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The protagonist of this story is named Lewis Winters. He is also its narrator, and he is also me. Lewis is thirty-four years old. His house is small and tidy and sparsely furnished, and the mirrors there return the image of a man inside of whom he is nowhere visible, a face within which he doesn't seem to belong: there is the turn of his lip, the knit of his brow, and his own familiar gaze: there is the promise of him, but where is he? Lewis longs for something not ugly, false, or confused. He chases the yellow-green bulbs of fireflies and cups them between his palms. He watches copter-seeds whirl from the limbs of great trees. He believes in the bare possibility of grace, in kindness and the memory of kindness, and in the fierce and sudden beauty of color. He sometimes believes that this is enough. On quiet evenings, Lewis drives past houses and tall buildings into the flat yellow grasslands that embrace the city. The black road tapers to a point, and the fields sway in the wind, and the sight of the sun dropping red past the hood of his car fills him with sadness and wonder. Lewis lives alone. He sleeps poorly. He writes fairy tales. This is not one of them.
The lover, now absent, of the protagonist of this story is named Caroline Mitchell. In the picture framed on his desk, she stands gazing into the arms of a small tree, a mittened hand at her eyes, lit by the afternoon sun as if through a screen of water. She looks puzzled and eager, as though the wind had rustled her name through the branches; in a moment, a leaf will tumble onto her forehead. Caroline is watchful and sincere, shy yet earnest. She seldom speaks, and when she does her lips scarcely part, so that sometimes Lewis must listen closely to distinguish her voice from the cycling of her breath. Her eyes are a miracle-a startled blue with frail green spokes bound by a ring of black-and he is certain that if he could draw his reflection from them, he would discover there a face neither foreign nor lost. Caroline sleeps face down, her knees curled to her chest: she sleeps often and with no sheets or blankets. Her hair is brown, her skin pale. Her smile is vibrant but brief, like a bubble that lasts only as long as the air is still. She is eighteen months old.
A few questions deserve answer, perhaps, before I continue. So then: The walls behind which I'm writing are the walls of my home-the only thing padded is the furniture, the only thing barred the wallpaper. Caroline is both alive and (I imagine-I haven't seen her now in many days) well. And I haven't read Nabokov-not ever, not once.
All this said, it's time we met, my love and I.
It was a hopeful day of early summer, and a slight, fresh breeze tangled through the air. The morning sun shone from telephone wires and the windshields of resting cars, and high clouds unfolded like the tails of galloping horses. Lewis stood before a handsome dark-brick house, flattening his shirt into his pants. The house seemed to conceal its true dimensions behind the planes and angles of its front wall. An apron of hedges stretched beneath its broad lower windows, and a flagstone walk, edged with black soil, elbowed from the driveway to the entrance. He stepped to the front porch and pressed the doorbell.
"Just a minute," called a faint voice.
Lewis turned to look along the street, resting his hand against a wooden pillar. A chain of lawns glittered with dew beneath the blue sky-those nearby green and bristling, those in the distance merely panes of white light. A blackbird lighted on the stiff red flag of a mailbox. From inside the house came the sound of a door wheeling on faulty hinges, a series of quick muffled footsteps, and then an abrupt reedy squeak. Hello, thought Lewis. Hello, I spoke to you on the telephone. The front door drew inward, stopped short on its chain, and shut. He heard the low mutter of a voice, like residual water draining through a straw. Then the door opened to reveal a woman in a billowy cotton bathrobe, the corner of its hem dark with water. A lock of black hair swept across her cheek from under the dome of a towel. In her hand she carried a yellow toy duck. "Yes?" she said.
"Hello," said Lewis. "I spoke to you on the telephone." The woman gave him a quizzical stare. "The nanny position? You asked me to stop by this morning for an interview." When she cocked an eyebrow, he withdrew a step, motioning toward his car. "If I'm early, I can-"
"Oh!" realized the woman. "Oh, yes." She smiled, tucking a few damp hairs behind the rim of her ear. "The interview. I'm sorry. Come in." Lewis followed her past a small brown table and a rising chain of wooden banisters into the living room. A rainbow of fat plastic rings littered the silver gray carpet, and a grandfather clock ticked against the far wall. She sank onto the sofa, crossing her legs. "Now," she said, beckoning him to sit beside her. "I'm Lisa. Lisa Mitchell. And you are-?"
"Lewis Winters." He took a seat. "We spoke earlier."
"Lewis-?" Lisa Mitchell gazed into the whir of the ceiling fan, then gave a swift decisive nod. "Aaah!" she lilted, a smile softening her face. "You'll have to excuse me. It's been a hectic morning. When we talked on the phone, I assumed you were a woman. Lois, I thought you said. Lois Winters. We haven't had too many male applicants." Her hand fluttered about dismissively as she spoke, and the orange bill of the rubber duck she held bobbed past her cheek. "This would seem to explain the deep voice, though, wouldn't it?" She smoothed the sash of her bathrobe down her thigh. "So, tell me about your last job. What did you do?"
"I'm a storyteller," said Lewis.
"I wrote-write-fairy tales."
"Oh!" said Lisa. "That's good. Thomas-that's my husband, Thomas-" She patted a yawn from her lips. "Excuse me. Thomas will like that. And have you looked after children before?"
"No," Lewis answered. "No, not professionally. But I've worked with groups of children. I've read stories in nursery schools and libraries." His hands, which had been clasped, drew apart. "I'm comfortable with children, and I think I understand them."
"When would you be free to start?" asked Lisa.
"Tomorrow," said Lewis. "Today."
"Do you live nearby?"
"Not far. Fifteen minutes."
"Would evenings be a problem?"
"Not at all."
"Do you have a list of references?" At this Lisa closed her grip on the yellow duck, and it emitted a querulous little peep. She gave a start, then laughed, touching her free hand to her chest. She held the duck to her face as it bloomed with air. "Have I had him all this time?" she asked, thumbing its bill.
Somewhere in the heart of the house, a child began to wail. The air seemed to grow thick with discomfort as they listened. "Someone's cranky," said Lisa. She handed Lewis the duck as she stood. "Excuse me," she said. She hurried past a floor lamp and the broad green face of a television, then slipped away around the corner.
The grandfather clock chimed the hour as Lewis waited, its brass tail pendulating behind a tall glass door. He scratched a ring of grit from the dimple of the sofa cushion. He inspected the toy duck-its popeyes and the upsweep of its tail, the pock in the center of its flat yellow belly-then waddled it along the seam of a throw pillow. Quack, he thought. Quack quack. Lewis pressed its navel to the back of his hand, squeezing, and it constricted with a squeak; when he released it, it puckered and gripped him. He heard Lisa's voice in an adjacent room, all but indistinct above a siren-roll of weeping. "Now, now," she was saying. "Now, now." Lewis put the duck down.
When Lisa returned, a small child was gathered to her shoulder. She was wrapped in fluffy red pajamas with vinyl pads at the feet, and her slender neck rose from the wreath of a wilted collar. "Shhh," Lisa whispered, gently patting her daughter's back. "Shhh."
Lisa's hair fell unbound past her forehead, its long wet strands twisted like roads on a map. Her daughter clutched the damp towel in her hands, nuzzling it as if it were a comfort blanket. "Little Miss Grump," chirped Lisa, standing at the sofa. "Aren't you, sweetie?" Caroline fidgeted and whimpered, then began to wail again.
Lisa frowned, joggling her in the crook of her arm.
"Well," she said, "let's see how the two of you get along. Caroline-" With a thrust and a sigh, she presented her daughter, straightening her arms as if engaged in a push-up. "This is Lewis. Lewis-" And she was thrashing in my hands, muscling away from me, the weight of her like something lost and suddenly remembered: a comfort and a promise, a slack sail bellying with wind.
Her voice split the air as she twitched from side to side. Padding rustled at her waist.
"Oh, dear," said Lisa. "Maybe we'd better . . ."
But Lewis wasn't listening; instead, he drew a long heavy breath. If he could pretend himself into tears, he thought, perhaps he could calm her. For a moment as sharp as a little notched hook, he held her gaze. Then, shuddering, he burst into tears. His eyes sealed fast and his lips flared wide. With a sound like the snap and rush of a struck match, his ears opened and filled with air. Barbs of flickering blue light hovered behind his eyes. He could hear the world outside growing silent and still as he wept.
When he looked out at her, Caroline was no longer crying. She blinked out at him from wide bewildered eyes, her bottom lip folding in hesitation. Then she handed him the damp towel.
It was a gesture of sympathy-meant, Lewis knew, to reassure him-and as he draped the towel over his shoulder, a broad grin creased his face.
Lisa shook her head, laughing. "Look," she said, "Thomas and I have plans for this evening, and we still haven't found a baby-sitter. So if you could come by around six-?"
Caroline heard the sound of laughter and immediately brightened, smiling and tucking her chin to her chest. Lewis brushed a finger across her cheek. "Of course," he said.
"Good." Lisa lifted her daughter from his arms. "We'll see how you do, and if all goes well . . ."
All did. When Lisa and Thomas Mitchell returned late that night-his keys and loose change jingling in his pocket, her perfume winging past him as she walked into the living room-Caroline was asleep in his lap. A pacifier dangled from her mouth. The television mumbled in the corner. Lewis started work the next morning.
As a matter of simple aesthetics, the ideal human form is that of the small child. We lose all sense of grace as we mature, all sense of balance and all sense of restraint. Tufts of wiry hair sprout like moss in our hollows; our cheekbones edge to an angle and our noses stiffen with cartilage; we buckle and curve, widen and purse, like a vinyl record left too long in the sun. The journey into our few core years is a journey beyond that which saw us complete. Many are the times I have wished that Caroline and I might have made this journey together. If I could, I would work my way backward, paring away the years. I would reel my life around the wheel of this longing like so much loose wire. I would heave myself past adolescence and boyhood, past infancy and birth, into the first thin parcel of my flesh and the frail white trellis of my bones. I would be a massing of tissue, a clutch of cells, and I'd meet with her on the other side. If I could, I would begin again, but nothing I've found will allow it. We survive into another and more awkward age than our own.
Caroline was sitting in a saddle-chair, its blue plastic tray freckled with oatmeal. She lifted a bright wedge of peach to her lips, and its syrup wept in loose strings from her fist to her bib. Lewis held the back of a polished silver spoon before her like a mirror. "Who's that?" he said. "Who's inside that spoon? Who's that in there?"
Caroline gazed into its dome as she chewed her peach. "Cah-line," she said.
Lewis reversed the spoon, and her reflection toppled over into its bowl. "Oh my goodness!" he said. His voice went weak with astonishment. "Caroline is standing on her head!" Caroline prodded the spoon, then taking it by the handle, her hand on his, steered it into her mouth. When she released it, Lewis peered inside. "Hey!" he said. His face grew stern. "Where did you put Caroline?" She patted her stomach, smiling, and Lewis gasped. "You ate Caroline!"
Caroline nodded. Her eyes, as she laughed, were as sharp and rich as light edging under a door.
The upstairs shower disengaged with a discrete shudder, and Lewis heard water suddenly gurgling through the throat of the kitchen sink. Mr. Mitchell dashed into the kitchen swinging a brown leather briefcase. He straightened his hat and drank a glass of orange juice. He skinned an apple with a paring knife. Its cortex spiraled cleanly away from the flesh and, when he left for work, it remained on the counter like a little green basket. "Six o'clock," said Mrs. Mitchell, plucking an umbrella from around a doorknob. "Seven at the outside. Think you can make it till then?" She kissed her daughter on the cheek, then waggled her earlobe with a fingertip. "Now you be a good girl, okay?" She tucked a sheaf of papers into her purse and nodded good-bye, extending her umbrella as she stepped into the morning.
That day, as a gentle rain dotted the windows, Lewis swept the kitchen and vacuumed the carpets. He dusted the roofs of dormant appliances-the oven and the toaster, the pale, serene computer. He polished the bathroom faucets to a cool silver. When Caroline knocked a pair of ladybug magnets from the refrigerator, he showed her how to nudge them across a tabletop, one with the force of the other, by pressing them pole to common pole. "You see," he said, "there's something there. It looks like nothing, but you can feel it." In the living room, they watched a sequence of animated cartoons-nimble, symphonic, awash with color. Caroline sat at the base of the television, smoothing fields of static from its screen with her palm. They read a flap-book with an inset bunny. They assembled puzzles onto sheets of corkboard. They constructed a fortress with the cushions of the sofa; when bombed with an unabridged dictionary, it collapsed like the huskwood of an old fire.