Michael Davis received a MFA in fiction writing from the University of Montana in 2002 and a PhD in English from Western Michigan University in 2010. His stories have appeared in Descant, The San Joaquin Review, The Jabberwock Review, The Black Mountain Review, Eclipse, Cottonwood, The Mid-American Review, Full Circle, Hayden's Ferry Review, The Georgia Review, Storyglossia, The Chicago Quarterly Review, Willow Springs, Arcana, and, most recently, in The Normal School. His first book, Gravity, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in 2009.
Death by a bullet or forty tons of steel comes out to be the same if the bullet is as big as a truck or the truck goes as fast as a bullet. Maybe even not that fast. Maybe half as fast or a fourth as fast. Even a sixteenth as fast will kill you if you cross the street without looking, eighteen wheels bearing down while the driver reads the last page of Time—not so fast that the forty-ton bullet breaks the sound barrier or a land speed record—but all the bones in your body? Yes. And then coma will ensue. And it's likely you will die. And this is what Amanda Caldwell learned when she tried to cross Wilson Street, Kansas City, MO, 64105 on March 19, 2007. Flowers may be sent. Burial service at 8:00. Cards and calls are welcome, but please respect the family's privacy and don't make a house-call with fried chicken appendages, buckets of potato salad, slaw, and rolls from the oven. The family has had all the rolls it can handle. The family being Jim Caldwell, husband.
Unfaithful husband, to be honest. But unless you're Jim or a certain 26-year-old paralegal named Penny Green, you know just as much about the Caldwells as about being bulleted down by a Kenworth in KC in October. Then again, knowing what he knew didn't mean Jim knew all that much. As he sat in his living room the morning after he buried his wife, revelations were not forthcoming, the road to Damascus seemed not so straight and the proverbial scales were still on his eyes. Or at least his way seemed as crooked as the 4700 block of Wilson Street.
You think nobody's coming around the turn. You think the road is clear, and you know where it's headed. Then suddenly there's a moment: you're half-way across and you hesitate; if you're Amanda Caldwell, you think, “What is that noise? It seems like . . . an engine. I'm in the street. I should get out of the way.” But a trick of the buildings has echoed the sound in the other direction, architecture and your own preoccupations conspiring. And then here comes a semi down the pike. By the time you turn, it's too late, or at least this is how Jim imagined it in those little moments he let himself imagine (keep dem scales on dem eyes, sang the Saul of the Sunday school puppet show Jim saw when he was ten—terrifying at the time, terrifying now). Damascus beckoned and, Cosmos willing, Jim would have preferred to remain as blind as possible.
Blind, baby, blind. Rest. Soothing darkness on the eyes. And, from Jim's spot on the living room sofa right then, nothing else seemed like it would ever be as sweet. Or as unobtainable. He'd been on the sofa since dawn. And though he had a week of grief leave off work and he needed sleep like no other, Jim hadn't had it, didn't get it, and couldn't even drug himself out well enough to feel like he'd gotten close to half a night's rest. Your sleep goes first and then your mind. Mind follows sleep, follows—what? Feelings? Guilt post wife-burial? The propensity to stay in one's pajamas all day? To be haunted by the religious puppet shows of one's youth? Jim looked down at his hands resting on his pajamaed thighs resting on the plastic covered sofa and thought: maybe this angst isn't just lack of sleep. Maybe I'm in shock. Maybe, just maybe, a nervous breakdown is in the offing. But then his stomach grumbled. Even he knew that one does not break down with chilled bowls of slaw waiting in the fridge.
His refrigerator contained, as per most recent assessment: 4 buckets potato salad, 3 bowls slaw, assorted body parts approximately 4 chickens, 17 home-baked rolls (indistinguishable now from tan-colored stones or slightly deformed ostrich eggs), full bottle of mustard, and single, luminous fifth of unopened Stolichnaya. Jim could exist on these reserves for almost a week. Then he would have to change out of his pajamas and go to the store. Such was his only plan for the foreseeable future. The orange blink on the answering machine read 30. 30 messages. Probably work and sympathy in an even split.
He would have been able to last even longer if his neighbor, Terri, hadn't come over yesterday with her already anorexic, pre-teen daughter named Julie and beagle named Button and swept all non-sympathy food into a plastic yard bag. “The first thing you need,” Terri said, “is a clean refrigerator. Healing cannot take place around rotten food.” She clucked and dropped in a five-day-old carton of pad thai as Julie held the bag and Button whimpered at it. Terri clucked the way some women will when they know they're overstepping boundaries and it excites them. Jim wanted to say, “Who the fuck are you to cluck and bag my pad thai?” But he was simply too tired, too overcome, too much in need of bed and curative blindness, sleep, silence, amnesty, maybe a little dust collecting on the furniture. That's what was needed for healing to take place: a little dust and some quiet. He looked at Button, and they both knew: the pad thai was still good.
But Terri, with her freckles and her perm, straight out of Lansing, Michigan, shamelessly warping her vowels into diphthongs (“I'm so paeshonate about reading”) and her daughter into loving perhaps the Bible or Reader's Digest, pushed right in and was two hours this time before leaving. And of course certain items once belonging to Amanda went missing. An imitation pearl necklace. A shawl Amanda's great-aunt knitted while living in Estonia. A pair of white pumps—scuffed, yes, but very durable, and Amanda's favorites. Probably a few other things Jim didn't notice. Although, he had to admit the house did seem cleaner after Terri left, having slightly less inside it.
Now Jim stayed on the plastic-covered sofa in his living room, moved as little as possible, and listened to the silence. A white silence. A nothing silence. It's amazing, thought Jim, how silence itself can make one feel something, sound stripped away so that only emotion remains—guilt in his case. What was the sound of guilt? Right then, it sounded like every thought inside his head. Jim was guilty. He'd be that honest with himself. He imagined that, at the precise moment he'd hooked his thumbs into the sides of Penny's blue thong and slid it down over her thighs, Amanda was airborne towards 4623 Wilson—a sandwich shop named Good Willy Pete's. Willy Pete. The nickname for white phosphorous, instant death.
In that moment of displacement, no longer a whole bone in Amanda's body, did she touch prescience? Did she experience the sort of universal connectivity Zen masters feel when they hit Samadhi—the instant knowledge and acceptance of all things simultaneously? And, if so, did Amanda forgive him for having a shuddering orgasm while she lay dead and bloody in the wash of the ambulance siren (or worse: could she forgive Penny's orgasm—as violent as ever with screams and sheets kicked off the bed and a deep sigh at the end)? Jim wondered. But who believes in Samadhi? Who believes in anything beyond physical imperatives, beyond the demands of bodies, bellies, and bowels?
It was October. At least Jim could believe in that. But even the weather seemed like it was trying to put something over on him. The light of Kansas had gone from moth-gray to the reissued, colorized version: winter-into-summer, but not really, not yet. The colors seemed faded, like a clumsy lie, a scale masquerade perpetrated over the city to make people feel twice as bad about themselves. The dead moss that had been trapped by the snow. The bodies of all the little creatures who'd used bad judgment and dug their burrows too late: death in the afternoon. No one wants that.
Jim had overheard someone in the office call it a “false summer,” but the important thing was that the days were suddenly longer. The sun was coming up sooner, warmer, and those who fell for the big lie were starting to learn how to like each other again—good for selling car insurance (what Jim did), good for mental health (what Jim felt he and the greater metropolitan district of Kansas City could use more of). He told himself it was also good to have a little more light before work, light to get ready or to do some anti-gut calisthenics. But Jim didn't do anything except sit on the plastic-covered sofa and use his binoculars to look through the space between the drapes at Terri, naked in her window every morning.
Jim was doing it right now. Her living room window was directly across the street and, if there were curtains or blinds, she never used them. The sun had come up two hours ago and maybe she felt no one sane would be out early, peeping on her as she squeezed lime juice on her feet. She was a little, pale woman, bony, with a large, unshaved bush and a tattoo of a dolphin diving out of her navel into it. Something vaguely repulsive about her—the idea that her body still smelled bad after a shower, deep rot stuck into the skin.
Jim hated his fascination. There she was this morning, and here he was on the sofa, her faithful audience, as Terri put her right foot in the metal mixing bowl and held the wedge of lime over it. Guilt? Hell yes—to every moral compass point at all times, his personal latitude and longitude telling him here was the path straight down into misery. He should open his worthless eyes: the road to Damascus, by any other name, would still be less than straight. But dem scales dey do fall, and Jehovah he do call, and den you gots to change yo name to Paul. The words of a badly sewn, badly spoken, Catholic sock-puppet twenty-five years ago made Jim hate himself. His wife had just died after two weeks of coma; he hadn't called his mistress in all that time; and he was peeping on a woman who stank.
Of course, thought Jim, stink is relative and takes many forms.
The end tables beside the sofa had white drop cloths on them. He felt for his cell phone under the drop cloth on the table closest to him while looking through the binoculars. The phone might still have had a charge, maybe a little charge, enough for a short call to Penny. Dust collected quickly in the house. Jim really didn't mind; though, Terri had fouped down the drop cloths on the second day of Amanda's coma, newly arrived on one of her healing-and-stealing missions with Wally, her husband. Wally was trying to get Jim to move in with them for a bit. (“Come on, Jim, you're depressed. Anyone can see you're depressed. And you're not gonna use this furniture. When was the last time you sat on that sofa? You live at the office.”) But Jim did sit on the sofa, didn't he. That day Terri and Wally both left in a huff.
Jim found the lump of his cell phone beneath the drop cloth, fished it out, and turned it on. It had one bar of energy left. He speed-dialed Penny while Terri switched feet and turned, her naked ass looking like a shriveled white peach in the window. Jim kept his ringers off. Had Penny even tried to call? She would have called his cell out of habit, not the land line with its blinking lights and speaker that sent voices throughout the house. Penny's voicemail: “This is 216-1242, and I'm not here. If this is a legal emergency, please dial my office phone at 376-7934. Thank you.” Cheerful Penny, happily letting you know she is already prepared for your legal emergency. But what about emotional emergencies, moral exigencies, ethical catastrophes? The beep. Jim's voice filled the silence: “It's me. Have you called? I didn't see messages on my cell. If you haven't called, I don't know how to interpret that. If you have, what did you say? Could you repeat it? There are drop cloths on everything. Call me.”
Terri stretching in front of the window now, little hips jutting, dolphin in its perpetual dive. There was no way she could see him set back as he was across the living room, the drapes only open about six inches. Yet Jim had the sense she knew she was being watched and got off on it. Sometimes, she stretched. Sometimes, she ran a hand over her little breasts. Something deliberately pornographic in that, in how slowly she did it. But wasn't that what every voyeur thought: voyeuee secretly wants it? Yeah, right. Jim put the binoculars down and looked at the carpet.
It took Penny an hour to call him back, texting him first that she'd had two hellish weeks because the attorneys she worked for had just gone to trial but how was he holding up? When her text came through, Jim had already made the herculean effort of showering and walking to the newsstand three blocks away. He bought a pack of Camels, even though he hadn't smoked in years, and the current issue of Time. It occurred to him, as he walked away from the stand, that this must have been the same issue the trucker had been reading when he'd hit Amanda. When he answered Penny's call, the first thing he said was: “I'm feeling very strange. I just bought a Time magazine. I think, the one the driver was reading. I don't know why I did that. Am I depressed?”
Silence on the other end. Then: “How are you, Jim?”
“Everybody said the guy was reading Time. But I don't know how everybody knew.”
“It was in the paper,” Penny said. “You should read the paper instead. You sound ill.”
“I'm fine. Or maybe I'm not.” Standing on the sidewalk in front of the red-brick two-story Amanda's father had bought them 11 years earlier, Jim realized he'd locked his keys inside. His hand came out of his pocket holding the pack of Camels.
“You sound high. Do you get high, Jim? You never told me that.”
“You know what I just realized? I don't own a single book of matches.”
“You're high, Jim.” She hung up.
Jim studied the pack of cigarettes and thought: am I really going to smoke these?
There might have been stranger moments, stranger contortions of fate in Jim's subterranean life than having Penny Green for a mistress, quiet time with her often being equivalent to juggling baskets filled with venomous serpents while trying to emote in a language no one in your country understands. Such moments might have existed; though, none of them were even close to mind as Jim stood arm-in-arm with her at the crypt of a family neither of them knew. The Blumenthals.
It was a very special experience, special and sacred and silent, both of them standing there now for 5 minutes before the entrance to the Blumenthals' walk-in crypt. It was designed like a miniature chapel with stained glass windows and a rotting brass gate. Jim looked up into a cherub's open mouth, the cheap marble gone black with age, and asked himself what they were doing standing there well on the other side of the graveyard from Amanda's plot.
But then Penny began to cough, and her coughs transformed slowly into laughter, so that Jim felt compelled to ask: “Have you lost it?”
“It's just so sad and sweet—and so ridiculous.”
“Laughing at people's graves?”
“Shit, come on, Jim. It has little Roman columns in there.”
“Death gets emotional. People die. They want things a certain way.”
Penny looked at him and, still grinning, paused, trying to show that she was sobering up from the humor of it all. Green eyes, auburn hair, and an almost healthy salon tan. In jeans and Jim's UCLA sweatshirt, Penny looked like someone's slightly hot high school girlfriend who couldn't take anything seriously. And this was so humorous. Everything was suddenly funny to her now that Amanda called plot A-47 in the Broadview Cemetery home.
“Look,” said Jim, as they walked between the graves, “we don't have to do this. I'm not sure I want to do this.”
Penny kept her eyes on the plots as she walked, careful not to step on them. “You need closure. And I need to see it.”
But Penny just shrugged as if the why should be obvious—as if wondering why was just plain stupid.
They drifted through the sarcophagi and forests of crumbling angels and crypts and newer headstones with perfect full-color reproductions of family photos lasered into them. Some grave markers were barely legible; others would always be, graveyard technology having kept pace with the times. The state-of-the-art was no less ghoulish with its surgically precise script and panels of hologrammed faces that seemed to lean forwards if you stared at them.
“2-D holograms on the gravestones today, holographic projections tomorrow,” said Penny as she held Jim's arm and tried to nuzzle his neck. She stood 6'2”, four inches taller than him, and whenever she went in for a nuzzle, she had to stoop a little. It always seemed wrong when she tried it. But what seems right when milling through a cemetery with your mistress on the way to visit your newly planted wife?
“I don't know,” said Jim. “Maybe it makes people happy to stand in front of gravestones and see their loved ones.”
“You can't be serious.” Penny let go of him and stopped. “This is the tackiest shit I've ever seen. One of these days, all those headstones will have projectors. It won't be ghosts you see wandering around. It'll be projections of people taken from home movies—look, there's grandpa kicking the soccer ball.”
Jim suddenly felt very tired. “I guess times change and so do grave styles.” Penny seemed so young standing there, talking with her hands. Though their age difference was only about ten years, it had felt like such a little thing when they were sneaking around behind Amanda's back. But now, thought Jim, Penny wasn't the side dish anymore. That's why she was probably so amused—nervous, actually. The question was: could she swing it as the main course? Did they even want that?
“Oh God.” Penny leapt forward. She'd been standing squarely in the middle of a plot, only aware of it when the dirt below her feet started to compress. She grabbed his arm again.
“Isn't that funny? Don't you think that's funny? I was sinking into the ground over there. Night of the Living Dead in reverse, man.” Penny laughed again. Her grip on Jim's arm was interfering with his circulation.
“You just called me 'man.'”
“What?” said Penny.
They walked between the graves more carefully after that, as if they were in a minefield and had a map they knew wasn't completely correct. Some hidden mistake, thought Jim, like Amanda, hidden now under the ground. He felt as though he'd killed her himself, as though he'd been driving the truck, reading Time. When they reached plot A-47, Jim's arm had gone numb below Penny's grip.
In the pressure of all the last minute arrangements, Jim had opted for one of the headstones the funeral parlor already had in stock—a pale marble slab, taller and somewhat narrower than he would have liked. Still, they'd done a good job of lasering the inscription and there was more than enough space on the right side to fill in Jim's death date. The stone had been polished and sprayed with some chemical to give it a mirror-like sheen. When Penny and Jim walked up, they could see their reflections in its surface. It read: CALDWELL in an arc where the top of the stone tapered to a sharp point. Beneath, on the left side: IN LOVING MEMORY: AMANDA LUCILLE CALDWELL, 21 AUGUST 1975—5 APRIL 2008. Custom inscriptions cost more, but the “In Loving Memory” came free.
“Look at that,” said Penny. “You're name's already on there. It's like you're half dead.” She smirked, let go of him, and stepped up to the base of the plot, taking care that her black boots didn't touch the freshly packed earth. She crossed her arms.
The right side of the headstone read: JAMES DOUGAL CALDWELL, 18 OCTOBER 1973—. Bob, the salesman at the funeral parlor, had left off the “In Loving Memory” for Jim—perhaps out of disgust that Jim hadn't forked over for something more elaborate.
“We can do Latin.” Bob: obese with a comb-over and a little brush moustache going gray to match his eyes.
“Latin? I don't speak Latin.”
“Nobody speaks Latin,” said Bob, “but it's classy.”
“My wife wouldn't have cared. She didn't speak it.”
“How do you know she didn't speak it? You'll never know now.”
“No options,” said Jim.
“Non gustibus disputatum est,” said Bob.
“I'm supposed to feel things,” said Penny, staring down at the grave, her voice far away as if she were only now realizing what had happened. “And you're supposed to say things that make me feel better.”
Yes, thought Jim. The way a false summer's supposed to go. The way he was supposed to stand tall and set himself aright. The way to feel good again at the foot of plot A-47. The way to take your mistress home and fuck her and not have to see your wife's face looking down at you with the same knowing sadness you carry in your heart. The guilt. Jim's very own Damascus, hazy in the distance.
“It's fine,” said Jim. “Everything will be fine. Look at the sky. It's beautiful today.”
Penny didn't look, but she nodded. “I feel sad.” She addressed A-47 as if the dirt had repacked itself in the image of a question mark or even in the shape of Amanda herself—rising up, finally, wronged so completely and so deeply, so supernaturally, by all the blue thongs and unholy orgasms of a pale afternoon.
Jim and Penny had pushed the limits of their summer in October, stress-tested the specs of adultery, left the wreck smoking and twisted. And didn't it lead Amanda right to the grave? Wife cannonball: directly through phosphoric sandwich shop glass, straight into eternity.
“I feel sad because I never really knew her,” said Penny, crossing her arms. “And I think we could have been real friends after the divorce. If she could have been a big enough person to realize she was wrong for you.”
Jim put his hands in his pockets and looked at his shoes.
With that much cheating on my part, thought Jim, wrong was it. No options: Amanda didn't know Latin and never would. She didn't know the full and considerable dimensions of Jim's bastardy and never would. She didn't know the crooked line of Penny's mouth as Penny contemplated real friendship. She'd never know how the crooked road to Damascus could get.
“You would have been great friends.”
Right. At this point, one more lie wasn't going to unfuck Jim's moral gyroscope. When did I stop feeling anything but obligation towards Amanda, thought Jim—a heavy, dismal responsibility, only relieved in the release of an extra-marital sneak. And now guilt, thick and strong.
Penny twisted the heel of her boot into the dirt and frowned. “I'm a very social person. She would have wanted to know me, I think.”
Great friends. The thought of it was as absurd as dying in the air, Amanda still back in the space-time shift, flying through the last digit of 64105, Wilson Street, City of Fountains. Plate glass of Good Willy Pete's shattering. Amanda frozen in Jim's mind at some indeterminate point of near-death. Cuckolded wife caught defying gravity in a quantum of dead/not-dead, broken/not-broken. Undead. Unbroken. But soon to be uncuckolded directly into the matter-of-factness of A-47. Jim could see it all so clearly. He could see the last page of Time half down from the driver's eyes, the driver's mouth half open. No, Jim thought to himself, not great friends. Just regret. And those scales fall off your eyes.
“Her name's Amanda,” said Jim.
“What?” said Penny.
The rain, it raineth. And the dust, it falleth. On all the heads of the living and the dead, or at least on those unfortunate enough to be caught outside without an umbrella. But not Terri, who bustled through Jim's front door like she owned the place—frozen grin, enormous orange parasol dripping on the hardwood, eyebrows up with dangerous intent.
“Wally's in the car,” she said. “Get your coat. We're taking you out.”
Jim. The sofa of grief. The pajamas of regret. “We could have gone yesterday. It was nice yesterday.”
“Oh, get over it. It doesn't rain inside the restaurant.”
“How about tomorrow?”
“How about right now?” Terri opened the closet by the door and pulled out the moth-eaten topcoat Jim never used. “Here,” she said. “You're depressed. Put this on.”
Sudden downpours came and went throughout the false summer and so did Terri, both unstoppable. Jim was about to comply—robotically, maybe following the path of least resistance, because, let's face it, slaw has a half-life of at least 15 days and he could salt the chicken down—when he realized there was one element that would not keep. The Strontium-38 that would now burn through the floor, the ground, the water table, and into the planet core, resulting in immediate global meltdown: Penny emerging from the hallway, naked but for Amanda's pink silk bathrobe open down the front.
Terri's look of horror.
Penny's amusement, boredom.
Terri's look of anger.
“Who's this?” said Terri.
Terri looked at Jim, disgusted by all the evil in the world. “I thought you were depressed.”
He stood and accepted the coat. “We're going to dinner with Terri and her husband,” he said to Penny.
“We are?” Penny ran her fingers through her hair, yawned again. “Okay.”
“I'll be in the car.” Terri pivoted and stalked out, down the front steps and across the lawn to Wally in their burgundy minivan. Terri's umbrella hovered above her in the rain, an enormous orange slice halo.
“Are you fucking her?” asked Penny.
“She's got a kid and a husband named Wally. He's out in the car.”
Penny looked at Jim and licked her lips. “Right,” she said.
Dinner was a steakhouse named Jessica's. Steak, according to Wally, builds red blood cells and encourages certain brain enzymes, making it better than Prozac for those who are on the verge of doing themselves in. Wally ordered two for himself and two for Jim. Penny, a vegan, couldn't even eat the salad. And Terri, who normally wasn't any kind of vegetarian, had suddenly become one.
“I can't eat the salad here, either,” she said. “So unhealthful.”
“Can't I order the Feta Green Garden Plate—just hold the feta and keep the garden?” asked Penny.
“No changes or substitutions,” said Caylee, the 17-year-old waitress with highlights and an orange bed tan slightly darker than Terri's umbrella. “There's a wrap place at the other end of the mall if you want to go there.”
“Two steaks,” said Wally. “That's how you do it.”
“That's a lot of meat,” said Jim.
“For someone as depressed as you, it's a necessity.”
“I guess I'll have a Diet Coke,” said Penny.
“Make that two,” said Terri.
Two was the magic number that evening at Jessica's: two vegetarian dilemmas and two plates of tenderized ribeye. The two lenses of Wally's bifocals steamed with mushroom soup and two awkward hours of conversation that went nowhere, most of it centered on the intricacies of Wally's job as a high school math teacher and the choice between serotonin reuptake inhibitors or natural healing through beef. Penny and Terri said little, one staring off to the left, the other to the right, while both surreptitiously looking each other over. Terri was pale and intense, the freckles on her brow furrowed at Caylee's back. Penny, chin in hand, played with her straw, making sure to yawn every few minutes.
And then it happened: the key moment, the passé partout unlocking all of Terri and Wally's plans in one ugly revelation, the reason for the whole tired parade. It wasn't the global thermonuclear holocaust Jim had been expecting between Terri and Penny. Rather, it was something sadder and more pedestrian. As soon as he recognized it, Jim felt he should have seen it coming.
Wally finished the last bide of Steak No. 1 and said, “Say, Jim, what are you doing in that big house now all by yourself?”
“I guess I'm on vacation for a while.”
“Exactly. You know, I think the sanest option for you, especially in your delicate mental state, is to get somewhere smaller. Somewhere positive and safe.”
“He doesn't need to be committed,” said Penny.
Wally cleaned his glasses with the corner of a napkin. Then he put them back on so he could see Penny more clearly.
“Of course not.” He peered at her and smiled. “No one's suggesting that.”
Penny sighed, as if that was exactly what she expected him to say, and got up. “Ladies' room,” she said. Wally, Terri, and Jim watched her walk across the restaurant. She was wearing tight jeans and a white blouse, silver bangles, and a leather belt that had an enormous turquoise buckle. Her black boots. The faintest sway in her walk.
“That's a fine looking woman you found there, Jim,” said Wally.
“Is she?” Terri looked at Wally, her face blank. Wally looked back at her with the same expression. Neither of them blinked. Then Wally shrugged and cut another piece of steak.
A few moments of blessed non-conversation ensued in which Jim realized he'd eaten 2 bites so far. He dug in, thinking to himself, somewhere, their daughter, Julie, must be with a babysitter. This means we're on the clock. Maybe no one will speak and the evening will end. Yes, no one will speak. The evening will end.
Caylee stopped by, as tanned and dyed waitresses named Caylee in steakhouses must, asking her notepad if everyone was doing “fantastic.”
“Yes,” said Jim. “We are.”
Then Caylee went without a sound. And Terri put her hand over Jim's to prevent him from focusing on cutting a piece of steak.
Maybe no one will speak.
“What Wally meant earlier is that we could take that barn off your hands. We'd do it all, take care of everything.”
“Right,” said Wally, the jovial beef healer. “You'll feel a whole lot better moving on.”
“I think I'll manage.”
Terri's grip tightened. “We'd be doing it for you.”
“Did I miss anything?” asked Penny, frowning as she sat back down, eyes on Terri's hand. Terri released the death-grip and slouched. Wally waved for the check. But, at
that exact moment, Caylee was across the room, leaning into the busboy. The four of them watched her laugh. They watched her push against the busboy's chest. Jim thought her laugh sounded like a Kathleen of bells sampled up to an unnatural octave.
“Nice kid,” said Wally. “She doesn't know we exist.”
Terri rested her face in the palm of her hand.
For the first time all night, Penny flashed a grim smile, entertained at last. Jim resumed his inner chant, his very own mystical formula. No one will speak, he said to himself. The evening will end.
Amanda was rapidly disappearing from the house. This should have been reassuring in some false summer kind of way. The mistress moves in and the wife moves out. But Penny was only spending nights. Her toothbrush stayed back at her apartment. And, like Terri, she had begun to take home souvenirs—a fur-lined hat, some rings, various scarves. Jim had lost track. Soon all traces of Amanda would be scoured from the rooms. This should have felt good, moving on in the Wally sense. All Jim needed to add was a freezer full of steaks to reach perfect enlightenment. But who believes in Samadhi?
They were in the bedroom. They'd been talking about Wordsworth.
“He was a freak. What did he know about nature? He had a child's soul.”
“It's not nature,” said Penny. “It's nurture. Like Tintern Abbey. That's a beautiful poem. He cheated with Keats' wife.”
Jim and Penny: tangled yet again in the afterglow of a long night, warm false summer light, and wind moving the curtains. Maybe no one in the world remembered yesterday's downpour but Jim. No one in the world would expect the next one. The bedroom smelled like Amanda, but also like sex.
“I don't know. I went to college. I never heard anything about Keats' wife. People took advantage of Wordsworth. He just wanted to be happy.”
“Wordsworth was a freak. He had gangbangs.”
Maybe Samadhi is about getting a new identity, thought Jim. About leaving your old life, old wife, behind, no beef required. Tell a story about yourself. Change your name to Paul. Then change that, too. Rearrange the letters. Put them up on the wall. Make something new. Realize you're blind. Be blind. Then let the scales fall, all your little Catholic sock-puppets dancing in a row.
“Nobody had gangbangs before 1960.”
“Gangbangs,” said Penny. “Lots of gangbangs. And no lubricant back then.”
Okay. Gangbangs. But my name's still up there, he said to himself, each stroke and stave burning with the truth: I did this somehow. It's my fault she's dead. The writing on the wall: rearrange it, rearrange it. Make yourself into something new. Shape it into pictures, the image of a new name reconstructed in lines like Pick-up Sticks or a bindrune or a cattle brand.
“Baudelaire would show up sometimes,” she said. “And he was filthy.”
Make an “A” for adultery. What did it matter? He could burn it right into his ass and it wouldn't matter. His wife would still be dead. A cheater would still be a cheater. A mistress, a mistress. Adultery, an absolute value. Amanda gone.
“But the spontaneous overflow of inner feeling?” he asked. “Who coined that phrase? It couldn't have been Wordsworth.”
“It so was.”
Don't think of your dead wife. Put the branding iron in the fire instead and drop your pants. But be sure to bend over so there's no confusion about what's actually getting branded, bindruned, picked up, rearranged. You, the main man, the One Who Doesn't Believe in Samadhi, with an image of yourself burned into your own ass: call it self-branding for the enlightenment-impaired. Call it getting over the guilt with tangled bed sheets and a larcenous thong-wearing mistress. Call it a little pain to cure your ills. A big glowing “A.” That's your name now. That or Paul.
“What about Hawthorne? You ever learn about Hawthorne?”
“It's not all about nature and feelings, Jim. It's about fucking. Don't change the subject.”
“You ever read The Scarlet Letter?”
“Wordsworth used his cock like a lightning rod. Don't fuck with my interpretation,” said Penny. “I was an English major.”
She started untwisting the sheets at the foot of the bed.
It made no sense to Jim, cocks and lightning rods. And he wanted it to make sense. He really did. But what could one say to an English major? She'd taken the classes. He got up and walked out of the bedroom—the bedroom that still smelled like Amanda, under the sex, her perfume, her favorite brand of mothballs. Penny didn't care. She'd decided that since she and Amanda were close spiritual friends, she could sleep in Amanda's bed, wear her Eau de Hillary Duff With Love, her silk bathrobes, her dresses.
Jim thought: “You're no Amanda” the way he used to think “You're no Penny.” All the lies he'd told. Now he could have sex with Penny freely, legitimately, as a therapeutic measure, even. Wordsworth and filthy Baudelaire would be proud. Jim was the Wordsworth of the bedroom. But no. More like Hawthorne with that big, red adulterous “A,” the bindrune of his new name, pulsing on his ass, stinging like a cattle brand.
I don't care about Samadhi, he said to himself. Then he forced himself to think about fried chicken. Jim took a drumstick from the fridge. It felt heavy and unnatural, like it had taken on weight since being put in there. He sniffed it. He got the pack of Camels off a table. 18 sticks of friendly self-hatred there. 18 plenary indulgences. Then the couch. The lighter. The binoculars. Jim had to hold the lit cigarette between the pinky and ring finger of his left hand, his drumstick hand, while he held the binoculars in his right. Take a bite off the drumstick. Take a puff of self-carcination. Make a confession to your wife still flying through the zip code.
Look through the field glasses at Terri in her front room having a fight with Wally. Terri in the window, gesturing. Pounding her little freckled fist on the table, her frizz out of control like the hackles of a wolf. Her furrowed brow. And Wally looking completely different now, menacing, looming, face red, no glasses, no beef to make things right. No gangbang.
These people are in hell, thought Jim. But he reminded himself that it was all just bodies, bellies and, of necessity, bowels. No enlightenment. No spontaneous overflow unless it was of the most unfortunate Baudelairian kind. Filthy, Charles, what were you thinking? Gangbangs will give you syphilis. While Amanda gives good guilt. But let her fly. Right through the zip code. “Two steaks, Wally,” Jim said to himself as he watched a miniature tumbleweed of ash fall from the end of the cigarette and roll down his pajama front. “That's how you do it.”
Penny was beside him, then. She yanked the binoculars out of his hands and went over to the space between the curtains. “This is what you do? This is what you spend your time doing?”
Jim placed the drumstick bone on the sofa cushion beside him and looked at it. The cigarette was burning down near the filter. He took a long drag.
“Does she cry in the window like this every morning?”
“No,” said Jim. “Sometimes she washes her feet.”
“Wow. That's hilarious. You're a sick fuck.”
“I'm not a sick fuck. Wally says I'm depressed.”
Penny's smile was forged from a strange alloy, one part disgust, one part superiority, as if she'd suspected his sick fuckery all along and just got proof. She put the binoculars down on one of the dropclothed tables.
“Well,” she said, “I'll leave you two alone. Maybe she'll do her feet. You can peel one off and then you won't feel so depressed about your dead wife. Dead. Understand?”
“Her name's Amanda,” said Jim, which made Penny laugh, hard, hurt, and cruel all at once.
When Penny left his house that morning, he went into a haze. Bad chicken. A certain exhaustion. He almost went back to bed. But, when he entered the bedroom, Jim realized that she'd taken a number of Amanda's pictures with her. Maybe all of them. Jim didn't know.
Penny's message. “If this is a legal emergency . . .” The bedroom had been dark, but he could make out the little ring on the bureau where Hillary Duff's love perfume used to sit.
“Yes,” he shouted after the beep, raising his voice for the first time since he could remember. “Yes, this is a fucking legal emergency,” Theft. Of his property. Of the pictures of his one and only wife, first and last, sickness and health, dead, undead, chicken, fuckery, or any other way. “Bring her damn pictures back or I'm calling the police. And don't fuck with my interpretation. I'm not an English major.” Jim stood shaking, listening to the silence. Waiting. For what, he didn't know. But somewhere on him: a filthy, red “A.” Wordsworth, Hawthorne, and Charlie B., pants around their ankles.
His new identity. He could feel it so clearly. The pain when the scales fall off. The shaking and listening and breathing in Amanda-under-sex and thinking about trucks and Time and Damascus moments and all the Catholic sock-puppets of the world, singing how you have to change your name, dancing a chorus for the blind.
Later, he'd go back to Plot A-47 to say something to Amanda under 4 inches of hardening water, heavy snow promised by midnight. The firmament over Broadview Cemetery would be colored like a battleship with seizures of ice rain and 4 inches of standing muck that wouldn't run into the graves. The false summer would have suddenly given way to inevitable winter, no Samadhi possible. But Jim would feel that the worst, the true winter, was still on its way. It would enter with a deep cold, a painful desolation, killing and encasing and turning everything numb. And then the road would be deadly with darkness. And once the dark arrived, it would settle in for the season.