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Animals Saved Me
by Richard Gilbert

First Place, Creative Nonfiction Prize

1994, Indiana

My aged Labrador Retriever is dying, and I’ve come into the garage this Saturday morning to check on her. Tess has been declining for some time—I can admit that now. She’s been sleeping more and moving stiffly. When she quit eating and took to bed, I couldn’t deny her aging any longer because, undeniably, her time itself had come. She’s not even whimpering, but animals don’t dwell: they deal. And so, intentionally or in effect, they hide their pain. Anyway, I can’t let her slowly starve or die of dehydration. It’s on my shoulders to call an end to Tess’s suffering, and I have. Our veterinarian will euthanize Tess on Monday.

Tess retreated a few days ago to her thick cushion out here in our quiet attached garage; her nest is beneath the wooden stairs into the house. “Hey, Tess,” I say, squatting to pet her. She raises her head an inch from her green canvas pillow, and tries to thrust her snout forward; her tail stirs but doesn’t thump. Flies lift from her rusty black coat. Flies have found her—though it’s still spring, barely May, not even June, and cool. Our vet thinks she has extensive, advanced cancer. She’s thirteen years and four months old, a good age for a Lab. But too early, of course, for me.

I hear a car crunching up our gravel driveway, and I raise the garage door to see my wife’s coworker Rebecca approaching in her soccer-mom van. She parks in the driveway and waves, and we walk together to our front door. Halfway up the gentle paved incline, she stops and says, “Oh! How’s Tess doing? Kathy said she’s sick.”

“Not good. She’s not even drinking now. She’s staying in the garage.” I gesture to the open bay.

“Is she going to be okay?”

“No. I mean, she’s dying, Beck. Tess is an old dog. Old for a big dog, anyway.” A sound stops me—Tess barking from the garage. Hearing my voice, she’s barking. She’s calling me even though I just left her—maybe because I said her name—and it’s a gut punch. She hears me and needs me.

“It’s okay, Tess! I’m right here.”

“So what are you going to do? Have her put down?” Rebecca’s tone and the intent way she’s peering at me make me uneasy. She’s searching my eyes, her own eyes bright and intense, her head tilted solicitously to one side, her expression pert and greedy as a monkey’s. Her avid curiosity feels unseemly.

“Yes. Monday. I want to spend some time with her today and tomorrow. Then that last trip to the vet’s—”

“I may have to do that with Glad,” Rebecca says, referring to her family’s Rottweiler.

Glad? What’s wrong with her?” I picture Glad: thick, doggy, strong as an ox—if not in the prime of her life, not far past its midpoint. She seems gentle with Rebecca’s three young children, and beloved by her oldest, Melissa. I’d never liked the looks of Rottweilers, probably influenced by their fierce roles in movies, but she’s like a big nonchalant hound and won me over.

“Yeah, she’s getting impatient with the kids. She could bite someone.”

“I guess you know your dog. But I’m surprised.”

“Anyway,” she continues, glancing across our flowerbed, the late daffodil varieties still blooming, “we need a smaller dog. Missy and I have been studying breeds. We really like the Cavalier King Charles spaniel.”

Rebecca once mentioned her childhood obsession with dogs and how she’d memorized every breed. I also recall her saying she’d had to euthanize their previous dog, just before they got Glad six or seven years ago; how she’d carefully researched a replacement, or maybe said she’d always wanted a Rottweiler, a breed on her childhood list. Something about her story had sounded odd then. Now I know.

I’ve loved an array of animals since boyhood and aspire to become a farmer—I keep laying hens, supply eggs to an organic store, raise and butcher broiler chickens, and sell some of the meat to neighbors; I’m trying to act professionally in my new realm, not overly sentimental even about pets. But I love dogs, and dogs, like horses, are essentially sacred animals in our culture. Dogs are also possessions, though: short of inflicting outrageous public cruelty on them, owners hold their lives in their hands. I know some animal rights activists might view me as equally callous, since they consider animal agriculture mass murder and liken pets to slaves. My contrary sense stems partly from humans’ coevolution with dogs, cats, chickens, and livestock. But it’s not history or logic that tells me in my bones they’re wrong—it’s love.

I hand off Rebecca to Kathy and walk down the sidewalk in the mild sunshine and into the dim garage where Tess waits. We’ve had a good run together, and sometime this weekend I plan to tell her so. I’ll thank her. The span of Tess’s life, I’m surprised to see, has taken me from late youth into early middle age. I recall what Mom said last Thanksgiving, watching Tess jerk herself across the family room: “Tess has gotten old. She doesn’t have much time.”

“Oh, she’s okay,” I’d said. “She has arthritis in her shoulders from playing Frisbee. I probably need to get her on an anti-inflammatory.”

Mom didn’t argue—she saw what I couldn’t see. As on one of her previous visits when she’d told me, “You’ll never put your heart into another place like you have this one,” and I’d just looked at her. I wonder now if she sensed that the passion Kathy and I were expressing in and around our home, in an outpouring of projects and purchases, carried a seed of restlessness.

~

I’ll learn, in the decades ahead, it will be easy enough to remember my happiest days: the six years we’ll live here in the white colonial-style faux farmhouse Kathy and I built on eight-and-a-half acres just over a mile from the cute downtown square of Bloomington, Indiana. A fortuitous alignment of hard work and lucky timing has taken us far. Not just materially but emotionally.

Our two kids, Claire and Tom, need me. I’m busy at the publishing house where I work, and I write a popular gardening column for the local newspaper, where once I’d been a star reporter. Kathy is ascending at Indiana University, already promoted from professor to department chair. The kids attend a new elementary school built on our road. I take them camping on our land, and we fish and swim in our own pond, an acre of blue water behind our dream house. (Tess, already eight years old when we moved here, in 1989, swims too, snorting with effort as she circles us as we wade, tread water, or glide in a canoe, and the kids laugh as I yell, “Look at that big old black water rat!”) Kathy and I have busy weeks and we race around, working and running errands; we discuss squeezing in a vacation; we’ve lost ourselves in our busy lives. In landscaping that echoes our starter house, I’ve placed a pin oak in front of our manse, to shade it from the western sun. A windbreak of pines we planted as seedlings now stands twelve feet tall in rows across our homestead’s western and northern borders, a green embrace.

We’d owned the land for several years before building, and we’d planted and planned. We had the pond dug. One day soon after our house was finished, I ordered Tess to sit before my orange tractor outside the garage and I took a photo, which I tucked into a thickening album labeled “The Farm.” Now every summer I grow a patch of vegetables, and, all around us, flowers. During our first summers here, two moments—of grace? consciousness?—sink into my soul. Holding Tom in a wooden rocking chair, I sing him bedtime lullabies, his warm heft in blue footie jammies soft against my chest, and I gaze out his window at the neighbor’s two horses grazing in the long Indiana dusk. Another night, on my way to my own bed, I step into Claire’s room beside her sleeping form and am riveted by the sight of the pond glowing in her double windows: lit silver by a full moon, the crescent of water shimmers as bursts of light flash across its luminescent surface.

Mom’s visits can turn tense, since she yearns to discipline Claire, our oldest child, whom she views as needing to be taken down a notch. A sore point with me, since I feel she was destructively harsh to me as a boy; her strategy of breaking her children, through whippings and shaming, seems at best superfluous when insecurity is already the human lot. Once, shortly after she’d arrived here from her home in Florida, I found her staring at Claire, who was prattling before her on a couch—Mom looked, with her coldly fixed green eyes and still pose, like a snake about to strike a clueless mouse—and I intervened with some distraction. In another decade, I’ll overhear Mom begin to analyze her mother with one of her siblings. How, when they were growing up in backwater Atoka, Oklahoma, during the Depression, she showed affection only to one of her ten children, the first, a cherished son. How she treated the others indifferently. And probably, based on how Mom raised me, disapprovingly. My clearest memory of Grandmother is of her examining me with her dark eyes as I sulked.

Our harmonics still clash—Mom gets huffy, I get prickly—but we possess affinities, too. I’m the only one of her four children who shares her affection for books and chickens. And a few years ago, as we drove in Bloomington, she bestowed a surprising blessing. “You’re a good father,” she told me. “All you boys are. You didn’t have a good example. Your Daddy wasn’t—he didn’t take the time. But you’re good fathers.” Mom, so tough, actually marveled.

Because I’m happy, her sketchy performance as a grandmother rolls off my back. I see now, so many years later, that my happiness is why I didn’t become angry at her in that incident with Claire. (Mom saw my happiness then, of course.) In another life, when I was unhappy but didn’t know that, either, Mom gave me Tess. When she remarked on Tess’s decline, I wonder if she remembered that bright spring day, thirteen years before. I wonder at my blindness—Tess was on her last legs. Mom had handed me a cue to see and affirm that simple truth. We might have lingered, and I might’ve told her all that Tess had meant to me. Except Tess’s story wasn’t over yet, not to me; I couldn’t even imagine it would end. When Mom comes, once or twice a year, it’s celebratory, and maybe I don’t want reality to intervene.

Cooking is how Mom expresses love. This phase of life and of my relationship with her becomes crystallized in one memory. I’m with her and my little family around our antique oak table, where we’d eaten her standing rib roast, Yorkshire pudding, asparagus, garlic mashed potatoes. On this mild evening, overlooking our pond from our bay-windowed breakfast nook, Tess gnawing a bone nearby on the family room rug, our bellies full after Mom’s feast, we’re playing cards and laughing.

~

That Monday I drove to our veterinarian’s, looking blankly at trees, lawns, strip malls. Our vet walked out to the parking lot and I opened the rear door of our Mazda van. Tess lay in the luggage compartment where I’d placed her on a blanket. Her muzzle was white; her black coat was dull; her expression, always kind, was weary. The vet gave her a shot in a foreleg and the light fled her brown eyes. She went so fast.

I buried her on the far side of the pond in a grove of river birch, and planted a clump of daffodils in the raw dirt. Later, standing there, Claire, age eight, cries and Tom, five, looks pained. “Let’s make a cross,” I say, and we do. I assemble it in the basement, and there we paint it in rainbow colors: aqua sky, green trees, yellow flowers. I wonder about our Methodist church’s position on using this sacred symbol to honor a dog, and decide I don’t care. I must do something for the kids, from whom I hid Tess’s death and burial, thinking those would be too wrenching. (A mistake, in retrospect—Claire, as an adult, feels I cheated her out of a chance to say goodbye, which makes me realize I’d probably been trying to shield myself from her emotion.) Our graveside commemoration feels necessary, even profound, in honoring our feelings of gratitude and loss. As long as we live here, which I don’t know will be for only two more years, this colorful cross, screwed together from scrap boards, marks Tess’s grave.

With her death, for the first time in years I think of our first days together. I see myself as a young reporter in Florida, a skinny guy with hair like Elvis, cuddling his new puppy and beaming. When she’d run to me to give and receive love, Tess didn’t know to stop—I’d squat and call her, and get knocked on my butt, laughing, with Tess suddenly in my arms, licking my chin. Sometimes, at bedtime, I’d forget to put Tess in her crate before turning out the light and climbing into my own bed, and in the sudden darkness, the black puppy was like an iron cannonball streaking invisibly at my shins, coming hard and fast and low across my bedroom floor.

I regret my last photograph of her, in our family room here. Aiming the camera at Tom, I caught only her hindquarters in the background, accidentally, as she moved unnoticed out of the frame. As our children grew, Tess had moved to my periphery. She’d stood front and center with me for but a few years, finally shuffling to the edge of a stage grown larger than I’d dreamed possible. Increasingly, she’d lived more in Claire and Tom’s world than in mine. Their gentle panting overweight buddy. Seventy-two pounds of love. She was their first animal friend, and their first incomprehensible loss. My own stunned realization at Tess’s graveside: how fast not just canine but human lives pass. I’ll struggle to remember that insight, but what I know forever is that when you encounter an aged dog, you regard a walking vestige of someone’s former life. You see an old dream. Explaining to others the nature of that dream, let alone grasping it yourself, isn’t simple. I had a dog and then she died. There’s the basic plot, which lacks explanatory power. Knowing anything worthwhile about that event sequence takes knowing the meaning of “I” and “had” and “then.”

A dog’s death, like a human’s, throws you into the past’s jumbled narratives. Into considering a story’s beginning, middle, and end. You flash through phases, arriving at last where you stand. I was a young 26 when Tess entered my life, changing it; I was 39, a different man in different shoes, when she exited. Standing there beside Claire and Tom at Tess’s grave, I felt chastened and soberly aware, stilled for an instant in the onrush of time.

 

1983, Indiana

Kathy and I bought our first house, a tidy limestone ranch, 1,100 square feet, in an old development beside Bloomington’s bypass at the point where you could see, across the way, the football stadium. We’d briefly rented a log cabin on the edge of town, but this house felt permanent. A widow who’d built it with her husband had lived there alone once he passed, and then she’d died. Dusty spirea shrubs stood in a row along its back wall; the house’s picture window framed a lofty pin oak out front; hoary spinach-colored junipers sprawled along the blacktopped driveway.

Almost an acre of lawn sloped to the road, and I’d walk out past the oak with Tess, her tail raised and thrashing, and hurl a blue Frisbee toward a quince bush on our lot’s far corner. Tess ran flat-out away from me and caught the disk over her shoulder in a flying leap, like a wide receiver snagging a Hail Mary pass downfield. Somehow we’d worked out our timing. With the Frisbee captured in a decisive snap, she’d let her momentum carry her into an easy circling lope, her head nodding like a horse’s as she returned.

Every afternoon I drove my tan Mazda pickup an hour north to my job, on the night copy desk of the Indianapolis Star. A red and white Igloo lunch bucket jiggled on the seat beside me. I was learning the names of northern trees and shrubs. Weekends were for projects. Kathy and I rented a machine and blew shredded newspaper insulation into the house’s cramped attic. We rolled milky white paint onto its dry plaster walls—the bitter smell of latex paint still brings me back to that low ranch on Saville Street. The weather was clear and arid that August, autumnal; the baked clay soil cracked an inch wide in spots. Our first cat, Natalie, a gray tabby runaway who had adopted us, hunted the chipmunks that overran the yard. Inside, under the widow’s thick green wall-to-wall carpeting and its crumbling red waffled backing, we found hardwood floors; we staggered under the heavy rolls of carpet and padding, aiming for the bed of my truck. Everything was new each timeless sun-struck hour. Lingering in bed on a weekend, we felt the morning’s cool breath die in the hot blue windless afternoon.

If I want to see the face of young love, I have only to review photographs of us then. In almost every one, we’re embracing and grinning, or kissing. In our wedding picture that fall, taken by a friend of Kathy’s, we kneel in lush ryegrass I’d planted in the garden plot behind our house to enrich the soil. I’m between my wife and my dog, one arm around Kathy’s waist, over her red sweater, and the other draped over Tess’s glossy black shoulders. We’re smiling, and Tess, in this odd situation—summoned into the garden, told to sit with us facing a stranger—appears meek, abashed, lovable.

With Tess, we’d felt instantly like a family. I liked Kathy having her own relationship with Tess. It pleased me to see her kind interactions with my dog; though more reserved than I was, with my Frisbee, my commands, my jokey exhortations, Kathy had also become Tess’s master. In her brisk maternal way, it felt as if Kathy had adopted my child from a previous marriage. Which, in a sense, she had.

~

How well humans remember beginnings and endings. We can bookend an era easily, but middles blur, not shiny new, not dramatically or at least unmistakably over. I was 28 and Tess was two when we moved with Kathy to Bloomington. It felt as if my life had at last begun. Driving a U-Haul into that busy, prosperous town, I recall thinking The spinning threads of my being can wrap and hold fast here. That grandiose metaphor turned out to be true. But I struggled and failed to grasp the chasm between then and now—an eye blink before, I’d been a footloose journalist in Georgia and Florida, jumping to a bigger newspaper every year.

What I couldn’t see in this glorious new start, on an otherwise forgotten day in June 1983, was that Tess and I had entered our Middle Period. Which quickly became subsumed in a succession of momentous firsts with Kathy. When we bought the faded house on Saville Street, my only asset to contribute to its purchase was my name. Tess had already made her contribution, as my companion in courting this tall brunette with the big smile. Kathy took it from there. It being me. She took me from there. And if that sounds passive, I had gambled my future on her. Instead of returning to my good job on the Orlando Sentinel, after a fellowship year at Ohio State University where we’d met, here I stood beside her, with Tess. I’d followed her first to Carbondale, Illinois, where I’d worked for eight months on a little newspaper and bought my little truck, and then on to Bloomington. And though we hadn’t yet married, and I was broke, Kathy expressed her faith in me by having me co-sign our deed. I’m awed by this now, though it seemed only natural, if magnanimous, then. A sense of my humility lingers, part of my larger wonder that we’d become a couple. In my recollection, I left this unspoken. Maybe the past burns away such connective tissue from memory, like a dream that starts without preamble. But if I could go back in time, I’d order my younger self to take Kathy by the hands, look into her brown eyes, and pour out his love. She’d plucked me from oblivion. Maybe I knew then, as now, I’d end up bawling. I had written her letters and poems. Anyway, I possess photographic evidence of my devotion: all those hugs and kisses.

When I’d taken Kathy home from Carbondale to meet my parents for the first time, I’d gotten embarrassed in front of my mother by my constant displays of affection toward Kathy. I wasn’t just holding her hand—if my arm wasn’t gripping her waist, I was squeezing her shoulder or rubbing her back. “I can’t stop touching her,” I actually said to Mom in a shy mumble. “I know,” she said. “I’m afraid you’re going to grab me by mistake.” The story I prefer to tell about that historic visit involves Dad dragging out his prep-school yearbooks to show Kathy, and Mom sitting her down at the breakfast table to inquire about her family. Such major endorsements—they’d basically ignored, as politely as possible, previous women. During Mom’s friendly grilling of Kathy, I could see she identified with Kathy’s large, hard-working family, prominent in their farm town. Mom sat leaning forward and smiling, her compact frame and frosted blonde hairdo contrasting with Kathy’s height and loose brown hair. With Kathy nervous in the spotlight, I kept handing her bits of Mom’s famous oven toast, bread coated with butter and crisped to an explosive crunch. For years I joked that I’d fed Kathy eight pieces during her interrogation, until my exaggeration became our remembered truth.

Maybe astonishment at one’s unremarkable past is a facet of adulthood best left unremarked. Yet it does seem remarkable to me that the following year, now over thirty summers gone, we drove my subcompact pickup truck to Florida from Indiana to see my parents again. Visiting them, apparently, was what we’d do each summer. (No need to board Tess this time: she came with us, in the bed of my truck, under an aluminum topper.) Kathy’s parents had died young, and while I had no sense mine would ever pass away, I craved their knowing Kathy. I wanted to share our romance, I suppose, and to receive their blessing. Besides, though we had little free time, we had even less money, and visiting was cheap. So we left our limestone ranch on its rise and headed south. Upon reaching Georgia, we took back roads through the state’s western side, which eventually brought us to my favorite uncle’s home. After our overnight there, as we departed on the last leg of our trip, a drive of eight hours, my aunt handed us a dozen sandwiches, mostly meatloaf. Another endorsement of Kathy—an effusive one, though perishable.

As we followed our scenic route, we shared our bounty with Tess, handing her sandwiches, moist with mayonnaise and fragrant with onion, through the matching pair of sliding-glass windows in the truck’s cab and its topper.

~

Two years later, in May 1986, we drove home from the hospital with our newborn daughter. We got Claire inside just ahead of a violent thunderstorm. My five-foot-two mother, commanding our tiny kitchen, whipped up a late breakfast. Amid the aroma of buttermilk biscuits, Mom stirred spicy sausage gravy with a wooden spoon; our lunch of pinto beans with smoked ham hocks was already simmering. Tess stood below, hoping for spills.

Having left the Indianapolis Star’s night copy desk for more regular hours as a reporter in Bloomington, that winter I had time to hunt grouse with Tess. Cradling a heavy shotgun, I slogged through rough terrain for hour after hour, walking until my feet and hips burned, watching Tess quarter. During two hunting seasons, the only grouse we ever saw flushed out of range because I didn’t trust Tess’s nose—it had been too long since we’d chased birds. Head down, her snout buried in weeds, she sniffed frantically and her tense body ponged, her tail blurring in a furious lateral arc. She was making game! She was almost atop a bird! That became clear as a grouse rocketed away at 70 miles an hour, borne upon its own startling noise, the sound of a giant shuffling his deck of stiff cards.

I’d trained Tess to hunt, when she was a pup in Florida, by triggering and encouraging her instincts. First, I’d thrown training bumpers, tubes of white plastic, encouraging her to fetch, and later I tucked live homing pigeons in the grass to teach her to find birds. I taught her to swim in the brackish Indian River a block from where I was living, and started throwing her bumper into the water. I’d make her sit beside me as it splashed down, and then I’d thrust out a rigid hand and yell “Back!” The code in her DNA for hunting and retrieving exploded—how thrilling to see Tess hit the water in flying leaps after our plastic prey.

Four years before that grouse—ancient history—I’d shot a pheasant cock over Tess at my professor’s farm in Michigan; I’d packed him in ice and driven to Carbondale to cook him for Kathy. Even then, with my outdoorsy dream manifest, I suspected I’d rather raise and tend birds than thrash through freezing bogs trying to kill them. But there was the appeal of a working dog as a special sort of friend, a sentiment perhaps stemming from my most basic affinity, for animals themselves. This love dawned with my memory, on a farm in Georgia, and continued after my family moved to Florida. There I stood one night, at age nine, weeping and pleading for a dog before Dad. And after his assent, Mom found us one, a sullen beagle named Dolly, who refused to obey or learn tricks and who wouldn’t even lick me. Atop the dressers in my bedroom stood bubbling aquariums full of fish or pressed into silent service as terrariums for snakes I’d caught. “You’re really tuned in to animals,” Kathy once remarked, when I was raising a batch of ducklings for our pond. “You see what’s going on with them, what they need.”

“Animals,” she added, “were how you related to your parents. They were your bond. Animals saved you.” She referred to the affection Dad and I shared for his cattle in Georgia; to my blue parakeet Hattie, surely a gift from Mom, chattering in our farmhouse kitchen; to his and my laughter in Florida, years later, when Dolly’s grudging pleasure over getting belly rubs embarrassed her; to my adolescence when he got me some ducks. And how, after I hatched their eggs in an incubator in my bedroom, Mom taught me to supplement their mash with hard-boiled egg and bits of dry oatmeal.

Good memories, the usual, and then something earlier surfaced. Once, a flock of birds flew into the big windows of the Grants discount store in our Space Coast boomtown, Satellite Beach. They were sparrows or finches, dusky olive-brown with a slash of clear yellow on their upper breasts. Anyway that’s how I picture them, the scads of slight birds dotting the green concrete sidewalk. Maybe a storm had blown them in from the sea, just across Highway A1A from the store, and they’d veered into the lighted glass. Many were stunned, not dead. Mom saw that, darted into Grants, and bought a birdcage. We stuffed woozy birds inside, and took them home as pets. Soon we turned them loose, as they never settled down and, in our greed, we’d collected too many, but the incident amuses me. So earthy, so Mom. In front of Grants, a store selling parakeets and canaries, free birds!

~

Kathy delivered Tom on a blue and gold October morning in 1988. By then, photos of Claire often included Tess, who stood patiently as Claire stuck hats on her head or wrestled dresses over her hindquarters. A year after Tom’s arrival, we began building our dream house on the remnant of a forty-acre farm. Our little limestone ranch sold surprisingly fast, and the new owners wanted immediate possession. Kathy found a rental on the other side of the university, a board-and-batten cracker box with a fringe of brick façade below its picture window. Our temporary neighborhood was thick with other houses hard-used by generations of graduate students.

As we moved in, our nearest neighbors, two guys who had added onto their own modest house and heavily landscaped their yard, stared and turned away. Another messy family with bratty kids and a crazy dog, I imagined them thinking. Later, I saw one of them standing at the curb in front of our trash and recyclables, hands on hips, furiously shaking his head—apparently I’d placed our refuse on the wrong side of our driveway, too close to their property line. They favored Labradors themselves and owned two yellow males, the chunky show type. “Is she spayed?” one of them demanded over the fence about Tess. Their dogs were neutered, so the issue wasn’t relevant, just a judgment about our trashy dog and, by extension, our low-rent lives. They hustled their dogs inside whenever Tess entered our backyard.

Having a dog exposes you in the way having a child does. Or having a mate. Or relatives. Or anyone, really. You want your beloved to escape wobbles like the ones that shaped your own trajectory. You try to teach a pup or a kid; to support your partner; to get along with family members. But your bond makes you see others’ judgments about this entity orbiting you so closely. Vulnerability can hit with a pang. That’s just the fine print you hadn’t noticed about love.

In storage with most of our possessions was a painting of Tess, which today hangs on a walnut-paneled wall of our TV room in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. My older sister, Meg, commissioned the portrait from an artist and got Kathy to sneak some of my photographs. So many years later, I look up at Tess looking out, wearing her red nylon adolescent collar, her eyes alert and calmly concerned, her ears cocked to hear my wish. Under her painted gaze, I prepare to weatherproof her leash, a strap of brown leather, now 35 years old, with shallow scars and thin cracks in its dark surface. Only half an inch wide and a quarter-inch thick, its edges tapered and beveled round, the leash feels good to hold. I squeeze it lying limp and velvety in my palm. That first winter in Carbondale with Kathy, I pored over a small glossy catalog, debating lengths, widths, colors. I picked this six-footer made from a single piece of cowhide; instead of using steel pins to secure loops for a human hand at one end and for the collar snap at the other, its maker cut slits and cinched it back on itself and, above the snap, formed neat braids. I selected a matching leather collar, to replace the red one Tess had outgrown, and although the collar is long gone, her leash has served three successor dogs. Along its length I massage Montana Pitch Blend, a mellow amber goop of pine resin, mink oil, and beeswax, working extra into the slits and braids, which are stiffening. These strong, handsome links appear simple, yet defy my understanding—I’d never get it back together if I pulled apart its tight connections.

A few nights after treating Tess’s leash, I dreamed pit bulldogs circled me while I was out walking her. We were back in Indiana. But then Tess was gone, and alone on a muddy unpaved road, I struggled toward our white house, which in the distance appeared smaller, shaped differently, not quite in the same place. No pond glimmered behind it. I stood trembling on the dark wet road, unsure how to make my way home.

 

1981, Florida

“What about your choice of a retrieving breed? You didn’t ask me when you picked your wife. If you’re satisfied with that choice, you ought to be able to pick out a dog. If you didn’t do well in that choice, you should have learned something.”—Richard Wolters, Water Dog

 

You’re in an early, short, mistaken marriage. So is your wife. Not that you fight. Instead, you’re like two passive kids, equally burdened and blocked, who can’t help each other. Yet it surprises you that she can ignore such an adorable puppy that you, her husband, adore. You think a loving wife should embrace your dog and, ideally, also cut your hair. You don’t wonder if you’d embrace her cat, if she had one, which, thank God, she doesn’t. Does she?

Soon it’s time for you to leave for your fellowship year at Ohio State. You aren’t sure what your wife will do, but she comes too. You hadn’t imagined the challenge of renting a decent apartment near campus with a dog. You were a newspaper reporter, gainfully employed, but you’ve become a student with a dog. You visit squalid apartments and duplexes in scary neighborhoods. In a student ghetto, you find a decent two-bedroom, the end unit in a tired 1920s townhouse, its sooty bricks sucking light from the somber Yankee sky. Look, there’s a place on the corner to sell your blood plasma. You pay extra rent each month for Tess, and keep the place spotless.

Your wife leaves, returning once for a quick uncontested divorce in a downtown courtroom. Before ice narrows the Olentangy River, a few blocks from your apartment, you take Tess every afternoon to swim and fetch her Frisbee. The winter is long for a Florida boy, but you’re cozy, reading inside with Tess lying nearby on the stiff gray carpet. You aren’t just a broke divorced graduate student, his thick hair starting to thin, living in a threadbare apartment: you’re a guy with a great young dog who loves and needs you. Once, she growls at you when you take away her juicy steak bone, and you throw her down and yell into her face—teaching her humans have rights. Once, you playfully blow air at her with your new hair dryer, and when you’re at school she chews it apart—teaching you dogs have rights too.

In spring, you want to date a woman who is lecturing in your department while she writes her doctoral dissertation for the University of Michigan. You teach different sections of the same class, and trade handouts and ideas. But asking out Kathy scares you witless. You’re bad. She’s the first good woman, as you think of it, you haven’t run from—going all the way back to high school—though you won’t connect those dots for years. Having Tess, heedless of human shame, helps. Kathy pets her, though intimidated at first by her size—she’s a big dog, in Kathy’s eyes—and by Tess’s intense focus. After the first time you leave them alone together, Kathy admits her fear: “Sometimes Tess looks like she wants to eat me.”

“No,” you reply. “That’s love.”

Kathy plans to return to Ann Arbor before relocating, somewhere, for her first job as a professor; you plan to camp in your history professor’s farmhouse, south of Ann Arbor, and write freelance articles. And really, it’ll turn out, to see where Kathy goes. Meantime you’ll hunt pheasants with Tess, write a letter to Orvis asking to attend their wingshooting school for free so you can write about it (No thanks, comes the reply), read your professor’s old New Yorkers, and think about Kathy. She’ll accept a job, in southern Illinois. On the way to Carbondale, she’ll visit you at the farm and you’ll wander alfalfa fields together and watch Tess try to catch voles. You’ll laugh at Tess’s frantic, comically fruitless pursuit of the puny rodents. And you’ll laugh at her again that night when, smelling the bread Kathy bakes, she drools. Tess, at once goofy and comely, will seem to you the earthly embodiment of your deepening celestial love.

But first, to get you out of Columbus, your friend Bailey sells you a white Chevy Bel Air, a 1969 muscle car, and you cram its wide, gas-hungry body with your possessions. As you prepare to drive to Michigan, leaving your sedan idling at the curb, Tess prancing on its front seat, you walk into your landlord’s office. “Thank you for your tenancy,” he says. He promises to mail your damage deposit after he inspects. But he keeps the money, because he’s sleazy and because he can. That $300 constitutes most of your net worth; its loss stings far worse than your divorce—already hard to recall. In time, though, it will be as if he gave you a gift by stealing your nest egg because you’ll never forget the exact sum, which, like anyone’s remembered past, accrues interest.

~

I saw the film Tess in the Cineplex on Merritt Island, Florida, probably alone, late in the winter of 1981. That sense of flying solo strikes me today, as I was newly married, as does my naming a puppy after a young woman destroyed by male lust. While there’s precedent for men naming boats and horses and the like after women they find desirable, I recall feeling embarrassed when I told Mom, who’d just given me the puppy, where I got her name. To Mom’s credit, she merely nodded.

A year before, I’d given Mom and Dad a puppy. I hadn’t learned you should never surprise someone with an animal. I knew that in theory—a college girlfriend having once impulsively gotten me a puppy I made her return—but I hadn’t yet learned it. Or I believed in exceptions to the rule that you shouldn’t gift someone with an animal they hadn’t even asked for. Especially a puppy, whose housebreaking and socializing take time and effort, aside from any formal training. Yet I did it, did what my girlfriend had done to me. In 1980, newly returned to my home county in Florida from a newspaper in Georgia—back really because I was eager to share in Dad and Mom’s creation of their retirement home and nursery business—I enlisted the help of my siblings in purchasing for them a costly registered chocolate Labrador puppy from an unusually handsome field strain. Shortly afterward, Mom backed her car out of the garage and fatally squashed the pup as it ran up behind her.

But that’s not when I learned giving them a puppy had been a mistake. I learned that in spring 1981, just after my twenty-sixth birthday, when Mom gave me Tess. Awful timing. As a reporter, I put in long days. I’d applied for a year-long fellowship for journalists—way up north, at Ohio State—which the previous year I’d won but declined, and how would I go with a puppy if I got it again? I didn’t even know what I’d do with my wife if I got it. But Mom saw how desperately I wanted a Labrador—obviously why I’d given her and Dad one. So she made my dream come true by contacting a courtly family friend, George Moreland, who owned a quail-hunting plantation in southern Georgia near our old farm. She must’ve told him she needed help getting me a Lab from working stock. He drove Tess to their nursery in West Melbourne, and she called me that April morning. I drove down there fast from Cocoa Village. I recall how black the puppy looked on the emerald grass, and my and everyone’s joy.

Mister George raised pointers, not retrievers, although at big events he used Labs for fetching dead quail. I imagine a buddy owned, or helped him locate, Tess’s litter. Overwhelmed with getting a puppy, I asked no questions and got no information about the little female’s origins. No kennel name, no purebred’s registration papers, no date of birth. I started training her from books, a library with three books by Richard Wolters, who, breaking with tradition, advocated that their training start early in puppyhood. My yard was minuscule, so I walked her down to a park along the river. Our hazard there was fried chicken—bony scraps thrown into the grass by picnickers—and I had to run and take them from Tess. After four months, she was fetching trussed pigeons, unhappy but unharmed, from where I’d hidden them around Mom and Dad’s acreage. Finally, when Tess was barely five months old, I mailed in our entry fee for a field trial near Tallahassee. Such events reflect waterfowl hunters’ need for dogs that can mark fallen birds and retrieve them over long distances, while obeying hand signals if necessary, even while swimming, to find multiple birds or birds moved by currents. I had no idea how Tess would fare, never having seen another working retriever outside of my books, and I got worried. What most people want from a dog, I realized, was what I’d always enjoyed, a lovable couch slug.

What I was doing with Tess was different. Much harder, more absorbing, and electrifying when Tess took me with her on her jubilant retrieves. Together we were having new experiences, growing. “You needed to love something without constraint or fear,” my sister recalled when I asked her, years later, what she’d been trying to memorialize by giving me the painting of Tess. “No matter where you went or what you did with your life,” Meg added, “Tess didn’t demand explanations or make any real or veiled critique.” Meg’s carefully chosen words felt compassionate toward me but ripe with implication, themselves a veiled critique. I thought of our mother, who, when we were growing up, gave piercing looks and stinging whippings, spoke insults that stuck. You’re bad. Or at least that was my experience as her moody middle child, her difficult one, the kid who resisted her. Then, in late middle age and into old age, Mom stopped trying to dominate us and even started kissing us. She’d changed herself into someone much more loving. This wasn’t my mother of memory—unless, provoked, when she returned. After Kathy and I moved our family from Bloomington, amidst the initial wreckage of our new life in Ohio, I must’ve sounded too plaintive on the phone one evening. “You’re needy,” Mom said—a contemptuous slap. You’re bad. If I’m honest, my tone was pleading, for sympathy over what we’d done to ourselves. Years later, a therapist said, responding to this story, “People have needs.”

What is love? Acceptance, friendship’s bedrock—the degree of acceptance sets the depth of the relationship—also seems an essential element in love’s molten core. Acceptance affirms and encourages, and I crave it, the deeper the better. Dogs, of course, offer it totally. And part of that is they forgive your shortcomings. It’s not lack of awareness—they remember how you’ve hurt them accidentally in a stumble, and know if you’re the type who lashes out. All the same, offering their endless affection, they bestow bottomless acceptance. You’re good.

~

Stepping up Tess’s training underscored my inadequacies as an outdoorsman. I’d never even shot at a duck, let alone possessed the accessories of waterfowling’s ancient craft—the camouflage-netted green boat, the hardwood duck calls, the corded decoys, the long-barreled shotguns—but maybe I’d have to become a hunter—for Tess. Or maybe field trials would become our substitute for actual hunting. Imagine, then, Tess on her first retrieve before the field trial’s watching gallery, gathered at the edge of a cow pasture. Tess dashed out and grabbed the bumper. She spun and returned, her ears flying. Halfway to me, she stopped. Lowered her head. Dropped the bumper. Tucked a shoulder and flipped onto her back. And began rolling ecstatically atop the first manure patty she’d ever smelled. Laughter all around. Even I laughed—what could I do?—but my face burned. I’d warned Tess off Kentucky Fried Chicken, not cow flops.

“Your first retriever?” someone asked.

Many of the field trial Labs grew huge, the muscular males often exceeding 100 pounds—rangy, powerful dogs built to traverse North America’s big landscapes. They towered over Tess, one of the few puppies run that day, but I didn’t mind that she was little, growing toward an adult weight of maybe sixty pounds. It bugged me, however, that Tess wasn’t as pretty as the other dogs. I noticed her black coat’s brown cast, her sharp face. I imagined this was the price of being bred by quail-crazy Georgians more focused on their elite setters and pointers.

Tess did better that day retrieving from a big pond. She hit the water hard and swam fast toward the bumper. She went straight out, grabbed it, and paddled back. “She’s a game little thing,” an older man said. She was—Tess was game. Whatever else she was or wasn’t, from her unknown lineage in backwoods Georgia to my inept training in suburban Florida, I took those words as truth. Some people were criticizing trial dogs for having such high energy and strong prey drive that they lacked an “off switch”—too hyper and hard-headed. Tess seemed okay—my love for her prevented my fretting much on that score—though she’d whip around excitedly, examining faces for clues a fetch session was in the offing. Even inside, she ran instead of ambled; trained not to jump on people, she’d ram them when enthused. “Purebred dogs are hyper like that,” David Bailey, my friend and coworker at the Cocoa newspaper, observed one evening about Tess. She’s not, I almost cried. She’s a field trial dog! I felt a lonely, confusing distress, especially since a cruel consensus had apparently formed: my wife gasped out in response, leaning forward while shaking her head and waving her hands in helpless mirth, “She’s dumb.”

Later, preparing to leave together for my fellowship in Ohio, my wife and I were also clearly breaking up. “Maybe we should have a baby,” she said. In a confused last-ditch way, she’d been trying harder to connect. “God no,” I said. “That’d be a disaster.” I’d married her only because she’d wanted to, the first woman who had wanted me permanently. I didn’t ask myself whether I wanted her forever. Or, honestly, at all. Looking back, I never knew her. A middle child too, she didn’t speak of her childhood either—except to mention that, as an infant, she’d stared silently for so long at her parents they’d had a doctor examine her. Her parents had come to our house shortly before our wedding, traveling from Texas to meet me and my parents. Her father, a corporate executive with a beet-red face from high blood pressure, told me that a reporter from the Wall Street Journal had showed up to cover a colleague’s retirement unshaven and wearing a tee shirt. I could hear Tess breathing hard against the door of our bedroom, where I’d sequestered her, and I thought, At least they covered his damn retirement. Her mother said almost nothing but—wordlessly staring herself—seemed both distant and overbearing. “She’s a real bitch,” Mom said later, giving me a piercing look. After they left, my wife told me they’d vetoed our notion of getting married outdoors at my parents’ nursery.

I have no photographs of that long-ago wife, but I possess one she probably took of me and Tess at the field trial, sitting beside each other on the pond’s bank, waiting our turn. Just before I sent her on her scored water retrieve, we’re intently focused. She’s on my left and sitting staunchly. Just in case, I’m holding her red collar. Her chest juts forward and her entire bowed body radiates energy. So does mine. We look out as one, our heads thrust toward the water, thick as thieves, tight as ticks, a team. Buddies. Partners.

~

Before she died, Mom let it slip that my first wife used to filch cash from Dad’s wallet. When she told me, my father long dead, I felt shame for what she and Dad had discovered—shame compounded by my assumption Mom had informed my sister back then. She hadn’t, Meg told me. Thankfully I’d usually gone to their nursery just with Tess. I’d trained her to find birds there with homing pigeons I’d borrowed from their neighbor, my friend Joe.

Mom loved Joe too, and Dad was jealous of our relationship with him. One evening before I left for Ohio, Dad frowned when I defended Joe’s dog he’d accused of chasing his ducks. Joe also kept ducks and chickens, so I considered it unlikely his dog killed poultry. I’ve since revised my opinion, having learned how situational a dog’s behavior can be. Anyway, Dad’s dismissive response addressed something else. Apparently repeating a saying, which I’d never heard but instantly got—and just as instantly resented—he said, apropos of my defense of my friend’s dog, “Love me, love my dog.”

Isn’t that really the issue here? Isn’t it always? Isn’t any story, told long enough, about love or a cry for love? Kathy was right, animals saved me. They gave beauty, emotional comfort, and a bridge into human relationships long before I realized the depth of my shame or blamed it on Mom. Before I realized that she’d been repeating her own mother’s example. Before I factored in my distant father’s effect on both of us. Before I’d made some of Mom’s mistakes as a parent myself, and added my own. Before I’d learned that I cannot separate my insecurity from my intrinsic nature. So lately, when I recall their silence, when I grieve what now seems my loneliness within that lonely family around the TV—surely not as forlorn as in my memory, but  awfully quiet—I try to see that my parents were doing the best they could amidst their own suffering. “They talk about ‘dysfunctional’ families,” Mom once protested, out of the blue, during the go-big 1980s. “Every family is dysfunctional.” Which goes too far, unless Mom meant that no one gets exactly what she needs. But it’s true we existed in the broad flood plain between Happy Hills and Raging River. You hiked out early, if you had sense.

At the late start of my expedition, Mom gave me a dog. Tess, the best birthday gift a mother ever gave her son, was love.

Ruby Mountain by Ruth Nolan

by Cindy Lamothe

Ruby Mountain – Ruth Nolan

Finishing Line Press

October 21, 2016


Shouldn’t you have spared the pretty hills…

So describes the harsh beauty of the Mojave Desert in the epithet of Ruth Nolan’s sultry and haunting poetry collection Ruby Mountain – a portrait of devastating loss and healing found in Southern California’s natural landscape. The collection embodies the inherent chaos and lasting impacts of a lover’s suicide, paired with compelling ancestral history and environmental destruction. Nolan deftly extracts graphic pain into formal verse and free-flowing poems using potent images of burning hills, smoldering fires, and red-throated hummingbirds. Lines like “the agony of draught / the swagger of flash flood,” and “this desert is an ocean of longing for love,” offer glimpses of a varying despair countered with moments of grace.

Though regionally situated in Southern California, the poems speak to broader, universal experiences of suicide, loss, and love. Nolan begins by expressing these entwining realities in “Anniversary Five,” wherein the speaker addresses her deceased lover:

shouldn’t I yell at you, then cry
shouldn’t I slap you in the face
shouldn’t I push your car off a cliff
shouldn’t I hike in your memory
shouldn’t I look for your passport
shouldn’t I pretend you did it for love
shouldn’t I believe it was a mistake
shouldn’t I wonder why not
shouldn’t I wonder why
shouldn’t you have done it somewhere ugly

She reflects, “I thought our love was a thunderstorm, rain hitting the rake naked by the pool,” thereby questioning common perceptions of unconditional love. In “U-Haul Villanelle,” the speaker’s voice is sweet yet cautious, revealing an ongoing struggle for redemption, and an inner ambivalence between forgiveness and regret: “Dust so thick that I can barely breathe / These stories aren’t so easy to remove / I pack another box and look ahead.” Her mourning unravels these smaller acts of domesticity, alluding to the more quiet, pervasive nature of loss.

Also embedded within Ruby Mountain‘s rich tapestry are vestiges of another tragic love story. In “Last Manhunt,” Nolan’s speaker references Native American suffering in the same desert regions, bringing to light a history of marginalization and shaming. As such, the poet shows a deference to the land’s ancestral heritage, creating a divergent space where love and loss collide, and the past and present intersect meaningfully:

He wears his deerskin shirt,
immune to bullets,
immune to railroads
immune to the absence of rain,
immune to real and fool’s gold

The Mojave is an unapologetic protagonist containing both the debris of the past and psychic space for healing. “Ruby Mountain,” for example, is both meditative and bold, urging the reader to not look away: “They say now – that you never died / that you slipped away under cover of dark / leaving only bullet holes / sprayed across the Wonderland of Rocks.” Grief is carefully threaded throughout the book; the speaker’s lover is the air and sinewy presence of the Mojave – the moving breath of desert. In “Nodding Off,” there is a yearning in the poem that evokes both the mystic of the scenery, and the desolation of losing a loved one:

I see open space
where once there was a tree, views
of the little San Bernardino Mountains
a bit more breeze
and I want to photograph the absence,
frame it with memory, now I can see
familiar patterns of stars,
a better view of passing satellites.

Nolan’s soft, subtle expressions paint these invisible terrains with a quiet, haunting power. The speaker’s thirst for her previous life is a mirage that beckons us forward, using compressed imagery to recreate a treacherous internalized landscape. In these poems, the alienation of grief yields to the desert’s curative elements. “Nodding Off” holds a reverence for the ragged scenery. Here, we touch the scorched earth and taste the speaker’s restlessness.

it will give me hope, I hope
I hope I hope I hope
that things really are connected,
better this than the whip of thorny
cacti stinging me in the face
every time I stepped into the front yard,
the sad fact of a bird’s nest tossed
onto the ground by a blast of wind,
the hooks of religions that rope us in,
the dams that block us all,

tell me there is no obsessive
compulsive desert here,
just a smooth meditation
of people walking the same
pilgrimages

This last stanza conjures symbolic images that achieve a balance between the poet’s fragility and her unflinching self-awareness – similar to other poems in the collection, Nolan hones in on the shared experiences of those who have come before and those who will come after. We learn from Ruby Mountain that the trajectory of loss is a manifold path, touching upon the personal and becoming the ecology we inhabit. It’s a book that bears witness to the resiliency of human nature itself and our ability to survive even the darkest of nights. Within Ruby Mountain, we find a gritty reminder that devastation and beauty have long coexisted – creating canyons and valleys, and a home for the desolate in search of light. In “What Rises,” Nolan hints at redemption: “Deserts and mountains on loan / hammering the center of sunrise / into broken hearts.”


Ruth Nolan, a former wildland firefighter in the Western U.S., is a writer and professor based in Palm Springs, CA. She’s the author of the poetry book Ruby Mountain (Finishing Line Press 2016). Ruth’s writing has also been published in James Franco Review; Angels Flight LA/Literary West; Rattling Wall; KCET/Artbound Los Angeles; Lumen; Desert Oracle; Women’s Studies Quarterly; News from Native California; Sierra Club Desert Report, Lumen; The Desert Sun/USA Today and Inlandia Literary Journeys. She is the winner of a 2017 California Writers Residency award. Ruth holds her M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside. She may be reached at ruthnolan13@gmail.com

Random Sample
by Alan Sincic

Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Finalist 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

So not but a week after the funeral and this thing, this crazy thing that happens. I’m trekking through Midtown – no temp job that day – past CBS Headquarters. You know, Black Rock. You’ve seen the pictures: black as a burnt marshmallow, thirty-eight floors of granite, kind of a cross between the Tower of Sauron and that mystery slab of interplanetary licorice got the chimps so ginned up in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It’s lunch-break at high tide, crowd so thick it tumbles out across the intersection, not in a cascade like spilled rice, but chockablock, in chunks, as if calved off a glacier where it meets the sea. Two years in the city but only now am I beginning to realize that I am not Paganini’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, the lost Rembrandt, the Flambeau a l’Orange garnished with Spears of Cilantro and imported hand-whipped Tangelo Topping. I am not a novel. No. I am a punctuation mark, a bubble, a blip in a crystalline grid. I try to sling the backpack off my shoulder but I’m pinned at the elbows and swept along, pushed up the curb and into that fresh boil of people pouring out the building. Somewhere down here beneath my (bobbing-along-with-the-other-heads) head, down below this sea of shoulders rocking back and forth in the sun, the bottom half of my body surrenders to the tide.

Say you take the state of Texas, shake the cattle loose, and then fold it in half. Then in half again, then again and again however many times till you get all those millions of people stacked up on top of one another –you know, vertically integrated, some billion bullion cubes all pounded down into a hunk of rock you plop, drop into the middle of this river where it meets the sea. That’s Manhattan. A modernified version of the Lone Star State with all the wilderness sucked out of the equation – all them buffalo and jackalope and armadillo sledge-hammered down into a slab of spam, all them cow-pokes and strip clubs and alfalfa silos sucked up into a teaspoon of subatomic niblets, like on the surface of a neutron star. Bracing. Breath-taking. And – since you can pack, per square inch, more tuna into a tin than you can into an ocean – the height of efficiency.

Cowabunga, right? Unless you happen to be the tuna. A fat guy in a pinstripe suit – you know, all buttoned up like a Christmas ham – stops to hail a cab, rocks backward, body-checks me into a pretzel stand. Flash of perfume as I rebound again, as I bump another soft-as-a-blossom secretary, impale myself on the heels she carries to wear at the office, rebound back into the billion-legged crush.

I trip over a cardboard suitcase looped shut with a belt, bumper past the kid on guard above it. Skinny kid, Nigerian or Haitian, slipped like a coat hanger into some kind of skid row polyester Zoot Suit. Bare ankles, beat-up old Oxford Wingtips, packing twine for laces. Smells like a bouquet of wet cardboard. He climbs up onto a fire hydrant to hawk his wares. A head taller than the crowd now, he whips his hands up into the air as if to stir it.

“Um-brel-lah, um-brel-lah, two dollah, two dollah…”

It starts to rain.

“… um-brel-lah, three dollah, three dollah, um-brel-lah…”

I can’t seem to unstick myself from the shoulders of the people around me. Wildebeest stampeding up a riverbank, that’s what we are — I think as I break stride, as I fall back a step — meals on wheels. And that’s when the guy with the clipboard hooks me by the sleeve. You’ve seen the documentary. It’s always the infant, the aged, the injured the croc strikes first. Says he’s got tickets to a show — focus group screening, CBS sitcom, invitation only.

Invitation? For me? Population of a whole village flits by in the second it takes me to scratch my nose. The earth skids on another thousand miles through the black. The odds are astronomical. That I should be the one grain of pollen plucked out of this avalanche and held aloft for all to see, that I should find myself a member of that most exclusive of all clubs, the Random Sample?

“Got your ticket right here.” He tilts the clipboard to show me the goods, slides his thumb back and forth across the CBS logo pressed into the linen bond. “Free.”

The rest of the group he’s already assembled, a dozen or so of the crème de la crème who follow him out the crowd and into this alley, this cut-out between the skyscrapers. Grammy and Pops in the lead, knuckles all a-tremble as they toddle up the curb, as they clack-clack-clack together like a set of salt and pepper shakers; behind them, this Mommy/Baby combo with a hand-woven sling, all cinnamon-twisty-ed together into a tight little pastry; then ground zero, yours truly; then this big block of a guy in work boots and blue khakis, followed by a batch of chub-a-tubby middle-agers, snapped and clipped and velcroed together into swatches and sweats and elasticized fanny packs that vibrate when they walk, then the rearguard, the typical city fare — potpourri of tourists in sunhats and shades and lemon-yellow sneakers, all gaping up at that crust of sky between the rooftops as if Jesus himself were about to jump.

We gather in the shade of the tower.

“Watch your step,” says Clippy, and then: “Oh.” Everybody stops. He glances down at the torn leather jacket slung over my shoulder. “And don’t forget to leave the motorcycle behind.” This gets a laugh.

“I don’t have a motorcycle,” I say.

“Looks like helmet hair to me.” He reconnoiters the fizz, the frozen explosion up over my ears. “My mistake.”

“Bomber jacket,” I say.

“Fifth Avenue. That’s where we park the bombers.”

The group laughs – no. Strike that. Explodes. Brick through a bay window, laugh inside of the center of which I stand. I smile. Clippy pirouettes slowly inside this stir that he’s created, pushes open the wrought iron gate, ushers us inside. I smile. I picture those teddy bear mascots truckers decorate their rigs with. I picture Clippy stripped to his skivvies, bungee-corded to the grill, crispy-crittered right up to his little button eyes with insects and tar bits and random flecks of roadkill. I smile.

As we shuffle down the walk, one of the tourists, lady with dogs on her shirt, friendlies up to me.

“Are you from around hee-er?” The dogs are purebreds, all the top flavors and not cartoon dogs either, but serious, intent, like the presidents on the dollar bills. “You look like you’re from around hee-er.”

Mee-chigan’s where she’s from, land of the squashed e. Into my eyes is where she looks but I look down at the bulldog on her collar, at Winston Churchill there glaring back at me. President Churchill.

“Well, yes. I mean…” I spend so much time alone now I tend to fumble the small talk. Note to self: stop leaving notes to self. “I mean, no.”

“No? Not from hee-er?”

Not the same here, her here and my here. In China they sing-song ten different meanings from out the very same word. It’s all in the pitch. And you gotta warm up first. And God help the tone deaf. The roast shoe. I will have the roast shoe.

“What I mean is, not exactly here.”

“But around hee-er?”

She’s thinking up the hill over yonder by the Mill Pond. At twelve hundred bucks a square foot I’m thinking, just the imprint of my shoelace hee-er would set me back a month’s pay. “No not here, but from the city, sure. Upper West Side.”

“Oh.” She cocks her head to one side and smiles up at me. Too old to flirt now – you know, the big eyes, the head toss, the tumble hair that girls deploy to win the hearts of men – but not too old to work the smile, to squeeze out that last little drop of charm.

“Step it up now,” says Clippy as he unlocks another gate and then plunges us, one by one, through a big brass revolving door and into an empty lobby. Strike that. Lobby filled with air. Black arches booming up and – as in a cathedral – out across the cavern to meet the black granite girders overhead.

“The West Side… ?” She smiles and glances up at the ribs of steel that hold the skylights in place, the chunks of cloud that go skidding by. “The West Side. Which way is that?”

“The Upper West Side.” I lift my hand into the pointing position. Tough to find a landmark when you’ve got no land to mark. We could be in Uruguay for all I know. I turn back to Pedigree, wave in the general direction of the sun. “Up that way. That’s where I live.”

“By yourself?”

“No, no. A bunch of us share – ”

“You look so young.”

Again she smiles. I redden. I open my mouth to say… what? That I don’t look young? That I’ll try, that I should aim to be… what? More older? I smell the sunblock on her cheeks as she steps closer, count the spikes of gray in her hair. Kind of motherly-looking, verging on grandmotherly, but not so bad to look at probably, back in the day, you know, when her skin fit, when gravity was her friend, when the men would all triangulate her position on the xyz coordinates.

“But that’s okay,” she whispers. She pats me on the sleeve – more like an airbrush than a touch – as she glances up into my eyes. “I think it’s sweet.”

Sweet. Sweet is what girls call you when they pinch you between their thumb and forefinger and dust you off into their cappuccino. Sweet is what motherly women call you when they dab at the whiskey stain on your tie and promise to fix you up with somebody intrepid, the magic word that shrinks you down to HO scale so you can be hot glued onto somebody else’s train set.

“Here,” she says. “You could use this.” She’s holding up a discount card, the kind they stick under hotel doorways. “It’s a two-for-one. You get a dozen bagels. For free.”

“H&H.”

“Pardon?”

“Up by me. Best bagels in town.”

“That’s perfect then.”

“But you should – ”

“No-no. We’re leaving town tomorrow.”

“But you could – ”

“No-no. I want you to have it. You and your friends could – here.”

She cups my hand from underneath, pries the fingers open, presses the card into my palm.

“You and your friends – ”

“We’ll have a bagel party. Thanks.”

I pocket the card, try to picture myself with friends. Sweet she calls me. And they say cattle don’t mind being branded? I know you’re supposed to smile when somebody calls you sweet. I get it. I smile. Smile but on the inside I buzz like a beehive whacked with a stick. Back in second grade again is what I am, propped up on a window ledge outside Miss Conner’s room, varnished in sweat, squirming with chiggers, garnished with Cheeto dust and sandspurs and a speckling of gnats, scab on my knee curling up like a radish peel and, head-to-toe, basted with a hand-dipped mélange of mucilage, play dough, asphalt, pine sap, creosote, Kool-Aid, Six-12, sour milk, fig Newton, chalk dust and snot. Miss Conner reaches up to brush the flecks of candy corn from my hair. “You are just the sweetest boy.”

Spoiled for life. Haunted by the notion that there lives in me a sweetness that I am somehow answerable for. I see it in other people all the time. We’ve all of us got the curse. We are each of us convinced, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that the sweetest piece of real estate in the universe can be found somewhere – if only we could find it – tucked inside of ourselves. And that would be… where, exactly? Childhood gone and nothing to show for it, youth half spent, the moment here gathered in a sieve. Where did the sweetness go?

There’s a jam-up back at the revolving door. Grandma’s got her tote bag stuck between the curve of the glass and the rubber sleeve of the doorframe.

“Stay put,” says Clippy as he hustles out a side door. The crowd stirs. A pudgy little tourist presses through with the hubby in tow. She bobs up out the chop like a buoy, hefty and plush and orbicular, the both of them in their marshmallowy sneaks and pumpkiny jog-togs like bread on the rise, like bumpers, the Bumper Twins, to clear the way for Grandma.

Grandma tugs at the strap. Still got it hooked to her elbow, yanks like she’s snagged it on a folding lawn chair and not a billion ton monolith. There’s this blocky guy in Bermuda shorts, got his hand wedged in the rubbery flap. Grunts. Grunts again. “Don’t touch the door,” he says, cuts through the din with this splintery voice, raw, brass horn with a blown valve. “Don’t push!” Red’s the word for this guy – buzz cut blonde, Rolex the size of a Mayan sundial, fat calf in a quiver up out of that genuine leather moccasin.

Somebody jolts me from behind. Just get a glimpse as he flashes by. Slim guy. Tall. His T-shirt smells of grilled onions and cold beer. He’s got a face like a broken cookie and a strange little hitch to his walk, as if all those years in the sun had warped him right down to the chassis.

“Stand back! Everybody stand back!” says Red, but the tall guy he slides in there, smooth-like, to unravel Grandma’s elbow. He skates her out the way and then fierce – like you crack a whip – yanks the bag free. Whoa. Grandpa drops the umbrella he’s been pointing with. Tall Guy picks it up, swirls it back together with a twist of his fingers, hands Grandma her bag, Grandpa his umbrella. A cocktail umbrella is what they really need, you know – delicate, like a blossom, like they should be floating in a little thumb-sized outrigger at the bottom of a Mai-Tai.

Something about the height of the dome, the emptiness, the echo of the hubbub unsettles me. I skirt the edges, slip out of sight into gap between the pillars, out between the ribs of the dome and into a little anteroom no bigger than a pantry. I slide up onto a metal stool, the only seat. Just room enough for a window, window sill, radiator box – wood-framed and white-washed, all of it, even the glass even, like a sheet of spilled milk. The paint puckers where the sun hits the glass but on the inside, in the chalky light that stirs the shade, it’s cool.

While the others bustle around I drop the pack and slide the bomber jacket up over my shoulders to drape it there… you know, the sleeves empty, my body the hanger. Then, with my hands on the lapels, I slide down into the hollow of the coat itself, just so, like people when it rains, you know, caught out in the open, they pull the jacket like a cowl up over the head? Anybody sees me I pretend, oh, just shaking off the rain is all.

The seams of the leather, rough where the lining used to be, rake up over my cheekbones and, well, raw would be the word it, this stupid jacket. Portable glory is what Dad called it. V-E Day he swapped a Lugar for it. What the Bombardier wanted was a bona fide (beyond the flack in his thighbone) piece of Kraut memorabilia, whereas Dad – having busted his nuts across the hedgerows of Normandy – wanted something more poetical than a hunk of steel. “Besides,” he said as we waited for the bus to steal me off to college, “if you want to be more than a grunt, if you want the girls to picture you, you know…” – he gestured up at the clouds, openhanded sweep like you brush the flanks of a horse – “… you gotta look the part.” Damn straight. Don’t have to fly to look like a flyer is what he meant, is how he pictured himself. All leathery and buff as he rainbows up over the horizon. But that’s my old man for you. Was my old man. Not so big on words, no. Clapped his arm up over my shoulders and, so as not to embarrass me, looked out to where (and for the same reason) I was looking: the burst of red neon up there on the pillar where the buses converge, the leap of the greyhound up out of the gate. Talk about awkward, but hell. Sometimes just not moving, just standing there where you stand, that’d be an action, right? And then the bus came, and then he hesitated, and then – I could tell it was the impulse of the moment – stripped off his jacket. “Don’t worry,” he said as he tossed it up over my head like a serape. “You’ll grow into it.”

The radiator smells like the underside of a pier. I loosen my grip on the jacket, drop it back over my shoulders.

“Restrooms this way,” says Clippy off to the far side, the group at his heels, clipboard clap-clapping his squidgetty hips in a march up the steps to a little mezzanine.  “Ten minutes.”

I don’t even notice, at first, that the jacket’s fallen, so lost am I in whatever this is that I’m lost inside of, this little patch of darkness I portage around with me. You wouldn’t know trouble if it pooped in your pocket is what he used to say. Talk about a eulogy. Or on the gravestone, yeah. That would’ve gotten him. He would’ve laughed at that. I press my palms up into my face, palms like a parenthesis, wait for the wave to pass. I reach down for the jacket, and now when I stoop I see, up under the ledge there, where the stone window sill lips out over the radiator box, just room enough to slide a hand, this little packet. I reach in, pinch the edges, pull it out into the light: Chocolate bar the size of a shingle, shiny and smooth and slippery-ed up onto the cover of an old magazine—Dungeons and Dragons, Issue 27. “Top Ten Spells” it says. “Killer Moves.” “Dazzle Your Team.” The cover shot’s a big black and red volcano that bubbles over with a molten gold that, as it spills down the flanks, spells out, “Secrets of the Elvin Horde.”

I’m trying to imagine what kind of old ex-cop security guard would stock the bunker with all this Medieval geekery and, at the same time, a slab of Ghirardelli’s 72% Cacao Twilight Delight Intense Dark Chocolate. Pocket handkerchief guy, I’m guessing. Crispy boutonniere. Sings opera in the shower. Shines up his bullets every night with linseed oil and a clean shammy cloth. And treats himself to… now that’s odd. The bar looks intact, but half the chocolate’s gone. The hollow wrapper’s been nicely – primly, that would be the word – slid back into the sleeve. Not a crease or even a dent in the foil, as if the missing half had – like the mysterious hollow you get sometimes in the center of a malted milk ball – simply evaporated out into the universe at large. Almost magical… I think as I liberate the last of the chocolate, ease the foil back into the wrapper and, just as primly, slip the magazine and the wrapper back into their little crevasse… Like an offering to the gods.

Clippy’s voice echoes out from behind the columns as the herd migrates into my territory, the Bumper Twins in the lead. “… And even though, in the pre-war era, it was radio that dominated the airwaves…”

This must be the ceremonial entrance. Outside around the block, on the other side of the building, the CBSer’s – the people who pump out the product – buzz back and forth en mass through an archway the size of an airport hanger. All that bustle. All that fizz, fizz that fills the airwaves from one end of the continent to the other. Empire of the Air is what they call it.

I gather my pack, slide off the stool, and (gingerly, as if on ice) step back onto the flagstone. Here we are in the still center of the empire, the Westminster Abby of the Broadcasting Imperium. I look for the plaques of bronze upon the walls, the urns of all the old guard stashed underfoot, the bones bricked over. You know, splinters from the cross: toenail clippings from Rin-Tin-Tin; Ed Sullivan baked into a flying buttress; Lassie’s ashes and Lucy’s red locks and Edward R. Murrow finally stubbed out, grinded down into an ashcan no bigger than a coffee mug and stuffed like a potato up under the granite pavers.

“… because here at the CBS family of broadcasting affiliates,” says the disembodied voice of Clippy as they go trip-tropping along the rim. “We’ve always looked upon our little slice of the TV dial as a public trust…”

Nothing. Sleek as a silo but for one thing. All by itself under the dome stands a bust on a pedestal. As the shadows strike it, the face – burnt by the years to a darker bronze – falls away. All but the nose. The nose is gleaming. So many people have touched – keep touching – the nose, that that’s the only part that still shines. Poor bastard, nose up there all aglow like a priest with a couple rum toddies under his belt. Guy spends his whole life mapping the Northwest Passage or nailing the Triple-Lutz in the tucked position, and all we get in the end is the tip of the nose, this little nibble, this little chip of light.

Like back in the days of the vacuum tube, when you’d click on the set and ping, out of the darkness would pop – like the blip that set the big bang in motion – this little chunk of punctuation, this white dot that’d flatten out, squish down, shoot off to the left and to the right in a single line, sharp as a laser, to cut the void in half. The screen would hum. You’d lean in. The line would flutter and then – boom – spring open like a Jack-In-The-Box with a whole new universe inside.

“Please don’t touch the artwork,” Clippy calls out from his perch on the stool I’d just abandoned, the group all gathered around him, his voice a perfect blend of melodious nanny and puppy-peed-on-the-carpet-again fatalism. All eyes on me.

“It looks like – ” My thumb’s already there, so I scratch the itch, give the nose a rub.

“Walter Cronkite.”

“That’s it. Cronkite. Walter Cronkite. Wasn’t he – ”

“Thirty thousand tons of granite went into the construction of this dome,” says Clippy as he turns away and swings hippo-like down from the stool, heavy but at the same time precise, as if he were, one step at a time, embossing the pavement with a sign of his passing. The group looks up as he points to the pillars of sunlight overhead, at this majesty to which I have already contributed my 00.00004371 percent. “The support beams and the cladding, both. Granite, all granite.”

He shoulders through the thick brass door that swings out into the booming lobby. The group sweeps in behind him. “Welcome to CBS.”

As they disappear through the doorway, I glance back at the bust, blink and blink again, try to match the face fixed there with that animated flipbook of Cronkite we’ve all assembled from years of viewing. Like a frozen waterfall, that bust.

I hustle up behind Pedigree as we skirt the edge of the lobby – buzzing with traffic, big enough to berth a dirigible – past a big black reception desk, then on to a black marble elevator marked Employees Only.

I squeeze in just as the door closes. Belly to belly. Up into the clouds we go. Clippy tracks the light as it slowly pings across the numbered squares above us. It is his job to will the machine upwards. He tries to turn so it’s my elbow and not my belly-button rub-a-dub-dubbing up against him, but Grammy and Pops, immovable as stalagmites, hold him in check. He looks down. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Clippy stops smiling. No sign he’s anything less than thrilled to be inhaling the same air as me, but I can’t help but notice he seems to be strangely fixed, not on me, but on the little shards of Twilight Delight rappelling down the snow-colored slopes of my Kmart Ban-Lon double-knit shirt. The clipboard crackles under the pressure of his thumbs. The papers – rosters, carbons, flyers, maps – all warp up into a fat sandwich in the center of which glints the spine of a glossy magazine, red and gold, color of the Elvin King.

The door opens and he pushes past me. Off we go again, past another black marble desk only this time smaller, as if scaled down – a base camp on Everest – to fit the higher altitude. Clippy’s picking up speed but I stay with him, pin myself to his shoulder, down the corridors, offices, cubicles… broom closets and fuse boxes… air ducts and indentations and architectural punctuation marks that continue to shrink as we wind our way in toward the tower’s center, toward the heart of the realm.

At last… a boardroom. Of a sort. Instead of a table there’s a batch of chairs laid out not in rows, but in a grid, like a marching band at parade rest. If rest is the word for it. The whole place has got that reconstruction-of-a-downed-jetliner feel to it: half the paneling shucked away; raw plasterboard mottled with plumbing specs and blueprints; autographed headshots of the old guard – Perry Como, Snooky Lanson, Tommy Leonardi – pitched (cracked frames and all) up onto a pallet of floor tiles in the corner. I glance up at the two survivors (too high to reach without a ladder) that cap the doorway. Arthur Godfrey strumming a ukulele (You are my sunshine, my only sunshine) and Eydie Gorme (Love ya, Kid) taking her bouffant out for a walk, eyes kicked up to high beam, smile singing out with an equal and infinite love for all that she surveys: me and Clippy and the gang, that T-Square rammed down a tube of old wall-paper samples, that paint can petrified shut, that Post-It flaking off the ceiling fixture, those wires shooting up out the floorboards, webbing out in every direction, thick as a wrist, industrial, juice enough to set a casino ablaze.

“Watch your step now – by next week all of this will be fully computerized, top of the line, IBM, everything.”

Half the group’s already surged around him to grab the bucket-style swivel chairs. Nice touch. Homey. Fake leather padding on a plastic frame, snug but not too comfy, like an airport lounge or the lobby of a Volkswagen dealership. So much for the Tiffany Network. The ambiance here? More Happy Hour at a Scranton bowling alley than, say –given the scale of Paley’s estate – high tea with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I try to scope out a seat down front, but… where is the screen? Here at the top network in the top city in the – from the Mammoth-bone condo to the Lunar Lander – top of the top country that ever was? Where’s the secret revolving wall activated with a flick of 007’s sterling silver lighter, the geometrically arrayed like-the-eyes-of-an-insect multiple monitors, the itty-bitty Jetson-style personal display pods levitating up out of the floorboards?

“Find a seat quickly please.”

Clippy flips aside a bolt of Vis-Queen to reveal what, at first glance, looks like a chunk of mahogany the size of a steamer trunk. He swivels it around to face us. A box TV, smuggled out the lobby of a Holiday Inn or the living room of some upscale Baltimore dentist, about as flashy as a wheel of government cheese.

Not that I’m disappointed. Hey, Genghis Khan slept in a yurt with a goat nibbling at his toes. Enrico Fermi split the atom in a pilfered squash court. Even Neil Armstrong peed in a diaper on his way to the moon.

I scoot up onto a padded leather bistro stool at the back of the room.

Clippy steps up. “That’s my seat.”

“Does it matter?”

“Yes.”

I wait for an explanation. Clippy’s eyes land on this patch of plaster behind me, as if it was a map of Gaul, and he was Caesar, and I was a bucket of horseshoes. But I’m getting good at this now. I pause. I wait… just long enough to make him wonder what the code for Security is… then slide off the stool with a look of love in my eyes.

“If it’ll make you happy.”

There’s a seat up there by Tall Guy and Pedigree’s apple dumpling of a husband. And that’s when I first notice it – what I’ve been trying to tell you about. Out of every armrest of every chair sprouts a white cable with a bud on the top, also white, like the bud of a lily. Clippy tells us that, see, inside that bud’s this button you push. You wrap the bud in your fist as you sit in the chair – one bud for the right hand and one bud for the left. Red button in the left fist, green button in the right. Like this – see? Both hands at the ready, now… thumbs up. I hold my fists out in front of me, as if expecting someone else to do the choosing… one potato, two potato, three potato, four.

“So long as you like the show,” whispers Clippy with a hand on my shoulder, “press the green button. Don’t like? Press the red button.”

“Hold it down or just press it, punch it?”

“Hold it down.”

“The whole time.”

“The whole time you’re liking it.”

“Like, starting when?”

“From when you first start to like it.”

“But then when I… ”

“When you stop liking it, then stop pressing down, see? When you don’t like it, whenever you’re not liking it, press down on the red button.”

“But if I’m not sure… ”

“You decide. Red or green.”

“Absolutely. But – ”

“Let’s begin.”

He clicks on the video. Flint to the fire. Moonrise over Olduvai Gorge. What gang of chimps ever squatted so still as we do now, waiting in the dark for that glow to begin?

Up comes the opening logo, the big CBS eye. You know they ripped that thing off the Shakers? The Eye of God. Tack it up over your barn door to zap the horseflies. Blast the sinners out from under the rocks, scrub down the righteous with bristles of light. That was back in the day when you couldn’t peel an orange without – you, oops, you pop an earlobe off the Blessed Virgin Mary there glaring up at you from out the pulp. The warble of an angel in the crank of a drill. Holy Ghost on a graham cracker. Jesus God Almighty breaching out the smokehouse chimney, thrashing his way upwards, hand over hand, straight up into that pillar of cloud. Dog paddle. Backstroke. Australian crawl. Believe. Show me that you believe. The Eye of God commands it.

I mash down on the green button.

Tall Guy, he doesn’t miss much. Glances over at my fist, back at the screen, back at me again. The others start to look at their fists, back to Clippy, back to me. Am I breaking the rules? Clippy slides from his stool and makes his way down the aisle.

Now when I mash down on the green, am I telling the universe that yes, this one mouthful of air, this one here, tastes good? Thumbs up? My compliments to the chef? But then the next breath. Do I release the button to vote again or do I… what? Say yes to the breath that I’ve yet to take? I look back at the Eye of God. Does it deserve the green button? Has it earned its place in the great, grand, unscramble-able gumbo of life? So it’s not Joey Heatherton in a white string bikini, Brooks Robinson spearing a line drive, no, but compared to the fleck of guacamole embedded in the beard of Mr. Tourist over there, the cracked yellow toenail of Grandma Moses over here, the empty jacket here I navigate from place to place?

The logo evaporates just as Clippy reaches me. The screen’s dark now. Nice touch. Clears the palette. I give it a green. Then the show begins. Lights, music, titles. Everybody gathers up their buttons, both hands at the ready. Balancing a tray of breakables is what they’re doing. Green. Red. Red. Green. What will it be?

Me? Green. The green party. Go green go.

Funny thing. Don’t recall much about the show itself. Not a bad show. Big Irish-American family. Lots of freckles. Big kitchen. Neighbors popping in, popping out. Incredible, the grooming, everybody – not a zit, not a smudge, not the faintest beetling of an unplucked brow. You’d think they had a whole battalion of people just outside the door to dust the crumbs from off of their Dockers, flick the lint from the fringe of their leg-warmers, pump the hair back up to the maximum recommended PSI.

I try to pick up on the plot. Teenage daughter’s got a crush on the Pope. Or something. Hard to keep it all between the crosshairs what with Clippy just over my shoulder, marinating the air with his invisible ions.

I keep thinking about the difference between the room that we’re in and the room that they – the TV people – are in. In their room, everybody’s all chipper and firm. They know exactly what they want and they’re not afraid to say so. Even when they get angry they do it in a cute way, as in Look at me. Am I not making a spectacle of myself, rascal that I am, carving this turkey with a penknife? And all because the (don’t say a word!) Lumberjack 5000 Electra-Glide Poultry Sword you got me for Christmas just (I am so steamed!) electra-glided clean through its own power cable! This is the kind of anger we like to see. Anger with a punch line, anger you can count on. Not like you’re going to come down in the morning to find the furniture all busted up and spaghetti on the ceiling.

But that’s not all. In their room, every time somebody opens his mouth, there’s laughter. Laughter comes vibrating out the pores of the walls of the room itself. It’s like they’re all living on the inside of some giant percussion instrument somebody keeps striking and striking, over and over again, like a gong.

Okay. So tickle it all, right down to the atoms, but – or so they say – you can’t have the laughter without the tears, sunshine without rain, mammals without 3,000 kiloton asteroid impacts at the tail end of the Cretaceous. So I wait. I lean in. I tilt my head but… so far the only sad things that happen are sad in a cute kind of way. Baby turtle gets flushed down the toilet and goes to heaven. Dad buys a tin of shoe polish to hide the bald spot on the top of his head, but it’s a dye. It’s permanent. And it’s cerulean blue, crest of a cockatiel from the rain forests of Brazil. If only he had a hat like the Pope wears! Again the laughter, but surely there must be a sniffle now, say maybe somewhere just under the surface – sliver of dark chocolate, say, just poking out from under the Crème Brule? Say Grandma gets a boyfriend who dumps her for a younger oldster and she – love on the rebound – decides to hit on a younger man: distinguished, hand-carved mahogany cane, full set of dentures, night watchman down at the fish factory. Who turns out to be gay. Or something. And in love with the Pope. Or something. Bittersweet.

But not here, not now, no. Candles on a cake that’ll never be blown out, that’s what these people are, complete opposite of what you get in the movies nowadays, where like a billion bucks they spend to get the costumes all dustied up, to get that old weathered look, to make it look real. They even pay a costumer to wail away at every stitch of clothing – scuff and tear, scratch and pound, bleach and stain and smear to make the shirt sweat, the pants buckle, the shoes crackle with grit. Professionally distressed is what they call it. And all the while us amateurs out here in the seats, we do it all for free – no camera, no script, no score beyond the sound of our own breathing.

Two handed I’m pressing now, green green as I hunker down, elbows on my knees. Labor of love is what it is, is why we do it. Been wailing away at ourselves for decades now, see, shoes and clothes and teeth and hair – even the bones that hold it all together. And not just Ma and Pa Brittle back there, kiln fired down the years into a pair of porcelain miniatures, no, but all of us. Pedigree all rigid from the strain of smiling as she helps the oldsters press the buttons, eyes bright as candy but the skin, when she squints, crimped at the edges like a cellophane wrapper. And the Bumpers as they lean out over the pair to whisper advice – plumping at the edges, ripening into middle age, oozing out the cracks in their Ken and Barbie exer-wear. As the center of the universe, honeypot at the heart of the piñata, I should be the exception but – cuffed up into the coat of a cow (alas, as they say, no longer with us) – I’m not. And neither is Big Red there as he cocks one fist and then the other Rock’em Sock’em Robot style, right-left, right-right-left as he grips the buttons, as he banks like a skier with the poles tucked, as he burns himself red from the inside out.

From the inside, from the outside, every last one of us we’re burning up, quick like a blaze or slow like a smolder, or cold even, cold like rust, or like fruit, when it ripens, ever so slow, as if there were no end to it, ever, as if nothing that ever ripens will ever die. Clippy pretends otherwise, sure – churns down the aisle to take charge, reaches up to brush a hand through a shock of hair that vanished decades ago, but ripe is what he is, ripe as the pinkish out-of-towers slowly melting into the upholstery, ripe as Tall Guy (Bristlecone pine is what he is), scored by the wind to a twist of iron, all askew, ropey scar down the hollowy cheek. Ripe even as the mother there, buoyant as a plum, rubbing at the crease on her brow as if the palm of her hand were an eraser.

My thumb’s beginning to hurt.

“Sir…” It’s a man’s voice. “Sir…” Clippy leans over to insert this wedge of a word, this sir, straight down into the cleft of my cerebrum. “Sir. You can’t just press down on the green.”

“What do you mean I can’t? I’m doing it.”

“That’s not the way it works.”

“I don’t get to do the button, then?”

“The purpose of the button is to judge the show.”

“Then I get to do the button, then.”

“Yes. But the show…”

I half-point, half-shrug in the direction of the show. But no, the show’s… it’s the screen now, the screen that’s empty but… no. Static. It’s filled with static. Ok. Ok. So I’ve been voting for air.

“So…”

“I know how the buttons work,” I say.

“Good.”

“Okay.”

Clippy’s face flickers on and off in the light of the static. His smile never leaves him but he seems frozen in place, waiting for something to happen, something that involves me. They say you face off against a bear in the woods, you should mirror the bear’s behavior. Or something. Or the opposite maybe. Or maybe I’m the bear and he’s the…

He looks down at my right hand, then back up to meet my gaze.

“Okay. So. So now you have to take your finger off of the button.”

I look down. I’m surprised to discover that I am still pressing the green button. He gives me that raised brow, that toothy smile of his, glaze of a cake in a glass counter, polyurethane all the way. Some people, it’s not enough to smack them. You want everybody to smack them. You wake the family, you sent out the invitations, you catapult the signal flares up over the North Atlantic shipping lanes.

“You see what I’m saying,” he says.

I don’t say a word. I hold up my fist, cable trailing, and stir it in a gentle semi-circle, as if I’d just captured a handful of fireflies and were trying to count them by feel alone.

“You can take your finger off,” he says. “Take your finger off of the button.”

“What for?”

“I just said.”

“But I’m judging the show.”

“But you gotta – here.”

He grabs my fist with both hands. I clench it tighter.

“You gotta…” He tries to pry my thumb loose, but I’m a ballplayer. I do push-ups on my fingertips.

“No. Just let me…” Poor Clippy. The people look up. He’s got one hand around my wrist and the other clawing away at the thumb and they’re all thinking… what? Hillbilly manicure? Finger puppet of the damned? He doesn’t even notice the rest of me now, so intent is he on the thumb. And not a one of us – unless you call rhythmic grunting a conversational gambit – uttering a word.

Even the air itself falls silent. The set hums like a tuning fork. A test pattern pops up on the screen: chief in a headdress smack in the crosshairs of some kind of giant rifle scope, all these other targets sprinkled out around him like consolation prizes. I hear the others creaking up out of their seats, a gasp or two, a woman’s voice in the shape of an oh -– but not a word, a real word anywhere, as if the whole thing’s taking place in this gap between the words, the regular words we use to talk about regular things.

Fist in a bowl of cake batter is what it feels like, Clippy’s fat hands clamped around mine, the hinge of the elbow that hooks me up under the chin, barrel of a belly that presses up into the curve of my spine, bends me like a bow, the both of us twisty-tied up into this little hydraulic mambo.

Like Mama always said – it’s the personal touch that counts, right? And not such a bad-looking guy after all, Clippy, when you get him up close, get a good feel – the brawler’s clinch, the sandpaper kiss – for that face of his, the real one I mean, handsome in a balloonish sort of way, like they took the master and packed it up for shipping and what we got now is the batting – not Elvis the whippet but Elvis at the end, you know, spatula-ed up into that white buckskin jumpsuit with the Liberace tassels and the too-late-by-a-decade Beatle cut. Crisco Elvis.

And like Elvis, alas, calling out to the crowd from under that rhythmic kiloton of ballistic gel, Clippy calls out to me as I burrow my way through the folds of his neck, as I acupressure his spleen with the blade of my elbow, chisel my way up under the buttons of his perma-press blazer and into his secret self, the real Clippy, the cat hair stuck to the tie-clip, the bourbon on the breath, the pierced ear that waits, at the end of the day, for the talisman – paper clip? Golf tee? Cameo singlet of Evel Knievel? – to appear. Clippy, oh Clippy, who waddles home to dream… what? A Zeppelin? A sub? A house in a cloud, a house in a tree, an ancient cedar maybe, tall as a tower, high above a bay where the condor wheels and the water breaks?

The set – the whole room now – flickers like a damp cigar. Tall Guy tries to shuck him loose. And still I keep my fingers locked on the green. The wires rip and the chair pitches over, but to me it’s all about the hand. I think of this cheesy King Kong I saw as a kid. Not the one thumping his chest and smacking fighter planes upside the Empire State Building, no, but a poor man’s Kong, bobbed up one Saturday out of that weekly stew of black and white B-movie chillers on Channel 9’s “Theatre X” – The Deadly Shrew, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Hand Of… something. Doom maybe. Crazy flick about a chopped-off hand crawling through a mansion turning doorknobs and playing Mozart on the baby grand and throttling all the houseguests. Awesome pics. Every last one. But Son of Kong is the one I’m talking about. Cheap sets. Goofy special effects. And actors you never heard of even, stars who, as the credits unroll, as their fame evaporates in the California sun, veer off into cigarette commercials and puppet theater and Fresno real estate brokerages. But still. In this movie Kong, he never gets off the island, but you still get the girl in the slinky dress, kind of satinish-white, some kind of haute couture jungle jammies, you know, with the nipple-sharp darts, and Kong’s got a hold of her at the end as the island – I don’t remember why, volcano or something – sinks into the sea. He holds her up in his hand, up over his head as the rest of him disappears under the water. Nothing left now but the giant hand with the pretty girl inside it. Hero comes by in a rowboat to rescue her, but it’s Kong, he’s the hero, the dopey ape. He’s drowning but still, still he manages to save her.

Not that I’m exactly thinking all this in the two-point-five seconds it takes Clippy to jujutsu me over his shoulder and into the drywall, but it’s in there somehow, click-snap, like all at once.

Anyway. That’s how it ends. Ka-boom. Clippy all bulldozed up into a heap at the foot of the TV, me in a tangle of wires between the seats, and Tall Guy standing over us, King of the Hill. He’s ripped the collar clean off of Clippy’s shirt and tossed it back into his face. Spray of papers everywhere as the whole gang – even the oldsters – push through the debris to reach me.

“What the hell – ”

“My God – ”

“He just…”

“What happened?”

“I saw the guy –”

I break in before they get a chance to turn on Clippy. “It was my fault. I called him a name.”

“Don’t touch me” is all that Clippy says. Sits. Just – slick as a newborn – sits there. Puffy. Scratched. Waxy with sweat and, over and over again, and under his breath don’t touch me, don’t touch me as he blinks out at… well, at nothing. At a screenfull of snow.

Tall Guy hauls me up onto my feet, up into that stubble of his, that slab of burnt toast you scrape the cinders off with a knife. “Get your stuff,” is all he says.

I grab my backpack. Gather the jacket, the shreds of the jacket, everything but the swatch of rawhide welded to Clippy’s fist.

“This way,” he says, says he… and I… hey, what can I say? I follow him. Sometimes you need a straight-line kind of guy – shortest route through a triple half-hitch is the blade of a hatchet… packet of C4 in the fishing tackle… Mr. Padlock, meet Mr. Twelve-Gauge. Even the tattoo on his collarbone says it: an imitation of a wound, a single cut in a cross-hatch black but stippled red in the center, bright as a strawberry, as if the wound were still fresh, the knife still zinging through the air.

I’m thinking if somebody stops us we say… what? That man on the floor over there, clipboard all smacked upside his head, shoe sprung loose, spritz of hair stuck to the glowing screen? Never seen him before. But nobody says a word. We’re out the door without a backward glance. And I’m so busy lugging my backpack, lacing my boot, hop-scotching down the hall to even register how we finally got there, inside the cage, rattling down the freight elevator, striking out across the lobby, out the door, onto the sidewalk.

Not till we hit the curb do I notice my leg blazing up, my fist clenched, my body cantering from side to side. A sprained ankle. We press on through the crowd. No sign of a posse. The usual pillage: Black Rock booming straight up as the people pour out the base, out from under the black facade, out across the granite steps in every direction at once, like it’s a single thing, like it’s a pepper shaker sprung a leak.

I turn back to say something – Adios, CompadreSemper FiVeni, Vidi, Vici… Something rough, bluff, some little sliver of freeze-dried, whiskey-fied, testoster-ized wit to nail down my credentials as a tough guy, but Tall Guy? Pfft. Gone. Back into the gene pool.

The crowd bulldozes me onward. I feel a tightness in my right forearm, the tendons wrench, the burn like a bootlace in a cinch. I look down at my fist. I step out of the crush and into this niche between the buildings. Tree and a trashcan is all. Vest-pocket park. What do you do when your own body won’t obey you? You pry open the fist with the free hand, crowbar up under the fingers to break the seal. And then I remember the reason for the fist. And then my hand cracks open and there it is, embedded in my palm, lozenge the size of a quarter, smooth as Mentos, not a groove or a hook or a loop to link it to anything other than itself: the green button.

Down through the branches the sunlight splinters, strikes me on the back of the hand. I flip the button, somersault it over and over again between my thumb and my fingers. It’s like a wind that fills a kite, what happens next, the smile that rises up inside me. I picture the batch of us there back in the room again, all of us together again, picture after picture, like when you shake a snow globe and all the flakes that fall, the faces in a flurry, and a flake is what I am, yes, but also and at the same time, the sky through which the flake falls. I shake the sky. I fall through the sky that I shake, and here, and as I fall, inside of these snapshots in a shower, sharp like a slideshow is what they are, helter-skelter like an avalanche, like you chunk a rock at a flock of pigeons and they blast up into the air but, inside of a blink, they get this crazy impulse to order, to compose themselves in flight – sift the avalanche, sort the confetti as it falls.

I see Clippy and me sumo wrestling there in the dark. Tall Guy with a hammer-lock on Clippy’s head, the bone of his shoulder in my face, the three of us all muscled up into this monkey’s knuckle of denim studs and splintered wood and shredded polyester. Elbows. Kneecaps. Baby fat. Gristle. Our breathing all braided together here as if it were a single sound, the single note from out the bigger score, the billions all bubble-wrapped round and round the globe, the millions in the city, the dozen here tumbling by. I see Bumper Hubby as he stretches out a pudgy arm to shield his pudgy wife, see them speckled in a glow of static, see the streak of white across her face where the Ray-Bans end and her cheeks have been – like a pair of Easter eggs dipped in red dye just up to the halfway mark – burnt by the sun. I close my eyes and I see them. Bumper He and Bumper She and that old pastry of a lady beside behind them with her glazed hair and the blown glass eyebrows and the pancakey orange cheeks. Who, I ask, will be true to her? The brittle-as-a-dragonfly fingers and the wilting lily tilt of the neck but there – still burning there, and bright as the day she kissed her first boyfriend – the pepper-red of the lips? That would be me. I will be true. True. And true to Pedigree with her bobbed hair dyed and sprayed a color not seen in nature – sunset on Mars maybe, halo slowly hardening to a helmet –Pedigree who wonders if the Geiger Counter still clicks when she walks by, if the men still burn to her touch. Yes I say to her, and yes I say to the bent hands reaching out to pull me up into the light, yes to the heave and the shudder of the body below, to Tall Guy, to Red-face, to Clippy in all his secret glory, to the out-of-towner crew with the fluorescent culottes and tote bags and fanny packs blown as if at random into a single bouquet, to the mother with the Gerber Peach Puree stippled up the front of her cotton shirt, gold on black in a tiny arc, like the hash marks on the face of a clock and yes, yes, even yes to the baby she holds in the sling, the baby who – as fiercely as I grip the green button – grips the cloth that binds him, and squirms in his cocoon and, with open mouth but not a sound, sweeps it all, and all of us with it, into his widening eyes.

In the Middle of the Night
by Catey Miller

Honorable Mention, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Special Mention 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize

Twenty-one days ago, exactly one month before Layla and I were set to move to different states for different colleges, I was lying on the couch in Layla’s family’s den, pretending to be asleep while she and her mom, Ellen, had a loud fight. The den was dark and Scrubs was on Netflix in the background and Layla and Ellen were shouting at each other about something I don’t remember. I kept pretending to be asleep until the fight ended and Layla moved back onto the couch, at which point I sat up and let her curl her feet up on my thighs and didn’t touch her very ticklish toes while she cried and then fell asleep and I watched more Scrubs. Sometime around midnight, Ellen put her hand on my head as she walked behind the couch and said, “Danielle, if you’re falling asleep, you can stay.” I didn’t want to stay. I said I would rather sleep in my own bed, but thanks. Ellen helped me tuck a blanket around Layla. She told me to please be careful out there and I nodded and waved and didn’t think to hug her goodbye. I made it home fine.

Twenty days ago, Ellen was walking to her car in the Food Lion parking lot, and the driver of the F-350 didn’t see her. It was an accident. I can picture Ellen with her purple reusable shopping bags slung over her shoulders, talking to Layla’s dad on the phone about dinner, reaching for the remote to unlock her car. I can’t picture Layla and her dad and her brother eating dinner that night.

Seventeen days ago there was a service, and my parents cried, and Layla’s dad and her little brother cried. I didn’t talk to Layla at the service, but I held her hand when we circled back to look into the casket again after everyone else had, my second time and her third time. Layla’s mom’s nails were still painted a matte purple called “Black Cherry Chutney,” which we’d picked out for her even though she said it was too dark for her. The polish had chipped on two fingers on her right hand, and this was the part of her that looked the most wrong to me, and I couldn’t remember if I’d painted her right hand or if Layla had. I wondered if her toenails were still painted, too. I wondered if the polish would ever chip if it stayed in her socks in her shoes in the box in the ground. Toenail polish lasts forever.

I’ve been leaving my phone volume turned up overnight, just in case. The first time the phone rang, I answered, “Hello? L?” She hung up. The second time, and the times since, I just slid the green bar, was just there. Sometimes there’s crying, sometimes just the white noise hiss of being connected. Tonight, ten minutes ago, twenty days since I last saw her, there were words. “I’m picking you up.”

Layla is just rounding the cul-de-sac to loop back to my driveway when I slip out the front door. I take quick short steps to the end of the driveway, skimming my fingers along the side of my mom’s burgundy Wrangler as I pass it. The Jeep always looks like some hulking creature in the darkness, its taillights glinting the wrong colors in the bright moonlight. I pat its bumper as I go by.

Layla has the windows rolled down so when she comes to a stop on the road a foot in front of me, I can hear her music. And it’s not her mix CD of songs about girls with L-names—“Lola” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Laura” times three, but not “Layla,” because she hates that it’s a song written about someone else’s wife; “Clapton is such an asshole,” she says, “couldn’t he have just waited for the divorce to write about me?” Clapton notwithstanding, that mix is Layla’s comfort food, and hearing jazz music in its place stops me for a second.

Then I take the last few steps to the car and gently lower the duffel bag I’m carrying onto the floorboard—the half-empty bottle of whiskey swishes against the tempo of the trumpet or whatever is hissing out of the speakers—and fold myself into the car after it. Layla drives the Mazda Miata now, the one her mom was walking to, and it’s so small, so low to the ground and confining. Layla has been badly claustrophobic since I’ve known her, but it doesn’t seem to bother her now.

“Hi,” Layla says when we’re off my street, zipping past stop signs and speed limit markers in the maze of the development my family lives in.

My line is How’s it going, but she’s driving too fast and her fingers are tight on the steering wheel and her hair is tight in her ponytail, and I don’t say anything until we’re out of Sunrise Echoes, out on a main road with traffic lights and shadowy clumps of trees that could be shielding cop cars, and Layla slows to five over. Her fingernails are painted bright yellow, thick and gloopy like she’s been painting over cracks. Mine are dark purple and chipping badly and I hide them under my thighs. Yellow is, I guess, as far from purple as you can get.

It’s too late for my opener now, so I try, “Where we headed?” even though I know we’re headed east, for the ocean, and she knows I know so she doesn’t respond. We always said growing up that it was the best place to be on a hot summer night, said it must be hard to be bored or lonely or sad with the moon on the water; it seemed too perfect. Our parents wouldn’t ever let us go.

It’s just a few minutes to the ocean from my house. My family lives closer than Layla and her dad and her brother, and I wonder if she’s been coming without me, making the longer drive alone all those nights. The hiss of bedroom background noise could’ve been waves, maybe. I wonder if every night she’s been listening to jazz—which is/was a favorite of her parent/s—and what happened to the L-name girls. A saxophonist takes a solo and Layla’s knuckles are popping up against the steering wheel and she hasn’t said anything yet but I know soon she’ll need me to listen, maybe to talk, and I suddenly, selfishly wish I could just nod off in the front seat, my foot rolling the whiskey from above my parents’ fridge back and forth on the floorboard.

But then we’re there and she’s launching herself out of the car, drawing in deep lungfuls of salt air, and I wonder if maybe the claustrophobia didn’t go away after all. It’s always hard to know with Layla, has been since fourth grade, when she was the only one of us who didn’t love horses but still wanted to be involved in all our conversations about them. I keep thinking it will get easier and it keeps going the other way, especially since graduation, and since Ellen.

It occurs to me, listening to Layla get her breathing under control, that maybe now is when it starts to get easier. Maybe if I can understand the shape of her grief I can finally understand her. And then it occurs to me how stupid that is, how things can only get harder from here, and what a bad friend I am to want something good—for me—to come out of this. What a bad person.

“Come on, Dani!” Layla’s voice is high and too loud. She half-walks-half-dances away from me, toward the water, becoming a silhouette. I flick the Miata’s headlights on, grab the duffel, and pocket the keys before I climb out of the car and lock the doors behind us. Then I jog after Layla, half-dancing toward the water, spotlit by the headlights. It smells clearer here at night than during the day, or more private, the salt in the air getting through to us better in the absence of sunscreen and snacks and so many bodies.

“My mom loved it here,” she shouts at me over the ocean spray, even though we’re not close enough to the water yet for it to drown her out.

The last time we all came here together, my parents and Layla’s family, Ellen wore tennis shoes and jogging shorts and a scowl, and she dragged my mom, in a one-piece, on a half-mile walk with her toward the pier. When my mom, chafing and irritated, begged off to play with Layla and me and the others in the water, Layla’s mom kept walking the same loop to the pier and back, arms pumping, stopping every few laps to ask if anyone wanted to join her, and no one did, and I feel a little bad about it now but then I only felt bad that she wouldn’t stop asking. It didn’t seem like she loved it here at all, but that she came here as an obligation.

But I watch Layla kick off her sandals and run in the direction of the pier, her arms spread wide and her head tipped back, and I let the memory she’s creating replace the one I have. Ellen loved it here. We were part of that. I run after Layla and we’re doing what she would’ve wanted us to do, what she would’ve wanted, and it’s an honoring thing, not a grieving thing.

It feels like a grieving thing again when we walk back to the duffle. Layla, like she can sense the mood shifting, starts doing her jerky dance-walk again, sort of a skipping motion that I can’t picture her doing when she’s by herself.

“Hang on,” she says, and darts away toward the parking lot before I can react. I watch her vanish into the darkness the closer she gets to the car, the headlights blinding me more than illuminating her. I have a brief and horrible vision of her going, getting back in the Miata and peeling out, letting me think she was letting me join her and then leaving me out as punishment for something, like maybe I should have called her before tonight, maybe I should have been the one to reach out and say let’s be sad together. But she wouldn’t. She won’t. And then the headlights go off and I’m left blinking in the dark, and suddenly I feel the bulk of her car keys in my pocket and I feel like an idiot.

I reach blindly for the duffel and wish I’d had the presence of mind to shake out the blanket I grabbed from our hall closet before she turned off the lights. The sliding thuds of her bare feet running back toward me in the loose sand make me feel more relieved than I try to let on. I take the car keys out of my pocket and offer them to her when she’s closer, but she waves me off, so I put them back.

“Look up, Dani,” she says, plucking at the back of my T-shirt. “Can’t you see them so much better?”

She must mean the stars because I can, she’s right. I also think the ocean sounds louder, somehow, like the Mazda’s lights were muting the roar of the waves. It’s like we always thought it would be, dark and bright all at once and left here just for us.

We haven’t watched Disney movies together in years, but suddenly I’m looking at the stars and thinking of The Lion King and wanting to ask Layla what she thinks about that, about souls in the night sky like Mufasa, if her mom is one of those big balls of gas and we’re looking up at her light.

But then Layla is sitting on the blanket and reaching for the whiskey in the bag and I’m glad the moment has passed. Though I wish now, out of nowhere, that we’d kept up the Disney movie night tradition from middle school. I can’t tell if it’s a real wish or if it will be gone in the morning.

“It’s so empty,” she says. She swings the bottle around by its neck. “How much did you have before I got to your place?” she asks, teasing, as she unscrews the cap.

I make a pfft noise because I’m not sure if we’re allowed to laugh yet. “Nah, this is just my mom’s favorite.”

“Oh.” She pauses with the bottle an inch from her lips.

“No, that’s not—I mean, that’s why there’s not much left. But no, like, it’s fine. I brought it for you. For us to share.”

She takes a quick sip, or holds the bottle to her mouth long enough for me to believe she did, and passes it back.

While I’m sipping, Layla rolls off of the blanket and onto the sand beside it and spreads herself like she’s going to make an angel. This her mother definitely wouldn’t have done. But Layla looks right at home, squirming a little so that the sand slides and whispers under her moving shoulders. She curls her fingers around fistfuls of sand and tosses them up, does it again, does it again, makes a sound that’s almost a laugh. Her laugh in all its variations sounds like her dad’s, and her round brown eyes are his, and she and her brother both have their dad’s thick curly hair.

“Have you talked to your roommate yet?” I ask.

It takes a while before she answers. “For school, you mean,” she says.

“Yeah. Mine Facebooked me this week to ask what I could bring for the room. She wanted to know about, like, rugs and dishes. Like am I bringing pots and pans. She wants to bring a crock pot.”

“To your tiny dorm room?”

“Yep.”

“She sounds delightful. Good luck.”

“Thanks.”

We go silent for a while. We pass the bottle back and forth. I can’t tell if she’s drinking. I can tell there’s something one of us should be saying now. The waves are loud and the sand is cool and I’m still thinking about The Lion King.

“Didn’t your roomie write you a few weeks ago?” I ask, prodding.

“Yeah. She sent a Facebook message.” Layla’s words come slow, like she has to pull them out one by one from some recess in her brain. “She asked me to bring a TV.”

“More normal than a crock pot. But also kind of assumption-y.”

“Yeah. But I mean, I have one, so.” She tosses up another handful of sand. “Her name’s Lily.”

I hmm sympathetically. There are so many “Lily” songs. Not fair.

Layla sighs like she’s feeling like it’s not fair, too, and I don’t mean to, I’ve been trying to avoid it, but I can’t help it anymore and I spin her feelings—my feelings about what her feelings must be—out in front of me, up at the stars. Layla, left behind by a mother who had grown too smothering sometime in junior or senior year, who didn’t know about the bird tattoo she’d gotten twenty-five days ago, on her eighteenth birthday. A mother she told me she was hoping to re-engage with in just a few months, once we graduated, once she moved three states down and could use the distance as a bridge. Layla, songless by choice; close-to-but-not L-o-l-a Lola, close-to-but-not Billy Joel’s troubled Laura, and so maybe it was just easier to listen to jazz, where you never had to worry about not hearing yourself mentioned.

She interrupts my interior monologue in a faltering voice: “Aren’t you sad, Danielle?”

And everything in me falters. My heart collapses in on itself and my stomach is full of acid. My eyes close against tears that rise fast and make them burn. I wish I’d hugged Ellen goodbye. I wish I’d told my mom I was going out tonight. I am so sad. It is not my sadness.

I inch my left hand into the gap between our bodies, my wrist on the hem of the blanket, and Layla reaches out and grabs it right away, holds it tight, and suddenly I can hear her crying, the wet sniffling sound complementing the rhythm of the ocean in a way that makes me think they’ve synced up before after all.

“I was giving you space,” I say.

Her fingers tighten around mine and I squeeze back, trying not to dig my nails into her skin as much as she’s digging hers into mine, and she scoots across the sand and back onto the blanket. “Too much space,” she says.

“I’m sorry.” I twist so that I’m facing her more and wrap my arms around her, brushing the sand off the back of her shirt while she keeps crying.

She’s saying she’s sorry, too, and she’s saying “I love you,” but I don’t think she’s talking to me. Maybe tomorrow I’ll ask if she wants to watch The Lion King.

I press a hand into Layla’s curly hair and think about how she doesn’t look anything like Ellen and I miss Ellen, who always invited me to stay, who always had blankets ready, who called herself my other mom. I miss her in a way I don’t feel like I have a right to. I hold onto Layla and I miss her, too, and I try but I can’t remember what they were fighting about or why I pretended not to hear.