Sometimes a visitor got onto the property, just as far as stepping over the ditch. The postman only stopped his car, and almost never did, only for bills. It was not a mystery, people knew an old woman lived in the Lewis house, alone. They saw her, but rarely, when she would come out to sweep snow off her porch. The meter reader had not seen her, ever; but Ray, old and alone himself, living at the bottom of the hill, making birdhouses and putting them on the lawn to sell, told his daughter it was the kind of habit people got, something they always did to keep up, when they did nothing else.
“Does she get food?” Mary Anne had asked, in a voice that allowed he was making Mrs. Lewis up.
“I see a white van go up that way. It’s not like I watch all the time.”
She swept her porch of snow, not leaves. Not acorns, and a heavy crop of these littered the steps, the six inches or so of porch outside the rail. The lamp, seen through the front glass, came on at night. There was an armchair with its back to the window; now and then a figure moved, difficult to make out but for the movement. The window had a generation’s worth of grime. The curtains were never pulled.
There was another thing, and few people knew about it. Those who knew would not have said they knew.
Ray had been up fairly often; he’d had success in early years, bringing her a Christmas box, shooting a little breeze. Weather’s not too bad. Quiet holiday’s the best kind, ma’am. And good luck to you…happy new year.
His daughter tried to find things he would use. She’d subscribed him to fruit, and he didn’t want it, but the critters did, so every day he’d bowled out a grapefruit or a pear, to see the raccoons sneak out after it. But he’d also, as he had with the hat and scarf set, gone carrying the carton taped back up in its paper, filled now with apples that had come soft, to knock on Mrs. Lewis’s door. That last time, she’d answered.
“Oh, Ray, I haven’t got a thing!”
“That’s quite all right, ma’am. It’s the season.”
The phrase didn’t mean a great deal. He was pleased she knew him to be Ray. It was all right…Mrs. Lewis was all right…in the head, then. She could pass away, and there’d be no reason he had to be the one to find out. Her mister must have passed away.
“What you think she lives on?” He’d said it to the postman.
“Social security, I guess.”
Ray took this as discretion, since the postman would know.
The big windstorm they’d had just Sunday peeled back the tar paper that Ray, spending a summer’s worth of energy, had stapled up—hoping it would stop the leak. He’d constructed his porch from plywood and decking, ten years past, and the job held up okay…only the bolts he’d used to fix it to the trailer wall didn’t hold, and the porch had fallen askew, gapping wider from earth to roof.
He used it for a junk room, and the junk was garbage he wouldn’t pay to have hauled. Couldn’t pay. He hadn’t known the floor was going too, not until the corner where ice always built up on the windowsill slumped in.
He wasn’t bothering with it anymore.
But thoughts of winding down…because you had no money and no gumption left, made him peer up the hill. Whenever he passed the front window, the distance and the heavy growth of scrub made it hard, but Ray began to think he was seeing a limb down, a nest of black lines clawing over the chimney. He thought she would probably not do anything about it.
Or…there’d be two of them up there, and someone would find out after a while, and they’d knock at Ray’s door and say, “You’re the closest neighbor. Didn’t you see anything?”
His daughter didn’t want him at home with her.
Ray, also, if he were going to die, wanted to be here in his living room, sunk in his chair, watching a gospel show on TV, hearing the choir. He made up his mind he’d climb the hill. Call someone, if it looked bad.
He pictured, as the road steepened, flagging down the white van. A handy thing, if this were its day. Settle the question. If the driver was a home helper, after all, tuck away that news for Mary Anne.
Then he could forget Mrs. Lewis, be glad at last that he could.
No one passed. Wind gusted, yellow leaves came down in a zig-zag line skirting the roadside. Ray thought he should have put a hat on. The clouds seemed wanting to spit a little rain. He reached the point where the angle of the hill, if he cut across the ditch, would be just as testing to his lung-power as to keep going, and turn where she’d once had a drive.
Weeds and saplings had taken this over. He ought to tell easy enough if van tracks had been pressed into the tall grass, and he saw no sign of it. He didn’t like coming through this way, having to wedge round, right next to what had been the outhouse.
Well, it still was.
But getting to the porch by way of the yard meant looking out for gopher holes…it was chilly today…maybe not so much it would’ve killed the mud-daubers that had sealed the window sash with their nest, sandy columns all down between glass and screen.
The glass grey over the kitchen sink, showing an oval of light from the parlor. He came to a standstill.
Looking at the little door, as ever just an inch or so cracked.
He heard someone give a chuckle. “You from down the hill.” The man used a tree branch to swing himself, coming up over the rise of the slope behind the privy.
“That’s right, I knowed ya.”
“You’re one of those…” Ray cast an arm towards the Spaulding property, not remembering the name that might be this stranger’s. A rail fence edged where the hill dipped into Spaulding’s hollow. When the farmhouse had renters, they’d kept a pony, and Ray had always seen it hang its head, sag the barbed wire, stretch its nose as fenced animals did, to browse the other side.
“Yeah, I come back…” He gave Ray his hand. “My name’s Joshua. I got a little camper-trailer, I put up where they tore down the house. I don’t know what they was thinkin’…they was gettin’ rent for it.”
“Bee in the bonnet.”
“That sign been up every time I come past for a couple years now. You ever see anyone come out to look?”
“Nope,” Ray said.
Joshua grinned. He and Ray both laughed. He smacked Ray on the shoulder, guiding him, shooting a look at the outhouse as they shuffled by. Once they got around the split limb, and the roots knuckling bare earth under the oak tree, there was room enough to jog up the porch steps.
“You here to look in on Mrs. Lewis?” Ray asked. He thought he’d leave the job to Joshua…if the Spauldings’ squatter said he was.
“Looked in through the glass a couple times, and she ain’t anyplace I can see. But you and me go on inside now.”
Their shoes cracked acorn shells, Joshua’s high-tops leading Ray’s sneakers. Joshua seized the rusting handle, and with another grin, swung open the screen. The front knob was tortoiseshell porcelain, didn’t even catch, the lock an inside bolt, as Ray knew from those few times he’d set foot in her living room.
“Just puttin’ my head in.”
Joshua held back, just to say this to Ray, having twisted the knob and unstuck the door already from the carpeting it snagged on. “Hey, ma’am!” he yelled.
Ray went in too, and the room had a chill; the blue sofa, the rust rug, the shiny drapes open on their traverse rod, a smell. Of old smells settled in together…some cellar to it and frying oil, dirty bathroom and wood smoke, perfume or the sweet odors they put in dish soap and toilet paper.
“Hey, ma’am, Mrs. Lewis!” Ray called.
“Well, I’ll go in the bedroom,” Joshua said. “You see if she got a basement. Could’ve took a fall.”
Ray stepped into the kitchen. He inched to have a look, though she lay there, between the red metal cabinet under the sink, and the metal-legged table with the red top. He eyed the window, bending slow to his knees. The table and counter had dead wasps all over.
Her housecoat was heaving, taut on fat round shoulders; she breathed as an old person breathes, labored even in unconsciousness.
“Nothing to do with that branch,” Joshua said. “Broke out a window, but the rug was dry. I can get one…that barn down there got a lot of old junk. Clean up.” He laughed. “Clean up all them.”
Something came pattering down over Ray’s back. Joshua crunched foot-to-foot past the sink, walking on insect shells, and crouched to look Ray in the face.
“Come on. We can get her in that bed.”
Ray had a nice wireless phone, from Mary Anne, and hadn’t brought it with him. He never remembered the battery, and had to charge it when he wanted to make a call
“Need an ambulance,” he said.
“I’m gonna get the heavy end, and you get the legs.”
At this, if he’d been in some way contending with Joshua, he gave in. They tilted her, to carry her face up, and she gagged out a stream of spit. She coughed as they hefted her round the stove. She did not come to.
The closet door was standing open…possibly it had been. Ray saw Mrs. Lewis kept blankets stacked on the shelves inside. They lowered her to the corded spread.
She had no phone of her own that Ray could see, nothing much on the bedstand but religious pamphlets and a lamp with a fissured brown shade. Noise caught his ear, a motor zooming loud and quieting, axles banging over ruts. It got closer, closer, then cut off.
“Joshua!” A woman shouted.
“Just get in here!” he shouted back.
Ray let Mrs. Lewis’s head sink on the second pillow they’d propped her against, murmuring to one another half-sentences of advice.
“Breathe a little better that way.”
“Get them dentures.”
It was true. In her fall, her upper plate had loosened. Her exhalations, forced around it, sounded unwell. Neither man wanted to reach in.
They heard the spring of the screen door whinge, the woman call out, “No, goddamn, don’t you even!” She came to stand in the bedroom door. Ray could hear children yipping (as he described it to himself), in the yard.
“You let ’em out the van? Keep ’em away from that privy.”
“Josh, is that her?”
He snorted that she’d ask, beckoned the woman to change places with Ray, steering Ray by the shoulder again, back from the bed.
“You don’t have to worry, now. You go on home, if you want.”
“I didn’t look,” Ray said, “out in the living room, to see if she’s got a phone.” He wasn’t harping. He just wanted to know. “Or, if that van drives okay…”
“Drives good. But old Mrs. Lewis don’t need any hospital. Tamera’s gonna look after her. You get me, Ray. Say they wanna put her in a home. Be kind of a problem. ’Cause of that out back.” He jerked his head.
There’d been a time when Ray, bringing a space heater of Mary Anne’s that he’d thought Mrs. Lewis might use more, had got no answer to his knock…and he’d taken a little stroll. He’d meant to try pounding on the kitchen door. But you get curious, passing by an old-time privy, wondering what it looks like inside.
She’d come out the back way, saying, “Ray, what you want?”
It had been normal after that, her thanking him, him showing her what the buttons did.
“At least the power’s on.” Tamera’s voice was coming from the kitchen. “I’m gonna boil some water. Lindy, get in here! I got a chore for you.”
She came into the living room, holding a dust mop. Ray hadn’t meant to wander like that, ruminating. He put his hand on the tortoiseshell knob.
“You folks come down the hill if you need anything.”
By Christmastime, the side of the camper trailer blocked the outhouse mostly from sight. Ray had seen his neighbor carry up a number of things, bricks and lumber, three windows, all broken, but enough good glass to fix one, from the Spaulding barn…Joshua always, after that first day, coming and going. The van came and went, Tamera and the kids, into town and back. Ray, bringing his ladder, helped on a couple of projects. They’d fit a pipe to the chimney for a new woodstove; after the first deep freeze, Ray had knocked wasps’ nests from under the eaves, while Joshua put up gutters. They’d let him look in on Mrs. Lewis.
Tamera had her sitting up in a chair, and when the bedroom door swung back, she was slumped there, asleep. But then she’d lifted her head, and given Ray a black-eyed stare.
Less to eat turkey and more for the new satellite dish, Ray joined the family for Thanksgiving, and hadn’t seen her that time—but the bedroom door was closed. It was a snug house, if they weren’t using that room. Out here, only a sleeper-sofa opposite the old sofa, shelves with toys and kids’ books, an ironing board, a beanbag chair, the TV and the new woodstove.
He had the impression, from the pride and delight Lindy and Eric took in folding out and repacking the sleeper, that it was their own bed.
“How’s the old lady?” he’d bent down to whisper.
That had brought giggles.
Monday, he’d used the twenty-five dollars Tamera gave him for the Sam’s Club card, his daughter’s gift. He’d ridden into town in the van; he did these days, when Tamera did her shopping. He’d bought a couple things they had at the grocery store, for the kids. They had a lot at the grocery Ray hadn’t expected. Tee shirts and socks, Christian books, decorations, toasters, pots and pans. He been buying everything at the gas station he could ride his bike to.
The postman asked, handing Ray a red envelope sealed with a foil sticker, “Old Mrs. Lewis got renters?”
Ray lied, a little bit. He wasn’t sure why. “Relatives. She’s still living up there, but they’re taking care of her.”
It was dusk, and they were getting ready to drive into town, up and down the hills, look at the Christmas lights. Ray had been sent out back with the keys. Tamera was hunting coats; Joshua, his wallet. The van sat chugging, almost failing, coming steady again, heater going full blast. There was a moment, and the white winter sun hadn’t vanished. Ray shuffled up to the privy door. A fly was buzzing here, even in the cold. The crack was a little wider. Nothing need stop him just pushing it open.
But something did. Some sense that he would not be wiser, for knowing more about his new neighbors than was good.
He went back, and got in the death seat, next to the driver’s.
The Big Pants
“Someone has got a watch.”
They all knew it. In point of fact, two watches, for green light as well as blue bumped from the floor, modest hemispheres glowing where the exercise demanded pitch dark. The lights rose, converged, shed themselves on Toby’s face; apologetic voices came murmuring from the whiteboard area, where Toby could be made out, sitting on his stool.
“No, no,” he said. “Well”—louder, he was addressing them all—“that spoils things. But that’s all right.”
He got rid of the watches, and it was then very dark. Tom touched knees with someone to his right. He was hating this. There was something weird to him about touching people. He’d spent most of his life never doing it. Soon Toby was going to say, “Everyone hold hands.” Toby was rustling out there.
Yesterday, Tom had been commanded to his feet in front of twenty people. 283—he’d squeaked the number onto the whiteboard, and put his name next to it. That was not so bad. Perry was 508. Well, he really, manifestly, was. “No judgment, no judgment,” Toby kept saying it. Tom was not judging. Maybe Perry, held back by his oxygen tank, would have the easier time.
He’d been a little concerned, coming to the cafeteria from the morning hike, to find breakfast a buffet. Tom had gone on a diet once that was all portion control, little packages of pretzels and cookies. Stuff you could stand to eat, but no discipline. Here were boiled eggs, fruit salad, almond milk smoothies…but seconds, thirds…couldn’t you overdo eggs? Wouldn’t four pieces of toast with organic fruit puree still be a lot?
“That would be,” he told Jackie, who’d sat opposite and spilled his orange juice, knocking her tray against his, “four hundred calories, maybe more like five.”
“What?” She was splitting her egg with a fork. “No, why should it? Maybe I won’t have the egg then.”
“And what have they got against coffee, I wanna know? No, I’m talking about, if you had five pieces of toast. You could.”
“But you know, it’s the set point. You’re supposed to find it.”
They had got this far along. He would not normally have lit into conversation with a woman. In a bar, he couldn’t have done it. Toby Messerman, who charged four thousand eight hundred sixty-three dollars for a seven day retreat, might yet offer a bargain.
They were—although right away Tom had learned the rules, sincere in trying (because he would like to make friends) to keep his language use in accord with Toby’s directives—fat, every one of them. He was fairly certain, thus, to judge…no, to gauge, by the sound of breathing, that he was holding hands with two men. Toby would have language for this occasion too…but Tom could coach himself.
“Grow up,” he said, under his breath…that, and his words, as he hoped, not audible.
“Can we truly feel ourselves equal to all beings, faceless, disembodied, communicating via mind alone, all our worth measured in spirit and intellect? I can’t see your faces. I suspect you are somewhat abashed.”
Toby asked them why this was so.
“Because…” Tom found complete darkness had tampered, for one thing, with that saving self-consciousness that would have kept him from thinking aloud.
“Um…intellect.” He meant nothing by this. But Toby, with enthusiasm, said again, “Yes, yes.”
“Um. That’s all I got.”
He heard Jackie’s voice. “Well, I mean…I guess, you would feel sort of okay, just being stupid…or being rude to other people, even. Because, I mean, when you’re fat, everyone is rude to you. They treat you like you’re stupid. But…intellect…”
“I want to thank you for that,” Toby took her up briskly. “This is all very productive. You’ve got to the point at once. It’s difficult, isn’t it? Having no shell to scuttle back into? You find it challenging, this idea of being anyone’s—everyone’s—intellectual equal?”
Toby’s next act was to make certain of their faces, however hidden from scrutiny, coming over abashed. “I will tap one of you to begin. Envision yourself wholly empowered, no longer the prisoner of other people’s opinions. Become that physical ideal you seek, the you that you have joined our fellowship to find. As of this moment, you are empowered to achieve your life’s passion.”
Tom saw where this was going. He groaned, mutely, hunched his shoulders and bowed his head; and hoped, that if he must be tapped, he would be tapped last…after braver subjects had given him the trend of things.
Fingers came to rest for an instant on the back of Tom’s neck.
He’d been tapped second. How, he wondered, could Toby get around in the dark without kicking anyone…maybe he would take secret pleasure in kicking them…
“And why not?” Toby finished his dialogue with John, whose passion was “helping kids”. Yes, a youth camp. John would have to buy a piece of land somewhere. He had run out of steam, mumbling about crowd sourcing.
“Please?” Toby said.
“Um…” Tom answered. “I kinda wanna have one of those pictures…you know. Like when I can get into a thirty-two waist…you know, put on the jeans I’m wearing now…like on my Facebook page. A big pants picture.”
“Yes. Tom, is it? We do, in fact, post our success stories on our own website.”
This was dismissal. Toby rustled. He found Luisa.
“Toby, I want a good place to live. You know, I live in a trailer right now. I mean, the kind that pops up to a tent. With five of us, my husband and my daughter and my two grandchildren…even though…we only have to sleep there. Most of the time I’m at my job…”
“Well. Luisa. I think we have gone a bit astray.” Toby fell silent. The silence went on. Tom, feeling this suspension to be what it seemed, a penance, and the fault considered his, asked himself if he had a passion.
“My family,” Luisa said. “They are my passion.”
Jackie was having a number of unworthy feelings. She’d caught herself, a moment ago, standing by, waiting for Luisa, realizing she’d expected Luisa to take the lead. She didn’t know what Luisa did for a living.
“Now, I suppose,” Luisa asked her, “we each pick from one of the cages?”
Latch hooks were holding the lids tight.
“Do you get deer?” Jackie had asked this of Toby, when, sparing a minute, he’d trotted down to direct them.
“Ah. Why the cage? Well, I’ll tell you.”
But saying so, he’d gone off, seeing Perry come through the double doors, supported by the arms of Gerda Messerman and one of the Messerman sons, equally tall and muscular. Jackie found herself bending over lettuces.
Of all things, lettuces made a puzzle. Tomatoes, peppers…carrots or beans…those you could pick only one way.
“Leaves? Or should I root out the whole head?”
“I can’t do it.”
Luisa straightened from her own cage. This was planted in beets, on the greens of which she’d tried an exploratory tug. She rubbed her fingertips against her tee shirt. “I don’t have gloves.”
They were far down the slope of Toby’s garden…the Community’s garden. Toby, helping his wife settle Perry on a cushioned bench, stood at the hilltop, under corrugated shadow thrown by the roof tiles of the compound’s teaching center.
His words, now the women had paused all movement, came to them from on high.
“Within a year’s time, what had been our woodland grove would sprout again—nature is very efficient in that way…but you would see no more of the orchids, the trilliums, the hart’s tongue ferns…”
Gerda mowed across the ferns.
“So it’s the same with antibiotics. You have killed off everything that ought to be there…and something else will grow in its place. Junk.”
“Most people,” Toby said, “have it backwards. As you see. You have to restore your health before you will ever lose weight, rather than lose weight to restore your health.”
Luisa shaded her eyes and stared up at Toby. Tom, trug over his arm, came to stand with them, third in line. Sixteen other conscripted laborers downed tools and rose, drawn onto the grid of crushed stone.
(Local stone, these paths were. Some irresponsible people put down pine straw or bark mulch, Toby had told them. “Burns like tinder. Which, of course, it is.”)
“You hear?” Luisa whispered.
Tom cleared his throat, and Jackie, looking over her shoulder, saw something eager light his eye. He was going to make a wisecrack.
“He’s wonderful, isn’t he” She moved to block, making her voice quiet, if perhaps not awed. Jackie had an indiscreet question for Luisa. Whether or not she liked Tom…by and large she did…she didn’t want to laugh along with him. Not at Toby’s expense.
Toby could be heard above taking leave of Perry. Gerda was already coming down the terraced steps. She spoke, in her ringing exercise instructor’s voice, many paces before coming close enough to join them.
“I’m going to surprise you. I think you see that I am lean and fit?”
“How many calories do I eat every day? Let me tell you. Three thousand. Yes, three thousand! That is five hundred above what is meant to be the limit. So the experts would say I will gain a pound every week. Now. I have something to say to you about the body. Why does the body make fat?”
John answered, from six feet away, on the other side of the double row of cages. “So we don’t starve to death. I think…maybe it regulates temperature, too.”
“Now,” Gerda said, “if you were thirsty, and you drank a teaspoon of water, that would not help your thirst. If you had another teaspoon of water, it would not help. Suppose you could not drink at all, for hydration, but could only eat. There is water in bread, for example. How much bread would you eat, if all your water had to be got that way?”
She was rhetorical this time. Gerda narrowed her eyes, and nodded. Her audience murmured among themselves.
“Two thirds of my food is raw. This takes great energy to digest. So that my metabolism will not lose power, I eat four ounces of protein, and have a shake each day made from avocado, almond butter, frozen tea cubes, crushed. I’ll teach it to you, when we’re in the kitchen this afternoon. But you see, that if you needed potassium, or if you needed selenium, and could only gain a very small dose at a time, your body would crave—like a thirst—all the food it could take in, until you had got enough.”
“However,” Toby said, strolling along to stand next to his wife, “for the supermarket shopper, or the restaurant diner, getting enough may be impossible. Jackie…you had asked about the cages. Yes, the plant kingdom is most susceptible, more so even than we ourselves, to microwave sickness. The air around us, even as we stand here, teems with radio transmissions, coming from across the spectrum of frequencies, and from every direction…and this, of course, is radiation. It is terribly unhealthy.”
It made sense. Even at about the time he’d had his third ear infection, there’d been stuff out there, some public debate, as Perry recalled, about overtreatment. He’d been a fat kid by the sixth grade—not just chubby, as his Mom said, but to his own mind, gross—struggling on stairs, goggled at with exasperation by adults, who seemed to think he could work harder. At something.
Maybe it was the amoxicillin. Maybe he starved for trace elements ground into pepperoni sausage, some mineral in a cow’s fodder that could find its way into a bacon cheeseburger.
But that was being hard on himself, which his sister had told him to stop doing. He’d been eating a lot of oatmeal, trying to fill up on it, this latest endeavor coming just before the Sunday he’d called her and told her he was going to swallow a bottle of ibuprofen. Perry could laugh about this now, a little. He had a lot of medications to choose from. He’d researched it on the internet; then began to wonder if a bottle would be enough for a man of his weight. And whether he had not been taking way too much to begin with. Ironic.
But the misery was real. Depression was the reason he hadn’t thought it through well enough, that Jason might get hurt too. His nephew’s telling him had been a real act of heroism. Perry figured his family found him an embarrassment, and if it seemed tempting to join in with a peer group, to laugh and keep secrets, he couldn’t have blamed the kid. Jason’s embarrassment had indeed been evident. Face red, half turned away, he’d said it.
“There’s some people, who are like, stalking you. They take vids…um…you know, like when they see you out someplace. So like, they send an alert, and they invite people to watch you…getting in the van, or something.”
The impact hadn’t landed all at once. For a few days, he hadn’t needed to go anyplace, and Perry from long habit did his shopping at the earliest hour. The Wal-Mart parking lot was at seven a.m. sparsely filled; he could get his van into a handicapped space, and clamber out—which was the tough part, exiting on the passenger side without holding up traffic…and yielded not-always-predictable results. He’d had the van modified with a bench seat, set back from the steering wheel. He had a rubber-footed step and a cane he used, because it was hard otherwise to get leverage.
He had learned that of the two evils, there was no lesser choice—he could buy a few things, and turn up shopping often, imagine someone’s saying (it was not much to imagine a thing he’d heard in reality): “Fat dude’s back.” Or he could buy two or three weeks’ worth all at once. “Check out that shit load of pizzas!” There was a laugh, a snigger, that went with these comments, and Perry had come to know this, too.
So he was familiar with this particular devil.
But he’d never had such a sense of himself, as viewed through a camera lens…he’d felt anonymous, going about his business, absorbed in the job at hand. He had sometimes, in dry, cool weather, gone out to the car port, through the special door, down the concrete ramp, and if he hadn’t felt his asthma likely to kick up, walked without the tank to the end of the block and back…exercise being good for you…thinking, since he never saw anyone in these early morning hours, that no one saw him. He’d prided himself, even, on the bullying’s being a lesson, that he’d been gifted with a better understanding of what a person could suffer in this world—and that if he had not known these things, what would he be, after all? A lout. Maybe also a bully.
But then, he’d always had his home as a haven, and could choose to shut the door when he preferred being alone.
His nephew’s information had given Perry a sense of being under the eyeball at all times, and had raised a scary possibility. For these people, cruelty wasn’t mere opportunism—it was activism, obsession. A thing they sought when they weren’t getting any. And of course, if there were people like that, Perry knew himself vulnerable, horribly vulnerable.
But the phone call hadn’t been, as the armchair psychologist would have it, a cry for help. He’d asked Debbie to help him make a decision. That, in its way, was asking for intervention—as you’d want to with any decision that might have consequences you couldn’t think of for yourself. If his sister had told him, “Never mind ibuprofen. I’ve got something better…”
Paul Messerman, sharing Perry’s bench and busy with his Chromebook, seemed to take his smile as an invitation.
“Hey, Perry, you okay for a while?”
“Listen, if you got stuff to do…” Perry turned up the palm of one hand.
No, he could’ve gone either direction. Debbie had started coming by daily. Jason had not come by once…and this was easier, no doubt, on both of them. At the end of the month, she’d told him about Toby Messerman. She’d been emailing back and forth with Gerda.
“You have to look at their website. They have so much good stuff. And you don’t have to fly, Perry…it’s a few miles from Sonoma.”
Yeah, life…it’s all stuff, Perry told himself. The Messermans had bagged a big one. They were charitable. Out of a five hundred pounder’s before and afters, they would get great publicity value. He felt cynical about it—what was seven days? But he would be the soul of loyalty if they succeeded; happy, at length having dropped three hundred pounds by the Messerman Method, to let them “use his image”.
“Luisa, you said…”
Jackie froze here, and Luisa, without much to go on for answering, smiled instead and gave a prompting nod.
“You said you lived in a camper.”
“Well, we do. It’s funny.”
She’d been going to explain this, how it was funny, but Jackie had then rushed on. “But, I mean…I’m sorry…it’s kind of expensive, this place, I mean, isn’t it?”
Luisa meant, yes, it is expensive; but no, don’t be so anxious. The question had not offended her. No, she told Jackie, she had paid the full price. She’d used her own money. If the Messermans gave discounts to needy cases—they might—Luisa had not asked, and didn’t know.
They’d all gone from picking vegetables to gathering eggs. The chickens also roamed under wire mesh. They had a coop in which to roost, a generous yard, unmown “mixed herbaceous groundcover” in which to forage for insects.
“Healthy chickens…healthy meat and eggs. More than that. You may laugh, if I tell you that a chicken has an intelligence, and that, she, being like any of us, unfulfilled, unchallenged, bored, stressed by the conflict between her ancestral urges and her daily imprisoning limitations…our chicken’s gut will digest poorly, her hormonal state chemically will be one of crisis. This will not feed us well.”
Toby also had told them they would find the work peaceful, inside the Faraday cage, and that it was—unpressured humans interacting with quiet-minded chickens, both species content and purpose-oriented—a beautiful thing.
“Eggs,” he’d said, holding one up. “And very small portions of meat. Never red.”
Yes, it was a beautiful thing. Toby Messerman was a genius; Luisa had known it when she’d first heard him on the radio.
There was a woman named Belinda, who complained. She called their quarters a barracks. “If they’d asked for another thousand or so, for a private room…they have private rooms.” And having distracted herself, sharing this, Belinda then finished: “This boot camp stuff is just an exercise.”
“But,” Jackie had said. The lights were out. The Messermans, opposed to every sort of interference with nature, did not flank their compound with security lighting. The dormitory was not pitch dark. Jackie remarked on this; Luisa had expected it. Now and again, to keep from being fined—or, disastrously, their home impounded—Leon had to move their camper well outside the city.
In an uncertain voice, Jackie probed on, tackling Belinda’s finances as she had Luisa’s. “I guess…maybe…if you could afford a private room…”
No one spoke. “But Gerda said it’s important for us to have our routines shaken up…” Jackie mumbled something further, having taken this second abortive tack, about snacking habits. Belinda continued single-minded.
“They locked up our phones! We’re only allowed to make calls from the office! I mean, you don’t call that boot camp? I’m never going to sleep. I wish I could at least check my mail.”
“Oh, shut up,” someone else said.
Luisa then told her thoughts over to herself. She’d been waiting to give Jackie the rest of her answer…about the funny ways of circumstance. Her own job was full-time—and permanent, for what that meant. Her daughter sometimes also, as a casual, worked at Pacifica Terrace. Because of the children, Manuela could not be on call at all times, and got from her supervisor a number of sly put-downs, to make her feel bad for not taking midnights and holidays.
“Don’t accept it,” Luisa told her daughter.
Even Leon would come on as a housekeeper, when it was not the wildfire season. There was always cleaning to be done in a nursing home.
Leon got insurance for those times he was cutting brush; the rest of the time, he could not—the children and her daughter needing added to her own…and that was a lot of money taken from her paycheck. Luisa got a little above seventeen hundred a month, take-home, and tried to put, of this, at least four hundred into savings.
So it was, if any place close to Pacifica Terrace had been a possibility for renting, her family would suffer, for having found a place to settle. She would have to enroll the children in a school. Which she wanted, very much, to do…but without a doubt, this mad for expense after expense.
Then, of course, the problem with rent was not merely whether you could afford it, whether you could save enough deposit money to secure a nice apartment; but that then, you had sacrificed all you’d put by. If I lost my job, or if, Luisa thought—and touched her crucifix—Leon had an accident, the money would be gone.
And if you had to find yet another place to live…well, maybe there would be no place you could hope to pay for. Having sold the pop-up, they would be left with the car.
And so they camped. But that was, as she’d told Toby, not so bad if you were only sleeping. They ate at Carl, Jr’s. They took the kids to libraries, parks, shopping malls. She and Leon had figured, with their savings, to find a cheap little house. Probably they would go to Oregon. California was too much. They would do all the repairs themselves. Luisa could find work…nursing assistants were needed everywhere.
“But, Jackie,” she whispered. She wanted to tell this, and it would be good for the others to hear, even if she disturbed them a little, what a good husband she had. “Leon said to me…you save money for the future, and if you get sick, there’s no future.”
“Now, what you think about dating?”
Absent-minded, Jackie had been on the verge of giving Tom a considered answer. There wasn’t a reason she could think of not to. Date. She hadn’t been divorced before…maybe people really did get shocked. And then it occurred to her he was feeling her out. Or asking her out. She might have just managed a lukewarm acceptance.
“Well, yeah,” he said. “Maybe it’s not much of a thing for you.”
Or an unintended insult. “No, Tom…”
“My problem is” he went on, “I don’t think I’ve ever talked to a skinny girl. Like that, I mean. At a bar, say. Or, you know, you get invited to a wedding.”
They had a free period, three to five, just before returning to the cafeteria kitchen to fix dinner (afterwards to wash dishes). There was nothing to do at this time of day but walk the grounds; and being exercise, the activity didn’t count as free, exactly. The compound had no television. The computers were in the classroom. They ate no supper, because a long fast at the end of the day accelerated weight loss, and reset, by Gerda’s estimation, the hormonal cycle. Lights out was the time darkness fell. Reveille, the crack of dawn.
They took a morning lecture at attention, accomplishing, Toby said, two tasks at once. “Time is precious. One ought always to think in these terms.”
“Yes, to stand properly, correctly positions the hips and shoulders, straightens the spine, allows the abdominal organs to uncompress. You will breathe more deeply, and your liver and kidneys will clear toxins from your body with more efficiency. This is an exercise you can do for ten minutes every day.”
They did…and Gerda’s dictum had persuaded Jackie. Her neck had stopped hurting. Paul Messerman also made them align in two squadrons, as he liked to call these, and had taught them to obey a simple command, to pivot to the right at the sound of a whistle, in columns making for the cafeteria and breakfast.
Belinda had by now decamped. She had done so with a threat of legal action—unwarranted, Jackie thought. Toby hadn’t said he wouldn’t refund a portion of her money. Maybe the inmates (she caught herself using Belinda’s word) had been doing the Messermans’ farm and household labor, but Jackie found the week had done for her what Toby and Gerda claimed to offer: broken her routines, taught her what to eat and how to cook it. How, in most cases, to lay it out on the plate raw.
As to insults, this came over her slowly, while Tom talked on, about a friend who’d baited him with a promised hook-up, and then…
“Lamed out, you know? He was like, c’mon, ask one of the bridesmaids. Yeah, that’s funny, fat guy dancing.”
He’d thought this colleague, not so much a pal, had wanted only his fifty bucks in the honeymoon pot…
Jackie began to think Tom was asking her opinion—if she understood him—on what he ought to say to the sort of girl he’d like to date. The skinny sort. It was their last day, and she’d come back to socializing with Tom.
She was not on the moral high ground.
Her lawyer, she could recall, had with a funny look on his face, and taking a kind of sideways approach to it, let her know he was disappointed.
“Well, there are other ways of getting that information, but if you’d happened to back up those files…”
“I don’t know what that means, backing up files.” Jackie faced him down, when of course, he was her ally, not her enemy. And she did know what he meant. Anyway, she knew how to Google. She wouldn’t call Brendan the enemy, either…but her lawyer would have liked it, if she’d consider their relationship adversarial.
She had come to Toby Messerman with the thought that a thirty-six year old fat woman, who’d never had a job outside her husband’s studio office, needed to get sleek. Not that Jackie didn’t like seeing people of size sass back; she believed in attitude…but thought that in real life the competition wouldn’t bear it. Brendan as sole authority on Jackie’s skills, her only reference, might tell a caller, “Sure, why not give Jackie a try?” Or he might dig a little deeper in the mine of faint praise and say, “Oh, yeah, Jackie’ll work hard for you.”
She needed to make contacts of her own.
And then she’d found out, poking her nose into other people’s business, that with few exceptions (and Belinda notably had not approved of her, or any of the others here), they were all…well, not poor, but struggling. Most seemed to have scrounged to pay for their stay. It seemed unlikely to her now that the Messermans would, out of pity, discount the fee, return part of her money in cash…though this would have come in almost heartbreakingly handy. She’d used three cards to charge the cost of this week, months ago a done deal, and too bad for Brendan.
But too bad for Jackie, of course. He would gain from this sneaking of hers, haggling delays, point-outable faults in her character.
How long did it really take to lose sixty pounds? This was Jackie’s settle-for-it, size ten ambition. Eighty pounds, getting to a six? But Gerda said be slow, concentrate on habits, not calories; the life you lead, not the clothes you wear.
“Because the only way evolution understands fat, is as a mechanism to perpetuate survival. You have so many more of these cells in your body than a slim person does, and the cells, by design, hormonally control your behavior. And so you see, to win, you have to starve them without their suspecting.”
The Messermans were good, but carrying on with their program…maybe it wouldn’t be possible. Jackie wasn’t in charge of her life right now. She’d had to beg a spare bedroom from her sister, who resented (and the conversation needn’t take place; Jen had an incredulous way already with everyday remarks: “Jackie, I hate to bother you when you’re watching TV…”) that rent could be only a promise.
She had to find a job. Her scheme, her justification for Jen, had depended on her meeting the sort of people who could give her one, gaining their empathy, having a common experience to override the lack of positive reviews…simply making herself liked by them.
Tom seemed to like her. But Tom lived in his parents’ house in Pasadena. He said he was a debt collector. And had told her he wanted to get out of it.
Well, he’d got her agreeing with him on Doug’s black shirt and navy tie combo. If women liked seeing that hipster/gangster thing going on, Tom would have added his boss’s style points to his thin-guy list. But he hadn’t believed in it. Another thing he didn’t believe…
He saw Jackie wander off, before he was done talking. Down in the valley some co-op, in conjunction with the Messerman compound, farmed rows of shining greenery in cages; that radio free veg the Messermans sold to their clients, along with the online courses. A flag flew next to a pole barn, in and out of which workers in black tee shirts wheeled carts loaded with crates of produce. The flag had a tree of life design, tangled roots and branches forming continent-shaped gaps, the globular whole flanked by the letters EF.
Cool, Tom thought. He thought also there was—he itched to get to his phone—something about that EF. Something he’d heard…a little negative.
The other thing he didn’t believe (the point was lingering, so he finished the conversation, with himself) was that, once at home, he would stick for even a day to the Messerman Method. The website’s promise enticed—you could eat more, they said, not less; there was a secret to weight loss that didn’t have to do with counting calories.
He didn’t know—he’d never been there—if being thin could be so rewarding, maybe you’d just go buy yourself a new shirt, check yourself in the mirror…find it all worthwhile, as you starved to death. But he knew that to be miserable and still be fat, was at length the deal-breaker. It had been with every diet he’d tried so far.
It was not that Tom had been left by this week unconvinced of the Messermans’ rightness; he no longer suspected the method too good to be true. Yes, he could believe in it now; now they’d gone all the way in, weaned from their first two days’ “transitional” food. He believed it with a wholehearted lack of commitment.
He was not going to get up four hours before he needed to start work…he was not going to eat a 1200 calorie breakfast of nothing but raw fruits and vegetables (no doubt easier going, if, like the Messermans, you spent most of your day outdoors). He was not going to do this again, to the tune of 800 calories, at lunchtime, and end with a protein smoothie (however high in “good fats”), and a piece of chicken, or a boiled egg, rigorously fasting afterwards from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.
He was going to get himself, tomorrow, a cheeseburger, some curly fries, maybe a milkshake. And coffee.
Jake Messerman and Paul were walking Perry, down there by the chicken house. Putting it like that was probably uncharitable. Jackie, Tom thought, would call me on it. She thinks I’m the obnoxious guy. Well, I am…I always end up being. Why is that?
No, I’m jealous, he concluded. Jealous of Perry, who’s ten times worse off than me. He reconsidered. Maybe, in some ways, Perry wasn’t. He had his own place. He worked in customer service, sitting home taking help desk calls for three or four companies. I gotta ask Perry, Tom counselled himself, how much he’s making.
He saw Luisa was with them, too. All day, the Messermans had been pulling a few of the twenty aside, asking for a private talk. Being what he was, a telephone goon, Tom’s first accounting for this had been rubber checks. But the chosen were going around now beaming, and smugly.
“Hey, John,” he called out.
John strolled over, eyebrow raised.
“What’s that EF?”
Tom decided to ask this, for an opener, pointing at the flag. The habit was sort of ingrained—engage the other guy first, then hit him with the real question.
“Earth Fighters. Iffy, kind of paramilitary, tree huggers’ group. You didn’t hear Toby say it? Maybe you didn’t.”
Say what when? Tom thought, and answered himself. Sometime when the guy they didn’t really want around, wasn’t around.
“The Earth”—John was trying Toby’s accent—“is our mother. Ha!” He dropped the accent. “Prob’ly mother with a capital M. Anyway, she needs soldiers to fight the battle. I don’t think he said it exactly that way. And something about recycling useful people. The ones who have been discarded by society.”
“Well then, what’s wrong with the people he doesn’t pick?”
“So…he didn’t pick you?”
“I don’t want anything to do with it.”
A chanting group came jogging, in what looked like formation, over the rise of the hill…well, not group, Tom thought—a couple squadrons, I guess I should say. He looked askance at Paul. Paul squinted back, and giving Perry his arm, veered off with him up the hill, towards the main compound building. Tom and John edged back from the path, making the way clear.
These men and women were not yet thin, but they seemed ultra-fit. Their leader was a stranger to Tom, and wore the same black uniform as his…uh…
“Cadets?” He asked the question aloud.
“We are the puma. The earth belongs to us. We are the whale. We are the timber wolf. We are the cave bat. We are the honeybee. We are the sky, the forest, and the sea.”
The chant faded. Jackie and Luisa walked up.
“Fighters.” It was Jake, remaining with them, who answered. “I don’t think you’re ready, Tom…but ask yourself…what do I call giving my all? Can I do it? Do I think there’s enough at stake?”
Tom looked at Luisa. “You?”
Her face, not smug, struck him as enlightened, maybe…something like that. But she shook her head.
“I think Leon will say yes.”
Jackie gave Tom an embarrassed smile. “I haven’t made up my mind.”
So what—he tried it—do I call giving my all? His Dad might have asked the same thing.
“If you hate your crap job, Tombo, what’re you doing? You’re living here free, why don’t you get a degree in something? Why can’t you learn a trade?”
Yeah, get a student loan. Tom’s heart went out to the people he talked to, guilting them, as coached by Doug’s tip sheet: “You think it’s fair, ma’am? You made a deal in good faith. Didn’t you? And you’re not holding up your end…are you? Would you call what you’re doing right? Wouldn’t you feel better if you gave just a little? How about fifty a month?”
And those were a lot of questions. Jake’s. His Dad’s. The script’s. Had he ever tried seriously to answer them?
“Listen,” Tom said. “Don’t tell me I’m not ready! I know what’s at stake. It’s all gonna collapse around us one day, right? The planet’s at the tipping point, and when you tip, you fall. I know that.”
He said other things, with a kind of passion he hadn’t suspected himself of, and Paul, coming back down the path, Gerda and Toby, following their son, completed the circle.
“You’re confined in this place. You…and one relative. Spouse,” he said. “Child, sibling.” The speaker prompted; he spotted examples in the crowd, and pointed. And each of those he pointed to, three or four among a group of reporters, off-duty sheriff’s deputies, and protestors, laughed; by this self-conscious laughter, becoming vaguely united.
“You get four square miles to forage and hunt. That’s your territory. Altogether the woods can sustain ten people. Five separate clans. Of two!” Now he made a comic lunge, pivoting round on his stick at the end of the semicircle he’d been walking. Two girls in shorts collided with one another, backing away.
“There might be other human beings in the world, but you don’t know anything about them. You venture to the edge of the woods, and the landscape you see is frightening, ay-lien, confusing. Now…except if you were starving, or you got the short stick in a territory war with the other humans, or the woods itself disappeared…a fire, say…you’d never try leaving. You’d never search for any other home. It wouldn’t occur to you, it wouldn’t cross your mind, there could be other people, living other places. So…how vulnerable is the human population in our little patch?”
Someone asked a question. It came out in parts, with a crooked elbow, and a hand palm out, that rose and fell.
“You’re thinking of mice,” he said.
“Mice and toads.” Tentative. She turned to Laurel. “What are they called?”
Laurel gave her sister a face that showed bewilderment. Exaggerated, on purpose. Why did Rachel think she would know this? Today, Laurel had been briefed for the first time by Duffet.
“The Eastern Whitefoot.” He answered Rachel. “Mouse, right? Course the American toad could work for what we’re talking about…but it’s not really endangered. Ask Amanda.” Amanda shook her head and frowned.
“But the Saw-whet owl, for example. We count two breeding pairs. The Black-backed woodpecker. Habitat here could sustain a population. Never seen one. How about Frazey’s checkerspot? Butterflies can do surprising things.” He paused, and most of them nodded, but no one asked, “What surprising things?” He finished, not ready, then, to discuss the checkerspot. “But you have the right idea, Laurel.”
Well, I didn’t say it, she thought. It was her name Duffet remembered, not her voice. He had locked his eyes on hers.
“Some of them,” she gave him, “can never really leave this place.”
Not good. She was clustered off with two other women: Rachel, and Amanda the Bog Ranger. But why, Laurel thought, am I sarcastic? She’s got nothing to do with it. Amanda the park officer, then. She was in uniform, and unable, without cause, to climb the fence onto the Jenkins family’s property. Laurel supposed the ranger could pursue, though; had a duty, in fact, to keep the suspect in sight, if any of Penfold’s people committed an offense inside the bog.
No one knew where Duffet camped at night. He was a legend, like Bigfoot. Often reported, never verified. Most of the Boggies (Laurel supposed she could now call herself by that name) came out to rally only by daylight. The Jenkinses, owners of a pharmacy in town, not well-to-do, not even militant, except that they were outraged by the Boggies’ contentions, had been driven to patrol their land with shotguns. They had then escalated the trouble in a frightening way, by accepting help, help they probably—their better selves—didn’t want. The Free Landers’ camp was conspicuous, a ring of Broncos and Cherokees, defiant bonfires burning there through the night. And music, that visitors to the bog had complained of.
If Penfold culled Jenkins Woods, built a road and changed the drainage pattern, grinding up the topsoil and opening the canopy, it would change the bog, its biome. There was a borderline of dry, mixed forest, and some of the rarest plants could be found only here. There was competing science.
Harry Penfold had furnished his own ecologist to speak at the press conference. The bog was not a pristine environment, as Penfold’s man pointed out; until the mid-eighties, it had been mined for peat. The bog was in a constant state of restoration, anyway, with only parts open to the public.
“…and you’ve got your plank walks cutting across, you have all the signage, guided tours, there’s a road, packed-in gravel, that the Bog Alliance uses to access the dam area. And they have to be coming and going all the time, checking pH levels in the flooded zones…they teach classes out here. My point is, this is not a natural area. Not in any true sense. Otherwise you’d have nature taking its course, trees taking over. The volunteers have to go root those out. My point is,” he’d repeated, “you people complain that Mr. Penfold, who has permission from the Jenkins family to log their land, will encroach on the bog—you imagine this will happen, you haven’t proved it—as though the Boggies weren’t encroaching, as though the Fish and Wildlife service wasn’t encroaching.”
He’d got applause for this. One mayoral candidate had been canvassing sympathy, playing capture the flag with the Free Landers, embracing property rights, galloping away from white supremacy. There would not otherwise have been a press conference…but the gathering had afterwards turned into a picnic/free-for-all.
Now Duffet began to wind up. He stopped to clear his throat, then laughed, in a short-tempered way that made Laurel wary. Duffet’s reputation was mixed. He had been a tree-sitter in the forests of the Pacific northwest, served six months jail time and two years’ probation for repeatedly vandalizing chicken trucks; and his followers tried hard to view with tolerance that question of ‘normal’, with which the angry Jenkins supporters thwarted most of Duffet’s statements. Duffet was the leathery, sinewy, bearded exemplar of the man who lives alone in the woods. Yet one might fairly have said that with the Free Lander, he shared eighty percent of his genes.
“So if I start choking after a while, just ignore it.”
He barked out another of his bitter laughs, and talked himself back to his lost place, “What I’m trying to say…what I’m trying to say…we got a preserve here, we got a refuge two counties over, we got a national forest upstate. Maybe a rock formation gets to be a national monument, maybe an estuary gets to be a bird sanctuary. Thing is”—he moved his hands, groping after the thing—“the sundew. The sundew drops its seeds, right where it blooms. A mouse, a deer…a crow, puts its foot down, foraging, and if it has someplace else to go, it carries the seed packed between its toes in mud, and plants a sundew in some other bog. The crow might have a chance, maybe the deer. The mouse is pretty much stuck at Rust Creek. And the other two, while they may range outside our bog, aren’t that likely to make their way to some other bog. Rust Creek is one of only four protected boglands in the state.”
A woman and her husband, Tara and Dennis…Carpenter, was it? maybe Carter…closed in on Duffet. Tara asked him a piercing question about habitat corridors. One or two in the group tarried at the fringe of their circle, offering over-conscientious nods as Duffet elaborated his point. The rest returned to the line of cars parked tilted along the road, so that their right-hand (some stubbornly left-hand, drawn up nose to nose) wheels were banked on the ditch.
Tara was a type, Laurel thought. People had these intense little exchanges about things they knew already; things they talked about and emailed about…as though to make an inventory of the group’s phrases, touch base on commitment: I say “habitat corridor” to you; you say “tipping point” to me. Tara, introduced to Laurel, had shaken hands; she’d thrust hers out first, but goggled her eyes through this formality. Laurel had thought of a friendly remark.
“I really liked that photo you posted—the sunset and the blackbirds…all the amber light and contrast…” She’d fallen, then, into meaningless praise-words: “really great”; “beautiful”…because Tara had begun actively to drift off, making at length what seemed to Laurel a pretext of hailing Dennis, murmuring that she had to tell him something. Am I teacher’s pet, Laurel thought, because I’ve been given an assignment? Where is the friction coming from?
She was going to camp here for two nights; spend two days counting checkerspots.
“We’re past the egg-laying season, so it’s safe to pin them.” This conversation, she’d been having with Rachel before Duffet arrived, late for his talk…what he’d been up to, beyond knowing.
“I don’t want to kill a butterfly.”
“You don’t have to.” She shook her head at Rachel’s open mouth. “No, I mean, I will kill them. You don’t have to.”
“Probably. But the Frazey’s is hard to identify. You know…” She tried this again. “There’s nothing dangerous, camping. I have a GPS, I have a phone. The Free Landers don’t come into the bog.” They might, Laurel supposed. It was easier to envision Duffet stalking around under the moonlight. And Duffet the Wildman wasn’t dangerous, either. “If you’re not into it, you’ll be bored.”
“No, I can help.”
“You’ll be sorry,” Laurel said.
The sad thing, maybe the ironic thing, was that at the heart of the bog, signal strength, phone reception, was fine. Two towers on not so distant hilltops could be seen, already—or always—lighted red. It was dusk, and with Amanda, Laurel and her sister were hiking a mile deep along the plank walkways. Soon they would beat their way over dry ground onto the slip, an elevation of sand and pebbles that had avalanched into the bog, nearly a century ago. Once, in the days of canals, it had been a man-made hill, dredge taken from Rust Creek to make the passage for cargo traffic deeper and straighter. They’d forgotten it, the county fathers, and the mound in its shallow topsoil had grown a meadow…daisies, bee balm, ironweed. Waving grasses. These and other weeds, indifferent to their topography, remained, sowing unwelcome seeds.
Until 1920 picnickers had spread blankets there on the fourth of July.
Today, a trail exited the public zone, climbing through a border of burdock, a young grove of sumac and black locust, reaching a leveled clearing, a padlocked storage shed, portable toilet, and outdoor table, belonging to Fish and Wildlife. As for camping, the women had their choice of any clearing on the slip.
“But,” Amanda began.
They’d had an awkward moment, the three of them, women failing to take the initiative, watching each other falter instead of hoisting gear. Amanda, of a younger generation, and though she did not owe Laurel her assistance, only her guidance, had moved first, grabbing the zippered tube of canvas—the pop-up tent. Rachel then caught one handle of the cooler, Laurel the other, and the sisters lurched forward in the officer’s wake.
Amanda laid the tent on top of the table. They heard the clacking of its fiberglass exoskeleton. Her radio squawked two messages that Laurel heard only as static, and that Amanda ignored.
“You heard the weather report?” she asked.
“Um.” Rachel answered.
“There’s a twenty percent chance of a thunderstorm tonight. So you wanna go back to your car. You don’t wanna be out here in your tent. Out in the open.”
“If you get stuck, get away from your tent, and get rid of your pack. Look for lower ground, but stay away from water.”
A chime sounded from Laurel’s windbreaker. She pulled the phone from her pocket, and tapped the screen. She had a new Twitter follower: @lesdack69.
“It’s my stalker,” she told Rachel.
Rachel’s eyes shifted to Amanda, and her cheeks seemed to puff, a volume of words she would rather not say before a stranger gathering inside her mouth.
“You good?” Amanda asked.
“Night,” Laurel said.
“See you later,” Rachel said.
“Oh!” Amanda said. “By the way. Does that thing lock? We don’t have bears. But we could have a bear…you know, there are bears in the state…”
“It sort of snaps.” Laurel showed Amanda how the cooler fastened. Amanda said, “Okay, good luck.” She had been trying, since the first stars began to show above the sunset’s dying rim, to leave them. The sisters wanted her to go.
“Anyway,” Amanda said, “if you did see a bear, you shouldn’t try to scare it off. Just leave the cooler alone. Black bears almost never would bother anyone, though.”
“See you tomorrow!”
Laurel, cheery enough to release, as she hoped, Amanda’s conscience…stop her searching her mind for the next warning, and the one after…cut in with this.
They’d signed their names to the terms of the permit. They had assumed all risk. And would not be hit by lightning, mauled by a bear, or assaulted by a Free Lander…these possible threats no likelier, during this window of exposure, than being killed by a meteor, or abducted by the Red Brigade.
“No! Don’t put your end down ’til I say!”
“What difference does it make? It’s a tent.”
Rachel stood angling her phone, right, left, moving it closer, farther. She was using a leveling app. “It’s raining, Laurel. You want your sleeping bag where the tent’s not sitting even?”
“Too bad we didn’t bring a shovel.”
She feared a hint—prickly as the two of them were together—of double meaning might have rung in this. “Well, there’s no place the ground’s gonna be even,” Laurel amended.
“Listen.” Rachel threw her bedroll inside the flap. She followed it, ducking in, and remained there. Laurel listened to raindrops, the odd, fulsome plop they made against the hood of her windbreaker.
Rachel’s voice came out. “You should call the police on those people.”
Now Laurel heard a country singer, the crackle of an energy bar unwrapped. Her sister might do this…be on the phone, snack and play music, put busyness between them. The sojourn would end, and they would not have spent it together. Rachel was nervous, out of her element.
Laurel’s own phone played a snatch of organ music.
“Laurel, hey! I can’t get my wife. She there?”
Rachel muttered, “Oh, Jesus!” Her hand came out.
“You’re gonna trash that song.”
“No.” Laurel hunkered down, peered through the flap, and saw by the light of the thrust screen that the space was barely big enough for two short people to stretch out. More likely, draw up knees and face the walls (if tents had walls), neither of them able to uncramp a leg without waking the other. She’d bought the tent brand new, expecting to use it alone. The cooler was new. The windbreaker and hiking shoes were new.
“Why would you buy stuff?” Rachel had asked. She’d meant, how can you spend money, when you haven’t got any?
Because this is the only thing I’ve done for ages, the only place I’ve gone. I like spending money.
“No,” Laurel repeated, sighing and clambering in. “It’s okay.”
She tugged her pack to the entry and began unstrapping her own bedroll. “I love that song. I was sixteen or something, when it first came on the radio. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard.”
“You better cancel your notifications.”
“Rachel, they don’t control me. I don’t change my life for them. And how could I call the police? Who are they? Maybe not the Free Landers. It’s just these little spates they go through, inventing things, stupid name-calling that’s too cowardly to even be name-calling. It’s all kind of train-wrecky, you know? I figure they’re just giving themselves guilty knowledge…I’ll be in the nursing home one day, and they’ll still be out there, twitching when something reminds them…I mean, one of ’em might grow up and run for sheriff, or something.”
“I don’t know what to think about you.”
“Then don’t. Just don’t worry.”
She appreciated what Rachel was doing—what she thought she was doing—too much to start something sisterly, competitive and carping.
They were only half-related.
Laurel had once, eighteen or nineteen herself (Nixon had been president then, the laundry room’s black and white TV the only one there was to watch), let Rachel, five years old, camp out in her apartment. Laurel was the adult, unassailable.
Now Rachel was the adult, her bossiness relentless after Debbie had died. She’d told Laurel what to bring to the supper, what to wear to the service, and what her stepmother had wanted her to have.
Laurel saw her Dad squirm in his recliner, digging out his pen-knife to slit the wax paper on a package of graham crackers. On the coffee table (rings scored deep in the blond varnish) was a tub of peanut butter; vanilla sandwich cookies for dipping. Debbie’s marshmallow fudge. Bottles of root beer—root beer, not everyday Coke—for Christmas. Popcorn.
She was not dreaming, just remembering.
“Hey,” she said.
She’d kept her hiking boots on…this seemed like sense if it was going to thunder, and they might have to head back to the car. In the space of half the tent’s floor, the endeavor got out of hand in a hurry, stealth moves Laurel tried, pushing herself to her knees.
“Jesus, I’m not asleep. We’ve only been in here five minutes.”
And, having disentangled her feet from her sleeping bag, for two or three minutes more Laurel was able to sit alone, outside on the cooler, thinking of poor Debbie, her Dad—of how the bog resembled a glowing bowl, so much light of civilization to be seen everywhere along the horizon. The rain had stopped.
Rachel crawled out.
“Is that lightning? I think it’s flashing over there.”
“Do you wanna go? I mean…we would just have to stick to the path. I guess I didn’t really notice how far we came in.”
“No.” Rachel said. “Hey what?”
It was how little they really knew each other. They’d had these holidays…Laurel visiting, happy her Dad seemed settled in with Debbie, but bored in their house, miserably eager to leave them.
The house was near an overpass; it caught a constant rise and fall of grinding motor and rushing air, sucking along the concrete barrier. Its acre was framed by a river shallower than Rust Creek, and a drainage ditch beside a gravel road: house, carport, and metal shed hemmed in by woods.
Her Dad had liked his salt lick, the baby fawns that came right up into the yard.
Not having a car, Laurel waited at her apartment for him to pick her up. Then she waited for Christmas to end, sometimes walking around the yard, sometimes watching TV. Playing stuffed animals with Rachel. Giving them voices and hopping them around. Not helping Debbie…Debbie set things out from the refrigerator; she didn’t cook.
At twenty-five or so, Laurel had said: “I have stuff to do, Dad. It’s okay, isn’t it?”
She hadn’t spent Christmas with them after that. She’d sent cards, and for a while asked Debbie, “What do you guys need?”
“Oh, now, hon, I got more knick-knacks than I know what to do with.”
Rachel, having after a minute caught the allusion, said: “Oh, yeah, dipping ’em. That was Dad’s thing.” She added, “You know, you should come over for Christmas. Or Thanksgiving, if you want. Maybe that’s easier.”
“What if I asked you to come over?”
The LED lantern, turned down dim inside the tent, put out one sharp blue oval, not enough light to read faces by. The calculation that brought the silence was, of course: what sort of place does she live in, these days? Is it clean? Is she serious?
“We could potluck.”
She wasn’t serious, or hadn’t been. But why not insist on this right, too? Rachel—from watching talk shows, Laurel thought—had around the time January resolutions would be featured, decided they were sisters and ought to be better friends. See more of each other. She’d emailed this.
Laurel emailed back that she was out of work, was drawing her retirement, and volunteering to keep busy. She was volunteering, to be seen by neighbors going in and out of her house, verifiably known to talk to people. She was building an armored defense of normality. You needed to, when you were over sixty, and alone.
“I don’t want you buying a turkey…or…getting started thinking your dishes aren’t good enough, or you need to get the carpets cleaned, or anything…”
“Too bad. I was gonna buy one of those mail-order hams.”
Rachel missed a beat. But then she laughed.
“No, you should come,” Laurel said.
“Well, okay. You mean Thanksgiving.”
“Bring Alex, if she’s home.”
“She won’t be. Jeff’s Mom could be.”
Jeff had a brother and sister. His mother had four grandchildren, two great-grandchildren. The little ones lived about a hundred miles distant…but all this was “close” to Rachel’s mother-in-law, who flew up from Scottsdale. Laurel knew this from Rachel’s stories; outside Jeff, she had never met any of the family.
“She stays with us, and then she goes out visiting. I’d have to ask her.”
To read Rachel’s voice, she was ticked at having to ask her…because the invitation itself was upending, or because, as Laurel’s sister recounted it, Jeff’s mother arrived, set up camp in the guest room, made declarations: “I’m bringing my own bed” (she did, it inflated); “I need the car Saturday”.
“Email me when she gets there. It’s my job to invite her.”
“Well, that’s true.”
“I don’t care if she says no.”
“You and me.”
Laurel was about to say, “We should try to get some sleep.” She was now hosting a dinner. She ought to run a plan through her mind.
A noise that had been coming on them in stealth grew insistent enough to have a definite character.
The character was of plodding feet.
“Oh, it’s not a bear!” Rachel said.
They heard him shuffle, halt, cough.
“It’s Dana!” he called back. “Dana Jenkins.”
“Not that creepy guy,” Rachel said, low, not out of earshot. But then, she meant Duffet.
“Dana, are you alone?”
“Yes, ma’am. I wonder if you remember me?”
She hadn’t seen Dana since high school, many years past, and couldn’t recall his picture turning up on the Boggies’ website, or the local paper’s. He was probably fat and grey; he had probably seen her picture, since Duffet had included hers in the fanned array of team photos on the home page. She hadn’t liked Dana, and didn’t like in general when people who’d treated you as a punchline, came up decades later with no acknowledgement…as though an old, shared experience made everyone pals.
But then again…
“Why are you ‘ma’am-ing’ me, Dana?”
He grunted into the light of the lantern. “You’re like my wife.” He gave a nervous laugh.
He wasn’t getting it.
He wasn’t making Laurel out old…or if he was, she couldn’t be bothered. He was making her out forbidding. Of course, the same might be true of his wife.
“Why are you here?” Rachel said.
“Keeping an eye on things.”
“What things? This isn’t your land. Aren’t you breaking the law?”
“You know what it’s like out here when the moon’s full, and you’re camped up on the ridge…” They heard his coat sleeve swish, saw his arm rise against the sky, pointing. “Everything’s lit up like a stadium. Unbelievable. You can watch deer go across. We used to see owls, one time maybe a coyote. Maybe not.”
He eased down onto the seat of his pants, putting out a palm to balance. “They let you have a little campfire out here?”
“I didn’t ask. I guess it would tell on the permit…” Her permit was in her pack. And there was no reason for Laurel to raise the point.
“Well, I don’t wanna make trouble. It’s kind of cheerful, having a fire. We used to do hotdogs and marshmallows.”
“Yeah. A cookout’s nice.” Rachel, speaking softly to a crazy man, and gripping her phone, was backing; she was behind Dana, standing and above his head, dipping hers like someone who searched for a big stick, or a rock.
Laurel didn’t want anyone present making trouble.
“How’s your family, Dana? How’s the business?”
“Is that good or bad?”
“Good for the bank.”
She hadn’t heard this news. On review, Laurel thought she’d stopped getting flyers from Jenkins. These had gone straight from mailbox to recycling bin.
“But you’re logging,” Rachel said.
“No. We got held up on that.”
“Well…Jeff, my husband, thinks if the land belongs to you, it’s not right. Those people…that Duffet…”
“You think so too,” Laurel said.
“I really don’t care. I just know what makes sense.”
“It doesn’t though. It’s like any kind of thing between neighbors. It’s like…you don’t want someone putting in a bar next door to you, staying open ’til two a.m., having customers park all over your street. But your street is zoned, so no one could do that.”
“It’s not up to me, anyhow.”
To this, she could have answered, “It’s up to the courts,” or anything to similar effect. Laurel’s wish was not to convert Dana, but to move him along. She prompted, instead: “It’s family property, in a sort of trust, but your brother doesn’t live here now.”
Those were some facts from Duffet.
“Wouldn’t make any difference to Rocky.”
“Laurel,” Rachel said, her voice with a calling-to-account edge, “I’m going to bed.” A pointed exit with dignity was not an easy thing to make, when this meant hunkering down and climbing through a tent flap. Nor did Rachel’s point budge Dana.
It was in her sister to be inspired by books and TV shows that coached: take risks, challenge yourself, and Laurel was proud of Rachel for that…for being not too much in thrall to Jeff’s worldview, for keeping calm.
Then there was Dana, the two of them alone now, two statements of his hanging in the air, begging. What’s not up to you, Dana; what makes no difference? She asked him the second.
“Money. More than that…the idea of some kind of Jenkins…um…”
“Not legacy. I wanna say getting what’s coming to us, but not like that. Rocky’s got a security business in Denver. But I mean, clear across the country. From college, from high school, he wanted to get out there.”
“He doesn’t care if you sell the business, if the land gets logged. But he’d care if you cut him out.”
“Yeah, just like that.”
“But you don’t care. Anymore.”
He made a noise. A high-in-the-nostril snort. “I worked the cash register…up front, not the pharmacy, summers. We used to put price stickers on everything. Ka-zing. Ka-zing. That was another job I did. Pull stuff off the shelves when it expired…my dad was a son of a bitch for that. People were always messing up the shelves. So my mom was working the back counter and I brought her six bottles of Excedrin. I said what else does Dad want me to do? She was on the phone, she put up her hand with the pencil in her fingers, and I stood waiting. She had her bag sitting open on the floor, under the counter. She was moving, pacing, writing something down. I saw her bump one of the bottles…it fell off into her bag. I didn’t say anything because I knew it was on purpose. She knocked another one in.”
My mother, Laurel thought, got in trouble with the neighbors for not making me go to school. I went to live with my dad, and I never caught up. People put the taint on you, decide you’re a loser and it would be embarrassing to talk to you. You remember me, Dana.
She didn’t say it.
The thought had just come idly, in the way she’d pictured, at the beginning of Dana’s story, Harry Penfold’s paneled office, the glass ashtray with the chipped corner, on the counter above her head, Harry leaving his cigarette perched in a dimple to wisp smoke in her face, while he paced on the phone, the cord stretching and compressing. She’d run into Harry, at the start of all this, thinking herself well placed to speak to him about the bog…and dismaying him with her age. Harry, she supposed, couldn’t think of himself as seventy-eight, so it amazed him the twenty-year-old he’d hired in 1976, was now sixty-one.
But Dana was telling her this, leading up to some other confidence.
“You know Harry?” he said.
“So you know Stonemill Market is pretty well empty. They got that off-road bike dealer opened up now, and they got that one restaurant.”
“I can’t think of the name,” she said, because he’d paused here.
“Uh. Who cares? No, I’m saying, if you drive by at night you always see Harry…or you see his storefront, you see the open door at the back and the light coming from the office. I don’t know why, it makes me think all of us are being…condemned, in a way. I’m not saying this like I want to.”
“You mean poor Harry, sitting tight in the midst of his ruins, reminding everyone he’s got perseverance, he sticks by his own—even if they don’t.”
“Oh, yeah. That’s good. Guess you do know Harry. Just parked there at his desk, is what I figure, getting drunk most nights. Locks up about nine o’clock and then he wants to talk to somebody. I was in my garage. It’s true…”
Dana’s clothes rustled with a shrug.
“I watch TV out there. I got a twenty-seven year old kid home from college. My wife thinks I oughta suck it up and look for a job. People driving past probably say, there’s fucked-up Dana, getting pissed. Not true.”
“You were in your garage and Harry came knocking.”
“He wanted to drive out this way. He told me to stop the car at the top of the hill. He got out, and I thought he was gonna puke or take a leak, and after I listened to about four or five songs on the radio, I got out, and yelled for him.”
“And he’s just gone?”
“What you think, Laurel?”
It depended on whether Dana meant, what should I do? Or really only asked her opinion.
Here in the bowl, with civilization circling, the bark of a deer or the whinny of a screech owl had been only ambient noises, competing with the slam of a car door, shouts that flared over dim radio music from the Freelanders’ camp, fire or emergency sirens carrying from the highway and filtering into pockets of housing along secondary roads.
Was it reasonable to call the sheriff, so soon? Harry would turn up in a minute. Being drunk, he’d probably taken his leak, then headed off the wrong direction. Was it reasonable to approach the Freelanders and ask their help?
She was tempted. She would say, “You know who I am. Laurel Elbertson. One of the boggies.”
Out of ten people, no matter how they traded garbage among themselves, one or two could look you in the eye and spew hate at you. At least, of this, she was fairly confident.
Shouts, without the ragging note of the boy’s camp, where all the wind was on the first syllable—“Move it!”; “Shee-it, dumbass”—volleyed up, and these pitched opposite, higher.
“Look out!” “Come on!”
Dana shoved himself up from the ground. Laurel pushed off the cooler. Above the hilltop a cloud was roiling, lit orange from beneath.
“God,” he said.
Sirens came on.
“Oh!” This was Rachel, emerging from the tent, ripping Velcro. “What’s on fire?”
Now, where the slump’s shadows had been inky, flame pulsed down a flickering movie-reel light, and it was the bog that grew submerged in blue.
“I don’t know what it can be,” Dana murmured. But he began to walk, then jog, down the plank way, making for the road.
“We’d better go,” Laurel said. “I don’t see how we can stay.”
He’d tended to stick to his mother a little, a forty-nine-year-old man reverting in her presence, and with his doubts about Laurel, to dependent apron-stringing. But this had been short-lived. Jeff got over mumbling asides to Rachel and found himself able to chat with his sister-in-law. Even to laugh apologetically when his mother asked, “Did you make this turkey?”
“It came from Mrs. Penfold.”
The news accounts had reminded Harry’s wife, a woman Laurel had met once or twice…years ago…of her existence. Their charity was likely mutual, this perhaps the first holiday of her marriage Mrs. Penfold had garnered an excuse to stop the rituals, cancel the heavy preparations.
Laurel also invited Dana Jenkins and his wife, calling him on the phone, getting her. After sitting down to write a note, she’d realized she didn’t know if the twenty-seven year old dropout was a son or daughter.
“Oh…I’ll have to see…we might stop by…”
“You really don’t have to. I was just figuring the more the merrier.”
Dana came on. “How ’bout Christmas Eve?”
It was amazing how people who might have the dog shaking clouds of dander into the kitchen air…or who might, conversely, cover every surface with a thin coat of Windex—worried about other people’s being clean enough. Laurel had scrubbed everything, dusted, vacuumed; boxed books, junk mail, extra pairs of shoes, research materials, put them away in the garage. She’d bought two pies at the grocery—not for preferring store bought to homemade, even to spare labor—but to calm nerves, to say that she had.
“I didn’t bake these, sorry.”
She’d told Rachel: “Seriously, don’t bring anything.” Rachel brought stuffing, a sweet potato casserole, a big tin of mac and cheese. Jeff’s mother loaded her plate with these, chiefly…maybe…for her daughter-in-law’s sake. But she relaxed into turkey and gravy.
Lit like a sparkler, staggering among the Freelanders, Harry Penfold had found a crony, a man named Bill Krantz, with whom he indulged a violent fantasy.
“I always took it for a game. Whenever he’d go to get drunk, he’d talk like that, how we’d burn ’em out.”
“You mean,” the WRUS reporter asked, “Mr. Duffet?”
“He didn’t say that, any name, no.”
He might have said it. Duffet, eco-warrior, was practiced at evading authority. He lived in a pop-up camper he towed with his truck, up a different back road every night. The tent fabric was printed, and the bed painted, in camouflage; the truck also. The headlights of a passing vehicle might easily miss Duffet’s bivouac. But he’d stalked the bog close, sticking to the same few spots, getting into Jenkins Woods, using night-vision binoculars to spy on his enemies.
The Freelanders circled back.
Bill Krantz said he never knew it was missing.
“I just kept the can in the truck bed. That was for the cook stove.”
Duffet had been working on emails, sheltered in double darkness, his siege mentality requiring he drape a blanket over his head, to shut out the light of the screen. For once in his life, the intruder had come, creeping up in stealth from the trees.
The sound of kerosene glugging from a can is a distinctive one—and to the implication, Duffet awoke in an instant. Harry Penfold, also, though he might not have known this of himself, muttered, going about his work, and when he struck the match, startled himself. He uttered a shriek, then cursed, retreating.
The flames leapt. Duffet was trapped—the danger real—in a cloth-covered enclosure, in a ring of burning kerosene…
But, for this attack (and a variety of others), he was a man long prepared. The blanket was wool. He wrapped himself in it, poured the contents of his canteen over his head, and burst from the tent flap, hitting the ground, rolling himself over and over, scuttling on his belly into cover, and crouching, waiting, until he heard the sheriff’s deputy say, “Is he in there? I don’t smell anything…you know…”
As far as Duffet knew, and as he explained it—a fresh telling to every concerned inquirer—the woods might have been swarming with Freelanders, waiting to finish the job.
The Freelanders took this indignantly.
“Nobody gave a goddamn about Duffet,” as Krantz put it. “Harry was just fool drunk. But he’s gotta answer for himself.”
“Now, I’ve got something for you.”
She didn’t mind seeing both faces, Rachel’s and Jeff’s, grow dismayed. They were making tentative moves as a family, prompted after all by some outside convergence. The vibes might attenuate and die. They probably would.
“No,” Laurel said. She didn’t need to rise from her chair, only reach behind, to the little painted cabinet under the window. “Maybe you don’t want it. It’s just a kind of souvenir.”
Rachel didn’t sound repelled, or faking it.
She said again: “Jeff, look at this!”
Laurel had gone back, the day after the fire, to dismantle the campsite…and seeing no reason not, had stayed a few hours at the work. This butterfly, pinned and framed for her sister, was not a Frazey’s checkerspot. They were too rare. But it had spent its life. It would not mate again.
Spin the Wheel
If you don’t mind has to count as a question. By rights, you’d have to have a reason for minding…so you’d have to know what advantage there could be in opting out, guess whether the other guy would win the toss or lose it.
Try thinking all that without looking like you mind. So I said, “No, go ahead. I’m listening.”
But I feel like I got positioned.
One of the things they did, most times at these shows, was hold a raffle. So if you got called to come out and fill a seat, you were not supposed to let on…
And you were really not supposed to play for prizes.
But it depended. If they walked up and down the rows with a bucket (hat, whatever), you had to throw your ticket stub in. Delaney had a rule you could eat the food, but you better hand over the prize. His deal with the people that used him was to give stuff back, so it’d be good for the next event.
So then you’d figure they had this incentive to rig it, churn out prizes to the hirees…some of them were good prizes…there was one place giving away an iPhone. I didn’t get it, but knowing what I do…
’Cause, if these people did their shows in even twenty towns…
No, see, to me the numbers couldn’t add up. I don’t think they gave that much away.
So this time, I should have said to the guy talking, who I didn’t otherwise know, what’s the game, buddy? I mean, why do you want me to play? Even the idea that some of us are more inside than others, is a little weird. Why doesn’t Delaney ever wanna say, stick around for a while…or come see me downtown?
I would go wrong, though—I could work out that much—if I talked like I knew what was up, when I didn’t know what was up. I’d look like a spy.
(I’d even try that, now I think of it, if I could get, like, on a news show. And someone would see me…and I’d get offered a real job.)
But, about this crap, who cares?
“What’s your name?”
I said that.
He said, “Butch.”
“Try it again.” He gave me the scenario, for the second time. He showed me what he had in his hand, a stick, with a rubber-coated tip, that was like the handle of a hammer. But just a stick.
“Well, it’s really easy. The money’s all gonna show from behind, with the light shining through, bright red, really easy. And if it slows down, looks like it might stop, you just nudge it along. Suspenseful. Everybody’s gonna go, ooooh-whoooah!” He smacked his forehead, making this noise, acting it.
“And nobody sees me?”
“Don’t hop around too much.”
Yeah, it was always like that, you couldn’t tell when someone was joking. How would they pull this kind of stunt, unless they’d already figured how to light the stage?
Okay, so I end up having to crouch down behind the base of the wheel…’cause as it turned out, they had these strobe lights, one on either side…and from sitting in the audience, you’d figure all the noise and lights going was just razzamatazz. They had four people to come up and play. There were slices with prizes that were just junk they were giving away anyhow. There were two losers. There were blue ones, and I was supposed to let a blue one go, I mean stop, if I got the signal. That was Butch, making his noise.
But not the red ones. Don’t let a red one go.
“Marie! It’s your moment of truth! Are you gonna keep the My-T-Kwik, or go for the big bucks?”
Marie told Butch she was going for the big bucks.
The first guy had not won anything, so he was out.
The second guy won frozen steaks, but he didn’t mind trading them, he said, for the big bucks, so he and Marie got to have a showdown if the last lady crapped out.
I got my chance.
The wheel went fast, too many times for me to count, then it got slower…and I saw it make a full rotation, then it got really slow, and the red came inching up.
The thing, what was messing me up, was the audience was really hooting and carrying on. That was on top of all the boom, boom, boom from the speakers. I felt like, when I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t move my hands. It was weird. And I had lights pulsing into my face from both sides.
Whooooah. Whooooah. Whooooah.
That’s how it sounded, from the crowd, trailing off, like the wheel clacking past the arrow. So I got that nudge in maybe a second too late. A second isn’t much, but it must have looked like the wheel came to a full stop. And then bumped ahead.
There were boos.
Butch said, “I see that happen all the time.” He said, “C’mon, Marie. You’re up.”
And all the audience started hooting again, right off.
It couldn’t hit the red. But I wanted to be extra careful.
Marie gave it a big heave, and at the same time, I leaned into it. Only, see, I was crouching down there for a while…one of my feet had been going to sleep, and you know how it is…doesn’t feel like much until you move, then crazy numb and prickly. So, as far as I could tell, a couple things happened. The wheel rocked back on its stand (that was from Marie), and I sort of fell against it.
In other words, it might have been okay, and I might have been okay, but coming together like that…
I mean, it’s hard for me to thread out just how the crash did happen. The cord on one of the strobe lights got yanked out of its extension. That was when I kicked the light over. My feet were sticking out from under the wheel. Someone killed the music.
Butch said, “Who are you?”
Marie said, “Oh, my god!”
“I was just,” I said, when that guy with the steaks jumped up and lifted the wheel off me (Butch was just standing there), “trying to catch a rat.”
I had the stick in my hand. I shook it.
“You know, I didn’t want it scurryin’ out there, scaring people.”
So Delaney said…
He was there, the whole time, watching from behind the partition…they put it up back of the food table, and Delaney was peering out through the hinge. He said:
“That was completely stupid. I mean, that was amazingly stupid. Butch is a pro, you know. What would you have done, if he hadn’t known what to say?”
Now, again, this is what I was complaining about. How is it my problem? I got recruited, that’s all.
I said, “Yeah, Butch is a pro. Good thing.”
Delaney said, “But I like the rat. That was pretty okay, thinkin’ on your feet.” He heard himself. He laughed about it for a while. Then he said, “You gotta come to my office downtown.”