Thomas Denis Gibney

FICTION

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POETRY

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SOUND

The last good thing

 

Late afternoon, a Wednesday. A young and perspicacious Beaux Denouement slumps over his off-white epoxy resin countertop in the basement lab of the University’s biochemical school, packing away the accoutrement of his rapidly vanishing life. The few beakers and books that he could say were his were already nestled in a U-Haul box. His lab coat was folded scrupulously to pad the glass. Some notepads, some weathered logs of belabored experiments past. On the top lay the bound, laminated final copy of the dissertation he was to turn in the following Friday. It was all ready to go. It was ready and it was flawless, an adamantine piece of scholarship—but there would be no committee to read it. There would be no more judgments, no pronouncements, after this. There was only his box, and the tired, yellowing artifacts it held.

The last good thing his luck produced for him was a free ticket to see the Casey Brothers at the city bandshell on the waterfront. Call-in number 838-Y983. The spirited voice behind 98.3 FM boomed through the line and said Roots 98! Who we got on the line! and Beaux said Beaux: Beaux Day-new-mon.

“Again,” went the voice, which had turned more spirituous than spirited off the air. “Louder.”

Roots 98! Who we got on the line!

About two minutes later Beaux heard himself on 98.3 as Mike Ball the Voice of Roots Radio 98 informed him he was the ninety-eighth caller.

That was the last good thing his luck produced for him.

With the defection of his luck came the anxiety shivers. It always happened the same way: whenever he hit a dry spell, he started getting anxious with the thought that his luck had left him. The more he thought about it, the more he turned to mindfucking tasks with the aim of willing his luck back to life—predicting the exact moment a stoplight would change, and finding himself woefully disappointed; flipping the quarter he kept in his pocket twenty times without correctly guessing heads or tails once; combing for four-leaf clovers in the islands of parking lots and, incredibly, discovering none. Those efforts just seemed to push it—his luck—farther down whatever black hole it had crawled itself into. Invariably his hyperattention to this suspicion only worked to compound the anxiety he was feeling. But he was a scientist at heart, and he knew that the cure to his drought was out there. He just had to find it, was all.

The officer was kind enough to smack on his gum and make a nice big scene. Oh, his luck had defected before. But there was an alarming sensation of bottomlessness to this one. He looked down at the immaculate dissertation copy, glinting there in its plastic sheath. Blue construction paper cover. He’d attempted to preempt the shivers this morning with an extra glass of artichoke juice, coaxed from the artichokes in the graduate student garden. The shivers came anyway, and then he was talking to himself again, which was never a good turn of events. By then it was too late. They’d already got you, your luck was long gone, it was speeding down the Tamiami in a stolen Cabriolet. —Gettin on there, bub? the officer brayed from the back. Beaux was not a violent man. But he wanted to slug the guy square across the jaw. He was leaned against the doorframe, arms folded, gut slack.

—You need a hand, you just let me know, bub.

Beaux slipped a knife from the counter’s rough top.

He does not know Lawrence Tabers at this time. He has maybe seen his book in the University bookstore, still selling after two decades of singlehandedly upending the literary establishment, upending it so forcefully that the establishment has done a sort of 360 with relation to it, two decades later, and has now begun to look upon the book as canonical—high school summer reading list canonical.

He does not know that Lawrence Tabers, at this time, has rather decomposed into a total hermit, decamped to his second property—a farm in nowhere, Tennessee—vowed to never write again, and taken instead to raising a colony of bees. He doesn’t know, meanwhile, that all this has only served to inflame his [L. T. Prince’s] improbable celebrity.

Beaux cored an apple and tossed the ramparts into the juicer along with the valentines of beetroots and ginger shavings. The machine whirred and did its little dance on the countertop. He poured the foamy, blood-red potion into the glass (a new one). Beaux is thin, napkin thin, with canyonic cheekbones and long, vinelike arms. Creole-dark skin and a tall-ass frame. The lab is littered with his glasses (nine so far today), at his private insistence that he never use the same cup twice. He took a big chug. It could be all placebo. If you were used to drinking a high-fiber diet of upwards of twelve different daily combinations of root vegetables, leafy greens, spirulina, assorted algae, fruits, fungal matter, and rare tropical herbs, then the sudden defection of an otherwise uncanny talent for attracting luck might compel you to drink almost anything to get it back.

—Cause I got two of em. Hands.

Beaux gathered his things.

—And ya ain’t such a pretty picture a whack off to, bub.

Walking through the door, it came to Beaux that he didn’t desire to ever walk back through it, back where he came from. He pitched the blue dissertation in the trash. It sank at a mangled angle, spitting a crease right through the title.

—There’s some cups there, f’you wanna wash em— he said on his way out.

~

Carolyn didn’t always want to live on a commune. She grew up in a big house, with a big yard full of big, leafy trees, and big cars that she would loaf in the back of while she watched the big-chested trees blow by. When she thought of the times her father was around, she remembered how he looked from the backseat—his crazed, slanting jaw, his manic, apricot ears, his tweed taxi cap, his wiry hair sprouting beneath it. So tall the cap nudged the car’s plush ceiling. It was these times she remembered, more than the times he was gone, although those memories had a certain noxious allure to them as well. Like they were memories she should have stayed away from, because they might harm her, even from a distance—but which instead she clung to, sought them out from time to time, because it was Lawrence Tabers’ absence that first made her love him. It was harder to love someone who was always around, Carolyn learned. All that exposure to the person’s shortcomings, etc. It was much easier to long after a ghost.

Nights were the best. She often spent her days waiting for the nights, waiting for the time when, after prayers, she could retreat to her bed again and dream about him. The imagination was strongest in that hour before sleep, when the room was dark, the myopia incubating every corner of her imagination, goading it. She imagined the next time she would see him, stooping down to kiss her as though he’d never left. Prayer time became the ritual that preceded her night’s imaginings. There they were: Mary Louise, Jacquelyn, Erskine, and Carolyn—in that order—like ducks in a row, kneeling before the bed, candles purring in the dark. Mami always led the prayers but sometimes she would pass the duties to Jacquelyn because she was the oldest, which made Jacquelyn’s palms sweaty, this sense of filial responsibility, touched her with a St.-Teresa-of-Avila-kind of ecstasy that Jacquelyn experienced as vaguely erotic. “Hail Mary, full of grace,” she began [Erskine in this scene is thinking about the first day of baseball practice, which is right around the corner; Mary Louise, the bread-and-butter matriarch, is trying not to think of her husband (but failing miserably), trying to ask God for patience instead, for the wisdom to understand His providence, which works in mysterious ways, it does; and meanwhile Carolyn, who is nine years old, is also thinking of Lawrence, and the strange feeling she gets in her belly when she thinks of him, and the strange feeling that italicizes her blood when he comes home after disappearing for months at a time and kisses her on her forehead, how her blood sets off in a gallop at those times, like the horses she rides every Tuesday in Blount County] ... “blessed art thou among women…”   Then, prayers over, Carolyn would plunge into the bed, the bedsprings firm like the chest of her father, but gentle like the chest of her father: a firmness and a gentleness together: a coziness.

Years later, when Carolyn is seventeen, when she is breaking away from the mantle of her mother, when she will have met a young and perspicacious Beaux Denouement, Carolyn will cry at her mother’s side, an overnight bag already packed in the closet (which her mother will not know about), and she’ll sob into her mother’s sleeve, and her Mami will hold her again like she did when she was small.

Seventeen-year-old Carolyn’s room is big and violet, littered with horse figurines and sequined hardbacks.

“Do you love him?” Mary Louise will ask.

Carolyn’s mind will swell with all the seventeenth-century romance novels she’s devoured in the quiet of her room, their Cervantine love triangles. The answer was always so simple in those worlds.

“Sometimes you irrationally fall in love with someone,” Mary Louise will say then. “And sometimes it’s not love but a kind of warmness with the world that you feel around this person.”

Carolyn’s eyes loom toward a hardback lying flush on the floor, its baroque binding and sinuous sentences bared. A pressed four-leaf clover, her preferred bookmark, nosed up from the crease. “So how do you know which one is real?”

Mary Louise will think about it. “Either neither of them are real or both of them are real,” she’ll decide to say at last. “That’s for sure.”

The next day, Carolyn will hop a bus to the state fairgrounds. The Creole-skinned man who will be waiting for her there is wearing a big grin and he’s tall, like Carolyn’s father is.

~

Forty-seven novels later, after she ran away from home, joined the Ren Fair, fell in love, got her heart broken, returned to college, travelled more or less the world, then returned for more college only to return to the Ren Fair (in roughly that order), Carolyn ended up living on a commune after all. Technically speaking, Chez Denouement wasn’t a commune at all—but using the word made everyone involved feel ecological and contrarian. Technically, they still drew energy from the grid, but a self-contained, self-run one routed through a power generator the city of Sarasota had allowed to go dark in the 1900s, when the Amish began moving into the neighborhood in silent, suspendered droves. At that point utilities were pretty disjointed around the city. It wasn’t until later that a unified grid popped up, but by that time the Amish had stitched together such a solitary, unobtrusive community for themselves, bereft of crime, homelessness, waste, and intrigue, that no one within a give or take half-mile radius from the generator was using even a drop of electricity. It had to have been some sort of cosmic joke that the generator, cordoned off by nineteen-teens fencing and as gray and dreary as a communist monolith, became the epicenter around which the Amish neighborhood grew. Eventually the city abandoned it, and because there was no commercial value in tearing it down and building up something that Germanic-speaking homesteaders had no plans to patronize, the generator stayed that way, dormant, for the better part of the century. By the time Carolyn moved in, Beaux had affixed some scavenged solar panels to the house and rather surreptitiously appropriated the neglected infrastructure to siphon the juice chezward. Feats like that, Carolyn mused to herself, made you think Beaux’s industriousness was the stuff of tall tales.

[In the vein of his father, son Zeb, when he was twelve, figured out how to macguyver a router he’d appropriated at a yard sale to reel in the wireless signal from the Bi-Rite across the creek, thereby granting him access to the Internet superhighway he’d read about in appropriated magazines.]

“My involvement in this mish mish is all accidental,” Beaux would say. “These people just started squatting on my lawn.”

And it was true: when he came back home for the first time in eight years, a defeated scientist, he found the house of his youth in a state not at all as he’d left it. He had walked the whole width of the city, from the bus station downtown to the forested outskirts. The afternoon was already going charcoalish with evening. There was an almost humming quiet that wreathed the air when he finally slunk into the Amish neighborhood, looking grim with his U-Haul U-ship box of beakers and flasks tucked under one arm and his suit bag slung over the opposite shoulder, fingers curled around the hangers. Then at last it loomed into view: a sunken rhombohedron, staggering on its last leg, the yawning façade made skeletal in the dying light, wooden planks like piano keys bulging and depressing in the capillaries of shade—and he found himself crossing the overgrown yard. The place had turned Mesozoic in his absence. Depraved crabgrass and giant mutant thistle strangled the front portico. Beaux tilted back the plastic flamingo, but the key wasn’t there. He heard voices, he smelled woodsmoke.

Around the corner, where unseen tectonics had birthed long ribbed cracks in the concrete porch and whole ecosystems of snarling dandelions, he discovered the ten or twenty tents and a smallish bonfire. So dejected was Beaux Denouement, the scene presented itself unremarkably, only blandly preposterous. An eavesdropped-upon coda to the swan song of his life. For a moment, and a moment only, he imagined it was Led Zeppelin there in his back yard, playing their last show, when they’d all grown to hate each other and their sound had crumbled into a pasty halfhearted mess. But the moment passed, and after the moment was another moment in which what had appeared to be Robert and Jimmy and good old John Paul turned out to be a couple of sunkissed figures in tunics blowing on flutes, and a child in a surcoat thumbing on a lyre. There was the gouty smell of funnel cake. There were some hooded characters running around with swords or scimitars or something. A woman of antediluvian complexion was holding court beneath a jacaranda, wearing one of those blue felt wizarding caps imprinted with stars and crescent moons, a table full of cards spread before her. There was a child in a surcoat thumbing on a lyre.

Someone billowed out of the house then, billowing onto the porch, which no longer featured a door but a gaping threshold with a black velvet devil tapestry nailed above it. The man looked sidelong at Beaux with a face working hard to determine if it should recognize him, then gave up and kept walking into the yard. He deposited himself at the foot of the fire, where some fish were turning on a spit. Beaux felt his body rotate toward the house, float in the direction of the devil in Tantric coitus that barred the entrance, and peel back the tapestry as if to test that it were real. He poked his head in, only to find that the common room where he’d lazed away countless afternoons was now crammed with a model gallows, stocks, and a menagerie of puppets. He floated back into the slipping sun. The beguiled old pond looking black and viscous as a tar pit. He floated right up to the fire. The funnel cake was sputtering in a tin vat.

“Who’s in charge here?” Beaux asked, his tone more mystified than menacing.

They all looked at each other for a minute. “Dunno, sir,” the flautist went. “Big Sur send you down?”

Beaux surveyed the aberrant congregation before him. A moment later he found his voice. “I own this property,” he declared.

They all looked at him now. He did a full 360 and understood that the words were true.

“You there,” he said, pointing. “Fetch me that hoe. We need to clean this place up.”

~

Some days passed wherein no one really questioned how the stranger with the very tall stature and the vinelike arms had shown up and gotten it in his head to rehabilitate the abandoned house they’d found on the outskirts of town. Beaux’s attention was so singularly applied to the enterprise, though, that the cryptic nature of his arrival brought with it a strange and puissant authority. He moved with the purposefulness of a man deranged: head bowed, shoulders slunk, hours of forfeited sleep collecting in the canyons of his undereyes—all the while swinging his hoe and scattering seeds like a modern-day Johnny Appleseed. When they saw him like that the first day—head bowed, etc.—they all stood by and watched. Maybe they thought he was some lost-eyed drifter come off the wrong bus stop on Fruitville, and now staggering knitbrowed across his delusional idea of a fiefdom. But the days went on and it became clear that Beaux knew the place like the inside of his shorts. Without a word to anyone, he set-to mending, sawing, and caulking. One by one, the larpers of the Central Florida Renaissance Fair circuit, who just about fit the OED definition of drifters themselves, emerged from their tents in the mornings and picked up their shovels and scimitars and joined him.

That was when the one they called Big Sur came down from Tallahassee. He arrived in a big blue pickup truck with a kennel-type enclosure built over the truck bed that gave the whole wagon the look of a hearse. It was laced with Christmas lights in the shapes of jalapeños. He was wearing a silver suit, a maraschino-red button down, a tree-boa-green tie, and a maraschino handkerchief tucked in his coat pocket. He was a big man alright. A molehill of a chaw plug distended his cheek.

He stepped out of the hearse and looked around. A barbarically muscular man with a shaved head emerged from the kennel like he’d been mummified there. Big Sur went, “The things I do for you people. An ya still look like ya ain’t eat none in days.”

The flautist from before came forward. “Big Un,” he went.

“Big Un,” some echoed.

“I mean ya straight lookin like a dern den a mutts, Jesus mighty.” He spat.

No one said anything and the barbarian spat.

Big Sur spied a couple of children by the wheelbarrow and his expression caved, loosing a big, toothy mouthful. “Donnnnaaay! Peerless!” he said with big stretched arms. “Come to papa.”

Donnie and Peerless stutter-stepped into his arms. When the show of avuncularity was over, he seized them by the scruff of their necks.

“Now y’all been workin hard for me, right?” Big Sur went. “Ain’t that right, Donnie boy?” He turned his watermelon face from one to the other. “Ain’t that right, Peerless?”

“We got your cut, if that’s what you’re lookin for, pop,” said the flautist.

Big Sur shot him an eye. “Well that’s good, Two Pence, that’s real good. How bout you get your boys a round em up why don’t you? Ain’t got all day, see.”

Beaux took no time stepping forward. “Just who’re you, f’ya don’t mind?”

That eye again. “Scuse?”

“You,” Beaux said, a finger angled at his chin. “I’m askin who is ya.”

Big Sur took a swivel, spat a wad. “Now look here, son, didn’t catch your name. Pence this man gotta name or someping?”

[The barbarian spat.]

“You can ask me yaself,” Beaux went, “and since you’re askin, the name’s Beaux Day-new-mon, like a new day moon, got it? Beaux for damn near beautiful, like momma intended. And since you’re askin, you’re standin on my property, which last I checked ain’t belong to none other.”

Now that fucked the whole ambience up. The barbarian with his Mr. Clean spot glaring in the sun put a hawkish right foot forward.

“None a this,” Two Pence the flautist went. “Erwina, get them boys a get our cane.”

A woman in a greasy bodice scurried around the corner. Beaux didn’t like the intermission.

“Maybe I ain’t made myself ’nough clear,” he said. Inch for inch, he nearly met the barbarian’s eye, but Beaux was a pole bean to the latter’s corncob.

Big Sur regarded him for a moment, then swaggered his way up to Beaux, extending a fat hand. “Don’t think we’ve met before, son. You were kind enough to introduce yourself, now let me return the pronouncement. Name’s Big Sur’s what they call me. I’m the bossman round these parts. Ever been to the Renaissance Festival, son? Chances are you put some dollars in my pocket.”

Beaux looked at that hand. It was red and smooth, a hand that didn’t know work.

“I don’t shake with the same hand that wipes,” he went.

Big Sur’s eyes roared. The barbarian moved in and Beaux loosed a butterfly knife from his belt and caught the giant across the cheek. He staggered back.

“Crazy son a bitch!” Big Sur cried.

“Now look here!” Pence attempted, his hands all shaky. “Pops, you get your cut. No one’s sayin you ain’t.”

But the others were emboldened. “He been gettin his cut,” someone said. “Damn near been cut the whole forest, hain’t he?”

Voices concurred. Big Sur was looking anxious. The wheelbarrow came back around the corner, piled high with bamboo stalks. An odiferous fragrance filled the air. The bamboo stalks were stuffed with long loaves of Florida Gulf ganja. Donnie and Peerless wheeled it up to Big Sur. He seized the two of them at once and threw them behind him into the barbarian’s hands.

Erwina shrieked. The whole crowd raised up. Big Sur slipped a dagger from his pocket.

“That’s interest,” he snarled. “You’ll get em back once they put in their due.”

“No,” came Pence’s voice.

Beaux and Big Sur stood at dagger’s length. “Ungratefuls!” cackled the latter. “You people act like this the first time we been around. The hell is your problem? I even find you this spot a land a fend on!”

“That’s just the fix,” Beaux went. “Land ain’t yours a find. I spent my whole life here till the day my mother died on it. You standin on her bones right now. And God bless her, she weren’t none for suits to stand on her. Not on her bones.”

That seemed to do something for Big Sur. He lowered his eyes and scratched his head a bit. Then, looking around him as though supremely embarrassed, he assumed a gingerly posture belied by his frame and tiptoed bashfully off to the side. “Shit,” he said, “I ain’t meant to insult no mother.” He was shaking his head. “Now I’m damn right embarrassed.”

“Point taken,” Beaux said. “But look here, you done these people a disservice, takin their children and what. You either give them back, or take this fight elsewhere. I’ll have no bloodspill on my mother’s land, so help me God.”

The barbarian winced at that.

“The man’s right,” someone said. “Big Sur’s been ex-tortin us for years.”

“Highway robbery, what it is,” another agreed.

“We haul it all in from the glades and take all the risk on top.”

“And still he rolls his fat breeches in here like he owns the place!” Hoes, shovels, and replica scimitars were beginning to stir.

“A fight,” Beaux said with raised voice, “is not what I came home for.” Big Sur was cowering. “You, bowlhead. You hand them kids back over right this minute. Shame on all you, flashin brawn to a bunch a children like a She-ca-go goon squad.” He turned to the bossman. “And you, playin sheriff in your Goodwill suit—tramplin all over a man’s dead mother!”

“I’m a fool,” Big Sur conceded, his head ducked. “I’m repentant.”

“Then walk you away from here and think none a comin back. Count you eight novenas on the way—that’ll take you to the Fruitville depot where you can catch the first ride out of town.”

“But—my wagon.”

“It’s been impounded,” Beaux chided in return. “You leave me an address and you’ll get it back, so I can come and check on you see you’ve cleaned up.”

“You’ll leave me with nothin, sir. I ain’t got but one more suit, and that one’s not half a suit.”

Beaux hmphed. “Appearances.” He waited till the two boys were safe in Erwina’s arms. “Now take a hike. And if you see any a these fine folk at another festival again, you be sure and tip em extra good.”

The one called Big Sur hung his head like his spine was a coat rack. Then him and the barbarian turned off, the barbarian looking extremely baffled, while the rest of the lot jeered at them and pitched clumps of dirt after them till they disappeared from sight.

“That was incredible,” Pence went. “Beaux Denouement, you said?”

“We’ll never be able to thank you,” said Erwina.

“But now what?” went another. “Them Big Sur faires was our only work. He paid our bread. Where will we go?”

Beaux shrugged. “I’m a man of one occupation now.” He limped back to the spot he dropped his shovel, where he’d begun to assemble a baby tangelo grove, and made the ground sing again.

They all looked at each other for a minute, and when it became clear that Beaux didn’t give two shits whether they stayed or they went, they rosined up their hardware with a reconfirmed zest.

“Right,” Pence said. “Back to work then, people.”

 

 

~

When they met she was wearing a thimbeline bodice, blue-green as the sea, and her hair was in a bow.

The last good thing Carolyn read was a 1660s knockoff of El Cid, luxuriantly and rather inappropriately eroticized, which went to Carolyn’s head like a bowl of ambrosia. She had the worn-gray volume under her arm when she stepped out of Erskine’s rhubarb ragtop. The easy part had been telling Mami that she was going on a church mission trip out in Maryville. Mami would believe anything with the word “church” in it. Well the Maryville bit was true. What Mami didn’t know was the Society for Creative Anachronism had taken over a 400-acre hollow on the outskirts and was staging a Queen Elizabeth-era Ren Fair there. The flier in Carolyn’s hand, chanced upon at an antiquarian bookstore, indicated where.

She put on her best getup for the occasion and slipped out of the house before Mary Louise could see her. Erskine drove her the twenty-something miles to the dogleg in the road where a picket stood at an angle and pointed down a dirt path. Further in, they could see the Winnebagos, flatbeds, and mephitic jalopies parked in extempore configurations on the grass.

“I’m not even going to ask,” he said beneath acne-clad mustache.

“Thank you for not telling her.”

“I’ve seen you in your room.” He gestured toward her teardrop of a dress. “Wearing all that.”

“And you wear your cleats and uniform.”

“Is it thrilling because you feel like someone else?”

“Don’t you?”

“Fair enough,” he said with brotherly indifference. He would be back to get her at 8.

Never had she seen such a magical display. Strolling into the grounds, putting on her airy, most regal strut, she was greeted by jesters juggling bottles, the sounds of sputtering funnel cake, and a rowdy reenactment of a hanging. Everyone was in costume: as lords and ladies, dwarfs and serfs, armor-clad vassals and clerically robed friars. Pennants clicked in the breeze. Pavilions decked with coats of arms smelled of popcorn and humongous legs of turkey. People were double-fisting them with piss-yellow mead and cider. She must have spent hours wandering like that, taking in puppet shows and arching contests, reveling in the great mad weird of this place. Something happened to Carolyn then. All her life she had suspected that her donning of Dulcinea garb when no one else was watching was a deeply forbidden exercise—she sensed this and kept her imaginary world behind its closed doors. How encouraging to discover that she wasn’t alone! That she wasn’t the only freak! The feeling was something electric at first and then it moved to her shoulders. A lightness descended. Here there was freedom. Here, there were no table manners. No cotillions to attend, no debutante balls to dread. No disappointing her mother should she not follow her footsteps into the same exact UT sorority she’d herself wheedled into. Carolyn found herself with the most elusive of adolescent sensations: the feeling that she could be who she wanted to be here, even if that person was, by definition, an indulgence of the imagination.

The fact that this feeling occurred at the precise time she met Beaux Denouement can with a fair amount of confidence be attributed to something slightly more pertinacious than chance.

When you are seventeen and the world has been shucked open to you in all its fanfare, you are likely to fall in love with the first gesture of synchronicity the world throws your way.

If your childhood was spent largely in a locked violet room, reading upwards of one hundred romance novels dating from the twelfth through the nineteenth centuries—emerging only to hunt for four-leaf clovers in the yard—your likelihood of interpreting this gesture as Real and True Love will be amplified considerably.

If: a) the world’s elected emissary to deliver this gesture happens to be a very tall man who reminds you of your father, and b) the last time you saw your father, you had to excuse yourself after dinner to change underwear into something much drier than your present pair had become, → then the world has effectively conspired to blindside you.

She had meandered her way to the jousting field.

On the flipside, if you have just four months ago been banished from school and court-ordered to never appear on campus again, if effectively there is a warrant for your arrest in the state of Louisiana that makes travel to that part of the country exceedingly dicey, if, having been excommunicated from the greater U.S. scientific intelligentsia, and upon this devastating turn of events have made your way back to your departed mother’s house with no family to speak of only to find it populated by a troupe of Live Action Role Players, which term you find incomprehensibly ridiculous and which sentiment is not mitigated upon learning that said term can be colloquially shortened to the deceptively innocuous “larpers,” and if, in short, you are a superstitious person to begin with who’s been staring down the barrel of the worst streak of bad fortune you’ve quite possibly ever stared down, and have gotten so desperate that you’ve agreed to travel with these so-called larpers to barter stalks of Purple Yurple ganja in exchange for the materials you need to complete your manic vision of a self-sustainable community, and you happen to be standing by the jousting field where a witch with a burlap sack over her head proctors a booth announcing in scraggly hand-painted letters OCEANA THE ORACLE, and you’ve given her way more joints than her amateur prognosticating powers merit in the hopes that she will tell you that the random fistfuls she pulls from the grass contain just one coveted four-leaf clover, just one—if this whole wretched profile describes you down to the capital T, → then you are inordinately likely to be smacked upside the head by something way more unwieldy than chance when a small voice beside you goes:

“Nuh uh. I see one stuck between your knuckles right there.”

Oceana the Oracle, pushing the slumping sack up her forehead, raised the clump to her face very slowly, as if fearing it were true. With a swift toss she scattered the fistful of clovers to the ground.

“Absolutely not,” she said. “Do you know how rare these specimens are!”

“You’re blind,” Carolyn challenged. “Look, there’s another one at your feet. Right against your toe! And over there—I bet there’s a million in this little patch alone!”

Oceana the Oracle was blushing under her burlap. Carolyn stooped down and plucked a clover from under the big woman’s toe. Beaux had stopped shivering entirely. She held the four leaves up for all to see, diaphanous in the sunlight.

“Hag!” the Oracle went.

“Hmph!” Carolyn huffed. Beaux watched her march straight off and briefly forgot how to move his legs.

“Wait!” he flabbermouthed after her. When she turned around she noticed what she hadn’t seen before: a man with a tall, pitiably withered frame, and big tortoise shell glasses that made his eyes look goofy and magnified. He noticed all of her the same time she noticed him. She was a good ten years his junior. Her strawberry-blond hair glowed as diaphanous as that clover. She had the charm threaded in a strawberry strand around her ear. Now it stood like an arrow in a quiver. Beaux contemplated, for a second less than he probably should have, whether the outlandish duchess before him was lawfully or morally too young for what he could see himself doing with her. But love, even when confused with something more than chance, doesn’t dwell too long on the fine print.

“Do that again,” he said.

She felt the static between them immediately.

“Do what?” came her botched but passable reply.

“The clover trick. Find another one”, his unexpected demand.

“Excuse me?”, her regrettably makeshift response, though she suddenly wanted to find all the four-leaf clovers in the world for him.

“I need to know that weren’t a fluke,” came his throaty, pitiful appeal.

Carolyn looked around her. This was no xeric hollow; vast rugs of clovers stretched in every direction. When you have spent untold hours of your life staring from the second-floor window of your sizeable Knoxville home, which happens to peer upon a sizeable yard, with a sizeable legion of clover patches quilting the view, you develop a pelican-like eye for spying very small things camouflaged among less rare, but no less small, things. She surveyed the patch at his feet for not longer than it takes to shoot a firecracker. “Here,” she said, approaching him [as she bent to pluck the clover from his feet]: “If it was a snake it woulda bit you.”

~

Night air: the ragtop humming, the big sky an open furnace. “Well?” Erskine quizzed her. “Tell me how it went, already?” Carolyn’s smile could not undo itself. Curled in the passenger seat, she watched the dark trees blow by. The night sky over Maryville was starry and clear, the late summer snores of cicadas and crickets pulsing in time with the fireflies’ waltz. Nighttime worked expansive charms on Carolyn’s imagination, she knew. She clutched at the strip of paper in her hand with its ten digits chicken-scratched across. Erskine took the long way. He could sense, from a distance, that something was changing in his sister. She was growing up. She was only a year younger than him, but he felt a stab of jealousy at the life he could see before her. Her flapping smile betrayed it, though she was curled away from him, her knees drawn up to her chin, fixated on the view. As if he owed her something, he indulged whatever blissful space she’d fallen in. He turned down some back roads he cruised from time to time with his ballpark friends, knotty pitch-black roads that led to the rope swing along the creek, where they’d go to swill beers and talk about which girls they could trick into giving up a blowjob. Erskine got defensive all of a sudden in the dark, the dash illuminating the pimple scars on his face. Defensive, suddenly, at the thought of what those boys said about his sister, behind his back; defensive perhaps at the thought of all the boys who might have her over the years. And angry with himself that he hadn’t, how to phrase this, protected her or something before now. He wanted to reverse five years of adolescent bickering—those natural yet too invidious scrimmages that all siblings dutifully rehearse—and go back to the time they were children, when he remembered them less as Erskine and Jacquelyn and Carolyn and more as a kind of Justice League, an elite, impervious unit—a triangle no one could break! They were the Princes! He turned his head toward Carolyn with a look impaled with regret, not noticing his foot jam harder on the gas. Carolyn didn’t seem to notice either. Once she got strolling in the forest of her mind, she could disappear for days behind her milky, blue gaze. He decided it then and there. He would write a short story about her when he got home. Maybe it would turn into a novel, and sell millions of copies, and validate the pedigree of his name. Debunk all the flash-in-the-pan critics who ragged on the Prince family like they were some circus-grade literary fluke. This summer of his departure for college had seen him slip out of the house and take the ragtop on moonlit tears through the countryside, his foot burning a hole in the floorboard. When he got home, he was madder than ever, and ready to write until the sun ignited the windowsill. This summer of his departure for college had seen him blossom into the writer his dad had promised that he would become, when he was so very small. That was then. Everything had seemingly changed: his dad was nowhere to be found, his older sister had sided with his mother, and the other—this one—he knew he was letting her go into the world, and he hadn’t done a damn thing to prepare her for it.

Carolyn clutched at the paper, let the cool mountain air break across her face. If given the choice between a misfit life and a life in which wearing sea-blue bodices was the norm, the girl would elect to run away every time.

~

Erskine had read the letter a thousand times—but each time he read it, the weaker and weaker he felt, the more capable of misery. All the hallmarks of her eccentricity were etched in magnum across the page. There was the loopy, stylized cursive of her words, penned with a quill (of course), in her signature dusk-colored ink. There was the yellowed parchment paper she always wrote on, teeming with ecclesiastic marginalia, like a French illuminated manuscript. He’d given her the quill and ink for Christmas one year, and she had worshipped the set ever since. In the letter she did not explain why she left.

Her departure had gotten to him in a major way and he decided he couldn’t start school in the fall. Psyches got further fucked up when the letters started coming regularly, along with the postcards from Decatur, Tampa, and Tuscaloosa, scrawled with stupid, saccharine requests that he pass on word of her good health to Mami, that search squads weren’t necessary, that she didn’t want to see her face on a milk carton or anything.

When she showed up again she wasn’t at all like she was before. He answered the door and to his surprise his sister was standing there in an indigo chemise and a secondhand brocade. A moment later she had her arms around him and in another moment she was back on her tiptoes. “What are you looking at me like that for?” she singsonged.

Mary Louise was relieved to see her daughter again, but visibly crushed inside, stunned at this horrific oversight of her parenting charge. Many times she lifted her lips as if to speak, and didn’t so much swallow her words as she failed to find the syllables they corresponded to.

On the second night Carolyn was already at the door again. Erskine marveled at the smallness of the satchel on her shoulder, what little life it carried in it. What little she seemed to need.

He was greedy and sullen with the world; he needed all the life he could get.

He sat with her on the front porch. “Will you just—explain to me? Where you’re going?” It was nearly winter again.

She was unfazed by the chillsome Knoxville air. “I was thinking Calgary…or Key West!” she said, dreamy-mouthed. “Ever been there?”

Their family had never been to Key West.

“Who is this man you’re with?” His words were quickening. He felt he only had so much time. “You’ve put mom through death. Jacquelyn—Jacquelyn asks about you all the time.”

“Jackie’s a sweetheart.”

“And me—do you realize—”

“Shh! Look!” His whole body felt on edge, but his sister’s oblivious aura parried his anxiety with deft, soundless blows. —“Scorpio!” His heart sank. “Carolyn,” he said, “I don’t think you can even see Scorpio this time of year.”

She seemed not to hear. Her eyes were floating luminously from one dark treetop to the next.

“Carrie—can I—can I at least take you? Wherever it is you’re going?”

“Beaux will be here any minute now.”

“Bow?”

She stood abruptly. “Go back to school, Erskine. It’s where you belong.” She paused, a smile purling across her cheeks as if in response to some inside joke. Her neck and hands were laden with all manner of crystals and turquoise bangles. “Yes,” she confirmed, “go back. You’ve got to become a famous writer.”

Like it always seemed to happen with Carolyn, her exit words were timed with preternatural alignment to the wheezing of a pickup truck, wheezing to a stop at the end of the drive. She kissed her brother on the cheek and climbed in the hearse-like wagon. In the dark, a man leaned over her and inclined his head to the open window. “How do you do,” he said.

They drove off, sending up a cloud of ghostly fumes. Erskine was standing in the drive’s dark crook. He could have sworn he saw his father.

~

Things were going pretty well after that, when they agreed they’d make a go of it as a family.

It would be a big old gaggle, with nineteen or twenty there at first go, and more arriving periodically with the ebb of the circuit season. Most pitched their tents in the yard; the more spartan of the lot strung up hammocks in the jacaranda trees. Most came and went. But the house belonged to Beaux and Carolyn, the crown king and queen of their non-nuclear experiment.

It was not without its hiccups. Carolyn came and went too: in the years, she acquired the kimonos and saris to clothe her burgeoning spirit, found lovers she favored at one time or another who would undo those saris with thick, calloused hands. Polyamory was the callow ideal of the Rennies—a bedrock that most were willing to stand on and even more were willing to catch a lick from. Carolyn had to get burned a few times before she learned. Beaux never complained. That was always the deal: their lives were foremostly independent, never to be bound to the other’s caprices. How much easier that made everything! Carolyn left and went back to school; Beaux absorbed himself with his horticultural projects in the woods. Her world, so grand a departure from her second-floor window, grew large and capacious; his narrowed to the singular detail of a fractal.

But she came back, and when her legs gave out at the foot of their bed, still draped in the same sunset-hued heap of quilts, he took her back in his arms and felt her warmth under his chin. The sweetness of the summer Florida air had a flowering effect on her skin: it released a woozy fragrance from her pores that delighted the botanist in him. She had changed, she told him. She wanted to see her family again. She wanted a family of their own. She had been around the world, she said, and in the end there was only one place she wanted to be.

This is how they would do it. They would share everything. Meals, chores, a space in the bed. They would make love often and openly. They would raise a couple children. They would educate them themselves, away from the great out there—its corrupting socializations and contemptible compromises. They would keep their doors open for as many as they could who were on the same wavelength and could pull their own weight. They would grow their own food. They would not buy health insurance. What little cash they made for themselves they’d stash beneath the bed, in a filigreed Byzantine box. They would not report it to the IRS.

The wedding—a potluck gathering of Rennie friends and kindred spirits—made official the agreement they’d all known was coming. When the last Wiccan hymn was sung and the last obscure Huidobro poem recited, Beaux hoisted Carolyn against the live oak and kissed her up and down. [scene: Ninety seconds later – still going at it – dress and britches fly, flutter to the ground. Congregation picking at eardrums. Beaux and Carolyn tangled in the grass. Congregation gives up watching. Peels off one by one to the boiled-red mound of crawfish. Sunlight. A suave breeze.]

Roughly fifteen years had passed and life had had its way with them. Dreamy-eyed, they lived out their prized manifest destiny. It wasn’t that things got boring over time or maybe it was. Maybe Carolyn’s heart was never in it. And maybe she was just naïve. But with each year that passed, the sharp edge of that life seemed to grow just that much duller. Carolyn thinks of those first years now, when she didn’t know what she was getting into and happily and willingly got into it. She zigzags up to the shakti-red Civic, careening beneath the tower of books in her arms. The Civic: another potential transgression against purist definitions of a commune. Okay, so she’d “reconstituted” it with a homemade battery parceled together from salvaged lawn mower entrails [credit again goes to Beaux on that one], but it still meant she was puncturing, in a small way, the little bubble of sustainability they’d erected for themselves. Beaux gave his blessing; besides, he wasn’t in the business of regulating lifestyles…if his nominal [if not civically or ecclesiastically recognized] wife wished to work at an überliberal arts school and drive a “reconstituted” Civic to get there, it was between her and whatever deity she happened to be into at the moment. Carolyn felt secretly guilty about making a living “out there,” with a real paycheck, real benefits (which she declined), a real office and real 401-k—when most everyone else at the chez didn’t even have social security cards, to say nothing of a bank account. But she enjoyed her work. Nuevo College was sufficiently alternative [there were no grades and no set programs of study; only written appraisals and “individual learning contracts”] to buoy her equally idiosyncratic lifestyle, and it afforded her the academic pretense to study those same off-the-radar people she’d been fascinated with for most of her life. The lost ones, the weird ones, the freaks and the forlorn. She felt an affinity with them.

The hum of the “reconstituted” Civic carries her out of the faculty parking lot and back onto Bayshore. To pick up Kaylee she decides to go the long way, looping under the swaying palm trees until they feather out into the marinas and high-end seafood restaurants lining 41. The sun setting over the Gulf, turning the sea a mix of shimmering topaz and sapphire, is still one of the goddamnedest most gorgeous things she’s ever seen. In Tennessee, look in any direction and you meet with a hill, or the jagged brows of spruce and hackberry occluding the horizon. Green, green everywhere, and knobby, sloping ridges rising to the eye. In Florida, the flatness of the land seemed to speak of an endlessness, an infinity feeling, the idea that if you set off in a straight line you would eventually make it back to where you stood. For this reason sunsets over the Gulf were things of monstrous beauty, lasting longer than anything Carolyn had ever seen growing up. Even when the last sliver of sun slipped over the horizon, the sky above it still glowed embossed like that for just a small while longer, proof that it had been there: proof that beautiful things left their radiance behind. The Civic chortles through downtown, through the world of normal people, people who don’t live on so-called communes or drive “reconstituted” vehicles. But how many of them were normal, really? How many of them were lost?

[Sirens. The maddened gestures of vultures on roadkill. Carolyn spies the lights behind her and makes to pull over.]

The shoulder she slows to slopes away from a bulging Ford dealership. Red and blue sparkling cars with neon price tags smothered across their windshields sparkle under a giant American flag and a marquee announcing TOM BANNER’S BIG-TIME FORD. The marquee displays a caricature of an Uncle-Sam-looking fellow, cigar stuffed in his lips. The bang of a car door reveals a uniformed person in the rearview mirror. He ho-hums up to the driver side window.

“Afternoon, er. Ma’am.”

“Afternoon, officer.”

“Ma’am”—he looks concerned—“ma’am I’ve got to say that was the damned nearest most wild-ass drivin I ever saw.”

“Oh?”

“Ma’am?” The officer has a wry attempt at a mustache going on. Pigeon-colored. “Ma’am you ain’t heard them sirens none at all?”

“Sirens!”

“I been houndin you the last quarter mile. You was zig-zaggin all over God’s green earth.”

“Oh Lordy. I am sorry, officer, I really am.”

“You ran three red lights.”

“Oh!”

“…Not one. I’m talkin three here.”

“I’m appalled!”

His brow muscles up. “Ma’am? Just what are you thinkin exactly here?”

“You’re sure it was three lights?”

“I’m gonna have to write you up.”

“Do what you must, sir. I’m a law-abiding citizen.”

“It’s just…I can’t find your license plate in our…our directory, ma’am.” He was being heartbreakingly sweet about it all. “Shack-tea-girl? That ain’t even…I mean, ya see your license plate’s a 7-digit type kinda thing.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

“Pardon?”

Carolyn’s gone milky-eyed again. Her gaze fixated ahead. “It’s horrible. Awful, is what it is.”

“…Didn’t catch your, er, drift there.”

“It’s all gone to pieces.”

“Come again?”

“I have a web-addicted mother and my father’s buried in the back yard.”

A look of ill comprehension twitches in the officer’s lip. He’s more helpless than aloof, and maybe it’s the angle he’s standing at, but he’s really quite tall—Carolyn seemed to notice this for the first time.

A warmness gathers in her thighs at this revelation.

“…Ma’am—you was really scarin me, you hear? You can’t be drivin like that. Gonna hurt somebody. Now I’m only gonna issue a ci-ta-tion, now. But this is serious business, runnin stoplights. You just keep your eyes on the road some, alright?”

The responsive part of her body went damp.

“Stay put a sec—hands on the wheel now. There you are.”

Stiffpanted, he ho-hums back to the car. In the rearview mirror, she could see him bend over the window and rummage through the glove box like it was his first occasion to open it. Behind him, the sky was tearing into evening. A thought seized her by her pulse and quickened things up. She could use a sunset right about now.

She had a talent for slipping away from people.

Another advantage of living under the radar is your unregistered license plate can’t be tracked once an officer realizes you’ve zoomed off.

 

 

~

The girl behind the counter is young and pinstriped. “Help you,” she goes.

“I’d like to apply for work.”

Kaylee imparts her usual awkward impression from her pigeon-toed stance on the counter’s other side.

Girl hasn’t looked up. “Have you ever worked at a call center before.”

Kaylee has not.

“Cause we prefer if you haven’t.” All in one motion, girl jerks into smile, produces a form, slides it across the marble.

Kaylee looks at it, looks to the lobby.

“There’s a waiting room over there. The interview starts in a minute.”

Kaylee looks to the specified room. All glass, like a fish tank, already stocked with five/six other hunched specimens.

“The interview,” she mouths.

Girl’s turned back to her typing.

Something reminded Kaylee of the dream she had last night, before the snake ploughed through and swallowed it.

~

They’re in the fish tank, which, Kaylee learns from a marker-scrawled heading on a whiteboard, really is called The Tank, or more like THE TANK, or so says the whiteboard. The woman beside her is a model of circumspect attire and Kaylee feels underdressed, in jeans and a Carolyn chemise, but also immensely sad at the way the woman’s suit looks like it’s the only one she owns and every composed rehearsed movement the woman is making—the retrieval of a pen, the smoothing of a skirt—betrays such an achy-sad effort to hide this fact, to make it look not rehearsed; and to top it off the woman is sweating, and the tobacco-brown sweat-beads are beginning to leave tobacco-brown rivulets running from her hairline all down her temple, and the threads of hair darkened around her ears are beginning to shine a frail silver color as the tobacco-brown dye dribbles off of them like icicles thawing. Kaylee averted her eyes because she didn’t like the feeling that was inching up her throat. They fall on a kid with a face like a half-moon, staring at her with mouth unhinged. Kaylee decides she’ll stop looking at the people in THE TANK.

~

Kaylee sat there and tried to recall the dream. It was just out of reach, just beyond the plane of waking familiarity. Now that dream seemed cloistered, a locked room, a room unto itself.

~

Now here is a little story about enclosed rooms. Once, when K.P. was little, when she was three or four years old, she was in the backseat [she is not remembering this right now] and Mary Angelica refused to give up the window seat. Kaylee was jammed in the middle, Mary Angelica slouched on one side and John all elbows-splayed on the other and Mary Louisa one row up—this being one of those bulky Sport Utility models—and the seat beside Mary Louisa was taken up by her harp, which no one was allowed to touch, and their father Jack was driving and their mother Jacquelyn was sulking into the passenger window and Jack was crisscrossing all over town because it was a Friday, and every restaurant they went to was packed. And they drove like this for two or eight hours until everyone was a whining, starving mess and their dad finally cursed at the steering wheel and said Enough with this and drove straight into the valet at Jimmy Valentino’s and threw down his credit card and said I’m ordering whatever I want. He said take us to your best room. Linens, candles, lazy Susans. And a bottle of your goddamned best wine. And goddamn it he drank it and Jacquelyn didn’t talk to him and Mary Angelica ordered five Shirley Temples. And the waitress said do you like cherries too, little girl? and she brought Kaylee a little ramekin of shiny, neon-wet maraschinos. The room was dark and tight as a cellar. Quarantined off from the rest of the diners. The old wood floors whinged when the waitress slunk along them. The walls a deep burgundy, an almost-purple with crimson blooms. Kaylee from her booster chair was fisting the plump wet globes in her cheeks. The waitress brought out another ramekin. John [age 4] was poking at a rack of lamb. Jack had the bottle upside down waiting to see if another drop would trickle out. The waitress brought out another ramekin. Mary Louisa [age 10] was reading a textbook on multivariate statistics. Kaylee threw up maraschino cherries all over the linens. The waitress called for reinforcements. Jacquelyn demanded to know why Kaylee was fed that many maraschino cherries and why no one else was looking after her. Everyone went home hungry. Never enclose yourself in a room with family.

~

A woman in a business suit breaches the door of THE TANK. Names are called. People get up. The world is the same.

~

This being enclosed in a room with people, people who expect something from you, people who think that you’re crazy, people who are on to the fact that you’re crazy. She tries to think of anything at all. She gives it a valiant effort. Inevitably all thoughts collapse on her foot, still throbbing from when she kicked the headstone. And this makes her think of her grandfather. She can’t shake the feeling that it was somehow him she kicked in the gut: an old man, on his knees, praying before his own grave. That she kicked him right in his thin-slabbed stone of a stomach.

~

Kaylee suddenly remembered what the dream was. It was him, she remembered—he was there in the yard—the Denouements’ yard?—digging furiously, sending up showers of moist, shimmering dirt. He dug until he’d opened up a hole in the earth like a big slitted wound. He stood-to, and Kaylee saw him turn to the mound of dirt beside it, and, distraught at the sight of it, startled by it, as if it had appeared out of nowhere and jumped him, he plunged the shovel into the earth again. He dug until he’d coaxed a second hole from the ground. This is all coming back to Kaylee in swift, emetic bursts. Then Peepaw proceeded to shovel the mound of dirt into the second hole. Having done this, he stood-to, exhausted, and he leaned against the shovel. His eyes fell on the freshly dug mound. His features, brilliant in the moonlight, fell into his jaw. Overcome, he hunkered down against the earth again, furiously, furiously digging, and when he’d opened up the ground he shoveled the second mound in the newly dug hole. Again his face fell at the sight of the mound that had appeared. Peepaw threw himself against the earth again. And then Kaylee’s toe started throbbing harder. The blood all sucked to the bottom of it. And him, doubled over, gasping for air. Him vomiting into the newest hole. Her big toe jammed and bleeding. Him pinioned to the air, him burning slowly into the night air, rising to greet it, unfurling, floating—a fiery amaranth. Her somehow complicit in this, in all of this.

~

It occurs to Kaylee, perhaps for the first time, that she didn’t really know her grandfather. Her memories are like dense paragraphs with entire sentences blotted out. Words surface here and there, unintelligible by themselves, cryptically hoarding their connotations. Only the verbs show their uncouth shadows. She was so young when he started to go off his rocker. It seemed there were two versions of him in her mind: the persona of guarded family murmurs, personified in hearsay only, in the whisperings of her mother, those “He can’t hide there forever” and “He’s left without telling us again” snippets overheard through dining room walls; and then the flesh and blood one, the one who would resurface here and there in those paragraphs, hiding books for Kaylee in her favorite corners of the house, where he knew only she would find them. Materializing for just long enough to confirm he wasn’t the ghost they made him out to be. You grow up and those family members you rarely see become like mythological creatures, with entire unapproachable histories behind them; they take on lives of apocryphal splendor. When you see them, you see them in all their multiplicity. They leave you The Nutcracker in the upstairs window-nook, where you go to watch the salamanders crawl on the ivy. You read it and you feel that you’re part of the myth; you feel that family is nothing, in the end, if not myth; that in some small way the myth depends on you, and the myth is made real by your reimagining it—though you do not think this thought at the time.

~

“—Anyone? Anyone named Kaylee Prince?”

~

The woman’s armed with the requisite clipboard, the lapel, the flaring collar that communicates feminine aplomb but not too much feminine aplomb, the women’s business jacket (pinstriped), the women’s busiess trousers (pinstriped) cascading over heels. Although she is definitively pinstriped, she is not the same pinstriped girl that manoeuvred the counter. [⇐ Kaylee imagined it looking like that, the way British people spell it, “manoeuvred”] She has a tightly-set nose that looks like it may have been broken before and later corrected rhinoplastically.

“Pleasure to meet you?”

Kaylee rose and felt her hand crushed by the woman’s hand. Next thing she knew they were walking down the hall.

They’re walking down the hall. The hall is unadorned, the shade of cigarette ash.

“How old are you, Ms…Prince?”

“I’m twenty-one.”

“Oh gosh. What an age. I remember that age. Can still pass for it, depending.” Her smile is expectant. “I worry about that sometimes. About the odd wrinkle here and there.”

“You don’t look old.”

“So it’s nice to hear it when people think otherwise.”

“Yes,” Kaylee goes.

“We’re going on the floor. Let me know if you want to use the restroom.”

As the elevator dings to an open, her smile leads them from the marble to the steel. They ride up until the same sound announces another floor. No marble this time—carpet soaked in the same ashy color as the walls. The floor is wide and geometric. Cubicles recline like honeycombs on the ash. Symmetrically distributed—it occurs to one—across the length of the ash-colored carpet.

“So this is what a call center looks like,” Kaylee goes.

The phone lines are ringing off the hook, but several of the cubicles look empty and haunted as fresh caskets. The busybodied banter of scripted customer service conversations wafts to the polystyrene ceiling tiles.

“When can you start?” she replies.

~

The sun is nearly smudged out when Kaylee swings through the glass doors. At the curb, Carolyn’s propped against the car, elbows pinched, legs crossed, hair flying in the breeze. She cocks a mock-lascivious eye in Kaylee’s direction.

“Say, goodlookin. Lookin for a ride?”

“Hi, Aunt Carrie.”

She opens the door for Kaylee all chauffer-like. Carolyn is capable of vast absentmindedness or concerted comic relief, without warning. There is seemingly no rule that guides her seesawing between them.

“Thought we’d take the babe for a spin,” she says between grins. “If we hit the bridge within five, six minutes, we’ll catch the glow in our palms.”

Kaylee knew the game. “Lido?”

“Closest one.”

“It’s just about gone, though.”

“It’s always there a tad longer than you think.”

“Alright,” Kaylee goes.

The sky was churning into radical shades of pinks and plums.

“That’s the spirit!”

They climb in the shakti-red Civic. “The last good sunset I saw,” Carolyn goes, “I was walking out of a meeting at school that went way too late. I couldn’t believe how late it went. It made me so mad! Completely threw off my chi. But then what do you know, out I walk back on that back lawn off Caples. You know the lawn? And my whole spirit melted. It was perfect—just at the moment. That moment it sinks down. Then the glow. Just—spreading there for me like it was me, only me. I felt instantly ashamed for allowing myself to be so irritated by that meeting. Those hours were lost to me. I had squandered them. I would never get them back. And here this sunset, this glow in my palms, oh man. It was telling me that this was all that mattered. Right now.”

“Aunt Carrie?” Kaylee says. “What happened to Peepaw?”

That warmness brushed across her thighs at the sound of his name.

“We’re gonna miss it,” she goes.

With the “reconstituted” engine growling, Carolyn spins out of the parking space and doubles back across the intersection toward the water. They drive like that for some minutes, all the windows down, hair [her strawberry blond, her primrose gold] singing wildly in the breeze.

By the time they reach the bridge, the plums have gone a razzmatazz echinacea.

“Your grandpa was very close to me,” she says, stoplight idled at a cautionary red.

Kaylee watches the cars go by.

“I always felt—of all the children—I mean—no one likes to play favorites.”

[Ibid.]

“But—I felt—I was the youngest. You understand that, right, Kaylee?”

Cars of all colors; cars with taut musculature and rusting hides in equal measure.

“You’re either left with the scraps or they take sympathy on you, I guess. There we go!”

The light had turned; the engine snatches at the air.

“He was close to me,” she concludes.

The pinstripes of the Lido Key Bridge start hustling quicker beneath them. Is one way to think about it.

“Your mother,” Carolyn goes on, raising her voice in tandem with the window’s draft, “she took it hard, I think. But you know that Pappie—your Peepaw—he had been living here. With us.”

“Yeah.”

“There were trips before that. But.”

Was it the window that drowned out her voice.

“But…” The image pools into Kaylee’s mind again: Lawrence, prostrate, vomiting into a grave. “How did he die?”

The sea was churning in tandem with the sky.

“Look—” Aunt Carrie went, “catch it while you can.”

There, as the road rose to meet the sky: the fulvous fire of an almost-born night. Just a shade of sun was left dangling on the horizon. The afterglow was setting in. Any minute now, it would.

 

 

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