Two minutes before seven. Not far from where Cletus sat with a cup of decaf and the spring chore list, his older daughter folded over gracefully at the waist to gather up last scattered bits for her school pack. The fall of her hair obscured her lovely face, but the hallway mirror intriguingly doubled her figure. Worried as usual that the daily heft of Annie’s pack might damage her young spine and shoulders, he felt his hand sliding down between the kitchen chair and that ancient sore place in his own lower back, left side. Why not leave half the stuff at home, he’d asked her time and again, come on, how could all those items really be essential for one sixteen-year-old to navigate one day of public high school and city busses?
But no lecture from old worried Dad today—no, today he would restrain himself as he watched, waiting for what Annie might say to him when she finished with her heavy pack, something refreshing he hoped from his very bright girl. This morning he could really use new input. Ever since his shower there’d been a dull phrase looping in his head, time and effort ; someone must have said it yesterday at the office, or he’d overheard it on the crowded street walking to lunch, who knew—you could monitor what you put into your stomach, but it seemed pretty impossible to keep track of what streamed into your head and especially how it replayed. He leaned against his hand until he felt the pressure more than the back pain. Chiropractic over the last few years hadn’t really gotten down to it; maybe the problem was just too old. Sacrum, Carol thought, and it did seem as if that whole neighborhood had somehow been messed with. Firm, steady touch could give this small degree of relief, or distraction, but of course as with anything you could overdo it, focus too much on one area, and then be worse off.
Time and effort— couldn’t he at least get stuck on something more exciting? An awful lot of similarly random, common phrases had started repeating like this lately, none very interesting, just things people said when they were out and about, doing their lives, like useless segments of everyday music, too short to be tunes but nonetheless monopolizing his mind like nobody’s business, especially when he was tired, as he was now, or a bit under the weather. He felt like a cow that had forgotten how to swallow its cud.
Annie straightened up and reached for her jacket. Amazing how fast sixteen had come about, how quickly she’d gotten taller than her mother. Carol had been telling him it was high time to get to the bottom of his back trouble, consider x-rays, maybe some other sort of bodywork. Like a car, he thought.
Which would take time, and of course money. Money, now that was a word not many people, himself for sure, could avoid chewing on every day.
Seven o’clock, time for Annie to get herself out the door, but be grateful she’d sat down long enough to eat some of the eggs he’d scrambled and a few bites of toast, the soft parts. Cletus finished off one of her crusts and sucked in a few more hot swallows of the so-called coffee. Should he remind her to brush her teeth before school? After every meal, the dentist had told him, flossing, too. But what could you say—kids had no notion about root canals. And of course now it was too late, seven o’clock.
Time and effort, mundane as all get out, like him, he supposed, but how tiresome. If this was adult life without caffeine, maybe he should renege on his reformation; he didn’t even feel sufficiently virtuous about weaning himself. She looked nearly ready to go, his stunning, ambitious, whip-smart Anne Marie, hitching into the backpack, now tilting her face toward the mirror, oh lucky mirror, parting her lips for two swipes of gloss. She flipped the mass of hair, so like her mother’s, from one side of her face to the other, seemed satisfied—cletus could see no earthly reason why she wouldn’t be supremely satisfied—whereupon he was jolted by one of the more unnerving ringtones she’d been fiddling with on her new phone. Odd, because usually she texted. He heard her answering as she disappeared into the front vestibule, and after a breath of silence heard the screen door with the broken spring bang shut. Then, silence. Was it his imagination or did this decaf actually taste denatured?
Front door screen, he wrote on the lengthening chore list. Old houses were like black holes, move in and it’s bye-bye free time, bye-bye money, bye-bye you. He stared at the list. No question, his executive function missed the caffeine charge. Time and effort, give him a break, why not something less abstract, lip gloss, for example, or even smart phone? A brain was an incredibly strange animal part to live with, with its peculiar ways and uncontrollably accumulating inventory, so much more than he could ever think what to do with. Without the caffeine, he felt somehow more and more aware of the astronomical complexity of it. Maybe his head needed a new filing system. But of course something like time could never be filed away because it was on the agenda every waking minute of every day. Who could even define it? And effort: well, everyone had a rendition, right? His father’s habitual term was elbow grease, of which Cletus never seemed to have had enough. Back then. But thankfully he was long out from under the daily thud of his dad’s criticism. Thanks to time.
Cletus had learned to say things to his own daughters like you can do it, keep up the good work. Carol insisted a father’s message to his girls meant the world. Cletus tried, he tried no end, but he wished he wouldn’t have so much trouble coming up with something new; he’d hear himself mouthing the same old things to his girls, stop fooling, eat your dinner, put away your bicycle, treading down one beaten path or another, and he’d wish to swallow what he’d just said and try again, try to suit his comments a little more imaginatively or best yet humorously to the circumstances, but already the moment would have passed—there was
time again for you—and it would be too late for a second chance.
Well, his whole life he’d never been a great talker, could be he just had to leave it there, accept that he’d always be someone who thought about a lot more than he could get out of his mouth, and when he would use his words— as they used to say when the girls were small—they’d invariably be the old tried and true sort. But quick-witted talking wasn’t everything. He had other skills, arguably just as valuable, which must be worth something, because consider how in spite of his shortcomings he’d been granted this wonderful family, not to mention a growing stable of insurance clients who did seem to trust him, trust his words and trust the policies he sold, year after year, even in these untrustworthy times. Come on, his overall record could be called pretty decent. And after all maybe the day would come when his daughters would chide him affectionately: oh, Dad, you always say that. As if they wouldn’t want him any other way.
And so, listening to himself make his arguments to the empty kitchen, he set aside the list of chores and, one hand on his back, gingerly tipped his chair to turn up the rheostat on the wall. At last he opened the newspaper. There was rain in the forecast, and such a rainy spring so far that a lot of neighbors had started worrying yet again about storm water and sewer backups, but—knock on the sturdy oak table—his own house had been spared, so far. Water problems should be top of the list for the city—like so many other issues, all of them plain, none simple, or, frankly, even solvable—with those, reasonable measures might be as far as you could get. But for a householder, a straightforward to-do list of somewhat tedious but doable chores could be a sort of relief, a way of getting a handle on things in general—who didn’t like to cross out items and be done. No need to replay. You fixed the screen door and that was that; you just did what you could and tried to forget about how much the object of your work, your poor old house, had depreciated. You decided to be content with doing a small job well.
Maybe it was just in his head, well for sure it was in his head, but it did seem harder lately to sort his thoughts out, like trying to organize confetti. He felt he no longer had the time for all the effort of it, all that deciding what was most important and so on. Maybe he needed more exercise. Or sleep. They said everyone these days could use more sleep. Cutting out the caffeine had been one long headache, and now he wasn’t even sure he was any better for it. Maybe worse. Well, his bladder might be happier—he’d been getting pretty fed up with his bossy bladder. More comfort in long meetings had to count for something. Shaky times, and clients needed extra handholding, patient listening, careful suggesting, time and effort.
Effort was up to you. But time, time was always at a premium. Now, for what would likely be no more than a quarter of an hour, he had the room and the newspapers to himself. Fifteen quiet minutes. Truth was though that today he’d have liked a few more minutes of Annie. It made him wistful that the older his children got and the more desirable they were to talk to the less they seemed to want to talk, to him anyway. When the girls were younger, there’d been tons of
times when he’d have paid them good money just to simmer down so he could concentrate. Now, well. You couldn’t exactly pay your children to talk to you.
Annie hadn’t given him a goodbye today, but she would have, wouldn’t she, if that phone hadn’t gone berserk? Maybe it’d been The Boy—it seemed she had one now, but at home they’d been forbidden to call him a boyfriend. At any rate, boy, in Cletus’s opinion, was the operative word; he’d met him briefly late one afternoon when he picked up Annie from track practice, part of a pack of similar gawks who’d been watching the girls run around the track, and to Cletus he appeared altogether too young for the serious privilege of being the boyfriend of anyone, most especially their Annie. But nevertheless he was one more variable for her parents to think about, a boy with a driver’s license, though mercifully no car of his own, as she was a girl with a newly issued license, applied for the very day Cletus had taken her to buy that smarter phone. Her birthday. No doubt since then she and this skinny boy had already exchanged who knew what, with and without the aid of upgraded technology.
Well, at least his sixteen-year-old had said a few words to her old dad at the breakfast table while she ate the butter and jam part of the toast and those few mouthfuls of egg. But he was surprised he couldn’t quite remember what she’d said—had he been enjoying the sight of her so much he’d forgotten to listen? Track practice? Or debate? He peered at the family calendar by the rheostat, but there were a lot of blank squares for April—things around here had gotten atypically lax since Carol had come down with this miserable spring cold. She must have been more wiped out than he realized, but even so she might know what was what with Annie today; usually his wife’s brainy filing system was nothing short of amazing.
Or, come to think of it, why didn’t he just give Annie a call on that smartypants phone? Yeah, for a surprise he could be the guy to make it sound off like crazy. Hello, sweetie, it’s your dad, just double-checking your plans.
Finally bending to the newspaper, he found himself arrested right away by a front-page photograph of a sun-weathered, turbaned man with quite a few missing teeth—a troubled mouth in a very troubled part of the world. Ever since his own recent and unpleasant coziness with the endodontist, Cletus had felt a sharp kinship, like a gasp, for everyone everywhere with dental problems. Maybe it was true what they said, that suffering could be useful for cultivating compassion—that when you saw similar pain in others, you were supposed to be touched in some way, feel a connection—but to Cletus the whole process seemed inefficient and sad. There ought to be better ways. When you had the toothache, you could hardly think of anything except your local misery; it was almost impossible to feel compassion for anyone else until you got some relief yourself. But he did wish all the world’s teeth could somehow—all right, miraculously—be fixed; it would be a concrete starting place to try and balance things out, something of real, lasting benefit. Fixing everyone’s teeth would be like the opposite of playing self-serving games with money, other people’s money, which should never, ever be considered play money.
Sure, sure, he’d heard that old tune about playing along as long as the world seemed to be set up essentially as a game, not quite real and yet really brutal, nothing anyway that you could change. So go with it, what the hell. Survive. But then who was qualified to say exactly how one should play—or even if the right game had yet been found? Seven billion people, all pretty much like kids on the playground, arguing over the rules and who got to do what. Bloody free-for-all. He sighed and gazed down the short hallway to the mirror, emptied now of his child. His felt how his responsibility to her was as much about understanding his own mind and heart as about her physical well being. If only he could come to think more clearly, to speak only what was true.
Lately all sorts of common business sayings had started sticking in his throat. He’d hear hollowness. He’d fall silent. His insurance company—that is, not his own, but the company he worked for—talked all the time about best practices, as if banking on a single phrase. For integrity, for fortunate outcomes, for absolution—who knew? Best practices. Could mean anything. He had convinced himself that at least his own junior part as a face-to-face agent did indeed help people prepare for a brighter future in an orderly way, nothing flashy, just the promise of protection and the reward almost every year of modest but respectable growth, which these days was nothing to sneeze at.
His eyes blurred as he stared at a newspaper map of countries whose present, arbitrary boundaries history had already blurred. Carol had said how he talked to his girls meant the world, but that was just another of those common things people said, a way of magnifying a request. Oh, thanks, it would mean the world to me. Nothing could actually mean the world, could it, not the imperfect though well-meaning words of a dad, not a perfect map, not even an astonishing view of the globe from outer space. Certainly not a newspaper: the newspaper gave only inklings of the world, held together each day by pictures and words. Every morning you had to remember how to pull it all back together yourself, the round Humpty Dumpty world.
Cletus hoped Annie would settle on a different ringtone. His was Old Phone, nothing to argue with there, nothing to rattle your bones or put your teeth on edge. When he’d been Annie’s age, there had been one telephone in the farmhouse, a black box on the south wall of the dining room, a party line of mostly recognizable voices—yes, he’d listened in, along with probably 99 percent of their rural neighbors, his sister, Sharon, and his mother for sure. Not his father, though; his father rarely talked on the phone, rarely talked, period, as if he considered talking to be for people with nothing else to do.
Annie had won her case for a new phone after many months of mostly rational negotiation—annie as usual stellar in family court—and on her birthday last week she and he alone, Carol being knocked out that day with fever, had made the pilgrimage to the dazzling computer store, sleek and white, a veritable laboratory for brain stimulation, cunningly designed to fire up every current inquisitive, acquisitive neuron. Unfortunately, the two-hour process, during which Cletus had mostly stood on his feet or perched on an awkward stool, had
also fired up the old, old ache in his lower back and exacerbated the weirdness in his caffeine-deprived head. How weightless the credit card had felt as he’d fingered it across to another one of those geeks who was going to inherit the earth—that is, if there was going to be an earth to inherit, but that was another story. No, it was all the same story.
Well, anyway, that smart phone day, though apparently satisfying to Annie, had been unsettling to him; there was the issue of the first driver’s license, of course, which was probably unsettling to most parents; but, as for the phone, it wasn’t a first for Annie. For several years Cletus had been hearing himself argue at dinner parties, when the issue of mobile phones for teenagers came up, that being able to reach the kid quickly could indeed be quite a comfort; he’d feel at that moment genial and savvy and sensibly indulgent with his children— someone who with his accomplished wife could be seen as running a thoughtful, tight ship at home—though not of course too tight.
Yet in secret truth, he’d been feeling increasingly bothered by the incalculable dimensions technology was adding year by year to the already exponentially expanding world of his child—even as he knew the subject was so commonly discussed these days it was almost a cliché. All week he’d been hearing phantom ringtones echoing in an ether of voices and images and text messages, endless links—he knew it was irrational, not to mention unoriginal, to be so freshly upset, this was the web, stupid, to which his daughter had already been connected for many months with her laptop and her older, dumber phone. Come on, what had he really expected? That she’d reserve the laptop for school research and the phone for calling home? Carol, for her part, seemed to take raising daughters more in stride, generally, except maybe lately. Strange times. Was anyone thinking straight? Speaking true? Now Cletus heard the sound of water percolating down to him: Carol, ah, wonderfully naked in the shower, now because of him in an extra hurry; she was still in the deep cough stage, and he hoped she wouldn’t be mad that he’d turned off the alarm to let her sleep a little longer. He’d have wakened her soon enough; she might have cause to fear sabotage from others, but never, never from him. Ever since she’d said yes to him years ago—well, seventeen, to be exact—he’d never taken his good fortune for granted. He was devoted to her and in a way also devoted to that version of himself who’d had the genius to find her and recognize he wanted her. Where was that brilliant guy anyway? Still in there, somewhere, had to be, where else would he go. He was underneath all the time and effort, all the countless things people said to each other every day, doing their business, practicing the practices of their tribes.
He listened to the speediness of her shower; he imagined the economical movements of her toweling down, her dressing, and her no-nonsense prodding of their younger daughter—quick, quick, hurry—sweet-natured Molly, who had been first with the virus, a gift to the family from Emerson Middle School. Quick, there’s no time to lose. But Carol did know how to relax on occasion, anyway she used to. At night years ago, when the girls were tucked up asleep at
a decent hour, husband and wife would sometimes fill the tub all the way and bathe together—slow, steamy times. Satisfying. Brilliant.
But now bedtime seemed upside down, he and Carol bleary with fatigue while teenage feet were still dashing up and down wooden Victorian stairs, voices arguing, giggling. At least, Carol had said in her exhaustion the other night, they’d contrived to have fewer children than the Victorians. Even Molly, their champion sleeper, had new rhythms and wanted to stay up late and even later; she’d gotten her first period a month ago, which had somehow surprised everyone except Molly herself. Annie had acted as if a private, still only partially explored territory had been encroached upon, Cletus himself had thought twice and not swung Molly up off her feet as he often did when he came home from work, but the most surprising reaction, enacted in their eleven thirty bedroom when the house at last was quiet, came from Carol, who had curled into a maternal fetus and begun to sob. Cletus rubbed her back and waited for her usual super-articulate explanation of what was going on, but she had nothing more to say when the sobbing eased than, Oh, Cletus, as she rolled over and looked up at him with liquid eyes, so much more behind them now he guessed than the maturation of a daughter’s eggs—well, for one thing, the unpredictable flood or dribble she had described about her own tapering off periods, and probably the time-consuming perplexities revolving around her aging parents as well as his, and of course, bottom line, the harshness of an economy that was bleeding the architectural office where she worked down to such a shaky skeleton staff that even middle-aged stalwarts like herself no longer felt on firm ground.
Over the years Carol had always been great at deflecting what hit her the wrong way, usually with a shrug or a laugh or often simply increased momentum in her chosen direction, and until the last year or so she’d had strong things to say about preserving your soul and not allowing a general climate of fear to dictate to you personally. But the times seemed at last to be infecting even his clear-headed wife. She’d quote CEO salaries from the newspaper as if adding more entries to a category called Hell-bound, and her arsenal of swear words was much more frequently deployed—one night with a fucking idiot she’d thrown a bedroom slipper at the TV when the bigwig accused of violent rape had been quoted with something like what can I say—i like women.
Water ceasing, then voices in some sort of room-to-room discussion: Carol and Molly, both of them coughing so much in the night, all week two pale faces. Seven twenty-two. Cletus set aside the newspaper and went over to call up the stairs. Molly’s bus stopped at seven fifty-five at a corner three blocks away, a corner to which one of them sometimes drove her on their way to work, that is, when they didn’t end up taking her all the way to the school—molly, the irresistible baby, who last week had been ferried to the Emerson door before he noticed she’d managed to escape the house in plaid pajama bottoms, rolled at the bottoms and twisted into some sort of bloomers. He said, Molly! And she insisted that everyone was doing it. And then she flung herself over and kissed him on the cheek, thanked him sweetly for the ride, jumped out of the car and
that was that. Annie had been irresistible, too, naturally, what baby wasn’t to her own parents, but from her infant beginnings she had challenged them with her solemn watchfulness, her scrutiny, her usually non-negotiable assessment of justice. Receiving the occasional glance of approval from his oldest daughter had long been one of the most gratifying experiences in his life as a parent. Certain phrases seemed to characterize periods in Annie’s growing up: why not had been useful to her years ago when she was under more parental control and many small items had to go through the wringer of discussion; these days it was often an authoritative, dismissive I doubt it.
Molly said no to scrambled eggs but yes to cereal and banana, which she took in at top speed, chewing and rocking her body as she stared at the clock, but she paused long enough to answer his questions—she’d be going to Ellie’s after school and had no clue about her sister—and then blew him a kiss with a bye, Daddy, a way of naming him he hoped she’d never outgrow, and got herself out the door early enough for the bus, not wearing pajamas, he’d been glad to see, and on his suggestion a rainproof jacket. Well, two teenagers on the way, two adults to go. Carol was uncharacteristically slow.
Cletus rinsed the dishes and trudged upstairs. He found his wife, more formally dressed than usual, sitting on their as yet unmade bed and talking into her phone, or rather hunched over it listening, while perhaps studying her stockings, her nice shoes. She must have some sort of big meeting. With the mussed covers behind her and her thick hair not yet coiled up, she was as if caught between worlds. She didn’t appear to see him standing in the doorway.
Across the hall in his small study the ceiling fan turned on its lowest setting. Cletus gathered up his work from the night before, the several summary statements and policy data reviews he’d churned out, the final round of forms for those long-term care folks, his list of questions for the new young couple he was to meet at eleven; then he organized the folders according to the day’s schedule and slid everything into his briefcase. Goodbye to the days when he’d had a secretary almost to himself; now, he shared two assistants with his whole division. He detached his phone from the charger and woke up his computer to check for recent messages. Too much crap still got through the new firewall, but thankfully the Viagra advertisements had eased up; for a while there it had seemed as if the genie in the machine was getting off on insulting the stillvigorous middle years that Cletus hoped he would enjoy for many more. He’d deleted the messages like lightning, as if even touching the subject was viral.
Eight o’clock. There was time to take a minute. He eased himself up from the desk chair, the expensive chair that was supposed to have helped his back, and then lay down flat on the floor where his bones could relate not so much to the complexities of each other as to the alignment to be desired when erect, along the plumb line of excellent posture. Ah, ah, ah, the relief of tiny adjustments, of momentarily giving up. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if small changes could actually do the trick, just a few little tweaks here and there, with far-reaching, beneficial
outcomes? His back, the banking system, the public schools, the overloaded sewer system, the world’s decayed teeth—you name it.
Flat-out supine, his back didn’t feel half bad—he made a note to himself that he should stretch out like this more often. He used to. Long ago, when he was about Annie’s age, he’d had a sort of ritual of stealing away from the farmhouse or barn to find places of his own between the rustling cornrows or in a grassy swale of a contoured field or in that dip at the bottom of the orchard where afternoon shadows collected—temporary hideouts where he could doze or daydream skyward, imagining ways he could make his life work out. A great deal then had seemed within his power. And why not—he’d known he had good ideas, and he planned on applying himself like crazy, elbow grease and all the rest of it. He wasn’t all that different now from the boy he’d been, was he? That early sense of who you were, somehow you should try to keep that memory in your sights—even if it got obscured with layer after layer of who knew what. But how to do the looking was the question, how to look and not be deceived.
He remembered the gruff, instructing voice of his father, too close and nervewracking, as Cletus would squint along the shotgun’s length, the barrel that would in a moment cause him to pierce the world. He’d been twelve, thirteen, and he hadn’t nearly gotten his size yet, or his confidence; he was just trying to do what his father asked, and whatever he did never—deeply and confusingly— seemed good enough. Cletus grew to hate having to take aim while his father watched, to resent being made to tramp with him through the November corn stubble and to endure the cold in his fingers and his heart when the pheasants fell and the retrievers bounded ahead. Sharon had always been the better shot, Sharon whom their mother had once said seemed like someone else’s daughter, too tough to be her own, she should have been the boy, but even Sharon hadn’t stayed with the hunting, had she, not since she came to be a mother herself. And so the old man with his gun had been left alone, let down—at least in the ways he thought meant something—by the kids he’d raised up, one more disappointment on top of many others, like that old, old story of being cheated by his neighbor of eighty acres. Baffling, baffling to have a father so soured by loss and grudges that he seemed to value less what he already had, all because he hadn’t gotten more. No way on earth to make sense of it.
Slowly, so slowly the fan revolved—it made Cletus dizzy to focus on a single blade—better just to let the whole thing wheel without letting yourself get too caught up. And of course he was so tired, had been it seemed for many months, like almost everyone else, tired out with trying to keep a grip on things, especially when he wasn’t even sure where all the effort was taking him. On the ceiling of the room where his high school wrestling team used to practice, the coach had taped what Cletus knew now was a hackneyed sign: IF YOU CAN READ THIS YOU’RE IN TROUBLE. But back then when you were pinned down you’d just get one of those oh-shit instants before you regrouped, scrambled up. You were so young, and in a controlled situation like that you were guaranteed to have one fresh opportunity after another. Sports were great that way. And sports had
helped give him a body that had probably made his angry father start to think twice. For sure it had made his future wife come closer: from the first Carol had confided that she really liked his size, not tall but strong; she’d told him it felt good just being next to him, sitting, standing, lying down, and she said she liked his smell. His smell, imagine.
He studied the egg and dart molding around the upper rim of the study, then once more the mesmerizing fan blades, dirty blades he now noticed, circling inches below the uneven plaster of the ceiling, a century-old frame house, theirs for better or worse, whose current market value hovered not very far, surely too close for comfort, above the mortgage balance. It wasn’t supposed to have been like this.
Such reassuring things Carol had said to him, not so much recently, but she’d said them and meant them, he knew. How she felt better in his proximity. How he knew just how to bring her back to earth. When she was particularly emotional, whether stressed or happy or strung-out exhausted, she liked to be a rag doll lifted off her feet, gently swung, this way, that way. Goofy girl. She’d never thrown a bedroom slipper at him. And he hoped he’d never give her cause.
None of all this money mess could be said to be his fault, not at least in a way he could see—like almost everyone else he was being swept along by the effects of causes seemingly out of his control—but nevertheless how hot and overloaded his brain could feel when it got exercised over what couldn’t in any way be said to be his fault. Cooling down, slowing down, thinking things through, who could anymore—there weren’t enough hours in the day.
Time had gone and changed on him. Used to be he had nothing but time, the kind of time in which you hardly went anywhere, you were in a slough of time, a backwater, where you could drown even if you were still breathing. He remembered the sorghum heat and sluggish flies of summer on the farm, the cows in winter huddled against the barn, their breaths steaming, the same repeating seasons, the same seasonal chores, the perennial miseries and small satisfactions of barnyard cats. But back then he’d always had an underlying patience as well as confidence that his life would turn into something more individually suited to him, especially after he finally admitted to himself he just wasn’t cut out for farm life, that was all. Simple. Ah, what a relief, inwardly, to make this momentous decision.
Maybe a turning point had been that freezing night he’d killed the snaggletooth cat, by mistake of course, but still—it made him wince even now, thirty years later. He’d been sixteen, full of himself, his new muscular heft, which could now stand up to his father, he’d been on his way to pick up the waiting girl, get to the dance. Stupid, smart cat, only trying to take advantage of leftover motor heat: if Cletus had revved the car and backed out half an hour later, the cat probably would have been curled up someplace warmer and safer than under the car, someplace like the barn, the hay, or the decomposing manure. That night, he didn’t tell the girl about the cat, and ever since then he’d never told anyone, even Carol, never told what the headlights had revealed, what he’d backed away
and roared away from, what had been left behind in the dark garage—for him to deal with later.
Well, nothing to be done about it now, after all this time, so many generations of cats had come and gone. Cruelty happened, and sometimes it got done through you, it just did, fact of life. Evidently. And didn’t everyone have stories that were never told, some shameful, some not really all that bad, anyway things that could be confessed?
Cletus considered the dirty blades overhead. Wash fan should be added to the chore list; this was the sort of nitty-gritty job their bimonthly cleaning crew usually declared beyond their scope, like ovens and moldy grout. They had their little routine. He’d need the stepladder, or maybe a chair would be enough.
Would his back, he wondered, feel any better if he didn’t care so much about everything? Just went along with the flow, whatever that meant. Imagine getting out of bed and for one single day just living, living without worrying for one second if he was getting it right, his life, whatever. Sharon told him last Thanksgiving that he shouldn’t stew so much—his serious face wasn’t going to save the world. Sharon did have a jolly face, overfed but pleasant. Cletus wondered if after all these years of raising her kids and working for the cable company and making her prize-winning pickles, she’d still be such a crack shot.
He had to get going, but, oh, it felt so good to lie still. A slight shift of his eyes to the right and he could watch the spruce tree branches alive beyond the upper casement of the window beside the desk, the very branches where, on the day last of March when the farmland was to be signed away by his parents, a great horned owl had appeared, watching him or not watching him with its yellow eyes as he got ready for work, right there just those few feet from his desk, only the glass separating them. He’d called Carol and the girls in—slow, shush, quiet, he ordered—and then they’d all watched in a kind of hush. The owl was still gripping the same branch at the end of that fateful day and also the next morning when they woke, but by nightfall it was gone.
He had to keep remembering that the land had not been his to keep or sell, just as the earlier decision to give up the cows had not been his. His parents had never asked for his opinion, and anyway he’d forfeited his right to have a say long ago when he’d taken off for the university with no intention to study agriculture, separating himself from his plain yet enigmatic mother, his embittered father, from the cows and the land. His choice had mightily disappointed his father but covertly pleased his mother, who’d always murmured to him that she wanted him out from under the burdens of farm life. Now look at all that had happened since: Sharon’s marrying an engineer and wanting nothing for herself of the dirt and loneliness of the country, then his mother giving herself the sixty-fifth birthday present of refusing to do barn chores anymore, his father getting mad and refusing even to hire an extra hand, then all at once selling the cows, then their snowballing health problems and the move to town, and now, so recently, the three hundred fifty acres sold, prime—like gold, land was one of those rare sellable things that hadn’t been devalued by the times. A few years ago Cletus
had been smart enough to buy a little physical gold, and now he was proud of his foresight, but of course you could argue that mining that bit of gold had probably ruined many more acres of land, in another part of the world, than his parents had sold for their sickly final years. Arthritis. Diabetes. Asthma. Heart trouble. There didn’t seem to be a story in real life that had a neat edge to it, that didn’t creep out into some sort of confusing or undesirable result; you couldn’t even buy a handful of gold without feeling guilty, or watch a few hundred acres being sold without worrying that it was economically short-sighted or, maybe worse, that you’d neglected your stewardship and insulted the trust of your pioneer ancestors, who’d come all that way. All that way in a Conestoga!
So he kept trying to assure himself that the land deal hadn’t been his doing, at least not directly. Carol, he could sense, was tired of hearing about it. She said he’d agonized enough and should think now about the upside, how the money from the sale would keep his parents in their old age, sparing their children. She said there were a lot of ways to think ahead. True, true Cletus had admitted, but the future was like a headwind, memories got sucked backwards and lost, one day no one in his family now alive would be alive. Up ahead there would be no one who would have experienced any of the endless down-to-earth details of those particular acres, the storms, the frozen, rutted road, the fawn-colored corn stubble, the wind over the fields of timothy and alfalfa, the dawns when a rising sun and a full setting moon were exactly balanced on opposite horizons, pristine dawns when the south end of the steamboat porch of the farmhouse on the hill could feel like the exact middle of the universe.
All right, all right there had been good parts, a lot of good parts, but it was so damn hard when you were stuck in a life you just knew wasn’t for you, not for the long haul.
In those secret boyhood places on the farm—before he’d gotten clear with himself that the one thing he had to do, plain and simple, was go away—he’d sometimes pretend, thrillingly, that he was already dead, just an undone boy in the grasses, dead to this life and therefore free to make himself up. Even now, he could at times sense a version of himself back there in the nature of his youth, still to be formed yet miraculously alive, alone and dead, hidden in the grass.
He heard a siren in the distance. It was morning now, but sometimes at night a siren far away in the city could almost be mistaken for one of their neighborhood screech owls. Once at the farm a baby screech owl had fallen onto the driveway apron below the corncrib; he’d coaxed it to step onto a stick and, balancing the weighted stick while pulling himself one-armed up the vertical ladder to the crib’s loft, had carried it to the sill of an open window where he hoped it would be seen by the mother. Next day it had been gone, but there was no way to know if he’d truly rescued it or just served dinner to another creature.
Running over the cat that frozen night had been his fault, and it would probably do him good to confess it. Every time he recalled that writhing leap something would seize his heart, a cold touch, all the time in the world not enough to melt it. All right, yes, he should have checked under the car, but it was
so damn dark and already ten degrees below zero as he gunned the motor and backed out, late for his date, propelled by his own stream of desire even as the headlights caught a skirling twitching shape of agony, the shape of a cat falling limp even before the front of the car had pulled out free of the doorway, the lights arcing over a still heap of fur that he did not even get out to examine or bury, but which he took to its makeshift grave only much later, at midnight, after he had seen the girl, touched the girl all over, a now-stiff cat, an open mouth of teeth like a frozen sound, buried under bent grasses in the front ditch beside the road, later when the farmhouse was dark and the wind seemed to have crossed brutal icy distances before hitting him.
It was just one of those unspeakable things. Everyone had some of them, right? But anyway, damn, damn, damn. He’d done a terrible thing. On the other hand, if the screech owl baby had been eaten by a cat, maybe the culprit had been that very one, that doomed, damned snaggletooth calico cat.
Well, shit, his father had done terrible things, too. Worse things. Not arguably, but definitely. He’d thrown his one and only son as if he’d been a sack of bones against the side of the barn. That hot afternoon Cletus could have been killed if he’d landed wrong, hitting his head or his neck in the wrong way, could have been killed or paralyzed instead of only injured a little bit, messed with. He’d been younger than Annie, twelve maybe, thirteen, same age as Molly. God. How in the devil had he looked to his father, crumpled there against the stone of the foundation, the son he’d just thrown and injured and could have killed?
Cletus watched the sluggish whirl overhead. This was ridiculous, he had to get himself moving, he had a nine thirty. He had to stand upright. Yes, he was required to stand upright, thanks to his extremely ancient ancestors, who reared up and found all sorts of clever uses for those opposing prehistoric thumbs. But wait, what if— “Cletus? Did you hear what I just said to you?” “You said something?” He craned his neck for an upside down view of his wonderful wife, upright in the door of his study. “Cletus.” “What? What! Just repeat what you said.” She was seized then by her cough, and they both had to wait. Then she managed to say, “It’s nothing,” before her voice was seized again; he heard how much infection still had to clear, and was so sorry.
“I left some scrambled eggs for you,” he said, “hopefully not too dry, I put a lid on.” It was hard to twist his neck like this, to read her upside down; he wanted her to come nearer, he wanted her to put down her briefcase and lie on top of him, wanted to see nothing but her face and feel nothing but the whole length of her adhering to him; he wanted to be under the sky with his wife, simple, just alive, clouds passing far above, the flute of a meadowlark from a fence post, why not? It had happened before.
Then here she was beside him, looking down from five feet six, then shedding her bag and crouching close, and he could hear the swish of her stockings and
see partway into the dusk of her skirt-tented thighs. Your back, she asked, and he nodded, and then she said what a mess they were, the both of them, one cripple, one consumptive, and he just shook his head and said her name. Which he loved, Carol, the open vowel. He slid his hand up along her leg, over the silky stockings. He looked at her and wondered what she saw. Last night, mindful of her illness, he’d jerked off in the shower, like bending at last to a lonely chore, afterwards feeling not satisfied, not dissatisfied, just alive, more or less grateful, beholden anyway to life. He wondered if she could read all that now, in his eyes. Or if she’d already sensed it when he’d slipped into bed.
“I have to go, I’m so late,” she said, but she didn’t go, she spread the flat of her hand on his solar plexus and only looked at him, and he wished he could make everything all right for her—he could feel suddenly how much he loved, loved the everyday adventure of loving her—but all at once she stood and was gone, and he didn’t remember until he heard her downstairs in the kitchen that he’d forgotten to ask about Annie’s after school schedule. Shouting out was too hard. His sore back wanted him not to move, for hours, to miss all his appointments and instead be fully employed as a living corpse on the floor, under the whirling fan.
The place on his chest where his wife had just placed her hand, the place named for his sun, now felt as reverberant as a tapped drum. Even after she had withdrawn her hand and gone on to her breakfast and her work, the priceless treasure of his feeling for her did still beat and breathe here—right here—here and nowhere else. It felt as close and available as anything could be, like an instrument of knowing and doing, a drum, his own useful drum, that kept being touched to life.
The eleven o’clock couple, expecting their first child in three months, had been steered successfully into term, convertible to whole life. As Cletus walked along the busy downtown avenue to lunch, he felt confident that he’d gotten them into an appropriate, manageable policy. At the end of the meeting, in a fatherly mood, he’d even asked them if they had a will; a new baby changes everything, you know—but of course they didn’t need him to tell them that. The young couple had the good manners to laugh. That pretty good appointment should have offset the unnerving cancellation of the near-retirees whom, over the last few weeks, he’d gotten all the way to the dotted line on long-term care, only to have them pull out by telephone this morning with the lame explanation that they’d concluded it would be too demoralizing to go along day by day knowing the only way they’d ever see a return on their gamble was horrible illness or disability; they said—that is, the wife said—they’d rather spend the money on a health club. And on good food, she trilled. Did the quieter husband really agree with her? Uncharacteristically, Cletus wished he could cut the woman out of the three-party call and talk man on man. He felt nonplussed, inept. But we all get there, he wanted to remind the couple, statistics show—but he well knew that sound of strong-mindedness; this woman was not buying. Now on the other
hand, she’d said, as if strengthening her argument, life insurance was different because it was a sure thing, everyone would qualify for a death benefit sooner or later—that is, the survivors would, she said, or if you yourself were hard up you could take some of it early, but the point was the money was guaranteed to come back somehow. He waited for her to finish. Finally all he could do was thank them, commend them on the good solid life insurance policies they already held, and assure them of his readiness to be of assistance in any etc., etc.
Which should have cleared his mind, but instead he walked down the noonday street, under an increasingly overcast sky, to the tune of that sixty-sixyear-old female intoning good food, good food, as if she’d hit upon a brilliant little formula for playing out the human tragedy. Pie in the sky, thought Cletus. He’d never known anyone really old who wasn’t somehow a mess. And here she was— not wealthy but in a position to make a few sound choices and lucky enough to be aging in a time and place where there were insurance vehicles to cushion her against the worst of the future—now inexplicably losing the guts to face up and plan appropriately. How had this happened when he thought he’d surely gotten the two of them to the dotted line? He felt he’d failed to convey reality, which should be part of his job. Reality. His whole sober demeanor should demonstrate to his clients that with his training and experience he could see in some directions just a little further than they, in their admirable busy absorption in other fields, and therefore he was in a position to help them, truly smoothing out some of the roughness that was sure to come. For all of us, he sometimes added; we’re all in this together.
As he walked, he pressed in a call to Carol and almost immediately got his wife’s efficient recorded greeting. It was always a tiny shock to hear how separate and formal she sounded, canned into the phone. Traffic noise riddled the air as he left his message, sweetheart, hope you’re feeling better, call please when you get this, and then he called her main office, where Patty at the front desk reminded him that Carol’s team wasn’t expected back from the big RPR presentation until the end of the day. Cletus said oh sure thanks, just forgot, as if his lapse were momentary, but in truth he felt he’d lost several important chunks of information. He punched in Carol’s direct number again and from the sidewalk outside the bank left her more urgent questions about the girls’ schedules, Annie’s in particular, and today’s home-front orchestration and said sorry he’d lost track of who was doing what, he felt a little out of it today, hoped he wasn’t getting the family cold—sharply aware as he talked of not mentioning the fact that she’d been neglecting her usual job of keeping the kitchen calendar up to date, understandable under the circumstances of her nasty cold but nevertheless consequential because would she please notice how it had left him here in the middle of the day a clueless dad with the mom out of town and apparently not picking up her phone. RPR. How had he missed that? But he restrained himself and was afterward relieved his irritation hadn’t dragged him into criticizing her—with Carol, there were definitely better practices.
Then he made his way through a small crowd of demonstrators toward
the cash machine in the outer lobby of the bank. These days it was once again all about haves and have-nots, and though he had enough but not more than enough, at least from his point of view, his sympathies ever since college days had been with the redistributors. How it was to be done, well, something had to be done. Otherwise—
Waiting in line, he managed a sloppy text message for Annie: what’s up today after school? Then one for his wife, although he and she rarely used texting—one layer too much was her excuse, and Cletus had been satisfied to proclaim his thumbs too big. Today for sure his hands felt far too clumsy for the miniature buttons, swollen as if from a whole day of farm work, maybe it was all this moisture in the air. Well, he’d done what he could for the moment. Both girls had house keys, and he’d get up to the neighborhood as soon as he could extricate himself from work. He had a one thirty and a two thirty, but now he saw how convenient it was after all—maybe serendipitous—that the long-term care folks had left the four o’clock slot open.
An armed guard stood between the glass façade and the demonstrators in a wide stance of readiness Cletus recognized as part of his own equipment, learned from sports of course, but it was older than that, learned early, even before you were strong enough to learn it, for even your own father could lurch toward you, throw you. Be ready, boy; be wary.
Cletus stared at the guard’s black work shoes. A boy could have just hopped down from the tractor at the end of a furrow to rest for a minute or two in the shade of the barn’s east side, out of the swarming afternoon heat, a boy doing a man’s work and before he knew it being flung, hard, so unbelievably hard, into the shock of impact and then down the side of the barn, down into the upward searing pain as he slid against the protruding stone foundation, stones that had been hauled from the creek in wintertime, with horses and wagon, by his very own great great grandfather, who might or might not have been a violent man: it was impossible to know why or where it had all started. Cletus closed his eyes and saw the sharp angle of shadow cast by that side of the barn at that time of afternoon, the blazing light behind the towering figure of his father, his legs, his big dirty shoes. To this day he didn’t know what his sin had been: a wobbly furrow, the misuse of the tractor, the time out, or something from earlier in the day, or the day before—or the day before the day before. A man spoke to him from behind—okay, his turn to get money. At the cash machine he felt lightheaded. Food, he needed some good food. And he needed once and for all to forget about the outrage, how he’d been an unprotected boy, doing a man’s work, not knowing enough—but wait a minute, what kid ever did know enough for whatever happened?—maybe even all your life you kept stumbling to catch up with yourself, after the fact—you’d go through an experience, and then you’d have to go through the experience of the experience, on and on. Cletus took the twenties from the slit of the machine. Maybe that’s just the way learning worked. Still it was embarrassing how the memory of that particular day could take his breath away, even with two
hundred dollars in his hands and an armed guard nearby and his father, not that far from eighty years old, physically two hundred miles away in a different state.
He counted the bills twice and slid them into his wallet. Cruelty, you couldn’t buy insurance against it; there wasn’t enough money in the world. Think of all those faces in the newspaper. Everyone had bad memories, and if you wanted to live without repeating history, everyone had to find ways of letting old damaging times be calmed into just old stories.
Anyway he himself was running out of time in his own life; there wasn’t enough of it left to keep thinking all these sorry old thoughts.
He ate a bowl of chili, very good chili, and a large whole wheat bun, smelled good coffee around him but had none, just the water thanks, and then got out of Soup House before he gave in to the cobbler. Which would have gone well with no-nonsense dark roast, some of the cobbler’s whipped cream swirled in.
Rain hit as he walked on down the avenue to stretch his legs before returning to the desk chair, random large plops, and the air smelled like rain and exhaust fumes and ozone, a city in the spring. From pots and areas of sidewalk landscaping he caught whiffs of rich soil, pungency like nothing else. He really loved that smell.
Then all at once it started pouring, and he ducked into the entryway of the recently closed bookstore where he sometimes used to stop after lunch to browse for a few minutes or glance at other newspapers and magazines. A few times in the frozen doldrums of January, when the going-out-of-business sale had already started, he’d wandered around the displays and then got caught up far back in the poetry section, reading a few lines here, a few there, until he’d ended up buying two of the slender discounted books, first time ever walking out of a store with poetry.
Today he retreated deep into the dirty abandoned entry and watched the downpour, torrents in the gutters and cascades off the bedraggled canopy. The two poetry books lay now on his bedside stand; he hadn’t read more than a few pages, been too tired night after night. But he remembered how his heart had pounded when he was paying for them, watching them being slid into a bag, slender, somehow already familiar and unintimidating volumes, and suddenly he’d felt as if he’d owned them long before and was just now taking them back home again. That day, and occasionally, unpredictably since then, he’d had the wild thought that maybe he could try his own hand with poetry—secretly of course, no expectations, just a few lines now and then to see what came out— then slide the pages into his desk. Maybe poets were the lucky ones—lucky that they had a way of finding words for things that never got said otherwise. Even in their heads. “Cletus! You, too!” Hurrying in from the wet was the wife from the newest couple in their gourmet potluck group, one hand uselessly covering her head, the other trying to protect her handbag inside a flap of her raincoat. She was wearing silly-looking shoes, high heels, too many straps, but what did he know, it was spring, people
felt like expressing themselves. But this woman, six months ago, she’d suffered what most parents most deeply fear, the loss of a child, this poor woman, what was she doing in extreme shoes, in her grief and on a rainy day? “Why, hello, Arlene, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you downtown before.” “Yes, well, I just had an appointment, this and that, and wouldn’t you know, I forgot my umbrella. You’re on your lunch hour of course. How are Carol and the children?”
“Fine, fine. Except we’ve had a chest cold in the house.” But then he shut his mouth—what was the significance of a chest cold against a child dying on his bicycle at a country crossroads? He knew all about country crossroads, he knew about country stops that too often weren’t taken seriously as real stops.
“Oh! That horrible virus that’s going around—roy had it, too, and he’s still coughing.”
“Yes, yes, Carol, too, and Molly, I’m sorry to say. Nothing to do but wait it out, I guess.” His words sounded paltry. What was the high probability of outlasting most viruses against the interminable process of having lost a child? You could wait forever and not be done with it. There ought to be something better he could say to Arlene, in the circumstances.
“Yes, the patience of the patient,” said Arlene, her head bending over the contents of her purse; a tissue came out, and she dabbed here and there, repair from the rain, he thought, mascara. But then instead of turning toward him once more and resuming their conversation, she tilted her face toward the empty, dusty display window. Cletus had a suspicion she might be wiping at tears, but it was no business of his, really; she and Roy were just the newest members of the group, that’s all. He’d never played tennis with Roy, or been his buddy for charity runs; he never saw either of them except over dishes of muchdiscussed food and even then had never said much of anything to Arlene herself. Following the death of the twenty-year-old son, Cletus and Carol had joined in the group’s communal condolence bouquet and in the several weeks of homedelivered casseroles. Then, he supposed, their closer friends had kept an eye on them. It was hard to know in a situation like this if more words were called for.
Cletus himself turned slightly away, toward the street, and checked his phone, not even as smart a phone as Annie’s, for any sort of message. Annie had a ridiculously early lunch hour and was probably back in class by now, one more school afternoon in her seventeenth year. He could so well imagine her in a row of chairs, her long hair, her long legs, her graceful arm, signaling skyward that, yes, she had the answer, again. Annie had never had a disappointing report card, and by now Cletus would be shocked by anything other than excellence. “I don’t suppose you’d have time for a cup of coffee, would you, Cletus?” He felt startled by Arlene’s voice. “Now?” He glanced at his watch and then wished he hadn’t. Just his one word, now, in its acknowledgment of reality, sounded unbelievably cruel.
“But of course you can’t,” she said, actually patting his arm. “You have your work.”
“I do have a client in about half an hour.” But against his will he thought of
the pleasure of coffee, that delicious, seductive smell—just a few minutes, that’s all, coffee, and of course sympathy.
“Yes,” she said, “it does seem to be Wednesday, doesn’t it? The middle of the week—one forgets.”
“Arlene,” he heard his own voice launching out, surprisingly, onto uncharted waters, “it’s impossible for me to imagine what you and Roy must still be going through. I mean, even though I’m a parent—”
“Oh, Cletus, thank you so much, you’re right, it’s been indescribable. Like nothing else.”
“I’m so sorry. Every time I think of it, I’m just so incredibly sorry.” But then he remembered the one thing he’d been wondering all along and wished he could ask, but of course couldn’t now, and in all the talk afterward no one had been able to say whether the boy had been wearing a helmet.
Again she patted his arm, as if consolingly. “I must tell you, Cletus, you’re one of the nicest men in that potluck group. Ever since, well, nowadays I don’t speak anything but the truth, I don’t have time for anything but the truth, and what I just said, that is the truth.” “Well—” “No, you don’t have to answer. You’re a sweet man, in my opinion, a really nice sweet man, through and through. What I don’t understand is why they don’t make more like you.”
She looked toward the street. He saw that the rain was letting up, the sun returning, sliding like its own kind of bright liquid along the slanted lines of water. On days like this, from up in his office window, he’d sometimes see a rainbow out over the lake, though that was more likely later in the afternoon, with a more westerly sun. And by late afternoon today, without fail, he needed to be out of that office and on his way to round up his daughters.
Now, though, he didn’t move. He stayed beside the woman who had lost her son, her only child. He stood quietly until she sheltered her handbag once more and prepared to step out into the lighter rain. He wished he had an umbrella to hold over her. “Well, goodbye, here I go,” she said. “It’s been quite a day.” Quite a day, quite a day— where did people get all these things they said, these little filler phrases that meant nothing and everything?
The public high school, allegedly college preparatory, stood on the side street of a neighborhood of now multiracial bungalows, not far from a main avenue that crossed over six lanes of busy, north-south expressway. The severing expanse of the highway gave a this-side, that-side, tentative feel to the whole area; businesses like gas stations and big lot and dollar stores and even solid little houses seemed perennially encroached upon by forces much larger than the struggle for stable lives. Debris caught against chainlink fences and littered the grasses beside the exit ramp. It was a quarter to five, no longer raining, but not sunny either, just nondescript early spring.
Cletus was later than he’d hoped—a call had come in on the office phone that he felt he had to take immediately, a business client with multiple key-man policies—but with luck he’d get to the field in time to see the end of Annie’s track practice, if she did have track today, which he’d convinced himself she did, it just felt like a track day, and without any other clues, no answers to his multiple calls to both daughter and wife, he had no choice but to go with his feelings. Intuitions. Whatever. He supposed he could have called the school office, but he hadn’t thought of it, and now he was convinced he needed to get to the field behind the school before Annie took off to wait on some street corner, in what could best be called a transitional neighborhood, to wait alone for a city bus that might or might not, with all these budget cuts, come along promptly. He pictured her waving toward him in the bleachers as she came off the track to gather up her heap of belongings. He saw how other parents would notice him then as the father, presumably, of that striking, long-legged girl—legs dirty from the wet field, he thought, and she’d be sweaty, wouldn’t she, in air that still hadn’t lost its chill. She’d be grateful for a ride. He could hardly wait to see her.
He negotiated his turn off the ramp and headed west over the lanes of cars below that now seemed to be going faster than fast, faster than he’d been going.
Then he remembered The Boy, who might already be lounging in the bleachers with his eyes on the bodies of the girls, one in particular. In his hurry to leave the office, Cletus had forgotten about The Boy. Maybe old dad wasn’t needed on the scene at all. So what could he do, give the boy a ride to his own house, dad in the front, boy and girl in the back?
When he was a boy on the farm he’d driven tractors and trucks years earlier than he should have, usually on their own farm, but sometimes out on the road, Sharon had, too, but not so much. Country kids knew what they knew, like a different breed. Even though he’d lived in cities since he was eighteen, Cletus sometimes felt cautious around people who’d never known the land, who didn’t feel the four directions in their bones, who couldn’t picture the size of one acre or eighty or even a whole section if it wasn’t marked off by roads. What he knew was all inside him somewhere, but a lot of it never got called up. You had to wonder, at some point, what all that stuff was for—all that experience.
There weren’t many cars in the school lot. A tired-looking woman, whom Cletus recognized as one of the English teachers, hoisted her briefcase up into her car and then got in herself. Mrs. Stevens. Deidre. Exceptional language skills: that’s usually what teachers said first about Annie. And Molly: highly social, heart of gold, needs to focus.
Cletus shed his suit coat and jogged around to the back of the school. A few boys with very dirty legs were practicing hurdles on the track, and in a far field the baseball team was still at it, but generally things seemed pretty quiet. He took the bleacher stairs downward in measured leaps, thinking of his body, which needed more exercise, more sleep, more of the right things, less of the others, on and on. A coach on the sidelines told him the girls had today off. Cletus felt like arguing, so clear had been his picture of Annie on the field—and of himself,
watching and waiting. Well, his picture had been wrong. He’d deceived himself.
He ran back to the parking lot and then headed the car east along the busy avenue, imprisoned within the stream of cars and trucks and stinking buses, his eyes trained on sidewalks and street corners, on the eastbound side, on the west, you never knew. He scanned all the bus windows he could see. There were a few students with backpacks here and there, but the afterschool population had dwindled, and with it the security that he’d always tried to convince himself came with sufficient numbers. At a red light he put in another call to Annie, got her message. Well, damn it, why had he gotten her that expensive phone if she wasn’t going to answer it? He called home and got the efficient message of his wife, through which absurdly he strained to hear the sounds of his family today.
He crossed once more over the many lanes of expressway traffic, heavier now, and came into a long commercial strip, Goodwill, filling stations and car washes, joints for burgers, chicken, cashing checks, expanses of parking lot, some cracks in cement tufted with weeds. There were several miles to go before their own neighborhood, and they were mostly ugly—this was the dreary route his dazzling child was required to travel every day and every day. You’d think people could do better putting cities together.
Dipping below an overhead road, he used its shadow to glance at the dashboard clock, five fourteen, then five fifteen. With some relief he approached the bridge over the swollen river, trees on either bank just beginning to blossom and leaf. The waterway with its lush banks was crossed so fast, quick strips of nature on right and left, too much to take in even at this moderate speed. The river marked the entrance into a better neighborhood, and Cletus felt himself beginning to breathe more easily. He’d be home in ten or twelve minutes. Now he was approaching the newly renovated overhead bridge for the bike trail that ran for many miles on the old train track bed, one of those decent, forward-thinking repurposing projects that sometimes did actually materialize. As a family, they sometimes biked the path north to the falls or south to the museums, and Cletus also loved taking off on it alone, biking or running, just getting away on his own for an hour or two, at his own speed, with trees and shrubs and wildflowers on either side.
The delivery truck in front of him blocked much of his view, but just as he drove below the trail, directly above his car, standing near the railing, he saw a boy in a hooded sweatshirt and a girl—wait a minute, was that his daughter? Flashing over him, it was yet a jolting flash, for he’d been instantly sure it could be Annie up there, his Annie, why, it had to have been, no one else looked like that, and the business of those two had looked like an active argument. In those few seconds he had glimpsed Annie—if it was Annie—stomping in a circle in front of the boy, hands gesturing overhead, as if in a pantomime of extreme adolescent distress. But Cletus wasn’t sure about the identity of the boy, this one seemed more substantial than the sorry specimen he remembered from the high school bleachers—maybe the kid had grown inches in weeks, could be possible, he was at that age. Evidently he hadn’t also acquired any additional wits.
Damn it, why was Annie wasting her exceptional language skills on that idiot? But what if it was another boy entirely, someone more objectionable, even dangerous? Damn, damn, why wasn’t his beautiful daughter on a bus or safe at home playing with social media like all the rest of her friends—and also, if it wasn’t too boring, please, answering her phone when it was her dad?
Coming out on the other side of the overhead, he cranked his head to peer backwards, but traffic hemmed him in and pushed him onward. At last he maneuvered off and parked at a taco place. He slammed the car door and took off at a run down the block toward the bridge, which from this distance and this angle now appeared empty of figures. With every step he was aware of his sore back, his inadequate business shoes, his winter of too-little exercise, but at least, what a small, glad bit of data, his bladder did feel calmer. Well, that was something, but nevertheless it was inexcusable how effortful his running felt, and he vowed to get himself back in shape.
No, he could see no one on the bridge ahead. Then someone completely different passed, a sleek rider hunched over his bike, then once more no one. Cletus wondered if he’d been hallucinating his daughter and the boy who apparently had been so upsetting to her. He imagined dashing up to the bike path in time to tackle that lout, bring him down, get a lock on him and give him a serious piece of a father’s mind. Then he’d ease up on the poor kid and just before releasing him tell him to go home and think long and well about what he’d just been told: how you treat your girlfriend means the world.
It was fortunate the designers of the new bridge had specified a paved ramp curving up from the sidewalk to the high trail—at least Cletus wasn’t required to clamber up a scruffy embankment or heave himself over a rail. But at the top he did need to stop and breathe; bending over, hands on knees, he glanced north and saw only the sleek cyclist far away by now, but southward down the long, long trail toward its vanishing point there was, yes, there was a girl jogging alone, his long-haired Annie, if it was Annie, it could be no one else, but alone, all alone. Jesus Christ, had she just had her heart broken by that idiot?
He stood up and called her name with all the breath he could muster, but his voice seemed to go nowhere—there was so much traffic beneath him and thick growth on either side of the long trail. He slapped his pockets for his mobile phone and realized it was back in the car, in his suit jacket. So he started running, calling her name again and again. Unless she slowed, he’d never catch up; she’d be swallowed by the vanishing point in the trees.
Vanishing point, vanishing point, come on, it was nothing more than a trick of the mind, of the eye, a way of talking about what in truth goes on and on and on. She might disappear into the trees, but she wouldn’t vanish. And even if he couldn’t manage to catch up with her or make her hear him, he knew where she’d most likely exit the path and which streets she’d take home. He was pretty sure he’d found her now, his sixteen-year-old, his Annie, and she was jogging in the right direction, toward home. It wasn’t all that far, not too chilly, the rain withheld. But how he wanted her to know right now that he’d found her!
He stopped and positioned his fingers for a one-handed whistle—once, twice—the kind of whistle that used to be enough to call to Roxie or one of the other dogs in a far pasture, signal them to start rounding up the cows.
But he couldn’t cut it—he hadn’t reached her. It was almost unbearable to see a part of himself so far ahead and separate on the greening path, his child. He felt stunned. My god, this was the strangest thing, to have a child, then to watch with watery eyes as she ran unreachably away. Look at that.
Cletus shook himself. This was nothing to mourn. It just happened. Naturally. Children were born after you, in time, but they also ran ahead, they outran you because that was what they were born to do. Get over it.
He tried the whistle one more time, with all the breath he could gather, a sound to pierce the distant distance—as the skin of the world had been pierced that morning of his daughter’s birth, his first child, after the unbelievably long labor of his astonishing wife, sixteen years ago. Annie had come into time, to them. But now she didn’t even turn around. She kept running, the light all around her greenish, fresh, watered with his own tears. She vanished.
Some time after eleven, as he finally entered the shadowy bedroom, Cletus willed all his actions to be soundless. Carol’s breathing as she slept was more peaceful than it had been for weeks, and he was glad for her. She’d gone upstairs about nine with a cup of hot tea for her cough and a desperate need for sleep—she said she felt she’d die if she didn’t get it and she’d be incredibly grateful if he could ride herd on the girls and their homework and finish the kitchen and lock up and all the rest of it.
And so he’d made sure the girls were settled into school work in their rooms and then come back down to the kitchen for the rest of the chores— with attention to a few details like the stainless stovetop that Carol did tend to swish over—and then sat for a time at the kitchen table plowing through some company reports, moving on to the remainder of this morning’s newspaper, the old news of the tired world. He’d been sipping from his own cup of tea, something spicy and herby his father would probably hoot at. Sissy tea. Wouldn’t put hair on anyone’s chest.
After a while Molly had hopped downstairs for a snack and stopped to drape herself over his back, docking her chin on his shoulder, playing with his ears, dropping graham cracker crumbs on his papers, skewing his glasses. He’d allowed himself to lean back into the wonderful energy, even at this time of night, of his thirteen-year-old, who, yes, had finished her math and, no, didn’t need to take a bath tonight and, no, had no clue if her sister also wanted a snack—her door had been, like, totally closed.
When Molly had gone back upstairs, he’d watched some snippets of news and comedy spins of the same news on the kitchen television, but soon felt overloaded by the quick-fire jabbering. Yes, okay, it’d been quite a day. He’d stared at the blank screen, ruminating on Annie’s initially breezy explanations for taking an unorthodox route home—spring fever—and for not answering her
phone—out of juice. But, when he’d then asked about the boy on the bridge, she’d turned the interrogation on him and wanted to know why he’d been driving around spying on her anyway, didn’t he trust her? Of course, he’d said, trust wasn’t the point. Well, what was the point then, she’d asked, and he’d said it was all about safety, in the city, and she’d said, and that isn’t about trust?
He’d let her have the last word because he hadn’t known how to answer. Who could say what best practices really were when it came to raising girls? There were fathers with daughters all over the world acting out innumerable variations of the same story, some of those girls never having their say, about anything whatsoever, never ever getting a chance to take a chance. He wanted to do the best for his girls. Swear to god, he tried as hard as he could. But it was so globally complicated.
Water rushed down the pipes from the bathroom above, the clock ticked forward, the house creaked. He’d sat alone in his quiet, mostly clean kitchen, remembering the image of his first daughter far ahead on the spring path, her hair swinging, her strong legs pumping. A good image, and he’d seen how he could keep holding on to it, maybe, he’d thought, even taking care of her through it, her strong, running figure in the distance treasured with the eyes of his heart.
Finally standing up to clear his papers and stack up the newspapers, he’d been struck once again by the photograph of the turbaned man with the troubled teeth, the teeth he’d wished so beneficently this morning could be fixed, but now with the horrific thought that this might be one of those men who if feeling dishonored by a daughter would feel driven to dispatch her from the face of the earth—burning, beheading, drowning, stoning, the accounts he’d read varied as to method, all dire. Think what a miracle if proper dental care would have reformed this father’s idea of what was best. Cletus had stuffed the papers into the recycling bin, checked the doors, turned out the lights, and then headed upstairs, his duties done at last for today. Like a farm dog, he’d thought, with his family finally rounded up in their beds.
Groping for his pajamas in the semi-dark, he recalled how his father hadn’t been very good at whistling in general and with his fingers never got out much more than hot air—hands too fat maybe. Bellowing had always been his father’s method, but that, too, had its limitations. Even the cows and the dogs would at times ignore him, or do the opposite.
Somewhere in the night Cletus, or someone like him, left his briefcase behind at a kind of commercial counter, somewhere, and though he searched, he searched without knowing where to search and without being able to retrace any of his steps because he couldn’t stop being propelled forward and forward through alleys and corridors, up and down darkish stairs, through door after door, with an accumulating disappointment in himself for his stupidity—how on earth could he have walked away from his briefcase? He’d never, ever be able to reconstruct its contents. He was sweaty with anxiety and what his critic might call disproportionate grief over a mere bag of papers, an embarrassment of grief,
yet not uncalled for, he insisted to no one in particular, given how important something like a briefcase was to someone like him, and then he was awake enough to know he was stretched out beside his wife in his own bedroom. He hadn’t lost his briefcase after all. He hadn’t lost his family. There was a siren, far to the south in the city where he’d chosen to live. He’d only been sleeping, and there was therefore no way he could have been carrying his briefcase, which he now remembered using at the kitchen table, while he’d been waiting to give himself permission to go to bed. He was saved for the time being.
After the siren faded out, he heard rain against the bedroom windows and on the roof of the front porch below. More rain. Steady. Not much wind.
He got up to pee. He looked into the girls’ rooms. Molly as usual had kicked off all her covers, so he tiptoed to her bed and floated the comforter down over her. Annie slept curled and well covered, her hair all he could see of her head. He found himself compelled to peer more closely. As delicately as possible he lifted a portion of that gorgeous hair. Of course she was breathing. What had he been thinking? She wasn’t a baby in a crib anymore.
Once more in his own bed, he eased out supine and waited to relax. So tired of the stubborn old pain in his back, he tried imagining whatever would appease it, induce it to give up. Carol snored now, her breath catching irregularly on phlegm. There was nothing he could do for her but listen. Inside the sound of the rain he listened to her and to the space all around them, the night of their own bedroom, inside the outer elements.
You could arrange your circumstances as best you could, tighten here, loosen there, but wasn’t it funny how life kept insisting on its own terms. You were in truth small, weren’t you—starting out small and staying small. He remembered how his paternal grandmother, an overworked farm woman of many sighs and morose predictions, would tell him each time he said goodbye, especially in the last years of her life, that she was praying for him. Now he was ashamed to admit how burdensome her words used to be, rendered heavy and somehow untrustworthy by what he’d always sensed was her unhappiness. It had frightened him, somehow. When he was old enough to know better and she was not long for the world, he could at least have thanked her for her prayers. But he’d missed his chance. It was too late now.
But he had to admit it wasn’t too late for his father. He turned and curled on his side. The words wouldn’t have to be as earthshaking as thank you for not killing me. Everyone had to live with an awful lot, no need now to make his father’s load heavier. Thank you for life would do.
Now he found himself following each of Carol’s labored breaths. He remembered how he’d coached her when both babies were born, counting when to breathe and blow and at last, at last when to push. Now. Now. God, the veins along her temples and in her neck had bulged so tremendously he’d been alarmed they’d rupture—the whole process had seemed way too violent for any body. But Carol had done it; she’d been amazing. He recalled that after the marathon of Annie’s birthing, his right hand had been sore for many days, all
because of how hard he’d been gripped by his wife. And actually he’d loved that pain in his hand, been proud of his role. He’d loved how he had trouble typing and turning the house key and snapping the baby’s tiny pajama suits; even his signature had looked different, almost lovable and somehow triumphant.
Which in itself was a triumph because his name for such a long time in his growing up had felt problematic, simply his own name. After he’d left the farm for the university, he’d even thought briefly of changing it. Cletus sounded like a weird hick. But he’d never felt he could justify something so drastic. To change your name, you had to feel a major sort of before-and-after decision in yourself, like a definite moment when you dedicated yourself to religion or even to would-be fame. Otherwise, if you were the plodding, gradual type, it probably made more sense just to keep your own name and work with it. Even so, especially that first year at the university, he’d practiced different ways of signing his name until he’d come up with a firm, clear hand that looked authentic, and as he walked around the campus or into the streets of the town he’d kept trying to get a true sense of himself, like his true nature. Who was this guy, walking where no one in his family had walked before? How was he meant to live? He’d particularly relished the moments, which seemed to be personally important and also somehow worldly, when he crossed into the town or when he once more stepped back onto the campus. Borders.
Then there was that day his first year at the university when he’d picked up the town newspaper at a drugstore and read on the front page about a local murder. It had happened on a street where he often strolled, a pleasant street that went along some blocks of stores and restaurants before crossing high above a paved culvert and then going on beyond the bridge into residential blocks, ending in a nice park, where on occasion he continued his walk. Even though he hadn’t witnessed the murder, the picture of it in his mind as he read the newspaper had been so strong and horrific that he’d never afterwards been able to cross that bridge—or sometimes even now, all these years later, other bridges in other places—without remembering viscerally, as if in every cell of his own body, how the woman had been picked up and flipped over the railing, as if on impulse, as if she weighed nothing, a witness had reported, picked up and flipped like nothing by a man whose only defense later was that a voice had told him the woman deserved it, he’d been commanded that she had it coming to her.
That day Cletus felt he’d found out almost more about his own life than he could handle, and he’d never discussed the story with his roommate or anyone else. Wordless, it had stayed in his mind all these years and had even become part of his experiences with bridges, the imagined scene like a gulp every time its shadow would cross his mind, maybe even today when he’d been so astonished to see Annie above him with that idiot boy on the trail bridge. Talking about these hidden-away things was extremely hard, even with someone as down-toearth and brave as his wife. He’d also never been able to tell her the whole fleshed-out story of that day he’d been thrown against the barn, flung like no more than a worthless sack of bones, like a figment of his father’s anger. Carol
only knew in general about an injury, but not about the extreme heat of the day, the thud of his body, the shock of pain, the unbelievable surprise, the summer light blasting in immeasurable grandeur behind the tall figure of his father.
He heard Carol’s breath catching on the intake, gurgling out. If listening could take care of her, then that was what he was doing tonight, listening to her inside the overall texture of the sound of the rain as it washed over him. He curled his body more compactly. These days this was as small as he could make himself. Once more he felt the simple relief of waking up beside his wife and realizing he hadn’t lost his briefcase after all. He’d lost a briefcase in a dream. Which had contained what? Curious. Maybe he could dream it again.
Seen from this low angle in the dimness, the stack of books on his nightstand loomed potently. So, anyway, where did people start when they wanted to write a poem? Something close at hand would sound reasonable, something small, a small piece of the world. Like a hand, cupped. Like a body at rest, incurved like a cup, breathing in and out, made full, made empty.