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The Completeness: A novel

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Samuel Royce Harr
Bachelor of Arts
University of Rochester
Master of Arts
Carnegie Mellon University
A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of
the requirements for the
Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing: Fiction
Department of English
College of Liberal Arts
Graduate College
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
May 2010
UMI Number: 1479063
All rights reserved
The quality of this reproduction is dependent upon the quality of the copy submitted.
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a note will indicate the deletion.
UMI 1479063
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Copyright by Samuel Royce Harr 2010
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We recommend the thesis prepared under our supervision by
Samuel Royce Harr
The Completeness Novel
be accepted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing
Douglas Unger, Committee Chair
Richard Wiley, Committee Member
Donald Revell, Committee Member
Jennifer Keene, Graduate Faculty Representative
Ronald Smith, Ph. D., Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies
and Dean of the Graduate College
May 2010
The Completeness: A Novel
Samuel Royce Harr
Prof. Douglas Unger, Examination Committee Chair
Professor of English
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
The concept of completeness is a state of having all the parts that one needs to be
whole—or, of being complete. What that is depends on what the person needs—a wife, a
friend, a lover, a friend, art, a trade, a religion, a God. Each of these others fits into the
individual character, like a piece that fits an empty space in a jigsaw puzzle. Without it,
that empty space becomes a nothingness that is all too real—one becomes aware of the
appearance and substance of nothing. What does a person do without that sense of
completeness? Do they look for something that fits the empty spot in their psyche? Do
they ignore it, maybe find solace through anything else without actually recognizing what
it is that they are missing? Or do they just accept that emptiness and make it a part of
their whole?
These were the main questions in my mind as the plot developed over the past year.
If anything, the plot focused on the idea of incompleteness. Each character is missing
something in his or her life, and they are trying hard to find it again. The completeness
becomes an intangible abstraction, an unreal idea that cannot be seen or even explained.
The incompleteness, what they find themselves living with every day, is a constant
reminder of what their life could have been if they had that completeness. Kevin is
haunted by what his life could have been had his son lived; Nancy’s corporate job
reminds her of being alone, playing drums in a rock band; and Randy is defeated by his
own attempts to save the world that cannot be saved. The tension and the tragedy of the
story is the memory that each character has experienced completeness before, and the
uncertainty that they will ever find it again.
Chapter 1
It had all been a stupid, stupid mistake on everybody’s part. Kevin was trying to
cross the street, with a coffee in one hand and his cell phone in the other, not paying
attention at all to what was happening around him. All he could think about was the hot
delicious jolt of caffeine and why the lawyers would not return his calls. The number
was burned into his mind like a mantra—he muttered it under his breath as he punched
the phone keys. The light turned green and he stepped into the street without looking
both ways—after all, he had the right of way, traffic should have stopped—and he heard
someone screaming and looked around and saw two girls from the university pointing
and shouting and realized they were pointing and shouting at him.
After the accident everything had become a blur. He tried to figure out what had
happened and he listened intently to the doctors but nothing they said made any sense. It
was a concussion, that part he knew. His head hurt in a sickening way. Flashes of pain
circled everywhere in his mind. Nancy sat next to him in the hospital room listening to
the doctors and tried to translate for him what they were saying by touching him gently
on his forehead, then letting her fingers run along the side of his skull towards his right
ear, which released a rainbow of pain, a flow of pleasurable nausea behind his eyes and
ears. She would touch his arm and his leg where the bruises were but the oddly sickening
sensations in his head were still flowing and swaying. He could tell by the look on her
face that she was trying to reassure him that everything was going to be all right, but her
words made no sense.
Fine. So. As he waited for the surgery he tried to piece together everything that
happened. Was it the coffee, the phone, that he had spent too much time at work? Was it
pure stupidity on the part of the biker, a kid on a mountain bike who loved the thrill of
coasting down a steep hill towards the office district, going against the traffic on a one
way street? He probably wasn’t paying attention to the traffic lights, because he saw no
laws to stop bicyclists; if there were, he wouldn’t have stopped anyway. Maybe he was a
messenger, maybe he was a student, maybe he was just out to impress girls with how fast
he could go through a three-way intersection, maybe he was an idiot. And maybe he did
notice Kevin walking into the crosswalk, punching numbers into his cell phone and
sipping at his coffee, but by that point it was too late to stop.
The pieces came together in his mind as the nurses came in to prepare him for
surgery. There was nothing distinguishing about the biker, except that he had no helmet
and his hair was long. The bike struck him full on, first the tire, then the weight of the
bike and then, as the bike stopped the biker himself. Kevin was knocked back onto the
street. He imagined the bicycle tumbling into the air and the biker spinning over the
hood of a car sitting at the light and falling into the waiting traffic. Then he hit the street
and there was a flash and a bang—he wondered for an instant if he had been shot—and
he felt something warm seeping all over his clothes and thought it was either his coffee or
his blood.
He tried to find the right words for what it was like when his head hit the street.
People coming out of the coffee shop or those just passing by who wanted to help him
asked him if he was all right, and when they realized that he wasn’t they asked where it
hurt and how much: suddenly Forbes Avenue was his personal private physician. He
went along with it dumbly, trying to generate words that would describe what was
happening inside of his head and body, but all that came from his mouth was gibberish.
Instead of words, he was thinking of Arthur’s fifth birthday and how Nancy made him
dress like a clown because, “That’s what he wants.” Then Arthur cried when he saw the
clown, because they scared him—he had never told anybody. He started to laugh at that
memory, and then a complete stranger screamed when he saw the blood soaking the front
of his trousers and someone else called 911.
His cell phone scattered beneath the cars. Complete strangers grabbed his shoulders
and arms and dragged him out of the intersection in front of the coffee shop. Traffic
began again and the heavy wheels of the cars crushed his phone into shards of plastic and
wire. When the EMTs got there, they asked him his name—Kevin wasn’t sure because
he had blacked out again by that time. They must have identified him by his wallet. The
nurses at the emergency room must have gotten his number from the insurance card in his
wallet. And the insurance company was where Nancy’s office was, and a co-worker
called her immediately. By the time she met him at the hospital Kevin had been in and
out of consciousness four times—the traffic, the coffee shop, the ride in the ambulance,
the questions about who he was and where it hurt were all a blur. When he finally came
to and the room had stopped spinning, she was sitting next to him and holding his hand.
The preparation room was long and narrow; curtains hung between the beds that lined
the length of the room, dividing the patients waiting for operations. Doctors, nurses, and
complete strangers walked up the length of the room, looking for the names of certain
patients on the charts that hung from the curtain rods. A round woman in sweatpants and
a pink coat waddled past with three squabbling children in tow. She stopped for a
moment, doubled back, and peered at Kevin, squinting as if she had lost her glasses. The
children were loud and fighting: one of them punched the other one, and that other one
started crying. The woman was oblivious. She looked at Nancy, sitting in a chair by
Kevin’s bed, then scowled and opened her mouth wide to say something. Nancy lowered
her magazine and stared back right in the woman’s eyes and said, “Can I help you?” The
round woman squinted at Kevin then grumbled, “Sorry. Looking for someone else.” She
backed away from Nancy and continued down the length of the room, followed by the
fighting crying children.
Nancy smiled briefly at Kevin then went back to her magazine. He found it strange
that she would smile at a time like this. She had always been an aloof woman, which was
one of the reasons that he had fallen in love with her. He thought that even though she
kept herself separate from everyone else, she wanted to be touched emotionally, and he
decided that he was the man to do it. He always asked her out with friends—she
wouldn’t go at first, didn’t come at first, but after five or six invitations she finally came
for a drink at the local bar. Their friends started dropping off as they began talking more
and more only to each other, and he learned about her parents, her sister and her brother,
and over time he learned that she had kept herself separate from everyone else after her
first boyfriend, the one she lost her virginity to, started to ignore her every day at school.
Kevin and Nancy became friends, then good friends, then lovers—the closer they
became, the more protective she became of him. Kevin was the one who met new
people, and she stayed quiet, watchful and wary of strangers. Now that he was laid out in
the bed and unable to talk her suddenly became more protective. She seemed proud of
herself for driving away a complete stranger, yet she was not certain how to express it;
the resulting smile was awkward and brief, and she went right back to her magazine.
When the doctors came to give Kevin his options, they said he was a very rare case.
The blow to his head had caused a clot in his brain, and they had to perform surgery in
order to remove it. The only way that they could reach the clot was through an endonasal
incision, up through his nose to his brain. You’re lucky that you live in Pittsburgh, he
heard the doctor say, We’re one of the few hospitals in the world that can perform this
procedure. We can get to the clot and remove it without having to perform brain surgery.
He didn’t go into explicit detail, but Kevin knew what that meant—shaving his hair,
cutting into the top of his head with a buzzsaw, removing the top of his skull. The doctor
was explaining how brain surgery could cause severe damage, worse than he already had,
but Kevin didn’t care. Sure, go up my nose, do what you have to do. He just wanted to
be out of the hospital, the bland white walls, the smell of cloying chemicals, the complete
strangers who kept looking in at him. The doctor said that there would be a certain
amount of rehabilitation after the surgery, but nowhere near as much as what he could
have expected from regular brain surgery. Nancy held Kevin’s hand and asked more
questions about the procedure, about what had to be done to his legs. The doctor tried to
explain what had to be done and Kevin strained to understand him. His language
sounded foreign, as if he and Nancy had started speaking in their own special language,
and eventually he resigned himself. He was too tired to make any sense of it all, even
though he could tell by the look on Nancy’s face that what they were discussing was
serious. She looked slowly crushed and frozen, as if a heavy weight had been lowered
upon her and then released. She still stood upright, though she began to tremble, and he
could see her cry without the accompanying sounds.
Kevin began to wonder if he was truly close to death. He had never really thought
about that before. It was something that he tried to avoid because he was alive, and if he
was still alive what was the point of ever worrying about dying. His son was a much
different case. He remembered Arthur’s first experience at a funeral when he was six.
One of Nancy’s uncles had died, and the family always took an occasion like death for
everyone to get back together, a macabre reunion. They flew south to Florida where her
uncle was to be buried. The church was filled with Nancy’s extended family—cousins,
kids, uncles, aunts, mother and father, grandfather and grandmother, friends and
neighbors all gathered for the funeral, each taking their turn in front of the body and
spending time catching up with each other. Meanwhile, the children crept up to the body
to sneak a peek at the dead—it was something they didn’t get to see much, so they were
all fascinated to see it for themselves. The family wouldn’t mind, since the children
would eventually have to understand what it meant to be dead.
Arthur stood on his tiptoes with the other children and looked at the chubby waxen
figure, his hair parted just right, the tips of his mustache standing out, his tie and jacket
pressed. He looked very calm and relaxed for a man who died of a heart attack at sixtyfive. To the children, he seemed as if he was asleep, except for the strange sulfurous
smell that came from the casket. They stood there whispering amongst themselves for a
few minutes, pooling their knowledge about what happens to you after you die. You go
to heaven, right? Maybe, unless you’ve been bad. What happens then? Well, you go to
Hell. But who says whether you’re bad or good? God. How does God know? Oh, God
knows everything. What, didn’t they teach you that in church? If you don’t go to church
then you’ll go to hell, so you better start going. Did Uncle Mike go to church? Yes, sure
he did! Then he’ll be OK. He’ll go to heaven.
The adults saw them doing it—Kevin was a few pews back talking to Nancy’s father
when he saw one of her three surviving uncles clomping up the aisle in the church to the
casket. He clamped Arthur on the shoulder, making him jump and scaring the other
children, who were still in the middle of their discussion, and sent them scattering. The
uncle had been drinking too much before the funeral to drown the loss of his older
brother, and he wiped the tears away and held Artie close with his hand on the boy’s
shoulder. He looked down at the waxy body in the dark brown laminated casket,
upholstered in silk, a pillow beneath his head, the kind of luxury one does not get while
still alive, and said “This is where you will be someday. This is where we’ll all be.”
Then he began to sob uncontrollably, and his wife had to thunder down the aisle in her
uncomfortable high heels to walk her husband out of the room. Artie stared after them,
his mouth slightly open. Funerals were not designed for children, Kevin decided, only
for adults.
It wasn’t until they got back home the next day that Arthur began to cry. Maybe it
was the overload of death—seeing the casket lowered into the ground, the way the
gravediggers on hand started throwing dirt into the hole in the ground, the way that their
ride home was conspicuously one less, the funeral party afterwards where everyone drank
to the uncle’s death—that Arthur finally couldn’t take. That night Kevin decided to talk
to Arthur about it: he knew that he needed someone, and Nancy was too removed when it
came to such matters. She always thought that there were some things that a parent
cannot do for her child. When he suggested the talk she shrugged and said, “He’ll learn.
Eventually.” After meeting her family, Kevin knew where she learned her manners. He
could always find a way to reach her when she would not let anyone else in, but not
tonight: he had to see to Arthur.
He went into Arthur’s room, where he sat with his a box of tissues in his lap, his face
red and puffy. “Are you all right, Artie?”
The boy sighed and wiped his nose. “Is what Uncle Jeb said true? Are we all really
going to end up like Uncle Mike?”
He couldn’t fathom what was going on in Arthur’s mind. He was six. He still
watched cartoons, drank chocolate milk every day, slept with stuffed animals on his bed.
Being a child was an adventure he could not see ending.
“Artie,” he said, “Artie. Look at me.” His son’s face was still red but his eyes had
stopped streaming and his breathing was slow and deliberate. “How old are you?”
“Almost seven.” His birthday wasn’t for another six months, which was close
enough for Arthur.
“Almost seven. OK. You know that you’re going to graduate from elementary
school, right?” Arthur was quiet for a moment, and then nodded his head. “OK, so that
means that you will go to junior high school. And then do you know what happens after
that? That means that you get to go to high school. You know what happens in high
school? You get to play football!”
“I don’t like football,” said Arthur, and folded his arms across his chest.
“And you’ll meet girls.”
“I don’t like girls.” said Arthur, but the corner of his mouth twitched for a second.
“You will. Trust me, you will. And then you go to college. And then you’ll meet a
really special girl, and you’ll marry her, and you’ll have a wonderful family, and you’ll
do things in your life that make you so happy, and then you’ll have a wonderful son just
like you.”
Arthur was processing this information, and Kevin worried that he could not get his
son to understand what it will be like to grow up, fall in love, get married, and to have his
own family, when death was here and now before any of that. How can I tell him about
all the problems he will have in his life, like failing and being alone and things in life that
will not make him happy? How can a six year old understand that?
“Life is full of wonderful things, and they are all out there waiting for you,” he said.
“Don’t worry about dying! There is so much more in life for you.”
Arthur intertwined his fingers, looking down at the floor. Kevin hoped that he
believed him. He was not a child who would accept a rote answer. Once he asked where
babies came from, and Nancy had told him that the stork delivered babies to loving
couples, and Arthur said that that wasn’t true, since babies were too heavy for storks to
carry. He also logically disproved the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny.
This made Kevin happy as a father, but right now he wished that here, when talking about
death, he could make his son believe anything he was trying to say, if only to stop him
from crying anymore. Finally, Arthur said, “So, I’m not going to die?”
All Kevin could say was, “That’s not important. What is important is that you have a
whole life ahead of you. Just think about everything that will happen to you that you will
enjoy, OK?” He knew that Nancy would not like the way that he handled that, and that
they would end up in this same situation again once Arthur realized that the answer
wasn’t an answer. For now, however, he nodded acceptance. Kevin kissed him on the
forehead, tucked him in and told him to get some sleep.
That was eight years ago. He didn’t know how Arthur would handle his brain
surgery, but he could be strong when necessary. Nancy probably only told him about the
leg, trying to protect him from the rest. Then again, Kevin wasn’t sure about the rest
himself. All that the doctor said had been a stream of babble that made his head hurt
when he tried to consider it. He knew that she would do the same thing that he did when
he lied to Arthur about dying, and that that was all they could do.
The anesthesiologist came in with a clipboard and introduced himself, and said they
were ready to operate. He explained the procedure, but Kevin still couldn’t understand.
Perhaps after the surgery he would. Nancy signed the forms, then smiled again at Kevin
before she left. He thought that this must be painful for her. She always wanted to run
everything, and this she could not. Her face started to turn red as she turned away and
left the preparation room.
As the lights above his eyes glared down at him in the waiting room with all the other
patients counting down the moments before their surgeries, he felt the warm flow of
sedative in his veins, and the anesthesiologist said, “What I want you to do now is count
backwards from ten. Can you do that for me?” Kevin tried to nod but he could not
because of the cast that held his neck in place; instead he tried to blink an affirmative
reaction. One blink, then he started counting in the back of his mind.
In the seconds that it took for the anesthesia to begin its work, Kevin thought about
what his life meant. His days at work were a blur, all he could remember was Nancy and
Arthur, and even now he couldn’t remember much of the past years of their life together.
Arthur had been a baby, then a toddler, and now he was fourteen—soon he would be
fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, fifty. Now, however, he didn’t know if he was going
to make it through the surgery. Maybe he would make it, and if he did, maybe something
would happen during the surgery that would make him a helpless invalid. Or maybe
there was something they didn’t tell him. He knew that Nancy did not cry, or hardly ever
cried; they knew something they were not telling him.
If he was going to die, he wanted to know. He began to panic; he had no control of
his life anymore, the doctors and his wife had control of everything, and he wanted to
push away and jump off the table and run, to tear off the gown and run bare ass naked
down the hallways of the hospital, causing nurses to scream and patients to stare at him
with amusement and jealousy, until he got to the doors and pushed his way out. But his
limbs were nonresponsive, and he felt his mind slowly fading away as well.
The only thing he could do, in his last few seconds before the anesthetic took hold,
was to pray. He was not a religious man, but since his life was at stake, and he couldn’t
face the dark emptiness that could possibly be his end, he felt that one prayer couldn’t
hurt. He prayed that he would make it through the surgery. He prayed that Nancy and
Artie would be fine until he made it through, and he prayed that he would, in some way,
be able to live his life again.
The one thought that stayed with Kevin throughout the surgery, a time of blackness
caused by the anesthesia, was a time that he had gone fishing with his father. He could
feel the wind rushing through his hair as they drove along the interstate to the parking
spot near the lake, and then the ground beneath his shoes as they walked a mile and a half
from the car to the shore. Along the way they were inundated with bugs—mosquitoes
and flies, dragonflies and wasps. His father sprayed bug repellent on him, replacing the
smell of the lake with the scent of toxic chemicals on the skin. They reached the end of
the pier and sat. His father snapped his rod and sent the line out on the water, and then he
waited for the fish to bite.
Kevin’s father could wait for the fish for hours, but Kevin could not. He looked
around the lake, looked at his watch, looked up and down the pier, wondered how he
could waste time in such a place like this. He didn’t understand how his father could
come all the way out to the lake and do nothing all day. Even if he caught a fish, most
times he would only admire it for its size or, if it was small, for its stamina and strength,
and then he would toss it back. Kevin remembered how his jaw would drop open in
disbelief; they had driven so far, walked such a way, been eaten by bugs, and then wasted
so much time staring at the water, waiting for anything to bite, only to waste it when it
finally did. He remembered watching his father carefully removed the hook, said a few
nice words to the fish and then tossed it back, and then asked, “Why do you always do
that? Why don’t you keep the fish?”
“I don’t need it. Why should I keep it?”
Kevin flapped his arms, an irritated child. “Then what are we doing out here? Why
don’t we just go home?” His father smiled at him, affectionate yet weary.
“Someday you’ll realize that this is one of the best days of your life,” he said.
He tried to focus on what that meant, but could not. The lake and his father and the
surgery all faded into a sloppy brown morass which he wasn’t able to understand for a
very long time.
Chapter 2
Kevin did not dream well. When he finally came to, he had a storm of thoughts in his
mind, as if he had been dreaming all the time he was in surgery that he had to sort
through. His doctor spoke to him, telling him that the surgery had been successful.
When he did not respond directly, the doctors and nurses assumed that he was still tired
from the surgery, but it was all the thoughts racing in his mind that made the hospital
blurry. He was stuck in Barcelona, where he taught English after he had graduated from
Kevin used to walk down the streets in Barcelona towards the Picasso Museum,
hidden in the Gothic Quarter, so difficult to find that there were signs beneath the street
signs bolted to the sides of buildings telling people where they could find it. He
remembered the smell of coffee at the cafes, the garish colors of knick-knacks at the
tourist shops, the small fruit and vegetable shops operated by Pakistani immigrants, the
stone bricks of pavement beneath his feet, the constraining crowds of people suffering in
the heat, trying to make their way through the narrow lanes. The details about the
successful destruction of his clot didn’t matter as much as getting lost in the medieval
quarter of a city on the other side of the ocean.
It had been so long since he had been there, yet the memories were brilliant and vivid.
He went there to teach English after college, yet he spent most of his time wandering the
city, getting lost just so that he could run his hand across the stone and brick of the
buildings around him. He thought about the restaurants that he ate at with Maria, how
she laughed at his attempts to speak Spanish then reached across the table and touch his
hand as she corrected his grammar. Where she was now he did not know.
Maria was a poet who wrote long winding verses in Spanish. He could never
understand what they meant when she read them, he just liked the sound of her voice—
slow, dark, and mysterious. He first met her at a poetry reading at a bar. She read in
front of a crowd in a black dress, her hair tousled down her back. He noticed how the
rest of the room hung off of her every word, just like he did, and cheered with lusty
handclaps and wolf whistles. A lounge band started up once she was done, and he sided
up to her and asked if she wanted to dance. She laughed, then said yes, she would.
He thought about dancing as he tried to walk again. Now he had to prop himself up
on a set of parallel bars in order to gain use of his legs again. You won’t lose your legs,
the doctor said cheerily, you just have to get used to using them again, happens all the
time with brain surgery. The nurse helped Kevin into the harness that would support his
weight then took his arm as he flailed his legs uselessly. As he moved, he thought about
dancing, how he had no clue about how to dance in Spain to the infectious rhythm.
Maria laughed at his awkwardness, yet she was still close against his body, smelling of
luscious perfume mixed with sweetly bitter sweat and said, Just let yourself go, let it
happen, you’ll feel it. She grinned at him, her teeth and glowing eyes only inches from
his face.
For the next week, Kevin went back to that bar every night after he taught his English
class. He brought his shoulder bag with his course books, papers, and a book to read.
Knowing Spanish was not a requirement at many schools—they only wanted you to
speak English. He was confident enough to order a drink in Spanish, and read for a time,
waiting to see if she would come back again, berating himself for not getting her phone
number. He went through his dictionary and learned how to ask a woman for her phone
number in Spanish, and furtively spied the room, watching who walked in, perhaps her,
perhaps on the arm of another man, someone taller, more attractive than he was. Well, it
was not often that he could sit in a bar in Spain and wait for a beautiful woman, so why
not wait? He had time before the subways shut down at midnight, and he could always
take a taxi if he needed to.
If he had thought hard, which he decided not to do while he waited, he would have
thought of Nancy. They had been together since they met in college. He wanted to
become a teacher, but he would need an education degree, and in order to get that he
needed teaching experience. His friend Stewart suggested that he go abroad and teach
that way. He had just returned from a long gig in Mexico and couldn’t wait to go back.
“Think about it,” he said, “you get to live in a foreign country, totally surrounded by hot
girls. It’s a total winning situation.” Kevin reminded him about Nancy, and Stewart said,
“Take her with you.”
Kevin knew she wouldn’t go. She hated traveling. She was always anxious when
they went on small trips together around Ohio and Virginia. When he asked why, when
they were going to visit friends in Cincinnati, she said it was because of the vast
emptiness of the interstate. That sounded ridiculous to him, but she did not smile. He
told her that the city was huge, there would be so much around them, and she said,
“Yeah, but right here, there’s only trees and billboards and cars and the road. It’s
empty.” She folded her arms tightly across her chest and looked down at the glove
compartment, letting the road pass by her window unnoticed.
It took a few months of him living on unemployment and her salary as a temp before
he suggested teaching abroad. She agreed almost immediately. “That way you can learn
Spanish. You’ll always have a subject you could teach.” She wanted him to go, and she
would stay in Pittsburgh. He told her that she could come with him, there would be
housing accommodations for both of them. They talked about this while she was
cleaning the kitchen, her hair tied back wearing torn shorts and old shoes. “I don’t want
to go,” she said. “I have a job here, and I don’t want to give that up.” As she spoke, she
never looked directly at Kevin.
He had last seen Nancy at the airport. She stood by her car watching him strap his
bag to his back. She was five feet away, not making a move to come closer. He wanted
her to hug him, to tell him in some way that she was sorry that he was leaving, that she
was looking forward to him returning. Instead, she said, “Have a good trip.” She kissed
him briefly on the cheek, got in the car and drove away, leaving him standing on the curb.
He wondered if she would ever come to visit him in Barcelona. Would she save
enough money for the ticket? Would she get away from her office to be with him, even
for a little while? He had been alone in Barcelona for five months. Even though he met
people at the school and they went to bars together, he still did not have her. When he
suggested she come over she would say yes, of course, and changed the subject.
He met Maria again after nine days at the bar. She came up to him while a rock band
from England was playing and ignoring the disinterested crowd. She sidled up to him,
took his arm, and said, “I didn’t expect to see you again.” She wore a silvery strapless
dress this time that glittered subtly. He thought for a moment that it had to be someone
else. Then he bought her a drink.
They tried to talk to each other over the din of the band, then left together to get
another drink down the street at a café. She could speak English quite well, and she was
more than happy to teach him Spanish. She started talking to him in Spanish at the café,
asking him what he did, where he lived, did he have a girlfriend, fiancée? He tried to
respond in his broken Spanish: “I teach English. I live in Pittsburgh. I do not have a
girlfriend.” It was too easy for him to say, it simply rolled off his tongue.
He was startled. He watched himself talk to Maria as her smile spread, accentuating
the dimples on the sides of her face. He saw himself become more flirtatious, using both
English and Spanish to be funny, mysterious, seductive, and he was shocked at his
attempts to woo her. What was even stranger was the way she reciprocated his subtle yet
evident attempts, even touching his hand as she spoke, letting him feel the warmth from
her palm. The more he thought about it, the less real it actually seemed, so that,
eventually, it was not real at all, only a dream that took place across an ocean. Once he
had that settled, then he could let it go, let it happen.
Kevin forgot about Nancy for a while. He taught late afternoons and evenings at the
school, then met with Maria. Sometimes they would go to a café and talk, first in his
ever improving Spanish, then in English. They would talk about his day, who he taught,
what he did, then about hers, where she had been, about her poetry. One night she was
telling him about the problems of living and working in Barcelona when she was from
Granada—she could hardly speak Catalan and could feel the angry eyes of nationalists on
her when she tried. He told her not to worry so much, it couldn’t be that bad, and she
said that he was not Spanish, he would never know. It was as if she wanted to start a
debate on the issue, but all he wanted to do was watch her arms as she used them when
she talked, watch her lips moved from an angry frown to a happy smile, and her hands as
she drank from a glass of red wine.
They talked long into the night, way past midnight when the metro shut down, and
walked back to her flat. She invited him in for a quick drink. He set his bag on the floor
as she kicked off her shoes. He took his shoes off as well, and as he straightened up he
saw how he was taller than she was, at least six inches. She wrapped her arms around his
neck and pulled him close and kissed him hard. Kevin thought about the night they
danced at the bar and she told him to just let himself go, let it happen, he would feel it.
That night, he felt it, and Pittsburgh was left far behind.
He watched the shadows that the lights from the street played on the ceiling. She
smoked a cigarette and asked him why he came to Barcelona. He gave her his standard
answer, whenever anyone asked—that he had applied to several different schools in
Spain and Barcelona had an opening, it didn’t pay much, but he was able to cover his
bills and was an exciting city, and on and on until she said, “Yes, but why?”
“I just told you,” he said.
“No, you practiced that reason. But that’s not really why you came here. Nobody
comes to Barcelona just because.”
“You could also say that no one goes anywhere ‘just because’.”
“You’re right, no one does. So why are you here?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know what you want me to say. It was a great opportunity and
I figured I had to take it. There isn’t much more than that.”
She sat up in the bed, naked, unfazed by exposing herself to the four walls of her
room. “Silly boy. Everyone has a reason, or a destiny, or a fate, however you call it.
You can’t say you came all this way from America just to do a job, or to become a
teacher, or to do whatever. If you are going to come all this way, there has to be a reason.
Do you ever think what your reason is?”
Kevin thought of Pittsburgh and Nancy working at an office. He wasn’t even sure
what she did there. “No, I haven’t.”
“You should,” she said. She got up to get a drink and offered him one.
He started to think about why he was in Spain, but the more he thought about it all he
could think was being stuck in Pittsburgh. There were hardly any jobs there, nothing to
do, nowhere he could go unless he wanted to leave the city and the valley and go
somewhere else. There was a sense of desperation that he had some weeks just before he
got his paycheck, when he was not sure that he would be able to stay in Pittsburgh, then a
feeling of elation when he saw that he had worked enough so that they could just pay the
bills. He made less in Barcelona, but he never had that feeling there. It was like being in
freefall, and he never worried about hitting the ground below.
Another moment Kevin thought of in physical therapy was when he and Maria were
walking through the city looking for a restaurant for dinner on his night off from school.
They met at Placa de Cataluña and walked down the Ramblas, surrounded by loud,
bewildered tourists and the street performers and hustlers that preyed on them. They
chose a side street, which led to another street and another, each street becoming more
narrow and less crowded. They were almost alone except for a few young people
chattering excitedly and an old man walking his dog indifferently. They passed a plaza
and Maria said, “Let’s stop in here a moment.” There was a fountain in the middle, like
so many plazas did, a small shop to the left and a café across from it—the other walls
were solid, yet pockmarked with little divets in a mosaic carved into the wall. Maria
asked if he knew where they were. He didn’t, so he stayed silent and only shrugged.
“This is where they brought people to be executed during the Civil War. The Fascists
would bring people who were with the resistance here and shoot them in public so that
everyone else would get the message.” She ran her hand on the wall, slid her finger into
one of the divets, then ran it along the rim. “Then they would leave the bodies here, so
that anyone who passed by would see.”
“Why here?” asked Kevin.
“The walls were solid enough to stop the bullets in case they missed.”
Kevin touched the wall and worked some of the cement away with his finger.
“Doesn’t seem that solid to me.”
“Of course not. Not now. They shot a lot of people here.” Maria let her arm drop
and pointed to the café that faced the wall. “We can eat over there, if you like.”
She began pointing out more about the history of Barcelona the more they went out—
the walls built by the Romans, the statue of Columbus at the Marina, the castle that
overlooked the city—and Kevin changed his mind. He only wanted to stay in, or if they
were to go out he only wanted to go to clubs or bars, preferably the holes where he could
get nicely drunk and stagger home afterwards. She still wanted to go out in the morning
for some breakfast, so he would make sure that he had enough food in his refrigerator to
cook for her when they woke up. She kept talking about the city, it’s long, sometimes,
brutal history, and she said, “I bet this doesn’t happen in Pittsburgh, does it?” He had to
admit, every time she asked, that no, it did not. Pittsburgh was carved from the
Monongahela valley to harvest iron and minerals to create steel. That made the city rich
and powerful, then left it broken and scarred once there was nothing left. In Pittsburgh,
the city teeter-tottered between the grandeur of the university district in Oakland to the
battered ghettos in East Liberty. The city tried to be as grand as it once was, even while
homes were abandoned and plywood was nailed over the broken windows. People in the
city would drink to forget Pittsburgh, then wake up the next morning and remember it all
over again. His city had over two hundred years of history, nothing that could compete
with Barcelona’s two thousand years. Maria could show him more of her city, but it
would never be his.
When the nurse came into his room to tell him the doctor had signed off on his
recovery and that he was ready to go home, he felt sad. The four cream colored walls
around him, the medical monitoring equipment, the TV on the post hanging from the
ceiling, had become an easy, comfortable place to live. The nurses were looking really
good to him in their shapeless scrubs, so good that Maria and Nancy didn’t even register
anymore. To leave the hospital now would be like stepping out into Barcelona again—a
broad metropolitan expanse touched and tarnished with history and death. If he could, he
might never have left Barcelona and stayed with Maria. He never would have come back
to Nancy and gotten a job as a substitute Spanish teacher, married her, then had Arthur.
He would not have lost his job due to state cutbacks, ended up at the office, far away
from teaching. And he never would have been crossing the street when that biker was
plowing down at his towards a collision.
Once Kevin was dressed and ready to go home, the nurse told him how to get an
outside line on the telephone, then left him alone. He picked up the phone and his fingers
hovered over the numbers. He could not remember Nancy’s number. He couldn’t
remember what it was that she did for a living or almost anything about her, except that
he remembered when he was on the plane from Pittsburgh to Barcelona and he kept
wondering why she would not come with him. He remembered when he came back from
Barcelona. It had been nine months since he had seen her. He tried to remember her
without thinking about Maria: she was dark and tanned, while Nancy with pale and
freckled; Maria loved to go out in the city, while Nancy liked to stay in. The two began
to seem as one, blurring into each other in his mind. He called her from Barcelona to tell
her what time his flight was. She said that she would be there to meet him. But as he
stood at the luggage carousel watching the people walking past him he knew that she
would not be there. He called Stewart, who was at home and gladly came out to get him.
The airport was forty-five minutes away from the city, so Kevin had time to sit and think.
He wondered if Nancy knew what he had done while he was in Barcelona. He had made
sure not to tell her, but he knew she was too smart for him. She probably read something
in his voice, the way he spoke, his tone.
Stewart arrived after about an hour. He pulled over and popped the trunk and let
Kevin get his bag in the trunk all by himself. Kevin got into the car and said, “Thanks for
getting here so soon.”
“No problem, buddy.” Stewart smelled of cigarettes and alcohol. “Hey, do you mind
if we go to a club first?”
Kevin did mind. He wanted to go home and confront Nancy and find out why she did
not come to meet him. Then again, after what happened in Barcelona, he didn’t think
that he deserved to see her, now or ever again. “Sure, why not?”
They drove through rural and suburban Pennsylvania until they went through the
tunnel that opened onto the landscape of Pittsburgh, bridges and tall office buildings and
roads, all lined and covered with soft, glittering lights. It made Kevin think of Christmas.
Stewart got off at Carson Street in the club district and they parked on a side street.
“We’ll get you something to drink first, then maybe a bite to eat,” said Stewart. “You
must be really tired and hungry, right? What time did you get up this morning?”
“Six. I’ve been up for about eighteen hours or so. I’ve lost track.”
“All right, we’ll take care of you, buddy, don’t you worry.”
They walked back to Carson and down to a club that Kevin remembered once, but he
wasn’t sure when he was there last. Stewart paid a cover charge for the both of them and
they walked in to a rumbled growling electric rock noise. He could make out guitar,
bass, and drums, but there wasn’t anything distinctive about it except the deep roaring
noise it made. He hoped that they would not have to stay too long, since he could not
stand this noise. They headed for the bar at the back of the club. Stewart got a couple of
beers, handed one over to Kevin and took a swig from his. Something has to be wrong,
thought Kevin. Stewart never pays for anything.
“Let’s check out the band,” said Stewart. He clapped Kevin on the shoulder and
aimed him towards the front of the club. Kevin did not want this, the godawful roar in
his head that he could not shake loose. It was not that he didn’t like rock, even the
louder, harder stuff, but this was too much right now. He had to see Nancy, to figure out
with her what was going on between them. He may even have to admit to her what it was
that he did in Barcelona, and he was ready for it. Maybe it was the jet lag, but he
couldn’t lie to her anymore.
Stewart was nodding his head in appreciation as he pushed their way through the
club. People in denim, flannel, and leather were standing around watching the band, not
responding, as if they were looking at art, a Picasso or a Warhol, only made of pure
noise. They got close enough and Kevin could see them: three people, two men and a
woman. The guitarist had short hair and his face was frowned as he tried to keep the
chords going in the riff. The bassist had long brown hair caked in sweat and he was
banging his head in time to the beat and sweating. The drummer was a short woman,
almost hidden behind the kit, switching from a regular rock beat to double time then back
again, almost as if she was mechanical. Her eyes were closed and her hair was flying as
she drove the song forward. He could see her chest panting as she breathed. She kept a
steady beat and then broke into a hard fill, followed by a cymbal crash, and then a double
bass drum beat, then double time. As he watched her, Kevin couldn’t believe that it was
Nancy behind the drums. She was totally absorbed in the noise that she was creating,
almost as if she was a poet of noise.
The guitarists turned towards her and played faster, trying to keep up, until the waves
of the guitar swept over the gestalt with a screeching solo, supported by the bass riff and
the drums, always the drums, driving them until the sound completely fell apart: the
bassist screamed (inaudible) and shook the cramp out of his right hand; the guitarist
turned his solo into a bluesy slide down the neck and strings, which ended in a growling
low end mess of noise and fuzz; and the drummer wrapped the song up with a drum roll
down the three toms and the snare and kicked over the cymbal stand into an appropriate
shattering crash. The guitars produced a high pitched feedback and the guitarists stood
there and let it happen, until the audience applauded, if only to get them to turn the noise
off. Which they finally did.
“What do you think of the drummer?” asked Stewart.
Nancy stood up, dazed and delirious from exhaustion, as if she had just run a
marathon, and threw her drumsticks to the floor. Stewart waved her over, but she could
not see him because of the lights in her eyes. “Come on,” he said, and pushed Kevin
forward towards the stage. Kevin was shocked; this was the woman who never wanted to
leave town, who would not even consider going to Barcelona to visit him, and now she
was here, pounding the living hell out of a drumkit at a dive bar. He did not even know
that she liked music.
She finally pushed her way through the audience who still stood motionless staring at
the stage, only now starting to move around, heading straight for Stewart and Kevin, who
was still dazed from her performance. She threw herself on him and hugged him. “I
missed you,” she said, in a voice much smaller and quieter than the noise she had made
on stage. He noticed how much stronger her arms were than they had been before.
It turned out that while Kevin was living another life while in Spain, Nancy was
living another life in Pittsburgh. She told him everything that had happened while they
were hanging around the bar with Stewart and her bandmates. Once he had left she had
an empty feeling deep within her. She kept listening to the radio, and she would switch it
from station to station, from the NPR station to easy listening to jazz to hip-hop, and she
wasn’t satisfied until she finally hit the rock station, and then only when they played the
louder, harder music. It was the sound of the drums that she could not get out of her
head. She went to the record store and bought CDs of bands like the Who, Led Zeppelin,
the Rolling Stones, and the latest albums from bands like Metallica, Soundgarden, and
others, all the bands with a loud drum sound. She would listen to them and try to figure
out what it was that the drummers were doing: and when she finally got the beat down for
one song, using her hands and feet and banging on anything that was around her, she
went and learned another. After a couple of months she bought a drumkit, the one that
was on the stage right now. “I know it’s used and it’s not the best, but it just feels great
to play it.” She emphasized these words by hitting Kevin’s arm, which hurt much more
than he thought it would.
He thought about it for a moment and figured that the money that she spent on the
drumkit might cost about as much as a ticket to Spain. Instead of seeing him, she became
a drummer. He should have been angry at her just for that, he thought, but he wasn’t.
Instead, he thought about Maria, and what they had done together in Barcelona, and he
knew that he could not question her again.
As he waited in his hospital room for Nancy to pick him up, sitting on the chair by the
bed, he wondered if she had changed since he was gone this time. Would she have had
an affair again? He imagined that she had had an affair with the bass player—otherwise,
how would she have gotten in that band? It was something that he had hoped that she
had done—that way, she would have no right to question him about what happened to
him in Barcelona. He paused for a moment, thinking about his reasoning, and realized
how foolish he was. That was years ago, before they got married, before Arthur was
born, before they bought a home together and before he had spent the last eleven years of
his life with her. They were beyond such petty things.
When she finally arrived to pick him up, she seemed so much different than she did
back then, when he got back from Spain. Her eyes seemed much darker; her blonde hair
was tied back out of her face, leaving her pale face exposed to the fluorescent lights of
the hospital room. She wore a white blouse and dark trousers, nothing that allowed her to
stand out, even alone in the middle of the room. “Are you ready to go?” she asked him.
He carefully stood up and walked across the room towards her. She didn’t make an
effort to help him, and he didn’t want it—all he wanted was to be able to walk out of the
hospital. Then an orderly walked in with a wheelchair and he stopped. “I don’t need a
“Sure you do,” said the orderly. “We wheel all of our patients out of the hospital.”
Kevin turned to Nancy as if pleading with her and she sighed. “It’s not going to hurt
you. Seriously, it won’t.” Kevin felt his face twitch in the corner of his lip. He didn’t
trust the hospital. He had been here for several weeks while they repaired his brain and
his legs and taught him how to walk again and all he wanted to do was leave, to leave this
place and never come back again, and this chair was in his way. He wanted to smash it,
to throw it down a flight of stairs and listen to the clattering clanging crashing noise it
would make when it hit the landing. Nancy put a hand on his arm and said, “Please, just
let him push you out of the hospital. Just do this for me, all right?”
Kevin sat in the wheelchair and the orderly rolled him down the hall, past the nurses’
station, to the elevator. He sat quietly in the elevator as it went down to the first floor,
and then as the orderly rolled it out into the main hallway, where doctors and family
members and patients wandered randomly. Their small party walked outside into the
brisk air, and Nancy realized that she had to get the car, and headed for the parking
garage. The orderly stood there with Kevin for a few minutes, and made Kevin uneasy.
He wished that this man in scrubs wasn’t waiting over him. He wished that he had not
had brain surgery. He wished that he was still in Barcelona.
It took fifteen minutes for Nancy to get to the main entrance with the car. “God, the
traffic in this place is unbelievable. How in the hell do you people drive here?” she asked
as she got out. The orderly shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know ma’am.”
They helped Kevin get to his feet, which he was perfectly able to do, then walked him
over to the car. “You’re going to have to take it easy for a few weeks, like the doctor
said, and you’ll have to come in for physical therapy so that we know how you’re doing.
If we work together, we can get you through this.”
Kevin was suddenly tired, especially of the optimistic crap that they force fed the
orderlies here. He sank into the car, swung his legs in and pulled the door shut without
looking back again. Nancy thanked the orderly and got into the car and pulled into
traffic. Kevin watched out the window as the streets turned into grassy neighborhoods
and then they started going up into the hills towards their home. All he wanted was to be
back home again, and all he wanted was to see his son again. He asked Nancy where
Arthur was, why didn’t he come out to the hospital with her.
“Don’t start with me, Kevin,” she said, and her knuckles tightened on the wheel.
“So, where is he?” he asked. “Where is he?”
Chapter 3
When Nancy told her father that she was moving to Pittsburgh, her father asked her
why. She shrugged. “Andy Warhol was from there. It can’t be a bad place, can it?”
Her father said, “Who the hell is Andy Warhol?”
She thought it was her father demonstrating how old he was, or at least how he was
out of touch. He must have been living under a rock if he didn’t know who Warhol was.
She had learned all about him in art class, and she assumed that everyone else had
learned about him as well. When she finally moved north to Pittsburgh, she learned that
hardly anyone there knew who he was either. There was a museum of his work
downtown, but the only people who went there were artists and college kids studying to
be artists. The rest of the city worked blue collar jobs under the dark cloudy skies.
Warhol could have been anybody, or nobody.
She thought of this as Kevin touched the furniture and walls. He had the same
confused look that her father did when she tried to explain Andy Warhol. Nancy
wondered what he was thinking, if he even remembered living there before. After they
had moved in, they argued about how they were going to decorate the kitchen—tiles or
wood floor, paint the cabinets or stain, where all the cookware was going to go—and
after that he just gave in to everything that she wanted. She didn’t want to be such an
overbearing person, but Kevin couldn’t decorate anything. She tried to make up with
him. He said that it was all right, don’t worry about it, and then gave in to everything that
she wanted. She felt bad that they had such a petty fight, and now it was a memory that
he might have completely forgotten. He ran his fingers along the walls and bookshelves.
How could he forget such a pointless argument?
The doctor said that it would take a while for him to get used to being back home
again. “The traumatic blow followed by invasive surgery can disorient anyone,” he said,
“so follow him around, make sure he doesn't hurt himself.” She was able to get the time
off from work, but now all she could think about was what would happen when she got
back to the office—everyone would know about what had happened, and would stop by
her office all day long to say I’m so sorry, How is he doing, Is there anything I can do, If
there’s anything I can do, If you need someone to talk to. All the things that she didn’t
need or want to hear would be all that she would hear all day long. She was so sick of
sympathy that she almost threw a coffee pot in the face of Denise, a concerned co-worker
who wouldn’t shut her mouth. After that she went out if she needed coffee.
“Are you doing all right?” she asked Kevin. He was standing in front of the fireplace
looking at the framed pictures. There were shot of their honeymoon in Scotland. It was
Kevin’s idea to go there. Since their friends who married always went to warm and
tropical places, he wanted to go somewhere totally different, preferably cold and wet. It
was his idea of a joke, but she went along with it. The picture was at Loch Ness, after
they had been on a tour boat that proved that there was nothing there. They were in
raincoats they had bought just before the tour, since it was July and they had not expected
it to be that cold or that wet. They were laughing together, and got a Japanese tourist to
take the picture of them. Kevin peered closely at the picture, then smiled. “Scotland,
right?” She nodded, and felt a sadness she did not expect.
He put the picture back on the mantel and turned slowly in a circle, then sat on the
couch. “Everything is still here,” he said. He didn’t sound convinced.
“Why wouldn’t it be?” she asked.
He laughed, and she asked if she said something funny. “It’s just that for you, it’s
easy. It’s always been here, and it will always be here. For me, things are different. It’s
almost like I’ve been on a different planet. Being back…” He shrugged. “It’s hard to
believe that everything is here.”
“And how about the fact that I’m here?”
“That’s not too hard. That I can get. It’s just the accident, the surgery…makes you
see things...differently.”
She wanted to remind him that that was what he had been saying for the past few
years. He had been depressed. Every time she tried to talk to him about it, he said that
“things were different,” then he would change the subject or leave the room. When he
started spending all of his time at work, she wasn’t sure that she could talk to him again.
She seriously considered divorce, and even went to see a lawyer about it. He didn’t tell
her much, except that she needed to make a case, and he asked her if there was any
reason why she wanted to separate. The only thing she could think of was “things are
different.” She didn’t go through with it, and waited for things to become the same
She went to the kitchen, leaving Kevin on the couch, and put the kettle on the stove.
She went through the cabinets looking for tea, the good kind that she bought at a
specialty store downtown. She found the small crumpled box underneath a loaf of bread.
It had been so long that she had eaten anything at the house that the bread had grown
moldy, and she threw it away. She had been living on whatever she could get at the
coffee shop in the hospital for the past week. When they were closed, or when she was at
home, she didn’t eat anything. The water was not boiling yet, so she fiddled with the
She heard Kevin talking. Nancy went into the living room and saw him murmuring
on the couch. “What?” he said when he saw her there.
The doctor said that he had to work this through himself. All she could do was “be
there for him,” which sounded like the biggest load of bullshit she had heard in a long
time. She wanted him on a drug that would help him to recover quickly, but the doctor
said that there was nothing “but time.” When she heard that, she got angry and said,
“Well why don’t I tell him everything? Won’t that do it?” The doctor said no, it
wouldn’t, and told her that that would be the worst thing she could to him. She began to
hate doctors for making her feel so impotent in her own family.
“Do you want some tea?” she asked.
“No.” He thought a moment, then said, “Some water would be nice.” She could hear
him murmuring again as she left the room.
Kevin had been moody for the past few years. He very rarely talked to her when he
came home from work. Sometimes she would follow him as he wandered through the
house. They walked from the kitchen to the living room to the dining room, then he
would turn up the stairs and go to the bedroom, the office, the door that was always
closed, and the bathroom, where she waited outside while Kevin stood at the frosted
window. Then he turned and saw her just beyond the doorway. She asked him if he was
all right, and he said nothing. He reached out slowly and pushed the door closed until the
bolt clicked.
It was fine with her if he didn’t want to say anything to her. There were times when
she wanted to say something—she sat at her desk at work with a pad and paper and wrote
out all the different things that she wanted to say to him. None of them made any sense,
or seemed appropriate, or was something that she had already said. So she came home at
night, possibly later than Kevin did, and if she was in the mood she might cook dinner;
otherwise, she wouldn’t, and he would fend for himself. When he realized that this was
what he had to do he cooked something simple, with a few ingredients and perhaps a
salad on the side, and he would look through the house for her and invite her down to eat.
Those were nights when she sat in their room, still in the clothes that she wore for work,
and didn’t eat anything.
One night she was looking at the wall and she thought that she heard his voice. He
was downstairs, making some kind of noise in the living room. She listened for a while,
and it sounded as if he was talking to someone. He sounded so animated that she thought
for sure that there had to be someone else in the house. He went on and on and became
louder, so that she finally got up off of the bed and went downstairs. She saw him pacing
in the living room, mumbling to himself and then talking loudly, reading from a medical
text that he had to put into his journal. He saw her and went back to reading, perhaps
even louder, until he was done with the paragraph. “I brought some work home,” he said.
She asked him what the hell was wrong with him. “Nothing,” he responded, his eyes
wild and unfocused. “Why?” She went back upstairs.
Nancy wanted to confront him, to force him to talk to her. He thought about telling
him that she knew about the girl in Barcelona, the poet. He had seen her books in his
office, and the way that he read them when he was supposed to be editing the work he
brought home from the office, with a sad, distant smile on his face, as if he was
reminding himself of something that he had lost long ago. She wondered how could she
compete with something unattainable in his mind, and she eventually gave up. Anyway,
she didn’t really know for certain. It was something that deep down inside she hoped for,
she wanted him to have done. If he had, there could be a confrontation, maybe even a
fight, if she was lucky, and perhaps they could hold each other afterwards and slowly,
lovingly, have sex again. Anything so that they wouldn’t have to walk on eggshells as
they had been for so long.
The water boiled and she made herself a cup of tea. It was only after she came back
to the living room did she remember his water. “Sorry,” she said when she brought it in
to him. He nodded, distracted. Once she sat he asked, “How is your family?”
“They’re fine. They ask about you.” She sipped her tea.
“What do you tell them?”
“I tell them that you’re doing better. I haven’t told them yet that you’re home, but I
will later today. Did you want me to call Edward for you?”
“No, no, I’ll do it myself later.” There was a distance between Kevin and his father
that she did not understand, but it was something they had in common. While he was
estranged from his father, she was distanced from her whole family. She went north to
go to college and met Kevin, then later married him, much to her father’s dismay. “How
could you marry someone from up north?” he cried. She laughed, not thinking much
about it, until she realized that he wanted her to stay down in Florida. She knew that
people in her town got married not out of love or desire but for convenience. They
married someone who they knew they could make a solid, strong family with. Everyone
told her it was a Southern thing, and would laugh about something they knew would
always go on. Everyone except her mother. “Don’t let yourself do that, Nancy,” she said
one day. They had been sitting in the kitchen after cleaning up dinner, and her mother
was crying gently over a glass of wine, the first time she had ever seen her do that.
“Marry the man that you love. Make sure that he truly makes you happy. That’s the best
that you can do for yourself.” She reached across the table to squeeze Nancy’s hand, and
spilled the wine on the floor.
Kevin held a picture in his hands that he had taken down from the wall. “These were
your grandparents, right?”
“Yes, they were.”
“I remember what you told me about them. How they lived around Jacksonville, in
Florida.” He smiled at the photo. “See, I haven’t forgotten everything.”
Nancy had hoped that he was an amnesiac, because if he was then maybe she could
start again. Maybe he would forget the depression that had affected him the past few
years. Maybe he would be back to the way he was when Arthur was a little boy, a kind
and loving man who was a much better parent than she could ever be. She didn’t hate
him for that—when she found out that she was pregnant, the only thing that helped her
through it was knowing that Kevin would be the man who she wanted to be beside her all
the time. He was steadfast, and she knew that whatever happened, they would be fine
together. She hoped that he would be that man again, but she could tell that he was
remembering everything, and that made her sad.
“Is Arthur all right?” he asked. Nancy knew that question would come up eventually,
but she didn’t expect it so soon.
“Sure, he’s fine,” she said.
“Oh, good. I always worry about him.” He was quiet for a moment. “Have you ever
noticed just how small he seems sometimes. And then some days he seems like he’s
grown up, just like that. It’s the damndest thing I’ve ever seen. Did you ever expect that
he would do anything like that?”
“I guess not.” She stirred sugar into her tea and watched the brown water as a weak
“I suppose he’s at school, right? I hope that he likes school. He’s getting big enough
that he should by now.” Kevin wiped his face with his hand. “I’m tired. I should really
lie down. You can’t get any sleep in a hospital.”
He headed up the stairs, Nancy following slowly behind him. He looked around their
bedroom as if it was a gift that he knew had been coming all along. “It’s great to be back
here again,” he said. He hugged Nancy slowly, and she put her arms around him. In a
strange way, it didn’t feel like he was there at all.
She went back downstairs and remembered what it had been like when they were first
together, how different he was then. He tried too hard to be funny, and it always seemed
as if he was trying to make her laugh. Eventually, over time, it worked. She laughed at
his dumb jokes, something that she had not expected. He was trying to make her happy,
something that other men that she had dated had never tried to do for her, men who
wanted her to do something for them. It felt very strange, almost alien at first, but as she
became accustomed to it she realized it was something she could never let go. It became
apparent the first time they had sex. They were in her bed, and he was slowly, tenderly
removing her clothing, kissing her frequently. He undid her trousers and she sucked her
breath in—it was something that she had expected would happen, yet still it was like a
flush of cold air on her skin. She had goosebumps on her arms, and she quickly covered
her breasts as her nipples stiffened. He looked at her with a question on his face, as if he
wanted to make sure that what he was doing was exactly right. It seemed such a quaint
move, but it made her feel safe. It wasn’t the best sex she had ever had, or would ever
have—they had had a few glasses of wine, he was still nervous, she wanted to laugh at
the image of him checking his every move—but it was exactly right for the moment.
When he used to hold her in his arms, she knew what it felt like—warm, solid, whole.
It seemed to complete her no matter what state she was in. Now things were different.
She sat at the table in the kitchen with her cup of tea. She wondered if Kevin would
improve. He seemed detached from everything, the same way that her father did when he
was struck by a drunk driver in Florida. There wasn’t much they could do for him—they
were in Jacksonville, and didn’t have all of the high technology medical care that was
available in Miami. Once the family got him home, he seemed all right physically, but
there were times when she looked in on him to see how he was feeling, and he would
look directly through her, as if she was not in the room. She would try to talk to him, and
he would remain mute, staring at the wall directly behind her. She wondered if Kevin
would do the same thing, this man who she married, who she loved, who she made love
to, if he would become her father.
If there was one thing that she hated, it was looking after someone. She decided to go
back to work next week. He would be fine alone in the house. And if he wasn’t, there
was really nothing she could do about it. She felt guilty for a moment, like a splinter in
her hand that she couldn’t remove. Slowly, the pain subsided. She sipped her tea and
started thinking again about work, even as she heard Kevin talking to Arthur again up in
his room.
Chapter 4
There were twelve chairs in a circle, all made of metal with plastic foam seats. There
was a thirteenth chair rolled in from the doctor’s office, cushioned and on wheels. That
one chair stood out from all of the others, which meant that everyone else had to look at
it. There was a table in the back of the room with a coffee maker brewing watery coffee,
served in styrofoam cups with sugar and artificial creamer. Kevin had stopped drinking
coffee after his accident; others sat staring into the steam from their cups, avoiding eye
contact. The doctor coughed in order to get their attention. No one looked up, so she
decided to start anyway.
“Good evening, everyone. This is the Trauma Acceptance Group, and my name is
Dr. Taggart. I will be the facilitator tonight.” She wore glasses and a white lab coat over
her skirt and blouse combination. She sat with a clipboard in one hand and a pen in the
other. This did not make Kevin feel well. He did not want what he said to be written
down, whether by Nancy or his co-workers or a doctor; he would just as soon wander
broken throughout his life, but he could not even go back to work. He came to the
trauma center at a suggestion from his doctor, who suggested that he come to this group
if only to put the accident behind him. He said that people who suffered trauma from
extreme accidents needed time to distance themselves from what happened. “You know,
you’re not indestructible,” said the doctor, which Kevin thought that was the dumbest
thing he had ever heard. And yet here he was.
“We are here this evening because all of us have something in common. We have
had traumatic experiences that have left us incomplete. Or at least that is how we believe
we are. It is possible to recover after such an experience, and we have found that a
support group is an excellent way for people to recover that sense of themselves that they
have lost. Only by coming together can we help each other to deal with the
consequences. People come to hospitals and cannot find a way to deal with what they
have been through. Surviving is one thing; letting go of the trauma that they experienced
is another. When a person is suffering from this kind of emotional trauma, they feel
alone. The purpose of this group is to help you see that you are not alone. This group is
for all of us to come together and share our feelings.”
Kevin hated the sound of this already. It had been a few weeks since his accident,
and he was feeling better, for the most part. He still got confused easily; there were
moments that he got lost in his own head, and he didn’t know where he was or what he
was doing. Arthur helped him with that—he walked beside his father watched him
cautiously, making sure that he didn’t wander into traffic or get lost in a now unfamiliar
neighborhood. He could tell that he was getting better; all he needed was to get his
bearings again. So why was he here?
“Now, what I would like is for us to do is go around the room and introduce
ourselves.” She started with the man on her immediate right, who was severely burned:
the right side of his face was bright red, like blood, and stood out in stark contrast to the
left side of his face, which was normal.
“Hi, my name as Robert, and I was in a fire. My house burned down. I got out, but I
suffered some third degree burns.” He motioned at the sides of his face with hands, and
then let them fall to his sides.
“Thank you, Robert,” said Dr. Taggart, and then looked to the next person in the
“Hi, my name is Jenny.” She was an attractive girl sitting in a wheelchair whose leg
stuck straight out in front of her in a brace. Her leg was in a cast that ran from her ankle
all the way up below her skirt. “I was on an ATV with my boyfriend when it went off the
road and rolled down the side of the hill. My leg was crushed beneath it.” She
swallowed hard, as if there was something else that she was not telling the group. Kevin
wondered what it was: maybe her boyfriend died? Was she so furious at him that she
was not speaking to him anymore? He wanted her to say more if only to find out what
else had happened to her, but Dr. Taggart thanked her and moved on to the next person in
Kevin could not focus on the people in the circle; instead all he could think about was
having sex with Dr. Taggart. She was in her late thirties, quite fit, and very attractive.
She had short blond hair and a stern doctor’s appearance, what with the lab coat and the
asexual blouse and sensible shoes, but he imagined that beneath it all she was probably
wearing a black leather negligee, thigh high stockings and a thong. It was a combination
that he could not get out of his mind, despite the fact that he had no basis—and even if he
did, there would be no way that he could find out, because if he did talk to her after the
meeting and try to take her out for a drink, and then possibly dinner, and then back to her
place to peel her clothes off and find out what was beneath them, she would probably pull
a can of mace from her purse and spray him liberally. If not that, then she would call
security and get him removed from the hospital.
There was a woman who had had a miscarriage; a young man had been beaten up at a
bar so that his jaw was broken; an older gentleman whose shoulder had been dislocated
after a car accident; and a college fraternity boy who drank too much at a party and
almost died from alcoholic poisoning. Then they came to Kevin, and there was an
awkward silence while the people in the room looked to him. “My name is Kevin,” he
sighed, “and I was in an accident. I was hit by a bike.”
The frat boy, Tommy, laughed, then stifled it quickly. “Dude, you’re serious? What
kind of trauma is that?”
“I got knocked to the pavement, hit my head, and had to have brain surgery to repair
the damage done,” Kevin said in a calm, almost quiet way, and Tommy mumbled his
apologies and looked at the ground. Then Kevin added to himself: At least I didn’t try to
drink myself to death.
Dr. Taggart thanked him and moved on to the next person in the circle, a woman
named Jill who had major reconstructive surgery to repair her spinal column. “I couldn’t
walk for such a long time,” she said, “but now I can again, even though it’s with a cane,
and I’m so out of shape.” She was quite heavy, especially in her legs and stomach, which
seemed to blossom out from her body. “I hope I can get back into shape again,” she said
Dr. Taggart continued around the circle until it finally ended with an older man who
had lost his finger in a wood cutting incident. “It’s kind of funny,” he said, “I never
really expected to lose a finger. It’s one of those things you never think about, but then
suddenly, there you are, one finger less. Sometimes it’s what you least expect, right?”
He scratched at the side of his head with the remaining fingers of his left hand and
chuckled to himself, as if it was a childhood memory that he couldn’t get out of his head.
Kevin looked around the room and thought I should not be here. I am fine. I can’t
work right now but I will get over that soon. I won’t be one of these people. He thought
it was strange that he should be there; as far as he could tell he had all of his limbs and
appendages, so why should he be here at all?
“After introductions, what we usually do is talk about our accidents. What happens
to us after these experiences? Who would like to start us off?” said Dr. Taggart. She
looked around the room, at the twelve poor souls sitting in chairs and looking at anything
except each other. The man who lost his finger sighed and said, “I hate talking about
these things, but it’s something I’m good at, I guess. This happened to me years ago. I
was working at a wood shop, and making pretty good money, when I don’t know what
happened. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention at the right time, but I must have looked
away right when I was supposed to be watching what I was doing, which was cutting
some pork chops for this little lady who was a regular customer. Maybe that’s why I
wasn’t paying attention? I was probably talking to her.” He spoke with his arms waving,
and actively wiggling the stump that used to be his left index finger. “Anyway, I must
have gotten talking to her when I cut my finger. Funny, I can’t remember how it
happened. Do any of you get that, that you don’t remember what happened to you?”
He looked around the room, smiling awkwardly. Kevin thought that he must have
prepared for this, that he was a plant for Dr. Taggart. The one person who the others
could rely on to actually talk about his problems in a group of people who did not want to
talk about their problems. Then again, he might just be someone who really liked waving
his stump around in public.
Jenny spoke up, quietly at first. “When David and I went on that ride on his ATV, he
never told me that it could be dangerous. I mean, I guess I knew that it could be. They
said so much about how dangerous they were, but you never actually think that it would
be dangerous with you on it. I don’t know.”
Because she didn’t mention what happened to her boyfriend, Kevin could only
imagine that he died in the accident. Maybe she was crushed under the ATV as it rolled
down the side of the hill and let go of it so that she was left behind as it continued to roll
down the hill; and maybe her boyfriend was still holding on, and maybe he was crushed
again and again until he was dead, and she had to lie there in the middle of nowhere, in a
forest in Pennsylvania far away from the nearest city, in agony and pain and with her
boyfriend dead down at the bottom of the hill. He wanted to ask her about it, find out
whether or not he was right, but he didn’t want to press. She already looked like she was
going to break down in tears, and he didn’t want to make people cry in this group. He
would much rather stay quiet and wait until it was over.
“You really didn’t know that ATVs could be dangerous?” asked Robert.
“Well…no. Maybe. I don’t know.” Jenny shut down, and Dr. Taggart stepped in.
“Robert, did you know what you were getting into when you went into that burning
“That was different. That was my home. I was sleeping there. And it caught fire. I
barely got out with my life.”
Robert looked around the group, his eyes seeming to plead with the people in the
circle to believe him. He wore shabby clothes and he still had his hair cut short in the
front and long in the back, like a mullet which had long passed its prime. Kevin figured
that he must have lived in one of the neighborhoods on the west side of the city made up
of flophouses that you could rent for cheap because they were not fireproof. He could
tell that Robert wanted everyone to believe him, but he didn’t seem to believe himself.
“The fact that we end up in these situations is not a curse that we have to bear,” said
Dr. Taggart. “I don’t know how you all think of a curse, but when you blame yourself
for something that has happened to you, that is when we become our harshest critics.
Then it becomes something that we can’t let go of, which is the very definition of a
curse.” She pressed her glasses back up on her nose. “I guess what it is that we are here
to do is to find a way to escape this curse.”
I am not cursed thought Kevin. I am recovering from a serious accident, and need
time to recover. I am not cursed.
Dr. Taggart asked if anyone else wanted to talk, and the frat boy spoke up. “I was at
a party, and, you know, I never really thought much about drinking before. It was just
something that you did, right? At that one party, though, I drank so much. I don’t even
know what it was that I drank. I mean, I’d had blackouts before, but I didn’t think much
of them. It was something to sleep off over the weekend. And now, I blacked out and
woke up in the hospital, and it turned out they had been pumping my stomach and
filtering my blood or something. They said that there was so much alcohol in my blood
that I almost died. It really makes you see things differently.”
Other people in the circle nodded. They began to talk about their various brushes
with death. A gaunt woman sitting on Kevin’s right spoke up, and said that she had been
diagnosed with cancer. She wore a gray robe and a flowered kerchief on her head.
“They operated to try and get the tumors out, but I don’t know if they got all of them out.
There could be more. I don’t know how many more operations they will have to do, but
for right now I am healthy as I will ever be, and I will have to accept that.”
She looked to Kevin as if she weighed less than ninety pounds. Her cheek bones
were popping out of her face, and when she folded her arms across her chest she seemed
to fold in half. It amazed him that she would live long enough for more chemotherapy, or
another operation, or even another cup of coffee from the stand. I am not cursed, I am
not cursed.
“And what about you, Kevin?” Dr. Taggart was looking directly at him across the
circle, and slowly the other heads in the group turned as well. Kevin looked back at her,
“What about me?”
“What was your experience like?”
“It was a lot of pain. I was hit by a guy on a bike, and he knocked me over, and at the
time I thought it was the most ridiculous thing, but then I realized just how bad things
were when I knew that I had to go in for brain surgery.”
“Did it go well?”
“Yes. Well, I’m here.”
“Yes, well.” Dr. Taggart smiled and pushed further. “How do you think your
accident has affected your relationship with your son?”
Kevin pictured his son for a moment, in a striped t-shirt and blue shorts, wearing
sandals in the hot Pittsburgh sun in August, an ice cream melting in his hand. He
shrugged. “I don’t think it has damaged our relationship at all. He has been helping me
around the house, and when I go out for walks, he’s there with me. He’s been really
There was a cough from the man with the missing finger. Dr. Taggart ignored him
and peered at Kevin.. “So Arthur has been supporting you through your recovery.”
“Yes.” What the hell kind of question is this? Is this the curse that I am supposed to
be afraid of? Tell me, for God’s sake! He met her stare, and thought Here’s the line,
don’t you fucking cross it, he’s my son
“What do you think about when you think about your accident?” Taggart asked.
“Nothing.” There was a black film over what had happened. Why did he have to be
out on the street at that moment? Why did he have to be hit at that moment? Why did
the doctors have to operate? It was all a jumble that he could not see through. The only
thing that was clear was this bare room and the twelve complete strangers in a circle
around him. “Nothing,” he said again.
Taggart nodded her head slowly. Kevin crossed his legs and looked down at his shoe.
The people in the circle were obviously used to this—Taggart would pump the new guy
for information, and they were obviously bored. Kevin didn’t want to give it, and they
didn’t want to hear it. “Fine,” she finally said. “Is there anyone else who would like to
say something?”
It was quiet for a moment, and then a man said, “I would.” The speaker was a big
man who until now had been so quiet that he was almost invisible. An exasperated sigh
came from regulars like Tommy and Sidney—Kevin could that this guy came all the time
and no one wanted to hear him anymore. But when he spoke, his voice was so strong that
everyone turned to look at him.
“Thank you, Randy,” said Dr. Taggart. “How is your shoulder?”
“It’s doing much better, thank you, doctor,” he said, in a conversational way, as if he
was buying her a drink in a bar. Then his demeanor changed, and Kevin knew that he
was addressing the entire group. “Most of you here know me. I’ve been coming here for
a while since I was in a car accident, and I thank you all for your help in my recovery.
For those who don’t know me, my name is David Randall, but everyone calls me Randy.
I’m a Virginia boy, came up here to Pittsburgh to start my own business, and who knew
that a car salesman would be in a car accident?” He laughed at his own irony, then said,
“But I just want to say something to the new people here, especially to Kevin, who shared
his powerful story about his brain injury. You are welcome here. We are here to help
each other heal and become who we once were, and with the power that we all have
together, we will reach this goal.”
From the moment he heard this homespun tale in the lilting Southern drawl, Kevin
knew that he hated Randy. It was as if he was reading a script, that he had worked with a
director to perfect his voice, the story and the accent. It wasn’t enough that he had had
part of his brain removed, but then to have to put up with this crap. He saw that Tommy
and Sidney were looking elsewhere in the room, that Jill was picking at a nail that had
split, so he knew that he wasn’t the only one who wasn’t buying this. But then he saw
that Robert, Jenny and others were enthralled when he spoke. The cancer woman had a
tear running from the corner of her eye.
“Thank you, Randy,” said Taggart, and he nodded his head and held his hand up in a
short salute. Kevin half expected him to offer her a discount on a new Ford. Then
Taggart turned to him, and said, “Kevin, this is your group, and Randy is here to make
you feel welcome. I hope that you can appreciate everything that he, and the rest of us,
are trying to do for you.”
Tommy and Sidney looked like they had heard this line too many times to make it
believable any more. The other seemed as if they wanted to believe it for themselves, yet
it was just out of reach of their third degree burns and shattered leg. Randy was pleased
with himself, that he had made a difference with his words, and that others were still
listening to what he said. Kevin said nothing, and let Taggart wait expecting for him to
say anything. That was fine with Kevin—he had become very good at waiting. The man
who was missing a finger coughed, and the cancer woman scratched her arm and seemed
to be thinking of something else. Finally, Taggart gave up, and suggested a break.
Kevin went outside and breathed the cold night air. He wondered if he should start
walking home now, but he had forgotten his coat inside, which meant that he would have
to walk back inside to get it and face those people again. He didn’t see how this was any
kind of help; just a bunch of self absorbed freaks sitting in a circle waiting for Taggart to
poke them into saying something, anything. He could probably tell a dirty joke and it
would make her happy because at least he would be saying something. There was this
boy and he went to a bad part of town and ran into a cop, and the cop said, What are you
doing here little boy? And the kid said, I’m looking for a prostitute. Why would you do
that? asked the cop. I want to get a venereal disease. Why in hell would you want to do
that? asked the cop. So that I can
He became aware of someone standing next to him, smiling broadly, the whiff of Old
Spice in the air. “Howdy,” said Randy. He moved like a ninja, quiet and untraceable.
Kevin began to hate him even more. Randy pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt
pocket and a lighter. “I do love the night air,” he said. He offered Kevin a cigarette, and
Kevin shook his head. “I really should stop smoking these things, but I can’t really.
You’d think after my accident that I would have learned better.” He shrugged and
inhaled deeply. He didn’t wear a jacket but he did not seem cold at all.
“What brings you here?” he asked.
“I told everyone in the meeting. It was because of my accident.”
“No, it’s not that. You see, everyone has an accident, but no one has to come here.
There has to be some kind of reason why you’re here.”
Kevin didn’t respond. He tried the same waiting technique on Randy, hoping that his
being quiet would make the man shut up, but it only seemed to encourage him. “I know
men like you,” he said. “In fact, I might even say that I am a man like you. We get in
our accidents and we are angry that our lives are different now. Some people here just
want to talk about it. They want to get everything off of their chest. Others can’t. They
can’t help that that’s who they are now, and they don’t think that talking will help them at
all. And they might be right.” He had smoked the cigarette right down to the filter and
tossed it into the street and brushed his hands off on his trousers. “Then again, they
might be wrong. In which case, they are stuck in a trap that they can’t get out of.”
“So where do I fit in?” asked Kevin.
“That’s up to you, my friend. Are you right or are you wrong?”
“That doesn’t even make any sense.”
“Oh really? How so?”
“There’s always more choices. You think that the only way to recover from an
accident is by talking to a roomful of strangers? No, there’s family, friends, all kind of
other people that can fix this.”
“Yeah?” said Randy. He folded his arms across his chest, his pack of cigarettes
popping out of the top of his shirt pocket. “Where’re your friends? Where’s your
family? I don’t see them here.”
“That’s because they didn’t want to be here.”
“Oh, so you’re saying that they didn’t want to be here with you while you get all
fixed up? That don’t sound too helpful, now does it?” He was daring Kevin to step over
the line, and Kevin wanted to find something to bash his head in with.
Doctors, nurses, and patients came in and out of the hospitals while Randy and Kevin
had their standoff. Smokers from the Trauma Acceptance Group, those who could walk,
at any rate, went back inside and did not look at them. Kevin was not going to move,
even though he was shorter than Randy and he still didn’t have a solid grasp of reality,
but he was not going to let some redneck freak car salesman tell him how he needed to
save his own life. Finally, Randy held up his arms in mock surrender. “All right now,
it’s too cold to do this kind of thing. You can either get it out of your system or you can
choke on it. That’s the only way out of these things. It’s your choice, to drown or learn
how to swim.” He turned and went back in through the automated doors.
Kevin stared after him as he went through the doors, looked at his shoulders and the
way that he walked, tall and sure of himself. His arm probably isn’t even dislocated, he
thought, or if it is, he did it himself just to get in this group. Kevin almost left before he
realized that his jacket was still in the room, slung over his seat, and he would have to go
back and get it or freeze outside.
Chapter 5
There were times when he didn’t realize that it was actual concrete under his feet.
Instead, he thought it was grass and dirt. He thought that the houses pressed close
together were actually the trees that he remembered from walking in the woods. Then the
quiet sound of singing birds was gone and the cars roaring by jarred him. Arthur said,
“Are you all right, Dad? It’s just the traffic. You’re having another moment.”
Yes, of course I am, he thought to himself, and nodded.
Kevin liked to go for a walk every day. He couldn’t go back to work yet since the
surgery, and he wanted to get out of the house because he had to get out of the house. So
many hours in the day spent at home doing nothing were enough to drive him crazy.
Either Nancy or Arthur would come along with him in case he got confused and wound
up somewhere else in the city. At one point, Nancy thought that it would be best if they
sold the house and moved to a smaller town, where there Kevin could go out for a walk
and there would be a lesser chance of him getting lost, but Kevin turned down that idea:
“Even if we moved to the country I could get lost. We might as well stay here and save
the trouble”
Kevin assumed that since it was Arthur, it must be Saturday. Or Sunday. Even
though he had been recovering since his brain surgery, he still lost track of everyday
things like the days of the week, where he put his wallet, how to read a clock. Sometimes
he would lose track of his day; he could be in the middle of the morning and then
suddenly it would be the middle of the night. The neurologist said not to worry. “These
things will happen while the brain works itself out. Even though it is fragile, it is very
He asked his son if it was Saturday. Arthur said it was, and Kevin said, “Well good.
That’s one thing I’m getting right.”
A month after his discharge he felt ready to go back to work. The doctor had advised
him against it, but Kevin wanted something more than sitting around the house staring at
the walls or looking at books that did not interest him or staring out the windows at
nothing. He talked to his supervisor and felt that he could get some work done, maybe
not up to his previous level, but at least enough to be considered productive, which is all
he really wanted. Nancy dropped him off at the office and gave him a wan look and told
him to call if he needed anything. He smiled back and told her that everything would be
fine, that the people at the office would look after him.
He lasted for about a week. He started on a Monday, which was usually a quiet
morning as the office got back into its habits after the weekend. Kevin was greeted by
his coworkers, many of whom talked to him in wonder, as if they had never expected to
see him again, and yet here he was, their very own Lazarus. He smiled and accepted their
good wishes, and then sat down at his desk and began to wonder What is it that I do here?
It wasn’t that he had forgotten; he just didn’t know what relevance it had to anything. It
was almost as if he was reading a novel and found a recipe for lobster thermadore in the
conclusion. He spent his first day going through his paperwork and the files on his
computer and trying to piece together what it was he actually did; by the time he went
home, he was no further closer to an answer than he was that morning.
The next day, a Tuesday, was just about the same as the Monday, with Kevin
wondering what it was he did and getting nowhere. He finally went to see his supervisor,
who nodded his concern and then put him together with a young intern who had been
spending his days doing Kevin’s job while he was in the hospital. He sat and talked
Kevin through his responsibilities, and he was pretty sure that he had it all down by the
end of the day, and thanked the intern profusely, and by Wednesday he had forgotten it
He began to wonder if he had suffered some kind of brain damage from the accident
or the surgery. It wasn’t that, it couldn’t be that, he thought to himself, I must remember
what the doctor said about the brain figuring itself out. These things will happen. That
night Nancy asked him if he wanted to come back home and stay away from work for
some more time, but he said, no, he had to go back and get started, if anything then
because they might fire him if he stayed away for so long. “And plus, you have to work
at the office, so you can’t look after me here,” he said, and thought that that would end
the argument. It did not: Nancy pushed on him harder, saying that he should stay at
home and get well, otherwise he would never get well. The argument ended with no
resolution, and both of them angry at the other.
The next day Kevin went to work again, and he stayed there for almost an entire hour,
before he stepped outside for a breath of fresh air. He wandered along Forbes street,
watching all the students from the local universities running from one class to another,
meeting with friends to go for a coffee or some lunch, maybe even just walking slowly,
then he sat in the local park and time slowly slipped away from him. When he finally got
back to the office it was after three.
Finally, on Friday, Kevin tried to focus on his job. He went through the notes that he
took when he sat with the intern, tried to go through his files and make some kind of
headway in his job. Yet still it hurt to focus on his computer; he felt a slow headache
building up behind his eyes, something that he could only escape by looking away and
playing with the pens that were on his desk. He got up to get some more coffee (was it
the coffee? he wondered; possibly it was, yet he still needed it for his day at the office)
and walked along the aisle to the coffee machine. The cubes were perfectly square, and
each had a different head popping out from the top; each head had a telephone attached,
and the cubes stretched out into a field. The opposite wall, tastefully framed with
motivational artwork, seemed to be far and away. People would step out of their cubes
and head for the fax machine, the copier, or the break room for their second or third cup
of coffee, dressed in the same tasteful shirts and ties or blouses and skirts, and would pass
each other and say hello or smile in passing, depending on how often they had seen each
other already. The way they passed each other and talked to each other, the movements
they made, all seemed rehearsed, as if it was something that they had been doing for
years; too perfect for reality, too perfect for him.
Kevin sat back down in his cube and rubbed his face. He focused on his cube,
looking at the calendar he had posted on the wall, the art that his son had made for him
when he was in first grade, the pictures of Nancy and Arthur on his desktop, the kitschy
knickknacks he bought on business trips to New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles,
little buildings with the name of the city painted on the side of them. It was all exactly
the same as it had been for the past few years. He suddenly felt like he couldn’t breathe,
as if the cube was going to collapse in on him. He gulped for air, air that burned on its
way down, and said to himself This is not happening, I will be fine, everything is going to
be exactly fine just the way it is. He repeated this quietly, under his breath, like a mantra,
until Bill, the guy from the next cube over, stuck his head over the top of the cube.
“Are you all right?” he asked. Kevin was startled and he jumped in his seat and
looked up at Bill—his striped tie and curly red hair and lips smacking gum gave him an
appearance of a serious clown.
“Nothing. I’m fine.”
Bill kept watching him, observing him, smacking his gum and working his jaw
muscles hard. “Huh,” he said. He slowly sunk back into his cube. Kevin rubbed his face
again, and realized that he hated Bill. How can this guy keep looking over the top of a
cubicle every day like that? Why doesn’t he just come around to the opening of the cube
and talk to him that way, if he had anything to say? Did Bill purposely want to make his
work physically uncomfortable?
“Don’t worry, Dad. You’ll be fine.” Arthur was standing in his cube, petting his arm
as if he was a cat or a dog. He was dressed in the clothes that he had on that morning, but
now he was soaking wet, and smelled like the chlorine in a pool.
“What are you doing here, Art?” asked Kevin. “Where’s your mother?”
“You’ll be fine,” said Arthur again.
Bill was sticking his head over the top of the cube again. “Who’s Art?”
Kevin wasn’t listening. His hand was still out in the empty space in front of him, and
he let it sag to his side. It was at that point that he went back to his supervisor and told
him that he had to go back home.
He was feeling better now that he was walking along the street. He spent so many
days at home trying to read and not understanding everything about the story. He
continued to read anyway, looking at books that he had already read. Then there were
days where he couldn’t focus on anything, not a book or television or a CD, and instead
he tried to just sit back and keep his eyes closed, thinking about the forest outside of town
where he liked to hike on weekends. He thought back to the hospital room, the cold dull
walls that surrounded him and how much different it was. The air smelled sweeter, even
with the cars that drove past; the
Nancy had questions about whether Kevin was safe to be left home alone, so they met
with the neurologist again. “Yes, he will be forgetful and can become confused. He’s
not psychotic, and he’s not an invalid,” said the doctor. Nonetheless, Nancy did not want
to leave him home alone. She stood in front of the door so that Kevin could not go out
for his walk until Arthur had come back from the errands he was running for her. He
tried to laugh it off, take it as an amusing facet of their relationship that started back when
they were in college and now had her treating him as if he was the youngest child in her
family, a running gag that he could not choke on. He waited patiently for his son to come
home, and then they went out.
As they walked Arthur asked his father about his confusion, where it seemed as if he
had been somewhere else entirely. He had seen that happen several other times, and
asked his father what he saw when it occurred. Kevin thought about the trees and the
birds and the forest that seemed to go on forever; it seemed like a dreamscape that he had
seen while he slept, except now it seemed real, too realistic, every nuance extrapolated so
that it was more than real. He couldn’t find the right words, so he just shrugged and said,
“Like I was dreaming.”
They walked up the road, past the other shops and cafes and bakeries of the
neighborhood. The road was at a steep angle, and Kevin began walking slower and
slower. They had done this walk several times, and Arthur always looked over his
shoulder for a bus that might be coming down the street; he kept change in his pockets
for two fares in case he needed them. Kevin kept walking and let people walk around
him. He didn’t mind that the world kept moving around him, almost as if he was not
there at all; they walked towards him paying attention to their phones or the shopfronts
around them or just staring into space ahead of them, paying attention to what was going
on in their minds, not what was happening in front of them; and then they would move to
the left or the right, like waves crashing on a reef, swirling around them, and back to their
paths. Kevin finally reached the top of the hill and paused for a moment to catch his
breath. Arthur stood by his side and waited, his arms folded across his chest. Kevin
hated making his son wait for him like that, but he was doing better than before: at least
now he could reach the top of the hill. When they first started walking he would only get
a quarter of the way up the hill, then over time they made it halfway. Now that he was at
the top, he groaned and said, “I am so out of shape,” as if it was something that needed to
be mentioned aloud.
“You’re doing better,” said Arthur. “You didn’t used to be able to get this far.”
“I know, I know. I still hate doing it though.”
“You’ll do better.”
Kevin sat down at the corner and leaned back against the light post. They must have
made a strange combination, he thought, him sitting there and staring out at the world
while his son stood two feet away, staring at nothing in particular. He wondered if he
would have been able to do this for his father when he was Arthur’s age. His father was
far too cheery and upbeat; nothing seemed to faze him at all. He would not have been
able to handle the brain surgery. Kevin could only imagine what his father would have
been like lying down in the preparation room waiting to get the anesthetic, and he knew
that he never would have made it that far—he would have preferred just to die in the
He stood up and said, “OK, let’s get going again.” Arthur shrugged and walked
alongside his father.
They got up to the top of the hill and another two blocks back to the house. They
passed a few people who Kevin didn’t know—two joggers, a man with a look of
determination on his face, and two children with backpacks. “Why aren’t you at school?”
Kevin asked.
“It’s after three,” said Arthur. “School is out.”
Kevin looked at his watch. “Then why have you been walking with me all this
“Well, I figured you needed the help.”
Kevin thought about arguing with his son, but decided to accept it instead. They
finally reached the house, and Kevin unlocked the door. Arthur got himself a drink from
the fridge while Kevin sat at the kitchen table. He touched the table and brushed the dust
off the tips of his fingers. He looked through the window in the back door and wondered
how long it had been since anyone had cut the grass. He walked through the living room,
into the dining room, and the front hallway; there was dust floating in the shafts of
sunlight that crept across the floor.
“Why is it that no one takes care of this house?” he asked aloud. “Doesn’t your
mother clean this place?”
“She’s the one who has to work every day,” said Arthur. “You know that.”
“Yeah, I suppose. You know, you could help out around here as well.”
“I have to do my homework. I have to go to school.”
“Yes, I forgot.” He saw his son was getting taller. He remembered when Arthur was
a little boy and went sledding in the park with his friends Jenna and Raymond. He had
been best friends with Raymond for years, and harbored a secret crush on Jenna from the
time he was seven. He never really knew what had happened to the three of them. They
went to school together all the time, sledded in the winter, went running through the
neighborhood in the summer, and then suddenly they never saw each other again. Once
in a while he asked Arthur if he ever saw them, and he said, “Sure,” and then changed the
subject. Kevin didn’t realize until later that they were talking about something different.
Arthur was becoming very good at avoiding subjects now that he was a teenager. Kevin
remembered that was when he became skilled at avoidance.
“Have you ever thought about asking Jenna out?” he asked.
“Dad, come on.” Arthur rolled his eyes.
“No, seriously. Maybe you should. You’re getting old enough. You’re not a boy
anymore. Take her out to a movie or something.”
Arthur sighed heavily, a classic move of an irritated child. Yet now he was almost his
father’s height. How did he ever get so big? It was as if time was speeding by while he
stood still.
Kevin walked upstairs and looked in the bathroom, the bedroom, the office where he
used to write. He brought work home from the office, usually writing what doctors could
not do themselves. He brought home piles of medical journals and texts and did as much
research as he could to write papers about physical deformations and radical procedures,
trying to make them legible to non-specialists. He felt like a translator from Medical to
English. There were still journals and texts on his desk that he brought home before the
accident. Someone had to keep writing this material that no one would want to read as it
couldn’t write itself—yet the stack of papers and journals piled around his small
computer seemed determined in and of itself to write itself for itself. He was
disconnected from it, and he was fine to leave the room.
The bedroom was straightened up that morning, something that Nancy did after she
got up in the morning. She made sure Kevin was dressed and downstairs before she went
ahead and did it. He wanted to ask her why she did things like that—it was almost like
what she did for Arthur when he was little. When he was two years old, she would make
him leave the room before she cleaned up after him. Kevin asked her at the time why she
did that and she said that he would get in her way. She told him about how Arthur waited
until she was done folding his clothes and putting them away, then he went into the
dresser and pulled them out and threw them all over the floor. He waited until she saw
what he had done, then laughed a shrill cackle, as if he enjoyed making her life that much
more suffocating.
“You know that she still loves you, right Arthur?” said Kevin.
“Yeah, I know, Dad.”
“OK. I just don’t want you to forget things like that. They are very important.”
He passed Arthur’s bedroom and asked if he could go in. “No, Dad, don’t.”
“What, have you got a girl in there or something?”
“Jeez, Dad!”
“All right, I won’t.” He wondered when he would have to have the talk about sex
with Arthur. He seemed like he was old enough—there was a wisdom in his young eyes
that told him he knew more than he was telling. That in itself began to worry Kevin.
Who was his son going to be? He could feel it in the back of his neck as Arthur followed
him down the stairs and watched him attentively.
Kevin walked down to the basement and turned on the overhead light. There was
nothing there except for the washer and dryer and a workbench that the previous owners
left behind. The floor was wide open—that was where Nancy’s drumkit used to be. She
played it when they were together, even when she was pregnant with Arthur. After he
was born, she sold the kit. The rug that it sat on was still there. It absorbed water from
the rains that flooded the basement on occasion, and it’s stench filled the air. “Help me
get this outside, would you?” he asked Arthur. Kevin rolled up the carpet and bound it
with duct tape that he found on the workbench, then grabbed one end and dragged it to
the outside door. He climbed the steps and opened the door to the backyard, then pulled
hard on the rug to get it outside. Once it was out in the yard, he let it fall then bent over,
his hands on his knees as he shook and panted.
“You all right, Dad?”
“You could have helped more,” said Kevin as he tried to get his breath back.
“Yeah. Sorry.”
“Sorry isn’t going to stop me from a heart attack.” Kevin walked past his son and
back into the basement, shutting the door behind him. He went up to the kitchen and
poured a glass of juice and sat at the table. He felt the sweat running down the back of
his neck and collecting in the waist of his jeans. His hair was plastered down on his
scalp, sweat running down his forehead. He didn’t know how he was going to be able to
clean that stain in the concrete floor where the water had accumulated for so long.
Maybe Arthur would do that instead of letting him do all the work. He asked his son if
he would please do it and he shrugged. “Yeah, OK.” Arthur headed to the basement.
How old was he again?
Nancy found Kevin sitting at the table when she came back from work. She had
parked their car in the garage and saw the carpet in the back yard, and asked him what it
was doing there. “It was smelling up the basement,” he said. “Haven’t you noticed it?”
“How did you get it up the stairs?” She looked at him quizzically.
“Arthur helped me.”
“Stop doing that.”
“He’s downstairs cleaning the floor right now.”
“No, he’s not.”
“What do you mean? He’s been down there for a while now.”
“No, he’s not,” she repeated, and he looked up into her sad eyes.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. Tears started streaming down her face and she opened
her mouth and didn’t say a word. Instead she wiped the tear from her face and left the
room. What the hell? Kevin wondered as he watched her leave. Since he came back
from the hospital, she was more removed from him than ever before. He only saw her in
the morning before she left for work and in the evenings when she came back. When he
saw her, she seemed a kind of desperately sad, as if there was nothing that could stop her
from being so sad. He wanted to talk to her but found she would not talk to him—a
silence had settled between them.
He went downstairs and asked Arthur, who was on his knees scrubbing at the floor,
what it was that was going wrong with his mother. “I’m not sure. What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean, Art,” said Kevin, exasperated that he hadn’t noticed what
was happening. “I can’t get her to talk to me without crying.”
“She hasn’t been talking to me, either,” said Arthur.
“Why not?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Ask her.”
Arthur rested back on his knees and looked up at his father. Kevin couldn’t
remember how old his son was—thirteen, fourteen?—yet now he seemed so much older,
almost as if he had become someone else. He slowly climbed the stairs, one by one,
feeling Arthur’s eyes staring at him.
Kevin went upstairs to their bedroom. Nancy was on the bed, crying. He watched
her for a few moments as her sobbing become quieter, then he sat next to her on the bed.
After a few moments she asked him, “Do you really not remember what happened?”
Is there something that I should remember? He thought for a few moments but could
come up with nothing. “No,” he said.
She sobbed again, then quieted down. “How can you not remember?”
“They cut into my brain! I’m amazed that I can still walk!” It felt like a punchline to
a joke. Nancy looked at him as if he had become a grotesque horrorshow in her
“That’s no excuse,” she spat.
He wanted to grab her by her shoulders and shake her. What happened? he wanted to
shout, frantic now. Just tell me! Tell me! Instead he simply said, “What are you talking
“You son of a bitch.” She grabbed a shoe and threw it at his head. He blocked it,
amazed. She screamed in frustration and jumped off the bed and came at him and started
punching, clawing, hitting him in his face and at his arms as he tried to stop her.
“What?” he shouted. He wanted her to stop. He wanted to know what it was that had
caused this. Why did he have to be hit by that biker? He was the only one that he could
blame for all of this. That fucking biker, why did he have to hit me? That stupid accident
led to all of this that he couldn’t even remember. “Please, just tell me! Tell me!”
Nancy screamed and pushed hard against him and they went to the floor. She
straddling him and punching at him with her small clenched fists. With every blow she
shouted again and her expulsions of sound become words, and the words became clearer:
He’s dead! Arthur is dead! He’s dead!
He thought she was still hysterical. If she is thinking that, then she must be the one
with the problem. “No, he’s not dead,” he tried to tell her. He tried to grab her hands by
the wrists and hold them tight. “He’s not dead. He’s in the basement. I saw him there.
He’s cleaning the floor.” He tried to be earnest and looked directly into her eyes. Slowly
he saw a sadness in her eyes. Her arms sagged, and he held them limp in his clenched
fists. She shook herself free, stood up and walked to the window. Her face was clenched
in thought. To Kevin she seemed to be running a hundred different scenarios in her head
about how all this could play out. He began thinking as well: How could she not know
that Arthur is alive? Is she sick? What happened to her while I was in the hospital?
Finally, Nancy turned to Kevin and said, “Go look in his room.” She leaned against
the wall and folded her arms across her chest. Kevin picked himself off the floor and
looked down the hallway to Arthur’s door, which his son had asked him not to enter, then
back at her.
“Go. Look.”
He opened Arthur’s door and turned on the light. For a moment, it seemed like it had
always been. And then it wasn’t. Except for the furniture, the room was empty. His
clothes, books, toys, were all gone. The floor was clean, the bed was stripped. He
opened the closet and found a few boxes stacked on the floor but that was all. Did Arthur
move into the attic? Or to a different room?
He started going from room to room, searching closets and beneath furniture to see
where Arthur’s belongings were. He passed Nancy and lifted their bed from the floor and
saw nothing but shoe boxes and dust. He ran to his office, shoved aside all of his books
and texts stacked on the shelves. He went to the garage and tore through the boxes there,
throwing them to the floor when all he saw were his and Nancy’s things. Finally, he
went to the basement, and Arthur said, “I asked you not to go in there.” He looked small
again, smaller than he had, yet angry at his father.
He stormed up the stairs to his room and found Nancy standing where he had left her.
“What happened?” he asked, his question harsh and demanding. “Where is he? What
happened to him?”
The tears had dried on her face. She was calm now, as if this were nothing new. Her
arms were still folded across her chest, holding on to herself for comfort. “He had an
aneurysm. When he was nine. He complained of a headache and it wouldn’t go away.
We took him to the hospital. They checked him in, and within a week he was gone.” It
sounded practiced, so that she would believe it herself, and perhaps for him as well.
He wanted to tell her about how he had seen him in the basement, just now, somehow
to reach her and make her feel relieved. He knew it would not work. Her look of
concentrated suffering told him this was what she knew to be true. And then he started
remembering, an unorganized flood of doctors and nurses and the surgery they performed
on Arthur to find out what was wrong, the charts and x-rays like bad art projects which
made no sense to him and then the doctor, a man in his fifties, so fit he probably played
racquetball and tanned, who told them that Arthur was gone—the exact words she used,
the same words that she would use to describe what happened to her son from now until
she herself was gone.
Kevin felt his legs give way. He sat, hard, on the floor by the bed. Nancy gazed
down at him, her face blank sorrow. The sun sat outside and the room grew dark, and
they stayed in the dark as the room grew darker.
Chapter 6
When Kevin proposed to Nancy, he did it because he thought that he had to. It was
more of an obligation then love, but he thought that he cared for her enough that the love
would grow out of it. He had seen many people get married early, not because they had
planned for it but because the time seemed right, and they did it without any thinking or
planning ahead. Kevin thought that was just what someone did.
They were together for another year after he returned from Barcelona before he
proposed. She was working at a research foundation, which meant that they gave her
questions to ask people of the city, and she went around the neighborhoods of Pittsburgh
and knocked on doors and rang doorbells and met people in the street and asked them
questions from a list she had on a clipboard. At night, she would come home and play
her drums, which she kept in the garage behind the house where they rented their
apartment. From the outside, the house looked like any one of the three story houses in
the neighborhood, but on the inside, it was divided into three separate apartments. While
Kevin had been in Barcelona, Nancy had negotiated an extra fee with the landlord so that
she could practice in the garage out back. Meanwhile, Kevin used his teaching
experience in Barcelona to get into a master’s in education program at the university. He
would not be able to work, so he took out a huge loan so that he would have enough
money to contribute. Between the two of them, Nancy and Kevin were accruing massive
debts and living happily together.
Kevin was the first to admit that he knew nothing about love or marriage, or at least
that he was very bad at it. He thought it reasonable that, after two people had been
together for a certain amount of time—two years, three years maybe—one should
propose to the other. He came from a town where that was what everyone did, his
friends, his parents. He was confused when Nancy didn’t.
“Look at my job, and look where you are,” she said. “You’re still in school. Neither
of us has a substantial job. Don’t you think that we should get real jobs first? And by
that, I mean jobs that will pay us enough so that we won’t have to live hand to mouth.”
Kevin had only brought up the subject in passing, yet he was surprised at how quickly
she had spoken against it. “Do you mean that you don’t want to marry me?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You did say that you don’t want to get married until you get a job. What is that?
Are you just putting it off until later?” He wondered what would happen after they each
got a good job—would she put it off again, for another reason? What would her reason
be then?
She smiled at him and touched his face. “Don’t be silly. Of course I want to be
married someday. Are you asking me right now?”
‘Well, no.” He didn’t think he was. But his friends from college were getting
married, some people were changing religions, some were even getting ready to have
children. Why wasn’t he doing that?
“Then don’t worry,” said Nancy.
For a year, he tried not to worry. He got up every day and went in to school to work
on his degree, and she got up every day and walked the streets of Pittsburgh asking
questions and marking responses on a clipboard. She didn’t want to do the job in winter.
“Can you imagine how cold it will be? It will be miserable here.”
As it got colder she still went out every day, wearing more layers and bigger hats. At
night, she would come home and grab something quick to eat, then pack up her drum kit
in Wallace’s truck. Wallace was the bass player, and because he owned a beat-up used
van and Kevin and Nancy owned a Honda, he would come over to give her a ride to
whatever gig they were playing. She always asked Kevin if he wanted to come to the
show, but he wouldn’t, taking it as his punishment for what happened when he was in
Barcelona. He sat at home on the couch in the living room, trying to imagine what was
happening with Nancy and her band, and failing. He couldn’t picture what it would be
like to do something like that night after night—the closest he could come was when he
was walking around the streets of Barcelona every night, trying to forget what it was like
to live in Pittsburgh and letting himself be swallowed in the bars and clubs of the Gothic
The more gigs that the band got, the more time Nancy spent with Wallace. Kevin
thought it was sweet, in a way. Wallace was three years younger than Nancy, still at the
University of Pittsburgh, trying to finish his undergraduate degree yet spending all his
time playing bass. He called her at home occasionally and when Kevin answered he
sounded startled. He swallowed heavily, and asked if he could talk to Nancy. The way
he spoke sounded like he was trying to get up the guts to ask her out on a date. He
thought it was a crush. Then he handed the phone to Nancy and the way she blushed
made him think that she was truly happy to get this call.
He began to wonder how much he would have to suffer for Maria. He imagined
Nancy walking the streets of the city and taking surveys, then calling Wallace in between.
They would talk about music, the people they saw in the bar, the other people in the band,
and then each other. Maybe Wallace would invite her over, and maybe Nancy would go
over to his place. Kevin thought about this while he was in the library trying to research
a project teaching foreign languages. All thoughts of declining verbs faded from his
He tried not to think of Nancy and Wallace when she came home to him at night.
One evening, she was so excited about the show that she could not stop talking about it.
“It was absolutely incredible!” she gushed. “I was totally in the zone, the guys were
completely rocking, it was the best experience I’ve ever had!” She was playful, touching
him all over as she took off her coat and hat and her sweaty t-shirt. She wrapped her
arms around his neck almost as an afterthought and kissed him hard. Her eyes seemed
like they were spinning, and she gave a throaty laugh. He thought first that she was
high—even though he knew that she hardly ever drank—then he thought that maybe she
had already had sex, that she was basking in an afterglow of some amazing sexual
experience with Wallace. Even as she pushed him down on the couch and knelt between
his legs, he could only think of the same look on Maria’s face as the sunlight from the
dawn in Barcelona filtered into the room. With that thought in his mind, he could hardly
blame her for what she might or might not have done. He lay back and closed his eyes as
she undid his belt, thinking that he could not blame her for what had happened.
Later on, as she was curled next to him in bed, smelling of sweat, cigarettes, and sex,
he imagined what their life would be like together. She might continue to play drums for
the rest of their lives together, which wasn’t a bad thing. He was used to her being so
restrained, which is what turned him on to Maria—now that she was so uninhibited, even
to have sex in the living room, she was a much different person. They even laughed
about it while they were cleaning up the upholstery in the living room. She was
becoming a person he didn’t want, yet he wanted her more than ever.
“Tell me more about Barcelona.” He did not know that she was still awake.
“Sure,” he said. “What do you want to know?”
He could feel her smiling against his shoulder in the dark. “Did you meet any pretty
girls there?”
“Oh, sure. Plenty of them. They were all over the place.”
“You do know that you don’t want to say that to the girl you just had sex with, right?”
She pulled the pillow out from under his head and hit him in the face with it. They
tussled and kissed and went back to cuddling again. “Seriously, I remember your
pictures. There were so many pretty girls. What was it like?”
He sighed, trying not to think about Maria. “There were so many beautiful women,
you’re right. It was like they were part of the culture. If you’re going to be in Barcelona,
there are going to be beautiful women. It made me think of you a lot.”
“Liar.” But she still smiled.
“I did. The city was the most beautiful place I had ever been, the mountains, the
castles, the cathedrals, the people, and the sea. Many times it was overwhelming being
there, just trying to go to work in the afternoon was too much. I was glad that I spent
those hours trapped in the school teaching English. Then at night, it was the same thing
all over again, except this time at night, and I was happy to get back to my apartment so it
wouldn’t be too much.”
She was quiet, tracing circles on his chest with her index finger. He noticed his
shoulder was wet, and that Nancy was crying. “What’s wrong?”
“I wish that I had been there with you.”
He thought about telling her that she didn’t need to because she had the band, but that
would have been stupid. What she meant was that she loved you so much she wanted to
go to Spain with you, he thought to himself. Maybe that was why she seemed so sad
when she went out to play her shows in town, because he didn’t want to go with her. She
was trying to share something that she loved so much with him, and he preferred to stay
at home. Suddenly, he felt like an idiot for not giving her something simple, like
spending a few hours at a club. He tried not to reveal his feelings to her as she cried. He
ran his fingers through her hair and said nothing.
All through the winter Nancy went out and play shows, and Kevin stayed home and
graded papers. He was a teaching assistant now as part of his program, and had to grade
the assignments that he gave to his students, as well as editing work that he picked up
from other graduate students to make more money. He worked at home and noticed how
she was not home, and thought I have to have her here, right now.
Then one night, a Friday, Nancy was home, sitting on a chair in the living room and
reading. The band almost always played Fridays and Saturdays, sometimes Wednesdays
and Thursdays, depending on the bar. He had become used to feeling alone over the
weekends, and focused on work so that he could be with her when she returned. He
asked her if she had a show that night.
“No,” she said. “The band broke up.” Kevin was shocked—she loved playing in the
band so much, yet she was taking it so well.
Nancy lay her book across her lap. “Wallace and CJ both sang and wrote songs. I
could tell from the beginning that was not a good idea. They worked well together at
first, but they’re both such egotists. They started fighting about everything. CJ hated
what Wallace wrote, Wallace hated what CJ wrote. CJ told Wallace what to play,
Wallace played what he wanted to. I just stayed behind my drums and played them, but
the more they fought, the more they would stop right in the middle of a song. And you
know how I play—I just kept going and ignored them. They would fight at rehearsals,
and then at shows, and then they started blaming me for making too much damn noise!
Can you believe that?”
“So, why did they start fighting in the first place?” asked Kevin.
“Because neither of them had a job,” said Nancy. “It’s simple economics. Neither
guy had a job, so they had to live off of what they made from the shows, which was
hardly anything. They began to blame each other for what went wrong. Last night, at
that west end show, they started screaming at each other, like a couple of schoolgirls.
The people in the audience looked confused, then they gave up and went to the bar. So I
just told them I was out. Before I was done packing up my gear, they had split up, too. It
looked like it was going to be a fistfight.” She picked up her book again. “After that, I
don’t really see them doing much else,” she said.
“So, the band broke up because you quit?”
“I guess so. Really, I don’t care. They can try it again with a different drummer if
they want, but I’m out.”
Several weeks later, Kevin proposed to Nancy. He thought that she was free now.
The band had been an obstacle for him. How could he ask her to marry him when she
was with those guys? He had not realized how spending so much time grading papers
and hanging out with Stewart made him feel so alone. Now, he took the money that he
made and bought a ring with a small diamond. He didn’t try to think of the right words,
or to write a speech on his arm, or make any kind of romantic scenario. He took her out
to dinner at a nice restaurant with a good bottle of wine, then produced the ring and
She took two weeks to say yes, but she did say yes. He was worried why it took her
so long, but Stewart said, “Don’t worry about it. Sometimes, it takes people a while to
realize that what they want is right in front of them.” He figured that Stewart could speak
from experience since he had to convince his girlfriend to marry him. That didn’t make it
easier for Kevin, who was so anxious that he could feel his guts twist inside of him as he
waited every day for her to say yes or no. The fact that they were still living together did
not make it any easier. They would get up in the morning, take their showers, get
dressed, have coffee, and all the while, they did not speak at all, because she knew what
he would ask her (“Have you thought about it?”) and he knew what her response would
be (“Not yet.”). He threw himself into his work in order to stop thinking about her
possible response, but couldn’t stay focused on the lessons he tried to teach or to grade
papers for which he was being paid extra money.
After she said yes, he didn’t even think about why she took so long. And he did not
realize just how quiet the house had become. He went out to the garage one afternoon
and noticed that there was an empty space where her drumkit used to sit. It was not in the
car or in the apartment—it was just gone. She told him later that she sold it. Those past
two weeks she had been so quiet, her face frowning in a thoughtful gaze. It was a
decision she was trying to make about whether to marry him, and she must have thought
that if she was going to marry him,. She had to get rid of the drums. Why? he thought.
What was the point behind that? It was almost as if she reasoned that if she was going to
be married, then she had to give up something else besides her isolation. Once it was
gone, she agreed to marry him. Once he finally made this connection, three days later, he
couldn’t believe that he had made her do such a thing, to give up something that she
loved for him.
He was still thinking about this after Arthur was born a year later. They were in their
new house, in a new room, with a new baby, kicking in his new crib, the smell of new
paint still faint in the air. It had been a physically trying labor for her—for him it was
emotionally difficult. He could not stop thinking about Barcelona. He wanted to leave
Pittsburgh, to run back to the city on the Mediterranean, maybe sell cheap crap to tourists
on the beach, something so that he could become an expatriate. He knew that once his
son was born, none of that would be possible again. He and Nancy would have to work
in their jobs to support each other, their son, the payments on the house and the new car
they bought to replace the Honda. His exotic paradise was separated from him not only
by the ocean but from this unknown duty that he suddenly discovered thrust upon him.
Little baby Arthur began crying for some reason, perhaps no reason at all, and he
suddenly felt divorced from his past.
Things changed. Nancy left her job, found a new one at the insurance company.
Kevin left his job as a teacher and became a medical editor. The degree that he got in
education became something that he forgot, except when he had to pay the monthly bill
for his student loans. Nancy stopped talking about music, and even stopped playing
music in the house so that the baby could sleep. Kevin watched his son grow up. He was
amazed at how much Arthur looked like his two parents. He had Kevin’s eyes, lips, and
hair, and he had Nancy’s build, her personality, her nose. They would watch him curled
up in his crib and marvel at how much he looked like the two of them, yet at the same
time didn’t look like either of them. When he cried, Kevin wondered when he would
start to talk like a normal person. Nancy seemed to accept him just the way he was. If he
remained that small and wrapped in diapers for the rest of his life, she would love him
exactly the way he was.
Arthur became the most important thing in their lives. Everything that they did had to
be organized around the baby. They never went to visit family or friends anymore
because of the baby, everyone had to come visit them. They never went out to eat,
because all their money went into feeding the baby and taking him to the doctor and
providing day care while they both worked. He grew older, began to speak, walk, and go
to school, and Nancy and Kevin grew older. They were in their thirties when Arthur
turned eight, and he seemed so much different than he had been just after he had been
born—so animated, so loud and boisterous. He played with his toys and made them
crash into each other, the walls, the furniture. He played with his food and threw a
meatball across the room and had to be put into the corner of the room until he
apologized. He spent several wild and uncontrollable years, until he finally hit six years
old and suddenly became much calmer. Nancy grew sadder as he grew older, but Kevin
was much happier. He couldn’t stand what he was like as a baby and a toddler, so wild
that he couldn’t get him to behave. He felt it was worth it to see his twenties vanish
behind him. Nancy, however, when she turned thirty, was devastated. He tried to help
her through it, but he didn’t know how. She kept staring at Arthur and crying every day
that he became older, as if it was a disease that she knew no way to cure. She became
morose as he ran around the house to the point where she did nothing, didn’t even speak
to him, even after he demanded that she talk to him.
This is where it became fuzzy for Kevin. That damn accident, he thought, as he
smacked himself across the face and wondered what it was that happened to Arthur, why
he wasn’t around anymore. He thought again about the past, tried hard to focus on what
had happened.
He knew that Arthur got sick, just after he turned nine. He came home from school
and said he had a headache. Nancy sent him up to his room to take a nap, and he did not
wake up when she went to wake him for dinner. Kevin remembered Arthur in his bed
pale and hardly breathing. His eyes seemed sunk into his skull, almost as if they had
been pressed in by someone’s thumbs. He could remember it vividly now, burned into
his retina, something he still saw after he closed his eyes in the dark room. They took
him to the hospital, where the doctors took him immediately into surgery. That was all
he could remember.
Did the doctor come out of surgery and tell them that their son was dead? Did Nancy
really break down and cry, or was it him? He did remember just now, one week later he
was sitting alone in the living room after the funeral, with a drink in his hand looking
down at the amber fluid, unable to life the glass to his mouth. His brother Jonas clapped
him on the shoulder and told him to drink it down, which was the only way he knew how
to show concern. He didn’t remember anything about what happened to Nancy. It was
strange that he couldn’t think of how they experienced this He knew that later, she was
much different, much quieter. It was as if the emotions that she had developed after their
marriage, into Arthur’s birth, after she turned thirty, all of it disappeared. She was
suddenly as distant as she had ever been.
Kevin looked up at Nancy, who still stood by the window in the dark. “Did all of this
really happen?” he asked. She nodded her head. “Did we really lose Arthur?” She
nodded again. He looked down at the floor, at his feet, at the bed, at anything else, then
just closed his eyes. He heard her cross the room, then felt her step to either side of his
legs, then felt her as she lowered herself onto his lap. He felt her take his head in her
arms and pull it to her breast. She kissed the top of his head and he mechanically
wrapped his arms around her body and wept onto her blouse. After a while, she pulled
his head away and kissed his forehead, his nose, his lips. She began unbuttoning his
shirt, he pulled her blouse off. They turned onto the floor and she was on top again, tears
dripping from her face as she worked his belt loose.
He didn’t feel passion with Nancy. It was different from when they used to have sex
before they were married, even after they were married. Then there was a kind of passion
that they had for each other, even if it was because she was in the band and he had been
to Barcelona. Now it was nothing like that. She took his penis in her hand and stroked it
until it was erect enough, kissing him all the while. Then she slipped off her stockings
and panties and got on top of him and slipped it into her. She did all of what seemed to
him like work. When he finally did come, it was like a task that he had been working up
to, like climbing a mountain or running a marathon. She still kept moving on top of him,
letting herself go into the sad ecstasy of mourning. tears running down her face.
Kevin tried to imagine his son; what he saw in the basement, at the office, on the
streets as he was walking were all a blur, as if he had a black cataract in his eye. He
closed his eyes again in the darkness and wondered what it was in the basement that
helped him take the carpet out of the house. He thought about scary movies or horror
stories that would explain all of this—none of them made any sense. He probably just
dragged it out of the house himself and just imagined that Arthur had helped him to carry
the carpet out. The next morning his body would probably be sore from lifting and
hefting the carpet by himself. Yet his son was still there, still in the basement—he could
see his son as if he were still alive and in front of him. He counted to ten and opened his
eyes. There was the ceiling above, the four walls of the room, the furniture where it had
always been, his wife against him, trembling in his arms. He reached over and pulled the
blanket from the bed on top of them. He heard traffic outside the house going up and
down their street. He could hear people walking past—talking to each other, laughing.
He thought about his son, how old he might be, where he might be going to school, if he
would play football or soccer, or if he would be tall enough to play basketball. He began
to picture him standing too tall for his dad, or even his mom, or just being too short to
sink a basket.
He promised Nancy, silently, so she could not hear, that he would not tell her about
Arthur again.
Chapter 7
Joe was new to the Trauma Acceptance Group. Dr. Taggart introduced him as a
furniture maker. He ran his own business for the past twenty-two years. It had never
been especially profitable, but there were a lot of people in Allegheny County who
wanted to buy new and interesting furniture—“Interesting always seems to be their
watchword,” he said. They came to his shop, about fifty miles north of the city, to look
for furniture that would stand out in their living rooms. He worked with friends he knew
from engineering school to create the furniture they wanted. He would use different
angles, textures, and techniques, but the one thing he always remembered was that he was
building furniture. “It’s not supposed to be an art project,” he said. “People say they
want a couch or a desk, that means they want a couch or a desk. They don’t want some
crazy mishmash of the two.”
He made his living by doing most of the managing and designing work at the shop.
He hired a few guys to come in during the week and help him build the furniture. They
came and went over the years. He had these three guys who knew each other at
engineering school. They had just graduated, so they spent a lot of time talking to each
other and screwing around when they should have been working on the furniture he had
designed. Joe put up with it for a while; then he became exasperated, and yelled at them:
“Stop your bullshitting and get back to work!” They looked at him as if he was some
kind of interesting creature that stuck its head out from beneath a fallen log, and went
right back to their conversation.
Joe decided that he had to fire them. He didn’t want to since he had orders to fill and
no one else to work for him. He eventually found some friends who were woodworkers
who could come in and work for him until he found someone new, so he let the three kids
go. They complained, but Joe didn’t care; he was happy to see them gone. He had spent
so much of his time harping after them, trying to get them to do their work, and now that
they were gone, he could make furniture again, which is what he wanted to do in the first
place. He knew that he would find people to work for him again, people who he could
rely on, “not punks like those kids.”
On that Monday, he had to tell his friends Steve and Charlie about what they were
working on. He showed them all the plans for their current projects: a bedroom
combination, a desk, a dining room set. They were all pieces that needed specific carving
and tooling, so they had to talk about how that was supposed to be done. Then they went
over the joints and cuts that they needed to make. All of the intricate points about
woodworking that the other kids, no matter how irritating they were, already knew. It
took all day to get them up to speed, but by three, they were ready to go. He went back to
cutting pieces for a chair that he was building, using a jigsaw blade, moving up and down
several hundred times a minute. He was feeling pretty satisfied with himself for getting
these guys up to where they should be. Then Steve called out, in his big booming voice,
about one of the boards for a chest he was supposed to be sanding and staining. The
sound of his voice startled him so much that Joe straightened up immediately, and he cut
through the piece of the wood so quickly that he did not see the shard pop out and fly
toward his face and into his left eye.
Kevin could tell that Joe had told this story many times. Did he really enjoy
explaining away the eye patch? He looked over at the old guy from the butcher shop, the
guy missing his finger: he just nodded sagely, as if he was listening to testament.
Everyone else around the room looked bored, frustrated, or just sad. Why do we have to
listen to this, for God’s sake, why?
“The thing is,” Joe continued, “is that just because I lose my eye, that doesn’t mean
that I have to give up my work. I still make furniture. I still use the power tools in my
shop. I still cut boards and sand down edges and all that stuff. I had to hire a couple of
guys to do the majority of the work for me, but it’s still my shop. Just because you go
through an accident like that doesn’t mean that your life has to change.” He nodded as if
accepting the trauma in his life.
“Thank you, Joe,” said Dr. Taggart. “That’s a very moving story. I had Joe come in
because he is a graduate of this program, and he learned what he could do when he
overcame certain hardships that we all have met.” He nodded and sat back in his chair,
effectively making himself invisible before all of the other group members.
Randy raised his hand and asked if he could speak. Kevin folded his arms across his
chest, his only way of being defensive without seeming defensive. Taggart said that he
could speak, of course, and he stood up in front of the group. “Now, I know I don’t need
to stand to talk to you, but it helps me get my words off my chest. And it helps so that
people can hear what I have to say, as I’m sure some of you know.” Several people
laughed quietly at this—Robert, Denise, Jill, Duane and Jenny tittered, and Kevin
immediately thought that they must know him from outside the meeting.
“When I got my shoulder dislocated,” said Randy, “I was worried that I would never
get to use my arm again. Or at least as I used to use it, building homes for the poor in
town, doing God’s work at the church, and so on. But I knew that if I had the faith in not
only God, but in myself as well, I could move mountains, even with a bum arm. And
now, look at it.” He raised his right arm, rotated it, flexed it back and forth. “I can do all
that now, as if nothing had happened to me. That’s why I’m so happy we have people
like Joe in our group, because if he can keep moving on with his own injury, then I know
the rest of us can as well.” With that, he sat down. The others looked like they were
about to applaud him.
“Thank you Randy, that was very nice.” Kevin wanted to know why she always
praised everything that Randy said. He considered that maybe they were sleeping
together. Maybe he never even dislocated his arm, but just acted like it so he could get
into these meetings. Such would be the benefit of having sex with the doctor of a trauma
support group.
“Would anyone else like to tell us about what happened over the past week?” asked
Dr. Taggart. Kevin kept his arms folded crossed his chest and listened to other people
talking about what he had done this past week, how they had coped with their various
horrors. The frat boy ended up drinking again, but he did not black out this time—now
he wishes that he had, because he ended up just feeling sad. Jenny was almost ready to
walk—they were going to cut her cast off sometime this week—and she was worried that
her leg would be too feeble to support her. Robert had gone in for reconstructive surgery
and he felt like it had gone well; he didn’t seem to notice that the new skin was a
different tone from his natural skin, which made the new skin look like some kind of
plastic. Randy threw in a “Praise God,” which made Robert smile carefully with his new
The man who lost his finger started speaking again. He prefaced it with a slight
laugh, like a wheezing chuckle. “I have to tell you, losing my finger was very difficult
for me. But I tell you, I was able to find a way out of it through patience and
understanding, and also through the help of God. I don’t know about the rest of you, but
I can always use God to help me out when it comes to times like these. You all have
times like those?” Several people in the group raised their hands or nodded. Others just
turned away or looked at the floor. He chuckled again, his raspy chuckle, then said,
“Well, I don’t know if it helps you or not, but it helps me, and I think that’s all right.”
“That’s very good, Duane,” said Dr. Taggart. “It’s very important that we all find
something that can help us through these times of trouble, and religious faith can do that
for us. Thank you for sharing.”
Kevin had not been to church since he was young. His mother had taken him to
church several times. Not on a regular basis, but once or twice a year. According to his
father, she was born into a Baptist family and had to go to church regularly as she grew
up. Once she left home, she finally stopped going, but every once in a while, she felt a
twinge that made her feel guilty for not going to church. On the occasional Sunday when
she felt that she had to go and make peace with God, she would make Kevin get dressed,
comb his hair down, hitch his pants up, and wear a tie—something he learned to hate
throughout his life. “If I have to go in,” she would say, “then you should come in, too.”
He learned to resent it: he did not want to have to suffer the way that she did.
Duane seemed satisfied, though, as if he had discovered a Zen-like truce with the
world, even though it may have cost him a finger.
Kevin listened to other people talk about themselves, and waved off Dr. Taggart
when she finally came to him. She was not as exotic to him as she had been when he first
saw her—suddenly, she was only a doctor, not much else.
The meeting broke after an hour and a half. It was a fifteen minute break that
everyone looked forward to, especially the ones who wanted a cigarette. Dr. Taggart
tried to keep the break within a certain time limit so that others could talk when they got
back, but sometimes there would not be enough time for them to say their peace. Kevin
looked around the room as he got up and noticed that the woman with cancer was not
there. Joe had taken her place in her seat. Dr. Taggart had not mentioned her
disappearance during the meeting. He felt that he should say something about it, but half
of the group had already left the room.
He walked outside of the hospital and stood at the entrance. He pulled his phone
from his pocket and started to punch Nancy’s number. He stopped halfway through. He
didn’t want to go home yet. He figured he would walk around the city, maybe end up
downtown and look up at the tall buildings that overlooked the rivers where they came
together. The trauma group was not helping him at all.
He noticed Duane, standing at the door, smoking a cigarette. He waved with his
damaged hand; the missing finger was glaringly obvious. “How’re you doing?” he
“OK,” said Kevin. He began feeling around his pocket for his phone.
“You like the meeting this evening?” He was almost conversational, as opposed to his
country boy lecturing style.
Kevin shrugged. “I guess.”
Duane put his hat on his head. “Well, it was all right, I guess. Some people just need
to talk, and that means they need people to listen. Which is us.”
“I guess.”
“I could tell you weren’t too impressed. And that’s all right. Just because we have to
listen to these folks doesn’t mean that we have to like it. But I could tell that you needed
something else.”
“Like what?”
“Sometimes people just need someone to listen to them, and I don’t think that this
group here can listen to men like us.”
“What does that mean? What kind of men are we?”
Duane held up his hand, spreading his four fingers. “We’re the kind of men who
have come face to face with disaster. I know, I may seem like the kind of man who just
accepts things like this, but deep down inside, I can tell you that I am still upset about
what happened. The meeting, it’s a good group but, well, I’d really like my finger back.
And I’m sure you wish that no one had cut your head open, right?” You don’t know what
I want he thought, yet all he could imagine was a fuzzy hole in his mind where something
used to be. Duane said, “I can see it in your eyes, Kevin. It’s there. I’m just inviting you
out on a Sunday morning.”
He handed Kevin a pamphlet from his jacket pocket. It read, “American Church of
the New World”.
“They are a good group of people. They don’t care what church you are from, or
where you go. They take all comers, and are willing to help all people.”
“They just take people who have been traumatized?”
“No, but they are really good with groups like that.”
“Why don’t you tell the whole group about that?”
“Because they don’t really know what it is they want. You, I think you do.”
“Why?” Kevin really wanted to know this—he couldn’t think of anything that he
wanted except his wife, his son, and his life, maybe even Barcelona, yet they were all just
beyond his reach.
“Come to the meeting on Sunday,” said Duane. “We can help you there. Probably
better than they can here.” He clapped Kevin on the shoulder gently then put his hands in
his pocket and walked across the parking lot, leaving Kevin standing alone in the
doorway. He crumpled the pamphlet and tossed it in the garbage can by the door.
He went inside and headed back to the meeting room. He asked Jenny, who couldn’t
move with her cast on, if she knew where Dr. Taggart went. “Her office, I think.” Kevin
headed down the hallway to find her office, checking doors and looking at placards until
she found the one with her name on it. She knocked on the door and heard, “Come in.”
Taggart was sitting at her desk.
“Can I help you?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know.” Kevin shut the door behind him and sat in the chair across
the desk. He looked at the window behind her, the dark curtains, the venetian blinds
through which he could see the parking lot outside.
“How is the workshop suiting you?” asked Taggart. He didn’t expect her to talk first.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about it. You don’t talk a lot. This isn’t a bad thing,
but there are times that I want to know what is on your mind.”
Kevin expected that he would start shouting about Duane and Randy and all the other
people that they were turning into mindless drones of religion, but now he was stuck.
“I’m not sure how it’s going,” he said.
“Why not?” She seemed very concerned, a puzzled frown on her face that, as far as
Kevin knew, may have been something she put on for her clients.
“Duane approached me outside. He gave me a flier for a church that he goes to. I
can only imagine that Randy goes there as well, since they talk the same talk all the time.
It’s almost as if they are the same people. And I don’t know why it is that you let them
talk about that, when it’s your group.”
She didn’t seem offended by him. She still frowned. “What do you mean by that?”
How could she not know? He wanted to scream, but he wouldn’t let himself blow up
at her. He always kept himself controlled, when he was dealing with Arthur or with
Nancy or with his in-laws or at work, and now he couldn’t stop himself.
“What I mean,” he said, picking his words carefully, “is that I don’t think what these
guys are saying is helpful to the group.” It wasn’t what he exactly wanted to say, which
was that they were idiots, but he said what he could.
“Why not?” Taggart seemed puzzled by Kevin, yet totally confident in what she just
said. She was relaxed, leaning forward at her desk to engage Kevin in conversation, her
glasses were on straight, and her hair was tied back in a bun. He wanted to grab her by
the shoulders and shake her violently and maybe slap her to get his point across. He
stayed seated and tried to respond, but nothing came out.
“Kevin, what you have to realize is that this group needs to work together to
overcome the trauma that they have been through. But even though we are working
together, everyone has their own way of coping with their personal problems. You
wouldn’t want anyone to go through the same thing that you’ve been through, would
He thought he saw, from the corner of his eye, his dead son standing in the corner of
the room. He blinked rapidly, as if it was an eyelash caught in his eye.
“Everyone has to cope in their own way. If Randy and Duane talk about religion, that
is not such a bad thing. There are other people in our group who are religious, and it
helps them to know that there are others who believe the same way that they do.
Wouldn’t it help you if you knew that there were others who believed the same as you
Kevin thought of a room full of people being visited by their dead children, all of
them with a small ghost standing by their side, staring at them intently and dropping in
their own opinions at the appropriate times. He thought he saw Arthur standing beside
him at that moment, and he almost screamed in his head, Not now! Please, not now!
“I’m not trying to start a debate about God here,” he said. “I just want what’s best for
me and for the group.”
“Have you thought that this might be best or the group? That everyone can find the
best way to help themselves?”
“So what do we do next? We all go to Randy’s church and try to get God to cure us
“Maybe. If that’s what it takes. I’m a doctor, and I’ll try and do my best to heal
everyone in this group. But if you can find another way to help you, then I say go ahead
and do it. As long as it helps you to overcome the pain you have been experiencing, then
do it.”
Kevin thought back to his mother dragging him to church as a little boy. The doors of
the church in front of him in the pouring rain, tall, dark and foreboding to his six year old
mind, an image that haunted his dreams for years, even as an adult. Even in Barcelona he
hated going into the churches, even when Maria tried to get him to go into the Santa
Maria del Mar. She laughed and said, “Come on in, it’s beautiful inside,” and he only
went in because she was magnificent in bed, and if he didn’t she might have stopped
sleeping with him. He couldn’t think of a way to explain that to Taggart.
“I don’t know if you have the same background as Randy and Duane, but have you
thought that maybe it might help if you went with them?” She seemed so earnest that he
could not believe she was actually saying this.
“No, it hadn’t crossed my mind.”
“You don’t believe me do you? I can tell just by looking at you that you don’t.
You’re different from everyone else here, because everyone has distinct physical injuries.
Your surgery was quite successful, so what you have are mainly psychological issues. I
know about what happened to your son, and I know how this can affect you. I’ve worked
with many people who have lost their families, and I know that you have to give them
every single opportunity you can to help them make things better.”
“It doesn’t help me.”
“That doesn’t matter. There will be something in the group that does help you.”
Taggart looked down at her watch. “We have to get back to the group. Thank you for
expressing your concerns, Kevin, but really, you have nothing to be worried about.”
He thought about her words as he sat in the meeting. Robert, Denise and Jill didn’t
seem to listen to what Taggart said, or anything that anyone else said, except Randy.
When he spoke, which he did periodically to make a religious comment, they seemed to
light up and hang on his every word. Robert had third degree burns, so that half his face
was gone; Denise had had the miscarriage and was missing the child she should have
had; and Jill had the broken spinal column, repaired by her radical surgery. These were
people who were in a much worse position than he would ever be, and they looked at
Randy for some kind of help. Even though he spoke with his grating Southern accent, he
still gave them hope, something that he wish that he had for himself.
When he first came to the group, he people focused on Taggart. When she called on
someone in the group, they all paid attention to that person. Now though, their attention
had seemed to shift to Randy. Taggart was an afterthought. He wondered if she noticed
that, or if she was fine with it. Either way, no one seemed to want to speak up about this.
Sidney and Tommy looked bored, as if they wished they were somewhere else; Joe and
Duane appeared satisfied with themselves, that they were on Randy’s left and right sides.
Everyone in the room seemed focused on Randy, whether he was speaking or not.
Kevin thought about what would happen if he punched Randy in the arm. If he did,
he might dislocate his arm again, which might cause him so much pain that he would shut
up. Or maybe, it wouldn’t do anything, which would prove to the group that he had
never dislocated his arm in the first place. Yes, that was probably his angle. He had to
pretend that he hurt his shoulder so that he could get into the group, then seduce them
with his words of the Lord, and then God only knew what. If he wasn’t there to save
everybody, then what was he there for? He seemed concerned for everyone’s health. He
listened intently when anyone spoke about what they had gone through—his head bobbed
with the details about Denise’s miscarriage and Tommy’s tearful admission that his father
was an alcoholic. How could someone spend so much time to appear so concerned for
the welfare of others, yet be only a liar? He had to be a grifter—no one could care so
much about other people.
The meeting ended on time, and he took his coat and headed for the exit. He didn’t
wait to talk to Duane or Randy or Taggart. But he had to stop at the men’s room. He
found the one at the end of the corridor. He wondered why he had to urinate so much
since the operation. His fear was that sometime he would not remember that he had to go
and wind up soaking his pants, probably in public. Since the operation, anything was
Kevin heard the door open and swing slowly closed, then saw him out of the corner
of his eye. Randy stood at the urinal right next to Kevin and unzipped his fly. Kevin
tried not to hear the steady stream of urine as Randy relieved himself, maybe it would be
a way to block Randy out of his mind, but he could not. The man was still there. “Good
meeting, eh?” he said. Kevin knew he couldn’t finish quickly, so he just nodded.
“I know you don’t believe in what I have to say to the group, but that’s OK. I can
only help those who want to be helped.”
Kevin tried to muster the nerve to turn and piss on Randy, but he couldn’t. “Well, I
guess so,” was all he said.
“You should come to the church. Duane told me that he gave you the flyer, but I
wanted to give you a personal invitation. I know you’ve been going through a lot lately,
and I know it’s been tough for you to deal with it. That’s what this group is for, I know.
Hell, that’s why I come here. But if you need more help, that’s what my Church is for.”
Randy didn’t seem as smug as he was last week when they met. He seemed actually
concerned, as he was in the meeting.
“You don’t know what I’ve been going through,” he said. He zipped up his fly and
washed his hands in the sink.
“No I don’t, and I won’t pretend that I do. But I can help you. My church can help
you. We are a collective, if you will, a group that is here to help each other. You are
trying to help yourself through this, but I can tell that it’s not working. Honestly, it’s not
working for anyone else either.” He finished and zipped up his fly. “You don’t trust me.
I get that. Lots of people don’t trust me. But if you don’t allow yourself to trust
someone, even someone like me, where are you going to be in this world? What choices
will you have? Do you want to be stuck where you are right now?”
Kevin could feel Arthur just outside the door. He could feel him walking into the
bathroom. He could see his son standing behind him, waiting for his father to come out.
He didn’t want to believe that his son was gone, but his son was gone. He almost felt the
cold grip of the little boy’s hand on his, trying to pull him out of the bathroom and away
from this crazy man, who faced him of like they were in a John Wayne movie. He shook
his head to clear it and said, “No, I’m not interested.”
“You say that you’re not interested, but I can tell that you’re not sure.” He said it like
a fact, and Kevin wanted to scream What makes you think you can get inside my head?
Fuck off! But he didn’t want to swear in front of his son, behind him over by the door.
“We don’t turn anybody away. If you change your mind, I’m always here in the
meetings. You will be able to find me.” He walked around Kevin, as if out of respect,
and went through the door and was gone.
“I don’t like him, Dad,” said Arthur.
Kevin leaned against the sink and rubbed his face. Arthur was still there, concerned.
“Are you OK?”
“Yeah, fine.” Kevin washed his hands quickly and walked out of the bathroom,
headed for the door quickly, hoping that Arthur would not follow him.
Chapter 8
She drummed with her fingers on the armrests of the chair, tapping her foot on the
first and third beats. After a while she made it more complicated, her hands patting her
thighs, her desktop, and her feet double tapping every once in a while like a syncopated
Morse code. She played it faster, then slower, then faster again; then she stopped in the
middle, held it for a second, and started again. She tried to concentrate on the sound that
her hands made, the rhythm that she felt, ignoring the sounds of the office around her.
Then sound of her hands slapping her desk became loud enough that it filled her ears, and
then she stopped, fearing that others would hear this noise.
Nancy waited. People walked past the door to her office oblivious to her or her open
door. She felt better about that—she would much rather be alone in her office than have
to talk to others about playing the drums. It was something that she still thought about
every once in a while, when she was at home alone or watching television or reading,
anytime she had a moment to herself. Now with Kevin in the state that he was in, it was
something that she thought about much more often. When he was in the hospital, she
was alone in the house most of the time—neighbors should had never really met came
over to check on her, make sure that she was recovering from what had happened to her
husband. They would bring cookies or a cake and sit with her in the living room and ask
her gently if she was all right, and she would respond that yes, she was, all the while
thinking in the back of her mind that she had never met these people before in her life.
How could they know what happened to Kevin?
After she found out that she was pregnant, Nancy knew that she had to give up her
drums. They both had to make inevitable changes to support their new family. He had to
leave his job as a teacher to make more money; it was blind luck that they were in
Pittsburgh when more companies were moving into town for cheap real estate and a high
unemployment rate. Corporations came to Pittsburgh to set up shop, and as a result the
city was booming. The insurance company where she worked came down from New
York after the steel industry dried up and opened their office in one of the huge
skyscraper towers that were built downtown, ones that you could see far away as you
went down Forbes Avenue from Squirrel Hill into Oakland. He did get a job at a medical
publishing company in town. Between them, they were able to support each other and
their new son.
While she was pregnant, it became more and more uncomfortable to play the drums.
After the birth, she had no energy to play them. It became a joke between her and Kevin.
“You should consider yourself lucky,” he told her. “I’m just giving up my career in
teaching. You only had to give up your drums!” She knew that it wasn’t that much to
give up in exchange for their son. At the same time, she knew she would miss the nights
they would play at bars around the city.
It was still a habit, though, to start drumming on anything around the room while her
mind was on other things. She should have been focused on insurance claims from the
western Pennsylvania area when she was tapping out old Tom Petty songs on her desk. It
was the classic rock songs she liked the best—so easy to play, so full of emotion. Even
after she sold the drum kit, she still imagined what it would have been like to play in a
band again. Now though, after Arthur was gone, all she had left was Kevin, as much as
she did have him, and the constant soundtrack playing in the back of her mind.
“Are you all right?” Nancy was startled by a co-worker, a woman named Abby from
two offices down. She stood in the doorway looking concerned. Suddenly Nancy felt
embarrassed. She must have been drumming too loudly on her desk top. She tried to
remember the sound she was making—it had started as a quick rhythm but slowed to
something incoherent that must have been annoying to all the people around her.
“I’m sorry, I’m fine,” she said, trying to cover up whatever it was.
“Oh, that’s all right. I was just passing by and was wondering, is all.” Everyone
knew about Kevin in the same way that they knew about Arthur. Nancy reasoned that
there must be some kind of communication system that she was not aware of that told
everyone around her about her personal trauma. She figured it must be telepathic
because she wasn’t, and she never received any messages in any other format. She hated
the way that Abby stood in the doorway, with a manila folder in her hands, watching her,
as if she expected Nancy to do something unexpected.
“I’m fine, thank you. Can you get the door please?” She motioned for the door to
close and hoped would get the message before she had to throw something at her head. It
was always the women in the office. The men always stayed back in their own cubes,
marking their territories. She passed by one man who was on the phone and livid,
screaming at his wife about her affair, and the guys in the other cubes around continued
working, hardly noticing anything. At least they stayed away from her personal issues.
She tried to do more work, but couldn’t. She couldn’t think about her work, only
about Kevin and what he must be doing at home. Eventually, she turned her computer
off and got up from her desk. She tried to leave the office without anyone seeing her, but
there were some women she knew who she passed and she could see the look of concern
in their eyes as she passed them by. She was determined to not say a word to them, so it
was a quick nod before she made it to the elevator.
She was tapping on the steering wheel as she drove back into the city and tried to
negotiate her way through the mid-afternoon traffic. Another song in her head, a
Springsteen song from the seventies. She tried hard not to tap her feet in time—since her
right foot was on the accelerator and she was in traffic it would be a disaster. She still
liked the feel of playing along to a song; it was like fitting into an old comfortable glove,
or a pair of shoes. It was something that she had not had in so long. She thought that sex
with Kevin would have been like that. When she finally reminded him again of what
happened to their son, and this time he was being honest about his lack of memory, she
saw him as damaged and scared as she looked at him from across the apartment. She felt
sorry that he had forgotten so much, but she was tired of having to relive this memory
again and again. Since he was out of the hospital, she had to tell him the story three
times, from start to finish. She knew it wasn’t his fault that he couldn’t remember, but
she did not know if she would be able to do it again.
She wanted to feel him as she knew him in the past. She kissed him slowly, waited
for him to kiss her back, when he did she slipped her tongue into his mouth. She took his
hands and placed them on her body where she liked them, hoping that he would get the
idea and start moving them. He finally did, but his hands were clumsy and she had to
guide him. She had to undo the bra for him. She could feel him beneath his pants, but he
seemed as if he didn’t know what to do with it. She was frustrated and angry that she had
to undo his pants and pull him out and make him slide into her. As they went through the
motions, she knew it was nothing like it was when they were dating, when they were
married, when Arthur had died and they fucked just to feel something other than misery.
Even after he seemed to get the hang of it, she felt tears running down her face.
She turned the radio up in the car to wash away the memory like a bad taste from her
mouth. Traffic was moving again, and she drove along the 376, passing the exit into
Squirrel Hill. She drove past one exit after another. She could have kept going, followed
the road down south into West Virginia. But she got off on William Penn, and started
driving past all the strip malls until she saw the one with the music store.
It was a small shop, locally owned, where she knew she could get a good deal. A
young man with long hair came to help her out immediately. “How can I help you
She hated being called ma’am. It was something people would call her mother, and
she always saw her mother crying over her daughter getting married or not getting
married. And she was there to forget what it was like to be married. “I’m looking for a
drum set.”
“Oh, great! Is it for your son?”
She let that one slide. “No, it’s not.”
There were all the stands, the bass drum, three cymbals, snare, throne, foot pedals, all
of it brand new and so much better than the set she had when she was just out of college
and wondering what she was going to do with herself. The color was silver, and it even
glittered under direct light, which she figured made it much more expensive. The total
was about two thousand dollars. She just handed over the credit card and signed the slip,
thinking only about setting it up when she got home.
The clerk was impressed with what she knew about playing drums. “If you’re
looking for a part time job, I’m sure my boss is looking for someone who knows as much
as you do about drums,” he said. He was helping load the gear into the back of her car,
after they had filled the trunk.
“That’s all right, I’ve got more than I need right now,” she said. She waved to him as
she pulled into traffic.
When she got home, she left the car parked on the driveway and opened the door to
the basement. She found the rolled up carpet right where Kevin had left it—after one
whiff she knew why he had taken it outside. She went through the boxes and tools in the
garage, but found nothing that she could put a drum set on. She was still wearing her
business suit from work, so she took off her jacket and blouse, put on a t-shirt. She
noticed the blue space rug sitting in the middle of the floor in Kevin’s office. She rolled
it up; it was light enough that she could drag it downstairs. Once she rolled it out again,
she unloaded the car. As she put the kit together, she thought about the noise that she
would make, whether or not the neighbors would complain about it, if they would even
hear it. Those thoughts made her work faster—she couldn’t wait to find out what would
happen once she put it together.
When it was done she sat on the throne, adjusted it for height and comfort, then went
back to the car to find the drumsticks. She remembered when she used to build her set
before the show and then tear it down when it was all over. Wallace leaned against a
wall with a beer in hand, his bass leaning against the amplifiers and all of his gear strewn
all over the stage while he talked to people from the crowd. CJ usually got the girls—
night after night they would talk to him, trying to get as close to him as possible, and he
didn’t mind. Guys from the crowd talked to her when they weren’t talking to Wallace or
CJ and she would ignore them. She would be breaking down her drumkit—they didn’t
have a roadie or anyone else who would help them out, so she had to do the work herself.
She didn’t mind. She didn’t want to act like a two-bit rock star like Wallace and CJ. All
she wanted was to play as loud as possible. When she played shows, there were
microphones that connected to amplifiers which made her even louder. While the guys
were making their own electric guitar avalanche of noise, she would be lost in her own
rhythm of noise. She never heard anything that they played or said—for forty minutes
she was lost in her own world, and that’s where she was happiest.
Out of courtesy she closed the garage door. She hit the snare and approved of its
ringing noise. She thought of a song by the Sex Pistols, something short, sweet, easy,
and that demanded to be played extra loud. When it was over, she was pretty sure that it
didn’t go as well as she had hoped—she had not played in years—yet she was still
happier than she had been in a long time.
Nancy played a few more songs. She had to stop every now and again to remember
how the song went, or to find where she had set up the crash cymbal, or to rearrange the
toms or the throne in order to make it all work easier. She played a Rolling Stones song,
The Who, even got as far as a Led Zeppelin song, when they weren’t showing off so
much. She played “Communication Breakdown” until the part where it started to fade
out, and she just improvised an ending for the song, which was messy and cacophonous.
Nancy tried to catch her breath after the song was over. After the ringing in her ears
began to fade, she heard the doorbell ringing. She thought that she could stay down in
the basement and ignore whoever it was, but the bell was insistent. When she got to the
door, the bell had been ringing for five minutes. Nancy hoped it was one of the
neighbors, preferably the lady next door or her husband, the Cassidys, because they had
been so kind through Arthur’s death and Kevin’s accident that she wanted to piss them
Who was there was a complete stranger. He was taller than she was, maybe as tall as
Kevin. He was in his forties, maybe fifties. His hair was receding, his eyes were baggy,
and he had a belly under his sport coat. He looked at her and smiled in a way that made
her feel uneasy. She could only imagine the way she looked, with her hair matted with
sweat and her t-shirt clinging to her body, her flat shoes scuffed from hitting the bass
pedals so hard, out of breath from being out of shape, and angry from this strange man
ringing the doorbell. “Yes, can I help you?”
“You must be Kevin’s wife, right?” he said in a strong Virginia accent. She said yes,
and his smile became broader. “Well, that’s great. I’m David Randall, but everyone
calls me Randy. Your husband and I know each other from the trauma group.”
She nodded, but said nothing. He talked like he was reading from a script. She knew
people like that in the office where she worked, places where she went shopping, and
sometimes friends of hers as well. He seemed as if he was expecting something, to be
invited in, as if they were going to have tea in the living room. She kept her hand firm on
the doorknob and her foot behind the door. “Kevin isn’t here right now. He is at his
physical therapy group.”
“Oh, isn’t that a shame,” he said. He didn’t seem bothered at all. His smile stayed
where it was, and he just went along with his pitch. “Well, I was going to leave him a
flier for the church that I worship at, and I heard this racket coming from the basement, I
thought I might see what it was. It wasn’t you who was playing, was it?”
“Yes, it was.”
“Really? I thought it might have been your son.”
“We don’t have a son.” She didn’t realize what she had said until after she had said
it, by which point it was too late. “I mean, our son passed away. A few years ago.”
Randy frowned. “Oh, I am so sorry. Please accept my heartfelt condolences.” She
could tell that he already knew about Arthur’s death, the way that he didn’t lose his
stride. “I know that these things can be so hurtful to a person,” he said. “I wanted to give
Kevin an invitation to the church, you know, to help with his recovery, but now I see that
you might be needing some help as well.”
Nancy was tired of condolences. So he wanted them to go to his church, was that it?
Did he even care about what they had been going through? Maybe he was working on a
special system where he got a prize if enough people went to church. She wanted to slam
the door in his face, maybe break his nose, leave him on the porch with blood squirting
from his face. Let the church pay for plastic surgery.
Instead, she said, “Well, thank you, I will pass your message on to Kevin. If you’ll
excuse me.” She started to close the door, and then it stopped. His foot was jammed in
the doorway, and Nancy felt her throat close. Nancy suddenly had a hundred things to
say but couldn’t say anything. Was he even in the trauma group, was he trying to break
in to her house? How would she stop him? They didn’t have a gun or anything that
could hurt or stop anyone. All she could do is hold the door closed with her weight
behind it.
“I’m awful sorry, but would you mind not doing that? It hurts my foot.” Nancy
slowly opened the door. Randy had a discomfort on his face, which turned to practiced
compassion. “I understand the pain you feel. I myself lost my wife years ago, so the
feeling of losing someone is something that I can identify.”
“Really? Is she dead?”
Nancy had planned to yell at him and get him to back away from the door then slam it
in his face. Instead she felt a sickly emptiness, like a flushing through her body, leaving
her empty. The same emptiness appeared in the mourning look on Randy’s face. “I
didn’t know. I’m so sorry. Won’t you come in.”
Nancy did not know at the time why she had invited him into her home, and yet she
did. The more she thought about it as he sat there in the living room drinking tea, she
thought that the reason was pretty clear—all this time, she had no one to share Arthur’s
loss. Even Kevin had removed himself from it, although now he was convinced that their
son was still alive. She wanted to bring that up with Randy, to say everything that she
had had in mind all this time. Instead she sat across from him.
“This is a lovely home you have,” he said. He looked around the room at the pictures
on the mantel, the walls, the books and the furniture.
“Thank you.” She had not been expecting a compliment, nor did she really want one.
He turned back to her again, his face a picture of sympathy.
“Would you like to talk about what happened?” He was direct, that was something
she was not used to.
“No,” she said. “Yes. Maybe.” She was silent.
“You don’t talk about him very much, do you?” Randy asked. It was a strange
feeling for Nancy, being in her living room, in the present, with Randy trying to make
conversation and when she closed her eyes, even for a moment to blink her eyes, she saw
Arthur dying in his hospital bed and Kevin twitching after three days of staying awake
with his son. She tried to keep her eyes open, and sipped her tea.
“Losing my wife was difficult,” said Randy. “We were out driving one night. Well,
we had had a fight earlier about something, probably nothing. But then we decided to
make up, and thought it would be nice to go out and have a drink to make up for it.
There was this nice bar that we liked to go to, so we got into the car and headed out there.
This was in Virginia, mind you. We were out driving on the winding roads around
Charlottesville. We were away from the town and driving along looking for our bar and
she started asking me if I wanted to maybe get some dinner as well, and then this truck
came from the other lane and…” He drifted off from there, and shrugged. “I can only be
happy that she died instantly.”
“You don’t miss her?” asked Nancy.
“I miss her every day. But she did not have to suffer, and that is one thing that I
always fear. If I was going to die, I wouldn’t want to suffer at all.”
Nancy found herself imagining Arthur again, slowly dying, she and Kevin watching
and unable to do anything about it, and she wanted to believe that he was not suffering.
Imagining his pale white skin and his eyes half open because he was unable to close
them, and she couldn’t believe that he did not suffer.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Certainly,” said Randy.
“How did you survive her death?”
Randy set his tea mug down on the coffee table. “It was hard to do. I drank a lot. I
was a very angry man. I blamed myself for what had happened, and there was nothing
that I could do to make it better. Nothing I could do would ever bring her back, and that
made me angry at myself. I suppose I drank to make myself more miserable, just as a
punishment for myself.” This made sense to Nancy. The days after Arthur died and after
they had buried him in the cold dark ground, she had hoped that burying him would
somehow bring him back to life, as if he was a plant buried in fresh soil. When she could
go back to work again, she would go to the graveyard after work every day and sit at his
grave and wait for him. Perhaps it was a punishment for not being able to save him,
sitting alone in the corner of the graveyard.
“So I punished myself, and it wasn’t pretty. After a while, I found myself here in
Pittsburgh. You wouldn’t think that this city would be able to save you from something
like this, but I think it was. Pastor Ryan found me, and he shaped me up. He told me that
if anyone is going to make the first move, it has to be me. I’m going to be the one to
repent myself of my sins. And once I do that, then the Lord will save me. And after I am
saved, then I will have my true redemption. And He can do this for you, too, you know.”
Randy reached inside his coat pocket and pulled out a pamphlet. “Read this. It will help
you.” The cover read American Church of the New World.
Nancy swallowed her tea hard, and set the mug down. The earnestness in his face
was something she had never seen before. Or so she thought; she remembered when she
was a child and her father would try to convince her that there was a Santa Claus. He
used the same kind of innocent stare to convince her that not only that what he was
saying was true, but also that he believed it too. He was not telling her the truth, because
she knew that if he was working so hard to convince her then it had to be a lie.
“No,” she said, shaking her head.
“I understand how sad you must be, but if you are willing to open your heart you can
forgive yourself.”
“Please leave.”
“Nancy, I know you must be hurting. I am trying to save you.” Randy leaned
forward, as if he was trying to get across the coffee table. “Please let me save you.”
She got up and went to the kitchen, practically running and grabbed the first thing she
could find, a plate, then went back to the living room and threw it so that it hit the coffee
table and exploded into shards. The crash startled Randy so that he jumped in his seat,
flailing his arms and screaming like a girl.
“Get out of my house.” Nancy stayed by the door to the kitchen, close to the phone,
the knives, the back door.
Randy was on his feet. “Well, fine. If you want to be damned for all eternity, I think
that’s your choice. But why should you suffer for the sins of all the others around you?”
Nancy threw another plate that exploded on the wall. He jumped again and went for the
door. “I am trying to save you and you want to suffer for this?” he shouted, his voice in a
higher register than before. She grabbed another plate from the kitchen, but by that point
he was gone.
Nancy locked the door and spent the next half an hour cleaning up the shards of
broken plate and spilled tea in the living room. She took his pamphlet and went up to her
room and put it in her closet beneath her shoes. Then she went back down to the
basement to play her drumkit again, this time louder and faster, trying to drive Arthur
slowly dying in intensive care from her mind.
After a while Kevin came down to the basement. “When did you get that?”
She was out of breath and looked up at her husband. “Today. I just decided that I
needed it.”
He nodded slowly. “It sounds good,” he said. She started playing again, and he went
back upstairs.
Nancy tried to forget everything—her family, her son, her husband, her job, the creep
that showed up at her door. She played harder and faster and tried to bury it all, to lock it
all away.
Chapter 9
Kevin expected something huge when he went to the church. He thought he would
see stained glass windows and an arched doorway and a ringing bell in the tower. Instead
he found a short, squat building, like a warehouse or a bunker, painted white and sitting
at the end of a strip mall. There were some cars parked around the building, maybe five
or six, leaving the rest of the parking spaces empty. He parked and walked up to the
door, a glass door and window that made him think of a florist shop. In the window was
a large sign that said “American Church of the New World” in a tasteful font. As far as
churches went, it was the most unlike a church Kevin had ever seen.
He often wondered what it would have been like had Arthur grown up in this city.
His neighborhood, in Squirrel Hill, had good schools, safe environment, friendly people.
This part of town, where this church was nestled, had buildings that were falling apart,
abandoned after the steel industry collapsed. There were weeds growing three feet high
through the cracks in the pavement, taking over the city. Arthur might have had to fight
against the weeds in a classic showdown between man and vegetation, where the
vegetarians would ultimately win.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Dad,” said Arthur.
“You don’t mean that you would lose in a fight against the weeds, do you?” said
“I don’t know. I’m not saying that I would lose, but I don’t think I would win.”
“Did you ever see those George Romero films, like Night of the Living Dead? That
was filmed here in Pittsburgh. If anything is going to happen with zombies and weeds,
it’s gonna be here.” This thought amused Kevin and he smiled, the first time he had
smiled with his son in a long time. He didn’t realize that he was talking to his dead son
until other cars started pulling in to the parking lot. He wiped his face with his sleeve and
looked at the people getting out of their car. They were a typical family—a young man,
woman, a small child, maybe six or seven years old with his hair combed down, wearing
a little boy’s tie and sweater vest. Nancy never liked clothes like that, and neither did
Kevin. They seemed too much of a cliché. It wasn’t until after Arthur died that Kevin
wanted whatever clothes he could if only it would bring his boy back.
“What, you’ve got nothing to say about that?” he said, accusing his son. Arthur was
voiceless. “I didn’t think so,” said Kevin, and headed for the door.
He was greeted by an older man sitting at a small table by the door, wearing a plaid
shirt and thick glasses. “Welcome, stranger!” he said. He asked Kevin to sign into a
guest book, then gave him a pamphlet for the day’s sermon and told him that he could get
a cup of coffee in the recreation room. “It’s not good coffee, but it’s coffee that we share,
which makes it good enough for me!”
The rec room was large and open, paneled in wood and decorated with copies of
landscape paintings. On the other side of the room was a bar with a coffee maker, cups,
and donuts on a plate. He thought it looked strange with no bottles of liquor or beer taps,
like the bars he used to go to with Stewart when they first moved to Pittsburgh. Several
older ladies were setting up the circular tables and chairs around the room, as if in a
restaurant. The church ladies greeted him and he waved. There was a girl at the bar who
offered him a cup of coffee. She was much younger than the other ladies, maybe in her
early twenties; she was dressed for church in a skirt and a cardigan sweater, but her hair
had been dyed red a while ago; now her blond roots were coming through. He took the
coffee, but turned down the food, and he sat down at the table near the bar.
“Is this your first time here?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Kevin. He sipped his coffee and said that it was very good, when really it
was quite weak.
“Thank you,” she said. “I’m not very good at making coffee, but I thought I would
give it a try. What is your name?” He told her, and she said, “Nice to meet you Kevin.
I’m Cynthia. I guess I’m the hospitality person here. I make coffee, get the doughnuts,
welcome new people.”
“Not a bad job,” said Kevin.
“Oh, I’m a volunteer. I work in an office during the week, but I like to help out on
the weekends.” Cynthia seemed young—even though she said that she worked in an
office, she looked sixteen years old.
“She’s hot, Dad.” Arthur was standing nearby, looking at Cynthia with his jaw
hanging open. Kevin wanted to tell him to stop it, but he would feel embarrassed about
scolding his dead son in public. He tried to ignore Arthur.
“So, what brings you to the church?” she asked.
He didn’t want to tell her that it was his son that brought him to the church. After that
night that Randy said that he could help him, Kevin could sense that Arthur was
following him even more. He could sense his son behind him as he walked down the
street, when he tried to sleep in his bed with Nancy, when he was getting ready in the
morning to go back to group therapy. The worst time was when he called his boss,
Marty, to tell him that he was ready to come back to work. He had been away for three
weeks, and his doctor told him that he should be ready to go at any time. He picked up
the phone, dialed the number and started talking to Marty. They had a good conversation
about how Kevin was doing, his family, his therapy, and just as he was ready to tell him
that he was ready to come back, Kevin saw Arthur. The boy looked crumpled in the
doorway. Suddenly, Kevin did not have the heart to leave the house. He told Marty that
he would call when he felt he was able to work again, and hung up the phone.
He wanted to tell Cynthia that it was his dead son that made him come to the church,
that there was no other way that he could imagine to go back to the life he used to live.
Somehow, those words would not come out in that phrase. Instead, he said, “Randy
invited me.” He could sense his son standing behind him, staring at the pretty girl.
“Randy is very good at that,” said Cynthia. “I remember how he got me to start
coming to the church. He was handing out leaflets to people coming out of a rock show
in Penn Hills. He had this bullhorn, and he was preaching the word to all the kids that
came out of there.” She was very conversational, leaning over the bar, as if they were
two friends meeting again after a long time. “I was one of those kids. I wasn’t sure that I
wanted to come here, but once I did, I knew that this was the right place for me.
Whoops, I’ll be right back.”
She went to pour coffee for other churchgoers and strike up a conversation with them.
Kevin paced the room as he sipped his lukewarm coffee. He could imagine Randy
waiting outside of a rock concert, maybe the ones where Nancy used to play, shouting at
people through a bullhorn and convincing people to join the church. It didn’t surprise
him. After their talk in the men’s room, it seemed the kind of thing that he would do, and
do well.
He noticed Robert come in to the church. The plastic surgery he had been undergoing
stood out from the rest of his skin. It seemed plastic compared to the rest of his space,
where the scars from burning seemed natural. He wore a shirt and tie, dressed for church.
After he noticed him, Kevin saw other people from the trauma group arrive—there was
Denise, looking small and wan; Sidney, healing well after his fight but still looking as if
he would start another one; Jenny walking on crutches; Jill in a wheelchair; and Duane,
smiling and looking like he had just come home, or back to the bar where he spent most
of his time. He saw Kevin across the room. He waved and made his way across the
“Glad to see you here, Kevin,” he said, and put out his damaged hand. They shook,
and Kevin could feel the difference in Duane’s hand from the missing finger. “You
should have let me know you were planning to come, I would have given you a ride.”
Kevin didn’t even know he was coming until he woke that morning and couldn’t stop
thinking about Arthur. He tried to find a way to bring this up to his doctor—he asked if
there was a problem with seeing things or hallucinations. The doctor said that it could
have been caused by the pills that he was on, or perhaps it was a sign of his brain healing
itself. Either way, it was a temporary thing, which Kevin took to mean that once his
brain fully healed he would not see his son ever again. He felt his gut twinge inside when
he heard this. He didn’t know what caused it, or even what it was, so he did not tell his
doctor, even when he noticed and asked if he was all right. Kevin went home, asking
himself what it was that made him feel so strange inside. It came to him one night, as he
slept and just before he woke up: What would it be like if he truly lost his son?
And that is why he got up that morning quietly. He dressed in the clothes he wore to
work. He tried hard not to wake Nancy, and as far as he could tell she was still asleep.
He took the keys from the bowl in the kitchen and shut the door gently. He thought it
was insane, yet here he was, driving across the city to go to a church where he had never
been, to see a madman address his flock.
The other trauma group members, with their coffee and doughnuts, came across the
room to Duane. Kevin knew that there were not there to see him, even though they
welcomed him to the church. He was not there for a religious discussion—he wanted his
son back. He glanced at the other people from the group. They talked to each other and
looked awkwardly around the room, all the people who were not scarred or disfigured
after an accident. There were several couples with children, several without; single men
and women in their fifties came in and met, happy to see each other; others came alone,
random people of different ages and social groups. He thought about his own accident
and what he had gone through. At least these people were honest about their scars—there
was no way that they could lie about them. Kevin, on the other hand, could lie. His scars
were hidden in his mind. He wished that he could cause himself some kind of blunt force
trauma. As it was, he stood out too much.
A note chimed through a tinny speaker. As it faded away, the people in the recreation
room dutifully threw away their coffee cops and headed for the doors on the side of the
room which lead into the church. The members of the trauma group slowly went into the
nave, which was very unlike a nave. There were no pews but folding chairs, an altar, a
lectern with a bible opened upon it. The walls were all wood paneled, just like the
recreation room. An old woman, wearing a frilly blouse and pearls, sat at an organ
playing a somberly cheerful hymn; he could hear some of the ladies in the audience
humming along with it. The trauma group members sat near the front, and Kevin headed
for the back of the room near the emergency exit. People continued to walk into the
room. Some nodded to him or said hello briefly without stopping. Kevin counted and
found that there were only sixteen people in the room. He noticed that the older people
outnumbered the younger ones by two to one. The younger people sat staring forward,
not speaking to each other or to the others around them. The way that they all looked,
Kevin thought, this must be a church of the rejected.
When he was younger, Kevin hardly ever went to church. When he had his own
family, he asked his father why they did not go to church when he was a boy, and his
father scratched his head. “I went a lot as a boy, and when I was an adult, I couldn’t see
the point in it anymore. I suppose things had changed by that point.” He wondered what
had changed for his father. Looking around the room at the pulpit and the candles on a
small table in front of it, the organ against the wall, the people sitting on the folding
chairs, Kevin couldn’t see how this would be too much church.
A door behind the pulpit opened and two men came into the room. One was balding,
with bad posture; he adjusted his thick glasses and walked up to the pulpit. The other was
Randy, his hair slicked back and down, like a child at church, not a man. As soon as the
other man laid his hands on the pulpit the organist began playing a different song, a
ringing, celebratory song of major chords. Everyone in the chapel stood up and began to
sing. Kevin noticed that the words were written in the pamphlet that the man at the door
had handed him; he tried to sing along to it, but he could not follow the melody. After a
few minutes, the song came to an end, and the man at the pulpit said:
“I want to thank you all for coming out here this morning. It is a true honor to have
you all here today, and I thank God that you have been able to come out this morning. I
would like to ask you to join us in the songs listed in your guides, and then Pastor Randy
would like to say a few words.”
The man at the organ began to play again. Kevin took the hymn book that was on the
chair beside him and began to go through the pages to find the right ones. He noticed
that Cynthia was standing next to him. She touched his hand as she helped him to find
the hymn. They found the hymn and she sang along dutifully; Kevin attempted to sing
along with little success. They laughed together afterward, like a private joke between
them. Sharing something like this with a complete stranger was something new for
Kevin. Since he had been in the hospital, he felt unable to be with anybody, even his
wife. He still couldn’t tell Nancy about Arthur—if she knew that he was seeing their son,
God only know what she would do. Cynthia was so easy, though, much easier than
anyone he had known. He noticed her blonde roots coming through, the way she wore
her gingham dress not as perfection but as confidence.
The congregation finished the third hymn, and then they sat down. Randy stepped up
to the pulpit and looked around the room, smiling wide, his teeth shining in the light.
“Thank you all for coming in,” he said in his gentle drawl. “I always like to see so many
good friends and family on these Sunday mornings. As you all know, I had a life
changing experience several years ago. It was a car accident. We were driving down
along the river when a driver came out of nowhere with his lights off and crashed into us.
It took me a long time to get over what had happened—all the surgery that I had to
undergo to reconstruct my shoulder, learning to walk again. And losing my wife,
well…” He drifted off and looked down. Kevin could hear sniffling and gentle crying in
the back of the room, probably from one of the trauma acceptance group. He was sure he
could hear Jill crying and Duane shushing her gently. “I never knew what it would have
been like to go on without her, but if it had not been for this church, for my church, I
don’t think that I ever would have been able to go on at all. So every day that I wake up
in the morning, I just want to thank God for everything that he has given us, given me.
And one of the many things he has given me is all of you. The strength that we give each
other is greater than any man, any weapon, any nation, or any force of heaven or hell.
Together we shall rise and overcome with the love that we will share with each other.
My wife is gone, but I know that she can come back with the faith and belief that I have
in the Lord. Amen.”
The crowd murmured their amen. Kevin could still hear Jill crying in the
background. He knew about the car accident, but he had never seen Randy in the direct
light. His face seemed too perfect to have been in such an accident. The scars on his
face, along his jaw and near his eye, had been cut perfectly, as if by an expert. The way
that the light glittered in his eye made him seem too perfect to have gone through such an
accident. Kevin suddenly noticed an intense pressure on the palm of his hand. Cynthia’s
fingers were wrapped tight around his hand as she watched Randy give his sermon.
Tears ran slowly down her cheeks into her dimples and along her chin. He felt clumsy,
incapable. How do you stop someone else’s tears? He reached over and brushed them
off with his finger. It was all he could think of doing, like when Arthur cried as a little
boy and he had to find some way to show his affection and love. She was startled, then
smiled at him and squeezed his hand tighter.
The congregation sang a few more hymns, the pastor read another sermon. Cynthia
held Kevin’s hand tightly and did not say a word. When the sermon was over, she turned
to him, her eyes red and her lipstick smeared. She whispered, “Thank you,” and kissed
his cheek before leaving the room.
The other members of the trauma group came up to see Randy after the sermon was
over. Kevin stood to the side, at the end of the pew near the door. Denise gave him a
hug, and Duane gave him one of his strong handshakes. Jill was weeping silently, Sidney
stood away from her. Kevin knew then that Randy couldn’t do anything for him—he was
a fool for having come out so early in the morning. He left the church and went through
the recreation room to the exit.
“You’re not leaving us so soon, are you?” Cynthia caught up with him, freshened up
after the sermon.
“I should get home to my wife.” He wasn’t sure he would go home yet. He wanted
to go somewhere else, anywhere else. He could still see Arthur looking small and
helpless in the middle of the room, as if he was being abandoned.
“You should stay for a while. We’re having breakfast. It’s not much, just doughnuts,
but it’s the group you’re with that makes it easier, right?” She was trying so hard to keep
him at the church, and Kevin felt sad that she would.
“I really should go.” He turned to leave and felt her hand on his arm.
“Please don’t. We would like you to stay.” She looked like Arthur did, sad and
alone. He couldn’t figure out how old she was—twenty-five maybe? He used to be so
good at things like that, but not anymore.
Randy walked into the room with his entourage of the damaged and damned
following him. He had removed his blue gown and was wearing his plaid shirt and bolo
tie. He walked straight and tall, apart from the rest of the crowd, and they didn’t seem to
mind. Kevin looked at his face, which seemed nicked here and there by a razor, then at
his nose, his forehead, his chin, his cheekbones, and saw everything exactly in its place.
There was no way that he had been in a car accident, nothing that would have caused him
to lose his wife. He had to be lying. Then again, Kevin reasoned, he didn’t look like he
had been in any kind of accident—all of his scars were inside. He still felt Arthur in the
room, and tried to block him out by closing his eyes tightly.
“Are you all right?” asked Cynthia. “Can I get you some coffee?”
“That’s all right,” he said. “I’m all right. I’m fine.”
“I hope so,” she said. “But you know, if you’re not, that is what we are all here for.
To help each other.”
“That’s funny. That’s what I go to the trauma group for.”
“Really? What happened to you?”
“I was in an accident. Was hit by a bike, of all things, and hit my head. It was the
concussion caused a blood clot, and I had to have brain surgery. It was a mess,” he said,
trying to brush it off.
Cynthia took his arm in her hands. “Oh, I’m sorry that happened.” She seemed wan
for a moment, yet still interested in what had happened. “Do you know, we all have
something that we suffer from. It’s not such a bad thing. You’ll recover, I can feel it.
I’ve had my own traumas, yet I keep coming back to the church to gain some
“Does it help?”
“More than you know.”
She kept a solid grip on his arm, and then lead him back to the bar, the coffee and the
doughnuts. It felt to Kevin that he was watching himself from a distance as he let himself
go along. He didn’t want to believe in Randy, or in the group of traumatized fools that
fawned over him. They needed something to cling too, all of these people after they lost
children, limbs, lovers, lives. Yet he still had lost his son. Seeing him against the walls
or in corners didn’t stop the fact that he knew what had happened, that his son was gone,
and his heart ached to get him back.
Randy noticed Kevin while he was talking to Duane, and excused himself. “So glad
you could make it tonight,” he said. Cynthia let Kevin’s arm go and Randy shook his
hand. Kevin went along with it because he couldn’t escape his son still in the corner. “I
wanted to talk to you about something. Thank you, Cynthia. Can you make some more
coffee?” She nodded and squeezed Kevin’s arm quickly, then went behind the bar.
Kevin watched her shapely form beneath the gingham dress. Randy turned him gently
and walked him to the front door.
Outside, Randy pulled up his right pants leg and pulled a pack of cigarettes from his
sock. “I really shouldn’t be smoking these things,” he said, “But I really can’t stop, no
matter what I do. Do you mind?” Kevin shook his head, and Randy lit one up. He
offered Kevin a smoke, but he waved him off. “So, I am very glad you came here today,
because there is something I wanted to talk to you about.”
Kevin waited. He felt his son inside the church, standing pensively in the doorway.
He wanted to go running back to his son, but shook it off, more of a twitch, something he
noticed that he had been doing lately. Randy watched him as he smoked.
“The thing is,” said Randy, and he put a hand on Kevin’s shoulder. “The thing is, I
know about Arthur. I know you lost your son, and I know how it must be hurting you. I
lost my wife. I can never get her back. I can feel the pain that you must be feeling.”
There was a sharp pain in Kevin’s heart. How did he know about Arthur? It should
have been all right, because that was why he came to the church, to find his son, to get
him back, wasn’t it?
Randy puffed away on his cigarette. “I want to make you an offer,” he said. “Hear
me out, is all I am saying. The church is a powerful thing, and I have found solace
through them after my wife was taken from me.” Kevin didn’t say anything. He could
still see the churchgoers watching them from a distance. The little boy with his hair
slicked down gawked from inside the window.
“I can get your son back for you.”
Kevin was still focusing on the little boy in the window, still expecting a fight.
“What was that?”
“I can get him back. Your boy. I can get him back.”
It was something that he had never felt before—a cold, burning rage that simply
appeared and overwhelmed Kevin before he could figure out what it was. His hand
became a fist that felt as if it weighed ten tons, and he drove it into Randy’s stomach.
Randy spit out his cigarette and he doubled over and fell to his knees. Kevin pulled his
fist back, terrified that he had done that, yet ready to do it again.
“You don’t ever mention my son again, you son of a bitch,” said Kevin. You fool,
you stupid fool, how will you get him back now?!
Sidney saw what had happened from inside the church, and came running to the door.
Randy waved him off as he coughed and slowly got his breath back. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“I wasn’t aware that this was such a raw subject with you. Your son must mean a great
deal to you.”
“I told you not to mention him,” said Kevin, and punched him in the face.
Idiot, you fucking idiot! What are you doing, what have you done?! Please, please,
please stop, stop, stop
Sidney was outside quickly, grabbed Kevin’s arms and dragged him away. His legs
kicked and he shouted, swore, thrashed. Duane and Robert came out to control him, and
the women of the church came to help Randy to his feet. He clutched the left side of his
face. One of the older women from the church came out with a cloth wrapped around
“Is this going to solve anything?” asked Duane in a calm voice. “Is it going to help
anyone? No, it’s not.” He spoke as if to his son, and Kevin slowly felt his anger ebb
away. “Now, are you going to be calm?” Kevin nodded slowly.
Robert and Sidney started shouting at Kevin, but Randy stood and put his hands on
their shoulders. “No,” he said, “please. It’s my fault. I said the wrong thing. Let the
man be.”
Kevin sagged from Sidney’s arms down to his knees. He breathed heavily, looking
down at his hands. He felt Arthur watching him from the church. “You leave my son out
of this. I don’t know how you found out about him, but you stay the hell away from
him.” His voice slurred and he wanted to hit him again, but Sidney stood nearby, ready
to take Kevin down if need be.
He put his hands up. “Don’t hit me. I’m not that kind of man, and you punch too
Kevin still thought he was a dream, like he had cotton stuck in his ears and couldn’t
hear anything correctly. “No. Why are you saying that? It’s not true.” Arthur had
come from the church and now was standing by Randy’s side, an image that Kevin could
not believe he was actually seeing. He felt himself fragmenting, falling, even as he stood
straight. “Stop doing this to me.”
“It’s you who are doing this. You are doing this to yourself. You lost your boy, and
you can’t accept that. You don’t want to feel that kind of loss anymore, and you can’t
find any way to stop it. But we can help you. If you want an answer to your pain, my
brother, we can help you.” He took Kevin’s hand, and the feeling was like someone cut
the tendons in his legs. Kevin fell to his knees. He had been crying, even though he had
not noticed it.
Randy knelt and put his arms around Kevin. It was a strange position to be in—
Kevin thought Why am I letting him do this? “Your sorrow is what blinds you. You’ve
been so blind for so long, I can see that. Every time I see you in the trauma meeting I can
tell that you are the one who is blind with your own pain. You’re not alone in this. I lost
my wife. The accident that took her. I still remember.” He became choked and turned
away. “Those people there,” he said, nodding toward the church, “they saved me. They
can be your source of power. With them, you can get your boy back. I promise you, you
This is crazy, this is a lie, this is a mistake, this is a broadfaced bullshit lie the blood
will spill if he lies to me like this I will hurt him
“You have to trust,” Randy said. “You have to trust.”
If he lies I can see him on the floor bleeding out after I cut his throat with my bare
hands, if he lies I will make him hurt I will make him hurt I will make him hurt
Kevin became aware of the other churchgoers tentatively approaching from the
church, coming closer and closer, then joining hands around them. Duane began to sing
in a high, clear voice. The other church members joined him. Randy was holding him
tightly in a hug, imploring him to trust. What he could see, the only thing he could see,
was his son, standing away from the crowd next to a Chevy truck, his small mouth in a
deep frown, and he wanted to hold him again.
If he lies I will kill kill kill kill kill kill kill
He wasn’t aware of when they took him back into the church and tried to give him
water. His head was turning back and forth, delirious like a boxer. He wondered if they
would pour water on his face and get him ready for the next round. Instead, they talked
to him, telling him how they were so proud that he was willing to make this next step.
Their words made no sense to him. What he did see was Cynthia standing to the side.
Her mouth had fallen open. The look told him that this was something that was horrible
for her, but also something that she was not used to but had seen before.
The members of the trauma group were the only ones left, talking to him gently and
urgently, except Sidney and Robert who stood off to the side. They still did not trust him,
and that was fine with Kevin. He did not want their trust. He wanted Arthur back so
much that it burned in his heart like a branding iron. What would he give to get his son
back? What would he give to get back the past six years of his life? Eight years? His
job, his wife, his friends, his family? If he could have stopped that bicyclist, the longhaired kid who biked the wrong way down a one-way street ignoring traffic lights and
anyone in his way?
After a while, he found himself in his car, and Cynthia was driving. They were in a
neighborhood on top of a hill over the city, the houses in free fall and overrun with
weeds. Cars mounted on cinder blocks in more than one driveway. “That’s it, let’s get
you inside,” she said, and helped him into her own house, dark and cave-like with drapes
pulled shut. He almost blacked out in the blackness of the black.
He must have blacked out. Suddenly he was awake, and staring around the room.
“Where am I?”
“You’re safe.” He could sense Cynthia in the room with him. She still wore her
gingham dress. She placed a glass of water by his bedside.
He slowly sat up. “What happened? I passed out?”
“It happens. Sometimes when the Lord finds us, it can be too much.”
He remembered. Randy’s promise, his worried son, the images of Randy bleeding
out—he remembered it all. He drank some of the water and looked up at her. “You
don’t really believe in him, do you?”
“I don’t know if I believe in him.” She sat down on a chair across the room. “He
always seemed too much. But I believe in what he has says.”
He set the glass back down. “So you know what he said to me?” he asked.
“I have a pretty good idea.” She smiled sadly, and drew her bare toe across the floor.
He noticed that she was wearing more makeup than she had that morning. She seemed so
much smaller than earlier, when she was holding his hand during the sermon.
“Why did you hold my hand?” he asked.
“You seemed like you needed someone to hold on to. And I did, too.” She fidgeted,
looking at her hands in her lap. “I lost someone.”
“You did? I lost my son.”
“I lost my child, too.”
He sighed, shook his head. “You’re lying. Fucking lying.”
Cynthia froze. “You never heard anyone swear before?” he said.
“Well, yeah.” She could not look up at him.
Kevin rubbed his face, trying to shake himself awake. “Seriously, why am I here?”
“You blacked out. They thought it was the best thing that we could do for you.”
“Not take me to the hospital? Not take me back to my home? But bring me here?”
He could imagine the parking lot, the churchgoers all standing over him, and the idea
they passed amongst themselves about sending him back to Cynthia’s place. “What does
Randy want out of all this?”
“Why Randy? It was my idea.” She sounded small, and Kevin shook his head.
“You’re a really bad liar. What does Randy want?”
“He just wants to help you.”
“He told me he could bring my son back. My son is dead.” He waited for a moment
to see how that would affect her. He face was like stone. “He can’t bring my son back.
He is dead. Do you know what that even means?” Her lip began to tremble, and he
cursed silently. He wanted to hit her. Instead, he said, “You have no clue, do you?
None. You just let him use you, and you don’t care.” He stood up. “Where are my
goddamn shoes?”
Cynthia stopped him by grabbing his hand. She pulled open the front of her dress—
the buttons popped open easily—exposing her cream colored bra. The flower motif in
lace stood out against her pale skin. She put his hand on her side, and he felt the
Cesarean scar that had healed over but protruded, like a coral reef on her skin.
“I had a baby, when I was younger. She lived for thirty seven days. Then she died.
My daughter. I didn’t even have a chance to name her before she was gone.” Cynthia
did not cry—her face was hard pressed so she could not. “This is all I have.” She placed
his hand flat against her smooth skin. The scar pressed against his palm.
“I want my son back.” That scared him. He wasn’t even able to tell Nancy that this
was what he wanted. He felt his hand moving against her skin down to her waist
“I want my daughter back. I want some time with her.” She started crying gently
against him as he slid his hand along the small of her back.
“Do you believe that this can happen?” he asked. “Do you believe in all this?”
“I believe in hope,” she said, breathlessly. Her lips were wet and Kevin kissed them
gently at first, then hungrily. His hands ran over her back and he pushed the dress off her
shoulders, to her waist, down to the floor. He pushed her back to the bed and she fell
backwards and he went with her. Cynthia still cried, but pulled open his shirt. He undid
her bra and tossed it to the side and they held each other, flesh to flesh, his scar against
his stomach.
Kevin thought of his wife, his marriage, his son, and hope. Hope had been just
another word, an abstract symbol that meant nothing real. Here it was though, in
Cynthia’s body, her lips, her tongue, her breasts, the slight pouch of her belly, the short
curly hairs between her legs and the heat she exuded. Nancy did not believe in hope
anymore, this he knew. If he could somehow bring hope back into their lives he could
bring Arthur back, and if he could bring Arthur back, he could have her back as well. A
perfect plan. He tore off her panties, leaving her exposed to the overhead light. Cynthia
tried to cover herself, embarrassed, and looked away. Kevin believed that this was the
only way to get his son back—if this was how he could find hope, then this was what he
had to do. He would worry about forgiveness later.
Chapter 10
Nancy read the magazines in the waiting room without actually reading the words.
She flipped through the magazine again, skimming over articles about new theater
projects in New York and weight loss programs for everyone. She looked up every once
in a while at the secretary at the desk, who was still talking on the phone. The girl was a
redhead chewing gum and writing on a notepad. She said “Uh huh” and “yeah” every
once in a while. Nancy began to think that she wasn’t a secretary, perhaps she was an
associate or somehow else involved. She put the magazine down and glanced at the
clock again, the third time in ten minutes.
She had wondered if it was possible to find a private investigator in Pittsburgh. She
thought such a person was imaginary, someone who only showed up on television
programs or cheap novels, but she found him listed in the yellow pages. Aldridge
Investigations was across the river in a suburb, in a small strip mall next to a hairdresser
and a coffeeshop. There were only three cars in the parking lot. It felt like everyone else
had left the town. The girl at the desk had not been especially friendly. She was on the
phone when Nancy came in and waved her over to the chairs. Nancy had been sitting for
ten minutes. She wondered if this was a mistake, if she should leave and forget the whole
thing, perhaps deal with Randy herself. Perhaps private investigators were imaginary.
After a few more minutes, she got up and headed for the door. “Mrs. Mays? I’m so
sorry to keep you waiting.” She turned and saw a man in a dark blue suit and tie at the
door to the office. He was Tony Aldridge, and invited her into his office. She shook his
hand tentatively. He was a very well groomed man, a trimmed moustache and his hair
combed and set. He offered her the seat at his desk and asked if she would like a drink.
“Just water.” He poured a glass from the carafe on top of the filing cabinet and handed it
to her. The redhead came into the room and sat at another chair in the corner. “Daphne
will be taking notes on our meeting. She is my assistant.” Daphne smiled at her and
Nancy immediately disliked her. “Daphne will be assisting me on this case, so she has to
sit in on every meeting that we have. So. What can I help you with?”
Nancy was not sure where to begin. “I want to know everything there is about David
Randall. He works at a used car dealership in Monroeville. He is also a pastor of some
kind at this church.” She handed him a pamphlet from the American Church of the new
“I’ve seen this pamphlet before. I was at a concert one night and there were these
people from the church handing out these brochures to everyone. One of them was
giving a sermon through a bullhorn.” He chuckled. “You don’t see that very often
around here.”
“It might have been him,” said Nancy. “He’s been getting my husband to go with
him to the church.”
“Is that a problem?”
“How so?”
“I hate him.” Aldridge looked surprised when she said it.
“Why? Is there something that he’s done? Or perhaps is going to do?”
“I don’t know how to explain it. He started coming over to my house to find my
husband, and when I first met him I was…not scared, but.” She imagined that first time
she met him, the smile on his face as he looked her over, like something that he would
want to eat. “I think he is trying to use my husband. I don’t know how, and I’m not sure
why, but I want you to find out.”
Aldridge seemed to think about this for a moment. He stared off into space, tapping
his fingers on the armrest of his chair. Nancy considered leaving, maybe going down to
the Department of Motor Vehicles and applying for a gun license so that she would have
something to shoot in case Randy showed up again at her house. Then he said, “All right,
I’ll look into it. I can get started as early as Thursday, then we meet next Tuesday to
discuss what it is that we found. My rates are fair, about two hundred a day, plus
expenses, which is pretty good for this economy. Is that all right?” Nancy agreed, and
they shook on it. Daphne took her to the waiting room and produced several forms, and
Nancy filled them out without reading them.
She had not wanted to find a man like Aldridge. She did not even know how to find a
private investigator, until she looked in the yellow pages and found there was an actual
heading, under which were five listings—Aldridge was first. She debated whether she
should call him or not. She finally made her decision because Kevin was not at home.
He went to his physical therapy group in the afternoon, and did not come home until
late at night. That was fine for Nancy—that meant he was getting out of the house, and
left her alone so she could play. She changed into sweat pants and a t-shirt and started
playing, usually with a slow song then building up to the harder, faster songs. He came
home later that night, after she had exhausted herself from playing and had gone to bed.
When he got in bed with her, she thought for a moment that he was having an affair.
Then she struck that idea from her mind, because, since they had been married, he had
become uninteresting. If he even considered having an affair, he would have been so
much more exciting to her. As he was now, he was not, and she spent more of her time
playing alone in the basement.
Then there were other nights that he came home late. Thursdays he had the trauma
group, and she began to wonder if he was going out with them for drinks afterwards, or if
he was having an affair with someone in the group—maybe someone who had lost a limb
or had severe brain damage. It was a horrible thought to have about her own husband,
but it excited her to think that he would do such a grotesque thing. After about a week of
this, she asked him one morning as she was getting ready for work. “You’ve been
coming home so late, Kevin. Why is that? Where are you going? What is it that you are
He seemed defensive at first. He sat on the side of the bed, not turning to face her.
“Nothing. I haven’t really been doing anything.”
The words were exactly what she wanted to hear. She wanted him to be having an
affair, and she wanted to catch him at it. Please God, she thought, let him be having an
affair with someone in his trauma group! Maybe the doctor, the shrink he told me about,
maybe one of the women who have serious physical injuries! “Oh really?” she said.
“Where have you been?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, and left the room. She was startled by how quickly he
ended the conversation. She followed him from the room, much like she used to do
before the accident.
“It does matter,” she said. “You’ve been doing this for over a week now, and I can’t
not know where you’ve been, not after everything that’s happened. What is going on
with you?”
He stopped on the stairs. “Fine, I’ve been volunteering at the church.”
Nancy frowned. “What church?”
“The New American.”
“No, you haven’t.” She began to tremble with anger. “You can’t! I told you about
that day that he was here. What is it that he’s making you do?”
“He’s not making me do anything. He asked me to help with some volunteer work,
and I agreed. He may be a bit crazy, but he seems to have his heart in the right place.”
“I don’t believe that,” she said.
Kevin shrugged. “Well, maybe not. I don’t think I believe it either.” He went down
stairs, leaving Nancy standing on the landing. She wished then that he was having an
affair instead of seeing a person like Randy trying to suffocate his way into their lives.
At least then she could be angry and fight him. Even if she could throw something at
him, or punch him or do something to get him to see her again, instead of looking away
or seeing right through her.
That night, after Kevin went to bed, she went into the closet and found a black leather
jacket that she used to wear back when she was still in the rock band with CJ and
Wallace. She told Kevin that she had given it to charity after she had become pregnant,
not for his sake but more for hers. She wanted to have a feeling that she had matured,
that this new change in her life would make her into a grown, mature woman. Yet she
always knew that the jacket was still in the closet. She pulled it out, shook it out, tried it
on and it fit fine. Not perfect, like it did back then, but good enough.
She drove down to Carson Street, where all the good clubs still were after all these
years, and she parked on a side street, like she did when she was still in a band. She had
no idea what her husband was doing with Randy, but she knew there was nothing she
could do. Since he started going to the church, there was a new determination about him.
That he would not tell her about it was the most disturbing thing. When he saw her in the
morning, before she left for work, he looked at her with certain sadness, as if he was sure
that he would not see her again.
There was a club that she liked to go to, before she started playing in the band, after
Kevin had left for Spain. It used to be an art gallery before the owners pulled out, and the
new owners made it into a bar. The bar itself was in the anteroom by the entrance;
around the corner was the main room, large and wide with a high ceiling, where local
bands would play. She had read that the place was under new management, but it was
still there for the shows.
She went in and noticed that the walls had been painted black, with posters from local
concerts put up on the walls just out of most people’s reach. The lights from the main
room flooded into the anteroom, along with the noise from the band that had started
playing half an hour ago. She felt an intoxicating wash as she felt the sound of the band.
She had dreamed of this many times, especially since Arthur left, and to feel it again was
a bliss that she had thought she would never feel again. Perhaps that was why she bought
the drum kit, to give her that kind of feeling again. Now she knew that it was nothing
like this.
She went through a crowd of young people dressed in denim and leather. She felt
that she stood out because she was so clean cut and yet she still wore a leather biker
jacket. She was focused on the din coming from the main room, the cacophony of drums,
bass, guitar, and shredding vocals. She liked the word cacophony, and how the feeling of
the word on her tongue coincided with the noise that filled her ears. She looked through
the crowd at the stage and imagined that she was the one behind the drums, making all of
that beautiful noise that washed across the room, washing over her. She felt as if she
were floating.
She stayed motionless by the door through the rest of the set and the beginning of the
next band. A man she had never met before came up to her and offered her a drink that
he had in his hand. She took it and smiled quickly before she turned back to the show.
She could tell that he was standing next to her, watching her from the corner of his eye.
She figured he was five, maybe ten years younger than she was, so she had never seen
him before, which made him suddenly attractive to her. She smiled again before she
drank. She liked that he was nothing like Kevin. He wasn’t morose or distracted or
pulled away, only focused on her. She didn’t know why, but she didn’t care either. They
made it through the rest of the set, the loud driving throbbing noise burning in her ears
and shaking the floor, and then he asked her if she would join him for a drink. She knew
that she could have turned him down at any time, but that night, she did not want to turn
anyone down.
They had a drink or two at the bar. He asked her about herself, what she did, where
she lived. She told him everything that was not personal or had to do with her marriage.
He didn’t seem to notice—he was rambling about himself as his eyes roamed over her,
and she liked it. She liked the warm feeling of alcohol inside that made her legs weak in
a comfortable way. She liked the feeling of her hand on her lower back.
She had not planned to go back to his place. He lived right nearby, a couple of blocks
down and up the hill in the residential part of the district, a quiet neighborhood with hazy
lights and cars parked up and down the street. It was a bachelor apartment, one bedroom,
a sofa, a coffee table, a television. There was not anything distinct about him or his
apartment. It was a functional place to live, and he was a functional man to have. Which
was fine with Nancy. After he turned on the lights, he looked around and shrugged,
almost apologetically, when she knew he was not asking forgiveness. She laughed, a
quiet understanding and acceptance of their imperfections.
They started kissing on the couch. Soon, Nancy found her legs apart and his hand on
her inner thigh. She found it much more difficult to breathe. She still did not know this
man’s name, and the more she thought about it, the more she did not want to know. Later
in his bedroom, her arms were around her head and she was breathing heavily. She liked
the way he licked her cunt; it was more thorough and complete than she was used to. The
orgasm hit her like an electric shock, and she laughed afterwards as tears ran down her
face. He looked down at her concerned, but she waved it off. “Nothing, it’s nothing,”
she said. She wiped her face and wondered if this kind of moment was what she truly
needed, as he slid a condom on and turned her over. She felt him push inside of her too
quickly—she tried to go along with it even though it hurt. The glow she felt faded,
slowly, until it felt as if it was something that she had to go along with. She held on to
the edge of the bed and kept her eyes closed until he finally finished and fell along beside
After a while, when he was curled against her, she wondered what had happened.
She would have to get up, put on her clothes, find her car and drive back to Squirrel Hill,
where her home and her husband were. Her ears were still ringing from the concert, but
she knew that would fade away, too. No matter what she did , it would always fade
away. Even this man, this younger man, would disappear before too long. She still had
to go back home.
She checked her watch—she would have to get up for work before too long. She
slowly got out of bed, used the lights from the streets outside to find her clothes on the
floor. The man in the bed stirred and looked up at her. “You all right, babe?” he said.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I have to go to work tomorrow morning, so I have to get going.”
He looked at the clock on the floor. “It’s only 2:30.”
“Some of us have day jobs.” She sat on the edge of the bed, putting on her stockings
and her trousers. She headed to the living room, where her jacket was hanging off of the
arm of the couch, looking like it was hanging on for dear life. She put it on and found her
He was standing naked in the doorway. “You know, I feel a little embarrassed about
this,” he said. “I don’t know if I told you my name.”
“You did,” she said.
He blinked and scratched his head. “Really?”
“Yeah, and you gave me your number.” She kissed him quickly on the cheek. “I’ll
give you a call, all right?”
“Sure, great.” He seemed relieved. She walked out the door and closed it slowly
behind her, knowing she would probably never see him again.
Nancy panicked as she walked down the streets because she did not know where her
car was. The roads were lined with cars that all looked the same in the pale glow from
the street lights. She reasoned that if she could find Carson Street, then she could use it
to find her way back to wherever she parked her car. If she didn’t, Nancy thought that
she might have to walk across the bridge, through Oakland and past the universities, up
the steep hill into Squirrel Hill, and finally into her own neighborhood. It could take a
long time, especially at this time of night, which was fine. It took half an hour for Nancy
to find the car parked on a back street. She drove along the river and crossed the bridge
and began driving up the hill along Forbes Ave. It was strange that she met this man at
the bar and already he seemed a million miles away, in another lifetime. She could feel
the night fading away, as if it had never happened. It was a sad feeling, going back to the
life she knew. Even locking herself in the basement and playing drums would not end
this emptiness.
There was a car pulled over to the side of the road. It was black, and the only way
she could see it in the dark night was the blinking red taillights. There were three people
standing in the front of it, looking down at the street. One was a woman who was
shaking her head, the other a man frozen in shock. The other man was on his phone,
talking animatedly. Nancy slowed down as she passed, then she pulled over to the side of
the road. She got out of the car and walked back to see what had happened, why they
were standing there. As she got closer, she saw in the bright glow of the headlights a
small shape curled on the road. She found it harder to breathe as she saw the girl, maybe
fifteen, sixteen years old, in a dark purple jacket and jeans. She had hit her head hard
after she had been struck by the car. Her head was developing a horrible lump—she was
a beautiful girl slowly becoming disfigured. Nancy could not tell if the girl was
breathing, but she could see her twitching occasionally.
The woman was dressed for a club, in a tight sexy outfit and heels, her hair frizzed
out and frosted. She was shouting, as if to herself, “No no no no, I can’t believe this, I
can’t believe it! What if she’s dead? What if we killed her?” The man didn’t say
anything. He was bewildered, as if in a dream or nightmare. Nancy could have pinched
him, just to remind him that this was real.
The other man, blond, in a sharp coat reeking of cologne, came back and snapped his
cell phone shut. “What did your cousin say?” asked the woman. Her knees were getting
weaker, trembling.
“He said don’t worry about it. This kind of thing happens all the time. The cops will
be around any minute, so we had better get out of here before they show up. Who the
hell are you?” The three of them turned as one to face Nancy.
She was lost for words for a moment, then said, “I saw you on the side of the road, I
thought I could help.”
“No, we’re fine, it’s OK.” The blond was brusque, trying to take control of the
situation. Nancy could tell he didn’t want her there. The girl coughed and cried, curling
into a ball in front of them.
“See, she’s alive! Oh, thank God, she’s alive!” said the girl in the leather dress.
“Good, now we can go.” The blond started to head back to the car.
“What are you doing?” The third man, the one who had been frozen, suddenly spoke.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m getting the fuck out of here before the cops show up, that’s what. I can’t get
arrested again. Give me the keys.”
“You’re not getting the keys. It’s my car, and this is my responsibility.” The driver
looked back down at the girl.
The blond stopped at the door to the car. “Look, Chris, I know that this is intense.
But you have to think this through. We have to get moving. I have to get moving.”
“Then start walking.”
The girl laughed like a hiccup. “Come on, Chris! We’ve got to go! I can’t stick
around either. Please.” She was pleading while the blond tried to reason. Nancy didn’t
want to see where this drama would end, but she was fascinated. The girl was spaced out
like she had been taking ecstasy, like the girls at the clubs on the outskirts of Pittsburgh
where Nancy used to play, the ones who bought drugs because they couldn’t buy beer at
the bar. The blond had some issues that she couldn’t guess, and Chris was going to tear
himself up inside over this. These were three people who should not be out together at
all, Nancy thought.
“Fine,” said the blond. “You can stay. We’ll leave.” He turned to Nancy. “You.
Give me your car keys.”
He was bigger than she was, and his blue eyes were an icy stare. She still said, “No
The sirens of police cars came from the distance. The blond walked up to her—
stomping in an attempt to appear cruel—and said, “Give me the fucking keys.”
Nancy wasn’t threatened by him. It amazed her that he felt he could what he wanted
from her. How old was he, maybe twenty-three? Just seeing him act this way made her
feel older. She said again, “No way.” He looked like he was going to fume, maybe even
get violent, perhaps punch her in the face. Nancy felt calm. After the rest of the night
she had had, she was ready for it.
Chris had turned away from the girl weeping in the street. “Cops are coming. Start
walking now. You’re wasting your time.” He nodded at the girl. “Take her with you.
Get going.”
The sirens were becoming louder. Nancy could tell that Danny wanted to rage at
someone, but he knew there wasn’t enough time. He stormed away up the hill. The girl
shouted after him, “What about me? What about my shoes?” She started after him, her
high heels clicking in the quiet night.
Nancy was alone with Chris under the glow of the street lights. She knelt down by
the girl in front of the car. “It’s OK, help is coming. It’ll be all right.” Chris seemed to
slump as he sat on the curb. “That was a good thing you did,” she said.
He shrugged. “I guess.” They listened as the sirens became louder. “Do you ever
get the feeling that there is really nothing that you can do to save anyone?” he asked. “I
mean, I can’t save this girl What’s done is done. I didn’t even call the cops.”
“Then what are those sirens?”
“This is Oakland,” he said. “There are always cops around. You don’t hear them
anymore, do you?” He was right—the sounds that had driven away Danny and his girl
had faded away. Nancy still held the girl close to her and felt rage pouring over her. She
wanted to scream at him, call him a liar, take back the compliment she had paid him.
Instead, she pulled out her cell phone and dialed 911.
The police and an ambulance were there in ten minutes. The emergency technicians
checked the girl out, talked to her, tried to get her to respond. Nancy was taken aside by
the police and asked questions about the incident. “No, I didn’t see what happened. I
was not here. I was driving by and thought I should help. I don’t know that man. I don’t
know why he did not call you. I don’t know why he is even here. He had two friends
with him, but they walked away.” She saw Chris still sitting on the curb with two
officers standing over him, asking questions that he did not seem willing or able to
answer. He sat limply as they asked him the same questions again and again.
“Do you know why he stayed?” the officer asked.
“No,” she said. All she saw when she looked at Chris was an empty shell.
The police took her statement, filled out the appropriate paperwork, thanked her for
her help. As she walked back to her car, she looked quickly over her shoulder—Chris
had not moved at all. The police were becoming angry as they stood over him, started
shouting at him. He gazed at his shoes.
She drove slowly up Forbes Avenue, through the rundown and broken buildings; up
into the university district with pristine homages to Greek and Roman architecture; then
into the residential district with suburban homes, apartment buildings, and manicured
lawns. Nobody was hit by cars in this part of town, where it was safe to live and raise a
family. Nothing bad would happen, unless your child died of an aneurysm. She felt tears
run down her face as she pulled into her driveway. She turned off the car and sat there in
the disappearing warmth. Kevin was inside, waiting for her, maybe awake, maybe
asleep. It stunned her to know that there was so much in her life she could not predict.
She did not know what would happen this morning as she drank her coffee and planned
her work day. It felt out of control, a Ferris wheel broken off its axle and rolling away.
She felt she wanted more control over her life. In the yellow pages, under private
investigators, she found Aldridge.
After she wrote the number down on an envelope, Nancy hung up her jacket in the
so that Kevin would never know that she had taken it out. Her life seemed so much
more in control after that, which was silly. It was just a jacket, hung on a wooden hanger,
in the darkness, once she turned off the light. She crumpled up the envelope and put it in
her purse, which sat on a small table near the door.
Kevin lay in bed, fast asleep. He was still dressed in his work clothes, a pair of dress
trousers and a white shirt, with his tie askew. Nancy looked down at him. She thought,
I’m doing this for you. Everything I did tonight I did because of you. The man from the
bar was a means to an end. Everything they did, and everything he did to her, was to help
Kevin and her marriage. This seemed reasonable to Nancy, and with this in mind she
could live with herself.
Two days later, Aldridge called Nancy at work. “I’ve found as much as I could about
David Randall.”
She felt her back stiffen as he said these words and a burning pressure on her bladder.
“Tell me.”
“He’s been a car salesman for ten years. Before that he worked a part time job, small
gigs, nothing too big. He has an ability to talk, that’s for true. I went to his shop and he
tried to sell me a car. He used to be married, until she filed a restraining order against
him. He was violent towards her, beat her up pretty good several times, yet she didn’t
press charges. They were eventually divorced. He joined the New American Church and
became one of their biggest leaders. He would wait until after events and then try to
convince people to join the church. There have been quite a few complaints about him in
different parts of town, but nothing that could be prosecuted. Some people even say they
saw him get into a fight with someone about the existence of God. Left him in bad shape,
with a few broken ribs and a concussion.”
“So what’s he doing with my husband?”
“That, I don’t know. If I had to guess, I would say that he’s trying to get him into the
“Why would he want to do that?”
“It’s what he believes.”
Nancy expected more than that. “That’s it?”
“For some people, Mrs. Mays, that’s all they need. He’s one of those people.”
Chapter 11
If Kevin wanted his son back, Randy told him, he had to be willing to make steps to
speak His word.
“Fine,” Kevin said. “When do we start?”
Cynthia convinced him to go along with Randy’s schemes. After they had had sex
that morning—more of a mechanical action than anything, something too far removed
from what was intended by the phrase “making love,” something that was only intended
to achieve a specific goal—he stared at the ceiling for a while. She was curled away
from him. Every once in a while he looked over at her curved back and pale skin. He
could see that the dye job was less than perfect, her natural blond color came through the
ends of her hair.
“Why did you dye your hair?”
“I don’t know. I don’t like being a blond, I guess.”
“Why not? Most women would love to be blond.”
“No, they wouldn’t. You don’t know that much about women, do you?”
He wasn’t expecting her to be nice. Randy had set this whole thing up, caused him to
cheat on his wife, the first time he had ever done that since he was in Barcelona with
Maria—which should not count since they were not married then anyway. Even then,
there was a reason behind it—he knew that it was the last time he would ever be able to
have an experience like that again. Now it was different. There was no lust, no feeling,
no connection. The only connection they had was in what they both wanted, and that the
only man who could give it to them was the one who gave it to them.
“If you could have named her, what would it have been?” he asked.
He felt her shift beneath the blanket. The sun had been coming into the room all day
and left the room warm enough for them, but it was cooling off now. She didn’t say
anything, and he knew it was probably the wrong question to ask. He never knew what
to ask someone when getting to know them, especially in such an awkward situation as
this. And besides…
“I would have named her Rose,” she said. He could hear tears in her throat. “That
way, I could have called here Rosie. Every time I called her name, it would be Rosie.
When her friends came over, I would call her Rosie, to the point where she would have
rolled her eyes at me and begged me to stop doing that. I would have found all the songs
and poems with the word ‘rose’ in it and sung them to her. It would have been perfect for
my little girl.”
She didn’t cry. Kevin felt cold in his heart for asking her that question. It was,
however, the only way he could stop himself from becoming too close. He did not want
that, not with his wife and son. Instead, he wanted to know her as an individual, not a
girlfriend, or a lover. He didn’t offer her any condolences. She knew what he felt about
dying children, and didn’t need to say it again.
“Who knows,” she said, “Maybe they would have played together.”
“I doubt it,” he said. “He was about ten when he died. I think he was gone by the
time she was born.”
“Oh.” She pulled the blankets closer around her. She seemed breakable in his bare
hands—far too fragile for that much faith.
He asked her again if she seriously thought that Randy could bring her child back.
“You say that you believe in hope, but seriously, is it worth all this?”
“What else is there?” She was quiet for a moment, then asked, “Do you believe in
When she asked him that question, all Kevin could imagine was his son smiling and
waving at him. He wasn’t sure it was something that had actually happened—he almost
never smiled when he was a little boy. Whenever he did, Kevin thought it must have
been an accident. He seemed too stern and solemn to be a real, happy little boy.
“I’m not sure. I think I believe in him.”
“Isn’t that what faith is?”
“I think I would define that more as hope.”
“Aren’t hope and faith the same things?”
The city seemed strange after that. He met with Randy three days later. After
watching him talk at the trauma acceptance group, Randy pulled Kevin aside and asked
him to help hand out some fliers the next day. Kevin didn’t have much to say except,
“Yes.” The burning mark of Cynthia was still in his mind, and the only way he could
justify what had happened was if he did what Randy asked.
They walked up and down the streets of Squirrel Hill, putting flyers under the
windshield wiper blades of the cars parked there. The Jewish families who lived there,
out enjoying the late afternoon sun, seemed amused that they would go through so much
trouble for so little return. Randy tried to talk to some of them, starting with his car
salesman smile and asking them about their faith, and they quickly and politely brushed
him away and continued along their walk. “Well, they’re nice people,” said Randy.
“They’re still going to hell, but no one ever said there weren’t nice people there, too.”
Kevin hardly listened. He worked mechanically, lifting the wiper, sliding the
pamphlet beneath, and letting the blade slap back against the windshield glass. Randy
tried to talk to him, but Kevin was still thinking about Cynthia. He did not love her—that
much was evident to him. How she handled death was something that he had
experienced before. Maria was the same way. When he was in Barcelona, when he and
Maria were still passionate lovers, when she was still writing poetry about sex and before
she became serious about writing about the history of Spain, that he went to her
apartment once after an afternoon and evening of teaching, hoping for passion from her.
When he came up to her flat, he found her crying. He tried to hold her, partially to help
her feel better from whatever it was that had made her so miserable but mostly because
he wanted to feel the softness of her skin and smell the perfume and sweat off of her
neck—he even had thoughts of running his hands down her back to undo the dress that
she wore so that they could have sex, with the thought that it would “make her feel
better”. She pushed him away and sat on a chair near the window, turned away from
him, her legs crossed.
Kevin stayed near the door, after closing it behind him. This was not what he had
been expecting. When Nancy had some kind of breakdown—which was very rare—he
could always find something to say to her to make her feel better, or they could always
have sex and that made her forget her troubles, at least for the time being. Maria was so
much different—she did not want his words. Then again, he was twenty-two. He
thought about who he was at the time, a man running away from his home, his country,
his girlfriend, his life in order to fulfill some kind of fantasy under the fantasy of
furthering his career in education. He stayed by the door, waiting for her to be ready to
talk, or for the appropriate moment to leave.
Finally, she did talk. “It is Josep,” she said.
It turned out that she was older than Kevin thought she was. Maria was twentyseven. In that time, she had had many lovers—although she had been raised Catholic,
and still practiced her faith, she had a problem with anyone, even God, telling her how to
lead her life. She made a conscious choice to drink in bars and dance all night in clubs
with all kinds of men, including an American schoolteacher with a weak grasp of
Spanish. One was a man from Seville. Josep was three years older than Maria. They
met, naturally at a club.
It started as something fun between them—drinking, dancing, sex at his place. This
was before she decided that she only wanted to bring men back to her flat, and Josep was
the main reason behind that. She looked at the art on his walls, ran her fingers along his
books, touched the window that oversaw the park and a busy intersection. He would
cook for her, pour glasses of wine for her, laugh at the funny remarks she made. The
longer they were together, the more she became accustomed to him. She felt she could
go from a club late at night to his flat and knock on the door, and she was confident that
he would open the door—bleary-eyed, half asleep—and invite her in, make her a snack,
pour her a drink, or just make love to her. The worst thing was that Maria began to
expect this of him. That was when she knew that it would end very badly.
Maria told Kevin all of this that evening. She did not offer him anything to drink, or
a place to sit. She was purposely removed and distant. Kevin wasn’t sure what he should
do, or if there was anything that he could do. He had to return to the States when his
contract was up—he knew from the beginning that this would not last forever, and she
had to know the same thing.
“We stopped seeing each other after a while. I think neither one of us wanted to
become as involved as we were, and as much as we were loving it, and loving of each
other, we knew that it was the right thing to do.” Kevin could tell that this was something
that she was repeating, perhaps even practiced, in order to make herself believe her own
“When did he die?” he finally asked.
“Several days ago. Last week. He was a very healthy man, always was at the gym
and eating well. He was beautiful, how he looked. His friend, a woman, of course, told
me that it was a heart attack. A heart attack, can you believe it! Everything that he did
was useless. He still died, as if God never wanted him alive in the first place.”
If Kevin had experienced his own son’s death by that point, he might have been able
to tell her something to make her feel better. If he had experienced his mother’s death,
which happened several years later, after his son had been born, then he might have some
kind of perspective to give her. He could have told her that death was universal, that
even though it was terrifying and lonely, there was always life. It was the weight and
fear of loss that made it that much more difficult to choose which side was which, but if
you tried hard enough you could make the leap from death to life. But he was only
twenty-two, and he didn’t know. Years later, after the death of his son, he still did not
know. Instead, he was putting fliers beneath windshield wipers in Pittsburgh as Jewish
families watched for their own amusement.
“Religion is a funny thing, isn’t it?” he heard one woman say to her friend as they
walked past. They gave him a wave, and he waved back.
“They seem nice,” said Arthur.
“Yes, I’m sure they are,” said Kevin.
He didn’t hear from Maria for two days after that night, when he finally showed
himself out of her flat when it was evident that she wasn’t going to get up from her chair.
“I need a favor from you,” she said. “You may not like it, but really, you’re the only
one I can ask.” He met her at a café, where they had an espresso then went to the subway
and rode it out to the outskirts of the city. “He always said that he loved Barcelona so
much more than Seville. I think that’s why his family had him buried here.”
They walked from the station along quiet streets. The walk was quiet. There were a
few homes along the street, with empty spaces in between them. Some children had
come out to start a football game in one of the empty lots. Kevin wondered why there
was so much space not used out here, and then he saw the hills roll away into the
distance, slowly building up into mountains that dominated the horizon. It made sense to
him then—why would you want to build houses here when you could see so much
without them?
They went through the village and up the side of a hill, which quite quickly became
very steep. As they got closer to the top, Kevin noticed what looked like windows built
into the side of the hill. He had heard that this was how graveyards were in Spain, with
the dead stacked one on top of the other in the side of the hill, but he had never actually
seen it. This image looked like someone had built an apartment building out of dirt and
grass. Soon, they were on the paths that weaved along the side of the hill. The walls of
the hill had been covered in a mosaic of stones, and the stones themselves held blocks of
square memorial plaques. He knew that behind each of these plaques, there was a body,
lying there for all eternity in this beautiful and lonely place. To Kevin, it seemed a much
more beautiful place to be buried, overlooking the city, than beneath the ground, alone
and in darkness.
Maria had Josep’s location. They just had to find it. There were several tiers with
blocks of the dead, and Maria and Kevin walked along the zigzagging ramps that
connected them all, going higher and higher with each switchback. When they got about
halfway up, Maria stopped, and said, “This is him.”
His name was Josep Andreas Guierro. He had lived for thirty-three years. Kevin
wanted to make a joke about his age and the age of Jesus when he was resurrected, not to
be cruel but somehow to lighten the mood of the somber quiet that filled the graveyard.
Instead, he watched as Maria ran her fingers along the plaque, as if she could reach
through the granite and into the grave and touch her lover’s face one last time. Kevin felt
redundant—he could have left Maria alone with Josep and he might not have noticed it at
all. He looked over the side of the ramps to the ground below, where a small family
entered the gate. The mother, daughter, and two sons were all dressed in black—the
women wore veils. They climbed up the ascending ramps until they stopped on the level
just below theirs. He could tell that they had been here many times by how they seemed
to know exactly where to stop. The very idea that there was a place like this where loved
ones could come and find the ones that they loved and communicate with them, in their
own ways, made him feel lonely.
That loneliness hurt him even more in, Pittsburgh when he was handing out fliers,
because he forgot where his son was buried. He had forgotten it purposely, he now
realized, because he did not want his son to be dead. Instead, he let Nancy handle all the
issues relating to his death, pouring all the jobs and responsibilities onto his broken wife.
He could not remember what he did while she arranged for their son’s burial. He did not
remember the funeral, except for a few flashes of memory that came and went. He
envied Maria and how she still felt for a man that she hardly knew, who she wanted to
know more of, but could not.
They were back in Barcelona that afternoon, and went back to Maria’s flat. She made
them tea and put out a plate of cookies. They sat and sipped their hot tea and munched
quietly. She asked Kevin if he had ever lost anyone who had been so close to him before.
Kevin, the college student from the American northeast, who went to college and fell in
love, then went to Europe just to get a job, could only say no.
“It is a very different feeling. I mean, different from when you lose a family member.
That is someone that you know on a much different level. When I lost my grandmother,
she was very old and went quickly, so when she finally died it was a relief to me that I
would not have to see her suffer. Josep still had life. I always thought of him that way,
even after we stopped seeing each other. Do you know what it is like, to know someone
who gives you a sense of life? I’m not speaking of purpose, but of an ecstasy, like
electricity running through you, someone that makes your hands stand on end. That was
what Josep was to me.”
“Why did you stop seeing him?” Kevin asked.
“Because I did not want it to end.”
“I don’t understand.”
She smiled. “Silly boy,” she said. She poured more hot water into her teacup and let
the teabag steep. “It was so perfect just the way it was. What we had was completely
right for the both of us. If we had changed it in anyway, it would have been a disaster. If
we had become close, then what we thought of each other would be gone. We might
have discovered some things that we would not like to have known. Imagine something
that is too perfect for you. If you touch it, you know that it will never be the same again.
That’s why we had to split.”
She reached out and touched his hand. He wondered for a moment if she wanted to
touch Josep’s hand instead, then realized that no, she did not. He was dead, gone, and
They had sex that evening, more slowly and deliberately than other times, letting it
build up to a swell between the two of them until they each felt a shuddering release,
followed by holding each other in her bed. Kevin felt that he should not be there, that he
was taking someone else’s place. It was the most awkward time he had ever had with a
woman, especially since her eyes always seemed distant, as if she was looking
somewhere else, at someone who was behind them.
“I can still see him, you know,” she said.
“Josep?” He felt cold against her hot skin at the sound of his name.
“Yes. I can imagine that when I walk down the street at night, he is standing in a
doorway, when really it is someone else. Or I start expecting to see him around the
corner from where I am standing. I walked all around the city yesterday, and I always
ran around the corner to see if I could catch him before he disappeared again. He was
always gone, but in my mind, I knew that he had been there. I felt it in my heart. I
suppose that is why I wanted to go to his grave today. I needed to know that he was
actually there, that he really did die. Now he can’t fool me again.” She laughed at the
thought of her former lover trying to trick her by dashing around the corner and hiding in
an open doorway, leaving her on the street confused and frustrated.
“I don’t know if I can go back to the church again,” she said. “I called all of Josep’s
friends, the ones I knew, and asked them why he died. No one knew for sure. Some said
that he might have taken pills, or it was a heart attack, or it could have been anything. I
tried calling the hospital, but since I was not one of the family they would not speak to
me. I tried going to the church yesterday, thinking that perhaps God could help me if no
one else would. I went to speak to a priest, but he could not tell me anything. God works
in mysterious ways, he said. God needs us to learn from the world around us. That was
all. That’s no reason why Josep had to die.
“So I decided that I would keep him alive, if only for myself. I like to see him when I
am out and around. And I know that I will see him in Barcelona. It is a great city for
ghosts. Very comfortable. You know, there are buildings here that were built thousands
of years ago? There is even a wall from a fortress that the Romans built still standing
today! Can you believe it! They are all here, everywhere you look, the ghosts, trying to
live as best they can among the people of today, trying to get along as cars rush by and
people run to the metro. And why are they here? Because we need them.”
Maria was quiet after that. Soon, Kevin heard her lightly snoring. The light from the
sunset came through the window. He tried to get comfortable but could not, not while his
lover’s mind was focused on someone else. For the next few days, they would not talk.
She would snap out of her reverie and come back to their own relationship, and things
would go back to the way they were, but he would know what she was thinking inside.
As they walked past a restaurant near the Santa Maria del Mar cathedral, he knew that
she would be looking for Josep. The feeling of discomfort would not truly go away until
he was flying away from Barcelona.
Kevin wanted to ask Arthur if this was why he was still around. He wanted to sit
down with his long dead son and ask him, “Are you still around because Daddy wants
you here?” To which he would probably reply, “You don’t have to talk that way to me,
Dad. I’m old enough. I’m not a baby.” Kevin could not tell. He seemed too perfect to
be anything else.
He would try again, this time in a much more mature manner. He tried to think about
what Arthur’s response would be but he could not. He thought that he might scare his
son away. He couldn’t stand having Arthur around when he was supposed to be dead,
but he didn’t want to lose him forever either. Was this what Cynthia was thinking about
when she found Randy? When Randy asked her to have sex with him, was this what she
thought she had to do? Would Maria have done the same thing in order to get Josep
back? He began to see grief as a sign of maturity, something we become accustomed to
over time when more of what we know and love is lost and gone forever.
He tried to think of the best way to handle Arthur’s disappearance from his life.
Should he see him around the corner, as Maria did, or try to get him back by whatever
means necessary, like Cynthia?
“You getting lost there?” asked Randy.
Kevin was standing by a car, one in a long line of cars running up the street, up an
incline to the vanishing point marked by a stop sign. “No, I’m fine,” he said. He went
back to his job placing fliers, and Arthur followed behind him.
Chapter 12
Kevin remembered the neighborhood. It was Carson Street, the part that was lined
with dive bars. Nancy used to play there in her band, with those two guys whose names
he could not remember anymore. He thought he saw them, or a couple of guys who
looked like them, coming out of the bar. What would they look like ten years older, he
did not know. Before he could tell for certain who they were, they had already melted
back into the crowd.
“All right, boys, show’s on,” said Randy. He licked his fingertips and slicked his hair
down. Duane and Kevin each had handfuls of brochures, the ones that Sidney made for
them with his employee discount at the copy center. He may have even made them when
their boss was not there, stealing glances cautiously over his shoulder. Sidney was still
angry at everything, yet he sat in the car, waiting to move it in case the police stopped to
issue a ticket for illegal parking. Duane did not like him. Randy reasoned that he may
still be angry, but at least he’s angry with us, not against us.
Randy flexed his arms beneath his sports jacket. His eyes roamed over the younger
crowd coming out after the show, and his lips curled in a sneer. He looked up and down
the street, all the buildings crushed together as if for warmth, the streetlights blocking out
the black of the night above. He stood beneath a light, on his own stage in front of the
crowds. The only thing that separated them was two lanes of the road divided by a
double yellow line. He stood beneath the light in his sharklike suit and blue floral tie,
and Kevin could see people turn and look at this strange man who stood apart from one
and all. Randy took it all in—his eyes met Kevin’s for a brief moment, and he winked.
Then he raised his bullhorn to his lips.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I am here to save you! I will save you from
yourselves, from the sin, from the world around you! Don’t get me wrong, I am not here
to judge, no sir! I am not here to tell you about a might or a could! I am here to tell you
about what will, the Will of God, the Will that will happen!”
A tall, blond man in a leather jacket, loping along the sidewalk in between with his
friends, slowly turned and stopped to listen to Randy.
“You think that you are going to another bar, don’t you? And maybe to another one
after that? Oh yes, I know how you think, because I was one of you! Yes indeed, I was
the man who drank at the bar until I had to be thrown out on the cold cement outside. In
fact some of you might even recognize me! How have you been? It’s been a long time!
Well, time passes, and when it does you begin to realize a few things. I began to realize
that this wasn’t what we are supposed to be doing. This isn’t the way that we should be
living our lives, is it? Come on now, is it?
“No, it is not! This is what I am here to tell you, to tell you that the Lord has bigger
plans for you, for me, for all of us! Yes sir! When I say that the Lord has plans for us, I
want you to think about that. Do you really think that He wants us to drink all night long
in a bar, where we spend all of our money and waste our nights? Do you think that we
should be living our lives? No sir! The Lord wants us to follow in the steps of his child
Jesus Christ, and to do this He wants us all to repent our sins, to step forward and accept
what it is that we have done, and to accept the Lord into our lives!”
His words poured into the crowd. People talked louder to each other as they passed.
They ignored Kevin and Duane as they tried to hand out the brochures. Young men in
leather and flannel pointed and laughed, some even shouted, “Aw, shut the fuck up,
man!”, their loud drunken voices drowning out Randy. Randy continued—he could not
be stopped.
“Now is that any way to talk to a friend, to a brother? I’m just here to tell you what is
happening. You don’t want to listen, that’s your problem! Think about it: what will you
do in the future? Will you be safe at your work? Will your family be happy when you
finally die? What do you think will happen then? Do you think the Lord will keep them
safe after you’ve scoffed at his words for so long? I don’t think so, my friends, I don’t
think so! The Lord may love, but the Lord is also vengeful, and he will unleash his
powerful vengeance upon all those who do not follow his word! Some people say that
there is no hell, but there is, and it’s right here—we’re in the middle of it! That’s why
there is pain and suffering in this world. We get the world that we deserve, and so here
we are! If you want a life worth living, then you must repent!”
“I’m so scared!” someone shouted, and he was followed by laughter from drunken
girls who were impressed by his audacity. The blond man from the bar shouted back,
“What have we done? What sins have we done that brought us here!”
“Son, how much time do you have!” A group laughed when they heard that, and they
stopped to watch, as if it was a comedy show. “You look to yourself, tell me what you
have been up to tonight, this past week, this past month, this past year. If there is anyone
here who is truly innocent raise your hand!” Some people in the crowd that was
accumulating shot their hands in the air to a squeal of laughter. “Don’t lie to me! You
know that there is no such thing as an innocent! But we can try, oh Lord we can try! Are
you with me? Are you willing to try with me?”
The people jeered, began to drift away. Kevin thought they must have been expecting
something else, like a fight or watching Randy get angry. Maybe he knew that was what
they were waiting for. Randy stormed over to the closest car, climbed onto the hood and
onto the roof. “What, you think you can ignore me?! You think that you don’t have to
pay attention to my words? Then that is your fault, my brothers, and that will be your
curse! You want to know what you have done? You scoff at the word of the Lord, and
that will surely piss him off! Your curse will be rejecting the Lord right now, at the most
difficult time of your lives, when you need him the most and he is reaching his hand out
to you, you are turning him away!”
His shouting from the top of the car made more people turn towards him. Some
pointed and laughed, others stared slackjawed at him. If anything was certain about
Randy, it was that these were the people that he wanted. Kevin handed them the
brochures and saw how they were mesmerized by his words. Yes, these were the ones
that he wanted. They were just like the people at the trauma group, looking for any kind
of hope. As he looked at the particular people in the crowd staring at Randy, all he could
think of was Cynthia, naked and staring up at him, her jaw set—they both knew they
were doing this out of desperate hope. Randy could talk to those people, because they
would want to hear him. Those poor bastards would not realize what had hit them until it
was too late.
By this point, Randy was on fire, a force of nature, picking out random people in the
crowd. “You, my friend, you are the one that needs help and salvation. Together, we
will be the ones to make a move in this world and start bringing the word of God to the
people of this nation! Are you with me? I said are you with me?” The slackjawed man
stared at him and a tear began to roll down his face; whether it was a tear of sadness or
fear or simple astonishment Randy could not tell, and he did not care. He had reached
the people, he had touched someone in a way that they had never been touched before.
He shouted and raved beneath the light, on top of the car. Randy had become more than
a preacher or an apostle—he was a force of nature, uncontrollable, inhuman.
A barrel-chested man came to the front of the crowd, shouting, “What are you doing?
Get the fuck off of my car!” Sidney appeared from out of nowhere—Kevin had not seen
him leave their car, still parked illegally up the street—and clocked the man on the side
of the head, grabbed him in a complex arm and neck hold and dragged him away, his legs
still kicking. Kevin saw the two men shuffle down the street and around the corner. He
tried not to imagine what would happen around that brick corner, out of his sight.
“You already know what’s going to happen,” shouted Duane over the noise from the
crowds. “Don’t stare. Just hand out the flyers.”
Randy did not seem to notice what was happening. His voice still boomed from the
bullhorn, trying to convert the people on the street. The crowd was thinning out after
only so long on the street. Kevin and Duane tried to hand out more fliers, but the people
walked right by as if they were invisible or pariahs. Duane seemed to be used to this. He
smiled and said, “God be with you,” to all the people who would not even take a flier
from him. Kevin said nothing—he just tried to hand the brochure off to another person.
He noticed that Duane seemed happy in his task on the street in the middle of the night.
Kevin wondered how many times he had done this over the years—how long had he been
working with Randy? Did they know each other before they came to the trauma group?
Kevin felt out as if he was on another planet, suddenly, not fitting in with the believers or
the non-believers. The only thing he could think of were Cynthia, who wanted her
daughter back, and Arthur, who he imagined watching him from a doorway of a club,
where the frame and the door itself were painted entirely in black.
Sidney had come back from the alley. No sign of the angry car-owner. The crowd
from the bar had slowed to a trickle, and the bouncer stepped out onto the street. “You’d
better get a move on. I called the cops.” He was a big guy, maybe six and a half feet tall
and built like a tank.
Randy aimed his bullhorn at the man and shouted, “You know that one call has
earned you a trip to an eternity of hell! You will wonder what happened to you without
the New Church of America!”
“That’s fine,” said the bouncer, “I’m Catholic.” He headed back into the bar. Sidney
started towards the bar. He was only five and a half feet tall, and even though he was
mean and angry, there was no possible way that he would survive a fight with the
bouncer. Kevin and Duane each grabbed an arm to stop him.
“He’s all right, Sidney,” said Duane, “he’s all right. We can’t win them all, now can
Sidney shook himself free. “I could have done. I could have done.” His eyes
squinted and his forehead creased. Kevin thought that any moment he could have gone
Randy had turned off the bullhorn and jumped down from the car. “Well, I suppose
we ought to be moving on. There are plenty more places in this city we can go to.” He
seemed refreshed, happy. He reminded Kevin of Stewart after he had met a girl at a bar,
brought her home, had sex with her. Stewart would have this grin on his face, a kind of
complete bliss that Kevin had not imagined anywhere else. Randy reminded Kevin more
and more of Stewart every day, except obsessed with God, not sex.
The four men got into the car and drove away, just as the police car came around the
corner, heading down to the bars. Randy rolled down the window and hung his hand
outside the window, unconcerned about the cross traffic that came too close to the
dividing line. “I think that went well, don’t you?” His teeth shone in the darkness of the
car. Kevin felt uncomfortable next to him. He seemed to be glowing, irradiating. Kevin
thought he was radioactive for a moment, wondered if he would absorb whatever he was
giving off. Perhaps he would have to stand on top of a car and lecture about the word of
God next. The first thought that he had was If I have to I will, to get my son back.
He wondered if he could live without Arthur. He had tried for so long, and then spent
so much time trying to ignore what had happened. Even after Nancy forced him to see
what had happened, made him stare into the dark blackness that was the past ten years of
his life, he couldn’t picture it again. It was like picking at a scab until it ripped off his
flesh—he wanted to forget all about it, to never remember it again, yet he started picking
again. He looked out of the window and saw his son standing on the corner, in front of
one dilapidated brick building after another, until they turned to go over the bridge, and
he had to turn to see his son fading into the distance behind him.
“What is it that you saw?” asked Randy. He was not the showman anymore—he was
the caregiver, the man from the trauma group who only wanted to help.
“Nothing,” said Kevin, when he was thinking Give me back my son!!
They drove across the river into another part of town famous for drinking and bars.
Sidney pulled into a parking lot next to a bar with a giant neon cowboy boot in the
window. The car’s headlights swung over two men, one redheaded, the in a trucker hat,
pissing against the dumpster. The redhead was startle and tried to cover himself up as
best he could and ran back inside. The blond ignored the spotlights on him. When the
car had parked, he zipped up his fly and strode up to the door, ignoring the car entirely.
“What are we doing here?” asked Kevin.
“My friend, we are going to get a drink,” said Randy. “Jesus turned water into wine.
I like to think that he would have approved of bars!”
Duane chuckled at that one. Even Sidney smiled a little bit, before reverting to his
dark frown. It struck Kevin as odd that he would want to go to a bar after admitting his
alcoholism, and even stranger that Duane and Sidney would laugh about it. Then he
realized that he was not there to have a drink, but to give a sermon. Tonight, the bar
would be his church.
Kevin had become used to Randy’s sermons at the trauma group. He was a much
different man on the streets of Pittsburgh—he was not looking to make connections or
offer suggestions of healing to the people around him. Here he was trying to dominate
the people around him. He could tell by the way Randy strode to the bar, the same way
that the man in the trucker cap did earlier, as if he belonged there, it was his second
home. He seemed as if he could piss on the wall by the dumpster as well, and no one
could stop him from doing it.
The bar was very dark and very loud—the jukebox was blasting the Eagles, “Hotel
California”. How apt, thought Kevin, You check in but you never leave. The lights
around the bar illuminated the stacked bottles and postcards from around the world—the
Christmas lights stuck to the wall with scotch tape added color. They sat at a table near
the pool table, sticky from spilled drinks from long ago. Sidney seemed nervous—Kevin
could picture him in his youth a in a place like this, friends with the bartender, drinking to
remove his inhibitions, maybe giving him license to start a fight, making his night
complete. Duane seemed relaxed, accepting of the environment. Maybe years ago he
was like Sidney and spent his time in bars. Randy was happy, grinning again like he did
on the roof of the car.
“Shot of whiskey,” he shouted at the bartender, so loud he could be heard over the
jukebox. The bartender delivered his drink, and Randy knocked it back and ordered
another. Kevin knew that he had a problem with alcohol after what Nancy had told him.
He turned to Duane, who still seemed the most reasonable member of their group. “He
knows what he’s doing,” said Duane. “In order to change people, you have to convince
them that you are with them in the first place.” That may be, thought Kevin, but what
about when he beat his wife?
When Nancy told him that Randy had been an alcoholic, he didn’t react. It didn’t
surprise him. Nothing that this man did surprised him, as long as it was wrong. He
called upon the word of the Lord even as he developed a drinking problem, beat his wife,
hurt complete strangers, and then faked his injury to sucker complete strangers with
delicate emotional problems to give themselves and their money to him. When she saw
his blank face, all she could say was, “You don’t care about this, do you? You’re still
going along with him, with all of them. You might as well marry him instead.” As she
stormed out of the room, he wanted to tell her that he had to do this if they were going to
get Arthur back, that he had to sleep with Cynthia if only to get Arthur back, that he
would do anything to get his boy back, to get her back. She slammed the door upstairs,
and Kevin knew he could not.
Instead, he was in a bar with a raging alcoholic as he put away three more shots. The
bartender said, “Slow down on those, Tex. Enjoy the flavor.”
“I don’t want the flavor, I just want the burn,” said Randy. His face seemed locked in
a kind of laughing grimace. He tossed a bill on the bar and went back to the table.
“Right, fellows, this is how it’s going to play out. Now that I’m drunk, I will tell these
people what they need to do if they are going to be saved. They’ll probably believe me if
I come across as one of them. If not, I may have to have you fellows back me up, one
way or another, with your own words of God or some kind of weapon to get me out of
this alive.”
Sidney and Duane were startled by this. Kevin was not—he had been expecting it all
this time. “What do you mean by that?” asked Duane, suddenly less confident. “You
don’t need to do it this way, Randy, you know that.”
“I know that, and you know that,” said Randy, clapping his friend on the shoulder.
“But this has nothing to do with me. This is the will of God, and His will must be done.”
He headed back to the bar. Kevin said to Duane, “You do know that he is an
alcoholic right?”
Duane was pensive for a moment. “If God says that he has to be drunk, then I guess
he has to be drunk.” He didn’t seem to believe it. He seemed more sullen than he did
when they first came into the bar.
“So he’s not going to give his speech?” asked Sidney. He seemed confused, as if he
had been expecting a repeat of what Randy had done on Carson Street.
“It might be different,” said Duane thoughtfully.
Randy was talking at the bar with the bartender, making him laugh. Kevin could see
how this was making the other guys nervous. It didn’t matter to him so long as he got his
son back.
“But Dad, how can I come back if he’s getting drunk at the bar?” Arthur was
standing at his side, nervous at Randy’s loud laughter that sliced through the music on the
jukebox. To Kevin, this seemed like a reasonable question. Then again, he thought, I am
getting advice on what to do from my dead son. He wondered if Cynthia had ever taken
advice from her deceased daughter, or Maria, after Josep passed away. Even Nancy, after
her uncle died, might have still talked to him—perhaps he watched her while she played
her drums in the basement. He was still relying on randy to get his son back, and he
didn’t see how he could after he did his sixth shot.
When Kevin got up to the bar, Randy was talking to the bartender about Virginia. “I
don’t know if you have ever been to Virginia, have you? Oh, boy, you are missing a
wonderful state! I have missed it so much since I moved up here. Where I lived was a
small town, down near Tennessee, and it was a beautiful place to be, but my wife, well,
she wanted to move to a big city, get away from the rolling mountains, actually live some
life, as they say. Well, it didn’t really do either of us much good. If it hadn’t been for the
church here in town, I don’t know if I would have stayed here after she was gone. Are
you a church going man?”
“No, I’m not,” said the bartender as he drew a pint from the tap.
“Really? Oh, well my friend, you really don’t know what you’re missing, do you?”
The bartender was uninterested—he still served drinks while Randy talked at him.
“When we got out here to Pittsburgh, I really had no prospects whatsoever. It was
quite sad, a country boy like me stuck here in the big bad city. All the jobs were gone—
the mines were gone, the steel industry was gone, the houses were falling apart, there was
nothing here! The only job I could get was selling cars to people who didn’t want them.
It is a miracle that I had ability for that!”
“You don’t say,” said the bartender as he pulled a pint for the man from outside in the
trucker cap.
“So there I was, building up my own career, and what do you think happened to me?
Nothing. I made money, I provided for my wife, but other than that nothing. And then
we had our accident. Do you know what it’s like for a man to lose his wife? What’s
worse is a man who sells cars losing her in a car accident! Now there, my friend, is
irony!” He laughed a loud, drunken laugh. Kevin sat next to Randy. He noticed that the
bartender didn’t offer him a drink. He also saw the man in the trucker cap cocking his
leg at the bar and watching them, steely eyed, as he sipped his beer.
“After she was gone I was lost, lost and alone and I had no one to turn to. I
remembered at one point—it was a bad evening, one that I try not to remember, but this
time I think I can. I remembered that when I was a little boy that my mama would take
me down to the church anytime that she saw I was sad. She would go down there
whenever she was sad, too. It was a tradition in the family. My daddy didn’t go ever, but
he had lost the sight a long time ago. So she took me down there and she made me get in
the pew and she made me say a prayer, not much of a prayer, just a little one, because I
was a little boy. And it helped. When I got older, she made me say longer prayers—she
called them ‘big boy prayers’. Now that I was an adult, I knew I had to say man-sized
prayers, so I went to the church and I got on my knees and I said my prayers, praying to
our father for all the wisdom and health that he could give me in my time of need. And
in that way, I found God.”
The jukebox had moved on to the Doors, playing “L.A. Woman.” Randy didn’t
notice, now that he was on his roll. He had turned away from the bartender and now was
speaking to the man in the trucker cap, who had happened to fall within his line of sight,
and seemed more of a logical choice to speak to.
“Do you know what it’s like to find God? I will tell you—it is the most miraculous
thing you have ever experienced. To feel God for the first time is nothing like finding a
twenty dollar bill, or winning a new car, or even laying with a woman. All of that is
fleeting—may be nice for the moment, but it will disappear in time. Knowing God is
knowing yourself. Knowing God is knowing that what you know is eternal. Knowing
God is knowing that the world has a place for you, and you are in it. Knowing God is
knowing that the eternal heavens will be yours forever and ever, amen!” By this point he
was shouting, his face slowly going red as the exultation ran through his body. The
trucker cap sat still, sipping his beer coldly, watching him, blinking.
“What’s the matter, friend?” asked Randy. “You never heard the word of the Lord
before?” The trucker hat drank slowly, said nothing. “Or maybe you have never had the
chance? Would you care to pray with me, son? Come on, we can pray right here, right in
the bar, and then we can do a shot!”
“You’re pathetic.” The man in the trucker hat dropped the words like lead from a
balloon. He folded his arms across his chest and did not move from there.
“I’m pathetic? You are saying that I’m pathetic? I’m not the one who doesn’t know
how to use a bathroom, my friend!” He cackled at his own joke but the trucker did not
“Oh, my friend, I have tears from that one!” Randy continued, over the top, as if he
was doing a comic routine on top of the car. People in the bar had begun to turn to watch
the standoff between Randy and the trucker. Kevin had been in bars like this and he
knew the people that were there. They wore denim and flannel, dressed shabbily, not
really caring about what they looked like for a night out. Pittsburgh was right on the
border with Ohio and West Virginia; many people from both states came to the city
looking for work. That they did not find any brought them to the bar.
The trucker was a stone staring at Randy. “Who the hell are you?”
“I told you, David Randall, but everyone calls me Randy!”
“Why don’t you just go back out on the street and talk to people who don’t want to
hear you? We don’t want you here.”
The bartender tensed up, not obviously, but Kevin could tell by the way he sneered
and his lips turned down. The trucker seemed like a regular, so perhaps he knew what he
was capable of. Kevin started to grab at Randy’s arm, telling him, “Come on, let’s go.”
Randy shoved him off. “No. This man wants to say something to me, he can say it.”
He was cold sober now, except for the wooziness that he seemed to have when he stood
straight. “What have you got against me, eh? What, did you have a bad experience as a
boy? Did someone touch you, that what it is? Well let me tell you, by the power within
me I can heal you, my son! God as my witness, I swear to you!”
“Not interested.”
“What was that?” Randy cupped a hand to his ear.
“You heard me.” The trucker took another drink.
“Come on, Randy, let’s be moving on,” said Duane.
“You shut your goddamn mouth,” said Randy. Duane clamped shut in shock.
“Will you speak against the word of the Lord?” Randy said to the trucker. “Is that
what this is? You dare to relieve yourself outside like some kind of animal and speak
against me? What kind of a man do you think you are?”
“The kind who doesn’t care about you or the bullshit you’re saying.” The trucker
motioned towards the door. “Why don’t you just go and leave us in peace.”
Randy was flustered, his jaw working but nothing coming out. Then he turned and
slammed the door open and stomped out. The bartender looked at Kevin and said, “You
going to cover his drinks?”
Graduate College
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Samuel Royce Harr
Bachelor of Arts, English, 1996
Bachelor of Arts, Russian, 1996
University of Rochester
Master of Arts, English—Literary and Cultural Studies, 2006
Carnegie Mellon University
Thesis Title: The Completeness: A Novel
Thesis Examination Committee:
Chairperson, Douglas Unger, MFA
Committee Member, Richard Wiley, MFA
Committee Member, Donald Revell, PhD
Graduate Faculty Representative, Jennifer Keene, PhD
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