/ / Language: English / Genre:prose_contemporary


Jonathan Franzen

From the National Book Award-winning author of The Corrections, a darkly comedic novel about family Patty and Walter Berglund were the new pioneers of old St. Paul – the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbor, who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually do their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter's dreams. Together with Walter – environmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, total family man – she was doing her small part to build a better world. But now, in the new millennium, the Berglunds have become a mystery. Why has their teenage son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter taken a job working with Big Coal? What exactly is Richard Katz – outré rocker and Walter's college best friend and rival – still doing in the picture? Most of all, what has happened to Patty? Why has the bright star of Barrier Street become 'a very different kind of neighbor,' an implacable Fury coming unhinged before the street's attentive eyes? In his first novel since The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen has given us an epic of contemporary love and marriage. Freedom comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire. In charting the mistakes and joys of Freedom's intensely realized characters as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world, Franzen has produced an indelible and deeply moving portrait of our time.

Jonathan Franzen


© 2010

To Susan Golomb and Jonathan Galassi

Go together,

You precious winners all; your exultation

Partake to everyone. I, an old turtle,

Will wing me to some withered bough, and there

My mate, that’s never to be found again,

Lament till I am lost.

– The Winter’s Tale

For their help with this book, the author is particularly grateful to Kathy Chetkovich and Elisabeth Robinson; to Joel Baker, Bonnie and Cam Blodgett, Scott Cheshire, Rolland Comstock, Nick Fowler, Sarah Graham, Charlie Herlovic, Tom Hjelm, Lisa Leonard, David Means, George Packer, Deanna Shemek, Brian Smith, Lorin Stein, and David Wallace; and to the American Academy in Berlin and Cowell College of the University of California, Santa Cruz.


The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally-he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now-but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times. According to a long and very unflattering story in the Times, Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation’s capital. His old neighbors had some difficulty reconciling the quotes about him in the Times (“arrogant,” “high-handed,” “ethically compromised”) with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle up Summit Avenue in February snow; it seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.

Walter and Patty were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill-the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen on hard times three decades earlier. They paid nothing for their Victorian and then killed themselves for ten years renovating it. Early on, some very determined person torched their garage and twice broke into their car before they got the garage rebuilt. Sunburned bikers descended on the vacant lot across the alley to drink Schlitz and grill knockwurst and rev engines at small hours until Patty went outside in sweatclothes and said, “Hey, you guys, you know what?” Patty frightened nobody, but she’d been a standout athlete in high school and college and possessed a jock sort of fearlessness. From her first day in the neighborhood, she was helplessly conspicuous. Tall, ponytailed, absurdly young, pushing a stroller past stripped cars and broken beer bottles and barfed-upon old snow, she might have been carrying all the hours of her day in the string bags that hung from her stroller. Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands; ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel. She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.

In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious, the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else’s children’s sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it. There were also more contemporary questions, like, what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be? Did your 240 sometimes not go into overdrive when you pushed the overdrive button? Was it better to offer panhandlers food, or nothing? Was it possible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy, brilliant kids while working full-time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning? Had anybody in the history of St. Paul ever had a positive experience with a roofer? What about a good Volvo mechanic? Did your 240 have that problem with the sticky parking-brake cable? And that enigmatically labeled dashboard switch that made such a satisfying Swedish click but seemed not to be connected to anything: what was that?

For all queries, Patty Berglund was a resource, a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee. She was one of the few stay-at-home moms in Ramsey Hill and was famously averse to speaking well of herself or ill of anybody else. She said she expected to be “beheaded” someday by one of the windows whose sash chains she’d replaced. Her children were “probably” dying of trichinosis from pork she’d undercooked. She wondered if her “addiction” to paint-stripper fumes might be related to her “never” reading books anymore. She confided that she’d been “forbidden” to fertilize Walter’s flowers after what had happened “last time.” There were people with whom her style of self-deprecation didn’t sit well-who detected a kind of condescension in it, as if Patty, in exaggerating her own minor defects, were too obviously trying to spare the feelings of less accomplished homemakers. But most people found her humility sincere or at least amusing, and it was in any case hard to resist a woman whom your own children liked so much and who remembered not only their birthdays but yours, too, and came to your back door with a plate of cookies or a card or some lilies of the valley in a little thrift-store vase that she told you not to bother returning.

It was known that Patty had grown up back East, in a suburb of New York City, and had received one of the first women’s full scholarships to play basketball at Minnesota, where, in her sophomore year, according to a plaque on the wall of Walter’s home office, she’d made second-team all-American. One strange thing about Patty, given her strong family orientation, was that she had no discernible connection to her roots. Whole seasons passed without her setting foot outside St. Paul, and it wasn’t clear that anybody from the East, not even her parents, had ever come out to visit. If you inquired point-blank about the parents, she would answer that the two of them did a lot of good things for a lot of people, her dad had a law practice in White Plains, her mom was a politician, yeah, a New York State assemblywoman. Then she would nod emphatically and say, “Yeah, so, that’s what they do,” as if the topic had been exhausted.

A game could be made of trying to get Patty to agree that somebody’s behavior was “bad.” When she was told that Seth and Merrie Paulsen were throwing a big Halloween party for their twins and had deliberately invited every child on the block except Connie Monaghan, Patty would only say that this was very “weird.” The next time she saw the Paulsens in the street, they explained that they had tried all summer to get Connie Monaghan’s mother, Carol, to stop flicking cigarette butts from her bedroom window down into their twins’ little wading pool. “That is really weird,” Patty agreed, shaking her head, “but, you know, it’s not Connie’s fault.” The Paulsens, however, refused to be satisfied with “weird.” They wanted sociopathic, they wanted passive-aggressive, they wanted bad. They needed Patty to select one of these epithets and join them in applying it to Carol Monaghan, but Patty was incapable of going past “weird,” and the Paulsens in turn refused to add Connie to their invite list. Patty was angry enough about this injustice to take her own kids, plus Connie and a school friend, out to a pumpkin farm and a hayride on the afternoon of the party, but the worst she would say aloud about the Paulsens was that their meanness to a seven-year-old girl was very weird.

Carol Monaghan was the only other mother on Barrier Street who’d been around as long as Patty. She’d come to Ramsey Hill on what you might call a patronage-exchange program, having been a secretary to somebody high-level in Hennepin County who moved her out of his district after he’d made her pregnant. Keeping the mother of your illegitimate child on your own office payroll: by the late seventies, there were no longer so many Twin Cities jurisdictions where this was considered consonant with good government. Carol became one of those distracted, break-taking clerks at the city license bureau while somebody equivalently well-connected in St. Paul was hired in reverse across the river. The rental house on Barrier Street, next door to the Berglunds, had presumably been included in the deal; otherwise it was hard to see why Carol would have consented to live in what was then still basically a slum. Once a week, in summer, an empty-eyed kid in a Parks Department jumpsuit came by at dusk in an unmarked 4x4 and ran a mower around her lawn, and in winter the same kid materialized to snow-blow her sidewalk.

By the late eighties, Carol was the only non-gentrifier left on the block. She smoked Parliaments, bleached her hair, made lurid talons of her nails, fed her daughter heavily processed foods, and came home very late on Thursday nights (“That’s Mom’s night out,” she explained, as if every mom had one), quietly letting herself into the Berglunds’ house with the key they’d given her and collecting the sleeping Connie from the sofa where Patty had tucked her under blankets. Patty had been implacably generous in offering to look after Connie while Carol was out working or shopping or doing her Thursday-night business, and Carol had become dependent on her for a ton of free babysitting. It couldn’t have escaped Patty’s attention that Carol repaid this generosity by ignoring Patty’s own daughter, Jessica, and doting inappropriately on her son, Joey (“How about another smooch from the lady-killer?”), and standing very close to Walter at neighborhood functions, in her filmy blouses and her cocktail-waitress heels, praising Walter’s home-improvement prowess and shrieking with laughter at everything he said; but for many years the worst that Patty would say of Carol was that single moms had a hard life and if Carol was sometimes weird to her it was probably just to save her pride.

To Seth Paulsen, who talked about Patty a little too often for his wife’s taste, the Berglunds were the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven; who lacked the courage of their privilege. One problem with Seth’s theory was that the Berglunds weren’t all that privileged; their only known asset was their house, which they’d rebuilt with their own hands. Another problem, as Merrie Paulsen pointed out, was that Patty was no great progressive and certainly no feminist (staying home with her birthday calendar, baking those goddamned birthday cookies) and seemed altogether allergic to politics. If you mentioned an election or a candidate to her, you could see her struggling and failing to be her usual cheerful self-see her becoming agitated and doing too much nodding, too much yeah-yeahing. Merrie, who was ten years older than Patty and looked every year of it, had formerly been active with the SDS in Madison and was now very active in the craze for Beaujolais nouveau. When Seth, at a dinner party, mentioned Patty for the third or fourth time, Merrie went nouveau red in the face and declared that there was no larger consciousness, no solidarity, no political substance, no fungible structure, no true communitarianism in Patty Berglund’s supposed neighborliness, it was all just regressive housewifely bullshit, and, frankly, in Merrie’s opinion, if you were to scratch below the nicey-nice surface you might be surprised to find something rather hard and selfish and competitive and Reaganite in Patty; it was obvious that the only things that mattered to her were her children and her house-not her neighbors, not the poor, not her country, not her parents, not even her own husband.

And Patty was undeniably very into her son. Though Jessica was the more obvious credit to her parents-smitten with books, devoted to wildlife, talented at flute, stalwart on the soccer field, coveted as a babysitter, not so pretty as to be morally deformed by it, admired even by Merrie Paulsen-Joey was the child Patty could not shut up about. In her chuckling, confiding, self-deprecating way, she spilled out barrel after barrel of unfiltered detail about her and Walter’s difficulties with him. Most of her stories took the form of complaints, and yet nobody doubted that she adored the boy. She was like a woman bemoaning her gorgeous jerky boyfriend. As if she were proud of having her heart trampled by him: as if her openness to this trampling were the main thing, maybe the only thing, she cared to have the world know about.

“He is being such a little shit,” she told the other mothers during the long winter of the Bedtime Wars, when Joey was asserting his right to stay awake as late as Patty and Walter did.

“Is it tantrums? Is he crying?” the other mothers asked.

“Are you kidding?” Patty said. “I wish he cried. Crying would be normal, and it would also stop.”

“What’s he doing, then?” the mothers asked.

“He’s questioning the basis of our authority. We make him turn the lights out, but his position is that he shouldn’t have to go to sleep until we turn our own lights out, because he’s exactly the same as us. And, I swear to God, it is like clockwork, every fifteen minutes, I swear he’s lying there staring at his alarm clock, every fifteen minutes he calls out, ‘Still awake! I’m still awake!’ In this tone of contempt, or sarcasm, it’s weird. And I’m begging Walter not to take the bait, but, no, it’s a quarter of midnight again, and Walter is standing in the dark in Joey’s room and they’re having another argument about the difference between adults and children, and whether a family is a democracy or a benevolent dictatorship, until finally it’s me who’s having the meltdown, you know, lying there in bed, whimpering, ‘Please stop, please stop.’ ”

Merrie Paulsen wasn’t entertained by Patty’s storytelling. Late in the evening, loading dinner-party dishes into the dishwasher, she remarked to Seth that it was hardly surprising that Joey should be confused about the distinction between children and adults-his own mother seemed to suffer from some confusion about which of the two she was. Had Seth noticed how, in Patty’s stories, the discipline always came from Walter, as if Patty were just some feckless bystander whose job was to be cute?

“I wonder if she’s actually in love with Walter, or not,” Seth mused optimistically, uncorking a final bottle. “Physically, I mean.”

“The subtext is always ‘My son is extraordinary,’ ” Merrie said. “She’s always complaining about the length of his attention span.”

“Well, to be fair,” Seth said, “it’s in the context of his stubbornness. His infinite patience in defying Walter’s authority.”

“Every word she says about him is some kind of backhanded brag.”

“Don’t you ever brag?” Seth teased.

“Probably,” Merrie said, “but at least I have some minimal awareness of how I sound to other people. And my sense of self-worth is not bound up in how extraordinary our kids are.”

“You are the perfect mom,” Seth teased.

“No, that would be Patty,” Merrie said, accepting more wine. “I’m merely very good.”

Things came, Patty complained, too easily to Joey. He was goldenhaired and pretty and seemed innately to possess the answers to every test a school could give him, as though multiple-choice sequences of As and Bs and Cs and Ds were encoded in his very DNA. He was uncannily at ease with neighbors five times his age. When his school or his Cub Scout pack forced him to sell candy bars or raffle tickets door to door, he was frank about the “scam” that he was running. He perfected a highly annoying smile of condescension when faced with toys or games that other boys owned but Patty and Walter refused to buy him. To extinguish this smile, his friends insisted on sharing what they had, and so he became a crack video gamer even though his parents didn’t believe in video games; he developed an encyclopedic familiarity with the urban music that his parents were at pains to protect his preteen ears from. He was no older than eleven or twelve when, at the dinner table, according to Patty, he accidentally or deliberately called his father “son.”

“Oh-ho did that not go over well with Walter,” she told the other mothers.

“That’s how the teenagers all talk to each other now,” the mothers said. “It’s a rap thing.”

“That’s what Joey said,” Patty told them. “He said it was just a word and not even a bad word. And of course Walter begged to differ. And I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Wal-ter, Wal-ter, don’t-get into-it, point-less to argue,’ but, no, he has to try to explain how, for example, even though ‘boy’ is not a bad word, you still can’t say it to a grown man, especially not to a black man, but, of course, the whole problem with Joey is he refuses to recognize any distinction between children and grownups, and so it ends with Walter saying there won’t be any dessert for him, which Joey then claims he doesn’t even want, in fact he doesn’t even like dessert very much, and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Wal-ter, Wal-ter, don’t-get into-it,’ but Walter can’t help it-he has to try to prove to Joey that in fact Joey really loves dessert. But Joey won’t accept any of Walter’s evidence. He’s totally lying through his teeth, of course, but he claims he’s only ever taken seconds of dessert because it’s conventional to, not because he actually likes it, and poor Walter, who can’t stand to be lied to, says, ‘OK, if you don’t like it, then how about a month without dessert?’ and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, Wal-ter, Wal-ter, this-isn’t going-to end-well,’ because Joey’s response is, ‘I will go a year without dessert, I will never eat dessert again, except to be polite at somebody else’s house,’ which, bizarrely enough, is a credible threat-he’s so stubborn he could probably do it. And I’m like, ‘Whoa, guys, time-out, dessert is an important food group, let’s not get carried away here,’ which immediately undercuts Walter’s authority, and since the whole argument has been about his authority, I manage to undo anything positive he’s accomplished.”

The other person who loved Joey inordinately was the Monaghan girl, Connie. She was a grave and silent little person with the disconcerting habit of holding your gaze unblinkingly, as if you had nothing in common. She was an afternoon fixture in Patty’s kitchen, laboring to mold cookie dough into geometrically perfect spheres, taking such pains that the butter liquefied and made the dough glisten darkly. Patty formed eleven balls for every one of Connie’s, and when they came out of the oven Patty never failed to ask Connie’s permission to eat the one “truly outstanding” (smaller, flatter, harder) cookie. Jessica, who was a year older than Connie, seemed content to cede the kitchen to the neighbor girl while she read books or played with her terrariums. Connie posed no kind of threat to somebody as well rounded as Jessica. Connie had no notion of wholeness-was all depth and no breadth. When she was coloring, she got lost in saturating one or two areas with a felt-tip pen, leaving the rest blank and ignoring Patty’s cheerful urgings to try some other colors.

Connie’s intensive focus on Joey was evident early on to every local mother except, seemingly, Patty, perhaps because Patty herself was so focused on him. At Linwood Park, where Patty sometimes organized athletics for the kids, Connie sat by herself on the grass and fashioned clover-flower rings for nobody, letting the minutes stream past her until Joey took his turn at bat or moved the soccer ball down the field and quickened her interest momentarily. She was like an imaginary friend who happened to be visible. Joey, in his precocious self-mastery, seldom found it necessary to be mean to her in front of his friends, and Connie, for her part, whenever it became clear that the boys were going off to be boys, knew enough to fall back and dematerialize without reproach or entreaty. There was always tomorrow. For a long time, there was also always Patty, down on her knees among her vegetables or up on a ladder in a spattered wool shirt, attending to the Sisyphean work of Victorian paint maintenance. If Connie couldn’t be near Joey she could at least be useful to him by keeping his mother company in his absence. “What’s the homework situation?” Patty would ask her from the ladder. “Do you want some help?”

“My mom’s going to help me when she gets home.”

“She’s going to be tired, it’s going to be late. You could surprise her and get it done right now. You want to do that?”

“No, I’ll wait.”

When exactly Connie and Joey started fucking wasn’t known. Seth Paulsen, without evidence, simply to upset people, enjoyed opining that Joey had been eleven and Connie twelve. Seth’s speculation centered on the privacy afforded by a tree fort that Walter had helped Joey build in an ancient crab apple in the vacant lot. By the time Joey finished eighth grade, his name was turning up in the neighbor boys’ replies to strenuously casual parental inquiries about the sexual behavior of their schoolmates, and it later seemed probable that Jessica had been aware of something by the end of that summer-suddenly, without saying why, she became strikingly disdainful of both Connie and her brother. But nobody ever saw them actually hanging out by themselves until the following winter, when the two of them went into business together.

According to Patty, the lesson that Joey had learned from his incessant arguments with Walter was that children were compelled to obey parents because parents had the money. It became yet another example of Joey’s extraordinariness: while the other mothers lamented the sense of entitlement with which their kids demanded cash, Patty did laughing caricatures of Joey’s chagrin at having to beg Walter for funds. Neighbors who hired Joey knew him to be a surprisingly industrious shoveler of snow and raker of leaves, but Patty said that he secretly hated the low wages and felt that shoveling an adult’s driveway put him in an undesirable relation to the adult. The ridiculous moneymaking schemes suggested in Scouting publications-selling magazine subscriptions door to door, learning magic tricks and charging admission to magic shows, acquiring the tools of taxidermy and stuffing your neighbors’ prizewinning walleyes-all similarly reeked either of vassalage (“I am taxidermist to the ruling class”) or, worse, of charity. And so, inevitably, in his quest to liberate himself from Walter, he was drawn to entrepreneurship.

Somebody, maybe even Carol Monaghan herself, was paying Connie’s tuition at a small Catholic academy, St. Catherine’s, where the girls wore uniforms and were forbidden all jewelry except one ring (“simple, all-metal”), one watch (“simple, no jewels”), and two earrings (“simple, all-metal, half-inch maximum in size”). It happened that one of the popular ninth-grade girls at Joey’s own school, Central High, had come home from a family trip to New York City with a cheap watch, widely admired at lunch hour, in whose chewable-looking yellow band a Canal Street vendor had thermo-embedded tiny candy-pink plastic letters spelling out a Pearl Jam lyric, don’t call me daughter, at the girl’s request. As Joey himself would later recount in his college-application essays, he had immediately taken the initiative to research the wholesale source of this watch and the price of a thermo-embedding press. He’d invested four hundred dollars of his own savings in equipment, had made Connie a sample plastic band (ready for the push, it said) to flash at St. Catherine’s, and then, employing Connie as a courier, had sold personalized watches to fully a quarter of her schoolmates, at thirty dollars each, before the nuns wised up and amended the dress code to forbid watchbands with embedded text. Which, of course-as Patty told the other mothers-struck Joey as an outrage.

“It’s not an outrage,” Walter told him. “You were benefiting from an artificial restraint of trade. I didn’t notice you complaining about the rules when they were working in your favor.”

“I made an investment. I took a risk.”

“You were exploiting a loophole, and they closed the loophole. Couldn’t you see that coming?”

“Well, why didn’t you warn me?”

“I did warn you.”

“You just warned me I could lose money.”

“Well, and you didn’t even lose money. You just didn’t make as much as you hoped.”

“It’s still money I should have had.”

“Joey, making money is not a right. You’re selling junk those girls don’t really need and some of them probably can’t even afford. That’s why Connie’s school has a dress code-to be fair to everybody.”

“Right-everybody but me.”

From the way Patty reported this conversation, laughing at Joey’s innocent indignation, it was clear to Merrie Paulsen that Patty still had no inkling of what her son was doing with Connie Monaghan. To be sure of it, Merrie probed a little. What did Patty suppose Connie had been getting for her trouble? Was she working on commission?

“Oh, yeah, we told him he had to give her half his profits,” Patty said. “But he would’ve done that anyway. He’s always been protective of her, even though he’s younger.”

“He’s like a brother to her…”

“No, actually,” Patty joked, “he’s a lot nicer to her than that. You can ask Jessica what it’s like to be his sibling.”

“Ha, right, ha ha,” Merrie said.

To Seth, later that day, Merrie reported, “It’s amazing, she truly has no idea.”

“I think it’s a mistake,” Seth said, “to take pleasure in a fellow parent’s ignorance. It’s tempting fate, don’t you think?”

“I’m sorry, it’s just too funny and delicious. You’ll have to do the nongloating for the two of us and keep our fate at bay.”

“I feel bad for her.”

“Well, forgive me, but I’m finding it hilarious.”

Toward the end of that winter, in Grand Rapids, Walter’s mother collapsed with a pulmonary embolism on the floor of the ladies’ dress shop where she worked. Barrier Street knew Mrs. Berglund from her visits at Christmastime, on the children’s birthdays, and on her own birthday, for which Patty always took her to a local masseuse and plied her with licorice and macadamia nuts and white chocolate, her favorite treats. Merrie Paulsen referred to her, not unkindly, as “Miss Bianca,” after the bespectacled mouse matron in the children’s books by Margery Sharp. She had a crepey, once-pretty face and tremors in her jaw and her hands, one of which had been badly withered by childhood arthritis. She’d been worn out, physically wrecked, Walter said bitterly, by a lifetime of hard labor for his drunk of a dad, at the roadside motel they’d operated near Hibbing, but she was determined to remain independent and look elegant in her widowed years, and so she kept driving her old Chevy Cavalier to the dress shop. At the news of her collapse, Patty and Walter hurried up north, leaving Joey to be supervised by his disdainful older sister. It was soon after the ensuing teen fuckfestival, which Joey conducted in his bedroom in open defiance of Jessica, and which ended only with the sudden death and funeral of Mrs. Berglund, that Patty became a very different kind of neighbor, a much more sarcastic neighbor.

“Oh, Connie, yes,” her tune went now, “such a nice little girl, such a quiet little harmless girl, with such a sterling mom. You know, I hear Carol has a new boyfriend, a real studly man, he’s like half her age. Wouldn’t it be terrible if they moved away now, with everything Carol’s done to brighten our lives? And Connie, wow, I’d sure miss her too. Ha ha. So quiet and nice and grateful.”

Patty was looking a mess, gray-faced, poorly slept, underfed. It had taken her an awfully long time to start looking her age, but now at last Merrie Paulsen had been rewarded in her wait for it to happen.

“Safe to say she’s figured it out,” Merrie said to Seth.

“Theft of her cub-the ultimate crime,” Seth said.

“Theft, exactly,” Merrie said. “Poor innocent blameless Joey, stolen away by that little intellectual powerhouse next door.”

“Well, she is a year and a half older.”


“Say what you will,” Seth said, “but Patty really loved Walter’s mom. She’s got to be hurting.”

“Oh, I know, I know. Seth, I know. And now I can honestly be sad for her.”

Neighbors who were closer to the Berglunds than the Paulsens reported that Miss Bianca had left her little mouse house, on a minor lake near Grand Rapids, exclusively to Walter and not to his two brothers. There was said to be disagreement between Walter and Patty about how to handle this, Walter wanting to sell the house and share the proceeds with his brothers, Patty insisting that he honor his mother’s wish to reward him for being the good son. The younger brother was career military and lived in the Mojave, at the Air Force base there, while the older brother had spent his adult life advancing their father’s program of drinking immoderately, exploiting their mother financially, and otherwise neglecting her. Walter and Patty had always taken the kids to his mother’s for a week or two in the summer, often bringing along one or two of Jessica’s neighborhood friends, who described the property as rustic and woodsy and not too terrible bugwise. As a kindness, perhaps, to Patty, who appeared to be doing some immoderate drinking of her own-her complexion in the morning, when she came out to collect the blue-wrappered New York Times and the green-wrappered Star-Tribune from her front walk, was all Chardonnay Splotch-Walter eventually agreed to keep the house as a vacation place, and in June, as soon as school let out, Patty took Joey up north to help her empty drawers and clean and repaint while Jessica stayed home with Walter and took an enrichment class in poetry.

Several neighbors, the Paulsens not among them, brought their boys for visits to the lakeside house that summer. They found Patty in much better spirits. One father privately invited Seth Paulsen to imagine her suntanned and barefoot, in a black one-piece bathing suit and beltless jeans, a look very much to Seth’s taste. Publicly, everyone remarked on how attentive and unsullen Joey was, and what a good time he and Patty seemed to be having. The two of them made all visitors join them in a complicated parlor game they called Associations. Patty stayed up late in front of her mother-in-law’s TV console, amusing Joey with her intricate knowledge of syndicated sixties and seventies sitcoms. Joey, having discovered that their lake was unidentified on local maps-it was really just a large pond, with one other house on it-had christened it Nameless, and Patty pronounced the name tenderly, sentimentally, “our Nameless Lake.” When Seth Paulsen learned from one of the returning fathers that Joey was working long hours up there, cleaning gutters and cutting brush and scraping paint, he wondered whether Patty might be paying Joey a solid wage for his services, whether this might be part of the deal. But nobody could say.

As for Connie, the Paulsens could hardly look out a Monaghan-side window without seeing her waiting. She really was a very patient girl, she had the metabolism of a fish in winter. She worked evenings busing tables at W. A. Frost, but all afternoon on weekdays she sat waiting on her front stoop while ice-cream trucks went by and younger children played, and on weekends she sat in a lawn chair behind the house, glancing occasionally at the loud, violent, haphazard tree-removal and construction work that her mother’s new boyfriend, Blake, had undertaken with his nonunionized buddies from the building trades, but mostly just waiting.

“So, Connie, what’s interesting in your life these days?” Seth asked her from the alley.

“You mean, apart from Blake?”

“Yes, apart from Blake.”

Connie considered briefly and then shook her head. “Nothing,” she said.

“Are you bored?”

“Not really.”

“Going to movies? Reading books?”

Connie fixed Seth with her steady, we-have-nothing-in-common gaze. “I saw Batman.”

“What about Joey? You guys have been pretty tight, I bet you’re missing him.”

“He’ll be back,” she said.

Once the old cigarette-butt issue had been resolved-Seth and Merrie admitted to having possibly exaggerated the summerlong tally of butts in the wading pool; to having possibly overreacted-they’d discovered in Carol Monaghan a rich source of lore about local Democratic politics, which Merrie was getting more involved with. Carol matter-of-factly told hair-raising stories of the unclean machine, of buried pipelines of slush, of rigged bids, of permeable firewalls, of interesting math, and got a kick out of Merrie’s horror. Merrie came to cherish Carol as a fleshly exemplum of the civic corruption Merrie intended to combat. The great thing about Carol was that she never seemed to change-kept tarting up on Thursday evenings for whoever, year after year after year, keeping alive the patriarchal tradition in urban politics.

And then, one day, she did change. There was already quite a bit of this going around. The city’s mayor, Norm Coleman, had morphed into a Republican, and a former pro wrestler was headed toward the governor’s mansion. The catalyst in Carol’s case was the new boyfriend, Blake, a goateed young backhoe operator she’d met across the counter at the license bureau, and for whom she dramatically changed her look. Out went the complicated hair and escort-service dresses, in came snug pants, a simple shag cut, and less makeup. A Carol nobody had ever seen, an actually happy Carol, hopped buoyantly from Blake’s F-250 pickup, letting anthem rock throb up and down the street, and slammed the passengerside door with a mighty push. Soon Blake began spending nights at her house, shuffling around in a Vikings jersey with his work boots unlaced and a beer can in his fist, and before long he was chainsawing every tree in her back yard and running wild with a rented backhoe. On the bumper of his truck were the words I’M WHITE AND I VOTE.

The Paulsens, having recently completed a protracted renovation of their own, were reluctant to complain about the noise and mess, and Walter, on the other side, was too nice or too busy, but when Patty finally came home, late in August, after her months in the country with Joey, she was practically unhinged in her dismay, going up and down the street, door to door, wild-eyed, to vilify Carol Monaghan. “Excuse me,” she said, “what happened here? Can somebody tell me what happened? Did somebody declare war on trees without telling me? Who is this Paul Bunyan with the truck? What’s the story? Is she not renting anymore? Are you allowed to annihilate the trees if you’re just renting? How can you tear the back wall off a house you don’t even own? Did she somehow buy the place without our knowing it? How could she do that? She can’t even change a lightbulb without calling up my husband! ‘Sorry to bother you at the dinner hour, Walter, but when I flip this light switch nothing happens. Do you mind coming over right away? And while you’re here, hon, can you help me with my taxes? They’re due tomorrow and my nails are wet.’ How could this person get a mortgage? Doesn’t she have Victoria’s Secret bills to pay? How is she even allowed to have a boyfriend? Isn’t there some fat guy over in Minneapolis? Shouldn’t somebody maybe get the word out to the fat guy?”

Not until Patty reached the door of the Paulsens, far down on her list of go-to neighbors, did she get some answers. Merrie explained that Carol Monaghan was, in fact, no longer renting. Carol’s house had been one of several hundred that the city housing authority had come to own during the blight years and was now selling off at bargain prices.

“How did I not know this?” Patty said.

“You never asked,” Merrie said. And couldn’t resist adding: “You never seemed particularly interested in government.”

“And you say she got it cheap.”

“Very cheap. It helps to know the right people.”

“How do you feel about that?”

“I think it sucks, both fiscally and philosophically,” Merrie said. “That’s one reason I’m working with Jim Schiebel.”

“You know, I always loved this neighborhood,” Patty said. “I loved living here, even at the beginning. And now suddenly everything looks so dirty and ugly to me.”

“Don’t get depressed, get involved,” Merrie said, and gave her some literature.

“I wouldn’t want to be Walter right now,” Seth remarked as soon as Patty was gone.

“I’m frankly glad to hear that,” Merrie said.

“Was it just me, or did you hear an undertone of marital discontent? I mean, helping Carol with her taxes? You know anything about that? I thought that was very interesting. I hadn’t heard about that. And now he’s failed to protect their pretty view of Carol’s trees.”

“The whole thing is so Reaganite-regressive,” Merrie said. “She thought she could live in her own little bubble, make her own little world. Her own little dollhouse.”

The add-on structure that rose out of Carol’s back-yard mud pit, weekend by weekend over the next nine months, was like a giant utilitarian boat shed with three plain windows punctuating its expanses of vinyl siding. Carol and Blake referred to it as a “great-room,” a concept hitherto foreign to Ramsey Hill. Following the cigarette-butt controversy, the Paulsens had installed a high fence and planted a line of ornamental spruces that had since grown up enough to screen them from the spectacle. Only the Berglunds’ sight lines were unobstructed, and before long the other neighbors were avoiding conversation with Patty, as they never had before, because of her fixation on what she called “the hangar.” They waved from the street and called out hellos but were careful not to slow down and get sucked in. The consensus among the working mothers was that Patty had too much time on her hands. In the old days, she’d been great with the little kids, teaching them sports and domestic arts, but now most of the kids on the street were teenagers. No matter how she tried to fill her days, she was always within sight or earshot of the work next door. Every few hours, she emerged from her house and paced up and down her back yard, peering over at the great-room like an animal whose nest had been disturbed, and sometimes in the evening she went knocking on the great-room’s temporary plywood door.

“Hey, Blake, how’s it going?”

“Going just fine.”

“Sounds like it! Hey, you know what, that Skilsaw’s pretty loud for eight-thirty at night. How would you feel about knocking off for the day?”

“Not too good, actually.”

“Well, how about if I just ask you to stop, then?”

“I don’t know. How about you letting me get my work done?”

“I’d actually feel pretty bad about that, because the noise is really bothering us.”

“Yeah, well, you know what? Too bad.”

Patty had a loud, involuntary, whinnylike laugh. “Ha-ha-ha! Too bad?”

“Yeah, listen, I’m sorry about the noise. But Carol says there was about five years of noise coming out of your place when you were fixing it up.”

“Ha-ha-ha. I don’t remember her complaining.”

“You were doing what you had to do. Now I’m doing what I have to do.”

“What you’re doing is really ugly, though. I’m sorry, but it’s kind of hideous. Just-horrible and hideous. Honestly. As a matter of pure fact. Not that that’s really the issue. The issue is the Skilsaw.”

“You’re on private property and you need to leave now.”

“OK, so I guess I’ll be calling the cops.”

“That’s fine, go ahead.”

You could see her pacing in the alley then, trembling with frustration. She did repeatedly call the police about the noise, and a few times they actually came and had a word with Blake, but they soon got tired of hearing from her and did not come back until the following February, when somebody slashed all four of the beautiful new snow tires on Blake’s F-250 and Blake and Carol directed officers to the next-door neighbor who’d been phoning in so many complaints. This resulted in Patty again going up and down the street, knocking on doors, ranting. “The obvious suspect, right? The mom next door with a couple of teenage kids. Hard-core criminal me, right? Lunatic me! He’s got the biggest, ugliest vehicle on the street, he’s got bumper stickers that offend pretty much anybody who’s not a white supremacist, but, God, what a mystery, who else but me could want to slash his tires?”

Merrie Paulsen was convinced that Patty was, in fact, the slasher.

“I don’t see it,” Seth said. “I mean, she’s obviously suffering, but she’s not a liar.”

“Right, except I didn’t actually notice her saying she didn’t do it. You have to hope she’s getting good therapy somewhere. She sure could use it. That and a full-time job.”

“My question is, where is Walter?”

“Walter is killing himself earning his salary so she can stay home all day and be a mad housewife. He’s being a good dad to Jessica and some sort of reality principle to Joey. I’d say he has his hands full.”

Walter’s most salient quality, besides his love of Patty, was his niceness. He was the sort of good listener who seemed to find everybody else more interesting and impressive than himself. He was preposterously fair-skinned, weak in the chin, cherubically curly up top, and had worn the same round wireframes forever. He’d begun his career at 3M as an attorney in the counsel’s office, but he’d failed to thrive there and was shunted into outreach and philanthropy, a corporate cul-de-sac where niceness was an asset. On Barrier Street he was always handing out great free tickets to the Guthrie and the Chamber Orchestra and telling neighbors about encounters he’d had with famous locals such as Garrison Keillor and Kirby Puckett and, once, Prince. More recently, and surprisingly, he’d left 3M altogether and become a development officer for the Nature Conservancy. Nobody except the Paulsens had suspected him of harboring such reserves of discontent, but Walter was no less enthusiastic about nature than he was about culture, and the only outward change in his life was his new scarcity at home on weekends.

This scarcity may have been one reason he didn’t intervene, as he might have been expected to, in Patty’s battle with Carol Monaghan. His response, if you asked him point-blank about it, was to giggle nervously. “I’m kind of a neutral bystander on that one,” he said. And a neutral bystander he remained all through the spring and summer of Joey’s sophomore year and into the following fall, when Jessica went off to college in the East and Joey moved out of his parents’ house and in with Carol, Blake, and Connie.

The move was a stunning act of sedition and a dagger to Patty’s heart-the beginning of the end of her life in Ramsey Hill. Joey had spent July and August in Montana, working on the high-country ranch of one of Walter’s major Nature Conservancy donors, and had returned with broad, manly shoulders and two new inches of height. Walter, who didn’t ordinarily brag, had vouchsafed to the Paulsens, at a picnic in August, that the donor had called him up to say how “blown away” he was by Joey’s fearlessness and tirelessness in throwing calves and dipping sheep. Patty, however, at the same picnic, was already vacant-eyed with pain. In June, before Joey went to Montana, she’d again taken him up to Nameless Lake to help her improve the property, and the only neighbor who’d seen them there described a terrible afternoon of watching mother and son lacerate each other over and over, airing it all in plain sight, Joey mocking Patty’s mannerisms and finally calling her “stupid” to her face, at which Patty had cried out, “Ha-ha-ha! Stupid! God, Joey! Your maturity just never ceases to amaze me! Calling your mother stupid in front of other people! That’s just so attractive in a person! What a big, tough, independent man you are!”

By summer’s end, Blake had nearly finished work on the great-room and was outfitting it with such Blakean gear as PlayStation, Foosball, a refrigerated beer keg, a large-screen TV, an air-hockey table, a stained-glass Vikings chandelier, and mechanized recliners. Neighbors were left to imagine Patty’s dinner-table sarcasm regarding these amenities, and Joey’s declarations that she was being stupid and unfair, and Walter’s angry demands that Joey apologize to Patty, but the night when Joey defected to the house next door didn’t need to be imagined, because Carol Monaghan was happy to describe it, in a loud and somewhat gloating voice, to any neighbor sufficiently disloyal to the Berglunds to listen to her.

“Joey was so calm, so calm,” Carol said. “I swear to God, you couldn’t melt butter in his mouth. I went over there with Connie to support him and let everybody know I’m totally in favor of the arrangement, because, you know Walter, he’s so considerate, he’s going to worry it’s an imposition on me. And Joey was totally responsible like always. He just wanted to be on the same page and make sure all the cards are on the table. He explained how he and Connie had discussed things with me, and I told Walter-because I knew he’d be concerned about this-I told him groceries were not a problem. Blake and I are a family now and we’re happy to feed one more, and Joey’s also very good about the dishes and garbage and being neat, and plus, I told Walter, he and Patty used to be so generous to Connie and give her meals and all. I wanted to acknowledge that, because they really were generous when I didn’t have my life together, and I’ve never been anything but grateful for that. And Joey’s just so responsible and calm. He explains how, since Patty won’t even let Connie in the house, he really doesn’t have any other choice if he wants to spend time with her, and I chime in and say how totally in support of the relationship I am-if only all the other young people in this world were as responsible as those two, the world would be a much better place-and how much more preferable it is for them to be in my house, safe and responsible, instead of sneaking around and getting in trouble. I’m so grateful to Joey, he’ll always be welcome in my house. I said that to them. And I know Patty doesn’t like me, she’s always looked down her nose at me and been snooty about Connie. I know that. I know a thing or two about the things Patty’s capable of. I knew she was going to throw some kind of fit. And so her face gets all twisted, and she’s like, ‘You think he loves your daughter? You think he’s in love with her?’ In this high little voice. Like it’s impossible for somebody like Joey to be in love with Connie, because I didn’t go to college or whatever, or I don’t have as big a house or come from New York City or whatever, or I have to work an honest-to-Christ forty-hour full-time job, unlike her. Patty’s so full of disrespect for me, you can’t believe it. But Walter I thought I could talk to. He really is a sweetie. His face is beet red, I think because he’s embarrassed, and he says, ‘Carol, you and Connie need to leave so we can talk to Joey privately.’ Which I’m fine with. I’m not there to make trouble, I’m not a troublemaking person. Except then Joey says no. He says he’s not asking permission, he’s just informing them about what he’s going to do, and there’s nothing to discuss. And that’s when Walter loses it. Just loses it. He’s got tears running down his face he’s so upset-and I can understand that, because Joey’s his youngest, and it’s not Walter’s fault Patty is so unreasonable and mean to Connie that Joey can’t stand to live with them anymore. But he starts yelling at the top of his lungs, like, YOU ARE SIXTEEN YEARS OLD AND YOU ARE NOT GOING ANYWHERE UNTIL YOU FINISH HIGH SCHOOL. And Joey’s just smiling at him, you couldn’t melt butter in his mouth. Joey says it’s not against the law for him to leave, and anyway he’s only moving next door. Totally reasonable. I wish I’d been one percent as smart and cool when I was sixteen. I mean, he’s just a great kid. It made me feel kind of bad for Walter, because he starts yelling all this stuff about how he’s not going to pay for Joey’s college, and Joey’s not going to get to go back to Montana next summer, and all he’s asking is that Joey come to dinner and sleep in his own bed and be a part of the family. And Joey’s like, ‘I’m still part of the family,’ which, by the way, he never said he wasn’t. But Walter’s stomping around the kitchen, for a couple of seconds I think he’s actually going to hit him, but he’s just totally lost it, he’s yelling, GET OUT, GET OUT, I’M SICK OF IT, GET OUT, and then he’s gone and you can hear him upstairs in Joey’s room, opening up Joey’s drawers or whatever, and Patty runs upstairs and they start screaming at each other, and Connie and I are hugging Joey, because he’s the one reasonable person in the family and we feel so sorry for him, and that’s when I know for sure it’s the right thing for him to move in with us. Walter comes stomping downstairs again and we can hear Patty screaming like a maniac-she’s totally lost it-and Walter starts yelling again, DO YOU SEE WHAT YOU’RE DOING TO YOUR MOTHER? Because it’s all about Patty, see, she’s always got to be the victim. And Joey’s just standing there shaking his head, because it’s so obvious. Why would he want to live in a place like this?”

Although some neighbors did undoubtedly take satisfaction in Patty’s reaping the whirlwind of her son’s extraordinariness, the fact remained that Carol Monaghan had never been well liked on Barrier Street, Blake was widely deplored, Connie was thought spooky, and nobody had ever really trusted Joey. As word of his insurrection spread, the emotions prevailing among the Ramsey Hill gentry were pity for Walter, anxiety about Patty’s psychological health, and an overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude at how normal their own children were-how happy to accept parental largesse, how innocently demanding of help with their homework or their college applications, how compliant in phoning in their afterschool whereabouts, how divulging of their little day-to-day bruisings, how reassuringly predictable in their run-ins with sex and pot and alcohol. The ache emanating from the Berglunds’ house was sui generis. Walter-unaware, you had to hope, of Carol’s blabbing about his night of “losing it”-acknowledged awkwardly to various neighbors that he and Patty had been “fired” as parents and were doing their best not to take it too personally. “He comes over to study sometimes,” Walter said, “but right now he seems more comfortable spending his nights at Carol’s. We’ll see how long that lasts.”

“How’s Patty taking all this?” Seth Paulsen asked him.

“Not well.”

“We’d love to get you guys over for dinner some night soon.”

“That would be great,” Walter said, “but I think Patty’s going up to my mom’s old house for a while. She’s been fixing it up, you know.”

“I’m worried about her,” Seth said with a catch in his voice.

“So am I, a little bit. I’ve seen her play in pain, though. She tore up her knee in her junior year and tried to play another two games on it.”

“But then didn’t she have, um, career-ending surgery?”

“It was more a point about her toughness, Seth. About her playing through pain.”


Walter and Patty never did get over to the Paulsens for dinner. Patty was absent from Barrier Street, hiding out at Nameless Lake, for long stretches of the winter and spring that followed, and even when her car was in the driveway-for example, at Christmastime, when Jessica returned from college and, according to her friends, had a “blow-out fight” with Joey which resulted in his spending more than a week in his old bedroom, giving his formidable sister the proper holiday she wanted-Patty eschewed the neighborhood get-togethers at which her baked goods and affability had once been such welcome fixtures. She was sometimes seen receiving visits from fortyish women who, based on their hairstyles and the bumper stickers on their Subarus, were thought to be old basketball teammates of hers, and there was talk about her drinking again, but this was mostly just a guess, since, for all her friendliness, she had never made an actual close friend in Ramsey Hill.

By New Year’s, Joey was back at Carol and Blake’s. A large part of that house’s allure was presumed to be the bed he shared with Connie. He was known by his friends to be bizarrely and militantly opposed to masturbation, the mere mention of which never failed to elicit a condescending smile from him; he claimed it was an ambition of his to go through life without resorting to it. More perspicacious neighbors, the Paulsens among them, suspected that Joey also enjoyed being the smartest person in the house. He became the prince of the great-room, opening its pleasures to everyone he favored with his friendship (and making the unsupervised beer keg a bone of contention at family dinners all over the neighborhood). His manner with Carol verged unsettlingly close to flirtation, and Blake he charmed by loving all the things that Blake himself loved, especially Blake’s power tools and Blake’s truck, at the wheel of which he learned how to drive. From the annoying way he smiled at his schoolmates’ enthusiasm for Al Gore and Senator Wellstone, as if liberalism were a weakness on a par with self-abuse, it seemed he’d even embraced some of Blake’s politics. He worked construction the next summer instead of returning to Montana.

And everybody had the sense, fairly or not, that Walter-his niceness-was somehow to blame. Instead of dragging Joey home by the hair and making him behave himself, instead of knocking Patty over the head with a rock and making her behave herself, he disappeared into his work with the Nature Conservancy, where he’d rather quickly become the state chapter’s executive director, and let the house stand empty evening after evening, let the flower beds go to seed and the hedges go unclipped and the windows go unwashed, let the dirty urban snow engulf the warped gore lieberman sign still stuck in the front yard. Even the Paulsens lost interest in the Berglunds, now that Merrie was running for city council. Patty spent all of the following summer away at Nameless Lake, and soon after her return-a month after Joey went off to the University of Virginia under financial circumstances that were unknown on Ramsey Hill, and two weeks after the great national tragedy-a for sale sign went up in front of the Victorian into which she and Walter had poured fully half their lives. Walter had already begun commuting to a new job in Washington. Though housing prices would soon be rebounding to unprecedented heights, the local market was still near the bottom of its post-9/11 slump. Patty oversaw the sale of the house, at an unhappy price, to an earnest black professional couple with twin three-year-olds. In February, the two Berglunds went door to door along the street one final time, taking leave with polite formality, Walter asking after everybody’s children and conveying his very best wishes for each of them, Patty saying little but looking strangely youthful again, like the girl who’d pushed her stroller down the street before the neighborhood was even a neighborhood.

“It’s a wonder,” Seth Paulsen remarked to Merrie afterward, “that the two of them are even still together.”

Merrie shook her head. “I don’t think they’ve figured out yet how to live.”


Autobiography of Patty Berglund by Patty Berglund

(Composed at Her Therapist’s Suggestion)

Chapter 1: Agreeable

If Patty weren’t an atheist, she would thank the good Lord for school athletic programs, because they basically saved her life and gave her a chance to realize herself as a person. She is especially grateful to Sandra Mosher at North Chappaqua Middle School, Elaine Carver and Jane Nagel at Horace Greeley High School, Ernie and Rose Salvatore at the Gettysburg Girls Basketball Camp, and Irene Treadwell at the University of Minnesota. It was from these wonderful coaches that Patty learned discipline, patience, focus, teamwork, and the ideals of good sportsmanship that helped make up for her morbid competitiveness and low self-esteem.

Patty grew up in Westchester County, New York. She was the oldest of four children, the other three of whom were more like what her parents had been hoping for. She was notably Larger than everybody else, also Less Unusual, also measurably Dumber. Not actually dumb but relatively dumber. She grew up to be 5’9½” which was almost the same as her brother and numerous inches taller than the others, and sometimes she wished she could have gone ahead and been six feet, since she was never going to fit into the family anyway. Being able to see the basket better and to post up in traffic and to rotate more freely on defense might have rendered her competitive streak somewhat less vicious, leading to a happier life post-college; probably not, but it was interesting to think about. By the time she got to the collegiate level, she was usually one of the shorter players on the floor, which in a funny way reminded her of her position in her family and helped keep adrenaline at peak levels.

Patty’s first memory of doing a team sport with her mother watching is also one of her last. She was attending ordinary-person Sports day camp at the same complex where her two sisters were doing extraordinary-person Arts day camp, and one day her mother and sisters showed up for the late innings of a softball game. Patty was frustrated to be standing in left field while less skilled girls made errors in the infield and she waited around for somebody to hit a ball deep. She started creeping in shallower and shallower, which was how the game ended. Runners on first and second. The batter hit a bouncing ball to the grossly uncoordinated shortstop, whom Patty ran in front of so she could field the ball herself and run and tag out the lead runner and then start chasing the other runner, some sweet girl who’d probably reached first on a fielding error. Patty bore down straight at her, and the girl ran squealing into the outfield, leaving the base path for an automatic out, but Patty kept chasing her and applied the tag while the girl crumpled up and screamed with the apparently horrible pain of being lightly touched by a glove.

Patty was aware that it was not her finest hour of sportsmanship. Something had come over her because her family was watching. In the family station wagon, in an even more quavering voice than usual, her mother asked her if she had to be quite so… aggressive. If it was necessary to be, well, to be so aggressive. Would it have hurt Patty to share the ball a little with her teammates? Patty replied that she hadn’t been getting ANY balls in left field. And her mother said: “I don’t mind if you play sports, but only if it’s going to teach you cooperation and communitymindedness.” And Patty said, “So send me to a REAL camp where I won’t be the only good player! I can’t cooperate with people who can’t catch the ball!” And her mother said: “I’m not sure it’s a good idea to be encouraging so much aggression and competition. I guess I’m not a sports fan, but I don’t see the fun in defeating a person just for the sake of defeating them. Wouldn’t it be much more fun to all work together to cooperatively build something?”

Patty’s mother was a professional Democrat. She is even now, at the time of this writing, a state assemblywoman, the Honorable Joyce Emerson, known for her advocacy of open space, poor children, and the Arts. Paradise for Joyce is an open space where poor children can go and do Arts at state expense. Joyce was born Joyce Markowitz in Brooklyn in 1934 but apparently disliked being Jewish from the earliest dawn of consciousness. (The autobiographer wonders if one reason why Joyce’s voice always trembles is from struggling so hard all her life to not sound like Brooklyn.) Joyce got a scholarship to study liberal Arts in the woods of Maine where she met Patty’s exceedingly Gentile dad whom she married at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. In the autobiographer’s opinion, Joyce had her first baby before she was emotionally prepared for motherhood, although the autobiographer herself perhaps ought not to cast stones in this regard. When Jack Kennedy got the Democratic nomination, in 1960, it gave Joyce a noble and stirring excuse to get out of a house that she couldn’t seem to help filling up with babies. Then came civil rights, and Vietnam, and Bobby Kennedy-more good reasons to be out of a house that wasn’t nearly big enough for four little kids plus a Barbadian nanny in the basement. Joyce went to her first national convention in 1968 as a delegate committed to dead Bobby. She served as county party treasurer and later chairman and organized for Teddy in 1972 and 1980. Every summer, all day long, herds of volunteers tramped in and out through the house’s open doors carrying boxes of campaign gear. Patty could practice dribbling and layups for six hours straight without anybody noticing or caring.

Patty’s father, Ray Emerson, was a lawyer and amateur humorist whose repertory included fart jokes and mean parodies of his children’s teachers, neighbors, and friends. A torment he particularly enjoyed inflicting on Patty was mimicking the Barbadian, Eulalie, when she was just out of earshot, saying, “Stop de game now, stop de playin,” etc., in a louder and louder voice until Patty ran from the dinner table in mortification and her siblings shrieked with excitement. Endless fun could also be had ridiculing Patty’s coach and mentor Sandy Mosher, whom Ray liked to call Saaaandra. He was constantly asking Patty whether Saaaandra had had any gentlemen callers lately or maybe, tee hee, tee hee, some gentlelady callers? Her siblings chorused: Saaaandra, Saaaandra! Other amusing methods of tormenting Patty were to hide the family dog, Elmo, and pretend that Elmo had been euthanized while Patty was at late basketball practice. Or tease Patty about certain factual errors she’d made many years earlier-ask her how the kangaroos in Austria were doing, and whether she’d seen the latest novel by the famous contemporary writer Louisa May Alcott, and whether she still thought funguses were part of the animal kingdom. “I saw one of Patty’s funguses chasing a truck the other day,” her father would say. “Look, look at me, this is how Patty’s fungus chases a truck.”

Most nights her dad left the house again after dinner to meet with poor people he was defending in court for little or no money. He had an office across the street from the courthouse in White Plains. His free clients included Puerto Ricans, Haitians, Transvestites, and the mentally or physically Disabled. Some of them were in such bad trouble he didn’t even make fun of them behind their backs. As much as possible, though, he found their troubles amusing. In tenth grade, for a school project, Patty sat in on two trials that her dad was part of. One was a case against an unemployed Yonkers man who drank too much on Puerto Rican Day, went looking for his wife’s brother, intending to cut him with a knife, but couldn’t find him and instead cut up a stranger in a bar. Not just her dad but the judge and even the prosecutor seemed amused by the defendant’s haplessness and stupidity. They kept exchanging little not-quite winks. As if misery and disfigurement and jail time were all just a lower-class sideshow designed to perk up their otherwise boring day.

On the train ride home, Patty asked her dad whose side he was on.

“Ha, good question,” he answered. “You have to understand, my client is a liar. The victim is a liar. And the bar owner is a liar. They’re all liars. Of course, my client is entitled to a vigorous defense. But you have to try to serve justice, too. Sometimes the P.A. and the judge and I are working together as much as the P.A. is working with the victim or I’m working with the defendant. You’ve heard of our adversarial system of justice?”


“Well. Sometimes the P.A. and the judge and I all have the same adversary. We try to sort out the facts and avoid a miscarriage. Although don’t, uh. Don’t put that in your paper.”

“I thought sorting out facts was what the grand jury and the jury are for.”

“That’s right. Put that in your paper. Trial by a jury of your peers. That’s important.”

“But most of your clients are innocent, right?”

“Not many of them deserve as bad a punishment as somebody’s trying to give them.”

“But a lot of them are completely innocent, right? Mommy says they have trouble with the language, or the police aren’t careful about who they arrest, and there’s prejudice against them, and lack of opportunity.”

“All of that is entirely true, Pattycakes. Nevertheless, uh. Your mother can be somewhat dewy-eyed.”

Patty minded his ridiculing less when her mother was the butt of it.

“I mean, you saw those people,” he said to her. “Jesus Christ. El ron me puso loco.”

An important fact about Ray’s family was that it had a lot of money. His mom and dad lived on a big ancestral estate out in the hills of northwest New Jersey, in a pretty stone Modernist house that was supposedly designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and was hung with minor works by famous French Impressionists. Every summer, the entire Emerson clan gathered by the lake at the estate for holiday picnics which Patty mostly failed to enjoy. Her granddad, August, liked to grab his oldest granddaughter around the belly and sit her down on his bouncing thigh and get God only knows what kind of little thrill from this; he was certainly not very respectful of Patty’s physical boundaries. Starting in seventh grade, she also had to play doubles with Ray and his junior partner and the partner’s wife, on the grandparental clay tennis court, and be stared at by the junior partner, in her exposing tennis clothes, and feel self-conscious and confused by his ocular pawing.

Like Ray himself, her granddad had bought the right to be privately eccentric by doing good public legal works; he’d made a name for himself defending high-profile conscientious objectors and draft evaders in three wars. In his spare time, which he had much of, he grew grapes on his property and fermented them in one of his outbuildings. His “winery” was called Doe Haunch and was a major family joke. At the holiday picnics, August tottered around in flipflops and saggy swim trunks, clutching one of his crudely labeled bottles, refilling the glasses that his guests had discreetly emptied into grass or bushes. “What do you think?” he asked. “Is it good wine? Do you like it?” He was sort of like an eager boy hobbyist and sort of like a torturer intent on punishing every victim equally. Citing European custom, August believed in giving children wine, and when the young mothers were distracted with corn to shuck or competitive salads to adorn, he watered his Doe Haunch Reserve and pressed it on kids as young as three, gently holding their chins, if necessary, and pouring the mixture into their mouths, making sure it went down. “You know what that is?” he said. “That’s wine.” If a child then began to act strangely, he said: “What you’re feeling is called being drunk. You drank too much. You’re drunk.” This with a disgust no less sincere for being friendly. Patty, always the oldest of the kids, observed these scenes with silent horror, leaving it to a younger sibling or cousin to sound the alarm: “Granddaddy’s getting the little kids drunk!” While the mothers came running to scold August and snatch their kids away, and the fathers tittered dirtily about August’s obsession with female deer hindquarters, Patty slipped into the lake and floated in its warmest shallows, letting the water stop her ears against her family.

Because here was the thing: at every picnic, back up in the kitchen of the stone house, there was always a bottle or two of fabulous old Bordeaux from August’s storied cellar. This wine was put out at Patty’s father’s insistence, at unknown personal cost of wheedling and begging, and it was always Ray who gave the signal, the subtle nod, to his brothers and to any male friend he’d brought along, to slip away from the picnic and follow him. The men returned a few minutes later with big bubble-bowled glasses filled to the brim with an amazing red, Ray also carrying a French bottle with maybe one inch of wine left in it, to be divided among all the wives and other less favored visitors. No amount of pleading could induce August to fetch another bottle from his cellar; he offered, instead, more Doe Haunch Reserve.

And it was the same every year at Christmastime: the grandparents driving over from New Jersey in their late-model Mercedes (August traded in his old one every year or two), arriving at Ray and Joyce’s overcrowded ranch house an hour before the hour that Joyce had implored them not to arrive before, and distributing insulting gifts. Joyce famously, one year, received two much-used dish towels. Ray typically got one of those big art books from the Barnes & Noble bargain table, sometimes with a $3.99 sticker still on it. The kids got little pieces of plastic Asian-made crap: tiny travel alarm clocks that didn’t work, coin purses stamped with the name of a New Jersey insurance agency, frightening crude Chinese finger puppets, assorted swizzle sticks. Meanwhile, at August’s alma mater, a library with his name on it was being built. Because Patty’s siblings were outraged by the grandparental tightfistedness and compensated by making outrageous demands for parental Christmas booty-Joyce was up until 3 a.m. every Christmas Eve, wrapping presents selected from their endless and highly detailed Christmas lists-Patty went the other way and decided not to care about anything but sports.

Her granddad had once been a true athlete, a college track star and football tight end, which was probably where her height and reflexes came from. Ray also had played football but in Maine for a school that could barely field a team. His real game was tennis, which was the one sport Patty hated, although she was good at it. She believed that Björn Borg was secretly weak. With very few exceptions (e.g., Joe Namath) she wasn’t impressed with male athletes in general. Her specialty was crushes on popular boys enough older or better-looking to be totally unrealistic choices. Being a very agreeable person, however, she went on dates with practically anybody who asked. She thought shy or unpopular boys had a hard life, and she took pity on them insofar as humanly possible. For some reason, many were wrestlers. In her experience, wrestlers were brave, taciturn, geeky, beetle-browed, polite, and not afraid of female jocks. One of them confided to her that in middle school she’d been known to him and his friends as the She-Monkey.

As far as actual sex goes, Patty’s first experience of it was being raped at a party when she was seventeen by a boarding-school senior named Ethan Post. Ethan didn’t do any sports except golf, but he had six inches of height and fifty pounds on Patty and provided discouraging perspectives on female muscle strength as compared to men’s. What he did to Patty didn’t strike her as a gray-area sort of rape. When she started fighting, she fought hard, if not too well, and only for so long, because she was drunk for one of the first times ever. She’d been feeling so wonderfully free! Very probably, in the vast swimming pool at Kim McClusky’s, on a beautiful warm May night, Patty had given Ethan Post a mistaken impression. She was far too agreeable even when she wasn’t drunk. In the pool, she must have been giddy with agreeability. Altogether, there was much to blame herself for. Her notions of romance were like Gilligan’s Island: “as primitive as can be.” They fell somewhere between Snow White and Nancy Drew. And Ethan undeniably had the arrogant look that attracted her at that point in time. He resembled the love interest from a girls’ novel with sailboats on the cover. After he raped Patty, he said he was sorry “it” had been rougher than he’d meant “it” to be, he was sorry about that.

It was only after the piña coladas wore off, early the next morning, in the bedroom which, being such an agreeable person, Patty shared with her littler sister so that their middle sister could have her own room to be Creative and messy in: only then did she get indignant. The indignity was that Ethan had considered her such a nothing that he could just rape her and then take her home. And she was not such a nothing. She was, among other things, already, as a junior, the all-time single-season record holder for assists at Horace Greeley High School. A record she would again demolish the following year! She was also first-team All State in a state that included Brooklyn and the Bronx. And yet a golfing boy she hardly even knew had thought it was OK to rape her.

To avoid waking her little sister, she went and cried in the shower. This was, without exaggeration, the most wretched hour of her life. Even today, when she thinks of people who are oppressed around the world and victims of injustice, and how they must feel, her mind goes back to that hour. Things that had never occurred to her before, such as the injustice of an oldest daughter having to share a room and not being given Eulalie’s old room in the basement because it was now filled floor to ceiling with outdated campaign paraphernalia, also the injustice of her mother being so enthralled about the middle daughter’s thespian performances but never going to any of Patty’s games, occurred to her now. She was so indignant she almost felt like talking to somebody. But she was afraid to let her coach or teammates know she’d been drinking.

How the story came out, in spite of her best efforts to keep it buried, was that Coach Nagel got suspicious and spied on her in the locker room after the next day’s game. Sat Patty down in her office and confronted her regarding her bruises and unhappy demeanor. Patty humiliated herself by immediately and sobbingly confessing to all. To her total shock, Coach then proposed taking her to the hospital and notifying the police. Patty had just gone three-for-four with two runs scored and several outstanding defensive plays. She obviously wasn’t greatly harmed. Also, her parents were political friends of Ethan’s parents, so that was a nonstarter. She dared to hope that an abject apology for breaking training, combined with Coach’s pity and leniency, would put the matter to rest. But oh how wrong she was.

Coach called Patty’s house and got Patty’s mother, who, as always, was breathless and running out to a meeting and had neither time to talk nor yet the moral wherewithal to admit that she didn’t have time to talk, and Coach spoke these indelible words into the P.E. Dept.’s beige telephone: “Your daughter just told me that she was raped last night by a boy named Ethan Post.” Coach then listened to the phone for a minute before saying, “No, she just now told me… That’s right… Just last night… Yes, she is.” And handed Patty the telephone.

“Patty?” her mother said. “Are you-all right?”

“I’m fine.”

“Mrs. Nagel says there was an incident last night?”

“The incident was I was raped.”

“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Last night?”


“I was home this morning. Why didn’t you say something?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why, why, why? Why didn’t you say something to me?”

“Maybe it just didn’t seem like such a big deal right then.”

“So but then you did tell Mrs. Nagel.”

“No,” Patty said. “She’s just more observant than you are.”

“I hardly saw you this morning.”

“I’m not blaming you. I’m just saying.”

“And you think you might have been… It might have been…”


“I can’t believe this,” her mother said. “I’m going to come and get you.”

“Coach Nagel wants me to go to the hospital.”

“Are you not all right?”

“I already said. I’m fine.”

“Then just stay put, and don’t either of you do anything until I get there.”

Patty hung up the phone and told Coach that her mother was coming.

“We’re going to put that boy in jail for a long, long time,” Coach said.

“Oh no no no no no,” Patty said. “No, we’re not.”


“It’s just not going to happen.”

“It will if you want it to.”

“No, actually, it won’t. My parents and the Posts are political friends.”

“Listen to me,” Coach said. “That has nothing to do with anything. Do you understand?”

Patty was quite certain that Coach was wrong about this. Dr. Post was a cardiologist and his wife was from big money. They had one of the houses that people such as Teddy Kennedy and Ed Muskie and Walter Mondale made visits to when they were short of funds. Over the years, Patty had heard much tell of the Posts’ “back yard” from her parents. This “back yard” was apparently about the size of Central Park but nicer. Conceivably one of Patty’s straight-A, grade-skipping, Arts-doing sisters could have brought trouble down on the Posts, but it was absurd to imagine the hulking B-student family jock making a dent in the Posts’ armor.

“I’m just never going to drink again,” she said, “and that will solve the problem.”

“Maybe for you,” Coach said, “but not for somebody else. Look at your arms. Look what he did. He’ll do that to somebody else if you don’t stop him.”

“It’s just bruises and scratches.”

Coach here made a motivational speech about standing up for your teammates, which in this case meant all the young women Ethan might ever meet. The upshot was that Patty was supposed to take a hard foul for the team and press charges and let Coach inform the New Hampshire prep school where Ethan was a student, so he could be expelled and denied a diploma, and that if Patty didn’t do this she would be letting down her team.

Patty began to cry again, because she would almost rather have died than let a team down. Earlier in the winter, with the flu, she’d played most of a half of basketball before fainting on the sideline and getting fluids intravenously. The problem now was that she hadn’t been with her own team the night before. She’d gone to the party with her field-hockey friend Amanda, whose soul was apparently never going to be at rest until she’d induced Patty to sample piña coladas, vast buckets of which had been promised at the McCluskys’. El ron me puso loca. None of the other girls at the McCluskys’ swimming pool were jocks. Almost just by showing up there, Patty had betrayed her real true team. And now she’d been punished for it. Ethan hadn’t raped one of the fast girls, he’d raped Patty, because she didn’t belong there, she didn’t even know how to drink.

She promised Coach to give the matter some thought.

It was shocking to see her mother in the gym and obviously shocking to her mother to find herself there. She was wearing her everyday pumps and resembled Goldilocks in daunting woods as she peered around uncertainly at the naked metal equipment and the fungal floors and the clustered balls in mesh bags. Patty went to her and submitted to embrace. Her mother being much smaller of frame, Patty felt somewhat like a grandfather clock that Joyce was endeavoring to lift and move. She broke away and led Joyce into Coach’s little glass-walled office so that the necessary conference could be had.

“Hi, I’m Jane Nagel,” Coach said.

“Yes, we’ve-met,” Joyce said.

“Oh, you’re right, we did meet once,” Coach said.

In addition to her strenuous elocution, Joyce had strenuously proper posture and a masklike Pleasant Smile suitable for nearly all occasions public and private. Because she never raised her voice, not even in anger (her voice just got shakier and more strained when she was mad), her Pleasant Smile could be worn even at moments of excruciating conflict.

“No, it was more than once,” she said now. “It was several times.”


“I’m quite sure of it.”

“That doesn’t sound right to me,” Coach said.

“I’ll be outside,” Patty said, closing the door behind her.

The parent-coach conference didn’t last long. Joyce soon came out on clicking heels and said, “Let’s go.”

Coach, standing in the doorway behind Joyce, gave Patty a significant look. The look meant Don’t forget what I said about teamwork.

Joyce’s car was the last one left in its quadrant of the visitor lot. She put the key in the ignition but didn’t turn it. Patty asked what was going to happen now.

“Your father’s at his office,” Joyce said. “We’ll go straight there.”

But she didn’t turn the key.

“I’m sorry about this,” Patty said.

“What I don’t understand,” her mother burst out, “is how such an outstanding athlete as you are-I mean, how could Ethan, or whoever it was-”

“Ethan. It was Ethan.”

“How could anybody-or Ethan,” she said. “You say it’s pretty definitely Ethan. How could-if it’s Ethan-how could he have…?” Her mother hid her mouth with her fingers. “Oh, I wish it had been almost anybody else. Dr. and Mrs. Post are such good friends of-good friends of so many good things. And I don’t know Ethan well, but-”

“I hardly know him at all!”

“Well then how could this happen!”

“Let’s just go home.”

“No. You have to tell me. I’m your mother.”

Hearing herself say this, Joyce looked embarrassed. She seemed to realize how peculiar it was to have to remind Patty who her mother was. And Patty, for one, was glad to finally have this doubt out in the open. If Joyce was her mother, then how had it happened that she hadn’t come to the first round of the state tournament when Patty had broken the all-time Horace Greeley girls’ tournament scoring record with 32 points? Somehow everybody else’s mother had found time to come to that game.

She showed Joyce her wrists.

“This is what happened,” she said. “I mean, part of what happened.”

Joyce looked once at her bruises, shuddered, and then turned away as if respecting Patty’s privacy. “This is terrible,” she said. “You’re right. This is terrible.”

“Coach Nagel says I should go to the emergency room and tell the police and tell Ethan’s headmaster.”

“Yes, I know what your coach wants. She seems to feel that castration might be an appropriate punishment. What I want to know is what you think.”

“I don’t know what I think.”

“If you want to go to the police now,” Joyce said, “we’ll go to the police. Just tell me if that’s what you want.”

“I guess we should tell Dad first.”

So down the Saw Mill Parkway they went. Joyce was always driving Patty’s siblings to Painting, Guitar, Ballet, Japanese, Debate, Drama, Piano, Fencing, and Mock Court, but Patty herself seldom rode with Joyce anymore. Most weekdays, she came home very late on the jock bus. If she had a game, somebody else’s mom or dad dropped her off. If she and her friends were ever stranded, she knew not to bother calling her parents but to go ahead and use the Westchester Cab dispatcher’s number and one of the twenty-dollar bills that her mother made her always carry. It never occurred to her to use the twenties for anything but cabs, or to go anywhere after a game except straight home, where she peeled aluminum foil off her dinner at ten or eleven o’clock and went down to the basement to wash her uniform while she ate and watched reruns. She often fell asleep down there.

“Here’s a hypothetical question,” Joyce said, driving. “Do you think it might be enough if Ethan formally apologized to you?”

“He already apologized.”


“For being rough.”

“And what did you say?”

“I didn’t say anything. I said I wanted to go home.”

“But he did apologize for being rough.”

“It wasn’t a real apology.”

“All right. I’ll take your word for it.”

“I just want him to know I exist.”

“Whatever you want-sweetie.”

Joyce pronounced this “sweetie” like the first word of a foreign language she was learning.

As a test or a punishment, Patty said: “Maybe, I guess, if he apologized in a really sincere way, that might be enough.” And she looked carefully at her mother, who was struggling (it seemed to Patty) to contain her excitement.

“That sounds to me like a nearly ideal solution,” Joyce said. “But only if you really think it would be enough for you.”

“It wouldn’t,” Patty said.

“I’m sorry?”

“I said it wouldn’t be enough.”

“I thought you just said it would be.”

Patty began to cry again very desolately.

“I’m sorry,” Joyce said. “Did I misunderstand?”


“You don’t know that, Patty.”

“I want to go to the hospital.”

“Look, here, we’re almost at Daddy’s office. Unless you’re actually hurt, we might as well-”

“But I already know what he’ll say. I know what he’ll want me to do.”

“He’ll want to do whatever’s best for you. Sometimes it’s hard for him to express it, but he loves you more than anything.”

Joyce could hardly have made a statement Patty more fervently longed to believe was true. Wished, with her whole being, was true. Didn’t her dad tease her and ridicule her in ways that would have been simply cruel if he didn’t secretly love her more than anything? But she was seventeen now and not actually dumb. She knew that you could love somebody more than anything and still not love the person all that much, if you were busy with other things.

There was a smell of mothballs in her father’s inner sanctum, which he’d taken over from his now-deceased senior partner without redoing the carpeting and curtains. Where exactly the mothball smell came from was one of those mysteries.

“What a rotten little shit!” was Ray’s response to the tidings his daughter and wife brought of Ethan Post’s crime.

“Not so little, unfortunately,” Joyce said with a dry laugh.

“He’s a rotten little shit punk,” Ray said. “He’s a bad seed!”

“So do we go to the hospital now?” Patty said. “Or to the police?”

Her father told her mother to call Dr. Sipperstein, the old pediatrician, who’d been involved in Democratic politics since Roosevelt, and see if he was available for an emergency. While Joyce made this call, Ray asked Patty if she knew what rape was.

She stared at him.

“Just checking,” he said. “You do know the actual legal definition.”

“He had sex with me against my will.”

“Did you actually say no?”

“ ‘No,’ ‘don’t,’ ‘stop.’ Anyway, it was obvious. I was trying to scratch him and push him off me.”

“Then he is a despicable piece of shit.”

She’d never heard her father talk this way, and she appreciated it, but only abstractly, because it didn’t sound like him.

“Dave Sipperstein says he can meet us at five at his office,” Joyce reported. “He’s so fond of Patty, I think he would have canceled his dinner plans if he’d had to.”

“Right,” Patty said, “I’m sure I’m number one among his twelve thousand patients.” She then told her dad her story, and her dad explained to her why Coach Nagel was wrong and she couldn’t go to the police.

“Chester Post is not an easy person,” Ray said, “but he does a lot of good in the county. Given his, uh, given his position, an accusation like this is going to generate extraordinary publicity. Everyone will know who the accuser is. Everyone. Now, what’s bad for the Posts is not your concern. But it’s virtually certain you’ll end up feeling more violated by the pretrial and the trial and the publicity than you do right now. Even if it’s pleaded out. Even with a suspended sentence, even with a gag order. There’s still a court record.”

Joyce said, “But this is all for her to decide, not-”

“Joyce.” Ray stilled her with a raised hand. “The Posts can afford any lawyer in the country. And as soon as the accusation is made public, the worst of the damage to the defendant is over. He has no incentive to speed things along. In fact, it’s to his advantage to see that your reputation suffers as much as possible before a plea or a trial.”

Patty bowed her head and asked what her father thought she should do.

“I’m going to call Chester now,” he said. “You go see Dr. Sipperstein and make sure you’re OK.”

“And get him as a witness,” Patty said.

“Yes, and he could testify if need be. But there isn’t going to be a trial, Patty.”

“So he just gets away with it? And does it to somebody else next weekend?”

Ray raised both hands. “Let me, ah. Let me talk to Mr. Post. He might be amenable to a deferred prosecution. Kind of a quiet probation. Sword over Ethan’s head.”

“But that’s nothing.”

“Actually, Pattycakes, it’s quite a lot. It’d be your guarantee that he won’t do this to someone else. Requires an admission of guilt, too.”

It did seem absurd to imagine Ethan wearing an orange jumpsuit and sitting in a jail cell for inflicting a harm that was mostly in her head anyway. She’d done wind sprints that hurt as bad as being raped. She felt more beaten up after a tough basketball game than she did now. Plus, as a jock, you got used to having other people’s hands on you-kneading a cramped muscle, playing tight defense, scrambling for a loose ball, taping an ankle, correcting a stance, stretching a hamstring.

And yet: the feeling of injustice itself turned out to be strangely physical. Even realer, in a way, than her hurting, smelling, sweating body. Injustice had a shape, and a weight, and a temperature, and a texture, and a very bad taste.

In Dr. Sipperstein’s office she submitted to examination like a good jock. After she’d put her clothes back on, he asked if she’d ever had intercourse before.


“I didn’t think so. What about contraception? Did the other person use it?”

She nodded. “That’s when I tried to get away. When I saw what he had.”

“A condom.”


All this and more Dr. Sipperstein jotted down on her chart. Then he took off his glasses and said, “You’re going to have a good life, Patty. Sex is a great thing, and you’ll enjoy it all your life. But this was not a good day, was it?”

At home, one of her siblings was in the back yard doing something like juggling with screwdrivers of different sizes. Another was reading Gibbon unabridged. The one who’d been subsisting on Yoplait and radishes was in the bathroom, changing her hair color again. Patty’s true home amid all this brilliant eccentricity was a foam-cushioned, mildewed, built-in bench in the TV corner of the basement. The fragrance of Eulalie’s hair oil still lingered on the bench years after Eulalie had been let go. Patty took a carton of butter-pecan ice cream down to the bench and answered no when her mother called down to ask if she was coming up for dinner.

Mary Tyler Moore was just starting when her father came down after his martini and his own dinner and suggested that he and Patty go for a drive. At that point in time, Mary Tyler Moore comprised the entirety of Patty’s knowledge of Minnesota.

“Can I watch this show first?” she said.


Feeling cruelly deprived, she turned off the television. Her dad drove them over to the high school and stopped under a bright light in the parking lot. They unrolled their windows, letting in the smell of spring lawns like the one she’d been raped on not many hours earlier.

“So,” she said.

“So Ethan denies it,” her dad said. “He says it was just roughhousing and consensual.”

The autobiographer would describe the girl’s tears in the car as coming on like a rain that starts unnoticeably but surprisingly soon soaks everything. She asked if her dad had spoken to Ethan directly.

“No, just his father, twice,” he said. “I’d be lying if I said the conversation went well.”

“So obviously Mr. Post doesn’t believe me.”

“Well, Patty, Ethan’s his son. He doesn’t know you as well as we do.”

“Do you believe me?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Does Mommy?”

“Of course she does.”

“Then what do I do?”

Her dad turned to her like an attorney. Like an adult addressing another adult. “You drop it,” he said. “Forget about it. Move on.”


“You shake it off. Move on. Learn to be more careful.”

“Like it never even happened?”

“Patty, the people at the party were all friends of his. They’re going to say they saw you get drunk and be aggressive with him. They’ll say you were behind a shed that wasn’t more than thirty feet from the pool, and they didn’t hear anything untoward.”

“It was really noisy. There was music and shouting.”

“They’ll also say they saw the two of you leaving later in the evening and getting into his car. And the world will see an Exeter boy who’s going to Princeton and was responsible enough to use contraceptives, and gentleman enough to leave the party and drive you home.”

The deceptive little rain was wetting the collar of Patty’s T-shirt.

“You’re not really on my side, are you,” she said.

“Of course I am.”

“You keep saying ‘Of course,’ ‘Of course.’ ”

“Listen to me. The P.A. is going to want to know why you didn’t scream.”

“I was embarrassed! Those weren’t my friends!”

“But do you see that this is going to be hard for a judge or a jury to understand? All you would have had to do was scream, and you would have been safe.”

Patty couldn’t remember why she hadn’t screamed. She had to admit that, in hindsight, it seemed bizarrely agreeable of her.

“I fought, though.”

“Yes, but you’re a top-tier student athlete. Shortstops get scratched and bruised all the time, don’t they? On the arms? On the thighs?”

“Did you tell Mr. Post I’m a virgin? I mean, was?”

“I didn’t consider that any of his business.”

“Maybe you should call him back and tell him that.”

“Look,” her dad said. “Honey. I know it’s horrendously unfair. I feel terrible for you. But sometimes the best thing is just to learn your lesson and make sure you never get in the same position again. To say to yourself, ‘I made a mistake, and I had some bad luck,’ and then let it. Let it, ah. Let it drop.”

He turned the ignition halfway, so that the panel lights came on. He kept his hand on the key.

“But he committed a crime,” Patty said.

“Yes, but better to, uh. Life’s not always fair, Pattycakes. Mr. Post said he thought Ethan might be willing to apologize for not being more gentlemanly, but. Well. Would you like that?”


“I didn’t think so.”

“Coach Nagel says I should go to the police.”

“Coach Nagel should stick to her dribbling,” her dad said.

“Softball,” Patty said. “It’s softball season now.”

“Unless you want to spend your entire senior year being publicly humiliated.”

“Basketball is in the winter. Softball is in the spring, when the weather’s warmer?”

“I’m asking you: is that really how you want to spend your senior year?”

“Coach Carver is basketball,” Patty said. “Coach Nagel is softball. Are you getting this?”

Her dad started the engine.

As a senior, instead of being publicly humiliated, Patty became a real player, not just a talent. She all but resided in the field house. She got a three-game basketball suspension for putting a shoulder in the back of a New Rochelle forward who’d elbowed Patty’s teammate Stephanie, and she still broke every school record she’d set the previous year, plus nearly broke the scoring record. Augmenting her reliable perimeter shooting was a growing taste for driving to the basket. She was no longer on speaking terms with physical pain.

In the spring, when the local state assemblyman stepped down after long service and the party leadership chose Patty’s mother to run as his replacement, the Posts offered to co-host a fund-raiser in the green luxury of their back yard. Joyce sought Patty’s permission before she accepted the offer, saying she wouldn’t do anything that Patty wasn’t comfortable with, but Patty was beyond caring what Joyce did, and told her so. When the candidate’s family stood for the obligatory family photo, no grief was given to Patty for absenting herself. Her look of bitterness would not have helped Joyce’s cause.

Chapter 2: Best Friends

Based on her inability to recall her state of consciousness in her first three years at college, the autobiographer suspects she simply didn’t have a state of consciousness. She had the sensation of being awake but in fact she must have been sleepwalking. Otherwise it’s hard to understand how, to take one example, she became intense best friends with a disturbed girl who was basically her stalker.

Some of the fault-although the autobiographer hates to say it-may lie with Big Ten athletics and the artificial world it created for participating students, for boys especially, but also, even in the late 1970s, for girls. Patty went out to Minnesota in July for special jock summer camp followed by special, early, jocks-only freshman orientation, and then she lived in a jock dorm, made exclusively jock friends, ate exclusively at jock tables, cluster-danced at parties with her jock teammates, and was careful never to sign up for a class without plenty of other jocks to sit with and (time permitting) study with. Jocks didn’t absolutely have to live this way, but the majority at Minnesota did, and Patty went even more overboard with Total Jockworld than most, because she could! Because she’d finally escaped from Westchester! “You should go wherever you want,” Joyce had said to Patty, by which she’d meant: it is grotesque and repulsive to attend a mediocre state school like Minnesota when you have great offers from Vanderbilt and Northwestern (which are also more flattering to me). “This is entirely your personal decision, and we will support you in whatever you decide,” Joyce had said, by which she’d meant: don’t blame me and Daddy when you ruin your life with stupid decisions. Joyce’s transparent aversion to Minnesota, along with Minnesota’s distance from New York, was a key factor in Patty’s deciding to go there. Looking back now, the autobiographer sees her younger self as one of those miserable adolescents so angry at her parents that she needed to join a cult where she could be nicer and friendlier and more generous and subservient than she could bring herself to be at home anymore. Her cult just happened to be basketball.

The first of the nonjocks to lure her out of this cult and become important to her was the disturbed girl Eliza, who Patty, of course, initially had no idea was disturbed. Eliza was exactly half pretty. Her head started out gorgeous on top and got steadily worse-looking the lower down you looked. She had wonderfully thick and curly brown hair and amazing huge eyes, and then a cute enough little button nose, but then around her mouth her face got smooshed up and miniature in a disturbing sort of preemie way, and she had very little chin. She was always wearing baggy corduroys that slid down on her hips, and tight short-sleeved shirts that she bought in Boys departments at thrift stores and buttoned only the middle buttons of, and red Keds, and a big avocado-green shearling coat. She smelled like an ashtray but tried not to smoke around Patty unless they were outside. In an irony then invisible to Patty but now plenty visible to the autobiographer, Eliza had a lot in common with Patty’s arty little sisters. She owned a black electric guitar and a dear small amp, but the few times Patty convinced her to play it in her presence Eliza became furious with her, which almost never happened otherwise (at least not at first). She said Patty was making her feel pressured and self-conscious and this was why she kept fucking up after only a few bars of her song. She ordered Patty to not be so obviously listening, but even when Patty turned away and pretended to read a magazine it wasn’t good enough. Eliza swore that the minute Patty was out of the room again she’d be able to play her song perfectly. “But now? Forget it.”

“I’m sorry,” Patty said. “I’m sorry I do that to you.”

“I can play this song amazingly when you’re not listening.”

“I know, I know. I’m sure you can.”

“It’s just a fact. It doesn’t matter if you believe me.”

“But I do believe you!”

“I’m saying,” Eliza said, “it doesn’t matter if you believe me, because my ability to play this song amazingly when you’re not listening is simply an objective fact.”

“Maybe try a different song,” Patty pleaded.

But Eliza was already yanking the plugs out. “Stop. OK? I don’t want your reassurance.”

“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” Patty said.

She’d first seen Eliza in the only class where a jock and a poet were likely to meet, Introductory Earth Science. Patty came and went to this particular huge class with ten other freshwomen jocks, a herd of girls mostly even taller than herself, all wearing maroon Golden Gopher tracksuits or plain gray sweats, everybody’s hair at various stages of damp. There were some smart girls in the herd, including the autobiographer’s lifelong friend Cathy Schmidt who later became a public defender and was once nationally televised on Jeopardy! for two nights, but the overheated lecture hall and those tracksuits and the damp hair and the nearness of other tired jock bodies never failed to give Patty a contact dullness. A contact low.

Eliza liked to sit in the row behind the jocks, directly behind Patty but slouched down so deep in her seat that only her voluminous dark curls were visible. Her first words to Patty were spoken into her ear from behind, at the start of a class. She said, “You’re the best.”

Patty turned to see who was speaking and saw lots of hair. “I’m sorry?”

“I saw you play last night,” the hair said. “You’re brilliant and beautiful.”

“Wow, thank you so much.”

“They need to start giving you more minutes.”

“Funnily enough, ha ha, I have the exact same opinion.”

“You need to demand that they give you more minutes. OK?”

“Right, we’ve got so many great players on the team, though. It’s not my decision.”

“Yeah, but you’re the best,” the hair said.

“Wow, thank you so much for the compliment!” Patty answered brightly, to end things. At the time, she believed that it was because she was selflessly team-spirited that direct personal compliments made her so uncomfortable. The autobiographer now thinks that compliments were like a beverage she was unconsciously smart enough to deny herself even one drop of, because her thirst for them was infinite.

After the lecture ended, she enveloped herself in her fellow jocks and took care not to look back at the person with the hair. She assumed it was just a strange coincidence that an actual fan of hers had sat down right behind her in Earth Science. There were fifty thousand students at the U., but probably less than five hundred of them (not counting former players and friends or family of current players) considered women’s athletic events a viable entertainment option. If you were Eliza and you wanted to sit directly behind the Gophers’ bench (so that Patty, as she came off the court, couldn’t help seeing you and your hair as you bent over a notebook), all you had to do was show up fifteen minutes before game time. And then, after the final buzzer and the ritual low-fiving line, it was the easiest thing in the world to intercept Patty near the locker-room door and hand her a piece of notebook paper and say to her: “Did you ask for more minutes, like I told you to?”

Patty still didn’t know this person’s name, but the person obviously knew hers, because the word PATTY was written on the notebook paper about a hundred times, in crackling cartoon letters with concentric pencil outlines to make them look like shouts echoing in the gym, as if a whole wild crowd were chanting her name, which could not have been further from reality, given that the gym was usually ninety percent empty and Patty was first-year and averaging less than ten minutes a game, i.e., was not exactly a household word. The crackling penciled shouts filled up the entire sheet of paper except for a small sketch of a player dribbling. Patty could tell the player was supposed to be her, because it was wearing her number and because who else would be drawn on a page covered with the word PATTY? Like everything Eliza did (as Patty learned soon enough), the drawing was half super-skilled and half clumsy and bad. The way the player’s body was low to the ground and violently slanting as she made a sharp turn was excellent, but the face and head were like some generic female in a first-aid booklet.

Looking at the piece of paper, Patty had a preview of the falling sensation she would have a few months later after eating hash brownies with Eliza. Something very wrong and creepy but hard to defend herself against.

“Thank you for this drawing,” she said.

“Why aren’t they playing you more?” Eliza said. “You were on the bench practically the whole second half.”

“Once we got the big lead-”

“You’re brilliant and they bench you? I don’t understand that.” Eliza’s curls were thrashing like a willow tree in heavy winds; she was quite exercised.

“Dawn and Cathy and Shawna got some good minutes,” Patty said. “They did great holding the lead.”

“But you’re so much better than them!”

“I should go shower now. Thanks again for the drawing.”

“Maybe not this year, but next year, at the latest, everybody’s going to want a piece of you,” Eliza said. “You’re going to attract attention. You need to start learning how to protect yourself.”

This was so ridiculous that Patty had to stop and set her straight. “Too much attention is not a problem people have in women’s basketball.”

“What about men? Do you know how to protect yourself from men?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, do you have good judgment when it comes to men?”

“Right now I don’t have much time for anything except sports.”

“You don’t seem to understand how amazing you are. And how dangerous that is.”

“I understand I’m good at sports.”

“It’s sort of a miracle you’re not already getting taken advantage of.”

“Well, I don’t drink, which helps a lot.”

“Why don’t you drink?” Eliza pursued immediately.

“Because I can’t when I’m in training. Not even one sip.”

“You’re in training every day of the year?”

“Well, and I had a bad drinking experience in high school, so.”

“What happened-somebody rape you?”

Patty’s face burned and assumed five different expressions all at once. “Wow,” she said.

“Yes? Is that what happened?”

“I’m going to go shower.”

“You see, this is exactly what I’m talking about!” Eliza cried with great excitement. “You don’t know me at all, we’ve been talking for all of two minutes, and you basically just told me you’re a rape survivor. You’re completely unprotected!”

Patty was too alarmed and ashamed, at that moment, to spot the flaws in this logic.

“I can protect myself,” she said. “I’m doing just fine.”

“Sure. OK.” Eliza shrugged. “It’s your safety, not mine.”

The gym echoed with the thunk of heavy switches as banks of lights went out.

“Do you play sports?” Patty asked, to make up for not having been more agreeable.

Eliza looked down at herself. She was wide and blady in the pelvis and somewhat pigeon-toed, with tiny Kedded feet. “Do I look like it?”

“I don’t know. Badminton?”

“I hate gym,” Eliza said, laughing. “I hate all sports.”

Patty laughed, too, in her relief at having got the subject changed, although she was now quite confused.

“I didn’t even ‘throw like a girl’ or ‘run like a girl,’ ” Eliza said. “I refused to run or throw, period. If a ball landed in my hands, I just waited until somebody came and took it away. When I was supposed to run, like, to first base, I would stand there for a second and then maybe walk.”

“God,” Patty said.

“Yeah, I almost didn’t get my diploma because of it,” Eliza said. “The only reason I graduated was that my parents knew the school psychologist. I ended up getting credit for riding a bike every day.”

Patty nodded uncertainly. “You love basketball, though, right?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Eliza said. “Basketball is pretty fascinating.”

“Well, so, you definitely don’t hate sports. It sounds like what you really hate is gym.”

“You’re right. That’s right.”

“Well, so anyway.”

“Yeah, so anyway, are we going to be friends?”

Patty laughed. “If I say yes, I’m just proving your point about how I’m not careful enough with people I barely know.”

“That sounds like a no, then.”

“How about we just wait and see?”

“Good. That’s very careful of you-I like that.”

“You see? You see?” Patty was laughing again already. “I’m more careful than you thought!”

The autobiographer has no doubt that if Patty had been more conscious of herself and paying any halfway decent kind of attention to the world around her, she wouldn’t have been nearly as good at college basketball. Success at sports is the province of the almost empty head. Reaching a vantage point from which she could have seen Eliza for what she was (i.e., disturbed) would have messed with her game. You don’t get to be an 88-percent free-throw shooter by giving deep thought to every little thing.

Eliza turned out not to like any of Patty’s other friends and didn’t even try to hang out with them. She referred to them collectively as “your lesbians” or “the lesbians” although half of them were straight. Patty very quickly came to feel that she lived in two mutually exclusive worlds. There was Total Jockworld, where she spent the vast majority of her time and where she would rather flunk a psychology midterm than skip going to the store and assembling a care package and taking it to a teammate who’d sprained an ankle or was laid up with the flu, and then there was dark little Elizaworld, where she didn’t have to bother trying to be so good. The only point of contact between the worlds was Williams Arena, where Patty, when she sliced through a transitional defense for an easy layup or a no-look pass, experienced an extra little rush of pride and pleasure if Eliza was there watching. Even this point of contact was short-lived, because the more time Eliza spent with Patty the less she seemed to remember how interested in basketball she was.

Patty had always had friends plural, never anything intense. Her heart gladdened when she saw Eliza waiting outside the gym after practice, she knew it was going to be an instructive evening. Eliza took her to movies with subtitles and made her listen very carefully to Patti Smith recordings (“I love that you have the same name as my favorite artist,” she said, disregarding the different spelling and the fact that Patty’s actual legal name was Patrizia, which Joyce had given her to be different and Patty was embarrassed to say aloud) and loaned her books of poetry by Denise Levertov and Frank O’Hara. After the basketball team finished with a record of 8 wins and 11 losses and a first-round tournament elimination (despite Patty’s 14 points and numerous assists), Eliza also taught her to really, really like Paul Masson Chablis.

What Eliza did with the rest of her free time was somewhat hazy. There seemed to be several “men” (i.e., boys) in her life, and she sometimes referred to concerts she’d gone to, but when Patty expressed curiosity about these concerts Eliza said first Patty had to listen to all the mix tapes Eliza made her; and Patty was having some difficulty with these mix tapes. She did like Patti Smith, who seemed to understand how she’d felt in the bathroom on the morning after she was raped, but the Velvet Underground, for example, made her lonely. She once admitted to Eliza that her favorite band was the Eagles, and Eliza said, “There’s nothing wrong with that, the Eagles are great,” but you sure didn’t see any Eagles records in Eliza’s dorm room.

Eliza’s parents were big-deal Twin Cities psychotherapists and lived out in Wayzata, where everybody was rich, and she had an older brother, a junior at Bard College, whom she described as peculiar. When Patty asked, “Peculiar in what way?” Eliza answered, “In every way.” Eliza herself had patched together a high-school education at three different local academies and was enrolled at the U. because her parents refused to subsidize her if she wasn’t in school. She was a B student in a different way than Patty was a B student, which was to get the same B in everything. Eliza got A-pluses in English and Ds in everything else. Her only known interests besides basketball were poetry and pleasure.

Eliza was determined to get Patty to try pot, but Patty was extremely protective of her lungs, and this was how the brownie thing came about. They’d driven out in Eliza’s Volkswagen Bug to the Wayzata house, which was full of African sculpture and empty of the parents, who were at a weekend conference. The idea had been to make a fancy Julia Child dinner, but they drank too much wine to succeed at this and ended up eating crackers and cheese and making the brownies and ingesting what must have been massive amounts of drug. Part of Patty was thinking, for the entire sixteen hours she was messed up, “I am never going to do this again.” She felt like she’d broken training so badly that she would never be able to make it whole again, a very desolate feeling indeed. She was also fearful about Eliza-she suddenly realized that she had some kind of weird crush on Eliza and that it was therefore of paramount importance to sit motionless and contain herself and not discover that she was bisexual. Eliza kept asking her how she was, and she kept answering, “I am just fine, thank you,” which struck them as hilarious every time. Listening to the Velvet Underground, Patty understood the group much better, they were a very dirty musical group, and their dirtiness was comfortingly similar to how she was feeling out there in Wayzata, surrounded by African masks. It was a relief to realize, as she became less stoned, that even while very stoned she’d managed to contain herself and Eliza hadn’t touched her: that nothing lesbian was ever going to happen.

Patty was curious about Eliza’s parents and wanted to stick around the house and meet them, but Eliza was adamant about this being a very bad idea. “They’re the love of each other’s lives,” she said. “They do everything together. They have matching offices in the same suite, and they coauthor all their papers and books, and they do joint presentations at conferences, and they can never ever talk about their work at home, because of patient confidentiality. They even have a tandem bicycle.”


“So they’re strange and you’re not going to like them, and then you’re not going to like me.”

“My parents aren’t so great, either,” Patty said.

“Trust me, this is different. I know what I’m talking about.”

Driving back into the city in the Bug, with the warmthless Minnesota spring sun behind them, they had their first sort-of fight.

“You have to stay here this summer,” Eliza said. “You can’t go away.”

“That’s not very realistic,” Patty said. “I’m supposed to work in my dad’s office and be in Gettysburg in July.”

“Why can’t you stay here and go to your camp from here? We can get jobs and you can go to the gym every day.”

“I have to go home.”

“But why? You hate it there.”

“If I stay here I’ll drink wine every night.”

“No, you won’t. We’ll have strict rules. We’ll have whatever rules you like.”

“I’ll be back in the fall.”

“Can we live together then?”

“No, I already promised Cathy I’d be in her quad.”

“You can tell her your plans changed.”

“I can’t do that.”

“This is crazy! I hardly ever see you!”

“I see you more than practically anybody. I love seeing you.”

“Then why won’t you stay here this summer? Don’t you trust me?”

“Why wouldn’t I trust you?”

“I don’t know. I just can’t figure out why you’d rather work for your dad. He did not take care of you, he did not protect you, and I will. He doesn’t have your best interests at heart, and I do.”

It was true that Patty’s spirits sagged at the thought of going home, but it seemed necessary to punish herself for eating hash brownies. Her dad had also been making an effort with her, sending her actual handwritten letters (“We miss you on the tennis court”) and offering her the use of her grandmother’s old car, which he didn’t think her grandmother ought to be driving anymore. After a year away, she was feeling remorseful about having been so cold to him. Maybe she’d made a mistake? And so she went home for the summer and found that nothing had changed and she had not made a mistake. She watched TV till midnight, got up at seven every morning and ran five miles, and spent her days highlighting names in legal documents and looking forward to the day’s mail, which more often than not contained a long typewritten letter from Eliza, saying how much she missed her, and telling stories about her “lecherous” boss at the revival-house movie theater where she was working in the ticket booth, and exhorting her to write back immediately, which Patty did her best to do, using old letterhead stationery and the Selectric in her dad’s mothball-smelling office.

In one letter Eliza wrote, I think we need to make rules for each other for protection and self-improvement. Patty was skeptical about this but wrote back with three rules for her friend. No smoking before dinnertime. Get exercise every day and develop athletic ability. And Attend all lectures and do all homework for ALL classes (not just English). No doubt she should have been disturbed by how different Eliza’s rules for her turned out to be-Drink only on Saturday night and only in Eliza’s presence; No going to mixed parties except accompanied by Eliza; and Tell Eliza EVERYTHING-but something was wrong with her judgment and she instead felt excited to have such an intense best friend. Among other things, having this friend gave Patty armor and ammunition against her middle sister.

“So, how’s life in Minn-e-soooo-tah?” a typical encounter with the sister began. “Have you been eating lots of corn? Have you seen Babe the Blue Ox!? Have you been to Brainerd?”

You might think that Patty, being a trained competitor and three and a half years older than the sister (though only two years ahead of her in school), would have developed ways of handling the sister’s demeaning silliness. But there was something congenitally undefended about Patty’s heart-she never ceased to be shocked by the sister’s lack of sisterliness. The sister also really was Creative and therefore skilled at coming up with unexpected ways to render Patty speechless.

“Why do you always talk to me in that weird voice?” was Patty’s current best defense.

“I was just asking you about life in good old Minn-e-soooo-tah.”

“You cackle, is what you do. It’s like a cackle.”

This was met with a glittery-eyed silence. Then: “It’s the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes!”

“Please just go away.”

“Do you have a boyfriend out there?”


“A girlfriend?”

“No. Although I did make a really great friend.”

“You mean the one who’s sending you all the letters? Is she a jock?”

“No. She’s a poet.”

“Wow.” The sister seemed a tiny bit interested. “What’s her name?”


“Eliza Doolittle. She sure does write an awful lot of letters. Are you positive she’s not your girlfriend?”

“She’s a writer, OK? A really interesting writer.”

“One hears whispers from the locker room, is all. The fungus that dare not speak its name.”

“You’re so disgusting,” Patty said. “She has like three different boyfriends, she’s very cool.”

“Brainerd, Minn-e-soooo-tah,” was the sister’s reply. “You have to send me a postcard of Babe the Blue Ox from Brainerd.” She went away singing “I’m Getting Married in the Morning” with much vibrato.

The following fall, back at school, Patty met the boy named Carter who became, for want of a better word, her first boyfriend. It now seems to the autobiographer anything but accidental that she met him immediately after she’d obeyed Eliza’s third rule and told her that a guy she knew from the gym, a sophomore from the wrestling team, had asked her out to dinner. Eliza had wanted to meet the wrestler first, but there were limits even to Patty’s agreeability. “He seems like a really nice guy,” she said.

“I’m sorry, but you’re still on probation guywise,” Eliza said. “You thought the person who raped you was a nice guy.”

“I’m not sure I actually formed that particular thought. I was just excited he was interested in me.”

“Well, and now here’s somebody else who’s interested in you.”

“Yes, but I’m sober.”

They’d compromised by agreeing that Patty would go to Eliza’s off-campus room (her reward from her parents for having worked a summer job) directly after dinner, and that if she wasn’t there by ten o’clock then Eliza would come looking for her. When she got to the off-campus house, around nine-thirty, after a none too scintillating dinner, she found Eliza in her top-floor room with the boy named Carter. They were at opposite ends of her sofa, with their stockinged feet sole to sole on the center cushion, and were pushing each other’s pedals in what might or might not have been a sister-and-brotherly way. The new DEVO album was playing on Eliza’s stereo.

Patty faltered in the doorway. “Maybe I should leave the two of you alone?”

“Oh God, no no no no no, we want you here,” Eliza cried. “Carter and I are ancient history, aren’t we?”

“Very ancient,” Carter said with dignity and, Patty thought later, mild irritation. He swung his feet down onto the floor.

“An extinct volcano,” Eliza said as she leaped up to make introductions. Patty had never seen her friend with a boy before, and she was struck by how altered her personality was-her face was flushed, she stumbled over words and steadily emitted somewhat artificial giggles. It seemed to have slipped her mind that Patty had come over to be debriefed about her dinner. Everything was about Carter, a friend from one of her high schools who was taking time off from college and working at a bookstore and going to shows. Carter had extremely straight and interestingly tinted dark hair (henna, it turned out), beautiful long-lashed eyes (mascara, it turned out), and no notable physical flaws except for his teeth, which were jumbled and strangely small and pointed (basic middle-class child maintenance such as orthodontia had fallen through the cracks of his parents’ bitter divorce, it turned out). Patty immediately liked that he didn’t seem self-conscious about his teeth. She was setting about making a good impression on him, trying to prove herself worthy of being Eliza’s friend, when Eliza stuck a huge goblet of wine in her face.

“No, thank you,” Patty said.

“But it’s Saturday night,” Eliza said.

Patty wanted to point out that the rules did not oblige her to drink on Saturday, but in Carter’s presence she got an objective glimpse of how odd these rules of Eliza’s were, and how odd it was, for that matter, that she had to report to Eliza on her dinner with the wrestler. And so she changed her mind and drank the wine and then another enormous gobletful and felt warm and excellent. The autobiographer is mindful of how dull it is to read about someone else’s drinking, but sometimes it’s pertinent to the story. When Carter got up to leave, around midnight, he offered Patty a ride back to her dorm, and at the door of her building he asked if he could kiss her good night (“It’s OK,” she specifically thought, “he’s a friend of Eliza’s”), and after they’d made out for a while, standing in the cold October air, he asked if he could see her the next day, and she thought, “Wow, this guy moves fast.”

To give credit where credit is due: that winter was the best athletic season of her life. She had no health issues, and Coach Treadwell, after giving her a tough lecture about being less unselfish and more of a leader, started her at guard in every single game. Patty herself was amazed at how slow-motion the bigger opposing players suddenly were, how easy it was to just reach out and steal the ball from them, and how many of her jump shots went in, game after game. Even when she was being double-teamed, which happened more and more often, she felt a special private connection with the basket, always knowing exactly where it was and always trusting that she was its favorite player on the floor, the best at feeding its circular mouth. Even off the court she existed in the zone, which felt like a kind of preoccupied pressure behind her eyebrows, an alert drowsiness or focused dumbness that persisted no matter what she was doing. She slept wonderfully that whole winter and never quite woke up. Even when she was elbowed in the head, or mobbed at the buzzer by happy teammates, she hardly felt it.

And her thing with Carter was part of this. Carter was perfectly uninterested in sports and appeared not to mind that, during peak weeks, she had no more than a few hours total for him, sometimes just enough to have sex in his apartment and run back to campus. In certain respects, even now, this seems to the autobiographer an ideal relationship, though admittedly less ideal when she allows herself a realistic guess about how many other girls Carter was having sex with during the six months Patty thought of him as her boyfriend. Those six months were the first of the two indisputably happy periods in Patty’s life, when everything just clicked. She loved Carter’s uncorrected teeth, his genuine humility, his skillful petting, his patience with her. He had many sterling qualities, Carter did! Whether he was giving her some excruciatingly gentle technical pointer about sex or confessing to his utter lack of career plans (“I’m probably best qualified to be some kind of quiet blackmailer”), his voice was always soft and swallowed and self-deprecating-poor corrupt Carter did not think well of himself as a member of the human race.

Patty herself continued to think well of him, hazardously well, until the Saturday night in April when she came back early from Chicago, where she and Coach Treadwell had flown for the all-American luncheon and award ceremony (Patty had been named second-team at guard), to surprise Carter at the party he was having for his birthday. From the street, she could see lights on in his apartment, but she had to ring his bell four times, and the voice that finally answered on the intercom was Eliza’s.

“Patty? Aren’t you in Chicago?”

“I’m home early. Buzz me up.”

There was a crackling on the intercom, followed by a silence so long that Patty rang the doorbell two more times. Finally Eliza, in Keds and shearling coat, came running down the stairs and out the door. “Hi, hi, hi, hi!” she said. “I can’t believe you’re here!”

“Why didn’t you buzz me up?” Patty said.

“I don’t know, I thought I’d come down and see you, things are crazy up there, I thought I’d come down so we can talk.” Eliza was bright-eyed and her hands were fidgeting wildly. “There’s a lot of drugs up there, why don’t we just go somewhere else, it’s so great to see you, I mean, hey, hi! How are you? How was Chicago? How was the luncheon?”

Patty was frowning. “You’re saying I can’t go up and see my boyfriend?”

“Well, no, but, no, but-boyfriend? That’s kind of a strong word, don’t you think? I thought he was just Carter. I mean, I know you like him, but-”

“Who else is up there?”

“Oh, you know, other people.”


“Not somebody you know. Hey, let’s go somewhere else, OK?”

“Like who, though?”

“He didn’t think you were coming back till tomorrow. You guys are having dinner tomorrow, right?”

“I flew back early to see him.”

“Oh my God, you’re not in love with him, are you? We really need to talk about protecting yourself better, I thought you guys were just having fun, I mean, you literally never used the word ‘boyfriend,’ which I ought to have known about, right? And if you don’t tell me everything, I can’t protect you. You sort of broke a rule, don’t you think?”

“You haven’t followed my rules, either,” Patty said.

“Because, I swear to God, this is not what you think it is. I am your friend. But there’s somebody else here who’s definitely not your friend.”

“A girl?”

“Look, I’ll make her go away. We’ll get rid of her and then the three of us can party.” Eliza giggled. “He got really, really, really excellent coke for his birthday.”

“Wait a minute. It’s just the three of you? That’s the party?”

“It’s so great, it’s so great, you’ve got to try it. Your season’s over, right? We’ll get rid of her and you can come up and party. Or we can go to my place instead, just you and me, if you’ll wait one second I’ll get some drugs and we can go to my place. You’ve got to try it. You won’t understand if you don’t try it.”

“Leave Carter with somebody else and go do hard drugs with you. That sounds like a real plan.”

“Oh God, Patty, I’m so sorry. It’s not what you think. He said he was having a party, but then he got the coke and he changed his plan a little bit, and then it turned out he only wanted me here because the other person wouldn’t come over if it was just the two of them.”

“You could have left,” Patty said.

“We were already partying, which if you’d try it you’d understand why I didn’t leave. I swear to you that’s the only reason I’m here.”

The night did not end, as it should have, with a cooling or cessation of Patty’s friendship with Eliza but instead with Patty swearing off Carter and apologizing for not having told Eliza more about her feelings for him, and with Eliza apologizing for not having paid closer attention to her and promising to follow her own rules better and not do any more hard drugs. It’s now clear to the autobiographer that an available twosome and a white anthill of powder on the nightstand would have been exactly Carter’s notion of an outstanding birthday treat for himself. But Eliza was so frantic with remorse and worry that she told her lies with great conviction, and the very next morning, before Patty had had a waking hour to think things over and conclude that her supposed best friend had done something twisted with her supposed boyfriend, Eliza showed up all a-panting at the door of Patty’s quad, wearing her idea of running clothes (a Lena Lovich T-shirt, knee-length boxing shorts, black socks, Keds), to report that she’d just jogged three lengths around the quarter-mile track and to insist that Patty teach her some calisthenics. She was afire with a plan for them to study together every evening, afire with affection for Patty and fear of losing her; and Patty, having opened her eyes painfully to Carter’s nature, went ahead and closed them to Eliza’s.

Eliza’s full-court press continued until Patty agreed to live in Minneapolis for the summer with her, at which point Eliza became scarcer again and lost interest in fitness. Patty spent much of that hot summer alone in a roachy sublet in Dinkytown, feeling sorry for herself and experiencing low self-esteem. She couldn’t understand why Eliza had been so hell-bent on living with her if she was going to come home most nights at 2 a.m. or not come home at all. Eliza did, it was true, keep suggesting to Patty that she try new drugs or go to shows or find a new person to sleep with, but Patty was temporarily disgusted by sex and permanently by drugs and cigarette smoke. Plus her summer job in the P.E. Department paid barely enough to cover the rent, and she refused to emulate Eliza and beg her parents for cash infusions, and so she felt more and more inadequate and lonely.

“Why are we friends?” she finally said one night when Eliza was punking herself up for another outing.

“Because you’re brilliant and beautiful,” Eliza said. “You’re my favorite person in the world.”

“I’m a jock. I’m boring.”

“No! You’re Patty Emerson, and we’re living together, and it’s great.”

These were literally her words, the autobiographer remembers them vividly.

“But we don’t do anything,” Patty said.

“What do you want to do?”

“I’m thinking of going home to my parents’ for a while.”

“What? Are you kidding? You don’t like them! You’ve got to stay here with me.”

“But you’re gone practically every night.”

“Well, let’s start doing more things together.”

“But you know I don’t want to do those kinds of things.”

“Well, let’s go to a movie, then. We’ll go to a movie right now. What do you want to see? Do you want to see Days of Heaven?”

And so began another of Eliza’s full-court presses which lasted just long enough to get Patty over the hump of the summer and make sure she didn’t flee. It was during this third honeymoon of double features and wine spritzers and wearing out the grooves of Blondie albums that Patty began to hear about the musician Richard Katz. “Oh my God,” Eliza said, “I think I might be in love. I think I might have to start being a good girl. He’s so big, it’s like being rolled over by a neutron star. It’s like being erased with a giant eraser.”

The giant eraser had just graduated from Macalester College, was working demolition, and had formed a punk band called the Traumatics which Eliza was convinced were going to be huge. The only thing confounding her idealization of Katz was his choice of friends. “He lives with this nerdy hanger-on guy Walter,” she said, “this kind of straitlaced groupie, it’s weird, I don’t get it. At first I thought he was Katz’s manager or something, but he’s way too uncool for that. I come out of Katz’s room in the morning and there’s Walter at the kitchen table with this big fruit salad he’s made. He’s reading the New York Times and the first thing he asks me is whether I’ve seen any good theater lately. You know, like, plays. It’s totally Odd Couple. You’ve got to meet Katz to understand how weird it is.”

Few circumstances have turned out to be more painful to the autobiographer, in the long run, than the dearness of Walter and Richard’s friendship. Superficially, at least, the two of them were an odder couple than even Patty and Eliza. Some genius in the Macalester College housing office had put a heartbreakingly responsible Minnesota country boy in the same freshman dorm room as a self-absorbed, addiction-prone, unreliable, street-smart guitar player from Yonkers, New York. The only thing the housing-office person could have known for sure they had in common was being financial-aid students. Walter had fair coloration and a stalky build, and though taller than Patty he was nowhere near as tall as Richard, who was 6’4” and heavy-shouldered and as dark-complected as Walter was light. Richard bore a strong resemblance (noticed and remarked on, over the years, by many more people than just Patty) to the Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi. He had the same black hair, the same tan pockmarked cheeks, the same satisfied-strongman-reviewing-the-troops-and-rocket-launchers mask of a smile, [1] and he looked about fifteen years older than his friend. Walter resembled the officious “student manager” that high-school teams sometimes have, the unathletic kid who assists the coaches and wears a jacket and necktie to games and gets to stand on the sideline with a clipboard. Jocks tend to tolerate this kind of manager because he’s invariably a deep student of the game, and this seemed to be one element of the Walter-Richard nexus, because Richard, irritable and unreliable though he was in most respects, was helplessly serious about his music, and Walter had the connoisseurial equipment necessary to be a fan of stuff like Richard’s. Later, as Patty got to know them better, she saw that they were maybe not so different underneath-that both were struggling, albeit in very different ways, to be good people.

Patty met the eraser on a muggy August Sunday morning when she returned from her run and found him sitting on the living-room sofa, diminishing it with his largeness, while Eliza showered in their unspeakable bathroom. Richard was wearing a black T-shirt and reading a paperback novel with a big V on the cover. His first words to Patty, uttered only after she’d filled a glass with iced tea and was standing there all sweat-soaked, drinking it, were: “And what are you.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“What are you doing here.”

“I live here,” she said.

“Right, I see that.” Richard looked her over carefully, piece by piece. It felt to her as if, with each new piece of her that his eyes alit on, she was being further tacked to the wall behind her, so that, when he was done looking over all of her, she had been rendered entirely two-dimensional and fastened to the wall. “Have you seen the scrapbook?” he said.

“Um. Scrapbook?”

“I’ll show it to you,” he said. “You’ll be interested.”

He went into Eliza’s room, came back and handed Patty a three-ring binder, and sat down again with his novel as if he’d forgotten she was there. The binder was the old-fashioned kind with a pale-blue cloth cover, on which the word PATTY was inked in block letters. It contained, as far as Patty could tell, every picture of her ever published in the sports pages of the Minnesota Daily; every postcard she’d ever sent Eliza; every photo strip the two of them had ever squeezed into a booth for; and every flash snapshot of them being stoned on the brownie weekend. The book seemed a little weird and intense to Patty, but mostly it made her feel sad for Eliza-sad and sorry to have questioned how much she really cared about her.

“She’s an odd little girl,” Richard remarked from the sofa.

“Where did you find this?” Patty said. “Do you always go snooping in people’s things when you sleep over?”

He laughed. “J’accuse!”

“Well, do you?”

“Cool your jets. It was right behind the bed. In plain sight, as the cops say.”

The noise of Eliza’s showering had stopped.

“Go put it back,” Patty said. “Please.”

“I figured you’d be interested,” Richard said, not stirring from the sofa.

“Please go put this back where you found it.”

“I’m getting the sense you don’t have a corresponding scrapbook of your own.”

“Right now, please.”

“Very odd little girl,” Richard said, taking the binder from her. “That’s why I asked what your story was.”

The fakeness of Eliza’s way with men, the steady leakage of giggles, the gushing and the hair-tossing, was something a friend of hers could quickly come to hate. Her desperateness to please Richard became mingled in Patty’s mind with the weirdness of the scrapbook and the extreme neediness it evidenced, and it made her, for the first time, somewhat embarrassed to be Eliza’s friend. Which was odd, since Richard seemed unembarrassed to be sleeping with her, and why should Patty have cared what he thought of their friendship anyway?

It was almost her last day in the roachpit when she next saw Richard. He was on the sofa again, sitting with his arms folded and tapping his booted right foot heavily and wincing while Eliza stood and played her guitar the only way Patty had ever heard her play it: uncertainly. “Get in the slot,” he said. “Tap your foot.” But Eliza, who was perspiring with concentration, stopped playing altogether as soon as she realized Patty was there.

“I can’t play in front of her.”

“Sure you can,” Richard said.

“Actually she can’t,” Patty said. “I make her nervous.”

“Interesting. Why is that?”

“I have no idea,” Patty said.

“She’s too supportive,” Eliza said. “I can feel her willing me to succeed.”

“That’s very bad of you,” Richard said to Patty. “You need to will her to fail.”

“OK,” Patty said. “I want you to fail. Can you do that? You seem to be pretty good at it.”

Eliza looked at her in surprise. Patty was surprised with herself, too. “Sorry, I’m going in my room now,” she said.

“First let’s see her fail,” Richard said.

But Eliza was unstrapping and unplugging.

“You need to practice with a metronome,” Richard told her. “Do you have a metronome?”

“This was a really bad idea,” Eliza said.

“Why don’t you play something?” Patty said to Richard.

“Some other time,” he said.

But Patty was recalling the embarrassment she’d felt when he produced the scrapbook. “One song,” she said. “One chord. Play one chord. Eliza says you’re amazing.”

He shook his head. “Come to a show sometime.”

“Patty doesn’t go to shows,” Eliza said. “She doesn’t like the smoke.”

“I’m an athlete,” Patty said.

“Right, so we’ve seen,” Richard said, giving her a significant look. “Basketball star. What are you-forward? Guard? I have no idea what constitutes tall in a chick.”

“I’m not considered tall.”

“And yet you are quite tall.”


“We were just about to leave,” Eliza said, standing up.

“You look like you could have played basketball,” Patty told Richard.

“Good way to break a finger.”

“That’s actually not true,” she said. “It hardly ever happens.”

This was not an interesting or plot-advancing thing to have said, she sensed it immediately, how Richard didn’t actually give a shit about her playing basketball.

“Maybe I’ll go to one of your shows,” she said. “When’s the next one?”

“You can’t go, it’s too smoky for you,” Eliza said unpleasantly.

“It’s not going to be a problem,” Patty said.

“Really? That’s news.”

“Bring earplugs,” Richard said.

In her room, after she heard them go out, Patty began to cry for reasons she felt too desolate to fathom. The next time she saw Eliza, thirty-six hours later, she apologized for having been such a bitch, but Eliza was in excellent spirits by then and told her not to worry about it, she was thinking about selling her guitar and was happy to take Patty to hear Richard.

His next show was on a weeknight in September, at a poorly ventilated club called the Longhorn, where the Traumatics were opening for the Buzzcocks. Practically the first person Patty saw when she and Eliza arrived was Carter. He was standing with a headlock on a grotesquely pretty blond girl in a sequined minidress. “Oh shit,” Eliza said. Patty waved bravely to Carter, who flashed his bad teeth and ambled toward her, a picture of affability, with the sequins in tow. Eliza put her head down and pulled Patty away through a knot of cigarette-puffing male punks and up against the stage. Here they found a fair-haired boy who Patty guessed was Richard’s famous roommate even before Eliza said, in a loud monotone, “Hello Walter how are you.”

Not knowing Walter yet, Patty had no idea how unusual it was that he returned this greeting with a cold nod rather than a friendly midwestern smile.

“This is my best friend Patty,” Eliza said to him. “Can she stand here with you for a second while I go backstage?”

“I think they’re about to emerge,” Walter said.

“Just for one second,” Eliza said. “Just watch out for her. OK?”

“Why don’t we all go back there together,” Walter said.

“No, you need to hold my place here,” Eliza told Patty. “I’ll be right back.”

Walter watched unhappily as she burrowed off through bodies and disappeared. He didn’t look nearly as nerdy as Eliza had led Patty to expect-he was wearing a V-necked sweater and had an overgrown curly mop of reddish blond hair and looked like what he was, i.e., a first-year law student-but he did stand out among the punks with their mutilated hair and garments, and Patty, who was suddenly self-conscious about her own clothes, which she’d always liked until one minute ago, was grateful for his ordinariness.

“Thank you for standing here with me,” she said.

“I think we’ll be standing here for quite a while now,” Walter said.

“It’s nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, too. You’re the basketball star.”

“That’s me.”

“Richard told me about you.” He turned to her. “Do you do a lot of drugs?”

“No! God. Why?”

“Because your friend does.”

Patty didn’t know what to do with her facial expression. “Not around me she doesn’t.”

“Well, that’s what she’s going backstage for.”


“I’m sorry. I know she’s your friend.”

“No, it’s interesting to know that.”

“She seems to be very well funded.”

“Yeah, she gets it from her parents.”

“Right, the parents.”

Walter seemed so preoccupied with Eliza’s disappearance that Patty fell silent. She was feeling morbidly competitive again. She was barely even aware yet of being interested in Richard, and still it struck her as unfair that Eliza might be using more than just herself, her native half-pretty self-that she might be using parental resources-to hold Richard’s attention and buy access to him. How dumb about life Patty was! How far behind other people! And how ugly everything on the stage looked! The naked cords, and the cold chrome of the drums, and the utilitarian mikes, and the kidnapper’s duct tape, and the cannonlike spotlights: it all looked so hard core.

“Do you go to a lot of shows?” Walter said.

“No, never. Once.”

“Did you bring some earplugs?”

“No. Do I need them?”

“Richard’s very loud. You can use mine. They’re almost new.”

From his shirt pocket he produced a baggie containing two whitish foam-rubber larvae. Patty looked down at them and did her best to smile nicely. “No, thank you,” she said.

“I’m a very clean person,” he said earnestly. “There’s no health risk.”

“But then you won’t have any for yourself.”

“I’ll tear them in half. You’ll want to have something for protection.”

Patty watched him carefully divide the earplugs. “Maybe I’ll just hold them in my hand and wait and see if I need them,” she said.

They stood there for fifteen minutes. Eliza finally came slithering and wiggling back and looking radiant just as the houselights dimmed and the audience surged against the stage. The first thing Patty did was drop the earplugs. There was altogether a lot more jostling than the situation seemed to call for. A fat person in leather barged into her back and knocked her against the stage. Eliza was already tossing her hair and hopping in anticipation, and so it fell to Walter to push the fat guy back and give Patty room to stand up straight.

The Traumatics who came running out onto that stage consisted of Richard, his lifelong bass player Herrera, and two skinny boys who looked barely out of high school. Richard was more of a showman then than he came to be later, when it seemed clear that he was never going to be a star and so it was better to be an anti-star. He bounced on his toes, did lurching little half pirouettes with his hand on the neck of his guitar, and so forth. He informed the audience that his band was going to play every song it knew, and that this would take twenty-five minutes. Then he and the band went totally haywire, churning out a vicious assault of noise that Patty couldn’t hear any sort of beat in. The music was like food too hot to have any taste, but the lack of beat or melody didn’t stop the central knot of male punks from pogoing up and down and shoulder-checking each other and stomping at every available female ankle. Trying to stay out of their way, Patty got separated from both Walter and Eliza. The noise was just unbearable. Richard and two other Traumatics were screaming into their microphones, I hate sunshine! I hate sunshine!, and Patty, who rather liked sunshine, brought her basketball skills to bear on making an immediate escape. She drove into the crowd with her elbows high and emerged from the scrum to find herself face-to-face with Carter and his glittery girl and kept right on moving until she was standing on the sidewalk in warm and fresh September air, under a Minnesota sky that astonishingly still had twilight in it.

She lingered at the door of the Longhorn, watching Buzzcocks fans arrive late and waiting to see if Eliza would come looking for her. But it was Walter, not Eliza, who came looking.

“I’m fine,” she told him. “This just turned out not to be my cup of tea.”

“Can I take you home?”

“No, you should go back. You could tell Eliza I’m getting home by myself, so she doesn’t worry.”

“She’s not looking very worried. Let me take you home.”

Patty said no, Walter insisted, she insisted no, he insisted yes. Then she realized he didn’t have a car and was offering to ride the bus with her, and she insisted no all over again, and he insisted yes. He much later said that he’d already been falling for her while they stood at the bus stop, but no equivalent symphony could be heard in Patty’s head. She was feeling guilty about abandoning Eliza and regretting that she’d dropped the earplugs and hadn’t stayed to see more of Richard.

“I feel like I sort of failed a test there,” she said.

“Do you even like this kind of music?”

“I like Blondie. I like Patti Smith. I guess basically no, I don’t like this kind of music.”

“So is it permissible to ask why you came?”

“Well, Richard invited me.”

Walter nodded as if this had private meaning for him.

“Is Richard a nice person?” Patty asked.

“Extremely!” Walter said. “I mean, it all depends. You know, his mom ran away when he was little, and became a religious nut. His dad was a postal worker and a drinker who got lung cancer when Richard was in high school. Richard took care of him until he died. He’s a very loyal person, although maybe not so much with women. He’s actually not that nice to women, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Patty had already intuited this and for some reason did not feel put off by the news of it.

“And what about you?” Walter said.

“What about me?”

“Are you a nice person? You seem like it. And yet…”

“And yet?”

“I hate your friend!” he burst out. “I don’t think she’s a good person. Actually, I think she’s quite horrible. She’s a liar and she’s mean.”

“Well, she’s my best friend,” Patty said huffily. “She’s not horrible to me. Maybe you guys just got off on the wrong foot.”

“Does she always take you to places and leave you standing there while she does coke with somebody else?”

“No, as a matter of fact, that’s never happened before.”

Walter said nothing, just stood stewing in his dislike. No bus was in sight.

“Sometimes it makes me feel really, really good, how into me she is,” Patty said after a while. “A lot of the time she’s not. But when she is…”

“I can’t imagine it’s hard to find people who are into you,” Walter said.

She shook her head. “There’s something wrong with me. I love all my other friends, but I feel like there’s always a wall between us. Like they’re all one kind of person and I’m another kind of person. More competitive and selfish. Less good, basically. Somehow I always end up feeling like I’m pretending when I’m around them. I don’t have to pretend anything with Eliza. I can just be myself and still be better than her. I mean, I’m not dumb. I can see she’s a fucked-up person. But some part of me loves being around her. Do you sometimes feel like that with Richard?”

“No,” Walter said. “He’s actually very unpleasant to be around, a lot of the time. There’s just something I loved about him at very first sight, when we were freshmen. He’s totally dedicated to his music, but he’s also intellectually curious. I admire that.”

“That’s because you’re probably a genuinely nice person,” Patty said. “You love him for himself, not for how he makes you feel. That’s probably the difference between you and me.”

“But you seem like a genuinely nice person!” Walter said.

Patty knew, in her heart, that he was wrong in his impression of her. And the mistake she went on to make, the really big life mistake, was to go along with Walter’s version of her in spite of knowing that it wasn’t right. He seemed so certain of her goodness that eventually he wore her down.

When they finally got back to campus, that first night, Patty realized she’d been talking about herself for an hour without noticing that Walter was only asking questions, not answering them. The idea of trying to be nice in return and take an interest in him now seemed simply tiring, because she wasn’t attracted to him.

“Can I call you sometime?” he said at the door of her dorm.

She explained that she wasn’t going to be very social in the next months, due to training. “But it was incredibly sweet of you to take me home,” she said. “I really appreciate it.”

“Do you like theater? I have some friends I go to theater with. It wouldn’t have to be a date or anything.”

“I’m just so busy.”

“This is a great city for theater,” he persisted. “I bet you’d really enjoy it.”

Oh Walter: did he know that the most intriguing thing about him, in the months when Patty was getting to know him, was that he was Richard Katz’s friend? Did he notice how, every time Patty saw him, she contrived to find nonchalant ways to lead the conversation around to Richard? Did he have any suspicion, that first night, when she agreed to let him call her, that she was thinking of Richard?

Inside, upstairs, she found a phone message from Eliza on her door. She sat in her room with her eyes watering from the smoke in her hair and clothes until Eliza called again on the hall telephone, with club noise in the background, and upbraided her for scaring the shit out of her by disappearing.

“You were the one who disappeared,” Patty said.

“I was just saying hi to Richard.”

“You were gone like half an hour.”

“What happened to Walter?” Eliza said. “Did he leave with you?”

“He took me home.”

“Ew, gross. Did he tell you how much he hates me? I think he’s really jealous of me. I think he’s got some kind of thing for Richard. Maybe a gay thing.”

Patty looked up and down the hallway to make sure nobody was listening. “Are you the one who got the drugs for Carter on his birthday?”

“What? I can’t hear you.”

“Were you the one who got that stuff that you and Carter were doing on his birthday?”

“I can’t hear you!”


“No! God! Is that why you left? Is that what you’re upset about? Is that what Walter told you?”

Patty, jaw trembling, hung up the phone and went and showered for an hour.

There ensued yet another press from Eliza, but this one was halfhearted because she was pursuing Richard now as well. When Walter made good on his threat to call Patty, she found herself inclined to see him, both for his connection to Richard and for the frisson of being disloyal to Eliza. Walter was too tactful to bring up Eliza again, but Patty was always aware of his opinion of her friend, and some virtuous part of her enjoyed getting out and doing something cultural instead of drinking wine spritzers and listening to the same records over and over. She ended up seeing two plays and a movie with Walter that fall. Once her season started, she also saw him sitting by himself in the stands, red-faced, enjoying himself, and waving whenever she looked his way. He took to calling her the day after games to rave about her performance and display the kind of nuanced understanding of strategy which Eliza had never even bothered to try to fake. If he didn’t reach her and had to leave a message, Patty had the additional frisson of calling him back and hoping she might talk to Richard instead, but Richard, alas, seemed never to be home when Walter wasn’t.

In the tiny gaps between the blocks of time she spent answering Walter’s questions, she managed to learn that he came from Hibbing, Minnesota, and that he was helping pay for law school by working part-time as a rough carpenter for the same contractor who employed Richard as a laborer, and that he had to get up at four every morning to do his studying. He always started yawning around 9 p.m., which Patty, with her own busy schedule, appreciated when she went out with him. They were joined, as he had promised, by three female friends of his from high school and college, three intelligent and creative girls whose weight problems and wide-strapped dresses would have provoked acid commentary from Eliza had she ever met them. It was from this adoring troika that Patty began to learn how miraculously worthy Walter was.

According to his friends, Walter had grown up living in cramped quarters behind the office of a motel called the Whispering Pines, with an alcoholic father, an older brother who regularly beat him up, a younger brother who studiously copied the older brother’s ridicule of him, and a mother whose physical handicaps and low morale so impaired her performance as the motel’s housekeeper and night manager that during high season, in the summer, Walter often cleaned rooms all afternoon and then checked in late arrivals while his father was drinking with his VFW buddies and his mother slept. This was in addition to his regular family job of helping his dad maintain the physical plant, doing everything from sealing the parking lot to snaking drains to repairing the boiler. His dad depended on his help, and Walter provided it in perennial hope of winning his dad’s approval, which his friends said was impossible, however, because Walter was too sensitive and intellectual and not enough into hunting and trucks and beer (which the brothers were). Despite working what amounted to a full-time year-round unpaid job, Walter had also managed to star in school plays and musicals, inspire lifelong devotion in numerous childhood friends, learn cooking and basic sewing from his mother, pursue his interest in nature (tropical fish; ant farms; emergency care for orphaned nestlings; flower pressing), and graduate valedictorian. He got an Ivy League scholarship offer but instead went to Macalester, close enough to Hibbing to take a bus up on weekends and help his mom combat the motel’s encroaching decay (the dad apparently now had emphysema and was useless). Walter had dreamed of being a film director or even an actor but instead was studying law at the U. because, as he reportedly had put it, “Somebody in the family needs to have an actual income.”

Perversely-since she wasn’t attracted to Walter-Patty felt competitive and vaguely offended by the presence of other girls on what could have been dates, and she was gratified to notice that it was she, not they, who made his eyes glow and his unstoppable blush come out. She did like to be the star, Patty did. Under pretty much all circumstances. At the last play they saw, in December at the Guthrie, Walter arrived just before curtain time, all snow-covered, with paperback Christmas presents for the other girls and, for Patty, an enormous poinsettia that he’d carried on the bus and through slushy streets and had difficulty checking at the coat counter. It was clear to everyone, even to Patty, that giving the other girls interesting books while giving her a plant was intended as the opposite of disrespectful. The fact that Walter wasn’t investing his enthusiasm in some slimmer version of his nice, adoring friends, but rather in Patty, who applied her intelligence and creativity mainly to thinking up newly nonchalant-seeming ways of mentioning Richard Katz, was mystifying and alarming but also, undeniably, flattering. After the show, Walter carried the poinsettia all the way back to her dorm for her, on the bus and through further slush. The card attached to it, which she opened in her room, said For Patty, with great affection, from her admiring fan.

It was right around then that Richard got around to dumping Eliza. He was apparently quite the brutal dumper. Eliza was beside herself when she called Patty with the news, wailing that “the faggot” had turned Richard against her, that Richard wasn’t giving her a chance, and that Patty had to help her and arrange a meeting with him, he refused to speak to her or open the door of his apartment or-

“I’ve got finals,” Patty said coolly.

“You can go over there and I’ll go with you,” Eliza said. “I just need to see him and explain.”

“Explain what?”

“That he has to give me a chance! That I deserve a hearing!”

“Walter isn’t gay,” Patty said. “That’s just something you made up in your head.”

“Oh my God, he’s turned you against me, too!”

“No,” Patty said. “That’s not how it is.”

“I’m coming over now and we can make a plan.”

“I’ve got my history final in the morning. I need to study.”

Patty now learned that Eliza had stopped going to classes six weeks earlier, because she was so into Richard. He’d done this to her, she’d given up everything for him, and now he’d hung her out to dry and she had to keep her parents from finding out that she was failing everything, she was coming over to Patty’s dorm now and Patty had to stay right there and wait for her, so they could make a plan.

“I’m really tired,” Patty said. “I have to study and then sleep.”

“I can’t believe it! He’s turned you both against me! My two favorite people in the world!”

Patty managed to get off the phone, hurried to the library, and stayed there until it closed. She was certain that Eliza would be waiting outside her dorm, smoking cigarettes and determined to keep her awake half the night. She dreaded paying these wages of friendship but was also resigned to it, and so it was strangely disappointing to return to her dorm and see no trace of Eliza. She almost felt like calling her, but her relief and her tiredness outweighed her guilt.

Three days went by without word from Eliza. The night before Patty left for Christmas vacation, she finally called Eliza’s number to make sure everything was OK, but the phone rang and rang. She flew home to Westchester in a cloud of guilt and worry that grew thicker with each of her failed attempts, from the phone in her parents’ kitchen, to make contact with her friend. On Christmas Eve she went so far as to call the Whispering Pines Motel in Hibbing, Minnesota.

“This is a great Christmas present!” Walter said. “Hearing from you.”

“Oh, well, thank you. I’m actually calling about Eliza. She’s sort of disappeared.”

“Count yourself lucky,” Walter said. “Richard and I finally had to unplug our phone.”

“When was that?”

“Two days ago.”

“Oh, well, that’s a relief.”

Patty stayed talking to Walter, answering his many questions, describing her siblings’ mad Yuletide acquisitiveness, and her family’s annual humiliating reminders of how amusingly old she’d been before she stopped believing in Santa Claus, and her father’s bizarro sexual and scatological repartee with her middle sister, and the middle sister’s “complaints” about how unchallenging her freshman course work at Yale was, and her mother’s second-guessing of her decision, twenty years earlier, to stop celebrating Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays. “And how are things with you?” Patty asked Walter after half an hour.

“Fine,” he said. “My mom and I are baking. Richard’s playing checkers with my dad.”

“That sounds nice. I wish I were there.”

“I wish you were, too. We could go snowshoeing.”

“That sounds really nice.”

It genuinely did, and Patty could no longer tell whether it was Richard’s presence that made Walter appealing or whether he might be appealing for his own sake-for his ability to make whatever place he was in seem like a homey place to be.

The dreadful call from Eliza came on Christmas night. Patty answered it on the extension in the basement, where she was watching an NBA game by herself. Before she could even apologize, Eliza herself apologized for her silence and said that she’d been busy seeing doctors. “They say I have leukemia,” she said.


“I’m starting treatments after New Year’s. My parents are the only other ones who know, and you can’t tell anyone. You especially can’t tell Richard. Will you swear you won’t tell anyone?”

Patty’s cloud of guilt and worry now condensed into a storm of sentiment. She wept and wept and asked Eliza if she was sure, if the doctors were sure. Eliza explained that she’d been feeling increasingly draggy as the fall went on, but she hadn’t wanted to tell anyone, because she was afraid Richard would dump her if it turned out she had mono, but finally she’d felt so crappy that she went to see a doctor, and the verdict had come back two days earlier: leukemia.

“Is it the bad kind?”

“They’re all bad.”

“But the kind you can get better from?”

“There’s a good chance the treatments will help,” Eliza said. “I’ll know more in a week.”

“I’ll come back early. I can stay with you.”

But Eliza, oddly enough, no longer wanted Patty staying with her.

Regarding the Santa Claus business: the autobiographer has no sympathy with lying parents, and yet there are degrees to this. There are lies you tell a person who’s being given a surprise party, lies told in a spirit of fun, and then there are lies you tell a person to make them look foolish for believing them. One Christmas, as a teenager, Patty became so upset about being teased for her unnaturally long-lived childhood belief in Santa (which had persisted even after two younger siblings lost it) that she refused to leave her room for Christmas dinner. Her dad, coming in to plead with her, for once stopped smiling and told her seriously that the family had preserved her illusions because her innocence was beautiful and they specially loved her for it. This was both a welcome thing to hear and obvious bullshit belied by the pleasure everybody took in teasing her. Patty believed that parents have a duty to teach their children how to recognize reality when they see it.

Suffice it to say that Patty, in her many winter weeks of playing Florence Nightingale to Eliza-trudging through a blizzard to bring her soup, cleaning her kitchen and bathroom, staying up late with her and watching TV when she should have been sleeping before games, sometimes falling asleep with her arms around her emaciated friend, submitting to extreme endearments (“You’re my darling angel,” “Seeing your face is like being in heaven,” etc., etc.), and refusing, all the while, to return Walter’s phone calls and explain why she didn’t have time to hang out with him anymore-failed to notice any number of red flags. No, Eliza said, this particular chemotherapy wasn’t the kind that made people’s hair fall out. And, no, it wasn’t possible to schedule treatments at times when Patty was available to take her home from the clinic. And, no, she didn’t want to give up her apartment and stay with her parents, and, yes, the parents came to visit all the time, it was just coincidence that Patty never saw them, and, no, it was not unusual for cancer patients to give themselves anti-emetics with a hypodermic needle such as the one Patty noticed on the floor underneath Eliza’s nightstand.

Arguably the biggest red flag was the way she, Patty, avoided Walter. She saw him at two games in January and spoke to him briefly, but he missed a bunch of games after that, and her conscious reason for not returning his many later phone messages was that she was embarrassed to admit how much of Eliza she was seeing. But why should it have been embarrassing to be caring for a friend stricken with cancer? And likewise: how hard would it have been, when she was in fifth grade, to open her ears to her schoolmates’ cynicism regarding Santa Claus, if she’d had the least bit of interest in learning the truth? She threw away the big poinsettia plant even though it still had life in it.

Walter finally caught up with her at the end of February, late on the snowy day of the Gophers’ big game against UCLA, its highest-ranked opponent of the season. Patty was already ill-disposed toward the world that day, owing to a morning phone conversation with her mother, whose birthday it was. Patty had resolved not to babble about her own life and discover yet again that Joyce wasn’t listening and didn’t give a shit about the ranking of her team’s opponent, but she hadn’t even had a chance to exercise this self-restraint, because Joyce was so excited about Patty’s middle sister, who had tried out for the lead role in an Off Broadway revival of The Member of the Wedding at her Yale professor’s special urging and had landed the part of understudy, which was apparently a huge deal that might result in the sister’s taking time off from Yale and living at home and pursuing drama full-time; and Joyce had been in raptures.

When Patty glimpsed Walter rounding the bleak brick corner of Wilson Library, she turned and hurried away, but he came running after her. Snow had collected on his big fur hat; his face was as red as a navigational beacon. Although he tried to smile and be friendly, his voice was shaking when he asked Patty whether she’d gotten any of his phone messages.

“I’ve just been so busy,” she said. “I’m really sorry I didn’t call you back.”

“Is it something I said? Did I somehow offend you?”

He was hurt and angry and she hated it.

“No, no, not at all,” she said.

“I would have called even more except I didn’t want to keep bothering you.”

“Just really, really busy,” she murmured as the snow fell.

“The person who answers your phone started sounding really annoyed with me, because I kept leaving the same message.”

“Well, her room’s right next to the phone, so. You can understand that. She takes a lot of messages.”

“I don’t understand,” Walter said, nearly crying. “Do you want me to leave you alone? Is that it?”

She hated scenes like this, she hated them.

“I’m truly just very busy,” she said. “And I actually have a big game tonight, so.”

“No,” Walter said, “there’s something wrong. What is it? You look so unhappy!”

She didn’t want to mention the conversation with her mother, because she was trying to get her head into a game zone and it was best not to dwell on these things. But Walter so desperately insisted on an explanation-insisted in a way that went beyond his own feelings, insisted almost for the sake of justice-that she felt she had to say something.

“Look,” she said, “you have to swear not to tell Richard,” although she realized, even as she said it, that she’d never quite understood this prohibition, “but Eliza has leukemia. It’s really terrible.”

To her surprise, Walter laughed. “That doesn’t seem likely.”

“Well, it’s true,” she said. “Whether or not it seems likely to you.”

“OK. And is she still doing heroin?”

A fact she’d seldom paid attention to before-that he was two years older than she was-suddenly made its presence felt.

“She has leukemia,” Patty said. “I don’t know anything about heroin.”

“Even Richard knows enough not to do that stuff. Which, believe me, is saying something.”

“I don’t know anything about it.”

Walter nodded and smiled. “Then you really are a sweet person.”

“I don’t know about that,” she said. “But I’ve got to go eat now and get ready for the game.”

“I can’t see you play tonight,” he said as she was turning to leave. “I wanted to, but Harry Blackmun’s speaking. I have to go to that.”

She turned back to him in irritation. “Not a problem.”

“He’s on the Supreme Court. He wrote Roe v. Wade.”

“I know that,” she said. “My mom practically has a shrine to him that she burns incense at. You don’t have to tell me who Harry Blackmun is.”

“Right. Sorry.”

The snow swirled between them.

“Right, so, I won’t bother you anymore,” Walter said. “I’m sorry about Eliza. I hope she’s OK.”

The autobiographer blames nobody but herself-not Eliza, not Joyce, not Walter-for what happened next. Like every player, she had suffered through plenty of cold shooting streaks and played her share of subpar games, but even on her worst nights she’d felt ensconced in something larger-in the team, in sportsmanship, in the idea that athletics mattered-and had drawn true comfort from the encouraging cries of her teammate sisters and their jinx-breaking raillery at halftime, the variations on themes of bricks and butterfingers, the stock phrases that she herself had yelled a thousand times before. She had always wanted the ball, because the ball had always saved her, the ball was what she knew for sure she had in life, the ball had been her loyal companion in her endless girlhood summers. And all the repetitious activities that people do in church which seem vapid or phony to nonbelievers-the low fives after every single basket, the lovecluster after every drained free throw, the high fives for every teammate coming off the court, the endless shriekings of “Way to go SHAWNA!” and “Way to play smart CATHY!” and “SWISH, WOO HOO, WOO HOO!”-had become such second nature to her and made such perfect sense, as necessary aids to unthinking high performance, that it would no sooner have occurred to her to be embarrassed by them than by the fact that running up and down the court made her sweat a lot. Female athletics was not all sweetness and light, of course. Underneath the hugs were festering rivalries and moral judgments and severe impatience, Shawna blaming Patty for feeding too many outlet passes to Cathy and not enough to her, Patty seething when the slow-witted reserve center Abbie Smith turned yet another possession into a jump ball that she then could not control, Mary Jane Rorabacker nursing an eternal grudge against Cathy for not inviting her to room with her and Patty and Shawna in sophomore year despite their having starred together at St. Paul Central, every starter feeling guiltily relieved when a promising recruit and potential rival underperformed under pressure, etc., etc., etc. But competitive sports was founded on a trick of devotion, a method of credence, and once it was fully drummed into you, in middle school or high school at the latest, you didn’t have to wonder about anything important when you headed to the gym and suited up, you knew the Answer to the Question, the Answer was the Team, and any venial personal concerns were set aside.

It’s possible that Patty, in her agitation following her encounter with Walter, forgot to eat enough. Definitely something was wrong from the minute she arrived at Williams Arena. The UCLA team was huge and physical, with three starters six feet or bigger, and Coach Treadwell’s game plan was to wear them out on transition and let her smaller players, Patty especially, scurry and strike before the Bruins could get their defense set. On D the plan was to be extra aggressive and try to draw the Bruins’ two big scorers into early foul trouble. The Gophers weren’t expected to win, but if they did win they could move up into the top twenty in the unofficial national rankings-higher than they’d ever been during Patty’s tenure. And so it was a very bad night for her to lose her religion.

She experienced a peculiar weakness at her core. She had her usual range of movement in her stretches, but her muscles felt somehow inelastic. Her teammates’ loud pep grated on her nerves, and a tightness in her chest, a self-consciousness, inhibited her from shouting back at them. She succeeded in boxing out all thoughts about Eliza, but instead she found herself considering how, although her own career would be forever over after another season and a half, her middle sister could go on and be a famous actress all her life, and what a dubious investment of her own time and resources athletics had therefore been, and how blithely she’d ignored her mother’s years of hinting to this effect. None of this, it’s safe to say, was recommended as a way to be thinking before a big game.

“Just be yourself, be great,” Coach Treadwell told her. “Who’s our leader?”

“I’m our leader.”


“I’m our leader.”


“I’M our leader.”

If you’ve ever played team sports, you’ll know that Patty immediately felt stronger and more centered and leaderly for saying this. Funny how the trick works-the transfusion of confidence through simple words. She was fine doing warm-ups and fine shaking hands with the Bruins’ captains and feeling their appraising eyes on her, knowing they’d been told she was a big scoring threat and the Gophers’ director on offense; she stepped into her rep for success as if it were a suit of armor. Once you’re in the game, though, and you start hemorrhaging confidence, transfusion from the sidelines isn’t possible. Patty scored one basket on an easy fast-break layup, and that was basically the end of her night. As early as the second minute, she could tell from the lump in her throat that she was going to suck as she had never sucked before. Her Bruin counterpart had two inches and thirty pounds and ungodly amounts of vertical leap on her, but the problem wasn’t only physical or even mainly physical. The problem was the defeat in her heart. Instead of burning competitively with the injustice of the Bruins’ size advantage, and relentlessly pursuing the ball, as Coach had told her to do, she felt defeated by injustice: felt sorry for herself. The Bruins tried out a full-court press and discovered that it worked spectacularly. Shawna rebounded and passed Patty the ball, but she got trapped in the corner and gave it up. She got the ball again and fell out of bounds. She got the ball again and faked it directly into the hands of a defender, as if making a little present. Coach called a time-out and told her to station herself farther up the court on transition; but Bruins were waiting for her there. A long pass went off her hands and into the seats. Fighting the lump in her throat, trying to get mad, she got a foul for charging. She had no spring in her jump shot. She turned the ball over twice in the paint, and Coach took her out to have a word.

“Where’s my girl? Where’s my leader?”

“I don’t have it tonight.”

“You absolutely have it, you just have to find it. It’s in there. Find it.”


“Scream at me. Let it out.”

Patty shook her head. “I don’t want to let it out.”

Coach, crouching, peered up into her face, and Patty, with great effort of will, forced herself to meet her eyes.

“Who’s our leader?”

“I am.”

“Shout it.”

“I can’t.”

“You want me to bench you? Is that what you want?”


“Then get out there. We need you. Whatever it is, we can talk about it later. OK?”


This new transfusion poured straight into the hemorrhage without circulating even once through Patty’s body. For the sake of her teammates, she stayed in the game, but she reverted to her old habit of being selfless, of following plays instead of leading them, of passing instead of shooting, and then to her even older habit of lingering around the perimeter and taking long jumpers, some of which might have fallen on another night, but not that night. How hard it is to hide on a basketball court! Patty got beaten on defense again and again, and each defeat seemed to make the next one more likely. What she was feeling became a lot more familiar to her later in her life, when she made the acquaintance of serious depression, but on that February night it was a hideous novelty to feel the game swirling around her, totally out of her control, and to intuit that the significance of everything that happened, every approach and retreat of the ball, every heavy thud of her feet on the floor, every new moment of trying to guard a fully focused and determined Bruin, every teammate’s hearty halftime whap on the shoulder, was her own badness and the emptiness of her future and the futility of struggle.

Coach finally sat her down for good midway through the second half, with the Gophers trailing by 25. She revived a little as soon as she was safely benched. She found her voice and exhorted her teammates and high-fived them like an eager rookie, reveling in the abasement of being reduced to a cheerleader in a game she should have starred in, embracing the shame of being too-delicately consoled by her pitying teammates. She felt she fully deserved to be abased and shamed like this, after how she’d stunk. Wallowing in this shit was the best she’d felt all day.

Afterward, in the locker room, she endured Coach’s sermon with closed ears and then sat on a bench and sobbed for half an hour. Her friends were considerate enough to let her just do this.

In her down parka and her Gophers stocking cap, she went to Northrop Auditorium, hoping the Blackmun lecture might somehow still be going on there, but the building was dark and locked. She thought of returning to her hall and calling Walter, but she realized that what she really wanted now was to break training and get trashed on wine. She walked through snowy streets to Eliza’s apartment, and here she realized that what she really wanted was to scream abusive things at her friend.

Eliza, on the intercom, objected that it was late and she was tired.

“No, you have to let me up,” Patty said. “This is non-optional.”

Eliza let her in and then lay down on her sofa. She was wearing pajamas and listening to some kind of throbbing jazz. The air was thick with lethargy and old smoke. Patty stood by the sofa, bundled in her parka, snow melting off her sneakers, and watched how slowly Eliza was breathing and how long it took for the impulse to speak to be effectuated-various random facial muscle movements gradually becoming a little less random and finally gathering into a murmured question: “How was your game.”

Patty didn’t answer. After a while, it became apparent that Eliza had forgotten about her.

There didn’t seem to be much point in screaming abusive things at her right now, so Patty ransacked the apartment instead. The drug stuff came to light immediately, right on the floor at the head of the sofa-Eliza had simply dropped a throw pillow over it. At the bottom of a nest of poetry journals and music magazines on Eliza’s desk was the blue three-ring binder. As far as Patty could tell, nothing had been added to it since the summer. She sifted through Eliza’s papers and bills, looking for something medical, but didn’t find anything. The jazz record was playing on repeat. Patty turned it off and sat down on the coffee table with the scrapbook and the drug stuff on the floor in front of her. “Wake up,” she said.

Eliza squeezed her eyes shut tighter.

Patty shoved her leg. “Wake up.”

“I need a cigarette. The chemo really knocked me out.”

Patty pulled her upright by the shoulder.

“Hey,” Eliza said, with a murky smile. “Nice to see you.”

“I don’t want to be your friend anymore,” Patty said. “I don’t want to see you anymore.”

“Why not?”

“I just don’t.”

Eliza closed her eyes and shook her head. “I need you to help me,” she said. “I’ve been taking drugs because of the pain. Because of the cancer. I wanted to tell you. But I was too embarrassed.” She tilted sideways and lay back down.

“You don’t have cancer,” Patty said. “That’s just a lie you made up because you have some crazy idea about me.”

“No, I have leukemia. I definitely have leukemia.”

“I came over to tell you in person, as a courtesy. But now I’m going to leave.”

“No. You have to stay. I have a drug problem you have to help me with.”

“I can’t help you. You’ll have to go to your parents.”

There was a long silence. “Get me a cigarette,” Eliza said.

“I hate your cigarettes.”

“I thought you understood about parents,” Eliza said. “About not being the person they wanted.”

“I don’t understand anything about you.”

There was another silence. Then Eliza said, “You know what’s going to happen if you leave, don’t you? I’m going to kill myself.”

“Oh, that’s a great reason to stay and be friends,” Patty said. “That sounds like a lot of fun for both of us.”

“I’m just saying that’s probably what I’ll do. You’re the only thing I have that’s beautiful and real.”

“I’m not a thing,” Patty said righteously.

“Have you ever seen somebody shoot up? I’ve gotten pretty good at it.”

Patty took the syringe and the drugs and put them in the pocket of her parka. “What’s your parents’ telephone number?”

“Don’t call them.”

“I’m going to call them. It’s non-optional.”

“Will you stay with me? Will you come visit me?”

“Yes,” Patty lied. “Just tell me their number.”

“They ask about you all the time. They think you’re a good influence on my life. Will you stay with me?”

“Yes,” Patty lied again. “What’s their number?”

When the parents arrived, after midnight, they wore the grim looks of people interrupted in their enjoyment of a long respite from dealing with exactly this sort of thing. Patty was fascinated to finally meet them, but this feeling was evidently not reciprocated. The father had a full beard and deep-set dark eyes, the mother was petite and wearing high-heeled leather boots, and together they gave off a strong sexual vibe that reminded Patty of French movies and of Eliza’s comments about their being the love of each other’s life. Patty wouldn’t have minded receiving a few words of apology for unleashing their disturbed daughter on unsuspecting third parties such as herself, or a few words of gratitude for taking their daughter off their hands these past two years, or a few words of acknowledgment of whose money had subsidized the latest crisis. But as soon as the little nuclear family was together in the living room, there unfolded a weird diagnostic drama in which there seemed to be no role at all for Patty.

“So which drugs,” the father said.

“Um, smack,” Eliza said.

“Smack, cigarettes, booze. What else? Anything else?”

“A little coke sometimes. Not so much now.”

“Anything else?”

“No, that’s all.”

“And what about your friend? Is she using, too?”

“No, she’s a huge basketball star,” Eliza said. “I told you. She’s totally straight and great. She’s amazing.”

“Did she know you were using?”

“No, I told her I had cancer. She didn’t know anything.”

“How long did that go on?”

“Since Christmas.”

“So she believed you. You created an elaborate lie that she believed.”

Eliza giggled.

“Yes, I believed her,” Patty said.

The father didn’t even glance her way. “And what’s this,” he said, holding up the blue binder.

“That’s my Patty Book,” Eliza said.

“Appears to be some sort of obsessional scrapbook,” the father said to the mother.

“So she said she was going to leave you,” the mother said, “and then you said you were going to kill yourself.”

“Something like that,” Eliza admitted.

“This is quite obsessional,” the father commented, flipping pages.

“Are you actually suicidal?” the mother said. “Or was that just a threat to keep your friend from leaving?”

“Mostly a threat,” Eliza said.


“OK, I’m not actually suicidal.”

“And yet you’re aware that we have to take it seriously now,” the mother said. “We have no choice.”

“You know, I think I’m going to go now,” Patty said. “I’ve got class in the morning, so.”

“What kind of cancer did you pretend to have?” the father said. “Where in the body was it situated?”

“I said it was leukemia.”

“In the blood, then. A fictitious cancer in your blood.”

Patty put the drug stuff on the cushion of an armchair. “I’ll just leave this right here,” she said. “I really do have to be going.”

The parents looked at her, looked at each other, and nodded.

Eliza stood up from the sofa. “When will I see you? Will I see you tomorrow?”

“No,” Patty said. “I don’t think so.”

“Wait!” Eliza ran over and seized Patty by the hand. “I fucked everything up, but I’ll get better, and then we can see each other again. OK?”

“Yes, OK,” Patty lied as the parents moved in to pry their daughter off her.

Outside, the sky had cleared and the temperature had fallen to near zero. Patty drove breath after breath of cleanness down deep into her lungs. She was free! She was free! And, oh, how she wished she could go back now and play the game against UCLA again. Even at one in the morning, even with nothing in her stomach, she felt ready to excel. She sprinted down Eliza’s street in sheer exhilaration at her freedom, hearing Coach’s words in her ears for the first time, three hours after they’d been spoken, hearing her say how it was just one game, how everybody had bad games, how she’d be herself again tomorrow. She felt ready to dedicate herself more intensely than ever to staying fit and improving her skills, ready to see more theater with Walter, ready to say to her mother, “That’s really great news about The Member of the Wedding!” Ready to be an all-around better person. In her exhilaration, she ran so blindly that she didn’t see the black ice on the sidewalk until her left leg had slipped gruesomely out sideways behind her right leg and she’d ripped the shit out of her knee and was lying on the ground.

There’s not a lot to say about the six weeks that followed. She had two surgeries, the second one following an infection from the first, and became an ace crutch-user. Her mother flew out for the first operation and treated the hospital staff as if they were midwestern yokels of questionable intelligence, causing Patty to apologize for her and be especially agreeable whenever she was out of the room. When it turned out that Joyce might have been right not to trust the doctors, Patty felt so chagrined that she didn’t even tell her about the second operation until the day before it happened. She assured Joyce that there was no need to fly out again-she had tons of friends to look after her.

Walter Berglund had learned from his own mother how to be attentive to women with ailments, and he took advantage of Patty’s extended incapacitation to reinsert himself into her life. On the day after her first surgery, he appeared with a four-foot-tall Norfolk pine and suggested that she might prefer a living plant to cut flowers that wouldn’t last. After that, he managed to see Patty almost every day except on weekends, when he was up in Hibbing helping his parents, and he quickly endeared himself to her jock friends with his niceness. Her homelier friends appreciated how much more intently he listened to them than all the guys who couldn’t see past their looks, and Cathy Schmidt, her brightest friend, declared Walter smart enough to be on the Supreme Court. It was a novelty in Female Jockworld to have a guy in their midst who everybody felt so natural and relaxed around, a guy who could hang out in the lounge during study breaks and be one of the girls. And everybody could see that he was crazy about Patty, and everybody but Cathy Schmidt agreed that this was a most excellent thing.

Cathy, as noted, was sharper than the rest. “You’re not really into him, are you,” she said.

“I sort of am,” Patty said. “But also sort of not.”

“So… the two of you are not…”

“No! Nothing. I probably never should have told him I was raped. He got all squirrelly when I told him that. All… tender and… nursey and… upset. And now it’s like he’s waiting for written permission, or for me to make the move. Which, the crutches probably aren’t helping there, either. But it’s like I’m being followed around by a really nice, well-trained dog.”

“That’s not so great,” Cathy said.

“No. It’s not. But I can’t get rid of him, either, because he’s incredibly nice to me, and I really do love talking to him.”

“You’re sort of into him.”

“Exactly. Maybe even somewhat more than sort of. But-”

“But not wildly more.”


Walter was interested in everything. He read every word of the newspaper and Time magazine, and in April, once Patty was semi-ambulatory again, he began inviting her to lectures and art films and documentaries that she otherwise would not have dreamed of going to. Whether it was because of his love or because of the void in her schedule created by her injury, this was the first time that a person had ever looked through her jock exterior and seen lights on inside. Although she felt inferior to Walter in pretty much every category of human knowledge except sports, she was grateful to him for illuminating that she actually had opinions and that her opinions could differ from his. (This was a refreshing contrast to Eliza, who, if you’d asked her who the current U.S. president was, would have laughed and claimed to have no idea and put another record on her stereo.) Walter burned with all sorts of earnest and peculiar views-he hated the pope and the Catholic Church but approved of the Islamic revolution in Iran, which he hoped would lead to better energy conservation in the United States; he liked China’s new population-control policies and thought the U.S. should adopt something similar; he cared less about the Three Mile Island nuclear mishap than about the low price of gasoline and the need for high-speed rail systems that would render the passenger car obsolete; etc., etc.-and Patty found a role in obstinately approving of things he disapproved of. She especially enjoyed disagreeing with him about the Subjugation of Women. One afternoon near the end of the semester, over coffee at the Student Union, the two of them had a memorable talk about Patty’s Primitive Art professor, whose lectures she approvingly described to Walter by way of giving him a subtle hint about what she found lacking in his personality.

“Yuck,” Walter said. “This sounds like one of those middle-aged profs who can’t stop talking about sex.”

“Well, but he’s talking about fertility figures,” Patty said. “It’s not his fault if the only sculpture we have from fifty thousand years ago is about sex. Plus he’s got a white beard, and that’s enough to make me feel sorry for him. I mean, think about it. He’s up there, and he’s got all these dirty things he wants to say about ‘young ladies today,’ you know, and our ‘scrawny thighs,’ and all, and he knows he’s making us uncomfortable, and he knows he has this beard and he’s middle-aged and we’re all, you know, younger. But he can’t help saying things anyway. I think that would be so hard. Not being able to help humiliating yourself.”

“But it’s so offensive!”

“And also,” Patty said, “I think he’s actually really into thunder thighs. I think that’s what it’s really about: he’s into the Stone Aged thing. You know: fat. Which is sweet and kind of heartbreaking, that he’s so into ancient art.”

“But aren’t you offended, as a feminist?”

“I don’t really think of myself as a feminist.”

“That’s unbelievable!” Walter said, reddening. “You don’t support the ERA?”

“Well, I’m not very political.”

“But the whole reason you’re here in Minnesota is you got an athletic scholarship, which couldn’t even have happened five years ago. You’re here because of feminist federal legislation. You’re here because of Title Nine.”

“But Title Nine’s just basic fairness,” Patty said. “If half your students are female, they should be getting half the athletic money.”

“That’s feminism!”

“No, it’s basic fairness. Because, like, Ann Meyers? Have you heard of her? She was a big star at UCLA and she just signed a contract with the NBA, which is ridiculous. She’s like five-six and a girl. She’s never going to play. Men are just better athletes than women and always will be. That’s why a hundred times more people go to see men’s basketball than women’s basketball-there’s so much more that men can do athletically. It’s just dumb to deny it.”

“But what if you want to be a doctor, and they don’t let you into medical school because they’d rather have male students?”

“That would be unfair, too, although I don’t want to be a doctor.”

“So what do you want?”

Sort of by default, because her mother was so relentless in promoting impressive careers for her daughters, and also because her mother had been, in Patty’s opinion, a substandard parent, Patty was inclined to want to be a homemaker and an outstanding mother. “I want to live in a beautiful old house and have two children,” she told Walter. “I want to be a really, really great mom.”

“Do you want a career, too?”

“Raising children would be my career.”

He frowned and nodded.

“You see,” she said, “I’m not very interesting. I’m not nearly as interesting as your other friends.”

“That’s so untrue,” he said. “You’re incredibly interesting.”

“Well, that’s very nice of you to say, but I don’t think it makes much sense.”

“I think there’s so much more inside you than you give yourself credit for.”

“I’m afraid you’re not very realistic about me,” Patty said. “I bet you can’t actually name one interesting thing about me.”

“Well, your athletic ability, for starters,” Walter said.

“Dribble dribble. That’s real interesting.”

“And the way you think,” he said. “The fact that you think that that hideous prof is sweet and heartbreaking.”

“But you disagree with me about that!”

“And the way you talk about your family. The way you tell stories about them. The fact that you’re so far away from them and having your own life here. That’s all incredibly interesting.”

Patty had never been around a man so obviously in love with her. What he and she were secretly talking about, of course, was Walter’s desire to put his hands on her. And yet the more time she spent with him, the more she was coming to feel that even though she wasn’t nice-or maybe because she wasn’t nice; because she was morbidly competitive and attracted to unhealthy things-she was, in fact, a fairly interesting person. And Walter, by insisting so fervently on her interestingness, was definitely making progress toward making himself interesting to her in turn.

“If you’re so feminist,” she said, “why are you best friends with Richard? Isn’t he kind of disrespectful?”

Walter’s face clouded. “Definitely, if I had a sister, I’d make sure she never met him.”

“Why?” Patty said. “Because he’d treat her badly? Is he bad to women?”

“He doesn’t mean to be. He likes women. He just goes through them pretty quickly.”

“Because we’re interchangeable? Because we’re just objects?”

“It’s not political,” Walter said. “He’s in favor of equal rights. It’s more like this is his addiction, or one of them. You know, his dad was such a drunk, and Richard doesn’t drink. But it’s the same thing as emptying your whole liquor cabinet down the drain, after a binge. That’s the way he is with a girl he’s done with.”

“That sounds horrible.”

“Yeah, I don’t particularly like it in him.”

“But you’re still friends with him, even though you’re a feminist.”

“You don’t stop being loyal to a friend just because they’re not perfect.”

“No, but you try to help them be a better person. You explain why what they’re doing is wrong.”

“Is that what you did with Eliza?”

“OK, you have a point there.”

The next time she spoke to Walter, he finally asked her out on an actual movie-and-a-dinner date. The movie (this was very Walter) turned out to be a free one, a black-and-white Greek-language thing called The Fiend of Athens. While they sat in the Art Department cinema, surrounded by empty seats, waiting for the movie to start, Patty described her plan for the summer, which was to stay with Cathy Schmidt at her parents’ house in the suburbs, continue physical therapy, and prepare for a comeback next season. Out of the blue, in the empty cinema, Walter asked her if she might instead want to live in the room being vacated by Richard, who was moving to New York City.

“Richard’s leaving?”

“Yeah,” Walter said, “New York is where all the interesting music is happening. He and Herrera want to reconstitute the band and try to make it there. And I’ve still got three months on the lease.”

“Wow.” Patty composed her face carefully. “And I would live in his room.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be his room anymore,” Walter said. “It would be yours. It’s an easy walk to the gym. I’m thinking it would be a lot easier than commuting all the way from Edina.”

“And so you’re asking me to live with you.”

Walter blushed and avoided her eyes. “You’d have your own room, obviously. But, yes, if you ever wanted to have dinner and hang out, that would be great, too. I think I’m somebody you can trust to be respectful of your space but also be there if you wanted company.”

Patty peered into his face, struggling to understand. She felt a combination of (a) offended, and (b) very sorry to hear that Richard was leaving. She almost suggested to Walter that he had better kiss her first, if he was going to be asking her to live with him, but she was so offended that she didn’t feel like being kissed at that moment. And then the cinema lights went down.

As the autobiographer remembers it, the plot of The Fiend of Athens concerned a mild-mannered Athenian accountant with horn-rimmed glasses who is walking to work one morning when he sees his own picture on the front page of a newspaper, with the headline FIEND OF ATHENS STILL AT LARGE. Athenians in the street immediately start pointing at him and chasing him, and he’s on the brink of being apprehended when he’s rescued by a gang of terrorists or criminals who mistake him for their fiendish leader. The gang has a bold plan to do something like blow up the Parthenon, and the hero keeps trying to explain to them that he’s just a mild-mannered accountant, not the Fiend, but the gang is so counting on his help, and the rest of the city is so intent on killing him, that there finally comes an amazing moment when he whips off his glasses and becomes their fearless leader-the Fiend of Athens! He says, “OK, men, this is how the plan is going to work.”

Patty watched the movie seeing Walter in the accountant and imagining him whipping his glasses off like that. Afterward, over dinner at Vescio’s, Walter interpreted the movie as a parable of Communism in postwar Greece and explained to Patty how the United States, in need of NATO partners in southeast Europe, had long sponsored political repression over there. The accountant, he said, was an Everyman figure who comes to accept his responsibility to join in the violent struggle against right-wing repression.

Patty was drinking wine. “I don’t agree with that at all,” she said. “I think it’s about how the main character never had a real life, because he was so responsible and timid, and he had no idea what he was actually capable of. He never really got to be alive until he was mistaken for the Fiend. Even though he only lived a few days after that, it was OK for him to die because he’d finally really done something with his life, and realized his potential.”

Walter seemed astonished by this. “That was a totally pointless way to die, though,” he said. “He didn’t accomplish anything.”

“But then why did he do it?”

“Because he felt solidarity with the gang that saved his life. He realized that he had a responsibility to them. They were the underdogs, and they needed him, and he was loyal to them. He died for his loyalty.”

“God,” Patty marveled. “You really are quite amazingly worthy.”

“That’s not how it feels,” Walter said. “I feel like the stupidest person on earth sometimes. I wish I could cheat. I wish I could be totally self-focused like Richard, and try to be some kind of artist. And it’s not because I’m worthy that I can’t. I just don’t have the constitution for it.”

“But the accountant didn’t think he had the constitution for it, either. He surprised himself!”

“Yes, but it wasn’t a realistic movie. The picture in the newspaper didn’t just look like the actor, it was him. And if he’d just given himself up to the authorities, he could have straightened everything out eventually. The mistake he made was to start running. That’s why I’m saying it was a parable. It wasn’t a realistic story.”

It felt strange to Patty to be drinking wine with Walter, since he was a teetotaler, but she was in a fiendish mood and had quickly put away quite a lot. “Take your glasses off,” she said.

“No,” he said. “I won’t be able to see you.”

“That’s OK. It’s just me. Just Patty. Take them off.”

“But I love seeing you! I love looking at you!”

Their eyes met.

“Is that why you want me to live with you?” Patty said.

He blushed. “Yes.”

“Well, so, maybe we should go look at your apartment, so I can decide.”



“You’re not tired?”

“No. I’m not tired.”

“How’s your knee feeling?”

“My knee is feeling just fine, thank you.”

For once, she was thinking of Walter only. If you’d asked her, as she crutched her way down 4th Street through the soft and conducive May air, whether she was half-hoping to run into Richard at the apartment, she would have answered no. She wanted sex now, and if Walter had had one ounce of sense he would have turned away from the door of his apartment as soon as he heard TV noise on the other side of it-would have taken her somewhere else, anywhere else, back to her own room, anywhere. But Walter believed in true love and was apparently fearful of laying a hand on Patty before he was sure his was reciprocated. He led her right on into the apartment, where Richard was sitting in the living room with his bare feet up on the coffee table, a guitar across his lap, and a spiral notebook beside him on the sofa. He was watching a war movie and working on a jumbo Pepsi and spitting tobacco juice into a 28-ounce tomato can. The room was otherwise neat and uncluttered.

“I thought you were at a show,” Walter said.

“Show sucked,” Richard said.

“You remember Patty, right?”

Patty shyly crutched herself into better view. “Hi, Richard.”

“Patty who is not considered tall,” Richard said.

“That’s me.”

“And yet you are quite tall. I’m glad to see Walter finally lured you over here. I was beginning to fear it would never happen.”

“Patty’s thinking of living here this summer,” Walter said.

Richard raised his eyebrows. “Really.”

He was thinner and younger and sexier than she remembered. It was terrible how suddenly she wanted to deny that she’d been thinking of living here with Walter or expecting to go to bed with him that night. But there was no denying the evidence of her standing there. “I’m looking for someplace convenient to the gym,” she said.

“Of course. Makes sense.”

“She was hoping to see your room,” Walter said.

“Room’s a bit of a mess right now.”

“You say that as if there were times when it’s not a mess,” Walter said with a happy laugh.

“There are periods of relative unmessiness,” Richard said. He extinguished the TV with an extended toe. “How’s your little friend Eliza?” he asked Patty.

“She’s not my friend anymore.”

“I told you that,” Walter said.

“I wanted it from the horse’s mouth. She’s a fucked-up little chick, isn’t she? The extent of it wasn’t immediately apparent, but, man. It became apparent.”

“I made the same mistake,” Patty said.

“Only Walter saw the truth from day one. The Truth About Eliza. That’s not a bad title.”

“I had the advantage of her hating me at first sight,” Walter said. “I could see her more clearly.”

Richard closed his notebook and spat brown saliva into his can. “I will leave you kids alone.”

“What are you working on?” Patty asked.

“The usual unlistenable shit. I was trying to do something with this chick Margaret Thatcher. The new prime minister of England?”

“Chick is a far-fetched word for Margaret Thatcher,” Walter said. “Dowager is more like it.”

“How do you feel about the word ‘chick’?” Richard asked Patty.

“Oh, I’m not a picky person.”

“Walter says I shouldn’t use it. He says it’s demeaning, although, in my experience, the chicks themselves don’t seem to mind.”

“It makes you sound like you’re from the sixties,” Patty said.

“It makes him sound Neanderthal,” Walter said.

“The Neanderthals reportedly had very large craniums,” Richard said.

“So do oxen,” Walter said. “And other cud-chewing animals.”

Richard laughed.

“I didn’t think anybody but baseball players chewed tobacco anymore,” Patty said. “What’s it like?”

“You’re free to try some, if you’re in the mood to vomit,” Richard said, standing up. “I’m going to head back out. Leave you guys alone.”

“Wait, I want to try it,” Patty said.

“Really not a good idea,” Richard said.

“No, I definitely want to try it.”

The mood she’d been in with Walter was irreparably broken, and now she was curious to see if she had the power to make Richard stay. She’d finally found her opportunity to demonstrate what she’d been trying to explain to Walter since the night they first met-that she wasn’t a good enough person for him. It was also, of course, an opportunity for Walter to whip off his glasses and behave fiendishly and drive away his rival. But Walter, then as ever, only wanted Patty to have what she wanted.

“Let her try it,” he said.

She gave him a grateful smile. “Thank you, Walter.”

The chew was mint-flavored and burned her gums shockingly. Walter brought her a coffee mug to spit in, and she sat on the sofa like an experimental subject, waiting for the nicotine to take effect, enjoying the attention. But Walter was paying attention to Richard, too, and as her heart began to race she flashed on Eliza’s contention that Walter had a thing for his friend; she remembered Eliza’s jealousy.

“Richard’s excited about Margaret Thatcher,” Walter said. “He thinks she represents the excesses of capitalism that will inevitably lead to its self-destruction. I’m guessing he’s writing a love song.”

“You know me well,” Richard said. “A love song to the lady with the hair.”

“We disagree about the likelihood of a Marxist Revolution,” Walter explained to Patty.

“Mm,” she said, spitting.

“Walter thinks the liberal state can self-correct,” Richard said. “He thinks the American bourgeoisie will voluntarily accept increasing restrictions on its personal freedoms.”

“I have all these great ideas for songs that Richard inexplicably keeps rejecting.”

“The fuel-efficiency song. The public-transportation song. The nationalized-health-care song. The baby-tax song.”

“It’s pretty much virgin territory, in terms of rock-song content,” Walter said.

“Two Kids Good, Four Kids Bad.”

“Two Kids Good-No Kids Better.”

“I can already see the masses taking to the streets.”

“You just have to become unbelievably famous,” Walter said. “Then people will listen.”

“I’ll make a note to do that.” Richard turned to Patty. “How you doing there?”

“Mm!” she said, ejecting the wad into the coffee mug. “I see what you mean about the vomiting.”

“Try not to do it on the couch.”

“Are you all right?” Walter said.

The room was swimming and pulsing. “I can’t believe you enjoy this,” Patty said to Richard.

“And yet I do.”

“Are you all right?” Walter asked her again.

“I’m fine. Just need to sit very still.”

She in fact felt quite sick. There was nothing to be done but stay on the sofa and listen to Walter and Richard banter and joust about politics and music. Walter, with great enthusiasm, showed her the Traumatics’ seven-inch single and compelled Richard to play both sides of it on the stereo. The first song was “I Hate Sunshine,” which she’d heard at the club in the fall, and which now seemed to her the sonic equivalent of absorbing too much nicotine. Even at low volume (Walter, needless to say, was pathologically considerate of his neighbors), it gave her a sick, dready sensation. She could feel Richard’s eyes on her while she listened to his dire baritone singing voice, and she knew she hadn’t been mistaken about the way he’d looked at her the other times she’d seen him.

Around eleven o’clock, Walter began to yawn uncontrollably.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I have to take you home now.”

“I’m fine walking by myself. I’ve got my crutches for self-defense.”

“No,” he said. “We’ll take Richard’s car.”

“No, you need to go to sleep, you poor thing. Maybe Richard can drive me. Can you do that for me?” she asked him.

Walter closed his eyes and sighed miserably, as if he’d been pushed past his limits.

“Sure,” Richard said. “I’ll drive you.”

“She needs to see your room first,” Walter said, his eyes still closed.

“Be my guest,” Richard said. “Its condition speaks for itself.”

“No, I want the guided tour,” Patty said, giving him a pointed look.

The walls and ceiling of his room were painted black, and the punk disorder that Walter’s influence had suppressed in the living room here vented itself with a vengeance. There were LPs and LP sleeves everywhere, along with several cans of spit, another guitar, overloaded bookshelves, a mayhem of socks and underwear, and tangled dark bedsheets that it was interesting and somehow not unpleasant to think that Eliza had been vigorously erased in.

“Nice cheerful color!” Patty said.

Walter yawned again. “Obviously I’ll be repainting it.”

“Unless Patty prefers black,” Richard said from the doorway.

“I’d never thought of black,” she said. “Black is interesting.”

“Very restful color, I find,” Richard said.

“So you’re moving to New York,” she said.

“I am.”

“That’s exciting. When?”

“Two weeks.”

“Oh, that’s when I’m going out there, too. It’s my parents’ twenty-fifth anniversary. Some sort of horrible Event is planned.”

“You’re from New York?”

“Westchester County.”

“Same as me. Though presumably a different part of Westchester.”

“Well, the suburbs.”

“Definitely a different part than Yonkers.”

“I’ve seen Yonkers from the train a bunch of times.”

“Exactly my point.”

“So are you driving to New York?” Patty said.

“Why?” Richard said. “You need a ride?”

“Well, maybe! Are you offering one?”

He shook his head. “Have to think about it.”

Poor Walter’s eyes were falling shut, he literally was not seeing this negotiation. Patty herself was breathless with the guilt and confusion of it and crutched herself speedily toward the front door, where, at a distance, she called out a thank-you to him for the evening.

“I’m sorry I got so tired,” he said. “Are you sure I can’t drive you home?”

“I’ll do it,” Richard said. “You go to bed.”

Walter definitely looked miserable, but it might only have been his exhaustion. Out on the street, in the conducive air, Patty and Richard walked in silence until they got to his rusty Impala. Richard seemed to take care not to touch her while she got herself seated and handed him her crutches.

“I would have thought you’d have a van,” she said when he was sitting beside her. “I thought all bands had vans.”

“Herrera has the van. This is my personal conveyance.”

“This is what I’d be riding to New York in.”

“Yeah, listen.” He put the key in the ignition. “You need to fish or cut bait here. Do you understand me? It’s not fair to Walter otherwise.”

She looked straight ahead through the windshield. “What isn’t fair?”

“Giving him hope. Leading him on.”

“That’s what you think I’m doing?”

“He’s an extraordinary person. He’s very, very serious. You need to take some care with him.”

“I know that,” she said. “You don’t have to tell me that.”

“Well, so, what did you come over here for? It seemed to me-”

“What? What did it seem to you?”

“It seemed to me like I was interrupting something. But then, when I tried to get away…”

“God, you really are a jerk.”

Richard nodded as if he couldn’t care less what she thought of him, or as if he were tired of stupid women saying stupid things to him. “When I tried to get away,” he said, “you seemed not to want to take the hint. Which is fine, that’s your choice. I just want to make sure you know you’re kind of tearing Walter apart.”

“I really don’t want to talk about this with you.”

“Fine. We won’t talk about it. But you’ve been seeing a lot of him, right? Practically every day, right? For weeks and weeks.”

“We’re friends. We hang out.”

“Nice. And you know the situation in Hibbing.”

“Yes. His mom needs help with the hotel.”

Richard smiled unpleasantly. “That’s what you know?”

“Well, and his dad’s not well, and his brothers aren’t doing anything.”

“And that’s what he’s told you. That’s the extent of it.”

“His dad has emphysema. His mom has disabilities.”

“And he’s working construction twenty-five hours a week and pulling down As in law school. And there he is, every day, with all that time to hang out with you. How nice for you, that he has so much free time. But you’re a good-looking chick, you deserve it, right? Plus you’ve got your terrible injury. That and being good-looking: that earns you the right not to even ask him any questions.”

Patty was burning with her feeling of injustice. “You know,” she said unsteadily, “he talks about what a jerk you are to women. He talks about that.”

This seemed not to interest Richard in the slightest. “I’m just trying to understand this in the context of your being such pals with wee Eliza,” he said. “It’s making more sense to me now. It didn’t when I first saw you. You seemed like a nice suburban girl.”

“So I’m a jerk, too. Is that what you’re saying? I’m a jerk and you’re a jerk.”

“Sure. Whatever you like. I’m Not OK, You’re Not OK. Whatever. I’m just asking you not to be a jerk to Walter.”

“I’m not!”

“I’m simply telling you what I see.”

“Well, you see wrong. I really like Walter. I really care about him.”

“And yet you’re apparently unaware that his dad’s dying of liver disease and his older brother’s in jail for vehicular assault and his other brother’s spending his Army paychecks making payments on his vintage Corvette. And Walter’s averaging about four hours of sleep while you’re being friends and hanging out, just so you can come over here and flirt with me.”

Patty became very quiet.

“It’s true I didn’t know all of that,” she said after a while. “All of that information. But you shouldn’t be friends with him if you’ve got a problem with people flirting with you.”

“Ah. So it’s my fault. I getcha.”

“Well, I’m sorry, but it kind of is.”

“I rest my case,” Richard said. “You need to get your thoughts straightened out.”

“I’m aware that I need to do that,” Patty said. “But you’re still being a jerk.”

“Look, I’ll drive you to New York, if that’s what you want. Two jerks on the road. Could be fun. But if that’s what you want, you need to do me a favor and stop stringing Walter along.”

“Fine. Please take me home now.”

Due perhaps to the nicotine, she spent that entire night sleeplessly replaying the evening in her head, trying to do as Richard had demanded and get her thoughts straight. But it was an odd mental kabuki, because even as she was circling around and around the question of what kind of person she was and what her life was ultimately going to look like, one fat fact sat fixed and unchanging at the center of her: she wanted to take a road trip with Richard and, what’s more, she was going to do it. The sad truth was that their talk in the car had been a tremendous excitement and relief to her-an excitement because Richard was exciting and a relief because, finally, after months of trying to be somebody she wasn’t, or wasn’t quite, she’d felt and sounded like her unpretended true self. This was why she knew she’d find a way to take the road trip. All she had to do now was surmount her guilt about Walter and her sorrow about not being the kind of person he and she both wished she were. How right he’d been to go slow with her! How smart he was about her inner dubiousness! When she considered how right and smart he was about her, she felt all the sadder and guiltier about disappointing him, and was plunged back into the roundabout of indecision.

And then, for almost a week, she didn’t hear from him. She suspected he was keeping his distance at Richard’s suggestion-that Richard had given him a misogynistic lecture about the faithlessness of women and the need to protect his heart better. In her imagination, this was both a valuable service for Richard to perform and a terrible disillusioning thing to do to Walter. She couldn’t stop thinking of Walter carrying large plants for her on buses, the poinsettia redness of his cheeks. She thought of the nights when, in her dorm lounge, he’d been trapped by the Hall Bore, Suzanne Storrs, who combed her hair sideways over her head with the part way down one side of it, just above her ear, and how he’d listened patiently to Suzanne’s sour droning about her diet and the hardships of inflation and the overheating of her dorm room and her wide-ranging disappointment with the university’s administrators and professors, while Patty and Cathy and her other friends laughed at Fantasy Island: how Patty, ostensibly incapacitated by her knee, had declined to stand up and rescue Walter from Suzanne, for fear that Suzanne would then come over and inflict her boringness on everybody else, and how Walter, though perfectly capable of joking with Patty about Suzanne’s shortcomings, and though undoubtedly mindful of how much work he had to do and how early he had to get up in the morning, allowed himself to be trapped again on other evenings, because Suzanne had taken a shine to him and he felt sorry for her.

Suffice it to say that Patty couldn’t quite bring herself to cut bait. They didn’t communicate again until Walter called from Hibbing to apologize for his silence and report that his dad was in a coma.

“Oh, Walter, I miss you!” she exclaimed although this was exactly the sort of thing Richard would have urged her not to say.

“I miss you, too!”

She bethought herself to ask for details about his dad’s condition, even though it only made sense to be a good questioner if she was intending to proceed with him. Walter spoke of liver failure, pulmonary edema, a shitty prognosis.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “But listen. About the room-”

“Oh, you don’t have to decide about that now.”

“No, but you need an answer. If you’re going to rent it to somebody else-”

“I’d rather rent it to you!”

“Well, yes, and I might want it, but I have to go home next week, and I was thinking of riding to New York with Richard. Since that’s when he’s driving.”

Any worries that Walter might not grasp the import here were dispelled by his sudden silence.

“Don’t you already have a plane ticket?” he said finally.

“It’s the refundable kind,” she lied.

“Well, that’s fine,” he said. “But, you know, Richard’s not very reliable.”

“No, I know, I know,” she said. “You’re right. I just thought I might save some money, which I could then apply to the rent.” (A compounding of the lie. Her parents had bought the ticket.) “I’ll definitely pay the rent for June no matter what.”

“That doesn’t make any sense if you’re not going to live there.”

“Well, I probably will, is what I’m saying. I’m just not positive yet.”


“I really want to. I’m just not positive. So if you find another renter, you should probably go with them. But definitely I’ll cover June.”

There was another silence before Walter, in a discouraged voice, said he had to get off the phone.

Energized by having achieved this difficult conversation, she called Richard and assured him that she’d done the necessary bait-cutting, at which point Richard mentioned that his departure date was somewhat uncertain and there were a couple of shows in Chicago that he was hoping to stop and see.

“Just as long as I’m in New York by next Saturday,” Patty said.

“Right, the anniversary party. Where is it?”

“It’s at the Mohonk Mountain House, but I only need to get to Westchester.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

It’s not so fun to be on a road trip with a driver who considers you, and perhaps all women, a pain in the ass, but Patty didn’t know this until she’d tried it. The trouble started with the departure date, which had to be moved up for her. Then a mechanical issue with the van delayed Herrera, and since it was Herrera’s friends in Chicago whom Richard had been planning to stay with, and since Patty had not been part of that deal in any case, there promised to be awkwardness there. Patty also wasn’t good at computing distances, and so, when Richard was three hours late in picking her up and they didn’t get away from Minneapolis until late afternoon, she didn’t understand how late they would be arriving in Chicago and how important it was to make good time on I-94. It wasn’t her fault they’d started late. She didn’t consider it excessive to ask, near Eau Claire, for a bathroom stop, and then, an hour later, near nowhere, for some dinner. This was her road trip and she intended to enjoy it! But the back seat was full of equipment that Richard didn’t dare let out of his sight, and his own basic needs were satisfied by his plug (he had a big spit can on the floor), and although he didn’t criticize how much her crutches slowed and complicated everything she did, he also didn’t tell her to relax and take her time. And all across Wisconsin, every minute of the way, in spite of his curtness and his barely suppressed irritation with her entirely reasonable human needs, she could feel the almost physical pressure of his interest in fucking, and this didn’t help the mood in the car much, either. Not that she wasn’t greatly attracted to him. But she needed a modicum of time and breathing space, and even taking into account her youth and inexperience the autobiographer is embarrassed to report that her means of buying this time and space was to bring the conversation around, perversely, to Walter.

At first, Richard didn’t want to talk about him, but once she got him going she learned a lot about Walter’s college years. About the symposia he’d organized-on overpopulation, on electoral-college reform-that hardly any students had attended. About the pioneering New Wave music show he’d hosted for four years on the campus radio station. About his petition drive for better-insulated windows in Macalester’s dorms. About the editorials he’d written for the college paper regarding, for example, the food trays he processed in his job on the dish belt: how he’d calculated how many St. Paul families could be fed with a single night’s waste, and how he’d reminded his fellow students that other human beings had to deal with the gobs of peanut butter they left smeared on everything, and how he’d grappled philosophically with his fellow students’ habit of putting three times too much milk on their cold cereal and then leaving brimming bowls of soiled milk on their trays: did they somehow think milk was a free and infinite commodity like water, with no environmental strings attached? Richard recounted all this in the same protective tone he’d taken with Patty two weeks earlier, a tone of strangely tender regret on Walter’s behalf, as if he were wincing at the pain Walter brought upon himself in butting up against harsh realities.

“Did he have girlfriends?” Patty asked.

“He made poor choices,” Richard said. “He fell for the impossible chicks. The ones with boyfriends. The arty ones moving in a different kind of circle. There was one sophomore he didn’t get over all senior year. He gave her his Friday-night radio slot and took a Tuesday afternoon. I found out about that too late to stop it. He rewrote her papers, took her to shows. It was terrible to watch, the way she worked him. She was always turning up in our room inopportunely.”

“How funny,” Patty said. “I wonder why that was.”

“He never heeds my warnings. He’s very obstinate. And you wouldn’t necessarily guess it about him, but he always goes for good-looking. For pretty and well-formed. He’s ambitious that way. It didn’t lead to happy times for him in college.”

“And this girl who kept showing up in your room. Did you like her?”

“I didn’t like what she was doing to Walter.”

“That’s kind of a theme of yours, isn’t it?”

“She had shit taste and a Friday-night slot. At a certain point, there was only one way to get the message across to him. About what kind of chick he was dealing with.”

“Oh, so you were doing him a favor. I get it.”

“Everybody’s a moralist.”

“No, seriously, I can see why you don’t respect us. If all you ever see, year after year, is girls who want you to betray your best friend. I can see that’s a weird situation.”

“I respect you,” Richard said.


“You’ve got a good head. I wouldn’t mind seeing you this summer, if you want to give New York a try.”

“That doesn’t seem very workable.”

“I’m merely saying it would be nice.”

She had about three hours to entertain this fantasy-staring at the taillights of the traffic rushing down and down toward the great metropolis, and wondering what it would be like to be Richard’s chick, wondering if a woman he respected might succeed in changing him, imagining herself never going back to Minnesota, trying to picture the apartment they might find to live in, savoring the thought of unleashing Richard on her contemptuous middle sister, picturing her family’s consternation at how cool she’d become, and imagining her nightly erasure-before they landed in the reality of Chicago’s South Side. It was 2 a.m. and Richard couldn’t find Herrera’s friends’ building. Rail yards and a dark, haunted river kept blocking their way. The streets were deserted except for gypsy cabs and occasional Scary Black Youths of the kind one read about.

“A map would have been helpful,” Patty said.

“It’s a numbered street. Shouldn’t be that hard.”

Herrera’s friends were artists. Their building, which Richard finally located with a cab driver’s help, looked uninhabited. It had a doorbell dangling from two wires that unexpectedly were functional. Somebody moved aside a piece of canvas covering a front window and then came down to air grievances with Richard.

“Sorry, man,” Richard said. “We got held up unavoidably. We just need to crash for a couple of nights.”

The artist was wearing cheap, saggy underpants. “We just started taping that room today,” he said. “It’s pretty wet. Herrera said something about coming on the weekend?”

“He didn’t call you yesterday?”

“Yeah, he called. I told him the spare room’s a fucking mess.”

“Not a problem. We’re grateful. I’ve got some stuff to bring in.”

Patty, being useless for carrying things, guarded the car while Richard slowly emptied it. The room they were given was heavy with a smell that she was too young to recognize as drywall mud, too young to find domestic and comforting. The only light was a glaring aluminum dish clamped to a mud-strafed ladder.

“Jesus,” Richard said. “What do they have, chimpanzees doing drywalling?”

Underneath a dusty and mud-spattered pile of plastic drop cloths was a bare, rust-stained double mattress.

“Not up to your usual Sheraton standards, I’m guessing,” Richard said.

“Are there sheets?” Patty said timidly.

He went rummaging in the main space and came back with an afghan, an Indian bedspread, and a velveteen pillow. “You sleep here,” he said. “They’ve got a couch I can use.”

She threw him a questioning look.

“It’s late,” he said. “You need to sleep.”

“Are you sure? There’s plenty of room here. A couch is going to be too short for you.”

She was bleary, but she wanted him and was carrying the necessary gear, and she had an instinct to get the deed done right away, get it irrevocably on the books, before she had time to think too much and change her mind. And it was many years, practically half a lifetime, before she learned and was duly confounded by Richard’s reason for suddenly turning so gentlemanly that night. At the time, in the mud-humid construction site, she could only assume she’d somehow been mistaken about him, or that she’d turned him off by being a pain in the ass and useless at carrying things.

“There’s something that passes for a bathroom out there,” he said. “You might have better luck than I did finding a light switch.”

She gave him a yearning look from which he turned away quickly, purposefully. The sting and surprise of this, the strain of the drive, the stress of arrival, the grimness of the room: she killed the light and lay down in her clothes and wept for a long time, taking care to keep it inaudible, until her disappointment dissolved in sleep.

The next morning, awakened at six o’clock by ferocious sunlight, and rendered thoroughly cross by then waiting hours and hours for anybody else to stir in the apartment, she really did become a pain in the ass. That whole day represented something of a lifetime nadir of agreeability. Herrera’s friends were physically uncouth and made her feel one inch tall for not getting their hip cultural references. She was given three quick chances to prove herself, after which they brutally ignored her, after which, to her relief, they left the apartment with Richard, who came back alone with a box of doughnuts for breakfast.

“I’m going to work on that room today,” he said. “Makes me sick to see the shitty work they’re doing. You feel like doing some sanding?”

“I was thinking we could go to the lake or something. I mean, it’s so hot in here. Or maybe a museum?”

He regarded her gravely. “You want to go to a museum.”

“Just something to get out and enjoy Chicago.”

“We can do that tonight. Magazine’s playing. You know Magazine?”

“I don’t know anything. Isn’t that obvious?”

“You’re in a bad mood. You want to hit the road.”

“I don’t want to do anything.”

“If we get the room cleaned up, you’ll sleep better tonight.”

“I don’t care. I just don’t feel like sanding.”

The kitchen area was a nauseating, never-cleaned sty that smelled like a mental illness. Sitting on the couch where Richard had slept, Patty tried to read one of the books she’d brought along in hopes of impressing him, a Hemingway novel which the heat and the smell and her tiredness and the lump in her throat and the Magazine albums that Richard was playing made it impossible to concentrate on. When she got just intolerably hot, she went into the room where he was plastering and told him she was going for a walk.

He was shirtless, his chest hair flat and straight with running sweat. “Not a great neighborhood for that,” he said.

“Well, maybe you’ll come with me.”

“Give me another hour.”

“No, forget it,” she said, “I’ll just go by myself. Do we have a key to this place?”

“You really want to go out by yourself on crutches?”

“Yes, unless you want to come with me.”

“Which, as I just said, I would do in an hour.”

“Well, I don’t feel like waiting an hour.”

“In that case,” Richard said, “the key is on the kitchen table.”

“Why are you being so mean to me?”

He shut his eyes and seemed to count silently to ten. It was obvious how much he disliked women and the things they said.

“Why don’t you take a cold shower,” he said, “and wait for me to finish.”

“You know, yesterday, for a while, it seemed like you were liking me.”

“I do like you. I’m just doing some work here.”

“Fine,” she said. “Work.”

The streets in the afternoon sun were even hotter than the apartment. Patty swung herself along at a considerable clip, trying not to cry too obviously, trying to appear as if she knew where she was going. The river, when she came to it, looked more benign than it had in the night, looked merely weedy and polluted rather than evil and all-swallowing. On the other side of it were Mexican streets festooned for some imminent or recent Mexican holiday, or maybe just permanently festooned. She found an air-conditioned taqueria where she was stared at but not harassed and could sit and drink a Coke and wallow in her girlish misery. Her body so wanted Richard, but the rest of her could see that she’d made a Mistake in coming along with him: that everything she’d hoped for from him and Chicago had been a big fat fantasy in her head. Phrases familiar from high-school Spanish, lo siento and hace mucho calor and ¿qué quiere la señora?, kept surfacing in the surrounding hubbub. She summoned courage and ordered three tacos and devoured them and watched innumerable buses roll by outside the windows, each trailing a wake of shimmering filth. Time passed in a peculiar manner which the autobiographer, with her now rather abundant experience of murdered afternoons, is able to identify as depressive (at once interminable and sickeningly swift; chockfull second-to-second, devoid of content hour-by-hour), until finally, as the workday ended, groups of young laborers came in and began to pay too much attention to her, talking about her muletas, and she had to leave.

By the time she’d retraced her steps, the sun was an orange orb at the end of the east-west streets. Her intention, as she now allowed herself to realize, had been to stay out long enough to make Richard very worried about her, and in this she seemed completely to have failed. Nobody was home at the apartment. The walls of her room were nearly finished, the floor carefully swept, the bed neatly made up for her with real sheets and pillows. On the Indian bedspread was a note from Richard, in microscopic capital letters, giving her the address of a club and directions on how to take the El there. It concluded: WORD OF WARNING: I HAD TO BRING OUR HOSTS ALONG.

Before deciding whether to go out, Patty lay down for a short nap and was awakened many hours later, in great disorientation, by the return of Herrera’s friends. She hopped, one-legged, into the main room and there learned, from the most disagreeable of them, the underpanted one from the night before, that Richard had gone off with some other people and had asked that Patty be told not to wait up for him-he’d be back in plenty of time to get her to New York.

“What time is it now?” she said.

“About one o’clock.”

“In the morning?”

Herrera’s friend leered at her. “No, there’s a total eclipse of the sun.”

“And where is Richard?”

“He went off with a couple of girls he met. He didn’t say where.”

As noted, Patty was bad at computing driving distances. To get to Westchester in time to go with her family to the Mohonk Mountain House, she and Richard would have had to leave Chicago at five o’clock that morning. She slept long past that and awoke to gray and stormy weather, a different city, a different season. Richard was still nowhere in sight. She ate stale doughnuts and turned some pages of Hemingway until it was eleven and even she could see that the math wasn’t going to work.

She bit the bullet and called her parents, collect.

“Chicago!” Joyce said. “I can’t believe this. Are you near an airport? Can you catch a plane? We thought you’d be here by now. Daddy wants to get an early start, with all the weekend traffic.”

“I messed up,” Patty said. “I’m really sorry.”

“Well, can you get there by tomorrow morning? The big dinner isn’t until tomorrow night.”

“I’ll try really hard,” Patty said.

Joyce had been in the state assembly for three years now. If she had not gone on to enumerate to Patty all the relatives and family friends converging on Mohonk for this important tribute to a marriage, and the tremendous excitement with which Patty’s three siblings were anticipating the weekend, and how greatly honored she (Joyce) felt by the outpouring of sentiment from literally all four corners of the country, it’s possible that Patty would have done what it took to get to Mohonk. As things were, though, a strange peace and certainty settled over her while she listened to her mother. Light rain had begun to fall on Chicago; good smells of quenched concrete and Lake Michigan were carried inside by the wind stirring the canvas curtains. With an unfamiliar lack of resentment, a newly cool eye, Patty looked into herself and saw that no harm or even much hurt would come to anyone if she simply skipped the anniversary. Most of the work had already been done. She saw that she was almost free, and to take the last step felt kind of terrible, but not terrible in a bad way, if that makes any sense.

She was sitting by a window, smelling the rain and watching the wind bend the weeds and bushes on the roof of a long-abandoned factory, when the call from Richard came.

“Very sorry about this,” he said. “I’ll be there within the hour.”

“You don’t have to hurry,” she said. “It’s already way too late.”

“But your party’s tomorrow night.”

“No, Richard, that was the dinner. I was supposed to be there today. Today by five o’clock.”

“Shit. Are you kidding me?”

“Did you really not remember that?”

“It’s a little mixed up in my head at this point. I’m somewhat short on sleep.”

“OK, well, anyway. There’s no hurry at all. I think I’m going to go home now.”

And go home she did. Pushed her suitcase down the stairs and followed with her crutches, flagged a gypsy cab on Halstead Street, and took one Greyhound bus to Minneapolis and another to Hibbing, where Gene Berglund was dying in a Lutheran hospital. It was about forty degrees and pouring rain on the vacant small-hour streets of downtown Hibbing. Walter’s cheeks were rosier than ever. Outside the bus station, in his father’s cigarette-reeking gas-guzzler, Patty threw her arms around his neck and took the plunge of seeing how he kissed, and was gratified to find he did it very nicely.

Chapter 3: Free Markets Foster Competition

On the chance that, regarding Patty’s parents, a note of complaint or even outright blame has crept into these pages, the autobiographer here acknowledges her profound gratitude to Joyce and Ray for at least one thing, namely, their never encouraging her to be Creative in the Arts, the way they did with her sisters. Joyce and Ray’s neglect of Patty, however much it stung when she was younger, seems more and more benign when she considers her sisters, who are now in their early forties and living alone in New York, too eccentric and/or entitled-feeling to sustain a long-term relationship, and still accepting parental subsidies while struggling to achieve an artistic success that they were made to believe was their special destiny. It turns out to have been better after all to be considered dumb and dull than brilliant and extraordinary. This way, it’s a pleasant surprise that Patty is even a little bit Creative, rather than an embarrassment that she isn’t more so.

A great thing about the young Walter was how much he wanted Patty to win. Where Eliza had once mustered unsatisfying little driblets of partisanship on her behalf, Walter gave her full-bore infusions of hostility toward anybody (her parents, her siblings) who made her feel bad. And since he was so intellectually honest in other areas of life, he had excellent credibility when he criticized her family and signed on with her questionable programs of competing with it. He may not have been exactly what she wanted in a man, but he was unsurpassable in providing the rabid fandom which, at the time, she needed even more than romance.

It’s easy now to see that Patty would have been well advised to take some years to develop a career and a more solid post-athletic identity, get some experience with other kinds of men, and generally acquire more maturity before embarking on being a mother. But even though she was finished as an intercollegiate player, there was still a shot clock in her head, she was still in the buzzer’s thrall, she needed more than ever to keep winning. And the way to win-her obvious best shot at defeating her sisters and her mother-was to marry the nicest guy in Minnesota, live in a bigger and better and more interesting house than anybody else in her family, pop out the babies, and do everything as a parent that Joyce hadn’t. And Walter, despite being an avowed feminist and an annually renewing Student-level member of Zero Population Growth, embraced her entire domestic program without reservation, because she really was exactly what he wanted in a woman.

They got married three weeks after her college graduation-almost exactly a year after she’d taken the bus to Hibbing. It had fallen to Walter’s mom, Dorothy, to frown and express concern, in her soft and tentative and nevertheless quite stubborn way, about Patty’s determination to be married at the Hennepin County courthouse instead of in a proper wedding hosted by her parents in Westchester. Wouldn’t it be better, Dorothy softly wondered, to include the Emersons? She understood that Patty wasn’t close to her family, but, still, mightn’t she later come to regret excluding them from such a momentous occasion? Patty tried to paint Dorothy a picture of what a Westchester wedding would be like: two hundred or so of Joyce and Ray’s closest friends and Joyce’s biggest-ticket campaign contributors; pressure from Joyce on Patty to select her middle sister as the maid of honor and to let her other sister do an interpretive dance during the ceremony; unbridled champagne intake leading Ray to make some joke about lesbians within earshot of Patty’s basketball friends. Dorothy’s eyes welled up a little, maybe in sympathy with Patty or maybe in sadness at Patty’s coldness and harshness on the subject of her family. Wouldn’t it be possible, she softly persisted, to insist on a small private ceremony in which everything would be exactly how Patty wanted it?

Not the least of Patty’s reasons to avoid a wedding was the fact that Richard would have to be Walter’s best man. Her thinking here was partly obvious and partly had to do with her fear of what would happen if Richard ever met her middle sister. (The autobiographer will now finally man up and say the sister’s name: Abigail.) It was bad enough that Eliza had had Richard; to see him hooking up with Abigail, even for one night, would have just about finished Patty off. Needless to say, she didn’t mention this to Dorothy. She said she guessed she just wasn’t a very ceremonial person.

As a concession, she did take Walter to meet her family in the spring before she married him. It pains the autobiographer to admit that she was a tiny bit embarrassed to let her family see him, and, worse, that this may have been another reason why she didn’t want a wedding. She loved him (and does love him, does love him) for qualities that made abundant sense to her in their two-person private world but weren’t necessarily apparent to the sort of critical eye that she was sure her sisters, Abigail in particular, would train on him. His nervous giggle, his too-readily reddening face, his very niceness: these attributes were dear to her in the larger context of the man. A source of pride, even. But the unkind part of her, which exposure to her family always seemed to bring out in force, couldn’t help regretting that he wasn’t six-foot-four and very cool.

Joyce and Ray, to their credit, and perhaps in their secret relief that Patty had turned out to be heterosexual (secret because Joyce, for one, stood ready to be strenuously Welcoming to Difference), were on their very best behavior. Hearing that Walter had never been to New York, they became gracious ambassadors to the city, urging Patty to take him to museum exhibitions that Joyce herself had been too busy in Albany to have seen, and then meeting up with them for dinner at Times-approved restaurants, including one in SoHo, which was then still a dark and exciting neighborhood. Patty’s worry that her parents would make fun of Walter gave way to the worry that Walter would take their side and not see why they were unbearable to her: would begin to suspect that the real problem was Patty, and would lose that blind faith in her goodness which already, in less than a year with him, she had rather desperately come to count on.

Thankfully Abigail, who was a high-end restaurant hound and insisted on turning several of the dinners into awkward fivesomes, was in peak disagreeable form. Unable to imagine people gathering for some reason besides listening to her, she prattled about the world of New York theater (by definition an unfair world since she had made no progress in it since her understudy breakthrough); about the “sleazy slimeball” Yale professor with whom she’d had insuperable Creative differences; about some friend of hers named Tammy who’d self-financed a production of Hedda Gabler in which she (Tammy) had brilliantly starred; about hangovers and rent control and disturbing third-party sexual incidents that Ray, refilling and refilling his own wineglass, demanded every prurient detail of. Midway through the final dinner, in SoHo, Patty got so fed up with Abigail’s shanghaiing of the attention that ought to have been lavished on Walter (who had politely attended to every word of Abigail’s) that she flat-out told her sister to shut up and let other people talk. There ensued a bad interval of silent manipulation of tableware. Then Patty, making comical gestures of drawing water from a well, got Walter talking about himself. Which was a mistake, in hindsight, because Walter was passionate about public policy and, not knowing what real politicians are like, believed that a state assemblywoman would be interested in hearing his ideas.

He asked Joyce if she was familiar with the Club of Rome. Joyce confessed that she was not. Walter explained that the Club of Rome (one of whose members he’d invited to Macalester for a lecture two years earlier) was devoted to exploring the limits of growth. Mainstream economic theory, both Marxist and free-market, Walter said, took for granted that economic growth was always a positive thing. A GDP growth rate of one or two percent was considered modest, and a population growth rate of one percent was considered desirable, and yet, he said, if you compounded these rates over a hundred years, the numbers were terrible: a world population of eighteen billion and world energy consumption ten times greater than today’s. And if you went another hundred years, with steady growth, well, the numbers were simply impossible. So the Club of Rome was seeking more rational and humane ways of putting the brakes on growth than simply destroying the planet and letting everybody starve to death or kill each other.

“The Club of Rome,” Abigail said. “Is that like an Italian Playboy Club?”

“No,” Walter said quietly. “It’s a group of people who are challenging our preoccupation with growth. I mean, everybody is so obsessed with growth, but when you think about it, for a mature organism, a growth is basically a cancer, right? If you have a growth in your mouth, or a growth in your colon, it’s bad news, right? So there’s this small group of intellectuals and philanthropists who are trying to step outside our tunnel vision and influence government policy at the highest levels, both in Europe and the Western Hemisphere.”

“The Bunnies of Rome,” Abigail said.

“Nor-fock-a Virginia!” Ray said in a grotesque Italian accent.

Joyce loudly cleared her throat. En famille, when Ray became silly and dirty because of wine, she could simply retreat into her private Joycean reveries, but in her future son-in-law’s presence she had no choice but to be embarrassed. “Walter is talking about an interesting idea,” she said. “I’m not particularly familiar with this idea, or with this… club. But it’s certainly a very provocative perspective on our world situation.”

Walter, not seeing the little neck-slicing gesture that Patty was making, pressed on. “The whole reason we need something like the Club of Rome,” he said, “is that a rational conversation about growth is going to have to begin outside the ordinary political process. Obviously you know this yourself, Joyce. If you’re trying to get elected, you can’t even talk about slowing the growth rate, let alone reversing it. It’s total political poison.”

“Safe to say,” Joyce said with a dry laugh.

“But somebody has to talk about it, and try to influence policy, because otherwise we’re going to kill the planet. We’re going to choke on our own multiplication.”

“Speaking of choking, Daddy,” Abigail said, “is that your private bottle there, or can we have some, too?”

“We’ll get another,” Ray said.

“I don’t think we need another,” Joyce said.

Ray raised his Joyce-stilling hand. “Joyce-just-just-calm down. We’re fine here.”

Patty, with a frozen smile, sat looking at the glamorous and plutocratic parties at other tables in the restaurant’s lovely discreet light. There was, of course, nowhere better in the world to be than New York City. This fact was the foundation of her family’s satisfaction with itself, the platform from which all else could be ridiculed, the collateral of adult sophistication that bought them the right to behave like children. To be Patty and sitting in that SoHo restaurant was to confront a force she had not the slightest chance of competing with. Her family had claimed New York and was never going to budge. Simply never coming here again-just forgetting that restaurant scenes like this even existed-was her only option.

“You’re not a wine drinker,” Ray said to Walter.

“I’m sure I could become one if I wanted,” Walter said.

“This is a very nice amarone, if you want to try a little.”

“No, thank you.”

“You sure?” Ray waved the bottle at Walter.

“Yes he’s sure!” Patty cried. “He’s only said it every night for the last four nights! Hello? Ray? Not everybody wants to be drunk and disgusting and rude. Some people actually enjoy having an adult conversation instead of making sex jokes for two hours.”

Ray grinned as if she’d been amusing. Joyce unfolded her half-glasses to examine the dessert menu while Walter blushed and Abigail, with a spastic neck-twist and a sour frown, said, “ ‘Ray’? ‘Ray’? We call him ‘Ray’ now?”

The next morning, Joyce quaveringly told Patty: “Walter is much more-I don’t know if the right word is conservative, or what, I guess not exactly conservative, although, actually, from the standpoint of democratic process, and power flowing upward from the people, and prosperity for all, not exactly autocratic, but, in a way, yes, almost conservative-than I’d expected.”

Ray, two months later, at Patty’s graduation, with a poorly suppressed snicker, said to Patty: “Walter got so red in the face about that growth stuff, my God, I thought he was going to have a stroke.”

And Abigail, six months after that, at the only Thanksgiving that Patty and Walter were ever foolish enough to celebrate in Westchester, said to Patty: “How are things going with the Club of Rome? Have you guys joined the Club of Rome yet? Have you learned the passwords? Have you sat in the leather chairs?”

Patty, at LaGuardia Airport, sobbing, said to Walter: “I hate my family!”

And Walter valiantly replied: “We’ll make our own family!”

Poor Walter. First he’d set aside his acting and filmmaking dreams out of a sense of financial obligation to his parents, and then no sooner had his dad set him free by dying than he teamed up with Patty and set aside his planet-saving aspirations and went to work for 3M, so that Patty could have her excellent old house and stay home with the babies. The whole thing happened almost without discussion. He got excited about the plans that excited her, he threw himself into renovating the house and defending her against her family. It wasn’t until years later-after Patty had begun to Disappoint him-that he became more forgiving of the other Emersons and insisted that she was the lucky one, the only Emerson to escape the shipwreck and survive to tell the tale. He said that Abigail, who’d been left stranded to scavenge emotional meals on an island of great scarcity (Manhattan Island!), should be forgiven for monopolizing conversations in her attempt to feed herself. He said that Patty should pity her siblings, not blame them, for not having had the strength or the luck to get away: for being so hungry. But this all came much later. In the early years, he was so fired up about Patty, she could do no wrong. And very nice years they were.

Walter’s own competitiveness wasn’t family-oriented. By the time she met him, he’d already won that game. At the poker table of being a Berglund, he’d been dealt every ace except maybe looks and ease with women. (His older brother-who is currently on his third young wife, who is working hard to support him-got that particular ace.) Walter not only knew about the Club of Rome and read difficult novels and appreciated Igor Stravinsky, he could also sweat a copper pipe joint and do finish carpentry and identify birds by their songs and take good care of a problematic woman. He was so much his family’s winner that he could afford to make regular voyages back to help the others.

“I guess now you’re going to have to see where I grew up,” he’d said to Patty outside the Hibbing bus station, after she’d aborted the road trip with Richard. They were in his dad’s Crown Victoria, which they’d fogged up with their hot and heavy breathing.

“I want to see your room,” Patty said. “I want to see everything. I think you’re a wonderful person!”

Hearing this, he had to kiss her for another long while before resuming his anxiety. “Be that as it may,” he said, “I’m still embarrassed to take you home.”

“Don’t be embarrassed. You should see my home. It’s a freak show.”

“Yeah, well, this is not anything as interesting as that. This is just your basic Iron Range squalor.”

“So let’s go. I want to see it. I want to sleep with you.”

“That sounds great,” he said, “but I think my mom might be uncomfortable with it.”

“I want to sleep near you. And then I want to have breakfast with you.”

“That we can arrange.”

In truth, the scene at the Whispering Pines was sobering to Patty and touched off a moment of doubt about what she’d done by coming to Hibbing; it unsettled that self-contained state of mind in which she’d run to a guy who physically didn’t do for her what his best friend did. The motel wasn’t so bad from the outside, and there was a non-depressing number of cars in the parking lot, but the living quarters, behind the office, were indeed a long way from Westchester. They lit up a whole previously invisible universe of privilege, her own suburban privilege; she had an unexpected pang of homesickness. The floors were spongily carpeted and sloped perceptibly toward the creek in back. In the living/dining area was a hubcap-sized, extensively crenellated ceramic ashtray within easy reach of the davenport where Gene Berglund had read his fishing and hunting magazines and watched whatever programming the motel’s antenna (rigged, as she saw the next morning, to the top of a decapitated pine tree behind the septic field) was able to pull down from stations in the Twin Cities and Duluth. Walter’s little bedroom, which he’d shared with his younger brother, was at the bottom of the downslope and permanently damp with creek vapors. Running down the middle of the carpeting was a line of gummy residue from the duct tape that Walter had put down as a child to demarcate his private space. Paraphernalia from his striving childhood were still ranged along the far wall: Boy Scout handbooks and awards, a complete set of abridged presidential biographies, a partial set of World Book Encyclopedia volumes, skeletons of small animals, an empty aquarium, stamp and coin collections, a scientific thermometer/barometer with wires leading out a window. On the room’s warped door was a yellowed homemade No Smoking sign, lettered in red crayon, its N and its S unsteady but tall in their defiance.

“My first act of rebellion,” Walter said.

“How old were you?” Patty said.

“I don’t know. Maybe ten. My little brother had bad asthma.”

Outside, the rain was coming down hard. Dorothy was asleep in her room, but Walter and Patty were both still buzzing with lust. He showed her the “lounge” that his dad had operated, the impressive stuffed walleye mounted on the wall, the birch-plywood bar that he’d helped his dad build. Until recently, when he had to be hospitalized, Gene had stood smoking and drinking behind this bar in the late afternoon, waiting for his friends to get off work and give him business.

“So this is me,” Walter said. “This is where I come from.”

“I love that you come from here.”

“I’m not sure what you mean by that, but I’ll take it.”

“Just that I admire you so much.”

“That’s good. I guess.” He went to the front desk and looked at keys. “How does Room 21 sound to you?”

“Is it a good room?”

“It’s very much like all the other rooms.”

“I’m twenty-one years old. So it’s perfect.”

Room 21 was full of faded and abraded surfaces that, in lieu of being refurbished, had been subjected to decades of vigorous scouring. The creek-dampness was noticeable but not overwhelming. The beds were low and standard sized, not queen.

“You don’t have to stay if you don’t want,” Walter said, setting her bag down. “I can take you back to the station in the morning.”

“No! This is fine. I’m not here for vacation. I’m here to see you, and to try to be useful.”

“Right. I’m just worried that I’m not actually what you want.”

“Oh, well, worry no more.”

“Well, I’m still worried.”

She made him lie down on a bed and tried to reassure him with her body. Soon enough, though, his worry boiled up again. He righted himself and asked her why she’d gone on the road trip with Richard. It was a question she’d allowed herself to hope he wouldn’t ask.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess I wanted to see what a road trip was like.”


“There was something I had to see about. That’s the only way I can explain it. There was something I had to find out. And I found it out, and now I’m here.”

“What did you find out?”

“I found out where I wanted to be, and who I wanted to be with.”

“Well, that was quick.”

“It was a stupid mistake,” she said. “He’s got a way of looking at a person, as I’m sure you know. It takes a while for a person to sort out what she actually wants. Please don’t blame me for that.”

“I’m just impressed that you sorted it out so quickly.”

She had an impulse to start crying, and yielded to it, and Walter for a while became his best comforting self.

“He wasn’t nice to me,” she said through tears. “And you’re the opposite of that. And I so, so, so need the opposite of that right now. Can you please be nice?”

“I can be nice,” he said, stroking her head.

“I swear you won’t be sorry.”

These were exactly her words, in the autobiographer’s sorry recollection.

Here’s something else the autobiographer vividly remembers: the violence with which Walter then grabbed her shoulders and rolled her onto her back and loomed over her, pressing himself between her legs, with an utterly unfamiliar look on his face. It was a look of rage, and it became him. It was like curtains suddenly parting on something beautiful and manly.

“This is not about you,” he said. “Do you get that? I love every bit of you. Every inch of you. Every inch. From the minute I saw you. Do you get that?”

“Yes,” she said. “I mean, thank you. I kind of had that sense, but it’s really good to hear.”

He wasn’t done, though.

“Do you understand that I have a… a…” He searched for words. “A problem. With Richard. I have a problem.”

“What problem?”

“I don’t trust him. I love him, but I don’t trust him.”

“Oh, God,” Patty said, “you should definitely trust him. He obviously cares about you, too. He’s incredibly protective of you.”

“Not always.”

“Well, he was with me. Do you realize how much he admires you?”

Walter stared down at her furiously. “Then why did you go with him? Why was he in Chicago with you? What the fuck? I don’t understand!”

Hearing him say fuck, and seeing how horrified he seemed by his own anger, she began to cry again. “God, please, God, please, God, please,” she said, “I’m here. OK? I’m here for you! And nothing happened in Chicago. Truly nothing.”

She pulled him closer, pulled hard on his hips. But instead of touching her breasts or taking her jeans down, as Richard surely would have, he stood up and began pacing Room 21.

“I’m not sure this is right,” he said. “Because, you know, I’m not stupid. I have eyes and ears, I’m not stupid. I really don’t know what to do now.”

It was a relief to hear that he wasn’t stupid about Richard; but she felt she’d run out of ways to reassure him. She simply lay there on the bed, listening to the rain on the roof, aware that she could have avoided this whole scene by never getting in a car with Richard; aware that she deserved some punishment. And yet it was hard not to imagine better ways for things to have gone. It was all such a foretaste of the late-night scenes of later years: Walter’s beautiful rage going wasted while she wept and he punished her and apologized for punishing her, saying that they were both exhausted and it was very late, which indeed it was: so late that it was early.

“I’m going to take a bath,” she said finally.

He was sitting on the other bed, his face in his hands. “I’m sorry,” he said. “This is truly not about you.”

“Actually, you know what? That is not my very favorite thing to keep hearing.”

“I’m sorry. Believe it or not, I mean something nice by it.”

“And ‘sorry’ is not really high on my list at this point, either.”

Without taking his hands from his face, he asked if she needed help with the bath.

“I’m fine,” she said, although it was something of a production to bathe with her braced and bandaged knee propped up outside the water. When she emerged from the bathroom in her pajamas, half an hour later, Walter appeared not to have moved a muscle. She stood in front of him, looking down at his fair curls and narrow shoulders. “Listen, Walter,” she said. “I can leave in the morning if you want. But I need to get some sleep now. You should go to bed, too.”

He nodded.

“I’m sorry I went to Chicago with Richard. It was my idea, not his. You should blame me, not him. But right now? You’re making me feel kind of shitty.”

He nodded and stood up.

“Kiss me good night?” she said.

He did, and it was better than fighting, so much better that soon they were under the covers and turning off the lamp. Daylight was leaking in around the curtains-dawn in May came early in the north country.

“I know essentially nothing about sex,” Walter confessed.

“Oh, well,” she said, “it’s not very complicated.”

And so began the happiest years of their life. For Walter, especially, it was a very giddy time. He took possession of the girl he wanted, the girl who could have gone with Richard but had chosen him instead, and then, three days later, at the Lutheran hospital, his lifelong struggle against his father ended with his father’s death. (To be dead is to be as beaten as a dad can get.) Patty was with Walter and Dorothy at the hospital that morning, and was moved by their tears to do some crying of her own, and it felt to her, as they drove back to the motel in near-silence, that she was already practically married.

In the motel parking lot, after Dorothy had gone inside to lie down, Patty watched Walter do a strange thing. He sprinted from one end of the lot to the other, leaping as he ran, bouncing on his toes before he turned around and ran some more. It was a glorious clear morning, with a steady strong breeze from the north, the pine trees along the creek literally whispering. At the end of one of his sprints, Walter hopped up and down and then turned away from Patty and started running down Route 73, way down around the bend and out of sight, and was gone for an hour.

That next afternoon, in Room 21, in broad daylight, with the windows open and the faded curtains billowing, they laughed and cried and fucked with a joy whose gravity and innocence it fairly wrecks the autobiographer to think back on, and cried some more and fucked some more and lay next to each other with sweating bodies and full hearts and listened to the sighing of the pines. Patty felt like she’d taken some powerful drug that wasn’t wearing off, or like she’d fallen into an incredibly vivid dream that she wasn’t waking up from, except that she was fully aware, from second to second to second, that it wasn’t a drug or a dream but just life happening to her, a life with only a present and no past, a romance unlike any romance she’d imagined. Because Room 21! How could she have imagined Room 21? It was such a sweetly clean old-fashioned room, and Walter such a sweetly clean old-fashioned person. And she was 21 and could feel her 21ness in the young, clean, strong wind that was blowing down from Canada. Her little taste of eternity.

More than four hundred people came out for his dad’s funeral. On Gene’s behalf, without even having known him, Patty was proud of the huge turnout. (It helps to die early if you want a big funeral.) Gene had been a hospitable guy who liked to fish and hunt and hang out with his buddies, most of them veterans, and who’d had the misfortune of being alcoholic and poorly educated and married to a person who invested her hopes and dreams and best love in their middle son, rather than in him. Walter would never forgive Gene for having worked Dorothy so hard at the motel, but frankly, in the autobiographer’s opinion, although Dorothy was incredibly sweet, she was also definitely one of those martyr types. The after-funeral reception, in a Lutheran function hall, was Patty’s total-immersion crash course in Walter’s extended family, a festival of Bundt cake and determination to see the bright side of everything. All five of Dorothy’s living siblings were there, as was Walter’s older brother, newly released from jail, with his trampy-pretty (first) wife and their two little kids, and so was their taciturn younger brother in his Army dress uniform. The only important person missing, really, was Richard.

Walter had called him with the news, of course, though even this had been complicated, since it involved tracking down Richard’s ever-elusive bass player, Herrera, in Minneapolis. Richard had just arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey. After giving Walter his telephonic condolences, he said that he was wiped out financially and sorry he couldn’t make it to the funeral. Walter assured him this was totally fine, and then proceeded for several years to hold it against Richard that he hadn’t made the effort, which was not entirely fair, given that Walter had already secretly been mad at Richard and hadn’t even wanted him at the funeral. But Patty knew better than to be the one to point this out.

When they made their New York trip, a year later, she suggested that Walter look Richard up and spend an afternoon with him, but Walter pointed out that he had twice called Richard in recent months while Richard had not initiated any calls to him. Patty said, “But he’s your best friend,” and Walter said, “No, you’re my best friend,” and Patty said, “Well, then, he’s your best male friend, and you should look him up.” But Walter insisted it had always been like this-that he’d always felt more like the pursuer than the pursued; that there was a kind of brinksmanship between them, a competition not to be the first to blink and show need-and he was sick of it. He said this wasn’t the first time Richard had done his disappearing act. If he still wanted to be friends, Walter said, then maybe, for once, he could trouble himself to do the calling. Though Patty suspected that Richard might still be feeling sheepish about the Chicago episode and trying not to intrude on Walter’s domestic bliss, and that it might therefore behoove Walter to assure him he was still welcome, she again knew better than to push.

Where Eliza imagined a gay thing between Walter and Richard, the autobiographer now sees a sibling thing. Once Walter had outgrown being sat on and punched in the head by his older brother and sitting on his younger brother and punching his head, there was no satisfactory competition to be found in his own family. He’d needed an extra brother to love and hate and compete with. And the eternally tormenting question for Walter, as the autobiographer sees it, was whether Richard was the little brother or the big brother, the fuckup or the hero, the beloved damaged friend or the dangerous rival.

As with Patty, Walter claimed to have loved Richard at first sight. It had happened on his first night at Macalester, after his dad had dropped him off and hurried to get back to Hibbing, where Canadian Club was calling to him from the lounge. Walter had sent Richard a nice letter in the summer, using an address provided by the housing office, but Richard hadn’t written back. On one of the beds in their dorm room was a guitar case, a cardboard carton, and a duffel bag. Walter didn’t see the owner of this minimal luggage until after dinner, at a dorm hall meeting. It was a moment he later described to Patty many times: how, standing in a corner, apart from everybody else, there was a kid he couldn’t take his eyes off, a very tall acned person with a Jewfro and an Iggy Pop T-shirt who looked nothing like the other freshmen and didn’t laugh, didn’t even smile politely, at the jokey orientative spiel their R.A. was giving them. Walter himself had great compassion for people attempting to be funny, and laughed loudly to reward them for their effort, and yet he instantly knew he wanted to be friends with the tall unsmiling person. He hoped this was his roommate, and it was.

Remarkably enough, Richard liked him. It started with the accident of Walter’s having come from the town Bob Dylan grew up in. Back in their room, after the meeting, Richard plied him with questions about Hibbing, what the scene there was like, and whether Walter had personally known any Zimmermans. Walter explained about the motel being several miles outside town, but the motel itself impressed Richard, as did the fact that Walter was a full-scholarship student with an alcoholic dad. Richard said he hadn’t written back to Walter because his own dad had died of lung cancer five weeks earlier. He said that since Bob Dylan was an asshole, the beautifully pure kind of asshole who made a young musician want to be an asshole himself, he’d always imagined that Hibbing was an asshole-filled kind of place. Downy-cheeked Walter, sitting in that dorm room, eagerly listening to his new roommate and trying hard to impress him, was a vivid refutation of this theory.

Already, that first night, Richard made comments about girls which Walter never forgot. He said he was unfavorably impressed with the high percentage of overweight chicks at Macalester. He said he’d spent the afternoon walking the surrounding streets, trying to figure out where the townie chicks hung out. He said he’d been astonished by how many people had smiled and said hello to him. Even the good-looking chicks had smiled and said hi. Was it like this in Hibbing, too? He said that, at his dad’s funeral, he’d gotten to know a very hot cousin of his who was unfortunately only thirteen and was now sending him letters about her adventures in masturbation. Although Walter never needed much of a push in the direction of solicitude toward women, the autobiographer can’t help thinking about the polarizing specialization of achievement that comes with sibling rivalry, and wondering if Richard’s obsession with scoring might have given Walter an additional incentive not to compete on that particular turf.

Important fact: Richard had no relationship with his mom. She hadn’t even come to his dad’s funeral. By Richard’s own account to Patty (much later), the mom was an unstable person who eventually became a religious nut but not before making life hellish for the guy who’d got her pregnant at nineteen. Richard’s dad had been a saxophone player and bohemian in Greenwich Village. The mom was a tall, rebellious WASP girl of good family and bad self-control. After four raucous years of drinking and serial infidelity, she stuck Mr. Katz with the job of raising their son (first in the Village, later in Yonkers) while she went off to California and found Jesus and brought forth four more kids. Mr. Katz quit playing music but not, alas, drinking. He ended up working for the postal service and never remarrying, and it’s safe to say that his various young girlfriends, in the years before drink fully ruined him, did little to provide the stabilizing maternal presence that Richard needed. One of them robbed their apartment before disappearing; another relieved Richard of his virginity while babysitting him. Soon after that episode, Mr. Katz sent Richard to spend a summer with his stepfamily, but he lasted less than a week with them. On his first day in California, the entire family gathered around him and joined hands to give thanks to God for his safe arrival, and apparently things got only wackier from there.

Walter’s parents, who were merely social churchgoers, opened their home to the tall orphan. Dorothy was especially fond of Richard-may, indeed, have had a demure little Dorothyish thing for him-and encouraged him to spend his vacations in Hibbing. Richard needed little encouragement, having nowhere else to go. He delighted Gene by showing interest in shooting guns and more generally by not being the sort of “hoity-toity” person Gene had been afraid that Walter would take up with, and he impressed Dorothy by pitching in with chores. As previously noted, Richard had a strong (if highly intermittent) wish to be a good person, and he was scrupulously polite to people, like Dorothy, whom he considered Good. His manner with her, as he questioned her about some ordinary casserole she’d made, asking where she’d found the recipe and where a person learned about balanced diets, struck Walter as fake and condescending, since the chances of Richard ever actually buying groceries and making a casserole himself were nil, and since Richard reverted to his ordinary hard self as soon as Dorothy was out of the room. But Walter was in competition with him, and though Walter may not have excelled at picking up townie chicks, the province of listening to women with sincere attentiveness most definitely was his turf, and he guarded it fiercely. The autobiographer thus considers herself more reliable than Walter regarding the authenticity of Richard’s respect for goodness.

What was unquestionably admirable in Richard was his quest to better himself and fill the void created by his lack of parenting. He’d survived childhood by playing music and reading books of his own idiosyncratic choosing, and part of what attracted him to Walter was Walter’s intellect and work ethic. Richard was deeply read in certain areas (French existentialism, Latin American literature), but he had no method, no system, and was genuinely in awe of Walter’s intellectual focus. Though he paid Walter the respect of never treating him with the hyper-politeness he reserved for those he considered Good, he loved hearing Walter’s ideas and pressing him to explain his unusual political convictions.

The autobiographer suspects there was also a perverse competitive advantage for Richard in befriending an uncool kid from the north country. It was a way of setting himself apart from the hipsters at Macalester who came from more privileged backgrounds. Richard disdained these hipsters (including the female ones, though this didn’t preclude fucking them when opportunities arose) with the same intensity as the hipsters themselves disdained people like Walter. The Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back was such a touchstone for both Richard and Walter that Patty eventually rented it and watched it with Walter, one night when the kids were little, so that she could see the famous scene in which Dylan outshone and humiliated the singer Donovan at a party for cool people in London, purely for the pleasure of being an asshole. Though Walter felt sorry for Donovan-and, what’s more, felt bad about himself for not wanting to be more like Dylan and less like Donovan-Patty found the scene thrilling. The breathtaking nakedness of Dylan’s competitiveness! Her feeling was: Let’s face it, victory is very sweet. The scene helped her understand why Richard had preferred to hang out with unmusical Walter, rather than the hipsters.

Intellectually, Walter was definitely the big brother and Richard his follower. And yet, for Richard, being smart, like being good, was just a sideshow to the main competitive effort. This was what Walter had in mind when he said he didn’t trust his friend. He could never shake the feeling that Richard was hiding stuff from him; that there was a dark side of him always going off in the night to pursue motives he wouldn’t admit to; that he was happy to be friends with Walter as long as it was understood that he was the top dog. Richard was especially unreliable whenever a girl entered the picture, and Walter resented these girls for being even momentarily more compelling than he was. Richard himself never saw it this way, because he tired of girls so quickly and always ended up kicking them to the curb; he always came back to Walter, whom he didn’t get tired of. But to Walter it seemed disloyal of his friend to put so much energy into pursuing people he didn’t even like. It made Walter feel weak and small to be forever available for Richard to come back to. He was tormented by the suspicion that he loved Richard more than Richard loved him, and was doing more than Richard to make the friendship work.

The first big crisis came during their senior year, two years before Patty met them, when Walter was smitten with the evil sophomore personage named Nomi. To hear Richard tell it (as Patty once did), the situation was straightforward: his sexually naïve friend was being exploited by a worthless female who wasn’t into him, and Richard finally took it upon himself to demonstrate her worthlessness. According to Richard, the girl wasn’t worth competing over, she was just a mosquito to be slapped. But Walter saw things very differently. He got so angry with Richard that he refused to speak to him for weeks. They were sharing a two-room double of the sort reserved for seniors, and every night when Richard came in through Walter’s room, on his way to his own more private room, he stopped to engage in one-sided conversations that a disinterested observer would probably have found amusing.

Richard: “Still not speaking to me. This is remarkable. How long is this going to last?”

Walter: silence.

Richard: “If you don’t want me to sit down and watch you read, just say the word.”

Walter: silence.

Richard: “Interesting book? You don’t seem to be turning the pages.”

Walter: silence.

Richard: “You know what you’re being? You’re being like a girl. This is what girls do. This is bullshit, Walter. This is kind of pissing me off.”

Walter: silence.

Richard: “If you’re waiting for me to apologize, it’s not going to happen. I’ll tell you that right now. I’m sorry you’re hurt, but my conscience is clear.”

Walter: silence.

Richard: “You do understand, don’t you, that you’re the only reason I’m even still here. If you’d asked me four years ago, what are the odds of me graduating from college, I would have said small to nonexistent.”

Walter: silence.

Richard: “Seriously, I’m a little disappointed.”

Walter: silence.

Richard: “OK. Fuck it. Be a girl. I don’t care.”

Walter: silence.

Richard: “Look. If I had a drug problem and you threw away my drugs, I’d be pissed off at you, but I’d also understand that you were trying to do me a favor.”

Walter: silence.

Richard: “Admittedly not a perfect analogy, in that I actually, so to speak, used the drugs, instead of just throwing them away. But if you were prone to crippling addiction, whereas I was just doing something recreational, on the theory that it’s a shame to waste good drugs…”

Walter: silence.

Richard: “All right, so it’s a dumb analogy.”

Walter: silence.

Richard: “That was funny. You should be laughing at that.”

Walter: silence.

So, at any rate, the autobiographer imagines it, based on the later testimony of both parties. Walter maintained his silence until Easter vacation, when he went home alone and Dorothy managed to extract the reason he hadn’t brought Richard along with him. “You have to take people the way they are,” Dorothy told him. “Richard’s a good friend, and you should be loyal to him.” (Dorothy was big on loyalty-it lent meaning to her not so pleasant life-and Patty often heard Walter quoting her admonition; he seemed to attach almost scriptural significance to it.) He pointed out that Richard himself had been extremely disloyal in stealing a girl Walter cared about, but Dorothy, who herself perhaps had fallen under the Katzian spell, said she didn’t believe that Richard had done it deliberately to hurt him. “It’s good to have friends in life,” she said. “If you want to have friends, you have to remember that nobody’s perfect.”

An additional vexing wrinkle to the girl issue was the fact that the ones Richard attracted were almost invariably big music fans, [2] and that Walter, being Richard’s oldest and biggest fan, was in bitter competition with them. Girls who otherwise might have been friendly to a lover’s best friend, or at least tolerant of him, found it necessary to be frosty to Walter, because serious fans always need to feel uniquely connected to the object of their fandom; they jealously guard those points of connection, however tiny or imaginary, that justify the feeling of uniqueness. Girls understandably considered it impossible to be any more connected to Richard than locked in coitus with him, mingling actual fluids. Walter seemed to them merely a pestering small insect of irrelevance, even though it was Walter who had turned Richard on to Anton von Webern and Benjamin Britten, it was Walter who had given Richard a political framework for his angriest early songs, it was Walter whom Richard actually loved in a meaningful way. And it was bad enough to be treated with such consistent frostiness by sexy girls, but even worse was Walter’s suspicion-confessed to Patty in the years when they’d kept no secrets from each other-that he was at root no different than any of those girls: that he, too, was a kind of parasite on Richard, trying to feel cooler and better about himself by means of his unique connection to him. And, worst of all, his suspicion that Richard knew it, and was made all the lonelier by it, and all the more guarded.

The situation was especially toxic in the case of Eliza, who wasn’t content to ignore Walter but went out of her way to make him feel bad. How, Walter wondered, could Richard keep sleeping with a person so deliberately nasty to his best friend? Walter was grownup enough by then not to do the silence thing, but he did stop making meals for Richard, and the main reason he kept going to Richard’s gigs was to show his displeasure with Eliza, and, later, to try to shame Richard into not using the coke she was keeping him supplied with. Of course there was no shaming Richard into anything. Not then, not ever.

The particulars of their conversations about Patty are, sadly, unknown, but the autobiographer is pleased to think they were nothing like their conversations about Nomi or Eliza. It’s possible that Richard urged Walter to be more assertive with her, and that Walter replied with some guff about her having been raped or being on crutches, but there are few things harder to imagine than other people’s conversations about yourself. What Richard was privately feeling about Patty did eventually become clearer to her-the autobiographer is getting to that, albeit rather slowly. For now, it’s enough to note that he migrated to New York and stayed there, and that for a number of years Walter was so busy building his own life with Patty that he hardly even seemed to miss him.

What was happening was that Richard was becoming more Richard and Walter more Walter. Richard settled in Jersey City, decided it was finally safe to experiment with social drinking, and then, after a period he later described as “fairly dissolute,” decided, no, not so safe after all. As long as he’d lived with Walter, he’d avoided the alcohol that had ruined his dad, used coke only when other people were paying, and moved forward steadily with his music. On his own, he was a mess for quite a while. It took him and Herrera three years to get the Traumatics reconstituted, with the pretty, damaged blonde Molly Tremain sharing the vocals, and to put out their first LP, Greetings from the Bottom of the Mine Shaft, with the tiniest of labels. Walter went to see the band play at the Entry when they came through Minneapolis, but he was home again with Patty and the infant Jessica, carrying six copies of the LP, by ten-thirty in the evening. Richard had developed a day-job niche in building urban rooftop decks for the sort of Lower Manhattan gentry who got a contact cool from hanging out with artists and musicians, i.e., didn’t mind if their deck-builder’s workday began at 2 p.m. and ended a few hours later, and if it therefore took him three weeks to do a five-day job. The band’s second record, In Case You Hadn’t Noticed, attracted no more notice than the first, but its third, Reactionary Splendor, was released by a less-tiny label and got mentioned on several year-end Best Ten lists. This time, when Richard came through Minnesota, he phoned in advance and was able to spend an afternoon at Patty and Walter’s house with the polite but bored and mostly silent Molly, who either was or wasn’t his girlfriend.

That afternoon-to the surprisingly small extent that the autobiographer remembers it-was especially nice for Walter. Patty had her hands full with the kids and with her attempts to induce Molly to utter polysyllables, but Walter was able to show off all the work he was doing on the house, and the beautiful and energetic offspring he’d conceived with Patty, and to watch Richard and Molly eat the best meal of their entire tour, and, no less important, to acquire rich data from Richard about the alternative-music scene, data that Walter would put to good use in the months that followed, buying the records of every artist Richard had mentioned, playing them while he renovated, impressing male neighbors and colleagues who fancied themselves musically hip, and feeling that he had the best of both worlds. The state of their rivalry was very satisfactory to him that day. Richard was poor and subdued and too thin, and his woman was peculiar and unhappy. Walter, now unquestionably the big brother, could relax and enjoy Richard’s success as a piquant and hipness-enhancing accessory to his own.

At that point, the only thing that could have thrown Walter back into the bad ways he’d felt in college, when he’d been tormented by his sense of losing to the person he loved too much not to care about beating, would have been some bizarre pathological sequence of events. Things at home would have had to sour very badly. Walter would have had to have terrible conflicts with Joey, and fail to understand him and earn his respect, and generally find himself replicating his relationship with his own dad, and Richard’s career would have had to take an unexpected latter-day turn for the better, and Patty would have had to fall violently in love with Richard. What were the chances of all that happening?

Alas, not zero.

One hesitates to ascribe too much explanatory significance to sex, and yet the autobiographer would be derelict in her duties if she didn’t devote an uncomfortable paragraph to it. The regrettable truth is that Patty had soon come to find sex sort of boring and pointless-the same old sameness-and to do it mostly for Walter’s sake. And, yes, undoubtedly, to not do it very well. There just usually seemed to be something else she’d rather have been doing. Most often, she would rather have been sleeping. Or a distracting or mildly worrisome noise would be coming from one of the kids’ rooms. Or she would be mentally counting how many entertaining minutes of a West Coast college basketball game would still remain when she was finally allowed to turn the TV back on. But even just basic chores of gardening or cleaning or shopping could seem delicious and urgent in comparison to fucking, and once you got it in your head that you needed to relax in a hurry and be fulfilled in a hurry so you could get downstairs and plant the impatiens that were wilting in their little plastic boxes, it was all over. She tried taking shortcuts, tried preemptively doing Walter with her mouth, tried telling him she was sleepy and he should just go ahead and have his fun and not worry about her. But poor Walter was constituted to care about his own satisfaction less than hers, or at least to predicate his on hers, and she could never seem to figure out a nice way of explaining what a bad position this put her in, because, when you got right down to it, it entailed telling him she didn’t want him the way he wanted her: that craving sex with her mate was one of the things (OK, the main thing) she’d given up in exchange for all the good things in their life together. And this turned out to be a rather difficult admission to make to a man you loved. Walter tried everything he could think of to make sex better for her except the one thing that might conceivably have worked, which was to stop worrying about making it better for her and just bend her over the kitchen table some night and have at her from behind. But the Walter who could have done this wouldn’t have been Walter. He was what he was, and he wanted what he was to be what Patty wanted. He wanted things to be mutual! And so the drawback of sucking him was that he always then wanted to go down on her, which made her incredibly ticklish. Eventually, after years of resisting, she managed to get him to stop trying altogether. And felt terribly guilty but also angry and annoyed to be made to feel like such a failure. The tiredness of Richard and Molly, on the afternoon they came to visit, seemed to Patty the tiredness of people who’d been up all night fucking, and it says a lot about her state of mind at that point, about the deadness of sex to her, about the totality of her immersion in being Jessica and Joey’s mother, that she didn’t even envy them for it. Sex seemed to her a diversion for young people with nothing better to do. Certainly neither Richard nor Molly looked uplifted by it.

And then the Traumatics were gone-on to their next gig, in Madison, and then on to releasing further wryly titled records that a certain kind of critic and about five thousand other people in the world liked to listen to, and doing small-venue gigs attended by scruffy, well-educated white guys who were no longer as young as they used to be-while Patty and Walter pursued their mostly very absorbing workaday life, in which the weekly thirty minutes of sexual stress was a chronic but low-grade discomfort, like the humidity in Florida. The autobiographer does acknowledge the possible connection between this small discomfort and the large mistakes that Patty was making as a mother in those years. Where Eliza’s parents, once upon a time, had erred in being too much into each other and not enough into Eliza, Patty can probably be said to have made the opposite error with Joey. But there are so many other, non-parental errors to be related in these pages that it seems just inhumanly painful to dwell on her mistakes with Joey as well; the autobiographer fears that it would make her lie down on the floor and never get up.

What happened first was that Walter and Richard became great friends again. Walter knew a lot of people, but the voice he most wanted to come home and hear on their answering machine was Richard’s, saying things like, “Yo, Jersey City here. Wondering if you can make me feel better about the situation in Kuwait. Give me a call.” Both from the frequency of Richard’s phonings and from the less defended way he spoke to Walter now-telling him he didn’t know anybody else like him and Patty, that they were his lifeline to a world of sanity and hope-Walter finally got it through his head that Richard genuinely liked and needed him and wasn’t just passively consenting to be his friend. (This was the context in which Walter gratefully cited his mom’s advice about loyalty.) Whenever another tour brought the Traumatics through town, Richard made time to stop by the house, usually alone. He took particular interest in Jessica, whom he held to be a Genuinely Good Soul in the mold of her grandmother, and plied her with earnest questions about her favorite writers and her volunteer work at the local soup kitchen. Though Patty could have wished for a daughter who was more like her, and for whom her own wealth of experience with mistake-making would have been a comforting resource, she was mostly very proud to have a daughter so wise about the way the world worked. She enjoyed seeing Jessica through Richard’s admiring eyes, and when he and Walter then went out together, it made Patty feel secure to see the two guys getting into the car, the great guy she’d married and the sexy one she hadn’t. Richard’s affection for Walter made her feel better about Walter herself; his charisma had a way of ratifying anything it touched.

One notable shadow was Walter’s disapproval of Richard’s situation with Molly Tremain. She had a beautiful voice but was a depressed or possibly bipolar person and spent massive amounts of time alone in her Lower East Side apartment, doing freelance copyediting at night and sleeping away her days. Molly was always available when Richard wanted to come over, and Richard claimed that she was fine with being his part-time lover, but Walter couldn’t shake the suspicion that their relationship was founded on misunderstandings. Over the years, Patty extracted from Walter various disturbing things that Richard had said to him in private, including “Sometimes I think my purpose on earth is to put my penis in the vaginas of as many women as I can” and “The idea of having sex with the same person for the rest of my life feels like death to me.” Walter’s suspicion that Molly secretly believed he would outgrow these sentiments turned out to be correct. Molly was two years older than Richard, and when she suddenly decided that she wanted a baby before it was too late, Richard was compelled to explain why this was never going to happen. Things between them quickly got so awful that he dumped her altogether and she in turn quit the band.

It happened that Molly’s mother was a longtime Arts editor at the New York Times, a fact that may explain why the Traumatics, despite record sales in the low four digits and audiences in the high two digits, had received several full write-ups in the Times (“Consistently Original, Perennially Unheard Of,” “Undaunted by Indifference, the Traumatics Soldier On”) plus brief reviews of each of their records after In Case You Hadn’t Noticed. Coincidentally or not, Insanely Happy-their first record without Molly and, as it turned out, their last-was ignored not only by the Times but even by the free weekly city papers that had long been a bastion of Traumatic support. What had happened, as Richard theorized over an early supper with Walter and Patty when the band dragged itself through the Twin Cities yet again, was that he’d been buying press attention on credit all along, without realizing it, and that the press had finally concluded that familiarity with the Traumatics was never going to be necessary to anyone’s cultural literacy or street credibility, and so there was no reason to extend him further credit.

Patty, carrying earplugs, went along with Walter to the show that night. The Sick Chelseas, a foursome of assonant local girls barely older than Jessica, opened for the Traumatics, and Patty found herself trying to guess which of the four Richard had been hitting on backstage. She wasn’t feeling jealous of the girls, she was feeling sad for Richard. It was finally sinking in, with both her and Walter, that in spite of being a good musician and a good writer Richard was not having the best life: had not actually been kidding with all his self-deprecation and avowals of admiration and envy of her and Walter. After the Sick Chelseas finished playing, their late-adolescent friends seeped out of the club and left behind no more than thirty die-hard Traumatics fans-white, male, scruffy, and even less young than they used to be-to hear Richard’s deadpan banter (“We want to thank you guys for coming to this 400 Bar and not the other, more popular 400 Bar… We seem to have made the same mistake ourselves”) and then a rollicking rendition of their new record’s title song-

What tiny little heads up in those big fat SUVs!
My friends, you look insanely happy at the wheel!
And the Circuit City smiling of a hundred Kathy Lees!
A wall of Regis Philbins! I tell you I’m starting to feel

and, later, an interminable and more typically repellent song, “TCBY,” consisting mostly of guitar noise reminiscent of razor blades and broken glass, over which Richard chanted poetry-

They can buy you
They can butcher you

Tritely, cutely branded yogurt
The cat barfed yesterday

Techno cream, beige yellow
Treat created by yes-men

They can bully you
They can bury you

Trampled choked benighted youth
Taught consumerism by yahoos

This can’t be the country’s best
This can’t be the country’s best

and finally his slow, country-sounding song, “Dark Side of the Bar,” which dampened Patty’s eyes with sadness for him-

There’s an unmarked door to nowhere
On the dark side of the bar
And all I ever wanted was
To be lost in space with you
The reports of our demise
Pursue us through the vacuum
We took a wrong turn at the pay phones
We were never seen again

The band was good-Richard and Herrera had been playing together for almost twenty years-but it was hard to imagine any band being good enough to overcome the desolation of the too-small house. After a single encore, “I Hate Sunshine,” Richard didn’t exit to the side of the stage but simply parked his guitar on a stand, lit a cigarette, and hopped down to the floor.

“You guys were nice to stay,” he said to the Berglunds. “I know you’ve got to get up early.”

“It was great! You were great!” Patty said.

“Seriously, I think this is your best record yet,” Walter said. “These are terrific songs. It’s another big step forward.”

“Yeah.” Richard, distracted, was scanning the back of the club, looking to see if any of the Sick Chelseas were lingering. Sure enough, one was. Not the conventionally pretty bassist whom Patty would have put her money on, but the tall and sour and disaffected-looking drummer, which of course made more sense as soon as Patty thought about it. “There’s somebody waiting to talk to me,” Richard said. “You’re probably going to want to head right home, but we can all go out together if you want.”

“No, you go,” Walter said.

“Really wonderful to hear you play, Richard,” Patty said. She put a friendly hand on his arm and then watched him walk over to the sour drummer.

On the way home to Ramsey Hill, in the family Volvo, Walter raved about the excellences of Insanely Happy and the debased taste of an American public that turned out by the millions for the Dave Matthews Band and didn’t even know that Richard Katz existed.

“Sorry,” Patty said. “Remind me again what’s wrong with Dave Matthews?”

“Basically everything, except technical proficiency,” Walter said.


“But maybe especially the banality of the lyrics. ‘Gotta be free, so free, yeah, yeah, yeah. Can’t live without my freedom, yeah, yeah.’ That’s pretty much every song.”

Patty laughed. “Do you think Richard was going to go have sex with that girl?”

“I’m sure he was going to go try,” Walter said. “And, probably, succeed.”

“I didn’t think they were very good. Those girls.”

“No, they weren’t. If Richard has sex with her, it won’t be a referendum on their talent.”

At home, after checking on the kids, she put on a sleeveless top and little cotton shorts and came after Walter in bed. This was very unusual of her, but thankfully not so unheard-of as to provoke comment and examination; and Walter needed no persuading to oblige her. It wasn’t a big deal, just a little late-evening surprise, and yet in autobiographical retrospect it now looks almost like the high point of their life together. Or maybe, more accurately, the endpoint: the last time she remembers feeling safe and secure in being married. Her closeness to Walter at the 400 Bar, the recollection of the scene of their very first meeting, the ease of being with Richard, their friendly warmth as a couple, the simple pleasure of having such an old and dear friend, and then afterward the rare treat, for both of them, of her sudden intense desire to feel Walter inside her: the marriage was working. And there seemed to be no compelling reason for its not continuing to work, maybe even work better and better.

A few weeks later, Dorothy collapsed at the dress store in Grand Rapids. Patty, sounding like her own mother, expressed concern to Walter about the hospital care she was getting, and was tragically vindicated when Dorothy went into multiple organ failure and died. Walter’s grief was both over-general, encompassing not merely his loss of her but the stunted dimensions of her entire life, and somewhat muted by the fact that her death was also a relief and liberation to him-an end to his responsibility for her, a cutting of his main tether to Minnesota. Patty was surprised by the intensity of her own grief. Like Walter, Dorothy had always believed the best about her, and Patty was sorry that for someone as generous-spirited as Dorothy an exception couldn’t have been made to the rule that everybody ultimately dies alone. That Dorothy in her eternally trusting niceness had had to pass through death’s bitter door unaccompanied: it just pierced Patty’s heart.

She was pitying herself, too, of course, as people always do in pitying others for their solitary dying. She attended to the funeral arrangements in a mental state whose fragility the autobiographer hopes at least partly explains her poor handling of her discovery that an older neighbor girl, Connie Monaghan, had been preying on Joey sexually. The litany of the mistakes that Patty proceeded to make in the wake of this discovery would exceed the current length of this already long document. The autobiographer is still so ashamed of what she did to Joey that she can’t begin to make a sensible narrative out of it. When you find yourself in the alley behind your neighbor’s house at three in the morning with a box cutter in your hand, destroying the tires of your neighbor’s pickup truck, you can plead insanity as a legal defense. But is it a moral one?

For the defense: Patty had tried, at the outset, to warn Walter about the kind of person she was. She’d told him there was something wrong with her.

For the prosecution: Walter was appropriately wary. Patty was the one who tracked him down in Hibbing and threw herself at him.

For the defense: But she was trying to be good and make a good life! And then she forsook all others and worked hard to be a great mom and homemaker.

For the prosecution: Her motives were bad. She was competing with her mom and sisters. She wanted her kids to be a reproach to them.

For the defense: She loved her kids!

For the prosecution: She loved Jessica an appropriate amount, but Joey she loved way too much. She knew what she was doing and she didn’t stop, because she was mad at Walter for not being what she really wanted, and because she had bad character and felt she deserved compensation for being a star and a competitor who was trapped in a housewife’s life.

For the defense: But love just happens. It wasn’t her fault that every last thing about Joey gave her so much pleasure.

For the prosecution: It was her fault. You can’t love cookies and ice cream inordinately and then say it’s not your fault you end up weighing three hundred pounds.

For the defense: But she didn’t know that! She thought she was doing the right thing by giving her kids the attention and the love her own parents hadn’t given her.

For the prosecution: She did know it, because Walter told her, and told her, and told her.

For the defense: But Walter couldn’t be trusted. She thought she had to stick up for Joey and be the good cop because Walter was the bad cop.

For the prosecution: The problem wasn’t between Walter and Joey. The problem was between Patty and Walter, and she knew it.

For the defense: She loves Walter!

For the prosecution: The evidence suggests otherwise.

For the defense: Well, in that case, Walter doesn’t love her, either. He doesn’t love the real her. He loves some wrong idea of her.

For the prosecution: That would be convenient if only it were true. Unfortunately for Patty, he didn’t marry her in spite of who she was, he married her because of it. Nice people don’t necessarily fall in love with nice people.

For the defense: It isn’t fair to say she doesn’t love him!

For the prosecution: If she can’t behave herself, it doesn’t matter if she loves him.

Walter knew that Patty had cut the tires of their horrible neighbor’s horrible truck. They never talked about it, but he knew. The fact that they never talked about it was how she knew he knew. The neighbor, Blake, was building a horrible addition on the back of the house of his horrible girlfriend, Connie Monaghan’s horrible mother, and Patty that winter was finding it expedient to drink a bottle or more of wine every evening, and then waking up in a sweat of anxiety and rage in the middle of the night, and stalking the first floor of the house in pounding-hearted lunacy. There was a stupid smugness to Blake which in her sleep-deprived state she equated with the stupid smugness of the special prosecutor who’d made Bill Clinton lie about Monica Lewinsky and the stupid smugness of the congressmen who’d recently impeached him for it. Bill Clinton was the rare politician who didn’t seem sanctimonious to Patty-who didn’t pretend to be Mr. Clean-and she was one of the millions of American women who would have slept with him in a heartbeat. Flattening horrible Blake’s tires was the least of the blows she felt like striking in her president’s defense. This is in no way intended to exculpate her but simply to elucidate her state of mind.

A more direct irritant was the fact that Joey, that winter, was pretending to admire Blake. Joey was too smart to genuinely admire Blake, but he was going through an adolescent rebellion that required him to like the very things that Patty most hated, in order to drive her away. She probably deserved this, owing to the thousand mistakes she’d made in loving him too much, but, at the time, she wasn’t feeling like she deserved it. She was feeling like she was being lashed in the face with a bullwhip. And because of certain monstrously mean things she’d seen that she was capable of saying to Joey, on several occasions when he’d baited her out of her self-control and she’d lashed back at him, she was doing her best to vent her pain and anger on safer third parties, such as Blake and Walter.

She didn’t think she was an alcoholic. She wasn’t an alcoholic. She was just turning out to be like her dad, who sometimes escaped his family by drinking too much. Once upon a time, Walter had positively liked that she enjoyed drinking a glass or two of wine after the kids were in bed. He said he’d grown up being nauseated by the smell of alcohol and had learned to forgive it and love it on her breath, because he loved her breath, because her breath came from deep inside her and he loved the inside of her. This was the sort of thing he used to say to her-the sort of avowal she couldn’t reciprocate and was nevertheless intoxicated by. But once the one or two glasses turned into six or eight glasses, everything changed. Walter needed her sober at night so she could listen to all the things he thought were morally defective in their son, while she needed not to be sober so as not to have to listen. It wasn’t alcoholism, it was self-defense.

And here: here is an actual serious personal failing of Walter’s: he couldn’t accept that Joey wasn’t like him. If Joey had been shy and diffident with girls, if Joey had enjoyed playing the role of child, if Joey had wanted a dad who could teach him things, if Joey had been helplessly honest, if Joey had sided with underdogs, if Joey had loved nature, if Joey had been indifferent to money, he and Walter would have gotten along famously. But Joey, from infancy onward, was a person more in the mold of Richard Katz-effortlessly cool, ruggedly confident, totally focused on getting what he wanted, impervious to moralizing, unafraid of girls-and Walter carried all his frustration and disappointment with his son to Patty and laid it at her feet, as if she were to blame. He’d been begging her for fifteen years to back him up when he tried to discipline Joey, to help him enforce the household prohibitions on video games and excess TV and music that degraded women, but Patty couldn’t help loving Joey just the way he was. She admired and was amused by his resourcefulness in evading prohibitions: he seemed to her quite the incredible boy. An A student, a hard worker, popular at school, wonderfully entrepreneurial. Maybe, if she’d been a single mother, she would have worried more about disciplining him. But Walter had taken over that job, and she’d allowed herself to feel she had an amazing friendship with her son. She hung on his wicked impressions of teachers he didn’t like, she gave him uncensored salacious gossip from the neighborhood, she sat on his bed with her knees gathered in her arms and stopped at nothing to get him laughing; not even Walter was off-limits. She didn’t feel she was being unfaithful to Walter when she made Joey laugh at his eccentricities-his teetotaling, his insistence on bicycling to work in blizzards, his defenselessness against bores, his hatred of cats, his disapproval of paper towels, his enthusiasm for difficult theater-because these were all things she herself had learned to love in him, or at least to find quaintly amusing, and she wanted Joey to see Walter her way. Or so she rationalized it, since, if she’d been honest with herself, what she really wanted was for Joey to be delighted by her.

She didn’t see how he could possibly be loyal and devoted to the neighbor girl. She thought that Connie Monaghan, sneaky little competitor that she was, had managed to get some kind of filthy little momentary hold on him. She was disastrously slow to grasp the seriousness of the Monaghan menace, and in the months when she was underestimating Joey’s feelings for the girl-when she thought that she could simply freeze Connie out and make lighthearted fun of her trashy mom and her mom’s boneheaded boyfriend, and that Joey would soon enough be laughing at them, too-she managed to undo fifteen years of effort to be a good mom. She fucked it up royally, Patty did, and then proceeded to become quite unhinged. She had terrible fights with Walter in which he blamed her for making Joey ungovernable and she was unable to defend herself properly, because she wasn’t allowed to speak the sick conviction in her heart, which was that Walter had ruined her friendship with her son. By sleeping in the same bed with her, by being her husband, by claiming her for the grownup side, Walter had made Joey believe that Patty was in the enemy camp. She hated Walter for this, and resented the marriage, and Joey moved out of the house and in with the Monaghans and made everybody pay in bitter tears for their mistakes.

Though this barely scratches the surface, it’s already more than the autobiographer intended to say about those years, and she will now bravely move on.

One small benefit of having the house to herself was that Patty could listen to whatever music she wanted, especially to the country music that Joey had cried out in pain and revulsion at the merest sound of, and that Walter, with his college-radio tastes, could tolerate only a narrow and mostly vintage playlist of: Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash. Patty loved all of those singers herself, but she loved Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks no less. As soon as Walter left for work in the morning, she cranked up the volume to a level incompatible with thinking, and steeped herself in heartbreaks enough like her own to be comforting and enough different to be sort of funny. Patty was strictly a lyrics-and-stories gal-Walter had long ago given up on interesting her in Ligeti and Yo La Tengo -and never tired of cheating men and strong women and the indomitable human spirit.

At the very same time, Richard was forming Walnut Surprise, his new alt-country band, with three kids whose combined age wasn’t much greater than his own. Richard might have persisted with the Traumatics, and launched further records into the void, were it not for a strange accident that could only have befallen Herrera, his old friend and bassist, whose dishevelment and disorganization made Richard look like the man in the gray flannel suit in comparison. Deciding that Jersey City was too bourgeois (!) and not depressing enough, Herrera had moved up to Bridgeport, Connecticut, and settled in a slum there. One day he went to a rally in Hartford for Ralph Nader and other Green Party candidates and assembled a spectacle that he called the Dopplerpus, which consisted of a rented carnival octopus ride on whose tentacles he and seven friends sat and played dirges on portable amps while the ride flung them around and distorted their sound interestingly. Herrera’s girlfriend later told Richard that the Dopplerpus had been “amazing” and a “huge hit” with the “more than a hundred” people who’d attended the rally, but afterward, when Herrera was packing up, his van started rolling down a hill, and Herrera chased after it and reached in through the window and grabbed the steering wheel, which swung the van alongside a brick wall and pancaked him. He somehow finished packing up and drove back to Bridgeport, coughing blood, and there nearly expired of a ruptured spleen, five broken ribs, a broken clavicle, and a punctured lung before his girlfriend got him to a hospital. The accident, following the disappointments of Insanely Happy, seemed like a cosmic sign to Richard, and since he couldn’t live without making music, he’d teamed up with a young fan of his who played killer pedal steel guitar, and Walnut Surprise was born.

Richard’s personal life was in scarcely better shape than Walter and Patty’s. He had lost several thousand dollars on the last Traumatics tour and had “loaned” the uninsured Herrera further thousands for medical expenses, and his domestic situation, as he described it on the phone to Walter, was collapsing. What had made his whole existence workable, for nearly twenty years, was the big ground-floor Jersey City apartment for which he paid a rent so low as to be literally nominal. Richard could never be bothered to get rid of things, and his apartment was big enough that he didn’t have to. Walter had been to it on one of his trips to New York and reported that the hall outside Richard’s door was filled with junk stereo equipment, mattresses, and surplus parts for his pickup truck, and that the rear courtyard was filling up with supplies and leftovers from his deck-building business. Best of all, there was a room in the basement directly beneath his apartment where the Traumatics had been able to practice (and, later, record) without unduly disturbing the other tenants. Richard had always taken care to remain on good terms with them, but in the wake of his breakup with Molly he’d made the dreadful mistake of going a step further and getting involved with one of them.

At the time, it hadn’t seemed like a mistake to anyone but Walter, who considered himself uniquely qualified to detect the bullshit in his friend’s dealings with women. When Richard said, on the phone, that the time had come to put childish things behind him and sustain a real relationship with a grownup woman, warning bells had gone off in Walter’s head. The woman was an Ecuadoran named Ellie Posada. She was in her late thirties and had two kids whose father, a limousine driver, had been struck and killed when his car broke down on the Pulaski Skyway. (It did not escape Patty’s attention that, although Richard poked plenty of very young girls for fun, the women he actually had longer-term relationships with were his own age or even older.) Ellie worked for an insurance agency and lived across the hall from Richard. For a nearly a year, he gave Walter upbeat reports on how unexpectedly well her kids were taking to him and he to them, and how great Ellie was to come home to, and how uninteresting women who weren’t Ellie had become to him, and how he hadn’t eaten so well or felt so healthy since he’d lived with Walter, and (this really set Walter’s alarm bell ringing) how fascinating the insurance business turned out to be. Walter told Patty that he could hear something tellingly abstracted, or theoretical, or far away, in Richard’s tone of voice during this ostensibly happy year, and it came as no surprise to him when Richard’s nature finally caught up with him. The music he’d started making with Walnut Surprise turned out to be even more fascinating than the insurance business, and the skinny chicks in his young bandmates’ orbit turned out to be not so uninteresting after all, and Ellie turned out to be a strict constructionist when it came to exclusive sexual contracts, and before long he was afraid to come home at night to his own building, because Ellie was lying in ambush for him. Soon after that, Ellie organized the building’s other tenants to complain about his egregious appropriation of their communal space, and his hitherto absent landlord sent him stern letters by certified mail, and Richard found himself homeless, at the age of forty-four, in midwinter, with maxed-out credit cards and a $300 monthly storage bill for all his crap.

Now came Walter’s finest hour as Richard’s big brother. He offered him a way to live rent-free, devote himself in solitude to songwriting, and make some good money while he got his life sorted out. Walter had inherited from Dorothy her sweet little house on a lake near Grand Rapids. He had plans for some major interior and exterior improvements which, since he’d quit 3M and joined the Nature Conservancy, he’d despaired of finding time to do himself, and he proposed that Richard come out and live in the house, get a good start on the kitchen renovation, and then, when the snow melted, put a big deck on the back of the house, overlooking the lake. Richard would get thirty dollars an hour, plus free electricity and heat, and could do the work on his own schedule. And Richard, who was in a low place, and who (as he later told Patty, with touching plainness) had come to consider the Berglunds the closest thing he had to family, took only one day to think it over before accepting the offer. For Walter, his assent was further sweet confirmation that Richard really loved him. For Patty, well, the timing was dangerous.

Richard stopped with his overloaded old Toyota pickup for a night in St. Paul on his way up north. Patty was already into a bottle by the time he arrived, at three in the afternoon, and did not acquit herself well as a hostess. Walter did the cooking while she drank for the three of them. It was as if he and she both had just been waiting to see their old friend so they could vent their conflicting versions of why Joey, instead of joining them for dinner, was playing air hockey with a right-wing dolt next door. Richard, flummoxed, kept stepping outside to smoke cigarettes and fortify himself for the next round of Berglund fraughtness.

“It’s going to be fine,” he said, coming inside again. “You guys are great parents. It’s just, you know, when a kid’s got a big personality, there can be big dramas of individuation. It takes time to work these things out.”

“God,” Patty said. “Where did you get so wise?”

“Richard is one of those bizarre people who actually still read books and think about things,” Walter said.

“Right, unlike me, I know.” She turned to Richard. “Every once in a while it happens that I don’t read every single book he recommends. Sometimes I decide to just-skip it. I believe that is the subtext here. My substandard intellect.”

Richard gave her a hard look. “You should cool it with the drinking,” he said.

He might as well have punched her in the sternum. Where Walter’s disapproval actively fed her misbehavior, Richard’s had the effect of catching her out in her childishness, of exposing her unattractiveness to daylight.

“Patty’s in a lot of pain,” Walter said quietly, as if to warn Richard that his loyalty still lay, however unaccountably, with her.

“You can drink all you want as far as I’m concerned,” Richard said. “I’m just saying, if you want the kid to come home, it might help to have your house in order.”

“I’m not even sure I want him home at this point,” Walter said. “I’m kind of enjoying the respite from his contempt.”

“So, let’s see, then,” Patty said. “We’ve got individuation for Joey, we’ve got relief for Walter, but then, for Patty, what? What does she get? Wine, I guess. Right? Patty gets wine.”

“Whoa,” Richard said. “Little bit of self-pity there?”

“For God’s sake,” Walter said.

It was terrible to see, through Richard’s eyes, what she’d been turning into. From twelve hundred miles away it had been easy to smile at Richard’s love troubles, his eternal adolescence, his failed resolutions to put childish things behind him, and to feel that here, in Ramsey Hill, a more adult sort of life was being led. But now she was in the kitchen with him-his height, as always, a breathtaking surprise to her, his Qaddafian features weathered and deepened, his mass of dark hair graying handsomely-and he illuminated in a flash what a self-absorbed little child she’d been able to remain by walling herself inside her lovely house. She’d run from her family’s babyishness only to be just as big a baby herself. She didn’t have a job, her kids were more grownup than she was, she hardly even had sex. She was ashamed to be seen by him. All these years, she’d treasured her memory of their little road trip, kept it locked up securely in some deep interior place, letting it age like a wine, so that, in some symbolic way, the thing that might have happened between them stayed alive and grew older with the two of them. The nature of the possibility altered as it aged in its sealed bottle, but it didn’t go bad, it remained potentially drinkable, it was a kind of reassurance: rakish Richard Katz had once invited her to move to New York with him, and she’d said no. And now she could see that this wasn’t how things worked at all. She was forty-two and drinking herself red-nosed.

She stood up carefully, trying not to wobble, and poured a half-dead bottle down the drain. She set her empty glass in the sink and said that she was going upstairs to lie down for a while, and that the men should go ahead and eat.

“Patty,” Walter said.

“I’m fine. I’m really fine. I just had too much to drink. I might come down again later. I’m sorry, Richard. It’s so wonderful to see you. I’m just in a bit of a state.”

Though she loved their house on the lake, and had been retreating there for weeks at a time by herself, she didn’t go there once during the spring Richard spent working on it. Walter found time to go up for several long weekends and help out, but Patty was too embarrassed. She stayed home and got herself in shape: took Richard’s advice about the drinking, started running and eating again, gained enough weight to fill in the most haggard of the lines that had been forming in her face, and generally acknowledged realities about her physical appearance which she’d been ignoring in her fantasy world. One reason she’d resisted any kind of makeover was that her hateful neighbor Carol Monaghan had undergone one when her hateful boy-toy Blake appeared on the scene. Anything Carol did was definitionally anathema to Patty, but she humbled herself and followed Carol’s example. Lost the ponytail, saw a colorist, got an age-appropriate haircut. She was making an effort to see more of her old basketball friends, and they rewarded her by telling her how much better she looked.

Richard had intended to return to the East by the end of May, but, being Richard, he was still working on the deck in mid-June when Patty went up to enjoy some weeks in the country. Walter went along for the first four days, on his way to a money-tree-shaking V.I.P. fishing trip that a major Nature Conservancy donor was hosting at his deluxe “camp” in Saskatchewan. To make up for her poor showing in the winter, Patty was a whirlwind of hospitality at the lake house, cooking up splendid meals for Walter and Richard while they hammered and sawed in the back yard. She was proudly sober the whole time. In the evening, without Joey in the house, she had no interest in TV. She sat in Dorothy’s favorite armchair, reading War and Peace at Walter’s long-standing recommendation, while the men played chess. Thankfully for all concerned, Walter was better than Richard at chess and usually won, but Richard was dogged and kept asking for another game, and Patty knew that this was hard on Walter-that he was straining very hard to win, getting himself wound up, and would need hours to fall asleep afterward.

“More of this clotting-of-the-middle shit,” Richard said. “You’re always tying up the middle. I hate that.”

“I’m a clotter of the middle,” Walter affirmed in a voice breathless with the suppression of competitive glee.

“It drives me crazy.”

“Well, because it’s effective,” Walter said.

“It’s only effective because I don’t have enough discipline to make you pay for it.”

“You play a very entertaining game. I never know what’s coming.”

“Yeah, and I keep losing.”

The days were bright and long, the nights startlingly cool. Patty loved early summer in the north, it took her back to her first days in Hibbing with Walter. The crisp air and moist earth, the conifer smells, the morning of her life. She felt she’d never been younger than she’d been at twenty-one. It was as if her Westchester childhood, though chronologically prior, had somehow taken place in a later and more fallen time. Inside the house was a faint pleasant musty smell reminiscent of Dorothy. Outside was the lake that Joey and Patty had decided to call Nameless, newly melted, dark with bark and needles, reflecting bright fair-weather clouds. In summer, deciduous trees hid the only other nearby house, which a family named Lundner used on weekends and in August. Between the Berglunds’ house and the lake was a grassy hillock with a few mature birch trees, and when the sun or a breeze discouraged mosquitoes Patty could lie on the grass with a book for hours and feel completely apart from the world, except for the rare airplane overhead and the even rarer car passing on the unpaved county road.

The day before Walter left for Saskatchewan, her heart began to race. It was just a thing her heart was doing, this racing. The next morning, after she drove Walter to the airstrip in Grand Rapids and returned to the house, it was racing so much that an egg slipped out of her hand and fell on the floor while she was making pancake batter. She put her hands on the counter and took deep breaths before kneeling down to clean it up. The finish work in the kitchen had been left for Walter to do at some later date, but grouting the new tile floor ought to have been within Richard’s capabilities, and he hadn’t gotten to it yet. On the plus side, as he’d told them, he’d taught himself to play the banjo.

Though the sun had been up for four hours, it was still fairly early morning when he emerged from his bedroom in jeans and a T-shirt advertising his support for Subcomandante Marcos and the liberation of Chiapas.

“Buckwheat pancakes?” Patty said brightly.

“Sounds great.”

“I could fry you some eggs if you’d rather.”

“I like a good pancake.”

“Easy enough to do some bacon, too.”

“I wouldn’t say no to bacon.”

“OK! Pancakes and bacon it will be.”

If Richard’s heart was racing also, he gave no sign of it. She stood and watched him put away two stacks of pancakes, holding his fork in the civilized grip that she happened to know Walter had taught him as a freshman at college.

“What are your plans for the day?” he asked her with low to moderate interest.

“Gosh. I hadn’t thought about it. Nothing! I’m on vacation. I think I’m going to do nothing this morning, and then make you some lunch.”

He nodded and ate, and it occurred to her that she was a person who dwelt in fantasies with essentially no relation to reality. She went to the bathroom and sat on the closed toilet lid, her heart racing, until she heard Richard go outside and begin handling lumber. There’s a hazardous sadness to the first sounds of someone else’s work in the morning; it’s as if stillness experiences pain in being broken. The first minute of the workday reminds you of all the other minutes that a day consists of, and it’s never a good thing to think of minutes as individuals. Only after other minutes have joined the naked, lonely first minute does the day become more safely integrated in its dayness. Patty waited for this to happen before she left the bathroom.

She took War and Peace out to the grassy knoll, with the vague ancient motive of impressing Richard with her literacy, but she was mired in a military section and kept reading the same page over and over. A melodious bird that Walter had despaired of teaching her the proper name of, a veery or a vireo, grew accustomed to her presence and began to sing in a tree directly above her. Its song was like an idée fixe that it couldn’t get out of its little head.

How she felt: as if a ruthless and well-organized party of resistance fighters had assembled under cover of the darkness of her mind, and so it was imperative not to let the spotlight of her conscience shine anywhere near them, not even for one second. Her love of Walter and her loyalty to him, her wish to be a good person, her understanding of Walter’s lifelong competition with Richard, her sober appraisal of Richard’s character, and just the all-around shittiness of sleeping with your spouse’s best friend: these superior considerations stood ready to annihilate the resistance fighters. And so she had to keep the forces of conscience fully diverted. She couldn’t even allow herself to consider how she was dressing-she had to instantly deflect the thought of putting on a particular flattering sleeveless item before taking midmorning coffee and cookies out to Richard, she had to flick that thought right away from her-because the tiniest hint of ordinary flirting would attract the searchlight, and the spectacle it illuminated would be just too revolting and shameful and pathetic. Even if Richard wasn’t disgusted by it, she herself would be. And if he noticed it and called her out on it, the way he’d called her out on her drinking: disaster, humiliation, the worst.

Her pulse, however, knew-and was telling her with its racing-that she would probably not have another chance like this. Not before she was fully over the hill physically. Her pulse was registering her keen covert awareness that the fishing camp in Saskatchewan could only be reached by biplane, radio, or satellite phone, and that Walter would not be calling her in the next five days unless there was an emergency.

She left Richard’s lunch on the table and drove to the nearby tiny town of Fen City. She could see how easily she could have a traffic accident, and became so lost in imagining herself killed and Walter sobbing over her mutilated body and Richard stoically comforting him that she almost ran the only stop sign in Fen City; she dimly heard the screaming of her brakes.

It was all in her head, it was all in her head! The only thing that gave her any hope was how well she was concealing her own inner turmoil. She’d been maybe a little abstracted and shaky in the last four days, but infinitely better behaved than she’d been in February. If she herself was managing to keep her dark forces hidden, it stood to reason that Richard might have corresponding dark forces that he was doing just as good a job of hiding. But this was a tiny sliver of hope indeed; it was the way insane people lost in fantasies reasoned.

She stood in front of the Fen City Co-op’s meager selection of domestic beers, the Millers and the Coorses and the Budweisers, and tried to make a decision. Held a sixpack in her hand as if she might be able to judge in advance, through the aluminum of the cans, how she would feel if she drank it. Richard had told her to cool it with the drinking; she’d been ugly to him drunk. She reshelved the sixpack and wrenched herself away to less compelling parts of the store, but it was hard to plan dinner when you felt like throwing up. She returned to the beer shelves like a bird repeating its song. The various beer cans had different decorations but all contained the identical weak low-end brew. It occurred to her to drive to Grand Rapids and buy some actual wine. It occurred to her to drive back to the house without buying anything at all. But then where would she be? A weariness set in as she stood and vacillated: a premonition that none of the possible impending outcomes would bring enough relief or pleasure to justify her current heart-racing wretchedness. She saw, in other words, what it meant to have become a deeply unhappy person. And yet the autobiographer now envies and pities the younger Patty standing there in the Fen City Co-op and innocently believing that she’d reached the bottom: that, one way or another, the crisis would be resolved in the next five days.

A chubby teenage girl at the cash register had taken an interest in her paralysis. Patty gave her a lunatic smile and went and got a plastic-wrapped chicken and five ugly potatoes and some humble, limp leeks. The only thing worse than inhabiting her anxiety undrunk, she decided, would be to be drunk and still inhabiting it.

“I’m going to roast a chicken for us,” she told Richard when she got home.

Flecks of sawdust were resting in his hair and eyebrows and sticking to his sweaty, broad forehead. “That’s very nice of you,” he said.

“Deck’s looking really great,” she said. “It’s a wonderful improvement. How much longer do you think it’s going to take?”

“Couple of days, maybe.”

“You know, Walter and I can finish it up ourselves if you want to get back to New York. I know you meant to be back there by now.”

“It’s good to see a job finished,” he said. “It won’t be more than a couple of days. Unless you’re wanting to be alone here?”

“Do I want to be alone here?”

“I mean, it’s a lot of noise.”

“Oh, no, I like construction noise. It’s very comforting somehow.”

“Unless it’s your neighbors.”

“Well, I hate those neighbors, so that’s different.”


“So maybe I’ll get working on that chicken.”

She must have betrayed something in the way she said that, because Richard gave her a little frown. “You OK?”

“No no no,” she said, “I love being up here. I love it. This is my favorite place in the world. It doesn’t solve anything, if you know what I mean. But I love getting up in the morning. I love smelling the air.”

“I meant are you OK with my being here.”

“Oh, totally. God. Yes. Totally. Yah! I mean, you know how Walter loves you. I feel like we’ve been friends with you for so long, but I’ve hardly ever really talked to you. It’s a nice opportunity. But you truly shouldn’t feel you have to stay, if you want to get back to New York. I’m so used to being alone up here. It’s fine.”

This speech seemed to have taken her a very long time to get to the end of. It was followed by a brief silence between them.

“I’m just trying to hear what you’re actually saying,” Richard said. “Whether you actually want me here or not.”

“God,” she said, “I keep saying it, don’t I? Didn’t I just say it?”

She could see his patience with her, his patience with a female, reach its end. He rolled his eyes and picked up a section of two-by-four. “I’m going to wrap up here and then go for a swim.”

“It’s going to be cold.”

“Every day a little bit less so.”

Going back into the house, she experienced a cramp of envy of Walter, who was allowed to tell Richard that he loved him, and who wanted nothing destabilizing in return, nothing worse than to be loved himself. How easy men had it! She felt in comparison like a bloated sedentary spider, spinning her dry web year after year, waiting. She suddenly understood how the girls of years ago had felt, the girls of college who’d resented Walter’s free pass with Richard and been irritated by his pesky presence. She saw Walter, for a moment, as Eliza had seen him.

I might have to do it, I might have to do it, I might have to do it, she said to herself while washing the chicken and assuring herself that she didn’t actually mean it. She heard a splash from the lake and watched Richard swimming out in tree shadow toward water still gilded with afternoon light. If he really hated sunshine, the way he claimed to in his old song, northern Minnesota in June was a trying place to be. The days lasted so long that you found yourself surprised the sun wasn’t running low on fuel by the end of them. Just kept burning and burning. She yielded to an impulse to grab herself between the legs, to test the waters, for the shock of it, in lieu of going for a swim herself. Am I alive? Do I possess a body?

There were very odd angles in her cutting of the potatoes. They looked like some kind of geometric brainteaser.

Richard, after his shower, came into the kitchen in a textless T-shirt that must have been bright red some decades earlier. His hair was momentarily subdued, a youthful shiny black.

“You changed your look this winter,” he remarked to Patty.


“What do you mean, ‘no’? Your hair’s different, you look great.”

“Really hardly any different. Just a tiny bit different.”

“And-possibly put on a little weight?”

“No. Well. A little.”

“You look good with it. You look better not so skinny.”

“Is that a nice way of saying I’ve gotten fat?”

He shut his eyes and grimaced as if trying to remain patient. Then he opened his eyes and said, “Where is this bullshit coming from?”


“Do you want me to leave? Is that it? There’s this weird phony thing you’re doing that gives me the impression you’re not comfortable with me here.”

The roasting chicken smelled like something of the sort she used to eat. She washed her hands and dried them, rummaged in the back of an unfinished cabinet, and found a bottle of cooking sherry covered with construction dust. She filled a juice glass with it and sat down at the table. “OK, frankly? I’m a little nervous around you.”

“Don’t be.”

“I can’t help it.”

“You have no reason to be.”

This was what she hadn’t wanted to hear. “I’m having this one glass,” she said.

“You’ve mistaken me for somebody who gives a shit how much you drink.”

She nodded. “OK. Good. That helps to know.”

“You’ve been wanting a drink this whole time? Jesus. Have a drink.”

“Doing just that.”

“You know, you’re a very strange person. I mean that as a compliment.”

“So taken.”

“Walter got very, very lucky.”

“Ho, well, that’s the unfortunate thing, isn’t it. I’m not sure he sees it that way anymore.”

“Oh, he does. Believe me, he does.”

She shook her head. “I was going to say that I don’t think he likes the things that are strange about me. He likes the good strange all right, but he’s none too happy about the bad strange, and the bad strange is mostly what he gets these days. I was going to say that it’s ironic that you, who don’t seem to mind the bad strange, are not the person I’m married to.”

“You wouldn’t want to be married to me.”

“No, I’m sure it would be very bad. I’ve heard the stories.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, though not surprised.”

“Walter tells me everything.”

“I’m sure he does.”

Out on the lake a duck was quacking about something. Mallards nested in the reedy far corner of it.

“Did Walter ever tell you I slashed Blake’s snow tires?” Patty said.

Richard raised his eyebrows, and she told him the story.

“That’s really fucked up,” he said admiringly, when she’d finished.

“I know. Isn’t it?”

“Does Walter know this?”

“Um. Good question.”

“I take it you don’t tell him everything.”

“Oh, God, Richard, I don’t tell him anything.”

“You really could, I think. You might find he knows a lot more than you think he does.”

She took a deep breath and asked what kinds of secret things Walter knew about her.

“He knows you’re not happy,” Richard said.

“I really don’t think that requires great powers of discernment. What else?”

“He knows you blame him for Joey moving out of the house.”

“Oh, that,” she said. “That I have more or less told him. That doesn’t really count.”

“OK. So why don’t you tell me. Besides the fact that you’re a tireslasher, what does he not know about you?”

When Patty considered this question, all she could see was the great emptiness of her life, the emptiness of her nest, the pointlessness of her existence now that the kids had flown. The sherry had made her sad. “Why don’t you sing me a song while I get dinner on the table. Will you do that?”

“I don’t know,” Richard said. “Feels a little weird.”


“I don’t know. Just feels weird.”

“You’re a singer. That’s what you do. You sing.”

“I guess I’ve never had the sense that you particularly like what I sing.”

“Sing me ‘Dark Side of the Bar.’ I love that song.”

He sighed and bowed his head and crossed his arms and seemed to fall asleep.

“What?” she said.

“I think I’m going to leave tomorrow, if that’s all right with you.”


“There’s not more than two days’ work left. The deck’s already usable as is.”

“OK.” She stood up and put the sherry glass in the sink. “Can I ask why, though? I mean, it’s really nice having you here.”

“It’s just better if I go.”

“OK. Whatever’s best. I think it’s another ten minutes with the chicken, if you want to set the table for us.”

He didn’t stir from the table.

“Molly wrote that song,” he said, after a while. “I really had no business recording it. It was a very schmucky thing of me to do. Deliberate, calculated schmuckiness on my part.”

“It’s really sad and pretty. What were you supposed to do? Not use it?”

“Basically, yeah. Not use it. That would have been the nice thing.”

“I’m sorry about the two of you. You guys were together a long time.”

“We were and we weren’t.”

“Right, I know that, but still.”

He sat brooding while she set the table, tossed the salad, and carved the chicken. She hadn’t thought she would have any appetite, but once she took a bite of chicken she remembered that she hadn’t eaten a thing since the evening before, and that her day had started at five in the morning. Richard also ate, silently. At a certain point, their silence became remarkable and thrilling, and then, a while after that, exhausting and discouraging. She cleared the table, put away the leftovers, washed the dishes, and saw that Richard had removed himself to the little screen porch to smoke cigarettes. The sun was finally gone, but the sky was still bright. Yes, she thought, it was better if he left. Better, better, better.

She went out on the screen porch. “Thinking of going to bed now and doing some reading,” she said.

Richard nodded. “Sounds good. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“The evenings are so long,” she said. “The light just doesn’t want to die.”

“This has been a great place to be. You guys are very generous.”

“Oh, that’s all Walter. It didn’t actually occur to me to offer it to you.”

“He trusts you,” Richard said. “If you trust him, everything will be fine.”

“Oh, well, maybe, maybe not.”

“Do you not want to be with him?”

It was a good question.

“I don’t want to lose him,” she said, “if that’s what you mean. I don’t spend my time thinking about leaving him. I’m kind of counting the days till Joey finally gets sick of the Monaghans. He’s still got a full year of high school.”

“Not sure exactly what the point of that is.”

“Just that I’m still committed to my family.”

“Good. It’s a great family.”

“Right, so I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Patty.” He put out his cigarette in the commemorative Danish Christmas bowl of Dorothy’s that he was using as an ashtray. “I’m not going to be the person who wrecks my best friend’s marriage.”

“No! God! Of course not!” She was nearly weeping with disappointment. “I mean, really, Richard, I’m sorry, but what did I say? I said I’m going to bed and I’ll see you in the morning. That’s all I said! I said I care about my family. That’s exactly what I said.”

He gave her a very impatient and skeptical look.


“OK, sure,” he said. “I didn’t mean to presume anything. I was just trying to figure out the tension here. You may recall we had a conversation like this once before.”

“I do recall that, yes.”

“So I thought it was better to mention it than not mention it.”

“That’s fine. I appreciate it. You’re a really good friend. And you shouldn’t feel you have to leave tomorrow on my account. Nothing to be afraid of here. No reason to run away.”

“Thanks. I might leave anyway, though.”

“That’s fine.”

And she went inside to Dorothy’s bed, which Richard had been using until she and Walter arrived to kick him out of it. Cool air was coming out of the places where it had hidden during the long day, but blue twilight was persisting in every window. It was dream light, insane light, it refused to go away. She turned a lamp on to diminish it. The resistance fighters had been exposed! The jig was up! She lay in her flannel pajamas and replayed everything she’d said in the last hours and was appalled by nearly all of it. She heard the toilet’s tuneful resonance as Richard emptied his bladder into it, and then the flush, and the tuneful water in the pipes, and the water pump laboring briefly in a lower voice. For sheer respite from herself, she picked up War and Peace and read for a long time.

The autobiographer wonders if things might have gone differently if she hadn’t reached the very pages in which Natasha Rostov, who was obviously meant for the goofy and good Pierre, falls in love with his great cool friend Prince Andrei. Patty had not seen this coming. Pierre’s loss unfolded, as she read it, like a catastrophe in slow motion. Things probably would not have gone any differently, but the effect those pages had on her, their pertinence, was almost psychedelic. She read past midnight, absorbed now even by the military stuff, and was relieved to see, when she turned the lamp off, that the twilight finally was gone.

In her sleep, at some still-dark hour after that, she rose from the bed and let herself into the hall and then into Richard’s bedroom and crawled into bed with him. The room was cold and she pressed herself close to him.

“Patty,” he said.

But she was sleeping and shook her head, resisting awakening, and there was no holding out against her, she was very determined in her sleep. She spread herself over and around him, trying to maximize their contact, feeling big enough to cover him entirely, pressing her face into his head.



“If you’re sleeping, you need to wake up.”

“No, I’m asleep… I’m sleeping. Don’t wake me up.”

His penis was struggling to escape his shorts. She rubbed her belly against it.

“I’m sorry,” he said, squirming beneath her. “You have to wake up.”

“No, don’t wake me up. Just fuck me.”

“Oh, Jesus.” He tried to get away from her, but she followed him amoebically. He grabbed her wrists to keep her at bay. “People who aren’t conscious: believe it or not, I draw the line there.”

“Mm,” she said, unbuttoning her pajamas. “We’re both asleep. We’re both having really great dreams.”

“Yes, but people wake up in the morning, and they remember their dreams.”

“But if they’re only dreams… I’m having a dream. I’m going back to sleep. You go to sleep, too. You fall asleep. We’ll both be asleep… and then I’ll be gone.”

That she could say all this, and not only say it but remember it very clearly afterward, does admittedly cast doubt on the authenticity of her sleep state. But the autobiographer is adamant in her insistence that she was not awake at the moment of betraying Walter and feeling his friend split her open. Maybe it was the way she was emulating the fabled ostrich and keeping her eyes firmly shut, or maybe the fact that she afterward retained no memory of specific pleasure, only an abstract awareness of the deed that had been done, but if she performs a thought experiment and imagines a phone ringing in the middle of the deed, the state she imagines being shocked into is one of awakeness, from which it logically follows that, in the absence of any ringing phone, the state she was in was a sleeping one.

Only after the deed was done did she wake up, in some alarm, and bethink herself, and betake herself quickly back to her own bed. The next thing she knew, there was light in the windows. She heard Richard getting up and peeing in the bathroom. She strained to decipher the sounds he then made-whether he was packing up his truck or going back to work. It sounded like he was going back to work! When she finally summoned the courage to come out of hiding, she found him kneeling behind the house, sorting a pile of scrap lumber. There was sun but it was a dim disk in thin clouds. A change in the weather was ruffling the surface of the lake. Without all the dazzle and dapple, the woods looked sparser and emptier.

“Hey, good morning,” Patty said.

“Morning,” Richard said, not looking up at her.

“Have you had breakfast? How about some breakfast? Can I make you some eggs?”

“I had some coffee, thanks.”

“I’ll make you some eggs”

He stood up and put his hands on his hips and surveyed the lumber, still not looking at her. “I’m straightening this up for Walter, so he knows what we’ve got here.”


“It’s going to take me a couple hours to pack up. You should just go about your day.”

“OK. Do you need any help?”

He shook his head.

“And you’re sure no breakfast?”

To this he made no response of any sort.

There came to her, with curious vividness, a kind of PowerPoint list of names in descending order of their owners’ goodness, topped naturally by Walter’s, which was followed closely by Jessica’s and more distantly by Joey’s and Richard’s, and then, way down in the cellar, in lonely last place, her own ugly name.

She took coffee to her room and sat listening to the sounds of Richard’s organizing, the rattle of nails being boxed, the rumble of tool chests. Late in the morning she ventured forth to ask if he might at least stay and have some lunch before he left. He assented, though not in a friendly way. She was too frightened to feel like crying, so she went and boiled some eggs for egg salad. Her plan or hope or fantasy, to the extent that she’d allowed herself to be conscious of having one, had been that Richard would forget his intention to leave that day, and that she would sleepwalk again the next night, and that everything would be pleasant and unspoken again the next day, and then more sleepwalking, and then another pleasant day, and then Richard would load up his truck and go back to New York, and much later in life she would recall the amazing intense dreams she’d had for a couple of nights at Nameless Lake, and safely wonder if anything had happened. This old plan (or hope, or fantasy) was now in tatters. Her new plan called for her to try very hard to forget the night before and pretend it hadn’t happened.

One thing the new plan can safely be said not to have included was leaving lunch half-eaten on the table and then finding her jeans on the floor and the crotch of her bathing suit wedged painfully to one side while he banged her into ecstasy against the innocently papered wall of Dorothy’s old living room, in full daylight and as wide awake as a human being could be. No mark was left on the wall there, and yet the spot remained clear and distinct forever after. It was a little coordinate of the universe permanently charged and altered by its history. It became, that spot, a quiet third presence in the room with her and Walter on the weekends they later spent alone here. This seemed to her, in any case, the first time in her life she’d properly had sex. A real eye-opener, as it were. She was henceforth done for, though it took some time to know this.

“OK, so,” she said when she was sitting on the floor with her head against the spot where her butt had been. “So, that was interesting.”

Richard had put his pants back on and was pacing around for no purpose. “I’m just going to go ahead and smoke inside your house if you don’t mind.”

“I think, under the circumstances, an exception will be granted.”

The day had turned fully overcast, with a cold breeze moving in through the screens and the screen door. All birdsong had ceased, and the lake seemed desolate. Nature waiting for the chill to pass.

“What are you wearing a bathing suit for anyway?” Richard said, lighting up.

Patty laughed. “I’d thought I might go for a swim after you left.”

“It’s freezing.”

“Well, not a long swim, obviously.”

“Just a little mortification of the flesh.”


The cold breeze and the smoke of Richard’s Camel were mixing like joy and remorse. Patty started laughing again for no reason and then found something funny to say.

“You may suck at chess,” she said, “but you’re definitely winning at the other game.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Richard said.

She couldn’t quite gauge his tone of voice, but, fearing that it was angry, she struggled to stop laughing.

Richard sat down on the coffee table and smoked with great determination. “We have to never do this again,” he said.

Another snicker broke out of her; she couldn’t help it. “Or maybe just a couple more times and then never again.”

“Yeah, where does that get us?”

“Conceivably the itch would be scratched, and that would be that.”

“Not the way it works, in my experience.”

“Well, I guess I have to defer to your experience, don’t I? Having none myself.”

“Here’s the choice,” Richard said. “We stop now, or you leave Walter. And since the latter is not acceptable, we stop now.”

“Or, third possibility, we could not stop and I could just not tell him.”

“I don’t want to live that way. Do you?”

“It’s true that two of the three people he loves most in the world are you and me.”

“The third being Jessica.”

“It’s some consolation,” Patty said, “that she would hate me for the rest of my life and totally side with him. He would always have that.”

“That’s not what he wants, and I’m not going to do it to him.”

Patty laughed again, at the thought of Jessica. She was a very good and painfully earnest and strenuously mature young person whose exasperation with Patty and Joey-her feckless mom, her ruthless brother-was seldom so extreme as not to seem comical. Patty liked her daughter a great deal and would in fact, realistically, be devastated to forfeit her good opinion. But she still couldn’t help being amused by Jessica’s opprobrium. It was part of how the two of them got along; and Jessica was too absorbed in her own seriousness to be bothered by it.

“Hey,” she said to Richard, “do you think it’s possible you’re homosexual?”

“You ask that now?”

“I don’t know. It’s just that sometimes guys who have to screw a million women are trying to prove something. Disprove something. And it’s sounding to me like you care more about Walter’s happiness than you do about mine.”

“Trust me on this one. I have no interest in kissing Walter.”

“No, I know. I know. But there’s still something I mean by that. I mean, I’m sure you’d get tired of me very soon. You’d see me naked when I’m forty-five, and you’d be thinking, Hmm. Do I still want this? I don’t think so! Whereas Walter you never have to get tired of, because you don’t feel like kissing him. You can just be close to him forever.”

“This is D. H. Lawrence,” Richard said impatiently.

“Yet another author I need to read.”

“Or not.”

She rubbed her tired eyes and her abraded mouth. She was, all in all, very happy with the turn things had taken.

“You’re really excellent with tools,” she said with another snicker.

Richard began to pace again. “Try to be serious, OK? Try hard.”

“This is our time right now, Richard. That’s all I’m saying. We have a couple of days, and we either use them or we don’t. They’re going to be over soon either way.”

“I made a mistake,” he said. “I didn’t think it through. I should have taken off yesterday morning.”

“All but one part of me would have been glad if you did. Admittedly, that one part is a fairly important part.”

“I like seeing you,” he said. “I like being around you. It makes me happy to think of Walter being with you-you’re that kind of person. I thought it would be OK to stay a couple of extra days. But it was a mistake.”

“Welcome to Pattyland. Mistakeland.”

“It didn’t occur to me that you would sleepwalk.”

She laughed. “That was kind of a brilliant stroke, wasn’t it?”

“Jesus. Cool it, OK? You’re annoying me.”

“Yeah, but the great thing is it doesn’t even matter. What’s the worst that can happen now? You’ll be annoyed with me and leave.”

He looked at her then, and he smiled, and the room filled (metaphorically) with sunshine. He was, in her opinion, a very beautiful man.

“I do like you,” he said. “I like you a lot. I always liked you.”

“Same back at you.”

“I wanted you to have a good life. Do you understand? I thought you were a person who was actually worthy of Walter.”

“And so that’s why you went off that night in Chicago and never came back.”

“It wouldn’t have worked in New York. It would have ended badly.”

“If you say so.”

“I do say so.”

Patty nodded. “So you actually wanted to sleep with me that night.”

“Yeah. A lot. But not just sleep with you. Talk to you. Listen to you. That was the difference.”

“Well, I guess that’s nice to know. I can cross that worry off my list now, twenty years later.”

Richard lit another cigarette and they sat there for a while, separated by a cheap old Oriental rug of Dorothy’s. There was a sighing in the trees, the voice of an autumn that was never far away in northern Minnesota.

“This is potentially kind of a hard situation, then, isn’t it,” Patty finally said.


“Harder than I perhaps realized.”


“Arguably better of me not to have sleepwalked.”


She began to cry for Walter. They had spent so few nights apart over the years that she’d never had a chance to miss him and appreciate him the way she missed him and appreciated him now. This was the beginning of a terrible confusion of the heart, a confusion that the autobiographer is still suffering from. Already, there at Nameless Lake, in the unchanging overcast light, she could see the problem very clearly. She’d fallen for the one man in the world who cared as much about Walter and felt as protective of him as she did; anybody else could have tried to turn her against him. And even worse, in a way, was the responsibility she felt toward Richard, in knowing that he had nobody else like Walter in his life, and that his loyalty to Walter was, in his own estimation, one of the few things besides music that saved him as a human being. All this, in her sleep and selfishness, she had gone and jeopardized. She’d taken advantage of a person who was messed up and susceptible but nevertheless trying hard to maintain some kind of moral order in his life. And so she was crying for Richard, too, but even more for Walter, and for her own unlucky, wrongdoing self.

“It’s good to cry,” Richard said, “although I can’t say I’ve ever tried it myself.”

“It’s kind of a bottomless pit, once you get into it,” Patty snuffled. She was feeling suddenly cold in her bathing suit, and physically unwell. She went and put her arms around Richard’s warm, broad shoulders, and lay down with him on the Oriental rug, and so the long bright gray afternoon went.

Three times, altogether. One, two, three. Once sleeping, once violently, and then once with the full orchestra. Three: pathetic little number. The autobiographer has now spent quite a bit of her mid-forties counting and recounting, but it never adds up to more than three.

There is otherwise not much to relate, and most of what remains consists of further mistakes. The first of these she committed in concert with Richard while they were still lying on the rug. They decided together-agreed-that he should leave. They decided quickly, while they were sore and spent, that he should leave now, before they got themselves in any deeper, and that they would both then give the situation careful thought and come to a sober decision, which, if it should turn out to be negative, would only be more painful if he stayed any longer.

Having made this decision, Patty sat up and was surprised to see that the trees and the deck were soaked. The rain was so fine that she hadn’t heard it on the roof, so gentle that it hadn’t trickled in the gutters. She put on Richard’s faded red T-shirt and asked if she could keep it.

“Why do you want my shirt?”

“It smells like you.”

“That’s not considered a plus in most quarters.”

“I just want one thing that’s yours.”

“All right. Let’s hope it turns out to be the only thing.”

“I’m forty-two,” she said. “It would cost me twenty thousand dollars to get pregnant. Not to burst your bubble or anything.”

“I’m very proud of my zero batting average. Try not to wreck it, OK?”

“And what about me?” she said. “Should I be worried that I’ve brought some disease into the house?”

“I’ve had all my shots, if that’s what you’re asking. I’m usually paranoically careful.”

“I bet you say that to all the girls.”

And so on. It was all very chummy and chatty, and in the lightness of the moment she told him that he had no excuse now not to sing her a song, before he left. He unpacked his banjo and plucked away while she made sandwiches and wrapped them in foil.

“Maybe you should spend the night and get an early start in the morning,” she called to him.

He smiled as if refusing to dignify this with an answer.

“Seriously,” she said. “It’s raining, it’s going to get dark.”

“No chance,” he said. “Sorry. You will never be trusted again. It’s something you’re just going to have to live with.”

“Ha-ha-ha,” she said. “Why aren’t you singing? I want to hear your voice.”

To be nice to her, he sang “Shady Grove.” He had become, over the years, in defiance of initial expectations, a skilled and fairly nuanced vocalist, and he was so big-chested that he could really blow your house down.

“OK, I’m seeing your point,” she said when he finished. “This isn’t making things any easier for me.”

Once you get musicians going, though, they hate to stop. Richard tuned his guitar and sang three country songs that Walnut Surprise later recorded for Nameless Lake. Some of the lyrics were barely more than nonsense syllables, to be discarded and replaced with vastly better ones, but Patty was still so affected and excited by his singing, in a country mode she recognized and loved, that she began to shout in the middle of the third song, “STOP! OK! ENOUGH! STOP! ENOUGH! OK!” But he wouldn’t stop, and his absorption in his music made her feel so lonely and abandoned that she began to cry raggedly and finally to become so hysterical that he had no choice but to stop singing-though he was still unmistakably pissed off by the interruption!-and try, unsuccessfully, to calm her.

“Here are your sandwiches,” she said, dumping them into his arms, “and there’s the door. We said you were leaving, and so you’re leaving. OK? Now! I mean it! Now. I’m sorry I asked you to sing, MY FAULT AGAIN, but let’s try to learn from our mistakes, OK?”

He took a deep breath and drew himself up as if to deliver some pronouncement, but his shoulders slumped and he let the big statement escape from his lungs unspoken.

“You’re right,” he said, irritably. “I don’t need this.”

“We made a good decision, don’t you think?”

“Probably we did, yeah.”

“So go.”

And he went.

And she became a better reader. At first in desperate escapism, later in search of help. By the time Walter returned from Saskatchewan, she’d dispatched the remainder of War and Peace in three marathon reading days. Natasha had promised herself to Andrei but was then corrupted by the wicked Anatole, and Andrei went off in despair to get himself mortally wounded in battle, surviving only long enough to be nursed by Natasha and forgive her, whereupon excellent old Pierre, who had done some growing up and deep thinking as a prisoner of war, stepped forward to present himself as Natasha’s consolation prize; and lots of babies followed. Patty felt she’d lived an entire compressed lifetime in those three days, and when her own Pierre returned from the wilderness, badly sunburned despite religious slatherings of maximum-strength sunblock, she was ready to try to love him again. She picked him up in Duluth and debriefed him on his days with nature-loving millionaires, who had apparently opened their wallets wide for him.

“It’s incredible,” Walter said when they got home and he saw the almost-finished deck. “He’s here four months and he can’t do the last eight hours of work.”

“I think he was sick of the woods,” Patty said. “I told him he should just go back to New York. He wrote some great songs here. He was ready to go.”

Walter frowned. “He played you songs?”

“Three,” she said, turning away from him.

“And they were good?”

“Really good.” She walked down toward the lake, and Walter followed her. It wasn’t hard to keep her distance from him. Only at the very beginning had they been one of those couples who embraced and locked lips at every homecoming.

“You guys got along OK?” Walter asked.

“It was a little awkward. I was glad when he left. I had to drink a big glass of sherry the one night he was here.”

“That’s not so bad. One glass.”

Part of the deal she’d struck with herself was to tell Walter no lies, not even tiny ones; to speak no words that couldn’t narrowly be construed as truth.

“I’ve been reading a ton,” she said. “I think War and Peace is actually the best book I’ve ever read.”

“I’m jealous,” Walter said.


“Getting to read that book for the first time. Having whole days to do it.”

“It was great. I feel kind of altered by it.”

“You seem a little altered, actually.”

“Not in a bad way, I hope.”

“No. Just different.”

In bed with him that night, she took off her pajamas and was relieved to find she wanted him more, not less, for what she’d done. It was fine, having sex with him. There was nothing so wrong with it.

“We need to do this more,” she said.

“Any time. Literally any time.”

They had a sort of second honeymoon that summer, fueled by her contrition and sexual botheration. She tried hard to be a good wife, and to please her very good husband, but a full accounting of the success of her efforts must include the e-mails that she and Richard began to exchange within days of his departure, and the permission she somehow gave him, a few weeks after that, to get on a plane to Minneapolis and go up to Nameless Lake with her while Walter was hosting another V.I.P. trip in the Boundary Waters. She immediately deleted the e-mail with Richard’s flight information, as she’d deleted all the others, but not before memorizing the flight number and arrival time.

A week before the date, she repaired to the lake in solitude and gave herself entirely to her derangement. It consisted of getting stumbling drunk every evening, awakening later in panic and remorse and indecision, then sleeping through the morning, then reading novels in a suspended state of false calm, then jumping up and pacing for an hour or more in the vicinity of the telephone, trying to decide whether to call Richard and tell him not to come, and finally opening a bottle to make the whole thing go away for a few hours.

Slowly the remaining days ticked down toward zero. On the last night, she got vomiting drunk, fell asleep in the living room, and was jolted back to consciousness at a predawn hour. To get her hands and her arms to stop shaking enough to dial Richard’s number, she had to lie down on the still-ungrouted kitchen floor.

She reached his voice mail. He had found a new, smaller apartment a few blocks from his old one. All she could picture of this new place was a larger version of the black room of the apartment he’d once shared with Walter, the apartment she’d displaced him from. She dialed again, and again got his voice mail. She dialed a third time, and Richard answered.

“Don’t come,” she said. “I can’t do it.”

He said nothing, but she could hear him breathing.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Why don’t you call me again in a couple of hours. See how you feel in the morning.”

“I’ve been throwing up. Been vomiting.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Please don’t come. I promise I’ll stop bothering you. I think I just needed to push it to the limit before I could see that I can’t do it.”

“I guess that makes sense.”

“It’s the right thing, isn’t it?”

“Probably. Yeah. It probably is.”

“I can’t do it to him.”

“Then good. I won’t come.”

“It’s not that I don’t want you to come. I’m just asking you not to.”

“I will do what you want.”

“No, God, listen to me. I’m asking you to do what I don’t want.”

Possibly, in Jersey City, New Jersey, he was rolling his eyes at this. But she knew that he wanted to see her, he was ready to take a plane in the morning, and the only way they could agree definitively that he shouldn’t come was to prolong the conversation for two hours, going around and around, performing the unresolvable conflict, until they both felt so dirtied and exhausted and sick of themselves and sick of each other that the prospect of getting together became genuinely unappetizing.

Not least among the ingredients of Patty’s misery, when they finally hung up, was her sense of wasting Richard’s love. She knew him to be a man supremely irritated by female bullshit, and the fact that he’d put up with two nonstop hours of hers, which was about 119 minutes more than he was constituted to put up with, filled her with gratitude and sorrow about the waste, the waste. The waste of his love.

Which led her-it almost goes without saying-to call him again twenty minutes later and drag him through a somewhat shorter but even more wretched version of the first call. It was a small preview of what she later did in a more extended way with Walter in Washington: the harder she worked to exhaust his patience, the more patience he showed, and the more patience he showed, the harder it was to let go of him. Fortunately Richard’s patience with her, unlike Walter’s, was nowhere close to infinite. He finally just hung up on her, and he didn’t answer when she called yet again, an hour later, shortly before the time she figured he had to leave for Newark Airport to catch his flight.

Despite having hardly slept, and despite having thrown up what little she’d eaten the day before, she felt immediately fresher and clearer and more energetic. She cleaned the house, read half of a Joseph Conrad novel Walter had recommended, and didn’t buy any more wine. When Walter came back from the Boundary Waters, she cooked a beautiful dinner and threw her arms around his neck and-a rarity-made him actually squirm a little with the intensity of her affection.

What she should have done then was find a job or go back to school or become a volunteer. But there always seemed to be something in the way. There was the possibility that Joey would relent and move back home for his senior year. There was the house and garden she’d neglected in her year of drunkenness and depression. There was her cherished freedom to go up to Nameless Lake for weeks at a time whenever she felt like it. There was a more general freedom that she could see was killing her but she was nonetheless unable to let go of. There was Parents’ Weekend at Jessica’s college in Philadelphia, which Walter couldn’t attend but was delighted that Patty showed an interest in attending, since he sometimes worried that she and Jessica weren’t close enough. And then there were the weeks leading up to that Parents’ Weekend, weeks of e-mails to and from Richard, weeks of imagining the Philadelphia hotel room in which they were going to spend one day and one night off the radar. And then there were the months of serious depression after Parents’ Weekend.

She’d flown to Philadelphia on a Thursday, in order to spend, as she carefully told Walter, an actual day on her own as a tourist. Taking a cab to the city center, she was pierced unexpectedly by regret for not doing exactly that: not walking the streets as an independent adult woman, not cultivating an independent life, not being a sensible and curious tourist instead of a love-chasing madwoman.

Unbelievable as it may sound, she had not been alone at a hotel since her time in Room 21, and she was very impressed with her plushly mod room at the Sofitel. She examined all the amenities carefully while she waited for Richard to arrive, and then examined them again as the appointed hour came and went. She tried to watch television but could not. She was a pile of nervous pulp by the time the phone finally rang.

“Something’s come up,” Richard said.

“All right. OK. Something’s come up. OK.” She went to the window and looked at Philadelphia. “What was it? Somebody’s skirt?”

“Cute,” Richard said.

“Oh, just give me a little time,” she said, “and I’ll give you every cliché in the book. We haven’t even started on jealousy yet. This is, like, Minute One of jealousy.”

“There’s nobody else.”

“Nobody? There’s been nobody? God, even I’ve been worse-behaved than that. In my own little marital way.”

“I didn’t say there haven’t been any. I said there isn’t one.”

She pressed her head against the window. “I’m sorry,” she said. “This is just making me feel too old, too ugly, too stupid, too jealous. I can’t stand to hear what’s coming out of my mouth.”

“He called me this morning,” Richard said.


“Walter. I should have let it ring, but I picked up. He said he’d gotten up early to take you to the airport, and he was missing you. He said things have been really good with you guys. ‘Happiest in many years,’ I believe his phrase was.”

Patty said nothing.

“Said you were going out to see Jessica, Jessica secretly very happy about this, although worried that you might say something weird and embarrass her, or that you’re not going to like her new boyfriend. Walter all in all extremely happy that you’re doing this for her.”

Patty fidgeted there by the window, struggling to listen.

“Said he was feeling bad about some of the things he’d said to me last winter. Said he didn’t want me to have the wrong idea about you. Said last winter was terrible, because of Joey, but things are much better now. ‘Happiest in many years.’ I’m pretty sure that was the phrase.”

Some combination of gagging and sobbing produced a ridiculous painful burp from Patty.

“What was that?” Richard said.

“Nothing. Sorry.”

“So, anyway.”


“I decided not to go.”

“Right. I understand. Of course.”

“Good, then.”

“But why don’t you just come down anyway. I mean, since I’m here. And then I can go back to my incredibly happy life, and you can go back to New Jersey.”

“I’m just telling you what he said.”

“My incredibly, incredibly happy life.”

Oh, the temptations of self-pity. So sweet to her, so irresistible to give voice to, and so ugly to him. She could hear precisely the moment she’d gone a step too far. If she’d kept her cool, she might have charmed and cajoled him into coming down to Philadelphia. Who knows? She might never have gone home again. But she fucked everything up with self-pity. She could hear him grow cooler and more distant, which made her feel even sorrier for herself, and so on, and so forth, until finally she had to get off the phone and give herself entirely to the other sweetness.

Where did the self-pity come from? The inordinate volume of it? By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.

That evening in Philadelphia, there was a brief dismal episode: she went down to the hotel bar with the intention of picking somebody up. She quickly discovered that the world is divided into people who know how to be comfortable by themselves on a bar chair and people who do not. Also, the men just looked too stupid, and for the first time in a long while she started thinking about how it felt to be drunk and raped, and went back up to her mod room to enjoy further paroxysms of self-pity.

The next morning, she took a commuter train out to Jessica’s college in a state of neediness from which no good could come. Although she’d tried, for nineteen years, to do everything for Jessica that her own mother hadn’t done for her-had never missed a game of hers, had bathed her in approval, had familiarized herself with the intricacies of her social life, had been her partisan in every little hurt and disappointment, had involved herself deeply in the drama of her college applications-there was, as noted, an absence of true closeness. This was due partly to Jessica’s self-sufficient nature and partly to Patty’s overdoing things with Joey. It was to Joey, not Jessica, that she’d gone with her overflowing heart. But the door to Joey was closed and locked now, due to her mistakes, and she arrived on the beautiful Quaker campus not caring about Parents’ Weekend. She just wanted some private time with her daughter.

Unfortunately, Jessica’s new boyfriend, William, couldn’t take a hint. William was a good-natured blond Californian soccer player whose own parents weren’t visiting. He followed Patty and Jessica to lunch, to Jessica’s afternoon art-history lecture, and to Jessica’s dorm room, and when Patty then pointedly offered to take Jessica to dinner in the city, Jessica replied that she’d already made a local dinner reservation for three. At the restaurant, Patty listened stoically while Jessica prodded William to describe the charitable organization he’d founded while still in high school-some grotesquely worthy program wherein poor Malawian girls had their educations sponsored by soccer clubs in San Francisco. Patty had little choice but to keep drinking wine. Midway through her fourth glass, she decided that William needed to know that she herself had once excelled at intercollegiate sports. Since Jessica declined to supply the fact that she’d been second-team all-American, she was obliged to supply it herself, and since this sounded like bragging she felt she had to undercut it by telling the story of her groupie, which led to Eliza’s drug habits and lies about leukemia, and to the wrecking of her knee. She was speaking loudly and, she thought, entertainingly, but William, instead of laughing, kept glancing nervously at Jessica, who was sitting with her arms crossed and looking morose.

“And the point is what?” she said finally.

“Nothing,” Patty said. “I’m just telling you what things were like when I was in college. I didn’t realize you weren’t interested.”

“I’m interested,” William was kind enough to say.

“What’s interesting to me,” Jessica said, “is that I’d never heard any of this.”

“I’ve never told you about Eliza?”

“No. That must have been Joey.”

“I’m sure I’ve talked about it.”

“No, Mom. Sorry. You haven’t.”

“Well, anyway, now I’m talking about it, although maybe I’ve said enough.”


Patty knew she was behaving badly, but she couldn’t help it. Seeing Jessica and William’s tenderness with each other, she thought of herself at nineteen, thought of her mediocre schooling and her sick relationships with Carter and Eliza, and regretted her life, and pitied herself. She was falling into a depression that deepened precipitously the following day, when she returned to the college and endured a tour of its sumptuous grounds, a luncheon on the lawn of the president’s house, and an afternoon colloquium (“Performing Identity in a Multivalent World”) attended by scores of other parents. Everyone looked radiantly better-adjusted than she was feeling. The students all seemed cheerfully competent at everything, no doubt including sitting comfortably in a bar chair, and all the other parents seemed so proud of them, so thrilled to be their friends, and the college itself seemed immensely proud of its wealth and its altruistic mission. Patty really had been a good parent; she’d succeeded in preparing her daughter for a happier and easier life than her own; but it was clear from the other families’ very body language that she hadn’t been a great mom in the ways that counted most. While the other mothers and daughters walked shoulder to shoulder on the paved pathways, laughing or comparing cell phones, Jessica walked on the grass one or two steps ahead of Patty. The only role she offered Patty that weekend was to be impressed with her fabulous school. Patty did her utmost to play this role, but finally, in an access of depression, she sat down on one of the Adirondack chairs that dotted the main lawn and begged Jessica to come to dinner with her in the city without William, who, mercifully, had had a game that afternoon.

Jessica stood at some distance and regarded her guardedly. “William and I need to study tonight,” she said. “Normally I would have been studying all yesterday and today.”

“I’m sorry I kept you from that,” Patty said with depressive sincerity.

“No, it’s fine,” Jessica said. “I really wanted you to be here. I really wanted you to see where I’m spending four years of my life. It’s just that the workload’s pretty intense.”

“No, of course. It’s great. It’s great that you can handle that. I’m so proud of you. I really am, Jessica. I think the world of you.”

“Well, thank you.”

“It’s just-how about if we go to my hotel room? It’s a really fun room. We can order room service and watch movies and drink from the minibar. I mean, you can drink from the minibar, I’m not going to drink tonight. But just to have a girls’ night, just the two of us, for one night. You can study the whole rest of the fall.”

She kept her eyes on the ground, awaiting Jessica’s judgment. She was painfully aware of proposing something new for them.

“I really think I’d better work,” Jessica said. “I already promised William.”

“Oh, please, though, Jessie. One night’s not going to kill you. It would mean a lot to me.”

When Jessica did not reply to this, Patty forced herself to look up. Her daughter was gazing with desolate self-control at the main college building, on an outside wall of which Patty had noticed a stone graven with words of wisdom from the Class of 1920: USE WELL THY FREEDOM.

“Please?” she said.

“No,” Jessica said, not looking at her. “No! I don’t feel like it.”

“I’m sorry I drank too much and said those stupid things last night. I wish you’d let me make it up to you.”

“I’m not trying to punish you,” Jessica said. “It’s just, you obviously don’t like my school, you obviously don’t like my boyfriend-”

“No, he’s fine, he’s nice, I do like him. It’s just that I came here to see you, not him.”

“Mom, I make your life so easy for you. Do you have any idea how easy? I don’t do drugs, I don’t do any of the shit that Joey does, I don’t embarrass you, I don’t create scenes, I never did any of that-”

“I know! And I am truly grateful for it.”

“OK, but then don’t complain if I have my own life and my own friends and don’t feel like suddenly rearranging everything for you. You get all the benefits of me taking care of myself, the least you can do is not make me feel guilty about it.”

“Jessie, though, we’re talking about one night. It’s silly to make such a big deal of it.”

“Then don’t make a big deal of it.”

Jessica’s self-control and coolness toward her seemed to Patty a just punishment for how rule-bound and cold to her mother she herself had been at nineteen. She was feeling so bad about herself, indeed, that almost any punishment would have seemed appropriate to her. Saving her tears for later-feeling as if she didn’t deserve whatever emotional advantage she might have gained by crying, or by running off in a sulk to the train station-she exercised her own self-control and ate an early dining-hall dinner with Jessica and her roommate. She behaved like a grownup even though she felt that Jessica was the real grownup of the two of them.

Back in St. Paul, she continued her plunge down the mental-health mine shaft, and there were no more e-mails from Richard. The autobiographer wishes she could report that Patty didn’t send him any e-mails, either, but it should be clear by now that her capacity for error, agonizing, and self-humiliation is boundless. The one message she feels OK about sending was written after Walter gave her the news that Molly Tremain had killed herself with sleeping pills in her Lower East Side apartment. Patty was her best self in that e-mail and hopes that it’s how Richard remembers her.

The rest of the story of what Richard was doing that winter and spring has been told elsewhere, notably in People and Spin and Entertainment Weekly after the release of Nameless Lake and the emergence of a “cult” of Richard Katz. Michael Stipe and Jeff Tweedy were among the worthies who came forward to endorse Walnut Surprise and confess to having been longtime closet Traumatics listeners. Richard’s scruffy, well-educated white male fans may not have been so young anymore, but quite a few of them were now influential senior Arts editors.

As for Walter, the resentment you feel when your favorite unknown band suddenly goes on everybody’s playlist was multiplied by a thousand. Walter was proud, of course, that the new record was named after Dorothy’s lake, and that so many of the songs had been written in that house. Richard had also mercifully crafted the lyrics of each song so that the “you” in them, who was Patty, could be mistaken for dead Molly; this was the angle that he directed interviewers to take, knowing that Walter read and saved every scrap of press his friend ever got. But Walter was mostly disappointed and hurt by Richard’s moment in the sun. He said he understood why Richard hardly ever called him anymore, he understood that Richard had a lot on his plate now, but he didn’t really understand it. The true state of their friendship was turning out to be exactly as he’d always feared. Richard, even when he seemed to be most down, was never really down. Richard always had his secret musical agenda, an agenda that did not include Walter, and was always ultimately making his case directly to his fans, and keeping his eyes on the prize. A couple of minor music journalists were diligent enough to phone Walter for interviews, and his name could be found in some out-of-the-way places, most of them online, but Richard, in the interviews that Walter read, referred to him simply as “a really good college friend,” and none of the big magazines mentioned him by name. Walter wouldn’t have minded getting a little more credit for having been so morally and intellectually and even financially supportive of Richard, but what really hurt him was how little he seemed to matter to Richard, compared to how much Richard mattered to him. And Patty of course couldn’t offer him her best proof of how much he actually did matter to Richard. When Richard managed to find time to connect with him on the phone, Walter’s hurt poisoned their conversations and made Richard that much less inclined to call again.

And so Walter became competitive. He’d been lulled into believing himself the big brother, and now Richard had set him straight yet again. Richard may have privately sucked at chess and long-term relationships and good citizenship, but he was publicly loved and admired and celebrated for his tenacity, his purity of purpose, his gorgeous new songs. It all made Walter suddenly hate the house and the yard and the small Minnesotan stakes he’d sunk so much of his life and energy into; Patty was shocked by how bitterly he belittled his own accomplishments. Within weeks of the release of Nameless Lake, he was flying to Houston for his first interview with the megamillionaire Vin Haven, and a month after that he began to spend his work weeks in Washington, D.C. It was obvious to Patty, if not to Walter himself, that his resolve to go to Washington and create the Cerulean Mountain Trust and become a more ambitious international player was fueled by competition. In December, when Walnut Surprise played with Wilco at the Orpheum on a Friday night, he didn’t even fly back to St. Paul in time to see them.

Patty gave that show a miss herself. She couldn’t bear to listen to the new record-couldn’t get past the past tense of the second song-

There was nobody like you
For me. Nobody
I live with nobody. Love
Nobody. You were that body
That nobody was like
You were that body
That body for me
There was nobody like you

and so she did her best to follow Richard’s lead and relegate him to the past. There was something exciting, something almost Fiend of Athens, in Walter’s new energy, and she succeeded in hoping that the two of them might begin life afresh in Washington. She still loved the house on Nameless Lake, but she was done with the house on Barrier Street, which hadn’t been enough to hold Joey. She visited Georgetown for one afternoon, on a pretty blue fall Saturday when a Minnesotan wind was tossing the turning trees, and said, yeah, OK, I can do this. (Was she also conscious of the proximity of the University of Virginia, where Joey had just enrolled? Was her grasp of geography maybe not as bad as she’d always thought?) Incredibly, it was not until she actually arrived for good in Washington-not until she was crossing Rock Creek in a taxi with two suitcases-that she remembered how much she’d always hated politics and politicians. She walked into the house on 29th Street and saw, in a heartbeat, that she’d made yet another mistake.



When it became unavoidable that Richard Katz return to the studio with his eager young bandmates and start recording a second Walnut Surprise album-when he’d exhausted all modes of procrastination and flight, first playing every receptive city in America and then touring progressively more remote foreign countries, until his bandmates rebelled at adding Cyprus to their Turkish trip, and then breaking his left index finger while fielding a paperback copy of Samantha Power’s seminal survey of world genocide flung too violently by the band’s drummer, Tim, across a hotel room in Ankara, and then retreating solo to a cabin in the Adirondacks to score a Danish art film and, in his utter boredom with the project, seeking out a coke dealer in Plattsburgh and taking 5,000 euros of Danish government arts funding up his nose, and then going AWOL for a stretch of costly dissipation in New York and Florida which didn’t end until he was busted in Miami for DWI and possession, and then checking himself into the Gubser Clinic in Tallahassee for six weeks of detox and snide resistance to the gospel of recovery, and then recuperating from the shingles he’d taken insufficient care to avoid contracting during a chicken-pox outbreak at the Gubser, and then performing 250 hours of a greeably mindless community service at a Dade County park, and then simply refusing to answer his phone or check his e-mail while he read books in his apartment on the pretext of shoring up his defenses against the chicks and drugs that his bandmates all seemed able to enjoy without too seriously overdoing it-he sent Tim a postcard and told him to tell the others that he was dead broke and going back to building rooftop decks full-time; and the rest of Walnut Surprise began to feel like idiots for having waited.

Not that it mattered, but Katz really was broke. Income and outlays had more or less balanced during the band’s year and a half of touring; whenever there’d been danger of a surplus, he’d upgraded their hotels and bought drinks for bars full of fans and strangers. Though Nameless Lake and the newly kindled consumer interest in old Traumatics recordings had brought him more money than his previous twenty years of work combined, he’d managed to blow every dime of it in his quest to relocate the self he’d misplaced. The most traumatic events ever to befall the longtime front man of the Traumatics had been (1) receiving a Grammy nomination, (2) hearing his music played on National Public Radio, and (3) deducing, from December sales figures, that Nameless Lake had made the perfect little Christmas gift to leave beneath tastefully trimmed trees in several hundred thousand NPR-listening households. The Grammy nomination had been a particularly disorienting embarrassment.

Katz had read extensively in popular sociobiology, and his understanding of the depressive personality type and its seemingly perverse persistence in the human gene pool was that depression was a successful adaptation to ceaseless pain and hardship. Pessimism, feelings of worthlessness and lack of entitlement, inability to derive satisfaction from pleasure, a tormenting awareness of the world’s general crappiness: for Katz’s Jewish paternal forebears, who’d been driven from shtetl to shtetl by implacable anti-Semites, as for the old Angles and Saxons on his mother’s side, who’d labored to grow rye and barley in the poor soils and short summers of northern Europe, feeling bad all the time and expecting the worst had been natural ways of equilibriating themselves with the lousiness of their circumstances. Few things gratified depressives, after all, more than really bad news. This obviously wasn’t an optimal way to live, but it had its evolutionary advantages. Depressives in grim situations handed down their genes, however despairingly, while the self-improvers converted to Christianity or moved away to sunnier locales. Grim situations were Katz’s niche the way murky water was a carp’s. His best years with the Traumatics had coincided with Reagan I, Reagan II, and Bush I; Bill Clinton (at least pre-Lewinsky) had been something of a trial for him. Now came Bush II, the worst regime of all, and he might well have started making music again, had it not been for the accident of success. He flopped around on the ground, heavily carplike, his psychic gills straining futilely to extract dark sustenance from an atmosphere of approval and plenitude. He was at once freer than he’d been since puberty and closer than he’d ever been to suicide. In the last days of 2003, he went back to building decks.

He was lucky with his first two clients, a couple of private-equity boys who were into the Chili Peppers and didn’t know Richard Katz from Ludwig van Beethoven. He sawed and nail-gunned on their roofs in relative peace. Not until his third job, begun in February, did he have the misfortune of working for people who thought they knew who he was. The building was on White Street between Church and Broadway, and the client, an independently rich publisher of art books, owned the entire Traumatics oeuvre in vinyl and seemed hurt that Katz didn’t remember seeing his face in various sparse crowds at Maxwell’s, in Hoboken, over the years.

“There are so many faces,” Katz said. “I’m bad with faces.”

“That night when Molly fell off the stage, we all had drinks afterward. I still have her bloody napkin somewhere. You don’t remember?”

“Drawing a blank. Sorry.”

“Well, anyway, it’s been great to see you getting some of the recognition you deserve.”

“I’d rather not talk about that,” Katz said. “Let’s talk about your roof instead.”

“Basically, I want you to be creative and bill me,” the client said. “I want to have a deck built by Richard Katz. I can’t imagine you’re going to be doing this for long. I couldn’t believe it when I heard you were in business.”

“Some rough idea of square footage and preference in materials would nevertheless be useful.”

“Really anything. Just be creative. It doesn’t even matter.”

“Bear with me, though, and pretend it does,” Katz said. “Because if it really doesn’t matter, I’m not sure I-”

“Cover the roof. OK? Make it vast.” The client seemed annoyed with him. “Lucy wants to have parties up here. That’s one reason we bought this place.”

The client had a son, Zachary, a Stuy High senior and hipster-in-training and apparently something of a guitarist, who came up to the roof after school on Katz’s first day of work and, from a safe distance, as if Katz were a lion on a chain, peppered him with questions calculated to demonstrate his own knowledge of vintage guitars, which Katz considered a particularly tiresome commodity fetish. He said as much, and the kid went away annoyed with him.

On Katz’s second day of work, while he was transporting lumber and Trex boards roofward, Zachary’s mother, Lucy, waylaid him on the third-floor landing and offered, unsolicited, her opinion that the Traumatics had been the kind of adolescently posturing, angst-mongering boy group that never interested her. Then she waited, with parted lips and a saucy challenge in her eyes, to see how her presence-the drama of being her-was registering. In the way of such chicks, she seemed convinced of the originality of her provocation. Katz had encountered, practically verbatim, the same provocation a hundred times before, which put him in the ridiculous position now of feeling bad for being unable to pretend to be provoked: of pitying Lucy’s doughty little ego, its flotation on a sea of aging-female insecurity. He doubted he could get anywhere with her even if he felt like trying, but he knew that her pride would be hurt if he didn’t make at least a token effort to be disagreeable.

“I know,” he said, propping Trex against a wall. “That’s why it was such a breakthrough for me to produce a record of authentic adult feeling which women, too, could appreciate.”

“What makes you think I liked Nameless Lake?” Lucy said.

“What makes you think I care?” Katz gamely rejoined. He’d been up and down the stairs all morning, but what really exhausted him was having to perform himself.

“I liked it OK,” she said. “It was maybe just a teeny bit overpraised.”

“I’m at a loss to disagree with you,” Katz said.

She went away annoyed with him.

In the eighties and nineties, to avoid undercutting his best selling point as a contractor-the fact that he was making unpopular music deserving of financial support-Katz had been all but required to behave unprofessionally. His bread-and-butter clientele had been Tribeca artists and movie people who’d given him food and sometimes drugs and would have questioned his artistic commitment if he’d shown up for work before midafternoon, refrained from hitting on unavailable females, or finished on schedule and within budget. Now, with Tribeca fully annexed by the financial industry, and with Lucy lingering on her DUX bed all morning, sitting cross-legged in a tank top and sheer bikini underpants while she read the Times or talked on the phone, waving up at him through the skylight whenever he passed it, her barely clothed bush and impressive thighs sustainedly observable, he became a demon of professionalism and Protestant virtue, arriving promptly at nine and working several hours past nightfall, trying to shave a day or two off the project and get the hell out of there.

He’d returned from Florida feeling equally averse to sex and to music. This sort of aversion was new to him, and he was rational enough to recognize that it had everything to do with his mental state and little or nothing to do with reality. Just as the fundamental sameness of female bodies in no way precluded unending variety, there was no rational reason to despair about the sameness of popular music’s building blocks, the major and minor power chords, the 2/4 and the 4/4, the A-B-A-B-C. Every hour of the day, somewhere in greater New York, some energetic young person was working on a song that would sound, at least for a few listenings-maybe for as many as twenty or thirty listenings-as fresh as the morning of Creation. Since receiving his walking papers from Florida Probations and taking leave of his large-titted Parks Department supervisor, Marta Molina, Katz had been unable to turn on his stereo or touch an instrument or imagine letting anybody else into his bed, ever again. Hardly a day went by without his hearing an arresting new sound leaking from somebody’s basement practice room or even (it could happen) from the street doors of a Banana Republic or a Gap, and without his seeing, on the streets of Lower Manhattan, a young chick who was going to change somebody’s life; but he’d stopped believing this somebody could be him.

Then came a freezing Thursday afternoon, a sky of uniform grayness, a light snow that made the downtown skyline’s negative space less negative, blurring the Woolworth Building and its fairy-tale turrets, gently slanting in the weather’s tensors down the Hudson and out into the dark Atlantic, and distancing Katz from the scrum of pedestrians and traffic four stories below. The melty wetness of the streets nicely raised the treble of the traffic’s hiss and negated most of his tinnitus. He felt doubly enwombed, by the snow and by his manual labor, as he cut and fitted Trex into the intricate spaces between three chimneys. Midday turned to twilight without his thinking once of cigarettes, and since the interval between cigarettes was how he was currently sectioning his days into swallowable bites, he had the feeling that no more than fifteen minutes had passed between his eating of his lunchtime sandwich and the sudden, unwelcome looming-up of Zachary.

The kid was wearing a hoodie and the sort of low-cut skinny pants that Katz had first observed in London. “What do you think of Tutsi Picnic?” he said. “You into them?”

“Don’t know ’em,” Katz said.

“No way! I can’t believe that.”

“And yet it’s the truth,” Katz said.

“What about the Flagrants? Aren’t they awesome? That thirty-seven-minute song of theirs?”

“Haven’t had the pleasure.”

“Hey,” Zachary said, undiscouraged, “what do you think about those psychedelic Houston bands that were recording on Pink Pillow in the late sixties? Some of their sound really reminds me of your early stuff.”

“I need the piece of material you’re standing on,” Katz said.

“I thought some of those guys might be influences. Especially Peshawar Rickshaw.”

“If you could just raise your left foot for a second.”

“Hey, can I ask you another question?”

“And this saw will be making some noise now.”

“Just one other question.”

“All right.”

“Is this part of your musical process? Going back to work at your old day job?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it.”

“See, because my friends at school are asking. I told them I thought this was part of your process. Like, maybe you were reconnecting with the working man to gather material for your next record.”

“Do me a favor,” Katz said, “and tell your friends to have their parents call me if they want a deck built. I’ll work anywhere below Fourteenth and west of Broadway.”

“Seriously, is that why you’re doing this?”

“The saw is very loud.”

“OK, but one more question? I swear this is my last question. Can I do an interview with you?”

Katz revved the saw.

“Please?” Zachary said. “There’s this girl in my class that’s totally into Nameless Lake. It would be really helpful, in terms of getting her to talk to me, if I could digitally record one short interview and put it up online.”

Katz set down the saw and regarded Zachary gravely. “You play guitar and you’re telling me you have trouble interesting girls in you?”

“Well, this particular one, yeah. She’s got more mainstream taste. It’s been a real uphill battle.”

“And she’s the one you’ve got to have, can’t live without.”

“Pretty much.”

“And she’s a senior,” Katz said by old calculating reflex, before he could tell himself not to. “Didn’t skip any grades or anything.”

“Not that I know of.”

“Her name?”


“Bring her over after school tomorrow.”

“But she’s not going to believe you’re here. That’s why I want to do the interview, to prove you’re here. Then she’ll want to come over and meet you.”

Katz was two days short of eight weeks of celibacy. For the previous seven weeks, abjuring sex had seemed like the natural complement to staying clean of drugs and alcohol-one form of virtue buttressing the other. Not five hours ago, glancing down through the skylight at Zachary’s exhibitionist mother, he’d felt uninterested to the point of mild nausea. But now, all at once, with divinatory clarity, he saw that he would be falling one day short of the eight-week mark: would be giving himself over to the meticulous acquisition of Caitlyn, obliterating the numberless moments of consciousness between now and tomorrow night by imagining the million subtly different faces and bodies that she might turn out to possess, and then exercising his mastery and enjoying the fruits of such exercise, all in the arguably worthy service of squishing Zachary and disillusioning an eighteen-year-old fan with “mainstream” taste. He saw that he’d simply made a virtue of being uninterested in vice.

“Here’s the deal,” he said. “You set it up, think up your little questions, and I’ll be down in a couple of hours. But I need to see results tomorrow. I need to see this isn’t just some bullshit of yours.”

“Awesome,” Zachary said.

“You hear what I’m saying, though, right? I’m done interviewing. If I make an exception, we need results.”

“I swear she’s going to want to come over. She’s definitely going to want to meet you.”

“Good, then go contemplate what a large favor I’m doing you. I’ll be down around seven.”

Darkness had fallen. The snow had dwindled to a flurry, and the nightly nightmare of Holland Tunnel traffic had commenced. All but two of the city’s subway lines, as well as the indispensable PATH train, converged within three hundred yards of where Katz stood. This was still the pinch point of the world, this neighborhood. Here was the World Trade Center’s floodlit cicatrix, here the gold hoard of the Federal Reserve, here the Tombs and the Stock Exchange and City Hall, here Morgan Stanley and American Express and the windowless monoliths of Verizon, here stirring views across the harbor toward distant Liberty in her skin of green oxide. The stout female and wiry male bureaucrats who made the city function were crowding Chambers Street with brightly colored small umbrellas, heading home to Queens and Brooklyn. For a moment, before he turned his work lights on, Katz felt almost happy, almost familiar to himself again; but by the time he was packing up his tools, two hours later, he was aware of all the ways in which he already hated Caitlyn, and what a strange, cruel universe it was that made him want to fuck a chick because he hated her, and how badly this episode, like so many others before it, was going to end, and what a waste it would make of his accumulated clean time. He hated Caitlyn additionally for this waste.

And yet it was important that Zachary be squished. The kid had been given his own practice room, a cubical space lined with eggshell foam and scattered with more guitars than Katz had owned in thirty years. Already, for pure technique, to judge from what Katz had overheard in his comings and goings, the kid was a more hotdog soloist than Katz had ever been or ever would be. But so were a hundred thousand other American high-school boys. So what? Rather than thwarting his father’s vicarious rock ambitions by pursuing entomology or interesting himself in financial derivatives, Zachary dutifully aped Jimi Hendrix. Somewhere there had been a failure of imagination.

The kid was waiting in his practice room with an Apple laptop and a printed list of questions when Katz came in, his nose running and his frozen hands aching in the indoor warmth. Zachary indicated the folding chair he was to sit in. “I was wondering,” he said, “if you could start by playing a song and then maybe play another when we’re done.”

“No, I won’t do that,” Katz said.

“One song. It would be really cool if you would.”

“Just ask me your questions, all right? This is fairly humiliating already.”

Q: So, Richard Katz, it’s been three years since Nameless Lake, and exactly two years since Walnut Surprise was up for a Grammy. Can you tell me a little bit about how your life has changed since then?

A: I can’t answer that question. You have to ask me better questions.

Q: Well, maybe you can tell me a little about your decision to go back to work as a manual laborer. Do you feel blocked artistically?

A: Really need to take a different tack here.

Q: OK. What do you think of the MP3 revolution?

A: Ah, revolution, wow. It’s great to hear the word “revolution” again. It’s great that a song now costs exactly the same as a pack of gum and lasts exactly the same amount of time before it loses its flavor and you have to spend another buck. That era which finally ended whenever, yesterday-you know, that era when we pretended rock was the scourge of conformity and consumerism, instead of its anointed handmaid-that era was really irritating to me. I think it’s good for the honesty of rock and roll and good for the country in general that we can finally see Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop for what they really were: as manufacturers of wintergreen Chiclets.

Q: So you’re saying rock has lost its subversive edge?

A: I’m saying it never had any subversive edge. It was always wintergreen Chiclets, we just enjoyed pretending otherwise.

Q: What about when Dylan went electric?

A: If you’re going to talk about ancient history, let’s go back to the French Revolution. Remember when, I forget his name, but that rocker who wrote the “Marseillaise,” Jean Jacques Whoever-remember when his song started getting all that airplay in 1792, and suddenly the peasantry rose up and overthrew the aristocracy? There was a song that changed the world. Attitude was what the peasants were missing. They already had everything else-humiliating servitude, grinding poverty, unpayable debts, horrific working conditions. But without a song, man, it added up to nothing. The sansculotte style was what really changed the world.

Q: So what’s the next step for Richard Katz?

A: I’m getting involved in Republican politics.

Q: Ha ha.

A: Seriously. Getting nominated for a Grammy was such an unexpected honor, I feel duty bound to make the most of it in this critical election year. I’ve been given the opportunity to participate in the pop-music mainstream, and manufacture Chiclets, and help try to persuade fourteen-year-olds that the look and feel of Apple Computer products is an indication of Apple Computer’s commitment to making the world a better place. Because making the world a better place is cool, right? And Apple Computer must be way more committed to a better world, because iPods are so much cooler-looking than other MP3 players, which is why they’re so much more expensive and incompatible with other companies’ software, because-well, actually, it’s a little unclear why, in a better world, the very coolest products have to bring the very most obscene profits to a tiny number of residents of the better world. This may be a case where you have to step back and take the long view and see that getting to have your own iPod is itself the very thing that makes the world a better place. And that’s what I find so refreshing about the Republican Party. They leave it up to the individual to decide what a better world might be. It’s the party of liberty, right? That’s why I can’t understand why those intolerant Christian moralists have so much influence on the party. Those people are very antichoice. Some of them are even opposed to the worship of money and material goods. I think the iPod is the true face of Republican politics, and I’m in favor of the music industry really getting out in front on this one, and becoming more active politically, and standing up proud and saying it out loud: We in the Chiclet-manufacturing business are not about social justice, we’re not about accurate or objectively verifiable information, we’re not about meaningful labor, we’re not about a coherent set of national ideals, we’re not about wisdom. We’re about choosing what WE want to listen to and ignoring everything else. We’re about ridiculing people who have the bad manners not to want to be cool like us. We’re about giving ourselves a mindless feel-good treat every five minutes. We’re about the relentless enforcement and exploitation of our intellectual-property rights. We’re about persuading ten-year-old children to spend twenty-five dollars on a cool little silicone iPod case that it costs a licensed Apple Computer subsidiary thirty-nine cents to manufacture.

Q: Seriously, though. There was a very strong antiwar mood at last year’s Grammys. Many of the nominees were very outspoken. Do you think successful musicians have a responsibility to be role models?

A: Me me me, buy buy buy, party party party. Sit in your own little world, rocking, with your eyes closed. What I’ve been trying to say is that we already are perfect Republican role models.

Q: If that’s the case, then why was there a censor at the awards last year, making sure that nobody spoke out against the war? Are you saying Sheryl Crow is a Republican?

A: I hope so. She seems like such a nice person, I’d hate to think she was a Democrat.

Q: She’s been very vocally antiwar.

A: Do you think George Bush actually hates gay people? Do you think he personally gives a shit about abortion? Do you think Dick Cheney really believes Saddam Hussein engineered 9/11? Sheryl Crow is a chewing-gum manufacturer, and I say that as a longtime chewing-gum manufacturer myself. The person who cares what Sheryl Crow thinks about the war in Iraq is the same person who’s going to buy an obscenely overpriced MP3 player because Bono Vox is shilling for it.

Q: But there’s a place for leaders in a society, too, right? Wasn’t that what corporate America was trying to suppress at the Grammys? The voices of potential leaders of an antiwar movement?

A: You want the CEO of Chiclets to be a leader in the fight against tooth decay? Use the same advertising methods to sell gum and tell the world that gum is bad for you? I know I just made a crack about Bono, but he has more integrity than the rest of the music world combined. If you made a fortune selling Chiclets, you might as well go ahead and sell overpriced iPods, too, and get even richer, and then use your money and your status to get entrée to the White House and try to do some actual hands-on good in Africa. Like: be a man, suck it up, admit that you like being part of the ruling class, and that you believe in the ruling class, and that you’ll do whatever it takes to consolidate your position in it.

Q: Are you saying you supported the invasion of Iraq?

A: I’m saying, if invading Iraq had been the kind of thing that a person like me supported, it never would have happened.

Q: Let’s get back to Richard Katz the person for a minute.

A: No, let’s turn your little machine off. I think we’re done here.

“That was great,” Zachary said, pointing and clicking. “That was perfect. I’m going to put this up right now and send the link to Caitlyn.”

“You have her e-mail address?”

“No, but I know who does.”

“Then I’ll see you both after school tomorrow.”

Katz made his way down Church Street toward the PATH train under a familiar cloud of post-interview remorse. He wasn’t worried about having given offense; his business was giving offense. He was worried about having sounded pathetic-too transparently the washed-up talent whose only recourse was to trash his betters. He strongly disliked the person he’d just demonstrated afresh that he unfortunately was. And this, of course, was the simplest definition of depression that he knew of: strongly disliking yourself.

Back in Jersey City, he stopped at the gyro joint that provided three or four of his dinners every week, departed with a heavy stinking bag of lowest-grade meats and pita, and climbed the stairs to his apartment, which he’d been away from so much in the last two and a half years that it seemed to have turned against him, to no longer wish to be his place. A little bit of coke could have changed that-could have restored the apartment’s lost luster of friendliness-but only for a few hours, or at most a few days, after which it would make everything much worse. The one room he still halfway liked was the kitchen, whose harsh fluorescent lighting suited his mood. He sat down at his ancient enamel-top table to distract himself from the taste of his dinner by reading Thomas Bernhard, his new favorite writer.

Behind him, on a counter crowded with unwashed dishes, his landline rang. The readout said walter berglund.

“Walter, my conscience,” Katz said. “Why are you bothering me now?”

He was tempted, in spite of himself, to pick up, because he’d lately found himself missing Walter, but he remembered, in the nick of time, that this could just as easily be Patty calling from their home phone. He’d learned from his experience with Molly Tremain that you shouldn’t try to save a drowning woman unless you were ready to drown yourself, and so he’d stood and watched from a pier while Patty floundered and cried for help. Any way she might be feeling now was a way he didn’t want to hear about. The great benefit of touring Nameless Lake to death-toward the end, he’d been able to entertain long trains of thought while performing, able to review the band’s finances and contemplate the scoring of new drugs and experience remorse about his latest interview without losing the beat or skipping a verse-had been the emptying of all meaning from the lyrics, the permanent severing of his songs from the state of sadness (for Molly, for Patty) in which he’d written them. He’d gone so far as to believe the touring had exhausted the sadness itself. But there was no way he was going to touch the phone while it was ringing.

He did, however, check his voice mail.

Richard? It’s Walter-Berglund. I don’t know if you’re there, you’re probably not even in the country, but I’m wondering if you might be around tomorrow. I’m going up to New York on business, and I have a little proposal for you. Sorry about the late notice. I’m mostly just saying hi. Patty says hi, too. Hope everything’s OK with you!

To delete this message, press 3.

It was two years since Katz had heard from Walter. As the silence had lengthened, he’d begun to think that Patty, in a moment of stupidity or misery, had confessed to her husband what had happened at Nameless Lake. Walter, with his feminism, his infuriating reverse double standard, would quickly have forgiven Patty and left Katz alone to bear the blame for the betrayal. It was a funny thing about Walter: circumstances kept conspiring to make Katz, who otherwise feared nobody, feel lessened and intimidated by him. In renouncing Patty, sacrificing his own pleasure and brutally disappointing her in order to preserve her marriage, he’d risen momentarily to the level of Walter’s excellence, but all he’d gotten for his trouble was envy of his friend for his unexamined possession of his wife. He’d tried to pretend that he was doing the Berglunds a favor by ceasing communication with them, but mainly he just hadn’t wanted to hear that they were happy and securely married.

Katz couldn’t have said exactly why Walter mattered to him. No doubt part of it was simply an accident of grandfathering: of forming an attachment at an impressionable age, before the contours of his personality were fully set. Walter had slipped into his life before he’d shut the door on the world of ordinary people and cast his lot with misfits and dropouts. Not that Walter was so ordinary himself. He was at once hopelessly naïve and very shrewd and dogged and well-informed. And then there was the complication of Patty, who, although she’d long tried hard to pretend otherwise, was even less ordinary than Walter, and then the further complication of Katz’s being no less attracted to Patty than Walter was, and arguably more attracted to Walter than Patty was. This was definitely a weird one. No other man had warmed Katz’s loins the way the sight of Walter did after long absence. These groinal heatings were no more about literal sex, no more homo, than the hard-ons he got from a long-anticipated first snort of blow, but there was definitely something deep-chemical there. Something that insisted on being called love. Katz had enjoyed seeing the Berglunds as their family grew, enjoyed knowing them, enjoyed knowing they were out there in the Midwest, having a good life that he could drop in on when he wasn’t feeling great. And then he’d wrecked it by letting himself spend a night alone in a summer house with a former basketball player who was skilled at scooting through narrow lanes of opportunity. What had been his diffusely warm world of domestic refuge had collapsed, overnight, into the hot, hungry microcosm of Patty’s cunt. Which he still couldn’t believe he’d had such cruelly fleeting access to.

Patty says hi, too.

“Yeah, fuck that,” Katz said, eating gyro. But as soon as he’d replaced his appetite with a deep gastric unease about his means of satisfying it, he returned Walter’s call. Luckily, Walter himself answered.

“What’s up,” Katz said.

“What’s up with you?” Walter countered with giddy niceness. “It seems like you’ve been everywhere.”

“Yeah, really singing the body electric. Heady times here.”

“Tripping the light fantastic.”

“Exactly. In a Dade County jail cell.”

“Yeah, I read about that. What on earth were you doing in Florida anyway?”

“South American chick I mistook for a human being.”

“I figured it was all part of the fame thing,” Walter said. “ ‘Fame requires every sort of excess.’ I remembered we used to talk about that.”

“Well, fortunately, I’m past having to deal with it. I’ve stepped off the bus.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m building decks again.”

“Decks? Are you kidding? That’s crazy! You should be out trashing hotel rooms and recording your most repellent fuck-you songs ever.”

“Tired moves, man. I’m doing the only honorable thing I can think of.”

“But that’s such a waste!”

“Be careful what you say. You might offend me.”

“Seriously, Richard, you’re a great talent. You can’t just stop because people happened to like one of your records.”

“ ‘Great talent.’ That’s like calling somebody a genius at tic-tac-toe. We’re talking about pop music here.”

“Wow, wow, wow,” Walter said. “This is not what I expected to be hearing. I thought you’d be finishing a record and getting ready for more touring. I would have called you sooner if I’d known you were building decks. I was trying not to bother you.”

“You never have to feel that.”

“Well, I never heard from you, I figured you were busy.”

“Mea culpa,” Katz said. “How are you guys doing? Everything OK with you?”

“More or less. You know we moved to Washington, right?”

Katz closed his eyes and flogged his neurons to produce a confirming memory of this. “Yes,” he said. “I think I knew that.”

“Well, things have gotten somewhat complex here, it turns out. In fact, that’s what prompted me to call. I have a proposal for you. Do you have some time tomorrow afternoon? On the late side?”

“Late afternoon’s no good. How about morning?”

Walter explained that he was meeting Robert Kennedy Jr. at noon and had to return to Washington in the evening for a flight to Texas on Saturday morning. “We could talk on the phone now,” he said, “but my assistant really wants to meet you. She’s the one you’d be working with. I’d rather not steal her thunder by saying anything now.”

“Your assistant,” Katz said.

“Lalitha. She’s incredibly young and brilliant. She actually lives right upstairs from us. I think you’ll like her a lot.”

The brightness and excitement in Walter’s voice, the hint of guilt or thrill in the word “actually,” did not escape Katz’s notice.

“Lalitha,” he said. “What kind of name is that?”

“Indian. Bengali. She grew up in Missouri. She’s actually very pretty.”

“I see. And what’s her proposal about?”

“Saving the planet.”

“I see.”

Katz suspected that Walter was calculatedly dangling this Lalitha as bait, and it irritated him to be thought so easily manipulated. And yet-knowing Walter to be a man who didn’t call a female pretty without good reason-he was manipulated, he was intrigued.

“Let me see if I can rearrange some things tomorrow afternoon,” he said.

“Fantastic,” Walter said.

What would be would be and what would not would not. In Katz’s experience, it seldom hurt to make chicks wait. He called White Street and informed Zachary that the meeting with Caitlyn would have to be postponed.

The following afternoon, at 3:15, only fifteen minutes late, he strode into Walker’s and saw Walter and the Indian chick waiting at a corner table. Before he even reached the table, he knew he had no chance with her. There were eighteen words of body language with which women signified availability and submission, and Lalitha was using a good twelve of them at once on Walter. She looked like a living illustration of the phrase hanging on his words. As Walter rose from the table to embrace Katz, the girl’s eyes remained fixed on Walter; and this was indeed a weird twist for the universe to have taken. Never before had Katz seen Walter in studly mode, turning a pretty head. He was wearing a good dark suit and had gained some middle-aged bulk. There was a new breadth to his shoulders, a new projection to his chest. “Richard, Lalitha,” he said.

“Very nice to meet you,” Lalitha said, loosely shaking his hand and adding nothing about being honored or excited, nothing about being a huge fan.

Katz sank into a chair feeling sucker-punched by a damning recognition: contrary to the lies he’d always told himself, he wanted Walter’s women not in spite of his friendship but because of it. For two years, he’d been consistently oppressed by avowals of fandom, and now suddenly he was disappointed not to receive one of these avowals from Lalitha, because of the way she was looking at Walter. She was dark-skinned and complexly round and slender. Round-eyed, round-faced, round-breasted; slender in the neck and arms. A solid B-plus that could be an A-minus if she would work for extra credit. Katz pushed a hand through his hair, brushing out bits of Trex dust. His old friend and foe was beaming with unalloyed delight at seeing him again.

“So what’s up,” he said.

“Well, a lot,” Walter said. “Where to begin?”

“That’s a nice suit, by the way. You look good.”

“Oh, you like it?” Walter looked down at himself. “Lalitha made me buy it.”

“I kept telling him his wardrobe sucked,” the girl said. “He hadn’t bought a new suit in ten years!”

She had a subtle subcontinental accent, percussive, no-nonsense, and she sounded proprietary of Walter. If her body hadn’t been speaking of such anxiousness to please, Katz might have believed she already owned him.

“You look good yourself,” Walter said.

“Thank you for lying.”

“No, it’s good, it’s kind of a Keith Richards look.”

“Ah, now we’re being honest. Keith Richards looks like a wolf dressed up in a grandmother’s bonnet. That headband?”

Walter consulted Lalitha. “Do you think Richard looks like a grandmother?”

“No,” she said with a curt, round O sound.

“So you’re in Washington,” Katz said.

“Yeah, it’s sort of a strange situation,” Walter said. “I work for a guy named Vin Haven who’s based in Houston, he’s a big oil-and-gas guy. His wife’s dad was an old-school Republican. Served under Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. He left her a mansion in Georgetown that they hardly ever used. When Vin set up the Trust, he put the offices on the ground floor and sold Patty and me the second and third floors at a price below market. There’s also a little maid’s apartment on the top floor where Lalitha’s been living.”

“I have the third-best commute in Washington,” Lalitha said. “Walter’s is even better than the president’s. We all share the same kitchen.”

“Sounds cozy,” Katz said, giving Walter a significant look that seemed not to register. “And what is this Trust?”

“I think I told you about it the last time we talked.”

“I was doing so many drugs there for a while, you’re going to have to tell me everything at least twice.”

“It is the Cerulean Mountain Trust,” Lalitha said. “It’s a whole new approach to conservation. It’s Walter’s idea.”

“Actually, it was Vin’s idea, at least to begin with.”

“But the really original ideas are all Walter’s,” Lalitha assured Katz.

A waitress (nothing special, already known to Katz and dismissed from consideration) took orders for coffee, and Walter launched into the story of the Cerulean Mountain Trust. Vin Haven, he said, was a very un usual man. He and his wife, Kiki, were passionate bird-lovers who happened also to be personal friends of George and Laura Bush and Dick and Lynne Cheney. Vin had accumulated a nine-figure fortune by profitably losing money on oil and gas wells in Texas and Oklahoma. He was now getting on in years, and, having had no children with Kiki, he’d decided to blow more than half his total wad on the preservation of a single bird species, the cerulean warbler, which, Walter said, was not only a beautiful creature but the fastest-declining songbird in North America.

“Here’s our poster bird,” Lalitha said, taking a brochure from her briefcase.

The warbler on its cover looked nondescript to Katz. Bluish, small, unintelligent. “That’s a bird all right,” he said.

“Just wait,” Lalitha said. “It’s not about the bird. It’s much bigger than that. You have to wait and hear Walter’s vision.”

Vision! Katz was beginning to think that Walter’s real purpose in arranging this meeting had simply been to inflict on him the fact of his being adored by a rather pretty twenty-five-year-old.

The cerulean warbler, Walter said, bred exclusively in mature temperate hardwood forests, with a stronghold in the central Appalachians. There was a particularly healthy population in southern West Virginia, and Vin Haven, with his ties to the nonrenewable energy industry, had seen an opportunity to partner with coal companies to create a very large, permanent private reserve for the warbler and other threatened hardwood species. The coal companies had reason to fear that the warbler would soon be listed under the Endangered Species Act, with potentially deleterious effects on their freedom to cut down forests and blow up mountains. Vin believed that they could be persuaded to help the warbler, to keep the bird off the Threatened list and garner some much-needed good press, as long as they were allowed to continue extracting coal. And this was how Walter had landed the job as executive director of the Trust. In Minnesota, working for the Nature Conservancy, he’d forged good relationships with mining interests, and he was unusually open to constructive engagement with the coal people.

“Mr. Haven interviewed half a dozen other candidates before Walter,” Lalitha said. “Some of them stood up and walked out on him, right in the middle of the interviews. They were so closed-minded and afraid of being criticized! Nobody else but Walter could see the potential for somebody who was willing to take a big risk and not care so much about conventional wisdom.”

Walter grimaced at this compliment, but he was clearly pleased by it. “Those people all had better jobs than I did. They had more to lose.”

“But what kind of environmentalist cares more about saving his job than saving land?”

“Well, a lot of them do, unfortunately. They have families and responsibilities.”

“But so do you!”

“Face it, man, you’re just too excellent,” Katz said, not kindly. He was still holding out hope that Lalitha, when they stood up to leave, would prove to be big in the butt or thick in the thighs.

To help save the cerulean warbler, Walter said, the Trust was aiming to create a hundred-square-mile roadless tract-Haven’s Hundred was its working nickname-in Wyoming County, West Virginia, surrounded by a larger “buffer zone” open to hunting and motorized recreation. To be able to afford both the surface and mineral rights to such a large single parcel, the Trust would first have to permit coal extraction on nearly a third of it, via mountaintop removal. This was the prospect that had scared off the other applicants. Mountaintop removal as currently practiced was ecologically deplorable-ridgetop rock blasted away to expose the underlying seams of coal, surrounding valleys filled with rubble, biologically rich streams obliterated. Walter, however, believed that properly managed reclamation efforts could mitigate far more of the damage than people realized; and the great advantage of fully mined-out land was that nobody would rip it open again.

Katz was remembering that one of the things he’d missed about Walter was good discussion of actual ideas. “But don’t we want to leave the coal underground?” he said. “I thought we hated coal.”

“That’s a longer discussion for another time,” Walter said.

“Walter has some excellent original thoughts on fossil fuels versus nuclear and wind,” Lalitha said.

“Suffice it to say that we’re realistic about coal,” Walter said.

Even more exciting, he continued, was the money the Trust was pouring into South America, where the cerulean warbler, like so many other North American songbirds, spent its winters. The Andean forests were disappearing at a calamitous rate, and for the last two years Walter had been making monthly trips to Colombia, buying up big parcels of land and coordinating with local NGOs that encouraged ecotourism and helped peasants replace their wood-burning stoves with solar and electric heating. A dollar still went fairly far in the southern hemisphere, and the South America half of the Pan-American Warbler Park was already in place.

“Mr. Haven hadn’t planned to do anything in South America,” Lalitha said. “He’d completely neglected that part of the picture until Walter pointed it out to him.”

“Apart from everything else,” Walter said, “I thought there could be some educational benefit in creating a park that spanned two continents. To drive home the fact that everything’s interconnected. We’re eventually hoping to sponsor some smaller reserves along the warbler’s migratory route, in Texas and Mexico.”

“That’s good,” Katz said dully. “That’s a good idea.”

“Really good idea,” Lalitha said, gazing at Walter.

“The thing is,” Walter said, “the land is disappearing so fast that it’s hopeless to wait for governments to do conservation. The problem with governments is they’re elected by majorities that don’t give a shit about biodiversity. Whereas billionaires do tend to care. They’ve got a stake in keeping the planet not entirely fucked, because they and their heirs are going to be the ones with enough money to enjoy the planet. The reason Vin Haven started doing conservation on his ranches in Texas was that he likes to hunt the bigger birds and look at the little ones. Self-interest, yeah, but a total win-win. In terms of locking up habitat to save it from development, it’s a lot easier to turn a few billionaires than to educate American voters who are perfectly happy with their cable and their Xboxes and their broadband.”

“Plus you don’t actually want three hundred million Americans running around your wilderness areas anyway,” Katz said.

“Exactly. It wouldn’t be wilderness anymore.”

“So basically you’re telling me you’ve gone over to the dark side.”

Walter laughed. “That’s right.”

“You need to meet Mr. Haven,” Lalitha said to Katz. “He’s really an interesting character.”

“Being friends with George and Dick would seem to tell me everything I need to know.”

“No, Richard, it doesn’t,” she said. “It doesn’t tell you everything.”

Her charming pronunciation of the O in “no” made Katz want to keep contradicting her. “And the guy’s a hunter,” he said. “He probably even hunts with Dick, right?”

“As a matter of fact, he does hunt with Dick sometimes,” Walter said. “But the Havens eat what they kill, and they manage their land for wildlife. The hunting is not the problem. The Bushes aren’t the problem, either. When Vin comes to town, he goes to the White House to watch Longhorns games, and at halftime he works on Laura. He’s got her interested in seabirds in Hawaii. I think we’re going to see some action there soon. The Bush connection per se is not the problem.”

“So what is the problem?” Katz said.

Walter and Lalitha exchanged uneasy glances.

“Well, there are several,” Walter said. “Money is one of them. Given how much we’re pouring into South America, it would really have helped to get some public funding in West Virginia. And the mountaintop-removal issue turns out to be a real tar baby. The local grassroots groups have all demonized the coal industry and especially MTR.”

“MTR is mountaintop removal,” Lalitha said.

“The New York Times gives Bush-Cheney a total free pass on Iraq but keeps running these fucking editorials about the evils of MTR,” Walter said. “Nobody state, federal, or private wants to touch a project that involves sacrificing mountain ridges and displacing poor families from their ancestral homes. They don’t want to hear about forest reclamation, they don’t want to hear about sustainable green jobs. Wyoming County is very, very empty-the total number of families directly impacted by our plan is less than two hundred. But the whole thing gets turned into evil corporations versus the helpless common man.”

“It is so stupid and unreasonable,” Lalitha said. “They won’t even listen to Walter. He has really good news about reclamation, but people just close their ears when we walk into a room.”

“There’s this thing called the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative,” Walter said. “Are you at all interested in the details?”

“I’m interested in watching the two of you talk about them,” Katz said.

“Well, very briefly, what’s given MTR such a bad name is that most surface-rights owners don’t insist on the right sort of reclamation. Before a coal company can exercise its mineral rights and tear down a mountain, it has to put up a bond that doesn’t get refunded until the land’s been restored. And the problem is, these owners keep settling for these barren, flat, subsidence-prone pastures, in the hope that some developer will come along and build luxury condos on them, in spite of their being in the middle of nowhere. The fact is, you can actually get a very lush and biodiverse forest if you do the reclamation right. Use four feet of topsoil and weathered sandstone instead of the usual eighteen inches. Take care not to compact the soil too much. And then plant the right mixture of fast- and slow-growing tree species in the right season. We’ve got evidence that forests like that might actually be better for warbler families than the second-growth forests they replace. So our plan isn’t just about preserving the warbler, it’s about creating an advertisement for doing things right. But the environmental mainstream doesn’t want to talk about doing things right, because doing things right would make the coal companies look less villainous and MTR more palatable politically. And so we couldn’t get any outside money, and we’ve got public opinion trending against us.”

“But the problem with going it alone,” Lalitha said, “was that we were either looking at a much smaller park, too small to be a stronghold for the warbler, or at making too many concessions to the coal companies.”

“Which really are somewhat evil,” Walter said.

“And so we couldn’t ask too many questions about Mr. Haven’s money.”

“It sounds like you’ve got your hands full,” Katz said. “If I were a billionaire, I’d be taking out my checkbook right now.”

“There’s even worse, though,” Lalitha said, her eyes strangely glittering.

“Are you bored yet?” Walter said.

“Not at all,” Katz said. “I’m frankly a little starved for intellectual stimulus.”

“Well, the problem is, unfortunately, that Vin has turned out to have some other motives.”

“Rich people are like little babies,” Lalitha said. “Fucking little babies.”

“Say that again,” Katz said.

“Say what?”

“Fucking. I like the way you pronounce it.”

She blushed; Mr. Katz had gotten through to her.

“Fucking, fucking, fucking,” she said happily, for him. “I used to work at the Conservancy, and when we’d have our annual gala, the rich people were happy to buy a table for twenty thousand dollars, but only if they got their gift bag at the end of the night. The gift bags were full of worthless garbage donated by somebody else. But if they didn’t get their gift bags, they wouldn’t donate twenty thousand again the next year.”

“I need your assurance,” Walter said to Katz, “that you won’t mention any of this to anybody else.”

“So assured.”

The Cerulean Mountain Trust, Walter said, had been conceived in the spring of 2001, when Vin Haven had traveled to Washington to participate in the vice president’s notorious energy task force, the one whose invite list Dick Cheney was still spending taxpayer dollars to defend against the Freedom of Information Act. Over cocktails one night, after a long day of task-forcing, Vin had spoken to the chairmen of Nardone Energy and Blasco and sounded them out on the subject of cerulean warblers. Once he’d convinced them that their legs weren’t being pulled-that Vin was actually serious about saving a non-huntable bird-an agreement in principle had been reached: Vin would go shopping for a huge tract of land whose core would be opened to MTR but then reclaimed and made forever wild. Walter had known about this agreement when he took the job as the Trust’s executive director. What he hadn’t known-had discovered only recently-was that the vice president, during that same week in 2001, had privately mentioned to Vin Haven that the president intended to make certain regulatory and tax-code changes to render natural-gas extraction economically feasible in the Appalachians. And that Vin had proceeded to buy large bundles of mineral rights not only in Wyoming County but in several other parts of West Virginia that were either coalless or had been mined out. These big purchases of seemingly useless rights might have raised a red flag, Walter said, if Vin hadn’t been able to claim that he was safeguarding possible future preserve sites for the Trust.

“Long story short,” Lalitha said, “he was using us for cover.”

“Keeping in mind, of course,” Walter said, “that Vin really does love birds and is doing great things for the cerulean warbler.”

“He just wanted his little gift bag also,” Lalitha said.

“His not-so-little gift bag, as it turns out,” Walter said. “This is still mostly under the radar, so you probably haven’t heard about it, but West Virginia’s about to get the shit drilled out of it. Hundreds of thousands of acres that we all assumed were permanently preserved are now in the process of being destroyed as we sit here. In terms of fragmentation and disruption, it’s as bad as anything the coal industry’s done. If you own the mineral rights, you can do whatever the fuck you want to exercise them, even on public land. New roads everywhere, thousands of wellheads, noisy equipment running night and day, blazing lights all night.”

“And meanwhile your boss’s mineral rights are suddenly a lot more valuable,” Katz said.


“And now he’s selling off the land he was pretending to buy for you?”

“Some of it, yeah.”


“Well, he is still spending a ton of money. And he’ll be taking steps to mitigate the impact of drilling where he still owns the rights. But he’s had to sell a lot of rights to cover some big expenses that we were hoping not to have, if public opinion had gone our way. The bottom line is, he never intended the true cost of his investment in the Trust to be as big as I’d originally thought.”

“In other words, you got played.”

“I got played, a little bit. We’re still getting the Warbler Park, but I got played. And please don’t ever mention any of this to anyone.”

“So what does this mean?” Katz said. “I mean, besides my having been right about friends of Bush being evil.”

“It means that Walter and I have become rogue employees,” Lalitha said with her strange glittering look.

“Not rogue,” Walter corrected quickly. “Don’t say rogue. We’re not rogue.”

“No, in fact, we are fairly rogue.”

“I like the way you say ‘rogue,’ too,” Katz remarked to her.

“We still really like Vin,” Walter said. “Vin’s one-of-a-kind. We just feel like, since he wasn’t entirely straight with us, there’s no need for us to be entirely straight with him.”

“We have some maps and charts to show you,” Lalitha said, digging in her briefcase.

The early crowd at Walker’s, the van drivers and the cops from the precinct house around the corner, were filling the tables and laying siege to the bar. Outside, in the durable late-winter light of a February afternoon, streets were clogging with Friday tunnel traffic. In a parallel universe, dim with unreality, Katz was still up on the roof at White Street, flirting purposefully with nubile Caitlyn. She seemed hardly worth the bother now. Although he could take or leave nature, Katz couldn’t help envying Walter for taking on Bush’s cronies and trying to beat them at their own game. Compared to manufacturing Chiclets, or building decks for the contemptible, it seemed interesting.

“I took the job in the first place,” Walter said, “because I couldn’t sleep at night. I couldn’t stand what was happening to the country. Clinton had done less than zero for the environment. Net fucking negative. Clinton just wanted everybody to party to Fleetwood Mac. ‘Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow?’ Bullshit. Not thinking about tomorrow was exactly what he did environmentally. And then Gore was too much of a wimp to let his green flag fly, and too nice a guy to fight dirty in Florida. I was still halfway OK as long as I was in St. Paul, but I kept having to drive all over the state for the Conservancy, and it was like having acid thrown in my face every time I passed the city limits. Not just the industrial farming but the sprawl, the sprawl, the sprawl. Low-density development is the worst. And SUVs everywhere, snowmobiles everywhere, Jet Skis everywhere, ATVs everywhere, two-acre lawns everywhere. The goddamned green monospecific chemical-drenched lawns.”

“Here are the maps,” Lalitha said.

“Yeah, these show the fragmentation,” Walter said, handing Katz two laminated maps. “This one is undisturbed habitat in 1900, this one’s undisturbed habitat in 2000.”

“Prosperity will do that,” Katz said.

“The development was so stupidly done, though,” Walter said. “We still might have enough land for other species to survive if it wasn’t all so fragmented.”

“Nice fantasy, I agree,” Katz said. In hindsight, he supposed it was inevitable that his friend would become one of those people who carried around laminated literature. But he was still surprised by what an angry crank Walter had become in the last two years.

“This was what was keeping me awake at night,” Walter said. “This fragmentation. Because it’s the same problem everywhere. It’s like the internet, or cable TV-there’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. We can never sit down and have any kind of sustained conversation, it’s all just cheap trash and shitty development. All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off. Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli.”

“There’s some pretty good porn on the internet,” Katz said. “Or so I’m told.”

“I wasn’t accomplishing anything systemic in Minnesota. We were just gathering little bits of disconnected prettiness. There are approximately six hundred breeding bird species in North America, and maybe a third of them are getting clobbered by fragmentation. Vin’s idea was that if two hundred really rich people would each pick one species, and try to stop the fragmentation of their strongholds, we might be able to save them all.”

“The cerulean warbler is a very choosy little bird,” Lalitha said.

“It breeds in treetops in mature deciduous forest,” Walter said. “And then, as soon as the babies can fly, the family moves down into the understory for safety. But the original forests were all cut down for timber and charcoal, and the second-growth forests don’t have the right kind of understory, and they’re all fragmented with roads and farms and subdivisions and coal-mining sites, which makes the warbler vulnerable to cats and raccoons and crows.”

“And so, before you know it, no more cerulean warblers,” Lalitha said.

“That does sound tough,” Katz said. “Although it is just one bird.”

“Every species has an inalienable right to keep existing,” Walter said.

“Sure. Of course. I’m just trying to figure out where this is coming from. I don’t remember you caring about birds when we were in college. Back then, as I recall, it was more about overpopulation and the limits to growth.”

Walter and Lalitha again exchanged glances.

“Overpopulation is exactly what we want you to help us with,” Lalitha said.

Katz laughed. “Doing my best with that already.”

Walter was shuffling through some laminated charts. “I started walking it back,” he said, “because I still wasn’t sleeping. You remember Aristotle and the different kinds of causes? Efficient and formal and final? Well, nest-predation by crows and feral cats is an efficient cause of the warbler’s decline. And fragmentation of the habitat is a formal cause of that. But what’s the final cause? The final cause is the root of pretty much every problem we have. The final cause is too many damn people on the planet. It’s especially clear when we go to South America. Yes, per capita consumption is rising. Yes, the Chinese are illegally vacuuming up resources down there. But the real problem is population pressure. Six kids per family versus one point five. People are desperate to feed the children that the pope in his infinite wisdom makes them have, and so they trash the environment.”

“You should come with us to South America,” Lalitha said. “We drive along these little roads, there’s terrible exhaust from bad engines and too-cheap gasoline, the hillsides are all denuded, and the families all have eight or ten children, it’s really sickening. You should come along with us sometime and see if you like what you see down there. Because it’s coming soon to a theater near you.”

Crackpot, Katz thought. Hot little crackpot.

Walter handed him a laminated bar chart. “In America alone,” he said, “the population’s going to rise by fifty percent in the next four decades. Think about how crowded the exurbs are already, think about the traffic and the sprawl and the environmental degradation and the dependence on foreign oil. And then add fifty percent. And that’s just America, which can theoretically sustain a larger population. And then think about global carbon emissions, and genocide and famine in Africa, and the radicalized dead-end underclass in the Arab world, and overfishing of the oceans, illegal Israeli settlements, the Han Chinese overrunning Tibet, a hundred million poor people in nuclear Pakistan: there’s hardly a problem in the world that wouldn’t be solved or at least tremendously alleviated by having fewer people. And yet”-he gave Katz another chart-“we’re going to add another three billion by 2050. In other words, we’re going to add the equivalent of the world’s entire population when you and I were putting our pennies in UNICEF boxes. Any little things we might do now to try to save some nature and preserve some kind of quality of life are going to get overwhelmed by the sheer numbers, because people can change their consumption habits-it takes time and effort, but it can be done-but if the population keeps increasing, nothing else we do is going to matter. And yet nobody is talking about the problem publicly. It’s the elephant in the room, and it’s killing us.”

“This is all sounding more familiar,” Katz said. “I’m remembering some rather lengthy discussions.”

“I was definitely into it in college. But then, you know, I did some breeding myself.”

Katz raised his eyebrows. Breeding was an interesting way of speaking of one’s wife and children.

“In my own way,” Walter said, “I guess I was part of a larger cultural shift that was happening in the eighties and nineties. Overpopulation was definitely part of the public conversation in the seventies, with Paul Ehrlich, and the Club of Rome, and ZPG. And then suddenly it was gone. Became just unmentionable. Part of it was the Green Revolution-you know, still plenty of famines, but not apocalyptic ones. And then population control got a terrible name politically. Totalitarian China with its one-child policy, Indira Gandhi doing forced sterilizations, American ZPG getting painted as nativist and racist. The liberals got all scared and silent. Even the Sierra Club got scared. And the conservatives, of course, never gave a shit in the first place, because their entire ideology is selfish short-term interest and God’s plan and so forth. And so the problem became this cancer that you know is growing inside you but you decide you’re just not going to think about.”

“And this has what to do with your cerulean warbler?” Katz said.

“It has everything to do with it,” Lalitha said.

“Like I said,” Walter said, “we’ve decided to take some liberties with interpreting the mission of the Trust, which is to ensure the survival of the warbler. We keep walking the problem back, walking it back. And what we finally arrive at, in terms of a final cause or an unmoved mover, in 2004, is the fact that it’s become totally toxic and uncool to talk about reversing population growth.”

“And so I ask Walter,” Lalitha said, “who is the coolest person you know?”

Katz laughed and shook his head. “Oh, no. No, no, no.”

“Listen, Richard,” Walter said. “The conservatives won. They turned the Democrats into a center-right party. They got the entire country singing ‘God Bless America,’ stress on God, at every single major-league baseball game. They won on every fucking front, but they especially won culturally, and especially regarding babies. In 1970 it was cool to care about the planet’s future and not have kids. Now the one thing everyone agrees on, right and left, is that it’s beautiful to have a lot of babies. The more the better. Kate Winslet is pregnant, hooray hooray. Some dimwit in Iowa just had octuplets, hooray hooray. The conversation about the idiocy of SUVs stops dead the minute people say they’re buying them to protect their precious babies.”

“A dead baby’s not a pretty thing,” Katz said. “I mean, presumably you guys aren’t advocating infanticide.”

“Of course not,” Walter said. “We just want to make having babies more of an embarrassment. Like smoking’s an embarrassment. Like being obese is an embarrassment. Like driving an Escalade would be an embarrassment if it weren’t for the kiddie argument. Like living in a four-thousand-square-foot house on a two-acre lot should be an embarrassment.”

“ ‘Do it if you have to,’ ” Lalitha said, “ ‘but don’t expect to be congratulated anymore.’ That’s the message we need to spread.”

Katz looked into her crackpot eyes. “You don’t want kids yourself.”

“No,” she said, holding his gaze.

“You’re, what, twenty-five?”


“You might feel differently in five years. The oven timer goes off around age thirty. At least that’s been my experience with women.”

“It won’t be mine,” she said and widened, for emphasis, her already very round eyes.

“Kids are beautiful,” Walter said. “Kids have always been the meaning of life. You fall in love, you reproduce, and then your kids grow up and fall in love and reproduce. That’s what life was always for. For pregnancy. For more life. But the problem now is that more life is still beautiful and meaningful on the individual level, but for the world as a whole it only means more death. And not nice death, either. We’re looking at losing half the world’s species in the next hundred years. We’re facing the biggest mass extinction since at least the Cretaceous-Tertiary. First we’ll get the utter wipeout of the world’s ecosystems, then mass starvation and/or disease and/or killings. What’s still ‘normal’ at the individual level is heinous and unprecedented at the global level.”

“It’s like the problem with Katz,” it sounded like Lalitha said.


“Kitty cats,” she said. “C-A-T-S. Everybody loves their kitty cat and lets it run around outside. It’s just one cat-how many birds can it kill? Well, every year in the U.S. one billion songbirds are murdered by domestic and feral cats. It’s one of the leading causes of songbird decline in North America. But no one gives a shit because they love their own individual kitty cat.”

“Nobody wants to think about it,” Walter said. “Everybody just wants their normal life.”

“We want you to help us get people thinking about it,” Lalitha said. “About overpopulation. We don’t have the resources to do family planning and women’s education overseas. We’re a species-oriented conservation group. So what can we do for leverage? How do we get governments and NGOs to quintuple their investment in population control?”

Katz smiled at Walter. “Did you tell her we’ve already been through this? Did you tell her about the songs you used to try to get me to write?”

“No,” Walter said. “But do you remember what you used to say? You said that nobody cared about your songs because you weren’t famous.”

“We’ve been Googling you,” Lalitha said. “There’s a very impressive list of well-known musicians who say they admire you and the Traumatics.”

“The Traumatics are dead, honey. Walnut Surprise is also dead.”

“So here’s the proposal,” Walter said. “However much money you’re making building decks, we’ll pay you a good multiple of, for however long you want to work for us. We’re imagining some sort of summer music-and-politics festival, maybe in West Virginia, with a bunch of very cool headliners, to raise awareness of population issues. All focused entirely on young people.”

“We’re ready to advertise summer internships to college students all over the country,” Lalitha said. “Also in Canada and Latin America. We can fund twenty or thirty internships with Walter’s discretionary fund. But first we need to make the internships look like something very cool to do. Like the thing for the very cool kids to do this summer.”

“Vin’s very hands-off in terms of my discretionary fund,” Walter said. “As long as we put a cerulean warbler on our literature, I can do whatever I want.”

“But it has to happen fast,” Lalitha said. “Kids are already making up their minds about this summer. We need to reach them in the next few weeks.”

“We’d need your name and your image at a minimum,” Walter said. “If you could do some video for us, better yet. If you could write us some songs, even better. If you could make some calls to Jeff Tweedy, and Ben Gibbard, and Jack White, and find us some people to work on the festival pro bono, or sponsor it commercially, best of all.”

“Also great if we can tell potential interns they’ll be getting to work with you directly,” Lalitha said.

“Even just the promise of some minimal contact with them would be fantastic,” Walter said.

“If we could put on the poster, ‘Join rock legend Richard Katz in Washington this summer’ or something like that,” Lalitha said.

“We need to make it cool, and we need to make it viral,” Walter said.

Katz, as he endured this bombardment, was feeling sad and remote. Walter and the girl seemed to have snapped under the pressure of thinking in too much detail about the fuckedness of the world. They’d been seized by a notion and talked each other into believing in it. Had blown a bubble that had then broken free of reality and carried them away. They didn’t seem to realize they were dwelling in a world with a population of two.

“I don’t know what to say,” he said.

“Say yes!” Lalitha said, glittering.

“I’m going to be in Houston for a couple of days,” Walter said, “but I’ll send you some links, and we can talk again on Tuesday.”

“Or just say yes now,” Lalitha said.

Their hopeful expectancy was like an unbearably bright lightbulb. Katz turned away from it and said, “I’ll think about it.”

On the sidewalk outside Walker’s, taking leave of the girl, he ascertained that there was nothing wrong with her lower body, but it didn’t seem to matter now, it only added to his sadness about Walter. The girl was going to Brooklyn to see a college friend of hers. Since Katz could just as easily take the PATH from Penn Station, he walked with Walter toward Canal Street. Ahead of them, in the gathering twilight, were the friendly glowing windows of the world’s most overpopulated island.

“God, I love New York,” Walter said. “There is something so profoundly wrong with Washington.”

“Plenty of things wrong here, too,” Katz said, sidestepping a high-speed mom-and-stroller combo.

“But at least this is an actual place. Washington’s all abstraction. It’s about access to power and nothing else. I mean, I’m sure it’s fun if you’re living next door to Seinfeld, or Tom Wolfe, or Mike Bloomberg, but living next door to them isn’t what New York is about. In Washington people literally talk about how many feet away from John Kerry’s house their own house is. The neighborhoods are all so blah, the only thing that turns people on is proximity to power. It’s a total fetish culture. People get this kind of orgasmic shiver when they tell you they sat next to Paul Wolfowitz at a conference or got invited to Grover Norquist’s breakfast. Everybody’s obsessing 24/7, trying to position themselves in relation to power. Even the black scene has something wrong with it. It’s got to be more discouraging to be poor black in Washington than anywhere else in the country. You’re not even scary. You’re just an afterthought.”

“I will remind you that Bad Brains and Ian MacKaye came out of D.C.”

“Yeah, that was some weird historical accident.”

“And yet we did admire them in our youth.”

“God, I love the New York subway!” Walter said as he followed Katz down to the uric uptown platform. “This is the way human beings are supposed to live. High density! High efficiency!” He cast a beneficent smile upon the weary subway riders.

It occurred to Katz to ask about Patty, but he felt too gutless to say her name. “So is this chick single, or what?” he said.

“Who, Lalitha? No. She’s had the same boyfriend since college.”

“He lives with you, too?”

“No, he’s in Nashville. He was in med school in Baltimore, and now he’s doing his internship.”

“And yet she stayed behind in Washington.”

“She’s very invested in this project,” Walter said. “And, frankly, I think the boyfriend’s on his way out. He’s very old-school Indian. He threw a huge, huge fit when she didn’t move to Nashville with him.”

“And what did you advise her?”

“I tried to get her to stand up for herself. He could have matched somewhere in Washington if he’d really wanted to. I told her she didn’t have to sacrifice everything for his career. She and I’ve got a kind of father-daughter thing. Her parents are very conservative. I think she appreciates working for somebody who believes in her and doesn’t just see her as somebody’s future wife.”

“And just so we’re clear,” Katz said, “you’re aware that she’s in love with you?”

Walter blushed. “I don’t know. Maybe a little bit. I actually think it’s more like an intellectual idealization. More father-daughter.”

“Yeah, dream on, buddy. You expect me to believe you’ve never imagined those eyes shining up at you while her head’s bobbing on your lap?”

“Jesus, no. I try not to imagine things like that. Especially not with an employee.”

“But maybe you don’t always succeed in not imagining it.”

Walter glanced around to see if anyone on the platform was listening, and lowered his voice. “Aside from everything else,” he said, “I think there’s something objectively demeaning about a woman on her knees.”

“Why don’t you try it sometime and let her be the judge of that.”

“Well, because, Richard,” Walter said, still blushing, but also laughing unpleasantly, “I happen to understand that women are wired differently than men.”

“Whatever happened to gender equality? I seem to recall that you were into that.”

“I just think, if you ever had a daughter yourself, you might see the woman’s side with a little more sympathy.”

“You’ve named my best reason for not wanting a daughter.”

“Well, if you did have one, you might let yourself recognize the actually-not-terribly-hard-to-recognize fact that very young women can get their desire and their admiration and their love for a person all mixed up, and not understand-”

“Not understand what?”

“That to the guy they’re just an object. That the guy might only be wanting to get his, you know, his, you know”-Walter’s voice dropped to a whisper-“his dick sucked by somebody young and pretty. That that might be his only interest.”

“Sorry, not computing,” Katz said. “What’s wrong with being admired? This is not computing at all.”

“I really don’t want to talk about it.”

An A train arrived, and they crowded onto it. Almost immediately, Katz saw the light of recognition in the eyes of a college-age kid standing by the opposite doors. Katz lowered his head and turned away, but the kid had the temerity to touch him on the shoulder. “I’m so sorry,” he said, “but you’re the musician, right? You’re Richard Katz.”

“Perhaps not sorrier than I am,” Katz said.

“I’m not going to bother you. I just wanted to say I really love your stuff.”

“OK, thanks, man,” Katz said, his eyes on the floor.

“Especially the older stuff, which I’m just starting to get into. Reactionary Splendor? Oh, my God. It is so fucking brilliant. It’s on my iPod right now. Here, I’ll show you.”

“That’s OK. I believe you.”

“Oh, sure, no, of course. Of course. I’m sorry to bother you. I’m just a huge fan.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Walter was following this exchange with a facial expression as ancient as the college parties that he’d been masochistic enough to attend with Katz, an expression of wonderment and pride and love and anger and the loneliness of the invisible, none of it agreeable to Katz, not in college and even less so now.

“It must be very strange to be you,” Walter said as they exited at 34th Street.

“I have no other way of being to compare it to.”

“It’s got to feel great, though. I don’t believe that at some level you don’t love it.”

Katz considered the question honestly. “It’s more like a situation where I would hate the absence of the thing but I don’t like the thing itself, either.”

“I think I would like it,” Walter said.

“I think you would, too.”

Unable to grant Walter fame, Katz walked with him all the way up to the Amtrak status board, which was showing a forty-five-minute delay for his southbound Acela.

“I strongly believe in trains,” Walter said. “And I routinely pay the price.”

“I’ll wait with you,” Katz said.

“No need, no need.”

“No, let me buy you a Coke. Or did D.C. finally make you a drinker?”

“No, still teetotaling. Which is such a stupid word.”

To Katz, the train’s delay was a sign that the subject of Patty was destined to be broached. When he broached it, however, in the station bar, to the nerve-grating sounds of an Alanis Morissette song, Walter’s eyes grew hard and distant. He drew breath as if to speak, but no words came out.

“Must be a little odd for you guys,” Katz prompted. “Having the girl upstairs and your office downstairs.”

“I don’t know what to say to you, Richard. I really don’t know what to tell you.”

“You guys getting along? Patty doing anything interesting?”

“She’s working at a gym in Georgetown. Does that count as interesting?” Walter shook his head grimly. “I’ve been living with a depressed person for a very long time now. I don’t know why she’s so unhappy, I don’t know why she can’t seem to get out of it. There was a little while, around the time we moved to Washington, when she seemed to be doing better. She’d seen a therapist in St. Paul who got her started on some kind of writing project. Some kind of personal history or life journal that she was very mum and secretive about. As long as she was working on that, things weren’t so bad. But for the last two years they’ve been pretty much all bad. The plan had been for her to look for a job as soon as we got to Washington, and start some kind of second career, but it’s a little tough at her age with no marketable skills. She’s very smart and very proud, and she couldn’t stand being rejected and couldn’t stand being entry-level. She tried volunteering, doing afterschool athletics with the D.C. schools, but that didn’t work out, either. I finally got her to try an antidepressant, which I think would have helped her if she’d stuck with it, but she didn’t like the way it made her feel, and she really was pretty unbearable while she was on it. It gave her kind of a crankhead personality, and she quit before they got the cocktail adjusted right. And so finally, last fall, I more or less forced her to get a job. Not for my sake-I’m way overpaid, and Jessica’s out of school now, and Joey’s not my dependent anymore. But she had so much free time, I could see that it was killing her. And the job she chose to get was working at the reception counter of a gym. I mean, it’s a perfectly nice gym-one of my board members goes there, and at least one of my bigger donors. And there she is, there’s my wife, who’s one of the smartest people I know, scanning their membership cards and telling them to have a great workout. She’s also got a pretty serious exercise addiction going. She works out at least an hour a day, minimum-she looks great. And then she comes home at eleven with takeout, and if I’m in town we eat together, and she asks me why I’m still not having sex with my assistant. Sort of like what you just did, only not as graphically. Not as directly.”

“Sorry. I didn’t realize.”

“How could you? Who would think? I tell her the same thing every time, which is that she’s the person I love, she’s the person I want. And then we change the subject. Like, for the last couple of weeks-I think mainly to drive me crazy-she’s been talking about getting a boob job. It makes me want to cry, Richard. I mean, there is nothing wrong with her. Nothing on the outside. It’s totally crazy. But she says she’s going to die soon and she thinks it might be interesting, before she dies, to see what it’s like to have some chest. She says it might help her to have some goal to be saving up her money for, now that…” Walter shook his head.

“Now that what.”

“Nothing. She was doing something else with her money, before, that I thought was very bad.”

“Is she sick? Is there a medical problem?”

“No. Not physically. By dying soon I think she means in the next forty years. The way we’re all going to die soon.”

“I’m really sorry, man. I had no idea.”

A navigational beacon in Katz’s black Levi’s, a long-dormant transmitter buried by a more advanced civilization, was sparking back to life. Where he ought to have felt guilty, he instead was getting hard. Oh, the clairvoyance of the dick: it could see the future in a heartbeat, leaving the brain to play catch-up and find the necessary route from occluded present to preordained outcome. Katz could see that Patty, in the seemingly random life-meanderings that Walter had just described to him, had in fact deliberately been trampling symbols in a cornfield, spelling out a message unreadable to Walter at ground level but clear as could be to Katz at great height. IT’S NOT OVER, IT’S NOT OVER. The parallels between his life and hers were really almost eerie: a brief period of creative productivity, followed by a major change that turned out to be a disappointment and a mess, followed by drugs and despair, followed by the taking of a stupid job. Katz had been assuming that his situation was simply that success had wrecked him, but it was also true, he realized, that his worst years as a songwriter had precisely coincided with his years of estrangement from the Berglunds. And, yes, he hadn’t given much thought to Patty in the last two years, but he could feel now, in his pants, that this was mainly because he’d assumed their story was over.

“How do Patty and the girl get along?”

“They don’t speak,” Walter said.

“So not buddies.”

“No, I’m saying they literally don’t speak to each other. Each of them knows when the other’s usually in the kitchen. They go out of their way to avoid each other.”

“And which one started that?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”


On the station bar’s sound system, “That’s What I Like About You” was playing. It seemed to Katz the perfect soundtrack for the neon Bud Light signage, the fake leaded-glass lampshades, the durably polyurethaned crap furniture with its embedded commuter grime. He was still reasonably safe from hearing one of his own songs played in a place like this, but he knew it was a safety only of degree, not of category.

“Patty’s decided she doesn’t like anybody under thirty,” Walter said. “She’s formed a prejudice against an entire generation. And, being Patty, she’s very funny on the subject. But it’s gotten pretty vicious and out of control.”

“Whereas you seem quite taken with the younger generation,” Katz said.

“All it takes to disprove a general law is one counterexample. I’ve got at least two great ones in Jessica and Lalitha.”

“But not Joey?”

“And if there are two,” Walter said, as if he hadn’t even heard his son’s name, “there are bound to be a lot more. That’s the premise of what I want to do this summer. Trust that young people still have brains and a social conscience, and then give them something to work with.”

“You know, we’re very different, you and me,” Katz said. “I don’t do vision. I don’t do belief. And I’m impatient with the kiddies. You remember that about me, right?”

“I remember that you’re often wrong about yourself. I think you believe in a lot more than you give yourself credit for. You’ve got a whole cult following because of your integrity.”

“Integrity’s a neutral value. Hyenas have integrity, too. They’re pure hyena.”

“So, what, should I not have called you?” Walter said with a tremor in his voice. “Part of me didn’t want to bother you, but Lalitha talked me into it.”

“No, it’s good you called. It’s been too long.”

“I think I figured you’d outgrown us or something. I mean, I know I’m not a cool person. I figured you were done with us.”

“Sorry, man. I just got really busy.”

But Walter was becoming upset, nearly tearful. “It almost seemed like you were embarrassed by me. Which I understand, but it still doesn’t feel very good. I thought we were friends.”

“I said I was sorry,” Katz said. He was angered both by Walter’s emotion and by the irony or injustice of needing to apologize, twice, for having tried to do him a favor. It was generally his policy never to apologize at all.

“I don’t know what I expected,” Walter said. “But maybe some acknowledgment of the fact that Patty and I helped you. That you wrote all those songs in my mother’s house. That we’re your oldest friends. I’m not going to dwell on this, but I want to clear the air and let you know what I’ve been feeling, so I don’t have to feel it anymore.”

The angry stirring of Katz’s blood was of a piece with the divinations of his dick. I’m going to do you a different kind of favor now, old friend, he thought. We’re going to finish some unfinished business, and you and the girl will thank me for it.

“It’s good to clear the air,” he said.


Growing up in St. Paul, Joey Berglund had received numberless assurances that his life was destined to be a lucky one. The way star halfbacks talk about a great open-field run, the sense of cutting and weaving at full speed through a defense that moved in slow motion, the entire field of play as all-visible and instantaneously graspable as a video game at Rookie level, was the way every facet of his life had felt for his first eighteen years. The world had given unto him, and he was fine with taking. He arrived as a first-year student in Charlottesville with the ideal clothes and haircut and found that the school had paired him with a perfect roommate from NoVa (as the locals called the Virginia suburbs of D.C.). For two and a half weeks, college looked like it would be an extension of the world as he had always known it, only better. He was so convinced of this-took it so much for granted-that on the morning of September 11 he actually left his roommate, Jonathan, to monitor the burning World Trade Center and Pentagon while he hurried off to his Econ 201 lecture. Not until he reached the big auditorium and found it all but empty did he understand that a really serious glitch had occurred.

Try as he might, in the weeks and months that followed, he could not recall what he’d been thinking as he’d crossed the semi-deserted campus. It was highly uncharacteristic of him to be so clueless, and the deep chagrin he’d then experienced, on the steps of the Chemistry Building, became the seed of his intensely personal resentment of the terrorist attacks. Later, as his troubles began to mount, it would seem to him as if his very good luck, which his childhood had taught him to consider his birthright, had been trumped by a stroke of higher-order bad luck so wrong as not even to be real. He kept waiting for its wrongness, its fraudulence, to be exposed, and for the world to be set right again, so that he could have the college experience he’d expected. When this failed to happen, he was gripped by an anger whose specific object refused to come into focus. The culprit, in hindsight, seemed almost like bin Laden, but not quite. The culprit was something deeper, something not political, something structurally malicious, like the bump in a sidewalk that trips you and lands you on your face when you’re out innocently walking.

In the days after 9/11, everything suddenly seemed extremely stupid to Joey. It was stupid that a “Vigil of Concern” was held for no conceivable practical reason, it was stupid that people kept watching the same disaster footage over and over, it was stupid that the Chi Phi boys hung a banner of “support” from their house, it was stupid that the football game against Penn State was canceled, it was stupid that so many kids left Grounds to be with their families (and it was stupid that everybody at Virginia said “Grounds” instead of “campus”). The four liberal kids on Joey’s hall had endless stupid arguments with the twenty conservative kids, as if anybody cared what a bunch of eighteen-year-olds thought about the Middle East. A stupidly big fuss was made about the students who’d lost relatives or family friends in the attacks, as if the other kinds of horrible death that were constantly occurring in the world mattered less, and there was stupid applause when a vanful of upperclassmen solemnly departed for New York to give succor to the Ground Zero workers, as if there weren’t enough people in New York to do the job. Joey just wanted normal life to return as fast as possible. He felt as if he’d bumped his old Discman against a wall and knocked its laser out of a track he’d been enjoying and into a track he didn’t recognize or like and also couldn’t make stop playing. Before long, he was so lonely and isolated and hungry for familiar things that he made the rather serious mistake of giving Connie Monaghan permission to take a Greyhound bus to visit him in Charlottesville, thereby undoing a summer’s worth of spadework to prepare her for their inevitable breakup.

All summer, he’d labored to impress on Connie the importance of not getting together for at least nine months, so as to test their feelings for each other. The idea was to develop independent selves and see if these independent selves were still a good match, but to Joey this was no more a “test” than a high-school chemistry “experiment” was research. Connie would end up staying in Minnesota while he pursued a business career and met girls who were more exotic and advanced and connected. Or so he’d imagined before 9/11.

He was careful to schedule Connie’s visit while Jonathan was at home in NoVa for a Jewish holiday. She spent the entire weekend camped out on Joey’s bed with her overnight bag beside her on the floor, zipping her things back inside it as soon as she was done with them, as if trying to minimize her footprint. While Joey endeavored to read Plato for a Monday-morning class, she pored over the faces in his first-year facebook and laughed at the ones with odd expressions or unfortunate names. Bailey Bodsworth, Crampton Ott, Taylor Tuttle. By Joey’s reliable count, they had sex eight times in forty hours, stoning themselves repeatedly on the hydroponic bud she’d brought along. When it came time to take her back to the bus station, he loaded a bunch of new songs onto her MP3 player for the punishing twenty-hour return trip to Minnesota. The sorry truth was that he felt responsible for her, knew he needed to break up with her anyway, and couldn’t think how.

At the bus station, he raised the subject of her education, which she’d promised to pursue but somehow, in her obdurate way, without explanation, hadn’t.

“You need to start taking classes in January,” he told her. “Start at Inver Hills and then maybe transfer to the U. next year.”

“OK,” she said.

“You’re really smart,” he said. “You can’t just keep being a waitress.”

“OK.” She looked away desolately at the line forming by her bus. “I’ll do it for you.”

“Not for me. For you. Like you promised.”

She shook her head. “You just want me to forget about you.”

“Not true, not true at all,” Joey said, although it was fairly true.

“I’ll go to school,” she said. “But it’s not going to make me forget about you. Nothing’s going to make me forget about you.”

“Right,” he said, “but we still need to find out who we are. We both need to do some growing.”

“I already know who I am.”

“Maybe you’re wrong, though. Maybe you still need to-”

“No,” she said. “I’m not wrong. I only want to be with you. That’s all I want in my life. You’re the best person in the world. You can do anything you want, and I can be there for you. You’ll own lots of companies, and I can work for you. Or you can run for president, and I’ll work for your campaign. I’ll do the things that nobody else will do. If you need somebody to break the law, I’ll do that for you. If you want children, I’ll raise them for you.”

Joey was aware of needing his wits about him to reply to this rather alarming declaration, but he was unfortunately still somewhat stoned.

“Here’s the thing I want you to do,” he said. “I want you to get a college education. Like, for example,” he unwisely added, “if you were going to work for me, you’d need to know a lot of different stuff.”

“That’s why I said I’d go to school for you,” Connie said. “Weren’t you listening?”

He was beginning to see, as he hadn’t in St. Paul, that things’ prices weren’t always evident at first glance: that the really big ballooning of the interest charges on his high-school pleasures might still lie ahead of him.

“We’d better get in line,” he said. “If you want a good seat.”


“Also,” he said, “I think we should go at least a week without calling. We need to get back to being more disciplined.”

“OK,” she said, and walked obediently toward the bus. Joey followed with her overnight bag. He at least didn’t have to worry about her making any scenes. She’d never been a compromiser of him, never an insister on sidewalk hand-holding, never a clinger, a pouter, a reproacher. She saved up all her ardor for when they were alone, she was a specialist like that. When the bus doors opened, she stabbed him with one burning look and then handed her bag to the driver and boarded. There was no bullshit about waving through the window or making kissy faces. She put earphones in her ears and slouched down out of sight.

There was no bullshit in the weeks that followed, either. Connie obediently refrained from calling him, and as the national fever began to break and autumn deepened on the Blue Ridge, lingering with hay-colored sunshine and rich smells of warm lawn and turning leaf, Joey attended blowout Cavalier football losses and worked out at the gym and gained numerous pounds of beer weight. He gravitated socially to hall mates from prosperous families who believed in carpet bombing the Islamic world until it learned to behave itself. He wasn’t right-wing himself but was comfortable with those who were. Reaming Afghanistan wasn’t exactly what his sense of dislocation demanded, but it was close enough to afford some satisfaction.

Only when enough beer had been consumed to bring a group conversation around to sex did he feel isolated. His thing with Connie was too intense and strange-too sincere; too muddled with love-to be fungible as coin of bragging. He disdained but also envied his hall mates for their communal bravado, their porny avowals of what they wanted to do to the choicest babes in the facebook or had supposedly done, in isolated instances, while wasted, and seemingly without regret or consequence, to various wasted girls at their academies and prep schools. His hall mates’ yearnings still largely centered on the blow job, which Joey apparently was totally alone in considering little more than a glorified jerkoff, an amusement for the parking lot at lunch hour.

Masturbation itself was a demeaning dissipation whose utility he was nevertheless learning to value as he sought to wean himself from Connie. His preferred venue for release was the Handicapped bathroom in the science library at whose Reserve desk he collected $7.65 an hour for reading textbooks and the Wall Street Journal and occasionally fetching texts for science nerds. Landing a work-study job at the Reserve desk had seemed to him yet another confirmation that he was destined to be fortunate in life. He was astonished that the library still possessed printed matter of such rarity and widespread interest that it had to be guarded in separate stacks and not allowed to leave the building. There was no way it wouldn’t all be digitized within the next few years. Many of the reserved texts were written in formerly popular foreign languages and illustrated with sumptuous color plates; the nineteenth-century Germans had been especially industrious cataloguers of human knowledge. It could even dignify masturbation, a little bit, to use a century-old German sexualanatomy atlas as an auxiliary to it. He knew that sooner or later he would need to break his silence with Connie, but at the end of each evening, after employing the paddle-handled Handicapped faucets to wash his gametes and prostatic fluids down the drain, he decided to risk waiting one more day, until finally, late one evening, at the Reserve desk, on the very day he’d realized that he’d probably waited one day too long, he got a call from Connie’s mother.

“Carol,” he said amiably. “Hello.”

“Hello, Joey. You probably know why I’m calling.”

“No, actually, I don’t.”

“Well, you’ve just about broken our little friend’s heart, is why.”

Stomach lurching, he retreated to the privacy of the stacks. “I was going to call her tonight,” he told Carol.

“Tonight. Really. You were going to call her tonight.”


“Why do I not believe you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, she’s gone to bed, so it’s good you didn’t call. She went to bed without eating. She went to bed at seven.”

“Good thing I didn’t call, then.”

“This isn’t funny, Joey. She’s very depressed. You’ve given her a depression and you need to stop messing around. Do you understand? My daughter isn’t some dog that you can tie to a parking meter and then forget about.”

“Maybe you should get her an antidepressant.”

“She’s not your pet that you can leave in the back seat with the windows rolled up,” Carol said, warming to her metaphor. “We’re part of your life, Joey. I think we deserve a little more than the nothing you’ve been giving us. This has been a very frightening fall for all concerned, and you have been absent.”

“You know, I do have classes to attend, and so forth.”

“Too busy for a five-minute phone call. After three and a half weeks of silence.”

“I really was going to call her tonight.”

“Never mind Connie even,” Carol said. “Leave Connie out of it for a minute. You and I lived together like a family for almost two years. I never thought I’d hear myself saying this, but I’m starting to get an idea of what you put your mom through. Seriously. I never understood how cold you are until this fall.”

Joey directed a smile of pure oppression at the ceiling. There had always been something not quite right about his interactions with Carol. She was what the prep-school boys on his hall and the fraternity brothers who were rushing him were wont to call a MILF (an acronym that, in Joey’s opinion, sounded faintly cretinous for its omission of the T for “to”). Although he was generally a very sound sleeper, there had occasionally been nights, during the period of his residency at the Monaghans, when he’d awakened in Connie’s bed with strange anxious premonitions of himself: as the unwitting and horrified trespasser of his sister’s bed, for example, or as the accidental shooter of a nail into Blake’s forehead with Blake’s nail gun, or, strangest of all, as the towering crane at a major Great Lakes dockyard, his horizontal member swinging heavy containers off the deck of a mother ship and gently depositing them on a smaller, flatter barge. These visions tended to follow moments of inappropriate connection with Carol-the glimpse of her bare butt through the nearly closed door of her and Blake’s bedroom; the complicit wink she gave Joey pursuant to a dinner-table belch from Blake; the lengthy and explicit rationale she presented to him (illustrated with vivid stories from her own careless youth) for putting Connie on the Pill. Since Connie was constitutionally incapable of being displeased with Joey, it had fallen to her mother to register her discontents. Carol was Connie’s garrulous organ, her straight-talking advocate, and Joey had sometimes had the sense, on weekend nights when Blake was out with buddies, of being the sandwiched party in a virtual threesome, Carol’s mouth running and running with all the things that Connie wouldn’t say, Connie then silently doing with Joey all the things that Carol couldn’t do, and Joey jolting awake in the wee hours with a sense of entrapment in something not quite right. Mom I’d Like Fuck.

“So what am I supposed to do?” he said.

“Well, for starters, I want you to be a more responsible boyfriend.”

“I’m not her boyfriend. We’re on hiatus.”

“What is hiatus? What does that mean?”

“It means we’re experimenting with being apart.”

“That’s not what Connie tells me. Connie tells me you want her to go to school so she can learn administrative skills and be your assistant in your endeavors.”

“Look,” Joey said. “Carol. I was stoned when I said that. I mistakenly said the wrong thing while stoned on the incredibly strong pot that Connie buys.”

“You think I don’t know she smokes pot? You think Blake and I don’t have noses? You’re not telling me anything I don’t know. All you do is make yourself look like a bad boyfriend when you try to snitch on her.”

“My point is that I said the wrong thing. And I haven’t had a chance to correct myself, because we agreed not to talk for a while.”

“And whose responsibility is that? You know you’re like a god to her. Literally like a god, Joey. You tell her to hold her breath, she’ll hold her breath until she faints. You tell her to sit in a corner, she’ll sit in a corner until she keels over with starvation.”

“Well, and whose fault is that?” Joey said.

“It’s yours.”

“No, Carol. It’s yours. You’re the parent. You’re the one whose house she’s living in. I just came along.”

“Yeah, and now you’re going your own way, without taking responsibility. After being all but married to her. After being part of our family.”

“Whoa. Whoa. Carol. I’m a freshman in college. Do you understand that? I mean, the weirdness of even having this conversation?”

“I understand that when I was one year older than you are now, I had a baby girl and was having to make my own way in the world.”

“And how’s that working out for you?”

“Not too bad, as a matter of fact. I wasn’t going to tell you this, because it’s still early on, but since you ask, Blake and I are going to have a little baby. Our little family’s about to get a little bigger.”

It took Joey a moment to compute that she was telling him that she was pregnant.

“Listen,” he said, “I’m still at work. I mean, congratulations and all. I’m just busy at this particular moment.”

“Busy. Right.”

“I promise I’ll call her tomorrow afternoon.”

“No, I’m sorry,” Carol said, “that won’t do it. You need to come out right away and spend some time with her.”

“That’s not an option.”

“Then come for a week at Thanksgiving. We’ll have a nice family Thanksgiving, all four of us. It’ll give her something to look forward to, and you can see for yourself how depressed she is.”

Joey had been planning to spend the holiday in Washington with his roommate, Jonathan, whose older sister, a junior at Duke, either photographed misleadingly well or was somebody not to miss meeting in person. The sister’s name was Jenna, which in Joey’s mind connected her to the Bush twins and all the partying and loose morals that the Bush name connoted.

“I don’t have money for a flight,” he said.

“You can take a bus, just like Connie. Or is the bus not good enough for Joey Berglund?”

“I also have other plans.”

“Well, you better change your plans,” Carol said. “Your girlfriend of the last four years is seriously depressed. She cries for hours, she doesn’t eat. I’ve had to talk to her boss at Frost’s to keep her from getting fired, because she can’t remember orders, she gets confused, she never smiles. She may be getting high at work, I wouldn’t be surprised. Then she comes home and goes straight to bed and stays there. When she has her afternoon shifts, I have to drive all the way home on my lunch break to make sure she’s up and gets dressed for work, because she won’t answer the phone. Then I have to drive her to Frost’s and make sure she goes inside. I tried to send Blake to do it for me, but she won’t talk to him anymore or do anything he says. Sometimes I think she’s trying to wreck my relationship with him, just to be spiteful, because you’re gone. When I tell her to see the doctor, she says she doesn’t need a doctor. When I ask her what she’s trying to prove, and what her plan is for her life, she says her plan is to be with you. That’s her only plan. So whatever your own little Thanksgiving plan is, you better change it.”

“I said I would call her tomorrow.”

“Do you honestly think you can use my daughter as a sex buddy for four years and then just walk away when it suits you? Is that really what you think? She was a child when you started having relations with her.”

Joey thought of the momentous day in his old tree fort when Connie had rubbed the crotch of her cutoff shorts and then taken his somewhat smaller hand and shown him where to touch her: how little persuading he’d required. “I was a child, too, of course,” he said.

“Hon, you were never a child,” Carol said. “You were always so cool and self-possessed. Don’t think I didn’t know you when you were a little baby. You never even cried! I never saw anything like it in my whole life. You wouldn’t even cry when you stubbed your toe. Your face would wrinkle up but you wouldn’t make a peep.”

“No, I cried. I definitely remember crying.”

“You used her, you used me, you used Blake. And now you think you can just turn your back on us and walk away? You think that’s how the world works? You think we’re all just here for your personal pleasure?”

“I’ll try to get her to see a doctor for a prescription. But, Carol, you know, this is a really strange conversation we’re having. Not a good kind of conversation.”

“Well, you better get used to it, because we’re going to be having it again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day after that, until I hear you’re coming for Thanksgiving.”

“I’m not coming for Thanksgiving.”

“Well, then, you better get used to hearing from me.”

After the library closed, he went out into the chilly night and sat on a bench outside his dorm, caressing his phone and trying to think of somebody to call. In St. Paul he’d made it clear to all his friends that his thing with Connie was off-limits conversationally, and in Virginia he’d kept it a secret. Almost everybody in his dorm communicated with their parents daily, if not hourly, and although this did make him feel unexpectedly grateful to his own parents, who had been far cooler and more respectful of his wishes than he’d been able to appreciate as long as he lived next door to them, it also touched off something like a panic. He’d asked for his freedom, they’d granted it, and he couldn’t go back now. There had been a brief spate of familial phoning after 9/11, but the talk had mostly been impersonal, his mom amusingly ranting about how she couldn’t stop watching CNN even though she was convinced that watching so much CNN was harming her, his dad taking the opportunity to vent his long-standing hostility to organized religion, and Jessica flaunting her knowledge of non-Western cultures and explaining the legitimacy of their beef with U.S. imperialism. Jessica was at the very bottom of the list of people whom Joey would call in distress. Maybe, if she were his last living acquaintance and he’d been arrested in North Korea and were willing to endure a stern lecture: maybe then.

As if to reassure himself that Carol had been wrong about him, he wept a little in the darkness, on his bench. Wept for Connie in her misery, wept for having abandoned her to Carol-for not being the person who could save her. Then he dried his eyes and called his own mother, whose telephone Carol could probably have heard ringing if she’d stood by a window and listened closely.

“Joseph Berglund,” his mother said. “I seem to remember that name from somewhere.”

“Hi, Mom.”

Immediately a silence.

“Sorry I haven’t called in a while,” he said.

“Oh, well,” she said, “there’s really nothing much happening around here except anthrax scares, a very unrealistic realtor trying to sell our house, and your dad flying back and forth to Washington. You know they make everybody flying into Washington stay in their seat for an hour before they land there? It seems like kind of a weird regulation. I mean, what are they thinking? The terrorists are going to cancel their evil plan because the seat-belt sign is on? Dad says they’re barely even airborne when the stewardesses start warning everybody to use the bathroom right away, before it’s too late. And then they start handing out whole cans of drinks.”

She sounded like a nattering older lady, not the vital force he still imagined when he allowed himself to think of her. He had to squeeze his eyes shut to avert renewed weeping. Everything he’d done with regard to her in the last three years had been calculated to foreclose the intensely personal sort of talks they’d had when he was younger: to get her to shut up, to train her to contain herself, to make her stop pestering him with her overfull heart and her uncensored self. And now that the training was complete and she was obediently trivial with him, he felt bereft of her and wanted to undo it.

“Am I allowed to ask if all is well with you?” she said.

“Everything is well with me.”

“Life’s good in the former slave states?”

“Very good. The weather’s been beautiful.”

“Right, that’s the advantage of growing up in Minnesota. Everywhere you go now, the weather will be nicer.”


“Are you making lots of new friends? Meeting lots of people?”


“Well, good good good. Good good good. It’s nice of you to call, Joey. I mean, I know you don’t have to, so it’s nice that you did. You have some real fans here back at home.”

A herd of male first-years burst out of the dorm and onto the lawn, their voices amplified by beer. “Jo-eeee, Jo-eeee,” they lowed affectionately. He nodded to them in cool acknowledgment.

“Sounds like you’ve got some fans there, too,” his mother said.


“My popular boy.”


Another silence fell as the herd headed off to fresh watering holes. Joey felt a pang of disadvantage, watching them go. He was already nearly a month ahead of his budgeted fall-semester spending. He didn’t want to be the poor kid who drank only one beer while everybody else was having six, but he didn’t want to look like a freeloader, either. He wanted to be dominant and generous; and this required funds.

“How’s Dad liking his new job?” he made an effort to ask his mother.

“I think he’s liking it OK. It’s sort of driving him insane. You know: suddenly having lots of somebody else’s money to spend on fixing all the things he thinks are wrong with the world. He used to be able to complain that nobody was fixing them. Now he actually has to try to fix them himself, which is impossible, of course, since we’re all going to hell in a hand-basket. He sends me e-mails at three in the morning. I don’t think he’s sleeping much.”

“And what about you? How are you?”

“Oh, well, it’s nice of you to ask, but you don’t really want to know.”

“Sure I do.”

“No, trust me, you don’t. And don’t worry, I’m not saying that in a mean way. It’s not a reproach. You’ve got your life and I’ve got mine. It’s all good good good.”

“No, but, like, what do you do all day?”

“Actually, FYI,” his mother said, “that can be a somewhat awkward question to ask a person. It’s sort of like asking a childless couple why they don’t have any children, or an unmarried person why they aren’t married. You have to be careful with certain kinds of questions that may seem perfectly innocuous to you.”


“I’m sort of in limbo right now,” she said. “It’s hard to make any big changes in my life when I know I’m going to be moving. I did start a little creative-writing project, for my private amusement. I also have to keep the house looking like a bed-and-breakfast in case a realtor stops by with a potential mark. I spend a lot of time making sure the magazines are nicely fanned.”

Joey’s feeling of bereavement was giving way to irritation, because, no matter how much she denied that she was doing it, she couldn’t seem to help reproaching him. These moms and their reproaches, there was no end to it. He called her for a little support, and the next thing he knew, he was falling short of providing support to her.

“So how are you on money?” she said, as if sensing his irritation. “Do you have enough money?”

“It’s a little tight,” he admitted.

“I bet!”

“Once I’m a resident here, tuition will go way down. It’s just this first year that’s really hard.”

“Do you want me to send you some money?”

He smiled in the darkness. He liked her, in spite of everything; he couldn’t help it. “I thought Dad said there wasn’t going to be any money.”

“Dad doesn’t necessarily have to know every little thing.”

“Well, and the school won’t consider me a state resident if I’m taking anything from you.”

“The school doesn’t have to know everything, either. I could send you a check made out to Cash, if that would help you.”

“Yeah, and then what?”

“Then nothing. I promise. No strings attached. I’m saying you’ve already made your point with Dad. There’s no need to take on horrible debt at high interest, just to keep proving a point you already made.”

“Let me think about it.”

“Why don’t I put a check in the mail to you. Then you can decide on your own if you want to cash it or not. You won’t have to discuss it with me.”

He smiled again. “Why are you doing this?”

“Well, you know, Joey, believe it or not, I want you to have the life you want to have. I’ve had some free time for asking myself questions while I’ve been fanning magazines on the coffee table, and whatnot. Like, if you were to tell me and Dad you never wanted to see us again, for the rest of your life, would I still want you to be happy?”

“That is a bizarre hypothetical question. It has no bearing on reality.”

“That’s nice to hear, but it’s not my point. My point is that we all think we know the answer to the question. Parents are programmed to want the best for their kids, regardless of what they get in return. That’s what love is supposed to be like, right? But in fact, if you think about it, that’s kind of a strange belief. Given what we know about the way people really are. Selfish and shortsighted and egotistical and needy. Why should being a parent, just in and of itself, somehow confer superior-personhood on everybody who tries it? Obviously it doesn’t. I’ve told you a little bit about my own parents, for example-”

“Not very much,” Joey said.

“Well, maybe sometime I’ll tell you more, if you ask me nicely. But my point is that I’ve given some real thought to this question of love, regarding you. And I’ve decided-”

“Mom, do you mind if we talk about something else?”

“I’ve decided-”

“Or, actually, maybe some other day? Next week or something? I’ve got a lot of stuff to do here before I go to bed.”

A silence of injury descended in St. Paul.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just really late, and I’m tired and I still have stuff to do.”

“I was simply explaining,” his mother said in a much lower voice, “why I’m going to send a check.”

“Right, thank you. That’s nice of you. I guess.”

In an even smaller and more injured voice, his mother thanked him for calling and hung up.

Joey looked around the lawn for some bushes or an architectural cranny where he might cry unobserved by passing posses. Seeing none, he ran inside his dorm and, blindly, as if needing to barf, veered into the first john he came to, on a hall not his own, and locked himself into a stall and sobbed with hatred of his mother. Somebody was showering in a cloud of deodorant soap and mildew. A big smiling-faced erection, soaring like Superman, spurting droplets, was Sharpied on the stall’s rust-pocked door. Beneath it somebody had written SCORE NOW OR TAKE A CHIT.

The nature of his mother’s reproach wasn’t simple the way Carol Monaghan’s was. Carol, unlike her daughter, was not too bright. Connie had a wry, compact intelligence, a firm little clitoris of discernment and sensitivity to which she gave Joey access only behind closed doors. When she and Carol and Blake and Joey used to have dinner together, Connie would eat with her eyes lowered and seem lost in her own strange thoughts, but afterward, alone with Joey in their bedroom, she could reproduce every last deplorable detail of Carol and Blake’s dinner-table behavior. She once asked Joey if he’d noticed that the point of almost every utterance of Blake’s was how stupid other people were and how superior and put-upon he, Blake, was. According to Blake, the morning’s KSTP weather forecast had been stupid, the Paulsens had put their recycling barrel in a stupid place, the seat-belt beeper in his truck was stupid not to shut off after sixty seconds, the commuters driving the speed limit on Summit Avenue were stupid, the stoplight at Summit and Lexington was stupidly timed, his boss at work was stupid, the city building code was stupid. Joey began to laugh while Connie continued, with implacable recall, to list examples: the new TV remote was stupidly designed, the NBC prime-time schedule had been stupidly rearranged, the National League was stupid for not adopting the designated-hitter rule, the Vikings were stupid for letting Brad Johnson and Jeff George get away, the moderator of the second presidential debate had been stupid not to press Al Gore on what a liar he was, Minnesota was stupid to make its hardworking citizens pay for free top-of-the-line medical care for Mexican illegals and welfare cheats, free top-of-the-line medical care-

“And you know what?” Connie said finally.

“What?” Joey said.

“You never do that. You really are smarter than other people, so you never have to call them stupid.”

Joey accepted her compliment uncomfortably. For one thing, he was getting a strong whiff of competition from the direct comparison of him and Blake-an unsettling sense of being a pawn or a prize in some complicated mother-daughter struggle. And although it was true that he’d checked a lot of judgments at the door when he’d moved in with the Monaghans, he had formerly declared all manner of things to be stupid, in particular his mother, who had come to seem to him a font of endless, nerve-grating asininity. Now Connie seemed to be suggesting that what made people complain about stupidity was their own stupidity.

In truth, the only thing his mother had been guilty of being stupid about was Joey himself. Granted, it had also seemed very dumb of her to be, for example, so disrespectful of Tupac, whose best stuff Joey considered unarguably genius-level work, or so hostile toward Married with Children, whose own stupidity was so calculated and extreme that it was flat-out brilliant. But she would never have attacked Married with Children if Joey hadn’t been so devoted to watching it in reruns, she would never have stooped to doing her embarrassingly off-base caricatures of Tupac if Joey hadn’t admired him so much. The actual root cause of her stupidity was her wish for Joey to keep on being her little boy-pal: to continue being more entertained and fascinated by his mother than by great TV or a bona-fide genius rap star. This was the sick heart of her dumbness: she was competing.

Eventually he’d become desperate enough to drive it into her head that he didn’t want to be her little boy-pal anymore. This hadn’t even been his conscious plan, it was more like a by-product of his long-running irritation with his moralistic sister, whom he could think of no finer way to enrage and horrify than to invite a bunch of his friends over to his house and get drunk on Jim Beam while his parents were with his ailing grandmother in Grand Rapids, and then, the following night, to screw Connie extra-specially noisily against the wall that his bedroom shared with Jessica’s, thereby inciting Jessica to crank up her intolerable Belle and Sebastian to club-level volumes and later, after midnight, to pound on his locked bedroom door with her virtuously white knuckles-

“God damn it, Joey! You stop this right now! Right now, do you hear me?”

“Hey, whoa, I’m doing you a favor here.”


“Aren’t you sick of not telling on me? I’m doing you a favor! I’m giving you your chance!”

“I’m telling on you now. I’m going to call Dad right now.”

“Go ahead! Didn’t you just hear me? I said I was doing you a favor.”

“You fucker. You smug little fucker. I’m calling Dad right now-” while Connie, stark naked, bloody-red of lip and nipple, sat holding her breath and looking at Joey with a mixture of fear and amazement and excitement and allegiance and delight which convinced him, like nothing before and few things since, that no rule or propriety or moral law mattered to her one-thousandth as much as being his chosen girl and partner in crime.

He hadn’t expected his grandmother to die that week-she wasn’t that old. By hurling shit into the fan one day before she passed, he’d put himself extremely in the wrong. Just how wrong was evidenced by the fact that he was never even yelled at. Up in Hibbing, at the funeral, his parents simply froze him out. He was left to stew separately in his guilt while the rest of his family joined together in a grief that he ought to have been experiencing with them. Dorothy had been the only grandparent in his life, and she’d impressed him, when he was still very young, by inviting him to handle her crippled hand and see that it was still a person’s hand and nothing to be scared of. After that, he’d never objected to the kindnesses his parents had asked him to do for her when she was visiting. She was a person, maybe the only person, to whom he’d been one-hundred-percent good. And now suddenly she was dead.

Her funeral was followed by some weeks of respite from his mother, some weeks of welcome chilliness, but by and by she came after him again. She exploited the pretext of his frankness about Connie to become inappropriately frank with him in turn. She tried to make him her Designated Understander, and this turned out to be even worse than being her little boy-pal. It was devious and irresistible. It started with a confidence: she sat down on his bed one afternoon and launched into telling him how she’d been stalked in college by a drug-addicted pathological liar whom she’d nonetheless loved and his dad had disapproved of. “I had to tell somebody,” she said, “and I didn’t want to tell Dad. I was down getting my new driver’s license yesterday, and I realized that she was in line ahead of me. I haven’t seen her since the night I wrecked my knee. That’s like twenty years? She’s gained a lot of weight, but it was definitely her. And I got so frightened, seeing her. I realized I felt guilty.”

“Why frightened?” he found himself saying, like Tony Soprano’s shrink. “Why guilty?”

“I don’t know. I ran out of there before she could turn around and see me. I still have to go back down for my license. But I was terrified that she was going to turn around and see me. I was terrified of what was going to happen. Because, you know, I am so not a lesbian. You have to believe that I would know it if I were-half my old friends are gay. And I definitely am not.”

“Good to hear,” he said with a nervous smirk.

“But I realized, yesterday, seeing her, that I’d been in love with her. And I was never able to deal with that. And now she has that kind of lithium heaviness-”

“What’s lithium.”

“For manic depression. Bipolar disease.”


“And I totally abandoned her, because Dad hated her so much. She was suffering, and I never called her again, and I threw her letters away without opening them.”

“But she lied to you. She was scary.”

“I know, I know. But I still feel guilty.”

She told him many other secrets in the months that followed. Secrets that proved to be like candy laced with arsenic. For a while, he actually considered himself lucky to have a mom who was so cool and forthcoming. He responded by disclosing various perversions and petty crimes of his classmates, trying to impress her with how much more jaded and debauched his peers were than young people in the seventies. And then one day, during a conversation about date rape, it had seemed natural enough for her to tell him how she herself had been date-raped as a teenager, and how he mustn’t ever breathe a word of it to Jessica, because Jessica didn’t understand her the way he did-nobody understood her the way he did. He’d lain awake in the nights following that conversation, feeling murderously angry at his mother’s rapist, and outraged by the world’s injustice, and guilty for every negative thing he’d ever said or felt about her, and privileged and important to be granted access to the world of grownup secrets. And then one morning he’d woken up hating her so violently that it made his skin crawl and his stomach turn to be in the same room with her. It was like a chemical transformation. As if there were arsenic leaching from his organs and his bone marrow.

What he’d been dismayed by tonight on the telephone was how completely unstupid she had sounded. This, indeed, was the substance of her reproach. She didn’t seem to be very good at living her life, but it wasn’t because she was stupid. Almost the opposite somehow. She had a comical-tragical sense of herself and seemed, moreover, genuinely apologetic for the way she was. And yet it all added up to a reproach of him. As if she were speaking some sophisticated but dying aboriginal language which it was up to the younger generation (i.e., Joey) to either perpetuate or be responsible for the death of. Or as if she were one of his dad’s endangered birds, singing its obsolete song in the woods in the forlorn hope of some passing kindred spirit hearing it. There was her, and then there was the rest of the world, and by the very way she chose to speak to him she was reproaching him for placing his allegiance with the rest of the world. And who could fault him for preferring the world? He had his own life to try to live! The problem was that when he was younger, in his weakness, he’d let her see that he did understand her language and did recognize her song, and now she couldn’t seem to help reminding him that those capacities were still inside him, should he ever feel like exercising them again.

Whoever was showering in the dormitory bathroom had stopped and was toweling off. The hall door opened and closed, opened and closed; a minty smell of tooth-brushing wafted over from the sinks and into Joey’s stall. His crying had given him a boner that he now removed from his boxers and khakis and held on to for dear life. If he squeezed the base of it really hard, he could make the head of it huge and hideous and almost black with venous blood. He so much liked looking at it, so much enjoyed the feeling of protection and independence its repulsive beauty gave him, that he was reluctant to finish himself off and lose hold of that hardness. To walk around hard every minute of the day, of course, would be to be what people called a prick. Which was what Blake was. Joey didn’t want to be like Blake, but he wanted even less to be his mother’s Designated Understander. With silently spastic fingers, staring at his hardness, he came into the yawning toilet and immediately flushed it.

Upstairs, in his corner room, he found Jonathan reading John Stuart Mill and watching the ninth inning of a World Series game. “Very confounding situation here,” Jonathan said. “I’m experiencing actual pangs of sympathy for the Yankees.”

Joey, who never watched baseball by himself but was amenable to watching it with others, sat down on his bed while Randy Johnson dealt fastballs to a defeat-eyed Yankee. The score was 4-0. “They could still come back,” he said.

“Not going to happen,” Jonathan said. “And I’m sorry, but since when do expansion teams get to play in the Series after four seasons? I’m still trying to accept that Arizona even has a team.”

“I’m glad you’re seeing the light of reason finally.”

“Don’t get me wrong. There’s still nothing sweeter than a Yankee loss, preferably by one run, preferably on a passed ball by Jorge Posada, the chinless wonder. But this is the one year you kind of want them to win anyway. It’s a patriotic sacrifice we all have to make for New York.”

“I want them to win every year,” Joey said, although he didn’t have strong feelings about it.

“Yeah, what’s up with that? Aren’t you supposed to like the Twins?”

“It’s probably mostly because my parents hate the Yankees. My dad loves the Twins because they’ve got a tiny payroll, and naturally the Yankees are the enemy when it comes to payrolls. And my mom’s just an anti-New York maniac in general.”

Jonathan gave him an interested look. To date, Joey had disclosed very little about his parents, only enough to avoid seeming annoyingly mysterious about them. “Why does she hate New York?”

“I don’t know. I guess because it’s where she came from.”

On Jonathan’s TV, Derek Jeter lined out to second base, and the game was over.

“Very complex mix of emotions here,” Jonathan said, turning it off.

“You know, I don’t even know my grandparents?” Joey said. “My mom’s really weird about them. My entire childhood, they came to see us once, for like forty-eight hours. The whole time, my mom was unbelievably neurotic and fake. We went to see them one other time, when we were in New York on vacation, and that was bad, too. I’d get these birthday cards three weeks late from them, and my mom would be, like, cursing them for being so late, even though it wasn’t really their fault. I mean, how are they supposed to remember the birthday of somebody they never get to see?”

Jonathan was frowning thoughtfully. “Where in New York?”

“I don’t know. Somewhere in the suburbs. My grandmother’s a politician, in the state legislature or something. She’s this nice, elegant Jewish lady who my mom apparently can’t stand to be in the same room with.”

“Whoa, say that again?” Jonathan sat up straight on his bed. “Your mom is Jewish?”

“I guess in some theoretical way.”

“Dude, you’re a Jew! I had no idea!”

“Only, like, one-quarter,” Joey said. “It’s really watered down.”

“You could immigrate to Israel right now, no questions asked.”

“My lifelong dream fulfilled.”

“I’m just saying. You could be packing a Desert Eagle, or piloting one of those fighter jets, and dating a total sabra.”

To illustrate his point, Jonathan opened his laptop and navigated to a site devoted to pictures of bronzed Israeli goddesses with high-caliber bandoliers crisscrossing their naked D-cup chests.

“Not my kind of thing,” Joey said.

“I’m not that into it, either,” Jonathan said, with perhaps less than complete honesty. “I’m just saying, if it were your kind of thing.”

“Also, isn’t there a problem with illegal settlements and Palestinians not having any rights?”

“Yes, there’s a problem! The problem is being a tiny island of democracy and pro-Western government surrounded by Muslim fanatics and hostile dictators.”

“Yeah, but that just means it was a stupid place to put the island,” Joey said. “If the Jews hadn’t gone to the Middle East, and if we didn’t have to keep supporting them, maybe the Arab countries wouldn’t be so hostile to us.”

“Dude. Are you familiar with the Holocaust?”

“I know. But why didn’t they go to New York instead? We would have let them in. They could have had their synagogues here, and so forth, and we could have had some kind of normal relationship with the Arabs.”

“But the Holocaust happened in Europe, which was supposed to be civilized. When you lose half your world population to genocide, you stop trusting anybody to protect you except yourself.”

Joey was uncomfortably aware that he was displaying attitudes more his parents’ than his own, and that he was therefore about to lose an argument he didn’t even care about winning. “Fine,” he persisted nonetheless, “but why does that have to be our problem?”

“Because it’s our business to support democracy and free markets wherever they are,” Jonathan said. “That’s the problem in Saudi Arabia-too many angry people with no economic prospects. That’s how come bin Laden can recruit there. I totally agree with you about the Palestinians. That’s just a giant fucking breeding ground for terrorists. That’s why we have to try to bring freedom to all the Arab countries. But you don’t start doing that by selling out the one working democracy in the entire region.”

Joey admired Jonathan not only for his coolness but for having the confidence not to pretend to be stupid in order to maintain it. He managed the difficult trick of making it seem cool to be smart. “Hey,” Joey said, to change the subject, “am I still invited to Thanksgiving?”

“Invited? You’re doubly invited now. My family isn’t the self-hating kind of Jewish. My parents really, really dig Jews. They will roll out the red carpet for you.”

The following afternoon, alone in their room, and oppressed by not yet having made the promised call to Connie about seeing a doctor, Joey found himself opening Jonathan’s computer and searching for pictures of his sister, Jenna. He didn’t consider it snooping if he went straight to family photos that Jonathan had already shown him anyway. His roommate’s excitement about his Jewishness seemed to presage a similarly warm reception on Jenna’s part, and he copied the two most fetching pictures of her onto his own hard drive, altering the file extensions to make them unfindable by anyone but him, so that he could picture some concrete alternative to Connie before he made the dreaded call to her.

The female scene at school had not proved satisfactory thus far. Compared to Connie, the really attractive girls he’d met in Virginia all seemed to have been sprayed with Teflon, encased in suspicion of his motives. Even the prettiest ones wore too much makeup and overly formal clothes and dressed for Cavaliers games as if they were the Kentucky Derby. It was true that certain second-tier girls, at parties where they’d drunk too much, had given him to understand he was a boy to whom hookups were available. But for whatever reason, whether because he was a wuss or because he hated shouting over music or because he thought too highly of himself or because he was unable to ignore how stupid and annoying too much alcohol made a girl, he’d formed an early prejudice against these parties and their hookups and decided that he much preferred hanging out with other guys.

He sat holding his phone for a long time, for maybe half an hour, while the sky in the windows grayed toward rain. He waited for so long and in such a stupor of reluctance that it was almost like Zen archery when his thumb, of its own accord, hit the speed-dial for Connie’s number and the ringing dragged him forward into action.

“Hey!” she answered in a cheerful ordinary voice, a voice he realized he’d been missing. “Where are you?”

“I’m in my room.”

“What’s it doing there?”

“I don’t know. It’s kind of gray.”

“God, it was snowing here this morning. It’s already winter.”

“Yeah, listen,” he said. “Are you OK?”

“Me?” She seemed surprised by the question. “Yes. I miss you every minute of the day, but I’m getting used to that.”

“I’m sorry I went so long without calling.”

“That’s OK. I love talking to you, but I understand why we need to be more disciplined. I was just working on my Inver Hills application. I also signed up to take the SAT in December, like you suggested.”

“Did I suggest that?”

“If I’m going to go to real school in the fall, like you said, it’s what I need to do. I bought a book on how to study for it. I’m going to study three hours every day.”

“So you’re really OK.”

“Yes! How are you?”

Joey struggled to reconcile Carol’s account of Connie with how clear and collected she was sounding. “I talked to your mom last night,” he said.

“I know. She told me.”

“She said she’s pregnant?”

“Yes, a blessed event is coming our way. I think it’s going to be twins.”

“Really? Why?”

“I don’t know. It’s just my sense. That it’s going to be especially horrible in some way.”

“The whole conversation was actually pretty weird.”

“She’s been spoken to now,” Connie said. “She won’t be calling you again. If she does, let me know, and I’ll make it stop.”

“She said you were very depressed,” Joey blurted out.

This brought a sudden silence, total in the black-hole way that only Connie could make a silence.

“She said you’re sleeping all day and not eating enough,” Joey said. “She sounded really worried about you.”

After another silence, Connie said, “I was a little bit depressed for a while. But it was none of Carol’s business. And now I’m doing better.”

“But maybe you need an antidepressant or something?”

“No. I’m doing much better.”

“Well, that’s great,” Joey said, although he felt that it was somehow not great at all-that morbid weakness and clinginess on her part might have provided him with a viable escape route.

“So have you been sleeping with other people?” Connie said. “I thought that might be why you weren’t calling.”

“No! No. Not at all.”

“It’s OK with me if you do. I meant to tell you that last month. You’re a guy, you have needs. I don’t expect you to be a monk. It’s just sex, who cares?”

“Well, the same goes for you,” he said gratefully, sensing another possible escape route here.

“Except it’s not going to happen with me,” Connie said. “Nobody else sees me the way you do. I’m invisible to men.”

“I don’t believe that at all.”

“No, it’s true. Sometimes I try to be friendly, or even flirty, at the restaurant. But it’s like I’m invisible. I don’t really care anyway. I just want you. I think people sense that.”

“I want you, too,” he found himself murmuring, in contravention of certain safety guidelines he’d established for himself.

“I know,” she said. “But guys are different, is all I’m saying. You should feel free.”

“I’ve actually been jerking off a lot.”

“Yeah, me, too. For hours and hours. Some days it’s the only thing I feel like doing. That’s probably why Carol thinks I’m depressed.”

“But maybe you are depressed.”

“No, I just like to come a lot. I think about you, and I come. I think about you some more, and then I come some more. That’s all it is.”

Very quickly the conversation devolved into phone sex, which they hadn’t had since the earliest days, when they were sneaking around and whispering on phones in their respective bedrooms. It had become a lot more interesting in the meantime, because they knew how to talk to each other now. At the same time, it was as if they’d never had sex before-was cataclysmic that way.

“I wish I could lick it off your fingers,” Connie said when they were finished.

“I’m licking it for you,” Joey said.

“That’s good. Lick it up for me. Does it taste good?”


“I swear I can taste it in my mouth.”

“I can taste you, too.”

“Oh, baby.”

Which led immediately to further phone sex, a more nervous rendition, since Jonathan’s afternoon class was ending and he might return soon.

“My baby,” Connie said. “Oh, my baby. My baby, my baby, my baby.”

Joey, as he climaxed again, believed that he was with Connie in her bedroom on Barrier Street, his arching back her arching back, his little breasts her little breasts. They lay breathing as one into their cell phones. He’d been wrong, the night before, when he’d told Carol that she, not he, was responsible for the way Connie was. He could feel now in his body how they’d made each other who they were.

“Your mom wants me to spend Thanksgiving with you guys,” he said after a while.

“You don’t have to do that,” she said. “We agreed we were going to try to wait nine months.”

“Well, she was kind of a bitch about it.”

“That’s her way. She’s a bitch. But she’s been spoken to, and it won’t happen again.”

“So you don’t care either way?”

“You know what I want. Thanksgiving has nothing to do with it.”

He had been hoping, for paradoxically opposing reasons, that Connie would join Carol in urging him to come back for the holiday. He was keen, on the one hand, to see her and to sleep with her, and, on the other hand, to find fault with her, so that he would have something to resist and break away from. What she was doing instead, with her cool clarity, was resetting a hook that for a while, in recent weeks, he’d managed to work halfway free of. Resetting it deeper than ever.

“I should probably get off the phone now,” he said. “Jonathan’s coming back.”

“OK,” Connie said, and let him go.

Their conversation had diverged so wildly from his expectations that he couldn’t even remember now what he’d expected. He got up from his bed as if surfacing through a wormhole in the fabric of reality, his heart thudding, his vision altered, and paced around the room under the collective gaze of Tupac and Natalie Portman. He’d always liked Connie a lot. Always. And so why now, of all the inopportune moments, was he being gripped, as if for the first time, by such a titanic undertow of really liking her? How could it be, after years of having sex with her, years of feeling tender and protective of her, that he was only now getting sucked into such heavy waters of affection? Feeling connected to her in such a scarily consequential way? Why now?

It was wrong, it was wrong, he knew it was wrong. He sat down at his computer to view the pictures of Jonathan’s sister and try to reestablish some order. Luckily, before he was able to get the file extensions changed back to JPG and be caught red-handed, Jonathan himself walked in.

“My man, my Jewish brother,” he said, falling to his bed like a shooting victim. “ ’Sup?”

“ ’Sup,” Joey said, hastily closing a graphical window.

“Whoa, Jesus, a little bit of chlorine in the air here? You been to the pool, or what?”

Joey almost, right then, told his roommate everything, the whole story of him and Connie right up to the present moment. But the dream world he’d been in, the nethery place of sexually merged identities, was receding quickly in the face of Jonathan’s male presence.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said with a smile.

“Crack a window, for God’s sake. I mean, I like you and all, but I’m not ready to go all the way yet.”

Taking Jonathan’s complaint to heart, Joey did, after that, open the windows. He called Connie again the very next day, and again two days after that. He quietly shelved his sound arguments against too-frequent calling and fell gratefully on phone sex as a replacement for his solitary science-library masturbation, which now seemed to him a squalid aberration, embarrassing to recall. He succeeded in persuading himself that, as long as they avoided ordinary newsy chitchat and spoke only of sex, it was OK to exploit this loophole in his otherwise strict embargo on excess contact. As they continued to exploit it, however, and October became November and the days grew shorter, he realized that it was making their contact all the deeper and realer to hear Connie finally naming the things they’d done and the things she imagined them doing in the future. This deepening was somewhat strange, since all they were doing was getting each other off. But in hindsight it seemed to him as if, in St. Paul, Connie’s silence had formed a kind of protective barrier: had given their couplings what politicians called deniability. To discover, now, that sex had been fully registering in her as language-as words that she could speak out loud-made her much realer to him as a person. The two of them could no longer pretend that they were just mute youthful animals mindlessly doing their thing. Words made everything less safe, words had no limits, words made their own world. One afternoon, as Connie described it, her excited clitoris grew to be eight inches long, a protruding pencil of tenderness with which she gently parted the lips of his penis and drove herself down to the base of its shaft. Another day, at her urging, Joey described to her the sleek warm neatness of her turds as they slid from her anus and fell into his open mouth, where, since these were only words, they tasted like excellent dark chocolate. As long as her words were in his ear, urging him on, he wasn’t ashamed of anything. He returned to the wormhole three or four or even five times a week, disappeared into the world the two of them created, and later reemerged and shut the windows and went out to the dining hall or down to his dormitory lounge and effortlessly performed the shallow affability that college life required of him.

It was, as Connie had said, only sex. The permission she’d given him to pursue it elsewhere was very much on Joey’s mind as he rode with Jonathan to NoVa for Thanksgiving. They were in Jonathan’s Land Cruiser, which he’d received as a high-school graduation present and now parked off campus in open defiance of the first-year no-cars rule. It was Joey’s impression, from movies and books, that much could happen quickly when college students were let loose at Thanksgiving. All fall, he’d taken care not to ask Jonathan any questions about his sister, Jenna, figuring that he had nothing to gain by arousing Jonathan’s suspicions prematurely. But as soon as he mentioned Jenna in the Land Cruiser he saw that all his care had been for naught. Jonathan gave him a knowing look and said, “She’s got a very serious boyfriend.”

“No doubt.”

“Or, no, sorry, I misspoke. I should have said that she is very serious about a boyfriend who in fact is ridiculous and a class-A jackass. I won’t insult my own intelligence by asking why you’re asking about her.”

“I was just being polite,” Joey said.

“Ha-ha. It was interesting, when she finally went away to college, I found out who my real friends were and which ones were only interested in coming over to my house as long as she was there. It turned out to be about fifty percent of them.”

“I had the same problem, but not with my sister,” Joey said, smiling at the thought of Jessica. “For me it was Foosball and air hockey and a beer keg.” He proceeded, in the freedom of being on the road, to divulge to Jonathan the circumstances of his last two years of high school. Jonathan listened attentively enough but seemed interested in only one part of the story, the part about his living with his girlfriend.

“And where is this person now?” he asked.

“In St. Paul. She’s still at home.”

“No shit,” Jonathan said, very impressed. “But wait a minute. That girl Casey saw going into our room on Yom Kippur-that wasn’t her, was it?”

“Actually, yes,” Joey said. “We broke up, but we sort of had one little backslide.”

“You fucking little liar! You told me that was just some hookup.”

“No. All I said was I didn’t want to talk about it.”

“You gave me to believe it was a hookup. I can’t believe you deliberately brought her out here when I was gone.”

“Like I said, we had one backslide. We’re broken up now.”

“For real? You don’t talk to her on the phone?”

“Just a tiny little bit. She’s really depressed.”

“I am impressed with what a sneaky little liar you turn out to be.”

“I’m not a liar,” Joey said.

“Said the liar. Do you have a picture of her on your computer?”

“No,” Joey lied.

“Joey the secret stud,” Jonathan said. “Joey the runaway. God damn. You’re making more sense to me now.”

“Right, but I’m still Jewish, so you still have to like me.”

“I didn’t say I didn’t like you. I said you’re making more sense. I could care less if you’ve got a girlfriend-I’m not going to tell Jenna. I’ll just warn you right now that you’re lacking the key to her heart.”

“And what’s that?”

“A job at Goldman Sachs. That’s what her boyfriend has. His stated ambition is to be worth a hundred million at age thirty.”

“Is he going to be at your parents’?”

“No, he’s in Singapore. He just graduated last year, and they’re already flying him to fucking Singapore for some billion-dollar round-the-clock something. She’ll be pining alone at home, bro.”

Jonathan’s father was the founder and luminary president of a think tank devoted to advocating the unilateral exercise of American military supremacy to make the world freer and safer, especially for America and Israel. Hardly a week had passed, in October and November, without Jonathan pointing out to Joey an opinion piece in the Times or the Journal in which his father expounded on the menace of radical Islam. They’d also watched him on the NewsHour and Fox News. He had a mouth full of exceptionally white teeth that he flashed every time he started speaking, and he looked almost old enough to be Jonathan’s grandfather. Besides Jonathan and Jenna, he had three much older children from earlier marriages, plus two former wives.

The house of his third marriage was in McLean, Virginia, on a sylvan cul-de-sac that was like a vision of where Joey wanted to live as soon as he got rich. Inside the house, whose floors were of fine-grained oak, there seemed to be no end of rooms looking out on a wooded ravine in which woodpeckers swooped among the mostly bare trees. Despite having grown up in a house he’d considered book-filled and tasteful, Joey was staggered by the quantity of hardcover books and by the obviously top quality of the multicultural swag that Jonathan’s father had collected during distinguished foreign residencies. Just as Jonathan had been surprised to learn of Joey’s adventures in high school, Joey was now surprised to see what high-class luxury his messy and somewhat crude-mannered roommate came from. The only real off note was the tackily ornate Judaica parked in various nooks and corners. Seeing Joey smirk at a notably monstrous silver-painted menorah, Jonathan assured him it was extremely old and rare and valuable.

Jonathan’s mother, Tamara, who’d clearly once been a total babe and was still quite a bit of one, showed Joey the luxurious bedroom and bathroom that would be solely his. “Jonathan tells me you’re Jewish,” she said.

“Yes, apparently I am,” Joey said.

“But not observant?”

“Not even conscious, actually, until a month ago.”

Tamara shook her head. “I don’t understand that,” she said. “I know it’s very common, but I will never understand it.”

“It wasn’t like I was Christian or anything, either,” Joey said by way of excuse. “It was all part of the same nonissue.”

“Well, you’re very welcome with us. I think you might find it interesting to learn a little bit about your heritage. You’ll find that Howard and I aren’t particularly conservative. We just think it’s important to be aware and always be remembering.”

“They’ll whip you right into shape,” Jonathan said.

“Don’t worry, it’ll be a very gentle whipping,” Tamara said with a milfy smile.

“That’s great,” Joey said. “I’m definitely up for anything.”

As soon as they could, the two boys escaped to the basement rec room, whose amenities shamed even those in Blake and Carol’s great-room. Tennis could practically have been played on the blue felt expanses of the mahogany pool table. Jonathan introduced Joey to a complicated, interminable, and frustrating game called Cowboy Pool that required a table without a central ball-collection mechanism. Joey was on the verge of suggesting a switch to air hockey, at which he was annihilatingly skilled, when the sister, Jenna, came downstairs. She acknowledged Joey, barely, from the pinnacle of her two-year age advantage, and began to speak of urgent family matters with her brother.

Joey suddenly understood, as never before, what people meant by “breathtaking.” Jenna had the unsettling kind of beauty that relegated everything around her, even a beholder’s basic organ functions, to afterthought status. Her figure and complexion and bone structure made the features that he’d so admired in other “pretty” girls now seem like crude approximations of beauty; even the pictures of her hadn’t done her justice. Her hair was thick and shining and strawberry blonde, and she was wearing an oversized Duke athletic jersey and flannel pajama bottoms, which, far from concealing her body’s perfection, demonstrated its power to overcome the baggiest of clothes. Everything else that Joey rested his eyes on in the rec room was notable only for not being her-was all the same second-class blah. And yet, when he did steal a glance at her, his brain was too unsettled to even see much. The whole thing was weirdly tiring. There seemed to be no way to arrange his face that wasn’t false and self-conscious. He wa