Gus and Loni
Loni closed the curtains of the motel room. He probably wasn't coming back—the bastard. She should be glad. Marta and Gus—the older and supposedly wiser siblings—were right. Well, not entirely right. Marta had thought he might murder her. But she knew better than that. A sick abusive jerk, yes; a murderer, she didn't think so—no matter what he said. Gus just wanted her to be happy and he said he didn't think this trip would do the trick. Gus might as well have been her twin. And neither of them were doing too good.
Her life wasn't always like this. But it had been going sour for a while. She was lonely, unemployed, living off what was left of her dad's estate and taking care of Gus. When it came to love, she was desperate. What did Marta know of desperation? Marta with her anti-depressants and her ex-husband who still came over every few months for old time's sake. Or even Gus, so stewed in methadone and liver disease that any remnant of desire had drifted away like a puff of smoke.
The thought of Gus caused a pang of worry in her gut. She shouldn't have left him alone. She reminded herself that he would have called her if anything was wrong, and at least she'd gotten what she had come for. She'd had sex for the first time in nine years. It was rough sex, ugly and devoid of affection, but it was sex nonetheless. The man was a disturbed, abusive bastard—married to some poor woman who didn't know about his internet affairs. But Loni was fat and miserable, and if she could get a crumb of attention from him, she would take it and be grateful. If he wanted to slap her around a little first or curse at her later, she'd have to deal with it. She wondered if she'd see him again before she left. With a queasy feeling in her stomach she hoped she would, and she hoped she wouldn't.
She lay down on the bed and punched the remote which was attached by a cord to the night stand. On the television they talked of war, they talked of a missing pregnant woman whose husband almost certainly did away with her, they talked of opening forests to mining and logging companies and more air and water pollution. Jesus, it was depressing. On another channel, a couple of actors pretended to be parents crumbling into a million pieces as their little boy died on the emergency room table—and this was supposed to be entertainment.
She muted the television and stared up at the stained ceiling. Here she was lying on a cheap shitty motel room bed at eleven o'clock at night with nothing to do. She wanted to get home, wanted to forget she had done this and tried not to admit to herself that she would do it again. She thought of how he had sat here next to her and bragged about killing people—three of them, he said in a flat voice, over the course of his life—gunshot, strangulation and baseball bat. She didn't believe a word of it, but the fact that he would even utter such things said something vile about his character. She didn't want to think what it said about her that she had let him climb on top of her like an animal and that it had almost felt good.
She reached over to the phone and called up Marta, the older sister, the one who had never been fat, who relatively speaking had even been pretty when she was young.
"Thank God," Marta said. "I figured that freak would have sliced you up and buried you in three mismatching pieces of Samsonite by now."
"He's not going to kill me. I told you that. Besides, men only kill women who have life insurance policies. I can't afford a life insurance policy," Loni said, thinking of the pregnant wife on the news who had disappeared.
"You don't need life insurance," Marta said. "You don't have children."
Marta had one child, a boy who moved out of Marta's house to live with his father at the age of thirteen. Get out, Loni had told the child, get away from any member of this screwed up family as fast as you can. God knows she loved her family but there was no denying they were a mess.
Loni especially loved Gus—poor, dying Gus. No, she told herself, he wasn't dying. She wouldn't let that happen. He had quit smoking the last time he went into the hospital and she knew she'd eventually get him off the methadone. Then they'd find a good liver for him and somehow figure out a way to pay for it. She'd badger anyone and everyone who might be able to help them. She lingered on that idea for a long time, thought of the doctors who refused to help Gus until he got healthy. Maybe they figured they didn't want to waste a good liver on a lost cause. Maybe they were both lost causes.
Loni fell asleep imagining him alive, healthy, doing things with her like they used to do. The weakened man who barely stayed conscious four or five hours of the day was replaced in her mind by the gentle-hearted brother she used to have, the brother who liked to listen to music in clubs and drink a few beers and maybe go down to the beach at night to sit in the sand and taunt the waves which could only come so far, so far.
In Gus's dream Diane was still alive. They were fourteen years old and out on the river. Diane's hair was a short metallic-looking blond; her shoulders were broad from years on the swim team. Freckles covered her face, and her nose turned up in an adorable slope. In winter Diane wore bell bottom jeans that dragged along the ground and a fringed leather jacket. In summer, a bikini and a pair of cut offs. In the dream, they were once again on his father's Evinrude with Loni and a couple of other girls. Gus and his bevy of his beauties! The girls would dance on the back of the boat, and he sometimes gunned the motor so that they tipped precariously toward the water before falling back into the boat. "Gus, you asshole! You could kill us!" Loni would yell while Diane laughed. If Marta was with them, she would lie down on the prow and smoke a cigarette though she somehow never seemed to learn how to inhale—not tobacco anyway.
When he woke up, he was still immersed in the adolescent world of his dream. They were the popular group that year. The cool ones. He and his two sisters and the coterie of friends they had established. The year before he and Loni had been outcasts because they were overweight, their noses were large and beaklike and unlike the rest of the wealthy kids at their private school, they had crooked teeth that no orthodontist could fix. He knew that girls would not like him in the romantic sense, but he discovered they would love him as a friend, as the cool friend, the one who knew what music to listen to, who read R. Crumb comic books and Richard Brautigan novels, and who put an ironic bite on the whole hippy "peace, love and kill the pigs" culture that had saturated the rest of the country but which was still exotic in their southern river town. He was the one with the house on the river, the boat, the unconcerned parents and the older sister who dated a pot dealer. That aura of cool rebelliousness had brought Diane into his life. And then they lingered together in a Platonic netherworld that cut into him like a dull blade until the day she died at the age of 39 of emphysema.
In spite of the fact that Diane dated the good-looking sought-after boys throughout her high school years, she never cared much about them, which is why those boys chased her. She laughed about them with Gus, her best friend, and then one day she grew up and discovered women. In exchange for his friendship, Diane had tolerated Gus's adoration through her college years then her professional years and through one romantic liaison after another and then to the last year when disease whittled away at her insides until she was empty. Gus liked to tell himself that if she hadn't been gay, she would have loved him the way he loved her. The only thing decorating his wall was a print of a lion's face that she had made for him before she died. It looked incongruous in this dark room with the old sheet over the window and the overhead light fixture dangling by one wire.
Gus sometimes wondered if Diane hadn't died, would he find the will to keep on living? He didn't want to die. He was, frankly, afraid of it. Would there be a hell there? Probably not. Probably it was nothing. Was nothing worse than this, he wondered. Not that this was all that bad. He spent most of his days in bed with the television on. It was bad when Loni was gone, of course. But Loni would be home today, he hoped. He hoped that Marta was wrong and that the crazy bastard she met on the internet hadn't killed her.
The phone rang. He lazily reached over to answer it.
"Hey, Bubba," Marta said in her raspy voice. "You alive?"
"Are you kidding? I've just gotten back from running a marathon."
"Mmm, right. Me, too. I talked to Loni. She's not dead either."
"I guess she got laid," Gus said.
"Please. I don't want to imagine it," Marta said.
For a while they listened to each other breathe. He never saw Marta anymore unless he was in the hospital. She said she couldn't stand to come over to their house. It was the smell of the cats—twelve of them at last count. The living room had been given over to them and the rich smell of cat urine permeated everything.
Finally, Marta said, "I wish you'd get better, Gus. I wish we could get you a new liver."
"I never expected to live to be forty-six," he responded, "and I never realized how much I would want to keep living."
After the phone call, Gus got out of bed. His breath came in short hard hits. Damn, he had to lose weight. He stopped, looked around at nothing for a moment. He felt like a bug in a piece of amber. What day was it? He needed to check his methadone supply in the refrigerator. When he walked through the living room, the cats meowed at him in a hungry chorus. The bag of cat food that he had left open on the floor was empty.
"Sorry," he said to a calico rubbing against his ankle. "You'll have to wait."
The house was small and the kitchen sink piled with his dirty dishes. Loni would clean it up when she got back. Poor Loni. He tried to remember what day she was supposed to come back. Was it today? He wondered if she had left the car. Maybe he could drive to the drugstore. It was only a couple of blocks away. He could buy some cigarettes. A cigarette would console him. Diane had loved her Camels. He could still see her squinting in her own smoke, her thick lashes batting over deep brown eyes. They had kissed a few times. She had the sweetest, softest kiss he had ever felt. Not that he had much to compare it to—a few awkward encounters in his 20s that never lasted long.
He walked into the cramped living room, peered through the miniblinds and saw Loni's old Toyota in the driveway, a birthday present from their father five years ago back before he died. They never really had to work much. Their father made sure they survived.
Gus imagined the feel of smoke slowly filling the encrusted little pockets in his lungs, the warm chemical taste against the roof of his mouth, the heft of it between his fingers. Where had Loni left the keys?
Loni took a cab home from the airport. As soon as she came in the house, she could smell the kitchen. She looked in, saw the pile of dishes, the dollops of mustard and the crumbs on the counter, and a half gallon of warm milk on the table.
"Gus," she muttered in exasperation as she had done most of her life.
She went into his room. He lay in the bed with his jeans on but no shirt. His long black hair looked dirty and his chest moved in a rough rhythm.
"I'm back," she said, but Gus didn't answer. She went to his bedside and shook his arm. His eyes flickered open but the rest of him remained in stasis. "Are you okay?"
He slowly shook his head.
"I think I'm fucked this time," he rasped. "I went to the store to get cigarettes, but when I got back I . . ."
"Come on. Let's get you dressed. We're going to the hospital."
They'd done this drill before, several times, in fact. She knew the routine now. She pulled him to his feet and slipped under his arm so she could support his weight as they stumbled out of the house. An orange tabby escaped through the open door.
"Hey, you," Loni called. "Get back in here. Stupid cat."
"Let it go," Gus wheezed. The cat was already fast under a thicket of juniper bushes. "I will," Loni said. "I just hope some sicko doesn't get hold of him. They do terrible things to animals—those vivesectionists. They're always looking for strays. Satan worshippers, too. You can't be too careful."
Gus grunted but didn't answer. They got in the car and headed to the hospital. Loni drove in through the driveway underneath the big red letters spelling Emergency and stopped in front of the doors. Gus slowly opened the car door and got out.
"I'm gonna park. Go on in, Gus." He nodded and moved toward the door like an old man. It was hard to believe he wasn't even fifty.
Loni parked the car and used the cell phone to call their mother as she walked in.
"We're back at the hospital, Mom. Gus doesn't look good." She entered the sliding doors and saw Gus sitting in a plastic seat, his head in his hands. "Yeah, you better come over. We're in the emergency room."
The doctors didn't see Gus right away, which Loni took as a good sign. If they rushed you into one of their little rooms, then they thought you were dying. Their mother arrived, looking elegant but gray and thin as a stick, her hair curly and silver like Spanish moss. Howard hadn't come with her, of course. He never did. Loni thought it was because he was jealous of her children. Nothing anyone did surprised her anymore.
Her mother hugged her.
"Loni, you smell like cat pee," she said. "You have to get rid of those cats."
"No one will take them," Loni said. "They all have feline leukemia."
"Jesus," her mother said, shaking her head.
Squeezed into the uncomfortable little seat, Loni wondered if a new diet would help. She should buy a book –the sugar busters or whatever it was. Not that she wanted to give up eating sugar or fat or anything else they had decided was no good for you. You always had to replace it with grapefruit or endive. Eating was her one sure source of satisfaction. She thought again of that sick bastard she had gone to visit in North Carolina and that miserable Durham hotel room next to the highway with trucks roaring along it twenty-four hours a day. Years ago, she had been the quasi-girlfriend of a fiddler in a nationally known country-bluegrass band. She had stayed in some pretty nice places with him—the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta, for one. She didn't know if he'd ever really loved her though he said he did. Then he got a brain tumor, which he thought was probably the result of exposure to Agent Orange, and died within six weeks. All he left her was a great, gaping longing in her heart. She understood how it was that Gus never got over Diane. She'd never gotten over her fiddler. Maybe you only fell in love once in your life. Look at her parents, she thought. They never did any better for themselves once they got divorced. Oh, her father got a younger woman and her mother got a richer man but both matches were awful mistakes. They should have just stayed together.
All the flotsam and jetsam of the city was there at the hospital that evening: fevers, hacking coughs, broken arms, split lips and gunshot wounds. The nurse finally came and took Gus to a back room. Loni went along while their mother waited in the lounge. Their mother didn't care for hospitals or trouble of any sort but all three of her children had been relentless in doling it out to her.
"We're gonna keep Gus over night and run some tests," the doctor said after listening to Gus's heart and lungs and checking his blood pressure.
"Do you want me to stay?" Loni asked.
Gus shook his head. "Go home. You look tired."
"Okay, Bubba. I love you." She hugged him and felt her heart which had been closed tight for the past week fling open its doors as she nestled her face against his thick hair.
At home she unplugged the phone. She didn't want to talk to him on the off-chance he should call her, and she didn't want to know that he hadn't called. Probably he would email instead, if that. Two of the cats curled themselves into balls at the foot of her bed. She fell into a deep dreamless sleep and in the morning when she woke up she had that sensation of amnesia that happens sometimes. It felt great to remember absolutely nothing even if it was only for a moment. Is this what death is like, she wondered. Then when the thought of death crossed her mind, real life returned to her like an electric shock. She quickly plugged the phone back in and called the hospital. Gus was in ICU.
When Loni arrived, Marta was already there with her ex-husband and her son. Their mother was there. Gus was hooked up to monitors and machines in a room with other beds, other sick and dying people. The doctors came and went never looking them in the eye. Loni didn't want to ask. She'd pestered and hounded doctors for the past three years, trying to get answers, trying to get help. But she didn't want answers now. Her mother draped her arms over Loni's shoulders. Loni leaned against the pale blue wall.
"I don't know if I can stand to lose him," Loni's mother whispered.
"Mom, don't say that," Loni said. "He's not dying. Oh God, I should have stayed last night."
Marta came over and touched her arm. Marta's breath smelled like coffee. Her eyes were red and the eyelids puffy. For all her faults, at least she loved Gus.
"Loni, you couldn't have done anything."
Their eyes met. Gus had been the glue that bound the three of them together. Gus with his maniacal grin, cigarette hanging from his mouth, his deep blue eyes always laughing. Even when he was sick and scared, he would get a wild-eyed tongue-lolling look when a nurse turned her back that sent Loni and Marta into fits of stifled laughter.
They were allowed to go briefly into the room. His eyes were closed. His hands lay at his sides, unmoving, fingers curled around nothing. Loni reached over and slid her fingers into the space inside his cupped hand. He squeezed. Tears flooded her eyes unexpectedly.
When the doctor came back in, Loni and Marta and their mother went out of the room.
"I can't believe this is happening," Marta said over and over.
"It's not. It's not happening," Loni said. Loni's mother continued to hold on to her as they walked down the hall.
Gus died while they were out of the room. That's what Loni thought anyway. Oh, his heart still had a few slow thuds left, and he inhaled and exhaled maybe three or four more times, but as soon as they came back in the room, she could tell the energy was gone. It was a dead room. She looked at her brother's cast-off body and could not remember a time when he was not a part of her life. Then Marta began to moan while Loni's ex-brother-in-law, a sun-burned ex-marine, and her nephew, a would-be goth with red streaks in his black hair, stood by silent and unmoving as if they were afraid to move among these broken-hearted women. Who knew what they would do?
Loni felt lost, dazed, as she left the hospital. She couldn't go to her mother's house because her stepfather would make her feel unwelcome even now, even on the day of her brother's death. Marta and her psuedo-family had gone back to Marta's ex-husband's house—another place Loni didn't feel welcome.
The sky was puffy with bloated blue clouds. She drove along the busy four-lane road without purpose and passed the street that led to the small house she and Gus had shared for the past few years. A wiry black cat sat in the window like a sentinel. She wasn't ready to face the emptiness yet. She passed the chicken shack where they had often picked up a box of fried chicken to go. She drove under the concrete overpass that led to a bridge. Somewhere to her left the river lurked. And then on the left she saw the brick entrance to the neighborhood where they had once lived as a family—she, Gus, Marta and their two parents.
Without thinking or planning anything, she turned into the neighborhood and drove along the winding road, past all the houses she had seen a thousand times—ordinary houses, sprawling brick ranches, a few two-stories. It had been so long since she had come down this road, but nothing was changed. And then around the corner she saw the driveway leading to the white house on the bluffs where she and Gus and Marta had once been children and then teenagers. How excited they had been when they first moved into this house that seemed so big and new to them. The enclosed garage was still there, where they had put up the black light and the lava lamp and the posters, the room where the incense always burned and the records were stacked on the turntable—Jethro Tull, Let it Bleed, Cream, and her favorite—James Taylor. The rest of the group didn't like him much, but she remembered how she loved that song, "You've got a friend" because for the first time in her life she did have friends, friends who came to their house because of her older brother, the girls like Diane who became her friends by default.
She turned down the driveway and hoped no one was home, hoped she could get to that place down by the river where they had kept the boat docked. The big oak trees dripped Spanish moss and the air was tinged blue from the foreboding clouds. Then she found the turnoff from the driveway that led down the gravel and sand road to the river. The Toyota spit up pebbles as she followed the road down an incline. She could already smell that warm amber odor of the river. Then she pulled to the end and saw the river, big and brown and restless. On the seat beside her was a white plastic hospital bag with Gus's belongings. They had said they would keep his body while the family decided what to do. Those decisions were like the torrent waiting in the clouds above, something she wouldn't think about yet. She opened the bag and pulled out Gus's clothes. Noticing a thickness in the pockets, she emptied them and found a full bottle of methadone and a package of Marlboros, minus one cigarette.
"Guess you don't need these anymore, Bubba," she said, her voice weak and alien sounding.
She took the bottle of methadone and got out of the car. He'd been on the methadone program for probably twenty years. So afraid to get off of it. So afraid of the withdrawal. So afraid that it killed him, even more than the hepatitis had. She stood on the concrete wharf by the river. The old dock where they had kept their boat was gone except for a few pilings still standing in the gnawing water. A light chop cut the surface into a million liquid tiles.
Opening the plastic childproof top, Loni poured the red methadone juice into the river where it disappeared and was carried way by the brackish water. Then she dropped the empty bottle into the river. It bobbed on the surface for a moment before water filled it and then it sank below the surface without ceremony.
Their adult lives had not been happy. She didn't understand why, for her family in particular, it had been so hard—and for her, the hardest of all. She was not a bad person. She had never realized that wouldn't be quite enough. You had to be more than "not bad." You had to be beautiful or talented or work your ass off. Or lucky.
Wind whipped off the river and pulled her hair into her face. She remembered when they were about fourteen and fifteen, taking the boat out to go water-skiing. Diane was the only one who was any good. It was always Marta's role to lounge on the boat like a fashion model and smoke cigarettes that she never inhaled. One time Loni had been the one on the skies. After she fell in the water, Gus began circling the boat around her full speed, creating a thick beating wake that splashed against her face and infiltrated her nose and mouth. Loni saw Marta waving to her from the back of the boat as Diane leaned against Gus, laughing, her short hair gilded by the sun while Gus pushed the throttle down, going so fast, going nowhere.
It was an uncomfortable moment when she realized that she could do anything she wanted. Any city, any country, she could get into her Jeep or onto an airplane or board a train and disappear. Not really, there would still be her hair and her clothes and the slow, uncalculated way she moves, as if every limb was attached to a thick steel cable that only allowed a certain circumference of distance to be achieved.
More often than she wants to think about she has discovered herself sitting on the edge of her unmade bed, the cum and blood spattered sheets pushed away from her, her hands folded in her lap, her legs crossed, just staring. Sometimes as many as thirty minutes will have gone by without movement, without any sound. And the real trouble with this is absence of thought. It is not as if she were deciding, planning, watching pictures tunnel through her mind with some sort of purpose. She isn't doing anything at all. There have been moments when she wonders if this is depression, that overused word that conjures up such drama. She hears people say it everyday:
"I am so depressed."
"That was so depressing."
But what does it really mean? That she should stop wearing the same clothes every day or that she should bathe, brush her teeth, her hair, call someone? There is no one she wants to talk to and nothing she wants to say. She remembers, a few years ago, hiking down into a cave in Mexico. She hadn't wanted to but Averie, her more adventurous out of doors traveling companion insisted that she follow him. He said he wouldn't fuck her that night if she didn't climb down into the darkness of the bat cave with him.
"I don't really like bats." she said. What she meant was that she really didn't care if they fucked or not; even then there was a disinterest she felt scratching beneath her skin, a little pressure at the base of her neck. There has to be something more than this. And the descent into the cave was not unlike how she feels now, looking at the telephone, at the clothes piled up on the floor. She wonders about her bedroom floor, how it can be slippery and covered with some unpleasant unknown grit at the same time. She feels that the bat cave climb down is happening again; she can't see anything in front of her and isn't sure that she wants to.
Sleeping has become a delicate, delicious thing but unfortunately unattainable without some sort of substance. She was getting used to the increasing amounts of codeine she needed to make sleep come but now that stash is gone, as is the Valium, and drinking seems to just take so long. It also makes her feel like her mother, which is unacceptable. When she feels sleep coming on, it is not unlike an orgasm. Not one of those up against a wall or on a counter or in a club bathroom sort of orgasm but more of one that is familiar; someone you have been with hundreds of times, someone whose eagerness is almost comical, something you can accomplish on your own. She likes to lie on her back and cross her hands over her chest, like an angel or a person in a coffin and cross her legs at the ankles and wait. Sometimes she thinks about moving to Scotland and having sex with as many handsome rugby players as she can stand and then moving on to another country and starting up all over again.
What do you do when you can do anything? Not like flying or reading minds or walking across large bodies of water but in a more tangible, financial way? She wonders if those sleep-cure places in Switzerland really exist. And then the phone rings. This is always a problematic moment; she distrusts people calling her and aches for it at the same time. If she doesn't recognize the number she won't answer. If she does, it takes so much contemplation to decide if she wants to talk to the caller that usually she misses the call anyway.
"Hello?" She decided talking to someone wont be any less or more interesting than sitting on her bed not thinking.
"Hello. Is this really you?"
This is a question that requires some thought. It doesn't sit well with her; she worked as a telephone entertainer her first year of college and certain phrases push her back into that seedy, barely exciting world, where she wore her headset and had her cubicle and talked on and on until words like cock and tits and pussy seemed like toys she had put away long ago; things she had gotten too old for.
"It depends on who you really think I am." She can't help herself. It isn't her nature to be cruel or to twist other peoples' emotions into silent, listless wisps but she has that thin, vibrant streak no one wants to own up to: she can enjoy hurting other people as long as there is a way to make it seem unintentional. It's all about the tone, being able to slide in and out of a certain time like small snakes through water; you might have seen one or felt its quiet pressure against your leg. Or you could have made the whole thing up.
"This is Simon."
"Simon's in jail."
His voice is the same, so deep and pleading it hurts her ears. There is enough wax in them that she can push a finger in and extract a little grey sticky ball, roll it between her fingers and wonder what she should say next.
"Funny. You always were so funny."
"Bull riding is funny. I prefer to be thought of as sarcastic."
"Why? Usually sarcastic people are jerks who use harsh humor to push others away and protect their own fragile egos."
Oh, fuck this, she thinks and twists to push the disconnect button on her cell. They have been doing this for years, since they met in rehab, both sixteen, both wearing black and hostility and a desperate, juvenile need to be different. It was one of those really successful and moving 30 day programs that leave everyone feeling so much better about themselves, their scars, their analyzed little nightmares. And now ten years later they are still at it, still competing for the other's admiration. He has been in and out of jail,she has been in and out of the country, of relationships, of disasters but there has always been that invisible of string tying them together, connecting them across state lines and cellblocks. They have never stopped thinking about each other, even if in disgust or disinterest.
In the silence that surrounds the possibility of her hanging up she remembers a moment two winters ago as if it were a play:
Characters: Simon and Vivian
Setting: New York City, East Village, Snowstorm
Props: Video camera, medium-sized dog, half Dingo, half Shepherd, Cocaine, Alcohol, Distress
Stage Directions: Simon and Vivian move through the snow banks lining the street, falling down occasionally and laughing. Simon is video taping Vivian and Dog. They stop under streetlight to catch breath. Simon lowers camera.
Simon: Can I meet your Mom?
Vivian: Only if it's wintertime.
Simon: It is, you idiot. Why?
Vivian: Come on. You can do better than Idiot. How about wench or monster or cretin or even bitch?
Vivian: You can meet her outside then.
Vivian smiles into the distance and rubs her nose, which is red and running. There are flecks of white powder and blood running into the curves of her face and her smile is not unpleasant.
Simon: Why outside?
Vivian: You have to be wearing gloves!
Laughter. Cut to shot of Simon's hands: W 0 R K H A R D tattooed across his knuckles.
She brings the phone back up to her ear. It's winter again now, only without the snow and the cocaine. Well, not so much anyway. A bump or two now and then. She likes doing it alone and this worries her. Isn't coke supposed to be a social drug? Isn't it only frightened poorly dressed people with no friends and bad taste in music that like to do drugs alone? For the first time in weeks she thinks about taking a shower and without knowing why sniffs her hair. It isn't good, a mixture of gasoline and stale smoke, of unwanted sex and old white wine. Her stomach hurts.
"All right. Not tomorrow then. How are you?"
"How about, where am I?'
"You're where you always are: almost, but not quite where you could be."
(She hates herself here. Just Be Nice she almost pleads. Can you plead with yourself? She thinks yes, it isn't as hard as one would think. Be nice. Be nice. Wrap your arms, your legs around him, tell him how much you missed him, tell him about the bat cave, about the fears and danger you have imprinted into your skin. Tell him about how much you liked the burning across your neck, about how all you want for Christmas is sleep.)
"Actually, I'm on your stoop."
She thinks about the word stoop. It sounds really lame but what else would he say? On the doorstep? At your house? She remembers moving to New York so many years ago when the thought of having a stoop seemed exotic and mature: Oh, I'm just sitting in the sun on my stoop. As if it were some New York code for cool: I have exposed brick, I have a window in my bathroom, I have a stoop.
"I suppose I should invite you in."
"It would be nice. I've come a long way."
And there is everything in that sentence. The dual meanings are disappointingly obvious and yet so sincere that she feels the emptiness moving away; the bat cave becoming more of a blurred memory than a place she inhabits. There is softness to her that she manages to keep quite successfully hidden. She cries a lot in bathrooms, she has lucky underwear, she memorizes haikus.
When he takes off her clothes a few hours later it isn't at all like it was when they were seventeen or twenty-three, the only other times that they have been naked together. At seventeen, she can admit it now; she sort of forced him into it. It was his birthday after all and she was only visiting for the weekend. He had wanted to show her photographs, concert flyers, rare bootleg punk tapes. She had wanted to get on top of him and fuck the awkwardness away. Why is it that having sex can be less intimate than talking to someone, to him? And then at twenty-three they were both so coked up and drunk she doesn't remember it, only that the act was accomplished somewhat gracefully and they didn't use a condom and he was so much taller than she was and she watched the tattoos moving across his body with every breath he took.
She likes to watch people sleep; it's not unlike watching someone with a rare and interesting talent execute it perfectly, like gymnastics or glass blowing. She wants it for herself but can be content to watch from a very close distance, as if she can pick up some tips as to how it is done. In the darkness, with his cum drying into that gluey paste across her back they lay looking at each other and it seems that she should speak, say something impressive, important, something that he will remember and that she would write down into a story but nothing happens. There is only the thin fracture of sunlight coming up over the building across the street and his hand on the back of her neck, rubbing hard and continually, as if he could erase all the moments she has spent trying to find something, continually and permanently placing one wrong decision beside another.
Beard, once a mere scientist, is now a celebrity. Three months after his research team demonstrated a new gene therapy by curing a disease never before cured, he still cannot eat his breakfast in peace. At half-past nine on Saturday morning he has already fielded three telephone calls, not counting the one from his tennis partner.
"Wall Street Journal," his wife Marlene says, handing him the telephone as if it had germs.
The Journal needs a quote, which he obligingly supplies, for an article on cloning. Then the reporter says, "I hear you're on the short list for the Nobel."
"You know I can't confirm that, Steve." Beard has heard the same thing, but hasn't been able to find out if it's true. He hopes the Journal will at least report it as a rumor. "Anyway," he adds, glancing across the table to make sure his stepson Matt is listening, "I wouldn't want the Nobel for myself. The whole damn team ought to get it."
"I thought you discovered the cure," Matt says when he hangs up the phone.
"I had the idea," Beard assures him, "and the team did the legwork. Didn't you ever hear of team spirit, Matt?"
"What if they give you the prize?" Matt asks, worried. "Will you give it back?"
"Not a chance," Marlene says, turning the page of her newspaper with a snap.
"Hey," Beard points out, "I should have shared Sidlowski's Nobel. And you didn't catch him saying, give it to the team."
Marlene smoothes Beard's thinning hair as she passes behind him on her way to the coffeepot. "Karate time, Matt. Go and find Will."
Beard looks at his watch. "I can't pick the boys up after class. I have that journalist coming from New York." He had met the journalist last year at a conference in Phoenix. When his breakthrough was announced she called him, wanting to do a story for a national magazine. Since then she has interviewed him by telephone, questioned other researchers about his work, even taken his father to dinner (at Nobu, where he would never have thought to bring the old man). The last step is a tour of the laboratory.
"On a Saturday?"
He looks sheepish. "It was the only time I had."
Celebrity is no cakewalk. For three months Beard has been often unavailable for his usual chores - collecting the boys from soccer games on Tuesdays and guitar lessons on Wednesdays, delivering them to karate class on Saturdays and doing the grocery shopping while they practice defending themselves from violent strangers. Instead, he has been flying to one coast or another to present his research and raise money for more. Marlene, left to improvise arrangements, thinks they were better off before. Now she informs Beard she is due at the Literacy Center at noon.
"You might have told me sooner," Beard says, and Marlene points silently to the calendar on the refrigerator door.
He tries again. "She's already on the plane."
"John, you are always doing this to me."
"The university is hot for this story. The press office has been prepping me all week. Can't they take the bus?"
"There is no bus from there to here," Marlene says, pouring him another cup of coffee. "They are not changing buses six times." She sighs. "You were so considerate, before all this."
Right, Beard thinks, when she needed help, and doesn't he deserve the same consideration? He has the self control not to say this out loud.
He had met Marlene just after she committed her first husband, Mike, to the state mental hospital. Later that year Mike, fortified by lithium and the desire for revenge, sued for custody of the boys. Though the suit was groundless, it wore on through years of grief: huddling with lawyers in dank hallways, squandering fortunes while waiting on wooden benches alongside parents who had sold their children, crushed their limbs, handed them matches for playthings. It was only two years ago that the lawsuit ended with justice done and Beard and his wife freed to live normal lives.
Through all of this Beard had weathered Marlene's tears and tantrums, weariness and despair. If it weren't for him, she told him, she might have run off to Mexico with the boys, handed them over to Mike and killed herself, defied the court and gone to jail - God alone knew what tragedies he had prevented.
And the boys - what would they have done without him? When they woke at night in soaked sheets, screaming about lobsters, hockey sticks, rockslides, rattlesnakes, it was Beard who routed their terrors. He shielded them from the lunatic father, the distraught mother; he taught them to swim, took them to Disney World - any shreds of normality in their lives were due to him. Yet they have never stopped hoping that their father, miraculously cured, would re-enter their lives.
Out loud he says, "But they can get to the lab. It's on the same route. They can come up to my office and wait until I'm done, and we'll do the shopping on the way home."
Disaster averted, Beard feels magnanimous again.
He puts his arms around Marlene, nuzzles her hair, murmurs that he is sorry, he detests all this attention, he will never again do anything that will make him famous.
* * * * *
"Do you mind if I turn the tape recorder on while we talk?" Beard and the journalist have finished their laboratory tour and retreated to Beard's tiny, book-filled office, where the journalist is perched on his only visitor chair.
"Not at all," he says. This morning he had described her to Marlene as he remembered her - graying, spreading at the waist, thick fingers pinched by old rings that she could no longer remove. He must have been thinking of someone else from the Phoenix conference. She is no more than thirty, and she is slender, with dark ropy hair, large eyes and features that intrigue him because he cannot decipher their lineage (mixture of South Indian and Arab? he wonders, or of Gypsy and Black?). She is wearing a stylish pants suit, antique pendant and perfume with a sharp, sweet heathery smell that confuses him. When she asks a question she lays a hand on his arm and looks into his eyes.
As he warms to his subject, he stands up and walks around the desk, the way he emerges from behind the podium at a lecture. Feeling her eyes on him, he is mindful of his bald spot and the extra pounds around his middle, then forgets them as he plunges ahead with his answers. "In a nutshell, Claire," he concludes, "scientists today are like dwarves on the shoulders of giants. Without Watson and Crick's discovery of the double helix, without plasmids and recombinant DNA, we wouldn't have the tools for the work we're doing now. I am humble and grateful - make that humbly grateful - to be living at the greatest moment for science the world has known."
Claire nods eagerly.
"For all of human history we've been at the mercy of our genes. If you had the genes for sickle-cell anemia, you'd get sickle-cell anemia. In the future that won't happen. Parents won't have to watch their children die because they gave them deficient genes. Their children will get a second chance - double-dipping in the gene pool, you could call it. They'll have the whole human inheritance to draw upon."
"And you've saved some of those children already. How does that feel?" She tilts her chin, looks up at him.
"It feels wonderful. Science isn't about awards, it isn't about money, it isn't even about getting to work with a top-notch team at a great university. It's about making a difference." He looks at his watch: twenty minutes until the boys arrive. "Are we having the conversation you want to be having? Have I given you the information you need?"
"You've answered all my questions," Claire says, "and then some. This has been a real education." She uncrosses her legs and recrosses them in the other direction.
Beard smiles indulgently, wondering if she's doing it on purpose. "You have such an intuitive feeling for research. Why are you writing about it instead of doing it?"
Claire switches off the tape recorder. "I love science," she says, "but I couldn't do the math. So if I can't be a real scientist, this is a way to stay involved. The best part is meeting so many brilliant people." She leans closer, wafting her heathery scent.
"Of course you could be a 'real' scientist,'" Beard says. "There's only one qualification for that, and you already have it: creativity."
"I wish someone had told me that when I was in college," Claire says. "It's too late now."
"Too late? What are you, twenty-five?" He wonders if the magazine is putting her up in a hotel overnight.
"Thanks. A little older." She laughs and tosses her hair over her shoulder. Beard wants to reach out and touch it. He's never seen hair like this before; it hangs to the middle of her back in a coarse, twisted rope without anything keeping it together at the end. He wonders if she sprays something on it to keep it twisted like that.
"You can't be much older," he says. "I'll be glad to give you advice on graduate programs if -" He stops himself from saying, if you're not heading right back to New York.
Claire laughs again. "I've found my niche. You know - you wander into something and then that's who you are, that's the life you live."
"No! No!" Beard says fervently. "What have I been telling you all morning? There are second chances." He wants to tell her about the dead end from which he had rescued Marlene - raising two children with no husband and no money, bartending on the late shift, getting pawed by drunks so she could work while the boys were sleeping - but he suspects Claire would not be flattered by the comparison.
"Anyway," Claire confides, "what I want to do next is write a book about scientists at work. Most people don't know how creative and exciting science is. If I could spend six months with a first-rate research team -"
"That's an interesting idea," Beard says slowly. He tries to sound as if he is weighing pros and cons. "It would be risky. It would take a lot of time, and would anyone want to read a whole book about me - about my team? But I'll give it a try if you will." Heart thumping, he reaches out to shake her hand.
Claire pauses for a split second, then takes his hand in both of hers. "I didn't mean" – she says, and then, "It does take a lot of time. The writer has to be like your shadow."
"That's not so bad." Her hands are soft and cool and he feels he can't breathe.
"No, really. Working on a book can get pretty intense."
"Intense," he repeats. "Claire - are you feeling what I am?" There's no way she can't be. He touches her face with the hand she isn't holding, closes his eyes and inhales her scent, caresses her wiry hair and the soft skin of her neck, but as he draws her to him she slithers from his grasp and holds him at arm's length. Puzzled, he opens his eyes to see the boys standing outside, watching.
* * * * *
Later, driving home from the supermarket, the back of the car filled with groceries that he may or may not get to eat, Beard reflects that he shouldn't have left the boys alone in the house.
He can't figure out how, or why, they sneaked up on him. Maybe they were practicing their karate moves. He jumped back and made an excuse about an insect landing in Claire's hair, but they only stared. Gruffly, he ordered them downstairs to wait in the car while he called a cab for Claire, and they obeyed without a word. Claire didn't speak, either, until she told the cab driver, "Sheraton Hotel."
The boys were silent in the car. He wondered if he'd traumatized them, imagined them recounting the incident, years later, to their therapists. Not likely, he concluded. They'd already weathered a psychotic break - their father had believed he was the Archangel Michael and insisted on being addressed as ‘Your Glory' - and a custody battle, and had come through fine. This was a second-order shock at best. Still, they shouldn't have seen it.
"Ready to go shopping?" he asked, but Will said "No" and Matt looked gloomily out the window. So he brought them home and went to the store alone. Now he wonders what they've said to Marlene.
It was the writer's fault, he thinks, thumping the steering wheel. She was gazing into his eyes, telling him how brilliant he was. Marlene should understand that after six years with her, he's out of practice in these situations - that's all there is to it. And Marlene should be glad he's out of practice. If he were in the habit of running after young women, he would have handled it better.
"What horrendous thing did they do?" Marlene asks as he walks into the kitchen with the first two bags of groceries. "They've been watching TV since I got home, and I can't get a word out of them."
"I couldn't either," Beard says. "Maybe something happened at the karate school." He is amazed at how easily he can lie, without even having planned it. "Probably they were rowdy in class, and Mr. Lee made them stand in the corner again."
He goes out for the rest of the groceries. If they haven't said anything yet, he thinks, they probably won't. Sooner or later he will confess, but not today. If he waits until it's safely in the past, after the article comes out, after the book comes out, he can make a joke of it, turn it into a funny story, and then - well, she won't divorce him on account of a kiss. She'll say, "Oh, for God's sake, John," and that will be the end of it.
When he brings the last of the bags into the kitchen Marlene asks, "Did the writer have to watch you shop, too?"
He shakes his head, picturing the headline: Nobel Hopeful Buys Cat Food, Seltzer. "I have not yet advanced to that stage of celebrity. Nor did she show any inclination to pick through our garbage, or cut buttons from my jacket."
"I'm glad to know some things are still sacred," Marlene says. Beard looks at her sharply for a moment and then decides that no, that's not what she meant.
"She may want to do a book about me," he says.
Marlene nods. "That's nice." He puts his arm around her shoulder. "This is hard for you," he says, as gently as he can. "My getting all this attention."
"John, that's not the issue," Marlene says. "You did something terrific, you deserve to have it noticed. I'm happy you're getting the recognition."
"Then what is the isssue?" he asks, and Marlene sighs.
Beard goes out to play tennis, comes home, answers his e-mail (five papers for review, the day's lab reports from his postdocs, and an invitation to appear on a television program about medical ethics), and finds the boys still in the den. At dinnertime, Marlene coerces them into coming to the table. Silently they wash their hands and take their seats, their eyes downcast.
"What were you guys watching in there?" Beard asks as Marlene ladles out spaghetti. He grins at Matt, the younger child, who squirms in his chair. Matt is the softer, more affectionate of the two. Beard hopes that if he can convince Matt he never saw what he saw, Will will give up the fight too. The sooner they forget the incident, the less damage it will do them.
Matt opens his mouth to speak, but after Will glares at him he closes his mouth and says, "Hmmm-mmm."
"I didn't hear you," Marlene says. She holds out a full plate to Will. "Give this to your father."
"He's not my father," Will says, refusing the plate.
"What did you say?" Marlene sets the plate down in the middle of the table and points the spaghetti fork at her son. "What kind of a remark is that?"
"I said, he's not my father. It was a declarative sentence." Will's voice, which has veered between registers for several months, cracks alarmingly.
Marlene flushes, a horizontal band of red traveling across her cheeks and nose, left to right, like a brushstroke. She always does this; couldn't hide her anger if she tried. "Don't be smart with me." And then more plaintively, "What's wrong with you two today?"
"Nothing," Will says fiercely, and the same flush spreads across his face. Anyone can see they are mother and child.
"Then behave like a human being," Marlene says. "Matty?"
"He's not my father either," Matt says, mumbling at a fleck of spaghetti sauce on the tablecloth.
"Out!" Marlene says to the boys. "Take your dinner and go to your room!" She hands Willthe spaghetti fork.
Silently, their faces masks, they stand, arrange spaghetti on their plates with exquisite slowness and care, and pour glasses of milk. Marlene glowers, her arms folded.
Beard watches them climb the stairs. They pretend to be his friends, sometimes, but they're not. Soldiers in an endless war, they've been biding their time, peering across the trenches through their rifle sights, waiting for him to screw up. He imagines them gleeful, behind those masks, thinking they're rid of him at last; they'll have their mother to themselves.
The door to the boys' room bangs closed.
"Now will you tell me what happened?" Marlene asks, handing Beard his dish of spaghetti and ladling some out for herself.
Beard glares at her, still too angry to answer. By what right can they say he's not their father? Where would they be without him? In foster care? Living with a madman, in fear for their lives?
Yet at the bottom of his fury he admits a seed of truth. If he had children of his own - and he doesn't, because the timing was never right - he would recognize them, recognize himself in them, read in their faces the history of his family, of his beleaguered race. And they would see themselves in him. But every time he looks at these two he sees, instead, some unrecognizable Other.
"Why are you so mad at them?"
"They're selfish kids," Beard says. "They think the world revolves around them."
"I wasn't asking for an editorial," Marlene says. "I just want to know what happened." Her cheeks are flushed again.
Beard opens his mouth to confess the truth, but he can't manage to frame it in a way that won't upset Marlene. "It was nothing, really nothing. I got annoyed with them; we'll work it out."
"We're supposed to be a family," Marlene says, her voice shrill. "Why are you excluding me?"
"How dare you!" This is the last straw. "That's why they do it. They know you'll always take their side." He wonders, even as he says this, if it is true.
The color drains from Marlene's face and Beard sees what she will look like as an old woman. It's not a pretty sight. "Oh, give me a break, John," she says, without any energy.
"No," he says, "you give me a break. Why do I have to be perfect?"
Her hands fly up from the elbows and hang, helpless, in the air. "Because you're a grownup and they're kids."
Beard has no response to this. He stands up and shoves his untouched dish toward Marlene, watches spaghetti slosh onto the tablecloth. What do I need this for? he thinks. I can start over with the girl. We'll write the book, it'll be a bestseller.
* * * * *
They don't need him any more, Beard tells himself as he drives to the hotel. Marlene has a good job in the university fund-raising office, thanks to him; she has three close friends and lots of pretty-good friends. The kids are doing fine in school, Will has his soccer and Matt his guitar. He's got them well started in life.
He'd tried to interest them in science. He'd shown them how to make siphons, prisms, bathtub volcanos, the stuff he'd loved as a kid. None of it took. Once he'd brought home a fertilized chicken egg and hatched it in an aquarium under lights. That they enjoyed, but they'd wanted to keep the chick as a pet.
Maybe it was wrong, starting a relationship on an unequal basis - he an up-and-coming academic, Marlene a single mother with a crazy ex-husband and no prospects. She'll expect him to keep rescuing her forever.
But this girl is a go-getter. If he can teach her a little more science, he can make her career with this book. More books will follow after the first one. She won't resent his success - they'll be equally matched. They'll be the Carl Sagan of the new century.
He parks the car in the hotel lot and says "Claire Cordell" to the desk clerk, a slender young man with hair slicked down like an old-fashioned gigolo. "She's not in her room, Dr. Beard," the clerk reports a minute later. "Should I page her in the bar or the restaurant? Was she expecting you?" He smiles evilly at Beard.
Pissant, Beard thinks. "No, thanks."
She's not in the bar - no one is in the bar except a few salesmen and a glum pianist - but he sees her as soon as he pokes his head into the restaurant. She's dressed in something black and clingy, and her ropy hair is piled on top of her head. She's got the tape recorder on the table, she's sipping red wine, and across from her is, of all people, Peter Drummond. Beard has met Drummond a few times, has discussed his research with him, but Drummond's hardly an expert on it. The man is a neurophysicist, not a geneticist. Why would Claire interview him?
Drummond seems to be enjoying the interview immensely. He's smiling his big-toothed grin at Claire, nearly slobbering over her. Beard remembers that he never liked him very much. Drummond is too young, too good-looking, too full of himself. He was lured to the university with obscene quantities of money, accompanied by equally obscene publicity. All the more mysterious, then, why Drummond should consent to a background interview about research outside his specialty.
Beard walks casually toward their table. A hostess rushes up to greet him. "Excuse me, sir -"
"I was just -" Beard explains with a wave, and walks faster, followed by the hostess
As he nears the table he hears Claire say, "If I could spend six months with a first-rate research team, like yours...."
"Can I help you?" the hostess repeats, catching up with him, and Claire and Drummond look up. Claire smiles sweetly.
"Dr. Beard," she purrs. "How nice to see you. Do you know Dr. Drummond?"
Beard shakes hands reluctantly with Drummond.
"Are you having dinner here?" Claire asks.
"Yes - no," Beard says. He's still wearing the sweatsuit he played tennis in, hasn't even taken a shower. "Maybe later. I was just - I saw you both, thought I'd say hello."
"Great," she says. "Sit down and have a drink with us."
Beard sees Peter Drummond roll his eyes. He works his face into an ordinary, friendly smile which he fears looks crazed. "No, I can see you're busy. We'll talk later, all right?"
"Of course," Claire says, giving him her hand in farewell.
Beard edges out of the restaurant, wondering whether the other customers are staring at him. The encounter didn't look bad from the outside, he reassures himself. A friend stopping by a table to say hello. Happens all the time. But his ears are burning. What is she telling Drummond about him? What will Drummond spread around the science faculty?
And how could he not have seen that she had bigger fish to fry?
He walks - slowly, casually - through the hotel lobby, where sliding glass doors part for him. Traces his footsteps to the parking lot but walks past his car, keeps walking to the exit, turns onto the road and walks some more. The hotel is outside of town, on a commercial strip that is thinning into highway. It's dark by now and the air is cool. He heads toward the lights, toward town.
He wonders whether she'll write the article now. No, she has to; the magazine is expecting it. Will she mention that he made a pass at her? That he followed her to her hotel and interrupted her dinner with Drummond? He could deny it. But there are witnesses! He imagines Will and Matt and Peter Drummond springing from behind curtains, as in the old "This is Your Life" shows, to testify to the American public that yes, John Beard is a reprehensible goat. It doesn't bear thinking about.
There must be somewhere he can get something to eat. Before he met Marlene, he used to go out every night. He worked late, until ten or eleven, and after work he went for hamburgers and beers with the other researchers. Before that there was another wife, in another city, which doesn't bear thinking about either. But here, in this town full of students, are hundreds of bars. He'd met Marlene in one of them. He should find it again, see if any of the old crowd are there. They had a good time in those days. Takashi did that thing balancing the beer bottles, Birnbaum recited gene sequences like epic poetry. They had fun. Sometimes he found a girl to take home, sometimes not. He could go back to that life. Only now that he's a full professor, he won't live in that drab faculty housing; he'll buy a condo in the new high-rise near University Park.
Emerging from under a highway overpass, he reaches a strip of stores: hardware store, pharmacy, dry cleaner, and the next storefront is a Tex-Mex restaurant. He peers in the window, deciding whether to go in. The place is nearly deserted. At the table in the window a fat young man is eating a burrito and reading a law casebook. He raises his head and stares dully at Beard.
Beyond the restaurant is a blues bar advertising microbrews. This place is packed. Beard pays the five-dollar cover, submits to having his hand stamped, and pushes through the crowd to the bar. He steps on a girl's foot; she yelps and invites him to dance. He shakes his head. Everyone is young and the music is loud. The sound system is terrible, all he can hear is the thumping bass line. In a corner another girl is throwing up. He leaves without buying a drink.
McHenry's, where he met Marlene, he remembers now, was torn down last year for university housing. He can't go there. She looked so young behind the bar, with her red hair in a ponytail, not even old enough to drink, let alone have two children. Young and blooming. When business was slow she would come out from behind the bar and sit at their table. He always thought she had a thing for Weston, the way she laughed at his jokes and showed her dimples, but Weston had a girlfriend in California, so nothing came of that. Later she said it was only Beard she was interested in.
When Marlene invited him home on her night off he saw that she wasn't a kid after all, that the kids were the two small people on the floor, playing a made-up game in a made-up language. He tried to teach them a real game that evening - checkers, he thinks - but they wanted to use their own rules. Next morning at the breakfast table they stood one on either side of his chair, rubbing shyly against him, waiting for him to take off his glasses so that they could run away with them and examine them. He remembers wanting to make everything right for them.
He keeps walking, bypassing the rest of the bars, and when he reaches home it's late. The lights are off in his house and in the houses on either side. Marlene is standing in the open doorway, looking down the street. She is startled when he appears out of the darkness.
"Are you all right? Where's the car?"
"I'm all right, the car's all right, I just wanted to walk," Beard says.
The worry drains from Marlene's face and is replaced by mixture of relief and tenderness that Beard finds astonishingly beautiful. It seems to him that he hasn't looked at her in months.
She asks, "What have you been doing?"
"Marlene," he says, "when we first met, what on earth did you see in me?"
She wraps her robe tightly around her. "What kind of a question is that? You had that stray-dog appeal, I guess. Like you needed to be taken home and fed." She shrugs. "That writer called a while ago," she adds. "You can call her back tomorrow."
"Go on upstairs," he says. "I'll be there in a few minutes." When she closes the door he walks around the house to the back yard.
The song of crickets rises to greet him; the air, damp and flowersmelling, cools his forehead. In the night garden a firefly marking the perimeter flashes to him: find me here, now here, now here, now here. Teeming life. Deeper into the garden he stops, wrenching great gasping breaths from his gut, leaning over with his head down, hands on his knees, shuddering, as if he's been running, as if he's been drowning.
After the fit passes he takes a last deep breath and straightens up. He sees the ragged line of treetops across the back of the garden, the midnight blue of the sky that hangs over them, the moon perched over his neighbor's garage.
Feeling the urge but not yet ready to go indoors, he unzips and pisses into the shrubbery. He can't see the stream, but he feels the heat rise from it into the cool air, he hears the drops as they puddle around the base of the plants and drain into the earth.
As he waits for his bladder to empty he thinks about the conversation he must have tomorrow with his sons, now asleep in their dormer-windowed room. He is their father. Not because he won them in court, just because he wakes them up in the morning and puts them to bed at night. Once, years ago now, he sat for an hour, blowing his cooling breath on Matt's burned hand, because Matt insisted that was the only way he could fall asleep. Last year he read them the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy at bedtime, every last genealogy of every last hobbit. Who but a father would suffer such indignities? Let them long for Crazy Mike, the Archangel Michael, all they want; he, Beard the scientist, is the father Fate has dealt them.
As for genealogy, human or hobbit, who knows better than he does how little that's worth? In any case, he tells himself, all their genes come from the same pool. Maybe not the same cove, the same sheltered backwater, but the same pond. He and his sons have a common ancestor somewhere in, say, the last four thousand years.
But why stop there? A few more generations, he thinks, and we're all cousins - Claire, Drummond, the fat boy with the burrito. Why stop there? Doesn't all of life on earth spring from the same rocks, the same water? Go further back, to earth condensing out of stardust, and we're related to the universe. Everything's made of the same stuff. There is no other stuff. There is no Other!
Finished, he zips his trousers, turns around to see a lamp lit in the window, and climbs the stairs into the house.