‘I know it’s a little early to hit the hay, but the outdoors wears me out.’ She took the mug of cowboy coffee he handed her. Her nightcap. Caffeine was nothing to her. After learning to sleep through prison nights, nothing could keep her awake. She gave him a pinch under his ribs. Olivia dispensed affection in athletic gestures – arm punches, noogies, little flicks of a damp towel in the bathroom – as though they were teammates rather than husband and wife.
‘I’m just going to hang out up here.’ He hoisted himself past her, up onto the roof of the trailer. ‘Like Snoopy.’ He loved this – lying on top of the camper, looking through his very old Nikon binoculars, the ridges on the focus wheel nearly worn away from a million rubs of his forefinger. He could watch the lazy way he did when he first noticed stars, before he saw them up close through a Newtonian reflector, or read them by their radio waves, before he knew their chemical composition, the weight and age of their gases, the rate at which they were burning themselves up – back when they still held a blinky mystery.
He read the heavens like a worn page of a favourite book. He picked out constellations of the summer northern sky – Scorpius, Hercules with its brilliant star Vega, the harder-to-find Corona Borealis. Arcturus, a showman star, burning its heart out. And even though he knew better, knew that what he saw was still roiling and burning and exploding and being born, also dying an icy death, he could still calm himself by doing this sort of casual Boy Scout survey, finding everything superficially, temporarily in place.
His early stargazing had evolved into a narrowed vision that was his strong suit in the groves of astronomy. Although he could construct a decent equation, map out the Doppler shift of a star’s spectra to calculate its mass – that sort of thing – his real talent lay in being an astronomer rather than a physicist. He could look through a telescope, or read a radio image and see something others had missed, particularly what hid within the shadows of stars. This had put him on the receiving end of a lot of material, stuff that had stumped someone and someone else, who then, as a last-ditch gesture, fielded it off to Nick. This ability allowed him, in spite of a spotty attendance record and a few unfortunate incidents at school social occasions, to still occupy a place in the scientific academy. He would never get tenure. He’d run off the rails of that track. He had his doctorate now, but his recommendation letters overflowed with faint praise, and held between their lines warnings about his unreliability, his unpredictable behavior. He wouldn’t get an important job anywhere, ever. They kept him on part time down at the University of California. He might turn out to be a credit to them. In the meantime, they let him teach a basic astronomy course every semester, kept an eye on his student evaluations.
Nobody else wanted him. He was too much trouble. But a lot of people wanted his findings, that was what kept him on the game board. Recently he had scored a succession of grants to go down to Arecibo, the big dish radio scope in Puerto Rico. At the moment he could find what he needed through radio waves. But optical astronomy was still a big player, and poised for huge discoveries. Next year, 1993, NASA was launching a telescope – Hubble – that would linger in space, clicking away, capturing pictures not blurred by the earth’s atmosphere, and then the whole of cosmology would probably break wide open. It was a great time to be looking around, but also – for Nick – a little spooky. Like being the first people to stick their toes in a deep and unknown lake of water that was purple, or peach.
And now he didn’t have drugs to buffer this anxiety. Now he had to fall back on carpentry and Olivia as his calming forces. He was a married man now, half of a two-income couple. He worked construction four days a week, taught one day. She cut hair at a neighbourhood beauty shop and had a good base of clients. She made decent money. They owned a condo on Addison, near the lake. He drove an Impala that was only two years old. He was getting extremely close to respectability. He had Olivia to thank for this.
He rolled over, hopped off the car roof and climbed into the Teardrop. The little trailer’s sleeping cabin held a double mattress, but just barely; its sides rolled up the walls a little. He loved the trailer. He bought it from a guy in Ohio, then took the better part of a year to restore it. The outside he spray-painted a high-gloss robin’s egg blue, seven coats. Inside, he covered the walls with white paneling. He and Olivia hooked the Teardrop to the Chevy and spent long weekends driving around the Midwest to cat shows, camping along the way. They were their own traveling circus.
Inside, Olivia slept soundly, snoring. She had a deviated septum that she periodically considered having straightened out. Every now and then, she saw another specialist to get a tenth or eleventh opinion. She was not one to jump into anything. Nick shimmied out of his jeans, slid under the jumble of old bedspreads and army blankets, sheets soft with use and a dash of grime (they were, neither of them, big on housekeeping), then pushed his butt against her and put a pillow over his head to shut out the noise. Sleeping with Olivia, touching her in some way, any way, especially inside the tiny trailer, kept him from hurtling into a special void he had created for himself.
When he woke up, the cats were meowing and walking over the pillows, also all over his head. It was five in the morning according to the small clock dangling from a string above them. One of the cats was standing on her hind legs, batting the clock around with a paw.
‘I’ll get up and feed them,’ Olivia said, leaving behind a ruffle of breath sour from sleep. She plucked a cat off his face, pushed open the door and dropped it gently outside.
When he woke again, it was six-thirty. No Olivia, no cats. He stepped out into an air heavy with dew steaming off the surrounding pines.
‘It’s so early. What can anyone do this early in the morning?’ he said to Olivia, who sat cross-legged on a webbed chaise, eating a bowl of frosted flakes. The cats peered out from inside their carriers, even though the doors were open. They were total cowards when faced with the wilderness.
‘I know,’ she said. ‘That’s the thing about the outdoors. It does get started a little sooner than you’d like.’ They were rookie campers. This was a whole new thing to them. They were still getting the hang of it, and often gave up on whatever dinner they’d managed to scorch on the little gas stove, and drove out of this or that campsite to see if there was a McDonald’s by the highway. They defaulted to motel mode more often than they’d admit to anybody.
‘How’s that doing?’ Meaning her toe, which still looked like a red light, but a smaller one, of a lower wattage.
‘Nothing like yesterday. And all we have to do today is drive, so it’ll be fine.’
The cats emerged tentatively from their crates and circled his ankles; their purring made them seem motorized. They smelled shrimpy, from the special food Olivia gave them. They were not regular cats, not ordinary pets. They were Himalayans, white with puckered faces and long, ornate names on their pedigree papers. In their regular life around the house, Olivia called them Eggdrop and Chop Suey. Nick hated both the pretentious pedigree stuff and these over-cute names. He didn’t much care for the cats either as far as that went.
Olivia adored them. She was as close as she got to happy whenever one or the other won a ribbon. She fussed over them at home. She found their behaviour endlessly fascinating. They chased a tied-up pair of pantyhose across the floor! They sat in a box! She had concocted intricate personalities she professed to see in them while to Nick, it appeared that they only ate, slept, batted around sparkle balls and were almost totally indifferent to Nick and Olivia’s presence in their lives. The cats were part of the ticket price to Olivia. He’d keep buffalos, if that would make her stay. It always felt to him as though she had one foot out the door, although whenever he asked her about this, she looked completely surprised, as though the thought hadn’t occurred to her.
‘You just be a good boy and I’ll stick around.’
With their head start, they drove through the day, down from Missouri into Arkansas. Country stations spanned the dial. The car swelled up with fiddles and pedal steel. Olivia rolled the knob, trying to get some George Jones. They were huge fans, went to his concerts wearing matching cowboy shirts. Corny, but so what? They got into country through Emmylou Harris and Randy Travis, but by now they had gone way back to Buck Owens and Hank Williams, back to the Stanley Brothers and Lefty Frizzel.
A quick stop for gas and Cokes. They were careful not to disturb the cats, who were topped off with Valium, meek in their carriers on the back seat.
Through the afternoon, with her head propped against the open window, her foot with its swollen toe up on the dashboard, Olivia read a romance novel. She could get totally wrapped up in these. Which seemed so peculiar to Nick. She was the least romantic person he had ever met. He read a couple to try to understand where she plugged into them. As far as he could see, they were just pages and pages of longing and bogus historical crap leading up first to a big ravishing, then to a royal wedding.
‘Good one?’ he asked her now.
‘Mmhmm,’ Olivia said, deep into the story, which, from the cover, appeared to be about a man and a woman with matching long, windblown hair.
It was late afternoon when they reached Eureka Springs, where the cat show was being held.
‘This town is made of motels,’ Nick said as they wound around, profoundly lost. ‘And every one has a sign for a whirlpool bath. It’s like they took the “spring” concept way too seriously.’
‘I think we’ve been on this street already,’ Olivia said. She smoked in a dreamy way, exhaling out the open window. ‘We’re going in circles. Maybe turn left there. That street just past the Goofy Golf.’
But the left turn was yet another mistake followed by another half hour of winding around before they finally pulled into the Bluebird Inn, where they had a reservation. By this time, the cats were coming off their tranquilizers, pacing inside their carriers, wailing.
‘Stage butterflies,’ was Olivia’s diagnosis. ‘They always get worked up before they have to face their public.’
The room – Number 217, on the second floor, a long haul up with luggage and cats and cat-grooming equipment – had tan everything – carpet, bedspread, walls. A coin box on the bed’s headboard activated the mattress with a Magic Fingers massage. Across from the bed, against the opposite wall, a full-size refrigerator took up a good part of the room. Nick wondered if this was supposed to count as a feature. The room was small but the bathroom was huge – to accommodate a large, tan, molded plastic jacuzzi.
‘Whirlpool,’ Nick said, poking his head in, reaching around behind himself to slide a hand between Olivia’s legs.
‘Later,’ she said, backing away to open a carrier and pull out a cat. ‘We’ve got to clean these girls up. They lost their lunch in here. Oh, this is bad. Poor babies.’ She pulled on long rubber gloves and handed another pair to Nick. He could see that the cat was crusty with dried vomit.
The next half hour was a blizzard of flying suds and spray, bared claws, the high whine of the cat dryer, and finally, a soft falling mist of fur spray.
When they were done, Olivia slumped into the room’s only chair. ‘Cats think they should be left to do their own grooming. Lick, lick, lick. They don’t get the bigger picture, like that they have to be ready by tomorrow morning.’
They had sex in the jacuzzi.
‘I think it’s mandatory,’ Nick said. Olivia sat on his lap and rode him hard as he held her and bit her shoulder from behind. This was a favourite position of hers, not just an aquatic adaptation, and he hoped it wasn’t because she didn’t want him to see her expression while he fucked her. In his worst vision she was staring into the distance at something he couldn’t see.
Never much for lingering in the afterglow, she hopped out as soon as they finished. She dried off and jumped into her fancy sweats and set herself up by the bedside phone to set off the flurry of social life that was part of these show weekends. Nick soaked on by himself. He pressed the small of his back up against one of the jets. A decade of carpentry had left him with stretched tendons in his neck, a tricky rotator cuff. All of which he could smooth out with a few heavy-duty painkillers, but these were, of course, not allowed on his current programme. It was ironic that, due to long, recreational use of these drugs, he was unfamiliar with ordinary pain, and experienced it in a fresh, crisp way – and could not defend himself against it. But, as Olivia would say: tough.
As he came out of the bathroom, she said, ‘You might want to put your jockeys back on.’ She had the phone to her ear, waiting for whoever to pick up. The cats had gone feral; this always happened after they had been groomed. They bounced on and off the furniture, chasing each other in a game without a point. ‘You know.’ She covered the mouthpiece. ‘If you want to hang on to your nuts.’
Nick didn’t kid himself that what he and Olivia had was love. It was more serious than that. He could still smell the prison on her. She’d had to forge a hard interior to make it through all the days she was inside, all the small humiliations, and this had left her composition slightly metallic. There was something erotic about this. He heard from her about the truly tough women inside, and the elaborate hierarchy and the endless rituals. Goods exchanged for services, services exchanged for protection. Having to get permission to walk by certain cells. Doing laundry, cleaning toilets for women higher up in the pecking order. He knew Olivia slipped under the wing of someone powerful and cruel. That was all she would say. (‘All you need to know is anything I did in there, I did to save my ass.’)
She kept him on a tight rein. It was the only way, he understood. They didn’t do drugs or drink. If he fell back into that, she’d be gone. Fine if Nick wanted to fool around with astronomy, but she wanted to see a regular paycheck, which meant steadily working construction jobs. They married quietly. They didn’t and wouldn’t have kids. Olivia believed they had forfeited that privilege. They never talked about the accident. She didn’t allow them speculation. If they’d had the headlights on instead of the low beams. If they hadn’t been quite so high. If the kid had been home asleep where she should’ve been instead of darting across the road. None of this weighed anything; the needle on the scale didn’t so much as flutter. The girl was as dead as if they’d shot her.
He found both comfort and fear in the knowledge that Olivia stood between him and the past, also between him and the world beyond her, where very bad things could happen fast. He didn’t really know why she was with him.
They ate at a restaurant outside town that was on the premises of an abattoir. The red neon STEAK HOUSE sign was surrounded by killing barns. They were here at the insistence of Olivia’s friends, Randy and Gia – part of the cat crowd who had been here before and thought the place was loaded with local colour. By the time Nick and Olivia showed up, Gia and Randy were already half in the bag – flushed and jolly, waving at them from the table. Now that he wasn’t one, Nick found drunks extremely tiresome.
Randy ordered New York strips for all of them. The dinner, he said, was his treat.
‘At least you know your meat here is fresh,’ he said.
Randy and Gia were from Port Huron, in Michigan. Gia described herself as a fitness specialist, which really meant she worked at a health club teaching classes in ab-busting and cardio striptease. She wore a lot of makeup, but in a nice way. She wasn’t particularly large-breasted, but must have worn some kind of bra that pushed what she did have into a perky rack. Randy was broad-shouldered and had hair plugs that were still healing, an aging frat boy who sold high-end speedboats. They had a teenage daughter who was off-limits as a conversational topic. She did something so terrible she could never be mentioned. This secret was by far the most interesting thing about them.
Randy talked about his job, which he loved. He said he could sell a boat to anyone, even if they’d never given a thought to boating before.
‘I can get people to part with so much money, sometimes I want to cry for them, cry for this whole country full of idiots. Cry all the way to the bank.’ He slapped the table a little too hard and set the water glasses jingling. They were in a booth, but Randy sat next to Olivia, Nick next to Gia. This was Randy’s idea, to ‘mix things up a little.’
Randy and Gia had only one cat, the Duke of Earl, but he was a champion. So what, Nick thought. They had a good cat, but they also had that daughter. Nick thought neo-Nazi. Maybe specialty call girl.
‘The Duke is on a winning streak. The Duke can do no wrong,’ Randy said as Nick tuned out for a while. He had heard enough cat competition talk to last nine lifetimes. When he tuned back in, he noticed that Randy’s arm had wound itself around Olivia’s shoulder in the middle of some hilarious cat moment Gia was describing and they were all three of them laughing in a way that made it necessary for Randy to give Olivia a little shoulder squeeze. But now they were talking about cat shampoos and the hand lingered. And just as he was noticing this, Nick felt a light pressure on the inside of his thigh, just grazing his tackle. He looked over at Gia, but she didn’t look back, just kept talking shampoo, moving on to a silk conditioner she’d found that made fur positively gleam under the show lights.
‘You have to get it by mail order,’ she said as she continued tickling.
‘There’s something about the adrenaline before a show that really gets me going,’ Randy said. Nick could see his hot dog fingers cupping Olivia’s shoulder. Nick looked across at her in what he hoped was a readable code. She looked back – just for a split second – like a character in an old movie, tied up in a cave with a long fuse sizzling toward a powder keg.
‘Have to see a man about a horse,’ Nick said, sliding out of the booth as though Gia’s fingers were not hard at work between his legs.
‘We must have synchronized bladders.’ Olivia gave Randy’s arm the slip.
They didn’t dare look at each other until they were in the long hallway to the johns, which were marked ‘Steers’ and ‘Heifers.’ And then they laughed so hard they fell against the walls.
‘What are we going to do? I don’t want to insult them. They’re going to be at every competition from now until the end of time. They probably try this out on everybody. Oh, I’m seeing it all in my mind. I’m screaming in ecstasy, yanking out Randy’s sprouts.’
‘We could say we’ve been passing a nasty marital infection back and forth.’
‘They won’t buy it,’ she said. ‘We’ll say we’ve found Jesus. We belong to something scary now. Jehovah’s Witnesses. Or we’re Mormons. I can talk a pretty good game.’
Nick remembers Olivia’s stint with prison religion and its ridiculously forgiving Jesus.
They turned out to be great, embellishing liars. They said they had some religious literature back at the motel and maybe Randy and Gia would like to come and learn more and maybe pray with them. Nick worried they wouldn’t buy this, but whether they did or not, the conversation quickly sanitized itself, and moved on to Reagan and Bush, who Randy thought of as a baton of greatness passed. He thought America should just elect a Republican king and get rid of all the crooks in Congress. It hurt Nick’s teeth to listen to Randy.
At the motel, he put a quarter into the bed to get it jiggling and they fell on to it laughing all over again. Olivia wasn’t a big laugher and so he got her to go over the whole story again just so they could keep laughing and vibrating. Once in a while a night like this would happen. A cloud would lift and he’d see her as she had been – fun in an easy way, kind of foxy – during that short spell of dating before they became two people in a bad car, before they saw themselves as harmful.
‘I wouldn’t mind getting a little fresh air,’ he said when things had quieted down. ‘You want to take a walk with me?’ He knew she’d say no.
The Bluebird was at the top of a small hill. He passed several other motels on the way down. Spring Waters. The Babbling Brook Inn. The All Inn. From the bottom of the hill, it was ten more minutes walking, past a decent restaurant, then two diners, around the corner at the White Hen, and there it was – in the deserted lot of a defunct Midas Muffler shop. There were three cars waiting, lights off, radios laying a drift of melody on the heavy summer night air, the glow of cigarettes the only thing visible inside the cars. Nick pulled a pack of Marlboros out of his pocket and lit up in a spirit of communion. These strangers were his compadres.
Most people think drugs just waste your time and screw up your life. They don’t understand the happiness. They think you’re off drugs a few months, a few years, you forget about them, put them behind you and good riddance, but this is not the way it goes. Drugs have mass and density. Thick and delicious, they fill every crevice inside you.
They offer absolute comfort and well-being. In reverse, their absence leaves you empty and arid.
Sober, he had to keep busy and purposeful, always moving. If he stopped, he immediately heard the sandstorm inside himself, and it terrified him.
He hadn’t smoked his cigarette halfway down when the dealer rolled in, in a Mark IV, flipping his lights off, ready to do business. Nick waited until a transaction got going between the dealer and a woman in a Lexus, then turned to walk back up the hill. He himself was not buying. He just liked to know he could still find the marketplace, wherever he was. This wasn’t difficult. Every place was basically the same. It was like kitchens. You could usually find the silverware drawer and the garbage pail on the first try. You just had to pay a little attention.
‘Teardrop’ is adapted from Carol Anshaw’s novel Carry the One, published in the US by Simon & Schuster.
Photograph by Old Mister Crow