/ Language: English / Genre:prose_contemporary

The O Henry Prize Stories 2005

Laura Furman

Usually, this is where the rhapsody would begin; strings would swell; breasts would be clasped with great feeling: The short story isn't dead; it lives! I will abstain. If you're interested in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2005 at all, you're already an adherent of short prose, and know that it's alive and flourishing (as long as you can track it down on the smaller and smaller presses to which it's often relegated). If the short story's cachet has evinced some decline over the course of the past century, it's a decline in public exposure and lucrative potential, not in quality. In terms of sales and public profile, the short story collection can't keep apace with the novel or pop nonfiction, but it's still absolutely kicking poetry's ass on all fronts, and, like poetry, remains in general more adventurous, fluid, and vitally modern than its novelistic big brother. To review these stories in terms of their quality seems redundant – that they're terrific is a no-brainer. Entering its eighty-fifth year, The O. Henry Prize Stories consistently collects – I won't say the finest short fiction, but it collects inarguably exquisite short fiction published in the U.S. and Canada. We'll concede that there may be better stories out there, simmering under the radar or even (gasp!) unpublished, which does nothing to detract from the eminence of the ones collected here. This is a damn good read. This year's edition was edited and introduced by Laura Furman, with a jury consisting of celebrated writers Cristina Garcia, Ann Patchett and Richard Russo. It's dedicated to Chekov upon the centenary of his death, which is forgivably predictable, given his pervasive influence on the short form. Besides illuminating notes from the writers on their work, the 2005 edition contains an essay by each of the judges on their favorite story, and a glossary of literary journals big and small that will be a valuable resource for writers and readers alike. If quality is a given, it seems the best utility a review of the The O. Henry Prize Stories can have is to pick out the affinities between them and see (a) what writers were compelled to write about in the past year, (b) what editors were compelled to publish, and (c) which literary organs are currently in vogue. Word to the wise: If you'd like to win an O. Henry Prize, relentlessly submit to the New Yorker, which originally published no less than six of the twenty stories here, comfortably vanquishing silver-medallists The Kenyon Review and Zoetrope, who clock in with an admirable (if measly by comparison) two stories apiece. No less than four stories in the volume revolve around music, all of which are deeply appreciative, none entirely trusting. Michael Palmer's atmospheric tale, "The Golden Era of Heartbreak", is haunted by a lovelorn trucker's song that carries everywhere in a town flattened by the departure of the narrator's wife. "My house filled to the eaves with this song," he states in his spare, lyrical tone, and the story is filled with it as well: The prose, like the town, is "flat as an envelope," and the trucker's song stretches spectrally across it. A personal favorite of mine, Ben Fountain's "Fantasy for Eleven Fingers", is an elliptical, richly detailed character sketch in the vein of Millhauser or Hemon, about the intertwined destinies of two eleven-fingered pianists in nineteenth century Vienna, steeped in all the paranoia, political and ethnic tensions, and obsolete superstitions of the day. In Timothy Crouse's "Sphinxes", a remarkably confident and unclassifiable tale, piano lessons, love affairs and subtle emotional maneuvering are braided together with increasing complexity until they become indistinguishable. In each of these stories, music is salvation and undoing, pure force and calculated metaphor: a paradox, a chimera, a sphinx. And Gail Jones's "Desolation" is about a primal, alienating sexual encounter at a Death in Vegas concert, although it cross-references with the second type of story that heavily informs this year's volume, the community / exile story, which we're coming to just now. Many stories in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2005 revolve around issues of community, but not the traditional, fixed community – these stories are about the provisional communities that arise in times of crisis, and the communities forged by travelers, strangers, souls in spiritual and physical exile. Judge favorite "Mudlavia", a coming of age tale by Elizabeth Stuckey-French, finds a young boy and his mother in a health resort filled with questionable, exciting characters of colorful mien and shady provenance – slowly, away from their domineering father and husband, we watch them come alive to their own desires, desires that this alien context was necessary to draw out. Another judge favorite, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's period piece "Exile in London", evokes the faded aura of postwar London by way of the young narrator's recollections of the ragged diaspora in her aunt's boarding house. And Nell Freudenberger's "The Tutor" details the tensions, both sexual and cultural, between a prototypically American teenager in Bombay and her native Indian tutor. But the finest story in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2005 has to be Sherman Alexie's "What You Pawn I Will Redeem", which describes the plight of a homeless, admittedly "crazy" Spokane Native American as he embarks on a day-long quest to raise one-thousand dollars to buy back his Grandmother's tribal regalia from a pawn shop. That the story's themes are large and poignant is obvious; what's remarkable is that it manages funny, hopeful, angry, and redemptive at once. The narrator's refusal to lapse into self-pity or misanthropy at his pathetic plight is counterintuitive yet rings true, and by the time the story reaches its conclusion, not-at-all inevitable and uncommonly generous of spirit, one feels every inch of his joy. In the end, this is the short-story function that trumps all the others: The ability to vault the reader into realms of unanticipated joy. While not all the stories in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2005 achieve this as viscerally as Alexie's fable, each one loudly debunks any nonsense about the short story's obsolescence.

Laura Furman, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, Kevin Brockmeier, Michael Parker, Wendell Berry, Nell Freudenberger, Ben Fountain, Charles D’Ambrosio, Gail Jones, Edward P. Jones, Dale Peck, Ron Rash, Timothy Crouse, Paula Fox, Liza Ward, Nancy Reisman, Caitlin Macy, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Frances de Pontes Peebles, Tessa Hadley, Sherman Alexie

The O Henry Prize Stories 2005



1919-1932 Blanche Colton Williams

1933-1940 Harry Hansen

1941-1951 Herschel Bricknell

1954-1959 Paul Engle

1960 Mary Stegner

1961-1966 Richard Poirier

1967-1996 William Abrahams

1997-2002 Larry Dark

2003- Laura Furman


Louise Erdrich, Thom Jones, David Foster Wallace

Andrea Barrett, Mary Gaitskill, Rick Moody

Sherman Alexie, Stephen King, Lorrie Moore

Michael Cunningham, Pam Houston, George Saunders

Michael Chabon, Mary Gordon, Mona Simpson

Dave Eggers, Joyce Carol Oates, Colson Whitehead

David Guterson, Diane Johnson, Jennifer Egan

The Series Editor wishes to thank Sue Batterton, Rebecca Bengal,

Peter Short, and Susan Williamson for their help and good company during

our long talks about short stories, and the staff of Anchor Books.

To JWB, SCFB, and KS, thank you for your love at home. LF

Publisher's Note

MANY READERS have come to love the short story through the simple characters, easy narrative voice and humor, and compelling plotting in the work of William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), best known as O. Henry. His surprise endings entertain readers, even those back for a second, third, or fourth look. One can say “Gift of the Magi” in conversation about a love affair or marriage, and almost any literate person will know what is meant. It's hard to think of many other American writers whose work has been so incorporated into our national shorthand.

O. Henry was a newspaperman, skilled at hiding from his editors at deadline. He wrote to make a living and to make sense of his life. O. Henry spent his childhood in Greensboro, North Carolina, his adolescence and young manhood in Texas, and lived his mature years in New York City. In between Texas and New York, he served out a prison sentence for bank fraud in Columbus, Ohio. Accounts of the origins of his pen name vary; it may have dated from his Austin days, when he was known to call the wandering family cat, “Oh! Henry!” or been inspired by the captain of the guard in the Ohio State Penitentiary, Orrin Henry.

Porter had devoted friends in New York, and it's not hard to see why. He was charming and courteous and had an attractively gallant attitude. He drank too much and neglected his health, which caused his friends concern. He was often short of money; in a letter to a friend asking for a loan of fifteen dollars (his banker was out of town, he wrote), Porter added a postscript: “If it isn’t convenient, I’ll love you just the same.” The banker was unavailable most of Porter's life. His sense of humor was always with him.

Reportedly, Porter's last words were from a popular song, “Turn up the light, for I don’t want to go home in the dark.”

Eight years after O. Henry's death, in April 1918, the Twilight Club (founded in 1883 and later known as the Society of Arts and Letters) held a dinner in his honor at the Hotel McAlpin in New York City. His friends remembered him so enthusiastically that a group of them met at the Hotel Biltmore in December of that year to establish some kind of memorial to him. They decided to award annual prizes in his name for short-story writers, and formed a Committee of Award to read the short stories published in a year and to pick the winners. In the words of Blanche Colton Williams (1879-1944), the first of the nine series editors, the memorial was intended to “strengthen the art of the short story and to stimulate younger authors.”

Doubleday, Page & Company was chosen to publish the first volume, The O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories 1919. In 1927, the society sold all rights to the annual collection to Doubleday, Doran & Company. Doubleday published The O. Henry Prize Stories, as it came to be known, in hardcover, and from 1984-1996 its subsidiary, Anchor Books, published it simultaneously in paperback. Since 1997 The O. Henry Prize Stories has been published as an original Anchor Books paperback.

Over the years, the rules and methods of selection have varied. As of 2003, the series editor chooses twenty short stories, each one an O. Henry Prize Story. All stories originally written in the English language and published in an American or Canadian periodical are eligible for consideration.

Three jurors are appointed annually. The jurors receive the twenty prize stories in manuscript form, with no identification of author or publication. Each judge, acting independently, chooses a short story of special interest and merit, and comments on that story.

The goal of The O. Henry Prize Stories remains to strengthen the art of the short story.

To Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)

WITHOUT CHEKHOV, many of us wouldn’t read or write stories as we do, for he showed us that the precise and subtle evocation of a moment can express a character's whole life. Even those who have not yet read him experience Chekhov through other writers who love him and learned from him. Writers as different from one another as Katherine Mansfield, Raymond Carver, and V. S. Pritchett echo Chekhov's sensibility and timing.

Tolstoy said: “In Chekhov, everything is real to the verge of illusion.” “The Black Monk,” which Chekhov wrote two years before his death, exemplifies Tolstoy's uncanny remark. Kovrin, a brilliant young scholar who suffers from nerves, retreats to the childhood home where he was raised by Pesotsky, a horticulturist with a remarkable garden. Kovrin soon has a vision of a black-robed monk who pronounces him a genius, set apart from all men. Encouraged by this apparition, Kovrin falls in love with Tanya Pesotskaya, his guardian's daughter, and they marry. All seems well-until Tanya overhears Kovrin talking with the invisible monk and persuades her husband that he's mad. Pesotsky eventually loses his masterpiece of a garden; Tanya loses her father and comes to hate her husband; and Kovrin himself, ceasing to see the monk, becomes an embittered mediocrity. As Kovrin is dying of tuberculosis, the black monk reappears, and Kovrin recalls the summer and the beautiful garden where he first saw the monk and fell in love with Tanya. He “feels a boundless, inexpressible happiness,” convinced once more, as the monk whispers, that he is a genius. In that moment of contradiction, of madness and belief, Chekhov reveals Kovrin's plight.

With its hero's grandiose hallucinations, the rise and fall of young love, the loss of a beloved parent, and the destruction of dreams of greatness- Pesotsky's and Kovrin's both-“The Black Monk” has the scope of a novel. No one is blameless and no one can be blamed, but this is not casual relativism; it is a cool-eyed vision of how our entanglements can become a strangulation.

Although symptoms of the tuberculosis that eventually killed Chekhov appeared earlier, his first serious, and public, hemorrhage occurred in 1884, when he was twenty-four. From then on, he could no longer deny that he was ill with a disease for which there was plenty of treatment but no cure. He told Gorky, “Living with the idea that one must die is far from pleasant, but living and knowing that one will die before one's time is utterly ridiculous.”

A man who spends half his life dying lives in another country, and must watch the healthy and the ill, wastrels and paragons of virtue, with a certain dispassion. It is his almost unnerving combination of remoteness and intimacy, and a controlled depth of emotion, that makes Chekhov indispensable for readers and writers of the short story. He died on July 2, 1904, at a German resort where he went in a last attempt to relieve his illness. One hundred years later, The O. Henry Prize Stories celebrates Anton Chekhov's art.


IN THE work of Anton Chekhov, to whom The O. Henry Prize Stories 2005 is dedicated, one feels a force as powerful as a hurricane moving toward his characters. His knowledge from a young age that he had a terminal illness may account for some of this, but he was also sensitive to the gathering political storm in Russia. The 1905 revolution broke out within six months of his death. Writers and other artists respond to the same political and societal pressures as everybody else. Some explicitly use a political figure or an overwhelming event such as the Vietnam War in their art. Others are engaged by the public tensions of their time without any direct reference to current events.

The twenty writers of The O. Henry Prize Stories 2005 live all over our planet-a family farm in Kentucky, the city of Perth in Western Australia, urban Florida. Their stories are set in India, Paris, London, Brazil, and New York, also possibly in heaven. Whatever their origin, whatever their private or public inspiration, our Prize Stories are all preoccupied with notions of community. The relationship between individual and society is usually portrayed as a struggle-think of the destruction of Lily Bart in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. In these O. Henry stories, community and individual appear most often not in opposition but in some kind of disintegrating relation.

Among the New York City characters of “Dues,” nothing is forgiven, neither a minor crime of property nor a love affair that won’t quite die. Dale Peck sprinkles his story with doubles and dualities from the deuce of the title on, but all the odd couples are joined when an ironic community arises from disaster. Another New Yorker, in Paula Fox's “Grace,” is opaque to his fellow office-workers and too obdurate for love. It's not because he's in New York that John Hillman is isolated but because he's himself. In the New York of Caitlin Macy's tale of real estate and social distinction, “Christie,” well-being is defined by living at the right address, even having the right doorman. The fun of the story is that we root for the narrator's happiness though we know, and hope she knows, that it's unattainable.

Happiness, almost an ecstasy, radiates from Sherman Alexie's “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” a tall tale of an unnamed Spokane Indian's circular attempts, during a drunken twenty-four-hour odyssey to repossess his grandmother's regalia. In the course of his hero's haphazard encounters, Alexie creates a community of people who, without expecting much, receive, and sometimes give, great gifts.

Kevin Brockmeier's “The Brief History of the Dead” is set in a heavenlike yet down-to-earth city of the dead where acceptance is the norm, a city whose inhabitants are linked by the beat of a communal heart, the “pulse of those who are still alive.” The absence of hostility among the city's dead citizens marks the afterlife as an almost enviable place to live.

Port William, the setting of Wendell Berry's “The Hurt Man,” is a river town, unplanned and apparently ungoverned, “the sort of place that pretentious or ambitious people were inclined to leave.” Berry's is a story about learning from those we live with, told by five-year-old Mat Feltner, who's still wearing dresses and isn’t sure if he’ll be a boy or a girl, though he's taken a step toward masculinity by learning to smoke cigars and chew coffee beans. He comes to understand that in the best communities we inherit one another's stories and are sometimes remembered by them.

The love triangle in Timothy Crouse's “Sphinxes” begins with piano lessons and completes itself in tragedy. The reader witnesses lovers wrenching apart, friendships dissolving, and the death of a child. Where once there was a sweet group-a family, three friends-by the end there are only individuals suffering separately. In another love story, Michael Parker's “The Golden Era of Heartbreak,” the narrator is a runner pursuing respite from his baroquely relentless misery. He seems like the loneliest man on earth, but when he finds himself with company, his misfortune only increases.

Lillian in Nancy Reisman's “Tea” has an unusual and satisfying life. Single, Jewish, she's made a bold peace with her late-1920s community and with her sensuality by sleeping with the men she wants to and allowing herself no emotional involvements. Then she embarks on a new affair, and what begins with desire grows more treacherous. In Gail Jones's “Desolation,” an accidental intimacy in Paris between a desperate man and a distant woman affords little comfort to either of them. The story captures both the loneliness and serendipitous companionship of solitary travel.

Three of the Prize Stories draw on history. In Elizabeth Stuckey-Frenchs “Mudlavia,” a community of early twentieth-century health seekers offers an alternative to a boy's unhappy home life; that the alternative has its own flaws makes it no less important to his future. At the center of Ben Fountain's “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers” is a rare piece of music that only a talented pianist born with an eleventh finger can play. It is an emblem for what happens to twentieth-century European Jewish life. In Liza Ward's “Snowbound,” the young narrator, trapped in a Midwestern blizzard, lightens her loneliness by imagining a long-ago storm that isolated her frontier ancestors.

Exile creates new forms of community. The narrator of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's “Refuge in London” grows up in a London boardinghouse full of “European émigrés, all of them… carrying a past, a country or countries-a continent.” Her involvement with a once-famous artist and his rebellious wife affirms the lifeline that making art can be. In Nell Freuden-berger's “The Tutor,” set in Bombay, a young Indian man, altered by his student years in America, meets an American girl who has grown up in a series of foreign cities; she needs his help to be admitted to an American college. Rather as a surgeon might explore a wound, Freudenberger considers what belonging to a community means for each character.

In Tessa Hadley's “The Card Trick,” Gina is an awkward teenager who's ashamed of herself and her background. She visits a beloved writer's house, now a museum, expecting to find herself as much at home as she is in the writer's work; instead she's alienated by the décor and its bourgeois comfort. Years later, her adolescent awkwardness seemingly behind her, Gina returns to the house, and her new reading of it pulls the story to its moving conclusion.

In Charles D’Ambrosio's “The High Divide,” Ignatius Loyola Banner is a loner: his mother is dead, his father mad, and he lives in a Catholic orphanage. He befriends a boy who seems to be his opposite-he has a beautiful mother and a father who “rakes it in”-but a camping trip in the Olympic Mountains reveals that where family trouble is concerned, says Ignatius with wisdom and forgiveness, “there are millions of us everywhere.” Too much togetherness and easy community demand a high price in Edward P. Jones's “A Rich Man.” A recent widower, Horace Perkins finds a bright life with a new group of friends, until, overcome by locusts in the form of women, drugs, drink, and his own weaknesses, Horace is so alone that he must ask in the end: “How does a man start from scratch?”

The startling beauty of the North Carolinian setting of Ron Rash's “Speckle Trout” distracts the reader at first from the corruption at work in Lanny the young and bored protagonist, and his rural community. When Lanny steals marijuana plants from an inaccessible plantation, he courts disaster and achieves it. Lanny knows the water and the mountains, the meaning of the sky and the local plants, but he is incapable of using his knowledge for his own good.

When her cousin runs in from the beach with the startling announcement that the body of a drowned woman has washed ashore, the narrator of Frances de Pontes Peebles's “The Drowned Woman” comments: “My father would have never allowed Dorany into the dining room like that under normal circumstances.” Yet in her family there are no normal circumstances. None of the relationships are what they appear to be, and the truths that emerge shatter their small community.

Jean Strouse, biographer of diarist Alice James and the industrialist J. Pier-pont Morgan, once said of biography that “the assumptions we make and the questions we ask about other people's lives serve as tacit guides to our own.” This could as easily be said of fiction. Reading stories can transform our natural nosiness into recognition of another person nothing like ourselves.

After a century of modernist questioning of our ideas and institutions, we still long, as Strouse says, “for models of wholeness… for evidence that individual lives and choices matter.” Models of wholeness, however different from ourselves, can reassure us that in a world that seems large and impersonal, each individual's choices are worthy of our attention.

The reader of fiction doesn’t require that models of wholeness be exemplary, only that they be fascinating. For as long as the story lasts, the reader doesn’t question whether or not individual lives and choices matter. We are willing captives, relieved for however long of our own burdens and complications.

There is another gift a story may give its reader. Our experience of the finest fiction changes; over time, we will reread the 2005 O. Henry Prize Stories and find new ways to understand and appreciate them.

– Laura Furman, Austin, Texas

Elizabeth Stuckey-French


from The Atlantic Monthly

THE SUMMER of 1916 would later be known as the last summer of peace. Within a year the United States would be at war, but that summer we still believed that President Wilson could keep us out of it. As a nation, we were told, we were getting bigger, better, and more stylish. Our population had risen to 100 million. Prohibition laws had been passed in twenty-four states. Every household would soon own an automobile. Ostriches, grackles, blackbirds, orioles, egrets, herons, and doves were slaughtered by the thousands so that their feathers could adorn women's hats. Americans were full of all kinds of foolish hope, and my mother and I were no exception.

On the morning of July 20 Mother and I were riding in a small wooden bus over the rutted back roads of Indiana, heading for magical Mudlavia. Every time the bus jounced, I felt a sharp pain in my knee, a pain that shot through the dull ache that had been my constant companion for three months. I was sweating in my wool knickers and jacket, which my mother had insisted I wear. Whenever she saw pain on my face, she drew me against her. I was too hot to be so close to my mother, smelling her too-strong lavender scent, but I was also afraid, and I felt lucky to have her with me. Six other passengers were on our bus, all adults, all traveling alone. One had a cane, three others hobbled on crutches. A fat man had been carried onto the bus by four farmers in Attica. An elderly woman lay flat on a stretcher at the rear of the bus. She kept making little whimpering sounds that drove me mad.

I closed my eyes to the dust, the cripples, my mother's round face, her dimpled chin, her lips pursed with concern, her eyes searching for every nuance of my feelings, and imagined myself, older and more handsome, soaring over a six-foot crossbar as a stadium crowd roared. I was only ten years old, but I was already determined to become an Olympic track star, setting world records in the high jump and the long jump. That summer, because of my knee, I’d had to give up daily jumping practice in my backyard. I was looking forward to our stay at Mudlavia, because without jumping my life had become a bore. My father was often away on business. I was tired of playing silly games with the Dotties, tired of going calling with Mother on Wednesday afternoons. I was also tired of the ache in my knee, but, I must admit, that was the least of it.

Why hadn’t I told my parents as soon as my knee began to hurt? Had I sensed how serious it was? Perhaps I feared being totally smothered by my mother's love and concern-which felt stifling under ordinary circumstances. I’ll never know why I didn’t tell them, but I still take a peculiar pride in the fact that I managed to hide the pain for so long.

The night they found me out, we were putting on one of our plays- my best friends Dottie B. and Dottie G. and I. Each week Dottie B., who wanted to be a writer, wrote a new play. Every one featured the same two characters-a stupid married couple called Susanette and Losenette Floosenette, who were always having “misunderstandings” with friends, family, and everyone they met.

We put on the plays at my house, because my parents had the biggest house on Ninth Street. That night thirty or so neighbor children and parents were sitting on the new rose-colored carpet in our parlor. My mother's precious Globe Wernicke bookcase and her fumed-oak chairs and couch, with their elaborate carvings and spindles, had been pushed back against the wall. The new carpet was displayed to its best advantage.

I was playing Losenette, in my father's suit coat and bowler hat, and Dottie G., in her sister's red nightgown, was my wife, Susanette. We were visiting the Eiffel Tower on a trip we’d won through a soap-flakes sweepstakes. Dottie B. was the gendarme, telling us we couldn’t take our dog, Monique, up to the top with us. I was in love with Dottie B. then, and still am to this day.

“But you don’t understand,” I said, glaring at the gendarme and tweaking my imaginary moustache. “She's a French poodle.” I put all my weight on my left leg, accommodating the ache in my right one.

“Out out, miss-ouer,” Susanette said, patting her hair. She clutched my squirming cat, Flip Flop, who was playing Monique. Susanette went on, “We promised her she could see her native Paris from the Eiffel Tower.”

A ripple of laughter emerged from the audience. As always, I listened for my mother's laugh, and I heard it.

The gendarme drew herself up. Her reddish gold hair was tucked up under one of my newsboy hats, and she wore a pair of my knickers. So beautiful, Dottie B. “Sorry, mes amis” she said in a deep voice. “But what if she should do her business up there?”

This was the riskiest line in the play. Somebody tittered.

“We’ve come prepared,” I said, whipping one of my father's handkerchiefs from my pocket.

“Out, ” my wife said. “We’ll take it back to Indiana as a souvenir. They’ll display it in the courthouse, and people will line up to see it. Because it's French business, you see.”

More laughter-a few nervous chuckles from the adults, snickers from the children. I glanced at my mother, who was shrinking back against the wall. My father got up and left the room. To my surprise, instead of feeling afraid, I felt frustrated and angry. The whole purpose of the plays, I realize now, was to insult an audience that didn’t even have the sense to be insulted. The Dotties and I were imitating everything we hated about our stuffy parents, but most people thought we were poking fun at someone else, and some, like my father, took offense at a small impropriety and missed the point. I knew I was in for a spanking, so I decided to step off the plank and say something truly awful. Before I could speak, Flip Flop, for no apparent reason, went berserk. He began to twist and claw at Dottie G., who shrieked and held him out to me. I lunged for him, coming down hard on my right leg, which hurt so much that I collapsed in a ball on the floor. My mother rushed to my side. No spanking after all.

Our family doctor diagnosed my problem as rheumatism and suggested a visit to Mudlavia, which he described as a health spa known for its curative mud baths and mineral waters. It was only forty miles southwest of Lafayette, near the state line. Dr. Heath explained that a Warren County farmer, a Civil War veteran, had been digging a ditch near the spot where they later built the spa, and the mud had cured his rheumatism. People from all over went there to take the cure. Medical doctors were on the premises. It was just the ticket, Dr. Heath said.

“Sounds shady to me,” my father said at dinner, the night Mother and I told him about Mudlavia. He helped himself to roast beef, clicked on his stopwatch, and began to eat. That summer he was practicing Frederick Taylor's regime of time management. At first he’d tried to impose it on Mother and me, but we’d rebelled by doing everything as slowly as we could, so he gave up and was now bent on improving only himself. He was thirty years old but looked twenty, so he’d taken to wearing rimless spectacles of plain glass and had grown a sleek blond moustache. I suppose he wanted to look more like a school superintendent and less like the man he’d been before he met my mother, a young rake who’d had a tempestuous, short-lived marriage to a woman named Toots Goodall. I’d stumbled on this information one day when I was poking through a box he kept hidden in the back of his closet. I’d found photos of him and Toots. In one of them he was perched on a large, gaudily painted quarter moon, Toots sitting in his lap. When I asked her about Toots, Mother told me about his failed marriage, and made me promise not to mention it to anyone, including him. I thought then that she didn’t want to remind him of his earlier, wilder life, fearing that he might decide to go back to it, but she must have known that part of him already had.

While Father fiercely chewed his roast beef, he stared at Mother and me with accusing eyes, as if we were hiding something from him, and I guess we were-we were hiding the intensity of our desire to go, to get away. “How do we know the place is safe?” he asked Mother.

“It's out in the middle of nowhere,” Mother said. “It must be safe. Dr. Heath wouldn’t have recommended it.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Father said, clicking his stopwatch. “Two minutes, thirteen seconds. A new record.”

Small-town doctors were gods, and to ignore Dr. Heath's advice would be a social snub. Mother had said the right thing.

Mudlavia was tucked back in the woods, up against a hillside. As our bus rounded the last bend, we passengers strained to get a good look at the place that would cure us. The sprawling building was four stories high, green with white trim, and had a wide wraparound porch. In front was a manicured garden, bordered by hedges, with a bubbling limestone fountain in the center. Despite the heat everything looked fresh, even the pink hollyhocks lining the dusty road.

The bus pulled into a dirt lot beside the hotel, and the engine rattled and died. A feeling of peace, along with the dust, settled over me. It was the quietest place I’d ever been. Ninth Street was one of the busiest streets in Lafayette, and all day long we heard the roar of motorcars and the clatter of trolleys struggling up the hill. At Mudlavia, I heard individual sounds-a crow calling in a tree behind me, the atonal tinkling of wind chimes. A side door of the hotel flew open and a group of men, dressed in white, marched toward the bus. A few of them were pushing wheelchairs.

Mother touched my shoulder. “One of those chairs is for you,” she said.

“Why? I don’t need it.” My crutches were beside me, leaning against the seat.

“The doctor here recommends it. It will put less strain on your knee.” She bent over and whispered in my ear. “For you, it's only temporary.” Her windblown hair, pulled loose from her egret-feather hat, tickled my cheek.

“Your hair's a mess,” I said, sounding like my father.

Flinching, she turned away.

“Welcome to Mudlavia.” A deep, southern-sounding voice filled the bus. The speaker was one of the men in white-a tall, strong-looking man with a squarish head. “We’re here to make your stay with us as comfortable as possible.” He spoke as if reading from a prepared speech, and his eyes were trained on a spot at the back of the bus. “Do not hesitate to ask if you are in need of anything, ladies and gentlemen.” His eyes shifted to me. “And young fella.” He smiled, two front teeth popping over his lip. Every head turned toward me. My mother had tears in her eyes. I bowed my head, embarrassed and pleased to be the center of attention.

At dinner Mother and I sat at a table for four in the dining room, I in my wheelchair, she in a ladder-back chair. There were white tablecloths and huge chandeliers. We picked at our helpings of glazed ham, mashed potatoes, and steamed vegetables from “Mudlavia's Healthful Garden.” In the corner of the large dining room a piano player in a tuxedo played popular tunes that we could barely hear over the rattling of dishes and the diners’ chatter, some of which, especially from the table next to ours, was raucous.

At that table sat a thin, almost emaciated man with dark, sleek hair who perched on a red rubber cushion. On his right sat a voluptuous young woman with an elaborate, piled-up hairdo. She wore a low-cut, short-sleeved dress made of shiny silver material. On his left sat a woman who had dark hair cut in the new bobbed style, and wore an equally revealing black dress. A huge green parrot sat on her shoulder. The two women nestled in close to the man with the cushion, and all three were laughing loudly, as was everyone else at their table. Everything about these people was overdone, from the timbre of their voices to the sparkle of their jewelry. I’d never seen a parrot outside a cage before. And except for the man with the cushion, none of them appeared the least bit sick.

I couldn’t look Mother in the eye. Somehow I felt embarrassed, as if I were responsible for these “unsuitables,” as my father would have called them. I wanted to protect her from them, or felt that I should. And more of these big-city types were scattered throughout the dining room. Only a few people, most of them passengers on our bus, had the same scrubbed demeanor we did. We were outnumbered.

Had Dr. Heath ever been here? I wondered, not able to take my eyes off the threesome at the next table.

“One would think,” Mother said, frowning at me, “with all the sick people…” She didn’t finish her sentence, but I knew she meant that our neighbors ought to be more considerate. “I think this place is more of a resort than a health spa.” She took another bite of glazed ham, chewing slowly.

“We could leave,” I said, knowing I should offer the option. “We could call Father, and he’d come get us.” I drained my glass of milk in one swallow, the way I was forbidden to do at home.

Mother didn’t notice. She was staring at the man with the cushion. “No,” she said. “We’ll be here only three weeks.”

“Paul Dresser wrote ‘On the Banks of the Wabash at Mudlavia,” I reminded her. This was something else Dr. Heath had told us.

“You say the most intelligent things.” Mother smiled, giving us permission to enjoy our dinner.

“Good evening.” The cushion man stood beside our table. The woman in the silver dress waited there with him, hugging his cushion to her large bosom.

Mother set her fork beside her plate. “Good evening,” she said to the man, but she looked at me.

“Your first night here?” His voice was surprisingly soft.

“Of course it is,” the woman in the silver dress said. She also had a big nose. “Isn’t this the first time we’ve seen them?”

The man ignored her. “I’m Harry Jones,” he said. “This is Sylvia Smith.” He kept smiling at Mother in a way that made me afraid he was going to cause trouble, like the villain, Flip, in the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland.

Mother said, “Nice to meet you,” but didn’t tell him our names.

“Come on.” Miss Smith gave Mr. Jones a little shove with the cushion. “Let these people eat in peace.”

“Enjoy the pecan pie,” he said, still smiling at Mother in that peculiar way. “We’ll get acquainted later.”

Mother nodded. Miss Smith gave Harry another gentle shove, and the two of them left the dining room.

Mother said, “‘Mr. Jones’ and ‘Miss Smith.’ Do we look that stupid?”

I wasn’t quite sure what she meant, but from then on I thought of them as Harry and Sylvia.

“Let these people eat in peace.” I imitated Sylvia's rasping voice.

“Why does he have to sit on a cushion?” Mother said.

I choked on my ham, and she spewed iced tea into her napkin. We couldn’t quit laughing. Finally we had to abandon our dinners. Still snickering, Mother pushed my wheelchair out of the dining room while everyone stared at us.

Mother and I shared a room, which embarrassed me, but I was also grateful for her company. We took turns undressing behind a Chinese screen in the corner, and later, as I lay on the hard mattress in my four-poster bed, I listened to Mother's even breathing in the next bed and held my aching knee. I stayed awake for a long time, imagining Harry's eyes watching Mother from the corner of the room.

The next morning I had my first mud treatment. Someone rapped on our door at seven to wake us, and Mother and I had a quiet breakfast of eggs and bacon in the dining room. Only a few other guests were there, and they all seemed to be the sick ones-in wheelchairs or bent over their plates in a twisted way. I looked around for the woman on the stretcher who’d been on our bus, and the fat man, but they were nowhere to be seen. They’d get breakfast in bed, I decided. Being among sick people again brought my condition home, and I felt my heart thump dully in my chest.

“There's our friend Harry Smith,” Mother said. “Or is it Jones?” She cut her eyes over to a table next to the wall. Harry was eating alone. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he had the previous evening. He wore an ordinary white shirt, brown trousers, and a linen jacket, but somehow he did not look ordinary. He was again sitting on his rubber cushion.

“Wonder how he managed to get that cushion in here all by himself,” Mother said.

I was feeling so nervous that all I could do was shrug. Her efforts to distract me seemed frivolous and coldhearted.

“No need to worry,” Mother said. “The treatment is painless.”

“How do you know?”

“They assured me.”

Harry turned, as if drawn by the sound of my mother's voice. He nodded once and then turned back to his toast and coffee and the Chicago Tribune.

“Who assured you?”

But she was watching Harry, studying him, so I went back to my breakfast. I tried to imagine what Dottie B. was doing at that very minute- probably reading L. Frank Baum in bed. If she’d been at Mudlavia, eating breakfast with us, I told myself, she would’ve ignored Harry and tried to comfort me. But I couldn’t imagine Dottie there, couldn’t imagine anyone I knew there. That's when I realized how far from home we were.

After breakfast my attendant, who turned out to be the tall man with the squarish head who’d boarded our bus and welcomed us to Mudlavia, wheeled me into a long narrow ward at the end of the first floor. The room was lined with rows of small metal-framed cots. Men lay on the cots, but I could see only their faces and hair-their bodies were covered with mud. Eyes watched me pass. Attendants were bustling up and down the aisles between the cots, pushing carts of steaming mud.

Buster, as he told me to call him, stopped beside an empty cot lined with a few inches of mud and asked me to remove my clothes and give them to him.

I couldn’t think how to tell him that I couldn’t possibly do either thing.

Buster squeezed my shoulder. “We’re used to naked bodies round here. People with clothes on look strange to me!”

His words only made me more self-conscious, but I untied my shoes and took them off, and then slowly took off my socks, pants, shirt, and undershirt, and finally my undershorts. I held the bundle of clothes in front of me, burning with humiliation.

“Lie down there,” Buster said. He snatched up my bundle and stuffed it into a wire basket. “Be back directly.”

I rolled onto the cot, twisting my knee as I did so. The canvas sagged down inside the frame, so lying there was like being in a shallow tub full of warm mud. I stared up at the beams in the ceiling. Despite the heat in the room, I began to shiver. I listened to flies buzzing and someone breathing beside me.

Finally a voice said, “Hello there, young man.” Harry Jones was lying in the next cot.

I’d been so distracted that I hadn’t been looking left or right, but now I fixed my eyes on his cadaverous face. I couldn’t look at the rest of him. “I’m Matthew,” I said. For some reason I didn’t tell him my last name.

Harry pointed to a big room adjoining ours. “They dig up the mud out back and heat it up in that room there, over the wood fires. Then they dip it up into buckets and put those buckets on the carts. Here comes my man now.” Harry pointed to an attendant and a cart coming toward us up the aisle. “Watch and see how it's done.” He winked at me.

“Yes, sir,” I said, grateful for his unpatronizing manner. I watched as his attendant, a wiry little man with a narrow red face, pushed the cart up next to Harry. He took a small bucket from the side of the cart and dipped it down into the big bucket of mud, bringing up a steaming heap. He tipped the bucket and, starting at the toes, poured the mud over Harry in a slow, leisurely way, as if he were watering a garden. He refilled the bucket and repeated the process until Harry was covered with a thick layer of mud up to his chin. Then he leveled the mud off with a strip of metal and scraped the extra mud back into an empty bucket. “Relax and get healthy,” the attendant said. He wheeled his cart down the aisle toward the mud room.

“Is it hot?” I asked Harry.

“Like a nice warm bath.”

I saw Buster starting up the aisle with a cart. I asked Harry, “How long?”

“Not long enough. Hour every day. You’ll look forward to it.”

I had a squeeze of panic when the first bucket tipped over me and mud began sliding over my feet. I held my breath, waiting to be scorched, but as Harry had said, it was like a warm bath. When Buster had finished, he said, “Relax and get well.” I was plastered to the cot. I couldn’t move, and didn’t want to. The oddly pleasant smell filled my nose, and I realized that I’d always wanted to play in mud, to pick it up and squeeze it, smear it on my body, lie down and roll in it. I remembered the day that Dottie B. and I had come back from playing in the creek behind her house, and how horrified my mother had been. She had sent me straight to the bath. She made me promise never to go near the creek again, and I kept my word. But mud was good. Dirt was good. It was healthful!

My body relaxed under the mud blanket. I was an Indian, hiding from white men. Or a leech, waiting for my next victim. Or a log, buried in a creek bank. This forced passivity was a peculiar feeling. Freeing, somehow.

“You’re right, Mr. Jones,” I said, turning my head toward him. But his eyes were closed, and he seemed to be asleep.

The time passed too quickly. Buster brought me cool water to drink and wiped my sweaty face. When he pulled me off my cot, breaking me out of my cocoon of drying mud, I had the sensation of landing again on earth after being away for years and years. I felt both younger and older at the same time, and I was no longer self-conscious. Buster escorted me, naked, out of the room and into another room lined with showers. Old men and their attendants were busy scrubbing. I looked for Harry, but didn’t see him. I stood on the green-tile floor, and Buster scrubbed my back and legs with a big rag; then he left me to wash the mud off my front as best I could. My knee still ached, but I told myself it felt a little bit better. In a bathrobe Buster gave me, I rested awhile in the cooling room. Later, after I’d dressed, Buster wheeled me along a dirt path toward the front porch. “What will you be when you grow up?” he asked me.

I answered without hesitation. “An Olympic champion in the high jump and the long jump.”

“You heard of Ray Ewry?” he asked.

“Of course! The Human Frog!” Ray Ewry, my idol, had gone to college at Purdue, in West Lafayette, and I’d read all about his triumphs in the Daily Courier. Ray had won ten Olympic gold medals, in the standing high, standing long, and standing triple jumps-more than any other Olympic athlete has ever won. He might’ve won more medals if his events had not been discontinued after 1912.

“You know, Ray Ewry was a cripple when he was a boy,” Buster said. “Polio.”

Yes, I told him, I knew that. The fact that Ewry had had polio was included in every story I’d read about him.

“Doctor told him to take up jumping to strengthen his legs,” Buster said.

“And the rest is history!” I said cheerfully, though I felt anything but cheerful. I didn’t have polio. I only had a sore knee. Was Buster trying to tell me that I was a cripple too?

Buster wheeled me up a ramp onto the porch, where my mother, in her puffed-sleeve blouse with the pearl buttons, sat in a rocking chair doing needlepoint. She took my hand, and I noticed the mud still caked underneath my fingernails.

“Won’t ever get it all off,” Buster said, hanging over us. “See you when the cock crows.” He ruffled my hair, turned, and lumbered off the porch.

Mother and I smiled at each other.

“So it went well?” Mother dropped her needlepoint in her lap-a picture of three roses, but she’d done only half of one. Our house was full of her framed needlepoint pictures. I hoped she was losing interest in them. “Tell me all about it,” she said.

For some reason I didn’t describe how pleasurable it had been. I think I felt a bit guilty about how much I’d enjoyed it. I also left out the part about talking to Harry. I wanted to paint a braver picture of myself, or maybe I was wary of letting her know my changed opinion of him. She listened to me, but I could tell she wanted me to hurry up. When I finished, she picked up her needlepoint and began stitching again.

“I’ve got a scary story to tell you,” she said, staring intently at her work. “One of the ladies over there told it to me. Don’t look.”

I did look, annoyed that her story was usurping mine. All along the ivy-clad porch were groups of white-wicker chairs and tables. Three women sat at one table sipping glasses of lemonade. They were all middle-aged, fat, and dressed in starched shirtwaists and full skirts, their gray hair coiled at the napes of their necks. None of them looked as if she had an interesting bone in her body.

“I said don’t look,” Mother whispered.

I sighed and stared out at the gardens. It was midmorning, already hot in the sun, but the porch was shady and cooler, and the gladioli and zinnias looked bright and fresh. The air smelled of cut grass and soap from the laundry. The limestone fountain gurgled. A young man and woman strolled down the path toward the woods. He held a pink-and-green-striped parasol over her head. He said something in her ear and she jerked away, but then, a few steps later, she allowed him to take her hand.

“One of those ladies is from Chicago,” Mother said, still stitching. “She's here with her husband, a banker. He's taking the cure.”

“That's a story?”

“She said that this place is a gambler's paradise. Listen.” She lowered her voice. “They have card games in the back parlor, all night sometimes. For high stakes. They drink gin. Most of the people here are from Chicago. Gangsters, or friends of gangsters. That man with the cushion-Harry Jones isn’t really his name-is some big mob boss, hiding out from the law. We’re in a nest of criminals.”

“Really?” I sounded more shocked than I was. I’d been to Chicago only twice, to shop for new school clothes, and had found it a dark, claustrophobic place. That one would want to escape if one could seemed only natural. Surely not even gangsters would misbehave here, I thought. I noticed that one of the middle-aged women had a bee crawling down her back. I hoped it would sting her.

“Well?” Mother said, frowning at me. “What should we do? Now that we know?”

I didn’t even think to question the woman's claim. It might have been an out-and-out lie, or more likely an exaggeration, but both Mother and I wanted to believe it. “My knee is feeling better,” I said, bending it a few times. That was a lie. It felt the same.

Mother nodded and looked relieved. “There's our answer,” she said.

“Hello there!” Harry Jones was calling to us from across the porch. He tipped his straw hat in our direction. The woman with bobbed hair stood behind him, clutching his rubber cushion. The parrot teetered on her shoulder.

Mother and I smiled and waved back as though we hadn’t just been maligning him, as if he were one of our friends. For a second I was afraid he’d come over and tell Mother about our conversation that morning, but he merely called out, “Off to get some sun!” He and the woman walked arm in arm down the porch steps.

“I suppose,” Mother said, rocking too hard in her chair, “that you can tell who his current lady friend is by taking note of who's carrying his cushion.” She clucked. “As if he couldn’t carry it himself.” I heard a fondness in her voice, a fondness for Harry that I also felt.

I said, “He must be very sick. He's much too skinny.”

“Poor man.”

We watched him and his friend disappear down the garden path.

“A boss?” I asked Mother. “She said ‘boss’?”

“Of one of the biggest crime rings.”

I grinned.

“We can never tell your father about him,” she said, meeting my eyes and clasping both my hands in hers. “Never ever. Promise?”

I promised without a second thought.

We sat awhile in silence, watching the strolling guests, and I marveled at the dishonesty and secrecy that hung so lightly in the sweet-smelling air of Mudlavia, air that had infected not only me but my own dear mother. It was strange, I thought, how much at home we both felt, and how quickly we had come to feel that way. I was suddenly sorry for the Dotties back home, who were no doubt having a very dull summer.

My days at Mudlavia fell into a comfortable pattern. I took my mud treatment every morning, always in the cot next to Harry’s, and he and I chatted while we waited for our mud. He asked me questions about myself-my last name, where I was from, what my father did, what he was like, and so on. “Goodall,” I told him. My mother's first name, I said, was Toots. We’d come from Attica. I told him that my father had once been a gendarme in Paris, but that he’d been fired for shooting a tourist. Now he was a fat farmer who raised cows. Lying became easier as I went along.

Harry nodded as he listened, and I have no idea whether he believed me or not. I think not. He told me he was from LaPorte, Indiana, and had worked as a mailman until he was stricken with crippling arthritis. He came to Mudlavia every summer. He was widowed. “My dear Ida passed five years ago this summer,” he said. “Not a one could ever take Ida's place.” Ida? Mailman? I fixed a sad, sympathetic look on my face, admiring our ability to pretend. This was much more fun than making up plays.

“I can jump over a fence five feet high,” I told him. “World record is six feet.”

“No kidding,” he said.

“I’d show you,” I said, “but, you know.” I pointed to my knee.

One morning, as we both lay under our mud compresses, Harry said, “This place is a con game. This mud's just mud. It won’t cure me, but I don’t care. I love it, but I never let on how much. If people knew how pleasant it was, they’d all be clamoring to get in, and there’d be no room for you and me.”

“We won’t tell them,” I said, and we both nodded our heads, which was as good as a handshake.

Harry always fell asleep as soon as he was covered, but I would lie awake daydreaming, not of high jumping or Olympic glories, as before, but about being all alone, buried up to my neck in the red dirt of Arizona, or the dark earth of a Canadian forest, peering around at the strange and dramatic landscape. For the first time in my life I escaped the prison of my own body, and I found the sensation soothing and exhilarating at the same time.

While I took my treatments, Mother worked on her needlepoint roses and talked to the ladies on the porch, finding out bits of gossip about the guests. Many of them were part of the same Chicago mob family, she told me with a knowledgeable air, of which Harry Jones was the boss. He was wanted for the murder of a South Side butcher. I pictured a mean-faced butcher in a bloody apron. I wondered if Harry had shot him with a pistol or a shotgun. “The butcher probably deserved it,” I told Mother, who said, “Matthew!” and then, “Probably so. Maybe they were in rival gangs.” I still hadn’t told her about my conversations with Harry. Because I’d started out keeping them secret, continuing to do so felt easiest, and so far he hadn’t given me away-he’d only waved to us from afar.

After lunch Mother and I would retire to our room. Mother was slogging through a romance novel called Go Forth and Find, which she said was tedious. I’d brought along a few Frank Merriwell adventure stories. Heroic Frank was handsome, popular, good, and, most important, athletic. Time and again he won the day in boxing, baseball, football, fencing, lacrosse, crew, shooting, bicycle racing, or, my favorite, track. I loved Frank, but now, for some reason, his feats seemed obvious and pointless and didn’t hold my interest, so I took to writing letters. Mother and I had agreed that we wouldn’t mention the criminals to anyone we wrote to. We'd write only about the beauty and peace and quiet and the fact that my knee was steadily improving, which it wasn’t.

“Should I tell Father I’ve seen the doctor?” I asked Mother one afternoon. We hadn’t seen a doctor around the place since we’d gotten there.

She put down her book. “Good idea,” she said. “So he won’t worry.”

We didn’t mention the fact that we’d yet to receive a letter from my father. My mother kept up her correspondence with her older sister, May, a spinster dressmaker who suffered from neurasthenia. Mother wrote enthusiastically to May about Mudlavia, trying, not very sincerely, to persuade her to join us, mentioning the healthful food, lithia water, and musical evenings along with the mud baths, but we both knew we were safe, because May wouldn’t set foot outside her house in Cleveland if she could help it.

I also wrote to Dottie B. and Dottie G., telling them I’d met some “interesting guests from Chicago.” Dottie G. never wrote back, but I knew I could count on Dottie B., because she liked to write. One day I received a postal with a photo of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and on it she said that she missed me “like crazy.” I repeated this to myself over and over while Mother took a nap, and I stared out our window at the sky, which seemed always to be blue, listening to wasps buzzing against the screen. Many of the guests went hiking, or swimming in the creek, but Mother stayed with me. Often we would end the afternoon by sitting in the parlor with the other guests, or if it wasn’t too hot, she would push me around the garden in my wheelchair. She seemed to be growing younger by the day. She moved in a stronger and more agile way, she laughed more, and her face glowed with sun.

One night, after Mother and I had just sat down in the dining room, Harry Jones and Sylvia Smith approached our table. Sylvia, wearing what looked like a man's suit coat and bow tie, dropped Harry's cushion in a chair and sat down beside him, a sullen expression on her face. Harry said hello to me and then turned to my mother. “Good evening, Mrs. Goodall. May we join you?” My mother gave me a look I’ve never forgotten. She was not just surprised that I’d ever even spoken to Harry but amazed, as if she’d never imagined I could be so strangely devious. An assessing glint was in her eye, as if she were rethinking everything she’d previously thought about me. But of course she couldn’t have done all that, because in just a matter of seconds, during which I held my breath, not knowing what her reaction would be, she turned to Harry. “Certainly,” she said. “Everyone calls me Toots.”

Sylvia knocked back a glass of iced tea. “Toots,” she said, to no one in particular.

Mother gave her a tepid smile.

The piano player launched into his favorite song: “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag.”

“Matthew tells me you’re from Attica,” Harry said to Mother. “You and your husband raise cows.”

“Herefords,” Mother said, nodding.

She knew nothing about cows. I couldn’t even believe she’d come up with “Herefords.” I knew she couldn’t pull it off.

Sylvia must’ve had this thought too. “Tell us about cows,” she said to my mother. “Harry here don’t know a thing about cows.”

“Surely we can find something else to discuss,” Harry said. “Toots is probably sick and tired of cows.”

“We both are,” I said. “Tired of cows.”

“Well, no, actually,” Mother said. “I never tire of cows.” While the waiter served our drinks, Mother proceeded to describe our life in Attica, our herd of cows, our team of Belgian horses, and our chickens-good layers. It was my turn to marvel. But then I realized she was simply describing her own childhood on a farm in Ohio, a place I’d never seen and she rarely talked about, because her parents had died before I was born.

Sylvia made a few snide comments and then stared across the room as if she were deep in thought. Finally, right in the middle of dinner, she got up and left the table, giving me a sneer. I was the only one who acknowledged her leaving.

The next evening Harry joined us for dinner again, this time carrying his own cushion. His lady friends sat across the room at another table, their backs to us. The parrot, perched on the shoulder of the woman with bobbed hair, turned to face us, his head cocked, as if he were spying on us. That evening I noticed a hint of repressed excitement in the flush of Mother's cheeks, her sputtering laugh, the way she leaned toward Harry when he spoke. He asked her about my fathers experience as a gendarme in Paris, and the tourist he shot.

“It was a crazy man, the tourist,” Mother said. “A butcher. An Algerian butcher waving a knife. My husband was simply doing his duty.”

A butcher! She’d said “butcher”! But Harry's expression didn’t change. He asked her about Paris, and she began to talk about Algerian restaurants and the Louvre Museum as if she’d actually seen them. Although they mostly ignored me, I was thrilled by the whole thing, thrilled by my mother's lies and my part in getting them started, thrilled that someone like Harry found us desirable.

I ate my soggy baked Alaska, looking around to see who’d noticed us sitting with Harry. Nobody paid us any attention, but that didn’t quell my excitement. My hand, with its mud-caked fingernails, reached for my water glass again and again. I had become a dirty person. Mud had invaded every crevice of my body, and I was always picking off little patches that the shower hadn’t washed away. I thought about how I could present this place to Dottie B., how much to tell-the rubber cushion, the parrot, a woman in a man's suit coat?-and how much to leave out, and how impressed she’d be.

After dinner Harry left us with a bow, disappearing into one of the back parlors.

“Sin City,” Mother said, cocking one eyebrow.

I asked Mother, “If everybody knows these people are criminals, how come nobody calls the cops?”

“Don’t ask ‘how come,’” Mother said. “Don’t say ‘cops.’” Then she rubbed her fingers and thumb together. “Boodle,” she whispered, and we both snickered.

On the way out of the dining room she pushed my chair past the parrot, who turned to watch us, his beady eyes blinking. I lurched toward him. He gave a loud squawk, flapped off his perch, and then swooped low over the tables and circled the dining room like a mutant bat, causing the diners to shriek and duck. The bobbed woman leaped up and charged after him. Finally the bird perched at the top of one of the tall windows, and as we left I heard the bobbed woman imploring him to come down. “Tyrone,” she was calling. “Come to Mama.” Mother called me Tyrone for the rest of the evening.

So Mother and I were having a grand time. The only trouble was that my knee wasn’t getting any better. For the first week it didn’t feel worse, and I credited the treatment, but now I think the wheelchair might’ve been the reason. Then it began to hurt worse, with an even sharper pain that kept me awake at night. I didn’t say a word about the pain, didn’t even acknowledge it to myself. Harry's lady friends had disappeared, and he began sitting with us every night at dinner, and Mother and I were having too much fun thinking of ways to get him to reveal his true identity. We got bolder and bolder.

“So how did you carry your mailbag?” Mother asked him. “Over which shoulder?”

“Right, of course,” Harry said. “We’re required to.”

“What's the most collected stamp ever?” I asked him.

“Pocahontas five-cent.” He took a slurp of his cold cucumber soup. He always answered our questions without hesitation, and he could’ve been telling the truth, of course, though we preferred not to think so.

One morning I got another postal from Dottie B. “We saw your father in downtown Indianapolis,” she wrote. “He was walking with your cousin. What a stylish lady! Her skirt was up almost to her knees and she wore a sailor hat. I pestered Mother till she bought me a sailor hat too.” Something told me, even at age ten, to rip this postal up before Mother could see it.

“Your mother is a beautiful woman,” Harry said to me the next morning when we lay on our cots, covered with mud. “But don’t tell her I said that.”

“I won’t,” I said, even though his tone indicated that he wanted me to tell her. Everything said at Mudlavia seemed to mean just the opposite. I didn’t like his saying that my mother was beautiful, because it was true, and the whole point of our relationship was to tell lies. Mother doesn’t really like you, I wanted to tell him. She's just pretending. But I knew that she and I were only pretending not to like him. It was all too confusing. “Mother likes you,” I was surprised to hear myself say. “I do too,” I added.

“Really?” he said, grinning at me. He was so thin that he looked like pictures I’d seen of Egyptian mummies. “She does? Really?”

I assured him that she did, but I was surprised to find myself hurt that he cared about Mother more than about me. I’d thought of us as the new threesome, now that his lady friends were out of the picture. “My father has a lady friend,” I said to Harry, and told him about the postal I’d received the day before. He listened to me intently, frowning, and without saying a word. I expected him to express shock and outrage, to jump up and do something, or to at least promise to do something. When he continued to lie there, silent and unmoving, I felt a cold anger welling underneath my mud-warmed skin. I’d confided in him because, despite all the games we were playing, I believed that he would want to help us. I’d thought he was our friend.

That night at dinner I watched him joking and talking with Mother, listening to her silly replies. They didn’t seem to notice that I wasn’t participating in their little charade. I realized, with a sickening feeling, that I had served my purpose and was now expendable. I didn’t like the way he stared at Mother, and I didn’t like the way she gazed back at him. I’d never seen her look at anyone else that way. It was as if she’d been infected by some strange virus and couldn’t help herself. I sulked through dinner, refusing to meet their eyes, grunting and shrugging when I was addressed. Before Mother could finish her cherry Bavarian cream, I told her I was tired and wanted to turn in early. I hoped she would read in bed and keep me company, but she tucked me in and said she was going back down to sit on the porch. It was too hot to read upstairs, she said. Did I mind?

“What happened to the parrot lady?” I asked Mother, who was brushing her hair in front of the mirror. “And Sylvia? Where’d they go? Maybe he rubbed them out.”

She rewound her hair in a bun and dug a tortoiseshell comb into it. “Don’t be silly,” she said.

“Harry says this place is a con game,” I said. “He says the mud is just ordinary.”

“Go to sleep,” she said.

I lay in bed, sweating in my nightshirt, imagining how I was going to get even. I considered calling the cops and ratting on Harry; then I decided to write a letter to Father, not mentioning Harry but asking him to come and get us. I was sorry that I’d ratted on my father, and I asked God for forgiveness. I finally dozed off. When I woke up, a full moon hung outside my window, and Mother's bed was still empty. I clambered out of bed, ignoring the throbbing in my knee, and hopped to the window, where I stuck my head outside, hoping to feel a breeze on my face.

Then I heard Mother and Harry talking on the porch. Their voices were quiet and intimate. I heard no teasing or laughing, no protesting or measured politeness. For the first time since we’d been there, I was hearing the sound of honest speech, and it spooked me. I couldn’t see them, and strain as I might, I couldn’t make out their words. Were they sitting side by side? Or standing, looking up at the moon? A sharp, stabbing pain went through my knee, and I collapsed on the floor. As I lay there, stinging truths seeped into my conscious mind, drop by drop. Something was very wrong with my knee. I would never be an Olympic champion. I would never jump again. Never use my leg again. Never.

I crawled underneath the bed and curled up in a ball. Mother finally found me there when she came in. “My God!” she said. “What's happened?” She kneeled in front of the bed, sounding satisfyingly terrified.

I rolled out from my hiding place. “My knee's been hurting worse and worse,” I said. “It's not getting better.” I started to cry then, relieved to be telling the truth, but feeling that I was tricking her all the same, and doing it for her own good. For our own good.

She laid a cool hand on my forehead. “We’ll see the doctor first thing in the morning,” she said, and I could hear the despair in her voice. “I’m sorry. I’m a terrible mother. I’ll never forgive myself.”

I closed my eyes and said nothing.

The next morning Mother found the Mudlavia doctor playing poker in Sin City, and he advised her to take me immediately to a hospital. Mother notified my father and made arrangements; we sat in the lobby with our suitcases all morning, waiting to leave. Many people stopped to wish us well, including Buster. He bowed to Mother and shook my hand. “The Human Frog didn’t go to the Olympics till he was twenty-six,” Buster said. “Remember that.” I could give him only a distracted smile. Harry never appeared, and Mother never left my side. That afternoon she and I began a journey to Chicago's Augustana Hospital. The doctor declared that I had a malignant tumor in my knee, and half my leg had to be removed. If we’d waited much longer, the surgeon told us, I might be dead.

We returned to Lafayette, where I was fitted with a wooden prosthesis and began my life as a cripple, learning to hobble around my bedroom with the help of Mother and Dottie B. My mother acted falsely chipper and then wept periodically in her bedroom, muffled, gasping sobs. I assumed she was crying for me and feeling guilty, but the situation was more complicated than that. Three months later, when I could finally manage to get downstairs on my own, using a cane, I told Mother I was going to walk across the street, alone, to Dottie B.’s. I can’t remember if she encouraged or discouraged me, but it wouldn’t have mattered. I was determined to go.

Since I’d last been outside, the seasons had changed. The world had gone gray and cold. It was only midafternoon, but the lights were already shining in Dottie's house. I left Mother standing on our porch, arms folded, watching me go. When I reached Dottie's front steps and turned to wave, she’d already gone back inside. Did she act different right before I left? I couldn’t say, because I’d been preoccupied with making my escape, with getting some relief from her weeping.

A couple of hours later I returned home, sweating with exhaustion. When I called for Mother, she didn’t answer. Upstairs, in my parents’ bedroom, I saw that her clothes were gone from the wardrobe. I rummaged around the house for a note, all the while knowing I’d never find one. She had taken the sudden opportunity to leave, and she hadn’t wanted to linger long enough to write a note, having no idea when I’d return. Maybe she told herself she’d send me a letter when she got to wherever she was going, thinking that a letter would be better than a note anyway. She’d have time to really think about what she wanted to say.

On her bedside table lay Go Forth and Find, a leather bookmark near the middle. Later I read the book cover to cover. It was a romance as banal and unbelievable as the stories of Frank Merriwell's athletic prowess, and I assured myself that the book hadn’t influenced her in any way. She’d read many such romances, and surely she knew how far-fetched they were. Besides, she’d told me it was tedious. She hadn’t finished it, and didn’t bother to take it with her, because maybe, at long last, she’d found the real thing. I wanted very much to believe that.

One afternoon, not long after her departure, Father sat on the sofa beside me in the parlor, wearing only his undershirt and pajama pants, his fake glasses and moustache gone, his stopwatch abandoned.

“You sure?” he kept asking me. “She didn’t talk to any men?”

I never mentioned Harry Jones to anyone. I told myself that I was keeping our secret, and that Mother wouldn’t have wanted me to blab, but that was only part of it. Harry Jones seemed like a fantasy, a figment of our imagination, and I didn’t want to expose him to the harsh light of conventional Lafayette. Besides, she could’ve gone anywhere, with anyone.

“None?” my father said again. “No men at all?”

I recalled her saying good-bye to Buster, thanking him profusely. “Nobody except Buster,” I told my father, and he wrote the name in a notebook.

I felt terrible that I might’ve caused Buster some trouble, so I lashed out. “Dottie told me she saw you in Indianapolis. With your cousin.”

He flushed but didn’t hesitate. “That's preposterous. I haven’t gone anywhere near Indianapolis in months.” Then he gave me his superintendent's smile. “Dottie's not too bright, son.” He patted my good leg, got up, and left the room. He never again pestered me about Mudlavia, and after a while he refused to speak about my mother at all.

For a while I thought about trying to write to Harry, or waiting till I got a little older and looking him up in Chicago, but I did neither of these things, telling myself that Harry Jones couldn’t possibly be his real name. I tried to accept my losses, feeling deep down that I was at fault for losing both my leg and my mother. Of course, when I was angry, I also had to ask myself how she could have gone off and left her only son. Especially one who needed her so badly. Perhaps it was because I needed her so badly. Or perhaps her flight had nothing to do with me, or with my father, or with Harry Jones, or with anything or anyone we knew about. I kept expecting to turn around and see her, and often thought I heard her calling me on the street. Even now, even though she's long dead, I’m still waiting for her to reveal herself, wearing her egret-feather hat.

After I went away to college in Bloomington, I received a letter from my mother's sister, May, in Cleveland, whom I hadn’t seen or heard from in years. Aunt May wondered if my father had told me the truth about what happened to my mother. My mother had written to me many times, the letter said, but May suspected that Father had never shown me her letters. My father, she wrote, had been notified that Mother was hit by a trolley and killed not even a year after she left home. She’d been living alone in San Francisco, working in a hat shop, trying to make a new start. Someone had sent her the money to go out there, set herself up, and hire a lawyer. She’d served my father with divorce papers, which he’d refused to sign. “You must believe,” my aunt wrote, “that your mother loved you and didn’t want to leave you. She intended to send for you, but she had to escape first.” May said that she had no idea who had given my mother the money she needed, but I thought I knew.

I fired off a blistering letter to my father, but he didn’t respond. He continued to pay my tuition and expenses, but after I graduated we didn’t speak again for seven years, until after the birth of my first child.

I did hate my father for a while, but I never could bring myself to hate my mother. Even now I’d give anything to be with her again, to sit close to her the way I did on the bus to Mudlavia, to laugh with her as we did in the dining room, to hear her breathing quietly in the bed next to mine. I long to go back in time, before everything changed, and in this, I realize, I’m no different from anyone else. Life eventually takes away everything it gives.

Five months after my mother left, America entered World War I. My father began spending more and more time in Indianapolis, and we moved there when he took a position as superintendent of the Indianapolis public schools. Dottie B. and I married young. I worked my way through medical school in Bloomington and became an orthopedic surgeon. Dot-tie B. wrote a number of popular children's books, including one best seller: The Floosenettes Go to Mars. We had five children. Our oldest son, a farmer with young children of his own, suffocated in a grain bin at age thirty-three. Our youngest daughter, when she was twenty-nine, won a medal in kayaking at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. I never returned to Mudlavia, but I read in the newspaper that it burned down, and was rebuilt, and burned down again, and today is a pile of rubble.

In the late summer I always remember Mudlavia, and not with any bad feelings. I remember the gurgling fountain and the hollyhocks, the wide porch, the soggy baked Alaska. Buster saying, in his southern drawl, “Relax and get well.” Harry whispering, “This place is a con game.” I remember lying beneath the mud, soaking it up, the stillness and the smell and the flies buzzing, forgetting myself, forgetting that I was even a human being with all the worries and vanities and self-deception that go along with it, and I think that if I could’ve stayed there forever, buried in mud, I might’ve had a happy life, instead of simply a good one.

Kevin Brockmeier

The Brief History of the Dead

from The New Yorker

WHEN THE blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had traveled across a desert of living sand. First he had died, he said, and then-snap!-the desert. He told the story to everyone who would listen, bobbing his head to follow the sound of their footsteps. Showers of red grit fell from his beard. He said that the desert was bare and lonesome and that it had hissed at him like a snake. He had walked for days and days, until the dunes broke apart beneath his feet, surging up around him to lash at his face, then everything went still and began to beat like a heart. The sound was as clear as any he had ever heard. It was only at that moment, he said, with a million arrow-points of sand striking his skin, that he had truly realized he was dead.

Jim Singer, who managed the sandwich shop in the monument district, said that he had felt a prickling sensation in his fingers and then stopped breathing. “It was my heart,” he insisted, thumping on his chest. “Took me in my own bed.” He had closed his eyes, and when he opened them again he was on a train, the kind that trolleys small children around in circles at amusement parks. The rails were leading him through a thick forest of gold-brown trees, but the trees were actually giraffes, and their long necks were reaching like branches into the sky. A wind rose up and peeled the spots from their backs. The spots floated down around him, swirling and dipping in the wake of the train. It took him a long time to understand that the throbbing noise he heard was not the rattling of the wheels along the tracks.

The girl who liked to stand beneath the poplar tree in the park said that she had died into an ocean the color of dried cherries. For a while, the water had carried her weight, she said, and she lay on her back turning in meaningless circles, singing the choruses of the pop songs she remembered. But then there was a drum of thunder, and the clouds split open, and the ball bearings began to pelt down around her-tens of thousands of them. She had swallowed as many as she could, she said, stroking the cracked trunk of the poplar tree. She didn’t know why. She filled like a lead sack and sank slowly through the layers of the ocean. Shoals of fish brushed past her, their blue and yellow scales the brightest thing in the water. And all around her she heard that sound, the one that everybody heard, the regular pulsing of a giant heart.

The stories people told about the crossing were as varied and elaborate as their ten billion lives, so much more particular than the other stories, the ones they told about their deaths. After all, there were only so many ways a person could die: either your heart took you, or your head took you, or it was one of the new diseases. But no one followed the same path over the crossing. Lev Paley said that he had watched his atoms break apart like marbles, roll across the universe, then gather themselves together again out of nothing at all. Hanbing Li said that he woke inside the body of an aphid and lived an entire life in the flesh of a single peach. Graciella Cavazos would say only that she began to snow-four words-and smile bashfully whenever anyone pressed her for details.

No two reports were ever the same. And yet always there was the drumlike thumping noise.

Some people insisted that it never went away, that if you concentrated and did not turn your ear from the sound, you could hear it faintly behind everything in the city-the brakes and the horns, the bells on the doors of restaurants, the clicking and slapping of different kinds of shoes on the pavement. Groups of people came together in parks or on rooftops just to listen for it, sitting quietly with their backs turned to each other. Ba-dum, Ba-dum, Ba-dum. It was like trying to keep a bird in sight as it lifted, blurred, and faded to a dot in the sky.

Luka Sims had found an old mimeograph machine his very first week in the city and decided to use it to produce a newspaper. He stood outside the River Road Coffee Shop every morning, handing out the circulars he had printed. One particular issue of the L. Sims News & Speculation Sheet-the Sims Sheet, people called it-addressed the matter of this sound. Fewer than twenty percent of the people Luka interviewed claimed that they could still hear it after the crossing, but almost everyone agreed that it resembled nothing so much as-could be nothing other than-the pounding of a heart. The question, then, was where did it come from? It could not be their own hearts, for their hearts no longer beat. The old man Mahmoud Qassim believed that it was not the actual sound of his heart but the remembered sound, which, because he had both heard and failed to notice it for so long, still resounded in his ears. The woman who sold bracelets by the river thought that it was the heartbeat at the center of the world, that bright, boiling place she had fallen through on her way to the city. “As for this reporter,” the article concluded, “I hold with the majority. I have always suspected that the thumping sound we hear is the pulse of those who are still alive. The living carry us inside them like pearls. We survive only so long as they remember us.” It was an imperfect metaphor- Luka knew that-since the pearl lasts much longer than the oyster. But rule one in the newspaper business was that you had to meet your deadlines. He had long since given up the quest for perfection.

There were more people in the city every day, and yet the city never failed to accommodate them. You might be walking down a street you had known for years, and all of a sudden you would come upon another building, another whole block. Carson McCaughrean, who drove one of the sleek black taxis that roamed the streets, had to redraw his maps once a week. Twenty, thirty, fifty times a day, he would pick up a fare who had only recently arrived in the city and have to deliver him somewhere he- Carson-had never heard of. They came from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. They came from churning metropolises and from small islands in the middle of the ocean. That was what the living did: they died. There was an ancient street musician who began playing in the red brick district as soon as he reached the city, making slow, sad breaths with his accordion. There was a jeweler, a young man, who set up shop at the corner of Maple and Christopher streets and sold diamonds that he mounted on silver pendants. Jessica Auffert had operated her own jewelry shop on the same corner for more than thirty years, but she did not seem to resent the man, and in fact brought him a mug of fresh black coffee every morn- ing, exchanging gossip as she drank with him in his front room. What surprised her was how young he was-how young so many of the dead were these days. Great numbers of them were no more than children, who clattered around on skateboards or went racing past her window on their way to the playground. One, a boy with a strawberry discoloration on his cheek, liked to pretend that the rocking horses he tossed himself around on were real horses, the horses he had brushed and fed on his farm before they were killed in the bombing. Another liked to swoop down the slide over and over again, hammering his feet into the gravel as he thought about his parents and his two older brothers, who were still alive. He had watched them lift free of the same illness that had slowly sucked him under. He did not like to talk about it.

This was during a war, though it was difficult for any of them to remember which one.

Occasionally, one of the dead, someone who had just completed the crossing, would mistake the city for Heaven. It was a misunderstanding that never persisted for long. What kind of Heaven had the blasting sound of garbage trucks in the morning, and chewing gum on the pavement, and the smell of fish rotting by the river? What kind of Hell, for that matter, had bakeries and dogwood trees and perfect blue days that made the hairs on the back of your neck rise on end? No, the city was not Heaven, and it was not Hell, and it certainly was not the world. It stood to reason, then, that it had to be something else. More and more people came to adopt the theory that it was an extension of life itself-a sort of outer room-and that they would remain there only so long as they endured in living memory. When the last person who had actually known them died, they would pass over into whatever came next. It was true that most of the city's occupants went away after sixty or seventy years. While this did not prove the theory, it certainly served to nourish it. There were stories of men and women who had been in the city much longer, for centuries and more, but there were always such stories, in every time and place, and who knew whether to believe them?

Every neighborhood had its gathering spot, a place where people could come together to trade news of the other world. There was the colonnade in the monument district, and the One and Only Tavern in the warehouse district, and right next to the greenhouse, in the center of the conservatory district, was Andrei Kalatozov's Russian Tea Room. Kalatozov poured the tea he brewed from a brass-colored samovar into small porcelain cups that he served on polished wooden platters. His wife and daughter had died a few weeks before he did, in an accident involving a land mine they had rooted up out of the family garden. He was watching through the kitchen window when it happened. His wife's spade struck a jagged hunk of metal so cankered with rust from its century underground that he did not realize what it was until it exploded. Two weeks later, when he put the razor to his throat, it was with the hope that he would be reunited with his family in Heaven. And, sure enough, there they were-his wife and daughter- smiling and taking coats at the door of the tearoom. Kalatozov watched them as he sliced a lemon into wedges and arranged the wedges on a saucer. He was the happiest man in the room-the happiest man in any room. The city may not have been Heaven, but it was Heaven enough for him. Morning to evening, he listened to his customers as they shared the latest news about the war. The Americans and the Middle East had resumed hostilities, as had China and Spain and Australia and the Netherlands. Brazil was developing another mutagenic virus, one that would resist the latest antitoxins. Or maybe it was Italy. Or maybe Indonesia. There were so many rumors that it was hard to know for sure.

Now and then, someone who had died only a day or two before would happen into one of the centers of communication-the tavern or the tearoom, the river market or the colonnade-and the legions of the dead would mass around him, shouldering and jostling him for information. It was always the same: “Where did you live?” “Do you know anything about Central America?” “Is it true what they’re saying about the ice caps?” “I’m trying to find out about my cousin. He lived in Arizona. His name was Lewis Zeigler, spelled L-E-W-I-S…” “What's happening with the situation along the African coast-do you know, do you know?” “Anything you can tell us, please, anything at all.”

Kiran Patel had sold beads to tourists in the Bombay hotel district for most of a century. She said that there were fewer and fewer travelers to her part of the world, but that this hardly mattered, since there was less and less of her part of the world for them to see. The ivory beads she had peddled as a young woman became scarce, then rare, then finally unobtainable. The only remaining elephants were caged away in the zoos of other countries. In the years just before she died, the “genuine ivory beads” she sold were actually a cream-colored plastic made in batches of ten thousand in Korean factories. This, too, hardly mattered. The tourists who stopped at her kiosk could never detect the difference.

Jeffrey Fallon, sixteen and from Park Falls, Wisconsin, said that the fighting hadn’t spread in from the coasts yet, but that the germs had, and he was living proof. “Or not living, maybe, but still proof,” he corrected himself. The bad guys used to be Pakistan, and then they were Argentina and Turkey, and after that he had lost track. “What do you want me to tell you?” he asked, shrugging his shoulders. “Mostly I just miss my girlfriend.” Her name was Tracey Tipton, and she did this thing with his ear-lobes and the notched edge of her front teeth that made his entire body go taut and buzz like a guitar string. He had never given his earlobes a second thought until the day she took them between her lips, but now that he was dead he thought of nothing else. Who would have figured?

The man who spent hours riding up and down the escalators in the Ginza Street Shopping Mall would not give his name. When people asked him what he remembered about the time before he died, he would only nod vigorously, clap his hands together, and say, “Boom!,” making a gesture like falling confetti with his fingertips.

The great steel-and-polymer buildings at the heart of the city, with their shining glass windows reflecting every gap between every cloud in the sky, gave way after a few hundred blocks to buildings of stone and brick and wood. The change was so gradual, though, and the streets so full of motion, that you could walk for hours before you realized that the architecture had transformed itself around you. The sidewalks were lined with movie theaters, gymnasiums, hardware stores, karaoke bars, basketball courts, and falafel stands. There were libraries and tobacconists. There were lingerie shops and dry cleaners. There were hundreds of churches in the city-hundreds, in fact, in every district-pagodas, mosques, chapels, and synagogues. They stood sandwiched between vegetable markets and video-rental stores, sending their crosses, domes, and minarets high into the air. Some of the dead, it was true, threw aside their old religions, disgusted that the afterlife, this so-called great beyond, was not what their lifetime of worship had promised them. But for every person who lost his faith there was someone else who held fast to it, and someone else again who adopted it. The simple truth was that nobody knew what would happen to them after their time in the city came to an end, and just because you had died without meeting your God was no reason to assume that you wouldn’t one day.

This was the philosophy of José Tamayo, who offered himself once a week as a custodian to the Church of the Sacred Heart. Every Sunday, he waited by the west door until the final service was over and the crowd had dissolved back into the city, and then he swept the tile floor, polished the pews and the altar, and vacuumed the cushions by the Communion rail. When he was finished, he climbed carefully down the seventeen steps in front of the building, where the blind man stood talking about his journey through the desert, and made his way across the street to his apartment. He had damaged his knee once during a soccer match, and ever since then he felt a tiny exploding star of pain above the joint whenever he extended his leg. The injury had not gone away, even after the crossing, and he did not like to walk too far on it. This was why he had chosen to work for the Church of the Sacred Heart: it was the closest church he could find. He had, in fact, been raised a Methodist, in the only non-Catholic congregation in Juan Tula. He frequently thought of the time he stole a six-pack of soda from the church storage closet with the boys in his Sunday-school class. They had heard the teacher coming and shut the door, and a thin ray of light had come slanting through the jamb, illuminating the handle of a cart filled with folding chairs-forty or fifty of them, stacked together in a long, tight interdigitation. What José remembered was staring at this cart and listening to his teacher's footsteps as the bubbles of soda played over the surface of his tongue, sparking and collapsing against the roof of his mouth.

The dead were often surprised by such memories. They might go weeks and months without thinking of the houses and neighborhoods they had grown up in, their triumphs of shame and glory, the jobs and routines and hobbies that had slowly eaten away their lives, yet the smallest, most inconsequential episode would leap into their thoughts a hundred times a day, like a fish smacking its tail on the surface of a lake. The old woman who begged for quarters in the subway remembered eating a meal of crab cakes and horseradish on a dock by Chesapeake Bay. The man who lit the gas lamps in the theater district remembered taking a can of beans from the middle of a supermarket display pyramid and feeling a flicker of pride and then a flicker of amusement at his pride when the other cans did not fall. Andreas Andreopoulos, who had written code for computer games all forty years of his adult life, remembered leaping to pluck a leaf from a tree, and opening a fashion magazine to smell the perfume inserts, and writing his name in the condensation on a glass of beer. They preoccupied him- these formless, almost clandestine memories. They seemed so much heavier than they should have been, as if that were where the true burden of his life's meaning lay. He sometimes thought of piecing them together into an autobiography, all the toy-size memories that replaced the details of his work and family, and leaving everything else out. He would write it by hand on sheets of unlined notebook paper. He would never touch a computer again.

There were places in the city where the crowds were so swollen you could not move without pressing into some arm or hip or gut. As the numbers of the dead increased, these areas became more and more common. It was not that the city had no room for its inhabitants but that when they chose to herd together they did so in certain places, and the larger the population grew the more congested these places became. The people who were comfortable in their privacy learned to avoid them. If they wanted to visit the open square in the monument district, or the fountains in the neon district, they would have to wait until the population diminished. This always seemed to happen in times of war or plague or famine.

The park beside the river was the busiest of the city's busy places, with its row of white pavilions and its long strip of living grass. Kite vendors and soft-drink stands filled the sidewalks, and saddles of rock carved the water into dozens of smoothly rounded coves. There came a day when a man with a thick gray beard and a tent of bushy hair stumbled out of one of the pavilions and began to bump into the shoulders of people around him. He was plainly disoriented, and it was obvious to everyone who saw him that he had just passed through the crossing. He said that he was a virologist by profession. He had spent the last five days climbing the branches of an enormous maple tree, and his clothing was tacked to his skin with sap. He seemed to think that everybody who was in the park had also been in the tree with him. When someone asked him how he had died, he drew in his breath and paused for a moment before he answered. “That's right, I died. I have to keep reminding myself. They finally did it, the sons of bitches. They found a way to pull the whole thing down.” He twisted a plug of sap from his beard. “Hey, did any of you notice some sort of thumping noise inside the tree?”

It was not long after this that the city began to empty out.

The single-room office of the L. Sims News & Speculation Sheet was in one of the city's oldest buildings, constructed of chocolate-colored brick and masses of silver granite. Streamers of pale-yellow moss trailed from the upper floors, hanging as low as the ledge above the front door, and each morning, as Luka Sims stood cranking away at his mimeograph machine, sunlight filtered through the moss outside his window and the room was saturated with a warm, buttery light. Sometimes he could hardly look out at the city without imagining that he was gazing through a dying forest.

By seven o’clock, he would have printed a few thousand copies of his circular and taken them to the River Road Coffee Shop, where he would hand them out to the pedestrians. He liked to believe that each person who took one passed it on to someone else, who read it and passed it on to someone else, who read it and passed it on to someone else, but he knew that this was not the case. He always saw at least a few copies in the trash on his way home, the paper gradually uncrinkling in the sun. Still, it was not unusual for him to look inside the coffee shop and see twenty or thirty heads bent over copies of the latest Sims Sheet. He had been writing fewer stories about the city recently and more about the world of the living, stories he assembled from interviews with the recent dead, most of whom were victims of what they called “the epidemic.” These people tended to blink a lot-he noticed that. They squinted and rubbed their eyes. He wondered if it had anything to do with the virus that had killed them.

Luka saw the same faces behind the coffee-shop window every day. “HUNDREDS EXPOSED TO VIRUS IN TOKYO. NEW EPICENTERS DISCOVERED IN JOHANNESBURG, COPENHAGEN, PERTH.” Ellison Brown, who prepared the baked desserts in the kitchen, always waited for Luka to leave before he glanced at the headlines. His wife had been a poet of the type who liked to loom nearby with a fretful look on her face while he read whatever she had written that day, and there was nothing that bothered him more than feeling that he was being watched. “INCUBATION PERIOD LESS THAN FIVE HOURS. EXPOSURE AT NOON, MORTALITY AT MIDNIGHT.” Charlotte Sylvain would sip at her coffee as she scanned the paper for any mention of Paris. She still considered the city her hometown, though she had not been there in fifty years. Once, she saw the word “Seine” printed in the first paragraph of an article and her fingers tightened involuntarily around the page, but it was only a misprint of the word “sienna,” and she would never see her home again. “VIRUS BECOMES AIRBORNE, WATERBORNE. TWO BILLION DEAD IN ASIA AND EASTERN EUROPE.” Mie Matsuda Ryu was an enthusiast of word games. She liked to read the Sims Sheet twice every morning, once for content and once for any hidden patterns she could find-palindromes, anagrams, the letters of her own name scrambled inside other words. She never failed to spot them. “‘TWENTY-FOUR-HOUR BUG’ CROSSES ATLANTIC. FATALITY RATE NEARING ONE HUNDRED PERCENT.”

The people who went knocking on the doors of the city began to notice something unusual. The evangelists and traveling salesmen, the petitioners and census takers, they all said the same thing: the numbers of the dead were shrinking. There were empty rooms in empty buildings that had been churning with bodies just a few weeks before. The streets were not so crowded anymore. It was not that people were no longer dying. In fact, there were more people dying than ever. They arrived by the thousands and the hundreds of thousands, every minute of every hour, whole houses and schools and neighborhoods of them. But, for every person who made it through the crossing, two or three seemed to disappear. Russell Henley, who sold brooms that he lashed together from cedar branches and hanks of plastic fiber, said that the city was like a pan with a hole in it. “No matter how much water you let in, it keeps pouring right through.” He ran a stall in the monument district, where he assembled his brooms, marketing them to the passing crowds, which barely numbered in the low hundreds these days. If the only life they had was bestowed upon them by the memories of the living, as Russell was inclined to believe, what would happen when the rest of the living were gathered into the city? What would happen, he wondered, when that other room, the larger world, had been emptied out?

Unquestionably, the city was changing. People who had perished in the epidemic came and went very quickly, sometimes in a matter of hours, like a midspring snow that blankets the ground at night and melts away as soon as the sun comes up. A man arrived in the pine district one morning, found an empty storefront, painted a sign in the window with colored soap (“SHERMAN'S CLOCK REPAIR. FAST AND EASY. OPENING SOON”),then locked the door and shuffled away and never returned. Another man told the woman he had stayed the night with that he was going to the kitchen for a glass of water, and when she called to him a few minutes later he did not answer. She searched the apartment for him-the window beside her dressing table was open, as though he had climbed out onto the balcony- but he was nowhere to be found. The entire population of a small Pacific island appeared in the city on a bright windy afternoon, congregated on the top level of a parking garage, and was gone by the end of the day.

But it was the people who had been in the city the longest who most felt the changes. While none of them knew-or had ever known-how much time they had in the city, or when that time would come to an end, there had usually been a rhythm to their tenure, certain things a person could expect: after finishing the crossing, you found a home and a job and a company of friends, ran out six or seven decades, and while you could not raise a family, for no one aged, you could always assemble one around you.

Mariama Ekwensi, for one, had made her home on the ground floor of a small house in the white clay district for almost thirty years. She was a tall, rangy woman who had never lost the bearing of the adolescent girl she had once been, so dazed and bewildered by her own growth. The batik cotton dresses she wore were the color of the sun in a child's drawing, and her neighbors could always spot her coming from several blocks away. Mariama was a caretaker at one of the city's many orphanages. She thought of herself as a good teacher but a poor disciplinarian, and it was true that she often had to leave her children under the watch of another adult in order to chase after one who had taken off running. She read to the smaller children, books about long voyages, or about animals who changed shape, and she took the older ones to parks and museums and helped them with their homework. Many of them were badly behaved, with vocabularies that truly made her blush, but she found such problems beyond her talents. Even when she pretended to be angry with the children, they were clever enough to see that she still liked them. This was her predicament. There was one boy in particular, Philip Walker, who would light out toward the shopping district every chance he got. He seemed to think it was funny to hear her running along behind him, huffing and pounding away, and she never caught up with him until he had collapsed onto a stoop or a bench somewhere, gasping with laughter. One day, she followed him around a corner and chased him into an alley and did not come out the other end. Philip returned to the orphanage half an hour later. He could not say where she had gone.

Ville Tolvanen shot pool every night at the bar on the corner of Eighth and Vine. The friends he had at the bar were the same friends he had known when he was alive. There was something they used to say to each other when they went out drinking in Oulu, a sort of song they used to sing: “I’ll meet you when I die/At that bar on the corner of Eighth and Vine.” One by one, then, as they passed away, they found their way to the corner of Eighth and Vine, walked gingerly, skeptically, through the doors of the bar, and caught sight of one another by the pool tables, until gradually they were all reassembled. Ville was the last of the group to die, and finding his friends there at the bar felt almost as sweet to him as it had when he was young. He clutched their arms and they clapped him on the back. He insisted on buying them drinks. “Never again,” he told them. And though he could not finish the sentence, they all knew what he meant. He was grinning to keep his eyes from watering over, and someone tossed a peanut shell at him, and he tossed one back, and soon the floor was so covered with the things that it crunched no matter where they put their feet. For months after he died, Ville never missed a single night at the tables-and so when he failed to appear one night his friends went out looking for him. They headed straight for the room he had taken over the hardware store down the street, where they used their fists to bang on the door and then dislodged the lock with the sharp edge of a few playing cards. Ville's shoes were inside, and his wristwatch, and his jacket, but he was not.

Ethan Hass, the virologist, drank not in the bars but from a small metal flask that he carried on his belt like a Boy Scout canteen. He had been watching the developments in his field for thirty years before he died, reading the journals and listening to the gossip at the conventions, and it sometimes seemed to him that every government, every interest group, every faction in the world was casting around for the same thing, a perfect virus, one that followed every imaginable vector, that would spread through the population like the expanding ring of a raindrop in a puddle. It was clear to him now that somebody had finally succeeded in manufacturing it. But how on earth had it been introduced? He couldn’t figure it out. The reports from the recently dead were too few, and they were never precise enough. One day, he locked himself in the bathroom of the High Street

Art Museum and began to cry, insistently, sobbing out something about the air and the water and the food supply. A security guard was summoned. “Calm down, guy. There's plenty of air and water for you out here. How about you just open the door for us?” The guard used his slowest, most soothing voice, but Ethan only shouted, “Everybody! Everything!” and turned on the faucets of the sinks, one by one. He would not say anything else, and when the guard forced the door open a few minutes later he was gone.

It was as though a gate had been opened, or a wall thrown down, and the city was finally releasing its dead. They set out from its borders in their multitudes, and soon the parks, the bars, the shopping centers were all but empty.

One day, not long after the last of the restaurants had closed its doors, the blind man was standing on the steps of the church, waiting for someone who would listen to his story. No one had passed him all day long, and he was beginning to wonder if the end had come once and for all. Perhaps it had happened while he was sleeping, or during the half minute early that morning when he had thought he smelled burning honey. He heard a few car horns honking from different quarters of the city, and then, some twenty minutes later, the squealing of a subway train as its brakes gripped the tracks, and then nothing but the wind aspirating between the buildings, lingering, and finally falling still. He listened hard for a voice or a footstep, but he could not make out a single human sound.

He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hello?” he shouted. “Hello?” But no one answered.

He experienced an unusual misgiving. He brought his hand to his chest. He was afraid that the heartbeat he heard was his own.

Michael Parker

The Golden Era of Heartbreak

from The Oxford American

AFTER SHE left, the town where we lived grew flat as an envelope. Sound carried: the song of a truck driver showering five miles east. Nothing could block his dirge. Long-distance misery leaking across the fields while he scrubbed away the road grime. He, too, had come home to a top drawer cleared of underwear.

I could hear him night and day, asking her forgiveness, beg your pardon, baby, for the times that she’d arrived home to find him gone. I knew from the rising strings that she’d never come back, that he would never get clean. Those strings: sweet Nelson Riddle arrangements, country meringue from the ’50s. Pinnacle of lovelorn lament. Fine time for misery.

My house filled to the eaves with this song. Moths waved in the soaring orchestration. They dusted the lampshades with it, painted the medicine-cabinet mirror. Up half the night trying not to listen, I reverted to an opinion I had given up forty years earlier, along about kindergarten: globes were wobbly lies. The earth was flat as the muted-by-miles-of-not-much-of-nothing notes of the trucker's song. Nowhere to hide and no escape, just sleep for the lucky and, for me, punishing runs.

After she left, I ran hundreds of miles along those low-shouldered roads. It got to where Mexican migrants would stop work to bring me a cucumber when I slashed past in the lethal early afternoon heat. Then the hospital, where they gave me medicine that turned me into a loaf of bread. The cheerful foreign doc asked me what year it was and I told him pointedly- I mean to say that I got up in his face so close that his pocked scars from a wicked case of acne were craters on a magnified moon-that the major daily of our Nations capital was contaminated because she had scoured its ads in want, want, want-I always got stuck on that word. I said to the doc, Her want spreads spores like anthrax. Say anthrax in one of those places. Is it an irony that registers on anyone but the inmate that you’re in there for behavior interpreted as less than rational, but when you say something crazy-which in that situation seems to me the norm-they shoot you full of more breadloaf? Though I confess I ate the ruffled paper cup that held my pills. I confess I’d have done anything to keep from returning to an earth leveled by her leaving.

She’d been gone for a year and a half and I had not heard word one. I knew where she had alighted and with whom, but had no street address, no lover's last name. Just major metropolitan area with this Rick she met at a conference. Work-related: how I hate having first scoured the want ads that brought us here to this town.

“You could just as easily hate the conference where she met him,” said my sister when I complained about having helped Fran find the job. That was when I was still fool enough to commiserate with family members and worlds-at-large. Back before, one by one, they all turned on me. Went from suggesting acupuncture to signing me up for some extended-stay hospital. People have no sympathy for the brokenhearted because it's what they fear the most. They pretend it's as minor and obligatory as having your wisdom teeth pulled, getting your heart ripped from your chest, having feral mutts tug-a-war the bloody organ in your kitchen while you lean white-veined against the rusty refrigerator, drowning in schmaltzy string arrangements.

So I had no one-only the Mexican migrants who offered cucumbers and water from the bossman's cooler and must have recognized in my desperate stride a fellow alien. The only person I got around to trading words with was the laconic, chain-smoking Deb-or so her name tag read-who worked at the market where I purchased my few provisions. It was a sticky-floored, dirty-ceilinged store which Fran had favored over the chain grocery because after the dogwoods bloomed Deb and her coworkers would take out the magazines in aisle seven and stock it with chilis and tortillas and even Spanish videos for the migrants.

One night I drove over to pick up my stock groceries: Band-Aids, ginger ale, Saltines, bulk raisins, chicken broth, and white rice. I could live off this list for weeks at a time. And had been doing so, and the pounds sweated away in the eighteen-mile runs, and there weren’t that many to leave puddling the road in the first place and so many times in the days after she left I would not have been able to tell you the correct use for, never even mind the name of, a fork.

“Give me one of those Pick Ten tickets,” I said when I had my groceries all lined up on the belt. Deb wasn’t there that night. In her place was a high-school boy. His head was chubby and dripping with red-blond lanks. Used to be, in a town like this you got beat up for wearing your hair long. Now the ones doing the beating are the only ones with their ears covered.

“You don’t want one of them,” said the boy.

So maybe he said want when he meant need-a mistake so many make. I had never been expert at figuring out what I needed until Fran left. Then I knew: I needed her. I needed her groaning first thing in the morning when I set the alarm to the local gospel station and our day began with a mass choir filling even the shoe-strewn closet bottoms with sonic interpretations of the word Jesus. Her tireless interest in the narrative of how we happened to find each other-that miracle recounted, with much attention paid to the extraordinary odds of it happening in this maddeningly flat world-how could I not need that? Each time she asked for it I felt as if I were narrating Genesis. How humans came sweet and innocent up from the earth. I believed I breathed and ate and performed reasonably well at one activity or the other before we met, but in telling that story over and again, in having it received with such lusty anticipation, I came to believe that my life started the moment I met her, the moment we laid waste to those insurmountable odds.

Odds are terrifying if you let yourself obsess over them. In the case of the Pick Ten lottery, I was not interested in the odds. It was a spontaneous thing, asking the cashier for a ticket. I had never once wasted money on such. But I did not care for being refused. I especially disliked being rejected by this boy whose sullen mannerisms implied that the wonder I had known with Fran was nothing more than some sappy song he’d scowl at while scanning radio stations. I believe I did nothing more than push his doughy chest with my fingers. I remember still the squishiness I encountered where I was expecting breastbone. Surely I was as shocked as he was.

“Hole up,” he said. Then: “Dude, what the hell?”

I held out a bill-a twenty, for which he made loud change. He was talking all the while, nervous jumble of words, “What the hell man I was just trying to help…”

Out in the parking lot I was afflicted by my own nervous jumble of words. “Oh, help, right, you were trying to help.” Now I am squatting beside my car in a dark, rain-steamy parking lot, tapping my forehead against the front quarter panel of the old rusty Nissan we bought together, repeating with the zeal of the clock-radio choir these words: I cannot do this can’t do it don’t want to do this without you.

I don’t know for how long: until my nose smashed against the metal and my face went funny-bone numb and I was dropped in a dusty dodge-ball field back of my grade school, lying in the infield inhaling the rubber of the ball that hit me and repeating that strange-to-me-then word I remembered seeing printed across the ball. Voit. Voit.

“What’d he say?” The voice was nasally but curious. Another voice answered, lower but seemingly female and black.

“Boat? Damn if I know.”

“He can’t do it without his boat,” said the nasal-voiced man. “Now what do you think he can’t accomplish without his boat?”

“Voit,” I said-indignantly-and was answered this time with a rib kick. I hit the pavement then. To feign what? Fear? Death? There was nothing left for me to fake. I knew then that since she left I’d faked everything. Or maybe the opposite was true; maybe I did not know emotion until it up and crawled in bed with me right along the same time she up and crawled in bed with her Rick.

I only know I felt more alive, stretched out on the oil-slick pavement, grimacing against the rib-kicks, than I had since she left. When the kicks would slow or cease I would scream, “Voit!” and soon every bone was numb. My arms and legs stung with pavement scrapes. I smelled that smell-you know the one-the smell of earliest physical pain. Hot rain laced with rust.

“Ain’t he about paid?” asked the black woman. Her low, hacking voice concealed a note of sympathy. I wanted to love her for it, but my ribs cried out for more kicks, as if someone had pulled the plug on a song to which I was dancing.

“Not from the sound of him,” said the leader. Obviously he knew need from want. But suddenly a new voice spoke up-“Y’all leave off him.” The cashier? Strange as it sounds, until then I had not made the connection. I wasn’t at all sure this was not something I wasn’t doing to myself, or that the weight of my desire had not provoked some miracle posse to torture me.

I opened my eyes-blinked up at the buggy aureole surrounding the yellow streetlight. The cashier stood above me smoking, but he seemed the least of my problems. The nasal-voiced man was dressed in coat and tie, a terrifying outfit for a man choreographing a beating. The black woman was neither: just a skinny shave-headed boy dressed, like me and the cashier, in shorts and T-shirt.

There was talk among them, profane and incomprehensible. I wasn’t listening. Fran kneeling beside me, ripping leeches from my skin. I protested hysterically. Fran swathing me in bandages, bedding down beside me in the grocery-store parking lot so slick with squashed lettuce leaves and spilt milk.

And then I passed into very familiar territory: boredom. I was exhausted, as I had often been in those days, by my inability to get over the hurt. I knew what I was going to feel before I felt it and it was stifling, sad, for what is death, finally, but not being able to even bring yourself to anticipate a surprise?

“Can I buy y’all dinner?” I said.

Once I heard a teacher say that a sure way to change things was to honor opposite impulses. See where they take you. At the time-I was an impressionable young student with pen poised and mind open-this advice seemed a simple answer to the most difficult question there is: how to get across the room. I wanted to live my life scathed but not bleeding. This was before Fran came and well before she went, ages before such advice on How to Change would have struck me, before I even heard it, as superficial fluff to sell magazines in a checkout line.

Crouched by my car, I remembered that I had never actually tried this tactic, intentionally at least. I was all the time doing things I didn’t want to do, and saying the opposite of what I felt, but that was to me the only possible way to live this life.

In the car the man in the tie introduced himself as Darren. The other one, of the shorn head and confusing voice, went unnamed. The clerk had long ago sighed and disappeared inside the market.

We drove along the river road toward Albemarle Sound. I never named a restaurant, for it did not feel as if we were stepping out for a bite. It felt more like they were driving me to their clubhouse, some cinder-block hut down in the swamp bottom, where they would torture me with country music of the black-hat Vegas variety and perhaps a little later, when the bottles grew light, a stun gun. Out the window I watched Bell Island, where the schoolkids once hijacked the ferry that brought them across the sound to school and rode around the inlet smoking dope until the Coast Guard escorted them back in. Bell Island kept pace with the sunken Olds and I imagined the inside of the clubhouse, the club colors draped over cinder block and flanked with porn centerfolds.

“You going to get along all right without your boat?” Darren said.

“V-O-I-T. Like a dodgeball?”

“What a dodgeball has to do with you breaking bad on my boy Kirk I ain’t even going ask.”

I started in on a meditation about memory, how we all lived in closets cluttered with primal objects of childhood. Rosebud. Fran, come home. In the middle of a sentence I stopped, for we all had stopped-the driver had coasted still in the middle of the road, Darren was half turned to watch me.

I said, to turn it back on them, “I think maybe what happened was that y’all hurt some part of my brain that stored, you know, old stuff like dodgeballs.”

“We ain’t hurt shit,” said the driver, stepping indignantly on the gas. “You were already fried when we got there.”

I fell back into the seat. What could I say? It seemed time to deliver myself to whatever course of action I had set in motion by pushing the cashier in his pliant chest. I thought of a Halloween carnival in grade school, being blindfolded and having my hand plunged into a vat of Jell-O standing in for crushed eyeballs. I believed I laughed a little to myself, a little leak of laughter like air out of a tire which cemented whatever opinion my companions had of me, for they talked in low, brooding voices and I could not even muster up the energy to eavesdrop.

We arrived finally at a restaurant I did not recognize. I knew only that we were headed south, and could feel from the elements, from the song of tree frogs and the lonesome whine of the tires on rough pavement, that we were headed toward the Sound. I spent the last few miles of the trip listening to the road-grimy trucker beg for his baby back. Outside it was deep-country black except for a buzzing streetlight leaning above a pier over the water, casting a thin sheen on the rippling shallows. The establishment-from the low, vinyl-sided looks of it, a modular-unit, short-order grill-was obviously closed for the night. Dry-docked trawlers listed precariously in the parking lot. The scene felt illicit, excitedly so, as if we’d come to score drugs or rob someone. I thought, fleetingly, that I had found something to take the place of my fiercely coddled misery, but was quickly sucked under by those insipid strings, which dragged me to the bottom of the black sound.

The driver had a key to the restaurant. Darren ordered him to bring us beers and fry up some shrimp burgers. He said to me, “What the hell do you eat?”

“Not much from the looks of him,” called the driver from a kitchen, lit only by the lights of freezers he was rooting around in.

“I’m on a diet,” I said. A diet with its own soundtrack. The heartbreak diet.

“The thing about diets is all these people starving to death and these rich fuckers on a damn diet.” This line sputtered out from the darkened kitchen.

“Your point?” Darren said to the shadows.

“Ones that can afford to eat lobster every night going around starving. Bet they ain’t sending the money they save over to Africa.”

The driver brought us beers. I left mine untouched. Darren said, “His point is a good one, wouldn’t you say?”

“I’m not rich.”

“You’re just skinny and stupid.”

It seemed time to protest, to ask why we were here, alone in the south end of the county, where not only corpses but corpses still seat-belted into cars turned up in sullen lagoons. But instead I leaned forward and said, “I’m not real hungry.”

“Bring him some coleslaw,” said Darren. He squinted my way. “What's your problem?”

I said, “What do you mean?” though I knew exactly what he meant.

“Going off on Kirk for no reason, beating your head upside your car. Calling out for some damn dodgeball.”

“I guess I’m lonely,” I said. He widened his eyes, as if suddenly I had come into focus for him, and I added, “is all.”

“You ever had anyone die on you?” he asked, wincing slightly, as if it took great effort to send his words my way.

“Yes,” I lied. Maybe this was the worst lie I’d ever told-out of the dozens Fran knew about, the ones that passed undetected. She wasn’t dead; I was dead to her, maybe, but she lived and breathed and was, at that moment, getting on toward bedtime on a Wednesday night in late spring, no doubt moving against some Rick she met at a conference, and the thought of anyone else touching her in the places I’d discovered made me claim now all degrees of suffering as my own.

“You’re lying,” he said. The driver set a huge bowl of soupy coleslaw in front of me, a fresh beer for Darren. He laid out the place settings, lining up the fork and knife with a prissiness that amused me, given our surroundings.

“He's definitely lying,” the driver said, his words lingering as he disappeared back into the kitchen.

From the kitchen came the hiss of frozen meat dropped into a fryer. I tried hard to summon my song, those strings that had driven me out of the house and into the arms of fate; I tried to focus on the trucker's lament, but the tree frogs, the sibilance of fried meat, the buzz of the streetlights kept my song away.

“You think it's all up to you, don’t you?” said Darren.

I thought he wasn’t who he said he was. I thought Fran had sent him, or maybe the pathetic trucker wailing away the hours as he tried to scrub away his sins. My comrade in want, sending his messenger to set me straight. I thought Darren was not real and I asked him just who he was to the cashier. Friend? I said. Second cousin?

He looked through me and repeated: “Up to you, huh?”

I shrugged, mindful of what my shrug suggested: that the weight of the world was not upon me.

Darren shook his head, burped, pushed his chair back, summoned his driver, who had been eating back in the kitchen, as if he knew his place in the world.

“Get the bag out of the trunk,” said Darren. To me he said, “Let's get.”

I rose and followed, queasy from the coleslaw. I was thirsty, too, and exhausted, yet I felt oddly settled. Docility was the answer? I could have apprenticed myself to the migrants, their crooked crew boss, had I only known.

I followed Darren along the pier to its rickety end. I looked to the waters edge, the black sucking sand, beach studded with cypress knees and beyond-a stretch of water poised deceptively as earth. I thought that whatever happened to me then had nothing to do with the slow boy filling in for Deb at the market and everything to do with the times that my vanity had come uncaged in some tavern, dancing with some strange thing, maneuvering her around the dance floor by her hipbones while Fran scrubbed kitchen tiles and tried not to think of that person she did not want to acknowledge I was capable of up and becoming.

“Take your clothes off,” said Darren. I did so without question because I was gone-off on that flight that took me frequently and far back in time: Yeah, but I always came home alone, I was saying to Fran, I never slept with any of them, just a little lip, some here-and-there tongue. Never once betrayed us like you did with him. She did not get to argue the meaning of the word betrayal. I did all the talking, and it took all the energy I would have expended on worrying about what I was being asked to do: take off my clothes for a man dressed like he was about to sell me some insurance.

Darren's driver arrived toting a gym bag from which he pulled a tangle of rope, some handcuffs, and greasy lengths of chain. He uncoiled the rope, surveyed my nakedness with scorn.

“I don’t relish getting wet over his bony ass,” he said to Darren.

“It doesn’t appear to be up to you,” I said.

This made Darren smile. But the driver, once he had me in the water and pushed hard against the piling at the end of the pier, wrenched the cuffs tight and lashed the ropes.

Above us Darren had fired up a cigar to ward off mosquitoes, but the smoke didn’t appear to be working; I heard him swear and slap himself. The driver bound me tighter to the splintery black piling, which smelled of creosote and rotting shellfish. Sound water lapped black and empty just above my shoulders.

“Wait for me in the car,” Darren told the driver, and when he was gone, he said, “You know, you brung this on yourself, chief. We wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t asked us to have supper with you.”

“No, actually it was the lottery ticket,” I said.

“Either way, you taking some crazy chances.”

I thought that this was a good thing, and almost said so, but I realized just before I spoke that I still did not know who Darren was, or what he planned to do with me. My situation seemed far worse, on the one hand, than it had just hours before, when I had left for the store. Yet there was this other hand. I could not say what it was. Nor was I even sure I wanted to know. Would it cure me, and would being cured mean that I would learn to live my life without loving her, wanting her?

There was a silence, then a puff of smoke arrived from above, seething through the space between the slats, clouding about my head.

“So she fucked you over, whoever she is. And now you get to go around feeling righteous, starving yourself, and beating up on grocery-store clerks?”

I had an answer to this, but he didn’t leave enough space.

“You know something about love, chief?” he said through the smoke. “It makes you scared of every damn thing, you all the time worrying about whether she's going to come back from the store or was I good enough and does her daddy like me and on and on. And at the same time it makes you feel free. That's what it does when it's really cooking, right?”

I waited for a puff of cigar smoke, but there was nothing, only mosquitoes feasting on my cheekbones, my bound hands straining against the rope.

“You saying you didn’t feel nothing like that?”

“I did.” I do, I thought to say, but I didn’t want to give Darren any more ammunition than he could divine by looking at me. He was picking up a lot just looking, and it unnerved me, the way he recognized himself in me, the way he described to the letter the way it felt to love Fran. I did feel scared the whole time I was with her, and yet I felt as free as I’d ever felt. But maybe I was loving her all wrong. Maybe what Darren had described was not love but some kind of copycat ailment with the same symptoms.

“Hell, man, why would you want to feel that way?” Darren said. “Far better to be cooped up in your own head than having to go around scared all the time.”

“Who the hell are you anyway?”

“Me? I’m that boy you broke bad on's uncle. I came down expecting excitement, I guess. Find you banging your head on a car and I know this motherfucker needs to be put out of his misery.”

“That's what this is?”

“This is whatever you want it to be.”

“I don’t think my desire is being considered here,” I said. In answer there came a snort, then footsteps tapping away up the pier. I might have called out, but not to Darren or his driver. Fran. Voit. My trucker, oddly quiet now, as if he’d found some end to his suffering, seen through the loneliness and longing to some sweet levitation.

In time I realized the water was creeping up my neck. I thought of what I knew of tides: They were controlled by the moon, and the moon this night was a pasty scythe's blade floating above a line of loblollies, and seemed too sickly to perform such a feat.

Sometime in the night I began the story of How We Met, and it began at the beginning, and wound its way around facts as stock and familiar as the items I purchased weekly from the market, until the moon moved lower toward the water and a hazy light appeared in the sky.

Watching the sky, water lapping at my chin, I remembered hearing how they’d discovered that the earth was round: A boat had sailed out to the horizon, kept on moving, out of sight, over the earth's curve. Inching my way up the barnacled piling, I saw how they could get behind such an idea.

Wendell Berry

The Hurt Man

from The Hudson Review

WHEN HE was five, Mat Feltner, like every other five-year-old who had lived in Port William until then, was still wearing dresses. In his own thoughts he was not yet sure whether he would turn out to be a girl or a boy, though instinct by then had prompted him to take his place near the tail end of the procession of Port William boys. His nearest predecessors in that so far immortal straggle had already taught him the small art of smoking cigars, along with the corollary small art of chewing coffee beans to take the smoke smell off his breath. And so in a rudimentary way he was an outlaw, though he did not know it, for none of his grown-ups had yet thought to forbid him to smoke.

His outgrown dresses he saw worn daily by a pretty neighbor named Margaret Finley, who to him might as well have been another boy too little to be of interest, or maybe even a girl, though it hardly mattered-and though, because of a different instinct, she would begin to matter to him a great deal in a dozen years, and after that she would matter to him all his life.

The town of Port William consisted of two rows of casually maintained dwellings and other buildings scattered along a thoroughfare that nobody had ever dignified by calling it a street; in wet times it hardly deserved to be called a road. Between the town's two ends the road was unevenly rocked but otherwise had not much distinguished itself from the buffalo trace it once had been. At one end of the town was the school, at the other the graveyard. In the center there were several stores, two saloons, a church, a bank, a hotel, and a blacksmith shop. The town was the product of its own becoming which, if not accidental exactly, had also been unplanned. It had no formal government or formal history. It was without pretense or ambition, for it was the sort of place that pretentious or ambitious people were inclined to leave. It had never declared an aspiration to become anything it was not. It did not thrive so much as it merely lived, doing the things it needed to do to stay alive. This tracked and rubbed little settlement had been built in a place of great natural abundance and beauty, which it had never valued highly enough or used well enough, had damaged, and yet had not destroyed. The town's several buildings, shaped less by art than by need and use, had suffered tellingly and even becomingly a hundred years of wear.

Though Port William sat on a ridge of the upland, still it was a river town; its economy and its thoughts turned toward the river. Distance impinged on it from the river, whose waters flowed from the eastward mountains ultimately, as the town always was more or less aware, to the sea, to the world. Its horizon, narrow enough though it reached across the valley to the ridgeland fields and farmsteads on the other side, was pierced by the river, which for the next forty years would still be its main thoroughfare. Commercial people, medicine showmen, evangelists, and other river travelers came up the hill from Dawes Landing to stay at the hotel in Port William, which in its way cherished these transients, learned all it could about them, and talked of what it learned.

Mat would remember the town's then-oldest man, Uncle Bishop Bower, who would confront any stranger, rap on the ground with his long staff, and demand, “Sir! What might your name be?”

And Herman Goslin, no genius, made his scant living by meeting the steamboats and transporting the disembarking passengers, if any, up to the hotel in a gimpy buckboard. One evening as he approached the hotel with a small trunk on his shoulder, followed by a large woman with a parasol, one of the boys playing marbles in the road said, “Here comes Herman Goslin with a fat lady's trunk.”

“You boys can kiss that fat lady's ass,” said Herman Goslin. “Ain’t that tellin’ ’em, fat lady?”

The town was not built nearer the river perhaps because there was no room for it at the foot of the hill, or perhaps because, as the town loved to reply to the inevitable question from travelers resting on the hotel porch, nobody knew where the river was going to run when they built Port William.

And Port William did look as though it had been itself forever. To Mat at the age of five, as he later would suppose, remembering himself, it must have seemed eternal, like the sky.

However eternal it might have been, the town was also as temporal, lively, and mortal as it possibly could be. It stirred and hummed from early to late with its own life and with the life it drew into itself from the countryside. It was a center, and especially on Saturdays and election days its stores and saloons and the road itself would be crowded with people standing, sitting, talking, whittling, trading, and milling about. This crowd was entirely familiar to itself; it remembered all its history of allegiances, offenses, and resentments, going back from the previous Saturday to the Civil War and long before that. Like every place, it had its angers, and its angers as always, as everywhere, found justifications. And in Port William, a dozen miles by river from the courthouse and the rule of law, anger had a license that it might not have had in another place. Sometimes violence would break out in one of the saloons or in the road. Then proof of mortality would be given in blood.

And the mortality lived and suffered daily in the town was attested with hopes of immortality by the headstones up in the graveyard, which was even then more populous than the town. Mat knew-at the age of five he had already forgotten when he had found out-that he had a brother and two sisters up there, with carved lambs resting on the tops of their small monuments, their brief lives dated beneath. In all the time he had known her, his mother had worn black.

But to him, when he was five, those deaths were stories told. Nothing in Port William seemed to him to be in passage from any beginning to any end. The living had always been alive, the dead always dead. The world, as he knew it then, simply existed, familiar even in its changes: the town, the farms, the slopes and ridges, the woods, the river, and the sky over it all. He had not yet gone farther from Port William than to Dawes Landing on the river and to his uncle Jack Beechum's place out on the Bird's Branch Road, the place his mother spoke of as “out home.” He had seen the steamboats on the river and had looked out from the higher ridgetops, and so he understood that the world went on into the distance, but he did not know how much more of it there might be.

Mat had come late into the lives of Nancy and Ben Feltner, after the deaths of their other children, and he had come unexpectedly, “a blessing.” They prized him accordingly. For the first four or so years of his life he was closely watched, by his parents and also by Cass and Smoke, Cass's husband, who had been slaves. But now he was five, and it was a household always busy with the work of the place, and often full of company. There had come to be times, because his grown-ups were occupied and he was curious and active, when he would be out of their sight. He would stray off to where something was happening, to the farm buildings behind the house, to the blacksmith shop, to one of the saloons, to wherever the other boys were. He was beginning his long study of the town and its place in the world, gathering up the stories that in years still far off he would hand on to his grandson Andy Catlett, who in his turn would be trying to master the thought of time: that there were times before his time, and would be times after. At the age of five Mat was beginning to prepare himself to help in educating his grandson, though he did not know it.

His grown-ups, more or less willingly, were letting him go. The town had its dangers. There were always horses in the road, and sometimes droves of cattle or sheep or hogs or mules. There were in fact uncountable ways for a boy to get hurt, or worse. But in spite of her losses, Nancy Beechum Feltner was not a frightened woman, as her son would learn. He would learn also that, though she maintained her sorrows with a certain loyalty, wearing her black, she was a woman of practical good sense and strong cheerfulness. She knew that the world was risky and that she must risk her surviving child to it as she had risked the others, and when the time came she straightforwardly did so.

But she knew also that the town had its ways of looking after its own. Where its worst dangers were, grown-ups were apt to be. When Mat was out of the sight of her or his father or Cass or Smoke, he was most likely in the sight of somebody else who would watch him. He would thus be corrected, consciously ignored, snatched out of danger, cursed, teased, hugged, instructed, spanked, or sent home by any grown-up into whose sight he may have strayed. Within that watchfulness he was free-and almost totally free when, later, he had learned to escape it and thus had earned his freedom. “This was a free country when I was a boy,” he would sometimes say to Andy, his grandson.

When he was five, and for some while afterward, his mother drew the line unalterably only between him and the crowds that filled the town on Saturday afternoons and election days when there would be too much drinking, with consequences that were too probable. She would not leave him alone then. She would not let him go into the town, and she would not trust him to go anywhere else, for fear that he would escape into the town from wherever else she let him go. She kept him in sight.

That was why they were sitting together on the front porch for the sake of the breeze there on a hot Saturday afternoon in the late summer of 1888. Mat was sitting close to his mother on the wicker settee, watching her work. She had brought out her sewing basket and was darning socks, stretching the worn-through heels or toes over her darning egg and weaving them whole again with her needle and thread. At such work her fingers moved with a quickness and assurance that fascinated Mat, and he loved to watch her. She would have been telling him a story. She was full of stories. Aside from the small movements of her hands and the sound of her voice, they were quiet with a quietness that seemed to have increased as it had grown upon them. Cass had gone home after the dinner dishes were done. The afternoon had half gone by.

From where they sat they could see down into the town where the Saturday crowd was, and they could hear it. Doors slammed, now and then a horse nickered, the talking of the people was a sustained murmur from which now and then a few intelligible words escaped: a greeting, some bit of raillery, a reprimand to a horse, an oath. It was a large crowd in a small place, a situation in which a small disagreement could become dangerous in a hurry. Such things had happened often enough. That was why Mat was under watch.

And so when a part of the crowd intensified into a knot, voices were raised, and there was a scuffle, Mat and his mother were not surprised. They were not surprised even when a bloodied man broke out of the crowd and began running fast up the street toward them, followed by other running men whose boot heels pounded on the road.

The hurt man ran toward them where they were sitting on the porch. He was hatless. His hair, face, and shirt were bloody, and his blood dripped on the road. Mat felt no intimation of threat or danger. He simply watched, transfixed. He did not see his mother stand and put down her work. When she caught him by the back of his dress and fairly poked him through the front door-“Here! Get inside!”-he still was only alert, unsurprised.

He expected her to come into the house with him. What finally surprised him was that she did not do so. Leaving him alone in the wide hall, she remained outside the door, holding it open for the hurt man. Mat ran halfway up the stairs then and turned and sat down on a step. He was surprised now but not afraid.

When the hurt man ran in through the door, instead of following him in, Nancy Feltner shut the door and stood in front of it. Mat could see her through the door glass, standing with her hand on the knob as the clutch of booted and hatted pursuers came up the porch steps. They bunched at the top of the steps, utterly stopped by the slender woman dressed in mourning, holding the door shut.

And then one of them, snatching off his hat, said, “It's all right, Mrs. Feltner. We’re his friends.”

She hesitated a moment, studying them, and then she opened the door to them also and turned and came in ahead of them.

The hurt man had run the length of the hall and through the door at the end of it and out onto the back porch. Nancy, with the bunch of men behind her, followed where he had gone, the men almost with delicacy, as it seemed to Mat, avoiding the line of blood drops along the hall floor. And Mat hurried back down the stairs and came along in his usual place at the tail end, trying to see, among the booted legs and carried hats, what had become of the hurt man.

Mat's memory of that day would always be partly incomplete. He never knew who the hurt man was. He knew some of the others. The hurt man had sat down or dropped onto a slatted green bench on the porch. He might have remained nameless to Mat because of the entire strangeness of the look of him. He had shed the look of a man and assumed somehow the look of all things badly hurt. Now that he had stopped running, he looked used up. He was pallid beneath the streaked bright blood, breathing in gasps, his eyes too widely open. He looked as though he had just come up from almost too deep a dive.

Nancy went straight to him, the men, the friends, clustered behind her, deferring, no longer to her authority as the woman of the house, as when she had stopped them at the front door, but now to her unhesitating, unthinking acceptance of that authority.

Looking at the hurt man, whose blood was dripping onto the bench and the porch floor, she said quietly, perhaps only to herself, “Oh my!” It was as though she knew him without ever having known him before.

She leaned and picked up one of his hands. “Listen!” she said, and the man brought his gaze it seemed from nowhere and looked up at her. “You’re at Ben Feltner's house,” she said. “Your friends are here. You’re going to be all right.”

She looked around at the rest of them who were standing back, watching her. “Jessie, you and Tom go see if you can find the doctor, if he's find-able.” She glanced at the water bucket on the shelf over the wash table by the kitchen door, remembering that it was nearly empty. “Les, go bring a fresh bucket of water.” To the remaining two she said, “Get his shirt off. Cut it off. Don’t try to drag it over his head. So we can see where he's hurt.”

She stepped through the kitchen door, and they could hear her going about inside. Presently she came back with a kettle of water still warm from the noon fire and a bundle of clean rags.

“Look up here,” she said to the hurt man, and he looked up.

She began gently to wash his face. Wherever he was bleeding, she washed away the blood: first his face, and then his arms, and then his chest and sides. As she washed, exposing the man's wounds, she said softly only to herself, “Oh!” or “Oh my!” She folded the white rags into pads and instructed the hurt man and his friends to press them onto his cuts to stop the bleeding. She said, “It's the Lord's own mercy we’ve got so many hands,” for the man had many wounds. He had begun to tremble. She kept saying to him, as she would have spoken to a child, “You’re going to be all right.”

Mat had been surprised when she did not follow him into the house, when she waited on the porch and opened the door to the hurt man and then to his friends. But she had not surprised him after that. He saw her as he had known her: a woman who did what the world put before her to do.

At first he stayed well back, for he did not want to be told to get out of the way. But as his mother made order, he grew bolder and drew gradually closer until he was almost at her side. And then he was again surprised, for then he saw her face.

What he saw in her face would remain with him forever. It was pity, but it was more than that. It was a hurt love that seemed to include entirely the hurt man. It included him and disregarded everything else. It disregarded the aura of whiskey that ordinarily she would have resented; it disregarded the blood puddled on the porch floor and the trail of blood through the hall.

Mat was familiar with her tenderness and had thought nothing of it. But now he recognized it in her face and in her hands as they went out to the hurt man's wounds. To him, then, it was as though she leaned in the black of her mourning over the whole hurt world itself, touching its wounds with her tenderness, in her sorrow.

Loss came into his mind then, and he knew what he was years away from telling, even from thinking: that his mothers grief was real; that her children in their graves once had been alive; that everybody lying under the grass up in the graveyard once had been alive and had walked in daylight in Port William. And this was a part, and belonged to the deliverance, of the town's hard history of love.

The hurt man, Mat thought, was not going to die, but he knew from his mother's face that the man could die and someday would. She leaned over him, touching his bleeding wounds that she bathed and stanched and bound, and her touch had in it the promise of healing, some profound encouragement.

It was the knowledge of that encouragement, of what it had cost her, of what it would cost her and would cost him, that then finally came to Mat, and he fled away and wept.

What did he learn from his mother that day? He learned it all his life. There are few words for it, perhaps none. After that, her losses would be his. The losses would come. They would come to him and his mother. They would come to him and Margaret, his wife, who as a child had worn his cast-off dresses. They would come, even as Mat watched, growing old, to his grandson, Andy, who would remember his stories and write them down.

But from that day, whatever happened, there was a knowledge in Mat that was unsurprised and at last comforted, until he was old, until he was gone.

Nell Freudenberger

The Tutor

from Granta

SHE WAS an American girl, but one who apparently kept Bombay time, because it was three thirty when she arrived for their one-o’clock appointment. It was a luxury to be able to blame someone else for his wasted afternoon, and Zubin was prepared to take full advantage of it. Then the girl knocked on his bedroom door.

He had been in the preparation business for four years, but Julia was his first foreign student. She was dressed more like a Spanish or an Italian girl than an American, in a sheer white blouse and tight jeans that sat very low on her hips, perhaps to show off the tiny diamond in her belly button. Her hair was shiny, reddish brown-chestnut you would call it-and she’d ruined her hazel eyes with a heavy application of thick, black eyeliner.

“I have to get into Berkeley,” she told him.

It was typical for kids to fixate on one school. “Why Berkeley?”

“Because it's in San Francisco.”

“Technically Berkeley's a separate city.”

“I know that,” Julia said. “I was born in San Francisco.”

She glanced at the bookshelves that covered three walls of his room. He liked the kids he tutored to see them, although he knew his pride was irrelevant: most didn’t know the difference between Spender and Spenser, or care.

“Have you read all of these?”

“Actually that's the best way to improve your verbal. It's much better to see the words in context.” He hated the idea of learning words from a list; it was like taking vitamin supplements in place of eating. But Julia looked discouraged, and so he added: “Your dad says you’re a math whiz, so we don’t need to do that.”

“He said what?”

“You aren’t?”

Julia shrugged. “I just can’t believe he said ‘whiz.’”

“I’m paraphrasing,” Zubin said. “What were your scores?”

“Five hundred and sixty verbal, seven-sixty math.”

Zubin whistled. “You scored higher than I did on the math.”

Julia smiled, as if she hadn’t meant to, and looked down. “My college counselor says I need a really good essay. Then my verbal won’t matter so much.” She dumped out the contents of an expensive-looking black leather knapsack, and handed him the application, which was loose and folded into squares. Her nails were bitten, and decorated with half-moons of pale pink polish.

“I’m such a bad writer though.” She was standing expectantly in front of him. Each time she took a breath, the diamond in her stomach flashed.

“I usually do lessons in the dining room,” Zubin said.

The only furniture in his parents’ dining room was a polished mahogany table, covered with newspapers and magazines, and a matching sideboard- storage space for jars of pickle, bottles of Wild Turkey from his father's American friends, his mother's bridge trophies, and an enormous, very valuable Chinese porcelain vase, which the servants had filled with artificial flowers: red, yellow and salmon-colored cloth roses beaded with artificial dew. On nights when he didn’t go out, he preferred having his dinner served to him in his room; his parents did the same.

He sat down at the table, but Julia didn’t join him. He read aloud from the form. “Which book that you’ve read in the last two years has influenced you most, and why?”

Julia wandered over to the window.

“That sounds okay,” he encouraged her.

“I hate reading.”

“Talk about the place where you live, and what it means to you.” Zubin looked up from the application. “There you go. That one's made for you.”

She’d been listening with her back to him, staring down Ridge Road toward the Hanging Garden. Now she turned around-did a little spin on the smooth tiles.

“Can we get coffee?”

“Do you want milk and sugar?”

Julia looked up, as if shyly. “I want to go to Barista.”

“It's loud there.”

“I’ll pay,” Julia said.

“Thanks. I can pay for my own coffee.”

Julia shrugged. “Whatever-as long as I get my fix.”

Zubin couldn’t help smiling.

“I need it five times a day. And if I don’t get espresso and a cigarette first thing in the morning, I have to go back to bed.”

“Your parents know you smoke?”

“God, no. Our driver knows-he uses it as blackmail.” She smiled. “No smoking is my dad's big rule.”

“What about your mom?”

“She went back to the States to find herself. I decided to stay with my dad,” Julia added, although he hadn’t asked. “He lets me go out.”

Zubin couldn’t believe that any American father would let his teenage daughter go out at night in Bombay. “Go out where?”

“My friends have parties. Or sometimes clubs-there's that new place, Fire and Ice.”

“You should be careful,” Zubin told her.

Julia smiled. “That's so Indian.”

“Anyone would tell you to be careful-it's not like the States.”

“No,” Julia said.

He was surprised by the bitterness in her voice. “You miss it.”

“I am missing it.”

“You mean now in particular?”

Julia was putting her things back into the knapsack haphazardly- phone, cigarettes, datebook, Chap Stick. She squinted at the window, as if the light were too bright. “I mean, I don’t even know what I’m missing.”

Homesickness was like any other illness: you couldn’t remember it properly. You knew you’d had the flu, and that you’d suffered, but you didn’t have access to the symptoms themselves: the chills, the swollen throat, the heavy ache in your arms and legs as if they’d been split open and something-sacks of rock-had been sewn up inside. He had been eighteen, and in America for only the second time. It was cold. The sweaters he’d bought in Bombay looked wrong-he saw that the first week-and they weren’t warm enough anyway. He saw the same sweaters, of cheap, shiny wool, in too-bright colors, at the “international” table in the Freshman Union. He would not sit there.

His roommate saw him go out in his T-shirt and windcheater, and offered to loan him one of what seemed like dozens of sweaters: brown or black or wheat-colored, the thickest, softest wool Zubin had ever seen. He went to the Harvard Co-op, where they had a clothing section, and looked at the sweaters. He did the calculation several times: the sweaters were “on sale” for eighty dollars, which worked out to roughly 3,300 rupees. If it had been a question of just one he might have managed, but you needed a minimum of three. When the salesperson came over, Zubin said that he was just looking around.

It snowed early that year.

“It gets, like, how cold in the winter in India?” his roommate, Bennet, asked.

Zubin didn’t feel like explaining the varied geography of India, the mountains and the coasts. “About sixty degrees Fahrenheit,” he said.

“Man,” said Bennet. Jason Bennet was a nice guy, an athlete from Nat-ick, Massachusetts. He took Zubin to eat at the lacrosse table, where Zubin looked not just foreign, but as if he were another species-he weighed at least ten kilos less than the smallest guy, and felt hundreds of years older. He felt as if he were surrounded by enormous and powerful children. They were hungry, and then they were restless; they ran around and around in circles, and then they were tired. Five nights a week they’d pledged to keep sober; on the other two they drank systematically until they passed out.

He remembered the day in October that he’d accepted the sweater (it was raining) and how he’d waited until Jason left for practice before putting it on. He pulled the sweater over his head and saw, in the second of wooly darkness, his father. Or rather, he saw his father's face, floating in his mind's eye like the Cheshire Cat. The face was making an expression that Zubin remembered from the time he was ten, and had proudly revealed the thousand rupees he’d made by organizing a betting pool on the horse races among the boys in the fifth standard.

He’d resolved immediately to return the sweater, and then he had looked in the mirror. What he saw surprised him: someone small but good-looking, with fine features and dark, intense eyes, the kind of guy a girl, not just a girl from home but any girl-an American girl-might find attractive.

And he wanted one of those: there was no use pretending he didn’t. He watched them from his first-floor window, as close as fish in an aquarium tank. They hurried past him, laughing and calling out to one another, in their boys’ clothes: boots, T-shirts with cryptic messages, jeans worn low and tight across the hips. You thought of the panties underneath those jeans, and in the laundry room you often saw those panties: impossibly sheer, in incredible colors, occasionally, delightfully torn. The girls folding their laundry next to him were entirely different from the ones at home. They were clearly free to do whatever they wanted-a possibility that often hit him, in class or the library or on the historic brick walkways of the Radcliffe Quad, so intensely that he had to stop and take a deep breath, as if he were on the point of blacking out.

He wore Jason's sweater every day, and was often too warm; the classrooms were overheated and dry as furnaces. He almost never ran into Jason, who had an active and effortless social schedule to complement his rigorous athletic one. And so it was a surprise, one day in late October, to come back to the room and find his roommate hunched miserably over a textbook at his desk.

“Midterms,” Jason said, by way of an explanation. Zubin went over and looked at the problem set, from an introductory physics class. He’d taken a similar class at Cathedral; now he laid out the equations and watched as Jason completed them, correcting his roommate's mistakes as they went along. After the third problem Jason looked up.

“Man, thanks.” And then, as if it had just occurred to him. “Hey, if you want to keep that-”

He had managed so completely to forget about the sweater that he almost didn’t know what Jason meant.

“It's too small for me anyway.”

“No,” Zubin said.

“Seriously. I may have a couple of others too. Coach has been making us eat like hogs.”

“Thanks,” Zubin said. “But I want something less preppy.”

Jason looked at him.

“No offense,” Zubin said. “I’ve just been too fucking lazy. I’ll go tomorrow.”

The next day he went back to the Co-op with his almost-new textbooks in a bag. These were for his required classes (what they called the Core, or general knowledge), as well as organic chemistry. If you got to the reserve reading room at nine, the textbooks were almost always there. He told himself that the paperbacks for his nineteenth-century novel class weren’t worth selling-he’d bought them used anyway-and when he took the rest of the books out and put them on the counter, he realized he had forgotten the Norton Anthology of American Literature in his dorm room. But the books came to $477.80 without it. He took the T downtown to a mall where he bought a down jacket for $300, as warm as a sleeping bag, the same thing the black kids wore. He got a wool watchman's cap with a Nike swoosh.

When he got home, Jason laughed. “Dude, what happened? You’re totally ghetto.” But there was approval in it. Folding the brown sweater on Jason's bed, Zubin felt strong and relieved, as if he had narrowly avoided a terrible mistake.

Julia had been having a dream about losing it. There was no sex in the dream; she couldn’t remember whom she’d slept with, or when. All she experienced was the frustrating impossibility of getting it back, like watching an earring drop and scatter in the bathroom sink, roll and clink down the drain before she could put her hand on it. The relief she felt on waking up every time was like a warning.

She had almost lost it in Paris, before they moved. He was German, not French, gangly but still handsome, with brown eyes and blondish hair. His name was Markus. He was a year ahead of her at the American School and he already knew that he wanted to go back to Berlin for university, and then join the Peace Corps. On the phone at night, he tried to get her to come with him.

At dinner Julia mentioned this idea to her family.

“You in the Peace Corps?” said her sister Claudia, who was visiting from New York. “I wonder if Agnès B. makes a safari line?”

When Claudia came home, she stayed with Julia on the fourth floor, in the chambre de bonne where she had twin beds and her Radiohead poster, all her CDs organized by record label and a very old stuffed monkey named Frank. The apartment was half a block from the Seine, in an old hotel on the Rue des Saint-Pères; in the living room were two antique chairs, upholstered in red-and-gold-striped brocade, and a porcelain clock with shepherdesses on it. The chairs and the clock were Louis XVI, the rugs were from Tehran, and everything else was beige linen.

Claudia, who now lived with her boyfriend in a railroad apartment on the Lower East Side, liked to pretend she was poor. She talked about erratic hot water and rent control and cockroaches, and when she came to visit them in Paris she acted surprised, as if the houses she’d grown up in-first San Francisco, then Delhi, then Dallas, Moscow and Paris-hadn’t been in the same kind of neighborhood, with the same pair of Louis XVI chairs.

“I can’t believe you have a Prada backpack,” she said to Julia. Claudia had been sitting at the table in the kitchen, drinking espresso and eating an orange indifferently, section by section. “Mom's going crazy in her old age.”

“I bought it,” Julia said.

“Yeah, but with what?”

“I’ve been selling my body on the side-after school.”

Claudia rolled her eyes and took a sip of her espresso; she looked out the window into the little back garden. “It's so peaceful here,” she said, proving something Julia already suspected: that her sister had no idea what was going on in their house.

It started when her father's best friend, Bernie, left Paris to take a job with a French wireless company in Bombay. He’d wanted Julia's father to leave with him, but even though her father complained all the time about the oil business, he wouldn’t go. Julia heard him telling her mother that he was in the middle of an important deal.

“This is the biggest thing we’ve done. I love Bernie-but he's afraid of being successful. He's afraid of a couple of fat Russians.”

Somehow Bernie had managed to convince her mother that Bombay was a good idea. She would read the share price of the wireless company out loud from the newspaper in the mornings, while her father was mak- ing eggs. It was a strange reversal; in the past, all her mother had wanted was for her father to stay at home. The places he traveled had been a family joke, as if he were trying to outdo himself with the strangeness of the cities- Istanbul and Muscat eventually became Tbilisi, Ashkhabad, Tashkent. Now, when Julia had heard the strained way that her mother talked about Bernie and wireless communication, she had known she was hearing part of a larger argument-known enough to determine its size, if not its subject. It was like watching the exposed bit of a dangerous piece of driftwood, floating just above the surface of a river.

Soon after Claudia's visit, in the spring of Julias freshman year, her parents gave her a choice. Her mother took her to Galeries Lafayette, and then to lunch at her favorite crêperie on the Ile Saint-Louis, where, in between galettes tomate-fromage and crêpe pomme-chantilly, she told Julia about the divorce. She said she had found a two-bedroom apartment in the West Village: a “feat,” she called it.

“New York will be a fresh start-psychologically,” her mother said. “There's a bedroom that's just yours, and we’ll be a five-minute train ride from Claudie. There are wonderful girls’ schools- I know you were really happy at Hockaday-”

“No I wasn’t.”

“Or we can look at some coed schools. And I’m finally going to get to go back for my master’s-” She leaned forward confidentially. “We could both be graduating at the same time.”

“I want to go back to San Francisco.”

“We haven’t lived in San Francisco since you were three.”


The sympathetic look her mother gave her made Julia want to yank the tablecloth out from underneath their dishes, just to hear the glass breaking on the rustic stone floor.

“For right now that isn’t possible,” her mother said. “But there's no reason we can’t talk again in a year.”

Julia had stopped being hungry, but she finished her mother's crêpe anyway. Recently her mother had stopped eating anything sweet; she said it “irritated her stomach” but Julia knew the real reason was Dr. Fabrol, who had an office on the Ile Saint-Louis very near the crêperie. Julia had been seeing Dr. Fabrol once a week during the two years they’d been in

Paris; his office was dark and tiny, with a rough brown rug and tropical plants which he misted from his chair with a plastic spritzer while Julia was talking. When he got excited he swallowed, making a clicking sound in the back of his throat.

In front of his desk Dr. Fabrol kept a sandbox full of little plastic figures: trolls with brightly colored hair, toy soldiers, and dollhouse people dressed in American clothes from the Fifties. He said that adults could learn a lot about themselves by playing “les jeux des enfants.” In one session, when Julia couldn’t think of anything to say, she’d made a ring of soldiers in the sand, and then without looking at him, put the mother doll in the center. She thought this might be over the top even for Dr. Fabrol, but he started arranging things on his desk, pretending he was less interested than he was so that she would continue. She could hear him clicking.

The mother doll had yellow floss hair and a full figure and a red-and-white polka-dotted dress with a belt, like something Lucille Ball would wear. She looked nothing like Julia's mother-a fact that Dr. Fabrol obviously knew, since Julia's mother came so often to pick her up. Sometimes she would be carrying bags from the nearby shops; once she told them she’d just come from an exhibit at the new Islamic cultural center. She brought Dr. Fabrol a postcard of a Phoenician sarcophagus.

“I think this was the piece you mentioned?” Her mother's voice was louder than necessary. “I think you must have told me about it-the last time I was here to pick Julia up?”

“Could be, could be,” Dr. Fabrol said, in his stupid accent. They both watched Julia as if she were a TV and they were waiting to find out about the weather. She couldn’t believe how dumb they must have thought she was.

Her father asked her if she wanted to go for an early morning walk with their black labrador, Baxter, in the Tuileries. She would’ve said no-she wasn’t a morning person-if she hadn’t known what was going on from the lunch with her mother. They put their coats on in the dark hall with Baxter running around their legs, but by the time they left the apartment, the sun was coming up. The river threw off bright sparks. They crossed the bridge, and went through the archway into the courtyard of the Louvre. There were no tourists that early but a lot of people were walking or jogging on the paths above the fountain.

“Look at all these people,” her father said. “A few years ago, they wouldn’t have been awake. If they were awake they would’ve been having coffee and a cigarette. Which reminds me.”

Julia held the leash while her father took out his cigarettes. He wasn’t fat but he was tall and pleasantly big. His eyes squeezed shut when he smiled, and he had a beard, mostly grey now, which he trimmed every evening before dinner with special scissors. When she was younger, she had looked at other fathers and felt sorry for their children; no one else's father looked like a father to her.

In the shade by the stone wall of the Tuileries, with his back to the flashing fountain, her father tapped the pack, lifted it to his mouth and pulled a cigarette out between his lips. He rummaged in the pocket of his brown corduroys for a box of the tiny wax matches he always brought back from India, a white swan on a red box. He cupped his hand, lit the cigarette and exhaled away from Julia. Then he took back Baxter's leash and said: “Why San Francisco?”

She wasn’t prepared. “I don’t know.” She could picture the broad stillness of the bay, like being inside a postcard. Was she remembering a postcard?

“It's quiet,” she said.

“I didn’t know quiet was high on your list.”

She tried to think of something else.

“You know what I’d like?” her father asked suddenly. “I’d like to watch the sunrise from the Golden Gate-do you remember doing that?”

“Yes,” Julia lied.

“I think you were in your stroller.” Her father grinned. “That was when you were an early riser.”

“I could set my alarm.”

“You could set it,” her father teased her.

“I’m awake now,” she said.

Her father stopped to let Baxter nose around underneath one of the grey stone planters. He looked at the cigarette in his hand as if he didn’t know what to do with it, dropped and stamped it out, half-smoked.

“Can I have one?”

“Over my dead body.”

“I’m not sure I want to go to New York.”

“You want to stay here?” He said it lightly, as if it were a possibility.

“I want to go with you,” she said. As she said it, she knew how much she wanted it.

She could see him trying to say no. Their shadows were very sharp on the clean paving stones; above the bridge, the gold Mercury was almost too bright to look at.

“Just for the year and a half.”

“Bombay” her father said.

“I liked India last time.”

Her father looked at her. “You were six.”

“Why are you going?”

“Because I hate oil and I hate oilmen. And I hate these goddamn kom-mersants. If I’d done it when Bernie first offered-” Her father stopped. “You do not need to hear about this.”

Julia didn’t need to hear about it; she already knew. Her father was taking the job in Bombay-doing exactly what her mother had wanted him to do-just as her parents were getting a divorce. The only explanation was that he’d found out about Dr. Fabrol. Even though her mother was going to New York (where she would have to find another psychologist to help her get over Julia’s), Julia could see how her father wouldn’t want to stay in Paris. He would want to get as far away as possible.

Julia steered the conversation safely toward business: “It's like mobile phones, right?”

“It is mobile phones.” Her father smiled at her. “Something you know about.”

“I’m not that bad.”

“No, you’re not.”

They’d walked a circle in the shade, on the promenade above the park. Her father stopped, as if he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to go around again.

“It's not even two years,” Julia said. There was relief just in saying it, the same kind she’d felt certain mornings before grade school, when her mother had touched her head and s aid fever.

Her father looked at the Pont Neuf; he seemed to be fighting with himself.

“I’d rather start over in college-with everybody else,” she added.

Her father was nodding slowly. “That's something we could explain to your mother.”

As you got older, Zubin noticed, very occasionally a fantasy that you’d been having forever came true. It was disorienting, like waking up in a new and better apartment, remembering that you’d moved, but not quite believing that you would never go back to the old place.

That was the way it was with Tessa. Their first conversation was about William Gaddis; they had both read Carpenter's Gothic, and Zubin was halfway through JR. In fact he had never finished JR, but after the party he’d gone home and lain on his back in bed, semierect but postponing jerking off with the relaxed and pleasant anticipation of a sure thing, and turned fifty pages. He didn’t retain much of the content of those pages the next morning, but he remembered having felt that Gaddis was an important part of what he’d called his “literary pedigree,” as he and Tessa gulped cold red wine in the historic, unheated offices of the campus literary magazine. He even told her that he’d started writing poems himself.

“Can I read them?” she asked. As if he could show those poems to anyone!

Tessa moved closer to him; their shoulders and their hips and their knees were pressed together.

“Sure,” he said. “If you want.”

They had finished the wine. Zubin told her that books were a kind of religion for him, that when things seemed unbearable the only comfort he knew was to read. He did not tell her that he was more likely to read science fiction at those times than William Gaddis; he hardly remembered that himself.

“What do you want to do now?” he’d asked, as they stepped out onto the narrow street, where the wind was colder than anything he could have imagined at home. He thought she would say she had class in the morning, or that it was late, or that she was meeting her roommate at eleven, and so it was a surprise to him when she turned and put her tongue in his mouth. The wind disappeared then, and everything was perfectly quiet. When she pulled away, her cheeks and the triangle of exposed skin between her scarf and her jacket were pink. Tessa hung her head, and in a whisper that was more exciting to him than any picture he had ever seen, print or film, said: “Let's go back to your room for a bit.”

He was still writing to Asha then. She was a year below him in school, and her parents had been lenient because they socialized with his parents

(and because Zubin was going to Harvard). They had allowed him to come over and have a cup of tea, and then to take Asha for a walk along Marine Drive, as long as he brought her back well before dark. Once they had walked up the stairs from Hughes Road to Hanging Garden and sat on one of the benches, where the clerks and shopgirls whispered to each other in the foliage. He had ignored her flicker of hesitation and pointed down at the sun setting over the city: the Spenta building with a pink foam of cloud behind it, like a second horizon above the bay. He said that he wouldn’t change the worst of the concrete-block apartments, with their exposed pipes and hanging laundry and water-stained, crumbling facades, because of the way they set off plain Babulnath Temple, made its tinseled orange flag and bulbous dome rise spectacularly from the dense vegetation, like a spaceship landed on Malabar Hill.

He was talking like that because he wanted to kiss her, but he sometimes got carried away. And when he noticed her again he saw that she was almost crying with the strain of how to tell him that she had to get home right now. He pointed to the still-blue sky over the bay (although the light was fading and the people coming up the path were already dark shapes) and took her hand and together they climbed up to the streetlight, and turned left toward her parents’ apartment. They dropped each other's hand automatically when they got to the driveway, but Asha was so relieved that, in the mirrored elevator on the way up, she closed her eyes and let him kiss her.

That kiss was the sum of Zubin's experience, when he lost it with Tessa on Jason Bennet's green futon. He would remember forever the way she pushed him away, knelt in front of him and, with her jeans unbuttoned, arched her back to unhook her bra and free what were still the breasts that Zubin held in his mind's eye: buoyant and pale with surprising long, dark nipples.

Clothed, Tessa's primary feature was her amazing acceptability; there was absolutely nothing wrong with the way she looked or dressed or the things she said at the meetings of the literary magazine. But when he tried to remember her face now, he came up with a white oval into which eyes, a nose and a pair of lips would surface only separately, like leftover Cheerios in a bowl of milk.

When he returned from the States the second time, Asha was married to a lawyer and living in Cusrow Baug. She had twin five-year-old boys, and a three-year-old girl. She had edited a book of essays by famous writers about Bombay. The first time he’d run into her, at a wine tasting at the Taj President, he’d asked her what she was doing and she did not say, like so many Bombay women he knew, that she was married and had three children. She said: “Prostitution.” And when he looked blank, she laughed and said, “I’m doing a book on prostitution now. Interviews and case histories of prostitutes in Mumbai.”

When their city and all of its streets had been renamed overnight, in ’94, Zubin had had long discussions with Indian friends in New York about the political implications of the change. Now that he was back those debates seemed silly. The street signs were just something to notice once and shake your head at, like the sidewalks below them-constantly torn up and then abandoned for months.

His mother was delighted to have him back. “We won’t bother you,” she said. “It will be like you have your own artist's loft.”

“Maybe I should start a salon,” Zubin joked. He was standing in the living room, a few weeks after he’d gotten back, helping himself from a bottle of Rémy Martin.

“Or a saloon,” his father remarked, passing through.

He didn’t tell his parents that he was writing a book, mostly because only three of the thirty poems he’d begun were actually finished; that regrettable fact was not his fault, but the fault of the crow that lived on the sheet of tin that was patching the roof over his bedroom window. He’d learned to ignore the chain saw from the new apartment block that was going up under spindly bamboo scaffolding, the hammering across the road, the twenty-four-hour traffic and the fishwallah who came through their apartment blocks between ten and ten thirty every morning, carrying a steel case on his head and calling “hell-o, hell-o, hell-o.” These were routine sounds, but the crow was clever. It called at uneven intervals, so that just as Zubin was convinced it had gone away, it began again. The sound was mournful and rough, as depressing as a baby wailing; it sounded to Zubin like despair.

When he’d first got back to Bombay, he’d been embarrassed about the way his students’ parents introduced him: “BA from Harvard; Henry fellow at Oxford; Ph.D. from Columbia.” He would correct them and say that he hadn’t finished the Ph.D. (in fact, he’d barely started his disserta- tion) when he quit. That honesty had made everyone unhappy, and had been bad for business. Now he said his dissertation was in progress. He told his students’ parents that he wanted to spend a little time here, since he would probably end up in the States.

The parents assumed that he’d come back to get married. They pushed their children toward him, yelling at them: “Listen to Zubin; he's done three degrees-two on scholarship-not lazy and spoiled like you. Aren’t I paying enough for this tutoring?” They said it in Hindi, as if he couldn’t understand.

The kids were rapt and attentive. They did the practice tests he assigned them; they wrote the essays and read the books. They didn’t care about Harvard, Oxford and Columbia. They were thinking of Boston, London and New York. He could read their minds. The girls asked about particular shops; the boys wanted to know how many girlfriends he had had, and how far they’d been willing to go.

None of his students could believe he’d come back voluntarily. They asked him about it again and again. How could he tell them that he’d missed his bedroom? He had felt that if he could just get back there-the dark wood floor, the brick walls of books, the ancient rolltop desk from Chor Bazaar-something would fall back into place, not inside him but in front of him, like the lengths of replacement track you sometimes saw them fitting at night on dark sections of the Western Railway commuter line.

He had come home to write his book, but it wasn’t going to be a book about Bombay. There were no mangoes in his poems, and no beggars, no cows or Hindu gods. What he wanted to write about was a moment of quiet. Sometimes sitting alone in his room there would be a few seconds, a silent pocket without the crow or the hammering or wheels on the macadam outside. Those were the moments he felt most himself; at the same time, he felt that he was paying for that peace very dearly-that life, his life, was rolling away outside.

“But why did you wait three years?” his mother asked. “Why didn’t you come home right away?”

When he thought about it now, he was surprised that it had taken only three years to extract himself from graduate school. He counted it among the more efficient periods of his life so far.

He saw Julia twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. One afternoon when his mother was hosting a bridge tournament, he went to her house for the first time. A servant showed him into her room and purposefully shut the door, as if he’d had instructions not to disturb them. It was only four o’clock but the blinds were drawn. The lights were on and the door to her bathroom was closed; he could hear the tap running. Zubin sat at a small, varnished desk. He might have been in any girl's room in America: stacks of magazines on the bookshelf, tacked-up posters of bands he didn’t know, shoes scattered across a pink rag rug and pieces of pastel-colored clothing crumpled in with the sheets on the bed. A pair of jeans was on the floor where she’d stepped out of them, and the denim held her shape: open, round and paler on the inside of the fabric.

Both doors opened at once. Zubin didn’t know whether to look at the barefoot girl coming out of the bathroom, or the massive, bearded white man who had appeared from the hall.

“Hi, Daddy,” Julia said. “This is Zubin, my tutor.”

“We spoke on the phone, sir,” said Zubin, getting up.

Julia's father shook hands as if it were a quaint custom Zubin had insisted on. He sat down on his daughter's bed, and the springs protested. He looked at Zubin.

“What are you working on today?”



“He just got here.”

Julia's father held up one hand in defense. “I’d be perfectly happy if you didn’t get into college. Then you could just stay here.”

Julia rolled her eyes, a habit that struck Zubin as particularly American.

“We’ll start working on her essay today.” Zubin turned to Julia: “Did you do a draft?” He’d asked her the same thing twice a week for the past three, and he knew what the answer would be. He wouldn’t have put her on the spot if he hadn’t been so nervous himself. But Julia surprised him: “I just finished.”

“What did you write about?” her father asked eagerly.

“The difficulties of being from a broken home.”

“Very interesting,” he said, without missing a beat.

“I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“I try,” he said casually, as if this were the kind of conversation they had all the time. “So maybe we don’t even need Zubin-if you’ve already written your essay?”

Julia shook her head: “It isn’t good.”

Zubin felt he should say something. “The new format of the SAT places much greater emphasis on writing skills.” He felt like an idiot.

Julia's father considered Zubin. “You do this full-time?”


“Did you always want to be a teacher?”

“I wanted to be a poet,” Zubin said. He could feel himself blushing but mostly he was surprised that he had told these two strangers something he hadn’t even told his parents.

“Do you write poems now?”

“Sometimes,” Zubin said.

“There are some good Marathi poets, aren’t there?”

“That's not what I’m interested in.” Zubin thought he’d spoken too forcefully, but it didn’t seem to bother Julia's father.

“I’ll leave you two to work now. If you want, come to dinner sometime-our cook makes terrible Continental food, because my daughter won’t eat Indian.”

Zubin smiled. “That sounds good-thank you, sir.”

“Mark,” Julia's father said, closing the door gently behind him.

“Your dad seems cool.”

Julia was gathering up all of her clothes furiously from the bed and the floor. She opened her closet door-a light went on automatically-and threw them inside. Then she slammed it. He didn’t know what he’d done wrong.

“Do you want me to take a look at what you have?”


“Of the essay.”

“I didn’t write an essay.”

“You said-”

Julia laughed. “Yeah.”

“How do you expect to get into Berkeley?”

“You’re going to write it.”

“I don’t do that.” He sounded prim.

“I’ll pay you.”

Zubin got up. “I think we’re finished.”

She took her hair out of the band and redid it, her arms above her head. He couldn’t see any difference when she finished. “A hundred dollars.”

“Why do you want me to write your essay?”

Suddenly Julia sank down onto the floor, hugging her knees. “I have to get out of here.”

“You said that before.” He wasn’t falling for the melodrama. “I’ll help you do it yourself.”

“A thousand. On top of the regular fee.”

Zubin stared. “Where are you going to get that much money?”

“Half a lakh.”

“That calculation even I could have managed,” Zubin said, but she wasn’t paying attention. She picked up a magazine off her night table, and flopped down on the bed. He had the feeling that she was giving him time to consider her offer and he found himself-in that sealed-off corner of his brain where these things happen-considering it.

With $200 a week, plus the $1,000 bonus, he easily could stop all the tutoring except Julia’s. And with all of that time, there would be no excuse not to finish his manuscript. There were some prizes for first collections in England and America; they didn’t pay a lot, but they published your book. Artists, he thought, did all kinds of things for their work. They made every kind of sacrifice-financial, personal, moral-so as not to compromise the only thing that was truly important.

“I’ll make a deal with you,” Zubin said.

Julia looked bored.

“You try it first. If you get really stuck-then maybe. And I’ll help you think of the idea.”

“They give you the idea,” she said. “Remember?”

“I’ll take you to a couple of places. We’ll see which one strikes you.” This, he told himself, was hands-on education. Thanks to him, Julia would finally see the city where she had been living for nearly a year.

“Great,” said Julia sarcastically. “Can we go to Elephanta?”

“Better than Elephanta.”

“To the Gateway of India? Will you buy me one of those big, spotted balloons?”

“Just wait,” said Zubin. “There's some stuff you don’t know about yet.”

They walked from his house past the Hanging Garden, to the small vegetable market in the lane above the Walkeshwar Temple. They went down a flight of uneven steps, past small, open electronic shops where men clustered around televisions waiting for the cricket scores. The path wound between low houses, painted pink or green, a primary school and a tiny, white temple with a marble courtyard and a black nandi draped in marigolds. Two vegetable vendors moved to the side to let them pass, swiveling their heads to look, each with one hand lightly poised on the flat basket balanced on her head. Inside the baskets, arranged in an elegant multicolored whorl, were eggplants, mint, tomatoes, Chinese lettuces, okra, and the smooth white pumpkins called dudhi. Further on a poster man had laid out his wares on a frayed, blue tarpaulin: the usual movie stars and glossy deities, plus kittens, puppies and an enormous white baby, in a diaper and pink headband. Across the bottom of a composite photo- an English cottage superimposed on a Thai beach, in the shadow of Swiss mountains dusted with yellow and purple wildflowers and bisected by a torrential Amazonian waterfall-were the words, Home is where. When you go there, they have to let you in. Punctuation aside, it was difficult for Zubin to imagine a more depressing sentiment.

“You know what I hate?”

Zubin had a strange urge to touch her. It wasn’t a sexual thing, he didn’t think. He just wanted to take her hand. “What?”


Zubin smiled.

“You probably think they’re poetic or something.”


“Like Edgar Alan Poe.”

“That was a raven.”

“Edgar Allan Poetic.” She giggled.

“This kind of verbal play is encouraging,” Zubin said. “If only you would apply it to your practice tests.”

“I can’t concentrate at home,” Julia said. “There are too many distractions.”

“Like what?” Julia's room was the quietest place he’d been in Bombay.

“My father.”

The steps opened suddenly onto the temple tank: a dark green square of water cut out of the stone. Below them, a schoolgirl in a purple jumper and a white blouse, her hair plaited with two red ribbons, was filling a brass jug. At the other end a laborer cleared muck from the bottom with an iron spade. His grandmother had brought him here when he was a kid. She had described the city as it had been: just the sea and the fishing villages clinging to the rocks, the lush, green hills, and in the hills these hive-shaped temples, surrounded by the tiny colored houses of the priests. The concrete-block apartments were still visible on the Malabar side of the tank, but if you faced the sea you could ignore them.

“My father keeps me locked up in a cage,” Julia said mournfully.

“Although he lets you out for Fire and Ice,” Zubin observed.

“He doesn’t. He ignores it when I go to Fire and Ice. All he’d have to do is look in at night. I don’t put pillows in the bed or anything.”

“He's probably trying to respect your privacy.”

“I’m his kid. I’m not supposed to have privacy.” She sat down suddenly on the steps, but she didn’t seem upset. She shaded her eyes with her hand. He liked the way she looked, looking-more serious than he’d seen her before.

“Do you think it's beautiful here?” he asked.

The sun had gone behind the buildings, and was setting over the sea and the slum on the rocks above the water. There was an orange glaze over half the tank; the other, shadowed half was green and cold. Shocked-looking white ducks with orange feet stood in the shade, each facing a different direction, and on the opposite side two boys played an impossibly old-fashioned game, whooping as they rolled a worn-out bicycle tire along the steps with a stick. All around them bells were ringing.

“I think lots of things are beautiful,” Julia said slowly. “If you see them at the right time. But you come back and the light is different, or someone's left some trash, or you’re in a bad mood-or whatever. Everything gets ugly.”

“This is what your essay is about.” He didn’t think before he said it; it just came to him.

“The Banganga Tank?”

“Beauty,” he said.

She frowned.

“It's your idea.”

She was trying not to show she was pleased. Her mouth turned up at the corners, and she scowled to hide it, “I guess that's okay. I guess it doesn’t really matter what you choose.”

Julia was a virgin, but Anouk wasn’t. Anouk was Bernie's daughter; she lived in a fancy house behind a carved wooden gate, on one of the winding lanes at Cumbala Hill. Julia liked the ornamental garden, with brushed-steel plaques that identified the plants in English and Latin, and the blue ceramic pool full of lumpy-headed white-and-orange goldfish. Behind the goldfish pond was a cedar sauna, and it was in the sauna that it had happened. The boy wasn’t especially cute, but he was distantly related to the royal house of Jodhpur. They’d only done it once; according to Anouk that was all it took, before you could consider yourself ready for a real boyfriend at university.

“It's something to get over with,” Anouk said. “You simply hold your breath.” They were listening to the Shakira album in Anouk's room, which was covered with pictures of models from magazines. There were even a few pictures of Anouk, who was tall enough for print ads, but not to go to Europe and be on runways. She was also in a Colgate commercial that you saw on the Hindi stations. Being Anouk's best friend was the thing that saved Julia at the American School, where the kids talked about their fathers’ jobs and their vacation houses even more than they had in Paris. At least at the school in Paris they’d gotten to take a lot of trips-to museums, the Bibliothèque Nationale, and Monet's house at Giverny

There was no question of losing her virginity to any of the boys at school. Everyone would know about it the next day.

“You should have done it with Markus,” Anouk said, for the hundredth time, one afternoon when they were lying on the floor of her bedroom, flipping through magazines.

Julia sometimes thought the same thing; it was hard to describe why they hadn’t done it. They’d talked about it, like they’d talked about everything, endlessly, late at night on the phone, as if they were the only people awake in the city. Markus was her best friend-still, when she was sad, he was the one she wanted to talk to-but when they kissed he put his tongue too far into her mouth and moved it around in a way that made her want to gag. He was grateful when she took off her top and let him put his hand underneath her bra, and sometimes she thought he was relieved too, when she said no to other things.

“You could write him,” Anouk suggested.

“I’d love him to come visit,” Julia allowed.

“Visit and come.”


Anouk looked at her sternly. She had fair skin and short hair that flipped up underneath her ears. She had cat-shaped green eyes exactly like the ones in the picture of her French grandmother, which stared out of an ivory frame on a table in the hall.

“What about your tutor?”

Julia pretended to be horrified. “Zubin?”

“He's cute, right?”

“He's about a million years older than us.”

“How old?”

“Twenty-nine, I think.”

Anouk went into her dresser and rummaged around. “Just in case,” she said innocently, tossing Julia a little foil-wrapped packet.

This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go-you weren’t supposed to be the one who got the condom-but you weren’t supposed to go to high school in Bombay, to live alone with your father, or to lose your virginity to your SAT tutor. She wondered if she and Zubin would do it on the mattress in his room, or if he would press her up against the wall, like in 9 Weeks.

“You better call me, like, the second after,” Anouk instructed her.∀

She almost told Anouk about the virginity dream, and then didn’t. She didn’t really want to hear her friend's interpretation.

It was unclear where she and Markus would’ve done it, since at that time boys weren’t allowed in her room. There were a lot of rules, particularly after her mother left. When she was out, around eleven, her father would message her mobile, something like: WHAT TIME, MISSY? or simply, ETA? If she didn’t send one right back, he would call. She would roll her eyes, at the café or the party or the club, and say to Markus, “My dad.”

“Well,” Markus would say. “You’re his daughter.”

When she came home, her father would be waiting on the couch with a book. He read the same books over and over, especially the ones by Russians. She would have to come in and give him a kiss, and if he smelled cigarettes he would ask to see her bag.

“You can’t look in my bag,” she would say, and her father would hold out his hand. “Everybody else smokes,” she told him. “I can’t help smelling like it.” She was always careful to give Markus her Dunhills before she went home.

“Don’t you trust me?” she said sometimes (especially when she was drunk).

Her father smiled. “No. I love you too much for that.”

It was pouring and the rain almost shrieked on Zubin's tin roof, which still hadn’t been repaired. They were working on reading comprehension; a test two years ago had used Marvell's “To His Coy Mistress.” Zubin preferred “The Garden,” but he’d had more success teaching “To His Coy Mistress” to his students; they told him it seemed “modern.” Many of his students seemed to think that sex was a relatively new invention.

“It's a persuasive poem,” Zubin said. “In a way, it has something in common with an essay.”

Julia narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean, persuasive?”

“He wants to sleep with her.”

“And she doesn’t want to.”

“Right,” Zubin said.

“Is she a virgin?”

“You tell me.” Zubin remembered legions of teachers singsonging exactly those words. “Look at line twenty-eight.”

“That's disgusting.”

“Good,” he said. “You understand it. That's what the poet wanted-to shock her a little.”

“That's so manipulative!”

It was amazing, he thought, the way Americans all embraced that kind of psychobabble. Language is manipulative, he wanted to tell her.

“I think it might have been very convincing,” he said instead.

Vegetable love?”

“It's strange, and that's what makes it vivid. The so-called metaphysical poets are known for this kind of conceit.”

“That they were conceited?”

“Conceit,” Zubin said. “Write this down.” He gave her the definition; he sounded conceited.

“The sun is like a flower that blooms for just one hour,” Julia said suddenly.

“That's the opposite,” Zubin said. “A comparison so common that it doesn’t mean anything-you see the difference?”

Julia nodded wearily. It was too hot in the room. Zubin got up and propped the window open with the wooden stop. Water sluiced off the dark, shiny leaves of the magnolia.

“What is that?”


“That thing, about the sun.”

She kicked her foot petulantly against his desk. The hammering outside was like an echo, miraculously persisting in spite of the rain. “Ray Bradbury,” she said finally. “We read it in school.”

“I know that story,” Zubin said. “With the kids on Venus. It rains for seven years, and then the sun comes out and they lock the girl in the closet. Why do they lock her up?”

“Because she's from Earth. She's the only one who's seen it.”

“The sun.”

Julia nodded. “They’re all jealous.”

People thought she could go out all the time because she was American. She let them think it. One night she decided to stop bothering with the outside stairs; she was wearing new jeans that her mother had sent her; purple cowboy boots and a sparkly silver halter top that showed off her stomach. She had a shawl for outside, but she didn’t put it on right away. Her father was working in his study with the door cracked open.

The clock in the hall said ten twenty. Her boots made a loud noise on the tiles.

“Hi,” her father called.


“Where are you going?”

“A party.”


“Juhu.” She stepped into his study. “On the beach.”

He put the book down and took off his glasses. “Do you find that many people are doing Ecstasy-when you go to these parties?”


“I’m not being critical-I read an article about it in Time. My interest is purely anthropological.”

“Yes,” Julia said. “All the time. We’re all on Ecstasy from the moment we wake up in the morning.”

“That's what I thought.”

“I have to go.”

“I don’t want to keep you.” He smiled. “Well I do, but-” Her father was charming; it was like a reflex.

“See you in the morning,” she said.

The worst thing was that her father knew she knew. He might have thought Julia knew even before she actually did; that was when he started letting her do things like go out at ten thirty, and smoke on the staircase outside her bedroom. It was as if she’d entered into a kind of pact without knowing it; and by the time she found out why they were in Bombay for real, it was too late to change her mind.

It was Anouk who told her, one humid night when they were having their tennis lesson at Willingdon. The air was so hazy that Julia kept losing the ball in the sodium lights. They didn’t notice who’d come in and taken the last court next to the parking lot until the lesson was over. Then Anouk said: “Wow, look-Papa!” Bernie lobbed the ball and waved; as they walked toward the other court, Julia's father set up for an overhead and smashed the ball into the net. He raised his fist in mock anger, and grinned at them.

“Good lesson?”

“Julia did well.”

“I did not.”

“Wait for Bernie to finish me off,” Julia's father said. “Then we’ll take you home.”

“How much longer?”

“When we’re finished,” said Bernie sharply.

“On sort ce soir. ”

“On va voir,” her father said. Anouk started to say something and stopped. She caught one ankle behind her back calmly, stretched, and shifted her attention to Julia's father. “How long?”

He smiled. “Not more than twenty.”

They waited in the enclosure, behind a thin white net that was meant to keep out the balls, but didn’t, and ordered fresh lime sodas.

“We need an hour to get ready, at least.”

“I’m not going.”

“Yes you are.”

Anouk put her legs up on the table and Julia did the same and they compared: Anouk's were longer and thinner, but Julias had a better shape. Julia's phone beeped.

“It's from Zubin.”

Anouk took the phone.

“It's just about my lesson.”

Anouk read Zubin's message in an English accent: CAN WE SHIFT FROM


“He doesn’t talk like that,” Julia said, but she knew what Anouk meant. Zubin was the only person she knew who wrote SMS in full sentences, without any abbreviations.

Anouk tipped her head back and shut her eyes. Her throat was smooth and brown and underneath her sleeveless white top, her breasts were outlined, the nipples pointing up. “Tell him I’m hot for him.”

“You’re a flirt.”

Anouk sat up and looked at the court. Now Bernie was serving. Both men had long, dark stains down the fronts of their shirts. A little bit of a breeze was coming from the trees behind the courts; Julia felt the sweat between her shoulders. She thought she’d gone too far, and she was glad when Anouk said, “When are they going to be finished?”

“They’ll be done in a second. I think they both just play ’cause the other one wants to.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, my dad never played in Paris.”

“Mine did,” Anouk said.

“So maybe he just likes playing with your dad.”

Anouk tilted her head to the side for a minute, as if she were thinking. “He would have to though.”

The adrenaline from the fight they’d almost had, defused a minute before, came flooding back. She could feel her pulse in her wrists. “What do you mean?”

Her friend opened her eyes wide. “I mean, your dad's probably grateful.”

“Grateful for what?

“The job.”

“He had a good job before.”

Anouk blinked incredulously. “Are you serious?”

“He was the operations manager in Central Asia.”

“Was,” Anouk said.

“Yeah, well,” Julia said. “He didn’t want to go back to the States after my mom did.”

“My God,” Anouk said. “That's what they told you?”

Julia looked at her. Whatever you’re going to say, don’t say it. But she didn’t say anything.

“You have it backwards,” Anouk said. “Your mother left because of what happened. She went to America, because she knew your father couldn’t. There was an article about it in Nefte Compass-I couldn’t read it, because it was in Russian, but my dad read it.” She lifted her beautiful eyes to Julia’s. “My dad said it wasn’t fair. He said they shouldn’t’ve called your dad a crook.”

“Four-five,” her father called. “Your service.”

“But I guess your mom didn’t understand that.”

Cars were inching out of the club. Julia could see the red brake lights between the purple blossoms of the hedge that separated the court from the drive.

“It doesn’t matter,” Anouk said. “You said he wouldn’t have gone back anyway, so it doesn’t matter whether he couldhave.”

A car backed up, beeping. Someone yelled directions in Hindi.

“And it didn’t get reported in America or anything. My father says he's lucky he could still work in Europe-probably not in oil, but anything else. He doesn’t want to go back to the States anyway-alors, c’est pas grand chose.”

The game had finished. Their fathers were collecting the balls from the corners of the court.

“Ready?” her father called, but Julia was already hurrying across the court. By the time she got out to the drive she was jogging, zigzagging through the cars clogging the lot, out into the hot nighttime haze of the road. She was lucky to find an empty taxi. They pulled out into the mass of traffic in front of the Hagi Ali and stopped. The driver looked at her in the mirror for instructions.

“Malabar Hill,” she said. “Hanging Garden.”

Zubin was actually working on the essay, sitting at his desk by the open window, when he heard his name. Or maybe hallucinated his name: a bad sign. But it wasn’t his fault. His mother had given him a bottle of sam-buca, which someone had brought her from the duty-free shop in the Frankfurt airport.

“I was thinking of giving it to the Mehtas but he's stopped drinking entirely. I could only think of you.”

“You’re the person she thought would get the most use out of it,” his father contributed.

Now Zubin was having little drinks (really half drinks) as he tried to apply to college. He had decided that there would be nothing wrong with writing a first draft for Julia, as long as she put it in her own words later. The only problem was getting started. He remembered his own essay perfectly, unfortunately on an unrelated subject. He had written, much to his English teacher's dismay, about comic books.

“Why don’t you write about growing up in Bombay? That will distinguish you from the other applicants,” she had suggested.

He hadn’t wanted to distinguish himself from the other applicants, or rather, he’d wanted to distinguish himself in a much more distinctive way. He had an alumni interview with an expatriate American consultant working for Arthur Anderson in Bombay; the interviewer, who was young, Jewish and from New York, said it was the best college essay he’d ever read.


It was at least a relief that he wasn’t hallucinating. She was standing below his window, holding a tennis racket. “Hey, Zubin-can I come up?”

“You have to come around the front,” he said.

“Will you come down and get me?”

He put a shirt over his T-shirt, and then took it off. He took the glass of sambuca to the bathroom sink to dump it, but he got distracted looking in the mirror (he should’ve shaved) and drained it instead.

He found Julia leaning against a tree, smoking. She held out the pack.

“I don’t smoke.”

She sighed. “Hardly anyone does anymore.” She was wearing an extremely short white skirt. “Is this a bad time?”


“I can go.”

“You can come up,” he said, a little too quickly. “I’m not sure I can do antonyms now though.”

In his room Julia gravitated to the stereo. A Brahms piano quartet had come on.

“You probably aren’t a Brahms person.”

She looked annoyed. “How do you know?”

“I don’t,” he said. “Sorry-are you?”

Julia pretended to examine his books. “I’m not very familiar with his work,” she said finally. “So I couldn’t really say.”

He felt like hugging her. He poured himself another sambuca instead. “I’m sorry there's nowhere to sit.”

“I’m sorry I’m all gross from tennis.” She sat down on his mattress, which was at least covered with a blanket.

“Do you always smoke after tennis?” he couldn’t help asking.

“It calms me down.”

“Still, you shouldn’t-”

“I’ve been having this dream,” she said. She stretched her legs out in front of her and crossed her ankles. “Actually it's kind of a nightmare.”

“Oh,” said Zubin. Students’ nightmares were certainly among the things that should be discussed in the living room.

“Have you ever been to New Hampshire?”


“I’ve been having this dream that I’m in New Hampshire. There's a frozen pond where you can skate outside.”

“That must be nice.”

“I saw it in a movie,” she admitted. “But I think they have them- anyway. In the dream I’m not wearing skates. I’m walking out onto the pond, near the woods, and it's snowing. I’m walking on the ice but I’m not afraid-everything's really beautiful. And then I look down and there's this thing-this dark spot on the ice. There are some mushrooms growing, on the dark spot. I’m worried that someone skating will trip on them, so I bend down to pick them.”

Her head was bent now; she was peeling a bit of rubber from the sole of her sneaker.

“That's when I see the guy.”

“The guy.”

“The guy in the ice. He's alive, and even though he can’t move, he sees me. He's looking up and reaching out his arms and just his fingers are coming up-just the tips of them through the ice. Like white mushrooms.”

“Jesus,” Zubin said.

She misunderstood. “No-just a regular guy.”

“That's a bad dream.”

“Yeah, well,” she said proudly. “I thought maybe you could use it.”


“In the essay.”

Zubin poured himself another sambuca. “I don’t know if I can write the essay.”

“You have to.” Her expression changed instantly. “I have the money-I could give you a check now even.”

“It's not the money.”

“Because it's dishonest?” she said in a small voice.

“I-” But he couldn’t explain why he couldn’t manage to write even a college essay, even to himself. “I’m sorry.”

She looked as if she’d been about to say something else, and then changed her mind. “Okay,” she said dejectedly. “I’ll think of something.”

She looked around for her racket, which she’d propped up against the bookshelf. He didn’t want her to go yet.

“What kind of a guy is he?”


“The guy in the ice-is he your age?”

Julia shook her head. “He's old.”

Zubin sat down on the bed, at what he judged was a companionable distance. “Like a senior citizen?”

“No, but older than you.”

“Somewhere in that narrow window between me and senior citizenship.”

“You’re not old,” she said seriously.

“Thank you.” The sambuca was making him feel great. They could just sit here, and get drunk and do nothing, and it would be fun, and there would be no consequences; he could stop worrying for tonight, and give himself a little break.

He was having that comforting thought when her head dropped lightly to his shoulder.


“Is this okay?”

“It's okay, but-”

“I get so tired.”

“Because of the nightmares.”

She paused for a second, as if she was surprised he’d been paying attention. “Yes,” she said. “Exactly.”

“You want to lie down a minute?”

She jerked her head up-nervous all of a sudden. He liked it better than the flirty stuff she’d been doing before.

“Or I could get someone to take you home.”

She lay down and shut her eyes. He put his glass down carefully on the floor next to the bed. Then he put his hand out; her hair was very soft. He stroked her head and moved her hair away from her face. He adjusted the glass beads she always wore, and ran his hand lightly down her arm. He felt that he was in a position where there was no choice but to lift her up and kiss her very gently on the mouth.


She opened her eyes.

“I’m going to get someone to drive you home.”

She got up very quickly and smoothed her hair with her hand.

“Not that I wouldn’t like you to stay, but I think-”

“Okay,” she said.

“I’ll just get someone.” He yelled for the servant.

“I can get a taxi,” Julia said.

“I know you can” he told her. For some reason, that made her smile.

In September she took the test. He woke up early that morning as if he were taking it, couldn’t concentrate, and went to Barista, where he sat trying to read the same India Today article about regional literature for two hours. She wasn’t the only one of his students taking the SAT today, but she was the one he thought of, at the eight forty subject change, the ten-o’clock break, and at eleven twenty-five, when they would be warning them about the penalties for continuing to write after time was called. That afternoon he thought she would ring him to say how it had gone, but she didn’t, and it wasn’t until late that night that his phone beeped and her name came up: JULIA: VERBAL IS LIKE S-SPEARE: PLAY. It wasn’t a perfect analogy, but he knew what she meant.

He didn’t see Julia while the scores were being processed. Without the bonus he hadn’t been able to give up his other clients, and the business was in one of its busy cycles; it seemed as if everyone in Bombay was dying to send their sixteen-year-old child halfway around the world to be educated. Each evening he thought he might hear her calling up from the street, but she never did, and he didn’t feel he could phone without some pretense.

One rainy Thursday he gave a group lesson in a small room on the first floor of the David Sassoon library. The library always reminded him of Oxford, with its cracked chalkboards and termite-riddled seminar tables, and today in particular the soft, steady rain made him feel as if he were somewhere else. They were doing triangles (isosceles, equilateral, scalene) when all of a sudden one of the students interrupted and said: “It stopped.”

Watery sun was gleaming through the lead-glass windows. When he had dismissed the class, Zubin went upstairs to the reading room. He found Bradbury in a tattered ledger book and filled out a form. He waited while the librarian frowned at the call number, selected a key from a crowded ring, and, looking put-upon, sent an assistant into the reading room to find “All Summer in a Day” in the locked glass case.

It had been raining for seven years; thousands upon thousands of days compounded and filled from one end to the other with rain, with the drum and gush of water, with the sweet crystal fall of showers and the concussion of storms so heavy they were tidal waves come over the islands.

He'd forgotten that the girl in the story was a poet. She was different from the other children, and because it was a science fiction story (this was what he loved about science fiction) it wasn’t an abstract difference. Her special sensitivity was explained by the fact that she had come to Venus from Earth only recently, on a rocket ship, and remembered the sun-it was like a penny-while her classmates did not.

Zubin sat by the window in the old seminar room, emptied of students, and luxuriated in a feeling of potential he hadn’t had in a long time.

He remembered when a moment of heightened contrast in his physical surroundings could produce this kind of elation; he could feel the essay wound up in him like thread. He would combine the Bradbury story with the idea Julia had had, that day at the tank. Beauty was something that was new to you. That was why tourists and children could see it better than other people, and it was the poet's job to keep seeing it the way the children and the tourists did.

He was glad he’d told her he couldn’t do it because it would be that much more of a surprise when he handed her the pages. He felt noble. He was going to defraud the University of California for her gratis, as a gift.

He intended to be finished the day the scores came out and, for perhaps the first time in his life, he finished on the day he’d intended. He waited all day, but Julia didn’t call. He thought she would’ve gone out that night to celebrate, but she didn’t call the next day, or the next, and he started to worry that she’d been wrong about her verbal. Or she’d lied. He started to get scared that she’d choked-something that could happen to the best students, you could never tell which. After ten days without hearing from her, he rang her mobile.

“Oh yeah,” she said. “I was going to call.”

“I have something for you,” he said. He didn’t want to ask about the scores right away.

She sighed. “My dad wants you to come to dinner anyway.”

“Okay,” Zubin said. “I could bring it then.”

There was a long pause, in which he could hear traffic. “Are you in the car?”

“Uh-huh,” she said. “Hold on a second?” Her father said something and she groaned into the phone. “My dad wants me to tell you my SAT scores.”

“Only if you want to.”

“Eight hundred math.”


“And six-ninety verbal.”

“You’re kidding.”


“Is this the Julia who was too distracted to do her practice tests?”

“Maybe it was easy this year,” Julia said, but he could tell she was smiling.

“I don’t believe you.”

“Zubin!” (He loved the way she added the extra stress.) “I swear.”

They ate coquilles St. Jacques by candlelight. Julias father lit the candles himself, with a box of old-fashioned White Swan matches. Then he opened Zubin's wine and poured all three of them a full glass. Zubin took a sip; it seemed too sweet, especially with the seafood. “A toast,” said Julia's father. “To my daughter the genius.”

Zubin raised his glass. All week he’d felt an urgent need to see her; now that he was here he had a contented, peaceful feeling, only partly related to the two salty dogs he’d mixed for himself just before going out.

“Scallops are weird,” Julia said. “Do they even have heads?”

“Did any of your students do better?” her father asked.

“Only one, I think.”

“Boy or girl?”

“What does that matter?” Julia asked. She stood up suddenly: she was wearing a sundress made of blue-and-white printed Indian cotton, and she was barefoot. “I’ll be in my room if anyone needs me.”

Zubin started to get up.

“Sit,” Julia's father said. “Finish your meal. Then you can do whatever you have to do.”

“I brought your essay-the revision of your essay,” Zubin corrected himself, but she didn’t turn around. He watched her disappear down the hall to her bedroom: a pair of tan shoulders under thin, cotton straps.

“I first came to India in 1976,” her father was saying. “I flew from Moscow to Paris to meet Julia's mom, and then we went to Italy and Greece. We were deciding between India and North Africa-finally we just tossed a coin.”

“Wow,” said Zubin. He was afraid Julia would go out before he could give her the essay.

“It was February and I’d been in Moscow for a year,” Julia's father said. “So you can imagine what India was like for me. We were staying in this pension in Benares-Varanasi-and every night there were these incredible parties on the roof.

“One night we could see the burning ghats from where we were- hardly any electricity in the city, and then this big fire on the ghat, with the drums and the wailing. I’d never seen anything like that-the pieces of the body that they sent down the river, still burning.” He stopped and refilled their glasses. He didn’t seem to mind the wine. “Maybe they don’t still do that?”

“I’ve never been to Benares.”

Julia's father laughed. “Right,” he said. “That's an old man's India now. And you’re not writing about India, are you?”

Writing the essay, alone at night in his room, knowing she was out somewhere with her school friends, he’d had the feeling, the delusion really, that he could hear her. That while she was standing on the beach or dancing in a club, she was also telling him her life story: not the places she’d lived, which didn’t matter, but the time in third grade when she was humiliated in front of the class; the boy who wrote his number on the inside of her wrist; the weather on the day her mother left for New York. He felt that her voice was coming in the open window with the noise of the motorbikes and the televisions and the crows, and all he was doing was hitting the keys.

Julia's father had asked a question about India.

“Sorry?” Zubin said.

He waved a hand dismissively in front of his face. “You don’t have to tell me-writers are private about these things. It's just that business guys like me-we’re curious how you do it.”

“When I’m here, I want to write about America and when I’m in America, I always want to write about being here.” He wasn’t slurring words, but he could hear himself emphasizing them: “It would have made sense to stay there.”

“But you didn’t.”

“I was homesick, I guess.”

“And now?”

Zubin didn’t know what to say.

“Far be it from me, but I think it doesn’t matter so much, whether you’re here or there. You can bring your home with you.” Julia's father smiled. “To some extent. And India's wonderful-even if it's not your first choice.”

It was easy if you were Julia's father. He had chosen India because he remembered seeing some dead bodies in a river. He had found it “wonderful.” And that was what it was to be an American. Americans could go all over the world and still be Americans; they could live just the way they did at home and nobody wondered who they were, or why they were doing things the way they did.

“I’m sure you’re right,” Zubin said politely.

Finally Julia's father pressed a buzzer and a servant appeared to clear the dishes. Julia's father pushed back his chair and stood up. Before disappearing into his study, he nodded formally and said something-whether “Good night,” or “Good luck,” Zubin couldn’t tell.

Zubin was left with a servant, about his age, with big, southern features and stooped shoulders. The servant was wearing the brown uniform from another job: short pants and a shirt that was tight across his chest. He moved as if he’d been compensating for his height his whole life, as if he’d never had clothes that fit him.

“Do you work here every day?” Zubin asked in his schoolbook Marathi.

The young man looked up as if talking to Zubin was the last in a series of obstacles that lay between him and the end of his day.

“Nahin, ” he said. “Mangalwar ani guruwar.”

Zubin smiled-they both worked on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “Me too,” he said.

The servant didn’t understand. He stood holding the plates, waiting to see if Zubin was finished and scratching his left ankle with his right foot. His toes were round and splayed, with cracked nails and a glaucous coating of dry, white skin.

“Okay,” Zubin said. “Bas.”

Julia's room was, as he’d expected, empty. The lights were burning and the stereo was on (the disc had finished), but she’d left the window open; the bamboo shade sucked in and out. The mirror in the bathroom was steamed around the edges-she must’ve taken a shower before going out; there was the smell of some kind of fragrant soap and cigarettes.

He put the essay on the desk where she would see it. There were two Radiohead CDs, still in their plastic wrappers, and a detritus of pens and pencils, hairbands, fashion magazines-French Vogue, Femina and YM- gum wrappers, an OB tampon and a miniature brass abacus, with tiny ivory beads. There was also a diary with a pale blue paper cover.

The door to the hall was slightly open, but the house was absolutely quiet. It was not good to look at someone's journal, especially a teenage girl’s. But there were things that would be worse-jerking off in her room, for example. It was a beautiful notebook with a heavy cardboard cover that made a satisfying sound when he opened it on the desk.

“It's empty.”

He flipped the diary closed but it was too late. She was climbing in through the window, lifting the shade with her hand.

“That's where I smoke,” she said. “You should’ve checked.”

“I was just looking at the notebook,” Zubin said. “I wouldn’t have read what you’d written.”

“My hopes, dreams, fantasies. It would’ve been good for the essay.”

“I finished the essay.”

She stopped and stared at him. “You wrote it?”

He pointed to the neatly stacked pages, a paper island in the clutter of the desk. Julia examined them, as if she didn’t believe it.

“I thought you weren’t going to?”

“If you already wrote one-”

“No,” she said. “I tried but-” She gave him a beautiful smile. “Do you want to stay while I read it?”

Zubin glanced at the door.

“My dad's in his study.”

He pretended to look through her CDs, which were organized in a zip-pered binder, and snuck glances at her while she read. She sat down on her bed with her back against the wall, one foot underneath her. As she read she lifted her necklace and put it in her mouth, he thought unconsciously. She frowned at the page.

It was better if she didn’t like it, Zubin thought. He knew it was good, but having written it was wrong. There were all these other kids who’d done the applications themselves.

Julia laughed.

“What?” he said, but she just shook her head and kept going.

“I’m just going to use your loo,” Zubin said.

He used it almost blindly, without looking in the mirror. Her towel was hanging over the edge of the counter, but he dried his hands on his shirt. He was drunker than he’d thought. When he came out she had folded the three pages into a small square, as if she were getting ready to throw them away.

Julia shook her head. “You did it.”

“It's okay?”

Julia shook her head. “It's perfect-it's spooky. How do you even know about this stuff?”

“I was a teenager-not a girl teenager, but you know.”

She shook her head. “About being an American I mean? How do you know about that?”

She asked the same way she might ask who wrote The Fairie Queene or the meaning of the word “synecdoche.”

Because I am not any different, he wanted to tell her. He wanted to grab her shoulders: If we are what we want, I am the same as you.

But she wasn’t looking at him. Her eyes were like marbles he’d had as a child, striated brown and gold. They moved over the pages he’d written as if they were hers, as if she were about to tear one up and put it in her mouth.

“This part,” Julia said. “About forgetting where you are? D’you know, that happens to me? Sometimes coming home I almost say the wrong street-the one in Paris, or in Moscow when we used to have to say ‘Pushkinskaya.

Her skirt was all twisted around her legs.

“Keep it,” he said.

“I’ll write you a check.”

“It's a present,” Zubin told her.


He nodded. When she smiled she looked like a kid. “I wish I could do something for you.”

Zubin decided that it was time to leave.

Julia put on a CD-a female vocalist with a heavy bass line. “This is too sappy for daytime,” she said. Then she started to dance. She was not a good dancer. He watched her fluttering her hands in front of her face, stamping her feet, and knew, the same way he always knew these things, that he wasn’t going anywhere at all.

“You know what I hate?”


“Boys who can’t kiss.”

“All right,” Zubin said. “You come here.”

Her bed smelled like the soap-lilac. It was amazing, the way girls smelled, and it was amazing to put his arm under her and take off each thin strap and push the dress down around her waist. She made him turn off the lamp but there was a street lamp outside; he touched her in the artificial light. She looked as if she were trying to remember something.

“Is everything okay?”

She nodded.

“Because we can stop.”

“Do you have something?”

It took him a second to figure out what she meant. “Oh,” he said. “No-that's good I guess.”

“I have one.”

“You do?”

She nodded.

“Still. That doesn’t mean we have to.”

“I want to.”

“Are you sure?”

“If you do.”

“If I do-yes.” He took a breath. “I want to.”

She was looking at him very seriously.

“This isn’t-” he said.

“Of course not.”

“Because you seem a little nervous.”

“I’m just thinking,” she said. Her underwear was light blue, and it didn’t quite cover her tan line.

“About what?”


“What about it?”

She had amazing gorgeous perfect new breasts. There was nothing else to say about them.

“I can’t wait,” she said, and he decided to pretend she was talking about this.

Julia was relieved when he left and she could lie in bed alone and think about it. Especially the beginning part of it: she didn’t know kissing could be like that-sexy and calm at the same time, the way it was in movies that were not 9V2 Weeks. She was surprised she didn’t feel worse; she didn’t feel regretful at all, except that she wished she’d thought of something to say afterward./wish I didn’t have to go, was what he had said, but he put on his shoes very quickly. She hadn’t been sure whether she should get up or not, and in the end she waited until she heard the front door shut behind him. Then she got up and put on a T-shirt and pajama bottoms, and went into the bathroom to wash her face. If she’d told him it was her first time, he would’ve stayed longer, probably, but she’d read enough magazines to know that you couldn’t tell them that. Still, she wished he’d touched her hair the way he had the other night, when she’d gone over to his house and invented a nightmare.

Zubin had left the Ray Bradbury book on her desk. She’d thanked him, but she wasn’t planning to read it again. Sometimes when you went back you were disappointed, and she liked the rocket ship the way she remembered it, with silver tail fins and a red lacquer shell. She could picture herself taking off in that ship-at first like an airplane, above the hill and the tank and the bay with its necklace of lights-and then straight up, beyond the sound barrier. People would stand on the beach to watch the launch: her father, Anouk and Bernie, everyone from school, and even Claudie and her mother and Dr. Fabrol. They would yell up to her, but the yells would be like the tails of comets, crusty blocks of ice and dust that rose and split in silent, white explosions.

She liked Zubin's essay too, although she wasn’t sure about the way he’d combined the two topics; she hoped they weren’t going to take points off. Or the part where he talked about all the different perspectives she’d gotten from living in different cities, and how she just needed one place where she could think about those things and articulate what they meant to her. She wasn’t interested in “articulating.” She just wanted to get moving.

Zubin walked all the way up Nepean Sea Road, but when he got to the top of the hill he wasn’t tired. He turned right and passed his building, not quite ready to go in, and continued in the Walkeshwar direction. The market was empty. The electronics shops were shuttered and the “Just Orange” advertisements twisted like kites in the dark. There was the rich, rotted smell of vegetable waste, but almost no other trash. Foreigners marveled at the way Indians didn’t waste anything, but of course that wasn’t by choice. Only a few useless things flapped and flattened themselves against the broad, stone steps: squares of folded newsprint from the vendors’ baskets, and smashed matchbooks-extinct brands whose labels still appeared underfoot: “export-quality premium safety matches” in fancy script.

At first he thought the tank was deserted, but a man in shorts was standing on the other side, next to a small white dog with stand-up, triangular ears. Zubin picked a vantage point on the steps out of the moonlight, sat down and looked out at the water. There was something different about the tank at night. It was partly the quiet; in between the traffic sounds a breeze crackled the leaves of a few desiccated trees growing between the paving stones. The night intensified the contrast, so that the stones took on a kind of sepia, sharpened the shadows and gave the carved and whitewashed temple pillars an appropriate patina of magic. You could cheat for a moment in this light and see the old city, like taking a photograph with black-and-white film.

The dog barked, ran up two steps and turned expectantly toward the tank. Zubin didn’t see the man until his slick, seal head surfaced in the black water. Each stroke broke the black glass; his hands made eddies of light in the disturbed surface. For just a moment, even the apartment blocks were beautiful.

Ben Fountain

Fantasy for Eleven Fingers

from Southwest Review

SO LITTLE is known about the pianist Anton Visser that he belongs more to myth than anything so random as historical fact. He was born in 1800 or 1801, thus preceding by half a generation the Romantic virtuosos who would transform forever our notions of music and performer. Liszt, more charitable than most, called him “our spiritual elder brother,” though he rather less kindly described his elder brothers playing as “affectation of the first rank.” Visser himself seems to have been the source of much confusion about his origins, saying sometimes that he was from Brno, at other times from Graz, still others from Telc or Iglau. “The French call me a German,” he is reported to have told the Countess Koeniggratz, “and the Germans call me a Jew, but in truth, dear lady, I belong solely to the realm of music.”

He was fluent in German, Slovak, Magyar, French, English, and Italian, and he could just as fluently forget them all when the situation obliged. He was successful enough at cards to be rumored a cheat; he liked women, and had a number of vivid affairs with the wives and mistresses of his patrons; he played the piano like a human thunderbolt, crisscrossing Europe with his demonic extra finger and leaving a trail of lavender gloves as souvenirs. Toward the end, when Visser-mania was at its height, the mere display of his naked right hand could rouse an audience to hysterics; his concerts degenerated into shrieking bacchanals, with women alternately fainting and rushing the stage, flinging flowers and jewels at the great man. But in the early 1820s Visser was merely one of the legion of virtuosos who wandered Europe peddling their grab bags of pianistic stunts. He was, first and foremost, a saloniste, a master of the morceaux and flashy potpourri that so easily enthralled his wealthy audiences. He seems to have been something of a super-cocktail pianist to the aristocracy- much of what we know of him derives from diaries and memoirs of the nobility-although he wasn’t above indulging the lower sort of taste. His specialty, apparently, was speed-playing, and he once accepted a bet to play six million notes in twelve hours. A riding school was rented out, flyers printed and subscriptions sold, and for eight hours and twenty minutes Visser incinerated the keyboard of a sturdy Erard while the audience made themselves at home, talking, laughing and eating, playing cards and roaming about, so thoroughly enjoying the performance that they called for an encore after the six millionth note. Visser shrugged and airily waved a hand as if to say, Why not?, and continued playing for another hour.

No likeness of the virtuoso has survived, but contemporaries describe a tall man of good figure with black, penetrating eyes, a severe, handsome face, and a prominent though elegantly shaped nose. That he was a Jew was widely accepted, and loudly published by his rivals; there is no evidence that Visser bothered to deny the consensus. His hands, of course, were his most distinguishing feature. The first edition of Groves Dictionary states that Visser had the hands of a natural pianist: broad, elastic palms, spatulate fingers, and exceptionally long little fingers. He could stretch a twelfth and play left-hand chords such as A-flat, E-flat, and A-flat and C, but it was the hypnotically abnormal right hand that ultimately set him apart. “The two ring fingers of his right hand,” the critic Blundren wrote, “are perfect twins, each so exact a mirror image of the other as to give the effect of an optical illusion, and in action possessed of a disturbing crablike agility. Difficult it is, indeed, to repress a shudder when presented with Visser s singular hand.”

Difficult, indeed, and as is so often the case with deformity, a sight that both compelled and repelled. Visser seems not to have emphasized his singular hand during the early stages of his career, but the speed with which he played, to such cataclysmic effect, in time gave rise to unsettling stories. It was his peculiar gift to establish the melody of a piece with his thumbs in the middle register of the piano, then surround the melody with arpeggios, tremolos, double notes, and other devices, moving up and down the keyboard with such insane rapidity that it seemed as if four hands rather than two were at work. His sound was so uncanny that a certain kind of story-tentative, half-jesting at first-began to shadow the pianist: Satan himself was playing with Visser, some said, while others ventured that he’d sold the devil his soul in exchange for the extra finger, which enabled him to play with such hectoring speed.

That Visser had emerged from the mysterium of backward Eastern Europe gave the stories an aura of plausibility. “There is something dark, elusive, and unhealthy in Visser,” remarked Field, while Moscheles said that his rivals playing “does not encourage respectable thoughts.” His few surviving compositions show a troublingly oblique harmonic stance, a cracked Pandora's box of dissonance and atonal sparks, along with the mournful echoes of gypsy songs and the derailed melodies of Galician folk tunes. He became known as the Bohemian Faust, and was much in demand; neither the sinister flavor of his stage persona nor his string of love affairs seemed to diminish his welcome in fashionable salons.

In 1829, however, there was a break. Some say it was due to an incident at the Comte de Gobet’s, where Visser was accused of cheating at cards; his legendary success and extra finger had long made him an object of suspicion, though others said that he was discovered making free with the fifteen-year-old daughter of a baron. Visser was, whatever the cause, refused by society, forced out into le grand public to make his living, this at a time when there were few adequate venues for touring virtuosos and concert managers tended to have the scruples of slave traders. Visser billed himself as the Man with Eleven Fingers, the freak-show aspect of virtuosity made explicit for once, and over the next two years of playing in rowdy beer gardens and firetrap opera houses he perfected his florid stagecraft: the regal entrance, the lavender gloves portentously removed, then the excruciating pause before his hands fell on the keyboard like an avalanche. It was early noted that his audiences were disproportionately female; more remarkable was the delirium that his performances induced, a feature that grew even more pronounced with the addition of the Fantaisie pour Onze Doigts to his repertoire. Hummel, who heard it played in a ballroom in Stuttgart, called it “a most strange and affecting piece, with glints of dissonance issuing from the right hand like the whip of a lash, or very keen razor cuts.” Kalkenbrenner, who happened on it at a brewery in Mainz, compared the chill of the strained harmonies of the loaded right hand to “a trickle of ice-cold water running down one's back,” and added: “I believe that Visser has captured the very sound of Limbo.”

The effect on audiences was astonishing. From the first reported performance, in October 1831, there were accounts of seizures, faintings, and fits of epilepsy among the spectators; though some accused Visser of paying actors to mimic and encourage such convulsions, the phenomenon appears to have been accepted as genuine. Mass motor hysteria would most likely be the diagnosis today, though a physician from Gossl who witnessed one performance proposed theories having to do with electrical contagion; others linked the Fantasy to the Sistine Chapel Syndrome, the hysterics to which certain foreign women-English spinsters, chiefly- sometimes fell prey while viewing the artistic treasures of Italy. In any event, the Fantasy was a short-lived sensation. From its debut in the fall of 1831 until his death the following January, Visser performed the piece perhaps thirty times. He was said to be traveling to Paris to play for the Princess Tversky's salon-the fame of the Fantasy had, conveniently, paroled his reputation-when he was killed stupidly, needlessly, in a tavern in Cologne, knifed in a dispute over cards, so the story goes.

People naturally believed that the Fantasy died with him; even the stupendously gifted Liszt refused to attempt it, rather defensively dismissing the piece as “a waste of time, an oddity based on an alien formation of the hand.” One might study the score as scholars study the texts of a dead language, but the living sound was thought to be lost forever, until that day in 1891 when Leo and Hermine Kuhl brought their six-year-old daughter to the Vienna studio of Herr Moritz Puchel. Herr Puchel listened to the girl play Chopin's “Aeolian Harp” étude; he gave her a portion of Beethoven's A-flat Sonata to sight-read, which she did without stress; he confirmed, as her current teacher, Frau Holzer, had told him, that the child did indeed have perfect pitch. Finally he asked Anna Kuhl to stand before him and place her hands on his upturned palms.

“Yes,” he said gravely, much in the manner of a doctor giving an unhappy diagnosis, “someday she will play Visser's Fantasy.”

Herr Puchel himself had been a prodigy, a student of Czerny’s, who in turn had been a student of Beethoven’s; though he was an undeniably brilliant musician, Puchel's own career as a virtuoso had been thwarted by the misfortune of thin, bony hands. He had, instead, made his reputation as a teacher, and by the age of sixty had achieved such a degree of eminence that he accepted only those students who could answer in the affirmative the following three questions:

Are you a prodigy?

Are you of Slavic descent?

Are you Jewish?

This, the Catholic Puchel believed, was the formula for greatness, and Anna Kuhl qualified on all counts. The Kuhls came from Olomouc, in Moravia-a town, as would often be noted, that has some claim as Visser's birthplace-where Anna's grandfather founded the textile factory on which the family fortune was based; by the time of Anna's birth, Leo and his brothers had built a textile empire substantial enough to be headquartered in the Austrian capital. The Kuhls were typical of Vienna's upper-class Jewry: politically liberal, culturally and linguistically German, their Judaism little more than a pious family memory, they devoted themselves to artistic and intellectual attainment as a substitute for the social rank which would always be denied them. And yet the desire to assimilate, to be viewed as complete citizens, was strong; theirs was a world in which any departure from convention provoked intense, if grimly decorous, fear, and the Kuhls were so horrified by Anna's deformity that they considered amputation in the hours after her birth. When the doctor could not assure them that the infant would survive the shock, the parents relented, though one may reasonably wonder if they were ever completely rid of their instinctive revulsion, or of the more rarefied, if no less desperate, fear that Anna's condition threatened their tenuous standing in society.

Great pianists manifest the musical impulse early, usually around age four; for Anna Kuhl the decisive moment came at two, when Frau Holzer, giving a lesson to Anna's older brother, discovered that the little girl had perfect pitch. On further examination the child revealed astonishing powers of memory and muscular control, as well as profound sensitivity to aural stimulus-she wept on hearing Chopin for the first time, burst into fierce, agonal sobs as if mourning some inchoate yet powerfully sensed memory. Frau Holzer undertook to form the child's talent; by age four Anna had composed her first song, “Good Morning,” and by age six had mastered the Versuch, The Well-Tempered Clavier and most of Chopin's Études. That year she performed at an exhibition of the city's young pianists, playing with such artistry that Grunfeld, the notoriously saccharine court pianist, was seen shaking his head and mumbling to himself as he left the hall.

“A prodigy,” Frau Holzer wrote in her recommendation to Herr Puchel. “Memorizes instantly; staggering technique and maturity of expression; receptive to hard work, instruction, challenge.” Regarding what Frau Holzer chose to call the child's “unique anatomy,” Puchel was matter-of-fact to the point of brusqueness, devising technical drills suited to Anna's conformation but otherwise focusing, for the present, on the traditional repertoire. Herr Puchel-stout, bushy-bearded, with a huge strawberry of a nose and endearingly tiny feet-had concluded after forty years of teaching that his students would never be truly happy unless coaxed and cudgeled to that peak of performance in which nervous breakdown is a constant risk. Students, by definition, could not reach Parnassus alone; they were too weak of will, too dreamy and easily distracted; they had to be cultivated into that taut, tension-filled state without which pure and lasting art is impossible. Thus it was that visitors to Herr Puchel's studio could hear “Falsch!” regularly screamed from the teaching room. “Falsch!” der Meister would shriek at the first missed note, “Start over!,” his screams punctuated in summer by the swack of the flyswatter with which he defended his territory against Vienna's plague of flies. In moments of extreme aesthetic crisis he would push aside his student and sit at the piano, hike up his legs and pound the keyboard with his dainty feet, legs churning like a beetle stuck on its back. “You sound like this!” he would howl at the offender, though his gruff tenderness could be equally effective. “Don’t be afraid to stick your neck out,” he is said to have told one student after a risky, rubato-laced polonaise. “You might find that it gets stroked instead of chopped off.”

A dangerous man, yet prodigious in his results, and apparently Anna responded to this sort of treatment. By all accounts she was a preternatu-rally serious little girl, self-assured, disposed to silence but precise in speech, with an aura of unapproachability that discouraged all but the very determined or very frivolous. A photographic portrait made at the time shows a girl as slender and graceful as a tulip stem, with long, ringlet-ted masses of black hair, deep-set dark eyes, high Slavic cheekbones and skin as pale as January snow. At this age she seems unconscious of her unique right hand, or perhaps trusting is a better word; she has allowed herself to be posed with her fingers draped to full effect across the back of a Roentgen chair.

“A perfect breeze of a girl,” is how the Salonblatt, Vienna's snob-society newspaper, described the young Anna. “A perfect breeze who turns into an exquisite storm when seated before the eighty-eight black and white keys.” Puchel believed that the loftiest musical heights could be reached only through the ordeal of performance; he wanted Anna to start playing in public immediately, and arranged through court connections her society debut at a soirée of the Princess Montenuovo. Salonblatt rhapsodized over the playing of this “mystical” child whose arpeggios “flashed and shimmered like champagne,” while the Baroness Flotow left an account in her diary of a charmingly poised little girl who devastated the company with Chopin's Nocturnes, ate cakes and drank Turkish coffee with the ladies, and complained about the quality of the piano.

She continued awing the impressionable aristocracy for several years, until Puchel judged that she was seasoned enough for her concert debut. In October 1895, the Berlin Philharmonic was scheduled to perform in Vienna; when Julius Epstein, the featured pianist, fell ill, Puchel arranged for Anna to take his place, and after the monumental program of Beethoven's C major Concerto, a set of Rameau variations, the Weber-Liszt Pollacca, and a Chopin group consisting of the “Berceuse,” the E-flat “Nocturne,” and the E-minor Waltz, the girl prodigy left Vienna gasping for air. Brahms toasted her in absentia that night, at a banquet intended to honor the suddenly forgotten Epstein; Mahler enthused over her sonorities and golden tone, while both traditional and Secessionist critics marveled at her luminously refined technique, her uncalculated emotion and spontaneity. Agents and concert managers came seething; after interviewing numerous candidates, Leo and Hermine settled on the well-known agent Sigi Korn-blau, who appears to have been the kind of dry, hustling administrator that every genius needs, although Anna reportedly told her cousins that visits with Herr Kornblau were “not much fun,” and “rather like going to the dentist.” Within weeks the young virtuoso and her entourage-her mother, her French governess, a servant girl named Bertha, and Herr Puchel, who carried along a dummy keyboard for practice on the train- had embarked on her first European tour, and for the next three years she alternated between prolonged seasons of close-packed concert dates, and equally demanding, if more solitary, periods of study and practice.

Many have speculated as to the brutalizing effect of such a life on someone who was, after all, a mere child. Regulating Anna's program would seem to have been within the power of her parents, but it appears that Leo and Hermine were no less susceptible than their fellow bourgeois to validation by the aristocracy. Through Anna they might cross, for brief moments at least, the glacis separating them from the remote nobility. Their daughter's labors brought them acceptance, and whatever the cost to Anna in personal terms, the strain seemed not to diminish-perhaps even enhanced?-the remarkable message of her playing. Like all virtuosos, she had exemplary technique: critics wrote of her fluent, almost chaste clarity, the pinpoint accuracy of her wide skips and galloping chords, the instinctive integrity of her rubato and her broad dynamic range, from shadowlike pianissimo to artillery-grade forte. But more than that there was the singularity of her sound, the “golden sound” that the critics never tired of describing, along with a tenderness of expression that ravished her listeners. This was not yet another robotic prodigy pumping out notes like a power sewing machine; there was, rather, a quality of innocence in her playing, an effusion of trust and vulnerability all the more remarkable for being conveyed through supreme artistry.

“The child,” wrote Othmar Wieck, a critic not known for charity, “is a veritable angel come down to earth.” And in Vienna, a city that more than cherished art, that craved it as an escape from the gloom and pessimism that had settled over the empire in the century's final years, it was perhaps only natural that people would project their fears and longings onto the young virtuoso. Haut bourgeois concertgoers openly wept at her performances, while for others she became an object of obsession, her name turning up with arcane frequency in suicide notes or the vertiginous ramblings of the mentally disturbed. But even those of sturdier, less enervated natures would lapse into deep melancholy after one of her concerts, as if they’d sensed within their grasp some piece of information crucial to existence, only to feel it slip away as the last note was played.

Her first “phase,” as the family neatly termed such episodes, seems to have occurred in the autumn of her thirteenth year. Engagements in Brussels, Paris, and Berlin were abruptly canceled, due to “temporary illness,” according to the notice released by Herr Kornblau's office, though even then there were rumors of a nervous attack. Some said that Anna was under the care of the famous Professor Meynert; others, that she was in residence at the luxurious psychiatric retreat of Professor Leidesdorf where doctors in white gloves and silk top hats administered the latest in electric and water-immersion therapies. In any event, the young virtuosos reemergence several weeks later marks the first known instance in which she kept her right hand purposely concealed. Anna, along with her parents and a number of family friends, attended the opening of the Kunstlerhaus exhibition in late October; she was observed wearing a tailored suit of steel-grey bengaline, the long sleeves that grazed her palms even further extended by a ruffled trim of Irish lace. She carried in addition an embroidered silk kerchief wrapped as if casually about her right hand, and from that time forward the young pianist never showed her hand in public until the instant she sat before the keyboard.

Commentators have noted in this eccentricity all the characteristics of a neurotic symptom. Without doubt, the compulsively veiled hand, as well as the “phases” during which she retreated from the outside world, indicate significant stress in the girl's life. Some have portrayed these symptoms as a response to her treatment by the pan-German press, which, in the course of advocating the union of Austria's German-speaking regions with the Reich, had begun to review her performances in the manner of anti-Semitic diatribes. Others surmise that these were a sensitive girl's reactions to the more general malaise hanging over the city, although the pursuit of art, with its constant, debilitating risk of failure, not to mention the solitude and unwholesome narcissism that sustained concentration necessarily entails, is, even in the best of circumstances, enough to induce the entire range of pyschopathy. That Anna was merciless with herself, and suffered accordingly, is evident from her cousin Hugo's diaries. For instance, in the entry dated 11 November 1898, we find Anna telling Hugo:

It's only when I’m with you that I’m allowed not to work.

And on 5 December, in response to Hugo's entreaties not to strain herself:

She looked down at her shoes and smiled to herself, as if I were a rather dense little boy who’d asked her to make the river stand still.

“To play well-I suppose I’ve always assumed that it's a matter of life and death.”

It was Hugo to whom the family turned when Anna lapsed into one of her phases. Hugo Kuhl was destined to become a minor celebrity of the age, an ironic, deliciously blasé feuilletoniste for the liberal press and the author of a number of drawing-room plays, of which The Escape Artist and Dinner with Strangers are still known to scholars. But at the time in question Hugo was merely a literary-minded student at the university, known to his circle as a stylish, handsome wit of no defined vocational goal, also an accomplished amateur pianist with a sec touch. It seems that he alone, out of all Anna's siblings and numerous cousins, could give some organizing principle to the drift of her phases, during which Anna managed to dress and feed herself but little else.

21 March

To Uncle Leo's flat in the P.M.

Anna listless, almost catatonic, Hermine tearing around like a fishwife, railing at her to practice-

Shame on you, Anna, for shame! Herr Puchel will be so furious!

Anna silent, tears in her eyes; I could have cheerfully throttled dear aunt at that moment. Chose instead to move A into the afternoon sun, onto the cut-velvet sofa by the window. Sat for a peaceful hour while I read Tantchen Rosmarin aloud, As head on my shoulder. For me, a perfect hour. For her, I imagine that existence was almost tolerable.

In fact Hugo was basically helpless when confronted with a phase, and admitted as much in his diaries. His therapy seemed to consist of taking her out for long walks on the Ringstrasse, or among the earthier amusements and shops of the Prater. The two cousins were often seen strolling arm in arm, a strikingly handsome, fashionably dressed young couple, and yet mismatched for all their good looks and evident wealth: Hugo obviously too old to be Anna's suitor, Anna clearly too young to be Hugo's wife. Even so, some have suggested that their devotion to one another surpassed the usual bond of sympathetic cousins, and, indeed, there are aspects of the diaries that imply infatuation. Hugo notes even their most casual physical contact, as when Anna places her arm on his, or their legs happen to brush while riding in a carriage. He remarks frequently on her beauty, variously describing it as “radiant,” “precocious,” and “disabling,” and once comparing her, without his usual irony, to Rembrandt's sublime portraits of Jewish women. And then there are the insights which come of close observation, as when he tries to make sense of Anna's stern artistic will:

When one is sickened by ugliness, tedium, stupidity, false feeling-by daily life, in other words-one must construct rigorous barriers of tact and taste in order to survive.

They walked in all weathers, at all times of day, sometimes covering the entire four kilometers of the Ringstrasse. After one such outing Hugo made this terse entry:

Walking with A today on the Ring.

Insolent thugs holding a meeting in the park opposite the Reich-srat, chanting, singing vile Reform Union songs.

Cries of ostjuden -they actually threatened us!

I have never been so furious in my life. Still trembling six hours later, as I write this.

A in a state of collapse.

Witnesses gave a decidedly sharper account of the incident, which arose not in connection with a Reform Union “meeting,” but rather a demonstration by some Christian Social toughs over the language rights bill currently paralyzing Parliament. These witnesses-including a Dienst-mann on break and the note-bearer to the Emperor's First Lord Chamberlain-said that perhaps thirty demonstrators strutted out of the park and approached the young couple chanting “Jew, where is your patch? Jew, where is your patch?,” an obvious reference to the triangular yellow patch that Jews were required to wear before emancipation. It was unknown whether the mob specifically recognized the Kuhls, or simply assumed they were Jewish on the basis of looks; in any event, they continued chanting as they surrounded the couple, crowding in so closely that there was, as a nearby coachman put it, “a good deal of mushing about, not blows exactly.” With one arm around Anna, the other fending off the mob, Hugo maintained a slow but determined progress past the park. Eventually the mob broke into laughter and fell away, manifesting a mood that was, on that day at least, more sportive than resolutely bloody.

Months later Hugo was still brooding in his diary, his humiliation evident; as for the young virtuoso, if the incident put her in a state of collapse, she recovered quickly. Within the week she traveled to Budapest and performed a program of Beethoven's C minor Concerto and Brahms's Paganini Variations. Her novel handling of Brahms's octave glissandos was especially stunning, the way she took them prestissimo, staccato, and pianissimo all in one, producing a feverish, nearly unbearable nervous effect which electrified the critics no less than the crowd.

“The child,” Heuberger wrote in the Neue freie Presse, “does not play like a child, but with the mastery of genius powered by long and serious study.” The pan-German press reviewed the performance in typically viperish tones. “Like glass shattering,” the Deutsche Zeitung said of the sounds she produced. “Her hair is almost as beautiful as Paderewski’s,” the Deutsches Volksblatt sarcastically remarked, adding, “the position of her fingers on the keys reminded one of spiders.” Her fingers: though Puchel's technical exercises ensured that all fingers developed equally, the teacher had not, to this point, chosen to emphasize her sixth finger in performance, though it could be heard, or perhaps more accurately, felt, in the cascades of her arpeggios and brass-tinged double notes, the dizzying helium lift of her accelerando. But at some point during the spring or summer of 1899 Herr Puchel sat Anna before the Fantasy. Even from the beginning, practice sessions devoted to that work took place in the privacy of the Kuhls’ comfortable Salesianergasse apartment, rather than in Puchel's more accessible Rathaus studio. In the interest of maximizing box-office receipts, Kornblau had decreed to Anna's inner circle that the dormant and presumed-lost Fantasy would be presented to the public with all the drama and mystery of a Strauss debut.

“Such an odd piece,” Hugo recorded after hearing it for the first time. “And needlessly difficult; Visser's rolled chords seem impossible even for Anna's hands.” Several days later he makes this entry:

Lunch at Sacher Garden w/Anna, Hermine, Mother.

When I brought up the Fantasy, the weirdness of it, A simply smiled. “Visser was enjoying himself when he wrote that,” she said. “He was being himself, perhaps for the first time in his life. I suppose it felt like taking a deep breath after holding it in for all those years.”

“But do you like it?” I asked her. “The sound of the thing, I mean.”

Answer: “I like him. I like him in that particular piece, though he scares me.”

Scares you?

She laughed. “Yes, because he's flaunting it. The thing that made him different. Which seems dangerous, in a way.”

Engagements throughout Europe were scheduled for the fall, among them a series in London in which she would play twenty-two of Beethoven's sonatas. In the midst of her preparations Anna was approached by officials from the Ministry of Culture, requesting her, as the child prodigy and pride of Vienna, to take part in a special Wagner program. In an attempt to defuse rising political tensions, the government was promoting those aspects of culture that all of the empire's competing factions shared. Thus it was no coincidence that Anna, a Jew, was being asked to perform Wagner, the champion of pagan vigor and Teutonic mysticism so beloved by the pan-German zealots.

And beloved, incidentally, by Anna as well; she agreed. The evening approached with much fanfare; even the Emperor Franz Josef would attend, emerging from high mourning for the late empress, stabbed to death in Geneva the previous year by the anarchist Luccheni. The program began well enough. Winkelmann roused the audience with “Der Augen leucht-endes Paar;” Schmedes and Lehman lifted them further with the “Heil dir, Sonne!” from Siegfried. Anna took the stage and was fairly into the Prelude from Tristan when jeers of “Hep! Hep!” rang out from the audience. Within moments everyone understood: a contingent of pan-Germans had taken a block of seats near the stage, and on prearranged signal they began braying the classic anti-Semitic insult. Others in the audience tried to shout them down while a phalanx of policemen came scurrying down the aisle; in the meantime Anna set her jaw and played on, furnishing heady background music for the impending riot. At the last moment, just as the police were poised to wade into the seats, the pan-Germans rose and marched out in ranks, singing “Deutschland über Alles” at the top of their lungs.

Until now the pan-German press had, however thinly, veiled its attacks in the rhetoric of musical criticism, but now they savaged Anna with unrestrained glee. “No Jew,” declared one reviewer, “can ever hope to understand Wagner,” and to the list of Jew bankers, Northern Railway Jews, Jew peddlers, Jew thieves and subversive press Jews, they now added “this Jew-girl, this performing metronome with her witch's hand and freakish improvising.” And when word leaked of her intention to perform the Fantasy the following January, her enemies were livid. “A perversion,” the Kyffhauser shrieked of the Fantasy, seizing at once on Visser's putative Jewish origins, “an immoral composition born of the ghettos fetid mewlings and melancholies,” while the Deutsches Volksblatt called it “degenerate, antisocial music, full of contempt for all great ideals and aspirations.” The liberal press counterattacked with accusations of revanchism and demagoguery, the pan-Germans fired back in shrill paranoid-racist style, and the battle was joined.

Herr Kornblau, of course, could not have been more pleased. The contract had already been signed for Anna's performance at the Royal Opera House on the twentieth of January; she would present the Fantasy in a program that, calculated for balancing effect, would include such standards as Liszt's Love Dreams and Beethoven's “Moonlight” sonata, along with works by Mozart, Schumann, and Chopin. Meanwhile Anna continued her rigorous schedule of practice and performance. She played in Berlin's Kroll Hall, battling the poor acoustics, then Leipzig, Paris, and London, which brought her back to fractious Vienna in mid-November with a scathing cough and bruiselike discs beneath her eyes. Hugo was clearly worried for his cousin; “elle travaille comme une negresse,” he confided to his diary, and then there is this entry for November 29: “I feel as if Anna is being slowly ground up.” Her name figured in the parliamentary debates over the new, allegedly decadent, art; Deutsches Volksblatt, the paper of the ascendant Christian Socials, warned that “fists will have to go into action on January 20,” while the writers of the Young Vienna movement published a pro-Kuhl manifesto, vowing to meet the “barbarization” of public life with an equal strength of purpose.

She gave her final concert of the century in December, at the Royal German Theater in Prague. It was, at her insistence and over her managers’ objections, a program consisting entirely of Chopin. Those present said that she looked pale and strained; critics noted a fragile, almost glass-ine quality in her playing, which seemed to heighten rather than diminish the emotional effect. “She was dreaming,” the Countess Lara von Pergler recorded in her memoirs, “and she allowed us to dream with her. It is a dream which, after all these years, haunts me still.” And indeed, it appears that Anna captured the rare essence of Chopin that night. Romantic and expressive, yet aristocratic and restrained, it is difficult even for masters to convey the spirit of Chopin, which is, ultimately, sadness. Not the sadness of great tragedy, but the irredeemable sadness of time itself: days pass, the world changes, and that which we most treasure must inevitably be lost.

Wednesday 20 December

To Uncles; pretended to read while Anna practiced, then got her bundled in her cloak and out the door before Hermine et al. could come along, thank God.

Grey skies, bitter cold; plane trees along the Ring limned in snow. Walked in contented silence for a kilometer, her arm on mine. Blessed moments! We understand silence, cousin and I.

“How do you do it?” I finally asked. “What you create on the piano, how do you do it?”

A: “I concentrate, and I hear it. But I must concentrate very hard-that's the value of practice, really, learning to concentrate properly, but in a way it's not me, it's something coming through me. If I concentrate very hard it comes through me.

“Then there's this.” She pulled her right hand out of her muff, shot back her sleeve and held up her hand, examining it as one might judge a piece of fruit.

“You see this.” She was smiling! Smiling as she waggled her extra finger, and blushing, her breath rapid. I was excited too. “This isn’t mine either.”

“Nonsense,” I said. “It's yours and it's wonderful, just as everything about you is wonderful.” But she only shrugged and slipped her hand back inside the muff.

At the time she was trying to master the nearly impossible fingering of the Fantasy, a task made harder by the fact that her hands were much smaller than Visser’s-she could stretch somewhat past an octave with her left, and marginally better than that with her right. In the midst of her efforts Christmas came and went, followed by the turning of the century. Hugo duly noted the fireworks and balls in his diary, along with the latest crises in Parliament, new ideas for plays, and his obsessive running count of the city's suicides, a not unusual preoccupation in Vienna-to the mys- tification and endless fascination of its citizens, the Austrian capital led Europe in the self-murder statistic. He rather dryly records as well his engagement to Flora Lanner, the blond, beautiful, magnificently wealthy daughter of Oskar Lanner, manufacturer of fruit conserves. By all appearances it would be a brilliant match, not least for the families’ smooth pragmatism regarding matters of faith; though Jewish, the Lanners were so fully assimilated that two of Floras brothers had been baptized in order to join the Imperial Officer Corps. Whether Hugo's engagement had any bearing on his cousin's fate-whether, bluntly put, he and Anna were in love, and the engagement a source of despair to her-is impossible, at this late date, to say; the chaos of two world wars, not to mention a highly efficient program of genocide, have erased much evidence which we otherwise might have had, and Hugo demonstrates in his surviving diaries a sure talent for glossing over his own emotional turbulence.

In any case, his famous cousin soon found herself the object of a nerve-shredding public hysteria. The pan-Germans continued their threats to disrupt the concert, citing as justification the “occult” fits and seizures which the Fantasy had induced seventy years before. The Secessionist and Young Vienna movements appropriated the young pianist as their champion, while a congeries of beards from the conservatory accused Anna and her managers of sensationalism, fomenting needless conflict for publicity purposes. An obsessed fan worked out a dizzying mathematical correlation between the date of Visser's death and Anna's birthday, which the Abendpost featured in a front-page story. Professors of neurology and musicology were invited to propose theories explaining the Fantasy’s violent effect on listeners, while Sigmund Freud-obscure, struggling, no longer young, shunned by the medical establishment and passed over for professorship-followed the controversy from his office on the Berggasse, where he read the newspapers and wrote The Interpretation of Dreams in the long stretches between patient appointments.

“You don’t have to do this, you know,” Hugo told Anna on January 11. “Nobody would blame you for backing out.” “Nor you,” is the curt answer which he recorded-apropos of Flora? Mayor Lueger of the Christian Social party said that he could not guarantee security outside the Royal Opera on the evening of the twentieth, citing “forces beyond all but the Almighty's control.” But the young virtuoso was nevertheless resolved. Those with access to the Kuhl household at this time reported that Anna was the very essence of composure; though it seems that a phase was widely feared, and perhaps secretly desired, among her inner circle, she practiced unstintingly each day, the Beethoven, the Liszt, her beloved Chopin, and the Fantasy over which her fingers were gradually gaining control. Pianists will tell you that they practice in order to reduce the risk of catastrophe, but they know that to play with complete safety is an insult to their art. Music demands risk, a condition that Anna seems to have embraced with near-manic devotion, as if by engaging the demons inherent in her art she could destroy all claims they might have on her.

Overwrought fans, and on several occasions journalists, were caught infiltrating the Kuhls’ apartment house in hopes of overhearing Anna practice. An old man, one Zolmar Magg of Lvov, a tanner, was discovered to have heard Visser perform the Fantasy in 1831, and the local music society appealed for funds to send him to Vienna for the revival. And on January 16 Hugo makes this entry:

To Uncles in the P.M. I can hardly bear to listen to the thing now, this Fantasy, this nightmare-it's like a dream in which you’re trying to flee some hideous creature, yet for all your terror your legs refuse to move.

The following day the Ministry of Culture announced that it was unilaterally canceling Anna's engagement at the Royal Opera House, citing security concerns and the previous autumn's Wagner debacle, for which, the Ministry's communiqué suggested, Fräulein Kuhl was in part responsible. Even as shock resolved into shrill outcry a second announcement was made, this time issuing from the Theater an der Wien, one of Vienna's oldest theaters and its leading operetta house. The impresario Alexandrine von Schonerer, owner and director of the theater and, incidentally, estranged sister of the notorious anti-Semite George von Schonerer, had offered to suspend her current production of Die Fledermaus so that Anna might perform the Fantasy as scheduled. Kornblau publicly conveyed the Kuhls’ acceptance of the offer, noting that the Theater an der Wien had generously chosen to honor all tickets for the Royal Opera venue; the following day, the eighteenth, the pan-German press went into convulsions, calling for vengeance on “the Semitic vampires and their insipid hangers-on” and once again vowing to enjoin the concert. That afternoon the adjutant gen- eral announced that the emperor's own First Hussars would be deployed in the streets around the theater, with orders to ensure the strictest security.

Thursday 18 January

Anna detached, quite removed from the outer chaos. What Kornblau, Leo, everyone fears most is a phase-Puchel looks to be on the verge of a stroke, so great is his anxiety-but it doesn’t occur to any of them that a phase might be the most normal response to all of this.

And yet she carries on-meals, lessons, study, practice, all in the coolest way imaginable. A method of storing up energy, I suppose. Tonight I played “Soirées de Vienne” for her after dinner, then read Goethe aloud, Italian Journey.

“I will be at your side, every step,” I told her, which she acknowledged with a grave nod. “God bless you, Hugo.”

“God bless you”-the truly blessed would get her out of here, had he the slightest scrap of courage.

For the performance she chose a black, full-skirted gown with dark brocade roses, a shirred waist and a high collar of mousseline de soie. A light snow was falling that evening as she and her entourage departed the Salesianergasse, the flakes fine and dry as ash, forming brilliant silver aureoles around the street lamps. Approaching the theater they began to pass mounted hussars at the street corners, the soldiers magnificent in their blue capes with sable trim, their crested helmets and gold-edged riding boots. Soon the streets were filled with carriages all moving in a thick yet peaceable flow toward the theater. As the pan-Germans had vowed, the virtuoso experienced difficulty in reaching her destination, but it was this mass of coaches, rather than virile nationalism, which proved to be her sole hindrance-Anna was delayed by her own traffic jam, in effect.

Frau von Schonerer received her at an obscure side entrance to the theater, along with a captain of the hussars, six uniformed police, the theater superintendent and three muscular assistants, as well as two plainclothes agents from the emperor's secret police. Anna was escorted first to her dressing room to remove her cloak, then to a basement rehearsal space where a Bösendorfer grand stood waiting for her final warm-up. Puchel entered with Anna and shut the door, leaving the others to endure the chilly hall while Anna ran through fragments of her repertoire, the glorious bursts of notes and supple noodlings followed by Puchel's muffled voice as he delivered last-minute instructions.

“So small,” the hussar captain later remarked, describing Anna as she left the rehearsal room. “So frail and small, it seemed impossible that this delicate girl could be the cause of so much furor.” With the theater superintendent and police in the lead, Puchel and Frau von Schonerer on either side, Anna walked amid a vast entourage back to her dressing room, thirty or more people snaking with her through the backstage labyrinth. The captain was close at her heels, then her parents, her uncles, Hugo and several other cousins, Kornblau and his mistress, then a trailing flotsam of stagehands and well-connected journalists. For twenty minutes Anna sat in a corner of the dressing room while this crowd was allowed to mingle about, sampling the sumptuous buffet of meats and cheeses and admiring the flowers and telegrams sent by well-wishers. Hermine and Kornblau, still in mortal dread of a phase, sought to distract the young pianist with trivial chatter. Hugo positioned himself nearby, saying nothing, while Frau von Schonerer furnished periodic updates on the size and eminence of the audience.

“She seemed to withdraw into herself,” Hugo wrote later, “to seek some deep, unfathomable place within her soul, a refuge from this ridiculous melee.” Finally, at ten minutes to eight, Anna announced that she wished to be alone. Her parents and managers protested, fearing a collapse, but the girl was firm.

“I must have these last few minutes to myself.”

“But at least Herr Puchel-” Hermine began.

“No one.”

“Then Hugo, dear Hugo-”

“No one,” Anna insisted. “I won’t set foot on that stage unless I have this time alone.” With difficulty, amid pleas and anxious protestations, the room was cleared and the door shut. For several minutes the entourage was forced to stare at itself out in the hall; presently the stage manager arrived to inform Frau von Schonerer that the audience was seated, the scheduled hour had come. Kornblau relayed this information through the closed door. Some said that what followed came within moments, others, that at least a minute had passed-in any event everyone heard it, a crack, a sharp report within the dressing room.

“Like a small-caliber pistol,” one of the policemen said later; the captain compared it to the bark of a smartly snapped whip, while Hugo described it as the sound of a block of ice spontaneously splitting in two. For a moment no one moved, then several of the men leaped for the door, piling into an absurd heap when it refused to yield. The superintendent was pushing forward with his ball of keys when Anna spoke from within.

“I’m fine,” she called in a flat, faintly disgusted voice. “I just fell, that's all. I’m fine.”

The superintendent hesitated. He was still standing there, frozen, when Anna unlocked the door and stepped into the hall, her eyes firm, her carriage irreproachably straight, her face pale and fixed as a carnival mask. She proceeded down the hall with the measured walk of a bride; Hugo, who happened to be standing near the superintendent, fell into step beside her, taking her arm and guiding her through the crowd, which closed ranks behind them in a flurry of whispers. He later recounted how he spoke to her several times as they made their way to the backstage area, asking if she was well, if she’d injured herself; so great was her concentration that she seemed not to hear. He stood with her in the wings as Frau von Schonerer, with all the force of her dramatic training, gave a prolonged and eloquent introduction in which the significance of the performance was justly noted. When she concluded, as previously agreed, Anna did not appear at once; rather, she waited until Frau von Schonerer had left the stage, then stepped onto a platform empty of all save the piano and bench.

To those standing in the wings, the ovation which greeted Anna swept over the stage like a shock wave. The audience rose to its feet as if physically impelled, the thunder of hands rippling with cries of “Brave girl! Beautiful girl!” Anna walked toward the piano, then unaccountably veered toward the front of the stage, proceeding to the apron's far edge as if to acknowledge, even encourage the volcanic applause. Slowly, almost shyly, she removed the kerchief with which her right hand was concealed, then extended her hand toward the audience. Witnesses said later that the effect was one of indescribable horror, how the applause of those who failed to understand mixed with the gasps and shrieks of those who did, until, at the very last, a kind of groan, a mass, despairing sigh seemed to rise from the audience.

For, in the end, they all saw and understood. A glistening rose of blood had taken root on Anna's hand, shining from the stump of her severed extra finger. This was, in effect, her final performance, the last instance on record in which she appeared in public; indeed, from that point forward Anna Kuhl disappears so thoroughly from history that she might have been plucked from the face of the earth. No explanation for her self-mutilation was ever forthcoming, neither from Anna, nor her family, nor the concert-making industry which had so stringently run the better part of her life. Some have surmised that heartbreak was the primary cause; others, the strain of performing in such a charged and poisonous atmosphere, of finding herself the prey of a new, peculiarly intoxicating politics of hate. Or perhaps she sensed, through the harrowing susceptivity of her art, where these forces would lead us in the new century? But we remain as pitifully ignorant as her audience, which for many moments could do no more than stare at her ruined hand. They were in shock; many sank as if numbed to their chairs, while others staggered in a daze toward the exits, and only later, much later, would it occur to them that the Fantasy was now lost forever, its score as useless as a mute artifact, or the vaporous relic of a forgotten dream.

Charles D’Ambrosio

The High Divide

from The New Yorker

AT THE Home I’d get up early, when the Sisters were still asleep, and head to the ancient Chinese man's store. The ancient Chinese man was a brown, knotted, shriveled man who looked like a chunk of ginger-root and ran one of those tiny stores that sell grapefruits, wine, and toilet paper, and no one can ever figure out how they survive. But he survived, he figured it out. His ancient Chinese wife was a little twig of a woman who sat in a chair and never said a word. He spoke only enough English to conduct business, to say hello and good-bye, to make change, although every morning, when I came for my grapefruit, I tried to teach him some useful vocabulary.

I came out of the gray drizzle through the glass door with the old Fish-back Appliance Repair sign still stenciled on it, a copper cowbell clanging above me, and the store was cold, the lights weren’t even on. I went to the bin and picked through the grapefruits and found one that wasn’t bad, a yellow ball, soft and square from sitting too long in the box, and then I went to the counter. The Chinese man wasn’t there. His tiny branchlike wife was sitting in her chair, all bent up. I searched my pockets for show, knowing all along that I’d be a little short. I came up with twenty-seven cents, half a paper clip, a pen cap, and a ball of blue lint. I put the money in her hand and she stared at it. By the lonesome sound my nickels and pennies made when she sorted them into their slots I also knew that the till was empty.

I looked behind her through the beaded curtain to the small apartment behind the shop. Next to the kitchen sink was an apple with a bite out of it, the bite turned brown like an old laugh.

I held my grapefruit, tossed it up in the air, caught it.

Where is he? I asked.

She was chewing on a slice of ginger and offered me a piece, which I accepted. In the morning, they chewed ginger instead of drinking coffee.

Husband? I said.

She blinked and spat on the floor.

Meiyou xiwang, she said. Meiyou xiwang.

She folded her hands, tangling the tiny brown roots together. Meiyou xiwang, she said, touching her heart, and sending her hands flying apart. Her singsong voice beat an echo against the bare walls. Her hands flapped like a bat. I shook my head. Meiyou xiwang, she insisted. Huh? I said, but I knew we could go on forever not making any sense. She hugged herself, like she was cold. I didn’t know what to say. She’d traveled all this way, she’d left China and crossed the ocean and come to Bremerton and opened a little store and put grapefruit in the bins and Mogen David on the shelves, but she’d gone too far, because now she couldn’t tell anybody what was happening to her anymore.

I had two projects at the Home. I was reading the encyclopedia, working through the whole circle of learning available to man, as the introduction said. I’d started with Ignatius Loyola, because I’m named after him, and the Inquisition, and this led me right into the topic of torture.

My other project involved learning Latin so I could be an altar boy. I got the idea one morning at Sacred Heart while I was staring at the cold altar and the Cross and winking at the nailed-up Christ to see if he’d wink back. Our priest said that he didn’t go for the vernacular because it was vulgar. If you were God Eternal, he said, would you want to listen to such yowling? He said that everything in the Church was a sign for something else, and a priest was a man who knew all the signs, but an altar boy knew a few of them, too. I looked around the sanctuary. With the snowy marble slab of altar, the gilt dome of the tabernacle and its tiny doors, the chalices and cruets, the fresh-cut flowers, the sparkling candlelight, the sanctuary was like a foreign country, and if I knew the language I could go there.

Several times I read the Missal as far as the Minor Elevation, the part of the Mass just after you pray for the dead. Per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen. World without end. Amen. But I was trying to learn Latin with phonetics-the Missal was Latin on one side, English on the other-and, needless to say, my comprehension was zero, and I was always finding myself back at the beginning, starting over. Per omnia saecula saeculorum, amen!

Most of our schoolwork focused on how to get into Heaven. Sister Eulalia, the catechism nun, taught us about sin and the opportunities for salvation. She was a short, wide old woman with thick glasses and blue eyes that drifted behind them like tropical fish. She kept calling Jesus the Holy Victim and the Word Made Flesh and the Unspotted Sacrifice. She said that sacrifice didn’t mean to kill but to make holy. We are made in the image of God's great mystery but through our ignorance and despair our vision is clouded. Salvation, she told us, is our presence in a bright light where we at last become the perfect image and reflection of our Creator.

We saw a slide show on the scapular. A boy was riding by a gas station on his bicycle. A man was pumping gas and a family was waiting in a car. Then the gas station was blowing up and the boy was flying through the air. Everybody died but the boy, who was wearing his scapular. Sister Eulalia passed around blank order forms and said to fill them out and bring $2.50 if you thought it was prudent to have a scapular for yourself. I’d spent all my money on grapefruits, though.

At night, in bed, I practiced my prayers. We had to memorize so many at the Home: Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, Act of Faith, of Hope, of Love, of Contrition. Praying either put me to sleep or made me think of girls. Once, I passed a girl a note during class and Sister Josephine, the discipline nun, intercepted it and said someone my age doesn’t know the least thing about love and shouldn’t use that word the way I did. That kind of love is special, she said. It's a rare gift from God, it's the consummation of a union, and it's certainly nothing for children. Sister Josephine called it The Marriage Act. It's embarrassing for me to admit, but she made me cry, she was yelling so much. I never sent another note. Still, I attached a vague feeling of hope to different girls, a feeling of, I don’t know, of whatever, that came out, some nights, when I said prayers.

We had to learn the prayers because we prayed for everything: we prayed for food, we prayed for sleep, we prayed for new basketballs. Three times a day, Sister Catherine, the food nun, took us to the church cafeteria for our meals. Volunteer ladies served us-they were all old and kind and had science-fiction hair, clouds of blue gas, burning white-hot rocket fuel, explosions of atomic frizz. I loved the endless stacks of white bread and the cold slabs of butter. When the nuns said I was underfoot, I went downstairs and studied the encyclopedias or read Latin or went outside and shot buses with my pump gun. Buses passed the Home every twenty-six minutes. I built up my arm pitching rocks at a tree until a circle of pulpy white wood was exposed in the bark. One afternoon I planted a sunflower in a milk carton.

I longed to go somewhere but there wasn’t anywhere good that I knew of. Then one day I found the public-school yard.

What’re you doing here, you stupid shit? asked one kid, a pudgy boy with skin like a baby.

He and some other boys pushed around me in a circle.

The pudge said, Who are you?

When I didn’t answer, he said, You’re one of those orphan bastards, right?

The boys crowded in closer and I was afraid to speak. People could tell you were from the Home by your haircut. We were all shaved up like the Dalai Lama.

Finally, I smiled and mumbled, If you say so.

What? the pudge said. I didn’t hear you.

The circle of boys cinched like a knot. Their looming heads were way up in the sky.

Yeah, I said.

After that I sat below the monkey bars and chewed a butter sandwich and watched pudge-boy and his gang over by the water fountain with some girls and I knew I was going to have to kick his ass sooner or later. Everything else was new and strange but this seemed predictable and something I could rely on.

That spring the pudge had the nerve to try out for baseball. He wore brand-new cleats and threw like a fem and his mitt, also brand-new, very orange and stiff, wouldn’t close. He might as well have been standing in right field with a piece of toast. He dropped everything. The second day of practice, we had an intrasquad game and I nailed him three times. I just chose places on his fat body and threw the ball at them. Eventually, pudge-boy was afraid to stand in the batters box. The coach thought I had a control problem but I didn’t. My control was perfect.

I whiffed nine guys and made the team and the pudge was cut. He walked away, crying. I ran down the hill and jumped on his back. I hit him in the face and the neck and beat on his ear over and over. You hear that? I shouted. You hear that, you fat fucker? Now that I had him alone I was insane. The pudge rolled away on the grass, holding his ear. Blood was coming out. He was bawling, and I hawked a gob of spit right into his black, wailing mouth and said, You bastard.

That night, I was asleep with the encyclopedia pitched like a tent over my nose when Sister Celestine, the head nun, came in.

Why weren’t you at dinner?

I could hear the polished rocks of Sister Celestine's rosary rattling as she worried them between her fingers.

She pulled the encyclopedia off my head.

Won’t you talk? Sister said.

She tucked a dry, stray shaft of hair back beneath her habit. Maybe you’d feel more comfortable making a confession?

I picked at the fuzzballs on my blanket.

I just got off the phone with that boy's mother, she said.

She touched a cut on my lip and took a deep breath. She said you called him a name. Do you know what that name means?

I shook my head.

She took off her scapular and put it around my neck. Two small pieces of brown wool hung on a cord, one in back, the other in front.

I rubbed the wool between my finger and thumb.

It's not magic, she said.


More like a sign, she said, that helps guide people-she paused-like us. When you pray to it you never say Amen, because the prayer is continuous. It doesn’t have an end. Before I received my calling, she said, I used to be a lot like you. I felt trapped. It was like I lived in a dark little corner of my own mind. She sighed. Ignatius, do you know what the opposite of love is?

Hate, I said.

Despair, Sister said. Despair is the opposite of love.

When the pudge came to the yard, he was obviously beat up and everybody wanted to know what happened. Before I could say anything, he came charging across the lot and said, Truce, truce. We shook hands and sat under the monkey bars, which had become my private territory.

I thought Catholics were pansies, he said.

Ignatius Loyola was a warrior, I said.

That's a weird name, the pudge said. My name's Donny

Ignatius, I told him.

I’m sorry I called you a bastard, Donny said. He peeled a strip of red rubber off his tennis shoe and stretched and snapped it in the air. Then he put it in his mouth and chewed on it.

You should meet my dad, he said.

My dad used to race pigeons, I said. He had about a hundred of them.

Donny looked impressed. How do you race pigeons? he asked.

You just drive out to the country and let them go-they always find their way back to the coop. You can use pigeons to send messages.

My dad ate a pigeon once, Donny said. In France.

Donny told me about the Eurekan Territory, which was something he’d made up on summer vacation. The Eurekan Territory came from Eureka, California, where he had relatives he didn’t like. All they did was drink greyhounds, he said, and talk about people you didn’t know. They were always slapping their knees and saying Gosh, isn’t that funny? when nothing was funny.

Donny wasn’t a Catholic but I let him wear my scapular, which he kept on calling a spatula.

You should come over to our house, Donny said. It's big. My dad rakes it in.

I said, You want to go see my dad?

Donny looked at me. Where? he said.

What do you mean, where?

Isn’t he dead?

Follow me, I said.

St. Jude's Hospital was a huge old brick building. A hurricane fence caged in a patio that was scattered with benches and garbage cans. We walked around the fence, plucking the cold wires with our fingers.

My dad was sitting on a bench with a loaf of bread and an orange. He wore a paper nightgown with snaps in the back. His eyes were like blown fuses, and dry white yuck made a crust around his mouth. Wind ruffled his hair. It was too cold to be outside in a paper outfit.

Don’t you want a sweater? I said.

I climbed up the chain-link fence.

This is my friend Donny, I said. Donny, this is my dad, Tony Banner.

Dad was barefoot on one foot and wore a foam-rubber slipper on the other. He grabbed the fence and the links shivered. He looked out west, toward the Olympic Mountains, and we looked, too. It was getting dark.

Hey, Dad?


He dropped a piece of bread through the fence, and a couple of cooing pigeons bobbed along the gutter and fought each other for it. They were ugly pigeons, dirty like a sidewalk. They were right under me and Donny s feet. I kicked one in the head. It fell over, and beat the dirt with its wings.

I’m learning quite a lot of prayers at school, I said.

That got him to laugh. The cuts on his hands were healing. That last week at our house he emptied all the soup cans in the garage and kept the rusty nails in his pockets. One morning for breakfast he served me a bowl of nails with milk and then squeezed a fistful of them in his hand until blood came out. He kept saying with his voice very loud and fast, I got the nails, I got the nails right here, boy-where's my cross, eh? Now he was gentle. He pushed bread through the fence until the loaf was gone and the pigeons flew away, except the one I’d kicked.

I gotta go home and eat, Donny said to me.

Donny s gotta go home and eat, I told my dad, translating for him. I’ve got to go eat, too.

I turned around once, real quick, and he was gripping the fence, looking off nowhere, then Donny and I crawled through a hole in the hedge.

Donny's dad asked us, Who wants to get the hell out of here? Who wants to go hiking in the Olympics? I’d spent most of my summer at Donny s house, so I knew his parents. Mrs. Cheetam was a beautiful woman with silver-and-gold hair. Mr. Cheetam was a traveling salesman and wasn’t home much, but it was true, he raked it in. They bought Donny everything. Donny told me he had a sister who died of leukemia. He played me a cassette of her last farewell. Near the end of the tape she said, Donny? I love you, remember that. I want you to know that wherever I am, and wherever you are, I’ll be watching. I’ll be with you always. I love you. Do you hear me? Donny?

When she said that-I love you. Do you hear me? Donny?-I got a lonely sort of chill.

We’re now leaving the Eurekan Territory! Donny said as we drove away, and I said, That's right. Good-bye, Eurekan Territory!

Mr. Cheetam listened to different tapes from a big collection he kept in a suitcase. They were old radio shows, and one I liked was called The Shadow: Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Mr. Cheetam and Donny knew all the words and talked right along with the tapes. The Shadow knows, they said, ha ha ha!

Later Donny woke up and asked, Where are we? Mr. Cheetam said, You see that river there, Donny? That's the Quinault River, and we’re going to hike up along what's called the High Divide, and when we get to the top we’ll be at the source of that river. You’ll be able to skip right over it, he said, so remember how big it is now. Donny asked, What if we see the Sasquatch? I said we’d be famous, if we captured it. Or took a picture, Donny said. But I don’t want to see it, he added. We parked at the ranger station and signed in. It was silent and we could hear our feet crunching the gravel. We cinched up our pack straps and looked at each other. This is it, Mr. Cheetam said. He looked up the trail. This is where we separate the men from the boys.

After about an hour, we cut off the main path and headed toward the river. This is where I buried my dad, Mr. Cheetam explained. I always visit once a year. Right beside the river was a tree, hanging over the water and shadowing everything. Initials were carved in the tree on the side facing the river. B.C. is Billy Cheetam, Donny said. That's my grandpa. Is he under the tree? I asked. No, no, Mr. Cheetam laughed. He was cremated and I scattered his ashes in the river. But this is the spot, he said. The river was deep and wide at that point. Mr. Cheetam asked if he and Donny could be alone to think and remember and I hiked back out to the main trail. I sat against a fallen log until Donny came back. He talks to him, Donny said. What's he say? I asked, but Donny didn’t know.

Our first camp was disappointing because we could hear Boy Scouts hooting and farting around, a troop of about sixty in green uniforms with red or yellow hankies around their necks. It was like the army, with pup tents everywhere. Mr. Cheetam said not to worry, higher up there wouldn’t be any Scouts.

We found wood and lit a campfire and made dinner-beef Stroganoff- and I sopped up all the gravy with my fingers. We washed the pots and pans with pebbles and sand in the river. Mr. Cheetam drank whiskey from a silver flask, wiping his lips and saying, Aaahhh, this is living!

The Boy Scouts sounded off with taps. Donny and I shared a smoke-wood stogie-a kind of gray stick you could smoke-and when it was quiet Mr. Cheetam cupped his hands around his mouth and moaned, Who stole my Golden Arm? Whooooo stoooole myyyy Goool-den Aaaarm? You could hear his voice echoing in the forest. Whoo stoooole my Gooolden Aaarm? You did! Mr. Cheetam shouted, grabbing Donny. We crawled into our tents and I started laughing and Donny got hysterical, too. Mr. Cheetam had a different tent and told us to shut up.

Donny whispered how he hated the Japs and never wanted to be captured by them-they knew how to make you talk. I told him about the Inquisition and all the tortures they’d invented for getting confessions.

They had this one thing called the press, I said. If you were accused of a crime and didn’t make a plea, the King ordered you to lie down. Then he piled rocks on you until you confessed the truth or got crushed.

How big were the rocks? Donny asked.

I don’t know.

What if you had thirty-what if you had a hundred-no, wait, what if you had a thousand rocks on you and then you decided to tell the truth?

You could, I said. But if you said you didn’t do anything, the King didn’t want to hear that, and he’d just go ahead with another rock, until you admitted you did do it.

Donny hesitated, and I thought I understood.

I know, I said. I know.

At the next camp, only two people were around, a man and a woman, who were sitting naked on a rock in the river when we first arrived, but kept to themselves afterward. Donny and Mr. Cheetam fished for a while but quit after Donny's hook got caught in the trees too many times. Mr. Cheetam said, Don’t worry about it, Donny. It's no good down here. Higher up the water's colder and we’ll catch tons of rainbows, maybe some Dolly Varden.

We ate a great meal of dehydrated chicken tetrazzini and pilot biscuits and chocolate for dessert. Donny and I shared more smokewood. Now and then we added sticks to the fire and the light breathed out and made a circle around us. I love getting away from it all, Mr. Cheetam said.

He tipped back his flask and in the bright curved silver I could see the fire flaming up.

Once upon a time, Mr. Cheetam said, there was a boy and girl who were very much in love.

Where was this? Donny asked.

Oh, Mr. Cheetam said, it doesn’t matter, does it? Love's the same everywhere you go, so let's just make up a place.

How about the Eurekan Territory? I said.

O.K., Mr. Cheetam said. The Eurekan Territory, that's where they were in love. It was a small place, and everybody knew everybody else, so eventually people figured out this boy and girl had a thing going. You know what a thing is, right?

Donny said he did.

Good for you, Mr. Cheetam said. Well, this thing was frowned on by everyone. People took different sides, against the boy, or against the girl, everybody blaming everybody else. But the boy and girl were madly in love and you can’t stop love, not when it's the real thing.

He went to his pack and pulled out a big bottle and refilled his flask. When he came back he said, You know what that's like, to have a real thing?

Donny said, Yeah, I know.

I mean really real, Mr. Cheetam said.

How real? I said.

Mr. Cheetam ignored me. To hell with what anybody thinks, these kids, these lovers, said. So one night the boy meets the girl on the edge of town and they drive up a dark winding road to a lover's leap. They can see everything from up there, but they’re not looking. No sirree, Bob. The boy and the girl sit in the car, spooning, as we used to call it back in the day- making out, and listening to love songs on the radio, until one of the songs is interrupted by a special bulletin. A prisoner has escaped!

Does the prisoner have hooks instead of hands? I asked.

Yeah, Mr. Cheetam said, that's the guy.

How’d you know? Donny asked.

I knew because the story wasn’t true. The girl hears something outside, and the boy says, Oh, baby, baby, don’t worry, we’re way up here above everything, we’re safe. The boy tries to get at the girl, and the girl keeps hearing something outside. Eventually it's no fun, and they go home. When the boy opens the door for the girl to drop her out he finds a hook clawing and banging at the door handle, just clinging there, ripped right off the prisoner's arm.

Mr. Cheetam didn’t scare me, but Donny was scared.

We were quiet for a minute, and then I told them about when my dad was driving in his car. The other car came out of nowhere, I said. And my dad was hanging half out the door. His foot was stuck under the clutch and his head was banging on the road. He was dragged about two hundred feet. He was in the hospital for a month. My mom died.

No one said anything, so I added, That's a true life story.

You don’t think mine was? Mr. Cheetam asked. He looked at me strangely and winked.

Well, I said, yeah, I do. I know it is. I heard about those lovers before.

Mr. Cheetam stood up, stretched, and fell down. Donny and I looked at each other, then we got in our sleeping bags.

Your dad sure enjoys whiskey, I said.

In the middle of the night, Donny said, Hey, you hear that?

Come off it, I said.

I swear I heard something.

There's nothing out there, I said, but Donny went over to sleep in his dad's tent anyway.

We reached a sign that pointed different ways: the High Divide and the Low Divide. We took the high, up and up. There were fewer trees, and we climbed on loose rock called scree, and the air was thinner. Donny had an ugly blister on his heel and complained, and Mr. Cheetam got impatient with him. Just pull yourself up and get going, he said. Don’t fall behind.

Finally we crossed a field full of pink and yellow wildflowers, and at the far end, where the path ended, was a lake. The surface was perfectly clear and placid and we could see ourselves.

Here we are, Mr. Cheetam said.

Skinny-dipping, Donny said.

First things first, girls, Mr. Cheetam said, so we hopped to, setting up camp and scrounging enough wood for the night.

Donny and I stripped naked and jumped off the cliffs. No one else was around but when we swam and shouted and splashed our voices bounced back and forth off the rocks. Ricochet, we yelled. We dove and dove. Then we lay on a hot flat rock. I noticed that Donny had hair on his balls and he probably noticed so did I. You want to smoke a stogerooni? Donny asked. Nah, later, I said. We were stretched out and quiet: blue sky, yellow sun, white mountain-everything was perfect but Donny got antsy doing nothing for so long and took another dip. He came up fast and said, A fish! I saw a fish! And he got his fishing pole and caught a rainbow, like pulling a prayer from the water.

Good work, Donny, Mr. Cheetam said.

The fish wasn’t all the way dead yet and Mr. Cheetam had to slap its head against a rock. Blood came out the eyes. The knife blade sank into the skin with a ripping sound. What do we do with the guts? I asked. Toss ’em in the lake, Mr. Cheetam said. We don’t want any animals coming into camp. Bears? Donny said. It's not impossible, Mr. Cheetam said, but not likely, either. Maybe the Sasquatch, Donny said. Mr. Cheetam said to shut up about that damned Sasquatch. It's time you grow up, he said, shaking Donny's arm. Jesus, Donny said, rubbing himself.

Mr. Cheetam wrapped the fillets in foil and set them on the fire. It was soft out now, not dark but not light, either. Our shadows were weak around the fire, and Mt. Olympus was tinged pink and purple, and the wind died down.

Hey, I said, what about the Quinault?

Yeah, the Quinault! Donny said. You said I’d get to walk across it.

Oh crap, what was I thinking? Mr. Cheetam asked himself. You already did and I forgot, God damn it!

We ran back through the darkening wildflowers. We found a little stream about a foot wide and three inches deep that you would never think was a river but it was. There's your mighty Quinault, Donny, Mr. Cheetam said. Donny asked if we built a dam would the river dry up below and Mr. Cheetam laughed, saying, No, I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way. We bent down and drank and splashed our faces in the water. We listened to the little river, trickling in a whisper. It was almost like nothing.

The fish was all burned to hell when we got back to camp. Donny was upset and kept whining. I’m sorry, Mr. Cheetam said, but things happen. What can I say? Then he offered, Tomorrow? You want to stay another day? Donny looked at me, then said, Stay! Stay! O.K., Mr. Cheetam said, I think we’ve got everything we need-plenty of provisions-and we’ll catch some more fish.

After dinner, Mr. Cheetam drew out his flask again. His face was like my dad's had been in the last days, rough and black. One night toward the end I’d found him, my dad, in our broom closet. He had all his Bob Dylan records out and was writing new lyrics on them with a nail. Other things happened that I prefer to keep to myself. All week his loud voice was like the echo of thoughts he’d had a long time ago. Then one morning at the very end I heard him calling me in the rain. He was on top of our house in boxer shorts, yelling. Our neighbor tried to drive him off the roof by throwing a pot of geraniums at him. My dad started ripping apart the chimney and pitching bricks down on me and everybody else on the front lawn. We had to call the authorities. For a while he thought he was Jesus in a hospital called St. Judas, but it was really St. Jude's and my dad, of course, wasn’t Jesus. The same people who took him to the hospital brought me to the Home. I hadn’t eaten in three days.

Nearby we saw field mice hopping around, and Mr. Cheetam said that we’d better keep our packs inside the tents tonight. He hooked his arm around Donny s neck and said, How’d you like to go to California?

Not Eureka, Donny said.

No, Mr. Cheetam said, L.A.

Donny said he didn’t know anything about L.A. Mr. Cheetam fussed with the fire, arranging the coals. When that goes out that's it until morning, he said. He tipped back the flask. Then he capped it and said, That's it for that, too. He stretched and groaned and walked out where the firelight failed. I heard him whistling in the dark.

Son? Mr. Cheetam said.

What? Donny asked.

Come on over here a minute, Mr. Cheetam said.

They were in the shadows. I heard Donny say, What does Mom think?

That's the thing, Mr. Cheetam said. Your mother would stay.

I don’t know, Donny said. How long would we be gone?

Donald, Mr. Cheetam said, don’t be stupid. We’re divorcing, your mom and I. You see, we won’t come back-we’ll live in a brand-new house there.

Donny begged, But why?

Donald, come on. You see how things are.

The two of them were quiet and staring ahead, like their next thoughts might fall out of the sky.

What can I say? Mr. Cheetam said.

Nothing, Donny said.

I love you, Donald. You know that.

I crawled inside our tent. A little while later, Donny got in his bag, buried down inside. He was crying and choking. I whispered, Donny, hey, hey, Donny? Donny? I think I hear something out there. Do you hear it? Let's go look! I hugged my arm around him and he started jerking in his bag and sat up and cried to me, Here's your stupid spatula! Then he crossed over into Mr. Cheetam's tent but kept crying and begging even louder for no divorce.

Look, I heard Mr. Cheetam say, after your sister died-His voice fell apart. That's too easy, he said. I’ve met someone else. He was quiet a minute. That's the truth.

I thought the crying would go on forever, but eventually Donny must have fallen asleep.

I turned over and over in my sleeping bag, and then I put on Sister Celestine's scapular and grabbed the flashlight and crawled out of the tent. The fire made a hiss and I kicked the last few embers around in the bed of ash. Mr. Cheetam snorted in his sleep and I heard Donny say, Dad? And Mr. Cheetam say, What? but there was nothing after that, even though I stood outside their tent a long time, listening.

I aimed my flashlight ahead to the flat rock rim of the lake and followed the narrow beam up there. I sat, dangling my feet, and snapped off the light. I think I was feeling sorry for myself. Suddenly it felt like we’d been gone for ages. Was it Sunday? I gathered up ten rocks for a rosary, to count my prayers. I rattled them in my hands and started the Our Father but my voice was weird. I shook the rocks in my fist like dice. I threw one in the lake, and a little while later I heard the splash. Circles opened out where the stone had vanished. I thought of saying something in Latin but couldn’t recall a single word, except amen. I yelled out, A-men! and heard back, Hey-men, hey-men, hey-men, smaller and smaller.

I stretched out on the rock. Sister Celestine's scapular was old, the wool worn soft from handling. Once, at the Home, I had climbed the stairs, six flights up from my room in the basement, to see where she lived. We weren’t supposed to go up there. I saw why. Hosiery hung from the water pipes. Candy wrappers were crumpled on the floor. A black habit lay like an empty sack beside the bed. The bed was unmade, and I could see the hollow where Sister Celestine slept. A pale-green blanket and a thin yellow top sheet had been twisted into a tight braid and kicked off the end of the mattress. The only decoration was a black wooden crucifix, nailed on the wall above the bed like a permanent shadow.

I was still lying there when Donny and Mr. Cheetam came running up the rock in their undies. Hey, what's going on? they asked. They said they’d heard me shouting and were afraid I’d got lost or seen something.

Maybe the Sasquatch, Donny said.

God damn it, Donald, there is no such thing, Mr. Cheetam said. That's just a myth.

Oh yeah, Donny said. How do you know?

Don’t worry, I said. It was nothing.

You sure? Donny said.

It was nothing, I said. I’m sure.

A wind was blowing and it was a little cold on that rock. Nobody knew what to say.

See out there? Above Mt. Olympus? That green star? Mr. Cheetam said, pointing. We all looked-a vague white shadow, a green light. It's not really a star. That's a planet-that's Venus, Mr. Cheetam said. The goddess of love.

That's just a myth, Donny said, looking at his father. Bastard.

I didn’t hear you, Mr. Cheetam said. What did you say?

Nothing, Donny said.

Nothing? It didn’t sound like nothing to me.

I pitched another rock in the lake, way out there, as far as possible. We all listened. Across the water a circle spread out, wider and wider. Then, shaking with cold, Donny folded his arms around himself and yelled out, Hey, and we heard back, Hey, hey, hey, and then I yelled out, Hey, and even Mr. Cheetam joined in, and we kept hearing back, Hey, hey, hey, like there were millions of us everywhere.

Gail Jones


from The Kenyon Review


AMELANCHOLY seriousness settles on the faces of people attending concerts; it is a look both distracted and concentrated, disturbed and imperturbable. Something says: we shall endure this, it will eventually pass; we shall orient our serried faces to the irresistible stage, and hope for suspension in the glorious no-time of music. Everyone is the same; everyone feels this. Concerts impose a rude aura of collectivity and the tense AC/DC of the serious/glorious.

She had noticed it last night at a piano recital, in which a slim Chinese woman, beautifully intense, played Rachmaninoff with superhuman celerity; and she notices it here, listening to Death in Vegas. Faces shining in the dark, riveted, young, are replicating the expression. The music they are listening to is electronically synthesized, and has a quality of pounding and insistent stammer: the squeal of a keyboard and the whine of electric guitars are encased in an overamplified throb.

Repetition, repetition, repetition, she thinks.

On the stage, absurdly familiar, is a skull-and-crossbones flag, and behind it hangs a screen of fluctuating and synchronized projections. Images loop, and loop again, then accelerate to crescendo. There are sol- diers marching in formation, dancers whirling out of focus, machinery, lightbulbs, a weather balloon ascending.

She wonders what meaning operates here, that employs the visual as mere flash. The bald head of the keyboard player is her stable sign; throughout the concert it is variously and fantastically lit-red, blue, purple, and then gold-but it remains somehow definite, a human globe, a wonderfully absolute, pure, and untechnical thing.

Ragged applause: then the system of repetitions restarts.

There is too much sound and too much light: she is feeling denuded and swathed in excess. Ordinary and strobe lights rake the dark crowd, and at some point this young woman, who has come to the concert alone, covers her eyes with one hand to counter the bluish-light blindness. Even with her eyes closed she can still see the fulgurous strobe, and she is even more willfully and emphatically alone; she is locked into some solitary concert and closed to community. She is a foreigner, people will know it, she does not belong here.

Someone reaches over and holds gently her other hand.

The young woman can feel the touch, which she takes as a gesture of solicitude. Perhaps, seeing her shade her eyes, someone has imagined her distressed. Perhaps it is simple kindness, a vague gesture of concert solidarity. When she reopens her eyes, blinking against the renewed brightness, a man is standing beside her: an Algerian, possibly, or an Indian, or a Moroccan. They are listening to music in Paris, foreign together. The venue for the concert is the Elysée Montmartre, an old cabaret-belle-époque-looking, even in dereliction-a hall gutted and transformed for dance parties and concerts. The plaster ceiling is decorated with eight women's faces. They are gigantic and smiling and have flowing fin de siècle hairstyles; scarlet lights sit at their chins, so that they appear mean and infernal.

Here they are then, an instant couple, beneath eight scarlet-faced women. The man is staring at the stage; he has not attempted conversation. The music is now so loud that it has materialized as a physical force; the wooden floor vibrates with seismic shivers that move upwards through every body.

Quaker, the woman is thinking. This is like being possessed.

The Elysée Montmartre is becoming hot and stuffy. Patrons are removing layers of clothes and buying more beer. The room is filled with cigarette smoke and everyone wears black. Afraid that she will faint or swoon, overcome by whatever bodily, existential, or foolish conundrum, the woman pulls the foreign man with her, drags him through the dense crowd, and leaves the building, still quaking.


How to tell this compassionately? How to preserve his vulnerability? It was a small encounter, saturated with contingent sadness.

In the street the strangers faced each other, mutually embarrassed. They were exactly the same height, and she has discovered that he is handsome and possibly ten years her junior. Light from pink neon burnished his features.

Eleanor, she said, and extended her hand formally.

Rashid. I am Rashid.

He took her hand again and performed an Indian affirmation, a brief sideways tilt and motion of the head.



We rhyme, she joked.

You have excellent cricketers, Rashid said politely.

Cricketers, yes.

International value; how arcane it is, how transparent.

She was relieved to speak English, but disconcerted by her own uncharacteristic assertiveness. She was already wondering if she would sleep with him, this Rashid, this young man, this youth she had dragged from a loud concert as her hysterical accessory. They left for a nearby bar, walking side by side, careful not to touch each other or forge obligation, and then soon after, more trusting, to his rented room. It was a pitifully small studio, on the fifth floor of an old building in the nineteenth arrondissement. Paint blistered on the walls; unintelligible graffiti inscribed all the surfaces. In Rashid's room the lighting was yellow-brown and spilled from a glass tulip depending at an angle from the wall. The air was hung with persistent scents of Indian cooking. There was a small basin, a single chair, a pile of stacked dirty dishes.

Eleanor fought to repress a powerful intuition: What am I doing here?

Then she noticed a shudder, like an aftershock from the Death in Vegas concert. She assumed it was the Metro, somewhere deep beneath them. She heard its thunderous sound trailing into the night, and imagined the tunnel, and the tired driver, and the headlights flashing on walls lined with innards of cable and pipe, then the sequence of lit chambers and dark tunnels, lit chambers and dark tunnels, repeating on an efficient exhausted circuit; and she saw then the passengers of many nations embarking and disembarking, and heard the shoosh of electric doors, opening and closing; and she thought repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition…

You get used to it, said Rashid. You get used to the Metro.

He prepared cups of tea in the Indian style, milky and with sugar, and they sat together on the single bed, sipping and making self-conscious small talk.

When they made love, it was in darkness; Rashid was shy and inexpert. Eleanor held his body closely, but he felt absent, anonymous.

The kindness of strangers. (She almost adopts a southern accent.)

Pardon? said Rashid.

In the companionable quiet, she could hear a dripping tap and his soft, murmurous breathing.

And then, clothed in darkness, Rashid began to confess:

I should tell you, Miss Eleanor, that I have great shame, he announced in a low and slightly hoarse whisper. I was sent to France by my father-at huge expense-to do a computer course, technology: that was the deal. Why not United States or England? He knew a family here. They said they would look out for me. Take me in. For the first two months or so I tried very hard but my French was poor and I could not understand the technical terms. I studied, and I tried, but fell further and further behind. The other students in the course were all confident and cool. They called me le singe, the monkey, and they laughed behind my back. Finally, I could stand it no more, so I left the course. I did not tell the Guptas, the family I was staying with-kind people, good people, from Bombay like my family-but left every day with my hair combed and my books under my arm. I would wait in the parks, or wander the streets, looking into shop windows. I became an expert at wandering and wasting time.

But then one day I received a letter from home, from my father, asking me how I was doing-was I well? was I successful?-and I felt suddenly such shame and such deception. I left the Guptas that day and simply disappeared. I knew another Indian, a Bengali-he rents this place-who agreed to let me use his room while I looked for work. He works on night shift, so I use the bed at night, and he has it in the day. I have found work here and there-I am a cleaner, part-time, at the Elysée Montmartre, so I get to see all the concerts-but because I am illegal, I am poorly paid. I have no hope at all of repaying my father. No hope at all of saving a fare back home. And I live in dread of seeing the Guptas appear on the street. I avoid the Indian areas, and get my friend to do the shopping.

I am stranded here; I am lost. I don’t know what to do.

Sometimes I feel I have become invisible.

Eleanor held Rashid in the now abysmal darkness. He curled away from her, his body distant and demonstrating shame. She became aware once again of the Metro, shuddering the whole building. It rolled beneath them both, in its corridor of hot air, in its unceasing, predictable circumnavigation of the city, carrying figures whose faces were blurred and carried away as they zipped into the underground night, like people dragged, fast motion, beyond any reliable identification.


six disquisitions she tells herself


This man, this Rashid, carries the metaphysic of the stranded. He lies awake at night, in someone else's bed, thinking of a home that becomes more precious with each new remembering. He knows too that his lost home is their found exotic. Everywhere in this city are chichi boutiques stocked with small objects from his country, familiar things relocated.

He is another kind of object: he has entered a state of abstraction. He imagines himself becoming phantom, almost invisible. Making love, even making love, has not embodied him wholly.

One's own city is always stable; it rests, we reside. But the traveler and the refugee and the phantomized stranded know the secret instability of every city. They have felt the ground move and shift beneath their foreign feet, and know that collapse of many kinds is always possible. Sometimes this is an experience of excitation; sometimes it is the tremor of lives on the annihilating brink. She inhabits the touristic decadence of the casual encounter; he is her object and she has unintentionally compounded his desolation.


It was the democracy-or was it the fascism?-of music that united them. They listened together. They bobbed their bodies in sync. Each moved with a kind of instinctive and elated obedience. This transcultural age is the age of music. Words are disparaged, too difficult and too absurdly imperative. Young people everywhere hallow the names of musicians and seek their lost sacred in a riff or in a resonating chord. She dragged him away. She broke his tense AC/DC.


He is enchained to them. We all are, even when they die. Of all the authorities in the world parents are the most sovereign, and they follow like a double and separate shadow, everywhere we go. Here is a young woman traveling, wondering: What would my parents think? The trouble we cause them. The loving shame that they wield. If life were a blindman's bluff, we would always touch them in the darkness; they would always be there, somewhere.


When he came inside her, his body responded with a chorealike shiver; she found it somehow anguishing. The sigh he gave up was such a distant and sad-sounding relinquishment. This certainty, then: that in the efface-ments and anonymities of the night, other things find metaphorical definition. The physical body in crisis and its transphysical continuation are like the indivisible image and afterimage of the blinding strobe.


As a child she was obsessed with the idea that the planet is always half night. It symbolized, even to her child-mind, the impermanence of all states and the principle of alterity and radical conversion. Now she knows it more boldly: that night is a mode of magnification. Depression. Insomnia. Concerts. Sex. The enhancement of both misery and its forms of consolation. This is banal knowledge but now, in this lightly shaking room, it somehow reassures her.


They were lying together asleep, on the narrow borrowed bed, when Rashid woke with a start and switched on a nearby lamp. His face was damp and shining with tears.

Eleanor turned drowsily toward her lover, her shanghaied youth, and saw his red swollen eyes and his look of taut dishevelment.

I dreamed…

There is more, he said slowly, there is more I didn’t tell you.

Rashid leaned away. His face was not visible.

When I left Bombay, my mother was dying of cancer. She was very, very thin, and had dark rings beneath her eyes. I knew then that she was dying-and she knew that I knew-but my father nevertheless insisted that I leave. She wept so much; I shall never forget it. I said: I will return soon and make a journey, and bring you some Ganga water; I will return and get the holy water and you will be cured. I think I believed it then. I was confident when I left. I thought all the time about going to Europe, about money, about success. In the letter, my father's letter, he told me that my mother had died. I left the Guptas’ house because my mother had died. Just that. Because my mother had died. I could not bear to be with people. I could not bear the knowledge of her death.

I dreamed just now a dream that I have had three times. I dreamed that my mother came to me wearing the white sari of a widow. She was looking like a skeleton, and her voice was strange and very quiet. She said: I wrote you a letter and you didn’t answer. Where is my answer, Rashid? Where is my answer? She began to pound her chest in mourning, as if I were the one who had died. I remember that there was spittle on her chin, like an old person, like a cancer patient. I wanted to wipe her face with a cloth but I could not stretch far enough to touch her.

Here Rashid paused. He was silent for a long minute.

She wept so much, he repeated, I can never forget it.

And then Rashid too began to weep. Eleanor had never seen a man cry with such disinhibition. His whole body sobbed; he was like a small child. He clenched his fists against his eyes, as if trying to contain his dreamy sorrow.

Je suis desolé, he said. Desolé. Desolé.

Please leave, he said. Desolé. Desolé.


Eleanor is on the street, at four in the morning. The look of things is black glass-it has recently rained or the streets have been washed and cleaned-and everything appears remarkably still and settled. Her lonesome footsteps echo down the tunnel of the rue de Meaux. She has returned to her habit of itemization; she begins to replay her nighttime memories.

This is what she is remembering:

She is remembering that the only lyrics in the Death of Vegas concert were “All gods suck, all gods suck,” combined with a spinning Shiva image and the round surface of some dark, possibly planetary, object. Did it hurt him, this crude and flashy combination? Did it recall some childhood moment of a more holy and private life?

She is remembering the scarlet women peering down from the ceiling; how gigantic and superintending they seemed, how ambiguous in their presences. They rested somewhere between benevolence and malevolence, between charm and grotesquerie.

This night has made every detail retrospectively symbolic. Their hair. Their oversize, European smiles.

She is remembering his face under pink neon, how young he appeared. He had large lustrous eyes and a patina of electrical shine. He had a shy expression and a quality of good-looking tenderness. Yet she desired him, quite simply, because he held her hand. When he first touched her, she could not have guessed that he was so insubstantial.

She is remembering the woman playing Rachmaninoff, the Chinese woman, and the bald head of the keyboard player, repetitiously recoloring. She is remembering too the precise look of melancholy seriousness that begins in a concert, extends into gestures and confessions, and then moves outwards, traveling like vibrations, traveling so mysteriously-not like the Metro at all, not regular and entrammeled-but fanning open, invisibly, like vibrations in the body, into all the glories and desolations of a black city night.

Edward P. Jones

A Rich Man

from The New Yorker

HORACE AND LONEESE Perkins-one child, one grandchild-lived most unhappily together for more than twelve years in Apartment 230 at Sunset House, a building for senior citizens at 1202 Thirteenth Street NW. They moved there in 1977, the year they celebrated forty years of marriage, the year they made love for the last time-Loneese kept a diary of sorts, and that fact was noted on one day of a week when she noted nothing else. “He touched me,” she wrote, which had always been her diary euphemism for sex. That was also the year they retired, she as a pool secretary at the Commerce Department, where she had known one lover, and he as a civilian employee at the Pentagon, as the head of veteran records. He had been an Army sergeant for ten years before becoming head of records; the Secretary of Defense gave him a plaque as big as his chest on the day he retired, and he and the Secretary of Defense and Loneese had their picture taken, a picture that hung for all those twelve years in the living room of Apartment 230, on the wall just to the right of the heating-and-air-conditioning unit.

A month before they moved in, they drove in their burgundy-and-gold Cadillac from their small house on Chesapeake Street in Southeast to a Union Station restaurant and promised each other that Sunset House would be a new beginning for them. Over blackened catfish and a peach cobbler that they both agreed could have been better, they vowed to devote themselves to each other and become even better grandparents. Horace had long known about the Commerce Department lover. Loneese had told him about the man two months after she had ended the relationship, in 1969. “He worked in the mailroom,” she told her husband over a spaghetti supper she had cooked in the Chesapeake Street home. “He touched me in the motel room,” she wrote in her diary, “and after it was over he begged me to go away to Florida with him. All I could think about was that Florida was for old people.”

At that spaghetti supper, Horace did not mention the dozens of lovers he had had in his time as her husband. She knew there had been many, knew it because they were written on his face in the early years of their marriage, and because he had never bothered to hide what he was doing in the later years. “I be back in a while. I got some business to do,” he would say. He did not even mention the lover he had slept with just the day before the spaghetti supper, the one he bid good-bye to with a “Be good and be sweet” after telling her he planned to become a new man and respect his marriage vows. The woman, a thin school-bus driver with clanking bracelets up to her elbows on both arms, snorted a laugh, which made Horace want to slap her, because he was used to people taking him seriously. “Forget you, then,” Horace said on the way out the door. “I was just tryin to let you down easy.”

Over another spaghetti supper two weeks before moving, they reiterated what had been said at the blackened-catfish supper and did the dishes together and went to bed as man and wife, and over the next days sold almost all the Chesapeake Street furniture. What they kept belonged primarily to Horace, starting with a collection of six hundred and thirty-nine record albums, many of them his “sweet babies,” the 78s. If a band worth anything had recorded between 1915 and 1950, he bragged, he had the record; after 1950, he said, the bands got sloppy and he had to back away. Horace also kept the Cadillac he had painted to honor a football team, paid to park the car in the underground garage. Sunset had once been intended as a luxury place, but the builders, two friends of the city commissioners, ran out of money in the middle and the commissioners had the city-government people buy it off them. The city-government people completed Sunset, with its tiny rooms, and then, after one commissioner gave a speech in Southwest about looking out for old people, some city-government people in Northeast came up with the idea that old people might like to live in Sunset, in Northwest.

Three weeks after Horace and Loneese moved in, Horace went down to the lobby one Saturday afternoon to get their mail and happened to see Clara Knightley getting her mail. She lived in Apartment 512. “You got this fixed up real nice,” Horace said of Apartment 512 a little less than an hour after meeting her. “But I could see just in the way that you carry yourself that you got good taste. I could tell that about you right off.” “You swellin my head with all that talk, Mr. Perkins,” Clara said, offering him coffee, which he rejected, because such moments always called for something stronger. “Whas a woman's head for if a man can’t swell it up from time to time. Huh? Answer me that, Clara. You just answer me that.” Clara was fifty-five, a bit younger than most of the residents of Sunset House, though she was much older than all Horace's other lovers. She did not fit the city people's definition of a senior citizen, but she had a host of ailments, from high blood pressure to diabetes, and so the city people had let her in.

Despite the promises, the marriage, what little there had been of it, came to an end. “I will make myself happy,” Loneese told the diary a month after he last touched her. Loneese and Horace had fixed up their apartment nicely, and neither of them wanted to give the place up to the other. She wanted to make a final stand with the man who had given her so much heartache, the man who had told her, six months after her confession, what a whore she had been to sleep with the Commerce Department mailroom man. Horace, at sixty, had never thought much of women over fifty, but Clara-and, after her, Willa, of Apartment 1001, and Miriam, of Apartment 109-had awakened something in him, and he began to think that women over fifty weren’t such a bad deal after all. Sunset House had dozens of such women, many of them attractive widows, many of them eager for a kind word from a retired Army sergeant who had so many medals and ribbons that his uniform could not carry them. As far as he could see, he was cock of the walk: many of the men in Sunset suffered from diseases that Horace had so far escaped, or they were not as good-looking or as thin, or they were encumbered by wives they loved. In Sunset House he was a rich man. So why move and give that whore the satisfaction?

They lived separate lives in a space that was only a fourth as large as the Chesapeake Street house. The building came to know them as the man and wife in 230 who couldn’t stand each other. People talked about the Perkinses more than they did about anyone else, which was particularly upsetting to Loneese, who had been raised to believe family business should stay in the family. “Oh, Lord, what them two been up to now?” “Fight like cats and dogs, they do.” “Who he seein now?” They each bought their own food from the Richfood on Eleventh Street or from the little store on Thirteenth Street, and they could be vile to each other if what one bought was disturbed or eaten by the other. Loneese stopped speaking to Horace for nine months in 1984 and 1985, when she saw that her pumpkin pie was a bit smaller than when she last cut a slice from it. “I ain’t touch your damn pie, you crazy woman,” he said when she accused him. “How long you been married to me? You know I’ve never been partial to pumpkin pie.” “That's fine for you to say, Horace, but why is some missing? You might not be partial to it, but I know you. I know you’ll eat anything in a pinch. That's just your dirty nature.” “My nature ain’t no more dirty than yours.”

After that, she bought a small icebox for the bedroom where she slept, though she continued to keep the larger items in the kitchen refrigerator. He bought a separate telephone, because he complained that she wasn’t giving him his messages from his “associates.” “I have never been a secretary for whores,” she said, watching him set up an answering machine next to the hide-a-bed couch where he slept. “Oh, don’t get me started ’bout whores. I’d say you wrote the damn book.” “It was dictated by you.”

Their one child, Alonzo, lived with his wife and son in Baltimore. He had not been close to his parents for a long time, and he could not put the why of it into words for his wife. Their boy, Alonzo, Jr., who was twelve when his grandparents moved into Sunset, loved to visit them. Horace would unplug and put away his telephone when the boy visited. And Loneese and Horace would sleep together in the bedroom. She’d put a pillow between them in the double bed to remind herself not to roll toward him.

Their grandson visited less and less as he moved into his teenage years, and then, after he went away to college, in Ohio, he just called them every few weeks, on the phone they had had installed in the name of Horace and Loneese Perkins.

In 1987, Loneese's heart began the countdown to its last beat and she started spending more time at George Washington University Hospital than she did in the apartment. Horace never visited her. She died two years later. She woke up that last night in the hospital and went out into the hall and then to the nurses’ station but could not find a nurse anywhere to tell her where she was or why she was there. “Why do the patients have to run this place alone?” she said to the walls. She returned to her room and it came to her why she was there. It was nearing three in the morning, but she called her own telephone first, then she dialed Horaces. He answered, but she never said a word. “Who's this playin on my phone?” Horace kept asking. “Who's this? I don’t allow no playin on my phone.” She hung up and lay down and said her prayers. After moving into Sunset, she had taken one more lover, a man at Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, where she went from time to time. He was retired, too. She wrote in her diary that he was not a big eater and that “down there, his vitals were missing.”

Loneese Perkins was buried in a plot at Harmony Cemetery that she and Horace had bought when they were younger. There was a spot for Horace and there was one for their son, but Alonzo had long since made plans to be buried in a cemetery just outside Baltimore.

Horace kept the apartment more or less the way it was on the last day she was there. His son and daughter-in-law and grandson took some of her clothes to the Goodwill and the rest they gave to other women in the building. There were souvenirs from countries that Loneese and Horace had visited as man and wife-a Ghanaian carving of men surrounding a leopard they had killed, a brass menorah from Israel, a snow globe of Mt. Fuji with some of the snow stuck forever to the top of the globe. They were things that did not mean very much to Alonzo, but he knew his child, and he knew that one day Alonzo, Jr., would cherish them.

Horace tried sleeping in the bed, but he had been not unhappy in his twelve years on the hide-a-bed. He got rid of the bed and moved the couch into the bedroom and kept it open all the time.

He realized two things after Loneese's death: His own “vitals” had rejuvenated. He had never had the problems other men had, though he had failed a few times along the way, but that was to be expected. Now, as he moved closer to his seventy-third birthday, he felt himself becoming ever stronger, ever more potent. God is a strange one, he thought, sipping Chivas Regal one night before he went out: he takes a man's wife and gives him a new penis in her place.

The other thing he realized was that he was more and more attracted to younger women. When Loneese died, he had been keeping company with a woman of sixty-one, Sandy Carlin, in Apartment 907. One day in February, nine months after Loneese's death, one of Sandys daughters, Jill, came to visit, along with one of Jill's friends, Elaine Cunningham. They were both twenty-five years old. From the moment they walked through Sandy's door, Horace began to compliment them-on their hair, the color of their fingernail polish, the sharp crease in Jill's pants (“You iron that yourself?”), even “that sophisticated way” Elaine crossed her legs. The young women giggled, which made him happy, pleased with himself, and Sandy sat in her place on the couch. As the ice in the Pepsi-Cola in her left hand melted, she realized all over again that God had never promised her a man until her dying day.

When the girls left, about three in the afternoon, Horace offered to accompany them downstairs, “to keep all them bad men away.” In the lobby, as the security guard at her desk strained to hear, he made it known that he wouldn’t mind if they came by to see him sometime. The women looked at each other and giggled some more. They had been planning to go to a club in Southwest that evening, but they were amused by the old man, by the way he had his rap together and put them on some sort of big pedestal and shit, as Jill would tell another friend weeks later. And when he saw how receptive they were he said why not come on up tonight, shucks, ain’t no time like the present. Jill said he musta got that from a song, but he said no, he’d been sayin that since before they were born, and Elaine said thas the truth, and the women giggled again. He said I ain’t gonna lie bout bein a seasoned man, and then he joined in the giggling. Jill looked at Elaine and said want to? And Elaine said what about your mom? And Jill shrugged her shoulders and Elaine said O.K. She had just broken up with a man she had met at another club and needed something to make the pain go away until there was another man, maybe from a better club.

At about eleven thirty, Jill wandered off into the night, her head liquored up, and Elaine stayed and got weepy-about the man from the not-so-good club, about the two abortions, about running away from home at seventeen after a fight with her father. “I just left him nappin on the couch,” she said, stretched out on Horaces new living-room couch, her shoes off and one of Loneese's throws over her feet. Horace was in the chair across from her. “For all I know, he's still on that couch.” Even before she got to her father, even before the abortions, he knew that he would sleep with her that night. He did not even need to fill her glass a third time. “He was a fat man,” she said of her father. “And there ain’t a whole lot more I remember.”

“Listen,” he said as she talked about her father, “everything's gonna work out right for you.” He knew that, at such times in a seduction, the more positive a man was the better things went. It would not have done to tell her to forget her daddy, that she had done the right thing by running out on that fat so-and-so; it was best to focus on tomorrow and tell her that the world would be brighter in the morning. He came over to the couch, and before he sat down on the edge of the coffee table he hiked up his pants just a bit with his fingertips, and seeing him do that reminded her vaguely of something wonderful. The boys in the club sure didn’t do it that way. He took her hand and kissed her palm. “Everything's gonna work out to the good,” he said.

Elaine Cunningham woke in the morning with Horace sleeping quietly beside her. She did not rebuke herself and did not look over at him with horror at what she had done. She sighed and laid her head back on the pillow and thought how much she still loved the man from the club, but there was nothing more she could do: not even the five-hundred-dollar leather jacket she had purchased for the man had brought him around. Two years after running away, she had gone back to where she had lived with her parents, but they had moved and no one in the building knew where they had gone. But everyone remembered her. “You sure done growed up, Elaine,” one old woman said. “I wouldna knowed if you hadn’t told me who you was.” “Fuck em,” Elaine said to the friends who had given her a ride there. “Fuck em all to hell.” Then, in the car, heading out to Capitol Heights, where she was staying, “Well, maybe not fuck my mother. She was good.” “Just fuck your daddy then?” the girl in the backseat said. Elaine thought about it as they went down Rhode Island Avenue, and just before they turned onto New Jersey Avenue she said, “Yes, just fuck my daddy. The fat fuck.”

She got out of Horaces bed and tried to wet the desert in her mouth as she looked in his closet for a bathrobe. She rejected the blue and the paisley ones for a dark-green one that reminded her of something wonderful, just as Horace's hiking up his pants had. She smelled the sleeves once she had it on, but there was only the strong scent of detergent.

In the half room that passed for a kitchen, she stood and drank most of the orange juice in the gallon carton. “Now, that was stupid, girl,” she said. “You know you shoulda drunk water. Better for the thirst.” She returned the carton to the refrigerator and marveled at all the food. “Damn!” she said. With the refrigerator door still open, she stepped out into the living room and took note of all that Horace had, thinking, A girl could live large here if she did things right. She had been crashing at a friend's place in Northeast, and the friend's mother had begun to hint that it was time for her to move on. Even when she had a job, she rarely had a place of her own. “Hmm,” she said, looking through the refrigerator for what she wanted to eat. “Boody for home and food. Food, home. Boody You shoulda stayed in school, girl. They give courses on this. Food and Home the first semester. Boody Givin the second semester.”

But, as she ate her eggs and bacon and Hungry Man biscuits, she knew that she did not want to sleep with Horace too many more times, even if he did have his little castle. He was too tall, and she had never been attracted to tall men, old or otherwise. “Damn! Why couldn’t he be what I wanted and have a nice place, too?” Then, as she sopped up the last of the yolk with the last half of the last biscuit, she thought of her best friend, Catrina, the woman she was crashing with. Catrina Stockton was twenty-eight, and though she had once been a heroin addict, she was one year clean and had a face and a body that testified not to a woman who had lived a bad life on the streets but to a nice-looking Virginia woman who had married at seventeen, had had three children by a truck-driving husband, and had met a man in a Fredericksburg McDonald's who had said that women like her could be queens in D.C.

Yes, Elaine thought as she leaned over the couch and stared at the photograph of Horace and Loneese and the Secretary of Defense, Catrina was always saying how much she wanted love, how it didn’t matter what a man looked like, as long as he was good to her and loved her morning, noon, and night. The Secretary of Defense was in the middle of the couple. She did not know who he was, just that she had seen him somewhere, maybe on the television. Horace was holding the plaque just to the left, away from the Secretary. Elaine reached over and removed a spot of dust from the picture with her fingertip, and before she could flick it away a woman said her name and she looked around, chilled.

She went into the bedroom to make sure that the voice had not been death telling her to check on Horace. She found him sitting up in bed, yawning and stretching. “You sleep good, honey bunch?” he said. “I sure did, sweetie pie,” she said and bounded across the room to hug him. A breakfast like the one she’d had would cost at least four dollars anywhere in D.C. or Maryland. “Oh, but Papa likes that,” Horace said. And even the cheapest motels out on New York Avenue, the ones catering to the junkies and prostitutes, charged at least twenty-five dollars a night. What's a hug compared with that? And, besides, she liked him more than she had thought, and the issue of Catrina and her moving in had to be done delicately. “Well, just let me give you a little bit mo, then.”

Young stuff is young stuff, Horace thought the first time Elaine brought Catrina by and Catrina gave him a peck on the cheek and said, “I feel like I know you from all that Elaine told me.” That was in early March.

In early April, Elaine met another man at a new club on F Street Northwest and fell in love, and so did Horace with Catrina, though Catrina, after several years on the street, knew what she was feeling might be in the neighborhood of love but it was nowhere near the right house. She and Elaine told Horace the saddest of stories about the man Elaine had met in the club, and before the end of April he was sleeping on Horace's living-room floor. It helped that the man, Darnell Mudd, knew the way to anyone's heart, man or woman, and that he claimed to have a father who had been a hero in the Korean War. He even knew the name of the Secretary of Defense in the photograph and how long he had served in the Cabinet.

By the middle of May, there were as many as five other people, friends of the three young people, hanging out at any one time in Horace's place. He was giddy with Catrina, with the blunts, with the other women who snuck out with him to a room at the motel across Thirteenth Street. By early June, more than a hundred of his old records had been stolen and pawned. “Leave his stuff alone,” Elaine said to Darnell and his friends as they were going out the door with ten records apiece. “Don’t take his stuff.

He loves that stuff.” It was eleven in the morning and everyone else in the apartment, including Horace, was asleep. “Sh-h-h,” Darnell said. “He got so many he won’t notice.” And that was true. Horace hadn’t played records in many months. He had two swords that were originally on the wall opposite the heating-and-air-conditioning unit. Both had belonged to German officers killed in the Second World War. Horace, high on the blunts, liked to see the young men sword fight with them. But the next day, sober, he would hide them in the bottom of the closet, only to pull them out again when the partying started, at about four in the afternoon.

His neighbors, especially the neighbors who considered that Loneese had been the long-suffering one in the marriage, complained to the management about the noise, but the city-government people read in his rental record that he had lost his wife not long ago and told the neighbors that he was probably doing some kind of grieving. The city-government people never went above the first floor in Sunset. “He's a veteran who just lost his wife,” they would say to those who came to the glass office on the first floor. “Why don’t you cut him some slack?” But Horace tried to get a grip on things after a maintenance man told him to be careful. That was about the time one of the swords was broken and he could not for the life of him remember how it had happened. He just found it one afternoon in two pieces in the refrigerator's vegetable bin.

Things toned down a little, but the young women continued to come by and Horace went on being happy with them and with Catrina, who called him Papa and pretended to be upset when she saw him kissing another girl. “Papa, what am I gonna do with you and all your hussies?” “Papa, promise you’ll only love me.” “Papa, I need a new outfit. Help me out, willya please?”

Elaine had become pregnant not long after meeting Darnell, who told her to have the baby, that he had always wanted a son to carry on his name. “We can call him Junior,” he said. “Or Little Darnell,” she said. As she began showing, Horace and Catrina became increasingly concerned about her. Horace remembered how solicitous he had been when Loneese had been pregnant. He had not taken the first lover yet, had not even thought about anyone else as she grew and grew. He told Elaine no drugs or alcohol until the baby was born, and he tried to get her to go to bed at a decent hour, but that was often difficult with a small crowd in the living room.

Horace's grandson called in December, wanting to come by to see him, but Horace told him it would be best to meet someplace downtown, because his place was a mess. He didn’t do much cleaning since Loneese died. “I don’t care about that,” Alonzo, Jr., said. “Well, I do,” Horace said. “You know how I can be bout these things.”

In late December, Elaine gave birth to a boy, several weeks early. They gave him the middle name Horace. “See,” Darnell said one day, holding the baby on the couch. “Thas your grandpa. You don’t mind me callin you his granddad, Mr. Perkins? You don’t mind, do you?” The city-government people in the rental office, led by someone new, someone who took the rules seriously, took note that the old man in Apartment 230 had a baby and his mama and daddy in the place and not a single one of them was even related to him, though if one had been it still would have been against the rules as laid down in the rule book of apartment living.

By late February, an undercover policeman had bought two packets of crack from someone in the apartment. It was a woman, he told his superiors at first, and that's what he wrote in his report, but in a subsequent report he wrote that he had bought the rocks from a man. “Start over,” said one of his superiors, who supped monthly with the new mayor, who lived for numbers, and in March the undercover man went back to buy more.

It was late on a warm Saturday night in April when Elaine woke to the crackle of walkie-talkies outside the door. She had not seen Darnell in more than a month, and something told her that she should get out of there because there might not be any more good times. She thought of Horace and Catrina asleep in the bedroom. Two men and two women she did not know very well were asleep in various places around the living room, but she had dated the brother of one of the women some three years ago. One of the men claimed to be Darnell's cousin, and, to prove it to her, when he knocked at the door that night he showed her a Polaroid of him and Darnell at a club, their arms around each other and their eyes red, because the camera had been cheap and the picture cost only two dollars.

She got up from the couch and looked into the crib. In the darkness she could make out that her son was awake, his little legs kicking and no sound from him but a happy gurgle. The sound of the walkie-talkie outside the door came and went. She could see it all on the television news- “Drug Dealing Mama in Jail. Baby Put in Foster Care.” She stepped over the man who said he was Darnell's cousin and pushed the door to the bed- room all the way open. Catrina was getting out of bed. Horace was snoring. He had never snored before in his life, but the drugs and alcohol together had done bad things to his airway.

“You hear anything?” Elaine whispered as Catrina tiptoed to her.

“I sure did,” Catrina said. Sleeping on the streets required keeping one eye and both ears open. “I don’t wanna go back to jail.”

“Shit. Me, neither,” Elaine said. “What about the window?”

“Go out and down two floors? With a baby? Damn!”

“We can do it,” Elaine said, looking over Catrina's shoulder to the dark lump that was Horace mumbling in his sleep. “What about him?”

Catrina turned her head. “He old. They ain’t gonna do anything to him. I’m just worried bout makin it with that baby.”

“Well, I sure as hell ain’t gonna go without my child.”

“I ain’t said we was,” Catrina hissed. “Down two floors just ain’t gonna be easy, is all.”

“We can do it,” Elaine said.

“We can do it,” Catrina said. She tiptoed to the chair at the foot of the bed and went through Horace's pants pockets. “Maybe fifty dollars here,” she whispered after returning. “I already got about three hundred.”

“You been stealin from him?” Elaine said. The lump in the bed turned over and moaned, then settled back to snoring.

“God helps them that helps themselves, Elaine. Les go.” Catrina had her clothes in her hands and went on by Elaine, who watched as the lump in the bed turned again, snoring all the while. Bye, Horace. Bye. I be seein you.

The policeman in the unmarked car parked across Thirteenth Street watched as Elaine stood on the edge of the balcony and jumped. She passed for a second in front of the feeble light over the entrance and landed on the sloping entrance of the underground parking garage. The policeman was five years from retirement and he did not move, because he could see quite well from where he sat. His partner, only three years on the job, was asleep in the passenger seat. The veteran thought the woman jumping might have hurt herself, because he did not see her rise from the ground for several minutes. I wouldn’t do it, the man thought, not for all a rich man's money. The woman did rise, but before she did he saw another woman lean over the balcony dangling a bundle. Drugs? he thought. Nah.

Clothes? Yeah, clothes more like it. The bundle was on a long rope or string-it was too far for the man to make out. The woman on the balcony leaned over very far and the woman on the ground reached up as far as she could, but still the bundle was a good two feet from her hands.

Just let them clothes drop, the policeman thought. Then Catrina released the bundle and Elaine caught it. Good catch. I wonder what she looks like in the light. Catrina jumped, and the policeman watched her pass momentarily in front of the light, and then he looked over at his partner. He himself didn’t mind filling out the forms so much, but his partner did, so he let him sleep on. I’ll be on a lake fishin my behind off and you’ll still be doin this. When he looked back, the first woman was coming up the slope of the entrance with the bundle in her arms and the second one was limping after her. I wonder what that one looks like in a good light. Once on the sidewalk, both women looked left, then right, and headed down Thirteenth Street. The policeman yawned and watched through his sideview mirror as the women crossed M Street. He yawned again. Even at three o’clock in the morning people still jaywalked.

The man who was a cousin of Darnell's was on his way back from the bathroom when the police broke through the door. He frightened easily, and though he had just emptied his bladder, he peed again as the door came open and the light of the hallway and the loud men came spilling in on him and his sleeping companions.

Horace began asking about Catrina and Elaine and the baby as soon as they put him in a cell. It took him that long to clear his head and understand what was happening to him. He pressed his face against the bars, trying to get his bearings and ignoring everything behind him in the cell. He stuck his mouth as far out of the bars as he could and shouted for someone to tell him whether they knew if the young women and the baby were all right. “They just women, y’all,” he kept saying for some five minutes. “They wouldn’t hurt a flea. Officers, please. Please, Officers. What's done happened to them? And that baby. That baby is so innocent.” It was a little after six in the morning, and men up and down the line started hollering for him to shut up or they would stick the biggest dick he ever saw in his mouth. Stunned, he did quiet down, because, while he was used to street language coming from the young men who came and went in his apartment, no bad words had ever been directed at him. They talked trash with the filthiest language he had ever heard but they always invited him to join in and “talk about how it really is,” talk about his knowing the Secretary of Defense and the Mayor. Usually, after the second blunt, he was floating along with them. Now someone had threatened to do to him what he and the young men said they would do to any woman that crossed them.

Then he turned from the bars and considered the three men he was sharing the two-man cell with. The city-jail people liked to make as little work for themselves as possible, and filling cells beyond their capacity meant having to deal with fewer locks. One man was cocooned in blankets on the floor beside the tiered metal beds. The man sleeping on the top bunk had a leg over the side, and because he was a tall man the leg came down to within six inches of the face of the man lying on the bottom bunk. That man was awake and on his back and picking his nose and staring at Horace. His other hand was under his blanket, in the crotch of his pants. What the man got out of his nose he would flick up at the bottom of the bunk above him. Watching him, Horace remembered that a very long time ago, even before the Chesapeake Street house, Loneese would iron his handkerchiefs and fold them into four perfect squares.

“Daddy,” the man said, “you got my smokes?”

“What?” Horace said. He recalled doing it to Catrina about two or three in the morning and then rolling over and going to sleep. He also remembered slapping flies away in his dreams, flies that were as big as the hands of policemen.

The man seemed to have an infinite supply of boogers, and the more he picked the more Horaces stomach churned. He used to think it was such a shame to unfold the handkerchiefs, so wondrous were the squares. The man sighed at Horace's question and put something from his nose on the big toe of the sleeping man above him. “I said do you got my smokes?”

“I don’t have my cigarettes with me,” Horace said. He tried the best white man's English he knew, having been told by a friend who was serving with him in the army in Germany that it impressed not only white people but black people who weren’t going anywhere in life. “I left my cigarettes at home.” His legs were aching and he wanted to sit on the floor, but the only available space was in the general area of where he was standing and something adhered to his shoes every time he lifted his feet. “I wish I did have my cigarettes to give you.”

“I didn’t ask you bout your cigarettes. I don’t wanna smoke them. I ask you bout my cigarettes. I wanna know if you brought my cigarettes.”

Someone four cells down screamed and called out in his sleep: “Irene, why did you do this to me? Irene, ain’t love worth a damn anymore?” Someone else told him to shut up or he would get a king-sized dick in his mouth.

“I told you I do not have any cigarettes,” Horace said.

“You know, you ain’t worth shit,” the man said. “You take the cake and mess it all up. You really do. Now, you know you was comin to jail, so why didn’t you bring my goddam smokes? What kinda fuckin consideration is that?”

Horace decided to say nothing. He raised first one leg and then the other and shook them, hoping that would relieve the aches. Slowly, he turned around to face the bars. No one had told him what was going to happen to him. He knew a lawyer, but he did not know if he was still practicing. He had friends, but he did not want any of them to see him in jail. He hoped the man would go to sleep.

“Don’t turn your fuckin back on me after all we meant to each other,” the man said. “We have this long relationship and you do this to me. Whas wrong with you, Daddy?”

“Look,” Horace said, turning back to the man. “I done told you I ain’t got no smokes. I ain’t got your smokes. I ain’t got my smokes. I ain’t got nobody's smokes. Why can’t you understand that?” He was aware that he was veering away from the white man's English, but he knew that his friend from Germany was probably home asleep safely in his bed. “I can’t give you what I don’t have.” Men were murdered in the D.C. jail, or so the Washington Post told him. “Can’t you understand what I’m sayin?” His back stayed as close to the bars as he could manage. Who was this Irene, he thought, and what had she done to steal into a man's dreams that way?

“So, Daddy, it's gonna be like that, huh?” the man said, raising his head and pushing the foot of the upper-bunk man out of the way so he could see Horace better. He took his hand out of his crotch and pointed at Horace. “You gon pull a Peter-and-Jesus thing on me and deny you ever knew me, huh? Thas your plan, Daddy?” He lowered his head back to the black-and-white-striped pillow. “I’ve seen some low-down dirty shit in my day, but you the lowest. After our long relationship and everything.”

“I never met you in my life,” Horace said, grabbing the bars behind him with both hands, hoping, again, for relief.

“I won’t forget this, and you know how long my memory is. First, you don’t bring me my smokes, like you know you should. Then you deny all that we had. Don’t go to sleep in here, Daddy, thas all I gotta say.”

He thought of Reilly Johnson, a man he had worked with in the Pentagon. Reilly considered himself something of a photographer. He had taken the picture of Horace with the Secretary of Defense. What would the bail be? Would Reilly be at home to receive his call on a Sunday morning? Would they give him bail? The policemen who pulled him from his bed had tsk-tsked in his face. “Sellin drugs and corruptin young people like that?” “I didn’t know nothin about that, Officer. Please.” “Tsk. Tsk. An old man like you.”

“The world ain’t big enough for you to hide from my righteous wrath, Daddy. And you know how righteous I can be when I get started. The world ain’t big enough, so you know this jail ain’t big enough.”

Horace turned back to the bars. Was something in the back as painful as something in the stomach? He touched his face. Rarely, even in the lost months with Catrina, had he failed to shave each morning. A man's capable demeanor started with a shave each morning, his sergeant in boot camp had told him a thousand years ago.

The man down the way began calling for Irene again. Irene, Horace called in his mind. Irene, are you out there? No one told the man to be quiet. It was about seven and the whole building was waking up and the man calling Irene was not the loudest sound in the world anymore.

“Daddy, you got my smokes? Could use my smokes right about now.”

Horace, unable to stand anymore, slowly sank to the floor. There he found some relief. The more he sat, the more he began to play over the arrest. He had had money in his pocket when he took off his pants the night before, but there was no money when they booked him. And where had Catrina and Elaine been when the police marched him out of the apartment and down to the paddy wagon, with the Sunset's female security guard standing behind her desk with an “Oh, yes, I told you so” look? Where had they been? He had not seen them. He stretched out his legs and they touched the feet of the sleeping man on the floor. The man roused. “Love don’t mean shit anymore,” the man on the lower bunk said.

It was loud enough to wake the man on the floor all the way, and that man sat up and covered his chest with his blanket and looked at Horace, blinking and blinking and getting a clearer picture of Horace the more he blinked.

Reilly did not come for him until the middle of Monday afternoon. Somebody opened the cell door and at first Horace thought the policeman was coming to get one of his cellmates.

“Homer Parkins,” the man with the keys said. The doors were supposed to open electronically, but that system had not worked in a long time.

“Thas me,” Horace said and got to his feet. As he and the man with the keys walked past the other cells, someone said to Horace, “Hey, Pops, you ain’t too old to learn to suck dick.” “Keep moving,” the man with the keys said. “Pops, I’ll give you a lesson when you come back.”

As they poured his things out of a large manila envelope, the two guards behind the desk whispered and laughed. “Everything there?” one of them asked Horace. “Yes.” “Well, good,” the guard said. “I guess we’ll be seein you on your next trip here.” “Oh, leave that old man alone. He's somebody's grandfather.” “When they start that old,” the first man said, “it gets in their system and they can’t stop. Ain’t that right, Pops?”

He and Reilly did not say very much after Reilly said he had been surprised to hear from Horace and that he had wondered what had happened to him since Loneese died. Horace said he was eternally grateful to Reilly for bailing him out and that it was all a mistake as well as a long story that he would soon share with him. At Sunset, Reilly offered to take him out for a meal, but Horace said he would have to take a rain check. “Rain check?” Reilly said, smiling. “I didn’t think they said that anymore.”

The key to the apartment worked the way it always had, but something was blocking the door, and he had to force it open. Inside, he found destruction everywhere. On top of the clothes and the mementos of his life, strewn across the table and the couch and the floor were hundreds and hundreds of broken records. He took three steps into the room and began to cry. He turned around and around, hoping for something that would tell him it was not as bad as his eyes first reported. But there was little hope-the salt and pepper shakers had not been touched, the curtains cov- ering the glass door were intact. There was not much beyond that for him to cling to.

He thought immediately of Catrina and Elaine. What had he done to deserve this? Had he not always shown them a good and kind heart? He covered his eyes, but that seemed only to produce more tears, and when he lowered his hands the room danced before him through the tears. To steady himself, he put both hands on the table, which was covered in instant coffee and sugar. He brushed broken glass off the chair nearest him and sat down. He had not gotten it all off, and he felt what was left through his pants and underwear.

He tried to look around but got no farther than the picture with the Secretary of Defense. It had two cracks in it, one running north to south and the other going northwest to southeast. The photograph was tilting, too, and something told him that if he could straighten the picture it all might not be so bad. He reached out a hand, still crying, but he could not move from the chair.

He stayed as he was through the afternoon and late into the evening, not once moving from the chair, though the tears did stop around five o’clock. Night came and he still did not move. My name is Horace Perkins, he thought just as the sun set. My name is Horace Perkins and I worked many a year at the Pentagon. The apartment became dark, but he did not have it in him to turn on the lights.

The knocking had been going on for more than ten minutes when he finally heard it. He got up, stumbling over debris, and opened the door. Elaine stood there with Darnell, Jr., in her arms.

“Horace, you O.K.? I been comin by. I been worried about you, Horace.”

He said nothing but opened the door enough for her and the baby to enter.

“It's dark, Horace. What about some light?”

He righted the lamp on the table and turned it on.

“Jesus in Heaven, Horace! What happened! My Lord Jesus! I can’t believe this.” The baby, startled by his mother's words, began to cry. “It's O.K.,” she said to him. “It's O.K.,” and gradually the baby calmed down. “Oh, Horace, I’m so sorry. I really am. This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” She touched his shoulder with her free hand, but he shrugged it off. “Oh, my dear God! Who could do this?”

She went to the couch and moved enough trash aside for the baby. She pulled a pacifier from her sweater pocket, put it momentarily in her mouth to remove the lint, then put it in the baby's mouth. He appeared satisfied and leaned back on the couch.

She went to Horace, and right away he grabbed her throat. “I’m gonna kill you tonight!” he shouted. “I just wish that bitch Catrina was here so I could kill her, too.” Elaine struggled and sputtered out one “please” before he gripped her tighter. She beat his arms but that seemed to give him more strength. She began to cry. “I’m gonna kill you tonight, girl, if it's the last thing I do.”

The baby began to cry, and she turned her head as much as she could to look at him. This made him slap her twice, and she started to fall, and he pulled her up and, as he did, went for a better grip, which was time enough for her to say, “Don’t kill me in front of my son, Horace.” He loosened his hands. “Don’t kill me in front of my boy, Horace.” Her tears ran down her face and over and into his hands. “He don’t deserve to see me die. You know that, Horace.”

“Where, then!”

“Anywhere but in front of him. He's innocent of everything.”

He let her go and backed away.

“I did nothin, Horace,” she whispered. “I give you my word, I did nothin.” The baby screamed, and she went to him and took him in her arms.

Horace sat down in the same chair he had been in.

“I would not do this to you, Horace.”

He looked at her and at the baby, who could not take his eyes off Horace, even through his tears.

One of the baby's cries seemed to get stuck in his throat, and to release it the baby raised a fist and punched the air, and finally the cry came free. How does a man start over with nothing? Horace thought. Elaine came near him, and the baby still watched him as his crying lessened. How does a man start from scratch?

He leaned down and picked up a few of the broken albums from the floor and read the labels. “I would not hurt you for anything in the world, Horace,” Elaine said. Okeh Phonograph Corporation. Domino Record

Co. RCA Victor. Darnell, Jr.,'s crying stopped, but he continued to look down at the top of Horaces head. Cameo Record Corporation, N.Y. “You been too good to me for me to hurt you like this, Horace.” He dropped the records one at a time: “It Takes an Irishman to Make Love.” “I’m Gonna Pin a Medal on the Girl I Left Behind.” “Ragtime Soldier Man.” “Whose Little Heart Are You Breaking Now.” “The Syncopated Walk.”

Dale Peck


from The Threepenny Review

FIRST OF all, Adam. He creaked up beside me on a bicycle that seemed welded of leftover plumbing parts. “Pull over,” he said with all the authority of a Keystone Cop.

He was cute enough. In particular, the hair: black, thick, sticking out of his head in a dozen directions. His long thin legs straddled the flared central strut of his bicycle like denim-covered tent poles and he stared down at my own bike with eyes the color of asphalt-the old gray kind, with glass embedded in it to reflect light.

But this wasn’t a pickup.

“That is my bicycle,” he announced. A trace of an accent?

“I’m sure there's some misunderstanding,” I said. “I paid for this bike.”

“Then you bought stolen merchandise,” he said, his consonants soft. Eastern European. Shtolen mershendise. “I think you should show me where.”

I’d gone on a tip. Benny's East Village. “You won’t believe his prices,” a friend had told me. “Isn’t that the burrito place?” I’d said. In fact my friend had said, “They’re probably all stolen, but what you don’t know won’t hurt you.” “He steals burritos?” I’d said. “Bicycles” my friend said. “Come on.” By the time Adam and I arrived the shop had closed for the day. Adam's thin legs had labored to turn his creaking pedals, and it occurred to me I could have outrun him, but I didn’t. The sun was setting at our backs and our shadows stretched out in front of us like twinned towers. I thought we were a pair. I thought we were in it together.

Benny sat on a swivel chair on the sidewalk, a television propped in front of him on a pair of milk crates; a tin of rice and beans wobbled on his lap. We’d been there only a few minutes when a man half carried, half pushed a bike up the street. He held it by the seat, lifting the back wheel off the ground because it couldn’t turn: it was still locked to the frame. After inspecting the bicycle, Benny paid the man from a roll of bills he pulled from the breast pocket of his T-shirt, stowed the bicycle under the grate of his store, and returned to his chair.

I turned to Adam.

“I guess I should have investigated further.”

“You should have.”

He was pulling the kryptonite U-lock from its frame-mounted holder, and I inferred from this action that he wanted to trade bikes. I dismounted, and was unwinding my chain from the seat post when his lock caught me in the side of the head, just behind and below my left eye. Fireflies streaked through my field of vision when the lock struck me, but I didn’t actually lose consciousness until the sidewalk hit me in the forehead.

Charlie sponged the grit from my face. What was stuck to solid skin washed away easily, but the bits of gravel embedded in the gashes on my cheek and forehead resisted, had to be convinced to relinquish their berth. I closed my eyes against the water trickling from his rag.

One summer when I was seven or eight I carried cupfuls of water from a stream and poured them down chipmunk holes. The chipmunks would remain underground for as long as possible until, wobbling like drunken sailors, they staggered into the sunshine. Gently I lifted them into a tinfoil turkey tray I’d habitated with rocks, plants, a ribbed tin can laid on its side (a sleeping den, I’d thought), and then I watched as the chipmunks revived, explored their playground tentatively, and then, inevitably, hurdled the shiny wall and scrambled back down their holes.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to use a tweezers for the last of it.” I opened my eyes. Charlie was making a face, as if performing this surgery hurt him instead of me.

He asked me if it hurt me.

I was still remembering the way that last chipmunk had lain on its side after I’d fished it from its home, eyes closed, chest fluttering as rapidly as a bee's wings. I’d dared to stroke its heaving ribs. The chipmunk curled itself into a ball around my finger, its mouth and the claws of all four paws digging at me until I flung it away and it scurried to safety.

“It hurts,” I said, then caught Charlie's arm as he flinched. “My head hurts,” I said. “What you’re doing doesn’t hurt.”

Benny's East Village sold bikes every day except Sunday from eleven until seven, but seemed always to be bustling with activity. In the mornings a young woman worked on the bicycles. This was Deneisha, who seemed to live on the third floor. Every ten minutes a younger version of her leaned out the window to relay a request: “Deneisha, Mami says why you didn’t get no more coffee if you used the last of it?” “Deneisha, Benny says to call him back on his cell phone.” “Deneisha, Eduardo wants to know when are you gonna take the training wheels off my bike so I can go riding with him?” Deneisha, her thick body covered in greasy overalls, inky black spirals of hair rubberbanded off her smooth round face, ignored these interruptions, working with Allen wrenches and oil cans and tubes of glue on gears, brakes, tires. For bicycles that still had a chain fastened to them she had an enormous pair of snips, their handles as long as her meaty arms, and for U-locks she had a special saw that threw sparks like a torch as it chewed through tempered steel.

After the shop closed there was a lull until the sun went down, and then the bicycles began to arrive. Every thief was different. Some skulked, others paraded their booty openly, offering it to anyone they passed on the sidewalk, but few spent any time bargaining with Benny. The more nervous the thief, the less interest Benny showed, the less money he pulled from the roll of bills. He seemed completely untroubled by his illicit enterprise, absorbing stolen bikes with the same equanimity with which he absorbed tins and cartons of delivered food. Only the white kids, the college-age junkies selling off the first or the last of their ties to a suburban past, tried his patience. “I said ten bucks,” I heard him say once. “Take it or leave it.”

Charlie couldn’t understand my obsession. We’d only been together for three months, and what I’d learned about him was that he absorbed information with a stenographer's Zen. “Existence is the sum of experience,” he’d shrugged that first night, as though the events of our lives were drops of water and we the puddles at the end of their runneled paths, little pools of history. When I still wouldn’t let it go he prodded harder.

“Is it the coincidence that bothers you, or the fact that he hit you? Or is it that you pretended innocence of what you were getting when you bought the bike in the first place, and now it's come back and bitten you in the ass?”

At the time I couldn’t answer him, and of course hindsight makes it that much less clear. I offered him words like “cleave” and “hew,” words that could mean both cutting and binding, but Charlie waved my rhetoric away. “Context makes meaning clear,” he said. And then, more bluntly: “Choose.”

But I couldn’t choose. My life felt splayed on either side of the incident with Adam like his long thin legs straddling the ancient bicycle which he did, in fact, leave for me. Like conjoined twins, my two selves were linked at the hip, sharing a common future but divided as to which past to claim. And so every day I rode Adam's creaking iron bike to a stoop across from Benny's and waited for something like Deneisha's saw or snips to sever my old unmolested self, leaving my new scarred body to get on with things.

At a party Charlie took me to I told the story behind the bandages on my cheek and forehead a half dozen times. By then the two bruises had joined into one, across my forehead, down my left cheek, vanishing into the hairline. The single bruise was mottled black, purple, blue, green, yellow, but, like the story I told over and over again, essentially painless, and as the night wore on Charlie added his own coda to my words. “Victim,” he would say, turning my mottled left profile to the audience. “Thief,” he said, showing them my right.

“Uh-oh,” he said at one point, “here comes trouble.” Trouble was a man around our age, one hand holding shaggy bangs off his unlined forehead as though he were taking in a sight, the Grand Canyon, a caged animal. From across the room I heard his cry. “Now where did I leave that man?” His gaze fell on Charlie. “There he is.”

Charlie introduced him as Fletcher. From the name I knew this to be his ex-boyfriend, who had dumped Charlie last summer after a five-year relationship that Charlie referred to by the names of various failed political unions: Czechoslovakia, Upper and Lower Egypt, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His arms around Charlie's waist, Fletcher pulled him a few feet away, as if together they were examining my bruised face. “Is this really the new model,” Fletcher said, “or just something you picked up at Rent-a-Wreck?” Charlie offered me a wan smile but, like the Orangeman that he was, seemed content in Fletcher's possessive embrace. Under his questions, I recited once again the story of the two bicycles, the single blow, adding this time the week of camping out across from Benny's shop. Fletcher's assessment: “I don’t know why you’re focusing on him, he's just a businessman. It was the Slav who sucker-punched you.”

On the bicycle ride to Benny’s, Adam had told me he came from Slovenia. He came here on a student visa, stayed on after his country seceded from the Yugoslavian republic; that was a decade ago. “Back home,” he told me, “the terrain is hills and mountains but everyone rides bicycles like this.” He smacked the flecked chrome of his handlebars. “Often you see people, not just grandmothers but healthy young men, pushing their bicycles up inclines too steep to pedal. I wanted a mountain bike.”

He told me he was illegal, worked without a green card, had almost to live like a thief himself; he had a degree in computer science and an MBA, had emigrated to get in on the dot-com boom but ended up tending bar at Windows on the World. After Fletcher's harangue I bought two books on Balkan history at a used bookstore, a novel and a book of journalism, and I read them on the stoop across from Benny's in an effort to understand what Adam meant by telling me about his stunted furtive existence, the two kinds of bicycles, the broadside with the lock. Why did he need a mountain bike, if he was only going to ride the swamp-flat streets of the East Village?

But then: Grace.

I was sitting on the stoop across from Benny's absorbed in the cyclical tale of centuries of avenged violence that is Balkan history. Two plaster lions flanked me, their fangs dulled beneath years of brown paint. A woman stopped in front of me and hooked a finger around one of the lion's incisors. “That is a great book,” she said with the kind of enthusiasm only a middle-aged counterculturalist can summon. She pointed not to the book I was reading but to the novel on the concrete beside me. Against the heat of early September she wore green plastic sandals, black spandex shorts, a halter top that seemed sewn from a threadbare bandanna. The spandex was worn and semitransparent on her thin thighs and her stomach was so flat it was concave; a ruby glowed from her navel ring, an echo of the bindi dot on her forehead. She could have been thirty or fifty. She let go of the lion's tooth and picked up the novel even as I told her I looked forward to reading it. “Like, wow,” she exclaimed, and when she blinked it seemed to me her eyes were slightly out of sync. She held the book up to me, the cover propped open to the first set of endpapers. An ex libris card was stuck on the left-hand side with a name penned on it in black ink: Grace was the first name, followed by a polysyllabic scrawl ending in -itz. The same card adorned the book I was reading and, nervously, my index finger traced the hard shell of scab above my left eye. What she said next would have seemed no more unlikely had the lion behind her spoken it himself: “That's my name.”

She didn’t ask for her books back-they weren’t stolen, she’d bought them for a class at the New School and sold them after it was over so she could afford a course in elementary Sanskrit-but I insisted she take them anyway, sensing that a drama was unfolding somewhat closer than the Balkans. In the end she accepted the novel but told me to finish the history. Over coffee I told her about Adam and the bicycle, and Grace was like, wow.

“Once I got the same cabdriver twice,” she said. She blinked: her left eye and then, a moment later, her right. “I mean, I got a cabdriver I’d had before. I tried to ask him if he’d ever, you know, randomly picked up the same person twice, besides me of course, but he didn’t speak English so I don’t know.” Her face clouded for a moment, then lit up again. Blink blink. “Oh and then once I got in the same car on the F train. I went to this winter solstice party out in Park Slope, and the kicker is we went to a bar afterward so I didn’t even leave from the same stop I came out on. I think I got off at Fourth Avenue or whatever it is, and then we walked all the way to like Seventh or something, it was fucking freezing is all I remember, but whatever. When the train pulled into the station it was the same train I’d ridden out on, the same car. Totally spooky, huh?”

“How’d you know it was the same one?”

“Graffiti, duh. ‘Hector loves Isabel.’ Scratched into the glass with a razor blade in, like, really big letters.” “And the cabdriver?” “His name was Jesus.” “Just Jesus?” “Just Jesus.”

The incident with Adam had been painful but finite. A city tale, one of those chance meetings leading to romance or, in this case, violence; already the bruise was fading. But the incident with Grace was more troubling, awoke in me a creeping dread. What if life was just a series of borrowed items, redundant actions, at best repetitious, at worse theft? “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But what if repetition happened regardless of memory? What if we were all condemned? I felt then that I understood the history I was reading, began to sympathize with the urge to destroy something that continually reminded you of your derivative status. Like most people, I first bought used items out of poverty, but after my fortunes improved I continued to buy secondhand from a sense of a different debt. Clothes, books, bicycles: I wanted to pay my dues to history, wanted to wear it on my back, carry it in my hands, ride it through the streets. But now it seemed history had rejected my tithing, rejected it scornfully. The past can be sold, it mocked me, but it can never be bought.

Charlie was less blasé about Grace than he’d been about Adam, but ultimately dismissed it.

“It takes three events to form a narrative. Two is just coincidence.”

“But a coincidence which is made up of two coincidences. What's that?”

“Proof that New York, as someone once said, is just a series of small towns.”

The first night, after cleaning and bandaging my wounds, Charlie had put me to bed and spooned himself behind me, his arms around me, the outline of his erect penis palpable through two pairs of underwear. At the time it was so familiar I didn’t really notice it, but later it came to preoccupy my thoughts. It was like Adam's mountain bike, misplaced, a tool for which the pertinent scenario existed only at a remembered remove. Or Graces ex libris cards, a claim of ownership on something she had no intention of keeping, like a gravestone on an abandoned grave. The night I met Grace, Charlie and I had sex for the first time since Adam had whacked me in the head, and the whole time I was unable to shake an image of Fletchers face next to Charlie's crotch. “See this? This is mine” Later that night, when I was dozing off and Charlie was leafing through the book that had fallen from my hands, I suddenly sat up.


“What about Fletcher?”

“You used to belong to him.” Silently but victoriously, I ticked off forefinger, middle finger, ring finger. Then: “That's three.”

The next day, after Charlie went to work, I stayed in the apartment. At first I wasn’t aware that I was doing it. Staying in. I worked in the morning, ordered lunch from an Italian place around the corner. I read while I ate tepid fettuccine and kept reading after I’d finished my meal; all this was normal, or had been normal, if you disregarded the weeks I’d spent in front of Benny’s. On a pad made up of reused sheets from early drafts of stories was written “shaving cream, milk,” but after I’d finished the history I neglected my shopping and instead took a nap. I didn’t wake until Charlie called that evening after he got off work.

“Dinner? There's that new French place on Twelfth.” “Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry, I was hungry, I ordered in. Mexican.” “That's fine,” Charlie said. “I’ve got some chicken in the fridge, and some work I really should get done. My place tonight?”

“Oh,” I said again. “I’m sorry. I, um. My head's pounding. Do you mind?”

Charlie didn’t say that's fine the second time. He said, “Sure,” and it seemed to me his voice wasn’t annoyed but instead relieved. “I’ll give you a call tomorrow.”

The next day I stayed in again, working. I’d been trying to write about Adam since I’d met him, but after I met Grace the story suddenly fell into place.

In the story I am afraid to leave my apartment. I am afraid that a stranger will stop me on the sidewalk and put their hand on my Salvation

Army chest. “That's my shirt.” Someone else claims my pants. Nearly naked, I skulk indoors. But not even my home is safe. A visitor runs his hand over my sofa (Housing Works, $250). “I used to love this couch.” Another pulls open the drawers of my desk (Regeneration, $400): “What are the odds?” Finally someone waves their arms, taking in the time-smudged dimensions of my tiny apartment. “This used to be my home.” My throat is dry, and I go to the faucet for a drink. But as the water runs I wonder: how many bodies has this passed through to get to me?

But it was worse than all that. When Charlie came over that evening he glanced through the story I’d written and said, “Haven’t I read this before?”

On the third day I didn’t leave my apartment Charlie called me and told me a story:

“Once I wanted to hack all my hair off with a pair of scissors. But I had a crew cut at the time. So I went out and bought next year's calendar and marked the date a year hence with a big red X. For the next twelve months I didn’t touch my hair, and when the day with the X came up I looked in the mirror and realized I liked my hair long. I realized that my crew cuts had been a way of hacking off my hair all along.”

I said the only thing I could think of.


“Your whole shut-in thing,” Charlie said. “It's not real. Or it's not new. It's just a symbol of something you already do. You’ve already done. Think about it. Where is it you’re really afraid to go?”

I thought about it.

“But you have a crew cut now,” I said.

“Give me a break, will you? I’m going bald, it's the dignified thing to do.”

When we met Charlie gave me a road map. This was on our third date. Oh, okay, our second. We’d gone back to his apartment and he spread the map out on his kitchen table (IKEA, $99). The table, like everything else in Charlie's apartment, was new and neat, but the map was old and wrinkled, a flag-sized copy of the continental U.S., post-Alaska, pre-Hawaii. Some of the creases were so worn they’d torn, or were about to.

“Now,” Charlie said. “Fold it.”

There were four long creases, twelve short, and folding the map proved as hard as solving Rubik's cube. I got it wrong a half dozen times before I finally got the front and back covers in the right place and, a little chagrined, handed it to Charlie.

“Did I fail?”

“You passed,” Charlie said. “With flying colors. Anyone who can fold a map on the first try is far too rational for me.”

“And what about people who can’t fold one at all?”

In answer, Charlie pulled open the white laminate-fronted drawer of one of those nameless pieces of furniture, a “storage unit.” Inside were several maps practically wadded up, as well as dozens of takeout menus and hundreds of crooked twist ties. He had to scrunch the pile down before the drawer would close again.

“Wow,” I said. “The map test and your messy drawer. You must really like me.”

Charlie grinned, sheepish but pleased. “It's about time I entered into a new alliance.”

By the time I understood what that meant, I thought I was ready to sign. And then Adam came along.

On the fourth day, Grace called. When I asked her how she’d gotten my number she said, “Out of the book,” and when I started to ask how she knew my last name she interrupted me and said, “Honey, I think you’d better turn on the television.”

Months later, when the indemnity claims began to be discussed in the press, New Yorkers would learn that the opposing sides, the insurance companies and the property owners, differed on a crucial issue: whether the collapse of the towers constituted one event, or two. The World Trade Center, it turned out, was insured for three billion dollars, but if it was deemed that the crash of the second plane into the south tower, not quite twenty minutes after the north tower was hit, constituted a distinct historical event, the insurers would have to pay the full amount twice, in effect saying that the buildings had been destroyed not once but two times. A lot of the argument, as it turned out, was rhetorical: to the insurers, the World Trade Center was a single site-maps marked it with a single X, guidebooks gave it only one entry-that had been destroyed by a united terrorist attack. But to the property owners, the Twin Towers were, architecturally, structurally, visibly, two buildings destroyed by two separate planes, either one of which could have missed its target. Which argument began to make more and more sense to me as time went on and details about what had happened came out. Nearly three-quarters of the people who died were in the north tower, and, of those, more than ninety percent were on floors above those hit by the plane, including dozens of people attending a breakfast conference at Windows on the World. The reason why far fewer people died in the second tower, which stood for less than an hour, as opposed to the hundred minutes the north tower remained intact, is that people in the south tower saw what had happened to the north tower and evacuated their offices. Regardless of whether you considered the two plane crashes coincidence or concerted assault, the planes had struck separately-and people in the second incident had learned from the first.

The antonym to history is prophecy. Historical patterns only emerge when we look back in time; they exist in the future as nothing more than guesses. That we make such projections speaks of a kind of faith, though whether that faith is in the past or the future, the predictability of human nature, or physics, or God, is anybody's guess. But in the end, it always takes you by surprise. By which I mean that when I fought my way through the clouds of dust and crowds of dusty people to Charlie's apartment, I found Fletcher had beaten me there. Who could have foreseen that?

In the days to come, I rode my bike around the city, watched as walls and windows and trees and lampposts filled up with pictures of the missing. Dust clogged my lungs and coated the chain of Adam's creaking bicycle, making it harder and harder to turn the pedals, but it was three days before I stopped wandering aimlessly and actually started looking for him. I found him, finally, a day and a half later, at the armory on Lexington and Twenty-sixth. Indian restaurants lined that stretch of Lex, and the air was usually tinged with curry, but all the restaurants had been closed for days. There were thousands of pictures taped to the wall of the armory, hundreds of people queuing to look at them. Many of the pictures were printed by inkjets and had smeared into unrecognizable blurs after two days of thunderstorms. Where there was a television crew, dozens of people holding up Polaroids and snapshots and flyers jockeyed to get on camera.

By common will the line moved from left to right. Heads nodded up and down as feet shuffled side to side. I tried not to look in anyone's eyes, living or photographed. I did look at the living, just in case, but mostly I looked at the pictures on the wall.

Sometimes A leads to Z. But sometimes Z leads to A. What I mean is, I was looking for Adam, but I found Zach. Zach: “You won’t believe his prices.” Zach: “They’re probably all stolen, but what you don’t know won’t hurt you.” “Bicycles” Zach had said. “Come on.”

I looked at his face for a long time. He hadn’t been a close friend, but someone I’d known off and on for almost fifteen years, and as I looked at him I was suddenly reminded of everyone I’d known who had died of AIDS in the eighties and nineties, the tragic consequences of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The memory was as unexpected as Adam's blow to my head but produced in me an odd, almost eerie sense of calm. Z had led to A, and A to Z, and Z back to A, but now it was a different A. History wasn’t even a circle but a diminishing spiral, twisting into a tinier and tinier point.

And then:

“Keith? Keith, is that you?”

I didn’t recognize him at first. He was shorter than I remembered, his features less fine. His eyes weren’t gray but blue. But the hair was the same, thick and black and sticking out of his head in a dozen directions. It was streaked with soot now too, as if he hadn’t washed in days. His T-shirt was also filthy, and pinned to his chest were three pictures which I hardly had time to take in-there were two women and one man, all smiling the hopelessly naive smiles of the doomed-before Adam grabbed me up in a huge embrace. His arms collapsed around me, one and then the other, and his tears salved the faded remnants of my wounded face.

“Oh my God, Keith!” Adam cried. “You’re alive!”

Ron Rash

Speckle Trout

from The Kenyon Review

LANNY CAME upon the pot plants while fishing Caney Creek. It was a Saturday, and after helping his father sucker tobacco all morning, he’d had the truck and the rest of the afternoon and evening for himself. He'd changed into his fishing clothes and driven the three miles of dirt road to the French Broad. He drove fast, the rod and reel clattering side to side in the truck bed and clouds of red dust rising in his wake like dirt devils. He had the windows down and if the radio worked he would have had it blasting. The driver's license in his billfold was six months old but only in the last month had his daddy let him drive the truck by himself.

He parked by the bridge and walked upriver toward where Caney Creek entered. Afternoon sunlight slanted over Brushy Mountain and tinged the water the color of cured tobacco. A big fish leaped in the shallows but Lanny's spinning rod was broken down and even if it hadn’t been he would not have bothered to make a cast. There was nothing in the river he could sell, only stocked rainbows and browns, knottyheads, and catfish. The men who fished the river were mostly old men, men who would stay in one place for hours, motionless as the stumps and rocks they sat on. Lanny liked to keep moving, and he fished where even the younger fishermen wouldn’t go.

In forty minutes he was half a mile up Caney Creek, the spinning rod still broken down. There were trout in the lower section where browns and rainbows had worked their way up from the river, and Old Man Jenkins would not buy them. The gorge narrowed to a thirty-foot wall of water and rock, below it the deepest pool on the creek. This was the place where everyone else turned back. He waded through waist-high water to reach the left side of the waterfall, then began climbing, using juts and fissures in the rock for leverage and resting places. When he got to the top he put the rod together and tied a gold Panther Martin on the line.

The only fish this far up were what fishing magazines called brook trout, though Lanny had never heard Old Man Jenkins or anyone else call them anything other than speckle trout. Jenkins swore they tasted better than any brown or rainbow and paid Lanny fifty cents apiece no matter how small they were. Old Man Jenkins ate them head and all, like sardines.

Mountain laurel slapped against Lanny's face and arms, and he scraped his hands and elbows climbing straight up rocks there was no other way around. The only path was water now. He thought of his daddy back at the farmhouse and smiled to himself. The old man had told him never to fish a place like this alone, because a broken leg or a rattlesnake bite could get you stone-dead before anyone found you. That was near about the only kind of talk he got anymore from the old man, Lanny thought to himself as he tested his knot, always being lectured about something-how fast he drove, who he hung out with-like he was eight years old instead of sixteen, like the old man himself hadn’t raised all sorts of hell when he was young.

The only places with enough water to hold fish were the pools, some no bigger than a washbucket. Lanny flicked the spinner into the pools and in every third or fourth one a small, orange-finned trout came flopping out onto the bank, the spinner's treble hook snagged in its mouth. Lanny would slap the speckle's head against a rock and feel the fish shudder in his hand and die. If he missed a strike, he cast again into the same pool. Unlike browns and rainbows, the speckles would hit twice, occasionally even three times. Old Man Jenkins had told Lanny when he was a boy most every stream in the county was thick with speckles, but they’d been too easy caught and soon enough fished out, which was why now you had to go to the back of beyond to find them.

He already had eight fish in his creel when he passed the No Trespassing sign nailed in an oak tree. The sign was scabbed with rust like the ten-year-old car tag on his granddaddy's barn, and he paid no more attention to the sign than he had when he’d first seen it a month ago. He knew he was on Toomey land, and he knew the stories. How Linwood Toomey had once used his thumb to gouge a man's eye out in a bar fight and another time opened a man's face from ear to mouth with a broken beer bottle. Stories about events Lanny's daddy had witnessed before, as his daddy put it, he’d got straight with the Lord. But Lanny had heard other things. About how Linwood Toomey and his son were too lazy and hard drinking to hold steady jobs. Too lazy and drunk to walk the quarter-mile from their farmhouse to the creek to look for trespassers too, Lanny told himself.

He waded on upstream, going farther than he’d ever been. He caught more speckles, and soon ten dollars’ worth bulged in his creel. Enough money for gas, maybe even a couple of bootleg beers, he told himself, and though it wasn’t near the money he’d been making at the Pay-Lo bagging groceries, at least he could do this alone and not have to deal with some old bitch of a store manager with nothing better to do than watch his every move, then fire him just because he was late a few times.

He came to where the creek forked and that was where he saw a sudden high greening a few yards above him on the left. He left the water and climbed the bank to make sure it was what he thought it was.

The plants were staked like tomatoes and set in rows the same way as tobacco or corn. He knew they were worth money, a lot of money, because Lanny knew how much his friend Travis paid for an ounce of pot and this wasn’t just ounces but maybe pounds.

He heard something behind him and turned, ready to drop the rod and reel and make a run for it. On the other side of the creek a gray squirrel scrambled up a blackjack oak. He told himself there was no reason to get all jumpy, that nobody would have seen him coming up the creek.

He let his eyes scan what lay beyond the plants. He didn’t see anything moving, not even a cow or chicken. Nothing but some open ground and then a stand of trees. He rubbed a pot leaf between his finger and thumb, and it felt like money to him, more money than he’d make even at the Pay-Lo. He looked around one more time before he took the knife from its sheath and cut down five plants.

That was the easy part. Dragging the stalks a mile down the creek was a lot harder, especially while trying to keep the leaves from being stripped off. When he got to the river he hid the plants in the underbrush and walked the trail to make sure no one was fishing. Then he carried the plants to the road edge, stashed them in the ditch, and got the truck. He emptied the creel into the ditch, the trout stiff and glaze-eyed. He wouldn’t be delivering Old Man Jenkins any speckles this evening.

Lanny drove back home with the stalks hidden under willow branches and potato sacks. He planned to stay only long enough to get a shower and put on some clean clothes, but as he walked through the front room his father looked up from the TV.

“We ain’t ate yet.”

“I’ll get something in town,” Lanny said.

“No, your momma's fixin supper right now, and she's set the table for three.”

“I ain’t got time. Travis is expecting me.”

“You can make time, boy. Or I might take a notion to go somewhere in that truck myself this evening.”

It was seven thirty before Lanny drove into the Hardee's parking lot and parked beside Travis's battered Camaro. He got out of the truck and walked over to Travis's window.

“You ain’t going to believe what I got in back of the truck.”

Travis grinned.

“It ain’t that old prune-faced bitch that fired you, is it?”

“No, this is worth something.”

Travis got out of the Camaro and walked around to the truck bed with Lanny. Lanny looked around to see if anyone was watching, then pulled back enough of a sack so Travis could see one of the stalks.

“I got five of em.”

“Holy shit. Where’d that come from?”

“Found it when I was fishing.”

Travis pulled the sack back farther.

“I need to start doing my fishing with you. It's clear I been going to the wrong places.”

A car pulled up to the drive-through and Travis pulled the sack over the plant.

“What you planning to do with it?”

“Sell it, if I can figure out who’ll buy it.”

“Leonard would buy it, I bet.”

“He don’t know me though. I ain’t one of his potheads.”

“Well, I am,” Travis said. “Let me lock my car and we’ll go pay him a visit.”

“How about we go over to Dink's first and get some beer.”

“Leonard's got beer. His is cheaper and it ain’t piss-warm like what we got at Dink's last time.”

They drove out of Marshall, following 221 toward Mars Hill.

“You in for a treat, meeting Leonard,” Travis said. “They ain’t another like him, leastways in this county.”

“I heard tell he was a lawyer once.”

“Naw, he just went to law school a few months. They kicked his ass out because he was stoned all the time.”

After a mile they turned off the blacktop and onto a dirt road. On both sides of the road what had once been pasture was now thick with blackjack oak and broomsedge. They passed a deserted farmhouse and turned onto another road no better than a logging trail, trees on both sides now.

The woods opened into a small meadow, at the center a battered green-and-white trailer, its windows painted black. On one side of the trailer a satellite dish sprouted like an enormous mushroom, on the other side a Jeep Cherokee, its back fender crumpled. Two Dobermans scrambled out from under the trailer, barking as they ran toward the truck. They leaped at Lanny's window, their claws raking the passenger door as he quickly rolled up the window.

The trailer door opened and a man with a gray ponytail and wearing only a pair of khaki shorts stepped onto the cinder-block steps. He yelled at the dogs and when that did no good he came out to the truck and kicked at them until they slunk back from where they had emerged.

Lanny looked at a man who wasn’t any taller than himself and looked to outweigh him only because of a stomach that sagged over the front of his shorts like a half-deflated balloon.

“That's Leonard?”

“Yeh. The one and only.”

Leonard walked over to Travis's window.

“I got nothing but beer and a few nickel bags. Supplies are going to be low until people start to harvest.”

“Well, we likely come at a good time then.” Travis turned to Lanny. “Let's show Leonard what you done brought him.”

Lanny got out and pulled back the branches and potato sacks.

“Where’d you get that from?” Leonard said.

“Found it,” Lanny said.

“Found it, did you? And you figured finders keepers.”

“Yeh,” said Lanny

Leonard let his fingers brush some of the leaves.

“Looks like you dragged it through every briar patch and laurel slick between here and the county line.”

“There's plenty of leaves left on it,” Travis said.

“What you give me for it?” Lanny said.

Leonard lifted each stalk, looking at it the same way Lanny had seen buyers look at tobacco.

“Fifty dollars.”

“You trying to cheat me,” Lanny said. “I’ll find somebody else to buy it.”

As soon as he spoke Lanny wished he hadn’t, because he’d heard from more than one person that Leonard Hamby was a man you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of. He was about to say that he reckoned fifty dollars would be fine but Leonard spoke first.

“You may have an exalted view of your entrepreneurial abilities,” Leonard said.

Lanny didn’t understand all the words but he understood the tone. It was smart-ass but it wasn’t angry.

“I’ll give you sixty dollars, and I’ll double that if you bring me some that doesn’t look like it's been run through a hay baler. Plus I got some cold beers inside. My treat.”

“OK,” Lanny said, surprised at Leonard but more surprised at himself, how tough he’d sounded. He tried not to smile as he thought how when he got back to Marshall he’d be able to tell his friends he’d called Leonard Hamby a cheater to his face and Leonard hadn’t done a damn thing about it but offer more money and free beer.

Leonard took a money clip from his front pocket and peeled off three twenties and handed them to Lanny. Leonard nodded toward the meadow's far corner.

“Put them over there next to my tomatoes. Then come inside if you got a notion to.”

Lanny and Travis carried the plants through the knee-high grass and laid them next to the tomatoes. As they approached the trailer Lanny watched where the Dobermans had vanished under the trailer. He didn’t lift his eyes until he reached the steps.

Inside, it took Lanny's vision a few moments to adjust, because the only light came from a TV screen. Strings of unlit Christmas lights ran across the walls and over door eaves like bad wiring. A dusty-looking couch slouched against the back wall. In the corner Leonard sat in a fake-leather recliner patched with black electrician's tape. Except for a stereo system, the rest of the room was shelves filled with books and CDs. Music was playing, music that didn’t have any guitars or words.

“Have a seat,” Leonard said, and nodded at the couch.

A woman stood in the foyer between the living room and kitchen. She was a tall, bony woman and the cutoff jeans and halter top she wore had little flesh to hold them up. She’d gotten a bad sunburn and there were pink patches on her skin where she’d peeled. To Lanny she mostly looked wormy and mangy, like some stray dog around a garbage dump. Except for her eyes. They were a deep blue, like a jaybird's feathers. If you could just keep looking into her eyes, she’d be a pretty woman, Lanny told himself.

“How about getting these boys a couple of beers, Wendy,” Leonard said.

“Get them your ownself” the woman said, and disappeared into the back of the trailer.

Leonard shook his head but said nothing as he got up. He brought back two longneck Budweisers and a sandwich bag filled with pot and some wrapping papers.

He handed the beers to Travis and Lanny and sat down. Lanny was thirsty and he drank quickly as he watched Leonard carefully shake some pot out of the bag and onto the paper. Leonard licked the cigarette paper and twisted it at both ends, then lit it.

The orange tip brightened as Leonard drew the smoke in. He handed the joint to Travis, who drew on it as well and handed it back.

“What about your buddy?”

“He don’t smoke pot. Scared his daddy would find out and beat the tar out of him.”

“That ain’t so,” Lanny said. “I just like a beer buzz better.”

Lanny lifted the bottle to his lips and drank until the bottle was empty.

“I’d like me another one.”

“Quite the drinker, aren’t you,” Leonard said. “Just make sure you don’t overdo it. I don’t want you passed out and pissing on my couch.”

“I ain’t gonna piss on your couch.”

Leonard took another drag of the joint and passed it back to Travis.

“They’re in the refrigerator,” Leonard said. “You can get one easy as I can.”

Lanny stood up and for a moment he felt off plumb, maybe because he’d drunk the beer so fast. When the world steadied he got the beer and sat back down on the couch. He looked at the TV, some kind of western but without the sound on he couldn’t tell what was happening. He drank the second beer quick as the first as Travis and Leonard finished smoking the pot.

Travis had his eyes closed.

“Man, I’m feeling good,” Travis said.

Lanny studied the man who sat in the recliner, trying to figure out what it was that made Leonard Hamby a man you didn’t want to mess with. Leonard looked soft, Lanny thought, white and soft like bread dough. Just because a man had a couple of mean dogs didn’t make him such a badass, he told himself. He thought about his own daddy and Lin-wood Toomey big men you could look at and tell right away were badasses, or, like his daddy, once had been. Lanny wondered if anyone would ever call him a badass and wished again that he didn’t take after his mother, who was short and thin-boned.

“What's this shit you’re listening to, Leonard,” Lanny said.

“It's called ‘Appalachian Spring.’ It's by Copland.”

“Ain’t never heard of them.”

Leonard looked amused.

“Are you sure? They used to be the warm-up act for Lynyrd Skynyrd.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“No matter. Copland is an acquired taste, and I don’t anticipate your listening to a classical music station anytime in the future.”

Lanny knew Leonard was putting him down, talking over him like he was stupid, and it made him think of his teachers at the high school, teachers that used smart-ass words against him when he gave them trouble because they were too old and scared to try anything else. He got up and made his way to the refrigerator, damned if he was going to ask permission. He got the beer out and opened the top but didn’t go back to the couch. He went down the hallway to find the bathroom.

The bedroom door was open, and he could see the woman sitting up in the bed reading a magazine. He pissed and then walked into the bedroom and sat down on the bed.

The woman laid down the magazine.

“What do you want?”

Lanny grinned.

“What you offering?”

Even buzzed up with beer he knew it was a stupid thing to say. It seemed to him that ever since he’d got to Leonard's his mouth had been a faucet he couldn’t shut off.

The woman's blue eyes stared at him like he was nothing more than a sack of shit somebody had dumped on her bed.

“I ain’t offering you anything,” she said. “Even if I was, a little pecker-head like you wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

The woman looked toward the door.

“Leonard,” she shouted.

Leonard appeared at the doorway.

“It's past time to get your Cub Scout meeting over.”

Leonard nodded at Lanny.

“I believe you boys have overstayed your welcome.”

“I was getting ready to leave anyhow,” Lanny said. As he got up, the beer slipped from his hand and spilled on the bed.

“Nothing but a little peckerhead,” the woman said.

In a few moments he and Travis were outside. The evening sun glowed in the treetop like a snagged orange balloon. The first lightning bugs rode over the grass as though carried on an invisible current.

“You get more plants, come again,” Leonard said and closed the trailer door.

Lanny went back the next Saturday, two burlap sacks stuffed into his belt. After he’d been fired from the Pay-Lo, he’d about given up hope on earning enough money for his own truck, but now things had changed. Now he had what was pretty damn near a money tree and all he had to do was get its leaves to Leonard Hamby. He climbed up the waterfall, the trip up easier without a creel and rod. Once he passed the No Trespassing sign, he moved slower, quieter. I bet Linwood Toomey didn’t even plant it, Lanny told himself. I bet it was somebody who figured the Toomeys were too sorry to notice pot was growing on their land.

When he came close to where the plants were, he crawled up the bank, slowly raising his head like a soldier in a trench. He scanned the tree line across the field and saw no one. He told himself even if someone hid in the trees, they could never get across the field to catch him before he was long gone down the creek.

Lanny cut the stalks just below the last leaves. Six plants filled the sacks. He thought about cutting more, taking what he had to the truck and coming back to get the rest, but he figured that was too risky. He made his way back down the creek. He didn’t see anyone on the river trail, but if he had he’d have said it was poke shoots in the sacks if they’d asked.

When he drove up to the trailer, Leonard was watering the tomatoes with a hose. Leonard cut off the water and herded the Dobermans away from the truck. Lanny got out of the truck and walked around to the truck bed.

“How come you grow your own tomatoes but not your own pot?”

“Because I’m a low-risk kind of guy. Since they’ve started using the planes and helicopters, it's gotten too chancy unless you have a place way back in some hollow.”

One of the Dobermans growled from beneath the trailer but did not show its face.

“Where's your partner?”

“I don’t need no partner,” Lanny said. He lifted the sacks from the truck bed and emptied them onto the ground between him and Leonard.

“That's one hundred and twenty dollars’ worth,” Lanny said.

Leonard stepped closer and studied the plants.

“Fair is fair,” Leonard said, and pulled a money clip from his pocket. He handed Lanny five twenty-dollar bills and four fives.

Lanny crumpled the bills in his fist and stuffed them into his pocket, but he did not get back in the truck.

“What?” Leonard finally said.

“I figured you to ask me in for a beer.”

“I don’t think so. I don’t much want to play host this afternoon.”

“You don’t think I’m good enough to set foot in that roachy old trailer of yours.”

Leonard looked at Lanny and smiled.

“Boy, you remind me of a banty rooster, strutting around not afraid of anything, puffing your feathers out anytime anyone looks at you wrong. You think you’re a genuine, hardcore badass, don’t you?”

“I ain’t afraid of you, if that's what you’re getting at. If your own woman ain’t scared of you, why should I be.”

Leonard looked at the money clip in his hand. He tilted it in his hand until the sun caught the metal and a bright flash hit Lanny in the face. Lanny jerked his head away from the glare.

Leonard laughed and put the money clip back in his pocket.

“After the world has its way with you a few years, it’ll knock some of the strut out of you. If you live that long.”

“I ain’t wanting your advice,” Lanny said. “I just want some beer.”

Leonard went into the trailer and brought out a six-pack of cans.

“Here,” he said. “A farewell present. Don’t bother to come around here anymore.”

“What if I get you some more plants?”

“I don’t think you better try to do that. Whoever's pot that is will be harvesting in the next few days. You best not be anywhere near when they’re doing it either.”

“What if I do get more?”

“Same price, but if you want any beer you best be willing to pay bootleg price like your buddies.”

The next day soon as Sunday lunch was finished, he put on jeans and a T-shirt and tennis shoes and headed toward the French Broad. The day was hot and humid, and the only people on the river were a man and two boys swimming near the far bank. By the time he reached the creek his T-shirt was sweat-soaked and sweat stung his eyes.

Upstream the trees blocked out most of the sun and the cold water he splashed on his face and waded through cooled him. At the waterfall, an otter slid into the pool. Lanny watched its body surge through the water, straight and sleek as a torpedo, before disappearing under the far bank. He wondered how much an otter pelt was worth and figured come winter it might be worth finding out. He knelt and cupped his hand, the pool's water so cold it hurt his teeth.

He climbed the left side of the falls, then made his way upstream until he got to the No Trespassing sign. If someone waited for him, Lanny believed that by now the person would have figured out he’d come up the creek, so he stepped up on the right bank and climbed the ridge into the woods. He followed the sound of water until he figured he’d gone far enough and came down the slope slow and quiet, stopping every few yards to listen. When he got to the creek, he looked upstream and down before crossing.

The plants were still there. He pulled the sacks from his belt and walked toward the first plant, his eyes on the trees across the field.

The ground gave slightly beneath his right foot. He did not hear the spring click. What he heard was the sound of bone shattering. Pain raced like a flame up his leg to consume his whole body.

When he came to, he was on the ground, his face inches from a pot plant. This ain’t nothing but a bad dream, he told himself, thinking that if he believed it hard enough it might become true. He used his forearm to lift his head enough to look at the leg and the leg twisted slightly and the pain hit him like a fist. The world turned deep blue and he thought he was going to pass out again, but in a few moments the pain eased a little.

He looked at his foot and immediately wished he hadn’t. The trap's jaws clenched around his leg just above the ankle. Blood soaked the tennis shoe red, and the leg angled back on itself in a way that made bile surge up from his stomach. Don’t look at it anymore until you have to, he told himself and laid his head back on the ground.

His face looked toward the sun now, and he guessed it was still early afternoon. Maybe it ain’t that bad, he told himself. Maybe if I just lay here a while it’ll ease up some, and I can get the trap off. He lay still as possible, breathing long shallow breaths, trying to think about something else. He remembered what Old Man Jenkins had said about how one man could pretty much fish out a stream of speckle trout by himself if he took a notion to. Lanny wondered how many speckle trout he’d be able to catch out of Caney Creek before they were all gone. He wondered if after he did he’d be able to find another way-back trickle of water that held them.

He must have passed out again, because when he opened his eyes the sun hovered just above the tree line. When he tested the leg, pain flamed up every bit as fierce as before. He wondered how late it would be tonight before his parents would get worried and how long it would take after that before someone found his truck and got people searching. Tomorrow at the earliest, he told himself, and even then they’d search the river before looking anywhere else.

He lifted his head a few inches and shouted toward the woods. No one called back, and he imagined Linwood Toomey and his son passed-out drunk in their farmhouse. Being so close to the ground muffled his voice, so he used a forearm to raise himself a little higher and called again.

I’m going to have to sit up, he told himself, and just the thought of doing so made the bile rise again in his throat. He took deep breaths and used both arms to lift himself into a sitting position. The pain smashed against his body again but just as quickly eased. The world began draining itself of color until everything around him seemed shaded with gray. He leaned back on the ground, sweat popping out on his face and arms like blisters.

Everything seemed farther away, the sky and trees and plants, as though he were being lowered into a well. He shivered and wondered why he hadn’t brought a sweatshirt with him.

Two men came out of the woods. They walked toward him with no more hurry or concern than men come to check their tobacco for cutworms. Lanny knew the big man in front was Linwood Toomey and the man trailing him his son. He could not remember the son's name but had seen him in town a few times. What he remembered was the son had been away from the county for nearly a decade and that some said he’d been in the marines and others said prison. The younger man wore a dirty white T-shirt and jeans, the older, blue coveralls with no shirt underneath. Grease coated their hands and arms.

They stood above him but did not speak. Linwood Toomey took a rag from his back pocket and rubbed his hands and wrists. Lanny wondered if they weren’t there at all, were nothing but some imagining the hurting caused.

“My leg's broke,” Lanny said, figuring if they spoke back they must be real.

“I reckon it is,” Linwood Toomey said. “I reckon it's near about cut clear off.”

The younger man spoke.

“What we going to do?”

Linwood Toomey did not answer the question, but eased himself onto the ground beside the boy. They were almost eye level now.

“Who's your people?”

“My daddy's James Burgess. My momma was Ruthie Candler before she got married.”

Linwood Toomey smiled.

“I know who your daddy is. Me and him used to drink some together, but that was back when he was sowing his wild oats. I’m still sowing mine, but I switched from oats. Found something that pays more.”

Linwood Toomey stuffed the rag in his back pocket.

“You found it too.”

“I reckon I need me a doctor,” Lanny said. He was feeling better now, knowing Linwood Toomey was there beside him. His leg didn’t hurt nearly as much now as it had before, and he told himself he could probably walk on it if he had to, once Linwood Toomey got the trap off.

“What we going to do?” the son said again.

The older man looked up.

“We’re going to do what needs to be done.”

Linwood Toomey looked back at Lanny. He spoke slowly and his voice was soft.

“Coming back up here a second time took some guts, son. Even if I’d figured out you was the one done it I’d have let it go, just for the feistiness of your doing such a thing. But coming back up here a third time was downright foolish, and greedy. You’re old enough to know better.”

“I’m sorry,” Lanny said.

Linwood Toomey reached out his hand and gently brushed some of the dirt off Lanny s face.

“I know you are, son.”

Lanny liked the way Linwood Toomey spoke. The words were soothing, like rain on a tin roof. He was forgetting something, something important he needed to tell Linwood Toomey. Then he remembered.

“I reckon we best get on to the doctor, Mr. Toomey.”

“There's no rush, son,” Linwood Toomey said. “The doctor won’t do nothing but finish cutting that lower leg off. We got to harvest these plants first. What if we was to take you down to the hospital and the law started wondering why we’d set a bear trap. They might figure there's something up here we wanted to keep folks from poking around and finding.”

Linwood Toomey's words had started to blur and swirl in Lanny s mind. They were hard to hold in place long enough to make sense. But what he did understand was Linwood Toomey's words weren’t said in a smart-ass way like Leonard Hamby's or Lanny s teachers or spoken like he was still a child the way his parents did. Lanny wanted to explain to Linwood Toomey how much he appreciated that, but to do so would mean having several sentences of words to pull apart from one another, and right now that was just too many. He tried to think of a small string of words he might untangle.

Linwood Toomey took a flat glass bottle from his back pocket and uncapped it.

“Here, son,” he said, holding the bottle to Lanny's lips.

Lanny gagged slightly but kept most of the whiskey down. He tried to remember what had brought him this far up the creek. Linwood Toomey pressed the bottle to his lips again.

“Take another big swallow,” he said. “It’ll cut the pain while you’re waiting.”

Lanny did as he was told and felt the whiskey spread down into his belly. It felt warm and soothing, like an extra quilt on a cold night. Lanny thought of something he could say in just a few words.

“You reckon you could get that trap off my foot?”

“Sure,” Linwood Toomey said. He slid over a few feet to reach the trap, then looked up at his son.

“Step on that lever, Hubert, and I’ll get his leg out.”

The pain rose up Lanny's leg again but it seemed less a part of him now. It seemed to him Linwood Toomey s words had soothed the bad hurting away.

“That's got it,” Linwood Toomey said.

“Now what?” the son said.

“Go call Edgar and tell him we’ll be bringing the plants sooner than we thought,” Linwood Toomey said. “Bring back them machetes and we’ll get this done.”

The younger man walked toward the house.

“The whiskey help that leg some?” Linwood Toomey asked.

“Yes, sir,” Lanny mumbled, his eyes now closed. Even though Linwood Toomey was beside him the man seemed to be drifting away along with the pain.

Linwood Toomey said something else but each word was like a balloon slipped free from his grasp. Then there was silence except for the gurgle of the creek, and he remembered it was the speckle trout that had brought him here. He thought of how you could not see the orange fins and red flank spots but only the dark backs in the rippling water, and how it was only when they lay gasping on the green bank moss that you realized how bright and pretty they were.

Timothy Crouse


from Zoetrope

ICAN still hear the satisfaction in Roberto's voice: he’d talked Miguel into shepherding Rosario on her trip to the seashore. And the roguish-ness: “Everybody knows about Miguel.”

Not long after he began taking lessons from me, Roberto one day looked up from the keyboard and asked: “Do you like Rosario?”

“Rosario? What Rosario?”

He said her full name.

“She's a student of mine.”

“I’m going to marry her.”

At the period I remember best, Roberto and Rosario had a little girl, Lilí, and lived in an apartment looking out on the mountains. French windows opened onto a dramatic wrought-iron balcony, which Roberto had designed himself. The apartment smelled of geraniums. I always associated this with Rosario's sense of order. Everything in its place, immaculate.

Though I generally required my students to come to me I made an exception as often as possible for Rosario, since being away from Lilí impaired her concentration. She was preoccupied with every aspect of her daughters well-being. This concern extended to Roberto, even to myself. She always had waiting for me a draft of her “magic immunizer”-an orchard squeezed into one tall glass-and entreated me to drink every drop. Something majestically selfless lent a becoming gravity to her solicitude.

Late one sultry afternoon I arrived to find Roberto-lank, tan, with the nose of a Caesar-lounging in an armchair. At the piano, Rosario was helping Lilí, in her lap, pick out a tune. They all looked fresh and trim- congenitally undisheveled. Rosario put the child down: “If you’re quiet-quiet, you can stay.” With a smile to Roberto: “You, too.” Lilí pondered for a moment, chin in fist, then parked herself in a miniature chair. She sat through the entire hour without a peep. Rosario leapt up afterward and cuddled her. “You were so good! Let's play our game.” She pinched her ears, nuzzled her neck, pulled faces at her. To each sally Lilí responded in kind, with squeals.

Roberto leaned back and pronounced: “I feel envious of myself.”

Many of my students wanted to confide in me. I used this as an incentive to conscientious preparation: do your lesson well and afterward you can unburden yourself. One-way confessional; no penance, no absolution. The more they revealed, the better I could tailor their assignments. If they pressed me for a reply, I would point to the sounding board of the piano.

One of the stories that Roberto told me dealt with a younger friend of his named Miguel, also a pupil of mine. How they knew each other, I’m not sure; it may have been a professional connection, since Roberto was an engineer and Miguel, at the time I met him, had recently wound up his training as an architect.

“We went sailing together, and the wind quit on us. We’d brought a picnic hamper-it was so chock-full the top wouldn’t close. With nothing else to do, we cleaned it out. Then I dove into the water and began showing off my butterfly stroke. Miguel hollered at me to come back, or I’d get a cramp. I called him a sissy and kept on going, to tease him. A spasm jack-knifed me, crunched the air right out of me. I couldn’t stay afloat. Just as I was giving up-I remember thinking rather calmly of Rosario for the last time-an arm grappled my chest. Somehow Miguel tugged my deadweight to the boat. Hauling me over the gunwale was too much for him: he injured his spine. He still has to wear a brace.”

Other stories that he passed on to me, always in an affectionate tone, centered on Miguel's penchant for strapping youths, which Roberto took to be a commonly known fact since with him Miguel was impishly open about it. He was fascinated by his friend's descriptions of a spangled, promiscuous netherworld, and amused by his ardors. “In the street, Miguel will spot some foxy muchacho, and ayayay!-he trembles, he staggers, he has to cling to my arm, or Rosario’s.”

Both men had slender silhouettes. It would have been difficult to tell them apart at a distance, if not for Miguel's gait. Lumbar twinges caused him to stiffen his naturally balletic glide, like a dancer working on a treacherous floor. He had curly hair (Roberto's was bristly), and his face was longer than Roberto’s, with sharper features, nostrils that flared. Each man had a peculiar way of actuating his attention. When I put a problem to Roberto, he would flick the tip of his nose, as though rapping his intellect awake. Miguel would bite down on one side of his underlip, and slowly release it. Roberto used to scold Miguel for this habit, warning him that he’d get canker sores.

Of the three, Rosario had the most pianistic talent. With her octave-spanning fingers, autonomous left hand, knack for sight-reading, and affluent musi-cality, she could have surmounted the drawback of a delayed start and made a career for herself. (She had a lovely voice, too, and might have become a singer.) Scales, arpeggios, the “Gradus ad Parnassum” never wearied her. Exercises that Miguel and Roberto would have done with clenched teeth, such as practicing pieces a half tone higher or lower than written, she regarded as a lark. While the two men were still plunking away at “The Little Orphan,” she bounded through Anna Magdalena Bach and Tchaikovsky's Children's Album. Her great ambition was to graduate to Schubert's Impromptus and Chopin's Nocturnes. She achieved it with exhilarating dispatch. I had to dissuade her from tackling the Études: fragile wrists.

She had one odd weakness-rushing the final measure of a piece.

“Look, Rosario: there's a fermata at the end. The composer wants that note prolonged.”

She would blush.

“A work isn’t finished until the last resonance has faded.”

She assented. But as soon as she approached a double bar, she seemed to go blank.

“What happens to you?”

“The piano gets snatched away from me.”

I’d been teaching Miguel for almost a year when he told me: “A lot of people think I’m homosexual. It's an act I put on, to lull husbands.”

He was no doubt capable of bringing it off, what with his fine-drawn lineaments, his wounded dancer's grace, his streak of flamboyance (which I had to curb repeatedly in his music-making).

“I only sleep with married women,” he went on. “Fewer complications that way. Except sometimes… There was an underage pantheress who used to prowl the nightclubs. Her husband-a bulldog, with a pencil mustache-came up to here on her” (he sketched her bust) “and liked to exhibit her, doing tangos. She always managed to brush me on the dance floor.

“I redecorated their apartment for them, as a favor. Nouveaux riches, unsure of their taste. We did a heap of shopping for furniture and fabrics. I flirted, ostentatiously, with the brawnier clerks.

“They had a country place. He said I must spend a weekend, go deer hunting. I recoiled-the poor helpless Bambis and so forth. He chuckled: ‘You can keep my wife company while I’m off in the woods. I don’t suppose you’ll object to a nice haunch of venison.’

“So I rode the train to a whistle-stop in the hills. He met me. ‘My bride is under the weather, unfortunately, and couldn’t make it out. Maybe tomorrow. There's someone here I think you’ll like, though.’ He drove me to their chalet, and did the honors. The walls were studded with antlers; each rack involved a saga. At last, he excused himself. After a few minutes, he reappeared-in a geisha wig and a kimono, mustache powdered over, rouge everywhere…”

The memory of it turned Miguel ashen.

Gazing into Rosario's naked eyes was like dropping your vision down a well. The first time I met her, all I saw was a pair of sapphires with a woman appended; they reduced the rest of her face to a mere perfect setting, a blur of high cheekbones framed by lustrous red hair. It helped that, during lessons, she put on glasses for her myopia.

In all but the coldest months, she went about in sleeveless blouses and short skirts. Her arms and legs were slim, sinuous. Matter-of-factly, she would say: “I enjoy looking at them.” It did not occur to her to begrudge others the same pleasure.

Her bearing-back perpendicular, hands folded, thighs together- turned any seat she occupied into a throne. She told me that once, due to some domestic emergency, she had arrived less than prepared for an oral exam at the university, where she was taking courses in pedagogy. “As luck would have it, the professor started ogling my legs. The first tough question he asked me, I put on a meek, respectful expression and opened my knees. He gaped. He stammered. Without realizing that I hadn’t answered, he moved on. The longer I sat like that, the more flustered he became. He had no idea what I was or wasn’t saying. Finally he spluttered, ‘Get out,’ and dismissed me-with the top grade!”

Periodically I invited my students to a class in harmony or analysis. It wasn’t unusual for a dozen or more of them to cram into my studio, pitching on every available chair and scrap of carpet. Prodigies gearing up for international careers, a radiologist mad for Debussy, an octogenarian widow who practiced four hours a day… I wished for them all to cohere, cross-pollinate-and to some extent they did. Their attitudes toward Rosario, however, exposed their frailties like a dye: the women acknowledged her with a sullenness that betrayed their envy, while the men fought shy of her, although they hobnobbed easily enough with Roberto and Miguel.

After concerts, there would be ad hoc suppers at cafés. Roberto, Rosario, and Miguel, who never missed a musical event of any importance, usually took part. It was on these occasions that I observed the mixture of humility and histrionics which Miguel displayed in public toward Rosario. He held her coat, repaired her mussed hair with a deft pat. Once, he sashayed into a ladies’ room with her to help mend a broken spaghetti strap. He used to lift her hands like chalices and venerate them with caresses. Installing himself across from her, he would stare moonily into her eyes: “Think of me as your adoring mirror. I swear I’ll die if you don’t let me have my fill.” One evening our party included another student of mine, an official at the foreign ministry, who witnessed Miguel's behavior with mounting indignation.

“You permit this?” he hissed at Roberto.

“I encourage it! It redounds to my glory.”

Roberto began to mention affairs he was having. He sought out different companions, he claimed, so as to slake his urges without overtaxing his wife. Under the guise of divulgence, he would fish for advice. Describing some demand his mistress was making of him, he might slip in, expectantly: “Have you ever had to cope with that sort of thing?”

I’d laugh: “You need more Schumann!”

Rosario was wise to what was going on and saw no reason to protest. For her, the essence of the marriage was maternity. “I’m a scatterbrain,” she would say, “but this I take seriously”-indicating the zone of her womb.

Roberto and Rosario were accustomed to spending a week or two at the beach every summer. This year, one of Roberto's partners had fallen ill, saddling him with an extra load at the office. Also, Roberto had just embarked on a liaison with a young ballerina. If he could persuade Rosario to go on vacation without him, he would provide himself an open field while affording her a rest. Sending her off unprotected would, for him, have been out of the question. He had thought of the ideal escort: Miguel, who combined the most expedient features of a bodyguard and a dame de compagnie. At first, Miguel balked. It required a lot of wheedling on Roberto's part to bring him around. He didn’t have an easy job with Rosario, either.

I listened to her deliberate: “Naturally, Lilí would come with me. But can I trust Roberto to eat properly? And Miguel has been overworked. Wouldn’t he be happier unwinding with his handsome friends than chaperoning me?”

They went. While they were away, I attended a recital by Claudio Arrau. During the intermission I noticed Roberto, at the rail of one of the boxes, deep in conversation with a wiry, chignoned gamine. After the last encore, filing out of the auditorium, we ran into each other. He hesitated for a moment, then introduced his chum, the dancer.

“What a terrific evening!” he said a bit too loudly.

I concurred.

“That Carnavalw as a real treat,” he rattled on. “Such a charming piece, isn’t it?”

At his next lesson he asked: “Why did you look at me that way when I said I liked his Carnaval?”

“You called it charming.”

“Well, sure. Papillons and all that. You can’t deny it's pretty stuff.” “A cadaver comes up to you and wants to dance-you consider that charming?”

“What are you talking about?” “Listen to Carnaval.”

When Miguel returned from the vacation, his playing grew soberer, solider, focused. Some chronic misgiving seemed to have been resolved, some inner reorganization effected: the same chord, voiced more cogently. Yet he was also feverish, brooding; one day a confession, long pent up, gushed out of him:

“We took the train down to the coast. The motion of the carriage kept jogging our arms against each other-hers cool, mine hot. I was in a sweat. The craving in me! What I’d felt for the others was-froth. All that time longing for Rosario, courting her from behind my mask-and now to have this chance. It gave me qualms. And there was Lilí, curled up across our thighs, sucking her thumb.

“The train arrived late. The hotel clerk informed us that we’d forfeited our reservations: the only thing he had available was a room with a double bed and a cot for the little girl. Rosario winked at me: ‘I don’t think it would kill either of us to sleep together.’ Was it that I couldn’t bring myself to abuse her naïveté? Or pure cowardice? I slipped the clerk a thin wad. Adjacent rooms materialized. Rosario and Lilí, at least, got a good night's sleep.

“The next morning, early, I heard them stirring. I washed up and joined them for breakfast on Rosario's terrace. As soon as we’d finished, we grabbed our bathing gear and made for the beach. I hired a cabaña. While Rosario and Lilí changed, I scanned the panorama. The sand, the air, the sea-all sparkling. I felt sparkling myself. The cabaña's door opened, and Lilí flittered out. Then Rosario stepped onto the deck. She tossed her mane, loosening it to the breeze. I couldn’t swallow. I could hardly breathe. It hadn’t occurred to me to prepare for this sight-not that I could have. The swimsuit was a sleek one-piece, modest compared to the bikinis that many other women were sporting-but what it concealed, it revealed more than nudity itself, including the precise, sand-dollar forms of the nipples. It was her utter lack of self-consciousness, as much as anything, that undid me. I scuttled into the dressing room.

“When I emerged, Rosario was sitting on the sand, watching Lilí romp with some children in a tidal pool. I sank down beside her. She stretched her limbs and let out a groan of relaxation, as if only at that moment had she shed her burdens. ‘Would you rub some lotion on my back?’ she asked, not taking her attention off her daughter. The swimsuit was cut low in the rear, almost to the sacrum. The flesh was smooth as meerschaum, except for a tiny heart-shaped mole near the fifteenth vertebra (I counted them in an effort to calm myself). My hand was on fire. A crushing ache had me in torment. I tried to relieve this through speech, telling Rosario how voluptuous I found her. The liberties I allowed myself only inflamed me more. Of course, I was also testing the waters. ‘Oh, Miguel,’ she said, ‘you and your flattery!’

“Don’t do anything rash, I cautioned myself. Bide your time. Didn’t the sheer freedom to luxuriate in Rosario's presence amount to progress?

“We had lunch on the patio. Lilí was transfixed by the fan-pleated napkins, the staff's uniforms, the Noah's ark of new faces. A waiter brought her a cushion to perch on and helped her choose from the menu. He was lame. After he left, she said to us, quite stricken: ‘That poor man, he's like Esmeralda’-her doll, who had lost a foot. She laid out the seashells she’d collected, and aligned them by order of preciousness. When the waiter presented the check, she shyly pushed her three prize specimens in his direction.

“While Lilí had her nap, Rosario and I sat on the terrace. The canvas awning cast a shadow that stopped on her thighs just at the line where her skirts usually fall. The sun floodlit those legs of hers. I kept glancing at them, insatiable. She appeared to be drowsing. It sounds absurd, but I would swear her knees caught me spying. More than once I’ve been unnerved by the way that her gaze-which I live for-suddenly retracts. Well, now she locked her legs-rigid, canted off to one side-and her entire body seemed to retract. I actually shivered. Then they did something negligible, and momentous-to this day, I have the impression it was the legs alone, independent, that did it. They opened far enough for a fist to slide in between them, and the farther one slowly rose about an inch, as if to gauge my reaction. The movement was so-brazen.

“Somebody began to whisper with furious intensity, telling Rosario all my secrets. Only as the torrent subsided did I realize who was talking. Rosario jumped to her feet. Had I outraged her? Was she storming off to phone Roberto? A hoarse cry-‘Mommy!’-came from the room. Rosario must have picked up an earlier cry that I, in my agitation, had missed. For a second, she stared at me.”

The doorbell rang. Miguel, stranded on the sunstruck terrace, blinked.

“My next student.”



I went and let him in. Seeing Miguel, he smiled.

“Did you mention my idea?” Roberto asked him.

“No… I wanted you to.”

“Miguel and I both need to work on mechanics, right? Why not coach each other, to accelerate the process? One week, say, Miguel practices leaps: I zero in on the problems. The next week he does the same for me. That way, we’ll get to the four-hand repertoire before we grow long beards! Maybe once a month, we could have a joint session with you, to make sure we’re not leading each other astray.”

“Bravo! How soon do you start?”

They set up an appointment on the spot.

The following time, Miguel did an impressive job with some exercises by Clementi. He was anxious to finish telling me his story:

“That afternoon, after my outburst, the world seemed to be holding its breath. Rosario behaved as though nothing had happened. On the beach, I sought refuge in Lilí-her uncomplicated light. Together we built a sand castle-a château, in fact, with all the fairy-tale trappings-and I spun tales in which she starred as its resident princess. We had supper around five, for her sake. Both Rosario and I spontaneously dressed up for the hotel's rather pretentious restaurant, and Lilí got to wear her ‘royal gown’ (a velvet frock). Rosario had somehow managed to manicure her nails. I refused to let myself believe she had done this for me. I half convinced myself that if I indulged such a presumptuous fantasy, those crimson rake-teeth would lash out and flay me. A tasty terror.

“Afterward I lay on my bed, clothed, letting myself be mesmerized by the revolutions of the ceiling fan. The dimness around me thickened. I was conscious only of a thudding right beneath my Adam's apple. Someone knocked. Rosario-in a silk nightgown that tied behind the neck.

Without a word, she floated past me and tiptoed to the door that communicated with her room, opened it a crack, listened. I began to say something. Her palm muzzled me, warmly. I kissed it. She stepped back. My hopes froze. She reached behind her neck and undid the bow.

“I’ve usually found in even the most alluring woman some falsity, some tinge of coarseness that diminishes my respect for her. It was just the opposite with Rosario. One detail made our intimacy especially poignant: she was both with me and with her sleeping child. An instinctive vigilance radiated from her-a wave of tenderness combined with a coiled readiness to spring, if necessary, to her daughter's defense. I sensed this as palpably as one feels the sun on one's skin.

“Then the idyll was over. Dismal! In the last eighty-one days, I’ve seen Rosario alone exactly four times. I mustn’t push for more. She's devoted to Lilí and Roberto.

“Every day I’m not with her weighs like jail. All I want to do is hibernate-but I can’t fall asleep, thinking about her. It's turning me into a zombie. I play a lot, to distract myself.” He paused. “Can I study that new piece you gave her?”

“Which one?”

“By Mompou.” He hummed the theme. “It won’t leave me alone.”

I produced a score for him. “Start by working out the fingerings.”

“What's the title?”


His teeth clamped down on his lip.

It was around then that I performed Prokofiev's Paysage for Miguel, to demonstrate what delights lay in store if he stuck at his drills. I finished, and he exclaimed, “You don’t mean to tell me that's how all women are!”

“Of course not.”

It puzzled him that Roberto disallowed this sort of comprehension: “We’ll hear a piece at a concert. His only comment is ‘I liked it’ or ‘I didn’t like it’-as if it were a flan. When I try to discuss what it's about, he gets sarcastic: ‘I don’t need to make up stories to go with the soundtrack.’”

Even with me, Roberto practically brandished this incapacity. (Or was it puerile resistance, a stance adopted in order to distinguish himself from his more aesthetic friend?) “I honestly can’t see anything more in music than a formally pleasing arrangement of melodies, harmonies, and rhythms.”

“Only that, Roberto?”

He would shrug.

One day, having played a piece by Schumann, he said: “This moves me.”


He flicked his nose. “I just feel an affinity…”

I launched into my own rendition, emphasizing certain of the ideas.

“Wait! Is it his family?”

“He and his wife and his children, all joined in some activity-that's his heaven. They’re a hearth that cheers him and drives off the world's chill…”

He became keen to learn the language of music, notwithstanding his limited aptitude. Every week he would turn up with some new revelation. Frequently he was guessing rather than hearing; nevertheless, he gained increasing trust in his own ear. “This passage demands a crescendo here,” I would tell him, demonstrating. He would acquiesce but venture: “Maybe a tad softer, eh?”

Rosario, for her part, had a vivid sympathy with the Romantic repertoire, so much so that she was often disturbed by the anguished passions it depicted. Like a child who cannot bear stories in which dumb beasts are threatened, she shied away from extreme emotions. If she was unsettled by one of Chopin's evocations of jealousy, say, she felt free to leaven it with some congenial sentiment of her own, or simply to use the music as a vehicle for her mood of the moment. Although this disqualified her as an interpreter, it need not have prevented her from developing into a competent instrumentalist. She could have cloaked her failing beneath the ensemble of a chamber group, or excelled as a soloist in those grandiloquent calliopes which are the warhorse piano concertos. Empty compositions would have come out sounding expressive with her.

As the summer receded, I had less time for my students beyond the ambit of their lessons. Miguel gradually resigned himself to scant, sporadic trysts. He and Roberto carried on their reciprocal coaching. Soon they were plodding through Schubert's Ländler, D. 814. I advised Roberto to prepare a similar piece with Rosario. He contended it was too difficult to coordinate their schedules. The flimsiness of the alibi made me suspect that what really thwarted him was the fear that playing side by side with her would show him to poor advantage.

He declared his intention to acquire a grand piano.

“What's the matter with your upright?” I asked him.

“I don’t do things by halves,” he retorted. “Besides, Rosario should have an instrument worthy of her talent.”

At his insistence, I referred him to el señor Alvear, proprietor of the Casa de Pianos. Soon afterward, I was hurrying along a street downtown when a tubby, florid figure up the block began bouncing toward me, waving: el señor Alvear. He had on a beret and a muffler (no overcoat), and as usual he toted a wicker basket filled with bonbons. “Catch, catch!” he cried in his flügelhorn voice, and lobbed foil-wrapped candies at me.

Flushed, beaming, he bussed me on the cheek. “You’ve sent me a tycoon! The man has to have a full-size grand, no less.”

“You didn’t sell him one…”

“Anything larger than three-quarters was excessive, I told him. That only made him want to buy a full-size more.”

“A baby grand will do him fine.”

He cocked his head. “A smaller piano means a smaller commission for you.”

“Así es.”

When I next stopped at Roberto's and Rosario’s, a Blüthner Aliquod baby grand loomed in the twilight of the living room. Rosario went to get me a glass of juice from the kitchen, where Lilí was being given dinner by the maid. Roberto was talking on the telephone in the study. An odd dissonance charged the atmosphere. I sat down at the piano to try it out. Feathery action, pedals that yielded without the slightest creak, ringing tones in every range.

Roberto sauntered in. “How do you like it?”

“How do you like it, is the question.”

“Not bad for its size, I suppose.”

“But it's magnificent!”

“He knows it's magnificent,” Rosario said, stepping into the room. “He's just grumpy because he won’t be playing it himself.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, not for a while,” he conceded, chagrined. “My company bid for a job down south. It's so much bigger than anything we’ve done before, we didn’t think we’d win it. The word came yesterday. I’ve been put in command.”

“Everybody agrees that Roberto is the one best qualified,” said Rosario. “And it's such an opportunity. Still, what a wrench…”

“I’ll be marooned, away from my family.” Roberto made a gesture encompassing his wife, the Blüthner, me.

“You won’t quit practicing,” I growlingly admonished him.

“That I promise! Even if I have to use one of those mute keyboards.”

It was pouring outside. With his wet slicker and dripping curls, Miguel seemed to sweep the whole hectic vigor of the cloudburst into my apartment. From his sodden briefcase we extracted his music, damp at the edges. I brought him a towel, and he rubbed his crown into a spume of fluffy ringlets. “I have a message for you from Rosario,” he announced. “She's canceling her lesson tomorrow.”

Rosario had always notified me of such changes herself, and in good time. After weeks of specially assigned exercises, she had been eager to attack Scriabin's Prelude for the Left Hand.

“She's well?”

“Wonderful.” A manic treble suggested that he had shared a delicious secret with me. “She's gone to see Roberto,” he added, in the manner of one obliged to furnish a gross hint.


“He's been away for over two months.” Then, as if discarding all restraint: “She needed to see him.”

“That's a long separation.”

Miguel couldn’t shake his itchiness. When he played, he hit many wrong notes. Suddenly he seized my arm: “She's pregnant!”

As soon as Rosario returned, I went to give her a lesson. She greeted me with news of her husband. An efficient housekeeper was fixing him wholesome meals. His project, though formidable, was advancing smoothly; if the weather continued mild, he would finish it on schedule. “And you’d be proud of him. He's rented a spinet: no matter how busy the day, he does scales for at least twenty minutes.”

I signed for her to sit down at the keyboard. She did, but remained motionless, looking straight ahead. Mainly to herself she said: “I missed Roberto. It was a mistake to sleep with him. Now he’ll inevitably presume… It will be that much harder to tell him. I’ll have to wait for the proper moment. Isn’t there some music about this?”

At the end of the session, I answered: “Transfigured Night. ” “That's it!” She brightened. “Schoenberg will be my patron saint.”

Rosario was one of those women who live on easy terms with pregnancy. Her condition remained almost imperceptible. A gossamer smile betokened the dreaminess that enveloped her and that seemed only to enrich her faculties. She devoured pieces as fast as I fed them to her, wanting to spend all her time at the piano when she was not with Lilí.

Once he had made his disclosure, Miguel kept his own counsel- except for issuing the occasional contented sigh, and offhandedly mentioning his conviction that Rosario was carrying a boy.

I was early. The maid let me in. Believing that Rosario was not yet home, and tempted by the Blüthner, I began to toil over the Liszt sonata. I don’t recall how far I got before I became conscious of her standing in a doorway. She wore a look of horrified rapture.

“Please, don’t stop.”

“It may not be healthy for you to hear this when you’re…”

“I’ve never been stronger. It's now that I can face such things.”

I glanced at my watch. “We’d better start your lesson.”

The next week she told me that she had been listening to recordings of the sonata.

“Horowitz's version is all about Horowitz. Arrau conveys perhaps half of what's there.”

“Even that much is a miracle.”

“Then how to describe what you convey?”

“He has a vast repertoire. I don’t.”

She began a campaign to get me to perform the entire piece for her. Soon Miguel took up the same refrain. She must have spoken to Roberto about it as well: he wrote me a postcard appealing for a future “Liszt recital.”

That sonata is an intelligent, seductive cobra.

Rosario's labor commenced on a frosty afternoon about seven months after her initial visit to Roberto. In order to spare him anxiety, she put off alerting him until the last possible moment. Within a couple of hours, she was able to report to him that it was a boy, astonishingly robust. Ecstatic, he flew back on the next plane. His first impression: “The spit and image of Rosario!” The engineering project was so close to completion that he was able to turn it over to a partner and stay home to be with his son.

Miguel had accompanied Rosario throughout her accouchement. Inspired by his friends devotion, Roberto insisted that the baby's name incorporate both of theirs: Guelberto. Following some discussion, this became Gilberto, which quickly, via Gilbertito, contracted to Tito.

A few weeks after the birth, Roberto and Rosario held an intimate soirée where Miguel and I were the only guests-if one could apply that term to Miguel, a virtual member of the family in his capacity of tireless volunteer sitter, burper, bather, and diaper-changer. No sooner was my coat off than the two men bustled me into the nursery to behold the gurgling scion. Roberto urged me to offer him a pinkie: “He has the grip of a rock climber.” Miguel fussed with Tito's bedding and got him to smile. I noticed that he was neglecting his pose. Over dinner, he slipped back into it to act out the befuddled reactions of various hospital personnel who, on the night of the delivery, had taken him for Rosario's spouse and were at a loss to fathom how “this hysterical peacock,” as he described himself, could have managed to sire an heir. His mimicry had Roberto in stitches.

Rosario gave a recital in Roberto's honor, surprising him with Scriabin's Prelude and Nocturne for the Left Hand, along with several études by Kessler. Roberto, a stranger to all of these pieces, sat beside Miguel on the sofa, with Lilí, in her nightgown, on his lap. His face assumed its satisfied cast. Miguel's was set in an identical expression.

Toward the tail of the evening, Rosario pulled me aside: “I don’t know how to laugh.”

“I’ve never seen you laugh. It's true.”

“Can’t you teach me?”

“Are you happy?”

“How could I not be!”

“Then you don’t need to laugh.”

At the time I accepted Rosario as a student, we settled on the fee for my services. Week after week elapsed without my receiving any payment. I had to tell her: “This cannot go on.”

“You mustn’t think I don’t value your…”

“It violates your orderliness, Rosario.”

“The one thing I haven’t ever been able to keep straight is my accounts,” she owned. “I stick my bills in an old hatbox. I always mean to get to them, but the pile just grows, and I can’t deal with it.”

“Before our next session, you’ll send me what you owe me. The rule will be: you pay me first thing.”

Rosario respected this disposition faithfully for as long as she remained my pupil. Otherwise, she did not mend her ways. Eventually Roberto took over the administration of her finances. “If she wasn’t so good-looking, she’d be in debtor's prison,” he joked.

Soon after the evening of my audience with Tito, Rosario asked to come to me for her lesson. She moved listlessly, seemed to peer out through an indigo haze. Having played a few notes, she thumped a sour chord and let her hands plummet to her lap. “Fool!” she muttered.

“What is it?”

“While Roberto was gone, I vowed that I would surprise him by keeping up with the bills. I did stay on top of the really dire ones, but most of them were still unopened when he got home. He didn’t rebuke me-just shook his head. The other night, he sat down to pay them. I was in bed. He stalked in, snapped on the light, flung one at me with ‘Third Notice’ stamped on it: ‘What's this?’ I supposed he was angry because we might be dunned. I apologized. ‘No, read it.’ It was for the pregnancy test I’d had a couple of weeks before my first trip to visit him. ‘What's the meaning of this!’ he shouted. For months I’d been considering how best to present the facts to him. I was positive I could make him understand. But I didn’t take enough time-I blurted out: ‘He's not yours.’ Roberto looked like he’d been stabbed.”

The next morning Miguel appeared at my door, though it wasn’t the day for his lesson. He begged me to spend a few minutes with him. Since I was just leaving, I suggested that he walk with me to an appointment I had. I set a brisk pace and he jounced along at my side, fitfully grasping me by the arm as he spoke.

“Rosario talked to you-I know. Listen, the last thing I wanted to do was to hurt Roberto. I never thought there’d be consequences. I never thought he’d find out. If it had been me Roberto confronted with that bill, I’d have invented a story. But Rosario did what she did-which upset everything. I couldn’t let Roberto simply hang like that, not knowing who the father was. I was sure I could break it to him in a way so he’d feel-not excluded. I had this idea I could tell him the truth as if I were lying…”

He stepped off the curb and I yanked him back as a bicycle whizzed by. He didn’t seem to notice.

“I reached him at the office: ‘Can you come over, it's urgent.’ Ten minutes later, we were both standing in my alcove. It just popped out of me. ‘I’m the father.’ He glared: ‘Ah, so Rosario told you. Who are you trying to cover for?’ He started getting all worked up: ‘Don’t hide this from me!’ ‘I am the father.’ ‘You’re mocking me!’-and he stomped out. I called Rosario to tell her what had happened. She was angry: ‘Why didn’t you speak to me first? There was no reason for him to know.’”

We were at my destination. I reached out and thrummed on his shoulder a theme from the rondo he was studying. “Tomorrow at five.”

It was seventeen after the hour when an elated Miguel sailed in. “I’ve just left Roberto. Do you know what he did? He hugged me-hugged me!- and asked me to forgive him. He said: ‘With Rosario so attractive… even for you, Miguel. You needed to have a son, man! Besides-aren’t two fathers better than one?’ What a friend! I would give my life for him!”

“Your life, Miguel?”


I had to handle Miguel sternly for several weeks to get him back in harness. Rosario settled down of her own accord. Roberto did not alter his demeanor, except to introduce a shade of punctilio into our relations, a heightened sense of his own dignity. A different tone crept into his remarks about Rosario and Miguel: not so much paternal as paternalistic, a benevolent grandfather speaking of slightly errant grandchildren. He had lost ground pianistically while away, and drove himself to catch up with Miguel. They kept on meeting regularly to critique each other, and we had a joint lesson monthly.

One of these took place at Roberto’s. I was struck by his warmth as a host. In a hundred gracious ways he had insinuated Miguel as an orna- ment of the household. A favorite armchair was reserved for him. He was encouraged to regard the kitchen as his own, and sometimes on the maid's day off he cooked dinner. When I got there that evening, Lilí was bawling over some grievance. Roberto, who was building a fire in the grate, let Miguel assuage her. Rosario, placidly ensconced on the sofa, suckled Tito.

At random intervals, I would ask my students to play something they had not practiced for many months, to ascertain whether it had stayed in their fingers. During one of his private lessons, I said to Roberto: “Let's hear that Schumann piece you were affected by.”

“I’ve forgotten it,” he snapped.

“Go ahead, give it a try. You may be surprised how much of it comes back.”

Reluctantly, he complied. He acquitted himself so well, one would almost have sworn he had been reviewing the score.


He scowled. “Never again!”


“Schumann. Bah! If he had such a happy hearth, why was he obsessed with death? Those dancing skeletons in Car-naval? I see them every day around my house. Grimacing.” He mashed some keys cacophonously “Don’t mind me. I still haven’t recovered from the strain of that job.”

To disperse the gloom, I served tea with cakes and played him Mac-Dowell's Dance of the Gnomes.

“Ah,” said Roberto, “a piece with nothing but charm.”

It was as though I had unwittingly opened a drawer deep inside Roberto and glimpsed some venomous insect feeding on the darkness. Whatever that noxious energy may have been, he seemed to harbor it as a mortifying reminder of hazards to be shunned. He showed Miguel and Rosario the most exquisite consideration. They, in turn, deferred to him as the generous ruler of their garden.

Miguel was ambushed by the ferocity of his attachment to the baby. Tito's smiles and yawns, imperious appetites, budding quirks became his only topic. He buttonholed everyone he met to flaunt photos of his “godson.” To me, he chafed at the façade he had adopted: “Will I always have to talk to my boy through this mask?” When an earache set the child wailing in agony, Miguel couldn’t eat or sleep; he later confessed to me that the ordeal had brought him a guilty relief, since it supplied him a pretext to haunt the nursery at all hours, wring his hands, moan, and for once vent his feelings for Tito with fully licensed abandon.

I remember the coziness of the household throughout that wintry season: dense crystal vases spilled over with flowers that sunned in the blaze of the fireplace, and the vista of snowcapped peaks made the living room all the more snug. Rosario seemed burnished with well-being. Roberto, prospering in his business, bought for her any number of expensive outfits, which soon had their fronts stained with mothers milk. Rosario said that she was “addicted” to feeding the baby. One evening, as Tito gorged, Roberto poked Miguel in the ribs: “Don’t you wish you were him? When Rosario nursed Lilí, she was ravishing enough, but the boy stimulates a whole other set of glands in her. What a pity it would have been to miss this, eh? It sometimes seems to me that I was destined to have only a daughter, but that Fate had the good sense to change its mind.”

Rosario told me: “Before I married Roberto, I asked him: ‘What if I fall in love with someone else?’ He answered: ‘Just so you don’t stop loving me…’ ‘It's impossible for me to stop loving you,’ I said. And that's how it's turned out.

“There's something incestuous in me. Roberto excites me more as a brother. With Miguel, it's different. He's more of a son. What would it be like with a real son! That's what I’ve secretly dreamed of, ever since I began to desire men. Maybe that's why I had a boy.” She gave a quick smile: “It's not going to happen, though.” Suddenly earnest: “I’ll die soon.”


“Today I’m crazy.”

Weeks before Tito's first birthday, Roberto set about planning a party. He liked to ruminate the guest list out loud. A legion of relatives, colleagues, and neighbors had to be included, especially those with tots of their own. He petitioned Miguel for the names of his muchachos. “I’m in a bind,” Miguel told me. He managed to extricate himself by claiming that they were such a jealous bunch, to invite any of them would cause hostilities.

Roberto was determined that I too should attend. I had a conflicting engagement. “In that case,” he said, “you might help celebrate the occasion in another way. Would you, one evening, give us the Liszt sonata?”

Roberto and Miguel wore dinner jackets; Rosario, a hyacinth sheath. Candles shone; a tall vase on the Blüthner bristled with gladiolas. A few streamers, some stray specks of confetti, and a balloon lolling in an upper corner testified to the recent festivity.

As I entered, a small pink whirlwind darted at me and enfolded my legs.

“Lilí just wanted to welcome you,” Rosario explained.

“My mommy said I can’t stay.”

“Then we have to obey her.”

“But why can’t I hear the music?”

“Another time, I’m going to play something specially for you.”

“You are? What?”

“Wait and see.”

Lilí contemplated this briefly, then went to kiss Roberto and Miguel good night. Tripping back to me, she motioned me down and mouthed: “Don’t forget.” Rosario led her off.

“We missed you at the party,” said Roberto. “A resounding success, wouldn’t you say, Miguel?”

“Tito howled through most of it, that's for sure,” Miguel laughed. “What a pair of lungs that kid has!”

I offered my score to Roberto: “You might like to follow-though it may be awkward for the three of you together…”

“Not to worry.” With a flourish, he drew a tight new edition from a stack on the coffee table. I passed my wilted old folio to Miguel, who nestled into “his” armchair and leafed through the pages. Moving to the piano, I adjusted the bench and took some deep breaths. Rosario came back and sat down on the sofa beside Roberto. At that moment, I pounced.

The whole piece is daunting, but the first two notes are nearly insuperable: terminal heartbeats. How to play those? The keys have to be touched as if they were red-hot irons. I pinged off that opening salvo-vitality's parting shots-and plunged ahead, in a kind of conscious trance… until at last, in the closing measures, the dawn appeared and outfaced the destroyer. The final note whispered: Death, even you will die.

Miguel stood up and began to pace: “This never sank in before-yet I can’t say I didn’t know.”

Roberto, who had been lost in scrutiny of the ceiling, bent forward and addressed me: “Rosario was right. You really put it across. I almost wish you hadn’t…”

“The beauty transforms it into something tolerable,” said Miguel.

Borne on her own current, Rosario reflected: “People live such different lives. Why shouldn’t they experience death differently? For one it might be an eternal catastrophe… For another, nothing at all.” She stood up; I thought she was going to leave. Instead, with a soft gesture she signaled for me to surrender the bench. She occupied my place with such a magisterial posture that an electric hush seemed to descend upon a crowded hall. “Number Five, from Schoenberg's Six Little Piano Pieces” she announced. “In celebration of our heartbeats.”

An hour before her next lesson, Rosario telephoned me, asking to have it at my house. She turned up well-groomed as always but had circles under her eyes. She was quiet, rather stiff. We worked on a Prelude and Fugue. At the end, I fetched her coat from the closet.

She wrapped it about her as if suddenly chilled, and sniffed sharply. “Roberto delivered an ultimatum: ‘If Miguel ever tries to see Tito again, I’ll kill him.’”

“Kill Miguel?”

“No, Tito.” She clawed her hair back. “All this time. Engineering it.”

The bell jangled. I opened the door: Miguel, unshaven, bedraggled. Rosario manifested no surprise at his apparition. He seemed on the verge of pleading for something. She laid her hand over his mouth.

The following day, I got in at four o’clock from doing errands. Two students of mine, teenage twin sisters, were waiting outside my apartment in their matched jumpers, stealing glances at Miguel, who leaned against a wall, weeping.

“Miguel, what is it?”

“How can he cut me off from my head? Never? I don’t want to live!” “Come in, why don’t you? I have to give these girls their lesson. Yours isn’t till five.”

“I’ll stay here.”

The twins were unabashedly gawking. I shooed them in.

When I ushered them out, Miguel was standing in the same spot, more composed. I led him in to the piano. He said nothing-for fear, I guessed, of dissolving again. His hands shook so, he could scarcely play. Midway through the hour, he sprang up, embraced me, and bolted.

Roberto requested that I come to him for his lesson. It was dusk; he left the lamps unlit. No one else seemed to be around. The gladiolas, still in their tall vase, exhaled a sickly smell.

He worked attentively. At one moment he mumbled to no one in particular: “Even flirted with me.”

At the end, he pressed down middle C with his fifth finger and intoned, “Good-bye.” Was he saying this to me or to the piano?

As I walked home, I remembered that once, at a gathering, I had seen Miguel clasp Roberto around the waist, dance a few steps with him, and yell, “How hot this man is!” Roberto joined in the act, stroking Miguel's chin: “Look who's talking!” Everybody had laughed, except Rosario, who asked me, “Why are they laughing?”

I recalled one of Miguel's first lessons. A stifling summer day. He had on a fitted silk shirt, shorts, espadrilles. I got up to pour him some water. When I turned around, he had unbuttoned his shirt. He flashed me a broad grin.

“Is something funny?’

“Sorry.” He buttoned up.

Another time-I’d praised him for having performed a piece well-he took my index finger and put it to his lips.

“What are you doing?”

He held my finger there for a few more seconds and, with a subtle smile, answered: “Shushing my pride.”

I was expecting Rosario at three o’clock. Three thirty came, and no sign of her. I phoned. The maid answered: “Something terrible, Dios mío… Lilí fell off the balcony.



The day after the funeral, Rosario arrived punctually for her lesson. She was dressed in a gray suit and had on dark glasses, which she did not remove.

“Just Bach,” she said.

Every so often, a shudder convulsed her and she had to stop. At one point she retired to the other room for a few minutes. She strode back in: “I need to play.”

Week by week, she made progress.

From her spring, she passed directly to her autumn. Her red foliage turned gray. She took to wearing a hat, and gray weeds. More stunning than ever. She reminded me of the elm in the field behind the house where I grew up. A squall of hailstones fractured its branches, yet the tree stood firm.

Roberto decided to relocate to another city. Rosario moved with him. At our last meeting, she clutched my hands. “You’ve taught me to take care with endings,” she said. “We’ll probably never see each other again. I am not an unfinished symphony. The double bar has come.”

The metronome tapped away, prestissimo. Six years? Seven?

One summer afternoon, the sun closed down like an iris, the sky let loose a barrage, and I, who had been trying to outrun the storm, found myself huddling beneath a leaky cornice. Each time the blast seemed to have reached its utmost vehemence it would swell anew. I was thinking of a three-legged mongrel I’d seen, hoping the poor cur hadn’t drowned, when suddenly a shape bodied forth out of the swirl. A bald shape, with an umbrella. It slowed, squinted through the murk, advanced, halted, pushed its nose almost up to mine.


He glowered, brought the drumming black canopy over my head. “Music!” His jaw quivered. “The best music is silence.” His incisors dug into his lower lip till it bled. He planted his umbrella in my hand with a solicitous squeeze, and tromped off into the deluge.

I tried to conjure up Rosario's two sapphires. In her presence I had always forbidden myself to blink, not wanting to lose sight of their dazzle even for an instant. Now, in order to recapture her eyes, I needed to press my own tight shut.

Paula Fox


from Harper's Magazine

ONCE THEY were out on the street, Grace, his dog, paid no attention to John Hillman, unless she wanted to range farther than her leash permitted. She would pause and look back at him, holding up one paw instead of lunging ahead and straining against her collar as John had observed other dogs do.

On her suddenly furrowed brow, in the faint tremor of her extended paw, he thought he read an entreaty. It both touched and irritated him. He would like to have owned a dog with more spirit. Even after he had put her dish of food on the kitchen floor, she would hesitate, stare fixedly at his face until he said, heartily, “Go ahead, Grace,” or, “There you are! Dinner!”

He entered Central Park in the early evening to take their usual path, and the farther he walked from the apartment house where he lived the more benign he felt. A few of the people he encountered, those without dogs of their own, paused to speculate about Grace's age or her breed.

“The classical antique dog,” pronounced an elderly man in a long raincoat, the hem of which Grace sniffed at delicately.

John had decided she was about three years old, as had been estimated by the people at the animal shelter where he had found her. But most of the people who spoke to him in the park thought she looked older.

“Look at her tits. She's certainly had one litter. And some of her whiskers are white,” observed a youngish woman wearing a black sweatshirt and baggy gray cotton trousers. As she looked at John her expression was solemn, her tone of voice impersonal. But he thought he detected in her words the character of a proclamation: “Tits” was a matter-of-fact word a woman could say to a man unless he was constrained by outmoded views.

What if, he speculated, inflamed by her use of the word, he had leaped upon her and grabbed her breasts, which, as she spoke, rose and fell behind her sweatshirt like actors moving behind a curtain?

“You’re probably right,” he said as he glanced up at a park lamp that lit as he spoke, casting its glow on discarded newspapers, fruit-juice cartons, crushed cigarette packs, and empty plastic bottles that had contained water. He had seen people, as they walked or ran for exercise, pausing to nurse at such bottles, holding them up at an angle so that the water would flow more quickly into their mouths. Perhaps they were merely overheated.

“I don’t know much about dogs,” he added.

She was pleasant-looking in a fresh, camp-counselor style, around his age, he surmised, and her stolid-footed stance was comradely. He would have liked to accompany her for a few minutes, a woman who spoke with such authority despite the ugliness of her running shoes. He knew people wore such cartoon footwear even to weddings and funerals these days. Meanwhile, he hoped she wouldn’t suddenly start running in place or stretch her arms or do neck exercises to ease whatever stress she might be experiencing, emitting intimate groans as she did so.

When he was speaking with people, he found himself in a state of apprehension, of nervous excitement, lest he be profoundly offended by what they said or did. For nearly a year, he had dated a girl who did such neck cycles at moments he deemed inappropriate. After completing one she had done in a bar they frequented, she had asked him, “Didn’t I look like a kitty-cat?” “No!” he replied, his voice acid with distaste. At once he regretted it. They spent the night lying in her bed like wooden planks. The next morning she dressed in silence, her face grim. He had tried to assuage her with boyish gaiety. She had broken her silence with one sentence: “I don’t want to see you anymore.”

“Have a good day,” said the woman in the baggy trousers, crimping her fingers at him as she sloped down the path. He bent quickly to Grace and stroked her head. “But it's night,” he muttered.

Was the interest expressed by people in the park only for his dog? Was he included in their kindly looks? When the walk was over, John felt that he was leaving a country of goodwill, that the broad avenue he would cross when he emerged from the park to reach his apartment house was the border of another country, New York City, a place he had ceased to love this last year.

Grace made for frequent difficulty at the curb. If the traffic light was green and northbound cars raced by, she sat peacefully on her haunches. But when the light changed to red and the traffic signal spelled WALK, Grace balked, suddenly scratching furiously at the hardened earth at the base of a spindly tree or else turning her back to the avenue. John would jerk on the leash. Grace would yelp. It was such a high, thin, frightened yelp. John would clench his jaw and yank her across the avenue, half wishing a car would clip her.

In the elevator, a few seconds later, he would regret his loss of control. If only Grace would look up at him. But she stared straight ahead at the elevator door.

The trouble with owning a dog is that it leaves you alone with a private judgment about yourself, John thought. If a person had accused him of meanness, he could have defended himself. But with a dog-you did something cheap to it when you were sure no one was looking, and it was as though you had done it in front of a mirror.

John hoped that Grace would forget those moments at the curbside. But her long silky ears often flattened when he walked by her, and he took that as a sign. The idea that she was afraid of him was mortifying. When she cringed, or crept beneath a table, he murmured endearments to her, keeping his hands motionless. He would remind himself that he knew nothing about her past; undoubtedly, she’d been abused. But he always returned, in his thoughts, to his own culpability.

To show his good intentions, John brought her treats, stopping on his way home from work at a butcher shop to buy knucklebones. When Grace leaped up and whimpered and danced as John was opening the door, he would drop his briefcase and reach into a plastic bag to retrieve and show Grace what he had brought her. She would begin at once to gnaw the bone with the only ferocity she ever showed. John would sit down in a chair in the unlit living room, feeling at peace with himself.

After he gave her supper he would take her to the park. If all went well, the peaceful feeling lasted throughout the evening. But if Grace was pigheaded when the traffic light ordered them to walk-or worse, if the light changed when they were in the middle of the avenue and they were caught in the rush of traffic and Grace refused to move, her tail down, her rump turned under-then John, despite his resolution, would jerk on the leash, and Grace would yelp. When this happened, he had to admit to himself that he hated her.

This murderous rage led him to suspect himself the way he suspected the men who walked alone in the park, shabbily dressed and dirty, men he often glimpsed on a path or standing beneath the branch of a tree halfway up a rise. In his neighborhood there were as many muggings during the day as there were at night. Only a week earlier a man had been strangled less than one hundred yards from the park entrance. Now that it was early summer, the foliage was out, and it was harder to see the direction from which danger might come.

A day after the murder, he wondered if his cry would be loud enough to bring help. He had never had to cry out. He stood before his bathroom mirror, opened his mouth, and shut it at once, imagining he had seen a shriek about to burst forth, its imminence signaled by a faint quivering of his uvula.

Grace didn’t bark-at least he’d never heard her bark-and this fact increased his worry. Would she silently observe his murder, then slink away, dragging her leash behind her?

Sometimes he wished she would run away. But how could she? He didn’t let her off the leash as some owners did their dogs. Were he to do so, she was likely to feel abandoned once again.

He had got Grace because he had begun to feel lonely in the evenings and on weekends since the end of his affair with the kitty-cat girl, as he named her in memory. In his loneliness, he had begun to brood over his past. He had been slothful all his life, too impatient to think through the consequences of his actions. He had permitted his thoughts to collapse into an indeterminate tangle when he should have grappled with them.

When regret threatened to sink him, he made efforts to count his bless- ings. He had a passable job with an accounting firm, an affectionate older sister living in Boston with whom he spoke once a month, and a rent-controlled apartment. He still took pleasure in books. He had been a comparative-literature major in college before taking a business degree, judging that comp lit would get him nowhere. His health was good. He was only thirty-six.

Only! Would he tell himself on his next birthday that he was only thirty-seven, and try to comfort himself with a word that mediated between hope and dread?

He had little time to brood over the past during work, yet in the office he felt himself slipping into a numbness of spirit and body broken only by fits of the looniness he had also observed in colleagues and acquaintances. He called the phenomenon “little breakdowns in big cities.”

His own little breakdowns took the form of an irritability that seemed to increase by the hour. He became aware of a thick, smothering, oily smell of hair in the packed subway trains he rode to and from work. There was so much hair, lank or curly, frizzed or straight, bushy or carved in wedges, adorned with wide-toothed combs, metal objects, bits of leather, rubber bands. There were moments when John covered his mouth and nose with one hand.

Then there was the bearded man he shared an office with. Throughout the day, with his thumb and index finger, he would coil a hair in his beard as though it were a spring he was trying to force back into his skin. When John happened to look up and catch his office mate at it, he couldn’t look away or take in a single word the man was saying.

He was in a fire of rage. Why couldn’t the man keep his picking and coiling for private times?

That was the heart of it, of course: privacy. No one knew what it meant anymore. People scratched and groomed themselves, coiled their hair, shouted, played their radios at full volume, ate, even made love in public. Not that anyone called it lovemaking.

On a scrap of paper that he found on his desk, John wrote:

Name's Joe Sex

You can call me Tex

You kin have me, have me

At 34th and Lex.

He rolled it up into a ball and aimed at but missed the wastebasket. Later that day, a secretary retrieved it and read it aloud to the staff. People grew merry and flirtatious. He was thanked by everyone for cheering them up, for lightening the day.

On the weekend before he found Grace at the animal shelter, he wrote three letters to the New York Times. The first was to a noted psychiatrist who had reviewed a study of child development, calling it an “instant classic.” John wrote: “An instant classic is an oxymoron. A classic is established over time, not in an instant.”

The second was sent to a book reviewer who had described a detective story as lovingly written. “Lovingly,” John wrote, “is not an adverb that applies to literature, especially thrillers when they concern criminal activity.”

His third letter was about a term, “street smart,” used by a writer to describe a novel's heroine. “This is a superficially snappy but meaningless cliché that trivializes reality,” he wrote. “On the street, the truth is that people stumble about in confusion and dismay even when they are making fortunes selling illegal drugs. People are smart for only a few minutes at a time.”

While he was writing the letters he felt exalted. He was battling the degradation of language and ideas. But the intoxication soon wore off. He stared down at the letters on his desk. They looked less than trivial. He crumpled them and threw them into a wastebasket.

He came to a decision then. What he needed was a living creature to take care of; an animal would be a responsibility that would anchor him in daily life.

On weekends, Grace was a boon. John played with her, wearing an old pair of leather gloves so her teeth wouldn’t mark his hands. He bought rubber toys in a variety store, and she learned to chase and fetch them back to him. Once, while he lay half-asleep in his bathtub, she brought him a rubber duck. “Why Grace,” he said, patting her with a wet hand, “how appropriate!”

Perhaps dogs had thoughts. How else to explain the way Grace would suddenly rise from where she was lying and go to another room? Something must have occurred to her.

She followed him about as he shaved, made breakfast, washed his socks, dusted the furniture with an old shirt. When he sat down with his newspaper, she would curl up nearby on the floor. In the three months he had owned her, she had grown glossy and sleek. He liked looking at her. Where had she come from?

As if feeling his gaze, she stared up at him. At such moments of mutual scrutiny, John felt that time had ceased. He sank into the natural world reflected in her eyes, moving toward an awareness to which he was unable to give a name.

But if he bent to pet her, she would flatten her ears. Or if he touched her when she was up, her legs would tremble with the effort to remain upright yet humble. Or so he imagined.

One day he came home from work at noon. He had felt faint while drinking coffee at his desk in the office. Grace was not at the door to welcome him. He called her. There was no response.

After a thorough search, surprised by the violent thumping of his heart, he discovered her beneath the box springs of his bed. “Oh, Grace!” he exclaimed reproachfully. As soon as he had extricated her, he held her closely, her small hard skull pressed against his throat. After a moment he put her down. “You gave me a scare,” he said. Grace licked her flank. Had his emotion embarrassed her?

John's throat was feeling raw and sore, but he took Grace for a walk right away. She might have been confused by the change in her routine. At the park entrance, she sat down abruptly. He tugged at the leash. She sat on-glumly, he thought. He picked her up and walked to a patch of coarse grass and placed her on it. Dutifully, she squatted and urinated. A dozen yards or so away, John saw a black dog racing around a tree while its owner watched it, swinging a leash and smiling.

Grace seemed especially spiritless today. Later, propped up by pillows in bed and drinking tea from a mug printed with his initials-a gift from the kitty-cat girl-he wondered if Grace, too, was sick.

She was lying beneath the bedroom window, her paws twitching, her eyes rolled back leaving white crescents below her half-closed lids. He tried to forget how he had dragged her back home after their brief outing.

Of course, animals didn’t hold grudges. They forgave, or forgot, your displays of bad temper. Yet they must have some form of recollection, a residue of alarm that shaped their sense of the world around them. Grace would have been as exuberant as the black dog circling the tree if her pup- pyhood had been different. She pranced and cried when John came home from work, but wasn’t that simply relief? My God! What did she do in the apartment all day long, her bladder tightening as the hours accumulated, hearing, without understanding, the din of the city beyond the windows?

John felt better toward dusk, after waking from a nap. He determined to take Grace to a veterinarian. He ought to have done so long ago. In the telephone directory, he found a vet listed in the West Eighties, a few blocks from his apartment house.

The next morning he called his office to say that he wouldn’t be in until after lunch; he had to go to the doctor. Did the secretary sense an ambiguity in his voice when he mentioned a doctor? She didn’t know that he had a dog. No one in the office knew.

Yet was it possible that his evasions, his lies, were transparent to others? And they chose not to see through them because the truth might be so much more burdensome?

He recognized that people thought him an oddball at best. His friends warned him that, at worst, he would dry up, he was so wanting in emotion. But he considered most of them to be sentimentalists, worshiping sensations that they called feelings.

“You have a transient sensation. At once you convert it into a conviction,” he said to a woman sitting beside him at a dinner party. The hostess heard him, sprang to her feet, grabbed the salad bowl, with its remaining contents, and emptied it onto his head. He was dismayed, but he managed to laugh along with the other guests, who helped to pick leaves of lettuce and strips of carrot and radish from his collar and neck.

For the rest of the evening, desolation wrapped itself around him like a mantle. Everyone, including himself, was wrong. Somehow he knew he was alive. Life was an impenetrable mystery cloaked in babble. He couldn’t get the olive-oil stains out of his shirt and had to throw it out.

In the vet's waiting room, Grace sat close to John's feet, her ears rising and falling at the cries of a cat in a carrier. The cat's owner tapped the carrier with an index finger and smiled at John. “Sorry about the noise,” she said. “We all get scared in the doctor's office.”

She may have been right, but he shied away from her all-encompassing “we.” He smiled minimally and picked up a copy of Time magazine from a table.

When the receptionist told him to go to Room One, Grace balked. He picked her up and carried her, turning away from the cat owner's sympathetic gaze. He placed Grace on a metal examination table in the middle of a bare cubicle. A cat howled in another room.

As the doctor entered, his lab coat emanating the grim, arid smell of disinfectant, he nodded to John and looked at Grace. She had flattened herself against the table; her head was between her paws. The doctors pink hands moved Grace's envelope of fur and skin back and forth over her bones as he murmured, “Good girl, good dog.”

He took her temperature, examined her teeth, and poked at her belly. With each procedure, Grace grew more inert. “Distemper shots?” the doctor asked. John shook his head mutely. The doctor asked him more questions, but John couldn’t answer most of them. Finally John explained that he’d found her in an animal shelter. The doctor frowned. “Those places weren’t great even before the city cut funding for them,” he said. John nodded as though in agreement, but it was all news to him. What he’d known about dogs was that they could get rabies and had to be walked at least twice a day.

The doctor said that Grace had a bit of fever. It would be best to leave her overnight for observation. John could pick her up in the morning on Saturday.

John went to his office. People remarked on his paleness and asked him what the doctor had said. “I had a fever yesterday. Probably a touch of flu,” he replied. After his words they kept their distance. A secretary placed a bottle of vitamin C tablets on his desk, averting her face as she told him they were ammunition in the war against colds.

“I have leprosy,” John said.

She giggled and backed away from his desk. She doesn’t know what leprosy is, he guessed, or senses that it's vaguely un-American.

He kept to his section of the office the rest of the day. He was gratified that his colleagues had him pegged as a bit crazy. He had no desire to dislodge the peg. It made it easier. Thinking about that now, as he drank his third carton of tea, he didn’t know what the it was that was made easier.

After work, with no special reason to go home, he stopped at a bar on Columbus Avenue. He ordered a double whiskey. As he drank it, his brain seemed to rise in his skull, leaving a space that filled up with serene empti- ness. He ordered a repeat, wanting to sustain the feeling, which recalled to him the moments that followed lovemaking, almost a pause of being. But as he lifted his glass, he became cautious at the thought of four whiskeys on an empty stomach, and asked a passing waiter for a steak, medium. He took his drink to a booth.

The steak, when it came, was leathery, and it reminded him of the gloves he wore when he played with Grace. At this very moment she was in a cage in the dark, bewildered but stoical. Long-suffering was more like it, poor thing, carried along on the current of existence. No wonder she suddenly got up and went to another room to lie down. It wasn’t thought that roused her, only a need for a small movement of freedom inside of fate. Why, after all, had he stopped in this awful, shadowy bar?

He had a few friends, most of them cocooned in partial domesticity, living with someone or seeing someone steadily. His oldest friend was married, the father of a child. Occasionally someone would introduce him to a woman in an attempt at matchmaking, feebly disguised as a dinner party.

One showed no interest in him, but another had taken him aside and asked him why he had lent himself to what was, basically, a slave auction. His impulse was to remark that no one had bid for her. Instead he asked why she had agreed to meet him. She replied that she had a sociological interest in the lifestyles of male loners in New York. He observed that life, like death, was not a style. She called him a dinosaur.

The only woman over the years for whom he had felt even a shred of interest was the mother of his friend's child. When he recognized the interest, stirred once more to life after he stopped seeing the kitty-cat girl, a sequence of scenes ran through his mind like a movie: betrayal, discovery, family disruption, himself a stepfather, late child-support checks. She was steadfast and not especially drawn to him.

There had been a time when he took the kitty-cat girl out for social evenings with his friends. Their enthusiasm for her was tinged by hysteria, he noted, as though he’d been transformed from a lone wolf to a compliant sheep. Walking away from a friend's apartment where they had spent an evening, he felt like a figure in a heroic illustration: a woman-saved prodigal son.

Now he was down to a sick dog. An apartment filled with unattractive furniture awaited him. But Grace would not be there.

He was dizzy after downing such a quantity of whiskey. His fork slid from his hand to fall beneath the table. He didn’t bother to search for it but continued to sit motionless in the booth, most of the steak uneaten on the plate.

It might be only the strange weakness that had come over him like a swoon, but he imagined he could feel his bodily canals drying up, his eyes dimming, the roots of his hair drying with tiny explosions like milkweed pods pressed between two fingers.

His resounding No to the kitty-cat girl, from months ago, echoed in his ears. What had prevented him from saying yes? She might have laughed and embraced him. By that magic of affection that can convert embarrassment into merriment, they might have averted all that followed. Instead she had turned away and, he thought, gone to sleep, leaving him in an agitated wakefulness in which his resentment at her fatuity kept at bay, he knew now, a harsh judgment on his own nature.

She was, after all, a very nice woman: kind, generous, full hearted. What did it matter that in bending to someone's pet or a friend's small child she assumed a high, squeaky voice, that she held her hand over her heart when she was moved, that she struck actressy poses when she showed him a new outfit or hairstyle? What had it mattered? Body to body-what did it all really matter?

He sighed and bent to retrieve the fork. In the darkness beneath the table he found a whole cigarette lying among the damp pickle ends and crumpled napkins. Smoke it, he told himself as he felt the strength returning to his arms and hands. Smoking was the one thing that aroused the kitty-cat girl to anger. He’d been startled by it, so much so that he’d given up the pleasure of an infrequent cigarette after dinner in the evening. “Don’t make it a religion,” he’d chided her. “It's only one of a thousand things that kill people.”

He summoned a waiter and asked him for a match. While he was speaking, he heard a voice boom out, “… and this will impact the economy.” Someone at the bar had turned up the volume on a suspended television set. John glimpsed the speaker on the screen, an elderly man wearing steel-rimmed eyeglasses. “Impact is a noun, you stupid son of a bitch,” he muttered, puffing on the cigarette.

“Always correcting my English,” she had protested to him more than once. It suddenly came to him that he’d been lying to himself about how the affair had ended. He’d convinced himself that she had left his apartment, angrily, the morning after their quarrel about “kitty-cat.” In fact it had taken a week, during which they met at the end of the day in his or her apartment, ate together, went to a movie, slept in bed side by side. They had not made love. When they spoke, it was of mundane matters, and when they parted in the morning, he to his office and she to the private school where she taught first grade, she had briefly pressed her cheek against his. Life has its rhythms, he told himself.

But at the end of the week, after staring down at the light supper he’d prepared, she burst out at him in words that suggested a continuation of an angry interior monologue, “-and it's not only the way I talk. You’re trying to change the way I am!” She paused, then shouted, “Why don’t you say anything you really mean? My God! You wouldn’t acknowledge the Eiffel Tower if it fell right on you!”

He had laughed, startled at such an extravagant image. “I’d be speechless then, all right,” he’d said. But he admitted he’d been clumsy.

She asked then, as she wept, how he could have said No to her so savagely. Afterward, when she was dying inside, he’d walked around the apartment with a foolish smile-as though nothing had happened between them.

She picked up her purse from the chair where she’d been sitting, not eating while he ate and kept on talking cheerfully.

“You’re one big NO!” she burst out. “And you’re smiling this instant…”

He recalled touching his face. What she’d said was true. “I don’t mean to smile,” he’d said. She got up and dropped her key on a kitchen counter and left the apartment.

He'd eaten her untouched supper, his mind like an empty pail. Then he’d waited for her to telephone him. He’d waited for himself to telephone her. But something had gone out of him. He had slumped into a mulelike opposition to her: she skirted life's real troubles, chirping platitudes.

He dropped the cigarette the waiter had lit for him, got to his feet, and hurried from the bar. Behind him came the waiter. John paid his bill on the sidewalk, all too aware of the stares of the public.

I will not think about her, he ordered himself as he walked home. I have cleared the decks. I’m better off.

As he unlocked the door, he called, “Grace!” Then he remembered. “Oh, Christ…” he said aloud.

He took a long hot shower, emerging slack-limbed and unpleasantly warm. Naked, he walked through the rooms, letting the air dry him, waving his arms, a heavy object trying to fly.

He paused before the bedroom window that looked out on Central Park. Perhaps the comradely woman out for a run, who had remarked on Graces tits, would look up and observe to a friend, “See the cock hanging up there in the window?” But he was on the seventh floor, invisible to everything but passing birds.

He put on a ragged T-shirt and turned on the television set. As a rule he watched opera, a Friday-evening news program, and now and then an old movie. Tonight he would settle for diversion. He was finding it hard to keep his mind off the way he’d left the bar without paying his check.

A news anchor was saying, “The crisis centers around…” He switched channels and turned up a psychologist with devilish red hair and a sharp jaw who was discussing role models and sharing. “We must share,” she asserted in a tone John found menacing. “Share what?” he asked the screen. “Give me a noun or give me death. And isn’t ‘role model’ a tautology?”

On another channel a middle-aged actress declared that after years of substance abuse-“yeah, cocaine, the whole megillah”-and loveless promiscuity, she had become a sexually mature woman, in charge of her body and her life. The male interviewer smiled and nodded without pause.

On a call-in interview, a very large Arab emir was addressed as Abdul by a caller who then asked him, “How ya doin’?” The emir's expression of stolid indifference didn’t change, but he appeared to send out a glow like a hot coal.

John switched channels more quickly. In every mouth that spoke from the screen, that word, “hopefully,” ownerless, modifying nothing, inserted itself amid sentences like the white synthetic packing material that protected china or glasses.

The telephone rang. Startled-no one called at this time of evening- he picked it up, and a buoyant male voice asked, “John?”

The voice was not familiar. Perhaps he’d forgotten its owner; he wasn’t good with voices. “Yes,” he answered. He discovered at once that it was a selling call. “Do you know me?” John asked. The voice chuckled. “Well, no, John. I don’t,” it replied. John hung up.

It was nearly midnight when he turned off the set and went to bed. On a nearby table lay a volume of short stories by a British writer. In one of them, the writer had stated: “You can’t help having the diseases of your time.”

He thought of the letters to the newspaper he’d thrown away. Why had he bothered? The apocalypse would not be brought about by debased language, would it? “I’ve been cracked in the head, Grace,” he said to the absent dog.

His body, his brain, began a slow descent into the formless stuff of sleep. His hands fluttered at the light switch until, with what felt like his last particle of energy, he pressed it off.

At once his heart began to pound. His eyelids flew open, and he was fully awake, recalling the kitty-cat's account of her only brother's death. It had happened several months before he met her. Her brother was visiting her from the Midwest. While shaving one morning in her bathroom, he toppled over, dead from a heart attack. He had been twenty-eight.

She’d telephoned the news to their mother in Norman, Oklahoma. Their father had died of the same ailment several years earlier.

“Oh, Lord-where will we get the money to fly him home and bury him?” were her mother's first words, she’d told John.

He had expressed indignation at such petty concerns in a woman whose son had died.

“You don’t understand,” she had cried. “She was putting something in front of her grief-like you bar a door against a burglar. And money isn’t petty when there's so little of it!”

She had been right and wrong, as he had been. But he could hardly have pursued the subject while her cheeks were covered with tears.

He turned the light back on and picked up the book of short stories, opening it at random. He read several sentences. Unable to make sense of them, he dropped the book on the table. The phone rang. He grabbed it, aware that he was breathless with hope it would be the girl. “Hello, hello?” he pleaded. A muffled voice at the other end asked, “Manuel?”

The next morning he returned to the vet's office. The waiting room was crowded with animals and their owners. Dogs panted or moved restlessly or whimpered. A brilliant-eyed cat sat on a man's lap, one of its ears nearly severed from its bloodied head.

To John's relief, the receptionist sent him at once to an examining room. The doctor was waiting for him with a grave expression on his face.

“I’m sorry to inform you that”-he turned to glance at a card lying on the table-“Grace has passed away.”

John was astonished to hear himself groan aloud. The doctor gripped his arm. “Steady! Relationships with pets are deeply meaningful,” he said softly. “You shouldn’t blame yourself. Grace was a casebook of diseases. But it was the heartworm that finished her off.”

“Heartworm!” cried John.

“It's carried by mosquitoes,” the doctor replied. He relinquished John's arm.

“She didn’t seem that sick,” John said dully, leaning against the examining table.

“She was,” the doctor stated brusquely. “And please don’t lean against the table or it’ll give way. Let me advise a grieving period, after which, hopefully, you’ll move on. Get a new pet. Plenty of them need homes.” He nodded at the door.

John held up a hand. “Wait! Had she littered?”

The doctor frowned momentarily. “Yes, I believe she had.”

“What do you do with the bodies?” John asked at the door.

“We have a disposal method in place. You’ll be notified,” the doctor answered, taking a bottle of pink liquid from a shelf and shaking it.

On the sidewalk, John stood still, trying to compose himself. He felt a jab of pain over his navel. He loosened his belt, and the pain ceased. He had been eating stupidly of late and had certainly gained weight. He set off for his apartment.

The ceiling paint in the living room was flaking. Really he ought to do something about it. He took a dust mop from a closet and passed it over the floor. The dust collected in feathery little piles, which he gathered up on a piece of cardboard.

Had any of Grace's puppies survived? For a few minutes, he rearranged furniture. He discovered a knucklebone beneath an upholstered chair, where Grace must have stored it. A question formed in his mind as he stooped to pick it up. Was it only her past that had made her afraid? Her puppies lost, cars bearing down on her, endless searching for food, the worm in her heart doing its deadly work. He stared at the bone, scored with her teeth marks.

As if suddenly impelled by a violent push, he went to the telephone. In a notebook written down amid book titles, opera notices, and train schedules to Boston was a list of phone numbers. He had crossed out kitty-cat's name but not her phone number. Still clutching Grace's bone, he dialed it.

On the fifth ring, she answered.

“Hello, Jean,” he said.

He heard her gasp. “So. It's you,” she said.

“It's me,” he agreed.

“And what do you want?” She was breathing rapidly.

“I’d like to see you.”

“What for?”

“Jean. I know how bad it was, the way I spoke to you.”

“You were so-contemptuous!”

“I know. I had no right-”

She broke in. “No one has.”

They fell silent at the same moment. Her breathing had slowed down.

“I haven’t just been hanging around, you know,” she said defiantly.

“I only want to speak to you.”

“You want! You have to think about what other people want once a year!”

“Jean, please…” He dropped the bone on the table.

In a suddenly impetuous rush, she said, “It was so silly what I asked you! I’ll never forget it. I can’t even bear describing it to myself-what happened. All I feel is my own humiliation.”

“We are born into the world and anything can happen,” he said.


“Listen. I had a dog. Grace. She got sick. Last night she died at the animal hospital. I guess I wanted to tell someone.”

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with that news,” she said. “But I’m really sorry.” She paused, then went on. “Poor thing,” she said gently, as if speaking to someone standing beside her.

Something painful and thrilling tore at his throat. He held his breath, but still a sob burst from him. Despite its volume, he heard her say, “John? Are you all right?”

“Yes, yes… I don’t know.”

“Oh, John, I can come over this minute. I’ve been running, but I can change clothes in a jiffy. I don’t feel you’re all right.”

The few tears had already dried on his cheeks. They stood in their apartments, hanging on to their telephones, trying to make up their minds if they really wanted to see each other again.

Liza Ward


from The Georgia Review

THE EVENING my mother left, the newscasters were talking about two high-wire circus performers who had plummeted to their deaths, and the storm. Snow was falling heavily all over the Midwest. Travel advisories were in effect.

My father took his feet off the ottoman and set his drink on the end table beside my grandmothers collection of ceramic frogs. He leaned forward, his arms on his knees as we studied the laced pattern of snowflakes on the television screen decorating our section of the map. He got up, went to the window, and put his hands in his pockets. “What time did she leave?” He checked his watch.

“I don’t know,” I said.

My father was convinced my mother had gone on vacation, to visit “somebody-or-other” Reynolds in Kansas City, one of those panty-raid girls. But just that afternoon I’d found a telephone number with a strange area code tucked in the box beside her engagement ring. I knew my mother had secrets, and one of them was that she didn’t plan on coming back.

My father stared out at Van Dorn as if the hooded glaze of streetlights might tell him something. “Well, they didn’t mention a storm in Missouri,” he sighed.

“But the snowflakes were covering it.” I could tell he was worried, and I wanted to show him I was worried too. I took a ruler off the letter desk, opened the French doors, and stepped into the blue glow of the garden. The patio was covered in snow, the table and chairs draped in sheets like a room closed up to keep out the dust. I turned my face upward, feeling the flakes burn my cheeks. It looked as if the sky ended right there above me, over our house. Perhaps it was only my father and I stuck in this white frozen world while everything else stirred with life.

I pressed the ruler into the snow to test how many inches had fallen. When I was a little girl in Chicago, there had been a blizzard the day after my parents’ annual New Year's party. Some of the guests who had passed out in the spare rooms or on couches were trapped, and my mother was making them mimosas. My father and I had closed ourselves in the library to watch the snow. He had pretended to pull a quarter out of my ear, and I had screamed, thinking everything inside me had turned to silver. “Things could be worse,” he’d said. “Some people only produce pennies,” which had made me even more upset. I remember his face looking worried as he sat me down and showed me how he’d done the trick. Then we put on our boots and ventured outside, and my father had plunged a yardstick into the snow. We walked through the hushed city streets hand in hand, making guesses about how much new snow was falling.

“Three inches, Daddy,” I said, stepping back into the living room and closing the door behind me. “Do you think she's all right?”

“Of course. She's probably already in Kansas City.” My father turned off the television and sat back down. “I’ve been thinking.” He drummed his finger on the side of his head. “About getting a new couch. She’d like that, don’t you think?”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“Oh, yes,” he said, slapping his hand across his thigh. “She definitely would.” Then my father lay down, put one of the old couch cushions over his face, and sighed into the crease of it.

“What are you doing?” I said.

My father didn’t answer.

I went up to my parents’ bedroom and wandered through the dark, running my fingers over the bedspread, the nightstand, the cool glass surface of my mother's vanity table. In the mirror, my faced glowed blue with snow light. I imagined my blond hair turning into icicles, my lips sickly blue, and my mother floating beneath the surface of a frozen pond in a far-off place. I went over to the jewelry box and took out the number.

I moved the telephone off the nightstand and threaded the cord into my mother's dressing room. I turned on the light, closed the door, and crouched in the plastic curtain of my mother's bagged dresses.

I let it ring for a long time.

“Hello?” he said, finally.

“Hello.” My hands were shaking. “Listen, you don’t know me but- I’m calling to see if my mother's there.”

“Well, that all depends on who your mother is,” he said slowly, and laughed as if it were some sort of joke.

“Ann Peyton Hurst.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line as if the phone had gone dead. I brushed a bit of plastic off my face and cinched forward on my knees. “Hello?” I said.

“How did you get this number?”

“I found it.”

“Who is this?”

“This is her daughter; who's this?”

“Nils Ivers,” he said. “Maybe you haven’t heard of me. Your mother was an Ivers once. For about two weeks.”

“I really need to get in touch with her,” I said. “There's a blizzard.”

“Well, there isn’t any snow here” He paused. “Is she leaving someone else now?”

I didn’t say anything.

“Where are you?” he said.

I didn’t answer for a second. Then I told him.

“Well, you’re on the line with LA, sugar. This is a long-distance call.”

“That doesn’t matter,” I said suddenly. “We’re rolling in money.”

“Sounds nice. How old are you?”

I paused. Fourteen was too young. “Seventeen.”

“I bet you’re beautiful.”

“Everyone says so.” I felt like my mouth was moving without my mind telling it what to say.

“I bet you look just like her.”

“I do,” I lied. “People can’t believe it.” It was the strangest feeling I had, like being a puppet, with someone else pulling the strings.

“You sound like quite a sparkler. A real Roman candle. Have you ever thought about the movies? I always thought your mother should be in the movies.”

“Sometimes,” I said. “But I’m more interested in other things.”

“Like what?”

“Horses and stuff. I can’t talk anymore. I have to go,” I said.

“What's the rush? Is it a betrayal?”

“I’m tying up the line.”

“Ahhh,” he said. “I get it. There's a guy, right? He give you his jacket?”

“He told me he’d call,” I said. “I have to go.”

“Wait,” he said quickly. “People thought I didn’t love her. They were wrong about me. I did love her.”

I hung up the phone.

I leaned my head back against the wall and the beaded hems of dresses stirred inside bags as hangers knocked on the rack. My heart was thumping so hard I thought it might break my chest, and beat its way across the floor. My skin electrified my mind in strange directions, confusing wanting with not wanting. I saw my mother's Studebaker half-buried in a snowdrift on the side of the highway, the paint catching police lights like the gold wings of an angel. I pressed my face into the folds of a long black evening gown, and breathed deeply. I smelled plastic and, beneath it, my mother's spiced perfume.

More than a foot of snow fell during the night, and the following day it kept on coming. Shapes in the garden dulled, then changed, leaving alien imprints on living room walls like the last sigh of a sinking ship.

The morning Star didn’t arrive until evening. The people of Lincoln wondered what was happening, though there wasn’t anything to wonder about. Time had stopped. My father worked in his study with the door shut, and I couldn’t imagine what he was doing. It didn’t seem like anyone could possibly be working anywhere else in the world. I put on my boots and forced my way down the drive. The snow was almost up to my knees. It was hard to find my feet. You couldn’t make out the stumps of the elms anymore. The tops of the rhododendrons swelled like bubbles trapped on a frozen surface. When I opened the mailbox, the metal door creaked with cold. Snow tumbled off the top, a tiny avalanche-nothing inside. I watched the lights of a plow round the corner with the steadiness of a tank coming to rescue Lincoln from an invading army. Bring provisions, the neighbors wanted to scream, but no one had a voice. The world wouldn’t listen. Everyone had lost someone, and they were going to keep on losing for the rest of time.

I imagined my mother to be the stuff of legends, torn from the arms of her true love, keeping Nils s telephone number for years like a secret treasure inside the box of the ring he had once given her. I imagined that my mother's first marriage had never been annulled, that she had never actually been married to my father at all, that I had been born out of wedlock, and it was therefore no wonder I found myself so alone in the world. The planets are not aligned, the fortune-tellers had declared on the day of my birth.

Stories were easier to imagine in a snowstorm. History was that much closer with the present so muffled, and it didn’t really matter what was true and what wasn’t when it was just one mind thinking alone. I wrote this down on a pad of paper and read it over and over to myself. It made me feel brilliant. I became so excited by what I’d written I wanted to scream it from the rooftops. Instead, I lurked outside my father's study door until he finally opened it.

“You startled me!” he said. I shoved the paper at him without explanation. He held it out at a distance and squinted down at my writing because he wasn’t wearing his reading glasses. “It doesn’t really matter… what's true and what isn’t true,” my father read slowly, “when it's just one mind thinking about something alone.” He seemed to consider this for a moment. Then he nodded his head and raised his eyebrows. “Where did you get that idea?”

“From my head,” I said.

“I’m impressed, Susan. That's intelligent.” He handed it back to me. “You’ve got a point. I don’t agree with it though.”


“Because I believe in fact. A fact is a fact. I’m a rational thinker,” he said. “Drives your mother crazy.”

I hoped he wasn’t going to start talking about her.

“So, I’ve got a question for you,” he said instead. “If a tree falls in the woods and there's no one there to hear, does it make a sound?”

I considered this a moment. “No,” I said, finally.

“Whereas, I say yes. Most definitely, yes. A sound makes a sound regard- less. This is a very important point of dissension between us,” he said, holding me away from him. “I hope in spite of all this we can agree on something for lunch.”

I put my arms around his waist and gave him a sideways hug. “There isn’t any choice,” I said. “We’re like people in the war.”

My father ruffled my hair the way he had when I was a little girl. I hoped the snow would go on falling forever.

We ate what we could find in the cupboards, canned foods collecting dust on the shelves left over from the days when my grandfather had been alive. I imagined stories trapped inside cans for years, denting the metal with angry little shouts, and the need to be heard. When the lids were opened, swollen metal sighed with relief.

My father and I ate peaches with forks right out of the can. “It's funny,” he said in between bites. “I was just remembering that time my sister Portia tried to bury herself in the yard, and then yelled for someone to come and dig her out. I’d entirely forgotten until now.”

“Why did she try to bury herself?” I asked.

“It had to do with a story our mother told us about our grandparents,” my father said. “There was a terrible blizzard in McCook. Your great-grandparents Elsa and Hans were recently married and had just come from Sweden. They barely knew anyone in Nebraska, and they barely knew each other.”

“Why did they get married if they barely knew each other?”

“Oh, I don’t know, it was different then.” My father frowned. “Marriage wasn’t always about love.”

“Was it about love with Elsa and Hans?”

“Not at first. Feet and feet of snow fell, trapping them inside with no food for days, and nothing to keep them warm. My mother always said that by being snowbound, they were forced to endure an entire lifetime in one week. And only then did they fall in love. She always said it was love that kept them alive. Neither could bear to watch the other die. So they lived-for a long time, anyway.”

“How did they keep each other alive with love?” I wanted to know.

My father shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know, it's just a story.”

My grandmother liked to tell that story, my father said, in an effort to point out the positive. Though families without heat were freezing, good men who had lost jobs lined up downtown in the hopes of laying their hands on a government shovel. My grandfather had always paid my father to dig out the driveway, but now he hired men, the first three strangers who came to the back door wearing ragged coats and desperate faces.

When Aunt Portia first heard about Elsa and Hans, she went directly to her room and cut the hair off all her dolls. Then she took off the clothes and examined the plastic bodies, turning them over and over in her hands, looking between legs at nothing, tapping hollow chests, pulling arms and legs so the elastic ligaments snapped.

My father found her standing beside a pile of mutilated dolls examining her auburn braids suspiciously in the mirror, as if she meant to cut them next. “What did you do that for?” my father said, picking up a bald glassy-eyed doll, and dropping it back on the pile.

“I cut off the hair,” she said bitterly. “They are what they are now, and they’re not real. I’m done with dolls. I’m done with games. Somebody loves me, and I’m running away with him.”

“Nobody loves ten-year-olds,” my father said.

Aunt Portia marched downstairs and put on her coat and hat and slid the mittens my grandmother had knitted over her freckled little hands. She opened the French doors and stepped out into the snowy garden. My father tracked her around the side of the house, and watched her secretly from the cover of darkness. Portia dug a hole in the snow with her hands, lay down in the shallow grave, and covered herself as best she could. She had positioned herself outside the study, and through the window she could see my grandmother knitting sweaters for the Johannsons who had lost their farm in the dust storms. My grandfather put down his book and lit a cigarette, then went to the window. He couldn’t see Portia because of the reflection, but Portia didn’t understand this, and when she called for help, he couldn’t hear her either. “Save me,” Portia screamed. My grandfather peered out at the darkness for a moment, and then went back to his chair. “Help,” Portia said, and then she started crying. My father paused before making his presence known. He was thirteen. He didn’t want to seem like he cared too much.

“Save me,” she sniffed.

“Stand up,” he said.

“I’m stuck, Thatcher.”

“You’re not stuck, Portia,” my father said, but he crouched down and cleared the snow off her anyway. He offered Portia his hand and pulled her up, and tried to shake the snow out of her coat.

“I killed my dolls,” she said. “I want them back.”

“They’re not real. Remember?”

“I killed a promise.”

“You’re crazy,” my father said, taking her hand in his and dragging her back around the side of the house.

“I promised myself I’d give them to Katharine Johannson,” she said. “Now she won’t even want them.” My aunt's teeth were chattering.

“Come on,” my father said. “Come inside. I’ll make hot chocolate.”

But Aunt Portia sat down in the snow against the French doors and refused to move. I pictured my aunt sitting there crying in the same garden, the same snow into which, years later, I’d press the ruler on the night my mother disappeared.

After that they watched Portia carefully, my father told me. She was too serious for a girl her age, easily excitable. She wrote anonymous love letters addressed to no one and left them in places for people to find: Meet me behind the elm in the garden. I’ll be swinging from the branches. I love you, I love you, I love you. Was there a suggestion of suicide in

those words? Could a ten-year-old even be capable of suicide? My grandparents studied the notes carefully for a clue, but none revealed itself. And then one day, Aunt Portia stopped writing. She got her hair cut short in a bob and waited for love to find her.

“Uncle Freddy was love?” I said.

“There were men before him, but I’m not getting into it,” my father said. “She was older than you though. Keep that in mind. You know, your mother found me. We were at a party. She turned to me and said, ‘Don’t you wish you were black?’” My father laughed. “I should have known what I was getting into.”

“Was she drunk?” I said.

“Of course not, Susan. Why would you say that?”

“Well, it's kind of a stupid question.”

My father shook his head and got up and put the cans in the sink. “It was charming. I thought it was charming.” Peach juice had dripped over the table in sticky little trails. The snow had begun to let up.

“So Daddy, why do you think Aunt Portia buried herself?” I said.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe she just wanted to be saved.”

“From what?”

“Well, don’t we all want that in some way?” my father said.

I wanted to know what it was he wanted to be saved from.

“From humanity, Susan. There's too much brutality and unfairness in the world. People do horrible things to hurt each other.”

“Like Starkweather,” I said.

“And Hitler. And all the Communists.” But we both knew what we were really talking about. Loving my mother scratched you raw, and that rawness only made you want to be more tender.

There was no school for two days, but on the second day, my father went to work, and I was left all alone to wander the house. I took an old album off the bookcase and opened it to a photograph of my father and Aunt Portia standing on either side of the elm tree in the garden. My father looked about my age. His face was smooth without the creases of worrying, and one of his arms snaked around the back of the trunk, the hand reaching out to pull my aunt's long auburn braid. My aunt's eyes were piercing. She stared directly at the camera without smiling, unaware of what her brother was about to do. I could see the future in that shot, the tug of hair, the pulling away the very second after the picture was taken, but I could not see any farther, even though I knew all that had come to pass. The elm looked tall and stately, as if it could never die, and there was no hint of my father's coming back to the very same house to fill his father's shoes, or that my mother would leave him just before a crippling blizzard in November of 1962. There was no hint of plumpness in Aunt Portia's features, or Uncle Freddy, or the three unremarkable children she would bear him. Portia and Thatcher were names that held the promise of Victorian love affairs. What had they dreamed of in their beds at night?

The snow had stopped falling, but the world was still hushed under its spell, and it seemed to me like everything would be frozen forever. The sun flitted in and out behind the clouds. The icy voices of wind rustled in the hedges and icicles dripped from the roof with the rhythm of metronomes. You're beautiful, the wind told me. I love you, the drops spelled out. It felt like something was about to happen.

I put on an Everly Brothers record and fluttered around the living room wringing my hands. I confused that sensation of waiting with the prickle of love, the anticipation of a first kiss though none was coming. My mind went to a dark unimaginable place where my mother's first husband took my face in his hands and kissed my lips. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was there. He spoke sweet words to me. You're a real Roman candle.

I don’t know why I wanted to hear that voice again. It was like, if I heard that voice enough, I could actually become the way I wanted to be, which was beautiful, which was seductive, which was a woman loved and desired.

I went into the foyer and sat down at the telephone table, and dialed the number I had committed to memory.

He answered right away.

“Hello,” I said. “It's me again, Susan.”

“Well, hello, honey,” Nils said. “Find your mother yet?”

“No,” I said. “That's why I’m calling.”

“That hurts. I thought you’d call because you missed me. Do you?”

I wasn’t sure what I felt. “I don’t know. Do you miss her?”

I could hear him fumbling around with something, a pot or a dish. “No,” Nils sighed.

“Is that because she's with you?”

“No,” he said. “You’re sharp. You sound like a jealous lover. I kind of like it.”

“Why are you home in the middle of the day?” I wanted to know. “Don’t you work?”

“What are you, a detective? Why are you home from school?”

“It's a snow day.”

“Hmmm,” he said. “Can your boyfriend make it to come and visit or are you all alone?”

“He isn’t allowed over,” I said. “It's against my father's rules.”

“I bet you break the rules sometimes, though, don’t you? Your mother sure did.” Nils laughed.

“You mean when she ran away with you?”

“And other times. Never mind. What's he like, your boyfriend?”

“Well, he's wonderful and strong. He's faced a lot of tragedy, and that's what I’ve been trying to help him through.”

“How do you do that?”

I paused. “He's tough in front of everyone, but when he's with me he whispers all the things he's secretly scared of. I just let him cry it all out,” I said. “Sometimes he cries so much my hair gets wet with his tears.”

“What color is your hair?”


“Like your mother’s?”


“What else do you do with your boyfriend to help him through?”

His voice sounded different. Angry somehow, as if he were getting revenge for something, but I was getting revenge for something too. The idea of that revenge made me tingle. “We take walks,” I said.

“That can’t be it,” Nils said. “Boys want more than walks. It's why they waste time taking walks to begin with.”

I didn’t know what to say anymore, so I just sat there with the receiver to my ear, my heart thudding against my ribs. The line was still as a held breath. I imagined Nils reading my silence in ways I was too shy to actually speak of. A line had been crossed. Was it possible to fall in love this way?

“Anybody there?” he said softly, as if he was afraid of waking me up.

I gave him a sign that was more of a sound than a word.

He spoke in that same hushed voice, like he was trying to imagine or remember a particular moment. “Tell me, did he take your virginity, Susan?”

I hung up the phone.

The walls seemed to close in around me and squeeze my lungs like a fist. The curtains rustled, and to me, they were souls of my grandparents who had died in our house whispering, You shook the tree. And for the first time I wasn’t happy to think of people coming back after they were dead, because they probably wouldn’t be happy with what they saw in me.

All at once, Nils was right there inside me, seeing the things I saw, feeling what I felt, twisting it all around. He could move through wires and tangle up my heart. There wasn’t any space between Los Angeles and Lincoln, Nebraska. Distance came together at a broken stoplight, and time, my mother and I, and Nils were all crashing into each other head-on. I had caused the accident, the crossing of paths, and Bang! The Forty-fifth Parallel disappeared.

The ring of the telephone broke the stillness. My heart flipped over. It jangled my nerves. I bit my fist. It rang, and rang. Three, four times. I got up and went into the living room and covered my ears with the couch cushions and mashed my lips up against the arm. It kept on ringing. Nils could do anything. He had lost my mother's money. He had made her crazy. He had done something horrible to her, I knew that now, something unforgivable, and yet she couldn’t let herself forget. What had Nils done to her? The telephone went silent. I needed to know.

I went up to my parents’ bedroom and took it apart. I emptied out drawers and ran my fingers along the cracks looking for false bottoms containing secret stashes of love letters. I poked my fingers into cold dark holes and pried apart hinges. I took out the insoles in heels and dumped the contents of purses on the dressing room floor. I found nothing. I sat on my knees staring in amazement at the mess I had made. The room looked burglarized. I left it that way, and went downstairs and opened the drawers in the letter desk where my mother kept addresses. I sifted through stacks of postcards from people I had never heard of, but none was from Nils. I took the books off the shelves and shook each one by the binding, but there wasn’t any note tucked between the pages, not even in Wuthering Heights.

A shaft of sunlight spilled into the living room, and then disappeared behind a cloud, leaving a shimmer of dust in its wake. And when the telephone rang for the second time, it was a sign. I watch my hand pass over the rotary, my fingers wrap around the receiver. The cold line tickled my arm. It was the only thing I could feel. “Hello?” I said.



“It's Cora. Something happened.”

The cat was frozen solid, stuck on its hind legs, its claws tangled in the mesh of the Lessings’ screen door. A layer of snow had fallen over his black fur, and beneath a white dome piled high like a Klan hood, the green eyes were glassy, opaque with frost.

Cora and I stood on the back steps, staring at the cat in disbelief. “I thought you’d want to see it,” she said, wiping tear streaks off her round cheeks. “Toby boomeranged pop-tops at Cinders, so he didn’t think it was safe to come home until it was too late. You’re the first person I called.”

“Thanks,” I said, which sounded more insincere than I had wanted it to. I watched my breath float up in the sunlight like a cloud of dust, and then returned my eyes to the cat.

“What do I do with him?” Cora said.

“What about your parents?”

“Poppy's away on business. Mummy's working up in the studio. That means she's in an artistic fugue.”

“Is she an artist?”

“Well, Mummy's working in new mediums. She collects feathers and makes sculptures.” Cora looked down at the cat again and sniffled into her glove. “It's not like I can bury him. I can’t even touch him. Toby won’t come out of his room. He's put something against the door so I can’t get in.”

I stole a glance over my shoulder at the Harringtons’ house, where everyone said there had once been a murder. A light was on in an upstairs window, but I couldn’t see anyone inside. I imagined a woman removing her jewels, sitting down on her knees in the very spot where the bodies had been found, putting her face in her hands. The snow reminded her of things she had never experienced. The walls held in memories no one had lived to remember, and it all stayed there, sleeping under snow. For some people, quiet was not a good thing. Quiet meant being alone in the worst kind of way.

“I’ll touch him,” I said. I crouched down on my knees and knocked the dome of snow off the cat's head. I had never touching anything dead before. But I wasn’t really touching death, I assured myself. There were my fingers inside a glove, reaching out for ice and snow. “It almost doesn’t look real,” I said. “It's like wax.”

“He's real to me,” Cora said. “He's Cinders. He sleeps on my pillow. He was waiting all night in a blizzard for me to let him inside, wondering what he’d done to deserve this. I should have left the door open.”

“In a blizzard?” I put my hand on her shoulder because that's what I figured a friend should do. “There wasn’t anything you could do. It's your brother's fault for chasing him off.”

Her pale eyes narrowed bitterly beneath the edge of a striped knit hat. “I guess,” she said.

We decided to build a sepulchre in the snow where the cat could be kept until the earth softened, or until Mr. Lessing came back for his business trip with a better idea. It's what people did in the “hinterland,” Cora said, when the ground was too frozen for burial. We fashioned a hut out of snow in the back of the garden beside the stand of trees, with a mouth just wide enough for the cat's body.

I told her my great-grandparents were snowed in without food, that they had survived on the plains of Nebraska against impossible odds by keeping each other warm with their love.

“That sounds made up,” Cora said, sitting back in the snow to catch her breath. She’d stopped crying. “Nobody can keep each other warm with love. Unless you mean by doing it.”

“That's not what I mean,” I said. “I think people in love can keep each other alive just by the power of feeling.” I remembered sneaking downstairs when I was twelve, watching my parents dance around the living room in the middle of the night, and how in love they had seemed to me then, like they were holding each other up with love, like they’d crumble without it.

“How do you know?” Cora said.

“Trust me. I know.” I pretended to concentrate on fortifying a wall. I thought of Nils in Los Angeles waiting by the telephone. Or maybe he’d get sick of waiting and come after me, drive all the way to Lincoln and do something horrible when he found out I wasn’t like my mother.

“Who is he?” Cora said.

“No one you know.” A wind sent a fresh storm swirling down from tree limbs. Snowflakes shimmered like crystal in the bright sun, beautiful little pinpricks that made you squint your eyes. I imagined someone, the Harringtons’ son maybe, watching me from an upstairs window in the neighboring house. I wondered if it was possible to love someone you had never met.

We got up, and walked back to the house in our own footprints without speaking a word. Together, Cora and I freed the frozen cat from the mesh screen and carried him back through the tunnel of snow to the sepulchre. The legs stuck out like branches. The whiskers were stiff and clear, brittle as burnt sugar. One snapped against my coat when I lifted Cinders. I was afraid of where our hands and breath made prints of warmth. In places we had touched, the layer of ice melted away to reveal wet black fur beneath. We reached the edge of the trees and set the cat down in the snow. “Toby should be doing this,” Cora said. Her voice was breaking again.

“Don’t worry,” I assured her. “We’ll make him pay.” I liked the sound of those words in my mouth. They were powerful, like Dr. No, or John Wayne in The Alamo.

“You’ll help me?”

“Sure,” I said. “I’m your friend.” I picked up the cat again to prove my point, guided it into the chamber, and started packing in the hole without a second thought.

The sun was sinking low behind the trees, casting emaciated shadow trunks in the snow.

“Since we’re friends now, I have to tell you something,” Cora said. “I don’t have any other friends.”

“That's okay, I don’t either,” I said. “My mother's gone. She thinks my father fired the housekeeper without telling her, but that was only an excuse. She's always wanted to leave. Mother didn’t even know she was pregnant with me until Daddy saw the bulge when they were jumping through a sprinkler. I think she has a secret lover.”

Cora bit the inside of her cheek. “Your parents jump through sprinklers?”

“Not anymore,” I said.

Cora gathered a bit of snow off the sepulchre and pressed it to her cheek. When she took her hand away, an angry red splotch stayed behind as if the cold had burned her.

“I’m making a wish,” she said. “I wish things were different. I wish I had Cinders-What do you wish?”

“I don’t have any wishes.” I stared up into the frost-covered branches.

“Everyone has wishes.” Cora took off her mitten. She leaned forward and carved Cinders in the side of the sepulchre.

“I want someone to love me,” I said.

“I thought someone did.”

“No. Not really.”

“Me too,” Cora said. “I want that too.”

When I got home, my mother's belongings were still scattered in the foyer. Her brown coat with the fur collar lay draped over the chair, the belt trailing on the rug. Shoes and shirts and wrinkled skirts spilled over the top of the stairs, as if she’d been frantically looking for something when the bomb had struck. One high heel teetered on the edge of a step. Strange shapes fluttered along the walls in spotty sunlight. Everything looked caught, frozen underwater. I was lost, stuck between worlds, diving for treasure in a sunken ship.

“Hello,” I called, “hello?” to see if anyone was there. The house was silent.

I went into the living room. Sharp light cut through the French doors like a thousand diamonds, and feeling the urge to let in some air, I swung them open. An icy wind tore through the garden and into the living room. I stepped back as the cold ripped through me. My mothers note cards blew off the letter desk and circled on a sudden gust, before coming to rest on the Oriental rug in the stillness that followed.

I shut the doors and lay down in the scatter of white cards. I thought I could see them cramped with words: Meet me by the elms-I’ll be swinging from the branches. I closed my eyes. Outside, icicles broke free of gutters, piercing hedges like sparkling arrows. Snow shuddered past living room windows in sudden bursts of flour. Somewhere deep below, the boiler pumped. Knitting needles tapped radiators, and my grandfather's ghost stared out into the night as Hans and Elsa dug through decades of snow.

A terrible blizzard hit McCook, Nebraska, early that first spring. Snow kept on falling for days. Even before kissing like newlyweds were supposed to, Elsa and Hans scurried down the ladder and looked out the window in the hopes that the storm had passed while they’d been asleep. But one day they woke up to find there wasn’t any morning. Snow had covered the windows and buried the house almost entirely. In the barn, a calf had died of cold trying to nurse from its mother's frozen udder. An icicle had formed around her tail. But Hans couldn’t get to the animals. They had nothing left. Their stomachs groaned with hunger. They drank melted snow for water. Hans and Elsa lay in bed under blankets holding each other, but they never slept. They lost track of time, living by the light of candles and lanterns, waiting for the sod roof Hans had just finished to buckle beneath the weight of snow, freezing them on the bed where they lay, clutching each other like twins foot to forehead in a womb.

Each assumed the other asleep, and thought, “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die beside this stranger. I am completely alone.” When Elsa peeked at her husband through half-closed lids, she saw a face that was blank with sleep, and knew Hans was dreaming about her hair. After all, it was the only reason he had married her. And when Hans wrapped his arms around his wife and touched a golden strand with the tip of his finger, he felt as if he were touching an impossible emptiness. He had heard somewhere about woman's intuition and wondered how it was that this girl could spend the last moments of her life asleep, never telling him what would happen. It was selfish.

Somewhere in the middle of a day after what seemed like years, a fierce wind shook the hut and a piece of the roof fell in. Hans grabbed Elsa's hair in his fist. “What's going to happen?” he screamed.

“Let go!” she cried, and pushed him away. “How should I know. You’re the man. You’re supposed to do something.”

Hans stared down at the piece of sod. “But what is a man supposed to do?” he said, reaching out for the beacon of her hair again.

Elsa slapped his hand away and climbed down the ladder. Sweeping her fingers over surfaces, she opened and closed drawers in the dark until she felt the cold metal shears. Anger burned her heart with a fire, and she wasn’t chilled or hungry anymore. Anger filled her up entirely.

“Don’t try to go outside or anything,” Hans said, coming down the ladder. “You’ll only drown in snow.”

“That isn’t possible,” she said, lifting her arms above and behind her. “You can’t drown in snow. You suffocate.” Her nightgown spread out like wings, her golden hair caught for a moment in candlelight. Hans saw how long and beautiful it was, surprised by waves every now and then, like sudden rapids in a river. And then he saw the scissors. “Don’t be stupid,” he said.

“I’m not. I’m being smart.” Elsa held out the curtain of her hair.

Hans tried to imagine what his father would have done. His father had been a sergeant. “I am your husband, Elsa,” he said. “I command you not to cut your hair.”

Elsa brought the shears to her scalp. Golden hair fell in piles. Hans pushed his chest against her nose. Elbows met jaws, met knees, met teeth. Hans grabbed. Elsa bit. Loose hair caught like corn silk in the corners of mouths. Scissors sliced skin. Hans stepped back and pressed the cut with his thumb. Elsa covered her mouth with her hand, and stared at the hair on the floor between them, and a drop of her husband's blood that had fallen. Then Elsa tasted blood in Hans's mouth. The horse bucked, and Hans bit his tongue. She knew what he’d been wondering. How fast had his father ridden, before falling on that field outside Stockholm? Hans's mother claimed he’d gone down fighting, but Hans couldn’t make himself believe. He’d found the box beneath the bed with the uniform, the mus- tard stain, the holes in the back of the coat where the bullets had gone in. Hans was thinking how no one else's father had fallen in battle. It wasn’t fair. And then Hans, too, fell. Elsa could smell it: the leather, the sweat, the dung, as rocks in the road rose up to meet him. She felt the pebble bury in his scalp, and found the jagged white scar with his fingers, only they weren’t just his fingers, they were his father's fingers, and they were her fingers. “Hans,” she said, “I’m sorry I cut you.”

“You didn’t,” Hans said.

“I did.”

“Really,” he said. “I didn’t notice.” There was a bump in Elsa's nose he had never noticed, and a dimple where the right cheek met the smooth rise of lips, and in the premature crease in her forehead from too much frowning, he found the first boy Elsa had kissed. He’d lured her behind the crates in her parents’ storeroom with stories of spiders having babies. But Elsa knew that spiders did not “have” babies. “They’re not babies,” she’d said, bending down. “They’re not even spiders,” and then he’d grabbed her. His lips had been like cardboard: Hans could feel them. His spit like the glue Elsa had used to fix the button eyes on her “Mookey” doll after the dog had bitten them off. Hans could feel that glue, and Elsa's disappointment, the frown when the buttons wouldn’t stick. “You should have sewn them on,” Hans said.

“I suppose.” Elsa pressed a rag to his finger to stop the bleeding. Hans liked the smell of her ear. He liked it so much he couldn’t let his breath go. He kept breathing in and in until his face turned blue. “Stop,” Elsa said quietly. “I’m afraid you’ll die.”

“What are you most afraid of?”

“You, Hans.”

“Don’t be.”

“What makes you feel most alone?”

“You, Elsa.”

“Not anymore though.”

“No. Not anymore.”

Elsa touched Hans's jawbone, and Hans ran his fingers through the scruff on Elsa's scalp. The hair was patchy and ragged, but it felt to Hans like a field of wheat. Hans's jaw was smooth in Elsa's hand, like the graceful bones in a wing. Hans traced the outline of ribs beneath Elsa's nightgown. “This one points out in a funny direction,” he said.

Elsa found the scar on his scalp. She laughed. “You’re losing your hair.”

“Come on, Elsa, let me touch it more.”

“Hands,” Elsa said in English. “I’m going to call you Hands.”

Hans and Elsa lay intertwined on the floor like two figures petrified in lava. Their breathing slowed. Crystals formed in the creases of smiles. A pick scraped wood as snow fell away, and each felt the other's heart stir.

Hans and Elsa blinked in confusion and covered their eyes to keep out the sudden light. The men stood in the doorway, holding shovels and lantern, their mouths hanging open like woodpecker holes. Ice had collected in their beards. To Hans and Elsa, it could have been any moment in history. Their rescuers could have been Vikings on a frozen shore, or explorers discovering a secret cave. It could have been the ice age.

The men put their hands over their hearts and cried for joy. “It's been so hard. So many are dead. But you’re alive. You’re alive!”

“Oh,” Hans said, stretching and yawning and peering at the men through half-closed lids. “I forgot.”

“Yes,” Elsa said, rubbing sleep out of her eyes. “Remember? We were going to die.”

Nancy Reisman


from Michigan Quarterly Review

IT WASN’T always the handsome men Lillian wanted: she liked a certain assurance, a scent, the way ordinary men were transformed by desire. How beautiful they became, their bodies shimmering, muscular legs stretching, broad backs, and thick arms bending around her, cocks hard in the dimness of hotel rooms, balls delicate against her thighs. She chose men who only in private revealed their sweeter natures: all had unforgiving lives, all wanted forgiveness. Even, it seemed, begged for such a thing, not simply sex but the transcendence sex might confer, a wild impossible blessing. Was it delusion, seeing them this way? Imagining her fingers slipping past a man's ribs, palm cupping his heart. She wanted that and in certain moments, the men-their faces bathed in yearning-seemed to want it too. But for all their spur-of-the-moment appearances and near-desperate fucking and orgasmic proclamations-I love you Lillian I love you Lillian Oh Lillian Lillian Oh-the men quickly vanished, never left their wives. It was a story she’d heard elsewhere. How it became hers she did not know.

But one way or another, your life unspools. Lillian saw the ways it could go. Take her parents, her father oafish and generous and dead; her mother fish-pale and morose, an ineffectual, complaining woman. Carp under river ice, nibbling ancient disappointments. The smallest pleasures- hot bath, tea, orange dusk through the bare elms-dissipated in Lillian's mother's house. Lillian could, at least, choose her own loneliness: at seventeen she took a tiny flat, a job as a shop clerk.

Years tick. You pass certain men in the street. Some you pull into your body briefly, always too briefly, singular tastes and scents with you even when you’re sure you have forgotten. And then, at a holiday party, a wedding reception, there's the quick peck on the cheek, close enough for you to catch the scent again. A sexual thrill rushes through you: you have to brace against it as the next in line, maybe his wife, maybe his daughter, also kisses your cheek, and other men you have known and their wives look on.

In 1927, the year she turned thirty-five, Lillian was plush. Zaftig. Dark lipstick, flowery perfumes, plunge neckline blue satin and beautiful shoes. In a tiny shop on Main Street, Maxwell’s, she sold stationery, fountain pens, account ledgers, dark leather diaries. When Abe Cohen appeared, she made no assumptions: for years he had lived on the outskirts of her thinking. Dull. Handsome. Relentlessly upstanding. A friend of her older brother’s, respectable in ways her brother Moshe was not. A family man, which is to say he slaved to bring his wife over from Russia, then kept her pregnant for a decade, his life increasingly obscured by that strange brood of daughters, one pleasure-loving son. There had once been rumors-a romance with a Polish girl before his wife arrived-dusty now, insignificant. He himself insignificant, but for his jewelry store, display cases stocked with opals, rubies, diamond studs, pearls she could pull across her tongue.

“Hello.” Abe Cohen smiled, removed his hat, and made a show of examining leather-bound account books and watermarked paper. He sorted through the ivory letter stock and asked, “Would you like tea?” as if in midconversation.


He gestured at the street. “Miss Schumacher, would you like a cup of tea?”

His thumb moved across the ivory paper in small deliberate circles. Cultured pearls, she thought, tea? He dampened his lips with his tongue, and his gaze was direct, chestnut. She’d forgotten his eyes were chestnut, if she had ever known. Bits of white in his hair now, charcoal overcoat like an unbuttoned pelt and beneath it the three-piece suit. Trim for his age, trim for any age except boy and the thumb circling and circling, and when had he unbuttoned the coat? Fedora in his left hand, deeper charcoal. “May I take you to tea?” A soft grit in his voice-this was what sold jewelry to women, of course, that landscaped baritone, and the three-piece suit with all the buttons suggesting their opposite, a continued unbuttoning, and those thumbed circles on the notepaper saying what he meant by tea.

His wife was ill, she’d heard, failing. “That's kind of you,” she said. This was the moment to decline, or at least steer their meeting to a public venue, sanctioned commiseration: How is your wife today? Is she feverish? Walking? Eating? Can she take soup? Tea and pastry. He had beautiful hands. She wanted to touch his mouth, the point on his lip he reached for with his tongue. “I would like that.”

She closed the shop early, aware of him watching her hands as she locked the windowed oak door, pulled on her leather gloves, wrapped her blue scarf around her neck. He stood out on the sidewalk a respectful distance, easily a chaperon sent by her brother. When did she decide? In a shopping bag, she carried a box of notepaper and a box of envelopes. The air smelled of snow, the daylight weak behind pillowing gray clouds. Wind pushed east from the lake. She hesitated. Paper in paper in snow, she thought. Wet scraps. He was pressing his tongue against his upper lip. “Would you mind if I stopped home?” She gestured at the shopping bag.

She didn’t pause in the foyer of her building, even when he fell behind her, slowed, presumably readying to wait. He followed her up the stairs to the second floor and her apartment. And she was thinking then of the cold outside and the heat of her apartment, the charcoal coat and the buttons, forgetting already his larger life, almost forgetting the tearoom down the street. Please come in, she said, and he removed his overshoes and followed her into the small parlor. A reserved breathiness to him. Lillian touched her palm to his right cheek, and he kissed her hand, and then her mouth. There was no hesitation, only a brief awkwardness in the undressing: her fingers pulling open his shirt buttons. Oh, his checked step back, as if he’d always undressed himself. His face bore the near drunk, desperate expression of men who have been fighting desire and given over to it-men who might later soberly admit I have broken a commandment-tiresome as that was. Best to see him with this expression, beyond caring. In her bed he entered her and moved slowly and then rapidly, climaxing quickly. He touched her for an hour, then rose and washed and kissed her forehead and left.

Two weeks later he reappeared, plied her with cakes from a Polish bak- ery, good gin smuggled from Canada, moved his fingers over her face and kissed her on the mouth, all gratitude and lust, before running his hands over her breasts and belly and down between her legs, stroking then entering her: it was staggering and deeply pleasurable, bitter to relinquish.

In the first months, Abe's courtship seemed to her a kind of truth, his attentions and her pleasures contradicting all other absence. Shana he called her, beautiful one, and during their hours together she believed him. How easily she could forget all previous courtships, the fickle nature of men and romance, the impermanence of passion, the moment at which unalloyed sweetness begins to change. Abe liked ritual, and in the first months held to the rituals of cake and gin and tenderness, intense sex during which his desire seemed to meet her own. But in the spring Abe came to her restless and unhappy and without gifts. She offered him holiday wine, which he refused. What he wanted was hard and unsparing: he took her from behind, not kissing her, not looking her in the eye. It was something men did. Oh, she thought, this. She gave over to him and her body seemed a separate thing and she dissolved beneath him. He wanted her to say yes, I like it. “Yes, I like it,” she said, both lying and in some way meaning it. A strange release when he pinned her down, as if she had reached the end of fear. Her lungs refilled only after he’d left her apartment. He returned the next week with fruit and chocolate, kissed her, caressed her, and did not mention his previous visit.