In a place on the outskirts of the city where citizens escape early evenings from hopped metal coffees and accelerated carbon monoxide cocktails or behind heavy rectangular desks, a series of homes outline a series of streets that inevitably lead lost cars daily into engineered asphalt elbows from which, curb-guided, they emerge as quickly as they entered, lost. At dusk those lost cars carry confused drivers pulled close to windshields over black steering wheels to see better where they are not wanting to be, who see themselves superimposed in transparent reflections aging, haggard searchers. Dozens of times nightly, double high-beams sweep across a concave row of houses, illuminate curtained living rooms, bedroom brick walls, vinyl siding, garage doors, the brackish green opacity of kitty’s pupils or a dog’s black eyes. Tires zip the street open and shut or history sticks to Michelin treads and Goodyear expectations or oil seeps from unexpected and poorly repaired cracks because the cold moves things along and every road leads to a stopping point, lost or found. The passing headlights from lost cars show no separate homesteaders’ interpretations of local landscapes rather invisibly expose a subtle and sinewy conjunctiva holding each home to the other, wetted with cautious conjunctions indistinguishable clicks of here and now idealism. Not intertwined nor subordinate yet originally different, each home and the other and the next and 1199 and 1205 and 1211 and 1217 and 1223.
And once there was a first house—then a home not just an architectural marker—built by Jones, electrician, who bought the land, who sold to Franklin, personal banker, who sold to current owners of thirty-five years—an author and his laundress, cook and sometimes lover. In 1205: three rooms, a kitchen, garage, yards front and back, a bathroom, and four steps fall into the space where they sit most evenings ignoring sweeping headlights, lost drivers’ transparent searching.
He sits, today, with book in hand a diligent reader reading. His white chair a soft and squeaking semi-reclined half-shell, and in it he studies the books he read as a young man. He spent three weeks scribbling, compiling lists of titles he read from twelve to twenty. He will read them in chronological order.
There she is folding shirts—red and brown mostly, some white—sleeve over back, sleeve over back, tails to collar. She just finished rolling all the socks minus the spare few, haggard loners that make their way into each wash.
A pink cyclamen on a cherry hutch balances the composition, completes an unacknowledged point of view—a triangle the hypotenuse of which is ultimately meaningless. A Hopper painting composed, flattened and framed through preposition: the flower by a hutch by a husband by a wife. A football match winds down mute on TV. A rug sprawls out comfortably in place of a dog in between—a repeated, three-square pattern of burgundy, forest green, and umber in engineered juxtaposition.
And there is conversation, too.
Father’s having heart trouble: talking to the clothes as much as to him.
Always has had health problems: reading as much as talking.
He wasn’t ever what you could call tough (pause, and he waits knowing a caesura when he hears one) like most men of his generation: as if it were fact.
No, no, he wasn’t: as if it didn’t matter either way.
It will be a fine autumn: looking up at the sunflower wall warmed by the late afternoon sun.
Usually is, and short if anything: looking up to her profile (her peachy cheek, diminutive ear, and all that dark in there.)
He stands and tucks in his shirt; a cordovan belt, it tightly hugs his waist, appears again. He aligns the buckle with the hems of his fly and placket. He looks for the line and sees an order in his attire, stares chin to chest from chest to shoes, and reflects peacefully—a rare unguarded, fatigue-less moment.
She witnesses the moment take him by surprise, peripherally, and smiles and folds.
Were he one to share his thoughts beyond a laconic anecdote, he might remark that he still remembers the day he learned that maneuver. Not the day exactly, but the black morning inspections and washing his hands in chilled dewy grass. Charleston paper mill refuse clogging the fresh air with denser matter and all the greens and blacks of early, East Coast dawns. Not the old Navy drill, but the morning jogs and muzzle of humid fog shooting pink and purple tattered banners across a low, flat sky. He might tell her about late nights spent pressing white shirts and pants both cotton and polyester, struggles with seams, good habits built, early morning musters. Maybe about the night he watched a small Cessna aircraft buzz the base.
Greg McCormack swore he would kill himself and others, too. He was swooped dangerously low over the dorms waving the wings of his plane a prophetic and grand farewell, then grazed the dank sound (current rippled water sounds like sheets shaken over a mattress,) then the official loud helicopters, and then no more McCormack. His final maneuver was a quick lifting into the sky that appeared to sever the continuous horizon and blister the dark sky with orange flakes. His tiny exhaust rippled the sky a sun-worn rebuke.
He could tell her about why they had called him McGrubb because he never showered because they had to be clean because they had to muster properly. Two days before his plane stunt, they stripped McGrubb naked, ran him to the pond, held him down hard, and used Brillo pads to scrub him to the point of rash. He might share, he thought looking at her folding, that he sometimes still dreamt of Irish-pale skin in brackish water, peach and red dots against the soft green food of an evening tide.
He is struck most to recollect, now, M’s chin popping up and going under as if on its own and disembodied and how a disembodied chin is an accurate caricature for any squid for that matter and the times the locals spat at all the guys in dress uniform for kicks yet cheered for them in official parades. He remembers writing about that chin and its companion elbow as he crouched deep within the hull of a submarine in the cradling arc of its bilge. Small tinklings of liquid into the water helped him keep time with his words. It was good to be small enough to hide under the grated walkways, to get away. In a space built to refuse privacy, he cultivated his own curved spot in which to hide cool, calm and collected.
He sits down without a sign of any recollection; McCormack fades back into old time silence; she finishes her folding and leaves the room. He begins to recognize a tightness under his shirt like something rising not just from under his skin but from deep inside where we take things working for granted. He stops pretending to read, uses his right index finger for a bookmark, walks to the hutch, stands over the cyclamen, and runs a finger along the cochlear curve of a delicate pink petal. He tugs at it and plucks the bud from its stem. He squeezes the oblong mass tightly. A slippery wetness gives way to a sticky residue. The colors green and pink give way to small black threads, smooth and stringy pulp between his forefinger and thumb. He rubs until nothing is left but a slight pungent odor.
She calls from the bedroom and asks about his socks.
He slowly makes his way back to his chair. Once there, he purposefully ignores her and returns to his reading act. The rising grip in his chest is now a fully formed fist. He looks like he is holding his breath. He attempts to ignore the pain by focusing on a page. He stares at it, widens his eyes, allows all words except a particular two or three to tumble off a page in stuttered defocusing steps. He mouths prepositions. Their movement in a sentence signifies something better to come, sometimes particular and sometimes not. They move in and out of, towards and away from, but never pin any thing down to. And what arrives is typically less grand than the announcement of definitiveness or hearkening gesture of generality.
He studies prepositions and their doing: about, with, in, and around. Anywhere a squirrel can go his seventh-grade English teacher, Father Gaffney, liked to say. Gaff was old. Skin flaked from his face and scalp, littered the brown hood and shoulders of his Augustinian vestments. He smelled like wet tobacco. Gaff must be dead by now, he thinks: like the priest they were asked to view during chapel. A day like any other, kids piling into the church across from the classroom building, all the obligatory fake farting, spitting, preparatory body manipulations mandated as prelude for the thirty minutes of forced silence to follow.
There he was. In front. Waxed into a coffin—his white hair shellacked back onto his scalp and a stiff upper-lip just visible. What was his name? And Gaff was up front solemn, head down. He had only seen the priest once or twice, in the halls and on the grounds, was too young to have had class with him. Soon, a wave of silence moved from the front pews to the back, steadily. And with the silence a reeking one syllable utterance concretizes.
He stops remembering not by chance either as he realizes he hasn’t been breathing and the pain he is thinking is actually pain he is feeling. As if never having left his lips, an awkward and childish silence from morning chapel over fifty years ago bursts from a hidden pustule leaving his lips like blood from an ulcer. In a spurt the utterance unravels its mysteries in large black letters into the room as if he has not considered dying prior to this moment or had not known the import of its movement, its experience.
He looks up from his book and catches his wife rolling what looks like Gaff down the hallway grubby as an oblong monument to vermicompost. He rolls the word, rolls its monolithic syllable along his tongue, tries to see it move in there between bottom teeth and roof of mouth. Or, he gags. He closes his eyes for a moment and opens them to see her staring at him from the hall holding the vacuum, much frightened.
A thick trail of saliva slips from his bottom lip and leaves a wet crescent, waning moon, on a page of his book.
He has not laughed in days. But he laughs now, a childlike giggling.
She leaves the vacuum in the hall and walks into the room. She says something he fails to hear. Something about him scaring her. He looks at her, wipes drool from his chin and begins to recover from his fit. He coughs loudly and gulps down air, finally, gives up the tightness, allows the hold to go, and settles down. When his eyes meet hers, he gets quiet quick. He allows his jaw to drop.
He sees in her eyes a sliver of white light that blows him backwards along all the days spent silently ignoring her. Weeks. Months. Years, possibly. All exhaust in a brilliant flash, used up, and gone like the faint odor squeezed from the petals of a fragile plant. That white effusion irrupts into a small yet significant corner of a room in the house where he grew up. She bodily slips away from him all but for her gaze. And its look exposes him squatting and waiting, alone, for her. And he sees in that glint of particles a shadow profiling her likeness and is warmed to some yet unmoved potential and the need she always already sates.
He painfully stands to walk though he feels like running. And he walks to hug and hugs to heal a nothing that has ever needed healing. He clings to more than hugs her, squeezes tightly, rubs her into him. The cyclamen offers no rebuke and simply sits on top of the hutch stoic like a cat.
Overwhelmed by his behavior, her arms are caught at her sides. If he lets go, she will topple backwards without a chance of stopping the fall. In her right hand, she clings tightly to a graying sock and squeezes it. She runs her thumb into the hole in its heel—her thumb a threadless needle. They are a chance meeting of an author and a sewing machine on a dissecting table.
And they are in the house this way for twenty more years. And before the house, there was a field. And before the field, a prairie; before the prairie, a valley; before the valley, an unmeasured wilderness thought unfathomable; and each creature ran along with the others: the weight of doing-being not yet cultivated nor concentrated within a restrictive arc of houses at the end of a street marked each dusk by the ever-blinking, tan light of a slowly dying, halogen bulb.