Now in paperback, Eric Puchner's celebrated debut collection, a finalist for the New York Public Library's Young Lions Fiction Award, established him as one of our most brilliant and promising new literary voices.
Writing from an impressive range of perspectives men and women, children and adults, immigrants and tourists Puchner deftly exposes the dark, tender undersides of his characters with arresting beauty and precision. Here are people fumbling for identity in a dehumanizing world, captured in moments that are hilarious, shocking, and transcendent, sometimes all at once. Unfailingly true, surprisingly moving, and impossible to forget, these stories make up an extraordinary and strikingly original collection.
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Children of God
The ad said they needed someone to model "patterns of survival." At the interview, a woman with an E.T. poster on her door told me about the job. "You'd be working at their house," she said, "taking care of two clients with special needs."
I couldn't even take care of myself, but I needed a job. "Are they retarded?"
"Okay, yeah. We don't say that anymore." She coaxed herself out of a frown, in a way that suggested I was the only candidate. "There's a new name: developmentally disabled."
They gave me a new name, too: Community Living Instructor. This was in Portland, Oregon. I started working at a home for people who couldn't tie their shoes, helping two grown men get through the day.
Jason was worse off. At twenty-eight, he was afflicted with so many diseases that his meds were delivered in a garbage bag. He made Job look like a whiner. Enlarged by hydrocephalus, his head drooped from his body, which twisted in his wheelchair as if it were trying to unscrew from his neck. His mouth hung open in a constant drool. His hands, crippled from dystrophy, curled inward as though he wanted to clutch his own wrists. Among other things, he was prone to seizures and cataleptic fits. He had chronic diarrhea. Every evening, after dinner, I was met with a smell so astounding I had to plug my nose with cotton. I'd wheel Jason, besmirched and grinning, to the bedroom to change his mess. "I made a bad, bad meeeesss!" he'd yell, flapping his arms. "Now we're cooking with oil!" For the most part, his vocabulary consisted of cliches he'd picked up from former care workers, many of them bizarre or unsavory to start with: "cooking with oil" was one, as was "you said a mouthful when you said that." Other times, he was capable of surprising clarity. He loved action movies particularly ones in which nature avenged itself on humanity and would recount the death of a dinosaur hunter as if it were a sidesplitting joke.
The changing of the mess, though, was the high point of Jason's day. He giggled uproariously when I lifted him from the wheelchair, his arms kinked around my neck as I carried him to bed. He never failed, during our brief walk together, to burrow his tongue deep into my ear.
Dominic was more serious. Brooding, treacherously off balance, he staggered around the house like a drunk. Down syndrome had smudged his face into the flat, puttylike features of a Hollywood gangster. He was beautiful in a way that startled women. He was thirty-two years old and owned a bike with a banana seat and training wheels. The bike was supposed to be impossible to tip over. He'd strap a helmet on his head and wiggle into an armature of pads and then go for a ride down the street, returning ten minutes later covered in blood. I cleaned his wounds with a sponge. About ten times a day, he'd sneak into the bathroom to "fresh his breath." He always left the door open, and I'd watch him sometimes from the hall. He'd nurse the faucet first, sucking on it until his mouth filled with water. Then he'd pop up suddenly and arch his back in a triumphant stance, face lifted toward the ceiling. Sometimes he'd stay like that for thirty seconds moaning, arms outstretched, eyes shut tight like a shaman receiving prophecies before puking his guts out in the sink.
His voice, when he spoke, was sleepy and far-fetched. He preferred the middles of words. "Abyoola!" he liked to say, meaning "Fabulous!" When he told a story, it was like Rocky Balboa channeling a demon.
I'd moved to Portland after a month of sleeping in my car, driving aimlessly around the West and living off my father's Mobil card. The driving had to do with a frantic feeling in my stomach. I felt like Wile E. Coyote when he goes off a cliff, stranded in midair and trying to crawl back to the edge before he plummets. In the glove box, sealed with plastic and a rubber band, was a Dixie cup of my mother's ashes that I'd nabbed from her memorial when I was twelve. I kept it there for good luck. Before my month of driving, I'd taped Sheetrock in Idaho, sold vacuum cleaners in Missoula, Montana, worked as a baggage handler at the Salt Lake City airport.
To pass the day, I took Jason and Dominic on field trips. There was a special van in the garage, and I'd load Jason onto the lift and strap down his wheels so he wouldn't roll out the window. The van had been donated by a traveling magician and was painted purple. We'd drive to cafes, outdoor fairs, movie theaters. They liked easy-listening stations "I Write the Songs," "Send in the Clowns" and I'd crank the old AM stereo as loud as it would go. I'd roll down the windows and listen to Jason scream words at the top of his lungs, naming the passing creatures of the world like Adam on a roller coaster. "Dog!" he'd yell. "Girl! Pizza boy!" Dominic would stick his head out the window of the front seat, his hair exploding in the wind. Someone had taught him how to flip people off and he'd give pedestrians the finger as we passed. It was a good test of character, and I liked watching people question the simplicity of innocence.
Once, at a stoplight, a guy in a fraternity sweatshirt returned the gesture and then strode up to Dominic's side of the van, his girlfriend sloping behind him. The guy's arm was outstretched to better advertise his finger, which he was following like a carrot.
"What the fuck, man," the guy said to Dominic. "You looking for a new asshole?"
Dominic wagged his finger at the guy's face, enjoying himself immensely. "We're going to get some ice cream," I explained.
The guy took a closer look at Dominic and turned red. He dropped his hand and glanced at his girlfriend, who was regarding him with distaste.
"You should teach them some manners," he mumbled. "This isn't the goddamn circus."
At Baskin-Robbins, we waited in line while the customers ahead of us sucked on little spoons. Dominic ogled the women. He was a pervert only because of his IQ; otherwise, he'd have been concealing his interest like the rest of us. It was more metaphysical than sexual. Sometimes I'd find him staring at a lingerie-clad model in a magazine, struck dumb with fervor, his lips moving silently as if in prayer.
While we waited, Jason slumped in his wheelchair and I wiped the drool from his chin. The woman in front of us kept glancing back at him. It was always the same expression, a coded kind of smile directed at me as well, like we shared some secret knowledge about the afterlife.
Finally, she couldn't resist any longer and squatted beside Jason. "What's your favorite flavor?" she brayed, as if she were speaking to a foreigner.
He seemed to study the case of ice cream. "Like trying to sell Jesus a jogging suit!"
"That's right, dear," the woman muttered but didn't talk to him again.
When it was Dominic's turn to order, he staggered around the counter before I could stop him and stood by the cash register. The girl behind the counter laughed. He stared at her breasts without speaking. I might have done something to ward off disaster, but I wanted to see what would happen.
"Show me what you want," she said. It was the wrong thing to say. Dominic grabbed one of her breasts. "Hey," the girl said, laughing. She tried to pull away and he held on, clutching at her shirt. He wore an expression of deep, incredulous despair. "Hey!" the girl said. Finally, I ran around the counter and pulled Dominic off with two hands, leading him back to the customer side, where he seemed unembarrassed by his conduct.
It was always like that: the world scorned them, but they were freely and openly themselves. I admired them greatly. We tried to order ice cream, but the girl was shaken and refused to serve us.
I lived in a studio apartment with no phone. The only piece of furniture was a pea-colored sofa I'd bought at the Goodwill and dragged up five flights of stairs by myself. For three days, because of my poor grasp of geometry, it remained lodged vertically in the doorway. I was still on the Mobil dining plan: maple bars and hot dogs and Snapple iced tea. I had a box of books and a box of cooking utensils, but I never unpacked them.
My dad moved away when I was in college and took up with an ex-movie star. Actually, she wasn't a movie star at all but somebody who used to stand in for movie stars during long or onerous rehearsals. She hadn't been on a set for years but liked to talk about "Bob" Redford and "Marty" Sheen. My father had convinced her he was rich. Now they lived in Utah, in the middle of the desert, and he was taking care of her children.
I'd called my dad from a pay phone, the month I was living out of my Subaru.
"You surprised me," he said. "Where are you?"
"Jesus, Drew. What are you doing in Vegas?"
"Good one. Seeing some friends." Actually, I'd spent the afternoon in a casino bathroom, shivering on the toilet and battling suicidal fantasies, visions of myself with my brains blown out and soaking in a puddle. "I was thinking I'd drive up and stay with you guys for a few days."
"Sure," he said. "That would be fine. I mean great. Come on up." He hesitated, and I could hear a woman's voice in the background. "It's Drew," my dad said. "Drew? Hang on a sec, will you?"
He put his hand over the receiver. For a long time, I couldn't hear anything but the ring of a slot machine behind me. Then the sound came back and I caught the tail end of a sentence in the background, the woman's voice saying, "running a B & B."
"Drew? This weekend's a little hectic. You know we've got five of us here already and the place is a mess."
I laughed, but it sounded as far off as the slot machine. Chink chink chink.
"The thing is," my dad said, "I'm not sure where you'll sleep."
"Jackpot," I said before hanging up. "Do you hear that?"
Every afternoon, at Jason and Dominic's, we'd sit at the dining room table and sift through the day's mail, giggling at the letters addressed to "Cigar Lover" or "Channel Surfer." Sometimes, from the mailbox on the corner, I'd send them postcards I'd collected on my travels, thirty-cent souvenirs picturing places like Orchard Homes, Montana, or Mexican Hat, Utah. "Wish you were here!" I'd write. Or "Having the time of my life!" We put the postcards in a shoe box in case the happy stranger returned.
One day, sometime in March, Dominic got a sweepstakes letter and we opened it excitedly. I filled out the necessary information, showing him how to paste the publisher's stamps in the little squares. For a week after we'd sent it in, he seemed mercurial, distracted. He was particularly excited about the grand prize a 1969 Mustang convertible with a galloping horse on the grille and I helped him put the glossy picture of it on the refrigerator.
Filling in for a graveyard shift one night, I started from a nap at 5:00 a.m. when the front door creaked open. I went to investigate and saw Dominic sitting on the steps like a gloomy wino in his Fruit of the Looms, squinting at the half-lit street.
"What are you doing, Dominic?" I asked, putting my hand on his shoulder.
"Ooing," he said, in his no-consonant drone.
"Yes, doing. It's five in the morning."
He looked at me queerly. "Ar," he said, meaning "car." Since his subjects were limited, I'd learned to translate his words into their probable correlates. "Red car no roof!" he explained.
In my tired state, I pictured the red convertible rolling down the street, tied up with a giant bow. I explained to him the chances were one in a trillion. "There's no car, Dominic. It's a scam a game, you see? We just did it for fun. You've got no chance at all."
He stared at me without comprehending. "Car! Red car go fast!"
"Besides, you can't drive. You'd crash it anyway."
"No crash!" he said angrily, rising to his feet.
Spit flew from his lips. Such passion! I would have given anything to care like that. I got Dominic to bed finally but lay wide-eyed on the couch, relapsing into suicidal fantasies. Live each day as your last, they say, but nobody in their right mind would try it. I reminded myself that it was Jason's birthday tomorrow, that I was the only one of the three of us who knew how to bake a cake.
The next afternoon I returned to the house and started getting ready for the party. We strung up balloons, and I bought party hats and noisemakers. Jason's parents were supposed to arrive at three o'clock. At 2:45, the phone rang and a woman's voice drawled bashfully into my ear. She told me that their car was in the shop with brake trouble.
"I'm so sorry. I know Jason was expecting us."
"He's waiting for his presents," I said.
She fumbled with the phone. "I can't tell you. We feel just awful about this."
"Look, we'll just come over there. Give me your address. I'll bring the cake and noisemakers."
An awkward pause. "Oh, no. Don't trouble yourself. I mean, it's too far a drive for them. They won't enjoy it."
"It's no trouble," I said loudly. "They love riding in the van."
It was a long ride on the freeway and we heard "Send in the Clowns" two times. Jason sat in the back, displaying none of his customary excitement at being on the road. "It's your birthday," I kept reminding him. When I told him we were going to see his parents, he just stared out the window with his head wilting like a sunflower. Eventually we found the exit and climbed a steep suburban street into some hills, rising above the great cloverleaf of the freeway into a development of newly built houses. I looked for some signs of recognition on Jason's face, but then realized he may never have been there before.
Jason's parents greeted us at the door and invited us into the kitchen. Even though it was rainy season, they both had sunburns. Their faces were blank behind their smiles: I could have shaken them like an Etch A Sketch and made them disappear. The Kreighbaums seemed shy around their son, talking to him in special voices and exchanging covert looks. Mr. Kreighbaum wore a winded expression that emphasized the redness of his face, as if he'd just completed a succession of cartwheels. He watched me empty the contents of the bag I'd brought, peering at the party favors I laid out on the counter.
The whole place made my teeth hurt. In fact, I was clenching them in rage.
"Put on a party hat," I commanded Mr. Kreighbaum.
"Oh, no." He chuckled, glancing at his wife. "I don't think it'll fit."
"I promised Jason."
He took the little hat from my hand, sneaking a glimpse out the window before stretching the elastic cord around his chin. His head looked gigantic under the paper cone of the hat. We walked, wheeled, and staggered into the dining room and sat at the long oak table, which held a meager stack of presents. Mrs. Kreighbaum brought out plates of fruit salad and served us without speaking. I went to the kitchen and reentered with the cake, and we sang "Happy Birthday" to Jason, but he just sat there and refused to blow out his candles. His eyes were rheumy and distracted. I tried to cheer him up with a noisemaker, but he batted it from his face with one hook.
"When's the last time you've seen Jason?" I asked Mrs. Kreighbaum.
She looked at her husband. "I don't know. Gosh." She turned her smile in my direction. "He seems so happy where he is."
"I'm gonna open up a can of whup-ass," Jason said.
Mr. Kreighbaum tried to interest him in the presents, but he pushed them away with a listless shove. Undeterred, Mr. Kreighbaum opened up the biggest box on the table, feigning surprise at the contents. It was a plastic trout that flapped its tail when you came near it and sang "Take Me to the River." You were supposed to hang it on the wall. Clearly, the resourceful man had run out to Walgreens before we got there and bought whatever he could find.
He slid the toy from its box and laid it on the table to demonstrate. The trout was more convincing as an allegory of death, flapping its tail against the table and pleading for our mercy. Jason, incredibly, showed little interest. In the end Mr. Kreighbaum had to open the presents himself, slumped over the table in his party hat, holding each toy up for our approval.
Mrs. Kreighbaum out of politeness, probably tried to engage Dominic. "How's the fruit salad?" she asked.
"Amen on that," I said to Dominic. "I agree with you one hundred percent."
Dominic asked where the bathroom was, and I had to repeat the question before Mrs. Kreighbaum would answer him. He lurched out of his chair. I thought he might knock something over, but he fumbled his way down the hall without disaster. Soon we could hear the yaaks and spits, the sounds of exultant retching.
"It's a masturbation thing," I explained, trying to hide my elation. "He's sexually frustrated."
About halfway through the presents, Jason got a sheepish, self-occupied look. The stench was tremendous. It was no illusion: we were working together. I let the Kreighbaums sit there for a while, watching them stare at their plates while the house echoed with bulimic groans.
"Do you have any diapers?" I asked eventually.
Mrs. Kreighbaum shook her head. I went to get an Attends from the emergency stash in the van and threw the diaper in Mr. Kreighbaum's lap. I asked him to change Jason in the bedroom, managing to bestow the task with a sense of honor. He glanced at his wife a quick, despondent peek and then looked at me pitifully.
"I think Susie might be better equipped."
"He only lets men," I said.
"But I'm his mother!" Mrs. Kreighbaum said.
"Please this is no time to take things personally." I turned to Mr. Kreighbaum. "Grab a bucket and some dish towels. You'll need to wipe him down first."
He nodded. Clutching the Attends like a book, Mr. Kreighbaum stood up obediently and rummaged under the sink in the kitchen until he found an empty paint can. He held it up for approval and then wheeled Jason through the open doorway at the far end of the hall. The door closed behind them with an air of doom. Mrs. Kreighbaum and I picked at the remnants of our cake. Something about her face, the way it stared helplessly into her plate, gave me a twinge of guilt.
Eventually the noises stopped and Dominic staggered back into the dining room, grinning from exhaustion, eyes glazed from the effort of his puking. He smiled at Mrs. Kreighbaum and said something I couldn't decipher. She glanced at the closed door at the end of the hall, eyeing it with a look of canine longing. How hard was it to change a diaper? I asked her to watch Dominic and then went down the hall to investigate.
It was worse than I'd expected. Jason, naked and white as a canvas, was curled up on the king-size bed, his ass and legs obscured by a painterly mess. Mr. Kreighbaum stood above him with sagging shoulders, hair thorned with sweat, holding a wet rag that was dripping on the carpet. The party hat had slipped down and was sticking out of the front of his forehead. He looked like a big, melanomic unicorn. There was shit on his hands and shirt and all over the denim comforter covering the bed. His hands trembled. He looked at me in despair, surrendering eagerly to defeat, like a refrigerator repairman asked to do an autopsy.
I burned the image in my mind, savoring it while I could.
I brushed Mr. Kreighbaum aside and cleaned Jason myself, changing his Attends and setting him carefully back in the wheelchair. He looked at his father and laughed out loud. "You're cruising for a bruising!" he said. He giggled all the way back to the dining room, his mood magically improved. Dominic, however, had disappeared.
"I asked you to watch him!" I said.
Mrs. Kreighbaum clutched a chair. "I had to use the restroom."
I saw that she was crying. My teeth had stopped hurting, finally, but I didn't feel any better. The two of us went to look for Dominic and found him standing by the curb across the street, bent over someone's Jetta and peering through the window like a burglar. The dandruff in his hair sparkled in the sun. He turned to us with yearning, half-open eyes.
"Red," he mumbled. "My car for zoom."
"That's not your car," I said. "We're at the wrong house completely."
On the way home, we stopped at Burger King for some Whoppers and sat next to an elderly woman with gigantic eyes filling her glasses. She watched Jason and Dominic maul their food, smiling in that special way when I caught her eye.
"Children of God," she whispered, leaning across her table and nodding seriously.
I couldn't suppress a laugh. Jason, who'd been observing the scene with an amused look, tugged at my elbow.
"What did she say?" he asked.
"She called you 'children of God.'"
He guffawed. "Children of Gaawwd?"
"That's right," I said, practically guffawing myself.
The lady turned white. Dominic soon picked up on the joke and joined us in our laughter, gasping out wild, choking horselaughs, the three of us splitting our sides until we almost fell out of our seats.
Occasionally, after my shift with Jason and Dominic, I'd go to a bar on my street to get drunk. It was the kind of place with a neon martini glass for a name and an unsinkable turd floating in the toilet. Each time the same middle-age boat worker would buy me drinks. She cleaned yachts on the Willamette and her skin reeked of chemicals. Years in the sun had crumpled her face. She took classes at the hatha yoga center next door and was always waiting at the bar with her rolled-up mat, like a hobo.
When she got drunk, she'd stand on her head to prove she could drive. She was the only alcoholic yoga enthusiast I'd ever met. Once she asked me what I did for a living.
"I work with some retards," I said.
"Right," she said, commiserating. "I know what you mean."
After the fourth or fifth drink, I'd wait until she went to the bathroom before escaping out into the night.
In the mornings before work, I'd take long strolls through the industrial streets of Portland, muttering to myself in a somnolent daze. I walked the same streets every day but never knew where I was. The fog hung in shreds; I stepped through secret portals and found the sun. It was the fantasies the suicide fog in my head that I couldn't step out of. The fact that I was going crazy crossed my mind more than once, but the beauty of the city distracted me, the ivy-covered walls and elegantly trussed bridges. In stores, I found it difficult to talk to people: my mouth floundered out a Dominic-style vowelese that made cashiers pull back in disgust. I felt like a visitor from another planet, inhabiting some poor earthling's body.
"Are you all right?" someone asked when I was having trouble buying groceries. The little machine at the counter, and then the checkout girl herself, kept asking for my PIN number. I knew the PIN was my birth date, that wasn't the problem. The problem was I couldn't remember when I was born.
"Of course not," I said, losing patience. "You're being...rhetorical?"
The man stepped back. "I was trying to help."
"Look, you're driving me up the wall."
I would weep for no reason, sometimes for hours. A physical condition. My heart was an onion making me cry. I started arriving earlier and earlier at Jason and Dominic's, relieving other people before their shifts were done.
Once, driving back from the movies, we passed by a long, sprawling cemetery bristling with tombstones. Jason seemed very interested in the graves, even the ones without balloons tied to them. I watched his face grow shyly contemplative in the rearview mirror.
"Dead guys," I explained.
"Why?" he said, staring out the window.
"You mean why are they dead?" I was impressed by his curiosity. "Excellent question. Superb." I tried to think, a painful undertaking. "Maybe they were jealous of the dead people. I mean, when they were alive. They got tired of shitting themselves. You know, like an escape except you go under the ground."
"Under the ground?" He was grinning, though he seemed confused. "So what do they eat?"
"They're just bones. They don't know how to eat."
I thought he might be alarmed by this, but he found it very amusing. "They don't know how to...eat?" he spat out, before convulsing with laughter.
Dominic picked up on the joke, and the two of them giggled, trading smirks. Of course it was funny all those drastically stupid skeletons. When we got back, I walked them to my car and showed them the Dixie cup of ashes in the glove box, explaining how the gray silt used to be a person. I thought they should know their alternatives. Dominic, in particular, greeted the idea with scorn. "No clean!" he said. I handed the ashes to Jason, who thought they were meds and tried to lift them to his mouth.
The next day we went to a coffee shop on Hawthorne Boulevard and ran into the boat worker who liked to buy me drinks. She stared at us as we ordered three lattes with straws in them. In the daylight, sitting by herself in the corner, she looked less toxic. I introduced her to Jason and Dominic, who were impressed by her gender.
"Smell like blue!" Dominic said, sniffing her fingers.
"Cut it out," I told him.
"Blue water toilet!"
She looked at me, frowning. "These are your co-workers?"
"Best friends," I joked, pretending it wasn't true.
Dominic touched her hair. I'd forgotten her name and she told me, wincing a little.
"Mensa?" I said. "Like the whatever thing for geniuses?"
She shrugged. "My mom liked the sound of it."
I took her back to Jason and Dominic's, showed her the house where I spent most of my time. She burped for their entertainment and let Dominic hold her breast. We weren't used to having visitors and kept looking at ourselves in the mirror above the filing cabinet. After a little while, Mensa got up and started flipping through the cupboards in the kitchen.
"Don't they have anything to drink in this house?" she asked.
"I don't think that's one of their patterns of survival."
"Great. What about us?"
Later, we retreated to Jason's Flex-A-Bed while he and Dominic watched a video in the living room. Mensa's face was stitched with lines, like an Arctic explorer's. I held her tight and curled my legs into her stomach. Dinosaurs roared in the background. She tried to interest me in other things, which annoyed me: I wanted to be clutched. I'd heard about a machine, invented by an autistic person, that would clench you in a giant rubber hand for as long as you needed.
"You're the most miserable lover I've ever had," she said, probing her nostril with a finger. She picked her nose without embarrassment, as if she were enjoying a cigarette.
"So I hear."
"No. I mean, I thought I had problems."
She started coming over in the afternoons, showing up after work in her coveralls. She had a flask with a golf ball on it that she'd stolen from one of the yachts she worked on. We'd fold together in Jason's bed and clutch each other until my arm went numb. The sweat in her hair smelled like Dra'no. I didn't deserve a morsel of grace, even a noxious one, but no one had bothered to let her know. Afterward, she'd do yoga on the front lawn in the mizzling rain, lying on her back and then lifting herself slowly into an arch, like a demolition shown in reverse. The poses had mysterious names: Downward Dog, Sun Salute. Once I found her lying on the grass in a random-looking sprawl, the palms of her hands turned up to the drizzle.
"The Corpse," she explained later. "Feels wonderful."
Two months after visiting his parents, Jason had a grand mal seizure. It happened on the morning shift, but I got there in time to catch the paramedics loading his exhausted body into the ambulance, to see the gaunt perplexity of his face. We had a special employee meeting, and the Care Services Coordinator warned us Jason could die on anyone's shift; he'd already lived past his projected life span. The house was lonely without him, and I wondered if his parents were visiting him in the hospital.
When he got back, Jason seemed wan and listless. I changed his mess like always, but he didn't giggle or stick his tongue in my ear. When I tried to teach him some new cliches, he just stared at me with a drifting face.
His mother started dropping by now and then, treating me like a servant now that she was in her son's house. She read picture books to Jason while I cooked Hamburger Helper or prepared his meds. She always left after thirty minutes, mid-book, when she'd appeased her guilt for hoping he would die. His father never came.
To cheer him up, I brought Mensa to the house. She burped at Jason his favorite trick but he just stared at her without laughing. Then he rolled his eyes to the wall, trapped in a dream. Dominic sat on the front steps as usual, staring resolutely down the street with his hands folded in his lap, like a millennialist awaiting the Rapture. He'd sit there for a million years, while the glaciers returned and sharks waddled from the ocean. I felt a breathless envy that made me sick.
"You think he'd give a shit that his roommate's dying," I said.
"Probably it doesn't mean anything to him," Mensa said. "Life and death."
I went outside and interrupted Dominic's vigil.
"Red car!" he said, jumping up. "Fastest car!"
"Dominic, will you shut up?" He was excited and tottering. I had to grip his shoulders to steady him. "There's no car coming."
"Red car go zoom!"
"Dominic, listen to me!"
"You're not going to win anything!" I said, shaking him. His head flopped back and forth. "Can't you get that through your thick skull?"
Jason never went back to his original self. He sat in the back of the van and saved himself for special occasions, shouting out the window only at particularly ludicrous sights, like a dog or a hippie. He lost his sense of schadenfreude during movies and stopped guffawing when someone was killed or eaten.
When we passed the cemetery now, he stared out the window and eyed it suspiciously.
"Dead people," he said. His mouth changed at the corners, but I couldn't tell if it was a smirk or a frown.
"Yep." I knew what was coming.
"They don't know how to eat."
"That's right," I said cheerfully. "They're too stupid."
"We're smarter than them," he whispered with his head bowed, like a wish.
Mensa and I found a cheap body shop on Burnside and took my Subaru in for a paint job. I'd saved enough using my dad's Mobil card on daily necessities to pay for it. When the car was finished, we drove to the house and parked it on the curb. I brought Dominic outside with a blindfold on, leading him down the steps and untying it before he fell on his head.
He stood there for a minute, rubbing his eyes. Except in the movies, I'd never seen anyone rub their eyes in astonishment but he actually put his fists to his eyes and ground them into the sockets.
"Red car," he said finally. He was stock-still on the sidewalk, the only time I'd seen him stand in one place without swaying like a mast. "My car win!"
"There's no room in the garage," I told him. "I'll have to keep it for you."
We took him for a test drive, speeding into not a through roads and startling neighbors. Back at the house, Mensa and I escaped to the bedroom. Dominic's excitement had gone to my head; I tried my best to emulate him, to imagine what he'd do in my situation. We lay in bed and I touched her breast through her coveralls, breathing in her scent. I was trembling with nerves but managed to get her clothes off without too much struggle. Her body was smooth and white, a distant memory of her face. I was still clothed, luckily, when we heard someone pull up the driveway. The donors. I'd forgotten all about them. I looked at Mensa, who was lying next to me in her underthings.
"They're here to take a tour."
"Now?" she said. "You mean, like, immediately?"
"Stay here," I told her.
I shut her in the bedroom and went out to greet the donors, who were dressed in business clothes and inspecting the front azalea beds. These were the people, the guilty rich, who gave the agency money. I introduced them to Jason, who told them they were treading on thin ice and went back to his movie depicting the end of the world. I gave them a quick tour of the house, careful to avoid the bedroom. Just as I was leading them outside, Dominic returned from a bike ride toasting his sweepstakes win, covered in scrapes and bruises.
"He's bleeding!" the man said to me.
"It's normal. He's a hemophiliac."
"You mean he can't stop? Shouldn't he go to the hospital?"
I laughed. "It's not that kind of hemophilia, thank God!"
Dominic smiled triumphantly from under his helmet. I clapped him on the back and the donors relaxed, touched by our camaraderie. The man wanted to see the backyard. I tried to distract him with a description of Jason's and Dominic's more inspirational qualities, but he insisted on visiting the garden where "the residents had planted tomatoes." Probably it was the benchmark by which he gauged whether his money was being well spent. I led them toward the backyard, but when I reached the lawn I turned around and saw them standing in the middle of the brick path, transfixed by something in the house. They were staring at Mensa through the sliding glass doors of the bedroom. She'd gotten dressed, at least, but was hunched there in the center of the room, her face frozen into a spectral frown.
"I thought there were only two," the man said.
"Moved in last week," I explained.
She stared at us through the glass. Then she started to skulk back and forth, pushing her lips out from her face so they touched her nose. She stopped and picked up one of her cowboy boots from the floor, gnawing on it like a steak.
"What's she doing?" the woman asked reverently, leaning in my ear.
"One of our sadder cases doesn't leave the bedroom."
Later, when we'd completed the tour, they shook Jason's and Dominic's hands, and the three of us accompanied them to their car. They seemed touched. They took a Polaroid of us in front of the house a "family photo," the man called it and we watched in astonishment as our faces stained the picture.
"This is good work, son," the man said. "Your parents must be proud."
That was the first day of July. Spring wound down into Portland's nicest time of year. The clouds broke and the city revealed itself for the first time, the great river shining in the sun. The river stayed in your eyes when you looked somewhere else.
Mensa spent long hours on the lawn, transforming herself into beautiful shapes. It was like an ancient kind of alphabet. Jason, Dominic, and I crowded near the window, wondering what she was writing. We watched her rise on her forearms and swing her body over her head in the form of a scorpion.
One day, she asked me outside to join her. I took off my shoes and followed her onto the lawn, feeling the warmth of grass between my toes. She taught me poses, whichever occurred to her at the moment: the Warrior, the Cobra, the Up-Facing Dog. As I warped my body into shapes, I had the sensation of leaving a message for someone I couldn't see. Mensa and I sprawled on the grass and closed our eyes without moving for what seemed like forever. Then we stood up and she showed me how to salute the sun.
Later, we decided to take the red-painted Subaru out for a spin. I told Dominic that I had to do the driving, at least until he got a license, but that he could help me steer if he wanted. Jason lay across the backseat, his head propped on Mensa's lap. She stroked his hair and named what we passed. "Fire hydrant," she said. "Anarchists." I started out slowly but then picked up speed on the highway, cranking the easy-listening station as loud as it would go. It was like old times. I let Dominic have the wheel and he honked at two women in a Jeep, sure of his irresistible allure.
We drove out to the country, where the radio went static. The cows moped around like ghosts. When we stopped the car to say hello, they tried to memorize our faces.
On the way back, a gust rose from the fields and an old sign lifted out of the bed of a dump truck in front of us, held aloft by the wind. It sailed toward us in slow motion, levitating over the highway. free delivery, it said. I almost shut my eyes. Instead, I veered out of the way and lost control of the wheel. We rocked into a ditch on the side of the road, the glove box flying open in a puff of gray powder. The four of us bounced in our seats. A second wind whipped through the Subaru and vanished into silence.
Our faces were dusted with ash. "Crazy idiot!" Mensa said to the dump truck, I suppose.
"We're alive," I said. "That's what's important."
"Alive?" Jason asked.
We stared at each other, hearts pounding, and then I started the car again and headed for home.
Copyright © 2005 by Eric Puchner
Table of Contents
Children of God
Essay #3: Leda and the Swan
A Fear of Invisible Tribes
Animals Here Below