WE SPLURGED ON OUR VACATION to Crane Hill Resort, but if you asked me now, I’d still say it was worth it. On the flight down to Florida, Jack, my usually reserved six-year-old, had been a terror. The videos that I’d painstakingly downloaded the night before mysteriously disappeared when we got to our seats, putting him in a cranky mood the entire flight. Lana, three, had been getting over a stomach bug and had to use the toilet four times during the short flight. I could see her across the aisle on Evonne’s lap, shifting, twisting, and throwing elbows.
This was our hectored state when we pulled up to Crane Hill’s palm-lined entrance. But as soon as we walked up the plantation-style deck, a mysterious serenity swept over our family.
Our driver, Sal, rolled our luggage in front of us. “Really great to meet you, Jim,” he said. Then he whispered: “You’re gonna have the time of your life.” He shook my hand warmly, and in his hand I placed a twenty-dollar bill. Crane Hill was all-inclusive, the money already spent. There was no reason not to be generous.
What a week! It was only Florida, but there was something restorative about the pre-Christmas December heat. The kids slept until seven a.m. in their adjacent rooms, a break from their usual 5:40 reveille. At meals, they ate what we put on their plates—though what was there to argue about? There were a dozen kinds of bread alone.
We had opted for the kids’ camp package—an extra 300 dollars per kid, but it meant they were occupied from nine until three-thirty, and we had the days to ourselves to paddleboard, jet ski, lie by the pool. The first day, toweling off after swimming laps in the adults-only pool, Evonne said, “Do you want to go back to the room?” A made-up bed, chocolates on the pillows.
I have to say, though, even better than the nightly fireworks over the river, and the eighties night dance-a-thon where Israelis and Russians and Norwegians and Californians got snookered on free sweet rum drinks, the best thing about the trip was the friend Jack made.
Axel was from Iceland, also six, a tall, bony kid Jack met at the main pool on the first day. The thing is, Jack tends to keep to himself. When Evonne picks him up from school, she finds him sitting alone, reading. We and his teachers have alternately worried about this and seen it as a source of future independence.
Axel found Jack clinging to the pool ladder, lining up discarded toys on the steps, and despite the language difference, they became fast friends: jumping in the pool, sprinting across the deck (the lifeguards took a laissez-faire attitude), making sandcastles.
The boys had so much fun together that we sort of absconded with Axel that week, letting him join us for meals. Axel’s parents seemed possessed of a European disinterest in their son. Jack seemed like a whole new kid around Axel, as if Axel was some vitamin Jack had been deprived of. That week, they were best buds, full of hilarious secrets and imaginary adventure games played out across Crane Hill’s campus.
The day before we left, I suggested we get an email address from Mr. and Mrs. Axel, so the boys could be email pals. Mrs. Axel didn’t seem as excited about this prospect as I was, and halfheartedly scratched out a Yahoo address with an Icelandic suffix.
The morning after we arrived home, I suggested we write Axel immediately to preserve whatever it was that had animated Jack that week.
“What do you want to say to him?” I asked, positioning my laptop to face Jack at the kitchen table.
“That it was good to meet him?” Jack offered.
I typed this out. Dear Axel. It was good to meet you.
Tired from the week’s adventure, his hair a bear trap of cowlicks, Jack just shrugged.
“I don’t know.”
“How about we ask him what the weather’s like now in Iceland? Is it cold there? I mean, it is Iceland.”
What is the weather like in Iceland? Is it cold there? It’s cold and rainy here in North Carolina.
“Ask him what his street is called!” Lana shouted, holding a waffle that spilled its syrup onto the floor. I typed this out.
“I don’t know,” said Jack.
“Guys!” Evonne called from the garage for the kids to get in the car, they had to go to school, and she had a counseling session with a patient at the hospital at eight sharp.
I kissed them, and they hurried out. I finished off the note on my own: It was great playing with you. What are your favorite foods? What is your teacher’s name? I thought for another moment. Do you play any sports? If so, which sports? I miss you. Your friend, Jack Robbins
We bought the Crane Hill package online, a special deal for 2,700 dollars plus taxes and fees, plus 137 dollars in Crane Hill swag: T-shirts and sweatpants for ourselves and the kids and my next-door neighbor, Brett, plus the 20-dollar tip for Sal.
That morning I was let go from my job as a vice president at Dale and Kohn Public Relations. We live in a sleepy southern town, a non-metropolis that Evonne and I, Chicagoans by birth, leapt at the chance of moving to when Dale and Kohn opened an office nearby.
I met Evonne playing softball in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood. She was on a team of Northwestern psychology PhDs. She’d taken a line drive to the forehead, and I volunteered to take her to the ER, where we waited for four hours among scores of sick, wailing, and psychotic Chicagoans. It was on that impromptu date that we began to daydream of a place in America where you could zip into an ER and receive quality medical care from a licensed MD in under an hour and not be charged an arm and a leg.
Evonne said to me, resting her head against my shoulder as she closed her eyes (against my advice), “You find it on a map, Jim, and I’ll go with you.”
D+K’s office in our city only accommodated several small clients and one large client, Regency Pork Products. As an intern years ago, I’d been put on the staid RPP account team. Five years into my tenure, D+K, enticed by the globalization of all things, looked at the map, saw a big blank spot in the South, and decided to open a shop there. I was the natural fit.
In fact, our office was just me and our administrative assistant, Lisa Del Pino, and an occasional intern from the local evangelical college, whose church we attend. I was one of a score of vice presidents located across the country. I’ll spare you my daily responsibilities as a flak for big pork, but they were modest and never more urgent than helping Lisa handle the overflow ham calls before Easter.
That morning, when I dialed in for my weekly check-in with our managing partner, Ben Herman in Chicago, in which the heads of all the regional offices call in for a round-robin update, only Ben Herman was on the line.
“Anyone else getting on the call?” I asked, waiting for the usual bright pings. I stood up and gazed out the window, peeling off a thin layer of sunburnt skin.
“Actually, Jim, it’s just me,” Herman said glumly. I noticed that my door, which was usually open, had been shut by Lisa.
After explaining that he had some bad news, that D+K was taking a new direction as far as its regionals were concerned, that Heblun, the giant holding company in whose portfolio D+K was but one enterprise, was also reassessing things in light of poor earnings, he told me they were going to have to shut my office—most of the regionals, in fact—altogether.
He then went on, as if he were reading from a script, which I realized later he was, to list my severance package, which wouldn’t get me through the new year. It took me a second to realize someone from HR was in the office with him.
“What about Regency?” I asked, as if this last-minute demonstration of my client commitment might provide a reprieve.
“Regency,” he sighed, “well, they’re also reassessing things. They said it just didn’t make sense to keep us on retainer. Keep in mind, Jim. This has nothing to do with you. As a person. We all…we all really like you. A lot. Well, you know that.”
There was some paper shuffling on his end, which I realized was the HR person, unhappy with this deviation. As we concluded the call, he offered, “You know, if you’re up for a move, you might want to try Mike Blanchard.”
Mike Blanchard was a fellow I’d worked with in 2001 who had started his own technology PR firm in California and was, according to Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter, making a killing.
After I hung up with Herman, I stood looking out the window. The crisp of dead skin stood raised on my forearm. Our building is the closest thing to a high-rise around, and the view of the cloud-covered rolling fields that’d reclaimed the land on which a razed state hospital used to sit, and the low mountains beyond, always served as an affirmation that Evonne and I had made the right decision to hightail it out of Chicago.
After an indeterminate amount of time, I screwed up the courage to open the door and tell Lisa, but she was already bent over several boxes, packing up her belongings, the frilly edge of her Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer panties rising high above the waistband of her slacks.
That night, I didn’t tell Evonne that I had been let go. After sixteen years together, I knew exactly what she would say. After a brief moment of feigned consolation, she’d say: “Oh, Jim. I’m sorry. I know you didn’t really like that job, but still. You’ll find something else.”
Evonne has a preternatural disinterest in all practical matters, particularly matters of career and finance. Money, retirement, the cost of air filters or an oil change—these are very abstract and boring concepts to her, and she’s more than happy to leave them to me. The flip side is that she places a premium on the spiritual, the felt.
In her view, we were healthy, the children were healthy, on Saturdays we spent hours at our regionally famous farmer’s market which sprawled across the town square like a vast, ancient souk. We grazed through stalls of perfumed candles, potpourri, vegetables of every variety, spices, liquors, and healing crystals; on Sundays, we worshipped with a fervor that’d only intensified when we left the Midwest. Little else, to her mind, mattered.
Still, she didn’t keep the books. I did. And what I knew, but she did not, was that our cash reserves had dipped to their lowest levels in years: 3,336 dollars, to be exact, the result of an outdated furnace that’d given up the ghost during last year’s brutal winter, two summer camp deposits, a broken washer (Lana’s head lice led Evonne to overstuff the machine with bedding), a broken sewer pipe, and, of course, our Crane Hill vacation.
That evening, what I found myself saying as my family tromped in from the garage was: “Hey, Jack! Let’s check to see if Axel wrote us back!”
“Who?” Jack asked, already speeding toward his racetrack in the sunroom.
“Axel. From the trip. Iceland Axel.”
Jack didn’t seem disappointed that Axel had not written back, and quickly heaved away from the kitchen table, his little sister following him. I sat wondering why Axel, or his parents, wouldn’t want to keep up an exchange, what it might say about Jack.
Jack splayed out on the floor, inching his car along the brightly colored track, talking to himself in some cryptic, whispery code. Lana stood in the doorway watching him. She worships him and is the examiner of his solitude.
“He didn’t write back?” Evonne asked, glancing at the laptop screen.
“No. Maybe they’re not even home yet.”
“We got email when we were there,” she reminded me.
I ought to have said it right there: I lost my job. Instead, I said nothing, and Evonne and I quickly slipped into the wordless, sweet ballet that we perform every night: fixing dinner, talk of school, baths, story time.
My neighbor, Brett, is a YouTube celebrity. By day, he’s a cop, shuffling goth teens off the steps of the local coffee shop, flashing his twenty-inch biceps tattooed with barbed wire in his too-tight uniform, battling fentanyl with Narcan on our town’s less desirable east side, and endlessly training for mass shooting incidents.
By night, he dons a karate gi, enters his sunroom (his home is a mirror image of mine), drapes a white tarp over the floor, turns on four cameras, and records a wildly entertaining five-minute knife demonstration.
First, in a breathy, unplaceable accent, he’ll detail that week’s spotlight knife, blade, short sword, katana, or switchblade (all of which are sent to him gratis by knife manufacturers around the globe).
“This is really special, folks. You’re looking at the Prime Meridian—a twelve-inch, walnut handle, Tanto fixed blade.” He stands close to the camera, angling the blade’s edge for maximum effect. “You’re gonna want to handle with care, friends, ’cause this bad boy’ll bleed you like a leach.”
Then he’ll back up and loft a piece of produce—a mini watermelon, a giant zucchini, a cantaloupe—high into the air and slice or spear it. With the lighting he’s rigged, the effect is delightfully horrific. If the balance of the blade permits, he’ll launch it across the room into a wall of thick corkboard adorned with a police silhouette target. Recently, he MacGyvered a spring-loaded tee-ball thrower to hurtle produce toward him. His movements with the blades are theatrical and stunning.
Brett acquired this talent from a carnival troupe he joined after he was released from the boys’ home where he was raised. Then, seeing no future as Brett the Blade, he joined the navy, spent four years on the Nimitz fixing fighter jets, got out, joined our local police force, earned a BA in psychology and computer science from the local evangelical college on the GI bill, and started his YouTube show.
How he parlayed this into a lucrative revenue stream I do not know. But from the proceeds, he’s built a gazebo in his backyard, surrounded it with azaleas so heartachingly beautiful and full of color they look liquid in April, plunked down a Jacuzzi on his patio (there’s also a custom hot tub in the main bathroom) along with a Weber grill as big as a satellite, bought a Peloton, and become a one-of-a-kind knife and blade influencer, attending tradeshows in exotic locales. He keeps all the blades and knives he receives in “the vault,” a safe-room under security camera observation in the second bedroom.
“Jimmy,” he whispered to me from his gazebo when I walked outside. I couldn’t see him, could only hear his easy, fluid voice. I walked over and entered the gazebo. There was a jug of clear liquid at his feet, and a book—Thomas Merton—resting on his knee. I knew the jug contained gin, a recipe he’s been tinkering with for months using different botanicals. Brett has no children and doesn’t intend to. He once told me quite casually that if I knew what his parents did to him as a young boy, I wouldn’t have had kids.
“For a long time, I was really focused on the juniper, brother,” he said self-consciously. “I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. But it’s about so much more. You got coriander, grapefruit, nutmeg. Try.”
I took a big sip and felt a pang of jealousy that even at this, Brett, ten years my junior, was my superior.
I let him talk for a while, and his voice did me good. The station had gotten new bulletproof vests and a new cache of military-grade assault rifles thanks to a grant application Brett had written. He was traveling to Montreal for a blade expo over Christmas, which he apologized for, since last year he spent Christmas with us (he gave both kids colored penknives that Evonne’s holding onto for a few more years). I interrupted him as he began to speak of the Tesla he was eyeing.
“I lost my job today,” I said.
He stared at me in the dark. He looked down at his feet, which were bare, shook his head gravely, took a deep breath, and said, “Jeez. I’m sorry, Jimmy. That really sucks.”
“Evonne know?” Apparently, Brett was no stranger to duplicity.
“I haven’t told her.”
“Don’t,” he said immediately. “Not till you find something else.” He sighed. “Brother, that sounded like a shit-ass fucking job, but what do I know? What’re you gonna do?”
“I don’t know,” I told him.
“How’re you fixed?”
“Moneywise? I don’t know. Not bad? Not great?”
To his credit, Brett didn’t say anything. Most people would. He leaned back. The wood creaked. I could feel him thinking, trying already with sickly charity to help me.
The following day, I found myself getting out of bed at six, going downstairs, pulling down mugs from the cupboard, pouring coffee for Evonne and me, getting the kids’ lunches ready, putting on my tie, and waving goodbye to my family as they left twenty minutes before I did.
Then I drove to a Dunkin’ Donuts three towns over and began the résumé-dusting and job-applying process. What I quickly discovered that week, what I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge but had long known, was that management-level PR jobs were scarce in small southern cities. In fact, after two days, I’d applied for the few prospects within an hour-and-a-half drive, tangential to my experience though they’d been.
There was an old cineplex near this Dunkin’ Donuts. Twenty screens, a massive, hangar-like structure crammed with local teens on the weekends. On weekdays, it was completely empty. The ticket taker didn’t clock in till four p.m.
I entered this theater around noon clasping a used ticket stub I’d found in the parking lot in case its only visible employee, an old vet in a commemorative Air Force cap with a patch that read “Habu,” might stop me. I would wave it in the air: Already bought.
But he didn’t notice me. I sat through two movies before realizing it was time to return home.
Dear Axel: Happy New Year. Did you celebrate Christmas in Iceland? I hope it was nice and you were able to spend time with your family and extended family, and get lots of presents, of course. This year I got a new Dale Earnhardt Jr. (he was an American race car driver) car set and an aluminum baseball bat. My sister, Lana, who you met at Crane Hill Resort, got an Elsa Anna castle, from Frozen. Are you familiar with Frozen? Please write back to tell me what you got, if you observe the holiday. I miss you a lot.
Sincerely, your friend Jack Robbins
It wasn’t long before overdue payment notices started to arrive. I privileged the mortgage, drawing down our savings. I delayed utilities. It was easy enough to stow the physical copies in the glove box of the car, create a hidden Gmail folder.
For some reason, this concealment didn’t bother me. Somehow I convinced myself that I was merely sparing Evonne a headache that would eventually resolve itself. We were both frazzled enough with caring for the kids. In fact, once I did find another job, I could simply say I’d left D+K on good terms for this new opportunity.
Indeed, this ought to have been an unwelcome chapter in my life, but I was interested to observe that after several weeks of Dunkin’ Donuts and movie-theater hopping, I didn’t feel all that down. Certainly, it was nowhere near as bleak as waiting for my bus on Michigan Avenue at nine-thirty on a Tuesday night in the dead of winter, after revising a press release for the twentieth time for a thirty-year-old tyrant boss, getting hit by a shocking cold coming off the lake.
Those days, I’d take the train home to Evonne, who’d be studying or grading essays from the class she TAed, and she’d look up at me from the table in our apartment in Evanston as if I was one of the student patients she saw for free.
“What’s wrong?” she’d say.
“Nothing,” I’d say. “This damned cold.”
But there were some mornings when I couldn’t get out of bed. I knew the blinding white light swirling outside masked a ferocious cold. I’d watch her flying through our bedroom and bathroom with the same pleasant commotion and weightlessness she undertook now with the kids. I could never understand how she moved so quickly and lightly under the weight of it all. She’d see me lying there, imprisoned almost, and say, “Don’t tell me it isn’t something, Jim.”
After a month of this routine, it was like a switch got flipped. One day I went into Dunkin’ Donuts, ordered from Sharie, the teen who worked the morning shifts, sat down, opened my laptop to start leaching their Wi-Fi, and discovered I felt perfectly happy. No, better than happy. I felt full.
This was on a January morning. I uttered my first meaningful sentence to Sharie since I’d been coming there.
“What’re you reading?” I asked her.
In front of her was a dog-eared study guide. She held it up. An SAT test prep book.
“’Cause I’m not sure how much longer I can take this,” she said.
“Let me have a look.” She rotated the book around.
Sharie explained she’d been in all the gifted classes in high school, AP this, AP that, until she hooked up with a group of girls who seemed nice but were actually demons sent by Satan himself to ruin her life.
“If you want,” I offered, suddenly feeling brave, “I’d be happy to go over vocab words. That was always a humdinger when I was a teenager. I mean, if you want.”
“Couldn’t hurt,” she said, shrugging.
Later that day, feeling heady, I found myself approaching Wyatt, the old vet at the theater.
“I’d like a ticket please.”
He sat up. Broken blood vessels were snaked across his nose.
“Why you want to pay now? Go on,” he said, waving at me. “I didn’t see you. You ain’t here.”
We got to talking. Wyatt explained he’d piloted the SR-71 Blackbird, flying sorties from Okinawa into North Vietnam and Laos; from Mildenhall, England, into the Soviet Union. Ninety thousand feet at Mach 3.
The ticket taker job, he said, was just something to keep him occupied in late retirement. His wife had made him move from San Diego, where they’d happily been living for decades after his retirement from the service, to be closer to their grandchildren. His wife, Carolyn, babysat during the day. “And you wanna know something?” he said. “Some days? My commute here seems longer than those sorties.”
I leaned on the counter like a politician. “I wouldn’t mind hearing about some of that. The flying, I mean.”
“I wouldn’t mind telling you,” Wyatt said.
This unlikely euphoria extended to matters at home. I’d told Evonne that Lisa Del Pino had put in for an adjusted work schedule—early in, early out—which meant I’d do the same. So when she got home with the kids, they entered to a pot of lentil soup simmering on the stovetop and fresh baked bread. I mixed up drinks for us, watermelon-lime-gin for us, virgin ones for the kids.
“What’s your angle?” she asked.
“Why do I need an angle?”
“You’re a strange boy, Jim Robbins,” she said, letting the series of tote bags fall from her shoulder, accepting her drink.
The kids were still high from their Christmas presents, and the usual rat-tat-tat fighting of the after-school-before-dinner hour was replaced by a sweet silence: Jack assembling and reassembling his track; Lana reconfiguring her Frozen castle. I was content to let Evonne tell me about her work, the nameless clients whose serious ailments I secretly used as an armament against my own morass.
During this period, I only had two prospects arise.
The first came through Brett, who summoned me to his Jacuzzi one late evening. He half-rose in the purple dark like a sea god, steam billowing up into the cold night.
“I think I got something, brother,” he whispered, looking up to my home to make sure that Evonne, who was already asleep, couldn’t hear. It was hard to understand him above the gurgle and roar of the jets.
“That’s real nice of you, Brett, but I think—”
“The library,” he whispered. “I saw a posting at work. For a supervisor job. You’d be perfect!”
Brett was pals with the mayor, who had honored him with a distinguished service plaque that winter for preventing five overdoses, so he felt he had an in. Plus, according to Brett, I liked books. What’s more, he added with a certitude I’d come to expect from him, “With more folks like you and Evonne coming down here? Library ain’t going anywhere anytime soon, brother. In fact, I see ‘expansion’ written all over downtown.”
I tried to picture this, what he was describing. The charming stone-and-brick library stood in the center of town, surrounded by a ring of hedges, marigolds and daylilies, flanked by two magnolia trees whose flowers I suddenly pictured as spotlights making my failure visible to all my neighbors, the entire world.
“Thanks for thinking of me, Brett,” I said in a strangled voice.
He nodded. “Think about it. Anyhow,” he said, lowering himself into the bubbling water, “Near-term, I got a pretty huge favor to ask.”
Brett was traveling to Austin for a blade trade show, the first of many as blade season ramped up, and wanted to know if I’d look after his place. “Make sure no pipes are bursting or whatever.” Was an hour of my time worth, say, 250 dollars?
The other prospect was a brief communication with my old D+K colleague, Mike Blanchard, who’d left Chicago for Silicon Valley. On a drizzly March morning, over-caffeinated, I’d sent him a short note: “Greetings, Blanchard! Happened across your profile here. Been a long time. Sounds like Cali is treating you well!”
To my surprise, his reply came within seconds: “Jim Robbins! Great to hear from you, man! Yeah, I’m keeping the faith out here. Sounds like you’re doing well…where are you, again? I gotta say, I miss our old Cobra days, man.”
Cobra was a walkie-talkie and police scanner client of ours, who we used to expense happy hour drinks to. Back then, Blanchard was the guy who wore a big chrome watch and fat pastel ties and got friendly reporters drunk.
Even then, when our group of just-out-of-college kids would hopscotch from bar to bar, I knew that there was something about the city, the root-beer colored slush, the dense cobweb of lights, that I couldn’t stand much longer.
It had been a shock when the email went around announcing Blanchard was quitting. I walked over to his cubicle immediately. Outside the twenty-third floor of the Hancock building, it was snowing furiously. The nerve! I’d thought.
“What the heck, dude?” I said.
“Yeah,” he’d said with an eerie confidence I’d resented. “I thought I might give California a try. Find myself, you know?”
After a few back and forths about our families, I mentioned that my wife was being recruited to a small hospital in San Jose, not far from his shop. I said that “if the numbers worked out,” our family would be heading out there with her. I also indicated that I was tiring of D+K and “missing the action.”
I waited several excruciating moments for Mike’s reply.
“Give me a holler when you land. My door’s always open.”
My heart! I shouldn’t have, but I ordered a long john.
Dear Axel. Big News. We might be moving to California! It’s all very fluid right now, and we haven’t hammered out the details. I will definitely keep you posted and forward a new address, so we can stay in touch with letters, too. But I haven’t heard from you. Are you okay? It feels like a long time since we were friends at Crane Hill Resort. Let me know how everything is in Iceland.
Your friend, Jack Robbins
Wyatt said that in all his years of flying the Blackbird, neither his wife nor his two children ever asked him how he used the bathroom. Sure, most of what he did was classified, and Carolyn had learned from the get-go he was going to have to be tight-lipped about some things. “But you’d think people would want to know about such a simple thing. It wasn’t exactly a state secret, and the answer’s pretty simple, actually.”
That it was the first thing I asked him said something about me, he said. “Maybe you see something other people don’t see.”
“I don’t know about that,” I said.
Perhaps it should have bothered me that in the following weeks, after a half-dozen pings and short missives sent to Blanchard, he never wrote back. But I’d be lying if I said it did. In truth, concocting an entire string of dialogue with my old counterpart at Regency Pork, Hugh Sloan, to share at dinner with Evonne, who I knew wasn’t really listening as she constantly picked up falling strands of Lana’s angel hair pasta, conferred a strange exhilaration.
“He just came back from Oregon. Said he caught some steelhead bigger than Jack.”
“Yeah?” she said.
“Bigger than Jack?” Lana asked incredulously.
“That’s what he said, sweetie.”
“Whoa!” Lana asked, looking at Jack.
These performances of mine were subdued, stunning, and consistent, and the only infidelities I committed, I committed in my sleep. The more elaborate my lies became (I fabricated an entire car accident involving Lisa Del Pino and her old high school sweetheart on a day Sharie had a meltdown over reading comprehension and I had to stay late at Dunkin’ to assuage her panic), the more I began to talk in my sleep.
By March, there were nights I’d find myself sitting up in bed with Evonne’s hands clasped to my face, lightly shoving me to greater wakefulness, her breathing heavy.
“Jim! Jim!” she’d whisper.
“I’m okay,” I’d say reflexively.
Relieved, I’d emerge from whatever nightmare had gripped me, and she’d throw herself back against the pillow.
“You didn’t hear yourself?”
“No,” I’d say. “I’m sorry.”
She’d lie there for a few minutes, still startled, before falling back asleep herself. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“You bet,” I’d say, and I’d roll out of bed, trying to remember what I’d been dreaming, but I never could. Sometimes I’d look out the window to Brett’s place. He’d installed small pinprick lights around his gazebo that went on in the dark, so that the structure appeared to be glistening with rainwater. Sometimes I’d stand there watching until I could see their bright little beams broken by bats which fluttered across his yard.
By April, Sharie was inching up on the mid-1400s on her SATs, and we were roughing out the contours of a college essay I felt certain would blow the socks off of Duke’s admissions committee. It turned out that Sharie’s father had worked at a Honda factory nearby until he’d been let go when she was thirteen, and had taken work as a long-haul truck driver, leaving her to raise her two siblings, which I’d suggested could easily supplant the demon-girls explanation for dropping out of school and would make a blockbuster hook.
“If you say so,” she said, filling up my mug. “You’re the expert or whatever.”
Thinking back on all this, I don’t know how long I might have let it all go on. Until summer, maybe, when the bank came calling, when the murky grace period we’d been in with the utilities and our credit cards was exhausted.
Instead, one day my phone dinged, and I unlatched it from its cradle on my belt to see an email whose subject read: Individualized Education Plan for Jack Robbins.
Evonne and I met at Jack’s school, sat at a table with the school counselor, an occupational therapist, and an outside psychologist. They wanted to understand why Jack had struggled so this year, why he didn’t seem to connect with the other students, and to strategize.
I gave a lot of credit to Evonne. She appeared deaf to the strange-sounding diagnoses the psychologist offered, staring out the window at the school field, a new, fierce green with spring grass.
“Now, it might not be any of these things,” said the psychologist, a man with a heavy Boston accent, another émigré. “But we’ll get it sorted out.”
“I’m a psychologist, too, you know?” Evonne said.
“Oh yeah?” he said.
The sorting out, this initial meeting, the school district pays for. Therapy to treat the issue, however, was 210 dollars an hour.
“How long do you suppose he needs?” I said, feeling sick. “How many weeks, I mean.”
“Oh,” the psychologist said, confused. “There’s not really a time limit. Per se.”
“It just doesn’t make sense,” Evonne said, turning back. “We just took a trip? Jack made a friend right away. So, it’s not like he can’t. Maybe it’s these kids.”
“It’s possible,” the school counselor replied in a way that precluded the possibility. “I think we can all agree, Jack’s a sweet boy.”
On the way home, we drove with the windows down. Warm, delicious air slipped into the car. Evonne sat in the passenger seat, dazed.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe this guy’ll help. His credentials were legit, in any case.”
“210 dollars an hour?” I said.
“It costs what it costs,” she said quickly.
It was the first time I could remember hearing irritation in her voice when I balked at the price of something.
When we pulled into our driveway, I gestured toward Brett’s.
“I’m going to have a look around his place.”
Evonne thought that all these months I’d been living vicariously through Brett, though in fact his stipends were the only thing keeping collectors at bay.
“Okay,” she said, moving quickly to relieve the sitter. She turned back to me. “Do you want to talk to him alone about all this? After Lana’s asleep?”
“Why not?” she said wearily.
The azaleas that ringed Brett’s gazebo were in full bloom. The purples, whites, pinks, and reds seemed globbed on by an impressionist painter.
I checked the covering over his Jacuzzi, then keyed in the 8-digit code to the back patio door, which unlocked with a hard click.
Inside, Brett’s kitchen was immaculate. His basement was devoid of the moldy, dank smell that inhabited my own. It held a standalone mahogany bar from Costco, stocked with exotic liquors from his travels. The small alcove where, in our basement, we’d stowed baby gear was stacked, in Brett’s home, with mason jars in a rainbow of colors. He’d mastered the art of preserving fruits, and he pickles everything from cabbage to lemons. Against the longest wall were a workbench made with his own hands, a top-of-the line DeWalt circular saw, and a gleaming red-and-chrome Husky tool closet six feet tall. I wiped all the surfaces of these objects, and though he didn’t ask me to, I sprayed and wiped clean the rubber lining of his Wi-Fi-enabled washing machine.
Brett said I should leave his sunroom and much of the main floor alone, since the cameras, tripods, and lights for his show were arranged at precise angles. From the foot of the stairs, I looked across the hall into my own sunroom, where Jack was on his knees, stolidly fitting his track segments into one another while Lana watched. Beyond them, Evonne was stirring cheese powder into the kids’ macaroni, her eyes closed.
“Evonne,” I said. Then I shouted, “Evonne! Evonne!”
The “vault” on the second floor where Brett kept his armory was lined with burgundy damask wallpaper. Some blades were gently affixed to the walls. Others were in handsome glass display cases recovered from a ghost town in west Texas, or on ledges and terraces he’d built himself. The effect was less ghoulish room of horrors than old-world curio shop.
With a feather duster, I swiped at a braided-leather-handled katana, a rosewood-handled bowie knife, and a matte black machete. I stopped at a pearl-handled butterfly stiletto. Last year’s Christmas special. Four and a quarter inches of 440 stainless steel. Real mother-of-pearl. Greasy, swift action.
“I’m not going to lie,” Brett said gravely into the camera. “I could split an atom with this lovely.”
Brett filmed this blade, White Fang, last Christmas Eve. Episode 233. He let me watch him. I sat off-camera, wondering as he spun the blade whether he had ever murdered someone. The following morning, we brought him to our church, where, experiencing grace for the first time in his life, he wept as Evonne and I clasped his heaving, dense body. That night, we ate and drank, and he taught Lana and Jack the principles of trajectory.
I put the butterfly knife into my pocket and walked into the master bathroom, which Brett completely remodeled six months ago into a lush, plant-festooned cavernous spa. There was a hot tub, gleaming white, and I turned it on, letting the water run. I slid the touch-sensitive display of the steam generator to its maximum setting. Somewhere in the wall, a pump turned on, and steam billowed from hidden nozzles. I couldn’t hear anything over the sound of the water and the hiss of steam.
I set the butterfly knife on the counter. Already the mirror was coated with fog. I took out my phone.
Dear Axel. Why haven’t you written back? I’m sure you’re very busy with many activities. I just wanted to say I really enjoyed meeting you and spending time with you, but I’m afraid I may not see you again. Things have gotten a little away from me these past few months. I’m sorry we won’t see one another again but for what it’s worth, I’ll always think of you as my friend.
Your friend, Jack Robbins
I took off my clothes, folded them, and set them on the toilet seat. When the tub was filled, I turned on the jets. I grabbed the blade from the countertop and ran it across my thumb. A small opening appeared, filling with blood, which then cascaded over the tiny wound.
I lowered myself into the tub. I could feel the rumble of the jets in my heart. I closed my eyes and thought back. The flight we took out of Chicago, the speed and lurch of the plane as we climbed away from O’Hare and a gloomy mid-March snowstorm.
The goddamned cold became a refrain we used to conceal the matter at hand. As the plane reached cruising altitude, Evonne gripped my hand. I remembered the feeling of something being righted as the plane leveled, and she leaned into me and whispered, but I wasn’t able to hear her over the engines. I unfolded the blade and held it above the churning water. Then, and it was strange, I heard a voice—hers?—as if it had lingered in the ether between then and now.
“What are you doing?”
I opened my eyes and sat up. Water gurgled and rose around me. The voice was calm, familiar, but the room was filled with milky steam, and I couldn’t tell where it was coming from.
“Brother, what’re you doing?”
Was I dead? I looked around but couldn’t see anything. “What’s happening?”
“C’mon now, Jimmy. Get on up, brother,” the voice said. “You’re not doing this. I want you to get up and get dressed, and you just go on home.”
“I don’t think I can.”
“Sure you can. All that you got?”
The voice stopped abruptly for a second. I realized that somewhere in the room, probably hidden between the vases of plants atop the vanity, he’d placed a camera with a speaker. He was watching me from his phone.
“You’re just…lost,” he said. “That’s all this is.”
“It doesn’t feel that way.”
There was another silence, as if he was considering something. Then, the mike clicked back on. He began to speak. He told me, finally, about his parents. He described certain things he saw, others that were done to him. Much I could not conceive of. He said, though, that when he met me, when he saw me and Evonne with the kids, the breadth of his pain and anger, which had once seemed boundless, shrunk, and as our children grew, his own anguish contracted little by little each year.
“Now listen. You gotta go home. It’s time to tell her.”
“I see,” I said. But I didn’t go anywhere.
For several long seconds it was quiet once again. Had he left? I lowered myself further into the tub, holding the blade tightly. Then I heard a new, distinguishable thrum of the convention hall where Brett was, roaring throughout the bathroom as he screamed, “Get up!”
Under some new power, a different force, I stood up. I drained the tub, put my clothes back on, replaced his blade, locked up and walked back to my home. I walked into the kitchen where Evonne was slicing mini cucumbers. The kids didn’t even glance at me from the sunroom.
“I have to tell you something,” I said.
“What?” she asked wearily, not looking at me.
“I lost my job,” I said.
She stopped cutting the cucumbers. She stared at me for a long beat before saying solemnly, “Oh, Jim.”
Then she put everything down. She held me tightly for several moments, her cheek on my shoulder. And before she pulled away, I thought I noticed an almost imperceptible hesitation, something unsaid and possibly even furious in her expression, which perhaps had been there all along. Then she gripped my shoulders and smiled.
“I’m sorry, baby. I mean—that job. I know you didn’t like it, but still. I’m really sorry.”
She kissed me and dropped her arms. Then she picked up the knife and, nodding to herself more than me, she resumed slicing.
“Listen. You’ll just find something else. That’s all. I know you will.”
Saying this, she seemed so certain. She glanced at me again as if to gauge how I received this dictate. “Your thumb,” she said. “It’s bleeding.”
Evonne was right, about everything working out. From the steps of the library, I wave at my neighbors and the people I know from church as they pass by. Strangers I entice with our offerings. On Tuesdays, we have a nurse from Evonne’s hospital teach a free CPR class. The garden club meets on Saturdays. Storytime is at nine a.m. on Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays.
Pete Levine is the author of the story collection The Appearance of a Hero (St. Martin’s). His short stories have appeared in the Missouri Review, Southern Review, Commentary, and many others. He lives outside Washington, DC.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.