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We're Passing Through a Paradise.

1

"Why would you leave me now?" Alice said, speaking from her mental bomb crater, completely unrevulcanized by the shock treatments, which as I understood them were supposed to make a victim happy about her situation, or at least not as concerned. "I am so scared," she said.

Henry and I had to help her get dressed in the morning and then we wheeled her out in her grandfather's old wicker wheelchair to Henry's back dock patio and sat looking out across the canal at the swamp and drank coffee together. "Do I know you boys?" she said and grinned. Did I say unchanged? She wasn't happified, you couldn't say that, but she had moments now of fleeting ebullience. Waking, she looked at her face, the beautiful square, chafed, Saxonette face I had loved all my life, and it surprised and delighted her. Just for a second. I saw it in her eyes, the delight, the monkey look of wonder and appeal, the old primitive entrancement, Eve catching a glimpse of her looks in the stream, some lost humanoid way back in Africa gazing at the reflection that would haunt all the rest of us for time to come.

She looked, grinned, yes, and fell back into the welter of lostness that had overtaken her. A troubled expression came over her and this was what she carried into the day. In the kitchen she'd ask us to stop the chair so she could look around. She was fascinated by the edges of things, by counters, tabletops, and shelves. Drop-offs, she called them. "My mind's like an orange that's rolled off a table," she said. She looked at me and her eyes were yellow with forsakenness. "I've been squished by the fall," she said.

I half-regretted not letting her stay in the hospital, which would have made the doctors happy, but I wasn't going to let them whack her another time with their treatments. I never could stop fiddling with her, with the situation, and this time, scared stiff by the look of dumbfounded desolation in her face, I had to act. Yet now, concussed, bewildered, reaching for a modus, for a mango, she seemed half-formed, or half-unformed, something being driven, like a therianthrope, back to its womb. No Mrs. Lazarus, but inchoate Baby Nell instead, half-teased into the light, besotted and oddly vain, offering small presents to us such as pins and buttons she'd picked up on her journey in from outer space.

"Where will you go?" she said, looking at me from her cocoon of blankets.

"I'll be back in two days."

"But from where?"

"You see this canal?" Henry said. "This water out here?"

She looked at it.

"Billy's going to follow it down a ways to check on something. Then after a while he'll be back. All you have to do is watch the water and you'll stay connected to him. He's down on it, just a few miles away."

She cocked her head at Henry. "Do you think I'm an idiot? I would simply rather Billy stay here."

"Me too," I said. "But I have to go for a job."

No longer myself, but a reflection of the same misalignment, underdone, too, interstitial and without issue, something dribbling out of me, some soul evacuation going on despite everything I tried, I gazed at her, filled with longing. I didn't have what it took to take care of her--that's what the doctor said.

For various placatory and benumbing drugs they had given her scripts, which I had filled. I tried each one; some did nothing and some slammed me against the bulkhead, picked me up and sat me down to a pleasant mental repast. These I split with her, but she at first wanted none of them. "I would stay off drugs myself," Henry said. "But that's just me."

"I don't know how to advise you," I said.

"Just leave them there on the table," she said. "And we'll see what happens."

There was a lot of screaming and crying on Rando. My part was to get this on paper, to listen and write a story about how it took you when your sixteen-year-old daughter was torn to pieces by a fish. The old bridge, the one replaced after the hurricane but still used on the sly, had given way under some local cocochitas who were using it for a party, sending half a dozen automobiles into the channel. This really didn't at first raze most of the fallen, except for the ones hurt in the tumble, but it became a horror when they were attacked by sharks. Six died and nine others were ripped up by teeth. Ike wanted me to go down and interview the relatives of the dead and mutilated for the paper. Since he was the one who got Alice released from the hospital I couldn't say no. There were quite a few crazed folks on hand. Some sat mute, staring into the back of the chair across the room. Others joked and cracked out an irrepressible and frightening laughter. Some argued about it as if they might come up with a line of reasoning that would reverse everything. Others raged. A few wept in darkened rooms, refusing food or comfort. Some huddled with lawyers. Others got busy, Florence Nightingale style, rushing from bed to bed. Still others were philosophical. A few were religious. A couple appeared unfazed. One man, a finish carpenter, seemed not to mind at all, right up until the moment he whipped out a case knife and slashed himself across the forearm.

The survivors I was most interested in were the ones who reminded me of Alice. A wild and murderous-tongued mother whose child had been eaten down to rib cage and pelvis, who screamed at the police and the minister, who with a hammer smashed the windshield of the patrol car and called the minister's wife a lying cunt--her I was drawn to. And the snappish, keen, rancorous father of another victim, who stood up at the memorial service and cursed everyone whose children were still living. I got in a brief, choppy fistfight with a man who stopped me in the street to berate me for feeding off corpses (human shark). He didn't mean anything by the punches, I could see that; I myself had no animosity toward him. I say I had none, but for a few seconds--the fight was interrupted by the photographer accompanying me--I was caught in it, half-transformed by the physicality, by its proximateness to what I experienced with Alice. As I loomed above him, my fist drawn back, I wanted to drive my knuckles through his skull. I called her immediately afterwards and told her about it, but she was still snowed in by her ordeal.

"Have you taken any of the drugs?" I said.

She said she didn't know. "Maybe I have, but how can I be sure? Do you notice an effect?"

Unable to remember much she had begun to make things up. Her stepmother was trying to make amends, she said. "I wouldn't let her in the house." I knew this would never happen, and confirmed it with Henry. She told me she was about to take a trip. She wanted to see the blue waterfalls of Virginia, as she put it. "I feel as if a hurricane has soaked me," she said. "I'm looking for the bright spot." Even as she made things up, devised complicated, impossible scenarios that took her mind down twisting roads through a wildwood of importunity and confusion, she was troubled, like someone from an archaic country, by thoughts of the simple life she'd lost. The Land of Wooden Heads, she called the old world. "I haunt the borders of it," she said.

I pictured her halloing across the marshes of her degradation, all that.

"You've got to do something about this," she said.

I called Ike and told him I was getting nowhere.

"You're doing fine," he said. "The material is just great. The stuff from the morgue is so ghoulish and sensitive you'll probably win a prize."

"They're going to charge me for breaking and entering. I wasn't even looking for that trap."

"The part about being able to see all the way through the girl's chest, see her heart--what did you say?--still as a russet potato, yeah--that was striking. And the piece about the men going out in a boat hunting sharks with Uzis--I loved that. Murdering fish, you said, extracting revenge from sea trout and mackerel, blasting the jellyfish--you got a touch, my friend."

"Touched--yeah. I'm lonesome, Ike."

"How can you be lonesome--you hadn't even left the state. Why didn't you bring Allie with you? How's she doing by the way?"

I hung up. When I turned around the fellow who'd cut himself with a knife was waiting for me, the carpenter.

He flashed his sling and said, "What's this about the morgue?"

"That was my editor. He wants some more hard news."

"You feed off this, don't you. People like you."

I was the complaint department, I knew that. One of them. "You want to get a drink?" I said.

"Yeah, sure."

We went over to Blinky's, a small fishing camp and barroom on the Gulf side, and drank a few. In the blue and red lights of the bar, composed by alcohol, the whole thing seemed to have a deep and familiar meaning, a meaning I could almost but not quite put my finger on. Beyond the big plate-glass back window the lights of channel buoys swayed in the tide. A breeze skidded over the surface, turning up whitecaps as if it were sowing them. The moon was out, a scoured, flimsy thing. It was a crisp, cold night in the Keys, weather you would remember in the way one remembered things that only happened once, incisively, long ago. A way of being I had forgotten came back to me. I knew I fit in this set of circumstances, this weather and place, and even the situation, among these grieving folk and their sundered dead, knew it in the sad and confidential manner you knew someone you loved never really loved you the way she said she did, just something you brush against once in a while without engaging, but never quite get used to.

"Yeah," the carpenter said (I mentioned this). "Me too. I don't know why I feel that way--and it scares me."

"Why'd you cut yourself?"

"There's a long explanation and a short one."

"Give me them both."

"I couldn't prevent it--that's the short one."

"What's the long one."

"Solace."

"That's shorter."

"What's behind it's not."

"Yeah?"

He tried to tell me, but he couldn't. There were a hundred reasons, motives, cul-de-sacs of the spirit stuffed with argumentia, sad insights, and truths like carcasses beside the road, and every one fit, every little notion about how it took his mind off things, or even the one about how his daughter was a cutter, too, or his wife, her look, the way she stared at him as if he was an idiot, but none of them put the cap on anything. Even here, down among the caskets, things weren't clear. As we talked people came and went, townspeople with their brains half-murdered, mothers and fathers, close relatives, homefolk already striking at the snakeheads of bitterness, already set up now for a lifetime of the willies, inductees into the fraternity of those who slept with the light on, the midnight shiverers, tremblers, the chokers and those who yelled at the dark, the execrators and the cowed, the indifferent and the falsely gay, each with his or her take on the tragedy, each with some expressed or unexpressed conclusion or perception, some at-last-realized design scrawled on a napkin and stuffed into back pocket or purse, a meaning to pull out later in the privacy of one's own dereliction, to read over, like a poem composed under the influence of heavy drugs, a missive to truth and hope, perused in the yellow of bedside lamplight or sitting on the toilet at 3 a.m., the purity of it blurring even as the words stopped making sense. Just local folk, that is, wandering by, and strangers, and tourists caught in the wild fancy of frost in the Keys.

Tears, yes, the carpenter mentioned those, the noncathartic strain. Sweats. Shameful thoughts. Alice had showed up for a psychiatrist appointment, late in the workday, intake variety, and two hours later the doctor himself had driven her to the hospital. The carpenter's name was Burl, but he asked me to call him Allen. Alice had attempted to check in under a false name, but this not being the 1800s it didn't work. The doctor said aside from that she was very docile. Abashed was the word he used, a word Alice and I sometimes employed. I could picture her, which I hated doing, false witnesser that I was, striding along, down a busy corridor, jaw trimly set, like a sail, fingers lightly poking at her own flesh, not quite stopping the leaks, the seeps of terror and chagrin, each step an erasure of hope and personality, each breath an irremedial loss, eyes snagging on nothing that could save her, one more fool confounded by a turn of phrase, a yes, a phone call, a spaz in the blood that made her wonder about something or recall it, a spot of discharge on her nightgown, a scent at the window, bird in the poinciana squeaking out her name, you couldn't tell, always something, a mistake made, unavoidable--I didn't want to talk about what was bugging her, which had caused another fight--now this hospital, redemption through diminishment, a rebushing of the spirit, restack, hope recused and replaced by a simplitude of affect, disaster converted into change for a Coke, a new design applied to the old matrix now so worn and crumbling, thoughts like smoke drifting in a stairwell, something else you can't remember, of no moment now, that was once so germane. In my mind, talking to the carpenter, I watched her stop and turn to ask for something, and give up on it.

"Exhausted--sad--calm," the fellow said, Burl, coming to the end of his story, "like what you get when you see what's really going on."

"What is that?"

"What's going on?"

"Yeah."

"There's no help for it."

"For what?"

"That's what's going on. This"--he lifted his cut arm in a vague, birdlike way--"all this. Dead children. There's no help for it." "That's because you never found drugs," I said.

I ordered a plate of scrambled eggs, got up and went to the restroom, put a dollar's worth of quarters in the condom machine, pulled a random handle, and pocketed what came out without looking at it. In the mirror a man with a haggard, alarmed face looked back at me. "Buck up, Buster," he said. I opened the window and climbed out onto the deck--how many times in my life had I done this--went to the rail and looked down the channel. The bridge, the remains of it, a pulpy section of undigested roadway, slanted down, held by steel rods that looked like veins, shreds, a mass dark and without form, the whole confabulation nothing but the sea's upchuck. A chill sank in at my throat, the dead, cold hand of a loved one--somebody's loved one--pressing against me. I shuddered and worked my fists, staring down-channel, not really looking for anything, letting whatever was out there poke its head up if it wanted to, a little drama I tried to keep going at moments like this, as if to give the incident meaning. As always, once again, nothing appeared.

From the pay phone at a corner of the dock--skittering over to it--I called Henry for an Alice update. "She's maintaining the pace," he said.

"Ike's got me on a series," I said. "Which is why I'm still here."

"She has this tremor that comes and goes."

"That's because they whanged her in the head."

"She says it gives her style."

"I like tremors well enough. But what if it's permanent?"

"She wonders about that, too."

"Where is she right now?"

"Out on the dock."

"In this cold?"

"She likes it. She's wrapped in blankets sitting in a beach chair with her feet propped on the rail. She wants to see if the canal will freeze."

"Now we're talking about her in this ridiculous, proprietary fashion."

"Pretty soon you'll be asking about her bowel movements."

"How're they holding, by the way?"

"Steady."

Off through the slant of plate glass the carpenter dipped a fork into my scrambled eggs and took a bite.

"What do you thinks going on in her head?"

"She's piecing things together."

"What things?"

"I expect most of it."

"I wake up brooding on the situation, in mid-brood. It infuriates me."

"She'll be all right I think."

She liked to sit in the shed while he worked on a sculpture, he said. She liked being in the stone dust and the sound of hammering. She liked the chisel work, the fine scraping, the whole process. "She falls asleep sometimes. She curls up in the big wheelbarrow and nods right off."

"She looks tormented when she sleeps."

"She always has."

"Really? I didn't notice it when we were children."

The carpenter finished the eggs and began working on the side of toast, in long strokes elaborately buttering a slice. Choose life, the Bible said, in Deuteronomy. I didn't guess it really mattered how you did that. In a minute the carpenter, Burl or Allen, looked up and saw me and then, convivially, he motioned for me to come in, like a host, indicating the tattered breakfast. I gave him a little wave, the copy of a wave Alice had used once, hand right up beside her head, from a ship railing, and left the premises.

Willie J. and his wife, Munch, and the baby came up from Key West to keep me company and then Munch and the baby drove up to Miami to stay with Alice. Willie walked around with me, telling people to be calm. "I never saw so many folks so upset," he said, though to me, on the outside at least, it wasn't so much they were upset as the tragedy had thrown the rhythm off in some harsh yet strangely subtle way. It made people leave a conversation a little early, or start talking too soon, or mention something they wouldn't usually, or forget what they intended to say and have to come back for it, or they would buy things they didn't really want, or refuse a courtesy and then over-apologize, or someone would sit in his car in a parking space just a few minutes too long so whoever was in the shop opposite might begin to wonder what was wrong, though truth was he already knew and had himself for a moment forgotten, and even policemen would lose their places temporarily in the tickets they were writing, or employees go a little slower, or a little faster, women might stumble and catch themselves against their husbands' sleeves, husbands who for the first time in their lives had begun to daydream about vacations in a foreign country, and children catch themselves yelling, or running faster than they were used to, small things usually, as if the invaders who'd taken over their bodies had nothing so much in mind as slight adjustments, little tinkering bits that only a native, returning maybe from a coma or a long-distance trip, might notice. Otherwise life rolled on, it seemed. "God bless you," Willie said over and over, as if this were a password he had figured out and used to make a way for himself. "It's going to be all right," he'd tell a waiter or grocery clerk or passerby, patting his hand if he could reach it, putting an arm around the fellow's shoulder.

"I'm just acting like this to keep from going to pieces," he said when I asked him about it.

I was in a vague area, pondering things, attempting to make up my mind about something that kept eluding me, and was unable to give him any useful suggestions.

"It's the way you put it that matters," he said when I tried to explain this, "not what you say."

I thought my state was a sympathetic reaction to Alice's predicament. Maybe to life's, Willie said.

When I called Ike again he said he had expected me back at the end of last week. I couldn't remember. I was staying in a hotel above a restaurant off Main Street--a yellow building that caught the dawn light full in the face---and time had slipped away from me. I rolled out of bed--some morning: the next morning--and retired to a chair where I spent a few minutes gazing out to sea, watching a tanker crawl up the globe. A couple of slim boats skittered along, probably ferrying refugees up from Haiti or Cuba. The ocean was bright pale polished turquoise and untroubled by anything it had ever done. In the other bed Willie J. snored away, riding the fumes of alcohol and disappointment. The couple next door, two women driven down from Detroit for the heat, began their early grousing. The cold had lingered, in itself an odd development. Cold down here usually evaporated like the dew and was lost to memory. It took a genius of empathy to get what people were talking about when they mentioned snow or ice or chilly, gray days, even if you had only come from the blustery north last week.

I got out of the chair eventually, hungry and tired enough to need a little exercise, concerned about the noise of the surf rattling pebbles on the beach, about my soul, or something like that, touching my face as I descended the stairs, adjusting it, tapping my temple lightly to give warning to the rats inside, something terribly sad about the customers this morning, the battered wives and unctuous husbands, the proprietress, Maureen, yawning to reveal her blackened back teeth; I wanted some pancakes. There were none to be had so I ate something else, eggs or bacon, that I lost track of while I was still at the table. Maybe my mind was going. This didn't bother me at the moment, but I knew soon enough it'd scare me to death. I called again to the paper and Ike said I had turned a story in last night, flown like pixie dust over the wire. "What was it?"

"A feature about those guys who shot the fish."

I barely remembered it. "I think I'm coming down with something."

He told me to come home and I said I would, but first Willie and I took a taxi out to see friends and buy some oranges for Alice. Why would I buy oranges to take to Florida? Because it was only down here that you could get the special, tiny Key orange, a compact nugget of sweetness that grew only in a small grove owned by Havermier Hughes, a fellow who had been a friend of my grandfather in the old days when they both conspired to make a killing from the new entrepreneurial paradise of South Florida. They were of course hornswaggled by much quicker and brighter men. Havermier had retreated to the Keys to take over the grove that had belonged to an old West Indian couple who had shepherded it out of the mists of time and he and his wife now sold the oranges as well as a few Key limes from a stand out in front of their house on Pittence Road.

They were both sitting out on the porch when we got out of the taxi. I had forgotten my car, or for the moment forgotten I had one. They were wearing several layers of clothing as the vv said to do in cold weather, all of it summery: a pile of Aloha shirts and pairs of chinos for Mr. H. and flowery frocks stacked one on another for Mrs. H., that sort of thing. They looked like people gone to fat or actors wearing fat suits. The oranges were ruined, they said, since two nights--nights I didn't exactly recall--when the thermometer, H. said, had dipped into the freezing range just long enough to sear through the delicate skins of the famous fruit.

"They are already turning black on the trees," Havermier said. His wife, Mrs. Hughes, glared at me as if it were my fault, a squinty, black-eyed look that carried with it the outrage of her people--as Havermier put it--ex-slaves from Trinidad. I felt as if it were my fault and suddenly, without intending to, began to weep. I passed this off as something in my eye, but Mrs. H. caught it. "Sniveler," she said, got up, and went back in the house.

"Don't worry about her," Havermier said." She doesn't take setbacks well."

"What setbacks?" Willie said. He had missed the first exchange and was staring nervously down the road as if he had left something in the taxi. "How are we going to get back?"

"Who is this?" H. said, knocking his chest with both sets of knuckles. He was skinny and crusty-fleshed and had loosely shaped white hair hanging off his skull in long, disturbed comb-over remnants; he grinned straight at me.

"Jailbird," Mrs. H. said from inside the house.

"How's your wife," H. said.

"Another jailbird," came the ghostly interior voice.

"She's doing fine," I said loudly. "She may take a job playing piano."

"That's wonderful," H. said, scratching at himself through his outfit. "I can barely move around in this regalia," he added.

"That some kind of bee suit?" Willie said.

"Bees? Not in this weather, son."

"Idiots," came the voice from inside.

H. cast a glance back that way. "Would you shut up?" He slapped his hands together. "Let's go for a ride."

The door flung open and Mrs. H. bounded out. "Don't you let him get in a car."

"Now, Mother. These boys don't even have a car."

"It's too cold to be out in the wilderness," Mrs. H. said. She glanced around suspiciously, as if the cold lurked, some icier confederate of it, somewhere nearby.

"I need exercise," H. said.

"Me too," Willie said and took off running down the road. He ran to the intersection--about a block away--and sprinted back while we watched. He came up huffing, coughing, and stumbling. "Whoo, that was good."

"He's as crazy as you are," Mrs. H. said.

In the meantime, Mr. H. had given me a look, a conspiratorial look, and begun to edge out into the yard. "Let's walk," he said.

So we did, prying ourselves away from Mrs. H., who loudly complained and then stamped her foot and banged back into the house. We walked down to the intersection, the crossing of two blank and empty roads, beyond which on all sides, except for the grove, a scrubland of myrtle bushes, sea grape, cactus, and pinchweed stretched away past milky rain ponds and mounds of pocked gray coral; military land, all of it, of no use to anyone but developers and the Air Force. Off to the right the road angled down through scrub pines to the beach.

We walked down the road toward the ocean, walked until we were out of sight of the house. H. pulled himself up and stopped. "Let's have a smoke," he said. None of us smoked, but we stayed there anyway.

"We're not one mile from million dollar homes," Willie said, "and look at this. The true Keys."

The beach was strewn with rusty seaweed and the gritty, scattered mash of tossed-up sea life. Up ahead, a hundred yards down, it faded out, slipped under like a socked foot into the clear, trickily surf.

I walked down the strand and looked out to sea. The water was shallow, shallow for a mile until the dropoff where the blue--the dark blue like a tribal color, like the regime's deep and unalterable symbolic monochromasia--picked up the effort and carried it the rest of the way. Except for a couple of Cubanos working a throw net half a mile back, the world was empty. Yet not empty enough, 'ay cowboy? I was in my solitary voyager, my lonely traveler mode. I'd written a story about the little boy who didn't cry, a brother of one of the victims. Why not? I'd asked him. Why don't you cry? He'd looked at me as if I was a fool. And then I'd written a story about one of the men on the county road gang, a black man with a sweet face whom I saw get knocked down by another convict. These men--these jailbirds--didn't even know about the tragedy. What are you doing? Ike said. I couldn't get it straight myself. I was embarrassed, humiliated, even enraged by all the pain around this little sea haven. Was that it? Everybody's got pain, my black convict said, a man who was hardly more than a boy. You can't help but suffer it. I tried to get the composition people to put this quote in italics, but they wouldn't.

Right now, at this minute in time, I focused on the emptiness before my eyes. It was easy to take like this, from this location, safe on a beach. Yet no matter where I stood, the creep began, creep of insufferable thoughts, the serial blank spaces and shameful insights, the broken resolutions, all that. I sensed Alice slipping away and it was remarkable how this sensation opened a scary gap in my philosophy of life. Under my big poncho I was chilled. I imagined living on a cold, bleak coast. Maybe we should try Maine or the Maritime provinces, get into weather, climate, let it take our minds off the spookiness of being alive. She'd been trying to read a biography of Charlotte Bronte, the same book she was reading before she was hospitalized. A cold and stony life on the north Yorkshire moors. Bleakness addressed by way of art, which did nothing to change the circumstances. Under these circumstances, she had asked me, is there anything that might help? Alice would hate this place, this shabby keyscape. The cold would offend her, and these people would have to be corrected. Yet now, slapped around by modern medicine, there wasn't much she hated. The way out, for her, apparently was not through. This adage was something we quoted to each other, in bed. We believed it the way people who had never done a thing with their lives believed that soon they were going to get down to it. Shock treatment--that was just like her. I was glad I hadn't been in the car she drove through the flower shop window. They would have caught me too. The medical police were on the lookout for cutups like us. Yet ours was a common story, small-time miscreants, refusniks of the minor variety, furtive delinquents slipping off the reservation, but only to the party store next door.

2

When I got back home, after driving up with Willie J. sick in the backseat, stopping regularly for him to almost but never quite throw up, after we sat for two hours at a picnic table outside Spurleen's Emporium in Key Largo while he took a nap and I began a story in my notebook about the day Alice and the other walkabout patients were transported in a van to the Celestial Lanes in Miami, a bowling alley we had gone to pieces in years ago and been tossed out of--Stupid kids, they said--where after she'd drifted through a game in which only the paid attendants kept score, I found her--tipped off by an orderly--and intending to gather her into my arms found myself hanging back, transfixed by her aplomb, by the serenity in her face, a serenity I'd not seen before, but was happy now to see, I thought, and then realized I wasn't because what would come next: Flight? Divorce? What if now she decided to abandon our little composition at the Ducat, and how dispiriting this was, this thought, that I would be prey to such a huge and rapscallionly poverty--sick need, as the doctors might put it--and as I walked past her, unsure how to approach, and she glanced at me with recognition but no acclaim, her eyes assessing me, registering me--the disputatious husband and lover--without craving, needing nothing in particular from me, fixed now, if that was what I sensed among the litter of panic and outrage, the scurrying about, of--what?--some alternate or maybe even more factual and deeply embedded self, the one who was desperately trying, even as I passed into the refreshment area, to figure how to invoke the old clutch and grab; this was so crippling that after beginning the story and purposely miring it in details about Raisinettes and Pepsi without ice, about the light gleaming on the surface of the lanes, all that, all to stave off panic and shame, I closed the notebook and got down on my knees and embraced Willie--who was nothing like me--on the grass, hoping that some of his steadfastness and honesty, and love, I guess you'd call it, would enter me, and it didn't, and I thought, man, it's not going to stop until I suffer all of it, and this thought was like a dark message delivered to me despite everything I'd done not to receive it--what was there to do now?--I got up and we drove on deeper into traffic and into modern life that was only--it was clear--a puppy trying to lick somebody's hand--just like me, I thought--after getting something to eat--waffles for Willie J., pancakes with sugar syrup for me--and then back on the road where eventually we passed the big white cruise ships moored like artificial dreams at the commercial docks, and crossed onto the island where I turned left and, six blocks up, rattled despite the heavy food, came to our viney and flower-bestrewn house, and remembered we weren't living there anymore, that this had been part of the argument--what has happened to us?--that precipitated Alice's flight and her wreck (her detour through the flower shop on 48th Street), and for a moment, for a second, which if I hadn't shouted out would have opened a gap that allowed all the ghoulishness of life to pour through, I was completely lost, until I remembered we were living now at the Ducat, or had been before her hospitalization, and still were if that was what Henry had in fact told me, or Alice was, in our old room still paid for by funds from her nearly depleted trust account, and drove there and discovered she'd checked out--a (new) woman--not to be found in South Beach, or in the Glades at Henry's, or at her sister Senegol's house on Key Biscayne, or even at her stepmother's in the Gables--just gone.

"Well--gone where, Henry?" I said.

"I don't know. She just eased away from the curb. Just started rolling."

Goggles up on his forehead, a streak of white dust on his cheek--he looked as if he had been caught in something.

"Yeah?"

"I think--don't take this the wrong way--I think she left with some fellow."

I let this information drift on the air a moment. "Where were you?"

"I was inside--we were at Joe's--Stone Crab--and she stepped out for a smoke."

"She doesn't smoke."

"Isn't that odd?" he said.

"A fellow?"

"From the ward."

"Somebody she knew?"

"I'm not clear on it."

A chisel of light, of pain, struck my head. I started across the studio, aimed somewhere specific, for a second sure of something, my hand raised--in my mind raised--to strike, but when I reached the door I stopped. Everywhere beyond the room, beyond the dustiness and the clay models draped in plastic sheeting, the stones stacked in the corner and the tools laid out on the long green bench, beyond this place, everything was formless and impossible to know. I stopped. An amazement, a wild, tearing sensation took me. Holes opened, gaps. Maybe this was a turning point. Maybe there were such, moments, crossroads, where it made a difference which way you went. I had never believed in these notions, not much, but maybe now, maybe then, as I looked out at the canal where a fish had just swirled back into the depths, leaving its mark, there had come a moment when I could choose another road. Maybe, but I don't think so. And how could I know?

"Which way did she go?"

Henry, despite himself, laughed. "Which way did she go?" he said, accenting each word evenly. "Man, we are a couple of sad sacks."

I caught it, the joke, turned all the way around, and as if reaching up through a hole filled with seeds, with husks, tried to laugh, too. Partly I did. The western-falling sunlight streamed through the panes of the big French doors. It reached to Henry's feet, clad in dusty sneakers. He was sitting in his blue wicker chair, wearing his white coveralls, holding the bit of a power chisel, turning it in his hands and looking at it, raising it to sight along.

"What is it?" I said.

"She wanted to be by herself, for a while."

"Then what's the guy for?"

It wasn't registering. The information had no substance. This was the only reason, I thought, why I wasn't screaming.

"I don't know--a chauffeur, a chaperone."

"Which guy was he?"

"I couldn't tell--a tall guy, black. I never saw him before." Someone from the ward, a sufferer, someone for whom life had become too unyielding, too momentous or speedy, someone who'd needed a rest. Someone they'd gottten a rope on, for a while.

"Did you know she was going to do it?"

"No. She called."

"From where?"

"Downtown, the Rudnick Pharmacy--where we used to go."

"To say what?"

"Adios."

Now a reappropriation began taking place. The continent, the country, the floodplain of me began to be eaten up, eroded, subsumed. The woods gone swampy, the rivers over their banks, the fields submerged, the populace poling around in flat-bottomed boats. I swayed, hung up in the tree of myself like a raccoon, confounded by the deluge. This occurred almost immediately after, after I stepped outside onto the gallery, into the sunshine, the coolish remnants of it, winter day, a pellucidity in the air that was rainswept and fresh, a chilliness unlike anything you would think of, a displacement that promised in these environs not desolation or an icy, lonely death but rejuvenation, alertness, a fresh awareness--how to put it, I thought, leaning over the rail, looking at the far bank that was tousled with reeds and beyond the bank through the sawgrass and the little hammocks of pines and palms to the swamp, where the old life, unable to resist the encroach of progress, went on as if it didn't matter--how to say it was far too possible--probable--to see too much to get the facts straight. My mind always claimed to know what was up, but it was wrong.

"What's up?" I said. This later, at supper, after Henry had mentioned she told him she was off seeking inspiration, a lie I knew because the escapade had something to do not only with her but with me, with all of us, some gap she sought, some ex-croachment, some warning like a hankie left in a tree to inform the tracker it was too late, the pursued was not leaving a trail, but discarding, jettisoning whatever might slow her down, I was sure of this, ready to embrace despair--such a small step, you'd think it was panting on the doorstep, a dog, dog of despair, ready to lick your hand--and said this, too.

Willie J., at the table out on the screen porch, eating crabmeat salad, looked at me with pity and love. "This always happens," he said. He held the baby on his lap. "I think he likes seafood." He grinned into the child's squinched-up, rapacious face.

"Where were you, Munch?"

Munch, she said, was off with the baby.

"Did you have anything to do with this?"

"I hate to say it"--she extended her hand to me, palm held flat, facing down--"but I'm afraid I did."

The hand was nothing--she'd never thought much of me. Her look now, of tolerance, not compassion, of forbearance--it was an old look, worked up in grade school--was the best I could expect from her.

"How were you in on it?"

"Wait, Billy," Henry said. "I don't think it was like that."

"What do you know? What did you do, Munch?"

"She got sad about the baby."

"Because she doesn't have a baby? She doesn't want a baby, Munch."

"That's why she was sad. She said she couldn't think of anything she wanted. She said she'd discovered that she was lazy and indifferent, and what bothered her about it was that she didn't mind."

"Everybody in South Florida's like that," Willie put in.

"Come on, J.," Henry said.

"How could you let her out of your sight, Munch?"

"You did, Billy."

Heat flashed in my face, in my body. Munch was making it up, every word. Or not that: she'd heard it this way, in some rubricious translation effected by light and longing, heard what Alice had said as these words, this ridiculous passage that had nothing to do with what was spoken or what was going on. I'm dying, Alice had said. I'm feeling a little low, is what Munch heard. I'm drowning in a sea of corpses, she'd said--I need a little vacation, is how it sounded. Get out of my way before I kill you, she said. See you later, is how Munch heard it.

I jumped up and ran out onto the dock. Stars were out all over, blurred and crinkly, little ragged white mishaps. The dock was like a chute: I ran to the end of it and plunged into the canal.

The black water closed over me with a snap, it was like that, and I was in the underworld, all alone. My breath went out of me, right out, as if vacuumed. A panic--the one I usually kept drugged--gripped me. No waters of the deep hid me from it.

I thrashed to the surface and broke through gasping, crying out like a man in a dream. Henry, who had followed, who had jumped in right behind me, was close; he grabbed me. "Wait," I cried. "Fucking wait."

He stroked back. "It's just a passing thing," he said.

I swam away, a rickety crawl, at first nowhere and then down the canal. The water was bitter, tasting of root matter and desuetude. Henry followed, swimming along beside me. We kept our heads out of the water just as in the old photo from childhood, the two of us breaking the surface out in the swamp, heads waterswept, eyes still closed, like creatures barely formed, just invented, unspent, flailing.

"It's really too cold to go swimming," he said.

"It's all right if you keep moving."

We swam around the long bend, staying with it, going on steadily without talking, making water time, until we got down among the cane fields. The cane rose up on both sides, tangled and pale in the starlight. The fields went on like this for miles. In the fall the smoke from their burning changed the world into a blue-swept, ocherous landscape; in the old days it did. After a while we hove to at the bank, crawled up, and sat in the grass at the edge of the field. Across the canal a dark place looked like a gator hole, something, a cave entrance, solid shape of black you could hide or lose your life in, these were my thoughts sitting there chilled almost immediately but not giving in to it, as if the cold were a form of death or loss it was possible to deny, to simply go on without surrendering to. I said, "There's more to it, isn't there?"

"Well, sure."

He pushed his long, dark hair back with both hands. His wrists were fine, slender as a girl's, not the wrists you'd expect on a sculptor. Sure. He meant there was always more to it. But I didn't want to hear it. I preferred the clamors and stage fright of my own imagination. Real life, exposure, fact--receipts, pictures, mementos, charred camp fires, and gum wrappers--the evidence: I preferred making it up. But they wouldn't let you do that, not for long. They would come to your house with their notebooks and legal papers and they would make you look. They'd pull back the sheet: Is this her? Rather picture her in a diner outside Bakersfield, dipping her finger into a cafe con leche, licking the coffee off, whiling away a lost afternoon. So what the leathery companion beside her, grimacing at his reflection in the back mirror. So what? Such moments could go on forever, unchanged.

"No," I said, "don't tell me about it."

In this way my travels began.

3

Three years later, as famous as I was ever going to get, I was back in Miami. Alice'd been back for a year, but we hadn't spoken to each other, not once. Henry called me when she got in, one afternoon in spring when all the poincianas in South Beach were blooming with fire in their hair; he called me at my house in Greenwich Village and told me he saw her, sitting in a red Cadillac convertible on Collins Avenue. He had gone up to her and she had gotten out of the car--leapt out of it, he said, like a gymnast--and grabbed him in her arms to hug him. "She's as strong as ever," he said.

"Unlike you and me," I said, and he laughed.

Just talking about her--the real-life Alice--flooded me with electricity, but I didn't do anything about it. "She's living with somebody," he said, "and she's got a little child."

He said that--child--and there was a click click click inside my skull, with no accompanying commentary, as if that were the natural noise your head made when this information appeared. But on questioning, Henry admitted that the child wasn't really hers, only a common-law stepchild. I knew Henry would have been going out to see her, to see Alice and the child and her lawyer boyfriend and her new life, and I understood I wouldn't be allowed to do that; this was the curious way life worked: The world was filled with friends and acquaintances, passersby even whom I could see whenever I wanted to more or less, but she was not one of them; she was done with, gone, off the list. Since I was a little boy I had understood the world was set up this way, but I still couldn't believe it. No, I could believe it.

I was famous in my way because of another book I had written about her that had been made into a movie. When the movie came out people I hadn't heard from since high school called me up. They wanted to get together for a drink when they came to New York and sometimes I would go though I didn't drink (or do drugs) anymore. Sometimes they asked about Alice, but I didn't have anything to tell them. I could have found out something about her, maybe I could have, but I didn't try to. The divorce papers came from California and I signed, but not where indicated, I signed somewhere else. So she was in California.

I moved into the Spenser Hotel in South Beach and spent my mornings writing and my afternoons at the beach. I bought a bicycle and pedaled it around town with my shirt off, getting tan and going slightly to fat from so much time spent at the desk, that and the caramelized flan I ate for breakfast every morning. I felt okay about life. I didn't see people much and I didn't want to. Henry I saw, but that was about all. I'd go out to the studio and sit with him while he worked. He'd branched out from funeral sculpture to the regular kind and now supplied galleries in several cities with his pieces. He had assistants now and a big stone yard I liked to sit out in where blocks of marble and granite and sandstone were piled up like the remains of old, dismantled civilizations. The sun baked the blocks and I would climb up on one of them, some piece of red granite or a blue marble slab from Italy, and lie on it, getting what I saw as a treatment from the warmth and the mellow firmness of the stone.

Henry was living with Oscar Berman, an older man he had met through friends of his parents. Oscar was a former literary agent from New York, but not someone I knew. He was still a reader, however, and said he liked my books. We would sit out on the dock in the late afternoon waiting for Henry to finish up, Oscar drinking sidecars and me sipping a seltzer, and he would tell stories about his youth in the Israeli army when he fought against the Arabs in the Six-Day War. I too had stories of war and gun battles, but they were not like his. Then he drove drunk into a telephone pole on Biscayne Boulevard and wound up in the emergency room at Miami Dade. He was badly hurt, and though his body would heal they said his mind probably wouldn't. He lay in bed jabbering about his wife who had been dead for twenty years. He said he killed her. This was the kind of craziness that came after head blows like this. Henry and I staggered out of the hospital weeping, Henry staggering and weeping, me red in the face with emotion I was trying to keep in check. Oscar's state was only the catalyst for my emotions, which weren't related to his situation.

"The crazy thing," Henry said, "is he really did kill her."

"Not really."

"Yeah. He killed her with a shovel, carried her out into the Atlantic Ocean, and dumped her body over the side of his Boston Whaler. Nobody found out."

"How could nobody find out?"

"I don't know. Probably he did it under cover of darkness."

"People are out in the dark, too."

"Well, maybe he'll explain it when he's raving--Jesus, I don't care."

I liked accompanying Henry to the hospital. I hung around Oscar's room hoping he would go into the facts of his murder. But he didn't. "What did you do to her?" I asked him, but he was on his own track. I was through for the time being with alcohol and drugs, but I wasn't through running. Chemicals aren't the only form of anesthesiology. Here is another. One of his nurses was a young woman who was sister to a woman I had gone to school with and she said she remembered me. She had pale red, almost blonde hair and very fair skin she told me she could never let out in the sunlight--she said it like this: never let it out, like it was a special kind of pet--and I fell in love with her in a day. We had an affair that took me down to the Keys where her brother lived. Her brother was involved in schemes for getting refugees out of Cuba and Haiti and wherever in the Caribbean refugees needed to get out of. He showed me something about the business. "You can write about it if you like," he said. "I know you know how to change the names and settings, and all that, so go ahead." He was a big, burly man, also too fair to tan, but he looked nothing like his sister.

I said, "I don't think I'll write about it, but I'd like to find out more."

He said, "Okay, you can come with me some time." The nurse, whose name was Emily, didn't care for her brother's business, but she liked me. We would drive out to little marshy cum-de-sacs, little inlets in the Keys, and make love in the car. She had a place and so did I, but we both liked being out in the car like that. She hated oral sex--going and coming--but I didn't mind that so much and she was tender and had a way about her that made everything she did seem familiar. She was not ambitious and not angry at anything. One day we were out at a little cut between the main island and one of the other small Keys when she said, "This is one of the loading places."

"You mean for your brother?"

And she said, "Yes. He brings people in here sometimes."

We made love then in the fast, furious, obliterative way we liked and afterwards I lay in the back seat with her, sweaty and feeling good, and then it came to me this was probably a drug, too. I didn't mind, but I wanted to talk to someone about it. I thought of Alice.

Whenever Henry mentioned her, something tremorous and electrical tunneled into me. I asked him not to speak of her, but then I asked him about her. We'd brought Oscar home in a wheelchair, but he was gone, distracted like someone with Alzheimer's, and Henry was so forlorn about it he could hardly drag himself out of bed. He was torn up about Oscar and about his own future which he saw stretching away from him into dreary homecare endlessness. I said, "It bugs me, too."

"Why you?"

"Because I'm depending on you to run this hospice for me, too, when I get old and incapacitated."

"Ha ha," he said. "You'll be cleaning up after me first."

I had to call before I went out there to make sure I didn't run into Alice. It made sense not to run into her. The electricity, the hollowness--these sensations were familiar to me, the old sick adrenaline charge. Connie, my temporary sponsor in NA, told me to stay away from whatever caused the adrenaline to surge. "I'll be dull as a toad," I said, and he said, "That'll do you good."

"What do you think?" I asked Emily. "Are you and I just getting a fix from each other?"

She didn't think so, but then they never do.

"I haven't even had an orgasm," she said. "If it were some kind of drug I would have had one, don't you think?"

"You haven't come?"

"No. I never have."

"You mean never, ever?"

"No."

It made me feel left out. I thought I ought to be angry about it, but I wasn't really. "Does not coming give you a relentless desire for sex?" I asked.

She looked at me with her small, green eyes. Everything about her face was small, neatly and prettily arranged. "I get satisfaction just from doing it," she said.

"That's good."

But then it did start bothering me. It made me lonely, I thought it was that. I wondered if something was going on with her, something secret and unfathomable to anyone but therapists. I questioned her about this and she said she didn't know.

"You've never had an orgasm, at all?"

"Not that I know of. But tell me what they are like so I'll be sure."

I tried to do that, but she said what I described didn't sound familiar.

Then I found out she was married. Her husband was a painter living in the Grove, a man of some importance locally whom she never saw but had also never divorced. "You're divorced, aren't you?" she said.

"Pretty much all the time," I said.

"What do you mean by that?"

"Nothing," I said. "Just every day I wake up and I'm still by myself."

"Like I'm married."

"Why didn't you mention it?"

"I didn't care to. I don't even like to think about it, much less talk about it."

Then I found out she did see him. Sometimes when I thought she was working she was actually at his house. "We never make love," she said when I confronted her with this. "Or not that often."

"It doesn't really bother me," I said.

"Why not?" she said, scowling.

"I don't know. I feel pretty easy about it."

"I don't think I want to be with somebody who doesn't get upset about me sleeping with another man. If you don't get upset, you don't really love me."

"That's probably right," I said.

She would have put me out of the car then except we were out in the Keys. Her brother was coming in with his boat. When he got in she made me ride with him. He was bringing in a couple of radicals from Barbados, that's what he said. They weren't anyone I recognized, but one was a rough customer who took offense at someone he didn't know being in the car.

"Look," her brother, whose name was Menile, said to me, "I'm going to have to put you out."

"Here?"

"I'll drop you off at Mile 28. The bus'll stop for you."

It was one of those things that couldn't be helped, I understood that, but still it made me angry. I walked up the highway to a burger stand and used the pay phone to call Henry.

Then I met a woman at a buffet downtown and went home with her. We made love out on her sun porch with her kittens running around mewing and climbing in the bougainvillea. Her name was Merit and she was a lawyer. She was Jewish and told me upfront she was really only interested in Jewish men, but something about me had caused her to make an exception. "What was it?" I said. "You have monkey eyes," she said. I told her about my early preaching days and she said she was fascinated by this though she never asked me about them. We saw each other regularly for about a month, then one night I simply couldn't get it up. "That's okay," she said, "I'll just rub myself against you."

There was something about it I didn't like. "I feel like a tool," I said. "An implement."

"Not you," she said. "Never."

But I did. When I left her house that night I decided not to go back. Then I met the wife of the publisher of a local magazine, a writer herself and an editor, and we had an affair that lasted six months. We met at a Christmas party where I was taut with caffeine and talking ninety miles an hour. "You're not even making sense," she said, "but you just keep going." She had a plain, sensual face that completely changed when she smiled. "Weren't you married to Alice Stephens?" she said.

"Boy, was I."

This flippancy was instantly followed by internal squirts of empty, groping material I couldn't express. "Your face just turned white," she said.

"Okay," I said.

She liked it that Alice still had such an effect on me. "You have a lot of feeling in you," she said. "Most men I know are so blank."

She wrote all the time, all the time she wasn't working at the magazine. I'd wake up in the morning to the sound of her typewriter clattering, running at a tremendous pace, words pouring out of her. Her husband found out about the affair and canceled an article I had agreed to do for him. "I wish he hadn't done that," I said.

"What did you expect," she said. "You're fucking his wife."

"But you don't even live together."

"That's not what it's about."

One night I went home with a woman I met at a gallery, a young blonde painter with a sad face and an apologetic manner. Ariane found out about it immediately, divined it, I thought.

"I smelled it on you," she said. "You are such a scamp."

"I couldn't help myself," I said.

"I know," she said. "I can tell."

I wasn't sure what she meant by this, but it was true the escapade didn't seem to bother her, not in any way I could figure. We liked to take night walks on the backsides of the South Beach neighborhoods, strolling alleys where old bougainvillea hedges draped over concrete walls and little roselike flowers poked out of cracks. We would admire the flowers and the light shining upon the sandy alleys, snagging in the leaves of loquat bushes and climbing halfway up the trunks of coconut palms. The light was yellow almost to orange and lay on everything like butter. Out there in the alley I'd feel safe between the houses, out in the back where people exposed their garbage and flowers got out of control; something would stir in me, some half order of feelings I couldn't quite grasp. It was then I would think of Alice, wondering what she was doing just now, if she was doing anything, if she was angry or feeling hopeless or drifting along to some music, and I'd think maybe soon nothing about her would disturb me anymore. "I can tell when you're thinking about your ex-wife," Ariane said.

"You mean Alice."

"It's okay. I don't mind."

I continued sleeping with the painter, with Mona, who lived in a ramshackle house in south Miami, a house stuffed with refuse and old, unsalvageable furniture. Everything in the place looked misused, derelict, even the pots in the kitchen. Glass jars containing dead sweet potatoes were lined up on the windowsill above the kitchen sink. She had cleared a space in the living room where she kept her easel and the finished paintings she stored in a rack she had built out of old lumber. Even her bed looked like something dredged up from the depths. We never spoke about any of this. Her mournfulness never left her; I asked her about it, but she acted as if she didn't know what I was talking about. "I'm sorry," she said in her distracted way and looked out the window. She reminded me of Alice after her treatments, but it was not that, it was something else. I started getting afraid one day she was going to go though a sudden personality change and pick up a knife, as if what she was in now was the chrysalis stage. Then I met another woman, an editor at the paper, a friend of my cousin Ike's, and I began sleeping with her. We hooked up after a party at her house at which she asked me to stay and help clean up. She was just lonely, she said afterwards, that's why she went to bed with me.

"It's okay," I said. "I don't mind."

She wanted me to come around regularly, but I felt nervous about it.

"It's all right," she said. "I wouldn't depend on it."

I asked Connie whether he thought I was in trouble.

"You mean with the women?"

"I'm sleeping with several at once."

"At the same time--in the same bed?"

"No--serially--it's a serial thing.

"Then don't worry about it."

But then I picked up a newcomer in NA, a woman sober only a few weeks, and Connie got upset. His wife, also a junkie, invited her over to swim in their pool and I came, too. We horsed around in the water and I could tell it was probably the first time in a long while she'd been able to loosen up without a drug. That was what drugs were good for, one thing, taking that relentless tension out of you and letting you step down into normal life. She started grinning and couldn't stop. Afterwards I drove her home and then went in and listened to tapes of her singing with her band. Her voice on the tapes was slightly flat, and she didn't seem to notice, but there was something gallant and tender about it, and something sad, too; it made me think of everything we had to face up to in our lives and be good sports about. She asked me to stay over and I did, putting on the pajamas she gave me and getting into the big sofa bed with her. She was not as relaxed as a lover, but she was enthusiastic. When I told Connie about it he was angry. "You got to stop that," he said. "You know why? It's like shooting fish in a barrel. These puppies can't protect themselves."

I agreed. "Now do you see what I mean?"

"About what?"

"About using women--sex, whatever you want to say--as a drug."

"Well, cut it out."

"Okay," I said.

I went over to tell Stacy I couldn't come around any more, but we went to bed again. Afterwards she said she understood. "I have trouble in this area," she said.

It's not you, I told her.

"Who else could it be?"

"Me. I'm using it for a drug."

"But what's wrong with that?"

"The same thing as any other drug, I guess. After the euphoria comes enslavement, degradation, and despair."

"That's a pretty small price to pay."

Henry said more or less the same thing as Connie. "You know where I stand on all that," he said.

"I remember how you used to jump anything in pants."

"That was a long time ago. I've changed."

"Yes, you have."

Oscar in the sun room drooled over his breakfast, keeping up a running conversation with his dead wife.

"What are you going to do?" I said.

Henry gave Oscar a long across the room look. "He's still a charmer."

"Probably not all the time."

"Sometimes I want to strangle him and dump him in the canal."

"So, why don't you?"

"I'd miss him."

Meanwhile Ariane was typing away. "I smell her on you," she said when I came in carrying a bag of grapefruit.

"No you don't."

"Where'd you get the fruit?"

"Emilio's."

"Let's take a walk."

We cruised up Pennsylvania and then over to Washington and went by the Cuban market where fruit was piled in heaps in big bins and the lights had that tallowy lubricity of the tropics at night and everyone working there spoke another language. The fruit was cheap and it was all of the tropical variety. Something about the setup was homey and exotic at the same time, the kind of arrangement that made me think life could be strange and colorful and completely familiar all at once. When I was getting off drugs I'd listen to Caribbean music and daydream of Little Havana, this mix comforting me. We walked around touching star apples and mangoes and big, speckled papayas. Emilio's wife smiled at us and gave us a couple of tiny coconut cupcakes.

Back out on the street Ariane said, "I think you're going to have to run along."

"You mean right now?"

"Yes. I thought it wouldn't bother me how you live, but it does."

"It bothers me, too."

"That's what they all say."

"But I want to stop."

"Men just think they can josh us along, throwing in an I'm sorry every once in a while, and we won't mind what they're up to."

"We're not all up to something."

"Yes you are--every one of you."

She sounded like Alice--there she was again. I wondered if this was the revelation of a pattern. Everything different on the surface, but underneath the same old ruckabuck. I might as well go over and look her up. But this was just a thought. Alice was living in the Grove in a big old tabby house that had a garden wall with red bougainvillea spilling over it like bloody teardrops and a Mercedes convertible parked in the drive and a maid in a black and white uniform who got off the bus every morning and walked up the drive carrying her lunch in a little brown wicker basket. That is to say on the second day I was back in Miami, I had driven over there at dawn and sat in the car across the street from her house, tense with the crazy idea of settling up on our past, and then, so rattled and buzzing with interiority and desire, suddenly scared to death I would crash through the floor of my life, I drove away and hadn't been back. It had taken weeks to calm down.

Now I drove by Ariane's house. I could see her sitting in the window typing away, popping tangerine segments into her mouth. I sat out in front of her house two or three times and thought of going in, too, of trying to argue her out of her decision, but I didn't. One night a woman walked by leading a three-legged dog. I got out of the car and talked to her, probably everybody did. The dog was a large, long-haired, speckled setter and she had owned him since he was a pup. His leg she said--front right--had been cut off in a sawmill accident. I didn't believe this for a minute, but I went along with it.

"A country dog, I guess."

"I'm from Louisiana," she said.

"I had some dark nights over there once, in Louisiana."

"We all have."

I walked her home or at least to the corner. She wouldn't let me walk her all the way.

"I wouldn't be comfortable with that," she said.

But it would be all right, she said, to meet the next day for a drink. I didn't go into an explanation of how I didn't drink for now because going for a drink was how you had to put it in normal life. Nobody said let's go get some hard drugs, let's go shoot up, let's drop the spike, none of that in polite life, they all went on as if they never even thought of total immersion, and if you mentioned it they looked at you as if you were crazy, but they still wanted to go for a drink. "Is Forget's all right?" I said.

"That's spelled F-O-R-G-E-T, isn't it?"

"Yeah. They soften the 'g,' like in France."

I went home and sat out on my seaside balcony watching the lights of the tankers move slowly across the dark. Then Mona called and I drove out to her house and spent the night. We ate beans and ham hocks from the pot and sat out on the porch watching the moths flutter and bang against the screen door. She always seemed confused by life, Mona did, but I didn't press her about it. She would stare off into space, thinking about something. She had been married twice and hadn't kept up with her ex-husbands. She didn't even know if they were still alive. It wasn't that she hated them or wasn't interested, it was that she couldn't sustain the effort of looking into things.

"I'm surprised you remember me," I said.

"Oh, I like you," she said. "You're easy to remember."

I enjoyed the quiet of the life we shared, the numbness of it. I liked how we stumbled around in the morning, confused about where we were and what was going on, smiling at each other in a sleepy and trusting way. She'd stand at the back door looking out at the weedy yard with a look on her face of someone who didn't know where she was, but didn't really mind, either. We were both going along with the gag as best we could, with life that is, but neither of us really believed in anything.

"You put my mind on things," Mona said, "which I like."

"Some things," I said.

A skittish breeze slipped along through the lemon trees in her backyard. The moon was out, a small, capsized moon, a tiny tear in the night wall, and I leaned out to look at it. She put her hand on my back and for a second the weight of it took me into a place where everything was strange. I didn't know who I was or where I was. Or who was touching me. The only life I ever believed in was the life with Alice, I knew this, and knew it had always been that way. And then the feeling or the knowledge of this, whatever it was, passed, and I came back into the ordinary world we were in. Mona never asked me about my life.

"You can if you want," I told her, but she said she didn't like to intrude.

"I don't think of it as intruding."

"It's not good to pry into people," she said, her blonde brows furrowing.

"I know what you mean. You might find out something scary."

"It's pretty much all scary to me."

The dog-owning woman, Karen, told me she'd walked out of her marriage barefooted, carrying a dollar bill in her hand.

I loved the sound of that, the picture of it.

"What else?" I asked.

"My ex-husband killed himself by drinking pine air freshener."

"When did that happen?"

"Four years ago."

"Do you mind if I write about it?" I said.

"What for?"

"That's what I like to do--make books about things women get into."

"Books to sell?"

"Yes."

She hadn't read anything I'd written and/or seen or even heard of the movie.

"Is it on tape?"

"No. Not yet."

She wanted to hold back on permission to use her in a story.

"I went to work at Burger King," she said. "I was so stunned and crazy that was all I could think to do."

Now she was a history instructor at Miami-Dade Community College.

At Forget's, where this conversation took place, she was drinking scotch and I was drinking coffee, both of us slightly buzzed. "You don't drink alcohol because you are an alcoholic," she said, "is that right?"

"That's close enough to it," I said.

"My father was an alcoholic. He didn't call it that, but that's what it was."

"What did he do?"

"He was a horse trainer."

"Race horses?"

"For forty years."

She grimaced and looked away. "Pardon me," she said, "for asking so directly about the alcohol. It's not my business."

"It's okay. I'm not at ease with talking about it. But I would probably have to tell you anyway."

"Is that one of the rules--I'm sorry."

"Being honest, yeah."

"I fall short there."

"I hit it about once every ten tries."

We were out beyond ourselves a little, I could see that.

At her house, once again I couldn't sexually perform. I went into the bathroom and tried to get something going, tried to imagine a stirring scenario, but it didn't work. It was the second time in six months, but this was different from the time before. "I really want to," I told her.

"I don't mind about it," she said with a sweetness in her voice. She said it in a believable way. The next night, after a walk through her neighborhood, I made it to the end, though it was difficult. "I'm scared," I said. "That's what it is."

"I'm scared, too. But I like what we're doing."

"It's almost too real for me."

"Do you want to go slower?"

"Yes. I think I do."

"I'd like to snug up next to you. Do you mind that?"

"I don't know. Let me think about it."

We lay in the dark waiting. Soft rain blew in through the open window above our heads, but neither of us did anything about it. "What are you thinking about?" she said after a while.

"I was thinking about James Agee and then I started thinking about my ex-wife."

"I teach Agee's book in my class."

"I was thinking about his life. He was married four times I think."

"I like to think about the private lives of historical personages."

"That's probably all we would do if they let us."

"Good for me they don't."

We were silent again. The curtain soughed into the room, in slow motion, fluttering slightly as if trying to get itself to do something more but it couldn't.

"Your ex-wife?" she said.

"I think about her a lot."

"Sure. I would, too."

"Sometimes I have to restrain myself from going out and waylaying her."

"To do what?"

"I don't know--bash her or beg her to come back--one of those."

"I used to follow my ex-husband around. Before we made the final break. I'd follow him to work and sneak up to his office and jump him."

"That would scare me to death."

"It did him, too. I hated myself for doing it, but for a while I couldn't stop. I'd follow him after work, too, even though he was only going from the office to the house."

"What were you after?"

"I wanted to surprise him, shake something in him loose."

"Was he seeing another woman?"

"No. I don't know. But it wasn't even that. It wasn't specific. It could have been that, but what it was really was some other lost, missing thing. Some component that would explain what was happening. There had to be something there I didn't know about. I thought I could catch it if I jumped him."

"Could you?"

"In a way."

"What was it?"

"It wasn't what I thought. I don't know what it was. While I was doing that I suddenly got tired of looking at the back of his head."

"And that did it?"

"Yes. It was so blank. The back of his head was flat and the hair was brown, lighter than mine, and it lay on his head in this smooth way, like paint. There wasn't anything wrong with him really, with his head, it was fine, but I started to think of it as a blank. In bed I'd raise up and stare at his head. He always slept turned away from me and I'd stare at the back of his head. It was so distant and strange, like a basketball in a tree. I know I was crazy, but that was what was happening. I'd look at him, at his head, and I'd feel so lost, like love was never going to find me again. One morning I got up at dawn, pulled on a pair of jeans and a shirt, took a dollar off the dresser, and left."

"Barefooted."

"That's right."

"I love that story."

"What happened with your ex-wife?"

"She drifted off, too. It was probably like with you, in her mind."

"That's funny, isn't it? Maybe she set off looking for my ex-husband."

"Is he a lawyer?"

"No. He's not anything now."

We went quiet then; we lay there thinking about our lives and the strange turns they had taken. At that moment I felt immune to Alice Stephens. As if she could walk in the room right then and nothing in me would stir. I thought I knew this feeling for what it was; it was one of the main things I talked to Connie about. "These women drug me," I told him, "And I don't care about anything anymore."

"They don't give you any substances?"

"No, I don't mean that. Or maybe I do. Brain chemicals--they give me those. Endorphins and all that. A sexual rush in the head and body. I become a fair-weather friend to man."

"It's not their fault. You know that, right?"

"Yes. I don't mean it's their fault. They're not forcing anything on me."

"You sure you see it that way?"

"I wish I didn't."

But how did I see it? Sometimes I lay in the sun, out on the lawn behind the Spenser, and the light and the heat pouring onto me--I felt as if I were lying at the bottom of a bowl of melted gold. I wished there were a hundred hours in a day, all of them lit. And when I spent money something clamorous inside me calmed down for a minute. And, conversely, when I went without things, didn't eat or walked around with my pockets empty, I felt admirable then. Some nights I'd eat all the ice cream in the refrigerator and then sit there, a slug on his balcony, stuporous and content. If I didn't do these things, if I didn't inject my brain with whatever was in these practices, some dark business would try to crawl into bed with me. Bed being wherever the hell I was. I wanted to cast blame for this. Clerks, ice-cream impresarios, cash machines, America, girls--something.

"Well," Connie said. "You got to try to be optimistic. You're not the subject of the universe, you know."

"How do you know that?"

"Because I am."

It was a laugh line so I gave him one.

I thought things would be different with Karen. She rented the upstairs of a house in the Brightwood district. A young, entrepreneurial woman owned the house and lived downstairs. The woman bought properties in the district, renovated them, and resold them for a profit. Young professionals were moving into what had formerly been a neighborhood of derelict old residences and boarding houses for winos and others living on the margins. It was a district I had thought I was headed to myself. But now the lawns were rich with watered grass and plantings and the houses wore fresh paint and there were expensive cars parked in the drives. I liked all this activity, but I also liked the old shabby houses and shabby people. For now there was still a mix, young couples getting out of a convertible as some bent fellow in a stained tuxedo jacket attempted to stay on his feet. The babies lolled in their carriages, casting wide-eyed looks at the winos conducting a wheelchair race down the middle of the street. Karen and I lay out in a hammock on the front porch, putting our hands on each other and laughing. I said, "I feel fulsome and content," and this was the truth.

I drove out to Mona's and told her I had to stop seeing her. We were out on the back steps and as she leaned out over her knees two tears dropped onto the concrete walk, leaving large, round splashes. "I'm sorry," I said.

"You don't have to be," she said.

"These things are a mystery to me."

"You don't have to try to explain it. I didn't think you would stay."

"I never know what I'm going to do."

"You probably had better go," she said.

Lemon leaves lay scattered on the back walk, some face up, some face down; you couldn't tell how things would fall. I drove out of her neighborhood thinking, this is the last time you will see these houses, you son of a bitch, but then a week later I met a woman outside my lawyer's office, an art teacher, and went home with her and drank tea in the living room of her apartment a block behind Mona's. After a while the woman started crying about life's rough ways and her ex-husband's part in the disaster, and we went into the bedroom. I had no trouble with the sex. I figured her being a stranger, this being only an afternoon's dalliance, had something to do with it.

"I think I have solved the mystery," I told Karen.

"What mystery?" she said.

"The one about where I can't get it up," I said.

"You seem to be doing pretty well lately."

"But I think it happens because when someone I like--like very much--begins to get close, I get really nervous."

"I'm glad you've solved it, slugger," she said.

This conversation took place at her desk. She was very firm about me not disturbing her when she was working or disturbing her things when she wasn't there. Once she caught me looking at some photographs and without saying one word she took them out of my hand, put them back in the folder I had taken them from, and put the folder in a drawer. When I asked her about it, she said, "Don't touch my things." It was as if she was working something out, setting a mark for herself she wanted to adhere to. I liked this fine, actually, and hoped it would rub off on me.

But Mona, Mona in her neighborhood. When I came out of the art teacher's house I saw Mona passing in her car. She glanced at me and the expression on her face--the familiar expression soaked in--was of such sadness I felt ashamed. I walked over to her house and met her getting out of the car. She was carrying groceries, too. "Let me help you," I said.

"It's all right."

"No, let me."

But it wasn't the thing to do, I could see that. There was strain in her face, in her body, and she pulled away from me, leaning away as if I was holding her on a fine chain, the sadness in her eyes fraying into desperation. I wanted to say I had felt like that for years, but there was no way to. I had just to go. "I'm an idiot," I said and got in the car.

I drove to a phone and called Karen and she said I don't have to be in class until seven so why don't you come by, which is what I did, but then just before we got undressed I got angry about something, about her lack of attention, some form of this, and a fight swelled up and spilled out onto the porch where her landlady was reading a real-estate document out loud to a couple about to purchase some reconstituted property, and it was clear the landlady thoroughly disapproved of us, but we were in flight by then and rolled out onto the sidewalk and into the street itself, me shouting and waving my arms, hammering my point home, which I continued with maniacally until I noticed I was the only one doing the actual shouting and gesturing, in fact Karen wasn't really saying anything at all beyond an occasional yes or no, in fact she was simply standing there, hanging her head as I rained down imprecations and calumny upon her.

"Jesus Christ, what is the matter with you?" I yelled at her, a question actually better directed at me.

She looked at me out of eyes filled with pain. Pain and fear--I saw them both.

"Ah fuck this," I said and walked off.

The sun going down was blocked from view behind some mango trees, but I could tell it was a beautiful sunset. It made me think of the Glades, of the sun sinking into the grass prairies, turning them gold and red and pulling shadows up out of the woods like a dark, rediscovered treasure. In my head the argument churned and slipped, and the argument--Mona and Karen and some thoughts of Alice in which she was explaining how she wanted to calm herself--I realized it wasn't an argument. We had headed in opposite directions around the block. But I didn't run into her. I thought I would see her on the back street, but she must have cut through one of the yards. I told myself this bit was nothing, nothing to what had already happened to me. I had been much worse than this and I probably would be much worse again. My body felt as if it were made out of wire, as if I were an outline of a person and wind was blowing through me. I remembered this feeling from the drug time, the pre-spike feeling, but I didn't want any drugs.

Down the street someone, a neighbor, was speaking from his front porch to people assembled in his yard. It was some kind of prayer service or business meeting, fellow workers or parishioners gathered for an evening cookout. I went over and joined them; it turned out they were salespeople for a door-to-door cosmetics outfit enjoying themselves at a company picnic. I knew a couple of them from my newspaper days. One, a photographer, remembered me, too, and I pulled him aside and tried to tell him what was going on. "Do you mind if I go over this?" I said.

He said, "Sure, okay."

I caught his signal to his wife.

I began to tell him about Mona and Karen and some about Alice as well and as I spoke I seemed foolish to myself, some ridiculous person you wouldn't want to listen to, but I couldn't stop even as I became more distant from the words coming out of my mouth. His expression of concentration faded and he began to glance away across the yard. He was giving out awards of some sort, the man on the porch was. The photographer cleared his throat and began to rub his wrist. He had big scars on his wrist, burn scars they looked like, and then I remembered he had left the paper because he was burned in a fire. A bakery fire he had gone to take pictures of. "Are you sure you want to tell me this?" he said.

"I don't know," I said. "I'm pretty much off my rocker at the moment."

"Why don't you come get something to eat?"

"I think I need a whole lot more than food, but thank you anyway.

"Well, I guess I better go back to my wife."

As he trudged across the yard I saw below his shorts that his legs were burned, too.

After that I went back to the house. The landlady had abandoned the porch and the place was dark and looked locked up, forlorn like one of the derelict houses she renovated, but it was open. I climbed the stairs and found Karen in the living room with the television on. She got off the couch and came into my arms crying. "I can't understand," she said, "how you could look at me with such hatred in your eyes." The early news was on the television. The Coast Guard was removing bales of marijuana from a rusty freighter. The drug agents were happy and the drug runners were sad. I watched the news over her shoulder as I comforted her.

Henry said, "Yeah, it's true we have long talks on the phone."

"What do you talk about?" I said.

"I'm not at liberty to discuss that."

"Give me the gist."

"Sadness, love, fear, enthusiasm."

"How's Oscar?"

"He suggested I dye my hair."

"It's good he's taking an interest, huh?"

"He wants me to remind him of his wife."

"Listen," I said. "How am I going to get her back?"

"I don't think you're going to do that, Billy."

"I don't think I can do anything else."

"Both of you have gone on past each other."

"I can't really believe that's true."

"She's got the little child."

"Bret, yeah, I know about him. But you said he's not her natural child, he belongs to the other guy. There's a world of difference between them, between her and Bret. Magellanic distances. Bret. That's pretty close to Brent, don't you think."

"Bret Brent--I don't believe that would work. And I think she really likes this fellow she's with."

"Shit. That doesn't matter."

"Bravado won't change it either."

"Let's go to the swamp."

"I haven't got time to do that. I got these commissions."

"Let's go out to the swamp and get Alice to come."

"None of us has any business at this time in our lives going out to the Everglades."

"Listen, I am making a mess of things up here."

"It'll be worse if you try to hook up with Alice."

"No, it'll be worse anyway."

People who know nothing about drugs think when you quit taking them you can then pull yourself together and go on with your life, like they are doing. But when you quit, everything you were taking them to keep buried comes to the surface. The everything is not some bank job you pulled that you didn't want to think about or some baby you slapped or some lover you betrayed, it's not so easy as that, though sometimes it seems these occurrences have something to do with it, and there is certainly plenty of work to do to correct the fuckups you have gotten yourself and others into during the lowdown time. But what it really is, is a deep, faceless creature of terrible power and hatred that has been idling along down at the bottom of your being; it is this monster that begins to rise to the surface. It eats everything in its way and it is going to eat you. You're sad, desperate, ashamed, scared, full of rage and everything is futile, just like you knew it was. You can go off into blame--which is a whole career--if you like, but it doesn't change anything. You can start up a relay of substitute practices--money and religion and sex and power and deprivation and food and letters to the editor--but these are just more subterfuge. The monster stays the same. Almost everyone who gets free of drugs will tell you, to save yourself you have to get onto something larger than you are. Some idea or belief or practice, some involvement that sustains you, but doesn't have the downside of degradation and shame you found in the drugs. Many people come up with some kind of god, something they can call a god or use like a god; pray to and depend on and hang out with and serve. The monster, the rapacious relentlessness of it, the huge undeniability of it, the mean insistence of it, makes them. But then, sometimes, the thing they've found, the god, begins to wobble. It gets creaky and slow, but the monster hasn't lost a step. It begins to climb up over their back. What do you do then? I never found but two things: You either sit on the bed and take it, or you go into wildness.

When I put the gun on her she laughed at me, but when I put the gun on the baby she stopped.

"You little shit," she said.

I had come around the side of the house a minute before. A breeze lifted the grapefruit leaves, turning their white undersides over. The baby sat in a small chair at a picnic table eating pieces of mango she fed to him.

She had looked up without saying a word to me. Her face showed no surprise at all. It was a blank, she was that quick. I said, "I have come on a special errand."

I took the gun out of the little net grocery sack I was carrying. She still didn't say anything and her expression didn't change. I held the gun on her. And then she laughed.

Now I said, "Let's go in the house."

We went in and I made her pack a bag and get all her baby paraphernalia and then we went out to the car and drove off toward the Everglades. I made her drive. She said, "You could have just called me."

"And you would have said what?"

We passed my father's first church. It was rebricked now, and belonged to another denomination. When I broke away from preaching I had returned intending to shout curses at the congregation, to revile and reproach them, but I was unable to. Mrs. Telfilio had come up to me and put her arms around me and I collapsed into tears. My father had called that afternoon to tell me how brave he thought I was. He was buried out back--God bless you, Daddy--under a eucalyptus tree.

She glanced at the baby asleep in the back seat. "I would have met you anywhere. Any time you wanted."

"How could I have known that?"

"How could you know anything else."

She looked out the window. "There's your house." A gray stucco edifice, half hidden behind oleanders and japonica bushes. "Do you ever see Frances?"

"Mother?"

"No, you don't, do you?" She adjusted herself in the seat, half turning to look at me. "Do you know how I know you don't go see her?"

I didn't answer.

"Because I go. I visit her every week. I take her cupcakes. She has an old lady's sweet tooth so I take her vanilla cupcakes with strawberry swirls on the top. Her mind is going. She makes up stories about you. Nutty little pathetic stories about what you are doing."

"Oh shut up, Alice."

I made her swing a right and we passed under the big mango trees lining her old street. "We're going on the tour?" she said.

"The brief one. Slow down."

The car slowed, slowed so much we were barely moving. Her house then: yellow with green shutters, the green bushes cropped up close to it under the windows like a fringe, a skirt bunched against a waist Through the archway between the house and the garage, light poured and I remembered everything.

"You married me the second time," she said, "--after the bigamy business--under that grapefruit tree."

"You wore a strange blue dress like a tablecloth."

"That's what it was."

"And you couldn't stop kissing me."

"I haven't stopped yet."

She stopped the car a moment, in the middle of the street. We looked at the houses, the blank and unhelpful houses, the dumb trees. I felt just as I did all those years ago, just as I did yesterday, that I was in the middle of something I couldn't see the beginning or the end of.

"Nothing's ever over," she said, a sad and bitter note in her voice, but only a quiet note, no crescendo.

"Some parts're more over than others, I guess."

"Don't be philosophical, Billy."

We eased on along. I turned around and looked out the back window. There was a poinciana out front that I could always see from two blocks away, two limbs of it reaching into the street like a wing. I had forgotten that. "I just think how deep I was into it. How I was so committed to every part of it, even the bad parts."

"That sounds nostalgic."

"Then you're not getting what I'm saying."

"I thought you would come driving up. Some days I sit out in my yard waiting for you. I did yesterday."

"Why didn't you call me?"

"I couldn't do that, Billy."

"I'm kidnapping you now--you and the baby."

"Is that what you want to do?"

"Yeah." The noise of my voice was a hollow noise, as if I were speaking from the belly of the whale. "It's a kind of testimonial."

"No, it's not."

"I'm just saying that."

"Preparing for the trial."

"Har har."

"He's not really a baby," she said, looking into the back seat where the tyke snored in his bundle of light wraps. "He's more a child."

We headed west, into the sun. The world had been built up since our childhood and youth. Now people lived out here, snugged into the swamp as if this country were really habitable. But you could get out past them. The highway curved south, angling in deeper toward the swamp, which was a huge grassy field, unflooded at this time, a place that from a slight distance looked inviting, but when you got up close you saw was underlain with black mud pocked with little air holes, stinking in hot sun.

"They have dumped every kind of refuse into this wonderland," she said.

"We'll find a clear spot."

The child started crying. He was thick bodied and had a big wad of carroty hair on top of his head, like a wig. She pulled over, reached back, and fiddled with him, spoke kindly words to him, kissed him a couple of times and gave him a bottle with some yellow liquid in it.

Mango juice, she said when she righted herself.

I felt the sting of jealousy, just a prick, a pinch of it. "I know," she said, smiling at me. "I know--he's another man getting next to the woman. I know."

"You think I could try that routine, when he finishes?"

I thought this might be a good time to reveal to her that my pistol was a fake, a replica, but I decided not to, not yet. We drove down through the public areas of the swamp, along the road past the gator wallows and all that, past the tourist business and the canoe rental shops, on past where the road gave out into a lane and then into a track and there was a sign and a barrier. Beyond this, as I knew, the road kept going until you reached the old-time camps the original settlers were still allowed to maintain deep in the swamp. We swung around the barrier, almost getting stuck on the incline down into the watery, lily pad-filled ditch, but made it, and continued on south through the grass. "Bret," she said, "honey, look at that eagle."

The bird swung in the west drifting up high in a derelictous way as if it was tired and didn't know what else to do. "Do you remember that time," she said, "when we saw the whole tree of them?"

"Let's don't go down memory lane. It makes my heart hurt."

"You'd rather speculate on the future."

"And, uh, delve into the present."

"Okay. Are you going to shoot one of us if we don't do what you want?"

"You aren't going to start criticizing me, are you?"

"No, I don't want to do that. I'm glad to see you."

"I've been putting it off--seeing you."

"You would. I was dying to get a look at you, but you were working on something."

"Well, I like to think things through. And besides, you're the one who got the divorce. That always makes the other one uneasy."

"There wasn't anything else for me to do."

"Well, of course not if you don't speak to me about it."

"If I could have spoken to you about it I wouldn't have gotten a divorce."

"You say that now."

She didn't mean it the way I was taking it, I saw that. But I couldn't change myself. A list, a tendency, something like a drug I took a bite of, was already entering my system, too late to countermand it, the byways and alleys all clogged with it, the desperate and fatal humors, all that, saturating me; I harshly grinned. She smiled back, without sweetness, but with her full self in the smile. I saw that, too. Her large, even teeth were yellower than they used to be and there were lines in her face, vertical and cut for life, strange to me, something she'd put together on her own time and applied to herself. There were things I'd missed, I saw that. And the child was crying again, a stranger in the car, this sporting character, related to someone I didn't know at all, a boy who was sucking all this subliminally in, the violence and the dusty car ride and the swamp like a grand earthly coadunation, all its bugs fraternally singing, sprawling away just out the window. The whole world keeping up the pace. Cypress domes, like little kingdoms of the lost, rose from the grass in the blue distance.

We passed a couple of camps and then came to the Terrel place where I had her drive in and park. Out back in a big shed they kept the air boat. "Is this where we were headed?" she said.

"Not particularly."

"It's pretty here. This is whose place?"

"Jimmy Terrel. We knew him in high school."

She put shoes onto the boy, tiny soft-blue sneakers with pictures of a funny rat on the sides. She kissed each shoe as she worked it onto his foot. "You can do that for me when you finish with him," I said.

"That's how it would be, I know."

"If we wanted peace."

"Which is why we are no longer married. It's why we should never have married in the first place."

"How can you say that?"

"There you are, sweetie pie," she said to the child and then looked up at me, smiling. "We could never keep the peace, Billy."

"That fact never really stopped us."

"But it slowed us down so much we were hardly moving."

"You don't know how it was for me."

"You're right. I thought I did, but I didn't. Still, people who live together have to be able to find a way to peaceableness between them. They can't always be snatching at things and throwing each other against the wall. We wouldn't face that. We needed to find a way to calm down. Both of us did." She shook a small blanket out of her bag. "I'm so glad you've started straightening yourself out."

I didn't like being approved of by her, not in this way. "I could get peace just by putting my hand on you."

"Not for long."

"I didn't bring you out here to convince you of anything."

"It's okay." She smiled again. "I'm already convinced."

"What about if we get in the Terrel's air boat and go over to Cypress City and get on a ship and head off to New Orleans?"

"I would love to do that if it were possible. But it's not."

"Why? We were headed that way when we got married the first time. That's what we were going to do when I came and rescued you."

"You didn't rescue me. We rescued each other. And anyway, we have traveled so far from that time."

"I haven't. I haven't traveled anywhere. I am right here where I always have been. Shit."

"Don't curse in front of Bret."

"He can't understand curse words."

"He can hear them. They penetrate."

"All right. But look--" I stopped. Even here, even now, even holding a (fake) gun you only got so much time. There was a limit and you couldn't go over it. This was one of the rules of the universe, I knew that. "Ah, Alice."

She had spread the blanket out on the ground and set the child on it. From her bag she took an array of small toys. The boy, a connoisseur, picked up first one, then the other, setting each carefully--it looked like an act of care--back on the ground. The air, the February air of the swamp, was clean and bug free. There was a faint yellowing in the western sky. Around the unpainted board-and-batten house several trees had been cut back to stumps. Cabbage palms stood up in an isolated way, tousle headed on their skinny poles.

She said, "When I first got back I would take trips on the bus--the city buses--by myself. I wanted to see the city that way. I've always loved how jumbled up Miami is. I rode all over it. Through all the neighborhoods and downtown and across to the beach and up to Hialeah--everywhere. I did it for weeks, one or two days a week."

"Did you ever think you would see me?"

"Yes, always. Once or twice I thought I did see you, but then I knew it wasn't you. You were always keeping out of sight."

"Not really."

"But I wasn't riding to find you. I knew I couldn't do that. I was just riding to look. I wanted to be a passenger. I wanted life, pictures, people--to see them, you know: a woman painting on a board or a barber sweeping off his sidewalk or a .junkie shaking a radio; I wanted to see all the life tumbling around. And I wanted--I can't explain it--I wanted to see how one thing kept replacing another. One thing coming after another--as if there was no end to it. I'd been so afraid there was an end. Everything the last thing. I got so tired waiting for it. That's why I had to go in the hospital--here and out in California."

"You were in the hospital in--"

"Let me say." She looked off at the prairie, at the flooded field of it and the grasses, gold, green, and moving slightly, a breeze flowing across them like a calming touch. "Things didn't even have to be connected. They just had to come one after another. I wanted to be sure there would be one more."

"I know what you mean."

"Yes. You do. But me, I only figured it out later. Those days I just looked. One afternoon about sunset we were riding through one of the rough parts, down below Calle Ocho where it's so grubby and defeated and the buildings have weeds growing in the cracks in the walls. The sun was going down--it was right near your father's old mission--and everybody on the bus was either sleeping or daydreaming about something--nobody was looking out the window but me, and the thought came to me, this one thought, that we are passing through a paradise. It was the ugliest neighborhood in town, I guess, but just then it looked like a paradise. It didn't just look like it, it was a paradise. Everything was."

"That's fine, Allie," I said. It was clear she believed every word.

I got up and walked to the boathouse, went in and looked at the airboat. Spidery and delicate, backed by a rocket, like something from a dream, this boat, ready to go. The Terrels kept it gassed up and I knew where they hid the keys. I reached around behind the little panel and there they were. I took them out and went over and got in the boat. It rocked slightly, and I felt the press of its flat bottom against the water, the tension, the resiliency of it. There were two keys, one for the lockup chain and one for the engine. I climbed up on the seat. Out the front doors open water stretched away a hundred yards to the dark channel cutting through the prairie.

Here's what happens: You cross the open water and enter the channel and you follow it as it winds through the grass past the hammocks and woodland domes, the swampy islands upon which various animals live their animal lives; you go on though the buggy days and the long, buzzing nights and you don't let mischance or false pathways deter you, you keep right on with your goodwill about life and your stubbornness, leaving each lived day behind you, the husk of it drifting in the shallows of the past; you stay with the trail, pushing on and riding the slow current of boggy water draining down the sleeve of the continent--keep on no matter what--until one day, some sunny day, you come to the blue, blue waters of the Gulf.

Six days after this day, in a little town on the eastern shore of Virginia, Henry, who'd driven up, he said, crying most of the way, collected the child and took him back to his father.
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Author:Smith, Charlie
Publication:Northwest Review
Article Type:Short story
Geographic Code:1U600
Date:Apr 1, 2010
Words:22131
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