EDITOR’S NOTE by Deborah Eisenberg
Surely the best approach to this marvel — Brad Watson’s “Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives” — is a direct one, without the intervention of my astonished effusions, to which, if the reader chooses, he or she can return subsequently.
So, I’ll assume this is subsequently, when the reader will already have encountered, for instance, the delicious stylistic brew of naturalness and exquisite finesse; the dazzling accuracy of description and dialogue, each hilarious line of which feels like the striking of a little gold gong; the combustive contrast between the tone — its gentle, ballad-like plaintiveness, innocent, modest, and amiable — and the tale it enfolds, ferocious, intricate, and anguished; the exciting friction between the story’s seemingly leisurely pace and the actual tight cohesion of its elements, which fizz around, locking together in rapid reconfigurations: It’s entirely plausible within the terms of the story that the putative aliens are bona fide aliens in the host bodies of, for example, mental patients, or that they are the phantom terrors and consolations of a mental patient who is telling us the story, or that they are mental patients — or aliens — pressed into service by a delusional narrator.
We are most likely to cast our lot in with the narrator and to see the events of his life in the way that he does; it is not this narrator who appears to be unreliable but the world. And the soi-disant aliens’ proficiency in manipulating dimensions, which enables them to be familiarly perceptible to us, is so convincing that we have the eerie sensation of seeing around the edges of the sensory and temporal delimitations of our lives.
What, we wonder, is memory and what is fantasy? Could there be a future more rewarding than the degraded and dehumanizing life available during these recent decades to most young people in a representative small American town? To what extent do any of us have control over our life? To what extent is it possible to have a shared experience with another person, even the person we love most dearly? Are any of us who we think we are? Are we even the sort of creature we believe ourselves to be? What, fundamentally, are human capacities and properties?
How modest, yet how unattainable, our aspirations for happiness seem — and how pitiable! We have to agree that the aliens have a point: the vision of adult domestic tranquility and fulfillment by which we, as well as the narrator, have been entranced, is, in the clear light of alien scientific detachment, disappointingly banal. And Olivia’s construct for her future is, in accordance with her character and abilities, so clichéd and threadbare as to be hardly more substantial than the magazines she reads, which have no doubt furnished its vague, conventional imagery and restricted emotional range.
Stunningly placed, late in the story, is a stark passage reminding us in detail of the sorts of dead-end futures that faced the story’s young protagonists at the time of their unfortunate marriage, rendering the narrator utterly vulnerable to a visitation from aliens who provide a seductive alternative to despair (or, possibly, rendering him vulnerable to an annihilating crack up).
Of all the story’s wonders, to me the most sublime is the unlikely residual radiance of nobility that clings to its human characters. It’s obvious that the particular aliens who infiltrate these pages far outweigh us in brains, skills, and poise — they certainly are in the prime of their lives! And yet rarely have our human qualities of sorrow, ineptitude, longing, regret, and their preposterous adjunct, hope, seemed so precious as they do here.
Author of The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg
Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives
The day we ran off was hot, early August, no air conditioner in my 1962 VW bus. It topped out at forty miles per hour, so the forty-mile journey took us more than an hour, during which we drove along, kind of stunned by what we were doing, sweating, saying little, staring ahead at the highway, other cars and trucks blasting past us in the left lane. Just over the state line we stopped at a Stuckey’s and bought a pair of gold-painted wedding bands for a dollar apiece.
Olivia wore her favorite pair of red and white polka-dotted bell-bottoms. None of her other pants fit, by then. The bell-bottoms were low-waisted, and Olivia was carrying high, so she wore them often. She never did gain weight. She seemed to lose it. She threw up every day, throughout the day, from the beginning. How she’d been hiding that from her mother, I had no idea. She’d begun to look like one of those starving children in the CARE commercials, all big eyes, gaunt face, stick limbs, and a little round belly up high underneath her ribs.
We parked on the downtown square and started up the old brick walk to the courthouse door. But halfway to the building, Olivia headed back toward the bus.
I caught up with her, took her by the hand.
“Look,” I said, “what else are we going to do?”
She took a deep breath and then looked directly at me for the first time that day. The skin beneath her eyes seemed bruised from lack of sleep.
“I don’t know what else to do,” she said. “I want to do the right thing.”
“I know,” I said. “I do, too.”
We stood there listening to songbirds in the oak trees in the square, watching cars make their slow, heatstroked weave through downtown. A couple of old men wearing fedoras, sitting on a park bench in the shade, stared speechlessly at us, their old mouths open to suck a last strain of oxygen from the incinerated air.
She came along reluctantly. Once, she tried to go back to the bus again, but I held on to her hand. When we got inside the courthouse, she stopped trying to run away and sat like a chastened child in one of the hard wooden chairs in the anteroom outside Judge Leacock’s chamber as we waited our turn. Judge Leacock was known to marry just about anyone who asked. Two other couples sat there like us, silent, jittery. A third couple — a soft, pale, fat girl with pretty blond hair and a thin, pimply boy with a farmer’s haircut — waited in their seats with strangely beatific, vacant smiles on their faces, their hands on their knees. They seemed like Holy Rollers or something, but I didn’t imagine Holy Rollers would get married in a courthouse by a judge.
The ceremony took about five minutes. Judge Leacock was an older man with a slackened face and tired-looking folds beneath and at the corners of his eyes. But the eyes themselves were alert, even crafty, as he leaned back in the chair behind his desk and looked at us for a long moment.
“How old are you?” he said to Olivia.
“Eighteen,” she lied.
“You?” he said to me.
I lied and said I was eighteen, too. We were both heading into our senior year.
He asked us if we were sure we wanted to get married. I said yes. He asked us to sign the certificate, then asked us to stand up before his desk. He remained seated.
“Do you take this little gal to be your lawfully wedded wife?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you take this young fellow to be your lawfully wedded husband?”
Olivia stood there looking stunned, her lips parted, and stared at him.
“You need to be able to say it, darlin’,” Judge Leacock said.
“Yes,” Olivia whispered.
“I now pronounce you man and wife,” the judge said. “That’ll be five dollars, please.”
“Can I kiss the bride?” I said.
“Go right ahead.”
I kissed Olivia, pulled out my wallet, handed the judge a five-dollar bill. He gave us our copy of the certificate. We drove back home at forty miles per hour, windows down, sweating, not saying a word.
A few weeks earlier, we’d secretly rented an attic apartment over a small frame house on the south side of town, a block from the state mental institution. They had drug cases over there, dementia, catatonics. Maybe a schizophrenic or two. Retarded people. People with injured or disoriented brains who thought themselves to be other people, elsewhere. No hard-core psychotic criminals like they had in Whitfield over near Jackson.
During the weeks we’d spent cleaning and painting the apartment, I took breaks and walked over to the hospital property for a smoke and a stroll. The grounds were beautiful, populated with big, dark, seductive oaks and magnolia trees, and you could imagine being very happily insane if you were allowed to walk their grassy, shaded slopes every day. Once I saw an old man, apparently a patient there, who crept along as if he were hunting something. He wore a pale blue robe over pink pajamas, torn paper slippers, and a broad-brimmed tan cowboy hat. He held an imaginary rifle in his hands and a look of mischievous anticipation in his watery eyes. It never occurred to me to wonder how he’d gotten out onto the grounds. Stealthy, I guess.
“What are you hunting?” I said.
He froze as if he hadn’t seen me standing there. He turned his little bald head very slowly and put a finger to his lips. He moved his fuzzy eyebrows toward the little glen that lay just beyond us, its grass deliciously lush and green in the afternoon light. Then he scrunched his eyes tight shut and whispered, “Lions.”
The only places you could stand upright without knocking your head on the apartment’s attic ceiling were in the middle of the living room, the hallway, and the middle of the bedroom. You had to crouch to get to the sofa or the bed. The bathroom and kitchen were small but okay for standing upright because they were built into dormers. The bathroom had an old wood-frame window fan the size of a ship’s propeller. When you switched it on the blades began to turn slowly at first, and as they picked up speed they huffed and pushed out the wooden slats that stayed folded shut on the outside when the fan was off. Now that we were in mid-August, the temperature inside the place rose above a hundred during the day. Turning on the fan at night flushed that still, stifling air and pulled a slightly cooler breeze of about eighty-five degrees (on a good night) through the apartment’s open windows, small rooms, narrow hallway, and out the bathroom window. If you closed the bathroom door, the fan created a near-vacuum in there, so your ears sucked in and went deaf, and the whole house shook with the fan’s effort to pull wind through the little crack at the bottom of the bathroom door.
While we were fixing up the apartment, we’d be up there every late afternoon and early evening during the week, after our summer jobs, and all day on Saturdays and Sundays, sweat soaking our shorts and shirts, stinging our eyes and dripping from our chins. We scrubbed every surface clean. We painted the walls, the old brown wooden floor, and hung curtains. We made trips to K-Mart, half for the relief of the store’s air-conditioning, half to get cheap aluminum cookware and plates and cutlery, sheets and bedspread, towels, though some of this we filched from our parents’ houses.
And sometimes in the late afternoon, in spite of the heat, we’d go at each other in the little bedroom in the back of the apartment, right under the rear gable. The bed frame was imitation brass, so I could hang on to the headboard rungs with my slippery, sweaty hands. Olivia was getting so round in the belly, and we had to take care in how we did it, and I needed some independent purchase. We sweated deep into the bedding, the creaky set of old steel springs screeching and squawking at even our most discreet, restrained, ecstatic movements. The scrawny, bitter landlady downstairs shouted up through the floor, “HEY! HEY!” Banging on her ceiling with a shoe or something.
We’d lie there catching our breath, cooling off as much as we could, with the old fan huffing to pull a hot breeze across our reddened, sticky-slick skin, and then we’d dress, turn off the fan, lock up, get into the car. I’d drop her off at her parents’ house, and drive to my parents’ house. I would go inside, speak to my parents and my brothers, if they were home. Then we would all sit down to supper. Or if I was late, I would sit down by myself at the kitchen table and eat some of what was left, and maybe my mom would sit there and talk to me while I ate, if she had a minute. Then I would go to the bedroom I shared with my little brother, maybe listen to the radio for a while, and then I would go to bed.
I was under a spell, those days. I had been ever since I’d first seen her.
I was with my friend Wendell Sparrow, that day, skulking about the pool at the local run-down country club my parents managed to belong to. Sparrow and I sat in the oak shade between the pool and the tennis courts, smoking cigarettes and waiting for girls to enter the dressing rooms to change for a swim.
We did this because we knew there had been, at some unrecorded time in this old pool’s history, peepholes drilled in the wall between the men’s dressing room and the women’s. The holes were artfully hidden beneath metal soap dishes attached to the shower’s water pipes that ran from the ceiling down this wall, ending in the hot and cold handles. Just below the handles were the little soap trays. And just beneath the soap trays, so that you wouldn’t notice as you stood there taking your shower, someone had drilled single peepholes about a half-inch in diameter that went through to the other side of the wall, which was the wall inside the women’s dressing room. If you held on to the water pipes and leaned down, peered just below the soap dishes, you could look through the peepholes into the dressing stalls there. It was ingenious and simple. Most people who weren’t in the know never noticed the peepholes, since you’d have to bend down in the shower to see them, and as these were mostly rinsing showers, few ever did. Those who did guarded the secret as if they were the only ones who knew it, for fear of such fantastic information getting out to the authorities, who — being at an age and level of respectability that it would never do for anyone to catch them peeping into the women’s dressing room — would probably plug the holes with concrete from sheer jealous outrage against youth and the effrontery of its prancing, tawdry, exuberant libido.
So, as Sparrow and I were sitting in the lawn chairs beneath the oak outside the dressing rooms, around three o’clock, the pool all but deserted, no one on the tennis courts, who should walk past us in her street clothes, holding a little bundle of swimwear, smiling a little half-shy smile, but Olivia Coltrane, on her way to the women’s side. We smiled and nodded to her. As soon as she’d cleared the door into the dressing room we shot out of our chairs and ran into the men’s dressing room and took up stations, Sparrow at the left showerhead peephole, me on the right.
She was in my stall already.
“You see anything?” Sparrow said.
“No, not yet.”
Olivia had such a playful, placidly languorous look on her face through the peephole, I couldn’t imagine she didn’t know we were there.
She bent over, out of view. Then she straightened up. She raised her arms and slipped off her blouse. I could see everything from her beautiful rib cage up: her brassiere, her long, pale neck, her coy expression. I was trembling just a little bit.
“See anything?” Sparrow stage-whispered. He sounded desperate.
“Shit. Where the hell is she?”
She took off her brassiere. My God. Her little breasts were beautiful: small, a little heavy on the bottom, sloping down and then up to what looked to be a pair of hard, erect, hazelnut nipples. I was shivering, my body was all but bucking against my grip on the pipes against the wall above my head.
“See anyth — You son of a bitch!” Sparrow said, and he was on me. “Let me see, goddammit!”
But I was stronger and in fact I could not let go of the pipes. Sparrow pummeled me and made far too much noise. Through the peephole, Olivia’s face seemed to register just the slightest increase in some kind of strange satisfaction as she slipped the bikini top over her beautiful little breasts, roughed up her hair, turned, and walked out of the dressing stall, its door slapping shut against my eyes. I let go and sat down heavily on the shower floor. Sparrow grabbed the pipes and jammed his forehead against the soap dish.
“Shit! Son of a bitch. Goddamn you son of a bitch!” and so on for a good five or ten minutes, as he slammed things around the dressing room, lit a Marlboro, and smoked it in that way he had, sucking the life from it, his long scrawny neck flaring tendons, the bony Adam’s apple bobbing. He was bleeding from a cut on his forehead where he’d jammed it against the soap tray. He stopped pacing and glared at me. One eye twitched at the little drop of blood leaking into it from his brow. He took off one of his tennis shoes and hurled it through the high window of the dressing room. It crashed through, sending glass shards out into the grass beside the pool apron. He stood there, his breath heaving in and out. He stomped over to one of the toilets and threw his cigarette into it and banged out through the dressing room door.
I sat there on the shower floor, entirely unfazed by Sparrow’s tantrum. You could not have shaken me from what I was feeling, not with the strength of a hundred men. That was when, pretty much, I knew that I had to have Olivia Coltrane. I was just about dying for her, right then.
She was slim, tallish, with a thick clump of short black hair that framed her small, delicate face, black bangs against her milky forehead. She was pale and pretty, if not conventionally so. Her teeth were a little too big for her mouth, so she may not have been smiling so often as she appeared to’ve been. She was a little nearsighted, but vain about wearing her glasses, so the crinkling around her eyes may have been more of a squint than the mirth you might have taken it for. You wouldn’t have put her in a magazine to model clothes or makeup. But you might have put her in an ad for some other product, say a snappy new red convertible, because she had a wholesome natural beauty in her, hard to say just what it was except maybe happiness. I think it was that sense of her natural happiness, really, that attracted me to her. I was never a very happy or contented person, and people like Olivia tended to ignite in me a secret, almost feverish desire to absorb whatever it was that made them so different from me. So at ease with the world and themselves in it.
She had a way of looking at me, straight-on, and seemed incapable of the usual emotional evasion, as if she had nothing to fear. It didn’t bother me in the least that she wasn’t the smartest girl around. She struggled in English, was competent in math. If you drew her as partner in biology lab, you would surely do most if not all of the work. She was a little bit lazy. She tended to spend her spare time reading ridiculous magazine articles like big spreads on the lavish lifestyle and strange marital relations of Jackie and Aristotle Onassis. But I really didn’t care. Most people thought me a little dim, too. I was ridiculously earnest and deliberate. I wasn’t the handsomest boy she could have dated, either, but I had a kind of appealing, homely kindness in my features, or so people would note from time to time, in one awkward way or another.
Soon after we’d started going out, I took every cent I had in my savings account at Citizens Bank and bought the ten-year-old VW bus, took the back seat out, padded the floor with old blankets and a flannel-lined sleeping bag, and began my serious courting of Olivia. I took her out as many nights as her parents would allow, and on Saturdays and Sundays, too. I started picking her up after church, in the bus, and either taking her on a picnic or over to Sunday dinner at my parents’ house. We did this every other week, alternating with her family’s Sunday dinners at her maiden aunt’s house, which I didn’t attend. I wasn’t exactly ever invited. Olivia enjoyed the picnics, and she loved the dinners at our house. My mom was an old country girl and a fantastic cook, whereas the Coltranes’ fare reflected Mr. Coltrane’s salt-free diet and the family’s general lack of interest in food.
She liked my folks, too, and kidded my little brother about his long, pretty hair and his dreamy, calflike brown eyes. She called him “Beautiful.” “Hey, Beautiful,” she’d say, and he’d frown and leave the room, but soon he’d be back in, grinning, and we knew he loved it. Once he slipped up to her and said, “Hey, Beautiful, to you,” and blushed so deeply I thought he might burst into tears of embarrassment. We all burst out laughing instead, and it saved him. Olivia spent the whole Sunday dinner in the chair next to him, her slim left arm over his shoulder while they ate. It almost seemed she loved him so much because he was still such a boy, and part of her still wanted to just be a girl, with crushes on beautiful boys. She would pet him, then look up at me with an expression of earnest if simulated heartbreak, as if she wanted to possess him somehow, possess his innocence and strange beauty.
When I picked her up at the church on Sundays, morning service over and all the Baptist folk standing out on the lawn feeling good about the world and their lives, it was dismaying to see the vague pall of anxiety that seemed to settle over them when they saw me pull up in the old VW bus, and on some of the faces you could see it was a type of anger or disgust. And Olivia, in her yellow or powder-blue Sunday dress and white shoes, throwing her hand up in a wave, saying good-bye to her family over a shoulder, running on her toes out to meet me and climb up into the bus, me and my jeans and T-shirt and long hair — you’d think they were standing in the yards of their beloved homes watching some heartless foreclosure agent auction them away. It was always a rotten feeling, just barely made bearable by the vision of Olivia, how pretty and fresh she always looked, and I was always glad to round the corner, away from all those disapproving Christian eyes. The only thing I’d ever liked about church was the stained-glass windows in the sanctuary, with the human-looking animals and the people in colorful robes, and their pale, luminescent faces, yearning.
She was a good Baptist girl, but she wasn’t a prude, and she liked to drink a beer here and there, and go to parties, and she generally liked my rowdy crowd. She was a virgin, though, and determined to stay one until she married. After a few months, I’d just about given up on that, and then one night on the way home she told me to pull over somewhere, anywhere, and I did, and everything changed. I’m not sure what had changed for her. She was a nice girl, but nice girls liked fooling around, too, once they were able to arrange the justification for it in their minds.
And then it was like we’d turned on the power and couldn’t find the switch to turn it back off. We started doing it everywhere. Out in the VW bus in the parking lot during study hall. On the visitors’ side of the stadium, beneath the bleachers, during lunch period. Sometimes, at night, we’d just pull the bus over to the side of the road, traffic swerving past, people hooting and honking. We did have a favorite private spot, for a while, a little cubbyhole of a niche in the brush along a sparsely populated street on the north end of town. You could pull in there and it was like the brush closed up behind you, it was that inconspicuous. We’d pull in there and take our time, like real lovers, then collapse to either side of one another, giving our bodies time to stop humming.
We didn’t realize that people living in a new subdivision one block over had noticed our lights pulling in there night after night, shutting off, clicking on again, pulling out. Maybe they thought we were burglars working a plan. Maybe they just didn’t like the idea of young, careless couples fornicating, rocking the vehicle, practically in their new backyards. At any rate, one night as I leaned on an elbow admiring her pale, slim, spraddled legs, a flashlight shone its beam directly into my naked lap. A man’s voice said, “Looks like we missed the action,” and another one said, “Get dressed and step out of the love machine, son.” I could make out the uniform and the badge, the heavy gun belt, the gun, even in the darkness.
Olivia scrambled for her panties and bra. I groped for my own underwear and pants, pulled them on, opened the side door of the bus, and stepped barefoot onto the cool ground. I closed the door behind me, for Olivia’s sake.
The two cops shone their flashlights on me, keeping their distance.
“What are you doing here?” one said.
“Well,” I said, gestured, shrugged. I hiccuped out a nervous laugh.
“He thinks it’s funny,” the one cop said.
“I do, too,” the other cop said. He was older than the first cop, and a little shorter and stouter. That’s about all I could tell, in the dark with only their flashlights in our faces for light.
“The people who live in those houses right over there don’t think it’s funny,” the younger cop said. “They thought maybe you were parking here to case their houses.”
“Rob them,” the older cop said. “Break in, steal things, or worse.”
“I didn’t know they could see us,” I said.
They said nothing. The first cop leaned his head toward the bus window to look in at Olivia, trying to cover herself, cowering on the floor in there.
“All right, miss, get out and get your clothes on.”
They stepped back to let her out and kept their flashlights on her as she got dressed. They were quiet, as if they were studying her. This made me angry and I almost said something. She was crying. I moved closer and stood beside her. Something about looking at her in the small harsh glare of the cops’ flashlights made her seem all the more vulnerably beautiful to me. When she was dressed the cops switched off their flashlights. Every now and then they’d switch them back on and shine them into our eyes as we spoke. They asked us who our parents were. Where we lived. How old we were. But they didn’t really seem to care about any of that, hardly waiting for our answers, seeming bored. In the end they let us go with a warning not to park there again and a few halfhearted words about hauling us in if they ever caught us doing this again, and told us to go home.
“You know what’s going to happen, you keep doing this,” the younger cop said. “You know how it is that people make babies? With the old in and out?”
“A-makin’ whoopee,” the older cop said, and laughed.
“Seriously,” the younger cop said. “We’re gonna keep an eye on you.”
“Bye, now,” said the older cop, giving us an odd little wave. Then they got into their squad car, backed out onto the road, and drove away. Strange cops.
When we got back to town after eloping, the apartment all ready for us to live there officially, we went to tell our parents what we’d done.
We went to Olivia’s house first.
“Oh,” her mother said, deflating into the sofa cushions, a hand over her mouth. “Oh, oh, oh.”
“WHAT?” her father said. He was a tall, good-natured man with a heart condition, who spoke very loudly and was a little bit deaf. He’d been an artilleryman, when he was young, in the war.
“THEY’RE MARRIED, IKE,” Olivia’s mother said loudly back to him.
It took a moment to register. He stood there vacantly, looking at her, then cast an embarrassed glance at us before jamming his hands into his trouser pockets.
“Well,” he said softly, “no use crying over spilt milk.”
Then we went to my parents’ house. My mother was at the kitchen table, in a very good mood, nibbling peanut brittle. My father was in the back bedroom, reading a magazine. The kitchen opened up to the den, and Olivia sat in there on the couch, her knees pressed together in terror.
I sat down opposite my mother at the table, under the bright bulb of the hanging lamp. I didn’t want to go through with it. But it was too late for that.
“I have to tell you something,” I said.
Her nibbling slowed. She could tell something was wrong.
“Olivia and I got married,” I said. I said it quietly. So quietly that Olivia and my younger brother, Mike, sitting on the sofa on the other side of the den, couldn’t hear it. Of course, Olivia knew what I was saying. She sat there and stared into something only she could see. I said to my mother, “We went over to Livingston and did it this afternoon.”
She said nothing for a moment, unable to swallow the brittle in her mouth. When she finally could, she whispered, “Is she pregnant?”
It was awful to look at her eyes just then. A sudden grief had filled them, laced with a terrible dread, a horror, really, as if I’d just told her that one of us, one of her children, had died.
She got up from the table and walked to the back of the house. I looked over at Olivia. She had closed her eyes and grabbed on to my little brother’s hand. He looked confused but not displeased to have Olivia holding his hand.
In a minute, as I was pacing in the living room, my father came in and asked me if what my mother had just told him was true. I nodded.
He didn’t say anything, looking as if he couldn’t comprehend it.
“What are you going to do?” he said.
“We have a place, an apartment over by East Mississippi,” I said. It’s what everyone called the asylum. “We’re going on over there, I guess.”
“How far along is she?”
“About five months, we think.”
“Damn,” he said. He shook his head, jingled the coins in his pocket. “Well, go on over there, then,” he said. “We’ll talk about it tomorrow. I have to go see about your mother. I think this is about to kill her.”
Olivia and I drove to our little apartment, mounted the rickety steps to the deck, and went inside. I turned on the big, chuffing fan, to pull out the stifling air. We sat down on the sofa, nothing but the engulfing huff of the fan for sound, the hot breeze searing our skin, beneath the bare bulb of the overhead light.
The bare bulb light was so harsh, I lit candles instead and set them on the coffee table. Olivia had brought over her old cat, Max, and he rubbed against my leg, hungry. I fed him, and checked the seedcake in the cage of her parakeet, Donald, who whistled and made as if to bite my finger. She’d left her pet rabbit, an old Easter gift, with her parents, because she’d never liked it, with its weird red eyes and bland personality. I think she felt guilty about it, though. I’d told her to leave them all, afraid the heat in the place would kill them during the day, but she couldn’t.
She’d been sitting on the sofa, that slightly stunned and daydreamy look on her face I loved so much, and I’d taken heart. But then she seemed to come to, got up from the sofa, and began pacing up and down the little hallway from the living room to the bedroom and back. She took off her Keds and walked barefoot on her longish narrow feet, with the pretty toes I liked to roll between my fingers and call them her peanuts. She was crying quietly. At first I couldn’t tell. The place was so hot, before the fan had a chance to help out a bit, that we’d started sweating the moment we walked in, my T-shirt and Olivia’s peasant smock blotched with dampness, and our faces shone with perspiration. When I saw she was crying, I held her for a minute, but it was still too hot for that. I got her to sit at the kitchen table in front of the dormer window there for the breeze. I brought one of the candles in from the living room and set it beside the fridge, on the counter away from the window so it wouldn’t blow out.
There wasn’t much to eat, but there was a fat ripe tomato on the counter, and a new unopened jar of mayonnaise, and a loaf of white bread. I tore off a square of paper towel for a plate and made each of us a tomato sandwich, and got two beers from the fridge, all the while keeping an eye on Olivia to see if she was cheering up at all. We ate the sandwiches and sipped the beers, not talking. Olivia was still sniffling a little bit but she was coming around. When we’d eaten, I took her by the hand and led her to the living room, and put a record on our little record player, some easy stuff. Maybe it wasn’t the best choice. It was by that singer, Melanie, and when she sang “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma,” Olivia started sniffling again. I was holding on to her and shuffling us around in the old Teen Center slow dance, and she dug her chin into my collarbone and started to bawl.
“This isn’t what I wanted,” she said between sobs. “I wanted to go to college. I wanted to date lots of boys. I wanted to graduate and marry somebody successful and live in a big two-story house and have lots of children but not like this, and not in a shitty old attic that’s hot as an oven, and not even graduate from high school. And poor.” She punctuated her sentences with little bops of her fist against my other shoulder.
“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“Are you?” she said, as if accusing.
“I do love you, though,” I said.
She drew in a big slow breath and let it out, still leaning against me.
“Oh, God,” she said. Then, “God, please forgive me.”
I said, “God doesn’t mind people having babies.”
“This isn’t funny,” she said, crying again.
“I mean it,” I said.
I shuffled us around for a minute, while she settled down.
“Well, wait and see,” I said. “I’m going to work hard, and build us a beautiful house — it’ll be like a mansion, to us anyway — and we’ll have beautiful children, starting with this one, and they’ll be so beautiful that people will hardly even recognize them as ordinary human beings, like a whole new amazingly beautiful and intelligent subspecies or something. Coltranians. Like you. And we’ll have dogs, and horses. A couple of fat, arrogant cats. And I’ll drive a cool Ford pickup, a good, solid, settled-down man, and you’ll have something like a Mercedes station wagon to haul around all the kids in style. And we’ll have a boat, if you want, and take it to the reservoir, and ski, and maybe even build a cabin beside my grandmother’s little lake up in the country, looking out over the water.”
Olivia gave a quietly derisive snort when I was done, but I could tell she was lightening up.
I said, “We’ve got all the time in the world. Look how young we are. Look how much time we have to try to get all the things we want.” I stepped back so I could look at her.
“It’s going to be all right,” I said.
She nodded, looked at me for a moment, then looked down again.
“Okay,” she said. The tears were there again, but quiet ones. They were tears of sadness, I thought, instead of fear. That was better, I hoped.
About an hour later my older brother showed up, with his fiancée.
They came into the little living room, and I turned on the bare, bright bulb again, and after some sympathetic and concerned small talk from them, questions about how this came about and what our plans might be, they got down to business.
Olivia and I knew that his fiancée, Ruth, had been whisked to New York the previous year by her parents for an abortion. We knew what was coming. As soon as they even hinted at the idea that we should consider doing the same, Olivia leapt up and stomped to the bathroom and slammed the door. Immediately, the house began to shudder from the force of the chugging fan in there trying to pull wind through the little space under the door, which made a weird kind of howling sound.
Curtis and Ruth seemed astonished, looking from the hallway where Olivia’d disappeared, back to me, back to the hallway. Almost instantly after Olivia shut the bathroom door, cutting off the fan breeze, our sweating increased, beads popping out on our foreheads and running down our faces. It tickled me trickling from my armpits down over my ribs.
I went into the tiny hallway and knocked on the bathroom door, having to shout to be heard over the noise of the fan and the wind howling through the little space below the door.
“Olivia, would you just come out, please?”
“Tell them to go away!”
“Don’t worry, we’re not going to do that.”
“I’m not listening!”
I made my apologies to Curtis and Ruth and, after a moment, realizing that Olivia was not coming out of the bathroom until they left, and maybe worrying that the fan’s desperate huffing might destabilize the old frame house itself, they got up to go. When Ruth had stepped out onto the deck, Curtis came back to me.
“Just think about it, okay?” he said.
“Curtis, for Christ’s sake,” I said. “Were you here just now? Did I imagine that you and Ruth were just in there talking to me while Olivia shut herself in the bathroom and lost her mind?”
He frowned, gave me a hug, and they left.
“Are they gone?” Olivia shouted from the bathroom.
“Yes!” I shouted back.
She opened the door and stalked back to the bedroom and fell onto her side into the bed. The house stopped shaking and the hot air in the apartment began to move again. When I followed her into the bedroom she looked up at me, her face puffy and streaked with tears.
“I’m not going to do that, I’m not,” she said.
“It’s okay,” I said, “I know. We’re not.”
“I couldn’t do that,” she declared.
“Me, neither,” I said. “And it’s way too late for that, anyway. They didn’t realize. Don’t worry.”
There was a knock on the door.
“Tell them to go away,” Olivia said, and burrowed herself beneath the bedsheet, clamping a pillow over her head.
It was the landlady from downstairs, standing in the weak yellow glow of the deck light, her scrawny arms crossed, a scowl on her face.
“If every night is going to be some kind of commotion like this,” she said, “I am not going to stand for it. You can take your kind of behavior to some other place.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I promise we’re not usually like that.”
“Or loud other kind of behavior, either,” she said, narrowing her eyes and arching her thinning brows.
I nodded, mumbled, “Okay, right.” Then she stomped down the deck stairs.
“Was it them?” Olivia said, her voice muffled beneath the pillow.
“Just Curtis,” I said. “Forgot his keys.”
Olivia stayed beneath the pillow. I watched her side move up and down with breathing for a moment, until it began shaking with sobs, and I went into the darkened kitchen and sat there alone for a while, sweating in the warm breeze the fan pulled through the kitchen window. I smoked a cigarette. I’d been there a good hour, knowing Olivia had cried herself to sleep, when an old Chevy Bel Air station wagon idled up to the stop sign on the quiet street below. I couldn’t see who was in it but I recognized it from the student parking lot at school. I knew the boy who drove it. I heard loud stage-whispers, and made out some girl’s voice saying, Is that it? Is that where they’re living? And other loud whispers, unintelligible. And then the wagon rattled off down the street.
This is about as strange as it gets, I said to myself.
But for the sound of the fan huffing away, then, the apartment was quiet. It was quiet on the little streets in our new neighborhood, down below. The streetlamps stood silently above their diaphanous pools of yellow-gray light. The neighbors’ houses were quiet, sleeping. The inmates at the asylum down the street were quiet, sleeping or lying awake, wondering how this had happened to them, or who they were, or where. Our parents were home, in their beds or sitting at kitchen tables, drinking coffee, sleepless.
I opened the refrigerator and took out a bottle of beer. The fridge was a small old Frigidaire, with the locking handle. It cast its chilly bright block of light onto me and into the tiny kitchen, which still smelled strongly of fresh paint and Formula 409 and Comet from all our cleaning. The cold air rolled into the hot room in a little cloud of condensation and rolled away toward the huffing fan. I closed the fridge, sat at the table in the dark, and drank the beer. It was so cold, and bitter, and delicious. I was bathed in sweat. I drank the beer down in big long gulps, then sat there blinking my eyes from the cold, the carbonation, the alcoholic buzz.
I set the empty bottle on the kitchen counter and took off my clothes and laid them on the chair, then went into the bedroom. Olivia breathed long and slow in her sleep. I carefully pulled the covers away from her, so as not to wake her. It was still so hot in the place. She made a little sound and smacked her lips, rolled herself slowly over to face the other direction. She was so pretty. I lay down beside her and snuggled up, rested my hand on her hip, and we slept, the fan rocking the attic apartment like we were inside some gentle engine, cradled and safe.
Something woke me up a few hours later. I saw I’d left a light on in the living room, so I shuffled in there to turn it off. That’s when I saw the man and woman sitting on our sofa. They wore identical pairs of white cotton pajamas and looked sleep-rumpled, and older, in their forties or fifties. They looked familiar, though I couldn’t say I’d ever seen them before. I didn’t know them, that’s for sure. A rush of fear went through me. My scalp prickled, I felt myself shrink up in my boxers. I kind of hunched over, ready to run or fight. But then the woman raised her eyebrows like she’d forgotten something, and waved a hand at me, as if passing something before my vision, and I felt myself relax somehow.
“Who are you?” I said.
The man and woman just sat there smiling at me.
“I don’t want any trouble,” I said. “My wife’s pregnant. She’s asleep.”
I felt foolish and confused. I realized it was the first time I’d called Olivia “my wife.”
“Oh, we know all that,” the woman said. She had a kind of grumbly voice that, even so, wasn’t unpleasant. And it sounded kind of familiar, I didn’t know from where.
“That’s right,” the man said.
“I really think you need to leave,” I said, wishing Olivia and I had a phone, but we didn’t. We couldn’t afford it.
“I’m very thirsty,” the woman said.
“Who are you?” I said.
“We’re what you might call aliens,” the woman said.
“Really,” I said. “You’re from the hospital, aren’t you?”
“No,” the man said. “We’re from a planet in another solar system only about five million light-years from here.” He held his hand up, palm toward me, and then slowly pointed a finger upward as if toward the very solar system he was talking about.
“Really,” I said, feeling so strangely calm all of a sudden that I didn’t quite know what to do with myself.
“If we fizzle and fizz out on you, don’t be disturbed,” the woman said.
“If we get a CME, we might revert,” the man said. “Kind of like a solar flare, but worse.”
“Much worse,” she said, as if bitterly amused.
“Why don’t you get yourself a cold beer,” the man said, “sit down and join us for a while?”
“Would you like one?” I said.
The man seemed as surprised as I was that I’d said this, then said, “I sure would love a beer, come to think of it.”
“Yes, I’m just dying of thirst and I would love a cold beer,” the woman said.
I went into our little kitchen and got three bottles of Budweiser from the refrigerator. On the way back to the living room I looked in on Olivia. She was still sleeping soundly, on her back, her mouth slightly open. At least she looked peaceful, though. The furrow was gone from her brow. I took the beers into the living room, opened them, and gave one each to the man and the woman. We raised them slightly to one another, in a little toast.
“How did you get here from that far away?” I said. I didn’t know much about physics and astronomy, nothing, really, but I was smart enough to know how long it would take even a ray of light to get here from five million light-years away.
“Can’t really explain it,” the man said. “We don’t normally have bodies like this, not limited to this.”
“Are you normally made of light?” I said.
“No,” he said, shaking his head and laughing, not unkindly.
“It has more to do with the fabric of the universe,” the woman said. “Sort of.”
“Negative energy,” the man said.
“Cosmic inflation,” the woman said. “Kaluza-Klein.”
“These are just terms some people are using these days,” the man said. “Their ideas are a little wacked, but they’re going in the right direction.”
“Okay,” I said. “But if that’s the case, where did you get those bodies you’re in?”
The woman grinned.
“Well, we did get these from the hospital, so in that sense we came from there.”
“It’s just easier, logistically,” the man said. “If there’s trouble with the police, or if the hosts have a little problem with the occupancy. And it’s just down the street.”
“I thought you both looked a little familiar.”
“I used to be an usher at the Royal Theater,” the woman said. “This body did, I mean.”
“I was a policeman,” the man said. “A homicide detective, actually. Busted down to traffic cop. I may have given you a ticket.”
“How did you end up in the hospital?” I said. I’d almost said “asylum,” and just caught myself.
“Drugs,” said the woman.
“Depression,” said the man. “Really bad depression.”
I said, “Do you know the old man who hunts imaginary lions on the grounds?”
“Oh, sure,” said the man.
“Imaginary?” said the woman, and she laughed.
“Mr. Hunter, believe it or not,” said the man. “He never got to hunt, before he went crazy.”
“He’s bagged two since then,” the woman said. She laughed again.
“You wouldn’t be able to convince him otherwise,” she said.
“You’ll have to forgive us,” the man said. “Sometimes we take on certain characteristics of the hosts.”
“Like crazy,” the woman said, bumping her eyebrows up and down. “You’re awfully young,” she said then, grinning. “I’ll bet you two ran off.”
“Yes,” I said. “We did.”
“Where are your parents?” she said. “Are they in another state?”
The man and the woman looked at each other for a moment, then nodded. Whatever they were thinking seemed to make them very happy.
“May we have it, when it’s born?” the woman said.
“What?” I said. “No. Of course not.”
“Oh,” she said, disappointed.
“Well, let’s think this over,” the man said. “We don’t have to actually have it.”
“No, I suppose not,” the woman said, cheering up just a bit. “But you could let us have it now,” she said, leaning forward. “We could take it, and it would be like it was never there.”
“Not like an abortion,” the man said.
“No, not like an abortion,” the woman said. “Just zip, gone,” and she snapped her fingers. “Gone! Into me, I mean. This lady’s not as old as she looks.”
“No side effects,” the man said.
“No,” I said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. We want to keep it.”
“All right,” the man said.
“But if you change your mind,” the woman said, “just let us know.”
“Okay, but we won’t.”
“All right,” the man said. “But maybe you could let us be close to the child, somehow.”
“Like godparents,” the woman said.
“Yes,” the man said. “We’ll be available for advice. And if anything happens to you, we can take care of it.”
“Or help take care of it.”
“We’re from a very advanced civilization, for lack of a better term.”
“All right, sure,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” the man said, “we won’t interfere.”
“We have so much to offer,” the woman said. “And this place is our interest. It’s our subject, if you will. Like God.”
“You believe in God?” I said.
“Of course,” the man said.
“Well, not in the same way people here do, of course,” the woman said.
“Did you come from God?” I said. It seemed a logical question at the moment.
“Oh, let’s just not get into that,” the woman said.
“Right, yes,” the man said, laughing, closing his eyes and shaking his head, “let’s not.”
None of us said anything for a moment, me standing there in my boxer shorts holding the sweating beer bottle, them sitting on the sofa in their aged bodies and white pajamas, seeming to glow with heat and a strange satisfaction.
“It’s a glorious time for us, you see,” the woman said. “I suppose you could say we’re in the prime of our lives.”
I didn’t know what to say. I turned up the bottle and finished my beer. When I looked down at them again, they were still there, looking at me. Then she sighed and looked at the man.
“We should go now,” she said.
“Thanks for the beer,” he said.
“It was delicious,” she said. “Nice and cold.”
They said goodbye again and stepped out onto the deck. I hadn’t noticed earlier that they were barefoot. They made their way carefully, even tiptoeing on the balls of their pale, blue-veined feet, down the rickety staircase. They crossed the yard and walked down the street in the hazy light of the streetlamps, now blueish with the mist of early morning dew. I watched them from inside the screen door. At one point she turned and gave me a little wave, and I waved back.
After she waved, and I had waved back, something changed. It didn’t look as if anything had changed, but it felt as if something had changed. I looked back down at the street. The strange crazy man and woman were gone. Everything else looked the same.
I went out onto the deck. If there had been a breeze, the old structure would have been swaying in it. But everything was very still. Almost as if before something terrible, like an explosion or the ground collapsing in on itself, sucking everything in. The trees stood massive, dark, and still, not daring to tremble their thin hard leaves. A vast cloud limned about its edges with moonlight seemed not to move even glacially across the sky.
I remembered my best friend Scotty and I once saw the strangest thing on a night that wasn’t so very different from this. It was clear, we could see lots of stars, and we lay on our backs on my parents’ patio, in sleeping bags, looking up. We were camping out in the backyard. And then, as we lay there, an odd thing zipped across the little opening of sky above us between the clusters of tall neighborhood trees. It was, or seemed to be, the lighted outline of a rocket, a classically shaped rocket I should say, heading from south to north, there and gone in less than a heartbeat.
We leapt from our sleeping bags and stared, and then began shouting, and kept shouting until my parents shouted at us from their bedroom window to pipe down.
It never made any sense. An illuminated outline of a cartoon-style rocket, zipping by faster than the speed of sound, without a sound, not even in its wake? A lighted outline of a rocket? Not even anything in the middle? It made no sense whatsoever. But even to this day we both still agree that we saw it, saw the same thing.
I went back inside. I was feeling hungry now. I opened the refrigerator, even though I knew there was nothing in there but beer, an aging tomato, and some milk, maybe a couple of eggs. We’d forgotten to go shopping on our wedding day. But I was wrong. There was a wide bowl of cold fried chicken down on the bottom shelf, and a Tupperware container of potato salad next to that. I rejoiced. Olivia must have gone to Kentucky Fried Chicken that morning, thinking ahead. I didn’t know just when she could have gone, but that was the only possible explanation.
Or maybe Curtis and his fiancée had brought it, and in all the anxiety of their visit I just hadn’t noticed.
I sat at the little kitchen table in the dark, and ate three pieces of chicken and two servings of potato salad, and drank another cold beer. It was delicious. I sat there for a while, digesting, feeling good, and finishing the beer. I checked the clock on the wall. Three o’clock in the morning. But I didn’t feel sleepy. I crept into the bedroom and looked in on Olivia. In sleep, her face seemed younger than ever, like a child’s. Just down the hill from the mental hospital, a few more blocks away, was the city park where each of us had spent time when we really were children, with our parents, swimming in the public pool and riding the famous old carousel. It seemed a long time ago, though of course it wasn’t. Now we’d be taking our own child there, soon enough. I crept back to the kitchen, got another beer from the fridge and took it into the living room, sat on the sofa and drank it. The apartment was much cooler now. In fact, it didn’t seem hot at all. All the heat from the day, the blasted fucking insane heat in that attic apartment, was whooshed out and replaced by what seemed a perfect temperature, somewhere in the seventies, a nice cool breeze now gliding through the place. That was a fine development.
I started thinking about Olivia lying in there, so pretty, asleep. I wished she would wake up, come into the living room, and start to love on me a little bit, even though she’d recently called a halt to fooling around. I waited for a few minutes, actually thinking against reason that this might happen, and then I gave up and crept in to have another look at her lying on the bed, asleep.
But she had wakened, atop the rumpled covers, and had removed her sleep-creased clothing, and lay on the bed in a pale beauty, in the scant light through the open window.
“Come on over here,” she said, barely louder than a whisper.
The next morning, I woke before Olivia and lay there in bed beside her for a while.
It was still August, school hadn’t started yet, and I was working full-time at the construction job Curtis had gotten me in June. But I didn’t feel like going in, so I just lay in bed with Olivia. When she woke up and snuggled against me, I said I thought we both should skip out today, and she didn’t give me any argument or worry about it. She just said, “Okay.” She sat up against the pillows and roughed her tangled black hair with both hands, bunched it up on top of her head, and held it there a moment. It brought her nice face out, like an old painting.
“What are you thinking about?” I said.
She seemed a little surprised by the question. Then she smiled in a kind of goofy way and said, “I don’t know. Blueberries, I think.” We had to laugh at that.
I said, “Why don’t we just go on a picnic up at the old pond on my grandparents’ property? It’s nice up there in summer. Maybe I’ll catch a fish.”
“That sounds good.”
“We’ll take that chicken and potato salad along, and a few beers.”
“It’ll be our honeymoon,” I said, and laughed.
She was still half asleep, lying back against the pillows. I pulled myself up onto an elbow and faced her.
“Did you know we had fried chicken and potato salad in the fridge?” I said.
Olivia opened her eyes and seemed to think about it for a moment.
“I think so,” she said. Then she shrugged and closed her eyes again.
I went into the kitchen. The chicken and potato salad were still in there, minus what I’d eaten the night before. There were several eggs, too, and an unopened package of bacon.
“Wow,” I said. I called out to Olivia that I was going to make us a nice breakfast.
“Okay,” she said. “I could eat. I’m starving.”
I put the bacon into a pan and began to heat it, and waited for the smell of it to make Olivia sick. I listened for the sound of her getting up and running into the bathroom, but it didn’t happen. When I called out that the bacon, eggs, toast, and coffee were done, she came shuffling into the little kitchen in her robe, still sleepy, sat down at the tiny table across from me, and began to eat as if she were indeed the hungriest I’d seen her in a long time.
When we finished, she smiled at me across the table, and I smiled at her, and we went back into the bedroom for another little romp before making the preparations for our picnic.
She was beautiful, hungry, glowing, ecstatic. I’ve never felt more in love in my life. I wanted to swallow her whole, like a loving, cannibalistic god.
We drove up into the country in the VW bus, trundled it down the two-track path to the little lake, hardly bigger than a pond. I parked in a clearing beside the bank, and spread out a blanket on the grass.
We went for a walk in the woods and along the edge of the pasture on the nearby hill. Cattle grazed on the green slope there. A small herd of deer trotted through the trees in the ravine below us. A flicker chattered high up in an old pine, and flew away down the wooded decline, flashing the spot on its tail.
We went back to the lake and Olivia sat on the blanket and read a thick, steamy romance novel while I walked the bank and fished for bass. I was fishing with an artificial worm, one of the long thick purple ones with the big hook. Nothing was happening in the middle, so I walked on down to the narrow end, and cast across to the opposite shallows.
It was a beautiful day, cloudless, cool in the shadows along the bank. The trees filtered light where they stood on the gentle hill across the water, releasing it in stripes and patterned patches onto the leaf- and pine-straw-carpeted ground. Back where I’d walked from, at the other end of the lake, Olivia lay on her side, up on an elbow, and read her novel. She’d worn a light blue sundress, and it lay easily across the barely perceptible mound of her belly. I hadn’t noticed it this morning, for some reason, the dress. I hadn’t known she’d even owned it. Looking at her in it, reading there on the blanket in the shade, made me feel happy.
In a perfect cast I bumped the worm off a stump near the opposite bank and dropped it into the shallows there with a tiny sploosh. A fish hit it, I popped the rod, and it went wild, bent deep. The bass ran, stripping line from the whining reel, toward the bank where Olivia lay. When it paused, I reeled and it jumped, clearing the pond’s surface. It seemed to pause at the top of its leap, and even from that distance I could see its huge eye on one side, looking at me, as if it sensed its trouble came from the other world, the one that was not water, and wanted to see. When it slapped down into the water again Olivia looked up and watched me fight it for a minute, then went back to reading.
I brought it in, grabbed it by its broad, hard bottom lip, and walked it around the bank to where she was. It was at least a six-pounder. Now its big round eyes seemed to take in the whole world, and we were insignificant in it.
“Ooo!” she said, looking up. “What a fish!”
“I know what we’re having for supper tonight,” I said.
I tethered the fish on a stringer tied to a log at the water’s edge, and we had our picnic on the blanket, cool fried chicken and potato salad and a couple of cold beers. We climbed into the back of the VW and partially closed the doors and had us a little midafternoon play, sun-dappled leaves winking outside the old windows. We lay there awhile and had a deep nap. It was late afternoon when we woke, feeling sleepy but rested.
I laid the fish in the cooler we’d brought, on top of the melting ice, and drove us slowly home, down the dirt and gravel roads as far as they would take us, then on the old two-lane blacktop, and we pulled into the driveway of the house with the attic apartment and went upstairs and went immediately to bed and to sleep again.
I was settling into things, it seems to me now. Shaping up our little world a bit at a time. A modest measure of the American dream. I spent the next day just goofing off, resting, and in the afternoon I filleted the fish, marinated it in lemon juice, sliced some potatoes for frying, and made a salad.
“Oh, fantastic,” Olivia said. “I’m starving again.” She stood in the door to the tiny kitchen, cupping her little belly in both hands and grinning.
We went out onto the deck. Low thin clouds to the west hugged the horizon, glowing a strange and bloody blend of deep pink and fiery orange, as if distant lands were engulfed in a vast chemical inferno.
I fried the potatoes while the coals were burning down, then cooked the fish steaks on a little grill on the deck, and we ate out there in folding lawn chairs, the plates in our laps, and washed it down with some cheap wine from the liquor store that I’d put in the freezer for a while to make it cold and drinkable. The icy alcoholic coldness made frozen lumps in our brains, so we walked it off over to the mental hospital.
It was twilight, the strange glow gone from the horizon. No one was about on the hospital grounds. We strolled onto the broad front lawn, with its old magnolias limbed and leafed so low they covered the ground beneath them like huge mutant shrubs, and ancient live oaks, their massive limbs like the knotted arms of giants bent and lowered to lift some smaller creature into the sky.
We had our arms around each other’s waist, and I kissed her on the cheek, and she stopped and we kissed there in the failing light beside one of the magnolias. She had a strange but pleasant musky taste I’d never noticed before. We knelt and crawled beneath the magnolia’s sheltering low limbs, pushed aside the soft, fallen cones, and got lost in one another, everything around us disappearing, ceasing to exist, and we were a long few minutes catching our breaths in the dank, earthy air beneath the limbs and thick waxy leaves and letting the warm rushing feeling slowly leave our blood. It was as if time had changed, somehow, and we were alone in the world. I heard something outside the leafy cave we were in, and in the next moment something startled us pushing its way through the lowest limbs, too dark to see just what it was, but God what a stench. Olivia sucked her breath in surprise, and we lay very still because the broad, stinking muzzle of the lion was snuffling us, pushing its warm dry nostrils against our hair and our cheeks, running them down our bodies and back up to our mouths, a low quiet growl like a basso purr in its throat, and I dared to look into its burning yellow-green eyes, and when I did that the lion jerked its head up and backed rapidly out of the sheltering leaves and was gone.
I couldn’t speak. It took me a moment to get my breath back. Olivia said, “My God, oh, my God. That was fantastic.”
I realized I was excited, on fire. She had me in her cool slim hand. We went at it again, immediately, just as lost in it as we were before. I don’t know how long it was before we made our way back to the apartment. I can’t even remember that we did.
I went back to my job the next day. I hadn’t really thought about it for a while.
Curtis was there, on the site, standing in a foundation ditch with a shovel. This was a job I was supposed to be handling, shaping up the ditch started by the backhoe, which he’d operated.
“I’m sorry, Curtis,” I said. “I hope Arlo’s not mad.” Arlo was the young contractor we worked for.
“He’s not,” Curtis said, and I realized that Curtis didn’t seem angry, either. Normally, after such a stunt, he would be. Then again, normally he’d have come to the apartment the day I didn’t show to see what was keeping me. But he hadn’t even called.
I decided not to say anything more about it, in case I’d break the spell of good luck. I found a shovel and hopped into the ditch and we worked at trimming and shaping the ditch all morning, and in the afternoon we laid and tied off the rebar, and when we were done the foundations were ready to pour the next morning.
“Are you coming in?” Curtis said, meaning the next morning. He was asking, as if there were an option.
“Sure,” I said after a moment.
“Okay, buddy,” he said, climbing into his green Bronco. “See you at seven.” He headed off to his fiancée’s place.
I hadn’t seen or heard from my parents since we’d broken the news, either, which suddenly seemed very odd, and so I thought I’d drop by the house on my way home, check in.
They were both at home, although my little brother was out with some friends. Mom was watching the news from the big lounge chair while she let a casserole cook in the oven. Dad was out on the back patio, sipping a bourbon and water. He held up the glass in salute when he saw me through the plate-glass window to the patio. I leaned over and kissed my mother on the cheek and she kissed me back on my cheek and said, “Hey, hon.”
I sat on the sofa and watched the news with her for a bit.
“Listen,” I finally said, “are you doing okay?”
She turned her attention from the news to give me a nice warm smile.
“Of course,” she said. “How are you? How’s Olivia feeling?”
“Oh, she’s fine, I guess,” I said. “I mean, she’s been fine. We went on a picnic.”
“That sounds like fun.” And she turned her attention to the news again.
I went out back onto the patio.
“Hello, son,” my dad said. He wore an old pair of dress pants with a sheen worn into the thighs, his favorite high-top sneakers, and a guayabera shirt. “Drink?”
He’d never offered me bourbon before. He’d let me have a beer before, the previous year, and that had been a big deal. I guess the idea was I was grown up now, for all practical purposes.
He went in and came back out with a second drink, handed it to me.
We drank the bourbon and talked about golf. He’d been watching a tournament that day, at one of the local country clubs, following the leaders in a cart and drinking beer. I remembered how I used to go to the tournaments as a kid and put together long, elaborate strands of beer can pop tops and wear them around like primitive necklaces.
“So,” I finally said. “Are y’all okay?”
He looked at me with the sort of indulgent smile a father can give.
“Sure, we’re okay,” he said. “How about you? How’s Olivia?” he said suddenly, as if he’d just that second remembered our whole predicament.
“She’s good,” I said. “We went on a picnic, at Mom Bertha’s lake. I caught a pretty good bass.”
“Yeah? How big?”
“Maybe six pounds, I think.”
“Damn. You going to mount it?”
“We ate it.”
“Good for you.”
After the drink, I said my goodbyes and went on home to Olivia. She was in the little kitchen, making biscuits. I didn’t know she could bake anything. In fact, I’d never seen her cook anything. It was a pleasant surprise. I gave her a kiss on the cheek. The room was filled with a late, glowing, warm yellow light.
“What’s going with the biscuits?” I said.
“Want breakfast for supper?”
“Always,” I said. I sat down at the table. “It’s so cool in here. Crazy. Just a couple of days ago, it was unbearable.”
“I know. Must be a cool front.”
“Well, it feels pretty much the same outside. As it was a couple of days ago, I mean.”
“It’s bearable out there,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s not what I mean.”
She didn’t really seem to be listening. She was brushing the tops of the unbaked biscuits with melted butter before putting them into the oven, just like my mom would do.
“I guess the rent’s due,” I said.
“I’ve got the cash,” I said. “I’ll go down and pay it.”
I didn’t relish any contact with our landlady, but seeing her in order to pay the rent was preferable to having her pound on the door, pissed off, to demand it. I checked my wallet, pulled out three twenties and a five, folded them, walked down the deck stairs and around to the front door of the house, and knocked. No one answered. I knocked again, and heard no steps of anyone approaching the door.
I cupped my hands against the door’s glass window and looked inside. No one home. I’d never known the landlady not to be home. Aside from our measly rent, I didn’t know how she survived.
I looked through the windowpane again. In some strange way, the place looked as if no one had been home in a long time.
We ate supper at Olivia’s parents’ house the next night. As with my parents, it was like nothing had happened. Or it was like everything had happened, but no one was upset or even concerned. It was as if Olivia and I not only had been married a number of years, but had gotten married in an entirely conventional way.
Olivia’s mother’s cooking, normally unsalted green beans and white rice and bland baked chicken because of Mr. Coltrane’s blood pressure problem, was much better, too. It was a rich lasagna, with a green salad drenched in tangy oil and vinegar dressing, and French bread slathered with butter and garlic. We all ate like gluttons.
Mr. Coltrane ate like a man just released from a concentration camp, all but shedding tears of pure joy and gratification.
At some point in there, because I knew Olivia and her parents would like it, I joined their church, the Baptist church, and signed up to sing in the choir, and taught a Sunday school class to seventh-graders, and went out on witness nights with other men of the church, to convert and save souls. I didn’t particularly believe any of the things I was supposed to believe in as a Baptist, but I didn’t feel especially bothered by pretending to believe them, either.
Unbeknownst to myself before, I had a very nice singing voice.
We went to the Sunday morning service, the evening Sunday service, and the spaghetti suppers on Wednesday nights.
We entered a veritable dream of days. At work, Curtis convinced the carpentry crew to take me on as apprentice, so I spent my days cutting studs to length, and joists, and hauling them up to the carpenters. I nailed the least attractive jobs, such as overhanging eaves, squeezing my legs around the two-by-six boards and leaning out over a drop of forty feet so we wouldn’t have to erect scaffolding. But I loved it. I’d always been afraid of heights but that seemed to have vanished. The crew voted to hire me on as a real carpenter after only six months. I decided I wanted to be the best carpenter in town, I would devote my working life to it. I took the GED and sailed through it, nights.
Our little boy was born in December. He came out with a full head of thick tawny hair like a lion’s mane, so we decided to call him Leo: William Leonardo Caruthers.
The next year, with a loan from our parents, Olivia and I bought a piece of land with a small stand of woods next to a pasture, and I began to build our house there in the late afternoons and evenings. Curtis helped me when he could. It was a simple but free-ranging design of our own. I wanted it to be at least part treehouse, remembering the ones I’d helped build as a child, so after the basic structure was done I began to expand it up and into a huge live oak we built next to for that purpose. Within two years we had our wish-home, all wood, with a broad front porch looking out over the pasture, a screen porch off our treehouse bedroom looking down into the woods out back. I was a good carpenter, as it turned out, and good at scavenging surplus and scrap materials from work sites, so when we were done the debt was minimal, and Olivia worked only part-time at home transcribing medical records, and sold rugs and coverlets and other nice things she wove herself on a big loom she kept in her workroom. She took long walks in the woods, early mornings, Leo toddling along or strapped in a carrier on her back, though he’d really gotten too big for that, to gather roots, nuts, flowers, and berries for natural coloring of the wool. Her body, which had been the lithe but soft body of a high school girl before, was now supple and muscular, beautifully toned. She was amazing in the sack.
I went on the walks with them, when I could. And lifted weights in the shed out back. I’d never felt stronger. I had my Ford pickup. She didn’t have the Mercedes, but she did have a pretty cool little VW station wagon, baby blue.
It was a good life. I was astonished and deeply grateful that we’d made it happen. Leo was growing into a strong and happy child, soon he’d be going off to kindergarten and school. I could see our whole lives ahead of us, peaceful and full of light. We were lucky.
I was standing on our front porch looking out over the pasture at the end of a day, sun going down behind the pines and oaks and pale green sweetgum trees to the west.
Leo was inside reading Where the Wild Things Are to himself. He had learned to read just after turning four. Olivia and I had vowed to avoid treating him like a genius. No skipping grades, things like that. We would supplement his school at home, however we could. Give him novels, books about history and current events. Math problems from our old high school texts.
Olivia had a venison stew in a pot on the stove. I’d shot the doe not half a mile from our house, in the woods. Olivia had helped me butcher it. She was in her workroom weaving something new on her loom while the stew simmered.
The chickens pecked about the yard, an eye always on their rooster. He strutted the yard’s edge, very intelligent for a rooster. He’d killed two hawks in just the past month. Killed them before they could kill the chickens they’d swooped down upon to lift away. He and the hens fell upon the hawks and tore them to pieces.
Our dog, an Aussie mix, looked on from the other end of the porch. She kept away the foxes and coyotes. She understood the most subtle of questions and commands. I’d never owned a better dog in my life.
She was my first dog, in fact. I kept forgetting that.
I saw someone walking across the pasture toward the house. When the person got closer, he looked familiar, although I still couldn’t tell or remember just who he might be. He smiled and waved when he was just a stone’s throw away, maybe, and I waved back, and he walked up to the house and stood in the yard a few feet away from the edge of the porch and looked up at me. He was a tall man, dark hair cropped short and receding in a widow’s peak, heavy beard shadow, horn-rimmed glasses, a kind expression. He wore a conservative, narrow-lapeled suit and a modest narrow necktie.
“You look familiar,” I said.
He said, “I’m Lowell Bishop, your sixth-grade teacher.”
“Oh,” I said. “My God. Mr. Bishop. I always wondered what happened to you.”
Mr. Bishop had been a substitute, that year, for another teacher who’d gone on unexpected maternity leave. He hadn’t been a very good teacher, kind of lazy, actually, but I’d liked him and always hoped he’d had a good life after leaving our school and going on to whatever his next, probably temporary, job may have been. He’d been the only teacher who hadn’t treated me as if I were invisible.
“I did all right,” Mr. Bishop said. “I went back to school. Psychology. I was still fairly young.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” I said. “I’d kind of worried about you.”
He laughed. “I don’t doubt you did.”
Mr. Bishop had rented a garage apartment a block or so from my home while he’d lived in town. And on the day after school ended, I’d gone over there to say goodbye. When I knocked, he came to the door wearing his school trousers and an undershirt, the kind without sleeves, and he needed a shave, and behind him in the little kitchen area were two other men in similar shape, sitting at the dining table with hands of cards before them, a whiskey bottle and glasses on the table, and cigarette smoke filled the dingy light in there.
“Hey there!” Mr. Bishop had boomed at me. “Come on in!”
I declined and told him I just wanted to say goodbye.
“Suit yourself,” Mr. Bishop said. “But you be good, be a good student, now. If I come back through here in a couple of years and you’re not being a good student, I’m going to beat the crap out of you!” And he laughed. I all but ran away from his place.
So I had worried that Mr. Bishop was just an affable, unfortunate drunk.
I said to him now, standing there somehow in my front yard at our house in the country, some nine years later, “What are you doing here, Mr. Bishop?”
He smiled up at me in a curious and almost sad kind of way for a long moment before replying.
“I’ve come to tell you that now you have to go back to where you came from,” he said.
What do you mean?”
“You’ll know when you get there,” he said. “We just want you to know that we appreciate your cooperation.”
After a moment, I said, “With what?”
Olivia stepped out onto the porch beside me then. She smiled and nodded to Mr. Bishop. She was holding Leo against her hip, and he was clinging to her as if something had upset him, inside.
“Is everything okay?” she said to me.
I was gazing at them, my beautiful little family, and so in love I thought I might be drawn into their eyes and entirely absorbed, and disappear from the world, and be nothing but some barely traceable element in their very cells.
And then the light began to fade from the sky as if the arrival of evening had accelerated, the turning of the earth somehow sped up, and the image of Mr. Bishop before us darkened along with the rest of the world and was gone.
Olivia was still pregnant, of course. We’d been out for only a couple of days. Our parents stood next to our hospital beds. Our mothers were tearful, holding our hands. Our fathers seemed stunned, hands in their pockets, standing behind our mothers, rocked back on the heels of their shoes. The nurse disappeared and a few moments later came back in with a doctor.
“Well, well, what have we here?” the doctor said. He checked Olivia’s pulse, looked at her pupils, then did the same with me. He turned to our stunned parents and said, in a bright manner, “May we have a few minutes alone with these two?”
Our parents, like confused tourists in a foreign country, stared at him for a moment and then nodded and shuffled out of the room, bumping into each other trying to let one another out of the door before them.
The nurse stepped forward to stand beside the doctor. They stood there looking at us, smiling in an odd kind of way, I thought.
“Hello,” the doctor said then. Olivia and I looked at each other from across the little space between our beds.
“How’ve you been?” the nurse said then.
They looked nothing like the couple from the asylum, except there was something in their manner that was exactly that way.
Olivia watched them, a kind of vacant look on her face.
“I’ve been fine,” I said then, carefully.
“How did you like your experience?” the nurse said.
The doctor raised his eyebrows, waiting for one of us to reply. He tapped at his clipboard but didn’t necessarily seem impatient.
“What do you mean?” Olivia said.
The doctor laughed softly to himself, and scratched at an ear.
“Very different,” the nurse said, looking from the one of us to the other. “You’ll have to discuss that, soon enough.”
“What are you talking about?” Olivia said. “What are they talking about?” she said to me.
“You should have told her about us, I suppose,” the doctor said to me.
“Told me what?” Olivia said.
The strangest thing was, I was pretty sure I’d seen this doctor, off duty of course, around the old country club. He had a rather stolid expression, but also a head of neatly clipped, boyish blond hair. I’d never seen the nurse before. She was older than the doctor, with an old-fashioned perm, reading glasses perched on the end of her nose, but with red lipstick and bright red nails, and a querulous expression.
“We just woke up,” I said.
“It’s not important,” the nurse said to the doctor.
“I will attempt to be more patient with the patient,” the doctor said. “How’d you like the lion?” he said to me then.
After a moment, I said, “It was amazing,” and then I felt something like a deep sadness well up in me.
“Very creative,” the doctor said. “Impressive.”
“And the fish,” the nurse said.
“And the frequent, vigorous intercourse,” the doctor said, raising his eyebrows again and smiling.
That made me a little bit angry, that.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” he said. “We’re scientists. I was only joking.”
“I’m not embarrassed,” I said.
He seemed amused.
“The house in the country, though, and the various elements of sentimental perfection,” he said. “Something of a disappointment, there.”
“They’re very young,” the nurse said to him. “It’s a long shot, to expect much better.”
“Interesting, isn’t it,” he said to me, “how curiously time moves when it’s decoupled from physicality.”
“Yeah,” I said vaguely.
“What in the world are y’all talking about?” Olivia said. She looked frightened.
“The sixth-grade teacher, though,” he said. “That was a nice touch.”
“Touching, actually,” she said.
The doctor laughed his quiet laugh again.
“You did that,” I said.
“Not exactly,” he said.
“It was all certainly more substantial than hers,” she said. “How did you like your experience, sweetheart?”
Olivia’s expression went flat again, but with something like irritation behind it.
“What experience?” she said.
The nurse had taken on an inscrutable smile.
“The mansion, the yacht, the handsome wealthy Greek husband.” She accompanied her words with a little swaying motion, a casual parody of romantic reverie.
“How do you know about my dream?” Olivia said in a small, quiet voice.
My heart got even heavier inside of me.
“Much more than a dream, dear,” the nurse said with a wry twist of her lips.
“No children, we noticed,” the doctor said in a pensive voice. He was looking down at the chart in his hand as if studying something there instead of talking to us.
“A little overload on the substitutions, maybe,” the nurse said. “Those strange house servants.”
“What do you mean?” Olivia said.
“That was actually pretty good,” the doctor said.
“Just a theory I have,” the nurse said.
“I was really upset,” Olivia said. She looked like she was about to cry.
“It’s all right,” I said to her.
“Nothing to be overly concerned about,” the doctor said.
“You simply have to approach these things with a measure of intelligence,” the nurse said. “Remove the emotional veil, so to speak.”
“That’s good,” the doctor said to her.
“I’ll make a note,” she replied. “Now we really must go.”
“The doctor and the nurse have many rounds to make,” he said.
“Would you like any drugs?” she said. “The doctor can prescribe.”
“Maybe some Valium,” I said. “For both of us.”
“Done,” the doctor said, writing something on the clipboard.
“Take care,” the nurse said.
Giving us those little sideways waves, they backed in shuffling backwards steps out the door.
In the moment after the couple from the asylum had left us that previous night, when I had begun to construct our little paradise in my mind, Olivia had awakened, dressed quietly, crept from the house, down the steps from the rickety deck, and walked away.
As she walked, and as dawn seeped into the cooled August air, the landscape began to change until she knew she was no longer in our little hometown. It was as if she didn’t know where she was, or where she wanted to be, and the landscape continually reshaped itself with the beautiful, disorienting whorl of a kaleidoscope turned by an invisible hand.
She put her own hand to her belly as she walked. It was flat and soft. Well, that was gone. That had ceased to exist. That was not a problem anymore.
She walked on. There was a vista now, improbably so. The trees had thinned out. There was a horizon, seemingly with nothing beyond the rise.
She heard a distant, quiet, susurrant sound, which grew louder the closer she got to the rise. And before she reached the rise she saw water, and when she stepped to the edge of the bluff she now stood on she could see it was the ocean, vast and blue-gray, with gulls sailing in the sky above it, and white breakers on the narrow beach below, and just beyond them in the water there was a very large yacht. There seemed to be no one on the yacht, which was at anchor in the swells. It was new, its hull made of polished, coffee-colored wood. And then there was someone on the yacht. She could see that a man dressed in a white jacket stood on the broad rear deck, facing her, a neat, sky-blue towel draped over his arm, which he held crooked in front of him in the manner of an old-fashioned waiter. Which he apparently was.
There was a stepped path down the face of the bluff and she took it, counting her steps as if she were a child with no more on her mind than the descent itself. One hundred and twenty-seven. She walked across the beach, the warm sand pushing up between her bare toes. She no longer had any need of shoes. She waded into the surf and swam through the breakers to the yacht, pulled herself onto the ladder hanging down from its gunnel, and climbed up onto the deck.
The waiter nodded to her. He was an older man, a soft and large and comforting man, dark-complexioned, and his expression was as somber as the expression on a tilefish. She wondered for a moment how she knew that, and then she remembered being amused by the photo of a somber tilefish in the margin of a page in her dictionary, when she was a little girl. And she had said to her father at dinner that night, when he seemed troubled by something and would not speak, You look just like an old tilefish! And after everyone had gotten over their astonishment at where this expression may have come from, they all laughed.
The waiter nodded toward a deck chair and said something to her in a language she didn’t understand. She sat in the chair and fell asleep and when she woke up her summer dress was dry and the waiter had placed a cold drink on the little table beside her. It was delicious and tasted like crushed watermelon on ice. The waiter was nowhere to be seen but there was another man across the deck from her, in another chair, watching her.
He was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. More beautiful than any man she’d ever seen in a movie. Or in a magazine photograph. Or on a billboard or the cover of a record album. He was impossibly beautiful and impossible to describe. She blushed and could not say any more to me about how beautiful this man was, and I didn’t ask her to try.
She said, We went away on the yacht to another country.
The country was something like she imagined Greece to be, or possibly southern Italy. It was very sunny, the warm air brimming with golden light, and there were mountains in the distance you could see from the villa on a hill above the shore. Below the villa there were steep rocky cliffs and a wide blue sea. The villa had a broad terrace that overlooked a white swimming pool. There were large, slow ceiling fans turning in all the rooms. There was a constant cool breeze that blew in from the sea. There were servants as beautiful and slender and brown and silent as some kind of near-human, intelligent animal. Their eyes clear and limpid with an animallike devotion in their gaze. They transformed into other, similar creatures when they moved from one room to another.
There were dogs the size of small slender horses that roamed the grounds and guarded them against intruders, and killed rabbits and could be seen loping across clearings with these rabbits in their jaws.
There were great outsized housecats that lay draped over balustrades and the arms of stuffed sofas and chairs and they didn’t seem to acknowledge the existence of other creatures, not even the dogs.
The birds in the trees in their gardens watched her as she walked beneath them and they spoke to her in a silent language about things she could not translate to normal speech or even thought, and so these things remained entirely between her and the birds.
She and her Greek or Italian lover never spoke to one another, and yet they grew older, without appearing to. They only became more beautiful.
I became more beautiful, she said, until I wasn’t at all the person I had been before. I was entirely changed.
And that was good? I said.
She nodded, her attention distracted in the memory of her dream.
Yes, it was.
Our parents, having been terrified back to their senses, wasted no time seeking an annulment of our marriage. We’d lied about our ages, had no parental consent. Seeing us unconscious and possibly dying (as far as they knew or feared), they were sure we were being punished by God for being so young and so foolish, for thinking we could bring a child into the world when we were nothing but children ourselves. We were going to serve as a ghoulish example to other young people, the young couple who eloped and went to sleep and never woke up. Their child delivered by the doctors although the couple themselves would never know. Would never see that child, who would never see his or her parents, either — not awake and in the world, in any case.
Within days of our awakening, we were no longer married, no longer legal tenants of our apartment. Olivia was taken away to live with relatives in another state, I was never certain if it was Louisiana or Texas. I suppose it could have been a state even farther away, with a relative she’d never happened to mention in our brief time together. I don’t really think she put up much if any resistance.
I heard from someone a year or so later that she — we, I guess, but it no longer felt like that — had delivered a little boy, after all.
Then someone else told me they’d heard it was a girl.
In any case, I presume it went straight to adoption.
On the other hand, I once heard she never even had the child. She either miscarried or had what people called a phantom or false pregnancy.
I never spoke with Olivia again, so I never knew for sure.
Once, a few months after she’d been taken away, I saw her downtown, on the sidewalk, walking along as if nothing like what happened to us had ever happened to her, as if she were just another one of the people walking along, window-shopping, another person with no history at all.
It was winter, January. She wore a long, heavy coat and some kind of colorful hat, from which her dark hair just peeked at the bottom, even shorter than before. She wasn’t pushing a stroller or anything like that. Just by herself.
I looked different. I’d gained a lot of weight and some of my hair had fallen out, ridiculously, just from stress. I was depressed, I guess, what a joke of a word. And I was just driving by in a car, not our old VW bus. She wouldn’t have recognized me, anyway.
I tried not to worry or feel guilty about the child. He would always have someone looking after or over him. She would most likely have some very interesting fairy godparents, for lack of a better term.
Looking back now, of course, it’s obvious we got off pretty easy. There was always some young mindless dying in that town, those days. Cars flinging themselves into groves and against large stalwart roadside trees, the residents in their myopic ranch-style houses hardly bothering to venture out to the carnage.
During the year all this took place, one boy I knew was flung from a friend’s truck and crushed between the truck and a tree. A girl I knew and liked a lot died when an addled motorist drove the wrong way on the interstate. Another night, a guy who’d been on my Little League baseball team heckled a drunk stumbling into a pizza parlor and the drunk walked over and shot him in the heart. He’d been bored, the boy had, hanging out with a bunch of other bored boys in the parking lot, and too easily amused by potentially violent drunks hungry for pizza. Not long after all this, my own brother Curtis died in a head-on collision with a car driven by another young man his age. They’d gone to high school together, had known each other most of their lives.
I knew a boy who shot himself in the head, in front of his mother, in their front yard, because he was so sick and goddamn tired of her drunken bitching cruel ways.
The funerals of these young people were awful affairs, with parents wailing, suffering, siblings slouching about in angry grief, not a little frightened over their own suddenly looming mortality, friends fairly creeping around as if to avoid the contamination of bad luck.
Then of course there were the teen couples who ran off to get married, so alluring the delusion of greater freedom. They were so phenomenally bored with being nothing, and high school seemed little better than a minimal-security prison. They were almost literally mad to chain themselves to lives of eight-to-five jobs, punch-clock paychecks, puttering home to the little postwar starter bungalow, and having a couple of beers, cooking burgers on the grill, being grown-ups.
I was kind of mad to find something of significance, anywhere, though I was into the delinquency, too. It was the most obviously interesting thing going. There was plenty of good, cheap marijuana, the kind that made you laugh a lot. Quaaludes. Mescaline. Plenty of acid. A few people blossomed into full-blown junkies. It even went that way for my little brother, Mike. But, instead of smashing up my car and friends, or overdosing on one concoction or another, I fell in love with Olivia Coltrane.
It’s not like that anymore in that town. There’s more to do, inside the house, inside the magnificent motherboards of the new machines. Young people don’t just drive around, bored, drinking beer and crashing into trees and other vehicles, slashing and flailing away at one another in parking lots and vacant lots out of rage or boredom. If they get pregnant, they get a quick and easy abortion at the local clinic, the boy waiting outside for the girl who doesn’t want him to come in, and then she staggers slightly back to the car, a stunned look on her face, something in herself suddenly evaporated, beyond her ken. No one seems to get all excited over the drugs, even though there are more of them to choose from. They’re just not the big deal they were. I suppose there’s the usual brittle coterie of meth-heads, if you look.
You can get just about anything you want, these days.
But nobody runs off and gets married anymore. Nowadays, if you did that, you’d be greeted upon your return as if you were declaring, after an unexplained absence, that you’d been abducted by aliens, taken aboard their spaceship, and probed in various humiliating ways.
The year or two after we woke up was a kind of limbo. I would live out some alternative life, and then come to on a park bench, or in the hospital again, or in my car somewhere, ignition on, engine dead, gas tank empty. I’ll admit that at one point my family had me admitted to East Mississippi. That was ironic, I thought. The old man who hunted lions, Mr. Hunter, was no longer around. None of the inmates remembered him, and no one on the staff would discuss him with me. I’m not sure how long I was in. I may have been used, myself, for a visitation or two. Fuzzy memories, as if from deep dreams. I was disciplined, once, for going AWOL and walking around. I was in a locked, padded room for two days. It was like being inside a white dream, or in a pure fog or cloud.
When I got out of the hospital, I would see other people with these lost, somewhat sad looks on their faces, and I would think that similar things were happening to them. But you didn’t ask. You didn’t want to get them started. There was the fear of the destabilizing admission. We left one another alone.
I went through a brief period when I wanted desperately to see Olivia again, and not just to see her but talk to her, too. But her parents would hang up on me when I called. A couple of times she answered the phone, but she wouldn’t speak after I said hello. And then her mother or father would take the receiver from her, tell me not to call again, and hang up.
I sneaked up to the house one night. I didn’t really know what I was going to do. Maybe I fantasized that she’d step outside for something, to take out the garbage or just sit out in the night air looking up at the stars. She didn’t, of course. I crept into the shrubbery near their living room window and peeked in. Mrs. Coltrane was on the sofa, knitting something, and Mr. Coltrane was watching TV. I crept out and around to what used to be Olivia’s bedroom and peeked in there.
She was sitting on the bed, reading something, dressed in a pink nightgown, her legs beneath the covers. My heart fluttered. I stared for a long time, trying to see what she was reading, before I realized it was that green, faux-leather edition of The Living Bible. Her brow was lined with concentration. She seemed to be moving her lips a little bit as she read. I backed quietly from the window and crept to my car and drove home, to my own parents’ house, and went to bed.
I could see her whole life ahead of her, then, and it seemed kind of simple. She’d been saved, from me and from everything else. She’d been pretty shocked by the whole affair, and wanted to do everything the proper way now. She’d marry, eventually, someone safe and predictable, and kind. Fold herself into her parents’ church. Develop a particularly amnesiac cartography of her past. Our past.
Obviously, I haven’t done that so well. I haven’t wanted to. Even now, when I think of Olivia, I’m looking at her sitting naked and unselfconscious on our creaky old bed in the attic apartment, lost in some thought that is destined to escape her. Maybe it’ll wander in the breeze and lodge itself in some poor thought-crazed head in the asylum down the street, maybe worm its way into the bitter landlady downstairs, maybe squeeze into the head of a scatterbrained cardinal in the pecan tree just outside the gable window. She wrinkles her pretty brow in thought, actually puts a finger to her bottom lip, but it’s hopeless, the thought is gone, never to be aired before me or anyone else in her line of mortal acquaintance. Her pale skin is beautiful, smooth and lightly blue-veined, a barely visible pale blue line at one temple, another across her growing tummy, and one on the back of the hand that holds the finger to her moistened lower lip, which cannot voice her fleeting thought, lost now to her before she even knows it.
I wondered what our lives would really have been like, had we gone on together, stayed married, kept the child, tried to deal with the kinds of things that always work like an underground river to undercut people’s happiness. I wonder if she ever wonders the same.
I did, once, live out that life. It was while I was in the hospital, early on in my stay.
We stayed married, for a while anyway. Instead of becoming a professional carpenter, I worked a wood-shop job and attended the local branch of the university in my spare time, because Olivia and her parents and my parents convinced me to do so. Olivia stayed home and took care of our child, who was a boy but whose name was Jackson, we called him Jack.
I was good at academics, as it turned out. This surprised me, but pleased me, too. I’d never thought I was very smart. You might think I’d have studied the hard sciences, maybe astronomy, but I chose anthropology, a so-called social science. I wanted to know about people.
The more I studied, of course, the more my sense of who I was began to change. It changed who I thought I was or was becoming, anyway. Olivia clung all the more stubbornly to who she thought I was, or had been. Naturally my skepticism toward organized religion only continued to deepen and grow. I began to lose interest in Olivia, who it seemed to me had no interest in growing, learning, changing with the times. We grew apart. And one day, though she did so kindly and without anger, she took Jack and moved back home to her parents’ house. We were still only twenty-two years old.
She remarried a few years later, to a prosperous local businessman, had two more children, belonged to the newer, richer country club, the larger and more exclusive Episcopalian church in town, and drove a Mercedes station wagon. I was amused to see that.
I eventually finished the PhD and did fieldwork for a number of years in Wyoming on prehistoric settlement sites, then took a job at a university not too close, but not too far from our hometown, so I could visit Jack more easily when he was visiting his mother during holidays from school. He was a sensitive young man, with a forgiving nature, and we were close. I remarried, twice, but neither one worked out. I fathered no more children, though I kept in touch with the daughter of my third wife, a girl she’d had during her first marriage, under circumstances not so different from mine and Olivia’s.
I grew old not so gracefully. I was a little bitter, though I had a dark sense of humor my students seemed to like. I drank far too much, pretty much every night. Stopped and started smoking in what seemed like regular seven-year intervals. I had an old dog, a pound mutt of inconceivable lineage. I died while out on a walk with the dog one afternoon in winter, of exposure, because of a mild heart attack that nonetheless left me unable to get back to my vehicle, parked half a mile away.
When I woke from this one, who should be sitting on the hospital cot across from me but Wendell Sparrow, looking strange as ever, but worse. He seemed to have aged to something like forty or fifty, though he was surely only twenty, just a couple of years older than me. Judging by the white orderly uniform he wore, and his crew-cut, balding head, he was now an employee of East Mississippi. He was smoking a cigarette, in the same famished way, and looked to weigh about a hundred and ten pounds. I couldn’t imagine him overpowering even the tiniest crazy person.
No, he said when I asked, he was a respiratory therapist. They need that in here, too, he said.
“Ever use the machine on yourself?” I said.
“I figure it’ll come in handy, one day,” he said.
“It’s good to see you,” I said then. “Even if it is in here.”
He didn’t answer for a moment, just watched me with a kind of detached or absent look on his ravaged face. I figured he was doing a lot of speed, maybe junk. Or maybe something he could only get in here.
“So,” he said. “How was that?”
“How was what?” I said. And then a little chill ran through me. He was looking at me in that way.
“That was real,” Sparrow said then. “That’s the way it would’ve really been.”
I didn’t say anything for a minute.
“What about the rest of it?” I said. “All the stuff after the divorce.”
Sparrow put out his cigarette on the floor, dug into his therapist coat pocket for the pack, niggled another one out of it, and lit up, put the pack back into the pocket.
“Yeah,” he said. “Could be pretty much that way. Probably a few minor differences. Might look a lot different at times, along the way. But in the end, not a whole lot.”
I didn’t say anything to that.
“Gotta go,” Sparrow said, getting up. “So many lungs, so little time.”
He walked out. I never saw him again, after that.
It had been Sparrow, in a perverse concession, who’d driven us on our first date. He drove us around in his mother’s humongous emerald-green Electra 225. I say date, although really it was a contrived, rolling parking session, Sparrow sitting alone up front behind the wheel while Olivia and I made out in the back seat.
I’d begged him. My father was on the road again and my brother had our mother’s car. Sparrow agreed only because he needed to be angry, he hadn’t gotten it all out. I could see his beady, furious eyes watching us in the rearview mirror. He chain-smoked, hardly ever taking the cigarette from his mouth, just sucking hard and burning it a half inch at a time. But after a while the strange rhythms of his driving began to rock us into a kind of submissive stupor. He drove with his left foot on the brake, right foot on the accelerator, so that we moved through the evening like a big green fish swimming in fluid lunges against the current. The effect was lulling, hypnotic. After a while we forgot he was up there, forgot we were in his car. We fell almost into sleep into one another’s kisses.
Later, when we dropped Olivia off at her home, I stayed in the back and Sparrow drove me home in silence, fuming tobacco smoke and rage. I felt pretty good, like a rich man’s son, Sparrow my father’s powerless chauffeur, forced to drive me on a date with his own beautiful daughter.
That had basically been the end of my friendship with Sparrow. I haven’t seen him in decades, now. But the funny thing is that he’d looked kind of like an alien, I mean like the ones in abduction stories. He had the teardrop-shaped head already balding at eighteen, the long skinny neck, the long thin hands and fingers, and his eyes just enormous. Except that Sparrow’s eyes were normally very expressive, very human. Normally, he was just an alien of the everyday variety.
A year or two after all of this, after I’d gotten a little better, I was tending my dad’s bar, the one he opened up after Curtis died in the accident and he lost his job from drinking too much. He bought the bar, and ran a little liquor store in a corner of the building, and I ran the bar, evenings. I took classes at the junior college during the day.
One night when almost no one was in the bar, a weeknight, a man came in by himself and sat on a stool and asked for a beer. I’d never seen him before. He was maybe forty, forty-five. Hard to tell, as I was still only nineteen, myself, legal age in Mississippi in those days, but far from having any view over the nearer horizon.
He was a pleasant man, with a small, pleasant, unremarkable face. He was dressed in what looked like business attire minus the jacket and tie he’d left either in the car or at the house. His collar was pressed but knocked awry. His medium-length, but definitely barbered hair was just the slightest bit mussed up. Mine wasn’t the first bar he’d been to that evening.
When he’d ordered his second beer, he said this was his one night in the year to go out and get drunk.
“I don’t drink, otherwise,” he said. “Just one night a year, though, I go out and I get plastered. It’s a safety valve.”
“Well, that sounds okay,” I said. “Can’t fault you for that.”
“No, you cannot, that’s true,” the man said.
He reached across the bar to shake my hand.
“Monroe Clooney,” he said. “My friends call me Mo.”
“Call me Will, Mo,” I said.
“I will, Will,” he said, and laughed. “Sorry.”
“No, no, Mo,” I said, and we both laughed.
Then Mo Clooney told me his story. He was a civil engineer, made a good living, but he and his wife couldn’t have children, they’d tried, and so about ten years earlier they’d started taking in foster children from the local orphanage. There were mostly boys in the orphanage, and so they decided to take only boys, just to keep things simple as possible. But here they were ten years down the road, and now they had ten boys running about their house, which was fairly large, but still.
“They’re great boys, mostly,” Mo said. “But even so, you got to blow off a little steam every now and then. Hence,” he said, raising his beer, and then draining it. I got him another, on the house.
“Thank you,” he said, as if I’d paid him a compliment. He spilled a little of his beer on the counter and mopped it with his shirtsleeve.
“My boys need a project,” he said then. “Always have to keep them busy. So I’ve decided to buy some kind of old car that they can take apart. Doesn’t really matter if they can put it back together again.”
“They get the ‘exploded view,’ ” I said. I loved that term. So did Mo Clooney, because he was an engineer, I guess. Most people don’t know it. It’s the simulated photo of something, like an engine, as if it’s just been blown into pieces that happen to be all its component parts, and they’re suspended just inches away from one another, as if in the act of flying apart, so that you can see all the parts separately and where they fit into the whole. Mo Clooney could hardly stop laughing. He probably didn’t get to hear much engineer humor. I knew the term only because I tended to thumb through dictionaries when I was bored sometimes, a habit I’d picked up lately. When Mo Clooney finally could stop laughing, he asked me about the old VW bus I’d parked in the corner of the bar’s dirt and gravel parking lot.
“Doesn’t run anymore,” I said.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “What’ll you take for it?”
I shrugged. “Fifty bucks.”
“Deal,” Mo Clooney said.
He pulled out his wallet, peeled off fifty dollars and handed the money to me, and shook my hand.
“No need for a bill of sale,” he said. “I trust you.” He laughed. “I trust everybody. It was nice to meet you. I’ll have someone tow the vehicle to my house by tomorrow afternoon.”
And then he left, giving me a little wave over his shoulder, and walking only a little bit unsteadily.
Next afternoon when I got to the bar, the bus was gone.
I’d had a thought, when he was walking out the night before, that he was a pretty odd guy, and so I’d gone outside to the parking lot, to see if he was really there.
Or to see if I was, I suppose.
Mo Clooney was there, fumbling with the keys to his car, and then getting into it, cranking it up, and driving it slowly away down the darkened, lamp-lined street.
I’d thought for a moment that he was one of them. But his sense of humor had been too normal, his laughter too real. And the look in his eyes had been so vulnerably human. It seemed filled with a kind of muted loss.
No, I said to myself then, he’s one of us.