Our friends Joyce and Vic are coming over tonight—she said on the phone they have news for us—so Marie and I figure a bottle of champagne can’t hurt. Maybe an adoption came through; maybe years of sex-by-numbers (calendar and thermometer—it’s amazing the personal things people tell you about themselves) have finally come to fruition. Occasionally I mention the possibility of us having a baby; Marie says she isn’t ready, not yet, and though of course I understand I’m beginning to wonder if “not yet” means forever. I certainly haven’t brought it up since the planes hit the World Trade Center six weeks ago.
After a stop at the bank we try the new warehouse liquor store where the A&P used to be. I pull in carefully, ease over a speed bump, steer gently around potholes: we have a trunk full of toxic waste. The man who sold us the house last year and moved to Florida left it in the basement, near a leaky crack in the foundation he didn’t tell us about. “Thought you might use this,” said the note we found with the stuff—old paint, solvents and various gummy liquids in glass jars either unmarked or labeled with illegible scrawls on faded masking tape. We hoped to get rid of it at the town’s annual hazardous material recycling drop-off, but the line curved far around the block and we couldn’t wait; the bank closed in twenty minutes.
Saturday crowds force us to park in the outback. Halfway through our walk across the lot Marie mutters, “We’re getting headed off at the pass.” I follow her glance: a skinny, greasy-haired young guy is angling toward us, cutting us off. He doesn’t stop until he is too close. DAMM, read the letters on his dirty white sweatshirt. And underneath: Drunks Against Mad Mothers.
“Spare change,” he says. It’s more a statement than a question. “Money for food.” He drags on a cigarette; the pack is rolled up in his sleeve.
“If you’re hungry, sir, why do you spend your money on cigarettes?”
Shut up, dear, I think. You never know about people like this.
He grins the way that reminds you laughter isn’t always funny. “A man’s got to live, lady.” He looks at me. “Or maybe you wouldn’t know about that.”
I feel in my pocket. “Sorry, no change.”
His grin pinches into an ironic pucker, like those newsreel pictures of Mussolini. “A dollar is change from a five.” He flips the lit cigarette butt onto the asphalt. “No offense.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Marie says.
“I may be dumb, lady, but I know that much.”
The truth is that he doesn’t—doesn’t know that she isn’t talking about change, but about taking offense. But I know my wife, and that quiet, unhostile voice like someone just hung up the phone in your ear. I take out my wallet and slide an old single off the top of two bank-fresh twenties.
He nods. “Thank you, sir. God bless.”
“Just out of curiosity,” Marie asks, “are you going to spend it on wine?” I grab her arm, my fingers squeezing “Drop it, will you?” into her flesh.
The grin returns. “Scout’s honor,” he says, and makes a Mr. Spock Vulcan salute.
For the rest of the walk to the store a strange, crooked desire urges me to turn around and spy on him, to see his next move, but I keep it buried. What do I care about some panhandler? Mind your own business, my mother always said. Keep your nose clean.
Mostly, I don’t want him to catch me doing it.
Inside, comparing champagnes, I can’t shake the image of that DAMM shirt. Clever, I guess, but some things you just don’t laugh at. Five years ago Marie lost her first husband and eight-month-old baby to a drunk driver—three prior convictions, no license or insurance. I have to say something. Don’t I?
“Drunks Against Mad Mothers. I’m sorry, that’s not funny.”
“Of course it’s funny,” she says. “It’s just not tasteful.” She picks up a bottle of Mumm’s. “Can we agree on this?”
“Mumm’s the word,” I answer.
We get a couple more bottles to replenish our wine rack—there’s a sale on a Chilean cabernet we like—and head out. At the register is the panhandler, buying a pack of cigarettes and a quart of beer. That I expect him to be embarrassed I guess says something about me.
He smiles, eyeing our basket, and plinks a fingernail against his beer bottle. “Scout’s honor,” he says. “No wine. That’s for you good people.” He pays with a single wrinkled dollar bill and a hodgepodge of coins that he laboriously counts next to the UPC scanner. The woman at the register watches him, but counts again before dropping the coins in the drawer.
“Thanks, Roy,” she says. “See you later.” He tips an imaginary cap to us and saunters off, cradling his bagged beer like a baby.
“That was our dollar,” Marie says.
The woman’s face hardens like she’s been accused of stealing. A delta of lines furrows out from her eyes, lines too deep for someone maybe thirty years old, maybe not even. “Excuse me?” she says, the champagne neck in her fist like a club. She has a mole dead center on her forehead, where Indian women put a beauty spot.
“That was our dollar. That he paid with.”
“We gave it to him. For services rendered.”
“Then it was his.”
“Of course it’s his,” I say. I grip my wife’s arm again. “He can do with it what he wants.”
“No it isn’t.” Marie points at the cashier. “It’s hers, now.”
The cashier smacks her gum. “It’s my boss’s.”
I pay with one of my credit cards. “Thank you,” I tell her.
“Have a good day,” the woman says, looking at her watch.
Back safe in the car I ask, “What was that all about? Why make a big deal over such a little thing?”
“Everybody always wants something. Government, charities, work—everybody. I get so tired of it sometimes.”
“‘Everybody includes your husband?”
“For God’s sake don’t get sensitive on me.”
“It was only a bloody dollar.”
“You know as well as I do we’re not talking about a dollar.”
I’m not sure what we’re talking about. Though over breakfast this morning when I brought up, tentatively as hell, the idea, the mere possibility, of maybe someday trying to have a baby she didn’t respond, just stayed hidden behind the sports section.
“We’re not talking at all,” I say. “That’s the problem.”
“Just drop it, OK?”
“I see what you mean. Right. Of course.” I tap the champagne label as ironically as possible. “Mum’s the word for a celebration.”
I pop over the speed bumps too fast for a car loaded with flammable poison, but nothing happens outside of some clinks and clunks. What do I expect, an explosion?
At the last light before our street I pull up behind an ancient, rusted-out turquoise Bonneville plastered with stickers for STP, beer, and country music stations. A peeling bumper sticker claims MY KID BEAT UP YOUR HONOR STUDENT. A cigarette butt flies out the driver’s side window, followed seconds later by a wadded-up Marlboro pack.
“Asshole,” I hiss, as indignant as I get. “Why don’t smokers think their butts are litter? I—”
Marie reaches over and lays on the horn, hard. I yank her hand away.
“Are you crazy?”
She gets in a blast with the other hand before I catch it too. The light changes. Someone honks behind me. To drive I have to release her, and she powers the horn again. The litterer crawls through the intersection, eyes mostly in his rearview mirror. I hang a quick right to escape and zigzag home through a back route, avoiding any pattern, taking no chances of that guy finding out where we live.
“Don’t you believe in standing up for what’s right?”
“I don’t believe in getting hurt over a cigarette butt. This is a crazy society. People have guns.”
“I’m sorry, but I believe in it.”
“Getting hurt over a cigarette butt?”
Turning into our driveway I feel her staring at me. You know what it’s like, everybody does, how your skin feels the heat of those eyes fastened on you.
“You know what I mean.” Then, after a pause so brief it barely happens, “The man I married believed in it.”
“Which one?” I say, feeling good and mean at first but ashamed of myself by the time the second word hits the air. I look over. She’s staring out the passenger window at nothing, at the inside of the garage. “I’m sorry,” I tell her.
“I am too,” she says to the window. “Very very fucking sorry.” She gets out and makes such an attempt not to slam the door that it doesn’t close completely. I reach across but she pushes it shut with her hip. Her voice comes clear through the metal and the glass as it moves away.
“Actually, Tyler, I thought both of my husbands believed in it. But maybe it was only the one who’s officially dead.”
As evening comes on I help Marie with dinner; strictly prep work—she’s the great cook, I’m the dishwasher. We don’t talk about the argument. That’s good. It’s forgotten; we’re fine again. She was just upset over that DAMM shirt, no matter what she said, and who could blame her? Slicing mushrooms I suddenly realize the obvious, and it makes even more sense: the anniversary of the accident is less than two weeks away. I sneak a loving look at my wife, this person leaning over a cookbook with a smudge of flour on her cheek and a red bandana holding back her hair, this person I am closest to in the entire universe. I almost bring it up but don’t want to upset her.
This afternoon I emptied the trunk and stored the toxic waste in the garage, then spent hours raking leaves and chopping them up with the lawn mower for compost, tidying the yard, starting the rot process for the garden I want to put in next year. The trees are nearly bare from a windy fall, but in the Indian summer sun they looked clean, not dead. Every time I raked up a pile I imagined a cigarette butt sailing into it, smoldering patiently before flickering into flame and picking up speed. Only you can prevent forest fires, said Smokey the Bear, pointing out of the same television screen that showed torched Vietnam villages to me and millions of other children as we were socialized not to burn down our country. Like the beer ads socialize us thirty years later to find a designated driver, to know when to say when.
When I was a kid people just burned the leaves. You’d smell the smoke all over town. It wasn’t a problem yet, at least no one perceived it that way. It didn’t smell bad; it was kind of pleasant, reassuring even. That season had rolled around again, the way it was supposed to, the way it always did, and everything was in its place.
Joyce and Vic were Marie’s friends before they were mine. She met them at the local state university, where she teaches English; that’s why we moved to Massachusetts the year before last. Vic works for Student Services and Joyce is a librarian. They met at the school too. Marie and I met over a thousand miles from here, working the phone banks for an underdog candidate for governor. We had some laughs, deviating from the dorky prepared script as much as possible. So long, we said, shaking hands. It was fun. The week after we lost the election her husband and baby died in the accident. I called; it was the least I could do. I went to the funeral though I’d never met the man. A year later I went to the too-lenient sentencing of the killer, with the widow I would marry the next summer. True excitement at my high school: a math teacher tying the knot with someone who had been on the local TV news, grieving in public through no fault of her own.
Our friends show up with a bottle of champagne of their own. “It’s Spanish,” Vic says. “That’s as close as we could find.”
“Close to what?” Marie asks for both of us as I peel the foil off the thick black bottle, loosen the wire bonnet.
“Pour, Ty,” Joyce says. “I want us all to have a full glass.”
I do, marveling as always at the contrast between her Chicago and his Boston accent. They lock eyes and share a conspiratorial smile in a way that we all have done, and probably irritated the people we were with as much as this does me. Marie smiles too, bemused it seems, and is the first to raise her glass. “A toast,” she says. “To something or other. Spit it out, will you?”
The conspirators are beaming to bursting. “To parenthood!” Vic says.
“You’re knocked up!” Marie looks as thrilled as her friend.
“Who’s the father?” I ask Vic as casually as enquiring if the Celtics won last night. He laughs, then goes dead serious.
“I don’t have the slightest idea,” he says to the floor.
The kitchen falls quiet. I wish I had put music on the stereo. Then fat grins break out on our friends’ faces.
“We don’t know the mother yet, either,” Joyce tells us as she hoists her drink. “But we’ll meet her when we go to Paraguay for the baby at Christmas!”
“To Paraguay!” Vic cries. “To rug rats!”
We all clink glasses. “To Paraguay!”
We drink together. The Spanish cava is tart, clean-tasting.
“Paraguay?” Marie says. “I mean, Paraguay?”
Joyce can’t stop smiling. “We can get one there. That’s the thing. It’s guaranteed.”
“Not guaranteed like ninety days parts and labor or anything,” Vic says. His glass is almost empty. I know he wasn’t the major force behind this drive for a child. I wonder how it got decided. “It’s just that you know it will happen. You don’t fly all that way for nothing.”
Joyce has joined him in the empty-glass club. “We’ve jumped through every hoop here around ten times—you guys know, we’ve bored you with the details—and got nowhere. Why they won’t just let us adopt a black baby I’ll never understand. Do you think that’s weird, Ty? In a society that supposedly believes in equality, who cares what color your parents are?”
I refill our guests’ champagne and top off Marie’s and mine, thinking hard. This is a question that matters to me, because I’m an American but maybe mostly because I’m African-American. I didn’t mention it before because I didn’t want it to make any difference—because it shouldn’t. It’s like me saying over the phone that I’ll be over to look at the apartment, then finding that it’s somehow rented the instant you see my face. I “talk white,” people say. Well, do I write white too? What am I supposed to do, apologize for growing up in the heartland not the ‘hood, for preferring the Rolling Stones to rap and admitting Larry Bird was my favorite basketball player?
“I do think that’s weird,” I say.
“Paraguay,” Marie says, shaking her head in amazement, not negation.
Joyce touches my arm, the way she does to people, and holds her hand there—also the way she does. When we first became friends Marie didn’t much like that. “She’s your friend,” I told her when she brought it up later. “What am I supposed to do, back up? Retreat?” Like I said, she does it to everybody. Just about.
“You’ve been to South America, Ty. What’s Paraguay like?”
Joyce is almost comically sincere. I don’t mean to be snotty, even a little, but Americans’ innocence of the world is astounding sometimes. I lived in Ecuador for two years in the Peace Corps; that doesn’t mean I’ve been to Paraguay. South America is a huge, varied place. So I groaned when Indiana Jones opened with the subtitle “South America, 1933” on a shot of a tropical rain forest, giving the absurd impression that the continent is an unbroken jungle with quicksand, anacondas like fire hoses, rhino-sized Venus flytraps, and natives with bones through their noses brandishing blowguns with curare-tipped darts. I’m not being holier-than-thou, and I’m certainly not immune—I grew up thinking Africa was all lions and elephants and convenient vines for Tarzan to swing on, and people my color carrying bundles on their heads for supercilious white bwanas with pith helmets and British accents. But you eventually figure things out, right? A few things, anyway, such as life is no Hollywood movie.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I got stopped at the border.” I hear myself answer and think, All that scorn about Joyce’s question, yet only a freak chance kept you from being able to answer it. Don’t you remember asking Rory from Sacramento what San Diego was like, and his shoulder-shrug response that he’d never been there? You can assume with the best of them.
“What were they doing, trying to protect their señoritas? Tyler, you animal, let me shake your hand.” Vic is giddy on champagne and impending parenthood. We shake. The women roll their eyes and do their best to look long-suffering, pretty successfully.
“It wasn’t me, it was everybody. Paraguay closed the border. I was at Iguaçu Falls in Brazil, and a guard told me some politician had been murdered. Later I saw in the paper it was Somoza, the dirtbag they overthrew in Nicaragua who ran to Paraguay. Somebody blew up his Mercedes with a bazooka.”
Vic’s eyes widen. “A bazooka! No shit!” He and Joyce look from me, to each other. “Let’s just grab the kid and get out,” he says. “I’m not too psyched for playtime with Mr. Bazooka.”
Joyce holds out her glass for me to fill. “We thought about Romania. They have babies.”
My wife watches the bubbles in her glass. “A different world,” she says.
We fall silent. I’m thinking about the Peace Corps, amazed how the years have shot past since then. A year isn’t much, really; a year is nothing. No, no it isn’t—nothing is nothing, nothing doesn’t exist. Even death is not nothing. I glance at Marie, and the old guilt comes back that I know should be nothing, but isn’t: I’m only with her, I’m only happy because she suffered. Because the man she chose until death did them part met a drunk speeding in the wrong lane. It’s a strange thing, awful and not easy to admit, that I’m glad a man died. A man I never met, a great guy by all accounts, a man probably better than me whose gruesome death brought me happiness. I wonder how often my wife thinks similar thoughts, how often she compares now to then, and wonders.
“I wonder why people always hang out in the kitchen,” Marie says. She laughs a tiny laugh. “Let’s get comfortable, what do you say?”
“Comfort means bubbly on celebration day,” Vic says. “Can I have the honors on the second bottle, Ty?”
“Be my guest.”
We leave him and go into the living room. I put NPR on the stereo, the jazz they play at night. Over the music we hear a loud pop, and a cork ricochets off what I hope is only the ceiling. “Bombs away!” Vic shouts. “Nagasaki!”
Joyce smiles indulgently. “I wonder if you can get a Japanese baby. They have a lot of people, and not that much room.”
“Hell,” I say, “in India and China they must be giving them away.” I’m joking, of course, but if truth be told I’ve had enough of other people’s babies for one night.
Vic comes in, bottle gripped by the throat. “Well, they sure ain’t giving ’em away in Paraguay.”
“What do you mean?” Marie asks.
“With hotels and plane tickets, we’re into this for like thirty grand.”
“No way!” I say.
“Way,” Vic says solemnly. “Thirty big ones.”
Joyce seems proud of the number, as if it conveys legitimacy. “What’s money, compared to having a child?”
Long seconds pass. Then Vic says, “Nothing. It’s nothing, that’s what it is.”
He pours again. I look at Marie. It’s not Vic and Joyce’s fault—they don’t know about the accident—but all this talk about children and families has to be hurting her. She seems okay on the outside, seems fine in fact, but so did the Hindenberg. I know the surface is lying. I love her ferociously right now.
“Can you believe it?” I say. “Daylight savings time is history already.”
I feel like I’m on display, like that was too transparent a deflection of the conversation. “Well, not till two A.M.,” I add, trying to plug the silence I’ve made.
“It’s daylight saving time,” Marie says.
Vic raises the bottle like a Black Power salute, like Tommie Smith at the ’68 Olympics. “An extra hour. Party!”
“An extra hour of sleep is more like it,” Joyce says.
Marie turns to me like a cop asking if I knew how fast I was going. “Tyler, why are you acting so weird?”
For you, dear, I want to tell her. For you, darling of my life, all for you. For you.
“I am weird,” I say.
“He’s got a point,” Vic says.
“Can we have unweird for a while?” my wife says, too sweetly. “Are you still unhinged by that bum in the parking lot?”
“What do you mean, ‘unhinged’?”
I don’t like the word, don’t even like the concept in connection with my life. I was trying to protect you! I think.
Joyce makes a sitcom grimace. “Hell’s bells, what are you two talking about?”
Marie tells the story, beginning with the trunk full of poison. But somehow it’s not the same story. Not totally different, of course, but not the same either. It’s like another director filmed the actors, or at least a different editor cut and spliced the raw footage. The same stuff happened, but the story changes depending on whether the guy in the DAMM shirt is a bum or a tragic victim of the system. Whether the guy who gives him a dollar does it out of guilt, or charity, or the path of least resistance. Whether the woman is combative on principle, or to counter the pain brought by the tasteless shirt, a pitiless reminder of her past.
Marie leans back on the couch. “So, what do you think? Do we let the creeps and litterers of the world get away with it?”
“It’s not like honking a horn is going to do anything about it.” Joyce speaks slowly, carefully selecting each word. “I mean, the garbage is still on the ground. A loser like that certainly won’t pick it up because you say so.”
Vic’s mouth puckers like he has a lime slice on his tongue. “Anyone low enough to litter probably doesn’t have class or brains enough to admit being wrong anyway.”
“So we concede? Just throw up our hands and say, ‘Hey, scum! You win!’?” Marie’s tone is so pleasant it’s creepy.
“No one’s saying we should concede, honey. Just that maybe, sometimes we have to pick our spots.”
Joyce touches my forearm again, and again her hand lingers. “No offense, Tyler. Please don’t take this wrong.”
I prepare to take offense.
“Marie,” she says softly. “What if that car was full of young African-Americans, or Hispanics? In gang-style clothes, with rap music blasting so loud the speakers sound shredded? Would you do anything then? I mean, people get shot all the time these days, over nothing. For nothing.”
That word again. Nada. Which is what my wife does, and says, for a lot longer than is comfortable. She stares straight ahead, almost at me, but not quite. We wait. Joyce’s hand leaves my arm. The music is gone, replaced by a ubiquitous public radio fund drive. The announcer talks earnestly of responsibility, and doing the right thing, and making your pledge now because you shouldn’t wait for someone else to do it. Because it’s your radio station—that’s what the word public means. It’s yours.
Marie drinks some champagne. “I thought we were celebrating,” she says.
“We are,” Joyce says. “We’re also waiting.”
“I don’t know! I’d like to believe I’d do the right thing no matter what. Gandhi—I think it was Gandhi—somebody said that all that’s needed for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Look what happened to Gandhi, I couldn’t help thinking. Gunned down like a gang member.
“Gandhi got shot, didn’t he?” Vic says.
“So did Lincoln and Kennedy! And Christ was crucified! So? And lots of cowards live long lives—if you can call that living.”
“Please,” implores the radio. “Do it now.”
I go to the stereo and scan the CD rack, thinking how my wife’s child would have been five years old now, in her second month of kindergarten. We almost never talk about her, or her father. I figure it’s not my place to open old wounds, to return Marie to a painful period that coincidentally hardly contained me, though just maybe she sometimes still needs to remember. But how can I recognize those moments? The line can be so fine between interest and voyeurism, and jealousy toward a dead man is a dangerous, nasty thing—while jealousy toward a dead child is of course beyond impossible.
I consider Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, decide instead on his Oh Mercy. As the first guitar notes cut the silence the song titles grab me, stark white letters on a black background forcing new connections:
“Political World”—The campaign phone bank.
“Where Teardrops Fall”—The funeral.
“Everything is Broken”—
I turn around. “Cowards die many times before their deaths,” I say. “The valiant never taste of death but once.” I know it’s Shakespeare, but have no idea which play. The line stuck in my twelve-year-old mind when I read Mickey Mantle’s The Quality of Courage, and never left.
“Tyler,” my wife says, “what is that supposed to mean?”
The fourth song is “Ring Them Bells.” I think of John Donne’s sermon, his brutal yet uplifting epiphany: the funeral bell tolls for thee—for us—but that means we’re all in this together. Until death do us part. To act or pretend otherwise is to miss the best part, probably to miss the point at all.
Everyone is looking up at me. I sit down again, rejoin the circle. “I guess it means I’m proud of you,” I tell her. “Though if I lost you for a principle I doubt I could forgive it or you. That’s my flaw, I’m sure, but flaw or no I would miss you so much I wouldn’t know what to do next.”
I rarely talk like this. I never talk like this in front of people.
“God damn,” Vic says. “I thought this was supposed to be a celebration.”
For me this is a celebration! Didn’t you hear what I just said?
“Of course it’s a celebration,” Marie says, watching me with what has to be understanding. “To Paraguay, for heaven’s sake!”
“To Paraguay!” we all cry, and drink deep, my baby’s eyes and mine meeting over our glasses like a rickety bridge between two islands.