The Cold War
When he woke up on Saturday morning, Dr. Richard Eaves took a shower, dressed, found his red hat, and went out to the driveway to shovel. It had snowed overnight. Freezing wind and gray, dead grass had mutated into a pleasant landscape of quilted houses and frozen lawns. He sometimes wondered whether the winters were really getting warmer, whether corroded layers of gasses were allowing more insidious gasses into the planet. It sounded unlikely, and political, but he didn’t know. He didn’t have the information. He had once cared about science, and intellectual honesty, and empirical data, but his love for these things had slowly faded over the years, and now he cared mainly about shoveling.
He walked to the center of the driveway and considered the different places he could dump the snow. Behind him, the front door opened. He turned. The girl was in her pajamas, pajamas that were actually his pajamas.
“I’m planning out my shoveling,” he called across the driveway to her. White vapor wafted up in front of his face.
“That seems unnecessary,” she said from the door.
“It’ll turn to ice if I don’t.”
“I meant planning it.”
He stood with his mouth half-open, looking for a concise, witty retort.
She closed the door.
There was no explanation for why he was planning his shoveling. At his most skeptical he believed that the scheduling-and-strategizing-problem, his obsession with planning out the details of the future, was the initial tremor of an approaching earthquake of sadness he’d been anticipating for years, come to level, once and for all, his personality. But at his most optimistic he didn’t think about it, and also her nipples, just then, had been poking out from the shirt, and her legs had been there, made out of stone, and up the legs further, hidden but suggested by the crease of his own red-green-black pants...
In the year before he met her, it was all blackness, all frantic isolation. Now, with her at his house, those moods only came on late at night, after she was asleep, and he was left to roll back and forth in a hallucinatory daze, dreaming about oceans made of boiling tar, or bats, or spider infestations, or whatever it was that he happened to dream.
She was young. He didn’t know how young. Probably (actually, yes, definitely) younger than his daughter. Young enough to get rosy cheeks while she slept, and to have breasts that pointed upward when she reached, naked, for the paper towels on top of his refrigerator, tip-toed. The skin on her side, taut and peach, had tightened around her ribs as she did it, and it devastated him—it made him remember his wife, who used to look the same when they were young, in college, thirty years before, and who, because of an unexplained blockage in her basilar artery, was now dead.
He didn’t know the girl’s last name or where she’d come from. They met at the library. After Mary died he’d started to read again. He liked spy novels about the Cold War, when technology was still reliably stupid and suspense happened with conversations in alleyways and direct cash bribery, not the drivel of codes and hackers, of people’s faces lit up by moving green incandescent numbers.
Once a week he would drive downtown for a new book, and once a week he would see her. She would sometimes be at a computer, surfing the Internet, leaning forward towards the screen. Sometimes she would be standing beside the stone bench out front, smoking cigarettes, wearing a tattered black pea-coat and a maroon knit cap pulled down over her ears, two blond curls of hair extending out from beneath it like the tusks of a saber-toothed tiger. At first he only noticed her because she reminded him of the friends his daughter would bring back from college: young, gorgeous, hyper-intellectual creatures encoded to move to New York, become corrupt and depressed, awaken to the horrors of economic inequality, and go to graduate school for sociology. But after a few months of watching her from the corner of his eye—and a few months of observing, at night, the slow approach of the unidentified, blob-like mass on the horizon of his dreams, this bad thing on its way, now sometimes confused with the spreading power of the USSR’s network of international spies and the shifting radii of geopolitical spheres of influence—he started reading at the library instead of his empty house.
He first talked to her in November, near the drinking fountain.
“Pervert,” she hissed at him. She’d snuck up behind him while he was leaning over, lapping at the arc of water. When she said it she poked him in the back of the head.
He spun around, still holding the button. Water sprayed his beard and the side of his neck. He wiped it as he looked down at her. “Wha?”
She tucked her hair behind her ears. “I see you watching me, Mister. Every time you come in here.”
An elderly woman approached the fountain. Dr. Eaves stepped out of the way, and she leaned over to get a drink.
“Are you going to kidnap me?” asked the girl, rotating to follow his movement. “You could just talk to me, you know, instead of that, instead of these big plans to put me into some van and drive away just because you think no one will ever miss me. Why would you think that?”
The old lady remained frozen in her drinking position. The water stopped.
“I don’t have a van,” said Eaves.
They locked eyes for a moment. She didn’t look like she was joking, like her friends had put her up to it. She was all business. She was half his size.
He cleared his throat in what he hoped was an elderly, wise, offended way, walked past her, and went back to his table, terrified. I have patients, he thought, looking around the room, as though all the asthmatic and brain-damaged children he had ever treated might be browsing near the card catalogue, watching him, watching her, waiting to see if he would pull out his penis and fondle himself right there, beneath the table. The girl went up the stairs to nonfiction. The old woman hobbled towards him on her way back to her books. He looked down at his lap. Stop, he thought.
Because he had been dreaming it, he had been thinking of her alone in his house, gently coaxed there as an extension of an offered ride or promise of gifts. The fantasy was set in his mind like a real memory. The girl from the library. He would lord his power and his experience, and she would be fascinated by his knowledge of the world. He would explain things to her about geology. Who did she have to look to? Idiotic college poets. People with no knowledge. He knew things. And because her small, sincere brain recognized this she would allow him to fuck her doggy-style in his kitchen, up against the broom closet.
He went to the counter and checked out the book. He left quickly, his head down. He was ashamed of himself, of what his imagination was capable of, and what its operation revealed about his head. When he got to his car she was sitting in the passenger seat, bundled up in her coat and her hat.
He opened the door and sat down.
“Hi,” she said.
“I don’t think I should tell you my last name,” she said. “I don’t think we should dignify this.” She used her fingers to make quotation marks around the last word.
He closed his door.
“Dignify what?” he asked. He knew.
“Our scandalous love affair,” she said, scratching at something on the dashboard.
Looking straight ahead, holding the steering wheel with both hands, he said, “I believe you’re in the wrong vehicle, Miss.” He could feel her eyes burning through the side of his face.
“Anna,” she said to him.
He turned and looked at her. She was not smiling. She tucked her hair behind her ears.
“Your parents must be expecting you, Anna.”
“I don’t have parents.”
He sighed. He looked straight ahead and started the car. “Hello, Anna,” he said. “My name’s Dr. Eaves.”
For a few minutes of the drive, neither of them spoke, and Eaves watched the cars ahead of him as they drifted lazily between the lanes, one red, one blue, signaling from time to time. The road home followed the river, and the few times he dared to turn and look at her, Anna was watching the factories and the coal piles drag by in the distance. The smokestacks, perched on the far bank, emitted thin gray clouds of smoke into the afternoon sky. The green slopes of the graveyard were on the left. He didn’t look at them.
“This river is still pretty,” she said. “With the smokestacks, even.”
“It looks much better now than when I was a kid,” he admitted.
She turned to look at him.
“I grew up here,” he said.
“Why does it look better?”
“More trees,” he said. “They’ve been beautifying downtown for the last twenty years.”
She responded to this by looking down at her fingernail. “I didn’t grow up here,” she said.
“Where’d you grow up?”
By the time they pulled into the driveway, Eaves’s heart was beating hard against the inside of his ribcage. “This is it,” he said, taking the keys from the ignition.
He chuckled to himself and nodded. “Have you had dinner?” he asked, holding onto his spy novel. She got out of the car before he could offer spaghetti.
He took her through the house, showing her the computer room and the kitchen and den, not quite knowing what he was doing, and whether or not he should direct her to the bedroom. He wondered, as he watched her look out at the back yard through a bay window, whether it was possible that he was being scammed; whether she might take him into the back and tie him up, then call her pierced and angry male friends to empty the house and spray-paint swastikas on the garage.
“I like it here,” she said.
“Do you want a drink?” he asked, walking over to the bar.
“I want,” she said, “to not go to the library anymore.”
He looked up from the decanter. She was standing in the middle of the room, still wearing her coat and hat. He sensed in her a kind of undefined sadness that he knew well, that he’d spent much of his life feeling and trying to conceal. And yet here she was, unknown and somewhat faceless, but the same.
“Do you have a wife?” she asked.
“I did,” he said. “She died.”
“You live here by yourself?”
He nodded, and as he did so, he felt embarrassed about his carpet, and about the dirty dishes in the sink.
“I’m sorry for calling you a pervert before.”
“I think I am a pervert,” he said.
“No you’re not,” she said. “You’re regular.” She took off her hat and tucked her hair behind her ears. “I think I might be a pervert.” She laughed to herself, and Eaves smiled. He hadn’t expected a laugh.
“No you’re not,” he said. He tried to move his legs, to walk across the room to her, but he couldn’t move.
“I can’t move,” he said.
She came to him.
He never asked her questions about who she was. Her rules were that a) there was to be cereal in the kitchen at all times, and b) he had to take her to a movie every week. She never really cleaned, but then again she never really made any messes. She ate four bowls of Cheerios a day.
They fucked. A lot. More than he ever had in his life. In all the rooms, in all the beds. In every way they could arrange their bodies. She directed it all and initiated everything, suggesting positions, sometimes climbing off of him and walking out of the room in the middle of everything, insinuating that he follow. She once led him all the way down into the basement, past his old workroom and the storage room and into a back hallway near the fuse box. It was as though she had an agenda, and was searching out her solution with different kinds of fornication, guessing and checking secret hypotheses without a word to him about the riddle. Over time he found himself agreeing, the more he followed through the dark halls of his empty labyrinthine house, wearing nothing, that there was a solution to be found, although he knew neither the question nor the implications of its discovery. It was exciting, and possibly empirical.
He thought about her at work. He rushed through checkups and ignored paranoid parents at the end of the day. He was always deeply satisfied by helping worried people with their sick children but now, with the certainty of Anna in his home and the certainty of the ongoing project of balling their way into her concealed ontological vision, he got less satisfaction from solving their problems.
She let everything out, every time; she called out the strangest inhuman noises he’d ever heard, grunts and caws. Howls. She laughed satanically and punched at walls, hard. She encouraged him to try. He didn’t. She told him that she wanted to see and hear everything that was in him, and to see it and hear it before it passed through the disinfection of his brains. He didn’t like the idea.
“What do you do when I’m working?” he asked her one night. They were in the bed, watching TV. She was sitting down by his feet, a bowl of popcorn inside the pretzel of her legs, her naked back to him. He resisted the urge to reach out and examine her vertebrae for scoliosis.
She changed the channel.
He knew, though, that she read. She read his wife’s history books. He found them around the house, open to passages that were covered with the frenetic circles and underlines and commentary so recognizably Mary’s. She had been a medieval historian. She had been a professor at the town’s little liberal arts college. She hadn’t abandoned the word ‘medieval’ when everybody else did. She had loved it too much. He had found her dead on the bathroom floor with her underwear around her ankles. He had pulled up her underwear and dressed her in her robe before he called the ambulance. He had thought of sitting her at her desk.
“Why are you so interested in medieval history?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. He heard the sound of crunching popcorn. “It’s better than now.”
He didn’t say anything. He stretched his arms and squinted at the TV.
“Is that what she did?” she asked.
“What who did?”
She wrote all night, he wanted to say.
“I never got to know things like that,” she said.
“It’s not as though you’re seventy,” he said. “You can still go to college.”
“How stupid do you think I am?”
After she finished the popcorn she curled up under his arm and put her head down on his ribs. She touched the center of his chest.
“You’re full of the black bile,” she said quietly. “I can hear it in there.”
He blinked, watched her. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t know what it means,” she said.
It meant that she could tell how scared he was of dying.
* * *
He shoveled slowly, taking his time, abandoning plans and strategies, thinking about his daughter Kim, and what, exactly, her reaction would be when he explained to her that Anna, a young, possibly homeless girl he’d picked up at the library, had been wearing her mother’s old underwear, and he had not been asking any questions, and he had been taking it off of her at night and throwing it across the room, where it had been landing on the floor or on top of the stereo or with one corner hooked around his New York Public Library Lion’s Head bookend.
When he came inside she had her hair in pigtails. She was standing in the middle of the kitchen, naked.
“I’m taking things up a notch,” she said.
He took off his gloves. He felt his heart beating. He felt his jugular vein.
“I can do this more, I mean,” she said. “I can be even younger.”
“Don’t,” he said. “Let’s not.” He grinned and tried to make a joke: “Let’s not draw attention to things.”
“We can put you in diapers,” she said, “and do it that way.”
He grinned again, panicking.
“It would be for you,” she said.
He felt like he wanted to cry. She looked like she was about to cry, too.
“That’s what it’s for,” she said. “Sex. It helps.”
“I have to go,” he said. He walked over to the counter and picked up his keys. Ha ha, he thought. Diapers. Then he opened the fridge and pretended to be planning what kind of salad to make for dinner. He thought about radishes.
“My parents died.”
“We don’t have any radishes,” he said.
“I’m trying to help you,” she said. She was crying, breathing in through her mouth. A small amount of transparent snot was trickling from one of her nostrils.
“I have to go to the office,” he said.
She blinked and took one step toward him.
“I’m going to get some lettuce,” he said.
“We can do whatever you need to do,” she said.
Outside, he paused in the driveway and looked at the thin trails of snow that were the remainders of his parallel swaths with the shovel. He walked to the car and unlocked the door. His hands were red and shaking. His gloves were still inside. He looked back towards the house and saw her standing in the window, a portrait hung on a white wall, bathed in the yellow light of the kitchen, watching him. An image of a large humanoid radish walked through his mind. He remembered that he had once cared about his career, and about his family, and about football games, and about himself. The radish sat down in a chair. It was knitting. He only cared about dying. There was absolutely nothing else. He’d managed to convince himself that it was a clichéd thing, something that men his age were prone to contemplating, light and irrelevant and inconsequential, really, but he knew now that he’d been wrong, and he could no longer hold it off. She’d dug it out of him and showed him that it was a problem of the flesh, not the mind. It was not a little gopher’s skeleton a foot below the surface but rather a fungal network of living roots and nutrients that shot down into the earth, him, for miles. Like me, said the radish. By that I mean that I’m down there.
He drove away. It was too far. If he allowed her total access to himself she would process him into nothing. I am autonomous, he thought. You have to keep your dignity. His hands were still shaking. He squinted.
He passed a liquor store, turned around on a side-street, and pulled into the parking lot. He bought a pint of whiskey and drank half of it in the car, leaning down, pretending to be searching for something below his seat. For ten seconds he actually believed that he was searching for something below his seat.
When he felt sufficiently drunk he pulled onto the highway and drove towards the university, ten miles outside of town. He found Frank Sinatra, his favorite singer, on the radio. He sang along. After a few verses he realized that it was not Frank Sinatra, it was a female country-western singer. He concentrated on keeping his car in one lane.
After five minutes of muttering to himself he pulled off the highway and turned right onto County GR, a winding, two-lane road that led into the woods. Past a few gas stations and a new McDonald’s he saw a sign for Pink Panther, the local ski hill. He had never known why the owners had named it that—it could only be a love for Peter Sellers, because the place itself bore no resemblance whatsoever, figuratively or literally, to the films. One hill, steep and unnatural, built for the kiddies, towering over a conifer forest. He rounded a corner and saw it in the distance, looming like a castle. It had a rope tow lumbering away, a black and industrial spine tracing the incline against the woods. Small dots that were children wearing brightly colored jackets crawled about the hill’s surface, some standing at the top, watching, some trudging up the side with their heads down and their sleds in tow, some kneeling in their sleds and holding the rope as it dragged them back to the top.
The convenience of the place was that you could drive right to the top of the hill, park, and never do anything more than look down at the slope. This was the preferred approach of many of the local parents, who liked to get hammered as their children went up and down, hours at a time.
Eaves used to go with his daughter and send her screaming downward in her metal dish. Kim, in her entirely pink getup, mittens clipped on at the wrist, squealing as she shot away. She had been afraid, but fearless in the face of it, if that was possible. That was confidence.
This place, he thought, steering his car around one of the sharp switchbacks as he climbed upwards to the lot, this park, emanated the confidence of his thirties, when he was young and successful and cocky. He sensed its importance. Something in his anus was responding. The entrance to the parking lot was right at the top of the hill, and when he saw it he signaled, nodded to himself, and pulled in. He parked sideways in what looked like a spot, ducked down, and finished the whiskey.
Reaching up, he pulled the handle and opened his door. His dashboard chimed. Cold wind blew in. Tucking the empty bottle under the seat, he slithered out of the car from the floor, reaching out to the snowy ground and pulling his body until his legs thumped to the ground. It did not seem like an abnormal way to exit a vehicle.
He paused in a push-up position, belched out a cloud of poisonous air, and kicked the door closed without looking. He crawled between his car and the station wagon he’d parked next to. There was a path leading through a fence, into the park, past a “Clubhouse” that was actually just the dive-bar for the parents. There was a man standing beside the brown bathroom shed with his back to him, smoking. He was watching the sledders, leaning idly with one hand in his pocket. Probably some father sneaking a cigarette. Dr. Eaves squinted. The man looked to be wearing a mink ushanka.
Lying on the cold ground, he removed his own hat and reached into his pocket. The snow was melting through his pants, and his hand sifted past wet dollar bills and used Kleenex until it found the hard plastic rectangle of his phone and pulled it out.
He scrolled though the numbers, keeping an eye on the man, and found his daughter’s name. He pressed send.
There were four rings, and the machine picked up. Watching the man, he waited for his daughter’s message to end.
“Kim,” he said quietly, after the beep. “It’s your father.” He paused. The Soviet (he knew the man wasn’t a Soviet) had dropped the cigarette and stomped it out. There was a long beep, and the answering machine hung up on him.
He dialed again, this time ignoring the Soviet.
“The man in front of me is wearing a ushanka, Kim,” he said. He curled up and wedged himself as far as he could beneath the station wagon. “We don’t talk, Kim. You have a boyfriend, I think. I think I’ve heard you talking about him. I’d like to meet him. There were several affairs and your mother I were not proud of what we did or how we treated each other.” He craned his neck and looked at the station wagon’s left front tire. No one ever sees the inside of tires, he thought. “I am having unprotected sex with a teenager.”
He hung up and returned the phone to his pocket. Wiggling his legs, he got himself out from underneath the car. He stood and brushed himself off. The Soviet was smoking again. He had moved a few feet from the shed and had one hand in his pocket. He did not appear to be armed.
With his heart rate picking up and an electric tingling in his hands and his feet, Eaves started to run.
He dodged a trashcan and picked up speed. At the last moment he shifted to the right and plucked the ushanka from the Soviet’s head, calling out something like, “Ha!” as he ran by, choking on his own enthusiasm. The Soviet said, “Hey,” and Eaves continued running towards the hill as fast as he could, breathing heavily. He shoved the furry hat down onto his head and stumbled forward in the snow, a double-agent, reaching out his freezing hands to steady himself. For a moment he believed he would be caught from behind, shot in the back of the head by a Kalashnikov as he scrambled away. But he regained his balance and no shots were fired; he tore past children returning to the parking lot, chattering amongst themselves, ignoring him.
He reached the top of the hill and looked to his right, at the snaking road he’d just been driving on. He looked behind him. The man was running up the hill, yelling something about his hat. Dr. Eaves looked to his right, at a ball of a boy swaddled in layers, standing quietly, staring up at him. The boy had a sled. Eaves said, “Excuse me,” and smiled and leaned down and took hold of the sled.
“That’s mine,” said the kid. He pulled on his end. A few other kids stopped what they were doing to watch.
“I am in danger.”
“Blow me,” said the kid.
Eaves chuckled and nodded at the boy’s enthusiasm and shoved him once in the center of the chest, hard. The boy lost his grip and careened backwards, his puffy arms windmilling before he fell onto his back and started to slide away. He disappeared over the edge of the hill, picking up speed. Before the gathering of children could process what they’d witnessed Eaves cried out, ran forward a few paces, and leapt belly-first onto the sled. As he went over the edge he was shocked by the slope. A small voice in his brain inquired about his goals. He thought of freedom in East Berlin. He shot down like a missile.
Ten feet into his descent he was screaming in unmitigated horror, moving faster through the open air than he had in thirty-two years, since an unsuccessful weekend in college spent waterskiing. This was sort of different. He tried to steer the sled by leaning, his chin bouncing up and down on the cold plastic mold, rattling his brain, trying unsuccessfully to dig his feet into the snow for drag. He had no control. He stopped screaming. Approaching on the right was the owner of the sled, still sliding on his back, headfirst, staring up at the sky with a serene look on his face. Eaves tried to sneak past. The kid saw him and cried out and tried to rip Eaves from the sled. He defended himself as best he could, slapping away the flailing arms, keeping one eye on his path. The boy, entombed in his clothing, rotated ninety degrees and said, “Crap.” Eaves pushed on the bottom of his feet and their two parallel paths separated and he arced away; in his peripheral vision he saw the boy slam into somebody like a bowling ball, cutting the man’s legs out from under him and sending him flipping through the air.
The inertia of his push redirected Eaves to the west, close to the Mogul Zone, the part of the hill where the skiers and snowboarders were constrained. He was now moving faster than anyone on the hill. He shot by blurred images of children learning to plow. They may as well have been standing still. He thought—as he approached a jump, was that a fucking ski-jump at the fucking Pink Panther?—he thought: sweet death, my sweet death is coming, hello to you. Then he was on the ramp, and then he was in the air, sideways, holding his sled tight against his belly, kicking his legs like he was swimming. When he hit the ground the impact crushed both of his testicles against the sled with devastating force. His vision grayed as he burned into the clearing at the bottom of the hill, still accelerating.
He felt vomit rising in his throat. Kids and parents were milling about, migrating to the rope pull line. Yes, he thought, as he blew over the leading edges of a young woman’s skis, and she screamed down at the back of his body, it’s true, I have gained a few pounds. Haha. Momentum. He reached up and held onto his ushanka, looking over his shoulder to see if the Soviet was perhaps still following him.
* * *
He waited. Silently, in the snow, he waited. He’d crashed. He was in the woods, a few hundred feet from the edge of Pink Panther’s property, away, finally, from other people, beside a frozen creek.
Lying there on his back beside the sled, breathing hard, things suddenly silent in the wake of tremendous din, a new wave of the same old sadness had hit his stomach. It was so vague—that was sad, in and of itself, how he couldn’t even find an object in his memories, in his life, that was causing this. He was a sad guy. Yes, his wife, that was bad. Really bad. And Kim, too. His relationship with his daughter had been in free-fall since Mary had died. There had always been problems, but Mary had stabilized them, and acted as a kind of filter. Now, without the context of a family, they had very little to talk about. Their mutual interest in samba music had been toting quite a burden.
But this was there before them, even. It was not insanity. It had always been there, this feeling, since he was twelve, this rolling ball of dark energy intent on qualifying his experiences. He had willed himself not to remember it.
He started to cry for the injustice of it. He felt humiliated.
He heard voices in the woods, coming from the direction of the Pink Panther. It was snowing again, and he tried to pick out individual snowflakes fifteen feet above his head and follow them all the way down, predicting which would land where, and which, out of all the possibilities, would land on his face. He could not quite remember how he had gotten to the top of the hill, or where he had gotten the sled.
Then he was moving, jogging through the woods alongside the frozen creek, panting, watching the ground so as not to slip on root or stump, the sled left behind as a distraction for his pursuers. Most of the whiskey had been shocked out of him, or at least put on reserve by the adrenaline and the fear of his descent. His socks were cold and wet. The snow picked up. He left the voices far behind. He stumbled once and the ushanka fell from his head, into the snow, and he left it, just kept going, thinking: I don’t know how I got that, hopefully it will stay there for all time, hopefully it will petrify. There were no tracks, no paths through these woods, save the thin lines dug and flattened by the deer. They all move together, he thought. That is wonderful.
It took him fifteen minutes to reach the outskirts of the campus, where the creek, when it was not frozen, widened a bit and splashed out of the woods as though joyfully celebrating the entire institution, the entire concept, even, of academia. The campus was built around it. From its point of entrance it wound through the arts quad with a modicum of trees escorting it; the school was old, and its builders had wanted a little nature for the benefit of its inductees.
Since it was a Saturday, the campus was nearly deserted, save two or three students walking along the concrete paths with their heads down and their hands thrust into their jacket pockets. Eaves ran his hand through his hair and tried to make himself look not-insane. He was cold. He passed an old man with a cane. They nodded to each other.
I am normal I am normal I am normal, he thought.
That back there, Pink Panther…he shook his head to erase the memory of it. He thought: maybe that didn’t happen. Maybe I’m crazy? He passed a regal stone building with grand steps and a statue of someone brilliant and felt tiny, fleshy. He needed to shit. He needed to call somebody. The history building was not far. If it was open, and if some lights were on in the windows, and if it made him feel less tenuous standing before it, he would go in. Otherwise, he would find a phone booth and call a cab. Anna was still back there, back at the house, and if there was anybody to whom he could admit that he might be prematurely senile it was her. She was not normal. He wondered, as he walked, whether the psychiatrists at his hospital would diagnose her with anything. Some kind of early adolescent trauma. He suspected that her parents were dead, or worse, that they were alive, and she was a runaway, and she was seventeen, and he had kidnapped her. That’s what he would say, anyway, if he found his daughter living with a single, fifty-seven year-old man. He would prosecute to the full extent of the law.
Some lights were on at the history building, but the front doors were locked. He stepped back and looked up at its rectangular shape. He felt its age. He went around the side and tried another door, which was also locked. He started walking away from the building, trying to remember if he’d ever seen a phone booth nearby, but after only ten paces he turned around, went back up the stairs, squinted through the glass, and removed his shoe. The sound of the pane shattering made virtually no noise outside the building, but he heard its tinny reverberations move away from him, down the long hall. As he was carefully reaching through the jagged hole to depress the horizontal bar on the inside, a blond girl wearing a pink ski-jacket and wraparound headphones came from around the corner and opened the other door. She didn’t look at him. Before it pulled itself closed he grabbed the handle and stepped inside the building.
When he looked down at his little pile of glass and breathed in the smell of the building, of The History Department, his knees quivered and has brain fizzled and changed back to what it had been for all his years with Professor Mary Eaves, all the years she had sat upstairs in her office with the door closed, avoiding her students, condescending to her colleagues, reading her books, thinking of Clovis, eating salads, denying tenure. He used to stop in to see her (always announced). He went to her functions. He sat down on a wooden bench put the shoe back on. He felt his mind bathed in new chemicals, or rather old chemicals, the old arrangements of them, and he swore, he swore, that even the dendrites and axons were bending and stretching, snaking back to what they had been before he’d stopped coming here, but this time he had the benefit of observing his old self from the perch of the present. He realized with surprise that he had always hated coming here. Maybe. That wasn’t true. Maybe it was true. Or was it an inversion of how he used to feel? It was as though one single junta of memories, an old detained group, had now expanded outward to encompass everything and take him backwards with a chloroformed cloth over his mouth. He was sad again, but not as bad as by the creek; this time, at least, he could be intrigued. He wanted to know how it was that you couldn’t tell when you ceased to be one person, or how you could be feeling things but not know it until time passed, you changed, and you looked backwards at the disfigured skin you’d shed. It was so clear now that he had disliked his wife.
That killed it. The old feeling went away, everything went away, and he went back to being himself. He stretched out on the bench, lay back, and rubbed his temples. He had a mid-day hangover. He wondered about the time. He wondered whether he should call Anna. He pulled the phone from his pocket, saw the battery was dead, set it down on his chest, and closed his eyes. He didn’t dream.
* * *
He woke to someone tapping his head with a nightstick.
“This is not acceptable,” said a voice.
Eaves opened his eyes. His head was pounding and his mouth was dry. Above him stood a young man in uniform: gray shirt, black pants, and a black baseball cap pulled down low over his eyes. The lights were dim, and as he struggled up into a sitting position—the phone clattered onto the floor—Eaves realized that the sun had set. His whole body ached.
“What time is it?” he asked, rubbing the side of his head.
“It’s twenty-one hundred hours, sir,” said the man, toeing the phone. He looked up. “Please stand.”
He was a kid. He wasn’t a man, he was a kid. Twenty-three, twenty-four maybe.
“I’ll have to put the handcuffs on you,” he said.
“Me?” asked Eaves, looking up at the gray figure. “Why?”
“I’m allowed to use submission holds if you resist me.”
“Are you a cop?” asked Eaves.
“Are you resisting me?”
“It depends if you’re a cop or not.”
This question seemed to hurt him. His lips tightened. “I police this area.”
Eaves frowned. “You’re a security guard.”
“I do a lot of things, sir,” said the guard loudly. “I patrol. I arrest. I council disoriented men and women such as yourself. I often reunite children with their parents.”
“You don’t need the handcuffs.”
The guard nodded, full of skepticism, and looked down at Eaves. He put his nightstick back in his belt and crossed his arms. “I assume you’ve vandalized this whole building, sir.”
“I’ve been sleeping right here.” Eaves motioned to the bench. “That’s it.”
“Can you tell me the year?”
The guard continued to nod. He looked down the dark hallway. “I’ll interpret that as sarcasm.”
“And how many of you are there?”
“It’s only me. Listen—” Eaves leaned forward and squinted at the guard’s nametag—“Chris. My wife used to work here. I was just—”
“Not necessary, sir,” said Chris. “I’d like you to hold out one hand for me.”
Eaves held out his hand. Chris deftly slapped a cuff around the wrist. Then he yanked Eaves’s body downward and locked the other cuff around a pipe near the floor, against the wall.
“I’ll have to secure this whole area,” said Chris, holding out both arms and sweeping his torso from left to right, very slowly. He turned on his flashlight and walked off down the dark hallway, a ring of keys rattling against his hip.
Eaves’s face was pressed up against the bench. His cheek was squashed flat and he was breathing through his nose, inhaling a deep PineSol odor. He listened to the clicking of Chris’s heels echo down the corridor and remembered, was forced to remember, that he had needed to go to the bathroom many hours ago. His stomach was starting to hurt. He walked his legs sideways across the floor until he could kneel down in front of the wall with his hands between his knees and his forehead up against the cold plaster. In this position he remembered everything he’d thought about Mary before he’d fallen asleep. He also remembered sledding, and leaving Anna in the morning, but everything else, whatever had happened in between, was very foggy. He felt embarrassed again.
There were some crashing noises from down the hall, and then a few sharp barked orders from Chris’s deep voice. Then some grunts, and the sound of something metal being smashed. Then silence. Eaves craned his neck to the side. A minute later Chris reappeared under the arches.
“There was some office equipment placed in a disorienting part of the hallway down there,” he said. He shone the light at Eaves’s face. “Would you happen to know anything about that?”
“I need to go to the bathroom,” said Eaves. “I don’t think that this is legal.”
“Oh,” said Chris. “It’s legal.”
“Listen,” said Eaves. “Either call the real police or let me go. This is fucking ridiculous.”
There was a long silence. There was a click, and the light went out. Chris walked over and uncuffed him. Eaves got to his feet. Chris recuffed him.
“I’ll have to take you down to the station for processing,” said Chris. He leaned down and picked up Eaves’s cell phone.
Outside, the snow had stopped, and the temperature had fallen. The stars were out. Chris led him down a path. About a hundred yards from the history building, a white sedan with lights on the top was parked in a small lot.
“This is us here,” said Chris.
Chris said nothing. He escorted his prisoner around the car and told him that he’d have to sit in the back. He held his head for him as he sat down.
As he watched Chris walk around the side of the car, Eaves was surprised at how indifferent he felt about the legal consequences of his actions. He briefly wondered if he needed a lawyer. The car was spotless, and smelled new. He stretched out his legs as best he could. “What’s your last name?” he asked Chris, after he’d gotten in.
“Don’t talk to me, sir,” he said. He started the car. Just after the engine growled to life, the whole cab was filled with the sound of a woman’s voice. She had an English accent. Eaves only caught a few words, something about a falcon, before Chris’s hand shot to the stereo and clicked it off.
“What was that?” asked Eaves.
“You wouldn’t understand, sir,” said Chris as the car pulled out of the lot. He turned right on a small, winding road. From the yellow flashes Eaves could see against the curb, he inferred that Chris was running the lights.
“Try me,” said Eaves.
Chris sighed loudly and readjusted his baseball cap. He turned right, into a different lot. He parked and cut the ignition.
“That’s it?” asked Eaves.
“This is the station,” said Chris.
Outside, on their way in to a small, white, modern-looking building, the opposite of almost every other structure on campus, Eaves said: “That wasn’t very far.”
“It’s a small campus.”
The inside of the building was equally bland. It was one large room, lit by fluorescent lights. Against the wall were two desks, both facing out towards the center. One of them was perfectly clean, with only a pencil holder and a stapler at the front. The other was littered with papers, books, notebooks, greasy crumpled brown paper bags, folders, paper coffee-cups, a Kangol hat, two lamps and a plate with crumbs on it. Beside the desks there was a water tank, a microwave, a fridge, some filing cabinets, and a map of the campus pasted to the wall. On the other end of the room was a small jail cell, its bars painted white.
Eaves eyed the cell. “I have to go to the bathroom,” he said.
Chris led him to the bathroom. He drew his nightstick and unlocked the handcuffs. Eaves hurried inside and crapped, loudly. When he came back out, Chris was standing in the same place, ready with his weapon.
“I’m not going to do anything,” said Eaves, looking at him.
Chris led him into the cell and closed the door.
“You’re not searching me?” asked Eaves.
Chris unlocked the door and searched him. He took his keys and his wallet, then locked the door again. He went and sat down at the messy desk, first laying his nightstick on the edge, in the only open area. He started digging through a drawer.
“Can I call someone?” asked Eaves.
“You can make your phone call from the police station.”
“You’re not actually calling the cops,” said Eaves.
Chris looked up, his eyes wide. He had a strong face with high cheekbones and dark, angry eyebrows. “You broke the law, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, but come on. You haven’t even given me a chance to explain what I was doing.” Eaves sat down on his little white bench and looked down at his hands. “I maybe had a…dissosciative break.”
“Psychological collapses are totally irrelevant, if that’s what you mean. You can sort it out in court.”
“It was hardly even a crime. I’ll pay for the window.”
Chris laughed loudly. The he leaned over, squinted, and started writing on a piece of paper. Eaves watched him open the wallet and examine his various forms of identification. Then he watched him thumb through his pictures.
“You’re a doctor?” asked Chris.
Chris put the wallet down.
“And I assume that the pleasant-looking young lady is your daughter,” he said casually, writing.
“Are you serious?” asked Eaves.
“I’m verifying information.”
Eaves rolled his eyes. He leaned back against the wall and looked at the ceiling. Then he thought: oh no. He’d called her. He’d called Kim. Had he? What had he said? Why had he called her? He scratched his beard and leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees. He missed Anna, needed to talk to her.
There were some noises from the hall, the way they’d come in. Both he and Chris looked up as a heavyset man in the same black and gray uniform came in through the door, wearing a big Gore-Tex jacket and holding a cup of coffee. He looked over at Chris and then at Eaves, his round face both disoriented and angry. He looked familiar. Chris put down his pen and stood.
“I found him in Carter,” said Chris. “He was—”
“Dr. Eaves,” said the man, ignoring Chris, squinting towards the cell.
Eaves stood. “Mr. Harris?” He remembered. He’d treated his son for pneumonia a year-and-a-half before. A lanky kid, afraid of everything, wheezing in his exam room. After the appointment, he and Harris had joked around about the university. “How’s Nick?”
Harris turned to Chris, who looked like he wanted to explain. “Open the door for the man,” he said.
“I’m not done with some of the paperwork.”
“One second, Doctor,” said Harris. He walked over and set his coffee down on the clean desk. He took a step towards Chris, who jumped up from his chair and walked around the other way. Harris pushed the chair aside and followed him. Chris went to the cell door and unlocked it.
“Just have a seat there for one second, Dr. Eaves,” said Harris. “Right at my desk there.” He looked at Chris, then opened the front door. Both men stepped out into the hallway.
Eaves sat down at the clean desk and listened to the muffled sounds of Harris verbally abusing Chris. After a minute, they came back in.
“We’ve decided to let you go,” said Chris. “With a warning.”
Harris stared at him. Chris sat down at his desk and arranged papers.
“Chris,” said Harris.
Chris looked up.
“Go wait out in the hall.”
“I think I can—”
“Go wait out in the hall.”
Chris stood, put his nightstick in his loop, and walked out of the room.
“He’s a little too eager,” said Harris. “But he’s good.”
“He’s very serious about his job.”
Harris chuckled and removed his jacket. He sat down at Chris’s desk, frowned at the mess, then reached to his own for his coffee. “I was sorry to hear about your wife,” he said. “I jumped her car for her once. She was a nice lady.”
“Chris said he found you in there.”
He tried to say something, but croaked.
“These students,” said Harris, leaning back, ignoring the croak. “Sometimes around test time they have too much to drink. They come on campus to let off steam.”
Eaves nodded again. Harris went to the door and called Chris into the room.
“Get your coat on,” he said to him. “The Doctor needs a ride home.”
* * *
“This is highly irregular,” said Chris, as they left the university grounds. “It usually doesn’t work this way.”
“Well,” said Eaves. “Neither do I.”
Chris looked over. He seemed to have accepted Eaves as a human being since the vindication by Harris.
“I have to do this, you know,” he said. “I don’t like doing this. But you should do a good job if you’re getting paid.” He looked over. “Does that make me some kind of conservative asshole?” he asked.
Chris lit a cigarette and rolled down the window a crack. Eaves commented on how he wouldn’t expect him to be a smoker.
“Of course not,” said Chris. “You think I’m a square.”
“I don’t think that,” said Eaves. He had a doctor thought: why do they all think it’s cool to smoke? Probably movies. He was glad for the thought, because it made him remember the person he was, even if he could not answer the fundamental question of why this person before him had become a certain man and he another, why their beliefs were not identical, and whether it mattered in the least. “I think that maybe you take your job a little too seriously.”
Chris took a few drags from his cigarette. “We had a shooting, you know. Six months ago.”
Eaves remembered. A student had brought a gun to class, to a lecture hall. About three-quarters of the way through, the kid stood and shot once, into the blackboard. After he shot, some other students tackled him. He said it had been a joke.
“You wouldn’t expect that kind of thing from college kids,” said Chris. “I mean high school, I understand a little more. I remember that.”
Eaves looked down at the emergency brake. There was some change in the crevice, and also a few tapes. He remembered the lady’s voice.
“Did you go to college?” he asked.
“What was that back there?” asked Eaves. “That you were listening to.”
Chris threw his cigarette out the window and lit another. “The Decamaron,” he said.
Eaves raised his eyebrows. “That’s sort of heady.”
“I know,” said Chris. “But I can’t read out of books. You know. I never did when I was little. I just can’t really do it. And I hate movies. Most people like them.” He shook his head and chuckled. “I don’t know why I’m that way.” He looked at Eaves. “I have trouble getting dates.”
“Why The Decamaron?”
“I heard some assholes on campus talking about it one day. I was walking right behind them. It sounded like something I would like. Plague.” Chris looked over his shoulder and changed lanes. “I get to use the library.”
Eaves nodded and looked out the window. They were on the highway now, cruising back towards the city. The sky was pitch black. There weren’t very many cars on the road.
“So you’re a doctor?” asked Chris, after the silence.
“Can I ask you something? About me?”
“It’s about dreams.”
“I’m not a psychiatrist.”
“But you know some stuff. They must have taught you some things.”
“I know a little.”
“So can I ask you?”
“It’s up north. I’m usually walking around in the woods. It’s always winter.”
“So I’m just walking around up there, not hunting or anything. Just walking. But then I get this sort of strange feeling, and I look up, and it starts to snow, but instead of the snow being white, it’s black.”
“The clouds look the same and the temperature’s the same. It’s just black snow.” Chris ashed out the window, and Eaves saw the orange sparks shoot away in the wind.
“So I keep walking,” he continued. “I’m going back towards my car but it’s a mile away. The snow keeps coming down, it starts to accumulate, and it turns out that walking in it feels different. It’s not wet and clean. It’s more like this oily mush. But it’s freezing cold, like a kind of liquid ice. Just slop. It gets all over my shoes, and then my hair, and my hands. By the time I get back to my car I’m coated in it, like one of those ducks from an oil spill.”
“This sounds like something I would dream.”
“You have to get off right here.”
Chris pulled the car onto the exit ramp. They came to a stoplight.
“Does anything else happen?”
“Yes,” said Chris. “I get to the car but I don’t have the keys. I’m shivering. And then I’m just sick. Hacking and coughing. Everything is dark and cold. I have to sit down by the tire. I just sit there and keep coughing. All oily. That’s it.”
The light changed. Chris turned onto the street. Eaves watched out the window as they passed the liquor store he’d stopped at that morning.
“I don’t know,” said Eaves. “I always think that dreams are important and then nothing at all.”
“Nothing? What about pollution?”
Eaves rubbed his beard and thought of what he could say. There were other things. Just wait, he could say. Wait until that moment in your life when you see for the first time that you are not at all in control of your own mind.
“I really don’t know,” Eaves said again.
“Black snow dream,” said Chris. He laughed. The laugh had the sound of trying-to-laugh-it-off.
“Go right here.”
“I don’t know anything.”
“It’s the white one on the left. Right here.”
Eaves leaned forward and looked at the Volkswagen in his driveway.
“Oh no,” he said.
It was Kim’s car. She was here. She had received the phone call and swallowed her anger and she’d come, come for a confrontation, but come, maybe, to talk, to find a way for the two of them to reconnect. He was terrified by the thought. For with contact of that kind would come another reshuffling, another tilt in the ground, in the way that the tectonic plates of his emotional earth supported him. He had had so much already. He had had enough. How hard did one have to work to save a relationship before the cost made the effort irrelevant?
They pulled in beside her car.
“What?” asked Chris.
“I’m in trouble.”
“What’s the problem?”
“My daughter’s here.”
Chris nodded and leaned back into his seat, stretching his arms against the steering wheel. He looked younger without the security hat.
“The one from the picture?” he asked.
Eaves grunted, wondering how long she’d been there. Was Anna somewhere inside, hiding in a closet? Down in the basement?
“She pissed at you?” asked Chris. “Maybe I could go in and talk to her. I felt like we had a connection.”
“You looked at her picture.”
Chris frowned and looked down at his lap. “Yeah. I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
“I don’t think it’ll be necessary.”
“Sorry about the abuse before. I don’t know why—I don’t really know what…”
“It’s fine,” said Eaves. He turned and Chris looked up at him. “Thanks for the ride.”
“Okay, no problem,” he said. “Thanks.”
“What are you thanking me for?”
“For thanking me.”
Eaves nodded and stepped out and stood beside the Volkswagen as Chris pulled the security car from the driveway. He watched the red taillights recede, then disappear. He looked at his house, then down at his feet.
His shoveling was ruined. It had snowed again. The outside lights were on. He looked into the Volkswagen. There was an empty, crushed pack of cigarettes on the floor and a bottle of juice in the drink holder.
He walked towards the front door, then stopped. There was no one in the kitchen window, the one through which he’d last seen Anna, watching him as he left. He retraced his steps to the driveway and went around the side of the house, across the deeper snow. Kim’s swingset was still there, a little crooked and a little rusted, unused for ten years. He went to the patio. He looked in through the sliding door. They were both there, Anna on the couch, an empty bowl of cereal on the table in front of her. She was smoking. She’d been crying. His daughter stood on the other side of the room, leaning against the bar, looking older and smarter and calmer, adult, wearing her new glasses, but still concerned, holding a cup of coffee, smoking too. She was talking. Then Anna said something. They went back and forth. He wanted to cry out at them for being together, for being in the same place at the same time, for exchanging information about him. He wanted to say: what will happen will happen and perhaps that’s okay. What will happen will happen. Instead he took a step forward, and reached out one arm, and both of them turned their heads toward the door. Kim squinted at him. He opened his mouth as if to tell them no, don’t worry—it’s fine, it’s me.