We circled the fountain and headed back the way we'd come. When we reached the road my mother asked me if I wanted to look at the apartment we'd skipped. "Oh, what the heck," she said, seeing me hesitate. "It's around here somewhere. We might as well make a clean sweep."
I was cold, but because I hadn't said anything so far I thought it would sound false if I complained now, false and babyish. She stopped two girls wearing letter sweaters-Coeds, I thought, finding a cheap, keen excitement in the word-and while they gave her directions I studied the display in a bookstore window, as if I just happened to be standing beside this person who didn't know her way around.
The evening was clear and brief. At a certain moment the light flared weakly, and then it was gone. We walked several blocks, into a neighborhood of Victorian houses whose windows, seen from the empty street, glowed with rich, exclusive light. The wind blew at our backs. I was starting to shake. I still didn't tell my mother. I knew I should've said something earlier, that I'd been stupid not to, and now I fastened all my will on the effort to conceal this stupidity by maintaining it.
We stopped in front of a house with a turret. The upper story was dark. "We're late," I said.
"Not that late," my mother said. "Besides, the apartment's on the ground floor."
She walked up to the porch while I waited on the sidewalk. I heard the muted chime of bells and watched the windows for movement.
"Nuts ... I should've called," my mother said. She'd just turned away when one of the two doors swung open and a man leaned out, a big man silhouetted in the bright doorway. "Yes?" he said. He sounded impatient, though when my mother turned to face him he added, more gently, "What can I do for you?" His voice was so deep I could almost feel it, like coal rumbling down a chute.
She told him we were here about the apartment. "I guess we're a little late," she said.
"An hour late," he said.
My mother exclaimed surprise, said we'd been walking around the university and completely lost track of the time. She was very apologetic but made no move to go, and it must have been clear to him that she had no intention of leaving until she'd seen the apartment. It was clear enough to me. I went down the walkway and up the porch steps.
He was big in every direction-tall and rotund with a massive head, a trophy head. He had the kind of size that provokes, almost inevitably, the nickname Tiny, though I'm sure nobody ever called him that. He was too grave, preoccupied, like a buffalo in the broadness and solemnity of his face. He looked down at us through black-framed glasses. "Well, you're here," he said, not unkindly, and we followed him inside.
The first thing I saw was the fire. I was aware of other things, the furniture, the churchlike expanse of the room, but my eyes went straight to the flames. They burned with a hissing sound in a fireplace I could have walked into without stooping, or just about. A girl lay on her stomach in front of the fire, one bare foot raised and slowly twisting, her chin propped in her hand. She was reading a book. She went on reading for a few moments after we came in, then sat up and said, very precisely, "Good evening." She had boobs. I could see them pushing at the front of her blouse. But she wasn't pretty. She was owlish and large and wore the same kind of glasses as the man, whom she closely and unfortunately resembled. She blinked constantly. I felt immediately at ease with her. I smiled and said hi, instead of assuming the indifference, even hostility, with which I treated pretty girls.
Something was in the oven, something chocolate. I went over to the fire and stood with my back to it, flexing my hands behind me.
"Oh yes, it's quite comfortable," the man said in answer to a comment of my mother's. He peered around curiously as if surprised to find himself here. The room was big, the biggest I'd ever seen in an apartment. We could never afford to live here, but I was already losing my grip on that fact.
"I'll go get my wife," the man said, then stayed where he was, watching my mother.
She turned, nodding pensively to herself. "All this room," she said. "It makes you feel so free. How canyou bear to give it up?"
At first he didn't answer. The girl started picking at something on the rug. Then he said, "We're ready for a bit of a change. Aren't we, Sister?"
She nodded without looking up.
A woman came in from the next room, carrying a plate of brownies. She was tall and thin. Deep furrows ran down her cheeks, framing her mouth like parentheses. Her gray hair was pulled into a ponytail. She moved toward us with slow, measured steps, as if bearing gifts to an altar, and set the plate on the coffee table. "You're just in time to have some of Dr. Avery's brownies," she said.
I thought she was referring to a recipe. Then the man hurried over and scooped up a handful, and I understood. I understood not only that he was Dr. Avery, but also that the brownies belonged to him; his descent on the plate bore all the signs of jealous ownership. I was nervous about taking one, but Sister did it and survived, and even went back for another. I had a couple myself. As we ate, the woman slipped her arm behind Dr. Avery's back and leaned against him. The little I'd seen of marriage had disposed me to view public affection between husbands and wives as pure stagecraft-Look, this is a home where people hug each other-though she was so plainly happy to be where she was that I couldn't help feeling happy with her.
My mother prowled the room restlessly. "Do you mind if I look around?" she said.
Mrs. Avery asked Sister to show us the rest of the apartment.
More big rooms. Two of them had fireplaces. Above the mantel in the master bedroom hung a large photograph of a man with dark, thoughtful eyes. When I asked Sister who it was, she said, a shade importantly, "Gurdjieff."
I didn't mind her condescension. She was older, and bigger, and I suspected smarter than me. Condescension seemed perfectly in order.
"Gurdjieff," my mother said. "I've heard of him."
"Gurdjieff," Sister repeated, as though she'd said it wrong.
We went back to the living room and sat around the fire. Dr. and Mrs. Avery on the couch, my mother in a rocking chair across from them. Sister and I stretched out on the floor. She opened her book, and a moment later her foot rose into the air again and began its slow twisting motion. My mother and Mrs. Avery were talking about the apartment. I stared into the flames, the voices above me pleasant and meaningless until I heard my name mentioned. My mother was telling Mrs. Avery about our walk around the university. She said it was a beautiful campus.
"Beautiful?" Dr. Avery said. "What do you mean by beautiful?"
My mother looked at him. She didn't answer.
"I assume you're referring to the buildings."
"Sure. The buildings, the grounds. The general layout."
"Pseudo-Gothic humbug," Dr. Avery said. "A movie set."
"Dr. Avery believes that the university pays too much attention to appearances," Mrs. Avery said.
"That's all they pay attention to," Dr. Avery said.
"I wouldn't know about that," my mother said. "I'm not an expert on architecture. It looked nice enough to me."
"Yes, well that's the whole point, isn't it?" Dr. Aveiy said. "It looks like a university. The same with the so-called education they're selling. It's a counterfeit experience from top to bottom. Utterly hollow. All materia, no anima."
He lost me there, and I went back to looking at the flames. Dr. Aveiy rumbled on. He had been quiet before, but once he got started he didn't stop, and I wouldn't have wanted him to. The sound of his voice made me drowsy with assurance, like the drone of a car engine when you're lying on the backseat, going home from a long trip. Now and then Mrs. Aveiy spoke up, expressing concord with something he had said, making her complete agreement known; then he resumed. Sister shifted beside me. She yawned, turned a page. The logs settled in the fireplace, veiy softly, like some old sleeping dog adjusting his bones.
Dr. Avery talked for quite a while. Then my mother spoke my name. Nothing more, only my name. Dr. Aveiy went on as if he hadn't heard. He was leaning forward, one finger wagging to the cadence of his words, glasses glinting as his great head shook. I looked at my mother. She sat stiffly in the rocker, her hands kneading the purse in her lap. Her face was bleak, frozen. It was the expression she wore when she got trapped by some diehard salesman or a pair of Mormons who wouldn't go away. She wanted to leave.
I did not want to leave. Nodding by the fire, torpid and content, I had forgotten that this wasn't my home. The heat and the firelight worked on me like Dr. Avery's voice, lulling me into a state of familial serenity such as these people seemed to enjoy. I even managed to forget they were not my family, and that they, too. would soon be moving on. I made them part of my story without any sense that they had their own to live out.
What that was, I don't know. We never saw them again. But now, so many years later, I can venture a guess. My guess is that Dr. Avery had been denied tenure by the university, and that this wasn't the first to prove itself unequal to him, nor the last. I see him carrying his fight against mere appearances from one unworthy institution to the next, each of them refusing, with increasing vehemence, his call to authenticity. Dr. Avery's colleagues, small minds joined to small hearts, ridicule him as a nuisance and a bore. His high-mindedness, they imply, is a cover for lack of distinction in his field, whatever that may be. Again and again they send him packing. Mrs. Avery consoles his wounded anima with unfailing loyalty, and ministers to his swelling materia with larger and larger batches of brownies. She believes in him. Her faith, whatever its foundation, is heroic. Not once does she imagine, as a lesser woman might, that her chances for common happiness-old friends, a place of her own, a life rooted in community-have been sacrificed not to some higher truth but to vanity and arrogance.
No, that part belongs to Sister. Sister will be the heretic. She has no choice, being their child. In time, not many years after this night, she will decide that the disappointments of her life can be traced to their failings. Who knows those failings better than Sister? There are scenes. Dr. Avery is accused of being himself, Mrs. Avery of being herself. The visits home from Barnard or Reed or wherever Sister's scholarship takes her, and then from the distant city where she works, become theatrical productions. Angry whispers in the kitchen, shouts at the dinner table, early departure. This goes on for years, though not forever. Sister makes peace with her parents. She even comes to cherish what she has resented, their refusal to talk and act as others do, their endless moving on, the bright splash of their oddity in the muddy flow. She finds she has no choice but to love them, and who can love them better than Sister?
It might have gone this way, or another way. I have made these people part of my story without knowing anything of theirs, just as I did that night, dreaming myself one of them. We were strangers. I'd spent maybe forty-five minutes in their apartment, just long enough to get warm and lose sight of the facts.
My mother spoke my name again. I stayed where I was. Usually I would have gotten to my feet without being prodded, not out of obedience but because it pleased me to anticipate her, to show off our teamwork. This time I just stared at her sullenly. She looked wrong in the rocking chair; she was too glamorous for it. I could see her glamour almost as a thing apart, another presence, a brassy impatient friend just dying to get her out of here, away from all this domesticity.
She said we ought to think about getting home. Sister raised her head and looked at me. I still didn't move. I could see my mother's surprise. She waited for me to do something, and when I didn't she rocked forward slowly and stood up. Everyone stood with her except me. I felt stupid and bratty sitting on the floor all by myself, but I stayed there anyway while she made the final pleasantries. When she moved toward the door, I got up and mumbled my good-byes, then followed her outside.
Dr. Avery held the door for us.
"I still think it's a pretty campus," my mother said.
He laughed-ho ho ho. "Well, so be it," he said. "To each his own." He waited until we reached the sidewalk, then turned the light off and closed the door. It made a solid bang behind us.
"What was all that about?" my mother said.
I didn't answer.
"Are you feeling okay?"
"Yes." Then I said, "I'm a little cold."
"Cold? Why didn't you say something?" She tried to look concerned, but I could tell she was glad to have a simple answer for what had happened back in the house.
She took off her suit jacket. "Here."
"Put it on."
"Really, Mom. I'll be okay."
"Put it on, dimwit!"
I pulled the coat over my shoulders. We walked for a while. "I look ridiculous," I said.
"So ... who cares?"
"Okay, you do. Sony. Boy, you're a regular barrel of laughs tonight."
"I'm not wearing this thing on the bus."
"Nobody said you had to wear it on the bus. You want to grab something to eat before we head back?"
I told her sure, fine, whatever she wanted.
"Maybe we can find a pizza place. Think you could eat some pizza?"
I said I thought I could.
A black dog with gleaming eyes crossed the street in our direction.
"Hello, sport," my mother said.
The dog trotted along beside us for a while, then took off.
I turned up the jacket collar and hunched my shoulders.
"Are you still cold?"
"Alittle." I was shivering like crazy. It seemed to me I'd never been so cold, and I blamed my mother for it, for taking me outside again, away from the fire. Though I knew it wasn't her fault, I blamed her anyway-for this and the wind in my face and for every nameless thing that was not as it should be.
"Come here." She pulled me over and began to rub her hand up and down my arm. When I leaned away she held on and kept rubbing. It felt good. I wasn't really warm, but I was as warm as I was going to get.
"Just out of curiosity," my mother said, "what did you think of the campus? Honestly."
"I liked it."
"I thought it was great," she said.
"So did I."
"That bigblowhard," she said. "Where does he get off?"
I have my own fireplace now. Where we live the winters are long and cold. The wind blows the snow sideways, the house creaks, the windows glaze over with ferns of ice. After dinner I lay the fire, building four walls of logs like a roofless cabin. That's the best way. Only greenhorns use the teepee method. My children wait behind me, jockeying for position, furiously arguing their right to apply the match. I tell them to do it together. Their hands shake with eagerness as they strike the matches and hold them to the crumpled paper, torching as many spots as they can before the kindling starts to crackle. Then they sit back on their heels and watch the flame engulf the cabin walls. Their faces are reverent.
My wife comes in and praises the fire, knowing the pride it gives me. She lies on the couch with her book but doesn't read it. I don't read mine, either. I watch the fire, watch the changing light on the faces of my family. I try to feel at home, and I do, almost entirely. This is the moment I dream of when I am far away; this is my dream of home. But in the very heart of it I catch myself bracing a little, as if in fear of being tricked. As if to really believe in it will somehow make it vanish, like a voice waking me from sleep.
Bullet in the Brain
Anders couldn't get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders-a book critic known for the weaiy, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.
With the line still doubled around the rope, one of the tellers stuck a posiTroN closed sign in her window and walked to the back of the bank, where she leaned against a desk and began to pass the time with a man shuffling papers. The women in front of Anders broke off their conversation and watched the teller with hatred. "Oh, that's nice," one of them said. She turned to Anders and added, confident of his accord, "One of those little human touches that keep us coming back for more."
Anders had conceived his own towering hatred of the teller, but he immediately turned it on the presumptuous crybaby in front of him. "Damned unfair," he said. "Tragic, really. If they're not chopping off the wrong leg or bombing your ancestral village, they're closing their positions."
She stood her ground. "I didn't say it was tragic," she said. "I just think it's a pretty lousy way to treat your customers."
"Unforgivable," Anders said. "Heaven will take note."
She sucked in her cheeks but stared past him and said nothing. Anders saw that her friend was looking in the same direction. And then the tellers stopped what they were doing, the other customers slowly turned, and silence came over the bank. Two men wearing black ski masks and blue business suits were standing to the side of the door. One of them had a pistol pressed against the guard's neck. The guard's eyes were closed, and his lips were moving. The other man had a sawed-off shotgun. "Keep your big mouth shut!" the man with the pistol said, though no one had spoken a word. "One of you tellers hits the alarm, you're all dead meat."
"Oh, bravo," Anders said. " 'Dead meat.'" He turned to the woman in front of him. "Great script, eh? The stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes."
She looked at him with drowning eyes.
The man with the shotgun pushed the guard to his knees. He handed the shotgun to his partner and yanked the guard's wrists up behind his back and locked them together with a pair of handcuffs. He toppled him onto the floor with a kick between the shoulder blades, then took his shotgun back and went over to the security gate at the end of the counter. He was short and heavy and moved with peculiar slowness. "Buzz him in," his partner said. The man with the shotgun opened the gate and sauntered along the line of tellers, handing each of them a plastic bag. When he came to the empty position he looked over at the man with the pistol, who said, "Whose slot is that?"
Anders watched the teller. She put her hand to her throat and turned to the man she'd been talkingto. He nodded. "Mine," she said.
"Then get your ugly ass in gear and fill that bag."
"There you go," Anders said to the woman in front of him. "Justice is done."
"Hey! Bright boy! Did I tell you to talk?"
"No," Anders said.
"Then shut your trap."
"Did you hear that?" Anders said. " 'Bright boy.' Right out of The Killers."
"Please, be quiet," the woman said.
"Hey, you deaf or what?" The man with the pistol walked over to Anders and poked the weapon into his gut. "You think I'm playing games?"
"No," Anders said, but the barrel tickled like a stiff finger and he had to fight back the titters. He did this by making himself stare into the man's eyes, which were clearly visible behind the holes in the mask: pale blue and rawly red-rimmed. The man's left eyelid kept twitching. He breathed out a piercing, ammoniac smell that shocked Anders more than anything that had happened, and he was beginning to develop a sense of unease when the man prodded him again with the pistol.
"You like me, bright boy?" he said. "You want to suck my dick?"
"No," Anders said.
"Then stop looking at me."
Anders fixed his gaze on the man's shiny wing-tip shoes.
"Not down there. Up there." He stuck the pistol under Anders's chin and pushed it upward until he was looking at the ceiling.
Anders had never paid much attention to that part of the bank, a pompous old building with marble floors and counters and gilt scrollwork over the tellers' cages. The domed ceiling had been decorated with mythological figures whose fleshy, toga-draped ugliness Anders had taken in at a glance many years earlier and afterward declined to notice. Now he had no choice but to scrutinize the painter's work. It was even worse than he remembered, and all of it executed with the utmost gravity. The artist had a few tricks up his sleeve and used them again and again-a certain rosy blush on the underside of the clouds, a coy backward glance on the faces of the cupids and fauns. The ceiling was crowded with various dramas, but the one that caught Anders's eye was Zeus and Europa-portrayed, in this rendition, as a bull ogling a cow from behind a haystack. To make the cow sexy, the painter had canted her hips suggestively and given her long, droopy eyelashes through which she gazed back at the bull with sultiy welcome. The bull wore a smirk and his eyebrows were arched. If there'd been a caption bubbling out of his mouth, it would have said hubba hubba.
"What's so funny, bright boy?"
"You think I'm comical? You think I'm some kind of clown?"
"You think you can fuck with me?"
"Fuck with me again, you're history. Capiche?"
Anders burst out laughing. He covered his mouth with both hands and said, "I'm sorry, I'm soriy," then snorted helplessly through his fingers and said, "Capiche-oh, God, capiche," and at that the man with the pistol raised the pistol and shot Anders right in the head.
The bullet smashed Anders's skull and plowed through his brain and exited behind his right ear, scattering shards of bone into the cerebral cortex, the corpus callosum, back toward the basal ganglia, and down into the thalamus. But before all this occurred, the first appearance of the bullet in the cerebrum set off a crackling chain of ion transports and neurotransmissions. Because of their peculiar origin these traced a peculiar pattern, flukishly calling to life a summer afternoon some forty years past, and long since lost to memoiy. After striking the cranium the bullet was moving at nine hundred feet per second, a pathetically sluggish, glacial pace compared with the synaptic lightning that flashed around it. Once in the brain, that is, the bullet came under the mediation of brain time, which gave Anders plenty of leisure to contemplate the scene that, in a phrase he would have abhorred, "passed before his eyes."
It is worth noting what Anders did not remember, given what he did recall. He did not remember his first lover, Sheriy, or what he had most madly loved about her, before it came to irritate him-her unembarrassed carnality, and especially the cordial way she had with his unit, which she called Mr. Mole, as in Uh-oh, looks like Mr. Mole wants to play. Anders did not remember his wife, whom he had also loved before she exhausted him with her predictability, or his daughter, now a sullen professor of economics at Dartmouth. He did not remember standing just outside his daughter's door as she lectured her bear about his naughtiness and described the appalling punishments Paws would receive unless he changed his ways. He did not remember a single line of the hundreds of poems he had committed to memory in his youth so he could give himself the shivers at will-not "Silent, upon a peak in Darien," or "My God, I heard this day," or "All my pretty ones? Did you say all? 0 hell-kite! All?" None of these did he remember; not one. Anders did not remember his dying mother saying of his father, "I should have stabbed him in his sleep."
He did not remember Professor Josephs telling his class how Athenian prisoners in Sicily had been released if they could recite Aeschylus, and then reciting Aeschylus himself, right there, in the Greek. Anders did not remember how his eyes had burned at those sounds. He did not remember the surprise of seeing a college classmate's name on the dust jacket of a novel not long after they graduated, or the respect he had felt after reading the book. He did not remember the pleasure of giving respect.