I found Mike passed out on the master bed, curled on his side, the covers down around the floor. Maybe he had kicked them off. Sometimes he and Jane slept that way. There was a tiny pool of moisture where the tip of his penis touched the bedding, a dimple at the base of his spine. He had a very long back. Spider veins just below his ankles. Mike was losing hair in a small circle at the back of his head, in the same spot where a man of God shaves his skull.
To get to him, I had inched down the hall, past the clock room where their daughters, Livvy and Mona slept. Locking the door behind me, in case they got up, I stood by the blue dust ruffle. I was supposed to wake Mike and tell him that Jane, his wife, my oldest friend, had just left him. She had driven off in Franny’s Jaguar.
I wondered how Mike would talk with Livvy and Mona. I wasn’t sure what I’d say. Livvy, the older girl, she was the one who worried me. But no one would be awake for hours.
Mike’s voice bubbled up but made no sense. Refined alcohol came with each of his exhalations, the occasional choked snore. His face animated and relaxed. I wanted to be with Mike in that raw, unkempt state. But I knew how many cables there are in the elevator shafts of the Empire State Building and how long it takes for a body to hit the sidewalk if you jump from the roof. And I was aware, as I stood by the side of the bed, that I could screw up in so many ways, up or down. It was hard to know where Mike would land if he jumped.
To get my head on the pillow, I nudged him a little. He knew how to breathe from his diaphragm even in his sleep. I touched the spot over his missing appendix, surprised that he didn’t wake and curled into his back. Then froze. I heard a boat move through the water, close to the house.
I made a ring out of my left thumb and forefinger and fitted it around his penis. He stiffened and angled and his hips moved in what appeared to be deep REM. His back twitched a little. I waited, as if a horn or bell would go off, signaling the start of my trade with Jane.
I slipped my hand away and put it under my ribs to feel my irregular heartbeat. I thought about basic survival, considered social membranes, tried to review one of those rules that keep people in check. The house sounded like an engine cooling. If I just shut my eyes for one minute, I’d be able to straighten things out. But it was too easy to siphon off his REM. I hadn’t slept in days and I guess I’d exhausted all thoughts of survival.
When Jane left Mike, she took her grandmother’s Jaguar. A coffee brown machine with a mocha interior and custom tortoise-shell trim along the dash and armrests. It was built in 1965 and I had spent summers from the time I was eight sticking to its leather seats , flipping the ashtray covers open and shut with Jane. Her grandmother, Franny, ground forty years of Chanel No. 5 into the ball of the stick shift. She was big on original ownership. But now Franny was dead and her family still hadn’t decided on what they’d do with the car.
Jane had come down to the kitchen at four that morning. I was up because I never slept at Franny’s house. But Jane typically woke in the afternoon when she drank hard. So I didn’t understand why she was standing there, fully-dressed, as if she wanted to get an early start.
She had that rehashed Audrey Hepburn look: blue summer shift, white sweater tied at the neck, sandals fastened with leather straps. She filled the pot and scooped level measures of coffee into the machine, sat down at the table across from me. She looked as if she were going to say something, stopped, then told me Mike and the girls were still asleep, as if I needed reassurance about this. I listened to the Pacific as it hit the pylons, and I looked at Jane’s lipstick, not sure why she’d bothered. Her eyelashes, they would have disappeared if it weren’t for the mascara.
—You do something to your hair? I asked.
It appeared to be hacked at, not cut. I didn’t think it was like that earlier in the evening.
I began to glide the salt and pepper shakers across the table, waiting for her to continue. Figure eights, in and out of the light from the overhead spot. Jane was offered a job once as an eye model with a good New York agency. You could magnify those eyes until you were looking down at Earth. They were that blue. It’s a bad form of envy to want someone else’s face. I tipped my head to one side to get the full effect of her butchered hair.
—You use Mona’s scissors?
She stopped the movement of the salt but couldn’t quite reach the hand with the pepper.
—In a fair world you’d have kids, Mattie.
Her daughters were asleep in the clock room. Mona was four then, Livvy fourteen.
—I’m too tired for the fair world conversation, I said.
—You can’t expect to…no, I don’t mean that. I don’t know how long you plan on….
I had that queasiness I get when a salesman leans against my buzzer.
—I’m only 35 and I didn’t sleep last night, Jane.
—Humor me with a what-if.
—I should have gotten up to read.
—You want a whole life, don’t you? she asked.
—Define whole life.
I saw the strain, the need to talk. I knew it wasn’t about my sense of family. Whatever it was, I couldn’t respond. In that way you imagine you have influence over events, I’ve punished myself for that moment.
—You didn’t sign me up for an on-line dating service, did you? Because I’ve looked at those men.
She began to fold and unfold one of the linen napkins left on the table.
—I know this is about Franny…. I open the towel cabinet and it’s like she’s standing there, waiting for me to make some right decision, I said.
—About the towels?
—Which ones should go to the women’s shelter because the edges haven’t frayed, which ones to the Salvation Army….
—She’d appreciate what you’re doing. I appreciate it. More than you know.
Periodically, Jane used to send me snaps taken at their home outside Boston. Mona wore reindeer antlers, or rabbit ears, sat by giant jack-o-lanterns. Livvy was the one with her back to the camera, walking out of the frame, her hair blue or green, the back of her jacket pounded with studs that formed messages I couldn’t read. I had a soft spot for Livvy. Mike was the lens. It was his job to catch and measure light, to wait for conditions. I watched what he did to get a picture. He tugged on something emotional, sometimes the thing he couldn’t state. Maybe he’d frame a tiny gas station sign in one corner of an image that said exactly what he couldn’t express with the large people in the foreground. But if your eye was sharp and you knew how to read backwards or thought to hold it up to a mirror, it was all there. I looked for Mike’s face in those photographs—sometimes Jane would nail him. The dark moods and then a shot that would make me think A Hard Days Night, the antic self. But it was mostly Jane, and sometimes I had the sense, looking at her, that she understood something I was going through at the time. Maybe it was a mind trick, but that’s what I thought Jane did, made people feel no one else fully understood them. I said that to Mike one time, and he laughed. Later he said maybe I was right.
—You look like you’re going to the store, I said to Jane.
Up the road, Vons grocery was open 24 hours. That was the place to order a sheet cake if you had to, the red frosting dyed your tongue red, the blue blue. You could get arugula at Von’s, deodorant, hybrid chickens.
—I’ve never said this to you, maybe because we were both a little drunk at the time, but I told Mike once, if anything happened to me, he should marry you.
—You’re upsetting my stomach, I said.
I got busy wiping down the edges of the sink, my face heated.
—He brought it up the next morning when we were perfectly sober. He asked me if I had been serious. I said: Yes. And he said…. Well he said a lot of things.
I couldn’t tell if she was trying to peel my layers or if she had done that already and was holding me up to the light. I watched her remove the coffee pot halfway into its drip. Coffee spit against the hotplate, a trickle slipped onto the counter and pooled. She threw her napkin down to soak it up.
At moments like that I pictured Franny smoking a cigarette close to the window so the fumes wouldn’t fill the house, encouraging me to speak up. And when that didn’t work, she would offer to play a round of Chinese Checkers with me.
I couldn’t get what Jane was up to.
—I’m not sure why I deserve this conversation…but can we wait until my head clears? I didn’t even close my eyes last night, no flying dreams, no psycho nightmares of my mother, just the clock room echoing through the floor. I hope you plan on selling the clocks.
—You’re veering off, she said.
—Veering off what? I don’t want to think about anything happening to you, okay?
—But that’s irrational.
—Why don’t we talk about the vases?
Jane turned on the radio. The way she leaned into the counter, the outfit, she was imitating Franny, that force of gravity that had me pinned.
A polka came on. When that was over, the day’s headlines. An express truck had blown up in the Midwest. The driver’s remains scattered hundreds of feet. And this side-note: Many letters had survived.
—I bet they’ll put them in plastic sleeves and Forensics will impound them, I said.
—I wasn’t listening, she said.
—They blew up an express truck. I was picturing a team of FBI guys in an airplane hanger somewhere in the dessert, reconstructing the truck, the man….
But she was someplace else, going through the drawer now where Franny used to keep the cooking thermometer, the small strainers and matches. Jane took out some papers and set them down on the table. I looked at the girls’ medical insurance cards, Livvy’s was on top. Her middle name was my proper first name: Madeleine. There were airline tickets; numbers in Boston with the 617 area code; a birth certificate that looked to be Mona’s. I didn’t know that people carried their kids’ birth records on trips.
Then she glanced around as if she had forgotten something, took a half gallon of milk out of the fridge, and left the kitchen.
—We’re running low on Kleenex, I called.
I followed her into the garage with my cup, trying to think of other items we needed.
Jane propped the milk carton on the front seat. I saw a couple of Franny’s old blue suitcases in the back. Jane yanked on the rope attached to the bottom of the garage door and released it upward along its track. Then she got into the driver’s side, ready to move out into the alleyway.
—Where the hell are you going?
Outside, a thick marine layer. From up in the foothills that kind of condensation looks like cream sitting in a dish.
—I’ll get money to you, she said.
—I’m not charging a fee. I told you that.
She turned the engine over. I stood by the driver’s side, looking at her face. I thought of those movies set to Philip Glass music: clouds in time lapse, traffic sped up, flowers that open faster than I can sneeze.
—Okay, what if. What if you go crazy and don’t come back? I said, trying to be funny.
She took a long draw of the milk and wedged the carton between her legs. The hibiscus around the garage hadn’t opened yet. The petals were twisted round their stamens like pink tissue paper. Maybe if I stood there long enough they’d uncoil.
—But that’s the point. I could live as free and easy as…as you.
—Why are you so pissed at me? Look, my old boss might have a job coming up. I told you that. I need to get back to Chicago.
She drank some more. Her eyes welled.
— Is Mike planning to watch the girls? So I can sort through things….
—You don’t get it, she said.
—He doesn’t know?
Jane had me standing out in the alley behind Franny’s house, freezing to death in a shortie nightgown because someone had to be her audience, and she wanted to hit the road early. She sat there idling in first, and was, I think, prepared to drive to God-knows-where.
—You tell him.
—Get out of the car and talk.
—You’re getting a good trade…what’s the name of that TV show? she asked.
—What TV show?
—Where the two friends switch places, she said.
—You mean, houses?
— Us. I mean us, everything. Mike, the girls. You know, like a kit-home. Easy to assemble.
—Easy to what?
—You’ll be more efficient than me.
—More efficient at your life? That’s bizarre….
She put the car in reverse and I reached for her door handle. But she suddenly pulled out of the garage and backed straight into a hedge. The engine cut out and she pushed her chopped hair away from her face, leaned her forehead into her palm, on a backwards reel.
—At least turn your lights on.
Jane straightened up and started the car again.
—Go back inside, she said.
—You want me to drive? I just have to run in and get a couple of things.
Her face made me think of an underground nuclear test. The car jerked forward and the rear bumper stripped a thousand tiny leaves from the shrubs. I should have grabbed my lavender sweater the minute I saw the suitcases.
Jane began to navigate the narrow lane. She swerved to avoid the garbage cans. There were liquor bottles by the cans, boxes from new household appliances and broken Styrofoam beach items. I hoped she’d hit a garbage can. I needed time to stall her. I looked at her outfit again.
—Are you going to meet some guy?
I had shouted it to be heard above the waves. I think her foot slipped off the clutch at that point, which killed the engine again. She turned around, briefly. I noticed her lipstick. She yelled:
I watched her accelerate as if she was kicking off from the side of a pool, but she didn’t circle at the other end. She had gotten her impulse thing from her father and it hit in cycles like El Niño going after the Pacific. I felt certain she wouldn’t abandon the girls, that she’d quickly send for them, get Mike to drive them to her. She had to. I tried to follow the car but my feet were being eaten up by the gravel in the alley. I’m not sure if she could hear me anymore. I knew the carton of milk was sweating into her dress. I worried that it might tip forward, that the distraction could cause an accident
Finally Jane switched her lights on, but all I could see were two red circles floating in white air. I imagined the car was lined up with the gate’s light-sensors. The security gate opened and the tail-lights moved across the tar road. She turned right, away from the beach.
I pictured a sudden collision, her legs squeezing together spasmodically. Milk like sex, soaking her skirt, the leather bench seat, working its way into crevices, plans.
—Come on, I said, as if Jane were still there, standing next to me, thinking of the girls’ breakfast, wondering if she had enough cereal in the house.
The fog failed to put out my anger. If she wanted to trade, I had very different things to put on the table. She lived in a six-bedroom home outside Boston with a studio above the garage. I lived in a remodeled and largely reduced loft space in Chicago, two bedrooms, one of them only 10 by 10, one bath, the porches had been an add-on, making use of the framework of the old elevator shafts. A court yard in the center of the building. Jane was a set designer for large regional theatres. I appraised fine arts and antiques. She worked part-time. I worked chronically. But she had returned to the same guy each night, the same conversations, the habit of sleeping on one side of the bed or the other, listening for their girls in the dark. Forms of possession I didn’t know.
I did have good friends in Chicago. I went to a fitness center and had started a kick-boxing class. I liked to shoot pool, joined a team once, which nudged me to get a monogrammed cue and a special pair of gloves for a decent grip, small cubes of blue chalk. I tried a birding group. I was a collector. I had an investment in antique neon signs and the works of small-scale tube-benders. Sometimes old neon came through the auction house. Sometimes I went out on the road to find it. One of my signs read: Watch for Signs. I had them mounted on the walls of the loft and they advertised The Alpine Motel and Texa gas and Night Stop which probably had something to do with trains or buses or stopping something you were up to in the middle of the night. I never imagined I’d have large holdings. But how can you know?
I believe Lois, my mother, had communicated to me largely through signs when I was a child. She had a beautiful hand and sometimes she doodled a picture of my face and then tacked this on the bathroom mirror along with many reminders, aphorisms and general warnings. She left one kind of note if she were up drinking in the middle of the night: the scrawl tighter, loopier, many words underlined and capitalized. And another kind of message if she came in fresh from sailing and the boat had placed well in a race. Sometimes she had an expansiveness that brought her into the moment. She bought fresh shelving paper for the kitchen or stopped at the drugstore for cigarettes, found me new dot-to-dot books, and these things she communicated directly, though the shelves went unlined.
But for all that education, I couldn’t decipher Jane’s signs that morning. I left the garage door up, afraid the automatic opener would stir the house.
I imagined she had reached Highway 101 by then and was traveling north. Like Franny, Jane didn’t like the congestion of L.A., the heat of San Diego, the enterprise of Mexico. North would take her past Von’s, the bird refuge, the zoo, and then, I imagined, she’d hit the switch to put the top up on the Jaguar, determined to make it to the Bay Area without a stop. Of course she’d remember you can’t put the top up at freeway speeds. So she’d pull off onto the shoulder, and discover that the mechanism was broken, the top frozen in its housing: one of those repairs Franny had left undone.
If the marine layer burned off, we had planned to spend the morning tracking the girls from the lower deck of the house. Mona had talked about using an inner tube, which would mean one of us joining her. In the afternoon Jane and I would have chipped away at Franny’s things, probably the vases, while the girls entertained themselves. Instead, she had driven into a place where the signs seemed to be directing her to unlimited freedom, the tubing on the neon in good shape, no krypton leaks.
I walked through the oil stains on the concrete slab of the garage and left prints on the white linoleum. Heading upstairs, I was aware of the ocean caught in the panes of the French doors, the light. I went into Franny’s bedroom, and that’s when I got into bed with Mike, and wrapped into sleep with him.
Before that morning, I had thought that certain feelings were invisible and stayed that way, that I could tunnel under and live off bomb-shelter air indefinitely. I hadn’t told anyone that I was in love with Mike. Jane and I had met him when we were in college. And then of course they became a couple and so on.
Over the years, I had sometimes found myself sleeping with men who reminded me of Mike. Maybe they loved horse racing, or felt uncomfortable in small rooms, or liked to fix things, or empathized too much, or maybe they just didn’t mind my storytelling, and even encouraged it. But I never held onto those men, never introduced them around or took them to familiar restaurants. Mostly, they came through my loft in Chicago, looking for towels, razor blades, toast with preserves, and they didn’t understand that I was sleeping with someone else, sleeping right through them. They were small acts. Their bodies changed, they softened, and then a round of intense muscle building. The way they fixed on me, that changed too. And when I put my reading glasses on, they distorted entirely and became guys with names I couldn’t always remember.
Except for this man a couple of years ago, who pried open one of my eyelids, mid-act, and asked: Who am I? I thought that sex was jarring a metaphysical pin loose. I untangled myself and threw the lubricant back into the bedside table. He accused me of having someone else on my brain, he could feel it. His old girlfriend: she had had someone else on the brain. I’m disappointed, he said. It was one of those moments when a man thinks he can put on your father’s jacket and parade around. I’m disappointed in you. He got up and found his clothes in a heap and left. It was raining out, which almost added a note of tragedy to his departure. I watched him from my window. He was drenched when he hailed a taxi.
I don’t get many clear messages about the future. No crawls at the bottom of my mental screen. I would make a terrible adept. But sometimes I know things. I knew when Franny was hit by the train. Well, I didn’t know that it was a train that took her out, but I knew she was out of life. And when you get that kind of sporadic but intense signal, it’s hard to understand how you can miss the obvious things. I missed things with Jane. I should have seen she’d take off.
Two weeks before she drove away in the Jaguar, she had phoned me in Chicago. She asked if I’d go through the estate with her. We had lost Franny six months earlier, in the winter, so I had already gone out to California for the funeral. When Jane called, I was getting ready for an off-hours interview, hoping to pick up a gig in an auction house. Afterwards, I had plans to meet friends at a pub. I had been out of work for a while. It was a particularly bad time to make a second trip.
—You’re it, she said, as if we were playing a child’s game.
—I know a great appraiser in LA: Tony. Tony has four brothers and they’re all appraisers and they’d probably all come up to the house just to see it and….
—Things will go quickly, she said.
—I guess anything’s possible, but….
—I don’t want five guys named Tony.
—No, they’re…. I know plenty of others. Some of the best.
—But that’s what you do, you go through stuff. You’re an expert.
I didn’t say: That’s like assuming you’re willing to mutilate yourself because you sell knives for a living.
Jane knew I didn’t want to be the one to break up Franny’s house. It had always been my catch basin, safe landing. Jane’s relationship with her grandmother had been held together by friction, and though no one ever said this, though no one fully implied it, Jane was blood and I was stray. And this created a particular sense of order.
I urged someone who knows west coast values. Then I stood in the middle of my loft in Chicago, held the receiver against my ribs and with one hand hoisted a window open for air. The huge, original frames had been hauled up on a winch and set in place when it had been a button factory. They rode to the top with ease. I looked at the rain hitting my sill, the way it sprinkled the black skirt I wore and the hardwood floor, the spray red from the taillights going by. The rush hour traffic headed from the Loop; the cab late. I put the tiny holes of the receiver to my ear again, looked at the unlit neon signs mounted on my walls. All she wanted was a week of my time.
—You still on the line? she asked.
—Mike and the girls will be there.
I was getting soaked.
—We can do a farewell party to the old place and you can drive the Jaguar while you’re out….
I knew that one of Franny’s neighbors went over to the house weekly to start the motor and inspect the radiator fins flaking off in the salt air. I had always liked that car, and hoped Franny had had a rash moment and left it to me.
From my door-sized windows, I saw the taxi drive up and back, apparently struggling to find my address. But I’d never be able to change and get to the interview in time.
—This will probably be the last chance to be at Franny’s. Nan wants to rent it out until it sells.
No one liked Nan.
—You have to get the art out first, I said.
—That’s why we need you, to tell us that kind of thing. Did I say Mona asked about you? And Livvy. I think she’d like your company right now.
I doubted she had asked for me.
—Just for a weekend, to get you started, I said. Three days. Four at the most.
—I found a pretty good ticket online. But you’ll have to show a medical illness to back out. No refunds.
A few days later, at O’Hare, I ate a green banana, cottage cheese and two rubbery eggs from a vending machine before the plane boarded. But I had some of my father’s genes, so I couldn’t make myself sick.
When I arrived at the Santa Barbara Airport, I chose a subcompact rental. Jane had offered to pick me up, but you have to have your own car in Southern California or you quickly become a dependent. I felt uneasy as I loaded my bags, and I decided to hold off going straight to the house.
Instead I took a detour to Mountain Drive, up in the foothills. I pulled over on a narrow turnout where I could see the city, the cemetery, a large avocado orchard, the marine layer sitting on the beach, the unlimited sky. The chaparral grows up the steep embankments, castor bean digs in everywhere. I thought of times I had spent with Jane: the joint passed across someone’s hot tub, the temperature gauge dropped back into the water. Ease or something that once felt like ease.
I put the handbrake on and listened to the radio, wondered if I could put the battery at risk that way and stall out there permanently. When that didn’t happen, I went down the hill and drove through the grounds of the Miramar Hotel, past the tennis courts and swimming pools we used to invade. The roofs of the Miramar were still that insane blue, like an advertisement without words: neon poured into shingles. Here. Stay here. The restaurant train car had a new seating area outside with white canvas umbrellas. People were lined up, waiting for tables. I circled round and turned onto San Ysidro Road, past the craftsman-style church. Jacaranda blossoms parachuted along the railroad ties and drifted over to the beach. It made me laugh to see the small purple flowers descend in the air, as if a drama had been saved up to greet me. I punched in the code to the gate and drove through. Then I sat for a while, my car in idle, taking in salt air like an overload of memory. Each summer I’d almost forget what that’s like, an intrusion of ocean sound that builds and tears down other sounds until it disappears entirely.
I parked behind the garage. It was the only house that still had one. Years ago the buildings had been spaced apart and there was some open parking. But all the additions, the desire to cram more in, pulled them together like row houses. I unloaded the car.
Jane answered the door that day. She seemed confused by my presence, though we had gone over our flight schedules together two nights before. She was thinner than the last time I had seen her; her hair pinned back with tiny butterfly clips, several of which had come loose, as if they were trying to get away from her head. She stepped back into the hall and caught her foot on the cord of a belly board leaning by the door.
Mike stood in the middle of the living room, knee-deep in luggage. He was bare except for his khaki shorts and a pair of battered flip-flops. He smiled when he saw me starring at him. Jane untangled herself. She kissed me on the mouth. I heard the girls upstairs. Mike took my two bags, kissed my mouth as well, and threw on a t-shirt. Jane asked about my flight and if I were thirsty.
—I wouldn’t mind a drink.
Mike put his an arm around my waist.
—You’re insane for doing this, he said.
—How was the flight? Jane asked a second time.
—Direct, I said.
—And the most interesting person you’ve spoken with in the last 24 hours? Mike asked.
—The Hertz rental agent?
—The next 24 will improve, he said.
—The hotel’s been purchased by foreign investors. They’re going to do a major remodel, make it more of a resort, Jane said.
—Sorry to hear it, I said.
As if she were coming out of a stupor, Jane suddenly offered me something to drink again. But shortly after I said yes, I was thirsty, she looked around, as if she had forgotten something, and then dropped onto the couch. My patience felt like a third suitcase I couldn’t put down. Mike made me a Campari and soda. Thinking back on that afternoon, they were like two people with broken whisper phones in a science exhibit. They barely made eye contact with one another.
Finally, Jane went off to the kitchen and Mike pushed a handful of dolls in various states of undress to one end of the couch so we could sit.
—You okay? he asked.
—I keep expecting Franny to walk through a door.
Mike rubbed my shoulders a little.
—You think the foreigners will leave the blue roofs alone?
—Not a chance, I said.
When Jane returned, I dealt with the topic I imagined she and Mike were avoiding or polarized by.
—I’ll help you work out a rough plan, I said, breaking the skin on the silence.
Jane flinched. Franny’s estate was sizable. She’d been an avid collector of fine and decorative arts. There were the collections of small objects from Africa, Greece and Egypt; tribal masks; leather-bound books; Moroccan and Chinese rugs. A shelf of skulls: bobcat, hummingbird, pelican. Steel molds once used in making balloons were mounted on marble bases. On the coffee table, a red carnival-glass dish was filled with black wooden spools. And the Louis XIV table. Franny impressed its existence upon Jane and her sister Nan and me each time we had flown into the living room instead of walking. I noted the photograph of Franny that had been framed for the funeral. She looked like one of those Avedon models from the Fifties.
—I don’t mean anything too detailed. I just need to get an idea of which items will be held out for the family. After that, you can think about what you’d like an exact appraisal on—I’ll help you with that. And if you hope to sell by the piece or the lot. But we’ll get there, I said, opening my briefcase. I felt like a realtor or mortician giving a pitch. I don’t think they understood what it meant to settle an estate, especially one like Franny’s. The time for each appraisal, lining up buyers. And things tended to change daily where several interests were involved: the items Jane and her sister Nan would fight over, and the way I knew Jane would hand me the phone, expecting me to settle things between them.
I took a half-dozen yellow rule-lined pads and a box of pens from my case and set them in the middle of the coffee table, so they would have them when they were ready.
—You brought office supplies from Chicago? Jane laughed. She struggled with the shrink-wrap covering the tablets. Seeing me grow flustered, she smoothed my hair as if it were flying about from static electricity. Mike gave me a sympathetic look.
It was a cool morning but a couple of swimmers were out in the short waves now. For the first time I saw their cat lying in a corner of the room, looking dead. A small rug of an animal.
—Is Trader all right? I asked.
—I gave him too much of the tranquillizer. By mistake, Jane said. Then she picked up the box of pens and spilled them onto the table as if she were about to read a fortune with yarrow sticks. I wanted to say I miss Franny, that it will be impossible when the house is sold, that it isn’t necessary to dump all the pens out.
I thought it was the large business of settling Franny’s estate that had them so keyed up. I’d seen this before: the sense of separation people can feel from themselves or each other when sorting the objects of the past. My boss often said you have to have a particular deficit of emotion to move freely through other people’s lives, especially when going through an estate. Some families pay the auction house to go over every last thing of their relative’s. Letters, photos, spice jars, closets full of clothes, carried off in plastic bags for salvage or trash, until they get down to the things they can sell. It’s a stupid way to breakdown, but I never wanted another career. Even if I’m left to wonder if strangers will rake through my things eventually.
Just then Mona ran down the stairs carrying one of Franny’s ivory jars from the matched set on her dressing table. She sprinkled face powder everywhere. Livvy ran after her until she saw me, then slowed to a walk, and went over to look in a suitcase for something. This was the first summer she had made dramatic alterations to her appearance. The ear cuffs, the hair, piercings, the black clothes.
Jane took the powder away.
—Hi girls, I said.
—Hi Mat, Mona said.
—Mattie, Livvy corrected her. Hey.
—Hey, I said.
She surfaced with a pink swimsuit which she handed to Mona who held it up so I could read the words emblazoned on the front: LOVES TO SWIM.
Mike winked at Livvy. Then he turned to me and said: We should invite the neighbors over for dinner tomorrow night.
He seemed eager to include me in things.
—To get in the mood? Jane said.
But I wasn’t sure which mood she referred to, and I knew she didn’t want me quizzing her, and it didn’t matter to me if we had a dinner party or not. Mike didn’t say anything, went out to the deck.
While Jane unpacked, I looked around the living room. The early afternoon train came through heading north. It rode Franny’s house like an act of nature. A familiar door above the stove always swung partway open with the vibrations. Franny used to cut sticky-back tape into dots and squares to fasten down her sculptural pieces. They were still in place but no longer held the objects they were intended to safeguard, the yellow, cracked adhesive stuck to the bookshelves.
As Jane searched for swim fins, and Livvy and Mona robbed the linen closet of towels, I watched Mike. I thought he had given up smoking, but there was a cigarette in his mouth. He bent each match outside the matchbook cover, lit it and waved the book until it went out. As he stood there, I was aware that the deck looked more like a container than an open platform.
The house was right on the beach and the visibility was good that day. The coast runs west to east midway between Point Conception and Port Hueneme. The ocean is due south and in the summer people prop their chairs, slather up, let their toddlers go nude, wrestle with kayaks. Kids line up their boards like Cadillac Ranch. Dogs run in packs.
It was low tide, so there were fifty feet of beach at most and coastal access for all. Of course sometimes the beach disappears entirely and the water pounds the lower decks. A newspaper left out can turn to a bit of paper-Mache stuck to a railing. The houses range from the substantial to the badly weathered, mostly wood framed. There’s the pseudo-Spanish one out of stucco and a couple of blue-and white nautical with overloaded themes. The new set of condos down toward Fernald Point.
Franny had owned her place down to the retaining wall. In winter she heaped sandbags around the pilings to keep her house from being carried out to sea. The lower deck had been rebuilt three separate times after bad storms. Flooring and carpet ripped up and replaced. Yet each summer when we arrived, her house was always back in order.
I was eight when I met Jane. She was nine. My parents and I stayed at a rental a few doors down. It was always different at our place. Impermanent. Fragile. The kind of place where you could stiff a landlord on the last month’s rent.
It was important to keep everything picked up, especially between my bedroom door and the bunks so Lois, my mother, wouldn’t trip in the dark. When she came home, she sometimes woke me to say goodnight, sending out an exhaust of salt, peppermint candies, and gin as she spoke. She asked if I had spent time on my workbooks, if I had kept myself out of trouble. I said yes and yes, and when I attempted to sit up in the dark, she put a cool hand on my forehead, as if I might have a temperature.
I could make out the outline of her hair, brittle from the ocean, and I knew her lips were stung by weather. In daylight they were almost white, sometimes blistered. If she had something to say about children who hide in abandoned refrigerators or men who fall into elevator shafts, this is where she whispered it to me, often drifting off and not quite finishing her stories. My mother gave me this advice: If you have to jump from a burning building, leap second. Let someone else go first. This gives the men with the nets a chance to study the wind direction and velocity.
Once she held up a piece of paper. There was a wheel in the center, my name in the upper left-hand corner, my birth date. Lois said: I talked with a woman today. And she looked at your chart. She wants you to know that something will happen around travel…or a car. That was it. A car will change your life. It has to do with the planet Pluto. You’re overloaded with Pluto.
While she pointed to the black ink marks, I lay still, imagining a wheel rolling over me, flattening me to sleep. You understand, don’t you? This woman knows a good deal about these things. You should hear what she said about me. Then Lois pulled herself up and receded into the hall, as if she hadn’t been there.
For years I pictured a collision that would slow traffic around me. I saw where my lungs would puncture, heard the radio I couldn’t turn off, stared at my foot impaled on the brake. I was aware of the way the orange reflective triangles would be placed around my car. I didn’t understand at the time that predictions swerve and take on whole other meanings. There was a car, but no accident, no death. Unless you call love an accident. I don’t.
The morning Jane left, I crawled into bed with Mike and didn’t wake up until the mid-morning express vibrated the French doors of the second-floor deck. Mike was propped up on one elbow, watching me. He looked amused, probably thought Jane and I were having him on. Maybe he was employing that simple carnival trick of his: to guess the weight of a head. Mike had worked on a midway one summer during college, and he had gotten pretty good at sizing up a person by the pound. But he wasn’t reliable then and gave away too many stuffed cats and cloth dolls.
—Holding Jane’s place? he laughed.
I sat up against the bolster, and launched into a nervous rap about the Jaguar. He leaned into me as I talked openly about the canvas top and the broken mechanism, as if I were running a string of red lights. We both liked machinery, the way a good piece of equipment works, but I could only distract him so long, and I had run myself out detailing that car. Mike unraveled his pajamas tied in the covers, slipped into the bottoms, and got out of bed.
—Shout if I get warm.
He looked under the dust ruffle, stepped in and out of the bathroom, checked behind the yellow stuffed chair. When he came back to bed, he took my hand and said:
—I tried to stop her.
He looked at my head again. I felt it lift off my neck and go onto the scale.
—She left the girls’ insurance cards. Took two bags. I should have woken you. I haven’t slept for…. She’s probably in San Luis Obispo by now. Paso Robles. This looks so bad. I couldn’t think.
I watched the fin-like movement of his jaw, the small muscles tensing and relaxing. He balled up his pajama top and threw it across the room.
—It’s okay, Mike said, as if I were the one who needed reassurance. Then he laughed to himself. I lifted the receiver on the old white princess phone sitting on the bedside table, but it slipped from my hand and dropped to the rug.
—I’ll try her cell, I said, unwinding the cord and starting over.
—She won’t answer.
I hung the phone up.
—Did she go north?
—No. I mean I don’t know.
—Is it too early for a drink?
He knew where Franny had kept her gin and brought it back to bed. I took a sip, watched him, waiting for something other than the weary, almost luminous look he gets after being up all night editing. For years Mike had made documentaries. Exquisite, quirky things. My favorite about the man fixing a VW Bug who talked about his six ex-wives while he gapped the plugs and set the timing, his lone voice working like a chorus in a Greek tragedy.
—You’ve got to feel like you came out here for nothing.
—Don’t worry about me. Maybe the police could….
He touched one of my eyebrows, as if it were out of place.
It’s okay? I thought. Sometimes Mike suffered from the same kind of melancholy that overtakes me, so I understood that at least. And I understood the way he had of protecting me. He lost his sister when he was fifteen. But, it’s okay? The blue bottles on Franny’s dressing table sent out light. The fog had burned off a good deal. It was the first clear sky since our arrival, but that’s the way June was, unlimited fog with a few breaks. I hoped it was all right where Jane drove.
—This is what she does. She drives off, he said.
I realized his eyes used to be a true, faded color. Now they looked blue like laundry soap. I looked for contact lenses as he gazed toward the islands, but I didn’t see any. I couldn’t understand the way he’d aged. It wasn’t that his face was waxy or taut, injected or stitched into place; it was unchanged. Changed, unchanged. I played with this like a power surge—lights coming up, blacking out.
—Aren’t you blind without your glasses?
—I can see you better this way, he said.
He moved his thumb over my right palm, not far from the spot where this random line bisects the life line and another line, the three lines forming a triangle if I flatten my hand out the way a palm reader does. But instead he formed my hand into a small basin, as if he were going to pour something there. Once again he assured me that Jane was fine, that I shouldn’t worry.
—We have to keep it low key for the girls, he said, but his words and his mouth worked at different speeds now.
—Her disappearance, he said, as if I hadn’t understood.
I probably had that stretched-awkward smile I get. We both took another drink.
—We could say she’s gone to look for architectural salvage, I said.
—Aren’t we knee deep in architectural salvage?
—But she has her time away, right? Conferences?
I began to feel my own break between phrasing and delivery. As I watched his face, I picked up something of Jane in the ticking of the feather pillows, mixed with her grandmother’s oily scent. I looked at his chest. I felt like the girl in Duras’ The Lover, when she was about to touch a man’s chest for the first time. I offered to stay a couple of extra days, make some headway on Franny’s stuff. Then I caught myself and quickly wound back to the girls.
We agreed that it would be plausible for Jane to go off and work for a while in seclusion. She had a commission designing sets for a version of Peter Pan, in Boston. Mike would hide her drawings.
He picked up the knotted ends of my nightgown ties and rolled them between his fingers, letting them drop against my chest, one and then the other.
—Can you really make any knot? he asked.
—I know knots, I said.
My father had taught me dozens of sailor’s knots.
—And flags, I said. Capitols. By-products. My mother and her fucking workbooks.
—I thought you did scrap books.
His eyes began to swim. I rushed to tell him everything I could about the articles I clipped. On a variety of subjects.
—I know. I could tell you where tulips spring up on Dutch maps.
I put my hand on his cheek and he said: --I’d rather see a knot.
I tried to do something with the nightgown ties, but they were a little short.
He kissed my neck, just below my left ear, as I fiddled.
If Livvy were awake she was in the clock room, across the hall, listening to the passage of time, stubbornly holding on to her bladder. She was like Jane, hated to get out of bed in the morning. I wondered if she drifted when things got crazy. If her subtle body fled when it was under too much pressure, the way mine does. I knew she had her antenna and it’s possible she could pick up sounds through the heating grate. Not that you could receive whole words that way, certainly not with the noise of the clocks, but Mike and I whispered nonetheless.
—I should go downstairs, I said.
—I know, he said, but he put a hand on one of my legs.
—There are people who eat tulips to calm down, I said.
—Tulip eaters, he said and slid his hand between my thighs.
I thought about bringing up the friend who slept with her second husband the night of her first husband’s funeral, but I guessed that was a random thing, and let it go.
—We’re both a little bereft right now, I said.
—This isn’t about that.
Mike slowly pulled my nightgown up.
—I know how to draw kitchen triangles, I offered.
—That’s why I’ve always loved you, Mattie.
—I have stats on gun-related deaths. Skee ball accidents. Nothing on car flights. Less on why we drive toward collision.
I wanted to take my rental car and find Jane out in the state of California and bring her home, keep myself from going anywhere else. I wanted to climb onto his lap and stay on at freeway speeds.
He wetted my right nipple with his tongue. I looked at the small indentations on either side of his nose, from his glasses as I tried to breathe. I pressed a baby finger into one of them. It fit perfectly like a tiny shoe.
—Tell me one of your stories, he said.
That’s what we did. We told each other stories.
—Okay. There was a woman, who fucked The David once. That guy I knew in college, you remember Stuart, he told me that.
The light pressure of Mike’s teeth, the way his tongue flicked. I thought of a ruby-throated hummingbird. But I proceeded with my story.
—I’m…not sure if he meant the false David near the Uffizi or the real David in Galleria dell’Accademia. But I hadn’t been to Italy…then, and I think I was a little naïve about security. But I like picturing that…otherworldly event: the woman seeming to…float upwards, maybe she used…a rope ladder, or had a harness or swing, maybe she had help…from friends. In either case, she must have ascended when the guards were changing shifts. I felt certain she held on to him…like a moth to a wool blanket…until the first shout and the hands…that plucked her off.
Mike slid into the bottoms of my shortie pajamas. I closed my eyes and began to float. Just before my head hit the ceiling, I heard the door handle twist back and forth.
—There’s something I have to watch!! Mona shouted from the other side of the door.
Mike lifted his head.
—I’ll be there in a few minutes, honey. Turn on the TV in the living room.
We listened to the weight of Mona’s descent.
—Fate? Mike asked, as if he were offering me a soft drink.
The TV went on downstairs: loud.
Though I didn’t ask, he told me not to worry about Livvy. She wouldn’t be up for a while. She had stayed up very late.
> He said he wanted to see every knot I knew how to make later. I wasn’t sure when later was, but I knew he wasn’t either. So I agreed to later.
Then Mike got up, kissed me once more, and soon the shower went on.
I found one of Jane’s robes. One of the pockets held a scrap of paper with this message: Nan wants the tea service. I wasn’t sure who had written it. In college, after Jane dropped architecture and started sleeping with Mike, she changed her handwriting. I thought she wanted to move away from rendering. But now I understand she was trying to copy Mike.
As I slipped out the door and inched down the stairs to the first floor, I realized that he was soaping himself, bending under the low showerhead. Large enough for three, the stall had been plumbed to hit body parts below five feet. It only bothered me when I had to shampoo. But Mike was over six-foot-one, Jane five-eight.
The blue satin cuffs of her bathrobe slid past my fingertips, the bottom hem made a petal on the floor, almost bridal. She was probably passing through central California as Mike’s hot water ran and I knotted the robe ties. Inhaling fertilizer, the scent of developing artichokes. She would pull off at the exit and head toward a stand. Probably the one with a mural of dancing artichokes on the side. The kind of place that also sells honey, walnuts, medjool dates. She would sit in the car for a while and try to decide if she should leave the 101 and take back-roads instead. There wasn’t any hurry if she had no idea where she was going. Of course she could have just turned around, pulled the Jaguar into the garage, found me down in the living room with Mona, and never questioned my wearing her robe.
There was a guy who killed himself on the 101 by taking a shotgun and wiring it to the shaft of the steering wheel. When he was ready, and I have no idea what that means, he pulled on the metal loop he had attached to the trigger. His car fishtailed and launched into the oncoming lanes. He took out a teenage girl who had planned an acting career in what-the-hell-Hollywood. Her boyfriend had just detailed her Toyota Celica. She was wearing jeans and a pink sweater, no shoes. Her ankle bracelet had his name engraved on it. It was hard not to think about that kind of stuff after Jane left.
Excerpted from SMALL ACTS OF SEX AND ELECTRICITY © Copyright 2011 by Lise Haines. Reprinted with permission by Unbridled Books. All rights reserved.
Small Acts of Sex and Electricity