The scene at the airport had fallen short of elegance, but it hadn’t lasted long. He didn’t come in with her because there was nowhere to leave the car; he double-parked near her airline and they got out, and he took her suitcase and her duffel bag out of the trunk, and then they climbed up the curb and stood near the big check-in hall windows where they each had a cigarette.
His lighter had been broken and his efforts to get the last spark were so laborious that a kid smoking nearby with his mother came by and lent him his, which he used to light his and his wife’s cigarettes, and then there’d been an exchange in which the kid had wanted him to keep the lighter, and he’d tried to give it back, and the kid had in turn refused to take it, and on and on until he finally agreed to keep it, but by then it was time for her to go and whatever few words they might have said they did not say.
The kid had brought that lighter and come there to mock him, he thought, pulling out of the airport parking lot and heading back toward the interstate, imagining her already in the air although in reality she was probably still just checking her bag and printing her tickets from the kiosk, or perhaps she was by now getting a bottled water and some gum at the newsstand, and looking at a couple of magazines that she’d decide not to buy without even having almost bought them. He thought about throwing the lighter out the window of the car, but in the end he just put it in the glove compartment.
She had asked him for a ride to the airport as if it were a favor he might have refused.
Now he was back on the interstate, thinking he would stop for lunch and then do the grocery shopping, getting the things he needed, walking up and down the aisle. His name was Will Strite and he was married to his wife Deb. Now she needed to spend the summer at her parents’ house, an airplane ride away, and get a few things sorted out and cleaned out and cleared up. At least when she meant the summer she said the summer, and not the weekend, and for that he was grateful.
He had this lighter now and thought that with it he might burn down his car.
He got a grilled chicken sandwich with potato salad, thinking this would start him out on the right foot, rather than the burger and fries for the same money, or even a dollar less. She might not really have been going to her parents’ house, he knew. He pictured her wandering the highway in some long distant state, looking for a ride, for someone with a big mustache who would pick her up and call her a gal. When the waitress brought the check he waved it off and asked for a scoop of ice cream, and then thought to ask which of the cars in the parking lot was hers, or if he could give her a ride if she didn’t have one, but he didn’t.
The man who picked up his wife might ask where she was going, and then they’d laugh all the way to Oklahoma when she said she didn’t know.
Or she’d just say Oklahoma and they’d go someplace else instead, for the weekend.
According to Deb, she had had to leave because he had forgotten how to find her vagina. She was going to give him some time to think about it. There was no more delicate or precise way to explain what she meant, she said. At night, after they’d both finished work, or finished looking for work, depending on the night, and finished up at the bar or the bowling alley, or finished eating out or eating in, they’d wind up half naked on the couch, or all the way naked in the bed, and it’d be going along, stray thoughts popping into each of their heads and being cast out like the garbage on Tuesday nights or Wednesdays after Monday holidays, but then when it came time, they slipped away from and not into one another. He battered and butted away down where he couldn’t see, in the city of his ancestors, but all he could manage was to rub her thighs, or kind of hunch up and bear down on her belly.
She would reach down and try to help him in, but it wouldn’t happen.
They would toggle shapes and sizes, at first he’d be a little boy and she an old woman, and then she a little girl and he an old man, and then they’d lose track of one another all together, veering off into crude and hilarious shapes, her skin would turn to sandpaper while his turned to shampoo; his to seed chaff and hers to lemon pulp. Sometimes she would push him off the bed and spend half an hour looking for him on the floor, sometimes he would spend so long licking her bellybutton or the backs of her knees that she would wake up with a sunburn, or the sheets would become a desert and he’d be walking all alone, tripping over his boxers, the bottom sheet the sand and the top sheet the sky, yelling through his dry, dry mouth. The salt flats of the pillows, the gushing alarm clock.
Their marriage hadn’t always been like this. At first it had remained mostly as it had been when they were dating, just enough of him finding its way smoothly into just enough of her, just enough times to keep their gills flapping. They were even ravenous with their bodies, on occasion, trying to go all the way in, she to eat him up and maybe spit him out or maybe not, he to strap a little light on his forehead and pin his arms at his sides and take the dive, only his little toes still sticking out, his head filling up hers, turning around to look out through her eyes and to stick his tongue out through her mouth.
It became a kind of addiction, sleeping all the way inside of her some nights his beloved heaving sleeping bag with no zipper.
But then, as if this miracle had been discovered and disproved, her vagina began to shrink at the same rate it had previously expanded. They each found work that spring, and spent their days apart, even waking up at different times and often not seeing one another at all in the morning, as if they each one were the other’s phantom landlord, renting the room at a bargain. They might order Chinese at night and eat it in front of the TV.
The point at which her vagina actually disappeared was up for debate. She would say that this never actually happened—that it was still there for her in the bathroom and in the shower, and probably still under her skirt, as far as she could tell, as she sat at work all day—and that it was therefore entirely Will who couldn’t reach it, but when he asked her to show it to him, or to describe it, she could not. It was like pounding on a wall, or maybe more like digging through the dirt, a little headway here and there but no ultimate progress, no tunnel to the world beneath. They tried a number of creams and lotions, all of which rubbed in and got sucked up with no problem, but when Will tried to follow in their footsteps, there was no longer any place to follow into. It was as if the inanimate world had retained some instinct that both of their bodies had lost. She once tried to explain it by saying that she lost the sense of her whole body when she was with him, couldn’t feel her hips or her legs or even her arms, for that matter, and so her inability to find her vagina was a bit like the inability to find the pulse of someone all the way across the room.
Each one began to wonder where the other was, not knowing where to look. His penis came to terrify them both, some mercurial living thing that came into the bed, came everywhere with them, all the time, and could not be sated or stowed away, some thing that chased after her and that she could not imagine what to do with. It was like a timid child that they kept trying to put to bed in its own room, down the hall, but that came running back into theirs with nightmares the moment it closed its eyes, or its eye, pleading for them to let it sleep in their bed once again, and that it would produce the money in the morning.
Feeling stranger and stranger about the state of her insides, Deb went to the doctor one day, and came back with this report: “you nibbled me up so bad in there that I’m likely never to get married.“
“I mean pregnant. I’m never gonna ... have one.”
Will was glad to hear this, but then decided it was bad news.
She went on, “you were too greedy. Why couldn’t you have gone just a little ways inside and left the rest of the way for someone else?”
“Who, like a baby?”
He then made some joke about drilling a hole right through her belly and then just pouring the ingredients right in through there. There was no reason to think she would laugh, and of course she didn’t.
Stirring with a big wooden spoon, wearing an apron, he went on, trying to cheer her. A baby named Martian.
Earlier, there had been one panic scene when Will went so deep that he got lost. He couldn’t find his way back out, and he couldn’t find a way to keep going even further and maybe all the way through to some plateau on the other side. Deb couldn’t find him and thought he was gone forever. But then, just as she was going to call the poison control or the police or the lost children agency, he slipped back, soaked and waiting for his life to continue.
He had, it appeared, failed to take root. His life gave him half an hour, to sweat and breathe, and then began again.
Later that night he went out alone, as if for groceries, and came back with Cal, a waitress from the steakhouse off Exit 39. That night they fucked with their shoes on right on his bed, while Deb slept on one side, and the two things that Will still could absolutely not understand, were, one, why he had done this, and two, why Deb had not woken up—had not, he was sure, even pretended not to notice, but really, actually, hadn’t?
Cal had seemed turned on by the whole thing, and her vagina had been warm and soft and right exactly where he’d imagined it to be.
This only happened once, but it stuck with Will. It seemed like a precedent. He drove Deb to work in the morning and knew that it would not be long until he was driving her to the airport to spend the summer with her parents, taking four showers a day in the back of a freight truck, under the hot Montana sun, enjoying a weekend unhemmed by weeks on either side.
Coming home from the grocery store, torn plastic bags escaping from his fingers, his car still beeping with the keys in the ignition and the doors open, he saw his neighbor, Mrs. Else, pacing her front steps while listening to a big cordless phone.
Will grabbed the milk and a bag of charcoal for the barbecue and nodded over to her, kicking the trunk shut and hobbling up his steps and through his front door.
Mrs. Else nodded back and made an expression like she wanted to talk to him only she couldn’t right then because she was on the phone. Will made an expression like if she needed to find him, it wasn’t exactly a secret where he would be. He nudged the door closed behind him, but didn’t lock it.
The place used to be a motel, long ago, but had gone out of business and then they’d come with a giant saw and cut it into four distinct houses. Each had four rooms, two on the bottom and two on top, the two bottom ones each with their own front doors, and they were situated around a parking lot with far too many spaces and a dry outdoor pool that was now filled with dirt, someone’s stab at a garden, but the only plants in it had not been planted by anyone, and between the two rooms on each floor, not counting the bathrooms, were quite a few hallways.
Will and Deb lived in one of the four houses, and Mrs. Else in another, and the other two were a bit up for grabs, people moving in and out on a weekly or monthly basis, or standing empty for long stretches. It gave the whole place a tidal atmosphere, people washing in and out with a kind of scummy regularity.
Will lay back on his couch and pushed his mail over to him with a pool cue that he had picked up at a roadside bar a few years ago, when he’d been out drinking with all his friends.
There was a bill from the electric company, an ad for some huge wrestling matches on pay-per-view, a few letters sent to the wrong address, a newsletter from the Graceland Foundation, whose mailing list he must have joined, and some coupons from the few pizza and sandwich places that would deliver out here. He turned on the TV and watched a lady spelling out the pros and cons of six large diamonds, lined up on a piece of black felt draped over a table in front of her, concealing, perhaps, her legs underneath. He felt tempted to nudge the remote all the way up into the no man’s land of the Spanish channels, but he didn’t do it.
The diamonds stuck in his eyes like broken pieces of contact lens. They were all he could think about just then.
The doorbell rang and he left the TV on when he got up to answer it.
“Room service,” smiled Mrs. Else, handing him a box of Frosted Flakes. “Knew you’d be here on your own for a bit. Thought you might need a little help furnishing the supply chest. Do you have milk? Do you need any? Skim?”
He took the box and put it on the ground next to the couch, near the Smacks he’d bought at the grocery store. Will was thirty-three and figured that Mrs. Else was right around forty.
“Can I just mention something to you, quickly, before you get on to other things?” she asked.
They sat by the dirt pool, which had chaise lounges around it like a real pool, and drank Fanta from the drink machine between their houses. Ralph the landlord kept it stocked, insisting, with a half-smile, that he was making a killing if ever questioned as to why he bothered.
Looking at her in this late afternoon light, with her sunglasses up on her forehead, holding her hair back, Will thought that Mrs. Else was maybe closer to fifty than to forty, and then he started to wonder about his own age, if it was possible that he was actually closer to twenty than to thirty, but he soon gave this up and tried to hone back in on what she was saying. She had always been very friendly to him, always faintly hurt that he wasn’t friendlier to her.
She was talking about her niece Claire, who was apparently coming up to visit later in the week. All he could think of, at first, was the kind of snide landlord remark that Ralph would likely have, something about one broad taking off and another showing up, and how you could always count on breaking even in this business.
But he remained quiet. Part of his affinity with Mrs. Else was that neither of them had kids, or ever had. As far as he knew she had never been married, but that wasn’t clear. About the kids it was, though, very clear, and, while they never mentioned it outright, it often served as a pretense for whatever friendliness or familiarity there was between them, beyond that which there ought to have been between neighbors.
The story about Claire was still going on. She had just turned twenty and had been at junior college, studying costume design, was what it sounded like to Will, who could also hear the engine noise of his wife’s airplane in one ear, and Ralph’s furious pencil working on the money.
Claire had done a semester but had run into a spot of bad luck, trouble, as Mrs. Else put it. Will could never tell if he was supplying an exaggerated, old-fashioned phrasing and intonation in the way that he heard Mrs. Else’s speech, translating some more ineffable aspect of her personality into what he thought she said, or if she really talked like this.
Claire had wound up in this trouble, anyway, and had ended up having a slew of abortions (Will couldn’t imagine what term Mrs. Else used for this delicate topic), as many as eight in the past year. Mrs. Else described it like it was just a run of rotten luck, like getting stung by a large number of bees in one particular summer. Will found that the story nudged him to the point of not wanting to listen to it. He tried to get away, but there was a certain amount of weight that Mrs. Else was pressing down on him in the way that she spoke, and it kept him, for the moment, in his chair.
The babies kept passing through her, the story went, almost as if it were one baby that was trying again and again to be born, raising its hands aboveground and hoping to be snatched up and brought leaping and bounding onto the playing field, to win.
All of this didn’t sit well with Claire’s parents, clearly enough, and since she’d been living at home through this whole debacle, she’d recently been kicked out, told, on the one hand, to get a handle on herself, and, on the other, to go out alone and penniless and fend around and then come back bettered. This was just plain madness, said Mrs. Else. You couldn’t do that to a little girl, what with all the trouble there was. Claire was, after all, just a child—hell, it was practically just yesterday that she was born.
It seemed to Will that Mrs. Else thought that just because she could remember Claire’s birth as if it had been recently, Claire could too. He tried to remember his own birth, and came up with nothing. He couldn’t even remember being a kid. His parents must have been just like him, he thought. The car, the sawed-in-quarters motel house… this may well be where I grew up, thought Will. Where all my friends used to live back when it was summer all the time.
The old ash ground of some furious and empire-spanning fire.
In short, Claire needed a place to go for a while, so Mrs. Else had invited her here. Having no children of her own and four rooms, two of them with their own doors, and enough hallways to spare, Mrs. Else often took in girls who needed a place. She was in touch with a few rehab centers around the area, and halfway houses and free clinics, that sort of thing, who sometimes referred people around. Mrs. Else invariably treated them as children and her house was known, apparently. She could often be seen taking walks around the parking lot with these girls, who always looked bored, scared, perplexed to tears. She would take them past the front office, where Ralph set up shop on rent day, and over to the twenty-four hour breakfast place down near Exit 30, where you could walk just going from parking lot to parking lot, only crossing the highway once, stopping in the hotel lobbies on the way to pick up brochures if you knew how and wanted something to read.
Deb had complained about how this constant presence of really dizzy and makeup-blurred and trashed-looking girls lent the whole place a clinical air that simply wasn’t fun, like they were the neighbors of some sort of friends-only asylum. It had never bothered Will, but, now that he thought about it, there had been a fair number of times when girls would be shouting their lungs out just before morning, trying to jumpstart one of the cars in the lot, or throwing some guy’s suitcase down the stairs, or throwing bottles at him off the balcony as he ran away or tried to climb back up, and then Will would come to the door with a flashlight and just stand there in his boxers and watch the scene, not exactly helping in any definite way except to have been there and watched it.
Mrs. Else seemed oblivious to all of this, with never anything but praise for the shining goodness of all of her charges, stories of how rotten their luck had been and how much better off they now were.
Mrs. Else’s question, in this particular case, was whether Will would like—not would he mind, but would he like—to take a certain active role in Claire’s stay here, since his wife was away, and he could maybe use a friend in his life, and maybe she in hers.
Just then a loud, sputtering scuffed-up red convertible screeching to a stop in the lot interrupted their talk, and a man in a tanktop and cowboy hat got out, striding mightily in his spurred boots, chains and necklaces bobbling most of the way down his chest, gathering all around his waist. Mrs. Else rolled her eyes as if she’d just caught a young boy scooping frosting off a cooling cake with his outstretched tongue.
It was Drifter Jim, sweeping the parking lot with his low squint. For as long as Will had lived here, he had come at exactly the same time every day, prowled around for half an hour, and left.
“Sure,” he said abruptly. “I’ll come by. I’d love to meet your niece.”
Mrs. Else beamed contently as the last speck of daylight passed them by.
He started out the week eating at the steakhouse every night, looking for Cal, and finished out the week eating every night at Mrs. Else’s.
He spent the days slugging it out at work—he’d been booked for the summer to help build a stage and rig electrical equipment for a dance show that was going to be held in the city waterfront park in August—and the late afternoons looking out the window at the two vacant houses, vacant since April or May. His view of these houses would invariably be disturbed by Drifter Jim at six o’clock, and then his eyes would drift along with him for the duration of his visit, which consisted mainly (there was no other word for it) of prowling.
He tried to guess Jim’s age, and came up with the ballpark of twenty-five.
Dinners with Mrs. Else were pleasant in a way, not excruciating as they might have been. He just came home from work and ended up there, more or less, as if someone had handed him his schedule and that’s what it had said.
They got to know each other, him saying whatever was available in the moments when he said it. She had won a modest sum in the lottery about twelve years ago, and had invested it in a rundown city block that now had three cafes, a mid-scale wine shop and two family restaurants, with the possibility of a third.
The question of whether she’d been married never came up, and the one time she asked about Deb, politely enough, she made her sound like some mutual acquaintance of theirs, some nice enough but slightly witchy woman they’d both met at a party somewhere.
The rest of the time they tolerated one another’s company. Mrs. Else cooked simply, chicken potpies and steak fries and big salads with creamy ranch dressing, radishes, big glasses of whole milk, which she insisted were for the best, cobbler and crisps for dessert. She drank no coffee or liquor, and seemed to have no books or videos or other media in the house. At the end of the evening she started clearing the dishes and then drifted off to the bathroom to brush her teeth, and her hair, leaving Will to show himself out. He shouted goodbye from the door, to an empty house, as if he worked a night shift of some sort, the schedule of which had long since ceased being exotic.
He went home and turned on the TV and scoured the private channels for sex, but the reception was so poor that the few gasps and moans he could dredge up sounded like pleas for escape, an eyelash or a nipple peeking through the fuzz for a split second before being hauled back in by the vast hands behind it.
His sex dreams took on this form, until he could hardly tell what was what, who was secretly speaking Spanish and who wasn’t.
The mail kept coming, and he checked it for news from Deb, but there wasn’t any. Letters and magazines arrived for her, but nothing from her. Actually, as the days went on, more and more of the mail was for Deb, less and less for him, until finding his name on an envelope started to be more the exception than the rule. The odd wrong address.
Claire arrived the next Monday, two days after she was supposed to, after a weekend of some sort. She wouldn’t say where she had been, in custody or in some strange city, on the ground, but she showed up that Monday with a cloth bag.
Will watched from his porch as she checked her phone, sprayed mint spray in her mouth, swished and spit it out on the asphalt, and then walked up to Mrs. Else’s doorbell, ringing it once and clearly hoping that no one would answer.
But Mrs. Else, as ever, did answer, popping into the doorframe with a big hug, helping her with the bag and closing the door behind them.
Will went back into his room, took his pants off, and, in his boxers, found his flashlight, just to have it ready.
Mrs. Else invited him over the next afternoon, spotting him driving back from work and waving him over, as if she expected him to just pull up to her house and get out and come in, without even going into his own house to wash his face.
So this is what he did.
The first time he met Claire he was drenched in sweat and had dirt all over his eyebrows and forehead, from where he’d been wiping and kneading his headache all day, moving it like a rag around his head. She was sitting in the kitchen with a pair of overalls hanging off her, the straps undone and the legs rolled up, a white top underneath. She had a stud in her lower lip and in one eyebrow, and a tattoo of a wavy black line with thorns ringing her upper left arm. She was sitting with her legs underneath her on a chair in the kitchen, where there were no lights turned on and those old thick plastic shades over the windows, so it was that kind of really distinct late afternoon darkness that seemed, in a lot of ways, to outdo the night.
The two of them were drinking milk and there was a package of Vienna Fingers open on the table, a rubber band lying next to it, ready to seal it back up when they were finished. Mrs. Else made Will sit down next to Claire and poured him his own glass of milk and helped him to a Finger or two, and gave him a napkin.
They were discussing the problem of pedestrians in the city, how there were always too many trying to cross the street when you were driving, and then too many cars whizzing by when you were trying to walk.
“Maybe there’s just too many people in the world,” said Claire, and smirked in Will’s direction. He smirked back.
“Claire brought a very small guitar with her,” said Mrs. Else. “It nearly fits in her bag. She’s going to learn to play it.”
The doorbell rang, and Will looked back at the two women and thought for a moment that they were two mannequins. They didn’t respond to the ringing doorbell until a fist started rapping on the screen, and then Mrs. Else got up.
Will heard her muffled voice in the hall, a few chuckles and uh-huhs. He and Claire looked at each other, then at the floor, then at their hands on the table, then shuffled their hands and moved them off the table, and then had to look at one another, each, in the meantime, having gathered up his or her napkin.
“So, is you last name Else too?” he asked.
Claire just rolled her eyes, and pulled on one of her earrings.
“It’s for you,” announced Mrs. Else, coming back into the kitchen. Will looked up, but she clearly meant it was for Claire.
Claire re-clasped her overalls, bent over to look at her reflection in the glass of the oven, and went over to the door.
Will swirled his milk in its glass and watched it stick to the edges and drip back down, like weak paint. He could feel a nervous, feinting energy coming from the doorway, tipping the house on its axis.
“Who was it?” he asked, finally.
“Drifter Jim,” replied Mrs. Else.
Will looked at the clock timer on the oven and, sure enough, he was right on time. “What’d he want?”
“Oh, just to say hello to Claire. To welcome her to the neighborhood.”
“That was nice of him,” Will replied.
When the weekend came it was Will’s job to get Claire in the car and take her for a tour around the city, stopping at key bus and subway stations, and explaining how they all connected on the map. Claire was to have a regimen of daily excursions, once she got her bearings, things to see, walks to take, a large number of ways, or examples of ways, to experience a city during the daytime, being back home, without fail, by dusk.
Claire could not have been less interested. They ended up having steaks at the old steakhouse, Will peeping around for Cal, whom he still couldn’t find, and Claire zooming in and out of cross-eyes as her mood told her to.
He dropped her off at home and stole into his house to collect the mail and watch TV before dinner.
He heard a fist pounding, and, when it stopped, he looked through his window to see Drifter Jim leaning through Mrs. Else’s doorframe, his hand on Claire’s shoulder. He had what looked like a hawk’s talon hanging on a string around his neck, and big silver sunglasses that he kept lifting up to wink. Then he set them back in place. Claire played with her hair and chewed her lip ring, and the more this went on, the less Will knew what was happening. The sense of responsibility hovered somewhere in his living room, like a fly buzzing in the upper corners, alighting on the blades of the ceiling fan, but he couldn’t catch it. There wasn’t really anything that he was supposed to do, he decided. So he just watched.
They talked for another minute, and then Drifter Jim leaned in and grabbed the back of Claire’s head and kissed her, clutching so hard that his biceps swelled up all around her neck and shoulders, like a rattlesnake eating an egg. She put her foot behind his, and they stayed like that until Will clattered through his door and, hearing it swing shut behind him, met Drifter Jim.
All he could think was that this was the first time he had seen Drifter Jim’s face. Drifter Jim only suffered this mute examination for a second. Then he tipped his cowboy hat, clicked his mouth in a gruff “evenin,’” and leapt over the stairs and into his convertible, without even lifting his glasses to wink.
Will stood there for a moment, then went down to the soda machine, got three Fantas, and brought them into Mrs. Else’s.
Mrs. Else was taking a casserole out of the oven when he got there, Claire doing a newspaper Sudoku with a fat red crayon.
He thought of how this house’s architecture was exactly the same as his, but two women lived here now, and no one at all lived over there.
Mrs. Else served them casserole and apple juice and those Pillsbury bake-‘em-yourself biscuits, which, she announced, had been baked by Claire. The butter tasted not all the way baked in, and so he ate them dry, without adding anything.
They had some dessert that looked almost identical to the casserole, and Mrs. Else offered to make up some Swiss Miss in the microwave.
Will went back to his house and, in the middle of a yawn, turned the handle. It wouldn’t turn; it was locked. He began to feel drunk. He tried it again, and it was still locked. It must have swung shut when he went out to see Drifter Jim.
He went down the stairs to his car, sat in the passenger seat and took his emergency cigarettes out of the glove compartment, smoking one with the airport kid’s lighter, and then two more. Then he tried to tilt the seat back and go to sleep, but the cigarettes had made him jumpy, so he got out, took a lap around the parking lot, threw a can over the fence and onto the dirt pool, and went back up to Mrs. Else’s, telling her what had happened.
She seemed unperturbed, hardly even surprised.
“Well, you’ll just have to sleep here,” she said. He thought back to when this place really used to be a motel, and imagined that he was checking into a new room, having had some problem with the old one
She went into a closet and got him a pair of pajamas, and then disappeared, and reappeared wearing her own pair.
Claire was nowhere to be found. Will used the bathroom, put on his pajamas, squirted some toothpaste into his mouth and scraped it around with his tongue, and then Mrs. Else escorted him into her bedroom, where she’d already turned down the corner of the bed.
Any of the many things he might have said remained inside him, ripe fodder for a dream or two.
They slept side by side in her bed, each on his or her own pillow, on their backs with their arms folded over their chests and the covers pulled up to their chins, and when the alarm came due at six, they were still in this position.
The locksmith was slow in coming. Maybe Will was slow in calling him, distracted, befuddled in certain ways. The discussion with Mrs. Else was very minimal, hardly a discussion at all. He slept there one night, and then the next night, and then every night.
She cooked tremendous meals, and always insisted that they be washed down with huge quantities of whole milk, bridging the gap between dinner and the Swiss Miss of dessert. Will had some mission with Claire, he thought, but he wasn’t sure what it was. He watched her out of the corner of his eyes, and tried to be polite, making attempts at humor that she shot down like tufts of floating dust.
Mrs. Else was delighted at the whole situation, marveling at how much progress she was making, how much further from trouble she was now, how much closer to the bosom of safety and peace.
Will wasn’t much of a church man, but there were moments when he could swear that he was seeing something come over Claire, a shift in hue or skin texture that started at her neck and went up to her mouth and then her nose and eyes and sank into her hair, and then was gone until it came back.
There were evenings when, in the hour after dinner, the kitchen still hot from the oven, he thought of his house next door, the neighbor’s house now.
The clothes that he found in the bottom three drawers of the bedroom dresser and in half of the walk-in closet were bland enough that they might have belonged to anyone. They fit him well and it didn’t seem impossible that he had picked them out and paid for them long ago. They weren’t clothes he could love, but they were certainly clothes he could wear. He didn’t know for sure what he smelled like, but the clothes had a smell that could have been his. They were, anyway, what he wore now.
Some still had the tags in them, hanging faded from the collar, and so he went to work and drove around town now and even still sometimes looked for Cal out among the tag men, as one of them.
He and Mrs. Else slept side by side in their pajamas every night, with no trouble negotiating the line in the bed, so little trouble that it wasn’t even a line. They slept like brother and sister, like fraternal twins, or two bugs stuck so tightly in a web that they could not even lean in against their own fists to stifle a yawn.
Will was getting shivers of information, more and more about the nature of her household, and the particular way that she interacted with the girls she took in. They weren’t clues, they might never add up, but he could taste it, some of it to do with her, some with him. He was either as safe as he had ever been, as close to the milky bottom of the lake, or in very grave and imminent danger, about to fall clean through that bottom and out into the nest of scorpions on the far side.
In the mornings, if he woke up first, he would prop up on an elbow and regard Mrs. Else’s body like a corpse. If she woke up first, she would do the same for him.
This sort of inert and possibly eternal marriage might have been the end of the story, had it not been for Claire and Drifter Jim.
But had it not been for Claire and Drifter Jim there would have been no inert and possibly eternal story at all, certainly none in the sense of its being told. They are the true seat of foment, the axes along which the actual questions are being asked, whereas Mrs. Else has drifted so far off the chart by now that there’s going to be no coaxing her back.
Drifter Jim still came by every evening, summoning Claire away from the table and into the doorway. The less that Mrs. Else noticed, the more of an impression it made on Will. He wanted to protect Claire from that which, he felt, she did not yet understand, but he also hoped and feared, on the other hand, that there was something, or plenty, that she understood far better than he.
Some fact about who Drifter Jim was that had already insinuated itself deep within her.
Will could understand that a drifter might pass by and try to feed on the young girls who turned up here, to trip them up for a night or two, but Drifter Jim had a seriousness, an air of propriety and ownership, that was another thing entirely.
Will had heard rumblings in the night ever since he’d started sleeping in such silence here, but tonight they were louder than usual, like stray cats shrieking in an alleyway, and so he took a glass of water and wandered down the hallway, the wall to his left heaving with the force of waves, and then the solid thuds of a wrecking ball.
For a while he traced ellipses around the area of the house—the other former motel room—that he knew to be Claire’s, where the noise was coming from. He heard nails tearing at plaster grout and the pop of exhalations through clenched teeth, a constant thrum of what sounded like people falling from the ceiling onto the bed and then crashing back up against it, and then falling again.
He sat in the kitchen and nibbled a biscuit and watched how the crumbs in his lap vibrated, the sound of clenched teeth just about coming through the wall to bite him.
All of this knocked him into a state not far from sleepwalking, if his state that summer had ever been far from it. It was in this state that he passed through the doorway, silent as a moth, into Claire’s room, where she and Drifter Jim were sharing a leg, only three visible between the two of them.
They always had one arm or the side of a face on the bed, but they could not stay on it. They tumbled off onto the floor, under chairs, knocking them over, then stood up laboriously, Jim hoisting her with her legs locked clasping his back, onto her desk, then against the wall, sometimes so high up that she was near the corner with the ceiling or in danger of falling out the window, then they’d come leadenly back onto the bed, and bounce off in a new direction, a flurry of sheets and pillow fluff rising up around them.
Drifter Jim’s hat was crushed under Claire’s hips, but then he’d pick it up and put it back on her head, and she would laugh a screeching, shouting laugh, and bite his earlobe or the part of his neck just under his ear, and then he would turn her all the way upside down and twist her into a single pile of skin.
Will stood in the corner of the room, clumsy at first, knocking over lamps and smashing the window blinds in his attempts to stay out of their way, but soon he got the hang of it, and was circling at their rate, part of the tide, cartwheeling and levitating around the room as he watched them without blinking.
The mornings now were devoted to vagueness and routine, and the nights to watching. Every night he rose from his coma with Mrs. Else and, carrying his water, stumbled into Claire’s room, to watch Drifter Jim flay her alive and to watch her dry him out until he looked like a corn stalk at the end of October.
To say that they didn’t notice him would not be quite right, nor would it be to say that they did. It’s not that it turned them on or anything. It was more that they treated him like a dog, a creature able to watch but not to comprehend, not to elicit or feel any shame, neither shame nor arousal, nor anything but mute, sloppy awe, his tongue resting on the bottom of his chin, scattered with biscuit mush.
They would look over at him sometimes, hunched in a corner, when they had reached their tender moment that brought on the dawn, Claire straddling Jim and rocking slowly back and forth, singing to him while he lay with his hands behind his head, panting with his whole chest, that hawk talon necklace like a tendril reaching through from his heart, a finger beckoning inward to the outside air. In these moments they might catch one another both looking over at Will, a thing like pity in their eyes.
The abstraction was mutual. They looked over at him and saw a creature that could not know where it was, that had been dragged along by a current to a place where it could not be, like a gassed patient waking up during surgery, and he looked at them as if through a fluttering curtain or an insect-encrusted windshield, mesmerized by their motions and sounds.
There arose a tenuous sweetness and sympathy between them, over time, night after night. Jim and Claire, up there on the bare mattress, once the bed had been reduced to that and they had been reduced to lying prone or piled up upon it, their palms spread wide toward the ceiling and the lolling fan, and Will equally exhausted, the dawn starting to play over his face as he sat on the floor under the window.
This was the mutual moment, Jim on the verge of sleep, Claire pulling her hair back onto her head, and Will, barefoot in his pajamas, looking up at the bed like a cliff ringed by clouds.
Then came the next moment, when Jim groaned and stood, and began to gather up his drifter suit, fastening his jeans with their big shiny buckle, getting his undershirt and chains back in place, and his wallet and keys in the right pockets, and then his big boots and his hat, and his gun if he had one, and stealing out of the room, by which time Claire had wrapped herself in the sheet, patches of sweat shining through in places like hamburger wrapping, as Will found his way back to Mrs. Else’s bed, where he woke up in an hour and got ready for work.
Even this became a routine. It proceeded along into the months when the summer expanded outside of time, beyond any season’s due course. Will spent the hours before dawn huddled down in his vantage point, watching Drifter Jim in his frenzy and Claire surrounding and containing him on all sides, ballooning outward until she went transparent and Jim condensed into a black pit at her center.
He watched and went back to bed and woke up, and went to work, and ate listlessly, in near silence, with Mrs. Else, and he spooned down dripping quantities of baked fruit and whole milk and Swiss Miss. He started to put on weight and feel the pull of his old clothes as they grew tight around him, the tags like fly bites between his shoulders.
All of this persisted until the night when he got touched. He was down in his corner in their room, watching it happen, casually distant from his body, when a hand came down and gripped his head fiercely and twisted him into place, so hard that it reverberated through his elbows to his fingers and through his knees to his toes.
He was fixed in this place, breath heaving through him, and when he finally managed to look up he saw that Jim and Claire had stopped moving, Jim on top staring down at Claire, and Claire nodding yes and burying her head in his shoulder, and then leaning back and nodding again, answering, it appeared, some question.
There was a second when the pressure dropped and Will could hear the trees in the parking lot shivering, as if fall and winter had come for a minute each, and then spring for a minute, and now summer again, as Jim leapt to his feet, gathered up his clothes, tossed his limbs into them like vegetables into a shopping bag, and clambered through door and into his car, leaving Will alone with Claire.
He and Claire exchanged a look, each forever guilty before the other.
A few days later, Will went down to Ralph’s office to pay his rent. There were still old sightseeing brochures and car rental coupons and a schedule for the airport shuttle, like it really was still a motel. He had felt slimy and wet ever since that morning when he looked at Claire, some kind of sweat that wouldn’t wash off. This, on top of the gut that he was developing from all the milk, made him feel like a real dirty highwayman motel guest, at last, as he stood in the office, an envelope of cash in his pocket.
He scratched at his armpits and they felt wet with something like pumpkin innards, doused in Old Spice.
There was a husky guy in a flannel shirt with the sleeves cut off in front of him, leaning way over the desk with Ralph, the two of them looking down at a notebook or chart that Will couldn’t see, each making marks with his own pencil.
Ralph kept turning around and barking toward a partially ajar door behind the counter, which looked like it led into another office where someone else was sitting at another desk, with all of the lights out.
This went on for a few minutes, to the point where Will picked up one of the brochures, read about a few things that he had never heard of that were in town, and then got ready to leave. Just then the big guy turned from the desk and walked over to the door.
On his way out, Will could see that it was Drifter Jim. He seemed not to have seen him there.
Then he went up to the desk, just as Ralph was hastily putting the papers away. “Yes?” he asked.
“Here to pay rent,” said Will, taking the envelope out of his pocket and tapping it against the edge of the counter.
“Room number?” asked Ralph.
“Room what? It’s me… ”
“Okay me. Room number?”
Will got dizzy and looked around at the brochures for reassurance, but they were, as he had already discovered, full of places he had never been to.
“Room 4,” said Will.
“Okay, okay, let’s see here… yup, thanks.” Ralph grabbed the envelope and put it away.
“By the way,” Will asked, glad that this part was over. “What was he doing here?”
“Guy who just walked out?”
“Lives here, man, just like you and I.”
“No he doesn’t.”
“Okay, boss,” said Ralph, opening the envelope and flicking through it with his pencil.
“What’s his name?” asked Will, curious to see if the Drifter epithet had followed him into the books.
“Don’t give out names, matter of tact. Don’t get too chummy with the clientele, right, people always on the in and out. No one sticking it out, so what’s the point if you’re asking me.”
“Yes sir. Never asked anyone for your name, did I? Never even overheard it. You ever met Mr. Tact? He lives in the Waldorf Astoria down on Grand Ventura Blvd.”
“Yeah, I know, I… you’ve known me for.”
“What’s your name?”
Will didn’t want to say just then. All he could think of was that between the two of them they had four eyes, and that that was an awful lot.
Ralph raised one eyebrow. “See? What’s mine?”
In that particular moment, Will couldn’t think of it.
When he came back to the house, Mrs. Else and Claire were sitting mutely at the kitchen table, the familiar evening gloom finding its place on their shoulders. There was a pool of tea spilled on the table and a dishtowel set on top of it, soaked through, its corner dangling off the table and dripping onto the floor.
He stood in the doorway and Mrs. Else looked over at Claire, and then she looked at him and said,
“She’s pregnant” as if expecting him to ask “who?”
Claire looked down at her overall straps, clasping and unclasping them, as if this was all their fault, adjusting her bare toe under the table so that the tea was dripping onto the painted center of the nail.
“Oh,” said Will.
No one said anything as the sun went the rest of the way down.
Mrs. Else went to the fridge, took out an onion and a pepper and a box of pasta down from the cupboard, but then left them on the counter and came back to the table.
“It’s you,” said Claire, and Will heard it through a can from the other end of a long white string.
When it reached him, he looked over to Mrs. Else for support. “No,” he said. “I didn’t, I wasn’t, I was, you know me… in.”
It was like they were accusing him of stealing money or blinding horses.
“I was in bed right next to you every night,” he said to Mrs. Else, “I hardly even… moved.”
“No,” said Claire, back on her side of the string. “Not by you. I’m pregnant with you. You’re going to be the baby.”
He thought for a moment that she was going to lunge at him, and in that moment she thought he might lunge at her, or throw something hard.
After this moment, Mrs. Else got up to make the pasta, and Will went off to take a shower.
When he came back they all had dinner.
That night he sat up in bed with Mrs. Else, both in their pajamas, and wished he was somewhere else, in a real hotel, with real strangers.
“Isn’t it lovely?” she said, at last.
“There’s going to be a baby.”
Will felt the sweat covering him again, leaking out of his bones and up through his pores and follicles.
“I thought you were protecting these girls,” he said, as if by pretending to be the father he could escape being the baby.
“Oh yes,” she said with a smile. “From trouble. Bad influences, bad news, that sort of thing. But there’s going to be a baby! What greater miracle? You act like you haven’t heard. Have you heard? We’re miracle workers, aren’t we? Every time, we are blessed with a brand new blue-eyed blue sparkling baby boy!”
All at once, he grabbed her neck, dog tired, shaking her to keep awake. He pushed her off the bed and into the carpet, and shoved his elbow in her mouth and tore her pajama top open and then pulled her pajama pants down around her knees.
The look on her face was so scary that he could hardly see it. It was a face about to yawn down into a skull and then fall off its neck.
He could feel his energy leaving him, his bones turning to milk and coming gently unjoined, the pulp seething again from his armpits.
“Will, I was only saying… ” she gasped.
He stopped, pulled his own pajama pants back up, and helped her with hers. If she had recognized the act, he knew, it would have shown. The motion was so sudden that the charade would have been broken, something in her eyes or mouth would have revealed itself, and Will would have been free.
But it hadn’t and he wasn’t. No one had lied.
He crawled back on the bed and began to sob, and Mrs. Else crawled next to him, rubbing his back and pushing the hair out of his eyes.
Tears flowed from his head and drenched everything in sight, and inside it all he fell asleep, both boat and boatman in his own bathwater.
So it was true. Two things became clear.
First, Drifter Jim haunted this place, and his presence here would always be welcome, as long as he was polite and punctual. The generations of girls who had passed through, and the generations that had been born to them, filled a tremendous bleacher in Will’s mind, teeming and swarming in the wind, throwing their hats in the air. If Mrs. Else was untouched by sex it might mean that she herself had never been born, and had thus been called up out of nothing to brood in blessed blissful ignorant peace. There was no wasted space in this world, it seemed, no heat lost even in all of the night.
The second thing was that all of this had to do with why she’d married him, and he her, and why their neighbor Deb, when she’d been around, had been so attractive, so welcome a change, until she’d taken off to roam the Dakotas, leaving him once again susceptible to the powers that be, that were, the hooks that had been dangling forever, waiting to snap up friendly, soft-spoken Will Strite and crank him bodily through the works.
Claire’s pregnancy proceeded smoothly. Details and facts slipped away from Will, as he gestated inside her. He hardly made it to work anymore.
More and more names, people he had known, places he had worked, rivers he had crossed, would not be kept, returned to where they had come from. He knew he was very sick, that his insides were rotting, being sugared and spooned out like half a grapefruit.
He spent more and more time in the shower, knowing that the sweat would never wash off, but he was safe in here, no one would catch him as long as the hot water held out.
One day Ralph came up on the terrace with his master key and unlocked Deb’s old apartment, bringing out the pile of mail and dumping it behind the vending machine, with the cans and wrappers.
When Deb came back, Will knew, he would be gone. He would like to ask her a few things, about her trip and tell her about his, but he wouldn’t be able to wait.
One night, when he was sitting in his car, Claire’s belly now huge and cumbersome inside the house, he saw Drifter Jim pull into the lot, and somehow he managed to convince him to go out to the steakhouse for a late night meal, just the two of them, father and son, so to speak.
So there they were at the steakhouse, eating the bucket of peanuts that came with the table, cracking open the shells and throwing them on the floor, as everyone did.
“Used to be a busboy here,” said Jim. “Swept up my fair share of shells, let me tell you. You know Cal, works here? Swept her shells a fair share too.”
“So you’ve lived here a long time then?” asked Will.
“Born and raised,” said Jim, flicking at his lighter and using it to read the menu, as if they were out in a tent in a huge empty field.
They each ordered a steak, and soon small dishes of cole slaw and potatoes and onion rings began to surround them.
“So,” started Will, emboldened by the knowledge that he didn’t have many meals left in town, “in what way, then, are you a drifter?”
Jim looked over at him, his eyes bigger and sadder than usual. “Just my nature, I guess you’d say. Also my line of work.”
“Kind of roving the universe, looking for girls?” asked Will.
“Could say that. We all get used in the way we’re supposed to. I do a fair bit of roving, for sure. Keep my eyes peeled. Side of the road, middle of the road, you name it. That’s why it’s best to live at a motel, you know, the roving sort of comes to you that way. Can be a drifter right from the safety of your own… ” he trailed off, catching himself. “Know what they call me in bed?”
Will knew that they didn’t call him anything, just opened their mouth and shook like air wasn’t enough and never had been.
Jim waited a second for Will to think. Then he said, “Jungle Jim. That’s what. That’s me.”
In a moment, Will asked, “Are they… your children… is there something wrong with them?”
The steaks arrived, and they paused and ate, Will’s milky teeth cracking as he bit down, knowing that the steak would cost him his mouth, but he kept trying. He could taste his teeth, rich as a steak.
“Like demons or something?” Jim picked up where they’d left off.
“Right, or… ”
“I don’t know, to tell the truth. Don’t know where the kids come from, don’t know where they go. Not my business. The catching them from the air and planting them in the dirt, that’s me.”
A pause, left over from an earlier time.
And then, all at once, Jim’s eyes flared and he stood up and shouted for Cal and the whole rest of the steakhouse to hear, “Caught you though, in particular, you dishrag sweat-dripping God-begging fucking miniscule little pervertwillow, huh, didn’t I? You limp spineless sea cracker raven baiting raving shit-shoveling fucking crowless dim limp dimpled fuck! I really had you going and got you good!”
Drifter Jim burst out laughing so loudly that the busboy panicked and brought them two new buckets of peanuts, spilled in the shuffle.
On one of his last days, Will went down to the reception office and, finding Ralph missing, crept to the back office door and knocked, softly at first, and then harder and harder until it opened up.
“You got the book?” he asked.
An obese man with a rattail was sitting behind a desk, the lights out like before. “What book?”
“The one we were looking at.”
“Who’s we?” the man’s face could hardly support its own weight.
Will explained the full extent of his situation, and finally the man relented and took out the book.
“So, what’s in it?” he asked. He was like a death row inmate now, his questions and requests all fraught with a certain desperate finality. Anything he was given to know now he would not know for long.
“You know, a real bookie book, bets, wagers, stats, that sort of thing. Names, addresses, coming and going. We profit from the exchange.”
“Clearing house sort of business,” said the man.
“Who’re you clearing? Whose house?”
“People come in and out of play, that’s all,” he said. “In and out of where we can see them. They stop off here, and we keep their track.”
“Like in and out of life?”
“If you want,” the man said. “Sometimes they’re just showing up, and we can do a little bit to help them out, get them on their feet, right, and sometimes we can help them on their way out when they’re leaving, do a bit of a cashing in of whatever spare change there may happen to be.”
“I’m going to be born any day now,” said Will.
The man looked at his book and nodded, acting about as surprised as if Will had said “it’s Saturday” and he had looked down at a calendar and seen that it was.
“Is that an arrival or a departure?”
“That’s your business, traveler. Far as we’re concerned. Send us a postcard, know what I mean?”
Will narrowed his eyes. “What can you do for me?”
“You know, help me out a little bit. Cash my change.”
“You don’t need no help, traveler. Where you’re going, you’ll be taken care of.”
“Yeah, I expect to be. But for now, let’s see what I can get.”
The nearness of the birth was scrambling what was left of his mind. He talked and talked, and then, when it was over, walked away with eight hundred dollars in his front shirt pocket.
He knew that today was the day he’d have to leave. He packed his things, as much as he could fit into a single bag, and took a last shower, put on cologne and gel in his hair, and combed it as neatly as he could, fistfuls of it falling out as he towel-dried his head, and then drove his car out of the lot and onto the expressway into the city. He parked down by the river and walked into midtown, carrying his bag.
He went behind a building, took his pants down, and tucked in his shirt. This act, he remembered, was still free, and good enough to make even a melting tag man look presentable.
Soon, he found himself in the thickest stretch of the main avenue, where all the sidewalk bars and boutiques had congregated. He sat down at one of them, for maybe the first time ever, and ordered whatever he wanted, peeling the skin off his eight hundred dollars. He had a big lunch and then drinks and dessert and called for more when he wanted more, for seconds and thirds, or for new things just to taste them, whatever the chef had marked with a yellow star or a cartoon chili pepper. He could feel Claire’s hunger like the raspy breath of God, and did all that he could to feed her.
All that day he lived like a king off the money he’d earned.
After he was stuffed and tired of sitting, he took his bag and started walking again, right through the thick warm center of the city and out to the other side, where it once again began to taper into huts and litter. He had forgotten about his car, but when he took his windbreaker off the back of his chair and fitted it back over his shoulders, he felt a weight in one of the zip up pockets and reached inside and found the map, the one he’d used that day he drove Claire around the city.
He took it out and unfolded it, holding it up in front of his nose while he walked, and gazed at the pen lines he had made. Yes, he now could see, that place had been a motel, a good one, but now he was moving out. He crumpled up the map and zipped it back into the pocket of his windbreaker.
The skyline in front of him was broken by railroad bridges and then the roof of a tunnel, and once he had gone through enough of these, passing through one ring after another that girded the city, he was back on the highway, walking through the tall grass on the sides and gazing way upward at the billboards towering overhead, reminding everyone of the state’s gun laws or all about the adventures of Jesus Christ, or simply advertising a fireworks depot or a strip of bedrooms that, for a night or two, would set you back hardly at all.
Cars flew past him as the afternoon wore on, and then it was mostly trucks once the exit numbers dwindled and he approached the state line. Claire was probably in the hospital by now, calling out for morphine, Mrs. Else by her side, holding her hand even, but also, in another part of herself, looking forward to helping Claire pack her things and check the train schedule, and also, in yet another part of herself, a part she hardly knew about, a room all the way off down the hall, picturing the next girl who would arrive, preparing to do it all over again.
He began to feel weak, in his joints and bones, and his vision got worse, his bag heavier and his back soft and chubby. He could taste the morphine in Claire’s veins, washing over him in a salty torrent.
Any moment now he would collapse and be picked up by a doctor in a room and smacked on the bottom and commanded to breathe, to open his eyes and begin to breathe, and to breathe and look up, and to keep breathing even while looking up and all around, to keep breathing even then.
He fingered the wad of cash in his jacket and fell to his knees, and then curled up in the highway grass that grew into a pine grove and smoothed his disappearance.
He woke up again, groggy from the long nap, candy wrappers pressed into his pants, and walked down to the next exit and checked into a new motel. In his room he pulled down the shades, and decided to sleep it off and head to the bus station in the morning. When the maid came to pound on his door at noon the next day, and demand that he leave, he put his shoes back on and went back out the door and into the parking lot.
For now, he took his shoes off, sat on the edge of the bed, and cranked the TV all the way around to the Spanish channels with the volume way down low. Almost blind, he sweated and waited there for the next thing to happen.