Wed­nes­day Rain

New England Review - - Cultural History - Su­san Eng­berg

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

Su­san Eng­berg

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

Su­san Eng­berg

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

Su­san Eng­berg

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

Su­san Eng­berg

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.

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