Spin out of Orbit
Something wasn't right. He knew that much. The old tricks weren't working and he hadn't even realized it until it was too late. He was abandoned, he had abandoned himself. He felt he was entirely to blame, if blame was the point, but he didn't think that it was anymore.
This air. This November air.
He brushed his teeth. He got dressed. He went to work. All outward signs of normalcy, of an ordinary day following ordinary day in an ordinary life in an ordinary time. He wasn't fooling anybody. He was out of step, it came off him like a smell. So this. So now this.
Estill County Number 3
Late January in Lexington, Kentucky. 1999. I'm sitting with my dad and my grandmother around her ancient drop-leaf kitchen table, listening to the winds hit the side of the house. Listening as they pound at the corrugated steel of the back-porch roof, as they whistle at the glass-paneled door. It's still early, and nobody's saying all that much. This table is huge, solid oak, and I'd sat at it longer than at any other table in my life. I'd sat it since I was two years old, when my parents returned to Kentucky from the chaos of the Lower East Side. Every Christmas growing up, every second Thanksgiving dinner when we weren't out at Doris Jean's. Fourth of July. Hard bacon and weak coffee and decades of the Herald-Leader. Countless games of solitaire. Those last breakfasts at the end of summer vacation, before we'd climb into to car and head north, or west, or later east. Before we'd head back home to wherever we were living then. We'd come back to this table, and this was the last time I was going to be sitting at it. But I know that going it, so it's more or less OK.
It's shaping up to be a cold, bleached-out kind of day. According to my Grandfather’s Southern States thermometer, the one he brought home from work and nailed to the porch railing outside the window, it’s seventeen degrees. But with the wind it’s maybe half that. There’s a solid wall of cold air pushing its way across the whole Eastern half of the country, from Missouri all the way up to Nova Scotia. The TV weathermen were going crazy with the attention they were getting all of a sudden, going crazy with a kind of manic anticipation. My dad keeps checking in with the airport. He’s got to fly back to Los Angeles in the afternoon, and I’m supposed to be in New York already.
My grandmother has saddled me with a bright blue, five pound box of Ruth Hunt candy, as a present to my wife. She presented a similar box to her once, on her one and only trip down here. My wife took a few bites, smiled and lied and said that she liked it. Ever since then it’s been a mainstay of my Grandmother’s relationship to her, we’d get canisters of the things every Christmas, so sweet they make your fillings hum out in pain.
“It’s fine,” he says, hanging up the telephone again and nodding across the room. “Everything’s fine.”
My grandmother purses her lips and takes another sip of coffee, leaving a fresh bright lipstick mark on the edge of her cup. My grandmother is a lipstick fiend. Same brand and color she used for the last sixty years, ruby red against her white powdered skin.
“Well, if that’s what they say.”
“That’s what they say.”
My grandfather’s still asleep. It’s not even 12:30, but he’s already well into his afternoon nap. He just turned eighty-three, and a few years before he’d abandoned any pretence of routine. He could be wide awake at four o’clock in the morning, dead to the world at noon. My grandmother, on the other hand, is thin and frenetic and never sleeps at all. Instead, she fusses around him nervously whenever he’s awake. She re-arranges his pillows, organizes his medication, hums to herself and smokes like a chimney all the while. The cigarettes she leaves in the sandbag ashtrays around the kitchen all have that same red lipstick band around them.
“I’ll just see if he’s up,” she says, rising from the table. “It’s time he woke up anyway.”
My wife’s in New York, packing our things away into cardboard boxes. Calling her mother in Dublin and her sister in London and her brother in San Francisco. We’re moving soon, soon enough to have quit our jobs already. We’re flying across the ocean for a year at least, maybe more, and I’m here to say goodbye.
One whole hallway of the house is given over to family photos, stretching back to before the Civil War. Lean angular faces with a particularly Scotch-Irish wariness in the way they regard the camera. This expression remains constant down through the generations, a distrust of the situation in general and of the photographer in particular. There isn’t a lot of smiling on display. Other, more recent photographs. Cousins and uncles, great aunts down in Tennessee. The doctor in Boston, the lawyer down in Frankfort, the sister who died in the fire. The same faces smiling out or looking stern and distant down the generations. Great-uncles and third cousins disappear as babies grow into recognizable cousins and nieces and others disappear completely. My Grandfather’s same high forehead, my grandmother’s cornflower-blue eyes. Some relatives I don’t know, never met, just names and faces and snatches of a story. A car crash in Knoxville, a new wife in Minnesota. In-laws and boyfriends come and go. I’m up there, too. History history history. Wedding photo. The older I get, the less I come to resemble them. Somewhere along the way I start to take after my mom’s side of the family, serious snowbound Indiana Germans. Darker, heavy-shouldered, broad faces and wide hips. But here we are, family.
“It’s picking up,” my dad says as a fresh gust of wind rises up and rattles the porch roof again. “This is definitely picking up.”
He gets up from the table to call the airport again.
This is a war story, though I don't know how to tell it. This is a story about my grandparents and my great-aunt Doris Jean, in the middle of World War Two. February, 1943. Stalingrad, Churchill and the VJ bomber. Rommel in North Africa. Eisenhower’s in London, Patton’s trapped in the Ardennes, in the Battle of the Bulge, and my grandfather’s trapped with him.
My Great-Grandfather was a railroad man. He was the Night General Dispatcher with the L & N railroad his entire working life, and stationed for most of it in Etowah, Tennessee. That’s where he met his wife, a McMinn County girl seventeen years old, and that’s where his children were born. There were only a couple of passenger trains a week that went through Etowah back then, it was mostly freight and coal, and if you missed one, you were just out of luck. Because of that, all the men in my family feel compelled to arrive at any station, any airport, any terminal at all at least four hours early. We always bring plenty to read.
When my grandfather and his sister were still very young, in 1916 or thereabouts, the family lived for a while in a dismantled Pullman sleeper that had been shunted off to a side rail at the Etowah depot. They slept in the berths along the center aisle, one up one down. One Saturday afternoon, while the family was out walking around the McMinn County countryside, a coal train barreled in through the Etowah depot and collided with the sleeper car. The coal train's engineer was killed outright, and it was blind luck my Great Grandfather and his family weren’t killed as well. They were were out walking when it happened, came back to find their house destroyed and their things scattered all around the tracks. But he was from Kentucky, and before he retired he managed to transfer back. They put him in charge of the Ravenna rail yards, in charge of the shops, the telegraph office, the yard, the passenger and freight stations. And he bought a decent sized house just up the river in Irvine.
Two women, not much more than girls, my grandmother and my great-aunt, are waiting the whole thing out in the front parlor of that house in Estill County, Kentucky. They’re both about twenty-two years old, and by this time they’ve known each other for a while already. They had met at a secretarial college in Bowling Green three years before. My Grandmother had gone there after two years up in Lexington at the University of Kentucky, when the last of the family money eventually ran out. For Doris Jean Secretarial College was another step away from Etowah. They shared a room in a boarding house on Russellville Road, Doris Jean’s brother came up on a visit unannounced, and that was more or less that. My Grandparents married on a bright day in May, and Doris Jean’s standing right beside them in the photo in the hall.
Now it’s 1943 and they’re both married, both pregnant. My grandmother to Doris Jean’s brother and Doris Jean to a Butler County boy named Hack. Hack was small and wiry and an enthusiastic dancer, Doris Jean claimed him the minute she laid eyes on him and the Air Force claimed him not long after that. Nobody in Irvine didn’t have somebody in the war. Seven months previous my Grandfather was stationed in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, training in demolitions and getting ready for Eisenhower’s big push east into Germany. He didn’t know exactly when they were going, but they knew it had to be close. The food was getting better. My Grandmother dolled herself up in a new red dress from Cincinnati and hopped on a train to meet him. He had a weekend pass, they spent it in a hotel in Harrisburg, and two weeks later my Grandfather was on a troop ship bound for England. My Grandmother had returned to Kentucky convinced she was pregnant, she claimed to know right away.
People were dying all the time, people were dying in ridiculous ways. Jeeps turned over on their drivers, gunners shot the tails off the planes flying beside them. Sailors were washed overboard by freak waves in an otherwise glassy sea. Dying was as easy as falling out of bed. 2,200 men killed in the invasion of Sicily, mid-July, 2,200 more telegraphs. Fresh gold stars going up. St. Charles, Illinois. Athens, Georgia. Redmond, Washington. Some houses had two, that wasn’t so uncommon. Some had three. It was a like a lottery nobody wanted to win. The telegrams were sent out from Graves Registration in Washington to the little telegraph office in the Ravenna rail yard, gold stars went up on windows and front doors across Kentucky, one for every death in the family. Some had three. It was Ernest’s job to send them out, his job to send the men out to knock on the doors. It was a difficult job, but he didn’t take it home at night. He hadn’t grown up here, after all, and while he felt for these people, he had his own people to worry about.
My Grandmother and Doris-Jean were anxious, of course they were anxious, but mostly they were bored. They played cards, they drank coffee, they listened to “Fibber Magee and Molly” on my Great-Grandfather’s massive old RCA radio. They did their best to follow events overseas, making what they could from censored letters, incomprehensible maps in the Lexington paper, strange and unpronounceable names. Guadalcanal. El Agheila. Kasserine. They went to see “Meet Me in St. Louis” down at the Rialto, once a week until they finally changed the film. They played a lot of cards.
The thing was, a telegram had just come in over the wires from Lexington. The man over there at the L & N office saw it and he knew the address, actually worked for Ernest, and so he picked up the phone. It was a hell of a thing. He’d run it over himself, of course, but there was nobody else in the office and he couldn’t leave it empty. If Ernest wanted to wait, there’d be somebody to drive it on over first thing in the morning. If he wanted to wait he could. It was a hell of a thing, the man said again. He sure was sorry. “No,” Ernest said. “Thank you, no.” He’d be over to pick it up. He was leaving, he’d be there as soon as he could. The man said OK, he’d be waiting. Ernest hung up the phone. Then he kissed his daughter, nodded across to his daughter-in-law, and left. The house was quiet, the sun was setting already. So they sat there, these two girls, they sat there in the parlor and waited. Sat and waited and listened to the Seth Thomas clock ticking away on the mantelpiece. The fidgeted in their uncomfortable chairs, shifted their weight and watched the shadows stretch across he floor between them. They didn’t say much to each other as the night closed in on top of them. Finally Doris Jean spoke. She was all bunched up in her corner of the room, her whole body was clenched up like a fist, but she looked across at my Grandmother and spoke. I hope it’s Hack, she said. If it’s got to be one of them, then I hope it’s Hack.
It’s a strange thing to say, at least it wasn’t what my Grandmother was expecting, and there wasn’t anything she could think of to say back. She sat on her side of the room and swallowed, but she didn’t say anything. One of them was a widow already, they knew that much. One of their children was half an orphan already. One of their lives had just gotten a whole lot harder, they just didn’t know whose. Doris Jean was a tough woman, she wasn’t looking for an answer, hadn’t said it to be kind. She meant it.
By the time my Grandfather finally came back from the war it was August, 1945. The war in Europe had been over for months, Truman had just bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, my dad was two years old. What my family remembers about that day, the story they tell, is that when my grandfather walked in the door my dad was so badly rattled he ran under the bed, and he couldn’t be coaxed out for hours.
My Dad pulls the rental out of the driveway and onto Pasadena Avenue. It’s still cold but the wind has died down, and the last I see of my Grandparents, together, they’re standing behind the glass panel of the front door, waving. We wave back, pull out onto the road, and in a couple of minutes we’re gone. The plane to Los Angeles leaves in an hour and a half and the plane to New York leaves even early, and so we’re going pretty fast up Tate’s Creek Road and out onto New Circle Road. We drive up to the top of Pasadena Avenue, past the bank on the right and Baptist church on the left, we pull out and follow a pick-up pulling a horse trailer out onto New Circle Road. The sky’s never going to brighten today.
“Glad you came.”
“Yeah, it was fun.”
“What is it?” My Dad asks, but he’s concentrating on the road in front of him.
“The candy,” I say. “Sunny’s Ruth Hunt candy. I left it there, forgot all about it. It’s still sitting in the kitchen.”
There’s a pause, and I can hear the radials really bearing down on the snow swept interstate.
“You know what?” My dad says, but then he doesn’t say anything else.
He saw unbelievable things, car accidents and police investigations and a glamorous Italian couple dancing tangos on the street. He saw a beautiful woman once slap herself full-tilt across her own face, her own face as she stood there all alone. She held nothing back. She was dressed in a silk cream dress and looked like a city hall bride, with no groom to be found. Held her purse in the other hand and she slapped herself again. He got caught in flash floods and lovers' arguments and once came across a live crab no bigger than his own palm scrambling helplessly down Fishamble Street in the general direction of the river but he left it there, not knowing what else to do. He walked until his feet hurt and his brain reeled and then he sat down and then he walked some more.
He had a family, somewhere. Wasn't that right? He had a wife, he had children? He had a cold dinner waiting for him on a plate somewhere? How did it come to this? How did it ever come to this?
You'll know because you won't care anymore.
How will you know?
You'll know because all your food will taste the same.
How will you know?
You'll know from the looks they give you.
How will you know?
You'll know from the dreams that wake you up at 4:00.
How will you know?
You'll know because they'll let you know.
How will you know?
You'll know because of the smell.
How will you know?
You'll know because of the speed it takes.
How will you know?
You'll know because you won't know anything else.
Always in Love
The chess club on Thompson Street, steaming glasses of tea and opaque glances. The Ukrainian egg shop off 2nd Avenue. Postcards of Marlon Brando and Jasper Johns taped to the wall above his desk. He was young and he was always in love. Secrets traded on the fire escape outside. Endless subway journeys up and down the West Side, the 1, the 2, the 3. She was a Julliard ballerina, she told him, but she dropped out early. Grew up in Maine and mother from Minsk. Russian eyes and an impossibly long neck. She lived on a diet of apples and cigarettes and if she had asked him to go with her, he would have. He wouldn't have thought twice. If she had asked him to go with her, he would. Her kitchen. Riverside Drive, unmade bed still damp from the hours before. Tea and lemon, bare feet along the linoleum. Knife in hand. He threw it in the air, they never took their eyes from each other. He threw it in the air, didn't know where it would land.
He came back. The radio on, the rain against the window. He came back. She was still smiling, but the wariness had set in, and he knew he would never see her there again. So this. Now, this. Now her. He stared at her, uncomprehending.
So. You go to sleep one man and wake up another, you've said that already. So you become the man you never thought you'd be, and used to hold in contempt. You've said that, too. So you write in charming and opaque ways about driving West in Chevy Novas, about begging on the outside of motel room doors, about gunshots and whispers and pleas, but mostly you just patrol the limits of the farm from well inside the fence. And who would blame you? So you wake up holding shame and desire in equal balance, I suppose that's how it works. Holding shame and desire in equal balance but mostly just frozen and ridiculous at six o'clock in the morning. Suddenly. This face, whose face is this?
A Car I Could Drive
Here's what I want.
I want a car that I could drive West to the ocean, a blue Nova would be ideal. I want a Rand McNally Road Atlas and a shoe-box full of tapes. I want to drive from Chicago to Seattle, 80 to 25 to 90, I want five days where nobody knows where I am and nobody cares where I am. I want back that wind-storm in Wyoming one more time, which scared and thrilled me so much in the summer of 1977. I was 10 and I was terrified.
I want my dad to be OK, I want my sister to be OK, I want my Mom not to be scared. I want to do well by my students, I want to do a good job (and not just a good enough job) with this work that I never should have started but that I can no longer walk away from. I want my kids not to worry what's going to happen to them, I want my wife not to worry what's going to happen to them either.
I want you to be OK, most of all. It's's not going to get easier, and eventually you get tired.
Gestures and Lies
When am I ever going to wear these clothes I buy in unexpected rushes of vanity and blindness? Look at these clothes, what an assortment. What even exactly am I waiting for, a barn dance or a night at the Oscars? Some lecture at the Sorbonne where they can all applaud my integrity? Who am I kidding?
Make up your mind, you're a grown man. Make up your mind.
Bellevue, WA. 1979
He had been working on a house, he kind of entered into the deal before he really knew he was sick but he suspected something. Anyway, he was working on it, old hippie artistry combined with old hippie craft, and pretty soon they had something going. Some kids from UK heard about it, made a little half-hour film of this house that his wife got shown at the UK film department. We brought some champagne, sat in the lobby and he sat really frail but dandy in his white suit and panama hat. Long red beard and hair tied back, same as my first memory of him, riding along beside him in his old Ford pick-up, happy and proud and five years old, bare feet pressed against the windshield, translucent footprints against the glare. All of his friends came along to the show. I came along, some of my students showed up. They put an article in the Lexington papers, which appeared a couple of days later, and reading it that's how I knew what happened next, read about it over a plate of scrambled eggs.
When she drove him back from the hospital the last time he threw up a couple of times in the car, into one of those almost-translucent blue hospital bags they give you. She had brought along the bags, this wasn't anything unexpected and there was no shame in it. No apologies. He was too weak to really hold the edges of the thing with any certainty, the knuckles stood out against his tanned freckled hands. They'd been together for 54 years, and he insisted on wearing the Panama hat. When they pulled up to the house Bob Weir was parked in front of it, swear to God. Bob Weir behind the wheel of an old Honda Civic. She explained everything, he came in and they played for a little while. Bob slowed down but he kept up. Then he went upstairs to bed, and that's where he died.
Suicide to Try
As a young man you could always just pick up and run away, which is what he would routinely do. Just pack up his things in an old army bag and go. He ran away to Oregon and back, ran clear across the ocean to Spain. He used to pride himself on his inability to tolerate such conditions, couldn’t imagine ever becoming the type of man who would stick it out. He used to have nothing but contempt for such men. Now he couldn't run, he could barely walk. They were stuck together, him and these smilers, at least for the time being. No choice either side. But you couldn't trust these people. It'd be suicide to try.
Cars, Then Airports...
Powder Blue Buick
Charlie and Wade
“Cut it out.”
“I’m serious, you are. I tell everybody I know. Old Fatty’s a real hero. A prince among men. I’m damn proud to know you.”
Wade said nothing. Counting to ten, letting it pass. He had the Serenity Prayer wrapped so tight around his cerebral cortex this past week it would have taken dynamite to get it off. Would have taken more than this, anyway. This he’d heard before.
“We’ll be there soon enough.”
The clouds hung low and they’d been fighting the rain all the way down from Plattsburgh that morning. Wade had found his brother the night before. It had taken him most of the afternoon but it wasn’t tough. He knew the kind of places to look. Find the bus station, work his way out in concentric circles through every bar and waffle house until eventually he found Charlie hunched over his drink and his Chesterfields and never once surprised to see him. Didn’t matter where, all these River Valley towns had the same basic layout. The Four Roses in New Paltz, Ruby’s Tap in Maltaville. Wade always found him eventually. He was an old hand.
“Swear to God I don’t even recognize you anymore, Fatty. You look good.”
“I am good.”
“So I see. So I see. Used to be there was a time, you’d come crawling in all beat up. Just beat to shit. Worse than me, even.”
“You were your own worst enemy.”
“That was a long time ago, Charlie.”
“Amen to that, Brother. Amen to that.”
They were passing through familiar territory, though Wade couldn’t say he ever liked it much. They used to come up here when they were kids. Spend weekends driving up around the lakes, digging for arrow heads in the woods while their father sat in the car and smoked. Sayerville, Hastings, Granite Falls. This stretch of highway always got to Wade, even then. The way the trees seemed to close in around him. The way they always seemed to shut out the sun. Even in the back seat of their father’s Plymouth Valiant, his nose in a comic book and his brother asleep, Wade couldn’t wait to get through it.
“I guess when they sent you down they knew what they were doing, huh? Guess they had it all figured out. Would’ve loved to hear that conversation, all of you sitting around the kitchen table. Holding hands. Did they make you pray, Fatty? Would’ve loved to hear that. How’s old Lois doing, anyway? She still bat-shit crazy as ever?”
“She worries about you.”
“I doubt that, Wade. I doubt that sincerely.”
“Believe what you want.”
Charlie had a wife downstate who believed in angels and a daughter named Becca he never saw. Wade would get phone calls from them once in a while, every couple of months, usually about money they needed right away or legal threats they didn’t understand. They swung from one emergency to the next, and Wade avoided them as much as he decently could.
“Oh yeah? And what about you, Fatty?” Charlie turned to his brother, smiling. “You worry about me, too?”
“I try not to,” Wade said, shifting back into silence. Shifting his attention to the taillights in front of him.
“Goddamn,” Charlie said after a minute, turning away again. “Goddamn.”
There was a woman waiting for Wade back home, waiting for his phone call when this whole thing was over. Not that this was anything Wade was prepared to bring up now. There had been women before. Some serious. One he had even thought he’d marry, back before things got so out of hand. But that was Wade’s life, his business and his alone. Some things Charlie didn’t need to know. His new friend’s name was Anne and that was a phone call he was looking forward to making.
Charlie had a smell to him now, Wade couldn’t deny it. Something inside, something chemical. The kind of smell that doesn’t wash off. Thirty years more or less had taken its toll. Indestructible blue-eyed boy, trophies on the shelf. They grew up in the same bedroom and now Wade could barely stand it.
“Charlie…” he said, but Charlie had fallen asleep again already, head back and mouth open, a thousand miles away.
* * *
“Eat something, I’ve got money.”
“Not real hungry.”
And once Charlie started eating he couldn’t seem to stop. Strips of bacon and fat round sausages, mountains of hash browns and eggs over easy. Corned beef hash. Whole wheat toast and strawberry jelly. The waitress was keeping herself at a safe distance from him, clutching the laminated menus tight across her chest, handing the food over carefully when their orders came up. And she was right to be careful. Charlie had a way of just going off on people. You had to watch him, you always did. You’d be fine, everybody laughing and drinking and having fun, and he could just turn on a dime. Wade had seen some things. Broken glass and crying girls and blood. Wade had seen some terrible things around Charlie.
And it was only once they got out of the car, once they sat down surrounded by standard Saturday afternoon families, that Wade realized just how ragged his brother had become. Long hair matted back out of his red-rimmed eyes, accidental beard going gray. Fingernails dirty. Yellow, long and cracked. Old camouflage army jacket caked in dirt, ripped through at the collar. Painfully thin to look at. His brother looked savage, like something dragged out of the woods. Wade studied Charlie and Charlie looked away.
He had a bluebird tattooed to the web of skin between the thumb and index finger of his left hand, and that was new. That Wade hadn’t seen.
“Oh, yeah, you like that? That’s my little California bluebird.”
“San Francisco, yeah. Was living out there for a while.”
“I didn’t know that. When were you out there?”
“There’s some things you don’t know.”
The waitress came by with the coffee pot in her hand and Charlie pushed his cup across the table toward her. “Please,” he said.
“So how was San Francisco?”
“Well, nobody had flowers in their goddamn hair, if that’s what you mean.” Charlie shoveled in another forkful of hash, speared a triangle of toast into the yoke of his egg. “Complicated. San Francisco was complicated.”
Charlie looked up at him from across the table. He shook his head.
“You’re not really one for letting things lie, are you, Fatty?”
Wade tried to meet his brother’s stare, couldn’t. Charlie went back to his food.
“Anyway, not like it matters much. Six months later I was right back here, same old shit. And that part of the story you already know.”
Wade got the phone call three afternoons before, the phone call he used to get all the time but now only a couple of times a year. The heavy liquid voice of his brother drunk. Car towed in, police up his ass. Some new variation of the same basic theme. This time Glens Falls, and fast. Good old Fatty to the rescue. He’d explain when he saw him, and when he saw him he didn’t explain a thing. There’d be a time when the phone calls wouldn’t come at all anymore, and that’s how Wade would know.
“She’s, you know…” Wade shrugged. “She’s alright. I guess she’s alright.”
“Boyfriends, school? Stuff like that?”
The last time Wade saw his niece she was dressed all in black and he suspected she was high as a kite. Though it was hard to know what counted as high anymore. She was sitting on the couch next to Lois, black hood of her sweatshirt pulled up around her face, staring at the TV and flipping through the eight hundred channels they had without saying a word. For almost an hour Wade was in there with them, one channel after another and not a word. He saw her sometimes at the mall in Nanuet, hanging around the Wishing Well with a whole crew of kids that looked just like her. Big heavy boots laced up to their knees, black jeans and black sweatshirts and black hair hanging down over their eyes. Studs and nails poking out of their faces. And she either didn’t recognize Wade or pretended not to. Either one was fine by him.
“She’s sixteen, Charlie. Who knows how she is?”
* * *
“You know, Charlie, it’s not too late. It’s not too late to turn all this around.”
Charlie pushed his plate away from him and looked up across to his brother.
“Here we go,” he said.
“I’m serious, it’s not. I was worse, you said it yourself.”
“Wade? Wade, don’t start this shit.”
“Just hear me out.”
“I’ve…” And then Charlie slammed his palm down on the table so hard the silverware danced and the tables around them went silent.
“Come on, easy.”
“I heard you, Wade. Goddamn it, I heard you. Been listening to this same fucking Vince Lombardi shit for… Goddamn it, I heard you.”
“Ok, Ok. Eat your food, Charlie…”
“Goddamn it, Wade….”
“Calm down. Just calm down.”
Wade reached about halfway across the table, but then the waitress was there and Charlie pulled his arm back and Wade let it go.
“Is everything all right over here?”
Out in the grass margins of the parking lot Charlie puked up everything he had eaten. One hand up against a tree, his body fighting against itself. Wade sat behind the wheel of his car, waiting. Engine running, radio on low, looking away. When he was done, Charlie spit a couple of times to clear his mouth, then climbed into the car without a word. He was asleep almost immediately. Wade cracked a window open against the smell and pulled back out onto the highway.
* * *
Two kids in a room, seven and ten. One sick and scared, fever, hot and freezing cold. In bed for a week and not knowing what was what. Not knowing one day from another. His mother walking him to the bathroom and holding him shaking as he sat. He remembered the smell. Not knowing when he was awake and when he wasn’t. Faces coming to him, ceiling, in and out. Mother, father, doctor, ceiling. In and out. Mother, father. Cold palm against his forehead, rings colder than the rest. Shivering and shaking in his NFL pajamas. His brother gone and his parents terrified. Terrified for Wade, terrified for Charlie. Terrified the illness would spread. Forty years ago, and it felt like four hundred. Felt like a thousand. Another life, and two other people. Two other people, and both of them gone.
He kept a bed now, just in case. He knew the odds were stacked against it ever happening, but he kept a bed just in case. Clean sheets, a change of clothes, a list of people to call. That’s all it was, steps. You do this, you don’t do that. Steady steps in the right direction. Wade could help him if he ever got the chance, he knew the terrain. He had mapped out the terrain already.
* * *
“Up here’s good.”
“Here? Up where?”
Wade looked out through the windshield and there was nothing. Highway, trees, deep embankment. Somewhere south of Palatine, he wasn’t really sure. They hadn’t passed an exit for miles.
“Up here’s close enough.”
Another hour or two and they’d be home. The trees would give way to buildings again and the roads would widen out. Car lots and gigantic flags. They’d be back on terra firma, they’d be fine. But Wade knew better than to argue with his brother, so he slowed to a stop on the side of the road.
“Why don’t you come with me, Charlie? Check in, get cleaned up a little? See Becca, why not?” Wade stared out through the windshield, not daring to turn his head.
“I don’t think so, Wade.”
“A couple of days, why not?”
For a while Charlie didn’t say anything, but then finally he shook his head.
“I don’t think that’ll work. Thank you, though. No, this is fine.” Charlie opened the car door.
“At least let me at least take you into town.”
“I’m good, Fatty. I’m good.”
“You need some money, I guess?
Charlie said nothing. Looked down at the bluebird tattoo on his hand. Wade reached into his back pocket for his wallet.
“Well, shit Fatty, you know me…”
“Here, take it. It’s uh...” Wade took out everything but twenty dollars, folded it over and handed it to Charlie. “Not sure how much is there.”
Charlie nodded, saying nothing. He took the money and put it in the breast pocket of his camouflage jacket.
“I'll get you back.”
For a minute Wade thought he was going to run, but he just sat there, staring out through the windshield at the highway ahead.
“What’re you going to tell them?” He asked finally, looking up.
“What’s it matter? Tell them I couldn’t find you, I guess. Tell them something.”
Charlie opened the door again, and this time he climbed out.
“I’ll be seeing you, Charlie.”
“Don’t doubt it.”
Wade tooted the horn as he passed his brother on the side of the road, and Charlie shot up a little wave. A few seconds later he was gone.
Like a Train
He sat in the red naugahyde booth, pouring salt out all over his bacon and eggs, stirring sugar into his tea. Staring out wounded and amazed. This girl had hit directly home. She hit home in a way he hadn't wanted and couldn't have expected. He never saw it coming, and swore he would have run ten miles in the opposite direction if he had. This girl ran over him like a train.
He was looking worse for wear, no question. Long hair dirty and hanging loose, nails cracked and hands shaking, thin as a whippet. I saw the waitress sizing him up as she approached the table, the laminated menus held tight across her chest. He was sweating in the air-conditioned cool of the place, he was thumping the table with one knotty fist, and she didn't want any trouble. Last time I saw him alive.
Serious Girl, Pt. 1
Most of the others had thrown in the towel already, retreating into the relative safety of CNN and the hotel bar. They'd drink down huge glasses of cheap pilsner and local rum and watch looping reels of disaster footage until it was time to stagger back to their rooms upstairs. He could see why, he wasn't blind to the appeal of giving up, but he wasn't ready yet. So he zipped up his jacket and headed out the door.
The city had a real problem with fires, she explained. Every few blocks and there'd be another monument to some poor guy who went up in flames. She'd translate it for him and he'd do his best to keep up. The Catholics set fire to the Protestants over here, a few yards from where the Turkish t-shirt vendor was standing now. Down the street the police set fire to the Jews. The Nazis rolled in and set fire to pretty much everything on that side of the river and then the Russians came in and torched all the bridges. The Americans never set any fires, she told him. They never needed to.
She was tall and thinner than he could fathom. She had spent some time in Chicago a long time ago, she said, but she was too young to know what a long time was. She had a real flair for self-dramatization. She wore a blue raincoat and strange chunky shoes, made her eyes up like Cleopatra. She drank gin out of the bottle she carried around in her bag and he suspected she was insane. She had this way of keeping him at a distance without keeping him away. He knew what she was doing but he didn't quite know how, and he didn't mind as much as he might have. They met at the castle gates. Met where they first met, where they always met.
She had a brother. She had a mother. Had he ever been to Chicago? What was his wife like? He hadn't mentioned a wife. She reminded him of a girl he knew a long time ago. A girl he used to go to the movies with once upon a time. They'd sit in the back rows of Cinema Village, holding hands and sharing a pack of Camels. Back when things were like that. But that girl was as all-American as the day was long, Boston cheerleader with a broken nose, and this girl was anything but.
Her brothers stood together behind the screen door. Her mother screamed "GET DOWN!" and hid praying under the bed but she didn't she just stood there. Just stood there at the window upstairs. Stood there in the room where she grew up, where she hung posters on the wall, where she spent hours talking to her friends on the telephone, where she studied herself obsessed and uncomprehending in the mirror on the closet door. Room where she first let him in. She stood there with her white fingertips pressed up against the glass. Stood there staring down at him. Stood there still half asleep in her pajamas and she couldn't hardly breathe.
He saw her like she knew he would. His eyes stung, his heart kicked inside his chest hard, kicked inside one two three. He knew he was coming apart. He called out her name but the brothers inside just stared. Big country brothers one hand firm on the door. Now he was there he was lost, her mother still screaming from under the bed.
He blinked. Heard the screen door open and blinked again. He remembered the weight in his hand.
Good Job So Far
From "The Tourists"
“Another pint?” Howard leaned into the girls. “Can I buy you ladies another pint?”
“No, thanks,” said the darker one. “Thanks, we’re good.”
“Thanks though,” said the other one.
This was their only night in Dublin, their last night in Ireland, and Bill was glad. Howard was enjoying it, it was more Howard’s speed, but something about the place made Bill uneasy. He felt a little deaf here, like he was always just missing something.
The sun poured in through the windows, and the light made the pub look tatty and old. The walls were an ugly red, like fingernail polish. It was in all the tour books, they recommended the place for its preserved Georgian atmosphere, but it just depressed Bill.
“So what’re you ladies doing here?” Howard was asking them. “What’re you studying?”
“Anglo-Irish Literature,” the lighter one said. “Irish writers.”
“Joyce,” the darker one said. “Mostly Joyce.”
“Hey, that’s great,” Howard said. “That’s great. Can’t understand a word the guy says myself, but still…Cheers!”
Howard drank down his mostly empty pint and set the glass on the bar. He looked for the bartender.
“Are you planning on going back home?” Bill asked them.
“I am,” said the lighter one. “In the fall. But not Beth, she’s staying.”
The darker girl, Beth, nodded earnestly.
“I am home,” she said. “This is home.”
“Well…good luck,” said Bill.
The city looked damaged to him, and he couldn’t imagine anyone staying who could leave. He’d seen a lot of really fucked up kids, ugly beyond their years. He saw kids begging on the street. Everybody was wearing nylon track-suits and cheap gold plated jewelry. He saw lots of Chicago Bulls jerseys, number 23. These kids dressed like the inner city black kids back home, like rappers he saw on MTV. There were other jerseys for teams he didn’t know, Celtic, Newcastle, a lot of Manchester United. His younger daughter, Sarah, had asked him for a Manchester United shirt and a claddagh ring. He’d bought the ring.
Howard was telling the darker girl about Sligo, how they had just come from the “Wild West.” The darker girl smiled politely and nodded.
“That’s Yeats Country,” she said. “That’s where Yeats is buried.”
“That’s right. I believe I read that.”
“It’s beautiful up there.”
“It sure is. It sure is that.”
Howard signaled to the bartender for another round, and the two girls let him. He was hovering between the two girls and they had parted their barstools to make room for him. Bill was happy to stand off to one side.
They were from Toronto, they told Howard. Beth said she hated it there but Jenny said that she missed her folks. Beth rolled her eyes when Jenny said that, and the gesture just drove home how young these girls were.
“Here you are, Sir.” The bartender set down four new pints of Guinness on the counter and Howard paid him.
“We’re a couple of cowboys ourselves,” Howard said. “From out on the open range. Billy here’s from California and I’m from Texas.”
“Where in California?” Jenny asked Bill.
“Hollywood,” Howard jumped in.
“The San Fernando Valley,” Bill amended.
“Oh, I’d love to go there,” Jenny said. “I know it’s tacky, but I love all that stuff. The Chinese Theatre, the Walk of Fame. Star Maps. What do you do out there?”
“I’m an assistant school superintendent.” Bill said.
“Oh,” Jenny said. “Like High Schools?”
“Well, High Schools and other schools.”
“What do you do?” Beth asked Howard.
“Me? I’m a lawyer, oil and gas,” he answered. “I’m yuppie scum. I’m a capitalist pig. SOO-EEE!”
Howard laughed and the girls laughed with him. Beth rolled her eyes again.
After another two rounds the Canadian girls left and Bill was feeling a little sick. It had been a while since he’d eaten anything and this Guinness was giving him a headache. The pub had filled up considerably and the air was blue with cigarette smoke. It was starting to get dark outside.
Three months earlier, Bill had been watching a video with his wife when the phone rang. When he picked it up it was Howard, and Bill couldn’t have been more surprised.
His mom died, Howard said. He was drunk, Bill could hear it over the phone, and his mom had just died.
“Jesus, I’m sorry to hear that,” Bill said. His wife looked up at him, wondering what happened, and turned down the TV.
The point was, Howard went on, there was an inheritance. Nothing big, nothing lavish, but some. Let’s blow it, he said. Let’s go to Ireland. It’s time we took a trip to the old country. I’ll look up some relatives. C’mon.
Bill took the phone out to his deck and closed the glass door behind him.
“Howard…” he started in his reasonable voice, in the voice he used with his kids.
“Billy, come on, no shit it’ll be good. My treat.”
Bill could see the orange glow in the sky above Los Angeles. He tried to imagine where Howard was calling from. His living room, probably. In front of the tube, probably playing a western with the sound off. Bill leaned against the railing and watched the last traces of sunlight disappear in the West.
“I don’t know if I can just drop things, Howard.”
“A week, ten days, something like that. In and out. But come on, at least consider it.”
“I don’t know if I can consider it, Howard. This might be a bad time, we have budget meetings. I’ll have to think about it.”
“Exactly! That’s all I ask, think about it. When’s the last time you took a trip? I mean a real trip? What the hell, Billy, you’ve got summers off. Jesus, listen to yourself. Budget meetings. This is the time to act. LA’ll still be there when you get back. We’ll go drive around the countryside, drink whiskey, do all that shit. We’ll have a blast.”
He kept meaning to mention it to Catherine, to introduce it as one of crazy Howard’s crazy ideas, but he kept putting it off. Finally, a week after the phone call and late one night, Bill just said “Howard’s invited me to Ireland for a week. Whaddya think?”
“Soon,” he said. “I told him I’d think about it.”
“Well,” she said. “Why don’t you go?”
He had to admit he wanted to. He had been counting on Catherine to talk him out of it, and when she didn’t he had to admit he was tempted.
Howard grew up in East Texas while Bill grew up in Kentucky and only moved West later, in the late Seventies. They kept in touch in a casual way, a phone call every few months, an ironic postcard. Their intense friendship during and right after the war had simmered down over the years into something more manageable.
Back in Vietnam they both drank, they both drank a lot. It was something that bonded them together, even when everybody around them drank themselves into an uneasy and jittery sleep. Inevitably they’d end up the last two at the bottle or the warm case of beer. They’d sit and smoke and drink. They’d listen for explosions and hear only motor scooters zipping down the streets.
After they got home, Howard had a habit of going off. He’d smash up his house, he’d move without warning. He couldn’t blame the war. Howard and Bill spent Vietnam in offices, staying out of trouble. It was all paperwork and headaches. He didn’t know what it was. Bill worried about Howard. He hoped he would settle down, get married and have some kids. Come to ground in the same way Bill had.
But that didn’t happen. Instead Howard became very rich. His father had left him his firm, and to everybody’s surprise Howard was an excellent, cunning, lawyer. He never had the wife, or kids, but he did have a string of girlfriends that Bill and Catherine would sometimes meet. It was quite a life.
When they were in Sligo they found the family Howard was looking for, buried in a run-down plot in the ruins of an abbey. The plots were all around the ruins. The two men were surrounded by walls and walking on graves. Howard ran ahead like an excited school kid, checking the names on the tombstones and moving on to the next plot. Bill would lag behind and look at each one. He’d read off whole families buried beneath him, stretching back over long periods of time. Children, parents, grandparents. There were mementos on some of the plots, weathered beyond immediate recognition. Rosaries, coins, a walking cane. He’d look across the stones and see Howard leaping around like crazy, calling out names.
“O’Brien,” he’d yell. “McGoldrick. McTeirnan. Here it is, man! Holy Shit!”
They were staying in the Abbey Hotel that night, in separate but adjoining rooms. They’d been pretty lucky about that. In Dublin, though, they were sharing a room. They ate dinner there in the hotel bar that night. It was a nice surprise, they both had the lamb and it was delicious. Between the two of them they had managed to finish off two pints before the food had arrived, and finished off their third along with the dinner. They ordered coffee and sat at the table for a long time.
All through the meal Howard had been telling stories of his girlfriends and of their particular ways and habits. Bill had met a few of them in LA, when Howard was in on business. They were all young and stunning to look at, almost embarrassing to look at, actually, and they all disappeared after a year or so. Howard didn’t seem to mind this much.
“Suzi, she was a firecracker. She was a real handful.”
“I don’t think we met Suzi.”
“No, come to think of it, you probably didn’t. But I’ll tell you, Billy, she was a real handful all right. She was a marine biologist.”
“Shit yeah, in Texas. She was studying microbiotic shrimp in the Gulf. Something like 40,000 different kinds of microbiotic shrimp floating around out there. She was with some group out of LSU, typifying all these shrimp. Sounds boring, maybe, but I’ll tell you…” he leaned in across the table. “She was a wicked little thing.”
“Twenty-six years old, and full of imagination.”
Bill turned away from Howard’s leering face and looked around the bar. It was just about all old men, white haired and red faced old guys drinking and watching sports highlights on the TV.
“So what happened to Suzi?”
“Oh, shit, you know. Went back to New Orleans with her shrimp, I guess. Went back somewhere, anyway.”
“Just looking, Billy. Just lying in wait.”
That night Bill dreamed he was home in California and on his way to work. He was sitting behind the wheel of his Toyota, the radio was on, and he had just passed the Calabasas turn-off on 101. His briefcase sat on the passenger seat next to him. A big red and white Safeway truck was steaming along in the passing lane ahead of him, and a sporty little Volkswagen was cruising along beside. The sun was out and the sky was blue. It was springtime.
When the sporty little Volkswagen pulled up ahead of Bill’s little Toyota, he could see this was trouble. The road wasn’t too crowded, but crowded enough, and there was no room for rash little Grand Prix maneuvers. The truck wasn’t going to let the sporty little Volkswagen in, he couldn’t even see it. Bill thought to slow down his own car, to put as much room between himself and this jerk as possible.
The Volkswagen disappeared in front of the truck, and for the briefest of seconds Bill thought he’d made it. The first blush of relief came over him even as he heard the crushing sound of metal and cement. The truck just ate the little sporty Volkswagen up. He saw the sparks and the fire as the truck jackknifed in front of him. He saw other cars smash into the side of the truck and create a bigger wreck. Cars were smashing into each other at 70 miles an hour. Bill hit the brakes of his Toyota but he was still going fast, too fast to miss this, and so he did his best to brace himself against the oncoming impact. The last thing he saw before he woke up was a big black tire, soaring through the air towards him, spinning slowly against the clear blue sky.
San Francisco, 1989
Had all these Kerouac visions of the moment but when the moment came I was shocked, I was scared, and you were laughing but you were scared too. And that night we all got home safe, though we probably didn't deserve to. Drove back home with one eye squinted, radio on and all the windows down. Drove back home smelling the eucalyptus from the trees.