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When Lauren was a small girl, she would stand in the Kansan fields and call the cats. One by one they would come to her through the grass, across which lay the ice of the coming winter, and she could see them in the light of the moon. The shadows of the crossing clouds formed a thousand small dark junctions before her. The glint of the ice was like the glint of the cats' eyes, and that in turn was something like the glint of the stars through the clouds. She herself wondered why they came. They were wild and heeded no one else; their thrashing in the fields did the farmers no good; and Lauren's father hated the howl they invested in the night, like a thousand bleeding babies in the grass. But they came for her and it was certain therefore, because of that, that she was in some way special; and perhaps, she was to wonder twenty years later, they came for the same reason she came to them, which was that it was beautiful to see them, all the crucifixes of shadow and the array of lights like knives, and she was beautiful like that too.
Twenty years later, when she was making love to him, she thought of them, rather than of her husband on his bicycle riding a highway that led away from her. When he was far up inside her she cried a bit and held his black hair, and remembered stroking the fur of the wildest black cat in Kansas.
And then she looked at him in the dark and wondered where he'd come from. And knew he could never tell her, because he didn't know himself. They were both across the borderland of their youth, traveling with visas on the verge of expiration, imperiled by the pending truth of their trespasses.
She met her husband the summer she was seventeen. The smell of Asia was always in the air. When she saw him at a dance, he had already come back from the war, having gone and given the last anguish of adolescence. He never saw fighting, sitting on a boat off the coast and listening to the helicopters catch fire. He had no real sense of relief, because he wasn't wise enough to understand he could die. It never occurred to him. Any other man would have questioned skeptically the fortune that brought him back from the precipice of the jungle to an auditorium outside Saint Louis where she was waiting. They were introduced in murmurs; she loved him immediately, as he did her, but this guaranteed nothing. Later she would run across her father's porch, to the frantic glance of her mother and brothers, to watch him ride with his team past her father's farm; against the ash horizon the small determined line of figures moved like one gray runnel of water, with their metallic blue uniforms and helmets and their bodies horizontal above the bicycles—heads low and backsides high. She never waved to him from a wooden fence.
He was twenty. His name was Jason. He had straight blond hair, which was to grow longer. Later in San Francisco he would wear an earring and take off his shirt. He glowed with beauty, of course—like all the things and people she would surround herself with—towering over other men, rippling across rooms, everything about him precise and flawless. There was a sense of drive to him that resided somewhere in the upper part of his back, between his shoulders; and sometimes this part of him was close to his heart, and sometimes it moved him most powerfully when it wasn't obstructed by his heart at all. A girl waving to him from a wooden fence would have made the man in him feel important; but the child in him, which was the great part of him, would only have wondered what it meant. When she walked from the porch to the road and stood watching after him, he thought he felt the lines and colors of her reflection in his metallic blue helmet. But he looked to see, and he knew that in a field of blond Kansan beauties there was something about the splendor of her mouth that allowed him to presume she was his, even if he never identified it that specifically. They didn't wait to marry before making love, and she was as unsurprised as he that he should be her first; he didn't need to hear the small muffled scream to know that, just as he hadn't needed to look over his shoulder to know she was there on the road. She saw no reason to scream for his benefit. Without it, however, he felt something was missing when it was over.
He was considering whether to try for the Olympics in Mexico City when he came back from overseas; he decided to wait for Munich. This conclusion took the pressure off, and made marrying her easier. The night after the wedding they left for San Francisco; and on the plane, hypnotized by the roar of the takeoff, she knew instinctively she was pregnant with Jules. She stared out the window at the glossy runway, and dreamed that the wildest black cat in Kansas stalked the wing of the plane.
They lived on a secret street, which was entered through a small hallway at the top of a series of steps that ran up a hill. But for this hallway, the block was entirely closed, obscure to traffic and the knowledge of residents who had lived in the city their whole lives; the street wasn't on Lauren's map, nor in the local directory she bought her first day there, nor in an atlas in the library; the shutters of the windows banged open and shut by themselves, and the doorways were blank until the sun set, when darkness engulfed the street. There was one very old automobile at the end of the block, and she couldn't imagine how it had gotten there, unless it had been lowered from the sky. The sign on the building read Pauline Boulevard; and she was astonished when, two years later, they moved to Los Angeles and, after weeks of looking for a place, they were referred by an agency to an apartment in the Hollywood Hills at the address of twenty-seven Pauline Boulevard. They took the apartment. Pauline Boulevard in the Hollywood Hills was entered by a small passageway at the top of a flight of steps even longer than the flight of steps in San Francisco; and there were shutters that banged open and shut and not one face in the doorways. There was no automobile but rather a poster in mint condition of Flesh and the Devil with John Gilbert kissing Garbo. Three summers later, when Jason was in Europe training for Munich, Lauren went up to San Francisco for a weekend and looked for her old street, Pauline Boulevard. She never found it: Three hours that afternoon she walked back and forth along Columbus Street looking for the steps that ran up past an Italian deli; she looked for the turn she had made hundreds of times. The steps were nowhere to be seen. She asked neighbors, shopkeepers, patrolmen, mail deliverers; but none of them had ever heard of Pauline Boulevard. She asked the deli owner about the steps that once ran past his shop, but he had no recollection of them. She returned to Los Angeles in some despair, anxious that the Pauline Boulevard where she now lived in the Hollywood Hills would be gone as well, but it was still there waiting for her, and from her window on the top floor at the end of the street she remembered the corresponding view from her window in San Francisco where, staring down to Columbus Street far below her, she laid her fingers across the belly that still held Jules.
They had so little time together in San Francisco, where at evening she listened for the changing gears of his bicycle and looked for the flash of his helmet coming down the secret street. His first departure seemed to correspond with her revelation that she was four months pregnant. Two days later he was gone, moving from the place in the kitchen where he had been frozen by the news.
At night by a small desk near the window she wrote him; they didn't have the money to telephone. She looked for his replies; they came infrequently. The more infrequently his letters came the more often she wrote, as though to conjure some response that way; and so the letters mounted. She wrote one and then thought of another before mailing the first, so she wrote the second and put the first inside. Soon she was mailing five, six letters in one, then a dozen, then nineteen or twenty, until he was receiving in the mail huge Chinese-puzzle-box letters, opening one letter only to find another inside, and the second letter referring him to the third, letters inside of letters inside of letters. Digging his way to the core of the correspondence, he would throw the whole thing aside in disgust about the fourteenth or fifteenth letter. In his way he believed he loved her, and in his way he knew he needed her; but he was also transfixed by his freedom, and as in Vietnam, he never understood the expendables.
He did not come home when Jules was born.
She went through it alone, without anesthesia, and said aloud "Where are you?" to each contraction. The nurses and doctors, misunderstanding, would answer, "It's coming, hold on," not realizing that Lauren cared at that moment nothing about the baby, that if giving birth to a dead fetus would have brought Jason through the door of the delivery room she would have made that bargain willingly; and it was only as Jules was tearing his way out of her that she decided, in the pit of agony, she would never send Jason a letter again, let alone a Chinese puzzle box. She decided it without fury or vindictiveness; the pain was such as to clarify everything, and the decision was temperate, deliberate. She went home with Jules two days later, and slept by the window where she had written all the letters; a woman from down the hall moved the bed for her. Jules slept with her. He was put on a special formula, and the doctors told her not to breast-feed him. The first day, she and the baby slept constantly, on through the night. She was awakened the next afternoon by a clatter in the street below. It was a small cart being pulled along by several people, and a strange music was coming from it; a funnel was at the end of the cart, into which the people who lived on the street threw coins, all the people Lauren had never seen before. At some point she realized that in this cart was the body of a dead child being taken to burial; as the coins tumbled down the funnel a mannequin on top of the cart, in a red coat with gold buttons, and wide vacant eyes and a mirthless thin smile, raised an arm in salute. As the mannequin waved, all down the street the mannequins of small children appeared in the windows waving back, until the entire block was a row of mannequin arms swaying back and forth. At the sight of this Lauren quickly glanced down at Jules in horror, fully expecting him to be the child in the cart. But Jules was there sleeping on her chest in the afternoon sun, unmoved by the music below and the waving plastic arms.
Her breasts were sore from being full. She began going to the hospital so the nurses could take the milk and ease the pressure. They never explained why she couldn't breast-feed the baby. She tried not to think of Jason at all; the woman down the hall, whose name was Martha, helped her with the child, caring for him and cleaning him and feeding him; and Lauren relished the afternoons she could go out for a while by herself and walk to the bay.
She came home from one such walk one such afternoon, and in the doorway stopped to see Jason before her, without his shirt, and one earring glimmering in his hair. They stood watching each other, and she couldn't find it in her to resist him; she crumpled into his chest, his arms taking her and his face looking down on her while all she could mutter was "Beautiful. Beautiful," over and over, unaware she was saying it out loud. She knew at that moment that whatever delivery room oaths she made were futile, that she fatally loved his beauty more than she knew her own, that she loved the way other women looked at him and that she loved his godlike presence in their eyes; he made love to her then. Afterward she lay languidly in bed clawing at his chest, until a baby's cry caught her attention. She went down the hall and got Jules from Martha, and brought him into the room and held him up to her husband and said, "This is your son." From the bed Jason watched the baby wordlessly, and Lauren set Jules down at his father's feet. Jason stared at the child awhile, not having the vaguest idea how to react to him, as though having missed most of her pregnancy and the child's birth, Jason had negated in his own mind the recognition of his fatherhood; he knew he was the boy's father, but he didn't feel it.
Jason looked up from Jules to Lauren. "I have to go back east again."
"When?" she said, devastated.
"Soon." He watched the child and, never taking his eyes from him, said, "There's a race in Philadelphia, an important one. A good showing will be important." He may have been unwilling to say he was sorry, or he may have been unaware it was necessary. He was gone three weeks later. She began writing letters again. The days stretched to weeks, into the summer, the first of many summers without him. If it was difficult raising the baby alone, she realized that without Jules she would have fled the loneliness on Pauline Boulevard, where no one emerged except for the funerals of dead children. She sat with Jules in Martha's apartment, the baby on the floor and the television flickering before the three of them its images of one man stepping on the moon. That first moonwalk was played over and over, and it was the first time she ever noticed Jules' attention fixed on anything, on that television set and those images; and he watched alert and intent, absolutely still.
She received no letter from Jason for a long time; and then suddenly one night the telephone down the hall rang, and the call was for her. They talked awhile, exchanging news, but she was distantly certain that it wasn't a casual phone call, and it was when she kept asking him over and over, to no response, "When are you coming home?" that she knew he had called because he had something to tell her. "Jason," she said.
"It will be a while."
"Is it another race?" she asked, and it was then she found out that in his way, he was possessed of a stunning honesty.
"No, it's not a race," he said.
She was silent for half a minute before she said, "What then?"
"It's ... a personal responsibility," he said, and he began talking, explaining, and in the middle of it she realized that she was still hearing it all distantly; she was nodding along with what he was saying to her. The hall light went off by itself—it did automatically after several minutes—and after several more minutes Martha came out and turned the light on, having heard Lauren's voice in the hall. Martha smiled and waved, but all of this transpired without Lauren seeing any of it, conscious of almost nothing. "It's my child," he said flatly. "I should be with her when the baby's born," and she answered, "Of course. Of course you should. It's the right thing to do," in a monotone. At some point, after he had stopped talking, she asked him, "Is she the one you want?" and he said no. "Of course," she repeated, "of course you should stay with her," and the light went out again, and he said, "I'll be back when I can," and she just nodded and didn't hear him at all. She put the phone on the hook. She stood in the dark a moment, and the light went on, and Martha was revealed again.
"Lauren?" said Martha.
Lauren turned in the hall and went back to the room, and didn't look at Jules or anything around her. She stood before the window and the lights of Columbus Street poured past her to the bay, and she finally took her wallet and put it in her purse and walked out of the room, leaving Jules on the bed. Martha was still in the hall. She asked if Lauren was all right. Lauren said nothing, and Martha looked back to the room. "Do you want me to watch the baby?" she said. Lauren didn't answer.
Forty minutes later Lauren was at the airport. She never remembered later how she got there. She bought a plane ticket. She assumed she was buying a ticket for Kansas. She sat in the lobby waiting for her flight, and as she heard him tell it all again, just as he had on the telephone, a voice cut in announcing her flight. She was in the airplane ten minutes later. An hour and ten minutes later she was in Los Angeles.
Excerpted from Days Between Stations by Steve Erickson. Copyright © 1985 Steve Erickson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted January 14, 2014
This is a bazaar journey that doesn't quit make sense to me, but I couldn't put it down and really enjoyed that journey. If you haven't read Steve Erickson yet, you should.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 3, 2000
I am currently re-reading Days Between Stations and no other book has cast quite such a spell on me, much less the second time around. Michel's odyssey through sand-blasted Los Angeles and beyond is both haunting and compelling. The lead characters (Michel and Lauren) remain with the reader long after the book is finished.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.