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By DEB OLIN UNFERTH
Copyright © 2008
Deb Olin Unferth
All right reserved.
Chapter One CLAIRE
I recall only one sentence that she said. She said it all the time. Every day was an occasion. If she had to be away on a shoot, she said it to my father. If I had to take cough syrup, she said it to me. She said it to the family dog before his operation. It was her wisdom. She said it with pride. What my mother said was: You won't even feel it.
I was born in the city. My father was a bank man, my mother starred in soaps. We lived like the famous in a house by the park and I woke to a vase of fresh tulips each day. We had long hallways and long tablecloths. My mother had rooms full of clothes. So many strangers gave us presents that we had a man to pen our thank-yous. Photographers slept outside the house.
One day when I was five, my mother was hit by a car and she felt it and she died and we felt it. We went away for a while, paid off our debts from afar, tried to live without her. We came back to the city. My father's business spoiled dollar by dollar. We lived on her money. Each year we grew poorer. We sold the house and moved into a smaller house and then into a large rented apartment, then into a smaller one. We moved around the city, fitting into smaller and smaller spaces, each time carrying our valuables up and down stairways-the chests, the paintings, the family china, the sofas, the wardrobes. We finally landed in the smallest studio with the dog and our little cat and all of our furniture and light fixtures and jewelry. We laid out the expensive rugs one on top of another on the floor. We hung the paintings floor to low ceiling. It was in this room that my father became sick and couldn't work. We sold our things off one by one, peeled up a rug or took down a picture, and in this way we paid the medical bills and the other bills and we lived, somewhat. When the floor and walls were bare and the room was mostly cleared out, my father had one more thing to tell me. Early in our marriage, he said, your mother ran off with someone else and she came back pregnant. You are not my daughter.
I felt that too.
I was sixteen that year.
Today I thought about the man who raised me because of a man who sat down next to me on the train. He had a strangely shaped head. It seemed to be almost dented a little. He kept to himself on his seat and I to myself on my seat. We regarded one another.
Later I woke to an empty seat beside me and we pulled into the Syracuse depot. I looked out the window at the few frail people waiting for a train the other way, a strip of woman and her tiny, mittened girl. Suitcases on the bench. And there, I saw him, the man with the head. He'd gotten off the train. He was standing flush-faced in the chill, his suitcase on the platform, his hat crushed in his hand like a wad of paper, the other hand curled around the handle of a briefcase. A businessman. A man with a two-week vacation that he gets no matter what. If he dies and hasn't used his two weeks, they wrench open his coffin and put the money inside.
But who would want to waste a vacation on a place like that, a town so cold and so small, jammed into the countryside like a sliver? Part of a train ticket, an extra included in the fare, is that they'll move you even if you don't know where you are or how to get anywhere. If you are too exhausted or brainless, if your brain has been killed off and destroyed, if you are dead, they will still transport you, as long as your ticket has not expired. That's how that man looked at that moment with the splinter of Syracuse stuck in his head. He looked a little like the man I had called father most of my life-not the head, my father's was a perfect egg, but because he had the same false energy of someone who does not yet know they are down for the count. Then the train was pulling out. He followed it, first with his eyes, then with his body, turning as it went. I closed my eyes. I didn't want to see him left behind.
Chapter Two The train pulled away. Myers walked the length of the platform.
He took a cab to Gray's neighborhood, lines of identical houses in rows, different from each other only in superficial ways-the size of the chimney or placement of the porch-or in meeker assertions, a mailbox that looked like a reindeer, a soggy doll fastened to a swing. Evidence of thoughtless, pleasureless lives.
The taxi pulled up to Gray's house. It was set back from the street and it sunk into the coming darkness. Shut blinds, an empty driveway, an unmowed lawn. The cabman put the car in park, swiped the meter. Myers stayed where he was.
They don't just spill onto the sidewalk, my friend, the cabman said. You go up and ring the bell. Ding dong.
Myers got out and ran up. It was raining here too and water went down his face. He rang and waited. No one came to the door. He flipped the mailbox. A full run of mail, side-stacked, stuffed. He rang again. He opened the screen and knocked. An ineffectual thud on solid wood. The house was the muted color of a people dominated by the landscape, people who just want to get something down that won't blow away. He knocked again, rapped on the diamond window. Through it, dark shapes, stillness. So Gray wasn't home yet. Okay. He grasped the doorknob, turned it (why not? the fucker), shook it. It was locked. He looked at his watch. Now what.
Under his feet the word welcome had its say.
He ran back to the taxi.
Where'd you come in from? asked the cabman, turning the meter back on, putting the car in park. Myers told him (wearily) and the cabman said he'd been there, damn fine locale, a bit busy, you know what, they put their garbage on the sidewalks and there's traffic, crime, parking's impossible, but nice spot. Then the cabman told him where he, the cabman, was from and also told him where his parents were from and where their parents were from and his wife's parents too, both sides and the sides before that. Then he went on to tell him about his daughter-age, eye color, favorite book this week, favorite book last week-then about his wife and the wife before this one, which one was better, in what ways. Then about the circles he drove in each day and what changes he noticed in them, in the cement and the paint and the people, the spread of Syracuse, the flat of it, all this and more, and how long did Myers want to wait?
Hi Gray, he was going to say. Thought I'd just drop in, see what you had going on here. Check in on the nearby alumni, sort of knock around. I see the kitchen could use a coat of paint. Maybe some new cabinets. Somebody should take apart that foosball table. How about if I give you a hand? Whatever's needed, whatever minor chore stands undone. Here, why don't you get up on this ladder, Gray, check the gutter-careful! oh, oops. Hand me that hammer, would you? That saw? That power drill? Lean over this way a little. I can't seem to get your eye from this angle.
Small satisfactions awaited him on the other side of these moments.
Was Gray a fix-it man? Did he own a foosball table? A ladder?
When Myers thought about it, he didn't know anything about the guy.
Outside, twig trees, half-empty, dim in last daylight, the day moving to night. A scratch of naked bushes. Inside, the cabman talked on and on, now about a radio he'd bought, now a trapeze artist he'd known, the three-finger waltz he'd learned from his ma, a knife he'd found on the backseat one day, not sharp enough to hurt anyone, a carving knife, like for clay, you understand, for reducing the size of sculptures, for making objects smaller, slowly.
Guy's not coming, he got around to saying at last.
He'll be here.
I can see that.
He had to be around here somewhere. He still had his usual teaching schedule, four four, comp, business writing, a mild commute. Last time Myers had called (and hung up), Gray had still answered in his despondent voice at both phones-home and office-and there was no sign of anyone picking up and taking off midsemester. That much Myers felt certain of.
What's that you say? You don't know what this is about? Maybe a little drill in the earhole will jog your memory. Maybe a little claw of the old clawhammer to the knee. Maybe some takeout, as in, let's take this outside. As in, let's take your fingers outside, one by one, toss them out the window. Then let's see what you know and don't.
Small satisfactions and, who knows, maybe big ones too. An hour was going by and then had gone by and another was beginning. Around them, the citizens of Syracuse were dragging themselves home from another day on the make. One got into a sport-utility vehicle two driveways down, his swollen body stuffed inside a coat and slouched under an umbrella. Myers himself was plumped under his own layers of cloth and plastic-based materials.
So what shot you off to Syracuse? the cabman was saying now.
Oh, the usual-vacation, fleeing the cubicle, you know, Myers said.
Odd spot for a holiday.
Friend of the wife.
I don't see a wife anywhere.
She's coming later.
The cabman seemed to have chatted himself out. Seemed ready for an explanation from the backseat, by God. He glanced back at Myers. the cabman, fore-armed, seamannish, ex-army. Myers was beginning to despise him.
How much longer you want to wait?
Give him a little, said Myers. Eye on the front door, the driveway, the walk.
I'm turning off the engine.
Leave it on. It's cold out.
He shut it off.
Hello Gray, good to see you. It's Myers. So you're still living alone, I see. Gained a few pounds, put on a few years, lost a hair or two, huh, pal? We sat in the same room for fourteen weeks running once. We gazed at numbers on a board. We bubbled in our Scantron sheets, put down our pencils when done. I suspect your grades were as middling as mine. Maybe worse-you're dumber. Remember the macaroni, the buttered toast? The jello salad? That's right, we ate food that came out of the same troughs. I missed my chance to gut you right then.
He had memories of Gray from college days. Gray had appeared some sophomore year and sat in the cafeteria with a backpack. He rifled through papers, scribbled, dog-eared, lined up his bottles of soda. After that he mostly vanished into the public transportation system-Myers recalled a glimpse of him leaning around the bus stop. Myers could remember no award of any sort being given the man. No sailing trophy, no honor roll, no debate club. No special interests, no reading Mein Kampf on the quad or passing out religious pamphlets, no part in any play.
What happened to your head anyway? said the cabman.
My head? Myers wiped his nose. Oh, I think I'm coming down with a cold.
Gray (he'd say, putting down his briefcase, propping an arm on the doorframe), I rode all the way from New York today. I had the worst day of my life. Six hours on a train will do things to a man. I feel like I've got a broken hip now. I feel like I've got a broken neck. And I'm tacked to all this suitcase crap. I have to tell you, Gray, for your sake I wish I had a broken neck, I really do. A man with a broken neck knows the thing is over. His enemies are safe. The way it stands now-I hate to say it-for you, it's not looking good.
The crew cut, the hard face, the cabman. I'm off soon, he said.
Myers could jimmy the door. After all, they had been classmates. It was better than riding all this way and not bothering to confirm he wasn't here. Better than going as far as the train, as far as the Syracuse depot, the cab, the curb, the mat, and then giving up, not even attempting the house itself. If anyone asked, came prowling by with a shotgun, he could say, Oh, he asked me to drop in, bring in the mail, water whatever stood it, that order of thing.
What else does Myers remember from those college days when Gray was around and Myers ignored him, just let the guy walk on by while Myers was wrapped up in his own bleak affairs, his own muddles? He remembered Gray's room had been next to the kid who sang on the balcony, the asshole who sang though he had no voice for it, and even if he had, nobody remembered buying a ticket and standing in line to hear any singing, so why did he have to let the whole building in free? Gray had often been half on the scene that way-accidentally present, nearby someone doing something.
In fact Gray had been the most unremarkable student the town had ever seen, and he went that way, unremarked on, through four years of auto-replay days of college and then two more for some other forgettable degree, a brief marriage, a quiet divorce. Myers had found all this out from his own unremarkable seat in front of the computer screen.
Myers hadn't been spectacular either. He did what he was best at: sat toward the front and took notes. He managed to secure a degree in two pointless subjects (Spanish, design), pointless because, well, he'd never spoken to an actual Spanish-speaking person who wasn't being paid for the pleasure. But he took care of his library fines, sleeved his degree in plastic, slogged away. That was the last he'd seen of Syracuse. He moved to Brooklyn, rode around on the train in a suit along with everybody else. Took one job, then another. Felt the panic of empty repetitive motion. Then one day he felt like he'd finally found a way to make it all worth waking up for, had met this amazing woman.
Myers might try this tack: Gray, I'll remove the shotgun from your mouth but you have to tell me what happened. I may not know you well but I've known you longer than I've known most humans alive. Longer than I've known my own beloved wife. She's left me at last. I mean, I've left her. I've agreed to go quietly or at least I've agreed to go. May as well, she's already left, in her way.
She had amazed him, all right, first by her sheer existence, then by agreeing to marry him, and then she kept amazing him further, he could never quite get over anything she did, he just stood there, stunned, until this very morning when he'd left, and she would probably amaze him more before it was done, yep.
It was night now. Outside, a car dome light spotlit a final woman tugging a grocery bag from a backseat and out into the pour. The color ran over the cement, the scrap of red purse, mud-yellow hair, bluish coat. Was that someone coming down the sidewalk? Too dark to see.
Other tiny college memories: Gray staring out the window of the library. Gray working the town video counter for a while. Had no car back then, could be seen walking, his head above the snowdrifts.
The cabman turned around in his seat, the headrest between them.
Is your wife really friends with this guy?
Oh, they have a special bond, all right.
You better not go near this guy, said the cabman, arm hooked over the seat. Whatever he did with your wife, it's over.
I don't want your advice.
It's not advice.
Just take me to a hotel.
My shift is over. Get out.
Out of the cab, buddy.
I'll need my suitcase.
The hotel, the situation of the hotel, the predicament of it, out there on the outskirts of town, couldn't have been worse. All the hollow blocks, all the horizontal landscapes of his dreams. Somebody had come and flattened the earth down like this, as an intentional act, and then swept it clean of debris, put in these space-age cartons. This series of low-gravity chambers, a cheap trial run, a sample of the final made from chrome. It was the ugliest building of his life, a cluster of antennae and plates sticking off the roof, a few bleak balconies looking out over a wash rack of highways, a breeze chilling through. Strings of parked cars receded away into a dense thicket of lots.
So Gray hadn't come home. The lesson learned here was to not ever, ever look forward to anything, ever. Crush expectation. Count on nothing but your own grave. The only thing to do now was to check into this crap hotel, put his crap down, and emerge with a grimmer outlook.
His own smallness, his solitude, the cul-de-sac of his mind.
He'd asked her to marry him almost immediately on meeting her. He knew right away he would love her.
Places Gray might be: He might be standing on linoleum or carpet, his shoes in contact with it. Or he might not be standing. He might be lying down on soft sheets at this time of day, as in sleep, love, or illness. He might be next to a table, sitting at it. He might have his elbows on it. Or he might be in water, or falling through air toward it, diving. Pool, lake, ocean. Or it might have nothing to do with water, but there might be grass or trees or other markers suggesting nature.
Excerpted from Vacation by DEB OLIN UNFERTH Copyright © 2008 by Deb Olin Unferth. Excerpted by permission.
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