AN INTRODUCTION BY AMANDA STERN
A.M. Homes is known for her satire, incisive wit, and an exceptional ability to track typical American behavior through a fish-eye lens. Actions and structures that we take for granted are amplified to reveal the not-so-hidden absurdities of modern life. In her newest collection of short stories, Days of Awe, architecture and objects continue to play a big role, but the focus is pushed and pulled, just as we humans are through life. In the world according to A.M. Homes, characters have consumed so much they’re too fat to fit through their front door, and babies are found in big-box chain stores. The capitalistic world we inhabit coerces us into unseemly behavior and actions that disconnect us from humanity, from ourselves.
“The Last Good Time,” is one of the quieter stories in this collection, and the least blatantly satirical. Homes presents a nameless European man, who recently had a child with a woman who doesn’t want him, whose beloved grandmother is dying, and whose own parents erased him with their new families. This man is still searching for where it all went wrong, the clues that he must have overlooked that would have shown him neither he nor anyone in his family were truly happy. And on his quest, Homes sends him to Disneyland, an epicenter for all things artificial, material, capitalist. Homes has an uncanny ability to flip the closed eyelid of everyday life inside out, exposing the fraudulence of our comfortable existence. Days of Awe is punctuated with stories that take speculative turns and bow towards parody, particularly of American consumption.
That the search takes place in the absolute wrong venue, at the absolute worst time in his life, makes this story existentially painful, and very Homesian. It is deeply funny and dreadfully sad, and that’s what I love so much about A.M. Homes’s writing and this story in particular. Our anxieties about aging find us reaching backwards to our old, buoyant, childhood perspective. To try and uncover what you didn’t see then means erasing your actual memories, supplanting them with a new truth, the one you cannot stop seeing now; in that way, you erase yourself.
When our nameless European man loses his car at Disneyland and says, “I’ve never lost something so large,” it’s the kind of funny you feel without sound, because what he’s lost is so much bigger than his car. His quest seems impossible: if he is too stuck in the past to be aware of his present, can he ever get to a happy future?
Author of Little Panic
A Trip to Disneyland in Search of the Root of Sadness
“The Last Good Time”
by A.M. Homes
“Are you going?” she asks as she spoons cereal into the baby’s mouth.
“In a moment,” he says, looking out the kitchen window—the sky is what he calls a winter mouse gray.
“How long will you be?”
He shrugs and adds a small folding umbrella to his bag.
“She’s not dying today, she?”
“I don’t think so,” he says as he goes into another room, returning with an old photo album.
“Again?” she asks.
“She likes it,” he says.
“You like it,” she says.
He nods. “I like it.”
She looks at him as if she’s waiting for something. He ignores her, focusing instead on the way the room has become punctuated by brightly colored pieces of plastic—the high chair, a cup, a ball, assorted pink toys.
“Why can’t you just say it?” she asks.
“I’m not sure,” he says as he’s putting on his coat.
“You’re so careful that you’re going to end up with nothing.”
“I live in my mind,” he says.
“But you have a heart, I know you have a heart,” she says. “You made the mistake of letting me know.”
“A fatal error,” he says.
“It’s like you’re already gone,” she says.
“I should go, I’m late,” he says, taking a piece of dry toast off her plate. “Bye-bye, baby,” he says, bending to kiss the baby on her head. He inhales as he kisses her, and her downy-soft hair brushes his lips. The child’s scent is clean and sweet.
“Say ‘Bye-bye, Papa,’” the mother tells her, picking up the baby’s hand and waving goodbye with it. The mother accidentally bumps the enormous cup of black coffee in front of her—it rocks, coffee splashing back and forth suddenly like a stormy sea. “After a while, crocodile,” the mother says.
“In a minute, schmidgit,” he says, trying to be playful as he’s leaving.
He takes the long way around to the nursing home to visit his grandmother. Driving, he becomes obsessed by curbs. As the population ages, should the height of curbs be lowered? Would four inches be better than six inches? Would more cars jump the road and hit pedestrians? Would it be worse rather than better? Trained as an architect, he now works as an urban planner; his job is to make sense of things, to order the growing sprawl of what once was a small town. It’s up to him to figure out where things intersect, where the overpasses should go, and if a new road is to be built, in what direction it should go. He is supposed to be able to think about the future without forgetting the past—something he finds difficult.
He was born nearby, in a place that was often cold and wet. His earliest memories are his feet and fingers perpetually chilled. He grew up obsessed with socks, wet wool socks, the smell of wet wool, of damp animals and fur. Since he was a little boy, he has dreamed of cowboys and California. He imagines it as a place where you wake up and the sun is always shining. He imagines that it is the most American place in America—dreams are made there. In his imagination it is a place where the Old West meets Marilyn Monroe, where every street is decorated differently—he is conflating Disneyland with Hollywood and doesn’t even know it.
He drives to the nursing home, checking various works in progress along the way. As he’s driving, he’s thinking of the photos in the album, remembering ones of himself as a boy, building the world of the future with plain wooden blocks and the expression of rage and disbelief on his face when his buildings fell down. He remembers that he liked wearing his fringed cowboy vest and gun belt day and night—over clothing or over pajamas, everywhere he went—the suede made him feel safe. He remembers a photograph of himself on his first day of school, posing outside the building as a cowboy in full costume. And he remembers that on the first day his teacher told him she was pleased to have a cowboy in the class but that he had to leave his hat and his guns in his cubby, and then later that day she came up and whispered that for reasons beyond her control he could not bring his guns to school anymore. “Times have changed,” she explained. “Just being a cowboy isn’t so simple these days. Someone might take it the wrong way, so perhaps it’s best to go undercover.” He remembers not really being sure what that meant but in general thinking the teacher was nice. He remembers the photograph and wonders if that is all he really remembers. Perhaps he made the rest up, or is that really what the teacher said?
“Good morning,” he says as he enters his grandmother’s room. She smiles, and only half of her face moves—the left side remains expressionless. He kisses the good side. Her breath is not sour, not like she’s rotting from the inside out, but sweet like lavender, like wild grasses, which remind him of a trip they once went on long ago. Her fingers trace the purple scar across her skull—she has brain cancer. On the wall around her bed are posters made by the staff to remind her of her name, what year it is, and who the prime minister is. FOR FUN YOU LIKE TO SING, the poster says.
His grandmother is not so old—her hair has always been white. He’s thought of her as old since he was a child, even though she’s now only in her mid-seventies. As a child he would spend long weekends with his grandparents. He would sleep between them in their bed, their heavy scents and sounds deeply comforting. His grandparents took him trips; they liked going camping in the forest. When he was young, they bought him a Polaroid camera—he took it on every holiday—he pictures now fading, like they’re evaporating. When he was fourteen, his grandfather died, and there was a large space—like an unbridgeable gap—in the bed, and he stopped spending weekends. It felt too awkward. Still, it was his grandparents who were the stability in his life, and he hates that he is losing her—she is the only thing that has stayed the same.
“You look tired,” his grandmother says.
He shrugs. “I’ve had a lot on my mind.”
She nods. “What season is it now?”
“Almost Christmas,” he says.
“How is the baby?”
“She is plump and happy.”
“And the baby’s mother?”
“Not happy. She accuses me of living in my head. And she’s right,” he says.
“What is it like in your head?” the grandmother asks.
“Better,” he says. “It’s like in the movies. The sun is always out. When it rains, it pours. Life is large, dramatic. The men are heroic, and the women are beautiful. Things are clearer, life is not so confusing.”
“We all have our dreams,” she says.
“I find it very difficult to stay in the present,” he says. “It wears me out. I get too angry. When she says she loves me, I become afraid. I go cold, and I don’t talk.”
“You must bring something to it,” the grandmother says.
“I have nothing,” he says. And they are quiet. “How about you—how are you doing?”
“I don’t sleep so well,”she says. “Day is night and night is day.”
“This place is not a home,” he says.
“Some people live here for a long time,” the grandmother says.
“Would you like me to take you out? I could get a wheelchair and walk you around the garden.”
“What is it like outside?” she asks.
“Cold and wet,” he says.
“Let’s not and say we did,” the grandmother says. “How is the baby?” she asks again.
“She is plump and happy,” he repeats.
“And your mother?”
“She is with her husband and family,” he says.
“I was always very fond of your mother,” she says. “I liked her more than my son. How big is her new child?”
“There’s a boy and a girl. They are ten and thirteen,” he says, speaking of his half siblings.
“Has it been that long?”
“Apparently,” he says. “Do you want to look at pictures?” he asks, holding up the album. When his parents divorced, neither wanted the photo albums. They wanted no record of their time together, of life as a family. He became an outsider in his own life, an unwelcome reminder. His father was an only child; he is his grandmother’s only grandchild.
She likes looking through the pictures.
“Whatever there was, he took it all,” his grandmother says as she’s flipping through the pages. “It’s odd,” she says. “Your father won’t come to visit me if he knows you are coming.”
“He doesn’t like to bump into things,” he says. “He doesn’t like the unexpected.”
A nurse comes to get his grandmother, to take her for a bath. He tells her that he’ll wait and goes down the hall to have a coffee. “This is my daughter and her mother,” he says, showing a picture that is not in the album to a young nurse — he keeps it in his pocket.
“Your wife?” she asks.
“No. The baby’s mother,” he says. And then he laughs. “She recently asked me to leave, said I was just occupying space.”
The nurse smiles at him. “I’m sure she didn’t mean it.” “I think she did,” he says.
The nurse pours herself a coffee and goes back to work. He sits waiting.
He flips through the photos of his childhood again — the last good time.
“I am going on a journey,” he tells his grandmother when she is out of the bath. “I don’t know for how long.”
“So is this goodbye?” she asks.
“Would you like me to stay, to wait?”
“No,” she says.
“Where are you going?”
“In search of something,” he says.
“Where will you look?”
“In America,” he says. “I want to go to the desert to put my feet in the sand.”
There is a pause.
“What?” he asks. “You look sad.”
“I just wish you could have found it here,” she says.
He nods. “I have always been somewhere else.”
“I have something for you,” the grandmother says, sending him to her closet, to her bag, and there a sealed envelope with his name on it. “It’s been here all along,” she says. “It’s for you from your grandfather and me.”
“What is it?” he asks.
“It’s your ticket out,” she says.
He opens the envelope, and it is a ticket he made years ago — a pretend ticket to take a spaceship around the world. And money, a lot of real money. He can’t help but smile.
“I thought you might need it,” she says, laughing.
“This is too much,” he says of the money.
“Take it,” she says. “I have no use for money.”
“I’ll take the ticket and save the rest for the baby.”
“You do what you choose.”
“I love you,” he says, bending to kiss her, and then he has to turn away — it’s too much.
“You always have,” she says. “Let me know what happens.”
On the plane to Los Angeles, the movie starts to play, then stops, then repeats itself from the beginning. Each time it starts again, it gets a little further, and after the fourth time the passengers beg the crew not to try again. “It’s enough,” they say. “We can’t keep watching the same thing over and over” — of course he can. For him each time it is different. Each time he looks at it, he sees something entirely other. He looks at the ticket he made years ago — the flight is like a giant ride, the turbulence like the up and down of a roller coaster, the whole thing is an adventure.
Upon arrival he puts on his unglasses — Ray-Bans; he never wears them at home, but here the glare too much, the shadows bold, directed like slashes of light and dark, dividing the world into patterns, grids playing off the concrete, the parking lots, the chrome of the cars. He gets into his rental car and heads downtown. He is fascinated by what he sees, the cracks in the roadway, curbs that dip down at the corner for handicapped people, confusing inter sections with flashing Walk and Don’t Walk signs. He drives for hours and hours, up, down, around, stopping only to look, to think. He drives just to drive, for the pleasure of driving. He drives despite its being decadent and wasteful. He drives because it is something you don’t normally do — just drive with nowhere to go, driving for the satisfaction of watching the road unfold. The wide boulevards — Santa Monica, Wilshire — are appealing for the straightforward rise and fall of it all. He drives to the tar pits, to the place they call the Grove, and then toward Hollywood — sex shops, tourist depots, and from there up the hills toward Mulholland Drive and what he thinks of as the top of Los Angeles, looking out over it all, the industry of Los Angeles. On the way back down, he stops for a hot dog, and the guy behind the counter laughs when he calls it a sausage. Still hungry, he gets a burger from a place that you have to have a kind of code word for — a friend told him it’s not enough to just get a cheeseburger, that he should order it “animal style,” meaning with sauce and pickles and onions. It’s like he waited to arrive in order to eat. He drives, he eats, he consumes everything and feels optimistic for the first time in a long time. He checks in to his hotel, takes the car out again, and drives to a bar downtown. Sunglasses on — the sky is still blue, the day bright, the street entirely empty. He is a foreigner who feels less foreign when he’s away from home.
“Just coming in from the cold?” an old guy in the bar asks him, noticing his winter clothes. He wears ginger-colored corduroy pants, his shirt is dark green — asically he looks like a tree lost in a forest. The old man is lingering over a scotch. His face is heavily weather-beaten, he’s thin, his hands are gnarled. “I know what you’re thinkin’,” the old guy says, aware that he’s being looked at.
“You’re wondering if I’ve got a cigarette.”
He shakes his head no. “I don’t smoke.”
“I used to carry them on me all the time — I used to get ’em for free, cartons and cartons of ’em — ‘Just give ’em away,’ they’d tell me. ‘Give ’em to anyone you run into and tell them your story.’”
He listens a bit more carefully.
“I still have the story,” the old guy says. There’s a pause. “You wanna buy me a drink?”
“Sure,” he says.
“I grew up in Texas,” he says. “My daddy worked horses; I did, too. Only went through sixth grade, and then I just couldn’t be bothered.” The old guy is playing with the short straw in his drink, knotting it with his gnarled fingers. “I learned a trick or two, rode in the rodeo for a bit — roping horses, was a rodeo clown. You know what that is?”
“The fool in the pickle barrel who lets the bull come toward him,” he says.
“That was me,” he says. “Till I got kicked too hard, and then I thought there had to be a better way. I came out west and got into the industry, mostly building sets, doing a little of this or that. Tough when you don’t have much of an education. Anyway, it ended up that sometimes they needed a cowboy, someone good with animals, someone who could stand in and do a trick or two.” The old guy looks at him as if to ask, Are you following what I’m telling you?
“I’m it,” he says, tossing back his drink. “I’m the last cowboy.”
“Is that it? Is that the whole story?”
“No,” the old man says. “But you gotta put another quarter in the jukebox.”
He signals the bartender to pour another round of drinks.
“Back in 1955 this fellow Leo Burnett — that name ring a bell?”
“No,” he says.
“Leo Burnett came up with this great idea for an advertising campaign — to sell cigarettes. He thought of a cowboy, rugged, masculine, and so it was born — the Marlboro Man.”
“Are you saying that you were the Marlboro Man?”
“Not exactly,” he says. “I was the stand‑in for the Marlboro Man. I was the one that came early and left late and stood around for hours under the hot lights — I was the one who ran. I got paid a few bucks and a fuck of a lot of free cigarettes, that’s what I’m trying to tell you.” He shifts his weight on his chair. “I’m in pain,” he says. “My hips are crap. I fell off horses so many times it’s amazing I can walk a single step. But despite it all, I’m the last man standing. Hey, so what about you, Mr. Man, what planet are you from?”
“I just got into town,” he says. “Just passing through.”
“Do you need a place to stay? I’ve got a sweet corner spot in a shelter downtown. It’s pretty crowded, I could put in a good word for you.”
“No,” he says, “I’m okay. I’m heading south tomorrow.”
“It’s comin’ on Christmas, you know.”
“You got plans?”
“Not really, just kind of playing it as I go.”
“Well, I’m not one to preach, if you want to go to church, we’ve got some good Christmas Eve services, and there’s a bunch of places to get a hot meal. Some of us, we don’t have much, but what we’ve got we share.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, thank you,” he says, getting up to go. He digs in his pocket and finds a twenty and tries to give it to the guy.
“I can’t accept,” the man says. “It was good enough of you to buy me a drink — I need nothing more.” And then he stops to think. “I’m lying,” he says, taking the money. “I’ve got nothing — twenty bucks and I can live another day.”
“Merry Christmas,” he says, still feeling the old man’s fingers on his hand as he exits the bar. The old man follows him out. They step onto the sidewalk — it’s still bright and warm and so different from anyplace else.
A car cruises by and stops at the light, blaring loud music. The old guy leans toward the driver’s window and shouts, “Make it louder!”
He laughs at himself for still being in love with the idea of cowboys — wondering what it is he thinks is so magical about men learning to be tough, to hold on to their feelings — to say less rather than more. He thinks of cowboys as loners, rebels, lovers with wounded hearts, rule breakers, fierce, brave, like John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Clint Eastwood.
“God love ya,” the old man says, slapping him the back before he ducks into the bar.
He goes to his hotel, orders a pizza, and looks through his photo album, turning to the pages he thinks of as the Last Good Time: the family trip to Disneyland the Christmas before it all went wrong. His plan is to drive to Disney in the morning — in search of what he has left behind.
Exhausted, he tries to sleep but has lost track of time and finds himself dressed, ready to go at 4:00 a.m. He forces himself to lie back down, remembering that his mother used to say, “Rest — even if you can’t sleep — just rest.”
Checking out of the hotel at 5:30 a.m., he arrives at Disney before the gates open. He drives in meditative circles around Anaheim for ninety minutes before parking in the enormous structure and finding his way to the train that will deliver him to the Magic Kingdom. At the train depot, he feels himself begin to recede. What had seemed so clear, so obvious, a return to the place where things were good, becomes opaque. He feels small, in need of direction, lost in a sea of families. He lets the first train leave the station and then the second, and finally after a while the train conductor, noticing that he’s been standing on the platform, asks, “Are you waiting for someone? Do you need assistance?”
“I don’t know where to begin,” he says.
The conductor ushers him into the first car on the train. “It may sound corny, but . . .” The conductor begins to sing, “‘Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.’”
“Thank you,” he says, thinking the tune sounds familiar.
He passes through the ticket booth and enters the Magic Kingdom. Surrounded by people in a frenzy, rushing to get to this world or that, he stands still for a moment, feeling both excitement and trepidation, knowing that there’s a good chance his first re action is not going to be one of elief — othing the way it used to be.
Last night he made a map for himself — a kind of agenda based on the photos in the album. His plan to visit each of the attractions he went to with his parents. He hopes to conjure his memories of that day and of his childhood in general.
He breathes deeply; it means too much to him. He looks at the faces of the children and their parents around him taking in the whole thing for the first time, the look of surprise and enchantment, joyous and over the top. His parents came to America because he wanted to, he begged for it. Walking through the park, he tries to think of himself as shorter, smaller, his experience less broad, his understanding only half formed. He tries reimagining himself as naive. It occurs to him that the different lands within the park are like sets for a film, that each tableau is an unfolding scene and the guests are in fact the actors. It is all a fairy tale, all make-believe, and he wants to go in deep, to be the boy he once was, the boy who thought it was real. And at the same time, the brute force of reality, the intrusion of truth, is inescapable, and with it comes sadness. People with FastPasses hurry by, conspiring to find their way around the long lines for each ride. He doesn’t remember there being long lines, doesn’t remember there being such a competitive edge to everything.
At the Mad Tea Party, he gets into his own spinning teacup. He tries to spin fast. He went this one with both parents; he remembers that he sat in the middle, his face stretched in a smile of exaltation. As he turns the center wheel, round and round, faster and faster, the cup begins to spin and his memories unspool; in his mind’s eye, he sees his mother and father, youthful, athletic, playful, taking turns with the camera, taking turns posing with him, and then sometimes asking a stranger to take a photo of the three of them together. Looking back, he’s always wondered if he missed the clues, if he should have seen it coming or if the whole thing happened offscreen.
His father never told him he’d left. One day while he was at school, his father came and packed up his belongings. He also took the train he’d given his son for his birthday — the boy was not sure why.
He didn’t realize what his father had taken until after he told his mother that his train was missing. “Why?” he wanted to know.
“Ask your father,” she said.
“Where is he?” the boy asked.
“I have no idea,” she said.
“When is he coming home?”
“He’s not,” she said.
“But he was here,” the boy said.
“While we were out,” she said bitterly.
“When is Daddy coming home?” he asked again, and again sure he was just misunderstanding something.
His mother got angry.
“Did he take anything of yours?” he asked.
“He took everything,” she said. The boy followed his mother into his parents’ bedroom, and she opened the father’s side of the closet — empty except for the Christmas sweater his mother had recently bought him.
“Even his toothbrush?”
“No,” she said. “I suspect he has another.”
“Why?” the boy asked.
“Because there was nothing left,” she said, and shrugged, resigned.
“That’s not a reason to stay together.” She took a moment to collect the shoes he’d left behind and put them in a bag. She set the bag out by the trash along with the Christmas sweater. The man who lived downstairs, who was in charge of taking the trash to the curb, took the bag. More than once the boy saw the man wearing his father’s Christmas sweater and felt his heart accidentally jump, thinking his father had returned.
Dumbo, the flying elephant, is crowded. He waits patiently, and when the family in line ahead of him asks if he minds sharing an elephant with the grandmother, he says he’d be happy to and smiles. Her thick-soled shoes and coiffed white hair remind him of his grandmother. They board their elephant, buckle in, and take off. At first he drives, dipping the elephant up and down with the joystick, pretending they’re catching up on the grandkids in the elephant just ahead. And then he asks if she’d like to drive, and she’s thrilled. When it’s over, she beams. “Thank you,” she says, “you’re a very nice boy.” He wishes it were true. In the canal boats of Storybook Land, he remembers that his father would take him out on Sundays. He wouldn’t come into the house — they’d have to meet somewhere. Often they’d just go to a park, and before bringing him home his father would buy him an ice cream. On rainy days they’d sit in a museum or sometimes, still in the park, under the shelter of a tree.
“Where do you live?” he asked his father.
“I’m staying with a friend,” his father said.
There was great formality, a distance between them. Who are his friends? he wondered but couldn’t bring himself to ask.
He found out his father was staying with a woman who was a math teacher at his school — ne of his friends told him. At first he thought it was a joke and pretended it wasn’t true, but when he saw the math teacher in the halls, he noticed she went out of her way to avoid him. She would see him and pretend she didn’t.
“Does she have any children?” he asked his father after some time had passed.
“No,” he said. “She never wanted children.”
“Why does she work with children if she doesn’t like them?” he asked his father awhile later.
“No doubt she would have done better in a university, but there are very few jobs and she’s a bit older.”
He remembered being with his parents at Disneyland, laughing, his father being silly, the world seeming magical, unreal. “It’s unbelievable, there’s no dirt here,” his father said.
And then he remembered his parents at home after the trip to California, his father becoming more serious, losing his sense of humor, and as he did, his mother became more playful, almost as if mocking him, and it made his father angry. “Grow up!” he remembers his father shouting. He glances at the photographs. What he remembers is true, there was no dirt, everything was spotless, perfect, everything was in its right place. There was a parade down Main Street. There were wonderful old cars, tooting horns, and a float carried Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, assorted fairies and others. His father lifted him high, sat him down on his shoulders — a change of perspective. And then there’s a photo of his mother and father, each holding him by an arm and swinging him through the air — he recalls the sensation of flying like an airplane. He sees it now and realizes how sentimentalized it — the railroad station, city hall, the opera house. It’s smalltown America comes to the big city, a utopian vision of a world that might have been but never really was, the budding landscape of power. He is in it, and the conflict remains; is that consciousness or bitterness? he wonders. Is it his adult self mourning a lost childhood? Is it his own anger at himself for being stuck in this place — needing to make sense of it, needing to make it right?
He doesn’t know what happened, who left whom — no one would say.
Within a year his mother married a man who was younger and who didn’t like him at all. The feeling was mutual. Suddenly he’d become an intruder in his own life, and he didn’t like competing with a stranger for his mother’s affection, so he spent less and less time at home. His stepfather didn’t go to any of his school events, didn’t do anything for or with him; at best they tolerated each other. Time passed, and his mother had a new baby.
“He’s a good father,” his mother would say.
“To his own children.” He remembers watching his mother breastfeeding the baby.
“Not in front of him,” his stepfather declared, pointing a finger at him.
He went outside and spent the night among the trees. Later he got a job working in the movie theater, sweeping stale popcorn. The owner trusted him so much he went away for the summer and left the place to him. For all intents and purposes, he lived at the theater, watching the films over and over again.
He goes on each of the rides multiple times. He tries to stay focused. The disorientation of going up and down, high and low, and round and round allows him to reprocess his experiences. He is whirling, dizzy, nauseated, thinking about everything. There are moments he believes he may be hallucinating, or maybe it’s just dehydration.
“Are you running from something or toward?” a young woman asks.
“I’m Candace. I’m one of the cast members here at Disneyland. I just wanted to make sure everything is going all right.”
“I think so,” he says. “I mean, as expected.”
“Are you with a group?”
“No,” he says. “I’m on my own.”
“Most men don’t come to the park alone,” she says.
“I came with my parents.” He pauses. “Long ago, when I was a boy. This time I came in search of something.”
“I’m not sure, I felt I’d left something behind.” He glances up at the tree over his head. “But perhaps I’m just in search of a palm tree.”
“Did you know the palm trees aren’t really from California? They came from Latin America a hundred years ago,” she says.
“I didn’t know,” he says.
“And worse yet, they’re dying of a fungus.”
“After I came to Disneyland, I went home and told my friends I met Mickey Mouse and Abraham Lincoln. They laughed. Now I’ve returned to revisit the dream, Tomorrowland and the future — to find out if it’s still alive.”
“And is it?” she asks.
“It’s hard to tell,” he says. “Nothing from here anymore. It’s all from China — it’s like China owns the United States. If I pick up a Disneyland snow globe and turn it over, on the bottom of the world it would say ‘Made in China.’”
“You’re funny,” she says, laughing.
“A regular clown,” he says.
“I’ve finished work for the day,” she says. “You were my last assignment.”
“I was an assignment?”
She doesn’t answer. “Do you want to grab a bite?”
“I haven’t eaten all day,” he says. “Is there someplace you like here at Disney?”
“No,” she says. “We’re not allowed to eat with guests, but we can go off campus. I live nearby.”
“Sure,” he says.
As they’re walking toward the exit, she tells him that the 1955 dedication plaque reads “‘Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.’ I love that,” she says. “Every day as I come and go, I repeat that phrase, as a mantra.”
And then she explains that “cast members,” the Disney words for employees, check out at a different place and have their own parking area. She tells him that she’ll meet him at the parking structure. She circles and finds him walking up and down the rows in the parking structure, unable to locate his car.
“I have no idea where I left it.”
“What color was it?”
He can’t quite remember. “Gray? A silvery, grayish green?”
“It happens all the time,” she says. “I’ll let the security people know. Worst case they don’t find it until late tonight, after the park closes.”
“I’ve never lost something so large,” he says, getting into her car, which is small, white, and rusting from the bottom up.
“It’s worse when people misplace their kids — that happens multiple times a day. We have a whole system set up to reunite lost children with their families,” she says as they exit the parking lot.
Along the way they talk about the weather.
“Is this normal for here?” he asks.
“Is it always this hot?” he says.
“The heat comes and goes — there is no normal anymore,” she says. “Is it warm where you live?”
“Not really,” he says. “It rains a lot.”
“Here,” she says, “it’s usually a little bit better than this — a little more perfect. That’s what everyone likes about it. Have you been to America many times?” she asks.
“A few,” he says. “Have you ever been to Europe?”
She shakes her head. “I wanna go to London sooo bad, but I haven’t even been on a plane yet.”
She drives to a small, low apartment complex about ten minutes from Disney. The complex, called The Heights, has a big sign by the entrance that says electric and a/c included. The buildings deposited here one night. The buildings are numbered — that’s the only way to tell them apart. Her apartment the middle level of a three-story building.
Before opening the door, she warns him, “We have cats. We’re not supposed to, but we do. And roommates. I have three roommates, but they’re at work right now. We’re all cast members, which is nice because it gives us something to talk about.”
She leads him into the dark apartment. She opens the metal vertical blinds, and a small cloud of dust snaps off, rising into the air, catching the light, glittering like fairy dust.
“Would you like a drink?” she asks.
“Sure,” he says.
“We have beer and Tang.”
“Beer would be nice.”
She takes out two and marks a paper inventory sheet held onto the front of the fridge with heavy magnets. “Are you married?” she asks, handing him the beer and a package of saltines.
“Not really,” he says, following her lead and eating the crackers first before taking a sip.
“What does that mean?”
He swallows, washing down the stale crackers with the beer. “A crisis of confidence?” he suggests. “I live with someone, we have a baby. But I’m not as into it as she would like me to be.”
“Does she know you’re here?” she asks.
“She knows I’m gone, but I didn’t give much in the way of details.”
“What do you tell her?”
“Not a lot. I mostly talk only in my head.” He laughs at himself.
“Where did you meet?” she asks.
“At a party. She’s a photographer, a lot of weddings, family photos — no one calls you to photograph a funeral. After the baby came, she wanted more, I wanted less. It got harder.”
“Are you hungry?” she asks.
“I am,” he says.
“I don’t know if I should charge you for it or give it to you for free.”
Startled, he chokes and beer comes out of his nose.
“We call that snorfing,” she says. “When you laugh while you’re drinking.”
“Is it funny?” he asks.
“Yes, because you weren’t sure what I meant, were you?”
She opens the freezer and shows him it’s full of frozen meals. “One of my friends works in a hotel, and he sells whatever he finds in the rooms on the black market. I pay like fifty cents a meal for food that’s good as new — still frozen. I’ve got lots of macaroni and cheese and frozen pizza. Things like this one.” She pulls out something called a Hungry Man dinner. “This one is a delicacy — very few and far between. I think I paid a dollar for it. The gluten-free stuff belongs to my roommate — it’s very expensive.”
He moves to take out his wallet.
“No,” she says. “Be my guest.” She pops the meal into the microwave and sets the timer.
She’s looking at him, wanting something. She moves a little closer, raises her beer, and they tap their bottles together. He knew that something might happen when he accepted the offer to go to her house. She kisses him. “I don’t do this,” she says. “I don’t pick up men at work and bring them home.” The microwave beeps. She opens the door, peels back the wrapper, and sets it for another minute, then kisses him again.
“Then why are you doing it?” he asks, knowing he should be asking himself the same thing.
“I’ve never slept with someone from another country. I’m wondering if it’s different,” she says.
“And I’ve never done it with an American,” he says.
He puts his beer down. Again they kiss. “What do you think?” he asks.
“You taste foreign,” she says, leading him down the hall toward her room, stopping first in her roommate’s bedroom to look for condoms.
Her bed is low to the floor and surrounded by stuffed animals. “It’s like the enchanted forest,” he says nervously, and then asks,
“How old are you?”
“Don’t worry, I’m old enough,” she says. “I just really still like toys. A lot of these I won. I’ve got good aim when it comes to games of chance.”
He follows her lead. There’s something rather mechanical about her approach to lovemaking. “I haven’t done it so much,” she says, shy but clearly proud of what she might think of as her technique. He finds the youthful roundness of her figure sexy. Her skin is fresh and at the same time filled to the edges, like a balloon blown all the way up — she is taut, almost bouncy.
“My roommates are wilder than me,” she says. “Like, have you ever done it from the back?”
“I have,” he says.
“Should we try it?” she asks, as if it would be some kind of experiment. And as he’s behind her, just breaking a sweat, there is a turn in her mood.
“Something really bad could happen here,” she says.
“Like if others came in and things slipped out of control?”
“Who would come in?”
“People,” she says.
“And what would happen?”
“They might make us do stuff we don’t want to?”
He pauses. “Do you want me to stop?” She says nothing. “Am I doing something you don’t want me to?”
She seems frightened, undone by what she is doing.
“No,” she says. “I’m just saying.” And she starts to sniffle as though she’s going to cry. “I just really have a hard time letting go. Let’s start again.”
“It’s okay,” he says. “Nothing bad is happening here. I thought you were having a good time.”
They begin again. This time he lies back and she straddles him — she calls this “grown‑up sex,” and says she saw it once in a porno movie. “It’s kind of like being on a ride,” she says. “Up and down. I’ve only had like two boyfriends, and both of them were a lot like me.”
And when they are done, she puts her top back on and, half naked, she carries the used condom into the kitchen, wraps it in a wad of paper towels, and buries it in the garbage.
“Getting rid of the evidence,” she calls down the hallway.
She comes back into the bedroom and gets down on her hands and knees and starts rooting through her closet. It’s a rather odd view of her from the back, naked from the waist down. “What size shoe are you?” she asks.
“I take a forty-three,” he says.
“No, like in regular numbers. You know, eight, nine, ten . . .”
“Oh,” he says. “I think it’s a nine and a half.”
“Perfect,” she says, still digging. Finally she pulls out a pair of shoes. “These were my grandfather’s,” she says, handing him an elegant pair of dark loafers with tassels. “Genuine alligator. Put them on.”
He slips his feet in, trying to hide the holes in his brown socks. “What do you think?”
“I like the contrast, your socks, the shoes. You should have them,” she says. “He wanted his shoes to go to a good soul — I’ve just been waiting to find the right person. Most American men have bigger feet.”
“Did you grow up here?” he asks, walking around the apartment in the shoes, test-driving them, not wanting to take them unless they are a good fit.
“No,” she says, “my family is from Utah. I’m kind of different from them, so I left.” She pauses. “It’s more like I ran away, but I really had to — it was the only way out. My friend’s brother did the same thing — we went together to Los Angeles, and then we got into this Scientology church thing there that wasn’t so great, and I had to run away again. And I came down here. This is the first place where I felt really good. I’m someone who needs to be part of something — Disney is kind of like a religious experience for me, only better. I really like the values and the characters, and it’s a happy place.” She pauses again. “Are you hungry?”
“Starving,” he says.
She reheats the Hungry Man Salisbury Steak and makes herself a Lean Cuisine. They sit on her bed and eat, surrounded by the multicolored plush-animal kingdom.
“Do you find it disturbing that some of the animals aren’t their natural color?”
“Like what?” she asks.
“Like the purple bear,” he says. “Or the fluorescent-range dog?”
“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I like it. I’m not afraid of color. How’s your meal?”
“It’s nice,” he says.
“Isn’t it so fun to have sex and then eat?”
“I think this is what people are talking about when they say they have the munchies. It’s like I could eat a horse,” she says, sneaking a forkful of his potatoes. “So what are you doing this afternoon? Back to the Magic Kingdom for another round?”
“Actually, I was going to drive out to the desert — to Joshua Tree — but with my car missing, I’m not sure.”
“I could drive you — if you wouldn’t mind paying for gas.” “That would be nice,” he says. “Thank you.”
He finds the concrete highway soothing — flat, affectless, rolling out for miles ahead.
“What’s nice about concrete,” he tells her, “is that it doesn’t get potholes, so it’s a smoother surface, and you don’t get ruts that collect water, so it’s better in the rain.”
“That’s really interesting,” she says.
He can’t tell if she’s kidding or not and stops.
“Seriously,” she says, “how do you know so much about roads?”
“It’s my job,” he continues. “The average life of a concrete road before repair is about twenty-seven years, where asphalt lasts about fifteen.” He goes on, telling her pretty much everything he knows about roads. The sharing of information relaxing; it helps him to feel closer to her.
“How do you see when there so much light?” he asks.
“We all wear sunglasses,” she says. “Polarized ones work best.”
She hands him a spare pair of glasses that are tucked into her visor.
“Ah,” he says, “these are wonderful. The whole world looks perfect.”
“They’re from the Disney store,” she says. “At Disney they specialize in making things look good.”
“Yes, but then how do you know what’s real?” he asks.
“You bite into it,” she says, laughing.
“It’s true,” he says. “You have hot dog stands that are shaped like hot dogs, and yesterday I ate a doughnut at a place that looked like a doughnut. You have ninety-nine-cent pizzas, Happy Meals, supersized drinks, and roads that go on forever. But why, then, is no one outside?”
“It’s complicated,” she says. “I don’t think anyone is sure why no one goes outside. But my sense is we’re all nervous to be seen just wandering around, like we’re out of our element. We feel more comfortable in our cars — they’re like our shells.”
“Okay,” he says. “So what do you love about America?” he asks her.
“Well, I love being in the entertainment industry,” she says. “And who knows, maybe one day I’ll go back to school or I’ll keep doing what I’m doing and become a customer-service manager or something. I feel that there’s lots of opportunity for someone like me — as you can see, I’m really a great people person.”
He nods. “You are good with people.”
“What about you?” she asks.
“I might start painting again,” he says, remembering that as a boy he used to enjoy making paintings of the landscape, paintings of the places he went with his family. “Maybe I’ll paint my view of the world, the details of what in my heart, the fractures.”
“What really brought you here?” she asks. “So far from home?”
“I’ve had a hard time,” he says. “It’s as though I can’t find my feelings, or like I left them behind. That’s why I’m on this journey. I’m looking for what I lost.”
“And have you found it?” she asks optimistically.
“They say Christmas is a difficult time of year for people.”
He nods. “It may depend on what your expectations are. Do you have big plans?”
“I go out with my friends. We take a taxi so we can get really drunk. We karaoke, and then we do like a Secret Santa thing where everyone gets a present. It’s a lot more fun than when I was a kid. What about you?”
“Often I have dinner with my grandmother.”
His mind wanders, and he replays memories: blowing out birthday candles, learning to ski between his father’s legs, making a snowman. He sees images in his mind’s eye and can’t tell what is a photograph and what is an actual memory, all of it is frozen, frame by frame, into single images — moments. He remembers that when he was about fifteen, his mother’s husband went away for two weeks, and for those two weeks everything was good. He took care of his mother, of the two younger children. They laughed, she was the mother he remembered, and then the husband returned and the closeness vanished.
They stop for doughnuts and coffee. “I just love that sugared‑up feeling when I’m driving,” she says. “I get the best rush, driving really fast, drinking hot coffee. I don’t know how it where you’re from, but here lots of people practically live in their cars.”
The landscape starts to change. There are fewer car dealerships, more blank spaces, and lighter traffic. The traffic thins and thins until they reach Joshua Tree, which is an odd combination of both more and less developed than he’d thought it would be. Exiting onto a smaller road, they pass a bunch of lousy-looking motels, all of which have the word “Desert” in the name. And there are rundown bars with battered old trucks parked outside. In general there’s the sense of this place as other — a kind of last stop, a place people come when all else has failed, or when they just need an out. It’s scruffy, sparse, and it looks rough. He pays the fee to enter the park, and they drive onward — he’s simultaneously elated and depressed and asks if they might turn off the radio and roll down the windows.
The air is cold, bracing. There’s something about it all that makes him feel he’s able to empty himself into the desert. He wants to get out, to run, but he has no idea what direction he might go in.
“Maybe we could park and take a walk?” he suggests.
“I’m not much of a hiker,” she says. “In fact — ” She holds up her foot, and she’s wearing sandals with heels.
“I need to get out,” he says, opening the door. “If you don’t want to wait, I understand. I can find a ride home.”
“Oh, I don’t mind waiting,” she says. “I can even just drive out of view and wait.”
He shakes his head. “Honestly, I think you should leave me here. I need a moment alone.”
“You’re not going to do something weird, are you?”
She doesn’t answer. “It doesn’t feel right,” she says. “I’m not leaving you here. I just can’t do it.”
They’re in a standoff.
“Fine,” he says. “Just give me a couple of minutes.”
He gets out of the car, walks up a ways, stands with his arms open to the world — spins them in circles, like he’s trying to pick up some speed, and then begins to turn to whirl to twirl around and around again on the same spot, churning up dust and dirt, making a small cloud around himself. And as he’s spinning, a single dark cloud moves over the desert, and it begins to snow. Fat white snowflakes like doilies spin down from the sky.
He stops, opens his arms wide, tilts his head back, sticks his tongue out, and tries catching them.
Seeing him like that reminds her of something. She gets out and calls, “You know, the real name for a Joshua tree is a yucca. The name Joshua tree came from some Mormon settlers crossing the desert — the shape of the trees reminded them of the bit in the Bible where Joshua reaches his hands to the sky and prays.” She stands the same way he’s standing, letting the snow land on her open arms, on her upturned face. “I only know that because my family is Mormon, and that’s why I had to run away.”
They return to Los Angeles in silence. She invites him to her apartment for “another round,” he declines. “I should be getting on with it,” he says. “I met a guy in Los Angeles, the Last Cowboy, and he wanted to take me to Christmas Mass. I think he’s expecting me to be there tonight.” She drops him off at the Disneyland garage — the security guys have located his car. He gets out carrying his plastic bag of Disneyland loot along with a few little extra things she gives him as remembrances.
He sits in the car. From the top of the parking structure, he’s got a good view of the evening fireworks — Believe in Magic — Sleeping Beauty’s castle becomes a winter wonderland, the air is charged with awe and wonder, and in the end, as Christmas music plays, fake snow floats down. As he’s listening, he’s remembering a trip to the Alps when he was a boy, his father buying him lederhosen and telling him they were just like ones he had as a boy, and he realizing that it was the first and only time his father had ever said anything about having been a child. He thinks of the dedication plaque the girl told him about this afternoon, her mantra: “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.”
He digs out his phone and calls home; she answers even though it is late.
“How are you?” he asks.
“We’re fine,” she says. “I took the baby to see your grandmother today — she smiled.”
“That’s nice,” he says. There is silence. “I am standing here, there are fireworks going off, and a magical kingdom is in front of me.”
“That’s nice,” she says.
Again there is silence. “It’s almost Christmas,” he says.
“Yes,” she says.
“I’ll be home soon,” he says. “I think I’ve got what I need.” He pats his jacket pocket, where the crayon-colored homemade ticket his grandmother gave him rests. “And I’ve got my ticket right here,” he tells her. “It says it’s good for one free trip around the world.”