Lizanne’s afternoon update was undemanding. They kept to the workflow devised during the first week of March, those days of full-tilt triage. With the close of the semester would come a budgetary summary for the deans, but this was already under control and he and Lizanne were both of the opinion that the board had at least been nonreactive, if not sanguine. They trusted him. He ran the deans, but he never brought their issues back, not to the directors.
He was pleased now to have noticed those personal capacities – his gift for near-immediate rapport and ease with delegation – that would make weathering the disruption a simpler matter than it would perhaps be for others, who were more embattled day to day than he. There was a useful lightness to his methods. At one time he had believed he lacked the gravity necessary for leadership. This had been in his early twenties, those forlorn years, and he had quickly come to see that he possessed something more. What he had was better than complexity or depth. He could disappear into service. He treasured this quality, the way a whole day could pass in dialogue with various stakeholders and he would emerge at six with time for a brief walk before the evening’s events, hardly noticing the effort.
Lizanne had linked to a page on a subdomain maintained by one of the MA programs. He knew the director a little. She had sat on an important search committee. She understood the current need for continuity and enthusiasm. It was essential to foster new opportunities for engagement. Patrick clicked through.
It was a Zoom highlights reel, the video entitled, ‘Surveying the COVID Academy: Knowledge in Crisis’. He permitted himself to watch approximately forty-five seconds of the six-minute runtime, using the timeline at the bottom of the embedded player to fast forward to interviews with faculty members whose names he knew. He nodded approvingly. He x-ed out the tab, returning to Lizanne’s message.
Nothing much actionable. Monday would be a different story, once the board had digested the projections related to a second surge. He felt a twinge of unease, considering the undergraduate population, its tendency to circulate information at a frenetic pace. Most of the time they were easy to please: you told them they had been accepted, they went out and bought sweatshirts and two-grand laptops and quickly hopped on the popular meme channel. His tenure had seen a nearly forty-percent increase in revenue and all because he had let the right people tell him where to spend. He had a deft touch and it wasn’t rocket science, after all. But now the very fact on which he had for so long depended was causing him to pick at his left thumb with its constantly ragged cuticle. The students did not like it when they saw that they could not easily purchase the best thing.
They did not like it very much at all.
Patrick resolved to ignore this impending eventuality until several days hence – when it would take vivid, monstrous form, even as he would be required to smilingly deny it. He was hesitant to lean too much in the direction of those who had suggested packaging a remote experience and doing a cost analysis that would build in a reward. That was for entities with vast endowments, that sort of thing. It wasn’t going to work in this market, not with this consumer. He even agreed with his customers: they risked nothing by refusing to invest. Perhaps the parents could find some destination to ship their offspring off to, a country with a low transmission rate or a remote farm. No one wanted a semi-adult in the house all day, staring into a glowing rectangle, softening and expanding and becoming moodier with each passing socially distanced hour. Those who didn’t defer wouldn’t be spending much, anyway, what with the unlikelihood of anyone venturing into campus housing, not to mention the cafeterias. God, he did not want to think about that ghost ship in the already haunted city. Nor did he want to begin to consider the havoc this could wreak with respect to next year’s admissions process.
He began typing to Lizanne. He said to thank Djuna for the link, it was incredibly inspiring. He made a few notes. He suggested that he and Lizanne plan to reconvene first thing on Monday before the meeting, he wanted to run a few things by her. He signed off.
He skimmed his inbox. One hundred and thirteen unread messages. A tidy week.
He decided that it was time to place the call to Doug. He put his ear buds in, brought his cell close to his lips, gave a voice command. There was a dialing sound effect then ringing. He nodded. It was crisp.
He could hear the door opening behind him. He held the phone up above his head in case his ear buds were not immediately visible, but he did not turn. He leaned back in his chair, anticipating contact.
‘Patrick.’ Doug was open to him.
‘Thanks for taking my call.’
‘Always great to hear from you. How are you and Jenefer holding up?’
Patrick’s chair swiveled quietly.
‘She just walked into the room, as a matter of fact.’
‘Is that so?’
Patrick smiled. His eyes moved over the face and form of his second wife, a lean woman in her early fifties, yellow hair in a low ponytail. She wore a white collared shirt, some sort of soft pants. This was her uniform.
‘Yup,’ said Patrick.
‘Give her my warm regards.’
Patrick was nodding, looking at Jenefer, who seemed to understand who was on the line.
‘She sends hers, as well,’ he said, momentarily unsure if this was the usual response.
‘Well, isn’t that wonderful,’ Doug said. He was often vague in his magnanimity. It could be unsettling.
Jenefer, satisfied as to whatever it was she had originally begun to enter the room in order to ascertain, withdrew.
Patrick hoped to entertain Doug. ‘We’re doing just fine, all things considered,’ he continued. He would soon shift to broader themes.
‘Yes, yes,’ Doug told him. ‘We’re just about OK where we are, too.’
Patrick happened to know that this was a ten-thousand-acre ranch in Utah where Doug Laske had invited him hunting just last year and to which Patrick had traveled, fortunately with Jenefer in tow, and had carried a rifle around on horseback in the company of Doug’s brother-in-law Stan; the freshman senator from Michigan, Alfonso Corbett; and the film actor Sonny Bane, who: Patrick was so puzzled then why no one heard from him anymore. Sonny had been so wonderful in Master Skylark, and Patrick had chatted him up about coming to campus one year soon to deliver the Rose Memorial Lecture, but then only a few months later the man had taken his own life, of all things. It was terrible waste, and Patrick was just glad that he had not pushed the conversation about the lecture further, as it could have been quite an embarrassment, painful.
Patrick remembered now how Doug had razzed him, about how stiff he was on the horse, even as Patrick was privately congratulating himself on not having forgotten after all these years, even if he found the Western saddle something of a silly proposition. And Patrick had wondered a little why Doug had made the effort to tease him – sort of infantile when you came down to it – if it might not be a way of adjusting himself to Patrick’s unusually, even preternaturally chameleon-like nature, which was at home absolutely everywhere and which Patrick always took care to dissimulate in its full miraculous, metamorphic glory. It had to be easy between them, between him and Doug. There was no need to call attention to Patrick’s own astounding versatility.
‘How’s Peanut Butter? And Lucia?’ Patrick asked now, correctly naming the horse he had been given to ride as well as the woman who seemed to manage the stables.
‘Yes, yes. Thriving. PB’s gotten over the experience, and Lucia’s all business. Swear she prefers the animals to us. The kids are with us. Say they like the new satellite, this prototype they’ve got up there, it’s top notch, and I’m telling you it makes me proud to have what they need. Tommy,’ this was Doug’s youngest son, ‘was even inviting one of his buddies out. They’ve got that start-up. I’m pleased as punch this time can be productive for them.’
‘Sounds like you’re set for the long haul,’ Patrick said.
‘Oh yes. Well, as well as anyone can be. I haven’t given out yet, so I want to enjoy every last minute, even when there’s so much going on.’ Doug paused. ‘You all are in Massachusetts?’
‘That we are,’ Patrick told him, unsure how Doug knew this. The house had belonged to Jenefer’s recently deceased aunt and they’d only added it to the portfolio, so to speak, in the past four months, just in time for a national emergency, as they’d joked on one of those intimate nights before Jenefer had poured all the gin down the sink.
‘Trying to keep in close proximity, but not too close, am I right?’
‘Ha!’ said Patrick. Doug was batting him around, but Patrick could see it was all in good fun.
‘I bet they’ve got a lot of questions for you.’
Patrick made another gentle laughing sound. ‘It’s the season of questions,’ he said, feeling his opening begin to coalesce.
‘I can’t imagine you without a plan.’
Doug was curious. This was good.
‘They come to me all too naturally!’
It wasn’t much of a joke, but it landed. Doug chuckled. He said, ‘As much as I know you enjoy my company I can’t think you’d be calling me on a Friday if there wasn’t something I can do. But you caught me on a good day, Pat, I’ll tell you that. So, what’s the story?’
In a sense, Patrick could not believe his luck, but he never thought that way anymore. It wasn’t luck. It was integrity, the spirit of the institution he served, dedication to his role. Other people could feel it. They wanted to take part.
‘I appreciate your patience,’ Patrick began. And he told Doug about the deficit. About the new pilot program they’d just begun in financial aid and the goals to be one-hundred percent smart classrooms and carbon neutral by 2030.
There was a lot to choose from here and Doug already knew how good Patrick was about language, the titling, the dedications, the messaging online. Patrick saw to it that things got into emails, into the alumni magazine, onto plaques and walls.
Doug had an estranged daughter who’d adopted a surprising position on the deal with Brightstream and now taught grade school somewhere in Queens. Patrick had had Lizanne stalk her on Facebook and done some careful thinking where her probable politics were concerned. He saw the in. It was always in the name of the family.
Twenty minutes later, Patrick got up and stretched. He padded into the master suite and futzed around in the built-in, exchanging his work shirt for a turtleneck, switching out his belt to something more casual. He went to find Jenefer.
Jenefer was in the kitchen, plating dinner. She had taken to ordering from a local inn that was offering takeaway in light of the new conditions. Tonight she had selected duck breast with a white puree Patrick knew to be composed of overwintered turnips, a seasonal offering he enjoyed. A mixed green salad sat in an open paper container, awaiting airlift to the side of fowl and root.
Jenefer finished the plate. She opened the fridge. She removed a plastic bottle and a light red she had allowed to chill. She set these on the counter.
‘Looks great,’ Patrick said, announcing himself.
‘I made it myself.’ Jenefer turned to the cabinet. He could see the vague outline of the muscles of her back inside her shirt as she reached for a high shelf.
‘Can I help?’
‘No, I’ve got it.’ She came back with two wine glasses, filling one with the red, which began to sweat delicately, and the other with her meal-replacement thing, which was pale brown and moved thickly. She asked him if he would like to put some music on. She did not wait to hear his answer but began transferring the food to the table in the other room, which she had already set.
Patrick had written a dissertation on Wagner and nostalgia that later became the basis for his bestselling biography of the composer, Tristan, translated into ten languages, his first and only book. Before it was published, when he was still in the contract phase, he’d had his first job as what was termed a ‘preceptor’ of expository essay writing, polishing the paragraph structures of gifted undergraduates whom he feared but managed to tolerate, given the financial strain of his early first marriage, which had all but immediately produced twins. After the appearance of Tristan, things had developed swiftly. He became a fellow at an institute, then an assistant professor, and, within a span of four years, received tenure and a promotion coinciding with the release of a popular PBS documentary he had consulted on and voiced. He was thirty-two.
At home, he and Janice, then his wife, barely spoke. The twins were now little girls, miniature women, and squealing they ran up and down, up and down the stately carpeted stairs in the comfortably proportioned Romanesque Victorian he had handily afforded. This was the perfect life, the rooms with their glistening antiques, brilliantly selected and arranged by Janice, who was, as she explained to their many invited guests, a former design historian. Janice would write and teach again, and maybe she even knew this, then. But it took his private disgrace within their union for her to begin revising her dissertation in earnest, finally publishing it when the girls were entering high school, and the two of them, he and Janice, had come to see that it was only a matter of a few years before they would acknowledge their long emotional separation in the customary way, which was to say, legally.
He was a dean by then. He was beloved, a sort of mascot. He was always attending clubs and plays and introducing speakers and running meetings and holding open office hours for struggling freshmen, and above all deciding. He offered decisions. He pronounced what would be best, thought about what was exemplary. He handled things: the surprising number of crimes committed by the students, particularly against one another, as well as the swells and swirls of local politics. He had never thought much about rape before accepting the position, but then he learned more about rape and its commonplaceness and distressingly anodyne adjudication than ever he had wished to know. Having attended a small no-name liberal arts school before his somewhat flashier graduate studies, he knew next to nothing of the customs of the young gentlemen’s clubs founded in the universities of the Ivy League during the nineteenth century in order to defend the rights and customs of property-owning families and their heirs. Certainly, he knew that these entities existed, but he himself came from a different sort of line, one that was equally old and even colonial in its origins in the Northeast, but which was in part Quaker in persuasion and which had been mixed with a burbling, musical German-Czech strain, as well as an enterprising Irish grandfather, who had arrived in Boston as a teenager in the second decade of the twentieth century. His own parents had been earnest people, lovers of parity if not fairness, history and piano music. His mother had worked at the same prep school he had attended, teaching French and running the theater program on the side. His father was a social worker, primarily in South Boston. No one had ever, in a sense, demanded much of him. They had merely showed him their commitments.
Even now, now that his father was gone, too, Patrick still thought of him, vital and tall, commanding and balding, for as long as he could remember, seated at the dining room table, recounting acts of violence and neglect, repeating a phrase he seemed to have heard somewhere, ‘For this, my friends, is the human comedy.’ His father’s eyes would flash dimly at those words. Thinking of it now, it seemed like an extreme thing to say, an extreme thing to tell one’s family, nearly ostentatious in its suppression of grief and horror. But that had been how his father spoke of his work, always calling Patrick’s attention to the crucial importance of reduction of harm, always arguing against idealism, against the increasingly harsh austerities imposed by the state during the early 1980s.
Patrick had felt very dull on these occasions. He had nodded at his father, absorbed his father’s sense of a calling and obvious animation, the animation that coursed through him as he spoke about other people’s lives. Patrick had gone to college assuming that he would become either a high school teacher like his mother or a counselor like his father. He surprised himself by developing an obsession with late Romantic music and drama, the continental philosophical tradition, and the fate of human subjectivity during the long nineteenth century. He was amazed to find that scholars studied the effects of industrialization on human beings, that the almost universal consensus was that a sense of alienation from natural rhythms and agrarian cycles was widespread and extremely traumatizing. Never had Patrick thought about human history in this way. The history he had learned at home was a history of personal forbearance in the face of social folly and exploitative government. Never had the notion of technologically motivated historical experience been presented to him. He drank these ideas up like milk, like honey, like truly excellent food. He was admitted into every graduate program to which he applied.
This was where it had begun, in this time, far from his father, steeped in aesthetic theory and the intricate interpenetrations of avant-gardism and nationalism on the old continent. He had come to understand himself in a new way. Perhaps there was something in him, too: a spirit of the age. Perhaps it was enough for him to simply think, in order to serve society. Perhaps he need not do more. It could be that it was an error even to believe that there was more that one could do.
Patrick was able to remember this transformative time and its heady thoughts now in a summary way. It was a kind of memory of a memory, something he had trained himself to see as a fundamental crossroads in his biography – for which, at the same time, he lacked a full, embodied series of recollections. It was a source of gladness to him, this bright streak of success dimmed, in truth, only slightly by banal personal tragedy. However, he had long since given up attempting to develop the version of himself who had lived, then and there. That person had not really turned out to be so important. That person was inspiring but flimsy. It wasn’t a life upon which one could build.
Jenefer had appeared to him, lo those many years later, at a gala he was attending at the invitation of a successful alumnus, an entrepreneur in the biomedical field whom Patrick had mentored while he was in school. They were seated at adjoining tables, Jenefer’s apparently bought out by her firm. He could not seem to stop turning to examine her, this precisely delineated woman with a sharp, small nose and thick hair pulled back at her neck, neither young nor old, and so watchful and aware – even as she barely glanced at him.
It was by then nearly four years since the conclusion of the incident, his marital stumble. He gave thanks that it had been possible to negotiate a simple close to the matter. While it was certainly not illegal for a man of his age and position to be conducting an affair with a twenty-six-year-old assistant professor – ‘Hell,’ as Gaskin had told him one night, it was ‘very nearly required!’ – and although Janice had been almost alarmingly discreet, there was a wobble and a spin to these actions. It was delicious, it was his due, it was satiating and maddening, but it was also humiliating in its predictability. He came to see, after a long agony, that it would be best to give it up.
Some men liked to convert these forays into the very sort of arrangement one might have thought they were eager to exit, but Patrick was not that sort of man.
Solitary, he endured the sensible separation and the interminable, polite divorce. He gratefully accepted a series of honorary posts and fellowships, claiming that he had decided to return to research.
He was still twisting there, dangling by a thread, half-heartedly skimming articles and meanwhile taking weekly calls from two or three recruiters who seemed to know more about his personal history than he did, when, on the night of the gala, in the violet light of a hotel atrium, he steeled himself to ask Jenefer Coke if they had not met before.
It was a trite, but it was what he was able to manage.
She told him yes, cryptically, that they had been neighbors. She referred to the seating arrangement, of course, but he couldn’t help hearing a dry, nearly universal empathy in her words. They were all neighbors, after all. It reminded him of his father.
And he took his opening. He introduced himself and asked Jenefer Coke if, given their preexisting neighborly relationship, she might be willing to accompany him for a drink.
She had nodded. She had said, ‘Let me get my coat. If you don’t mind, let’s just go next door.’
She was telling him that he had half an hour. She was a polite woman and would not begrudge him that, but soon he would be on his own, and the fact of it was that this inspired him. He had never spoken before as he spoke to her on that night, agile and kind, witty and reserved. It turned out that he was right about her. She was lucky for him.
All he knew then was that her specialty was nonprofit law. Her time was mostly absorbed by a single account, a major artist’s foundation whose assets were viciously contested on several fronts. She left it there for the time being, their first encounter, so it was not until several weeks later that, coming across a top-of-the-fold article in the Style section of the New York Times, he realized that the artist pertaining to the foundation in question was Maurizio Apfelbaum, whose sculptures had once mesmerized Patrick at a retrospective comprising three floors of the Museum of Modern Art.
The Style section article had been a discussion of how artists’ legacies are affected when legal fees begin to encroach upon the longevity of their estates and therefore associated foundations. Patrick had reflected that everyone knew how their legacies are affected by these factors, which was to say, not well, but he hardly gave a moment to that, reading instead the quote from Jenefer over ten times and thinking of her voice, melodious and poised and exquisitely edited, uttering it to the journalist through the phone.
She was the one, then, who had made this way for him.
She was the one who had asked him if he really wanted to be doing all that awful reading. ‘Are you sure you want to get so bogged down in details?’
She had said that that didn’t seem like him, to her. He had tried to listen to this idea. It was just clues at first, hints. Perhaps it was the time in his life, as well. He had felt so cleaned out, then; so blank and baffled. It was amazing to him that perhaps what he had lived with Janice might be all there was to the relationships that gave rise to children. He had gone to see a therapist for six months and the therapist, Celeste, had given him to see that it was not out of the realm of possibility that his own parents’ partnership had been a sort of leitmotif to which he, in his own more or less idealistic, more or less misguided, way, had attempted to respond.
Thus had he built his household. Thus had he attempted not to be moved by what he perceived as irrational forces swirling inside him. He remembered his mother’s kindness to him and was glad at Janice’s kindness to their daughters, her easy way of lavishing time on the girls. If, in the evenings, she was either asleep by 9.30 or shut into her room downstairs until all hours of the night, then he did not ask her about it because she was, after all, a free person as well as a good mother. He never went with her and the girls on their Saturday outings but quietly observed their activities by way of the credit card bill. It probably brought him an unreasonable amount of pleasure. Their lives, although he would never have admitted this to himself, were contained by his largesse. He encompassed them, was with them everywhere they went. He was a ubiquitous, neutral if not beneficent substance, a fluid in which they floated. It had not, until he had begun the sessions with Celeste, occurred to him that this sort of behavior and general orientation on his part might be interpreted, even rather widely, by a large share of the readers of the New York Times, say, as controlling.
He had tried, once, to speak to Jenefer about his misgivings. Did she ever feel, he asked, that he did ‘odd things’ with money.
Jenefer was seated upright in bed. She held an iPad on her knees, flicking through online furniture auctions. ‘What’s “odd”?’ Her eyes remained focused on the screen.
They were in Manhattan, then.
‘Have you ever felt – ,’ Patrick paused, attempting to conjure Celeste’s gentle words, her soft, figurative phrasing. He tried to imagine her guiding him. He regrouped, determined to be direct. ‘What I am trying to say is, I know this is very awkward, has there ever been a time when I paid for something and you wished I, for example, hadn’t?’
Jenefer frowned. She was wearing a lace camisole and her face gleamed with some sort of translucent pinkish cream that he knew that he was not supposed to ask about.
‘It’s fine,’ Jenefer said. ‘You’re fine,’ she repeated. ‘You’re a generous person.’
‘I would like us to be able to talk about it, if ever anything came up.’ Patrick was conscious of himself moving toward a dresser, in search of support. It was all he could do not to turn his back to Jenefer.
He watched her make the device sleep and place it face up on the bedside table. He experienced the sensation of a stiffening across his chest. The stiffening was shortly accompanied by something like heartburn.
Jenefer was rubbing her lips together. It was a sign of annoyance if not despair. She massaged her temples.
He could not understand why he wanted her to begin enumerating his sins. He waited now for the litany to start. He even desired it.
But all Jenefer said was, ‘Please don’t get distracted.’ She said that they both had a big week ahead.
And it was, indeed, a big week. Jen was right.
Patrick had wondered, briefly, if he should reconsider the work with Celeste. He had opened a dresser drawer and selected a T-shirt and boxers. They were lightly scented with washing potions administered by his housekeeper. The subtle smell was something he enjoyed, it was true. He walked with these to the bathroom.
Although Jenefer was not one to dwell on the past, whether his or her own, she was not harsh in this refusal. Her refusal of the conversation was succinct, and it was even helpful. He chose to believe that what she had meant to convey was less that it was wrong that he had asked her such a thing than that there was no one on earth who could answer this question as well as he himself could.
So, what, then, did he believe?
He believed that he had supported his wife and children. And this was true. It had not been entirely within his power to grant to Janice the self-determination and professional progress that surely, were he in her place, he would have desired and single-mindedly sought out for himself. He had given her a way of living, something to stand on, a place from which she might begin, and he had been a model. Whether she had admired his way of obtaining success, she must have learned something from it. After the girls became more independent, she had had time, and with this time she had done well. Everything happens for a reason, Patrick thought. I never forced Janice to share a life with me.
So it was, then, that Patrick wobbled, if he wobbled. He always landed firm, resolved, yet every day at this hour he grew faint and he did not know why.
He was grateful for the food. His meal was warm on the plate before him. The plate itself was also warm, having been placed in the microwave as a platform for this food and, therefore, heated along with it.
Jenefer drank some of her drink. ‘How’s Doug?’ she wanted to know.
Patrick smiled. ‘Doug is excellent.’ He raked off a morsel of duck with his fork, laid it across his tongue.
Jenefer winced. ‘I’m seeing the inside of your mouth.’
Patrick chewed. ‘It’s a bad habit,’ he said, once he was done. ‘I should be more mindful.’
‘Did Doug say anything about his plans?’
‘What’s his outlook?’
‘His outlook? He is –’ Patrick paused. He had no idea what Doug thought about the future, in part because Doug’s greatest talent and existential gift was an apparent lack of regard for what others understood as time to come. For Doug, the present was enough. Doug really seemed to get quite a lot done there. Patrick said, ‘You know how he is.’ He ate more, taking care not to reveal his teeth.
Jenefer frowned. She did know how Doug was but that did not apparently mean that she did not want a full report. ‘What did he say?’
‘Regarding what?’ Patrick concentrated his efforts on the mash.
‘Patrick, I’m asking you a question.’
‘And I’m answering your question as well as I know how. How’s your drink? Is that a new flavor?’
Jenefer said nothing, frowning, staring into the face-sized space in front of her face.
Patrick began to feel giddy. His heart rate sped up. Perhaps Jenefer believed that she was entitled to something, that unto Jenefer all that he, Patrick, knew must be revealed. It was a risible idea and charming in its frailty. Patrick felt cruel. He felt powerful. He felt a brief, sharp ecstasy.
He recalled how once, when they were on the Cape, Doug had invited them to view his ninety-foot yacht, referring to it repeatedly as ‘my toy’, and Jenefer had taken up an alert position on a white banquette, wearing the top of a very small, brownish two-piece with loose pants, a hat with a big brim, round glasses. She had long since taken care to be artificially tan by that point in summer, and Patrick had the sense that her trim, somehow elven figure was traveling away from him at great speed, even though she was hardly more than a yard from him, close enough that within moments he could envelope her.
‘She’s really got it all together, doesn’t she? Nice package,’ Doug said.
They stood looking out over the steps down the stern at the wake and Patrick had chosen to laugh. He’d said something vague. He’d probably told Doug that Jenefer knew herself.
Doug was pleased, then. ‘I bet you’re grateful for that self-knowledge.’
It was a bell. Patrick heard only the word, ‘grateful’, for he was. He was grateful for Jenefer’s adamantine notions of what was to be done, her discipline and painstakingly researched habits, her frankly curatorial orientation toward the project of existence. There was no mystery in Jenefer. There was only the internet and a body nearby it. Jenefer was a glistening endeavor overseen by Jenefer and abetted by half-a-million followers on Instagram. What one perceived was only the awesome architecture the architect had intended, for there was nothing more.
But now sometimes Patrick took another meaning. He took it willfully, because Doug had offered it and there it sat, an object on a table. It was a letter passed between them, a smooth packet. Patrick did not know why he liked to think about it so much.
Jenefer, meanwhile, at the table, in this home, in the year of the plague, was not saying anything. She had ceased to frown. Her work in law, Patrick felt, had given her skills in relation to the revelation of emotion. If you saw a sentiment on her, it was because she wanted you to recognize it there. What you needed to be worried about, therefore, was when it seemed like there was nothing to see – which was a more and more frequent occurrence these days.
At last, she spoke. She said, ‘This is not a new flavor.’ Then, ‘You know I only like Original.’
Patrick nodded. He did know.
Jenefer folded her hands over her plate-less place setting. ‘How’s your duck?’
‘Ducky,’ Patrick said.
‘I never liked duck,’ Jenefer told him. ‘I don’t miss it.’
‘Really?’ Patrick was not surprised, but this seemed like a safe detour.
‘Oh my God, just sort of fatty and gamey!’
‘Just how I like it,’ he told her, making a stroke with his knife.
‘I need to ask you something.’
‘And what is that?’
‘You know the next trash day is for oversize items.’
Patrick was vaguely aware of this. He saw what was coming.
‘I think it’s time,’ said Jenefer. ‘There could be interruptions in service. You know we’ve talked and it really doesn’t make sense to keep holding on to that thing.’
‘And you agreed.’
‘But I moved it!’ He could not restrain himself.
‘Thank you, Patrick. You did. That helped for a little while. You moved it, but you agreed that if ever we needed the pool shed – if we were going to use the pool shed – you would let it go. You said that you would give it up. This was agreed.’
‘It’s cold. It’s fucking miserable out.’ Patrick wanted to spit in the air or cry.
‘But what I’m telling you is, we don’t know about sanitation at this point. We don’t know about the food supply. This is totally unprecedented, Patrick.’
‘Doug thinks things are going to go well.’
‘Doug is in his bunker, Patrick.’
‘It’s a ranch!’ Patrick exclaimed.
‘Oh my God, Patrick! You and I both know that Doug has God-knows-what there. It’s his fucking end-of-the-days, apocalyptic compound.’
‘Doug is a friend.’
‘Doug is a very kind guy, and he has been helpful, but please don’t try to turn this into something it’s not. I’ve given you things, Patrick. You know what I’ve said about this. I live with you. Remember that we spoke about agreements and how they are important to me.’
‘You do understand that agreements are important to me?’
‘I do,’ Patrick said.
‘And that we have an agreement? You understand that?’
Patrick pressed his fork into what remained of the duck. He speared it, grimacing, and then he dug deeper and he raised it up, pierced, caught. He held the implement, fowl atop it in a ‘T’, out in front of his face. He squinted.
He could sense Jenefer getting to her feet. Vaguely, he perceived her retreat, glass in hand, to the kitchen.
Patrick did not move. He made the duck go fuzzy, adjusted his eyes so that it sharpened again.
In the past, he would have used his voice. He would have told the person who attempted to hold him to his word that rules of this kind did not apply to men of the kind he was. Or, he would have said that words are weak because of what they are, that they are mere words. He would have said this without saying precisely this. Still, this was what was true and so he should, by all rights, be entitled to say it. He was possessed of a will and this will was free and it would seek that portion of the present that was closest to the future because there was nothing for him to fear once he was vibrating with his own remarkable liberty, his cutting and unbridled agency. He would have said, ‘Yes.’ And then he would have said, ‘But we must recall your faithless nature, Jenefer.’ He would have established, to his own eminent satisfaction, the inconstancy of his interlocutor, as well as the ways in which his interlocutor’s inconstancy was a direct factor in his decision to abandon some so-called pact, some unreal name for something despicable, since made of mist.
If he did not do this now, it was not precisely out of love. His reasons were, rather, extremely practical. He restrained himself. He did not crush Jenefer. He did not crush her because he could choose not to crush her, and this, too, was a mark of his will and its admirable complexity. He set the duck down, fork still attached. He stood and, leaving the remains of his meal where they lay, exited the room. He transferred himself into the study. He mounted the forgiving sectional and put on CNN.
The voices were carefully calibrated, informative, pleasing in the mildness of their enthusiasms and affect, and he felt the thoughts of loss begin to edge away. This was how it worked. His mind stilled. The evening was young and the faces on the screen were kind to him. Their features good and clean, they were intent on delineating the situation. Not the whole situation, mind you, just the parts of the situation about which those who chose to be undeceived should be informed. Patrick felt the invitation. It was good, intelligent. He responded, mentally, in the affirmative. He liked the information flows that decorated the edges of the screen.
Patrick’s father had died two weeks ago now. Patrick had not gone to visit him at the facility, in the end. He could not have done so; it was no longer permitted. Patrick had received phone calls. His father’s baby sister, his aunt, Theresa, who still lived independently in Boston and about whom Patrick had long ago ceased asking himself questions, had sent an email, ‘Pat your dads very frail. Call when you can.’ The subject line had read, ‘Your fathers heath’. He did not know if she wrote these things on a computer or if she might be one of those violet-haired ladies who valiantly held a smart phone mere inches from her eyes, gazing through corrective lenses at the cruelly petite screen, employing a gnarled digit to tap at individual characters with steely determination, willing syntax to take form. Or if Siri aided her. Or what it was. He knew almost nothing about Theresa, had not seen her in years, although she had followed his career with evident interest and admiration. He had no idea how she could have arrived at the opinion that he was unaware of the state of his father’s health.
The facility had called many times and Patrick had had to absorb the situation. They had asked at several points if Patrick wanted to FaceTime with his father. ‘You have,’ they said, ‘the option of FaceTiming with him.’ Patrick had declined. The staff were genuinely caring, it seemed like, as far as Patrick could tell. For years now, a recurring nurse, Shelby, to whom Patrick had sent a check for five-thousand dollars only a few days ago, in the way of what was probably an incorrectly scaled expression of gratitude, always seemed to share a secret with his father, whose mouth hung open like the top of a sack in some Northern Renaissance canvas and who no longer spoke.
Patrick was told by the supervisor who called that it was understood. The supervisor had been hired within the past two months, a patch on a leak, and appeared to be weathering the crisis well, which gave Patrick confidence. They understood at the facility – they weren’t there to judge you – it could be all too much to make contact. They understood and were at the ready with various telephonic devices, ready to instantaneously beam presence back and forth, if he should change his mind, just so he knew. The supervisor assured Patrick that his father was receiving the very best of care.
Patrick reviewed these words now in hindsight. He supposed that he could withstand such a lonely death, if it were to befall him. His father had already ceased to be, even before he passed away. He was already completely unable to think coherently about his situation, to organize the passage of time and therefore regret the diminution of his mind and compass of experience. Patrick’s father’s sphere of influence had shrunk so far that perhaps there was even a sort of lack of loss, in his death. It was merely procedural, had to be processed, and what was irrefutably gone today had in fact been gone for years.
How different this was from his mother’s passing. It had taken Patrick several years even to fully comprehend that there had been quite a ripple within the community he had grown up in, a collective gasp and flurry of speculation that took nearly a decade to die down. It was the spring of his sophomore year of college and his RA had appeared, saying that the Director of Housing had received a call from Patrick’s father. Patrick felt that he could have known then, if he had wished to. He could have grasped it. And perhaps he had even known – there was a period when he had asked himself if there was not, in this moment, in the face of the RA, a tall woman with smooth hair and large glasses, perhaps even reflected in the blueness of the glasses’ lenses, something like an image, a sort of sympathetic imprint of a reality the RA herself could not know, an unconscious picture, a mark that beamed forth, having entered the mind of the Director of Housing who had spoken to Patrick’s father. And this seal, this imprint, this silent writing, had been conferred, unconsciously, to her, to the feckless and nearsighted RA, who had passed it along. And so Patrick had begun to comprehend, even then, even before he heard his father’s voice a small fraction of an hour later.
Patrick’s father had never previously attempted to reach his son at school. There was a phone in Patrick’s room and this device was eminently reachable and yet it was in no way clear that Patrick’s father knew this number or knew, even, where the number was likely to be recorded, in the house that he shared with Patrick’s mother. Only Patrick’s mother called Patrick.
Patrick got on the phone to his parents’ dwelling. His father picked up.
‘Hello?’ Patrick’s father said. He did not sound good.
‘Dad,’ said Patrick. ‘It’s me.’
There was a noise on the other line. The noise was of choking, of air moving around a blockage.
‘Dad?’ Patrick seemed to be floating in a very large, if not quite infinite, void. The void was dark, hideous, speckled with orange and gold and pale blue. Patrick felt himself to be a vibration, not a body. Patrick wanted to vomit. It was so awful having no body. When Patrick would remember this moment in years to come, he would perceive himself as already on the other side, somehow prematurely in the planet-less next world in which such things were possible, which was not the place in which he had been born.
‘Something has happened, Patrick. Your mother –.’ Patrick’s father grunted. He groaned. There was something sawing away at Patrick’s father. Patrick thought of medieval heretics who were condemned to be slowly rendered limb from limb by a band of poorly armed men who would chase them over the course of a day until the heretic in question was dead.
In such cases, Patrick had told his professor, one should probably look for a cliff or body of water.
‘It is possible to swallow one’s tongue,’ the professor had countered, ‘but I’ve never read of any instances of that. I do think someone thought out the torture course in advance. I don’t really think there was a lot of innovation or resistance where these practices were concerned. It seemed to go through as planned.’
Patrick had believed this inquiry into mob execution definitively closed, but the next week the professor had summoned Patrick to him. ‘What you were saying,’ the professor said, ‘about self-euthanasia. I should have mentioned that there are accounts of witches jumping.’
Patrick was confused.
‘Oh,’ the professor said, watching Patrick’s face, ‘at a hanging, you see, when they were being hanged. It’s not a good way to die, hanging, but if they’ve got you on a platform, if you time it right you can jump before they push you or open the trap door or whatever the device is.’
Patrick pondered this.
‘How would we know that?’ Patrick asked. He understood already the physics, that the utility associated with jumping up was that the longer fall would snap a person’s neck, resulting in near-instant death. What he wanted to understand was the form of historical knowledge itself.
‘It’s an interesting question. A question about how information travels outside of official channels, of course. Executions were public. They were spectacles. You’re proposing that there might have been an anti-institutional effect associated with them, wouldn’t you say? That as much as they were meant to terrorize a population, they also generated dissent.’
Patrick had nodded. And then the professor, a meek man in his early sixties, had, incongruously, thanked Patrick, and Patrick had later learned that he was also thanked in the foreword of a book the professor would go on to publish in two years’ time, just as Patrick was preparing to move on to graduate school.
What Patrick’s father had said was that his mother was no longer with them. He had said that it was an accident, but that wasn’t the case.
Patrick had never confronted his father: not regarding the things said during this phone call and certainly not regarding the things that constituted the reality of his mother’s suicide nor the events that had led up to it. Patrick’s mother had been involved in a long-term romantic relationship with another teacher at the school. This teacher – a woman, not a man, a fact that had accrued to Patrick’s consciousness like a solvent, suddenly suspending and dissolving various incongruous bits and pieces until he knew that yes, he had understood this all along, long ago, had always understood – had ended the relationship. Perhaps the loss had been too much. Everyone at the school had been aware of it, this love relationship, and no one had said anything. Or, they had said things to one another but not to the broader world and certainly not to Patrick or Patrick’s father. Maybe that was the thing, too. A friend of Patrick’s who’d been in his class, Sam Castell (now in real estate on the Cape), had talked to him about it. It was years after but even so, considering this now, it seemed incredible to Patrick that a person would take it upon themselves to tear a hole in the velvet side of the snake of gossip that fed on the lives of their town. However, Sam was strange, not cut out for the place. He was the sort of man who would live alone in later life but know everyone, all their business. Anyway, in some sense he was only doing what was expected of him.
And Patrick had not disbelieved Sam Castell, a big, florid young man with an open face and a sadistic streak. Everything vibrated. Something had passed between them, but it was only what was true.
Patrick had not thought of Sam Castell for many years.
Patrick’s body jerked.
It was now probably a few minutes past four o’clock in the morning. Patrick checked his watch. Once again, he had managed to fall asleep out here.
He got up, turning off the television and the lights, and went back to the kitchen where he consumed a glass of water.
Jenefer had made a pass since dinner: the remains of what he had eaten were in the trash, he saw. Dishes were in the machine.
He padded to the closet system in the hall leading to the master bedroom. He stripped and dressed himself in the clothes he wore for exercise. He went out of the house through the back, exiting via the patio that led to the pool and the pool shed.
Motion sensors made two pairs of lights come on.
He could hear the dim noise of a few cars on the local highway two miles away.
The pool was covered for now, not drained. Patrick found this vaguely unsanitary, but he had said nothing to Jenefer about it. He did not think that he would say anything now.
In the shed, Patrick made an effort not to breathe through his nose. The smell of must and mice fur in here had more than once caused him to gag.
He went to the thing and grasped it, tipping it toward him. He felt the wheels on the base engage and began carefully guiding the item over the threshold.
He did see why it might be worth replacing the elliptical. It was over twenty years old, had been carted everywhere with bizarre dedication. The design was obviously dated, and his daughters had seen fit to embellish it with sticker-sheet borders, not wanting to waste the stickers themselves on an object that pertained exclusively to their father and yet feeling compelled to assist him in some way, to enliven his dreary life.
Patrick shouldered the elliptical’s bars. He rested a cheek against its plasticky coldness and piloted it alongside the veiled pool.
We have shared goals, Patrick thought. Only if everyone in the community comes together will we be able to achieve them.
He continued, negotiating the less-even patio surface. We must respect every individual’s needs and fears.
Being disciplined must go hand-in-hand with being understanding.
Always one and then the other, Patrick thought. Always with the sensitive line, yes. Softness and then hardness. Firmness. And he continued. He almost had it now.
We must recognize that every action that we take, or fail to take, impacts others. We must abide by shared rules, foregrounding our responsibilities to all members of the community. When people do not rise to their best and most responsible conduct, we must be resolute.
And yet, was ‘foregrounding’ the correct metaphor? He could see Lizanne redacting that. ‘word choice?’ she would type. He thought that ground should be in there somewhere. Emphasizing, he thought. Cherishing, he thought.
He paused before the glass patio doors and suddenly laughed, comforted in the midst of this humiliating task in a world he was utterly failing to understand by the sight of his double. He saw his reflection, a big faceless man cradling the strange shape of something he would shortly abandon.
Image © Allen Grey