On Sleepless Roads
graham loved the way his wife moved. While out walking he used to fall a half-step behind, just to watch. Her hips—but more than that. Legs, arms, the faint bob of her head. The way it all came together, the way it meshed. She loved to dance with her long black hair tied up on top of her head. She wore a moonstone on a leather thong that glimmered in the soft swell of her throat when the light from a mirror ball caught it. Seeing her like that, a snatch of song always came to him: My girl don’t just walk, she unfurls. The photos Graham kept in his dresser gave a sense—weightless, beyond gravity—but didn’t do justice to the way she once moved.
She didn’t move that way anymore. Her limbs jerked erratically or not at all. Her body shook, an abiding shiver. Bradykinesia, the doctors called it, caused by a lack of dopamine in the brain. She’d lost all sense of equilibrium: when she fell she did so heedlessly, the way a chest of drawers pushed from a second-story balcony falls. Pills with names like Sinemet and Comtan and Requip. Sometimes she didn’t take them. At first it was an act of defiance: she’d sit in a kitchen chair facing the wall, fingers white around the armrests, teeth clenched and muscles bunched along her jaw. Now it was an act of exploration: she wanted to see how strong the disease was, sense its power, her own powerlessness against it.
“Like slowly going blind,” she once said. “Better to be born that way, don’t you think?”
When things got really bad Graham held her down. Her wrists escaped the gentle manacles of his fingers, fists striking his chest with a resonant thump. Her body held a mindless strength: as though he were grappling with a possessed bundle of sticks, those brooms in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Only her steady gaze, those blue eyes darkened indigo by the drugs, expressed understanding. He’d jam a leg between hers, thigh pressing her hips. At these times he’d recall those days when she’d visited his bachelor apartment—TV on a milk crate, cinderblock bookshelves—making out on his sagging futon, his leg between hers and the friction of denim on denim, eyes half-closed and her voice whispering, Yes, like that. Just … like … that. He’d look down at her body, her now-body, the flailing limbs and skeletal rattle of her teeth and yet always those eyes, that calm indigo gaze.
“I’m heading out, Nell.”
She was sitting in a recliner beside the television tuned to an old episode of The Beachcombers. A book lay open on her lap. She tried to turn the page. Soon Graham turned it for her.
“You’re not watching this?”
“S-suh-seen it a-ah-already,” Nell said. “Relic steals Nick’s l-l-logs in t-thuh-this one.”
“Relic’s always stealing Nick’s logs. Turn it off?”
“It’s uh-o-okay. Something to luh-luh-listen to.”
A sheen of sweat on her face, glittering her skin like frost in moonlight. She was always sweating: the drugs, mainly, and her body never truly at rest. Still gorgeous. She’d never lose that. When Graham first saw her, the words Nordic beauty came to mind: those blue eyes and high cheekbones. He’d pictured her face framed by a white fur hood, a range of snow-topped mountains rising in the distance.
Graham set The Plunger on the hassock beside her recliner. He’d bought it—a saucer-sized disk connected to a phone line running to a jack in the wall—at a medical supply store. When pushed, it automatically dialed 911 to dispatch paramedics. They didn’t have the savings to hire a private nurse while he worked. So … The Plunger.
Graham kissed his wife. The warmth of her lips, that faint tremble. He checked his watch: 11:00. Night pressed to the living room window and beyond that a few stars, very faint, very beautiful.
“See you in the morning.”
The clean raw air of the late October night left a taste of winter at the back of Graham’s throat. Snow fell through the arc-sodium glow of a nearby streetlamp, flakes touching his hair and melting in streams down his neck. He opened the door of a ’95 Freightliner tow truck—the words Repo Depot stenciled in blue above the fender—keyed the ignition, and pulled out onto the street.
He worked at night. Safer that way. As a rule, people didn’t react favorably to having their possessions spirited away—their ugly sides tended to present themselves. Graham worked while the city slept. Ninety-five percent of the time, he avoided confrontation.
The remaining five percent … those were interesting times.
He’d been slapped, punched, kicked, stabbed, smacked on the head with a blackthorn shillelagh. A .22 round lodged behind his left kneecap, a .40-caliber round stuck in his clavicle, ass and thighs pocked with rock-salt scars. He’d been bitten: dogs mostly, though once by an incensed deadbeat. In the late ’70s he repo’d a tractor left overnight in a fallow field. At the first rumble of that Cummins diesel engine the farmhouse lights snapped on. Moments later the screen door banged open and the entire family was racing at him like the hammers of hell. A man, a woman, two kids dressed in sleeping flannels. They carried shovels and mattocks and pitchforks; the woman hefted a wheat scythe that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Grim Reaper’s skeletal hands. As he worked the clutch feverishly, Graham had a dim inkling of how Frankenstein’s monster must’ve felt, hounded by maddened villagers. The man hurled the pitchfork. A tine punched through the heel of Graham’s boot, severing some muscles and nerves. His limp was faint, but noticeable. Not bad for twenty-five years on smash-and-grab duty. A lot of repo men had caught worse.
He drove through the city’s industrial outskirts, past oil refineries surrounded by razor-wire fences and lit by a stargazer’s constellation of halogen bulbs. He merged with the Trans-Canada Highway, hooking around the city’s northern flank. Flat frost-white fields, fences, barns, the knuckled swells and dark contours of the distant hills beyond. Some feral creature—a coyote possibly, maybe a wolverine—slunk across the frozen fields. The Freightliner’s 8.8-liter diesel engine sent a steady vibration through the cab. Johnny Cash sang about Fulsom Prison blues. Cattle asleep in the pastures, plumes of steam puffing from their nostrils. A low autumn moon cast a burnt orange glow over oak and birch.
Any thrill associated with his profession had long since worn off. It was different when he was young. Back then, he had it down to a cold science: five seconds to slide a slimjim between the driver’s-side window and rubber lip, another five to pop the lock; thirty seconds to get at the ignition switch—he wore motorcycle boots with steel heels: one deft kick and the assembly snapped right off—another ten to jam a Phillips screwdriver down the ignition collar. In less than a minute any car in the city was his.
The tally of his repossessions over the years was impressive. ’82 Lamborghini Countache, midnight black, sticker price a quarter-mil. Vintage ’57 Chevy, candy-apple red with lozenge headlights, glasspack muffler, Great White tailfins. Many years ago, when they were dating, Graham flew Nell to Cape Cod to repossess a houseboat. They sailed it down through Bridgeport to New York, where Graham returned it to the dealership. Not just vehicles: coin collections and silverware, Royal Doulton figurines, a nineteenth-century Japanese musket. He’d shimmied up a rusted drainpipe to snare an antique weather vane in the shape of a codfish, hotwired a ’77 Harley Softtail in the parking lot of a biker bar, squeezed through a half-opened window to reclaim a funerary urn.
For a few soul-deadening months he’d repossessed medical equipment: electric wheelchairs and cases of dialysis mixture and sphygmomanometers. He even nicked some poor soul’s prosthetic arm. Nell was in and out of the hospital those days. The initial diagnosis was brain parasites: they were eating the lining of her brain so it pulled away from the inside of her skull, causing seizures. Graham suffered terrible nightmares: he found himself inside Nell’s head, shrunk to microscopic size on the teeming surface of a brain eaten away to the size of a chimpanzee’s by parasites—eight-legged tick-looking creatures with needlish mouths—and Graham powerless to stop them (this was better than the dream in which he himself was a parasite feasting on the jelly of his wife’s brain). The tests weren’t covered under their health plan, so Graham was forced into the ghoulish line of work to clear a few extra bucks. As soon as Nell was diagnosed with Bradykinesia, he begged off the assignment.
the house was a dilapidated bungalow with an eccentric roofline, chipped marigold siding, front yard strewn with unraked leaves. The wooded cul-de-sac was located in a quiet neighborhood in the city’s north end. In the bordering yards, the outlines of bikes and skateboards could be seen under a powdery dusting of evening snow.
Graham backed up the narrow drive and killed the engine. He double-checked the reclamation papers, dimmed the domelight, grabbed his toolbox, and swung down from the cab.
The truck was a Dodge Ram dually, V-10 engine, chrome running boards and rollbar. Graham fished a set of keys from his pocket—no need for slimjims or coathangers these days; dealers kept key-casts for every vehicle sold—and unlocked the driver’s door. The steering wheel was bolted with a red Club lock. Graham rooted through the toolbox for the canister of Freon. He sprayed the assembly, enjoying the sound it made: rapidly freezing water. Frozen metal shattered with the tap of a hammer. After checking the VIN number on the dash, Graham keyed the ignition—a brief blast of Dwight Yoakam’s “Takes a Lot to Rock You” before he found the stereo’s volume knob—and, dropping into neutral, rolled the truck down the driveway until its rear wheels were set in the tow jack’s sling.
He’d nearly secured chains around the rear axle when a man stepped out the front door. The porch light was off and he moved silently, materializing from the spiderweb of shadows thrown by a leafless maple tree.
“What are you doing?” he said. “You’re … you’re thiefing my truck.”
Graham bent over his toolbox, grabbing the second canister he always carried: mace. Sometimes it was the calmest ones who ended up causing the most grief. He looked the guy over: short and thin with the sort of engorged belly Graham associated with starving Ethiopians, wearing a pair of camouflage pants and a T-shirt the vague color of boiled liver. His whole body was canted awkwardly to one side: right shoulder sagging, left shoulder hiked nearly level with his ear, the odd plane recalling a teeter-totter.
“I’m not stealing anything, and I’m sure you know that, Mister”—a quick glance at the reclamation papers—“Henreid. Do this quiet as I can, try not to wake the neighbors, okay?”
Henreid stood on the unkempt lawn, a sullen grimace stamped on his face. It never ceased to amaze Graham how people reacted: as though he were an agent of a shadowy agency whose heinous modus operandi was to bring misery upon hard-working, law-abiding, god-fearing folk. Surely Henreid knew this day was coming, unless he’d ignored the threatening letters and phone calls. He’d likely been expecting this for a while, but, true to the nature of such people, had hoped, with the unwarranted anticipation of a death-row inmate, to receive divine reprieve in the form of a bank error in his favor, an unexpected windfall bequeathed by a dead aunt, a butter-fingered clerk slopping coffee on his payment records, absolving all debt and responsibility.
“I’m only a month or so behind. Can’t you let it slide? I’m good for it.”
“I got no say in the matter. Sorry.”
Henreid disappeared inside. Graham crawled under the truck chassis, doubled the chain around the axle, clipped it to the sling. While he worked the winch motor, lifting the Dodge’s two-ton frame off its back wheels, Henreid reappeared with a child.
“Say hello to the nice man, Charity.”
The girl was dressed in a blowsy violet nightgown, protuberant belly swelling the fabric, rubbing sleep from her eyes. She looked at Graham and smiled, maybe because a child’s natural instinct was to do so, maybe at her father’s coaching. Her teeth were in awful condition: jagged and bucked, lapping one another like the shingles on a shaker roof. She was the kind of woebegone child one couldn’t help but forecast a grim future for—eating lunch on the schoolyard’s fringe, dateless on prom night—a girl earmarked for a lifetime of bitter experience, the inescapability of which enveloped her in a diffuse aura of melancholy.
“He’s taking away Daddy’s truck,” Henreid went on. “Now Daddy won’t be able to drive you to school, or … to the ice cream parlor.”
“The city’s got a great school-bus system, sweetheart,” Graham said to Charity. “And it’s better to walk to the ice cream shop. Good exercise.”
The girl’s eyes held a faintly panicked cast, likely for no other reason than her father had woken her in the dead of night to converse with a burly stranger. Her arms found their way around Henreid’s waist, head burying into his paunch.
“I know, sweetie, I know,” Henreid said. “Maybe if you ask the man, ask him reeeal nice, he’ll let Daddy keep his truck.”
“I can’t do that, Charity.” Graham’s eyes were fixed on Henreid. “You might want to ask your Daddy why he’s driving such a spiffy truck when he could spend a few bucks to put some braces in your pretty mouth.”
“Hey, don’t you talk that way—got no damn right!”
Graham raised his hands in the manner of a surrendering PoW. “You’re the boss. Come up with the truant payments, your truck’s back at the dealership.”
He stepped up into the tow truck’s cab. The engine caught with a full-bodied rumble, the diesel’s tik-tik-tik breaching the dark silence. Graham pulled out onto the street. Henreid and his daughter dwindled to morose specks in the rearview.
the snow let up, leaving the streets slick with a brilliantine shine. Graham drove through quiet neighborhoods, postwar Normandy houses banded by hawthorn hedgerows interspersed with modern flat-roofed structures that stuck out, as Nell might say, like cocktail olives on an ice cream sundae. In the early morning hours the streets seemed remote and unreal, a dreamscape envisioned by someone of limited imagination. The only sign of human life glimpsed through the windows of all-night diners and coffee shops, a rogue’s gallery of sunken-eyed loners and insomniacs, men and women who’d reached the end of their tether and hadn’t quite realized it.
The first time Graham noticed his wife shaking, they were dining at an Italian restaurant. Waiting for their meal to arrive, Graham heard a sly tinkling: his wife’s hand trembled atop her cutlery, knife fork spoon arrayed neatly upon a white tablecloth.
“Honey, you’re shivering.”
Nell glanced at her hand, flattened her palm to the table. “Drafty in here.”
Graham agreed it was. A few minutes later, her hand shook again. Nell jammed it between her legs and pressed her thighs together. When the food arrived, she couldn’t hold her fork. In desperation she clutched it in her fist, the way a child might. She set it down with a clatter and ran a hand through her hair, that hand quaking badly, laughing, saying, “Silly, silly, silly,” under her breath.
“Are you alright?”
“Yes, fine. Just … stress. Work’s been hectic. It’s so damn cold in here.”
Graham placed a hand on Nell’s arm. Her body vibrated faintly, a deep-seated tremor originating at the very heart of her. Graham’s childhood home had been within earshot of a busy railyard. As a precaution, his father taught him to place his hand on the tracks before crossing: if the track trembled, it meant a train was near. That’s how Nell’s arm felt: a section of track trembling before an approaching locomotive.
“We should go home.”
“I’m okay.” She smiled, then lowered her eyes, as though embarrassed. In that moment, Graham knew she’d suffered with this for some time—a few days, a week, a month?—without telling him. Tough, proud, foolhardy woman. “Finish your dinner, Graham. It’s getting cold.”
The Dodge dealership hung suspended in a wash of halogen light. Showroom garlanded with plastic flags the shape of baseball pennants, fluttering faintly in the night wind. Two prices soaped on the windows of cars and trucks, a slash run through the higher one, suggesting the salesman, in a fit of improvident and potentially bankrupting bonhomie, had elected to cut his customers a rare deal.
Graham unlocked the impound lot’s gate and nosed the Freightliner through, parking Henreid’s truck between a Ford Bronco and a Jeep Cherokee. He dropped the keys in the nightbox. The next job was on the other side of town. A mobile home. He poured a cup of Nutrasweet-laced coffee from a silver thermos and set off southwards.
After Nell was diagnosed with Bradykinesia, their relationship changed. A distance developed between them, expressing itself in small ways. They didn’t touch one another as much, where before they always squeezed shoulders, patted bottoms, held hands. Graham knew this was because Nell didn’t want him to feel her shaking; after one particularly ugly argument, he’d entered into unwilling accord. They passed hours together in silence, where before they’d discussed every daily triviality—again, this was at Nell’s instigation, as she was self-conscious of her worsening stutter.
A pall of futility hung over their marriage. All the things that had seemed so imminent—financial security, children, ripe old age—were no longer. They felt as though the future had been misrepresented, falsified. They fell to contemplating all those things not done, things they’d always believed there would be time for, later. All the vaguely instructional clichés by which they’d conducted their lives—Hard work pays off, Good things happen to good people, Someday our ship will come in—were worthless in the face of this mindless, devouring disease.
Graham prayed. Not having grown up in a religious household and ignorant of all things devotional, he composed prayers like business letters, each no more than a veiled Faustian pact: Dear God, if, in your infinite wisdom, you can see your way clear to cure my wife, feel free to take ten—no, fifteen—no, twenty years—off my life, or give me leprosy or strike me with a lightning bolt. Please consider my offer, I think you’ll find it a fair one, amen.
the house was a rambling two-story: latticed mullions on catherine-wheel windows, meticulously landscaped lawn, shrubs swaddled in canvas and bound with twine. It backed onto a man-made lake, one of several in the city: pulling up, Graham glimpsed water through gaps in the foliage, moonlight glancing off ribbed waves. A lip of light spilled beneath the garage door; every so often, that lip was darkened by the shadow of a passing foot.
The motorhome, a late model Chinook Summit, was parked at the end of a wide interlocking brick driveway, parallel to the garage. Standing in the RV lot, the owners had no doubt imagined rambling, cross-country journeys, sultry nights parked on lake shores lit by a harvest moon—just like in the sales brochure. Of course job, family, and other obligations rendered their freewheeling fantasies just that, resigning the motorhome to its current role as a repository for dust, cobwebs, and shed maple keys. Graham repossessed many such luxury impulse items: Sea-Doos, bass boats, catamarans, executive nautilus equipment. The owners seemed to think since they weren’t actively using these toys, they should be spared the onus of paying for them.
The camper door hung ajar. Graham picked his way through the cramped living space, puzzled to find signs of active habitation: his penlight swept countertops littered with empty potato chip bags and crushed beer cans; the kitchen table and captain’s chairs held hamster cages; a twenty-five-gallon aquarium sat on the floor, next to a chicken-wire cage scattered with brown feathers. The predominant smell was of cedar shavings, and below that the ammoniac odor of rodent piss.
Graham slid behind the wheel and dropped the gearshift into neutral. The camper rolled down the drive’s smooth grade, Graham pumping the brakes gingerly. He wedged blocks of wood under the tires and slid under the RV’s bumper, squinting up into the dark topography of linkages and drive shafts, wiping beads of coolant off the radiator grille to stop them dripping onto his face.
He’d clipped chains to the axles when the garage door began its rattling ascent. A square of grainy yellow light fell across his legs. He peered out from under the front wheels at a pair of advancing shins.
“Ah, jeez,” a voice said. “Coming to take your pound of flesh.”
Graham hauled his ass out from under the hood, fists balled. He took one look at the guy and relaxed: tall and willowy, dressed in a kelly green track suit with a badly pixelated photograph superimposed on the sweatshirt. The overall impression was of lightness, airiness: the man seemed constructed from featherweight space-age polymers. His pinched features bore an expression that reminded Graham of those lab-coated scientists in 1950s Movietone filmstrips.
“My final possession spirited away in the middle of the night.” The guy threw his hands up helplessly. “This is it—the end of James Paris! The end, I tell you!”
Graham wondered what it was about property seizure that gave rise to soliloquies so melodramatic they’d embarrass a threepenny hack.
“Relax, Mr. Paris. It’s no big deal.”
“Says you, no big deal.” The man smelled as though he’d spent the night marinating in Bushmills Irish whiskey. “You got what’s left of my life chained to the bumper of your truck.”
Up close, Paris looked older than Graham had initially thought: skin wrinkled and crepey around the eyes and mouth, shiny over the cheekbones. Whether this was true age or a temporary haggardness brought about by recent events was unclear. Graham saw the photo on Paris’s sweatshirt featured two pit bulls. The names Rodney and Matilda were printed below in block letters.
“Mr. Paris … ”
“James, call me James.”
“Graham. You’re behind on your payments, James.”
“I know, Graham. How much—a month? Two?”
“I don’t know for sure.”
“How’d you know where to find me? Isn’t even my house.”
“We have our ways.”
“Alison must’ve called the dealership. She won’t be satisfied until I’m under a train trestle, eating Alpo. The woman wants me ruined.” Paris pronounced ruined as roon’d.
Ex-wife, Graham figured. He’d filled the role of distribution agent in more than a few bitter divorces, ensuring both parties got exactly what the settlement stipulated. Surveying his own modest possessions, he often wondered how much of it he owed to the avarice and spite of men and women who once pledged ’til death us do part.
“Would you mind giving me a minute to gather my stuff?” Paris said. “I’ve got a few things in the camper and—oh, you little brat!”
A small lumpy shape wobbled across the driveway, making a beeline for the canvas-wrapped mulberry trees. Paris stumbled after it, slippers skating across the wet flagstones. He fell on top of the ungainly creature then rose to his knees, cradling a furry bundle to his chest.
“Swear, can’t turn my back for a minute,” he said. “The rest of them are fine, but this one, he’s too curious for his own good.”
Paris held a guinea pig. Brown, with a white stripe running down the center of its vaguely bovine face, eyes like glossy black BBs set on either side of its skull. It sat serenely in Paris’s cupped palms, hairless paws resting on a curled finger, warbling and blinking its eyes.
“No end of frustration.” Paris stroked the animal with thumb and pointer finger, shaping the fur on its head into a mohawk. “He’s a good boy, still. Come inside?” He nodded towards the garage. “Just for a minute? I won’t hurt you.”
Graham smiled: he outweighed Paris by a good seventy pounds. Peering into the garage, he saw video recorders set on tripods, white umbrellas angled on poles, a boom mike suspended from a roofbeam.
Graham followed Paris into the garage. A miniature set lay sprawled across the floor: strips of sod interspersed with bristly thatches of alfalfa and gnarled bits of driftwood. Tiny houses scattered about: one shaped like a boot with a thatched roof and a window cut in the heel, the other a white cottage with a sagging roof and water wheel. A drift of popcorn lay beneath a magnifying glass rigged to a stick driven into the sod. The enclosure was hemmed by a chicken-wire fence.
An assortment of avian, amphibian, and rodent life roamed the pen. A mouse’s pointed white head poked from the cottage’s shuttered window. A frog perched atop a chunk of granite, the elastic bladder of its throat expanding and contracting. A duck slept off in the corner, beak buried in its feathered ruff. A painted turtle stood facing the boot-shaped house, head telescoped from its shell on a long wrinkled neck.
Paris set the guinea pig down on the grass. It scurried over the turtle’s shell into the boot.
“Where’s my star?” said Paris, scanning the ground. “Where’s Sammy?”
A twitching pink nose emerged from the pile of popcorn, followed by a round furred face. The hamster—brown and white, black-tipped ears—gripped a kernel of popcorn in its paws, chewing in the rapid, gluttonous manner of such creatures.
“Will you look at that.” Paris ducked behind a camera, angling the lens. “I’ve been begging him to do that all night!”
He left the camera rolling and went over to the workbench, where a half-empty bottle of Bushmills sat. He poured a respectable two ounces into a white mug; rooting around under the bench, he came up with another mug, and, after wiping it clean on his sweatshirt, filled that too.
“Like herding cats.” He handed Graham a mug. “I end up burning two hours of tape to get the shot I need. Got to work at night, too, since most of these guys are nocturnal.”
The mouse crawled out the cottage window, nosed its way through a patch of alfalfa and entered the boot. A distressed squeak. The guinea pig’s head appeared out the top of the boot, pushing up the conical thatched roof: it appeared to be wearing a coolie hat, the type worn by Vietnamese rice farmers.
“What are you up to here?”
“Are you kidding?” Paris seemed genuinely upset. “It’s Riverside Tales!”
“The TV program,” Graham said, confused. “The … the children’s show?”
“Of course, the children’s show. Well, not exactly. There were some, let’s say, obstructing legalities,” Paris waved his cup in a dismissive arc, “that, well, caused me to change the focus from series continuation to a stand-alone effort in the spirit of the old series.”
“You mean a knock-off?”
“Homage, Graham, homage. See, there’s Sammy Hamster,” he pointed, “and BP the Guinea Pig, Marian Mouse, Scholarly Old Frog, Turtle—they’re all here!”
Graham remembered the show about a group of animals living along a river. Each episode, some problem arose—a flood or a blizzard, one of the guinea pig’s wacky inventions gone awry—that the riverbank denizens would solve. Though childless himself, it was the sort of sweetly instructive program Graham might encourage kids to watch.
“You’re the creator?”
Paris shook his head. “Nah. I’m up late a few weeks back, watching the tube. Three, four o’clock in the morning—nothing but infomercials and test patterns. I came across this old children’s show, Riverside Tales. I’m thinking, four in the morning—what kid’s watching this? Anyway, seemed like something I could pull off. Head to the pet store and buy the cast, right? No SAG, no unions, no agents, none of those hassles.”
Two dishes sat in a corner of the pen. One held sunflower seeds and barley pellets; the other was empty. Paris slopped a thimbleful of liquor into the empty dish. “A rare treat,” he assured Graham. “Helps with performance anxiety. Anyway, the show went on hiatus years ago. This,” he said with a boozy sweep of his arm, “is The New and Improved Riverside Tales!”
“You’re a film producer?”
“No, ad executive. Was, should say. Ever seen the commercial for Blastberry Crunch?”
“You mean the breakfast cereal? The one with the, oh, the giant talking berries?”
“Colonel Blastberry, right, and the Berry Patrol. That was my campaign. I wrote the jingle that played over ‘Ride of the Valkyries.’” He sang in a low baritone: “Colonel Blastberry, Colonel Blastberry, Colonel BlastBERRY, nutritious and brave!”
“So why are you doing this?”
“I was fired, is why. I’m stone broke, is why. I’m living in a camper, is why. My ex-wife is a bloodsucking vampire bat, is why.” Paris’s face contorted. “God, I don’t even live in a camper anymore!”
“What about your house? Why don’t you sell it?”
“I told you, I don’t live here. I’m house-sitting for friends. I gave Alison everything: the house, the car, the dogs. Were it legal for that sea hag to suck the very air from my lungs, believe me, she would.”
“I take it you’re angling for a film grant.”
Paris nodded. “Rented the video equipment, sunk the last of my savings into this set, these critters. Talking Custer’s last stand, here.”
“I don’t remember a duck,” Graham said, with a nod towards the slumbering mallard.
“That was my idea. Dillson Duck. He’s comic relief.” Paris shook his head. “He’s not working out.”
The hamster wandered over to the water dish and lapped the booze. It shook all over like a wet dog shaking itself dry.
“That’s the spirit, Sammy,” said Paris. “Hey, would you mind doing me a tiny favor before leaving with my camper and, y’know, the final shreds of my dignity?”
“I’m on the last scene, here. In this episode, BP built a popcorn machine.” Paris indicated the magnifying glass tied to a stick. “The machine caused some problems, but they’ve been resolved. So, now, the denouement. Good triumphs, evil is thwarted—”
“Evil? It’s popcorn.”
“What? I know it’s popcorn. It’s a metaphor.” Paris enunciated slowly, as though addressing the recipient of a frontal lobotomy. “The popcorn represents evil, metaphorically speaking.”
“Music swells, harmony abounds, the riverside animals clasp hands in the spirit of friendship and love.” Paris stifled a belch. “All that crap. Fade to black.”
“What can I do?”
“Well, I’ve got to get these guys together in one shot. They need to be … frolicking.” He clapped his hands briskly. “So! Could you handle the camera while I motivate the talent?”
“I can handle that.”
Paris herded the animals around the popcorn with a pair of plastic spatulas. For the most part, they seemed resigned to their roles: Scholarly Old Frog burrowed into the white drift until only the green-black humps of its eyes were visible. Dillson Duck quacked morosely and went back to sleep. Turtle tucked his head into his shell and wouldn’t show himself for love nor money. Sammy—slightly intoxicated by now—became amorous with Marian Mouse; his advances coldly rebuffed, he bit her.
“We got some …”
“Yeah, I see.” Paris brushed a cluster of dark pellets off the popcorn.“Goddamn turd factories.” He opened a jar of peanut butter, dipped his finger, offered it to the rodents.
“So that’s how you make it look like they’re talking?”
“You bet. They love the stuff. Sticks to the roof of their mouths. Drives them bananas.”
Marian, BP, and Sammy sat around smacking their lips. It really did look as though they were having an animated, albeit distracted, conversation.
“That’s a wrap,” Paris said. They’d spent the better part of an hour, filled two video cassettes, killed the bottle of Bushmills. “Iron out the bugs in the editing room.”
Graham glanced out the window, moon hanging low and fat over the lake. “I’ve got to go.” He didn’t want to leave. The booze suffused him with a mellow glow, softening every angle, inspiring a pervasive goodwill towards all creatures great and small.
“Yes, we’ve both got business to attend to. Suppose I’d better head to the dump and gather the makings for a shanty.”
Paris hunted a cardboard box out from under the workbench, setting the animals inside.
“What are you doing?”
“You’re taking my home, remember? Their home, too.”
“But … you can’t abandon them.” Graham was horrified Paris would set the box out on the curb for tomorrow’s garbage pickup. “They’re your responsibility.”
“Relax,” said Paris. “Come with me.”
the backyard sloped down to a thin stretch of sand along the lake’s shore. The sky held a livid pallor, the onset of dawn. Snow piled along the banks. Waves lapped the shoreline.
Paris walked down to the water. The animals congregated inside the box, preening, scratching the cardboard. Paris set the box in the sand, heeled off his shoes, removed his socks, rolled up his pantlegs. He tucked the dozing duck under his arm and waded into the lake.
“Cold,” he hissed through his teeth. He waded out until the water touched his knees, setting the duck down. “You’re free. Rejoin your mallard brethren.”
The duck swam towards Paris.
“No! Go away. You’re free, don’t you get it? Free!”
Paris trudged back to shore, leaving the duck to swim in aimless circles. He plucked Turtle and Scholarly Old Frog from the box.
“Boys, it’s high time you became men.”
Graham sat on a boulder near the water. He didn’t say anything—wasn’t his place to. Paris laid the animals down on the coarse sand. The frog hopped into the water, an inky blur lost amid waving strands of eelgrass. The turtle dipped a tentative foot into the water. Satisfied, it swam out into the lake. The dark convex of its shell cut a slow path through the water, starlight bent upon the dome.
Paris stretched out on the sand. Breath puffed from his mouth, white and vaporous. Graham stirred the toe of his boot through the sand in a figure-eight pattern.
“They’ll be okay, won’t they?”
“I don’t know,” said Graham. “Winter’s coming.”
A series of shrill squeaks arose from the box as Marian Mouse’s unsullied character was again challenged by a boorish Sammy Hamster. Turtle’s shell described a lazy arc through the water, looping back towards shore.
“Cuts people’s chests open. What he does for a living.”
“Guy sleeping with my wife. She’s a nurse, he’s a cardiovascular surgeon. Looks like John Travolta, and not Saturday Night Fever Travolta—Look Who’s Talking Travolta. It’s depressing.” Paris took a deep breath and let it out slow. “Sometimes I think about walking into the hospital, into the operating theater, punching him. Right in his swarthy face. I bet he wears gold chains under his OR scrubs—a lot of them. I think, y’know, like maybe it’ll solve something, right? Answer something. But then I think, hey, this is the way she wants it. She’s happier now, right? I know that.”
“Maybe you should be happy for her, then.”
“It’s just, I thought I’d be happy, too. I wanted to be free, unfettered. All I could think about. A fresh start, hey?”
“Sure,” Graham said. “Sure, I know.”
Sleeping away the daylight hours, Graham’s most persistent dream was one in which he repossesses a car, but, instead of driving to the impound lot, keeps driving. The car is a ’63 Corvette Stingray convertible, cobalt blue. Sitting behind the wheel, he senses his personality shift to that of the car itself: growling and aggressive, the loudest, meanest dog on the block. All the perceived shortcomings that haunt his waking self—a lack of true intellect, a feeling he could’ve done better—evaporate like water dripped on a searing engine block. The city of his dream is such as he’s never seen before: he drives dusty laneways strung with adobe huts where dusky-skinned children chase lean hens through open yards, past imposing Kashmiri towers bellying in the shape of onions at their peaks, greenwater canals clogged with sleek gondolas.
He arrives at a house that, despite its unfamiliar architecture, he instinctively recognizes as his own. The front door opens, Nell stepping into the clean mid-afternoon sunlight. Barefoot, wearing a short summer dress. She moves haltingly, trembling, arms outstretched in search of an elusive balance. Then a magical thing happens: hairline fissures run down her arms and legs, thin and twisting like cracks in granite. Her face shatters, the fractured portions—high arch of cheek, fluent plane of brow—flaking off, skin curled and like burnt paper. Her expression does not change, though her eyes lighten to a brilliant shade of blue. Graham thinks of a Russian doll, of a chrysalis birthing some strange new-old and beautiful thing. She skips lightly down the path—oh, the way she moves. Her beauty is so merciless it exists nearly in the abstract. And though he knows, deep in those chambers of heart and mind that never truly sleep, this is only a dream, he still holds an unshakable belief in its possibility.
Other times, driving the streets at night, his restless mind slipping in and out of focus, a different dream comes. He repossesses another car. This one never takes a concrete form: four wheels, bland and nondescript. A getaway vehicle. He drives through the city as he knows it: redbrick houses and beige apartment complexes with squares of light burning in odd windows, darkened parks, pockets of ugliness and despair overlooked by distant snow-capped hills. He pulls up to the house he and his wife have shared for twenty-five years, idling at the curb for a long empty second. He sees Nell’s trembling silhouette in the front window. Then he sets the car in gear and pulls away, turning the corner at the end of the block, the red eyes of those taillights dimming, gone. He does not know where he is going, doesn’t quite accept his own dream logic. The vision dissolves—he often snaps out of it with an audible yelp—and in its wake all that exists is a cold and resolute self-loathing.
“Nobody really holds anyone,” said Paris. “You only hold someone as well as you’re able and you’re only held as much as you’ll allow. In the beginning, you know, that’s where the excitement lies: the uncertainty, right? The … fear.” Paris turned to Graham and smiled. He had a way of smiling that made Graham sad. “Don’t you think it’d be nice if life was like the Riverside? I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Everybody works together. Everybody gets along. There’s love, sure, but not the kind that breaks people in half, wrecks things. Puppy love. Nobody gets hurt. Everyone’s just … friends. It’d be good, I think. A good life.” He laughed, the stiff barking noise of a small dog. “I’m an idiot.”
Turtle swam back to shore. It stood in the shallows, staring, with ancient pondering eyes, at the box it’d been plucked from.
“Silly thing.” Paris walked down to the water and picked the turtle up, returning it to the box. It seemed content to be back, its existence delimited by those four off-brown walls.
“Where’s the frog?”
“Think you lost him.”
“He’ll be okay. He’s resourceful.”
Paris waded out into the lake, where Dillson swam in meandering circles. “Get your feathered ass over here.” At the last possible moment the duck took flight: a splash of water, a dim flapping of wings, a plump shape fleeing across the moon’s face into the first ashes of light to the east. Paris stood in water up to his knees, shaking his head. High above, a jet left its gauzy contrail on the lightening cupola of sky.
“Maybe this is the way it happens.” Paris did not elaborate.
“Maybe so. Listen, I’m not gonna take your camper.”
“I came, you weren’t here. That’s my story.”
“Hey, man, thanks.”
“It’s temporary. Agency’ll send someone else.”
“I only need a week to cut the episode.”
“You should be okay. Can’t stay here, though.”
“Right. I’m a no-good deadbeat.” Paris’s quasi-criminal status appeared to energize him. “I’m on the lam. Bonnie and Clyde.”
He came out of the water. “I really hate to do this, seeing as you’ve exceeded your good Samaritan quota for this week, but I’ve got to ask you one last favor.”
beams of predawn sunlight filtered over the horizon, touching the hoods of parked cars, the windows of office buildings. Moon still visible, a pale hub above the hills. The city hung suspended between darkness and day. Early morning dog walkers and paperboys went about their business with an air of reluctant obligation.
Graham drove silent suburban streets, a meandering route home. He loved this time of day, everything clean and fresh and full of possibility. A cardboard box sat on the seat beside him. Hamster, mouse, guinea pig, and turtle slept quietly inside. All four were touching, drawing heat from one another, bodies expanding and contracting as they breathed. Two cages and an aquarium stacked in the footwell, next to a sack of cedar shavings, another of barley pellets. He pulled into his driveway, hefted the box, and went inside.
The television was on, muted, tuned to another episode of The Beachcombers. Nick was hollering at Relic, presumably for stealing logs. Nell lay on the recliner. Even in sleep, her body shook fitfully.
Graham switched the TV off. Sparrows congregated on the backyard picnic table, brown bodies staggered in ranks like Confederate soldiers. He thought of the first time he’d seen Nell, at a high-school dance. A slim beautiful girl standing in the splintered light of a revolving mirror ball. She danced alone, swaying her hips and snapping her fingers to the beat. He was stunned when she asked him to dance. He wondered if it were a joke to amuse her friends, not really caring if it was in his desire to be next to her. He remembered her eyes in the malarial heat and darkness of the high-school gym, glittering blue, pupils wide and dark. The sparrows took flight en masse, a dark flurry of bodies vanishing over the rooftops.
Nell was awake, rubbing her eyes.
“Just me. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Wh-wh-what’s t-that you g-got?”
Graham set the box on the armrest. “Some new friends I made last night.”
He set the guinea pig on Nell’s lap. It burrowed into the loose folds of her sweater, warbling contentedly.
“I h-had a g-g-guinea p-pig when I w-whu-was a kid.”
Graham placed the remaining animals on different parts of his wife. They roamed the prone topography of her body: the backs of her hands, swells of her arms, crook of her neck.
“T-tuh-tickles,” she said. “W-wh-where w-wuh-will we put these g-guys?”
“We’ll find room.”
In the mellow half-light of the den, the animals made a nest of Graham’s wife. Marian Mouse nuzzled through the soft curls of Nell’s hair. Turtle sought the valley between her breasts, paused as though awaiting permission, then eased down. Nell petted BP’s head, the guinea pig happy to receive any attention.
Her hand hardly trembled. It hardly trembled at all.
A distressed squeak from somewhere below. Graham scanned his wife’s body: no hamster. It must’ve slipped between the seat and back, down into the guts of the recliner.
“Stay as still as you can,” he told Nell, kneeling beneath the leg rest and lifting the green corduroy flap, exposing the chair’s inner workings. The hamster was caught in a V of metal struts forming the recliner’s levering mechanism. Each strut was attached to a heavy spring quivering with the movement of Nell’s body. The hamster hung helplessly, stunted legs kicking the air, eyes bulging comically.
“Please,” Graham said, reaching a hand towards the shivering creature. “Please, Nell, please stay still.”