What was good about the road was that the road’s decisions were already made. For two full days I’d watched it emerge on the horizon and disappear beneath me. I saw it change colors, from black to gray to brown, and sometimes felt the seams between them, a clunk against the steady tremble. Los Angeles giving way to glittery Vegas, Martian Utah, and a blind nighttime passage through the Rockies. Then a fresh morning of eastern Colorado fading into prodigious fields of Kansan wheat, forever-sized and flat like nothing you’ve ever seen, until finally Missouri, blunt and dark, a series of brake lights to guide along the final leg. I surrendered to the road. Only once did I pick up my phone and call Audrey. After eight rings I heard her voice mail, and here I likely should have made some gesture, but everything had already been said, repeated, thrown around like rolled-up socks.
Then I was back in the driveway, engine idling, wondering just what in the shit to do now. There was a new addition to the house jutting into what used to be side yard. I could imagine my parents in the living room, quiet and mostly still, cozy within that special silence of the long-married. If I unfastened my seat belt, the car would beep at me.
Soon enough the front door opened to reveal parents silhouetted against the yellow glow of home. I cut the engine, stepped into the night, raised a hand, and smiled. Hello. The air felt and tasted heavy and wet. A hug, a hand pressed flush against cheek, and even though it wasn’t a week since we’d all been together at commencement, I sensed relief in them both. During her second hug my mother swayedand spoke quietly to the air, our boy, our boy, our boy.
“Makes more sense to unload now,” my father said. “Twice the hands.”
She said to make a pile of laundry and she’d take care of it in the morning. “Are you hungry? I’ve got salami.”
Car unloaded, shoes off, I sat on the counter above the dishwasher and chewed a sandwich. My parents watched. I always needed this, when they would stand as a pair, sharing the same frame. These are my parents, these two adults. I am their only remaining child. My brother, Fredrick Alan Mays, drowned at the age of five when he chased his rubber four square ball into the leaf- and tarpaulin-covered swimming pool at the Sheldon Woods apartment complex. At the time my mother was spoon-feeding a ten-month-old me special prescription formula. My father was at work, making his way through a small mountain of legal briefs. There were no witnesses. Freddy falling onto an ancient, heavy tarp improperly anchored to the pool’s deck and becoming entangled, sinking beneath fetid off-season water while my mother ensured I was taking to the new formula. One splash, then many more as his arms flailed, little puddles on the deck, ball bobbing, Freddy sinking. This took a moment of active deliberation: I was their son who didn’t drown. To their credit, my parents understood. They remained side by side and gave me a second.
“Our boy,” Carla said, beaming as she wrapped up the rolls and the meat.
I could see my father preparing to talk. He was examining his hands, pulling his frame slightly inward, revving. Richard stood over six foot and was handsome the way people found reassuring. His hair, full and gray, embraced age without submitting to it. I watched him shrug slowly and look up from his hands.
“How’s the car running?”
“It’s a great car,” I said. “I love the car. Thank you guys, again, for the car.”
“Be sure to check the oil tomorrow. You know how to check
“Of course, Pop.”
“Of course you do,” he said. “Well, give it a check tomorrow. And then what else? Is there a plan? You check the oil and I’ll poke around if you like, find something for you. Not to say hurry up and decide. Not to pressure. Your mother and I are just glad to have you around for a while. Aren’t we, Carla? But will it hurt to start thinking about things? No it won’t. History of the world, nobody’s ever died from giving a little thought. Not a single bruise caused by thinking things over. Really: we’re just glad to have you back. Wait–I’m in Cleveland this week. Back on Thursday. Poke around then.”
I smiled and he seemed to smile kind of, and this was good,
then he nodded and looked back at his hands.
My mother moved to my father’s side. “The important thing is there’s food here whenever you want it. Chicken wings, toasted ravioli, twice-baked potatoes.”
I climbed the stairs to the second floor. I stepped into the newly redecorated bathroom and watched myself brush teeth, then spent minutes leaning onto the sink, examining my reflection. In the bedroom, I opened and closed the wardrobe and several dresser drawers. I was continually impressed by the sturdiness of my parents’ furniture, dark old wood that hinted at permanence. My poster of Ozzie Smith mid-dive hung over my bed and my sheets smelled of some theoretical sunny and breezy afternoon, the middle of a field. I lay down, closed my eyes, and breathed. Sleep, lately, was becoming an issue.
Some time later, I tossed back sheets and stood. Downstairs, I moved from one room to the next, turning corners with soft steps. Every few years my parents would hire crews of men to come and hang sheets of translucent plastic, rip up floorboards, and push walls outward. Two years ago they furnished the basement. Before that they lengthened the patio into the backyard, then they added the sunroom, where nobody ever went. The living room had once been the family room. I stood where the current living room used to end and looked into the most recent addition. The office, Richard called it. The computer room, Carla called it. I touched picture frames and ran fingers across new plaster. I leaned against the enormous desk and waited.
A timer made the rooms go even darker than before.
Back upstairs, the house grew colder and I crawled deeper into the bedding so that soon only my face was exposed. I may have been acting like a child, but in this room it was sanctioned. It was okay.
Audrey was on an airplane. Or she’d already landed.
Where was it. Paris.
There was noise directly above me, the scraping of some creature in the attic. Plural creatures. From inside the fabric-softened and spring-breezy cocoon I watched shadows of branches dance across the wall. Rain.
Breakfast was two eggs fried into the middle of hollowed-out pieces of toast. My mother poured orange juice, moved about the kitchen, disappeared, then came back to write onto a Post-it she stuck to the phone.
“I think there might be squirrels in the attic,” I said.
Before retiring, my mother had been a universally loved
second-grade teacher. She won annual awards and was showered with Christmas gifts by the parents of her students. It took very little effort to imagine her leading a class. That short, wavy brown teacher hair, the full-length single-color dresses, flats–her whole package was perfectly educational, a surplus of maternal energy.
“We just had a man here for bees. And now squirrels?”
When she retired, much of that teacherly vigor was diverted
into her garden. In the fall she disposed of annuals and cut back perennials, covered soil with manure as one would ice a cake. She spent entire springs on her knees, dual wristbands to wipe away full days of sweat. It was her passion, basic and earthy in every way.
“How are you for cash?”
“Me? Fine. I’m fine.”
She left the kitchen and returned a few minutes later in her sleeveless shirt and denim shorts. Her purse was under the phone. She pulled out her wallet and removed an uncreased bill. She laid the bill next to my orange juice, kissed my forehead, and stepped through the side door into her garden. I walked immediately to the phone and called Stuart Hurst.
“This is Stuart.”
“Stubes. So formal.”
“Potter Mays! Home again home again. Jiggedy jigg.”
“I’m working on two hours’ sleep and would like to get out of my house.”
“Makes sense. Incidentally, this was my last night in the pool house. I’m out: onward, forward. I’ll come pick you up and we’ll drive over to the new place. Sneak peek before tonight’s welcoming event. You just wait right there.”
We’d become friends after my parents left the apartment complex and its pool behind, moving into the desirable Ladue public school district. That first day of third grade, stepping onto a morning bus full of boys and girls I had never seen, and among all of the eyes sat Stuart the fourth grader, waving me over to his rubberized seat.
“Lookit,” he said, opening his palm to reveal a small brick of staples. He picked one off from the rest, put it onto his tongue, and swallowed. “One at a time, they go down easy. Try.”
I sat on the front porch and waited. The pool house in his parents’ backyard wasn’t more than ten minutes’ drive, plus whatever time it took to overcome his immense personal inertia. I stood and walked circles through the grass of the front lawn, my head poring over the idea of distance: the mile, a single clean figure that broke down into a mess, those five thousand two eighty feet. I stopped circling and looked at the matting of grass beneath my shoes. Audrey deemed it a terrible waste to not go shoeless whenever she could, and her feet were callused and tough for it. Then one afternoon last spring, as I was packing the car for a camping trip with friends, mine, her right foot found a stray nail hiding in some grass, and I spent the afternoon wrapping her foot, touching her hair, driving to the emergency room, and waiting for a tetanus shot because she couldn’t remember ever having one, placing lips to her hand as the needle entered, laughing as she limped back to the car. Saying of course. Saying you’re welcome. All the while the resentment building, growing, this beady-eyed and sharp-toothed troll of resentment making home in my stomach. Delirious wonder if maybe she’d found the nail on purpose, that it was all secretly on purpose. Resentment as appalling as it was amazing, a sheer force I had no choice but to embrace. I moved from grass onto driveway. I had been saying I love you for the past four years and meaning it every time as far as I knew. Her flight went Portland to O’Hare to London Heathrow to Charles de Gaulle. Three weeks.
Finally I saw him. Despite limitless wealth, Stuart continued to drive the first car his parents bought him, a mid-nineties Ford Explorer variously dented and run-down. He viewed himself as the unique product of convergent psychocapitalist forces, so driving his big dumb American truck car until it died was a way to both honor these forces and assert his individuality. When I opened the door, he was nodding and not smiling.
“And so begins what might be the worst year of your life.”
“Start simple, please, and tell me how,” I said.
“Can’t,” he said. “Your version won’t be anything like mine. What do you know about Cambodia? Don’t get me wrong, this is going to be difficult. I promise. But not Cambodia.”
After graduating from Brown the year before, Stuart went straight from the baggage claim to his parents’ pool house for a swim and a beer. Weeks passed and he decided he might as well live there and avoid the potential explosions with his father and stepmother at the main house. And so he stayed. He inhabited the pool house as if it were some sort of womb, subsisting on the runoff luxury that trickled from John and Deanna Hurst’s massive home. Details of his year were sparse. He admitted to devoting a fair chunk of his time to open-ended thought, and he also mentioned blowing the occasional line of Talkative.
“Situations came up.” Stuart rolled through a stop sign. “Some of them involved women who won’t enter a room unless there’s Talkative inside.”
Now Stuart had found an apartment. I knew this because he had sent me a series of e-mails. I knew the building dated from the turn of the last century, and was gorgeous, and classy, and likely about the most amazing apartment I had so far ever seen. The old woodwork, floors that would creak under our feet. Old Cardinals pennants hanging on the walls of his first personal home.
We drove into downtown Clayton, a mixture of ten-story office buildings and overpriced restaurants. Women in unrevealing skirts stood with jacketless men on street corners, not exactly smiling. The storm that I listened to all night had dropped leaves and small branches from the trees that lined these streets, great bodies of green flirting with squat glass towers. I was always shocked when I returned from LA to find so much color, like some regional détente with nature.
“How are those allergies?” Stuart asked.
“Allergies,” I said. “I forgot all about my allergies.”
We’d come for housewarming supplies. He parked us between two silver luxury SUVs. The plaque on the wall said: STRAUB’S MARKET: FINE GROCERS SINCE 1901. Whatever sort of place it was back then, what we stepped into was a boutique market where local families kept charge accounts, a spectrum of beige with miniature shopping carts and grated chrome shelves.
Stuart picked a jar of apricot mango wasabi sauce. “I’m guessing things didn’t end well with Audrey.”
“At some point a guess stops being a guess.”
“You look horrible,” he said. “What went wrong?”
“Every possible thing went wrong. It was a sequence of mistakes based on various kinds of selfishness. I stand by some of my actions. Other actions I can hardly believe were mine. Remember our plan to travel after graduation? Instead, she’s in Europe with Carmel for three weeks and I’m here.”
“So this is punishment,” he said.
“Yes. Because I am a selfish asshole prick man.”
We moved to the meat counter, a thing of local legend. Two goateed men wearing white aprons eyed us suspiciously until Stuart ordered eight flank steaks and four pork loins.
“I think you’re going to appreciate some of the work I’ve been doing. A few recent projects are investment-worthy if I can find the right people.”
It was generally assumed Stuart would work for his father, but nobody had the foggiest notion when he’d start. Two months earlier, at school, I’d received an envelope with a business card tucked inside:
Mentation, Ideation, Formulation,
and Innovation Specialist
Independent Thought Contractor
“Bringing tomorrow’s ideas to the forefront of today’s late afternoon.”
Mentation as employment, research in its loosest, most wandering sense. No specific hours as such, only the faith that every so often he’d stumble upon a worthwhile thought.
The store’s stereo played a Bach fugue. A woman with a green basket over her arm sneezed, and at least three voices blessed her. How many of these women had had face-lifts? It was impossible for me to know. Audrey came from a family of surgeons, which meant she could tell without fail who’d gone under the knife. We’d go on day trips from campus into Hollywood to stroll Melrose and pretend to window-shop.
“Look at her neck,” she’d explain in that voice of hers. “Necks don’t lie. Also notice she doesn’t have earlobes.”
I carried as much Budweiser as I could and met Stuart at the checkout lane. Now the old woman in the forest-green apron eyed me suspiciously. Childish features still intact, my face round, nose, I suppose, buttonlike, I must have looked a little like every grandson in the entire world, because old women were always finding me charming. This one did not. I handed her my driver’s license.
Our total was a little over three hundred dollars. Because he was missing the index finger on his right hand, Stuart’s pen grip was always awkward and comical, but now what came out was a fantastic signature, sinuous letters curling into themselves with much flourish. This was new.
The apartment was in the Central West End, an almost-urban area close enough to downtown that half the city was afraid to go there. Lining the highway were commercial developments I’d never seen before. Soon we came to the bridge of the Science Center, where kids on field trips aimed speedometers at traffic. The whole highway moved at a cautious fifty-eight. Once we exited, Stuart made a series of rapid turns and I lost all sense of direction, all I could see were houses and trees, trees everywhere, until he came to a stop where a fire truck and several police cruisers blocked the road.
“Well.” He flicked his cigarette to the ground. “How’s this for something.”
I followed a few steps behind. The visuals were powerful–spinning lights, various troops of personnel moving across the scene, a thin crowd of gawking onlookers. At the center of it all was a building, its top quarter collapsed by the tree that had fallen into it. I had been awake for much of the storm that moved through during the night. There was a solid hour when drops were massive and the wind a force. And now here was this tree at this awkward angle, the rubble of fallen brick, a barbarous act of partial destruction.
I heard shouting and the clunk of boots on pavement. The firemen leaned against their truck and watched. Stuart remained calm, so I tried to remain calm. I took turns looking at Stuart and looking at where the tree had fallen through the apartment. His arms were crossed at his chest.
“Looks like no other apartments were damaged,” he said.
“That’s the apartment. The e-mail.”
“Look close and you can see my red couch in there. See it? Totally great couch.”
Imagine the sound of a tree severing from itself and falling through a building. Thunderous crack of wood followed soon by crash of brick and plaster and more wood. At ground level, the stump and about six feet of splintered tree remained, doomed. What was this? Surely wind alone couldn’t have cracked so massive a trunk down the middle.
“Those firemen look bored as hell,” he said.
I looked at the crowd of onlookers. Were these walkers who had just happened upon this disaster? Several were talking into phones. It would be a hard scene to leave once you stumbled upon it; a tree falls in the city and select few are there to look. There would be the natural urge to describe it all to some friend or family member, dial a random number and share with whoever answered. To describe was to make real; listen to what I’m seeing. You’ll never believe what I saw. I used to say girlfriend and find reassurance, a word to frame that corner of my world.
I overheard the man next to me speaking of a particular fungus. Dutch elm, he said, then again to someone else. Dutch elm. I shared the fungus theory with Stuart, speaking out of the corner of my mouth as if delivering a grave national secret.
“Well,” he said. “Well well well well.”
Here was actual trial, and Stuart was handling it like a weathered veteran. Was it really only one year between us? Though I had friends in my class through school, baseball teammates and the normal balance of sundry peers, there was something to having a friend a year older. He was a guide of sorts to whatever was to come in year X + 1, a role I knew he relished. Now he was composed, stoic in the face of immense loss. With this and the signature, I felt honored to be standing so close to him.
“I wonder who you’re supposed to tell. The firemen? They’ll point you in the right direction, at least. Get the insurance agent out here.”
“I got a car full of meat, Potter. Let’s go back to the pool house.”
We walked back to the car and climbed inside. I adjusted the air-conditioning onto my face and watched the spinning lights until we were around the corner. I didn’t know what to say.
“I don’t know what to say. Look at you. You’re a rock.”
Now, backtracking along the route we’d taken earlier, I felt the first bored pangs of recognition. There was the park. The Science Center. Fifty-eight miles per hour.
“I would sure like some response here.”
“My apartment has been demolished by a mixed act of nature and insidious vermin. Fine. You want me to talk about it, and I wouldn’t mind talking about it, but I am not someone who can complain.”
“You can’t complain. But even that is a kind of complaint.”
“You and I don’t live in Cambodia. There aren’t land mines in our backyards that could blow off our limbs every time we go out for a jog.”
This was my best friend, driving the Ford. Look at him, I thought. Look and absorb and perhaps steal. It seemed suddenly very clear that of all the resources I had in the world, all the unfairly distributed and crapshoot gifts I’d been blessed with, perhaps Stuart Hurst would prove the most valuable. Because the basic truth was that I had a decision to make, one I had put off for as long as I possibly could because I didn’t have the proper tools. Or, rather, I had too many tools and no concept of how to use them. I needed considerable help.
“I want to contract some thought.”
“I know just the guy,” Stuart said.
“I owe it to her and I owe it to myself. I have three weeks. Three weeks to devote to nothing but deciding whether I’m actually in matter of serious fact in love with her. I ask myself all the time: are you in love with her? And I answer. I say the word and I believe the word, but then at the same time I hear the word, and it sounds hollow.”
“Quick,” Stuart said. “Are you in love with Audrey?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I see what you mean.” He considered this for a mile. “Realize I have to charge you. We’re not playing kickball here. This is what I do professionally. The more serious I take what I do, the better I end up doing it.”
“Maybe part of the question is answered by the fact that I’m looking for third-party help,” I said. “Maybe that’s data for you to add to the pile.”
“Maybe,” he said.
“I used to be an emotionally rich young male, Stubes. Now I’m like, what’s the cardboard. Manila.”
“This sounds like the sort of thing where I work at my own pace until I reach a conclusion and then charge you retroactively. Meaning there will have to be a certain level of trust between us that I, mentator, am not going to screw you, client. But I will charge you. Break, sure. Discount, sure. Free lunch, no.”
We passed our old middle school, the Ladue fire department, the Amoco station where I’d once seen two hockey players kick and tear at each other until the ground was covered in blood and flannel and khaki. Audrey had questioned what I wanted. We had entire conversations about what we might each possibly want. Over time it became clear that what she knew of desire was far greater than the filaments I had at my disposal. And this, among so many other things, had led to profound loss of sleep.
“We will of course still throw a party,” he said. “Call it a Welcome Back, Potter party.”
I sneezed twice, then let my head fall against the window.
“You expect there to be women at this party? Talkative?”
“Damn yes,” he said. “Research.”