‘Anyway,’ their dining companion concluded, ‘to most people, this is more acceptable than that.’ She waved her fork on the diagonal, pointing first to her husband and herself, then to them. She and her husband were the this and they were the that. ‘Oh come on,’ she added, as if exasperated by their incomprehension. ‘Of course it matters which one of you is white.’ It was a very long dinner toward the end of an even longer year. After, they walked home along the river, just the two of them.
‘I think we’re becoming unsocialized.’
‘Yes, that must be it.’
The advice, if that’s what it was, was discarded from their minds, lightly as an empty tissue box. They didn’t remember it until a few hundred miles into the road trip when, as is so often the case, you find yourself in need of tissues – he had just sloshed cold coffee across his lap (‘Shit!’) – and when, glancing out the window, you discover that you have no idea where you are. They’d spent the morning at Gettysburg. Now it was afternoon, and Jefferson Davis Highway unfurled seedily before them. Her uncle, an estranged relation getting on in years, lived somewhere off it; it was with him they’d spend the night. Meanwhile they ate up mile after mile with the amazement of people who’ve never driven this far south before.
‘– a whole highway named after him!’
‘– can you believe – !’
‘Go straight,’ directed the woman inside the phone, ‘for two hundred kilometers.’ The road signs spoke miles, but Anand refused to trade the units he’d grown up with for a system demonstrably less sensible. He loaded up the playlist.
On the horizon, strong evidence of a storm.
‘I thought we were too far inland for hurricanes.’
‘General apocalypse, I guess.’
They took road trips like these once or twice a year. As the papers were fond of pointing out, many millions of millennials were reluctant to leave the coasts, had never even Googled Yellowstone. And even if they did, or would, what they’d find was pictures of the thousands of foreign tourists who arrived by Megabus each year to watch the geysers go.
So maybe the roadtrippers were entitled to feeling a bit superior. But they were still strangers in their own nation. Everyone is, if you drive far enough.
‘But I am a foreigner.’
‘You just got citizenship. You’re stuck with us now.’
And what a big country it was! They’d taken the week to see some more. He’d autoreplied his .org inbox; she, her .edu. They’d filled the rental tank, stocked the cupholders with snacks, and taken off over the Verrazano. They didn’t have to go so far before everything became unfamiliar. Really, just over the Verrazano. They rolled down the windows. The direction was south; the goal, Savannah. A Senate race was imminent, and they planned to knock on some doors.
Not until Jefferson Davis Highway did the dining companion’s comment return. Diana was fishing through the plastic sacks for chips and further napkins.
‘I wonder if we’re not exactly the volunteer profile they’re looking for?’
New York had the reach of cottonwood or pollen. It defined an ecosystem all its own. Only midway through Pennsylvania did you escape its sweep and a new kind of flora emerge: narrower roads; affordable real estate; tractor trailers galumphing down lane one. The Midwest loomed somewhere in Erie. You could tell by the way the land flattened and the woodlands narrowed to windbreaks between the farms, and by the layout of the convenience stores, which shared in common taupe wire shelves and the tart, musty smell of packaged bread. Onward to Ohio, where the interstates swung wide around modest skylines, giving the buildings wide berth, working up the centrifugal momentum to speed through Indiana, Illinois, on to someplace worth the hotel costs. Montana, maybe. Or Sun Valley, Idaho, where the vacation homes returned and the all-inclusive tour buses glided through bruised and violet landscapes as alien as advertised . . . That was last year’s trip. On the way, they’d visited her parents in Indianapolis.
‘Never again,’ she said, propping her feet up on the dash.
‘It wasn’t so bad.’
Now the South came in thick and choppy through the open windows. He loved to drive. She didn’t think he should (climate!), but what an experience, the roads of this country. It was stomach-turning, really, how roomy a nation could be. The interstate was god. Anand believed. He’d grown up in the kind of metropolis where traffic sorts itself into sedimentary layers, socialist-era cars fanning out to rickshaws, bicycles, cows, goats, chickens, foot traffic, loiterers, schoolkids, scooters that darted every which way, honking at the schoolmarm signs: No horns! Once, during a period of communal unrest, his cab driver had tapped a man’s thigh with the car. He’d nearly run him over. Such accidents were more common than Diana might have guessed. The real mistake had been getting out of the vehicle to check on the pedestrian in the gathering crowd, when tensions were so high . . .
CCR whined from the dash.
There was hardly any foot traffic in this country, certainly not on Jefferson Davis Highway.
‘Slow down,’ Diana cried, as he wedged the rental between two semis. ‘Slow down, slow down, slow down!’
No matter where they drove, what borders they crossed, Anand preferred to traverse new terrain with guidebooks, apps, recommendations solicited from email chains and message boards. Museum tours were researched in advance and audio guides reserved. This was a major difference between them. It was to Diana’s great relief, then, arriving at Gettysburg earlier that morning, that the museum was fresh out of auditory apparatuses. She’d gone to the car to change her shirt while Anand had made absolutely sure. They’d commenced, regretfully or mercifully, depending on your perspective, with nothing but their phones.
One did not have high hopes for Gettysburg. Nor for Pennsylvania in general. Having grown up in Indiana, Diana felt she’d earned her condescension. It broadcast her distance. But Gettysburg was on the way and in the end had outperformed. They exited the visitor center and into the scorch of national lore. It was hard to see, in such weather, the advantage of wool uniforms.
‘I’m joking, it was a joke,’ she said.
The battlefield lay across a narrow road. They paused to allow a sky-blue pickup truck to pass. The driver also slowed, stopped, looked them over. After a halting pause – should they, shouldn’t they, would he squash them to a pulp? – he waved them across.
The sun was high, the air heaving and humid. The heat formed a blister over the grass. Outside a modest whitewashed house, the kind of structure raised in a day by horse and rope, they read a little plaque. Here was Union HQ, it said. Ahead, the lawn descended the gentle slope that had given General Meade such a historically significant edge. They stood there an extra beat, rereading the same sentences multiple times. Anand suppressed a smile.
‘What’s so funny?’
‘Same to you.’
She laughed. ‘Nothing’s funny.’
It came to light that they’d both been wondering what the driver of the pickup had thought about a couple like them.
Even someone with zero knowledge of military strategy (and this was Diana to a fault) could recognize, standing atop the knoll, how terribly advantageous it was to defend an attack from above. You could see everything. (There, in the distance, were the woods where the Confederates had chilled themselves, sleeping in the dew in non-wicking cotton.) In the scant shade of a copse, a guide was addressing a pair of women at opposite extremes of the weight distribution: a thin, nervous-looking specimen tried so hard to disappear beneath her sun hat that you couldn’t help but stare, while her capacious friend radiated a generous attention. (If Diana had had a musket, she thought, neither would stand a chance.) Anand consulted the map. The thing to do was walk across the field, clamber over the fence, and peek into the woods where the Confederates had begun their charge. It really was quite a ways to march. Off they went. They clambered. They arrived. They peered into the trees.
On their return, by the copse, another memorial plaque made an appearance; on it, someone had laid a bouquet in honor of fallen Confederates. The roses were a deep, expensive red. Anand shook his head.
In the car, hours later and hundreds of miles south, a deep sunburn bloomed across Diana’s shoulders.
‘I wore long sleeves!’
‘Should’ve tried wool!’
Anand thought it very strange that Diana had never met her uncle, especially as she had no other uncles or aunts or cousins to meet. ‘That’s wild,’ he’d said, when he found out. Diana shrugged. She hadn’t met a lot of her family.
‘Salt and vinegar, or sour cream and onion?’
She handed Anand more napkins for his lap and popped open the tube of chips. (Sour cream and onion.) He was probing the matter again, she felt, like a kid left alone on the beach with a stick. Was it an argument, an affair, an inheritance dispute? She snorted, spewing crumbs.
It was none of these things.
She turned to the trees and gas stations of the anonymous landscape outside. ‘I did visit once. Right after college. I drove all the way down. He didn’t show. So, I guess don’t get your hopes up.’
Together, Jefferson Davis and Anand drew the rest of the story out of her. The truth was, there had a been a cousin once, seven years her senior, whom she’d also never met. This too was wild. Was it? She was used to silences. It was much more like her family to let things lie. The cousin had died at fourteen of a rare strain of blood cancer. It was too hard on everyone, in the following years, to present another little girl who reminded them so much of her.
‘Honestly, maybe we shouldn’t. I can look up the motel I stayed in last time. It had a pool.’
Diana reached for her phone. Anand covered the screen.
‘It’s a good thing to do,’ he said. ‘I’m proud of you.’
She cradled the chips. ‘Maybe just keep your eyes on the road.’
The remaining facts she knew about the uncle were few. For example, he was the only other person in her family to have earned a college degree. In the arts, specifically, courtesy of the GI Bill and the Korean War. Active duty had left him a little eccentric. It was his degree, however, that her parents most commented on. Her own mother was a typist, skilled enough in shorthand to have chanced Chicago, where she’d met Diana’s father, a bridge player at the time. He played professionally for years before earning his accounting license. Neither had seen the point of university back then, but pity the person who thought it was because they hadn’t been clever enough. When Diana had come home junior year chattering about her history thesis (‘Messianic Expectations in Socialist Yugoslavia, 1929–1992’), her father had remarked, not a little saltily, ‘Sounds like a load of over-intellectualized bullshit to me.’ It had stung at the time. But she’d been all of twenty, and her father wasn’t quite wrong. Though, following the logic through, that still didn’t make him right.
Her father had performed many jobs over the years. Taxi driver. Lab assistant. Bookkeeper. Carpenter. He was rather proud of Diana, she knew, whether or not he had the words, and frankly she was proud of him, too. The problem was expressing it. The problem was that she felt ashamed of her parents at times, or perhaps the better word was confused. She didn’t know how to place them. It was like showing up for dinner with an unruly bouquet to find the host keeps only a delicate little vase. The first time her parents had met Anand, over tourist spaghetti in Manhattan (‘Miserable fucking city,’ was her father’s – again – not totally incorrect pronouncement), they’d complimented his English, by which they meant that they were surprised that he spoke it much better than they did. ‘Thanks,’ Anand said. ‘It is definitely my first language.’ He added that a lot of the students back home spoke better English than their teachers, who came from more modest backgrounds. Her parents nodded, uncomprehending. Diana considered drowning herself in her personal vat of spaghetti.
The exit appeared. She held out a chip to Anand. He ate it out of her hand. ‘Narm narm num,’ he articulated.
A final thing Diana knew about her uncle was that her own college tuition had been drawn from the fund her cousin had never had the chance to use. After she died, it had sat there, accruing interest, for eleven intervening years.
‘It’s nothing to feel guilty about,’ Anand said.
It really was a beautiful country, as long as you had no memory.
Wrung of its history, the land greets its visitors with the complete indifference of a stolen thing.
The uncle lived on a cul-de-sac in a neighborhood comprised of what had once been called starter homes but which now bore the signs of urban decay. The sky was still and gray when they arrived, draped ominously low over the roofs. The house sat on a respectable stretch at the far edge of the development, abutting a strip of trees. The driveways were designed for one car each, though most held two, none of them new.
She would have been able to guess which was her uncle’s even without the address. Part of her still hoped she was mistaken.
Improvised sculptures were staked all over the weedy lawn. The majority were abstract. One was definitely a shotgun. The hedges at the door were not so much hedges but brush, and the house was in visible disrepair. The eaves sank; the roof buckled; the shingles were ripe with moss. After decades sculpting models for a local automobile plant, now her uncle lived alone and made the art he liked, apparently in vast quantities. His wife, much younger, had left after their daughter died.
At the door, Diana knocked. Anand followed with the bags.
‘No one home?’
‘Looks like no.’
‘I’m sure he’ll come.’
They sat on the front step to wait.
Anand was correct. It wasn’t long before her uncle made his memorable entrance. He sped in on a dirt bike in a flurry of dust and growling noise. The brakes throttled backwards; his was the torso of a much younger man. Diana had only ever seen a picture, and that he’d seemed handsome then was confirmed again as he removed the helmet with its long, pointed chin. His white hair was full and cropped, his features set deep in a face almost gaunt. Diana was grateful Anand remained so reliably delicate when it came to first impressions.
‘Wow,’ he said. ‘Nice bike.’
Thirty minutes later, her uncle was leading Anand in circles around the house, teaching him to ride. It had never occurred to Diana that riding a motorcycle –’Sorry, sorry, not a motorcycle . . . !’ – required so much balance. There were no three-wheeled dirt bikes, of course, and one had to start somewhere. It certainly made a racket. She kept waiting for one of the neighbors to come out and complain, but either they were used to it or they had fled long ago. Anand, straddling the roaring engine, tapped along the green on tiptoe, weaving through the crowded sculpture garden whose rusted copper shapes erupted in teal and pink and orange. Her uncle, at his elbow, guided him patiently. So patiently, in fact, that it was almost as if he didn’t want to go inside. It was dark by the time Anand was able to circle the cul-de-sac on his own. Still parked on the front steps, Diana clapped when he pulled into the drive. Her uncle lumbered over. A silence swelled with the ridiculous things neither could bring themselves to say: Nice to meet you . . . So here we are . . . Uh, thanks for paying my tuition . . . Diana drummed her hands on her thighs.
Her uncle spat thickly into the bushes. ‘You sure you don’t want to try?’
The house was crammed with family pictures and more art, two bedrooms, and a bath wedged between. Diana set out her toothbrush and face wash and expensive creams at the sink. She reapplied some much-needed deodorant. Anand was in their room, humming eighties hits from their road trip playlist and setting out a change of clothes. Back home, in high school, he’d played briefly in a cover band; he broke fully into song.
‘Maybe if you joined a different band –’
‘If you want an autograph, just ask.’
‘The very occasional silence can also be harmonious.’
The purple bed was piled with pillows, as if a seasonal sale were going on: last call for throw cushions in aisle four. A border of ivy crawled along the baseboards. It was undoubtedly a little girl’s room. The violet plush of the carpet crunched, stiff with lack of use.
Diana shouldered her purse and surveyed the luggage. ‘Is my bag still in the car?’
‘I thought you brought yours in yourself.’
The asphalt released the day’s heat into the night. Diana hopped from one bare foot to the other in the driveway, looking into the rental trunk. No luck.
In the purple bedroom, they backtracked, recreating the afternoon. It had been so hot and clear in Gettysburg: while Anand was inquiring as to the audio guide options, she’d returned to the car for long sleeves to avoid the very sunburn she’d nevertheless incurred. She mimed opening the trunk of the rental car:
‘– I took out my bag –’
‘– and put it where? –’
‘– and then I took off the shirt I was wearing –’
‘– right in the middle of the parking lot? –’
‘– and then –’
‘– and then you put on this shirt? –’
‘– obviously, and then –’
‘– you put the bag back?’
Diana lowered herself to the foot of the bed, her head into her hands. ‘Honestly, how did you not run over it?’
‘Sorry for being such a careful driver!’
She lifted her collar to her nose. ‘I’m already starting to smell.’
It was too late to call the museum. With a sinking feeling, she recalled the public transit warnings in New York: all that lost baggage, needlessly destroyed. She stripped and curled up next to Anand in the bed dressed for a child.
‘I hate sleeping naked in other people’s homes.’
Laughing, he reached for her.
‘No, seriously, it’s weird.’
That she’d never known all that much about her family came into focus in the wide-angle lens of adulthood. She didn’t know her family better. But she understood them in a different light. In certain settings or times of day (a party, her office hours, departmental committees), her forebearers were recognized as workers, and worthy of praise; everything real in this country had been produced by hand, preferably an American’s. And yet, as the background sets changed, these very same cafeteria managers, FedEx couriers, self-trained accountants and small-time entrepreneurs now played the knave, not so much the salt of the earth as the runoff that had poisoned it: the kind of people who’d voted, in an act of willful self-annihilation, for the incorrect president.
Diana was fairly confident her uncle hadn’t. She weighed the evidence lying in bed. He wasn’t an especially enthusiastic citizen. He tended to forget to pay his taxes (as she knew from the occasions her father had been called in to help), which of course caused trouble with the law, which in turn introduced in him certain biases against the government. So there was that issue, were he to vote. Though she wagered lack of civic interest had probably won out. Lying awake, still inappropriately naked and decidedly unaroused, she listened to the easy sounds of the storm. Envied Anand his sleep. He wrapped a leaden arm around her. It weighed heavily on her breasts. Gently, she removed it. The eaves shuddered. She stared at the ceiling fan. Ideally she’d have had the chance to prepare her uncle the way she had her parents, to coach him on those things that were and weren’t appropriate to say to someone who had grown up elsewhere and only recently become American. The whole world is a reason to worry at 4 a.m. She pushed herself up from the bed and slipped on her filthy shirt, her wrinkled linen uniform.
Half an hour later, she was at the sink in the kitchen, nursing a cup of leftover coffee she’d found languishing in the globe of the Mr. Coffee pot. The mesh of Anand’s basketball shorts breathed around her knees. His sweet voice still spun in her head – unfortunately what it sang was CCR. She watched the storm. She was about to search the cupboards for snacks or go out to the car for the rest of the chips when the side door snapped open. Her uncle entered from the garage.
There are two kinds of guests, those who naturally make themselves at home, and those perpetually ashamed creatures horrified to be caught doing anything in any room. Diana was of the latter variety, which is to say her uncle’s arrival startled her completely. He was speaking softly to a Pyrex tray of raw chicken thighs. The oven clock cast the pallid skins in a lunar glow.
Diana splashed some water at the coffee she’d spilled onto her shirt.
‘The fox . . . the fox . . .’ he said.
Diana’s father often sleepwalked. It must be hereditary. This was a tender thought. She knew just what to do. She took the tray and set it on the counter, so that her uncle’s hands now loosely gripped the air. She affirmed everything he said. ‘The fox, the fox of course, let’s get you back to bed.’ She directed him back into the hall, past all the pictures of his daughter, here posing with a papier-mâché volcano; here in the woods with her little crossbow; here on Christmas in a green velvet dress draped with a wide ribbon sash.
They were at the entrance to his bedroom when he came to. She watched him take in the time, her shorts, her soaked-through shirt.
‘That’s quite the outfit.’
‘I left my bag in Gettysburg.’
Her uncle puzzled a moment longer. She had the feeling of backing into someone else’s nightmare. Then, without warning, he threw back his head and laughed. The response was so alarming she doubted his lucidity. He wiped his eyes.
‘Oh yeah, I Left My Bag in Gettysburg, I saw that on Broadway opening night.’
How was it that she was always pegged the hysterical one? Diana returned to bed in a huff. When she woke, the sky was clear, and Anand was just stepping out of the shower, fresh back from a run.
‘Cool shorts,’ he said.
Looking down, she saw she’d fallen asleep atop the duvet in the mesh, while he had gone running in his nice cotton ones.
What do you do with an uncle you’ve never met? Luckily the storm had left them with several chores. Outside, driftwood was strewn over the sculpture garden. They helped to gather it, collecting the branches into neat piles. Then her uncle looked at the sky and said, ‘Screw it,’ because the next storm, signposted in the gathering clouds, would only nuke them again. They cooked the chicken legs to feed the fox who often lingered at the stream, and who was also fed handfuls of peanuts and blueberries. ‘Foxes eat this?’ Of course they did. For lunch the humans too ate chicken legs, hot and unseasoned and dripping with fat, consumed while standing up around the same glass tray. They balanced bones in fingertips. ‘Fucking delicious!’ her uncle said. It was hard not to want to tell an octogenarian to take it easy, hard not to tell him to try, at least, to be a little cautious. He’d survived the Korean War, prostate cancer, a dislocated spine. He’d fallen from the platform where he’d been sighting deer and temporarily paralyzed both legs. Could Anand or Diana have army-crawled back to the car to keep warm until the ambulance arrived? Could they have performed a deadweight pull-up from the ground to reach the driver’s seat? The uncle thought not. Anand leaned on his rake. ‘Agree to disagree.’
He and Diana looked around the yard at the sawhorse, woodshed, dirt bike, tools, the sculptures advancing between the woodpiles like opposing pieces on a chessboard. It was true they were unused to this line of work, to this part of the world. It was enough to scramble your brain. Diana paused to sniff again at the collar of her rancid shirt. With a look either conciliatory or cunning – it was hard to tell with him – her uncle turned to Anand.
‘You know what you could help me with,’ he said. And without further ado, he disappeared around the side of the house.
They found him in the garage at the workbench beside the extra oven he’d installed for cooking in bulk (for the fox?), which excluded the possibility of being able to park a car. Car or no car, he’d always lusted after one of those automatic doors. Now over eighty, he conceded, eventually his back would go, and this time not so temporarily. He held out the hardware to Anand. The box read EZ Glide!.
‘You people are all so handy with IT –’
Diana snatched at the device as if it were a grenade he was about to detonate.
‘I’ll do it, I’ll do it,’ she said.
Halfway up the ladder, electric screwdriver in hand, instruction booklet crumpled on the floor, Diana began to question her gallantry. She listened to her uncle’s welding tips filter through the kitchen door. One detected the cracking open of beers. Now he was inviting Anand to see the basement studio – ‘Where the magic happens!’ – an incantation soon followed by the heavy creak of two grown men descending wooden steps. A creeping jealousy, not entirely unfamiliar, seeped into her chest. The truth was, her family often seemed more comfortable when Anand was around. He had this effect on people. He was easily loved. Whole dinner parties courted his attention. It was obviously one of many reasons she’d fallen in love with him herself; why she was still surprised he’d fallen for her. He appeared more at ease than she was in either of their respective worlds, plus the third they shared. She envied how he drew her parents out. They glowed, flattered; the world had come to them. The initial friction overcome, these days they addressed themselves to him, not their daughter, when the four of them convened. ‘I’m sure that’s not true,’ Anand had said, a statement quickly retracted at the look of protest on her face. ‘Okay, okay, but I’m sure it’s not intentional.’ There was maybe even a mutual anthropological interest there. She couldn’t help now but resent that it was Anand down in the studio with her uncle, to whom he had encouraged her to introduce herself against her every intuition. She notched the electric screwdriver against the wooden frame of the garage and pressed with all her might. At the very least, she would figure out this fucking door. That was for sure. The drill bit sank into the wood. The lintel bracket was secured. Then the drill caught, sputtered, and crashed, ejecting the battery into the drainage grate. Diana, for her part, was left swinging from the lip of the frame, one foot on the ladder, the other flailing free. She caught her breath, her balance, briefly contemplated her uncle’s experience with paralysis. It occurred to her that she could not perform a pull-up of any kind.
Then again, she hadn’t fallen.
Steadying herself, she shifted the ladder to connect the power unit. The contraption blinked. Slowly, the door folded into itself, disgorging the heat of the stilted afternoon. In the dark, the overhead light flickered on.
She was high with success! In the way only very unhandy people are at the first sign of savoir faire. It was a rush. She was feeling, all in all, not exactly herself. Her arms ached with the effort of holding the screwdriver aloft, her heart flooded with adrenaline from her close call. She could feel the sweat and salt on the surface of her skin. And something else, beneath it. She listened to the silence of the house. Her uncle and Anand were still in the cellar. It hardly bothered her anymore.
At the sink, she wrung out her shirt, then splashed her face and underarms and glanced into the mirror. The body there was soft and fragile, completely unsuited to the capable person she suddenly felt herself to be. Oh well. Mirrors lie. Her clothes dripping from the shower rod, she planted herself before the closet doors. The handles were brass blooms, and she harvested them in her palms. Rows and rows of garments appeared, in more or less her size but in better taste. Their curator had been very careful, she realized. Diana passed an admiring hand along the hems. She’d no idea her cousin, older by seven years, or else younger by twenty-three, had cultivated such precocious style. Perhaps she could have taught Diana a thing or two. This imaginary thread cast itself into the past and immediately fell slack. She lifted the sleeve of a gingham shirtdress and let it fall. There were shoulder pads in the jackets and silk linings in the skirts. She was reminded of a novel she’d once read set in colonial Hong Kong, in which a notorious doyenne attempts to turn her school-age niece into a concubine. It’s for her own good; the niece’s prospects are grim. The girl makes her way uphill in the swampy summer, thrashing through the vegetation to the aunt’s opaline palace at the crest. In her new bedroom she opens the wardrobe to a rackful of party dresses. There are outfits for every occasion, tailored right down to her slender, still adolescent waist. Lavender sachets tucked inside each collar keep the garments fresh. Where would she ever wear them? The girl knew immediately, and in spite of her better instincts, that she’d been bought. It was too late; she was in too deep.
In the approaching mid-Atlantic storm, the room was almost tropical; there was no more use in Diana’s resisting the wardrobe. Still, something in her hesitated. She wished to ask permission. Then again, there were at least thirty dresses here. Odds were her uncle wouldn’t notice. The residue from her shower still clung to her collarbone, and the gingham checks blossomed as she slipped the shirtdress on. She cinched the waist. It was a perfect fit.
The cellar access was hazardously steep and led directly from the kitchen. From the oven, in fact. Opening the appliance door to check the clearance, Diana was launched onto the landing. She stood there. The men’s voices rose up to meet her. Anand was asking polite questions (How had he gotten started? What was this machine? Perhaps a demonstration?). Then, after a while, he no longer was. It was just her uncle speaking.
One did not harbor high hopes for her uncle’s studio (one had seen the lawn), but that’s not what this descent was about now, was it? She lowered herself onto the top step. He wasn’t talking about art anymore. Or maybe he was. What did she know? Her father was right. What a real bullshitter she was. She turned an ear to the cellar depths. It was the war that had risen to the surface of the conversation there, like oil on the highway after rain. Her uncle had been stationed in the trenches along the 38th Parallel. (Cartographers are the true warmongers.) His tone was distant, as if the memory were speaking of its own, disembodied accord. It wasn’t easy to describe, he said, what it was like to survive only just barely in touch with your limbs. Imagine Christmas Eve. The perspective is age eighteen. Everything sinks. Boots. The men inside of them. They disappear into the snow. The Chinese are blasting carols across no man’s land. This was the void: hearing ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ in a trench in the dead of night in a proxy war at the end of the world. Maybe it wasn’t ‘Jingle Bell Rock.’ But it should have been. Could any carol make a better weapon? The point was he needed no reminder of the reasons to fear his country. He’d seen its pulsing heart, packed in bloody snow. A note of hysteria laced his story now. He asked Anand, ‘You sing?’ He’d had his own way with music once, he said. As did every kid back then. You played the campsites until the draft letter came, then left the instrument and your old man’s disappointments behind. A shivery tremor sang out. Diana descended.
Her uncle stood beneath the basement’s single exposed bulb, holding a sonorous sheet of copper. It rang triumphant, like a gong. Anand sat on the workbench, looking as if he too had just survived a tour. He watched Diana arrive. Following his gaze, her uncle turned. Who was this apparition at the bottom of the stairs? For the first time, he struck Diana as old. She drew up a stool. Without protesting, he sat. His chin fell to his chest. She knelt to check his pulse and pupils. They were in accord. In her head, a horrid clanging chorus. She demonstrated deep breaths. ‘Come on, you too,’ she said. He patted her hands with his. It was the gesture of an elderly man. His eyes were clouded yet clear, like an early sky; soon the heat would burn away the fog. The crisis was not of medical origin, she decided, but something more obscure. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I left –’ Yes, yes, the musical. He breathed in. It took ages. She hooked an arm under his. ‘Up, up then, let’s go upstairs.’ Again, he didn’t protest. His weight against her was totally insignificant, as if the fate of everybody were a slow evaporation; eventually, we disappear, a bit more humidity released into the air.
Anand, still listening from the workbench, heard Diana say,
‘You’ve got yourself an automatic garage door now.’
They got her uncle to bed. It was midafternoon, and the daylight felt foreign after the basement. They retreated into their own ersatz room, where Anand drew the curtains.
‘That was intense.’
He collapsed onto the pillows, and Diana followed suit. They lay side by side in the restrained sun. Diana’s legs were folded, uncouthly froglike, under the hem of her dress.
‘Did you know any of that?’
She didn’t respond. He kissed her. Pressing himself into her, he felt the new sharpness of her bones and wondered when it was she’d lost so much weight. How rudely people change. Though she pulled him close, touching him the way he liked, something stayed stiff and unyielding inside the gingham. He had a hand in the skirt, exploring essences, before he too gave up. The entire affair felt wrong for reasons that were vague on the whole but intuitive in the particulars. ‘These fucking pillows.’ He tossed one to the floor and put his warm hands to his ribs. ‘I feel a little sick.’ Diana smoothed his face. Stroked his sweaty temples.
‘Come on,’ she said. ‘You haven’t seen the garage yet.’
They stood barefoot on the cool cement, watching the door unfold itself again and again, a gigantic lolling tongue. ‘You did good.’ ‘I know!’ She punched the remote and the garage growled to a tight-lipped state. They watched it open and close, open and close. The mechanics left them hungry. They went out to feed the fox, then themselves. From the kitchen window, they watched the vixen nudge the bowl they’d left by the overflowing stream, all the while shoveling handfuls of blueberries and peanuts into their own mouths. ‘I could live like this,’ she said. ‘I’m starving,’ said Anand. They were two children who’ve stumbled on an abandoned house in the woods, eager to see what the owners have left behind. A box of pasta, a can of tomatoes. Onions and garlic sprouted behind the pantry door.
The radio switched on, announcing her uncle’s return. He emerged from the bedroom with boom- and pillbox tucked under his arm. In the kitchen, he slipped a CD into the plate, then counted out a permutation of pale capsules and washed them down. There were good days and bad days, he explained, and many in between. The wind picked up. The storm unfurled luxuriously, like a dark sheet of crushed silk. The table crowded with heaping bowls of pasta and rows of votive candles. Anand sat across from Diana. She flickered in the candlelight, still in her gingham dress. The music was far too loud for conversation, you could hardly hear the wind. When the power went out, the world plunged into a 24-karat darkness. The battery-powered Beach Boys clanged on. Something of that bandstand genius, Anand thought, echoed in every American song. Diana’s uncle asked for bread. The gingham strained horribly against her breasts as she passed it to him – she was a woman, this was a child’s garment. The exchange precipitated a housewife’s loving look. Anand dropped his eyes.
The car keys were in his pocket, and he registered their weight as the chorus spun around once more. Here was the music, the storm, the inertia, the heat, the awful commotion of a single discography set eternally on repeat. Kilometers of highway stretched ahead. But it was far too late; he was in too deep.
Image © Tom Wachtel