Dad shuffled out of the house, grabbing his jacket as he went out the door, started the car, and Mom hustled after him. They drove away into a light gray afternoon. Then it was a drive to a urologist. Then it was a drive to Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
Mom couldn’t bear to ride with him, so she sent him away early that morning, and I drove him. I shook his hand after his sage advice to a married man who’d fathered four children, holding his hand, really, holding it in a religious bond. It was good advice.
When I was seventeen, Mom and Dad went to Europe with my sister, leaving me behind to work, to save up for college, and to save up for my own trip to Europe after I graduated from high school. The very day they boarded the airplane, my relationship with Amy soured. We didn’t break up, but she decided to tell me she was seeing Brad. “I thought we were going steady,” I said. I tried to play it cool because Amy was tall and fair, and very hip. She put the chic in chick, man, and all of us who went for the alternative labels in our musical tastes—all of us went for Amy, so she could afford to choose. “I really did,” I said. “I thought we were going steady.”
“Is that what you want?” she said back to me, in an absolutely unforeseen response. I was bracing myself for something more along the lines of “Well, no, we aren’t going steady, you silly boy,” or “I don’t believe in such limitations.” Indeed, the latter was what I expected to hear because for Amy, it was freedom. She only wanted freedom, and I felt like I had won some sort of sweepstakes to be pulled into her orbit.
Months after our first meeting, we had our first kiss. Months.
In the main hall of the History Museum hung an oversized copy of Evelyn De Morgan’s Helen of Troy. Every man entering paused before the painting to remember, then proceeded to the exhibition areas of the museum to begin drinking and singing and forgetting. They did this forgetting for many years until Helen of Troy was no longer meaningful. Without significance, she disintegrated with time, and no artist in their midst thought to preserve her, nor any of her mothers, sisters, or daughters. Nevertheless, every man entering the museum for the annual Forgetting Exhibition became aware of a black melancholy, a constant companion brought forward in this joyous celebration, a companion to be mocked and ridiculed, and dunked and drugged, buried.
Reanna says to Charles, Jr., who is trying to eat his beef stew, “They’ve both been so different since Stephanie moved to Colorado.”
The storm rumbles and grumbles in the basement, and then a sharp crack: the unmistakable sound of the action of a shotgun being opened and closed.
Charles, Jr.’s eyes grow wide with fear. He stops eating and looks across the table at his sister. “You don’t think…”
“Don’t be silly,” Reanna whispers.
They listen to the rumbling, grumbling storm downstairs, punctuated by the action of many shotguns, rifles, and pistols being opened and closed, along with a few muffled exclamations, such as, “Enough is enough,” and “That’s the last time,” and other unintelligible oaths and curses, all uttered in exasperation, frustration, and anger. Finally, clearly, they hear, “Why bother going on like this?”
Charles reappears, holding one hand behind his back and standing stiffly erect, his eyes screwed up into dark holes. “Where’s your mother?” he demands of his children. Reanna and Charles, Jr. both freeze, staring at him.
Odd ducks sometimes find safe waters when all the swans get their tails shot off. Francois landed in Information Technology just as it was becoming a demand, while manufacturing and labor opportunities were becoming scarce. With the extra money he had, even as a young man, he bought a nice house outside North Tonawanda, in quiet Pendleton, where he and Jenny started having babies, and he started a stamp collection. To Jenny he was adamant: he was not a stamp collector; he was a philatelist. He studied stamps as a hobby, over against collecting them for trade. She hitched the baby on her hip and rolled her eyes: he had a whole room in the house dedicated to stamps. He subscribed to two stamp magazines: Philatelism Today and Modern Stamper. Rare and valuable stamps were specially mounted and displayed. He bought special lights and specially-coated glass to preserve the stamps from harmful ultra-violet rays. Yes, he was an odd duck.
The odd duck became obsessed with his hobby, speaking endlessly of new finds and old curiosities. “Did you know the oldest stamp was first issued by Great Britain in 1840? It’s called the ‘penny black’ because it was black, and it only cost a penny. But it is not so valuable as the rare Swedish Three Skilling Banco, which sold for over $2 million. Did you know that?” Day in and day out, Francois obsessed, coming to dinner late, wolfing his food to rush back to his stamp room. Jenny didn’t think Francois was doing anything wrong, per se, but she was concerned about the obsession. She noticed that to have any conversation with Francois was to gaze into his blank stare while his mind rallied around something to do with stamps, stamp collecting, and the study of stamps. She sighed, hoping the obsession was a passing fancy.
“You’re frightening me,” the Android Assistant 2100 said. “Put that thing away!”
“Ha,” said Robert. “You should have seen the look on that hick’s face when I shot a glass jar sitting on a fence behind him. Oh, don’t be frightened: I rested my arm on his shoulder; the muzzle was on the other side of his head. There was no way I could have hurt him.”
“What kind of pistol is that?” she asked.
“Nothing special, just an old officer’s sidearm from WWII, an M1911.”
“Why did you buy it?” she asked, calming herself.
“That’s better, dear,” he said. “Do you know the manufacturer?”
“Show it to me again.”
“No,” he said. “You saw enough of it.”
She sighed, batting her eyelashes at him. This isn’t in my profile, he thought. She’s looking for the right algorithm. She cocked her head, saying, “It’s a true M1911, a Colt. You have the pre-WWII model, the one with the prettier screw doohickeys on the grip.” She giggled. “Doohickeys. What do you call them?”
Robert scratched his temple with the muzzle of the pistol. “Gee, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m impressed you know that much about handguns. Did you know that before I asked you?”
She scolded him gently with her eyes. “Of course not,” she said. “You know that. And you’re not being very polite. Why don’t you put it away?”
Tuesday morning was making every attempt to brighten the master bedroom, struggling against the drawn shades to penetrate with rays of joy and hope. Spring was aging, about to yield to the Summer Solstice, so the morning was still very young. Nevertheless, Robert heard his two girls up and tramping about, preparing for the walk to Holy Assumption Preparatory Academy. Early to rise, he thought, so that AltVista might get them the early worm. Extra-curricular worms to be had this early will nourish them toward the rigors of university preparation, where they will assimilate into fine young adulthood, tasting those fruits, sharpening those minds, refining those wits, toward the end that they might climb the interlocking wheels of progress until they are proprietors of their very own blogs, whence they will lead their corner of the world…forward.
His wife lay sleeping next to him, breathing softly and heavily, on her side, facing away from him. He rose to relieve himself and wash his face. He caught his eyes in the mirror. He mumbled toward them, “One too many gins again.” Is that a song? A vision of a pickup truck drove across his mind. When he walked back to the bed, he saw the form of his wife gently rising and falling. She’s a beautiful woman, he thought. Even after twenty years, she’s a treasure.
The bedsheets, in the warmth of the early morning, she had kicked so that they covered only her ankles and feet. A wave of nostalgia washed over him. After some number of dates they had finally slept together, and he found it bewildering the number of straps to loosen, bows to untie, and hooks to unfasten, but they had giggled together, flush with excitement and embarrassment, and it was fun. Their wedding night had been to him something of an anticlimax because there was no naughtiness, no hooks, and no embarrassment, only a sheer negligee which aroused him easily enough, but the fun was immediately absent.
Perhaps she’s still asleep, he thought. Maybe she won’t object in that twilight state. Maybe she’ll enjoy it. The thought, along with her rising and falling form, aroused him, and he slipped into bed, snuggling close to cleave his body to hers. He laid his hand on her hip. Maybe she’ll ask for it.
A split-second later, she said, “What are you doing?”
His tumescent hope plummeted into emptiness, and he was lonely again. Nothing, he thought. “Snuggling,” he said.
“Well, quit it,” she said sleepily. “You’re too hot.” She rolled over onto her back, smiling at him. “I do love you, sweetheart,” she said.
He rolled over onto his back and stared at the ceiling, aching. “I love you, too,” he said. “Want me to make you breakfast?” Where are the other cameras? he thought.
“No,” she said. “I don’t want to make you late for work.”
“I should shower, then,” he said. He sat up, putting his feet on the floor, his elbows on his thighs, and there, on the edge of the bed, he hung his head. There he sat for a few minutes, searching for the will to stand up. There he paused, on the edge.
“Are you all right, honey?” she asked.
“Hm? Yeah, I’m okay, just a little tired this morning.”
“How much longer before you can take a vacation?”
“Oh, any time, now,” he said. “All I have to do is give notice.” He looked at her. “You have the afternoon shift at the home today?”
“Yep,” she said, rolling over on her side again. “Easiest time of year, I think. Not too many viruses to send the usual crop to the nursing home, everyone is in love with Spring, and…let me know when you want to go. Where are we going? Maine?”
“New England is always nice, don’t you think?” Robert managed to rise and make his way to the shower, where he slowly transformed into Vice President for Account Analysis Robert Hughes, punctual, productive, and aching.
When he thus emerged from the master bath, the bed was empty and unmade. He heard the low volume of morning TV emanating from the upstairs sitting room, where his wife was sitting, sprawled out over the easy chair, one leg draped over the armrest and opening the slit of her bathrobe well up her thigh. Her hair was tied up in a towel; she had washed her hair in the hallway bath after she heard Robert get out of the shower. The bathrobe was open at the top because it was warm. He saw all of her neck as it gave way to her shoulders and chest, and there the bathrobe engaged his imagination. He couldn’t remember.
“Goodbye, Mr. Hughes,” she said brightly.
“Goodbye, Mrs. Hughes,” he said, brusquely, according to form, a game they had played since he’d made executive several years ago, and he marched downstairs in the stiffest British fashion he could muster. My instincts say I should skip work and take her, he thought. I don’t see how this kind of instinct is culturally conditioned. Why should I suppress it?
The girls were long gone, the dishes washed, the place mats put away, and a box of wholesome cereal left out on the counter. He got a bowl for himself and poured the contents of the box into it; only half a bowlful issued forth. Throwing the empty box into the trash, he fetched a full box from the pantry and pried open its top. “Why does expensive organic food always come in such cheap packaging?” He wrestled with the decidedly unwholesome plastic bag, unable to peel it open until, in a fit of exasperation, he suddenly exerted one of his larger arm or back muscles, which caused the thing to tear open from top to bottom, sending the entire box of cereal flying throughout the kitchen, from baseboard to baseboard, under the refrigerator, table, and chairs, all over the counters and into the sink, and even up into the light fixture. After using his arm to sweep enough into his bowl to constitute a healthy breakfast, he poured a little hot water into the cereal, sat on a stool at the breakfast bar, and munched.
The sound of the upstairs sitting room TV came to his ears between bites. I can’t even turn on the sports highlights anymore, he thought. Everything is so charged with progress. He found the remote for the kitchen TV, powering it on, then tuned it to Turner Classic Movies, where a man was grasping a woman close, pulling her to him by the shoulders until his face touched hers, in black-and-white, whereupon she turned her head away. Sensibilities of distinguishableness, he thought. That’s immoral what he’s doing to her. The man pried her face off her shoulder, where she was hiding it, wrenching it into his face. She relented, violin music swelling up, bearing up their passion, and they kissed. Disgusting. That’s practically rape.
“Practically rape,” he mouthed. We’ve progressed so far in so short a time.
Robert went upstairs again, against form.
“Honey?” she asked.
“I’m going to Mitch’s after work. I’ll be late.”
“All the way to Scranton?”
“Yeah, I’ll make the triangle from the office to there to here. Look, I don’t want to invent a thinly veiled pretense,” he said. “I’m feeling a little blue. It’ll be good for me to get away from the city and just hang out with my brother-in-law for a few hours.”
A tiny bit of trouble lined itself across her face, then disappeared. “Well, okay. Text me otherwise.”
“Okay,” he said. “We’ll just hang out and watch TV, I’ll bet.” He added silently. And I’m going to buy that unregistered pistol from his hick friend.
An army had broken through from the east two years ago. They did not destroy crops or buildings. They did murder people. They murdered brutally the leaders of the people. I had never heard this. Perhaps it was said to me, but I could not hear. Now I could hear because I was going into this country. Was it not the King’s country? Certainly! No?
An army returns through the same country, wounded. Both are wounded, both the country and the army. The people are wounded to the point of survival. They have no leaders. Ordered leadership, no. Natural leadership, perhaps. Natural leadership brings envy and unrest. Hordes follow natural leadership. The people are not merely a horde; they are a bloodthirsty horde. A natural leader gives them a sharp point. No, not a sharp point. A natural leader gives them a blunt weapon. No, not a blunt weapon. What is a weapon that tears with a powerful grip, tears flesh? Teeth. A people wounded to the point of survival sees their attacker with his back turned, unsuspecting. A natural leader gives the people a taste of blood, and they drink their own death. This is a people dead. This is a people which did not survive its wounding. For two years this people has torn at itself, tasting blood, having now an insatiable hunger for blood, and more than blood, for fire, for everything destructive. These people have become barbarians. They had ample property, treasuries of wealth, ample stores of food; crops and buildings had been spared by this king from the east, with a far smaller population to support. They had no need for ordered leadership to live easily. And so each to his own, without allegiance to anyone or any principles. Their wrath certainly had spread beyond the countryside beneath the mountains.
These people were the King’s own people; these people are my people. These people swarm the roads and passes of all the land between the city and the North country.