Strong Motionby Jonathan Franzen
Louis Holland arrives in Boston in a spring of ecological upheaval (a rash of earthquakes on the North Shore) and odd luck: the first one kills his grandmother. Louis tries to maintain his independence, but falls in love with a Harvard seismologist whose discoveries about the earthquakes' cause complicate everything.
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Louis Holland arrives in Boston in a spring of ecological upheaval (a rash of earthquakes on the North Shore) and odd luck: the first one kills his grandmother. Louis tries to maintain his independence, but falls in love with a Harvard seismologist whose discoveries about the earthquakes' cause complicate everything.
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- First Edition
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Read an Excerpt
Sometimes when people asked Eileen Holland if she had any brothers or sisters, she had to think for a moment.
In grade school she and her friends had played foursquare during recess, and when fights broke out in far corners of the playground, it usually turned out that the person whose face was being smashed into the blacktop was her younger brother, Louis. She and her friends would continue to bounce their ball from square to square. They were skipping rope the day Louis fought a boy on the top tier of the old tetanus-infested jungle gym and damaged a different part of himself on each of the pipes he hit during his fall, breaking off his front teeth on level three, bruising his ribs on level two, getting a concussion by impact and whiplash on level one, and stunning his diaphragm on the asphalt. Eileen’s friends ran to look at the possibly dead boy. She was left holding the jump rope and feeling as if she’d fallen and no one would help her.
Eileen was a faithful and pretty image of her mother, with astonished dark eyes and pencil-thin eyebrows, a high forehead and plump cheeks and straight dark hair. She had the limbs of a willow tree and sometimes she even swayed like one, with her eyes closed, when she was so happy to be among her friends that she forgot they were there.
Louis, like his father, was less ornamental. From the age of ten onward he wore aviator-style glasses whose metal frames vaguely matched his hair, which was curly and the color of old brass screws, and was thinning by the time he finished high school. His father had also donated a barrel chest to his genetics. In junior high and high school new friends of Eileen’s expected to be told. “No, no relation,” when they asked her if Louis Holland was her brother. To Eileen these questions were like vaccination shots. The soothing alcohol swab that followed was her friends’ avowal that her brother was not like her at all.
“Yeah,” she’d agree, “we’re real different.”
The young Hollands grew up in Evanston, Illinois, in the shadow of Northwestern University, which employed their father as a history professor. Once in a while, in the afternoon, Eileen caught sight of Louis in a booth at McDonald’s surrounded by the misfits he hung out with, their snide menu selections, their cigarettes and pasty faces and military clothing. The negativity emanating from his booth made her feel like she couldn’t wedge herself tightly enough between the elbows of her peers. She was, she told herself, very different from Louis. But she was never entirely safe from him. Even in the middle of a jammed and laughing back seat she would glance out a window just in time to see her brother striding along the trashy shoulder of some six-lane suburban thoroughfare, his white shirt gray with sweat, his glasses white with road glare. It always seemed that he was there for her alone to see, an apparition from that parallel private world which she herself had stopped living in when she started having friends but which Louis still obviously inhabited: the world where you were by yourself.
One day in the summer before she started college she suddenly needed to use the family car to see her boyfriend Judd, who lived farther up the Lake Michigan shore in Lake Forest. When Louis pointed out that he’d reserved the car a week earlier, she became furious with him, the way a person gets with an inanimate object that she keeps dropping and mishandling. Finally she made her mother go ask Louis to be selfless, just this once, and let her use the car to visit her boyfriend. When she got to Judd’s house she was still so furious that she left the keys in the ignition. The car was promptly stolen.
The Lake Forest police were not particularly nice to her. Her mother was even less nice, on the telephone. And Louis, when she finally got home, came down the stairs in a diver’s mask.
“Eileen,” her mother said. “Honey. You let the car roll in the lake. Nobody stole the car. I just got a call from Mrs. Wolstetter. You didn’t set the emergency brake and you didn’t put the car in Park. It rolled across the Wolstetters’ lawn into the lake.”
“Park, Eileen?” Louis’s voice was glassed-in and adenoidal. “The little ‘P’ on the far left? N for Neutral? P for Park?”
“Louis,” their mother said.
“Or is it N for No and P for…Proceed? D for Desist?”
After this trauma Eileen could no longer retain information about where Louis was or what he was doing. She knew he went to school in Houston and was majoring in something like electrical engineering, but when her mother alluded to him on the telephone, perhaps to mention that he’d changed his major, the room Eileen was calling from suddenly got noisy. She couldn’t remember what her mother had just said. She had to ask, “So he’s majoring in—what now?” And the room got noisy again! She couldn’t remember what her mother was saying even as she said it! And so she never did figure out what Louis was majoring in. When she saw him during Christmas vacation of her second year of graduate school—she was getting her MBA from Harvard—she had to make a wild guess about what he’d been doing since he graduated from Rice: “Mom tells me you’re, like, designing microchips?”
He stared at her.
She shook her head no no no no, cancel that. “Tell me what you’re doing,” she said humbly.
“I’m staring at you in amazement.”
Later her mother told her he was working for an FM radio station in Houston.
Eileen lived near Central Square in Cambridge. Her apartment was on the eighth floor of a modern high-rise, a tower of concrete that loomed above the ambient brick and clapboard like a thing that had failed to erode, with shops and a fish restaurant in the basement. She was at home making triple-fudge brownies one night at the end of March when Louis, whom she’d last seen reading a crime novel by the Christmas tree in Evanston, called her up and informed her that he’d moved from Houston to the town of Somerville, Cambridge’s budget-class neighbor to the north. She asked what had brought him to Somerville. Microchips, he said.
The person who walked into her apartment a few days later, on a raw late-winter night, was effectively a stranger. At twenty-three, Louis was nearly bald on top, with just enough curls remaining to have captured sleet. His crude black oxfords squeaked on Eileen’s linoleum as he walked around her kitchen in a star-shaped path, slowly ricocheting off the counters. His cheeks and nose were red and his glasses were white with fog.
“This is so contemporary,” he said, meaning the apartment.
Eileen pressed her elbows to her sides and crossed her wrists on her chest. She had all four stove burners going full blast and a pot simmering on one of them. “Can’t keep it warm enough,” she said. She was wearing a bulky sweater, fluffy slippers, and a miniskirt. “I think they turn the furnace off on April first.”
Her doorbell rang. She buzzed. “It’s Peter,” she said.
Soon there was a knock on the door, and she led the boyfriend, Peter Stoorhuys, into the kitchen. Peter’s lips were blue with cold, and his skin, which was suntanned, was a leaden gray. He hopped up and down, his hands in the pockets of his twills, while Eileen made introductions that he was evidently too frozen to pay attention to. “Shit,” he said, crouching by the stove. “It’s cold out there.”
There was a tiredness to Peter’s face that no suntan could conceal. It was one of those urban faces that had been reconceived so many times that the skin, like a piece of paper smudged and abraded by multiple erasures, had lost its capacity to hold a clear image. Beneath the shadings of his current neo-Angeleno look were visible traces of a yuppie, a punk, a preppie, and a head. Repeated changes of style, like too much combing, had sapped his long blond hair of its resilience. For weather protection he was wearing a houndstooth jacket and a collarless shirt.
“Peter and I were in St. Kitts last month,” Eileen explained to Louis. “We still haven’t readjusted.”
Peter put his white-knuckled hands over two burners on the stove and toasted them, investing this warming process with such importance that there was little Eileen and Louis could do but look at him.
“He looks like a total sillybird in hats,” Eileen said.
“I find coats useful in this regard,” Louis said, dropping his fiberfill jacket in a corner. He was dressed in his uniform of the last eight years, a white shirt and black jeans.
“You see, that’s the thing,” Eileen said. “His favorite coat is at the cleaner’s. Is that a silly place for it to be?”
It was another five minutes before Peter was thawed enough to allow them all to retire to the living room. Eileen curled up on the sofa, pulling the hem of her sweater down over her bare knees and draping one arm over the back of the sofa just in time to receive the glass of whiskey Peter had poured her. Louis paced around the room, stopping to bring his face myopically close to books and other consumer goods. All of the apartment’s furnishings were new and most were combinations of white planes, black cylinders, and cherry-red plastic hardware.
“So, Louis,” Peter said, joining Eileen with a whiskey. “Tell us a little about yourself.”
Louis was examining the VCR’s remote-control box. In the big steamed windows the distant lights of Harvard Square formed halos the color of mother-of-pearl.
“You’re in communications,” Peter prompted.
“I work for a radio station,” Louis said in a very slow and very level voice. “It’s called WSNE…? News with a Twist…?”
“Sure,” Peter said. “I’m familiar with it. Not that I ever listen, but I’ve dealt with them a couple times. In fact I understand they’re in some doo-doo, financially. Not to say that’s not the norm for a thousand-watt station. One thing I’d suggest is try to get paid at the end of every week, and whatever you do don’t let ’em involve you in any kind of ownership scheme—”
“Oh I won’t,” Louis said, so earnestly it would have made an observant person wary.
“I mean, go ahead if you want,” Peter continued. “But, uh—a word to the wise.”
“Peter sells ad space for Boston magazine,” Eileen said.
“Among other things,” Peter said.
“He’s thinking of applying to the business school in the fall. Not that he hardly even needs to. He knows so much stuff, Louis. He knows tons more than I do.”
“Do you know how to listen?” Louis said suddenly.
Peter’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“Do you know how to listen when you’ve asked somebody a question about themself?”
Peter turned to Eileen to consult about this remark. He seemed to have some doubts concerning its purport. Eileen jumped to her feet. “He was just giving you some advice, Louis. We all have lots of time to listen to each other. We’re all very interested in—each other! I’m going to get some breadsticks.”
As soon as she was out of the room, Louis sat down on the sofa and put his hand on Peter’s shoulder, his ruddy face right next to Peter’s ear. “Hey, friend,” he said. “I have some advice for you too.”
Peter stared straight ahead, his eyes widening a little at the pressure of a swallowed smile. Louis leaned even closer. “Don’t you want to hear my advice?”
“You’ve got some problem,” Peter observed.
“Louis?” Eileen called from the kitchen. “Are you being strange to Peter?”
Louis thumped Peter’s knee and went around behind the sofa. On the floor, on a folded-out newspaper, was a cage in which a gerbil was availing itself of an exercise wheel. The gerbil ran haltingly, pausing to stumble with its microscopic toenails on a crossbar, then galloping onward with its head high and its neck turned to one side. It didn’t seem to be enjoying itself.
“You silly bird.” Eileen had returned from the kitchen with a faceted beer mug full of breadsticks. She handed them to Peter. “I keep telling Peter our whole family’s wacko. I’ve been warning him since the day we met not to take it personally.” With breathtaking suddenness and fluidity she dropped to her knees and, unlatching the door of the cage, extracted the gerbil by its tail. She raised it above her head and peered up at its twitching nose. Its front paws clawed the air ineffectually. “Isn’t that right, Milton Friedman?” She opened her mouth like a wolf, as if to bite its head off. Then she lowered it onto her upturned palm and it ran up the sleeve of her sweater to her shoulder, where she recaptured it and boxed it in her hands so that only its whiskered, pointed face stuck out. “Say hi to my brother Louis?” She thrust the gerbil’s face up close to Louis’s. It looked like a furry penis with eyes.
“Hello, rodent,” he said.
“What’s that?” She brought the gerbil to her ear and listened closely. “He says hello, person. Hello to Uncle Louis.” She popped the animal back in the cage and latched the door. Still anthropomorphized but free now, it seemed imbecilic or rude as it ran to the tube of its water bottle and nibbled on a droplet. For a moment longer Eileen remained kneeling, hands pressing on her knees, head tilted to one side as if she had water in her ear. Then with the fluid quickness at which Louis was visibly marveling she went and rejoined Peter on the sofa with a bounce. “Peter and Milton Friedman,” she said. “Are not on the best of terms right now. Milton Friedman did number one on some poplin trousers that Peter was very attached to.”
“How funny,” Louis said. “How terribly, terribly funny.”
“I think I’m going to take off,” Peter said.
“Oh come on, be patient,” Eileen said. “Louis is just protective. You’re my boyfriend but he’s my brother. You guys will just have to get along. Have to put-choo in the same cage together. You can have the wheel to walk on, Louis, and I’ll put some Chivas in the bottle for my little sozzlebird. Ha ha ha!” Eileen laughed. “We’ll get Milton Friedman some poplin trousers!”
Peter drained his glass and rose. “I’m going to get going.”
“OK, I’m being a little hard to take,” Eileen said in a completely different voice. “I’ll stop. Let’s loosen up. Let’s be adults.”
“You be adults,” Peter said. “I’ve got work to do.”
Without looking back, he left the room and the apartment.
“Oh great,” Eileen said. “Thanks.” She dropped her head back over the top of the sofa and looked at Louis with upside-down eyes. Her narrow eyebrows were like unbreathing lips, and without brows above them the eyes had an expression foreign to the human vocabulary, an oracular strangeness. “What’d you say to him?”
“I told him he should wear coats.”
“Real cute, Louis.” She stood up and put some boots on. “What’s wrong with you?” She ran down the hall and out the door.
Louis observed her departure with little interest. He wiped a porthole in the condensation on the window and looked down at the taillight-pinkened sleet that was falling on Mass Ave. The telephone rang.
He went to the communications equipment, which sat on its own little table, and ran his eyes over it as if it were a buffet where nothing appealed to him. Finally, after the fifth ring, the machine not coming on, he picked up the receiver. “Hello?”
“Peter?” The speaker was an old woman with a tremor in her voice. “Peter, I’ve been trying and trying—”
“This isn’t Peter.”
There was an uneasy rustle. Muttering an apology, the woman asked for Eileen. Louis offered to take a message.
“Who’s this?” the woman asked.
“This is Eileen’s brother. Louis.”
“Louis? Well, for goodness’ sake. This is Grandmother.”
He stared at the window for a long time. “Who?” he said.
“Rita Kernaghan. Grandmother.”
“Oh. Hey. Grandmother. Hey.”
“I don’t believe we’ve met but once.”
Belatedly Louis recalled an image, the image of a potbellied woman with a painted kitty-cat face who was already seated at a table at the Berghoff, in Chicago on a snowy evening, when he and his parents and Eileen trooped in. This was some seven years ago—about a year after his mother had flown to Boston for her father’s funeral. Of the Berghoff dinner he remembered nothing but a plate of braised rabbit with potato pancakes. And Rita Kernaghan touching Eileen’s hair and calling her a doll? Or was this some other dinner, some other old woman, or maybe a dream?
Not grandmother: step-grandmother.
“Yes,” he said. “I remember. You live around here.”
“Just outside Ipswich, yes. You’re visiting your sister?”
“No, I work here. I work for a radio station.”
This information seemed to interest Rita Kernaghan. She pressed Louis for details. Was he an announcer? Did he know the programming director? She proposed they have a drink together. “You can get to know me a little. Shall we say after work on Friday? I’ll be in the city in the evening.”
“All right,” Louis said.
No sooner had they set a time and place than Rita Kernaghan murmured goodbye and the line went dead. Moments later Eileen returned to the apartment, wet and angry, and disappeared into the kitchen. “No dinner till you apologize to me!” she said.
Louis frowned thoughtfully, consuming breadsticks.
“You were very childish and very bullyish,” Eileen said. “I want you to apologize to me.”
“I will not. He wouldn’t even shake hands with me.”
“He was cold!”
Louis rolled his eyes at his sister’s sincerity. “All right,” he said. “I’m sorry I messed up your dinner.”
“Well, don’t do it again. I happen to be very fond of Peter.”
“Do you love him?”
The question brought Eileen out of the kitchen with a confounded look on her face. Louis had never asked her anything even remotely so personal. She sat down by him on the sofa and reached for her toes, in a leg-shaving posture, the tip of her nose resting lightly on one knee. “Sometimes I think I do,” she said. “I’m not the real romantic type, though. Milton Friedman’s more my speed. I mean, it’s funny you should ask.”
“Isn’t it the obvious question?”
Still bent over, she closed one eye and studied him. “You seem different,” she said.
“Different from what?”
She shook her head, unwilling to admit it had never occurred to her that her little brother might, at the age of twenty-three, be acquainted with the concept of love. She gave careful attention to her ankles, fingering the round protruding bones, pinching the tendons in back and rocking a little. Her face was already losing prettiness. Time and sun and business school had made her color more shallow, a conceivable middle-aged Eileen suddenly beginning to show through like old wallpaper beneath a coat of new paint. She looked up at Louis shyly. “It’s nice we’re in the same city again.”
She became even more tentative. “You like your job?”
“Too early to say.”
“Would you give Peter a chance, Louis? He comes on a little arrogant but he’s very vulnerable underneath.”
“Which reminds me,” Louis said. “He got a phone call while you were out. I was like, Grandmother? Grandmother who?”
“Oh. Rita. She tried to get me to call her Grandmother too.”
“It slipped my mind that she existed.”
“That’s because she and Mom are like—agggggh.” Eileen started strangling herself with both hands. “Do you know anything about this?”
“You know when the last time I had a real conversation with Mom was? Ferguson Jenkins was on the Cubs’ roster.”
“Well, but apparently Grandpa made a whole lot of money at some point, and when he died he didn’t leave anything at all to Mom or Aunt Heidi, because he was married to Rita. Rita got everything.”
“Definitely not the way to Mom’s heart.”
“Except Peter says Rita didn’t really get anything either. It’s all in a trust fund.”
“What’s Peter know about this?”
“He was Rita’s publicist. That’s how I met him.” Eileen hopped up and went to her bookshelf. “Rita turned New Agey after Grandpa died. She’s got a pyramid on the roof of the house. She keeps her wine in the barn because she thinks it won’t mature under the pyramid. This is her new book.” She handed Louis a thin, hot-pink volume. “She has them printed by some pretend publisher in Worcester, and they all come in one shipment, on these huge flats. Last time I was at her house she had them all in the barn, with the wine. Just this massive wall of books. That’s what she needs a publicist for, and for her lectures too. But listen, do you want tortellini with red sauce or linguine with white clam sauce?”
“Well, they’re both in bags.”
“Tortellini,” Louis said. The title of the hot-pink book was Princess Itaray: An Atlantean Case History. On the title page the author had written: To Eileen, my little doll, with love from Grandmother. Louis paged through the book, which was divided into chapters and subchapters and sub-subchapters with boldface numbered headings:
4.1.8 Implications of the Disappearance of the Dimesian Appendage: A Reversible Fall from Eden?
He looked at the flap copy. In this fanciful yet erudite work, Dr. Kernaghan advances the hypothesis that the cornerstone of Atlantean society was the universal gratification of sexual desire, and proposes that the human appendix, now a vestigial organ, was, among the Atlanteans, both external and highly functional. With the hypnotic regression of a 14-year-old schoolgirl, Mary M—— of Beverly, Massachusetts, Dr. Kernaghan embarks on a compelling exploration of Atlantean deep psychology, the historical origins of repressed sexuality, and the modern world’s potential for a return to a golden age…
“She’s written two other books too,” Eileen said.
“She’s a doctor?”
“Some honorary degree. Milton Friedman thinks it’s the silliest thing he’s ever heard of, isn’t that right, Milton Friedman? Peter helped her a lot—got her on the radio and on TV a couple times. He has all kinds of connections and he’s only in it part-time. Eventually he had to tell her to get somebody else, though. For one thing she drinks an awful lot. She also talks about Grandpa like he’s alive and talks to her all the time. You don’t know whether you’re supposed to laugh or not.”
Louis didn’t mention that he’d made a date for drinks with this woman.
“But anyway, that’s how I met Peter. She’s got a beautiful estate, you probably don’t remember it. We stayed there for a week or something when we were little. You remember?”
Louis shook his head.
“Neither do I, really. Rita wasn’t on the scene yet. I mean, she was still Grandpa’s secretary. Sometimes I wonder what we’d think of him if he was still alive.”
For the rest of the evening Louis sat in various chairs and Eileen orbited. A plate of food was something towards which she showed no particular sense of responsibility; she left the table and came back; her food was at her mercy. When Louis put his coat on to leave, she awkwardly patted his arm and, still more awkwardly, embraced him. “Take care of yourself, huh?”
He tore himself away. “What do you mean take care of myself? Where do you think I’m going? I’m going two and a half miles.”
She kept her hand on his shoulder until he was out the door. Moments later, as she turned the news on, there was a knock. Louis was standing in the hall, businesslike, looking aside with a frown. “I just remembered something,” he said. “I just remembered the place in Ipswich, Mom’s father’s place. We threw rocks—”
“Oh!” Eileen’s face lit up. “At the horses.”
“We threw rocks at the horses—”
“To save them!”
“To save them from dying. So you remember too. We thought they’d die if they stood still.”
“That was all.” His round shoulders turned away from her. “See you later.”
In high school Louis had never become so disaffected that he apologized for loving radio. Radio was like a crippled pet or retarded sibling that he always made time for and didn’t mind—didn’t even notice—if people laughed at. When Eileen saw him out walking in distant wastelands he was generally in transit to or from an airconditioned and empty electronics-supply store in some weedy plaza where the only other going concern was a Chinese restaurant in the last of its nine lives, and maybe a depopulated pet store. From the wall of prepackaged ICs and RF connectors and micropots and gator clips and jumpers and variable capacitors he selected components from the top of his wish list and added up the prices in his head, guessing on the sales tax, and handed them to the sad mustached man who preferred to sell stereo systems, and paid for them with the small bills that neighbors had given him for doing low-caste work: wall-washing; brush-clearing; dog-related services. He was ten when he got a crystal diode set, twelve when he built his HeathKit shortwave radio, fourteen when he became WC9HDD, and sixteen when he got his general license. Radio was his thing, his interest. A kid derives a satisfaction that rivals sex or maybe instead connects with it along obscure mental byways when he puts together a few simple metal and ceramic objects—objects he knows to be simple because he has experimentally destroyed many of them with screwdriver and pliers—and connects them to a battery and hears distant voices in his bedroom. There were stray resistors on his bedspread, resistors whose color coding he’d known by heart a year before he learned about sperm and eggs, the afternoon he lost his virginity. “Ouch, what is this?” (It was a 220-ohm metal-film resistor with a gold tolerance band.) Louis also happened to be one of the few ham operators in greater Chicago willing to speak or encode in French, and so when the sunspots were heavy he could be kept busy half the night trading temperature readings and autobiographical data with operators in all the snowed-in corners of Quebec. Which didn’t make him talkative in French class, only bored, since anything he did really well he kept hidden.
He entered Rice University as a prospective double-E major and left it with a degree in French, having in the meantime managed KTRU, the campus station, for three semesters. A week after graduation he went to work for a local C&W station, attending to relatively attractive duties for the abrupt abandoning of which after only eight months he would give no more satisfactory account to Eileen than the question: “Why does anybody quit a job?”
The studios of WSNE, his new employer, were in the western suburb of Waltham, in an office building overlooking one corner of the forty acres devoted to the intersection of Route 128 (“America’s Technology Region”) and the Mass Pike. Louis’s job title was board operator, a peonic position that involved operating the cartridge player, cuing up records, and backtiming the AP network news, but he did this only from six to ten in the morning, because only the morning drive announcer, Dan Drexel, was considered irreplaceable enough to rate his own operator. Louis understood that the remainder of his workday, which ended at 3 p.m., was to be spent on exciting tasks like entering traffic data on a keyboard, transferring agency commercials from reel to cart, writing PSAs, and grading the contest entries with which the station’s dwindling listenership sought to win various worthless gifts. He understood that he would be paid the federal minimum wage.
One reason he had had little competition for the job was that WSNE’s bid for license renewal in June was expected not to be routine. Paychecks were issued with precise instructions about when and when not to attempt to cash them. The insatiable payroll had gotten into the main production studio and torn out the sound equipment and acoustical panels and everything else with resale value, leaving ragged empty rectangles with exposed particle board in the Formica consoles, and butterscotch-colored glue spots on the walls. A new FM college station had bought all of WSNE’s record collection except the juvenile section (the Care Bears’ entire LP oeuvre; the Muppets; the original Disney sound track of Winnie-the-Pooh; the Flintstones doing times tables) and the comedy recordings. The grooves of the latter were rapidly being worn smooth by WSNE’s morning News with a Twist programming, which interlarded news and comment with “the funniest routines of all time.”
A man named Alec Bressler owned and operated WSNE. Alec was a Russian émigré of German extraction who in the mid-sixties had allegedly paddled from Kaliningrad to Sweden in a rubber dinghy. The only official duty he gave himself was to tape the daily broadcast editorial, but he was always hovering in the studios, observing with immense satisfaction that electricity was flowing through all the necessary circuits, that this station that belonged to him was actually functioning and transmitting his chosen programs. He was a moderately paunchy fifty, with East-bloc hair, devalued somehow and slow to grow, and skin grayed by a cigarette habit he resisted only to the extent of addicting himself to nicotine lozenges as well. He dressed in thin sweaters and faded, thigh-hugging, too-short pants, each pair of which looked old enough to have come along with him in the legendary dinghy.
Louis soon realized that one of the functions he was expected to serve was to be a private audience for Alec Bressler. “Do you like expressing opinions?” the owner asked him on his second day of work, when he was printing out affidavits for commercial sponsors. “I just expressed a really good one. I commented on a current event. Can you guess which one?”
Louis’s face became guarded, ready to be amused. “Tell me,” he said.
Alec seated himself on the air and groped backwards to pull a chair over. “This horrible plane crash on the weekend. I forget which midwestern state, it starts with ‘I.’ Two hundred nineteen dead, no survivors. Complete dis-in-te-gration of the fuselage. I questioned the nooseworthiness of this event. With all respect to the families of the dead, why do we have to see this on television? We see it last month, why see it again? If people want to see crashes, why don’t we look at Navy missiles and Air Force planes that crash any time we test them. If people want to see death, let’s take the cameras to the hospitals, eh? See how most people die. I told what we can watch instead of network noose which should be boycotted. There’s M*A*S*H, same time, also Cheers and Family Ties and Matt Houston. Better commercials too. Let’s watch these programs. Or let’s read a book, but I didn’t stress that. I say read a book too much.”
“Isn’t this kind of a lost cause?” Louis said.
Alec pressed on the armrests of his chair and slid his butt farther back, the better to lean forward and claim whatever tiny portion of Louis’s attention he hadn’t claimed already. “I bought this station eight years ago,” he said. “It had real strong local noose coverage, popular music, also Bruins games. For eight years I try to remove politics from WSNE. It’s my ‘American Dream’—a station where people talk all day long (no music—it’s cheat-ting!) and not a WORD about politics. This is my American Dream. Radio with talk all day and no ideology. Let’s talk about art, philosophy, humor, life. Let’s talk about being a human being. And closer I come to my goal—you can plot this on the graph, Louis—closer I come to my goal, fewer people listen to me! Now we have one hour of current events all total in the morning, and people listen for that one hour of noose. We all know Jack Benny is more fun than Geneva arm talks. But take away Geneva and they stop listening to Jack Benny. This is the way people are. I know this. I have it plotted on a graph.”
He grouped his fingers and tweezed a cigarette out of a Benson & Hedges pack. “Who’s the girl?” he asked, inclining his head towards a snapshot in a half-open drawer. The young woman in the picture had dark rings beneath her eyes and a shaved head.
“A person I knew in Houston,” Louis said.
Alec ducked, and ducked again as if to say: Fair enough. Then he ducked once more, very affirmatively, and left the office without another word.
After work on Friday Louis drove his six-year-old Civic down the Mass Pike into Boston and parked it on the top level of a garage with the dimensions and profile of an aircraft carrier. A wind from the east lent a forlorn sort of finality to his car-leaving procedure, which involved peering in through the driver-side window, slapping the keys in his pants pocket, lifting the handle of the locked driver-side door, slowly circling the car and checking the passenger-side door, slapping the keys again, and giving the machine a last, hard, worried look. He was due to meet Rita Kernaghan at the Ritz-Carlton in two hours.
An advancing warm front had begun to curdle the clear blue of the sky. In the North End, a slender neon boot named ITALIA kicked a monstrous neon boulder named SICILIA. It was impossible to escape the words MEAT MARKET. The Italians who lived here—old women who stalled on the sidewalks like irrationally pausing insects, their print dresses gaping at the neck; young car owners with hairstyles resembling sable pelts—seemed harried by a wind the tourists and moneyed intruders couldn’t feel, a sociological wind laden with the dank dust of renovation, as cold as society’s interest in heavy red sauces with oregano and Frank Sinatra, as keen as Boston’s hunger for real estate in convenient white neighborhoods. MEAT MARKET. MEAT MARKET. Midwestern tourists surged up the hill. A pair of Japanese youths sprinted past Louis, their fingers in green Michelin guides, as he approached the Old North Church, whose actual cramped setting immediately and quietly obliterated the more wooded picture his mind had formed before he saw it. He skirted an ancient cemetery, thinking about Houston, where summer had already arrived, where the downtown streets smelled of cypress swamps and the live oaks shed green leaves, and remembering a conversation from a humid night there—You’ll be lucky next time. I swear you will. In the buildings facing the cemetery he saw white interiors, entertainment equipment as blatant as ICU technology, large toys in primary colors in the middle of barren rooms.
On Commercial Street there were a thousand windows, bleak and square unornamented windows reaching up as high as the eye cared to wander. Pale green, opaque, unblinking and excluding. There was no trash on the ground for the wind to disturb, nothing for the eye to rest on but new brick walls, new concrete pavement, and new windows. It seemed as if the only glue that kept these walls and streets from collapsing, the only force preserving these clean and impenetrable and uninspired surfaces, was deeds and rents.
Out of Faneuil Hall, haven of meaning and purpose for weary sightseers, there blew a smell of fat: of hamburgers and fried shellfish and fresh croissants and hot pizzas, and chocolate chip cookies and french fries and hot crab meat topped with melted cheese, and baked beans and stuffed peppers and quiches and crispy fried Oriental Nuggets with tamari. Louis slipped in and out of an arcade to appropriate a napkin and blow his nose. The walking and the cold air had numbed him to the point where the entire darkening city seemed like nothing but a hard projection of an individual’s loneliness, a loneliness so deep it muted sounds—secretarial exclamations, truck engines, even the straining woofers outside appliance stores—till he could hardly hear them.
On Tremont Street, under the gaze of windows now transparent enough to reveal unpopulated rooms full of wealth’s technology and wealth’s furnishings, he found himself bucking a heavy flow of anti-abortion demonstrators. They were spilling over the curb into the street as they marched towards the State House. Everybody seemed to be on the verge of angry tears. The women, who were dressed like stewardesses and gym teachers, held the stakes of their placards rigidly vertical, as if to shame the lightness with which other kinds of protesters carried placards. The few men in the crowd shuffled along empty-handed and empty-eyed, their very hair disoriented by the wind. From the way both the men and the women huddled together as they marched, sullenly dodging other pedestrians, it was clear that they’d come to the Common expecting active persecution, the modern equivalent of hungry lions and a jaded crowd of heathen spectators. Interesting, then, that this valley of the shadow was lined with restaurants, deluxe hotels, luggage stores, cold windows.
Louis emerged from the rear of the parade with his necktie on. He’d tied it while avoiding STOP THE SLAUGHTER signs.
It took him more than an hour, at a much-bumped table in the dusky Ritz bar, to realize that Rita Kernaghan had stood him up. The gin and tonic he’d ordered automatically turned his face a stoplight red, and the one conversation that kept surfacing in the sea of vying voices concerned eunuchs. He soon figured out that the word was UNIX, but he kept hearing eunuchs, the great thing about eunuchs, with eunuchs you can-do, I hated eunuchs, I resisted eunuchs, eunuch’s budding monopoly. “I feel very sick,” he murmured aloud every few minutes. “I feel very sick.” Finally he paid and went out through the lobby to find a telephone. He had to swerve around a trio of businessmen who might have been identical triplets. Their mouths moved like the mouths of latex dolls:
You feel it?
We couldn’t, here.
Are you calling me a liar?
The time was 7:10. Louis called directory assistance and to the question of what city, said: Ipswich. The instrument he was using was drenched with a cologne to which he might have been allergic, so denaturing was its effect on his nasal membranes. He let Rita Kernaghan’s number ring eight times and was about to hang up when a man answered and said in a dead, low, institutional voice: “Officer Dobbs.”
Louis asked to speak with Mrs. Kernaghan.
Eunuchs, cologne, fetus. Dobbs. “Who’s calling.”
“This is her grandson.”
Over the line came the wa-wa of palm on mouthpiece and a voice in the background, followed by silence. At length a different man spoke, one Sergeant Akins. “We’re going to need some information from you,” he said. “As you probably know, there’s been an earthquake up here. And you’re not going to be able to speak with Mrs. Kernaghan, because Mrs. Kernaghan was found dead a few hours ago.”
At this point the synthetic operator began to insist on more coins, which Louis fumbled to supply.
Copyright © 1992 by Jonathan Franzen. All rights reserved.
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