Fiction

For Never was a Story of More Woe

To summarize several weeks of work: my house put on a mostly-memorized, semi-drunken, heavily abridged version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet this weekend.  For posterity — and any high school English students who happen upon this page — I present here the shortened script I designed for a cast of ten (or, as the case would have it, seven with three people playing two roles each).

(more…)

Everything Up Here is Wonderful

[A stab at fiction, based on the MARS-500 mission/simulation that ended last year and a general infatuation with well-spoken astrophysicists.]

**

 

“They think what they are doing is isolating.  This is bullshit.”

Sergei Kholodov is imposing even at eighty-one, his burly six-foot frame filling his small office at the National Research University in Zelenograd.  The office is decorated in an ornate, almost Victorian style—far more lace and filigree than Kholodov’s gravelly voice, Tolstoy beard, and five years of service as a lieutenant in the Soviet Air Defense Forces would suggest.  I haven’t even asked him any questions yet.

“I have been to space.  What they are doing, in that desert, it is not space.”  Kholodov sighs.  He looks tired, and his pale blue eyes—which had been fixed on me intently when he met me in his building’s foyer—are unfocused, staring somewhere far beyond the wall behind me.  “They have put five cosmonauts in a box in the Nevada desert.  And they have made it look like space, feel like space, I know.  But it will not smell like space.  Those cosmonauts know they are not really alone.  They know, one sledgehammer to a cheap wooden wall and they are breathing in Earth’s own oxygen again.”

I’m still scribbling key words in the last sentence down when Kholodov stands up from behind his desk.  “Let’s go for a walk.  In the sun.”  He gestures to the door.  I save my notes and recording on my tablet and head out of Kholodov’s office, but the old lieutenant stops me with a hand on my shoulder.

“I have been to space,” he says, and this time his eyes are boring into mine.  “There is no beauty.  Whatever you are writing, I don’t care.  Just remember what I am saying.  Space is a pit.”

**

Earlier this year, in March, I visited NASA’s simulation site in northeast Nevada.  My guide around the facility—little more than a shantytown of tents surrounding the large geodesic dome that contained the terranauts—was Michael Bloom, a senior NASA communications engineer.  Bloom is slender, with thick-framed glasses and a shaved head, and he was dressed more like an arctic explorer than a laboratory scientist.  There was half an inch of gray, slushy snow on the ground, and a dense sky threatened more overhead.

“I assure you, our five crewmembers are completely isolated,” Bloom said as we walked from my car to the tent that housed all the tools used to communicate with the group inside the dome.  His voice was steady, but he was shivering in the cold.  “We’ve replicated everything.  Everything except weightlessness.  And radiation, but they’re doing that at Ames.”  Bloom opened the flap to the comm tent and ushered me in.

“It’s day two-oh-three, so they’re about forty-five million kilometers out from launch.  Factor in Earth’s orbit and you’re looking at a fifteen, sixteen minute comms delay.  That’s hardwired in—we can’t communicate instantaneously.”  Bloom sat down in a large leather chair in front of a bank of keyboards.  “You can email them from here, but for security we only have them connected to an internal network.  We send them a news digest each week, usually, but nothing too potentially upsetting.  Your emails will, of course, be subject to approval.”  I nodded, and asked about bandwidth, but was assured anything I sent would be fine—if it was text only.  Bloom told me the simulation was scheduled to land in ten days, so I’d better get my questions off to the terranauts quickly.  They were about to get busy.

NASA’s simulation in Nevada is a full mock run of the manned mission planned for five years from now.  Two hundred and thirteen days of travel to the red rock, six months setting up a prefabricated structure on the ersatz Martian surface, and a two hundred day return trip.   If everything goes well, the actual mission gets the green light.  If not, well, back to the drawing board, and NASA once again finds its neck under the sword of senatorial budget subcommittee.  The Nevada dome is designed to mimic the flight completely—the wooden “spaceship” sits on a three-axis motion-simulating carriage, capable of up to four gs to imitate takeoff and landing.  The entire interior of the dome is lined with LED screens depicting where in space the ship should be.  It is, in Bloom’s words, “consummately immersive.”

After Bloom left the comm tent, I sat down to type out my first question to the crew.  The five terranauts consist of one Chinese, one Indian, one Russian, and two American astronauts.  The mission’s captain is Dr. David Ellis, a pilot and aeronautical engineer who’s spent two months onboard China’s space station.  I decided he would be my first target.  My early questions were simple:  Why’d you choose to volunteer?  What’s been the hardest thing so far?  How’s the crew getting along?

An hour later, I had a response from Dr. Ellis—who insisted I call him David.  How could I not volunteer? he wrote, when there’s so much to discover?  David said he was enjoying the mission immensely, though after prodding in future emails he did admit to being upset about missing his daughter’s tenth birthday.  The crew is meshing well, he said.  Yang and Dmitri have taught us how to play Dandu, it’s a good way to spend what we think are Friday nights.

Over the next few hours David and I traded half a dozen messages and a good picture of the captain emerged: affable, sense of humor, and exceedingly excited about the prospect of going to Mars, of moving mankind beyond living on just one planet.  I feel like Columbus, Ericson, Gagarin, he wrote me towards the end of our first exchange.  Sometimes I forget the stars we see in here are lights and nothing more.  But can you imagine?  A completely new world?

**

Kholodov’s usual peregrination through the grounds of the university is strikingly beautiful—tree-lined paths around buildings decorated with imposing soviet cenotaphs.  In early June, it’s warm and sunny with clear blue skies overhead.  Kholodov is quick to point out this was the route the university rector took Supreme Premier Vladimir Putin on when he visited last year, but also quick to point out that he himself was not invited to meet with Putin.  “They told me to stay home,” he chuckles.

When we reach a bench on the outskirts of the cobblestone quad, Kholodov reaches into his coat and produces a small bag of sunflower seeds.  “Zelenograd’s animal symbol is the squirrel.  We will feed the squirrels now.  It is good luck.”

I tell Kholodov about David’s first email.  He smiles slightly and tosses a seed to one of the brown squirrels in the courtyard.  “I know Dr. Ellis.  He is a—how do you say it?—optimist.”  It’s the only time I’ve seen Kholodov struggle for an English word.  “Do you know about Mars-500?  It happened about twenty years ago.  2011.  You must have been in high school.”

Kholodov is referring to an experiment in isolation undertaken by the Russian Academy of Sciences two decades ago, simulating a 520-day voyage to Mars.  Six men from four countries were sealed into a 600 cubic meter plywood box in the basement of the RAS’ Institute of Biomedical Problems—a “big coffin,” according to Kholodov—and observed as they pretended to hurtle through space towards the Red Planet.  There was a simulated landing, but nothing close to the level of simulation going on in Nevada.

When the six men emerged from the capsule in November of 2011 and were declared healthy (and sane), the experiment was quickly declared a success—mankind could survive the isolating nature of space exploration.  But seven months later, the wife of one of the Russian terranauts filed for divorce, claiming the man who came back was not the man she married.  Five months after that, on the anniversary of his departure from the plywood spaceship in the basement of the IBP, the Russian terranaut shot himself in the head with a 9mm Grach pistol.  Plans for a manned Russian mission to Mars in 2025, announced in the months following Mars-500, were put on hold.

“If that man had gone to space…” Kholodov trails off, then chuckles, a raspy noise against the gray hairs of his beard.  “A lot more people would be dead.”

**

The five terranauts in Nevada are all very similar to David.  Kyle Baker is the other American, a young mechanical engineer on leave from Raytheon.  Yang Wu is the oldest at thirty-eight, a member of the team that designed the Ri-Chu space station who is reserved and quiet about everything except space. I get the most exuberant emails from Raj Mangeshkar, the youngest terranaut, but even Dmitri Baranova, a reticent Russian surgeon, has sent me emails about his great duty to explore the space in mind of man.  During my time in Nevada, the five crewmembers seemed eager to talk about their reasons for signing up for NASA’s experiment, if not their day-to-day lives.  I learned far more about them than they did about me—Bloom constantly appeared, hovering over my shoulder, to scan the emails I had written for any sort of “upsetting content,” which usually takes the form of anything that could remind them too much that the outside world is changing: new music, trips I’ve taken, politics.

I argued with Bloom to let me ask Raj and Yang about the rise in Chinese-Indian tensions, but he said they hadn’t been told.  “The Sino-Indian border dispute is completely off-limits,” he told me on one of my last days in Nevada as the two of us hunched over a plate of microwaved beans in the mess tent.  “We’ll brief them on it when they’re done.  Besides, the whole mess should be sorted out by then.”  Bloom snorted into his beans.  “Look, here’s the deal.  We’re going to go dark sometime towards the end of July.  We’re still monitoring on video, of course, but we don’t want to risk anything.”

Bloom meant NASA is planning to cut the terranauts’ communication off while they’re at work setting up the mock Mars base.  Earth and Mars revolve around the sun at vastly different radii, which contribute to different year lengths—one Martian year is almost two Terran years.  For approximately two weeks out of every two years, the positions of Earth and Mars are such that they’re blocked from one another by the Sun, a time referred to as the synodic period.

“It’s a huge problem for Mars settlement,” Bloom said.  “No data in or out for two weeks.  Can you imagine if the U.S. dropped off the face of the earth for two weeks?”  I asked him if there was a way to bounce the signal around the sun.  “Sure there is,” Bloom pushed his beans away, pulled a blue ballpoint pen out of his breast pocket, and started drawing on a napkin.  “You put a relay satellite at the L4 or L5 Lagrange point, here or here.  But that’s a big satellite in an area of high asteroid activity.  You’d be replacing it every three months.”

So dark it is in July—Bloom and his team will pull the plug on the commlink with the terranauts for two weeks starting on July 25.  The crew doesn’t know the exact date, only that their simulation enters the synodic period towards the third week of July.  NASA’s hoping that when the comms go dead, the terranauts just carry on.  Bloom thinks it’s an important step to getting this mission they’re simulating approved.

Bloom’s goal, after all, is ambitious: a space station—on Mars.  Continuously inhabited.  A human colony on a red rock millions of miles away from… anything.

**

When we’ve emptied his bag of sunflower seeds, Kholodov starts his walk again, and motions for me to follow along.

“It would be easier, of course,” he says, “if they were not so concerned with coming back.”  I assume he’s taking the engineering position—less food, less fuel, much less cost—but Kholodov isn’t that simple.  “The kind of man who signs up for a one-way mission to Mars isn’t the kind of man who shoots himself with a Grach.  He is the kind of man who really wants to live forever.  In a way.  And—” Kholodov stops walking midsentence and turns to face me.  “He is the kind of man who does not give a damn about Terran politics.  No culture clash.”

I ask Kholodov several questions after that, but he’s silent or monosyllabic until we get to the main entrance of the university.  It’s a long path lined with ragged trees that leads, eventually, to downtown Zelenograd.

“You know what was here, in Zelenograd, before the city?” Kholodov asks.  “Nothing.  We are here—I am here—because sometime between Laika and Gagarin, Khrushchev decided we should be here.  And the Soviets did it.  Out of nothing.  We are now number one exporter of integrated circuits in all of Russia.  Seventy-nine percent of the residents have college degrees.  Nothing around but forest.  We are a colony.”  I’m picturing the map of Moscow’s districts, jostling one another for position around the Central Okrug’s Red Square.  Zelenograd, deemed a Moscow district by the administrative powers that be, sits alone to the northwest, disconnected from the rest of the map.

“And you know how the Soviets built Zelenograd from the air?”  Kholodov smiles, a slit in the gray beard that appears suddenly and stretches up his face, crinkling the skin by his eyes.  “No dissention.  Zero.  That is the secret to alchemy.  Can NASA and the U.S.A. say that about their science experiment in the desert?  I do not think they comprehend.”  The smile disappears.  “No, I do not think so.  NASA wants to build a Zelenograd on Mars, a scientific Eden.  But I am not in Zelenograd because I choose to be.  I am here because I cannot leave.  You understand?”

I tell Kholodov I understand, and he says he has a lecture to give.  Without another word, he shakes my hand firmly and turns around, walking with long strides back to the crenelated brick buildings.  In the late afternoon light, the lieutenant casts a long shadow on the campus’ stark white tile.

**

I pay a visit to Nevada once more after my trip to Russia.  Michael Bloom greets me at the military checkpoint that marks the entrance to the camp, and escorts me through the swinging gate, flashing his badge to anyone who looks in his direction.

“We upped security a bit,” he mumbles as we walk through the boiling summer desert sun to the communication tent.  “We cut comms in two days, don’t want anything… out of the ordinary happening.”  Bloom has transitioned from arctic explorer to safari vacationer, a lightweight khaki shirt over khaki shorts and birkenstocks.

A blast of cool air rushes out from the comm tent when Bloom opens the flap and ushers me inside.  Bloom steps in and wipes his forehead with his rolled up shirtsleeve, then sits down across from me at a folding table in the center of the tent.

“I heard you went to Russia.”  Bloom’s tone isn’t necessarily accusatory, but it gets the point across.  I figure there’s no point in being coy, so I tell Bloom about my visit with Kholodov, how the old Russian doesn’t think this mission can be done—doesn’t even think this simulation can be done.

Bloom pauses and leans back in his chair.  He wipes his forehead once more and then leans forward again and asks me if I’ve ever been to Star City.  I tell him I haven’t.

“Star City,” Bloom says, “is where Sergei Kholodov would be living if he hadn’t fucked up.”

It’s true, probably.  Star City is a town outside of Moscow, tree-lined and picturesque, a verdurous oasis in hoary Mother Russia.  It’s the home of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, and to the families of Russian cosmonauts past and present—kind of a Beverly Hills for the space-faring Russian elite.  Kholodov has no place there.

“Have you listened to the recording of him during Derbent?”  Bloom is trying to hide a smirk, but isn’t doing a very good job of it.  “The Soviets had to bail his ass out three months early.”

That was, definitively, the end of Lieutenant Sergei Kholodov’s career as a cosmonaut.  Born in 1949, Kholodov was twelve years old when Gagarin floated around the globe in a cramped capsule and became the first human being to see the earth from space.  As his family watched the launch on state television, Kholodov claims to have whispered in his mother’s ear that he was one day going to do the same.

He went to college and studied electrical engineering, enlisted in the Soviet Air Defense Forces, excelled in officer school, and—on paper—was the perfect cosmonaut candidate.  But his chance to walk in Gagarin’s weightless footsteps didn’t come until after the bureaucratic curtain of the Soviet Union fell.  In 1994, at the age of 44, Kholodov boarded the Russian spaceflight mission Soyuz TM-18, call sign “Derbent,” as a research cosmonaut, slated to spend nine months on the now-decommissioned Russian space station Mir.

As the mission progressed, Kholodov spent more and more time each day at the station’s small, circular viewports, gazing not at Earth, but in the opposite direction, into the vast gulf of interstellar distance that separated him from the stars.  After five and a half months, he stopped talking to anyone onboard the station and took to scribbling furiously and almost constantly in a large, leather-bound journal he had brought with him.  Three days before the mission’s six-month mark, Kholodov snapped.

The recording from the space station’s cameras got little coverage in the United States, but played almost pervasively on Russian evening news broadcasts after some Roscosmos engineer leaked it to a news outlet.  In the video, Kholodov can be seen tearing apart his bunk and using one of the metal legs of his fold-out desk to beat the reinforced porthole window over and over and over again, screaming the word “nichego.”  When the other Russians in the station gathered around the small door to his closet-sized quarters, he began brandishing the desk leg and ranting about how mankind was “nothing” and that nothing he could do would change this, would make the universe care that he had existed, that his species had existed, that Earth was “just a blue pebble in an endless black sea.”

“Everything,” Kholodov said and turned to face the camera, “everything, everyone, everything that has ever happened—happened on nothing.”  Dr. Valeri Polyakov can then be seen approaching Kholodov with a syringe before the leaked video cuts to black.

Soyuz TM-18 landed on Earth, with Kholodov aboard, four days later.

“Pretty nuts, right?”  Bloom smiles.

**

I got my last email from David about six hours before the comm shutdown severed his ties with the outside world for two weeks.  He was jovial as ever, joking about an argument between Raj and Yang over the flavor their freeze-dried ice cream was supposed to be imitating and even asking if I had seen the new Superman movie his kids kept raving about.  At the end of the email, he tells me I should pick up a copy of Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan, the 20th century physicist.

Everything, David writes, everything we have ever known has happened on that dot.  Sagan calls Earth “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”  It’s beautiful, isn’t it?  That there’s so much of the universe we haven’t seen?  So much to discover, so much mystery?  I think Sagan would like what we’re doing here.  We’re pushing forward, into the unknown.  And the goal, the goal is to push humanity beyond that dot.  To have a rust red dot to match Earth’s blue.

The prefab structure came together, and the air is working, and the crew is happy.  All the experiments are going well.  Mankind can be spacefaring.  We’re showing that.  A universe infinite in scope, ours to explore!

I think it’s wonderful.  Everything up here is wonderful.

I thought about that as I walked out of the comm tent and looked across the encampment to Bloom’s consummately immersive dome. I thought about Earth, suspended in a sunbeam.  Down here, up there—Kholodov would scoff at me and mutter something about prepositions and how everything in the universe is relative.

We’re all up there, in some sense.  There’s beauty in that, and terror—the same terrifying beauty that confronted Kholodov during his orbits around the planet.  But even terrifying things can be wondrous, and after all these millennia of existence, human beings still see magic in the stars.  Because, after all, what are millennia to the stars but wisps of smoke?  Our lives, when whatever evidence of them reaches the stars thousands of light years away, are just a fading echo of our days, our thoughts, our joy, our pain, our laughter, of long-passed loves and long forgotten deeds.

The thought that something could be so far away—could live only in history and never grasp the present—that is the terror.  The wonder lies in our ability to live on this planet, at this moment, to breath its air and see its trees and love its people and not care if the footprint of our life is being whisked away to the edge of the universe, not care that the universe is void and humanity a small light in the darkness, not care that swathes of our galaxy will never be explored, but to realize, finally, that everything up there is beautiful—and everything down here is wonderful.

7 Things I Know About Her (A Quietly Observed Autobiography)

[Written last year as an assignment in imitation of “7 or 8 Things I Know About Her (A Stolen Biography)” by Michael Ondaatje.  Surprisingly applicable at points since.]

Her Father’s Poetry

After her father died they found boxes and boxes of notebooks in the garage, mostly spiral-bound in varying shades of yellow and with varying amounts of coffee stains.  Each notebook was densely packed with poems, a constant effusion of words that ran along each lined page at breakneck speed, occasionally tumbling in on themselves and twisting around, filling every square centimeter with her father’s thoughts.

The Bull Dogs

Adorable as puppies, now when she takes the three of them on walks around the block other dog-walkers cross the street to avoid her.  Mothers tug their children closer, cars speed up to pass her.  Sometimes one of the large dogs will climb onto her bed in the middle of the night and curl up to sleep, leaving a puddle of drool and a pile of short, coarse hair that makes her late to sunrise yoga class.

The Pool Table

In the back room of her parents’ house was an ancient pool table, a leviathan of green felt and stained wood and sheet slate that squatted immovably under two hanging lights encased in emerald shades.  We would play pool, and I would watch the light dance like malachite in her eyes, but mostly we would spend hours lying underneath the pool table, staring upwards into the slab of rock, stargazing into the whorls and eddies of the miniature galaxies that we had slowly carved into it one winter afternoon at a time.

First Criticism

Her mother decides to take up cartomancy.  She gets her first Tarot reading at six months: The Star—optimism.  The Lovers—romance.  The Tower—catastrophe.  Her mother looks across the table with watery eyes.

Listening In

When we meet for the second time, in the checkout aisle: “Have we met before?”  She has a basket full of flaxseed, zucchini, whole-grain pasta; I have ten packs of Kraft Easy Mac.  She said the same thing the first time we met.

Self-Criticism

“You have a beautiful aura, and what do I have?  This brown sheen, like pond water.  And don’t tell me it doesn’t exist—you’ve seen how cats won’t look at me.”

Fantasies

She eats a strictly vegan diet, but dreams about veal cutlets.  One fantasy claimed fulfilled: she took six months off school to “find herself,” and says she succeeded.

Reprise

The tower we built together came tumbling down one night under the stars, and she disappeared.  She found herself—but now she’s looking for us.  She’s looking for our tower’s stones and bricks and mortar, but they’ve been scattered in the sea and neither of us knows where to look.

A Canadian Taxidermy Moose Head Hunting Trophy, Valued at $3,350

The Canadian taxidermy moose head hunting trophy, mounted on a broad oak shield and initially valued at $3,350, sat stoically above the mantel of the fireplace, surveying with eyes like burned-out stars the flow of people in and out of the house’s spacious living room—and supposedly had been doing so diligently for almost three decades.  Legend (if the curt conversations that Eli overheard between Mr. and Mrs. Lewis could be deemed worthy of such an appellation) had it that the moose head appeared in the house shortly after the death of Great Uncle Bernard, packed into a cavernous cardboard box along with enough Styrofoam packing peanuts to choke a whale and a small note in neat, lawyerly handwriting that simply stated:

17. b) MOOSE

This was the kind of mystery that Mrs. Lewis could never abide, and so within a week of its arrival the moose head and its four-and-a-half foot antlers were laid gingerly in the back seat of her silver minivan and driven fourteen miles to the closest place where anyone might know anything about such an item: Allensworth’s Antique Appraising and Antiquity Apprising.

Adam Allensworth, owner and sole operator of Allensworth’s Antique Appraising and Antiquity Apprising, was a tall, thin man with a pencil mustache the color of dead herring.  He wore a permanently supercilious sneer along with one of a seemingly endless supply of tweed suits.  Despite the doctoral degree in Classics framed proudly and hung prominently behind his desk, in twenty-four years of antique appraising no one had yet asked Adam Allensworth to be apprised of antiquity—anything about antiquity, frankly, because at this point Adam Allensworth wasn’t picky and above all was worried no one understood his pun—and he was beginning to wonder if that woman who enjoyed Ovid’s poetry as much as he did was ever going to walk through his glass doors asking about the ring her grandmother had left her or even, hell, if he had change for the parking meter because she had to run into the grocery store across the street and had left all of her cash in her other purse.  No, Adam Allensworth was a classicist with a mortgage to pay, and so he spent his days telling stories about other people’s possessions.  Who, he thought, would want to spend that life with him?

He had greeted the Lewises, their young daughter, and their moose with a sneer and a little nod, and watched as they hefted the head onto his table.  Adam Allensworth had then taken out his bifocals and his flashlight and set to work inspecting the creature, prodding and examining it for almost ten minutes before finally announcing that yes, it was a taxidermy moose head, probably a hunting trophy, definitely Canadian—you can tell from the breadth of the antlers that it’s Alces alces andersoni, and a fine specimen at that—and if he had to put a value on it, that it would probably be in the range of, oh, $3,500, but the small scratches on the bottom of the shield are going to drop that to, well, let’s say $3,350.

“This hunk of fur is worth what?”  Mrs. Lewis coughed.

Adam Allensworth took off his bifocals.  “Three thousand, three hundred, and fifty dollars.  And it’s really more formaldehyde than fur.”  He folded the glasses and placed them in his breast pocket.  “If you’d like to sell it, I take a ten percent commission but I’m sure that—”

“Sell it?  Are you crazy?  When it’s worth that much?”  Mrs. Lewis looked like the appraiser had suggested she might as well set the moose on fire and dance naked around it.  “I don’t think so.”

And so the Canadian taxidermy moose head hunting trophy was carefully loaded back into the minivan and found its way again into the Lewises’ home.  Mrs. Lewis wanted it in the house, but Mr. Lewis wanted it in the dumpster, and after some spirited verbal back and forth (the Lewises’ own words), a compromise was struck and it was hung on a wall in the garage above the workbench.  Six hours later, the garage’s thin drywall collapsed under the moose head’s weight, sending the trophy crashing into Mr. Lewis’ power tools, chipping both the left antler and a cordless eighteen volt right angle drill, and ensuring the movement of the moose head to a more permanent location above the fireplace in the Lewis’ otherwise quite thoroughly contemporary home, a large and rather furry contrast to the sleek black lines of the marble mantelpiece.

So the legend went.

* * *

The Canadian taxidermy moose head hunting trophy, mounted on a broad oak shield and valued at $2,900 due to a missing tine on the lower half of the left antler, seemed to be staring at Eli.  As if meeting Becca’s parents for the first time wasn’t nerve-wracking enough, he now had this thing—this creature—looking at him, like he was some exhibit in a backwards zoo.  The muffled voices of Mr. and Mrs. Lewis percolated through the kitchen door—they sounded angry about something, and Eli hoped that thing wasn’t the twenty-two year old being scrutinized by a moose as he sat in their living room.

“Relax,” said Becca, squeezing his thigh.  “I’ve only told them good things about you.  They’ll love you.”

Eli smiled, and then thought better of it and clamped the corners of his mouth shut.  “It’s just… it’s almost graduation.  They’re going to ask about after graduation.  What do I tell them?”

“You tell them the truth.”

“No one takes the truth seriously.”

The strangled gurgle of the Lewis’ coffee machine was hard to hear now over the swelling conversation in the kitchen, the two voices rising in a crescendo that threatened to pierce the walls and burst out into the living room, upwards and upwards and higher and larger until finally there was a loud noise like a thunderclap, and then silence.  The coffee machine beeped once.

Eli looked at Becca, eyes pleading for reassurance, but Becca was absent-mindedly staring at the moose, unfazed.  A second later, the kitchen door opened and Mrs. Lewis walked out, Mr. Lewis following, each holding a mug of coffee.  Becca pushed Eli and he stood unsteadily, smiled unconvincingly, and shook hands with the Lewises.  Mrs. Lewis was a short, angular woman.  She was pretty when she smiled, but there was something strange about it, like her skin was being pulled too tightly over her skull, and she had a tendency to use words like “fabulous” and “terrific” a little too often.  Her husband was the opposite: tall and terse, with the hinted beginnings of sagging jowls.  His thick mustache was jet black, but he was graying at more than just the temples.  Eli knew that Becca’s father was some kind of engineer, and designed some tiny computer component Becca could never adequately explain—and he feared he couldn’t adequately understand even if she could.  Maybe because of that knowledge, the image he had built up in his mind was very different than the man who now stood across from him in the living room.  Less mustache, definitely, and shorter, maybe even slight, with delicate hands.  But Mr. Lewis was downright imposing.  Eli swallowed and sat back down next to Becca, while Mr. and Mrs. Lewis took seats opposite them.

“So Rebecca says you met at school?” asked Mrs. Lewis.

“Yeah,” Eli said, “in math section.”

“Well that’s just fabulous.  I was always telling my classes to practice their times tables, you know.”

Eli half-listened, but mostly tried to avoid looking at the moose.  Yet as Mrs. Lewis talked about the fourth grade class she used to teach and the importance of multiplication, he found his eyes drifting every few seconds towards the space above the fireplace where the moose hung to see if it had moved since his last furtive glance.  Becca noticed, and after Eli’s eyes’ third or fourth journey to the moose, she reached over slowly and pinched Eli on the upper arm.

“Ow!” Eli said, and his eyes immediately widened in horror.

“I don’t know how.”  Mrs. Lewis didn’t seem to notice Eli wasn’t asking, and just continued on.  “But when a ten year old comes to you with a popsicle stick glued to his head you don’t really wonder how, you just think about the letter you’re going to send home to his mom with a clump of his hair in the envelope.”

Mrs. Lewis sat back, looking pleased with her story, and Eli finally started to relax.  Then, for the first time since telling Eli his name, Mr. Lewis opened his mouth.

“What are you doing after graduation, Eli?”

And there it was.  Eli sat, petrified.  He hated that question.  Not because he didn’t know what he was doing (he did) and not because he wasn’t excited about it (he was) but because he hated explaining it to people, justifying it.  Everyone’s first response was always the same question: “why?”

“I, uh, have a year-long post-bac fellowship.”

“Well, that sounds terrific!” said Mrs. Lewis.  “To prepare for med school?”

“I didn’t know you were premed,” Mr. Lewis said, shifting his gaze towards Becca.

“Not… exactly,” said Eli.  “But it’s in biology.”

“Like a clinic?” asked Mrs. Lewis.

“Not quite.”

“Public health research?” asked Mr. Lewis.

“No, umm.”  Eli took a breath.  “It’s in ornithology.”

“With the Smithsonian!” Becca added quickly.

“Ornithology?”  Mr. Lewis asked.  “You mean bird watching?”

“Well, birds, yeah.  Kind of.”  Eli could feel his face flushing.

Mrs. Lewis’ face scrunched up.  “Why?”

Eli sighed, and mentally queued up the explanatory speech he had given to what seemed like every person he ran into in the last month and a half, but Mr. Lewis cut in before he could start.

“Sylvia.  The boy obviously enjoys it, that’s why.”

“Well, he just has so much potential,” she said. “Education like that.  Didn’t you ever want to be a doctor?”

Eli started to answer.  “Well, you see—”

“Not everyone wants to be a doctor,” said Mr. Lewis.  His voice sounded suddenly like ice.  Eli was surprised that Mr. Lewis appeared to be defending him—he had a hard enough time convincing people who weren’t his girlfriend’s father that he was going to enjoy tagging birds and looking at slides of pressed feathers for a year.

“People have to do what they love doing,” Mr. Lewis continued.  The words tumbled out slowly, deliberately, each an iceberg that fell to the floor of the room and floated there in the shag carpet.

“Ronald.  Do not start this again.  Not now.”  Mrs. Lewis’ head moved, almost imperceptibly, in Eli’s direction.  She was smiling, even larger than before.  Her skin looked ready to peel away from her skull.

“Daaad,” Becca said.  Something in her tone made the hair on Eli’s arms stand up.

“I’m just saying that people have distinct interests, and once they discover them it’s—”

Stop it,” Mrs. Lewis hissed.

“Once they discover them it is their duty to indulge those interests.”  Mr. Lewis sounded rehearsed, like this was a monologue he’d practiced, the diction specific and the delivery metered and timed.

“I can’t believe—after all he did for you!”  Mrs. Lewis flung her arm out in the direction of the moose head behind Mr. Lewis.  “You’re just going to leave that all behind, is that it?”

“It’s my duty to indulge—”

“You have a great job!  What about your job?  Your career?”

Eli had never really had cause to describe anyone as livid before, but Mrs. Lewis was rapidly approaching the adjective.

“Mrs. Lewis, I just think he means people should have jobs they enjoy waking up to go to every day.”  His voice sounded meek, and trite.  Shit.  His high school debate coach would have killed him.

Both Lewises glared at Eli.  He backtracked.

“I mean—that is… we could leave… or something.”  He motioned to Becca.

“No, no, it’s fine,” Becca said.  “Everything’s fine.  Right, Dad?”

Mrs. Lewis barreled on.  “Do you remember your first job?” she asked her husband.  “The first one, before the sports car and the jewelry and the house?  You were putting together televisions for my uncle.  You used that money to take me on our first date, Ron.  Who’s going to take me on dates now?  Who’s going to buy the fucking food now?  You and your ‘novel’?  Fabulous!”

And with a shriek that bubbled up from somewhere deep within her, Mrs. Lewis hurled her coffee mug at the wall behind Mr. Lewis.  Eli watched the mug hurtle like a ceramic comet through the air, tail of Colombia brew streaming out behind it, and time and clocks and even the pulse of Eli and Becca and the Lewises seemed to slow to a halt as the mug impacted against the far wall with a crash and echo that sounded of love rent in two, showering the lower half of the moose head with dark brown liquid.

The clock behind Eli ticked.  Steam rose in faint curls from the splattered wall and the fur of the moose, diaphanous memories rising out of the coffee and disappearing before they reached the ceiling.  Mr. and Mrs. Lewis were silent.  Eli was too scared to move, eyes fixed on the steaming moose head.

Eternity passed in the space between the Lewises, and just as the moose seemed about ready to complain, Becca leaned over and whispered in Eli’s ear.

“You’re upset.  Let’s go.”

I’m upset?” he whispered back, but followed when she stood and offered him her hand.

Becca turned to her parents.  “Bye, Mom.  Bye, Dad.”

“Nice to, uh, meet you,” Eli said.

“Very nice to meet you, too, dear,” Mrs. Lewis said in a voice that dripped like treacle.  Her mouth smiled but the rest of her face stayed still.

“Quite,” said Mr. Lewis, face impassive.  Neither stood as Eli and Becca walked out of the living room.

* * *

The Canadian taxidermy moose head hunting trophy, mounted on a broad oak shield and valued at $2,175 due to significant discoloration of the fur of its lower jaw and right cheek, as well as a missing tine on the lower half of the left antler, was wearing a party hat.  It was one of the cheap, conical cardboard kind that someone at the reception had managed to stretch around the moose’s bulbous snout and which now sat at what could only be considered a jaunty angle on top of the moose’s head.  Above the party hat was a banner hanging from the ceiling, white with little rose insignias, that read “CONGRATULATIONS REBECCA & ELI” in large, filigreed letters.

The party was, by any measure, a roaring success.  Becca looked radiant in white, and floated from group to group smiling and beaming.  Eli had rented—no, what the hell, you only get married once, hopefully, so he had bought—a sleek tuxedo, and sat in the corner with his college roommates as relatives old and new walked over to congratulate him.  The crowd itself was literally roaring: with laughter, with the din of conversation, with the frivolity only an open bar can provide.  The moose, for his part, seemed to be enjoying the party as well.

A peal of silver on glass rang out over the crowd in the Lewises’ home, three chimes followed by a tinkling crack and profanity mumbled into the carpet.  Mrs. Lewis set the knife and broken champagne glass on a table, walked cross-legged over to the front of the room by the moose, and addressed the crowd.

“Thank you all… so much for coming.”  Mrs. Lewis looked unsteady on her feet.

Becca excused herself from the group of Eli’s cousins she had been talking to, and wound her way through the crowd towards Eli’s corner.

“It was… so terrific of you all to make it out.”  Mrs. Lewis’ words sloshed back and forth like a boat caught in a typhoon.

“She’s drunk,” Becca whispered to Eli.  And she was, of course.  The kind of stark, raving drunk only twenty-year-old men in fraternities are supposed to experience.

“I couldn’t tell,” Eli said.  Becca slung arrows at him with her eyes.  “What do you want me to do?” Eli hissed.  “Tackle her?”

“Even you, Laura, you managed to roll out of bed, you fat whore.”  Mrs. Lewis squinted her eyes and peered across the room at one of her nieces, chuckling like she expected the crowd to join in with her.

Becca looked at Eli.  “Yeah, maybe.”

Eli sighed and resigned himself to playing middleman again, but before he could move Mr. Lewis appeared by his wife and started trying to guide her away from the front of the room.

“No!” she said.  “No, don’t you touch me.  Don’t touch me!  He never… touches… Listen, I have something I want to say!”  The crowd was starting to talk.  “No, listen!  Laura.  Laura, I’m sorry.  You’re not fat.”  Mr. Lewis moved again to try to dislodge his wife from the crowd’s attention, but she shook him off and refused to budge.

“But really,” she said, “thank you all so much for coming.  For coming and being happy and smiles and eating the food that I bought, and drinking the champagne that I bought, and dirtying my carpets with your feet and shoes.  Because they’re mine now.  You know, not all of you know this”—Mr. Lewis made a final, frantic attempt to move his wife, but she pushed him off of her, and he stood instead behind her and to the left, rocking nervously on the balls of his feet—“not all of you know this, but Ron left his job with Novatron almost four years ago.  Vice President of Engineering, and he just walks away.”  She hiccupped loudly.

“Okay, Sylvie, okay,” one of Mrs. Lewis’ friends had risen from her table and walked to the front of the room.  She took Mrs. Lewis’ elbow.  “Let’s go talk about it in the bedroom.”

“No, I want to talk about it here.  Because these people are drinking my champagne.  I went back to work, you know.”  Mrs. Lewis pointed accusingly at no one in particular, and Eli noticed for the first time that there was a band of light skin on the ring finger of her left hand where her wedding ring used to sit.  “I went back to work with those little snots.  God, I hate fourth graders.  And the salary.  You know how long it’s been since I went to the spa?  I haven’t bought myself a dress in four years.  All because of this!”

With that, she dug into her small purse and pulled out a sleek metal rectangle.

“Becca,” Eli hissed, “what is your mom doing?”

“I don’t know.  It’ll be fine, Charlene will talk to her, she always does.  What is that thing?”

“A cigarette case?  I didn’t know your mom smoked.”

“She doesn’t.  Why would she have one?”

But Mr. Lewis, having spent the first three and a half decades of his career in the computer industry, knew better.  “Is that… a hard drive?  Sylvie, what the hell?  Where is that from?”

Mrs. Lewis smiled at her husband.

“Did you take the hard drive out of my computer?”  He suddenly looked very pale.  “My book!”

He rushed for Mrs. Lewis, with real purpose this time, but Mrs. Lewis threw the hard drive to the ground and stepped down, hard.  Mr. Lewis stumbled, halfway to his wife.  He dropped to his knees, picking at pieces of the disk that had sprayed all over the carpet.  “My book.  My book.”

No one at the party spoke.  Mrs. Lewis looked around the room.  “It was crap!” she slurred and staggered into the wall behind her, placing one hand on the side of the moose head for stability.  Eli shook his head back and forth, as if to sweep away the picture in front of his eyes.

“This is my wedding.  This can’t be happening.”  He looked for Becca, but Becca was approaching her mother slowly.

“Mom.  Mom, let’s go talk.  Charlene and I can talk about it with you.”

“I can… do it… myself,” Mrs. Lewis said, and lurched forward.  The left ear of the moose came off in her hand, crackling and tearing away from the head like dry newspaper.  Mrs. Lewis looked briefly at the ear sitting in her palm, then stumbled off through the stunned crowd.  Becca stood, unmoving, in the front of the room in her radiant white dress, her father at her feet on his hands and knees in a rented tuxedo, rooting through the carpet desperately for the shards of his dreams.

* * *

The Canadian taxidermy moose head hunting trophy, mounted on a broad oak shield and valued at $1,200 due to a large bald patch where the left ear is usually found, as well as significant discoloration in the fur of its lower jaw and right cheek and a missing tine on the lower half of the left antler, hung above Eli as he sat on the fireplace’s low ledge.  After more than ten years, he still felt dwarfed by it, and it seemed larger and more unnatural every time he came to the house, this constant reminder that the Lewises’ past was still mostly a mystery to him.  Becca never seemed to want to talk about it—not because she was embarrassed by her parents, it seemed to Eli, but rather because their story bored her, something she considered too typical to warrant interest.  Eli thought that very little about Mr. and Mrs. Lewis was typical, but he never felt able to convey that to Becca, and had, for the most part, dropped the subject years ago.  What Eli knew about the Lewises he had pieced together on his own.

A lot of that knowledge had come recently.  Eli had been visiting the Lewises’ house five days a week for the last two months now, stopping by on his way home from the museum where he worked.  It was twenty minutes out of his way, but Becca had insisted, so here he was, helping the bedridden Mr. Lewis and the aging Mrs. Lewis, making dinner, paying bills, trying to convince the two of them to invest in a hospice nurse.  “Too expensive,” Mrs. Lewis kept saying.  Mr. Lewis just snorted into his oxygen line.

Today had been one of Mr. Lewis’ worse days, one of the days where he wouldn’t eat or cooperate, when he would yell at Eli for arranging his pills incorrectly on the dinner tray.  Eli had eventually ducked out of the bedroom during a tirade on the merits of color coordination, deciding the moose would probably be better company.  He didn’t want to leave the dying man by himself, so he sat under the moose and waited for Mrs. Lewis to get home.  It seemed like the right thing to do, but Eli wasn’t really sure if leaving Mr. Lewis alone with his wife was any better than just leaving him alone.  When he had met Becca, the Lewises’ fights were explosive, but they were at least punctuated by months of what anyone would consider blissful (or at least near-blissful) marriage.  Now husband and wife seemed to communicate only sporadically and solely by bickering, any substance in the conversations siphoned off after the first two sentences.

The front door opened, and Eli rose from the fireplace.

“Would you help me with these?” Mrs. Lewis asked.  Eli nodded, and followed Mrs. Lewis out of the house to her car.  He hefted two large paper bags out from the trunk and Mrs. Lewis led him to the kitchen.

“How is he today?” she asked.  Becca asked the same question almost every night.  Eli still didn’t know how to answer.

“Oh, he’s fine.”

Mrs. Lewis arched an eyebrow but said nothing, and began sorting groceries from the bags into her refrigerator and cupboards.

“He told me about your trip to San Diego yesterday,” said Eli, mostly to fill the silence.

“He did, did he?” said Mrs. Lewis.  She stopped halfway to the fridge with a bag of broccoli in her hands.

“Yeah.  About eating tacos in a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and how he kept trying to order in Spanish for some reason but the guy behind the counter couldn’t understand him and you just kept laughing.  And how you snuck onto the beach in the middle of night and drank wine—”

“‘Drank wine in the waves,’ yeah.  He likes that story.”

“It sounds like a great night,” said Eli.  Mrs. Lewis placed the broccoli gently into the refrigerator.

“Lovely,” she said quietly.

“Hard to believe so much has changed.”

Mrs. Lewis straightened up.  “Later that night he made me walk eighteen blocks in four-inch heels because calling a cab was ‘too expensive.’  Not that much has changed.”

Eli sighed, but didn’t say anything.  Mrs. Lewis turned back to the groceries.  The silence grew until it filled the kitchen, a blanket that draped over the room.  “I think it’s time for you to go, isn’t it?” asked Mrs. Lewis.  Something in her throat muffled the last few words.

Eli said that it was, that he should be getting back home to Becca, and walked out of the kitchen to the living room to grab his jacket.  He was sick of his in-laws’ house, of coming here every week, of watching the Lewises’ love draw them together and then push them apart, day after day after day.  He twisted his own wedding ring around his ring finger and wondered if Mrs. Lewis still wore hers in the mornings, wondered how long she had worn it for before it was replaced with a tan line, wondered when exactly their marriage had become this hollow version of what it once was.  Eli felt suddenly furious about the Lewises’ fighting—it wasn’t fair to themselves, to him and Becca—and when he got to the fireplace where his jacket was lying, his hand shot out, almost involuntarily, fist clenched, and he pounded on the wall once.  The moose head shifted, seemed suddenly to sway, and an entire majestic antler wrenched itself out of the moose’s skull with a sharp crack and fell onto the marble mantel, lifeless in a way it hadn’t been a minute earlier.

* * *

The Canadian taxidermy moose head hunting trophy, mounted on a broad oak shield and initially valued at $3,350 but now valued at an unknown price probably much closer to nothing due to an absent right antler, a large bald patch where the left ear is usually found, significant discoloration in the fur of its lower jaw and right cheek, and a missing tine on the lower half of the left antler, hung limply above the mantel of the fireplace.  Eli and Becca held hands in the middle of the living room and looked into the vacant eyes of the moose.

“We should take it down,” Eli said, after a long time.

“Take it down?” Becca said.  “But—but—”

“The lawyers said we should figure out the value of the estate.”

“Stop talking like that.”

“Becca, I’m just being—”

“Realistic.  I know.  I know.”  Becca started sobbing, small stifled cries that caught in her throat and escaped slowly, the dolorous chirrups of a weeping songbird.  She turned to Eli.  “What makes it so much harder this time?”

“Everything.  It’s the house you grew up in, the things you grew up with.  It’s hard to let that go.”

“I miss her, Eli.  I miss them.”

“I know,” he said.  “I know.”

So the moose head was taken off the wall of the increasingly empty house, removed from the spacious living room that had, for six long years, been far too spacious for one person, and laid gingerly in the backseat of Eli’s Jeep.  It was then driven fourteen miles to what was still the closest place where anyone might know anything about it: Allensworth’s Antique Appraising and Antiquity Apprising.

Adam Allensworth was, by now, a tall but stooped man with a pencil mustache the color of fresh snow.  He greeted the Jeep with his customary sneer, but when the back door opened and the moose head was pulled out, his lips curled into a small smile.  This motion made his cheek muscles uncomfortable and he stopped quickly, so that the smile went unnoticed by Becca and Eli, who were busy hefting the moose onto the store’s small table.  Adam Allensworth hobbled around to the opposite side of the table, put on his bifocals, and gave the moose head a cursory look before turning to Eli and Becca and announcing that it was, still, a Canadian taxidermy moose head hunting trophy, though barely so.

“I’ll give you twenty bucks for it.”

“You can’t be serious,” Becca said.

“Twenty-five.”  Adam Allensworth sighed.  Too often he spent his days telling families their prized heirlooms were worthless.  “Look at the antlers—half of them aren’t even there.  And it’s falling off the shield.”

The appraiser pushed the head, lightly, with a wrinkled hand.  There was a sickening splintering noise and the head lolled terribly to the side, half of the oak backing lifting up with it and the other half remaining on the table.

The room was silent.  “See?” said Adam Allensworth.

“‘See’?”  Eli leapt out of his seat.  “You killed our moose!”

“Let’s be fair, sir,” said Adam Allensworth.  “It was already dead.  Sit down.  I’ll give you forty.”

“Forty dollars?  Look, you can take your change and—”

“It’s fine,” said Becca.  “Eli, it’s fine.  It’s all right.  Mr. Allensworth, we don’t want to sell it.  We just wanted to know if it was worth anything.”

Adam Allensworth shrugged, and the door behind him swung open, a beautiful blonde woman slipping through with a tray of food.

“Biscuits?” she asked.  Eli sat down.

“Ah, hello dear.  Mr. and Mrs. Reese, this is Annalise, my wife,” said Adam Allensworth.

“Charmed,” she beamed.

“Your… wife?” Eli asked.  The woman couldn’t have been half of Allensworth’s age.

“Yes, yes.  Came wandering in here asking about the Ars Amatoria five years ago.  Quite exquisite books, you know,” said Adam Allensworth.

“I hadn’t read them since college, but when I saw Adam’s sign, well, I knew I had to come talk to him,” said Annalise.  Becca and Eli just stared.

“What’d you bring my Adam today?” she asked, and looked down at the broken moose head.  “What a gorgeous creature!  Do they always hollow them out like this when they’re mounted?”

“Hollow?  What do you mean?” said Adam Allensworth, and he leaned down and peered into the neck of the moose, where—sure enough—a large hollow compartment had been carved into the wood frame.  He looked at Becca.  “Where did you say you got this moose from?”

“My great uncle Bernie,” she said.  “Came in the mail after he died.”

“Curious.”  Adam Allensworth plunged his hand into the moose head and resurfaced clutching a small manila envelope.  He held the envelope out to Becca and arched an eyebrow.  “Any idea what this is?”

Becca shook her head and reached slowly for the envelope, but Adam Allensworth pulled his hand back.  He tore the envelope open and turned it upside down over the table.  A single golden ring dropped slowly, like a glittering tear, out of the envelope and clattered onto the wood, rolling in a wide arc before coming to a halt in front of Becca.

Becca blinked.  “That’s Mom’s wedding ring!” she said.  “I haven’t seen that in—I thought she must have sold it.”

“Well, if you’re interested,” said Adam Allensworth, “that we could get some real money for.  Now, I take a ten percent commission, but—”

“Sell it?” said Becca.  She looked at Adam Allensworth.  “Do you know how much her ring was worth?”

Eli leaned back in his chair and looked around the room, from the elderly antique appraiser to the man’s smiling wife to Becca, who sat clutching the ring to her chest.  His eyes settled on the moose head.  The dead glass eyes of the moose seemed to sparkle for a second in the flickering fluorescent light of the antiques shop before the rest of the oak shield splintered and split, sending the head to the floor with a muted thud.

Then the eyes were dull, the sable sunsets of two souls.  Eli stood, thanked Adam Allensworth and Annalise, and he and Becca took the moose and the ring and headed back out to Eli’s car.

California Girls

“This isn’t what it looks like.”

It wasn’t the right thing to say, or even that true, really, but John couldn’t think of anything else and that’s what they seemed to say on TV, so he said it anyway.  Michelle stared, open-mouthed, at the scene in the bedroom before her: piles of clothes scattered on the floor, lavender-scented candles smoldering on the windowsill, three buxom blondes in various states of undress, and John, naked, in the middle of the rumpled red satin sheets of the queen-sized bed, holding what appeared to be some sort of device halfway between a small broomstick and a large eggbeater.

“I can… explain?”  John said slowly, grasping at clichés like a middle school lit mag on deadline night.  But Michelle was already turning around and heading out the door.

“Babe, no, wait, I—shit, babe—”  John tumbled out of bed, grabbed a pair of jeans out of the pile to his left, and half ran, half fell through the bedroom door as he tried to follow Michelle and put on his pants at the same time.

“Babe.”  He found her sitting at the breakfast table, bathed in the orange evening light that poured through the bay window and staring into the dancing motes of dust that hung there like dirty stars.  “Babe, what’s wrong?”  John pulled a chair up to the table, mustered a look of genuine concern, and sat down.

She shot him a Gorgon of a glance.  “ ‘What’s wrong?’  I don’t know, John, maybe the fact that you made me breakfast in bed this morning, talked about plans for our date night, and then I come back from work to find this in my bedroom.”

“I’m a sex advice columnist, babe.  What part of that says ‘monogamous relationship’ to you?”

“But in my house?”

For the first time today, John looked sheepish.  “My bedroom’s still flooded.  From last week, when that Swedish model, you know—”

“You’re a whore.”

For a split second, John was silent.  Then years of telling people what he did for a living kicked in and the glib confidence that made John Wilson, in his own mind, a household name in the greater Los Angeles area returned.

“I prefer the term ‘freedom lover.’  Coined it in volume sixteen.”

“That sounds like the name of an RV with a bald fucking eagle painted on the side.  And I know that face—that’s the face you make when you’re telling people how goddamn ‘important’ you are.  You write a smut column for the Burbank Daily, John.”  Michelle watched his shoulders slump, almost as fast as the Daily’s circulation numbers had this quarter.

“Get out of my house.”

John nodded.  “Yeah.”  His voice felt like gravel in his throat.  “Yeah, Michelle.  Okay.”  He pushed his chair away from the table and stood up, but Michelle stayed seated, sunlight writhing in her dark brown eyes like snakes.  John shuffled down the hallway, stopping at the door to Michelle’s bedroom.  Three much more clothed blondes were huddled in the corner, whispering.

“Get the hell out of here,” he said.  The tallest blonde opened her mouth, but John cut her off.  “I’ll make sure that Mikey gets his money.  Just go.”

And with that, they were gone, effervescing out of the front door of the house and leaving nothing but the smell of lavender and a faint hint of glitter in the carpet.  John grabbed the rest of his clothes and followed, plodding, each footfall sinking heavily into the manicured lawn.  He could still see Michelle in the bay window, the beautiful goddamn bay window in her beautiful house in her beautiful suburb; could still see her as he stuck his key into the door of his rusty car and collapsed into his polyester seats pockmarked with cigar ash burns.  An issue of the Burbank Daily from last month sat on his passenger seat, the Wilson byline and “Good Vibrations” title clearly visible.

John crumpled the newspaper into a ball, muscled his manual window down, and tossed it out into the street before turning the key in the ignition and driving away with a throaty roar, a belch of black exhaust, and a leaden weight in his chest where Michelle had been that morning.