The evening after I heard that Joseph Klein had died in a fire at the halfway house where he had spent, on and off, much of the last several years, I thought again about the jaguar on the roof. After my son Luke had phoned that morning with news of Joseph's death, Martha and I had to decide who we would call, what we would send and where it would go. We wrapped ourselves in the tight fabric of detail and expected behavior to which people cling in the face of awe and the terror of the mortal—and cling not just in the moment of greatest disaster or loss but in most steps of every day, most trips to the grocery store or bank or post office, our lives a process of small careful goals erected like a barrier against an overwhelming void that I and perhaps a few others still named God. Martha had insisted that we not call Joseph's father. Walter hadn't talked to us in several years. Martha thought it had been out of embarrassment, the feeling that he had been responsible for what had happened and felt powerless to stop it. We had all been powerless where Joseph had been concerned; it was just a matter of when we each realized it. We were not supposed to be powerless, but we were. So Martha and I sent the proper flowers and condolences to the family and called a few other people we thought should know. I hoped Walter would call us but understood it was likely he wouldn't. I tried to tell myself that, in a way, the silence between us was like the silence in a church service, that moment when we give ourselves over to what is larger than we could ever be. I don't know if I believed it. We would go to the funeral, of course, and see him there. That would have to be enough.
By evening there was nothing left to do, at least for the moment. I moved to the screened porch on the side of the house, where I often sat when the weather was nice. There was coolness, a hint of fall, in the humid late summer air, which was quieter than usual because no air conditioners were running nearby above the hum of crickets. Our yard still had the leafy fullness of summer, all the heavy smell of it, the shadows of the bushes and trees pushing up against the porch light. And it was then I found myself thinking about the jaguar.
My grandfather had lived in a small town in east Texas. In the 1890s, filled with the progressive social spirit that blew its windy rhetoric into many a later mistake, he left his rural medical practice and headed into Mexico on a project funded partly by the Mexican government and partly by his own dreams of doing worthwhile work in the world. When he arrived at the intended location, waiting for him and his wife was a large house already purchased and ready to be occupied by the first doctor that part of Mexico had seen in some years. Apparently he was much welcomed in the nearest village. A day of celebration had been prepared to honor his arrival. Or so the story in my family goes. In that story, both the poor villagers and the better off landowners were grateful to my grandfather, the important doctor from the United States who was really only a small town doctor but appeared more to these simple, isolated people. Do I know anything of what anyone really thought, what struggles, jealousies, and despairs, what economic inequities made up the life of that village about a hundred years before the evening when I sat on my porch remembering Joseph Klein? We know little about history beyond its most public displays, and even then what we know is reconstructed. It's possible that people in the village, some at least, hated my grandfather, that he might have disrupted or rearranged their lives in a way that led to resentment. But in the story he remains a hero. How much of any more intimate history do we really want to know, I asked myself, and I realized I didn't know if I was asking about my grandfather or Joseph.
For several years, my grandfather worked on the daily illnesses of the region, its wounds and fevers and deaths. During one of those years my father was born. Soon after his birth, one night a jaguar came to town. Jaguars seldom strayed so far north, I understand, but sometimes did, most often rogue males displaced from their usual environments who roamed wherever goats or sheep or small cattle could be picked off. Such cats were feared and hated by the villagers, who tried to kill them or drive them away and almost always succeeded, one large cat being no match for the destructive power of people. But the cats could be smart, and this one managed to survive for weeks in and around the village, taking several animals and so far eluding sight.
My grandfather told my father, who told me, that one night the cat ended up on the roof of his house. It was a flat, heavy adobe roof on which the jaguar could have walked silently—who knew whether it had already done that before, on my grandfather's roof or some other. Perhaps the cat would have gone away just as silently, but this time he was spotted by one of the men who worked for my grandfather and who must have seen a shadowy movement, heard a low growl or otherwise discovered that a cat weighing a hundred and fifty, maybe two hundred pounds was pacing there above him. A cat doing such a thing was both confused and desperate, clearly dangerous, and my father had a young infant of several months in the house. Legend had it, of course, that jaguars often stole human babies, but I don't know whether any jaguar had ever killed a child from that village or even one nearby. I suppose it's possible, although I doubt it. But the story was often told that jaguars had eaten children, and the story was enough.
Trouble was, it was a bad idea to fire a gun anywhere near the village. Whether cats had ever eaten babies, people had certainly shot each other, accidentally and often enough on purpose, and a jaguar sighting was a moment ripe for that kind of danger. The last thing my grandfather wanted was to send out a public cry that would wake the village and bring people running, armed, to his own home where, in a bedroom, his wife was watching his son, a pistol in her own hand just in case. He wanted the jaguar gone or dead; he didn't want armed chaos. So he and several men who worked for him took guns and clubs quietly into the night air, to chase the jaguar away or shoot it before anyone else heard the news, whichever proved easier.
As the story goes, neither proved easy. No one was going to climb onto the roof, and a jaguar crouched low on flat adobe could hide very well, should it be smart enough to stay down. One of the men would spot, here and there, a moment of moving shadow. There were times when they thought the jaguar had gone, then would notice it again.
As I thought about the jaguar, what I realized, as I had realized before and forgotten and realized again, was how much of the story I didn't know. My father told the story many times, but I'm not able to recreate to any satisfaction what it would be like to have a jaguar on the roof of your house, to keep watch through the night knowing it was there but unable to find it. Growing up in the plains of east Texas, where the greenery began to shade off into drier brush, I had encountered rattlesnakes and scorpions but no carnivorous cats. Now I lived in a quiet house in a quiet Maryland suburb where the local animals were house cats and dogs, squirrels and birds, and rabbits in spring and summer. The only threat from any animal came from the deer that would sometimes overrun the area because it was free of predators, a danger for cars at night and in the early morning, when a solitary deer or sometimes a group might wander onto a road. A world in which it's possible to have a jaguar on your roof is a world I can't fully describe. It's strange to recognize that much of the history we believe we know turns out to be full of uncertainties, that the stories we think of as anchoring us to our lives can show themselves, if we look closely, to be riddled with the same emptiness they were intended to displace.
In any event, no one shot the jaguar. Sometimes towards morning the cat slipped off the roof, vanished and, according to the story, never came back to the village. All his life though, my grandfather, who died the year before I was born, had told the story of the jaguar as one of his main experiences in Mexico, an adventure of a kind he had never had before and never would again. Well acquainted with illness and death, he knew a great deal about the pain, trauma and limitations of the human body. More than once he had been in circumstances in which other men had threatened or committed violence, even as casually as they sometimes did on summer nights in the Texas town where I was born when, after an evening of gambling and drinking, the gunshots would begin. So it wasn't that my grandfather had no history of understanding danger. Instead the incident with the jaguar taught him something new about what danger was. With men, of course, the source of violence could always be found in some reason, no matter how unreasonable, or at least so he had thought. And certainly the jaguar, like men, had its reasons for finding itself on the roof. It was hungry and knew it was in danger. But the jaguar was not part of the place where it found itself, although it was, for a time, at the heart of that place. The jaguar didn't belong where it was and couldn't have stayed. It was from elsewhere, from a reality all its own that men could not experience, although men had certainly experienced hunger and desperation. More than any illness, any drunken gun play, even any battle, my grandfather learned from the jaguar on his roof that some things were outside human understanding, that all we thought we understood was defined also by what we couldn't know of it. He had a jaguar on his roof, and that was enough to convince him of the significance of Mystery.
That at least was the story I told myself about the meaning of my grandfather's story on the night after I'd heard about Joseph Klein. It was in the story my father had told but it was not that story. It was my version of that story, and if it had a lot to do with my grandfather and the jaguar, it also had to do with Joseph. What I'm saying is, every time I look for a cause for what happened to Joseph, I have no more certain answer than my grandfather had for why a jaguar should have landed on his roof at a time when he had a young family and dreamed of making the world better. I don't mean to compare Joseph to the jaguar too closely. Joseph was as unlike the jaguar as he was unlike any other boy in the neighborhood he had grown up in and attacked and disappeared from. It's Joseph's unlikeness I'm thinking of. Growing up in Texas I had known a number of dangerous boys, boys who liked to torture animals and each other and who gravitated slowly towards a world of petty and finally more serious violence. I think it's even fair to say I knew some boys whose goal it was to be as cruel as possible. They'd come from cruel families and learned it and grew into it.
But how to compare those dangerous boys to this dangerous boy, who'd grown up so differently, whose rage and self-destructiveness had been part of our lives for nearly twenty years? How to compare them to a boy who by fourteen could play the violin beautifully and speak three languages with at least some fluency, who by sixteen was tall and handsome and strong and worldly, and who came from a family of three generations of impressive academic achievement and real engagement with the most pressing problems of the 20th century? How to compare those boys, with their fistfights and knife fights, to this boy who, silently, and with all the care of a family around him, had carried weapons and set off bombs? He had damaged our house and many others, he had flattened tires and smashed bicycles and mailboxes, he had vandalized a school and destroyed a car, and he had taken so many and so serious an amount of drugs that finally his mind had snapped and he had spent the last ten years of his life living here and there, on the street or in homes when his father could temporarily get him to stay. He had been my son's best friend growing up. He was a boy who spent many afternoons at our house playing with toy animals and soldiers and cars. He had bright blue eyes that lit with excitement. He had gotten in fights, made obscene phone calls, and terrified people who loved him. He was like nothing I knew and yet, after my own son, he was the boy I supposedly knew best.
Martha came out to the porch where I was sitting. She was neatly dressed as always, her hair pulled back carefully. Her sharp eyes seemed to take in my thoughtfulness and understand it. "The garbage still needs to go out," she said. "Whenever you're ready." For a moment my mind returned to the world of detail and order I had spent my life maintaining, but which now seemed fragile, not quite believable. "It's going to smell up the kitchen if you don't do it soon," she said.
"All right." I stood. "I wonder what Luke's thinking. Whatever else you might say, Joseph was his friend for a long time. I hope he's not taking it too badly."
"Luke has always been good about things," Martha said. "He'll be fine. He's a practical boy."
"He is practical," I nodded. "Isn't that a relief? Who would have known? Besides, he hasn't seen much of Joseph in the last, what? Is it really fourteen years? I suppose he'd call if he wanted to talk."
"Don't go bothering Luke." Martha pointed a finger at me. "You're right; if he has anything more to say, he'll call us. You know he hates it when we call him unexpectedly."
"Why is that, though? Why does our own son not want us to call him?"
"He's busy, Douglas. He has a full life. You're the one who taught him how to be busy."
"I guess so," I said. "But why did I teach him that?" Before Martha had a chance to give me the sensible answer I didn't feel like hearing, I went into the kitchen to take out the garbage.
"Your first chance on the actual essay is November 5," I told the students. "Just go in and do what you'll already know how to do. Try not to put too much pressure on yourselves. Remember, if something goes wrong, there's always a chance to retake the test in early December. If something goes wrong even the second time, we can work on rewrites then petition for a passing score. We'll be doing practice tests twice a month leading up to the actual one, so you'll know exactly how the whole procedure works. By the time you take the exam, you could do it in your sleep. We're going to practice this test over and over again all semester, so nothing will be a surprise. Questions?"
The class looked out at me, 9:30 a.m. community college eyes after late nights, probably, of watching TV, fighting over love or money, running around identical backstreets with their friends and beers and joints, lying to their parents if they still lived at home. In many cases, they were already overwhelmed by the common problems of not-young-much-longer strugglers on the fringes of the American success machine: single motherhood, dependence on alcohol or drugs, physical abuse, self-mutilation. Some were casual fuck-ups; some had fucked up for real. Others had just ended up here, trying to figure out what would happen next. Some were truly poor, of course, and their problems were different. This far out in the county, pockets of rural poverty mixed uneasily with streets of apartment complexes not that many years old. And there was a whole other group of students, many just arrived in the country, who kept quiet and worked hard and always looked a little frightened. Sooner or later, most of this group did well. When I looked around the room though, it was hard to avoid the impression that almost everyone was stunned to be here. I felt stunned myself.
One young woman in the front row raised her hand. In each class there were always several students, usually women, who sat in or near the front row, asked questions and worked hard, while the majority huddled towards the back. "What if we don't like the choices?" she asked. "What happens if we don't have anything to say?" Her hair was blond and curly, her jeans tight, and her shirt was bright yellow and cut low. I tried not to stare at the exposed top curve of her breasts.
"Well look, Sharon, it's a test. Of course you're not going to like the choices."
Along with several others, she laughed, a happy laugh with a wide smile that for a moment made me think I was helping. Many of the rest quietly stared. There was another student though, sitting behind Sharon, with pale skin and long dark hair, who smiled a smaller, conspiratorial smile, as if she knew more about what I meant than I did. I had the instant sense that she must be smart, which happens sometimes. It was still only the second week of the semester, so I looked at the class roll on the podium in front of me. Anna, I thought, was the name she'd answered to.
"The point is," I continued, "if you know the procedures well enough, it won't matter. Besides, it's not like you have to mean what you say. Make up anything you want. There's no need to tell the truth. Just write something and do it in the proper form."
Sharon nodded, reassured, as did several others.
"You'll be learning two basic skills," I said. "How to follow rules and to lie about what you think. It's a key formula for getting ahead."
At this one, everybody stared blankly. That's how I know I've been guilty of theory. Almost everybody stared, that is. Anna, if that was her name, was still looking at me like she knew what I was up to. What am I up to, I wondered.
We turned to the day's lesson, a handout on the basic elements of the five paragraph process essay.
The rest of the morning went just like that, with time to think only the usual thoughts in the usual places. Lunchtime found me in my office, with a few minutes to eat and read the paper before an afternoon of one more class, grading and a meeting. This was the start of my third year here. I'd finally graduated to an office with a window. It looked out over the low hills and green late summer trees, over the sports fields and housing complexes and condominiums beyond which the highway stretched in the clear air, shining in the freedom of sun on asphalt, of driving away, that I wouldn't reach for some hours yet. After eating I set down the paper, looked through the window and tried for a moment not to think about what I was seeing or about the educational structure I was supporting and helping create. I tried to see the view beyond the window simply as the physical fact of what it was, and myself as a physical fact along with it. If I thought of Joseph then, it was as if he too was one of those physical facts, all surface, not densities inside densities with no clear core.
I was walking down the hallway when Debra Sampras corralled me with a waved hand and a knowing nod. "Got a minute, Luke?"
I took a seat in her office and she closed the door. "Interesting problems," she said. "Looks like they're getting rid of the Dean."
"Is that good or bad?" I said.
"He's a jerk, right?"
"Sure," I said. "But what makes you think they're going to replace an jerk with someone not a jerk? That's not policy."
Debra laughed. She was the closest thing I had to a friend here. I didn't have to lie when I spoke to her, although it was hard for me to remember I didn't have to lie constantly to everyone. She was a few years older than I was, almost forty, with curly black hair and lively ironic expressions. She liked to laugh, which was helpful. She'd had lots of boyfriends but none right then, which didn't bother her much, far as I could tell. For her at least, maybe one ex-husband had been enough to give her the message that guys were unlikely to save her.
"You're probably right." She shook her head. "This place has become more money driven than it's possible to believe. Students walk in and the administration sees them like big dollar signs. Try to teach things any way other than the standard same old same old and you get watched, maybe even blacklisted. They'll talk about innovation but what they mean is streamlining, cut out the frills, move students in and out like a conveyor belt. If they learn something, fine, but make sure you've grabbed their wallet first."
I shrugged. "I can't imagine a new Dean will make it better. At least this one has the pretense of an academic background. Bet you anything the next one's a bureaucrat with no in-class experience but lots of ideas about how we should teach. He'll talk a lot about video and use words like avatar."
"I just thought you'd want to know," she said.
"Thanks." I paused, looked at several students passing outside her office window and laughing in the sunshine. "I heard yesterday that a guy I grew up with died. We were close friends until we turned sixteen. At eighteen he went crazy."
"Wow." She put a hand on my arm. "I'm sorry. Are you okay?"
"More or less," I said. "I haven't seen him in years. But still, a lot feels changed. It's making me think about all sorts of things I was hoping I'd never have to think about again."
"Anything I can do?"
"What? Oh, no. Thanks. It's on my mind, but it's no big deal. Listen, I've got to run. I still haven't graded all my essays. See you at the meeting?"
"Yes," she said. "I think it's going to be interesting."
"Do you?" I said.
That evening, after the long drone of the meeting, I got on the road before six. The sun still shone on the asphalt. I cranked up the stereo. Some alternative rock song pounded its commercially non-commercial beat and sludgy guitars through what was left of my head, the lyrics about last call and finding someone to go home with. I don't know why I still usually felt a surge of freedom those first few minutes on the highway. Almost always, I was only going home too. In any case the feeling faded fast enough.
I was supposed to go out with Cindy later but didn't want to. I didn't want much of anything. The day seemed a flat, fake-looking plastic board. Standard procedures, standard administrators, students who might make it if they could become standard enough and who I could respect only if they didn't. Standard American death, collated, stamped, and mailed in bulk. I couldn't see why I should care. I was just another guy in another car on another highway. I'd read Freud and Wittgenstein, Goldman, Debord, O'Hara and Hejinian. All day every day I made a little money policing paragraphs and sentence fragments, and my life had no meaning.
Maybe Joseph's death was affecting me more than I thought.
I got off the highway at my exit. Instead of going down the road home I pulled into the lot of the Red Rooster to get a beer, maybe two, while it was still light out. Then I could drive the final three miles with a shining buzzy haze that might make the world seem real again, or seem imaginary in a real way, something, not just this dead half-planned suburban mishmash. The Red Rooster was in a rundown paneled house that had been turned into a bar but still looked like a rundown house. There when I walked in was the usual collection of more or less locals, a few guys off work from tech centers or their managerial jobs at stores, even a few construction workers, one or two of them Hispanics who had recently moved in nearby maybe. Thank God for immigrants, I thought. Their lives were hard, no doubt, but for me their faces were necessary exceptions to the swirl of not always religious yet still unbearably Christian whiteness of the whole county, like a Norman Rockwell painting gone sinister and endless. I didn't know anybody besides the bartender. I almost never did. Even though I'd lived in the area for the two years I'd been teaching, I was no closer to knowing people outside the college. A few of them knew each other, obviously, but weirdly it often seemed that everyone there, even the families, acted like isolated nomads who believed they weren't staying long even though they weren't going anywhere else. There were some old county families around, sure, well off and not, but by now they were exceptions. I had a casual friend or two to have a beer with sometimes, and I still knew people down in the city, artists and writers, but I hadn't seen them in a long time. It was too much effort to go and too embarrassing when I got there. And there was Cindy, and I didn't know what to do about her either.
When I got to my apartment two beers later, she had already called. She was prompt, and a good person within her limits. They were limits I had sought out so I could hardly blame her. My apartment was on the second floor of one row of a housing complex set in among some older trees, which themselves had become a rarity with all the new malls and housing. It was messier than I liked and I took a few minutes to straighten up, take some books and papers off the floor. It's hard to explain, but sometimes I think I could live in a house with no objects at all, just me, open floors and the walls. Amelia would have said it was my family's Puritan aesthetic, a learned distrust of closeness to anything or anyone, a desire to clear out the world so my own head could exist in an endless silence I mistook for purity and peace. Probably she would have been right. And wham, there it was, I was thinking about Amelia again. That was no good. Nothing I thought about Amelia was ever good, especially if it involved things she would have been right about. It was important not to think about her. If every time you think about somebody, the thoughts are bad ones, that's not love, even though it might seem like love in those moments when you're too tired or drunk or alone. I don't know what it is when you think that way, but it's not love.
I called Cindy.
"Hey," she said. "You're a little late."
'It was a long day," I said. "Grading and a meeting. I stopped off for a couple of beers on the way back."
"Was the meeting interesting?"
I looked at the phone as if it could give me an answer not to her question but to one I hadn't asked. "No," I said. "They never are."
"You sound tired."
"I am. Listen, I don't know if I'm up for going out tonight."
"You don't want to bowl?"
"I don't think so."
"I thought you liked to bowl."
"It's fun usually, but I don't know. I guess I'm still thinking about Joseph."
"Want me to come over instead?"
"I don't know what I feel like doing. Maybe I should just call you later. I might sit here and do some writing."
Cindy went silent. As far as she was concerned, the phrase "do some writing" might as well have been "I want you to stay away from me." And she was at least partly right, maybe more than partly. These days I wasn't writing much.
"This whole Joseph thing just has me out of sorts," I said. "I'm just down on everything and I wouldn't be much fun. It's not you. I have an easier day tomorrow so I'll have more energy and we'll definitely go get food like we planned. I'm sorry. I've just got to figure out why it's all screwing me up so much."
"Are you going to the funeral Saturday?"
"Probably. But I'm not sure there's anybody I want to see. Joseph's parents don't want to see me, I would guess. Or maybe they do this time. Who knows?"
"You don't sound good, Luke," Cindy said. "I'm worried about you."
"I know," I said. "Don't be." I laughed. "I'll be over it soon enough. You're better to me than I deserve."
"As long as you know that," she said.
I didn't even pretend to nod; who was there to see? "You won't believe this," I said. "I once called Joseph a fucking Jew. I spit at him and said 'You're the fucking Jew."'
"Luke?! Why'd you do that? You don't think that way."
"It's funny sometimes what people'll think like."
"I've never heard you talk that way to anyone."
"I know. It was just the circumstances. Things had gotten out of hand. I didn't mean it though, not in the way it might seem. I was just trying to protect myself. Still, it's weird. It makes me wonder. About myself, Joseph, the whole thing."
"I don't really know what you're talking about."
"What? Oh, sorry. I'm thinking out loud."
"Joseph must have meant a lot to you. I wish you'd made that clearer to me."
I resisted the urge to question the phone again or to write the word "cliche" in big red letters on the air. That wouldn't have been fair and I knew it. "That's not it," I said. "He doesn't, not in the way you mean. I don't know what he meant to me. I don't know what a lot of it meant."
"That sounds pretty deep. You must be bad off."
"Maybe." I looked around my apartment and couldn't tell whether its sparseness was attractive or frightening. "I've got to go, Cindy. I'm worn out. I'm sorry about tonight, really. I'll make it up to you tomorrow, I promise. I realize when I've got something good. You're one hot chiquita and I know it."
Cindy sighed. She couldn't resist a compliment even when she knew it was manipulating her. "All right, Luke," she said. "I understand. Only try not to be sad for too long, okay? We both work too hard not to have fun when we can."
I startled. That was exactly like something I'd often said to Amelia.
"Besides," Cindy said, "how many years has it been since you've seen him?"
"Six," I said. "And only a few times in the seven or eight before that. I never saw him much once I became, you know, an adult. Whatever that is."
"Don't you know what it is?" Cindy said. "Give me a call tomorrow, hon." She hung up.
I went to the stereo and put on Coleman Hawkins then got a beer from the fridge. I found my notebook under a stack of papers on my desk, took it and the beer out the sliding glass doors to the balcony, where I sat down and put the bottle on the table by my chair. It was dark. By the beginning of September every day seemed to get darker earlier than expected. Beyond the parking lot, where the lot lights winked on and off occasionally as people moved across it, the trees were a thick blur. It would be fall soon though and the thickness would go away.
I wanted to write a poem but didn't even have a first line, and after awhile I set the notebook down and just drank my beer. Coleman Hawkins sounded mournful against the dark sky, his big horn not big enough to drown out the buggy roar creeping from the trees.
Joseph Klein. My childhood friend, brilliant genius and petty nowhere delinquent adolescent who'd seen the lies and hadn't respected them, but had only replaced them with his own shabby, pointless melodrama. I was sorry he'd died but for me he'd been dead a long time, part of a past I'd tried to put behind me, and not even tried because it had, really, slipped away on its own and couldn't have done differently. Or at least it seemed it had. Was it Joseph I was mourning, or me? Wasn't I really mourning the difference between the world I'd imagined and the world I'd found?
I was on my second—or was it third?—beer since getting home when the phone rang and I startled. I looked at my watch; almost eleven. Too late to be a student. Probably too late to be Cindy. I came inside and turned off the music but didn't pick up.
"Hi Luke," the female voice on the answering machine said. I knew instantly who it was. "It's Amelia. I wanted to let you know. Nick called me and told me about Joseph, said he'd called you too and wasn't sure you were going to the funeral. I guess I understand why. He gave me your number. I am going to the funeral, then I'm staying with my mom awhile. I'm calling because I didn't want to sneak up on you. I hope we have a chance to talk, really. It's been too long and maybe, uh, we can get beyond some things? I don't know; I'm willing to give it a try. Like I said, I'll be at the funeral Saturday, or you can call me at my mom's"—she gave the number but I still knew it. "I hope things are okay with you. They're okay with me, more or less. I just wanted you to know I was going to be around, give you a chance to think about it before you saw me. Okay, that's all." She hung up.
Suddenly the beer wasn't getting me anywhere. I went into the kitchen and poured myself a whiskey. One or two more and I might have been able to sleep. I wasn't.
I hadn't seen Luke since two summers after my father died in a car accident and my mother, trying to commit suicide, swallowed several bottles of pills but ended up in the hospital very much alive. My life with Luke had been difficult for awhile before that final summer, but not irreparably over, not dead, not like it was by the end of it, when I moved to San Francisco. What had happened to my family, whatever kind of family it had been, was another matter. I won't call that difficult, I won't even call it sad or horrible. Words like that seem to describe but they only distance. They're meant to tell us about experience but all they do is protect us from it, because experience, when it's up close, has no name, it's just there, all of it, whatever it is.
By that final summer, it had already been a long time since the last night Joseph, Nick, Luke and I were together, the last night I was Joseph's girlfriend and before I was Luke's. Joseph lost his mind that night in a parking lot on the edge of Riverside Mall and beat up two football players then destroyed their car with a tire iron. I was going to college in another month and Joseph knew that, but I hadn't broken up with him yet. Not that Joseph cared by then if I broke up with him or about anything else that I could tell. He had already become uncontrollable. The sweet, smart, sensitive boy I had loved with all my fourteen-year old strength and foolishness was gone. He was just a thug, vicious and deranged and thoroughly suburban for all his intellectual sheen. How I felt about him by then had to do with my being unable to give up the way I had felt about him before. I didn't love Joseph by that night. I was smart enough to hate him. But I wasn't smart enough yet to have stopped loving the love I had felt for him in the past. I wasn't smart enough to have lost my original image of who he was going to be, even if it was clear that he wasn't going to be it. Or maybe I hadn't broken up with him because I knew that going away to college would make it easier, even unnecessary. After that night, of course, what I did or didn't do had no effect on him. At least it seemed that way at the time and for a few years after.
It's hard to explain what kind of backwards thinking macho assholes or just self-absorbed and insensitive pseudo-gentlemen run most of this country's major organizations, make it a battle for anyone to receive even basic human respect on a day to day basis, much less any position of significant institutional power. Some days it seems that's just how it feels, that it's not a reality. On those days I notice the exceptions and it seems like people, a few at least, are doing what they can to make the world better. Other days that feels ridiculous, a way of not being able to face that most organizations are designed to make sure nothing changes except that more money can be squeezed out to those already at the top. And sometimes it seems somewhere in-between, that organizational structures exist to keep themselves existing and that people do what they can within that fundamental unfairness, or some people do, sometimes. And maybe the truth includes all these in a shifting fabric impossible to unravel: greed, bad faith, denial, inertia, good faith, good effort, hope. So you can say I'd succeeded if you want. I had a worthwhile job as a court-appointed attorney for the downtrodden, desperate, incoherent or just confused criminals who, almost always obviously guilty, came forward every day under the watchful eyes of a judicial system that knew a great deal about how to punish but said nothing, and rarely wanted to know, about the appalling conditions that led to most criminal behavior in the country whose laws it upheld. You can say I had successfully defended some innocent people and I made a living, and that would be true. I had devoted myself to upholding that image. But the difference between that image and the things I had seen, a difference that with most people I knew couldn't even be mentioned, that's where my life actually stood. Put it like this: one of the best ways to measure your life is to look at the things you keep silent about. I had never been one to keep silent. But I was 31 years old, a year younger than Luke and Nick and than Joseph would have been if he hadn't just died, and although I had a reputation for outspokenness, some days it seemed that nothing worthwhile I had said had ever been heard by anyone. If that wasn't the same as silence, it felt close.
Many girls in America learn quickly. In some ways I didn't. I was eleven, walking home from school one day, the first time a man grabbed me. I knew not to talk to strangers but not how to deal with a man who, wearing a blue suit, walked past me, turned around and groped my underwear beneath my skirt, a practiced move when I think about it now, like a pickpocket. I was too shocked to open my mouth and he just kept walking, that blue suit hanging on him like a badge.
I was thirteen, at a movie theater with my friend Susie, when a man sat down next to me. He wasn't too old, with a beard, I could see that much in the dark of the theater. Susie was on my other side and the man said "My cock is long and hard and maybe you should put it in your mouth. It'll feel good for a little girl like you, all that hard cock stuffed down your throat." Susie said "Oh my God," and the man seemed to notice for the first time that I wasn't alone. He stood up and like the man in the blue suit walked away as if nothing had happened. I asked Susie what we should do and she said since he had gone, we should just watch the movie like we'd planned. No one would believe us, she said, they'd think we were talking dirty to get attention. And from that day on the parade began: come-ons and gross comments, getting hounded by men from 16 to 60. Some women, it seems, grow so used to it they hardly notice. "That's just the way it is, just the way men are," I've heard so often it's like a recording in my head. It's not okay though. When I think how that basic attitude weaves all the way through the power structure, that the phrase "Suck my cock" is used directly or indirectly, but constantly, by men and even, appallingly enough, in their own different variations by women, when I think how that attitude reflects opportunity and money and organizational control in every arena of private and public life, then even when I speak it I feel silent.
Don't get me wrong though. Many things in that suburb where I grew up had been wonderful. I had loved Joseph before he fell apart and I had loved Luke much more when it seemed like he and I would be able to see it through together. They had both failed me. Luke's failure was worse, since unlike Joseph he knew it was failure and embraced it. Joseph may have lost his mind, may have given way to a despicable rage, but he never consciously accepted defeat. Luke, however, seemed ultimately to have sought it out, or at least was going that way when finally he told me that he wouldn't be coming to San Francisco, where I had taken a job. Still I knew the love between Luke and me had been real. He was just unprepared for how complicated everything was. So was I, if less blatantly. Maybe he would always be that way, or maybe, finally, he'd had the power to change.
It's strange, but when Nick called me that afternoon, I only needed a few minutes to know what to do. I was shocked but not surprised. Anybody who knew Joseph knew just how much at risk he was. I made plane reservations—one way—and told my boss I was going east for a funeral and didn't know how long I'd be gone. Maybe only a few days, maybe many more. He was a decent man, committed to honesty as much as possible in the position he occupied, although the degree to which his mind seemed defined by his bureaucratic role had always astonished me. He was upset at my request but had known for awhile that something was coming. A leave of absence wasn't too bad, considering he had been afraid that I was going to take another job. Burn out was high among public defenders, and he knew I was one of the few who actually believed in the work. So if I needed time off, I could take it. "But I can't promise you, if you leave for two months, that things won't change," he said. "I don't necessarily have that much control."
"I can't promise that things won't change either," I said. "I have a lot to figure out."
Unfortunately, what I had to do at home wasn't so easy. Or maybe I was afraid it would be too easy. Maybe I was afraid we had both known that for awhile.
Thaddeus and I had been married for nearly three years, and for the last one, I had known without a doubt that I was never going to love him. In some sense of course I did love him. I loved his stability and his desire to work hard. I loved that I knew what role I had in his life. Sometimes I even loved that I always knew what he was going to say. With Luke I never knew what would happen. One day he could thrill me with something that would change my life and the next unravel in my face. I could see now, of course, that after Luke it had taken several years to put myself back together. Tad had helped, he really had. I could count on him like I had never been able to count on Luke. That wasn't enough, though, even if it had been essential for a time. I didn't believe in the vows of marriage I had taken. I could remember vividly how, in the small office where we had gone, the words had come out of my mouth like an echo of everything I wasn't saying. It wasn't something I was proud of, but I had done it and needed to resolve it. The distance between Tad and me was obvious and had gone on too long. In that sense at least I had prepared both of us for what was about to happen.
Tad was on his computer at home, where he would work one or two days a week. He had been involved now for four years in what had been an Internet start-up that had done well. Not spectacularly, but unlike many such companies it had grown slowly and carefully. The fact that Tad himself was slow and careful had played a big role. When I walked into his home office, with its carefully stacked papers and organized shelves, he turned and saw right away I had something to tell him. His eyes quivered behind his glasses. Sometimes at least, Tad noticed when I had things on my mind. But noticing had never been one of his virtues. He was much better at standing by quietly and doing what I asked.
I told him that Joseph, my high school boyfriend whom he had heard about many times, had died in a fire and that I was going back east for the funeral. I told him I was going to stay awhile with my mother in the house where I had grown up.
"Oh," he said, and for a moment turned back to the keyboard and tapped fitfully. He looked around again. "I don't suppose you're asking me to come with you."
"I'm sorry," I said. "It's strange, but the whole situation is, I don't know, weirdly prophetic. It can't really come as a surprise to you. You've known for awhile I was going somewhere. We haven't been together for months. I didn't want it to be this, but now that it is, it's almost like I expected it. I don't know if that makes sense."
"I'm not sure I care if it does," Tad said. "I'm not sure I care about your, uh, prophecies either. What do you want me to say, Amelia?"
His tone was bitter. I looked at him sharply and his eyes retreated carefully back into his handsomely bland cheekbones. "I'm not having an affair," I said. "I haven't, not with anybody."
"And when you do?" he said.
"If I do, you know I'll tell you."
"That's great, Amelia. Just great."
"What about you?"
"I don't know." He measured his words carefully. "I'm going to stay in the apartment. I can't say to you that whatever happens, either there or here, you'll be welcome to move back. I might have options too, you know. I might have to explore them."
"I think you should," I said. "It's only fair."
"Fair?" His cheeks reddened. "That's a funny word. Luke will be there, right?"
"Maybe. I guess so. I haven't spoken to him."
"I can't believe you're going back to all that." He squinted in a way that looked painful. "I can't believe you have that little sense. Don't you remember any of it, Amelia, how bad it was? You couldn't walk down the street without seeing something that would remind you. That was already two years later—two years. Have you forgotten all that now? Does it really look that rosy?"
"It didn't stop you from wanting to marry me," I said. "Maybe it even made it easier. But that's why I need to go back. Why I need to see. I'm stronger now, Tad, and you're part of that. But I'm still hollow inside and you know it. There's something missing. I need to see what it is, I need to look right at it. If I don't, I'll never be able to love anyone. Not you, not myself, not anyone."
"But I love you," he said. "Why doesn't that count?"
"Do you?" I said. "Or do you just love who you wish I was? Do you really love me more than the idea of the life we should have when you know very well we don't have it? What is it you love, Tad? Me, or just your idea of the life you wish I fit into?"
There wasn't much to say after that, although we took awhile to say it. Tad never gets openly angry though. Mainly he simmers. That's crucial. How do I love a man who refuses to believe that there's anything in the world to get angry about?
When I had packed I called Nick, on his cell phone no less. What did it mean when a former long-haired boy from the suburbs, who could draw and paint and make things with his hands when he wasn't guzzling beer or smoking pot, had a cell phone? He ran his own crafts and furniture shop now; he was a businessman. And a businessman has to be reachable whether he has a bong in the back of his truck or not. "You bet I'll get you at the airport," he said when I told him the time of my flight. 'Crazy shit, huh, Amelia? Crazy fucking shit. Sad but crazy, you know? It'll be good to see you though. Like old times maybe."
"Except no Joseph."
"Yeah," Nick said. "But you know, Amelia. Joseph, he's around. He's dead but he didn't go anywhere, if you know what I'm saying."
"I know what you're saying," I said.
"It's like time's going backwards or something," I told Pete, the kid sitting next to me in the truck, after I got off the phone with Amelia. We were delivering some restored furniture to some people. It was the end of the day and I don't need to pay a driver for something I can do myself. "Like it doesn't run just one way, you know, but back and forth, around and over. What you think is past is still going on."
"Sure Nick," Pete said. I was getting him to help me then I was going to drop him where he lived. His dragon tattoos were okay but that god-damned nose ring I couldn't get used to. Kids and fashion, shit. "You're the boss," he said.
"Don't I know it. And the boss knows how little the boss is boss of."
"Whatever you say," Pete said.
These kids, though, I'll tell you, they get really sucked into it. This Pete, for instance, he was a case. Kid had a feel for wood. Not just functional stuff either. He could put some pieces together in ways that would knock you out. I'd taught him some stuff, sure—they come in with a feel, the best of these kids, but they don't know the craft. But this Pete, though, even the craft he picked up fast. There's all sorts of things he could do, and he was only sixteen. But did he give a shit? No. Mainly he wanted to get wasted, smoke or drink anything he could get his punk hands on. Wanted to fuck plenty of girls too, no doubt about that, only he couldn't get any of them to touch him yet. Probably had lots of Hustlers and whacked off into Kleenex. He had time to see what that was all about. He worked hard sometimes, though, which counts.
"I'll say this," I said. "You always pay for what you play with, know what I mean? But does that stop you or me from playing with it? Hell no. Because people are stupid. They know shit but don't care about knowing it. Can't say I blame them. Me, I don't want to know anything either. I just want to have fun. See what I'm saying, kid?"
"Sure Nick," Pete said.
"Did I ever tell you that story about the time Joseph and me and some guys turned over Jon-Jon's Camaro? Turned it right over. That was a crazy night."
"You told me, Nick," Pete said.
"What a badass piece of shit that car was. Fucking Jon-Jon, thought he was one bad motherfucker because he had a Camaro and a sixteen year old girlfriend. Used to strut around, work on his pecs and his car and that girl. Thought he was something. He was maybe twenty-one, twenty-two. He was always telling us how his girlfriend wanted it in the ass."
"I know," Pete said.
"That was a wild night. There was like ten of us, and we'd gotten hold of a bunch of 40s and downed them. We'd heard this other guy Shawn had some cases of Bud at his house and we'd gone by there but he wasn't home, so we were pissed. We started talking about that fucker Jon-Jon, how he thought he was all bad and shit because he was doing this jailbait in the ass, always telling us how we were just some punk kids and he was only four, maybe five years older. Man, we were just going around, looking to party, and ragging on Jon-Jon. Then this guy Danny, stupid fucking loudmouth, supposed to be some kick ass hockey player, thought he was real cool, says, "Let's go fuck with Jon-Jon's car." And we were saying come on, man, he's always with that car. Jon-Jon, see, had his own house he was renting 'cause he worked in this garage, and somebody says maybe he's not in the car, maybe he's in the bedroom doing that girl with Van Halen cranked up and won't hear anything. And wham, that's it, we were off to fuck with his car.
"But it's not like we knew what we were going to do, see. We were just talking, saying stuff because we had all this space between our ears. But we get over there and holy shit, Jon-Jon's not around and his car is. Then we're screwed, because we'd been talking and now we had to do something and there's nobody to stop us. You know how it is. Most of the time you want somebody to stop you because you don't want to put your big mouth on the line. But there we were and we were stuck.
"So we're all standing around, hands in pockets, looking at each other like how do we get out of this. Then Joseph goes, 'Let's turn it over."'
Pete was looking at me, fidgeting, rolling his eyes a little maybe, like he wanted to jump out of the truck right there.
"Now you gotta understand," I said. "Joseph wasn't one of that crowd. He went to the other high school, the fancier one, but he came around sometimes because he was my friend. Some of the other guys tolerated him, didn't know him really, didn't care much one way or the other. But I knew how strong Joseph was when he wanted to be and they didn't. Joseph didn't look like he had the strength he had. He was tall and wiry but not all that built, not more than a lot of these guys. But that was Joseph. He had this fucking strength. It was weird. When he went nuts you had to stay clear because he would get fucking furious, man, and then watch out.
"But this loudmouth Danny, who actually went to school with Joseph but hung around in my neighborhood mainly, don't ask me why, what an asshole, gets all pissed because maybe his bluff has been called. So he looks at Joseph and says, "What are you going to do, pretty boy?" Joseph wasn't a gear head like most of those guys, so some of them called him pretty boy behind his back but nobody had done it yet to his face. Joseph just looked at Danny. His eyes flashed like I'd seen them when he was about to do something you wouldn't believe. Then he took his keys out of his pocket and ran one along Jon-Jon's car, a gash in the paint job all the way across the side. You could hear it, man, it was that deep. All the guys are like "Shit, you've really fucked up Jon-Jon's car, you're dead, shit." Stuff like that.
"And Joseph says, 'Fine. I'm dead. So help me turn the car over.' We're all standing around and he's trying to rock the car then he is rocking it, a little, and he's looking at me and I'm going 'Okay, Joseph, okay,' because I'd rather fuck with Jon-Jon than Joseph any day. Jon-Jon'd kick the shit out of you, probably, but I didn't want to know what Joseph would do if he got worked up. So I rock the car too. Then some of the other guys, real wusses, start in on it finally, a little bit at first then more, then the car really does go over, crunch, and the windows break and lights go on along the block because by now things are getting real fucking loud and somebody from somewhere is screaming, "Hey you kids, what are you doing?" And all of us just run. We couldn't believe what we'd done and we wouldn't have if Joseph hadn't pushed us. God, that was a crazy night, and it was only beginning."
"Yeah Nick," Pete said, his fingers rubbing the tattoo on his forearm. "Because you ended up at Shawn's house, drinking his Budweiser, then the cops came because they're looking for some kids who have been disturbing the neighborhood. And right then, when there's like twenty kids there, this kid Shawn, you don't know how, comes falling down the stairs, knocking into everything, and lands right at the feet of the cops. This gives you all a chance to run, you don't care where, and most of you get away. That's how the night went, Nick?"
"I told you this story before, did I?"
"Yeah Nick," he said flatly. "You told me lots of times." He sat there like he knew better than me about everything so we just drove along, silent.
These kids, huh? Where do they come from? They always think they got you figured out and in a way they do. They just don't know what to do about it. They're so full of shit. But Pete, some of these others, it's right to give them a chance. So I always do, put them to work for me. If one doesn't pan out, there's always another. Some are good and some are shit. But you've got to give them a chance, because if you don't, who's going to? It's how I got my start, working in this glass-blowing factory when I was fifteen. Lots of stuff went on at that place. After-hours parties, booze. That's where I first started doing more than pot—'shrooms or acid sometimes, crystal meth, dilautid, coke. I even shot a little horse but that was too fucking dangerous. You don't come back from that shit. I don't let these kids hang around my shop after hours when I'm not there, because I know what they'd be doing. If they smoke a little weed on the job, that doesn't matter, but I don't want anybody fucking around my shop after hours. Call me a hard ass.
I dropped off the furniture and Pete and went back to the shop for awhile. Had a few things left to do but also wanted to kick back. I was going to see Randy a little later. He and his mom had gone on a two-week camping trip right at the end of summer, and I hadn't been over there since they'd been back, although I'd talked to them on the phone a few times. Some guy she was seeing and I hadn't met had come up to camp with them on weekends. That was all right. When you've got two ex-wives and two kids like I do, you learn how to get along with people. But I like my shop best. It's the one thing in the world I've made the way I want it. We did all kinds of stuff to stay in business. Sold antiques, did refinishing and refurbishing, created some of our own original pieces, even sold basic hardware. Sometimes evenings I just liked to work around in the shop a little when nobody was there, look at this or that, turn on the stereo maybe, think how everything got the way it is. Only I don't think too much, because it's not like there's answers usually and it's not like, if there were, knowing them would help.
I popped a beer, then went out to take a look at a few pieces, see what some of the guys had been doing. It looked good. My shop's about craftsmanship. I'm not here to churn out the same old shit, although I do enough of that, I guess, because a living's a living. But there's enough machines out there. I don't need to be one.
I like to have something to do, that's what it is. I'm not one of those guys who can sit around, and I'm more relaxed when I'm not relaxing, if you see what I mean. So I was doing some stuff, messing around, working on one or two of my own private pieces, these experiments I do sometimes. Then, I don't know how to say it, this feeling came on, on the back of my head, neck, shoulders. I looked around. Because suddenly I knew I wasn't alone in the shop, and I should have been. But I could feel it. Somebody was there. I know my own shop, I'm telling you. I know what I feel and I don't when I'm in it and can't anybody say otherwise.
I turned around. "Hello? Who's out there?"
Then just like that, I knew. "Shit," I said. "Joseph. What are you doing here?"
Nothing in the shop moved but that didn't matter. "I don't know why it happened," I said. "What do any of us know about why stuff turns out like it does? But it's—you're right—it's coming back. You're coming back."
And it was true, in a way I don't know how to talk about. Joseph was dead but he was coming back. I was in my shop, just me and all these things, but Joseph was there, more real than he'd been in a long time. Because he hadn't been real there at the end. He'd just been fading out. Now here he was, dead, and real again. Maybe sometimes you've got to be dead before anybody can remember you, what you did, what it did to them. I don't know. It sounds like bullshit.
What I do know is I was there, in my shop, drinking a beer around all this stuff that was mine, and Joseph was there too. He wanted something, and I had no idea what he was going to get.