originally published in Gettysburg Review, Spring 1999
Mr. McLaren walked into the store today wearing a pair of surgical gloves. He and I are the same age. In fact, our birthdays–we both turned fifty-six this year–are within a week of each other. Mr. McLaren comes into Black Swan Books about every other week, but the gloves were something new. I asked him why he needed them. “I had a thought,” he said. “I’ve been in here about an hour, touched maybe thirty, forty books. Say some guy comes in and buys one of those books. Then he goes home and gets murdered. The cops would find that book next to him with my fingerprints on it. It’s best to take precautions.” I told him it sounded like he’d been thinking very carefully. He waved to me through the front window when he left, still wearing the gloves. It scares me that someone my age would think of such a thing. Amy laughed and laughed when I told her this story. “You old farts are so cute sometimes,” she said, then she kissed me goodnight.
Amy owns a rat, a white rat. To be truthful, she owned two white rats, but one leapt from my hands last night while we were playing with them on the floor. Josephine made for the kitchen faster than I could get up to catch her. I switched the light on just in time to see her weave across the linoleum, pause for a heartbeat at the foot of the refrigerator to grab a scrap of ham lying there, then slip between the feet of Amy’s roommate as she opened the side door to the apartment. For a rodent born and raised in a big glass tank, Josephine had the instinctual scurry of the best ship-rat. Amy was hysterical. She dropped Napoleon in his tank and ran outside, into the street. I stood still, unsure of what I should have been doing, until Amy’s roommate told me that I’d better get out there. I found Amy on her hands and knees, her face pointed into a gutter drain, howling “Josephine! Jo-o-sephine!” I picked her up and took her inside, told her I’d buy her a new Josephine. “That’s not the point,” Amy said, crying against my shoulder. “I’m pretty sure she’s pregnant.”
On the Fourth of July my wife’s brother and sister-in-law and their two kids came over around noon and stayed until after sundown to watch the fireworks in the park. While the kids chased each other across the back yard with sparklers, filling the air with thin smoke that doesn’t even register with Florida mosquitoes, I excused myself to get cigarettes out of my car. I leaned back in the driver’s seat, propped the door open with my foot, set my beer down on the driveway and dialed Amy’s number on my cellular phone. When she answered, I wished her a happy Fourth. “I thought we were going to spend the day together,” she said. I told her I had family visiting. “You can’t get away?” No. Amy was silent for a moment. I could hear my nephews screaming in the back yard. “Wait,” she said. “Where are you?” I told her I was at home. “Jesus, Clay. Are you calling me on your car phone?” No. “Yes you are. I can hear the echo.” I told her I was sorry, I couldn’t get away. “What did you tell them? You needed your cigarettes? You’re probably sitting in your driveway while Cheryl’s in the kitchen watching you.” As she said this, my wife walked around the corner of the house. She was wearing her black swimsuit and a long skirt, looking slender, her graying hair pulled back in a ponytail. She paused at the edge of the driveway, then went into the garage. “You promised. I’ll be at my dad’s,” Amy said, then hung up. My wife came out of the garage with a box of matches and waved for me to come with her into the back yard.
At two o’clock, the tape in Amy’s roommate’s bedroom across the hall clicked over, and the side that started with Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” began to play again. The volume was low enough that you could make out the tune but not the words unless you knew them, but loud enough to keep you from falling asleep. By the middle of the second verse, the bedsprings in the other room began to squeak: creak-a creak-a creak-a. The tempo and volume of the rhythm increased until–Art Garfunkel hitting his highest and longest and loudest note–it was interrupted by a sharp hissing like a deep breath inhaled through clenched teeth. Amy giggled in her half-sleep. Something scratched inside the wall, up in the corner by the ceiling. I was awake for good. I got up from the bed, pulled on my shorts and walked over to the window. I stared at the patch of sidewalk lit by the streetlight outside. Amy turned over. I heard the sheets rustle. Then I heard a train horn in the distance, and I was hungry. I was awake for good. I have to go, I whispered in her ear. “Okay,” she said, and pushed her face into the pillow. I tiptoed past her roommate’s room out to my car.
The Grateful Dead played two nights of concerts over in Clearwater. Amy thought it would be fun to hang out in the Nation for an afternoon, so she kicked off work at lunch and I closed Black Swan like I was on a book-buying trip. We parked several blocks from the pavilion and walked a half-mile until we were in the center of a city of Volkswagen buses and trailered pickups. There were thousands of people there. So many were so young; their Nation had been going on since before they were born. They were all tan and thin and poor; I wondered if they’d been on the road all their lives. Amy thought the boys were beautiful. I’ll admit it all reeked of raw, tribal sex. Of life. We walked past blankets of tie-dyed clothes, jewelry, grilled food, all for sale. Cans asking for spare change. Signs for rides to the next show. Men in long skirts. A girl in a yellow sundress, crew-cut with a silver ring through her eyebrow, balanced on a cooler, crying out that she had imported beer available. A lot of people walked with one finger held in the air. I heard a hundred of them mention miracles. They all wanted to be miracled. A man with no shirt, just a smooth, hairless tan, handed us each a Deadhead sticker. “We’re taking donations for some sick folks?” he said. He had yellow, dreadlocked hair. I handed him five dollars. “Thanks, man,” he said. I asked him what a miracle was. “Ticket into the show,” he said. “So how long have you two been married?” Amy snorted. I told him we weren’t married. “Oh, wow. I could’ve sworn, man. You looked so happy together.”
Mr. McLaren came into the store today, a long, gray box with a stubby black antenna strapped to his hip like a six-gun. What’ve you got there, Mr. McLaren, I asked him. “Ah, bought this at the flea market about six months ago,” he said. He unclipped it from his belt and held it up between our faces. “It’s a scanner radio. One of the good ones, too. Watch this.” His rubber-gloved fingers punched 869 onto the green LED display. He pushed another button, entered 894, then a lot of numbers blurred by. After a few seconds there was a burst of static, then a tinny voice: “…so the drywall’s gonna be in by the middle of the week… yeah… yeah.” I didn’t get it. Mr. McLaren clicked the scanner off. “Car phones,” he said. “Most of the new ones have the frequencies blocked out. Not this baby.” I looked at him with what must have been abject horror. “It’s fun. Mostly you get a lot of I’ll-be-home-soon-what’s-for-dinner, but Saturday mornings are pretty good.” He waggled his eyebrows. “Everybody talks about what they did Friday night.” He clipped the radio back onto his belt. “You know, you’d be surprised how much cheating and fooling around you hear about on this thing.” I said I didn’t doubt it, and he nodded slowly, like we were brothers in conspiracy.
These two things came to me while I was eating breakfast with Cheryl. First, I realized that our kitchen table has never had more than two place settings at it in thirty years of breakfasts. This is not my fault. It is not CherylÕs fault. It is a simple fact, and when Cheryl took her cereal bowl to the kitchen sink my dream from the night before came back. I was nine. I was standing in my parentÕs back yard on a summer evening, looking across our neighborÕs yard into the yard beyond that, where there were many people standing around, drinking from tall glasses. Grill smoke hovered around their waists. Everyone was dressed up, like they had just come from a wedding or church, like a family reunion. I could see this from two backyards away. Then a frozen scene, grainy and yellow like an old photo, but more like the sunset through the front window at Black Swan Books. A little girl skipping from one adult to another. She has her best dress on, lace, a bow in her hair. I wasn’t allowed to go over to her house, because they were having their party. I told Cheryl I wasn’t old enough to be having memory dreams, and she said sheÕd been having them her entire life.
Furniture stores make me sleepy. I always want to stretch out on those cool, virgin cushions and mattresses and nap until Cheryl is ready to leave. So I was less than thrilled when Amy told me she wanted me to look for a new couch with her. I sank into an overstuffed chair covered with satiny black leather. Ah, I said as I tilted it back. “No,” Amy said. “Absolutely not. I have pets, remember?” I said I didn’t think the store had cast iron lawn furniture, then. Amy glared, then walked away. I really did like the chair. I decided to bring Cheryl out to look at it sometime. My chair in the Florida room had a lot of squeaks and was almost worn out. This was a chair I could sit in the rest of my life, have memory dreams in before dinner. A salesman came up to me and said, “Sir? I think your daughter wants you over there.” He pointed and I looked over my shoulder at Amy, smiling next to a long, blue couch. I thanked the salesman, then leaned back into the black chair for a few seconds more.
We went to the beach over by Tarpon Springs on the last day I was able to get away. Amy brought Napoleon along with her. She’d taught him to perch on her shoulder, his pink snout poking out from her hair. I bought a bucket of fresh shrimp from Nikos. The old bastard ran his eyes up and down Amy and said something in Greek. Something lewd–I could tell by his laugh and the way his grandson at the crab baskets blushed. They didn’t even notice Napoleon. I nodded and tried to smile, then we went down by the water. The beaches at Tarpon Springs are mostly shells and stones, no place to stroll barefoot, so we spread the beach blankets out on a flat, black rock by the pier. Amy laid back, her hands folded over Napoleon, and closed her eyes. I peeled some shrimp, tossed the tails down to the edge of the water where the gulls snatched them up. It was warm, but not too sunny. I really wanted to go home. Then Napoleon wriggled loose. He dropped from the rock just as Amy woke up. She screamed at me to catch him as he scurried down the shoreline, almost invisible in the pearly shells. In a quick, white swoop a gull picked Napoleon from the beach, then flew out over the Gulf. I watched in open-mouthed surprise as the gull rose, rose, then dropped the rat from about a hundred feet up. I barely took notice of the noise Amy made as the gulls dove like needles to that spot in the waves, feasting.