Here are things that are important:
When he focuses on style, everything looks better. Everything sounds better. When he looks down the sidewalk, the woman in the gray dress stands straighter, walks with composition. When he approaches her, she smiles more sincerely. She speaks more softly, and says words that mean more.
“How are things going?”
But it isn’t something she would say. It sounds awkward coming from her mouth. He closes it for her. She walks backwards, ends up where she started.
When he focuses on plot, things happen. Clouds cover the sun. Fog rises from the ground. There is an explosion in the distance. People are running past him screaming, asking each other what happened too loudly to be understood. When he looks at the passing crowd, he sees her in the middle of it, mouth open, eyes wild. She is running in heels. When she runs by him, she drops a note in his lap. It reads:
“This isn’t really happening.”
And he agrees, so everyone stops. The bomb reassembles itself, the people disappear. The note glows white and is gone.
When he focuses on theme, there is meaning. Looking down the sidewalk is not a writing exercise. He is in love with the woman in the gray dress. She looks back at him. Their eyes lock. Her cell phone rings and she breaks eye contact and turns away. Reverse, their eyes meet, he sees the torment of the universe in her face. Her face can’t contain it all. It doesn’t make sense. When she smiles, her smile covers something else. They are all hiding these days, but some of them aren’t. He isn’t.
“This doesn’t mean anything.”
Back to the beginning. She is only herself. She doesn’t mean a thing. Neither does he.
When he focuses on characters, interaction is the key.
“Good morning.” he says as she walks by.
She slows a bit.
“Good morning to you.”
“Nice weather we’re having.” He dismisses it as too cliché. Not realistic. “Where are you headed?”
He doesn’t remember what she says in response. He doesn’t know anything about her. She is flat. He needs her to be round. He doesn’t know what she would say, so she says anything. He thinks she lives in a little house over on Oak with her mother. She mentions “Mother.” That passes for a personality. Rewind.
When he focuses on symbolism, he stands for something. He stands for the lonely voyager, the stranger in a strange land. She stands for redemption. She is a girl, but she does not have to be a girl. She could be a friend, a job, an opportunity. The sidewalk represents the journey. It’s only a few yards long, but symbolically, it could stretch forever. He could spend the rest of his life running full tilt down that symbol and never reach redemption at the other end. He begins to feel detached. The wanderer likes wandering. The redemption can’t carry on a decent conversation.
When he focuses on her, she notices and slows as she approaches him.
“Nice weather we’re having.”
All he can write is what he sees. He can’t plot, because to plot a novel is to tell a story that has not yet happened. When he composes fiction, it sounds like a lie. The things that happen sound like things that never would. Usually they are.
There are already too many stories about writers. This is not one of them. The writer disappears into the narrative never to be seen again within a page or two. He walks into the kitchen to get a bite to eat. There is nothing in his cabinets except bread and peanut brittle. He bites into the brittle. It is stale, so he puts it back in the cabinet. The phone rings from the other room. He walks over and answers it. His mother has passed away.
In seven hours, he is on a plane. He has packed only three sets of clothes, some toiletries, and his computer. He hopes the funeral will provide him some inspiration. He hates his job at the Intel phone bank. He would rather write. He would rather do anything, but writing seems easiest and most available. He already has a computer. He doesn’t have any ideas. On the flight back to Indiana, he decides he doesn’t want to be a writer anymore. He watches a movie on his computer and then goes to sleep.
His father Charles is there, looking withered. His brother Lyle is there too. He says “Ray.” Ray doesn’t know what to say in response. “Lyle.”
They walk through the airport. Once, Charles attempts an embrace, but he is too slow and Ray manages to turn toward a display of magazines. Charles doesn’t say anything about it. Lyle doesn’t say anything at all. They walk through the airport. Only the loudspeaker is talking. “Do not leave your baggage unattended for any reason. Unattended baggage will be destroyed.”
They don’t stop at the baggage claim. Everything Ray brought is in his carry-on.
Ray shrugs off his coat as he slides into the car.
“Hot day for September.” he says.
“Yeah.” Lyle says.
Charles is crying very softly, but the tears never leave his eyes.
The radio is on. “You Light Up My Life” is playing. Ray recognizes it from a movie he saw where this girl and this guy do something and it goes wrong. He can’t remember the name. Something about walking, maybe. Charles wipes his eyes with his coat sleeve. It’s not hot enough for him.
The house is just like Ray remembers it, but smaller. Every time he comes back to the house, it is smaller. It seems like the people who live inside keep it from collapsing. Every time someone leaves, the space they occupied constricts. Someday, he thinks, I will come back here and the house will be gone. I will have to find it by looking for the mailbox.
When he gets inside, he wanders around until he finds a space he can squeeze into. There is a bed, a dresser, and a mirror. He looks at his face. Every time he looks into a mirror, his face looks different. This time, there is residue from stickers on his cheek. He moves. Now it’s on his nose.
He opens the top drawer of the dresser. It is empty. He opens his carry-on and takes out his clothes. He stacks them neatly in the second drawer. They take up one half of the available space. He moves the socks to the top drawer. The empty space makes him uncomfortable. He closes the drawer, puts his bag in the closet. From the kitchen below, he can hear Lyle and his father trying to have a conversation. He sits on the side of the bed until it is quiet.
Downstairs, Lyle is having trouble. He has poured a bowl of cereal, but there is no milk.
“Is there milk somewhere else?”
Charles just looks at him.
“Is there… another refrigerator?”
“No.” It’s the first thing Charles has said today.
Lyle takes a spoon from the silverware drawer and begins eating the dry cereal. He tries to crunch loudly. Otherwise, he can hear Charles’ breathing. It is wet and heavy. Sometimes, there is a sniff.
Ray comes down the stairs. He takes in the scene, speaks.
“No milk.” says Lyle.
Ray pours himself a bowl of cereal, sits down, changes his mind. He pours the cereal back into the box and heads out the front door.
Charles isn’t sure what’s going on. Seventy-four years and nothing makes sense. There are two men in his house. It seems so big.
Ray and Lyle split the cost of the rental car. Small and green, it does not have cruise control or air conditioning. It is a stick-shift and Lyle can barely drive it. The ride back from the airport was rough, but being in the house was rougher, so everyone is relieved to be outside.
Ray starts the engine. He tries to think about his mother. He tries to remember something about her, the way she smelled, the hairspray she used. She used to watch television in the morning. She liked morning shows.
Ray stops at the end of Red Lane. There’s no stop sign, but there used to be, so he stops. No cars are coming. They never are. Seventeen years at this house; he can’t remember one car. It can’t be true, but it seems true enough.
Her hair was wiry. Lyle said it was in a hairnet when she died. Did hospitals usually use hairnets? Ray resolves not to ask. He knows her skin was pale. No one has to tell him. Her last words were unintelligible. Three words. Not “I love you.” Maybe “wash the car.” No one knows.
He turns right, towards town. Town is six miles south. They live in the boondocks. There used to be a dog, Denver, named after John, not Colorado. He preferred to be alone. Denver only knew one trick: he could sit. By the time he died, he could barely stop sitting. The road is just as rough as it has always been. Every mayor promises to fix it. No one ever does.
Her name was Ingrid. Before she died, she couldn’t remember it. She was seventy-eight. Ray is thirty-nine.
“Drink?” asks Lyle.
Charles doesn’t move at all. Lyle opens the fridge. There’s no beer. Lyle curses, glances nervously at Charles, who doesn’t move. Lyle wonders if he’s dead. A moment later. Charles stands and heads upstairs
Lyle walks into the living room and sits on the couch. It’s the same one as years ago. He turns on the TV. It’s the same too. It plays a movie about cowboys and Indians, so blurry he can’t tell the difference. He turns it up, gets bored, and falls asleep.
He has dreams that make no sense to anyone but him. He dreams he is walking on a long beach. He wears swimming trunks and a snorkel, and hunts sea turtles. He finds them and stabs through their shell with a sharp pole. When they die, they sound like the ocean.
Then he is in the ocean itself. He floats, maybe on a turtle shell, nothing but white noise for miles. He is not afraid of anything. The ocean is an open field where he can run if he can find his feet. When he wakes up, Charles is gone.
He looks in the bedroom, then the kitchen. Charles is not in Ray’s room either. Lyle walks outside. There is no car, so he calls out “Charles.” Charles doesn’t hear him.
Lyle walks down the sidewalk, towards the dirt road in front of the house.
He looks both ways, no sign. He walks to the first intersection and yells, no answer. He’s not nervous. Charles is a loner. Always has been. He turns right down Red Lane. He’s keeping his eyes open. Growing up, he never could do that. His eyes were always closing at inopportune times.
He read that men blink thirty percent more than women do. Sometimes, the fact preys on his mind. He wonders what he is missing while his eyes are closed, and envies women who see more. His wife always tells him, “Keep your eyes open, Lyle,” and he says, “I can’t. I can’t.” and she laughs and doesn’t understand, and that’s ok. He wishes she were here. Maybe she would see something he doesn’t.
And there is still no answer.
Ray remembers this road, the one that cuts through Jukebox’s heart. The town’s lively name belies its sober nature. Nothing happens here. Ray has not seen this street in fifteen years, but he knows what it holds.
There is a general store called Casey’s. They sell anything a citizen of Jukebox would need. Food, drink, painkillers, condoms. Residents who want anything else drive seventeen miles to Jensen. Mostly, they make do. There is a gas station. It only sells gas. The attendant sits in a phone booth and takes cash only. There is a barber shop, Tom’s Barbershop. Ray imagines wisps of his teenage hair are still stranded behind the ugly wood paneling inside. He stops in.
The sleigh bells above the door jingle when he pushes it open. The inside is still the same. He takes a breath and tastes the hair tonic and shaving cream. The door in the back squeaks. A young man in a white smock steps out, speaks.
“Morning, sir. Can I help you?”
Ray tries to place the face. He sees it on a kid, sleeping behind the barber chair. The kid is dressed in checkered pajamas. He looks at the man in the smock.
“Just a trim, please.”
In the barber chair, Ray feels young again. His feet don’t touch the floor. He hears the scissors snip around his ears and flinches. The young man tries to make conversation. It’s as awkward as it ever was. He asks where Ray is from. Ray says Maine. He doesn’t remember Ray. Ray knows because there are no questions about his mother. In a town this size, there would be. Ray doesn’t bring it up. He can’t speak to Charles about it either. He feels the stiff brush against his neck. It marks the end of the haircut, always has. He looks in the mirror. Hasn’t changed much.
Back on the sidewalk, he looks for a familiar face. He passes a woman with her child. She is wearing a gray dress and he has never seen her before. An old man stumbles into an alley, an unfamiliar stumble.
It seems like he has never been here before. In his mind, he knows he has been someplace like this, someplace similar. He wouldn’t know the difference if he saw them side-by-side, but stepping into each picture would tell him which was which immediately.
A boy jostles him. Ray looks at his face. Nothing.
In the real place, he knows everyone. The woman is Mrs. Hall. Her boy is Harry. They live on Elmhurst. The old man is Mr. Goldberg. He’s a deacon at the Episcopal Church. He has a degenerative muscle disease, so he stumbles. The young man who cut his hair is old and his name is Tom and he doesn’t have to ask what kind of haircut because he knows already.
In this carbon copy, the backgrounds are the same but the players are different. He understands the actions but not the motives. Tom’s Barbershop is not really Tom’s at all, and the woman in the gray dress represents someone who isn’t here anymore.
Back in the car, Ray resists reflection. He turns on the radio. The song sounds familiar. There are lots of violins. When he gets back to the house, it is empty.
Lyle keeps walking. He notices the darkness, but he doesn’t slow down or look back. He isn’t worried. Charles is a tough old bird. He tries to place himself in Charles’ head, “Where would I walk if my wife had died?” but comes up with no answers. He would head to the bar but there is no bar in walking distance. There is no store either. There are only grain and fields and farms and stray dogs and bumpy roads. And Lyle’s wife is alive.
He crosses Country Road 18, and sees a light in the distance. He walks a little faster. The light is small, a pinprick. It’s something to focus on.
A flashlight is shining out, sitting beside Charles. He doesn’t move. Lyle steps softly, in case he’s asleep. If you wake a sleeping man, he might kill you or himself.
Charles is not sleeping; it’s obvious within two steps. He is sitting cross-legged beside the flashlight, looking into the dark. Lyle sits beside him.
At first, there is nothing before him but blackness and the white ring of light burned on his eyes. But the ring fades and shapes emerge from the darkness. The jagged blades of grass, a mound of dirt, the scuffling movement of a fieldmouse to the left. And a huge shape, broad and gauzy. Light from the moon filters through it like muslin. Lyle looks up and the dome of the silo seeps through the dark..
Charles doesn’t answer.
“Nothing here but this silo.”
Charles shifts but does not turn. Lyle sits in silence.
“About ready to head home?”
It is the third time Lyle has asked. No answers. This time, Charles drops his head.
“No.” he says.
Lyle turns the flashlight on Charles’ face. Maybe there will be tears or maybe Charles will be asleep, but the face in the flashlight only blinks at the bright. It is dry, it is awake. It stares at the silo, daring it to move. It doesn’t really look like Charles. It just looks like the face of anyone who is lost.
Lyle sits with his hands under him. At least it’s warm tonight. After a while, he feels himself drifting off. He shakes his head to stay awake and Charles is in his peripheral doing the same thing but when he turns to look, Charles is still again. He feels his head dropping and he can’t raise it, but it’s ok. He hears a howl in the distance and it is the last thing he hears.
After Lyle is asleep, Charles looks over at him. His oldest son, crosslegged on the ground, grass creeping up the sides of his jeans. He opens his mouth like he’s going to talk but before he closes it again, a slight moan escapes. That’s all he has in him. He falls asleep beside his son.
Charles wakes up and can’t see the clock beside his bed. It is dusky dark in his room, gray and motionless. Ray stays as still as he can, barely breathes, and listens for any movement from downstairs. Water runs through the pipes but that’s all he hears. He gets up, throws up some clothes, turns on the light. 8:45. Later than he meant to sleep, but acceptable.
Downstairs, there are no signs of life except the television. An infomercial about knives is playing. Ray stares at it blankly. “Order now and receive a free chopping block.” Ray doesn’t need a chopping block. In the kitchen, Lyle’s bowl of cereal sits on the table, a thin film forming over the milk in the bottom.
Open the refrigerator, look for some beer, close the refrigerator empty-handed. He sits in the living room and watches carrots being cut then thinks he should go find Lyle and Charles. He can’t work up a sense of urgency, so he hustles, trying to convince himself that he’s concerned. Anyone looking in the window would be fooled.
At Red Lane for the third time today, Ray looks at the side of the road. Those indentions might be footprints, might just be nothing. No matter. He turns right.
Ten minutes later, he pulls up behind two figures sitting in the darkness beside a flashlight. The flashlight is going dim. Charles stops fifteen feet behind them and turns off the lights. As he draws nearer, he can see their outlines in the darkness and Lyle’s face in the flashlight.
They look peaceful, and Ray considers sitting down beside them. He could use some peace. The tedium of feeling nothing is getting to him, but he doesn’t sit. He nudges Lyle with the toe of his shoe, and Lyle stirs, moans, drops his head again.
Ray nudges Charles. Charles reacts like he was never asleep at all. He stands up, looks at Ray, walks toward the car. As he opens the door, he turns to Ray.
“Don’t forget Lyle.”
Ray drives them back to the house, and they go in and go to sleep. Ray lays on his bed for two hours before sleep finally comes. It is restless and wild.
The next morning, the day of the funeral, Charles has forgotten that Ingrid is dead. Ray hears him first thing, wandering down the hallway asking Lyle “where is my razor?” Ray slips from the bed and dresses. In the hallway, Charles has stopped talking. He looks around, confused, and then walks back into his room and closes the door. Ray thinks nothing of it until he hears a faint click. Door locked.
Ray knocks on the door, asks if everything is ok, but there’s no response. Not unexpected. He hears movement, and feels like everything is fine.
He goes back to his room and closes the door. He feels like his father. He really does. He opens the top drawer of the dresser and shivers at the squeak it makes. There’s almost nothing in it, just two pair of socks, one his, one someone else’s. Maybe his from way back. He’s tempted to try them on, even picks them up. He feels like his father.
He sits down on his bed and tries to cry.
Lyle is tying his tie when the yelling starts. He stops midway through a Half-Windsor and runs down the hallway. The shouts aren’t words. They’re just sounds, loud sounds that mean “run” and “help” and Lyle knows that, somehow. They’re coming from Charles’ room. Lyle knows that too.
He reaches the door, tries to turn the knob, and it’s locked. He knocks on the door, lightly at first and then harder when he realizes he doesn’t need to worry about disturbing anyone.
Ray has heard the racket and materializes behind Lyle. He wants to help pound on the door, but he’s paralyzed. He feels like there’s steel on his shoulders, in his head, in his fingertips, and his chest is a magnet pulling them together. He’s amazed that he hasn’t been condensed, smoothed into a sphere of tedium and confusion. For a moment, he is somewhere else and then he is back and so is the screaming.
Lyle has given up knocking on the door and is attacking it, ramming his shoulder into it over and over. This house, this black hole, may be old and empty but it isn’t weak. The door stands, solid oak, fit to protect from thieves or family. Lyle stops his assault and commences kicking the doorknob. Ray lifts his foot and places it gently against the doorframe, feeling ridiculous.
The doorknob begins to wiggle in its socket and the screaming stops. Lyle redoubles his efforts, but it looks like he’s moving in slow motion. Ray can see the soles of his shoes bending slowly, yielding to the brass of the doorknob, the muscles in Lyle’s jaw clenching and un-clenching.
Lyle stops for a moment, collecting himself, and over his staccato breathing, Ray hears the click again and footsteps stepping away from the door. Lyle is in some kind of shock, so Ray opens the door.
Charles is lying on the bed. Lyle pushes past Ray and rushes over to take his pulse. He’s alive.
Day of the funeral, 10:15am. It starts in 47 minutes, and Ray and Lyle and Charles are in the car, driving to the hospital. Charles says he’s fine but he keeps asking for Ingrid and Lyle wants to take him to the hospital just to be sure nothing’s wrong. Ray thinks he’s scared of losing both parents in a week, but he’d rather let Charles die at the funeral, if that’s what he wants.
Charles doesn’t know they’re missing anything. Lyle thinks maybe they won’t.
“We need to run some tests.”
“Of course. We understand. What’s wrong?”
“Tests will tell. Maybe a tumor, maybe nothing. Any major trauma lately?”
Lyle tells him about what’s been going on. The doctor nods. He doesn’t understand.
“Should one of us go?” Lyle addresses the question to Ray, who is staring at his shoes, trying to remember where he was last time he studied them so intently. He nods. “I’ll go.”
He drives slowly. 9 minutes before the opening music starts. He hopes he never arrives. He read in National Geographic that sometimes, inexplicably, people disappeared. Like the Bermuda Triangle but can happen anywhere, in the ocean, in the sky, in the middle of Indiana on the way to a funeral. He wonders where he would go. How many had there been? 15? 20? Not many, but a few. All the people, they must go somewhere. Law of conservation of mass. Maybe Ingrid was there. She’d like that, being with people who hadn’t died.
He pulls into the parking lot of the church. It’s nearly full. He’s backing into a space when his phone vibrates. It’s Lyle.
“Maybe a tumor. Not cancer, probably. They’re going to run some more tests.”
“Going to be long?”
“I’ll tell you how it goes.”
Inside, the pews are fuller than the parking lot. The organ has just started playing and some of the attendees are lowering their voices, quieting their children, putting their programs in the hymnbook holders. Ray recognizes a few of them, not many. Mostly old. He doesn’t know any of the kids. They were all babies last time he saw them. Now there are lines on their faces. Their soft spots have hardened. They can walk.
He finds a spot near the back and slides in. He hopes he won’t be noticed, but a large man in a black suit wearing a tag that reads “USHER” taps him on the shoulder.
“There are seats up front for the family. Would you like to move up?”
Ray doesn’t want to move up, but the family should make an appearance. He doesn’t know how the usher recognized him and doesn’t think anyone else will. No Charles, no Lyle, no Ingrid, not really. He should move. He does.
He feels eyes on his back as he walks up the aisle.
Lyle sits, chewing his fingernails and waiting. He hasn’t thought about missing the funeral yet. He doesn’t know what he’ll tell Charles. A doctor walks by, but he’s looking for someone else. It’s hard to believe there are other problems in the world. The circle of the earth has narrowed to a point, centered on Charles.
The preacher comes over to Ray. He’s new, doesn’t know him at all, not even child-Ray.
“Where is your father?”
“He’s sick. Tumor, maybe. Lyle is with him at the hospital. Don’t know when he’ll be out.”
The preacher is confused.
“You should go ahead and have the funeral. Charles doesn’t remember anything. He’ll wonder why Ingrid isn’t here.”
“If you’re sure.”
It seems too little somehow. Ray had been prepared to fight. To argue. To be aggressive. Missing your wife’s funeral was unforgivable. He was angry. Angry at Charles, angry at Ingrid, angry at Lyle and angry at the preacher.
Up here, he’s too close to the casket. He can see Ingrid. He wanted to avoid that. This whole trip was undertaken with the understanding that Ingrid would be invisible, that he would sit in the back and on the way home he would look at pictures and pretend he hadn’t called her for years but that he could if he wanted to. Now he could see her, see the wax dummy that looked something like her but didn’t have her smell or her voice or anything that was hers except her face, and even that was different–older, made-up, trying to look younger than she actually was. It was pathetic really.
The organ stopped and the preacher stepped up to the platform. The mic squealed just a little. Ingrid was looking through her eyelids to the ceiling. She wouldn’t want him to be here. She wouldn’t want to be here herself. She didn’t care.
He stayed a moment longer, then he got up and walked down the aisle and out the front door.
Two hours later, he drives back to the hospital. He has spent the intervening time driving down backroads, trying to jog memories that won’t come. In films and novels. every grain silo, even ramshackle barn holds a story, a memento, a key to a tale nearly forgotten, but there was nothing. The things he remembers are gone.
“Definitely a tumor.”
“No. Operable. Dangerous for a man his age though.”
“What does Charles think?”
“He doesn’t know. They want us.”
“And if we don’t?”
“Nothing, I guess.”
“How was the funeral?”
And that’s mostly all. Lyle returns home to his wife, who is happy to see him, and is so sorry she couldn’t go and how was the funeral but Lyle doesn’t know. He’s glad to be home. At night, he dreams of a night sky and a silo, and Charles sitting in his contracting house with the nurse Ray is paying for, forgetting everything he’s ever known. The barns mean nothing to him either, anymore.
Ray is back on the plane, and he opens his computer and tries to write. He gives up 12 minutes later. He doesn’t want to be a writer. When the stewardess asks him to raise his tray table. he obeys without thinking. When she offers him a bag of peanuts, he doesn’t even remember nodding.