terrifying to her, this prospect, like falling into deep space.
She knows, in one part of her mind, when she is calm, that this is absurd. She has her own life, with friends, and a career – she is a literary publicist, and she has founded her own small agency. Her life won’t really be over if she and Nate split up. Still, there are times, when they are fighting, when rationality is not available. She has trouble breathing, and she thinks of the blackness of deep space, which seems to be waiting for her.
Right now they are driving from Florence to Siena, along a narrow, crowded motorway. The cars around them are lunatic: on the left, Maseratis and Mercedes pass at a hundred miles an hour, on the right, huge trucks sway dangerously, taking up more than one lane. Behind them headlights flare constantly, signalling them to move over. For half an hour they have been driving in hostile silence.
Nat breaks it. “I just don’t know why you couldn’t have gone on to the market yourself.”
“I just don’t know why you couldn’t have waited for me, with the car. Or given me the car,” Ella says. “I don’t know why you have to decide what we do and when we do it.”
Nat makes an exasperated sound. “I see,” he says, “ I decide everything. Is that what you think?”
“Do you think I decide anything?”
“Do you think you don’t decide anything?”
They get into these maddening, circular series of questions, each challenging the other, losing the point, going off on tangents, becoming increasingly angry, furiously incredulous at the other’s point of view.
Nat is exasperated by Ella’s lack of awareness: how can she not know that everything he does is with her in mind? What he wants is for her to be happy. This entire trip – Florence and Siena, the churches, the old hotels, the views – was for her. The impassive faces of the holy martyrs, the mysterious half-smiles of madonnas. It’s early spring, and wildflowers star the long pale grasses in the fields; they are in Italy. All this was meant to make her happy, and why does it not?
“I decide nothing!” Ella says, furious. “Nothing at all! You decide where we go, where we’ll have dinner, what time we’ll leave in the morning, what we’re going to see, everything. You even keep my passport! I don’t even carry my own passport!”
“I keep your passport with mine, and with our tickets,” says Nate, reprovingly. His face has darkened, and his mouth tightened. She has broadened her attack, flailing about, as always. “It’s just so I’ll know where everythng is. If you want your passport, Ella, of course I’ll give it to you.”
“I don’t care if I have my passport or not,” Ella says wildly. She feels trapped by him, helpless: he seems both reasonable and unjust. She knows it’s practical for him to keep the passports. Yet why should he have hers?
“What is it that you want to decide? Did you not want to come to Italy?” Nate turns his head and looks at her, dangerously, in the midst of the manic speed of the motorway. The car swerves slightly, then swerves back, in and out of the terrifying stream of cars.
Ella hopes they will crash.
“Of course I wanted to come to Italy!” She is distraught. “But you don’t ask me what I want! You decide everything yourself, and then you tell me what we’re going to do, and then you’re furious if I have a tiny, remote, minutely differing suggestion! I have to do everything you say, always! It’s as though I don’t exist!”
What she’d wanted, that morning, was for him to come with her to the flea-market in Florence, she wanted to wander through the stalls with him. It was a junky market, only odds and ends, but it was Florence. The people offering the broken clocks and plastic dolls were Florentine. Their faces – surprisingly fair, ruddy, blue-eyed, with red-brown hair – echoed the faces in the frescoes, in the churches, the monasteries. Ella loved all of it. She thought the living scene was, always, as interesting as those in the museum.
Nat thought it was all dreary and trashy: broken clocks and plastic dolls. “Why should I want to look at a flea-market full of junk?” he had asked. “I have to move the car. I’ll take it back to the hotel, and you come back whenever you want.” It was all entirely rational, there was no situation. He had no interest in seeing this stuff, and they should each do what they wanted. What was so upsetting about that?
But Ella sees his frown of distaste and feels crushed by the weight of his disapproval, by his thought that she was someone who wanted to look at junk, someone he disdained. All of it makes her feel panicky and abandoned: she speaks no Italian, and has no sense of direction. She knows she’d get lost, trying to find her way back up to the hotel. She is afraid of being lost, and afraid of asking questions of strangers. She loves him. She hates being at odds with him. The flea market was a bad idea, she should never have suggested it. He disapproved of it, and of her. And now she has made him angry again; he may leave her. At any time he may leave her. He is easily angered at her. She starts to weep from despair. She is always doing things wrong. They have been married nine years; she has not managed to give him a child; he may leave her. They are always fighting. She will die if he leaves her. She knows this is irrational; knowing it does not help.
Nat keeps on driving, the corners of his mouth turned down in disapproval. She is so extreme, Ella, so wildly intemperate, so utterly unfair. Her complaints are wounding and unfounded: he feels that his entire life is given over to making her happy, that all their decisions are made on her behalf. He’d thought she’d like the trip to Italy, and she had seemed to. This is the way she acts: at first she says nothing, then later she explodes, complaining bitterly, about something entirely unexpected. It’s completely unfair. He loves her. He is easily wounded by her, he is outraged by her when they fight. She erupts, unpredictably, she will say anything. Besides, she is irrational, messy, late. She maddens him. He is completely absorbed by her. He loves the look of her, taut and spare, with the spill of silky hair. He looks forward each night to seeing her, seeing her turn her head, to listen. He waits to hear what she will say, he is endlessly interested by what she will say. The way she looks at the world complements his own, she sees things in ways that never occur to him. She makes him laugh, and also his body needs hers. They are joined, somehow, which makes all this so excruciating: she levels these wild charges at him, as though she were dismissing their connection, denying it utterly. How can she? How can she take such a drastic and extreme position over something as trivial as the flea market? These trips seem to be more pain than pleasure. How can she act so brutal and reckless? He never thinks of leaving her; she’s at the center of his life.
At the end of their fights everything is somehow righted. A great calm happiness floods through them both, like a neap tide rising and moving through the fields, smoothing out the rutted landscape like liquid silk. This is hard for them to remember, when they’re fighting; it’s hard to believe it’s a possibility.
Nat swerves further now, across the traffic, into the slower lane, then he swerves again, cutting out of that lane too. He pulls off the highway altogether, onto a tiny semi-circular pull-out, edged haphazardly by faintly whitewashed stones. A rocky hillside rises steeply above it; just ahead, on the road, is one of the low stone tunnels that perforate Italian mountains. The tunnels are pitch-black inside, narrow and claustrophobic, and the cars race through them at supersonic speeds. Their car was just about to enter this one, and the traffic beside them continues to slide smoothly and hypnotically into the small black mouth, which is like that of a monster. But just before they are sucked into the dark maw Nat pulls completely off the road and jerks the car to a stop in the turn-out, the corners of his own mouth turned down.
Ella sees his disapproving mouth, his lowered brows, his fierce eyes, and she turns fearfully away from him, toward the window. A sob swells her chest: whatever he is about to do will be terrible. She is afraid he will hit her, though he has never done this, or even threatened to. She is afraid he will reach across her and open the door, and tell her to get out, to clamber onto the steep rocky hillside rising above them. Then he will pull the door shut and drive on, vanishing into the black tunnel and leaving her there forever.
Nat puts the car into neutral, yanks on the hand brake and turns off the engine. He turns to Ella, his brows still dark with concentration. He leans toward her, across the tiny car, across the gear shift, and puts his arms around her. He pulls her as close as he can, the upright gear shift between them. He holds her against him and strokes her head, her soft hair.
They’ve gotten themselves into this terrible trough of unhappiness, and this is all he can think of to get them back to the other place, where they remember each other. He holds her tightly inside the circle of himself, pressing his cheek against her head. He feels her collarbones against his chest, her shoulder blades beneath his hands. Her hair is shorter now, but still silky.
Ella feels his arms close around her, she breathes in the familiar smell of his skin and she closes her eyes in relief. She feels her whole body yield, give way. This is more than she had hoped for. It is everything.
* * *
They have been married for nearly a quarter of a century, and they have stopped fighting. Something between them has steadied, and they are no longer threatened by each other. Instead, they trust each other. She is less intemperate, and when he becomes annoyed she finds his exasperation amusing. She waits it out, smiling, and smooths his hair. He finds her exaggerations funny; she no longer infuriates him. They each understand now that they are allies.
They look different now, of course. She is still small, nearly childlike, but her waist has thickened, and her face bears a mask of fine lines. She is no longer beautiful, but pleasant-looking. Her hair is now short and iron-grey, thin and straight, with bangs, like a felt helmet. One knee gives her trouble, and sometimes she limps slightly. This morning, standing in line at the airport, waiting at the ticket counter, Nat saw her lean over to rub her knee. The sight made him feel tender, and he thought of her moving, with him, toward age, and toward the dark curtain beyond. He takes comfort in knowing that they will approach this, whatever it is, together.
His own body has thickened as well, and his hair has receded. His forehead is rising slowly, like a cliff from the sea. This disappoints him: his father had all his hair until he died, at eighty-one. Nat’s hair had once been thick and springy, it was his secret vanity.
Ella doesn’t mind his baldness, and no longer notices it. She is so used to his face – the deep lines from nose to mouth, the dense eyebrows, the neat pouches beneath his thoughtful eyes – that it might as well be her own. She barely sees herself in the mirror now, her eyes fading, her lips blurring. They have been living together for decades now, and they belong to each other. They have forgiven each other the dreadful acts, and they appreciate the generous ones. They admire and enjoy each other. They have grown together into this marriage, adding year after year to the trunk of it, each line encompassing the one before. The years in which they fought are now enclosed, entirely and forever by these later ones, in which they do not. These are years in which they simply love each other, years in which trust is dominant.
Today they’re on a flight from Newark to San Francisco, where Nat has a business meeting. After that they’ll go on to Los Angeles, to see his daughter Beth, who is a screenwriter. As far as they can tell, she is not a really successful one, but who can read the cryptic signs of Hollywood? Beth is funny and bright, and always full of optimistic talk about meetings and development. She had been angry about the divorce, years ago, when she was younger, but seems now to be over it. All three of them have lived it down, settling into enjoyment of each others’ company. Her boyfriend – though is boyfriend the right word? It’s hard to keep track of the correct word now – anyway, the person who is around more than anyone else, is a poet/studio musician named Ralph. He, too, is bright and funny. Nat and Ella like him, but wish both of them lived in the East, where they would have regular salaries and health benefits, instead of this hand-to-mouth existence. Or maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe they are both simply outside the world of regular salaries and health benefits, and so it’s a good thing they’ve found each other in West Hollywood.
Ralph and Beth have promised to take them to their favorite sushi restaurant. Ella doesn’t like sushi – why are people still eating raw flesh, five hundred thousand years after the discovery of fire? – but she eats it with Beth. She loves Beth, and in some ways she gets along better with her than Nat does. Nat becomes frustrated by Beth at times; he wants her and Ralph to leave the bohemian life and find some security. Ella finds this endearing. She thinks of it now and reaches out and smoothes his shoulder. He is the beloved. She feels grateful for his solicitude, the way he wants to take care of them all, herding them all toward shelter like an anxious sheepdog. At her touch, Nat looks up from his book and smiles at her.
They’re in Business Class. Nat works for a large management consulting firm, and he’s flown hundreds of thousands of miles. They both benefit from all the times he’s been weathered in at O’Hare, fogged out of Portland, delayed at Dallas/Fort Worth. Now, when they fly together, they enjoy these wide comfortable seats, the kindly attentions of the stewardess, the little compote of warm nuts after takeoff.
They haven’t taken off yet, though, they’ve just taxied out onto the runway, and are waiting in line. It shouldn’t be for long: the skies are clear, and it’s after Labor Day, the summer traveling peak is over. Their stewardess has taken away their jackets. She’s in her fifties, stocky, with a wide, pleasant, animated face, slightly pockmarked. Her short hair is dense black, maybe dyed.
During the safety video she put on a life jacket and stood in front of the cabin. She made smooth ritualised gestures, setting the oxygen mask neatly over her nose, pointing out the emergency exits. No-one watched her, and Ella wondered if this was because everyone had already heard these instructions, or if it were a subliminal superstition: the fear of naming dangers, the idea that it’s bad luck to allow the idea of peril into your mind. By doing so you call danger into being; the less you think about safety measures, the less likely you are to need them.
Maybe deliberately to counteract that superstition, Ella pulls out the plastic safety instruction card from the pocket in front of her. She studies the picture of people, tidily life-jacketed, who are sliding down the chute in an orderly line. Their faces seem lively and intent, not frightened or unhappy. It’s broad daylight, and the chute rests safely on flat ground. If this really happened, Ella thinks, there would be clouds of black smoke and bursts of orange flame. Or maybe they would be sliding into the ocean, at night, in blinding rain and huge swells. Disasters take place in perilous conditions, in storms and darkness, not on clear days under blue skies. In any case, it wouldn’t be like this – orderly and pleasant. Ella, feeling that she has somehow triumphed over the card, slides it back into the pocket.
All the stewardess have disappeared now. They’re up front somewhere, perched on their tiny provisional fold-out seats. The sky is blindingly bright and cloudless. They are in a line of planes, all huge and motionless. Heat waves shimmer up from the tarmac, and the planes seem to tremble slightly. The pilot’s voice comes over the intercom.
They’re number four, he tells them, and it won’t be long now. He speaks with a slight southern accent, and his voice is reassuring. The reason that so many pilots are southern is that so many southerners go into the military, and many pilots are ex-Vietnam war veterans. This comforts Ella – these men are seasoned by dangerous exploits, which they have come through unscathed. Their experience is held like a bright shield over their passengers. They have always made the right decisions.
The plane taxis slowly to the end of the runway, turns ponderously, revs its engines, and then begins slowly to rumble down the long concrete strip. As they gain speed, the engine noise mounts and mounts, and when the cabin falls silent with the universal respect given to takeoff, Ella is gripped briefly by nerves. She reaches for Nat’s hand, and he clasps hers firmly and reassuringly, without looking at her. He is not a nervous flier, he flies too often for nerves.
The rumbling, hurtling plane nears the end of the runway, racing toward the moment of breathless suspension, the moment in which the arcs of speed and lift and burden all intersect, precisely and miraculously, and the wheels leave the ground, and they suddenly rise up, without pause, smoothly and astonishingly into the clear blue air. The landing gear folds up noisily into the belly and the plane banks hard, tipping over the rows of dark buildings of Newark, now so tidy and precise. They have done it, they have made the transition from earthbound to airborne, and there is something great and self-congratulatory about this moment. They have – all of them, the pilot, the crew and all the trusting passengers – succeeeded in this death-defying venture.
When the stewardess reappears with the lunch menu, Ella is no longer holding Nat’s hand. She had once been a very anxious flier, but that has changed, too. She feels now remoter from the danger of flying. Once, without Nat, she flew through a thunderstorm like the end of the world, lightning bolts sizzling off the wings, the fuselage jolting horridly with each shock. Her heart had thudded in her throat, but she had suddenly thought, though she is not religious, “You are in the hand of God.” At that her panic ceased.
Since then she no longer becomes so frightened during flight. Fatalism, or some sort of calm, has entered her. She is in her fifties, and she has certainly lived over half her life. She feels less responsible now for the care of the world. If she vanishes from it, the world will rumble along without her.
Right now she is absorbed in her book, and they are climbing smoothly toward thirty thousand feet, heading slightly northwest, toward San Francisco. The stewardess smiles professionally and offers her a menu. Ella takes it, smiling back. She wonders how long the stewardess will go on working. It’s a brutal life, they say, especially if you have a family. You’re away so much, and you get bloat, and your cycle is disturbed. Plus you’re on your feet all the time: Ella thinks of her knee, which will at some point, her doctor says, need replacement, though she’s putting it off. She wouldn’t be able do this job, stewardessing, but these women must like it well enough.
Ella’s reading Anthony Trollope, and Nat a book about Thomas Jefferson. She lies the symmetry they create, likes feeling that, together, they are responsibly covering the field of letters. She is addressing Fiction, nineteenth-century, English; he, Politics, eighteenth-century, American. What more can you expect of a marriage?
At first she hardly notices the disturbance, since the noise level on airplanes is already so high – the loud drone of the engines, the staccato voices of video ear-phones, the conversations around them. But finally it becomes intrusive, and she looks up to see a dark-skinned young man in a white t-shirt, with a red bandanna tied around his head, coming down the aisle from first class. He has something in his raised hand, and he is shouting at them angrily. It’s the anger that is most apparent, and confusing. It’s directed at them, the passengers, for some reason. What is he shouting? Behind him there seems to be a cloud of black smoke: is something on fire? Is the plane on fire? He is shouting at all of them, though the words are too big, right now, to understand, it’s hard to sort through the information – the smoke, the rage, the t-shirt and bandanna, who is he? – but his anger is very clear, and his insistence. He is motioning at them urgently, gesturing at the back of the plane. He’s angry at them all, he’s beside himself with rage. His rage, the chaotic energy of it, is confusing and frightening. The front of the plane is where the pilots are, and where the stewardesses busy themselves. The front of the plane is the seat of authority, but no-one in uniform appears from there – where is the captain, with his reassuring southern voice, his heroic war record? Can it be that this dark-skinned man now represents authority? That’s where he’s coming from, the cockpit, and the black smoke is billowing behind him. He’s shouting.
“Get in the back!”
Some people stand up, bewildered, some still sit in their seats, confused. “What’s going on?” People are asking him questions, but the man is not answering; instead, the questions turn his face darker, thunderous. He has large liquid black eyes, brilliant.
“Get in the back,” he says ferociously. He has some kind of accent. “There’s been an accident.”
“What kind of accident?” Some people stand, alarmed, wanting to know, wanting to help.
Behind the man their stewardess suddenly appears, the stocky black-haired one. Her pockmarked face is contorted with purpose. “Help!” she shouts. Her voice is high-pitched, frantic. “Hijackers!”
The man swivels instantly, and his arm shoots out and he seizes her by the throat, his arm snaking around her neck. They are directly in front of Ella, and Ella can see the woman’s hand shaking, held up helplessly, fanned across her chest. The hijacker’s elbow is raised high in the air, and he holds her chin up. “Don’t move,” he hisses. The stewardess wears a navy cardigan over a white long-sleeved shirt. There is a gold bangle on her wrist, and her hand is shaking. Ella can hear her breathing: slow and strained.
The hijacker looks around. He is in his thirties, with high cheek bones and a broad, slightly crooked nose. His teeth are very white, and his shiny black hair falls over his forehead. No-one moves. Behind him, the doorway to First Class is full of smoke. The stewardess swallows convulsively. Her chin is pulled up high by the hijacker’s arm, and Ella can see the shifting of her throat muscles beneath the skin. The hijacker tightens his grip, and her eyes roll upward, then they close. She swallows again, with difficuty, and her hand goes up, reflexively, to his arm. Ella remembers the smooth ritual gestures she made during the safety video. The highjacker hisses at her again, and then pulls her chin up higher, exposing her throat.
What he has in his other hand is a small straight blade, Ella sees its brightness, and he sweeps the blade across her throat. The pale skin parts horribly easily. The smell of blood is very strong, and the rush of it overwhelming, disorienting. It floods out, dark, and in pulses, down her white blouse, which is now crimson, each wave of fresh blood darkening the blouse, the sweater. The stewardess is trying to scream, though her voice no longer works; she makes shuddering noises, the sounds of breath and moist tissue. Her arms are all right, and her legs. She grabs at him, and kicks, but her movements are perfunctory, jerky and spasmodic, and she is not really, now, kicking at the highjacker. She is kicking the way the body prepares itself for death, the way it jerks itself loose of its earthly connections. She kicks and struggles fitfully, and the hijacker, with each jerk, holds her more closely, clasping her to himself like a demon lover, the blood pumping out of the terrible dark place on her neck. He holds her closer and closer to his own breast, which is now covered with streams of her dark blood. The blood is on their arms, it is on the carpet, it is everywhere, and the air reeks. The hijacker’s eyes are black and brilliant, and he stares at the passengers without blinking. The stewardess is still plucking with her hands and struggling, and her throat makes terrible attempts at speech. Shudders of air move through places where air was not meant to go. There are moist sounds of tissue smacking and flapping, heaves and gasps, a kind of sob.
“Get in the back,” the hijacker says. His eyes are hypnotic with intensity.
It seems that they have no will, now. It seems there is nothing for their weakened bodies to do, now, but stand and move heavily, without a will, down the aisle and back into the tourist section. There they can see rows of faces looking up at them, confused, alarmed. Alarm is spreading, deepening, across the faces. There are cries and questions, some screams. The hijacker is behind them, he is still holding his dreadful burden, the heavy body of the stewardess. The smell of the blood – thick and ferrous – makes Ella feel faint. It’s a smell she did not know she knew, but she does. She knows it. The body knows it.
Nat is ahead of her, and she reaches down low, for his hand. There is nothing now but fear. Just behind them, in first class, there is smoke and chaos. Beyond that, up in the cockpit, is beyond contemplation. The mind dare not go there. It is too dangerous to call it into being.
“Nobody move,” the hijacker shouts at them. He is beside himself. “Nobody to move.”
The rows of faces stare up at them, stunned.
The plane is doing something, moving less smoothly. Its flight path seems disturbed. They are turning, now, the rows of tidy Newark houses are reappearing, approaching. They seem to be descending. The engines seem louder now – are they going faster?
Ella and Nat are standing helplessly in the aisle, there is nowhere for them to go. Behind them is the hijacker, with his mad eyes. Ella is right ahead of him, facing the rear of the plane, and she presses forward, against Nat. She doesn’t want to touch the hijacker, or the body of the stewardess, whom he holds in front of himself like a shield. The stewardess seems to have stopped moving. The smell of the blood is rich and sickening. Ella moves her feet to one side, she doesn’t want the blood on her shoes.
They can all feel the plane shifting now. The smoke in first class is drifting into this cabin: acrid, dense, alarming. Ella’s eyes sting, and she closes them. She leans against Nat’s back, pressing herself against his spine. She knows his back intimately, and she pictures its beautiful slope as she leans against it. She knows where the scar is, on the left side, where he fell in a baseball game as a teenager, long before she knew him. The blueish mark, where a beebee went in, when he was a child. She knows exactly the texture of the skin, beneath his grey suit, his blue shirt. She puts her nose against his suit and breathes in: she knows exactly the smell of his skin, rich and comforting. She leans her cheek against his shoulder blade, leaning on her good knee.
The plane is definitely descending, now, they’re still over the dense urban landscape, streets and buildings in a bewildering pattern. Don’t hijackers want to go somewhere else? Don’t they want to be taken to Cuba? Palestine? Why are they headed back toward Newark? Ella feels her body tighten, she is panting, and her stomach is clenched. The roar of the engines seems deafening – is it really louder, or is it fear that makes it seem so? She thinks of the plastic card, the orderly evacuation down the spotless chute. Behind her, the hijacker is still holding the slack body of the stewardess, and when he moves Ella can feel something – his elbow, or her lifeless wrist – against her back, and she cringes, trying to move away from the contact.
Now the hijacker is shouting again, but not in English. It’s in another language, guttural, unknown, and there’s another hijacker, she now sees, across the aisle, with a red bandanna around his head, shouting too. What they say is incomprehensible, but it’s the force of it, the loudness and intensity of what they say, that cows the passengers, defeats them. They are wild-eyed, they are in some kind of insane, triumphal trance, the hijackers, and one of them holds the dead bleeding body of the stewardess, the woman who was supposed to care for them, to minister to their needs. She has been murdered, and the hijackers are screaming at all of them, and the tourist cabin, too, is now filling up with smoke.
The plane is going insanely fast, they can feel it, dizzying, hurtling low, just above the city buildings. Ella cannot see where they are but it is still somewhere in New York, no longer a tidy cityscape seen dreamily from above but a nightmare landscape seen too close and too fast, and her whole body is going too fast, her heart, her lungs, her pulse are going as fast as the plane. Nat, in front of her, begins to turn.
It’s over, Nat can see that. Everything is over. It’s strange how, as the plane speeds up, his mind slows down. It’s oddly calming. Everything is over, everything falls away, now, all the intentions and crises of life, the small things, his report for the meeting, the complications of dealing with the new CEO, the conversation with Beth about health insurance, all of these things no longer matter, and the large things – what were the large things?
He had just been with Thomas Jefferson, who moved through the eighteenth century with such brio and intelligence, declaring his theories of government. “If the happiness of the mass of the people can be secured at the expense of a little tempest now and then,” he had written, “or even of a little blood, it will be a precious purchase.”
A little blood, of course: it was always the way. These dark men in their red bandannas are making some kind of political demand, at the expense of a little blood. Their cause is a mystery to Nat, and he will not learn the answer. He knows this from the rising whine of the engines, the lethal speed at which they are traveling. There was Jefferson, guiding the emergence of the young country with such confidence, as though he knew beforehand how things would go, and that he would succeed, though Nat now realises that he did not, that nothing is known beforehand.
He thinks of that life spinning out to its completion two hundred years earlier, set beside his own, spinning here, about to end. He can’t usefully relate the two, but none of those things matter, now. There are no useful comparisons, right now. It’s all moving faster and faster, and here they are, all of them, trapped together, the doomed faces staring ahead, stunned and weeping, caught in this thundering, rumbling, accelerating plane, and he thinks, his mind slow and calm, that this is, really, what they all faced every day, hurtling through space together on the spinning planet, rushing, unaware, toward their final moments. And the planet has been spinning like this for all time, sweeping through the endless black of space on its long elegant loop. It will go on spinning beautifully through space, though for him, for them, for everyone on the plane, it’s all over, whatever happens. There is time now to do only one thing, the last thing; he’s grateful that there’s time and he’s conscious. Gratitude floods through him for this.
Nat shifts position carefully, keeping his head low, avoiding the wrathful gaze of the hijacker, who is shouting something over and over at the top of his lungs, some fanatical and impenetrable chant, the other hijacker is shouting it too. They seem, mystifyingly, to be flying through the buildings of Manhattan, and the engines are whining unbearably, their pitch is rising higher and higher toward some unthinkable climax, but before they reach it, just before the plane opens the black maw of its own tunnel, Nat is able to turn himself all the way around, and he takes Ella in his arms.